Monday, September 22, 2014

What Blocks You from Living Full and Regret-Free

"Should we tell them what the meat is?" she asked me and I could hear the smile in her voice over the phone.

"No, let's wait until later in the meal," I decided. "They'll be more open to it."

The next day we scavenged chairs from all corners of my house and seated seven of us around the scratched cherry wood kitchen table. We prayed, then took turns scooping steaming rice onto our plates. Mom reached for our dishes and carefully ladled a savory meat sauce over the rice, pressing her spoon lower into the pot for more gravy. Garlic and herbs slow-cooked the meat into fall-off-the-bone tenderness, and we asked for seconds, extracting occasional tiny bones from our food.

"It's good!" my husband and kids agreed. "What is it?" Knowing my family, they were open to any news.

"Squirrel. Dad has five of them in the freezer," Mom said, and my family nodded their heads in little surprise.

"Those squirrels stole almost every apple off my tree," Dad said. "I'm down to just one apple left.  I've killed seven squirrels so far," he said, adjusting to a more comfortable position in the chair and smoothing out his napkin.

 I saw my parents again this weekend, my mom cutting my dad's hair. Him with a towel around his shoulders, silvery hair combed straight above his ears and my mom leaning in.

"Don't move," she warned, stretching the blades wide.

I leaned back against their cushioned kitchen chairs, watching them. Outside curved glass windows, my parents' backyard was a haven of landscaped flowers, ferns, and birds at the feeder. An occasional squirrel raced across the fence near the apple tree bobbing in the breeze, its lone apple bundled in a guarded plastic bag.

Finished with Dad's haircut, Mom wiped up slivers of glinting hair from the table and carefully folded the towel off Dad's shoulders, trapping loose hairs inside.

"Let's eat that apple now!" she decided suddenly. "Let's not wait until frost. Dad should eat his apple now..." she trailed off, and we finished the sentence in our minds.

I swallowed back misting tears and grabbed my video camera.

"...This is the first apple from our tree," my mom stated, giving the date and more information. My video-record light blinked red until she ended, and the wind blew sun-tossed leaves across the yard. Autumn's reds and yellows rained on us, then danced across the lawn. 

And I know you have this too... moments that need to be captured and savored, moments that need to be frozen in time. Because whether you have parents who are ill, kindergartners stepping freshly off the yellow bus each day, or taller loved ones walking into the front entryway each night with their briefcases, purses, or heavy backpacks, we all have moments that are slipping away. 

And our challenge? Our mission is to embrace them, to see them, and to fully step in. Step away from whatever you're working on and look deeply into the eyes of the ones you're with. See them, lean in to inhale their scent, and hug them tightly. Fully present in each moment, I want to look up from facebook, put aside my To Do list, and forget the busy. I want to savor and seize each moment.

Is there anyone you need to call? Any conversations you need to have? Someone you need to pause and truly see? Because the truth is, we all have the same moments, the same chances, the same twenty-four hours. And I don't want any regrets.

Say what needs to be said, my friends. Stop and savor life, and the ones around you. Live life fully, deeply, and in the splendored colors of fall. Don't wait.

Crimson and yellow climb up the trees around me, ricocheting off the blue sky. September's heat burns brilliantly, while autumn slips in quiet.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

What We Are Drawn To in Uncertain Times

"There's something about a man or woman who has loved God for a long time that is peaceful," she said aloud.
Photo: Ed Yourdon, Creative Commons, cc license
We were stabbing forks into slippery red cherry tomatoes and coaxing precarious bites of spinach salad into our mouths in the hospital cafeteria.

She told me again. "My friend Art, he just commented on how peaceful it was to be around older people who had walked with God for a long time. 'There is a peace about them, a gentleness that just shines out from them. You want to be near them,' he told me. He enjoys spending time with my parents," my mom said, wiping her mouth.

She smiled, and lifted a fork with green olives and grated carrots from the salad into her mouth. I tried, and failed, to get crumbled goat cheese onto my fork.

Her bite finished, my mom spoke again. "He's right. I watch my mom and dad together. He holds her hand, helping her down hallways now, and patiently explains each time she forgets and asks a question again. There IS a peace and gentle kindness about them." She paused and chose another bite, pushing food around her plate unconsciously.

I watched her. This black-haired, blue-eyed Irish mom of mine who just returned from seeing her parents on the west coast, arriving straight from the airport to the hospital here where her husband awaited scary prognoses. And I saw it in her.

Mixed in with the uncertainty and the risk of painful loss was a peace that came from years of walking with her Creator. This peace didn't negate the valid fears, but it simmered and rode the waves, a constant in all change.

