I met the new “owners” of the house I called home for 25 years, today. “Oh, so you’re the “Erika” he exclaimed as he pointed to my signature in the pavement we poured for my first car’s parking spot. That choked me up and the first round of tears began to flow…
They showed me the work they had done on the backyard my Dad had “toiled” over for years for his past-time enjoyment. They hesitated as they told me about pulling out all of his prized chokecherry bushes because their dog was gorging on the berries and getting sick! That backyard will now have been home to 4 dogs and the final resting place of three of mine.
As we stood in the warm sun they shared how much they loved “the place.” She told me they hadn’t really started on any work inside because they didn’t quite feel it was their “right” to yet… but they might replace the baseboards and paint the woodwork as the oak has yellowed – I laughed and told them Dad refused any thought of painting wood!! She said they feel so fortunate to live in such a “beautiful” home. He said he had imposter syndrome – because they both felt this home held a story that they hadn’t quite fit into yet. They were so happy to meet me and put a face and name to that story.
What a story… One that I have struggled to let come to an end. When death forces a story to end, you want to keep rereading and reliving the good parts and never come to the dreaded end. Today, I can say I am happy to let the final chapter of my story at 4150 Audubon Way come to a close and see their story begin.
The buds of spring cleaning have been bursting out all over at my house of late. I’ve been doing a surprising amount of cleaning lately, cleaning and discarding. Perhaps it is the fact that I have spent considerably more time at home this past year surrounded by stuff – an unbelievable amount of stuff that I have collected over the three and a half years I have lived in my house, and I am tired of looking at it. Perhaps it is because this stuff is holding me back from seeing the potential uses of the spaces I have as I contemplate a few updates I would like to make: new flooring, new kitchen countertops, an addition to house my library and pianos. Needless to say, I am more of a minimalist when it comes to anything but clothing (!!) and books, and this growing collection of stuff is getting to me. If I don’t make my current spaces clean and less cluttered, any improvements or new space I add won’t be any better – in fact, there will just be more opportunities to add to the clutter. So I have been cleaning and discarding those things that aren’t necessary, that are taking up valuable space that could be used more creatively, and in so doing finding some breathing room as I plan for what needs to be done and can be done to make my house even more my home.
Coincidentally, I just observed a rather significant birthday on the timeline of life that has put me into a reflective state of being. Part of me can’t believe I have arrived at this mile marker already, and then part of me wonders how I even made it to this point given the long and broken road I’ve traveled. I have collected a mighty array of life souvenirs – some becoming permanent scars on my being, some being points of amazing light, and some that have quietly gone from being a passing experience to an entrenched way of thinking and doing life. 50, ahem, years of day in and day out living provides ample opportunities for habits and mindsets to take hold of you. – to add clutter to your life. You don’t even notice them at first until they start diminishing or making your life difficult.
You get so comfortable in doing life the way you have always done life that you live it with your eyes closed – running on auto-pilot and tuning out the flyover territory below. You forget you were created for more than what you can see with your diminished perspective. You begin to compare your life to others and in so doing you lose sight of your own intrinsic value.
After finishing my tidying up chores for the day, I have been taking long contemplative walks along the river and enjoying the sun’s warm reflection on the still quiet water. On one recent evening I abruptly stopped and took a good long look at the 50-year-old looking back on her life as she prepared for the next who-really-knows-how-many years she has ahead of her. The faint wrinkles of time told stories of smiles and sorrows and sundrenched days of adventure. The eyes revealed an ocean of emotions that are at once tidal waves and tide pools and a hidden wondering from the shore. Missing though, was the sparkle that never dimmed in her youth – despite the challenges she faced even then.
I was tempted to move along and get back to my fast, regimented pace; but instead, I stayed and I looked deeper and asked her some tough questions – not sure if she would ever have the answers – but at least I could perhaps conjure up a challenge to the way she had been doing things and inspire a desire to clean house so that the sparkle might come back.
Here’s what I asked her:
What if you focused on what you can do and not what you can’t?
What do you value anymore?
What happened to the daily awe and wonder of life?
Are you filled with gratitude and appreciation for what is in your life right now – not just what once was?
Is there life in your heart or are you just existing?
Is there life in your daily work or are you just getting the job done?
What are you looking forward to? There has to be a reason for tomorrow – what is it?
Are you bringing life to your friendships or stealing life from them?
Is there life in the way you are living in this moment?
Where do you see yourself in the world – not just how you think the world sees you?
Are you growing?
Are you bringing life to others – do you even seek out others to bring life to?
What are you saying yes to?
Why are there so many no’s?
Finally, I asked her why she wasn’t trying to be the best at her life instead of being the best version of someone else’s life.
I’ll be honest, cleaning the privy can be more enjoyable than sitting with these questions – but having done both I can tell you which I benefited the most from as I set out on the next half of my life.
Those questions weren’t just for the shocked and in denial 50-year-old staring back at me like a watery mirage. They’re for all of us. They reveal what needs to be cleaned up and discarded; habits and mindsets that take up valuable space in your life – space that could be used more creatively and effectively to give your life meaning, fulfillment- sparkle.
