“This grace of God is a very great, strong, mighty and active thing. It does not lie asleep in the soul. Grace hears, leads, drives, draws, changes, works all in man, and lets itself be distinctly felt and experienced. It is hidden, but its works are evident.” – Martin Luther
As my 50th Thanksgiving dawns and the second, in my life at least, amid a pandemic, I find myself in a very reflective mood. Ah ha! Did I just catch you counting back in your mind to when this all started and how many months have passed?? I had to double-check the dates myself after I wrote that as it seems to me like it should be our third or fourth… but I digress.
Last year at this time, as the initial pandemic panic and ensuing lockdowns subsided, I was preparing for a long wintery drive home to Billings to spend the holiday with my family. The drive was intense in both directions – but just as intense was the need to be with my brother and his wife again. Isolation was getting to me, and family roots were the only thing that felt grounded as the rest of our lives had become one big question mark. This year I am staying home in the Flathead – opting to avoid the bad roads that have plagued every Thanksgiving trip to Billings since time immemorial. The urgency to be together has subsided – a bit – thanks to a couple of trips home this summer and more in-person contact with the human race as a whole has returned. Perhaps it is also a sign of lightening hearts – even as the pandemic continues to impact lives all around us – we have confidence in tomorrow.
I have been very busy of late – all of which I am thankful for – and I am looking forward to the pause Thanksgiving will bring this year. I feel very grateful for that privilege. I know that others will not have that same luxury.
It is curious that this “very busy” state of mine was actually the norm that used to be my life before the pandemic brought most everything to a halt. Now, I find myself being much more selective in what I introduce “back” into my life. Yes, I still tend to overcommit, but I am finding it easier to say no to some things that will distract from, or diminish my involvement in, performance of, and/or commitment to the activities and obligations I have already said yes to.
If any good has come of this awful virus invading our lives, perhaps it is the recognition that none of us are superhuman, and time spent in solitude, contemplation, and rest – is never a bad thing; that less is almost always plenty; and balance is truly beautiful.
But about this busyness – I don’t think I am just speaking for myself here – it seems the world around me is suddenly very busy again – almost frenetic, and I sense an unsettling tension setting in. A quote from a book I read a few years ago, “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown resonates with me here as I consider the current state of our collective being: “Worrying about scarcity is our culture’s version of post-traumatic stress. It happens when you’ve been through too much, and rather than coming together to heal (which requires vulnerability), we’re angry and scared and at each other’s throats.”
There seems to be an urge to acquire and be and do things at an intensity I haven’t recognized before, just as the acquiring of things has suddenly grown more difficult due to “supply chain” issues and human shortages. At the same time, after so much isolation – yes- even here in Montana (ironically in order to protect one another) I think the collective “we” has forgotten how to be together. The media and our representatives in government have done a wonderful job of dividing rather than uniting us under the guise of freedom.
Our default has been reset to interpret events in a self-centered manner, expecting that the actions of others align with our own narrow interests. How often do we genuinely try to look at the world from ‘someone else’s shoes’ anymore? Do we make an honest attempt to empathize and understand things from their unique point of view? Instead of immediately jumping to conclusions, can we be earnest in our attempt to give our transgressors an empathic interpretation of events?
I must confess that a trip to the grocery store, a scroll through social media, a passing read of the local paper’s op-ed section, or even visiting the various community “help and info” media pages now require me to put my judgmentalism in check. Our collective sense of what freedom means seems to be highly diversified.
As the late writer David Foster Wallace reminds us in his iconic commencement speech This is Water, we always have the freedom of choosing alternative ways of making meaning from events. This requires us to cultivate self-awareness and the capacity to think critically and question our automatic judgments. “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able to truly care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. … The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness.” (emphasis added)
One recent morning as the sun slowly made its way up and over Columbia Mountain, I spent some precious time contemplating the journey I have been on and thanking God for the life He has blessed me with. What an unexpected life!! It has not been an easy wander through the years, but one that has been filled with experiences I would not trade for anything – including the past 18 months. In retrospect, my life has meaning as a direct result of my search for meaning along the way – I am grateful for the freedom to pursue it.
I am grateful for my parents who gave me life 50 years ago and loved me through 47 more. They raised me with a faith that has been my beacon throughout life – even when I have been terribly lost. They raised me to be hopeful and have courage by letting me experience disappointment, deal with conflict, and learn how to assert myself. They gave me plenty of opportunities to fail and encouraged me to succeed. They listened to my angst, sometimes sided with my critics, and assured me that they never stopped loving me, no matter what. In the end, being loved and knowing how to love is all that matters anyway. I thank God for my big brother and best friend back home, who has loved me through it all even when I was his biggest bother!
