Grace

We find ourselves again in the Days of Awe.

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, between creation and atonement, we sit, contemplating our wrongs.

I wander at the end of a very-long-day-not-yet-over, wondering about offense.

How is that we are so easily offended? And why is so hard to forgive?

A colleague on Zoom tells me something about my son, a silly little thing, that I never knew. Apparently, he loved stuffed breadsticks and once ate 12 of them and nothing else for dinner at the school he loved. The school I love. My friend was so kind to share this with me, a new nugget, and it made me smile.

My son.

On days like today, I could use his sweet embrace that often did nothing to change a thing, but somehow, still, made it all better.

Don’t worry about that, Momma, he would say. It will all turn out alright.

I’ve forgiven him for dying, of course, for driving drunk and leaving us all behind. I’m grateful on days like today that this is not my forever home, any more than it was his.

In a cemetery at sunset, I sit on a tiny child’s bench, flaked by time, and lament.

Isn’t that the point of the Days of Awe? To ruthlessly examine our flaws and offer them up to God? Ever patient, He tenderly squeezes our hearts until, squirming, we no longer seek to justify our imperfections or hold others’ against them.

It’s okay, my daughter, He whispers. I’ve taken care of that.

I look up and it’s the first thing I see.

I Will Sustain You

I finally got around to watching the Downton Abbey film this week. It was like stepping back in time, but not in the way you might think.

While the lauded series chronicled the life of the fictional Crawley family in and around World War I, watching the 2019 movie brought me back not to early 1900’s England, but to a dark period earlier this decade when my life’s threads were progressively unraveling.

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During THAT TIME, forsaken and alone, I sat riveted to PBS every Sunday night as people who never existed became so real to me that I could not help but care as they married, gave birth, bickered, died.

I loved the Crawleys and their sassy servants; they distracted my own heart from its welted pain, gave me license to laugh or weep, and kept my chin above water just long enough to take a breath before I went under again until the next week rolled around.

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Is that not the power of story?

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The good news is that spending time again with the Countess Dowager and Mary and Anna and Tom helped me to realize how far I have actually come since THAT TIME.

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God’s story in my life, our story, is nothing if not a page-turner.

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It’s not a typical story, with a beginning and an end; timeless as God, my story with him stretches as far back as my pre-created self —

My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be (Psalm 139:15-16)

— weaves through the times that I might prefer to forget —

“Because she loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue her;
    I will protect her, for she acknowledges my name.
She will call on me, and I will answer her;
    I will be with her in trouble,
    I will deliver her and honor her.
With long life I will satisfy her
    and show her my salvation” (Psalm 91: 14-16)

— sustains me as I soldier on into evening —

Even to your old age and gray hairs
    I am he, I am he who will sustain you.
I have made you and I will carry you;
    I will sustain you and I will rescue you (Isaiah 46:4)

— and reassures me that though there are many, many chapters ahead, not one of them will be the final one —

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand (John 10:27-28)

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Woo hoo!

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So as I watched the Crawleys debate the future of Downton Abbey – their highly predictable way of life, progress, how things change – I wasn’t sad anymore. I didn’t need to wait for the next week; the series is over, and that chapter closed.

Overcoming is as simple as taking the next step forward in trust; and though simple is simple, it’s not always easy.

How could it be?

What kind of story would it be if not for the heroes and villains, plot twists and conflicts, romance and battles and birthing and pain?

Yet, the promise is for us all who put our hope in Him:

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go…I will never leave you nor forsake you (Joshua 1:9,5)

Please Don’t Cry

One of my daily liturgies is to open an email from BibleGateway to see what God might be saying for the day.

Today, on the 4th anniversary of Gordie’s home-going, I am surprised-but-not-surprised to find that God was thinking of me and wanted me to know.

Today I read:

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. (Romans 12:15)

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With all that God has going on in the world – pandemic, stife, poverty, riots – how is it that he could remember today, sit with me awhile, lift the heaviness from my heart?

There is a story that always gets to me, as it reveals that no matter how much we might feel we are forgotten or overlooked – God is always there, willing to identify with us.

Shortly afterward, Jesus left on a journey for the village of Nain, with a massive crowd of people following him, along with his disciples.  As he approached the village, he met a multitude of people in a funeral procession, who were mourning as they carried the body of a young man to the cemetery. The boy was his mother’s only son and she was a widow. When the Lord saw the grieving mother, his heart broke for her. With great tenderness he said to her, “Please don’t cry.” 

