Tolkien Reading Day 2022

“Love and Friendship” is certainly a theme I can get behind 100%. After all, I am a most hopeless, hopeful romantic. “But that’s a paradox,” you might argue. Of course it is. I am a paradox.

I am going to suggest several passages from Lord of the Rings for you to read. The first is the story of Aragorn and Arwen in Appendix A. Their love story is one that spans many years, and Aragorn must first become King before Arwen’s father is willing to give her to him. If you are at all familiar with the plot of Lord of the Rings, you will realize that this was not by any means an easy thing to accomplish, nor did it even seem possible in many ways. As I was reading this passage tonight, I thought of the story of Jacob and Rachel from the Bible. Jacob had to work 14 years for Rachel. However, from the time that Aragorn first fell in love with Arwen to the time of their wedding was 39 years. Talk about devotion.

Their story is one of hope, yet incredible sadness and ultimately death for them both. Listen to this quote, speaking of Aragorn:

“His face was sad and stern because of the doom that was laid upon him, and yet hope dwelt ever in the depths of his heart, from which mirth would arise at times like a spring from the rock.”

Ah, the beauty of this. The undying love and the persistent hope of his heart…. And as for Arwen:

“…as [Aragorn] came walking towards her under the trees of Caras Galadhon laden with flowers of gold, her choice was made and her doom appointed.”

Is this not similar to the entrance of Solomon? (see Song of Solomon 3:6-11) And is this not similar to a woman’s dream of her lover coming toward her in splendid manhood? Love is such a crazy thing, honestly. What would we do without it, and yet, for crying out loud, what do we do with it? And to further confuse matters, what do we do with it when we are without it but still with it in our hearts? If you don’t follow, that’s okay; the takeaway, I suppose, is that it brings both incredible joy and unbelievable heartbreak.

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

-C.S. Lewis
My hobbit house cake creation

It’s quite appropriate to have love paired with friendship for a theme. There are of course different kinds of love (romantic versus platonic, for instance), but friendship can come out of any of those relationships. Friendships are an aspect of my life that are vital. Absolutely vital. Some people find their friends within their family; other people’s friends are their family. And some people have a combination of the two.

There are unusual friendships within Lord of the Rings, for sure. And also closer than family friendships. Gimli and Legolas. Frodo and Sam. Gandalf and Aragorn. The bonds of friendship are so very strong.

“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.”

-Tolkien

This is a popular Tolkien quote, and actually one that I used in jest on my friend just the other day. But in context, the meaning could be considered stronger. These words were spoken by Gimli, as the fellowship set out from Rivendell. Elrond had just told them that each of them needed only go as far as he wanted to, save Frodo. This was not a forced journey, but one they chose. Though the fellowship did end up being separated into smaller groups over the course of their route, nevertheless, they remained faithful, with the exception of Boromir. And there did end up being a reunion in chapter 4 of Book 6: “The Field of Cormallen,” which is the second passage I suggest you read.

We see in this chapter the friendship that existed between Gandalf and the eagle Gwaihir as Gandalf requests his assistance in the rescue of Frodo and Sam. Then we see the touching account of Sam and Frodo as they wait for death: “hand in hand upon a little hill, while the world shook under them, and gasped, and rivers of fire drew near.” Yet it is still not the end as they suppose, and next we get to see Sam’s delight at waking to find Gandalf alive. This is followed by a reunion with Strider, turned King of Gondor; and at dinner, Legolas and Gimli are at their table. The remaining two members of the fellowship, Merry and Pippin, then appear to serve them, and thus, the fellowship is reunited.

I like the camadarie as they swap stories afterward, and the easy humor. It is not unlike my own experience this past week. I attended a two day mission conference that was organized by the school I attended in January. The sheer number of attendees was rather overwhelming for an introvert like myself, but one of the best things about the conference was getting to see again, however briefly, many of my fellow Winter Term students and the staff members.

Yet, there was sadness for me as well, for as good as it was to see them again, we are scattered now, and who knows when, or even if, I will see them again in this life. I spent five weeks of my life with those people, and in some ways they feel like my people, but we are separate now. This is going to sound cliche, but it’s something that isn’t really normal for me: in this respect, I could almost look forward to heaven. But of course I should always look forward to heaven! A Christian is supposed to, right? Perhaps, but the truth of the matter is that most of the time I don’t. I want to live, to get married, to have children…. I know this is a post about Tolkien Reading Day, but I am going to insert here a quote from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of the Island:

“Heaven must be very beautiful, of course, the Bible says so- but Anne, it won’t be what I’ve been used to.”

