On the Things You Miss

Suppose you have a little green-eyed son.

On the night he is born, you walk the streets holding hands with his soon-to-be daddy, through the warm night of an April where the contractions are so kind and easy they are merely breaks in the hushed conversation.

They foretell.

Soon his beauty and charm press your heart-walls until your chest aches. That laugh. Those dancy feet. The way he carries a fallen maple leaf in pudgy toddler hand, blond hair dazzled by the wind of a coming Michigan winter.

He learns to skate. To write. To love. To drive.

You try your best to be his mommy, to guard his ways and warn and trust.

Put on your boots. Finish your carrots. Turn off your light. Text when you get there.

You pray: Father, guide him. Father, save him. Father, protect him.

Please.

What is it about this boy that draws people in? He’s funny without trying, kind without guile, quick to lend or offer or grant or give.

You know his hidden insecurities, the way he hates to try something for the first time, how you must sometimes subtle him into something you know he will like, the faith inside himself too small without yours alongside.

Soon, he is an eaglet, soaring alone. His life is his, and as you let go piece by piece, you are rewarded with his visits home and sweet hello’s and silly texts and coffee in the kitchen in the dust-mote quiver of an early sun.

He was grumpy that last morning.

It was uncharacteristic of him; being asked to move a broken refrigerator out the all-too-narrow front door when you’re late for work would bring out the crabby in anyone, so you tease and thank and forgive and say good-bye for what will be the last time.

It’s impossible to remember your last words to him, looking back; it was an unremarkable morning at the beginning of an unremarkable day at the end of an otherwise unremarkable week.

Until.

And now.

Oh, what you miss.

He used blow through the front door trailed by a wake of friends, not ashamed to call you Momma or say I-love-you or drop a naughty word just to get a rise. You miss that.

Events trigger.

Settled sediment of the past, stirred up afresh.

Your first parent-teacher conferences in the teacher role, reminding you of his first ones, he proud and happy, you amazed at the scholar he is becoming.

Driving through college town along the route you used to take a few times a week to gather him up or drop him off, before he figured out how to outsmart the parking nazis and leave his car on campus.

Seeing his friends walking ahead of you at a recent football game, the one you all went to together to cheer his team and see the helmet stickers his former coaches had made in his honor – watching their futures stretching ahead of them and imagining him in their mix, shoulder-bumping and insta-thinging. They see your wet eyes and draw close.

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The memory of driving home from junior boarding school that first time, he abuzz with Athens and aqueducts and his roommate Allen. You can’t keep up; he has taken ownership of his education and you cannot be more pleased.

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Photos, the memories of their snap, when he would feign shock or shy, arm wrapped around a brother’s neck or a sister’s shoulder, the glue that pulled us in as the turbid waters rose.

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Smells. His favorite muffins. Old Spice, like your own dad when you were small. Hockey gear fresh with sweat. The inside of his car.

You try not to remember that horrid day when you must dig through bloody glass to find his phone, any clue, the first sight of the impossible angles of fender and broken wheel worth a lifetime of horrors.

You don’t miss that.

Things remind you of what to miss. You pull out the running shirt he gave you a few Christmases back, bought with own-job money and son-love, a size small, which makes you want to laugh and cry, your child’s perception versus the reality of you.

You miss the obvious things, of course. Sound of voice and touch of hand. But the layers of miss…the not-yet and never-will-be. The never-bride and never-babies, the never-career and never-failures that you might have celebrated or counseled or encouraged with him.

You discover it is possible to miss something that never was.

He never saw your new tiny house, your new black car, or you in your perfect new office at your perfect new job. These things are just benchmarks on your way back to him.

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Good is relative now.

You miss that feeling you used to have waking up, knowing he is, no matter where, no matter how many miles apart you might have been. The simple possibility of him.

You ponder heaven, the where of it, what matter of distance separates him from you. You consider that perhaps it is measured in sighs and tears rather than feet or miles, at least from your end. That it is real is what anchors your soul, remembering all that Jesus promised and clasping what-will-one-day-be tight when you’re not sure you can endure.

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You miss and miss and miss and miss until now it’s your eyes that ache and your arms and your gut and your soul.

You remember that you are “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses”  (Hebrews 12:1). 

Your green-eyed boy is now one of these, exhorting you to “run with perseverance the race marked out” for you.

There is something about these backward roles, he-cheering-you now instead of you-cheering-him, that stops your heart.

Run, Momma. 

Don’t miss me too much.

Run, run, run because soon – and I mean Jesus-soon, Aslan “all-time-is-soon-to-me”- soon, you will be with me in the unshakeable kingdom.

There is nothing to miss here.

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What else do we need but our great, great King? 

On a Place for You

The day my son died, I bought a new pull-out couch.

That morning, while he was running around a lacrosse field in 90-degree heat, I was breezing through air-conditioned furniture stores trying to find the most comfy, best looking, Goldilocks-just-right pull-out couch for him to sleep in the house I was about to buy.

He was already an itinerant in this world, but I didn’t know it yet.

Moving from a spacious four-bedroom, three-bath to a four-room tiny had its challenges, and one of them was finding a place for all of my kids to sleep. The two youngest would have extra-long twin beds crammed into one small room, the young marrieds were content to sleep on camping mats wherever they landed, but because Gordie was planning on living most of the time in his first real off-campus apartment, he would be assigned the sofa bed.

So while my son made the fatal decision to get behind the wheel of his car and start driving home – HOME I tell you – I was driving home from a showroom full of fluffy comfort, happy I had found the perfect place for my son to sleep when he came – well, home.

Home.

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Before HE was about to die, before HE was about to return home, Jesus comforted His disciples with these words: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:1-4)

The place where He is going?

Those disciples had a lot of questions, as so, of course, do we.

What does this house look like, Jesus? Will we live in it, like we do here, in our families, or does heaven negate the need for such distinctions, since we are all your family, the body of Christ? Is it a real, brick-and-mortar house with bathrooms and such? Can you make sure Gordie has a bed?

There’s been so much new in my life lately.

I find it interesting that when you buy or sell your house – both of which I did a few weeks back – they call it a closing. It’s the perfect word to describe what transpires when you box up your life, walk the empty rooms of your old house with a heart heft with memory, and say good-bye to the former things.

The door jamb with the pencil record of your children’s growth.

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The trees you loved to watch cycle from green to red to bare and back again.

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The spot out front where your lawn mower stood for days, keeping silent vigil, abandoned there after the police showed up at your door.

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My new street address is #88. I find it interesting that the number 8, Biblically speaking, represents Resurrection. Regeneration. New Beginnings.

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Only God!

And 88 – double 8 – is said to symbolize Immanuel, Godwithus.

In all this new, I want to train my eyes on the Timeless One.

The One who told His disciples to “take up your cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24), and maybe I’m slow, but I’m pretty sure that Jesus told His disciples this before He went to the cross Himself. 

He is never going to lead us where He has not already gone.

Sometimes it’s shiny, and sometimes it’s scary, and sometimes it feels as though you are blundering through tunnel darkness that never seems to end. But I’m beginning to understand that through it all, adventure awaits when you squeeze the hand of your Savior and stop kicking and screaming long enough to just hold tight and follow.

When I’m sold into God, into oneness with Him, I listen – and can hear His voice.

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I obey – and the power of sin is destroyed.

I weep – and He comforts me.

I pray – and He answers, in the subtle wind of my soul, like the touch of a feather, gentle and quiet and perfectly right.

