On Being Afraid

Part One

This past Tuesday, I had wanted to fulfill a long-time desire to see the Alpine Garden on the flank of Mt. Washington, but 60 MPH winds and a 40% chance of rain left me hiking in another direction.

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I’m starting to learn that blindly bulling ahead with a pre-pictured agenda is not always the best option; rather, by surrendering to the circumstance – accepting what-is and trying to find the good in it – is a much brighter path.

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Still.

Mildly disappointed, I scoured for alternate routes using a road atlas, the only map I had at my “summer house.”  (Ha! This “summer house” is really the only house I own, but it lies mostly vacant during the school year, when I live elsewhere, in a dorm, attempting to instill order to a hallway full of monkeys, I mean, middle school boys.) (Would-be thieves, please note: I’m a teacher. There is nothing of worth in my house, except perhaps the television, which I never watch anyway, so you can have it if you’d like. I sometimes forget to lock the door, so there’s that.)

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I had planned on spending the night before my Tuesday hike sleeping in my car at a trailhead, so I looked for something that would fit that bill. Part of the adventure for me is getting outside early and being first on the trail and part of it is finding a site that’s spooky, but not too spooky, to strengthen my aging courage-muscles.

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The Davis Path in Bartlett looked promising, so reluctantly entrusting the health of my house to the older boy during what would turn out to be a power-killing storm, I headed north in the dark.

Finding the trailhead in a downpour proved tricky, so I pulled into another lot instead, snuggled into some downy fluff, and listened to rain thump the roof.

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Finding the Davis Path was a cinch the next morning, so it was straight up for a few miles to start checking off some of the peaks from New Hampshire’s “52 With a View” list: Crawford, Stairs, and Resolution. I had heard of this list before from a fellow author-friend, Dan don’t-even-try-to-spell-his-last-name.

His book The Adventures of Buffalo and Tough Cookie is a great resource for anyone wanting a scaffolding for potential summer hikes.

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The beauty of this list is, of course, that every peak has a stunning view at the top, usually from open slabs that are expansive and exposed.

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I passed only two people and two dogs all day, and the reflective nature of the mountains was good for my soul. It wasn’t the wild Washington trip I thought I had wanted, but it turned out to be a much better match for my mood.

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Plus, I didn’t die, so that was good.

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Part Two

Another time-window opened up later in the week, and Washington’s forecast was only half as nasty as before.

When the youngest and I hiked the Appalachian Trail some years back, there were many high traverses we did in crazy wind and weather, but there is a difference in having to walk through that stuff and choosing to.

Choosing to this time, with the option to bail if it got too awful, I slept a few miles south of the Tuckerman trailhead in an undisclosed spot (camping and fires are prohibited along Route 16 – but sleeping in one’s car doesn’t count, does it?) and was rewarded with a stunning sunrise.

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There was no one stirring around Pinkham Notch, so I crept on through and up the Rock Pile.

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Maybe it’s just me – I do have a penchant for getting lost – but with all the money the AMC pulls in, you would think they could invest in some more obvious signage. I was pretty sure I was on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, but none of the signs was willing to reassure me that I was.

With all that vertical – 6, 289 feet – I was just looking for a little confirmation.

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Confirmation arrived some two miles later, at the base of the headwall. So I was on Tuckerman Ravine Trail; I just couldn’t stay on it.

Sigh.

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Still lacking a decent map (this time I was using an old novelty bandana – how hard could it be to find the top of New England’s highest mountain, after all?), I headed up the Lion Head Trail into the wind.

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Ruggedly steep and blasted by squalls, Lion Head gave me the shivers.

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One minute the view was clear and unobstructed, the next it was veiled in fog.

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Vestiges of snow clung to the crags.

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Hiking alone is something I both love and hate.

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I love the freedom of going my own pace, listening or not listening to whatever I like, and thinking uninterrupted thoughts.

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I hate being afraid by myself.

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Even though my son was only 10 when we hiked the AT together, he was clever and brave. I could always count on him in a crisis, even when it was one of our own making. Spooky is one thing; stumbling to one’s death alone on a gusty peak is another.

Sometimes I get to a point where it would take more courage to turn around than to keep going, so I stopped taking pictures to focus on my footing and kept climbing up.

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The last .6 was a crawl.

