Living the Questions

“Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart… Try to love the questions themselves… Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given because you would not be able to live them — and the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answers.” —Rainer Maria Rilke

As I sat down to pen this seasonal reflection a feeling of melancholy was working its mirthless magic on my mood. My “Instrumental Christmas” playlist on Pandora was keen on playing songs to cry to, and the grey sky that hung low on the mountain outside my window further repressed the joy that should be dancing inside me. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas has always been a favorite time of year for me from the time I was a child and still is. My immediate family had a rich heritage of Christmas tradition, involvement in the church, and musical activities, and I have carried on in the same manner as best possible. Alas, much of my family is gone now and the rest live on the other side of this great big state of ours – so trying to recreate what once was just doesn’t have the same effect on the heart. But I have digressed from the story at hand…

In that state of melancholy, I dared make things excruciatingly worse by scrolling through the daily version of The Greatest Story Ever Told, also known as Facebook. After reminding myself that I rarely post about the tragedies going on in my life either, with a heavy sigh, I noticed a message waiting for me. And the rest really is one of the greatest stories ever told – at least in this month in this chapter in the book of my life!

Say what you will about Facebook but through its wonders, I was given a glimpse into the lives of my great grandmother, Emma Wilhelmine Pedersdatter Mørck and great grandfather Frederich Vilhelm Phaff Mørck, from a woman living in North Jutland, Denmark who happened across their photos and records in a family collection she was going through. She was inquiring as to whether I might know who she was as she was not related to anyone in her family. She found me on Facebook after finding my name on our Geni family tree. It turns out this woman is a bit of a genealogy buff and has access to all sorts of records. Denmark kept very good records on its populace and they are readily accessible to the public. – and so, I spent the better part of the weekend learning all about my father’s side of the family’s livelihood in Denmark. My father’s dad, Frederik Mørck immigrated to the US from Denmark around 1910 and was one of the founders of Antelope, MT. He died when my father was just six years old so all we really know is my grandfather’s story of arrival and settlement. It turns out my family in Denmark was quite wealthy and made their mark on Danish society with ownership of large farms and manors, working as merchants, millers, and grocers, and perhaps most importantly as the founders of Carlsberg beer (on my great grandmother’s side)!  That this woman would spend so much time researching my family history is quite something, and we are not even related. She presented me with a wonderful Christmas gift – a whole new perspective on life and my place in this grand timeline we are traveling on. I couldn’t help but wonder if Emma was as ponderous as I am? What did she think of her son leaving the homeland – never to return?

This unexpected gift gave me a new perspective as I reflected on life in the waning days of my 48th journey around the sun and the closing days of a decade that for me, embodied the most dramatic changes to life as I know it than any other decade before. In the last ten years, I found my voice, I took flight and moved west, I ventured into the unknown, I began a new career, I faced down a frightening illness,  death made its presence known with the passing of both my parents and dog all within two years’ time, I bought my first home, I brought a new dog ( a gift from God) into my life, I found and lost love not once but twice, I got married and had a marriage end, and I fulfilled a dream that has carried me through much of this by completing my lay pastoral associate program and becoming an “official” proclaimer of God’s word. And now with this new perspective on my past, I could look at it all through a much broader lens.

Miraculously, I still haven’t spotted a gray hair, but I don’t feel much wiser than I did at the cusp of this life-changing span of years. If anything, I find myself not only full of questions but questioning everything! I seem to have lost the certainty with which I once approached life except for the certain discomfort in the realization that I am not God and I have far less control over what happens in my life than I once thought. The transience of life itself – the impermanence of it all – is so disconcerting that it makes me wonder aloud to God and anyone else who will listen – just what on earth am I here for, anyway?

I know I am not alone in this eternal pondering – that is after all THE question behind every man’s search for meaning. It is what inspired the great thinkers of all time – whose wisdom at least brings a sort of perpetual empathy to our daily struggle, a ray of light into our present darkness.  And I am sure it may have been the inspiration behind my grandfather’s voyage to a new land and new life over a century ago. While I don’t know if he ever found the answers he was seeking, he did find life by living into the questions.

It is easy to let questions of meaning weigh heavy on your heart when an unexpected loss or an unimagined future takes away your certainty in life. Yet time immemorial has proven that despite our best efforts to plan and prepare for the future, we live in the midst of uncertainty and unknowing. But as I wrote last month, life is not diminished by darkness or death, nor is it by uncertainty or the unimagined.  It is made more organic, more wholehearted, more resilient and resplendent. The endless interplay of darkness and light, the dying and rising, the endings and beginnings are signs that everything is forever being made new.