As I, as we all, sort through our various souvenirs of living 25, 50, 75 years or even just living through a single pandemic year, one souvenir – our collective mortality – comes to the forefront. The temporality of life means that this one moment, this now, is priceless. A cluttered life on auto-pilot doesn’t cut it anymore. Our days should not be flyover territory. Everything and everyone matters. Even you. Nothing and no one is to be taken for granted. Not you, not your breath, not your rising nor your falling. Remember, even though time may fly or crawl by, no matter how many days you have already counted, there will never be another moment like this one. Make sure there is life in that moment. Remember too, that in that precious moment of time, no one can do a better job of being you than you. Happy Spring!
“It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ. He did all this on his own, with no help from us! Then he picked us up and set us down in highest heaven in company with Jesus, our Messiah.” Ephesians 2: 1-6 The Message
I turned the BIG 5-0 yesterday – to the day – in fact. I was a Tuesday’s child “full of grace” but my parents decided against naming me Grace – perhaps with premonitions of the true nature of my future being… But I digress. Here’s a brief report on my first day as a supposed 50-year-old… March 2, 2021.
First, it is not unlike being 40 which is what I was yesterday. It was supposed to be a sunny day with a brilliant sunrise for me to chase – at least that is the deal I made with God the night before. Alas, I awoke to a cloudy gray morning, so instead of jumping out of bed and making the devil fearfully aware that I was awake – I rolled over and made sure my feet still worked. I thought about the dream I had a few moments before – of my mom and dad who I miss terribly – because this 50-year-old without a family of her own to tend to idealizes the family she once had. Anyway, the dream was good and made me feel happy inside. Soon, my sole reason for being (a.k.a Ember) let me know he was ready for the day so my plans for another slumber fell to his increasingly urgent demands.
Because I am 50 now, I must prove to myself that this notion is ludicrous. To commence the day, I did 1 hour and 40 minutes of cross-training, Pilates, situps, and pushups. Then I went for a 12-mile run. It was a windy jaunt but the sun came out and shined ever so briefly on me – for my special day! Then the sun went away.
I had breakfast with Mikey and we thought about Life whilst sipping Vermont Maple coffee. I rued the weather and studied various webcams wondering where I might go to find some sunshine. I decided Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park was overdue for a visit since I haven’t been since I broke my foot. Clouds be damned. Besides, the light was on me and clouds make everything more interesting…
Having spent so much time rueing the weather (lesson learned) I decided against a snowshoe and just went for a drive stopping at prime pullouts, hiking down icy hills to snowy banks along the shoreline, and meandering the grounds of Lake McDonald Lodge. I was surprised at the number of people who had the same idea. People – it is March 2nd and a frightful, blustery day at that! Sigh… it is our new reality in these once tranquil undiscovered parts. The clouds were quite moody – as was I… Turning 50 by yourself can do that, I guess. Alas, the lake and sleeping lodge was just what Dr. Morck ordered and soon I was feeling much more like the 30-year ok, 40-year old, l still am.
I arrived home to a rather miffed pup, who took one look at my hiking boots and knew, just knew I had cheated him out of a full day of play. The lovely snowy field we were romping in just last week is now a bog of mud so off we went to our other favorite haunt for a six-mile saunter at sunset – where he still managed to find every mud puddle and black road grit pile to immerse himself in.
So for my 50th birthday celebration, I threw a doggie shower and the house now smells like a wet dog (albeit clean) instead of a birthday cake. I enjoyed a wonderful spaghetti dinner – because Mom always made spaghetti for my birthday, and a glass of pink Moscato (which I couldn’t finish) just to prove that I am an adult. By 8:30 p.m it was time to slather my face in retinol and dive into a good book. It was a good day. I hope to have more like it!
All kidding aside, the many, many, many good wishes I received from near and far via social media and phone calls reminded me how blessed I am to have crossed paths with, done the good and hard parts of life with, and made it through every day with wonderful people throughout my life! No wonder it is hard to believe I am 50 – time flies when you are in the company of good friends and loving family. I have to admit to being a bit teary-eyed as I went to bed last night. Life isn’t always easy, but every day is a new opportunity to find, to be, and to receive a blessing or two. So here’s to another 18,250 days to do just that!!! I hope you will join me!
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
God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well. ~Voltaire
I was thinking today about your life, Dad. About what it was like to be you – a prairie kid at heart with a constant longing for the big wide open, an appreciation for the lovely and simple things, a love of companionship, an ethical drive for professional success, financial prowess without excess, and a desire to be involved and lead. How did all these characteristics come about? In your daughter’s eyes, you were always that way. What was it like for you to marry and have children and watch those children grow and learn as you yourself continued to grow and learn and become the leader that you were? It’s funny to think that I always saw you at the same ageless age in real-time and even now in my memories.
By the time you were my age now, you were in the upper echelons of the United States government. You rubbed elbows with diplomats and made your way through the great halls of government in our nation’s capital. You testified before Congress and people scheduled conferences for you! You developed plans that would be reviewed by the president of United States! You were idolized by a daughter who loved the sounds of her heels clicking on the marble floors of the monumental Interior Department building when she came to visit your historic office from time to time. Quite the change of scenery for the long-ago little boy from the dot of a town in the northeast corner of Montana.
