Of Maps and Shadows

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Many thanks to my friend (and partner in crime), Carrie Givens, for wrapping up our reading of Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw. Carolyn Clare Givens works in Communications at Church at Charlotte in North Carolina and does freelance writing and editing. A displaced Northerner now exploring the foreign ways of the south, she has previously bumped around the world, both as a missionary kid and as an adult. She revels in good stories, good music, and wrestles with the intersection of faith, art, vocation, and culture. Online, she hangs out at her website, carolyncgivens.com, on Twitter, and at her page on Facebook.

I once had a haphazard, twenty-minute lesson in orienteering. I’d never seen an orienteering compass, so I asked my friend Ben to show me how it worked. He began to demonstrate, lifting the compass to eye level, finding a mountain peak through the trees, and turning the map into alignment.

One of my pastors, Dave Huber, was recently teaching about the concept of wisdom in Scripture. He noted that the Bible doesn’t give us a map for life, but rather teaches us the fixed points of truth and trusts us to navigate life based on them.

As I stood in the woods with Ben and the orienteering compass, I quickly learned the value of fixed points. Three more steps to the left and we wouldn’t have been able to see that mountain peak. Without that fixed point, it would have been easy to be overwhelmed by the darkness of the trees, the confusing paths between them. Even with our map, without the fixed points, we may not have been able to find our way home.

Walking through life, there have been plenty of moments when I’ve been more surrounded by the trees than in sight of the fixed points of truth. Sometimes God, and His truth, seems invisible. Luci Shaw, in her book Breath for the Bones, writes of this feeling:

The God who is not there. Or, the God who is there but not here, except for occasional momentary visitations. I have often felt, in reflective moments as well as at the raw edge of experience, that I have a now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t God, a chiaroscuro God, some of whose features are highlighted in the manner of the Italian renaissance painters who employed that technique, but whose being exhibits such mystery, such inscrutability, such otherness, that it can only be represented by deep shadow, which might as well signify absence as obscurity, it is so unknowable. (p. 151)

It often feels that we have more shadows than light in our story. We wander in the woods with the lengthening darkness and we cannot glimpse the mountains.

In Breath for the Bones, Shaw speaks of the role of art in these times, and of the difficulty Christians often encounter when faced with the shadows. Not only is there the tension of authenticity—presenting through our art the struggles as well as the joys and peace of life—but as Christians, we strive to speak truth in our art. Unfortunately, as Shaw points out, truth isn’t always perfectly clear, nor is it always pleasant to face. She writes,

Christians who practice art must not always feel bound to produce sweetness and light. We have to recognize the darkness and shadow as well as the light, and realize that God allows shadows into our lives. God is not dark and evil, but he embodies mystery. (p. 161)

She goes on to say that the contrast between darkness and light is valuable—for you cannot see one without the other. “Contrast highlights, as it were; it allows meaning to be seen and experienced” (p. 161). The part of the journey lost among the trees may be dark and frightening, but we would not fully understand what it means to be lost unless we also had some understanding of having the fixed point in our sights and navigating toward it. But to get through the trees, we must sometimes walk through areas where we cannot see the mountain peak. And to do so, to step onto the confusing paths among the trees and away from the glimpse of alpenglow, requires a certain faith. “All mystery feels like a fog,” Shaw writes. “It presents hiddenness. It demands strong faith to walk into it believing that one day it will be demystified” (p. 162).

And this, I think, is the moment where the Christian artist comes into his own. I had a professor who used to say, “The writer is the one who points and says, ‘See.’” She knew the power of art to help navigate the darkness. It’s a wild and dangerous profession, one that the artist shares with the men and women through the ages whom God called to speak the truth. To do so, He asked them to lay on their side for a year, to marry a whore, to be sawn in two. It’s never been an easy life. “Christian poets stand with the seer and prophet,” says Shaw, “one foot in heaven, one on earth, perpetually torn by that duality of focus as the divine dream is channeled through their human voice or pen” (p. 164). We glimpse the light on the mountaintop and we point to it as we walk through the darkness.

Another pastor at my church, Jim Kallam, spoke recently about the final words of Jesus in Scripture—not His words to His disciples before He ascended, but His words in the twenty-second chapter of Revelation. Jesus describes Himself one final time in that chapter, saying, “I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” (Rev. 22:17 ESV). Jimmy said, “The morning star appears in the night sky when the night has reached its greatest degree of darkness…and what that signifies simply to me is this: though it may still be dark, it will never again be totally dark.”

Andy Gullahorn, in his song “Grand Canyon,” sings,

I can’t sleep
There’s too much weighing on my mind
But there’s a bird out there
Still singing in the dead of night
Like it knows there’s a season
when the sun’s gonna set
But the story isn’t over yet

The artist, the poet, the writer is the one who points and says “See.” The faithful artist is the one who navigates the dark, shadowy mystery by the Bright Morning Star, and is singing with the bird in the dead of night, saying that though we can’t see them through the trees, the mountaintops are still there, awaiting our approach to a break in the branches when we can lift up our orienteering compass to eye level and continue to find our way forward.

