On Perspective

A few weeks ago, I had planned to “Grid out” July – to finish climbing all 48 peaks in New Hampshire over 4,000 feet in that month.

So far, the only two other months I have finished in my attempt to hike all 48, every month, were June and August; I was looking forward to having three full months in a row checked off.

Time for new shoes

The last hike on my list included a 20-mile out-back hitting five peaks (Zealand, Guyot, West Bond, Bond, and Bondcliff); three of these humps I would have to hike twice (out; then back), one of which was not even an “official” Appalachian Mountain Club 4,000 footer. Mount Guyot’s sin? Choosing to stand less than 200 feet from its official neighbor. Cheeky peak.

July had been an unusually stormy month up in God’s country, limiting my opportunities.

Also, working a summer school left me little time to execute a longer hike, so as July waned, I had my eye on either the 30th (lightning and rain predicted) or the 31st (high winds). Since much of the trek is above treeline, I opted for getting blown over as opposed to electrocuted.

The way up to Zealand from Zealand Road is one of my favorite stretches of trail in the Whites. Elevation gain is so subtle you barely feel that you’re climbing, and water abounds: rivers, streams, marshes, ponds.

With such a gentle invitation, you’re not offended when slammed by the profile up to and beyond Zealand Falls Hut.

Once up high, the ridge walk is delicious: shady and cool, bog-bridgy comfort with tons of views.

Soon, you meet the short side trail to Zealand.

Someone had been there before me, so I didn’t linger.

Next, it was up and over Guyot and on to the Bonds.

The winds felt windier than predicted, but luckily the views were viewier up there. Hikers struggled to stay upright, often crouching or sitting down during stronger blasts. My hat was blown off my head and an inner debate ensued: stay off the fragile alpine plants or Leave No Trace? LNT won out, and I found myself wading through blueberries as I nibbled my way over to where my hat was stuck.

I took a break on the way back at an overlook where, years before, my youngest son and I had celebrated his 11th birthday with a similar hike and overnight.

All in all, it was a brilliant day. I couldn’t wait to get home to add the dates to my Grid doc.

Let it be said that this is a busy doc, particularly center-page, with the mountains in rows across and the months in columns above. It’s a, well, Grid – and making sure one has the correct peak, written in the correct month, in the correct format (2-digit day, comma, apostrophe, 2-digit month) is important. In June, I had made a mistake and written some peaks in the July column, but I didn’t have white-out at the time, and corrected the mistake later.

Weeks went by, I hiked Zealand and the Bonds on the last July day of 2021, and was ready to see those three fat months all checked off.

As I was adding the days’ peaks, I noticed with horror that I had written down the Twins twice on the same day and year. WHAT-???

Quickly checking my workout calendar, I confirmed what I already knew: I hadn’t hiked the Twins in July, this year or ANY year. They had been part of that mistake last month, but I had neglected to white them out. Distraught, I quickly crossed them out in pen, not caring how it messied up the document.

July was over.

I’d have to wait a whole another year to Grid it out – possibly two, since I’ve been planning a Camino de Santiago hike that Covid keeps interrupting, and I was hoping to be in Spain next summer.

Adding insult to injury, for a few extra miles, I could have added the Twins to my hike that day. They could have been satisfyingly my 399th and 400th peaks.

UGH.

I suppose I could have remained there in my disappointment and frustration, keen on my inability to fix an unfixable situation.

But lately, and with great surprise to myself, I’ve been trying to invite God into those vexations, big and small, that litter the road of our days.

How else can I see this, God?

Instead of obsessing over two lost peaks or two lost years, I felt a nudge back toward the simple reason why I started The Grid in the first place: I like to hike.

And having more peaks to hike – 178 to be precise – isn’t that a good thing? And doesn’t that also take the pressure off forcing myself to finish the hikes I still have left in the winter months?

I could be more selective. Safer.

I could even do peaks I’ve already checked off, like Moosilauke in the rain with actual company.

Or Mt. Cardigan – it’s not even on the list!

Like blueberries on the way to retrieving my hat, I’m learning how to find beauty in the hard.

I think it pleases Him when we can trust that His perspective is best; there have certainly been some big trusts He’s asked of me, when I couldn’t see what He could see.

This past weekend, we finally put my son’s ashes in the ground. They’ve been moving around with us, tucked away in an urn, for the past five years.

It was time to give him a permanent place, pretty and calm, surrounded by flowers and trees and grass.

But here’s the thing.

His short happy life did not end in that hole in the earth.

No.

