In Which Our Faith Is Strengthened by Unexpected Visitors

Read In Which Our Faith Is Strengthened by a Friend first.

* * *

Throughout Saturday afternoon, I kept checking the two fifties to make sure they hadn’t disappeared. Every time, they were still there. Every time, I was amazed all over again.

Several hours after the mail came, an unfamiliar car pulled in the drive. Jenica bolted for the door, curiosity flapping in the breeze behind her, followed by Tarica. Linford went after them, more slowly.

I was putting some laundry away upstairs, and by the time I peeked out a window, the car was already empty. Probably Jehovah’s Witnesses, I thought. Whoever had come was standing on the porch out of my sight. I gave in and went downstairs.

Linford met me on my way to the door. “You need to come out here,” he said, an odd look on his face.

I stepped outside and saw the most unexpected people on our porch. Remember the doctor that took x-rays of Tarica’s elbow? I called him “almost a friend.” Well, I was wrong. It takes more than almost-friendship to show up on a Saturday afternoon with what they did.

I looked from Dr. Chris and his wife, April, to the basket on the porch. The girls were already rummaging through it, pulling out treasures and exclaiming over them. The basket held chips, granola bars, travel games, a lap desk with coloring pages, crayons, fruit snacks, and caramel popcorn.

“It’s for your trips to and from Pittsburgh.” Dr. Chris pulled an envelope out of the basket and handed it to me.

I tucked it under my arm and groped for words of thanks. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: It’s humbling to receive. We don’t deserve such generosity, such thoughtfulness, and if I cry at all these days, it is tears of incredulous joy.

We thanked them. We talked, of epilepsy, of Christmas. We thanked them again. They left.

“I can’t believe they did this,” I said to Linford as we looked over the basket.

“What will you do with it?” he asked.

“Save it. For Pittsburgh,” I said. “It’s why it was given, and I want to honor that.”

Back in my kitchen, I remembered the envelope still tucked under my arm. When I pulled it out, I noticed its curious fatness. I tore it open and found a Christmas card. I opened the card and—

“Linford,” I said, “you need to see this.”

The card held $200 in cash and a $50 gift card for Sheetz, a common gas station in our area.

I swallowed hard. My chest felt constricted, as if the breath had been slammed out of me. “I can’t believe this,” I whispered around the tightness.

Above all that we ask or think. 

I groped for words of thanks, knowing it’s not enough, knowing, too, that He understands.

* * *

I tell you this story because I don’t want to forget it. Sometime in the future, when I feel like God is ignoring our distress, when the darkness is thick on every side, when it seems as if epilepsy has swallowed us whole—I want to come back and read this story of God’s extravagant provision.

If He could do it once, He can do it again.

He will do it again.

Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.

In Which Our Faith Is Strengthened by a Friend

Read In Which Our Faith Is Strengthened by a Stranger first.

* * *

When I went through the mail this past Saturday, I was pleased to see a package from a writer friend of mine. I had recently edited her latest project, an informal compilation of stories, and she had promised to send me a copy when it was completed.

As usual, she had included other interesting pieces and the latest issue of the magazine she edits; getting a package from her is as much fun as Christmas. All this stuff to read when I should have been doing the dishes—it was a temptation worth yielding to, so I did. Because the words absorbed my attention, I didn’t see the money until I was hastily scrambling the papers together before going back to my pots and pans. Two bills fluttered out of the stack onto the table.

I froze. Blinked. Sure enough, they were still there. Two fifties. One hundred dollars.

God had covered the remaining $99.24.

Wherefore didst thou doubt, Stephanie? 

The money, my friend said, was payment for the editing I did for her in the last six months or so.

The timing, I thought, was God’s alone.

* * *

I sat, ignoring the dishes, holding the money, trembling inside.

My friend had included an accounting of the projects I had edited for her and the payment for each. Twenty dollars for this one, twenty-five for that one, and so on, for a total of ninety-five dollars. She had then added five dollars, marked it “Christmas gift,” and made it one hundred dollars even.

Her generosity had turned payment for services rendered into a miracle. Had she given only what she owed me, it would have been $4.24 short of our need. Details, insignificant and inconsequential, perhaps—after all, we could afford to pay $4.24 toward a medical bill—but my God is the King of Insignificant Details, and nothing is too small for His attention.