That you were my age now in this memory floors me and puts my own life into a very different perspective. I am more in awe of you now knowing just how hard you must have worked, how much sleep you must have lost… You navigated life amid the same challenges and far greater ones than I have faced – and did it so well. I took for granted just how blessed I was to have the family I did and the experiences that you and Mom provided for us. It wasn’t easy or pretty at times – I feel a bit ashamed now looking back at the temper tantrums you put up with. I have a new respect for the difficult decisions you had to make – whether to uproot our family – yet again – whether this change was the right change. Once the decision was made though, you always moved forward with optimism, appreciation, and faith. I hope you know you made the right decision every time. My life is so much richer today for the decisions you made, even though sometimes they made me cry.
I still see you as my hero, a cowboy at heart, an executive of the land we love, and best of all – my father and the very best kind of friend. Thank you for opening my eyes to the world beyond me. I wish you were here with me now, giving me your grounded optimistic perspective through which to see and live. I love you more than words can ever say and miss you more with each passing day.
“I know not the way God leads me, but well do I know my Guide.” – Martin Luther
Happy Last Day of 2020!! A year of challenge and growth, of new lows weathered and new heights achieved, of monotony and adventure, of great sorrow and abounding hope, of renewed understanding of the importance of family and finding family with friends – even when socially distanced, and of most importance to me – a closer walk with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
2020 certainly has provided a clearer vision of the uncertainty and fragility of life. If I have learned anything this past year it is that life happens outside of my plans – sometimes the happiest moments were those I never saw coming and yes, most assuredly, the hardest ones too. Nonetheless, no matter where my paths led me – from mountaintop celebrations to tear-filled moments alone with God as my life crumbled apart – and everything in between – life took on new meaning this year. I am wiser and more wondering than before.
Wisdom comes with the walk, and I have walked and run many a mile this year. I know God was with me through all of them even on the darkest and most painful stretches. He was with me, too, gazing at many a spectacular sunrise and celebrating with me my mountaintop moments.
I still have much to learn – I know – hard to believe at my age – but I am well-prepared for the lessons yet to come. I trust that as C.S. Lewis said so well: “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” I am ready for this ragged old year to pass and I am looking forward in hope to the promise the new year brings. Indeed, I believe we are each made new every morning and we walk with new life when we walk with God every day. As we close this er – remarkable – year – I wish you a time of reflection and thankfulness for this journey of life. It was never promised to be easy but with Christ as our guide, it can always be hopeful. My prayer for 2021 is that each of you awaken with this hope each morning.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” John 1:5
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” 2 Corinthians 5:17
“Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Isaiah 43:19
“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” C.S. Lewis
It was doomed to fail from the start. My heart set on a cozy evening spent decorating the Christmas tree by the fire with all the warmth and happiness this traditional activity surely evokes. My memories told me as much. Having listened to enough Pentatonix Christmas, Mannheim Steamroller, and Boston Pops Christmas while cleaning the house earlier in the day, my mood was headed in the right direction – or so I thought.
Out came the boxes of cherished crystal figures, lace snowflakes and angels, Christopher Radko mercury glass, and Hallmark Snoopy ornaments – each imbued with special meanings from significant events or the marking of the passing year. Given my age – I have far more than my Hammacher Schlemmer World’s Best Noble Fir 7’ slim tree could ever gracefully hold.
Now all I needed was a good Christmas movie to accompany my nostalgic journey. Alas, the evening’s offerings from my limited TV subscriptions was confined to a repertoire of Hallmark Holiday romance movie sap; and given that my year began in a courtroom dissolving mine, that genre was not on my menu. So, I decided on the “uplifting and philosophical” tale of life as seen and told by a wise, car racing enthusiast dog, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” and I was sobbing within the first five minutes.
Bleary eyed already, I began adorning the tree. I have a method – beginning with the least emotion conjuring ornaments that usually decorate the back of the tree and moving on to the more and more tear producing: Snoopy ornaments from Dad, the Mercury Glass from Mom, then the crystal angels and Waterford crystal (!) Snoopys from Mom and Dad, then the family collection of Scandinavian hardanger lace snowflakes, and the hole filling Christmas balls, and finally the pièce de résistance – the delicate crystal icicles that dangle elegantly from each bow amongst the memory mishmash. This time I made it all the way to the Mercury Glass before I could go no further. Maybe it was the movie – the book of the same on my shelf has significant water damage. But alas, I do believe I was once again reacting to the disjuncture of what I had always hoped for and recreated in my memories, and the reality of what my family’s past and my present-day Christmases were; just like the caroling Snoopy under the lamppost ornament was as I pulled it from its “heirloom collection box” – broken, imperfect, and most definitely not Hallmark movie material.
I decided to give in to the movie, the adoring eyes of my puppy, and the tears brimming over my eyes and forgo the tree for the time being. After all – it wasn’t even my mother’s birthday yet – and she had a rule – the tree did not go up (live or artificial) until after her December 6th birthday. So I still had a day to wait. Truth be told, as I go about this season of Advent and the preparations for Christmas, I see my mom and feel her in almost everything I do. It’s not that our Christmas celebrations were overly joyous – more often they were anything but!
