4 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, massaging his calf, 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.
What seemed like just a few short days before I would not have expected to be in this austere room facing his ending – 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 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 so thankful I was able to be with my Dad to send him home. My heart breaks for those, especially during this pandemic, who don’t get to say the same goodbye.
I love you Dad. Give Mom a big smooch tonight.
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
It can be a long drive to my “other life.” When the weather is favorable for windshield time, I actually relish the time behind the wheel as the mountains of NW Montana give way to the big wide open of Eastern Montana. When the weather doesn’t cooperate with my travel plans (which is at least 75% of the time) it can be the longest butt toning session ever undertaken! I had both experiences for my Easter trip home this year.
Armed with road snacks, MT’s own John Denver aka Mike Eldred and Phil Aaberg CD’s (yes I am old school) ready to rock me across the Divide, a plethora of podcasts loaded for my intellectual advancement, and 3 seasons worth of clothing (this is Springtime in MT) for 4 days of travel, I departed the Flathead on a very fine Good Friday.
It was a wonderful day for a road trip! Especially on the backroads that I love. Blue skies and dry roads were abundant. As I crested the Continental Divide and saw nothing but flat land and open sky before me, the deep freeing sigh that occurs every single time escaped my being. The open road ahead of me is not only the way home but an invitation to what I lovingly call my prairie wondering. It takes me awhile to get to this place of thinking deep thoughts. The stresses of packing and repacking, dropping the talkative dog off for his staycation at the ranch, and navigating the traffic to get out of the Flathead take a while to loosen their grip.
As I delighted in the multitude of calves finding their bearings in this great big, sometimes cold and harsh world, I couldn’t help but say a little prayer that all would be well, that all matters of being would be well – for them and for us, and yes, for me. For life has been uncertain of late – not unlike the lives of those darling mooers frolicking about in the warm sun – within moments a predator or sudden spring storm could snuff out all that was to be.
But while one could dwell in that particularly unsavory side to the cycle of life – which has been easy to do during this yearlong global pandemic (another cyclical event) – it is all part of the eternal pattern of change and transformation. Franciscan contemplative, Richard Rohr, says that for change and transformation to happen, we must move from Order (those warm times of carefree frolicking in the sun) to “a period—or even many periods— of Disorder.” Often that means loss and disappointment. “There will be a death, a disease, a disruption to our normal way of thinking or being in the world.” The ways of being and doing are disrupted and our notions of control and certainty are displaced by a sense of restlessness, an unease with our very nature and place.
I know I have grown increasingly unsettled – despite being pretty much homebound for the last year. With the busy trappings of my pre-pandemic busy life stripped away, I have had to come to terms with the core foundation of my life – the bare essence of who I am without external forces laying claim to my identity. I haven’t always liked what I have uncovered. And I wonder if others have found themselves in the same state of dismay. Rohr says this “is necessary if any real growth is to occur.”
The Disorder stage is all about letting go of control and stepping “out of the driver’s seat for a while,” Rohr says. (The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Disorder, Reorder [Franciscan Media, 2020].) Then we can open ourselves to Reorder, where we radically “let go and let God.” Which is why the template for “Order, Disorder, Reorder” is Jesus, who surrendered to God’s will, was crucified and was resurrected.
“Letting go and letting God” is easy to do when you’re driving across a landscape uncluttered by the demands of modern life and mirrors that dare you to compare your lot in life to those around you, not to mention bathe in the murky waters of your failures and regrets. It’s easy to hide behind the guise that while our world is plagued by righteous hate, sadness, power, fear, and judgement -thinking that I am somehow not a part of that – until I realize that I most certainly am! I sometimes feel I am stuck in a never ending state of the Christian observance of Good Friday – that darkest of days when all of humanity’s sin and ugliness were foisted upon a divine savior, Jesus, and hung on a cross to die a bloody death.
It’s times like that which inspire thoughts of putting the pedal to the metal and driving off into the sunset in search of an escape from it all – from me, from the world, from life – a place to start over – to start fresh.
Thankfully on this particular Good Friday, I had a rendezvous with Easter and family awaiting my arrival, which got me to thinking about which side of the cross I tend to live on on a daily basis – because Easter is not just a single spring Sunday once a year, nor is Good Friday a single dark day preceding the celebration of resurrection and new life.