It shook me to my core.

Generosity begats generosity, and we had already been so blessed. Perhaps I could use some of this money to buy birthday gifts (very belated or very early, depending on how you looked at it) for my sisters. Both of them had frequently helped us with their time and resources during the last year. In February, one of them was taking off work for the entire ten days Tarica would be in the hospital so she would be available, either to help my mom take care of Micah or else to come out to Pittsburgh and assist me with Tarica.

It humbled me to always be the recipient. Perhaps I could find a special gift for them, an inadequate but heartfelt expression of my gratitude. I had wanted to buy them birthday gifts earlier in the year, but money for such extras had been and would continue to be scarce. But this—I could not hoard this generosity. Surely we could spare a little. I’d see what Linford said about it.

I returned to my dishes, still astounded by God’s attention to detail.

But the King of Insignificant Details is also King of Exceeding Abundantly, and He wasn’t finished.

Come back tomorrow for the next installment of grace.

In Which Our Faith Is Strengthened by a Stranger

“Did you pay that bloodwork bill?” Linford asked.

“No, not yet,” I said, resisting the urge to make a face. Or maybe I did make a face. Sometimes I don’t resist the urge.

Linford normally paid the bills, an arrangement that suited me. Bookkeeping bored me enough that I tended to put it off, and procrastination and bill paying do not peacefully coexist. But medical bills required at least one phone call to negotiate our self-pay discount. Linford was on the road all day with his job as an appliance repairman, in and out of cell service, in and out of customers’ homes. Since he could not easily make the calls during business hours, the responsibility became reluctantly mine.

“Just put it on a credit card,” Linford said. “I’ll figure something out by the time the bill is due.”

We had grown accustomed to bloodwork bills for two and three hundred dollars. Tarica’s anti-epilepsy drugs required periodic blood tests to ensure that the drugs were not damaging her body. But Tarica had recently been put on Depakote, which required more extensive testing. This last bill of $856.05 had dropped both our jaws.

The discount would bring it to $599.24. Not much, compared to a hospital stay, but we didn’t have an extra $600 sitting in the checking account. We aren’t poor—anyone with enough food to eat, enough clothes to wear, and a solid roof overhead has abundant wealth. What we don’t have is a lot of extra cash. However, each month we paid our credit card balances in full, and somehow, surprisingly, we always had enough to cover the additional medical bills.

Once more, we would charge it in faith.

* * *

Linford looked at his paperwork before jumping out of his truck. This job was an LG dishwasher that wasn’t draining. He grabbed his tool bag and clipboard and followed the sidewalk curving up to the rancher’s recessed front door. A fluffy white dog rushed at him across the lawn, yapping hysterically.

A grey-haired man in his 60s or 70s came to the door. He stooped to hush the dog, saying as he straightened, “I don’t want my wife to wake up.”

Wife? Linford looked around and saw a woman sleeping in a hospital bed in the middle of the living room.

“She has Alzheimer’s,” the homeowner, whose name was Gregory, said as he led the way to the kitchen. “Diagnosed sixteen years ago, and she’s been dying one cell at a time the last six.” His voice was matter-of-fact in the manner of one who has long ago stopped looking for pity.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Linford said. “May God bless you as you care for her.”

The dishwasher was complicated. Linford had to uninstall it to reach the drain pump, and as he worked, the two men talked. A younger woman and her daughter stopped by briefly. After they left, Gregory said, “That was my daughter-in-law. Between her and my other daughter-in-law, there is a crisis every day, a flat tire, a headache, and I tell them to calm down, it’s not Alzheimer’s, it’s not cancer.” He paused before explaining. “Two years ago, I had cancer, the scariest kind, and I should be dead. But the Lord healed me, and here I am.”

“I needed to hear this right now,” Linford said as he did something unexplainable in the guts of the dishwasher. “Our five-year-old daughter has epilepsy. Her seizures aren’t controlled by medication, and she might be going for brain surgery in the future.” He looked up at Gregory standing by the kitchen counter. “It’s good to know that someone else is facing difficulties with courage.”

The job took nearly three-quarters of an hour. The two of them continued talking, exchanging pieces of their lives as strangers do when thrown together in close quarters. When the dishwasher was finally reinstalled, it hummed and drained as a well-behaved dishwasher should. Linford filled out the paperwork and handed the bill to Gregory.