Ten years ago, I could never have imagined the path my life would follow in this journey.  I’m quite certain there are aspects of your life today that you never imagined until suddenly they were a part of your life as well. Some good. Some bad. And yet we live on. The poet John Keats wrote about the difficult work of living with negative capability which is the ability to sustain uncertainty, to live with not knowing, to stand in the mystery, to keep the questions and possibilities open, to embrace ambiguity, to not be too quick to resolve or shut down doubt – and to do all this without running away and trying to escape, without grasping for facts and reason.

Life is unpredictable, unknown, and impermanent, but these very characteristics intensify life, heighten its value, and bring deeper meaning to our days. In the year ahead I am going to focus on living into the uncertain and unknown. Will you join me? It goes against our human nature and won’t be easy, but we can face the unknown in hope and with the promise that through it all we have Emmanuel, God with Us. Our greatest gift – God is with us – in our uncertainty and in our hope, in our unexpected present and our unimagined future. May this assurance live in your heart this Christmas and throughout your days.

A simple prayer for your uncertain days and years:

Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  –The Lutheran Book of Worship

Let your light so shine!

Time passing…

“Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.” Psalm 116:7

Ah yes, tonight we turn back the clocks 1 hour – another feeble attempt to satisfy man’s desire to control the passage of time. While I’ll gladly take the extra hour of sleep or the extra hour of living (depending on your perspective) I am not a fan. Nonetheless, this practice we observe today filled my thoughts as I logged my road miles this morning. If there was one moment in time that I could change or simply have back, what would that be?

Of course, the perfectionist in me went wild with all the things I SHOULD have done better or differently. Regret eats away at my soul and my perfectionism feeds that. I spent a few miles in that zone but then I changed course and let the reflective, contemplative me run free.

There are so many moments I wish I could have again – to feel that last big hug from my Dad; to see the glimmer of love in Mom’s eyes; to walk out the door of my saving place in the saving grace of God with a healthy body again; and the sense of place and peace I found as I preached my first sermon and celebrated the sacrament of the eucharist the first time.

I have many regrets in my life – far too many for the years I have lived – but I have so much more to be thankful for. I would not give up any of the days and nights of my life because, without them, I would not be who I am today. And while I am always working to grow and better myself for this world, I have no desire to be anyone but who I am for however many moments, days, and years I have left to look forward to.

“This grace of God is a very great, strong, mighty and active thing. It does not lie asleep in the soul. Grace hears, leads, drives, draws, changes, works all in man, and lets itself be distinctly felt and experienced. It is hidden, but its works are evident.” – Martin Luther

Let Your Light So Shine!!!

“A Real Prosperity Gospel”

A sermon based on Luke 12: 13-21; Colossians 3:1-11

Grace and peace to you, brothers and sisters in Christ, from God, Our Father.

Looking at my smile today, you would never guess that I was a thumb sucker until the third grade. Sucking my thumb soothed my childhood insecurities and just like Linus, I had a soft blue night-night that was far from hand. It wasn’t until sleepovers became a common occurrence that I began to feel insecure over my source of security – and I gradually found my comfort elsewhere.

Jump ahead to two summers ago. My parents had both recently passed away within a year of each other and their deaths were such that my brother and I were not prepared for their departure – as if you can ever be. Needless to say, there were a lot of end-of-life projects multiplied by two left for my brother and me to endure. One of those was getting the family home of 28 years in Billings ready to sell which meant sorting through all the things collected by our parents over a combined lifespan of 167 years (not including the things collected by their two children)! There were times that I just wanted it all to go away. I was flabbergasted at the amount of things our family had collected and held on to throughout the almost 60 years of my parent’s life together despite having moved 23 times! In retrospect – I now see how those things helped foster a sense of place and security given our nomadic lifestyle during my father’s career with the government.

It was an emotional, sentimental, and nostalgia-filled time of decluttering. Several times I nearly flooded the basement with tears. Seeing the invaluable contents of our life as a family displayed and bargain-priced by the estate sale experts sent me careening through a lifetime of forgotten memories. How could they commoditize our belongings? That was our story for sale. So much value and emotion devoted to things and the life and memories surrounding them. The sense of security I felt each time I came home to visit was gone.  The emptied house was no longer home and forced me to contemplate what brings value and meaning to life. 

