The Goddess of Nature

It was a long, harsh winter in my neck of the woods this year but winter’s frozen shackles have been thrown off and the abundance of springtime is bursting forth! Well perhaps in someone else’s garden… I have an abundance of winter’s wrath remaining behind.

A survey of my ¾ acre of paradise reveals that it is anything but! The 6-foot drift that melted from the side of my house revealed an impressive ice formation spewing forth from the main pipe of my underground sprinkler system – which despite being blown out managed to freeze. The whopping water bill I received as the ice thawed and the water began to run was just –  dare I say it-  the tip of the iceberg! Death has come to all 6 of my arborvitae; my Spirea have been beaten down to scraggly skeletons under the weight of feet of snow and those are the ones that survived; a young maple stands in naked shock, its’ trunk forever scarred by the blade of a city plow; my evergreens proved not be so ever – they too shocked into an unpleasant shade of brown.

Ah yes, the joys of my first spring as a homeowner! Having bought my home at the height of summer blooms last year, my only charge at the time was to get the grass green again. Having conquered that feat and attaining Goddess- of- Nature like status in the eyes of my neighbors in the process, I was unprepared for the overwhelm of maintenance that arrived on the wings of the first bluebirds of spring. My cozy and carefree 600 square foot nest that served as home for my first four years of naive seasonal bliss in NW Montana suddenly seemed very inviting again.

Alas, this season I have been a busy Goddess of Good Grief with plenty of work to do. There was the fence to finish, the lawn to get green again and mow and mow and mow, weeds to pull, weeds to pull, weeds to pull, pine needles to rake, evergreens to prune, pine trees to shape, Spirea to cry over, and 10 blighted boxwood shrubs to dig up – all with my trusty and oh so curious four-legged “helper” by my side. It was the future health and happiness of this little pup that I had in mind when I signed the mortgage papers on the largest yard in the neighborhood – not the hours and hours of yard work that would occupy every weekend.

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But then my whirlwind of agrarian activity came to a screeching halt as a gust of gardening amateur’s defeat knocked me off my feet. What in the world was I doing?  I had no idea! Well, actually I know just enough to get myself into gardening no man’s land. Not knowing what half the stuff popping out of the ground was, was the first sign that I might be in over my head – was that a  wily weed or wistful wonder? Finding out I pulled the good stuff and left the bad stuff left me nonplussed – it looked like a weed to me!

Frustration began to creep into my cultivating celebration. Refusing to be outdone by boxwood roots that also refused to be out done I almost threw a temper tantrum. My childish impatience of wanting the manicured lawn, perfectly rounded shrubs, and gardens blooming with more than just dandelions and black medic – and wanting them now – threatened to rain on my sunny disposition.

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Amid this springtime frenzy of activity,  I wonder at the circle and cycle of life. And as I spend these hours with hands in the soil or pushing the mower or trimming away the dead, I find myself in deep thought.

I feel a sense of excitement brewing inside of me – and a sense that I have been through this cycle of death and life before and I have – because I have lived it. While this winter was a hard one on my spirit, which longs for sunshine and dry mountain trails, it was nothing compared to the seasons of life I have endured of late. In the past two years, my life has been transformed and has looked and felt like my yard looks now. The deaths of my parents left me in shock; and while I went about living as best I could, I felt suffocated by guilt for being an absent daughter in their time of need and by the grief that comes with losing the two most important people in your life back to back.  But their deaths also motivated me to pursue my dreams, to finish well, and make them proud wherever life leads me.

To do this, I needed to tend to my inner landscape. Just as I called on an expert to help me identify the good and bad inhabitants of my yard and a friend to help dig up and dispose of my shrubs, I called in the help of others to see what in my life needed to be let go of, what needed to be pruned, and what held and holds promise.

As the seasons have passed, some of the the withered leaves of life I had clung to for purpose and security have begun to fall – providing a foundation for something new. The wintering of my soul revealed areas of my life that kept me frozen and alone and the bracing cold spurred me to reach for the opportunities that awaited me with change.

The tears that had for so long fallen into an abyss of sorrow now serve to water my well cultivated soul. Sprigs of hope are making their wonderful presence known. I can see growth where I pruned and I am rewarded with a heart that blossoms with laughter again. Tending one’s inner landscape is hard work. But if the promise of spring I am seeing in the garden of my life bears any likeness to what awaits the behemoth that is my yard, then all this sniveling and snorting I have been doing should be worthwhile.

For a few weak moments, I found myself slipping into the comfort of just leaving things as they were in my life and my yard – hoping they might come back in the rose-colored glory that I remembered them being – and replacing the shrubs I had torn out with more of the same. But my better angels prevailed. They said it was time for a transformation – for real change to come to fruition. For resurrection and new life.  Yes, it will take work and perseverance and more patience than I currently have, but the seeds of change have been planted, and I can’t wait to be like the Goddess of Nature again dancing in her little piece of paradise.

“Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.”  – Martin Luther

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The Gift of Courageous Vulnerability

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”  ― Brené Brown

“Listen to me!” we demand.

“Why won’t you listen to me?” we cry out.

“Now listen here, cowboy.” We reply with defensive offense.

We all want to be listened to. As I wrote last month, listening is at the heart of all relationships. To be heard by someone close to us is an incredible gift – one that can heal the scars left by this imperfect world and bring us into communion with one another. The act of listening taps into a deeper essence of being one with another – you share a oneness that precludes backgrounds, religions, cultures and class. In that moment all you are doing is receiving the essence of another, welcoming without judgement, the reality of their life. The act of listening leads to new understanding. It allows us to connect to each other at the heart level and discover common ground and new possibilities. It may even reveal opportunities for our own growth and inner healing.

Listening, really listening, is not a passive activity.  To be a good listener you need an inner strength and confidence to not need to prove yourself with wise declarations, witty statements, or surface level sympathy. An effective listener does not need to make her presence known other than to let the one being listened to know that she is ready to receive, to welcome, and accept what the other has to say. The good listener does not need to fill the silence with platitudes or hear his own voice. The good listener can and must simply share the silence and let the silence speak.

In short, being a good listener takes work. It can be an emotional exercise and a cathartic experience for both parties. It can also be a frustrating exercise.

Yes, we all want to be listened to, but are we cognizant of how what we are saying (or not saying) is being heard?

The act of listening requires someone else – the transmitter-  being willing to share –  to give of themselves – to be vulnerable – to be honest with themselves and their listener if they want the listener to understand what they are trying to express.

Do you cross your arms in defense while hoping your partner will take you into theirs? Are you feeling lonely and withdrawn but instead of sharing this you tell someone you don’t care for crowds? Do you hide your discomfort in a situation with laughter rather than stating you are uncomfortable with that kind of language or direction of the conversation? If you are feeling pain but instead express what seems to be joy, your listener cannot help but misread your conflicting messages or miss your need to be listened to in the first place.

If we want to be heard so badly, why do we struggle so to share? For one, it is scary! Readily letting down our walls of defense sets us up for hurt, humiliation, denunciation, and personal attack – at least that is what experience has taught us.  Secondly, being vulnerable, opening ourselves up – exposing our fears and frailties – is not a natural part of our societal customs. We are taught to be brave, to carry ourselves with esteem, to put on a good front, and make a good impression.

For myself, even though I came from a loving and supportive family – I was raised to not be a burden on others, to not let my troubles become a focus for anyone else. My brother and I were raised to be “good, solid kids” and as such, though life could be hard and even unfair at times, we faced our struggles on our own –  it built character. It wasn’t until much later in life, after most of my human “frailties” had been exposed in ways far more telling than any conversation could lay bare, that I found myself seeking someway to share what was really on my heart. The trouble was, I didn’t know how.  Fortunately, the church I attended at the time offered a course entitled “Non-Violent Communication.” Ironically, the class name was later changed to Compassionate Communication – because none of the attendees wanted to admit that they communicated violently or were recipients of violent communication! In truth, we were all victims of and participants in this form of “communication” and we were all hurting, badly, in the aftermath of communication gone bad.

