Living the Dream…?

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

When did you let go of your great big dreams or put your once exuberant soul to slumber?


Then I took the next most likely leap of faith and filled my room with space – outer space – because I just had to know what heaven was all about. After Shaun Cassidy faded from the scene, posters of rockets and galaxies and even F-16 Fighting Falcons and F-15 Eagles graced my bedroom walls – because I knew you had to start somewhere and jet pilots were frequently chosen to be astronauts. I’m not quite sure when that dream faded from view – it was a focal point of my Tomboy days for sure, along with my wardrobe fixation of flannel shirts and waffle stompers. I’m sure my mother wondered where her little girl disappeared to.

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Enter the late 70’s and early 80’s and the debut of the epic television series FAME. I was convinced I would be the next Coco played by Erica Gimpel (she even shared my name – though not the spelling of it, darn it all) flying across the stage with athletic rhythm along with singing and even acting! I played Scrooge in our 5th-grade play and nailed it! Then we moved to Virginia where I put in hours and hours of practice choreographing dance routines in the cool air of our basement during our stint in Washington DC for my father’s job. I practiced the piano religiously and played competitively – first under the tutelage of an old bat who rapped my knuckles with a ruler over any mistake and then under the angel of all piano teachers, Mrs. Pataro, who believed in me and encouraged me and saw me shine at every piano recital and guild competition. I was going to make it as a star somehow! I even lived in a metropolitan area where the dream really could come true (not some hick MT town from whence I came!) Anyone heard of the Kennedy Center?


Ah yes, those were the good days when anything was possible. By the time I reached high school we were living out west again (but far from Hollywood) and it was time to start settling down and setting real goals (according to my father.) By then I was writing – quite prolifically. Ronald Reagan was president and I hung on every single word of his speeches. They were brilliant in my mind, and so I determined I would become a presidential speechwriter and then the White House press secretary. Having been exposed to the world of government and politics when one could be proud of both, this seemed a worthy avenue to pursue. While it may not have been as concrete a goal in terms of landing a job post-graduation as becoming a nurse, a teacher, or astronaut, it was at least academic.


And so I pursued mass communications and political science with a focus on public administration in college. I put in my time in a U.S. Senator’s field office (what an eye-opening experience THAT was into the true nature of politics and one’s constituents…a.k.a Your Constituents Hate You 101), the Public Relations office of the Bureau of Land Management (Bureaucracy and Politics 202), and interned at the CBS news affiliate in Billings (You Have a Face for Radio 402). Everything seemed to be falling into place, right? Except by the time I graduated from college life had gotten in the way of my dreams in a rather dire way. Rather than graduating into the field of my choice, I spent considerable time (and money) in the hospital and then recovery. By the time that ordeal was behind me, my dreams seemed out of reach and unrealistic so I took whatever job I could find that would help me emerge back into the land of the living and make a living. I have been working my way through the land of the living rather than the life of my dreams for some 25 years now. I have a great job and a vast array of experiences behind me, but my dreams are still just that – dreams.


I bring all this up now as we watch the launch into space of the 82- year old Wally Funk, who was on the first crewed flight into space by the rocket company Blue Origin. Funk is the oldest person ever to travel into space. “I didn’t think I’d ever get to go up,” Funk is quoted as saying.


Years ago, Funk had dreams like I did. Then a 21-year-old pilot, she was the youngest of the 13 women who passed the same rigorous testing as the Mercury Seven male astronauts in NASA’s program that first sent Americans into space between 1961 and 1963 but were denied the chance to become astronauts themselves because of their gender. She went on to become the first female flight instructor at a U.S. military base and the first woman to become an air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. But she never went into space – until now. She did not live out her ultimate dream – to venture into outer space – at least on her schedule – but she made the best of her pursuit nonetheless. I doubt her life was one of ennui or regret. Quite the contrary it appears, for in various interviews she recounts a very full and vibrant life utilizing her gifts and skills to help many others, especially women, achieve their own dreams of flight.


Which begs the question that corresponds to one of my boss’s favorite lines: “I’m living the dream.” Just how does one live the dream? And furthermore, what defines a dream worth living for?


