The Immense Grace of Listening

“Knowing how to listen is an immense grace, it is a gift which we need to ask for and then make every effort to practice.”  – Pope Francis

As I was out running a few mornings ago, I found myself listening. Not to the latest news or my favorite podcast or even Vivaldi (truly some of the best music to run to – try it!). No, I found myself listening to the chorus of chickadees and sparrows breaking the silence of a snow blanketed earth with their morning songs. In that moment, I felt the icy grip of this long, dark winter loosen its bonds on my soul. I wondered if they knew I was listening to their melodies. I wondered if they were responding to my conversation with God. I wondered if they could ever know what a gift they had given me in the act of listening and being listened to. It reminded me of the deep conversation I had with a good friend the night before, one filled with honesty and pain, hope and laughter. As the sun peaked over the mountain top and warmed the frosted valley and my frostbit face, I had a spiritual awakening. I realized that I had been heard.

I know that God always hears my prayers, but at times I don’t always feel like He is listening to me. This time I did, and the feeling of being listened to, of being heard, of being accepted and not judged for my thoughts and insecurities did more for me than any vain attempt to fill the silence with bluster and avoid the uncomfortable intimacy of deep conversation. God’s voice is not always something we can hear or want to hear. His voice reveals to us our deepest truths about who we are – and though that may be painful we also hear that we are His.

At the heart of all relationships is the act of listening.  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. To listen to someone is to tap into a deeper essence of being one with another – you share a oneness that precludes backgrounds, religions, cultures and class. For in that moment all you are doing is receiving the essence of who they are, 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.

Indeed, the act of listening has incredible power. Anyone who feels they haven’t been listened to can give testimony to this. 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. Indeed, listening can be a powerful force for good when done well and a powerful force for evil to take hold in someone’s life when done poorly or not at all.

I must admit, I am not the best listener. 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 who needs to be heard know that she is ready to receive, to welcome, and accept what one has to say. The good listener does not need to fill the silence with platitudes or hear her own voice. The good listener can and must simply share the silence and let the silence speak.

The late Roman Catholic priest Henry Nouwen describes the act of listening as spiritual hospitality. “Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”

Having experienced the healing power of being heard, I am intent on becoming a better listening presence in the lives of others. I think the world needs more listeners – those willing to engage in an exchange from the deepest level of our humanity. Perhaps if we really listened we might all feel more at home with others and ourselves, comforted and encouraged by the grace and peace of authentic relationship.

Listen and let your light so shine.

The Race

18489813_1590917990932793_6319657206837000823_oI think there should be a course on how to get through life after death. I can go days doing just fine and then I am hit with a day like today – a day like any other day except I am thrown off course by my aching heart. So many thoughts and memories flood over me: the last moments with my Dad, his last breath, watching the last bit of light left in his heavy-lidded eyes disappear, hearing his defibrillator keep his heart beating ever so slowly even after he was gone as I lay on his chest one last time – not ever wanting to forget what it felt like to be Daddy’s little girl with his arms wrapped around me; not making that call to my Mom the night before she died – saving my tales of mountain adventure and my words of love until the next day when I “had more time” only to learn the heart wrenching lesson that time is not ours to bargain with.
I try to run faster, to lose myself in the snowy landscape with the cadence of my feet hitting this lonely earth. Knowing I will never outrun these memories and the pain that accompanies them all the while knowing deep down that I don’t want to…
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 months become years. I find myself reaching to the depths of my soul to remember my mother’s voice and Dad’s bear hugs. I want time to slow down so the distance between our life and last moments together is not so far and yet I want time to speed up so I don’t have to wait to be with them again.
One can get caught up in “if only’s” but that is not how races are run and won. I don’t think we can ever win the race of life – I just wish I had run mine better this far, that I hadn’t wasted energy on trivial matters. I wish I had paced myself to run with those who were in it with me instead of being so focused on my time and my destination.
Perhaps God wants us to figure this life after death thing out on our own. Perhaps He knows how proficient a teacher death is. Perhaps He knows that the race of life cannot be completed without death. Perhaps this race of life is simply preparing us for death and the only victory that really matters.
“The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.”  – Isaiah 40: 28-31

Find True Belonging in the Journey of Lent

“Fitting in is when you want to be a part of something. Belonging is when others want you.”    – Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness

We are living in a lonely age, a time when, despite technological advances that make connectivity almost a distracting and annoying constant, we have never felt so disconnected from one another. It is our human nature to seek connection with others and we have an innate desire to belong. Scientific and social studies have concluded as much.  “(H)uman beings are fundamentally and pervasively motivated by a need to belong, that is, by a strong desire to form and maintain enduring interpersonal attachments.” (Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995).) John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, who has done extensive studies on the impact of loneliness, says that the “only real biological advantage we have over most other species is our connection, our belonging; our ability to collaborate, plan, be in relationship with in special ways.”

Our need to belong is beyond our control, it is a part of our DNA, we have evolved to need one another and yet, we have come to idealize the independent individual. Because of modern advances in survival we no longer “need” each to survive. The less we need each other the more dependent we become on ourselves. The more dependent we become on ourselves the more certain we become of our ways and our ways of thinking. Yet despite our independence and strength in self, our need for connection remains, thus we take the paths of least resistance and align ourselves with those who think like us, look like us, and believe like us. Social scientist Brene Brown calls this a “high lonesome culture.” One in which we are the most sorted that we’ve ever been. Most of us no longer hang out with people that disagree with us politically or ideologically. The sad part of this type of “belonging” is that the commonality we share with “our people” we have sorted ourselves to is we all hate the same people or things rather than being joined together on the basis of mutual respect and acceptance.  Brene Brown calls this “common enemy intimacy.”

The thing about “common enemy intimacy” is it negates the self. We are no longer drawn to each other by the one qualities of our personhood –  it doesn’t matter who you are but what you agree or disagree with. No wonder loneliness is pervasive! We have lost what it means to be in relationship with one another. We no longer need to adapt to or accept each other’s imperfections to find community. Instead, we move on in search of those who bear our more perfect likeness.  Father Adolfo Nicolas, the former head of the Jesuits (the pope’s religious order) termed our present state as the globalization of superficiality — an “emerging era marked by extreme anomie and the deterioration of human relationships through technological advancement and materialism.”

Today, we can block out the cacophony of the world by losing ourselves in the addictive blue screens of our phones and we can skim and scroll through our choice of “news”- that which affirms our ideology and confirms our rightness and righteousness.  In turn, our perception of others remains shallow and we can keep a safe distance from the burdens and brokenness of the world.

Today, we can foster superficial, pseudo, and incomplete relationships by “friending” mere acquaintances or total strangers on social media and then — when necessary — “unfriend” real friends without the hard work that goes into forming lasting and real relationships through encountering, confronting and reconciling. What we have come to accept as belonging is really just fitting in. Fitting in is less risky –  you choose who you want to align yourself with without running the risk of revealing and being judged by who you are – the real you with all your strengths and imperfections. We no longer need to be vulnerable to amass a community we just have to be strong and set in our similar ways.

