Changing Course

We don’t always end up where we intended in life. Long before reaching our final destination, life happens and we are forced to change course.

I wrote those words a little over a week ago, oblivious to just how prophetic they would be in the coming days. I’m not sure why the sudden pothole I fell into came as such a surprise – perhaps it is because I have been living in denial.

Denial that despite what the Social Security Administration has in their official records on me – I can’t possibly be a year past 50. Denial that though most of my high school friends are celebrating 25 years plus of marriage and have kids who are now getting married – I am still living a carefree single girl’s life. Denial that my body is a human body, nothing more, nothing less – and not a spectacular specimen of immortality.

No, I should not have been surprised. In fact, in my free wheeling days leading up to the “news” I had finally made out my will and detailed how I want my life to end if I am unable to have a say in the matter. A sobering exercise if there ever was one, made even more so by the fact that ‘ll likely have no one other than my churches and charities to leave whatever riches I have left to – and no one to carry on my legacy let alone see to my needs in my last days – all documented in official legalese. But even that did little to change the reflection I chose to see in the mirror every day – the one to whom the laws of the universe don’t apply.

I ran across an “old” acquaintance from high school the other day on Facebook. He had posted a picture of his family – and for a minute I thought he must have taken the picture of his dad with the rest of his family but then it dawned on me that the balding man with more than just flecks of grey in his beard and deep lines on his forehead was actually my classmate! Wow, I thought to myself, I wonder what happened to him? He looked happy, but old.

But not me! No, I’m the one who faced down death at 23 and had a completely unnerving brush with death at 45 but laughed in the face of it both times – assured that God still had plans for me on this great earth. I’m the one who the devil rolls his eyes at as I bound out of bed for my daily 10 mile runs at the crack of dawn come rain, shine, blizzard, or below zero temperatures. Who didn’t let a sprained ankle or broken toe stop me. Who, once I discovered that God inhabited the summits and hugged me with the sky, repeatedly climbed mountains and hiked 23 miles a day back-to-back every summer. I’m the one who has proven time and again that my body can heal itself. Throughout all of life’s travails, I have always believed that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.

That has been how the world has seen me and what I saw every morning in the mirror – despite the pain.

The damn pain that just would not go away. No matter what I tried – physical therapy, deep massage, changing my diet, and of course stopping the very activity that gave me life -running – the pain just kept coming back, malingering in the background – taunting me to pay attention to it.

I don’t know when I finally became cognizant of the fact that I no longer had control over my life – that I had ceded my days to pain. It crept its way into my being – shadowing my bright spirits – sapping life from me little by little. Honestly, I didn’t notice at first how much it was controlling me as I just pushed through it – to the point that pushing through was taking all I had until I had nothing more to give. I no longer recognized myself in the mirror.

And so, I gave in and finally made an appointment with a doctor – something I am loathe to do. Lucky for me I only had to wait 4 weeks to get in to see an orthopedist – surely – I convinced myself – this was a simple stress fracture – another 6-8 weeks of rest and I’ll be back. Alas it didn’t cross my mind that it would have to be one heck of a stress fracture to make my whole body hurt. I was certain of the point of pain though. What started with my broken foot led to over- compensation and poor muscle strength in areas no one pays attention to until their physical therapist points out just how weak they are that threw my stride off and thus threw my hip out of joint. I’m great at self-diagnosis. I’ve been around the block enough times to know exactly what was wrong, after all!

The doctor ran a gamut of x-rays and then came in for the “exam”. I gave an excellent presentation of my theory and said in finishing – “So if you could just get my hip to pop back into place, I know that will fix my problem.”

She tilted her head to one side and replied, “Well let’s have a look at the pictures…”

And there it was in black and white – well more like gray and white. My problem. There would be no simple popping my hip back into its socket. The damage was done. My hip socket is a mess. I’m walking around with bone on bone.

“You have significantly advanced arthritis,” she said. “I’m surprised to see this much damage in someone your age. I’d recommend a hip replacement – but you are too young. Do you have any questions for me?”

Literally – those were her very words. Do I have questions?? Of course I have questions!!! So, what does this mean? How are you going to relieve my pain? Are there alternatives? What caused this?

