Life Begins Where Fear Ends

Inspired by: Matthew 25:14-30,Psalm 90

With Thanksgiving around the corner, my mind has turned repeatedly to two things – my family who are far away and what I have done with the gifts bestowed upon my life in the past year. Both of which are triggered by the back-page stories in the newspaper – one of the few reasons I still subscribe to a local paper. I love to read obituaries, much more than write them mind you. I often find myself skimming past the headlines of the day but once I get to the obituary page, I read them word for word. It is the only time, that I know of at least, that the dash takes center stage – the life in between the numbers. I know what an impact the dash can make. Seeing the dash on my family’s headstone with both of my parent’s birth – dash – death years is one thing. Seeing my name with my birth date – dash – (blank) is a rather unsettling experience! But I digress…

Obituaries can move me, leave me awestruck, and inspire me. The really good ones cause me to reflect on what I have done with the dash in my life. They don’t dwell so much on one’s scholarly or professional achievements, though certainly worthy of mention, but where those achievements led the person and the impact that person had outside of themselves during their dash. We get to learn about what is really important in life and we get to laugh at the humorous side of our humanity.

I have noted two commonalities among most obituaries: they often recount a person’s relationship with God and they rarely list one’s fears. For good reason. With God, our lives are lived with anticipation, whereas fear negates the talents we are given – the opportunities and the possibilities God entrusts to us. Fear can have a very powerful role in the direction of our lives. We see that play out in Matthew’s Gospel in the parable of the talents.

Imagine if you will:

Jesus was going on a journey, one that he knew he would be on for quite some time.  He called a few of his followers to him and entrusted some very valuable treasures to them. To one, named Martin, he gave stories; to another named Paul he gave compassion; and to a third, Goodwin, he gave the bread of life and the cup of salvation. These treasures were of incredible value – he deemed each of them of equal importance even though the weight and substance of each differed.  Then Jesus went away.

Martin took those stories and studied them and wrote them out so the stories could easily be read and shared. While a little unsure of where Jesus was leading him, he knew his guide well. His Lord had been a dwelling place for all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever he had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting He was God. That He had entrusted Martin with stories filled Martin with joy as he set to work. Soon there were five more followers of Jesus reading and sharing those stories and those stories are still being read and shared today.

Reflecting often on his mangled past, Paul couldn’t believe Jesus had entrusted him with compassion – him of all people! And yet, Paul, acknowledging Jesus’ decisive impact on his life, changed his name from Steve to Paul and relinquished his life to Him. The freedom he found in trusting Jesus fueled him with a drive that couldn’t be stopped. He took that compassion and traveled all over the region offering compassion to all who would hear and open their hearts to him. The first two who opened their hearts shared the compassion with another 2 and so on and so forth. Soon all across the world many were receiving and giving compassion in the name of Jesus.

But Goodwin, who had been given the bread of life and the cup of salvation, dug a hole in the ground and buried them because he believed the Lord would plunder his wealth and lay his house to waste. He was afraid— afraid of messing up, of not getting the theology right, of what Jesus would do to him if he didn’t get it right, and finally, because he had no idea what might happen to him if he shared the bread of life and the cup of salvation with anyone else. There were so many unknowns! People might expect him to do more than he thought he was capable of! Surely, all would be better if he just stored the bread and cup until Jesus got back. Besides, Goodwin thought, he was a much better farmer than an evangelist.

Finally, back from his journey – no worse for the wear – Jesus stopped by each of his follower’s homes and asked them what they had done with the treasures he had given to them.

The first two followers offered Jesus some coffee and cookies and told him about how the stories were now in book form and in their millionth copy! They told him how the compassion had grown and was now administered not only on the streets but in buildings called churches. They introduced Jesus to some of his new followers and the new followers in turn introduced Jesus to their friends and families.

Jesus was very pleased.  He thanked each of them for their wonderful hospitality and told them, “Well done, good and trustworthy followers! You have been trustworthy in a few things, now I will trust you with many things. Enter into my joy!”

Martin and Paul and all Jesus’ followers, now called brothers and sisters in Christ, went about their lives with the joy and freedom knowing Jesus brought them. For all those who have the Good News, even more will be given to them. Gone was their need to control and worry about everything, for Jesus showed them that He was their true Master, who, with grace and mercy, would lead them through life’s ups and downs and welcome them home at the end of their days.

Then it was Goodwin’s turn. After a long hot day working in the field harvesting his hay crop, he was slow to answer the door when Jesus knocked.  “Hello Goodwin,” Jesus greeted him, as he looked over his shoulder at an empty room except for a Lazy-boy recliner and a radio blaring some hotheaded advice guru. “I’ve come to review your work. May I come in?”

