Underneath My Game Face: A Good Friday Reflection on Truth

venetian-mask-mask-venetian-d718a4-1024

My five-year-old daughter awoke in the middle of the night calling for me. As I tucked her back into bed, she was in a sweetly groggy, half-asleep state.

“Mommy,” she said, looking up from her pillow, “who should I be in my dream?”

It was such a beautiful, strange question that it caught me off guard.

“Well,” I ventured, with the sense that my answer might be vitally important, “why don’t you be yourself?”

This seemed to satisfy her. “Okay,” she nodded, closing her eyes. “I’ll just be Abigail.”

As if it were that simple.

***

For my first two decades of life, I was adept at molding myself into whomever others wanted me to be. My goal was approval: I could walk into a room, sense the prevailing winds, and do or say whatever would make the majority happy.

It hit me in my early 20s: I had navigated college, graduate school, and my early career, but I wasn’t certain that I’d ever had a single original opinion. What did I really think about anything? I’d spent my entire life asking who I should be, instead of who I was. Had anybody told me to just be myself, I wouldn’t have known where to start.

At this point I was teaching third grade at a private girls’ school in New York City. I was 25 years old. (I look back now and marvel at how anybody ever trusted my 25-year-old self with a classroom full of eight-year-old girls, but we all survived.)

It was the year 2000. This year, a threshold to a new century, was also a threshold moment in my own life. It was the year that I started taking baby steps towards my self. I was a year post-recovery from an eating disorder. I’d been dating my future husband for a year, and had begun attending a church that would be pivotal in shaping my faith. I was beginning to accept that I needed to make the best choices for me, regardless of whether I’d make everyone else happy.

I remained a mess of insecurities, bitterness, and confusion – things I struggle with mightily even today, mind you – but the steering wheel was starting to turn that would alter the course of my life ever so gradually, like a gigantic cruise ship changing course.

In the fall of 2000, Nadia walked into my third grade classroom. She was a bright, energetic eight-year-old, so it was a shock when, in November, she was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in her jaw.

***

Nadia was the first person I’d known with cancer. I remember Nadia’s mother, Judi, who seemed so strong despite the obvious emotional pain she was suffering. I remember Nadia during the various stages of her treatment – chemotherapy, surgery to remove part of her jaw and replace it with part of her shin bone, and more chemo – who seemed so strong despite the obvious physical pain she was suffering. She missed a lot of school that year, and on a handful of occasions I visited her apartment after school to work with her one-on-one, so that she wouldn’t fall too far behind.

In my memories, Nadia’s cancer ended with the school year: She completed her treatment, the cancer was gone, and the prognosis was excellent.

Five years later, after I got married and quit teaching, I left New York. We moved across the country to Berkeley, California so that my husband could go to graduate school. Much like the photographs that we packed into boxes and have never re-opened, the seven-year chapter of my life that happened mostly between East 86thand East 96thStreets was boxed away in the attic of my mind.

But sometimes Nadia slipped out. Every once in a while – when I added another name to the list of people I know with cancer, for instance, or when I read my daughters Patricia Polacco’s powerful picture book about childhood cancer, The Lemonade Club– I’d wonder how Nadia was doing.

***

This February, while searching for something completely different on the internet, a book popped up: Motherhood Exaggerated, by Judith Hannan.

That’s Nadia’s mom! I thought. I’d forgotten that Judi Hannan was a writer. I clicked for more information. In 2012, she’d written an entire book about Nadia’s journey through cancer.

I ordered a copy of Motherhood Exaggerated, and for the week that it took me to read I could hardly concentrate on anything else. It is a gorgeous book. On one level, it’s about parenting a sick child and how the effects of a life-threatening illness continue long after the illness itself has retreated, but it’s also about the broader themes of life, love, suffering, and the struggle for hope.

I read Motherhood Exaggerated as someone who’d been there but hadn’t fully experienced all aspects of Nadia’s illness. I read between the lines, recalling the bits of my own story that intersected with Nadia and her family. The book resurrected places and people I’d packed away in my mental attic years ago.

