The old canoe sent gentle ripples out onto the lake every time it wobbled under the weight of the shifting lad. The sky was wide open, and a brilliant blue. Birds warbled melodically as they flitted from tree to tree.
Avery Wood was an unusual twelve year old. He was tawny, with bright blond hair and smiling blue eyes, possessed a sturdy, limber frame, and grinned frequently. That was normal...average. The strange thing was that he was so cheerful, so sunny-spirited, because there was nothing much to smile about in his life up to that point.
A mother killed in a car accident, a father who had been bitter ever since, a big brother who kept to himself-- trying to make sense of the mess-- and a little sister who depended on him for strength. And strength was not very easy to find… unless a person knew the source.
Avery did know the source-- had discovered it long before, when his Mom was still alive. The way she did not retaliate to Dad’s frequent outbursts of frustration due to work. How she spent her early morning hours...Avery could see her from his bedroom doorway buried in the Bible in her favorite rocking chair. He knew where she had gotten her strength-- or, more correctly, from Whom.
Avery now possessed Mom’s Bible. Her notes on the sides of the pages, the highlighted verses, and the scribbled prayers all made him feel closer to her, and also closer to God. He was learning how his mother had known Him-- and how she had derived strength from Him and out of His promises. Verses like, “Fear not, for I am with you..” and “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty” drew Avery to the conclusion that if God really meant them, and that if Mom had really believed them, lived in them, and trusted in them-- then it was safe to assume that he, also a child of God and believer in Jesus Christ, could rely upon them as well.
Sudden movement up on the bank caused him to look up from the engrossing tale in his hands. His face lit up. “Hey, Jane.”
The seven year old little girl smiled shyly and and dipped one of her bare feet in the water’s edge. “Can I come, too?”
He nodded with a smile and scooched over to make room for her.
The boat rocked beneath all the weight and movement as she climbed over the side, squatting down beside him.
He heard her give a little sigh. “What’s up?” he asked.
She looked down. “Daddy and Peter had another fight.”
Avery grimaced. “I’m sorry you had to hear that.” he hesitated. “Was is bad?”
Jane shrugged her narrow shoulders and brushed aside floating strands of her light blonde hair with a depressed look. “I don’t know.”
Silence dominated the atmosphere.
Jane broke it by slapping her leg. “Mosquitos.”
“Yeah,” Avery grinned. “You wish they would just quit ‘bugging’ us.”
Jane laughed. Avery stole a side-glance at her. It had been awhile since he had heard her laugh like that. She almost sounded normal.
She leaned her head on his shoulder, and together their gazes drifted along the horizon, where a flock of honking geese was just descending upon the lake.
Avery was unprepared for what his little sister said next. “Avery, does God still move mountains, like Psalms says He did?”
A puzzled look flitted across his face as he thought. “I guess so.”
“Any kind of mountain? Like, big problem-mountains?” she pushed.
He set his jaw firmly and nodded. “Yes.”
Jane relapsed into a thoughtful silence.
Avery let out a sigh as his eyes roamed beyond the line of trees. He knew life was hard right now. Hard for his sister, hard for himself, hard for fourteen-year-old Peter...hard for Dad.
Somehow he needed to share the strength he was discovering. His brows knit in increasing uneasiness. He knew he needed to share what he was learning, but he wasn’t sure that the two older members of his family were ready to hear that yet.
Avery strode through their little country kitchen. He caught a glimpse of Dad leaning over the counter, his big, rough fists resting on either side of a piece of paper laid out before him. By the look on his face, he sure seemed in a mess.
Avery came up beside him. “Hey.”
Dad didn’t answer for a moment. His brow were deeply furrowed, and his bearded jaw was working. “Hey.”
“Sooo… what’s up?”
The towering, broad-shouldered man slowly eased himself up. His back cracked. He put up a hand and ran his fingers through his thick brown hair. “No picnic, I can assure you that.”
Avery bit his lip. “Bills?”
“Don’t even mention the word.” he shoved the paper away from him. “House stuff. Never realized how much we owed.”
“How much do we owe?” Avery ventured forth.
“Thousands.” Dad walked in that lanky, easy stride of his over to the sink, and turned on the faucet. “It’s quite a sum.”
“We could sell the cow,” Avery offered brightly, hoping to inspire some means of rescue for the situation.
