when family breaks your heart

Absolutely no clue how we turned around and then she was ten.

No clue in the least how the candles on her cake are blown out with one puff and time’s just gone, tendrils of smoke straight up.

Look, I’ve got no clue about why somewhere along the way we forgot that family is worth investing in more than college or retirement funds, no clue why climbing ladders to get ahead of each other became more important than laying down our lives to love each other

No clue why we’re all expected to be captivated with loud things when the heart beat of the really beautiful things are often found in the stillness and quiet — but hey, listen…. who’s got any clue about what ultimately matters before time runs out here? 

Time’s this chameleon that disguises itself as slow and then fast and who’s got any clue as how to understand the strangeness of Time?

The night she turns 10, she walks the fields. The dog sways behind her and the wheat heads whisper like they know, they know.

The mist rolls in across the wheat.

The whole thing’s a bit like an unveiling, of what the substance of being and what matters really is.


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I’d picked the peonies for her cake from out at the mailbox that’s leaning a bit on a kilter. She’d wrapped her hair up into a rebellious, recalcitrant bun. From the the edge of the field, you can see how she’s at the edge of the wildest, wondrous things.

Sometimes you can look into her eyes and everything reflects, and you can see how — how…

Somehow she’s molted out of the mundane, and she’s like a proof of what’s going on in the everyday. All those mundane moments we live are making something holy. 

Ten years ago we brought her home when she was 30 minutes old.

And a decade later to the day, she’s a sprinkle of freckles and a mess of hair that’s never been cut and she’s a teacher and I’m continually learning this language of family.

Ten years ago this weekend, this was us.

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She was the bundle in her sister’s arm. That tooth-less sister who was framed by two older brothers, and then two younger brothers, and who had prayed every night for years: just one little sister, Lord, please. Pleasssseeee.

Our Hope-girl held that warming answered prayer of little Shalom like she’d walked right up to Him and met Love Himself and He said yes.

God never has an objection to saying Yes to us — unless a No is His best protection of us. 

And then that quartet of boys, that posse of four boys, with their luring grins and charming winks and bursting testosterone? They’ve about brought down the whole house with their stampeding possibilities.

I have no clue where those 10 years of breakfasts & laundry & loud laughter & dishes & reading stories together & nighttime prayers went, but that baby who was born on a day that a straight line wind rooted up trees and threw trampolines through windows and the sky tore the roof of barns, that baby born in a storm and named Shalom, because you can count on Peace no matter what your storm,  she blew out 10 birthday candles over the peonies ringing her birthday cake this weekend.

And her big sister stood there still grinning silly over her, and that quartet of future men have met the future and grown stubble and stand around the table, taller than their nodding dad.

10 years. 10 years of just doing that, just putting one foot in front of the other, because it’s true: Put one foot in front of the other and you can put any mountain behind you.

After a whole lot of one steps in front of the other, day after day, you can turn around and see:

Every day that you do the hard things that you don’t want to do — you’re building the family you always wanted to have.

That’s the secret no one ever told me… that changes the essence of everything. 

The 13 years straight of diapers. The 21 years of trying to figure out what we were having for dinner. All those boys with their legos and handmade bow and arrows and mud through the house and teasing hard of sisters that drove me stark crazy raving mad. Parents give, and give, and give more, and still give more than they ever dreamed — and end up getting back more than they ever dreamed. 

That’s what family means: People love you & keep on holding on to you especially when you’re not loveable. 

And on the morning of her 10th, I texted it to my sister, this picture of all six of them, 10 years ago to the day.

And I stood there in the kitchen, staring at that little frame of who we once were and  — what if we recreated it? 

What if we twisted back the clock 10 years and the boys got on some t-shirts and Hope-girl cradled the 10- year-old birthday girl who was the newborn 10 years ago today? 

So they all humoured me.

Those boys cocked their heads grinned and winked for their mama, the girls laughed loud at trying to hold on to each other — And I blinked and pressed down the camera’s shutter.

And there we all are again, then and now:




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And there they all were: Time had lapsed and it’s like we could finally see.