I am thankful that my parents had the foresight to add dogs to our family. I have known the unconditional love of a dog for most of my life and am blessed to share my life with the joyful energy of my Brittany Ember now, number six in the Morck family line of the greatest dogs on earth.
25 years ago, God gave me a second chance at life. I thank God for the skilled minds and dedicated and compassionate hearts found in Dr’s. Merchant and Hemmer, and their incredible staff in the ICU wing of the Billings Clinic. They kept fighting for my life when I could not. I thank God for Remuda Ranch, where I found a new way of living and reason for being. I would not be here today were it not for any one of these individuals. I am thankful God turns death into life – and that I am living proof of this!
I thank God for my church family in Billings that remains steadfast in my life even after being away for 8 years. It was there, in their presence, I came to truly know for myself God’s grace, abiding love, and steadying guidance. Not just through the Word as preached but through the deep friendships I formed with those who gathered with me. It was there that I realized that God truly had a purpose for me. Through their confidence in me, I realized I could lead. Through their acts of love and acceptance, I found a place of welcome and peace.
I thank God for my church family here in the Flathead, who embraced this fledgling lay pastor as I learned how to preach and minister with grace. Without their encouragement I’m not sure I would be continuing in God’s calling on my life. I thank God for standing with me in challenging times. The heartbreaks, losses, and joys I have experienced have made me more authentic and more empathic in sharing the Good News and God’s grace upon grace.
I am thankful for this northwest adventure I embarked on 8 years ago – changing the course of my life, leading me to discover a challenging and fulfilling career I have come to love, and allowing me to work with exceptional people who are more like family than colleagues and yet incredibly professional and passionate about what they do.
I thank God, for every smile that has greeted me and warmed my heart – even more so these days.
I thank God for friendships that cross the miles, for friends that have walked this journey with me, sometimes walking beside me and lending an empathetic ear, sometimes walking behind me pushing me forward through my doubts and fears, sometimes walking in front of me and inspiring me to keep going and growing. I am blessed to know some of the bravest, smartest, most inspired and humble people on earth.
I thank God for new friends in new places, that bring shared joys, fresh perspectives, common conundrums, and a sense of belonging that cures a homesick heart.
I thank God for the wonderful gift of music he has flavored my life with. A gift that provides solace and joy to my weary and wild heart.
I thank God for His majestic mountains and vast open prairies that speak to my soul and call me by name. There I find tranquility and know no boundaries. I am grateful for this Last Best Place I call home.
I thank God, for every tomorrow and the opportunity to start anew each day. His grace is amazing and knows no end.
Wishing you a Thanksgiving rich with the love of family and friends and abundant light in your heart. Give thanks for this beautiful and broken world we share and remember that it is in darkness when your light and the light of others shine the brightest. Share yours today.
Let your light so shine!
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
When did you let go of your great big dreams or put your once exuberant soul to slumber?
Then I took the next most likely leap of faith and filled my room with space – outer space – because I just had to know what heaven was all about. After Shaun Cassidy faded from the scene, posters of rockets and galaxies and even F-16 Fighting Falcons and F-15 Eagles graced my bedroom walls – because I knew you had to start somewhere and jet pilots were frequently chosen to be astronauts. I’m not quite sure when that dream faded from view – it was a focal point of my Tomboy days for sure, along with my wardrobe fixation of flannel shirts and waffle stompers. I’m sure my mother wondered where her little girl disappeared to.
Enter the late 70’s and early 80’s and the debut of the epic television series FAME. I was convinced I would be the next Coco played by Erica Gimpel (she even shared my name – though not the spelling of it, darn it all) flying across the stage with athletic rhythm along with singing and even acting! I played Scrooge in our 5th-grade play and nailed it! Then we moved to Virginia where I put in hours and hours of practice choreographing dance routines in the cool air of our basement during our stint in Washington DC for my father’s job. I practiced the piano religiously and played competitively – first under the tutelage of an old bat who rapped my knuckles with a ruler over any mistake and then under the angel of all piano teachers, Mrs. Pataro, who believed in me and encouraged me and saw me shine at every piano recital and guild competition. I was going to make it as a star somehow! I even lived in a metropolitan area where the dream really could come true (not some hick MT town from whence I came!) Anyone heard of the Kennedy Center?
