Vanity of Vanities and the Value of Life

“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.

Image result for probate in montanaWhat 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.

The Day I Almost Fell Off a Mountaintop

 

“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!!!

Thoughts on Today ~ August 14, 2018

Saying goodbye.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let your light so shine!

God Always Wins – And So Does Love

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.

Happy Easter!

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

In the Wind

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.

Thank you,
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.

The Race

18489813_1590917990932793_6319657206837000823_oI think there should be a course on how to get through life after death. I can go days doing just fine and then I am hit with a day like today – a day like any other day except I am thrown off course by my aching heart. So many thoughts and memories flood over me: the last moments with my Dad, his last breath, watching the last bit of light left in his heavy-lidded eyes disappear, hearing his defibrillator keep his heart beating ever so slowly even after he was gone as I lay on his chest one last time – not ever wanting to forget what it felt like to be Daddy’s little girl with his arms wrapped around me; not making that call to my Mom the night before she died – saving my tales of mountain adventure and my words of love until the next day when I “had more time” only to learn the heart wrenching lesson that time is not ours to bargain with.
I try to run faster, to lose myself in the snowy landscape with the cadence of my feet hitting this lonely earth. Knowing I will never outrun these memories and the pain that accompanies them all the while knowing deep down that I don’t want to…
The fastest race we will ever run is the race of life – our time is fleeting, the most important facets of life become mere flickers of memory as days become months become years. I find myself reaching to the depths of my soul to remember my mother’s voice and Dad’s bear hugs. I want time to slow down so the distance between our life and last moments together is not so far and yet I want time to speed up so I don’t have to wait to be with them again.
One can get caught up in “if only’s” but that is not how races are run and won. I don’t think we can ever win the race of life – I just wish I had run mine better this far, that I hadn’t wasted energy on trivial matters. I wish I had paced myself to run with those who were in it with me instead of being so focused on my time and my destination.
Perhaps God wants us to figure this life after death thing out on our own. Perhaps He knows how proficient a teacher death is. Perhaps He knows that the race of life cannot be completed without death. Perhaps this race of life is simply preparing us for death and the only victory that really matters.
“The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.”  – Isaiah 40: 28-31

Find True Belonging in the Journey of Lent

“Fitting in is when you want to be a part of something. Belonging is when others want you.”    – Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness

We are living in a lonely age, a time when, despite technological advances that make connectivity almost a distracting and annoying constant, we have never felt so disconnected from one another. It is our human nature to seek connection with others and we have an innate desire to belong. Scientific and social studies have concluded as much.  “(H)uman beings are fundamentally and pervasively motivated by a need to belong, that is, by a strong desire to form and maintain enduring interpersonal attachments.” (Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995).) John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, who has done extensive studies on the impact of loneliness, says that the “only real biological advantage we have over most other species is our connection, our belonging; our ability to collaborate, plan, be in relationship with in special ways.”

Our need to belong is beyond our control, it is a part of our DNA, we have evolved to need one another and yet, we have come to idealize the independent individual. Because of modern advances in survival we no longer “need” each to survive. The less we need each other the more dependent we become on ourselves. The more dependent we become on ourselves the more certain we become of our ways and our ways of thinking. Yet despite our independence and strength in self, our need for connection remains, thus we take the paths of least resistance and align ourselves with those who think like us, look like us, and believe like us. Social scientist Brene Brown calls this a “high lonesome culture.” One in which we are the most sorted that we’ve ever been. Most of us no longer hang out with people that disagree with us politically or ideologically. The sad part of this type of “belonging” is that the commonality we share with “our people” we have sorted ourselves to is we all hate the same people or things rather than being joined together on the basis of mutual respect and acceptance.  Brene Brown calls this “common enemy intimacy.”

The thing about “common enemy intimacy” is it negates the self. We are no longer drawn to each other by the one qualities of our personhood –  it doesn’t matter who you are but what you agree or disagree with. No wonder loneliness is pervasive! We have lost what it means to be in relationship with one another. We no longer need to adapt to or accept each other’s imperfections to find community. Instead, we move on in search of those who bear our more perfect likeness.  Father Adolfo Nicolas, the former head of the Jesuits (the pope’s religious order) termed our present state as the globalization of superficiality — an “emerging era marked by extreme anomie and the deterioration of human relationships through technological advancement and materialism.”