Then, one night, I turned a page and found myself.

“Ms. Cinquegrana [my maiden name] is young. She exudes a quiet serenity, which is a soothing contrast to the bubbly smiles and cheerleading attitude of hospital personnel…. Ms. Cinquegrana is always unflustered by Nadia’s appearance or latest medical crises. On the three or four occasions that she has come to our home to work with Nadia in the past few months, I would sneak peeks of her sitting with Nadia on the floor. Their bodies are always learning toward one another; their quiet talk is punctuated occasionally by giggles. It is a vision I cherish; their time together is a true oasis for Nadia.”

Don’t we all sometimes wish we could know how others see us? This was my chance, and it was a flattering portrait. But after reading that paragraph about my 25-year-old self, my first reaction was: It’s a lie.

 I don’t mean that Judi Hannan wasn’t being honest. But what she saw, what she describes, was my “game face.” know that this quietly serene, unflustered young teacher was a seething cauldron of conflict under the surface. Reading Judi’s description of me only drove home the degree to which my inside hadn’t matched my outside.

Don’t get me wrong: If this was my game face, it was an appropriate one. I’m glad that I was able to be a true oasis for Nadia. This same game face would serve me well less than a year later, when the lower school headmistress pulled me out of class one morning to tell me: “A plane’s just crashed into the World Trade Center. We don’t know what’s going on, but it’s not good, and it’s probably going to affect some of our parents. Our job is to keep the girls calm and in school for as long as possible.”

I’m not suggesting that we wear all of our emotions like a wardrobe; restraint and self-control are often the best choice, particularly when dealing with children. I only wish that I’d actually felt the “quiet serenity” I was somehow able to exude; that it had been my personal state, rather than a professional mask.

***

If I could reach back through time to Ms. Cinquegrana, I would tell her that she still has some rocky years ahead on the journey towards selfhood. September 11, and her marriage ten months later, will shake the ground beneath her. She’ll lose her bearings on who she’s supposed to be. She’ll quit teaching and enroll in a graduate program for photography – an interlude that, 15 years later, she still can’t quite understand. Then she’ll close the door on New York, move to California, and start having children.

It will be those children, those four little girls born in six years, who will force her to take her self seriously – because when you have four pairs of eyes studying you for guidance on how to be a person, it’s impossible to conceal that your inside doesn’t match your outside.

***

One night in Vermont, when all my girls were in bed, I read this line in Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything is Illuminated: “Try to live so that you can always tell the truth.”

And I thought: YES, THAT is who I would like to be, and teach my daughters to be.

I no longer wanted to put on a happy face…or a kind face, or a brave face. That’s exhausting. Instead, I wanted to actually become happy, kind, and brave.

***

I don’t think it was an accident that Motherhood Exaggerated popped up on my laptop screen at the start of Lent, sending me on a voyage into the past, opening the boxes in my mental attic and plumbing the depths of who I was, who I am.

Lent is a time to take stock of our insides. If someone sacrifices themselves to save your life, chances are that you will take stock; you will think hard about how to live the life that’s been given back to you.

That’s the story of Jesus and Easter.

Lent is a time when I ask myself, “Do I really believe this crazy thing?” And when the answer is YES, my next question is, “If this is the truth, is my life telling the truth? Does my inside match my outside?”

The answer is always NO, of course — for all of us, I suspect. But when I look back, I can see that every year the distance between YES and NO gets a little smaller. It is a slow, often painful process, learning how to be myself. I have become more patient with this; it takes a long time to turn a cruise ship around, and it’s not even my hands on the wheel.

Spring, Tweens, and Other Liminal Things

20190313_170350
Photo credit: Arianna Graham-Gurland

I‘m writing this on the day after Ash Wednesday – a day for which there is no official name in the liturgical calendar. Outside, the weather is doing what my New England relatives call “spitting snow,” meaning that small flakes are swirling down from the sky without amounting to much on the ground. The sky is the same dirty-white color as the patches of old snow; the same color as the white birch from which our bird feeder hangs with just a thin crust of suet remaining inside. There’s no point in refilling the feeder now; there are rumors of spring, which means that the bears will start stirring on Chipman Hill again.

