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A Measure of Love: On Christmas Eve (at 1 AM) in the Morning

christmas-1812692__340.jpgWhom God loves, he loves to the end:

And not to their end, and to their death

But to his end.

And his end is that he might love them more.

John Donne

Mom! Oh mom, oh mom, oh mom, my 13 year-old moaned. My stomach hurts so much. Please come. 

I wished he’d called for Papa instead. Because Mama was nestled and snuggled in bed. The heat was set low and she didn’t want to go.

After a week of short nights, this, I’d hoped, would be her night for a long winter’s nap.

Love Rolls Out of Bed

Mom, please come, he cried again.

I rolled over. It was 1:04. I’d been with him at 9 and 10 and checked in again with meds at 11. Then to bed and sugarplums.

Coming, I called with a sigh.

“So this is Christmas,” I thought as I lay in the dark, groping about for glasses and socks.

I forced myself out of my snuggly, warm bed and shivering, stumbled my way toward the groans. Then halfway down the hall, it hit me.

That this IS Christmas. That this might actually be closer to the “real meaning of Christmas” than cozy and comfy and Silent Night by candlelight.

That, really, Christmas is more like leaving the warmth to show love in the cold.

This is love come down.

Love Came Down At Christmas

The creed says, “For us and for our salvation he came down.” Paul put it like this to the Philippians,

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself to death, even death on a cross.

I left my warm bed to care for my sick, pitiful child. The Son left the glories of heaven at his Father’s side- the bosom of the Father some translations say- to care for his sin-sick children.

Choosing discomfort to serve another: this is one measure of love.

A Measure of Love

Comfort is overrated. And when it comes to love comfort might not rate at all. In fact, our own discomfort might be a much more accurate indicator of our love for others.

When I weigh my love on this measure, I’m not very loving. Honestly, if Sam’s moans had not been so loud, I might have ignored them. Because I’m a master of excuses for staying in my comfort zones: I deserve this sleep. Jim can go. I warned this son about all that soda and candy and cake.

But God loves us too much to leave us as we are. He calls us to deny ourselves and prefer others and gives us the grace to do it. Christ gives us victory over our selfish, comfort-loving hearts.

We’re more than conquerors through him who loved us and more than conquerors don’t stay stuck in comfort zones. They step into discomfort for love’s sake.

They move into cold driveways and hard conversations.

Discomfort For Love’s Sake

Mom, will you come out and play PIG with me? Please? 

That from the 11 year-old who invited me out for a game of PIG in the driveway. Who called me out of the a cozy house on a 29° day.

Sure Gabe, I’ll come. This time, love won.

It happened again when love pushed me to talk to a relative to whom talking didn’t come naturally.

So Mike, how is it going with work?  I asked. It wasn’t easy, but it was good.

By the measure of choosing others’ “interests” over my comfort, my love is low. The fact that these events are memorable at all shows how vast the room for my love to grow.

Think how you would like to become a slug.

Puritan Anthony Burgess marveled too, at “discomfort” the Incarnation must have been for the Son.

He that was in the bosom of His Father- an expressing showing the intimate, close and secret delight and love He had from the Father. How unspeakable is it that He should deprive Himself of the sense of it? To put himself, as it were out of heaven and into hell? This is deeper love than ever we can imagine or conceive: no wonder the apostle calls it “the unsearchable riches of grace.” 

This is deeper love than we mere mortals who dread to get out of bed in the cold middle of the night can imagine. The Son left the warmth of the heavenly Father for our sakes.

For our sake, Love left heaven for sick, cold earth. This is unsearchably rich grace.

C.S. Lewis made the comparison, too, in more graphic terms than Burgess.

The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a Woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab. 

Yes, real love is humble and comes down and goes out into the cold. Out of warm beds and warm homes and comfortable conversation zones.

How Love Came Down

Love came out of heaven’s bright glory and was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, because there was no place…in the inn. 

My Bible footnote on Luke 2:7 says that Christ could have been born in a stable or cave, but that “mangers were often outdoors, so it’s possible that Jesus was born in the open air.”

Open air or stable or cave- they all sound uncomfortable and cold.

But that is how Love came down.

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 

1 John 4:9-11

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When Christians Aren’t Nice: Drive On, Do What You Can

I wish I could like that woman, he said, shaking his head. But all her whining and worrying sure make it hard. Her sky is always falling.

I knew what my husband meant. Mrs. Olson was definitely an EGR.