While athletes sometimes develop arthritis, especially after injury, she said not all do. People who are sedentary also get arthritis. For the most part it is idiopathic (unknown in cause) but does have strong ties to your genes. I watched my mother suffer from arthritis and saw her give in to it. I swore that would never be me and that is one of the reasons I stayed so active -to avoid the same fate. Apparently, my efforts were for naught.

What does this mean? I am not entirely sure. There is no easy fix, no magic pill. Pain will continue to rule my life for the foreseeable future – learning how to manage it will be my goal. Don’t put on weight, she said. Ha! First doctor who has EVER told me that!!! A steroid shot would be too invasive with a considerable risk of infection. She would be happy to prescribe a prescription-strength anti-inflammatory but when she described my options and the risks, I decided I want to stay away from those for as long as I can.

As for running – what once gave me life? She said if I get past this season of pain and want to try – fine but I am setting myself up for more pain – meaning less life. So, I am trying to be “fine” and make it my goal to hike fifteen miles a day come summer. That is all is want…

I am trying to keep this in perspective. I received a life-altering diagnosis not a life-taking one. For that I am thankful and almost ashamed by the state of despair I am in. In truth, it does feel like my life is being taken from me – chasing sunrises and sunsets on foot, losing myself in miles of thought and meditation, taking on mile after mile of adventure.

Or has it? I still believe that which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. I will find my way through this. I will also ask for help to do so. I am determined to ensure that my present pothole state is not my new reality. I am strong because of my past and I am stronger still because I always believe in tomorrow.

In that same post from a week ago I wrote: “Think of all the times in your life you did not have a say in the matter – when a course correction was forced upon you. And yet, you are still here today – likely better for the challenge you accepted and made the most of.”

I AM still here today having faced many a challenge before this one; I am prepared to meet this the same way – with faith that God still has plans for me, that He isn’t done with me yet, and I will rise above this season of pain and learn to shine anew.

“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 40:31

Let your light so shine.

Far and Away

While contemplating a drastic career change and his current uneasy place in life, a fellow writing friend of mine shared a thought that resonated deeply within me and yet disquieted what I thought was my own pleasantly planted sense of being: For those who were meant for changing horizons security can feel like imprisonment. The soul seeks freedom.

My pilot friend had reached a point in his flying career where he found himself dreading the very thing that he once dreamed of becoming. His seemingly round the clock job and forced quarantines away from family for weeks on end (he flies out of Hong Kong) with little end in sight was making him sick. He was at a precipice wondering what had become of his life and what he could do now after all these years of flying. He also had a family to consider – how would he support them? He knew he had to make a change but he couldn’t see himself doing anything different. Flying has been his life and he couldn’t imagine his future without it – even as dismal as his present state was. 

Stormy skies ahead!

We don’t always end up where we intended in life. Long before reaching our final destination, life happens and we are forced to change course. My naive college vision board at 18 and the “seasoned” 26-year-old me’s long-range plans seem almost foreign to me now a quarter of a century later. I’ve always admired those who had a dream at a young age and made it happen, and then kept realizing it and living it. In truth, I think that happens to only a very lucky few.

Other times we do “arrive”, attaining everything we had destined for ourselves but the journey leaves us with nothing more than a longing – for what – we don’t know. This is a scary place to be. It leads to second guessing our values and doubting the person we have become.

A recent BBC article posits that we should think more about whom we’ll be in the future – because doing so has profound consequences for our health, happiness and financial security.

Really? I thought to myself. Hasn’t the trending pop-psychology of the day hailed the virtue of remaining in the present? After all we have been through – after all I have been through the last 5 years – how can I even begin to think about the future? Frankly, I have found it much more delightful to relive the past – at least there I know what to expect!

The article goes on to say: “Some people have a vivid sense of their future self, which feels very close to their current identity. These people tend to be more responsible with their money and more ethical in their treatment of others; they are keen to act in a way that will make life easier in the years ahead”.