Today, we can block out the cacophony of the world by losing ourselves in the addictive blue screens of our phones and we can skim and scroll through our choice of “news”- that which affirms our ideology and confirms our rightness and righteousness.  In turn, our perception of others remains shallow and we can keep a safe distance from the burdens and brokenness of the world.

Today, we can foster superficial, pseudo, and incomplete relationships by “friending” mere acquaintances or total strangers on social media and then — when necessary — “unfriend” real friends without the hard work that goes into forming lasting and real relationships through encountering, confronting and reconciling. What we have come to accept as belonging is really just fitting in. Fitting in is less risky –  you choose who you want to align yourself with without running the risk of revealing and being judged by who you are – the real you with all your strengths and imperfections. We no longer need to be vulnerable to amass a community we just have to be strong and set in our similar ways.

What if this pervasive loneliness is driven in part by our lack of vulnerability and authenticity? Have you ever been surrounded by people at a party or out and about but feel completely disconnected, lonely, or anxious, because never once during that experience did you feel like you could be yourself? Instead, you were who you thought others wanted you to be. You put on a face that masked your true feelings and your fears. These connections do nothing to satisfy the innate desire to belong to someone – for someone to want us for who we are. As Brene Brown states – “Your sense of true belonging will never be greater than your willingness to be brave and stand by yourself.”

As I was sitting in church this past Ash Wednesday – I was contemplating what it meant to belong. To be a part of something that was bigger than myself while at the same time being accepted and wanted just as I am – real, imperfect, somewhat stubborn, determined, shy, lonesome, life-loving, childish at times, frequently forgetful, sometimes impatient, often in a hurry, occasionally late, full of myself at times, compassionate, wanting to love, wanting to be loved, fearful of change, hopeful for tomorrow, challenged by my past… the list goes on.  Aw, if only I could find someone who wanted me with that laundry list of qualities!

By some perfect measure, this year, Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day. The coincidence was not lost on me. As I thought about my 40-day Lenten journey to the cross –   the greatest act of love -where Christ died for our sins and freed us from our no-win human struggle for unachievable perfection – perfect love, perfect acts, perfect penance, perfect lives – and on to His resurrection with the promise of new life in the baptismal waters of Easter –  it donned on me that this is where belonging is born –  if we are up for the journey.

Talk about becoming vulnerable! As people of all different ways and ways of thinking we willingly stepped forward from the pews to receive a cross of ashes on our foreheads as the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” were spoken. The ritual reminds  us of our common mortality and symbolizes God’s judgement upon us –  a rebellious creation and our sinful need for repentance.  Smudged with blackened ash as a sign of the divine love God has for us – a love that is depicted in a gruesome death and a new life because of that death – at once, there I was, inextricably connected to these likewise fallible and broken people by something greater than all of us. And that thing that is greater than us is rooted in love and compassion. It is a love so great and so deep that it is willing to suffer and die for another.

The traditional gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is Mathew 6:1-6, 16-21. Jesus instructs his followers in the manner of giving alms, praying and fasting: if done with the goal of gaining the attention or approval of one’s peers, that attention is your reward. There is, in other words, no spiritual value to the practice, if it only feeds your desire and need to “be seen” by your neighbors – kind of like that artificial self we share with others to fit in with “our people.” Rather, such practices should flow from a devotion to God that is expressed through caring for our neighbor, praying, and disciplining ourselves with fasting – attuned to our failings and in humble repentance for our sins – being authentic and selflessly driven. When this happens, we are seen by God and in this way rewarded. The text repeatedly talks of the Father seeing you.

