Woman Behold Your Son: The Astonishing Intimacy of Christ’s Compassion

As a Roman soldier hammered iron into flesh, she felt her own body tear also. Her agony mirrored his, and her emotional anguish pierced so deeply it was also physical. She sunk to the ground as hands reached out to bear her up. Her son, her precious son! Prophetic words uttered so long ago, the ones she hadn’t wanted to understand, reverberated in her mind. 

“And a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” (Luke 2:35)

He hung there naked, bloodied, barely recognizable. But she still saw the newborn she’d nursed through long nights, the toddler who’d taken his first steps, the boy about “his father’s business,” the man who had turned water into wine.

“But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)

Couldn’t there have been another way?

She knew what he must do, but grief was a torrent threatening to drown her. The brutality her son experienced was too much to comprehend. But…

“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:25-27)

Though Jesus gasped for breath, and pushed himself up on nail pierced feet to expand his lungs, his compassions failed not.

He took care of her. 

In the midst of excruciating pain, he took care of his mother. Let’s dwell here for a moment, and let its significance not pass us by.

A popular Christmas song poses the question “Mary did you know?” Drama oozes from the lyrics, and the orchestration swells to a climax- “The sleeping child you’re holding is the great, [dramatic pause] I Am!”

Picture some women all dressed in black, complete with white gloves. Their hands move in artistic fervor as they passionately sign the lyrics. And if we want to get real fancy, throw in a black light so those gloves really pop. There you go. You got it, a staple of late 90s churches and Christian school chapels.

And it goes on to list extraordinary things. Did she know he’d walk on water? Did she know he would make the blind see? Rule the nations? Release captives?

Being the natural rule breaker I tend to be, I always wanted to stand up in the middle of the service and shout, “Yes! She knew!” Then I would sit down smugly, arms crossed. But the Holy Spirit reminded me that maybe it wasn’t the right moment for an outburst. 

Of course Mary knew. From the first glimpse we see of her on an ordinary day turned anything but ordinary, she heard astonishing truth. (Luke 1:26-35) I’m sure there were things she didn’t fully understand, but as we find out later “she treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.” 

Mary was introspective. She tumbled her thoughts like clothes in a dryer. She had months to think about what the angel had said. Also she would have been familiar with Old Testament prophecies that proclaimed Messiah would make the blind see, the lame walk, set captives free.  (Isaiah 61) Yes, indeed she knew. She knew her son would be the Messiah.

The angel in Luke 1 revealed world altering truth to a woman. And a young, unmarried, likely teenage girl at that. She “found favor” with the Lord. Lest we think this phrase implies something Mary was not—righteous by her own merit, or a further step, perfect—“favor” here literally means “grace.” Mary found grace with God. 

And what earth shattering grace she received. A Son. The promised Son. 

Just what did Mary know? 

Mary knew Jesus would be divine. He would be called “Son of God,” “Son of the Most High.”  This was a title reserved only for the true God, the God of Israel. (Luke 1:32)

Likewise, he would be conceived supernaturally. (Luke 1:35) That she was a virgin underscores this was a birth only God could accomplish. And it also emphasizes Jesus’ divine nature. He would be called Holy. Set apart. Furthermore, she knew he’d be the true King whose reign lasted forever. (Luke 1:32-33)

At his birth she found out even more about the long awaited Son. 

Jesus would be the Savior! (Luke 2:11,17, 30) It was about him whom angels announced, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord!” and league upon league of heavenly warriors sang, “Glory to God in the highest and earth peace among those with whom he is pleased.” The exuberant shepherds who burst into her “recovery room” would have made sure she heard the proclamation. 

A few days later faithful Simeon, being promised he would not see death until he had first seen the Christ, rejoiced, “My eyes have seen your salvation!” (Luke 2:30)

The Savior would also bring light to the Gentiles (Luke 2:32) and glory to Israel. Mary’s son would be Messiah, not just to the Jews, but to all people. It was he who would complete God’s redemptive plan, settled from before time began. Also, he would open the flood gates of God’s mercy to gentiles. And he would receive the glory Israel should have had— He alone could fulfill the law and obey perfectly. He would judge the proud and arrogant. He would save the humble and meek. (Luke 2:31-32)

But from Simeon Mary also gained the first glimpse her path would include sorrow. Jesus would be opposed and her heart would break. Being near Jesus included suffering.

“And a sword will pierce through your own soul also.”

Perhaps, the words didn’t mean what she thought they might. 

She watched him grow. Surely she marveled as a caravan of Magi brought him extravagant gifts. Perhaps she pondered the significance of such treasures, gold worthy of a king, incense for a priest, myrrh a burial spice. Later, when Herod demanded the deaths of all baby boys, she fled with her family to protect the promised Son.

She watched his perfection play out daily. Never did he hit a sibling in anger. Never did he selfishly take someone’s toy. Never did he use his words to hurt or deceive. How humbling to be an imperfect parent of a perfect child. 

She would have seen his childishness also. Could Jesus have ever knocked over a vase as he ran through the house? Maybe one day he proudly presented himself covered in mud, “Look at me Mommy!” 

And of course she had witnessed the miracles, and heard him teach. 

“Do whatever her tells you,” she instructed the servants at the wedding feast. (John 2:5)

That simple statement encapsulates her relationship with him. She boiled down all the years of pondering to this statement, the last time we hear her voice recorded in Scripture. Do what he tells you. Trust him. Though his hour had not yet come, she had no doubt he would provide. At this point she’d seen him live only as an ordinary man, no miracles yet. But she knew who he was, believed he would help, and turned attention to him. His was the glory.

Now at the cross, his life came hurtling to an end. His hour had indeed come— the reason he came brought to fruition. As she watched him suffer, perhaps all she had pondered rushed like a flood across her mind. I wonder if Mary’s anguish also mirrored God the Father’s as he turned his face away.

What did Jesus do?

Mary had bled to give Jesus life. Now he bled to give Mary life. As Mary experienced the intense suffering of labor to bring joy, so Jesus experienced ultimate suffering that Mary would have ultimate joy. 

And his suffering was not for Mary only. Rather, the promised Son bore the sins of the world and suffered so we would live. He bled so we would not. He looked into the cup of the Father’s wrath and drank all of it, so we would receive the cup of grace.

In his darkest hour he still met the needs of individuals specifically. The thief hanging beside him. His own mother.

By providing for Mary Jesus honored her even then, fulfilling the law even at the point of death. Amid the incomprehensible pain of crucifixion and even greater agony of being separated from the Father, he gave focused attention to her.

“His tender concern for her in the hour of his mortal agony illustrates his true humanity and compassion.” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol 9) He was not some aloof, self-centered god (for had been he never would have gone to the cross in the first place). He was the Savior pouring himself out, intimately concerned, serving humanity but also serving Mary uniquely. 

What an astonishing compassion! Oh friend, his compassion is this deep for you also. He knows you and serves you individually as well.

Some commentators think he used the term “woman” to not pierce her heart further, in essence to create distance, but “there is another conjecture which is equally probable that Christ intended to show that, after having completed  the course of human life, he lays down the condition in which he lived.” (Calvin’s commentary). He laid down the earthly relationship of mother and son, for the slain son would soon become the risen King.

His provision for her was also precise. He laid down the mother/ son relationship, but gave her a new son. Mary a widow in her 40s or 50s would have had little opportunity to meet her own financial needs. Some think Jesus entrusted her to John’s care because his own siblings did not yet believe. Some think it was because he was the closest relative present.

Regardless, because John marveled so greatly at being loved by Jesus, he described himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” He would have poured that love back on Mary. In saying “this is your son” rather than “this is your care taker” Jesus provided family. He gave her someone who would not only provide, but cherish her.

He took care of her. 

And he takes care of you.

John’s response to Jesus was simple. “From that hour he took her to his own home.” He obeyed Jesus’ instructions and cared for her as he would his own mother. 

This is is how the church is to care for one another. Our care flows out of his care for us. 

