It has been five very long and very short years since I last heard Dad say my name. He knew, for a moment at least, that I had made it home. And with that his journey home began.
5 years ago, tonight, after the longest, fastest drive of my life across this great big state that held his heart, I sat at my Dad’s side – holding his hand willing him to open his eyes just one more time. I’d heard him say my name one last time an hour or so before. It was just a whisper over the annoying din of an old western movie playing on the TV. I will never forget the sound of his voice – it jarred me so. It was not the voice I wanted to remember my Dad by. But that aural memory of my father that I want to hold on to oh so badly – is slipping away into the ocean of noise created by THIS world. Why didn’t I save ANY of his phone messages????
I would not have expected to be in this austere room facing his ending just a few days prior but there I was looking at the shell of the man who with our wonderful mother, had created for me and my brother, lives we wouldn’t trade for anything.
In the last hours of his life- as his body was shutting down, betraying him every step of the way – he seemed so meek and so willing to go on his way while I wanted him to fight, FIGHT with all his might to stay with me. But I could tell he was at peace – and finally – he gave that incredible gift to me – to be at peace with the way things were going to be.
I still struggle with how his life came to a close. But that struggle does not come close to the mighty love I have for him still.
I have thought about my last moments with Dad a lot lately – moments I didn’t have with Mom when she died. As someone who is single without children of my own – I wonder what my last moments will be like. Morbid yes, but as I watch death take hold of so many lives of late, it is hard not to wonder about things like that.
What a blessing it was to share his last breath and commend his spirit to the Lord. To lay my head on his chest for one last heartbeat. Those last moments were the worst moments of my life. I wanted to die with him right then and there and yet, at the same time felt raw and alive with the wonder of the liminality of life. That experience is a gift in itself. I am not afraid to die anymore – of the process of death – yes – terrified – but dying – not so much.
I am so thankful I was able to be with my Dad to send him home. My heart breaks for who don’t get to say the same goodbye.
I’m grateful for their momentary visits now and then, but I can’t wait to see Mom and Dad again.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” – John 14:27
Jesus: “In the shadow of My Cross, you sit. My body and life are missing today. Gone.
What was is no longer and what will be is not yet. You’re not only wondering about what is next but if there will even be a next…”
I know this day well, as I suspect many of you do too.
It was the day after my mother died and again, the day after my father died.
It was the day after my marriage ended – in a courtroom far less holy than where it began.
It is the day after all you lived for now is no longer.
It is the day after death. Where hope seems beyond grasp and clarity only brings despair.
A part of your life has died. A part of you has died.
Today is the hard day. Today is the painful day of initiation by reality.
The day we realize again and again that it really did happen. This is our new reality.
And it brings with it feelings: grief, sorrow, hurt, fear, anger, guilt, and shame – feelings so magnified they consume us. The torrent of our tears leaves us exhausted and depleted.
Anyone who has been on the journey of life for a good distance is cognizant of what a great loss can do to upend your world.
I’m not going to try and paint a pretty picture here -the day after changes you, forever.
Normal will never look the same again. Joy and beauty and happiness will never be the same again. Nor will pain. Life simply will not be the same again.
You won’t be the same.
Great loss forever unsettles you from the life you once knew.
Jesus: “Today you are in the shadow of My Cross. The Cross that will transform you. The Cross I turned from an instrument of death into the Tree of Life. And in so doing I made living for tomorrow possible. A tomorrow where you are no longer imprisoned by your losses – no, they become your story of life. A new life. Tomorrow, your life begins again as it does every day in Me, not apart from your losses but through them. You will grow and live a new life in the light of My resurrection and My life.
I promise you this:
“I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanliness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” -Ezekiel 36-24-28
“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” John 13:1
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13: 34-35
Oh, that we might all love to our very end and that we might be loved too.
If I have one regret in this life – it is that I have not loved enough. I ask for your forgiveness. Lord, teach me how to love like you.
And then the day came, when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. – Anais Nin
Those words have inspired many hard decisions I have made in my adult life. As I was seeking inspiration for what I might say to you today I was reminded of those poetic threshold words penned by Anais Nin – words that encourage us to take the risk we are contemplating -to open ourselves to the world – to leave the comfort of what we know – be vulnerable – and welcome what awaits us.
During the season of Lent we leave our false comforts of life and enter the wilderness with Jesus. We did our best to withdraw from the busyness of the present and our favorite numbing distractions. Sometimes we choose to sacrifice or live with more intention. Always, we meditated and prayed and allowed the protective walls between our sensitive spirit and the complexity and conflict of contemporary life to fall. We let ourselves be vulnerable – if only to ourselves – but hopefully also to God.
Perhaps we got to know Jesus better – the radiant child King we lavishly celebrated at Christmas. Hopefully, in our Lenten wilderness with Jesus, we let Him get to know us better too – our fear, grief, even rage and yes, our longings, loves and deepest joys. Perhaps we have wept and hollered and let our weakness and exhaustion show in these sacred and vulnerable 40 days.