What if this pervasive loneliness is driven in part by our lack of vulnerability and authenticity? Have you ever been surrounded by people at a party or out and about but feel completely disconnected, lonely, or anxious, because never once during that experience did you feel like you could be yourself? Instead, you were who you thought others wanted you to be. You put on a face that masked your true feelings and your fears. These connections do nothing to satisfy the innate desire to belong to someone – for someone to want us for who we are. As Brene Brown states – “Your sense of true belonging will never be greater than your willingness to be brave and stand by yourself.”

As I was sitting in church this past Ash Wednesday – I was contemplating what it meant to belong. To be a part of something that was bigger than myself while at the same time being accepted and wanted just as I am – real, imperfect, somewhat stubborn, determined, shy, lonesome, life-loving, childish at times, frequently forgetful, sometimes impatient, often in a hurry, occasionally late, full of myself at times, compassionate, wanting to love, wanting to be loved, fearful of change, hopeful for tomorrow, challenged by my past… the list goes on.  Aw, if only I could find someone who wanted me with that laundry list of qualities!

By some perfect measure, this year, Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day. The coincidence was not lost on me. As I thought about my 40-day Lenten journey to the cross –   the greatest act of love -where Christ died for our sins and freed us from our no-win human struggle for unachievable perfection – perfect love, perfect acts, perfect penance, perfect lives – and on to His resurrection with the promise of new life in the baptismal waters of Easter –  it donned on me that this is where belonging is born –  if we are up for the journey.

Talk about becoming vulnerable! As people of all different ways and ways of thinking we willingly stepped forward from the pews to receive a cross of ashes on our foreheads as the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” were spoken. The ritual reminds  us of our common mortality and symbolizes God’s judgement upon us –  a rebellious creation and our sinful need for repentance.  Smudged with blackened ash as a sign of the divine love God has for us – a love that is depicted in a gruesome death and a new life because of that death – at once, there I was, inextricably connected to these likewise fallible and broken people by something greater than all of us. And that thing that is greater than us is rooted in love and compassion. It is a love so great and so deep that it is willing to suffer and die for another.

The traditional gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is Mathew 6:1-6, 16-21. Jesus instructs his followers in the manner of giving alms, praying and fasting: if done with the goal of gaining the attention or approval of one’s peers, that attention is your reward. There is, in other words, no spiritual value to the practice, if it only feeds your desire and need to “be seen” by your neighbors – kind of like that artificial self we share with others to fit in with “our people.” Rather, such practices should flow from a devotion to God that is expressed through caring for our neighbor, praying, and disciplining ourselves with fasting – attuned to our failings and in humble repentance for our sins – being authentic and selflessly driven. When this happens, we are seen by God and in this way rewarded. The text repeatedly talks of the Father seeing you.

Who doesn’t want to be seen –  to belong? Imagine a type of belonging born out of mutual love for one another! Rather than acting in ways we think will win approval from our peers, or make us appear more righteous, we must act out of genuine devotion to one another. Nowhere in Matthew’s gospel does it say that it is wrong to want to be seen by others, to matter to someone, to be noticed for who we are and be counted as worthy but Jesus urges us to look to God, the one who is not impressed by outward righteousness but sees even the hidden and broken places of our heart to fulfill those desires.

God sees us for who we are.  God notices us in all we do. In the waters of our baptism, God claims us as His own. What a wonderful sense of belonging that inspires! Belonging of the truest, richest kind! The Lenten journey to the cross – the greatest act of love – is one in which we can learn how to love again and find true belonging.  Over the next 40 days I will realign my life to one rooted in the authentic assurance of my relationship with God – not hoping to achieve the approval of others but trusting that God’s approval has already been given. With that confidence I can offer my life as testimony to the One who gives me worth and dignity in the first place and let my light and love shine on others so that they too may know what it means to belong.

Let your light so shine!

Strength in the Silence

“In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.”  ~Isaiah 30:15

Silence. I used to crave it. I could walk for hours enrapt in its immensity; comforted by its softness as the chaos of the world swirled around me. Sometimes my thoughts would speak to me and sometimes I thought of nothing. It was my time to ponder and wonder with God. It was my escape – until Mom and Dad died.

I used to have wonderful conversations with my father on the other side of the state during my evening walks. My dad was not always the best conversationalist as he always had something to say and wouldn’t let me finish my portion of the conversation before moving on (a trait, I hate to admit, I have inherited), but for the most part, after an evening walk and talk with Dad, I usually felt like most things in this chaotic world were going to be alright and I felt infinitely wiser.

In the months following my parent’s deaths, silence became unbearable for me. It reflected far too intensely the emptiness that welled in my heart. And so, I did everything I could to avoid it. On my walks I became the annoying little sister who called her brother every night – and when I realized that wasn’t going to do much for our relationship, I searched, sometimes in vain, for anyone to talk to – to keep the silence at bay. Then I turned to listening to newscasts and podcasts – anything to break the silence and make me feel like someone was talking to me – because I couldn’t bear the depths my own thoughts would drive me.

I am a little late to the technology game. For the longest time, my cellphone was just that – a phone the size of an extremely large cell, used to communicate when I wanted to communicate. I live my life through a camera lens so when I discovered cameras that also functioned as phones I made the huge leap and upgraded to a 32-gigabyte photographic phenom that also made phone calls and sent text messages – as many as I wanted!! It also came with all these nifty things called apps. For years I never paid much attention to these revolutionary gizmos, even as apps began taking over the world, doing things instantly for us mere humans who used to be able to do things like: add and subtract in our heads or at least on our fingers, read books that we held in our hands and actually turned pages, find places on a map, feel for a pulse, and order pizza. I even have an app now that tells me how many miles I ran at what pace and how many of those pizza calories I burned. If I want, I can send my numbers into the app unified world and race and pace against the best, but I haven’t quite gone there yet. I know there are a bazillion more functions of life that apps now perform – I just saw an ad for whole house monitoring and I seriously considered getting the new door lock app so I don’t have to remember my house key, but hey, like I said I am new to this game.

But back to the point of this story… see apps have a way of distracting – even me!

These handy apps open up the wonderful world of podcasts and books that can be read to you. With apps, your smarter-than-you phone also accesses the world wide web so you basically have the whole world in your hand – beckoning you to learn more, search for more, buy more, listen more, and with social media you can always know more about every piece of minutiae happening in everyone’s life 24 -7 – all in the palm of your hand.

For those of us living insanely busy lives these apps with their lure of instant connectivity are wonderful conveniences. In the last month alone, I was able to listen to 19 theology lectures and 8 round-table discussions on the New Testament, countless newscasts and political commentaries, and a few symphony concerts for good measure – all while I walked or ran. This was on top of the 4 hours of actual textbook reading I was doing on an almost nightly basis, my 8-hour work day 5 days a week, and weekly after work meetings with their various assignments. For a while I was feeling pretty high on my intelligent horse named Audie (as in audio – get it?). Not only was I getting my exercise but I was filling my brain with everything I wanted to know and more and getting so much done!

But there was a problem.

