Unfolding

The geese come first. A few random stragglers glide in early, braving late snow and still-frozen lakes, followed by gaggles more, gathering in fields like concert-goers waiting for the show to begin.  

Soon saucy, raucous gulls flash black-tipped white against spring-blue skies.  

The ice begins to recede from puddles, ponds, and lakes, and the ducks quack their way back. The marsh behind my house becomes a constant cacophony of waterfowl-speak.  

As if all previous arrivals were simply the opening act, the majestic and stately swan gracefully soars in, its deep, bass trumpet resonating across the bulrushes.

Robins are the next to trill their way north, filling the early morning sky with their song long before I actually see the familiar red breast. 

One calm evening, the frogs, almost always unseen, add their gurgly, bubbly, throaty croaking, and I wonder again at their ability to survive beneath the ice and cold of winter.

Leaves bud and spread green, first just a light frosting dabbed on tree tops, then a full-blown bright new green that embraces the landscape. And the wind, alternating warm and cold, has something new to play with. Leaves flutter a melody no longer silenced by winter.

After a brief pause, the red-winged blackbirds fill the song spaces with their riffs and rills, spreading wings and strutting red and gold epaulets as they stake out their territory in the marsh.  

Grackles, elegant heads shimmering green-purple-blue in the spring sun, chirp conversationally as they forage for spring food.  

And then, it comes….high in the air, the unmistakable winnowing sound of the snipe. I don’t know why, but I find something comforting about the return of the snipes.

Spring is still unfolding… terns will soon be be performing arial acrobatics around the gulls. The warblers have yet to bring their cheery song and constant flitting to the willows in the back yard. Yellow-headed blackbirds always trail behind the red-wings, as do the orioles with their crystalline call and brilliant orange plumage. Clever little marsh wren hasn’t returned to stuff my birdhouses with sticks – yet. Quiet, unassuming and shy sora will probably return completely unnoticed.

I like tracking the unfolding of spring. In the midst of a world that seems increasingly unpredictable, where so much of what could be counted on as true and right is being upended and distorted, it anchors my soul to be reminded through the gradual process of spring renewal that God’s order still supersedes man’s designs.  

“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’ ” (Lam. 3:22-24)

If the unfolding of spring is so glorious, how much more the unfolding of the plan of God for our world – for my life.  

Yes, I will wait for Him.

Gracious goodness and an uninhibited four-year-old

Clearly he didn’t know the rule about never talking to strangers. His cheerful greeting was enthusiastically and immediately followed by, “Guess what I got?”

I looked down from the rack of baby clothes I was perusing in search of a gift for a colleague’s newest family addition. He stood expectantly: blonde hair wildly pointing in all compass directions, hands securely concealed behind his back, blue eyes earnestly seeking my response to his invitation to play the guessing game.  

“Well, I’m really not sure. What did you get?” Of course he didn’t really expect me to know. The fun was in pulling his treasure from its temporary hiding place and displaying it proudly in upraised hands.

“Oh, a Minecraft toy! How fun!”  His grin confirmed that I had portrayed the appropriate amount of enthusiasm.

“Are you a grandma?” Such an innocent question. It stirred some natural longings in my heart. Someday perhaps. But not right now.

“No, I’m not a grandma,” I smiled.

“Are you a mom?” It was the next logical question after all. It stirred and mixed the joy and grief compartments of my mother-heart. 

“Yes, I am a mom.” 

“That’s good.”

Yes. Yes, it is. It is very good. Not a have-a-good-day, looks-like-good-weather-today, or this-tastes-good sort of good. More like the deep, abiding sense of good that comes from knowing that I have been given a gift that I in no way deserve. It is a humbling goodness. A gracious goodness. 

 

Even Though

“Our lives shuttle between an alteration of if only, what if, and as soon as…”  Mark Buchanan The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath

This cyclical commute catches us all – one day we dodge traffic on the ‘If Only’ shuttle, peering through the window at the world as it rushes by, all the while wishing the view and the experience were different. If only that light was green instead of red, that door open instead of closed, that thing/event/moment had never happened, those words had never been spoken.  If only my circumstances were different…Contrary to the Disney mantra warbled by Jiminy Cricket, wishful thinking, upon stars or otherwise, does not change reality.