In the middle of this tender moment, something bigger was happening. Jesus reoriented the family. It was the inauguration of the new Christian family, which supersedes even biological relationships. 

Don’t misunderstand here, natural family is still important. He didn’t throw it out! But at the cross he hints at what he intends for the church. When we become believers, the church becomes our greater family because in the church we have a spiritual connection forged by Christ. 

We’re invited to see ourselves in this new family that meets needs and shows the same (if not more) tangible compassion we would give to blood siblings. In this beautiful gospel moment, Jesus’ care for Mary equips our compassion for others. He equips us to love and serve without selfish gain lurking in the corner. 

The End

“After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill Scripture),“I thirst”… When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19: 28-30)

And they pierced his side, just as they had pierced Mary’s soul.

Jesus’ last act before willingly laying down his life was to take care of Mary, something profoundly personal. What astonishing love! After he entrusted her to John, he knew all was finished.

The contrast is staggering. While he satisfied God’s righteous wrath and paid the penalty of sin for a people more in number than the stars, he simultaneously provided for one.

Our Savior is both all powerful and immanent. And we rejoice with millions upon millions in our salvation, but we also rejoice as individuals beloved by God. 

His body was broken. Her soul was broken. But that wasn’t really the end. 

Grief gave way to exceeding joy, for he rose just as he said.


A Decade. Ten Years.

There’s something about bare, winter trees that captures my attention. At first glance they’re nothing special, merely creation lying dormant. But if you gaze long enough, you might notice beauty in the blank spaces, each taking its own shape, each lovely in its own way. Some days the winter sky behind them is is a flat gray, dreary, sad, and lonely. But sometimes sunlight glimmers through the branches. All of a sudden what was just an empty space reveals a beauty of its own.

Likewise, you can’t see it, but of course something’s going on beneath the surface. Without basic understanding of seasons, one might look at a winter tree and presume, “Dead, dead, dead.” How could life possibly come from something so barren and brown? Yet if you’ve lived even a few years on this earth you know in just a little while new buds will burst from those branches followed by a canopy of fresh green. 

Spring does indeed follow winter. Always.

Sometimes winter is unbearably long, arduous and harsh. Buy there’s hope in the blank spaces, beauty even in dormancy. Eventually the sun peeks through and warms those trees. The sky behind the empty spaces turns a striking, brilliant blue, and shifting clouds wander lazily behind.

It was winter when he died, a brutal northern Illinois winter, frigid with layer upon layer of snow. Winter in the midwest had been culture shock to my southern girl soul, but now it was agony. It snowed again the day of Jon’s funeral, and dear men from church stood out in the elements all afternoon helping people find parking, shoveling, keeping the sidewalks salted.

I wore a dress more fitting for warm breezes than zero degrees. Colors. I had to have colors and not black. My flats were a rich royal blue.

Funerals are not for widows. They are for a couple hundred others who knew and loved your husband also, and need to share in grief. I stood at the front of the church for several hours embracing friends, crying with them, letting them feel their sorrow with me. I was surrounded by pictures of Jon, pictures of his family, and pictures of us. There was no casket present, for I could not bear it. 

Grace was thick, palpable, tangible. I let them in. They let me in. 

Then we sang and worshiped. In that way the funeral was for me. It was a chance to glorify God in suffering. Through sobs, with lifted hands the song “All I have is Christ” washed over me. 

“Now, Lord, I would be Yours alone

And live so all might see

The strength to follow Your commands

Could never come from me

Oh Father, use my ransomed life in any way You choose

And let my soul forever be my only boast is you

Hallelujah! All I have is Christ

Hallelujah! Jesus is my life.”

I had never sung the words as broken as I was in that moment, but also never as sincerely. And still 10 years later, I cannot sing them without tears. Sometimes I still have to stop singing and let the words sink deep, a silent prayer accompanied by emotion streaming down my cheeks.

A decade. Ten years. What a definitive milestone this seems to be. 

That first winter, trees bore no beauty. Their barren ugliness was a reminder that life would always be winter. No more spring for me, only winter. Without Christmas.

Christ clung to me. He would not let me go. And I clung right back. But it took awhile to believe Spring would actually come again.

After the funeral I escaped downstairs to our bedroom (rather “my bedroom” as I learned to say). Picking up a photo of the two of us, I sunk down on the bed. 

“I’m so proud of you Lovee. I’m so proud. You did so well.” 

Theologically I’d tell you it probably wasn’t him. Humanly, I’d tell you it absolutely was his voice. One cannot know for sure. Perhaps it was just the way the Holy Spirit met me with specific comfort in the moment. Either way, it need not be debated here.

Ten years. I’m letting my fingers do what they did in the early days—type in whatever direction they want to go, not worrying about “polished” or “cohesive.”

I’ve wondered at times what he might think of my ten years older self. There are certainly more fine lines, more stretch marks, and enough grays that I no longer try to pluck them out. I think it’s my hands that shout “40,” though. However, Jon remains in my mind’s eye, a youthful 30. But he had the best laugh lines by his eyes even then. 

More than the physical differences, I wonder what he’d think of the fundamental differences, for it is impossible to walk through the valley of death and not come out forever altered. He might see someone a little more serious. But then again, he always drew out silliness and laughter.

I think perhaps he’d see a more radiant version of myself. I hope. Yet even as I type emotion wells up because I know I still struggle with some of the same old sins. Even now I see parts of me that aren’t so radiant. I’m not as sanctified as I’d like to be.

He might see me fighting for joy in the seeming slog of mundane days. He might see me fail my family and repent, over and over again. 

But I hope if Jon could see me now he’d see a woman still following hard after Jesus. A woman who’s faith and compassion have grown exponentially. I hope he sees one who sees others better and sits with them in their grief.

I hope he’d see a woman gripped by the hope of eternity.

Indeed the confident expectation of a renewed earth, of the death of death itself, of all that is broken restored, of real life, of “further up and further in,” of worship face-to-face— of the full consummation of God’s grand plan of redemption— this spurs me on more than any other facet of the gospel. 

I hope he’d still see “Father use my ransomed life!” resonating from my soul. 

There’s been a lot of life in ten years. So much processing, so much writing. So much growth as new life sprung from a tree burned and charred. 

I can tell you now with the hindsight of 10 years that it’s true. Some aspects of grief never fully leave you. While its weight and effect on daily life diminish greatly as Jesus binds up broken bones and heals gaping wounds, in significant moments grief must be taken out and examined again. Remarriage, pregnancies, the births of my children, motherhood— all of it has had to be processed not only through joy, but also through a lens of grief. And sometimes through fear that had to be squashed by truth.

I’ve also wondered what he would think of me as a mom. I long ago left mourning the fictitious children we never had. But I wonder what he’d think of my precious little ones and who I am with them. 

I also imagine he and David would be good friends. I see conversations about guitars and books. I see David answering Jon’s bold questions with dry humor, and I envision corresponding awkward grins on Jon’s face. I don’t imagine what life would look like married to Jon now, for the life I have now is inextricably mine. David and these small ones are inextricably mine. And it’s a beautiful now.

Some memories fade, some remain crystal clear. The day I made funeral plans, I specifically wanted a gyro for lunch. And then I barely picked at it. What a funny memory to stay sharp over the years. 

Scenes of the night he died also remain. 

Jesus likewise remains. Faithful. Triumphant.

In the early days of grief we don’t get the benefit of seeing what lies ahead. We can only hope. When strength fails, when waves are a tsunami, when mounds of kleenexes lay strewn on the floor, when all we see are barren trees, Jesus carries. The Holy Spirit speaks words of truth and comfort.

We weep and we cling. “God you are good. You always do good.”

People come along and speak words we cannot always speak to ourselves. “He’s not done writing the story.”

If I could I’d gather my 30 year old, crushed self into my arms. I might tell her “Just wait! You’ll see! God is going to do magnificent things.”

But I don’t have a Tardis, and I am not a Time Lord. That’s a good thing, I think. Time travel would not be a gift.  Because maybe those weren’t the words I needed right away. Maybe I just needed someone to sit beside me and weep. Maybe I needed to live it. 

