There, but for the grace of God...

They say she was radiant, her love boundless, her hospitality second nature and unmatched. In photos, you can tell how fiercely she loved her children, how proud she was of her husband. She was a remarkable woman married into a remarkable family. There's not a photo remaining that shows the pain deep in her eyes. Yet, one day not long after Mother's Day, she took the raspy rope and threaded it around her neck and hung herself from the rafters of her barn. In all the confusion that ensued, not one person could come up with a reason for why she took her own life. Was it her impending divorce, striking at the core of her beliefs as a Catholic? Was it the separation from her children brought on by the grid of a visitation schedule? Was it depression? Mental illness?


Profound grief rakes my heart as I read about all of this. There, but for the grace of God, go I. John Bradford, an English preacher burned at the stake in 1510, penned those words after watching a group of Christians walk to their execution. A few years later, he did follow in those martyrs footsteps. In his quote is an echo of the words of James, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit’; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.’(4:13-15 NKJV)

I know the depths of depression that lead you to the rope and the beam. I know the grief and shame over your failures that extinguishes hope. I know the stubborn root planted by an evil wind in your soul that is ever so difficult to uproot. I know that the only hope for those, like me, who walk down that tangled path is the Word that cuts off tenacious roots of self-doubt, self-hatred, and despondency. Immedicabile vulnus...a wound that can never be healed, a poison in the veins she nourishes, to be consumed by the hidden fire.

Looking back on the darkest days of my life, my song is Psalm 124:

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when men rose up against us:
Then they had swallowed us up quick, when their wrath was kindled against us:
Then the waters had overwhelmed us, the stream would had gone over our soul:
Then the proud waters had gone over our soul.
Blessed be the Lord, who hath not given us as a prey to their teeth.
Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers: 
the snare is broken, and we are escaped.
Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.



How different the song might have been, had I fallen prey to their teeth. Had the waters swirled over my head. Had I been completely overwhelmed. The hands of friends reached down into the dark waters and pulled me up from the deeps. The love of my husband was a life raft of hope, not hope of mine, but the hope in his eyes that I could adopt and buoy myself upon. The prayers of the saints who would not let me martyr myself on a pyre of selfish insufficiency. The parents who prayed, helped, loved unconditionally.

I pray for Mary Kennedy's family. Pray that her children are rescued from the darkness that has fallen like a shroud over their little family. Ages 10 to 17, they face their adolescence without their mother - their life forever without her.


There, but for the grace of God, go mine.

A place to call home



In 2010, we were expelled from a church we'd called home for over 10 years. At first, the very thought of going through another set of church doors was nothing short of nauseating. How could we trust another church after being burned by the very people who professed to love us like Christ does?

The months passed, and the children asked every Sunday if we could go to church. Any church. For a while, we attended the church of some close friends. This transient experience was necessary both for us to heal and to start a conversation about what a comfortable church home would look like to our family.