I started to notice how anxious and irritable I was becoming. I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t find words anymore. I couldn’t remember what I had read. I was re-reading chapters and irking myself at the time wasted.  Frightening thoughts started to come to mind –  I had just watched my dad succumb to dementia (horrid thoughts are always the first to come, you know) – what was wrong with me?

The answer was actually pretty straight forward –  I had become too connected – to everything but me and my God. My rhythm of life had been invaded by apps that quenched my need to accomplish far more than truly possible – for me at least. Before I invited technology to come along, I used to feel a bit selfish and underachievement oriented allowing a few hours each day for my meditative morning runs and evening walks. I thought I should be studying and filling my head with lectures and learning new things. Ironically the more time that I ceded to those active-mind activities –  the duller I became spiritually and intellectually.

This constant activity of the mind has a name most of us in the modern working world have grown accustomed to claiming as an asset. Multi-tasking may be a key skill to highlight on your resume, but it is not, according to scientific studies, beneficial to productivity. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT says that our brains are “not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”

Multitasking also increases the production of the stress hormones cortisol and the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline. Basically, you are overstimulating your brain and the result is not what you are aiming for by trying to focus on too many things at once: mental fog or scrambled thinking. THAT would explain my list of distressing symptoms.

The mind needs space to process all the information we are putting into it and the spirit needs rest to prevent us from burning out, going into overload, and losing touch with ourselves and the matters that God intends us to focus on.

“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.”   ~Mark 1:35

Even Jesus knew this. In Mark, the shortest Gospel in the Bible, I counted 9 instances of Jesus intentionally seeking out solitude and quiet to pray. I would have to say that Jesus had a lot more on his plate than I do right now and if he saw fit to make solitude and quiet a part of his daily regiment, then I certainly can to.

I must confess, the addiction to connectivity and constant “learning” has been a hard one to break. I have found a bridge though, that may lead me to a higher plain of thinking. Not every walk or run is accompanied by sounds other than the rustle of the trees, my footsteps, or bird song, but nothing can compare to a run in the countryside with Vivaldi as the soundtrack. No words to listen to or think about, just soaring movements of music that lift me out of the here and now, take my mind to a place of rest and refreshment, and lighten my step. I know Jesus didn’t have background music for his times with God, but I am pretty sure God gave us this wonderful gift of music for a reason and I intend to relish in it. I can back the benefits of studying and working to classical music up with scientific studies as well, but who needs to when all you have to do is download a music app and select classical for your listening pleasure. Trust me on this.  Respighi’s The Pines of Rome will keep your eyes open and the words on the page flowing.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.”   ~Psalm 23:1-3

I encourage everyone to tune out the world and tune into you for a few minutes or a few hours a day – whatever it takes. A set time with silence and solitude makes the chaos of the world more bearable.

In the past few weeks I have felt brave enough to seek silence again. I have listened to the rain fall on the leaves and the wind rush through the trees. I have listened to birds serenade and screech.  I have let my thoughts go where they would – I got lost in them – I cried- I breathed – and I began to make peace with the emptiness inside me. Silence brought me to that peace. Silence has made me stronger.

Hello Silence, my old friend.

Trail Faith

To trust God in the light is nothing, but to trust Him in the dark—that is faith.

~ Charles H. Spurgeon

On a recent Sunday, I was on an adventure in the mountains. Yes, I know I should have been in church, but it was a respite from the everyday life I have been living that was sorely needed. Besides, I was in the mountains thinking about God rather than in church thinking about the mountains, so I think I can claim a bit of redemption, no?

Anyways…. As many of you know, and now the rest of you do, in the few short years that I have resided here in paradise this former eastern Montana flat-lander has acquired quite the affinity for climbing mountains. This is actually quite an amazing feat for me, as anyone who knows me well also knows that there are significant reasons that my parents decided against naming me Grace. My blog site is suitably subtitled Tripping Gracefully through Life One Adventure at a Time. I have a fear of the unknown, a fear of heights, and a fear of losing control. But I digress…

I have acquired this affinity hiking mile after mile on and off trail, up rocky slopes and down scree slides. I have a quick, determined pace; eager to get to the top, but not so eager that I can’t stop to take in the beauty around me, do a bit of photography, and wax philosophically with my hiking partners. I always seem to fall into the lead on the trail, a place I am most comfortable – as it means I am in control – and I am not stepping on the back of anyone’s heels. I am a leader not a follower- I am my father’s daughter. I like to rely on my own compass – not someone else’s and usually it serves me well, usually…

So, on this Sunday there we were, hiking(!!) one of my favorite routes, the epic 22-mile (at least the route we took was that long) Dawson – Pitamakin Loop and after enjoying the best-ever turkey sandwich at Dawson Pass we headed on our way across the very rocky, trippy slope in-route to Pitamakin Pass. I kept thinking this route seemed a lot more precarious than the last time I hiked it 3 years ago… but then the earth shifts and so do rocks, so I pushed ahead. I was in the lead and determined as usual, so determined that it took me awhile to face the facts that we were NOT on the trail – my natural compass was OFF and I had us cliffed out – yes, cliffed out on the Dawson Pitamakin trail (who does that??). Unfortunately, my wayfinding had brought us to a point 200 yards below the actual trail in the portion of cliffs that sent my head spinning the last time I hiked this when I was ON the trail. (Granted, I was not as trail dusted and tested back then.)

Suddenly, this confident mountain goat turned into a quaking, peeping pika. I’ve climbed cliffs far more difficult than the ones towering above us this Sunday, but for some reason I was off my game. I felt out of control, and I froze. I am sure my face went white as a ghost and that turkey sandwich in my tummy suddenly didn’t feel so good. I was embarrassingly afraid. I began to doubt every step I took because my prior confident steps had landed us in a spot with no place good to land! In that moment, all the climbs I have logged disappeared. I didn’t know where to turn. I didn’t have it all together. My determined role as leader went tumbling down the slope with the rocks that did the same. I lost faith in my ability to navigate the terrain.

And then I heard it, this familiar, comforting voice pulling me out of the gripping fear that was causing my eyes to well with tears and my head to spin. “Erika, it’s up this way. Here, take my hand.”

Take it I did. I blindly trusted that someone knew what they were doing, because I sure didn’t. Scrambling up the cliff on a wing and a prayer I put my trust in something other than me. When I couldn’t quite get my trembling leg on the just too high ledge above me, a knee was bent to help me along. And with that, I did it. My innards quit trembling and I think some color returned to my face. I climbed the rest of the way up with vigor – and once I was standing on top I was ready to give my hand to my helper – though he didn’t need it. I felt safe and confident again.

We can’t face everything in life on our own. We weren’t made that way. It is scary to put our trust in someone else and difficult to have confidence in the unknown. We know that we are imperfectly human and thus we are placing trust in imperfect humanity. But when we allow ourselves to be helped by another we allow them to show mercy – acts that both parties can grow from and be blessed by.

It is easy to trust God, when the going is good – not so much when you can’t see around the cliff, or where your next foothold will be. By faith, we know that God is perfect and His power a certainty. When we trust God, we may not know what the outcome will be but we can rest assured in His mercy, knowing He is always with us offering a hand and bent knee along the way.