Dad’s eyes instantly met his. “We ain’t selling the cow.” It wasn’t a casual statement. It was a dead serious command. “Your mother babied that thing and we aren’t selling her.”
Avery retreated inside himself and shifted from barefoot to barefoot uneasily. “Yes sir.”
Dad dried his hands with a dish-towel and tossed it to the heaping laundry basket in the corner. At the sight of it he rolled his eyes, rubbed his face wearily, and muttered something beneath his breath. “Jane?” he called.
He put a hand on the countertop. “Janey!”
“Yes?” came a faint, small, faraway voice in another part of the house.
“You left your chores unfinished. Come on and get the laundry started.”
Jane appeared in the doorway, her shoulders sagging, a small pout resting on her bottom lip. “Alright.”
Avery’s bright blue eyes sought the the screen-door across the room. The trail leading from the house was worn and wide, opening up into the lavish greenery of the forest. How he longed to explore in the woods…
Dad was looking at him. “Yes sir?”
Something small in Dad’s eyes registered concern. “Where’s your brother.”
Avery remembered reluctantly. “Greg’s place.”
The change of expression which instantly rippled across his father’s face told his thoughts.
He didn’t need to say a word. “Figures.”
Greg Sanders was the son of one of Dad’s coworkers at the mill. He and Oliver Sanders had never gotten along very well, and the fact that Dad’s son Peter had befriended the Sanders family made him noticeably unsettled and aggravated.
Just then the back door swung open and let in Peter’s tall, well-built form-- blond hair, blue eyes, light freckles, and everything. The door slammed shut on its own with a bang.
No one said anything. Jane stood there. Avery stood there. Peter and Dad stood there, exchanging eye contact.
Dad’s voice was raised some. “I told you not to hang out with him.”
Peter’s sullen gaze cut through stubbornly. “I know.”
Jane and Avery stole glances at each other, not knowing what to do.
Dad’s eyes burned. “As a matter of fact, I’ve told you several things recently that you haven’t adhered to.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“So you just gonna keep on doing? Doing stuff I warn you to steer clear of?”
Peter scowled. “And what if I do?”
“You better know you got another thing coming.”
Peter shook his head slowly.
Dad raised his eyebrows. “Excuse me?”
Peter swallowed. “You don’t care anyway.” His voice was thick, and Avery thought he saw his older brother’s eyes a little watery.
Dad unfolded his arms. “What do you mean by that?”
Peter was growing more and more visibly emotional as the seconds went on. With a shaky sigh he turned and bolted for his room.
The light of day dimmed with every moment that passed. Avery sat on the edge of his bed staring out the west window, watching the sun sink behind the realm of trees which lined the horizon.
He found a prayer working its way through his mind. “God, we really need you.”
He pressed his lips together firmly and sighed inwardly. Supper that night hadn’t been that enjoyable. Dad was upset, Jane was nervous, and Peter had nearly punched their father. The situation was growing worse and worse with every day that went by. At first things had been only at the level of a terse exchange of words. Now action was taking place.
Avery could still see the look of pain and anger in Peter’s teary eyes. The shock on Dad’s face. Jane squeezing his hand in fright. Never before had things been so awful in the Wood’s home.
Well, at least before Mom had gotten killed. She was the peacemaker. The umpire. The voice of reason. Patience. Love. Christ-likeness. Now there was a deep spiritual, emotional, and physical void which wrought division-- alarmingly almost overnight.
Avery could feel the painful lump rising in his throat. Tears burned, unshed, in his eyes.
His eye caught Mom’s Bible lying beside his pillow on the bed. In one move he had the book in his lap and was blindly flipping through, turning pages… trying somehow to find help. To find comfort. An answer. Anything.
Then his gaze lit upon something for an instant. “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
Wow. Avery simply sat there, drinking in the solace and reassurance from those words.
In his mind, he envisioned the Lord-- the Lord of Hosts-- the Lord God of heaven and earth-- actually thinking about him. Actually caring about him and his welfare. Sending that verse exactly, precisely when he most needed the truth.
That right there was enough to sustain him. To get him through the night. To get him through the next day. And the next. And the next. And the one after that.
Jeremiah 29:11 was marked over and over in his Mom’s Bible-- with different pens, highlighters, pencils, circled over and over, underlined like crazy-- this verse must have sustained her through some tough times, too.