Perhaps many of you have experienced the same feelings in the wake of a loved one’s death. There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how much things have become a part of our lives. There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize that life is what made those things matter. I know I felt very alone and empty inside. 

Today Jesus tells us, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Lk. 12:15)[3] 

Really? Carl Richards, the Sketch Guy in the New York Times, writes of how we give up over 40,000 hours of life over 20 years in order to acquire more stuff.

After my brother’s and my experience of clearing out our family home of stuff, I swear it felt like whole lifetimes were swapped for it! And yet, I identified with that “stuff” and found it difficult to part with. That stuff represented the security of our life as a family together – and those times had come to an end.

Despite my life-changing decluttering experience, I will be honest with you, Luke’s parable of the rich farmer served as a reckoning for me. I see a little too much of myself in the farmer’s pursuits. Maybe you too felt a little uncomfortable sitting with God’s final words to the seeming-to-have-it-all-figured-out farmer. “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”

He’s not a cheat or a thief, nor does he seem particularly greedy. Not unlike what most of us strive to do, he worked hard and made some money, and saved for the future – stocking away goods and treasure in barns for safe-keeping.  His land produced so abundantly that he does not have enough storage space so he plans to build bigger barns to store all his grain and goods. He set aside ample savings for the future and is all set to enjoy his golden years. 

I spend 40 hours of every week working for a financial advisory firm – and this is the kind of personal success we aim to see replicated in our client’s lives. This is what all the experts encourage us to do. Isn’t it wise and responsible to work hard, become successful, and save for the future? In my mind, I wish I had it as put together as this farmer.  If I were him I would be giving my soul a pat on the back too! “And I would say to my soul, Soul, you have ample savings put away for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God calls him a Fool! In Greek, this conjures up a senseless, mindless, rash or egoistic person.

There is one very important thing the rich farmer has not planned for — his reckoning with God. He has become so engrossed in his own livelihood – in securing for himself a good life –  that he has shut out the world around him. Perhaps not so unlike how ordinary hard-working people – you and me today – end up existing in our own seemingly secure universes, constructing lives solely focused on our own personal well-being, but all the while losing sight of what really matters in life until it is too late. When God demands his life, the farmer is faced with the fact that he has spent his entire life toiling and acquiring but not growing rich toward God. Jesus repeatedly warns that wealth will get in the way of our relationship with God. “Take care!” he says. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed;”

So what does Jesus mean by being rich toward God? To answer this it might be easier to look at what it is not.

We live lives in constant pursuit of more because we never have enough – not enough money, not enough status, not enough time, not enough stuff. We seek security in the tangible. Our culture regularly tells us that we are insufficient, incomplete as we are BUT we can have it all with whatever product or practice they are pushing. This constant pursuit of acquisition and egoistic perfection is in short, single-minded greed and this greed becomes our God. Like the farmer in today’s gospel, we have chosen to live in a world of one. This is not living richly toward God.

Money can do many things – it can provide for you and your family, it can be given to others in need, it can be used to create jobs and promote the general welfare of our communities, and it makes possible a more comfortable life. 

But money also allures us with the illusion of security and independence. Money deludes us into thinking that if we just have more of it we can transcend our everyday insecurities and needs that remind us that we are mortal beings who are and always will be dependent on others, most especially, on God. Money, or anything else for that matter, that we become fixated on, may bring us momentary happiness and satisfy our desire for security but in the end, it impoverishes our soul and rewires our values. This is not living richly toward God.

The farmer’s mistake and regretfully, that of many today,  doesn’t have to do with his riches; rather, he goes astray by believing that he alone can secure his future. That his treasure, possessions, and money can make him independent – independent from others, independent from need, and independent from God. We sometimes forget that our lives and possessions are not our own, that they belong to God. We are merely stewards of them for the time God has given us on this earth. Our need to be in charge and in control of our lives gets in the way of our relationship with God. Greed compels us to banish from our lives anyone and anything that might threaten “what’s ours.” This is not living richly toward God.

Yes, money can do many wonderful things – it just can’t produce the kind of full and abundant life that each of us seeks and that Jesus promises. Solomon warns in Ecclesiastes: “He who loves money will never be satisfied with money; his desire is meaningless vanity and futility, a striving after wind” (5:10). We will never find security and lasting happiness if we base them on our attachments to the world where virtue is constructed around our own self-interest.