Despite my recent attempt to recreate the happy Christmases of the past, I remember more than a few times in my life feeling distinctly melancholy in the celebrations around Christmas time. Yes, we had all the Christmas trimmings, the Boston Pops Christmas Spectacular album was always playing on the record player, and our home was always decorated in beautiful Christmas trimmings, but it is in the quiet, simpler moments, in the silence by the fire that I see my Mom and where I now feel the most at home.
My family always held firm to the Scandinavian tradition that Christmas Eve is the big event – our presents were opened after church services (yes, often plural), after the Christmas light tour, after supper, and after me and Mom played the piano – while Dad listened in his Lazy Boy eating peanut brittle, and my brother – well, I am not sure what he did – but he was and is 10 years older than me so at that time we were in different worlds! Christmas Eve would often go into the wee hours of Christmas morning. Then off to bed I would go so Santa could come and fill my stocking. It was then that Mom would begin tidying up the wrapping paper while waiting for the fire to die. She would write each of us a letter from Santa – including herself, and I imagine breathe a sigh of relief after playing piano or organ for Christmas services and the weariness from all the rushing-to-church hubbub that happened on Christmas Eve (and always!). Finally, she would sit in the soft silent glow of the Christmas tree as the last of the fire’s embers lost their warm glow. As I got older, much older, I began to stay with my mom during this time. And it was in this – this quiet time of waiting and wondering at the miracle of God coming into this mess of life that my concept of Christmas changed. Because I saw my mother – weeping.
I never asked her why or what was wrong. I was at times taken aback, perhaps disillusioned – why would anyone cry at Christmas? My young mind couldn’t fathom it and my older mind couldn’t deal with it.
My parents are gone now and my brother lives on the other side of this great big state. As I carry on with my own traditions of white lights (they had to be white!) lots and lots of candles, Nativity scene-setting, and of course decorating and redecorating to perfection the Christmas tree, I sense deeply the reason for her tears. The joy and warmth and festiveness I endeavor to create in the darkest days of winter contrast greatly from the feelings in my heart – no matter how much Pentatonix Christmas I listen to.
How very much in need of a Savior I and this world are! How humbling and amazing that God has claimed me as his beloved – despite my failures, despite my sins, despite everything I try to do that never quite measures up – God loves me, and God loved and still loves my mother!
I know my mother had her personal struggles – the depth of which can only be appreciated with hindsight and grace. And I know my mother loved our Lord in her sweet, gentle, sometimes broken ways. I understand her tears at Christmas because they are now mine too – tears of shame and relief, of immense disbelief and incredible faith, of joy and sadness, of turmoil and the sense of peace found in the silence and reflected in the shimmer of white lights.
I wonder now if that yearly time of reflecting by the fire were threshold moments for my mother and now me. I, like many people I have encountered in the past year, find myself at a threshold, a threshold in life that feels extended and suspended at the same time. As Father Michael Marsh writes, “These threshold experiences are times of change and transition, invitations to self-reflection and growth, and openings to something new and unknown. They are scary and often painful times.” They leave you asking and not knowing whether your life is falling apart or falling into place. As I look back on the year that was and what lays ahead, I am uncomfortable with, afraid of even, this uncertainty and not knowing if I am falling apart or my life is falling into place.
Perhaps this is one of those years when our hindsight will be mercifully clearer and more gracious than our present perspective. A new decade dawned into a darkness none of us saw coming – not just for the individual or unfortunate few but for the entire world. No one has been untouched by this pandemic, the racial strife and recognition of wrongs, and the national political turmoil that came to our streets, our screens, and our relationships. Lives have been lost. Livelihoods have been lost. Lives and how we live them have forever been changed – some more so than others – some for the worse and some for the better. It was, as I have said many times in passing conversations, the year that kept on giving even without the pandemic.
I have been walking through this trying time in a darkness I didn’t make but a darkness that I needed. This darkness has let my Lord and Savior’s light shine in my life – not necessarily making it easier – but showing me where I need Him – everywhere and in every way! Immanuel – amen!
Maybe instead of fighting the current darkness many of us are feeling right now, we need to sit with it in silence, befriend it, and feel its intense intimacy and holiness. Welcome God to join you. I know in my darkest times that is when God draws near. I was dreading Christmas this year – without even my church family to gather with – and yet as we move closer to that most holy night, I know that this will be the truest, holiest, most powerful – most real Christmas I have had in a long, long time – perhaps not since that first most imperfect and dark and scary one so many years ago – before we muddled it up with our commercialized concepts of good tidings of joy and presents and parties and reindeer and… Let’s sit in this dark silent night and let His radiant light illumine our hearts as nothing else can.
My tree is decorated now. The tears brought on by the longings of the past – of what was and could have been – now dried. It sparkles with hope. The symbols of the past remind me that I have passed through many threshold times, some much more difficult than what I am experiencing now and we are experiencing as a whole. And yet, I am here and so are you and so is Jesus, God, Immanuel.