Have I ever truly opened myself to the Reordering of life that God offers us – all of us – freely – freely if I surrender all my sins, failure and regret from my inherent need to control them – have I ever paid more than lip-service to surrendering them all to Him?
As the miles (and there are a lot of them on this particular journey) rolled on, I realized just how far apart the life I am allowing myself to live is from the life God wants for me. In my heart, I felt alienated from myself. In that moment, I knew that I knew little or nothing of my own heart. I have kept my distance out of some disabling fear of what I might find.
Henri Nouwen wrote: “Where we are most ourselves, we are often strangers to ourselves. That is the painful part of our being human. We fail to know our hidden center; and so we live and die often without knowing who we really are. If we ask ourselves why we think, feel, and act in such and such a way, we often have no answer, thus proving to be strangers in our own house.” [You Are the Beloved: Daily Meditations for Spiritual Living, by Henri J. M. Nouwen]
Jesus didn’t go to the cross for me or you to remain wallowing in fearful despair, regret, or sin. Nail those gifts from Satan to the cross, right now! Jesus longs to make his love known to us in the seclusion of our hearts, to free us from our fears, and to make our own deepest self known to us – even the parts we would like to hide. Only through Jesus can we come to know and love ourselves so that we might love as Jesus loved. Only then can we help others know and love themselves – free of their failures, regrets and the righteous hate, sadness, power, fear, and judgement that pervades our world.
That is the side of the cross I want to live on. It’s not far away at all – it is within me and you. The journey however won’t be easy. Jesus knows that well.
Just like those calves tasting life for the first time, amid the harsh landscape of their vulnerable reality, we need a savior to tend us. Jesus knows what seeks to destroy us from within and without and He will seek you out, yes, even you wandering wretchedly in the wilderness. Jesus will bring you safely home. Jesus gladly gives you His life to fend off the wolves and promises you a reordered, resurrected life – every single day you walk with Him.
That’s a promise that will stay with you for the rest of your journey down the highways and back roads of life. You won’t always frolic in the warm sun like those Easter calves, but you will always have Jesus shortening the miles between the life you live and the life God wants for you – life on Easter’s side of the cross.
Oh, and here’s one more for the road – a timeless guitar melody that will take you places fast! Don’t Look Back Turn it up and let it all go!
“Look at this: look! Who got picked by God! He listens the split second I call to him.Why is everyone hungry for more? “More, more,” they say. “More, more.”I have God’s more-than-enough. More joy in one ordinary day, than they get in all their shopping sprees. At day’s end I’m ready for sound sleep, for you, God, have put my life back together.” – Psalm 4: 3, 6-8
Easter is my most favorite holy day. It has a special, complex meaning for me, having been so near death myself only to be brought back and given the chance at new life and then to experience the death of my mother on Palm Sunday, bury her on Good Friday, and celebrate her new life on Easter…
Yes, this most holy of all holy days speaks to me. I never forget that only through the grace, love and hands of God do I walk this earth today, and never do I lose sight that I live each day for Him. While this new life that I now know is only temporal, it is so worth living each and every day – even the cloudy, pitiful ones. The days where I ask Him what do I matter, what purpose does my existence serve?
And then I think back to Easter – each and every Easter morning that dawned no matter how dark the times have been – knowing the crosses I have borne serve a far greater purpose than my own present preoccupied discomfort. To shine the love, the truth, and the light of our Lord as bright as I can into the lives of others even when mine is flickering, that is my desire when my feet hit the ground each morning.
Come alive again with me on this blessed day in the blood of Jesus, washed clean and free of the broken past. Find your soul restored for the journey and the work He has called us to, even when you are not certain what that is. May you find renewal, passion, redemption, forgiveness, humility, love and calling for life on this day of Resurrection. As Christ is risen today, may He arise in you!