The farmer’s legacy was a full barn but an empty life without purpose or relationship. This is not what God wants for us. But it is hard to live into that concept – to place your trust in something you cannot grasp, to find security in the sometimes temporal realm of relationships, to derive meaning and happiness from that which you cannot control. Money, acquisition, pursuits of perfection – have one distinct advantage over the abundant life Jesus promises us: they are immediately tangible. 

The rich life that Jesus invites us to embrace and strive for – one secured in relationships, community, and purpose – is much harder to lay our hands-on. We know what a good relationship feels like, but it’s hard to point to or produce on a moment’s notice. We know how wonderful it feels to be accepted into a community, but you can’t run out to Walmart and buy it. And because we live in a culture that tells us this – whatever this may be – is the best there is, we repeatedly buy into the immediate gratification and security offered by money and material goods only to need more later because that kind of happiness and fulfillment will never be enough – nor does it last.

So, what, then, shall we do? How do we start living and being rich in the way of Jesus? First, by recognizing that all that we have and are is not truly ours, we can rejoice in the freedom this truth brings to our lives. Because all that we are and all that we have belongs to God, our future is secure beyond all measure. You are free to be all that God created you to be and live into the pleasures and purpose that He has given for your life. 

We can change our culturally informed beliefs about what constitutes the good life. St. Augustine once said that God gave us people to love and things to use, and sin, in short, is the confusion of these two things.  Let’s start having conversations about money and wealth and how we can live into and share the abundant life that money and material goods support but cannot produce with those who still search for and need the security that only God can provide. Let’s recognize that greed in all its forms can corrupt the poor as easily as the rich. 

While the entire media universe pushes us to tune into what is negative or missing rather than what is positive in our lives, lets name and celebrate our blessings. Rather than grasping for more stuff – cultivate an awareness of how many ways we are blessed each and every day.  We experience the wonders of abundant life every day. The joy of a good conversation, the sense of purpose that comes from helping another, the warmth of a loving relationship, the feeling of community found in friends or family – these are the very elements of the abundant life that Jesus describes throughout the gospels – relationship, community, love, purpose. 

While these abundant elements of life may be less tangible they are far more powerful than material goods and they are infinitely available to us if we seek them out. 

Living into the abundant life Jesus promises is incredibly hard and almost impossible to do alone. Find a community of support that seeks a higher purpose – those sitting around you today would be a great place to start. Make it a practice to see yourself as part of something bigger than you and your stored up treasures.  

Stop the habit of buying happiness – and look for ways to experience it without spending a dime. There’s something to be said for contentment and for perspective about how we view money and possessions. In His grace, we can find a healthy perspective on the things we possess – so they don’t become the things that possess us.

Practice an awareness of time.  We don’t like to think that our time with our loved ones, that our own time, frankly, is finite. I took for granted the time I had with my parents, and as many wonderful memories and not so wonderful memories that I have of our family, I will never have enough. I still take my time for granted.  It is so easy to just exist from day to day. I look at how much time I spend on advancing my own interests along with my skewed attempts at the perfect life and confess that I do not always invest my time nor the time I have with my family and others wisely.

I’ll leave you with a little investment advice without any disclaimers. God wants so much more for us than what our worldly and yes, our own little world’s pursuits can provide. God wants for us life and love and mercy and community. Nurture your relationships, give your time away to others, share your talents, bear another’s burden and let them help you with yours. Faithfully take risks and open your life to possibility. Your life will be so much richer if you do. 

The Apostle Paul tells us to be serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ. Pursue the things over which Christ presides – foster goodness, grace, and gratitude. See things from His perspective. Remember, your old life is dead. Baptized in Christ, your new life, your real life is secured with Christ in God. 

May the freedom that we have in Christ, empower you to live boldly into a legacy rich with relationships, purpose, and peace.

 

Amen

Minding our Mortality

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

It seemed innocent enough. It was, after all, just a Google Maps picture. But the picture in front of me made me gasp. I don’t know what I was expecting to see or how I could have expected a different reaction; it was and always will be my family’s home and Google seems to know that. My husband and I were showing one another the different houses we had lived in growing up by Googling our old addresses on the internet. Some of our former residences looked so small – compared to our memories of them from our childhoods. But this picture of a place and not so distant time in my life caught me unaware.