I imagine there are others out there facing the same questions. Here is the process we went through when selecting a new church home. It is our hope and prayer that our careful approach to finding a new church will protect our family in some measure from the mistakes and wounds of the past. So, here's how we did it:
  1. Make a list of necessities
    • For us, this included the Gospel preached clearly and often; pastoral accountability; a grace-filled congregation where all were welcome; and a place that felt different enough from our last church that we weren't hit with a panic attack as soon as we walked in the door.
  2. Make a wish list
    • We hoped to find a church that was egalitarian, had high quality children's programming through which the Gospel was proclaimed, showed musical excellence, and followed a traditional liturgical style of worship
  3. Lists in hand, start browsing church websites and their denominational websites to explore how well the church/denomination matches with your needs and desires. For us, this pre-screening process whittled a list of dozens of churches down to 3-5 that fit our style.
  4. When you walk through the doors, you should immediately sense GRACE. Are the people welcoming? Are there tattooed, homeless, broken people welcomed in the pews? Can gay couples attend? Divorcees? People of color or a different culture than the majority?
  5. How does the pastor interact with the parishioners? Is the shepherd serving the flock, or are the sheep serving the shepherd? A glance at extracurricular programming may help you answer this question and also shed light on women's roles in the church.
  6. What are the sermons like? Does Christ play a central role in the teachings? Are the sermons about Biblical principles, or are they topical? Do you like the style of the sermons?
  7. If you don't identify any warning signs, you can attend your "maybe" church for a few months.
  8. Now is the time to meet with the pastor. Go to the meeting armed with your necessity and wish lists. Be prepared with a list of questions and if you've experienced poor pastoral care in certain areas in the past, be sure to find out how this new pastor would handle that type of situation.
  9. One key question to ask: has this church ever had to use church discipline? If so, how was the matter resolved? Does the person who was disciplined still attend church there? Ask for the name and phone number of that person so you can hear their side of the story.
  10. Attend a board or deacon's meeting to observe how the pastor interacts with the staff who hold him accountable. Who really runs the show, the pastor or the board? Who has the last say?
  11. Ask for the name and phone number of a parishioner who no longer attends, and go out to coffee with them if possible. Why did they leave? Were there problems with the church that prompted them to seek a new church home?
  12. Ask to see a copy of the church budget for the preceding year. What are the main financial focuses of the church? Are missions a big part of church giving? How closely associated is the church to their denomination in terms of financial giving? What local ministries does the church support?
  13. Go to dinner at the pastor's home. How does he interact with his family in his normal home environment? What are his wife and children like? Who does most of the talking? Does the pastor share in household duties, or is he served by his wife and children?
  14. Sit in for some of the children's church or events to see how children are treated and whether they are presented with the Gospel on a regular basis.
  15. If you can't get a straight answer about major church theological/doctrinal issues, such as whether the church is egalitarian or complementarian, observe how those issues are lived out in church life. What are the roles of women in the church? How does the church treat homosexuals? 
  16. If you are interested in ministry, obtain a list of duties lay men and women can perform in this church. For instance, are women able to read scripture to the church, pray for the church? Or are they segregated to women's groups or serving in the church kitchen?

Vice and Victory


Facing temptation can feel like a lonely battle. It happens mostly in our heads - the play back and forth between the idea and the resistance. We imagine we are alone, the only Christian to ever face this particular struggle, the only one who's ever been ensnared and enticed by whatever evil we are staring down.

Christ came to this world to resist temptation. If He'd never faced a test of faith, the purity of His life would have simply been divine, rather than the human/divine He came to show the world. We share with Him in victory when we face down our demons and emerge unscathed: though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (I Peter 1:6-7)

In these difficult days of first breaking the habit, I cannot stare down a single cigarette without succumbing to temptation. What would I do if I were on a mountaintop with Satan, offered power over all the world? (Matthew 4:1-11) I can imagine all the reasons I would justify my relent - I could bring the world peace; I could feed and clothe all the orphans; I could heal every crumbling marriage and protect every child from abuse. As I reflect on Jesus' temptation in the wilderness, it is unfathomable to me that He, using eternal perspective, knowing that all these small salvations would be accomplished in the greater Salvation of the cross, could turn Satan down and say, "Not yet."
“The nature of Christ’s salvation is woefully misrepresented by the present-day evangelist. He announces a Saviour from Hell rather than a Saviour from sin. And that is why so many are fatally deceived…there are multitudes who wish to escape the Lake of fire who have no desire to be delivered from their carnality and worldliness.” (A.W. Pink)
One cigarette craving at a time, I am privy to the grace of the Cross that not only saved me from hell, but daily sanctifies me with undeserved favor, undeserved strength that I can forever draw from the everlasting well of Living Water. When I feel alone, I call to mind the much greater temptations that Christ resisted for the love of my very soul. Would the Savior who suffered the cross on my behalf not hold my hand as I walk free of earthly temptations? Does He not desire freedom for all He loves? True freedom - the kind that eradicates temptation from our consciousness and sets our feet on the solid ground of the call and response of greatest Love?

