Journey Living

Creating a Pilgrimage Way Station

As part of exploring the pilgrimage path before me, I’ve renewed an enthusiasm for creating my home as a way station. As pilgrims through the ages have needed a place to rest along on their journeys, I dream of my home as being such a place. People may not be wearily walking to Compostela before arriving at my door, but they are on other journeys and need a place for a cool drink of water (or some ice-cream) and a listening ear.

At the same time I want a place that invites me to be attentive to God in the midst of this life journey and a place where others can join – not only to rest on the way, but also to be encouraged and explore their next steps within God’s story.

I imagine that this home will be a way station for reading, writing, thinking, praying, and feasting. A place of safety, but also of challenge. Meeting God and meeting with others is always fraught with the potential for discomfort. Yet in the midst of the discomfort is that abundant life.

In this place I see

  • images of journeys on the walls
  • books of inspiration on the shelves
  • tables for meals with friends and family
  • chairs to gather in conversation
  • desks for writing and dreaming

IMG_3999As I select colors for the walls, consider fabrics for the chairs, wait for bookcases to be installed in the basement and the carpet to be laid, I’m eager to fill the shelves with rows of books and albums of photos. Poetry and prose. Family and travel. I picture how I will set up the furniture with open space for conversation and quiet areas for writing.

In this way station I see my nieces drawing and writing, or students making a meal together. I envision people engaged with God’s Word or discussing the latest bestseller. I imagine a group planning a trip to England or service in the neighborhood. There will be space for laughter and tears.

In all of this we remember that we are living in the now and the not yet, following a merciful Guide as we continue the journey on which we find ourselves.


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Walking into Grief’s Emptiness

IMG_3806At the end of the evening of ministry or visiting with friends, I’m eager to get home. When I arrive I turn the key in lock and open the door. All is quiet. Usually a small orange and white cat greets me, with a grey one not far behind. But there is no “How was your day?” along with a readiness to listen. These past months I’ve longed to return home and share my day, my evening, my latest dilemma. However, I find instead an empty space following my mom’s death.

When I encounter these space, I internally cry out that the story can’t end here. I have so much more to share with her and that I want to learn from her. There are so many more places for us to visit and people for her to love.

In a journal I try to record my thoughts and frustrations in this emptiness. Friends and students are also around to listen. But still, who wants to hear endless small, mundane happenings from someone else’s life? A mother wants to hear all these things; at least my mother wanted to hear. It’s been almost a year since I’ve been able to share that the dinner with students went well or that I don’t know how I’m going to make budget. Eleven months since I’ve received her unconditional love and the best hug ever or simply heard that she was listening without being overwhelmed with well-meaning advice.

As the tears flow more readily now, I yearn to get past this season grief. To step into places that are filled instead of empty. Yet, I’m learning that this time is a gift. I’m remembering and holding on to the love of both my mother and father more fully as I recognize the emptiness in my life carved out from their physical absence. I’m also recognizing the solid foundation they left for me. A foundation of faith, education, and love that continues to support me today.

Moreover, during these times I’m more aware of the people in my life and around the world facing their own spaces of emptiness. Holding out empty hands in sorrow I know I am not alone and can maybe help fill the emptiness of others – not with easy solutions, but with companion tears. During such times as these, our eyes don’t have to be dry. In fact, God himself is intimately acquainted with grief in seeing and experiencing emptiness.

He was despised and rejected by men;
    a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
    he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
– Isaiah 53:3

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved[e] in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept.
-John 11:33-35

In this new season of grief it’s not time to seek comfort in just any promise of fullness, but to look into the emptiness and reach out. The house remains quiet when I enter. Are there clear answers? A response to the quiet emptiness of home? Not one that I’m hearing now. And I don’t know what it should look like. What I do know is that I can’t manufacture an answer that will satisfy – either for myself or for others – and as I try to manufacture something, the emptiness only increases.

Yet, there is a Companion who will remain with us, tears and all.  A Savior who also wept is ready to accompany each of us along the way.  Through Jesus fullness comes through the emptiness as we learn to rest on him alone and walk with others.