“What a God we have! And how fortunate we are to have him, this Father of our Master Jesus! Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we’ve been given a brand-new life and have everything to live for, including a future in heaven—and the future starts now! God is keeping careful watch over us and the future. The Day is coming when you’ll have it all—life healed and whole.” – 1 Peter 1:3-5
I met the new “owners” of the house I called home for 25 years, today. “Oh, so you’re the “Erika” he exclaimed as he pointed to my signature in the pavement we poured for my first car’s parking spot. That choked me up and the first round of tears began to flow…
They showed me the work they had done on the backyard my Dad had “toiled” over for years for his past-time enjoyment. They hesitated as they told me about pulling out all of his prized chokecherry bushes because their dog was gorging on the berries and getting sick! That backyard will now have been home to 4 dogs and the final resting place of three of mine.
As we stood in the warm sun they shared how much they loved “the place.” She told me they hadn’t really started on any work inside because they didn’t quite feel it was their “right” to yet… but they might replace the baseboards and paint the woodwork as the oak has yellowed – I laughed and told them Dad refused any thought of painting wood!! She said they feel so fortunate to live in such a “beautiful” home. He said he had imposter syndrome – because they both felt this home held a story that they hadn’t quite fit into yet. They were so happy to meet me and put a face and name to that story.
What a story… One that I have struggled to let come to an end. When death forces a story to end, you want to keep rereading and reliving the good parts and never come to the dreaded end. Today, I can say I am happy to let the final chapter of my story at 4150 Audubon Way come to a close and see their story begin.
During this Lenten season, we’ve been hearing Martin Luther’s explanations of the Sacraments we as Lutherans celebrate. Tonight, as we reach the end of our Wednesday Evening Prayer Services, I will continue with the Sacrament of the Altar a.k.a Holy Communion.
It has been over a year since we last celebrated communion with our Lord together as one body. Yes, we have had the occasional virtual sharing of the body and blood of Christ – making do with a cracker or piece of toast and a blessed swig of our house wine or whatever we can find in the fridge while at the breakfast table or in front of the TV, but I will be honest with you – to me it seems a bit sacrilege and has left me feeling a bit empty. Most definitely, this long pandemic fast we have endured has made me hungry for the day we can be together again to share a blessed communion with one another, bound together by our common Baptism and a bond of love that reflects the love of Christ for us.
I have vivid memories of receiving and giving the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ throughout my life – from my very first communion as a newly confirmed 8th grader in my lace-trimmed white dress and black patent shoes surrounded by family and fellow formally dressed confirmands to the last time I served communion to my father on my last Sunday at our family’s church in Billings before I moved away. As I held my dad’s eyes and spoke the same words spoken by Christ – there was a love so deep and a common understanding between us that only God could create out a piece of bread and sip of wine. I have witnessed grown men cry as they came forward for this special meal, I have watched broken souls struggle through infirmities to come forward with the help of others, I myself have cried with tears of relief and tears of joy that I only feel after tasting the bread and drinking the wine.
Which begs the question that Luther asks:
How can bodily eating and drinking do such a great thing?
Eating and drinking certainly do not do it, but rather the words that are recorded: “given for you” and “shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.” These words, when accompanied by the physical eating and drinking, are the essential thing in the sacrament, and whoever believes these very words has what they declare and state, namely, “forgiveness of sin.”
But, you ask, weren’t we already offered and given forgiveness of sins, life and salvation in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism? Do we somehow lose that forgiveness so that we need to be re-forgiven, re-saved, resurrected to life again every week? What does that mean for us during a pandemic when we haven’t communed in over a year? Gasp! No forgiveness doesn’t work that way. What Jesus is offering you in Holy Communion is a RE–membering – a tangible reminder of his life and death. Not a memory that simply makes us think of Him but a memory that makes us members of His body. An intimate interaction with His presence. And where Christ is found, there is complete forgiveness – there and only there, whether you take the bread and wine this week or not.
What joins you to Christ is your faith in Him for the forgiveness of sins, faith that comes from hearing and living in His promise. Jesus called you to Him in the waters of your Baptism and through your faith in Jesus and His promise, your sins are counted – counted as forgiven – always and completely. But while God doesn’t keep a tally of your sins, the world and the devil do and they will do their level best to work against God and on you.
Your faith in God is a target. During His last days with them, Jesus told his disciples: “In this world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33) And He was right! You are literally surrounded by enemies who seek to sever your connection to Jesus, to pull you away from Him, and pull you away from God’s forgiveness and life. Who are your enemies? Who or what comes between you and God and keeps you from sharing God’s promises with the world and living the life that God wants for you?