Please don’t cry.

Jesus, doesn’t this passage imply that you were crying?

For clearly it says His heart broke for her. 

Just like when your friend Lazarus died, and you knew – you knew, just like you knew here, with this son – that you were not going to allow him to stay dead – even then, you wept?

Why? 

Was it because, in that moment, you could see not only this widow’s grief, but all the future griefs of this world – all the deaths that were to come, all the future mothers and brothers and sisters and friends who would mourn as they carry their loved ones to the grave?

Could you already see mine?

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But wait.

Then he stepped up to the coffin and touched it. When the pallbearers came to a halt, Jesus said to the corpse, “Young man, I say to you, arise and live!”

Immediately, the young man moved, sat up, and spoke to those nearby. Jesus presented the son to his mother, alive! A tremendous sense of holy mystery swept over the crowd as they witnessed this miracle of resurrection. (Luke 7:11-16)

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Alive!

That is what we need to remember.

Although the immediately for my son looked much different than the widow’s – just as it may be for the  thousands and thousands that will die today, and tomorrow and the tomorrow after that – we can trust that our Abba-Father is infinitely willing to identify with the tender and particular of both our mourning and rejoicing.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid – please don’t cry – you are worth more than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)

I Would Have Been Back Sooner

I thought I had this grief thing down.

Like delicate china, I’ve stored the echo of my son carefully wrapped in the back of a cupboard: close enough by, but not so near at hand as for daily use.

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I can manage it better that way.

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Take it out on my terms, when I’m good and girded and able to handle the fallout from it, because, well, you just never know where it’s gonna go.

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Giving grief its time and space is vital and healthy, but there are instants when it finds you unsuspecting – naked & exposed – and justlikethat you are back on that day, that couch, that lonely Planet Pain.

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Today, I was just looking to get outside. The mountains are closed, so I thought I’d take a road walk, look at spring, watch the water sparkle, get away from the screens and the COVID for a while.

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I wasn’t really even listening, the sky so sweet and blue, when through the earbuds came a song I’d never heard before, a line: Are you singing with the angels, are you happy where you are?

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Then it hit me. TobyMac. Lost his son, just this past October.

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One thing was certain – I couldn’t stay on the road. Had to escape. Not expecting that, no I was not.

The forest.

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This month, Gordie would have turned 26.

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April 24, his April 24, was a very good day in a month when lots of very bad things seem to happen. The Boston Marathon bombing. The Humboldt bus crash. Columbine, Chernobyl, the Titanic, the fire at Notre Dame.

Of course, I knew it was coming, this frozen birthday of his; of course, I was already preparing.

So when TobyMac began crushing my heart with Why would You give and then take him away and 21 years makes a man full-grown, 21 years, what a beautiful loan, I tucked in fast to the trees and wondered how it was that April had already arrived, before I was fully ready.

Nothing to do now but let it come: all those lost years flooding out of my face until I found myself literally lost in the woods.

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Where did all those signs come from? And how was it that I never noticed them before?

Around and around I went in my head, feet looping the paths, up and down and around obstacles, until I forgot which way was out and had to pull out a map on my phone.

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Are you happy where you are?

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Where was I, exactly?

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A place where life was bursting out of dormant shells and the ground itself was weeping.

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Lost for a moment, but believing in a way out.

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It’s not possible to outwalk heartache here on Planet Pain, but we have this hope.

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Isaiah, that cranky prophet, tells us so.

Of Jesus, he writes:

He will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces. (Isaiah 25:8)

Face-wiping seems like blasphemy in this current crazy of sanitizer and masks; it is such an intimate act. I’m puzzled as to why I would even be crying when I finally meet my Lord.

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Until then, for what it is worth, here is what I have learned so far in the years following a traumatic event as a student of Grief 101.

Year 1 – Brutal. Be kind to yourself and don’t expect too much.

Year 2 – Brutal, times two. That baseball-bat bruise has changed color, but don’t be fooled: you have push deeper, but the wound still festers. You realize he really is never coming back.

Year 3 – There is light. Some normalcy. When sorrow leaks out, you guard it, carefully. Disbelief resurfaces.