Ah yes, those were the good days when anything was possible. By the time I reached high school we were living out west again (but far from Hollywood) and it was time to start settling down and setting real goals (according to my father.) By then I was writing – quite prolifically. Ronald Reagan was president and I hung on every single word of his speeches. They were brilliant in my mind, and so I determined I would become a presidential speechwriter and then the White House press secretary. Having been exposed to the world of government and politics when one could be proud of both, this seemed a worthy avenue to pursue. While it may not have been as concrete a goal in terms of landing a job post-graduation as becoming a nurse, a teacher, or astronaut, it was at least academic.
And so I pursued mass communications and political science with a focus on public administration in college. I put in my time in a U.S. Senator’s field office (what an eye-opening experience THAT was into the true nature of politics and one’s constituents…a.k.a Your Constituents Hate You 101), the Public Relations office of the Bureau of Land Management (Bureaucracy and Politics 202), and interned at the CBS news affiliate in Billings (You Have a Face for Radio 402). Everything seemed to be falling into place, right? Except by the time I graduated from college life had gotten in the way of my dreams in a rather dire way. Rather than graduating into the field of my choice, I spent considerable time (and money) in the hospital and then recovery. By the time that ordeal was behind me, my dreams seemed out of reach and unrealistic so I took whatever job I could find that would help me emerge back into the land of the living and make a living. I have been working my way through the land of the living rather than the life of my dreams for some 25 years now. I have a great job and a vast array of experiences behind me, but my dreams are still just that – dreams.
I bring all this up now as we watch the launch into space of the 82- year old Wally Funk, who was on the first crewed flight into space by the rocket company Blue Origin. Funk is the oldest person ever to travel into space. “I didn’t think I’d ever get to go up,” Funk is quoted as saying.
Years ago, Funk had dreams like I did. Then a 21-year-old pilot, she was the youngest of the 13 women who passed the same rigorous testing as the Mercury Seven male astronauts in NASA’s program that first sent Americans into space between 1961 and 1963 but were denied the chance to become astronauts themselves because of their gender. She went on to become the first female flight instructor at a U.S. military base and the first woman to become an air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. But she never went into space – until now. She did not live out her ultimate dream – to venture into outer space – at least on her schedule – but she made the best of her pursuit nonetheless. I doubt her life was one of ennui or regret. Quite the contrary it appears, for in various interviews she recounts a very full and vibrant life utilizing her gifts and skills to help many others, especially women, achieve their own dreams of flight.
Which begs the question that corresponds to one of my boss’s favorite lines: “I’m living the dream.” Just how does one live the dream? And furthermore, what defines a dream worth living for?
If you were to go back to your launching pad into life, what would you do differently, if anything, to achieve the dream(s) you once had? What stopped you from attaining them? Money, health, lack of education, family issues, or circumstances beyond your control? Maybe it was a more personal reason: doubt, fear, lack of vision, or a commitment to others above yourself.
Or, maybe you are one of the lucky ones who had a dream, chased it, and realized it. What now? Is living the dream any different than pursuing life as best possible?
As one who may have more years behind me than ahead – unless I somehow manage to defy my octogenarian heredity-fated lifespan – I wonder if it is worth taking time away from living my best life to pursue living the life I dreamed of? Is it worth asking the question “What could have been, if…?” Am I setting myself up for a nostalgic walk down “What-a-Failure Way”?
Or, maybe I am already realizing the dreams I once had but in my own unique and different way? I’m not an ordained Pastor with my own church but I am a Lay Pastoral Associate serving and preaching in the church and walking closely with God in His grand creation; I’m not a star of the stage and screen but I am singing – on a stage even – (when we can safely resume that art) – though no one would pay to hear me; I don’t dance much anymore but I would with a partner; I’m not a concert pianist but I have two pianos that I play with great abandon for an enrapt canine audience; I’m not flying into space but I can climb to what I now consider heaven on earth during less crowded times, and though I am not representing the President of the United States, I do write for a pretty swell boss and have my own blog!
“Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;”
How about you? Are you living your dream or living your best life possible? Is there a difference?
Whatever your answer, I think we can all raise a toast to Wally Funk in her flight to the heavens above. She has lived a life with a heart for any fate, still achieving, still pursuing, learning to labor, and to wait. I pray that when I come to the end of mine, I will be able to say the same.
A Psalm of Life
What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.
BY HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
Let Your Light So Shine!!!