-Ruby Gillis

I can relate to Ruby Gillis in this cry. She is young and wants to live. She wants a husband and a family, as well as that which is familiar. The unknownness of heaven doesn’t appeal to me, nor does the thought of death itself. But if heaven means no separation from my people- it looks a little different. If it means sharing inside jokes and swapping stories- victory after a hard fight, like the reunion of Tolkien’s fellowship, I could get excited about that.

Love and friendship. It’s a very real, very human theme. It exists not only in the stories of fantasy, but also in the stories of life. We see so many stages of relationship in the context of Middle Earth that are also true in our world. The longing and sacrifice of Aragorn and Arwen, the simple, steadfast devotion of Sam- both in his brotherly love for Frodo and in his frank romance with Rosie Cotton, the love that Merry had for King Theoden as he watched him die….

I will include a link for the last reading I am suggesting here. It is a poem that Tolkien wrote for Edith, the love of his life. Thus may our Tolkien Reading Day 2022 move from the world of fantasy to the world of reality. And if you are inspired by Tolkien’s words, consider writing your own love poem. It might do your heart good.

Simplicity, Safety, and Love

What is it about Little House that speaks to our souls? I’ve been thinking about the Little House paper dolls I had growing up, and I knew they were still tucked away in the cabinet where our games were kept as kids. So, the other night, when I went back to the farm, I found them. I took them to work with me the following day, so my little charge could play with them. She’s old enough now for things of a more delicate nature.

There’s something about the beauty of the art, the recreation of this famous family. The paper dolls are like the illlustrations in the Little House picture books, which are also treasured possessions of mine. So, it’s good artwork; that is true. But I think I’d go further and say that there’s also something in the stories themselves which draws us.

Laura’s childhood was, in a sense, more simplistic than the lives we live today. She wasn’t constantly surrounded by a bombardment of news and the exhausting knowledge of what was wrong in the world. In many ways, her family’s life centered around basic human needs: food, shelter, and love. They lived close to nature, with Pa hunting for meat or finding a honey tree in the woods. Ma made hats, churned butter, and kept up the house. There weren’t competitive sports for the girls to be involved in or various functions many nights of the week. Neither of the parents were trying to climb the corporate ladder. As a couple, and as a family, the Ingalls worked hard, but they worked hard together.

This simplicity appeals to me, although often I have a too materialistic mindset. What would it be like to only have a few treasured possessions? To have the children be excited for candy and mittens in their Christmas stockings? We really have no idea in this stuff-crazed culture. Yet there is an appeal in it all- to decrease the amount of visual clutter in our homes and lives. It’s exhausting to have a lot of stuff, because the more stuff you own, the more stuff you are responsible to take care of. Or you can choose not to take care of it, and eventually you have a heap of senseless clutter.

While we decrease the visual clutter, how about decreasing the social clutter as well? We force ourselves to attend this event or that one, run to work and make flying trips to the grocery store, and have so many friends that it is literally impossible to keep up with them all. Therefore, do we really have friends, or are they mere acquaintances? Are we really living life well, or are we simply rushing senselessly from one thing to the next? And if it’s hard for us as adults to juggle this rat race, what about the children? I have a friend who recognizes that her daughter gets overstimulated, and I admire her for seeing what so few people seem to in America. I insert here also that this friend actually does live a very simplistic life, and her daughter STILL gets overstimulated. So what about the children whose lives are so full and so busy, and yet they are expected to be able to keep up with it all? It’s not fair to them.

Maybe then, it is the simplicity in Little House that appeals to us, both in a material and a social sense. But that’s not all. Laura felt safe as a child, and that too is appealing to many of us. Her parents were predictable. We do not see Pa and Ma arguing over finances or hurt feelings. I know they were human parents, and I’m sure they would’ve had disagreements, but that is not what Laura remembers. So, I think it is safe to say that when Ma and Pa disagreed, they did so in private, not in front of their children. In this kind of environment, there is stability and a feeling of safety. She trusted her father in a physical sense as well, knowing that he would protect her. When they were beginning their long journey west with the crossing of Lake Pepin, Laura writes:

“All around the wagon there was nothing but empty and silent space. Laura didn’t like it. But Pa was on the wagon seat and Jack was under the wagon; she knew that nothing could hurt her while Pa and Jack were there.”