– – –

This post was written in response to reading Breath for the Bones by Luci Shaw. You can catch up here:

Graffiti Art and Repentance (Intro, Chp 1-2)
Tell Me a Story (Chp 3-5)
Pressing Into the Quiet (Chp 6-7)
A Musing on Divine Love (Chp 8-10)
Of Maps and Shadows (Chp 11-12)



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Grandma

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A few years ago at a little radio station in Mystic, Iowa.

We are burying my grandma today.

Friends have been so kind to offer words of comfort and support. Strangely, I’ve felt a twinge guilty to be on the receiving end of such emotional generosity. I’ve watched others endure a fierce anguish at the death of their loved ones. That hasn’t been the case for me. As I stood by my grandma’s bedside in her final hours, the primary feeling that flooded over me wasn’t grief – it was gratefulness.

We grew up 900 miles from my grandparents and were fortunate to see them once or twice a year. She was never part of my daily life, I can’t remember her babysitting us, and the longest period of time that we spent together would have been a week. We didn’t have deep, life-changing conversations and my children have only fleeting memories of her. Yet as I look back over the last four decades, I can see the significant impression that Grandma’s life has made upon my own – and in turn – on my family. When viewed as individual moments in time, our relationship looked like the close-up view of a Seurat painting – colorful, but lacking form and substance. I’m grateful that time has given me a larger perspective. Those individual dots of visits to Iowa and remembered birthdays and quilts made for babies were tiny brushstrokes of what became a masterpiece. Her life was a work of art in the truest sense – taking the raw materials of love for her Lord, her family, and all things creative – and transforming them into life-giving beauty.

Grandma’s life wasn’t easy. I don’t think she finished high school, she married young, and she and my grandpa endured the great depression on a coal-miner’s wage. They raised their four children in little more than a shack in a tiny town in Iowa. Yet they worked hard and dreamed of a better life, one where their children would thrive. And they did.

We remember Van Gogh for his bold use of color. Rembrandt, for his masterful use of light and shadow. Grandma’s life had distinct qualities that have marked her time on earth and those who knew her.

~ A quiet strength and steadfast faith. She was always a safe place for her grandchildren. No doubt, she prayed us into the Kingdom.

~ A home that welcomed all. And at all hours. When arriving after midnight on a trip from Tennessee to Iowa, she would stumble down the hall and greet us by sleepily asking, “Do you want some ice cream?” Every. Time. Candy dishes brimming with butterscotch , photo albums crammed with pictures of grandchildren (and the occasional newspaper clipping reporting that “Lem and Thelma Stolz had grandchildren in town visiting this week”), and walls covered in portraits that she had painted of her grandchildren, all declared that we were loved.

~ A love for all things creative. At 50 years old, she decided to learn to paint – because she wanted to paint her grandchildren. Within a year, she had won a blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair for her work. Many years later, she learned to quilt. The embodiment of her warmth and creativity, she gave dozens of quilts to charity. Our home enjoys handmade quilts for holidays, each baby that’s been born, children’s rooms, and even baby dolls. Such heirlooms are a rare treasure. When I visited Grandma near her 90th birthday, she had recently given up cable television. “I just don’t understand those old people who sit around and watch television. I need the extra money for my crafts.” She painted and quilted until her final years. We are the grateful beneficiaries of her work and her spirit.

~ A grounded presence. She had the rare gift of being both practical and tender. When my grandfather died, grandma was beside herself. She had lived more than fifty years with one man – each life bleeding into the other. Shortly after his funeral, she sat at the kitchen table, memories and tears flowing. Then the tears stopped. “Well,” she said. “Now I can eat chicken. And I can go back to potluck at church.” Grandpa didn’t like chicken, and his declining health toward the end of his life made church attendance difficult. She loved him deeply. She grieved fully. But she chose to see the good in life as it was given to her.

~ A love for music. When my mother was young, she and Grandma had a spot on the local radio show. In homemade matching outfits, Grandma played the piano and they sang gospel songs together. Even in the past few years as her memory and eyesight failed her, the music she loved dearly did not. She couldn’t remember her children or grandchildren, yet she could sit at the piano and play beautifully.

My grandmother will be missed, but we are eternally grateful for her legacy of faith, creativity, steadfastness, and music.

We are burying my grandma today. But the melody of her beautiful life will continue to echo into future generations.

 

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The 90th birthday party.
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Grandma with her namesake (Caroline “Hamilton” – from Grandma’s lineage).


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Brokenhearted

I’m not really a dog person.