So, I “did a thing” in the popular vernacular these days. As of Monday, August 17, 2020, 3 years after purchasing my first home I now OWN it outright – my mortgage is burned and I am completely debt-free! The celebration is, of course, bittersweet. Mom and Dad had a lot to do with this – the payoff was half my hard-earned savings/half my inheritance from them – plus the mindset to get it done! I would give anything for them to be here but I know they would be proud of their only daughter owning her own home before she turned 50 and making wise long-term financial decisions beginning with my first paycheck some 30 years ago. Although, I did joke with my brother that I paid off my house so I would have a topic for my blog this month!
I will admit to feeling a pang of anxiety and momentarily lost my faculties as the wire went out of my bank account to the mortgage company and I saw my liquid cash drop to a quarter of its value the day before. But those feelings soon subsided as the realization set in that I OWN MY OWN HOME! With the way the world is going, having this peace of mind is everything! I am in complete control of my financial wellbeing – as well as completely responsible for anything and everything that goes wrong with it – namely, the house. (As I was reminded by a friend who chose to sell her home and move into an apartment rather than deal with a mortgage and the headaches of home & yard maintenance.) While I may have lost a bit of my free time and playtime – the freedom I gained in financial security and peace of mind far outweighs the importance of my freedom to quench my wanderlust on a whim.
This past weekend, August 14 to be exact, marked the 7-year anniversary of my move to the Flathead Valley in NW Montana. That I continue to observe and outright celebrate this milestone event in my life shows just what a turning point my decision to uproot my firmly planted prairie feet and move west was in my life. The actual activities of August 14, 2013, were rather commonplace in our shared human story: packing up one’s belongings and striking out for somewhere new. For me, however, that day was the opening sentence of the first chapter of my new very independent life.
It seems like ages ago, and yet just yesterday, when I stood in the soft morning light of my final sunrise as a resident of Eastern Montana with so many dreams for my future. With all my belongings packed into a small trailer and the back of my Hyundai Santa Fe, I was off on a grand adventure of self-discovery. My eyes may have sparkled with anticipation, and my ever-present smile made it seem like it was the greatest day in my life, but I kept my fear of the unknown that lay before me well concealed with laughter and my hurried loading of the trailer. I had no idea what the next seven years would have in store for me except for a new job, new relationships, and of course plenty of trail dust.
Looking back at that time with 20/20 hindsight helps put this most uncertain year of 2020 in perspective. While I still have the same great job I moved here for and the mountains still beckon me with the same yodel, the rest of my life unfolded very differently than my original plotline. The love (besides the mountains) that I moved here for turned out not to be the one. My ideas of family get-togethers in the most beautiful part of Montana went unrealized with the deaths of both my parents within a year of each other.
I never imagined buying a home on my own or buying a home with a yard specifically with a dog in mind, nor did I dream I would find yet another Brittany (#5) that would lay claim on my heart and bring as much joy to my life as Ember has so expertly done. Nor did I fathom how much I would need his bright little light accompanying me along the way. Nowhere in my script for my life did I imagine needing an emergency lifesaving infusion of 5 pints of blood or getting married only to have that marriage end a year later. Fulfilling my lifelong dream to become a pastor – albeit via the Lay Pastoral Associate program in MT rather than going to seminary (but who knows!) – and filling my days writing sermons and guiding others in their faith journey was not even on my radar as a possibility that August morning 7 years ago.
Now, as I gather myself together after forking over so much dough and take stock of the life I have now given a bit more solid foundation, I am grateful to God for most of the unexpected or at least unplanned for adventures and resulting perspectives on life that have come my way the past 7 years. I am thankful for the dark times and the clouds in life (some real dark clouds) that make the good times and brighter days so much more precious. Times that taught me things about myself I would never have learned any other way. I thank God for helping me find my voice and using it to sing away the blues and sing in joyful harmony with others. I thank God for the new friendships I have made and the lasting friendships from back home that have stayed the course across the distance. I thank God, for this gift of LIFE!
Reflecting on the last seven years of my life has given me some much-needed perspective of the challenging times we are facing now. For the past 7 months, we have been living upended lives that certainly are not living up to the expectations we had on New Year’s Day as the COVID-19 pandemic does away with so many of our plans, dreams, and even just day to day regular activities. So much has been taken from us – and yet – as my 20/20 hindsight can attest – none of those things we hold dear – relationships, traditions, day to day life, hopes, dreams – are guaranteed. We take today and tomorrow for granted, that the people we love will be there for a phone call, that life will go as planned – until it doesn’t. And yet we get through it- through it all – and most of the time we are better for having lived through the challenges and changes. Knowing that I have survived some pretty hard times in the past and that I have done what I can to secure myself financially, I feel prepared for what could be stormy days ahead – or at least the unexpected.