Who doesn’t want to be seen –  to belong? Imagine a type of belonging born out of mutual love for one another! Rather than acting in ways we think will win approval from our peers, or make us appear more righteous, we must act out of genuine devotion to one another. Nowhere in Matthew’s gospel does it say that it is wrong to want to be seen by others, to matter to someone, to be noticed for who we are and be counted as worthy but Jesus urges us to look to God, the one who is not impressed by outward righteousness but sees even the hidden and broken places of our heart to fulfill those desires.

God sees us for who we are.  God notices us in all we do. In the waters of our baptism, God claims us as His own. What a wonderful sense of belonging that inspires! Belonging of the truest, richest kind! The Lenten journey to the cross – the greatest act of love – is one in which we can learn how to love again and find true belonging.  Over the next 40 days I will realign my life to one rooted in the authentic assurance of my relationship with God – not hoping to achieve the approval of others but trusting that God’s approval has already been given. With that confidence I can offer my life as testimony to the One who gives me worth and dignity in the first place and let my light and love shine on others so that they too may know what it means to belong.

Let your light so shine!

Reflecting On Life through Death and Learning to Dance Again

“This is what the Lord says—  HE who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” – Isaiah 43: 16-19

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

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

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

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

It is in death when our full humanity comes to life. In truth, life is about learning to live through death. We experience death more often than we – at least on the surface – realize. When we graduate high school and college that season of our lives dies as we enter the next stage of adulthood. When we marry our life as individuals ceases. When a relationship ends – a part of us dies – the part we had given to that other person. When we leave a job, that part of our daily life ends. And yet, with each of these deaths we are given the opportunity for new life; they allow us to let go, they cut away the ties from our past, and lead us to discover a new direction in life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let your light so shine!

Out of the Ashes

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

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

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

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

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

I am once again, a girl and her dog.

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

Fuel Your Faith

 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”    Matthew 25:1-13

Grace and peace to you from God our Father!

August 14, 2016 dawned a perfect, bluebird sky morning. It was the day I would meet heaven on earth!   Not just any heaven mind you, but the most anticipated, dreamed about, read about, prayed about, planned for, trained for, stayed up late waiting to get on the much-prized waiting list for –  journey across the infamous Floral Park Traverse in the back country of Glacier National Park. From the first time I heard about it, the Floral Park Traverse captivated me to the point of nearly reaching an obsessive quality in my mountainous pursuits. Tales of deaths, grizzlies, cliffs, glaciers, even just the name – inspired my wanderlust to go wild with want. After enduring a year of emotional trials with the death of my mom and my dad’s illness I was ready for a challenge of a completely different sort. And finally, the day had come when my wanton wanderlust would be fulfilled!

You have to plan and train for an excursion of this magnitude –  proper equipment is essential: pack, poles, good boots, water, food, clothing for all seasons, and for climbers like me – camera gear and back up batteries. This route is not for the lazy or inexperienced hiker. With 4000 ft of elevation gained and a 7000 ft descent over 21 miles and 14 hours of trail time you must be prepared physically and mentally. As a distance runner and hiker with plenty of 20+ mile excursions in my trail journal I was certain I could handle the mileage and having a few mountain summits under my belt I was pretty sure the elevations would not get to me either.

I felt sure and strong as we hit the trail at the crack of dawn. I was in my element with a great group of friends. Although I had never ventured across a landscape as challenging as what we were about to embark on I felt safe knowing that most of my crew were more experienced than I. However, unbeknownst to me at the time, I was in the mid stage of a serious medical condition. My red blood cells – the ones that carry oxygen through your body and basically keep you alive were quietly disappearing. As a result, I found myself struggling to keep up with a crew I usually had the lead on. By mile 17, I had fallen so many times in water crossings and on scree slopes that my hands couldn’t bleed anymore, and my body was shutting down. Thankfully my crew had an incredible leader who was not only prepared for her hike but my crisis – giving me electrolyte shots, Advil and caffeine boosts – she helped me get over the last 4 miles and through a wicked thunderstorm to the journey’s end alive where we enjoyed a fabulous tail gate party. But I was shaken. I was not prepared for the long haul or the hurdles I faced that day – just the wonderful experience I had anticipated for so long – and as a result I put someone else in the position of saving me.