Old Mr. Jones was an Extra-Grace-Required too. He was a crusty carmudgeon whose scowl could scare any smile away. And I do mean any. I’d watched bright chubby cheek toddler smiles grow cold and plenty of friendly greeter smiles disappear from his frosty frowns.


And he, and she, are Christians.


And let’s not forget one Mrs. Wallace. I know her inside and out. No one wants to be near her when her service gets showy and and her (little) intellect gets impatient or when her helping turns harsh and her eager zeal interrupts. 


Tough nut, that Wallace. She’s clearly got her faults.


And those faults, I happen to know, come despite the fact she listens to a half-dozen sermons and memorizes a handful of verses each week and leads a ladies’ life group and prays before she even gets out of bed each morning. Her lapses happen after all that. 


Those three, not always so nice Christians, raise two big questions. One is reasonable. The other one is not.


The right question first.

Shouldn’t all Christians be obviously better, nicer, than they used to be? 

In a word, YES!


The Bible- Jesus and John and Paul-repeatedly affirm: A tree is known by its fruit, and No one born of God makes a practice of sinning. Transformed from glory to glory, renewed in the spirit of our minds, we make no provision for the flesh. We are to grow up in every way into him who his the head.

So, yes. It is fair to assume and expect every single believer will be kinder and more patient and more loving than he or she would be without Christ. Every born-again person becomes better. Better than who he or she would have been.


But what about Mr. Jones and Mrs. Olson and Wallace? What about the ones who are ornery and edgy and difficult and often EGR? What about them? Why is it your faithless neighbor seems so much nicer than they are? 

Which brings us to the not-so-fair question:

Shouldn’t all Christians be obviously nicer than all non-Christians?

Not necessarily.


In a chapter near the end of his masterwork, Mere Christianity, you’ll find a chapter called, “Nice People or New Men.” Lewis spends most of that chapter called explaining that it is, in fact, unreasonableto expect that Christians will always be obviously nicer than non-Christians.


Only God knows the raw material. Only he knows the mass of nerves and hurts and natural temperament and early environment and everything else that made EGR’s what they are. 


Lewis explains how,

[G]od has allowed natural causes, working in a world spoiled by centuries of sin, to produce in Miss Bates the narrow mind and jangled nerves which account for most of her nastiness. He intends, in His own good time, to set that part of her right…  

We must, therefore, not be surprised if we find among the Christians some people who are still nasty. There is even, when you come to think it over, a reason why nasty people might be expected to turn to Christ in greater numbers than nice ones

But it is reasonable, he says, is to expect that Christ in his life will improve the old man. Jones will be more kind and Olson more trusting and Wallace more gentle, than each of them would naturally be.


If Christianity is true, Lewis explains, you can expect both that a) any Christian will be nicer than the same person if he were not a Christian, and b) that any man who becomes a Christian will be nicer than he was before. 


Lewis doesn’t leave it at that, though. He offers up a warning. 

A Warning For Nice People

You can’t expect God to look at Mrs. Olson (or nice Miss Bates) exactly the way we do, he says. If you’re naturally one of the nice ones, take heed. 

…If you have sound nerves and intelligence and health and popularity and a good upbringing, you are likely to be quite satisfied with your character as it is. “Why drag God into it?” you may ask. A certain level of good conduct comes fairly easily to you. You are not one of those wretched creatures who are always being tripped up by sex, or dipsomania, or nervousness, or bad temper. Everyone says you are a nice chap and (between ourselves) you agree with them. You are quite likely to believe all this niceness is your own doing: and you may easily not feel the need for any better kind of goodness.

There is either a warning or an encouragement here for every one of us. If you are a nice person-if virtue comes easily to you beware! Much is expected from those to whom much is given. If you mistake for your own merits what are really God’s gifts to you through nature, and if you are contented with simply being nice, you are still a rebel: and all those gifts will only make your fall more terrible, your corruption more complicated, your bad example more disastrous. 

And one of the expectations for nice folks is that they bear with the weak. 

A Command For Us All

Therefore as a prisoner for the Lord, I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love. Ephesians 4:1-3

Bearing with, or forbearing, means “to hold oneself back.” It means holding back your annoyance at Mrs. Olson and not telling off old Mr. Jones. It means listening to her worries and smiling through his frown. It means resisting the urge to get angry at one friend’s forgetfulness or irritated by another’s compulsiveness. 

Matthew Henry said it means, 

[B]earing their infirmities out of a principle of love, and so as not to cease to love them on the account of these. The best Christians have need to bear one with another, and to make the best one of another, to provoke one another’s graces and not their passions. 