In hospital room 4550, four shuttered windows revealed city lights turning on outside and reflecting off the rain. We rubbed our hands with the sanitizing foam found everywhere, and walked inside. My dad sat upright in bed, his navy-striped gown tied in the back, revealing the colorful tattoo on his shoulder.

"Hello, handsome man!" grinned my mom, rubbing his shoulder and bending over to brush back silvery hair from his forehead.

She sat down and pulled out her slim blue Bible, creased on the edges. Opening it, she read silently, smiling at parts. My dad and I had read from Luke together earlier. "I love the gospels," he told me. "They are my favorite parts of the Bible right now."

There is a Peace that flows from men and women who have walked with God for a long time. I see it, and it draws me nearer. He draws me nearer too, actually, this One whose name is peace.

So, it's pancreatic cancer, friends. It was caught early and is only stage one, but it's scary. Sometime in the next few days, my dad will undergo a serious surgery for this and I'll join them often in the hospital. Join us in prayer, will you, please? Thank you, friends.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Hidden in You Beneath the Hubbub and Silence

Photo: Marian Beck, Creative Commons, cc license
Green nubby sedum buds have turned fuscia and pink lavender, these knobby plant-blossoms more akin to cauliflower than petals. They've announced autumn on hot summery days and it's only now that I see and believe them.

Cool September rains fell all morning and a crisp wind bends green maple leaves and tall silvery firs now, clanging into my metal wind-chimes on their way. One sliver of a far off maple turns brazen in orange brick hues, ahead of her time on a tree where all else flutters green in the breeze. The constant hiss of autumn wind and tinkling copper wind-chimes sink a school-time giddiness into me. I find myself staring out the window again and smile, sipping re-heated coffee.

This has been the week of rasping electric pencil sharpeners, and splatters of blue and red paints on the table, the wall, and the paper maps as we swish in the four oceans and seven continents in kindergarten flair. My youngest, Daniel, circles items in groups of twos or threes for his math, while my tenth grader meets geometry. Our eldest, John, buys his own backpack, lines up newly-purchased highlighters, and carpools rides to college for his sophomore year.

In the quiet now, I grab some space, reheat the coffee, and settle in to study and learn. There is a verse in Acts from several chapters ago that has been ringing and clamoring in my mind since. It starts with an unintentional joke, and I laugh quietly at Paul, and trace a smiley face in the margin. It's not his fault, poor Saul/Paul. He is bold, passionate, articulate. Life automatically gets riled up around him. In the early Christian church in Jerusalem and throughout the Roman Empire's colonies, eddies of pulsing activity swirled and crashed around Paul. Wherever he went, action waves rippled out from him: miraculous healings, convincing persuasive arguments to crowds of people, and thousands deciding to follow the Jesus Way of life. Dangerous currents welled up around him too. Death threats from furious Jews and Jewish temple leaders resulted in a need to evacuate. Roman and Greek followers of Jesus sensed the rising tide, and hustled Paul off to his hometown of Tarsus, Spain. I picture this hot-blooded Latino Paul -- Pablo?-- arriving home and seeing God do amazing things in Spain as well.

What makes me smirk, though, and where I traced a smiley face penciled-in joke next to the verses is the next line, "Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace."

Peace. Quiet.

Sometimes, we judge the success of our ministries or churches, our dreams, families, or goals by the amount of excitement and activity generated by them, by the number of hits, the pages written, the accolades or recognition, or the number of leads.

And if so, then we may be lulled into thinking that nothing is happening or being accomplished during the quiet, or in the lulls. Does an absence of wild hubub mean an absence of movement?

I love the verse that comes next in the story. Paul, the well-known one, the accomplished orator, the passionate, things-get-done-when-he's-around-kind of guy is gone, and quiet has fallen. Into that calmness God states, "It [the church] was strengthened and encouraged by the Holy Spirit; it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord." 

The church had been growing in numbers earlier too, during Paul's time in the church. Now with him gone, in a time where life may look quiet and calm with little activity, stirring and pulsating still exist. Life is moving, growing, changing. Behind the scenes, steady and unchanging, the God of the Universe is working. He hasn't stopped or waned. 

Quietly, steadily, unceasingly, He works, weaves, and orchestrates. And his work? Here, it is to strengthen and encourage the Church. Invisible hands pull in strength, hope, joy, change, and transformations, and he braids them in behind the scenes.

Whatever God has made and placed you in that is of Him... he is working on invisibly. Your marriage, your children's lives, hearts, minds, and spirits... the God of the Universe who knows the stars by name is silently, unhaltingly, arranging details behind what we can see. 