A little over a year ago, we lost our miniature dachshund of fifteen years. Many words could have described her – yappy, longish, feisty, and naughty are among them. But the word that rises to the top of my caricature list would be “loyal.” She was always there – through holidays, sickness, three moves, and all the drama that comes with a family of seven. She sniffed the tiny toes of three new babies. She scuffled around (and under) our feet as we planned two college graduations and a wedding. Maggie loved us well.

Yet as the years rolled by, the demands on my time and the level of my expendable energy were at odds with one another. My heart, which had once been smitten with our little puppy, grew indifferent. “High maintenance” was a term that she earned honestly, and the years were siphoning off my ability to keep up with her needs. I grew frustrated with the cost, upkeep, and energy required of me. I’m sad to confess that in the last months of her life, I was anticipating the relief that would inevitably accompany her passing. When Maggie’s last days actually arrived, I was surprised by the sadness that overtook me. I couldn’t make it through the door of the vet to tell her “goodbye” without dissolving into tears. But the temporary wave of emotion and nostalgia didn’t penetrate my pragmatic resolve. We’re done with dogs. At least for a very, very long time.

With the pang of grief added to the long list of “why we wouldn’t have another pet anytime soon” the kids eventually stopped asking. We didn’t talk about it. I could find no logical reason to sign up for all of the work and inconvenience (and inevitable heartache) that a new dog would bring. It wasn’t practical.

Left alone to the laws of entropy, even the strongest surge of affection deteriorates over time. With our pets, our spouses, our friendships. It’s a slow, steady death.

Initially, we feel deeply – so deeply that love stretches the heart beyond capacity creating an achy, visceral joy. Over time, practicality and selfishness prick tiny holes, each slowly draining drops of life. As joy trickles out like air from a deflating balloon, the heart hardly notices. It regains control. It’s protected from pain. It becomes resentful. Even numb.

Yet unsolicited and without warning, the Giver of all Life steps in. With great compassion, He disrupts the status-quo. He offers an alternative to the slow, steady death of hope that accompanies self-protection and control. His gentle whisper extends an invitation. I have been given a choice. The cost – be willing to love, to hurt, to be inconvenienced, to set aside my own agenda. The gain – grace infused. The heart lives and loves and grows once more.

This Advent season, it happened again. The Giver of Good Gifts is changing the landscape of our family by changing the landscape of my heart. Only days after I had explained (yet again) why we wouldn’t be adding to our family, I found the words “I think it’s time” tumbling out of my mouth, landing squarely on my unsuspecting husband. Like a flipped light switch illuminates and drives out shadows of doubt, the decision brought an immediate flood of joy and strange relief. This is Love.

Many times in the past few weeks, I’ve watched my children anticipate Christmas and I’ve smiled. The Father has used our unexpected surprise to teach me much about Himself. Watching my children’s everyday struggles, frustrations, and disappointments, I’ve frequently found myself thinking, “If they only knew what was coming.” They anticipate, but their imaginations fall short of the greater reality that awaits them. A reality snuggled safely in a tiny basket under our tree.

Only my daughter dared to carry the torch of hope for a puppy. When asked what she wanted for Christmas, the standard reply was “A puppy. But I know we won’t get that, so a guinea pig. But we probably won’t get that, so I hope I at least I get a Beta Fish.” Hedging is safer than longing. Hope is a risky proposition.

This Christmas marks one of many small miracles in the story of our family. Much to my own great surprise, my heart has been broken wide open once again.

And I’m deeply, deeply grateful.

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Lucy – 2 weeks

 “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” C.S. Lewis

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Merry Christmas from our home to yours!

 

 

 



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Less than Ideal

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It’s been a hard month at our house. I’m not sure when the tone started taking a turn – I think maybe sometime late summer. Life had been moving swiftly down the track, a rhythmic clickety-clacking through each sports event, date night, business meeting, and coffee with friends. Yet the track ahead had a sharp bend – one I didn’t see coming. Clackety-click shifted into an ominous creekety-lurchety screech. It didn’t sound good.

My child who loves and breathes activity developed a sharp pain in his foot that wouldn’t go away. After first dismissing his complaints (with five children, dismissing is a legitimate step in the process), we finally went to the doctor. What had seemed to be a temporary ache was actually more serious. He couldn’t run or jump for any length of time without significant pain. The combination of his intense activity and his rapid growth had contributed to a semi-chronic condition that could last for months. Although stretching and ice should bring eventual relief, time was the only guaranteed remedy. Despite his determined spirit, he wouldn’t be playing basketball this fall. He wouldn’t be playing much of anything this fall. My boy had received his first dose of grief. Sometimes, the world is less than ideal.