Yes, at times I long for a red and green holly jolly holiday reality instead of the blue & white Christmas I have come to know so well. But I know I was seeing the true in-dwelling of God in the tears of my Mom and my own tears now. Now I understand why she insisted on the white lights of peace and His amazing radiant grace.
Wishing you radiant grace, a deep peace, and a certain knowing that you are God’s Beloved this Christmas!
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. Isaiah 9: 2-7
With Thanksgiving around the corner, my mind has turned repeatedly to two things – my family who are far away and what I have done with the gifts bestowed upon my life in the past year. Both of which are triggered by the back-page stories in the newspaper – one of the few reasons I still subscribe to a local paper. I love to read obituaries, much more than write them mind you. I often find myself skimming past the headlines of the day but once I get to the obituary page, I read them word for word. It is the only time, that I know of at least, that the dash takes center stage – the life in between the numbers. I know what an impact the dash can make. Seeing the dash on my family’s headstone with both of my parent’s birth – dash – death years is one thing. Seeing my name with my birth date – dash – (blank) is a rather unsettling experience! But I digress…
Obituaries can move me, leave me awestruck, and inspire me. The really good ones cause me to reflect on what I have done with the dash in my life. They don’t dwell so much on one’s scholarly or professional achievements, though certainly worthy of mention, but where those achievements led the person and the impact that person had outside of themselves during their dash. We get to learn about what is really important in life and we get to laugh at the humorous side of our humanity.
I have noted two commonalities among most obituaries: they often recount a person’s relationship with God and they rarely list one’s fears. For good reason. With God, our lives are lived with anticipation, whereas fear negates the talents we are given – the opportunities and the possibilities God entrusts to us. Fear can have a very powerful role in the direction of our lives. We see that play out in Matthew’s Gospel in the parable of the talents.
Imagine if you will:
Jesus was going on a journey, one that he knew he would be on for quite some time. He called a few of his followers to him and entrusted some very valuable treasures to them. To one, named Martin, he gave stories; to another named Paul he gave compassion; and to a third, Goodwin, he gave the bread of life and the cup of salvation. These treasures were of incredible value – he deemed each of them of equal importance even though the weight and substance of each differed. Then Jesus went away.
Martin took those stories and studied them and wrote them out so the stories could easily be read and shared. While a little unsure of where Jesus was leading him, he knew his guide well. His Lord had been a dwelling place for all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever he had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting He was God. That He had entrusted Martin with stories filled Martin with joy as he set to work. Soon there were five more followers of Jesus reading and sharing those stories and those stories are still being read and shared today.
Reflecting often on his mangled past, Paul couldn’t believe Jesus had entrusted him with compassion – him of all people! And yet, Paul, acknowledging Jesus’ decisive impact on his life, changed his name from Steve to Paul and relinquished his life to Him. The freedom he found in trusting Jesus fueled him with a drive that couldn’t be stopped. He took that compassion and traveled all over the region offering compassion to all who would hear and open their hearts to him. The first two who opened their hearts shared the compassion with another 2 and so on and so forth. Soon all across the world many were receiving and giving compassion in the name of Jesus.
But Goodwin, who had been given the bread of life and the cup of salvation, dug a hole in the ground and buried them because he believed the Lord would plunder his wealth and lay his house to waste. He was afraid— afraid of messing up, of not getting the theology right, of what Jesus would do to him if he didn’t get it right, and finally, because he had no idea what might happen to him if he shared the bread of life and the cup of salvation with anyone else. There were so many unknowns! People might expect him to do more than he thought he was capable of! Surely, all would be better if he just stored the bread and cup until Jesus got back. Besides, Goodwin thought, he was a much better farmer than an evangelist.
Finally, back from his journey – no worse for the wear – Jesus stopped by each of his follower’s homes and asked them what they had done with the treasures he had given to them.
The first two followers offered Jesus some coffee and cookies and told him about how the stories were now in book form and in their millionth copy! They told him how the compassion had grown and was now administered not only on the streets but in buildings called churches. They introduced Jesus to some of his new followers and the new followers in turn introduced Jesus to their friends and families.
Jesus was very pleased. He thanked each of them for their wonderful hospitality and told them, “Well done, good and trustworthy followers! You have been trustworthy in a few things, now I will trust you with many things. Enter into my joy!”
Martin and Paul and all Jesus’ followers, now called brothers and sisters in Christ, went about their lives with the joy and freedom knowing Jesus brought them. For all those who have the Good News, even more will be given to them. Gone was their need to control and worry about everything, for Jesus showed them that He was their true Master, who, with grace and mercy, would lead them through life’s ups and downs and welcome them home at the end of their days.
Then it was Goodwin’s turn. After a long hot day working in the field harvesting his hay crop, he was slow to answer the door when Jesus knocked. “Hello Goodwin,” Jesus greeted him, as he looked over his shoulder at an empty room except for a Lazy-boy recliner and a radio blaring some hotheaded advice guru. “I’ve come to review your work. May I come in?”
“Geez, Jesus, now? Can’t you see your interrupting…”
“Goodwin, please, it is time. Let’s talk.”
