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My family never had much, and excess was not in my parents' lexicon. Dad was a pastor, serving small congregations, and Mom stayed at home. We were poor, but we didn't feel it much, surrounded as we were by farmers who lived by the whims of the rain we asked for at the weekly Wednesday night prayer meeting.

But each birthday was an occasion for a treat, and every gift was precious and heartfelt. On my fourth or fifth birthday, I unwrapped a stuffed animal that had been squeezed awkwardly into an ill-fitting cracker box and wrapped by my dad's bear-like hands. Before opening the bulging box, I could see fur sticking out of the corners. Inside was a koala, snuggly and a touch exotic.

I loved that stuffed animal. She inhabited an honored spot on my bed for the next decade. At some point, a seam popped and stuffing hemorrhaged from her neck. I pushed the fluff back inside and repaired the damage with painstaking but imperfect stitches that made her head a little crooked.

How could I have known she would one day become a prized possession and comfort to the woman who gave her to me?

Creeping Shadows

Around the time I got that koala, Mom answered my questions about how I could follow Jesus and prayed with me when I first committed my life to him. She gently explained her own faith and assured me that God loved me.

Mom was faithful but also fragile, and I sensed her vulnerability; my whole family built systems to protect her. I loved and appreciated her, but something kept me from feeling close to her. I felt she was breakable—not a person of safety and strength, but someone who would falter before I would.

But I did feel safe enough, cocooned in a relatively predictable community where most people ...

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