Some of you may have read or followed my previous blog “This Sojourner’s Path”. It ran for nearly 3 years and much of it focused on who I was and what had happened to me to make me who I am…and my attempt to work through some very difficult issues. If you are interested to know what makes me tick then read below some of the most liked posts from that blog and some of my favorites.
The Perfect Tree
I love trees. The other day I saw the perfect tree. A big, broad maple with long, stretched out, low slung branches in all directions with the perfect rounded canopy reaching upward; in full coppery red fall majesty. It was an awesome sight…and one that will last only a few days. Before long, all of the brightly colored leaves will have fallen off in a carpet of dappled reds and oranges, carpeting the sleeping soil. A tree that large and that far reaching must have an equally impressive root system. It must have to dig deep and burrow far and wide in search of vital water and nutrients. A tree of that kind does not grow in a forest. It is not surrounded by other trees.
Forest trees are tall and narrow with few branches except at the top. Forest trees must work together, share water, breathe together and often die together. If one falls down, many fall with it…and it is only then that a young tree has any chance of becoming a towering member of the forest. There is no standing alone in a forest. But there is protection there in the company of other trees…something that the large, solitary trees do not have much of. They are buffeted by wind and drenched by rain. They are weighed down by snow and struck by lightning. They are on the front lines of a battle that few in the forest could endure.
I have been a forest tree. I have been a part of the crowd trying to survive together. I have experienced the joy of a warm breeze rustling through our raised hands and the gentle rain bouncing off our leaves, watering our thirsty roots. I have also been a field tree, alone in the wilderness spreading my branches as far as I could; always on the lookout for a storm in the distance or the morning sunrise. This is what I’ve learned from both places: You cannot be a big tree in a forest and you cannot be a tall skinny tree on a hill. In other words, even if you’re one of the bigger trees in the forest, you are still part of the forest. You can’t go around knocking and blocking all of those around you looking for more light or digging for more water because the others help to hold you up and share their resources with you. If they were not there you would be too tall and too weak to stand alone and you will fall. Likewise, if you are in the wilderness, you have to be prepared to be alone. You have to dig deep with your roots and reach way out with your branches to strengthen yourself against the storms because no tree from the forest is going to come along and help you…none can.
So which are you? Are you part of the forest or alone in the field? Each have a part to play and each was grown for a purpose. The forest looks to the sentinel and sees the first rustling leaves in the breeze of an approaching storm or the hints of a changing season in the color of its branches. They know to gather in their resources and lace their branches together in prayer. The sentinel in turn looks back at the forest saying, “don’t worry, we’ll get through this. I’ll protect you. Hold on to each other and I’ll spread out my branches to shelter you.” Working together they will weather the storm and become stronger, reach higher, and dig deeper than either could have on their own.
Rain In Heaven
Those that know me well know that I would much prefer a rainy day to a sunny day any day. I know this is a bit strange but there are some reasons behind it.
First and foremost, I was saved on a rainy day. Well, it didn’t start out raining but after I said the words “Lord, come into my heart” and came out of the most profound experience of my life, I stepped out into a spring downpour that seemed to flood my soul as it washed away all the muck and mire within. I have never smelled the air so clean or felt so fresh and free in my entire life! I know my emotions had much more to do with the experience that I had just gone through, but the rain on my face is the first thing I remember afterward, and has stayed with me since. There has been nothing in this world that has come close to what I felt when those raindrops hit my face that day.
Another memory that is embedded in my mind are the many camping trips our family took when I was young. We would usually be gone for a week at a time and camped in one of those big old canvas tents that always has that packed, musty smell…no matter how long you let it air out. That aroma was especially strong after a rain. Camping trips are some of my fondest memories of childhood. I loved riding in the car…I got to sit in the front and my 3 sisters always had to sit in the back. The view from the front seat was amazing – all the new and interesting places and never really knowing what was around the next bend in the road. We’d finally arrive at a packed campground, (my dad never made reservations so we rarely got to choose a site…we got what was left over), and all kinds of different people milling about and the smells of campfires and hot dogs and hamburgers being burned…and the packed, musty smell of our old canvas tent that had been rained on the night before but hadn’t dried out yet. Love that smell…
Driving home from class today I caught a quick glimpse of a rainbow. A brief spring storm had just blown over and the evening sun’s rays shot across the skies toward the east revealing the promise….that is what rainbows are – promises. It got me feeling a bit nostalgic about people and places I’ve been and how my most precious memories often involve rain…and how much I love the rain. I think we all have these kinds of signposts on our journeys. For you it may be butterflies or bugs, breezes or beaches. That thing that reminds you that you are on a path and that path is leading somewhere. You may not feel any different and your circumstances may not have changed but there is that marker that reminds you where you have been and how far you really have come…and then encourages you to take one more step…and then another…
I hope there’s a special place in heaven where it rains…that would be a beautiful place.
A Revealing Conversation
It was not a particularly unique day…just an ordinary autumn morning – crisp but not cold, damp but not soggy. The kind of morning when you can feel winter’s chill just around the corner while summer is still holding on to every warm breeze. I had been puttering in the yard and sat down on the porch step and began a conversation with an old friend. Prayer can be like that sometimes; casual, comfortable, and restful.
Before too long, as often happens between good friends, we began to share things in a bit more personal way. On this morning, we began to share wound stories and compare some of the scars that went with them. I showed him the one on my right heel that is now callused over; I had stepped on some broken glass when I was 5 years old which shattered inside when it hit the bone and infected the marrow. I showed him how my right thumb nail is kind of split from the time that I smashed it in a car door. I showed him the thin line from just behind my right ear down under my jaw. This is where I had some glands removed for testing. I then showed him the 12 inch scar stretching from the left side of my spine to just about the middle of my left side. This was the most difficult story to tell; I had half of my left lung removed about 7 years ago due to a rare form of lung cancer. I explained to him that these are signs to me of healing…after all, scars do show were we’ve been healed, right? I don’t look at them as blemishes or ugly things but as markers and memories of what I’ve been healed from.
Then he began to share some of his stories and show some of his scars. There was one behind his left ear where a bully on the bus had hit him. There was another on the back of his head, a small round patch where his dad had once pulled his hair a little too hard and some of it came out. He also had a severely deformed left bicep muscle – all twisted and pock marked and thick skinned. He shared how he had once been learning how to back up a tractor and his foot slipped as he was turning to look behind. He had fallen off and the giant tractor tire rolled over his arm, just missing his head.
As he was going through his list I could not help but be amazed at how he and I had similar stories. Many of the things that he was sharing I had experienced as well – but I didn’t have the scars. At one point I interrupted him and commented on how strange it was that we had gone through so many similar things. He looked at me out of the corner of his eye with a kind of questioning glance and then turned his head toward mine and looked me straight in the eye and said, “Just as your scars show where you’ve been healed, my scars show where you were healed too.”
I sat there engulfed again in the sudden realization of who my friend was and what He went through…for me. I am often so quick to forget that my friend is also my savior and just how much he has saved me from. As I sat there in wonder, with tears in my eyes, he lifted his shirt and showed me his side…and then showed me his hands…and also pulled back some of his hair revealing a ring of scars. I could not help but notice as He was going through these motions that there were some bandages still covering parts of his skin. I asked him why they were there and he paused for a moment then nudged a little closer to me and put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me close. With a piercing yet patient voice and said, “Those wounds haven’t quite healed yet…I’m still waiting for you to let go.”
This is the season for being thankful and if you read my previous post I listed some of the things that I am most thankful for. But there are a few more specific things and people that I thank God for. Not to make the others seem less important but there are people and things that have special places in our hearts…apart from everything else. I have a sister who died of lung cancer….she is one of those people.
Kathy was unlike any of my eight brothers and sisters…a melody only she could hear. She had a quirkyness that made you laugh and a logic that made you believe. She was not an especially deep thinker but she was wise – not a critic, not a judge, not a jury. She had that way of looking at you that at once made you know you were caught but at the same time know that is was alright because we were all caught about one thing or another. She was real. She minced no words, although sometimes you wished she would have.
There were many years that Kathy was gone away. She had made some difficult choices and walked some very rough paths neither of which I am qualified to write about…or judge. She made it through those struggles and I was able to develop a relationship with her that even after her death has kept me going. For a number of years she lived across the road from our family farm. There were many times I would sit with her on her old front porch in the evenings or sometime early mornings. She would play her guitar and sing songs she had written and I would listen. She would share with me things the Lord was teaching her and experiences she’d had and her dreams. Often times her thoughts were random and disconnected…more musings than anything…but then there were times when streams of life would flow out of her mouth and I was a lap dog. She was the second person I told after I had accepted Christ and after that we had a whole new world to talk about. We talked a lot. I desperately miss those times.
Over the years our relationship came and went like ripples on water. There were times when we were distant and untwined and then other times when we would sit, just the two of us, and reconnect the way friends, too long apart, would do. When I learned that she had lung cancer I didn’t really know what to do. I knew what the outcome was and I did not want to go there…not yet…not ever. Life and death are not in our hands. The how we sometimes know but the why is rare. Those are decisions we are not clever enough to make. Years later when it as discovered that I had lung cancer I could not help but think of what Kathy went through…and If I were consigned to the same fate. And I wished I had paid more attention.
I am thankful for many things about Kathy, but the one I am most thankful for is her understanding of peace. Peace with yourself, peace with your family…peace with God. Because of the choices she had made and the things she had experienced she understood that it is important to do something about the things that are in your control and not sit on the sidelines waiting. And that it is just as important to leave those things that you can’t control in the hands of Someone who can – and have faith that He will. The three men in the furnace were not taken out of the fire but protected in the fire. David was not left in the camp during the battle but given the tools to be the front line. And Joshua didn’t cower beneath the walls of Jericho…he stood on top of the rubble. Kathy did not die because of cancer – she lived because of Christ…and sings because of grace.
I am so thankful for the time she and I had while here in this world…and I am thankful that eternity is waiting.
As a young associate pastor, I was doing things that I felt passionate about, working with people that I cared deeply for, and serving in a place that had always been my home. One day, after about a year and a half in the position, I was asked to leave – out of the blue with no warning. Not just leave the job…but leave the community; in fact, to take my family and move as far away as I could in order to gain more of a “world perspective”. I was told I was being subversive, not following the Holy Spirit’s leading, and defiantly resistant to the work the Lord wanted to do in me and in the church I was serving. I haven’t written or spoken about this experience very often. I have never returned to pastoring – the politics of power of the modern church has left a bitter taste in my soul and left me craving a more personal and intimate experience that can only be found among friends. As I’ve written in a previous post, “Revealing Conversation”, there are still some wounds that haven’t quite healed and fences that haven’t been mended…and maybe never will be. After that event I spent weeks just trying to wrap my mind around what had happened. Did I do something wrong; did I break the rules; was I blind? And the biggest question of all, was God even there; and if he was, did He care? With all of the emotion involved the answer was unclear. While very painful and emotionally draining, the experience taught me about making the hard choices and being willing to step away from the familiar.
The paths we walk are rarely straight. They meander and twist and double back sometimes. Often there are side trails or forks in the road. Most times you can just stay on one path and handle what comes your way, but other times you are forced to make a choice. Do I keep going on this path or choose a different road? This was one of those times for me. It wasn’t just about losing my job or being unsure of how my family was going to survive. In this event I was presented with a choice of the heart. Who was I going to be moving forward? Who was I going to follow? How was I going to life out my faith in a way that others would see Christ in me apart from the church?
Several years ago I had a vision…I had been going through some internal struggles as I was learning to walk with the Lord so I went to a local park and sat on the beach staring out over lake Michigan, deep in thought and crying out for answers. Out of nowhere, I saw an aircraft carrier anchored just off the shore and thought it quite strange for Lake Michigan. As I rubbed by eyes and tried to look closer I was suddenly standing on the deck of the mighty ship and Jesus was standing with me. There was no one else on board – no crew, no planes, no rush or commotion, all empty and silent. Jesus asked me who was on the ship. “No one”, I said, “There’s no one here, not a soul”. He asked me this same question 3 or 4 times and I replied the same feeling more frustrated and confused each time. Finally, he touched my shoulder and I looked him in the eye and again he asked, “Who is on this ship?” I looked at Him for a moment, finally realizing who was with me, and said, “You are…” Then he said, “Ok, now let’s move on,” …and I was back on the beach sitting in a puddle of tears.
There is no path worth walking down if Jesus is not on it. There is no journey worth taking if Jesus is not leading…and I have never seen Him on the path that looked safe. He is in the struggle…he is in the storm…he is in the heartache; and if that is where He is, then that is where I need to be. Since stepping out of the modern church, I have come to understand some difficult things that I never would have otherwise. I’ve learned that the Good Lord hears the whispers of our souls more than the screams of our flesh. I’ve learned that He is more often seen in the nooks and crannies and quietness of life and not in the big, choreographed productions. I’ve realized that though justice may be desired, mercy is required, (that’s a hard one). And most importantly, I’ve learned that Jesus never pushes but always tugs at out heart encouraging us to walk with him.
So We Could Have
Most people think of spring as the season when you get your cleaning done. Out with the old, tattered, worn-out things that do nothing but take up space. Or maybe New Years as that time when we decide to begin something new, take on a new challenge…start over. The reality is that these things can be done anytime of the year, and this Thanksgiving and Christmas season is the perfect time to turn that corner.