How kind the Lord is! How good he is!
So merciful, this God of ours!
The Lord protects those of childlike faith;
I was facing death, and he saved me.
Let my soul be at rest again,
for the Lord has been good to me.
He has saved me from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling.
And so, I walk in the Lord’s presence
as I live here on earth!
~ Psalm 116: 5-9

The Little Faith that Cried, “Lord, Save Me”

 

Matthew 14:22-33
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.  But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.  But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.  But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”  Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.  And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Dear friends in Christ Jesus, Grace and Peace to you from God our Father!

Four years ago, tomorrow, I got out of the boat.

With all my belongings loaded into a cargo hauler hitched to a Flathead County licensed pickup truck, I departed from the only place, aside from the town I was born in, that I had lived in for more than 4 years at a time. A place where after 24 years my roots had grown deep, tested and nurtured not only by the incessant winds, biting cold winters, tempestuous thunderstorms, and hot summer days of eastern Montana, but the storms and sanctuaries of life – college, 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th jobs, illness, failure, challenge, success, family, community, and faith. The longest chapter of my life was written there. My sense of determination and my will to live was born there.  It was there that I learned to walk strong again, in the light of the Lord, wherever that path led me. Four years ago, today, that path was about to lead me here, to the next chapter of my life.

If there was one thing I was not in Billings, I was definitely not spontaneous! My life didn’t stray outside the lines of my highly scheduled routine. You could pretty much find me at the same places at the same time every day of every week of every year. Sleep, walk/run, work, walk the dog, church, home. Once a week I ventured into the countryside on my bike, but even then, my route was pretty much always the same.

Now I will admit, I have acquired a pretty well-worn running and walking route here in the Flathead, and if you are looking for me at 5:00 a.m. you can be sure to find me running down Monegan road dodging skunks and capturing sun-rises when the timing is right. Actually, I am a bit surprised at how quickly the once amazing-to-my-eyes landscape of the area I now call home has become a part of me, and how quickly I have created a new “routine”. I guess that is what they call life.

I have always found comfort in routine.  For as long as I can remember I have sought certainty. Why the unknown frightens me so, I am not sure. As a person of deep faith who trusts in the Lord, one would think I could trust in the surety of my step, come what may. But I did not. Rather, before I moved here I kept myself sheltered from too much spontaneity and secured my days in routine. Perhaps it was my sense of inadequacy as a person, my fear of failing at something I wasn’t prepared for, or a sense that I could never measure up that made me stick to what I was good at and master it… trying something new took a great deal of planning and preparing for me to take on the adventure!

Four years ago, my Facebook post was short and sweet: “HELLO WHITEFISH, MT!! Are you ready for Miss Erika Morck???” The exuberance I expressed as I settled in for my first night in my new town belied my fear and my trepidation… what in the world had I done uprooting a perfectly good life and moving by myself across the state at 42 years old; leaving all my family behind, my beloved dog, a good job, my friends, my church, life as I had known it and made it for 24 years, behind.

No, I am not one who likes the unknown, and yet for the past four years that is what I have faced at every turn. I felt like a fish out of water, surrounded by water, after years of swimming with the tide in one of the driest parts of our state.  But somehow, I have mustered up the fortitude to take the unknown and unexpected in stride. Surprising everyone who knew me before with my affinity for the mountains and bear encounters.  Perhaps my Facebook post should have said, “Welcome to your new life, Erika! Are you ready for what God has in store for you?”

I can’t tell you that the last four years have been an easy walk with the Lord as my best buddy. In all honesty, I have looked back on that day in 2013 with a bit of cleared eyed realism and smirked at my naive exuberance for what my “new life” would entail.  This “new life” certainly didn’t turn out as I had planned it on August 12, 2013.

Sometimes we must face our fears, embrace the unknown that awaits us, and take the leap. And while leap I did, despite my best intentions of being a brave new me – as the storms and waves of life passed through, as they always do, those feelings of inadequacy, trepidation, and fear of failure have managed to creep back into my being and hold me in their grip.

What holds us back from risking it all? What do we do when we choose to doubt rather than trust that God is writing a new chapter of life for us each day? How do we overcome our fears? It is easy to find comfort in the routine when life gets chaotic – to become risk averse and focus on our problems rather than our goals and where the Lord is calling us to.

In today’s gospel reading we see Peter, always the adventurous disciple, despite being storm battered and weary, not to mention wary that he is about to make friends with a ghost, take the opportunity to focus on Jesus and show his trust in a remarkable way.  “Lord, if it’s you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Jesus invites him to come. Peter jumps out of the boat and walks on the water with his trust steadfast in Jesus, his Lord and Savior, until he lets the wind get to him. Peter saw the wind and HIS “better judgment” kicks in. He took his eyes of his Savior, he let his faith lose focus, and he looked around him. If he was anything like me standing on the water in the middle of the Sea of Galilee in the middle of a storm he would be saying, what in the world am I doing? Why am I here? I am going to get hurt, or worse, die! The waves are too much; the wind too strong! What is going to happen to me?!

Peter took his focus off his source of power and he began to sink.

I can relate to this. I start everyday confident that this is the day that the Lord hath made. I rejoice and I am glad in it. Heck those words sometimes become part of my cadence as I run. And then the storms roll in, the wind turns against me, and the waves start crashing… my faith turns to fear –  and my response to fear is to rely on what I know, to return to what feels familiar and safe – I get back in the boat, or worse I never even set foot out of it.

I am a lot like Peter.  Maybe you are too. I don’t always trust God. I don’t always trust that His will is being done and despite the encouraging words from Romans I shared with you 2 weeks ago, that God is working everything that happens to us for our eternal good, it sure doesn’t feel that way in the middle of a storm. I prefer to rely on my own strength to protect me and work things out for me.

We have plenty to fear outside of our inner sanctums – threats of nuclear war, financial woe, health insurance premiums, fire, flood, terrorism, hate. Add our own problems and fears to these outside forces and little wonder we have trouble rowing the boat let alone getting out of it. In response, we put our trust in our own skills, our intellect, our money, and our connections to navigate the stormy seas rather than in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! But what happens when our own strength is weak and our power lacking? I know I will get nowhere. Fear will certainly take over.

Some preachers and maybe even a few lay pastors will condemn Peter for his lack of faith. I am not one of them. No, I want to be more like Peter –  yes, the Peter who had ” little faith”; the Peter that doubted, because Peter’s little faith got him out of that boat to follow Jesus – while the rest of the disciples stayed in place.  And when he began to sink, when the storm began to overwhelm him?  I want to be like the Peter who let go of himself and cried, “Lord, Save Me!”

And what did Jesus, do? Despite Peter’s little faith, Jesus saved him! Do you know what became of Peter?  Despite being a disciple who faltered and feared, Peter’s earnest faith led him to the soothing balm of forgiveness;  he will know the joy of being used greatly by God on the day of Pentecost, and he will preach a sermon that will lead 5000 people to join the church. He will be martyred because of his great faith.