The early weeks of school are always bring transition, but this year was different. The simple, quiet life that we’d worked so hard to build could no longer be maintained. Although the shift is appropriate given the children’s ages, I’m grieving the closing of a sweet window in life. One day, I found myself driving the same stretch of road twelve times. Twelve. Times. Thus was my initiation into this next phase of parenting. I’ve been there before with our older kids. I know what to expect. Yet I found myself feeling profoundly depleted – after three days. Driving up and down that street through congested afternoon traffic, Ionging for a jog or a book that were no longer options, I could feel the frustration mounting. I knew the correct spiritual answers to my predicament. They couldn’t tame my discontent. I was bored. I was grouchy. I was irritated.  Life was less than ideal.

The same week that school was off to a hobbling start, we happened to notice that my husband’s ankle looked thick. Not swollen – thick. He’s an avid athlete, complete with all the requisite injuries and strains, so we didn’t give it much thought. Until the next day. A precautionary visit to Urgent Care turned into a concerned visit to the ER. “Nothing serious”, we were told. Probably a twisted ankle. Yet the voice of reason outweighed the ER’s diagnosis, and he learned three days later that indeed, he had a blood clot. “Fresh”, “acute”, and “deep” were the terms that applied. Not good news. The weeks to follow were full of unknowns. They still are. Although grateful for a correct diagnosis and treatment, the athletic options for my active husband have become quite limited. Multiple visits to the doctor and trips to the hematologist lab have replaced long jogs on these beautiful crisp mornings. We’re not sure what the next several months will hold. Not ideal.

In a defiant act of hope, I planted my fall garden. My fingers meandered longingly through the dark, moist earth. The earth that would eventually bloom life. In the still point of that late August afternoon, it dawned on me like the obvious answer to a riddle. It was death that had prepared the soil – hundreds, perhaps thousands of years of decaying plants. Plants that had once been green, soaking in sun, giving the good gift of oxygen, drinking in rain. They had served their temporal purpose on earth. Yet it was through death and decay that their impact would be generative. The process was far from immediate. Yet it would be lasting.

Ancient seeds were planted long, long ago. Hidden deeply away in the darkness, they are germinating. Their soil enriched with the death of convenience, ideals, comfort, security, and preferred agenda. If I readjust my eyes and look closely, I see the beginnings. Small signs of growth. Glimpses of what once flourished in the Garden and will be formed fully again. Unfurling are the tender leaves of thankfulness in my son, contentment in my husband, and patience in me.

Perhaps “less than ideal” is ideal after all.

 

 

 

 



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The Courage to Keep Going

LITTLE PRINCESS, A (1995)

“I don’t think I can keep going,” I told my daughter.

We were mid-chapter, and the story had taken an abrupt turn. The bright little girl, so full of hope and life and love, was minutes from receiving devastating news. She would have to trade in her pink satin birthday frock for a black dress of mourning. In an instant, her day of celebration would become one of unbearable grief. The life she’d known as an adored, lavished-upon daughter was to be no more. Unbeknownst to her, the little girl’s father had died. Fate had left her a penniless orphan. Life would never be the same.

I’ve been present when such devastating news has been delivered. When the hot coal of truth was passed to a child, searing the tender soul and leaving an indelible scar. I remember wanting to stretch those last moments of blissful naivety into years, where innocence could romp and play through the fields of childhood. Yet the hard realities of the world had intervened. I had no control. The truth had changed life’s landscape forever.

The real world is one thing, a story quite another.  In the world of ink on paper, I possess the power to freeze time. With the closing of a book, heartache and evil can be kept at bay. I didn’t want to read further. I wanted to prolong the party, taking note of every detail, and basking in the enjoyment of fanciful dresses, the bounty of refreshments, and the crowning present – a beautiful doll, complete with a wardrobe fit for a princess. My heart dropped. I couldn’t bear what would happen in the next few minutes. It was all too familiar.

“But we have to go on, Mom,” she said to me. “We can’t just quit, or we’ll never know what happens. It has to get better. We just have to get through the hard part.”

My girl’s steadfast words spoke volumes.

We’ve been at this juncture before.  When Tacy’s baby sister dies. When Elizabeth Ann must leave the safe, protected world of her Aunt Harriet and Cousin Frances to live with strangers who felt like foreigners. When the cholera outbreak in India leaves Mary Lennox an orphan.

As we’ve walked with these characters-turned-friends through valleys of grief and hardship, a pattern has developed: Life is as it should be. What feels like unbearable hardship interrupts. Provision is made. Adjustments occur. Life, although not what was expected, continues. Like a river quietly cutting a path through stone, with time and repetition, such a pattern is engraved into the heart’s memory,

As my daughter’s insistence to continue reading nudged me out of my sentimental stupor, I was reminded. Of the power of story. Of the unexpected turns in life. Of the truth of redemption. Of a Storyteller who is often unpredictable, yet always good.