Many of us go through these holiday seasons like robots. We have our traditions – that party that we always go to, those songs we love to hear – the feelings we haven’t felt the rest of the year somehow are allowed to reveal themselves now. We laugh and visit relatives; we give gifts and share meals together. We’ve spent so much time during the year running around, seeing people without really looking at them; hearing voices without really stopping to listen. We could have entertained angels and not even known it. This is the perfect season to apply some perspective to our daily race.
Thanksgiving is a time to “give thanks”. Not in a casual way but in a deep-felt, genuine attitude of gratitude. We are taught as children to say “thank you” but often not taught why. We are told that it is the polite thing to do and it is left at that. But, we say those words because someone gave something up so that we could have it…and we are thankful for their gift. That is why we say “thank you”. They chose to go without so that we could have. Would we have done the same? I hope so. Thanksgiving is far more than just a turkey and pumpkin pie…it, along with Christmas, is a time for giving. The one for giving “thanks” and the other for giving “gifts”. For both it really is all about the giving. And we give because of what was once given to all of us. He was given because we did not have…and we should be thankful…and do likewise.
Just Letting You Know He’s There
There was a bit of thunder in the air the other night. Not the loud booming, roaring crashes that you might hear with a summer storm barreling through, but a gentle rumble off in the distance letting you know it’s there. As someone who loves rainy days, I very much look forward to hearing that first rumble after a long cold winter – It wakes me up and reminds me that dark days and cold nights are giving way to bright mornings and warm summer evenings. I love hearing that rumbling sound.
It wasn’t always so – thunderstorms terrified me, as they do many little kids. I would see the flash of lightening and hear a distant rumble and my heart would start to race as thoughts of what might happen would race and imaginations would overpower any attempt to hide. With my eyelids squeezed shut as tightly as could be, I would still see the flash and know the roar was soon to follow. I would cower under my blankets with my little fingers pressed so firmly into my ears that they would hurt. Plugging my ears and hiding from the storm didn’t make me less afraid, just less aware. Eventually the storm would pass over and I’d drift off to sleep, hoping the danger was gone. I did not understand that the only way to overcome the fear was to open my eyes to see, unstop my ears to hear, and try to understand the storm and why it rages. It took a while but I learned that thunder is just noise and cannot cause any real harm and lightening can be very dangerous but, if you are protected, unlikely to hurt you. I have also learned that there can be incredible beauty in the raging of a storm. Sometimes you have to tear down before you can build up and wash out before you can fill up.
The storms of life can often make us cower and hide, cover our eyes and plug our ears. We don’t want to see what’s going on and we don’t want to hear it. Hiding feels safe and not knowing helps ease the pain. But if we do not see with our eyes and listen with our heart we will never learn the lesson that the storm often brings and will be ill equipped when the hurricanes come…and they will come. This I know – nothing comes our way unless it has gone through the hands of God first and he does not send anything our way unless he also provides a way to make it through. I’ve learned that even though the storm may have thunderous crashes, blinding lightning, swirling wind, and stinging rain, there is always a voice somewhere in the midst of all the chaos just letting me know that he’s there – I love hearing that gentle rumble…
“Are You Kids Alright?”
This is a tough one to write. I have never really written about this topic before, or even talked about it much with anyone, but aside from my acceptance of Christ it is the single most influencing event of my life and in many ways has caused me to become who I am today. Christmas, 1980 was not a very good one.
It was December 16th and I was 12 at the time. I remember that it was a very cold and clear winter day. We had already gotten a lot of snow for the season with snowbanks already taller than I was. One of my chores was to haul in the wood for the stove and the bin was already empty from the day’s burning. As many twelve year olds are prone to do, I was procrastinating and honestly just being lazy. By the time dad got home from work the wood was still not in the house and he was pretty mad about it. So after a bit of a talking-to I bundled up and followed him out to the woodshed to do my job. He was chopping some kindling and piling wood on the sled for me to haul. He did not follow me back to the house. As I was bringing in the wood my mom asked if he were coming back in. I said he was still in the woodshed so she went out to talk to him. As I glanced out the window I saw her helping him into the passenger side of the truck…dad always drove so I knew something was wrong. She came into the house, made a couple of phone calls, and said that my brother would be coming over to help milk the cows and that she was bringing dad to the hospital and would be back later. About an hour later the phone rang and my brother answered…dad had a massive coronary and had died in the truck on the way to the hospital.
My brother made a couple of phone calls and went back out to the barn to finish the chores. One of my sisters went up to her room and I don’t remember seeing her again till the next day. My other two sisters and I began to cry alone in the living room, not knowing what else to do. About a half an hour later people began showing up at the house – first our pastor, then my older brothers and sisters, all with food in hand – probably their dinners that had been interrupted. It seemed like forever but when mom finally came home the first words I heard through her streaming tears were, “are you kids alright?” We were not…and neither was she…but there was really nothing else to say at that moment. This was the second husband she had lost unexpectedly, and the second set of children she was left with to raise alone.
I don’t remember much else from that moment on. Bits and pieces of conversations here and there, Kleenex in hands and silent stares – the cross our pastor was wearing as he sat with me on the couch, holding my hand. One thing that I do remember clearly is a long cold walk with my older sister who wanted to get out of the house for a minute or two. We walked the entire length of our long driveway arm in arm with tears freezing as they fell. She was talking about a lot of different things, as she often does, and she kept saying over and over again that Jesus loved me and that He would be my Father now. I will forever be thankful to her for planting that seed…about a year later it took root as I accepted Christ as my savior and I have never regretted that choice. She was there when that happened too.
I have spent a lot of time over the years working through the guilt and anguish of those events. For years I felt guilty because dad was mad at me for not hauling in the wood so it must have been my fault. For even longer I tried to figure out why my dad and I always seemed to be at odds with each other and how I never really thought I measured up to what he wanted. These are feelings I’m sure many young boys feel and, to be honest, many men feel. I have to concede that what I know of my dad and our relationship is through the eyes and understanding of a 12 year old boy – incomplete at best. I am still trying to figure out how to let God be my Father and how to be a dad to my kids and hoping they never wonder if they measure up. I could not be happier that the Good Lord has blessed me with two great kids.
There is much more to write about this time in my life and I’m sure I will put it down on paper at some time. These memories are very real to me during the Christmas season; even more so when I think about my mom suffering through end-stage Alzheimer’s and what that means. She’ll be 87 in a couple of days and she knows better than most that life can change on a dime. If she were able to speak, even with all she is dealing with right now, I have no doubt that her one concern would be if we were alright.
Yes, mom…we are.
The Hidden Gift
Ribbons and bows, paper and string; packages under the tree come in all shapes and sizes and colors. Gifts that show that we care for the person receiving and that we are cared for. Some presents have a personal sentiment attached that is not so much about the object in the box but the reason behind it. Some gifts are not in a box at all, but given with a look or a hug or a snugly held hand – these are often the best kinds.
As a young boy there were many things that I looked forward to and many hopes and wishes I had on Christmas morning. I remember in my younger years finding several Tonka trucks under the tree; trucks or cars of all kinds were always favorites. I remember a race track one year that provided hours of fun until I broke the tiny pins under the cars that kept them on the track. Board games and puzzles and scarfs or mittens or socks were always under the tree. And at the time they all meant something to me at the time. There is one gift, however, that I will never forget.
It was mid November of that year when I came home from school and found mom busy around the house getting dinner ready and cleaning up from what seemed a very busy sewing day. Bits of scrap fabric and thread were strewn all over the kitchen and her sewing machine was still warm from the whirring of the motor. My curiosity was peaked because for weeks before I had been telling my mom that I had wanted a sock monkey for Christmas. I had seen a picture of one in a magazine and thought it was the cutest stuffed thing I had ever seen. Plus it was made out of soft, warm, fuzzy socks so it must be great to cuddle with. While mom was in the other room I snuck a peek around the sewing scraps and found bits of sock monkey socks and a part of the wrapper that the socks came in. I could barely contain myself! My wish was going to come true! I managed for the next few weeks to keep a lid on my excitement, but this was the one gift I was most looking forward to that year.
I was the first one awake that Christmas morning and when my sisters came downstairs I was sitting there in front of the tree staring at the packages and bows and ribbons and lights, wondering which one the sock monkey was and just waiting for the go ahead from mom and dad. We tore into the pile spewing ooh’s and ah’s at what we were discovering. A game here, a pair of mittens, a puzzle or two, underwear, (really? Who gives underwear for Christmas?); but something was missing. After a half an hour or so, when all the gifts had been opened and we sat among ripped paper and packaging, there was no sock monkey. I was crushed; I was sure mom had made me one; how could I have been wrong? I spent the better part of an hour fiddling with the gifts I had gotten trying to hold back tears over what I had not. I heard mom and dad muttering in the kitchen about something so I got up and went into the kitchen trying to get up the courage to ask about the sock monkey. Mom noticed me and asked if I had found everything and I nodded. She asked if I were sure and that I might want to look again…maybe a little higher. So I went back to the tree and slowly scanned the area finding nothing left under the tree. I walked around to each side and even tried to crawl behind the tree but all I found were some needles that had dropped off the tree. As I stood there in front of the tree, with nearly tear-filled eyes, I looked up and there, deep within the branches at my eyelevel was the most perfect sock monkey I have ever seen. The floodgates opened – I reached into the tree and put my tiny hands around the toy, pulled it out and held it to my chest.
I have thought a lot about that sock monkey over the years. Such a silly thing to fret about, but I have learned something. The best gifts are not found among the shiny, glittering packages of men, but hidden within the heart of the Giver. Still today we snuggle small stuffed animals deep within the branches of our Christmas tree, barely visible, as a reminder that just because you may not see the Gift, He is there, and often in the most unexpected places.
God’s Christmas Tree
We always had a freshly cut Christmas tree. As a kid growing up on a farm with a lot of land in the U.P. of Michigan, trees were plentiful. Of course, the chosen tree was never perfect and was often one-sided but that didn’t matter because the not-so-perfect side would be against a wall or in a corner anyway. I can remember traipsing through deep snow with ax over one shoulder and a sled in tow that always turned out to be too small for the job. I don’t know why we never paid any attention to the trees in the summer and marked then which ones would be good to pick. Instead we would just set out on our cold, arduous adventure to find the best of the worst…it sometimes took hours. One year dad brought the chain saw because he saw the top of a very large tree that he thought would be good. It was a big old white pine that had few branches left toward the bottom but a full top. As it turned out, the top was much bigger than thought from the ground and it took a significant amount of cutting to get it to fit into the house, and when we did it filled out almost the entire dining room. That was the tree that the sock monkey was stuffed into.
No matter the tree, the trimmings usually made up for the faults of the tree and by the time it was fully decorated we didn’t notice that it was not perfect. Back in the day, (we’re talking 1970’s here), the typical decorations were very shiny and sparkly and colorful. Add in the giant lights that you had to clip onto the branches and the streaming tinsel all over the place and you end up with something that is more akin to a disco ball than a Christmas tree. Perhaps that’s why the song “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” was so popular back then…
On our very first Christmas together my wife and I went out and got a real tree to decorate. It wasn’t a very big one, about 5 feet tall. We shared the joy of picking out decorations and deciding on a theme for ‘our’ tree – it was simple, earthy, rustic, white lights…no tinsel. It was such a joy to be in our first house in our first few months of marriage sharing our first of now 20 Christmases. For the first week or so it was wonderful, then little by little the needles began to turn brown…first only a few then in droves. It still didn’t look too bad with all the decorations on it and we were too in love to really care too much anyway. We had our gifts underneath and were waiting eagerly for that first opening of the first Christmas gifts as a married couple. Coming home from a weekend at her parents…only a couple days before Christmas…we discovered a leak in our roof right above our very special tree. Not a little leak but the kind that eliminated what needles were left on the tree and soaking each and every gift that was underneath it! We recovered, but that was the first and last real tree we ever had. A few days after Christmas that year we went out and bought a brand spanking new factory made tree on an after holiday markdown…
Over the years I’ve learned that it’s not the tree that matters so much – whether it’s real or plastic with fancy decorations or simple homemade treasures – but what it’s there for. For children it is there as a place to put gifts, and for most that is all that really matters. As adults we understand this and want to give presents to our kids that will make them happy, keep them safe and warm, and make them feel cared about. If kids understood what is really going on they would see that what they really crave is to be loved and that is what the gifts truly are – a demonstration of just how much they are loved. I don’t believe this sentiment is lost on the Good Lord, either. On his very first Christmas, he decorated the sky with twinkling stars and angels proclaiming good news of great joy. I can imagine giant swirls of clouds and cosmic dust draped like garland around the expanse! Then He placed a big bright star on top of it all, calling attention to what was going on underneath on the earth below. And we, like children, ought to be excited about that one gift that was placed under that heavenly tree so long ago – he is showing us just how loved we all are…
Don’t Give Up…Give In
Often when we hear people talk of peace, we think in terms of not fighting. We think that if there are no wars or struggles or arguments between people then we would have peace. The idea of peace that Jesus is talking about in John 14:27 has more to do with an inner calmness and security even in the midst of struggle and pain and turmoil. “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
The Good Lord never once promised that we would not experience pain. He never guaranteed that our journey with him would be free from struggle or heartache or confusion. Nowhere does He say that the world we live in will not have battles, skirmishes, or raging wars. The battles we face daily take on many forms from financial burdens, marital strife, raising children, health issues. Violence in our streets and fighting on battlefields in foreign lands do not paint a picture of peace in our time. There is no benefit, however, in denying these consequences of our fallen world and sinful nature. The only way to find the peace that was given to us is to lay down our arms and take hold of His hand. This is not a surrender to mightier foes that we cannot defeat, but an alliance with the mightiest friend who has already won the battle. Don’t give up…give in!