When Gregory returned to the kitchen, he held a check and a bank envelope in his hand. He held out both to Linford. “Jesus of Nazareth is a healer. I feel like I’m supposed to give this to you.”

Linford looked at the envelope, at the money inside it, and said, “This is not why I told you my story.”

“I know it isn’t. Take it and use it and God bless you.”

Back in his truck, Linford pulled out the money and counted the bills unsteadily. Twenty-five twenties. Five hundred dollars.

Through the hands of a stranger, the Lord had provided.

* * *

This gift left $99.24 for us to cover. We could do it.

Except the windows of heaven were still flung open. God wasn’t yet finished pouring out His grace.

I’ll tell you more tomorrow.

What Does Hope Look Like?

Hope, Emily Dickinson said, is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.

And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –


I think she might be right. When my hope flutters into sight, it looks remarkably like the Carolina wren that sat on my wind chime yesterday and bubbled a song to me through my kitchen window. That wren looked too fat to fly and too ordinary to be beautiful, but nobody had told it this—so it flicked its tail and sang and flew, so beautiful it made my heart hurt.

bird-486341_1280 w text

Hope makes my heart hurt. My hope flies and soars, its song filling my sky, but I hurt with the song because I fear the day I will learn my hope is too fat to fly. I fear the loss of this buoyant hope.

The mother of another little girl with seizures told me it is easier to not hope. Don’t expect miracles from the latest drug. Don’t get too excited over one or two seizure-free days. Just take one day at a time, and don’t expend too much energy in an unknown future.

She has had years of seizures to learn this, and I see why she said it. Far better to live the day we are given than to yearn for a seizure-free someday at the expense of enjoying today. At the expense, too, of falling apart when hope does not materialize into reality.

But my hope will not die. As long as options still exist, as long as there is something we haven’t tried, my hope insists on singing. But as long as there is hope, there is also fear, because what if—what if?—my hopes are crushed? What if Tarica does not qualify for brain surgery? What if the seizure focus is in an inoperable part of her brain? What if the surgery is not successful?

What if I fall apart?

Against the odds, against my better knowledge, I hope my little girl has a seizure-free future. And now, more than ever, hope sings loud. The day of revelation moves inexorably closer.

We have a date for her hospital stay. For ten days in the beginning of the February, Tarica will undergo an unrelenting series of capital-letter tests, which will decide whether or not she qualifies for brain surgery.

Hope looks as foolish as a baby King sleeping in a manger. But without that King, hope is foolish and feeble and as short-lived as a wren song. There is earthly hope, the hopes for a sunny day, a medical miracle, a good marriage, a better job—the feathered, nomadic hopes we all have. And then there is divine Hope, which is the King Himself. Joel 3:16 says, “The Lord will be the hope of his people.”

I cannot help but hope for my daughter, even if it means I might be setting myself up for a shattering. My King sees each sparrow fall, so I’m going to trust that if my hope plummets songless from the sky, He will see and will tend to my wounds.

He is the only Eternal Hope in a world of fragile, feathered ones.

The Little Brown Church

Nearly all my childhood Thanksgivings were spent at my paternal grandmother’s house, four hours north of us and across a state line. My husband and I continued the tradition after we were married and took our children up to see their great-grandmother every year. She passed away over two years ago, and it still doesn’t feel right to eat our turkey elsewhere.

The following account was written soon after her death. If your grandmother is still alive and you see her this Christmas season, hug her. You never know when it’s the last time.

* * *

My grandmother died on the day I introduced my daughter Jenica to needlepoint.

I did not notice this coincidence, not even a few days later while standing in Grandma’s living room, examining the dozens of needlepoint buildings—houses, churches, shops, a covered bridge, even a gazebo—intricately stitched and assembled by my grandmother. All the grandchildren were supposed to select one of these treasures as a keepsake. I picked up my childhood favorite: a little brown church with a music box that played “Little Brown Church in the Vale.”

My daughter’s face reflected her awe. “Play it again, Mommy.” She hummed, off-key, to the tinkling notes, cautious fingers touching the fuzzy yarn roof, a dusty, slightly shabby church from years spent long on Grandma’s shelf.

“Did Great-Grandma make this all by herself?” Jenica asked.

