Sorrowful, Yet Ever Rejoicing

Another birthday, and I find myself this morning crying at a footnote at the bottom of a page.

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I was reading how the apostle Paul journeyed to Ephesus, a stronghold of paganism and magic arts, bringing Good News, the message of hope and peace.

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When they reached Ephesus, Paul left Priscilla and Aquila behind, then he went into the synagogue and spoke to the Jews. (Acts 18:19)

I looked below:

Ephesus was in the ancient world, a white marble city, one of the most beautiful in the world. It had the temple of Artemis, one of the seven great wonders of that era. It also had two agoras, a beautiful fountain in the city supplied by an aqueduct…a large stadium, and many terraced houses…It was in this backdrop that the apostle Paul and his companions planted the renowned church of Ephesus.

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Why was the description of a now-ruined city making me weep?

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I’m always a bit raw this time of year – wondering about my would-be 25-year-old son.

April, birthday.

May, deathday.

What do you look like now?

What might you have been, here, on earth?

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You were such a beautiful boy.

Trusting, hopeful, full.

Flawed, as are we all.

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How transient are the things of earth.

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Stretching, blooming, dying.

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Falling, freezing, melting.

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Later, I read:

Human beings are frail and temporary, like grass,
    and the glory of man fleeting
    like blossoms of the field.
    The grass dries and withers and the flowers fall off,
 but the Word of the Lord endures forever!
And this is the Word that was announced to you! (1 Peter 1:24,25)

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Do tears fall because that no matter how beautiful things are here – even a gleaming metropolis hewn from marble white, or the sign of a promise in the sky  –  they can never compare to the beauty of your eternal church, your heavenly city, your promised forever?

Paul. Knew. This.

He was beaten, stoned, left for dead, his only crime spreading kingdom seed.

And yet he was still able to say, as I am today:

We may suffer, yet in every season we are always found rejoicing…We seem to have nothing, yet in reality we possess all things. (2 Corinthians 6:10)

There’s still work to do here, of course.

Hard, humble work.

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Forgive the ones who have done us wrong, pray for the sick, practice peace and patience and love.

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Make ourselves ready.

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Soon and very soon.

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Both Sides Now

Ever since my son died, I have had a fascination with clouds.

Or perhaps it started, way back when he was still with us, on a beach in Florida.

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While visiting the Sunshine State, he and his siblings and I had driven to a state park, paid the rather hefty entrance fee, and set up towels on the beach in anticipation of a banner day.

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As these things sometimes go, however, the clouds rolled in and thunder wrecked the sky, until we could no longer deny that a violent storm would soon be upon us. At the last possible minute, we made a run for the van.

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All that trip – the first we had taken together after their dad had left – the clouds seemed to loom, trying to tell us whatever clouds know.

Everywhere we went, there they were.

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Terrible.

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Lovely.

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Years later, at my son’s funeral, his brother spoke about the long drive home from that Florida trip: a precious memory of a time he had felt closest to his brother, sharing stories of loves and dreams and naughtiness as the two of them, awake, navigated the rest of us, sleeping in the back of the van, through the dark night.

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I ran into my son’s old headmaster the other day, at the Hannaford in Plymouth.

When I asked him how he was doing, he happily announced it was his first day in a while without the crutches he had been using after breaking his leg skiing.

He smiled, then paused.

Breaking his leg was inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, he quietly apologized, and I was reminded of why I loved my son’s old school and its kind headmaster so. 

With this small gesture of tenderness, he was saying: I remember. I understand what you might be thinking. I miss him, too.

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I had, that day I saw him, gone north to climb Mt. Tecumseh.

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It was my seventh time atop the 4,000-footer. I am loosely working through “The Grid”: each one of New Hampshire’s 48 special mountains in each calendar month, a task that both overwhelms and thrills. It does, however, give me a reason to get out there, and although it may take decades to finish, it’s a joyful challenge.

There is always certain point on the climb when I look up through the trees and see Tecumseh’s snout, a mile up and away in the distance, and think that I might never make it.

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So.

Far.

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Life seems that way, sometimes: or more accurately, life-after.

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There was a song that used to make me cry back in middle school.

Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell speaks of looking back at things-gone-by and seeing them in a more mature, realistic perspective. It’s a haunting, somewhat tragic song, and I thought of it looking at the Tecumseh clouds.

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The veil is so thin, there, up high.

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In the Book of Revelation, the disciple John has a vision of the sky splitting open and rolling up like a giant scroll.

Behind this, he sees angels, a great white-robed multitude, and even the very throne of the Lamb. (Revelation 6-7)

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Had heaven been there all along? Behind the clouds?

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Is that where it is, now?

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I want to see the other side. 

But like looking toward Tecumseh’s faraway snout, like the Grid, like the steady walk of grief or joy, we can only be where we are, here, between what has been called the “already” and “not-yet.”

What amazes me is not that God promises to bring us, his children, there, but instead to bring heaven down, to us: new, vibrant, bright and pure. (Revelation 21)

So far? 

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When?

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Hours or decades, not even Jesus knows, only the Father. (Matthew 24)

Amen. Come.