“Geez, Jesus, now? Can’t you see your interrupting…”

“Goodwin, please, it is time. Let’s talk.”

Goodwin stepped aside and let Jesus into his house. He felt a bit nervous – no make that terrified – worse than when he was first given the bread and the cup. But Jesus just stood there and waited patiently until Goodwin cracked.

“Jesus, I knew you were a harsh man. I knew you reaped where you didn’t sow and gathered where you didn’t scatter seed. I don’t much care for people who trespass on my property.”

Jesus raised an eyebrow.

Goodwin’s reddened face paled. He continued. “Alright Jesus, I was afraid of messing up, of not getting the theology right, of what you would do to me if I didn’t get it right. Besides, I had crops to tend to. With no idea of what might happen to me if I shared the bread of life and the cup of salvation with others, I just couldn’t bet the farm.”

Jesus stopped him mid breath. “Goodwin, I think you’ve misread me. Of course, I reap where I don’t sow! I give you free will to live your life as you will and sometimes, I get really lucky when someone gets a brilliant idea – like your friend Martin did with that printing press! Boy, I never saw that coming! But I entrusted you with a few tasks I thought you would be perfect for. I guess you didn’t see what I saw in you.”

Goodwin continued in his protest, “But there were so many unknowns! People might have expected me to give more of my time than I was able! So, I thought, surely all would be better if I just stored the bread and cup until you got back. Besides, I am no evangelist.”

And that could have been the opening line to Goodwin’s obituary and the engraving on his headstone. There would be no dates with a dash in between. What would anyone want to remember him for? After their conversation, Goodwin gave the bread and cup back to Jesus. Condemning himself to a place of darkness rather than risk the unknowns, he turned Jesus away. Feeling what was left of his poor sham of a life suck out of him, he wanted to stop living – after all what was the point? He did the same thing over and over again and look where it got him?  Nowhere.  Standing in the darkness of his empty living room he ground his teeth so badly he felt a filling fall out.

That is what happens when you let fear be your Master. Indeed, we all have times of anxiety — times filled with worries over the direction our culture is drifting or concerns for our children, our marriages, our businesses, our finances, our personal health and well-being. Whether it is fear of losing control  – so you live your life so tightly shut that no one can venture in and you cannot get out, fear of being alone or standing alone in your beliefs, fear of not measuring up, or fear of the unknown – staying well within your comfort zone, walled off from the risks of new opportunities and possibilities – nothing Godly or goodly can come from fear.

Fear limits us. But our fear cannot limit God, nor can it limit what God wants for us.

(The story continues)

Goodwin walked to the sink, spit the metal out of his mouth and went to bed. After a restless night with little sleep there was a knock at the door. “Now who could that be? Why won’t people leave me alone?” he muttered as he passed by the empty mail cache and phone that never rang.

He opened the door and a radiance shown into his dreary space and forlorn face.

“Jesus! You came back!”

“I just couldn’t let it go – you saying I was a harsh man.” Jesus looked at Goodwin. He looked pretty scruffy and what was going on in that mouth of his? Could it be he wasn’t frowning quite so much?  “You’ve had a long night. What do you say we go get some of this bread of life and a good swig from the cup of salvation? It really is far more appetizing than you think, and I know just the place.”

Jesus put his hand on Goodwin’s shoulder – he felt the tension release and the strength he once saw in him come back.  Goodwin closed the door to his emptiness and headed down the road to this place Jesus had heard about from Paul.

“You say they call this a church?”

“Yup,” said Jesus. “It’s full of people just like you – I was kind of surprised, but then not so much as it is kind of hard to surprise me. There are people in there just as fearful as you. Life isn’t easy, I know.  There are people inside who see me as harsh and full of judgment, easy to ire, impatient, and kind of surly and so they go to this place because they think they have to. And then – then there are those inside who have fully embraced the new me – loving and kind, patient and enduring – I like to think I’m their Great Protector – of course, I am, to all of them.”

On the way they pass by a few who see Jesus as someone who will not do good or do harm – Jesus shook his head, “They think I’m a willy nilly – to them I’m some old man from ages past who doesn’t much impact their day to day lives. Do you know how that makes me feel? After all I’ve given? But enough about me, we should welcome them.”

Goodwin and Jesus went inside the church and found themselves surrounded by children of the light – clothed in their Sunday best – faith, love and hope. And they heard the story of a God who loves us so much that He came in the person of Jesus to experience our lives first hand, to share our hopes and dreams, and our fears and failures. A God who does not want the time between our numbers to be spent in fear. A God who wanted working knowledge of our trials and tribulations and to see just how amazing His creation turned out to be. A God who entrusted us with stewarding his amazing creation for our joy and our fulfillment.  A God who fell so in love with us that He died for us on the cross, so that we could be freed of our sins, and live our lives abundantly – without fear.