Because Jesus knows what it is like to be human, to have our weaknesses tested and our faith tried, Jesus wasn’t content to give you only a once-in-a-lifetime Baptism. Jesus knew you would need more than that, something tangible – a symbolic reminder of His enduring presence and an open invitation to His mercy, grace, and love in the face of the world’s troubles and all that would pull you from Him. In remembering and celebrating the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, through the bread and wine, body and blood, He gathers your life and the lives of the world to Him.That is why Jesus, on the evening before he died, took bread saying, “This is my Body,” and took the cup saying, “This is my Blood.” “Do this in remembrance of me.”
I dare say there are a multitude of things vying for God’s place in your life right now. And you might – after a year most often described as one of separation, polarization, judgment, frustration, distrust, and hate – you might be feeling a bit unworthy of this great gift of God’s love.
Such thoughts were not foreign to Luther either. Indeed, he questioned this himself:
Who, then receives this sacrament worthily?
Fasting and bodily preparation are in fact a fine external discipline, but a person who has faith in these words, “given for you” and “shed for you for the forgiveness of sin,” is really worthy and well prepared. However, a person who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, because the words “for you” require truly believing hearts.
I think we have this fasting thing down pretty good – and we have been keeping our bodies well- prepped against ruthless invaders for over a year now – so that should make us worthy, right? Sure, that might make you LOOK worthy to others and FEEL worthy. But it isn’t very concrete. How can you be certain you have fasted enough or kept your body primed enough? So how do we define worthiness? It’s in our human nature to like lists and categories and systems that enable us to measure our success, align with the “right” group, and see others as not like us – you know – not worthy.
So here goes – where do you fit in? If you don’t have a single sin that needs forgiving, then by all means,don’t come taste and see. If you have no fear, no doubt, no weaknesses of the heart, then this bread for the journey is not for you. If your faith can’t be moved or shaken, if you’ve never thought only of yourself, if your “love for one another” is already perfect, and if you have had it with Jesus and feel no need for communion with Him, then this invitation isn’t for you. It probably isn’t going to mean much to you because this divine invitation is meant for sinners.
Who is worthy? Christ’s body and blood – His eternal presence – is for YOU. You who yearn to walk with Christ – but get tripped up every so often; you who long to be touched again by His sacrifice even when you can’t find the time to sacrifice for Him; you who long to receive forgiveness for all your sins from His wounded and outstretched hands all the while holding onto a grudge, and you who need His help in order to fulfill His command to love one another even though you have yet to love yourself.
If you feel the world pulling you away from God, if you know you need Christ and you know that all His forgiveness and all His strength is in here – in your heart – as you eat the bread and drink the wine of this Holy Communion, if you believe that you have been personally invited by your Savior to this feast for sinners, because you have, then come – taste and see. You are most certainly worthy and most certainly welcome.
The buds of spring cleaning have been bursting out all over at my house of late. I’ve been doing a surprising amount of cleaning lately, cleaning and discarding. Perhaps it is the fact that I have spent considerably more time at home this past year surrounded by stuff – an unbelievable amount of stuff that I have collected over the three and a half years I have lived in my house, and I am tired of looking at it. Perhaps it is because this stuff is holding me back from seeing the potential uses of the spaces I have as I contemplate a few updates I would like to make: new flooring, new kitchen countertops, an addition to house my library and pianos. Needless to say, I am more of a minimalist when it comes to anything but clothing (!!) and books, and this growing collection of stuff is getting to me. If I don’t make my current spaces clean and less cluttered, any improvements or new space I add won’t be any better – in fact, there will just be more opportunities to add to the clutter. So I have been cleaning and discarding those things that aren’t necessary, that are taking up valuable space that could be used more creatively, and in so doing finding some breathing room as I plan for what needs to be done and can be done to make my house even more my home.
Coincidentally, I just observed a rather significant birthday on the timeline of life that has put me into a reflective state of being. Part of me can’t believe I have arrived at this mile marker already, and then part of me wonders how I even made it to this point given the long and broken road I’ve traveled. I have collected a mighty array of life souvenirs – some becoming permanent scars on my being, some being points of amazing light, and some that have quietly gone from being a passing experience to an entrenched way of thinking and doing life. 50, ahem, years of day in and day out living provides ample opportunities for habits and mindsets to take hold of you. – to add clutter to your life. You don’t even notice them at first until they start diminishing or making your life difficult.
