“We’re throwing open our front door
and inviting you in, as we invite Him in.”

What do you say to your kids about this day?
The 3 most important things I will do today
Georgia, Hail to Thee … Is that wrong?
What happens when you don’t read the Bible
Have children’s sports become our religion?
When I realized my children are not my products
Hands that loved by heart
The top five books from our summer reading lists
Learning to let God write your story
Of course soul mates exist

What do you say to your kids about this day?

By Leigh Sain

This day.

It appears on the calendar right out of the sweltering blue of summer and amidst the slow push into fall, breaking the patterned chaos with its remembering. Those crystal clear details of 13 years ago; how the room smelled, where you were standing, how incredibly blue the sky was, whose arm you grabbed, and the sound of the voice of the first person who asked you what was going on. You remember. And every year you marvel at the vivid scenes that replay on demand the instant someone asks you where you were on September 11,2001.

How do you even begin to tell the story of that day? And no matter what I say, I am never sure if I am doing it right.

For my kids, though, this day conjures up no memories. Only through photos and replays on the news do they even get what we mean when we mourn this day each year. And it looks so unreal to them, like a scene from a movie. For the last few years they have asked me, these older two of mine, about this day. “What happened Mama? What were you doing? How did you find out?” And now they are perhaps old enough to understand, but still I hesitate. Will it scare them? Will they feel unsafe? Should I shelter them? How do you even begin to tell the story of that day? And no matter what I say, I am never sure if I am doing it right.

But, I always start with the details, my details. Because I want it to become real to them. And on this day, really, we were all united in those mundane everyday details, the ones that got shattered when evil erupted in the midst of them. Read More

The 3 most important things I will do today

By Abigail McConnell

Twelve years ago this week, our family up and moved to England.  We sold our house, put all our stuff in storage, and with two toddlers in tow, we set off for a new country. Waiting for us in Oxford were our good friends, Mike and Melissa, who had relocated there themselves just the year before. They were invaluable in our move, helping us research housing, fetching us at the airport and giving us advice on life as expats.  But what I remember most was how they lovingly stocked our kitchen before our arrival, filling it with staples for our first night there — right down to hard-to-find American peanut butter and a real drip coffee maker.

I’ve thought of that generosity many times over the years, and it remains one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for us.

A few months ago we discovered that other old friends, Lisa and Dave, were relocating from Connecticut to just a few miles from where we live now, outside of Atlanta.  So when they called asking if I’d mind opening up their new house for them before their big move, I jumped at the chance.  After I got the key from their realtor and let in the cleaning people, I went straight to the grocery store.

Because I could not wait to stock that fridge.

Although Lisa and Dave apologized for putting me out, it was no trouble. It was actually a blast, because I didn’t it out of duty, or in hopes of payback.  I did it for them because someone had done it for me.  There was a day when I walked into a faraway, strange-smelling kitchen that was supposed to be my new home.  It could have been bare and hollow, but it wasn’t.  It was already filled with a little love by someone who had walked into her share of faraway, empty kitchens over the years, too.  And it made all the difference.

Stocking that fridge was a joy, and it makes me think. What if more of my life felt like this?

Please know that this scenario does not characterize my nature.  Keeping my own refrigerator stocked is generally enough of a challenge.  Nor am I the one who’s always right there with a meal when someone gets sick (although I wish I was).  I’m even pretty lame with sending thank you notes.

But stocking that fridge was a joy, and it makes me think. What if more of my life felt like this?  Back in England, I was so grateful that someone had considered me.  They were actually loving me by buying that peanut butter.  And while I did my best to thank them properly at the time, it was a kind of loving that is un-pay-back-able.

I couldn’t reciprocate, but I could do it for someone else.

God loves me in ways that are un-pay-back-able, too.  He loves me though I deny him.  He provides for me even when I forget about him.  He forgives me when I mess up.  He listens to my frustrated cries for help and sends encouragement.  There is no way I can repay God for this grace he extends. I cannot reciprocate. But I can do it for someone else. Read More

Georgia, Hail to Thee … Is that wrong?

By Mary-Evelyn Starnes

My husband Andy is an early riser. Over the years he has learned that I prefer to greet the morning a few hours after he rises — and then only when he brings me some coffee. But this Saturday he will rise earlier than usual and he won’t leave me to sleep. He’ll start talking. Is it 5am? 4:30?!  I’ll want to be mad but I can’t. This is his Christmas morning. This is game day.

Andy and I are Georgia fans. Go Dawgs! Sic ‘em. Woof.