“Last night, I dreamed it was spring!” one of my daughters announces at breakfast. “I could feel how warm it was!”

Spring will arrive. But for now, snow clouds obscure the Green Mountains, and there’s still great sledding on the north face of our back hill. We hover in this liminal space, the threshold between an ending and a beginning, the almost-but-not-yet.

I feel this liminality in the weather, in this Lenten season between Ash Wednesday and Easter, and in my eldest daughter.

Click here to continue reading my latest “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent. 

Mudroom Mercy

IMG_0702

When we first looked at the house that is now our home, the realtor told us that all other prospective buyers had walked away after they saw it: The house’s layout was just too strange for anybody to figure out how to make it work.

Enter my husband, who, in a fit of visionary-ness, saw how we could make this half-finished house with the wonky floor plan work for us.

In order to make it work, we turned the first-floor living room and bathroom into our master bed- and bathroom. Our four daughters sleep in the second-floor bedrooms, and use the second-floor bathroom. (In our current stage of parenting, this setup provides me excellent exercise running up and down the stairs at all hours of the day and night.)

Our house’s floor plan figures into the story I’m about to tell. The crucial detail is this: The master bathroom is the only bathroom on the first floor, and it – and the master bedroom beyond it – are accessed by a door off of the kitchen.

This is a story about expectations. And I had great expectations that Thursday, a week after Thanksgiving.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” in The Addison Independent. 

Food, Freedom, Forgiveness: A Thanksgiving Meditation

thanksgiving

Well, here we are on the other side of Thanksgiving. A rather counter-cultural holiday, isn’t it? Or at least counter to what American culture has been becoming.

To begin with, Thanksgiving seems to have resisted much of the commercialization that’s hijacked other major American holidays. Traditions may differ for some, but in my family no gifts or greeting cards are exchanged on Thanksgiving. Unless you traffic in turkeys, cranberries, or decorative gourds, there doesn’t seem to be much of a market for Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is focused on a meal. Again, traditions differ, but most Thanksgiving celebrations involve gathering family members and friends together around a table to share food – and not food out of a box or a microwave, but food that’s been prepared by hand. For a time, many of those who sit down to a Thanksgiving meal talk to each other, presumably without electronic devices or screens. All of this – the gathering together, the conversation, spending an entire day preparing and enjoying a meal – is radical, because it happens so rarely in our fragmented, isolated, screen-focused, fast-paced society.

And the reason we gather for this meal? It’s there in the name: giving thanks. To sit around a table and feel gratitude for what we have, right then.

How weird is that? At no other time are we as Americans encouraged to say, “Thank you; this is enough.”

In fact, it’s such an uncomfortable feeling that we have to counteract it by making the very next day Black Friday, when all Americans are encouraged to binge shop for everything retailers say we need to feel like we’re enough.

There is a tension to all of this; a very American tension. A good way of uncovering this tension is simply to ask the question: What exactly are we giving thanks for on Thanksgiving?

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” column in The Addison Independent.

Brooklyn, Take Me In

zane_grey_cabin_rock_wall_1_-_galice_oregon

“I’m still thinking about that man who lied to us,” my daughter said as I tucked her into bed the night we returned from a family weekend in New York City.

My husband and I lived in Manhattan for seven years, throughout our dating and early marriage but before we had children. Only one of our daughters had ever set foot in the Big Apple, and since she was six months old at the time, “set foot” isn’t quite accurate. So, this was our first time in New York City as a family of six.

We stayed for two days and two nights with dear friends who live in Brooklyn with their three children. The best way to describe our family’s relationship with these Brooklyn friends is to say, “We have the same books on our shelves.” This means that, although we see these friends rarely, and although we live “city mice/country mice” existences, when we get together it feels like home.