When I sit on my swing in the clean summer air, longing for the deep breathing of the cigarette, longing for the physical release and the relaxation it brings, I call to mind the greater struggle that is faith meted out in the midst of our failures. Facing down the tangible and momentary reward of giving in to sin for the eternal reward is well worth it. Even when all I can muster is a caveat about the immediate health benefits, He is beside me, walking with me, and reminding me that even He walked this hard road once.

In Him, you are not your sin. In Him, you are not your dirt. In Him, you are hidden and your iniquity is made clean by your identity and your identity is in His purity — and when we are our worst, His white hides our dirt best. (from Ann, in her beautiful piece, When You Feel like Your Life's a Mess...The Real Truth About Your Dirt)
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Vices and Virtues


We line up our treasures of the soul, memories a string of pearls, moments like seashells on the rough hewn timbre of the past. All life is virtue or vice, high palisades of glorious success and deep valleys of sorrow, sacrifice, and succumbing. Under the microscope of our own conscience and the sharp light cast by the Holy Spirit on our soul, our vices loom large and clear. We pass the glory of our delights and our shining moments on to the Savior to whom we credit them. Yet we claim our failures as our own.

This double-edged sword of perspective can reduce we Christ-ones to hopeless peons in the struggle against sin. If we do not share in glory with our Creator, and wallow in our dismally dark moments, we are forever stuck in the mud of loss and lethargy. For how long can we struggle against the chains of sin if we never allow our souls to ascend to the mountaintops with Christ in our triumphs?


I started smoking last April, a desperate attempt to drown out the triple demons of flashbacks, nightmares, and anxiety. The deep inhale, the slow exhale became the rhythm to which I dragged myself out of the emotional mire. The dirtiness of a soul whose dark corners remained unredeemed seemed congruent with the stink of the smoke I wrapped around me like a cape. And with the vapors of toxin, I insulated myself against a cruel world, pushing out other Christians unsure what to make of a daughter of the King wrapped in the shrouds of soot.


The time has come now, a year later, to walk away from this shroud. Tobacco was created by God, and yes, I think it was used by Him to help me through a tenuous time. But now it has become a vice - a habit unfitting for a temple of God Himself. I never struggled with the habit of it as an occasional smoker since my college days. But now that it is ingrained - especially as my relaxation, my joy, my moments alone - it is proving more difficult to quit. I glue verses to the doorpost, to the porch rail by my swing. Reminders of why the time has come.
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have received from God? (I Corinthians 6:19)
It is time to put my money where my mouth is. To line up treasures instead of tortures. To claim freedom from sin through the power of the Holy Spirit, who liveth in me...for the law of the Spirit of life has set me free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2).
Amy's treasures from the sea, lined up on the surf breakwater.
As I walk free from these chains of sin, will you walk with me? Post a comment here to tell me of your prayers for me, visit my Facebook wall in the coming days and weeks to encourage, send me an email with a personal prayer you've offered up for me? Do you have a vice you need to walk away from, too? Let's do it together - tell me how I can pray for you, either publicly or privately. I, Genevieve, your sister and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus...I want to stand with you and join you, that we may both go free from the chains of darkness and walk in the light together. (Revelation 1:9, paraphrased)

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The least of these

Today I had to write a card to a dear friend. The same card I've been writing every year for seven years now. In which I try to express my gratitude and heartbreak to those parents, who suffer a million times more heartbreak and a thousand times more gratitude. Impossible words. There are certain affairs of the heart that will never pour out in writing.

Caleb was the last person, among many, who drew my husband to Christ. It was through the tiny example of 5-year-old faith, unwavering belief as he walked toward Jesus and away from his parents, that my husband finally understood the depth and breadth of grace. How am I to thank a grieving mother and father, arms still empty, for forever filling mine? For eternally giving me Aaron? Through their willing sacrifice, he was brought finally to salvation. When they laid their baby down on that altar, that funeral pyre, he looked on and saw the cross, beautifully and lovingly displayed.

