The Gift of Grace

“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

As I contemplated the dearth of topics I could pontificate on for my end of year offering to you, I considered sharing my year in review, but then if you are a regular reader you already know how completely blown away I am by what has transpired. With that said, I will spare you the details of that novella until I get my feet under me again. Let me just say that if you had asked me last year at this time what would come to pass in 2018, I dare say that none of the life-changing happenings that made this year the paramount chapter of happiness in the book of my life were even being contemplated, let alone hoped for as 2017 came to a close.

We are approaching the waning days of December and for me, as a Christian, it is the time of Advent – a time of anticipation and personal preparation for the coming of our Savior. It is also a time filled with traditions and festivities handed down to us from time immemorial. If you are anything like me – sentimental, deep thinking and even deeper feeling, you may feel everything more acutely at this time than other times of the year. Everything we anticipated and planned for has either come to pass or has not.  Another journey around the sun is almost complete and inherent in that journey is the realization that this moment in time can never be repeated, ever again. And yet, we have been here before – year after year we close out a chapter of our lives and open a new one with traditions that encourage us to hold on to the past all the while looking ahead to the unforeseeable future. Do we look forward with satisfaction at a year well-lived and with hope for what is to come or do we remain focused on a past that we cannot change mired in judgment and/or regret?

When you look at your past what do you see?  What thoughts and feelings arise? Is it a painful memory, one of grief for lost loved ones, an opportunity lost, a heartbroken, a chain that binds and confines your soul? Or perhaps the past brings about a smile of gratitude, puts a skip in your step over a goal achieved, or triggers a longing for the good old days. For me, it is a mixture of the two. Following the deaths of my parents, I struggled to see the good amid the sorrow and to let go of the past and look forward to the future. It’s not that I didn’t want a fresh start on life (one that we are promised every day, by the way) or wish that my life could be transformed from one that seemed stuck in the same old familiar patterns, telling the same story, and hearing the same old voices (usually the critical ones). But for a time, moving on from grief felt like I was dishonoring my parents and moving farther away from their presence in my life. In addition, the past was known to me – familiar – I was used to and longed for the way things were.

Sometimes we can be so focused on holding on to the past – the good, the bad, and the what-could-have-been – that we get lost in the wilderness of what was.

Regardless of how our past plays out in our minds, regardless of what did or did not happen back then, our past has made us who we are today but it does not have to define us, it does not have to lay claim to your life.

We are about to celebrate again the birth of the One who broke through the wilderness of what was to give us the promise of what could be and what is – our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ – God incarnate. We are told of His coming by a wandering figure – not someone sitting in a royal palace or government seat or even a religious authority.

No, the Good News came to John, “a voice crying in the wilderness,” who tells us to let go of what has laid claim to our lives – repent – if you will – from the powers that be that hold sway – be they political, economic, or status oriented. John tells us to escape the wilderness – to let go of the binding chains of fear, anger, disappointment, guilt, regret. loss, despair, and sorrow and calls us away from life-draining busyness, quenchless ambition, and the need for approval. He speaks of a transformer who will overcome our broken relationships, our broken hearts, and our harsh and critical voices. All of these things that lay claim to our lives, that have filled our past, taught us “how to live,” and shaped our character – none are more powerful than God.

John tells us to wake up to, break free from, and deal with these fraudulent powers that claim our souls so we can have a new life claimed by God’s faith in us, hope for us, and love of us.

None of us know what tomorrow or the year ahead will bring. In the closing days of 2017, I certainly could not have fathomed preaching would be a regular part of my summer and fall schedule of events let alone meeting the love of my life and getting married nine months later!  I wish I had opened and lived in the gift already given to me – the joy of trusting in God’s amazing grace for the days to come and letting go of the past that I could not change no matter how hard I tried.

We can face the unknown with the same old patterns, practices, and voices in our head or we can look forward in the freedom of God’s grace. Imagine starting the new year off with a fresh start, anticipating the unknown with confidence that a way will be made for us – no matter how daunting, unimaginable, or seemingly improbable the future is.