I also know where the truest form of freedom and stability is found. Jesus never promised us that our lives would be free of trouble or disappointment – in fact, he guaranteed his followers would face hardship. What he did promise was that we would never have to face the twisting, bumpy, costly, sometimes disappointing, long and lonely road of life alone. Through Him, we find a new kind of freedom and shelter from the storm. His love and mercy are mine, all mine – and the same is true for you.
“This is the testimony in essence: God gave us eternal life; the life is in his Son. So, whoever has the Son, has life; whoever rejects the Son, rejects life. My purpose in writing is simply this: that you who believe in God’s Son will know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you have eternal life, the reality and not the illusion. And how bold and free we then become in his presence, freely asking according to his will, sure that he’s listening. And if we’re confident that he’s listening, we know that what we’ve asked for is as good as ours.” – John 5:11-15
Let your light so shine.
Ours was a difficult relationship, but then, the things that matter most in life are not always easy. Nonetheless, I know my mother loved me as deep as any mother could love a head-strong daughter. While I often wished we could have a relationship like those my friends enjoyed with their Moms, one filled with lunch dates, laughter, and dreams for tomorrow – I came to accept that those things were not important to my Mom. Counselors told me I needed to set boundaries in our relationship but how do you set boundaries between yourself and the person that gave life to you? While fences make good neighbors, boundaries do not address the conflicts that created the need for them. However, putting a physical boundary of 400 + miles between my mother and me with my move to the Flathead changed the dynamic between us. On visits home, we still engaged in rapid-fire from time to time but during our phone conversations, rather than constant head-butting, my Mom seemed to relish the fact that though I was living my own life, she could live vicariously through me in her old stomping grounds. Yet by this point in her health and our relationship, our conversations never ventured much past the surface.
Since my mother’s illness and death, I have learned much about what is important in life and the lesson has been painful. Past conflicts between us remained a barrier to my heart and have raked my heart ever since. The fact that my mother and I could not realize a reconciliation of any meaningful depth fills me with deep regret. Why had I not pursued this with my Mom sooner? My hopes are such that the pain and anger we inflicted on one another disappeared into her lost memories as I am not sure she could comprehend the feelings I wanted to express. Part of me feels at peace in the simple sweet conversations that we did share. Perhaps that is God’s grace reigning over my ineptitude. I have learned that life is finite. Its seasons far too short for anger, guilt, pride, and selfishness to linger in our relationships. Storms will come and we do not know when or how they will end.
King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes:
“As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.”
Solomon was wise. Life is meaningless if we do not tend to what truly matters. All the fun, work, accolades, and treasures of life we collect along the way are meaningless. What matters are the relationships we have; that our hearts are right with God; that we resolve conflicts with those we love; that they know they matter to us; and how very much we do indeed love them.
Reconciliation with my mother was a selfish goal of mine. But how much more powerful and life-giving it would have been had I been able to make peace with my mother while she was alive and not as I write this today in an attempt to honor her life and role as my mother. Perhaps it is best and all I can hope for that my Mom and I pursued the springtime memories of our life as we walked through her final winter together.
I last spoke to my mother on my 45th birthday, 18 days before she passed away. It was a conversation I will never forget. Aside from the fact she was upset that I would be celebrating alone and didn’t have a special dinner date (Hey, I had church and choir practice, what’s new?) she just kept saying all she wanted was for me to be happy and would I consider coming home. I kept telling her I was happy but I had too many mountains left to climb to think about coming home –but that didn’t mean I didn’t miss her. I told her I loved her so very much. Her last words to me were: I love you and I just want you to be happy.
One of her favorite songs was “His Eye is on the Sparrow”.
His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me. His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me. I sing because I’m happy; I sing because I’m free; His eye is on the sparrow And I know He watches me.
Mom, I know we had our struggles as a mother and daughter but I will forever carry with me your sweet love of the joys of life, the tender ways you loved me through childhood, and your simple understanding of what is good. I will continue to strive to live the kind of life you so wanted for me – one that is happy and lived for the Lord. I never stopped loving you and I will always hear your voice and feel your love whenever a songbird sings.
And when I do, I will sing because I know you are now happy, and I’ll sing because I know you are free. And I will smile at the sight of every sparrow because then I’ll know you are still with me.