-Little House on the Prairie

So Laura had simplicity and a sense of safety. I want to add one more rare and essential commodity. Love. In the progressive world we live in, love is often seen as a feeling, something that we cannot really control. Maybe we have a wrong understanding of love. Love certainly can and does involve feelings, but it should go so much deeper than that. Love equals commitment. Complete and total commitment. What does this have to do with Little House? I read somewhere that it is more important for a child to know that his/her parents love each other than it is to know that their parents love them. This could certainly be a question to debate, but there is something essential here. When children see that their parents love each other, it creates an environment of stability and safety. When parents are in a committed, loving relationship, a child does not need to pick sides. They don’t have to worry about the possible breaking of the family. They are free to be children, loving and being loved. The grown-up problems need to stay with the grown-ups.

There’s something about the old-fashioned way of life that I have loved since I was a little girl. My childhood dream involved living without electricity and teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. I’ll admit that I am an old soul. I don’t really fit into this world of technology and hurry and the shameless butchering of the English language. The idea of homesteading, with chickens in my backyard and sourdough fermenting on my kitchen counter holds a beautiful appeal for me. It’s not my reality. Yes, I do sourdough on occasion, but I have to fit it into a busy schedule (if you know anything about sourdough, you’ll know the process mustn’t be rushed). And no, I do not have chickens. My nanny job gives me a taste of that at the present; the little girl’s family has a farm, but I do not have chickens of my own. And since I live in an apartment in town, with a parking lot making up most of the “backyard,” I know without asking that my landlord would not consent to a chicken coop. Bless his heart, he’s already had to put up with two raised beds. One of which should be producing strawberries in a couple months, which I’m pretty happy about.

Me at Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri-
the home of Laura and Almanzo

My advice: read the Little House books to your kids. Provided you have kids, of course. And if you don’t have kids, read them to yourself. Or to any children whom you happen to have some kind of influence on. And remember the importance of stability, safety, and love in the lives of children. Well, in the lives of all of us, really, but especially for the children. May they grow up knowing they were loved.

Me Away From Home

It’s the end of the second week of the adventure. January is a good time to attempt the new and the slightly scary. For me, this looks like five weeks of study and dorm life, over three hours away from the place I know as home. It was time for change, an escape of sorts, and new perspectives.

Earlier today I video chatted with the little person I care for back in my normal life. She was munching a piece of bread, and it’s a universe away. In some ways, it does feel like a different life. Do I miss her? Of course.

I’m here among strangers, so many strangers. But the crazy thing is, there are quite a few of them that aren’t strangers anymore. It’s actually incredible how comfortable this space is and how many stories are being shared. And for a short span of time this winter, many stories overlap in this one place.

What am I going to take away from here, when I go back to my mountains in February? When I go back to spending my days with a four year old? When I’m back in the bakery with sixty-five loaves of bread on order? When I’m cleaning motel rooms or folding white towels in thirds and thirds again? When I return to my little kitchen, making random cakes that I end up eating way too much of? What pieces of these weeks are going to go with me?

Who am I? Because I’m me at home, and yet, I’m still me here. But then, who is me? Who am I apart from work? Who am I after severed relationships, relationships that helped to define me during so much of my life? Who am I when life is completely not normal? Is it possible to have an ongoing search for identity, an ongoing search for belonging?

There’s the me that painted a picture on Christmas Eve, despite the fact that I am not an artist. There’s the me that drove to Ohio to spend a couple days with my aunt. There’s the me that packed up my coffee mug and some clothes and my stuffed pumpkin spice latte and came to this place for the first time. But then there’s also the me that was sick in bed and missed all of my classes on Wednesday. There’s the me that has taken anxiety medication twice this week to make sure I got some good sleep. There’s the me that doesn’t trust God with my dreams and the me that is cynical, the me that struggles with forgiveness. There’s still the me that can’t sing and the me who refuses to play volleyball.

I want to take home with me: the knowledge, deep in my heart, that I am loved. What does it actually look like, in a practical sense, to live in the love of Jesus? What does it look like to live abundantly, rather than in survival?

I want to take home with me: new friendships. While I will confess to being a little homesick (already!), there’s another part of me that doesn’t like the idea of leaving this fellowship of people. There’s something pretty incredible about being surrounded by an atmosphere of encouragement, education, and yes, a little bit of humor.

I want to take home with me: a determination to continue to grow. I don’t know what this looks like-yet, but this daily intake of intellect is good. Overwhelming? Yes. But good? Also yes. However, my tendency is to not make learning a priority outside the structure of school. There are always excuses- too tired, too busy… you know.