Maybe the valley of death taught me to know Christ in ways I never dreamed. 

Without winter, there would be no spring. Without death, there is no resurrection. It’s winter that taught me my desperate need. Sometimes I still forget, but I learned what it is to long for Jesus. 

Bare trees still catch my attention. They remind me of the valley, of where I’ve been. And as a crisp blue sky, rays of sunlight, and white stratus clouds burst through the blank spaces, I know Spring will come again. It always does.

Behind the empty spaces is the unchanging God who loves me and gave himself for me.

On that fateful Saturday between the cross and the resurrection, all creation lay silent, waiting, holding its collective breath. Had the powers of hell prevailed? Would Jesus rise again as He said?

The dark of night is greatest just before dawn. Winter often seems worse right before fresh buds appear. But his friends didn’t understand. All hope was lost. The Savior was dead, dead, dead apparently not really the Savior at all.

Or so it seemed. As Sunday crept over the horizon, light eradicated darkness. Life burst forth from barren trees! Colors spread through a world painted gray! 

“Up from the grave He arose, with a mighty triumph o’er His foes!” 

As the new life of Spring erupts from the death of Winter, so did Jesus rise. So will we rise.

And perhaps one day Jon will greet me with a bear hug and a radiant grin, even more exuberant than on this side of eternity (if that’s possible). 

“Come on! I can’t wait for you to see Jesus!” he’ll exclaim.

Me neither. The true Spring begins!

No More Gloom (Remastered Edition)

Imagine not hearing from God for 400 years. He said he was going to act. He said a Promised One would come, but year after year, generation after generation there is nothing but seemingly stony silence. No prophets, no voice from heaven.

“But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings, and you will go out and playfully jump like calves from the stall.You will trample the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day I am preparing,” says the Lord of Armies. (Malachi 4:2–3)

Among the last prophetic words given to Israel, these radiate hope, but where is this healing? Where is this sun of righteousness? Has He forgotten His promises?

Sometimes the world seems to hold nothing but injustice, oppression, and gloom. Many have turned away; it is they who have forgotten the promises. But a remnant remains waiting eagerly, or perhaps in anguish, as they long for Messiah. Generations come and go; still, in darkness, they sit and wait. Gloom settles in, a dense blanket of fog.

Gloom. It’s a state of partial or total darkness, of despondency or depression.

Two thousand years later, our world today is much the same. Wars and rumors of wars, corruption, violence, school shootings, human trafficking, refugees displaced from their countries, abortions by the millions, natural disasters. Sometimes it’s just too much.

There’s a handsome, smiling face, a man surrounded by his wife and three children—the photo is all joy. But in heartbreaking, devastating contrast the words paired with it are ones no one ever wants to write, “My Michael has gone to Jesus.” 

Sometimes darkness crushes.

What hope is there when gloom overtakes? What hope is there when darkness is a heavy blanket or heaven seems silent?

Oh, my friends, there is indeed hope, for one magnificent word turns the world on end—But.

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish” (Isa. 9:1 esv, emphasis added).

No more gloom! Let that sink in for a minute. No more gloom.

Rather, light has dawned. Joy has come. 

This imperishable, unfathomable, confident and sure expectation has a name. He is King Jesus who eradicates the gloom!


The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
a light has dawned
on those living in the land of darkness.
You have enlarged the nation
and increased its joy.
The people have rejoiced before you
as they rejoice at harvest time. (Isaiah 9:2–3)

Like fissures spreading in cracked glass, so the Light of the World penetrates the darkness.

Like fissures spreading in cracked glass, so the Light of the World penetrates the darkness. The astonishing, glorious Sun of Righteousness has arrived. A Son was given. He multiplies our joy! He ends anguish and distress.

“That light shines in the darkness, and yet the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

Light always overcomes darkness. Jesus, the Light of the World, penetrates to the depth of our souls, pushing back despondency and despair. Gloom gives way to hope.

Sally Lloyd Jones wrote, 

In the little town, in a little shed, in a little window a candle flickered in the dark. And a tiny cry rang out in the cold night air. And high above a single star set in the highest heavens shone out brighter than all the others and poured down silver onto the little shed . . . A Light to light up the whole world! (Sally Lloyd Jones, Song of the Stars).1

That first Advent long ago may have begun as a candle flickering in the dark, but Light burst through, lighting the whole world. 

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
’Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, 
for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!2

But wait, the news gets exponentially better.

The Light Is Precise

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. (Isaiah 9:1 esv)

Now compare Isaiah 9:1 to Matthew 4:12–16:

When he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
along the road by the sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles.
The people who live in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those living in the land of the shadow of death,
a light has dawned.

Do you see it? 

A seemingly insignificant detail: the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but it is a laser beam of precise care. God redeems with the skill of a surgeon and the craftsmanship of a master artisan. Way back in Israel’s history, the people of Zebulun and Naphtali were among the first taken captive by the Assyrians, among the first to “sit in darkness.” 

BUT when Jesus began his public ministry, He went to them first! The Light of the World dawned first on the ones who were captives first. I don’t know about you, but that pierces my soul and makes me sing with joy. Jesus could have started anywhere. How easily such a small detail could have been overlooked. Not so with God. Jesus not only fulfilled prophecy, He did it with exquisite precision. He couldn’t wait to rescue the ones who sat in darkness first!

God’s sovereignty is not an indifferent wave of the hand, a vague maybe. Instead, “I will” is the persistent drumbeat of His plans. 

Is His care for you not also precise? Is He not thoroughly committed to His promises?

Oh, friends, how deeply He cares for you. He knows your needs and fears far better than you do. He knows the hurts you never voice. He sees you when no one else sees. 

We can rest in his precise, intimate care.

Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!

What’s more, God became man at an exact moment in history. As a fully human, yet fully divine embryo formed in Mary’s womb, God hurtled His redemptive plan forward. Jesus was born, lived a perfect life, died on the cross, and rose from the grave. Redemption reached its pinnacle on the cross, and Christ’s resurrection sealed it for eternity.

The Light Reverses

When the Light dawned and shattered the darkness, He began the work of reversing the curse. Isaiah 9 radiates with shocking contrasts. God reverses.

Gloom          No gloom

Darkness      Light

Remnant      Multiplied

Sorrow         Increased joy

Captives       Liberated, delivered

Oppressed    Free

This is what He does for His own! It’s astonishing.

I’m reminded of the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. Even the architecture tells a story. When you first walk in, the rooms are gloomy, cramped, and chaotic. Folks shuffle through the exhibits in reverential quiet. No one laughs, tears trail down cheeks. It’s a scene of horror—a history of genocide and a sober indictment that we never let it happen again. 

Finally, just as despair permeates and hope seems a vapor, patrons wind their way to “Liberation,” the end of the war! The lighting and design of the museum shifts noticeably as Allied forces liberate captives, righting what was wrong. There is light. Dissonant crossing beams give way to clean, straight lines. Normal conversation resumes, and the claustrophobic soul can breathe again.

So much greater than mere architecture is God’s reversal. This is redemption. He makes the world right side up. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.

Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we;
Let all within us praise His Holy name!

The Light Reigns

For a child will be born for us,
a son will be given to us,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
He will be named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
The dominion will be vast,
and its prosperity will never end.
He will reign on the throne of David
and over his kingdom,
to establish and sustain it
with justice and righteousness from now on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord of Armies will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:6–7)

Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor. This royal title combines the idea of “doing something wonderful, extraordinary, and miraculous with the skill of giving wise advice or making wise plans.”3 The divine, second Person of the Trinity reigns with infinite wisdom.

He is the Mighty God, the mighty warrior. His power is divine, and nothing is too hard. The Lord of Hosts fights battles for us.

He is the Everlasting Father. Literally the title means, “My father is eternal.” He never begins, He never ends. He is the ideal protector. By eternally exercising perfect wisdom and perfect power, He accomplishes intimate fatherly care of his people. 