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Entering Rest in the Midst of Calendar Chaos

IMG_0936It’s the first week of the academic year and with it brings two welcome cookouts for UC Christian Grads, a prayer gathering, meetings with ministry partners, and continued planning. For the first time in several months I’ll be immersed in interactions with students and faculty nearly every day. I’m looking forward to each appointment on my calendar – along with the ones not scheduled. Even as I’m eager to step into this work, I’m also leery. In this chaotic mess of activity I can often lose myself and the purpose of all this activity. Then at the end of the semester I look back and wonder what happened. But that’s not the way I want to begin the year – flailing around for a solid landing place that never appears. No, I want to step out from a firm foundation.

So, before I drive across the bridge over the Ohio River into Cincinnati, I stop at the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington.

Opening the solid, wooden doors I am surrounded by a quiet comfort. The firmness of the stone, the height of the vaulted ceilings, the diffused light through the stained glass, the muffled sound of the traffic, and the light scent of incense and candles invites me to rest even in the midst of work. This is a place of refuge in which my thoughts turn to God instead of my calendar.

Slowly I walk in front of the altar, across the marble floors to the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. Sliding into the back pew I sit and close my eyes to rest in this space and allow it to speak to me. Opening my eyes I gaze at the jeweled-toned stained glass before me: an image of Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness. God met them in that place abundantly and in ways they never imagined – manna raining down, water gushing out, and God’s presence in the light and cloud surrounding the tabernacle. The desperation of the people was heard and met.

But the story told on the walls in this small chapel doesn’t end here. On the side walls murals by Frank Duveneck portray Jesus – sacrificing himself on the cross as the bread of life and breaking bread three days later with two disciples in Emmaus. In these images we see how God himself became the bread to feed us, in a fuller and more lasting way than with manna.

Sitting here I am able to focus again on the truth that Jesus is our living bread, our true source of nourishment. Since I’m prone to want to feed myself, I need to hear these words over and over. I need to stop kneading the dough of my life to death and, instead, hold out my hands to the living bread.

The readings from the past Sunday undergird these musings:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. – John 6:35

Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! – Psalm 34:8

I sit and feed on these words and images until it’s time to leave. Then, I take a last look around and walk through the nave noticing the banks of candles lit by previous visitors. Others who have taken refuge and encountered the bread of life in this space. I don’t know how the others left – in hope or despair.

As for me, this place as helped me remember that solid foundation that undergirds all this activity. And not just remember, but rest in the foundation of Christ. Walking out of the doors, I now see the food I’m purchasing for the cookout tonight as not one more task to finish, but part of a larger story of following Jesus and inviting others to come along.

Let the feast begin!

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Losing Sight of the Shore

IMG026“One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time. – Andre Gide

The above quote has been pinned to the bulletin board above my desk since November 2000 when a former supervisor sent it as encouragement and as his image of me. At that time I was moving from a secure job in business to a doctoral program in literature. Not necessarily the safest move. I did not see the lands in front of me clearly, specifically the job possibilities that would come from this journey. I just jumped in and pushed off from the shore of a 9 to 5 job and I haven’t returned there yet.

However, was I really leaving the shore? Sometimes I think that this is not a true picture of me. Throughout my years I have clung to safe moorings of family, home, and jobs. I may leave one thing, but hold onto the others. Even though I left the one job, I had a secure place to live and a supportive family. Yet, without remaining on at least one familiar shore, I don’t think I would have left at all.

So, losing sight of our shores will look different for different individuals. Still, whatever they look like, they are departures that allow us to open our eyes to new possibilities in life. As I left that job, I found new interests in pilgrimage and literature and eventually integrated them with the Christian faith in my current role in campus ministry – a new land I never saw coming in 2000.