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!
It (wasn’t) supposed to be this way. The title words of a current New York Times best-selling book, though I haven’t read it, and words that seem to roll off my tongue as easy as my name.
It is New Year’s Eve. By my choosing, I am alone, reflecting in the warmth of my home. The fire is lit, the candles are burning, classical music is driving my thoughts to paper as a nasty winter storm of rain, wind, and snow torments the last night of the year and decade, a decade, that for me, embodied the most dramatic changes to life as I know it than any other decade before.
I have spent many New Year’s Eves in this reflective state of mind – it’s what I do – my idea of fun – and I have uttered those 7 words far more than I care to admit, of late. Perhaps it is because I have taken far more leaps of faith in the last 10 years than any time before – leaps of faith that did not transpire in the manner I had fully expected them to. The certainty with which I once approached my carefully constructed life has been upended – 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 – it is all so disconcerting!
It wasn’t supposed to be this way!!!
“No one has ever seen God.” – John 1:18
The few times I have sensed surety, confidence, and purpose seem overshadowed by scenes right out of Paul Newman’s epic story of epiphany, Cool Hand Luke, where in the middle of a thunderstorm Luke yells up to the thunder and lightning, addressing God, “Let me know you’re up there. Come on. Love me, hate me, kill me, anything. Just let me know it.” It wasn’t supposed to be this way!!!
In the last ten years, I took flight, left my career, my family, and my friends behind and ventured west in pursuit of love and my love of the mountains – only to be broken by both. I found my voice, I ventured into the unknown, I began a new career and I made myself a nest in a wonderfully hot and cold apartment above an amazing landlord’s garage. My dog died. My mother died unexpectedly. I faced a frightening illness that in all rights should have claimed me on a mountainside. Then came my father’s last year of life and death – almost a year to the day after my mother’s – in a manner so unworthy of the life he had lived I still can’t comprehend it. I bought my first home and surrendered my life to it. I brought a new dog into my life. I fulfilled a dream by completing my lay pastoral associate program and becoming an “official” proclaimer of God’s word. And finally, I married and had that marriage abruptly end. This last blow caused me to question who I was and why I was even here.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way!!!
Despite being a “proclaimer of the Good News”, I have felt a huge void between my concept of faith and my God and the whole of this thing I am devoted to called church. I have felt estranged and very much alone.
“All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being.” John 1: 3
But it was in this darkness, this void of meaning and being and purpose that I was enduring, that God began to speak to me. (Side note here: QUESTIONING my faith is one of the greatest things I have ever done to INCREASE my faith and deepen my relationship with God. So, question and doubt away!!)
“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” – John 1:5
I began to realize that God seemed so distant – even absent – because the God I expected to be ruling over me, the God I was at once looking for and hiding from, does not exist. God revealed himself to me in the truth of my broken and difficult circumstances.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”- John 1:14
I was able to see the truth lighting the way to who and what God really is. It was as if He brought me into this void of darkness and despair in order to reveal the true light of God to me.
“From his fullness, we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” – John1: 16-17
Grace upon Grace.
Grace and truth.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way!!!
Or was it???
In the last ten years, I took flight, left my career, my family and my friends behind and ventured west in pursuit of love and my love of the mountains – I found both, was broken by both and ventured into both again more determined than ever.
I found my voice and have learned to speak my mind – not what I think my parents would want me to say but what I believe. I found my voice and let it rise in song before audiences I would never have dreamed of having or had the opportunity to have before.
I ventured into the unknown and made the unknown my home and in the process realized that the two feet and skinny legs God gave me weren’t just made for running but made for standing on my own. I began a new career and with it found new challenges and new opportunities to expand my skills and realized that I not only had a heart but also had a brain!
The nest I made for myself in that wonderfully hot and cold apartment above an amazing landlord’s garage was just the place I needed to grow wings and fly. 4 years later, I bought my first home, surrendered my life to it, and now come home every day to my slice of heaven and a safe harbor from the torments of the world around me.
When my beloved dog died leaving my heart hurt and empty, his passing made enough space in my heart for me to give my love again to another wonderful four-legged friend who has literally changed my life for the better in so many ways.
While my mother died unexpectedly, she died in peace on the first day of Spring and the beginning of Holy Week. Though I did not get to tell her goodbye – my last words to her were “I love you more than words can say,” the last time I saw her. Navigating her death during the holiest time of year changed the course of my grief into a celebration of her new life. The timing really could not have been more perfect.
