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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!!!!!!

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A Different Christmas Morning – 2015

Becoming WHO You Are

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

~ Ephesians 2:8-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

When Comparison is the Thief of Joy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Time for Everything

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

a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to tear down and a time to build,

a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance,

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

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

a time to search and a time to give up,

a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time to be silent and a time to speak,

a time to love and a time to hate,

a time for war and a time for peace.

~ From Ecclesiastes 3

Let your light so shine.

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How Much More, Lord, How Much More?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much more, Lord, how much more?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let your light so shine.

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