I seem to recall Jesus saying, “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Why is it so hard to cry, Lord, Save Me? Why do we wait so long to cry Lord, Save Me? There are storms on this sea of life that you and I can’t deal with. Waves are crashing in and threatening to drown us! Ironically, the more we hold onto our problems, the worse they become. We tend to make the problems of life worse in our head than they really are. We are masters at seeing the worst possible outcomes and worrying ourselves to death.  We drown ourselves in our problems, rather than seek their solution who stands right in front of us.

Most of the challenges in our life are insignificant. Little challenges that throw us off our schedule, that wrangle with our sense of control, an errand here or there interrupted by a very long oil train, a surface wound or biting word, a little rain when we want to go hiking. Much of our time gets focused on the little things that interfere with our ideal plan.

What if we could spend a little more time each day focused on the good that we do have control over?  What if we could reach out from our inner self and live into the grace that we learn from our faith? When we take our eyes off our problems and instead focus on God, we will begin to see the miracles of His goodness. Perhaps, you and I, can be more like Peter, and call out to Jesus to help us bear through our problems and in turn focus more on living out God’s grace. We can do that when we place our trust in the One who watches over and lovingly cares for us.

And don’t wait until you are drowning. Why not get to know Jesus when the wind is still, and the water calm?  As Lutherans, we understand that God comes to us, His saints and sinners, and we confess our sins to God, who is faithful and just, and He forgives us. We know that our actions don’t earn our place in heaven or make us the better Christians.  But imagine if we all got out of the boat together and overcame many of the little things that make life hard. What if we had more strength to be a little more welcoming and capable of showing a little more forgiveness. Imagine if we all found a touch more peacefulness in our lives and extended more joy and kindness to one another. If you have the Lord as your focus, you might be amazed at the power you will find inside of you.

Making a new life someplace is anything but routine, especially in a place as ripe with adventures as the Flathead, and the unexpected can be expected.  I have had a lot of “Lord, Save Me” moments in the four years since I moved here – with all my exuberance for life. I have been buffeted by winds, drowned by incessant rain, and lost to my problems. But I have also had some mountain moving moments, when I let go of my fears and trusted Jesus. Although I ventured here on my own, I know I was never alone. In fact, I have never felt closer to my Lord, than when I stood on my own, in my own right, faced the world with Jesus and followed His plan. The result? Well, I survived and am still standing here today, with an even greater faith in the One whom I occasionally doubt.

The good news is, as we heard in Romans today, is that is okay. You see if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  If you believe with your heart and so are justified, and you confess with your mouth you are saved.  The same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

When you cry, Lord, save me… you are confessing that He alone is your Savior. He alone can save you. So, get out of your boat. Jesus is calling you and you have really good news to share.

Let your light so shine!

A Never-Ending Love Story

60 years ago, today, my mom and dad began an adventure in holy and everlasting, tried and true, in sickness and in health, happy and hilarious – matrimony in a sweltering hot Lutheran church in Conrad, MT. It was,by all accounts, a simply beautiful wedding that led to a simply solid marriage. My mother sewed her wedding dress, the flowers came from her neighbor’s garden, the cake and punch reception was served by the women auxiliary in the church basement, their honeymoon consisted of a night in Butte at my dad’s brother’s home on their way to their new home in Dillon as Dad had to get back to work.

Theirs was a marriage of love and friendship, faith and family, strife and strength, home and happiness. Being a good mix of Danish and Norwegian – they did not openly express their love for each other very often (except for this wonderful day 60 years ago). Reserved in their romance, we rarely saw them hold hands and I need less than 3 fingers to count the times I saw them kiss with any sort of passion. But I never doubted their love for each other, or for us. They expressed their love through devotion to each other and family.

They weren’t always happy – they were real. That reality made them stronger as husband and wife and made us stronger as a family. We saw that love endured testing and overpowered anger. We saw that faith combined with love produces a commitment that goes much deeper than the heart. We never wanted for anything – even though others lived more extravagant lives and had more adventures, nicer cars, games, and clothes. Our summer vacations were road trips to visit family with maybe a drive through a National Park on the way or a road trip to our next new home. Throughout our lives, Mom and Dad instilled in us a certitude that family was more important than anything.

Now that they are gone the void in my heart is extremely deep. Despite their good example – I have yet to create a family of my own. Perhaps because the standard they set is impossible for me to match? Nevertheless, the memories of their love, their living, and their faith that persevered and carried them through hardships and happiness will stay with me forever.

Mom and Dad, I wish we were celebrating with you – your marriage and the family you brought forth. Instead, we can rejoice that God gave you the greatest gift of all – everlasting life together. Your love story is never-ending, of that, I am certain.

Of Relics and Roots

“And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness.” Colossians 2:7-9

I have been doing a lot of thinking about roots lately. And while, the lengths of the roots on the weeds I have been pulling out of my garden beds are pretty impressive and have been occupying much of my time, the roots filling my thoughts while I am busy pulling those weeds go much deeper.

I am blessed to have grown up in a family whose ties were strong between parent and child as well as past and present. There are times I wish I knew as much about my future (or even tomorrow) as I know about the past “pre-Erika” times. I was not fortunate to know any of my grandparents well. My grandfathers had long passed away before I was born. My mom’s mother died when I was in second grade and I had only a yearly visit from her to form any sort of relationship.  My dad’s mother died when I was in the fifth grade but I only saw her one time – when I was in kindergarten – as she had suffered from Alzheimer’s for nearly 10 years, was in a nursing home, and we lived out of state. At that time, children didn’t visit people with Alzheimer’s. Nonetheless, my parents did a good job of connecting me and my brother with our heritage – both ancestral and cultural. Scandinavia was very much alive and well in our household and in our upbringing. They also ensured, that no matter where we were or what circumstances we faced, that we had a firm foundation in our faith.

We were a rather nomadic family, moving on average every 3 or 4 years with my dad’s government job. My hometown of Rock Springs, WY was only home from my birth to 8 years of age. After that home was where we made it for however long my dad’s career allowed. We saw a variety of the country and I am a better person for it, but for me, being rooted meant being rooted in relationship – not place. My parents knew that too – all said, my parents had moved 23 times in their marriage before they finally retired to Billings and made that their final home. It was there that we finally planted roots of place and established a place we called “home.” Indeed, it was the one place (except for my brother who moved there after we did) that we had all lived for the longest period of our lives. For a family who was used to the transitory lifestyle, we quickly planted roots – deep ones – and for the first time in my life I felt the certainty of place.

I relished that certainty of place for 24 years. As you might imagine, moving to the Flathead 4 years ago, leaving my family and friends behind, was a pretty bold and daunting endeavor for me. However, I can honestly say I have grown more in heart, mind, and character in the last 4 years than I did in the entire 42 leading up to my move here.  I had secured a good job before coming (thanks Joe!) so I had some form of security when I arrived, but not much else.  I worked hard to integrate myself into the community and make new friends here. My little nest of an apartment kept me safe (although not always warm) and saw me through a lot of life – more than I ever expected to live through when I arrived. Times of sadness with the deaths of my dog and both of my parents, times of heart break, and times of frustrating illness along with times of immense mountaintop triumphs and the joys that come with living life fully, discovering my sense of self, and finding “my place” in this world.