“Yes, she did, a long time ago,” I said. “I remember this church when I wasn’t much older than you. It was my favorite.”


“I have no idea.” I smiled. “Why is your pink blanket your favorite?”

She giggled, knowing there was no answer to that question. Just because.

“We’ll take this church home and put it in a special place, where we can remember Great-Grandma when we see it.” I blinked away unexpected tears, looking at the room around me, full of a lifetime’s worth, yet strangely empty.

Why do I never value what I have until it is gone? I cradled the feather-weight of the little brown needlepoint church, wishing I could tell Grandma one more time that I love her.

* * *

Today, I study my daughter’s face, bent over her needlepoint stitches, creased with concentration. She looks up as I set the little brown church on the table beside her. “I want to show you something, Jenica.”

“Look what I just realized.” I turn the back of the church toward her, running my fingers over the yarn, more simply stitched than the front and sides. “Do you see these stitches?” She nods. “Now, look at your stitches. What do you see?”

Little Brown Church 020

She looks from the beautiful complexity of the church building to the simple flower design in her square of canvas. Her face lights up. “Great-Grandma did needlepoint, too, just like me.”

“Isn’t that special?” I wind the church’s music box, the tune weaving a musical bridge across the generations.

“I’m glad we have this church,” Jenica says, her eyes serious. “When we look at my needlepoint and when we look at Great-Grandma’s needlepoint, we can remember her and cry a little in our hearts because she died.”

“We’ll smile, too,” I say, “when we remember.”

She bends her head and spins another stitch in her flower, and the little brown church sings.

Why I Need to Stop Trying Harder

I made some huge mistakes in a relationship recently. I completely blew it, I did, blew it so big and so hard that the explosion covered my head and my face in sticky regret. I will be picking it out of my hair for weeks to come.

In the aftermath, I said, “I will try harder to be the woman I should be.”

But that night I tossed and turned until long after midnight, restless with the knowledge that I had been trying—and look where it got me. Oh, maybe I wasn’t trying as hard as I should have been. I had gotten tired and discouraged and careless. I had said and done things I shouldn’t have.

Did this mean I should try harder? Is that the best way to repair the broken parts of me?

I have spent my life trying harder. Trying to have more faith, more trust, more submission. Trying to be more faithful and loving and joyful. Trying to produce more spiritual fruit. Trying harder to please God and serve others.

But I always end up covered in regret. I mess it up over and over.

What is wrong with me?

Why does the fruit of the Spirit so often dangle tantalizingly out of my reach?

I sat with my Bible and my questions for a long time, carried my questions around as I filled the washer and gave a wheezy little man a nebulizer treatment, went back to my Bible again, and after a while, my questions began to turn into answers. None of the answers are new to me; some of the verses are embarrassingly familiar. But God’s Word takes on new meaning for me in the context of a spiritual struggle.

This fruit that I want, the love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance that elude me too often? It’s called the fruit of the Spirit. Not the fruit of Stephanie. It is the fruit produced in the life of the believer by the Spirit of God.

I know this. Why do I try to manufacture the fruit by my own power?

“For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). This verse flies in the face of my frequent declarations: “I will do better.” I cannot do better. “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). When it comes to spiritual self-improvement—well, there is no such thing as spiritual self-improvement. God is the one who makes me holy and acceptable in His sight.

I know this. Why do I try so hard to improve on my own?

But I’ve got to do something. If I can’t make myself good enough, if I cannot produce the love and joy of a Christian on my own, what should I be doing?

Part of me hates the answer, because it’s so…so humbling. It feels far more honorable to climb the tree after the fruit all by myself. I feel more productive climbing the tree—even if I never find any fruit—because I’m working so hard at it.

This is what I must do: I need to yield. Instead of chasing after fruit, I need to run to God and fall at His feet. I need to surrender, give up my need to be in control of the fruit basket. It’s not my job to produce the fruit, but it is my job to serve the One Who will cultivate a more worthy crop in my heart than any efforts of mine could ever rake together.

Romans 6:21 & 22 says it far better I can: “What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death. But now being made free from sin, and become servants of God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.” (emphasis mine—and please don’t skim the verses, because they are more important than anything I’m saying here)

Instead of trying to love, I need to learn to know the God of love more fully—and His love will then bloom in my heart.

Instead of trying to grow more faith, I need to draw closer to my Father—and He will water my faith.

