Emboldened for Life

On a beautiful, warm, sunny morning one year ago today, I bid a final earthly farewell to my father. It was the most difficult day of my life since the other most difficult day of my life bidding my mother a final goodbye on a cold, rainy, snowy blustery day just one year before. The shining sun warmed the earth, a breeze carried the scent of trees in bloom, and the song of birds drifted gently in from afar –  a wonderful reunion was at hand!

As the day of honoring my father unfolded I was embraced with love from oh so many who had loved my dad. The rites, the acts of honor, the gatherings, the pleasantries – all served a purpose –  not only for my dad but for getting me through the day. The week of chaotic preparation – the obit writing, the slide show, the service planning, the cremation, the notifying, the receiving of others, the trying to make sure everything was done just right – had come to an end.

Every one that had surrounded my brother and I for the days preceding were getting on with their lives –  there were tee times to make and lawns to be mowed, groceries to be bought, work to get back to, weekend getaways to get on with.

It was then that the silence set in – the reality of it all came crashing down. Spending that night alone, in the house that had been a home to so much life gave powerful testimony to what I had lost. The emptiness was paralyzing. Having powered through my emotions for days the weight of grief suddenly buried me. It would do so for days, weeks, and months to come.

Looking back on this year now I have a much different perspective. The emptiness that accompanied me through life is starting to be filled with the joy of living again. The sorrow that still lingers is now appreciated for what it is – a tribute to the depth of love I have for my parents – rather than suffocating my will to live.

As a child I was terrified of the thought that one day my parents would die. I comforted myself by presuming that I would have my own family to attend to when those that had attended to me passed on; that the family life that I had known would be carried on through us.

That wasn’t to be. Rather, I was intended to make this journey on my own –  a solitary quest for life after death. By the grace of God and with the strength of the Holy Spirit I endured. I am a new person now molded by the revealing experience of death and emboldened to meet the opportunities of life.

“Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.” – Isaiah 40:28-31

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

Reflecting On Life through Death and Learning to Dance Again

“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.” – Isaiah 43: 16-19

We will all eventually die. Learning how to live in this mortal truth has transformed me from my soul to my song.

I have known death from a young age as I watched grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and yes, dogs – die. And, for a long long time – even though my faith was strong –  I was so very afraid of death –  not so much the thought of me dying – for my faith was and is strong –  but the thought of the living on after that must follow when those we love leave us. That inescapable truth was made resoundingly clear in my life this year. Fear and love are forever intertwined – life teaches us this, death makes it real.

It is not an easy truth to grasp – even for those who have watched loved ones die. When my mother died last year, I was not with her. Her death seemed surreal to me – still does at times. One moment she was there –  as I knew she always would be – and the next – I was on the other end of a phone call no one wants to make. Her death journey during Holy Week made it even more, how shall I say it, awe-some? That our ever-loving God would call home his sweet sparrow on the first day of Spring – Palm Sunday, that we would memorialize her on Good Friday, and celebrate her new life with Jesus on Easter Sunday seemed so fitting -and yet her death and our journey through it is one I still have difficulty grasping. Perhaps because we didn’t have the chance to mourn.

I was with father when he died, just over one year later. His death remains very much alive in me – almost as much as his life continues on in I me. I was there for his last breath, I saw the light leave his eyes, and felt the life leave his body. It is a feeling that has accompanied me to bed at night, in the pews at church, but mostly when I am out walking. That my Dad would die after a hard-fought battle with cancer and the rages of sudden onset Alzheimer’s left me numb and yet completely aware of every whisper of his life. The greatest man I had ever known was gone. With his death, I was awakened to the reality of life.

It is in death when our full humanity comes to life. In truth, life is about learning to live through death. 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 life as individuals ceases. 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. 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.

Indeed, in this year I have experienced many deaths. It has been the most sorrow-filled time of my entire life. I have never been one who could let go of people or things –  I am loyal and committed to the end – sometimes to my detriment. Saying good-bye does not come easy for me –  and I have had to say goodbye so many times to so many people and things this year (good grief I even sobbed when I closed the door on my apartment for the last time!) but sometimes we have to say good-bye to live again.