In emotional terms: We love spending time with this family. In practical terms: Because everyone gets along so well, this is the family to be with if you’re trying to shepherd seven children around New York City.

Click here to continue reading this week’s “Faith in Vermont” — about some of our adventures OUT of Vermont — in The Addison Independent. 

A Good Friday Meditation on the Loss of Logic: Evangelicals, Guns, Life, Liberals, Free Speech, Bacon, and Jesus

made20bacon

 

I have a daughter who cares so deeply about animals that we sometimes beg her: “Please, treat your sisters like they’re ducks.”

All animal-care chores in our house fall to this daughter; it is she who feeds our dog, and who wakes up early (some days) to help me with our poultry.

As our family continues down the road of trying to grow more of what we eat, we’re considering whether to keep a few animals for meat. We don’t eat much meat, but nobody in our house is vegetarian. While our daughters are fairly picky about the meat they eat, they agree on two things: bacon, and ham. Ham is an occasional treat, but our family consumes at least one packet of (uncured) bacon a week. Therefore, if we were to pick one food species that would make economic sense, it would be pigs.

Pigs make practical sense, too. They don’t require much in the way of housing, and they’re a short-term commitment (piglets arrive in spring and are ‘harvested” by late fall.)

When the possibility of pigs came up in dinnertime conversation, our animal-loving daughter burst into tears.

“We’re going to KILL them?” she sobbed.

We pointed out, as gently as possible, that she had eaten bacon that very morning. Her response was, “But I didn’t KNOW it!”

“Exactly. And chances are that pig you ate didn’t have a very good life. If you care about animals, wouldn’t you rather know that the animal you’re eating was treated well? That it was allowed to free-range under the trees? That it died as humanely as possible?”

“NO!” she wept. “I don’t want to eat anything that I know. That’s just no way to treat a houseguest! How would people feel if animals started killing them for food?”

We pointed out, as gently as possible, that if she felt this way then she might consider becoming a vegetarian. She shook her head. “No,” she protested. “I really like bacon.”

This same conversation has been repeated numerous times, always with the same illogical conclusion: My daughter rejects the idea of us raising animals for meat – even though she knows these animals will be treated far more humanely than much of the meat in stores or restaurants – while also refusing to give up eating meat. She literally weeps for the pigs while eating the bacon.

As exhausting as it is to argue in circles with my daughter, her thinking reminds me of what’s happening in our national dialogue these days.

Logic entails consistency: Your actions should correspond to your thoughts. My daughter is illogical because she is unable to consistently match her thoughts with her actions. If she truly cares about animals, she should either a) only eat meat that was treated well, or b) stop eating meat. If she continues eating meat with no thought to its origins, then she shouldn’t claim to care about the well being of animals.

That makes sense, right?

And yet.

Exhibit A:

I give you conservative Evangelicals who bemoan the moral decline of our country and long for nothing more than a return to “family values.” According to polls, the majority of this group supported the presidential campaign of a thrice-married man who boasted of adultery and sexual assault in the past, and may recently have unethically covered up other illicit affairs; a man who, as President of the United States, continually spews out puerile take-downs on Twitter.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council – a mouthpiece for conservative Evangelicals — recently said, “We kind of gave him – ‘All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here.’” Perkins explained that Evangelical Christians “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”

Oh, right: Punch the bullies, just like Jesus said.

Actually, if anybody was being bullied on the playground, it was Jesus.

According to my reading of the Bible, the only people Jesus punched (verbally) were the religious leaders of his day, whom he called “hypocrites” because they were more concerned about advancing their own power and glory than truly following God. (Sound familiar?) So they executed Jesus; he was threatening their authority, while failing to threaten the Big Bully of the day — the Roman Empire.

It shouldn’t be surprising to John Perkins and other Evangelical Christians if they feel “kicked around.” Here’s what Jesus himself said: “’If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first…. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.’” (John 15: 18&20)

Being kicked around makes sense when you’re a counter-cultural troublemaker who’s calling out the hypocrisy of the religious establishment, teaching about justice and mercy, and caring for those on society’s margins.