And He is the Prince of Peace. Jesus comes to make an end of war. “He will limitlessly expand His influence and create peace without end.” The world is certainly not at peace, but one day it will be. Even now, our hearts can know peace that passes understanding as we’re guarded by Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:7).

This is our King.

But you say, “There is still gloom in the world. Still horrific things. Still death and sorrow. Where is this King?” 

Oh, friend, He is coming again. Like Israel of old we long for his Advent. Let us hold fast to our confident expectation. Remember the promises. And the next time, not only will light dispel the darkness, it will utterly eradicate it. 

The Light Pursues

The zeal of the Lord of Armies will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:7)

It’s His zeal and passion that initiated redemption. We turned from Him, but “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

Jesus pursues even to the point of the cross. He pursues even those who seem beyond hope.

“With unassailable zeal, determination, and passion,” says one commentator, “God will concentrate His efforts to accomplish this marvelous deed . . . His people can be absolutely sure that an omnipotent, sovereign God will stand behind the fulfillment of this wonderful plan.”4

When darkness threatens to crush, when holding fast to promises seems impossible, when our faith is weak, when we are the faintly burning wick—He holds us. And he spares no omnipotent effort to keep His promises. 

The blessing of His people is guaranteed. Victory is won. The Light has dawned. Heaven isn’t silent anymore.

So we rest and we worship.

Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we;
Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! O praise His name forever!
His pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!
His pow’r and glory evermore proclaim!

That light shines in the darkness, and yet the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:5)


The Light breaks through the darkness! That’s why we love to celebrate the Christmas season here at Revive Our Hearts. And as a ministry, we have so much to celebrate this year. Want to celebrate God’s goodness with us? Check out our 2022 Annual Praise Report. It’s a dynamic good news review! 

1 Sally Lloyd-Jones and Alison Jay, Song of the Stars: A Christmas Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015).

2 Hymn lyrics in this post by Placide Cappeau, “Oh, Holy Night,” Hymnary.org, accessed December 16, 2022, https://hymnary.org/text/o_holy_night_the_stars_are_brightly_shin.

3 Gary V. Smith, New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39 (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2007), 240.

4 Smith, New American Commentary, 240.

(This version of the post No More Gloom also appeared at Revive Our Hearts)

Open Hands in Life and Death

As I held my shaking hands out, palms up, one desperate word formed, “Help!” I knew God understood what I could not pray. Help me open my hands to you, Lord! I sat on a hospital bed, and the steady rhythm of a heartbeat echoed from a fetal monitor. I was twenty-four weeks pregnant, and my placenta had begun to abrupt, or tear from the uterine wall. The delivery of our baby girl seemed imminent. 

Up to that point it had been a smooth, “boring” pregnancy as my ob-gyn jokingly and reassuringly quipped. I’d even had less nausea than with my firstborn.

A gentle breeze and gorgeous, blue sky had beckoned us outside. As I pushed Hudson in the stroller, a sharp, knife-like pain suddenly pierced through my lower right abdomen. I doubled over and then stood, breathing deeply for a minute before I could walk again. 

Not a rookie pregnant lady, however, I didn’t want to overreact and thought the sensation could be round ligament pain. We walked home and sat on the front stoop to rest. I snapped pictures of my grinning toddler in his muscle shirt and red baseball hat. Still feeling some pins and needles pain and cramping, I thought I might need to use the restroom.

I sat Hudson on the floor in the bathroom (because, you know. . . mom life). It was then that I saw blood on the tissue—every pregnant woman’s fear.  I stood and there was so much blood.

Instinctively I glanced to see if my precious girl was in the toilet.

While my nightmare fear (I’m losing her!) crashed around in my mind, I screamed for my husband. “David! David! We need to go to the hospital right now!” Praise God, David had not yet left for work.

He wasn’t crying, but fear etched Hudson’s fifteen-month-old face. I scooped him up and put on my best calm voice. “Buddy, we’re going to get in the car. And Mamoo and Papa will meet us at the hospital. Mommy loves you, and it’s going to be okay.” 

I desperately hoped it would indeed be okay.

As we drove I felt Charlotte kick. She is moving. She is alive.

A Familiar Question

When something is critical, hospitals become a flurry of activity. Medical staff moved quickly, starting an IV, giving me a steroid shot to develop the baby’s lungs, starting magnesium to forestall labor, checking vitals, hooking up monitors, calling an ambulance for transport. Thinking of the frenetic pace still brings up residual trauma from my first husband’s death.

Alone in the room of a major teaching hospital, I called out to God. As I prayed, a vivid question sprang to my mind. What if I take her?

The words felt familiar; I had been in that moment before, where God held someone beloved across my mind’s eye. I do not claim to hear God’s voice audibly, but He has asked me that question three times.

Once he “took” a fiancé through a broken engagement.
Once he took my husband home to Himself.
Once he spared the life of my daughter.

Once I said, “No! God, I’ve waited too long.”
Once I said, “Lord, I want to say yes, but I don’t know that I can. I do know you will help me open my hands if the time comes.”
Once I said, “Yes, Lord. She’s yours.”

Father, you know my hands are open to you. She is your baby. I know you will do what is good. But could you please spare her and protect her?

In His mercy and grace, He did. We had eleven more weeks of countless doctor visits, two more occasions of bleeding, multiple inpatient stays, multiple outpatient hospital trips, along with medications, steroid shots, preterm labor, and contractions for weeks and weeks. We made it to thirty-five weeks before my water broke.

Now she’s a vibrant, precocious three-year-old with a love of marker tattoos and stickers. Still, I open my hands to God. She is still yours. They are all still yours.

I opened my hands and God protected her. 

But let me also be extremely clear. Open hands do not guarantee healing in this life.

I opened my hands when my first husband, Jon, lay motionless under the weight of chest compressions, his airway intubated. I prayed the same prayer. My hands are open. He is yours. But please God, spare him. Nothing is too hard for you.

Yet, much sooner than I ever dreamed, God didn’t heal (in this life, anyway).

God was still good, though. Romans 8:28 assures that He works all things together for our good and His glory. He designs the course of history in ways I cannot understand, but ultimately I trust His providence, “His wise and purposeful sovereignty.”1

A common thread between life and death stitches the words “open hands” over and over. Motherhood, grief, all of life—they are studies in having open hands. None of these things follow the well-ordered designs we create in our minds.

The Savior’s Answer

Sometimes God’s will feels crushing, His mercies too severe. And we cling to our plans as a child clutches a grubby penny though he’s offered far more. But Jesus opened His hands. He opened them wide, and they were nailed to a cross.

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me—nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42)

In agony Jesus pleaded that there might be any other way for humanity to be rescued. As He looked into the metaphorical cup, all He saw was wrath brimming and boiling over. He anticipated a depth of suffering that is incomprehensible to us. Yet He lay down His own will, opening His hands to the Father’s perfect plans.

With open hands, He held out far more than we have ever been asked to give. For the first time He knew separation from the Father. He held out His identity, His authority, His riches, His unity, and His holiness. He would become sin personified (2 Cor. 5:21).

When we lay down our lives, we find true life.

If Jesus has truly accomplished redemption and if God is truly who He says He is, then we can hold our hands open to Him. Again and again, we can surrender our plans because His will is better. He does know all things and is in control of all things. When we lay down our lives, we find true life (Matt. 10:39).

And when holding life with open hands feels too big, He meets us with lavish grace. For me it was grace to face the valley of the shadow of death. For me it was also grace to walk through a pregnancy full of complications and the gift of humble submission regarding the timing and circumstances of my daughter’s birth.

It’s strange that it’s almost easier to open our hands in the defining, life-altering moments. But surrender is also daily. It’s the mundane plans that are sometimes hardest to hold out with open hands—the days when a long awaited nap doesn’t happen, when teething keeps us all awake, or when a toddler expresses his big emotions through hitting and biting. 

I have yet to decide what is more life altering, the death of a husband or being a mom. Right now they seem neck and neck. I did them in reverse order, so for me motherhood is sometimes colored by loss. My first husband died when I was thirty, and I became a mother at thirty-five. 