Indeed, communication – both the acts of transmitting and listening – has incredible power – the power to heal and the power to maim. Those who haven’t been heard by others – especially those close to them – feel they have been invalidated, that their thoughts have no real worth, that their presence in others’ lives really doesn’t matter, that their troubles are inconsequential, and their goals lacking.

Likewise, those who demand to be heard but fail to be honest in their expression and  then cast offense or blame on those around them when they fail to read their mixed signals invite the exact opposite response to their need to be heard.

Communication can be a powerful force for good when done well and a powerful force for evil when done poorly or not at all. We all have the capacity to engage in violent communication – that which inflicts pain – and compassionate communication –  that which heals.   We are born with the tools to communicate but not the skills to use them. Thus, we learn as we go. The environment in which we learn to communicate will shape us and the nature of our relationships for life.

We all have been bruised by communication failures – some bruises naturally go much deeper than others. What each person brings to the dance of understanding is the great enigma of our past communication experiences. Learning to dance with one another to  music of the spoken and the understood heart is the secret to communicating with compassion.  It means having the courage to lay aside our need to be right as the listener and the courage to be vulnerable so that we can be lifted up and understood as the listened to. True strength is hidden in our mutual vulnerability.  To be heard by someone close to us is an incredible gift – one that can heal the scars left by this imperfect world and bring us into communion with one another. But there is another gift of equal value – that you the courageous vulnerable one can give the good listener – your trust. When both are given freely, you will find yourself in the sacred space of giving and receiving, the place where true healing and true relationship are found.

Let your light so shine.

Thinking vs. Knowing

“Thinking implies a conclusion based on an observation that has not been verified beyond the fact of the observation. Knowing implies a conclusion based on a verified observation. In other words: knowing is a form of experiential knowledge, whereas thinking is a form of assumed knowledge.”

Did you know that there is neuroscientific research that quantifies the empirical difference between thinking and knowing? If you want to get lost for hours in philosophical thought, just dive into the vast commentaries concerning epistemology – the study of knowledge and justified belief.

But perhaps we will discuss that another time. Right now, I have a very important real-life example of the difference between thinking and knowing – the damnable process of settling an estate that my brother and I thought was in order.  In truth, we had drawn conclusions on the financial and material state of my parent’s estate affairs based on our observations of our father who was “always” sharp and on top of things but we didn’t verify that our conclusions were true.

Now I know you are saying, “But Erika, you work for a financial planner – don’t you practice what you preach?” Well yes, I do and my brother and I thought our parents had heeded our advice. But there’s that ominous word thought again…

2.5 years ago, my brother, Fred and I sat down with Mom and Dad for the big “family meeting.” At the time, both Mom and Dad were in their early eighties but still living comfortably in their multi-level 4-bedroom home. Dad was active and fit, went to the gym daily, enjoyed his games of golf, and kept busy with various community board activities and church council. He loved to work in the yard and they both enjoyed their neighbors. Mom was a little less outgoing and was in a stage of slow decline following a stroke 4 years prior that she had mostly recovered from aside from the immobilization of her right arm and some mental cognition and depression issues.

My dad had always been very keen with his finances and systematic in his record keeping – at least for him. To us his filing system was convoluted – but what do you do? His system had worked for him for years and after 85 years of living there is not much you can do to change someone’s ways. Dad did all the financial business for the household while Mom spent the money, but not carelessly. For the most part, they lived frugally even though they could have pursued a loftier lifestyle – they were simple folk with simple tastes and were happy in their home.

Dad came to our living room conference prepared… he had a binder ready – complete with a few hand scribbled notes inside and a few bank and brokerage statements. He told us where his accounts were held and what types they were. He told us the house was paid off so we didn’t need to worry about that. He explained how he kept track of his savings bonds. He wanted us to know the value of his gun collection and his plans for the sale of any firearms and reloading equipment. He was quite detailed on this – and we took comfort that if he was this detailed about his shotguns, he would be as detailed with the rest of the “stuff.” He told us the silver coins he had collected for my brother and I were in the fire safe along with the deed to the house and his will.  He told us he would complete the binder with everything we asked.  Mom and Dad had preplanned their “final expenses” and had already secured their resting place in Yellowstone Valley Memorial Park with views of the golf course and rimrocks. They had even done the same for Fred and me! (Gee, thanks!) Dad also told us he had talked to his attorney about the will and that it was his intent that should he die first, Mom would be taken care of as would Fred and I.

It was a good conversation and ended in an upbeat fashion. My visit home came to an end, life continued on and then rapidly went downhill.

Within 4 months of that visit my mom’s health declined rapidly and she was admitted to the hospital the day after Labor Day. This began a series of readmissions on a near monthly basis until her last emergency trip just before Christmas of 2015. At that point, her medical care team deemed her too unstable to return home and the drawn-out process of getting the insurance company to agree to pay for long-term care began. We found a suitable care facility for her in Billings, though she was not happy there nor about not returning home. We had to tailor our discussions of family financial matters and end of life decisions so that she would not lose hope. At some point the discussions just stopped. By March, Mom seemed to rally and her mood brightened only to take us all by surprise by passing peacefully in her sleep on March 20, 2016. The insurance company finally approved her long-term care the following week.

Once the mourning process had settled and Dad had his feet back under him, he told us he met with his attorney. And then, within 2 months of my mother’s death, Dad was diagnosed with cancer and a new battle began. Anyone who has had cancer strike a close family member knows that life as you know it ceases and the focus becomes centered on a cure and recovery and the chaos that surrounds the patient. He had surgery in July, his treatments began in August, and by the middle of November, the doctors declared him cancer free. Unfortunately, in the process of killing the cancer they nearly killed my dad. He never recovered. Despite living on his own throughout the cancer battle, by February of 2017 we knew Dad needed more help than we could provide at home so we admitted him to respite care. In a moment of financial clarity and purpose, my brother was able to accompany Dad to the bank to get Power of Attorney established for his bank accounts in order to keep up with the medical bills we were still receiving for my mom’s care on top of Dad’s.

The respite care became permanent. Soon Dad’s mental faculties began to deteriorate – rapidly and his physical condition did too. He would have moments of cognition but was spending more and more of his days “with” our Mom or out on the range harkening back to his days as a range manager.  We never gave up hope, clinging to statements from doctors that his symptoms were not out of the norm for cancer patients, that he had a thyroid deficiency, that if we could get him to eat more his brain would respond. But by March the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was made and it was rapidly attacking his brain.

Talking about end of life issues like wills and beneficiaries is not what you do when you are trying to rally around someone, especially your father. To make matters worse, the disease attacking his brain was making him suspicious and extremely anxious about money issues. The man that once openly discussed financial issues with his children and later adult children had become very protective of the information he gave us. We felt like greedy children looking to grab Dad’s money –  when in fact all were doing was trying to understand where things stood. The last thing we wanted was to come across like we were losing hope in his recovery. The chaos of caregiving overrides any thought of financial and estate matters and the emotional toll it takes on the caregiver leaves little energy left for thinking about anything other than getting sleep and praying for miracles.

Pray we did. Then, just 13 short months after our mother passed away, our Dad did too.

I share our story, because we thought we had time for the financial discussions, for confirming what we thought to be true, but once the rapid downward spiral began that time was long past. Life can change in an instant or a year. We were not prepared.

In the aftermath of our parent’s deaths, my brother and I began to discover that what we thought had been taken care of was far different from what actually was.

Dad, God bless him, did have the presence of mind to update his beneficiaries on his IRA’s and brokerage accounts. We can thank his financial advisor for steering him in that direction. When she closed out our mother’s accounts, she made sure Dad’s were up to date – naming my brother and me as beneficiaries.  Dad had also arranged for his shooting partner to sell off his shotguns within the trap club community- again, God bless his foresight. But that is where his system ended.

We began discovering death benefits and life insurance policies existed, only when notices from the government arrived in the mail. His savings bond record system that he had meticulously maintained apparently went kaput when his computer was infected with a virus 2 years ago and it was beyond him to start again. And then there is that bastion of family fealty, the will.