We all have need to bear with one another. The frets and rubs are beneficial. Brushing shoulders with EGR’s gives us a chance to grow in love.

For love bears all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).  

We all know them. Look in a mirror if you don’t. We bear and forbear and if we cannot like them, we love them still. Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ

And if you look in the mirror and you see one, Lewis has one more word for you.

Keep Driving

But our citizenship is in heaven, and we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables Him to subject all things to Himself, will transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body. Philippians 3:20-21

Lewis concludes, 

If you are a poor creature-poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels…nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends-do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can.

One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) he will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all-not least yourself: for you have learned your driving in a hard school.  (Mere Christianity, Nice People or New Men)

You’ve been praying and reading and worshipping and still you worry and hand out harsh words to the kids. Take heart. He knows our frame. God knows our wretched machines go and grow in fits and starts. 


God knows what hard things happened early in life to nervous Mrs. Olson. He knows that her compulsions and worries used to lock her up in her house. He knows old Mr. Jones, whose frowns can freeze the sunniest smiles. He came to faith late and now his furrowed brow eases out his violent old raging ways.


And He knows how much more harsh and impatient and puffed-up that Mrs. Wallace would be without God and all his means of grace. Just imagine me without all these sermons and studies fellowship and all that Scripture memory. 


He knit me. He formed me. He knows the car I drive.


He knows you too. So press on and don’t despair, no matter the car you drive. 

Do what you can. Keep on.

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.  

Romans 14:4

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Hannah’s Hope

Her smooth cello drew me. Then, nine months ago we crossed paths again and I made a new friend. Actually, I found a new friend. Or she found me. In any case, our meeting wasn’t chance.

Because, like C.S. Lewis explained, A secret master of ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” can truly say to…Christian friends, “Ye have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.” The friendship is not a reward for our discriminating and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each of us the beauties of others” (“The Four Loves”).

Truly.

Hannah was just finishing  her last chemo treatment when we met. But hat or no hat, short hair or no, Hannah is beautiful. Hannah exudes living hope; she laughs at the days to come.  Hannah lives her motto loud: Love Jesus. Love people. Share Jesus with people. By living this way, she strengthens my hope in God. 

Months ago, I invited her to share her story here. This week she took me up.  It is with pleasure that I share Hannah with you. 

Hi. I’m Hannah.

In the past 14 months God has led me and walked with me through stage 2 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. By His grace I am currently cancer free. I recently participated in the Leukemia- Lymphoma Society (LLS) Light the Night walk. LLS provides support to cancer patients and survivors and supports research to find more effective treatments for blood cancers. I was looking forward to a night of camaraderie and sharing of stories, a night of savoring and rejoicing in life.

And we  did “light up the night with hope.” We raised money and awareness for blood cancer research and patients. The survivors and MC at the event spoke of the support of family and friends through hard times, shared fond memories of those who died of cancer, and we all celebrated the blessing of being survivors.

Yet I left with deep sadness in my soul. Where was the real hope? The solid hope? Not the fluffy, humanistic stuff, but the kind to base your life on, the hope that gives strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow. Where was that hope?

Some Trust In…

“Some trust in chariots [chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, science], some trust in horses [family, friends, statistics, positive thoughts] but we trust in the name of the Lord our God!” –Psalm 20:7

At the event, one of the women spoke of how positive thoughts, human relationships/support, and advances in science got her through treatment. I listened and thought sadly,  “Really? That’s all she’s got?” This is “hope”?  If it is, hope ends when life ends.

Positive thoughts are proven to help cancer patients handle treatment and life better, but no one  on her deathbed can save her  life by positive thinking. Human relationships have great power to affect lives, but all of us will die, and most of us won’t be remembered for long after our death (maybe a lifetime or two…).

Science provides many amazing ways to combat diseases and increase life expectancies, but no science could have predicted that I would be diagnosed with cancer at the age of 24. And this diagnosis after I’d lost 50 pounds and had really begun to live a “healthy” lifestyle. In fact, I’d run a PR in a 10k the week before my chemo treatments started. Beyond that, none of us can control whether or not the cancer returns. I know death is only breath away.

When the rubber meets the road, these sources of “hope” are just man-made smoke screens covering an abyss of hopelessness – a way for people to cope but not even come close to a permanent solution that addresses all anxieties and possibilities of an uncertain and unknown future.

But what we need, cancer or cancer free, is not hype and not “just to cope,” what we need is to hope.

Not hype, not “just cope”- hope.

“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.” -Corrie ten Boom

I’m not saying positive thoughts, human relationships, and science are bad. They are helpful, but they are all much too small and frail to be the basis of real hope.