Let me give you fair warning – the mountains are NOT the place to discover your weaknesses – at least not your physical ones. While I thought I was prepared for everything my mind could conceive of happening, I clearly was not prepared for a physical crisis of my own. Those things simply didn’t happen to me.  Like the bridesmaids in today’s Gospel, I had brought my lamp with the usual amount of oil in it, but I did not bring the right kind or enough oil to keep my lamp burning through the unexpected and the revealing judgment of the mountains.

Thoughts of heaven can be spurred by joyous mountainous adventures, the grief of death close to home, or tragedies like those we recently witnessed in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs that strip away our comfort and complacency and bring to mind the question:  what awaits us at the end of our earthly journey? Is it a festive feast from a tailgate like the group I hike with has at the end of every adventure? After a long day in the mountains, we know that we have earned our celebration with plenty of dust on our boots to prove it. It is heaven in a parking lot or highway pullout.

Jesus tells His Disciples that the kingdom of heaven will be like a wonderful wedding banquet. As believers we believe that we have all been invited to this most wondrous occasion. It is a comforting thought, isn’t it – especially after enduring life here on earth.

But in today’s Gospel, Jesus takes that comfort and does a pretty good job of dispelling it, doesn’t He?  It would seem that our end-times expectations may not be so cut and dry.

We meet ten bridesmaids awaiting a bridegroom’s return for his bride, but he is delayed.  Five of the bridesmaids are described as “wise” for they were prepared for the unexpected by bringing along extra oil for their lamps; the other five are described as “foolish” because they did not bring along extra oil to keep their lamps burning. When the foolish realize they have run out of oil they ask their wise cohorts to share some of theirs but are told to go get their own. The foolish five abandon their posts in search of oil to buy. In their absence the bridegroom arrives, the wedding banquet begins, and upon their return, the foolish bridesmaids find themselves not only shut out of the festivities but denied by the bridegroom.

Matthew shares Jesus’ words as instruction to a community dealing with several issues: a destroyed temple and people questioning what it was to be and judging who could be a Christian. The delay in the promised return of Christ – their Messiah – was causing a flagging vigilance to His teachings. They were weary of crisis after crisis occurring without any sign of deliverance. They were becoming too worldly giving into their desires and straying from God’s while also being overly spiritual – relying on God as a magician who would perform acts at their request and alleviate their troubles.

In those days, people lived with the belief that the end-times were near. There were many apocalyptic teachers and Jesus was one of them. With this story, Jesus sought to clarify what it meant to truly be ready for his return and how to live until that time.

But what are we to make of a bridegroom, that by all accords represents Jesus, who denies entry to the kingdom which we thought was open to all believers? What do we make of a bridegroom that offers welcome to bridesmaids who don’t share and denies it to a few who were simply unprepared?

This Gospel story raises a lot of questions for those of us who follow Jesus.  Just last week we heard Jesus give the Beatitudes –  comforting words that turn our worldly assumptions upside down — that in the brokenness and injustices of this world we find those who are blessed in His eyes. We could dwell on that scripture for quite some time and never tire of it. Today’s Gospel also turns our assumptions upside down, but this is one we are likely to read and then move on from, quickly.

Yet while stern, they are the words of Jesus. Given as direction to his followers. To you and me. As much as I would have liked to preach on the Psalm today, we need to spend some time listening to Jesus.

As Bible commentator Richard Bruner writes, “If we teach only Jesus’ mercies but not his judgements we disfigure the Gospel.”

And boy does this gospel lend itself to me standing up here and scaring you straight – with a fire and brimstone sermon of judgement on who will and won’t be celebrating with me and Jesus in heaven!  But our heavenly fate is not for me, or any human to judge.  Who God choses to know at the hour of His choosing is His judgment alone.

We don’t like to think about the judgment factor as part of the Christian life, as humans both saints and sinners, we never have.  Yet just about every week we profess our belief that Jesus died, descended to the dead, and on the third day rose again and ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the father and will come again to JUDGE THE LIVING AND THE DEAD.