I don’t think it is a coincidence at all, that I as I closed the door to my little nest of an apartment (it was a lofty 600 sf!) one last time – a place so full of personal discovery – that I would at the same time be forever severing the physical ties to my home of 24 years back in Billings. The belongings of my family’s past were sold in an estate sale last weekend and my “home” is now where I choose to make it – right here in the Flathead – which I did with the recent purchase of my first home.

The last time I stood in my home of over 24 years I had just laid my dad to rest 2 days prior. Despite the emptiness that surrounded me then, I found consolation in the familiar accessories and necessities that had followed my family from place to place – treasures from before I was even born.  There was a sense of normalcy seeing Dad’s executive desk strewn with various medical bills and memorial preparations; his beloved Ivan Doig books, Golf magazines, and Bibles that helped occupy his time still scattered about; dusty duck decoys; family portraits; treasured artwork; shoes tossed to the side; Dad’s walker propped against the wall; the living room furniture that held us through the best and worst of times – it was in the heart of our home where all our celebrations came to an end and as that week of sorrow came to a close, served as a sentimental time capsule of comfort – a collection of our very good life lived as a family and the last days of Dad’s life at home.  The older-than-my-dad grandfather clock which had withstood the flames of a barn fire and Morck family formation still ticked away the day and our Baldwin upright beckoned me to play one more song, though time would not allow. I had glanced around making sure I hadn’t left any of my belongings from the “week of death” behind, closed the front door, and hit the road. I didn’t know that it would be the last time I would ever see our home as home. I didn’t know that time capsule of comfort would only be saved to memory by a fleeting glance as I rushed to be on my way. I presumed I would be back for at least one last visit, one more living room session of sentiment, but as fate would have it, that wasn’t to be.

Seeing the house again, this time prepped for the estate sale with the contents of our family’s past marked at fair market value, was jarring to say the least. Treasures from my childhood, treasures I hadn’t seen in years were now on display – staged for effective sale in ways they were never meant to be. Gone was our homey kitchen and table that had served up so many family suppers and arguments. Gone was the cozy living room where Dad and I had that last cherished father-daughter talk late into the night on Thanksgiving. As fast as our lives fell apart in the ensuing months of illness and death, this place had always been a haven, a sanctuary of sentiment. Now it was just a stage from which the contents of our life would be sold.

I had driven to Billings the night before the estate sale was to start and arrived around midnight. My intent to make a fast perusal of the place to garner any items I may have missed putting aside after my dad’s funeral quickly came to a halt. Thoughts of what I might need or use in my new home suddenly seemed acerbic. The items before me had lost their value to me –  as I realized what made them treasures were the people who treasured them, not the items themselves. Rather than checking off my mental list of necessities I could grab (and save a buck – owning a home is expensive) I stood there and cried as I realized and remembered all I had lost. Aside from a few heirlooms and the prized and once lost Danish plates that the estate sale professionals found in their staging, not much would be coming to my new home with me.

***

I believe God has brought me to a very purposeful chapter in my life. It is time to start anew. Until now, I always had Billings as a fall back, a safety net, the home where I was always welcome. Now it is all up to me. For so long my life has been in two places on separate sides of the state.

It is hard to put down roots when you don’t know where home is. Until now, I was ok with that. Being rooted has consequences; it means you are claiming an identity of place. For four years I have struggled to claim where that place would be. How could I when “home” was still in Billings but I was here?

At some point on this year-long journey of grief book-ended by the deaths of my mother and father, I began to sense that the soil in the Flathead was fertile soil, a good place to plant roots. It is here that I will embrace the life God has called me to and truly live life – not live it in limbo. For too long I have been on an unrelenting quest to reshape my existence but never claiming it as my own. No longer. Now, as Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said: “Now with God’s help, I shall become myself.”

Now with God’s help, I shall find home, and in faith not in relics of the past, plant new roots.

Home

Our “Brown Furniture” is Priceless

Back on its golden hinges
The gate of memory swings,
And my heart goes into the garden
And walks with the olden things.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox – “Memory’s Garden”

The task that loomed before me was daunting. Armed with the background reading I had done regarding what to do with “your parents’ stuff”, what your parent’s stuff is worth and spurred on by the slightly offensive title of one article that warned, “Sorry, Nobody Want’s your Parent’s Stuff,” I was determined to get the job of cleaning out my parents’ stuff done. But now, surrounded by the accoutrements that once decorated our life as a family, I was overwhelmed by how empty I felt inside.

All the things that made home “home” seemed at first to be just things on a list to be categorized as keep, sell, donate, or toss were now claiming a place in my emotions. The family pictures in the main hallway will forever document my brother’s and my youth. The end tables covered with golf and political magazines going back years recalled the Sunday afternoons on the golf course and dinner conversations on current affairs. The kitchen table etched with hours of homework into its mahogany top now sat covered with empty medicine bottles and stuffed medical folders. The living room furniture that was painstakingly chosen for its warm and inviting fabrics after hours of deliberation, that supported my family through many a holiday and warmed us after my mother’s funeral, certainly could not be considered worthless post mid-century “Brown Furniture” by the estate sale pros. The knickknacks Fred and I so proudly gave to our parents as gifts still held their prominence on windowsills, desk and dresser tops while others were tucked discreetly away in “special” drawers full of all kinds of special things.

16681786_1491067427584517_4990078830237632947_nThe book cases – oh goodness where would I begin with the bookcases filled with book collections from my parents’ college days some 60 years prior, Bible studies, agrarian philosophy, mysteries, western history, family history, religious history, Montana history, Viking history, geologic history – literally hundreds of books sometimes double stacked on shelves; many with personal inscriptions denoting the sentiments of the giver rendering them “unsalable” and others with momentos tucked between pages that would bring woe to us if they were lost when tossed into a bargain book bin. And this was just what I documented in the quick walk-through I made to refresh my memory of where everything was upon my return home.

All my course-of-action pre-planning that I did during the 7.5-hour drive to Billings for
the five-day regiment of claiming pieces of the past and clearing the rest for an estate sale went out the window into the dark and stormy night as I stood in the “emptiness” of the house.  With Mom gone and Dad moved into an assisted living home after a sudden spiral into severe Alzheimer’s related dementia, this once inviting (at least to me) home and its humble but comforting furnishings now felt lifeless. Even the sturdy hundred-year-old wall clock rescued from a barn fire in the 1930’s that ticked and chimed through the days of our lives was ticking out of synch.