Go there. Call her. Say those words. Run. Walk. Wait. Be still.

Hope.

Sometimes, I stand on my deck and look at the moon, that faithful witness in the sky, and it feels like I’m camping. Temporary. Itinerant.

I pull my son close and breathe him in and wait for a sign.

Where are we going, Papa-God? What will You do next? Is it safe?

Jesus’s words come echoing back.

Do not let your heart be troubled.

I am coming back.

There’s a place prepared.

For you.

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Home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Arrow That Was Our Son

I used to hate getting flowers.

Raised by an impossibly frugal mother, I felt the money spent on a product that was ultimately destined for the compost heap was a waste. I know this baffled my husband, and to his credit, he kept buying them for me despite knowing my odd position.

I realize now that I totally missed the point. That to a man whose only intention was to love and to bless, I must have sounded like the very voice of Judas himself.

Listen:

“Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, ‘Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.’  He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

‘Leave her alone,’ Jesus replied. ‘It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.'” (John 12:1-8)

Our house is full of flowers now, of the fragrance of their perfume.

Beautiful bouquets of roses and irises and lilies; vases of gardenias and lilacs and sunflowers and hand-picked buttercups and rhododendrons; spiky fronds and milky-veined leaves, all slowly, slowly, slowly dropping their petals as they march off the day-beats since our son died.

We have come to know something of sacrificial love.

What these flowers tell us – and the bowls of fruit, and the baskets of muffins, and the meals, the cards, the frequent check-ins, the prayers – that our son was loved, that we are loved.

That when a life well-lived is cut short, people will do anything – anything – to honor the memory and comfort the grieving.

I’ve become okay with flowers.

Because you, our dear friends, are Mary to our Jesus. The sweet nard of your care has made the loss of Gordie bearable. Hopeful, even.

You may not think you were pouring yourself out on the Savior’s feet, but this is what He says: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:40)

Since our son died, we have felt like the least. And there you all are, doing for us what we could not, cannot, do for ourselves. We are beyond grateful.

The funeral director told us that he had never seen such an outpouring of flowers. Here is a man who deals daily in grief, moved by the aroma of your coming-alongside. A kinder man I cannot imagine – one whom no one ever wants to meet, but who made gentle our walk through death. Thank you, Steve Purdy.

We have heard some amazing stories since Gordie’s accident. “Coincidences” – like my cousin in Connecticut meeting the mother of one of Gordie’s closest friends one night last week in a nail salon. Gordie’s name written in the dormitory desk drawer of one of his younger brother’s friends. Gordie showing up in the background of a hockey photo taken of another friend’s son in a game played years ago, scrolling across this man’s computer screen late the night of the wake.

Our limo driver sharing our grief as he, too, had lost a son.

On the way to the Celebration of Life, our family tucked safely into his slick, black vehicle, I had a moment of panic. I expected him to turn left out of our neighborhood. That was the way I thought we should go, and it was the way I had told my brother to go. We were on our way to my son’s funeral at a church I had never been to, and I did not want to worry about being late or my brother getting lost. But he turned right, and my heart sank.

Then a miraculous thing happened.

I felt God whisper encouragingly, “Are you ready to let Me?”

I looked up at the Garmin plotting our route, considered the man at the wheel who did this for a living, asked God what He meant by letting Him.

Stop trying to take the wheelHe said. Let Me drive.

I know where you’re going – you, Gordie, all of you. I know the way, and I know the times. Your job is to trust. To cooperate. To listen and respond. I’ll do the leading. All you have to do is release.

Let Me.

I think what God is telling us through these stories is that He is on the throne. We may not understand why Gordie had to die at 22, but the tiny fraction of the picture that we see of this thing called life is just that – a fragment, a piece, an infinitesimal glimpse of the incomprehensible diorama that is TRUE LIFE. And the most comforting thing of all is that, because Gordie trusted Jesus, he can see. He now knows.

I pray that everyone who knew Gordie will also make that same choice. Trusting Jesus, letting Him drive, is the only way we can ever navigate.  It’s the only way, the only way, I can keep putting my feet on the floor every morning and walking forward into the day, because some day, one day, I will see my son again, in the perfect radiance of God’s good light.

I’m thinking there might even be flowers.

What follows is the eulogy I read at Gordie’s Celebration of Life. His dad wrote a letter to Gordie and suggested I write a letter to God.

It turned into more of a hopeful prayer, really.

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Dear God,

Well. Wow. Here we are. What can I say? I want to talk to you about Gordie, but I’m not even sure where to begin.

I read in your book a few nights back that children are your best gift. I think the way you put it was “Oh, how blessed are you parents with your quivers full of children!” I have to say, I couldn’t agree more. Thank you, thank you, thank you for the awesome honor of being Gordie’s mom. He was one sharp arrow, that kid.

Here he was, living the most amazing life right under our very noses. He asked so little of us but gave so much. With Gordie, there was always a danger of there not being enough seats to go around, but now that I think about it, that would have been OK because he would have happily given up his.

He was usually too busy dancing.

And laundry! I know you’re smiling now, God, because you saw that boy hauling his laundry home from UNH every week, and you and I both know he did that just as much for the clean clothes as he did to check in on me to see how I was doing. I’m going to miss those lazy couch-sits and lively book discussions and crazy which-Borek-has-the-better-calf-muscles debates when his siblings were home. And while none of us was watching, he’d be quietly doing all our laundry and folding it, too.

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I’m going to miss our Emoji wars, too, God. I know I’m probably showing my age, but I never knew you could have a whole conversation with someone and never use any words. Not sure why they call it texting. Anyway, our conversations would usually start with a few lines about how-did-your-exam-go-honey, or what-school-did-you-work-at-today-Momma, but it would always end with what I came to call the Emoji wars. I don’t know what he might have called it or even if he knew that I considered it “our thing.”

I’d send him a heart.

He’d send back three.

I’d send a chocolate frosted donut.

He’d send back an alien head and a pig snout.

I’d send him the smiley face with the puzzled expression and he’d send me the one with the big bulgy eyes.

And on it would go, until one of us would send the sleeping face, the other would send the z’s, and it would end. Or so I thought, until I’d wake up in the middle of the night to find he’d added another heart or three or five or ten.

Sneaky little arrow, he always won.

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I know you saw us, God, his one-less-than-family, yesterday morning watching your beautiful sun rise over the beach. We know you were there. Gordie too. Thanks for reminding us of your constancy; that because you are faithful every day to send us that sun, and were faithful 2,000 years ago to send us your own precious Son, we know we can trust you with this. Yes, even this.

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I know he wasn’t perfect, God. Which of us could ever claim that? Yes, there was just enough naughty sewn into that boy to keep me on my knees. But you knew him, Lord. It wouldn’t be long after he had said or done something unkind or unwise that he’d be back, wrapping the offended party in a hug with that big wide grin on his face. He was, by far, the world’s best apologizer. Make me more like that, Lord.

And friends, God! That boy was always drawing a crowd. Thank you for blessing Gordie with so many wonderful friends. You know he had a way of making everyone feel like they were his best friend. Look at them, God – aren’t they something? I can hardly look for fear my heart might burst. How that boy did love. Could I ask you to do something, God? Would you be sure to keep a careful watch over them? Help them to take care and forgive much and love well? Help us all?