I watched a hundred Marys as they walked their sons and daughters to that familiar doorstep. I stood by deathbeds and saw this passion played out, over and over again. What was a final knell for these mothers...a last touch...one more kiss...a precious child's body cooling under their caresses...that is what Christ conquered. Because of His sacrifice two thousand years ago, Caleb's mama and papa can look forward to a reunion someday in heaven.

Once again this year, I praise...through tears. I weep and worship. Remembering his hands, that gripped our hearts without thumbs, blue eyes that pierced us with their surprising joy, a tiny child who submitted so completely to parents and God that he laid still...stock still...under the most impossible physical conditions.

And I am once again led to deeper faith, taken by that tiny little hand and brought closer to the cross. Thank you, Caleb, for turning my eyes to Jesus in new ways each year as I remember your miraculously mature example of faith.





We are on the road, on our way home from South Carolina. I have to write this year's card when I get home. I've reposted this piece from the archives about my gratitude for Caleb, a little boy who died on my shift on the pediatric bone marrow transplant unit in 2002.

The emperor's new clothes



That month of waiting, as May turned into June in my first year of cancer, still weighs heavy in my memory. Cancer in some ways seemed like an awakening, as if the Holy Spirit that I had inoculated myself against finally reached critical mass and began stirring inside in ways I could not ignore. Along with cancer awoke a dream for my life, a vision of the person I might become, goals and ideas that I'd never lent time to consider.
And when He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come forth." He who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings; and his face was wrapped around with a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go." (John 11:43-44)
I read this, and think, there were a few possible options here. It seems a bit absurd that Lazarus emerges still mummified in his grave clothes. They probably stunk, for one thing. For another, could this poor guy even see where he was going? Then Jesus commands the confounded family and friends to unbind the man - naked beneath - and let him go. Somehow I doubt they came to the tomb with fresh clothes for the dead relative they came to mourn.


Jesus, who raised him from the dead, certainly had the power to command the stinky wrappings to drop as Lazarus stood up for the first time since his death days before. But instead He allows the dead to rise wrapped in the reminder of that very death - the grave clothes and the cloying spices used to preserve the body in those days.

I am the same. He resurrected when He gave me new life...salvation from my sins. But the grave clothes clung, the spices still wafting pungent...shame, self-righteousness, old views about myself and about God, the tendency to seek after pleasure and joy in places that will never fulfill the hidden depths of my heart. As the years go by, He desires me to throw off those stinky old wraps, the vestiges of my death, now a thing of the past. This journal has been a safe place to become aware of the grave clothes still clinging, to begin the process of unwrapping.


Have you ever injured yourself and experienced the tangible fear that comes when removing the bandage for the first time? What will the broken limb look like, what about the stitches, or the old blood, or the decaying layers of skin? Have you paused as you imagined the pain of ripping the bandage, now embedded, from the sore wound? Wrinkled your nose to avoid smelling skin that hasn't been bathed in a week or a month or two? This is what it's like to take off grave clothes that have clung for a lifetime to your soul. Character traits that have been part of you so long you thought they were an integral part of you, not something you could throw aside. Yet Jesus says that we can throw aside those parts of ourselves that do not reflect Him - sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry...anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips - and put on His character like a set of new clothes.Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (from Colossians 3)


Just think. This is the the solution every person who bought a self-help book in the past was really looking for. But applying the knowledge here if you don't know Jesus, don't have the Holy Spirit living in you and renewing you, is as futile as trying to improve your sense of self-worth while you stay with the man who beats you to a pulp every day. You've got to get a new boyfriend. His name is Jesus. He is the Lover of your soul, and the perfecter of the weak, and the source for everything you've been searching for. If you're still battling the abuse of a love affair with yourself, or trying to emerge from addiction, anger, low self-esteem, loneliness...even if you think you're doing pretty well, but you keep hearing about Jesus and wondering what in the world I'm talking about: believe. Just choose it. Then trust Him to perfect the work He begins in you. (Philippians 1:6)

Here are a few verses for you to consider, and to enjoy if you have already accepted God's free gift of salvation:

Believe on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved. (Acts 16:31)

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. (I John 5:13)

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him. (John 3:36)

I noticed recently that some versions of the Bible change the word in the familiar John 3:16 from "shall" to "might". I want you to see the difference between the two:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

"Might" seems so much less certain than "shall".