I was encouraged to be ruthless in my endeavors by friends who have also been through this season of life. Faced with the reality of the tininess of my present living quarters and the vastness of things our house contained, I was determined to do my best. Surprisingly, my things were the easiest to part with. When I came across the footlocker that my mother had saved all my childhood fashions in, I spent an hour or so going from shock at how small I was as a first grader, to remembering the Hanes t-shirt with the butterfly iron-on I wore the entire summer of my 6th year after I wrecked my bike while wearing a Farrah Fawcett style angel top. My entire chest had to be wrapped in gauze all summer and cracked ribs prevented me from taking swimming lessons… My mother saved every dress, and during my tomboy years, the flannel shirts I wore for class pictures going through 7th grade. Yes, I saved a few choice pieces that my mom had sewn for me or were worn for special occasions, but the rest – too old to donate or sell – went in the trash. I am sure no little girl today would want to wear my rubber pants even with the lace on the back.

I spent many a summer afternoon and bedtime lost in the adventures of Nancy Drew. I could not wait to get my allowance and head to Walden Books to purchase my next adventure. The crack of the spine as I opened each story for the first time was thrilling. I still fancy myself a bit of a sleuth but my complete collection of hardback Nancy Drew books simply will not fit in my apartment and what good do those thrilling words of mystery do collecting dust on a shelf or being packed away in a box? Luckily, we have a darling little neighbor girl who has taken to my dad and loves to read. I am blessed to be able to pass my childhood (and to this day) joy of reading and adventures on to her.

This simple act of giving away a part of my childhood stirred in me emotions I was not expecting as it made me realize all the things I was saving for the daughter I would have someday had no value anymore. My life has turned out completely different than I or I am sure my parents – with everything they saved to pass down to our families –  had planned.  That particular someday will never come. The family line ends with me and my brother as neither of us have children.  This puts a whole new perspective on the value of our family “heirlooms.” Of course, we must hold on to them, mustn’t we? Some things have been in the family since before our parents’ time! But to be frank, what is the point? Our society is adopting a much more minimal, nomadic lifestyle. Collections of things are found in museums, not homes.

So yes, my collection of Precious Moments figurines will be sold. Hopefully someone will still buy them! And apparently, Fisher Price Barns, Dollhouses, and Parking Garages still have collector value so… maybe those will be worthy in the estate sale. Original Lincoln Logs anyone? My tin tea set with place settings for 6? Hmm… I’m afraid too many moms will have read about the hazards of tin to even touch that remnant – oh the hours I wiled away playing house, serving visitors, and opening restaurants!

By the time I made it through the thousands of dollars worth of Christmas décor (I kid you not!) nostalgia was turning into exasperated exhaustion. I decided it was not worth my time or sanity to test all the strings of lights and find their replacement bulbs which I know my mother saved yet I struggled to part with the ornaments of happiness encased in Rubbermaid bins.  No doubt about it, our family loved to celebrate Christmas and we did it in fine form! How do you sell or give away these things that we loved so much –  they belong to our family’s memories not someone else’s!

I spent 2 days searching for the prized collection of Bing and Grondahl Danish plates dating back to 1923 and have mysteriously disappeared in the crawl space but all I could find were tax documents and federal land plats.  After wrenching my back a few times lifting box after box of tax records dating to the 1960’s I was ready to scream. Honestly! My parents had moved 23 times throughout their marriage and they saved this but not the plates???

Now the cedar chest was another story. Safe within was a treasure trove of memories. Goodness, the things my mom saved – mittens from when I was 5, confetti from her wedding, her wedding dress, the patterns she used to sew her high school majorette uniforms and wedding dress, even the scraps from her wedding dress, and letters from her mother in-law tied lovingly with a ribbon… Going through her memories made me wish she could be with me as I sorted through all these things. How much more meaningful it would have been to share the stories behind instead of guessing why these heart items mattered to her.  Still, I love her even more now as I remembered this lesser known sentimental side of my mother. At this point, I realized I was going to need more than 5 days to do all this… and several boxes of Kleenex. I couldn’t be ruthless anymore. I realized we still have months to go before the house will be sold and more importantly, my dad is still with us. By the way, her wedding dress fit me perfectly!

Instead of slogging through the rest of my to-do list alone, I was able to bring Dad home for two afternoons and together we went through some of his things. Granted, I did not get very much done. We spent time going through photo albums dating back to the 1800’s. Surprisingly and a bit confoundingly, he could remember the names and events surrounding pictures from the 1930’s and even pictures of his grandparents and aunts and uncles in Norway and Denmark. We had a good laugh over a letter he wrote to his English teacher his senior year in high school not really apologizing for but doing his best to explain his bad behavior. This man who demanded straight-laced behavior in his kids wasn’t the squeaky-clean student we had presumed! We now have pictures to prove it!

I wept with pride as I read a letter written by a coworker upon his retirement after 40 years with the Bureau of Land Management, lauding his work ethic, philosophy on good government, professional but kind management style, and reinforcing how much his mentoring had meant to so many who continued on after him.  There are newspaper articles and more photo albums that will be gone through next time I am home, hopefully with Dad again.

Putting aside the schedule, one afternoon I just played the piano for my dad as he sat in his favorite chair. What becomes of the old upright Baldwin piano is much less important now than keeping the joy its music brought to our family over the years as my mother, brother and I played away live for him.

I realized that the things we hold on to do indeed tell our stories but the value of them lies only within our hearts. No price tag will ever adorn our memories. Time with those we love can never be bought or reclaimed.  The Bavarian china that sits in the cupboard awaiting a box will never have the same meaning in my home as it did when we all gathered for Thanksgiving around the table it graced. It could slip out of my hands and shatter in an instant but the memories will never be lost.

As I have shared my house clearing experience with my older friends, some have commented that they are not going to leave anything for their children to deal with. I can understand their well-meaning intentions, but I would caution them not to do this. The process of cleaning out and claiming pieces of our past is incredibly emotional and incredibly cathartic at the same time. Even the everyday items that made life livable like Sunbeam mixers, cookie sheets, Reynolds Wrap, outdated salad dressings, and crossword puzzle books remind us that life before illness, death, and grief took over really happened in this house. Some of the things I have touched and cried over will be let go and others will be kept.  Yes, it was emotionally exhausting at times but the process, even for just a moment, brought to a halt the chaos of the present day, the urgency of caretaking, the stress of not knowing what tomorrow holds for our family as I know it, and enabled me to pause and remember the times and trivialities that made life good for our family in the years leading to our present day.

If the storyline of our family does indeed end with my brother and I, I can be happy knowing the chapters of our lives were full and well documented. Whether or not the setting and accessories of our story sell at an estate sale matters little to me now.

 

 

Looking Back, Living On, Emerging Strong

But as for me, I will sing about your power.
Each morning I will sing with joy about your unfailing love.
For you have been my refuge,
a place of safety when I am in distress.

~ Psalm 59:16

One would think I couldn’t wait to close, make that slam, the door on 2016. A year that brought emotional upheaval, sickness, strife, and death to my life. And yet, while 2016 has had its fine share of wretchedness, it has also been one of great personal growth and new direction. And so, before I bid this life changing year of 2016  goodbye and welcome the promise of 2017 with wide open arms, some reflection is due.

I used to look to the mountains for my escape. They were a place I could go to get away from the chaos of life, challenge myself and come out on top (literally and figuratively), talk to God, and find peace. But the mountains did not avail themselves to me as much this year, partially due to the weather, partially due to my health, but mostly because this year God determined the chaos of life needed to be lived not escaped from, my challenges would come from within not a wanderlust adventure, and I would find my peace in Him at all times – not just when the mountains called me.