I was hoping for clarity of purpose. But maybe, for the moment, I shouldn’t think too hard about that. Maybe? Maybe for the next three weeks I can just be. Just be and absorb and try to trust. And when God is ready, He’ll show me the next step. Because He is good, and He does love me. As someone told me last week, instead of trying so hard to get out of the valley, I can invite God to walk with me in it. He does, and He will.

The Christmas Miracle of Hope

Come and let us return to the LORD; For He has torn, but He will heal us; He has stricken, but He will bind us up.

Hosea 6:1 NKJV

Maybe the Christmas miracle is not a change in our circumstances, but rather, the beginnings of healing within ourselves. Maybe it’s not obvious, just more joy and peace. I don’t know what letting go and moving on is going to look like. No, it may not lead to reconciliation in broken relationships; they might stay broken. It may not lead to dreams coming true or chaos ceasing. But I will be okay.

Why? Because Emmanuel. God. Is. With. Us.

He is with me. And though people make wrong choices and genuinely mess up life, it does not incapacitate Him. It hurt his heart, so much worse than it hurt mine. A dear lady at church brought out this truth: His heart hurts too, and this was not His perfect plan. Somehow, it makes a difference knowing that God did not cause the hurt to be cruel. He’s not JUST caring about my pain, but He is grieving betrayal Himself as well.

Is there a way out? Yes. His name is Jesus.

Remember Pippin? His words when hope seemed pointless:

I didn’t think it would end this way.

-“Return of the King”

But Gandalf knew better.

End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass. And then you see it… white shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.

-“Return of the King”

Death isn’t confined to the physical experience either. Death of expectations, of dreams, of relationships… these are all losses that must be grieved. But those “deaths” are not the end. And when we can finally see past the grief, there is indeed still hope.

The Song

Yesterday, she sat on the couch and sang, “He is the song for the suffewing…”

Tonight, I had to face my hurt in an unexpected way. It was supposed to be an evening of redemption, but instead, my past hugged me. Literally.

What are we supposed to do?

What if a place you love no longer feels safe? Where do you go?

Oh, little girl, that I could sit on the couch full of happiness like you are. You haven’t learned yet that there are people you can’t trust. You are loved. You’re not having to sift truth and lies, thank God.

Yet what you sang yesterday is still true, even if you really have no concept of what the words mean. He IS the song for the suffering. May I remember it.

Somewhere, there is a song. A beautiful song. Can I find it this Christmas?

Funeral Thoughts

The rocky dirt filling up the hole in the ground into which the coffin has been lowered… a father with his arm around his daughter as she grieves… a little girl that keeps getting out of the blanket in which her mother has wrapped her, so young that she probably won’t even remember the day that her family bid Granny goodbye… the cold wind… the shovel in my hands… privileged to be allowed to mourn with these people… knowing that I was special to the one now gone (regardless of the fact that I only saw her three times)… being grateful that I reconnected with her several months ago, but sad that there will be no future reunions this side of heaven… feeling like I found a family though, who loves me and accepts me… like perhaps this really is only the beginning… the concept we heard today about eternity already starting here… so much to process and where to go from here… how to stay more connected to these people who really are blood that flows true… what part does all this play in the story… maybe there’s redemption in the loss… and what is God really doing? 

Sunday Afternoon Ramblings

Literally, when it rains, it pours, and this year has held so much pouring that there may possibly be an emotional flood. When does it end? It’s like I’m in some bad movie, where one tragedy after another unfolds. Please tell me that there is redemption, because I know I’ve seen some movies where there is none, and it’s not a good kind of feeling at the end. Citizen Kane, Gone With the Wind, Pompeii, and Fiddler on the Roof- no redemption. None. I had so much hope at the beginning of the year. Was it all in vain? Possibly. 

I sit here with the lights on my Christmas tree, with the beautiful ornaments that were so much fun to make; a candle is burning on the coffee table, and I even have coffee, but wow, I am lonely. And sad. This is Thanksgiving week. I promise I do have things I’m thankful for, but sometimes, those things can be eclipsed by all that is wrong in our lives. And all that is so not right.

What do you do when you long for solitude and human companionship at the same time? When you think you could possibly contact your extended family to see if you could hang out with them, but you’re also afraid of overextending yourself and making yourself too tired for work the next day? And you know you should take a shower and make some food, but it would be tempting to see if you could run over to your pastor’s house for a while? When you literally don’t know what to do anymore or where to go? 