Year 4 – Here is where I find myself. Thinking: how is it that I can now feel joy, laugh and sing and sometimes even forget. Then, an ambush. It’s okay – you know whose you are, and He knows you.

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me… all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139: 1, 16)

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All the days. 

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All my days, all your days, all of my son’s days.

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As I head into Year 5, I realize could not have forestalled Gordie’s death any more than I can my own.

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But we can trust Jesus, this Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53:3)

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What seems like a lifetime later, I finally pop out of the woods, grateful for grief and the release that follows.

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Thank you, Lord, for my beautiful son.

Under Construction

We were talking today in my online church community group about how we are now, in our personal quarantines, a lot like the Apostle Paul, who spent much of his adult life in prison.

If he wasn’t being beaten by rods, stoned, or shipwrecked, you could usually find Paul locked in some dungeon somewhere writing letters to his beloved churches and occasionally being sprung from behind bars by an angelic encounter.

The man certainly led an interesting life.

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(Image from Owlcation)

I adore Paul’s writing.

I often pray this passage from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians over my children:

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:14-21)

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Amen indeed!

I like to go back to passages of Paul again and again –  Romans 81 Corinthians 13, and one of my favorites, Philippians 4  – and each time that I do, I find new treasure I hadn’t noticed before or a nuance from his words that leads to a deeper understanding of some truth. I know I could do this the rest of my life and never plumb the full depths of his beautiful scripture.

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The other day, I was in Ephesians and I came across this:

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 

In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)

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The school where I live and work is currently constructing a new center for the arts. It’s a massive project that will result in a massive building which will, in turn, allow us to offer our boys ways to grow and create and expand in ways previously unimagined.

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This past fall, when one of the gigantic beams was ready to be raised, everyone in our community gathered around and signed our names on it. For as long as that building stands, a record of us will be tattooed on its bones.

I thought about Paul’s words – that we are members of his household.

Built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets

Christ Jesus is the chief cornerstone, that is, the focal point, the place where the building begins and from whom the building garners its strength.

It’s a structure made up of us, his children, and every one of us is either a brick or a board or a nail or a door – and together we become a holy temple, each of us doing our part to make space for God to live by His Spirit.

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I thought about the process of construction.

It’s terribly messy, to be honest: piles of steel and wood and glass, traffic cones and cigarette butts, blowing plastic, canting port-o-potties, trailers and fencing and buckets and mud.

Is that us?

Constantly being added to, adjusted, straightened – wobbly and skeletal, marked by tool and time and trial – relying upon one another floor by floor as we reach toward heaven?

Without that first stone – our Jesus – the building would topple. We would topple.

I am so grateful we have a patient Savior, a kind and loving foreman who doesn’t look at all of our mess and think – that will never amount to anything.

Too many holes. Not enough shingles.

We may be constantly under construction, but even so, we are His holy temple where He has chosen to dwell.

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As we bide our time, like Paul, in isolated cells, I pray that we will consider the critical role we play in girding those around us.

Brick by lovely brick, the One who can do immeasurably more than anything we could possibly ask or imagine will shape us into His cherished and enduring edifice.

Two Miles Short

What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.  ~Thomas Paine

Have you ever been so thirsty that it is nearly impossible to drink?

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I didn’t actually think this possible, but this past week, back on the Florida Trail for another spring break, I found myself huddled behind a propane tank display in front of a Dollar General desperate for some relief from the sun and unable to choke down any fluid.

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One of the many challenges of the Florida Trail – besides the obvious, like swamps, snakes, and alligators – is the frequency of road walks.

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While Florida Trail chapter volunteers try to parcel together more and more sections off the roads and into the woods where a trail belongs, gaining permission from landowners and other entities to allow smelly people to walk across private land is oftentimes problematic.

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No matter what time of year one chooses to walk the trail, however – most start at the southern terminus sometime in January – there will be countless stretches along roads, paved and un, exposed to a ceaseless, punishing solar barrage. To say that thirst is one of the side effects of these portions is a wild understatement.

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While toiling away on one such section, I made some lists in my sunburnt head.