For Andy, it is in his blood — he’s third generation Bulldog. I’m just a baby — this is only my 21st football season. I remember the question asked through perfect teeth and perfect smiles at each of the eighteen sorority houses during rush my freshman year: “Are you goin’ to the game?” I nodded yes eighteen times, but really I had no idea what the big deal was. The season opener was a night game, and it was raucous, like most everything in Athens was before the Hope scholarship required that students keep up their grades. Georgia lost, but the Volunteers’ mascot Smokey had the nerve to walk by our student section and Uga V pounced on him. The fans went crazy, and I fell in love with Georgia football. That was Tennessee 1994.

As Christians, we are supposed to constantly examine our activities and ask ourselves, “Is this activity bringing me closer to God or further away?”

This Saturday, we will trek back to Athens to watch the Dawgs take on Clemson.  Once again, we will spend the day tailgating with friends and family and then head over to the stadium. And once again, as we walk in, the Bullhorn Guy will be near the gates.  He will yell at us, like he does every year, angrily spitting out words like: hell, repent, sin and Jesus. I will sigh and wonder: What’s he trying to accomplish here, and does he think it’s working?  And, while we’re at it, what’s so bad about football?

I suspect the Bullhorn Guy is more concerned about the debauchery that sometimes goes on here than about the game itself.  But maybe he actually does think football is bad. Could he be right? Does football get in the way for people spiritually? Read More

What happens when you don’t read the Bible

By Jennifer Graham Kizer

It’s the end of summer. As usual, I believe in God a little less than I did in May.

These past few months, while the days were warm and lingering, I eased up on myself. Weekends stretched wider. I read one resplendent novel after the next. I did not read my Bible.

My Bible sits stock-still on the kitchen counter, waiting for autumn to return. Autumn will take me by the hand, and lead me back to the prudent routines that propel me forward. The strict bible study program, with the daily homework and rules, will start again in September.

But right now, in these final, sputtering days of August, it’s all still on hold. It’s been several weeks since I’ve been “transformed by the renewing of my mind.” (Romans 12:2)

Jesus says that whatever you choose to look at (and read and hear, etc.) will either fill you with the light of understanding—or the darkness of misinformation. (This is my very rough paraphrase of Matthew 6:22.) By that standard, this temple of mine’s been dimming for weeks.

I don’t think my summer reading—about history and art and politics and people—has filled me with misinformation. I feel more informed. But despite all that reading, I can’t say I was prepared for Lily’s recent return to school. Read More

Have children’s sports become our religion?

By Beth Hartt

The start of school means the start of sports.  The start of sports means the start of scheduling madness.  This year it also means a change for my family.  And I don’t like it.

My kids have played soccer every fall for the last 4 years.  Until now they’ve played at Upward, a low-pressure, Christian-based league that emphasizes teamwork and sportsmanship.  It requires only one practice a week and one game on Saturdays. Each practice includes a devotional and all games start with prayer. That is my kind of sports league — one that places importance on God and time for family.

We’re so busy trying to manage our overwhelming schedules that we don’t notice that their childhoods are slipping through our fingers. 

Truthfully, I would be happy to let my kids age-out at Upward.  But it’s developed a reputation (merited or not) as the league for kids that aren’t that good at sports — and my kids know it.  I’ve resisted moving them to another league because I really don’t want a half dozen practices a week or the possibility of Sunday games.  I value downtime for my kids, and time together as a family. But both of our kids have asked to move to a slightly more competitive rec league.  They’ve watched most of their friends switch, too, and understandably they want to be like them.  In particular, our son is noticing a social chasm forming in school between “the serious sports kids” and those like him, who play recreationally.  He doesn’t want to be the last kid in his grade still playing at Upward.  And I get it. Read More

When I realized my children are not my products

By Leigh Sain

So here’s a true confession: I may be happy that school is starting.

I may be relishing that in these coming weeks there will be just a few more hours of silence. A little more time without someone wanting a meal made, a shoe tied, a friend over, a trip to the pool or props for a murder mystery play complete with fake blood (what?). Hours without arguments over who can sit on which side of the couch, who ate the last of the pretzel crumbs, or who had the Superman towel yesterday. I will admit that I may be excited that this part of our existence has come to an end for a season. But, before you begin to think of me as one of those moms (it’s ok — I probably am), I will also admit that this time of year also makes me somewhat anxious. Read More

Hands that loved by heart

By Abigail McConnell

My earliest memory of my grandmother was sitting on her lap at the kitchen table. I must’ve been just a toddler. I remember touching her shiny filigree rings and tracing with my finger the soft blue veins that ran up the top of her hands.  I thought that must mean she was very old.  I realize now she was probably then only a handful of years older than I am today.