For some, the past two years have been an eternal wilderness. In pandemic America, many were forced into long periods of separation, refrained from celebration, and we worshiped in solitude, without the pomp and joy of gathered community. Indeed it has been three years since we last celebrated Holy Week all together. Now as we enter a new & uncertain phase of life amid a pandemic, we are learning how to be together again. Many of us are raw with grief and despair over lost loved ones and broken relationships, lost dreams, and financial hardship. Distrust of those in power runs rampant, strife and division corrode our foundation as a country and a people. And war in Ukraine is taking lives and livelihoods and threatens the stability and safety of the world. It seems like we live in an ongoing crisis, burdened by crosses laid upon us and of our own making. It’s been a while since we have known true unfettered communal joy.
The people we meet today traveling to Jerusalem with Jesus also bore crosses. Crosses of oppression and poverty, sin and sickness, despair, and death. In Jesus day, the cross was the prescribed form of capital punishment. Biblical historians tell us that it was common for the road to Jerusalem to be lined with crosses each of them bearing a body. Picture those roadside crosses you pass on Hwy 40 as part of your daily commute, or the ones erected at the 10 Commandments display with a body hanging from them. Anyone who took that way from their home to the market, or from the market to the temple, or from the temple to a friend’s house, would have no choice but to encounter these grim instruments of capital punishment on a regular basis. They didn’t have the privilege of speeding by in the comfortable confines of a vehicle. They walked with eyes turned away, but they smelled the stench, and they heard the horrors of death on a cross. Imagine the threat and constant terror the Roman Empire instilled in the people who lived in the shadows of those crosses – their lives and hopes shriveled by this unspoken but most deadly of all messages of power. They were also divided by caste and social privilege and lived with suspicion & scorn for one another. This was the grim reality of Jesus’s day.
Today we with the disciples step away from our individual realities and join a celebration of our shared walk with Jesus – a triumphal entry into a new way of thinking and seeing ourselves in the world. Today we join the multitudes on the road to Jerusalem and begin the journey of Holy Week. I’ve seen Holy Week referred to as a Holy symphony with four movements. In years past we have observed the first three movements as Palm/Passion Sunday because the church has argued that you can’t have the finale – the resurrection – without first experiencing the triumphal entry, betrayal and death and most people won’t darken the church doorway after today until Easter morning. But this year this week’s Holy Symphony will have its full expression throughout the days ahead.
And I am glad for that. Palm Sunday feels like life to me — rich and full and complicated and contradictory. And so very expressive of those times in our lives when we stand at a threshold with a choice to make. Today we are at such a threshold as we reflect on a series of events that changed the world and even today – changes our lives if we allow ourselves to fully experience the passion of our Lord.
The last days of our friend, Jesus who lived out our human experience to the fullest, whose deeds of power were indeed worthy of our praise, but who also chose to walk, laugh and cry with us and emptied Himself for us so that we may have true life.
During Holy Week, just as we often do in our own lives, we have a natural tendency to focus on the worst of what Jesus experienced: the betrayal, the agony, and finally his death. But it’s really important for us not to lose sight of the triumphant entry. It is a joyful experience, inspiring feelings of communal gladness we haven’t felt in a while.
So let’s spend some time here in this triumphal entry into Jerusalem cheering Jesus on, waving our palms, and throwing our cloaks down before him – all the while acknowledging that many of the very same people we join on that road shouting, “Blessed is He” will be in the ugly mob that cries out “Crucify him” on Friday as this same Jesus, an innocent man, is tortured and executed for alleged crimes against the Empire. There is joy and there is despair. This was and is our human experience.
What did you feel this morning as you entered the sanctuary and sang that wonderful song of glory to our Redeemer and King? What was in your heart as you waved your palm branches high? Joy? Surely not a yawn!
The people cheering for Jesus that day abandoned their dignity, not to mention an important material possession by throwing their cloaks down on the road in front of Jesus. They let go of their fear and troubles and were lost in wonder, love, praise, and joy. What did you let go of – if only for a moment?
And what about Jesus? What was He feeling inside? The text doesn’t give us much to go on if we want to know his state of mind during the grand parade. He certainly seemed certain of how the events would play out. I hope He too felt immense joy, don’t you? Then again, a recipient of praise and adoration of this magnitude might also feel uncomfortable – I know I would!
But Jesus would not have been fully human if he didn’t experience intense joy, maybe even giddy abandon, and yet we rarely picture him that way. I wonder why that is? Do we feel guilty for being joyful amidst a suffering world? Does suffering deny the existence of joy? Does joy deny the existence of suffering?
As I think on the nature of the Jesus I know, I think He wanted the people to feel wonder and joy – to have a taste of the kingdom in which He reigns. To show that joy comes from knowing a love greater than any fear – a joy that can be felt even in the worst of times. And what joy this day must have brought Jesus to see the hearts of his followers, hearts long hardened by fear and oppression, open again to wonder and love!
Joy in the midst of a politically and personally dangerous time for Jesus. Because this was not a simple parade down a road to Jerusalem. Jesus was committing a subversive act against the powers of the Roman Empire. Pontius Pilate was on his way to Jerusalem too because this was the feast week of the Passover, the celebration of God’s triumph over the greatest superpower of its day. This would be foremost in the minds of the Jews in their celebrations of the event. Imperial Rome generated feelings of hatred and contempt from many of its subjects. Pointing to their feelings, the writer Tacitus said, “[The Romans] rob, they slaughter, they plunder — and they call it ‘empire.’ Where they make a waste-land, they call it ‘peace.’