Benefits of Road Walks

  1. Interesting viewsE2C44FF1-76E5-4987-A7C5-91A98593BAA235AC7DA2-6FAA-4392-997B-4B4104569EF2
  2. No coyotes howling on the other side of your thin fabric’d tent, oftentimes from the same direction toward which you are about to walk70769515-91D9-4C82-8FBA-EB2CD8E0B098
  3. Strategically positioned convenience stores (like the aforementioned Dollar General I found myself at, two bottles of cold liquids in front of me, too tummy-tied and dehydrated to sip even the tiniest amount)3D72BE95-8E5A-4281-AEB3-DFB20DBBFC73
  4. Loot7469C7A3-FB61-492B-82B0-CBF4101F9B6B
  5. Hard (but not impossible) to get lost59BBCEED-FFEE-4765-B219-D017B0B25D95
  6. Flat3ECB4124-35B2-40DD-9759-B334878904CC
  7. Guys in pick-ups roaring by while honking and giving you the finger for no apparent reason

Disadvantages of Road Walks

  1. Same view, mile after endless mile0B8D00F2-579A-4303-A6DC-3EA4B3335C7C
  2. No coyotes: it’s strangely thrilling to hear these magnificent animals yipping and howling OUT THERE while you are burrito’d in a sleeping bag IN HERE. Shivers.) Also, snarly dogs, chained and un, that charge as you cruise by, scaring you out of your very pantsD4DFECFE-1B09-449B-AEE4-07F7D71D8035
  3. Convenience stores, right on the very trail – where’s the challenge in that? – with the only options for a gluten-free-dairy-free eater being jumbo pickles and Slim Jims. No more Krispy Kremes for this girl. Frowny face. Also, creepy guys in the parking lot who ask where-you-going-honey-I-saw-you-walking-in-Ebro-yesterday?F6DE7C1B-794C-4338-B25D-99DF5FE6A86B
  4. Loot: not willing to walk by a SINGLE PENNY despite the head rush that follows one of these swipe-and-grab episodes
  5. Getting lost – at almost every intersection, in spite of carrying the Guthook app which basically makes it criminal to ever go off-trailBA01C7BA-908F-4B3B-83E0-E700988AB733
  6. Flat. And hot. And did I mention no shade? And pavement, which causes massive blisters on the bottom of one’s tender, un-trail-toughen’d feet
  7. Guys in pick-ups roaring by while honking and giving you the finger for decidedly nefarious reasons

Lest you think, dear reader, that the Florida Trail is nothing but a paved paradise, let me assure you of its staggering beauty and never-ending surprises. Here’s one more list.

Good Stuff on the Florida Trail

  1. Soft paths that go on forever2DB14723-A399-4084-8EAF-AE9C05A03E945794B52D-B3BB-43FD-B3E4-393FE194FA52
  2. Pines, everywhere, nascent and established8AD42E8A-872E-453C-B4E4-FD0508EC250AD43A0913-5D5D-471B-8938-D9AFD9E1E78B421276BB-45BE-4B25-9081-E0576DC30A9F07102280-D21E-4051-8FD0-A8B03AC1424984B1E23C-034E-4EA4-92FB-5331533494AC
  3. Boardwalks and bridges (especially when alligators are suspected)F27D08E9-4CCE-47B3-883B-738C60641F34F1EB41A7-8EDE-4FC6-9152-E5DFDA4308C7
  4.  Tannin-tinged, sandy-bottomed streams flowing high and cold10672DAD-3A42-4D25-B25E-7709D8AE3C40
  5. Fruit of the many selfless hours spent by trail volunteers clearing away damage from 2018’s Hurricane Michael. There would be no trail without these amazing humans.8C4E255F-7107-4C05-8CEE-4523FEB74323E7D48071-1104-4C34-86F3-F6454B2B8770
  6. Evidence of nature’s incredible resilience11AE16CB-5B81-4CCC-A70E-DE807768CF6556864FDD-0A3E-4500-9D8A-65937D7A3D9AA121DC2B-3A30-4C21-A74E-2DCB35A7A6F79E4E49F0-7C51-4B6F-AF0A-0A2DAD77CE08D35D5CCB-9177-48A3-BE56-9A68DD075F5D
  7. Cypress knees (Haha! Trees with knees – Florida is so weird)A01319A9-6541-44D4-AAF4-D6C7BDA49BB3
  8. Trail angels, especially Nancy and Wilton, who become instant friends6FAA3AB2-58A9-47A3-B05B-3316EDB61E629FB48A2F-E528-4F18-84C1-30B0ADD16752
  9. Other hikers. Shout out to Steps and Flattop, with whom I shared my last stretch of 2020, most of which was on the road. Of course.8F47737D-926C-425C-B98F-C2069F84930E
  10. Random beauty everywhereF279339C-87DB-495D-B710-E9A2B32A0FAC2193B177-0133-49F7-AFFD-0E0A1A01B2EBA72404DB-AFA5-48AB-83A5-B29071B4E193AA42B5EB-27FC-49BA-97C3-0E4105C58D7A60804C6B-760C-4BC9-8297-1B7ED42A3E99
  11. Other weird things, like tires in trees and gnomes in the forest330C57D0-1CAE-4858-A381-6CCDEFEB5B40762AD6E0-E493-40B5-AFB0-415DE1758CFB
  12. Sunrises and sunsets077E6453-4AD8-4129-8C49-61CF3E626F0ABB710AE7-2A5E-4FEE-B8E4-BAD6924A2F5F

