A sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
What a tale rich with the complexities of this world we have here! The Prodigal Son – or is it the Tale of the Lost Sons or the Tale of the Lamenting Older Brother – or is it a Tale of a Prodigal Love? Ralph Waldo Emerson called this the greatest story in the Bible. I call it Everybody’s Story. Part of the reason we are so drawn to this story is that we are never only one of the characters. We find ourselves with the younger son mired in the messes of our own making, with the elder son in our righteous bitterness and fear of being overlooked, and we long to be like the father who empties himself in his selfless devotion to bring in the lost and the forsaken.
Who among us has not squandered the love we have been given? Who among us has not chased after our own impulses, passions, and needs be they hunger, thirst, or wanton desires instead of choosing a higher path? Who hasn’t felt the unrelenting pain of losing someone we deeply loved and the regrets that fill the void they leave behind? Who hasn’t felt the bitter sting of insecurity and fear of being left out or chased blindly after love, hoping it will be returned? Who hasn’t thought better of themselves only to be humbled by a harsh lesson in humility? Who hasn’t hoped, hungered and prayed that someone — anyone – God — will come searching for us when we are lost, broken, and alone? It is a story about joy, about love, and about grace – and about our misunderstanding of the nature of grace.
And so, without further ado – as the late, great comforter on the airwaves Paul Harvey would so famously begin every radio show – the rest of the story…
The tax collectors and sinners were very near to Jesus now. He had them on the edge of their seats. Never had someone so different from them taken the time to talk with them. He offered them something no one else could or would. And the Pharisees and the scribes continued in their grumbling, saying, “Not only does this fellow welcome sinners and eat with them – he’s offering them grace – a cheap grace at that. He’s breaking every law in the book! He’s crossing the line here. The government surely won’t stand for it. He’s saying God loves them too!”
Jesus could hear the Pharisees grumbling. He knew they were right – He did, after all, hang with the wrong people, he was breaking the rules – but he had more important things to do than observe the laws of this world – especially laws that served only to divide and condemn – laws from a time before – laws that served more to separate people from God rather than bring them to Him. His father sent him to take on the cloak of sin and bridge the great chasm it created between Him and his children and by George, he was doing a good job of it! He found it ironic that the most religious and pious in his audience where his greatest critics. Jesus continued.
Now, the younger son, still basking in the glow of his new life, overheard his father’s pleas to his older brother. He excused himself from the party and went to see to his brother.
“Come on brother, don’t be like a stubborn old mule, without understanding. Get over yourself! Your bitterness and resentment towards my redemption is confining you to a fallen world. Come inside and celebrate – there is much to rejoice!”
The older brother glared at his precocious and suddenly highly prolific sibling. Who did he think he was? Telling him what to do?
Seeing his brother’s continued hardness of heart, the younger one continued.
“Look, I don’t fault you for feeling as you do. Everything you said to Dad is true. I get it. You have worked all these years – and worked hard! I mean look at this place – it’s amazing – so much better than when I left it all behind. You didn’t run off and desert Dad – let alone practically wish him dead by asking for your inheritance early. You didn’t squander the family’s wealth. You, for the most part, I am sure, have been dutiful and responsible and trustworthy all this time, and so it must really burn for you to see Dad running down the road flailing his arms like an idiot in disbelief and joy – for me – I mean what an embarrassment!! And then he welcomes me home with an outpouring of love and no questions asked. Even I wasn’t expecting that! I know you don’t think it is fair and that’s because it’s not!”
“Not just unfair, it is a complete disgrace.” Said the older brother – finally finding something to agree with.
“Look, this hasn’t been easy for me, either. I was so certain there was something more in this world for me – that there was nothing for me here. I felt suffocated by rules and expectations that meant nothing to me. I wanted to live! And it was great for a while in that distant country – living with abandon – enjoying what I thought were the finer things – a far cry from what you’ve been toiling at all this time – but then things took a turn. The recession hit and my careless living was taking a toll on me. I had nothing to lean on – no savings and no foundation – no relationships of value – nothing to give me strength. I found myself at rock bottom – well actually slop bottom – I had to feed pigs to survive! Can you believe that? The only job I could find that I had any skill for was on a pig farm! Not only that – but my hunger was insatiable – nothing filled me – I even began to eat the pig’s pods. Pride kept me silent but soon I realized I was dying inside. And look at me – my body practically wasted away! The weight of all that I had done and all that I had lost was unbearable. When I realized I was worse off than – well those people – I came to my senses.”
“Yeah, you came to your senses when you wanted more from Dad. I’m sorry, but I just can’t believe you would come back – that you could come back after what you have done. The shame you have brought upon yourself and Dad.”