If you have questions regarding what I've written today, please contact me. I am putting my e-mail address right here, on the world wide web for anyone to see. Email me at gmthul@yahoo.com.

***a humble repost from the archives of 2010, during some of the very darkest days of my whole life, following our painful leavetaking from a beloved church

On Folly


Today, sand castles, rip tides, a surfing competition, and winds that sandblasted us with the whipping gray dust.





Miraculous mundane


It's been days of sandy feet and brown skin flashing in the bleak May sun of South Carolina. Afternoons lazing around the screen porch with books and the sounds of the birds over the marsh and the wind through the palmettos. A foreign climate and culture that's begun to tarnish to the comfortable feeling of home over the 5 summers we've spent here. This place is full of romance and familiar haunts, tattooed surfers striding home in the sunset and the smell of salt on the afternoon breeze. A magical place to make memories for little people.

Today we napped together, shivering in the air conditioning as the wind howled around the corners of the house on stilts. We went down to the main street late in the morning, and came home laden with beautiful shells, shovels, and inner tubes. The kids all wanted to ride the waves on the top, after days of body surfing and boogie boarding and being pummeled to the sandy bottom by the crash of the break. I gamely blew 20 minutes of breath into the tubes and we shivered into our suits, cursing the air conditioning that a few days ago couldn't eradicate the crushing humidity.

They piled in the back of the truck, and I in front, barefoot, with the hiphop blaring. We jived our way down to the far end of the island, the side we've never been too, I feeling adventurous and they always game for my hare-brained ideas. The beach was cold and deserted, lashed with 30 mile an hour winds, and only surfers in body suits could be seen out in the waves. None of this triggered my "mommy alarm", though, and we waded into the gray seas. I quickly realized they were gray because the break was only a short way out, and the sand was being stirred up into the water by the powerful waves. We shuddered in our line of fiercely gripped hand-holds, the waves driving the children past me even though we were all still on our feet. I pulled them as hard as I could, back to shore.

The little girls were screaming with cold, but their shrieks only grew louder as we scurried out of the water and back into the cold air. They talked (or shrieked) me into taking them back out with the tubes. I gripped their taught little bodies and propelled them back to shore over the tops of the breaking waves. Katy, the cautious eldest, stood on the shore screaming at us to come back to safety. Caleb was completely disoriented, and tried to get back out through the waves to me.  Stunned by the force of nature whirling around us, I could barely gather my wits enough to herd them back to the sand. Someday they'll tell hilarious stories about the day their mother took them swimming in the hurricane (I learned from the weather station back at home that Tropical Storm Alberto is bearing down on the "Edge of America" as Folly Beach is known).


Somewhere between the shrieks and the howl of the wind, the aching beauty that is the tragedy and miracle of motherhood seeped through. The gray sandy feet pattering over the worn boards of the beach walk, the music throbbing through the speakers and four kids bopping in the rear view mirror, the goose bumps on my son's brown skin as I hold him close to warm him with my body... We know this dance of the sacred and the mundane, the beautiful and the drudgery, the sacrifice and the pay-out, we mothers. We feel it deep when words can't capture and memory can't hold the little joys of the everyday miracles. Our souls sing with the rhythm of life that plays out in detail before our eyes in the lives of our children. We live and breath hard work, yet in the cracks of life seeps that aching beauty: the blush on a baby's cheek, the smell of your young cuddled up to your neck, the 100 watt smiles of childhood happiness, the muddy feet and the bug bitten legs, the birdsong of little girls' laughter and the earthier burliness of our sons.

