Posts Tagged With: life

Autumnal Memories

IMG_3872Rustling red leaves on the young oak tree remember past dreams. Dreams that my mother had to see this tree take root and grow in the yard, rising above her home’s roof. Dreams of grandchildren and great grandchildren playing beneath it, finding a place of rest and refuge as they runaround in games of tag and hide-and-seek or sit and read a favorite book. An image of a family rooted in the solid ground of faith and one another.

In its first year, some of the leaves and branches withered, almost as if this ground couldn’t support it. The hoped for strength was disappearing. But with some extra fertilizer and a few strategic trims, the tree had the needed nourishment. Finally, the buds opened and leaves again covered the branches late in the spring looking forward to its glorious fall colors

However, the dreams of seeing this tree mature over the decades through my mother’s care disappeared while she passed away last fall as red leaves slowly fell to the ground.

I cry knowing that she’s not sitting in the living room looking out of the window and relishing the red hues as the tree flourishes for a third year. But it’s not only her lost dreams of seeing a majestic oak grow that have me crying, it’s the lives of her children and grand children of which she will not be a physical part. The loss of times that we don’t get to spend with her to be encouraged with her smile and words. The loss of her absolute joy in seeing beauty before her without critique or condemnation. The loss of the stories that won’t be.

Still I see the brilliant red that my mom was looking forward to enjoying every year to welcome autumn’s call, celebrating the year past and the one to come. As I look at the leaves moving in the breeze of this autumn afternoon, I experience my mom’s unadulterated joy.

This tree, though it reminds me of the past, also pulls me into the present, into the heart and hands my mom held open before all of life. I long to fill my days with this posture. To drink in what is before me today. The colors, the conversations, the opportunities. The see through this tree the beauty it brings for today and the hope for tomorrow. It will continue to grow and my mom’s children and grandchildren will continue to live, rooted in the life soil she tilled and nourished for us.

Today red leaves, tomorrow the shade of a full grown oak and the stories of family and friends coming to life out of the lives of those that have gone before. A brilliant showing.

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Hitting the Wall and Breaking Out

IMG_2772It’s been a rough summer and several weeks ago I hit a wall. As usual I had a task list ready and knew what needed to get done to reach a set of goals. There weren’t any outside meetings to get in the way of completing the list that Thursday. Yet, I couldn’t . . . push . . . through . . .. Most of the morning I just read and re-read the list. Some internal barrier was stopping me.  I kept thinking that if I can just get through this list, then I could rest. But there was always another list.

The problem wasn’t so much in the lists, as in the thinking that I was alone responsible for accomplishing everything. Eventually the tasks had become so disparate that I didn’t see the larger vision of why I was doing them and I didn’t see the One behind it all. No wonder I hit a wall. For days on end these tasks became bricks that I thought I were adding to an expansive vision of life, when in reality I was walling myself into a solitary cell.

Gradually each task became a burden and I started living as if once I got through them I’ll then be good enough to connect with God or with others. Until then, it was just me on my own. In my mind I knew this was wrong and pictured the abundant life God promises, but my actions belied belief.

Fortunately, hitting the wall led me to see that I needed to somehow get out. Instead of thinking that I was building a life on my own, I needed to stand alongside others in its building. Nehemiah uses the phrases “Next to them” and “After” over 25 times in Nehemiah 3 to indicate a continuous line of people repairing the walls of Jerusalem, one next to / after the other. Here was a wall that was being built for a larger vision and drew people together.

And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, “Let us rise up and build.” So they strengthened their hands for the good work. – Nehemiah 2:18

I needed to see that larger vision. So, I took a day off. No looking at task lists or e-mails. I slowly got ready and went for a walk then headed to the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington, Kentucky to pray in this space of quiet expanse. Afterwards I walked around the Cincinnati Art Museum for an hour. Not honing in on any specific work, but reveling in the beauty and craft of the paintings and sculptures. My breathing slowed and shoulders lowered. I could look and enjoy. Be inspired. Receive new breath from the work of others and from the beauty that God has created all around us. A quiet lunch and a stroll through Ault Park rounded out the afternoon.

Going home my trained mind wanted to return that list and find commendation in doing something. Maybe I would start cleaning. But I had to say no. This constant treadmill of trying to keep up with work was not life giving. I needed to think of other ways to fill time set aside for rest. Reading, writing, and organizing photos from a pilgrimage last summer took up the rest of the day. In these activities I found rest and started to again see a larger picture of the work before me, before all of us.