Moreover, sometimes the shores we leave are not always ones we choose. As the reality of my mother’s impending death flooded over me last year, I felt unmoored. Pushed into the ocean with only a small rowboat for safety. I would no longer have the sure comfort of her encouragement and her love greeting me every day. There would be nothing to hold to as I left other shores. It still feels like that at times. But I’m also seeing new lands:

  • supportive friends,
  • blessings of remembered stories,
  • grace of God’s presence in suffering,
  • gift of creating a new home,
  • freedom to leave other shores.

In these reflections I think of Abraham, Moses, Ruth, and others who left familiar places, shores of their lives. Sometimes they knew where they were going, but many times they didn’t, or at least didn’t know what it would be like when they arrived. Yet, they kept moored to a faith in God. In the process of leaving one place they grew in that faith which allowed them to arrive at those new lands with a receptive spirit and a stronger trust in God.

I still don’t know if I fully embody Gide’s quote, but now I can even leave that concern behind. In the coming months, I pray for the courage to leave certain shores from which God is calling me. Not in a reckless abandon, but in a faithful walk expecting to see new lands and secure in the One who is showing them to me.  I also look forward to talking with others who are losing sight of their shores so we can walk (or row) together in this time.

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Moving Out From the Antechamber of God’s Kingdom

IMG_3044Stained glass images in walls of stone reached the heights of the vaulted ceiling, holding my gaze; while, at eye level, Ruben’s painting of The Adoration of the Magi behind the altar moved me into a posture of humility. Sitting down, I touched the worn, dark wood of the choir stalls that carried memories of the centuries of fellows and students who have rested here for worship. The scents of wax from rows of burning candles and of stones from taken from the ground centuries before filled the space. Soon organ and choral music added to the tapestry of this space as voices affirmed the age-old creeds and prayers, and the words of scripture and the sermon spoke of a marvelous story – The Story. Finally, I tasted the bread and wine – the body and blood – that drew together the people in community here at Kings College Chapel in Cambridge, England.

For an hour and a half heaven met earth here, a safe place to encounter the King and Shepherd, Jesus Christ. But these walls of the chapel weren’t the limit of his Kingdom. At the end of the service, ushered back through the choir stalls and under the organ, I looked up. Directly in front of the line of worshippers, immense doors at the end of the nave were open. The light of the evening sun filled the frame and I was drawn to leave this place, this antechamber. These past moments, together with the previous week, had been only preparation to enter the wider kingdom of God – the entire world.

When I stepped onto the grounds of Keble College in Oxford last July to start the C. S. Lewis Summer Institute, I entered a world apart from my normal life of work and family back in Kentucky. A walking tour of Oxford immersed me in college grounds and buildings that were built to inspire and for reflection. The tour ended at Addison’s Walk in Magdalen College. On this circular path C. S. Lewis spent an evening in conversation with Hugo Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien that drew him closer to seeing Jesus as God’s Son, the historical reality of the dying god myth. As I walked along the paved path, under the trees, and along the River Cherwell I slowed down, moved to reconsider my calling, to break from constraints, and to meet new friends. This felt like a safe place to think dig more deeply into what the Kingdom of God really is.

During the next days I encountered a vibrant infusion of talks, art, and food, pointing to the reality of God’s presence in all of life through the focused prism of the conference proceedings. Worship services in the Anglican tradition brought us through God’s story – creation, fall, redemption – as we repeated prayers and verses that others have said for centuries. Speakers challenged us on living the dance of the virtues – courage, self-control, wisdom, justice , faith, hope, and love – by practicing intellectual hospitality in our world, listening to and speaking for those who have no voice, and challenging the status quo. Moreover, they encouraged us to cultivate a renewed culture, a culture grounded in the world changing reality of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Arts surrounded us through musical performances, dance, and visual arts. I even took the opportunity personally to dive into the art world by taking a workshop on sketching.

Within these places and conversations I became engaged in the community around me, communitas in pilgrimage parlance. Community formed around meals in the dining halls and pubs and over scones in cafes; in workshops and between plenary sessions; even while punting on the Cam. One of the first evenings I sat outside in a courtyard of Keble College with a small group of writers – the Sprinklings. Most of us had only just met. Even so, there was a level of trust that allowed us to read pieces of our writings and provide encouragement to continue. One participant, the head master of a school, shared the stories he used to tell his son, who is now in college. A woman who had only started writing a few years ago is now a frequent blogger and is writing her second novel. Two other women engaged with ideas of pilgrimage in their novels. We were all seeking ways to express meaning through our words of story and felt safe to do so here.