So what is hope?  True hope is no wishy-washy thing. It does not look to the future with wishful thinking and “positive thoughts.” Oh, it is so much more!

God promises that those of us who have trusted in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior have an imperishable and unfading inheritance, a 100% guarantee of hope in the future no matter what the present holds. Though we face various and difficult trials, we have this hope (1 Peter 1:3-9).

“We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory…For we know that if the tent that if our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” -2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1

Though this earthly body be destroyed, I have something better and lasting – a building made by God, perfect and eternal, apart from the presence of sin and death, in the very near presence of God…and that is the best part – to get to behold God’s glory forever.

Light The Night, All The Day

I did not survive my cancer, nor do I live cancer free, with an insecure, surface level “hope.” I thrive through cancer and can live free from anxiety. I live with a living hope and seeking to fix my eyes on Jesus, my glorious Savior. Now that is the walk I live each day, by God’s grace, with an excited, joy-filled and hopeful heart. It’s a walk full of camaraderie, sharing stories, rejoicing in and savoring God and the many gifts He has given.

Hannah with her brother and sister

It’s a daily “Light the Night” walk, lighting up the dark world with God’s light and daily proclaiming the greatness of my God and Savior who has called me out of spiritual darkness into His marvelous light.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession,

that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

1 Peter 2:9

*Abigail again: I mentioned earlier Hannah plays a mean cello.  This version of Abide With Me features a deep, sweet cello like hers. But it’s more the lyrics than the strings that lead me to thank God for Hannah’s fearless, living hope when I hear these words:

I fear no foe with you at hand to bless, 
though ills have weight, and tears their bitterness. 
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, your victory? 
I triumph still, if you abide with me. 

Henry Francis Lyte

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When Unfair Stings

The sight of them stung. Seeing all their kids set me off. The venom stole in under my skin and I started to scratch.

Am I the only one who overreacts to the sting of the unfairness bee?

Discontent is a fretting humor which dries the brain, wastes the spirits, and corrodes and eats the comfort out of life. Discontent makes a man so that he does not enjoy what he possesses.  Thomas Watson

Their kids were invited to the birthday party. Ours were not.

There were chairs to spare for all their kids and not two more for ours? I scanned the room for a logical reason why our boys were excluded: age or distance or relation? Nope. None of those fit. And the heat and the itch of that venom spread fast like when the real wasp stung.

So where are the boys tonight? a friend asked.

At home, <scratch> I said.

Then scratching again, I mumbled- and this was a bad reaction- They weren’t invited.

Envy and discontent spread. The more I scratched, the more I itched, like an out of control allergic reaction.

I knew what I had to do.

Stop that scratching.

Stay in your own lane. Mom Considine

I had to heed my mama. I had to do what Mom tells the grandkids to do when they compare their gifts then complain: Stay in your own lane. 

Stay in your own lane when you or someone you love is not invited. Stay in your own lane when your friend is gifted with a two weeks of tropical timeshare as you save all year for your five days on the beach.  And when a friend’s lucky connection lands him a job you’d love to have. Stay in your lane- and oh, this can be so hard- when marriage and babies and health come easy to some but not so easy to you.

You can take Mom’s advice too. Don’t scratch when unequal or unfair tempts you to discontent. Do what you’re supposed to do. Don’t complain. Run the race marked out for you

But I needed a pit stop before I could steer back to my own lane. So I pulled over and gave myself a good talking  in the ladies’ room: The hosts invited Jim and me to their party. We had no right to any invite with or without sons. Then my own words to those sons echoed loud: It’s okay that Sam’s invited to Jack’s house and you’re not, Gabe. Life’s not fair. And that’s okay. 

Stay in your own lane.

Or do you begrudge my generosity?

Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? -Jesus

Do you know that parable Jesus told about the vineyard owner who hired workers at 7 am and 9 am and noon and at 5 pm, too? It’s in Matthew 20, and here’s how it ends:

Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius.11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you.15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’

Does even reading that make you itch? The guys who worked 10 or 12 hours got the same amount as the guys who worked one hour? Really, Jesus? That seems so unfair!

Fair isn’t equal.

Fair is whatever God wants to do –Leif Enger

I don’t know if it’s fair. but it certainly wasn’t equal.

Wise teachers and parents tell their kids, Fair isn’t equal. It’s getting what you need. And in his wisdom God deemed those vastly unequal hourly rates, were exactly the right wages- fair is whatever God wants to do. And I remember, getting invited to work in the vineyard was itself a gift. Any invite is a gift. But unfairness stings and discontent spreads when we begrudge others’ generosity.