Despite all the conversations he had engaged in with his attorney over the past 2 years, that is all they were – conversations. Unfortunately, not every service provider is as proactive as my dad’s financial advisor or Coco Enterprises. The will that was drawn up in 1979 when I was 8 and my brother was 17 was the only one on file. It named my dad’s brother as executor, my mother’s sister as guardian and second executor, and my mother’s brother as the last resort or the estate would be turned over to the bank to be executed. 38 years later, my dad’s brother is in poor health and unable to leave his home, my mother’s sister is 86 and failing, my mother’s brother has passed away, and the bank no longer exists. There was nothing stipulating any changes to my dad’s instructions should my brother and I reach adulthood and be sole survivors. So, despite the fact that my brother and I have no disagreement on how the estate should be divided, the existence of a will does us no favors as it is out of date and leaves much to question.

Welcome to the wonderful world of probate where the wheels of progress turn excruciatingly slow. The attorney who was a phone call away for my dad has far more lucrative cases to focus on and won’t answer any of our questions. We are stuck with a looming estate sale deadline, a house to sell, a brand-new car in the garage whose title can’t be transferred and thus not insured or driven, and savings bonds that can’t be redeemed – until the process of probate is fully fleshed out. We don’t even know who will lead the charge of fleshing it out! And these are just the most obvious objects of the mess.

This is why it is so important to participate in the annual reviews we encourage you to schedule with us. Not only do we go over the performance of your accounts, we make sure your beneficiaries are up to date. We review what accounts you have with us and elsewhere. We track life insurance policies. We request copies of your will if you have one (and believe me, you had better!) so we can help you review it and keep your financial and family lives in step with each other. This is all part of the services we provide our clients because we care about more than just your money – we care about you and your family. We want you to flourish financially. We don’t want to see your financial life become a burden to you or your survivors.

A lot can change in one year; have your estate plans and financial records changed as well? Take it from someone who should have known and not just thought, it is far better and easier to discuss financial matters and end of life plans when life is good than when your mind is clouded with the stress and sorrow of sickness, tragedy, or death.

 

A Different Christmas

“God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all.”
~ 1 John 1:5

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Christmas Eve 2015. I sat by my window in my lonely LOG (loft over garage) watching the snow continue to fall, as it had for days and days. Its pristine beauty and sound softening aesthetics belied the frustration it brought to my spirit. Winter had lain claim to my plans for a Christmas trip home to be with my family for the holiday for the first time in three years. And last year more than any, I needed to embrace the warmth, understanding, and love of my family. To be with my mother and father who had had a difficult year and a brother and sister in-law whom I had not seen enough of in 2.5 years.

For sure, it would not be a traditional Christmas for my family even if I had made it home. My mother, who was seriously ill and hospitalized in a state of confusion and despair would be our point of gathering – we would not be going to Christmas Eve candle-light services before looking at Christmas lights and gathering around a brightly lit Christmas tree at the hearth of our home to open presents, share stories and eat peanut brittle.

I too, found myself navigating a new chapter of my life, quite alone and feeling quite broken.  For sure, my heart was not filled with the joy of recent years. There were no stockings hung in my LOG, no gifts under a tree – I was supposed to be in Billings- and Christmas carols were making me cry. Sadly, I was not alone. Around me a marriage had crumbled, trusts were broken, another’s child sat in jail, suicide had claimed a family’s idea of forever, and others treasured every moment of what would be a last Christmas with a loved one.

The world around me felt distraught – plunged into a darkness where even acts of charity were questioned for their ultimate goal. Hunger, strife, terror, desolation, and frustration tore at our nation’s unique fabric- once bound together by common beliefs and goals – now seemed to be splintered across a dark abyss.

A year later, not much has changed in the world – some would claim it has become even more divided, darker, even doomed. In this darkness, we try to make do.

Christmas brings to a culmination, our humanly efforts to cast away the darkness in the world – engaging in the wonderful merriment of holiday festivities, attempting more perfect lives for this special time of year until our perfect plans and family gatherings go awry and our high expectations for the holidays go unmet.

And yet, despite our quest for perfection in our holiday celebrations- our desires to reflect the storybook Christmas traditions we have grown to expect and claim as our own – Christmas came to be in the most IMPERFECT WAY.

Imagine Mary’s despair, being fully pregnant and having to travel 70 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem with Joseph by donkey for a census of all things! Talk about the best laid pregnancy plans going awry! Of course, once there they find no guest rooms available because everyone is in Bethlehem from afar to be counted. And then as if on a very bad cue, Mary’s labor starts and they find shelter in a stable where she gives birth to our Savior and places Him in a manger. A manger of all things!

In the most imperfect and darkest of circumstances a Savior, my Savior, was born. Is there a subtle message for us in that lowly beginning? Jesus’ birth was certainly different than what I am sure Mary had planned! If there were storybook traditions for birth, Jesus’ certainly didn’t follow one.

I am finding less and less truth in the storybook Christmases I remember “having” as a child and those that I perceive others around me having. Yes, the joy and love that comes alive in the hearts of many this time of year is real but the lives that love and joy manifest in are far from perfect. We grasp on to holiday traditions that we carry over year after year in an effort to reclaim that perfection we remember. Straying from those traditions or losing one here and there brings us heartache – as suddenly the Christmas we are celebrating is different from how it is supposed to be.

The Morck family Christmas traditions have been carried on from year to year – decking the halls, arguments over which halls to be decked, lighting the angel chimes, trimming the tree, presents for the dogs, slammed doors on the way to church, gritted teeth in the pews, peaceful and happy moments by the tree as we open presents late into the night on Christmas Eve – fueled by hot chocolate and peanut brittle as the rest of the world slumbered. But the last three  Christmases in my life have been different. Except for last year when life changed for our family, the Morck family traditions were carried out in Billings without me and I found myself trying new ways to celebrate. It wasn’t easy. Christmas wasn’t perfect. Christmas was different and Christmas was beautiful. Yes, you read that right. Beautiful!

“The darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.”
~ 1 John 2:815250853_1394939560530638_2397082385538831720_o

You see, despite all our broken traditions, turmoil, and testiness; despite our deemed lack of preparedness and perfection; despite the darkness we are trying to cast away CHRIST, OUR SAVIOR COMES! BECAUSE of our broken traditions, turmoil, and testiness; BECAUSE of our deemed lack of preparedness and perfection; BECAUSE of the darkness we are trying to cast away CHRIST, OUR SAVIOR CAME!

Christ came in the most imperfect way to give us LIGHT! Last year, as I faced Christmas alone, He brought light to me as I was longing for home and the traditions that were missing from my life. I found His light as I sat “alone” in church, listening to the Christmas Eve sermon. But I really wasn’t alone – I only made myself out to be. I was surrounded by people experiencing their own Christmases, some equally as different as mine.  I saw tears glistening on cheeks other than mine. I realized I was sitting with people just like me. Each of us imperfect and each of us a masterpiece, made in His image and given newness in Christ Our Savior’s LIGHT.

Into my very different and dark Christmas, my Lord and Savior shined His light on the people that have crossed my path and made a difference in my life and at once I felt at peace, felt heart aching joy, and I no longer felt alone! Looking back, I realize that my “different” Christmas was the greatest gift I could receive at that difficult time of my life. I had been set free from the chains of tradition that made my heart ache in their absence and found the most beautiful peace in my “different” Christmas. And this year I am making a different Christmas my new tradition.

Christmas will be very different for me and my family this year and I am okay with that. My mother has gone ahead of us to celebrate Jesus’s birth with Him and shine her light in the stars above. Once again, I will find myself away from family but I will not feel or be alone. My life is full of the Light of Christmas and filled with awe inspiring, imperfect people making their way through life and through their own Christmases.

I thank my Lord for each of you, for in some way, my Lord is working through you to impact my life and I pray that in some way, I have been a light in yours. I wish for you the beauty of a different Christmas this year. I pray that you find His peace and His glory, that you feel His presence in your heart, that His power guides you through your journey, and that His love and light shines brightly on you even in the most different of circumstances.