“Oh, believe me, I know what I have done – and now so does God – he knows everything, you know. We had a long talk on my way back home you see – I told him about everything – I confessed my rebellion – I accepted my failures – it was a pretty long walk. But as I walked, I felt the weight of my guilt and my failures wash away with a rush of mighty water.
“Look, the more I think about it, my return home actually seems much easier than bringing you out of that cold anger making itself at home in the deepest corners of your being. Brother, your resentment is killing you. But it’s not just about me, is it? It’s about your virtue!”
“Hey, don’t try to bring me down to your level!” The older brother spat out defensively.
“Down to my level? Look! We are all sinners here. You just happen to be sinning in a different way. I am trying to lift you up.”
“Oh, come on! Where is it written that it isn’t good to be obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, hardworking, and self-sacrificing? Such attitudes are praiseworthy!”
“And indeed, they are! We should all strive to be that way – I know I should have. But don’t you see, you are so caught up in being right that you can’t see past yourself! I see your despair! It’s like you are battling against yourself. At the very moment you want to act out of your most generous self, you get caught in anger or resentment. And just when you want to be selfless, you find yourself obsessing about being loved. And just when you have done your utmost to accomplish a task well, you question why others do not give of themselves as you do. You think you are better than me for overcoming the same temptations that I had, but in truth, you envy me for giving in to them! It seems that everything you are basing your virtuosity on is turning you into a resentful complainer. Where is there happiness in that way of living?”
“I am happy…”
“Oh please, you are deceiving yourself – and Dad. Continue on this path and you will be stuck here and tormented forever! True happiness belongs to those whose sin is forgiven, covered – forgotten. Look at me! I feel like my slate has been wiped clean! Like God is holding nothing from me – because I held nothing back from Him. That’s the kind of happiness I have now. I have found shelter from my troubled ways and joy in my freedom.”
Shaking his head, the older brother replied, “You may be happy – but you are not being realistic. The world doesn’t work that way kid. I am proof of that! God may have removed the label of “sinner” from you when you sought restoration but there are plenty of people here at your party who will try to pin it back on you as soon as they have had their fill of wine and taken their leave. They’ll cast sideways glances at you in the store and I bet they won’t sit with you in church.”
Having stood by and watched his two sons stand their respective grounds, the father had finally had enough. Shaking his head but at the same time opening his arms he interrupted.
“Sons, both of you have wandered far from me. You,” he said to his younger son, “alienated yourself from me by trying to satisfy your passions with no regard for anything or anyone but yourself. And you,” he said to his older son, “distanced yourself from me and all those who care for you, by indulging in anger, and envy, and caring only about your place in life.”
Putting his arms around both his son’s shoulders for the first time in a long time he continued.
“I wouldn’t want to live in this world if rules and fairness and equity didn’t matter. It could get out of control pretty fast. But we can get lost in the means and forget what the end result of rules and fairness and equity is all about. Just look around. Take a good hard look at your own hearts and motives. We want to be judged only by our best moments – but condemn others who have fallen short of our ideals. We seek validation and vindication for our accomplishments, but when it comes to those we deem as unworthy of the same we’d rather have our own pity party than join in celebrating them. We keep scores for everything. We literally count everything – from calories to miles to money – even good deeds – all in an effort to tip the scales of fate in our favor. We see life as a game of winners and losers and that skews our relationships and diminishes the value of every one of us. Good scores, accomplishments, fairness, equity, – those are important goals, but they are not the only things that matter in this life – at least not to me. What matters is that we have joy – joy in our hearts, joy that fills our minds, joy that strengthens us for this world. A joy that reigns in this house.
“That joy comes from love. And my love is something that cannot be counted. I could never apportion my love. I don’t track it or measure it or parcel it out. I can give all of my love to one of you and – guess what? – I still have all of my love left to give to the other.
“You might fear that there is a limit – or secretly hope that there is – and only a certain amount of love is reserved for a select few – including you – but that is not how my love works. There is never a limit – never was and never will be. You see, love is one of those things that the more you give the more you seem to have – you may try, but you will never be able to control who I love, how I love, or quantify it.”
Having been silent for too long, the younger son looked at his father and said, “Thank you, Dad. Thank you for forgiving me before you even saw me and loving me. I want to love like you love.”
Not to be outdone the older son reached deep.
“We live amid war, fires, floods, poverty, greed, persecution, imprisonment, betrayal, hatred, and sins we have yet to imagine. Signs of the world’s darkness that will never be absent. But you are telling me I can still have joy in the midst of it all? The joy of belonging to a household whose love is stronger than my present darkness and even death; a love that empowers us to be in the world while already belonging to a home of joy.”
“Yes, my son. It is yours every day. You have always been loved and that joy is yours. Every day you are made new and made whole in the waters that wash away your sin and make you shine.”