All of these elements – the places, content, and people – wove together a rich time in which to imagine God’s Kingdom. But more importantly to remember that this kingdom is near and now – as Jesus himself emphasizes.

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” – Luke 17: 20-21

And not here as in Oxbridge – those ten days outside of ordinary life – but here as in our every day world. The renewed inspiration from these days away were not to be locked away, but to be shared beyond the safety of worship services and plenary sessions. This time of concentrated richness reminded me that as Christians we have a compelling story to tell. I had walked into a story in which I found great comfort and felt at home. But, like the worship service at King’s College Chapel, it soon came time to leave.

It would have been easy to mourn leaving the place and seek another safe area back in Kentucky. But we aren’t called to remain in the antechamber. C. S. Lewis himself reminds us many times of this, probably most familiarly in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” – The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Places such as conferences, churches, even our homes are places to start growing, as seedlings in a greenhouse; but as with seeds, our growth as followers of Jesus needs to be planted in the world where it’s not likely to be safe.

IMG_3050Little did I know that I would be forced into a place that was not safe and comfortable once I returned home – the final weeks of my mom’s life. However, the weeks in England helped to prepare the soil for this desperate time. I realized that God’s kingdom was present in the hospital and at her bedside.  Now, as I begin this new year without either of my parents, a part of me is fearful. Nevertheless, I continue to walk towards that open door and hold on to the gift of this time. It is part of God’s kingdom. Even though I’m tempted, I don’t need to hide myself in another antechamber for safety. I can follow Jesus into the world as I “taste and see” that he is the One who is truly good.

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A New Liminality

IMG_3326For years I’ve welcomed liminal periods, those moments of walking over thresholds in life; of being outside of familiar places. I’ve willingly stepped into new academic programs, away from jobs, into overseas adventures. On pilgrimages, I’ve known that I would face new places and unexpected challenges. With new jobs I looked forward to the first weeks of not knowing exactly what was expected. Somehow I was confident that on the other end I would emerge changed and better able to live into life more fully.

However, recently I was thrust into a liminal time in which I did not want to be. My mother was diagnosed with cancer, again. Once I heard the diagnosis I entered a time between cancer in remission and what? Hovering over this threshold of metastasizing cancer I didn’t know what would happen and tis time the other side did not look so promising.

  • I had no control.
  • I could not opt out.
  • I could not envision what was on the other side of this threshold.

For twenty-five days I walked into the hospital to be with my mom, talk with doctors, wait for the next step. Will nausea continue when a GNT tube is removed? Will she keep down food? What is the source of this mass? Can she get enough nutrition to start chemotherapy? Will a decompression tube in her stomach allow her to eat? Will the surgery for the tube compromise any recovery? Sometimes I felt all I could do was sit and wait in the vinyl covered visitor chair in her room. After weeks of wondering and waiting for the scale to tip in my mom’s favor, we learned there was no way to control this tumor. Her digestive system was so compromised that it was working against her.

Unlike other hospital departures, this was bittersweet and took me deeper into a liminal time. I walked over the thresholds of the hospital and into home hospice care. For my mom this meant life in a hospital bed in the living room and limited mobility. For me this was jumping into daily nursing care. I didn’t know what would happen. Would she be able to digest any food at home? How long would she be here? For how long would she be able to have visitors?

The first days contained some hope in this place without monitors and with the comfort of the sights and smells of home. But each day remained a time of waiting. After two weeks the pain increased and her food intake continued to diminish. She couldn’t do anything that required concentration such as reading or writing. Visits, movies, television, conversation filled the time. It was impossible to plan for anything as her condition might change from hour to hour.