What would your life look like each day if you let God’s grace – faith, hope, and love have primary claim? What opportunities might you take? What doors might open for you? How might your relationships prosper? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to wake up each morning with the courage to face the day knowing that you have been healed from the brokenness of yesterday through the redeeming grace of God’s love? Well, you can.

As you look back on 2018 – look back and be satisfied that your life was worthy no matter what did or did not get accomplished and, as you look forward, rejoice in the freedom given to you to start fresh with hope – every single day.

My Christmas prayer for you is that you find God’s gift of grace that is waiting for you under your tree and that you will open your heart to it. Let His faith in you, hope for you, and love of you strengthen you and guide all that you do in the days to come.

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and your happiest New Year ever!!

Let your light so shine!

 

Thoughts on Today ~ August 14, 2018

Saying goodbye.

There was no spectacular sunrise to mark this momentous morning – rather I ran under a smoke muted sky with no overwhelming sense that today would be any different from yesterday – in fact, I almost forgot this anniversary, and yet I felt a spark of something, perhaps a reminiscent twitch of anticipation for the events of this day exactly five years ago. The actual activities of August 14, 2013 were rather commonplace in our shared human story: packing up one’s belongings and striking out for somewhere new. For me however, that day and the ensuing days of settling in were the opening sentence of the first chapter of my new life.

Looking back, it seems like ages ago and yet just yesterday, when I stood still in the soft morning light of an Eastern Montana sunrise and breathed a weary sigh as I surveyed the pared down contents of 42-years of life stuffed into a trailer and the back of my Santa Fe. Saying good-bye seemed surreal; the actions felt imagined, my throat constricted with a twinge of guilt, and my stomach was a flutter with nerves.

As I pulled out of Billings bound for the far northwest corner of Montana, a heavy silence enveloped me despite my planned departure soundtrack of Neil Diamond tunes keeping my tears at bay. Gone was the chaotic din that was constant in my life for the past month of job leaving, possession packing, possession discarding, panic attacks, and the social commitments that came with saying good-bye.

So, this is it! Here I am world, I thought at the time. I felt emotionally exhausted and amazingly free. I had no idea what awaited me in the year and years to come. Yes, I expected change but nothing as dramatic as the changes to the entire dynamic of my life that would unfold. Little did I know that those last moments with my family in the early dawn light would be one of the last times we were all together and filled with happiness and hope.

Had my life so far prepared me for that moment of independence? Oh, YES! All at once, I was alone, truly and wonderfully alone for the first time in my life. I at once marveled and trembled at what was transpiring. I was leaving behind a life that was full of responsibility and friends. People of all walks in my community recognized me. I was leaving a well-paying job for what I hoped would be a career that used my talents and challenged me. I was leaving my history behind. Now I was free to be me.

Naturally, I am not the same woman today that I was that mid-August morning five years ago. I realize now that I am a very independent spirit with a heart that longs to be shared. My treks into the mountains seeking ever-higher peaks and grander vistas reflected the journey I was taking personally. After years of living a regimented work-a-day life, I discovered this crazy, wonderful, selfish desire to play! I still panic with realization that time slips away quickly and I wasted a lot of it in the past doing every-day, comfortable, and safe tasks rather than challenging myself, taking a few risks, and having fun. While I refused to be fenced in as I grew into this new sense of self, I desired boundary lines I could grasp onto from time to time, seeking direction and support.

In the five years since that moment of independence was celebrated, I have come to know the joys and sorrows of self-discovery. The things I once valued in life have been tested. I have come to know the depths of grief and heart break and had to navigate the roughest waters of my life on my own. I questioned my direction, my reason for being, the quality of my character, and the choices I made. In the wake of more loss than I had ever known in my life, the light that had always filled me was put out in the storm. I walked in darkness but fought for the light. I never doubted that God had a plan and purpose for this proving period of self-examination and self-revelation.