During my journey through grief this year I stumbled upon a gem of a book: “Turn My Mourning into Dancing,” by Henri Nouwen. The title strikes me tonight, this eve of a New Year and the end of year that has left my heart ravaged and my life unfamiliar, because I have found myself dancing, yes DANCING this year away!  I am dancing once again as I reflect on a year of fear and love and the new life borne of them.

As I mourned my mother and father, I made peace with who I am now –  I can be no other than the daughter and woman God created through them 46 years ago. They raised me to shine a light in this world and shine it in honor and love for them I will!  This year, I found my voice and my place. Never have I felt so fulfilled and so right then when I am sharing God’s love and the Good News through Word and Sacrament.

Committing myself to doing more than simply following in Christ’s footsteps but going to wherever He leads me, has transformed my faith from one of rigor to one of complete awe, trust, and love.

As I said goodbye to my family home of 25 years in Billings and my little nest of 4 years in Whitefish, I embarked on a journey of independence and responsibility I hadn’t yet known – proud Columbia Falls home ownership – all in one month!

As I let go of one I was holding on to because I do not fail at love –  I discovered what self-love is all about –  the door to giving and receiving more love to others.

As I struggled with despair and loneliness, I was humbled before God and found that life is far richer when shared with others and that meant letting go of my need to control and my fear of failing and not just share my life with others but give my life to others.

And most of all, I learned yet again that sometimes with great sacrifice comes great reward –  that life is more than great running times and a good night’s sleep –  that puppies are worth lost mileage and every sleepless moment. That out of the ashes of life and death comes new light, new life, and great love. The Ember of my heart.

So yes, as another year passes, as another season of life dies away – I am carried into the new year by the melodies of new life showing me how good it is to dance once again.

Thank you, dear Lord for the lessons of death and the light of new life –  there for us each and every day.

May God bless you and keep you. May the Lord make His face to shine upon you with mercy and grace and give you peace, joy, and new life in the New Year!

Let your light so shine!

An Equation for Life

“What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” – Ecclesiastes 3: 9-11

I have spent a considerable amount of time and paper this summer, contemplating the value of things and what makes up this big thing we call life. As my brother and I sorted through all the things collected by our parents over a combined lifespan of 167 years (not including the things collected by their two children) there were times that I just wanted it all to go away. I was flabbergasted at the amount of things we had collected and held on to throughout the 60 years of my parent’s life together.

I shared with you my family home decluttering tales, the sentimental moments of nostalgia that flooded the basement with tears, the moments of shock that sent me careening through a lifetime of forgotten memories at seeing the invaluable contents of our life as a family displayed and bargain priced for the estate sale. So much emotion devoted to things and the memories made with them.

If anything good can come from the deaths of one’s parents, it is the lessons we, that are left behind, go on living with about what life really is all about.

I recently read an article by Carl Richards, the Sketch Guy, in the New York Times in which he wrote about the equation of life that most of us are currently in the process of solving.

[Life] = [Money]

We spend all this time earning money to spend on stuff that makes up our lives. We swap our lives for money. In fact, we swap about 40,000 hours of our lives over 20 years for money which we then spend on stuff.

His equation morphed into this final assessment:

[Life] = [Stuff]

After my brother’s and my experience of cleaning out the family home of stuff this summer, I could not agree more! To be honest, I think there was way more than 40,000 hours of life swapped for stuff – more like a lifetime worth life swapped for stuff.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying everyone should stop working and earning money and buying things – goodness, things make life worthwhile –  to an extent. We are humans. We need things. As a civilized and domesticated human, I want things and frankly couldn’t live without things. A roof over my head is important, as is heat, clothing, food, and yes, for me a car. I know some people can get by in life without a car – there is a whole movement among the millennials to not own a vehicle – and more power to them! I however, cannot. I like my car and the rapid way it transports me to places I need or want to go. I like to have a comfortable and welcoming home – a remnant of sorts of the home I grew up in, I suppose, where collections created a story of our lives.  A nifty pair of boots make me happy when the weather turns cool.  The quest for things keeps our economy humming. When the economy stops humming most of us start moaning and groaning – so obviously, things have an important role to play in our lives.