I had forgotten how stark and sharp all those rocks were toward the top, but thankfully the radio antennae soon came into view and I was able to settle down at the summit snack bar with a hot cup of coffee, watching the cog spew smoke and spying on a thru-hiker fussing with his gear the next table over.

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At last, I felt ready to see the Alpine Garden. Somehow, in all that terror, I missed the turn-off, so I had to wind around the back side of the summit on the Nelson Crag Trail to hook up with the Alpine Garden Trail.

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It added a mile to my down, but it was a mild mile, so I didn’t much care.

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I would like to say that I was as excited as the two aunties I met, face buried in their alpine flora identification guide.

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But I was more like their young nephew tag-along, who was counting spiders, playing the lava rock game, and quoting the Lego Batman Movie.

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Don’t get me wrong – it was pretty.

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Just not particularly dangerous.

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And maybe that’s the point: perhaps one comes to Washington to face one’s fears, not look at flowers.

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Either way, I felt blessed to have done both, even though the plan took longer to execute than I had originally foreseen.

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Plus, I didn’t die.

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So that was good.

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On Climbing Cardigan – June

I love yardwork.

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Perhaps it is because I spend nine months at a boarding school where others plant, prune, rake, and thin that I can appreciate the short summer I spend cultivating my own small yard.

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There is something holy about bringing order to tangled spaces, to impose defined upon chaos.

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There is joy in growing grass, especially after such a stubborn winter, but there is also a joy in cutting it back, forcing it to align with our own vision, confining it the the places we ordain.

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In one of my favorite poems, “Pied Beauty,” Gerard Manley Hopkins writes:

Glory be to God for dappled things – 
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; 
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; 
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; 
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough; 
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim… 
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There is something to be said of a topography that is plotted and trim; life is infinitely more messy than that.

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On the way up the Cardigan access road this month, I saw a momma moose galumping into the woods, two frisky toddlers in tow. The little mooselings did as they pleased, butting and rearing behind her, and the look she gave them over heavy shoulder was one I remembered well.

My mother used to have a magnet on her fridge, before she became too frail to access even the lightest foodstuff from its cold interior and had to be fed by others. It decreed, Raising children is like being pecked to death by a chicken.

I’m sure momma moose would agree.

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I know I sometimes do.

I have one boy, a walking crime scene, who leaves a trail of puddle and mess throughout the house, another who needs his meat cut because his one arm is in a sling, and a grown-up girl who has at last discovered that hiking in a desert is hot and could-you-please-send-me-an-umbrella-mom.

We cannot (alas) control our children any more than we can control the constant upping of the grass or the clouding of the sky.

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So how do we do life when it feels like all of our hard efforts are being constantly pecked apart, dismantled, overrun, like a constant sequence of concession-then-compromise: feed the cat, let her out, lose weight, put it back on, open this, delete that.

Health, disease, love, betrayal, vigor, death.

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Perhaps we would like our circumstances to be something more akin to gardening, where we allow that vine to reach only so far but no farther before halting its progress with a precise snip.

Perhaps, instead, we need to look for the pattern in the plot.

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It’s there, just as Hopkins suggests.

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“Pied Beauty” concludes:

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

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Lest I forget, there is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens times to plant and times to uproot, times to be born and times to die, times to weep and times to laugh (Ecclesiastes 3)

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I am entering one of those times, a new season, right now, where all that mourning, tearing, warring, scattering, searching – all of that hard – has only prepared me for the joyful challenge that awaits.

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King Solomon, the wisest man of his time, knew all about this. That no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end; that finding satisfaction in all of our toil is the gift of God; that everything God does will endure forever. 

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God makes everything beautiful in its time.

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He controls the times and the seasons, not me.

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Praise Him!

 

On Climbing Cardigan – May

Memorial Day, and for the second time in a week, I head up to the mountain I love.

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Two years already you’ve been gone.

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What have you missed?

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Your sister ran a 50K, a 50 Miler, and Boston this year. She and hubby are off to hike the PCT in a couple of days.

Jealous.

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Your one brother started college, played some hockey, made future plans.

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The other one committed but needs to fix his two wrecked shoulders, poor guy, so there’s that.

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Your father has another job, another wife.

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Your college class graduated, many of them off to work, missions, or higher degrees.

I hear from them from time to time. They miss you, too.

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And your momma?