Of course, there are radical differences between the two. The death of a spouse is like being hit by a freight train. Being a new mom is sometimes like hanging on to the freight train for dear life, and sometimes like sitting at a crossroads that is blocked by what seems like a never-moving train. However, being Mama is also full of precious delight.

But the similarities between motherhood and grief are striking.

Both have the potential to crush us.

Both bring us to the end of ourselves.

Both cause us to evaluate our identities.

Both aren’t always what is expected.

Both teach us to hold out our hands, palms open.

Whether in birth, death, or all the in-betweens, God is accomplishing so much more than we can see. And grace empowers our responses.

I realized that the deepest spiritual lessons are not learned by his letting us have our way in the end, but by his making us wait, bearing with us in love and patience until we are able honestly to pray what he taught his disciples to pray: Thy will be done.2 —Elisabeth Elliot

1John Piper, “Are God’s Providence and God’s Sovereignty the Same?,” Desiring God, October 20, 2022, https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/are-gods-providence-and-gods-sovereignty-the-same.

2Elisabeth Elliot, Passion and Purity: Learning to Bring Your Love Life under Christ’s Control (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2013). Ebook edition accessed at https://www.google.com/books/edition/Passion_and_Purity/rTATEAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PP1&printsec=frontcover.

He Takes Good Care of Us

His hands were sticky and peanut butter smeared his cheeks. Strawberry jam coated the corners of his mouth. As I had done a thousand times before, I washed chubby hands and a bright-eyed little face.

“Mama, why you wash me hands and me face?” 

“Well buddy, I want to take good care of you.”

“Why you take good care?”

“Because God takes good care of us.”

“Why God take good care?”

“Because He loves us.” 

A short exchange, but my words penetrated my own heart. God takes good care of us. 

Pinpointed Care

It’s who He is: a God whose care is not only lavish but precise. Jesus fed thousands from a little bit of lunch, but He also embraced individuals who longed to be touched. He healed sickness, but waited to come until Lazarus was dead so He could display deeper, more extravagant care (John 11). He comforted some and admonished others. 

Jesus was not a far away philanthropist, tossing mass-produced, look-alike blessings from the sky. He taught with words His audience could understand, perfectly pinpointing the need of each heart.

His care in our lives is also precise. Shifting scenes come into focus, evidence of His precision: Specific Scripture passages spring to mind as I pray for comfort. A financial need is met at just the right time. A spectacular sunset radiates across the sky. A surgeon skillfully removes a tumor. A woman praises God at her husband’s funeral. A baby sleeps through the night. And on other nights the weary mama has grace to rise yet again, praising God for quiet, stillness, and soft baby skin nestled against hers. 

All are gifts of precise, tangible grace, flowing abundantly for the day when they’re needed.

Inexhaustible Compassion

How marvelous it is that God never has to prioritize whose need is bigger or more important? He has the power and compassion to meet billions, trillions, quadrillions—an infinite number of needs at once. 

My children are close in age, so I’m constantly evaluating whose need is more urgent—one calls for help in the bathroom, the toddler has bumped her head, and the distraught baby needs to eat. Sometimes I’m not exactly sure of the best response. I’m talking about total meltdowns when a two-year-old’s dinosaur sheets are in the washing machine or how to handle it when shouts of “It’s mine!” “No it’s mine! I had it first!” reverberate down the hall. It’s exhausting. And exasperating at times.

Praise God, He’s never exhausted or exasperated by the constant care his children need! He already met mankind’s biggest need, through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. So rest assured, your needs are not too great. Or too small.

God is also a Father characterized by perfect compassion toward his children. “For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14 esv). He understands our weaknesses and gets down low to meet us there (Isa. 57:15). He is a shepherd who tends his flock with gentleness—especially the young (Isa. 40:11).

His care is precise, powerful, and perfectly compassionate—all because He loves us. Because Jesus took care of His own even to the cross, we know kindness when we deserve wrath, grace when we deserve judgment, and gentleness when we deserve rebuke. As a result, our care can reflect his care. We take good care of our own.

By this we know love, that he lay down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. (I John 3:16 esv)

Caring for the Needy

By sacrificially meeting our children’s needs, we get to show a fraction of God’s lavish love. God doesn’t leave His own in their filth, so even the physical act of cleaning our children is a kind of mercy. Of course, small children need a parent to do these things because they can’t do them on their own. How quickly they would succumb to their own excrement. How pervasive is our filthiness if not for Christ!

Sadly, not all children are well cared for by their parents. In a broken world, even the natural desire to provide and care for our most vulnerable is marred. Most folks in our culture are rightly appalled by horrific stories of abuse, but many still promote a “children are jerks” culture. 

A medical professional sat across from me talking about his young son, “I love him, but sometimes he’s a total *expletive*.” 

I made my next appointment with another doctor. Children are image bearers and loved by God. They are our little neighbors too.

May our parenting flow from a life overflowing with the fruit of the gospel—that is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23). We can be counter-cultural by not berating, shouting at, shaming, or demeaning our children.

Furthermore, remembering God’s care produces so much joy in the mundane. Instead of merely washing hands and faces for the seemingly millionth time, we get to touch a hand loved by God and cleanse little faces made in God’s image. What an attitude changer on a hard day! 

Do we begrudge them their neediness, become frustrated because they inconvenience us and demolish our “plans,” or do we realize the potential to show them the heart of Jesus? 

We cannot meet their spiritual needs, but by tenderly, generously, compassionately, and kindly meeting their physical needs we reflect the One who can meet all their needs.

Unseen moments, then, become acts of worship and reflect the heart of God.

A parent’s days are filled with unseen moments, but they’re holy moments, nonetheless. Holding a hand in a parking lot, rocking a sick baby in the night, giving a toddler clean clothes after a potty accident, changing a blowout diaper, loading a dishwasher—all reveal something about God to the people around us. Whether we like it or not, the way we parent contributes to our children’s perceptions of themselves and of God. Unseen moments, then, become acts of worship and reflect the heart of God.

Is He a God who is rough and gruff? Is He fickle, some days speaking calmly and others flying off the handle? Does He grudgingly get up to answer our cries? 

Sometimes I’m fickle, selfish, and moody, but “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Amen.

Commenting on Romans 2:4, Jared C. Wilson writes, “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance. Not his law, not his berating, not his exasperation or his cajoling. His kindness.”1

I wish I could say I’ve never been guilty of berating, cajoling, or exasperation. But because the Holy Spirit indwells believers and the gospel empowers us, we can respond to our children with kindness and gentleness. We can respond rather than react. 

But what about when we sin against them? What about when we don’t meet needs tenderly or do give in to anger boiling inside?

Well, God’s kindness leads us to repentance also. He is notoriously patient and long-suffering, and his compassions fail not. Over and over his mercies are new (Lam. 3:22–23). He is near the contrite and lowly because Jesus already paid the penalty for selfishness, angry outbursts, frustration, desire for convenience, and all the other parenting temptations that come our way. 

When we sin we are encouraged to bring our mess to Jesus because he will know just how to receive us. He doesn’t handle us roughly. He doesn’t scowl and scold. He doesn’t lash out, the way many of our parents did. And all this restraint on his part is not because he has a diluted view of our sinfulness. . . . His restraint simply flows from his tender heart for his people . . . rather than dispensing grace to us from on high, he gets down with us, he puts his arm around us, he deals with us in the way that is just what we need. He deals gently with us. —Dane Ortlund, in Gentle and Lowly2

On our best days and on our worst, He is our intercessor and advocate who constantly brings us before the throne, His own righteousness covering us (1 John 2:1–3Heb. 4:14–16). He silences the accuser, and we recall who we are—called, capable, new creations, redeemed. 

He has cleansed us from our own filth. More than that, He moves toward us and embraces us, and is committed to the work He began. He will sanctify his own (Phil. 1:6). Therefore, we walk forward without shame.

So take heart friends, He takes good care of us.

Jared C. Wilson, The Imperfect Disciple: Grace for People Who Can’t Get Their Act Together (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2017).