Another day we board the ‘What If’ shuttle, hoping, perhaps, to play a more proactive role in determining both the route and the destination. What if we turn here, instead of there? Left, instead of right? Surely this road will lead to a more pleasing end. What if I try harder, work longer? What if I am more outgoing, or more entertaining, or a better mom, or…or…or… This shuttle ride never seems to end as it twists and turns through a myriad of possibilities that only lead to overwhelming confusion and disillusionment.

Other days we lumber along on the ‘As Soon As’ shuttle, experiencing numerous stops and delays as we anxiously await the perfect moment. As soon as that person moves forward, then I can too. As soon as they apologize, I can forgive. As soon as they leave, things will get better. As soon as I find the perfect friend/church/job/spouse, life will be wonderful. The ‘As Soon As’ shuttle spends a lot of time in traffic jams; in fact, it actually causes most of them.

I think there is another way to navigate life – one that abandons the need for a perfectly smooth ride, for problem-free expressways to perfect bodies, personalities, jobs, spouses, families, churches, friends…to perfect lives. It abides in the attitude that even though life is often challenging, it can and does have purpose. Even though the journey is not what I hoped or even expected, it is not without meaning. Even though I feel alone or even abandoned, I still have value. Even though I experience loss and pain and disappointment, comfort and encouragement carry me forward.

‘Even though’ does not seek to change reality through clinging to ‘if only‘, ‘what if‘, and ‘as soon as‘. While it is not a fatalistic attitude that passively accepts whatever life brings, it acknowledges that lived experience with all of its nuances, from the highest moments of joy to the deepest depths of despair, is part of God’s providential design and obediently steps into His purposes with full trust and expectant hope.

Perhaps, like the the prophet Habakkuk, we have a list of things that have left us acutely aware of the empty places in our lives:

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls…”

My list does not include a lack of figs, grapes, olives or sheep, but I certainly have one. It is not a short list.

What is important about Habakkuk’s list is the Even-Though attitude. No ‘what if‘, ‘if only‘, or ‘as soon as‘ … just an attitude that says even though there are things that have left me empty, disappointed, hungering, or lonely, there is a choice before me.

Even though (insert my list), “yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.  The Sovereign Lord is my strength; He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, He enables me to tread on the heights.”  Hab. 3:17-19

By grace alone. Sola gratia.

Stuffing Sticks

A little marsh wren frequents my backyard almost every summer – a small bird of nondescript brown with a joyous trilling song, a saucy flip-up tail, and a rather strange habit. Scattered throughout the willows and poplars that fringe and cluster in the most private portion of the yard are several bird houses. Some of these are bona fide bird abodes; others are purely decorative. Marsh Wren chooses one of the houses as a nesting place, and then proceeds with great purpose and ambition to fill all the other houses with sticks. Even the smallest, most useless decorative house is crammed full of small twigs. Call it territorial with a side of OCD or just brazenly selfish, it is rather amusing to watch. Some latent conniving impish impulse makes me contemplate adding several more birdhouses to the area just to see if Marshy can fill them all.

I’ve told a few people about my little feathered saboteur, usually for the chuckles the telling produces, but as I’ve considered Marshy’s behaviour, I have started wondering if we are just as prone to a similar stick-stuffing behaviour…

We are territorial people when it comes to positions and possessions we deem to be rightfully ours. Even relationships and interactions with others are too often either fostered or avoided for our own gain and exclusivity rather than for any sense of mutuality, inclusion or graciousness.  As we blithely pursue our somewhat self-focused lives, we may not be quite as deliberate and blatantly obvious as Marshy filling bird houses, but if we took the time to look at the lives of others in our wake, we may just find them buried under piles of sticks, their lives sabotaged in some way by our pursuit of our wants and desires, our significance and value, our plans and purposes above all.

It is easy to recognize the times when our lives have been stuffed with sticks – the tangled mess is ostracizing and painful.  What is far less recognizable is how our stick-stuffing habits are hurting those around us…

A New Year

The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose, new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes.” G K Chesterton

Indeed, it is not a new year that is needed, but a new way of living the small moments that collect, collide, and coalesce into the larger collage of time we designate as a year.