Eventually, I found my way again – led by a light that was so much brighter than the darkness that had enshrouded me. I learned to accept the compassion of others and as my spirit healed my horizons brightened and expanded.

Today, I walk stronger and surer of who I am – a child of God, a woman of faith, and journeyer of the heart. I am pursuing my passions and callings with a confidence  acquired through the fires of life.  Learning to share my heart again is where I am now. The independence I embraced 5 years ago bears little resemblance to the freedom to be, to love, and to grow that I live everyday now. Relationships matter so much more to me than the need for boundary lines and control. Each day presents an opportunity to enrich a life and mine in doing so. Yes, I get caught up in the chaos of life – one that is more wonderfully chaotic than I could ever have imagined it being when I pulled out of the driveway on that morning five years ago – yes, I can be overwhelmed by responsibilities and challenged by my choices – but the essence and outcome of both are positive growth and deepening commitment.

I am forever thanking God for the friendships that have crossed the miles with me and sustain me, my Flathead friends, who are more like family, who gathered around me as I learned to live again after deaths of my parents, and for my brother and sister-in-law who remind me of where I am from and what I am made of.

While I have known times of great loneliness in this adventure of independence,  today, I rejoice in the wonder of love and such happiness and belonging that I pinch myself. Life is certainly an interesting roller-coaster ride of emotions! I thank God for every tear and fit of laughter as each enrich my life with colors of the heart and make me feel alive.

The melancholy moments of longing for what was and the joyous highs of the adventures that lay before me can exhaust a person at times. I gather that is why life reveals itself to me on an as needed basis, a situation that reveals my lack of patience when it comes to my personal soul searching. Nevertheless, each day I awake with renewed vigor in my quest. What a book I will have to write before it all ends (I am obviously extending the publication date by years!)

Thank you, Lord for sustaining me through this journey, for filling me with the bread of life, and giving me wonderful hope in tomorrow. I cannot wait for the next chapter to begin!

“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3

“Answer me quickly, Lord; my spirit fails. Do not hide your face from me or I will be like those who go down to the pit. Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life.” Psalm 143-7-12

“But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.”  Isaiah 40:31

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

“So, I recommend having fun, because there is nothing better for people in this world than to eat, drink, and enjoy life. That way they will experience some happiness along with all the hard work God gives them under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 8:15

Let your light so shine!

Thoughts at the End of a Life-Changing Journey

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

Three years ago, I read those words as I was idly skimming through a random Lutheran website. Yeah, I know you are asking who randomly skims Lutheran websites?? Well, I did at the time -and do so more fervently now –  but I began to slow down as the words caught me with my guard down and my heart quickened.

Every single word spoke to me. This was who I wanted to be. THIS was WHO I am called to be.

And so, I took a giant leap of faith toward fulfilling that dream. This morning, two years of challenging, inspiring, and thrilling study of God’s word and the Lutheran faith with an abundance of self-discovery thrown in for good measure came to an end as I became a certified Lay Pastoral Associate of the Montana synod of the Lutheran church.

When I began this journey, it was to be a voice of hope in the lives of others. Little did I know that I would be the one needing a beacon of hope, a reassuring voice leading me through some very dark days of grief and personal wilderness, reminding me that God does indeed end all suffering and that no matter how much I questioned His will –  His grace would set me free. This program and my fellow classmates became that voice.

In the process, I gained an even greater appreciation of my faith and deepened my relationship with the Lord. I have grown as a person and as a disciple. I have been inspired to think beyond what I assumed was my calling in life and dared to open my heart and my mind to the ways and will of the Lord. This class became my rock and my salvation – giving me something to focus on and find myself through during the most difficult time of my life – losing both my parents.