Dane C. Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021).

This post was previously published at Revive Our Hearts

Countless Thoughts

Giggles pealed through the air contrasting the rhythmic break of waves against shore. Children ran, full of joy, letting water crash against their ankles. Shovels plunged into sand. Fingers and toes curled, greedily exploring the texture as if they were made for sand and sea. 

“Look at this beautiful shell Mommy!” They showered me with shells indiscriminately, gifts of grace from precious hearts. 

“Mommy look at those huge birds!”  Pelicans glided across the water in single file, gracefully swooping down. They were proud, showy, confident of their place in the world. 

“There’s a man on a skate board, and he’s using a parachute in the water!” My nearly three year old who is blessed with the gift of many words, gazed in wonder at a kitesurfer. I marveled at her apt description of a concept she’d never seen before. Every minute was fresh with discovery. Every new site met with delight. 

I drank in the scene admiring the horizon stretching endlessly, intersecting with the very curve of the earth. Ocean, sand, sky— together resplendent—they couldn’t help but praise the one who made them. How naturally worship flooded my heart! What a powerful, majestic, God I have! Even the beauty of creation is a gift of grace.

I had waited for this day. Illinois has some lake beaches, but they’re kiddie pools (or cat pools as my little ones say. See the sweet misunderstanding there?) compared to the ocean. I longed to take my children to the ocean, and their first experience with it was every bit as lovely as I imagined it would be.

Playing in the water, building sand castles, eating sandy snacks—there was no quiet contemplation, or nose buried in a book. But the beach with kids was delightful.

Gears of time turned, and in my mind I contrasted another, earlier day.

It was windy, the precursor to rain and storms. I lay on a beach towel, soaking in the rays, yet aware of the more than average wind. Sighing, I closed my book, and propped my chin on folded arms. From my vantage point, I had an up close and personal, lavish view of nothing more than sand.

Alone with my thoughts, I contemplated “the long dreaded day”- the day he would be gone longer than we had been married. Two years, eight months, and three days I was married to Jonathan Atkins. Two years, eight months, and three days he had been gone.

My mind swirled with implications. “I’m facing a day most widows never experience. So many get to be with their husbands for decades.”

Sand whirled, reacting to the force of the wind. My face inches above the beach, I searched for an indiscernible pattern, noticing individual grains whisked along by something outside themselves

“How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you.” (Psalm 139:17)

If I tried to count the grains of sand in the square foot in front of me, it wouldn’t take long to realize the futility of my endeavor. How ridiculously more impossible to number all the grains of sand on every beach and under every ocean!

But a string of zeros marching across my imagination is the best I can do to comprehend the number of God’s thoughts toward me. Now multiply that by seven billion people on the earth. It’s unfathomable. God has countless thoughts about me? About each image bearer? 

All I can do is marvel. 

Writing Psalm 139, David overflows with astonished wonder. How can it be that the God who is glorious and transcendent is also personal and intricately involved in his small life?

“The intimacy of David’s relationship with God is put on beautiful display through this Psalm. David knows that God’s care for him is so deep and thorough that every step he takes, every word he speaks, is known fully by the Lord who has numbered all of his days before they began. Indeed his days began as God formed him while yet in his mother’s womb. His very inward parts and every aspect of his life have been designed by God himself. No matter where David may travel, far or wide, he knows that God’s Spirit is always with him, that God always knows the situations he is in. To imagine the detailed and exhaustive nature of God’s thoughts toward his own children, as David here exemplifies truly is precious.” (1)

His thoughts about us are vast, and he deals with us in more unique and intimate ways than any human ever could. By God we are thoroughly known and and still thoroughly loved (2)

“In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” (Psalm 139:16)

Before I was born God established the course of my life, a tiny though meticulously planned subplot in His epic redemptive tale. He was sovereign over the length of days I had with Jon. He orchestrated our meeting, and His timing was perfect. To wish for more time, is at its root to doubt God’s character. It is to doubt the vast, detailed, and utterly perfect nature of His plans.

There were times I did doubt. But God always brought me back.

Even if I stopped being known as “Mrs. Atkins,” or slowly became surrounded with friends who didn’t know Jon or the me I had been with him, I was still known

It had taken me a while to figure out who I was after death ripped me in half.  But as I walked farther down the path away from the valley of death, I started to look forward. It was ok to be me without Jon. 

For truly my life is hid with Christ on high (Galatians 2:20). As I gaze on him, I know who I am. 

I closed my eyes, breathed in the salty air, and rested in the beauty of being fully loved and fully known. On a day I long dreaded, I realized I had nothing to fear.

Fast forward, back to children playing in the sand. Sorrow mingles sometimes, but on this day there was nothing but joy and laughter. I watched my husband, David, playing just as gleefully as the kids were, scooping them up then dipping them in the waves. 

I was given two years, eight months, and three days with Jon. To date I have had five years, 10 months and 17 days with David. We’re closing in on six years quickly. 

How much more striking is the narrative of my life written by a perfect, sovereign hand than what I could ever think to pen. I wouldn’t have chosen death. But without it I would never have this man, these children. 

This is a story of two contrasting days drawn together by a common theme. One day lonely, quiet, wondering what was next, fearing the piling on of days and Jon becoming a background character. And a second day, full of laughter, contentment, and the boisterous play of three under five. 

But both days drew my heart to worship. Both reminded me of an unfathomable God who also knows me precisely. The same God who created vast oceans and innumerable grains of sand knows me.

I tend to share my struggles openly and deeply. I want to be as known as people will let me be. However, though our culture loves the words “real” and “authentic,” we only want them to a certain extent. Somewhere there is an invisible line we dare not cross. 

Sometimes we want just enough of others’ messiness to feel better about ourselves. Other times we truly do care, we just have no idea how to respond. Too much confession, too much grief, too much depravity makes others uncomfortable. And besides who wants to always be the “broken” friend? So sometimes I do what we all do— put on my respectable face. Don’t overshare. Don’t weigh everyone down. Don’t be “too much.” 

But it is not so with God. Even if I tried to put on my respectable face, he knows all of my ugliest parts; he is not afraid of them. And he loves me anyway. I have learned I can always run to God with my sin and struggles. I need not hide because the transcendent God, bowed low enough to be born a helpless newborn and bowed even lower still to die on the cross. He always meets me with mercy and grace. 

Although he knows everything about me, he still dwells with me. Though he has countless thoughts about me, he remembers my sin no more (Isaiah 57:15, Hebrews 8:12).

All I can do is marvel and respond with lifted hands. 

“What is our hope in life and death?

Christ alone, Christ alone

What is our only confidence?

That our souls to him belong

Who holds our days within his hand?

What comes, apart from his command?

And what will keep us to the end?

The love of Christ, in which we stand.”  (3)

Lying crumpled in the valley of death, Christ is the hope. Rising, limping, staggering up the slope, Christ is the hope. Looking forward as the path winds around the bend, Christ is the hope. And even on bubbling with joy, resplendent, playing by the sea days, Christ is the hope. 

And this hope is not nebulous or wishy washy. It’s not the way our vernacular uses hope. “I hope it doesn’t rain” or “I hope I can get that stain out your clothes.” We think hope is a “maybe.” Perhaps something good will happen, but it isn’t guaranteed.

However, true hope in Christ is confident expectation. It is something steadfast, sure, guaranteed. He is exactly who he says he is and will do exactly what he has said he will. 

My confidence may be shaken. It may even start to crumble. But hope is built not on my ability to believe, but on the one who holds me, you, every blade of grass, every galaxy, and every atom together. This God who is hope knows every fear, worry, and every wretched thought I have. He knows the beautiful ones too. Fully known, yet fully loved. This God purchased hope with his blood, and he lavishes it on my soul like innumerable grains of sand poured on every shore and under every ocean. 

To be known. To be thought of countless times. To be met each day with precise hope.

All I can do is marvel.

Commentary on Psalm 139, ESV Gospel Transformation Study Bible: Christ in All of Scripture, Grace for All of Life: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).