If you were to go back to your launching pad into life, what would you do differently, if anything, to achieve the dream(s) you once had? What stopped you from attaining them? Money, health, lack of education, family issues, or circumstances beyond your control? Maybe it was a more personal reason: doubt, fear, lack of vision, or a commitment to others above yourself.


Or, maybe you are one of the lucky ones who had a dream, chased it, and realized it. What now? Is living the dream any different than pursuing life as best possible?


As one who may have more years behind me than ahead – unless I somehow manage to defy my octogenarian heredity-fated lifespan – I wonder if it is worth taking time away from living my best life to pursue living the life I dreamed of? Is it worth asking the question “What could have been, if…?” Am I setting myself up for a nostalgic walk down “What-a-Failure Way”?


Or, maybe I am already realizing the dreams I once had but in my own unique and different way? I’m not an ordained Pastor with my own church but I am a Lay Pastoral Associate serving and preaching in the church and walking closely with God in His grand creation; I’m not a star of the stage and screen but I am singing – on a stage even – (when we can safely resume that art) – though no one would pay to hear me; I don’t dance much anymore but I would with a partner; I’m not a concert pianist but I have two pianos that I play with great abandon for an enrapt canine audience; I’m not flying into space but I can climb to what I now consider heaven on earth during less crowded times, and though I am not representing the President of the United States, I do write for a pretty swell boss and have my own blog!


“Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;”

How about you? Are you living your dream or living your best life possible? Is there a difference?


Whatever your answer, I think we can all raise a toast to Wally Funk in her flight to the heavens above. She has lived a life with a heart for any fate, still achieving, still pursuing, learning to labor, and to wait. I pray that when I come to the end of mine, I will be able to say the same.

 


A Psalm of Life
What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.
BY HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

Let Your Light So Shine!!!

Emergence

Everything is as good or as bad as our opinion makes it.  -C. S. Lewis

“How was COVID for you?” Mamie asked, her smile warm, her inquiry genuine.

We were seated next to each other in chair groupings according to our ticket purchase, Mamie with her husband and daughter and I with myself, awaiting the start of our first live, in-person concert in well over 16 months.

The question gave me pause. So ready was I to respond with the usual masked response. But having realized over the time of COVID how much masking we do throughout our lives, I heard myself saying – challenging. COVID was challenging for me. And then I immediately felt ashamed of my answer. How could I even begin to call my sheltered, relatively healthy (I did break my foot!), overwhelmingly quiet, pretty-much-the-same-as-before- existence COVID-experience challenging?  Aside from not being able to sing, let alone perform with the 3 choirs I sing in or go to church in person for much of the time, or working by myself in the office for 6 weeks, or wearing a mask in public and confined places – my personal tangible life really wasn’t all that affected by COVID. I still took my morning runs and evening walks with my dog in the great outdoors without a mask, I still went hiking, I still had a job, I put the same food on my table and still had a roof over my head.  I need not list the challenges this past year (and then some) has presented the world with to make my personal plight sound positivity absurd. We have all witnessed the havoc of the pandemic with the addition of sudden, unexpected storms, wildfires, economic, political, and social upheaval and loss, so much loss.

Moments earlier, I had entered the performance hall with butterflies in my stomach. A combination of excitement, dread, joy, and sorrow danced or perhaps more honestly – churned inside of me, and I wasn’t even performing!  Excitement for what I knew was going to be an amazing night of music, dread because I was emerging from the comforts of my solitude completely solo and self-conscious, joy over seeing smiles again and feeling the warmth of people close by, and sorrow for the loss of 16 plus months of the life I knew and the lives lost during this pandemic time. It felt so good to be on a stage again. But the other part of me wondered at just how much has changed over this period of disrupted lives and livelihoods.

As Mamie awaited the details of my answer, she provided a different take. As an introvert she offered honestly, that she “relished every COVID moment.” Later comments from the audience highlighting their accomplishments in response to their “COVID-time experience” made me wonder if I hadn’t wasted the pandemic. The comparison trap had pulled me right in. Had I failed at this too?

How was COVID for you? 