May this Christmas have a special significance for all of us— imperfect people in need of a Savior, who comes to us just as we are in many different ways and walks.

Let your light so shine, as His light shines in the darkness.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!!!!!!

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A Different Christmas Morning – 2015

Becoming WHO You Are

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

~ Ephesians 2:8-10

10539190_861269617230971_7340061122199340796_oI have had the opportunity to do a lot of contemplating on the essence of life lately and more specifically on the who behind the what. Growing up as a member of Generation X, much emphasis was placed on what we planned to do with our life and less so on the who behind the what. I had grand plans, as every naive college freshman does, of changing the world, of “being somebody”, of attaining my dreams of becoming the White House Press Secretary, Renowned Public Speaker, Mayor of Billings, and heck, why not a Widely Read Columnist Carried By Newspapers Around The Country for good measure. Aside from my lofty world-changing and career goals, there was another side of me that I didn’t give the time of day to for far too long.

Unlike most youngsters my age on a Sunday afternoon, when I was 5 years old, I would come home from church, bulletin in hand, stand on my bed and preach the Gospel. You would think that having started at such a young age I would already have my Master of Divinity and Doctor of Philosophy degrees. Alas, life took me down a different path, one that would enrich me with a wealth of experiences that I now believe God intended for use later on down the road. Experiences that, at the time were more than I could understand, let alone survive. But I did.

Throughout much of my life, however, I have felt called to be a pastor even before women were allowed to pastor a church. I chose to push those callings aside as it didn’t seem “prudent” for me as a career path, and yet the careers I pursued (yes, I have had several) have never felt like my calling. I always felt like there should be something more, that I should be something more, I just couldn’t define what that “more” was. This lack of “more-ness” made me very restless.

I have been involved with the Lutheran church for my entire life, a passionate believer, and after suffering a severe health crisis and brush with death in my twenties, an ardent pursuer of God’s purpose for keeping me around.  I am still on that search. The one constant through the often chaotic changes in my life has been this nagging, pulling, whispering, and nudging from somewhere deep inside me to answer the call of the Lord. In all honesty, despite some turbulent times I encountered as a church council president, that is when I felt most at peace inside. Serving the church and the Lord in an administrative and leadership fashion seemed to satisfy my hunger for “more”. But I did nothing with it. When my terms were up I went on with the what’s in  my “practical” life and I continued to be restless.

I recently read an article by Dr. Todd Hall, a psychologist, author, and workplace consultant, that discussed the importance of living a life of coherence. Living a life of coherence means you can tell a story about your life that brings everything together, “the various aspects of your life “hang together.” But they hang together because they are centered around the core of who you are.”14650110_1332493723441889_1896546441116883722_n

The path my life was following  – to me at least – didn’t reflect a coherent life story, one that gave me a sense of purpose or fulfillment. Rather I was just going through the motions, trying to make the most of every day, but in the end, never really feeling fulfilled or that my life made any sense. Yes, I have always had faith despite my restless wandering. I believed God had a purpose for me, but I just did not know what – or maybe I was afraid of what His purpose for me entailed.

So how does one go about living a life of coherence? You start by examining your past and present life with a critical eye. Do your current goals and practices fit with your
deepest values?  What are your deepest values, anyway? Is the way you are living your life: the work you do, the people you surround yourself with, the activities you engage in –  are these things contributing to you becoming the kind of person you want to be? If not, perhaps you need to consider a change in how you approach your work or your life as a whole, and possibly, if it is your work leaving you feeling empty, a change of careers.  If you are like me, it wasn’t so much that my past and present life didn’t fit with my core values, it was that I was limiting the scope of my life to the practical and what I had become comfortable with.looking-back

Wherever we are in our lives, we all need to feel that our lives make sense, “hang together” as Hall calls it, and have meaning. We need to feel that our lives reflect who we are, that our story is true to who we are.  And at every stage of life, you have choice; you can choose to rebuild your life to become WHO you are or you can keep on feeling restless doing what you do.

Recently, on a spiritual retreat, I began my own journey to living a coherent life – to becoming WHO I AM. The retreat was the first of 4 in a 2-year program to become a Lay Pastoral Associate for my church. And for the first time in many years – since I picture2completed my work in my church back home in Billings – I felt PEACE. I finally have a sense of peace in regards to the direction my life is taking. The awakening I experienced during that retreat confirmed what I have always known deep down in my heart but didn’t dare believe I could be anything more than what I already am. I have always known I was a child of God – my parents saw to that. But now I have accepted the responsibility – the cross you might say  – of being a child of God who is blessed with gifts of the spirit – gifts that have been refined by God through all of my various jobs, dreams, losses, heartaches, toils and triumphs.

This journey I have been on (and will continue to travel) brought me to a point of discernment, discovery, and trust in His purpose for me. How it will all turn out is no clearer today than it was when I first began, but now I see my life through a different lens. I no longer see my life on a wayward trajectory with no purpose. On the contrary, all those potholes, U-turn’s, downhill sprints and uphill trudges were merely a training ground. I do know I am so blessed. Blessed to be alive, blessed to have lived the life I have so far,  blessed to feel centered and focused in a positive direction, and blessed to be finally following I path I have pondered instead of wandered for far too long!!!

If you are restless or feeling empty in your life, I dare you to start a journey of your own… one of discernment that leads you to discovery and ultimately to you becoming WHO YOU ARE rather than defining yourself by what you do.

Let the light of WHO you are so shine, and shine brightly.

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“We need to feel that our lives reflect who we are, that our story is true to who we are. And at every stage of life, you have choice; you can choose to rebuild your life to become WHO you are or you can keep on feeling restless doing what you do.”

 

When Comparison is the Thief of Joy

“Last year at this time I was/had….” How many times lately have I started a conversation with that comparative statement? More often than I would like to admit. Regretfully, I have spent much of my time this summer dwelling on the past rather than living fully in the present and contemplating the future. It is a relatively easy habit to fall into and when one is feeling mentally exhausted, stressed out, or just down in the dumps. Dwelling on happier times is a good respite for the emotional soul. Positive memories have an important place in our lives – they help us out of a sad moment, help us heal from the loss of a loved one, and create meaning in our lives. They can also send us spiraling into a trap of living in the past while ruing our present –  keeping us from moving forward and enjoying the gifts of life we have now.

11731884_1033524946672103_274556446325443046_oI found myself doing just that as I talked to friends about summer plans. Last year at this time I had already knocked out 23 hikes in the park including summiting several mountains with plenty of joyous trail journal entries and pictures to fill a museum. I was feeling strong and mighty, like the world below me was mine to conquer from those peak-top experiences and happiness seemed to radiate from my soul. This year however, I have only managed 6 hikes- 4 of which were remarkably wet and miserable to the point of relegating one pair of manure and mud encased boots to the trash barrel and another instance of dumping about a ½ cup of water out of each boot upon returning to my vehicle. On the two hikes not inundated by rain, I found myself drained of any stamina. I felt conquered by the world, my radiance reigned over by sadness. What was wrong with me? The lack of hiking opportunities due to rain cancellations and life events conflicting with fun in the sun were just the tip of this depressive iceberg.13754601_1256154167742512_2134166270177249671_n

My life has not been a bed of roses lately with the death of my mother, the loss of a relationship, and my father’s recent cancer diagnosis, surgery, and serious car accident. Rather than being thankful for the present I was asking “How much more, Lord, how much more?” As the summer wore on the happy memories of the past made my present seem more and more unbearable… I was on a trajectory of dejection with a dark stormy cloud hovering above me.  Indeed, this summer has been a season of discontent.

And then one of my dear friends shared a bit of wisdom with me, a belief she has followed through her own difficult times. When we dwell on the negative, we attract more of it. By focusing on what wasn’t going right in my life I was allowing that dark cloud to boil and billow into a huge thunderstorm of negative thought pellets that hailed down on me no matter where I went. The rain sodden hikes just exemplified this in physical form and further dampened my outlook! On the heels of those words of wisdom, a visiting pastor gave a sermon with a message that really hit home with me. It was one of those God moments where you think He is talking directly to you and no one else surrounding you.

