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.

On Other-ness

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say.

Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.

~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 ~The following is taken from part of an chapel address I gave at my school last week. Other information has been added since then. The opinions contained are entirely my own. ~

Have you ever felt like the only one?

The only child at a table of adults? The only kid who didn’t have the popular shoes?  The lone conservative in the family? The only person who didn’t get the joke?

Have you ever felt like the only one?

Did it make you feel different? Strange? Uncomfortable? Left out? Other than?

Did you perhaps wish that if only – if only they could see me, know me, hear me – then they would understand?

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This past week, we honored the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

At times, I feel that Dr. King’s message of hope, love and justice is needed more today than back when he first began fighting the good fight. 

In an age where a few unverified clicks on social media can ruin a person’s reputation; when a difference of opinion is grounds for the termination of a friendship or a job; where civility seems like an antiquated notion and offense seems to be our first response – yes, in this present age, it seems that what we truly need is a double dose of Dr. King.

Rooting out injustice in all its insidious forms seems like it should be such a simple thing. We all have hearts and souls, desires and dreams, the will to learn and try and plan and do. We all have the capacity to see one another, in all of our other-ness.

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But if we have learned anything from the Holocaust and the myriad slaughter of innocents before and since, is that all it takes for injustice to advance is passivity.

There can be no spectators in the race for human rights.

It seems especially apt that on the brink of full blown war between Syria, Iran, and the nation of Israel, when missiles could be striking targets across the Middle East even as you read these words, that we take King’s words to heart.

He once observed, “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles but misguided men.”

I would add “…and women.”

We hear an awful lot about tolerance these days, and to be honest, it almost seems like the ones screaming the loudest are the least willing to see the other side. Perhaps, as my headmaster suggested last week, tolerance should not be our goal.

Was it not a twisted form of tolerance that led to the extermination of 6 million Jews, the proliferation of slavery, the shameful internment of Japanese Americans, even cyber-bullying?

And what of the 60 million babies slaughtered in the womb since 1973?  Or New York, who has now decided that killing a full term human person minutes from delivery is a reason to celebrate?

Monstrous. 

I weep for the babies who were never allowed to draw a breath and I weep for their precious mommies who thought that they had no other choice.

No, we must NOT tolerate these and any other forms of evil or hatred, but seek instead to eradicate them from our body. Standing passively by is NOT an option.

We must not, as the apostle Paul once wrote, be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

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But to do that, we must also understand. To recognize that EACH of us is the ONLY one.

I believe that we live in a society where we can not only see but live the manifestation of Dr. King’s iconic dream. Every day, I break bread with boys from China and Mexico and Korea and Japan, from uptown and downtown and north and east and south and west.

We see each other and love each other as we are, for all of our differences. 

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The faces before me reflect the manifold diversity and creative beauty of God’s tender hand, and I am grateful that there is no discrimination in His kingdom; His unconditional love is free to all nations, all tribes, all tongues.

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I pray that God would help us to love as Jesus loves.  To give us courage to ferret out evil and injustice, to tear each insidious occurence out by its very roots until no remnant remains.  

I pray that we might steward our blessings well, that we may be a blessing to those who are poor, or marginalized, or forgotten.

I ask Him to help us to be gentle, humble, and unoffendable in our patience with each other.

And I pray that someday, soon, we will be joined together in perfect unity – one heart, one passion, one harmonious purpose – and that love would be the true mark of our maturity.  

On Day One

2019: The Year, if it is anything like 2019: Day One, has the potential to blow expectations out of the water.

The night before, celebrating New Year’s Eve with colleagues I am also blessed to call friends, the hosts dropped a cascade of balloons onto a bevy of squealing, twirling children at midnight-is-really-8 o’clock, so I was home in bed by 9:30. Perfect for an introvert like me, easily fatigued by conversation and social situations.

Waking up to snow always makes me happy, like memories of school closings scrolling across the bottom of a TV screen, hours of expectant potential right outside the front door. I was already imagining the sugar-dusted boughs overhead on the hike that was only a short drive away.

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A rainbow!

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No way this day could be sealed with anything more prophetic. Capturing it while driving on the backroads of New Hampshire was a bonus.

It seemed fit to tackle timid 4,003′ Tecumseh as my first hike of the year, my first winter 4,000 footer, and the maiden voyage of the snowshoes I gave myself for Christmas.

Tecumseh, although least-by-height in the clan of the 48 New Hampshire 4,000 footers, is steep enough to call a work-out and a worthy proving ground for figuring out how to walk with clown shoes attached to my legs.

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The Princess and her hubby were gracious as I tripped and apologized up the trickier parts and even agreed to a summit selfie.

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The predicted 50-70 mph winds picked up as we headed down, but most of Tecumseh is protected by a wooded barrier of hearty pines, so aside from a brief moment at the top, none of us minded the cold.