Russell Moore explores this in Jesus Doesn’t Keep the Minimum Wage Laws: Following Christ When God Doesn’t Seem Fair

We don’t think the way God is bringing us into the kingdom is fair. So we grumble. We don’t understand the free heartedness of God. God knows what he is doing in your life. He is doing what it takes to conform you to the image of Christ…What we want is for it to make sense now, so we compare to others. We grumble against God. And Jesus is saying, “Don’t you see? You get to work in this kingdom?”

We get to work in the God’s kingdom. Do we see? Do we see past the second causes and believe God is working through even unfair stings  to conform us to the image of Jesus? Seeing that by faith is Benadryl to my soul. And I hear Jesus tell me, “Abigail, I have done you no wrong. Didn’t you agree to come? Don’t begrudge my generosity.

But for some of us with stronger reactions, Benadryl’s not enough. We need an injection to help us see.

Our EpiPen against unfair: You follow me.

Complaining is not a bad habit. It’s evil and satanic. It is a repudiation of the Gospel. -David Prince

These three words are the strongest antidote to the soul-killing effect of discontent’s venom. If Benadryl slows the spread, then these three words are the EpiPen that stops it dead. 

Remember at the end of John’s Gospel, when the seven disciples had just finished fish and bread breakfast on the beach, cooked over coals by the resurrected Lord. Now Peter and Jesus are alone. Peter has just confessed his love and reaffirmed his call to follow Christ. All is well.

Then Jesus ends their little talk with some hard words for the Rock, to show him by what kind of death he was to glorify God. Peter turns and sees John, the disciple whom Jesus loved.  And I think the unfair bee stung Peter just then. Because he asks, “Lord, what about this man?”

I can hear Mom say,  Stay in your own lane, Peter. Jesus says it this way,

If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!

You follow me. Down a different, unequal but still grace-lined path.

Because overreactions can kill.

[T]he angry man lays all his comforts at the mercy of every wasp that will strike at him. –Matthew Henry

It might seem little, this little party invitation sting. You’re right, in a way it is. The stinger is tiny but the venom- actually the body’s over-reaction to the venom- can be deadly.

I know this. Because 20 years ago a single wasp nearly killed me. One little sting was all it took to land me in the ER with a racing heart and dizzy, with puffy Gumby-like limbs and an irresistible itch from my scalp to my soles. But the epinephrine injections stopped my body from its out-of-control anaphylactic response.

Basically, my immune system overreacted to the venom and released chemicals that led to horrible allergy symptoms. I overreacted. So it wasn’t the sting itself that brought me to the ER. It was my own body’s response to it. Attempting to protect itself from the sting, my body stung me worse.

And discontentment, like an anaphylactic reaction, is more deadly to our souls than “provocation” of the sting.

Be a spiritual bee. 

There is no provocation given us at any time but, if it be skillfully and graciously improved, there is good to be gotten by it…It is an ill will indeed out of which the spiritual bee cannot extract something profitable.-Matthew Henry

I could have let the sting come between the host of the party and me.  I could have kept scratching that unfair itch.

But really, I couldn’t have.

I’ll explain: After my scary, allergic reaction I knew I had a problem. With as much as I loved autumn running and hiking, the risk of a worse reaction was all-too-real.

So I signed up for five years of desensitization shots. They “taught” my body to handle the venom in the sting of even a hundred wasps and bees. And living years under God’s grace has trained  me not to react so badly.

Obviously,  I still react. The sight of the kids provoked me. It stung and I scratched.

Desensitize yourself by grace.

For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. –David

But instead of continuing to scratch that itch, I auto-injected truth. Like how the lavishness of God’s grace to me is as far from fair and equal as east is from west. Like how complaining is conduct unbecoming a child of God. How scratching the itch by venting and complaining is not merely a bad habit. It is evil.

To gripe about unequal grace is a repudiation of the Gospel. And to move out of my lane and refuse the divine antidote- YOU FOLLOW ME- is to begrudge the God of all grace who gives to each one of us- not equally, but unequally and lavishly – as He wills. God gives us what we need to grow us up like Jesus. Our Father knows best and I want to be His spiritual bee.

So I left restroom and returned to the party room. My friend Meg’s son sat alone at our table. I plopped down and asked, How old are you now, Tim? You’re getting so big. Just then Meg came back with food for Tim and asked, So where are your guys anyway?

This time I didn’t scratch. They’re having some good Grandma and Grandpa time tonight.