I survived that frightening illness that in all rights should have claimed me on a mountainside – and I now have a greater sense of responsibility for my health and a bit more humility in the wilderness.
Yes, my father’s last year of life and death – almost a year to the day after my mother’s – was indeed in a manner so unworthy of the life he had lived. While, I still can’t comprehend it, I was able to hear him say my name one last time and I was with him as he breathed his last breath in a peace with God that surpasses all understanding. In his living and his dying, he taught me that no one escapes death. In the end we have no control over how or when we die so I should live and live well while I can.
In the wake of great loss, I fulfilled a lifelong yearning by completing my lay pastoral associate program and becoming an “official” proclaimer of God’s word. And now, with each passing adventure, I can do that ever more authentically!
I was married and had that marriage abruptly end. While I am still going through this difficult ending in my life, I know the truth. God will use this chapter in my life in ways I cannot yet comprehend. I know that God was walking with me as I glimpsed sheer joy and sheer despair, and He is walking with me now as I find grace upon grace upon grace. The truest Light, the One True Love who is greater than any mountain and the One whose light is greater than any darkness, is with me and in me.
“In him (IS) life and the life (IS) the light of all people.” – John 1:4
As a new year and a new decade dawns- I have no idea how things will be or are even supposed to be, but I do have an abiding hope; and I have faith in the things to come as all things are of God, from God, and with God. I call it 20/20 faith – gleaned from hindsight and the knowledge that my God is a loving, wildly creative, merciful God and He is doing a new thing. I can’t wait to see it fulfilled in me.
It’s supposed to be that way!!!
I pray that His promise is realized in you, too.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” – John 1:5
Let your light so shine.
Thoughts on Today …
Once again, I awoke with a spark of something, perhaps a reminiscent twitch of anticipation for the events of this day exactly 6 short years ago. The actual activities of August 14, 2013, were rather commonplace in our shared human story: packing up one’s belongings and striking out for somewhere new. For me, however, that day and the ensuing days of settling in were the opening sentence of the first chapter of my new life.
Looking back, it seems like ages ago and yet just yesterday, when I stood still in the soft morning light of an Eastern Montana sunrise and breathed a weary sigh. I surveyed the pared down contents of 42-years of life stuffed into a trailer and the back of my Santa Fe. Saying good-bye seemed surreal; the actions felt imagined, my throat constricted with a twinge of guilt, and my stomach was a flutter with nerves.
As I pulled out of Billings, a heavy silence enveloped me despite my planned departure soundtrack of Neil Diamond tunes keeping my tears at bay. Gone was the chaotic din that was constant in my life for the past month of job leaving, possession packing, possession discarding, panic attacks, and the social commitments that come with saying good-bye.
So, this is it! Here I am world, I thought at the time. I felt emotionally exhausted and amazingly free.
Had my life so far prepared me for that moment of independence? Oh, YES! All at once, I was alone, truly and wonderfully alone for the first time in my life. I at once marveled and trembled at what was transpiring. I was leaving behind a life that was full of responsibility and friends. People of all walks in my community recognized me. I was leaving my history behind. Now I was free to be me.
Naturally, I am not the same woman today that I was that mid-August morning. If anything resulted from that epic leap of faith from the nest, I have discovered I can stand on my own two feet. I have faced some of the darkest times of my life in the last 6 years and emerged into the light again with a clearer understanding of who I am. I have a very independent spirit but a heart that longs to share. I panic with the realization that time slips away quickly, and regret is a very hard feeling to overcome. Thus, challenging myself, taking a few risks, engaging with others, stepping beyond my comfort zone, and having fun is now my modus operandi. While I refuse to be fenced in, I desire boundary lines I can grasp onto from time to time, seeking direction and support.
I am forever thanking God for the friendships that have crossed the miles with me and sustain me, and for the new family and friendships, I have found here through my love, my job, my church, and the risks I am taking in life by putting myself out there. I will admit to times of great loneliness and rejoice in times of such happy belonging that I pinch myself. Life is certainly an interesting roller-coaster ride of emotions! I thank God for every tear and fit of laughter as each enriches my life with colors of the heart and make me feel alive.
The melancholy moments of longing for what was and the joyous highs of the adventure that lies before me can exhaust a person at times and I gather that is why life is revealing itself to me on an as-needed basis, a situation that reveals my lack of patience when it comes to my personal soul searching. Nevertheless, each day I awake with renewed vigor in my quest. What a book I will have to write before it all comes to a close (I am obviously extending the publication date by years!)