Because of this, the Romans distrusted associations, crowds, and gatherings such as the one we find celebrating the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem and it explains why Pontius Pilate and his legions would have left the comfortable confines of his palace in Caesarea Maritima for the parochial space of Jerusalem. To reaffirm the Empire’s authority and power over the people. Some accounts say it was likely that Pilate was conducting his own triumphal entry upon mighty steeds of war into Jerusalem from the opposite direction while Jesus was making his way through the throngs of adoring. cheering people.
The royal implications of Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem are clear in the words of “the whole multitude of disciples” who praised Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the King who is to come. Obviously, this made the Pharisees very nervous. They had warned Jesus before that Herod wanted to kill him and had advised Jesus to lay low. Now they implored Jesus to silence the disciples. They knew that such a display of royal pretense would bring down the wrath of those in power in Jerusalem, whether it be the Sanhedrin, Herod, or Pilate. They didn’t want to rock the boat.
But Jesus chose to do the hard thing and the brave thing – He chose to rock the boat – to open the eyes and hearts of his followers and ignite a joy so powerful even stones would shout of it. On a lowly colt, Jesus made Himself vulnerable to the will of the crowd and the events of the days to come. His followers chose the Joy of Jesus that day – they aligned themselves with his authority – not one of oppression, fear, and death – but of compassion, love, and life. They crossed a threshold and took a step forward on the road that would change their lives forever – and they were filled with joy.
And about that crowd – that is after all the role that most of us are taught to play in the passion liturgy – as we wave our palms and shout our hosannas to Jesus and later this week as we join in the calls for Jesus’s crucifixion.
How is it that we can be so united both in our positive energy and our negative, destructive, even violent energy? We still see this play out in the social, cultural, and political fronts of our lives today. To whose authority are we choosing to live under?
Franciscan writer Richard Rohr talks about two ways of gathering or creating unity among people. One is the way of love: “God unites by the positive energy of loving, shepherding, and revealing the divine presence in one’s midst.” Unfortunately, there is another more common and more efficient way to gather people and form group cohesion. “You can either rally around love to unite, or you can rally around fear, gossip, paranoia, and negativity.” Fear and Hate can be as powerful and enticing as Joy and Love.
Palm Sunday captures much of our human complexity and the observances of this Holy Week before us will show us the fullness of God and humanity. We have many opportunities to gather together, and I encourage you to participate in all of them.
There’s a question I want you to contemplate as we enter this week: will the way we gather here as a people, as the Body of Christ, change the way you gather with others outside of these walls? Will we choose to reflect the Joy we know in Christ, choose to be “good gatherers”, people who unite others based on our best instincts, not our worst? Will you lead others to light or allow darkness and fear to permeate?
In his meditation on how to unite people, Rohr concludes, “There are still two ways of gathering: the way of fear and hate, and the way of love. But do not yourself be afraid, because Jesus is still gathering.”
Jesus calls us to take the risk of joy. This week of all weeks, we know how great the cost may be when we take that risk and listen to the call of Jesus. But the day has come, when the risk to remain tight in a bud is more painful and costly than the risk it takes us to blossom. Let’s take that risk. Let’s joyfully walk in the way of love — together.
Grace and peace to you friends in Christ from God our Father.
Let us pray.
God of embrace, you free us from ourselves. You open a path to celebration. Turn us always to you and from you to our neighbor in service and in love. Amen. (Dirk Lange – Luther Seminary)
I’m a counter. I like to count things. I’ve been counting things from the time I understood the concept of numbers. Presents under the tree, the number of French fries and – woe is me – the number of Brussel sprouts on my plate; marks on the chalkboard; the straight A’s my parents paid me for; the number of books I have read, miles run, peaks climbed, jobs done, calories consumed, Scrabble games won… For some reason I have this innate need to measure myself against the world.
I grew up in an old-school Scandinavian family – before the Hygge lifestyle was the way to happiness. Love was never questioned in my family, but esteem and approval were hard to come by. Praise was rare and hard won. I did well in most things – even great sometimes – but I could always do better. At least that is how I interpreted my parents’ absent expression of pride. Mom and Dad were afraid that praise might go to our heads and my brother and I might think too highly of ourselves. Thankfully, both of my parents softened in their stern parental roles as we grew into adulthood and they shared their true feelings of love and pride in my brother and I, but the seeds of unworthiness and hunger for approval were planted. I am a perfectionist and still long for their approval after all these years.
Somewhere along the way, it became hard for me to trust that I am loved without having to first earn that love. That to deserve love I must be accomplished first. Therefore, in order to measure myself against the world, I count things and hope that if I just do more, do better, work harder, sacrifice more – that will count for something! Maybe I will be noticed and loved.
When I moved to the valley from the plains of Eastern MT almost 9 years ago, I immediately came down with the mountain bug. I went from traversing the flat prairies to climbing 10,000 ft peaks every weekend. I joined the Glacier Mountaineering Society and soon got wrapped up in the counting bug too – religiously recording miles logged on each hike with my GPS system because, as we all know, if it isn’t recorded the hike didn’t really happen. Soon we were comparing peaks bagged in a day and tallies of trails for the year. It became a competition to see who came out on top – and less of an adventure for the sheer joy of being in God’s creation. At some point I realized I was burned out – it stopped being fun. No matter how great my day on the mountain was – someone else always had a better one.
