The Spill

My job, jam, gig, ministry: helping people align their emotions with God’s grace, love, and truth.

  • Success rate for others: not too bad—if you count people wrestling with being made in the image of God, the depth of their brokenness, and God’s delight in them—as a journey toward healing and fullness of life in Christ. And not too bad if you can consider and maybe even believe that grief, joy, pain, and trust are not mutually exclusive and can live together in the messy glory of a heart inhabited by God’s holiness and love and intimacy.
  • Success rate for my own heart: not too bad … better than many years ago … and maybe I kind of have a handle on this … and I know I am not perfect and haven’t “arrived” and there are always rough spots to smooth out … but I seem to have a good idea how to roll in this God-connection-with-Kathie thing.

Until I bump into the parts of my heart I don’t even know I have cordoned off. And until that bump creates a spill that feels embarrassing and messy. And then the control-it-get-it-right-clean-it-up-keep-it-neat-Kathie thing kicks in. (I have a new habit of ending sentences with prepositions. It’s a tiny rebellion. Get used to it.)

This spring, summer, and fall were full of God cracking open doors in my heart I didn’t even realize I was guarding. Some led to rooms I tried to pretend didn’t exist and some to rooms I didn’t know I had; some were rooms I was pretty sure I had already done a good job straightening up and sorting out.

You might not even know what’s in that silly room anymore, but if you’ve had yellow caution tape and a bouncer stationed there for years, it’s scary to let someone through—even if it’s God who’s asking. At times it’s felt like I’m a human Operation® game, and even getting close to certain thoughts or emotions starts the electric buzz you can feel in your fillings. I feel my heart and thoughts and defenses and habits and fears and hopes laid wide open and I am suddenly a Scrabble® game, letter tiles spilled all over the floor. Here and there a word happens to form, but mostly it’s splutters and jumbles of letters that don’t make sense together. (There’s probably Trivial Pursuit®, Risk®, Monopoly®, Twister®, and Hungry Hungry Hippos® living inside me, too, but that’s a story for another day and probably a check I’d have to send to Hasbro.)


I took these photos January 28, 2015 for a blog post I started that day. Felt like a clever and tangible representation of the jumble I felt inside. Cheers to me for closing in on nearly two years to touch the real letters of my heart.

If there was a way to combine an eye-rolling emoji and a gratitude emoji, that would go *here*.

From milk to marbles to a mess of a heart, who ever thinks a spill is good news? Usually, what ensues is panic. Mop it and catch it is the knee-jerk. If your heart dumps unintelligible blech like scattered wooden tiles, get the letters back in the bag.

But maybe there can be something different in the spill.

Maybe God is asking, politely and pleadingly, asking.


“Kathie, can you wait? Wait while I show you some things? Can you hold still, not scoop up and stuff the surprise back in? I mean, this stuff you are calling a ‘surprise,’ but doesn’t surprise me one bit? Can you hang out with the mixed-up letters and the splurts and splutters that are part of you, because I am here in this, too, and you will be hanging out with Me?”

Maybe He’s me reminding of truth, the truth of His own character.


“By the way, kiddo, you aren’t lost. I haven’t wandered off, and I won’t let you wander into the weeds, either. I know you have boxes and cubbies and bins and shelves and labels and tags and all sorts of ways you try to organize, categorize, analyze, synthesize, theorize (Wow, you ‘ize’ a lot. Aren’t you tired?), and try to keep everything around you—people, places, objects, emotions, unknowns—steady. And part of that steadiness reflects Me and I love it: you are calm and loving when the hearts of others are aching, and I often allow you to be a safe place so someone can get a glimpse of my immense joy and delight in them. But, sweetie, I never asked you to partition and sort your own heart to the extent that you don’t need Me. I never asked you to steady yourself. To handle everything to the point where I can’t even give you good gifts … surprises that delight Me and will delight you.

“What if you let Me hold your heart again? Remember when you used to do that? I won’t lose it. In fact, if anyone is going to lose it, it will be you. You set it down places and wander off and forget it. You’ll organize and edit it to death, Kath. You pack your calendar and your brain and your here-let-me-help soul so full, it’s hard to get a word or moment in there with you.