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I didn’t even mind, back at the car, discovering the shredded hems of my rain pants, evidence of an embryonic spacial awareness between where shins ended and sharp claws of snowshoes began. Oh well – I needed a new pair anyway.

An exit on the ride home took me by the boy’s bench, so I stopped by to say hello.

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Anna had left a wreath, and once again my heart swelled with thanks for the friends my son made while he was still here with us.

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Do you know how much they loved you, silly boy? 

Not much snow on the driveway and stairs when we arrived home, tired. Nothing that a quick shovel and a nap couldn’t fix.

Later, under winking lights, I eat dinner cooked not-by-me and watch some football with the fam.

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2019, I have high hopes for you.

Given the carnage of past years, the lightness I feel on Day One seems miraculous.

Perhaps this will be the year that God does exceedingly abundantly more than I can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).

Actually, it seems as if He already has.

 

 

 

On Light

Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. ~Genesis 1:3-4

The darkness of the whole world cannot swallow the glowing of a candle. ~Robert Altinger

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It was Hanukkah this past week – the Festival of Lights –  and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about light.

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The other morning, I went out for a run. It was still pretty early, cold and dark, so I threw on some layers and grabbed some gloves.

A friend of mine gave me this pair of gloves a few years back, and I have to say, they are one of my favorite pieces of athletic gear. They have these powerful LED lights that ride comfortably across your knuckles and, when your hands are swinging out in front of you, perfectly illuminate the road ahead.

Anything that has a duel purpose – in the case of these gloves, warmth and safety – is, in my opinion, a win-win.

This particular morning, I was about a mile out from the Cardigan campus on Back Bay Road, which is completely devoid of streetlights, when there was a noticeable dimming of the pool of light in front of my feet. Too late, I remembered that I hadn’t charged the knuckle lights in a while, and they were rapidly running out.

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I thought about turning around, but, probably like some of you, I’m pretty stubborn once I get going. So, I alternated between the glove lights, keeping only one hand on at a time until they both….. went…. out….

I still had a ways to go to reach campus.

One thing I will say about the forest around Canaan – it’s dark.

Really dark.

My eyes gradually adjusted so that I could just about make out the pavement, but I had to slow way down.

Occasionally, a car would drive by, exploding the whole road around me in a sea of brilliant light. The thing is, though, after the car had passed and I was alone again, it was even harder to see through the blackness.  

My whole being craved that sweet light. At last, the halo-glow of the lamppost at the end of Alumni Drive came into view, and I was home….safe.

I told this story in chapel this past Thursday, as we were celebrating Hanukkah.

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Light often serves as a metaphor for good. In fact, in the Genesis account, light was the very first thing that God made, so I’m thinking it’s pretty important.

We must be careful to steward that light well, however. Too long in the dark – looking at things we ought not to look at, hiding things we ought not to have, treating with incivility, unforgiveness, and blame those we ought to cherish and respect – and our eyes might adjust to this absence of light.

Of course, the opposite is also true. Spend enough time in the light – craving it, hunting it, chasing it with all your might – and the darkness no longer appeals.

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I was speaking to a colleague about the properties of light this past week. Did you know that light is actually a wave? And that light’s wavelengths include a spectrum of 7 different bands, only one of which is the light we can actually see?

Did you know that the speed of light is 300,000 kilometers per second and is the “absolute upper speed of anything in the universe?” But even though it’s so incredibly fast, some galaxies are so far away that their light may take BILLIONS of years to reach us.

How remarkable to think that when we look into a night sky, we are “looking into the past across vast gulfs of time” (Tulane University).        

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Marvelous.      

Mysterious.

I can’t help but think that if one single candle can overpower the darkness, imagine what a whole roomful of them could do.

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It could be as miraculous as the story of Hanukkah itself, when one small vial of oil kept a menorah lit for eight straight days.

Of course, Jesus called Himself the Light of the World.

I wonder if, when he left heaven to enter the portal of the world through the womb of a faithful teenage girl, he did so at the speed of light. It would be just like Him.

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Our marvelous, mysterious Jesus.

May we crave Him, hunt Him, chase Him with all our might this Advent season.

The darkness can’t help but hide when we choose to put on the light-armour of our great, great King.

On Grace

My son sent me a photo this morning.

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We are both early risers, so it was no surprise when a text came in around 6 AM – we’d both been up for a while, he opening up the gym at his school, me spending some time praying in the sweet little chapel at mine.

The thing is, I had been looking out the huge window behind the altar at the gray darking the morning sky when, slowly, streaks of brilliant pink sliced through the gaps in the clouds, winking dawn into being.

It made me all warm and fuzzy inside, knowing my youngest was admiring the same sky, the same sunrise, the same Creator of the same expanse.

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Recently, I’ve been reading about Jacob and Esau.

These two brothers came out of the womb fighting and things went rapidly south when Jacob stole his older brother’s birthright then tricked him out of their father’s blessing.