Now there is nothing wrong with competition. Competition is fun – and it drives us to better ourselves on many levels. We seek higher education, we practice more and refine our talents, we are rewarded with the feeling of accomplishment and sometimes even celebrated – with success and acclaim. For certain, we are a culture that glorifies winners- from sports to summits, poker to politics. But what about when it stops being fun – the counting, comparing, achieving and winning? When the divisions between winners and losers, the ones on top and the ones who are not, become walls – barriers to joy – barriers to trust- barriers to life – barriers to relationships and love? Comparison is, after all, the thief of joy.
There is a way of being in the world where everything becomes a competition. We measure everything we do against what others do so we can compare. We simply want to be – need to be – on top – be right. And it isn’t necessarily because we are spiteful or conniving – it’s not because we want to gloat over our accomplishments or make others feel less than – well most of us don’t anyway. It’s just that many of us believe that we simply are not enough. Not enough in the eyes of others and not enough in our own eyes. We want to be able to look in the mirror like Saturday Night Live’s Stuart Smalley and not just say but know that gosh darn it – my life matters and I am doing the right things – and people like me – and here’s the proof just in case.
In a world where identity is confirmed by likes and followers, proclamation and protest – so many people long for approval – a good word that affirms our place in the world – that we are doing good – that on any given day the work we do is appreciated – that we are seen and not taken for granted.
When we aren’t – when we feel unseen, unheard, taken for granted, we build walls of defense and division and search for something that shows “I did that” and they didn’t; or “I am right” and they are wrong. Meanwhile inside those walls – all we see is what we didn’t do, where we went wrong, how badly we failed, and how left out we are.
Today’s Gospel lesson continues our Lenten journey of repentance and what that really entails. As I ventured into this well-known parable of the prodigal at first glance, I found it to be a simple story of repentance and forgiveness, what was lost is found; as the fiery preachers of old would exhort – it’s never too late to get up and repent and return to God. God will welcome you – as long as you follow the rules.
We find Jesus responding to his critics, namely the bishops and priests, pastors and deacons of the day – someone like me for instance – who are striving to follow the rules and follow God’s law – and as such they have a problem with Jesus coloring outside their carefully established boundary lines of righteousness – by liberally welcoming and eating with tax collectors, rule-breakers, and the like.
Jesus tells the religious leaders a story about a man who had two sons. His youngest son turns out to be dishonorable, selfish, and impudent. He has disgraced his father first by asking for and then receiving his inheritance before his father has died, then gambles it all away, brings shame to the family name, and loses every ounce of respect and everything he relied on to be somebody. He finds himself hungry – very hungry. Hungry for the good life he once had in his father’s house. He turns to his best form of defense. He devises a plan to win himself back into his father’s good graces and sets off for home. He knows what he wants but he doesn’t expect what awaits him – an exuberant father over the moon happy to see him! After all the wrong the young man has done the father thinks nothing of it! The father runs out to greet his wayward son – before he even has a chance to execute his plan. Not only is he welcomed home, but he is also celebrated with the party of the year!
This made my perfectionist-rule following ears perk up. Like the young son, despite and maybe because of all my efforts to do and be right, I have been and at times still am demanding, selfish and self-centered. I have made mistakes that hang over me like a black cloud. I have found myself in a pigsty of my own making – ashamed and afraid and hungry for anything but my current life. I’ve been raised to and want to believe that I can pull myself up by the bootstraps and make things right and so I like the idea that I have some say in how God feels about me. If I can finally win approval and love by simply repenting – I can choose to do that – right? And look at the celebration I’ll receive!
BUT the story doesn’t end there! We have the older son to contend with – the one who stayed. He has built a life of stability and honor through hard work and living right. And yet he does not seem very happy. Nor does he seem secure. He seems to be very alone in the world – as if he has intentionally separated himself from the others. In my mind, he has every “right” to be resentful even before his younger brother’s celebratory return. I recognize that sneaking resentment that creeps in when we find ourselves left out of the party and unnoticed by the world despite all we have done to make our lives matter. I want to shout right along with him – what about me? But like him I instead suffer in silence and keep being right all the while seething at the unfairness of the world, feeling completely unnoticed, unappreciated, unloved. He is just as hungry and desperate as his brother – it’s just that his younger brother’s hunger is easier to see.
Look at everything we have done! Doesn’t any of that count?
It depends on whose game you want to win. If you are clamoring for a place in this world, if you are hungering for the kind of love derived from status – well maybe – maybe not. This world’s proclivity for belonging is fickle.
If a father’s love is like an inheritance – something that can be divided, invested, gained or lost. If a relationship is like that of a landowner to a hired hand where everything has to be earned – then those things should matter, should count in the grand scheme of things. The older brother should get credit for being good and the younger brother left to wallow in his own mess.
That is how the world works, right? Sadly, there are many families, relationships, and systems that operate this way. I am sure most of us have felt at some point in our lives like we had to earn someone’s love and approval and have worried that we could lose it all at any time by being a disappointment. I am also sure we have sat on the judgment side as well.
And that’s the problem we face when we forget, or worse, don’t even know whose child we really are. Whose child we have always been and always will be.
Jesus makes it clear – keeping count is fine for competition but has no place in love; no place in relationships of trust; and certainly, no place when it comes to God.