Today my family will celebrate her life, all 94 years of it. Today we’ll bury Gladys Blevins in a little country graveyard in the farmlands of Pennsylvania, next to her beloved Mack.  And we’ll look around in awe at all the people whose lives were touched by her wisdom and by her joy.

But today, it’s her hands that I keep thinking about.

I couldn’t know as a toddler how much GreatNan’s hands would show me over the next forty-two years.

They would teach me how to pick a blue crab and thread a needle.

They would show me how to segment an orange into the perfect fruit salad, and how to drop rivels into a bubbling pot of chicken corn soup.

Her hands would let us kids taste the icing even when a mom said no.

I would see her hands turn baskets of yarn into countless colorful afghans and dishcloths, and thousands of baby caps for NICU preemies.

Her hands showed me how to ‘make a good bed,’ as she would say — how to smooth out cold ironed sheets and tuck in corners tight — and how making a bed is a way to love the person who will sleep in it.

I learned to cut hair by watching her hands, those hands that labored by heart for 45 years, cutting and setting and curling.  They were hands that made women feel beautiful.

Later her hands would teach my boys to play dominoes, and write them cards that called them “Master” on the envelope, the old-fashioned way, and that would make them laugh.

Those hands wrote so many letters and cards and notes. She loved by hand in those notes, and in the thoughtful little gifts she would give.  Watching her hands curl ribbon against sharp scissors was absolute magic to my little kid eyes.  And there was always curled ribbon.  Always.

Whatever her hands did, they did by heart.  They were never idle or selfish. They knew when to hold on tight and when to let go.  And they were never, ever too full.

But those hands weren’t always soft and gentle.  Sometimes they were a little too firm, like when she scrubbed your hair over that black beauty-shop sink.  Sometimes they were a little fierce, like when she’d pull a baby tooth with a quick flick of a fingernail.  And sometimes those hands were downright bossy — a finger pointing commands in her busy kitchen on Christmas Eve or with a houseful of weekenders at her tiny cottage on the Bay.

But whatever GreatNan’s hands did, they did by heart.  They were never idle or selfish. They knew when to hold on tight and when to let go.  And they were never, ever too full.

With her hands she did big things like raise a family and build a business and serve a community.

But those big things happened because of the million small things her hands did with joy, with gratitude, with generosity, with faith, with perseverance and with love.

The last time I got to hold GreatNan’s hand was three weeks ago.  Much of the family was gathered around pizza at my parent’s farm (we sprung her from the nursing home!), and she offered to bless the food for all of us. She clasped her hands, closed her eyes and prayed the prayer of a woman wholly grateful for the gifts of a great God.  She thanked him for her life and then she prayed for courage.

There is a woman described in Proverbs — not a real woman, but an ideal one — one who, as I think about it now, sounds an awful lot like Gladys Blevins.

Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her:
 “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

And, finally, it says,

 Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.

I praise you, GreatNan, for the beautiful fruit of your hands, and I know you are being praised in the gates.

But mostly my heart soars, because today you are holding hands with your Lord.

And Lord Jesus, we know that your hand, the one that she holds, bears a scar for what you have done for her — for what you have done for all of us. It is proof of the price you paid so that we might not taste death, but instead — by your grace — be received into your loving hands, forever and ever.

For that, Lord, we join GreatNan, and praise you.


In loving memory of Gladys H. Blevins (1920-2014) — and to grandmothers everywhere whose hands love by heart.


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The top five books from our summer reading lists

In case you still have a beach week ahead of you (lucky!) or are taking advantage of the post-dinner daylight to read by (or the Super Moon!), we thought you might want to see what we’ve been reading this summer.  Here are some recommendations from your friends on The Cul de Sac.  (And we’d love to hear your picks in the comments section!)

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 3.49.32 PMLEIGH » A Million Little Ways, by Emily Freeman

I wish I could tell you that I have read many books this summer. There was a time when I consumed books like food, but these days I chase boys and make food. There is, however, one book that I have managed to read four or five times since this spring.

Emily Freeman’s A Million Little Ways is a book that spoke truth so loudly into my heart that even life’s chaos couldn’t silence it. I inhaled it the first time and was forced to reread it in order to process the goodness it holds. Emily sets out to show you how God intends for you to live. She claims that we are all “image bearers with jobs to do.”  We are, she says, God’s art and he intends for us to make art with our lives.