You could watch a movie, or you could actually read your Bible for a change. There’s that scrapbooking project that needs to be finished for a Christmas gift, or you could make a Hot Cocoa sign to hang over your coffee bar. You could pray? Or write. Or just sit and be lonely and hurting and cry. What is the best option? You’ve slept enough- only it wasn’t good sleep. What is the answer in times like these? You could go on a walk, only it’s freezing out there, and you have no desire to freeze. What is it you need? 

You didn’t take your medication last night, and you slept on the couch instead of your bed. The refrigerator looks awful, as in, what do the people in this house even eat? Well, I ate an entire box of mac ‘n cheese for lunch, but let’s not talk about that. That’s embarrassing. 

Somehow, I feel a little better, just getting it all out like that. Yes, life is pretty bad at the moment. But you’re gonna make it. Seriously, you are. You are loved, wanted, and so strong, Susan. You don’t have to swallow this whole week at once. Just one decision at a time. One baby step at a time. And just in case you didn’t know it, YOU ARE LOVED. Really. Truly. Seriously. Unconditionally. 

New Traditions, Part One

It was November, rainy and cold, with naked trees shivering. The year had been the worst of Stephanie’s life. Six thirty. She burrowed deep into the covers. If she didn’t get up soon, she’d be late for work. She groaned.

“Meow,” said Shakespeare the cat. She felt his little body jump onto the bed. She poked her head out from beneath the tangled covers. 

“What?” She snapped. “Okay, okay. I’m getting up.” 

The bathroom mirror revealed a young woman who looked shockingly much like something out of a horror movie at present. Her dark curls had frizzed and were sticking out in every direction. She’d been too tired to shower and change the night before, and her clothes were wrinkled and anything but fresh. Well, it was too late to try to shower now. She tried to brush her hair, but the frizzing just got worse. Defeated, she pulled it all into a messy bun, emphasis on the word messy. Shakespeare sat on the bathroom sink and watched. His eyes seemed disapproving this morning.

“I’m sorry, okay?” She said to the cat. “I’m exhausted. I’ll shower tonight when I get home.” Shakespeare meowed and began washing his face. “Hey. Don’t pretend like you have it all together. That’s not helpful at the moment.”

She wasn’t going to have time to make herself breakfast. So instead, she fed the cat and kissed the top of his furry head. “I’ll try to be home at a reasonable time tonight, buddy.” Then, she wrapped her scarf around her neck and grabbed her gloves. She’d stop for coffee on the way to work. 

It was a five minute walk from her apartment to the clothing boutique where she currently worked. The neighborhood cafe was one block away from her apartment. Convenient location. Or not. She mumbled to herself, something about not even wanting to know how much money she spent on coffee. 

Cafe mocha in hand, she unlocked the back door at work. She breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe she’d actually gotten there before her boss this morning. That would be different for a change. But no, Heather was already in her office. 

Stephanie hung up her coat in the break room and headed to the front to take care of the morning tasks before the boutique opened. Heather stepped outside her office to say good morning. 

“Steph,” she exclaimed, “no offense, but you look like something the cat dragged in!”

“Thanks,” said Stephanie.

“Everything okay?” Asked Heather. She sounded concerned. 

Stephanie could feel the tears coming. She tried to stop them, but it was too late for that. Heather gave her a hug.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know you’ve had a rough time, and with the holidays coming up, I’m sure it has to be difficult. Do you need the day off?”

Steph sniffled and wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “It doesn’t do any good for me to be home alone,” she said. “Then I think, and it makes everything worse.” 

“But you look exhausted,” Heather said. “Are you sure it wouldn’t be better for you to go home and take a nap? You can come back this afternoon if you feel up to it. Go. I’ve got things under control. It’s a Tuesday, and it’ll be slow. My office work can wait.” 

Stephanie decided it was pointless to argue. She really didn’t look great, and the thought of facing customers all day was overwhelming. And she really did need a nap. She couldn’t remember the last time she had actually slept well. Not since March. Of course, her world hadn’t fallen apart all at once. It had been happening slowly for years. March was simply the climax. The beginning of the obvious dysfunction.