Jesus shows us a Prodigal Father who runs out to meet the wayward us the minute He spies us coming from afar. He doesn’t send a servant. He doesn’t wait for us to come to Him. He dashes down the road in a way no respectable landowner ever would, making a complete fool of himself and meets us where we are in the middle of our broken road Not only that, He doesn’t even give us a chance to sputter or explain or deny or repent but instead embraces and restores us immediately. This is disgraceful behavior but our Prodigal Father doesn’t care because He’s a parent before he’s a landowner and so he doesn’t count all the wrongs we have done but only celebrates extravagantly when we come into His arms.
And if that’s not enough, Our Prodigal Father goes on and does something any self-respecting individual would never do a second time when he leaves the celebration He is hosting to seek us out – even in our seething spite and raging resentment. He pleads with us to come into the party, to soften our hearts and change direction. Because before Our Prodigal Father is a Landowner, King, and Creator, He’s a Parent who loves His children more than anyone can measure.
Your value as a person and your place in the family cannot be measured by the sum total of your good graces, your wins and losses, your acclaim and defeat, your rightness and your sin. It cannot be measured, period!
We are not loved because we are always loveable, right, or “on top” of the leaderboard. We are loved because God is love. That is the only thing worth counting on.
We are so used to making things count, so used to keeping score and measuring up in this world, we feel we must hold something before God – something that we have done or not done – to tip the scales in our favor, to earn God’s grace, to earn God’s love. But God’s grace and God’s love don’t come with prerequisites. There are no scales, there is no contest, no reward for best disciple in this life.
Only the same extravagant party of abundant life and everlasting love our Prodigal father has been throwing for us from day one. The one where everyone is invited and everyone has a seat at the table. There is no need for counting because there will always be enough and you are always enough.
Ultimately, it is not about us and everything we do to define or prove ourselves, to matter. It is about a God who forgives us — and our neighbors — even before we repent. It’s about God’s generous grace that makes our repentance possible, our turning away from the ways of death and toward the Way of life1. A life that is both humble and grateful, with our hearts turned not inward but outward toward our neighbors, the community, and all of creation.
It is about God and God’s loving heart and you being God’s beloved child. It is about turning away from the old system of scorekeeping, counting, and judging and embracing our father’s unconditional, undeserved, unbelievable welcome into His immeasurable love. That’s a love you can count on.
I love to write. Words are like children to me – they are the physical expression of my thoughts and feelings – birthed deep inside and given life on the page. For all of my life I have delighted to see my words in print or on the screen. Beginning in first grade when my poem about spring was selected for the school magazine to many years later when my well intentioned civic minded letter to the editor was printed in the Sunday Gazette, I beamed like a proud parent gazing upon their cherubic child. I remember being as thrilled over getting positive remarks on my high school essays as the soccer team was at winning the state championship!
Now I write professionally, pastorally, and for pleasure having consistently maintained a blog for 8.5 years. One would think that with my love for words, birthing them would come easy. But on the contrary, when has childbirth ever been easy??? Indeed, I have labored for hours over opening lines and meaningful metaphors. I approach the blank screen with trepidation – if I approach it all. Just this last weekend with a sermon to write and this newsletter article hanging over me – I suddenly realized with great urgency that my refrigerator needed cleaning out. I scrubbed that baby from top to bottom – pulling out every drawer and shelf and thoroughly scouring away every microscopic bit of organic life. I justified this time-sucking task with the inspiration I knew I would glean from the crisper drawer – but in truth I was willing to do anything to keep me from that frightening blank screen that taunts me with just how empty my thoughts are.
And courage. Courage to “put it all out there” for the world to see. To take a chance that what I have to say might make an impression on someone, touch someone, make someone think. I have to put aside fears of rotten tomatoes, click throughs, and “challenging” remarks. Courage to refrain from comparison – the ultimate thief of joy and creativity – and just write trusting that while my words may not be the most profound or philosophical – they still have worth.
With no divinely-cool inspiration coming forth I continued with dusting, vacuuming, cleaning the toilets, and finally taking the dog for a walk – surely, they were out there somewhere – the precise words to perfect my prose. Procrastinate lately – you might be thinking? But I will counter any day with my concept of active percolation – just like brewing the perfect cup of coffee – making words form sentences that turn into paragraphs and pages – takes care and time!
It is in times like these that deadlines are my friend. At some point I am forced to write something – to put form to the thoughts swirling in my mind. To act. To make a decision and run with it – to take a chance.
As I struggled with words this weekend, I began to see similarities to other areas of my life. You might say my writer’s block was a mega metaphor of my life right now! Struggling with choices and decisions until I am forced by something or some circumstance to finally act. I am as afraid of writing the wrong thing as I am of making the wrong choice. Desperate to be right and win approval, my fear of acting has held me back throughout my life and as I embark on the second half I don’t want to continue being stymied by it.
I’ve never quite understood what is behind this fear but I have always marveled at those who seem to have a clear idea of who they are, where they are going, and how they are going to get there – and then getting there – fears (if they have any) be darned!
Fear of failure has clouded my vision and therefore I have always lacked clarity of purpose and lacked direction in living my life. Oh, I manage to get by alright – some might even think I have it all together – that I am right where I am supposed to be doing what I do best. And maybe that is true – but getting by is not the same as living your best. And living your best takes clarity which turns into courage which turns into action.
Have you ever felt like something – maybe yourself – was holding you back from living life fully – trusting your choices and believing you are on the right path? What is it? What clouds your perspective and keeps you from moving forward? What keeps you from living wholeheartedly and with integrity?