As I stood before the synod assembly this morning, I so wished my parents could have finally seen their daughter accomplish something she set out to do with such passion and heart; but losing them both as I delved into the tenets of my faith made everything we profess as followers of Christ that much clearer – there is more to this life and beyond this life than I will ever know, our God is a loving, merciful God and the promise of the resurrection is real. I have been forever changed and by trusting in Him, I was able to stand strong in spirit with a happy heart again.

Through my wayward and wandering life, He has prepared me to be one who in times when everything is changing, when everything seems to be in transition, when nothing seems certain  – is a voice of hope for you; one who in times of suffering points you toward the day when your suffering will end; one who reassures you in times of doubt that you can have faith – because I know what it means to doubt and to see; one who reminds you of your baptismal calling and of the God who makes a way  – an amazing way – out of no way; one who reminds you of God’s purpose and God’s love for you; one who believes in miracles, not least of which is the miracle of God calling me to fulfill God’s purposes; and one who – when you cannot – will remind you that God claims you as His beloved anyway, just because.

Tonight, my heart could not be happier or more at peace. I have no idea where God is going with this endeavor, but I do know I will let His light so shine through me wherever He leads me.

The Goddess of Nature

It was a long, harsh winter in my neck of the woods this year but winter’s frozen shackles have been thrown off and the abundance of springtime is bursting forth! Well perhaps in someone else’s garden… I have an abundance of winter’s wrath remaining behind.

A survey of my ¾ acre of paradise reveals that it is anything but! The 6-foot drift that melted from the side of my house revealed an impressive ice formation spewing forth from the main pipe of my underground sprinkler system – which despite being blown out managed to freeze. The whopping water bill I received as the ice thawed and the water began to run was just –  dare I say it-  the tip of the iceberg! Death has come to all 6 of my arborvitae; my Spirea have been beaten down to scraggly skeletons under the weight of feet of snow and those are the ones that survived; a young maple stands in naked shock, its’ trunk forever scarred by the blade of a city plow; my evergreens proved not be so ever – they too shocked into an unpleasant shade of brown.

Ah yes, the joys of my first spring as a homeowner! Having bought my home at the height of summer blooms last year, my only charge at the time was to get the grass green again. Having conquered that feat and attaining Goddess- of- Nature like status in the eyes of my neighbors in the process, I was unprepared for the overwhelm of maintenance that arrived on the wings of the first bluebirds of spring. My cozy and carefree 600 square foot nest that served as home for my first four years of naive seasonal bliss in NW Montana suddenly seemed very inviting again.

Alas, this season I have been a busy Goddess of Good Grief with plenty of work to do. There was the fence to finish, the lawn to get green again and mow and mow and mow, weeds to pull, weeds to pull, weeds to pull, pine needles to rake, evergreens to prune, pine trees to shape, Spirea to cry over, and 10 blighted boxwood shrubs to dig up – all with my trusty and oh so curious four-legged “helper” by my side. It was the future health and happiness of this little pup that I had in mind when I signed the mortgage papers on the largest yard in the neighborhood – not the hours and hours of yard work that would occupy every weekend.

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But then my whirlwind of agrarian activity came to a screeching halt as a gust of gardening amateur’s defeat knocked me off my feet. What in the world was I doing?  I had no idea! Well, actually I know just enough to get myself into gardening no man’s land. Not knowing what half the stuff popping out of the ground was, was the first sign that I might be in over my head – was that a  wily weed or wistful wonder? Finding out I pulled the good stuff and left the bad stuff left me nonplussed – it looked like a weed to me!

Frustration began to creep into my cultivating celebration. Refusing to be outdone by boxwood roots that also refused to be out done I almost threw a temper tantrum. My childish impatience of wanting the manicured lawn, perfectly rounded shrubs, and gardens blooming with more than just dandelions and black medic – and wanting them now – threatened to rain on my sunny disposition.

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Amid this springtime frenzy of activity,  I wonder at the circle and cycle of life. And as I spend these hours with hands in the soil or pushing the mower or trimming away the dead, I find myself in deep thought.