Avery let loose a smile. A genuine smile. No fear, no doubt. No reason for cowering. No reason for worrying. God-- Avery grinned broader in relief while his eyes grew moist-- God had it all under control. For His glory and their good.
God was love. And God was strong.
Saturday morning brought with it promises and challenges alike. Dad had to go to the feed store to pick up something for Molly, the cow… which meant the three kids were staying home. Together.
Avery watched as Dad pulled down the visor on his red baseball cap and climbed into the blue pickup. The engine rumbled, and he pulled out of the dirt driveway and drove down the road, disappearing out of sight.
Though Avery loved his brother, ever since Peter had started having problems there had been an increasing distance between them. Avery didn’t want it to be that way, but it seemed as though Peter was forcing the rift between them, wider and wider. Day after day. Peter would get offended easily by something he had said-- it didn’t matter if it was big or small-- and the tension grew.
They were still very close, however, despite their recent differences. The relationships which Mom had helped them to develop early on had taken deeper root, and yet lingered, regardless of the drought.
Avery plunked down on the green sofa and twiddled his thumbs busily. Jane was meandering about the first story of the house, duster in hand, whistling away at some distant tune. Peter stood in the living room, facing the door. He shoved his hands down deep into his pockets and then swiveled around, facing Avery. His expression was the essence of boredom...or so it seemed.
Avery decided to try something. “Having any success with math?” It was a far throw, but he thought he’d at least make a shot.
Peter shrugged. “I don’t know. Crazy stuff.”
Avery nodded. “Yeah,” he crossed his tennis-shoed feet.
His brother sighed-- from where within himself Avery could only guess.
Peter walked slowly, aimlessly, around the living room. Then he stopped abruptly. Avery could see that an idea had obviously taken hold of him and was working in his mind, by the look on his face.
He made for the closet. Avery knew only too well what his purpose was.
He sat straight up. “Peter, don’t…”
Peter shot him a ‘pipe- down’ glance. “Hey. I know what I’m doing.”
“It’ll make it worse.” Avery half pleaded. He knew how much his big brother was already suffering. Staring at the family picture, from when Mom was still with them, was only going to cut the wound deeper. “Please, Peter. Please.”
Peter halted only a second, and then swung wide open the closet door. He stepped inside. From all the sounds of rustling of paper and coats, Avery knew that he was unearthing the treasure. Then there was silence. A dead silence. Avery could tell that he had found it.
Jane stood frozen by the edge of the couch. She cast Avery a bewildered look and then also went to the closet.
Avery figured he’d better do something, so he got up and made his way over toward his brother and sister. Though he didn’t want to dig up his own still raw wounds, he came and peered over Peter’s shoulder.
There they were. All five of the Woods. Bright smiles, similar features...and Mom.
Avery swallowed hard. Just looking at her brought back a surge of memories, of all kinds. Both tender and tough.
Avery heard Jane sigh. “I have a-- a hard time...remembering...everything.”
Her voice was thick. Avery’s heart reached out to her. She had been only five when their mother had passed on, and he knew that she inwardly longed for memories of her-- to go through life on.
He opened his mouth to say something encouraging, when Peter’s voice came instead, to his surprise. “She...she was very--” Avery looked over and saw him biting his lip to hide his emotion. He made an effort. “--she was very peaceful...and steadfast.”
Jane’s young face glanced upward into Peter’s.
Peter seemed to be hunting for words...and memories. “Mom was patient. With all of us. And strong. Very strong-hearted.”
Avery felt his eyes burning. All the prayers he had prayed to the Lord came back in that one instant to form a new one, petitioned silently: “Lord, please use this.”
Jane’s clear blue eyes sought the family picture once again, lingering hungrily over Mom’s face. “I wish…” she trailed off, with a despondent sigh. Then she turned abruptly to Peter with new energy. “Could you tell me?”
He hesitated. “Tell you what?”
“About...Mommy.” Her eyes begged. Avery would never forget that look.
Silence rang about. Peter slowly nodded in agreement, the idea seeming to settle in his mind more with each nod of his blond head. “Sure. Follow me.”
Avery picked up the end of the line which Peter lead, going up the stairs, up another set of stairs which Avery didn’t even know existed, and then into the dark, dank, and musty-smelling attic.
The part of the attic which was used for storage covered only a portion of the roof, and Peter made them wait outside while he himself went in to look for something.