In addition to my fear of failure I struggle with:
The belief that my past failures will forever haunt any future successes;
The illusion that someone else is in charge of and responsible for my life and therefore has the right to direct my life
The belief that someone is far more qualified and better than I am for the situation at hand and therefore I am not needed;
The unhelpful messages I received and believed about myself in the past and continue to live into;
The child inside of me who still just wants to please, gain approval, and meet expectations;
The constant need to prove myself to others and therefore being unable to show up for my own life.
Counselors will applaud me for the time I have spent wrestling with all of the above but to be honest it hasn’t gotten me anywhere. Kind of like hoping divine inspiration will come from the crisper drawer if I clean it for long enough. The more I focus on the naughts and shoulds of my life the less time and energy I have for simply living life. What I have come to realize is that there are far too many subjective and fallible things in this world that I have clung to for my own personal sense of worth and meaning and none of them will get me anywhere close to where I want to go – especially for the second half of life.
There is a story in the Bible about Jesus on His way to Jerusalem. Jesus is met by some Pharisees who warn him: “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” Jesus replies, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’” (Luke 13:31-33)
Jesus knows where He is going, he is clear on His purpose and is not afraid of what is ahead. He doesn’t let the foxes of life deter him – even his impending death.
I want that kind of clarity for my own life. Clarity that encourages integrity, wholeheartedness, and a vision of life that is connected to something beyond me. Clarity that makes living with authenticity, commitment, resolve and discernment my default and not something I have to labor for.
I’m not going to find that if I am constantly battling my fears. The fears I allow to dominate my life are of my own making. They have tamed and impoverished my life. That is not the purpose God had in mind for me. God is much bigger than that.
God doesn’t want us to waste this precious gift of life in fear, regret, or despair. He made that perfectly clear on the cross. I must remind myself of that. My sins are forgiven. I must not wallow in my failures or dwell on my regrets. God is not my source of condemnation; He is the source of my clarity and the source of all life. He is my strength and my shield against all that seeks to deter me.
Jesus came so that I may have life. (John 10:10) Jesus gives life, reveals life, and calls me (and you) to a meaningful life in the now, in this very messed up time and in this place – wherever and however that may be. A life that savors all that I have in the now and accepts what I don’t. A life that embraces the challenges and all the opportunities they bring. A life that finds its essence by sharing it and opening it to others – others who are also living facing challenges and finding new doorways to life.
Clarity isn’t about knowing and seeing everything. It’s about knowing and seeing ourselves as a child of God. It’s about knowing who our heart and our deepest loyalty belongs to. Clarity is about seeing clearly our gifts and abilities while acknowledging our limitations and feeling great about both. God’s gift of grace and steadfast love frees us to live lives focused on what matters most to us not on what we should have done or who we “should” be. In that freedom is life at its best where there is nothing to fear.
Psalm 27 says it best:
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall. Though an army encamps against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rises up against me, yet I will be confident. One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.”
“Remember you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.”
Such fitting words as I mark the beginning of another year around the sun or as today will remind me, another year closer to my Maker.
They don’t always fall on the same day – my birthday and Ash Wednesday. The last time Ash Wednesday occurred on March 2 was 1960 – way before my time – but this year the juxtaposition of these two days is not lost on me. Today we begin the journey to the cross. On my birthday I will wear a cross of ashes reminding me of my life saved from eternal death
This morning, my coworker asked me how I was celebrating my birthday. Deep in thought, I said.
Yes, of course I am deep in thought today. It is what I do and who I am – from the very dust particles of my being. I am a deep thinker and feeler. The last several weeks even more so, as so many of the things I have clung to in life besides the One I should – have fallen away as everything eventually does. In the process I have come to know myself better – my TRUE Self. It’s an eye-opening, lay awake at night, unsettling process. I came to realize how heavy I have let this little life of mine become. Weighed down by the weight of my own being – buried in a very lonely place.
The crosses I bear are of my own making. The darkness I have held within me is my greatest sin. It has tamed and impoverished my life.
Yes, the ashes of this day weigh heavy. They remind me that life is fragile, finite, precious, and unpredictable. There are no guarantees on tomorrow and the past is but a memory – all we have is the beautiful, painful, everchanging now. God doesn’t want us to waste this precious gift of life in regret or despair. He made that perfectly clear in the waters of my baptism and on the cross I wear today. I must remind myself of that. My sins are forgiven. I must not wallow in my failures or dwell on my regrets. God is not my source of condemnation, He is the source of my life. He is my strength and my shield.
Jesus came so that I may have life. (John 10:10) Jesus gives life, reveals life, and calls me (and you) to a meaningful life in the now, in this very messed up time and in this place – wherever and however that may be. A life that savors all that I have in the now and accepts what I don’t. A life that embraces the challenges – even a possible hip replacement and the changes that will bring. A life that finds its essence by sharing it and opening it to others – others who are also living through life’s deaths before death as well as giving life to life.
And so today I won’t be celebrating with birthday candles on a cake – but ashes on my forehead. Celebrating life – the life given for me and the life breathed into me by Jesus. The life I still have yet to live. The life I want to live.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
“When Death Comes” -Mary Oliver
Let your light so shine – especially through the ashes.