But I will tell you right now – I would sell you the clothes off my back and everything I have acquired in my 20+ years of working, to have a few more moments with my mom and dad.

I recently ventured “home” one last time. The house has sold and I needed to gather the few remaining things that had been stuffed into my bedroom closet and pick up a few more things that remained in storage that would now occupy my new home. This was the first time I had stepped inside that house completely void of everything since the day we bought the house 28 years ago. I was 18 years old at that time. A new chapter was opening in my family’s life. Dad had just retired and was looking forward to years of golf and staying put for a change. Mom was looking forward to being close to family again and staying put for a change. It did not dawn on me at that time that this would be the house they would die in.  Standing in that empty house, I felt like a wildfire had come through and swept everything away. Stripped bare of the contents collected, “home” felt foreign to me – as if the 28 years of life lived inside these walls hadn’t happened. The emptiness was too much. I longed to page through the books my dad’s hands once held, and to light again, the candles my mom collected because candlelight always made our hearts glow. I longed for our blue and white dinner plates that served us dinner for 35 years, I longed for the scent of my dad’s Bay Rum and Aqua Velva after shave and my mom’s Bonn Street eau de toilette.  Those things were all gone. Sold and taken away to the stories of other people’s lives or simply gone and alive only in my memories. There was no comforting ticking of the old barn clock that had hung on every wall of every home my parents owned. Just silence.

Poignantly, some of things left behind in my closet were bundles and bundles of cards  – cards from my childhood – cards from friends telling me good bye and good luck as we prepared to move away. Cards from aunts and uncles and cards from Mom and Dad. Cards from when I turned 6 and turned sweet 16. Cards in honor of my confirmation and graduation. I tried to sort through them, thinking now was as good a time as ever to lighten my collection of stuff –  but the “to toss” pile never grew. I found myself clinging to every written word on every single card as a link to my past. I knew in these stacks of cards were some of the last words written to me by Mom and Dad. All I wanted was to see their handwriting telling me they loved me and how proud they were of their little girl. I will never receive one of those cards again.

There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how much things become a part of our lives.

There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how little those things matter in life.

Death has changed what I value. Those hand-written cards found in my closet have far more value to me than all the clothes I could ever want to hang there. The sale price of the family home means far less to me than the life once lived within its walls. And that is what makes my heart break.

We don’t like to think that our time with our loved ones, that our own time, frankly, is finite. I took for granted the time I had with my parents, and as many wonderful memories and not so wonderful memories that I have of our family, I do not have enough. I did not invest the time I had with them wisely.

Having worked for a financial advisor for 4 years now one would think I would have this investing thing down pat. Well, from now on I plan to. I am refocusing my investments – not in things, not in money, but in life.  I am investing more time in living life.

I’m done swapping countless hours of life for things and empty existence. A few hours for a nifty pair of boots, ok – yes. The rest I plan to invest in the times of my life. Here’s my equation:

[Time] = [Life]

Aside from paying someone to mow my lawn – money can’t buy any of that.

“I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.” – Ecclesiastes 3:12-14

The Body of Christ

As I sat in church this morning, reflecting on the cross, tears stung my eyes and my throat ached. The hubbub of families back in the pews after adventure-filled summers reminded me how important the church has been in my life for as long as I can remember. From my days when I couldn’t see over the pew when Mom was the organist and Dad, as always, was in charge of everything but the preaching, to my days in confirmation when Mom and Dad guided unruly 7th and 8th graders through Luther’s Catechism with other committed parents, to my days serving alongside Dad on council and the building committee –  the church, the congregation, the Body of Christ has always been foremost in our family life, even after Mom drew away.