“I know what these letters are about and I know the words I want to write. Please just let me write. I am a Great Author.”

A good Father longing to give good gifts to a beloved daughter. How strange that we run from gifts! I mean, I get it. I’ve seen cartoons: wrapped and ribboned boxes can explode and cakes can have dynamite instead of candles. But they were usually handed out by a coyote and you’re probably a roadrunner.

What if—with God—even a spill is a gift?

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Emotional Breakdown Over Crispy Bacon and An Old Lady

It was a morning when everyone and everything made me homesick … both kinds of homesick, the “here” kind and the “then” kind.

We are at the morphine days of G Mel’s homegoing. It’s about making her comfortable and giving reassuring words that it’s okay to let go. And laughing with her as she accidentally bites her low-dose morphine pill in half and the two pieces keep slipping out the opposite corners of her smiling, denture-free mouth; her family and caregivers keep popping them back in, adding water to wash them down, to have the tiny bits take turns sliding out again. Like trying to shoot marbles in a puddle. On Wednesday, she asked for permission to die: Would we be okay? Will she leave us with too much to do? Would she be causing a problem? My aunt and dad reassured her on all fronts: it’s okay to welcome complete rest from this side of heaven.

As I ate breakfast in a small restaurant this morning, I sniffled often and tears welled again and again, not allowed to rush down my face solely because my waitress was too nice and I didn’t want to freak her out; she was the kind who calls me “Sweetie” even though she’s probably 30 … though I may have enough gray hair now to merit “Sweetie.” Controlling my blubbering impulse may not have been the best, since the thing that happened in its place was a kind of giddy laughter as I kept staring out the window and grabbing my coffee cup like a security blanket. It was chuckling borne of of gratitude for all kinds of goodness even in this hard time, and the realization of how goofy I probably looked taking each bite of crispy bacon—G Mel has demands about bacon sturdiness and when the strips don’t snap, she makes faces like a disgusted teenager—with my face contorted to keep from sobbing. So, instead of snot-snorting crying, I went for lunatic, red-eyed giggler.

I shook my head at such unreasonable emotions about saying goodbye to someone who has had so much time here and when we have had so much warning. Then I thought:

This is what love looks like.

  • The celebration of having 45+ years with her (both my grandmothers are still alive at the moment … amazing) and the greed of feeling like I will never have had enough hugs and kisses.
  • The joy of imagining her pain-, fear-, and worry-free, and then the thought of the planet without her revealing an ache in my heart that tells me my love for her runs even deeper than I know.
  • Waking again and again in the night to pray for her and for her caregivers, even as I smile at the descriptions my parents share of how often G Mel just grins and moves her shoulders up around her ears now, like a happy, trusting, but not fully-comprehending toddler.

I am homesick “here,” on this side of heaven, for my family in California, though we know it’s best for me to remain in Idaho at the moment, for many reasons. We have discussed again and again the gift of the time I had with her in April when she was still so cognizant, and being the talkie family we are (I have a friend who jokes that every event with us leads to “the inevitable coffee and discussion”) we have processed multiple times at multiple stages whether and when I should head south. And I am homesick for “then,” when everything is back together on the restored side of heaven, and there is no more missing each other.

I finished my coffee, picked up my car and its freshly installed new tires (thanks to the great, Jesus-timed generosity of a friend,) and drove down the road to my favorite local yarn shop, owned by another dear friend. As I came in the door I saw she was on the phone; she whispered a quick hello and returned to her call, while I wandered into the corridors of fiber, trying to give her some privacy and wondering how much purple yarn it would take to make me feel better. She finished the call and headed toward me, full of cheerful welcome; I turned and practically ran at her, announcing, “I need a hug and you have good arms.”

And the sobbing commenced, finally both strong and sad, reassured and heartbroken. Thank you, Lord, for your tender embraces here, in bacon and tires and yarn and your children.


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Giving Up On Keeping Even

On this post-fall side of heaven, receiving love with open arms can be a challenge. We know about God’s grace and he “so loved the world,” but accepting the full, glorious joy of his love into our heart can seem too hard to hurdle.