I spoke to my more-seasoned cousins who live in San Francisco in a “cozy” abode overlooking the Bay Bridge a few days ago. We talked frequently during the more turbulent and downright scary times of the pandemic and I often wondered at just how different our experiences were. They were, for a time, confined to their home. When they did venture out, they wore masks everywhere. Her husband turned into a master bread baker and baked bread for the entire neighborhood, delivering loaves to doorsteps on a weekly basis. Now, they were fully vaccinated and enjoying the new freedom of breathing fresh air after most of California’s restrictions were dropped (much, much later than the relatively few we had here in MT). BUT- she laughed – they were completely exhausted! Now their grown children and grandchildren wanted to come visit – ALL THE TIME! They had grown accustomed to their quiet sanctuary and now felt overrun by what was once the “occasional” visit. It’s funny how our perspectives can change.

Two dear friends of mine lost their fathers to COVID. One of them just recently laid her father to rest – after 9 months of waiting until it was  “safe” to do so. Another friend’s husband passed away from pancreatitis – a complete shock to everyone – their children were unable to be with their father in his last days and my friend only allowed to sit with him in his last hours – fully masked of course. Another was diagnosed with cancer and had to navigate this difficult diagnosis on her own – no hugs for comfort, no groups for support. How will they be now, living into their very real “new normal?”

My challenges were of a far more personal sort – I was forced to spend time with me – grappling with who I am after a failed marriage one month prior to the pandemic setting in. The monotony of just getting through life became my safe place and default. I truly felt like I was on the outside looking longingly in on the lives of others – while placing my own on the burn pile. This pandemic time for me has been a time of waiting and discerning and waiting some more. I am not a patient person when it comes to what tomorrow will bring – I like to be in the know, you know? Wondering throughout, just what God is up to – if anything – was and is challenging!

I am certain that alongside all the accomplishments achieved by my fellow audience members as well as those whose lives seemed so much better than mine, they too had times of darkness, woe, worry, anxiety, depression, anger, etc. I am sure some of them feel they too failed the pandemic. Some of us are just much better at showing our brilliant sides than say, me.

It is remarkable just how differently we all experienced this time of pandemic, complicated even more by the social and political upheaval that clung to the virus’s coattails. Despite the initial “we are all in this together” mantra, we quickly siloed ourselves off into what I call our own individual Twilight Zones of Stranger Things. As we begin to emerge from our respective COVID-worlds, how will you be?

Many will be carrying the burdens of lingering illness, loss, regret, and unfinished changes taking place in their lives. How will they be?

We have lived physically, philosophically, and politically polarized from each other for some 15 months. Learning how to show ourselves again and how to interact with one another will be an interesting time in our societal evolution. How will we be?  

If the post-concert atmosphere is any indication, I have hope it will be a time of heavy hearts mixed with joy, tears brightened by laughter, fear assuaged by warm conversation, anxiety dampened by anticipation, and genuine smiles that light the way to a more gracious way of living with one another, again.

Let your light so shine!!!

Dropping the Mask

As I drove into the parking lot of the grocery store, I weighed my options. Would I be bold and fearless or continue to color within lines that have been drawn around almost every public activity for over a year? If I was bold, would I also be deemed a rebel with or without a cause? If I stuck to my modus operandi of benefitting the common good, staying obedient to the “science,” would I now be deemed anti-science or a flaming liberal?  Who knew that a quick trip to the market to pick up bananas could become a study of societal norms and my psychological un-doing?

The last time I shopped here, I found myself an oddity and the recipient of eye-rolls from those breathing free and easy as I observed the rules set forth by management to wear a mask while in the store – rules that were not enforced but highly suggested.  And now, here I was, mask in hand – not certain whether I would once again cover my face as I entered or go with the flow. The day before, the much anticipated and argued about news rang throughout the land –   the mask wearing edict had been lifted from on high!  Despite news to the contrary just days before, the science now said that if I was fully vaccinated, I could go places without a mask on – inside and out – and not have to socially distance with minimal to no risk to myself! 

The news seemed to come out of nowhere – like a swift gust of wind announcing the arrival of a storm. Only this time it was like the wind we had all been running into headlong all year suddenly changed direction – leaving me feeling a bit short of breath. For well over a year, we have been told to look out for each other – that it wasn’t just about me but what I could do to another person just by exhaling in their presence. With a long way to go before the population is vaccinated and immunity to the viral presence that has inhibited our livelihoods is reached, especially in my community, this all seemed rather abrupt. Not wearing my mask left me feeling a bit vulnerable as I contemplated going inside but what would wearing one say about my confidence in the vaccine? What message would I send?  What would I do?