 

Today it hit me hard. I will never look down the pew and see my Dad dressed in his Sunday attire again. I will never see him standing attentively and with authority at the back of the church in his standard ushering uniform of a green blazer, khaki dress pants, and Snoopy tie making sure the service ran smoothly –  so often at the expense of his own time with God. I will never see him walk forward with conviction and humility to receive the Bread of Life. Dad even celebrated his 80th birthday at a church meeting! Church is different now. My perspective of the cross has changed forever.

 

Mom has been gone for an impossible 18 months, and Dad an achingly short 5 months. At times it seems like just yesterday since I last looked into their eyes. Today as I watched families, young and old, gathering together as one in Christ, the emptiness inside me was almost more than I could bear – almost. Just as Jesus promised –  “whenever two or three are gathered in my name, I will be there” – and He was. Bearing me up, and showing me that this hubbub of family was my hubbub too Those families, that Body of Christ, is my family. Church will never be as I remember it, in the hey days of my family. The church to me now, will be as Christ envisioned it to be –  my family.

 

Thank you, Mom and Dad, for raising me in the Body of Christ, for giving me a family greater than blood. I love you and miss you so much.

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

A Man of Integrity and Faith – I love you, Dad

The godly walk with integrity; blessed are their children who follow them.

– Proverbs 20:7

As I write this remembrance, I am marking two weeks since I last held my father’s living hand. I will always be my Daddy’s little girl and he will always be the greatest man I have ever loved and known. I am who I am because of his loving and guiding influence on my life. Not a day goes by that I don’t find myself thanking him for the lessons in life he taught me or recalling a valuable piece of wisdom he gave me as I try to make sense of the world. So many of the decisions I make today are made on the foundations of faith, character, and conscience he instilled in me.

His vibrant livelihood and body had grown weary of this world and his spirit had longed to be free riding the range, dancing with my mom, and acing every hole from the tee for some time. I know my dad was ready for the ultimate glory awaiting him in heaven that he so richly deserved, but I was not. He went so fast the morning of April 29th – just like him – always efficient, never wanting to lollygag. I still had so much to tell him and so much to learn from him. I am not sure how I will go on in this world knowing I will never hear him say, “I love you Erika, wish you were home,” or feel him hug me tight again. He was the only one who would listen to me play the piano and tell me: “That was nice!” and listen with tongue-in-cheek glee to the stories of my mountain-top adventures.

I spent hours trying to capture his life in words for the eulogy I gave at his memorial service. In the end, I rewrote everything in an hour right before his service – this time letting my heart speak – awakened and renewed from a beautiful run in God’s glorious morning light. My hope in sharing this with you is that you too will come to know the most amazing gift you can give or receive is that of knowing the Lord and living a life in faith. For as each of our days come to an end, it is that relationship with God and knowing His peace that will carry you through.

***

Good Morning! Thank you for being here to help celebrate the life of a very special man, my father. The first thing I thought of when I woke up today was what a great day it is indeed – we are going to have a celebration of my Dad’s life!! And as Fred (my brother), so eloquently captured –  such a life it is to celebrate!

I was going to speak about the essence of my Dad’s life. I spent 12 hours over 2 days writing about the things that brought happiness to his life. But then I thought, you all knew Dad, you knew the essence of him – that’s why you are here! I may be studying to become a pastor but I certainly don’t want to stand here and preach to the choir! Instead, this morning I am speaking from a daughter’s faith-filled heart renewed by the promise of life in a new day.

In the last few days, so many who knew Dad, even only in passing, remarked how happy he always was. And as I poured through the photographs of his life, it was hard to find one photo where he didn’t have a robust smile on his face.

Of all the things that brought happiness to my Dad’s life – the people he shared it with, his family, his grand-dogs, his colleagues, his career, his past-times – the one constant source of happiness and strength and peace – and I firmly believe the most important source of happiness and life in his last days – was his faith!

I opened his obituary with Proverbs 20:7 – The godly walk with integrity – blessed are the children who follow them.