13147272_1204040166287246_6929792025810359721_oSuffering from a broken heart and  questioning my future I started the year out very much alone, navigating a route on this journey that we all travel through at some point in our lives – the end of life for one of our parents. Witnessing from afar and feeling quite helpless and guilty as the absent daughter, I watched as my mother progressively began to let go of life as my Dad and brother did what they could to keep her with us. What began as a shift in living arrangements from repeated hospitalizations to moving her to an assisted living center ended with skillful avoidance of her questions about when she was going home. Her clear minded quest to go home twisted my heart as I frantically tried to make connections with her that I knew she could no longer comprehend. My visits home were far too few and too late to bridge the gap and make amends in our fractured relationship however one-sided my attempt was. I fought against the dawning realization that my was mother heading to another home, a much better place for her life weary soul.  Through it all I held on to the belief that God was in this and with us.

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I had marked the last day of winter with a jubilant snowshoe hike to the top of Mt. Brown and on that blue bird day I said farewell to a serious winter of discontent  – ready to claim Spring into heart again.  And then the call came – the call my brother surely agonized over as he dialed – and one I was completely unprepared for.

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After her last happy and bright morning,  my mother had passed sweetly on her way to rest in my Lord and Savior’s arms on the first day of Spring.

The week surrounding her death changed my relationship with God forever. I no longer had my mother to stand by me and as odd as it may sound, at 45 years of age I no longer felt like a child nor could I be.  Rather, I felt determined to be the woman she never imagined I could be with a strength that I knew she had quietly and not so quietly instilled in me throughout our tumultuous yet loving mother-daughter relationship.

As the days after my mother’s death grew greater, the numbness I survived my days with and the fog that inhabited my mind began to fade.  I was left to remember her. To miss her.  To think of happier days  when just knowing she was there wondering what I was up to was enough. It just didn’t seem real that she was gone and yet her absence was all too real in my heart and mind.  I had so many things left to tell her. Now I could and I did. And a sense of peace that truly did surpass all understanding came over me.

Through it all my Lord walked with me, healing me and strengthening me  – preparing me for the coming days that came all too soon.

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Before the sorrow of losing my mother subsided, a new challenge emerged. Cancer came knocking on our door and made itself at home in my Dad. There was no more time for sorrow in our lives. My Dad, my brother and myself had a new battle to face.  Despite having many friends and family members who have faced down cancer  – some winning the battle and some winning their higher reward, I never pictured the battle being waged in my immediate family. We were ill-prepared and already battle weary. How do you fight the unknown? By July we were fully engaged in the  exhaustive, painful,  frustrating, emotional, scary, angry, helpless, hopeful battle. Throw in a car accident and we truly questioned just how much more we could bear.

And through it all, my Lord was there, walking with us, carrying us, and working through His angels here on earth – and there were many- ensuring that this battle would be fought with faith and with His great providence we would win.

And He spoke to me many times. Awakening me and humbling me.

To win battles, one has to be strong, unwavering, and humble -we have to know our weaknesses in order to overcome them. It was my time to be tested. God knew just the thing too… the mountains that once gave me so much exuberance and fed my conquering spirit would put me in my place and lead me towards a new respect –  that for myself and my own well-being.

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The mountains are really not the place to discover your weaknesses – at least not your physical ones. While the events of the year had been quietly (or perhaps not so quietly but I chose to be stubborn and ignore the signs) taking a toll on me.

What began on a perfect, bluebird sky morning and a much anticipated, dreamed about, read about, planned for, trained for, prayed about, stayed up late waiting to get on the much prized waiting list for –  journey across the infamous  23 mile  Floral Park Traverse would end weeks later with much less jubilation.  I had had more than visions of sugar plums dancing in my head during my last three years of living in paradise. From the first time I heard about it, the Floral Park Traverse  captivated me to the point of nearly reaching an obsessive quality in my mountainous pursuits. Tales of deaths, grizzlies, cliffs, glaciers, even just the name – inspired my wanderlust to go wild with want. And finally this was the day, on my 3rd Anniversary of being a Whitefishian no less, that my wanton wanderlust was to be fulfilled! Instead, as I wrote in my epic trail tale, for the first time in my epic climbing life- I crashed and burned and never really recovered.

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But being a stubborn Morck (thanks Dad!) I chose to keep on pushing through –  pushing through stomach distress, exhaustion, inability to breath, and bouts of collapsing with my same determination that I faced everything else – this too shall pass and you will rise above it. Only I couldn’t.

When  fear started to overwhelm everything else in my life, on the morning of September 29th, I headed to the clinic for a check-up and ended the day being thought of as a bit of a walking miracle as I sat for five hours in the transfusion chair receiving three units of blood –  seeing as how I had basically lost all mine and quite frankly as the doctor told me  – should have been dead.

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

Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord.

My own brush with death made me realize that my physical body –  God’s temple on earth-  needs attention too and for the first time in too long, I began to take serious responsibility for my own health. I had focused solely on others for too long. And so now I end 2016 in a process of rebuilding my life in more ways than I thought possible. I am making good progress! Which is a good thing because this year, through all the turmoil and wretchedness, I embarked on a new direction in life that had been far too long in the planning stages.

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In the midst of the battles being waged in July, God whispered to me –  it was time. He placed before me this meditation – and it changed me.

“In times when everything is changing, when everything seems to be in transition, when nothing seems certain, God plants people in our lives with voices of hope.
These are those who in our times of suffering point us toward the day when suffering will end.
They reassure us in times of doubt that we can have faith.
They remind us of our baptismal callings and of the God who makes a way out of no way.
They remind us of God’s purpose and God’s love for us.
They believe in miracles, not least of which is the miracle of God calling us to fulfill God’s purposes.
And when we cannot, they remind us that God claims us as beloved anyway, just because.”

This was who I wanted to be. THIS was WHO I am called to be!

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.

And so in October, I began my own journey of becoming WHO I AM –  to be a voice of hope in peoples lives. I finally have a sense of peace in regards to the direction my life is taking. This amazing journey of life 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 a path I have pondered instead of wandered for far too long!!!

2016 changed me. I am stronger now, in WHO I am. I am more humble. I am more aware. I am more alive!  I don’t need to run from life or the circumstances I encounter any longer. When I turn to my Lord instead of running away, I have the strength to find the good in the moment – even when it seems this moment is all I can see. When I call on Him to shine His light in my life, I can be a light in the lives of others. When I am weak, when I have lost heart, He picks me up and restores my spirit.

I don’t need to prove myself on a mountain or be anyone other than the me God created. In fact, as I gaze out at the mountains from my valley home now, the anxious desire I once felt to constantly climb and conquer every trail and peak I could sanely ponder has quelled to a more restful yearning filled with appreciation of the beauty, opportunity, and peace that awaits me.

Let your light so shine ever so brightly in 2017!

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This is what the Lord says— he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”~ from Isaiah 43