I need:

New eyes – to see the wonder of the ordinary, to understand the significance of the mundane, to know the profoundness of simplicity…

New ears – to perceive truth when lies seem more credible, to attune to quietness when the noise of living deafens, to discern wisdom when uncertainty mires me in the crossroads…

New feet – to walk softly alongside the broken, to tread expectantly upon the ancient paths, to run and not be weary…

New hands – to release rather than clench, to cradle rather than crush, to reach out rather than withdraw…

A new heart – to pulse life in spite of the gaping holes left by death, to stay in sync with God’s heart instead of sliding into discouragement’s arrhythmia, to remain tender and malleable rather than retreating into the stony protection offered by a myriad of hurts…

And all of these things:

Eucharisteo. With gratitude.
Coram Deo. Before the face of God, the Audience of One.
Sola gratia. By grace alone.

Recirculating Problems

My trusty car, Maggie, developed a problem as soon as the weather turned cold. Actually, the problem existed before frosty mornings became the norm, but we weren’t aware of it until we actually needed a fully functioning defrost system. Although I’ve only seen the notorious London fog on cheesy detective movies, I could easily imagine myself in the thick of it when I tried to peer out the side windows. No matter how high or for how long I cranked the heat and the fan, the windshield had wide frame of frost and a narrow field of vision. Clearly, Maggie had problem. No pun intended.

It took some head-scratching conundrum-mumbling and an extended stay in The Shop while mechanical surgeons dissected Maggie’s Dodgely dash, but almost three thousand dollars later they discovered that the problem was a broken door. The little door that either recirculated air inside or allowed in fresh outside air was broken in the recirculate position. All that hot air I was blasting at the windows was just circulating around and around and condensing and freezing – the opposite of what I needed it to do. Blurry fog and opaque frost on windows aren’t exactly conducive to safe driving. Little broken things sometimes cause big scary dangers.

Sometimes life feels like a little broken door somewhere keeps us in recirculate mode. Although outer accoutrements might change, the same core disappointments, discouragements, hurts, and griefs keep going around and around, coalescing and creating a numbing fog that permeates thick and deep in our souls. It’s exhausting, this recycled living. We long for clarity, for fresh air, for newness in the midst of the reoccurring and wearying old. We wish someone would fix the little broken door and give us a chance to rest and recover. To defrost and defog.

But perhaps, just perhaps, we also begin to see through the haze and weighty blur that there are other things that keep coming around again and again as well. The presence of cloud or fog does not change the fact that the sun continues to make its rounds each day, the stars continue to spill their glitter across inky skies, and the promises of God continue to bring new hope with each faithful dawn.

And perhaps, just perhaps, we come to recognize that maybe the little broken door isn’t meant to be fixed. Not yet. Maybe being revisited by discouragement and grief keeps us revisiting the One who promises that He will yet make all things new. Perhaps we come to depend more fully on God’s providential perspectives when we are most mired in the foggy places of life because it is in those spaces that we are most aware of our own inadequacies and of His complete sufficiency.

Perhaps the broken little door that allows the recycling of hard things also recirculates the grace and strength to face them….again.

Diamonds

The tiny diamond earrings came in a small box with Custom Cellular garishly stamped across the top. While some might consider it quite tactless to give them away as a Christmas gift when it was clear that they were nothing more than a sales promotional giveaway, I was more than happy when my son gave them to me.  If he had had a girlfriend, she would likely have preferred a jewelry store version; however, a mother who is not in any way a jewelry aficionado makes a perfect recipient for diamond earrings that came as a bonus to a cell phone contract.

In true non-aficionado style, I wore the earrings off and on, much like I wore any of the few pairs of earrings I owned.  They were pretty.  And tiny.  If I wear earrings, I do prefer tiny.  Eventually, my donning of earrings just sort of fizzled out in the midst of other more important things, and before long the holes in my ears had closed themselves off to the idea as well.  The tiny diamonds stayed tucked away in a chipped blue ceramic container with a few other pairs and half-pairs of earrings and a broken necklace or two.