Instead of trying to exert more self-control over my unruly heart, I need to yield everything to Christ—and He will prune and shape my heart.

I’ve been trying to fertilize the garden when I should have been cultivating my relationship with the Gardener.

Don’t take me wrong. There are many things to do in the kingdom of God. I can’t sit around with a dreamy smile, waiting for God to make me more long-suffering. Spiritual fruit is produced as I live my life, and the work God gives me is often that which helps me to be more fruitful.

In John 15:4, Jesus said, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.” (emphasis mine)

I need to stop trying so hard to be a woman of God.

I need, instead, to abide in Christ and let His Spirit produce the fruit I long to see.

Seek Ye First…a Sign?

Disclaimer: I hesitated to post this because of the ways it could be misunderstood. I am simply telling a story about one attempt of mine to seek God’s will. I would not dare to prescribe the lessons I learned to anyone else, nor would I declare that God is limited in the ways He can speak to us. Just as a wise parent relates to each child according to the child’s needs, so God relates to each of us differently, in ways that will best help us grow.

* * *

I hate drugs.

Yes, I know. I said that before. Forgive me for repeating myself.

When we came home from the hospital in March after receiving the epilepsy diagnosis, we brought back a wildcat, not a daughter. Linford carried Tarica inside and set her down, and she immediately began staggering around in wild circles, kitchen, dining room, playroom, living room, over and over again. She wore a fixed smile that, paired with her empty eyes, gave me the shivers.

Tarica had changed, and I knew what to blame: the drugs.

I began researching alternatives, specifically the ketogenic diet. What I learned discouraged me. Tarica was the champion of picky eaters, and this diet consisted of many foods she would refuse to eat.

But still. What if? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to take her off drugs?

And then Gina emailed me about a giveaway happening over at Michelle Beachy’s blog. Michelle’s cousin Esther Yoder had just published a cookbook called Nourish. All the recipes in the cookbook were based on the low glycemic index diet, a modified and less strict version of the ketogenic diet, which Esther had used as a form of seizure control for her daughter.

I read the giveaway post. It contained the story of another four-year-old girl who had seizures, although she had absence seizures instead of complex partials like Tarica. Absence seizures are brief losses of consciousness, usually lasting only a few seconds and sometimes occurring hundreds of times a day. It’s a type of childhood epilepsy and almost always outgrown, but imagine the restrictions a child would have to endure if she might randomly lose consciousness at any time. Schooling is also difficult for children with absence seizures because they miss so much as their awareness comes and goes.

Like Tarica, this little girl’s personality had changed on the drugs. In addition, the medications were not preventing her from seizing. Their neurologist suggested that Esther put her daughter on the low glycemic index diet. Within a year, the little girl was seizure- and medication-free. Esther then compiled all the recipes she had developed into a cookbook that could be used to help parents of other children with epilepsy.

Parents like…me.

At first I thought, No way, not now. It’s too complicated, too soon. We’re still recovering from the hospital stay, still adjusting to the diagnosis.

And then I remembered the gestational diabetes I had had during most of my pregnancy with Micah. What if God had allowed me to be diabetic to prepare me for a bigger dietary challenge?

But what about Tarica’s pickiness?

But nothing is impossible with God.

But would God speak through a giveaway?

I had to know. The doctors were not recommending the diet for Tarica, and at that time the drugs were controlling her seizures. But maybe if I knew, maybe if God would give me A Sign, then I could push to put Tarica on the diet. All I needed was enough faith, and God would heed my prayers.

I entered the giveaway. When another giveaway for the same cookbook popped up online, I entered that one, too. If I won, it would be a sign that the diet was right for us. If I didn’t, then the diet wasn’t for us.

But something didn’t feel right about it, and when Gina started making cautious noises of “don’t rush it” and “give yourself time” and “surrender,” I alternated between bristling and wincing. All I wanted was to know, and yet—was this the best way to discover God’s will, to force God’s hand with a randomly generated number? But didn’t Jesus say “Ask, and it shall be given you”? What was wrong with asking?

I prayed. I considered the words of my friend. I considered the words of my Lord. I prayed some more.

A day or two before the results of the first giveaway were announced, I realized two painful truths about me.