In these times, during this waiting, I so often wanted to yell and cry. To leave. I wanted out, but that was not an option. Sometimes I did leave for a couple of hours to run errands or even to eat out while others sat with my mom. But there was always a tightness in my stomach knowing I had to return. For a season I backed off of work allowing others to keep things going as much as possible. It was time to be with my mom. It was time to pray. To be present in the discomfort.

Slowly I grasped the grace of liminality, of not needing to worry about the past or future, but to fully hold onto the present. These weeks were times of clarity. I knew my mom would be at peace, the peace that passes understanding that Jesus promises. Not necessarily the peace I would like in this world. However, a peace that taught me to enjoy simple things like sharing hot cereal in the morning or laughing over a television show; as well as allowed me to hold her when she was going through pain I couldn’t ease.

Now I’m on the other side of that liminal space. My mother has ended her pilgrimage on earth and is in the ultimate destination – paradise. But I’m still continuing my journey here. What will it look like? There will be different companions and paths. There will be new opportunities to step out – and I want to step out more into new spaces, even those that are uncomfortable. For one thing, I have a new way to think of living a full life – not based on thinking I know what will happen or can control the outcome, but on knowing that God will be present each moment and will walk with me through it.

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Thankful for the Harvest

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much about harvesting any type of agricultural crop. Still, whether or not we gather in food from fields or gardens, we all have the opportunity to bring in a harvest each year for which we can give thanks.

Sometimes I’m the one who has planted and watered the crop. Maybe it’s a piece of writing or an international adventure. This year I’ve spent much time in front of my computer editing a book and planning a two week pilgrimage to England. Though I may be tempted to think it was my effort that made it possible to see this book taking form or to participate in the C. S. Lewis Summer Institute; I need to acknowledge that my thanks needs to go out to many people, even many I will never know.

Even more, much of the harvest I find before me has very little to do with my effort. It comes through so many others in my life.

This year I’m thankful for the harvest

of love from

  • my mother who passed along unconditional love until her last days;
  • family who continues to surround and support one another;
  • friends who have come beside me in my worst moments;

of beauty from

  • a myriad of books;
  • paintings, poetry, ballet, and music;
  • God’s creation;

of opportunity and learning from

  • InterVarsity Christian Fellowship;
  • C. S. Lewis Institute in Cincinnati;
  • writing and book groups.

Giving thanks for this bountiful harvest can be humbling because looking at these gifts forces me to recognize that I can not survive alone in this world. No wonder the psalmist writes that “I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord” (Psalm 116:17). The act of thanksgiving can indeed be a sacrifice of our self-centered, prideful selves.

But the more we offer this thanks, the more open we are to the joy that comes through seeing the harvest around us. We can let go of the need to be in charge and instead gather and share it. How sad if I had only looked back at what I could do – it would be a meager harvest. But through giving thanks I realize a freedom to enjoy and share what God has given through so many people.  It’s a bountiful harvest.

What harvest are you giving thanks for today?

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Is this Grief?

IMG_3050It’s not what I imagined.

With their comments of concern and condolence, some well meaning church ladies imply that I shouldn’t be feeling well now that my mom has passed. Part of me wonders why I’m not in constant desolation, finding it difficult to get on with life. Less than a month since my mom passed away, less than three months since she entered the hospital because they found a new mass, I’ve lost a lot in my life, but through this loss have realized some tremendous graces. I had been afraid that grief would overwhelm me, but it hasn’t. Am I doing something wrong?

Over the eight weeks of hospital and hospice care, I was in a suspended state of disbelief and grief as I responded to changing realities each day. A medical intervention suggested, pain medicine increased, food digested, hope grasped. I wanted to believe that this would be like the other cancer diagnoses. I held on to the fraying thread of life before me. Even so, I had a nagging thought that this time was different. There would be no physical healing. This was the end. Over those days I grieved, fighting the latent fears I’ve held since my mom was first diagnosed with cancer. At times I wept for hours, at others all I could do was sit in the hospital room, waiting. I had known that some day these cells would return, and with a vengeance. This was that time.