Her parents announced their intention to divorce, after being married for nearly thirty years. Steph heard both sides of the story, but after continued conversations, with each parent tearing down the other one, Steph bowed out of their lives. She couldn’t side with one or the other. They were both acting childish. Although she hadn’t lived with them for nearly five years, this breaking up of their small family unit cut her to the core. In May, a month after the finalization of the divorce, Steph heard from extended family members that both her parents were seeing other people, and her strong sense of right and wrong was deeply injured. She tried confronting her parents about their choices, but they refused to listen, all the while trying to justify themselves. It was useless, and Steph let them know she loved them, but she could not and would not approve of their lifestyles. So, in two short months, the breaking of their family was complete. Stephanie was shattered.

In July, the guy she had been dating broke up with her for no apparent reason, until she found out weeks after the breakup, that he was dating another girl. Her trust evaporated. And her mental health spiraled into a deep depression. Three of her core relationships had ended, all in four short months. She cried out to God, but there was only silence. 

In September, Stephanie decided it was time for a change, and she moved to the city, leaving the small town where she had lived all her life. It felt like a fresh start, but it was overwhelming in her current state, finding a new job, a new church, a new apartment, and forming new relationships. Thank God for Shakespeare. At least he was something familiar in a place totally unfamiliar. 

Back at the apartment, Stephanie let water run into the tub. A shower was too much work, but perhaps a bath would help her relax. Shakespeare was a little confused when the opening of the apartment door disturbed him from his morning nap, but he was happy to see her nonetheless. If only people were more like cats, she thought as she sank into the warm water. Cats were so easy to get along with, so chill. 

The bath and the nap did wonders, as did some actual food. Heather texted her to tell her that business was really slow, and to go ahead and take the whole day off. Unsure what to do with herself all day, she decided to take a walk, and ended up at the church she had been attending since her move to the city. 

It was most likely locked, she told herself, but she tried the door anyway. The wind was brisk, and it would feel good to sit down for a little. Maybe she’d even talk to God. It was worth a try. Christmas was coming, and didn’t people say that Christmas was the season for miracles? She doubted that there were more miracles at Christmas than the rest of the year; Christmas probably just made people more aware of them. At any rate, she could use a miracle. Or two or three, for that matter. 

The door opened. Stephanie wandered into the sanctuary and sat in the silence. Silence. Why was God so silent? Silent through her childhood, silent through the recent upheaval of her life, just silent. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe in God. She did. But when she spoke to him, why did He choose not to answer? During her parents’ divorce, she had prayed fervently, and God seemingly did nothing. 

She bowed her head to pray, but no words came to her mind. Where did one even start? She saw a church bulletin from the previous Sunday lying on the bench beside her. The verse on the front was Psalm 37:4. “Delight yourself also in the LORD, And He shall give you the desires of your heart.” (NKJV) It was a verse that failed to resonate. If God actually had her best interests at heart, why was her life such a complete mess? 

She heard footsteps enter the sanctuary and looked up. It was Kyle, the youth pastor. He saw her and walked in her direction.

“Can I help you?” He asked. “It’s Stephanie, right?”

She rose to shake his hand. “Yes, it’s Stephanie. I was just out for a walk and ended up here.”

He smiled. “The house of the Lord is always a good place to end up. I came to work on the Advent activities for the youth group. But it can wait. I’ve been wanting to speak with you, to see if you need anything or how the church can be a blessing for you. You’re new to the area, aren’t you?”

She nodded. “I’ve been here for two months.”

“Not to pry,” he said, “but I’ve noticed you seem troubled when you come to church. And sad. Are you okay?”

She hesitated. Nobody knew her story in the city yet except Heather. And that was only because Steph worked for her. Kyle noticed the hesitation.

“If you’d rather not talk about it, I understand,” he said. “But I know from personal experience that sometimes processing things out loud can be helpful. And my job description is to listen.”

Stephanie relented, and they sat down on the bench. If she didn’t get it all out soon, it was going to eat her up inside. She began to talk. It all came out- the  divorce, the breakup, the betrayals, the depression and hopelessness, the silence of God through it all. And Kyle listened. And handed her a tissue box.

When she had finished, she sat silent, tearing her tissue into miniscule pieces. “I’m sorry,” Kyle said. “I’m really sorry you’ve had to walk this road. It absolutely sucks.”

“What do I do?” She asked.

He reached out and touched her hand. “Let God love you.”

“What?”

He handed her another tissue. “You let God love you. Your trust in people has been shattered into a million pieces, and it sounds like your trust in God’s goodness has also been shaken. Let Him love you and show you that He can be trusted.”

“How?”