What doesn’t make sense is claiming to care about morality, except in the case of an unrepentantly immoral leader whom you hope might advance your agenda, or claiming to follow Jesus while grabbing for power and respect.

Exhibit B:

In the wake of a Valentine’s Day shooting that killed 17 students at Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School, many called for the passage of common sense gun laws on a local and national level – things like universal background checks, raising the age limit for gun purchases, and giving law enforcement more authority to remove guns from people deemed legitimate threats. They condemned the hypocrisy of certain politicians, who send “thoughts and prayers” to victims of mass shootings, but who resist passing stricter gun legislation because they take campaign money from the NRA (the equivalent of weeping for the pigs while eating the bacon.)

In the midst of this outcry, I heard comments from people – some of whom I know and love – to the effect that we shouldn’t demand stricter gun laws, because guns aren’t the real problem in mass shootings. The real culprits are any of the following: mental health, student bullying, parental negligence, violent video games, or an overall decline of American moral and family values. These people weren’t exactly touting automatic rifles, but they were saying, “Why bother with laws when there are also social and cultural problems at play?”

This line of thinking baffled me, because I just can’t see how this is an either-or situation. Should we address societal issues like mental health, bullying, violent content, and discipline? Sure! Should we also consider passing laws that will make it more difficult for troubled 18-year-olds to get their hands on automatic assault rifles? Yes!

The thing is, I’d guess that almost every person (the ones I know, at least) who voices this “Why bother with gun laws?” view, also mourns for the hundreds of thousands of unborn children who are aborted every year. And I wonder how they’d feel if I said to them, “You know, abortion is really a mental health/parental negligence/sexual promiscuity/decline of American moral and family values problem, so why bother changing any laws?”

If you feel strongly about abortion, don’t you want to address all of those things? I would hope that you’re opening your home and your wallet to pregnant women who need support, volunteering at crisis pregnancy centers, adopting children, advocating for better sex education and health care, and speaking out against the sexual objectification of women and America’s unhealthy relationship with sex. But I also bet that you’d like to see some laws that would at least discourage certain types of abortion.

That would be a logical approach. Instead, some people who call themselves “pro-life” appear more invested in the lives of unborn children than the lives of high school students. If you are truly pro-life, doesn’t that mean every life? As in: unborn children’s lives matter, their pregnant mothers’ lives matter, teenagers’ lives matter, Black Lives Matter, the lives of those on death row matter, the lives of those we send to war for our country matter? Otherwise, you’re just proving Barney Frank right: “Conservatives believe that from the standpoint of the federal government, life begins at conception and ends at birth.”

Exhibit C:

Thus far, I’ve focused my critique upon conservative Evangelicals. Inconsistent logic isn’t just a conservative Evangelical issue, though: Let’s consider politically liberal people who claim to embrace justice and tolerance. They believe everyone deserves to be treated fairly, regardless of race, income level, gender or sexual orientation — unless your political views offend them, in which case you deserve to be mocked, muzzled, and ostracized from discussion.

It’s been posited that this sense of superiority among liberal intellectuals contributed to a polarizing divide in our country that resulted in the election of our current President. On a smaller stage, it’s wreaking havoc in my husband’s industry: higher education.

On college campuses across the country, many faculty and students claim to welcome the free exchange of ideas – unless those ideas are odious to them.

Just the other week, I witnessed an exchange on Front Porch Forum, our community’s online bulletin board, which began when a member of the community became confused after our town’s gun safety rally was mistakenly listed as a “March for Life” (which wasn’t inaccurate, but it was part of the national “March for Our Lives.”) This person wrote in asking if the march was to protest the death of unborn children. Another member of our community – a colleague of my husband’s – responded by labeling this person an “anti-choice racist.”

How does such dialogue crushing name-calling get us anywhere?

Ideas, even offensive ones, should be brought into the light and engaged; they don’t just disappear if you kick them aside. History shows that if you force those with whom you disagree into a dark corner, they’ll just get angrier and angrier, and that anger will crystallize their ideas and make them more powerful.

