Gardens and Graduates

I started my tomato plants indoors weeks ago, initially keeping them in the relative warmth and southern sunshine of a shelf in the window above the freezer in our laundry room. When they outgrew the laundry room, I jerry-rigged a clear-garbage-bag-incubator/greenhouse in the east window of the below-room-temperature upstairs bedroom. The geraniums were similarly situated in the west window by my art table.

Later, once the sunroom by the front door actually felt like a sunroom rather than a walk-in freezer, I put the tomatoes there during daylight hours, and shuffled them inside at night until the danger of freezing was past. Every time I checked, watered, or moved them, I’d run my hand through their leaves to simulate air movement and encourage them to strengthen their stems in resistance. They’d need this strong backbone to withstand the winds that cruise along the south side of the house where they would eventually spend the summer months.

Even with all my care to harden off the plants before finally transplanting them under a homemade wire-hoop-and-plastic “greenhouse,” they weren’t as resilient as I had hoped. The cool nights and early mornings weren’t a problem because of the insulating cover. Daytime exposure to direct sunlight sunburned a few tender topmost leaves, but nothing too concerning. I had even anticipated the prevailing west winds and put a stake on the east side of each of the tallest plants.

But one day a blustery wind whipped at the plastic cover and left the plants brutally exposed. All of the staked plants survived because they had the support needed to keep their still-strengthening stems from bending and breaking. Three of the shorter, un-staked plants were not so fortunate. The wind was too much for their untried youth. They bent and broke at the base of their stems.

I’ve since provided a stake for each of the remaining shorter plants.

Now, a few windy days later, all of the plants have developed thicker, hardy stems. Their roots have found purchase. They are established and growing. A few have even begun to form blossoms.

Ninety-two graduates “walked the stage” at my school last Friday. I fear that there are few of them whose stems are still too thin, too pliable and prone to easy bending and breaking. I wonder if they have the right support in the right places, supports they can lean into, supports that will hold fast. The winds of life can be gentle, but they can also become unrelenting storms. I hope that these young people have deep roots and sturdy supports. I hope their stems thicken, firm and strong and growing. I hope they don’t break. I hope — and pray. ▫️

☕️ Going in Circles

Reflection. Best of lists. Highlights. Anticipation. Resets and resolutions. So many rituals connected to the ordering our lives on the foundation of time. We live into chronology like we traverse airports on moving walkways, the past recedes as we are perpetually propelled forward. Life becomes a timeline, the significant moments labeled and dated, new years noted as harbingers of progress.

This metaphor works because it is not wholly inaccurate, but it falls short of explaining the full-orbed experience of life. Life, like time, is also cyclical. The hands on the clock circle round and round measuring minutes and hours. The earth rotates as it circles the sun, measuring days and months, seasons and years. My own life is better understood through recognizing its cycles than by resolutely marching down the number-line of accumulated age and years.

Progress occurs through returning again and again to perspectives that continually shift and grow or shrink as more learning and living inform my understanding and my choices. Growth is less linear, and more a circling back to build on what was before. Sometimes to scrap and start anew. Sometimes simply to try again. Sometimes to repeat what didn’t work last time only to experience despair or self-recrimination…again. Cycles can create ruts, and dangers lurk there to be sure.

And maybe this is why we often use the metaphor of “going in circles” to describe lack of progress, lostness, “stuckness.” We can certainly experience all of these at any given time, but what if going in circles could also mean building layers of learning, like the rings of a tree. Or patterns of beauty like the concentric circles of a chrysanthemum. Or habits of faith like the woven materials of a sturdy bird’s nest. What if going in circles means recognizing repeating seasons and being more intentional about how we cycle through them. Or, especially in our relationships with God and others, what if it means rotating on the axis of a deepening love, commitment, and understanding. What if going in circles is about growth rather than stagnation. What if.

As we spiral our way through the days and year ahead, may our circles be as wide and wondering or as narrow and tight and focused as needed to let our hearts be tilled, planted, and watered by God’s good work in us. May we return again and again to what is good and true and right, and turn away always from what is not. May our wounds gain another layer of healing. May our cycles of grief be buoyed by hope and comfort. May our ruts be filled in with the core layers of repentance, grace, humility, forgiveness, and belonging. May we collect treasures of joy and goodness in each loop and lap and curve. May we know above all, that the God who first ordered time into morning and evening, days and years makes “everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.”

I’ll spend the next years of my life circling back to ponder the implications of that last sentence. Which is exactly what was intended, I think.