With a new view and breath, I am looking at these tasks differently. Not as a list to plow through, but as opportunities to serve God, one another, and enjoy life together.

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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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Waiting to Breathe

IMG_1489The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life. – Job 33:4

We all have habits we fall into while waiting for a big event. Mine is often holding my breath – both literally and figuratively. As I prepare for the imminent journey to England, along with fall plans for ministry, anxiety is building within me and I catch myself not breathing. Waiting to finish that next task, I don’t fill my lungs fully. Short, shallow breaths keep me going as my shoulders gradually rise throughout the day. I’m attempting to hold on until July 18 when I can finally let go and revel in the places and stories for which I’ve been planning.

As I hold on, though, I’m in danger of losing the very stories that center me for the pilgrimage ahead. I forget to look around where God has me today and live as if these fulfilling stories can only enter my life during these extreme trips. The rest of life is merely waiting for them to take place. If I continue in this state, I may find myself unable to slow down and change my routine of running from task to task even once in England. So, I’m stopping now to breathe. To consider some of the practices drawing me to travel, but also those that I would like to engage with more deeply when I return.

Playing  The child in me wants to break out and play. I’m looking forward to spending time on this upcoming pilgrimage learning to sketch, sharing writing with others, visiting sites, attending concerts, and taking in the new places. All of these activities come without expectations that they need to be finished by a certain date, reach a certain number of people, or be judged. I want to encounter each of these activities with wonder and willingness to enjoy each moments and try new things.

Feasting  Associated with the play, I want to feast on words, places, and food. Instead of worrying over budgets and living in scarcity, I’m eager to thoroughly enjoy the abundance of each day – even within limitations. First feasting in the mercy and love that God pours on us, then in the other gifts that he graciously shares from his creation.

Creating  I can’t wait to sit, draw, write, imagine, and weave stories. I’m looking forward to being in a space that honors creativity and those who express it through various media. I like to think that I have a spark of creativity in me that needs to get out, even in the midst of administrative tasks. If nothing else, I am eager to see the creativity of God expressed through his people.

Gathering From a young age I’ve yearned to gather with people of similar interests. To laugh and learn together. While I’ve always been surrounded by a loving family and friends, there have been a few significant times that a group has coalesced around a shared experience – whether that’s at a camp, at college, or through travel. These times and people have been key turning points in my life. Maybe this coming pilgrimage will be another one.

Worshiping  In, through, and under all of these practices I long to see God in the midst of all molding a story. Ironically, even though I work in campus ministry, it can easily become an array of tasks instead of a space in which to worship and see God. Stepping away from the weekly routine I look forward to engaging with God anew.

As I prepare for this upcoming pilgrimage, I want to be open to the stories in which I find myself. To be looking for the ones I expect, following the ones that have drawn me, but also to welcome all that I encounter. This journey isn’t about designing a comfortable story in which to hide. Instead through these practices I want to be challenged to honestly engage with God’s story – and return with a renewed experience of flourishing in God’s grace and sharing this with others.

Even now I’m starting to breathe more freely. I’m entering a space outside of the daily task-driven routine. This isn’t necessarily an ideal place, but one in which I can meet the reality of life on a new level, to rework deep stories, and to return to provide space for people to play, feast, create, gather, worship – and breathe.

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Life vs. Life

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I (Jesus) came that they may have life and have it abundantly.  – John 10:10

Constantly I’m drawn to this verse and to books that unpack what it is to live abundantly.  Whether they are books about integrating faith and scholarship, going on pilgrimage, walking with others in discipleship, or enjoying sabbath rest, I love to read about the full life God provides his creations.  Sometimes this includes extraordinary events, but more often it is life that is flourishing with the ordinary.  A life that includes friends, family, meals, quiet, nature, work, as well as an awareness of weaknesses and brokenness.  Mostly routine stuff.  But more than routine, these activities help to root each of us more deeply into our places.  What a life!

However, every day I’m also accosted with another definition of life as I scroll though the internet.  I am particularly struck with the Life section of USA Today.  Articles focus on the highest paid actors, the latest celebrity pairing, movie rankings, and the latest drama in the lives of music divas. These articles are nothing like the life explored in the other books. In a way, these articles are almost anti-life.  Instead of rooting readers into their own places of life, these stories steal away attention from authentic lives as they focus on a few lives that are for the most part made up.  Entertainment, maybe, but not life.