Just as it makes no sense to be pro-only-some-lives, it makes no sense to be tolerant and open-minded only to those with whom you agree.

***

This may sound like a rant, but it’s really a love letter, born out of concern.

I am concerned for the Evangelicals, because we claim to worship the same God. On any demographic survey, I’d be labeled evangelical: I believe in the Bible and I love Jesus.

I am concerned for the liberals, because we tend to vote according to similar priorities; I find the so-called “liberal” concern for justice and marginalized people far more Jesus-like than that of many “conservatives.”

If my daughter continues weeping into her bacon without changing her actions, we will soon stop taking her concern for animals seriously. This is exactly what’s happening on a national level to Evangelicals and liberal intellectuals alike, but their lack of logical consistency reflects back upon things like Jesus, life, mercy, free speech, and justice – things that we should be taking seriously.

I’m not qualified to be writing this, being no paragon of logical consistency myself. I bemoan America’s love of big-box convenience, yet I still can’t seem to stop buying things on Amazon. I’m concerned about screens and social media destroying our culture, but I maintain a Facebook account. I’ve been known to eat animals of unknown provenance. I agonized for months over whether I should write this, while continuing to compose sweet little columns about my children and poultry – fiddling while Rome burned.

Matching our actions to our convictions is hard, because it always demands sacrifices, be they power, control, comfort, or bacon.

So, here is my prayer for all of us on this Good Friday – for conservative Evangelicals, liberal intellectuals, and me:

May our actions align with our beliefs, in the same way that a carpenter in 1st century Palestine said he loved the world enough to die for its sins – and then hung on a cross and did just that. That’s the kind of logical consistency that can change the world.

Christmas, and the In-Between

This is the reflection I gave at our church’s Christmas Eve service last night, for those who’d like to read it. I wish you all a happy Christmas, and peace in the in-betweens.

31926465122_130e285ec3_b

You are one half of an infertile couple. For years, you’ve prayed that God would bless you with a child. It seems a good request, a simple request; after all, you’ve been obedient to God, pulled up stakes and left everything behind to follow Him. In return, God’s made some nice-sounding promises about creating a great nation from your line. But the years keep passing, one after another after another, your body wrinkling, sagging, aging past the point of possibility. Sometimes you wonder if God has forgotten you – or maybe you didn’t quite understand Him correctly?

***

You are a prostitute, surrounded by the indestructible walls of a large oasis city. Perhaps you feel trapped by both your profession and your location. There’s not much time to think, though: Your family depends on you. But sometimes you go up to the roof of your house and look out over the city wall, and you think back on all the decisions – some that you made and some that you didn’t – that got you to this place.

***

You are a young widow, left without husband or children in a culture where both are essential to your security and worth. Out of a sense of love and duty – and perhaps lacking better options – you’ve chosen to accompany your mother-in-law back to her hometown. The people here despise your own people group: They deride you as the offspring of an ancient incest. In order to support yourself and your mother-in-law, you become a migrant scavenger, following the field laborers to pick up any grain they’ve left behind. Your back aches, your legs ache, and sometimes you ask yourself whether you’ll always feel like an old rag left out flapping on the line.

***

You are the youngest son in a family with seven older brothers: Seven older brothers who are tall, handsome, and brave. While your brothers go out to the glory of the battlefield, you’re left behind to tend the livestock, to fetch, carry, run errands. As you spend hours in the pasture, watching the sheep graze under the hot sun, you keep a sharp eye out for predators, you write songs in your head, and you wonder whether anybody will ever notice you – whether there will ever be anything special left for you.

 

These are the situations in which we first meet four well-known Biblical characters: Abraham the father of many, Rahab the harlot with a heart of gold, Ruth the model daughter-in-law, and David the future king. These characters have something in common: All are ancestors of Jesus, part of Matthew’s list of Jesus’s lineage.