I’m not sure, God, how we’re all going to handle this new normal. As you know, without Gordie, it’s going to be a whole lot harder. I know that whenever I find the sole righty stick in a pile full of lefties, or see a bewildered kittycat wandering around an empty room looking for her favorite human, or hear the words “LuLu Lemon” that I might not be able to hold it together. Thank you, God, that, because of your strength, we all have more than enough hope to run this race. Help us, Lord, to run with the same grace and sweetness and abandon that our Gordie did. Because ultimately, he was your son. We just had him on loan here for an all-too-little-while.

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Thank you for making him so happy, Lord.

I’ve got to be honest with you, God – it’s not easy that our parental quiver is now diminished by one.

But we want to thank you, Father, for the arrow that was Gordie.

I think it’s safe to say that he hit the mark.

Gordie, I love you. We all love you. I can’t wait to see you again, dry-eyed and full of joy.

 

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On 40 Degrees

A friend made an interesting comment the other day as a trio of us prepared to start a morning run.

I love running with this group of women. Talented and funny, strong and vulnerable, they form the backbone of a loosely defined support team. They are the peeps, the ones in whose company snot-rockets and mad dashes to the woods to pee are not only tolerated but cheered. For whom GNO is wine on the couch and kicked-off shoes and a healthy dose of gentle sarcasm.

For runs, tradition dictates that a group text summons us to meet at a given time in the center of their neighborhood – I must first drive over from my own – then we walk to the edge of the block, shivering and chatting, preparing our aging (sorry, gals – speaking for myself here) bodies to pound out a “beehive 6” or a “luxury 11.”

Between the 7 of us and our crazy schedules, and the few tested loops whose sparse traffic permits running in a cluster, there are endless permutations for fellowship and distance, but one thing is standard on every run: unequivocal honesty.

There is something about movement and sweat and feminine solidarity that opens the door to sharing life at its most elemental level.

Whether it is mild grousing about a husband mis-shelving a jar of pickles, tearful maternal confessions of perceived inadequacy (child backtalks at dinner; child suspended from school; child shows up in the local police report), or the joyful unity of hearing about a college acceptance, a new company car, or an empty dishwasher, running with these women has a way of lifting up the rocks of our lives and exposing both the dark ugly and the vast rich.

These are women who stop at the house of a man whose wife passed from cancer, harness his husky to a sturdy leash, and allow her to pull them up the street for miles because that is what kind neighbors do. These are women who offer to drag a pile of downed tree limbs from the yard of another because prospective buyers are on their way in a matter of hours. These are women who will say “no, thank you” to said offer, knowing the lives of her sisters are as harried and hectic as her own.image

One morning a few weeks back, a casual comment uttered by one of us – I can’t even recall who (it was awfully early) – stuck with me, sticks with me still.

It was this: “I don’t know what to do with 40 degrees.”

Of course, we all understood at once what our sister was saying literally. A run on a 30degree morning requires tights, gloves, a fleece hat. Layers. At 50 degrees, ditch the hat and gloves and don the capris – or even shorts, should a later start time portend a rise in temperature as the miles are checked off. 60 degrees and above in New England, you’d be hard-pressed to find any of us (except maybe you, PA – bless!) in anything but shorts and a Tee.

But 40 degrees?

It’s a troubling temp, the in-between-ness of it precipitating multiple pre-run excursions to the front steps to test the air, multiple looks at the weather app, multiple gear changes right up to time of the actual neighborhood meet-up: or sometimes even after, as we live in a town where depositing a balled-up half-zip in a friend’s mailbox while cruising by is the epitome of normal.

Metaphorically, however – how that 40 degrees comment has resonated.

I feel that the last 3-plus years of my life have been spent in a sort of holding pattern, a 40-degree vortex, where I was not permitted to go back, and all attempts to move forward were blocked.

Efforts at marital reconciliation failed, bills piled up and my house grew unmanageable (both in debt and upkeep), and I limped along on an endless course of subbing gigs while the job rejections piled up quicker than I could recycle them.

Until, until, until!

Until last week. In the space of three days, my house sold even though it wasn’t even on the market, and a dream-job fell into my lap with no effort at all on my part.

Miraculous.

I’m starting to sense the rhythms of God, even as I strugglestrugglestruggle to accept them as His good and perfect will.

It’s the in-between times, the hours and weeks and months and years, where we wait and hope and hope and watch and watch and pray, that God uses to chip away at our stone-stubborn resistance with His chisel of truth and his rasp of grace.

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Waiting refines us, reshapes us, repositions us to be better equipped to handle the blessings we desperately seek Him for in our life on this dirt sphere.

And in the seeking, a strange and beautiful thing happens.

Joy enters our hearts; bitterness leaves.

Forgiveness comes; anger goes.

Love in; strife out.

In the 40-degree climate of the Big Wait, we learn to rest – not in our own strength, our own strivings, our own logic or understanding – but in His.

When Jesus was preparing His disciples for their Big Wait, He didn’t tell them that He was going to take all of their troubles away. Jesus knew that things were going to get nasty. He knew that He was going to be murdered in the next 24 hours, that the wrath of Rome and the religious rigidity of the Pharisees would soon test His most beloved brothers to the absolute breaking point, that the road to following Him would lead to isolation and persecution and martyrdom.

In fact, in the upper room, after He had revealed He would be going away – some day, one day to return –  He tells them, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33).

I for one am glad we have a Savior that is brutally honest with us, who tells us in advance that in this sin-stained world, we cannot expect that we will always get our way. It is all but assured that, most of the time, we will not.

So how, in light of this reality, does Jesus comfort us?

With something that is totally alien to this earthly station, but is the marker of His invisible, eternal kingdom: peace.

Peace in the midst of strife, not in the absence of it, peace in the not-knowing-what-lies-ahead because of the One-Who-Does-Know, peace that is not an emotion or a feeling or a circumstance, but a Person. 

Jesus gave many instructions while He walked among us, but the one thing He said more than any other was “Fear not.” He knew that when our faith is placed in Him and not in our own crazy, we can have peace.

He explained this puzzling tension to His disciples in this way:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid…I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 14:27; 16:33).

I am starting to accept the Big Wait rather than fight it, to allow God to un-trouble my heart, to believe that, in His timing, as I watch and hope, good things will come. Sometimes all at once, in a startling suddenness that leaves me breathless.

What are you waiting for? 

Is your thermometer stuck at 40 degrees?  Does it leave you feeling that the diagnosis is terminal, that foolishness will never leave the heart of your child, that your prodigal will never come home?

As we wait for these things to be fulfilled, these desires of our hearts, we can rest in knowing that the Artist is never finished with us. He continues to sculpt our flinty souls, rough cut after rough cut, filing and sanding and buffing, until slowly, slowly, slowly, we begin to resemble His precious and perfect Son.

His strong hand knows every intimate swell and curve of our heart, and He is never closer to us as when He is at His exacting work.

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Daughters we are, and sons of the King!

Our waiting is not a stressful striving, but an expectant eagerness that floods the soul with He will, He will, He will.

Some day. One day.

And until then…

Take heart.

Fear not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Brokenness

For Dane: you rock.

Quick update.

So my cabinets are still full. Less empty than when I started trying to eat myself out of house and home two months ago (you can read about that ambition here On Reduction), but still full.

I want to blame someone, as we mortals love to do, so I look around and spy the youngest boy child, home from school, six-foot-crazy and hungry like the wolf. It’s his fault I have to keep buying new food, his fault that he’s too picky to eat canned beets and couscous and mac-n-cheese from the Clinton administration (trust me, nothing that color ever expires), his fault that I had to exceed my $5/week food allowance.