First, many of these stories are about the crises involved in creating false worlds, particularly those of television and movies.  Don’t get me wrong, I would be one of the first to defend the need for a myriad of stories in our lives – and even imaginary ventures to other worlds. I don’t think I would have gotten through elementary school without the likes of Jo March or Harriet the Spy.  The books I read and even some of the television shows I watched encouraged and challenged me.  However, they were not life.  I also had the boundaries of parents and teachers, my failings, and daily routines to keep me going.  When the latest gossip or news from the entertainment industries in Hollywood or New York city is listed under the heading of life, what are we saying about the lives of everyone else?  In a way they are stolen.

Second, many of these are trumped up crises – or voyeurism into the failings of those whose lives we can’t even imagine.   Are the shenanigans on the reality shows really worthy of endless critique and angst?  What about the on-again / off-again rehab stints of several celebrities?  On these pages, the extraordinary moments are turning into the ordinary and these types of crises – real or fake – are being shown as the essence of life.  If this is the case, then a person who is not involved in such drama is not really living.

Eventually, these stories can reframe what constitutes life. Since we can not be movie stars, we will need to spend our time watching their movies and lives.  Or critiquing them.  Maybe we start to think that we have to wait to live a full life until we are also enmeshed in similar crises.  Or maybe we hear that we will never live a full life because these crises will never enter our world. It is difficult to measure ourselves against this vision of life.  I know that most people aren’t intentionally designing their lives after the life section of newspapers, but at some level it slowly infiltrates our individual and societal beliefs.

I would love to re-write these life pages.  Do an exposé of a couple married 15 years, with their struggles and their joys – including reading to their children every night.   Highlight the student with an average GPA at high school.  Showcase the wedding of a young couple that took place in a plainly decorated church and was followed by a two day honeymoon to a state park.  In such a section people would be encouraged to see their lives abundantly and know that they can live in such a way.  It’s not only available to a select few.

What stories would you want included in a life section that doesn’t seek to hold up celebrities, but to celebrate all.


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Redecorating a Different Success

Eight years ago I moved into my current bedroom.  It was small, but sufficient, even cozy.  Yet, it has never felt quite right.  A light oak chair rail divided the room horizontally with a dark evergreen painted below and a dirty beige above.  At least twenty nail holes marked the walls where previous owners had hung pictures and diplomas in this former office.  The beige carpet had black stains.  It could have been oil, tar, or coffee, but whatever it was, it wasn’t coming out.  Even though I filled this space with my furniture, books, and clothes, it increasingly felt foreign.  It was not holding my story well when the shadow of another story seemed to surround me. 

It’s not that I wasn’t able to redecorate this space. It’s just that I had never planned to be here for this long.  Then several family health emergencies, including my father’s death, along with career changes, kept me here.  In the midst of everything, an inertia quickly set in.  For years I’ve included repainting this room on my annual list of goals.  Still, I never found the right time.  I knew that the whole process – painting the walls, staining the trim, updating the closet, and laying the carpet – would mean several weeks of disruption.  I didn’t want to mess with it.  

At some level, I’ve also kept this room in a state of unfinished living because I wanted to follow that story of moving.  I felt that if I got frustrated enough I would leave. Well, I’m still here and should probably set down firmer roots, claiming the space for how ever long I am here – for one year or twenty.  Finally, the dinginess of the walls and the frustration with my inaction has started to bear down on me.  I want to see my pictures hung on the walls, not evidence from the life of someone else.  It’s time to make this room mine.

I started by selecting a new color – blissful blue.  A blue like the brilliant autumn skies.  Cool and warm at the same time. Then I took everything out: books, furniture, clothes, pictures.  With a crow bar I removed the chair rail and the old closet shelves.  Now it was ready for me to step and open a new chapter for the this space.  First, I filled-in all the holes in the wall and removed splattered paint from the trim.  After my mom and I re-stained the trim it was time to paint the walls. What a great feeling to cover the green and beige – creating a new canvas.  A fresh look in which to weave stories.  

IMG_2255As I waited for the carpeting to arrive – two weeks – I had time to re-imagine the floor arrangement.  My bed and desk had been facing the center of the house, inward looking.  This simple reality could have added to the inertia as my psyche followed my physique and spent too much time looking within, enclosed by walls that were ill fitting. I decided that I would find a way to arrange things so everything would look out.  Now this room has not only a different color, but a different view.  Both the bed and desk are looking outward – the desk directly in front of the window.  It’s reminiscent of the placement of many desks I’ve seen in authors’ homes.  Moreover, with this new arrangement there was room for a rocking chair where the sun hits everyday.  I can sit here and enjoy looking out the window as I read a book, dream of a new pilgrimage, or write.  