He promises that we will have peace…in Him. Throughout the Bible he promises to be our refuge, our shelter, our strong tower. He says he will hide us in the cleft of the rock and protect us under the shadow of his wings. He did not promise that there would be no stones on our path, but that he would command His angels to keep us from striking our feet on them. He promises that He will see us through…not keep us from. We will have pain and struggle, and the world will have wars; but Jesus came that we may have peace in and through all these things.
Waiting is not Wasted on the Willing
Waiting has never been one of my best abilities. I quickly get irritated waiting in the grocery store line or at the DMV or at the doctor’s office. The frustration is often rewarded with unpleasant experiences – paying the cashier or the DMV clerk, hearing the doctor tell you news you did not want to hear – all a part of the process but they don’t contribute to making the waiting easier. Maybe if I got through the check-out line and found that my bill had been paid I wouldn’t mind the wait so much. I don’t like being too early for activities, I’d rather be right on time so I don’t have to wait…and if I’m going to be late I’d rather not go at all. Me in a nut shell. There are, however, many things in life that we must wait for and it has been proven time and time again that the very best things that this life has to offer are worth the wait they require.
My wife and I started dating in the month of June, 1995 and within a couple weeks we each knew that our lives together had begun. I do believe in love at first sight and I do know that the Lord’s whispers are often louder than His rolling thunder. “She’s the one” was all I needed to hear and a page in my life was turned. Four months later we got engaged and ten months after that we were married and when the preacher said “you may kiss your bride”…it was the first time that we kissed.
Those that know us well know this story. We didn’t make this choice lightly…it wasn’t an easy one, but for us it was the right one and we learned a lot through our waiting that has been a blessing to us for nearly 18 years now. We learned that there are many, many ways that you can show love – a look, a wink, a smile. Holding hands for us became intimate…and still is. We learned how to use conversation to get to know each other and how to share secrets and emotions on a level that few couples find. It wasn’t an easy courtship, but we each had great friends that we could lean on when we needed to and the grace of a loving God that was teaching us lessons that we could not have learned any other way.
We’ve looked back on that time often through the years and have realized some of the whys. Within our first four years of marriage we had two kids and those of us with babies and toddlers know that they can really put an end to alone time. Dealing with cancer for two years and 3 surgeries that all come with recovery times sidelines intimacy as well. Busy work schedules, mixing night and day and afternoon shifts, can leave little time to focus on each other. We’ve had all of these and more to deal with in our 18 years, and if we hadn’t begun our relationship learning to understand each other apart from the physical, I don’t know how we would have made it through.
Life is full of waiting – even in these days when whatever we want is expected to be just a click away, we still find ourselves in a line somewhere or in a stuck in a phone cue or jammed in traffic. While it seems there is so little time in the day, we look at these waits more as frustrations rather than little breaks from the chaos. The wait does not have to be wasted. There are things that we can accomplish and learn if we’re willing to wait. Look for beauty in your surroundings, strike up a conversation, meditate on a verse, think deeper thoughts, or simply breathe; whatever it is, use the time you’ve been given. You won’t get it back later when you really wish you had a couple of extra minutes.
There are just some things that we will never understand; at least not in this fragile life here on earth. I will never understand why my dad was taken away when I was 12 and I will never understand the mix of emotions it caused inside of me and those around me. I will never understand why, as a young pastor, I was ‘let go’ and sent away like a scape-goat, feeling like the sins of the flock were being carted away on my back as I left. I also will never understand why my soul longs for friendship and camaraderie and brotherhood, yet often finds only walls and mistrust and angst. I will never understand…
We all go through struggles and difficult times; some deep and dark, and many that take a long time to work through. I have had my share and I’m sure there are more ahead for me. In our frailness we rarely understand these times and we begin to lose hope and doubt that our faith is strong enough to get us through. The fact is, we have all fallen away at one time or another to one degree or another. Some may hide it better than others but bravado is not bravery. We have all been like Thomas, needing to not just see the wounds but touch the scars…but still finding it difficult to believe. And we have all been like Peter eagerly stepping out onto the crashing waves only to find ourselves sinking in a whirlpool of fear and confusion. Sometimes all we can do is say over and over again, “I know you’re there…I know you’re working…please hurry.”
When belief is gone and despair is crushing and faith is all but lost, even when we can’t muster the strength to cry out, there will still be a Hand reaching out to save us. There will still be a scar to touch and One who understands all the whys. He has always been there for me in those times…He’ll be there for you too, just hold on.
Isle Royale: A Lesson in Not Giving Up
When I was in my mid 20’s I spent 7 days on Isle Royale. A buddy and I hiked the length – 45 miles end to end. For those of you who don’t know, Isle Royal is a U.S. National Park in the west end of Lake Superior between Upper Michigan and Canada. It is an amazing place. It is rocky and rugged with steep ridges and valleys littered with hiking trails throughout. I have both hiked and canoed Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota and many trails in the Keweenaw of Michigan. Isle Royale was both the most difficult and the most enjoyable hike I have ever taken.
We began our journey to the island on the Ranger III that leaves out of Houghton, Michigan. It was a 4-5 hour float and we docked at Rock Harbor early in the afternoon and from there hired a private boat to take us as near to the very northern tip of the island, Blake Point, as we could get then we hiked the rest of the way to the tip. We arrived there just before sunset and the mosquitoes were so horrible that we ate, pitched the tent and went to sleep knowing we had a very long 40 mile journey ahead.
This was not a hike for the faint of heart and with 30-40 pounds on your back the trek seemed nearly impossible. We started out around 8am and since there is no trail out to Blake Point we had to bushwhack the first leg of our journey till we met up with the Greenstone Ridge trail near Lookout Louise. It was an incredibly difficult hike with deep gorges and fallen trees and some pretty dense underbrush. It is only about 3-4 miles but it took until early afternoon to reach the main trail that runs the center ridge of the island. This was just a glimpse of how tough the journey would be. We took the Greenstone Ridge trail to just east of the center of the island before turning north onto the Minong Ridge trail following Lake Superior and then into Windigo on the west end of the island.
The trails were for the most part well marked, (except on the Minong), and while some were relatively easy and good for day hikes, many trails were a constant climbing and descending, ridge after ridge, steep and rocky and slippery when wet. The Minong Ridge trail meanders through rocky outcroppings and dense forests and wet, dank swamps. Your feet will get wet. One portion of the trail that went directly through a bog consisted of long timbers floating side-by-side between two posts driven into the muddy bottom. At the start of this ‘floating trail’ there were several walking sticks leaned up against a tree for hikers to use as they went across. The logs were literally floating and when you stepped on them they would sink a bit so that your foot would be completely underwater, then you’d step onto the log next to it and it would sink so you were walking on the logs through the water as they sank all the while balancing with the walking stick that you were glad you grabbed at the start. I had never seen a trail like this before and the cool water felt great on my sore feet so I didn’t mind too much. After a bit of drying out on the other side and a dry pair of socks, we moved on…sure to leave the walking stick for others to use.
Now, I don’t know if my friend just wanted to be done with hiking, was tired of wet clothes and equipment, (it had been raining for much of this trip), or was just a glutton for punishment but we finished the entire hike in 4 days. Not kidding…every time we would get to our planned stopping point, (we had the trip planned out for a 6 day hike), he would say, “come on…we can make it to the next campground”. Eventually the ‘next campground’ became the shelter we had reserved at Windigo and another 6 or more miles on top of an already 12 mile hike that day. We arrived just as the sun was setting that 4th night and crashed. For the remaining 3 days we did virtually nothing but air out our packs and rest our beaten feet. We did take a day hike around the Feldtmann Ridge trail just so we could say that we hiked the length of the island. It was an amazing week. Early in the morning on the last day we boarded the sea plane in Windigo, along with 2 other hikers and took off for home. I learned how not to give up on this trip and that every journey is just a series of steps. Just keep moving and you’ll reach the end eventually.
There is a lot more to this week that I could share but 20 years has had an effect on my memory and the films from the camera that I had with me got lost in the unpacking and I have never found them. All I really have left is the map we used with some scribbled notes on it and a journal I kept during the trek that was more a record of a spiritual journey for me than notes on the hike itself. We saw no wolves and did not hear any either. We did see moose…one big bull moose eating the leaves off of a bush on the Greenstone Ridge trail in full velvet glistening in the pouring rain. That was a sight to see! We also saw a cow moose with her young calf near the swamps on the Minong Ridge…we made sure not to get too near the pair. We would see the occasional hikers on treks such as ours and stop and chat for a bit then move on. The scenery was amazing and I have yet to see another place in the U.S. that compares. It was a workout for sure, but the time was very well spent with a good friend a Bible and a pen. That was really my first “been there, done that” moment…and it felt great!
An Aircraft Carrier on Lake Michigan
There are events that change the course of your life. A marriage or birth of a child or the death of a loved one all have that effect and you begin to divide your life in terms of before and after the particular event. These turnings happen to everyone and can be euphoric or tragic but they all bring about a change in the way we view and live out our lives. Some events, however, are a bit more personal and don’t happen to everyone but are unique to the individual experiencing them. These are the ones that often bring about the most significant changes and don’t just change how we live, but also change who we are.
It was the spring of 1995 and I was living in Manitowoc Wisconsin at the time. I was in the beginning stages of a newly recommitted life with Christ and learning a lot…with still a lot left to learn. I was fearless, invincible, and right was ‘right’ and wrong was ‘wrong’; there was no middle. I was working in a furniture factory making decent money – at least more than I had ever made before – and was enjoying having things and getting to know people who had things. I was young and impressionable and naïve. That was all about to change in quite unexpected ways.
Word came down from the factory foreman that orders were slipping and layoffs were coming. I was one of the low men on the totem pole so mine was one of the first pink slips handed out. I made it about a week before the reality of no money coming in hit me. Somehow I thought that the factory would get some more orders and I’d be called back or that another job would just appear and I could just walk into it. Neither happened. I had rent, a car payment, credit cards, student loans, utilities…and a whole lot of ‘stuff’ that it was all tied to. On top of it all, I was alone. Many of the friends I had made were in the same or similar boat as I was. I made as many phone calls as I could and knocked on many doors looking for help or a job or both, all in vain. There was no help available. I had scraped the bottom of the barrel and had nowhere to go…so I went to the beach.
I have always loved the Great Lakes, especially Superior, but since Lake Michigan was nearby, it would have to do. There is just something about sitting or walking on a beach that always brought comfort to me. Point Beach State Park is just north of Manitowoc so I threw my bike in the back of my truck and headed out, not knowing exactly why but needing to clear my head. I rode around the park a few times but just could not get the thoughts out of my mind. I was going to lose all of my things, my friends couldn’t help me, my family was not near enough to help; I was going to lose everything…how would I ever be able to recover?
Riding my bike wasn’t helping so I went and sat on the beach. It was a cool early spring morning and the only people around were the park workers doing their morning rounds. I sat there, staring out over the lake, completely overwhelmed by the situation I had gotten myself in and my inability to get out of it. By now the tears were streaming and I honestly felt like there was nothing I could do. As I stared into the distance, an image began to take form. It was huge and a bit fuzzy at first but as I wiped my eyes, it was clear that it was an aircraft carrier, just off the shore…too far to see details, but close enough to tell what it was. I squinted, trying to tell if I was seeing what I thought I was and thinking that it was pretty strange to see an aircraft carrier on Lake Michigan. As quickly as that though rushed through my mind, I was standing on the deck of the massive ship near the bow with the runway stretching out before me. I stood there, confused and amazed at the same time. From beside and just a step back from where I was someone asked me,
“What do you see?”
“Nothing,” I said as I wiped my eyes.
“What do you see?” he said.
“I don’t see anything. There’s nothing here.” I said, getting a bit frustrated at the question and beginning to remember the load of problems I didn’t know how to handle.
“What do you see?” came the question for the third time.
“There is nothing here!” I said, “Nobody is here! There are no planes or people or equipment. There is nothing on this ship…!” As I said those last few words I turned to look beside me and was met with the most loving yet steely gaze I have ever seen. It cut me to the heart while at the same time healed the wound. “…but…you. You’re here.”
“Ok…now let’s move on…” He said, and I was back sitting on the beach in a puddle of tears.
I understood. While I was trying to live a good Christian life, Christ had become just a part of my life, and to be honest, a pretty small part. I had been placing so much value on the things that I had and the people that I knew and what those people thought of me that those ‘things’ were controlling me. The Good Lord was using the current situation to teach me that all of that stuff will fade away and if I do not have my eyes fixed on Him, I will truly be lost. He is the One who is with me…and always will be.
I left that beach still not knowing what was going to happen or how I was going to get out of the mess I was in, but believing that there was a way and it was through Christ and knowing that made all the difference. Within one month I had moved back to Upper Michigan, had a job that would cover what I needed and had gone on the first date of many with the girl that would become my wife one and a half years later. There really are events that change the entire course of your life.
I am not who I was 10 years ago and I am not who I will be 10 years from now. Neither are you. I am not the man my wife married almost 19 years ago and I am not the man she will grow old with. This is one of the fundamental lessons for everyone in a relationship of any kind to learn – people change. Now, to be sure, there are some basic personality traits that we are born with that serve as building blocks, (I have a stubborn nature, I don’t talk much but think a lot, I’m a bit moody and creative), but who I am and who you are is far more than whatever traits we may have been born with. Our experiences shape and color our beliefs and behaviors. As we meet new people and take on new challenges, we gain knowledge and understanding. We change, or to be more precise, we are being changed over time.