“Stop trying so hard. Just be who you are, and let God tell you who you are to Him. You’re allowed to rest. You’re allowed to grieve. You’re even allowed to cry. This conversation was a beginning, and I’m proud of you for opening up.”

“Thank you for listening,” she said as she rose to go. “I should probably head home before it gets dark.”

He smiled. “Too late. It is dark.”

“What? How long have I been here?”

“Only about three hours. Don’t worry; I’ll drive you home. But if you don’t have supper plans, I’ll take you over to my parents’ house first. They’re used to me bringing people over, and Mom always makes extra food. She’s a sweetheart, my mom is, and I’d love for you to meet her.”

Stephanie gave in. She was starved for some real family time, and it wasn’t every day that she ate a good supper. In fact, the amount of fast food she had consumed in the past few months was shocking even to herself. 

Kyle’s parents were wonderful, as was his sister, who seemed about Stephanie’s age. The chicken pot pie was beyond decadent, and the house had a cozy feel. The tree was already up and decorated, even though it was only the week before Thanksgiving. After dinner, when they were seated in the living room, Mrs. Wilson brought out pieces of pumpkin cake and Ashley jumped up to make some coffee. 

“This is so cozy,” Steph said in an aside to Kyle, who had seated himself on the sofa next to her.

He smiled. “It is.”

Ashley overheard the snippet of conversation as she carried two coffee cups over to the sofa. “Do you decorate for Christmas?”

“Usually,” Steph answered. “Although I haven’t done anything yet this year. I thought maybe I’d skip it, but this atmosphere makes me want to decorate after all.”

“I’d love to come help you,” Ashley said, then she laughed. “You must excuse me. I have a habit of inviting myself to other people’s houses. I’m sorry.”

“I’d actually like some help,” Steph said gratefully. “I’m alone for Christmas this year and I need to find some new traditions. The old ones won’t work anymore.”

“Well, I am the mastermind of Christmas traditions,” Ashley said. “Name a day and Kyle and I will be there. Ooops. I mean Kyle will come along if you’re okay with that.”

“Of course,” Steph answered. “I’m afraid we’ll have to start from scratch though. I gave my old Christmas decorations to my roommate back home, rather than dragging them along when I moved.” 

Ashley giggled with delight. “That’s all the better! I never get to start from scratch around here, because Mom has kept every Christmas decoration since Kyle and I were babies.”

“Does Saturday work?” Asked Steph. Kyle and Ashley nodded.

“We’ll be there,” Kyle said. “I’ll bring the truck, cause knowing Ashley, we’re going to need it.”

***

Saturday morning, Stephanie was up bright and early. Shakespeare was confused. “I’m getting ready for Christmas today, buddy,” she explained. “And I’m not even going to do it by myself. No offense to you, but you are just a cat, and sometimes I need humans as well.”

Shakespeare purred and rubbed up against her leg. “Pretty sure you would hold off on the purring if you actually knew what I said,” she told him, reaching down to pet his fuzzy head. He purred louder. “Yeah. Well, you just go ahead and interpret that however you like. Now, what shall I wear?”

For the first time in months, Stephanie actually felt like making an effort on her appearance. She worked at a clothing boutique, so she usually had no option to appear frumpy, but her heart hadn’t been in it. Now, she suddenly cared. Was it Kyle? She pushed the thought down into her toes and turned to Shakespeare. “He’s just being nice,” she told the cat. “It was Ashley who volunteered him to come along today.”

Shakespeare sneezed.

“You are most unhelpful,” she said. “Go eat your breakfast while I get changed.” 

The doorbell rang at precisely eight o’clock. Stephanie welcomed the brother and sister team inside. Shakespeare jumped on top of the fridge. 

“It’s okay, buddy,” she told the cat. “You can come say hello.” Shakespeare didn’t move. 

Kyle laughed. “I take it he’s not used to visitors?” 

“Nope. You two are the first people I’ve had here since I moved. He’s not a social cat, but he might warm up later on.” 

Ashley was gazing around the apartment in delight. “This is so cute,” She said. “With a little help, we can have this place looking as magical as it deserves to. Now, first things first. We’re going to find a tree!”

“Not so fast,” Kyle replied. “Coffee first. There’s a little cafe that I’m pretty sure Stephanie hasn’t discovered yet. We’ll stop there first.”

The three piled into the truck, and for the first time since the move, Steph felt a little rush of excitement and adventure. When was the last time she had done something fun? Kyle and Ashley chatted about insignificant nothings as they drove, and it put Stephanie at ease. They weren’t excluding her from the conversation, but neither were they forcing her to talk. When they pulled up in front of the cafe, Steph literally let out a little squeal of delight.