The message, born from the books of Ecclesiastes and Luke, talked of getting wrapped up in the increasing busyness and trappings of life. Rather than getting caught in the frenzy of keeping up with the Joneses, or in my case keeping pace with my own over the top life of summers past, we should look to our present and give thanks for the simple pleasures and blessings we receive from others to find joy. Receiving these words of wisdom from two very different people made something click in my mind. Rather than resenting my present, I was able to accept that I was living in a very different season of life this year compared to last year. I wasn’t allowing myself any grace, something I am great at giving others but not myself obviously. By dwelling on the past I was missing the good things that were growing in this season’s garden as a result of the rain in my life. The dark cloud of comparison had hidden those good things from my sight.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” —Theodore Roosevelt

13613171_1265591673465428_7058362766506802065_oThrough this past and present emotional season of life I have been the recipient of many gifts given by others. And so taking my friend’s advice I began to dwell on those gifts – kind words, hugs, long talks on walks, the simple generosity of time given by one to the other. Because I have not spent every weekend this summer in the mountains I have rediscovered the simple joy of Sunday morning coffee hour after worship and connecting with friends I only see once a week. Because I have not spent every weekend in the mountains I have spent much more time at the piano and found new music to challenge myself with.  I began to dwell on the beauty of my surroundings – the valley landscape that I had often overlooked on my mountaintop adventures and the new life abounding around me. I dwelled on the joy of singing with a choir and the joy of sharing beautiful music with friends. I dwelled on the recent opportunities to celebrate life over dinner with friends. I dwelled on the simple but wonderful feeling of escape from the world found in the pages of a good book on a stormy evening. I dwelled on the sunlight reflecting on water. Most of all, I dwelled in this present season of life. Sure it has been a tough one, but the tempestuousness of it has made me stronger and more appreciative of yes, the joys of life.

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There is a time for everything in life, a time for living joyously and at full speed ahead and a time for mourning and rest. Both seasons should be embraced, not resented.

A Time for Everything

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:

a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to tear down and a time to build,

a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance,

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,

a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,

a time to search and a time to give up,

a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time to be silent and a time to speak,

a time to love and a time to hate,

a time for war and a time for peace.

~ From Ecclesiastes 3

Let your light so shine.

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How Much More, Lord, How Much More?

20160716_060207“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:78-79

How much more, Lord, how much more? It was a question I found myself asking as I said goodbye to my Dad following our nightly phone conversation as I walked away the cares of the day. I had called to tell him about my latest auto-mechanic adventure and the unexpected bill I was facing to replace wheel bearings and rotors. Expecting him to commiserate with me, I was instead stopped dead in my tracks as I heard him wearily exclaim, “well, I think I can top that.” Curious as to why his brand new sizzling red GMC Terrain – the first brand new car he has bought since I was in first grade- would be causing problems- I could not believe the words I heard next. “I wrecked…”

My dear old Dad was finally on his way to Costco to begin the process of getting hearing aids – something my brother and I have been trying to get him to do for years – when in the middle of a lane change on the busiest street in Billings he somehow collided with an unknown number of cars, flipped and rolled his own – landing upside down, surrounded by airbags and trapped. To say I was aghast is an understatement. The fact that he was home and talking to me after the fact is even more startling. After emergency responders cut him from the vehicle he was taken to the ER for treatment of severe cuts and bruises and to be assessed for any damage to his defibrillator that keeps his ticker ticking.

After assuring me he was alright, he said an early good night and I broke down in tears – tears of relief, of emotional exhaustion and absent daughter guilt, and finally tears of defeat because I knew I would never get my Dad to get his hearing checked again. My thoughts then turned to my brother who has borne the weight of the family crises this year much more so than I have. He too must be exhausted – walking through my Mom’s end of life deterioration and death, followed by my Dad’s lymphatic cancer diagnosis and the multiple trips to the hospital this entailed, and now this- getting a call from a police officer while at work informing him that his father was taken to the ER following a serious car wreck – the same wild wreck his colleagues were talking about seeing when they came back from lunch.

How much more, Lord, how much more? If the cliché- ridden statement that the Lord will never give us more than we can bear holds any truth, I am not sure how much more of the Lord’s whims I can sanely handle.13177480_1208998692458060_8651611342329675533_nMeanwhile, the world around us seems to be growing darker and darker as international terrorists wage war on our sense of security and humanity, homegrown hate and division is running rampant through our cities, towns, and social media pages – spurring on acts of violence on par with the atrocities committed by the terrorists who threaten us from “afar.” Even our political candidates seem to be washed in a dirty gray hue of filth rather than the red, white, and blue shades of greatness and hope characterized by past election years.

How much more, Lord, how much more? Locally, my community has been rocked by the closure of a manufacturing plant leading to the loss of hundreds of good paying jobs and destabilizing the lives of numerous families; and the tragic deaths of two vibrant young men – pillars of the community and incredible models of goodness gone before their work on earth was done.

How much more, Lord, how much more? Within my own circle of friends, I know of family trauma and betrayal, as well as families enduring battles similar to my own against the ravages of cancer, dementia, addiction, or simply struggling to make ends meet.

Even the weather has been unduly harsh across the board-  battering communities with hail, tornadoes, floods, and fire. Indeed, it feels like a very heavy dark cloud is hovering over all of humanity – raining darkness on our parade of life. Weariness seems to be a common trait shared by those who go through the motions of living, but have become numb to news of the latest unrest of the day.

Sadly, for some, too battle weary with no end in sight, keeping-on doesn’t seem possible.  The struggle between darkness and light ends in the silence of a never-ending night; leaving others behind to pick up the pieces in the chaos and darkness, to keep on keeping on – amid shattered lives.

How much more, Lord, how much more?

God has yet to answer my persistent questioning of how much more. I wish He would. I like to be prepared for the adventures I go on in life; but lately, He has managed to seriously alter the courses of my travels with little thought to my need for a sense of control or even a schedule. Heck, He hasn’t even let me escape to the mountains once this hiking season without drenching me in “blessed” water and hail from above.

Frankly, all this darkness has made me a bit cranky and recently I have become aware of negativity seeping into my nature, a quality that for most of my life – despite my trials – has been absent. I wonder if others sense this, and I am ashamed if they do. And yet, the fact that I am aware of it gives me hope – yes, hope that this is not what God wants for me to know – this darkness that seems to have permeated our daily life.

Rather, He wants me to grow in confidence born from the keeping on of keeping on each day – growing through the struggles and pain so that I find myself and those walking a similar path still standing but changed – matured, sharpened, softened, more inclined to His will, rather than mine. He wants us to see the garden instead of the weeds. With each day of growth, He makes more apparent the blossoms of goodness growing around us in the company of each other rather than the thorns of a turbulent world that we have no control over and that tear our hearts.

How do I know this? While I may not know How much more, Lord, how much more, I can see His promise in each new dawn – even those clouded over with rain. In each new morning that I wake to keep on keeping on He shines a little brighter and I feel a little stronger, even through the clouds. He reminds me of goodness in the morning melodies of our tiniest neighbors from on high – bird songs overcoming the night, and in the friendly waves of other early morning meanderers, who like me are just keeping on keeping on as best they know how – a shared continuity of struggle and growth that comes with the living of each day.

And perhaps, there you have the answer to the question of “How much more, Lord, how much more?” Until the day when we can look at each other with eyes softened by darkness and only see the wonder of His light.

“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance;  and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”                           ~ James 1: 2-4

Let your light so shine.

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Called by Grace

10711062_861264793898120_7417205138361937001_n Grace and Peace to you!

I recently had the honor of writing and giving a sermon for my congregation while our pastor was away. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to “test the waters” as I ponder just what on earth I am here for. I am sharing with you a revised version that has been edited only to remove the names of local people I refer to so I can share without exposing them to my “vast” readership!