As I was going through his scrapbook last night, I found another verse – one that meant something to him as a 17-year-old in 1949 and one he obviously carried with him throughout his life – Proverbs 22:6, “train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

I know I am blessed to follow in my Dad’s walk of faith. Dad raised us in faith, as beloved children of God, and he entrusted his life and ours to the Lord. He was a proud Lutheran but humble in his ways. He encouraged us in our faith growing up. I know it brought him great concern and sadness when I, for a wayward time in my 20’s, quit going to church.  And I know how much it meant to him to have all of us all sitting in the pew with him again here on Sunday mornings in recent years.

Dad never missed church. He was always raring to go on Sunday morning – much to my Mom’s demise. There were more than a few horn honks and terse words said as we sped to church- but Dad knew he needed church. He needed the grace and mercy, the forgiveness and love that our Lord freely gives. As great a man as he was – as kindly and gentlemanly as he was to everyone – Dad knew he was a broken man as we are all broken people – and he knew he needed the Lord.

Of course, the people of this church made him happy. I think that is why this and every church we have been a part of for that matter meant so much to him. The people found inside were so important to him. But oh, how he LOVED THIS CHURCH!  Keeping a congregation alive meant he was bringing the Lord deeper into his heart. And that is why he devoted so much of himself to this church. He never shied away from saying yes to the Lord when He called him to a ministry – be that building a church, leading a congregation, cleaning a bathroom, raising funds, teaching Sunday school, or serving as an usher. He served our Lord with a sense of honor, respect, and love. It meant so much to him to participate in the ground-breaking for the new “Building Of Faith for Generations” here just a few short weeks ago.

Dad had a deep and ever growing faith, one he nurtured through continued study, service, and sharing and I am so glad he shared his mighty faith in the Lord with me. I can only hope to be half the leader of others to knowing the peace of Christ as he was in his quiet evangelism. His steadfast faith is the greatest gift, aside from his love, that he could have ever shared with me.

I know that my Dad’s faith was a beacon and source of strength for him. A beacon for my life, my faith has sustained me too, through all the opportunities and challenges that have come my way.  Because of the gift my Dad gave me –  I have faced those opportunities and challenges with a sense of strength that I know comes only from the Lord’s presence in my life. Unlike my Dad, I can’t be as quiet about it as he was.

I leaned on my Dad an awful lot in life – he was my source of wisdom, of political intellect, of what is fair and what is right. He was my counselor on all matters of living – and he did so with the heart of Jesus. He was my encourager and biggest (but quietest) fan. He knew he had done his job well when he saw how deeply I was growing in my own faith.  In a moment of clarity, a week or so ago he came right out and asked me how my lay pastoral studies were going. When I told him it was the best thing that could be happening to me right now, he responded with a strong GOOD!

In the last few minutes I had with my Dad, we shared the words of the Lord’s Prayer, we spoke of how Dad let his light shine so that others could see the good works of God, and how I hoped and prayed that I may do that as well and as purely as he did.  We spoke about letting God’s perfect will be done.

Dad had found a peace that surpasses our understanding – and while at the time I was not willing to let him go without a fight – I was able to – as that same peace began to wrap around me.

I will have to lean on the Lord a whole lot more in the days to come.  But that is ok – He has my Dad there to help carry the load.

Being Neil Morck’s daughter was a pretty honorable position to be in and how I most often identified myself to others!  Now I know that not only am I Neil Morck’s daughter and a child of God, but a woman who lives for God. He prepared his children well for life – to forge ahead in our own identities accompanied all the way by our Lord Jesus Christ.

My Dad saw the world through eyes that have seen just about everything this broken and beautiful world has to offer, yet he always had a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face. The Lord gave him a very good life and he was very happy.

Yes, the godly do indeed walk with integrity; blessed are their children who follow them. I happen to know that the godly walk in happiness too, and as my Dad’s favorite daughter, I am eternally blessed and happy to walk in his footsteps. Now I know why he was always so horn honking eager to get to church on Sunday mornings.

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, alive 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.

 

 

Don’t Cry Because it’s Over, Smile Because it Happened.