I would give anything to have a “vivid sense” of my future self.  I can’t even plan the current years’ worth of vacation days let alone what life I have left!  Alas, I seem to fall into the second cohort the article mentions: Those who “struggle to imagine their future self as a continuation of the person that they are today… It’s almost as if they see their future self as a separate person that has little connection to their present identity.”  These individuals, the article states, tend to be less fiscally responsible and less concerned with the long-term consequences of their actions in nearly every sphere of their lives: health, career, money, relationships.

While I struggle with seeing my future life as a continuation of today or seeing it at all for that matter – I certainly don’t envision myself a stranger to who I am today and I take issue with the claim that I am less responsible than the visionaries among us. On the contrary, it is because my future seems – at least right now – “unrevealed” – that I am so careful with what I have and what I do. It is an interesting concept however, to ponder. And as I said before, I have the utmost admiration for those who live life with such long-term certainty.

Creating a vision for the second half of our lives is not as easy as it would seem.

The questions of “Who am I” “What do I want to be when I grow up?”, and “How am I going to get there?”  have leveled up a critical notch to “What have I become?” and “What have I done with my life?’ and “What do I do now?”

When the future was a long way away, the answers seemed so easy. Heck, we could be anything we wanted anywhere we wanted (for the most part.) Dream away! But when we have less of a future ahead of us than we do our past, there is far more at stake – or so we tell ourselves. 

You’ve been cruising along, doing life as you have always done it – and most likely at a comfortable level at that – or you would have stopped or been forced to stop long ago. Something had to have been working, right? You are at a place that you worked long and hard to reach. You have a certain level of security. The thought of change – of making a course correction – of coming back to earth and climbing back up again – is daunting -no doubt!

And so is finding contentment in the now – because for all our visioning and planning – the now is all we are guaranteed. The last 2+ years have monotonously and morosely reminded us of that over and over and over again and perhaps may have even been the inspiration of this piece!

And yet…

And yet, how fortunate we are to live in a time and in a country where these meaning and purpose of life thoughts, as dilemma-inspiring as these are, can be had! This freedom is almost too easy to come by and we take it for granted – we become complacent in our relative comfort, assured that no matter what, tomorrow will come. So what if it is the same as today and yesterday? What passes for even a miserable life for this audience, would be an absolute dream for others on this very same earth.

Think of all the times in your life you did not have a say in the matter – when a course correction was forced upon you. And yet, you are still here today – likely better for the challenge you accepted and made the most of.

Why then, is it so hard to envision a future different from your past or present – if that is indeed the dilemma you are facing? What lessons from life do you hold on to? Which ones do you need to let go of in order to move forward?

As we emerge from this pandemic, many of us are reevaluating where life has brought us and who and how we want to be. Maybe it is just to be content with life, finding awe in the present or maybe it is striking out in a new direction and new way of being. As I work through these questions myself, I will leave you with these two thought provoking quotes:

“If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine. It’s lethal” – Paul Coelho

“People cannot discover new lands until they have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” – Andre’ Gide

Let your light so shine!!

A Gift of Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let your light so shine!

Dreams of Happiness

“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.” – Soren Kierkegaard

As I put my ponderings to paper, we are, unbelievably, more than halfway through the first month of the new year. More a date on the calendar than the reality of our lives and the world, the new year heralds a time of change, transition, and closure. Perhaps more so this year than any other new year I can remember, (I have had 49 of them and I still have not perfected the art of change) there was a universally felt glee with which we kicked 2020 to the curb and slammed the door on it for good measure. Some have gone as far as to refer to the cataclysmic, destructive, really bad dream that was 2020 half-jokingly as THE Apocalypse. And did so without realizing how right they were! The original definition of apocalypse – as one of my New Testament professors, Bart Ehrman, explains: is a disclosure or revelation of great knowledge. In religious and occult concepts, an apocalypse usually discloses something very important that was hidden or provides “A vision of heavenly secrets that can make sense of earthly realities.”

As I sit here with a little more than two weeks of distance from the year past (and in 2020 and apparently 2021, A LOT happens in two weeks) I dare say that the events and circumstances of 2020 were indeed great revealers; not just on global, national, political, and social levels but personally as well. 2020 gave me glimpses of truth that helped me start to make sense of my own reality.  Solitary confinement does wonders for engaging in the practices of self-reflection and self-rejection if you spend too much time in that “fun” house of mirrors. But it also provided a safe environment for soul searching and soul pruning – which when you are truly honest with yourself can be a particularly challenging and painful process. 2020 revealed how necessary deep and intentional reflection is and how difficult it is to sort through those revelations, both internal and external, to discern a truthful and positive way forward.