Thank you, Lord, for guiding me on this journey, for filling me with the spirit of life, for this very moment I am spending with you, and for giving me wonderful hope in tomorrow. I cannot wait for the next chapter to begin!
“But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.” – Isaiah 40:31
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!
Tis the season of gratitude and the Hallmark Christmas Channel with a record 34 new merry movies guaranteed to move you between this Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now don’t get me wrong – I love a good movie and I love the occasional good cry – but to be perfectly honest with you – I watch the Hallmark movies for the commercials. Hallmark Greeting Card commercials rank right up there with the Budweiser Clydesdale’s Super Bowl commercials on the tear-jerk scale for me.
This year you can spend “Christmas in Evergreen” or “Christmas in Graceland” or even “Christmas at the Palace” for all you royal wedding buffs. You can be “Home for Christmas”, have a “Homegrown Christmas”, “Mingle All the Way” to “Merry Matrimony”, be “Just in Time for Christmas”, find “A Family for Christmas”, make “Christmas Cookies” or a “Christmas Connection”, share “Christmas Joy”, get cozy in the “Christmas Cottage” or find “Christmas Love” just to name a few.
But the one movie that takes the cake for me is getting “Hitched for the Holidays” because … well… I AM!!! (Well technically over Thanksgiving – but the two holidays seem to merge into one another anymore anyway.) Never, never in my life did I think I would be the subject of a Hallmark Christmas Movie, but then again, as of late, I have lived through all the requisite movie making ingredients: calamity, tragedy, sorrow, heartbreak, new home, new puppy, getting snowbound, surprise guests, a new chapter in life, and now a fiancé for the holidays – someone I had pretty much thought didn’t exist for me (see the plot thickening already!!) not even 9 months ago – and if you are reading this story on November 17th I will be walking down the aisle in my holiday best just 7 short days from now!
Now it wouldn’t be a Hallmark-worthy story without a bit of nostalgia thrown in for good measure and so as I sit here during one of my less frazzled pre-wedding evenings – doing what I do best – remembering times gone by while paging through old photo albums and sharing Facebook memories – it has become obvious that Thanksgiving was NOT a photographic holiday in my family!!! I found 2 – TWO! pictures of my family at Thanksgiving – all taken in the last 6 years and one in a photo album. This is probably because I can recall many Thanksgivings when calamity reigned over peace in our kitchen and our meals were not always bubbling with joy. Broken casserole dishes, dry turkey, watery green bean casserole, arguments over Christmas lights – and when we could turn them on, and who was or wasn’t coming for dinner. Oh yes, we had separate Thanksgivings and silent Thanksgivings, soup for Thanksgiving, and yes, WONDERFUL Thanksgivings.
The last Thanksgiving my whole family was together was 2012. I never dreamed that would be the last one we celebrated together but it was. Illness, inclement weather, plans elsewhere, and death came between us in the following years. The last Thanksgiving we had with my Mom we didn’t have with Mom as she stayed home in “one of her moods” while the rest of us went to a relative’s house for the feast. No, I never claimed we were a perfect family – but we loved each other even in the mess.
The year after that would be the last Thanksgiving I would have with my Dad and last year was the first one my brother and I had without either of our parents.
Every Hallmark Movie has a moral to the story and my morality lesson goes right to our mortality and the finite essence of life. I have learned that nothing – nothing can replace relationships – nothing is more important than family – and I must do a better job of nurturing the bonds I have with the people who have found their way into my life going forward. Love everyone at your table despite any irritations they might inflict and cherish every moment you have with them. Life is fleeting. Forgiveness is a gift that should not be given sparingly, and as Eleanor Roosevelt once said – “The giving of love is an education in itself.”
This year I will be feasting on memories and giving thanks for lives well lived and a life still worth living. I will be celebrating the joining of two families as my fiancé, John and I become one of our own. We will be busy little premarital mice putting the finishing touches on our Scandinavian wedding day while entertaining out of town family for Thanksgiving. The turkey dinner has been ordered – so no drama will ensue in the kitchen this year but we will have plenty of opportunities for epic hilarity as burlap and wheat, lefse, lingonberries, and lox get thrown around the church fellowship hall.
We will have many romantic Hallmark-worthy moments and some not so memorable or romantic ones to come in the days and years ahead but one thing I know for sure – Getting Hitched for the Holidays is going to be the best story either of us will ever tell.
Wishing you a blessed Thanksgiving!
Let your light so shine!