Here’s to going in circles…

☕️ Living a Scroll

A Saturday Caesura

Last week I spent several days helping my mother-in-law move into a senior’s home. To use a common metaphor, she has entered a new chapter, one of the ones typically reserved for the final pages of life.

The book metaphor for life is a familiar one. The visual of turning a new page seems appropriate to describe new opportunities, especially if those opportunities signal hope for something better than previous pages. We end chapters and start new ones at graduation, marriage, the launch of a career, the birth of a child…the move to a senior’s home. The metaphor seems to serve us well, but I wonder if there is a better one.

Rather than compartmentalizing life into chapters or stages or pages, I’ve been envisioning it as a unified and continuous whole – a scroll, if you will. Although my mother-in-law’s circumstances have changed, she is still the person she was prior to this move. At almost 92, she embodies many experiences and roles and geographies that influence and shape who she is becoming. Yes, I think she is still becoming even at 92 – still learning, still being formed by her choices.

We all are, regardless of our ages.

The person I was before high school graduation is still very much a part of the person I am now as a wife, a mother, a teacher. The person I was before marriage informs the person I am in marriage. I am no less a mother to my adult children than I was when they were toddlers or teenagers. My responsibilities have shifted, to be sure, but motherhood is not relegated to some earlier chapter of my life.

The scroll metaphor challenges our desire for tidy endings. Pages have final words. Chapters have closing paragraphs. Stages of life should as well, shouldn’t they? But what if they don’t? Perhaps our need for closure on certain experiences leads us to peremptorily punctuate them with a definitive end-stop period, and in doing so we fail to recognize that God can use even hard, hurtful things to transform us, to aid us in both being and becoming.

On this weekend, the ninth anniversary of our son’s death, I know the heaviness of a grief that doesn’t have a definitive end in this lifetime. But I can’t compartmentalize it away in some previous chapter. It is written into my life, a scroll that continues to unroll and reveal that God has been at work in me from the moment I was born, from the moment my son was born.

Binding my life into a metaphorical codex encourages a form of survival-ism — a penchant for wishing a particular situation would just end, for adopting a ‘just-get-over-it-already’ mantra, for believing that things will be better when/if this or that happens. I just need to survive until then. If I’m tough and brave and courageous like the self-help gurus suggest, then I’ll make it to the next (and better) page or chapter. Maybe.

There are situations that need to end, we do have to move forward rather than cling to some things, sometimes life does improve when this or that happens, but rather than make those endings or beginnings the focus (and myself the mastermind behind them all), I want to see my behaviour patterns for what they are and recognize God’s relentless work to bring necessary change and growth.

He has begun a good work in me, but it is an ongoing one, a continuous whole that unrolls with each new mercy, with each day’s grace and goodness that never waver in the face of current circumstances, poor choices, or overwhelming emotions.

His steadfast love is writ large across this scroll, not merely footnoted on a page here or there.

Sola Gratia

Somewhere in the middle

To the northeast hot dry winds breathe fury into a beastly fire that engulfs neighbourhoods and propels thousands toward safety and temporary shelter.

Only weeks later, slightly to the northwest, winds pummel heavy, sodden clouds, forcing them to release their payload in a pelting deluge that swells over banks and rips away roads and bridges.

Somewhere in the middle is where I live.

While the land around us felt the aching thirst of impending drought, we were far enough away to be spared the devouring hunger of the flames so devastating to our fellow Albertans.  The storm, however, settled in on its haunches for three days, haphazardly pruning our trees, and pouring itself into every conceivable low spot.  We were saturated, to be sure, but still only on the fringes of the real destruction an hours’ drive to the west.

Sometimes being in the middle provides a measure of safety.

Sometimes being in the middle, the in-between spaces of life, is messy and hard. “Middle-ness” is everywhere:  between hope and despair, expectation and reality, idealism and practicality, past and future, here and there, beginning and end.  I am a middle child, not the perfect middle usually associated with odd-numbered siblings, but a ‘middle’ none-the-less, sandwiched between an older brother and the sister next in birth order.  Society classifies me as middle-aged – no longer young, but not yet a senior either.  Sometimes it feels like the last twenty-odd years of my life have been lived in the middle –either in the middle of something really hard, or in the brief spaces between consecutive really hard things.  The pattern has repeated so often that as I sit here still catching my breath from the last Hard Thing, I keep looking to the horizon for ominous signs of the Next Hard Thing.  A perpetual middle-ness that has at times left me wary and weary. My soul resonates with Mark Hall when he honestly sings about living in the incongruous place between who we are called to be in Christ and the failure-ridden realities of the daily effects of sin – our own and others’.