I had planned on walking 100 miles this year on the Florida Trail. I only had five days, and I was eager to get back North to watch the youngest’s lacrosse games, hug the middle guy,  and spend some time with The Princess and the grandbabe. While I was in the woods, however, oblivious to what was happening out in the world, a tiny, germ-y threat was snaking its way across the sea and canceling everything everywhere.

They say the darkest hour is just before dawn, and I discovered why this time around.

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I suppose I never really noticed before, but it became obvious with the moon full throughout the week: there was always a stretch between moonset and sunrise when all went black.

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It was a spooky time, especially when you are trying to wend your way through jumbled swamps, skirting sink holes while looking for the orange blazes that mark the trail by the light of a single headlamp.

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Perhaps that is where we are right now.

As this virus rages across our lives, our families, we need to remember it is only the in-between. Like those fire-ravaged pines, we humans are resilient in the face of affliction. There will always be new growth.

We walk through valleys dark, knowing there is a Good Shepherd who has water waiting ahead, a place at the table. We don’t need to be afraid.

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When I finally add up the miles I have walked this time around, I find it to be only 98.

Two miles short.

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Another time, I might have beat myself up for coming so close.

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But there is no need, not now.

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There are plenty of miles ahead; this is the time for grace.

A Future Nostalgia

I once won a national championship with a baby in my belly.

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At the time, I hadn’t known I was pregnant. It was too early for morning sickness and my hockey gear still fit.

In Duluth, Minnesota, there is an arena on the shore of Lake Superior. I drove by it recently, and the memory of that tournament years ago came billowing back: standing shoulder-to-shoulder with my teammates as the national anthem played, sprinting back to the hotel before the championship game because I had forgotten my contacts, skating with a reckless abandon that predated motherhood.

I have been a mother now for going on 27 years; my recent trip through Duluth, past that old rink, and on to Superior, Wisconsin, was to watch a son play the game that I love.

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At the time of that tournament, so long ago, it would years before he was born. Now, his oldest sibling, that baby in my belly, has a child of her own.

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I cannot shake the nostalgia.

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For it was here, on the other side of that great lake, where my family lived for years.

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Snow fell there at Halloween and did not stop until Easter, banks piled higher than the cars, roads a treacherous hardpack where snowmobiles raced in the night.

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Huge freighters tooted good naturedly to one another as they chugged up the St. Mary’s River, one block from my open window, where I sat nursing my babies or reading them fairy tales.

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We would tuck into strollers and roam the Soo Locks, where big ships would pass through on their way to Detroit.

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“Look,” I told my little blondie the first time there. “See the boat?”

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“Where, Mama?” he asked, puzzled. “What boat?”

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His tiny perspective could not behold the wall of steel gliding by, stories high, and judge it “boat.”

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I needed to remember, wanted to recapture, those days decades ago on that wild, windy lake.

One baby, two babies, three babies, four.

Tugging those littles in a wagon to the beach, bathing them in a kiddie pool in our driveway upon return; pre-school skates with other mommies, hands laden with toddlers and strollers and snacks; days devoid of mobile phones and college bills and worried weariness.

So much has happened, so much has come and gone.

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Why do we ache for the past?

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Surely there were troubles then, heartbreak and conflict and pain?

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Does my old body long for its former might, my old brain wish to remember only the ease, my old soul believe that there is only more loss ahead?