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I’m still here, another year older, drinking too much coffee and not running as much as I’d like.

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Two classes of middle school boys have come and gone, and you know what that’s like this time of year: climbing the mountain, singing the hymn, silently weeping a procession of good-bye.

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They’re wonderful and wild and make me laugh.

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It was a hard fight for contentment, but sometimes, I think, the battle actually looks more like surrender. When we stop wrestling and just hold on, perhaps we give Him room to work. That tricky not my will thing.

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I never got a chance to tell you how I used to pray for you while you were down the road at school.

On certain days, I’d feel a pull, that Spirit-nudge, and run the Durham streets, looping tighter to where you slept, blissfully unaware, in your dorm. Around I’d run, prayers pouring from my heart like tears, like blood, as I asked God to pull you, to nudge you, to call you into His destiny and purpose.

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He answered in a way I could never have predicted, but I have come to trust His ways. I believe He is using you even in death – because of it, not in spite of it.

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So I’ll keep climbing, keep looping, keep surrendering.

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Keep looking for you in rock and cloud and sigh.

 

 

 

The Empty Frame

My friend and I went to visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum last month.

On one of the walls of its myriad rooms hung an empty frame.

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The painting it once held was a beauty.

The only seascape ever painted by Rembrandt, this painting depicts Jesus about to still a violent storm on the sea of Galilee.

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The story goes like this.

…when evening came, (Jesus) said to his disciples, “Let us cross over to the other side of the lake.”

Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 

Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Haven’t you learned to trust yet?”

They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:35-40)

If you look closely, you can see that Rembrandt has painted himself into the boat; he is the one in middle, holding onto the line looking out into the storm.

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Sadly, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee was stolen from the museum in 1990.

It is out there, somewhere, even though we cannot see it now.

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Today would have been my oldest son’s 24th birthday.

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24 on the 24th; there must be some significance to that.

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He was a beauty, as well.

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He made us laugh, drove us crazy, always showed up.

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He’s the empty frame that hangs on the wall of my heart.

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I’ve always wondered how Jesus could sleep while all hell was breaking loose around Him. He was the one, after all, that thought it was good idea to sail across a squall-prone lake in the dead of night.

Before I unjustly accuse the disciples of unreasonable panic, however, I must remember the many squalls I have had to sail.

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The times I thought Jesus was asleep, indifferent and aloof.

The times I thought my own boat was going down.

The times I dared to ask, Teacher, don’t you care? 

What a ridiculous question!

While there may be times, in fact many times, when we might feel Jesus is sleeping on the job, the fact is, He scolded the Jewish leaders who were hassling Him for healing on the Sabbath by telling them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” (Mark 5:17)

Jesus knew the right questions to ask.

Why are you so afraid?

Haven’t you learned to trust yet?

This second year since my son’s accident has been harder than the first.

I’m not sure why.

His brother told me the other day that another year simply means we are getting closer to seeing him again.

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I know that, but sometimes, like the frightened disciples, I forget.

I know that my son is out there, like Rembrandt’s painting, somewhere, safe, even though we cannot see him now.

Quiet! Be still!

The One whom the wind and waves obey knows what He is doing.

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I miss you, Baby.

 

 

 

 

On Climbing Cardigan – April

I’m glad I own a Jeep.

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Winter has hung around a tad bit longer than seems fair up here in the Promised Land, so in a if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em epiphany – with more snow falling and all the students off on a surprise adventure – I grabbed a friend and the Jeep and headed over to Cardigan.

The way up was more rut than road; we slid and shimmied our way to the gate, but such is the state of driving on dirt in northern New Hampshire this time of year.

A chance encounter in the mail room with my friend M was serendipitous. I haven’t had a hiking partner since December, so it was lovely to share all that snow and ice with a kindred spirit.

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The low cloud ceiling seemed to magnify rather than diminish range of view; M and I gazed across the endless expanse trying to identify distant peaks and ski slopes by their shapely silhouettes and cardinal points.

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Ice caked the fire tower and guy-lines, a frozen remembrance of the holocaust of rain that blew through a few days before.

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It would be so easy to grouse about this winter that won’t let go.

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It’s snowing. Again. 

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That wind.

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The cold.

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Instead, M and I discuss children, our own and own-by-proxy, marvel at ice tangles, take a summit selfie just to annoy The Princess, and generally solve all the world’s problems.