When we try to describe giving or receiving love with complete abandon, we often talk about babies: we delight in lavishing love upon them, expecting nothing in return. Wee ones are too small to be “useful” but we don’t mind one bit. We pour the full wonder of our hearts upon them and they revel in it; neither they nor we have any need of “earning” our love or favor.

But something happens. We grow up and learn we better carry our own weight, write thank you notes, repay kindness with kindness. What, at its best, would simply be us learning to let our own gratitude pour back into the world gets a little twisted up and becomes paying back. And we silently learn to keep track.

You give something to me. I thank you. I look for a way to repay. The next lunch? I’ll get it. Mow your lawn? Now we‘re even.

Instead of learning to be loved, we learn to be even.

And when we are old and our bodies start to fail and our money runs thin and we can’t pay for lunch and we can’t mow the lawn, it’s a long journey back to just receiving. To just being lavished upon.


My grandmother is a handful of sunrises away from her 90th birthday. Her body can’t keep up with her still swift-moving ideas and her funds are dwindling faster than her retirement income replenishes.

These “limitations” make it hard for her to feel worthy of love. And hard for her to repay the very kindness she aches for and her family delights to pour out … but that she also can’t help keeping track of.

A month ago, she asked me what book of the Bible talked about old age and dying; I found devotionals written for aging seniors. She asked me to make her a blanket with yarn she never used when she didn’t learn to knit like she planned at age 88; I knit her a cozy lavender throw. She loves, loves, loves her coffee and misses the mountains in winter, so I decided a snowflake coffee cup was just the right surprise.

When I present these goodies, she is overwhelmed with glee, so happy that dolphin noises come out of her: “Eeeeeeeee!” She snuggles the blanket and flips through the books and cradles the mug.

Then it comes: “Oooohhhhh, I have to pay you for these books because I asked you about talking to God. And I just wish I could think of something to get you and I wish I could take you to lunch and I wish I could get out and buy things for you. You do so much for me! This is too much!” And a wave of embarrassment at not “being even” steals just a smidge of the love and fun from her happy heart, even as I express my utter thrill at bringing these gifts and being in her presence for every moment I can.

I cringe a bit, but I am no different. I, too, learned along life’s journey to “keep even.” My response sounds just like hers when God pours out his sweetness and generosity on me, whether through his Spirit or the love of people around me. I revel in the moment until my own version of, “I just wish I could think of something to do for you! You do so much for me! This is too much!” kicks in.

So, together, Grandma and I will practice in the time we have. To this mother-of-my-mother who has kept me awash in love from the moment I was born, when my only impressive acts were breathing and sleeping and demanding everything I wanted by wailing my lungs out, I will now return the same delight, the same patience, the same you-owe-me-nothing-for-my-love. And we will both receive with delight God’s unmatchable love and grace, giving our thanks, and instead of keeping even with him, just look for ways to keep letting it pour out around us.

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A Seat on the Bus

I travel around the world as part of my missionary career. I love it and I dread it. I love seeing new things and tasting new things; I get to practice keeping a straight face when scenes don’t look familiar and when my taste buds experience flavors far different from what they are accustomed.

There are deeper challenges and opportunities, too. Many times, those challenges are to my sense of identity and worth, which for me are closely tied to my need to “get it right.”

On one trip, an old woman offered me her seat on a local bus in Southeast Asia during a bright morning ride across town. After interpreting her gestures and smile as insistence that I take her seat, I finally acquiesced when she stood, refusing to give in to my return smile and head shake of what I hoped communicated “No, thank you.”

As I slid into the seat, I was warm with embarrassment and worry and failure. I assumed I was doing something culturally inappropriate or foolish in my standing on the bus and bracing myself with the hand straps. I thought I had been quiet and polite, standing where I was supposed to and not giving offense. My heart sank, since clearly I had blown it and this woman was trying to get me to stop being so stupid.

My friend and travel companion, a woman who was raised in this part of the world, sensed my disappointment. When I apologized to her that I must have been doing something wrong because a woman much older than me made me take her seat, my friend explained to me it was local hospitality. Age had nothing to do with it; I was clearly a visitor in this part of the world and this woman was caring well for me, as her upbringing taught her.

Then, another familiar sense overwhelmed me; once again, I had assumed the worst of me.