Whatever God has made and placed in you in that is of Him... he is working on invisibly. Those dreams, goals, desires to do something? That secret hope to use your art for him, or to use your skills for him in that way? He sees those and is working tirelessly to strengthen and encourage those good things -- things that he was the one who dreamed up first anyway!

Your relationships with relatives, friends, neighbors, and the people you meet on the city bus? Your reactions and responses to people at work, in the grocery store, or in the carpool lane in the morning? Our attitudes when no one sees us? He is working behind the scenes to strengthen and encourage you (and me!) and to use what's in us for his glory.

The wind continues to blow long and hard outside my window, tossing the branches in wild array. Lulls come and go, and the trees still grow. Invisible, imperceptible, life tremors and pulses beneath the surface. They grow. And I love that our God says he is doing the very same in us, in our lives.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

You, With Your Foot in Two Worlds

 "So are you ready to let me go yet?" he asks, grinning with a soft cheekiness as he sits on the cement steps of his home.
Photo: Justin Spencer, Creative Commons, cc license
"No! I'm proposing surgery and insurance, and things like that," I reply, throwing back a glance at him, and rounding to my side of the car. "I love you, Dad," I say, slipping a silver key into my golden Saturn. Looking back for one last wave, I freeze the image of him in my mind, and pull away from the curb, racing home to put my six year old to bed.

I drive numbly, mechanically, replaying the sentence in my mind and counting the days until his next appointment.

A giant chalk white moon stands sentinel over the twilight sky. Full, ample, perfectly round, it hangs heavy in a blue-grey city evening. Tall apartment highrises, depression-era flour mills, and green-shuttered glass factories crouch on a Minneapolis city skyline. Trees chase the moon and, behind me, explosions of violet and tangerine encompass the sinking sun. Fiery orange and reds glare against green highway signs, obliterating mile markers and exits on the highway.

My dad has just returned from helping his uncle out of the hospital and back into a memory care unit. He helped Uncle Al settle back into the room, slide out of the wheelchair, and eat sliced peaches and a pumpkin pie cobbler. Together they maneuvered the remote control buttons of Al's new reclining chair before my dad left for home. Half an hour later, my uncle calls my dad, having forgotten about the day.

"Can I come see you tonight?" I had asked my dad, three hours ago. He agreed, and I hurried to throw a supper together for my family before racing out the door.

"Kah, kah," I knock in African fashion at their house. At the door, I see my mom's sandals and smile. "It makes me miss her to see her shoes," I yell out to my dad. She's gone temporarily, and we miss her already.

I slide a plastic carton of cherry tomatoes across the kitchen table, and slice up a crimson purple plum for us to share. He's already laid two plates, and set out tea cups. We drink green tea with roasted brown rice, and catch up from the week. All too soon, the hour is past and I need to race home to put my son to bed.

He says it then, the sentence that has lodged in my throat, in my mind, since. The sentence I have already been whispering to myself and to my husband in the dark of night. "Am I ready to lose my dad already?" NO.

And I know that you face this situation too, many of you. With a foot in both worlds, you care for older relatives and younger ones. You care for ailing grandparents, or older parents, and children of all ages. I hear you talk of it over coffee, at conferences, online, or through prayer chain emails.

I have watched my parents stand with feet planted in two worlds too, helping older and younger relatives and friends around them. And tonight I feel my own feet sliding tentatively wider, tip-toeing uncertainly into that larger world, and words fall short.

I followed that moon on the drive home, that impossibly large milk-white moon. Clarity and closeness etched its surface in stark relief, with edges and craters, and dark holes falling into a moon dry sea. In front of me was the moon, my car trailing an evening highway, curving into quiet darkness. Behind me orange, crimson, violet, and gray exploded across the night sky, curling crispy cirrus clouds up.

One lone trail of black smoke carved a jet stream through gold light, tracing an airplane's flight straight down. An erratic route for an airplane, it seemed, and I swerved slightly in my lane, craning my head backwards, pondering its downward trajectory. A police car shot by, sirens blaring, and the car in front of me forced my eyes to the road before me.

The mysterious black plume of smoke flamed white and gold in the sunset, and my road curved away.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Other Woman in my Marriage

Elbows deep in a crumpled cardboard box, sitting on the wooden floor in my kitchen, I hear him. Coming up behind me, he ropes his arms around me, and nuzzles my neck. His two day-old beard and mustache scratch my skin, raising a chill down my lower back.

Surrounded by moving boxes towering high and a To-Do list just as tall, I waver.

And this is me, I recognize. This task-driven, productivity-focused woman is the one who wakes up in the morning, sees the jobs at hand, and plunges in.