What on earth am I here for? It’s a question that earned Pastor Rick Warren a spot on the best seller list for 90 weeks with his book, The Purpose Driven Life. If you Google the word calling, or its synonym “vocation” you are going to be overwhelmed with sources for self- improvement and spiritual journeys. As individuals we are a hungry people, hungry for meaning in our lives, hungry for purpose, and hungry for finding the perfect combination of purpose and meaning that makes us feel we have made a difference.

Some are lucky to find such fulfillment in their professional life be it as the doctor who heals the sick, the teacher who grows minds, the fireman who saves lives, the pastor who shepherds souls, the missionary that serves the vulnerable, the counselor who listens, the social worker who tends to the destitute, or the activist who rights wrongs. But for many of us, finding, following, and fulfilling our calling is not a clear path.

If you think this is a relatively new aspect of the human condition, think again. The search for purpose spawned the great philosophers, it flows through religions of every sect from ancient times to present day. For Christians, while the path to fulfilling our calling may still be discreet, there should be no question as to where to turn for guidance. Of all the books written about finding purpose and meaning for our life, the Bible is the greatest source of inspiration and encouragement. If you are searching for your calling in life, you might even recognize yourself in some of the dominant characters! Most of the Biblical heroes and followers of Jesus did not know what their calling was or where their often difficult paths would take them, yet they followed God’s call to journey with Him rather than follow the ways of the world.

There are many stories in the Bible about Jesus healing the afflicted, raising the dead, and tending to the widows and orphans. What does healing have to do with finding our calling you ask, especially if you are not the one performing the act?

As the Apostle Paul states in his letter to the Galatians, “God has called me through His grace.” It is through God’s grace that we who are sick, broken, vulnerable, weary, or destitute are healed. Who better to minister to those in need than someone who has been in their shoes and experienced the healing power of God?

More often than not, your calling will not come with a paycheck. Your calling will come through your personal experiences and the extent to which you use those experiences to help others. Those times when you needed God the most in your life will be the experiences he calls you to draw upon to help others.

Survived the ravages of cancer?  Perhaps God will lead you to walk alongside a newly diagnosed patient.

Know the pain of divorce? Perhaps God is calling you to support a newly married couple in prayer.

Walked the lonely road of depression? Find someone with whom you could share the 20160422_181414fight and share your light.

Landed a great job after returning to school for a new career? Someone equally as motivated could use your mentorship.

While researching the topic of “calling”, I stumbled upon one pastor’s words that really hit home with me: Quoting Jesus he wrote “In this world you will have trouble.” He continues:  “If you’re called to something, expect trouble. If the Son of God didn’t get a free pass from trouble, then why do we think we should? A lot of people view trouble as a sign of something wrong in their lives, but it’s usually a good sign you’re headed in the right direction. To the degree you are willing to endure pain; will be to the degree that God can use you. The greatest people used by God in the Bible endured great amounts of pain. Pain seems to be the price to be paid for a life of significance.”

As Christians, we are baptized in Christ and called to be His servants, vulnerable to one another, and to the world, for Christ’s sake. We are to seek out and serve, not just the comfortable and the familiar, but the stranger and the alien, the least and the last, the lost, and the most vulnerable.  This is God’s call to us in our baptism and one that Martin Luther, a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation believed was central to the faith.

Martin Luther’s teaching regarding your calling centered on the belief that all God’s people are called to respond to God’s grace by serving our neighbors within our own particular places in society. Luther’s teaching liberated God’s hands here on earth from the papacy and gave new stature to the laity to do God’s work.

You may not feel particularly gifted or worthy of being God’s light in the world, but then look at the Apostle Paul!  Paul shares with the Galatians (Galatians 1:11-24) that he was a fanatical Jew—one who sought to destroy people whom he believed to be opposed to the ways of God – UNTIL the scales were shed from his eyes and he was called by God’s grace. Knowing about the Apostle Pauls’ background, no one would likely conceive that he would become the greatest advancer of Christianity aside from Jesus himself. Indeed, sometimes God uses the most broken among us to be His light in the world.

But your calling doesn’t necessarily have to dwell in the dark places of this world or your life, although it is there that we often find ourselves drawing closer to God, seeking His compassion and forgiveness the most. As Father Fr Frederick Buechner states “the place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meets.” Imagine finding your purpose, your passion, your greatest sense of call in what was once your most difficult journey!

Jesus heals us. We are called to do the same.

Throughout the Bible we are witness to the healing power of Jesus.  Jesus raises a young man from the dead but then focuses on the young man’s mother who has also lost her husband. He has compassion for her and he tells her not to weep. Jesus has compassion, and gives her back her son. Jesus restored purpose and meaning to this woman’s life.  Not many widows could fathom as much.

Recently, at the Montana Synod Assembly for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a widow was lifted up and celebrated as she fulfilled God’s call to her. This woman, a widow, was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA. I am not certain how much you know about the process of becoming a pastor, but the formation of pastors in the Lutheran church  is a long, thorough, multi-faceted process.  Some people graduate high school, go to college, then on to seminary, live on campus, do their internships, finish up, and get ordained.  Some people wait a year or two, or a decade or two.  Some do much of their academic work online, or in periodic visits to seminary, accompanied by intensive study and practical work in between sessions.

This woman did not follow the traditional route to ordination as her predecessors did. She married, had children, did a variety of things, and went to a variety of churches. Rather, she served as a legislator, and worked as a drama teacher.  She was a Lay Pastoral Associate (non-ordained clergy), and a widow.  And slowly, gradually, throughout her life experiences she began to hear God’s call. Ultimately, she saw a way forward to answer that call. This courageous woman’s journey through life was transformed by Christ’s love into a calling to minister to others.

God calls a variety of people in a variety of ways. He healed me when I was very sick, has helped me through many life-altering trials, lead me on a journey of discovery and blessed me gifts that I am still uncovering – gifts I hope to use as He calls me to pursue ministry through the Lay Pastoral Associate program.

Did you ever think that God might be calling you, or someone you know? Look within you and around you. Consider how God has been at work in and called others in their own lives. Undoubtedly, some stories of call will be dramatic, life-altering experiences, while others will be much more mundane. Have you seen lives or has your life been transformed? Changed direction?  How might God be calling you?

I know God has plans for me. He has called me through His extraordinary grace. I expect He plans to use my personal struggles and my greatest triumphs for something far greater than the pain, questioning, and jubilation I have experienced on this journey.  If you find yourself asking “What on Earth am I here for?”, listen for where God is calling you to. You may find that perfect combination of purpose and meaning, your greatest sense of call, in what was once your most difficult journey!

As was written in Jeremiah – “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  Jeremiah 29:11

If you listen with an open mind and eager heart, you might just hear God’s call for you.

Let your light so shine.

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I Got By with a Little Help from my Friends

“Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Just walk beside me and be my friend.”

– Albert Camus

13147272_1204040166287246_6929792025810359721_oWe are meant to live in companionship with others. Nothing brings that truth to light more clearly than when we lose someone important to us, whether through death or the parting of ways.

After the initial shock and ensuing chaos in the days following my mother’s passing began to subside, my life took a serious turn into darkness. Not only was I dealing with the grief over losing my mother, I also had to come to terms with the ending of another relationship, and the loneliness that comes with losses such as these. At times, it felt as though my light had been permanently extinguished – the darkness reigned so heavily inside me I nearly suffocated from it weight. When life takes a downturn, it often seems like troubles just don’t stop coming and I certainly met with a few of them. In exasperation, I asked God if He was there and just what was He trying to prove?

13177480_1208998692458060_8651611342329675533_nThen came the flickers. Flickers of light began to reveal themselves to me, in moments when hope seemed impossible.

While I hate to think that God dabbles on Facebook, one Sunday morning a post appeared that hit me square between the eyes, it even used Snoopy as the messenger – my lifetime friend and companion. Charlie Brown thoughtfully tells Snoopy that “someday we will all die” and Snoopy replies “True but on all the other days we will not.”