I learned long ago that I cannot make someone stay the same and it is futile to try. I’ve had friends that I wanted to be a certain way and act accordingly only to end up pushing them away. I tried to make them be what I needed or wanted by placing expectations on them they were never meant to fulfill. I made a ‘friend box’ or ‘brother box’ or ‘wife box’ and stuffed them into it expecting them to perform accordingly. People were not made for boxes. They do not allow us to become who we were created to be. They confine and restrict and stunt the growth that the Good Lord intends for each of us. People held in boxes become distant, depressed, angry, and resentful. Eventually these negative emotions will burst the box wide open, splattering those around with all the pain and frustration held in for so long. There is no freedom in a box, only walls of duty and expectation.
We must allow people the freedom to be who they are with the understanding that they will change over time and then, we must be willing to accept that change – and even embrace it. Who are we to stand in the way of what the Good Lord is doing in someone else’s life. We must let God do the moving and shaking, softening and healing, molding and making. He is the master craftsman and each of us are his handiwork. God knows what He’s doing in and through each of our lives. Iron may sharpen iron, but his hand must be on the hilt.
Recently I have been having a recurring dream or vision. Not as profound as an aircraft carrier or a great hall of gold, but gentler, more of an impression. I am on the edge of an endless open field, just along the tree line looking out toward the horizon. The old untended field is littered here and there with nearly ripe grains from years gone by and wild flowers of every kind dancing among the grasses. Scattered throughout are large spreading maple trees in full fall color providing shade from the late summer heat and rest for weary wanderers. The wood behind me is dark and foreboding, much like Fangorn Forest as depicted in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – dark and gnarled and dank. I have just come out of the forest and am looking out across the vast plains ahead of me, wanting so badly to run out into the gentle breezes rippling over the grasses but ever so frightened of what may be hidden beneath the beckoning surface. Maybe if I’m quick enough I can make it to one of the nearer trees before whatever lurks takes hold of me.
When my kids were young I would hold their hands as we crossed the street or in large crowds or anytime they felt afraid. If I sensed that something just wasn’t right and I was unsure or uncomfortable I would pick them up and hold them close. Sometimes I would carry them on my shoulders so they could have a better view of what was going on around them. Then, when we would get to a playground or home or someplace I knew was safe I would loosen my grip and let them run and play and explore. I’ve come to think of the Good Lord in much the same way. When hard times come, He slips his hand around ours and he holds it tight. Sometimes He carries us on His shoulders so that we can see what is around us and then there are times when He wraps us in his arms because we are sad or frightened. Then, when all about is safe and secure, he releases His grip and lets us run and explore, always with a watchful eye. Through all of my pain and struggle, victories and defeats, joys and sorrows, He has been right there holding my hand and calming my fears. Now I find myself on the edge of a vast clearing and He is encouraging me to run!
Fearful Follower, Faithful Friend (part one)
A Radical In A Tree: From his vantage point perched high upon the tree he could see the world. He could see the sun being covered thick dark clouds casting shadows and gloom over the land. He could see the animals in the fields huddling in crevices or thickets seeking shelter from the darkness. He could see the city seeming to slide down the hillside as the buildings clung to the stony ground. There in the midst of the city on the hill he could see the king’s palace where just a few hours before he had been in a meeting with the city officials wondering what they ought to do about the radicals stirring up trouble in the streets.
From that tree, which was itself on a hill a bit above the city, he could see people on their way here or there. Some were headed away having completed their work for the day or their business in the city. Others were coming nearer, curious about the commotion that had just taken place along the streets and upon the hill where his tree stood. Still others were very close, nearly at the roots of his old tree, peering up at him trying to see but unable understand why this radical was up a tree. Then there were those who were on their knees weeping, wrapped in each other’s arms that brought no comfort, unable to look up, knowing what and who they’d see – not some radical but one of their own…their very own. If he could have he would have reached down from where he was and wiped their tears away and calmed their fears but he loved them all too much to do that. He knew why he was up a tree and that he would not be there long so he steeled his heart against the sights and sounds and endured the pain.
He was not alone on the mount, there were two other men in two other trees on either side of him, one just sneered but the other was pleading. He had watched as these two fought and struggled against their captors. They had screamed and bellowed and hurled insults and begged for mercy to no avail. They had been treed and he knew he was soon facing the same fate. He resolved not to fight, instead climbing the tree himself. This had left many of the people both bewildered and amazed but none so much as the man on his right pleading, “Remember me”. He would not forget.
As the sky grew darker and the people scattered fearing the foulness in the air, he found there was nothing else he could do upon the tree. He had gotten himself into a position from which there was no turning back and he would not have done anything differently anyway. He knew the pain would be worth the reward. Though many could not understand at that moment what was happening he knew that one day they would. There was a war raging that none of them could see and this was the only way to win. So with his last ounce of courage and his last bit of strength he stood out on a branch and stretched his arms our as far as they could reach. He looked out over the people and the city and across all times and screamed, “It…is…finished!” and let himself go.
Fearful Follower, Faithful Friend (part two)
A Savior in a Cellar: Where he went no one was quite sure. Some said his final words were just the mutterings of a man who had finally given up. Others, citing the earthquake and the darkness, had a suspicion that there was far more to the cry, “it…is…finished!” Those who followed him knew it was much more and believed he had come to save them but could not understand how what they had just witnessed became salvation…it looked much more like defeat with the one they believed to be their savior now buried in a cellar.
The fact is that salvation had just been purchased and his life had been the price. For three days he had been about the business of providing a way for all to find the Kingdom. The keys were now in his hands and the prison doors were opened to those who had been held captive for so long. Now, through him, all had been given the opportunity to approach the throne of Grace and find salvation for their souls and spend eternity in his Father’s Kingdom. Those who had followed him would understand very soon and would be charged with carrying this good news to the world that they knew. That good news would eventually reach across time to every soul, offering forgiveness and granting salvation to all who would believe.
What he had just accomplished in three short days was no small feat but there were a few things he had left to do before he went to his Father’s house. Strolling along the path that lead to where his body had been laid he came upon a woman who was very much in a hurry and weeping as she ran. He asked her what was going on and, thinking he was a gardener, she begged him to tell if he knew where the body of their Lord had been taken. She was distraught beyond words but managed to tell him all that had happened over the last week – about the man who had died in the tree and how the tomb they had sealed him in was now open and empty. When he could bear no more of her sorrow, he stooped to look into the woman’s eyes and said, “Mary…”
Immediately, in amazement and overwhelming joy, she leaped up with arms outstretched, rushing to embrace him. He stepped back and pleaded with her not to touch him since he had not been to his Father’s house yet. She was quick to believe and understand what had just happened and was filled with a joy mixed with peace that could not be described. He asked her to hurry along and tell his followers all she had seen and heard – that he was alive and well and would see them all very soon. Taking one last look at his loving eyes, she sped on as if the very wind were carrying her with her feet barely touching the ground. He watched her as she ran knowing that she was the first messenger of the good news that their Savior was no longer in the cellar…she had seen him and spoken to him…he was ALIVE!
Fearful Follower, Faithful Friend (part three)
A King with Scars: They had all heard the news by now. Some had even seen the grave cloths and the empty cellar. And they had all heard Mary tell her story over and over again. Then they had been there that first night when he had walked right through a locked door and visited with them. They were surprised and overjoyed at the sight of him and in order to dismiss any doubt he revealed the scars that remained in his hands and feet and side – healed now but still visible and touchable. There could be no mistaking that this was indeed their savior.
After he had calmed their excitement he told them that just as he had been about the work of his Father that he was sending them out to do the same work and with one breath he gave them all a portion of the same power that he had to heal and forgive. They were now to be his representatives to the world. Of course, most had really no idea what that all meant at that moment but they did know that they had been changed and that the one that they had been following was alive and still their leader…and their Lord.
I was not there when all this had happened. I had been one of the first of his followers to scatter that fateful night in the garden when the soldiers came and took him. That whole night had been very strange. The lot of us had dinner together and he had told us many things about what was going to happen very soon. He had said that one of us would betray him and that Peter…even Peter…would deny him before the night was over. I was frightened and confused. How could any of these things be? He was our Lord and the Savior of our people. After supper we had gone out to the garden and waited while he and the others went further on to watch and pray. When I saw the soldiers coming and Judas among them I knew that the words he had spoken at the table that night were true. I confess, I was overcome with fear that I might be caught too…so I fled. The next day I watched from a distance as the radical, as they called him, climbed onto the tree and the words, “it…is…finished!” rang loudly in my ears. And again, I fled.
A couple of days later, I heard people talking about how the women had found the cellar empty and that Mary had actually spoken to him in the garden. He had told us to wait for him and that he would see us all soon. I could not believe it…it could not possibly be true. Wanting to go to where all the brothers were waiting but still fearful of being caught, I stayed hiding – how I wish I had had the courage to go. I could hear the commotion in the house but had seen no one enter. Later I heard that he had shown up right in the midst of them. The next day I went to the house where he had been and found the brothers and women still enamored and still talking. They told me all that had happened and the mission that the Lord had given them. I wanted to believe but just could not wrap my mind around all that had happened. No, it could not be true. I had seen him die in the tree. I watched as they wrapped his body and brought him to the cellar and sealed it. Dead men do not roll stones away.
Many days went by and while the brothers were still talking about him and their new mission, I was still in doubt. Had I missed it all – too afraid for my own life to be concerned with His? After dinner one night we were all just sitting around and talking when there, seemingly out of thin air, he appeared. The others immediately jumped up, excited to see him again and have their conviction once again strengthened. He calmed them down and made his way to where I was sitting and then, as if he had come that night just to see me, he bid me touch his hands and the scar in his side. I did as he asked touching first his hands, palm and backside, and then the deep scar in his side. I was undone…it was him…he was alive! Then he penetrated my eyes with his and said with a smile, “stop doubting…and believe!”
“My Lord and my God!” I said…and never doubted him again.
The Old Iron Bench
In an old park on the corner of an old street where few travel any more sits an old iron bench. Not like the factory made benches you see in some more modern parks, but a sturdy old wrought iron one, weathered and wearied by years but still beautiful with swirled feet and gently curved back. It once was the centerpiece of the park, which was the centerpiece of the town. Many would come and sit in the shade of the even older oak that stood behind it. It was a small park but lovely in its day – a quiet place to rest from the busy world outside.
Each day an old man would go to the coffee shop across the street and by some java and a morning paper. His heavy wool trench coat would brush the edge of the bench as he briskly walked by, in a hurry to get a fresh cup. Then he would come and sit in the shade, place his cup beside him and his tattered fedora on his knee and read his paper. When he finished his coffee he would often doze off with the paper on his lap and then jump with a start, hoping no one noticed, then quickly put his hat on and get up and go on about his day. A little while later, each day, a frail old woman would come bustling through. She always wore a bright, sky-blue overcoat with the belt synched up tight around her waist and a yellow kerchief over her silvery hair tied in a little slip-knot under her chin. She had a bit of a shuffle in her quick stride. She was on a mission and no one was going to stop her. On her way back her stride was much less swift. She had just made her daily trip to the grocer down the street and needed to catch her breath. She would sit down on the old bench and watch the people pass by for a while, nod “good day” to some, smile a tired but satisfied simile and then slowly get up, pick up her bags and shuffle along home.
Saturday mornings were usually quite busy in this little park. There was a swing set and a teeter-totter down the path a bit and the bench gave a good view for parents keeping an eye on their little ones. Sometimes the moms and dads would buy treats from the man with the ice cream cart who lingered nearby, tinkling his little bell every so often, hoping for a sale. The children would sit on the bench and eat their goodies with their parents and then run off again leaving behind sticky finger prints and drip-drops of ice cream. Many other people sat on this little bench, some more regular than others, but all for one reason or another needing a place to rest and relax a while from their busy lives.
As the town grew and new and bigger parks were built, this little one bench park with a towering oak became seldom used. People would walk through occasionally but never stop and sit. The playground equipment was moved to another park and the man with the treat cart never came on Saturday mornings any more. Now it is little more than a patch of grass on a quiet street corner – hardly noticed, barely remembered – but that little iron bench is there. A memory of how times used to be when life wasn’t moving so fast and there was time to sit and rest for a bit.
The Reason We Left
There is a line in the song “Stop and Stare” by Onerepublic, “…I know that everyone gets scared, but I’ve become what I can’t be.” There come times in each of our lives when the place we’re in has become so toxic to our survival that the only choice that is available is the one that is often most difficult to make – the choice to leave. To tuck tail and run as far away as you can and let the pieces fall where they may. It is a heartbreaking place to be and a tough call to make but in that moment, the only choice.
Several years ago I was a young pastor serving as best as I knew how in a place that I had always and will always call home. My wife and I had been married for six years and had a four year old and two year old at home. I had been a pastor for a year and a half but been ‘in ministry’ for nearly eight years prior at this same church in this same town that I consider home. Upper Michigan, the Keweenaw Peninsula in particular, is never very far from my thoughts.
One Tuesday morning in early August while reading in my office our senior pastor came in wanting to know how the week had gone since he had been on vacation. We chatted for a bit and then he asked me what my plans were for the future. My wife and I had just been talking about the issue the weekend before since it was our wedding anniversary and I shared with him that we planned to stay in town and serve as we always had felt let to. His response was, “I don’t see it that way.”