But hold on.

Doesn’t buying food for him mean that I, too, get to enjoy grass-fed beef, fresh lemon- blueberry bagels (don’t ask), greengreen salad, and Cherry Garcia? Technically, even though it was purchased for him, the stuff ended up in my cabinet, and is, therefore, fair game. Flex-rules and all that. Yay.

I’m getting closer to empty, but I’m not there yet. He goes back to school soon, though, so it’s back to the beets for me. Yay. Not.

I’ve been trying to clean off some other shelves in my life.

My realtor-slash-faithful-friend-who-makes-me-belly-laugh walked me through my house the other day. It was a surreal experience, seeing your space through another’s eye.

Apparently I’ve got a lot of clutter that has to go. Apparently prospective home buyers don’t want to see pictures of your kids on the Everest ride at Disney or your collection of Appalachian Trail rocks. Go figure.

And books! So many books. I’m like a crow with shiny things, me and my books. Ruthlessly, I pull each one down from its dusty perch, searching for clues.

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Are you worthy to be saved?

Weeping, I box up the ugly step children and haul them away to the swap shop at the dump, where hopefully they will be adopted by another mother. Weeping, I open the jewels I choose to save, pulling out old bookmarks made from children’s notes of apology or reading passages highlighted by a hand that no longer resides here. Teaching texts. The complete collection of Madeline. Blue Like Jazz.

I must let go.

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Closets next. Hopeful clothes in sizes too small, colors too bold, fabrics too hard to press. Who am I becoming, now? A person not afraid to dine alone? Someone who still reaches for the phone to call her mother, but then, remembers, a gut-punch? A girl who never wanted to grow up?

What would that person wear?

I want to be brave like my friend Sarah, who has walked this road longer than I, a fierce soul who boxed up her own memories and is ready to forge ahead into a future that cannot yet be seen.

I want to be strong like my friend Cilla, who marches the beach wielding an invisible sword, daring God to answer our prayers.

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I want to be soft like my friend Aggie, who is not afraid to hold my hand or show me grace or send her husband over to snow blow my driveway.

I want to be like my children, who are determined and loyal and bold.

But broken? Who ever asks for that?

And yet, it is a gift more precious than all the rest.

Who but the broken can deliver compassion? Who but the broken can grieve with her sisters? Who but the broken can pray with authority, come alongside, trust in the God who is both known and unknowable?

Who but the broken can ever truly understand what it finally means to be whole?

As I pack up my past and sort and select, I am reminded of the One who walked this stoney earth with nothing more than the cloak on His back and the sandals on His feet. Jesus never cared about stuff.

He was called the Man of Sorrows, who wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus, even as He purposed to give him new life. The Godman who “grew up…like a tender shoot, was pierced for our transgressions, …was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53: 2,5).

I’m trying to come to terms with a God whose will it is to break and crush.

One of the toughest verses in the Bible for me is Isaiah 53:10, which says of Jesus: “But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief…”

Who but an infinite, unknowable God would be pleased to crush His own Son?

Why would He do such a thing? And what are the implications for me, for us? The answer makes me tremble and sing.

That despite the fact that we mock Him and spit on Him and deny Him every day with our pettiness and anger and cruelty and unbelief, Jesus willingly allowed Himself to be driven through with spikes on splintered wood so that we could be free from the brokenness that determines to destroy.

Are you worthy to be saved?

No, we are not. Which makes Easter all the more marvelous. Our Father never meant for us to be broken, but He knows the only path to wholeness is through identification with His broken Son. That “by His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

It’s getting easier to let go, comforted by the assurance that God is never caught by surprise. That His hand is wise. That He would never ask of us what He didn’t already ask of His very own Son.

Even though I empty my fridge and empty my shelves and empty my heart, He is standing by, ever ready to fill and fill and fill to overflowing.

Happy Easter.

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On Walking 2,000 Miles with a 10-Year-Old: Part Three -Two Nights in Shenandoah

One of the most peopled corridor of Appalachian Trail is the section through Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park.

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For 101 miles, the AT meanders through ancient forests and across grassy meadows, always within a few miles of the Skyline Drive Scenic Highway and its numerous snack bars and rest stops. The trail itself is well-graded, frequently stone-and root-free, and oftentimes perfectly flat. Shenandoah’s beauty, easy walking, ready access to unhealthy foodstuffs, and road attract thousands of visitors every year.

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To a thru-hiker, Shenandoah is either heaven or hell.

Those hoping for a true wilderness experience grumble and curse through the park, annoyed that their views must be shared with scores of tourists whose “hiking” consisted of getting out of a car and huffing .2 miles to an overlook.

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On the other hand, most of thru-hiking is characterized by impending starvation, and some of us don’t mind the crowds so much if it means we can stroll that same .2 to a cheeseburger, French fries and Coke, sometimes two or three times a day.

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Owen and I were pretty well fatigued when we reached Shenandoah in late June of 2010.

At 550 miles and boasting 1/4 of the AT’s total mileage, Virginia was a hot beast; we were mostly of the opinion that we could skip from one of Shenandoah’s heavenly rest stop banquets to the next, thus breaking up into more manageable chunks the very state that seemed hell-bent on breaking us.

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Two unforgettable nights spent in Shenandoah continue to resurface in my memory, years later, as evidence that we might meet heaven, here, at any time.

The first one began as Owen and I decided to try to catch up with some friends who were some miles ahead. In order to do so, we had to hike some night miles, something we hadn’t done too much of at that time.

As the day started to shift into night, I was reminded of the slowly boiling frog parable. You know the story: a frog is placed into a pot of water that is gradually brought to a boil, and because the change is incremental, it does not notice it is being cooked until, alas, it is too late.

Well, the darkness that night was like that.

Almost imperceptibly, the yellowness of the air around us melted into pink and then into grey. Sunlight through the leaves soon flickered and vanished, closing us into the dusky space of the few yards surrounding our frames. Our eyeless senses shouted; every rustle and swoosh out there ampted up our threat radar so that squirrel became deer and deer became bear. Feet felt out every stone and twig, guiding the rest of the body over obstacles the eye could not discern. I was able to smell mud, moss, and something that might have been mouldering mouse.

Then, quite suddenly, it was night.

“Headlamps?” Owen breathed.

“Yep.”

“It’s really dark,” he shivered.

“I know. You okay?”

“I think so.”

We walked for a few miles in the pitch black, at one point trying to scare away a stump masquerading as a ghostly-appendaged bear lurking in the shadows. That certainly got the adrenaline pumping.

It took a mile for my pulse to slow, and by that time, we were closing in on the shelter where we hoped to find our friends.

Our sweat dried as we weaved across a ridge, the darkness waning as a half moon rose. Shenandoah had a surprise for us before the night was over, sweeter and more mystical than anything in all of our wanderings.

Rounding a bend, I could sense rather than see an opening-up, a vast spacefulness that felt safe and wide and wonderful. To our right, a rocky outcropping glowed with a luminescent sheen, beckoning us out onto a promontory high above the valley. Awestruck, we marveled at the vista stretched before us.

Under the graceful embrace of the moon, the mountains across the expanse were silhouetted in deep indigo, the sky a paler sea beyond.