There before me was our home – not just a house – but my family’s last home as a family on a sunny mid-September day (according to Google). The lawn was freshly mown. The lawnmower sat in the shade waiting to be rolled back to its storage place under our deck. The garbage bin was awaiting one more dumping of grass clippings. The flower pots lining our front walkway dazzled with their patriotic display of red, white and blue petunias – Dad’s perennial planting.  Dad’s Buick sat in the garage and the SUV sat in the driveway – looking freshly washed. And if I looked hard enough, I swear I could see Dad sitting at his desk in the front window still wearing his sunhat and sunglasses and munching on an oatmeal raisin cookie with his afternoon cup of coffee.

To anyone driving by – such as the Googlecam car – 4150 Audubon Way was just an address to map. There were signs of them but there were no people. My family did not exist to whoever was driving by. It was sort of like the last picture I took of our home, only different. The Googlecam photo was void of life before death. My photo was void of the lives that once called this place home after death.

The Googlecam photo brought me back to a time before the lives of my parents ceased and reminded me once again that they and my family as I once knew it are gone – even though pieces and memories of them remain. It reminded me that I too, will one day be gone. The house I now live in will be void of my life. Who I am will no longer be. Indeed, we can try to forget, ignore, or deny that death is in our cards from the day we are born to the moment we draw our last breath – but no one escapes a final ending.

But death doesn’t just come at the end of our physical life. We experience it all along the road of life. 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 lives as individuals come to an end. 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. Death makes itself known in our failures, shattered dreams, and lost opportunities. Death haunts our regrets and disappointments. A part of us dies each time we betray ourselves and live contrary to who we truly are or want to be.

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.

Theologian John Caputo writes in his book, Hope Against Hope, that death is not a diminishment or negation of life but is its intensification. Our mortality is what gives our life its vitality. Death focuses our attention and forces us to prioritize what matters. Death does not diminish life’s value, it gives life value.

The overtly objective glimpse into the past of my life reminded me of its fleeting. There will never be another moment like the one captured for “map-eternity” or like the now I have right now. It reminded me that this moment, this now, is priceless. And of course, this caused me to ponder – even more deeply – is there really life in my life?

Is there life in the way I am living in this moment; in the way I see the world and relate to others? Am I growing or just being? Am I bringing life to others or taking from theirs? Am I embracing the opportunities for life in those moments of death along life’s road? And if not, why not? What needs to change, to be let go of, to be done differently?

Fortunately, the place I spend the majority of my nows – at least five days a week – Coco Enterprises – espouses a way of living that helps me give life to my life. Joe Coco built his financial planning practice on the foundational pillars of S.P.R.I.F.  – a model of living in which we guide our clients towards achieving balance in the areas of their lives that they value while striving for the same balance in our own. Though iconic and evoking an aura of power and Wall Street wealth, The Coco Enterprises logo consisting of five Greek pillars is actually meant to represent each pillar of S.P.R.I.F. – the Spiritual, Physical, Relational, Intellectual, and Financial components of our lives.  By aiming for balance, strength, and stability in each of these areas, Coco Enterprises employees and our clients live lives that flourish and inspire instead of lives encumbered with regret.

I try to employ the SPRIF model of living in my daily life and I add two more pillars to it – vocational and avocational. If I am spending too much of my focus and energy on any one of these aspects of life over a prolonged amount of time – I know am not giving life to my life but rather, pulling life from it.

What do YOU want to do with your life? How do you want to live? Will you have life before death?

The important point of giving life to life is not how you plan to improve yourself based on standards set by others – this sort of focused living invites us to a life tainted by fear, arrogance, pride, delusion, ignorance, denial, wounds and pain; a life filled with the illusions of success and accomplishments based on an unwinnable human race. We clamor for the public and passing opinions of others. In our quest to succeed we practice our life before others; hoping to be seen, recognized, and praised.

The joy of being seen, recognized, and praised by others feels good today but by tomorrow the shine will have worn away, and you’ll have to do more to achieve that same feeling of satisfaction and success. This is not putting life in your life. This is the presence of death in our lives – taking with it our joy in living.

The point is not to become obsessed by winning at the unwinnable human race. Having life in our life does not mean working really hard to always get it right or always having the answer. Having life in our life does not mean that we will always know what to do or be able to speak the right words. Having life in our life does not mean that we have to always be strong and in control.

We should try to do the right thing, make the best choices, and accomplish everything we set out do to but we must acknowledge that at some point – death will come and our quest for perfection and success in all things will have far less meaning to us and have been far less than life-giving. Having life in our life is about savoring all that we have in the now and accepting what we don’t. It’s about flavoring your life by sharing it and opening it to the lives of others – others who are living through life’s deaths before death – as well as giving life to life.