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

– Dr. Seuss

15585330_1423685114322749_7195857032468761883_oI had a difficult time letting go of 2016. In all the years of my life I do not recall one that contained so many life changing circumstances as the past year. One would think I couldn’t wait to close, make that slam, the door on the year that brought emotional upheaval, sickness, strife, and death to my life but instead I found myself wanting to hold on to the year that was as the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve. In every aspect, 2016 was a year that will shape the narrative of my life for some time to come.

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

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

7803683540_76d8f5f45d_bHow we interpret our experiences, how we tell our stories, will set the tone and direction of our journeys in the year and years to come.

I tell my story through a lens of overcoming and persevering through events which brought me to a closer walk with God. By overcoming a near fatal eating disorder in my twenties – the ramifications of which altered the trajectory of my life including my schooling, my career, and my relationships –  I gained an inner strength and appreciation for life itself that I would not have otherwise acquired. I truly was born again into a life with Christ when I came out of ICU and gave my life completely into His hands and the hands of others He worked through to make me well again. I have lived every day since, cognizant of His divine mercy and grace in my life.

While 2016 had its fine share of wretchedness that at times drove me to places of darkness and sorrow, it was also a year of great personal growth and new direction in my life. My mother’s death changed who I am in this world going forward. I no longer have my mother to stand by me and as odd as it may sound, at 45 years of age I no longer feel like a child. Rather, I am determined to be the woman she never imagined I could be with a strength that I know she quietly and not so quietly instilled in me throughout our tumultuous yet loving mother-daughter relationship.

My father’s car accident and battle with cancer which began shortly after my mother’s death reminded my entire family that we cannot do this life thing on our own. We were richly rewarded through the goodness of friends and family surrounding us with acts of love and prayers. 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 was fought with faith and determination and through His great providence, we won!

In 2016 I was reminded that I am not invincible and God knew just how to do that. 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. Mind you, the mountains are really not the place to discover your weaknesses – at least not your physical ones. The events of the year had been quietly taking a toll on me, leading me to crash and burn on a mountainside for the first time in my epic climbing life (writer’s opinion inserted there). It was the first of many signs that I had been neglecting my own health but I ignored them and pushed through the symptoms of exhaustion, collapsing spells, and stomach issues chalking them up to stress.

When fear started to overwhelm everything else in my life, I headed to the clinic one morning 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. This was a rather unexpected outcome of quick check-up! To put it bluntly, I had no red blood cells and quite frankly, the doctor told me – I should have been dead.

My 2nd brush with death in life reminded me once again 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. To win in life, one must be strong, unwavering, and humble – we must know our weaknesses to overcome them and I found mine.  Now I am in a process of restoring my health and I am making good progress! Which is a good thing because I have embarked on a new direction in life that had been far too long in the planning stages. My mother’s death and father’s illness made me very much aware that life is to be lived – not just observed or reflected upon. My goals of becoming a Lay Pastoral Associate and becoming a voice of hope in others’ lives will be realized.

While it is easy to succumb to a woe-is-me-what have-I-done-to-deserve-this-attitude when life goes awry, (which is a perfectly natural response) I choose to see my experiences as stepping stones rather than hurdles and tell a redemptive story of new goals, new opportunities, and strengthened relationships, rather than a story of my life going from good to bad which would ultimately lead to a life suspended. By choosing to see the events of my life through a lens of redemption and communion I am choosing to embrace the challenges I have faced and use them for good.

1795353_897513270273272_6053940868719391842_oI 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 my mountain sanctuaries did not avail themselves to me as much last year as in the recent past, partially due to the incessant rainy weather, partially due to my health, but mostly because God determined the chaos of life needed to be lived not escaped from, my challenges would come from within not from a wanderlust adventure, and I would come to find my peace in Him at all times – not just when the mountains called me.

2016 changed me. I am stronger now, in WHO I am. I am humbler. 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 an appreciation of the beauty, opportunity, and peace that awaits me.

What is your story of life and 2016? How will you tell it and how will it define your goals and direction for 2017 and the years to come?

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

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