I feel a sense of excitement brewing inside of me – and a sense that I have been through this cycle of death and life before and I have – because I have lived it. While this winter was a hard one on my spirit, which longs for sunshine and dry mountain trails, it was nothing compared to the seasons of life I have endured of late. In the past two years, my life has been transformed and has looked and felt like my yard looks now. The deaths of my parents left me in shock; and while I went about living as best I could, I felt suffocated by guilt for being an absent daughter in their time of need and by the grief that comes with losing the two most important people in your life back to back.  But their deaths also motivated me to pursue my dreams, to finish well, and make them proud wherever life leads me.

To do this, I needed to tend to my inner landscape. Just as I called on an expert to help me identify the good and bad inhabitants of my yard and a friend to help dig up and dispose of my shrubs, I called in the help of others to see what in my life needed to be let go of, what needed to be pruned, and what held and holds promise.

As the seasons have passed, some of the the withered leaves of life I had clung to for purpose and security have begun to fall – providing a foundation for something new. The wintering of my soul revealed areas of my life that kept me frozen and alone and the bracing cold spurred me to reach for the opportunities that awaited me with change.

The tears that had for so long fallen into an abyss of sorrow now serve to water my well cultivated soul. Sprigs of hope are making their wonderful presence known. I can see growth where I pruned and I am rewarded with a heart that blossoms with laughter again. Tending one’s inner landscape is hard work. But if the promise of spring I am seeing in the garden of my life bears any likeness to what awaits the behemoth that is my yard, then all this sniveling and snorting I have been doing should be worthwhile.

For a few weak moments, I found myself slipping into the comfort of just leaving things as they were in my life and my yard – hoping they might come back in the rose-colored glory that I remembered them being – and replacing the shrubs I had torn out with more of the same. But my better angels prevailed. They said it was time for a transformation – for real change to come to fruition. For resurrection and new life.  Yes, it will take work and perseverance and more patience than I currently have, but the seeds of change have been planted, and I can’t wait to be like the Goddess of Nature again dancing in her little piece of paradise.

“Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.”  – Martin Luther

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Out of the Ashes

I never thought I would do it again. I never thought I could do it again. My last was the best. I gave all of my heart to it for 9 years and it in turn gave life to my heart. It became a part of me, almost to the point of defining me. When it ended it felt like my world had split in two and my heart ripped from me. No one knowingly subjects themselves to sorrow and pain of that  magnitude and so I went on with my life, finding new distractions, new ways of organizing my days, new sources of joy, and finding a new identity.

I didn’t expect that I would encounter, so soon,  sorrow followed by even more sorrow – more than I had ever known before. And these sorrows were met alone without the comforts of my past. And unlike my past encounters with sadness, this time of darkness was anything but brief. It became my constant companion, it weighed on my heart, it depleted my energy, it ended nearly every day with tears, and it made laughter a sound of foreign origin.

I began to pine for the comforts of my past. The identity I once embodied. I needed something to fill the void, to become the target of my focus, to make my heart whole again, to invigorate my days, to reorient the drudgery that had taken over my life and chase away the darkness – something that would give me the high of being in love again.

Life isn’t meant to be lived alone. My new home, though full of stuff, feels devoid of life – no matter how cozy I try to make it with items from happier times back when and other decorative fluff. Emptiness has greeted me at the end of every work day and just made the darkness dig in deeper.

And so I gave in and decided to go back to who I once was, even though it would mean that I would be the one left behind, out of the limelight, and completely exhausted – at the beginning at least. It is time.

I am once again, a girl and her dog.

Out of the ashes of the past two years – the loss, the grief, the growth, the discovery comes the promise of hope and the light and the warmth of a new life. Meet Ember, registered name Elkhorn Mountain Southpaw’s Ember of My Heart. He has stolen my heart and will hopefully begin to heal it.