Goodwin felt his fears melt away. He realized his life was not his alone to live – his life belonged to God – the One who gave his own, so that he, Goodwin, might live fully. And so, by golly, live it fully he would! Surrounded by fellow brothers and sisters – the very living body of Christ – who would continue to hold him and each other in love while encouraging and building one another up in their various pursuits, until the day of Our Lord comes again.

Wishing you a Thanksgiving that is abundant in life and absent of any fears – whether you are spending the holiday with family or staying apart out of love.

Peace and blessings to you.

Whose Life Is It, Anyway?

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

I never thought I would see the day that my faith would be a point of contention in the halls of Congress but alas, as a practicing, believing, and prayerful Christian, I watched as senator after senator demanded from the latest Supreme Court Justice candidate a statement professing that she would separate her faith from her judicial decisions. I admired her candor and resolute responses in which she affirmed her ability to separate the two, but I was troubled that people of faith who align their lives with a higher power should be forced to do so – especially in a country founded on the basic tenet of freedom of religion. “What difference does it make?” I spewed at the talking heads on the screen.

Courtesy: Catholiclane,com

Though the citizens of the US have not always supported the rights of others to practice their faiths, seeing it as antithetical to our founding as a “Christian Nation,” our Constitution stands on the side of all beliefs or the lack thereof. Needless to say, it got me thinking about just how we separate from and align our lives with God and begs the question asked oh so long ago of a group of Pharisees and Herodians trying to entrap Jesus into defying the Roman empire: “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” This question, of course, was posed to the Pharisees and Herodians in response to their question as to whether Jesus thought it was “lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

Faced with this trap question, Jesus didn’t do what our politicians do today, which is to answer a different question, the one that he wished he had been asked. Instead he turned the tables on them and trapped them—the Pharisees at least, who seemingly adhered to a strict textual interpretation of God’s Law, including having no other idols before me and having no coinage (which bore the Divine Emperor’s image) in the temple — in their own question. Having caused them to display the coins in their pocket – Jesus tells his questioners to “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

But back to our lives and the world we live in today – though some of us may have fewer coins and more cards in our pockets and purses these days – we still disagree on taxation and aligning our lives along ruling parties. But I am not just talking about money and the things we spend it on, or taxes and whether or not we should pay them, nor am I just referring to the political party we identify with. I am talking about our whole lives. What do we give to God? Or perhaps the better question is, what are we taking away from God? If you believe as I do, that all things are created and inspired by God, then there shouldn’t be much to ponder; yet we so want to delineate that part of our lives which belong to God from that which belongs to – whatever we deem appropriate.

Granted, on the surface of this biblical story we hear Jesus saying there are things that belong to God and things that belong to the emperor. But I believe this message hits closer to home – there are the things that we allow God to handle and the things we want to have complete control over in our lives; the things that give us a bad taste in the mouth or that we can’t trust to the unknown. We try to separate our life and world between church and state, religion and politics, sacred and secular, saved and sinner, charity and taxes, spirit and matter, freedom and masks, death and life, heaven and earth, the divine and humanity, as if they are completely separate and unrelated, as if they are in opposition and have nothing to do with each other, as if some things can be trusted to God while others we need to keep well within our tight grasp.

In doing so, it becomes easy to allow the things we give to the emperor – the things we demand control of – to reign over our lives. We forget that when we embrace that everything and everyone belongs to God, our lives are not necessarily easier or without struggle – but so much richer and more colorful – less bleak and more hope filled. When we let go of the need to be right all the time, the need to stand in judgment, and the need to control the outcome of everything and trust that it all belongs to God we start living more wholly and have less want. 

This time of pandemic and isolation has provided me with a wealth of opportunity for personal reflection, condemnation, exhortation, and commiseration. I have caught myself projecting my misery on to God and reveling in the joys of my own abilities. I have found myself hyper critical of others in how they are handling this time of novel non-coexistence while patting myself on the back for my righteous isolation that has led me to profound darkness at times. I have scowled at the abysmal political polarization confronting me from those I love and respect and then question my own personal convictions and belief in the common good.

As I prepare to vote in the most important election of my lifetime (emphasis on my – because I know the intensity and ramifications of these times must be put into historical perspective) part of me just wants to say: “God, I know you got this” while part of me is stricken with fear for the days months and years that lay ahead. Part of me wants to say: “Can’t we just give it ALL to God?” but the other part of me knows that this already is all of God’s, and for such a time as this He has called you and me to step forth in faith and with the intelligence and conviction he has inspired in all of us –  senators, congressional representatives, candidates for offices, Supreme Court justices, and the likes of you and me – to do our very best for one another and for Him.