Presently he emerged with three shoe boxes stacked up in his arms. “Grab the door for me, will ya?” he grunted to Avery. Avery was quick to pull it shut, and then turned to follow Peter and Jane-- who were stomping back down the stairs-- with mounting curiosity.
They settled on the couch together, with Peter in the center. Avery realized with a funny feeling that the last time they had sat together on this couch was when Mom had been with them.
He tried to remember what they had been doing then...but couldn’t. It had been such a long time ago.
Peter brushed off the dust which had settled on the lid of the first box, and then took it off. Both Jane and Avery peered inside around their brother. It was full of pictures.
Peter drew out the first photo, and they all studied it eagerly. There was Mom, with little Jane, baking cookies together in a powdery, messy kitchen-- both smiling. It was a window into the past which none of them could ever re-live, but the comfort wrought by that photo in one instant drew them all closer together. Jane snuggled up against Peter. “I don’t remember that time.”
“Neither do I,” he admitted, “but it happened.”
“Let’s do another one.” Jane bit her lip in expectation.
“Alright.” Peter slid the next one from the box.
This one was of all of them, standing in the living room together with their Christmas Sunday outfits on. Mom had always tried to have them match on holidays, and though the process was often trying, she had managed it every year somehow.
“And Avery used to hate it when Mom made him try on different Sunday shirts,” Peter was remembering. Avery caught a sly grin from him and made a fake grimace.
Jane laughed. “Really?”
Avery shot her a significant grin. “Yes-- not to say I’m very proud of that…”
She caught a laugh in her hand and then brushed back her blonde hair from her face. Her face suddenly grew confused as her eyes caught sight of something in the box. “Hey-- what’s that?”
Her brothers followed her gaze. There was a photo protruding up from the thick stack of pictures with some writing on its back.
Peter pulled it out and held it so they could read whatever message was written on it.
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” ~ Ephesians 6:10
Avery’s heart started pounding against his chest. He glanced down and saw that his older brother’s fingers were shaking.
Jane’s brows were deeply furrowed in perplexity. “Finally…..be…..strooong…..in the...Lor….” she looked up at Peter. “Can you read it to me?”
Avery didn’t know whether or not Peter was going to be able to respond to her. His gaze was fixed on the scribbled scripture. Silence dominated the atmosphere.
After a moment of complete stillness, Peter’s voice sounded, softer and strained with hidden emotion. “ ‘Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.’” His throat moved. “Ephesians 6:10.”
Avery awaited breathlessly for something to happen. Every ounce of his insides was drawn taught with apprehension. His eyes sought the refuge of the verse on the back of the photo during that harrowing moment.
Jane pursed her lips thoughtfully. “Hmm. A Bible verse, right?”
Peter drew a shaky breath and nodded. “Yeah.”
She furrowed her brows in puzzlement. “What’s on the other side?”
Avery saw his brother’s eyes, tense with something very much like...fear.
He tried to intervene. “We don’t really have to, Janey. There are tons more in here.” He caught her eye and vainly strove to communicate a warning look.
However, she either ignored him or didn’t hear him-- promptly sliding off of the couch and swiveling around on her knees on the hardwood floor to inspect the photo from the other side. Avery watched her face change slowly into keen interest, her eyes hungrily eating up whatever she saw.
He stole a subtle side-glance at Peter and then ventured to ask, “What is it?”
She seemed to not hear him. Then her lips moved, her eyes not once diverting from the picture. “Mama.”
He heard Peter inhale sharply.
Avery bit his lip hard and forced himself down off of the couch to see the picture for himself. But just as he hit the floor, Peter flipped the picture around-- coming face-to-face with it himself.
Avery got up and re-joined him on the couch.
His eyes met a tender picture of Mom...in a hospital bed...holding a red-faced little bundle snuggly in her arms. Around her were two blond-haired little boys and a bearded man in a baseball-cap. She was beaming with joy. The little family was complete. It was the next-to-last time in which their Mom would be in a hospital.
The scene was enough to make him misty-eyed. He swallowed saliva down a suddenly dry throat. “When Jane was born.”
Jane bounced slightly on the other side of Peter, her eyes shining and her mouth twisted into a smile which communicated supreme delight. “That’s me,” she murmured softly.