He was firing me. He used phrases like, “you’re unworthy to serve”, and “you’re leading people astray”, and told me that I was “defiantly resistant to what the Lord wanted to do in the church and in my personal life”. He went through a whole list of my faults and failures and told me that I needed to leave the church, (and suggested that I leave town altogether), by the end of the month. In that one twenty minute meeting he stomped on my heart with no remorse or regret and to this day, some 15 years later, I still do not understand what I had done wrong. A week later my family and I left the church. The congregation was told that I had ‘burnt out’ and that the Lord was ‘doing a work in me’ but to leave us alone so that work could be completed. They did…we were left utterly alone. There is more to this story that I can’t write here but this event was the root of years of confusion, frustration and pain as we tried to understand.
The first few years after were very difficult. Most in the church knew something had happened but were fed a line about what and why. We began to dread going out in town because if we saw someone from the church we would be met with looks of either fear, disappointment, or confused, uncomfortable, and hurried conversations. We were spent goods and no one seemed interested in the why. Everywhere we went became a memory of what had been and a future that might have been, but could not be. Every sight of someone we knew became like digging the dagger in deeper. We were becoming bitter and angry, fearful and paranoid, hard-hearted and resentful; we had become what we just could not be. Home had become a prison and memories and silence were the wardens.
During this time is also when it was discovered that I had Lung cancer and had half of my left lung removed. Just more bad memories to add to the pile and yet another reason staying in the U.P. had become so difficult. If home is where the heart is what do you do when your heart can no longer be at home? After six years we could bear it no longer and realized that the only way to find freedom from the barrage of memories and shattered dreams and find some hope for our drowning souls was to leave. While it has taken many years, I’m finally at a place where we can look back and see the Good Lord’s hand. I still do not understand any of the ‘why’ but the pain doesn’t linger any longer and the sadness isn’t so sad.
I can honestly say now that life away is better than the life we were living in. We have found success and safety and contentment. We have hope again and dreams for our future. We are older and wiser and have more compassion for those who feel trapped in lives they did not choose.
This is a part of why I write and, I hope, a part of why you read.
Moments Like These
There are times when life seems to rush right by, leaving us overwhelmed and caught in eddies of emotion and confusion. Other times is seems to just meander and wind its way on and all there is to do is watch the tiny ripples on the water as you float along with it. Then there are those times when life seems to stop on a dime and you are left encapsulated in a moment of awe and wonder, or despair and grief. You stand there – jaw dropped and eyes wide, or chin quivering and eyes shut up tight – waiting for the moment to end or longing for it to go on forever. I think these moments are the best moments of our lives.
I’ve found that it usually takes something or someone from outside of the space you’re experiencing to bring you back to reality. It can be a pat on the back or an embrace from someone near or maybe a little more obscure like the changing of a song on the radio or a pebble stuck in your shoe. Whatever the case, something from ‘out there’ invades your moment and it is gone. While our wedding was just such a moment for my wife and I and that first kiss lead to cheers from those around us drawing us back. Holding each my kids for the first time also stopped time for me as I walked them down to the hospital hallway in my arms. Each time it was the nurse in front of me turning around and taking my newborn daughter and son. When my dad died, this frozen moment lasted for a few weeks before I heard a teacher in school talking to another teacher about how this 12 year old was dealing with his dad’s death. I wasn’t ‘feeling well’ so the school nurse had called my mom to come and pick me up and I was waiting in the library just staring out the window.
I like these moments, even the painful ones, because these are the ones that change our lives. Or, more precisely, they are the ones that the Good Lord can use most effectively to mold us and shape us. They are the times when He finally gets us to be still long enough to create a new thread or strand in our hearts and tie it into the tapestry he has for our lives. They are what make us who we are in Him. These moments, if we allow the Good Lord to do his work, have the potential to teach us and take closer the heart of God than we can ever come when floating on the lazy river watching the world pass us by.
Captain Kangaroo, Lawrence Welk, and Archie Bunker
When I was growing up, these were the shows to watch – well, at least the shows that we watched. We didn’t even have a television till I was five or six years old. I vividly remember watching Captain Kangaroo on our brand new 19 inch black and white set. Dad had brought it home after work one day then plugged it in and hooked up the rabbit ear antenna and tuned it in to the first channel he could get anything on. It was channel 13, PBS, and the good Captain was having some silly conversation with Mr. Green Jeans. I was hooked. This new-fangled contraption was amazing and I wanted to see everything that was on it!
Dad’s only real free time was on the weekends and when the chores were done and dinner was had, he would sit with mom in the living room and watch the six o’clock news with Walter Kronkite and then Lawrence Welk. That man always talked funny to me and everyone was always, ALWAYS, smiling and there seemed to be bubbles floating about everywhere. I never really much appreciated this program…it usually put me to sleep, which may have been the intent in watching it. I just liked to feel like one of the ‘grown ups’ watching the news and whatever other shows they were watching.
Sundays afternoons were often spent snoozing to a golf game, and then in the evening after dinner the news, 60 Minutes and All in the Family. Each week ended with Archie Bunker griping about something. I’m not sure what my dad saw in this show about an obnoxious, bigoted man with strong opinions about everything and everyone, who was mean and gruff and controlling. But there was usually some larger statement the show was trying to make in spite of Archie’s demeanor and there were moments when he was more understanding and forgiving and loving. The man did have a heart…he just didn’t know how to show it and felt a greater need to protect it than share it. Perhaps that’s why dad liked the show; perhaps he identified with Archie in ways that he couldn’t share and the show helped him to feel better about himself…or at least made him feel that he wasn’t alone. I know I saw Archie in my dad and the show gave me hope that my dad had a heart buried somewhere too.
There were other shows I remember watching as well. Gunsmoke and The Waltons were rarely missed and after school shows like The Electric Company, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, and of course Captain Kangaroo were daily rituals. We only ever received three channel signals: the PBS station, channel 6 which was CBS at the time and on a really clear night we could sometimes get a brave CBC signal from Canada reaching over Lake Superior. We did not have nearly as many choices as we do these days! Sometimes I think we have too many choices in today’s world. So much information is assaulting our senses that it is easy to become overwhelmed or, even worse, absorbed into it. It was much simpler when there were only a couple of show to choose from and there wasn’t a barrage of vulgar and obscene commercials to deal with. These days it is much more beneficial to just turn it off and watch a show online at your own convenience. I can even find the good Captain, Mr. Welk, and old Archie Bunker if I’m feeling nostalgic. I can still hear Archie and Edith singing, “Those…were…the…days…”
No Rest for the Weary
The scene was nearly silent as we arrived in this new land…and we were not alone. We could see evidence of others who had chosen this place as well to call home for a while, looking for some peace and quiet and a respite from their long journeys. There were little fabric huts and a few older shacks along with some newer hovels…or maybe just cleaner…scattered among what seemed to be tall oaks with their branches reaching out overhead in a twisted and gnarled web. There were chairs gathered around each temporary home with bits of half-burned logs still smoldering in a pile of grey ash. All was silent. All was a bit eerie.
We moved slowly following the barely marked trail and found an empty spot that backed up to a slow flowing stream. With not a soul in sight we backed our humble home into the narrow space and claimed our territory. The four of us had our set-up routine down pat…this wasn’t our first time in a new land. While my son and I would begin to build our house, my wife and daughter would keep an eye on our dogs while searching for twigs and sticks to start a fire. When the house was up we men would finish with the outside while the girls would make the beds and freshen up the inside. We knew the drill and we could get the jobs done pretty quickly…but this time was different, and this place was different.
We opened our car doors and immediately knew why we saw no one about. As if they smelled us coming or had been watching and waiting for fresh meat, their armies came swooping in with sabers sharpened and ready. I looked up and saw legions upon legions of chopper-winged soldiers, each with a weapon poised and primed for slaying innocents. Row upon row in formation they flew from every direction as they began their attack. We were completely unprepared! We had no defenses at the ready and if we had been prepared it would not have been enough to quell this army. There were only four of us and tens of hundreds of thousands of them. We had no choice but to be as quick as we could in constructing our home and hope that the walls would keep the enemy at bay.
We worked frantically, fending off the attackers as best as we could. My wife was a true hero in this battle as she moved from place to place at lightning speed and then provided cover for my son and me as we began to build. With arms flailing and hands slapping we braved the onslaught and completed the set-up in record time. We were still not quite done, however. While the ladies went inside we could hear them banging the walls and cringed at their shouts of, “There’s one!”… “There’s another”…. “Got him!!”. While they were winning inside, we men were still running around outdoors, weaving and darting about trying to make sure all was tied and fastened and hooked up right. Finally, when all we could do outside was done we made our way inside where it was safe. With one more swat or two and a final, “Get that one…”, the battle was over…and we had lost. We were now trapped, just like everyone else in this new land, in our tiny temporary hut.
Yes, the mosquitoes were that bad at Tahquamenon Falls State Park…it was not the most enjoyable camping trip of the summer!
Bravado is not Bravery and Courage does not Cower
“David didn’t kill Goliath because he set out to slay giants. He set out to give sandwiches to his brothers, and Goliath got in the way.” Rich Mullins
Often we think we have to fight the ‘big’ fight. We have to get in there and duke it out and strive for victory over a foe that is twice our size, triple our strength, and backed by a legion just like him. What would you do if you were faced with that kind of threat and the only things you had to fight with were a few stones and a sling? More often than not I believe I would, (and have), tuck tail and run for the nearest cave…then complained to the Good Lord about putting little old me up against that kind of trouble. I can be such a complainer…
David didn’t wake up one morning looking for a giant to topple. His dad found him in the fields with the sheep and told him to go and bring some food to his brothers and bring back word that they were alright. That was his purpose…that was his assignment. It wasn’t to brandish a sword or even bring one with him just in case. He went to take care of his brothers at his father’s request…and there just happen to be some giants that everyone else was afraid to fight.
David’s mission to serve his brothers was paramount to any other struggle or difficulty he might face…including any giants that might come along. While everyone else was looking at the giants and cowering at their size and strength and numbers, David was looking at his brothers, and seeing their need, knew what he had to do. He didn’t have any special tools or weapons or even armor. He didn’t need to shout to the heavens and claim victory before the battle was engaged. He simply found a stone, put it in his sling and sank it into the giants forehead. He used what he had in that moment and the Good Lord made that stone hit its mark.
We do not need to go about pounding our chest and hurling insults at our enemies like the giants do. Bravado is not bravery. We do not need to hide in a cave fearing the sheer size of the battle we face. Courage does not cower. We need to stand in the knowledge that an Almighty God can to great things through the hands of a willing servant…and then do what we can on behalf of those around us.
The Numbers Game
I’ve sat in many churches and even served in a few. I have been the one sitting in the back row not wanting to be seen but longing to be noticed, and the one behind the microphone unable to hide but desperately not wanting to be judged. Both positions are nerve wracking and heart breaking because neither desire in either position can be met. There is really nowhere to hide in a church…someone always sees you. If no one else, it is usually one of the ushers as they pass the plate or during the sermon when they take attendance. You’ve seen them – standing in the back of the sanctuary when the pastor begins his opening prayer and everyone bows their heads – counting, sometimes with a pencil and paper in hand, jotting down just how many people are seated in each row, each section, then on to each classroom and nursery to make sure they have an accurate count of everyone who is in the building.
In the few churches I have served in, this number tally was viewed as very important. How many were in the service? How many children were in children’s church? How many were in the nursery? Once we had that figured out we would move on to asking other questions. How many people came forward for prayer? How many spoke in tongues? How many gave an offering?…(and how much was it? – yes, that question is asked). How many cars were in the parking lot? How many people accepted Christ today? I’m sure there are many questions you could add to the list but they all boil down to one very important question, “How many?”
Some may say the numbers game helps a church to know what kind of an impact they are having in the community. It helps them to understand what their demographics are and where they need to put more efforts. It enables the denomination leaders to put a little asterisk near your church’s name on their list of ‘successful’ affiliates. And, probably most importantly to the crunchers, small numbers must mean you are ineffective and inconsequential…both in the community and for the Kingdom of God. The numbers game is played in far too many churches.
When Jesus would minister to multitudes, I don’t believe he was trying to save the crowd but trying to reach each one. I believe he is a personal savior who desires a personal relationship with each one of us, and while we may be in a crowd sometimes, he is still reaching out to each one. And while we may marvel at how he fed 5000 or 4000 and how he preached to congregations on hillsides, Jesus did not hesitate to minister to each and every one who was in need; it did not matter how many there were…to him, all were in need and he had the cure.
So maybe we could be a little less concerned with how many people came to the service, and a little more concerned about whether they met Jesus or not. And let us also remember that Jesus did not often go to a building and hold a service; he more often sat on a hillside or in someone’s home in order to see people where they were and meet their need.
I love the fall – windy, rainy, cool and crisp with the autumn smell of a hot summer day giving in to the cold winter night. I remember growing up on the farm with the fields of dried grasses bordered with trees bursting forth in a kaleidoscope of orange and red and gold and brown. The geese heading south overhead squawking their sad goodbye as they drift on by is a sure sign that cooler days are coming.
One of my most favorite memories from when I was a kid was my mom either singing or humming a little tune in the fall each year. I thought that it must be her favorite song since she sang it so much and now, even at 46 years old, that song still runs through my head this time of year. I even find myself singing it when no one is around, but I prefer to remember the sound of mom’s voice as I hum along…
Come little leaves said the wind one day
Come over the meadow with me and play
Put on your dresses of red and gold
Summer is gone and the days grow cold
Soon as the leaves heard the wind’s loud call
Down they came fluttering one and all
‘Ore the bright fields they danced and flew
Singing the sweet little songs they knew
This little song has been running through my mind nonstop this fall, it seems, in a melancholy, ‘I wish you could stay but I know you have to go’ kind of way. I wonder if my mom still hears this song as she looks out her bedroom window or if the rhymes have all flitted away like the leaves in the song. Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease and it has been heartbreaking to watch mom fading away. I don’t know why the Good Lord has chosen to bring her through this season on her way to the house he’s built for her, but one day the last leaf of memory will fall and she will be gone.