If you’ve spent time in church or Sunday School, you may be familiar with the happy endings of each of their stories:

How Abraham and his wife Sarah miraculously had a son, Isaac, when Abraham was 100 years old – 25 years after God first promised to make Abraham a great nation.

How Rahab helped two Hebrew spies who were scoping out Jericho, so she and her family were the sole survivors when Jericho’s walls came tumbling down.

Rahab would became Ruth the Moabite’s other mother-in-law, after Rahab’s son Boaz spotted Ruth gleaning in his field and married her.

And David, the runt of the litter, got picked out of the whole lineup of his brothers, chosen by God as Israel’s king.

We may be so familiar with the happily-ever-after aspect of these stories that it clouds our reading, and we view the hard parts through the lens of the coming joy; we like happy endings.

But tonight, I’m not as interested in the happy endings as I am in the in-betweens. I’m interested in the long years of waiting: the helplessness, hopelessness, and just plain boredom that each of these people must have experienced until God graciously delivered them from childlessness, prostitution, destitute widowhood, and overlooked little-brotherness.

And I’m interested in the years that followed, in what happened after happily-ever-after. Because their happy endings weren’t the end of the story: There were still diapers to change, meals to cook, dishes to wash, livestock to tend, heartaches to endure, countries to run.

What got them through the years of pain and the years of mundane? What gets us through them?

The fact is, we spend most of our lives in the in-between. There are moments of amazing grace, of miracles, of salvation. But these are often separated by years of waiting: helpless, hopeless, bored. There are diapers to change, meals to cook, dishes to wash, livestock to tend, heartaches to endure, jobs to do. We have Christmas — and we have the other 364 days of the year.

But here’s the thing: Abraham, Rahab, Ruth, and David were always part of a bigger plan – a plan that dwarfed their own personal happy endings. The baby, the deliverance, the wealthy husband, and the kingdom weren’t the most important things after all – the most important thing was that each of these people was getting the world a little closer to Jesus, adding another branch onto the family tree of our Savior.

So, what does this have to do with you and me?

When Jesus came into the world, he made it possible for God to adopt all of us as His children. Paul writes in Romans 8: “Those who are led by the spirit of God are sons of God….The Spirit himself testifies that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ[.]”

In other words: We’ve been grafted into Jesus’s family tree. Those who follow Jesus are the continuation of his lineage, the extension of the story that began with Abraham, Rahab, Ruth, and David. Our lives may feel helpless, hopeless, or boring; we may be waiting for our happy ending, we may feel stuck in our mundane daily life, but our lives are being woven into the tapestry of God’s great plan to save the world – His plan that began with Jesus and continues through us. We are part of a story so much bigger than our own.

And the best thing is: We already know that this bigger story will have a happy ending.

The most repeated phrase in the Bible is one that echoes throughout Jesus’s birth, spoken by angels to his mother, father, and a rag-tag gang of shepherds: “Do not be afraid.” In her book Unwrapping the Greatest Gift, Ann Voskamp writes, “All fear comes from thinking that somewhere God’s love will end.” Abraham, Rahab, Ruth, and David trusted in God’s love, which enabled them to leave behind what was comfortable and known, and to take the brave steps of faith that would eventually lead them to their happy endings. God’s love never ended for them: it was there through both the soaring and the mundane chapters of their stories, and it continued on through the generations that followed – all the way down to us.

This Christmas Eve, may we sink into the wonder of this realization that we are heirs of Abraham, Rahab, Ruth, David, and Jesus himself. Let’s commemorate a joyous birth together as family: The birth of this God-child, who is both the miraculous start of God’s great happy-ending plan, and at the same time is a baby mired in the mundane and in pain – a displaced infant on the rough outskirts of an empire who will need to be fed, to have his diapers changed, to become a refugee fleeing genocide.

And the other 364 days of the year, may we live in the knowledge that all the diapers, all the meals, all the dishes, all the heartache, all our days and nights – all of these things matter, because they are all part of our stories, which are all part of God’s great story.

May the assurance of His endless love give us peace and courage, not only in happy endings, but in the in-betweens.