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I looked in the mirror this morning and was startled by the face staring back at me.

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When did I get so old? 

Recently, I have been waging a war against a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome; I know it is unlikely I will ever stand again at a blue line and hear the sweet chords of an anthem play. I may never be able to run more than a few miles at a stretch or sleep unperturbed through the night.

Although I am fighting back with diet and determination, the outcome, as all things earthly, is not assured.

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Could it be that as I look up at the steel wall of the uncertain years ahead, my perspective needs to change?

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Am I – are we – nostalgic not for what is past, with its twisted tableaus and rosy reminiscences, but for what actually awaits?

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The apostle Paul had much hope to offer in that regard, for he tells the Corinthian church:

We are convinced that even if these bodies we live in are folded up at death like tents, we will still have a God-built home that no human hands have built, which will last forever in the heavenly realm. We inwardly sigh as we live in these physical “tents,” longing to put on a new body for our life in heaven…So, while living in this “tent,” we groan under its burden, not because we want to die but because we want these new bodies. We crave for all that is mortal to be swallowed up by eternal life. 2 Corinthians 5:1-4

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I groan, longing to don this God-framed body like a beautiful dress, silken and soft, aeolian, the color of butter or kittens or foam from the sea.

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And this is no empty hope, Paul continues, for God himself is the one who has prepared us for this wonderful destiny. And to confirm this promise, he has given us the Holy Spirit, like an engagement ring, as a guarantee.

That’s why we’re always full of courage. Even while we’re at home in the body, we’re homesick to be with the Master— for we live by faith, not by what we see with our eyes. We live with a joyful confidence, yet at the same time we take delight in the thought of leaving our bodies behind to be at home with the Lord. 2 Corinthians 5:5-8

It’s been a rough decade for many of us.

We cannot possibly know what 2020 holds and beyond, but we can trust the Father, who has told us that of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end. Isaiah 9:7

Ever expanding, ever enlarging, the eternity ahead tugs at the one nestled in my heart, nostalgic for that great and glorious prize, the promise that has yet to be fulfilled for we who believe.

A Cairn in the Woods

Late Monday night, while I lay zipped up snug in a tent deep in the blacknightcold of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, my dad pitched headlong onto the unforgiving floor of his room at the assisted living facility where he lives.

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While I lay, believing my only worry to be a bear breaking into the metal box protecting my food, my dad lay with his head on cold tile, bleeding, 100 miles away.

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There is so much in life we don’t understand, can’t control, refuse to accept.

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Like death with dignity.

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What does that even mean?

Having watched my mother disappear into the unrelenting ravages of a progressive brain disease, in the end able only to blink and flutter a helpless hand; having held my son’s cold arm, unable to look one last time at his sweet face, wrecked by the accident and covered in a shroud; and now, having ears assaulted by my father’s confused shouts to openthedoor, helpme, ICANTBREATHE as he twisted in pain on a hospital bed – having seen too close the carnage death delivers, I am unable to accept such a concept.

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There is nothing dignified about death – nor should there be.

Death is an assault, an affront. It is the thief that comes only to steal and kill and destroy (John 10:10a): our sworn enemy, relentless and heartless and heedless of rank, station, or affection.

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We were not created to die, however, but to live. And not just to eke out some weary actuality until we limp, defeated, to a dark earthen hole.

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No.

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Though the enemy’s scheme is murder and mayhem, Jesus has come that we may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10b).

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When my brother called me about my dad’s fall and subsequent hospitalization, I had just finished a 2 1/2 day, 7-peak traverse in the woods that I love. Fall and winter – color, light and mood – had been wrestling at altitude. The contrast between bare granite dry and icy struggle was a wonder.

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The same seemed true when I arrived to see my father. Though the room was sheathed in harsh light and antiseptic, though all appeared colorless and sterile and bleak, a battle raged.

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My dad was a fighter.

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Sadly, he was no stranger to a hospital bed since his Lewy Body Dementia inflicted indignity after indignity upon his weakening frame: multiple falls, confusion, respiratory distress, hallucinations. This last crusade was no different.

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Despite a head riddled with stitches and a chestful of 12 broken ribs, my dad fought to breathe, to speak, to hold my hand, to eat a donut even, which turned out to be his last and final meal.