Maybe when we recognize and accept the great conflict in all of us to let go and yet hold on in realization that everything belongs to God – the struggle and the victory – maybe that’s when we really begin to follow Jesus. We can stop searching for answers and scapegoats and begin seeking life. We can hold to the self-evidencing truth that the earthly powers that be do not govern our heart or our mind.  That’s when faith makes a difference, and lives are changed.

“Get out the message—God Rules! He put the world on a firm foundation; He treats everyone fair and square.  Let’s hear it from Sky, With Earth joining in, And a huge round of applause from Sea. Let Wilderness turn cartwheels, Animals, come dance, put every tree of the forest in the choir— an extravaganza before God as he comes, as he comes to set everything right on earth, set everything right, treat everyone fair.” – Psalm 96: 10-13 The Message

Let your light so shine!

September Ponderings

A smokey afternoon by the river.

In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.  – John 16:33

September with its golden days, crisp mornings, and quieting evenings has always been my favorite month. With 16+ years of education, the “back to school” sense is ingrained in my being. September announces a return to a familiar rhythm of life with the added bonus of a few new beats – by this time each year I know a little more, have grown in some way, and see life just a little differently. No matter how much I may love the spontaneity of summer’s spirit in my life, this return to the familiar – to a well-practiced routine – brings a sense of comfort, even rest, to my adventuring soul.

There is supposed to be a mountain in this scene!

Except, I am feeling anything but restful this year and the familiar rhythms of life seem just out of my grasp. The brilliant golden hues I have always associated with September have been stolen by awful wildfire smoke – echoing the reality of everything else this year – and I am feeling completely out of step with things. Call it COVID-confusion? In years past, my back-to-school sentimentality has been satisfied by going “back to singing” with the Crown Choir, the Valley Voices, Community Choir, and church choir – my camaraderie in harmony! Harmony – oh what a foreign idea in 2020!

Sadly, I am left longing for all of the above as COVID19 has infected the joy of these activities with fear and taken them away.  I feel like I am wandering in the wilderness only this wilderness was not of my choosing. I am unsure of my footing; not certain I am prepared and have no idea what lays ahead – and I am growing weary. Weary of not needing a planner but in definite need of a calendar and daily lists just to keep me focused and on track with the passage of time.  Weary of the unknown, weary of the unsettled nature of my life. I am restless and want my life back!

Indeed, like me, the world appears to be especially weary. The pandemic persists; the political climate continues wrought with tension; the earth’s ecosystems are being ravaged by water, wind, and fire. People have been forced from their homes into the unknown – some will never go back.  And beyond that, no one’s personal difficulties have lessened in any way. So much unsettledness and restlessness. Restoration is needed at every turn!

The other morning, I was actually able to laugh at a news story. Amid all the other stories that morning of the fires out West, the political firestorm that just keeps getting hotter and more distasteful by the day, the protests and fires in our cities, the injustices felt by people of all walks and perspectives, the disparities in our economy, not to mention just how infected at every turn our lives continue to be by the COVID19 virus – I literally laughed out loud – at the news that there might be signs of life on Venus and the excitement that stinky phosphoric discovery brought to the scientists – and to me – for just a moment. Who among us hasn’t dreamt of escaping to a better place – to someplace familiar – to a place called “the way it used to be” – you know – quiet, peaceful, like last February – and yet we know that isn’t how life works.

All the events of life, even such dark events as a pandemic, war, fire, flood, protests, violence, and unrest are not in and of themselves a definition of our end. Each moment is like a seed that carries within itself the possibility of becoming the moment of change. A change we may not have sought out at first, but a change that will be with us for the long haul. We cannot run from this present time in search of a place where we think life is better.

Rather, we must reckon with our time, our place, and who we are in the process of becoming. As one writer recently put it: “The world will improve not on an arbitrary day but when you all decide to make it a better place” In truth, this time of upheaval is freeing us to choose a new identity and a new way of being in the world. I think back to the wilderness years of the Israelites, who chastised God for leading them into the awful unknown and wanted to go back to their fleshpots and pharaoh. Better the enslavement they knew than the scary freedom they didn’t know.

