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.

Mountain Envy

“The few who do are the envy of the many who only watch.”

My father always told me that envy was not becoming to me nor would it do me any good. “Just because so and so has (you name it here) doesn’t mean that you need to have it nor deserve to have it.” My mother grew up in a family of 10 and lived in a railcar until she went away to college. Aside from her love of fashionable clothing – much of which she sewed herself – she delighted in the simpler things in life. She did not need grandiose experiences or the next best thing to make her happy and neither did our family. Growing up with this household ethos, I learned to accept and be thankful for what our family did have. I still take a great deal of pride in being satisfied by the simpler things in life and place more importance on the relationships I have enjoyed than any possession I might acquire.

These values became even more ingrained when I moved to the Flathead Valley of NW Montana 5 years ago, but I also realized that same contentment had limited the expanse of my horizons. There was a lot more to life than I had been allowing myself to experience. I discovered a zest for doing things I had never done before – like climbing mountains and letting my wanderlust go wild. The experiences inspired in me an unquenchable desire to explore and challenge myself physically and mentally. Not only was I doing something that brought me joy but I was also meeting wonderful people along the way. The best part of this new discovery was I had become a do-er rather than the contented watcher I used to be. This new zeal extended into other areas of my life too – I found myself saying yes to things I had always just thought about doing. Singing in Choirs (plural), joining Toastmasters, pursuing my Lay Pastoral Associate license, and volunteering for various organizations and events. Saying yes can become addicting and, as I found out at one point, can quickly lead to overwhelm and burnout – but for the most part – saying yes simply opened doors to opportunities that in the past would have passed me by.

And therein lays the rub – while pursuing one profound opportunity this summer, other passions and opportunities have been passing me by. I can’t do it all. This has been a difficult reality for me to accept. Normally, I would have accumulated, at the minimum, 100+ miles worth of snow and dust on my hiking boots by this time of year but alas, I surrendered my mountain adventures to a higher calling of sorts. While my hiking buddies have been climbing to mountaintop after mountaintop and posting stunning photos all over my Facebook feed every weekend, I have either been studying or writing sermon after sermon and cramming my other duties into the few hours I have outside of work all year long. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to use my recently attained Lay Pastoral Associate license to its full extent while my pastor is on sabbatical this summer. There really is nothing I enjoy more than dwelling in the Word, writing about it, and now preaching it (I still have to pinch myself!) except maybe contemplating those words on top of a mountain.

So yes, I will make a full confession here to harboring within my soul a severe case of mountain envy.  As unbecoming as it may be, after seeing the beauty of blue skies and majestic mountains only through the eyes of my fellow mountain lovers – my home – work – church existence has been getting to me. I longed to escape, to behold what I couldn’t, to experience what I didn’t have time for – a dirty mountain trail and the endless vistas I had coveted from my computer screen.

And when I finally, FINALLY, got the chance to hike my favorite hike recently… there were no beautiful blue skies and the mountains were enshrouded in smoke. I would like to say that I sucked it up and didn’t pout – but then I would be committing yet another sin on top of envy – deceit. Recalling my friend’s (who don’t work in the summer) joyful posts from the day before – ONE DAY mind you –  showing the bluest skies I have ever seen (ok, so maybe I am milking this…) and abundant wildlife (bears and moose galore) did nothing to help quell my urge to stomp down the trail with a welt in my throat and moistened eyes. Thank goodness it was a solo hike!

 

 

 

 

16 miles of a smoky Many Glacier day lay before me. The long, pre-dawn drive to the trail head is what kept me motivated to go on. And go on I did! Because I am doer now, remember?  Besides, it is hard to stay mad or miserable on a mountain trail (unless it is raining, then I am mad and miserable!) As I walked (note I wasn’t stomping anymore) I could feel my clenched jaw slacken and the tension between my shoulders ease. I have completed or attempted this hike three times before. The first time being the only time I actually made it to the Swiftcurrent Lookout. The other two attempts were thwarted by forces of nature I could not control. This time, the only force I had to contend with was my attitude and as it would turn out later – smoke. I determined I was not going to be disappointed again. But I still had this bitter taste of disappointment that lingered as I passed by lakes reflecting nothing but greyness and made my way up the switchbacks with repetitive views of a grey valley diminishing the higher I climbed.

“Why, oh why couldn’t you have made today be a good day?” I demanded of God.

By the time I made it to the pass, I was in a severe depression – not because of any emotional issue I was dealing with but from the smoke wafting in the air blighting the sun and blunting out any view while telling a story of fires burning again somewhere.

Another mile straight up now and I would answer the Lookout’s beckoning. I started on my way.

“But really, why?” I kept thinking. Is this some sort of obsession I have with making it to the top? It started to rain. I turned back for a moment and then in defiance I turned around and continued on. The wind started to howl – how could it be so windy and still be enshrouded in smoke? And then my lungs began to burn and my eyes water. It was 7.5 miles back to the trailhead and I had had enough.

I sat down on a protected ledge and had my lunch as I gazed out at a darkened valley.  It was delicious. And God finally answered me.

“What makes you think today isn’t a good day?” was all He said.

Feeling a bit convicted, I took a swig of hot coffee, gathered up my gear, and glanced up at the lookout in the grey yuck above me. “I win,” I declared, “and I am going to enjoy the rest of my hike.”