The fact that we are all sick of wearing masks should not be lost on any of us. We are weary of not seeing each other’s faces, of not knowing whether someone is smiling or frowning – not to mention tired of smelling our own breath and walking around with fogged up glasses. The very notion of such a thing becoming a habit has spurred many a social media rant. And yet whether we know it or not, every single one of us wears a mask every moment we are conscious of others. Not unlike our recent accumulation of masks for every outfit, many of us have an assortment of masks we don for different situations – and without them we feel exposed, vulnerable, if not right out afraid.  Afraid of being found out, afraid of not fitting in, afraid of being seen for who we really are. Suddenly our innermost flaws – the ones we regularly scheme to ignore or hide – seem to be on full display.  And so, we don the mask of the moment and present a vision of ourselves to others that will get us by. A new experience, stressful moments, or times filled with great uncertainty seem to be those occasions I reach for a mask. In essence, we make ourselves out to be what we think others expect us to be. Done often enough we risk losing sight of who we really are.

This past year I have had a marked decrease in opportunities to don my assortment of masks. I will admit to having breathed a sigh of relief at the chance to just be me on a regular basis. But it hasn’t been the mental sanctuary I had hoped for. Rather, the reprieve brought to light that I have lost sight of just who I am in my own eyes. What is my story?

What am I hiding from others? If I felt secure and sure in the presence of others, what is it that I would want them to know about me – all of me?  How earthshaking would it be if the real me stepped forward all the time?  What if we all were the “real me’s” in the presence of others? How might our relationships change? How might our lives in community change?

The stories we tell others about ourselves – the good and bad – of what we have experienced in our lives help us make sense of the world and shape us as individuals. These stories are what Northwestern University professor Dan McAdams, a pioneer in the field of narrative psychology, calls our narrative identity. We tell these stories to give our lives meaning and help others understand us. While many people may experience a similar event in their lives, each person interprets the event differently and assigns different levels of importance to it. Some people will simply move on from an experience like a swimming lesson gone awry, while others are transformed by it, perhaps emboldened to face their fears throughout life or traumatized by the experience they viewed as a broken trust.  McAdams calls these “narrative choices” and they predominantly fall into four thematic categories: redemption (stories that transition from the bad to the good that follows), contamination (stories that transition from the good to the bad), communion (stories that emphasize connection, love, friendship, intimacy, caring, or belonging), and agency (stories that emphasize achievement, self-mastery, empowerment, status, and influence).

McAdams’ studies have shown that those whose narratives fall into the redemption, communion, or agency themes have a better outlook on life, find more meaning and purpose in their life, achieve more of their goals, seek out and find more connection, enjoy deeper relationships, and generally report a greater sense of well-being. People who tell their stories through a contamination lens tend to see themselves as victimized, less-than, and fail to thrive in their personal and professional pursuits.

How we interpret our experiences, how we tell our stories, will set the tone and direction for the course of our life. In order to do this successfully and have a positive course going forward, we have to sit with our past experiences, savor or make peace with them, learn from them, grow from them, and be willing to let them go. Whether good or bad, our past experiences, the stories of our lives, made us who we are today but do not have to define how and who we are tomorrow. We also have to be willing to honestly share them.  If I present myself to others as one thing but my past experiences have shaped me to the contrary – I will never be my authentic best and my relationships will be missing out.

Recently, I wrote here of a very difficult, life changing time in my life and also shared the story on social media. It’s not something I often share with even my closest of friends but something inside spurred me to tell “my side” of the story. I wrote into the night, hit post and went to bed. I awoke in the morning in a panic. What had I done?!! I had revealed too much!!! I raced to login and delete my revelatory words, but it was too late – I had shared a side of me that made me who I am today – and people had already read it – at 5 a.m. in the morning!! Who reads a blog, let alone my blog, before 5 a.m.?  Don’t people sleep??? Not only had they read it, but some had commented and some even took the time to send me personal messages as well – thanking me for sharing and confiding in me similar thoughts, regrets, and hopes.