It is almost like he has been calling her home for the last nine years and each and every little memory has faded and fallen. From time to time a leaf will be picked up and marveled at for a moment or two and then it flutters back to the ground, never to be heard from again. Maybe it is his way of clearing out all of the struggle and heartache that mom has experienced so when she steps over the threshold of her new home there will be nothing but a future of peace and happiness and joy…that is my hope as I try to understand.
I just can’t get that song out of my mind…
Bringing a Pen Light Spelunking
They say that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. While this may be true if you’re a crow flying, it is rarely the case for us terrestrial bound wanderers. I can’t just drive in a straight line from my house to the local Home Depot, or anywhere else for that matter. There are roads to follow that zig-zag their way through town and any number of routes you can take to get there. Never mind if there are road crews blocking your way and sending you on a detour miles out of your way.
I have found that it is much the same in our walk with the Lord. I can’t tell you how many times I have set a goal and made a plan that, in my perfect world, would take me directly to my destination with no detours or bunny trails; start at A, end up at B – right as rain. The thing is, I do not have ultra-high intensity headlights revealing everything ahead of me, (and blinding oncoming traffic…but that is another story). All I have is a book that is supposed to be a ‘lamp unto my feet’. It’s is like bringing a pen-light spelunking!
I think I know why we are only supposed to see a step or two ahead. We may have a destination in mind; the perfect job, the comfortable retirement, a life free of cancer – (9 years and counting!!), finishing that college degree, whatever your choice. The Lord may even have placed that goal in your heart and it may be his purpose for your life, but getting there is a process. There is only one who can see each and every stone or twist or challenge there may be between here and there and if we were able to see it all we may be too overwhelmed to even take that first step.
I believe the Good Lord gives us just enough information to know we’re on the right path without being able to see challenges we may not yet be ready to face. We may not have thick enough callouses on our feet…or knees…to withstand the stony road. We may not have learned to use our other senses enough when we cannot see to enable us to trust what they are telling us. There may be things in our path that are just too big for us to handle in our own strength and we haven’t learned yet how to ‘let go and let God’ remove them. And we may not yet understand that the journey, with all of its twists and turns, could quite possible be what makes us able to thrive in the destination.
So next time you feel like you’ve hit a road block or feel stuck in your walk, stop and look and listen. There may be something there to see or do or learn that will help you later on. It has been my experience as I shine my little light and try to make my way along that the Lord has only 3 answers to just about every question: ‘yes’, ‘no’, and ‘not yet’. And I don’t move unless I hear one of them.
Hurts in the Hands of a Loving Lord
When I was a kid I was a horrible scab picker. I know that sounds kind of gross but it is the truth…and I know I’m not the only one out there…you know who you are. I’ve got scars all over my body to proving many cuts and scrapes have never healed the way they were supposed to. I just couldn’t help myself. Even to this day if I get a nick or scratch I have to fight the urge to just see what’s underneath the scab. It’s a habit I’m trying to break. I’ve been known to pick at heart-hurts as well – all those things that people do or say that injure our spirit and wound our soul. Those snide remarks and put-downs that cause us to question who we are or if we’re important…or if we’re loved. Yes, we pick at those too by rehearsing in our thoughts over and over the wrong that was done and questioning why. Some wounds take a very long time to heal.
Healing doesn’t mean forgetting. Often there is a scar left, especially with deep wounds, that provides a constant reminder of the hurt. Healing doesn’t mean pain free. Often when we are hurt and the wound has ‘healed’, the place where we were hurt is tender to the touch and can remain so for some time. Healing doesn’t happen overnight. It can take days, weeks, months, or even years depending on the severity of the wound – or how much we interfere. In fact the one best thing we can do to reduce the amount of time a hurt takes to heal is to not pick at it. This is also the most difficult thing for many of us to do.
No matter the hurt, we must learn to leave it alone and let forgiveness do its work. Yup, there it is – Forgiveness. The word that many use but few ever master…myself included. Is it an action? Is it a feeling? Is it just something you believe? Does saying the words, “I forgive you” mean they’re forgiven? Why does it still hurt? I’m not going to claim here that I know definitively the answer to any of those questions…I’m not sure if any of us really can this side of Heaven. There is an intangible quality to the process of forgiveness. Something in the idea that says, ‘don’t touch’ or ‘leave it alone now’.
When we get a cut or scrape, the first thing we often do is wash it off and put a bandage on it. The bandage is only a temporary covering to keep any dirt or germs out of the open wound until the body is able to create its own covering, a scab. It is much the same with hurts of the heart. We make the choice to place a bandage on by saying, “I forgive”. Eventually, as the Good Lord begins to work, we will be able to remove the bandage revealing a more permanent covering with the hurt now in the hands of a loving Lord. Now comes the tricky part…not picking at the wound. Not going over and over in our minds the events. Not constantly trying to figure out why. Not talking to everyone we know to get their thoughts. Not trying so hard to ‘make things right’ when we do not have the power to change someone’s heart, or even our own. There is only one who has that power and this, I believe, is the purpose of forgiveness. To provide a covering for the Lord to change hearts and minds.
If we allow the process to happen, eventually the scab of forgiveness will fall off by itself and reveal not a scar but a testimony to the wonder-working power of the Lord.
Glimmers of Heaven
There could not be a more perfect place to watch the sun set. A cool spring evening with a hot cup of coffee in one hand and the other wrapped in the hand of the love of your life. There we sat as our kids skipped stones across the water, staring and the horizon wondering why we had ever left this place.
We’ve been gone from the Copper Country, Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, for seven years now and still at times miss it terribly. Time keeps moving on, you change and the people around you change and sometimes there is no other choice but to move on with it and sometimes that means you move away. We still get back when we can and when we do we camp at the best place in all of Michigan to watch the sun set: Mclain State Park.
This park is full of memories for us. Full of monumental events that shaped the very core of who we are as a couple and a family, and smaller, quieter moments much like the finishing strokes on an artist’s masterpiece. I remember conversations about big things and whispers about nothing. I remember teaching Bible lessons to eager learners and learning life lessons in the process. I remember walking the length of the park with good friends as we played frisbee golf. I remember each of us taking turns with our toddlers on our shoulders or walking hand-in-hand beside them as they discovered new things and learned to love this park as we do. I remember tears, and laughter, joy and pain. I remember life at McLain’s…and it is a good one.
I suspect that many of you have such a place that means as much to you. Maybe a house, a hometown, or a city that centers you and tells you who you are and where you came from – and, more importantly, where you can go back to when you need reminding. The world we live in is a big, busy, wild, and wonderous and it is easy to get caught up in and swept away by it all…far away from the truth that we know and the hope that we believe in: that Heaven is a real place and we are but sojourners here in this world. I believe those places that we call ‘special’ here are glimmers of that real place that our spirits recognize…and we long for.
Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Psalm 73:25-26
I’d love to hear about the place that your heart is tied to…comment below if you’d like!
It was a very chilly 27 degrees here in the middle of Michigan this morning…the first real frost of the season. It kind of puts one in an autumn mood – like you want to go shuffling through piles of leaves as the cool breeze gently tugs on those still left on the trees or putting the garden beds to sleep before the blanket of white descends. I’ve pretty much finished the fall chores around the house so this morning was spent with a cup of coffee on the back deck as the sun dappled through the red and orange and yellow leaves as it rose from its resting place in the East. Not a bad way to spend some quiet time in the morning.
Just as this time of year makes me want to clean up the yard and rake some leaves and cuddle up close with loved ones, I also find myself reflecting on the weeks and months that have passed; sifting through memories, clearing cobwebs, and settling my spirit. As I’ve written before, this summer has had its share of mountain tops but also some deep valleys. It is these lowlands that take a bit more work to get through and often you are left without any answers.
One of my brothers passed away in July. When I was born in 1968 he was just finishing high school and then went off to Vietnam. Later, he married and had his own family so he and I did not really have the opportunity to interact as brothers would. What I do remember about him is the example that he set about what is important in life…and what isn’t. He had a wisdom born of experience and grounded in the belief that there was a God in heaven who loved us all and there was a price that was paid for our souls.
When Jesus tells us in Luke to “consider the cost of building a tower”, the question of the verse is not what ‘tower’ are you building, but are you willing to pay the price? And if you are, do you have what it takes to get it done? Most Christians I know want to bring honor and glory to the Lord. We want to do his will and please him but often we don’t realize that living for him means dying to self – that is the cost. Being willing to lay aside all that we are and hope to be so that when others look at us they see him. My brother paid that price. Everything I ever knew about him showed that he did his very best to put away his struggles and pains and sorrows so that those around him would be blessed. He did not wear his faith on his arm but there was a spark in his eye that let you know he believed. He was a man who laid down his life in many ways and he has left a legacy that points to the Lord.
It is my prayer that in some way I can be that kind of man…I don’t think I’m there yet…
“Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it.” (Luke 14:28)
Leaders Should be Followers
There comes a time when we all choose. I’m not talking about the choice of what we will wear today or what we want to be when we grow up, (some of us are not fortunate enough to have discovered that yet). These everyday choices are quite inconsequential when compared with the choice I am talking about. In fact, the choice I’m referring to has the power to shape each and every other choice we will ever make. This choice provides the backdrop or framework that determines the ‘why’ of every other option – it is the reason you do one thing or another; say this or that; go here or there. The implications of this choice have the potential to not only change your life but the lives of countless others whom you come in contact with each and every day.
The choice is in the form of a simple question: “Will I follow Jesus?”
I was raised in the Lutheran church which gave me a very solid understanding that there was one who was bigger, greater, and more powerful than I was. It gave me the foundational belief system of a loving God who sacrificed his only son for my sins through the cross and his resurrection. When I was thirteen I accepted Jesus as my savior in a very simple prayer in a very simple place that to my spirit was an experience that I will never forget, but for many years I tried to hid because it did not fit within the orthodoxy of my traditional heritage. I did not make the experience my own till I was twenty. That was when I chose to be a follower.
That was when I chose to let Jesus be the standard bearer for all that I do. For the first few years after that I had all the symbols of a Christian: the worn out Bible, the t-shirts, the bumper stickers and music. Some of them rang true and some were the façade worn by someone who desperately wanted to be accepted. It took quite a while for me to realize that the choice to follow was not a one-time event when I was twenty years old, but a daily decision to keep following. A daily, sometimes moment-by-moment, succession of choices to be like Jesus and let him be seen through me. I have not always been successful at this.
A few years back there was a common phrase, WWJD or, “What Would Jesus Do?” (Yes, I had the bracelet), and while it describes what I’m writing about here, it really doesn’t go far enough. It is not enough to ask that question and find the answer; you must then choose to do it, and that is the tough part. You have to choose to follow and not assume you know better, or want something else, or need to be heard. I wish I were a better follower – perhaps then I could lead more people to Christ.
Fear is Not Fun
I have never understood Halloween. I just don’t get it. Let me set aside my religious beliefs for a moment and just ask, from a purely secular point of view, what’s the point? Where is the fun in seeing who can out-scare their neighbors with blood and guts, ghouls and goblins? Since when did pretend rotting corpses and moss covered grave stones become things that people willingly pay to see? I can’t remember any time when anyone I know or have heard about thought it would be exciting to visit the morgue and perform an autopsy. We watch the news and are horrified at shootings in our city streets and images of unspeakable horrors from those who embrace violence, yet go to the store to pick out the most vile and scary costumes and decorations meant to instill the very same fear we cringe at. From gory, blood strewn lawn ‘decorations’ to haunted houses to walking dead costumes, what are we thinking? With so much violence and brutality in the world these days, how is it that we have come to revel in it all? It all seems to be accepted simply because it is ‘pretend’ and ‘all in good fun’…I can tell you from experience that real fear is not fun.
This culture of gore has invaded our society in the guise of cuteness and fun. You can’t drive down the street without seeing spiders and bats hanging in trees and webs stretched across branches and porches. Windows house displays of smiling skeletons and open coffins with fanged monsters sitting upright with a twinkle in their eye. From the beginning of September through the end of October, you cannot walk into a store without a barrage of wares lining the shelves – candles, costumes, candy, spiders, bats, snakes, skeletons, fake webs, and the like, all vying for your attention and consumption. These are the things you will find in your local WalMart or Target or similar stores, but while some of the items may be pleasing to the eye, it is only a façade. I can guarantee you that if you walk into any costume shop you will not find the cute things you find elsewhere. Here you will find the true face of Halloween in the costumes meant to appear as real as any drive-by shooting or demon from hell. Along with all of the paraphernalia that goes along with it; Ouija boards, tarot cards, crystals, incense, crystal balls, creepy crawlies, and the like.
I just don’t understand how we as a society willingly glory in the gore and equate fear with fun. Good Lord, how have we let it come to this? Is it any wonder that violence is rampant and peace has become boring? I wish this season was just a bad dream and I could wake up on Thanksgiving morning with family and friends around to share a meal with, play some cards, watch some football and remember all that we have been given. Now that would be some great, good fun!
A Harvest Party!
I have never understood Halloween; from either a secular point of view or a religious one. I wrote yesterday about the secular part, but really can’t understand why Halloween has become accepted by many in the Christian community as well. I’m not saying that everyone in the Christian community buys into all goblins and goons and gore that are so celebrated, but should there not be a line drawn somewhere? Should not we as Christians stand up for what we know to be true? Christ came to bring life – not promote death. He came to bring peace – not instill fear. He came with the offer of salvation from the consequences of sin – not to revel in them.