You get so comfortable in doing life the way you have always done life that you live it with your eyes closed – running on auto-pilot and tuning out the flyover territory below. You forget you were created for more than what you can see with your diminished perspective. You begin to compare your life to others and in so doing you lose sight of your own intrinsic value.
After finishing my tidying up chores for the day, I have been taking long contemplative walks along the river and enjoying the sun’s warm reflection on the still quiet water. On one recent evening I abruptly stopped and took a good long look at the 50-year-old looking back on her life as she prepared for the next who-really-knows-how-many years she has ahead of her. The faint wrinkles of time told stories of smiles and sorrows and sundrenched days of adventure. The eyes revealed an ocean of emotions that are at once tidal waves and tide pools and a hidden wondering from the shore. Missing though, was the sparkle that never dimmed in her youth – despite the challenges she faced even then.
I was tempted to move along and get back to my fast, regimented pace; but instead, I stayed and I looked deeper and asked her some tough questions – not sure if she would ever have the answers – but at least I could perhaps conjure up a challenge to the way she had been doing things and inspire a desire to clean house so that the sparkle might come back.
Here’s what I asked her:
What if you focused on what you can do and not what you can’t?
What do you value anymore?
What happened to the daily awe and wonder of life?
Are you filled with gratitude and appreciation for what is in your life right now – not just what once was?
Is there life in your heart or are you just existing?
Is there life in your daily work or are you just getting the job done?
What are you looking forward to? There has to be a reason for tomorrow – what is it?
Are you bringing life to your friendships or stealing life from them?
Is there life in the way you are living in this moment?
Where do you see yourself in the world – not just how you think the world sees you?
Are you growing?
Are you bringing life to others – do you even seek out others to bring life to?
What are you saying yes to?
Why are there so many no’s?
Finally, I asked her why she wasn’t trying to be the best at her life instead of being the best version of someone else’s life.
I’ll be honest, cleaning the privy can be more enjoyable than sitting with these questions – but having done both I can tell you which I benefited the most from as I set out on the next half of my life.
Those questions weren’t just for the shocked and in denial 50-year-old staring back at me like a watery mirage. They’re for all of us. They reveal what needs to be cleaned up and discarded; habits and mindsets that take up valuable space in your life – space that could be used more creatively and effectively to give your life meaning, fulfillment- sparkle.
As I, as we all, sort through our various souvenirs of living 25, 50, 75 years or even just living through a single pandemic year, one souvenir – our collective mortality – comes to the forefront. The temporality of life means that this one moment, this now, is priceless. A cluttered life on auto-pilot doesn’t cut it anymore. Our days should not be flyover territory. Everything and everyone matters. Even you. Nothing and no one is to be taken for granted. Not you, not your breath, not your rising nor your falling. Remember, even though time may fly or crawl by, no matter how many days you have already counted, there will never be another moment like this one. Make sure there is life in that moment. Remember too, that in that precious moment of time, no one can do a better job of being you than you. Happy Spring!
“It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on his own, with no help from us! Then he picked us up and set us down in highest heaven in company with Jesus, our Messiah.” Ephesians 2: 1-6 The Message
I turned the BIG 5-0 yesterday – to the day – in fact. I was a Tuesday’s child “full of grace” but my parents decided against naming me Grace – perhaps with premonitions of the true nature of my future being… But I digress. Here’s a brief report on my first day as a supposed 50-year-old… March 2, 2021.
First, it is not unlike being 40 which is what I was yesterday. It was supposed to be a sunny day with a brilliant sunrise for me to chase – at least that is the deal I made with God the night before. Alas, I awoke to a cloudy gray morning, so instead of jumping out of bed and making the devil fearfully aware that I was awake – I rolled over and made sure my feet still worked. I thought about the dream I had a few moments before – of my mom and dad who I miss terribly – because this 50-year-old without a family of her own to tend to idealizes the family she once had. Anyway, the dream was good and made me feel happy inside. Soon, my sole reason for being (a.k.a Ember) let me know he was ready for the day so my plans for another slumber fell to his increasingly urgent demands.