Instead of deleting my post in shame, I experienced a sense of relief and connection I had not felt in a long time. Not only had I helped myself by revealing my true self, I had helped others express their reality as well.

As we begin to emerge from this pandemic, we will all have a different story to tell of a shared moment in time. Each of us will have experienced life differently from the moment we were born right up to the last 15 months. Each of us has the opportunity to put our mark on this world. I encourage you to drop the mask(s) and share YOUR story. We will all be better for it.

***

And now for the rest of the story… What did I do? This woman whose life has always been about following the rules and seeing that others come first, donned my mask as I read the same mask notice I have passed by every visit for recent history. I will admit, no matter how much I detest it, the small piece of cloth that covered my mouth and my emotions – gave me a sense of security – necessary or not – for the moment.  Was I rebel or a complaisant? I’ll let science settle that one.

“There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds. “ 

– Matthew 6: 25-26 The Message

LET YOUR LIGHT SO SHINE!!!

Spring Cleaning My Soul

The buds of spring cleaning have been bursting out all over at my house of late. I’ve been doing a surprising amount of cleaning lately, cleaning and discarding. Perhaps it is the fact that I have spent considerably more time at home this past year surrounded by stuff – an unbelievable amount of stuff that I have collected over the three and a half years I have lived in my house, and I am tired of looking at it. Perhaps it is because this stuff is holding me back from seeing the potential uses of the spaces I have as I contemplate a few updates I would like to make: new flooring, new kitchen countertops, an addition to house my library and pianos. Needless to say, I am more of a minimalist when it comes to anything but clothing (!!) and books, and this growing collection of stuff is getting to me.  If I don’t make my current spaces clean and less cluttered, any improvements or new space I add won’t be any better – in fact, there will just be more opportunities to add to the clutter. So I have been cleaning and discarding those things that aren’t necessary, that are taking up valuable space that could be used more creatively, and in so doing finding some breathing room as I plan for what needs to be done and can be done to make my house even more my home.

Coincidentally, I just observed a rather significant birthday on the timeline of life that has put me into a reflective state of being. Part of me can’t believe I have arrived at this mile marker already, and then part of me wonders how I even made it to this point given the long and broken road I’ve traveled. I have collected a mighty array of life souvenirs – some becoming permanent scars on my being, some being points of amazing light, and some that have quietly gone from being a passing experience to an entrenched way of thinking and doing life. 50, ahem, years of day in and day out living provides ample opportunities for habits and mindsets to take hold of you. – to add clutter to your life. You don’t even notice them at first until they start diminishing or making your life difficult.

You get so comfortable in doing life the way you have always done life that you live it with your eyes closed – running on auto-pilot and tuning out the flyover territory below. You forget you were created for more than what you can see with your diminished perspective. You begin to compare your life to others and in so doing you lose sight of your own intrinsic value.

After finishing my tidying up chores for the day, I have been taking long contemplative walks along the river and enjoying the sun’s warm reflection on the still quiet water. On one recent evening I abruptly stopped and took a good long look at the 50-year-old looking back on her life as she prepared for the next who-really-knows-how-many years she has ahead of her.  The faint wrinkles of time told stories of smiles and sorrows and sundrenched days of adventure. The eyes revealed an ocean of emotions that are at once tidal waves and tide pools and a hidden wondering from the shore. Missing though, was the sparkle that never dimmed in her youth – despite the challenges she faced even then.

I was tempted to move along and get back to my fast, regimented pace; but instead, I stayed and I looked deeper and asked her some tough questions – not sure if she would ever have the answers – but at least I could perhaps conjure up a challenge to the way she had been doing things and inspire a desire to clean house so that the sparkle might come back.

Here’s what I asked her:

  • What if you focused on what you can do and not what you can’t?
  • What do you value anymore?
  • What happened to the daily awe and wonder of life?
  • Are you filled with gratitude and appreciation for what is in your life right now – not just what once was?
  • Is there life in your heart or are you just existing?
  • Is there life in your daily work or are you just getting the job done?
  • What are you looking forward to? There has to be a reason for tomorrow – what is it?
  • Are you bringing life to your friendships or stealing life from them?
  • Is there life in the way you are living in this moment?
  • Where do you see yourself in the world – not just how you think the world sees you?
  • Are you growing?
  • Are you bringing life to others – do you even seek out others to bring life to?
  • What are you saying yes to?
  • Why are there so many no’s?
  • Finally, I asked her why she wasn’t trying to be the best at her life instead of being the best version of someone else’s life.