The bus ride was a crash of cultures and my own fallen heart. In my home culture, it’s polite for me to stand and make sure anyone older than me has a seat, especially a senior citizen. Here, it’s polite for anyone of any age to give up their seat for a guest in their country. With a moment’s reflection and a little more information, my mind can process the difference and appreciate the experience. But by then, my heart has to be resuscitated; inside, I always first process anything uncomfortable or unknown as failure on my part. My fallen inner voice tells me all the time that I am not enough and if I want to be loved (at most) or not a disappointment to God or anyone else (at least), I need to get every step and every interaction and every choice just right. When things don’t go precisely the way I expect or I don’t know what to do and there is the slightest chance I might stumble, I always first interpret the situation and my feelings as my failure.

It hadn’t crossed my mind that the elderly woman was being kind. It hadn’t crossed my mind to simply experience the moment with open eyes and heart, willing to observe and enjoy and learn. I was in full self-protection mode, only watching and processing my own actions, guessing at the impression I was giving others, striving to make sure that impression made people like me.

Granted, it was just a brief bus ride with people I will likely never see again, but it tells me something about my instincts and inner habits; when I live in self-protection mode, I miss good things. I miss relaxing in the warm smile of a woman’s kindness; I miss seeing others and their real intentions, obsessed instead with myself; I miss learning in real peace and trust, clinging instead to whatever I think will keep me most acceptable to people, a false peace.

Gratefully, I am gaining a better sense and habit of my already-complete acceptability in Christ. If I believe I am already wholly acceptable, it gives my heart space to process new information and new moments … and receive God’s sweet smile and generosity in the gift of a seat on the bus.


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Strawberries, Acid, and Indecision

Here’s a snippet from my NaNoWriMo effort in 2012. I don’t think I’ve ever put a piece of the G Mel/Sluss story out here without context and lead-up. But, why not, eh? It’s all about the DNA and practice.  


I confess I didn’t know this flavor of adrenaline could course through my body. I don’t like it. It tastes of self-disappointment, disillusionment, and chocolate chip cookies. The cookies ought to be delicious. They may well be again, but for now they have staled. Or maybe taken a different shape and flavor. Maybe they’ll morph into butterscotch-worry-lemon-regret-macaroon-hope gingersnaps … with chocolate chips. A combo I never really thought about, but maybe this is the real flavor of life.

I listen to Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy in the background, hear the wheels of her walker touring the floor, stops here and there. I wait for her to come to the study door despite a promise not to disturb, despite a promise to disappear. And it’s this word, this desire in her that I can barely stomach.

If she wheelied through the house at 100 miles an hour or two miles per hour, if she dripped tortilla soup all over the stove, if she spilled coffee down the front of every shirt she owns, I wouldn’t care. What I cannot stomach is the self-loathing that trails her. It is evil, doesn’t belong here, and is not the woman I know. Knew. This is not my grandmother who survived two previous husbands in some form (divorce and death), who has lived the life of a poor child, a wealthy woman, a penniless divorcée, a self-frugal but others-generous senior, and a sassy single touree of the north and southwest in a fifth wheel all her own. She is a survivor. She is brave. She doesn’t take crap but she is not ugly about it. She is genteel. She is no-nonsense but giggles with her children and grandchildren.

This woman is hollowed out like a Halloween jack-o-lantern. She trembles at the timbre of a voice suggesting anything more adamant than, “Would you like ice in your tea?” or “Please pass the butter.” She cannot express a consistent, confident thought, a clear trail, a singular desire. She has been left bereft, decimated, of words, of wits, of wants, of worth. And I hate that I am disappointed at moments, angry at moments WITH HER, instead of compassionate or angry with where the anger belongs. The anger belongs with the Enemy, with life, with culture, some with her, and with her third husband.

Where has she gone? And can she get back?

November 1, 2012, I come home to a platter of chocolate-covered strawberries that she called me at work hours ago to tell me had arrived. She wouldn’t dare open them or eat one, despite my urging, which in one sense is sweet, since we can share when I get home, but in another sense I just want her to live like a human and be able to receive something, to be able to confidently take me at my words when I say, “Sounds delicious. Open ‘em up and get crackin’!”