I wrote those words a little over a week ago, oblivious to just how prophetic they would be in the coming days. I’m not sure why the sudden pothole I fell into came as such a surprise – perhaps it is because I have been living in denial.
Denial that despite what the Social Security Administration has in their official records on me – I can’t possibly be a year past 50. Denial that though most of my high school friends are celebrating 25 years plus of marriage and have kids who are now getting married – I am still living a carefree single girl’s life. Denial that my body is a human body, nothing more, nothing less – and not a spectacular specimen of immortality.
No, I should not have been surprised. In fact, in my free wheeling days leading up to the “news” I had finally made out my will and detailed how I want my life to end if I am unable to have a say in the matter. A sobering exercise if there ever was one, made even more so by the fact that ‘ll likely have no one other than my churches and charities to leave whatever riches I have left to – and no one to carry on my legacy let alone see to my needs in my last days – all documented in official legalese. But even that did little to change the reflection I chose to see in the mirror every day – the one to whom the laws of the universe don’t apply.
I ran across an “old” acquaintance from high school the other day on Facebook. He had posted a picture of his family – and for a minute I thought he must have taken the picture of his dad with the rest of his family but then it dawned on me that the balding man with more than just flecks of grey in his beard and deep lines on his forehead was actually my classmate! Wow, I thought to myself, I wonder what happened to him? He looked happy, but old.
But not me! No, I’m the one who faced down death at 23 and had a completely unnerving brush with death at 45 but laughed in the face of it both times – assured that God still had plans for me on this great earth. I’m the one who the devil rolls his eyes at as I bound out of bed for my daily 10 mile runs at the crack of dawn come rain, shine, blizzard, or below zero temperatures. Who didn’t let a sprained ankle or broken toe stop me. Who, once I discovered that God inhabited the summits and hugged me with the sky, repeatedly climbed mountains and hiked 23 miles a day back-to-back every summer. I’m the one who has proven time and again that my body can heal itself. Throughout all of life’s travails, I have always believed that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.
That has been how the world has seen me and what I saw every morning in the mirror – despite the pain.
The damn pain that just would not go away. No matter what I tried – physical therapy, deep massage, changing my diet, and of course stopping the very activity that gave me life -running – the pain just kept coming back, malingering in the background – taunting me to pay attention to it.
I don’t know when I finally became cognizant of the fact that I no longer had control over my life – that I had ceded my days to pain. It crept its way into my being – shadowing my bright spirits – sapping life from me little by little. Honestly, I didn’t notice at first how much it was controlling me as I just pushed through it – to the point that pushing through was taking all I had until I had nothing more to give. I no longer recognized myself in the mirror.
And so, I gave in and finally made an appointment with a doctor – something I am loathe to do. Lucky for me I only had to wait 4 weeks to get in to see an orthopedist – surely – I convinced myself – this was a simple stress fracture – another 6-8 weeks of rest and I’ll be back. Alas it didn’t cross my mind that it would have to be one heck of a stress fracture to make my whole body hurt. I was certain of the point of pain though. What started with my broken foot led to over- compensation and poor muscle strength in areas no one pays attention to until their physical therapist points out just how weak they are that threw my stride off and thus threw my hip out of joint. I’m great at self-diagnosis. I’ve been around the block enough times to know exactly what was wrong, after all!
The doctor ran a gamut of x-rays and then came in for the “exam”. I gave an excellent presentation of my theory and said in finishing – “So if you could just get my hip to pop back into place, I know that will fix my problem.”
She tilted her head to one side and replied, “Well let’s have a look at the pictures…”
And there it was in black and white – well more like gray and white. My problem. There would be no simple popping my hip back into its socket. The damage was done. My hip socket is a mess. I’m walking around with bone on bone.
“You have significantly advanced arthritis,” she said. “I’m surprised to see this much damage in someone your age. I’d recommend a hip replacement – but you are too young. Do you have any questions for me?”
Literally – those were her very words. Do I have questions?? Of course I have questions!!! So, what does this mean? How are you going to relieve my pain? Are there alternatives? What caused this?
While athletes sometimes develop arthritis, especially after injury, she said not all do. People who are sedentary also get arthritis. For the most part it is idiopathic (unknown in cause) but does have strong ties to your genes. I watched my mother suffer from arthritis and saw her give in to it. I swore that would never be me and that is one of the reasons I stayed so active -to avoid the same fate. Apparently, my efforts were for naught.
What does this mean? I am not entirely sure. There is no easy fix, no magic pill. Pain will continue to rule my life for the foreseeable future – learning how to manage it will be my goal. Don’t put on weight, she said. Ha! First doctor who has EVER told me that!!! A steroid shot would be too invasive with a considerable risk of infection. She would be happy to prescribe a prescription-strength anti-inflammatory but when she described my options and the risks, I decided I want to stay away from those for as long as I can.
As for running – what once gave me life? She said if I get past this season of pain and want to try – fine but I am setting myself up for more pain – meaning less life. So, I am trying to be “fine” and make it my goal to hike fifteen miles a day come summer. That is all is want…
I am trying to keep this in perspective. I received a life-altering diagnosis not a life-taking one. For that I am thankful and almost ashamed by the state of despair I am in. In truth, it does feel like my life is being taken from me – chasing sunrises and sunsets on foot, losing myself in miles of thought and meditation, taking on mile after mile of adventure.