But an unpacked or immaculate home is nothing without passionate loving relationships inside. A crossed-off To-Do list for a cross family solves nothing. So I'm reminding myself to set aside the lists to concentrate on the loved ones in my life. Sometimes this means a card game over coffee with my six year old and Lego battles that extend across the couch, or longer conversations with my teens about social media dilemmas.

I confess that I'm bad at this some days. Crossed-off items and a clean kitchen seem more outwardly productive than built relationships over the long run. But the payoff of a swept floor versus a sweet family connection is incomparable.

Sitting beside a cavernous cardboard box filled with random kitchen items and the guts of a spilled-out telephone drawer, I hesitate.

"It can wait," I realize and stand.

My husband and I arrange a kids' video for our little one before disappearing behind a locked door. Pulling shut the curtains and turning on the fan, we step in, fully seeing each other, smiling and leaning in.

The other woman in my marriage-- this other personality side of me-- is the fun one, the passionate and people-person one. She is the balance to my driven half.

There is a verse I have been scribbling across scratch paper, taping to my walls, and scrawling across my journal this last year or so. It rings in lyric prayer to me, and it comes to mind this morning.

May the Lord make your love increase
and overflow for each other, 
and for everyone else, 
just as ours does for you. 

May he strengthen your hearts 
so that you will be blameless and holy
in the presence of our God and Father
when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones  (1 Thessalonians 3:12,13).

He is doing it, I see, this God-head whose very Being reflects an interwoven, inter-connected ability to wrangle work and relationships harmoniously. The God of the universe is working in me, in my marriage and family, rekindling flames, making our love increase and overflow. And He gets all the credit.

This same God sees you, sees your loved ones, and can do the unimaginable. Ready?

* Photo credit: Neal Sanche, Creative Commons, cc license.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Thing To Know on a Day (or Month) of Firsts

 Ahh, this feels good, sitting down to tap fingers on keys. There have been a variety of firsts these last few days.

First night to sleep in the new home on Thursday.

First shower in the new place -- nope, sorry, it wasn't Friday morning. I left grungy and ready for a morning of cleaning the old house and returning the Uhaul truck.

(Don't even ask about the toothbrush. You won't want to know. Apparently, toothbrushes and deodorant will be the items left behind at the old house when moving, in case you wanted to know.  ...Um, Friday evening, if you were wondering.)

First time I brewed coffee in this new house, after ransacking cupboards and boxes to find the beans, the grinder, and the glass French Press.

First sunrises, first sunsets. First time to fully watch where the sun traces shadows and light across the backyard, and calculating where we'll put the raised garden bed frames, still caked with black dirt from our last house's yard.

"Are you excited?" one of my youth group girls asked me, as I drove her to the other house to retrieve her green backpack.

"Well, we like this new house and are thankful to God for it, but we love the old house too. When we moved into the old house we thought we would be there for years, so we settled in, creating memories, dreaming of the future, making plans.

It's like stopping a book, halfway through," I grinned at Michael, glancing over at her as I shifted up in gears on the quiet road. A fellow book lover and artist, she gets this.

"Now I'm in a new book, and it's a great book, but it feels odd to have stopped reading the other book, only halfway through." Our two years in the other house felt like introductory chapters, with the plot just starting to pull together.

"This will be a great book too, I know," I said, smiling at Michael as we pulled into the driveway, "but we're feeling mixed emotions and some sadness too at saying goodbye."

Wednesday morning and afternoon, my parents and close friend Shari and I dug up raspberry, strawberry, and rhubarb plants from the old house. We hoisted out withered-looking ferns, white shasta daisies, and yellow-budded flowers. Fingering through moist soil, we combed and fretted out innocuous gnarled bulbs of tulips, crocuses, and tall purple alliums. Hauling buckets of dirt and plants into our vehicles, we drove them to the new house. Before any tables or couches saw the inside of the new house, we spent the day slicing into soil and grass, burying roots and fragile wisps of life, anticipating their future beauty.

Along the side of a grey metal shed now stand eight crinkly-leaved raspberry plants. Three rhubarb shrubs lean awkwardly nearby. Each day we soak their roots in water, knowing this stage is tremulous.

In our mind, though, we know what they look like full-grown. We have seen them in good health, resplendently red and green, giant leaves like elephant ears, crowded and abundant. We have seen these plants in their glory, rooted deep in the earth, watered and soaking in the Light, and we know what's coming.

The days pass, our excitement mounts as we settle into this new home, and the sun has just risen, arcing a few hours ago over the maple and fir trees to my left. Those raspberries and shasta daisies? Their leaves are unfurling in the Light, roots sinking lower.