First, I was assuming too much responsibility. What was I going to do—arrive at the doctor’s office and announce that God had told me to put Tarica on the ketogenic diet? What about my husband’s opinion and wishes? I was trying to make family decisions that weren’t mine alone to make. I hadn’t even consulted my husband in this latest scheme. God will not bless choices made outside His already revealed will, and this I knew from His Word: I am to submit to my husband.

Second, I had a problem with my patience, specifically that I had none. I wanted answers now. I wanted to know which direction to take. We could count our time with epilepsy in days, not months or years, and still I had to know now. “Be still,” God says. “Wait. Know that I am God.” Instead I wanted most, not to know God, but to know where and how and when.

I surrendered. I told God, “No matter what happens with the giveaway, help me not to run ahead of You. Reveal Your will as You see fit, not according to my plans and schemes.”

I won neither giveaway, and I felt an enormous sense of relief. It would have been nice to own a copy, yes, but I was done finding divine direction in whether or not a certain cookbook belonged to me.

That surrender was the first of many, as the seizures returned in July and we began a series of drug adjustments and changes. Through it all, I tried to remember the lessons I had learned back in March: Don’t run ahead of God. Wait. Pray. Listen to others, and pray some more.

About a month after the seizures returned, we had guests over for Sunday dinner. That afternoon, one of the guests handed me a gift bag and said, “I don’t know if you heard of this, but I thought you might be interested in it.”

I opened the bag and pulled out Nourish.

A Sign? Oh, yes. Absolutely. A Sign of God’s love. Nothing more.

But it was everything I needed.

Canning with Stevia–and a Mis-snake

The snake pushed me over the edge.

Before the snake appeared, I was already teetering on the edge—the edge of what? I wasn’t sure, but recent events had conspired against me. I felt overwhelmed and emotionally fragile, which is probably why that snake made me laugh—a shrill, hysterical laugh—as I clutched my weapon.

It all began two days earlier—no, the week before, actually, when Micah, my three-month-old son, came down with bronchiolitus. In August. That was the same week Jenica started first grade at Lighthouse Christian School, a thirty-minute drive from our house. Maybe other mothers can adjust tidily to the school schedule, and maybe other first graders can fit into their new world seamlessly, but not us. It was exciting, and it was terrible.

But I had peaches to pick up at Valley View Fruit Farm, ordered in a pre-school, pre-bronchiolitus fervor, and as I heaved the fragrant baskets into our garage, I considered my ways and found them unwise. What was I thinking, to order so many? Now I had to can them—I picked up a peach and tested its firmness—soon.

So, two days before the snake, I assembled canning supplies and peaches in my small kitchen. I consulted Home Joys on how much stevia to use in the syrup. “2 tsp. per gallon,” I wrote on a scrap of paper as Tarica, my preschooler, leaned on me, coughing. She was underfoot every day without her big sister to entertain her.

I started peeling peaches. Micah cried, hungry, wheezy. Tarica complained, bored, wheezy. The day stretched, endless, napless for this mother.

I hustled the children off to bed after lunch and tackled the peaches with desperate vigor. But before long, Tarica’s spasmodic coughing turned into violent retching, followed by a howl. I leaped for the stairs. Tarica sat in her bed, vomit covering her, the bed, the pillow. I abandoned the peaches for laundry duty and childcare.

Perhaps it was sometime in there, between the demands of a sick daughter and a nursing baby, that I made my mistake. Not that I noticed my miscalculation—oh, no, not at all. I forged relentlessly on with my canning. Late that evening, I pulled the last of fifty quarts out of the canner and collapsed into bed, ignoring the horrific mess of my kitchen. I would deal with it tomorrow.

In the morning light, my kitchen still looked like an unslayable dragon, but my heart was light. I had done it, all by myself, despite illness and a baby, despite weariness, and only two jars had not sealed. This lightness remained with me until that evening, when I pulled one of the unsealed jars out of the fridge for our supper. As I placed it on the table and sat down, Jenica asked, “Are those the peaches you put in my lunch today? Because they were way, way too sweet.”

We joined hands as a family and bowed our heads for prayer—but I forgot to pray. I was transfixed by Jenica’s words, and suddenly, I knew. I knew the irrevocable truth about my hard-earned peaches.

Prayer finished, I clasped my head in my freed hands and moaned. My family looked at me, alarmed. “I made a terrible mistake,” I said. “I put too much sweetener in the peaches yesterday.”