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It was so much better than grousing.

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When we let joy be our continual feast, make our life a prayer, give thanks in the midst of everything (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) – we are able to see treasure in the what-is rather than fuss over the what-isn’t.

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I’m not saying I have this figured out yet.

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But today was close.

 

 

For Humboldt

I can’t get Humboldt off my mind.

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Dayna Brons, the team’s athletic trainer, became the 16th yesterday to lose her life in this horrific crash.

Her sweet face smiles out from the news screen, forever 25.

I read about Adam Herold, traded to the Broncos only weeks ago, one of the dead, a casualty of inconceivably bad timing. Today would have been his 17th birthday.

Here in New England, we station sticks on front porches, wear our jerseys, donate what we can.

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Dig for meaning in all of the hurt.

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There are no other people’s children writes Ann Voskamp in The Broken Way.

These young men, these boys, are our boys, their families our families, their loss our loss.

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When I woke up yesterday, after yet another night of snow, it was to a campus shrouded in fog.

Rather than grumble about the-April-that-never-was, I went for a run and discovered something extraordinary.

Somehow, where foggy particulate and cold branch converged now grew delicate fibrous ice sculptures, surprising in their juxtaposition.

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I rushed to capture them on my phone as the sun rose higher, gently erasing each shadowy image with its warm-ray kiss.

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The significance of beauty growing out of such apparent barrenness reminded me of my own grief.

The days of shock following my son’s car crash seemed destined to bury me in their forever dead-ness; I never thought I would ever again be able to get out of bed, cook a meal, laugh.

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I grieve with the mothers of Humboldt, my children with the siblings who lost their brothers at that fateful intersection.

For years, my sons and daughter sat on hundreds of busses, traveled to thousands of games, trusted their lives to men and women behind many a fickle wheel.

Two of them still do.

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What does it mean to trust?

IMG_2217I started reading a book about heaven before the Humboldt crash, a voluminous tome of surprising reveals.

I realized that I knew very little about our ultimate home, and much of what I thought I knew did not fit with what Jesus, his disciples, or the prophets have said about it.

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That heaven will be a place of unimaginable joy I was pretty sure I already knew, but not that it will also be a place of explosive creativity, learning, even meaningful, happy work that will bring us great fulfillment.

But the chapter I was really curious about was the one about sports.

Will there be sports in heaven?

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If heaven is a joyful place (and it is), and if sports bring us joy here on earth (indeed, they do), and if God designed our bodies to reflect His glory (that He did), does it not stand to reason that in the place of eternal goodness and camaraderie and delight, there will be endless opportunities to express our athletic imaginations to bring God glory?

Happily, it seems so.

I picture my son, waiting in the runway for the boys of Humboldt, tapping shoulders and cheering and showing them around.

Welcome, boys.

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Let’s go.

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How’s about a little game of shinny?

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And moms?

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You birth-moms and billet-moms?

I know you’re looking out at this heavy new landscape and the fog is thick right now – so thick that it freezes the trust right out of your very soul.

But I promise you.

Someday, one day, you will get out of bed.

Cook a meal.

Even laugh.

You probably feel, as I did, that this is nothing you can ever imagine even wanting; our boys are precious, and we cannot fathom any normal without them.

But slowly, ever slowly, the sun will melt the shadows away and you will look and there will be beauty, tenuously balanced between this world and the next.

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There are no other people’s children.

Your loss is our loss.

 

On Climbing Cardigan – March

Part 1 – Bad Vision

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One of the wonderful perks of teaching at a boarding school, besides the lads themselves, is that said lads must go home from time to time, occasionally for gloriously extended periods, usually a few days after we’ve both hit each others’ last nerve.

Finding myself with a boatload of quiet and too much of March to manage, the weather broke clear on Saturday: a decidedly good day to see what Cardigan looked like after the latest nor’easter.

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I seemed to be the only one not wearing snowshoes, and the reason soon became clear. The trail, though lightly tread, had not caught up with the dumps and flurries of the previous few days and was not packed down.

Walking in microspikes was work.

I had forgotten my contacts at my non-Cardigan residence, so I had decided to wear my old pair of glasses, the wobbly ones held together by packing tape.