Ultimately, our quick conversation about little Sara’s plight left me hopeful. That when disappointment, hardship, betrayal, or heartbreak enter into my daughter’s story, a still, small voice will echo back to my girl (and to me, and to you), “We can’t just quit, or we’ll never know what happens. It has to get better. We just have to get through the hard part.”

* * *

 This piece was originally shared in Story Warren. Drop by and visit. You’ll be glad that you did.


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Moving Forward

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It was a big day today. I went on my first run since the accident over four months ago. After my fall, I vowed that I’d never let it happen again. It was a vow that wasn’t hard to keep during the winter. I don’t like cold weather, and my jaw has continued to serve as an achy reminder of that painful autumn day.

It was time to find an alternative form of exercise. One with less impact on my knees. I am in my (early) forties, after all. This was a sign. I retreated to the safety of my elliptical machine, but it just wasn’t the same. The Carolina spring has been casting its spell, and I finally succumbed to the enchantment.

I chose my path carefully. Dirt trail, not pavement, just in case. The first step evoked a strange combination of terror and exhilaration. My heart raced, not from increased work load, but from a rush of adrenaline brought on by memories of blood on pavement and a long ER wait. One slow, careful step led to another. Step after step, I was tempted to stop. Step after step, I chose to keep moving. It was an unimpressive run at best, but I couldn’t help but to feel a small sense of victory. I was no longer gripped by fear. Although slowly and cautiously, I was moving forward.

A friend recently asked me what I thought it looked like to forgive and move forward after having been hurt or betrayed. Forgiving is one thing. Trying to heal a severely wounded relationship is quite another. I found myself grasping for words. I’m not a fan of trendy, positive clichés. Too many have been tossed my way, causing further pain rather than the intended encouragement.  After stumbling around in my head and trying to piece together some semblance of truth, I found I had little to say.

But now maybe I do.

While taking my first tentative steps on the trail today, I realized that for me, running would never be the same. What had once been pleasurable and instinctive has become a cautious act of will. I would never again run with complete abandon. The doctors still don’t know what caused my foot to go numb, so there is no assurance that I won’t fall again.  The reality is that I could.  In order to move forward, I chose to believe that what lies ahead is of greater value than that which staying still will protect. There was risk involved. It was an act of hope.

As my brisk walk morphed into a slow jog, I was granted an unanticipated gift. Before my accident, I had run without much thought or concern. As a result of my fall, I had become acutely aware of the miracle of each step. Innocence had been replaced by gratefulness. I would never again take the ability to run for granted. Although riskier, it now holds much greater value.

For four months, I had structured my world in such a way to allow for healing. I didn’t put myself in a position to be hurt again. Having gravel being dug out of my chin isn’t something I want to relive anytime soon. Protection for a time was appropriate, but with time came healing. Eventually, I had a choice to make. I could live in fear or dare to hope.

Most of us tiptoe through life avoiding pain at all cost. It’s not that we underestimate the pain of the fall. It’s that we underestimate the cost. We may gain self-protection, but we pay a high price – the price of forfeiting deeper dependence on our Maker and a life marked by freedom, peace, and the deep abiding joy for which we were created.

If I’d have given in to the strong (understandable) compulsion to play it safe, I would have missed the long-awaited warm spring day. I would have missed the chattering chipmunks’ playful game of chase. I would have missed the heads of determined blooms, which were pushing through the darkness toward the light. The very soil from which they grew and drew sustenance was a byproduct of death. Each vibrant green sprout testified that death is necessary in order to birth new life. Death, even of a dream, is to be grieved. But that doesn’t have to be the end of the story.

In fact, it may be what comes before the very best part.

“Most of human life is Holy Saturday, a few days of life are Good Friday, but there only needs to be one Easter Sunday for us to know the final and eternal pattern. We now live inside of such cosmic hope.”   Richard Rohr

To forgive and move forward starts with grieving the death of what was, yet daring to hope for what could be. It means leaning in, exchanging a posture of self-protection for a posture of loving another. It means coming to terms with the frailty of human relationship, yet being willing to depend on the Father (rather than another ) to meet my needs. It means trusting in the goodness and power of my Healer, regardless of what the future may bring.

To forgive and move forward means choosing to believe that the power of Easter Sunday can resurrect and breathe new life into the dead.
And then to live like I believe it.

 

 



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The Problem of Forgiveness

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This post was originally shared with Redemption’s Road, a ministry of The Barnabas Center. Take a few minutes to visit and read about others’ experiences as they journey the road of redemption.

— — —

There are times when forgiving another comes easily. Bridges are crossed and damage is repaired.  Yet at other times, the choice to forgive feels too risky, if not impossible. We’re frozen. The following piece is written from the perspective of one who can’t seem to move forward. Perhaps you’ve been there as well.

— — —

The icy waters wrap around me like a dark deadly blanket. My body, initially shocked, is becoming numb to the pain. There’s a strange comfort in numbness – granting temporary relief while causing excruciating damage.