For me, the answer for giving life to my life and the only one whose standards can ordinate my life is Jesus. As an Episcopal priest recently shared with his congregation, Jesus never said, “I came that you might be a good, better, or an improved version of yourself.”

No, Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). That is the freeing truth of the gospel. Jesus gives life, reveals life, and calls us to a meaningful life in the now, in this time and in this place. Life is now.

What does life before death mean to you? If you are given the opportunity to see this moment of your life through another’s eyes will you see life or death?

May the closing lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, “When Death Comes” inspire you to have life before death.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Live and let your light so shine!

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 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

Living Forward

“It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards. A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood; exactly because there is no single moment where time stops completely in order for me to take position [to do this]: going backwards.”  – Søren Kierkegaard

I wonder if the late Danish theologian and philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, ever dreamt that a modern modicum of communication known as Facebook would one day be a vessel for bringing this illuminating thought on understanding the meaning of life to the remembering masses? If you have spent any length of time on this social media phenomenon, you will be rewarded with glimpses of your yesterdays and if you are like me, sent into thoughtful repose for a few moments at least, on a daily basis. Most days these “flashbacks” make me smile – a recent one of mine from a year ago lamenting that it was time to go to bed and dream of puppies after a hard day – made me laugh out loud as I have  now made that dream come true. But as the calendar pages turn over to a new year, I know I will soon be facing 1 and 2 year flashback “anniversaries” of some pretty difficult days and times in my life.

A friend of mine and I, both of us recovering from life after 2 years of living, were recently bemoaning this daily (depending on how much you frequent Facebook) reminder of how good things once were, of how bad things can be, and boy what have we done with our lives since? As we commiserated with one another over coffee, the comment was made that we could alter our profile settings to filter out what Facebook could “send” to us. We can filter out people, dates, and just about anything from our past that we don’t want to be reminded of or see. But should we? This idea did not sit well with the sentimental, soul searching, meaning of life seeking me. After all, I thought, though these Facebook flashbacks conjure up emotions in me that frankly I could do without somedays, they are the experiences that made me the woman that I am in 2018. Yes, I wish those experiences could all be mountaintop highs and photos of celebrations with family and friends, and abounding successes, but they wouldn’t be real.

Despite our superior intellect among species, God did not give us minds that can purposefully filter and forget the life we lived. Rather, he gave us mercy and forgiveness through His Son. Our memories are reminders for the here and now that we made it through, that life goes on, and that God is faithful to us. I like to remind myself that my faith needs to be as clear and strong as my 20/20 hindsight.

It is easy to be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives. Gratitude for all that life encompasses –  the good as well as the bad, the times of joy and times of sorrow, our successes as well as our failures, and connections as well as rejections – now that requires work. It is only when we look back at our lives that we can truly comprehend the journey we have been on and give thanks for the important lessons we have learned and the people we have met along the way.

It is those lessons and those relationships that allow us, prepare us, and propel us forward in life even as we do not know what tomorrow will bring – let alone comprehend it.

If we try to filter from our lives the events and people we would like to forget, we cannot claim the identity that God, in His timing, reveals to us. We can, however, choose to fill our lives with more experiences and seek out relationships with others that will, in time, become pleasant memories. Strive for flashbacks that make you smile or better yet laugh with a heart and mind that understands that life can only be lived one day at a time but with a confidence in its ultimate purpose.

As the new year gets underway, resolve to make memories you will cherish and make grateful  peace with the past. Yes, your past does define you but it doesn’t have to confine you. Who you are today is the product of the experiences you couldn’t comprehend or appreciate yesterday. Be grateful for everything that has brought you to where you are now and trust that in time you will see where the guiding hand of a loving God has led you.

Let your light so shine.

An Equation for Life

“What do workers gain from their toil? 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.” – Ecclesiastes 3: 9-11

I have spent a considerable amount of time and paper this summer, contemplating the value of things and what makes up this big thing we call life. 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) there were times that I just wanted it all to go away. I was flabbergasted at the amount of things we had collected and held on to throughout the 60 years of my parent’s life together.

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.

If anything good can come from the deaths of one’s parents, it is the lessons we, that are left behind, go on living with about what life really is all about.

I recently read an article by Carl Richards, the Sketch Guy, in the New York Times in which he wrote about the equation of life that most of us are currently in the process of solving.