It was a tiny building sandwiched between two large office buildings, and it looked very out of place. Nanette’s, it was called, according to the sign that hung over the door, and it looked precisely like a gingerbread house. Lights were dangling from the roof and framing the windows and the door.

Kyle smiled at her reaction. “Wait til you see the inside,” he said, helping her out of the truck. He took her arm to walk inside, and Stephanie blushed. It was such an old-fashioned gesture, and it warmed her heart. Ashley ran in front of them to open the door. She bowed.

“Announcing the Duke and Duchess,” she giggled as they walked through the door. 

“She’s incorrigible,” Kyle whispered to Steph.

“Thank you, brother dear,” Ashley replied. “I heard that.” Stephanie laughed. They were so incredibly refreshing. 

The inside of the shop did not disappoint. The tables were made of tree stumps and the wooden chairs were painted a bright green. It reminded Steph of a storybook. Christmas trees literally lined every wall, with only space between for the windows. Gingerbread men, popcorn strings, and real orange slices adorned the branches. She had never seen anything like it. 

The variety of coffees was overwhelming, although Steph was so busy admiring the place, she had only just glanced at the menu. “Do you have a preference?” Kyle asked. “Because if you don’t, I have the perfect recommendation.”

Kyle ordered peppermint mochas for them all, along with a plate of gingerbread men. They sat down at one of the stump tables, and Ashley pulled out a camera. “Here’s to the first of Steph’s new Christmas traditions,” she said, snapping a picture of Kyle and Stephanie. 

When their drinks were brought out, Steph squealed again. Each mug had a mountain of whipped topping and a real peppermint stick in it. But the crowning touch was the gingerbread man that was drawn on the whipped topping with chocolate syrup. It was perfect, and surrounded by twinkling Christmas trees, holding a warm drink, in the best of company, Stephanie felt God’s whisper, “I love you, Steph.” 

The next stop was the mall. Ashley had wanted to get a real tree, but Kyle and Stephanie convinced her that it was too early in the season for that, and the tree would likely be dead by Christmas. So a fake tree it was. They debated long and hard over that tree. Steph thought something small, but Kyle insisted that he was going to buy it for her, therefore, it needed to be something substantial. Ashley thought it should be a fat, short one, but Kyle thought it should be as tall as possible. Eventually, they settled on a six foot tree, but very full, with fake snow on the branches. Stephanie told them they were being too extravagant, but they would have none of her frugal arguments.

“How do you want to decorate it?” was Ashley’s question. 

“Exactly like the ones at Nanette’s,” replied Stephanie. So to the grocery store they went, picking up ingredients for gingerbread cookies, boxes of microwave popcorn, and a box of oranges. It was early afternoon by the time they got back to Stephanie’s apartment, and then the tree needed to be set up. Ashley put in a Christmas movie while Kyle microwaved the popcorn and Stephanie dug out some string. Just about the time Stephanie was considering whether she should order a pizza, Mrs. Wilson showed up at the apartment with a crock pot full of chili. 

Over bowls of chili, the three decided that the rest of the decorating was going to have to wait for another day. It was getting late, and Kyle had prep work he needed to do for the service in the morning. Ashley was washing up the dishes while Steph and Kyle cleaned up the living room, when Kyle handed Stephanie a small box. 

“Here’s the first ornament for your tree,” he said. It was a coffee cup, complete with gingerbread man and peppermint stick, and it said “Nanette’s” across the bottom. Happy tears filled Stephanie’s eyes as she thanked him.

“I’m beginning to think there can be redemption for this year after all,” she told him. Shakespeare sneezed from the top of the fridge. 

***

The Silent Love of Jesus

“How does… Jesus show his love for us and others?” This was a question we were supposed to think about for Sunday School. What if you happen to be in a season, like me, when it seems like Jesus is silent and I don’t feel like praying? How does Jesus show He loves me?

I showed up at my friend’s house for a sleepover, in my pajamas with tear stains on my face. Then I proceeded to sit on her couch and cry. When your world has been turned upside down and inside out, and you know you need to forgive and let go, but you are still so very, very hurt and angry, what else can you do?

When you sit in a Sunday School class and cry… When your roommate gets home to find you an emotional mess… When you pray in your car and there is no answer… How does Jesus love?

He is silent. Yes. I feel that. But I have felt His love through His people nevertheless.