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As I headed out for my Sunday morning run I reflected on Snoopy’s message. I fought the heavy loneliness in my heart as I continued with my own thoughts, “And those who haven’t died are left to wander in the world just a little more alone by those who have gone before us.” That heart aching feeling of being alone had hung on my spirit for weeks and I had not been able to break free from it – despite my unwavering faith. Faith is great but it is sometimes quite the battle when pitted against the stark realities of life. But Snoopy was telling me to snap out of it – to get out and start living again.

As if on cue, my pastor’s sermon that morning reminded me that though I may feel alone, the Holy Spirit abides with me and in Him I can find peace. I so desperately wanted that! He reminded us that when two or three are gathered in His name, that is where we will find God. We will find the Holy Spirit alive in the lives of those around us. He works through the hands and hearts of those we walk among. As one who likes to believe that I can do this life thing on my own – I was starting to come to the humbling realization that no, I could not. And believe it or not, I am not expected to and neither are you!

Despite hearing the words, I still battled a bit of shame perhaps? That I really needed to talk to someone- and yet I didn’t want to burden anyone with my issues. And yet people were there for me. I had seen them in action and had proof for my psyche in the numerous thank you’s I had written. I had collected quite a list of people whose kindnesses eased the pain of my mother’s death and frankly the numbers were daunting.

As I pondered the goodness of others the heaviness of sorrow began to lift. In turn, I realized how important it is to reach out to others when they are facing sorrow or are in pain. I am eternally grateful for those who took a small amount of time to reach out to me – as their seemingly small (to them) gesture brought glimmers of light into my life again.

I re-read the sympathy cards and marveled at how wonderful the written word is at touching our hearts. Even those that said they didn’t know what to say spoke volumes as they shared a story about my Mom.

Getting back into the daily rigors of life illuminated the good things surrounding me and I found myself appreciating if not standing in awe of even the simplest things – a sunrise, a friendly smile at the post office, a great song on the radio, a turtle following my path. People I thought of as just acquaintances revealed themselves as bearers of hope with a phone call, a coffee shared together, an unexpected hug.

I realized that although I surround myself with people by singing in multiple choirs, attending church functions, volunteering for the symphonies and venturing into the mountains with like-minded mountain goats, I wasn’t very good at letting people into my life – allowing myself to be vulnerable. There were plenty of people out there that wanted into my life – if only I would let them in.

Then the flicker flamed.

On a particular difficult evening, I found myself walking with tears being my steady companion. I had a question for a fellow choir member and decided to send her a text message. By accident I hit the call button and to my horror the phone began to ring and she answered it! I was caught live in a moment of despair. I couldn’t hang up on her so I gulped and actually talked to her… apologizing for interrupting her evening. I was astounded when she replied that no I wasn’t interrupting her. Actually, she was dealing with severe pain of her own and really needed to talk to someone too.

90- some minutes later we were both laughing… a huge weight had been lifted from both of our spirits. I thanked her for sharing her time with me and she thanked me for helping her get through a rough evening and she actually felt like getting up and taking a walk! We had borne each other’s burdens for a while and my goodness it felt good to rest! Rest in the caring arms of someone else. We both felt so much better having opened up to each other.

“Friendship improves happiness, and abates misery, by doubling our joys, and dividing our grief.”

-Joseph Addison

Doctors realize this too. Numerous studies have been done over the last few decades that show social support and good health are connected. One study of cancer patients showed that those who had a good network of social support had much lower levels of a protein linked to more aggressive cancers which made their chemotherapy treatments more effective. Other cancer patient studies show that those with a good support group live longer and feel less pain than those lacking a social network. The Mayo Clinic identifies maintaining friendships as a key component of wellness. Friendships increase your sense of belonging and purpose; boost your happiness and reduce your stress; improve your self-confidence and self-worth; help you cope with traumas, such as divorce, serious illness, job loss or the death of a loved one; and provide encouragement to change or avoid unhealthy lifestyle habits.

Making friends and maintaining those friendships is not always easy. It requires work and sacrifice from both parties but the payoffs are huge.

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I know that by leaning on others during the past few weeks I have regained my strength. I know that by helping others carry their burdens, my own seem lighter. My world seems less small and I feel a greater sense of responsibility to live well and help others do the same.

I won’t say that darkness has been completely obliterated from my life by a bonfire of buddies, but those buddies have become flickers of brilliant light when I am having a hard time finding my way. I feel less alone, even on days spent on my own and I feel much more alive when I have been able share a friend’s burden.

Yes, we are meant to be in companionship with others. If you need a spark, a flicker, or a flame in your life, shine the light of friendship into someone else’s darkness and you just might find yourself dancing in the light again.

Let your light so shine.

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One final lesson in life… Memories of my Mother

It is hard to believe four Sundays have come and gone since my life and perception of it changed forever. Sundays have always been a special day for me, but now they hold an even greater significance. Now I will cherish and reflect on the promise each Sunday brings even if my heart aches….

DSCN6033To celebrate the last day of winter I embarked on a farewell-to-my-winter-of-discontent journey to the top of Mount Brown in Glacier Park. It was a bluebird day and as I hiked through the woods I could hear the promise of Spring- of new life abounding – in the songs of the birds which turned my thoughts to my Mom. My mother loved to watch the birds and the squirrels, and of course our four-legged family members; the little joys the Lord gave us to make our lives richer, more wonderful here on Earth. These blessings made her life sweeter and more joyful these last several years of her life; our conversations always included a synopsis of Tucker the dog, squirrel, and bird activity of late.

As we entered Holy week, a time when we look to the promise of resurrection and life everlasting with our Lord, Jesus Christ and rejoice in His conquering of death so that we may all live free from its bonds through Him, I took comfort in knowing that my beautiful mother conquered her earthly bonds and journeyed home to live free with her Lord and Savior on Palm Sunday, the first day of Spring!  Her spirit left us quite unexpectedly but peacefully that morning, through an open window, perhaps following the song of a bird calling her home.

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Our Lord, Jesus Christ led me and my family on a new resurrection journey that week. Not once did he waiver in holding us in His embrace. From the moment I learned of my mother’s death on Palm Sunday, I was comforted in faith – knowing her Easter journey had begun. Still, it was the longest, most exhausting week of my life as we bore the cross of death – enduring feelings of such immense sorrow, heart-aching emptiness, and regret over things left unsaid, time not spent, preparing to say a final good-bye. Yet as we laid her to rest on Good Friday, an unexpected strength and desire to celebrate her life rather than grieve her death came over me.

As we sang her favorite hymns I sang out clearly, I sang my best- willing the throat gripping tears away, knowing these were her sending songs. And as we placed her earthly remains in the cold, wet ground and shivered in the cold wind and rain saying our final good-byes, I knew she was safe and warm in the arms of our Lord and Savior. Her life on earth finished. Her story finished… for now.

When Sunday morning dawned. we celebrated the promise of Easter anew, with assurance that her story will live on. She danced in heaven as the trumpets sounded that He Is Risen! And yes, so had my Mom! Risen, Indeed! While she has a new life with Jesus, her earthly story will live on through each of us who carry her in our hearts. I will honor her life through mine and be happy, as that is all she wanted me to be.

I have shared with you in the past about my relationship with my mother and the regrets I have experienced in these last months over the state of our relationship. Unfortunately, so much was left unsaid, a truth that I will forever live with.  In what may be a selfish attempt to find peace, I felt a need to not only write the final chapter but profess to my mother before God and those that loved her, the feelings deep with in my heart.  What follows is my eulogy for my beloved mother, Evelyn Morck.

(Following on the heels of my brother’s wonderful synopsis of the richness our mother brought to his life.)