The forest tumbled sleepily down to the valley floor, cooled by the gentle splash of falling moonbeams. Skyline Drive, so ugly by day, was a grey ribbon casually tossed on the carpet-pile of trees, the solitary taillights of a passing vehicle casting a wake of soft vermillion across its fabric. Pinprick lights of a distant town lay cradled in a bowl, a traffic signal blinking green-yellow-red at us in lonely astonishment.

That sky! All of God’s magnificent, unsearchable universe spread out like a visual feast, lovingly prepared just for us!

We couldn’t look away, couldn’t speak.

The Bible tells of a “peace that transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). Standing on that granite ledge, contemplating the absolute smallness of a single soul, knowing that our Creator God, who fashioned both the vault of the sky and the fragile scales on a moth’s wing, loves us, loved me with a love that propelled Him to endure a most horrific death on my behalf, filled me with such gratitude and peace that I felt I could almost conceive of what life will be like in heaven.

The veil had been lifted, and it was as if nothing stood between us, God and girl, raw, transparent, and perfect. It was a precious gift from a tender Father to an undeserving daughter, and I wanted to stay there forever wrapped in His quiet, intimate approval.

“Thank you,” my heart whispered.

How long we stood there rapt and humbled I do not know; I couldn’t conceive of what my son might be thinking, so I slowly pulled my gaze away and regarded him. He must have sensed me looking, for our eyes met, and we both smiled. Touching him gently on the shoulder, I indicated with a point of my chin that it was time to leave, and reluctantly we tucked ourselves back into the trees.

It was not the first time that God had showed up on our hike, and it would not be the last.

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A few nights later, having caught up with our friends – Etchasketch, Crow, Power Ranger, and Sprocket Monkey, Young Turks all – we found ourselves in one of Shenandoah’s messy crowds, this time at a shelter.

It seemed like every NOBO*, SOBO*, section-hiker*, and weekender had decided to stay at Blackrock Shelter. There was an enormous fire and happy conversation despite multiple sightings of a bear and her cubs wandering around the periphery of the shelter area and a water source that dripped so slowly it caused a bottleneck of tired hikers, all trying to coax enough drops out of the slimy pipe to cook and wash.

When the time came to retire to our coveted places on the dirty shelter floor, Owen and I wondered aloud if our tiny tent would have been a better choice. The inside of the shelter was a blast furnace, and two NOBO’s seemed oblivious as to how their loud debate between the lightweight properties of a tin can stove versus the steady versatility of a propane stove was making it impossible for the rest of us to sleep. They sat outside at the picnic table, but somehow the acoustics of the place made it seem like they were arguing right in our ears.

Sometime during the clash of the stoves, raindrops began plinking on the roof, lightly at first, then with wild enthusiasm. Mercifully, the two debaters were forced to shut up and seek asylum in the shelter as an absolute violence of precipitation assaulted our temporary home. Owen and I frantically pulled our feet away from the windblown downpour splashing into the open side of the shelter and became front row spectators to an awesome sight.

There is something about witnessing a storm from underneath the secure protection of a sturdy roof. It makes one feel invulnerable and alive in a way that few others things can.

This storm seemed almost boastful in nature, raging and convulsing with such insistence that the entire shelter population retreated until we were all pressed against the back wall, judging or applauding each lightning flash or wind squall.

Whereas the God of our night hike whispered and smiled, the God of this storm thundered and triumphed with gleeful fury until it was impossible to regard His power and remain in doubt. The only response to such a God – loving Father, fearsome Creator – was worshipful submission. In fact, in the book of Romans, the apostle Paul chides the church in Rome:

But the basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being. So nobody has a good excuse (Romans 1:20). 

 I love Paul.

His mouth got him in all kinds of trouble, but he didn’t care as long as the gospel was advanced. Look around, he challenges, look around! Look around, you naughty Romans, you inconsiderate stove debaters, you cowering denizens of Blackrock Shelter. Look around and know. Don’t you see the great I AM? Don’t you know that you are without excuse?

I fell asleep that night with a different kind of Godly gratitude in my heart.

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Owen is no longer a 10-year-old boy, nor am I his same mother.

I’d like to think, however, that despite the piecing arrows of life after the AT, we have both been able to find peace even in even the most peace-less of times simply by pulling our AT recollections down off the shelf, skipping to an underlined page, and re-reading again and again the passages where God showed up.

Though, of course, He was there all along.

I think there might be a mild danger in looking back – in romanticizing those nights, those days, to the point of neglecting to enjoy our present reality, but perhaps as long as we remember that the best, our heavenly home, is yet ahead, the small glimpses we have of it here on earth can fill us with joyful hope.

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*NOBO – a northbound Appalachian Trail thru-hiker (Georgia to Maine, or GAME)

*SOBO – a southbound AT thru-hiker (Maine to Georgia, or MEGA)

*section hiker – one who completes the AT one “section” at a time; a section can be any number of miles, depending on the amount of time and motivation the section hiker has

 

 

On Things Overheard in a Kindergarten Classroom

They say wisdom often comes out of the mouths of babes, and I discovered a treasure trove while substituting recently in a kindergarten classroom.

It’s always a pleasure to sub a few days in the same classroom. Just the process of learning 25 names before 9 AM five days a week is daunting (not to mention the high school gigs where you have to learn 5X25; that is, if they even tell you their right names, the rascals), so when given the chance to hang out with the same bunch of awesome little people for more than one day, I say, yes, please.

Because what might happen when you haven’t quite woken up and some fresh batch of faces storms the room, having been up for hours, is what happened another morning in another classroom, this one full of first graders:

A nameless little one asks to go to the nurse just minutes after arrival. His tooth was apparently loose, but not loose enough for the nurse to triage him, and he returns minutes later, heavily disappointed.

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He begins to swing his backpack in a wide arc, evidently not concerned at the other unsuspecting mouthfuls of wobbly teeth trying to hang their snowpants on the coat hooks nearby.

“Hey, tooth guy!” I find myself shouting before I can think. It felt like an emergency.

Everyone stops – stunned – even tooth guy. Perhaps I am onto something.

But I do prefer to know who’s who early and often, as things roll much more smoothly for me when I can name the offender. “Hey you in the red shirt” doesn’t work so well when the child hasn’t even learned her colors yet.

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So when I was called to sub in a kindergarten classroom three days in row, it was like hitting the lottery. By the end of the morning on day one, I knew all their names, and they knew mine; by the end of the afternoon on day three, I had numerous birthday party invitations and a couple dozen magic marker drawings to use as kindling, I mean, hang on my fridge.

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I was also able to overhear some of the cutest human beings on the planet, raw and unfiltered, saying whatever came into their impressionable little heads.

This particular class and school will remain nameless to protect the, well, innocent, but I suspect similar verbal pearls are being harvested in kindergarten classes around the world every day.

Like this one:

Upon returning from one of his “specials” (out-of-class activities, such as art, music, P.E., STEM, or library), a young lad admitted to his neighbor “I tooted at gym class,” followed by a hearty dose of giggles, followed by more tooting.

You’ve got to respect the honesty. Because, truly, how many times has someone tooted around you, say, on an elevator or in the checkout line at the grocery store, and refused to fess up? A simple “Excuse me” would suffice. Kindergartners are remarkably unflappable, and have not yet learned to be embarrassed about – let’s face it – anything. Being around them is silly and freeing and crisp and real. Toot on, brother.

Here’s another:

Girl Number One (crawling around the “rainbow rug” when she was supposed to be listening to calendar math) (don’t even get me started on calendar math): “Look, I’m a doggie!”