I’ll be honest, cleaning the privy can be more enjoyable than sitting with these questions – but having done both I can tell you which I benefited the most from as I set out on the next half of my life.

Those questions weren’t just for the shocked and in denial 50-year-old staring back at me like a watery mirage. They’re for all of us. They reveal what needs to be cleaned up and discarded; habits and mindsets that take up valuable space in your life – space that could be used more creatively and effectively to give your life meaning, fulfillment- sparkle.

As I, as we all, sort through our various souvenirs of living 25, 50, 75 years or even just living through a single pandemic year, one souvenir – our collective mortality – comes to the forefront. The temporality of life means that this one moment, this now, is priceless. A cluttered life on auto-pilot doesn’t cut it anymore. Our days should not be flyover territory. Everything and everyone matters. Even you. Nothing and no one is to be taken for granted. Not you, not your breath, not your rising nor your falling. Remember, even though time may fly or crawl by, no matter how many days you have already counted, there will never be another moment like this one. Make sure there is life in that moment. Remember too, that in that precious moment of time, no one can do a better job of being you than you. Happy Spring!

“It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on his own, with no help from us! Then he picked us up and set us down in highest heaven in company with Jesus, our Messiah.” Ephesians 2: 1-6 The Message

Let your light so shine!

A Gift of Love

February 15th, I took down my Christmas tree. As you might expect if you have read any of my previous posts, this is much more than a post-Christmas chore for me. I am emotionally invested in this seasonal activity of the embellishing and un-embellishing of my PE injection-molded pine tree. Highly invested.

The date for this activity is significant. My Christmas tree holds far more than mercury glass, crystal, and embroidered ornaments. Every branch is adorned with love and light and as such, it carries me through the darkest month of the year which, ironically, is also Epiphany, the season of light. Epiphany ended on February 14th this year- the day we celebrate love – and now we begin the journey of Lent.  “Lent” comes from the old English word for “lengthen” and refers to the gradual lengthening of days during late winter and early spring. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, February 17, Christians begin the 40-day journey to the cross which necessitates a stripping away of all the accoutrements we fill our lives with and get down to reflection, repentance, and preparing for Easter. Hence, it was time for the tree to come down – as much as I hated to see it go.

In the process, I got to thinking about how much life has changed since February 15, 2020, when I last took down my Christmas Tree of Love and Light. Changes none of us planned for, and unless you are an infectious disease expert, likely imagined. For me though, the past five years have brought significant changes and losses as each year passed and this last year was no exception. And, while I had sweet, heartwarming moments of family memories as I placed each ornament into the storage box, I couldn’t help but wonder who or what would be missing from my life when I bring out the PE injection-molded pine tree of love and light next Thanksgiving weekend. 

Robert Burns wrote despondently about the vagaries of life in 1785, ruing the calamity a farmer brought upon a field mouse’s nest as he plowed a winter-ravaged field – upending her little family and no doubt changing the entire course of her existence.Little did the mouse know when she awoke that morning to go about the business of securing nourishment and warmth for the day that her home would be destroyed by a farmer’s plow. Goodness, she had plans!

“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley, (often go awry)
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!”

Ah, the best-laid plans of mice and men…. The saying is so familiar to us it rolls off our tongues without a moment’s thought when a change of plans forces us to change the course of our day-to-day existence of lives well-planned. Think about it. Nature has been messing with even the most-prepared (or so we thought) of us. Brutal storms shutting down life as we know it – literally shutting down and freezing the entire state of Texas as I write this. Think of all the plans upended. And of course, there, lurking in the background is a year-old pandemic. Today, it is hard to have well-planned lives when the whims of COVID-19 are at play. You meticulously planned for a family road trip with every item on your to-do-before-leaving list checked off only to be on the receiving end of a contact tracing call the day of departure; graduations, weddings, and funerals were turned into Zoom events or canceled altogether; you don’t know from one week to the next if your child will be in a classroom or bedroom for schooling; or your business closed after months of lock-downs,  economic instability, and the eradication of your customer base; or your brother calls with news of your mother’s death. COVID-19 brought our mortality to the forefront of our thoughts. In an instant, all the plans you made went up in smoke and left you standing there in the dust.