It’s your fault, after all. This predicament I’m in. Each act of betrayal, each harmful word, and even your deafening silence. They doused buckets of frigid water into this vast pool of pain.

The first wave brought shock. I was unprepared. Disoriented. Confused. With each icy blast, the warmth I’d always known was stripped away from me. I thrashed about wildly. Despite all my scheming, I was trapped.

Eventually, I adjusted to the new environment.  The numbing water did its work. I wanted to forget what it felt like to be warm, to be comfortable, to be safe. Those memories had become more painful than the insidious cold death creeping through my veins. Every moment that transpired, life-giving blood moved more slowly.  Tissues were starving. I was dying.

In the dark, cold waters, I became consumed by my struggle to survive. I had little awareness of anything other than my immediate crises. Unbeknownst to me, a shift had occurred. You had entered my pool of pain and were moving toward me, moving resolutely across the frigid sea. I braced for the next wave to hit. I squinted and tried to assess the situation, but my vision was distorted. All I could see through fear-clouded waters was a shadow of someone I thought I had known. I could no longer see you clearly. Rather, all I could see was a shadow moving toward me. One that was no longer safe.

I didn’t consider that you had taken this risk to jump in with me.
I didn’t know that you were trying to help.
I didn’t care that you were sorry.
I didn’t want to take the risk.

Frantically, my eyes scanned the horizon for options.

Then I spotted it. At first, I struggled to see. Then the image became clear. Just outside my grasp floated a life-preserver. It was old and tattered, covered with scarlet stripes. Stripes that hade been singed into the surface 2,000 years ago. It offered a way out. For both of us.  I had a choice to make.

I could take hold of the float and extend it to you. We could emerge from the slow, frigid death and let the sun warm us. Thaw our bodies and hearts. Bring us back to life.  My heart skipped a beat. This nightmare could be over.

But what if the waters came again?
What if I found myself helpless once more?
No, that’s a chance I cannot take.

Indeed, there’s a strange comfort in numbness.

So I’ll tread my icy waters and turn away from the raft.
I won’t be hurt again.
I’m in control.

I’m drowning.



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A Letter to My Church

We met when I was just a child. I stumbled through your doors, a young girl who had become both a bride and a parent only months before. New city, new job, new marriage, new family – my feeble knees attempting to carry more weight than was humanly possible. You offered truth, friendly smiles, a destination for my weekly pilgrimage in search of hope.  Week after week, we greeted one another warmly.  We became acquaintances.

You asked small, cordial questions. The first crossroad was approached. I offered a slight glimpse of my wounded heart. I answered you in riddles, both hoping and fearing you would pursue more. You asked the next question. You listened. You didn’t minimize. You didn’t try to manage the chaos or despair. You didn’t turn away.  Week after week, we spoke briefly, yet with greater intention. We became friends.

Weeks rolled into months tumbled into years. We watched first graders receive Bibles and high school students launch off to college. We sat together at weddings witnessing the birth of new families. We observed helplessly as dying marriages gasped their last breaths. We celebrated the debut of desperately longed-for babies. We wept as tiny coffins were being lowered into frigid ground. He gave and He took away. Week after week, we continued to meet. To draw together for an hour or two. To sing and to pray. To tell each other the old, old story. To be reminded that yes, it is all true.

You were often my mother, my father, my siblings. My teacher, my student, my traveling companion. You brought me food when I was sick, when a new baby was born, and when another was lost. You shared your stories, your fears, your dreams, and your talents. With each kind act, knowing glance and deeper question, you offered healing and restoration. You spoke words of truth about yourself, about me, and about the One who brought us together. You loved well.

Yet there were seasons when you were the source of great pain. You were too busy. You didn’t have room in your circle of friends. You were tending to your own wounds and trying to repair the brokenness present in your own life. You failed me. And I did the same to you. But strangely, the pain and silence created an invaluable space.

For the brave work of longing.

For the reminder that we were not made for this world.

For the homesickness which nudged me back on the path toward Home. 

Despite the disappointments, we continued to meet. Week after week. Preschool Christmas pageant after Thanksgiving Eve communion after Maundy Thursday after crowded Easter morning. We didn’t give up on one another. We kept coming back – at times running and at others limping. Our relationship changed. We became family.

Our kinship was not born of common interest, background, social standing or life experience. It wouldn’t necessarily have been of our own choosing. Yet we loved the same Father who saw fit to bring us together. Week after week, a sacred alchemy transpired. The common became Holy. Through the jagged cracks of a broken, selfish, and prideful people, the Glory of the Most High spilled out and penetrated the darkness.