Sometimes being in the middle is fertile space for growth and blessing.  For those of us living in the more northerly climes, the middle of the year means summer warmth and green growing things – that important space between planting and harvesting. As a school teacher, these middle months also provide a pace of days not measured by bells and marking piles.  What resonates most with my soul though is the fact that grace is also most at home in middle-ness – in that space between salvation and sanctification, though not wholly separate from either of them, it brings meaning and purpose to our existence here in the middle between what was and what will yet be.  It sustains.

Perhaps J.R.R. Tolkien was more insightful than imaginative when he wrote his epic saga of Middle Earth. Although my lived version is very different than his created one, I think there is a deep truth hidden in the reality of living somewhere in the middle.  We were created for greater things, but live with the daily pull of the lesser.  Earth is indeed only the middle ground, an in-between place where battles are fought and ground lost or gained, a place where hearts are broken and mended, a place where grace saves and sustains.  Ultimate victory, healing, and sanctification await beyond the middle – beyond this messy, hard, humbling, redeeming process of becoming what God has already made a way for us to be.

Somewhere in the middle is where I live.  With thankfulness – not the glib, trite, or even politely appropriate kind, but the kind that is fought for daily and arises out of submission to a Sovereign God – for what was, and is, and what will yet be.  Sola gratia.




Mountain vistas and valley depths…

There is something about being on a mountaintop. Although I’ve never done anything that could even remotely be considered mountain climbing by aficionados of that pursuit, I have scaled a peak or two in my lifetime.  There is something about a mountain that tugs at adventurous longings which everyday life tends to squeeze into some dark forbidden corner. Whenever I am within sight of a mountain, I find myself scanning its wrinkled, rugged face, searching for possible routes that would lead to ridges, meadows, or peaks from which the eye might feast uninhibited on vast expanses on all sides.  In my ideal world, I would sit there for hours, just breathing it all in.  In reality, such places are often cold and windy or replete with black flies and mosquitoes, so hours are usually truncated to minutes.  But they are never forgotten.

This past summer on a backpacking excursion, my young companion and I hiked several kilometres from a high, glacier-carved valley up to a small cave.  After a careful foray into the cool darkness of the cave, we scrambled our way to the top of the ridge above it.  From there we had an unobstructed view of large portions of the valley below and a new perspective on the mountain peaks that rose to heights still far beyond our lofty perch.  It was windy, but we lingered, heady with the exhilaration of the climb, the mystique of cave exploration, and the overwhelming majesty of our surroundings.  How to put into words the way such moments permeate the soul and explode in worship of Creator God?


But mountaintops cannot exist without valleys, as every prairie-dweller who lives in the absence of both knows full well.  On the same day that we sat spell-bound and worship-full, another friend received news that ripped her from what had been a mountaintop experience to the heart-squeezing depths of a breath-restricting, joy-eviscerating canyon. I don’t think I will ever forget the imagery created by the words she used to tell me of her pain – so vivid, visceral and raw, emanating from deep places within a wounded soul.  My mountainside, ridge-top experience was quite literal, but her valley is no less real and the contrast between the two has been a source of pondering and reflection for me over the past few weeks…

Mountains and valleys are almost cliché metaphors for the vicissitudes, the victories and disappointments of life. We glory in one and abhor the other.  Even though most of life is lived somewhere in the spaces between both extremes, it is these polar opposites that create the deepest emotions.  Exhilaration and despair.  Joy and sorrow.  Hope and defeat.

As cliché as the metaphor may be, it is strong enough to make us long for, even actively seek out, the euphoria of the mountain.  We feel alive in those moments; although describing its fullness seems beyond words, we know it is good.

Therefore, the valleys of life must be bad.

But there is something about valleys, too.  From our perch above the cave, we looked down on the milky green waters of a glacier-fed lake nestled in a valley between mountains. Our hike up to the lake and then to the cave had largely followed along rivulets, streams and rivers that naturally fell into the lowest places of crevice and valley.  Always going down, never up. Always carving even deeper into soil and rock.

IMG_0535And along the edges of these multiple waterways life flourished.  Trees, shrubs, grasses, flowers.  Rocks were there too, of course, but even then life sprouted from spaces in between wherever it could.


Contrast this with the mountains draped in snowy glaciers that surrounded us; barren regions either entirely void of growing things, or sparsely populated with only the most resilient lichens, mosses and short-blooming alpine flowers.     As majestic as mountains are, it is only in the valleys where real growth is facilitated, where life can root deep and strong, where fruit can ripen and nourish others.

While the perspective from the mountaintop may renew me, may I be ever mindful of the lush growth that exists in the valleys  and embrace this grace, too.