Because I am 50 now, I must prove to myself that this notion is ludicrous. To commence the day, I did 1 hour and 40 minutes of cross-training, Pilates, situps, and pushups. Then I went for a 12-mile run. It was a windy jaunt but the sun came out and shined ever so briefly on me – for my special day! Then the sun went away.
I had breakfast with Mikey and we thought about Life whilst sipping Vermont Maple coffee. I rued the weather and studied various webcams wondering where I might go to find some sunshine. I decided Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park was overdue for a visit since I haven’t been since I broke my foot. Clouds be damned. Besides, the light was on me and clouds make everything more interesting…
Having spent so much time rueing the weather (lesson learned) I decided against a snowshoe and just went for a drive stopping at prime pullouts, hiking down icy hills to snowy banks along the shoreline, and meandering the grounds of Lake McDonald Lodge. I was surprised at the number of people who had the same idea. People – it is March 2nd and a frightful, blustery day at that! Sigh… it is our new reality in these once tranquil undiscovered parts. The clouds were quite moody – as was I… Turning 50 by yourself can do that, I guess. Alas, the lake and sleeping lodge was just what Dr. Morck ordered and soon I was feeling much more like the 30-year ok, 40-year old, l still am.
I arrived home to a rather miffed pup, who took one look at my hiking boots and knew, just knew I had cheated him out of a full day of play. The lovely snowy field we were romping in just last week is now a bog of mud so off we went to our other favorite haunt for a six-mile saunter at sunset – where he still managed to find every mud puddle and black road grit pile to immerse himself in.
So for my 50th birthday celebration, I threw a doggie shower and the house now smells like a wet dog (albeit clean) instead of a birthday cake. I enjoyed a wonderful spaghetti dinner – because Mom always made spaghetti for my birthday, and a glass of pink Moscato (which I couldn’t finish) just to prove that I am an adult. By 8:30 p.m it was time to slather my face in retinol and dive into a good book. It was a good day. I hope to have more like it!
All kidding aside, the many, many, many good wishes I received from near and far via social media and phone calls reminded me how blessed I am to have crossed paths with, done the good and hard parts of life with, and made it through every day with wonderful people throughout my life! No wonder it is hard to believe I am 50 – time flies when you are in the company of good friends and loving family. I have to admit to being a bit teary-eyed as I went to bed last night. Life isn’t always easy, but every day is a new opportunity to find, to be, and to receive a blessing or two. So here’s to another 18,250 days to do just that!!! I hope you will join me!
February 15th, I took down my Christmas tree. As you might expect if you have read any of my previous posts, this is much more than a post-Christmas chore for me. I am emotionally invested in this seasonal activity of the embellishing and un-embellishing of my PE injection-molded pine tree. Highly invested.
The date for this activity is significant. My Christmas tree holds far more than mercury glass, crystal, and embroidered ornaments. Every branch is adorned with love and light and as such, it carries me through the darkest month of the year which, ironically, is also Epiphany, the season of light. Epiphany ended on February 14th this year- the day we celebrate love – and now we begin the journey of Lent. “Lent” comes from the old English word for “lengthen” and refers to the gradual lengthening of days during late winter and early spring. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, February 17, Christians begin the 40-day journey to the cross which necessitates a stripping away of all the accoutrements we fill our lives with and get down to reflection, repentance, and preparing for Easter. Hence, it was time for the tree to come down – as much as I hated to see it go.
In the process, I got to thinking about how much life has changed since February 15, 2020, when I last took down my Christmas Tree of Love and Light. Changes none of us planned for, and unless you are an infectious disease expert, likely imagined. For me though, the past five years have brought significant changes and losses as each year passed and this last year was no exception. And, while I had sweet, heartwarming moments of family memories as I placed each ornament into the storage box, I couldn’t help but wonder who or what would be missing from my life when I bring out the PE injection-molded pine tree of love and light next Thanksgiving weekend.
Robert Burns wrote despondently about the vagaries of life in 1785, ruing the calamity a farmer brought upon a field mouse’s nest as he plowed a winter-ravaged field – upending her little family and no doubt changing the entire course of her existence.Little did the mouse know when she awoke that morning to go about the business of securing nourishment and warmth for the day that her home would be destroyed by a farmer’s plow. Goodness, she had plans!