With a skip in my step I made my way down to the pass where I met a couple from Texas who were freaked out because apparently a bear had been following me.

Then I saw a cow moose and her baby, and I met longtime friends who were hoping to make it to the pass but weren’t sure they could, and I found the most beautiful patch of wildflowers blooming vibrantly under the grey skies.

A hint of sun broke through just as I made my way down the still flowing creek bed and shone on a lone stem of fireweed. It was a magnificent photo.

Chipmunks and ground squirrels stopped and posed for me, sharptails strutted for me,  and tree branches created the perfect frame for an exquisite waterfall shot.

The grand finale was a majestic bull moose bathing in grey waters and putting on quite a show for my appreciative eyes.

It was a good day! I laughed as the sun came out for the last 2 miles – making the forested walk glisten and the birch bark glow. I was reminded of my father’s words, “Envy is unbecoming” and added some new-found wisdom of my own – it will wreck your day. No matter how much “better” someone else may have had it, your present is all that you have. Make the best of it and you will find much more joy on your journey of being a doer.

 

A Life in Full Circle

Growing up, Mom would fill my head with stories about her summer days as a young woman spent at Whitefish and Flathead Lakes. Her stories were filled with the wild escapades of a college girl serving as Dean of Women at Flathead Lutheran Bible camp ( Lutherans can get a little crazy, ya know) and the life of a nanny for a doctor and his wife’s little girl at Camp Carefree – where luxurious homes and Whitefish Lake Lodge now sit. These stories served to educate me on the “ways of the world” and what I certainly “must never, ever do!” but secretly, I cherished those glimpses of the woman who would become my mom. I wish I had known her back then. Perhaps she was a bit like I am today, trusting, a tad naive, full of dreams, with a playful side burning to be set free. When she told me these stories I never dreamed that I would one day be living on the stage where all these adventures and life lessons played out. 

Last night I stood gazing into the placid waters of the lake she so loved. I wondered if her thoughts might have mirrored mine. Did the quiet lapping of the water slow her heart and quiet the frenzy of life? I wondered if she could really see me now, her daughter, living out adventures and learning lessons in life in the same place she found her independence. Fortunately for me, the lessons I am learning are ones that my life will be built upon. Lessons of perseverance, patience, and promise. Lessons of storm, sorrow, and strength. Lessons of a life filled with love. 

Oh Mom, I wish I could share these days of my life with you. I wish I could see your smile and yes, even your jaw clench with worry again. I wish I could tell you MY stories and the lessons I am learning from them. I wish we could have, if only once, walked along these lakes that so captured both of our hearts. I would give anything to sit next to you in silent appreciation of the grandeur of God and wonder at the sweetness of life. 

Thank you for most of the lessons you taught me. I really did listen and now I appreciate them for what they were and are – your love for me and your hopes for the best for me. You can rest assured, your hopes have come to fruition. I miss you, Mom, and I love you more than words can say.

Emboldened for Life

On a beautiful, warm, sunny morning one year ago today, I bid a final earthly farewell to my father. It was the most difficult day of my life since the other most difficult day of my life bidding my mother a final goodbye on a cold, rainy, snowy blustery day just one year before. The shining sun warmed the earth, a breeze carried the scent of trees in bloom, and the song of birds drifted gently in from afar –  a wonderful reunion was at hand!

As the day of honoring my father unfolded I was embraced with love from oh so many who had loved my dad. The rites, the acts of honor, the gatherings, the pleasantries – all served a purpose –  not only for my dad but for getting me through the day. The week of chaotic preparation – the obit writing, the slide show, the service planning, the cremation, the notifying, the receiving of others, the trying to make sure everything was done just right – had come to an end.

Every one that had surrounded my brother and I for the days preceding were getting on with their lives –  there were tee times to make and lawns to be mowed, groceries to be bought, work to get back to, weekend getaways to get on with.

It was then that the silence set in – the reality of it all came crashing down. Spending that night alone, in the house that had been a home to so much life gave powerful testimony to what I had lost. The emptiness was paralyzing. Having powered through my emotions for days the weight of grief suddenly buried me. It would do so for days, weeks, and months to come.

Looking back on this year now I have a much different perspective. The emptiness that accompanied me through life is starting to be filled with the joy of living again. The sorrow that still lingers is now appreciated for what it is – a tribute to the depth of love I have for my parents – rather than suffocating my will to live.

As a child I was terrified of the thought that one day my parents would die. I comforted myself by presuming that I would have my own family to attend to when those that had attended to me passed on; that the family life that I had known would be carried on through us.

That wasn’t to be. Rather, I was intended to make this journey on my own –  a solitary quest for life after death. By the grace of God and with the strength of the Holy Spirit I endured. I am a new person now molded by the revealing experience of death and emboldened to meet the opportunities of life.

“Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.” – Isaiah 40:28-31

A Bittersweet Spring

It is the first day of Spring! This day will forever be bittersweet for me. Today marks two years since Mom began her wonderful new life with our Lord. Her passing as the death of winter gave way to the new life of spring could not have been more perfect – except that she left us behind to miss her ever so much. Mom, you live on in the song of the sparrow. in the whisper of the wind, in the towering clouds, in the play of the squirrels, in the first crocus of Spring, in the rain that washes away the grime of winter – refreshing the air and turning the brown earth to a vibrant green, in the warmth of the sun, and most of all in my heart. I miss you and love you so very much.

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