I have also had moments of deep sorrow since her death. Crying as I think about going through her clothes. Wondering what to do with unfinished projects around the house. Realizing that I won’t hear a heartfelt thank you after cutting the grass. Sitting at the dinner table set for one.

Yet, since she passed into paradise resting in faith, I feel freer, not gripped by grief. I no longer have to fight to keep her here; instead I can look forward to the work of honoring her life as well as the work of creating a new home for myself. Converting this home that my mom and I have shared for six years into a place for friends and family is a gift she left me. For years I’ve been dreaming about having my own place. Now I do. A place to write. A place to flourish. Small and large renovation work is before me, both to the house and within myself. I’m eager to get going.

Still, I wonder if it’s okay to be excited about a new part of my life so soon. Shouldn’t I be mourning more? Unable to work or go through her things for at least several weeks? Can I already be moving on and have really loved her? Though my mother’s life on earth has stopped, her legacies of joy and faith continue. So, it’s a time to share these stories and to live more deeply into life. For me, I would be dishonoring her memory to stay mired in sorrow and regret.

Upon reflection, I guess I am mourning, but in my own way. I’m living in a mixture of sadness and joy knowing I carry with me the memory of a mother who loved immensely and desired everyone around her to be happy. There’s a bittersweetness about going forward as I hear her commend me for wanting to create a new place and to be excited about new opportunities before me. To live fully until that joyful reunion with her and others in the future. Yet there’s also a renewed energy to wake up and live.

I’m glad grief is not what I imagined. Death has not won – neither by taking my mom, who is in a better place, nor by stopping those who loved her to continue living.


DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
– John Donne

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Ask for the Ancient Paths

IMG010Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. – Jeremiah 6:16

Have you ever wondered where all our inner turmoil gets us?

As I look back over my journal entries from last year I am struck by how much complaining and critiquing they contain.  Nothing major or incisive about the world – just a general negative picture of daily life.  I didn’t get enough sleep.  I didn’t want to work.  I felt hemmed in.  For the most part I saw life as something to get through to reach the a few times of rest.  I wanted it to be different, but I struggled to see how.

Trying to honestly assess my life, I fell into a spiral of complaining.  It started because I was frustrated by an underlying and nagging discontent. If I pinpointed where and what was holding me back from the job I wanted, from writing, from building friendships, I could get rid of it and go on with life.  Yet, my reflections had the opposite outcome.  Instead of making me more free, these complaints became the reality of my life.  It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I needed an external prophet to point to the way out of this turmoil.  Words of God from the prophet Jeremiah speak of such a new path.

  • Stand by the roads and look

I’ve got to get out and look, not inside myself, but to the ways out there. Some are roads I’ve walked on; others have been trod by friends, family, other pilgrims.  The point is I’ve got to go out.

  •  Ask for the ancient paths, where the way is good

I need to ask, not strike out on my own to try to fix, to create a story that will work.  Instead, the Lord is calling his people to ask him for these roads.  He will guide as he did Abraham, Ruth, Nehemiah, and many others.

  •  Walk in it and find rest for your souls.

Finally, I need to walk along these paths.  Not sit and fret about why I can’t, or give excuses.  It’s time to go, and in the going with God, find the rest that I can’t create myself.

I’ve been doing it all wrong.  I’ve struggled to create the road and then do the walking – all on my own.  I also haven’t taken the time to stand and look.  What I thought was a year of honest looking, wasn’t.  At least it wasn’t the right kind of looking.  Instead of getting out and seeing where God had lain the roads for me, I stayed inside and dreamt about the comfort of remaining within.  Safe.  Secure.  I tried to put together the perfect story and plan for life.  Again, by myself.  And along the way I stopped looking at the roads and became comfortable in the ditch.

Overall, last year wasn’t terrible.  There were quite a few highlights – conversations with friends, travels to authors’ homes, new ministry opportunities.  As I consider what was different about the life-giving times, I realize that in those moments I was looking outside of myself, standing by the roads and taking time to consider the ancient paths.

And, yes, every once in awhile, actually walking.