Girl Number Two (concentrating so hard on calendar math you could hear her brain crackle): “You’re a BAD doggie.”

Teacher (me, trying not to laugh): “Crisscrossapplesauce, everyone!”

Again, Girl Number One can hardly be blamed for entertaining herself when – I kid you not – calendar math consists of one child standing in front of the whole class and adding straws to envelope pockets to signify howmanydayswevebeeninschool and telling the number of times it’s been sunny this month and predicting the shape pattern on the days of the week and on and on and on and on. None of these exercises is bad in and of itself – I quite like all of them, truth be told – but when 23 children must be hostages to watching one child calculate and measure and sort and match, I’m thinking, #1) NASA is doomed, and #2) I’d be a bad doggie, too. (Sorry, calendar math. I couldn’t help myself.)

One afternoon, a little girl named after a princess in some animated cartoon – not even one I recognized, and my kids had an extensive collection of video fluff  (don’t judge me) – was showing off her new backpack festooned with characters from a more familiar Disney film.

Her friend asked her, “When its my birthday, (insert unfamiliar princess’s name), will you buy me a (insert familiar Disney film characters) backpack?”

To which unfamiliar princess girl quite reasonably replied, “Sure.”

There was no thought as to whether she could afford such an extravagant birthday present, given she wouldn’t be old enough to hold down a job for another decade, nor even if she would be invited to the party. In unfamiliar princess girl’s mind, these were givens. How refreshing to live one’s life so unencumbered by worry, doubt, fear, or lack. You want a backpack just like mine, I’ll make it happen. Case closed.

Later, princess girl came back from the bathroom with her wispy blond hair sopping wet and looking very much like a porcupine. “It was all crazy,” she said, as if that explained her dripping sweatshirt and the puddles trailing behind her. Okay, then. Because it looks SO much better now, girlfriend.

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The kindergarten children were not alone, however, in their verbal surprises. Adults say ridiculous and unexpected things when in the presence of large numbers of tiny people in perpetual motion.

I overheard the wonderful woman who served as the teacher’s aid call out across the room, “Johnny, stop opening and closing the door and just go to the bathroom.” Little Johnny, peering out from behind the restroom door, pants around his ankles, tee-hee’d as he surveyed the room. He knew who was in charge. Meanwhile, his poor classmate did the pee-pee dance while desperately clinging to the outside doorknob, prompting the aid to add, “And Joey, wait on the red square! You know the rules!” 

I’m pretty sure we had to dive into Joey’s “spare clothes” bag that day.

Later, after a spirited game of “Recycle the Paper Balls,” I overheard the P.E. teacher tell one of the kindergarteners as they swarmed to line up , “Jimmy, STOP TOUCHING YOUR PANTS.”  What does that even mean? Perhaps it’s the cousin of, “Susie, stop touching the wall,” or, “Betty, stop touching your nose.”  Of course, this last one is a euphemism, not that Betty would care. Nose-touching is a popular pastime of 5-year-olds, especially during the cold and flu season, and there’s no shame in doing it in full view of everyone.

Perhaps now would be the time to share my favorite kindergartener-taming question.

If the card-carrying members of the rules police – i.e., all kindergarten children on the planet, who trumpet fairness and parade it around the room like it’s the Stanley Cup, lowering it only to bash their peer over the head should they dare to ask to do that when Mrs. Turner is out sick – if they do not prevent young Benjamin from attempting something totally outrageous – like using an alternate stairway to get to lunch – this question will stop him cold every time.

Are you ready? I simply ask, “What would Mrs. Turner say?”

It’s brilliant, don’t you see? With all those card-carrying members of the rules police lurking about, Benjamin has to answer truthfully, and 10 times out of 10 he has asked to do something Mrs. Turner would most assuredly say no to, might even be something she has written in capital letters on a poster of rules hanging by the sink. In my short subbing career, this question has done more to promote world peace than Ghandi himself. Not even bothering to answer, the child huffs and stomps off, knowing he has been outsmarted by a keener mind than his own.

Wish I had discovered it sooner.

Once Jesus told His disciples, after they tried to prevent mothers from bringing their kids to Him to bless, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).

After spending three wild, wonderful days in the company of kindergartners, I think I understand Jesus’s fierce love of His smallest sheep.

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They are brave and vulnerable and honest and strong, little seeds bursting with the potentiality of life and love, commanding watchful, patient gardening lest they become weedy or weary or wilted. Furnish them with plenty of sun and plenty of Son and watch how they bloom.

“Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks,” Jesus also taught his followers.A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken” (Luke 6:45).

5-year olds have super-overflowing hearts, and the things their mouths speak keep us smiling whenever we are in their company.

As for me, the part about having to give an account for every empty word I have spoken challenges me to watch my own heart’s overflow.

When I find myself calling a small boy “tooth guy,” perhaps it’s time to get up a little earlier, double up on the coffee, pray.

Or blame it on the calendar math.

On Reduction

Ah, the New Year.

Such optimism. Such naiviete. For some reason, we feel that the turning of a calendar page will be the launchpad, the propulsion that jets us into new health, new habits, new bodies, new lives.

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We vow to take on a new exercise (Crossfit! Yoga! Zoomba!), a new habit (Read the Bible one hour every day! Balance the checkbook! Stop procrastinating!), a new diet (Vegan! Paleo! Raw food! Whole30!), a new outlook (Be thankful! More organized! Less tardy!).

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve been as guilty as the next one.

Sigh.

I’ve been watching a show about tiny houses lately. What would it be like to condense one’s life into 300 square feet? Ever since living in a tent for six months, I have frequent daydreams of ditching all the stuff and living “deliberately,” as Thoreau did.

However, since there are still children at home and, annoyingly, they feel the need to sleep in an actual bed in a space where crouching is not required, I am still a few years out from living my tiny house dream. (Plus, where would I store the hockey gear?)

So, what I thought I’d do instead is to start the new year not by adding, but by reducing. Starting Monday, January 4 (because who starts something new on a Friday?)(thank you for that wisdom-pearl, Carla; it gave me a three-day stay of execution), I am going to literally eat myself out of house and home.

It’s ridiculous how much food I have stored in my house. Here’s just some of the evidence:

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And:

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Although I keep a running grocery list on the door of my fridge, before I write “mustard” or “balsamic vinegar,” I don’t ever seem to check  if there might be some downstairs, or even in the cabinet right next door.

Years of this sloppy habit has resulted in an accumulation of frozen, canned, boxed, bottled, and bagged goods that would make a doomsday prepper proud.

So, I have decided to fight back.

Here’s the plan. I will not buy any new groceries until absolutely everything I can possibly eat – within culinary reason – is gone from the house. From the freezer. From the upstairs cupboard.  From the downstairs pantry. From the counter space and refrigerator and storage bins.

I will also endeavor to use as many of the various ingredients that are stored in canisters, jars, Tupperware, and Ziplocks – in the lazy Susan or above the microwave, or under the sink – until every conceivable combination has been explored and exhausted.

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No bread? Make some. No more granola? There are nuts, oats, and seeds galore; toss, toast and serve. A snack for after school?  How ’bout muffins? I think I have everything I need.

Whoops – what’s that on the grocery list? Sugar? Sugar!