[Life] = [Money]

We spend all this time earning money to spend on stuff that makes up our lives. We swap our lives for money. In fact, we swap about 40,000 hours of our lives over 20 years for money which we then spend on stuff.

His equation morphed into this final assessment:

[Life] = [Stuff]

After my brother’s and my experience of cleaning out the family home of stuff this summer, I could not agree more! To be honest, I think there was way more than 40,000 hours of life swapped for stuff – more like a lifetime worth life swapped for stuff.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying everyone should stop working and earning money and buying things – goodness, things make life worthwhile –  to an extent. We are humans. We need things. As a civilized and domesticated human, I want things and frankly couldn’t live without things. A roof over my head is important, as is heat, clothing, food, and yes, for me a car. I know some people can get by in life without a car – there is a whole movement among the millennials to not own a vehicle – and more power to them! I however, cannot. I like my car and the rapid way it transports me to places I need or want to go. I like to have a comfortable and welcoming home – a remnant of sorts of the home I grew up in, I suppose, where collections created a story of our lives.  A nifty pair of boots make me happy when the weather turns cool.  The quest for things keeps our economy humming. When the economy stops humming most of us start moaning and groaning – so obviously, things have an important role to play in our lives.

But I will tell you right now – I would sell you the clothes off my back and everything I have acquired in my 20+ years of working, to have a few more moments with my mom and dad.

I recently ventured “home” one last time. The house has sold and I needed to gather the few remaining things that had been stuffed into my bedroom closet and pick up a few more things that remained in storage that would now occupy my new home. This was the first time I had stepped inside that house completely void of everything since the day we bought the house 28 years ago. I was 18 years old at that time. A new chapter was opening in my family’s life. Dad had just retired and was looking forward to years of golf and staying put for a change. Mom was looking forward to being close to family again and staying put for a change. It did not dawn on me at that time that this would be the house they would die in.  Standing in that empty house, I felt like a wildfire had come through and swept everything away. Stripped bare of the contents collected, “home” felt foreign to me – as if the 28 years of life lived inside these walls hadn’t happened. The emptiness was too much. I longed to page through the books my dad’s hands once held, and to light again, the candles my mom collected because candlelight always made our hearts glow. I longed for our blue and white dinner plates that served us dinner for 35 years, I longed for the scent of my dad’s Bay Rum and Aqua Velva after shave and my mom’s Bonn Street eau de toilette.  Those things were all gone. Sold and taken away to the stories of other people’s lives or simply gone and alive only in my memories. There was no comforting ticking of the old barn clock that had hung on every wall of every home my parents owned. Just silence.

Poignantly, some of things left behind in my closet were bundles and bundles of cards  – cards from my childhood – cards from friends telling me good bye and good luck as we prepared to move away. Cards from aunts and uncles and cards from Mom and Dad. Cards from when I turned 6 and turned sweet 16. Cards in honor of my confirmation and graduation. I tried to sort through them, thinking now was as good a time as ever to lighten my collection of stuff –  but the “to toss” pile never grew. I found myself clinging to every written word on every single card as a link to my past. I knew in these stacks of cards were some of the last words written to me by Mom and Dad. All I wanted was to see their handwriting telling me they loved me and how proud they were of their little girl. I will never receive one of those cards again.

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.

Death has changed what I value. Those hand-written cards found in my closet have far more value to me than all the clothes I could ever want to hang there. The sale price of the family home means far less to me than the life once lived within its walls. And that is what makes my heart break.

We don’t like to think that our time with our loved ones, that our own time, frankly, is finite. I took for granted the time I had with my parents, and as many wonderful memories and not so wonderful memories that I have of our family, I do not have enough. I did not invest the time I had with them wisely.

Having worked for a financial advisor for 4 years now one would think I would have this investing thing down pat. Well, from now on I plan to. I am refocusing my investments – not in things, not in money, but in life.  I am investing more time in living life.

I’m done swapping countless hours of life for things and empty existence. A few hours for a nifty pair of boots, ok – yes. The rest I plan to invest in the times of my life. Here’s my equation:

[Time] = [Life]

Aside from paying someone to mow my lawn – money can’t buy any of that.

“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. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.” – Ecclesiastes 3:12-14

When Comparison is the Thief of Joy

“Last year at this time I was/had….” How many times lately have I started a conversation with that comparative statement? More often than I would like to admit. Regretfully, I have spent much of my time this summer dwelling on the past rather than living fully in the present and contemplating the future. It is a relatively easy habit to fall into and when one is feeling mentally exhausted, stressed out, or just down in the dumps. Dwelling on happier times is a good respite for the emotional soul. Positive memories have an important place in our lives – they help us out of a sad moment, help us heal from the loss of a loved one, and create meaning in our lives. They can also send us spiraling into a trap of living in the past while ruing our present –  keeping us from moving forward and enjoying the gifts of life we have now.