Missing You, Dad

It’s easy to honor you this Father’s Day, Dad. Every day that I am alive, I live because you believed in me along the way… even when you had every reason not to.  Not a day has gone by the last two months that I have not thought about you, wanted to ask you a question, and hear your voice. I am afraid that one day I will not remember what you sound like, but today I can still hear your “Well heLLOOO there” whenever I called. If only I hadn’t erased that last message you left on my phone when you were still able to call me but, I didn’t know ….

I think you would be rather proud of me of late. The last two months have been quite a whirl wind and I have stayed upright – even without a toothpick anchoring me! I presided over worship and I decided to put down some roots and buy a house – all by myself and all in the same week! You would definitely approve of the yard but might think the master bathroom is a little pretentious. I know you would say it was the size of your and Mom’s first house in Dillon! Frankly, it is beyond me what I will do with all that vanity! On the bright side, I will have plenty of yardwork to keep me busy and a view that will last forever. You always said a view was more important than the house… the house could be changed; the view couldn’t be. Well, I think you will approve – granted it is an endless view of mountains not prairies, but I think I can win you over. I wish I could share my happiness of home and heart with you.

4 years ago, I would never have dreamed of calling western Montana home.  4 years ago, at this time, you were telling me that life still had much in store for me after I turned down the job offer in Whitefish because I couldn’t find a place to live in that I could afford. Just a few weeks later, you were giving me your blessing to do what I needed to do to make it happen, as long as I didn’t lose sight of my independence and my values. I never dreamed my life would become what it has, but I think you had an inkling. I felt like you really believed in me and wanted this challenge for me.

Thank you for raising me to be strong in faith, humble in mind, and trusting at heart.

Thank you for teaching me that it is okay and sometimes better to be alone, but that people really do make life richer.

Thank you for loving me through the struggles of finding my wings and learning to fly. And thank you for letting me know that you are here with me from time to time. I love you, Dad and miss you so very much.

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.

Overwhelmed by Love

13147272_1204040166287246_6929792025810359721_o “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” — Rumi

I am embarrassed to admit how many times I have started to write this piece only to delete everything (computers are an amazing writing tool!), walk away, and endeavor to try again when courage is restored. I feel completely inept to write about a subject I have avoided to address in my life for far too long out of a keen desire for self-preservation, feelings that I am not worthy of it, and my tendency toward perfectionism that sways me away from things I know I will ultimately fail at or be rejected by. For certain, it is not out of delight that I feel called to write about LOVE.

While I may not be very good at it, I do not shy away from loving deeply. To be honest, I find it hard not to love everyone. Sharing life with people brings great joy to my heart and things that bring joy are easy to love. But love is about more than sharing life with people. Love is about risk and pain as much as it is about trust and joy.  In the aftermath of a broken heart, the death of my dog, followed by the death of my mother, the very real risks and pains of love made me rethink how much love I could let in to my life anymore. Closing the door on love seemed like a good decision but doing so left a lot of room in my life to fill.  I filled that void with busyness, commitments, complicated scheduling, and mindless wandering where I swore to myself that I would never again allow myself to love too much, too deeply, or too easily – because too much love guaranteed too much hurt when that love was lost.

But fear is not in my nature and not something I take kindly to, especially when it threatens to surpass joy. By closing the door on love, I was closing the door on joy.

summit climbHenri J Nouwen, a Catholic priest and one of the most insightful theologians I have ever come across, encourages us to love deeply and to feel the pain that deep love can cause because the pain that comes from deep love makes your love ever more fruitful. “It is like a plow that breaks the ground to allow the seed to take root and grow into a strong plant.” In his book, The Inner Voice of Love, he goes on to say: “Every time you experience the pain of rejection, absence, or death, you are faced with a choice. You can become bitter and decide not to love again, or you can stand straight in your pain and let the soil on which you stand become richer and more able to give life to new seeds.”