Life moved on.

And then it all came to a grinding, grieving halt, and somehow the miniscule diamonds now carried tremendous value.  They became one of a very few tangible links left to a son I could no longer hug and whose white DC shoes would never again park haphazardly by the back door.  Suddenly I needed to be able to wear those tiny treasures again.  Getting the holes reopened in my ears was a bit painful, but it was worth the process.  I know it can sound silly and sentimental, but wearing the earrings has felt like my way of commemorating my son.  My younger son has his big brother`s birthdate tattooed on his chest; I wear tiny diamond earrings.

I lost one of them this week.

I had taken them out, as I occasionally do, and put them in my glasses case where I am most likely to remember where they are.  And mostly I have remembered just fine, but the other day I somehow forgot or something distracted me and by the time I went to put them back in, only one was in the case.  I didn`t panic because the rational, non-jewelry aficionado part of me said that it was just an earring.   But the grieving mother part of me said that if I lost this one earring, what else was I going to lose to remind me of my son and what would happen if I eventually lost everything to remember him, even my memories?  I looked everywhere I could reasonably look, but the idea of finding such a tiny item when it could be anywhere at home or at work just became more daunting than I had emotional fortitude for.  I put the remaining one back in the chipped blue container and took out a pair of fake diamonds to put on instead.  Fake ones with no memories attached.  I tried to chalk it up to just one more ambush on my soul that would pass with time.  It was, after all, just an earring.  Losing an earring is NOT like losing a son.

Life moved on.

Today I was somewhat mindlessly doing my usual laundry and house cleaning chores, focused more on thoughts of an afternoon ski than dirty clothes and dusty floors.  I almost missed the shiny little piece of sliver underneath the dining room chair as I was flitting the dust mop about.  Right there under the chair where I eat my breakfast and supper every day.  Joyful tears.  Finding the lost earring does NOT replace my son, but it sure feels comfortable to be wearing them both again.  Grief isn’t comfortable, but good memories are.  I treasure the memories – those tiny diamond moments that I hope never to lose. Ever.

Giving Thanks

As the world limps from one crisis to the next and sags under the enormity of problems with no immediate or lasting solutions, I pause and examine the hard places of my own life and recognize again that I have much to be thankful for. I can be grateful, not because a global comparison finds me on the lighter side of the scale of problems, but because the weight of life’s challenges is not the measure by which I determine my thankfulness for God’s goodness and love. God’s goodness does not exist in order to mitigate the fact that life is hard, nor is His goodness increased or diminished in the face of evil or atrocity. Neither is God good only when life is full of blessing and smooth pathways, any more than His love is meted out in direct correlation to how I please or displease Him in my daily choices. Simply put: God is good and God is love. I cannot change these facts of God’s character any more than I merit the grace that extends them to me, unworthy as I am. I am thankful for the constancy of who God is when the world groans under constant upheaval, when the church bends so easily to the winds of popular opinion, when I wither with discouragement and grief. I am so very thankful.

Saturday Caesura: Spider Webs and Trust

Not long ago someone made a comment to me that expressed a deep level of trust in me regarding a particularly personal thing. It was as humbling as it was honoring. Trust from others is not something I take lightly; in fact, it can be a scary responsibility to carry another’s trust throughout even a portion of life’s journey.

What if I focus so much on myself and my needs and my agendas that I forget to protect what was entrusted to my care?
What if I make a careless remark that shoots through it like an arrow and leaves it bleeding and lifeless in my hand?
What if I hold it too tight and crush it between my fingers?
What if I, in my sinful faltering, drop it and leave broken shards strewn across the minutes and years that once held a treasured relationship?

Paradoxically, trust can form bonds of incredible resilience and strength while at the same time its existence is solely dependent on the fragile and delicate climate of trustworthiness. Outside of this environment it gasps and flounders, devoid of all that gives it breath.

Sometimes we forget that trust needs to be carefully guarded and nurtured…until it lies in ruins at our feet.

Sometimes (often?) our trust is misplaced.