Perhaps sugar is one of those items I use, ahem, so frequently that supply never seems to catch up with demand. Fortunately, mid-muffin-mixing, I remembered I had a slew of those mini-sugar packets that are usually found next to one’s hotel coffee maker. Why did I have so many, you ask? Well, I admit that those powdered creamers are a treat with my coffee when I go backpacking, so if there is ever any left after a hotel stay, I grab the rest of the bag of goodies and throw it all in the back of the tea drawer when I get home.

I’m guessing you’re sensing a trend…

Anyway, as I was cutting open the little paper packets of goodness, trying to fill a half a cup, in walks the oldest boy child.

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Hey, I remark. What you’re looking at is a genius at work.

What I’m looking at is a crazy person, he replies.

So I guess not everyone appreciates the efforts I am making to not bury myself in foodstuffs. He is the only child left at home on a looooong college break, so perhaps he has more to lose, an unwilling prisoner in my noble experiment; still, I did manage to make the muffins and he managed to eat almost the entire dozen, so who’s the real crazy person?

I digress.

Week one.

Things go smoothly enough. I decide three days in, however, when the coffee cream (real, not powdered) runs out, that there is no way I can go without cream until the shelves are bare. I rewrite the rules of engagement and allow myself a $5.00/week allowance to buy whatever I want, whether luxury or necessity. This seems reasonable.

I head to Hannaford with the best intentions, excited to see how far $5.00 will carry me. I am aware of the irony – the blasphemy! – that there are people living in my community for whom a $5.00 outing holds anything but excitement. I sub in the public schools, and my heart breaks for the kids who are not learning simply because they are hungry.

How can this be?

I want to wrap these children in my arms and invite them home for muffins or my latest improvisation, PB&J on crackers (bread requires sugar). We can never solve the problem of Common Core or Sally lagging behind in math and science or any other yada yada yada problem with education today until we figure out how to fill hungry bellies.image

This will be good for me, I decide. Align myself with those hungry bellies, walk a mile in their oftentimes bootless feet.

I blame my first blunder on ambiguous advertising.

Blinders on so I won’t be distracted by the glitz and glamour of SO MUCH FOOD, I head to the back of the store and find something called “table cream” for $1.99. Not my usual organic brand, but we’re talking $5.00-wiggle room here. I add a dozen eggs for $2.19. Some quick math tells me I have less than a dollar left, but I spy a bag of apples for $.99. Ninety-nine cents for fresh produce that is likely to last a few weeks? Heck, yeah.

Cutting myself myself some slack for the $.17 overage (don’t be a Pharisee, I rationalize), I head to check-out.

On the way, as I have also promised the oldest boy child I will splurge on some yogurt (for HIM, not for ME…the rules seem to keep shifting)(don’t be a crazy person, I tell myself)(wait – do crazy people talk to themselves?), I throw in a container of Stonyfield vanilla for good measure.

As I smugly watch the figures adding up, one assaults me. $5.03 for the apples? What the what? Ohhhhhhh. Oh dear. It’s not $.99/bag, but $.99/pound. For 5.06 pounds. Dang it.

Reluctantly pulling the extra bills from my wallet, I vow to go back and look at that treacherous $.99 sign. When I do, I discover, hidden behind the mounds of MacIntosh, what I already know to be true. Sneaky Hannaford.

New rule: I will spend an average of $5.00/week throughout the month. This means, of course, most of next week’s $5.00 is already spent, so I will have to make do for another seven days with what I already have.

But I guess that was the point all along. Reduction is sacrifice, and if I am to benefit from this experiment at all, it’s going to have to hurt a little. Perhaps a lot.

Jesus once cautioned, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

It’s comforting to know that my treasure does not reside on my shelves, in my bank account, or even with the others that I love. My treasure is and will always be Jesus Himself.

With Jesus, there is never a $5.00 limit, as all the riches He earned for us on the cross have been paid in full and are at our disposal. With Jesus, it’s always surplus, never deficit.

My tiny house dream will have to wait, for now. Until then, I will practice reduction so that I will be ready when the time comes. Until then, I will rest in Jesus’s promise – “My Father’s house has many rooms….I am going there to prepare a place for you” (John 14:1-3).

I will always have a place to live, with Him, whether here and now, or there and then.

As I trust Him to meet my every need, whatever this new year holds, I can be confident that it will always be “exceeding abundantly above all that (I can) ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20).

P.S. My BFF Aggie gives me a whole bag of sugar last night. Exceedingly abundantly.

 

On Gentleness

I had an ugly fight with my brother the other day.

Fueled by a desperation born of stubbornness and pain, the argument looked a lot like something terribly uncomfortable Jesus once said: “Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut—make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law—cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God. Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies. If you prefer father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you prefer son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me” (Matthew 10:34-37).

Or bother or sister. Family members, my brother and I, cutting against each other…and what was the source of this ugliness? Jesus Himself.

Here’s how the fight looked: I relentlessly battered my brother with a gospel-mallet of what I thought was love, but looked a lot more like lunacy, and he repelled my onslaught with grenades of anger and doubt. It was a hotly contested spiritual battle, with no obvious “winner.” Quite the opposite, in fact; when he called me a phony, I retreated outside to the great dark sky, my safe place, and he stormed off to bed, both of us feeling wounded and raw, but neither one willing to come to the other’s “side.”

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Speaking of lunacy, C.S. Lewis once famously said this about Jesus: in evaluating what Jesus claimed He was, what He said about Himself, we are left with only three options we can decide Him to be –  lunatic, liar, or Lord.

The “Mad, Bad, or God” argument goes like this (I will not even attempt to paraphrase Lewis; his words are strong and clean and infinitely more convincing than mine could ever be):

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”

My brother kept demanding “proof” that Jesus rose from the dead, and although there are over 500 eyewitness accounts of people who witnessed Him walking around after his brutal murder, I could not give my brother what he wanted. What I remember saying is that if we had Facebook posts or Snaps or some video evidence of Thomas poking his finger into the holes in Jesus’s wrecked wrists or of Jesus having fish on the beach as He lovingly restored the all-too-human Peter, then what would be the need for faith?

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I don’t believe Jesus is a poached egg, or even that He ever thought He was.

I don’t believe the Jesus who healed the leper and forgave the adulterer and supped with sinners is a demon. How could He be? His actions were not evil, but infinitely good.

And more than that, I take Him at His word when He commissions us to “Go into the entire world and preach my Good News to all creation” (Mark 16:15).

Poor Jesus. He was surely shaking His head as He listened to me buffet my brother with His “Good News.”

Guess what, Cheryl? I can hear Him suggesting. Yelling at someone is not the method I would recommend to win others over to Me. Have you tried gentleness?

Ouch, Jesus.

So you mean the Good News is so good, that if I choose love over judgement, kindness over condemnation, faith over fear, if I live my life in light of what You have done for me – in trust and quietness – instead of arguing over who You say You are…You mean fruit will grow from that? That it’s not even up to me, but Holy Spirit? Is that what faith looks like?

Yes. That is what I’m saying. Gentleness.

I was reminded in the aftermath of this awful fight that even John the Baptist had his doubts. Even though John baptized Jesus and saw Holy Spirit descend upon Him like a dove, even though, after that, he heard the booming voice of God declare, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17), even though pre-birthed John actually leapt for joy in his mother’s womb when in utero Jesus entered the room – even though, even though – John still asked from Herod’s prison cell, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” (Matthew 11:3).