Memories of my Mother

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I have always been a bit envious of my big brother as with his advanced age he got to enjoy more fully, our Mom in her best years. Alas my fondest memories are found in my childhood…

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Being the child of a former schoolteacher my life was one big lesson. Back to school time was a golden time of year. My mother filled me with excitement and anticipation as I returned to the classroom with new school supplies and a new Snoopy lunch box, packed with a PB&J or turkey sandwich, Cheetos, and grapes. She never got tired of making the same thing over and over again, and I never got tired of the wonderful notes she always included inside… something to make me feel good about that day. I loved getting notes from my Mom in my lunch box, especially when I was once again the new girl in town and bullies made sure I felt like the ugly duckling. Mom’s notes always chased those feelings away, at least for a little while.  I never bought hot-lunch, not because of the length of time standing in line took away from my playground activities (as I espoused), but because then I wouldn’t get to read her notes.

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During her best years, my Mom dressed to the nines in classics that made her look exquisite. She was confounded by my aversion to shopping and preference for flannel shirts and jeans, but always managed to sew me some very nice outfits, even into my high school years. She even sewed my high school graduation suit – a pale pink sheath and jacket. That was the last time I wore a pink dress as I haven’t found any as appealing as that classic style. Yet despite her classiness, she loved to comment on farts and the art of passing gas… going as far as to explain methods she learned in college to relieve it to anyone willing to listen.

My mom was involved in much of my brother’s and my youth activities. She was a terrific Brownie leader, stepping in when no one else would to keep our troop going after our leader was in a car accident. I remember the Halloween party we had for the Brownies at our house one year – she went all out recruiting my brother to make haunted house sounds at just the right time and boy was he successful! She gracefully put up with hundreds of boxes of Girl Scout cookies inundating our home and under her leadership, my Brownie troop made headlines in the Rock Springs Rocket Miner numerous times… much to my delight. To this day I support the neighborhood Brownies and Girl Scouts in their endeavors.

My mother helped with Confirmation, and she was the school volunteer extraordinaire – spending countless hours in the library, more often than not keeping rabble-rousing Junior High students in line (much to my horror).

As the only Mom that didn’t work outside the home, she was also the neighborhood mom for all the kids whose parents weren’t home, often having 8 or more of us crowded around the table for open faced cheese sandwiches and hot chocolate along with supervision after sledding or playing War in the woods until parents came home from work. Our home was the neighborhood haven even into junior high when we were supposedly too cool to have parental supervision—everyone still happily congregated at our home within ear and eye-shot of my mother.

My Mom was a great Mom to travel with, at least when I was five on our Bicentennial trip across America. She sewed the two of us matching outfits in fun yet stunning styles and I felt like a queen. She was my back seat buddy and sang along to the eight-track tapes that came with our brand new 1976 Buick Regal. Those songs became the sound-track to some of my happiest child-hood memories (Rollerball, Free Spirit, Almost Heaven West Virginia, Country Boy….)

One of my favorite times spent with my mother was during our 3-year stint back east in Virginia. My parents bought a modern 3-story colonial home that backed up to the woods. It got very dark at night and our first winter there my Dad was away for almost a month for work and my brother was away at college. We would walk through the house together each night, making sure every door was locked and all was sound. She would tell me stories of her days as State Champion Majorette, as the Dean Picture1of Women at Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp, and about her apartments and her adventures with her room-mates and odd land ladies as a teacher in Livingston. Each story always had some moral lesson for me swallow. We would eat supper together in front of the fire on TV trays, and because it was cold and damp she would let me get dressed in front of the oven in the morning before school… even if it meant I missed the bus… she would gladly take me to school. In fact, as a youngster and teen who was subjected to quite a bit of bullying for being the new kid before bullying became a bad word- my Mom did what she could to keep me safe –perhaps going a bit too far at times, but one thing is for sure, she always had my back.

Ah yes, the memories of childhood and grade school, a time in my life when things really did seem golden, for the most part. Certainly, there was childhood angst and family kerfuffles, especially when my Dad was gone on one too many business trips for my Mom’s liking or we were moving once again.  We were your typical 1970’s -1980’s middle class family except that no matter where we lived, my parents had the distinction of being the oldest parents on the block, by 15 years at least.

Those were the good days, days and the memories of which, I took for granted for far too long. Alas, life has a way of challenging us and my family was not immune to challenges, especially the kind that make emotions raw. For some, those challenges become too much.

As the years wore on and I grew more into my own person, our mother-daughter relationship began to fray. We became more and more opposed in our approaches to and outlook on life.

Indeed, ours was a difficult relationship, but then, the things that matter most in life are not always easy. Nonetheless, I know she loved me as deep as any mother could love a head-strong daughter.  While I often wished we could have a relationship like those my friends enjoyed with their Moms, one filled with lunch dates, laughter, and dreams for tomorrow – I came to accept that those things were not important to my Mom.  Counselors told me I needed to set boundaries in our relationship but how do you set boundaries between yourself and the person that gave life to you? While fences make good neighbors, boundaries do not address the conflicts that created the need for them. However, putting a physical boundary of 400 + miles between my mother and I with my move to Whitefish 2.5 years ago changed the dynamic between us. On visits home we still engaged in rapid fire from time to time but during our phone conversations, rather than constant head-butting, my Mom seemed to relish the fact that though I was living my own life, she could live vicariously through me in her old stomping grounds. Yet by this point in her health and our relationship, our conversations never ventured much past the surface.

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Since my mother became ill, I have learned much about what is important in life and the lesson has been painful. The past conflicts between us that remained a barrier to my heart have raked my heart. The fact that my mother and I could not realize a reconciliation of any meaningful depth fills me with deep regret. Why had I not pursued this with my Mom sooner? My hopes are such that the pain and anger we inflicted on one another disappeared into her lost memories as I am not sure she could comprehend the feelings I wanted to express. Part of me feels at peace in the simple sweet conversations that we did share. Perhaps that is God’s grace reigning over my ineptitude. I have learned that life is finite. Its seasons far too short for anger, guilt, pride, and selfishness to linger in our relationships. Storms will come and we do not know when or how they will end.

King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes:

“As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.”

Solomon was wise.  Life is meaningless if we do not tend to what truly matters. All the fun, work, accolades, and treasures of life we collect along the way are meaningless. What matters are the relationships we have; that our hearts are right with God; that we resolve conflicts with those we love; that they know they matter to us; and how very much we do indeed love them.

Reconciliation with my mother was a selfish goal of mine. But how much more powerful and life giving it would have been had I been able to make peace with my mother while she was alive and not as I stand before you today in an attempt to honor her life and role as my mother.  Perhaps it is best and all I can hope for that my Mom and I pursued the springtime memories of our life as we walked through her final winter together.

I last spoke to my mother on my birthday, 18 days before she passed away. It was a conversation I will never forget. Aside from the fact she was upset that I would be celebrating alone and didn’t have a special dinner date (Hey, I had church and choir practice, what’s new?) she just kept saying all she wanted was for me to be happy and would I consider coming home. I kept telling her I was happy but I had too many mountains left to climb to think about coming home –but that didn’t mean I didn’t miss her. I told her I loved her so very much. Her last words to me were:  I love you and I just want you to be happy.

One of her favorite songs was “His Eye is on the Sparrow”.

His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.

His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.

I sing because I’m happy;

I sing because I’m free;

His eye is on the sparrow

And I know He watches me.

I know He is watching her, shine and sing once again. She couldn’t have been called home in a more perfect way. The first day of Spring and the day we began the celebration of Easter.

Mom, I know we had our struggles as a mother and daughter but I will forever carry with me your sweet love of the joys of life, the tender ways you loved me through childhood, and your simple understanding of what is good. I will continue to strive to live the kind of life you so wanted for me – one that is happy and lived for the Lord. I never stopped loving you and I will always hear your voice and feel your love whenever a songbird sings.

And when I do, I will sing because I know you are now happy, and I’ll sing because I know you are free. And I will smile at the sight of every sparrow, because then I’ll know you are still with me.

Let me leave you with my heart… don’t hold on to conflict. Let God’s grace wash it from you and walk in forgiveness and reconciliation with those you love. Open your hearts and your minds to the promise of Easter, of new life, of new beginnings. Let Easter live in your hearts and relationships today and every day.

 

cropped-20150626_060333-001.jpgPeace 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