As his life slipped away into the fog of the morphine drip, pain and earth fading, he advanced steadily forward through enemy lines to his final destination.

The Lord is your Shepherd, Daddy, I whispered in the stillness.

You don’t need to fear – He’s readied your seat at the table.

Here he is – anointing your poor, broken head with oil, filling your cup to the brim, surrounding you with love and mercy, and there’s nothing our sworn enemy can do about it.

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You have just begun to live.

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As we waited for the medical examiner to arrive, I thought of the peaks I had climbed – could it be? – just days before.

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Why did it seem that the ones most difficult to scale – the ones remote, icy-trailed, muddy-puddled, requiring knee-deep crossings of rapid rivers – why did these mountains end in nothing but a viewless, scrabbly pile of rocks in a clearing?

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I thought of those cairns as my brother, my daughter and I watched my father die, one thread of family unraveling as the man who held us all together – faithful father, loving spouse, patient Papa – finished his earthly race.

May we always keep the faith, fight the good fight, until the time of our departure is near (2 Timothy 4:6,7).

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Heaven is not a cairn in the woods, arrived at after long struggle and stumble and frustration.

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Heaven is not even a treeless summit above the clouds, grand and expansive, exquisite and rare.

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No.

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Heaven is so much better, like no other place we have known. Heaven is where the enemy cannot follow, where we may run and climb and breathe and love unencumbered by the weight of failure and fragility and pain.

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Heaven is life and life forever, had to the full. 

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I walked outside, and it was just like God to leave me a note in His compassionate hand.

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I wasn’t surprised.

An Unexpected Parade

I wasn’t expecting to be in a parade today.

In fact, I was only trying to donate some old clothes to Savers, but that is not how things turned out.

Sometimes we welcome the unexpected; sometimes we decidedly do not. I’ve found, however, that there is always something to be gained when life surprises us.

Always.

This morning, I left church at the usual time, that is, when it was over: I needed to get rid of some clothing and shoes the lads no longer needed, so I headed over to the mall, fully anticipating to ditch and drive.

I had a house to clean, a lawn to mow, and I wasn’t about to be sucked into the vortex of exchange: dropping one of bag of things only to shop for another.

When my boys were little and we lived on the Upper Peninsula, we had a tradition every summer of driving down to St. Ignace to attend an antique-and-tricked-out car parade.

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I think I loved it as much as they, all those shiny machines meticulously, lovingly restored. We would sit on the curb and eat ice cream and watch them glide by, content in the simplicity of the moment.

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Later, whenever we would see a similar car out on the high-and-byways, one of us would yell “Parade car!” and all would try to grab a glimpse before it hurtled past. Sometimes, stuck in a car seat, a boy would miss it, and I don’t know who felt worse, him or me.

To this day, my youngest can point out a Bentley or an Audi-aught-whatever or a turbo-charged something-or-other in a lane of traffic going the opposite direction at 70 miles an hour. He’s an auto-savant, and no number of Top Gear episodes watched with him can catch me up to his skill.

I do still appreciate a good parade car, though, and so was pleasantly surprised when, turning the last corner to Savers, I saw a whole parking lot full of them, including my favorite, the Mustang convertible 1964 1/2.

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Gawking, I obeyed the waving policeman and drove through the intersection worried what it might mean for my mission. It became clear soon enough.

Lining the mall road on both sides were families much like my own way-back-when, waiting for the special cars to parade past. They blocked the entrance to the drop-off for Savers two layers thick, and I didn’t have the heart to elbow through and make those little ones lose their coveted spots.

To my surprise, as I continued to drive down this lane of fans fully intending to get out of there before the mayhem truly began, they began to cheer – to wave – to stand and applaud.

I was confused.

Surely a small black Jeep with 100,000+ miles and covered in a thick veneer of New Hampshire dust didn’t deserve such accolades.

And indeed it was so: I looked in the rearview, and saw a man bedecked in an American flag onesie astride a Harley with ape-hanger handlebars positioned to start the parade.

Ohhhhhh.

They weren’t cheering for me; they only wanted the parade to start. It’s what they came for, what they were expecting. And I certainly couldn’t blame them: when you sit all morning out on the hot asphalt waiting to see a 1947 Studebaker, a 2016 Jeep just doesn’t cut it.