Upon hearing this, the Pharisees went away in silence as Jesus broke another loaf of bread to share and the tax collectors and sinners were filled with joy.
And there you have it. The rest of the story. We are restored every day in the waters of our baptism. God’s forgiveness is always there; we are the ones who cut ourselves off when we choose envy and bitterness or go our own way. But God never stops trying. His love and grace have no limit. God promises us a warm welcome and complete restoration to God’s household -if we simply approach and come home.
As Paul so eloquently shares with the Christians in Corinth and as written in The Message: “He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own. Because of this decision we don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don’t look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins.” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)
“Every fall into love involves the triumph of hope over knowledge.”
It’s February, the month of love. As a newlywed who just experienced what I thought was the greatest love story ever told, what else could I write about other than the wonderful, terrifying, miraculous, tumultuous, confounding, thrilling, joyous topic of love?
If you had asked me on the momentous day that I said “Yes” to my husband-to-be on top of a mountain 6 months ago to describe what life together would be like today – almost three months after our bliss-filled-on- top-of-the– world-head-in-the-cloud-nine wedding day, I dare say my response would have been nothing close to the reality that is our life that we now live together today.
Mind you, we did things the old-fashioned way in that we did not live together – at all – before our wedding. November 24, 2018 was not only the happiest day of our lives but it also marked the beginning of a very different kind of living arrangement between two people that had been living quite happily and singly for an average of 31 years.
No, my enraptured response would have been much different than our reality. A response conceived through a culture- skewed filter of what not necessarily perfect love is but what normal love is – especially normal love ensconced in marriage. Despite having grown up with two sets of parents who loved each other – however imperfectly – and seeing couples in our social circles navigating married life with what we assumed was aplomb – we frankly had no idea what normal love in marriage was like. And apparently, our idea of what love is, let alone our idea of what is normal in love, is rather abnormal.
Within three months of our blissful wedding day my husband and I realized after many mutually restless nights and days filled with tormented thoughts that we were both castigating ourselves for not having a normal love-filled married life – although given the number of marriage counselors and self-help / couples-help books on marriage out there – no one seems to have a normal love-filled married life. In one book I read on marriage recently, it was stated that marital counseling, while prolific in our population, is the least successful form of therapy out there. I pity the counselors who must reflect on the numbers of couples they counsel who still end up divorced.
When the tension between us finally became more than we could bear, we spent another sleepless night talking it out into the wee hours of the morning. In doing so, we both experienced a marital epiphany of sorts. While we both had vowed to communicate with one another openly – no matter what – we were both too afraid to put into words the feelings that were brewing inside of us. Once out in the air we realized that these feelings were mutual – and the fact that we both shared the same fear about them seemed to cement our commitment to each other to keep trying. The first lesson of love in OUR marriage learned: communication is key and our love for each other is like no other and will look like no other.
As a culture, we are seemingly obsessed with the romantic run up to and creation of the epic wedding day that epitomizes and celebrates a couple’s love for each other. It would be interesting to compare the numbers on how lucrative the wedding planning and wedding production industry is with the marital counseling industry in all its manifestations – but space and time do not allow for that here. My husband and I kept our wedding celebration very low key and considerably budget minded. We were more interested in professing our love in a way that was true to who each of us was than having the party of the year – yet we still found ourselves getting caught up in the expectation trap.
Perhaps a wiser course on the way to marital bliss would be to recognize that the start of a relationship and its frenzied journey to the altar (or lakeside, or wedding hall, or beach) is not the high point; it is merely the first step in a much longer, more ambivalent adventure. A journey towards understanding our inner selves in relation to the one we love for the long-term that deserves far more attention than most of us would like to give.
When we said our vows, our hopes triumphed over knowledge – love was all that mattered. Knowledge would come later – after the commitment had been made. Knowledge was not intentionally avoided – we went through premarital counseling – we had the deep conversations we thought we needed to have – but nothing can truly prepare you for the far less romantic mundane aspects and minutiae of life together after the celebration is over and real-life sets in.
How, for instance, would each of us who were both very independent spirits, each proud owners of their own homes in which we relished our solitude, react and adapt to sharing that solitude with someone all of the time? Or, how would two people whose only companions within those respective homes having been two dogs (of completely different generations and personalities,) react to having those cherished companions in a constant argument with one another and furthermore have those companions get scolded by our beloved??
Perhaps we should have been talking about how we felt about putting a used coffee cup back in the cupboard since it had only been used once instead of putting it in the dishwasher; or how we interpreted one of us spending their evenings lost in books and music while the other recharges with football on the big screen, or when two people who are used to silence at home are suddenly sharing a home – what happens to the silence and what happens when that silence grows (oh my!) – than spending our precious pre-wedding time searching for a rustic unity candle that exemplified our perfect love for one another!