“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley, (often go awry) An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, For promis’d joy!”
Ah, the best-laid plans of mice and men…. The saying is so familiar to us it rolls off our tongues without a moment’s thought when a change of plans forces us to change the course of our day-to-day existence of lives well-planned. Think about it. Nature has been messing with even the most-prepared (or so we thought) of us. Brutal storms shutting down life as we know it – literally shutting down and freezing the entire state of Texas as I write this. Think of all the plans upended. And of course, there, lurking in the background is a year-old pandemic. Today, it is hard to have well-planned lives when the whims of COVID-19 are at play. You meticulously planned for a family road trip with every item on your to-do-before-leaving list checked off only to be on the receiving end of a contact tracing call the day of departure; graduations, weddings, and funerals were turned into Zoom events or canceled altogether; you don’t know from one week to the next if your child will be in a classroom or bedroom for schooling; or your business closed after months of lock-downs, economic instability, and the eradication of your customer base; or your brother calls with news of your mother’s death. COVID-19 brought our mortality to the forefront of our thoughts. In an instant, all the plans you made went up in smoke and left you standing there in the dust.
Sometimes the change of course isn’t instigated by a one-off event at all but a gradual realization that your present life is not what you expected or wanted it to be. Moments and realizations like these often beg the questions: Why even have a plan at all? Who’s in charge here?
Working as I do for a former Marine in the financial planning industry, we have plans or as we call them SOP’s (Standard Operating Procedures) for everything from scheduling appointments to writing reports to technology breakdowns to managing your portfolios to closing up shop for the day. If the power goes out, I can reference our handy three ring binder to find the SOP for working the old-fashioned way! While we like to expect that bull markets will reign supreme, we know that the very nature of our business is a roller coaster ride of change. Do we deviate from our written SOP’s? Certainly, no situation is the same, but by having some sort of plan in place beforehand we have a frame of reference from which to launch our response. This response provides us at least part of the answer to the second question: who is in charge here? We are because we know how to react on our toes. We have well practiced strategies in place.
Now, I will be honest with you, I have yet to find or write an SOP for life. Some will say the Bible is the only operator’s manual you need for living life – even a life lived in a pandemic – or perhaps – even more so in a pandemic. And while that is an excellent Plan A as a source of divine guidance, I need a Plan B for the business side of life. Thus, I am making sure I have a plan for my life when I am no longer “in control” of it.
One evening over dinner, after listening to a group of us share the goings on in our lives and noting how many of our plans and expectations had changed over the last several months, a dear, wiser, much older friend of mine took a sip of wine and remarked with a knowing smile that one of her favorite sayings was an old Yiddish Proverb: “Man plans, God laughs.”
Of course, this notion frustrates me to no end; yet, I know how very true it is. I like to be in control; but in the end, I know who is ultimately in charge. Nonetheless, my responsibility is to be prepared and react wisely to the changes that occur in life. My wiser older friend on the other hand is completely satisfied with this concept and I can tell that her life is richer because of it. The morning after our dinner gathering, I received a call that my friend’s husband had gone to bed that night and never woke up. In that moment, all of my friend’s reasoning and carefree logic she shared the day before came sweeping over me. As I sat with her later that day, she had a peace about her that was inspiring. We talked about her husband and the joys they shared during their 56 years of marriage. Employed as I am in the financial planning world, I asked her, somewhat awkwardly, if they had “you know, made plans?”
“Of course! We settled all of that stuff years ago,” she replied matter-of-factly. And because of those plans, during this sudden change in the course of her life, she could focus on just being.
One of the best gifts of love you can give your loved ones is an SOP for the end of your life. Don’t leave the burden of reading your now asleep mind to your family and don’t “not give a hoot” and let the state handle your affairs. I speak from personal experience having walked through the aftermath of the seemingly well-planned state of my parent’s affairs. Yes, I am talking about a will, I am talking about taking responsibility now for what you hope never happens but at some point, most assuredly will. Make sure all your financial accounts have payable on death or transfer on death instructions. Make sure your beneficiaries are up to date. Formally state what you want done with your possessions and have it legally documented.