Much like the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt, we are in a period of wandering – a rather uncomfortable one at that – into a new way of being.  As a person and as a country, we are on a journey towards a new identity with a new set of practices because the old way of doing things, of being in this world, may have seemed to be working fine for a few but wasn’t working for the many.  Our sense and understanding of freedom need to be restored. True freedom is not just the absence of oppression or servitude – freedom means taking on a new identity – taking on a new sense of how we are defined and seen by others. True freedom allows you to claim your place in this world and gives you the responsibility to live well. True freedom means choosing a better way to live – not just the familiar one. True freedom means choosing to do what is right rather than insisting on being right. True freedom allows us to trust that God is always making things new and this time of uncertainty is all about that process.

There will be significant challenges to our sense of the familiar and the comforts of “old” in the days and months ahead. Who will we be when this day, this season, this time passes?  As much as I long for the comforts of the familiar, I pray for the courage to live into the new identity God is leading us to. Letting go of old ways is hard, being reformed and refined even harder, putting our trust in God the hardest of all. But when we do, living in the knowledge of God’s grace and mercy and His ever-creating being, we will be restored and set free.

Be glad, people of Zion,  rejoice in the Lord your God, for he has given you the autumn rains because he is faithful. He sends you abundant showers,   both autumn and spring rains, as before.  – Joel 2:23

A new day dawns.

Let your light so shine!

A Stillness Soliloquy – The Key to Racing Well

I stood quietly in the breeze gazing down at “Mom and Dad’s Place in this World” and what will likely be mine one day – hopefully in the very distant future. It bears little semblance to the lives they lived or the homes the created over the years. Looking at their names and the numerical bookends of their lives etched into the slate grey stone, I pondered the finite nature of our being and what I am doing with mine.

My brother and I had just taken the final steps to close our parent’s estate. It was a long, almost 4-year ordeal since this sad process began. With the “materiality” of our life as a family behind us, now all my brother and I have left of our parents is the fabric of our very beings. It is an odd feeling – being the last remnants of two remarkable people. There is a loneliness that creeps into the soul and a weightiness in the realization that “this is it” – it all ends with us – this chapter in the “epic” tale of the Morck family.

To say that the last four years of my life, that my life as a whole has been a blur is an understatement – but somehow I have lived through it and came out a much different person than I was the last time I felt my mother’s embrace, heard my father say my name one last time and reckoned with changes to my life I never before could have fathomed. Where did all the time go? What have a truly accomplished that if I joined Mom and Dad today I would be satisfied with how my book of life ended, with how I finished the race?

The fastest race we will ever run is the race of life. Our time is fleeting, the most important facets of life become mere flickers of memory as days become weeks, weeks become months, months become years. And yet what do we have to show for it?  Certainly not a trophy – this race isn’t winnable and yet we keep running it – chasing after the prize just beyond our reach. Certain that with every mile of must do’s, every mile of minutiae, every mile of saying yes – we will garner a prized position on the roster of life. When in truth, in the end, all that is left are our names and the numerical bookends of our lives etched into the slate grey stone. Some trophy.

Of course, we leave more than etched stone behind when we are no longer racing across the starting line – it is by the why that we ran and the how that we finished that we will be remembered. It’s similar to a novel – it can have a great title and opening line – but if the plot and closing sentence don’t leave you thinking deeply and feeling better for the time you have spent in relationship with the characters, it will remain just a title among the masses longing for greatness searching for a reason for being written.

To run a race and finish well you have to be intentional with your training and intentional with your run during the race. Cognizant of those around you and any obstacles you might encounter, in touch with how your body is performing the tasks you are asking it to, and keeping your focus not just on the finish line but on every step you take – lest you trip on a rock or stumble on a pothole.

The race of life is no different. It must be run with intention if you want to finish well.

Living intentionally is not easy especially when faced with the unpredictable, impermanent, and unknowingness of life. As I wrote in December, sometimes we have to be intentional in living in sustained uncertainty, living without knowing, embracing the mystery, and keeping the possibilities that arise from this state of ambiguity open. But one can get lost their own Delphian world of suspended reality. This state of questioning impels me to rush with urgency toward an answer – any answer. A life of restlessness is not what I am after, after all. But this urgency to define our lives will most certainly confine our lives.

Too often, in my quest for a reason for being I have let others define my reason for being – or worse – what I think others want to define as my reason for being.

Too often, my reason for being is simply a daily reaction to what is happening around me or a rush to get somewhere. I settle into the complacent comfort of taking each day as it comes rather than shaping my being each day for what it could be. For years I have pursued achievements due to my underlying feelings of inadequacy based on what I thought others expected of me and yet I still feel restless – casting about without a why. How many accomplishments does a person need to finally have a reason for being? It certainly won’t be found in chasing after other’s definitions of me.