I’m standing there like a fool tracing all their faces in the pictures and it’s my blindness that’s lapsed and it’s an epiphany, right there in black and white:

One of the most destructive attitudes in society today is that family is a noun … and not a verb.

Family is a verb. Family is an action.

And we aren’t merely born into families, families are born out of our reaching out and holding on and serving anyways and giving always. Giving always.

It’s not only the blood in our veins that make us family — it’s the blood and sacrifice in our days that makes us a family. Every night I put a slice of a garlic clove and a new strip of duct tape on that plantar’s wart on that kid’s dirty heel. Every night their father finds me and pulls me closer so we can breathe close in sleep, between the cotton sheets, decades of him and I and this.

My closest kin is my husband — and we don’t share a drop of blood — but we share our soulsby breaking off bits of ourselves and sacrificially giving to each other.  Our sharing and giving and serving has been the making of a family.

Mother and Father may grammatically be nouns — but theologically they are verbs. We mother and father and parent, we become by what we do, sit down with the kids to read stories instead of scrolling through Facebook updates, hang out the laundry instead of hang out at resorts, clean out the fridge, bite our tongues and bite the bullet and go the extra mile and we become, playing ball in our bare feet on the lawn with the kids till the sun sinks down.

Family is a verb. Family is not just what we are, it’s something that we actively keep on making.

With every phone call…. with every trip to the grocery store and filling up the minivan with gas, with every filling up of the washing machine, with every putting the other ahead of you, so that you can put regrets behind you.

 Every time we make time for each other, we make family.


So I text both pictures to my sister.

And I can’t stop staring at those frames that prove how 10 years of mundane made something holy.

Forget how hard 10 years of family-ing can be, forget how hard the next 10 years will be and just keep the whole thing simple: Parenting isn’t overwhelming when we simply understand how to serve in this minute. 

And the words choke out slow and liquid to that one fine farmer man leaning over my shoulder staring at those two pictures 10 years apart to the day … and I whisper to him:

Look at them all. Nothing trumps the love of us. Nothing at all comes close to us all being close.  Nothing means quite what it means to family. To family: a verb. 

I want to cup all the kids’ faces, look into their eyes, look into the soul of the whole next generation and say it so they get it: Never buy the lie that it matters how you’re ranked in the eyes of the world—- when what ultimately matters is how you are ranked in the hearts of your people…. and the eyes of God.

All six of the kids have jumped up from recreating that photo pose and are throwing frisbees across the back lawn, a decade lankier and faster and bigger laugh-ers. And I turn to their dad, everything brimming: ‘Look at them. Look at all their ridiculous crazy.’  They’re jumping for frisbees, sliding grass stains into frayed old Levis.

Why don’t they teach you that at school? Instead of trying to achieve some position, what ultimately matters is the affection of your people.”

Life’s not about trying to achieve some position,
it’s about the affection of your people.

People over position; affection over achievement.

When people restore the truth that family means putting other’s needs before ourselves —  then maybe something truly great in this country would be restored. 

My sister’s text pops up on the screen: “Look at that photo of them all! Holy. All these everyday experiences add up to a holy, hallowed, sacred experience for us all 

Tell your birthday girl again how we love her. Tell her:

We family her.” 

And I nod. 


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When we do hard things for each other every day, we build the family we’ve been dreaming of for years.  With every action that we take and make our life say: I love you.

Love is only real when given and shared. Love breaks and gives away your heart. Every time. 

Love keeps the front porch light on and the socks matched and the side door always unlocked and waiting and the mudroom cleared of stray shoes and dinner in the oven — for decades. Because: Love never fails when it’s a verb that keeps acting and doing and giving. 

We family each other.

And family-ing makes the cake year after year and calls everybody to gather in closer and lights the candles because right here and now is a hallowed sanctuary. This is the grammar of love. This is how we family. 

Family is a verb. 

When they all sing too loud together before she blows out those 10 candles, it’s like the action of being fully alive…. everything like this active blaze.


Related: the graphics “Family is a Verb” and “Every day that you do the hard things” are free for you in theSticky Notes For Your Soul” library