Each of us is unique and every marriage is unique – and our understanding and view of love and what is normal in a marriage will be just as unique. Our ideal of what love is – formed by a culture that romanticizes and materializes every aspect of it – dares to threaten and diminish the love that was so alive at the beginning. The idea that there is a perfect way to love and a perfect formula for marriage is just wrong. But, these conflicting narratives are everywhere – in movies and songs – great forms of literature and greeting cards – even jewelry and breakfast cereal commercials, and they fly in the face of the normal-for-us love that survives and thrives amid our conflicting schedules, tired minds, long workdays, differing fiscal philosophies, and dogs that don’t get along.
As author and founder of the School of Life, Alain de Botton, said in a recent On Being interview, “We must fiercely resist the idea that true love must mean conflict-free love, that the course of true love is smooth. It’s not. The course of true love is rocky and bumpy at the best of times. That’s the best we can manage as the creatures we are. It’s no fault of mine or no fault of yours; it’s to do with being human. And the more generous we can be towards that flawed humanity, the better chance we’ll have of doing the true hard work of love.”
Nowhere, other than through firsthand experience, do we learn how love deepens and stumbles, survives and evolves over time. Love is at once a painful and perplexing, touching and revelatory attempt by two flawed but earnest individuals trying to meet each other’s needs in situations of frustrating uncertainty and stubborn ignorance that neither of us had really contemplated before. No one had the nerve to tell us that our feelings of angst and conflict towards one another in the process of loving one another have much more to do with ourselves than what is wrong or right with our partner as we prepared to walk down the aisle.
Nowhere are we taught that love grows in the disappointing and the mundane moments of our day to day life just as much as it grows in the romantic, playful and joy-filled times. If we all could have that insight, we would be starting our married lives off from a much more generous starting point.
Being a human being and trying to relate to another human being in a loving relationship is challenging no matter how well-matched the couple may be; there is no such thing as a perfect match; and every couple will encounter problems. Love is something we have to learn and keeping learning from. What challenges us the most we learn from the best. Love is not just an emotion, it is a skill acquired through time that requires patience, understanding, tolerance, generosity, imagination, courage and hope.
Frederick Buechner’s words on marriage inspire me to believe my husband and I are enjoying one great love story in the making: “They both still have their lives apart as well as a life together. They both still have their separate ways to find. But a marriage made in heaven is one where they become more richly themselves together than the chances are either of them could ever have managed to become alone.”
Our marriage continues to be a beautiful risk of the heart made with complete confidence in one another. We are learning to appreciate each other’s individuality, flaws, and imperfections as they are every bit a part of the wonderful person we fell in-love with and married. We are triumphant with hope and growing in love and becoming more richly ourselves together than either of us ever could have become alone. May you be blessed in such a way as well – no matter where you are in your relationship with the one you love.
~ ~ ~
A reading from our wedding ceremony:
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
– Colossians 3:12-17
Last year at this time, I sat quietly by the fire reflecting on yet another year of growth through grief. But, as I mourned the deaths of my mother and father, a transformation of sorts was underway – I like to think of it as my chrysalis. I began to let go of the parts of my life that were dead – the comfort of darkness that kept me from the challenges and opportunities in life, my fears, my insecurity as to just who I was and my place in this world. As I sat watching the fire flicker, I knew I had a choice – to succumb to living a life in sadness or to learn to fly again. As my father’s daughter – there was only one choice – to let the parts of me that needed to die away do just that so that the beautiful parts that make up the life I would come to live this past year could take flight.
And take flight they did.
Emerging from my cocoon of grief, I embraced life with vigor. I said yes to opportunities not knowing how the journey would end but trusting that no matter what it would end well.
I committed myself to doing more than simply following in Christ’s footsteps but going to wherever He led me. My faith was transformed from one of rigor to one of complete awe, trust, and love. As the year unfolded, I completed my lay pastoral studies and found myself spending my summer and fall immersed in the Word- writing sermons, leading worship, and hopefully leading my congregation in a closer walk with God. Graduating and then serving as a Lay Pastor in years past would have been plenty to make this the capstone year in my adult life, but my metamorphosis still had a ways to go – I still had beautiful wings to grow.
Taking wing like I never have before, I soared into the arms of a love and a friend like no other – and now as I write this – my journey is solitary no more. There were times I never thought I would find someone to share my life with. In fact, I had grown quite comfortable with the idea of navigating life on my own – it was easier that way. This year I said goodbye to a sheltered but safe heart and I took another chance – on love. This time, fully trusting that God had good things in mind for me – even arranging our first date – I was reminded that love always wins. Who would have thought that I would not only find God’s purpose for me, but His greatest gift to me in 2018.