It takes a concerted effort to define our own lives – to live with intention and to live intentionally requires us to do one thing. One thing that can seem abhorrent, even irrational, in our quest reason, in our quest for greatness – we simply must be still. Stillness is how we connect to ourselves and others, not by rushing from one engagement or yet another commitment to the next. A life in constant motion is rushing blindly towards a life lived more in death than enjoyed before the book ends. We waste years of our life chasing happiness and greatness through achievement but there is no greatness that is not at peace and there is no peace if we cannot simply be: being simply at one with stillness and being simply at one with what is inside of us rather than what is coming at us.

Stillness can be uncomfortable, even scary to those of us used to running through the noise rushing around us. We try to outrun it – the noise and pulsating thoughts of things to do and those left undone, the feelings that we don’t want to feel, the commitments made that we struggle to keep. But no matter how quick our cadence the noise seems to keep right in step with every beat of the heart if not passing us by and taunting us at the end. Often, it is those very thoughts and feelings we are running from that hold the key to unlocking the answers we seek – our reason for being – the greatness we are capable of – if only we could be still enough to ponder it.  As Blaise Pascal put it, “all of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room.”

We live in a world of constant motion and rush for reason – we are pulled away from our innermost self and encouraged to react and look for answers instead of being still and listening to the questions. We have no time for inner rest – no time to let our questions, problems, and concerns mature into intention and reason.

Stillness grants us breath amid the breathlessness of life. Stillness calls forth our inner voice so we can hear and follow it. Stillness invites us into a place of rest and reflection instead of rapidity and reaction. Stillness stirs us to contemplation which births intention.

It is that intention that I pondered in the stillness at Mom and Dad’s place standing in the cool stiff breeze and reflecting on what was “left” of my parents. What will I do with the fabric of my being that will carry on after me? What is my intention for what happens before the book-ends are engraved for my life – before I cross the finish line?  Will I have mattered as much as these two did and still do? Will I finish the race well?

What are your intentions for the space between the book ends? Will you define them before your book does indeed, end?   Go and find stillness – welcome it into your life and finish well.

Let your light so shine!

 

Living the Questions

“Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart… Try to love the questions themselves… Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given because you would not be able to live them — and the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answers.” —Rainer Maria Rilke

As I sat down to pen this seasonal reflection a feeling of melancholy was working its mirthless magic on my mood. My “Instrumental Christmas” playlist on Pandora was keen on playing songs to cry to, and the grey sky that hung low on the mountain outside my window further repressed the joy that should be dancing inside me. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas has always been a favorite time of year for me from the time I was a child and still is. My immediate family had a rich heritage of Christmas tradition, involvement in the church, and musical activities, and I have carried on in the same manner as best possible. Alas, much of my family is gone now and the rest live on the other side of this great big state of ours – so trying to recreate what once was just doesn’t have the same effect on the heart. But I have digressed from the story at hand…

In that state of melancholy, I dared make things excruciatingly worse by scrolling through the daily version of The Greatest Story Ever Told, also known as Facebook. After reminding myself that I rarely post about the tragedies going on in my life either, with a heavy sigh, I noticed a message waiting for me. And the rest really is one of the greatest stories ever told – at least in this month in this chapter in the book of my life!

Say what you will about Facebook but through its wonders, I was given a glimpse into the lives of my great grandmother, Emma Wilhelmine Pedersdatter Mørck and great grandfather Frederich Vilhelm Phaff Mørck, from a woman living in North Jutland, Denmark who happened across their photos and records in a family collection she was going through. She was inquiring as to whether I might know who she was as she was not related to anyone in her family. She found me on Facebook after finding my name on our Geni family tree. It turns out this woman is a bit of a genealogy buff and has access to all sorts of records. Denmark kept very good records on its populace and they are readily accessible to the public. – and so, I spent the better part of the weekend learning all about my father’s side of the family’s livelihood in Denmark. My father’s dad, Frederik Mørck immigrated to the US from Denmark around 1910 and was one of the founders of Antelope, MT. He died when my father was just six years old so all we really know is my grandfather’s story of arrival and settlement. It turns out my family in Denmark was quite wealthy and made their mark on Danish society with ownership of large farms and manors, working as merchants, millers, and grocers, and perhaps most importantly as the founders of Carlsberg beer (on my great grandmother’s side)!  That this woman would spend so much time researching my family history is quite something, and we are not even related. She presented me with a wonderful Christmas gift – a whole new perspective on life and my place in this grand timeline we are traveling on. I couldn’t help but wonder if Emma was as ponderous as I am? What did she think of her son leaving the homeland – never to return?