You changed shape as some were called away to other communities. They left as a result of following the Father, and their appointed time with us had been fulfilled. I confess that I’ve been tempted to do the same, but for less than admirable reasons. When I wanted more from you, or when you weren’t serving me in the ways that I had hoped. When our differences felt threatening. The gaps between us too wide to cross. I longed to flee to a place where my opinions were affirmed. But He knew that our differences served a marked purpose. What had seemed like an obstacle to my ideal had actually been rescuing me from a mirage. Yes, you had your own idols. But when you didn’t bow down to mine, you were offering a different perspective.  You saved me from myself.

Thank you for coming back week after week, year after year.

For leaning in. For your goodness and your weakness. For your hopeful words of encouragement and your honest tears of brokenness. For having vision for my life, my marriage, and my family when I wasn’t able. For granting me the sacred privilege of speaking into your life as well.

In your faithfulness and in your failures, you continue to draw me back to our Father. 

 

We walk through your doors

Broken and weary

Self-sufficient and prideful

Critical of those different

Blind to need

Brokenhearted by life

Enslaved by selfishness

You welcome us in

Giving room to rest

To struggle

To Fail

To Grow

To Hope

I am thankful.

 

 

 

 

 

 



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Big Rocks and Veggie Tales

The asker-of-wise-questions at his first movie.
I’m pretty sure that Dad is looking out for the big fish.

We’ve made some changes around here.

Given that our oldest (at home) is quickly approaching high school, we’re coming to the end of an era. We’ve been homeschooling for the past nine years, and it has been a sweet time for our family. Very possibly, some subset or all three children will attend ‘school in a building’ in the next few years. Within a decade, they will be in college. Their days at home have always been numbered, but I’m beginning to see the point at the end of the number line approaching more quickly than I’d prefer. As that reality became more, well… more real, a question began to haunt me.

What if this were to be our last year?

What would I do differently? What would I want to make sure we experienced? Read? Played?

The truth is, for all of us, this could be the last year. The last year working at a particular job. The last year living in the current city or neighborhood. The last year that any given person will be in my life. If I knew in advance that the current situation were about to change, what would I do differently?

I don’t want to live a life of regret. “What if this were to be our last year?” has become the banner under which decisions are made. Not with a spirit of fear, but with a focused, expectant intentionality.

Early in my corporate career, I was introduced to Stephen Covey and his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. One of the most memorable illustrations from Covey’s teachings is the Big Rock principle. I’m a visual learner. In the spirit of tackling ‘first things first’, I trotted off to Michael’s craft store and brought home the components of our life lesson.

big rocks

Jars – Signify the hours in a day. Their capacity is finite. Twenty-four hours is all we get.

Big rocks – The most important priorities. These are the nonnegotiables.

Small rocks – The activities we enjoy and want to do more often. Good things but not crucial.

Sand – Less significant.  Not to be confused with Sabbath rest and reflection, sand represents those not-so-constructive activities we use to “check out.” I have a few. And I bet you do as well.

If we fill our days with sand, we run out of room for the big rocks. The reality of our daily lives doesn’t embody our stated priorities. When this happens, I end up feeling frustrated, disappointed, and on the worst days, despair.

Yet if we start with the big rocks – structure our choices around that which we deem most important, well, you get the picture.

As we were plunking rocks and pouring sand, I couldn’t help but to feel some relief. Surely this conversation would bolster my case for working hard, getting chores accomplished cheerfully and quickly, and developing unselfish, joyful relationships between siblings. Yes. I had found the perfect illustration to support my case. Until one of my children, as does frequently happen, asked the question.

“Mom, if we’re supposed to want what God wants, don’t you think some other things are really more important?”

More important than mastering your Latin declensions, obeying your parents, and cleaning your room? Really? Hmm. Good point.

I realized that I had hoped this exercise would reinforce my priorities. But that was the problem. It was my agenda.  Not that the things I want for my children aren’t valuable and important – I believe that they are. But are they really THE big rocks? What exactly do we value most?

Hard work?
Obedience?
Academic excellence?

 

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.” Mark 12:30

 

THAT is the big rock.
Pursuing God.
Or more specifically, allowing Him to pursue me.
That’s where we start.
Everything else must follow.
Everyday.

In Me, Myself, & Bob, Phil Vischer, the creator of Veggie Tales, tells the story of the rise and fall of his company, Big Idea. The business case he unfolds is fascinating, particularly for a former banker. I’m like a kid in a candy story when discussing marketing and strategic planning. Although captivated by both the personal drama and business details in the book, I was stopped by his personal reflection at the end. Vischer had wanted good things for God. He wanted to further the Kingdom. Yet this admirable dream was plucked out of his hardworking, persevering, highly-creative hands. What happened?

In response, Phil Vischer offers the hard, hopeful insight:

“The impact God has planned for us doesn’t occur when we’re pursuing impact. It occurs when we’re pursuing God.”