I began to realize anew how wonderful life is when it is shared with someone. Love is wonderful. And yes, true love will hurt at times, but true love also grows through those hurts with tenderness, appreciation, and trust with each passing day. This love filled the caverns of my heart and brought light to my life.
That I found my way – albeit roundabout – to the amazing moment where I stood before the man I will love forever – professing my love before God and all those who love and support us – was a dream come true. It delights me to no end that we will spend the rest of our lives together. And to think – this all began with the tiniest spark of life and hope flickering within.
Last year, as I said goodbye to the year that I said goodbye to my Dad and began testing my wings, I didn’t want to let the year to go – severing, even more, the connection I had with my father. I promised to make my Dad and my Mom proud and find the happiness they always wanted for me as another year dawned. I kept my promises. I could not have fathomed just how magnificent my flight would be. Thank you, Lord, for rebirth, for the chance to live life anew again. Thank you for showing me that faith, hope, and love do conquer all.
His light shines in the darkness. My light has never shone brighter.
Wishing you and yours, a very blessed New Year. May your life take flight in ways you could have never imagined – inspired by faith, hope, and love.
Tis the season of gratitude and the Hallmark Christmas Channel with a record 34 new merry movies guaranteed to move you between this Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now don’t get me wrong – I love a good movie and I love the occasional good cry – but to be perfectly honest with you – I watch the Hallmark movies for the commercials. Hallmark Greeting Card commercials rank right up there with the Budweiser Clydesdale’s Super Bowl commercials on the tear-jerk scale for me.
This year you can spend “Christmas in Evergreen” or “Christmas in Graceland” or even “Christmas at the Palace” for all you royal wedding buffs. You can be “Home for Christmas”, have a “Homegrown Christmas”, “Mingle All the Way” to “Merry Matrimony”, be “Just in Time for Christmas”, find “A Family for Christmas”, make “Christmas Cookies” or a “Christmas Connection”, share “Christmas Joy”, get cozy in the “Christmas Cottage” or find “Christmas Love” just to name a few.
But the one movie that takes the cake for me is getting “Hitched for the Holidays” because … well… I AM!!! (Well technically over Thanksgiving – but the two holidays seem to merge into one another anymore anyway.) Never, never in my life did I think I would be the subject of a Hallmark Christmas Movie, but then again, as of late, I have lived through all the requisite movie making ingredients: calamity, tragedy, sorrow, heartbreak, new home, new puppy, getting snowbound, surprise guests, a new chapter in life, and now a fiancé for the holidays – someone I had pretty much thought didn’t exist for me (see the plot thickening already!!) not even 9 months ago – and if you are reading this story on November 17th I will be walking down the aisle in my holiday best just 7 short days from now!
Now it wouldn’t be a Hallmark-worthy story without a bit of nostalgia thrown in for good measure and so as I sit here during one of my less frazzled pre-wedding evenings – doing what I do best – remembering times gone by while paging through old photo albums and sharing Facebook memories – it has become obvious that Thanksgiving was NOT a photographic holiday in my family!!! I found 2 – TWO! pictures of my family at Thanksgiving – all taken in the last 6 years and one in a photo album. This is probably because I can recall many Thanksgivings when calamity reigned over peace in our kitchen and our meals were not always bubbling with joy. Broken casserole dishes, dry turkey, watery green bean casserole, arguments over Christmas lights – and when we could turn them on, and who was or wasn’t coming for dinner. Oh yes, we had separate Thanksgivings and silent Thanksgivings, soup for Thanksgiving, and yes, WONDERFUL Thanksgivings.
The last Thanksgiving my whole family was together was 2012. I never dreamed that would be the last one we celebrated together but it was. Illness, inclement weather, plans elsewhere, and death came between us in the following years. The last Thanksgiving we had with my Mom we didn’t have with Mom as she stayed home in “one of her moods” while the rest of us went to a relative’s house for the feast. No, I never claimed we were a perfect family – but we loved each other even in the mess.
The year after that would be the last Thanksgiving I would have with my Dad and last year was the first one my brother and I had without either of our parents.
Every Hallmark Movie has a moral to the story and my morality lesson goes right to our mortality and the finite essence of life. I have learned that nothing – nothing can replace relationships – nothing is more important than family – and I must do a better job of nurturing the bonds I have with the people who have found their way into my life going forward. Love everyone at your table despite any irritations they might inflict and cherish every moment you have with them. Life is fleeting. Forgiveness is a gift that should not be given sparingly, and as Eleanor Roosevelt once said – “The giving of love is an education in itself.”