This unexpected gift gave me a new perspective as I reflected on life in the waning days of my 48th journey around the sun and the closing days of a decade that for me, embodied the most dramatic changes to life as I know it than any other decade before. In the last ten years, I found my voice, I took flight and moved west, I ventured into the unknown, I began a new career, I faced down a frightening illness,  death made its presence known with the passing of both my parents and dog all within two years’ time, I bought my first home, I brought a new dog ( a gift from God) into my life, I found and lost love not once but twice, I got married and had a marriage end, and I fulfilled a dream that has carried me through much of this by completing my lay pastoral associate program and becoming an “official” proclaimer of God’s word. And now with this new perspective on my past, I could look at it all through a much broader lens.

Miraculously, I still haven’t spotted a gray hair, but I don’t feel much wiser than I did at the cusp of this life-changing span of years. If anything, I find myself not only full of questions but questioning everything! I seem to have lost the certainty with which I once approached life except for the certain discomfort in the realization that I am not God and I have far less control over what happens in my life than I once thought. The transience of life itself – the impermanence of it all – is so disconcerting that it makes me wonder aloud to God and anyone else who will listen – just what on earth am I here for, anyway?

I know I am not alone in this eternal pondering – that is after all THE question behind every man’s search for meaning. It is what inspired the great thinkers of all time – whose wisdom at least brings a sort of perpetual empathy to our daily struggle, a ray of light into our present darkness.  And I am sure it may have been the inspiration behind my grandfather’s voyage to a new land and new life over a century ago. While I don’t know if he ever found the answers he was seeking, he did find life by living into the questions.

It is easy to let questions of meaning weigh heavy on your heart when an unexpected loss or an unimagined future takes away your certainty in life. Yet time immemorial has proven that despite our best efforts to plan and prepare for the future, we live in the midst of uncertainty and unknowing. But as I wrote last month, life is not diminished by darkness or death, nor is it by uncertainty or the unimagined.  It is made more organic, more wholehearted, more resilient and resplendent. The endless interplay of darkness and light, the dying and rising, the endings and beginnings are signs that everything is forever being made new.

Ten years ago, I could never have imagined the path my life would follow in this journey.  I’m quite certain there are aspects of your life today that you never imagined until suddenly they were a part of your life as well. Some good. Some bad. And yet we live on. The poet John Keats wrote about the difficult work of living with negative capability which is the ability to sustain uncertainty, to live with not knowing, to stand in the mystery, to keep the questions and possibilities open, to embrace ambiguity, to not be too quick to resolve or shut down doubt – and to do all this without running away and trying to escape, without grasping for facts and reason.

Life is unpredictable, unknown, and impermanent, but these very characteristics intensify life, heighten its value, and bring deeper meaning to our days. In the year ahead I am going to focus on living into the uncertain and unknown. Will you join me? It goes against our human nature and won’t be easy, but we can face the unknown in hope and with the promise that through it all we have Emmanuel, God with Us. Our greatest gift – God is with us – in our uncertainty and in our hope, in our unexpected present and our unimagined future. May this assurance live in your heart this Christmas and throughout your days.

A simple prayer for your uncertain days and years:

Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  –The Lutheran Book of Worship

Let your light so shine!

Minding our Mortality

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

It seemed innocent enough. It was, after all, just a Google Maps picture. But the picture in front of me made me gasp. I don’t know what I was expecting to see or how I could have expected a different reaction; it was and always will be my family’s home and Google seems to know that. My husband and I were showing one another the different houses we had lived in growing up by Googling our old addresses on the internet. Some of our former residences looked so small – compared to our memories of them from our childhoods. But this picture of a place and not so distant time in my life caught me unaware.

There before me was our home – not just a house – but my family’s last home as a family on a sunny mid-September day (according to Google). The lawn was freshly mown. The lawnmower sat in the shade waiting to be rolled back to its storage place under our deck. The garbage bin was awaiting one more dumping of grass clippings. The flower pots lining our front walkway dazzled with their patriotic display of red, white and blue petunias – Dad’s perennial planting.  Dad’s Buick sat in the garage and the SUV sat in the driveway – looking freshly washed. And if I looked hard enough, I swear I could see Dad sitting at his desk in the front window still wearing his sunhat and sunglasses and munching on an oatmeal raisin cookie with his afternoon cup of coffee.

To anyone driving by – such as the Googlecam car – 4150 Audubon Way was just an address to map. There were signs of them but there were no people. My family did not exist to whoever was driving by. It was sort of like the last picture I took of our home, only different. The Googlecam photo was void of life before death. My photo was void of the lives that once called this place home after death.