In our failures there is beauty...in our success there are shortcomings. Whether a failed beach trip in stormy seas that has our children shivering and shrieking, or a long lazy afternoon sitting on the dock listening to the dolphins talk to each other, it is beautiful, this dance and work of motherhood. The memories of our children will be highlight reels of the highs and lows of our family life. But I treasure a richer and fuller sense of the organic wonder of this mundane miraculous, a collection of vignettes that open the heart of the Father to my understanding, the wonder of His love and the tenacity of the hope we hold dear for those we love most.

Now I'm a Doctor (hood and all)


I was hooded today in recognition of my doctoral degree by Dean Stewart of the College of Nursing and Dr. Teresa Kelechi, my research mentor.



I do not like being the subject of attention - especially the hundreds who attended the convocation ceremony! Stress ran pretty high, and I broke down emotionally once I saw my family afterward - it was a moment of feeling the weight of all the trials we passed through together on the way to this degree. Cancer immediately came to mind, and I was crying with joy that God allowed me to survive to see this moment.






After I got the tears out, I was able to have a little fun with my family, and my dear friend, Dr. Lisa Sternke, part of my original 2007 matriculating class at MUSC. We were trying to look studious - she did a pretty good job, but I just look mischievous. I guess I'll have to work on that expression if I'm going to be taken seriously as a professor! HA! I'd much rather have students who can laugh with me!

Thanks to everyone who took time to lend support in the form of comments, encouragement, and prayers over the 4 years it took to obtain my PhD.

A day at the beach














Revisiting cancer


Our 10 year old black lab, Tally, was diagnosed with cancer this winter. She underwent extensive surgery, and seemed back to her old self for several months. Now she is struggling with lymphedema, swelling in the leg and chest from her mastectomy, which is also a common complication in women who've undergone the same surgery. Overnight, she deteriorated rapidly, and seems to have aged years in just a few days.

Wanting the children to be ready, we talked about Tally's health and seemingly imminent death this afternoon. The tears fell fast and hard, and there's been a lot of cuddling for Tally. She's loving the extra attention.


News like this is even more difficult for children who've had a parent with cancer. Anything cancer related, even in their pet, brings out buried fears and grief from those cancer years of mine. They are afraid that if Tally dies of cancer, I might, too.


And so we make plans to take our beloved black dog on our South Carolina vacation with us, to form some last memories. I'm sure the time spent at the beach and on the river with Tally will loom large in their memories of childhood. We've wrapped her leg and chest to help relieve the swelling, and she seems a bit better this afternoon. My heart aches for the kids as theirs aches for their pet.


Birthing beings


I watch her hold them, my niece and my nephew, in the turquoise twilight at the ball field. There is such serenity in this, the action of mothering, the cuddling and the skin and the stroking. How quickly those little fingers that were constantly entwined in your hands or your hair are bigger, browner, and busier! 


Life's seasons are achingly brief. The whole of my children's infancy and toddlerhood is now a thing of the past. Only one seeks out my hand for comfort now, only one must have skin-to-skin time every single day. There is no changing table in my bathroom anymore. The kids fall asleep in their own beds. A small, unfolding miracle in the everyday here at the yellow farmhouse.


I think about how quickly it passes as I interview for jobs, the next step of the slow process of separation that begins when they're six months old and will probably still be evolving when they marry. I wonder if this was Eve's pain in childbearing - was it the groans of the physical labor to birth a baby only? Or did it encompass this birthing of beings into the world? The very individualism I cherish in my children also cuts to the quick as they become independent and different from me. In the cocoon of the nursing days, it felt like we were connected viscerally somehow, the nursing schedules, and the cat napping with baby on my chest, the co-sleeping and the feeding from my own breast. We breathed the same air, tinged with the sweetness that is baby breath and hair. Now there is more air between us and the children often smell like soil and grass, raindrops and wind. They come to me and we embrace, and there is this differentness about them, we are two others bowing towards each other but never quite connecting as we did in those earlier days.

Prompt "Identity" and "motherhood" from Lisa-Jo today