As we stood quietly saying good-bye, I was reminded of something the great preacher and evangelist D.L. Moody wrote in his autobiography, and it is as true for Moody as it is for my son:

Some day you will read in the papers that D. L. Moody, of East Northfield, is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it! At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now. I shall have gone up higher, that is all; out of this old clay tenement into a house that is immortal—a body that death cannot touch; that sin cannot taint; a body fashioned like unto His glorious body.

Would that our perspective be ever that simple.

It’s only a matter of trust.

Halfway

Sometime back in May, I passed the halfway mark of The Grid.

So much has been happening over the past month that this milestone came and went without my noticing.

Other milestones distracted me, good ones and rough.

A college graduation of sorts, to start. Despite a miscalculation in credits, a canceled hockey season, and classes over Zoom, the oldest earth-boy finished his educational journey and is off to the Big Apple to chase dreams.

In lieu of a march across the stage – there wasn’t one – frowny face – he and I walk the campus visiting old haunts and marveling at the time in-between. Four years ago, his convocation was also a bust when we had to rush him out of the line to the hospital, deep in abdominal distress. The absence of pomp on either end seems meet somehow.

Later, I’m weepy driving his stuff to New York.

I’m not sure I can handle another departure.

Back at the ranch, his brother, more gifted, shall we say, in the organizational arts, redecorates their room. I suppose a new area rug can say I miss you as much as a hug.

Then there’s the other boy.

Five years is a long time, but we are blessed by the full funding of his scholarship. The radical generosity of friends somehow makes this milestone more bearable.

The final push is actually a party where I eat too little and drink too much (Jesus. Take. The. Wheel.), but the joy of seeing his myriad friends and hearing how they are living their beautiful lives enthralls. Maskless and giddy, I toast and tear with those who knew him well.

Then there’s the littlest one.

So like her mother in sass and smarts, her milestones race by between visits and I can’t keep up.

And somehow, in the midst of it all, the season changed.

576 is a lot of peaks.

Month by month and year by year, I’ve been chipping away at them, faithfully filling in the form, until, somehow, unacknowledged, the midway comes and goes.

In many ways, The Grid has saved me.

It’s the place I go where I can always depend on God showing up.

He’s everywhere, of course, but sometimes just more everywhere than most.

Sometimes He’s veiled and sometimes on full display, but He’s never, ever not there. It’s easy to lose oneself in all His showy splendor.

Halfway in The Grid is 288 4,000 footers.

It’s meant hiking in negative degrees, rain, wind, fog, bugs, and heat.

It means planning routes, nutrition, hydration, footwear, and gear.

It means checking trip reports, weather updates, forest road closures, parking lot conditions, and water levels.

It means leaving my itinerary with the kids because I mostly hike alone. Texts from trailhead, summit, trailhead, and home are what have kept me safe; or, if not safe, at least findable, should that become necessary.

I don’t take stupid chances because there are some milestones you just don’t need to rush. Mistakes are part of the process, but I mitigate as best I can.

I want to make it to 576.

The thing is, we may not know when we are halfway to something.

It’s easy to forget when you’re in the thick of something craggy that you could be halfway through it – or even a wisp away from the terminus.

But He knows.

And that’s enough for me.

The Pearl of Great Price

I often marvel at how events that seem so heavy at the time are sometimes just a gentle tool in the hand of God.

This was a rough week at the end of a trying academic year. Staying open was so good for our boys, and I’m truly thankful, but it’s come at a cost. There’s a collective exhaustion, a heightened reactivity, a general frustration at the very protocols that have gifted us safety. Living together on a closed campus as we do, it’s not easy to hide our vulnerabilities.

Things take on added weight.

Immersed as I was in the hard, I wasn’t thinking about my son’s next birthday, his would-be-27th.

He’s everywhere, of course; I can’t walk down the hall without seeing him.

Little him and big him, smiling him and still him.

It was estimated that there were 600 people at my son’s memorial service.

Maybe you were one of them.

I’ve taken to praying for the 600 every morning. They are precious to me, like the pearl of great price:

Later that day, Jesus left the house and sat by the lakeshore to teach the people. He taught them many things by using stories, parables to illustrate spiritual truths, saying:

Heaven’s kingdom realm is like a jewel merchant in search of rare pearls. When he discovered one very precious and exquisite pearl, he immediately gave up all he had in exchange for it. Matthew 13

I cannot say for sure, but perhaps that’s the exchange.

A marvel.

When You Pass Through the Waters

Embrace the Unexpected

I didn’t expect to find myself once again this March huddled in a tent on the Florida Trail, listening to big-somethings crashing through the night on the other side, but, once again, Covid interrupts in ways none of us foresee.

When the virus hits our school, opening a brief window of opportunity, I do some counting. Are there days enough to drive 1,400 miles, hike a 160-mile section, then drive 1,400 miles back? Enough to quarantine for 2 weeks before I must return to work?

