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We are in Gatlinburg this week. Today was our first full day here, and we’ve got loads of interesting and wonderful things planned. This morning, for instance, we went ziplining down 9 lines 80 feet high. 80 feet might not sound very high to you but, to my girls, especially my 8 year old who isn’t very fond of heights, 80 feet might as well be 8,000. Jumping off platforms backwards takes guts when you’re five and eight too. But it was amazing fun. We also explored Ripley’s Believe It or Not and went to the arcade-like The Track where we did the water boats, go-karts and other things. Tomorrow, we go to Dollywood. Thursday, Cade’s Cove and an indoor water park. Lots and lots of things to do.

But.

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Despite all the fun activities and time spent laughing, our favorite part has been the cabin we’ve rented. Hundreds of ladybugs dot the porches, the steps—everywhere we look, there are ladybugs. We captured 30 in about ten minutes. We also lined them up and raced them. We count their spots and wonder at the differences in their colors. Some are quite active, and always on the go. We call these “rascals.” Some are quite timid and small. We love each and every one.

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Also, there is a swing on the back porch that overlooks woods. Coyotes and dear populate these hills. And, within viewing distance, we can see the great Smoky Mountains. Indeed, the one we see from our vantage point looks exactly like a heart. The stars are brighter here, and appear in greater numbers. Any time we leave the cabin, we travel up and down tiny mountain roads that are lined in either side with thousands of trees that are dressed in bright green, yellow, red, orange and purple leaves. Today, while ziplining, these beautiful leaves fell and swirled around us in droves. Sometimes, while driving around a desolate, curvy road, I’ve found myself feeling very much like a pixel in a painting. That is how beautiful the scenery I’m surrounded by is. That is how idyllic and peaceful it makes my heart.

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It has made me very grateful to God.

The first time I remember feeling God was as a very young child. I’d pray for Him to hold my hand, turn my palm up to the ceiling, and wait. Within minutes, a real and definite heat would alight upon my palm. Comfort and reassurance seeped like a warm syrup over my entire being, and for the first time all night, I’d be able to sleep. It left an indelible mark on me, left me in a state of awe, convinced that God was real, and that He was listening.

My next clear memory if feeling connected to Him was as an early teenager. I started reading the Bible daily. I didn’t wrestle with it, I just read it. I didn’t understand much of what I read, but I read it. Soon, it was as if a shadow, large and protective, began following me around. God was near. Then my brother died and for the first time ever I saw my mother question Him. It scared me to death, and I prayed hard that she would come out of it with her faith in tact. She did. It reminded me again that He does answer prayers.

I have seen the world as a dark and gloomy place. I have known true terror, the kind that makes the bones shake. My pastor said something that struck me hard. After talking about difficult things, he said: “Tell Him how you feel. After all, He saw it. He saw it happen, He was in that room too.” My heart broke on the spot. I mean, I knew that it was true… But I was so ashamed, and I didn’t want to acknowledge that the Holy of Holies had seen all that. It hurt. At first. And then it sparked questions. Why? Really, why? I felt like the Pharisees in the Bible, saying “Ok, You knew how it was going to affect me. And You could have stopped it. And You didn’t. Even though I loved You. Why?”

I didn’t get an answer until weeks later. I was moved to turn into my church while driving past one day, and go to the prayer tower. I had no idea why. Even once there, I didn’t sense Him. Until I was leaving. As I walked out of the church, I knew someone was behind me. I could hear the footsteps. But when I turned, no one was there. I turned back to go to my car and, all of a sudden, I felt Him say, “I’m still with you.”

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Suddenly, I was alright again. Because it was true. He has always been with me. He’s guides my steps, shown me incredible people, forgiven me for my mistakes and held me when memories made me cry. He’s been my friend, and the only real father I have ever known. My life would not be the same without Him and I think that maybe, even though He was in the room and watched, He wasn’t really disgusted. Instead, I think maybe He cried like I did. And then He held my hand and taught me a lesson that I needed in order to survive my whole life through: I am never alone.

But He did more than that too.

He sculpted the mountains. He carved the rivers, and the oceans. He gave life and purpose to the ladybugs, to the ant, and to me. He gave me a family who loves me, and children who need me. He made the stars twinkle, and the lions roar. He made the seasons change, and He carved the heart into the mountain. He made the eagles soar, and laughter was His idea. Music came from His fingers — the lark’s voice was the first song. He created us to be relational–to need others, and to want them. Every complex emotion, He perfectly understands. And He watched His son die out of love.

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I don’t understand a lot of things. Free will and choice sometimes fail to adequately satisfy the selfish question “why?” But I am here. An inexplicable and often irrational sense of hope gas sustained me, and kept me from harming myself, or starving myself. Even when I haven’t been able to see it, I’ve always known that the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel exists. I know what joy is. I have loved, and am loved. Furthermore, I believe that that lost little girl who was so terribly harmed has been and will be cradled in a tangible embrace made of protection and comfort: all traces of shame and guilt erased.

My God gives dreams. My God gives characters. He gives friends. He makes the mountains and the valleys, and the verdant fields thick with untold natural treasures like pearls, gold, oil and water. He gives ideas, and the confidence needed to turn those ideas into accomplishments. He molds character in much the same way early Americans blasted through pure limestone in order to build something as monumental and significant as the Hoover Dam. The special relationships we have–be they teacher/student, parent/child, husband/wife–are special because He saw fit to create a masterpiece like human, one capable of meaningful emotion and thought.

B. Midler sang a song called “The Rose” in which she reminded us that “beneath the bitter snow / lies a seed that with the Sun’s love / in the Spring / becomes a rose.” Snow falls, but flowers bloom. Seasons change and decorate the world with every imaginable color, fragrance and beauty. So it is with us too. Grace conquers every emotional grave, and transforms us into pure light.

This Thankful Tuesday, I’m grateful to Abba, to God, for staying with me. I’m grateful to Him for nature’s music, and the surreal beauty that now surrounds me. Fall is a Season that makes it easy to appreciate His flawless craftsmanship, so bountiful are the beauties. I’m grateful for the time I’ve had to know my children, and to hear the sounds of their happiness. I’m grateful for the chance to play old fashioned games and to remember that, as magnificent as it is, the human is not God: Babel cannot be built.

A song we sing in church comes to mind, and fills my heart with thanksgiving:

Our God is an awesome God, He reigns from heaven above with wisdom, power and love, our God is an awesome God.

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