“What they trust in is fragile;
what they rely on is a spider’s web.
They lean on the web, but it gives way;
they cling to it, but it does not hold.” Job 8:14,15

Spider web things….wealth, beauty, people (neighbours, friends, family, leaders), idols (and possessions that become idols), status, deceptive words; our own strength, ability, and cleverness…

Spider webs can be incredibly resilient and strong, but one gust of wind and the bonds break and droop and gaping holes destroy the whole.

And all those spider web things? They are mentioned in the Bible with warnings NOT to trust them. Lots and lots of warnings…because we need to be reminded lots and lots as we live trust-needy and vulnerable that trust can only exist in a climate of trustworthiness.

Apparently history has shown that spider web things are not particularly trustworthy.

We need to be reminded that there is only One we can trust fully. Always. In every situation and circumstance. Forever. Period.

Two observations on a brief study of the word trust in the Bible:
1. The Old Testament speaks quite frequently about what not to trust and strongly emphasizes trust in the Lord as the desired and necessary path.
2. In the New Testament there is more emphasis on the trustworthiness of the message and the messenger.

It’s as if in the OT there is an image of God’s people as pilgrims on a journey needing to trust that God would lead and direct them as they followed His call. Then, in the NT, the image is more of God’s people as trusting messengers whose mission is authenticated by the trustworthiness of their message.
I found this insightful.

May I not lean on spider web things. May my trust be firmly grounded in the trustworthiness of God – and not in a creed, cliche, pat response sort of way.
May trust in God be the way I fully live… and may my prayer ever be for grace to trust Him more.

100% Chance of Flurries…

The past few weeks have been characterized by flurries: flurries of finish-before-Christmas-break-school work, flurries of get-ready-for-Christmas activities, flurries of snow, flurries of grief, flurries of thought. White-out conditions in my brain…

And now a new year has dawned and people wax eloquent about new opportunities, new starts, fresh goals and noble resolutions while my thoughts drift deep into the inexpressible. Somehow all I can think is how fleeting all of this is…that if all we have are wishes for a happy new year and for things to be different than last year or self-devised plans to better ourselves and our lot in life, then all we can be sure of is a repeat of the same cycles of defeat. The resulting frustration and discouragement often leads to misappropriation of blame…school marks aren’t what I hoped for so I blame the teacher…church life isn’t what I wish it was so I blame the pastor…work environment isn’t meeting my needs so I blame the boss or co-workers. There is never a shortage of people, events, pets, schedules, weather, or circumstances to blame for why we recycle goals and resolutions from year to year.

I am not denying that external factors do indeed affect our lives in often deeply profound or devastating ways, but we are often too quick to discount the internal factors of our own attitudes and choices. Looking at the faltering and failings of others is always easier and more assuring than facing our own.

According to Socrates,“An unexamined life is not worth living.” While most of us attempt to examine our lives at some level, even if it is only as we face a new year, on what criteria are we basing our evaluation? There is never a shortage of standards by which to judge the success of our lives… if I base my life on media portrayals then I definitely need to lose weight and work out more and wear more makeup and colour my greying hair and re-design my wardrobe and my house and my yard and upscale my car, my phone, my blender, and change my toothpaste brand and stop eating wheat and drinking milk. If I base my life on the expectations (real or perceived) of others, then I definitely need to do more (or less), say more (or less), smile more (or less), laugh more (or less), be more efficient (or less so)… perhaps even consider a complete personality make-over because who I am and what I do are woefully inadequate to someone in any given circumstance. Using the wrong criteria leads to mis-focused and confused living. Recycled failures.

So my flurry of thought finally settles here: I am so grateful that God calls me to live based on His standards that never change and are firmly grounded in eternity, righteousness, and holiness. I am grateful for His steadfast love and unending forgiveness because He knows that I am not able to live this life apart from His enabling grace; in my weakness His strength is made perfect. I am grateful that I can invite deep examination of my life and know that He is my rightful Judge and trustworthy Counsellor. So today I say, “Test me, Lord, and try me, examine my heart and my mind,” so that at the end of this day and of this year I can honestly say: “…I have always been mindful of your unfailing love and have lived in reliance on your faithfulness…” (Ps. 26:2,3)