Peter’s face was contorted in emotion. He quickly put his hand over his eyes, sighing out a tearful breath. He sucked in air and then let out a low moan.
Avery’s core was rent with yearning for his older brother. He instinctively reached out and laid a hand on Peter’s arm, his own eyes warm and moist.
Peter took his hand and squeezed it firmly, his shoulders jerking with a silent sob. He sighed out his tears again and rubbed his eyes hard. “I get it.”
Avery’s soul quivered with mounting hope. “What do you mean?”
Peter’s hand slid off his face, and Avery met his tearful yet enduring gaze. Something was noticeably different about him. “I understand...why Mom...was like she was.”
Avery resolved within himself to listen. This was a battleground landmark.
Peter turned his eyes over toward Jane, who sat listening intently. “Mom-- the reason she stayed steady-- while everyone else was grasping the wind….was because she had found...her strength...in God.”
Tears started in Avery’s eyes. He had waited for Peter to say this for months now. Hearing him say the words made alive all the prayers which Avery had prayed to Christ Jesus...and made alive his resolve to continue in his Mom’s legacy.
He said nothing, but his heart was full. He extended his other hand in an impulsive urge to his brother.
Peter took it firmly. There was a strong, mending, lasting bond of brotherhood which flowed through that grasp. Avery felt he had never known him so well as during that moment, when all former strife and misunderstandings were dissolved by the love of Christ in a single second.
He remembered Jane and saw her standing up beside the couch. The happy tears glistened in her clear blue eyes as she watched her family coming together, piece by piece. Avery knew deep inside himself that she had been as affected by the tragedy as any of them had. They had all taken it in different ways, and hers...he couldn’t imagine living in her shoes amid such confusion and strife concerning the loss of a mother she hardly remembered.
He opened wide his other arm, and she unhesitatingly plunged into them, burying her face in Peter’s shoulder and drawing them all into a close-knit group-hug.
He heard her sniff. Her voice was muffled. “I love you guys.”
Peter’s fingers were going through her silvery blonde hair. “I love you, too, Janey.”
Avery smiled and wiped away a tear sliding down his face. “So do I.”
Suddenly they heard a harsh creak.
Each of them looked up.
There Dad stood, dirt on his jeans, baseball cap on, keys in hand. His eyes moist as he watched them.
The clock on the wall sent a solemn chime. It was noon.
Silence rang about madly.
Dad slowly strode over to them. His face was working with emotion. He blinked quickly and took a deep look into Avery’s eyes, then Jane’s, and then lingered on Peter’s.
Peter returned his gaze steadily. Then he stood up.
Avery and Jane awaited breathlessly, silently, for anything to follow.
Out of the stillness, Peter extended his hand.
The reserve was broken when Dad reached out, took it, and pulled him into a hard hug. Avery saw Peter’s arms going around Dad’s waist. He heard Peter sniff hard.
He saw Dad’s eyes fall shut tightly, a tear trickling down his bearded face, as he held his eldest son tightly. A tear-rent sigh escaped from him, followed by the muttered words, “I love you son.”
Peter’s choked voice came back fiercely. “I love you too, Dad--”
Avery was crying freely. He didn’t care what the world thought. By God’s strength, He was mending this family together before Avery’s very eyes. He wished that Mom was there to witness this reunion. Then suddenly he realized that this was what heaven was going to be like, on a very small scale. God’s strong love was going to bind everything and everyone together in perfect, blissful harmony.
He was brought back as Jane threw herself into Dad, and he opened an arm for her. And then suddenly Avery found himself going, too.
They all wrapped each other tightly in an unbreakable bond. Avery had never felt so completely unified with his family before. A living peace surged through his spirit.
Dad’s voice cracked. “We’re going to make this work.”
Jane whispered loud enough so that all could hear: “ ‘Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.’ ”
“Amen, Janey.” Avery felt Dad squeeze his shoulder. He raised his teary gaze to see Dad’s face, which had broken into a rapturous smile. His eyes met Avery’s. “Amen.”
Avery saw his older brother, his tawny arm around Dad’s neck. He saw his little sister, her arms wrapped tightly around Dad’s waist. And he saw his father, his own strong arms, enfolding them all.
All at once he recalled the verse he had read the other day in Jeremiah: “ ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope.’ ”
No fear, no doubt. No reason for cowering. God had it all under control. For His glory and their good.
God was love. And God was strong.