Perhaps.

If I walk fast enough.

Swamps

Walking fast was not a problem on the previous two sections I had hiked in 2019 and 2020. The trail between the northern terminus at Fort Pickens National Seashore and Blountstown was sandy, dry, and gloriously, ludicrously flat. One only slowed to marvel at a cypress knee or the surprise greening of a freshly sooted controlled burn.

I had heard of the soggy sections south of Blountstown – the Bradwell Bay Wilderness, Apalachicola, the Aucilla Sinks – but had no frame of reference to comprehend the magnitude of what was ahead.

It wasn’t until the end of my first half day of dirt-road-walking, where even the swamp dwellers seemed happy and dry, that I realized my miscalculation.

To be fair, Florida had been experiencing a heavy load of rain over the weeks previous, so perhaps the swamps might have been, in other years, merely ankle deep.

Or perhaps the trail sections now ankle-deep in mud might have been, in other years, just a thin patina.

No matter. The trail is what the trail is on the day you choose to hike it, so hike it as it is you must.

I suppose I should be grateful for that first half day of dry; it marked the end of dry-anything for the rest of the week.

When I came to end of that first half day, it had gotten dark and I was navigating by headlamp and Guthook. The app told me that I was .1 from the tent sight I had been shooting for, but the trail ahead disappeared into a vast expanse of murky water. I shone my beam as far as I could, but there was no way to tell how far the water stretched, nor how deep it was. One thing was certain: I was not going to try to find out that night.

Unpacking my stuff and setting up my tent right on the trail, I wondered if any other hikers might happen by. Though unlikely, I thought they could walk around. Nothing to see here – just a deep dark swamp with suspicious splashing. As you were.

Turns out this was just the first in an endless cascade of varying types of water features through which the trail slopped.

There were the sinks – eroded craters set in limestone where the Aucilla River flowed, disappearing underneath your very feet only to reappear a half mile up ahead in a different hole.

There were deep gullies v’ed with water, steeply banked on either side; in one attempt to leap across, I miscalculate and am shredded by a nasty saw palmetto.

There were levees, spillways, streams, flooded jeep tracks, the ever present swamps, rain, and even the St. Mary’s River, where hikers have to call a marina on the other side to be shuttled across.

It was no use trying to stay dry.

If the miles were to be hiked, there was only through. At times, my battered feet even enjoyed the soothing wet, though every morning was a struggle to wedge them back into cold, sandy shoes.

Later, when I get home, it takes multiple soaks before I trust my socks to the washer.

They’ll never be the same.

Community

This year, I am fortunate to run into a few thru-hikers and even hike some miles with them.

The Florida Trail is not one of the more popular of America’s long distance trails (see previous section), but it seems to be gaining in stature, particularly during Covid, when other types of travel are restricted.

It is impossible to stay on pace with them – they’ve hiked over 750 miles and I’m just out for the week – though I spend one morning chatting companionably with two young guns who, when they hear what I do for a living, ask, “Do they know their teacher is a bada**?”

Warm fuzzies.

Of course, I could not have completed this section without the help of some amazingly generous friends and trail angels. Wilton, who supports hikers through the Altha Hillcrest Baptist Church, drives me the 160 miles to my starting point and keeps an eye on my car for the week. Talking theology with him is always a treat.

I meet Mr. Tom at Porter Lake Campsite after I mistakenly bushwack a two mile section that apparently had been closed due to a property owner dispute.

I’m in an grumpy mood, scratched and bloody from the fight, but he offers me an orange. I put it in my pack, where, like a pearl, it shimmers all day, the thought of it enticing me forward. I eat it as a reward, later, for dinner.

Steps, a thru hiker I meet last year, offers to walk the longest swamp with me, but I elect instead to do the high water bypass. When you have to pull yourself across the first water crossing in a boat on a rope, perhaps it’s just not the year to attempt Bradwell Bay. Walking Fire Road 329 instead, I see a truck bumping up the track and out he hops with a cold Gatorade and a Subway sandwich. We catch up in the shade, talking trail and hikers we know.

No trip to Florida would be complete without visiting with my friend Nancy, who helps hikers on the Panhandle. I’m down to dregs in both food and water, ready to be back in civilization.

After 10 miles of marshy Apalachicola and another 7 of road walk, I’m so blessed to have her take my pack so I can finish the last 8 miles into Blountstown, thus connecting the dots from where I left off last year.

Frisky as a calf, I run the first 4.

Riding together back to my car, I am happy to share my last miles with Nancy. As with the trail, gap and distance make reunion all the sweeter.

When You Pass Through the Waters

Hiking the Florida Trail this year was a surprise treat; despite the challenges, I am grateful that the timing worked out.