Goodwin stepped aside and let Jesus into his house. He felt a bit nervous – no make that terrified – worse than when he was first given the bread and the cup. But Jesus just stood there and waited patiently until Goodwin cracked.
“Jesus, I knew you were a harsh man. I knew you reaped where you didn’t sow and gathered where you didn’t scatter seed. I don’t much care for people who trespass on my property.”
Jesus raised an eyebrow.
Goodwin’s reddened face paled. He continued. “Alright Jesus, I was afraid of messing up, of not getting the theology right, of what you would do to me if I didn’t get it right. Besides, I had crops to tend to. With no idea of what might happen to me if I shared the bread of life and the cup of salvation with others, I just couldn’t bet the farm.”
Jesus stopped him mid breath. “Goodwin, I think you’ve misread me. Of course, I reap where I don’t sow! I give you free will to live your life as you will and sometimes, I get really lucky when someone gets a brilliant idea – like your friend Martin did with that printing press! Boy, I never saw that coming! But I entrusted you with a few tasks I thought you would be perfect for. I guess you didn’t see what I saw in you.”
Goodwin continued in his protest, “But there were so many unknowns! People might have expected me to give more of my time than I was able! So, I thought, surely all would be better if I just stored the bread and cup until you got back. Besides, I am no evangelist.”
And that could have been the opening line to Goodwin’s obituary and the engraving on his headstone. There would be no dates with a dash in between. What would anyone want to remember him for? After their conversation, Goodwin gave the bread and cup back to Jesus. Condemning himself to a place of darkness rather than risk the unknowns, he turned Jesus away. Feeling what was left of his poor sham of a life suck out of him, he wanted to stop living – after all what was the point? He did the same thing over and over again and look where it got him? Nowhere. Standing in the darkness of his empty living room he ground his teeth so badly he felt a filling fall out.
That is what happens when you let fear be your Master. Indeed, we all have times of anxiety — times filled with worries over the direction our culture is drifting or concerns for our children, our marriages, our businesses, our finances, our personal health and well-being. Whether it is fear of losing control – so you live your life so tightly shut that no one can venture in and you cannot get out, fear of being alone or standing alone in your beliefs, fear of not measuring up, or fear of the unknown – staying well within your comfort zone, walled off from the risks of new opportunities and possibilities – nothing Godly or goodly can come from fear.
Fear limits us. But our fear cannot limit God, nor can it limit what God wants for us.
(The story continues)
Goodwin walked to the sink, spit the metal out of his mouth and went to bed. After a restless night with little sleep there was a knock at the door. “Now who could that be? Why won’t people leave me alone?” he muttered as he passed by the empty mail cache and phone that never rang.
He opened the door and a radiance shown into his dreary space and forlorn face.
“Jesus! You came back!”
“I just couldn’t let it go – you saying I was a harsh man.” Jesus looked at Goodwin. He looked pretty scruffy and what was going on in that mouth of his? Could it be he wasn’t frowning quite so much? “You’ve had a long night. What do you say we go get some of this bread of life and a good swig from the cup of salvation? It really is far more appetizing than you think, and I know just the place.”
Jesus put his hand on Goodwin’s shoulder – he felt the tension release and the strength he once saw in him come back. Goodwin closed the door to his emptiness and headed down the road to this place Jesus had heard about from Paul.
“You say they call this a church?”
“Yup,” said Jesus. “It’s full of people just like you – I was kind of surprised, but then not so much as it is kind of hard to surprise me. There are people in there just as fearful as you. Life isn’t easy, I know. There are people inside who see me as harsh and full of judgment, easy to ire, impatient, and kind of surly and so they go to this place because they think they have to. And then – then there are those inside who have fully embraced the new me – loving and kind, patient and enduring – I like to think I’m their Great Protector – of course, I am, to all of them.”
On the way they pass by a few who see Jesus as someone who will not do good or do harm – Jesus shook his head, “They think I’m a willy nilly – to them I’m some old man from ages past who doesn’t much impact their day to day lives. Do you know how that makes me feel? After all I’ve given? But enough about me, we should welcome them.”
Goodwin and Jesus went inside the church and found themselves surrounded by children of the light – clothed in their Sunday best – faith, love and hope. And they heard the story of a God who loves us so much that He came in the person of Jesus to experience our lives first hand, to share our hopes and dreams, and our fears and failures. A God who does not want the time between our numbers to be spent in fear. A God who wanted working knowledge of our trials and tribulations and to see just how amazing His creation turned out to be. A God who entrusted us with stewarding his amazing creation for our joy and our fulfillment. A God who fell so in love with us that He died for us on the cross, so that we could be freed of our sins, and live our lives abundantly – without fear.
Goodwin felt his fears melt away. He realized his life was not his alone to live – his life belonged to God – the One who gave his own, so that he, Goodwin, might live fully. And so, by golly, live it fully he would! Surrounded by fellow brothers and sisters – the very living body of Christ – who would continue to hold him and each other in love while encouraging and building one another up in their various pursuits, until the day of Our Lord comes again.