11731884_1033524946672103_274556446325443046_oI found myself doing just that as I talked to friends about summer plans. Last year at this time I had already knocked out 23 hikes in the park including summiting several mountains with plenty of joyous trail journal entries and pictures to fill a museum. I was feeling strong and mighty, like the world below me was mine to conquer from those peak-top experiences and happiness seemed to radiate from my soul. This year however, I have only managed 6 hikes- 4 of which were remarkably wet and miserable to the point of relegating one pair of manure and mud encased boots to the trash barrel and another instance of dumping about a ½ cup of water out of each boot upon returning to my vehicle. On the two hikes not inundated by rain, I found myself drained of any stamina. I felt conquered by the world, my radiance reigned over by sadness. What was wrong with me? The lack of hiking opportunities due to rain cancellations and life events conflicting with fun in the sun were just the tip of this depressive iceberg.13754601_1256154167742512_2134166270177249671_n

My life has not been a bed of roses lately with the death of my mother, the loss of a relationship, and my father’s recent cancer diagnosis, surgery, and serious car accident. Rather than being thankful for the present I was asking “How much more, Lord, how much more?” As the summer wore on the happy memories of the past made my present seem more and more unbearable… I was on a trajectory of dejection with a dark stormy cloud hovering above me.  Indeed, this summer has been a season of discontent.

And then one of my dear friends shared a bit of wisdom with me, a belief she has followed through her own difficult times. When we dwell on the negative, we attract more of it. By focusing on what wasn’t going right in my life I was allowing that dark cloud to boil and billow into a huge thunderstorm of negative thought pellets that hailed down on me no matter where I went. The rain sodden hikes just exemplified this in physical form and further dampened my outlook! On the heels of those words of wisdom, a visiting pastor gave a sermon with a message that really hit home with me. It was one of those God moments where you think He is talking directly to you and no one else surrounding you.

The message, born from the books of Ecclesiastes and Luke, talked of getting wrapped up in the increasing busyness and trappings of life. Rather than getting caught in the frenzy of keeping up with the Joneses, or in my case keeping pace with my own over the top life of summers past, we should look to our present and give thanks for the simple pleasures and blessings we receive from others to find joy. Receiving these words of wisdom from two very different people made something click in my mind. Rather than resenting my present, I was able to accept that I was living in a very different season of life this year compared to last year. I wasn’t allowing myself any grace, something I am great at giving others but not myself obviously. By dwelling on the past I was missing the good things that were growing in this season’s garden as a result of the rain in my life. The dark cloud of comparison had hidden those good things from my sight.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” —Theodore Roosevelt

13613171_1265591673465428_7058362766506802065_oThrough this past and present emotional season of life I have been the recipient of many gifts given by others. And so taking my friend’s advice I began to dwell on those gifts – kind words, hugs, long talks on walks, the simple generosity of time given by one to the other. Because I have not spent every weekend this summer in the mountains I have rediscovered the simple joy of Sunday morning coffee hour after worship and connecting with friends I only see once a week. Because I have not spent every weekend in the mountains I have spent much more time at the piano and found new music to challenge myself with.  I began to dwell on the beauty of my surroundings – the valley landscape that I had often overlooked on my mountaintop adventures and the new life abounding around me. I dwelled on the joy of singing with a choir and the joy of sharing beautiful music with friends. I dwelled on the recent opportunities to celebrate life over dinner with friends. I dwelled on the simple but wonderful feeling of escape from the world found in the pages of a good book on a stormy evening. I dwelled on the sunlight reflecting on water. Most of all, I dwelled in this present season of life. Sure it has been a tough one, but the tempestuousness of it has made me stronger and more appreciative of yes, the joys of life.

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There is a time for everything in life, a time for living joyously and at full speed ahead and a time for mourning and rest. Both seasons should be embraced, not resented.

A Time for Everything

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:

a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to tear down and a time to build,

a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance,

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,

a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,

a time to search and a time to give up,

a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time to be silent and a time to speak,

a time to love and a time to hate,

a time for war and a time for peace.

~ From Ecclesiastes 3

Let your light so shine.

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