Eventually, Jacob flees from Esau’s wrath, and the two spend years estranged from one another. But when Jacob finally prepares to meet Esau again, their reunion is nothing at all what he expected.

Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his 400 men…

Jacob must have been terrified, watching his brother advance, hoards of burly herders blocking his way.

So Jacob went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother.

But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him.

And they wept (Genesis 33:1-3, 4).

I almost wept, reading.

Grace.

It reminded me of the story of the Prodigal Son, whose father must have also been looking out upon a vast expanse of world that had swallowed his boy and bound him, captive to his own wretched desires.

Why would anyone want to leave the Father?

But just like Jacob, the son finally realizes that estrangement is tearing him apart. He longs for reconciliation, longs for the warm fuzzy of his father.

So the young son set off for home.

From a long distance away, his father saw him coming, dressed as a beggar, and great compassion swelled up in his heart for his son who was returning home. So the father raced out to meet him. He swept him up in his arms, hugged him dearly, and kissed him over and over with tender love.

Then the son said, “Father, I was wrong. I have sinned against you. I could never deserve to be called your son. Just let me be—”

The father interrupted and said, “Son, you’re home now!” (Luke 15:20-21)

You’re. Home. Now.

Isn’t that what we all want? The embrace of grace that tells us I love you even though, even if, even now. 

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I’m so grateful for grace.

Because we are all Jacobs, all prodigals, all wayward children longing for the pink dawn-touch of the Father, a home in the vast expanse of His love.

 

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On Letting Go

Next week, nearly two years and three months from the day he drove his car into a tree, I will shut off my son’s phone.

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The phone has rested on my bureau, bookshelf, table, or nightstand, in my private home or workplace apartment, all throughout this long season of grief and recovery.

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Though lifeless and inanimate, it has helped me come to terms with the man my son was becoming and has allowed me to connect with him despite his conspicuous absence.

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Finding the phone itself was not an easy thing, those shortlong years ago.

I wanted to know, we, his family, needed to know – what happened? 

Where were you going, my sweet son, and what were you doing? Were you texting or shuffling your music, navigating or calling your friends?

Why?

We received neither phone nor answers when his broken body arrived at the funeral home, not even the clothes he was wearing nor the cross from his neck.

A search was mounted: first, to the fateful tree, and next, to the garage where the wreck had been towed.

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His father and I clung to each other in the hot sun of the parking lot, weeping, as we beheld the crumpled heap, our own brokenness forgotten for a time in our shared sorrow.

No, it wasn’t easy to dig inside the car’s sad interior, littered with glass and dirt and rain, through the bark and bottles and blood, to find the device dangling under the dash at the end of its charging cord.

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Of course, there was a password that had to be cracked. Part of a zip code, our zip code, where we once lived as a family of six.

So. Much. Loss.

We discover that he had not been texting, nor shuffling, nor looking at Waze. A small comfort, I suppose, because it was not the phone that killed him, but ignorance and alcohol and speed and pride.

One of the troopers in charge of my son’s case leads me to the accident report, which to this day I have still not been able to read in full. But there were witnesses who saw: a casual arm out the window, a brush with a traffic cone, a swerving, no seat belt.

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Why?

Too much to drink the night before, distraction, hurrying – home? We will never know in full.

My last texts to him, a day or two before his accident, are chilling. We talk of retrieving his car, newly repaired and inspected, and his hair, freshly cut. Why did I choose that emoji, a head swathed in cloth, when I would not see his face, too damaged by the crash, ever again?

Why did he choose those words?

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I don’t know what to make of this.

What I do know is that God speaks to me through His word, and in the weeks leading up to the crash, everywhere I turned, everywhere, were the promises of Psalm 23.

The Lord is my best friend and my shepherd.

His tracks take me to an oasis of peace.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.

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He was preparing me, I know that now, just as He prepares me now for this next step of letting go.

Another Psalm comforts me today. It speaks of the path before me and the path that was my son’s.

You know every step I will take before my journey even begins. You’ve gone into my future to prepare the way, and in kindness you follow behind me to spare me from the harm of the past. 

You saw who you created me to be before I became me! Before I’d ever seen the light of day, the number of days you planned for me were already recorded in your book. (Psalm 139: 4-5, 16)

Even as I consider that this fall my son would have launched himself officially into adulthood – his college class having graduated this past May – and perhaps we even might have worked here together, at our beloved shared school, side by side, even as I consider this, I know I must continue to let go.

God knew how long Gordie would live, even before he was born, and He knows the length of my days.

What is your only comfort in life and death? the Heidelberg Catechism asks.

From the heights of heaven comes the response, as well now knows my boy.

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I am not my own, but belong, with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.

So I will scroll and listen for the last time, text myself from his device to hear his unique tone on mine one last time, and turn the corner, and wait, and watch: try to fit a life’s worth into the days left on the path ahead.

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Until, of course, we meet again.