Wishing you a Thanksgiving that is abundant in life and absent of any fears – whether you are spending the holiday with family or staying apart out of love.
In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. – John 16:33
September with its golden days, crisp mornings, and quieting evenings has always been my favorite month. With 16+ years of education, the “back to school” sense is ingrained in my being. September announces a return to a familiar rhythm of life with the added bonus of a few new beats – by this time each year I know a little more, have grown in some way, and see life just a little differently. No matter how much I may love the spontaneity of summer’s spirit in my life, this return to the familiar – to a well-practiced routine – brings a sense of comfort, even rest, to my adventuring soul.
Except, I am feeling anything but restful this year and the familiar rhythms of life seem just out of my grasp. The brilliant golden hues I have always associated with September have been stolen by awful wildfire smoke – echoing the reality of everything else this year – and I am feeling completely out of step with things. Call it COVID-confusion? In years past, my back-to-school sentimentality has been satisfied by going “back to singing” with the Crown Choir, the Valley Voices, Community Choir, and church choir – my camaraderie in harmony! Harmony – oh what a foreign idea in 2020!
Sadly, I am left longing for all of the above as COVID19 has infected the joy of these activities with fear and taken them away. I feel like I am wandering in the wilderness only this wilderness was not of my choosing. I am unsure of my footing; not certain I am prepared and have no idea what lays ahead – and I am growing weary. Weary of not needing a planner but in definite need of a calendar and daily lists just to keep me focused and on track with the passage of time. Weary of the unknown, weary of the unsettled nature of my life. I am restless and want my life back!
Indeed, like me, the world appears to be especially weary. The pandemic persists; the political climate continues wrought with tension; the earth’s ecosystems are being ravaged by water, wind, and fire. People have been forced from their homes into the unknown – some will never go back. And beyond that, no one’s personal difficulties have lessened in any way. So much unsettledness and restlessness. Restoration is needed at every turn!
The other morning, I was actually able to laugh at a news story. Amid all the other stories that morning of the fires out West, the political firestorm that just keeps getting hotter and more distasteful by the day, the protests and fires in our cities, the injustices felt by people of all walks and perspectives, the disparities in our economy, not to mention just how infected at every turn our lives continue to be by the COVID19 virus – I literally laughed out loud – at the news that there might be signs of life on Venus and the excitement that stinky phosphoric discovery brought to the scientists – and to me – for just a moment. Who among us hasn’t dreamt of escaping to a better place – to someplace familiar – to a place called “the way it used to be” – you know – quiet, peaceful, like last February – and yet we know that isn’t how life works.
All the events of life, even such dark events as a pandemic, war, fire, flood, protests, violence, and unrest are not in and of themselves a definition of our end. Each moment is like a seed that carries within itself the possibility of becoming the moment of change. A change we may not have sought out at first, but a change that will be with us for the long haul. We cannot run from this present time in search of a place where we think life is better.
Rather, we must reckon with our time, our place, and who we are in the process of becoming. As one writer recently put it: “The world will improve not on an arbitrary day but when you all decide to make it a better place” In truth, this time of upheaval is freeing us to choose a new identity and a new way of being in the world. I think back to the wilderness years of the Israelites, who chastised God for leading them into the awful unknown and wanted to go back to their fleshpots and pharaoh. Better the enslavement they knew than the scary freedom they didn’t know.
Much like the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt, we are in a period of wandering – a rather uncomfortable one at that – into a new way of being. As a person and as a country, we are on a journey towards a new identity with a new set of practices because the old way of doing things, of being in this world, may have seemed to be working fine for a few but wasn’t working for the many. Our sense and understanding of freedom need to be restored. True freedom is not just the absence of oppression or servitude – freedom means taking on a new identity – taking on a new sense of how we are defined and seen by others. True freedom allows you to claim your place in this world and gives you the responsibility to live well. True freedom means choosing a better way to live – not just the familiar one. True freedom means choosing to do what is right rather than insisting on being right. True freedom allows us to trust that God is always making things new and this time of uncertainty is all about that process.
There will be significant challenges to our sense of the familiar and the comforts of “old” in the days and months ahead. Who will we be when this day, this season, this time passes? As much as I long for the comforts of the familiar, I pray for the courage to live into the new identity God is leading us to. Letting go of old ways is hard, being reformed and refined even harder, putting our trust in God the hardest of all. But when we do, living in the knowledge of God’s grace and mercy and His ever-creating being, we will be restored and set free.
Be glad, people of Zion, rejoice in the Lord your God, for he has given you the autumn rains because he is faithful. He sends you abundant showers, both autumn and spring rains, as before. – Joel 2:23
The words came at me like a cleaver, blunt yet cutting, slowly digging into my very core. We were in the middle of a conversation about life, direction, purpose, and personal responsibility. Was I perhaps too reliant on the Lord in the course of my life?
For as long as I have conceived of morning and night my faith has been a central part of my life. Yes, there was a time I veered away from the concept of church, but the Lord redeemed me during a time of complete brokenness and it was then that I moved beyond just practicing my faith to having a deep relationship with Him. But every relationship has a dynamic, and not all dynamics are positive. When those words were spoken to me, I was caught off guard. Was my faith simply a crutch to lean on during difficult times?