My fear of failure, rejection, and being hurt has no root in the soil that grows love. The Bible tells us this: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1 John 4:18) I will never reach a state of perfection in love because there is only one perfect love, and that love has already been freely given to me (and you) by our Lord. By accepting this as truth, His perfect love cast out my fear and changed my heart from one that avoided love to one that wants to know how to love like the Lord loves.  No more will I let my fear of rejection by others become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For the more I fear rejection by others, the more likely my actions towards others will cause them to reject me.

“The giving of love is an education in itself.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

I write this with a heart that has been overwhelmed by love.  I am ashamed at how selfish my understanding of love was. I have always marveled at the charity of others-  those good souls who give so freely of their hearts and of their lives towards the needs and betterment of others. I never felt qualified and sadly, I told myself I was too busy.  Besides, what could I give that someone else couldn’t provide better than I? Once again, I let my fear of failure keep me from loving others. Now, as my family has been humbled by the graciousness of neighbors and church friends who have given their time and hearts in love to my father as he battled and now recovers from cancer and who have extended their love to me, I understand that there is no measurement for the right way to love.  The only right way to love is to simply do it. Make time for it. Sacrifice for it.

C.S. Lewis believed that those who fear direct their focus inward and worry about what will happen to them if they fail or are rejected. Those who love direct their focus outward towards caring more for others than themselves. The more you look outward the less time you have to dwell on your fears.  Martin Luther called the love of neighbor the highest and most important form of love aside from loving God. He went as far to say that those who do not love their neighbor could not love God. Luther believed that to know God was to understand that He is nothing but an active and self-giving love. Therefore, if you do not have faith in God, or do not love God through faith, you will not be able to do any truly good deeds.  While Luther believed we are saved by grace and not by works, this does not lessen God’s greatest commandment to us – to love one another as He loved us. Luther calls us to act in love, to be reflections of Christ in the lives of others.

Still, works of love take courage. Works of love make us vulnerable but maybe that vulnerability in the end makes us stronger, our lives fuller, and our hearts happier. C.S. Lewis wrote that the only place outside heaven where you will be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell. Have you ever noticed how full of joy and full of life those who love through their works are? They have brought a small part of His kingdom down to earth and are blessed to live in it.

Nouwen sums this up nicely: “The more you have loved and have allowed yourself to suffer because of your love, the more you will be able to let your heart grow wider and deeper. When your love is truly giving and receiving, those whom you love will not leave your heart even when they depart from you. They will become part of yourself and thus gradually build a community within you. Those you have deeply loved become part of you. The longer you live, there will always be more people to be loved by you and to become part of your inner community. The wider your inner community becomes, the more easily you will recognize your own brothers and sisters in the strangers around you. Those who are alive within you will recognize those who are alive around you. The wider the community of your heart, the wider the community around you. Thus, the pain of rejection, absence, and death can become fruitful. Yes, as you love deeply the ground of your heart will be broken more and more, but you will rejoice in the abundance of the fruit it will bear.”

12657168_1145106078847322_6415618807933147334_oThis Valentine’s Day marked one year since I last saw my mother alive. She did not like me to take risks in life – she wanted to protect me from being hurt. This was a constant source of frustration between the two of us. The love a mother has for her daughter is something I will never personally know but I do know how very much this daughter loved her mother. That I said goodbye to her on Valentine’s Day holds a far greater significance in my heart than I ever dreamed it would as we parted that last time. In honor of her love, I am going to go take a big risk and start loving deeply again – in new, fruitful, active ways. That will mean I will have to sacrifice some of that “busyness” I used to fill the void when I closed the door on love but I am okay with that. If you are living in fear rather than love, I invite you to  have courage and join me. I expect we will be overwhelmed by love as we do love and maybe, just maybe walk in His perfect ways in a small part of His kingdom here on earth.

Let your light so shine!

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Looking Back, Living On, Emerging Strong

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

~ Psalm 59:16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ Ephesians 2:8-10

Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let your light so shine ever so brightly in 2017!

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

Becoming WHO You Are

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

~ Ephesians 2:8-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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