The unhappy person is never present to themself because they always live in the past or the future. – Soren Kierkegaard, Danish poet, author, philosopher, and theologian.

I don’t know about you, but I found myself spending a lot of my time this past year longing for the time before – the time before the pandemic, before things fell apart, before I said yes, before I said no, before Mom and Dad died, before I graduated kindergarten, insert your own past tense here.  When present times are difficult the past is a much more inviting place to reside – and with each passing day, the past becomes longer and more encompassing just as the future grows dim.  In the comfort of the past, you have seen it all and you know how to make it through each day. You are, in fact, living proof of that certainty, you tell yourself. And those days of yore seem so much brighter and clearer too, don’t they? The unknown before us does not feel too inviting. There are too many ifs, too many chances to fail, too many chances to be hurt again; the days ahead are just too unsettling compared to the days of before that you know.

And yet, those happy times that kept coming back to me over and over again this past year weren’t making me happy. On the contrary, they just made the present seem more depressing and the days ahead even more obscure. Truth: You cannot remember the future. Keep trying and you will not have one.

“Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”  ~ Jeremiah 6:16

Kierkegaard said that the more a man can forget, the greater the number of metamorphoses which his life can undergo; the more he can remember, the more divine his life becomes. My 2020 reflections helped me realize that I survived life. I know that sounds obvious from a 30,000-foot perspective, but when you are in the thick of things it is sometimes easy to forget that you survived that very past you long for.

The past I long for is what brought me to the moment I am in. Yes! At some point in my life, I had dreams and I chose to pursue them.

It was my dream for what could be that brought me to the point where I am today – searching in longing for the dreams I once had – or better – daring to dream the dreams I did that set me on the journey to today. When I was dreaming, my eyes, ears, and heart were open to the world around me, discovering things I had not known before and feeling safe despite the uncertainties that come with the unknown being discovered. Where did I get that feeling of security that allowed me to even dare to dream and where did it go?

In the fierce light of now, I find myself grounded in a reality more real than the illusions of what I dreamed of – searching for the hopeful, faith-filled, purpose-driven, and truly happy person I once was. My circumstances in 2020 exposed my fear of change, fear of losing control, my inability to trust, and my low opinion of myself. The dreamer I once was has since given too much power to the voices of the world to determine if I am admired, successful, attractive, courageous, and valued enough to be loved, to be worthy, to matter – to deserve to dream. The conditional nature of the world’s approval keeps me in a constant state of doing – trying and failing and trying again only to fail again because the conditions always change – the goalposts keep moving. I will never be enough by the world’s standards –  and the keyword here is BE. I am so busy doing that I have lost my sense of being and with that, my ability to dream. I forget that from my first breath to the core of my being, I was and am someone’s beloved. I was beloved in those rose-hued days long ago and I am beloved in the messiness of right now – without any doing on my part. Not a single condition is attached to this belovedness  – the only strings attached are the apron strings of God. And with God, I am free to dream.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” – Psalm 139: 13-14

With God I do not have to be afraid, I do not have to grasp for and hold onto the only life I know, unwilling to change. With God, I do not have to believe in the ways of the world. With God, I can dream of tomorrow.

As Father Michael Marsh, of St Philip’s Episcopal Church in Uvalde, TX wrote recently, “Dreams come to us.  We go on searches.”

Dreams urge us to go where we have never gone before and do what we’ve never done before. We can only search for what is already familiar and known – something we have lost or the life we used to have.

2020 served as a mirror for me to see the dilemma I have put myself in – stuck in my search for the way things used to be rather than how they might be; searching for what can never be again – instead of dreaming for what God has in store for me next. A hard reflection to find myself in at the moment – but it has given me a positive goal to work towards in 2021.