One of the most satisfying parts of my job is helping a grieving spouse or the surviving children navigate through the financial details after a loved one dies. Being able to tell them they have nothing to worry about, that their loved one had everything lined out ahead of time and all I will need is a death corticate and a few signatures takes a very heavy burden off their already weary shoulders.
As the year unfolds for all of us, we of course hope for nothing but the best. When I hang my ornaments on my PE injection-molded Christmas tree of love and light next November 27th or 28th, I hope that I am celebrating all the wonderful people in my life and giving thanks for all the good times this year has been filled with. But I also know that I may be thinking about those I have loved and lost – or God forbid – they will be remembering me. I want to have that sense of peace that my friend had in the wake of her husband’s passing and I want the same for my brother should anything happen to me.
God may laugh when we make plans, but by having a plan we can laugh, cry or just be at peace right alongside God when our best-laid plans go awry.
“Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin. – James 4:13-17
God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well. ~Voltaire
I was thinking today about your life, Dad. About what it was like to be you – a prairie kid at heart with a constant longing for the big wide open, an appreciation for the lovely and simple things, a love of companionship, an ethical drive for professional success, financial prowess without excess, and a desire to be involved and lead. How did all these characteristics come about? In your daughter’s eyes, you were always that way. What was it like for you to marry and have children and watch those children grow and learn as you yourself continued to grow and learn and become the leader that you were? It’s funny to think that I always saw you at the same ageless age in real-time and even now in my memories.
By the time you were my age now, you were in the upper echelons of the United States government. You rubbed elbows with diplomats and made your way through the great halls of government in our nation’s capital. You testified before Congress and people scheduled conferences for you! You developed plans that would be reviewed by the president of United States! You were idolized by a daughter who loved the sounds of her heels clicking on the marble floors of the monumental Interior Department building when she came to visit your historic office from time to time. Quite the change of scenery for the long-ago little boy from the dot of a town in the northeast corner of Montana.
That you were my age now in this memory floors me and puts my own life into a very different perspective. I am more in awe of you now knowing just how hard you must have worked, how much sleep you must have lost… You navigated life amid the same challenges and far greater ones than I have faced – and did it so well. I took for granted just how blessed I was to have the family I did and the experiences that you and Mom provided for us. It wasn’t easy or pretty at times – I feel a bit ashamed now looking back at the temper tantrums you put up with. I have a new respect for the difficult decisions you had to make – whether to uproot our family – yet again – whether this change was the right change. Once the decision was made though, you always moved forward with optimism, appreciation, and faith. I hope you know you made the right decision every time. My life is so much richer today for the decisions you made, even though sometimes they made me cry.
I still see you as my hero, a cowboy at heart, an executive of the land we love, and best of all – my father and the very best kind of friend. Thank you for opening my eyes to the world beyond me. I wish you were here with me now, giving me your grounded optimistic perspective through which to see and live. I love you more than words can ever say and miss you more with each passing day.
In the melody of the morning I’m told that’s where I’ll find you – and from time to time I do When your absence doesn’t seem grander than your love And yes, When I glimpse a pair of white socks in sandals or black loafers, I am reminded of your stylish stubbornness I smile to think you once only wore cowboy boots or shiny brown brogues. Well-meaning friends tell me that you are always with me – in a way you never could be before And while I know you are there Guiding my ways, filling my thoughts, inspiring a little common sense, leading me down paths of uncertainty with a sureness in my step It’s just not the same. You were there for so much of my life – watching me grow and learn – with your strong arms, confident smile, sternly spoken but loving truths, and forgiving ever-loving heart. The woman I became still needs – still longs for – your strong embrace, your reassuring smile, your wisdom, your understanding. Your always handy toothpicks. Your love. I didn’t get the chance to show you the culmination of your work. I didn’t get to show you how that twinkle in your eye you always told me I was finally let her own light shine. I promise I will never stop listening for you I promise I will always see you In the whisper of the night In the melody of the morning I’m told that’s where I’ll find you – and from time to time I do When your absence doesn’t seem grander than your love and light shines from within me. I miss you, Dad, and love you more and more – as the days between us grow. 89 years old today! Jan 28, 1932 – Apr 29, 2017 What a mark you made on this world and my life.