And this book actually leads you down the path of what that means. My life, art? I had never in a million years imagined that my life would amount to any sort of art, or that God intended it to be that way.  But, Emily’s words about how God wired each of us with desires. Her words about how he puts us in places so that His love can shine through us, not just in one spectacular way, but in millions of little ways. Those words made me look at my place differently. This book will change your view of yourself and allow your soul the space it might need to see God working in you, through you and all around you.

I also recommend: Restless, by Jennie Allen.

ABIGAIL » Soul-Keeping, by John OrtbergScreen Shot 2014-07-16 at 3.49.09 PM

I’ve always kind of imagined the soul as some vague thing deep down, a secret center stuck inside my earthly body.

But Soul-Keeping turns this idea inside out. Ortberg, in his usual approachable style, explains the soul as one of four parts that make up our inner life: will, mind, body, soul.  And it is the soul that encompasses and integrates the three other parts — not the other way around.  It’s a stunning reversal, if you think about it.  Suddenly I could recognize that the ways I often feel ‘out of whack’ — restless, dissatisfied, tired — are actually symptoms of my soul’s dis-integration.  Or that the times I feel most settled and sure are when my soul is well-nourished and strongly steering the other parts of what makes me ‘me.’  Chapters are dedicated to the how-to’s of caring for our soul, and how living a ‘with-God life’ is the only way a soul can truly thrive.

Don’t think that this is a self-helpy kind of read. It is wise, and tender, and relational.  The soul of this book, in fact, is the relationship between Ortberg and the late Dallas Willard, which poignantly unfolds chapter by chapter. Getting to sit in on their conversations may be the most valuable part of the book. I devoured Soul-Keeping at the beach in a couple of sittings, but should probably revisit it again with my journal in hand. Because, really, who wouldn’t want a well-tended soul?

I’m also reading: The Locust Effect, by Gary Haugen

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 3.50.52 PMBETH » The Giver, by Lois Lowry

Although it was published more than 20 years ago, The Giver recently crossed my radar.  I confess, I love dystopian young adult novels, so I had to check it out.  It tells the story of Jonas, a 12-year-old boy who has grown up in a society that has no sickness, no poverty, no crime, no conflicts — but also no choices.  People have been genetically stripped of all memories and the ability to see color, hear music, or feel emotion.  Sameness is valued above all to prevent injustice and insecurity.  A group of Elders oversees the community and ensures the strict system of rules and discipline is followed.  Lifelong job assignments are given at age 12.  When Jonas is assigned the job of “Receiver of Memory,” he learns that he will receive all the memories of his mentor, “The Giver,” and that he alone will know the joys and horror of the world as it used to be.  As the memory transfers begin, Jonas starts to see that his society is one big lie.

As I was reading this book, I couldn’t help but think about our society today.  Fewer people than ever are looking to God and his word as their foundation for truth.  Truth has become relative, and we are looking to the tides of today’s culture to tell us right from wrong.  God’s truth alone is steadfast, unfailing and inerrant.  I would hope that we would all prefer a world where we are free to embrace our uniqueness in the light of God’s love, rather than have our personalities stripped down to sameness, eliminating who God made us to be.  The Giver shows us how bleak that existence would be.  (Note: The Giver is the first in quartet of books.  Although it stands alone fairly well, all four books need to be read in order for the story to come full circle.)

I loved this too: Treasuring Christ When Your Hands Are Full, by Gloria Furman

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 3.50.20 PMMARY-EVELYN » East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

”Two stories have haunted us and followed us from our beginning,” Samuel said. “We carry them along with us like invisible tails – the story of original sin and the story of Cain and Abel.  And I don’t understand either of them.  I don’t understand them at all but I feel them.  Liza gets angry with me.”

According to Liza, her husband Sam is “never satisfied to let the Testament alone.”  Sam pleads that he is just trying to understand it.  But Liza says, “If the Lord wanted you to understand it He’d have given you to understand or He’d have set it down different.”

When I read Christian books and blogs, I often feel like a Sam in a world full of Lizas.  Sam is a fictional role model to me — he seeks truth ceaselessly, accepting the alienation and pain he knows seeking can bring, and still it doesn’t rock his faith.  So this summer I am relishing re-reading Steinbeck’s East of Eden.  It’s a surprisingly easy read for a book that tackles complicated issues: Why do we sometimes prefer one child over another? Whose responsibility is it when that child lashes out?  Are some people born evil? Or is good or bad planted by the parents after the child “clears the womb”?