I will close with two guiding principles that will guide me through the uncertain days of dreaming ahead:

“I know not the way God leads me, but well do I know my Guide.”  – Martin Luther

There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” – C.S. Lewis

Perhaps you might want to do some dreaming in 2021. Dream of a life yet to be revealed and trust that it is possible. Let go. Get up and go in faith. Dream!  Dare to dream! Happier days are ahead.

Let your light so shine!

Living the Questions

“Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart… Try to love the questions themselves… Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given because you would not be able to live them — and the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answers.” —Rainer Maria Rilke

As I sat down to pen this seasonal reflection a feeling of melancholy was working its mirthless magic on my mood. My “Instrumental Christmas” playlist on Pandora was keen on playing songs to cry to, and the grey sky that hung low on the mountain outside my window further repressed the joy that should be dancing inside me. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas has always been a favorite time of year for me from the time I was a child and still is. My immediate family had a rich heritage of Christmas tradition, involvement in the church, and musical activities, and I have carried on in the same manner as best possible. Alas, much of my family is gone now and the rest live on the other side of this great big state of ours – so trying to recreate what once was just doesn’t have the same effect on the heart. But I have digressed from the story at hand…

In that state of melancholy, I dared make things excruciatingly worse by scrolling through the daily version of The Greatest Story Ever Told, also known as Facebook. After reminding myself that I rarely post about the tragedies going on in my life either, with a heavy sigh, I noticed a message waiting for me. And the rest really is one of the greatest stories ever told – at least in this month in this chapter in the book of my life!

Say what you will about Facebook but through its wonders, I was given a glimpse into the lives of my great grandmother, Emma Wilhelmine Pedersdatter Mørck and great grandfather Frederich Vilhelm Phaff Mørck, from a woman living in North Jutland, Denmark who happened across their photos and records in a family collection she was going through. She was inquiring as to whether I might know who she was as she was not related to anyone in her family. She found me on Facebook after finding my name on our Geni family tree. It turns out this woman is a bit of a genealogy buff and has access to all sorts of records. Denmark kept very good records on its populace and they are readily accessible to the public. – and so, I spent the better part of the weekend learning all about my father’s side of the family’s livelihood in Denmark. My father’s dad, Frederik Mørck immigrated to the US from Denmark around 1910 and was one of the founders of Antelope, MT. He died when my father was just six years old so all we really know is my grandfather’s story of arrival and settlement. It turns out my family in Denmark was quite wealthy and made their mark on Danish society with ownership of large farms and manors, working as merchants, millers, and grocers, and perhaps most importantly as the founders of Carlsberg beer (on my great grandmother’s side)!  That this woman would spend so much time researching my family history is quite something, and we are not even related. She presented me with a wonderful Christmas gift – a whole new perspective on life and my place in this grand timeline we are traveling on. I couldn’t help but wonder if Emma was as ponderous as I am? What did she think of her son leaving the homeland – never to return?

This unexpected gift gave me a new perspective as I reflected on life in the waning days of my 48th journey around the sun and the closing days of a decade that for me, embodied the most dramatic changes to life as I know it than any other decade before. In the last ten years, I found my voice, I took flight and moved west, I ventured into the unknown, I began a new career, I faced down a frightening illness,  death made its presence known with the passing of both my parents and dog all within two years’ time, I bought my first home, I brought a new dog ( a gift from God) into my life, I found and lost love not once but twice, I got married and had a marriage end, and I fulfilled a dream that has carried me through much of this by completing my lay pastoral associate program and becoming an “official” proclaimer of God’s word. And now with this new perspective on my past, I could look at it all through a much broader lens.

Miraculously, I still haven’t spotted a gray hair, but I don’t feel much wiser than I did at the cusp of this life-changing span of years. If anything, I find myself not only full of questions but questioning everything! I seem to have lost the certainty with which I once approached life except for the certain discomfort in the realization that I am not God and I have far less control over what happens in my life than I once thought. The transience of life itself – the impermanence of it all – is so disconcerting that it makes me wonder aloud to God and anyone else who will listen – just what on earth am I here for, anyway?