“How much is too much?” my husband asked.

“I was supposed to use two teaspoons of stevia per gallon. I just realized I used two teaspoons per quart. Four times too much. I can’t believe this.”

* * *

I still couldn’t believe it the following morning. The peaches were nearly inedible, with a strong stevia aftertaste. What was I going to do—can unsweetened peaches and serve them with the sweet ones? More canning? It was unthinkable, but throwing fifty quarts of peaches away was equally unthinkable.

I felt sick and distracted over my mistake, which is probably why I didn’t notice the snake until I was halfway across the living room, about the same time it noticed me. We froze, the snake and I, heads up, unblinking, eyeing each other across the five feet of space between us.

A harmless black snake, I thought, oh, so carefully rational under my surging adrenalin. A dangerous human, the snake thought and turned to flee. I followed it, unsure of what to do but determined to track it. The only thing worse than seeing a snake is knowing there’s one around here somewhere. To my horror, the snake sought refuge in the sacred ground of my kitchen.

As I watched the snake disappear beneath my refrigerator, I fought the urge to laugh hysterically. I raced for my broom and nearly hyperventilated when my foot rolled over a long black snake on the laundry floor. It flopped and I yelled, only to sag against the wall. Just the iron cord, Stephanie. Breathe. Breathe.

Heart racing, I established guard a safe distance from the fridge, broom held at the ready. I couldn’t just walk away and let the snake wander all over the house. Once, the snake slipped its head out of its cave, but seeing me, it retreated. The laughter bubbled up from the wild place inside me. It was all so strangely funny, the snake and I caught in this ridiculous standoff.

I waited. And waited. No snake. Micah cried. “Okay, snake, you win,” I said and yielded my culinary territory to the reptile. “I’m not coming back until you’re good and gone.”

But I was forced to give way to necessity: We have to eat. I never saw the snake again, although I think it of now and again, especially when Micah crawls over and pats my ankle while I’m washing dishes.

As for the peaches, well, I have about 40-odd jars of super-sweet ones out in the garage. They might still be around when Micah is old enough to go snake hunting.

Divided Attention: What It Means to Be the Sibling

“Tarica gets all the stuff,” she said, eyes intent behind her glasses. “All the medicines and attention.”

I put my hands on Jenica’s shoulders, and she slid her arms around my waist, head tipping back to hold my gaze, brown locked on brown. “Are you jealous?” I asked.

“Yes, and I’m humble enough to admit that I am.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t have laughed. Such words from a seven-year-old. She laughed too, sheepishly, and I hugged her tight. “I’m sorry, sweetie. I don’t know what to do about it.”

She went upstairs to bed, and I stood rooted in the kitchen, thinking of her words. Her jealousy didn’t surprise me. It was born of a child’s need for security: Mom, do you care about me? Am I important to you?

I shouldn’t have to say it, but let me state for the record that we love all our children equally. We have no favorites.

But life is asking us to love our children differently and in unequal portions of time. We have Jenica, the self-confessed jealous one. We have five-year-old Tarica, the daughter whose epilepsy flares up in uncontrolled seizures. We have nineteen-month-old Micah, who daily increaseth more and more unto naughtiness.

Right now, Tarica is seizing multiple times a day. She is the one we most worry about and talk about and pray about. Her siblings—they get the leftovers.

Jenica senses it. Perhaps Micah does, too.

“I love you,” I tell all our children, but Tarica is the one I mention at church as a prayer request. Tarica is the one whom people ask about, the one whose story is told. Tarica is the one with appointments and medications and hospital stays and . . . and . . . attention.

For children, attention equals love. This is why Jenica thinks I love Tarica more than I love her.

We aren’t given extra hours in our days just because we have a child who needs more care. We have the same 24/7 everyone else does. What is a mother supposed to do?

Should I try to compensate for our focus on Tarica? Maybe I should take Jenica to the library—just the two of us—where we can revel in our shared love of reading. Perhaps I should take her on a walk up the mountain behind our house so we can talk uninterrupted. Maybe I should read more stories to Micah and rock him more often and get down on the floor with him and his red barn. They deserve to know I love them enough to spend special time with them.