Now I know some will say that Halloween is all in good fun as long as you don’t get into all of the evil stuff. The princess or super hero costume is fine and the jack-o-lantern as well as long as he has a happy face. Some churches even promote their own version of Halloween and call their celebration a ‘harvest party’ or an ‘autumn festival’. Of course the requirement is that costumes must be of Biblical characters and you won’t find any spiders or webs or bats or skeletons in closets. There will be candy and bobbing for apples and maybe even a pumpkin pie eating contest. We present a version of Halloween that is close enough to the world’s version so they feel welcome but not so close that we feel uncomfortable. I have seen some pretty big productions!
All of that is well and good but again, what is the point? Instead of providing an ‘alternative’ to the world’s Halloween, why can’t we just present the truth of a savior who came to conquer sin and death and provide a way out of hell and damnation? The answer to that question, as I’ve seen and heard many times, is numbers – no one would show up. All you end up doing is preaching to the choir while the lost are still lost. So in order to reach a few, we become like them and before too long the only difference is our celebration is cleaner, kinder, and safer. It is not just Halloween – think about it the next time you see Santa and his eight reindeer on the roof of a nativity scene or an Easter egg hunt in the church yard.
Have we become too like the world? Is not our truth better than their fantasy? Is it not our job just to present that truth and let the Holy Spirit draw the people in? How about we chuck all the syncretism and stand up for the Gospel. It is this truth that will set them free…not the harvest party in the fellowship hall.
That Is Where He Is
The fact is, we have all fallen away at one time or another to one degree or another. Some may hide it better than others but bravado is not bravery and denial does not bring healing. We have all been like Thomas, needing to not just see the wounds but touch the scars and still finding it difficult to believe. And we have also been like Peter, eagerly stepping out onto the crashing waves only to find ourselves sinking in a whirlpool of fear and confusion.
The events of the past inform those of the present and the future is a consequence of both. Perspective is the salve that lessens the pain and strengthens the healing. I have learned that I am a product not only of the pain I have experienced but also of the joy and without one, there cannot be the other. We will never understand true joy if we do not experience the depths of suffering and we will never learn from the suffering if we do not believe that joy comes in the morning. I believe that the Lord’s hand moves people and events in and out of our lives in order to perfect his will in us. If I believe that the Lord’s hand moves me from beginning to end, and I do, then who am I to question the tool that is in his hand. You can’t blame the hammer for pounding the nail. I could scream to high heaven about the wrongs that have been done to me and demand recompense, and there have been times that I have done just that. It has gotten me nowhere. Each and every event in my life has been a crossroad and I have been given the choice: stay on this road that I know the Lord has placed me on or turn off and seek my own will. It has been an easy choice to press on through the good times but not so easy to willingly walk into the deep, dark places. The only thing that has enabled me choose the struggle is the belief that he is in the joy as well as the pain…and wherever he is, is where I want and need to be.
Tomorrow I begin a new part of my life and my walk. I’m stepping into some unknown territory – into a new job with new people to meet and new experiences. I would be lying if I did not say that I have a certain amount of fear and insecurity, but outweighing all of that is an excitement that I have not felt in quite some time. Almost like I’ve been on a detour around a huge construction project and am once again merging into the flow of traffic. My eyes are wide open looking for oncoming travelers and scanning the horizon for new signs and directions. I’m sure there will be some bumps in the road ahead but I have no doubt that the Lord is leading…his hands are all over it!
This Is What Faith Is
It was a very chilly 18 degrees here in Michigan when I got up this morning and with the first snow of the season that came along yesterday it is really feeling like winter wants to settle in. This weather is rather early for us here in the Lower Peninsula but for my homeland in the Upper Peninsula, this is par for the course. I can remember often as a kid inches of snow covering well frozen jack-o-lanterns – Lake Superior can bring on a winter chill quite early some years!
For the next few weeks the weather will probably be a bit all over as the cool of autumn gives way to the crisp of winter. Seasonal changes can get pretty messy as we learn to let go of the past and deal with the present while preparing for the future. The winter coats get hung on the hooks with the boots beneath while the slickers and galoshes are stuffed away. The garage gets cleaned out from all of the honey-do projects for the cars, and the snow-blower and shovels replace the lawn mower and rakes at the front of the shed. And yes, there will be mud as the new snow falls on not quite frozen ground…and that mud will find its way into the house.
Finding a new normal is a process. You can’t let go and hold on at the same time…it just doesn’t work. Each and every season of our lives requires that we release what we have become comfortable with and grasp the next rung on the ladder – and then pull ourselves up. Sometimes it is not simply a step on a ladder but seems more like a leap from one swinging trapeze to another over a grand canyon with no net beneath. Letting go can be tough but if you don’t, eventually you’ll just stop swinging and be left hanging and losing your grip.
When it comes right down to it, there really is no change without some bit of unknown. Every change we are presented with has an inherent element of faith required. We do not really know the outcome of each and every choice we make or transition that comes our way. Will winter finally set in before Thanksgiving or wait till Christmas this year? Will I make it through training in my new job in time to be a benefit to the company? Will my car start this morning? Even the smallest things can make us doubt our choices. For example, on my first day of work at this new job I wore a white shirt and it was a bit chilly out so I put on my fleece jacket that I had not put on since last winter. When I took it off my crisp white button-down was covered in black lint from the inside of my fleece and I spent the day wondering if my new boss and co-workers noticed. I learned virtually nothing that first day! The next day came and then the next and I’m beginning to get a handle on things, but it is going to take some time and I am sure there will be some things along the way that trip me up…and that is OK.
This is what faith is…believing in what can be even though the evidence may say otherwise. I will learn this new job and learn it well even though it seems overwhelming right now. I will make it through this class even though I’m having trouble understanding it right now. I will get my honey-do list done, (at least started), before the snow flies for real this year. Winter will set in even though it is muddy and mucky and sloppy right now. The Good Lord will be there to catch me if…and when…I fall or fail.
It’s That Simple
I have been so blind for so long. For many years I have just taken for granted that what someone told me was truth, especially if that someone was in a position of authority over me. I heard the rhetoric, took it in, and towed the line on so many issues thinking that they must know and I should just follow. I am learning that a great many things that I had believed were truth are nothing more than preferences and what churches consider doctrines of the faith are nothing more than constructs that do little more than create divisions between the haves and the have-nots. Issues such as water baptism, laying on of hands, speaking in tongues, dancing or singing in the Spirit, worship, the hierarchy of church leadership, and many others, really have nothing to do with the salvation of our souls. While they may have a place in the life of the believer, the requirements for salvation are simply the admission that you are a sinner and the acceptance of Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.
The thief on the cross did not get baptized, either in water or the Holy Spirit and he didn’t go through a series of classes to be included among the chosen few who were members of the congregation. He didn’t even say, “I’m a sinner, please save me”. All he said was, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and Jesus’ response was, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Nothing more than that. Jesus wasn’t looking at the criminal hanging on the cross, ragged and bloodied and filthy; he was looking the seed of faith in the heart of a lost soul. All too often churches, and Christians in general, focus more on the outward appearance and position of people in their midst rather than at the heart of a sinner in need of mercy and grace. We are all sinners and we all need Jesus. It’s that simple.
I have come to understand some difficult things. I’ve learned that the Lord’s whisper can be heard above the shouts of men, but we must learn to listen. I’ve learned that He is more often seen in the nooks and crannies of real life and not in the orchestrated production of the modern-day church. I’ve realized that though justice may be desired, mercy is demanded and is the only path to forgiveness. He never pushes, but always pulls. His is the hand reaching behind to grasp the soul in the depths of surrender…and he doesn’t let go.
Waking the Waiting
It began with the sound of gentle rain on the roof. At about one in the morning I stirred in my slumber and then woke as the soft pitter-patter became a drenching downpour. I listened as it washed away the winter grime and gave hope to dormant roots still sleeping in their garden beds. Perhaps it was a waking dream or just my imagination painting a picture, but I could see the water as it flowed through the soil caressing every root and tuber and bulb waiting in their beds for that first sign of spring. That is all they really need; just a taste of fresh water filtering through once frozen soils. That is all any of us really need.
As I laid in bed and listened I heard another sound. It was distant and deep like the sound of gravity, if gravity has a sound, causing you to quiet your soul, humble your heart, and bend your knees. Announced by bursts of brilliant light, the thunder rolled and rumbled, low and long and louder with each flash. The rain intensified, the lightening lit up the sky, and the clapping and crashing thunder neared. The storm was approaching and I lay in my bed quietly listening as the first storm of the season rolled in. I have been waiting for this for a very long and cold winter.
What began as a gentle sound that stirred my sleep soon became a cacophony of light, roaring thunder, whistling wind, and pouring rain. Gentle rumbles soon became bone shaking bellows in low tones, thudding and thumping through the walls, rattling the roof and windows as the waves of sound moved through the air. I imagine the ground shook as well, loosening the soil for the falling rain to seep in and nourish the thirsty roots. Each flash of light showed the way, each gust of wind a breath of fresh air, and every rumble breaking up the ground a little more as the water filled the empty spaces.
Soon the storm moved on to wake and water other waiting lands. I turned on my side and pulled the covers up under my chin and drifted back to sleep thinking…maybe dreaming…what it would be like to be in one of those garden beds that the storm had just rolled over. I can only imagine…
This Is Our Table
I’ve been honing my handyman skills over the years. I’ve built many things from trivets to headboards to boxes for jewels. I’ve built walls and fences, decks and benches, desks and shelves. Some projects filled a need while others were just a whim and some were just a poor attempt. Through each I learned what works and what works better, what needs to be done first and why then how to plan it all out. Shortcuts result in shoddy work and often there is only one right way to do something.
This most recent project has been brewing for quite a while. I’d looked at many examples of what I wanted trying to figure out how they were built and watched many videos looking for ideas. A table is a very important piece of furniture and I wanted to build something that would last. I did not draw up a plan, (I rarely do), but had all the details worked out in my mind step-by-step. I figured out the proper height for my family and how many we wanted to seat comfortably. I wanted something substantial yet not bulky, practical but not plain. I wanted someplace to gather and linger, not just sit at. After all, that is what tables are for.
A table is a meeting place. It is a place where people look at each other in the eye and share ideas and memories and plans. It is not a desk where the one behind is in charge. It is not a counter where one comes to be served. It is not a buffet to pick and choose and then walk away.
A table holds a moment in time, meant to be shared…meant to be remembered.
I have argued at a table and found common ground. I have belly-laughed to tears and then through those tears laughed even more. Other tears around a table have not been so pleasant but brought on by pain and heartache, fear and regret. I have made grand plans around a table and wondered at mediocre success. I have joined hands in prayer, watched as Bibles were opened, then been amazed by a gracious God as he opens each one’s eyes to truth we had not seen before.
This particular table was all the more important to me because my 15 year old son helped to build it. We laughed and learned. I’m not sure if he had any thoughts about the significance of a table…this table…but I did. A family needs a place to gather; this is our table…this is our home…
Where Faith is Formed
There are times in our lives when things become crystal clear. We are able to recall events from years gone by, understand how they have brought us to where we are right now, and peer into the distance like an archer down the shaft of his arrow to a target a long way off. We stand and say, “I get it now…I understand” and then sit back down and bask in the wonder of connected events. As the first light of a new morning lifts the fog from the hills we begin to see the panoramic expanse that has been our life and we are humbled, grateful, and hopeful. We want to remain where we can see the bigger picture and understand the beginning from the end, but there is a part of us that knows a bitter truth that before too long we must entertain…we cannot live on the mountain – we must return to the valleys.
When you boil it all down, the mountain top only serves to show us how to get to the next peak – the next point from which to get a further glimpse. It reveals the distance and the darkness of the valleys between. We can see which ridges and ravines to skirt, the walls and barriers we’ll need to go around, and the rivers we’ll need to bridge. This is where we must go and this is where most of our time is spent – here, in this life, we are valley dwellers.
We live our lives in the daily ups and downs of humanity and its man-made environments. We strive through emotions and tragedies and struggles and fears as we try to hold to our path. If we were wise we would have drawn a map while on the mountain and kept is safe in our hearts so we would not stray when events buffet our determination. If we are wise we will join hands with others along the way so we could all weather the inevitable storms. If we are wise we will guard our hearts and minds from the temptations in the valleys that would draw us away. But we are not as wise as we’d like to believe. We were given a map, but it is rarely opened. We build barricades to keep others out and walls without windows. Our eyes and ears lead us to linger far from the road that would lead us out of the valley. We are frail and fallen and frightened…
But we are not forgotten…and we have not been left alone.
His eye is always on us. He know exactly where we are and how far we’ve strayed and most importantly, he know the way out. He knows who to bring alongside us and who to lead us away from. He knows which walls to bring down and what bridges to build. He drew the map we were given on the mountain top…and it hasn’t changed. He is the author and finisher of our faith – what he revealed on the mountain he will complete through the valley. He knows the only place to learn these truths is in the valley where experience becomes the teacher and theory is tested. Faith is formed on the valley floor.
These are lessons we must learn to live a life of faith because every valley wall is a mountain side and every mountain side tumbles into a valley. The higher the mountain, the deeper and wider the valley.