This year I will be feasting on memories and giving thanks for lives well lived and a life still worth living. I will be celebrating the joining of two families as my fiancé, John and I become one of our own. We will be busy little premarital mice putting the finishing touches on our Scandinavian wedding day while entertaining out of town family for Thanksgiving. The turkey dinner has been ordered – so no drama will ensue in the kitchen this year but we will have plenty of opportunities for epic hilarity as burlap and wheat, lefse, lingonberries, and lox get thrown around the church fellowship hall.
We will have many romantic Hallmark-worthy moments and some not so memorable or romantic ones to come in the days and years ahead but one thing I know for sure – Getting Hitched for the Holidays is going to be the best story either of us will ever tell.
Wishing you a blessed Thanksgiving!
Let your light so shine!
“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.”
I am a bit in awe that the words of King Solomon written some 2400 years ago could have such relevance in a life as inconsequential as mine. Not that I possess kingly or divine wisdom or anything close – nor am I living in the depths of despair – although I have been there quite recently – but I must hand it to the man, the sage of a bygone age – he took the words right out of my mouth. But then again, American novelist Thomas Wolfe said of Ecclesiastes, “[O]f all I have ever seen or learned, that book seems to me the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man’s life upon this earth—and also the highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth.” So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by my shared sentiments with a king.
What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. Almost a year and a half after my father passed away the Morck family “estate” is finally coming to a close. A year and a half of emotion-filled frustration and emptiness that no one other than the people living it understand. Certainly, the attorneys and staff who saw my parents’ assets and the distribution thereof as anything more than a pile of papers that kept getting piled upon by more pressing and lucrative matters did not understand. Surely, the sting of death is gone by now they must have assumed. Surely, it was strictly a matter of business for my brother, the executor of the estate, to call time and again for “any news” on the process, and not something that reminds one of a life lived that is no longer with us – taken away in a manner of death that had no respect for the caliber of life lived.
This is the road we have traveled since saying goodbye to our parents beginning with our Mom 2.5 years ago and our Dad an impossible 18 months ago. A road of lessons learned we don’t intend to ever need again – other than to pass on our death wisdom to others.
“All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has already been, in the ages before us. The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.”
I have shared a considerable amount of our journey through the end of my parents’ lives with you. It is quite the topic for contemplation – the value of things and what makes up this big thing we call life. I shared with you as my brother and I sorted through all the things collected by our parents over a combined lifespan of 167 years (not including the things collected by their two children) and how flabbergasted we were at the sheer number of things collected and types of things held on to during their nearly 60 years of marriage.
I shared with you my family home decluttering tales, the sentimental moments of nostalgia that flooded the basement with tears, the moments of shock that sent me careening through a lifetime of forgotten memories at seeing the invaluable contents of our life as a family displayed and bargain priced for the estate sale. So much emotion devoted to things and the memories made with them.
I shared with you the ramifications of trusting but not verifying that my father had the affairs of his estate in order—after all we had gone through all the “actions,” family meetings, attorney appointments, etc. That unverified trust turned into an unfortunate surprise for my brother and I after Dad had passed away and there was no one left to ask the pertinent questions of. Granted, my parent’s deaths were so close together that we still didn’t have our feet under us before we were grieving all over again, but we had plenty of time during the “good” years to have made sure we weren’t dealing with the unsavory issues of death afterward. But those were the “good” years and death, while not unmentionable in my family, seemed a long way off. Until it wasn’t.
One would have thought that we would be done by now – left to regroup and remember not the losing of our parents’ lives but the living of them. But unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way – life has far too many complexities and complications.
But then last week – out of the blue it would seem – the beginning of the end came. The attorney was ready for us and with a mere signature at the bottom of a bunch of sterile legalese, the sum of my parents’ and more specifically my father’s life will officially come to a close.
The irony of the timing was not lost on this sentimental, deep-thinking, slightly emotional bride-to-be. As I look forward to the beginning of sharing the rest of my life with someone – just as my parents did some 63 years ago – I realize just how very much death has changed me. There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how much things become a part of our lives. There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how little those things matter in life.
My family lived a comfortable life. We wanted for nothing – okay that is a stretch – of course, I wanted cool games, designer jeans, my own car, and fantastic trips to places other than relative’s homes, the list goes on – but we did not get everything we wanted. We had what we needed – each other and love.
I used to be a wedding planner for an upscale floral and home shop. I was jokingly known as “always the wedding planner never the bride.” I helped brides dream up lavish wedding day celebrations and register for every possible thing they could ever want for feathering their nest. The more the better seemed to be the modus operandi. I, just as every girl and woman I imagine, once had dreams of my own wedding someday – big floral ensconced, orchestra – serenaded dreams.
“I said to myself, “Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But again, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine—my mind still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, until I might see what was good for mortals to do under heaven during the few days of their life.”