After much blood, sweat and self-condemning tears while trying to discern the Good News in this text, I have come to the conclusion that there isn’t any!!

Just kidding… I have come to the conclusion that this parable is not all about God’s judgement – even though it is our sinful nature to immediately start looking around and pegging who will and won’t be joining us in heaven all the while wrestling with our own failings.

We like to think that we are wise in most contexts, but we secretly admit to being foolish in others. What if that moment of foolishness is the judgment factor? Who are in the insiders and outsiders? The true believers? What is the distinguishing factor of those for whom the door is open?

The Good News is that God frees us from these fears of judgment by giving us His Son and a better way to live. Just like a parent warns a child out of love, so too does Jesus. Jesus loves us too much to leave us as we are or leave us left out. The Gospel today is all about that better way to live. Prepared – like my crew leader was – with plenty of lamp oil, awake, alert and full of anticipation to get you through the waiting time for the wedding banquet and me down the mountain to the tail gate party.

Lamp Oil? Yes, it is all about the lamp oil – your faith.

Last Sunday, we recognized the saints who have gone before us and guided us in our faith journeys.  I dare say they had plenty of lamp oil. They tended it well and brought you along on their journey with plenty of light. But they didn’t get that lamp oil at the last minute – well maybe they did, but it is likely they had been nurturing their faith for a lifetime.  We are reminded today that our relationship with Jesus, though nurtured by many, must be our own. Our faith is a gift from God but he gives us the reigns to maintain the condition of it; tending to it must be a part of our daily life, not just at special times like baptism, confirmation, Easter and Christmas, or the death of a loved one. Our faith cannot be bought or borrowed at the last minute. Martin Luther thought the condition of our faith was so important he gave us the Small Catechism to nurture the formation of it daily.

Fuel your faith by putting Christ first in your life, being obedient to his word, abiding in Christ and letting the Holy Spirit work in you and through you, acting in love towards others, and sharing your faith, the Good News, with the world. You might be saying “but Erika, hold on there –  we are Lutherans! We are saved by grace, not by our practices.” Being prepared, tending to the oil, keeping the faith is not about works righteousness – we cannot earn our way into Gods favor or His kingdom.  But we can live in a way that frees us from the tension of waiting for an unknown end.

A fueled faith is an engaged faith – one that is found through prayer, trust, and gratitude.  Let God nurture a relationship with you before you have an emergency and you will find that you have enough faith to get you through those dark nights of the soul and the unexpected.

The thrill of being baptized into new life and attending praise services with awesome music that leave you feeling charged for God are a wonderful part of the Christian experience, but true faith means abiding and trusting in Him in the day to day busyness of life, sometimes in drudgery with little of the ecstatic flair of worship. It means having enough oil for God to use you as a light in the lives of others. It means living the kind of Christian life that allows you to go to sleep at night with a good conscience, not proud of the good works you have done or the desires you didn’t give into but knowing that you have honestly prepared and tended to the condition of your faith. God offers a special wisdom to those who belong to Jesus. We await the kingdom with eager readiness because we know that Jesus turns all the demands of God’s law–our lives spent in judgement — into pure grace and mercy.

My last LPA (Lay Pastoral Associate) training retreat in October focused on the art of writing the sermon. We were introduced to the concept of discerning the text through a trouble in the Bible –  trouble in the world –grace in the Bible – grace in the world format. Sounds pretty straightforward until one is faced with a text like today’s. My Floral Park adventure was less of a challenge than this!

““Truly I tell you I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore for you do not know the day or the hour.”  I ask you, where is the grace???

Believe it or not, the grace was there from the beginning.  ALL were invited to the wedding banquet and the door to the party is still open for you. The Lord is still coming – and you have been invited to greatest wedding banquet ever held. Now don’t panic because you forgot to fill up the oil this morning. We are living in the grace period and you happen to be in a pretty fancy filling station where all the pumping is done for you. So what are you waiting for? Open your heart, open your life, and say, “YES!” I want some of that oil. Now, live in the light of Jesus and await His kingdom with joy.

Amen.