The Truth That We Know
Easter bunnies, like clowns, are creepy. The other day while shopping there was an Easter bunny wandering around the store peeking around aisles and hopping through the garden center and handing out candy to children. He was dressed in a tattered white furry costume with long bent pink ears and broken whiskers with big white teeth and little beady eyes that did not move but stared blankly in whatever direction the head was pointing – creepy. I assume this character was approved to be wandering the store since the assistant manager was tagging along after him watching his every move, which in a way is even more creepy.
He skipped by my son and I in the hardware department and snickered as he passed with his little manager friend close in tow wearing a sheepish grin – it’s giving me the willies just writing about it! After they had passed I leaned over to my son and asked what he thought would happen if a man dressed as Jesus were walking around instead handing out tracts and praying with people. Come to think of it, what would happen if instead of a fat man dressed in red with a white beard inviting children to sit on his lap and whisper in his hear what gifts they wanted at Christmas there was a mom and dad kneeling near a cradle with a baby boy inviting people to come and see what God had done.
How far we have strayed from the truth and followed the lies. It’s not hard to understand why…the lies come with candy and toys but the truth often comes with surrender and repentance – neither of which could be called fun. There is a tug of war taking place in our culture between truth and lie and believers are the rope. We are told by the world to stay in your little church – don’t come out, don’t teach or preach, and don’t share your faith because it offends. We are also told by our church leaders to go out into the fields for they are ripe for the harvest and then bring those you find back here to be saved. Both are wrong.
We are called to be salt and light in a dark and unsavory world. It is not up to the church leaders in the buildings to save the lost, but up to the Holy Spirit working in and through believers who are willing to shine and season their lives with hope, kindness, and love. The truth of salvation can be presented in simple and loving ways that are not offensive. It can be seen in simple acts of kindness or a glance that says “I understand” and “don’t be afraid”. It is found when you keep your promises and confidences and do your best to be honest. These are the kinds of things that people everywhere are longing for and willing to follow after if they are real. The world has given us characters for every holiday that entice us with sweet treats and pretty wrapped presents but after the excitement wears off they are nothing but hollow shells and figments of our vain imaginations. We don’t have to bluster and banter about the truth that we know – we need to be the truth that we know. And that truth will then become real to those who are seeking and they will be found.
To Center My Soul
I love to drive. It really doesn’t matter where or when, but there is something nostalgic about watching the horizon in the distance get closer and closer, then see it pass by shrink out of sight in the rear-view mirror. Driving reminds me that all things come and all things pass, and all things are relegated to mere memories – nothing lasts forever – and sometimes you have to slow down or stop lest you miss the point. When I was younger my drives would often lead to a trail-head to hike, some random two-track to explore, or a beach, but most often they lead to McLain State Park. This is a place that is never far from my thoughts. It is the place where many memories were formed and many relationships took root. I have walked the trails, camped in the campground, waded in the waves, watched the aurora borealis over Lake Superior, and of course watched countless sunsets.
My earliest memory of the park is of one particularly long and boring family blueberry picking expedition up the spine of the Keweenaw Peninsula back when I was about 8 years old. Now, you have to understand that I love blueberries, and it wasn’t really my fault that my bucket was the only one empty…after all, it was a long drive and I was hungry…and they were there in the bucked begging me to indulge. Long story short, for the trip home I was in trouble for eating all of my blueberries. Along the way, I vividly remember this sweeping curve in the road and a big, log sign that read “McLain State Park”. I knew there was no chance of stopping since it was late on a Sunday afternoon and dad had to get up early the next morning and the cows weren’t going to milk themselves…and I was in the dog house…but I still wanted to stop and see what was there. I know it sounds strange, but in that moment a knot was tied…I hadn’t even been into the park but I knew that there was a new space created in my soul that for the moment was untouchable.
It wasn’t till years later that I finally entered the park and began to experience what my soul had been longing for. I believe that there are places that we are tied to; a kind of homeland or place where our soul was made. McLain’s is that for me. It is a steak driven deep in the ground that states, “That is who you were before, this is who you are now, and there is where you are going.” If I ever need to remember any part of that, I can go back there and find that center for my soul. At that park I’ve made friendships that last to this day. I’ve witnessed couples begin their lives together as one. I’ve been a teacher and guide for those that needed my help and I’ve been a follower in need of a leader. I’ve cried, laughed, loved, and lingered at McLain’s…I have never found another place like it.
McLain’s has less to do with the physical place and more to do with the experiences I’ve shared at that place. Each memory has become a marker…a touchstone…a signpost. A reminder to me that those experiences and those people are real and did change my life…and it happened there. I’ve had opportunities to go back in recent years and am always flooded with memories. The angst is unbearable at times. I want to stay but I know my life is somewhere else right now. Maybe someday I’ll get back there and the longing soul inside will once again experience the untouchable.
Praying for Clear Skies
Rain usually makes me feel better…but not today…I don’t know if there is much that could. For the past eleven years my family and I have been watching as our mom was slowly robbed of everything by Alzheimer’s and one week ago I got the call that she had lost the battle. It happened a little before 3am last Saturday. I knew the call was coming – we had watched as over the final couple of weeks she went from some chest congestion and low grade fever to not waking, not eating, not drinking. I did my best during that time to keep everyone updated and prepared – that was my job as her DPOA. I made the gave the nursing staff permission to discontinue medications…I gave them permission to provide comfort measures only…I gave them permission to start her on Roxanol to ease her pain as she passed. I did all this and more fully knowing I was carrying out her wishes but also fully aware of where these choices would lead. They were not easy choices…
I spent the last week with my brothers and sisters planning her funeral and making sure everything was paid for and all of her wishes were honored…I think we did pretty well. There were no fights, everyone cooperated and shared the load and that was a real blessing and testament to what can be accomplished when other’s feelings are considered before your own, and doing what mom wanted was more important than what any one of us may have desired. My wife and I did not choose to spend our 20th anniversary at my mother’s funeral, but that is how it happened and I hope the Good Lord explains his timing someday.
It has been a very difficult week and today is really the first day I have had to sit down and ask, “what just happened…?” The rain is not helping. If I could curl up in a ball in the smallest corner behind a closed door today I would. That is how I feel at this moment. I’m not looking for a hug or words of encouragement – I’ve heard them all already and for someone who is not a hugger I’ve indulged too many this week from people I hardly know. Please understand, I appreciate all who spoke those words and gave those hugs and I know their sentiment was sincere, but I’m all hugged out and I can’t bear one more “I’m so sorry…” This is me right here and now – as real as it gets.
It started raining the night after the funeral and hasn’t stopped yet…I never thought I’d be praying for clear skies…
The Little Things
Over the past several weeks I have crossed paths with many, many people. In my job I interact with college students daily as well as administrators, faculty, maintenance and security workers. There are a couple of different gas stations and grocery stores that I frequent during any given week and most of the clerks know who I am, many of them know my name as well. There is a restaurant that my wife and I like to have breakfast at on the weekends and there is one waitress in particular who knows us and will chat with us each week. Most of these interactions are with people who either know me or know my face and I superficially have a relationship with. There are others who do not know me at all but I have communicated with on some level due to circumstances and necessity: the mechanic who replaced the brakes on my truck and the saleswoman who tried her best to sell me a car while I waited; the clerk who rang up my new shoes at Kohl’s; the campground staff who checked us into our site and then out; the various gas station clerks at all of the many stations we have visited as we’ve been traveling; countless others I have shared a passing “how are you?” with in the hallway or waved on at an intersection while waiting my turn or just smiled at and tipped my head to say “hello”. And then there are some of you who have just discovered this blog and are curious. Most of these people have no idea that my life has been turned upside down and inside out over the past several weeks…most have no idea that my mom died last Saturday and I am still trying to makes sense of it all.
This whole experience has made me think about all of the people I interact with in a given week and how I have no idea whatsoever what they are dealing with on any particular day. We know so very little about each other these days – at least very little about what really matters. Sure we have all of the social media avenues by which we interact with people but most of what we see there is superficial and, to be honest, merely a distraction. We post about recipes and building projects and pictures we like but even Facebook and Twitter are not appropriate forums for the deep and personal, tragic and traumatizing events we all deal with. Superficial is safe – deep is dangerous. I wonder what would happen if suddenly one day I awoke with the amazing ability to know what each and every person I meet that day is going through. If I were to know that they just broke up or that they had just lost their job or earned an amazing promotion. What would I do if I knew someone was planning their suicide or dealing with a forced retirement? What would I say to someone who felt completely lost and alone but was very good at painting on a smile hiding their confusion? Would it make any difference in my life if I were to know that the man behind the counter had just said goodbye to his wife of 30 years two weeks ago and would today after work once again kneel at her graveside in a puddle of tears because he couldn’t bear to be home alone?
There is so little we know about each other, yet so much more that we assume about one another. I’m not suggesting that we all wear a sign across our chests with our life story written so everyone can see and understand…but I’m sure we could all give a little kindness and share a little tenderness in the likelihood that those we meet are not as well put together as they’d like us to believe. I know I have noticed those people who have spent an extra minute or taken an extra step to make things better for me even though they had no idea what has been going on. I doubt that many of them knew what they were doing, but somewhere, somehow they felt a nudge or thought twice and made a little more effort…perhaps that is one way the Good Lord moves through others to get to us in our times of need. The little things really do make the big things a little easier to bear.
Like nearly all of the characters in Les Miserables, (with the exception of the Thenardier’s – the Lady and Master of the House – who know exactly who they are and don’t try to hide it), we are all prisoners. Not necessarily locked up in some jail cell with no escape, but chained none-the-less by a selfish nature and unrepentant heart. The only place freedom is found is in the truth telling and then in forgiveness.
Jean Valjean is bound by a secret no one knows but the Priest an inspector named Javer who is himself bound by legalistic rules and unforgiveness. Fantine is bound by circumstances brought on by a careless and reckless past spent seeking love but finding only self-contempt and humiliation. Marius hides his rich aristocratic childhood behind his longing to be accepted by the common people whom he identifies with. Eponine hides her love for Marius and jealousy of Cosette behind a tough-girl image. Enjolras is a fearless revolutionary idealist, fighting for a cause greater than himself but still blind to the realities that surround him. Cosette is bound the secrets of others and a past she does not remember but longs to understand. These are characters caught up in the same fallen world bound by the same corrupt human nature that many of us find ourselves trapped in. We identify with one of more of these people and want them to find freedom and rejoice when that finally happens. We are all 24601.
This story reminds me of who I was, who I am, and who I long to be…forgiven, free, and loved. I love this story because it does not hide the fact that the only place these longings can be found is in the grace and mercy of a loving God. It is all wrapped up in Valjean’s closing line, “to love another person is to see the face of God.” Real love is not bound by expectations, rules, or requirements. It is not used as a tool, given then taken away. It is not hidden out of fear that someone will know and others will see. It is not reserved only for the deserving. It does not live only in the light but seeks out those in darkness and despair. Love is a choice, given freely, expecting nothing. It is what fuels forgiveness, fosters hope, and empowers faith. Love is the motivation of an Almighty God working on behalf of his most favored creation. Love is an innocent man on a cross reaching out to all of us 24601’s who are bound, offering forgiveness and freedom.
Rainbows for Breakfast
It is no secret if you know me or have been following this blog that the past two or three months have been some of the most difficult for me and my family. There are seasons of our lives that are just the pits and there is nothing anyone can do or say to make things better. There is no turning back because circumstances have destroyed the path you were on, not stopping because you are not controlling events as they happen, and no end in sight because you cannot see very far ahead with all the chaos swirling around. There is no choice but to take one step…then another….and another….then…
But even in the darkest times when we think things will never change and the skies will never clear, if we look we will see the hand of God working all things out for our good. The mountain may not move and the ocean we feel like we are drowning in may swirl even faster, but if we look and listen we may be able to see him in the little things…the things we would likely take for granted if we were not in such a difficult time.
It is the beginning of October and here in Mid-Michigan the leaves are changing and the past couple of weeks have been filled with sun-showers and cool days. I have nearly an hour commute to work each morning and I leave the house around 7am just as the sun is coming up and when it finally crests the trees and its rays stream through the clouds it catches showers on the opposite horizon sending rainbows towering into the skies. There were many this week…and each one is a promise – beauty in the midst of an approaching storm. Every single one I saw this week I claimed… “you will never leave me or forsake me”; “you are working things out for my good”; “nothing will separate me from the love of God”; “come to me and I will give you rest”; “for I know the plans I have for you…”; and so many more promises the Good Lord has made to me…to us.
Then, as if to remind me that he is in control of all things, someone bought me breakfast this week. Yesterday I left home a bit early so I could get a breakfast burrito and hash brown on my way. Not a big deal and probably not the best meal I could have chosen, but sometimes you just want to indulge and this was one of those mornings. As I pulled up to the drive through to order, the clerk informed me that their debit card machine was out so they could only take cash. I don’t usually carry cash so that took care of that little splurge. As I went on my way I decided to try another drive through in another town…I placed my order and pulled ahead to pay and the clerk told me that the gentleman ahead of me had paid for my breakfast. Before I could wave a thank you he sped off…if someone out there is driving a silver Ford Taurus and paid $3.69 for a breakfast behind you yesterday morning…Thank you! You made my day! That little event got me thinking of all of the little circumstances that the Good Lord had to coordinate to get me in the drive through lane behind that Taurus…he is in control of the smallest details that we don’t give a second thought to…and I complain far too much.
I do believe that things will get better for me and my family, and I do believe that there is a God in heaven and in our midst who is holding all things in his hands – we do not escape his notice for one moment. Maybe a corner has been turned and the horizon will soon be in view with the sunrise ahead of me casting rainbows behind me as the storms move away. Rainbows are promises I will hold on to for as long as it takes…