 Timothy Keller and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2016).

3 Keith Getty et al., “Christ Our Hope in Life and Death,” Getty Music, accessed August 23, 2022, https://www.gettymusic.com/christ-our-hope.

An edited version of this article first appeared at Revive Our Hearts

Messy, Complicated, Beautiful

Let me tell you about Mamaw and Papaw. They are Jon, my first husband’s, adoptive parents. That’s a complicated mouthful, illustrating a precious reality. It’s not common that a widow’s first in-laws stay in her life when she remarries, but these beautiful ones are another facet of a story only God can write.

In order to see the full loveliness of the mosaic, I need to back up further though.

Jon met the Neffs through his grandma taking him to church. Dad Neff was the pastor, and Jon quickly became best friends with their son, Ben.

Jon’s mom, Darlene had had type 1 diabetes, and In the 80s it was a much more life threatening disease than it is today. She had been told “If you have children, it will kill you.”

But God had other plans. Jim and Darlene were absolutely thrilled to find out Jon was on the way. From reading her journal, I learned she was hospitalized for months leading to his birth. Not easy, but daily she poured out thanks for the miracle growing inside. Her love of Christ leapt from the pages; her journal is a touching link to a lady I never met.

When Jon was five, Darlene had her first stroke. He quickly learned to dial 911. Eventually her legs were amputated, and she was a home bound invalid for much of Jon’s life.

She died when he was 14.

After his wife’s death, Jon’s dad Jim tried to drown his grief in alcohol. He had adored his wife, and Jon always told me he learned lavish love by watching his dad.

And Jon himself described sitting on the edge of his bed with a loaded gun contemplating something horrific. But the phone rang. When he answered, someone merely said, “Hey Jonathan! I’ll be there in a few minutes to pick you up for church.”

It wasn’t a request, but he always said it saved his life.

Fast forward a few years. Jon started passing out playing basketball and it was discovered he had a long missed, congenital heart defect. After open heart surgery and a heart valve replaced at 18, he was written about in medical journals.

Through all this the Neffs were there, in the background of his story, loving him though he seemed like a “rebellious” influence on their son.

The suffering wasn’t over, however. Jon’s Dad died of cancer after Jon’s first semester of college. He was alone.

Astonishingly though, God was up to something new and marvelous. Before Jim died, he asked the Neffs a big request.

“Will you help him stay out of trouble? Will you make sure he stays in college?”

But in their hearts, they knew God was asking them for more.

“Would you make him your son? Would you bring him into your family?”

And they did.

They packed up a grieving, angry teenager and welcomed him home. My first mother-in-law has said, “Even then I knew it would be more. I knew he wasn’t going to walk out of our lives after college.”

So they adopted a son. And Jon always said he got another mom and dad, two brothers, a sister, a dog, and a cat. Another family to cherish.

His brother Ben jokes that Jon held the world record for longest sleepover.

“I used to go over to Jon’s house, but the one time I asked him over to mine, he ended up staying for 12 years!”

They went through some crazy rough times together. At times he made them angry. At times he broke their hearts. But a miraculous, radiant thing was forming. Another son. Part of the family.

When he took me home to meet them, I learned later he eagerly asked, “So do you like her?”

“What’s not to like? You better not mess this up!”

They played such a huge, indispensable role in the gospel driven man he became. He was loved when he was unlovely.

At my wedding to Jon, he couldn’t help but be choked up about the beauty of adoption. Through example, his second parents taught him the reality of an even greater adoption.

Jesus accomplished the greatest adoption. His death and resurrection brought His own into the family!

As Mom and Dad Neff chose Jon, so God adopts His chosen ones. He makes them part of His family, as sons and heirs. His love is lavish.

After Jon died Mom Neff wrote,

“And my mother’s heart shattered into a million tiny pieces. ‘Wait, God, this wasn’t the plan! This is not what I expected!’ My heart mourned, and God held me close and simply whispered, ‘You let me love him through you, and that was my plan all along!’

“People ask me if I would do this again, knowing the struggles, disappointments, and hurts. My honest human answer is maybe not! (Later in the post she wrote, “In a heartbeat!”) Here’s the interesting part, however. God didn’t just change Jonathan, He changed me. The love of God is unconditional, full of grace and flowing from His heart “even while we were yet sinners.” (Romans 5:8). Because that’s His plan, to use His children to love those around us, those who need to know the love of God as more than just a fuzzy idea they once heard somewhere, to love those who need to know the love of God in salvation!”

At first I wondered if I would lose them as I had lost Jon.

“Ami you’re stuck with us. We’re not going anywhere. Jon may not be here with us anymore, but you are still ours. You are still family.”

And they have been. And they are. They welcomed David with open arms, excited for new love in my life. David, the uniquely suited for me man that he is, welcomed them too.

They were at mine and David’s wedding, Dad Neff sharing the joy of walking me down the aisle.

They are another set of grandparents for our children since my own parents are gone. Mom Neff has come after the birth of all three babies. And we see them as often as we can.

As we drove away from their house today, I prayed thanking God for such a sweet week.

From the back Hudson and Charlotte piped up with their additions.

“And thank God for the park by the zoo.”

“And thank God for the big swimming pool.”

“And thank God for Jon, your first husband because we have Mamaw and Papaw. And we wouldn’t have them without Jon.”

Little boy knows how to make both of his parents cry.

It’s a lovely, complicated, messy thing, but God has made it so beautiful.

To see more about how this all unfolded…

The Side Effects of Loss and the Gospel that Heals Them

Almost ten years have passed since my first husband died, and I’ve long left the valley of the shadow of death. I was almost crushed, but now I walk again bearing jagged and radiant scars. I’ve processed and processed and processed, and I know the beauty of a life restored. 

A second husband, three spunky children— life is rich and full again, and grief often seems like a distant memory. But even now some unexpected, long term side effects of loss remain: fear, worry, embarrassment, and shame to name few. 

Recently I needed surgery to have a painful, but (thankfully) benign ovarian cyst removed. Concurrently, my husband has an unexplained mass on his arm, and we’re waiting for MRI results and surgery. Medical concerns still raise a prickle of fear followed by its close cousin, worry. If you checked my phone search history, you’d find a list of symptoms. My fingers sought answers and my heart played “worst case scenario.” I was on the look out for that six letter word that should be a four letter word, cancer. 

Given my first husband died in an Emergency Department after symptoms were missed and mistakes made, it makes sense that I’m more cautious medically. That fear can still so easily overtake me is unexpected, however. It’s been almost a decade, haven’t I walked forward into a new, beautiful life? 

As I cried alone in my car, worry and fear spilling out, I was also surprised to realize I’m still responding to the trauma of death. Memories of emotional pain so intense it was physical still crouch in the corners of my heart…

The complete article was graciously published first by Revive our Hearts, and you can find it here.

Red Nails

Perfectly manicured nails, red, wrapped around a warm mug its contents the color of caramel. Books and journals lay piled about. I took a picture, but didn’t post it. Was it really necessary to perfectly crop and Instagram it, after all?

It’s funny how memories work. Red, lovely nails came to mind this morning as I snatched a few minutes, Bible open before kids clamored down the hall.

Widowed, I had hours of quiet— reflecting, reading, writing. I became close friends with solitude. It was a beautiful, needed, and gracious gift of God as I worked through the depths, leaning into the pain. Somehow the only way out was through. I think I’m much better for it as a result.

Some days I look back on those quiet times wistfully. But if I take off the rose colored glasses, loneliness was profound. 

The quiet was rich and sweet, a time of knowing Christ more intimately than I’d ever thought possible. But it was also a battle. I was surrounded by the best friends a girl could ask for in such a dark time. But loneliness clung like a heavy blanket. I had been part of two and now I was one. 

My days are no longer quiet. My nails no longer manicured or my hair beautifully colored. I don’t often get hours to sit and be quiet. Coffee cools down and then it lies forgotten in the microwave, cooling again.

But I am not lonely. 

Though days are exhausting and sometimes exasperating, they are rich. I prayed for these days for a long time. And they’re here. What lavish grace!