John the Baptist in prison Matthew 14:3
John the Baptist in prison Matthew 14:3

Looking for someone else, John? Hadn’t Jesus done enough, hadn’t being around Him been evidence enough, hadn’t you seen enough, heard enough, felt enough in your spirit that Jesus is the Christ?

John the Baptist! If even he could doubt, we are in good company, indeed.

So what did gentle Jesus answer, when John’s followers waited to take His answer back to John?

“Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy  are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me” (Matthew 11:4-6).

And if that wasn’t enough, Jesus went on to praise John as if he had never doubted at all. To the gathering crowd, Jesus proclaimed:

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.  And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear” (Matthew 11:11-15).

Whoever has ears. That’s pretty much, well, everybody. Except maybe those lepers over there. (But Jesus had just declared His intent to cleanse them, so, technically speaking, when Jesus said everybody, He meant everybody).

So Jesus is saying this: Of all of the millions of people born on this planet, John was the greatest. Even John’s doubt was seen by Jesus as a mark of faith (faith is nothing if not honest). But if we are willing to consider ourselves least in the kingdom of heaven, then we, WE are even greater than John himself. And if the kingdom of heaven – our place with Him, forever – is being subjected to violence, instead of reacting with more violence, more anger, more self-righteous bluster, our response instead needs to be….gentleness? Faith despite the doubt?

Whoever has ears.

 

 

 

On Walking 2,000 Miles with a 10-Year-Old: Part Two, A Cautionary Tale

So I wrote a book.

It took five years, and the process was messy and magical, frustrating and joyous, arduous and effortless. It made me feel competent one day, helpless the next. It wracked me with guilt sometimes, blinking cursor mocking me from that blank screen; other days, I lost track of time bouncing between iPhoto, the reverse online dictionary, my journal, Google-searching synonyms for the word eerie, and http://www.funnycatpix.com

In fact, the writing process eerily (sorry – couldn’t find any good ones here on easysynonym.com) mirrored the journey about which I was writing: the 158 days Owen and I had spent hiking the Appalachian Trail.

I loved remembering those days. Back then, everything was, although remarkably uncomplicated, a study in contrasts. Trying to voice what it had been like was a labor of love.

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I’m learning that writing a book is the easy part. Getting published is a whole ‘nother…well…story.

Anyway, one day, Owen and I had hiked 22 miles in the rain. We were cold, wet and miserable when we reached the shelter where we were planning to spend the night. Inside, we discovered a group of camp counselors-in-training who had hiked five miles and had called it a day because their stuff was all wet. It was raining. DUH. The shelter was littered with their soggy gear, and they begrudgingly let us in, pointing us to a corner of the structure that was small and puddled and dark.

When we had arrived, the four of them had been arguing whether or not to brave the night. They were supposed to, for their training, but one of the girls lived close by and finally, after a long contentious debate, convinced the others that having her dad pick them all up was a better alternative. They were whiny and rude and completely clueless about shelter etiquette, so we were not disappointed when they decided to leave.

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Here’s an excerpt from that chapter….

In all things of nature, there is something of the marvelous. -Aristotle

Chapter 12 – Two Days in Dixie

June – Maryland

Owen and I made ourselves small, voicing sympathetic noises as gear was grabbed from above our heads and out from under our feet; we were not worried about them taking anything of ours, of course, since we had not been afforded any space in which to unpack in the first place.

At last, ponchos on, they headed reluctantly out into the weather. Given the spectacle in front of us for last two hours, Owen and I had not taken any time to orient ourselves to the shelter’s surroundings – the location of the privy, for example – still, it was with surprise that we watched the camp counselors turn left out of the shelter, away from the AT and the approach trail we had come in on. Perhaps they knew an alternative route to their meeting place? Left sure looked like the way to the privy to me, but I kept my mouth shut, not wanting to impede their departure in any way by an uninformed comment. They disappeared, and Owen and I busied ourselves by unpacking into the cavernous space they had left behind.

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It was no surprise, therefore, when five minutes later in the dusky light, the sorry group came cursing back and marched silently past the shelter in the direction of the AT. By then, we had not only made ourselves cozy, but had discovered a few odd items they had left behind in the rush to bail out. Wordlessly, Owen held them out, relay-race baton-style, and each item was snatched out of his hand by the passing pilgrims without a backwards glance. It must have taken a lot of practice to become that helpless.

We waited until they were out of earshot to raise a cheer.

Settled comfortably into our down cocoons, Owen and I began listening to Adventures of Jimmy the Skunk by Thornton W. Burgess on my iPhone. On the nights when we were too tired to prop ourselves up and read, we were working our way through many of Burgess’s delightful animal adventures.   We were particularly enamored of this Audiobooks narrator. Headlamps off, rain pinging lightly on the roof, we snuggled close together, dry and content.

“Hey. Look, Mom,” Owen’s voice rose drowsily from the dark. “Over there.”

“Over where?” I said, leaning up on an elbow and straining to peer over his fluffy bulk to where he was pointing.

“Over there, down low,” he breathed. “On the other side of the shelter. Do you see it?”

“Well, I’ll be darned,” I whispered back. “Let’s turn off Jimmy and watch what happens.”

In the perfect blackness of the quiet night, a tiny life and death battle was being waged on the opposite wall of the shelter. How the spider’s web had remained intact through all of the earlier commotion I could not fathom, but there, entwined in its silken grip, was a lone firefly. Like a heartbeat, the orange glow of its tail pulsated rhythmically as it thrashed to break free. As Owen and I watched, the intervals between blinks began to grow longer as the firefly’s strength waned.

“I’m going to see where the spider is,” Owen said.

“Okay. Just don’t disturb it.”

He inchwormed his way across the floor of the shelter, sleeping bag still attached to his nether regions, flicking on his headlamp only as he neared the far wall.

“I see it, Mom!” he said in a stage whisper. “It’s down here, by the floor.”

“It’s probably waiting for the firefly to tire before closing in.”

“Poor firefly.”

“Everyone’s gotta eat.”

“But what a way to go. Do you think it knows it’s doomed?”

“What do you think?”

“I think it’s probably going to keep fighting till the bitter end. That’s what I would do.”

“Me too,” I said. “But why don’t you c’mon back over here and shut off your headlamp so you don’t interfere with the laws of God and nature.”

Obediently, he scooched his way back to me. We repositioned ourselves head-to-head, two exclamation points stretching out toward opposite ends of the page, so that we could both turn our faces toward the combatants.

Owen’s breathing gradually slowed until its cadence melted into the dying glimmer-beats of the firefly.

As he drifted off to sleep, I considered our four former sheltermates.

Perhaps that night they had dined on real plates, washed their grilled steak down with some iced drinks, brushed their teeth in tap water that did not need to be doused with chemicals or filtered through a pump. By now, they were probably showered and changed, lying clean-clothed in crisp sheets, alarms set to waken them in the shade-drawn darkness of their private rooms. No doubt they were congratulating themselves on their good fortune.

But what had they forfeited?

To begin with, the opportunity for competence. I pitied them their eagerness to take the easy way out, their inability to work through the uncomfortable, their lack of belief in themselves to stick with something despite the cost. But it was more than that. What of true value had they really lost when they had packed up and fled?

The genuine measure of a mile.

The sound of rain tickling the leaves.

The patient watchfulness of a spider.

The quiet wonder of a little boy’s heart.

This is what I knew: something pure and honorable and sacred had been sacrificed, and I would not have traded places with them for all the comfort in the world.

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