I almost fell into the trap of wedding extravagance, of material expense, and emotional overwhelm. The dress, the flowers, the food, the rings, the shoes, the websites, the registries, and the self-imposed desires for the perfect day right out of a Montana Bride magazine, oh my! But as I drove home one evening recently after a day of bridal “bliss” my thoughts turned from matching ties to ribbons and centerpiece ideas to the condition of my heart and where my mind had been the day before – at the end of lives lived.
After taking stock of my parent’s lives, the life I have lived so far, and the life I am about to begin, the idea of registering for “things” is almost repulsive. Things do not matter. The thought of a lavish affair that smacks of competing for “event of the year” leaves me cold. What we value reveals the nature of our hearts. There is nothing like seeing life reduced to words on a paper that make you realize it is the life lived and love that matter – it is the life and love therein that remain in your heart long after the living is done. Everything else is meaningless, “vanity” as Solomon wrote; remnants of the human struggle to mask over where life and love are missing.
As I begin this next chapter of my life – there will be no masks needed. There will be nothing more and nothing less than life and love for all the days my fiancé and I have together, beginning with our first.
“I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.”
Let your light so shine.
“Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun.” – Psalm 37: 4-7
I have climbed many mountains throughout my life, literally and figuratively. No matter the character of each eminence ascended, I have emerged from the journey changed, perhaps more wise not only to the challenges this life holds but enlightened as to my capacity for response to those challenges. Some mountains have taunted me with defeat while others have inspired me to greater heights of achievement and strength. Not unlike our ancestors of bygone ages who sought visions of their God on high places, it is in the mountains and mountains of life that I feel closest to God. From darkly veiled valleys, up awkward ascents, over rocky run-outs, to the pinnacles of peace – I know my God Is with me – strengthening me, teaching me, molding me, holding me, and preparing me for that which I have yet to know.
The mountains I now wander in by choice stand as metaphors to the many I have encountered and conquered in life. In them, my mind stills and my heart finds its peace. There is something about switch-backing up a mountainside, escaping to the wilderness, that takes me to a different place and puts life into proper perspective. It feels so good to see forever and almost touch The Creator’s face – to feel at once small with awe and mighty with exhilaration. It is also humbling to look back on life – from a 10,000-foot perspective – and appreciate the journey to who I have become, humbled in the righteous and merciful ways of God.
Those who have read my writings for any length of time know of my many mountainous quests and read the words inspired by them. For many years, those quests have resulted in much time spent in self-reflection and revelation. Indeed, I sought visions from God on high places. I relished this time. At times I was so driven in my quests I lost sight of opportunities right in front of me. Nevertheless, I know I am who I am today because of this time spent away from “life” reflecting on life.
I was not born with an affinity for mountain terrain. My family proudly and stubbornly haled from the endless plains of Eastern Montana. My summit adventures did not begin until mid-life thanks to the wisdom of friends who knew of the enigmatic power of high places and goat trails. And while I have escaped to their sanctuary by myself from time to time, most of my experiences have come while following someone else’s sacrificial lead. Sacrificial because to share the experience of awe with someone else means lessening its impact for one’s self. And yet, in their eyes, and as I have recently come to know, to share this time in mountain solitude making discoveries of self and making memories in the sun (or rain, or snow) with someone is one of God’s greatest gifts. Those of us who climb mountains together share a special bond – and that goes for the mountains of life as well – we bring ourselves to a place of vulnerability, of risk and reward, of dependence and independence, of exhaustion and exhilaration, and for all time – share a story that is ours alone.
In my mind, there is no greater gift than to find someone to climb the mountains of life with. Someone whose story becomes your story and your story becomes theirs and together a new story is forged. But here too, one must sacrifice as an individual for the sake of the relationship. It should, however, be a joyful sacrifice, not one that is corrupted by expectation or manipulation. While the individual is sacrificed, within the relationship each person becomes richer, more vibrant, more alive, more whole.
Some of us are lucky to find a companion for the mountains of life early on and go on to build a trail crew that will encompass and enrich all the ventures of their lives. Others spend a little more time navigating the wilderness on their own – exploring the valleys, precipices and peaceful plateaus of life on their own – perhaps seeking higher understanding or wandering in wonder gaining personal insight and appreciation for the company of others. I am of the latter category.
It is hard to believe I have been writing this blog for five years. You have followed me through the many ups, downs, and as I trip gracefully through the lessons of life and seen some amazing mountaintop views through my camera lens (if I may so humbly say.) So, I thought it only fitting that I share my latest mountaintop experience and the perspective gleaned on high.