On the other hand, I want my children to understand that life isn’t fair. It’s not fair that Tarica has to live with seizures; it’s not fair that Jenica and Micah lose some of the attention that might otherwise be theirs. This is life, and sometimes it hurts. Better to learn it now than later—or never. If I try too hard to compensate, they lose opportunities to practice compassion and to sacrifice for the sake of another, opportunities they will also face as grown-up followers of Jesus. Why not teach some of these lessons now?

Or is that too much to expect of our children?

I wish I had time enough for my children to get equal portions. I will try. I will take Jenica on that walk. I will read another story to Micah. I will look into their brown, brown eyes and tell them over and over that I love them all the way up to the moon and all the way back.

I try. But when Tarica crashes to the floor, I put Micah down to kneel by her, stroking her cheek as she seizes, blocking Micah with the other arm so he doesn’t pounce on her. When the seizure is over, I carry Tarica to the recliner. She slumps in my lap, weak and exhausted, and Micah weeps on my knee, abandoned, and Jenica says, “Come out and see what I did in the garage,” and I say, “I can’t right now—I’m holding Tarica.”

But in my heart, I’m holding them all.

Stranger on the Doorstep

This experience happened last winter, about a month before Tarica started seizing. Now that snow is flying again, I remember this and wonder if I did the right thing.

* * *

The doorbell rang while I was in the middle of changing Micah. When a second peal quickly followed the first, I scooped up my diaper-clad baby, wrapped a blanket around him, and raced down the steps. As I reached the bottom of the stairs, I glanced at the sofa, grateful to see the doorbell hadn’t awakened Tarica. She had been stricken with the stomach virus less than two hours ago.

At the door, a stranger waited, wind-blown and worried-looking. Snow swirled around the young man, catching in his red beard and on his narrow shoulders. Before I could say a word, he said, “Sorry for bothering you, but could you give me a ride to Kettle Road?”

I snugged the blanket around a small bare shoulder, mentally scrambling for something kinder than a flat refusal. “I’m sorry, but I can’t. My daughter is sick, and I need to take care of him.” I gestured toward my wriggling bundle.

“No one else is around that could give me a ride?”

Was that a leap of fear I felt? “No, I’m sorry. Not right now.”

He bounced on his toes. “Do you think anyone’s home over there?” He pointed to a neighbor’s house through the trees.

“I have no idea,” I said, realizing I could fit what I knew about those neighbors in the bowl of a spoon. They had kept to themselves ever since moving in last summer. I pointed in the opposite direction. “You could try the people on the other side of us. Someone is often home during the day.”

“The next house down?” He began a retreat down the drive.

“Yes.” Something pinched inside me. “Did your car break down?” I asked.

He turned back. “Yeah, it did.” He shook himself and thrust his hands deep into his pockets. “It’s cold out here.”

That was an understatement: It was a brutally frigid day, with a wind that cut to the bone. “I hope you can get a ride.” My words sounded lame in the face of his plight. “Sorry I can’t help you.” I closed the door as he walked away.

From a window, I watched his hunched form swing down the driveway. Doubt squeezed my heart. Had I done the right thing? I couldn’t bundle my sick daughter into the van right after she got sick. My baby needed to eat as soon as I got him dressed. But I had just said something very close to “depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled.”

The young man turned onto the road and soon was out of my sight. I frowned at the spot where he had disappeared. Had I turned away an extraordinary opportunity? What if that young man with his red beard and thin coat was an angel? Far-fetched, maybe, but it was possible. That verse in Hebrews 13 says we are to entertain strangers because they might be “angels unawares.” I should have at least given him a cup of coffee. It isn’t every day I can serve an angel.

But maybe he wasn’t an angel. Maybe he was a violent young man with evil intentions. Maybe my veiled head stayed his hand. But he seemed sincere. How is a woman to know in this wicked age when to show generous compassion and when to be reserved and play it safe? On one hand, strangers can be dangerous; on the other, strangers can be angels in disguise. What should I have done?

Well, it didn’t matter. Tarica was sick. And he was gone. But if I did the right thing, why did I feel guilty? I stared out at the snow flying in the wind and wondered if an angel would mind the cold.

* * *

What do you think? Are we women too careful? Do we lose opportunities to show compassion because of our caution around strangers? If we trust God, can we help a stranger without fear? 

My daughter was sick; I had little choice. But what if she hadn’t been sick? I still don’t know what I would’ve done.