“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10
Later, pondering deeply as I walked alone, I found myself questioning my relationship with the Lord. Had I become too dependent on Him as I made my way through life? This question haunted me for days and weeks! I felt at odds not only with the person who had brought this idea to light but at odds with my Lord!
Then I began to feel at odds with myself, ashamed for my lack of spiritual integrity. I felt weak in my faith, me of all people, the one who encourages others to look to the Lord for strength, rest, and resurrection, the one who considered going to seminary and still contemplates the possibility of a theological vocation from time to time! What sort of hypocrite had I become? I should have defended the Lord but instead, like Peter who denied Him, I questioned Him in the face of ridicule. Needing to be identified as the strong woman I am, not someone who was insecure and unsure of my steps or weak and reliant on others (not even my Lord), I did not defend the One who has been grace-filled and just in my life.
About this time, I was fortunate to cross paths with a man who makes a point of actively living his faith in his life during a conference at 100Fold Studio, a servant-focused architectural firm based in Lakeside, MT. The firm offers architecture students and graduates a six-week studio internship in which they explore how Christian principles can inform a career in architecture. Speakers from around the country with expertise in design, business, and world missions focused on faith and vocation through lectures, small groups, and one on one mentorship.
Dr. Kenneth Elzinga, the Robert C. Taylor Chair of Economics at the University of Virginia was the main speaker and the one who caught me with his message. While he certainly had insight on how these future architects and designers might finance their careers, he shared a far greater message of living out your faith in your daily work and interactions. He encouraged us, as the Apostle Paul did to the Romans, to not be ashamed of the Gospel or the role your faith has in your life.
“You have worth in Christ,” was his opening comment, and because of that, he makes no secret of his faith in the workplace, which for him is the staunchly secular arena of academia.
Listening to Dr. Elzinga speak of his courageously open faith in an atmosphere where such open religiosity raised the ire of department chairs reminded me that while God does not need defending by the likes of me, He does ask me to recognize His place in my life and not be ashamed of it. Dr. Elzinga shared a story of his early years at the University. He had placed a Bible on his office desk and when one of his fellow professors saw it he told him he would never gain tenure with a Bible on his desk. Dr. Elzinga certainly had moments of doubt and career consternation, but his inner certainty of his faith withstood intimidation. He continued to be open about his faith and while he never blatantly proselytized he welcomed discussions on faith. When students came to him with troubles, he listened and guided with love. Often, upon seeing his Bible on his desk students would ask him to pray with them. Soon he began asking the students if he could pray for them. Most of them said yes. In time, even his colleagues turned to him for spiritual support in times of need.
Despite, if not because of, his open faithfulness, not only did he gain tenure but he is now a distinguished chair of the University, regularly leads campus Bible studies and serves on the board of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He admits it was not always easy being unashamed of the Gospel and at times faced harassment, felt threatened in his career, and even felt as if he had failed in his efforts to quietly and gently share the Gospel through his actions, not just words. Yet, looking at his career and record from my standpoint, he certainly came out the winner with his Lord by his side.
Dr. Elzinga spoke about our human tendency to want to control everything in our lives. It is a natural state. It is not easy to go forth in faith – especially for young graduates who have the whole world ahead of them. We like to trust in our own abilities. Because we know our limits and can expect a certain outcome, we place our trust in ourselves and things of a concrete nature. We take pride in accomplishing things on our own. It is when we find ourselves facing difficulties that we begin to look elsewhere for support. Dr. Elzinga proposed that difficulties in our course of life are God’s way of getting our attention. If we don’t have difficulties in life we start to walk on our own. Many would counter that it is good to walk on our own – that independence is a sign of strength. There was a time in my own life that I felt pretty sure of myself and pretty sure that God did not have His eye on me, nor did I need Him to. I was strong in my own right and thought I had everything under control in check. No need to let anyone into my world. No need to ask for help when I in truth I needed it.
Alas, the Lord understands our prideful natures, and will occasionally take steps to knock us off our high horse to remind us who is in control. I don’t know about my self- assured friends, but I know I have been bucked off my stallion a few times in the crazy course of my life. Surprisingly, I was able to get up, dust myself off, and walk with my head held high shining in my Lord’s light. Sure my knees were a little skinned and my pride shaken in front of more than a few onlookers, but I did not doubt for one moment my worth in Christ. That is the amazing thing about Christ. He doesn’t ask for much but His gifts are gracious. If we open our hearts to Him and accept Him into our life, He will lead us down right paths and love us just as we are.
So how do I affirm and defend the Lord’s positive role in my wayward life in the face of those who have attained, seemingly on their own, certainty in the direction of their own? How can I not question my trust in Him?
As Dr. Elzinga pointed out in his remarks on being broken and redeemed, we can find the answer written in His Word. Perhaps I should spend more time with the original self-help anthology and less time trying to appear strong and self-reliant. The Lord sees and knows all my strengths and weaknesses. Placing my trust in Him will ensure a steadfast spirit within me.
But he said to me “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” ~2 Corinthians 12:9