I know I am not alone in this eternal pondering – that is after all THE question behind every man’s search for meaning. It is what inspired the great thinkers of all time – whose wisdom at least brings a sort of perpetual empathy to our daily struggle, a ray of light into our present darkness.  And I am sure it may have been the inspiration behind my grandfather’s voyage to a new land and new life over a century ago. While I don’t know if he ever found the answers he was seeking, he did find life by living into the questions.

It is easy to let questions of meaning weigh heavy on your heart when an unexpected loss or an unimagined future takes away your certainty in life. Yet time immemorial has proven that despite our best efforts to plan and prepare for the future, we live in the midst of uncertainty and unknowing. But as I wrote last month, life is not diminished by darkness or death, nor is it by uncertainty or the unimagined.  It is made more organic, more wholehearted, more resilient and resplendent. The endless interplay of darkness and light, the dying and rising, the endings and beginnings are signs that everything is forever being made new.

Ten years ago, I could never have imagined the path my life would follow in this journey.  I’m quite certain there are aspects of your life today that you never imagined until suddenly they were a part of your life as well. Some good. Some bad. And yet we live on. The poet John Keats wrote about the difficult work of living with negative capability which is the ability to sustain uncertainty, to live with not knowing, to stand in the mystery, to keep the questions and possibilities open, to embrace ambiguity, to not be too quick to resolve or shut down doubt – and to do all this without running away and trying to escape, without grasping for facts and reason.

Life is unpredictable, unknown, and impermanent, but these very characteristics intensify life, heighten its value, and bring deeper meaning to our days. In the year ahead I am going to focus on living into the uncertain and unknown. Will you join me? It goes against our human nature and won’t be easy, but we can face the unknown in hope and with the promise that through it all we have Emmanuel, God with Us. Our greatest gift – God is with us – in our uncertainty and in our hope, in our unexpected present and our unimagined future. May this assurance live in your heart this Christmas and throughout your days.

A simple prayer for your uncertain days and years:

Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  –The Lutheran Book of Worship

Let your light so shine!

The Beauty Behind You

The day began with so much promise. Up before sunrise with a mountaintop destination in mind, I was filled with pre-hike exuberance. The sunrise confirmed every giddy emotion brewing within me as the long drive grew closer to an end. The forecast was a partly cloudy one with clearing skies by afternoon – a perfect photography setup in my book. A few clouds add interest to the landscape and cut the garish glare of sunlight. As I made my way to the trailhead I could feel the clamber of the world falling silent. I was early enough to have the trail to myself and my heart fluttered with the familiar sense of nerves that solo adventures always bring.

Lakes, waterfalls, rock formations, and plentiful wildlife awaited me and my camera. Morning sun highlighted the mountains and the low clouds that hung on my mountain top destination gave visual interest to the peaks surrounding me. Lakes shimmered in grey, gold, and deep blue hues reflecting the changing sky. I made my way in the soft morning breeze all the while dreaming of the incredible views that awaited me some 9 miles away. Surely the clouds would lift I kept thinking.  Surely the breeze and sunshine will burn them away. But the higher I climbed no such dissipation occurred. Instead, much to my chagrin, the wind seemed to be blowing in even more clouds.

By the time I reached the saddle my summit was invisible. My giddiness was quickly evaporating into a cloud of gloom. Confound it, I stammered to myself with an ache in my throat as I weighed my options. I thought back to my first ascent of her holy heights 3 prior climbs before and the reward of 360 views. Since that epic day in which I vowed to climb every peak I could see from on high, this mountain top has captivated me. Alas, on the next two attempts I was turned away by 60 + mph winds, thunder, and smoke so thick you slice it. This time I was determined to show the mountain who was boss and yet I felt defeated once again. All that work with nothing to show for it. And then I turned and looked back.

But wait! You are not supposed to do that! Not on the mountain and not in life! Boston – my all-time favorite rock band – hit number 4 on the Billboard Top 100 with their second album’s title track “Don’t Look Back” in 1978. One of my favorite theologians and thinkers, C.S. Lewis, in his infinite wisdom wrote: “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

Psychologists, TED talkers, and pithy Facebook posts give similar advice for those looking to make a success of themselves. “Never look back. Always take the next step forward.” “Don’t look back; you’re not going that way.” “Keep your eyes on the prize.”  “Move on.”