 

That’s the big rock.
Not my agenda.
Not my dreams.
Not the good things I can do to further His Kingdom.

I’m grateful to share that I’ll be hearing from Phil Vischer this weekend. He’ll be speaking at Hutchmoot, a gathering of folks occurring in Nashville. This is an uber-talented group, of which many earn a livelihood creating for the common good. They have a great deal to give. I find it fitting that the speaker won’t be offering a talk on “The Five Keys to Building a Successful Business ” or “Effective Marketing Techniques to Grow Your Platform.” Phil Vischer achieved those goals. He had great impact. But the years were eventually marked by loss and heartache – which resulted in a deep well of wisdom. And from that wisdom flows the most valuable lesson of all. One that has been taught over and over through the ages to a people who are slow to learn.

 

“I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. . . You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.” Revelation 2:2-4

 

Yes, we need to make some changes around here. I want to lay down my big rocks of personal agenda, control, and self-reliance. Daily, I’ve allowed good dreams to usurp that which is best.

I’m guilty.

I’m forgiven.

I’m beloved.

I’m grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

 



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Necessary Losses

A year ago, we sent our Sam away to camp for the first time, as is chronicled below. This afternoon, we sent him again. Really, little had changed. The packing list, the drop-off destination and time, the schedule for the week, all had remained the same. But we are different. Life is like that. We don’t love less – we trust more. We’ve had the experience of letting go for a time, yet we receive back. A pattern emerges, and we learn to identify that pattern for what it is while we are in the midst of it. The more we experience, the more we believe. The more we believe, the more we relinquish the illusion of control. Yes, through the little losses in life, we learn to trust. What we experience and see in the moment is not the end of the story. The end has been written – one where all loss is cast away into the darkness. An end where everything sad will indeed come untrue.

No, there was not a lengthy breakfast, nervous boy, or teary goodbye today. We’ve been here before. The scenery is familiar. And that, I suppose is a loss as well.

 

I’m feeling a little sad this afternoon.  An hour ago, we put my baby boy on a bus that is taking him to camp for the first time.  Ok, he’s almost 10, but he’s still the baby boy of the family.  He was “a little bit nervous but more excited.” Backpack and guitar in tow, he bounded up the stairs of the bus behind two of his best buddies.  After they boarded, we strained to see through the darkened windows as the three of them peered out and waved furiously… “good-bye.”

This is my tender-hearted boy, who only a few years ago, couldn’t bring himself to say goodbye to his sister as she was leaving home after a weekend visit from college.  “Mom, it just hurts too much.” As I sat on the edge of the bed and watched my sweet boy unsuccessfully fight back the tears, my heart was divided. I never want him to hurt deeply.  I want to protect him from all of the evil in the world.  I don’t want him to be disappointed.  I don’t want his heart to ache.

At the same time, my hope is that he will grow to be a man who will love others well and live life to its fullest.  This is the kid who exudes life.  Whatever he feels, he feels deeply – both joy and pain.  You can’t have one without the other.  I love his depth of emotion, but I’m sad for the self-protection that years and experience will most likely bring.  It’s a paradox of sorts.  The very thing that I love about him is bound to bring him pain in life.

So it is with love and life.  Virtually every good gift that we are given comes as the result of some kind of loss.

~The butterfly – the end of the caterpillar
~The tree – no more a seed
~Wisdom – only after loss of innocence
~Marriage – the loss of carefree singleness
~Each new child – the smaller family unit will never be the same
~Graduations, weddings, birthdays – markers that a chapter of life has been written and completed

For me, here are a few to add to the list:

~Coming home to be with my family – the close of a rewarding career
~High school and college graduations – the shift in our family as 2 adult children launch their lives
~The wedding of our daughter – she’s now under someone else’s care

And now, a much smaller, yet still significant loss.  My blonde-headed blue-eyed little boy will come home to me having changed.  A bit more confident.  A little less dependent on me.  More aware that yes, there is life outside of our family, and it is good.  I’m thrilled that he’s able to go.  I’m thankful for his opportunity to   have a life-changing experience in a safe, nurturing environment.  But yes, there will be loss.

Ultimately, I am deeply grateful for the gifts of growth, change, and reminders of my ultimate dependence.  My hope is to encourage you that in the dark of night, and in the melancholy seasons of loss and closing chapters, you will be aware that your heartache is evidence of you are living life fully.  That you’d look to times past when necessary losses led to deeper peace, greater joy, and a firmer foundation from which to live.  That you’d be comforted to know that indeed, “there is a time for everything, and a season for every purpose under heaven.

“Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”  C.S. Lewis

Chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast

 

I don’t think he’ll starve
A few more songs before we go
Have guitar, will travel
He’s going to be missed
Mrs. Anderson and her ducks
Last “Good-byes”
Camp Lurecrest  –   Thanks for taking care of my baby boy…

 



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