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I gave onesie man – and the crowd – a big wave and headed home with two big bags of unwanted apparel still sitting in my perfectly ordinary, non-parade-able car.

I hadn’t thought of those St. Ignace parades and the little-ness of my boys in quite some time.

Two of them are men now; one is gone. Their sister is about to make me a grandmother, and I’m both so-ready and not-so-ready for that marvelous miracle.

Briefly being in that parade was a gift, totally unexpected, one that brought me to tears as I considered its weight.

I am blessed with children. I love them ferociously, unwaveringly.

I seek, if not to love, at least to understand, what they love and join them in their loving. Their little-love of parade cars moves me today as much as it did back then, as much as their first-loves and adult-dreams continue to keep me on my knees.

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We are caught in the middle.

I wasn’t expecting to lose a son, or his father, or all the things that one loses when one lives a long-enough life.

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And yet, the hope that remains tethers us to the crazy impossibility of God’s promise: to be together, again, for all of eternity, ten-thousand-upon-ten-thousands of years – life, life, and more life, forever and ever with a perspective that sees what we cannot see now.

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Hallelujah.

 

 

 

 

 

On Borders

The Princess reminded me recently that she has always lived in a state that borders Canada: Maine, Michigan, New York and now the beautiful Northeast Kingdom.

This week, she and her hubs took me across the border to the tiny town of Stanstead, where we walked through quiet neighborhoods admiring the stony architecture and manicured lawns.

Of course there was a rink.

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Everything was so orderly, including the street we drove down later which had Vermont homes on one side and Quebec maisons on the other. No one seemed concerned that two countries were literally sharing the same asphalt, telephone poles, and drainage ditches.

Crossing back and forth between Canada and the U.S. was peaceful and calm, cars lined up in the queue patiently waiting their turn, people politely answering the Custom Agents’ questions, passports methodically reviewed and found sufficient.

It got me thinking about borders.

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Borders are everywhere.

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Borders are necessary.

Sheep need fences or they will wander off and be torn apart by wolves. Worse, one errant sheep can cause the demise of a whole flock as lamb after clueless lamb follow the leader to their doom.

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Staying within a given border is critical for a society to function.

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Speed limits, postal codes, environmental regulations – these all exist to keep us and those around us safe.

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Sadly, our family knows all too well what happens when you go outside the lines.

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If indeed good fences make good neighbors, as Robert Frost observed, why do we fight so hard to bash against them, try to hurtle over them, tear and slash at their protection?

It seems as if all we do these days is push against each other’s borders demanding that the other side either join us over here or stay over there and leave us alone.

I’m not sure when everything became so complicated.

When I was little, I loved to wander in the woods, adopt stray kittens from the farmer’s hayloft up the street, wrestle and run and raise a ruckus.

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I wanted to be a boy, but when I told my mother this, she simply said, “You don’t have a penis. You cannot be a boy.”

Sometimes the greatest kindness is a no.

I went on to discover that I could be a tomboy and a girly girl, all because my wise mother set for me a border of common sense. By affirming who I truly was, she gave me the freedom to explore all of the complicated me-ness that wanted to be known.

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As an athlete, I am concerned that one day, women like my daughter will not be able to qualify for the Boston Marathon because borders were erased and we could not get them back.

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We need borders.

God Himself gave us borders, 10 rules for living that, when followed, make for a happy and well-balanced life. 

Recently, I have been praying a dangerous prayer.

Fatigue, self-pity, and indifference had worn me thin, and I wanted to get back to a place where walking with God was my highest priority.

So I prayed: Create in me a clean heart, O Lord, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)

Be careful what you wish for.

Did God send me ease, a pat on the back?

Nope.

Things actually got tougher, which made me press into Him deeper, which caused me to see myself clearer, which made me want to cringe and cry.

Jesus called this the plank in your own eye (Matthew 7:3), and mine was the size of a redwood. I wanted to point my finger at that person or this situation, to blame something or someone outside of myself for my own wretched faults.

But here’s the thing: God, the author of perfect borders, did not leave me where I was; He, the Shepherd, led, and I, the reluctant sheep, followed Him back to inside the fence where there truly was good grass and freshclear water.

I am reminded that God is a loving Father who wants to keep us and those around us safe.

He’s not surprised when we push against His boundaries, but He is firm.

He is willing to teach if we are willing to learn.