Hiking in glasses can sometimes be a challenge, and this day was no different.  The combination of the crisp air and my sweaty forehead fogged the lenses until, weary of taking them off every few minutes to clear away the condensation, I finally gave up and stowed them in my pocket.

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It was as if the world contracted to the small square of real estate around my feet. I could sweat with abandon, stare at the snow under my boots, see only the things I might reach out and touch with a trekking pole.

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I think sometimes it is hard not to see the world this way.

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I know I would like to think that I try to picture what it might be like for another person, their situation, their perspective, but the truth is, my hallowed little halo is home and it’s hard to envision otherwise.

Jesus warned of this danger.

The Pharisees, those ancient goody two-shoes, thought that because they studied and kept the law, their spiritual vision was 20-20. But Jesus saw their pride and selfishness when they could not see it themselves; in fact, He often saved his most scathing words for those who should have known better, but had such trouble seeing.

Hypocrites! Brood of vipers! Whitewashed tombs! Mt. 23:13-37 Mt. 12:33-37

What must they have thought to be called out so publicly?

Jesus exhorts us to love our neighbor as ourselves, Mk. 12:30-31 to bear one another’s burdens. Gal. 6:1-2

This was the story of the Good Samaritan.

Jesus asked the people who had just heard Him tell a story of a man beaten by robbers, ignored by the first two passers-by, then saved by a dreaded Samaritan: “Who was the injured man’s neighbor?”  Of course, all who hear this story now are unable to respond with anything but “The one who had mercy on him.” Lk. 10:25-37

So what was it about the two men who crossed the road to avoid helping the injured man? One was a priest, the other a Levite, religious agents who ought to have known better.

Was it that they could not SEE him as their neighbor?

Was it simply a case of bad vision?

Part 2 – Bad Dog

There were many people on the mountain that day, although honestly I couldn’t see any of them very well.

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After reaching the summit and helping two fellows who had gotten turned around and were heading down the wrong trail, I took photos until my phone froze and started back down myself.

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As I was humming along – downhill is so much easier –  a dog came bounding up the trail.

The man running behind him called out “He’s friendly” just as the canine leapt on me with muddy paws and nipped my arm.

“He just likes to jump,” the man yelled as he ran toward us.

“But I don’t like to be jumped on,” I grumbled, moving aside to let him pass.

Could it be that our singular definitions of “friendly” did not align? It appeared to be so as he glowered at me and huffed up the hill.

But there it was again: another case of bad vision.

Part 3 – Bad Neighbor

Because the snow was so thick on the mountain that morning, one thing I noticed was the contrast in color between the orange blazes and the muted whites and greys of the surrounding world.

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Hard to get lost on a trail marked so clearly.

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And yet, this week I wandered off course and discovered a blind spot in my recent behavior that caused injury to another.

Social media can be a dangerous platform, and I had used it in a way that neither lifted this person’s burden nor demonstrated loving another as myself.

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Repentance sometimes gets a bad rap in today’s feel-good society.

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And yet, I was wrecked by the depth of my own inner bad-neighborly-ness, the utter cold black of my pulpy heart, because here is my confession: I knew what I was doing, but I did it anyway.

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I lied to myself about motive, but really I had acted like a modern day Pharisee, an unmerciful Levite, the owner of a bad dog.

But grace!

Listen to this stunning promise: If we boast that we have no sin, we’re only fooling ourselves and are strangers to the truth. But if we freely admit our sins when his light uncovers them, he will be faithful to forgive us every time. God is just to forgive us our sins because of Christ, and he will continue to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)

I’m here to tell you it’s messy work.

It’s hard to find your way back when you’ve stumbled off the right trail, especially if you try to do it in your own strength.

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Jesus knew this.

When His disciples asked Him to teach them how to pray, He challenged them to ask the Father: Forgive our sins as we ourselves release forgiveness to those who have wronged us. And rescue us every time we face tribulations. (Luke 11:4)

Repentance is just a fancy word that means “to turn around” or “to face a new direction.”

Just like those two men heading down the wrong trail, we can turn around, I can, and get back on track, but we must be willing to offer the same unconditional forgiveness that we ask for ourselves.

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So. Hard.

But I’m thankful for the bright orange signposts of His word, thankful for how it helps us to see, thankful that it’s never too late.

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Another storm is on its way.

There have been so many.

Remove my broken glasses, Father, and help me to see.