The Googlecam photo brought me back to a time before the lives of my parents ceased and reminded me once again that they and my family as I once knew it are gone – even though pieces and memories of them remain. It reminded me that I too, will one day be gone. The house I now live in will be void of my life. Who I am will no longer be. Indeed, we can try to forget, ignore, or deny that death is in our cards from the day we are born to the moment we draw our last breath – but no one escapes a final ending.

But death doesn’t just come at the end of our physical life. We experience it all along the road of life. We experience death more often than we – at least on the surface – realize. When we graduate high school and college that season of our lives dies as we enter the next stage of adulthood. When we marry our lives as individuals come to an end. When a relationship ends a part of us dies – the part we had given to that other person. When we leave a job, that part of our daily life ends. Death makes itself known in our failures, shattered dreams, and lost opportunities. Death haunts our regrets and disappointments. A part of us dies each time we betray ourselves and live contrary to who we truly are or want to be.

And yet, with each of these deaths, we are given the opportunity for new life; they allow us to let go, they cut away the ties from our past, and lead us to discover a new direction in life.

Theologian John Caputo writes in his book, Hope Against Hope, that death is not a diminishment or negation of life but is its intensification. Our mortality is what gives our life its vitality. Death focuses our attention and forces us to prioritize what matters. Death does not diminish life’s value, it gives life value.

The overtly objective glimpse into the past of my life reminded me of its fleeting. There will never be another moment like the one captured for “map-eternity” or like the now I have right now. It reminded me that this moment, this now, is priceless. And of course, this caused me to ponder – even more deeply – is there really life in my life?

Is there life in the way I am living in this moment; in the way I see the world and relate to others? Am I growing or just being? Am I bringing life to others or taking from theirs? Am I embracing the opportunities for life in those moments of death along life’s road? And if not, why not? What needs to change, to be let go of, to be done differently?

Fortunately, the place I spend the majority of my nows – at least five days a week – Coco Enterprises – espouses a way of living that helps me give life to my life. Joe Coco built his financial planning practice on the foundational pillars of S.P.R.I.F.  – a model of living in which we guide our clients towards achieving balance in the areas of their lives that they value while striving for the same balance in our own. Though iconic and evoking an aura of power and Wall Street wealth, The Coco Enterprises logo consisting of five Greek pillars is actually meant to represent each pillar of S.P.R.I.F. – the Spiritual, Physical, Relational, Intellectual, and Financial components of our lives.  By aiming for balance, strength, and stability in each of these areas, Coco Enterprises employees and our clients live lives that flourish and inspire instead of lives encumbered with regret.

I try to employ the SPRIF model of living in my daily life and I add two more pillars to it – vocational and avocational. If I am spending too much of my focus and energy on any one of these aspects of life over a prolonged amount of time – I know am not giving life to my life but rather, pulling life from it.

What do YOU want to do with your life? How do you want to live? Will you have life before death?

The important point of giving life to life is not how you plan to improve yourself based on standards set by others – this sort of focused living invites us to a life tainted by fear, arrogance, pride, delusion, ignorance, denial, wounds and pain; a life filled with the illusions of success and accomplishments based on an unwinnable human race. We clamor for the public and passing opinions of others. In our quest to succeed we practice our life before others; hoping to be seen, recognized, and praised.

The joy of being seen, recognized, and praised by others feels good today but by tomorrow the shine will have worn away, and you’ll have to do more to achieve that same feeling of satisfaction and success. This is not putting life in your life. This is the presence of death in our lives – taking with it our joy in living.

The point is not to become obsessed by winning at the unwinnable human race. Having life in our life does not mean working really hard to always get it right or always having the answer. Having life in our life does not mean that we will always know what to do or be able to speak the right words. Having life in our life does not mean that we have to always be strong and in control.

We should try to do the right thing, make the best choices, and accomplish everything we set out do to but we must acknowledge that at some point – death will come and our quest for perfection and success in all things will have far less meaning to us and have been far less than life-giving. Having life in our life is about savoring all that we have in the now and accepting what we don’t. It’s about flavoring your life by sharing it and opening it to the lives of others – others who are living through life’s deaths before death – as well as giving life to life.

For me, the answer for giving life to my life and the only one whose standards can ordinate my life is Jesus. As an Episcopal priest recently shared with his congregation, Jesus never said, “I came that you might be a good, better, or an improved version of yourself.”

No, Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). That is the freeing truth of the gospel. Jesus gives life, reveals life, and calls us to a meaningful life in the now, in this time and in this place. Life is now.

What does life before death mean to you? If you are given the opportunity to see this moment of your life through another’s eyes will you see life or death?

May the closing lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, “When Death Comes” inspire you to have life before death.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Live and let your light so shine!

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

evening-glow

 

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