I got to see my first alligator.

It’s close enough yet far enough away, if you know what I mean.

And perhaps because it was cool and rainy much of the week, the only snake I see is on a paved path.

A tentative poke to the tip of his tail confirms what I suspected: this fellow wasn’t going to bite anyone ever again.

Safe at home again, I realize that the prayer my besty gave me for this section has worked. I had whispered it under my breath, pleaded it through clenched teeth, sang it when my feet were finally firm beneath me:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
    I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
    they will not sweep over you. Isaiah 43:1-2

I was in the woods last March when Covid hit. The year ahead was a dark swamp, and we, unable to peer through to what lay on the other side, had to stop, hunker down, wait.

There were no maps we could rely on – only the One who sees the end from the beginning and is with us in the waters.

So we walk on, confident that we will see the other side.

Most Noble Mouse

I caught a most noble mouse the other day in a sticky-trap hidden under the radiator in my kitchen.

He reminded me of Reepicheep – the most valiant of all the Talking Beasts of Narnia, and the Chief Mouse…[who had] won undying glory in the Second Battle of Beruna (C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).

This mouse, my mouse, back legs immobilized by the pad, had managed to drag himself and trap by his forepaws across the expanse of the kitchen. When I turned the light on that morning, he lifted up his tiny whiskered face and met my gaze with courageous defiance. He continued to struggle and squirm even as I carried him to the bathroom and, with some regret, tried to plunge him into a watery grave.

It didn’t end there.

Dark-eyed with fury, Mr. Mighty Mouse pawed and paddled to keep his snout afloat until, unable to take it anymore, I was forced to press him under with the butt of a candle. This battle left me disquieted, sad.

What price to pay for a pellet-free stovetop, a counter unsullied by mousy feet.

And yet, a lesson for us (for me, if I’m being honest here) in this time and season, this year of horrors and setbacks and pains. Has there ever been a time in recent history when not a one of us cannot claim some loss? To feel as if no matter how hard we grapple, we cannot free our legs from the snare, cannot run or breathe or swim?

It would be all-too-easy to allow ourselves to spiral into discouragement, anger, or blame. To not see this season as only that – a season, which, like others before it, will pass away.

King Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes: To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven…a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.

Tempting though it would be to assume the laughing-dancing-time will never come, are we not now in the perfect season to remember that other season, 2,000 years ago, when God, silent for half a millenia, determined that the fullness of time had come?

When startled shepherds quailed as glory descended humbly wrapped in a chubby-cheeked Kinsman-Redeemer?

All throughout the Old Testament, the message had resounded: The King is coming!

And all throughout the New, the Promise echoes: The King is coming!

The verb tense reflects an already-not yet-always. For a God who calls Himself I AM, it makes sense: I was. Now I am. Forever I will be.

This is really, really good news. We are not bound by time, because he is not bound by time. Yes, there are seasons that come and go, but the span, the measure of God’s kingdom will always be.

From the Old Testament, Jesus proclaimed through Isaiah : Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?

From the New, Jesus announces his arrival in that same prophet’s words, adding: Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.

God promised a Savior: He came. God promises a return: we wait.

Is He coming soon? Not even He knows, only the Father.

Today, however, right now, our season is changing. Past-dwelling should not be our practice.

To dwell means to think on, speak, or write at length on a particular subject, especially one that is a source of unhappiness, anxiety or dissatisfaction. For many, this describes 2020 perfectly; for me, perhaps all of the last decade. But going there – remembering past pains, rehearsing wrongs, thinking up pithy retorts for old stings – what good is that? It only serves to anchor us in the long-wheeled ruts of regret and betrayal and shame.

The new-springing-thing is on its way! His kingdom is steadily advancing, taking ground, preparing for His return.

Reepicheep felt this as the Dawn Treader was pulled along in the current of Aslan’s eternal purpose.

Lewis writes: No one in that boat doubted that they were seeing beyond the End of the World.

“This,” said Reepicheep, “is where I go on alone.” …he bade them good-bye for their sakes; but he was quivering with happinessmy belief is that he came safe to Aslan’s country and is alive there to this day.

Reepicheep, noble mouse, does not die when his coracle vanishes into the waves. Nor will we, if we look to the One, born for a season, who opened the way for us, for our own eternal season that never ends.

Until then, we keep dragging that trap across the floor, keep looking defiantly into the face of our giant. Struggle. Swim.

The end is not the end; it is only the most glorious of beginnings.

My prayer for all of us this season is this:

Now may God, the inspiration and fountain of hope, fill you to overflowing with uncontainable joy and perfect peace as you trust in him. And may the power of the Holy Spirit continually surround your life with his super-abundance until you radiate with hope! (Romans 15:13)

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.