It’s time to change to use these moments as my models, instead of the endless complaining.  Instead of focusing on what’s not working and what I don’t like, it’s time to get out.  To look at the roads, to pray to see those ancient paths, and to walk in the good ways more often.  I have it on good authority that Someone will be with me as I do so.

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O Santa in the Highest: Heresy or Insight?

When I was a child I always looked forward to singing “O, Santa in the highest” on Sunday mornings.  It was a highlight of my week.  Standing between my parents, seeing the sun streaming in from the windows, and holding the hymnal – I thought it quite natural to be singing to a gift-giver my five-year old self loved, Santa Claus.  Though I look back at this child’s error in embarrassment, I’m also aware at how freeing it was to sing without abandon at church.  Somehow God and Santa were connected.  Though not theologically correct, I was pointing in the right direction imaging a loving being as the focus of these words.  It wasn’t that big of a change when I started to sing “Hosanna in the highest” in later years.

Was this a form of heresy?  An idea that if my parents would have been aware should have fervently cut out of my imagination?  Or, was it something else?

Recently after I shared this story in a group, one of the participants said that she had just had the talk about Santa Claus with her daughter who now felt that she had been lied to for ten years. I can understand where this mother and daughter are coming from.  The attempt to live out a lie in our lives can lead us away from reality and cause us to feel a sense of diminished trust – whether that lie is Santa Claus or of being a concert pianist when you’ve never practiced a day in your life (or published author when you don’t sit and write).  When fantasy overtakes reality, it can lead to demolished relationships, bad career choices, and great stress.  In the case of Santa Claus, one may even argue that this fantasy is turning people away from actual stories – Jesus’ birth and the life of St. Nicolas – and to the life claiming calls of marketers.

But, could such fantasies also be a gift in our lives?  Something we should desire to share with our children, and even encourage.  The error I inserted into the church liturgy didn’t take me away from God’s reality, but drove me to it.  The picture I had of Santa Claus was of a gift giver, of love.  It pointed in the direction of the ultimate gift giver.

FatherChristmasC. S. Lewis even includes him in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.  As Narnia begins to thaw from winter, hope arises when the children and beavers are met by Father Christmas – “Everyone knew him because, though you see people of his sort only in Narnia, you see pictures of them and hear them talked about even in our world – the world on this side of the wardrobe door.” Now because everyone knew and were positively drawn to him they were open to what he had to say  “Aslan is on the move. . . . Merry Christmas!  Long live the true King!”  Such fantasies can truly direct us to greater stories.

Furthermore, the gifts Father Christmas gives Peter, Susan, and Lucy prepare them for the battles and challenges to come – sword, shield, bow and arrows, horn, dagger, and healing cordial.  At the time they didn’t know what to do with them, but they trusted they would use them because they trusted the giver.  He was preparing them to meet Aslan.

Things not factually true within the material world do not need to be termed lies.  Then all of the great literature would have to be viewed as lies as well.  Well, maybe not if we’re not enacting them in our lives.  But this desire to bring Santa Claus and other fantasy figures into this world is not necessarily a lie.  It depends on how the story is presented – as with any story.  Bringing him into this world may be a way of longing for the ultimate insertion of fantasy into the world – that of God’s incarnation.

In his essay On Fairy Stories, J. R. R. Tolkien writes:

But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small.  Redeemed Man is still man.  Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on.  The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the ‘happy ending.’

 Tolkien was not a fan of Lewis including Father Christmas in Narnia.  For him it wasn’t well conceived fantasy writing.  But I would like to imagine the he supported the reasoning behind including Santa – that this figure well known to the children would be a means of pointing to the unknown goodness they would meet in Aslan.

Everyone doesn’t have to redeem the fantasy of Santa Claus in their and their children’s lives.  There are many other stories that people can bring into the world and I would encourage us all to be careful about disregarding fantasy and imagination too quickly.  I’m for bringing Santa and elves, mischievous rabbits and small orange bears stuffed with fluff into our lives to give us a wider view of the world – and perhaps even a better view into God.

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