Sometimes the change of course isn’t instigated by a one-off event at all but a gradual realization that your present life is not what you expected or wanted it to be. Moments and realizations like these often beg the questions: Why even have a plan at all? Who’s in charge here?

Working as I do for a former Marine in the financial planning industry, we have plans or as we call them SOP’s (Standard Operating Procedures) for everything from scheduling appointments to writing reports to technology breakdowns to managing your portfolios to closing up shop for the day. If the power goes out, I can reference our handy three ring binder to find the SOP for working the old-fashioned way! While we like to expect that bull markets will reign supreme, we know that the very nature of our business is a roller coaster ride of change. Do we deviate from our written SOP’s? Certainly, no situation is the same, but by having some sort of plan in place beforehand we have a frame of reference from which to launch our response. This response provides us at least part of the answer to the second question: who is in charge here? We are because we know how to react on our toes. We have well practiced strategies in place.

Now, I will be honest with you, I have yet to find or write an SOP for life. Some will say the Bible is the only operator’s manual you need for living life – even a life lived in a pandemic – or perhaps – even more so in a pandemic. And while that is an excellent Plan A as a source of divine guidance, I need a Plan B for the business side of life. Thus, I am making sure I have a plan for my life when I am no longer “in control” of it.

One evening over dinner, after listening to a group of us share the goings on in our lives and noting how many of our plans and expectations had changed over the last several months, a dear, wiser, much older friend of mine took a sip of wine and remarked with a knowing smile that one of her favorite sayings was an old Yiddish Proverb: “Man plans, God laughs.”

Of course, this notion frustrates me to no end; yet, I know how very true it is. I like to be in control; but in the end, I know who is ultimately in charge. Nonetheless, my responsibility is to be prepared and react wisely to the changes that occur in life. My wiser older friend on the other hand is completely satisfied with this concept and I can tell that her life is richer because of it. The morning after our dinner gathering, I received a call that my friend’s husband had gone to bed that night and never woke up. In that moment, all of my friend’s reasoning and carefree logic she shared the day before came sweeping over me. As I sat with her later that day, she had a peace about her that was inspiring. We talked about her husband and the joys they shared during their 56 years of marriage.  Employed as I am in the financial planning world, I asked her, somewhat awkwardly, if they had “you know, made plans?”

 “Of course! We settled all of that stuff years ago,” she replied matter-of-factly. And because of those plans, during this sudden change in the course of her life, she could focus on just being.

One of the best gifts of love you can give your loved ones is an SOP for the end of your life. Don’t leave the burden of reading your now asleep mind to your family and don’t “not give a hoot” and let the state handle your affairs. I speak from personal experience having walked through the aftermath of the seemingly well-planned state of my parent’s affairs. Yes, I am talking about a will, I am talking about taking responsibility now for what you hope never happens but at some point, most assuredly will. Make sure all your financial accounts have payable on death or transfer on death instructions. Make sure your beneficiaries are up to date. Formally state what you want done with your possessions and have it legally documented.

One of the most satisfying parts of my job is helping a grieving spouse or the surviving children navigate through the financial details after a loved one dies. Being able to tell them they have nothing to worry about, that their loved one had everything lined out ahead of time and all I will need is a death corticate and a few signatures takes a very heavy burden off their already weary shoulders.

As the year unfolds for all of us, we of course hope for nothing but the best. When I hang my ornaments on my PE injection-molded Christmas tree of love and light next November 27th or 28th, I hope that I am celebrating all the wonderful people in my life and giving thanks for all the good times this year has been filled with. But I also know that I may be thinking about those I have loved and lost – or God forbid – they will be remembering me. I want to have that sense of peace that my friend had in the wake of her husband’s passing and I want the same for my brother should anything happen to me.

God may laugh when we make plans, but by having a plan we can laugh, cry or just be at peace right alongside God when our best-laid plans go awry.

“Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin. – James 4:13-17

Let your light so shine!

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!