Despite the oft-quoted posit of George Santayana and retro-fitted versions of it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” conventional wisdom of late urges us to let go of the past and leave it there if we want to make any positive steps forward.

Or perhaps you are more inclined to philosophies of the present –  to live in the now – to embrace the present – to meditate on the moment. Leo Tolstoy wrote: “Remember then: there is only one time that is important – Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.”  And the ubiquitous Oprah tells us that, “Living in the moment means letting go of the past and not waiting for the future. It means living your life consciously, aware that each moment you breathe is a gift.”

Danish theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that while life can only be understood backwards it must be lived forwards. I have been working hard to heed such time-spanning wisdom and keep these forward-thinking ideas forefront in my mind during challenging times of late – having been told I spend too much of my brain matter reflecting on what was, contemplating on past regrets and what could have been. Despite my deep faith and trust in the Lord, it is not in my nature to put too much stock in the future. I’ve had too many of my hopes dashed by the potholes of life. Indeed, my life would be much easier to navigate if my faith was as clear and strong as my 20/20 hindsight.

We all have moments in life when our exuberant determination for that which is before us is given a cold shower. When our drive for the summit is dampened by dark clouds of self-doubt. When our confidence is shaken by one too many missteps and it seems no matter how hard we try to move forward, it is a slow journey of one step forward and five steps back. It is tempting to give-in, to stay where we are, in the comfort of what we know – in other words – get stuck – or simply retreat.

Which is where I found myself at that saddle of disappointment below the cloud enshrouded summit. Facing the unknown above me, not being able to see past my hand, I stood bereft and pondered. Would I press forward to the top despite my dampened spirit or once again turn back?

As I turned around with my eyes no longer focused on the destination in front of me, I was stunned by what I saw. The valley below me was bathed in sunlight and I saw how far I had come. I saw how far I had come!!

I was captivated! I was stirred. I was energized by my new perspective and I was oddly motivated to press on!

Up, up, up I climbed with my head quite literally in the clouds. I met a lovely ram and his darlings halfway up and then the clouds really started to get low. My eyes began to play tricks on me and I had moments of doubt when I lost the trail. I pressed on. I was not going to let the weather deny me! Not this time. I saw what I thought was a bear causing my heart to stop – only to go faint with relief when it turned out to be a really fat marmot whose girth was amplified by the fog!! A few times the sun tried to shine turning my surroundings into an ethereal misty white – giving me a glimpse of what it must be like on our way to heaven – only to turn a thick soupy gray again.

Up, up, up I went and suddenly, just like that, I was at the top. While I had arrived – you could have fooled me! The air was strangely still atop the mountain after being buffeted by gale-force winds the entire hike up. The swirling abyss surrounding me seemed to buffer sound and was oddly tempting. Indeed, the thought crossed my mind – one could easily plunge off the edge into the marshmallow world – but I had too much to live for! I had accomplished my goal – thanks to looking back.

When we are stuck in the muck of the present, unsure of how to move forward with dark clouds diminishing the promise of what lays before us, how often do we turn around and see how far we have come?

It is only when we look back on our lives that we can truly comprehend the journey we have been on and give thanks for the important lessons we have learned and the people we have met along the way.

It is those lessons and those relationships that allow us, prepare us, and propel us forward in life even as we do not know what tomorrow will bring – let alone comprehend it. Yes, our past does define us but it doesn’t have to confine you. Who you are today is the product of the experiences you couldn’t comprehend or appreciate yesterday.

If you find yourself unable to move forward in life, I encourage you to take some time to look back and appreciate the beauty behind you. Embracing how far you have come may be just what you need to head out strong for the rest of your journey.

Boston sang it best:

It’s a bright horizon (ooh, and I’m awakin’ now)

Oh, I see myself in a brand new way

The sun is shinin’ (ooh, the clouds are breakin’)

‘Cause I can’t lose now, there’s no game to play

 

I can tell there’s no more time left to criticize

I’ve seen what I could not recognize

Everything in my life was leading me on

But I can be strong, oh, yes, I can

 

I finally see the dawn arrivin’

I see beyond the road I’m drivin’

Ooh, far away and left behind, left behind

Let your light so shine!