Or has it? I still believe that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. I will find my way through this. I will also ask for help to do so. I am determined to ensure that my present pothole state is not my new reality. I am strong because of my past and I am stronger still because I always believe in tomorrow.
In that same post from a week ago I wrote: “Think of all the times in your life you did not have a say in the matter – when a course correction was forced upon you. And yet, you are still here today – likely better for the challenge you accepted and made the most of.”
I AM still here today having faced many a challenge before this one; I am prepared to meet this the same way – with faith that God still has plans for me, that He isn’t done with me yet, and I will rise above this season of pain and learn to shine anew.
“but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
While contemplating a drastic career change and his current uneasy place in life, a fellow writing friend of mine shared a thought that resonated deeply within me and yet disquieted what I thought was my own pleasantly planted sense of being: For those who were meant for changing horizons security can feel like imprisonment. The soul seeks freedom.
My pilot friend had reached a point in his flying career where he found himself dreading the very thing that he once dreamed of becoming. His seemingly round the clock job and forced quarantines away from family for weeks on end (he flies out of Hong Kong) with little end in sight was making him sick. He was at a precipice wondering what had become of his life and what he could do now after all these years of flying. He also had a family to consider – how would he support them? He knew he had to make a change but he couldn’t see himself doing anything different. Flying has been his life and he couldn’t imagine his future without it – even as dismal as his present state was.
We don’t always end up where we intended in life. Long before reaching our final destination, life happens and we are forced to change course. My naive college vision board at 18 and the “seasoned” 26-year-old me’s long-range plans seem almost foreign to me now a quarter of a century later. I’ve always admired those who had a dream at a young age and made it happen, and then kept realizing it and living it. In truth, I think that happens to only a very lucky few.
Other times we do “arrive”, attaining everything we had destined for ourselves but the journey leaves us with nothing more than a longing – for what – we don’t know. This is a scary place to be. It leads to second guessing our values and doubting the person we have become.
Really? I thought to myself. Hasn’t the trending pop-psychology of the day hailed the virtue of remaining in the present? After all we have been through – after all I have been through the last 5 years – how can I even begin to think about the future? Frankly, I have found it much more delightful to relive the past – at least there I know what to expect!
The article goes on to say: “Some people have a vivid sense of their future self, which feels very close to their current identity. These people tend to be more responsible with their money and more ethical in their treatment of others; they are keen to act in a way that will make life easier in the years ahead”.
I would give anything to have a “vivid sense” of my future self. I can’t even plan the current years’ worth of vacation days let alone what life I have left! Alas, I seem to fall into the second cohort the article mentions: Those who “struggle to imagine their future self as a continuation of the person that they are today… It’s almost as if they see their future self as a separate person that has little connection to their present identity.” These individuals, the article states, tend to be less fiscally responsible and less concerned with the long-term consequences of their actions in nearly every sphere of their lives: health, career, money, relationships.
While I struggle with seeing my future life as a continuation of today or seeing it at all for that matter – I certainly don’t envision myself a stranger to who I am today and I take issue with the claim that I am less responsible than the visionaries among us. On the contrary, it is because my future seems – at least right now – “unrevealed” – that I am so careful with what I have and what I do. It is an interesting concept however, to ponder. And as I said before, I have the utmost admiration for those who live life with such long-term certainty.
Creating a vision for the second half of our lives is not as easy as it would seem.
The questions of “Who am I” “What do I want to be when I grow up?”, and “How am I going to get there?” have leveled up a critical notch to “What have I become?” and “What have I done with my life?’ and “What do I do now?”
When the future was a long way away, the answers seemed so easy. Heck, we could be anything we wanted anywhere we wanted (for the most part.) Dream away! But when we have less of a future ahead of us than we do our past, there is far more at stake – or so we tell ourselves.
You’ve been cruising along, doing life as you have always done it – and most likely at a comfortable level at that – or you would have stopped or been forced to stop long ago. Something had to have been working, right? You are at a place that you worked long and hard to reach. You have a certain level of security. The thought of change – of making a course correction – of coming back to earth and climbing back up again – is daunting -no doubt!
And so is finding contentment in the now – because for all our visioning and planning – the now is all we are guaranteed. The last 2+ years have monotonously and morosely reminded us of that over and over and over again and perhaps may have even been the inspiration of this piece!
And yet, how fortunate we are to live in a time and in a country where these meaning and purpose of life thoughts, as dilemma-inspiring as these are, can be had! This freedom is almost too easy to come by and we take it for granted – we become complacent in our relative comfort, assured that no matter what, tomorrow will come. So what if it is the same as today and yesterday? What passes for even a miserable life for this audience, would be an absolute dream for others on this very same earth.
Think of all the times in your life you did not have a say in the matter – when a course correction was forced upon you. And yet, you are still here today – likely better for the challenge you accepted and made the most of.
Why then, is it so hard to envision a future different from your past or present – if that is indeed the dilemma you are facing? What lessons from life do you hold on to? Which ones do you need to let go of in order to move forward?
As we emerge from this pandemic, many of us are reevaluating where life has brought us and who and how we want to be. Maybe it is just to be content with life, finding awe in the present or maybe it is striking out in a new direction and new way of being. As I work through these questions myself, I will leave you with these two thought provoking quotes:
“If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine. It’s lethal” – Paul Coelho
“People cannot discover new lands until they have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” – Andre’ Gide