When sleep gets interrupted, when the day is a mundane slog of chores, or I deal with the hundredth sibling squabble, I tell myself “slow down.” See them. Remember, they are answers to prayer.

Sometimes the season feels long. “Even youths grow tired and weary,” (though one might argue I no longer get to claim youth). But don’t feel sorry for me. I adore these little ones close in age. 

I love seeing them reach new milestones, hearing the funny things they say, and watching their imaginations take full flight. I love being the one they run to when they are scared or hurt. There is joy in seeing them learn to clean up after themselves or put clothes in the hamper. I like teaching them life skills and watching them start to spread their wings. 

“Yes, you may pour your own milk.” 

Snuggling them on my lap book in hand; it’s one of our favorite places to be. I also love rocking my babies and even cuddling my 60 lb, gangly leg, tall 4 year old who stretches long across my body.

And I actually do like being home with my children. They’re pretty great people.

I taught kindergarten for awhile and later was a developmental therapist. Both were career paths I enjoyed, but I never saw myself doing them long term or continuing to climb the ranks.

But I always wanted to be mom. And it’s so good to remind myself. 

What a tremendous privilege to be entrusted with the shepherding of their souls, with the task of cultivating the soil of their hearts. 

And I am learning the joy of abiding, snatching time as it comes. Audio Bible in the shower, scripture songs in the car. I take advantage of nap times for reading. Index cards with truth line cabinet doors. Even the resources we use with our children stir my heart. Abiding doesn’t have to be hours of quiet with a leather bound journal in hand.

I do love to fill a good leather journal. But it’s not always what this season looks like. 

I don’t always abide well. Romans 7 barges in. But I press to know, press on to grow. I lean into Jesus. I run to find help from others when I can’t get truth into my own heart. I ask the Holy Spirit to guide my actions and words, filling me with “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.” (Galatians 5:22)

I painted Charlotte’s nails the other day; little finger nails seem much easier to paint than my own. I place the new memory beside the old. My hands alone. My hands holding hers. 

Red manicured nails and hours of quiet. It was good for a season. 

Pink nails on tiny hands. Snatches of quiet savored when I get it. Beauty in this season.

“For every thing there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Eccl 3:1

The Winter Coat

“You know you’re not poor when you can just go buy a coat.” 

The words formed in my heart and brought tears to my eyes. Gratitude permeated my soul but mingled with memories of electricity being turned off, a furnace without oil in the middle of winter, a hole in the floor that looked right down to the crawl space (I think I was in high school before it was fixed), a bathroom floor always threatening to cave in. You could see the ground below through cracks in that one too.

This winter Hudson needed a new coat and we discussed whether it should be part of his Christmas (which would be a perfectly good Christmas present), but the big holiday was well over a month away and the weather had already turned cold. His coat from last year left inches of bare skin exposed when he bent down. So we decided I should just go buy him a coat. 

What wealth! What luxury!

And the simple decision hit me down deep. 

Growing up my family moved from financial crisis to financial crisis. Talk of loans and advances from employers sprinkled daily conversation. When my parents died, my Dad in 2016 and my mom in 2017, the tiny house they’d lived in for almost 50 years was still not paid for. They were still paying a mortgage, the house having been refinanced who knows how many times. 

I remember when I realized that other kids in my class had their own beds, more than that their own rooms. I had slept in the bed with my mom, and my dad always slept on the couch (their marriage was horrible for as long as I can remember until late in their lives). Somewhere in elementary school I figured out this wasn’t a typical arrangement. Eventually I had a top bunk in my sister’s room, and it became my room when she moved out. 

Imagine my surprise when I started paying my own bills, and I learned that utility companies don’t just turn off your water or electricity if you are a few days late or accidentally miss a payment.

I have memories of flipping on lights and seeing hundreds of cockroaches scatter. One time in high school a cockroach found its way into my back pack. As I saw it crawl across the floor of English class (boys were trying to feed it crackers), I had no doubt from where it came. Mortified isn’t a strong enough word. I buried my face in the text, shades of crimson spreading over my cheeks, and prayed no one would make the connection. I began checking my back pack before I left for school.

Not once did I have a friend come over to my house to play. Ever. My mother was too embarrassed, and later I was too embarrassed. Some of it was the house. Some of it was the state of my family. I learned to make all the excuses.

Once a possum got inside and delivered its babies in my mom’s closet. I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence. My dad thought it was funny, and I’m not sure what he did to dispose of them. And yet another time a lone possum found its way in and my mom killed it with a broom. 

But somehow I had a Nintendo Game Boy. Somehow we went to restaurants. Somehow I did pageants for several years (yes, the kind with tiaras and big curly hair). My little girl will never do them. But I digress. Small plastic cards, easily swiped, payment deferred— those were plentiful.

There have been times in my adult life when money has been extremely tight. I know it happens, and there’s no shame. I have seen the miraculous provision of God on more than one occasion—stories for another time. But I think my parents were trapped on a hamster wheel of debt and and didn’t know how to get off.

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the daily messes, endless loads of laundry, and piles of dishes to wash. Sometimes my home and heart feels chaotic. But from a certain corner on a certain couch, I can almost always remember how beautiful our home is. Handprints framed, family pictures, meaningful art. You might call our style eclectic. That’s a nice way of saying that we’ve chosen to embrace the mismatch so it looks purposeful. And from my cozy corner I admire shelves lined with books, and gifts of rocks and pinecones also proudly displayed. 

I’m kind of amazed our little family is doing so well on one income since I choose to stay home with the kids. Yet we have a lovely, comfortable, enough room for us, house. Our needs our met, and we even have many of our wants.

I don’t know why buying a coat affected me so deeply; I don’t have memories of not having a coat. Perhaps it is that my children have never known a home without heat in the winter, holes covered by duct tape, appliances broken for months, sagging floors and the like. I pray they never know it. Profound gratitude flooded my heart. 

Perhaps it’s also that it wasn’t just the house. A few months ago a friend and I had the blissful opportunity of a couple hour car ride without children. The conversation was deep and beautiful on both sides. After some childhood stories she remarked, “Ami, there are at least several reasons DCFS should have been called.”

I had never thought of it that way. But I think it’s true.  

There are millions of people in the world who have far less than I had growing up, so many in far worse conditions. But maybe the deep emotions of providing a coat for my son are tied not only to physical circumstances but to the turmoil they represented, a family tossed about, more than just finances insecure. 

Objects flew across the room, a fist went through a window, a piano crashed to the floor. Shouting, only ever shouting– there was never calm conversation during anger. I dialed a number seeking help from my grandmother, but hung up when she answered because I was afraid. Mercifully she called back.

I recall habitual, denied affection, “I don’t want to see you. Just walk away.” Still cuts deep.

I pray my children know they are secure, as secure as they can humanly be. They have a Mom and Dad, though sinners, who love each other. They have clothes to wear and food to eat. They have warm beds and a roof over their heads. They are drawn in instead of pushed away.

Isn’t that the heart of every loving parent, to provide for their children? 

I know my parents wanted to provide. I know they tried with the resources they had. I have plenty of sweet memories also.

Sometimes I’m still astonished I’m a Christian. But I look and see the bold red ribbon of grace winding its way through the years, through the circumstances. 

I have a Father who has provided so much more than a winter coat, one who lacks no resources, no ability, or follow through. 

He is lavish. He is kind. He is gentle to his own. He always does what’s right. He always does what is good. 

He restores. He redeems. All the hard memories and dysfunction become clay in the Master artisan’s hand to shape and remake into something lovely.

He secures. God does what even the best of human parent’s can’t do—makes the soul secure.

Every Christian parents longs to know their children believe. But it is God’s work. Oh that the bold red ribbon of grace would wind through their lives! That they would meet the one who is the real Provider!

Oh that their burdens would tumble off as they gaze at the cross.

This is my prayer for them

It was just a winter coat, not that extravagant really. But the grace it represents is abundant, lavish and overflowing like waves.

And my heart worshiped.