Some mountaintop experiences take longer to sink in than others and some will almost blow you away. I have experienced many a mountain on my own that have induced great depths and heights of emotion within me – from sorrow and defeat to joy and absolute awe – but none will ever compare to the day atop a windy mountain when not only did I find my peace but my companion for the rest of the mountains not just I but we have yet to conquer. It was on this day that my life changed forever. The day I said YES, with a chipmunk as witness, to the man I love with all my heart, mind, and soul. A higher point of happiness I am not sure I will find again. But then again, mountains are full of surprises.
And I heard, “A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together.” – Isaiah 40: 3-5
Let your light so shine!!!
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!
Holy Saturday, a day in between. Our Lord has been crucified and now we wait – wait for the celebration we know is to come – of resurrection, of life, of promise, and hope. But for now we are suspended in the grief of our Lord’s death – cognizant of our fallen ways. With a broken spirit, I am uncertain of how to go about this day. Some fill it with Easter Egg hunts or as we did in my childhood – making Easter Snow-bunnies – others just go about the day as if it were any other Saturday – household chores, runs to the dump, shopping, sleeping in, and if we were lucky to be free of snow, maybe some early Spring yard work.
While I have several of these non-celebratory doings on my to-do list today, I can’t get past how the suspended feeling this day evokes so markedly reflects how I have been living my life the past year. The 2 years leading up to today have been the most emotionally wrought time of my life – with more grief than I thought possible. The deaths of my parents – whose love accompanied me all the days of my life even before I took my first breath – left me casting about – alone and unsure of my foundation. That I would also face the death of a relationship that changed the course of my life and showed me how wonderful and painful love can be, left me hardened and shamefully bitter. While the immensity of the pain has waned, the aftermath of bitterness remains. Never in my life would I have associated the word bitter with the essence of who I am. But as I sit here reflecting on The Cross, I am well aware of the darkness I have allowed into my life of late.
I have faced the bitter cold of winter with verve and relished the bitterness of a strong cup of coffee, but I never, ever would have allowed bitterness to find its way into my life in times past and yet somehow it has made a home for itself in my heart. Anyone who has quaffed their morning thirst with a bitter jolt of coffee knows that bitterness has staying power – it will stay with you no matter how you try to mask it. Despite my attempts to fill my life with diversions, flavor, busyness – that bitterness has lingered.
I have seen glimpses of my former self – the strong, joyful, sentimental, independent, naïve, happy as a lark child of God from time to time – but inevitably the sweetness fades and the bitterness once again grips me and I am left wondering if I will ever allow myself to love deeply and be loved again.
Yet, if I let bitterness win, then I have no business reflecting on the Cross today. This bitterness is a selfish gift from darkness, one that encourages self-absorption, self-preservation, selfishness. It comforts me with a solitude of sadness and impassable independence. It eats away a life that is precious to God and denies His power to redeem and restore. It scoffs at the opportunities of today and the promises of tomorrow. It destroys faith and drowns hope.
But I am a Child of God. I AM a Child of God! This bitterness will not have the last word. God did not rescue me from the grips of death 24 years ago to spend however many precious days I have in this admittedly broken but beautiful world absorbed by bitterness and selfishness. As I have moved through Lent and journeyed to the Cross this last week, I have felt both numb and alive. Numbed by the overwhelming battle for my heart going on inside of me and alive because I know who is winning!!
God always wins – always! The outcome is His alone and this Easter I am once again relinquishing my life to Him – totally and uncompromisingly. Bitterness be gone! I am letting go of you – and letting go of the pain that brought you into my heart. I am letting forgiveness move in and embracing the same Easter joy I felt 2 years ago when I laid my mother to rest on Good Friday and celebrated with great joy her new life on Easter Sunday. While God did not promise me an easy road ahead that day, and the following days and months were anything but, He did promise that He would never leave me. I somehow lost sight of that. It is easy to do when you shutter yourself away and allow darkness and bitterness a place to stay.
With God, what have I to fear? He created us to love one another. It is the way of His kingdom on earth. To love is to live in His light. Imperfectly. Deeply. With compassion. With abandon. This Easter I am embracing life anew in His Light and in His Love.
God always wins and so does love.
Jesus said- “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” – John 15: 9-17
Thank you, Lord
For burning through
For piercing the clouds heavy with woe
As if to say, no darkness can mask my power or hide my light.
For the bracing wind that takes my breath and drives me to you
Becoming one with me and within me
Easing my way as I relent.
You dwell in the emptiness – the emptiness I allow the world to occupy. You yearn for a willingness to let something new and unexpected happen. Oh let it be so that trust, surrender, and openness to your way would be carried on this breeze.
That fear could be transformed by your light to faith.
Has no one has ever seen You?
Your Word is written in every expanse of sky, heard in every breath of the wind, felt in the warming rays of the sun, and felt as your tears wash over brokenness making all things new.
Lord, help me to embrace you as the source of all – life, love, and light.
Let your light so shine.