Instead … I come home to a hovering hummingbird, who can’t settle down and who can’t do enough for me, and who can’t make a move unless it’s okay with me. This is the physicality of the aftermath of abuse. And a lot of loneliness.

I can’t even stomach opening the strawberries … or the pita bread, pancakes, or tiny rye loaf she has out on the counter.

Why the weird combo on display? And why two containers of bean soup thawing on the stovetop?

“Well, we are down to just a few things, so I found these in the freezer, and I didn’t know what you wanted, and so you can choose and there’s these little rye pieces and …”

And thus begins a tour of the carbohydrates on the counter. Why are we out of normal bread and lunch meat? Because I have pretty much stopped offering to stop by the store, bring anything home, see what she might like, ask what we could use. It can’t be done. There is no answer that includes “milk, scallions, eggs, syrup, and turkey breast”. The only answer includes, “Oh, you are so busy and I am fine and I don’t need anything and you shouldn’t have to get me anything and I am sorry to be such a burden and you don’t need to go out of your way and I feel so badly that you have to shop for me …”

There is no way to win the grocery war. I can’t win the coffee war, the towel war, the make-the-bed war, the brush-the-dog war.

I am so flustered by her fluttering that I can’t settle, either. I can’t make a decision, can’t find an answer or a food that will be compatible with unwinding my day and give her the satisfaction of preparing something and that will meet my nutritional desires and my, let’s just say it, very odd tastes. I DON’T CARE what combination of things go in my mouth … fix something and let’s be on with it. The best part of any meal prepared by someone else, offered by them, is the word “served”. For me, it’s not the food itself; it’s the generosity of your serving me that is sweetest on my tongue and most filling in my belly. But she can’t move without my permission.

“Vegetables? Chicken breast? Bread? Green Beans?” The litany of all the food in the house that could possibly be prepared and consumed begins and I need to make a choice.

Too often lately I have just said, “Thanks, not hungry.” I am ravenous, but I can’t sort out the math: the time it will take her to prep it before bedtime (because she CANNOT start before I arrive home) + an actual food combination we would both like + a complete meal that seems like something a responsible grown-up would eat + what will not come back like a Technicolor yawn after it lands on the churning acid in my stomach.

IMG_0629Tonight, I run from the kitchen and even from the strawberries. It looks like a walk to the naked eye, but my guts are sprinting down the hall. When she slinks to the door to ask where she should put the berries, back in the fridge or leave them on the counter, where she put them so prettily so I could come home to them, next to a lit candle, even, I have no answer.

Is this because there is no right answer anymore? Is there no way to bring calm, bring peace, bring reassurance to a heart that knows no matter what she chooses, she will be stupid and selfish and wrong? He who taught her that she can never be right, never get it right, has infiltrated my life. Now I can never get it right, even with someone who has loved me so beautifully for 42 years, who thinks I am perfect, who thinks my heart is unending and my smarts off the charts. He has broken me, too.

And maybe he has done me a favor.

I flee to my study with arms full of laptop and eyes full of frustration and brow clouded with lines and the Rorschach inkblot that weighs on my forehead when I don’t know what to do and someone is waiting for me to make it all better. After 15 minutes of typing, and getting hungrier, frankly, and not being able to come up with a way to sneak into the kitchen for food and then back out again, and thinking, “Well, hell, she’ll eat when she gets hungry,” a phrase I previously reserved for dogs and small children, it finally dawns on me that the strawberries will never get opened unless I go out there and do it. A beautiful, flouncy cellophane wrap, tied off with peach and pale green ribbon might as well be Fort Knox. Her heart can’t open it. Her trembling fingers would wrestle with it anyway, but the permission that I carry, the assent to open those berries, is enormous. I am the only one who can bust through the cellophane and invite the shy, but berry-ravenous kitty, to come eat one, too. By the time I get there, she is heating the pancakes I was hoping for, but as soon as the berries are unwrapped and one is deliciously in my mouth, she gleefully pops one on her plate and is all smiles. She announces, slyly and proudly later as she eats it, mouth covered in chocolate and her hand fumbling around for one of the tissues she has stuffed in her waistband, that she didn’t even ask; she just took one.

I point out that I told her on the phone that I wanted her, invited her, to open them and enjoy. She says that’s just because I was trying to be a good granddaughter.


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