It doesn’t hurt that the story itself — the tale of two generations of brothers in early 1900’s California — is so engaging.  You could gloss over the “deep stuff” and still list this novel among your favorites.  I sometimes read conversations two or three times, not because they are funny or sharp, but because they are so real.  You just don’t read dialogue this good — yet it feels familiar.  That’s the wonder of this story.  As Steinbeck puts it: “No story has power, nor will it last, unless we feel in ourselves that it is true, and true of us.”

Another good read: The Jesus I Never Knew, by Philip Yancey

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 3.51.21 PMJENNIFER » Department of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

When I read the gorgeous, final sentence of this beautifully written novel, I went straight back to the beginning, to read it again. It’s structured in fragmented bursts of thought, as if you’ve been granted entrance inside the narrator’s brain. And that brain is whirring.

She’s a middle-aged novelist and college professor, married with a young daughter. Life has gotten in the way of her early dream of being an art monster. “Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”

But she is living an actual, real life, which is full of mundane things. I could spend all day quoting her, and copying down all the wonderful snippets she writes about those things. Or I could just strongly encourage you to open her book yourself.

Halfway through, there’s a betrayal which hurts her so deeply that the narrative point of view changes from the first to the third person. It’s as if she can’t bear to go on sharing such personal thoughts without adding a little literary distance. It’s the husband who betrays her. This is disappointing, since she’s previously described him so winningly. Just back on page 35, she noted that he’s a person who, ”if he notices something is broken, he will try to fix it. He won’t just think about how unbearable it is that things keep breaking, that you can never outrun entropy.”

Not being able to outrun entropy is a recurrent strain throughout this book. And yet, it’s such a pleasure to read! If you read one novel this year, make it this one. I dare you not to read it twice.

I also loved: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt


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Learning to let God write your story

By Leigh Sain

Whenever I tell people that I have three boys, I get my heart blessed. And when I add that once upon a time I was also a middle school English teacher, I get looked at like I’m one french fry short of a happy meal.

It might be true, but I actually loved that job. It was a rush, delving into the brains of 13-year-olds entirely consumed with composing love notes (I am old — this was before cell phones), and teaching them to do things like write good stories. But it was also a lot like climbing a mountain not knowing if you would make it to the top.

Determined to succeed, I decided to be like all the cool math teachers and develop a formula. The “Good Story Formula,” I called it.  It was a fool-proof way of plugging in the good details in all the right places to end up with a story that worked. A simple way to “math-ify” (English teachers are allowed to make up words) the complicated process of putting thoughts on paper.

I was pumped about this plan. Because it worked. The students copied down my crazy color-coded hieroglyphics from the white board and then followed the formula. Suddenly, they all started writing good stories — and passing the big tests. The tests that had kept me awake at night, worrying about the results. But those scores started coming back and telling how well they had done. And I couldn’t help but be proud because there was much riding on those good stories.

I think about those days a lot. And I miss that formula. The one that promised if you followed it your story would be good.

But what about the story of my actual days, the story I am living right now? What makes it good? And where is the formula that ensures that I will get it right? Read More

Of course soul mates exist

By Jennifer Graham Kizer

You may have sensed a seismic shift in the universe on May 27, 2013. That was just my mom, sighing with relief. My sister got engaged.

Sara had taken that intrepid gamble, sailing into her mid-thirties without picking up a husband along the way. She’d cast her net about, naturally, but she didn’t shrug and settle for the heavy drinker, or the guy still pining for his ex, or the one whose love for Scrabble was their only discernible shared interest.

And she went on this way, despite that horrifyingly prudent article in The Atlantic that endorsed settling for a less-than-perfect match. (It’s a numbers game, ladies. Strike early before they dwindle, yada, yada.) Among parties of one, that story hit a nerve. Stabbed a nerve. Die-hard romantics, soul mate seekers, lovers of Cameron Crowe movies—they all rose up and squared off against, well, all the mothers in the world, who felt the article vindicated the free advice they’d been giving out for years.

But the same old questions reverberated. What if soul mates do exist? And if you don’t meet him by the time you’re 28, or 35, should you marry your current option, because no one’s perfect and just stop dreaming already? Or do you keep on holding out for the guy with the boom box outside your bedroom window?


Back when I was still flying solo at 30, and starting to ask these questions, I spent a lot of time with a cheerful, unmarried Californian friend, of the anti-settling camp. “If God didn’t want me to feel butterflies for a man, then why is Song of Solomon in the Bible?” she’d point out. You see why I kept her around. Read More

Copyright 2014 The Cul de Sac.

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