Juxtaposition

It’s Saturday morning and laundry load #2 spins while I enjoy a tea latte and rays of sun. More chores require my attention, but they are content to wait, to allow this day to unfold purposefully and leisurely.

I scroll through some pictures on my phone, thinking that it is time to delete a few.

And this one stops me.

Not because it is particularly unique or stunning – it’s just a little hillside path from a brief bike-hike a few weekends ago. At the time what caught my eye was the contrast between angled green foreground and horizontal purple background.

What stops me today, however, is the unintended focal point of the composition, the juxtaposition of two trees – one dead, one alive. One black etching on a background of green. One skeleton on a hillside of life.

And then I realize that this unassuming snapshot is actually a perfect visual metaphor for living with loss. The grief doesn’t go away. It is always part of the picture somewhere.

But only a part.

The rest of the picture teems with life that keeps reaching for light and anchoring in steep rocky soil and waving and whispering in even the slightest breeze.

Just because death exists doesn’t mean that life stops.

And because life continues, sometimes we forget to acknowledge that for many there is a resident grief-tree. A photobomber of life moments.

But maybe, just maybe, the presence of grief makes all the green-ness of life that much more meaningful and rich and appreciated.

By grace alone.

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 ‚Äď 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 ‚Äďeither 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 ‚Äď 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 ‚Äď 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 ‚Äď 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 ‚Äď 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 ‚Äď 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?

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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‚Ķ

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.

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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.