Even though it’s not quite finished, I can finally say it’s a place of my own.  I still have to figure out what to hang on the walls.  Pictures from my past and maybe some I will make. Now I feel an energy to actively create these new images of pilgrimage.  No longer am I ashamed of where I am, feeling stuck in the grooves of a broken record. I had thought success would be moving out in order to create a place of my own. Maybe a spot in the city, or a retreat center in the country.  Well, who knows when that will be, if ever.  So, I’m going to live, looking out on the world before me.  Living into this story, here.  


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Seeing (and Living) the New Life in Front of You

I’m walking through a new building on church grounds – furnished classrooms that are ready to welcome students, a well-lit atria with places for people to gather and share meals, a stage area for musicians and others to perform, and there must be a well-stocked library behind one of the doors.  This is the perfect space for ministry.

However, it took me at least a week to go in once I noticed it on the property of an older building.  You see, I had been so focused making programs and activities work in the old building that I hadn’t seen the other building front of me. I had been struggling to put new wine in old wine skins, when the new were already there waiting to be filled.   Why?

Then I woke up back in my bedroom.

This may have been only a dream, but the images in it have been weighing on me. At first I thought that the dream affirmed a tendency to get everything in order, whether in ministry or other areas of life, before going on to the next thing.  But there was something more.  I had refused to see the new building for over a week, wasting time and energy on bemoaning the struggles in the old building because I did not see the opportunities in front of me.

How many of us do this?  Refuse to see what’s before us and really live into it.  Or maybe it’s not an active refusal.  Maybe it’s not having the eyes to even see because of fear, laziness, or simply lack of imagination.  There are many excuses for not entering the new building when staying in the old place is so comfortable and rearranging the furniture can make it seem as if something is happening.

Furthermore, it’s easier to complain and critique rather than walk into the new house. When I hear of friends and acquaintances setting out on a new project, I often wonder why do they have this opportunity and I don’t.  How were they able to finish all their work before starting this new activity?  They entered the new building before they should.  At this point I will often find a comfortable place to hang out in my old building and feel sorry for myself.

As I was immersed in this path of self-criticism and envy once again, an e-mail popped up from on of my favorite places, Southborough L’Abri.

“. . . Thankfulness to God begins with an awareness of our complete dependence on God. But a sense of dependence on God is only the beginning. It also requires that we stay awake and aware enough to notice what God is doing in the world and to not forget about it. Those areas of awareness are blocked if we have a strong sense of our own victimhood, if we feel an entitlement that our expectation of a “good life” is owed to us, or if we are confident that we can meet all of life’s challenges with our own resources. It is no secret that our consumer culture invites us to focus not on our blessings, but on what we lack, yet desire. All of these attitudes displace the consciousness that our life itself is a gift. We can usually do pretty well with occasional gratitude but the challenge is gratitude as a more basic attitude or assumption, an anchor beneath our lives.”  Dick Keyes, Southborough L’Abri News/Prayer Letter January 2013

These words spoke directly to me.  It was time to wake up.  Awareness of God’s working in the world is blocked when we focus on our own victimhood.  How true.  This is exactly where I existed as I pitied myself for staying in the old building for too long, for not having opportunities that others seem to have handed to them. It is easy to look at the world and blame some one or some thing else for my problems. To claim someone else has kept me out of the house, when really it’s been me.

Eyes of gratitude help us to live into the life before us within God’s kingdom now.  It stops us from holding onto the world’s ways of security so tightly that we miss God’s work right in front of us.  But it does require letting go.  Stepping into the new house.  Leaving behind the comfortable old belief that we or anyone on earth can create the good life ourselves.

In the old building I’m under the illusion that I’m in control and need to make things work.  In the new, God is, and I can rest in the work he has prepared for me to do, even in the midst of struggles.

It’s time to walk into that new building today.  Or maybe just move towards the front door as I pray for God to guide the way.


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Putting Life in a Spreadsheet

Rows. Columns.  Cells.  It’s all so neat and organized.  What’s not to like about a spreadsheet?

A few weeks ago the writing group I’m in challenged me to submit my writing life to a spreadsheet.  This practice would be a means to prioritize all the projects I want to do and which are greatly outpacing my can-do’s.  For a long time I’ve rejected setting priorities and choosing among all the good opportunities and ideas before me.  But as the list has grown, I’ve only succeeded in being overwhelmed, not in getting anything done.

My first response to this ever growing list has been to break down projects into tasks – manageable activities to accomplish in a given day that will direct me to the eventual end product.  A seemingly sensible way to respond.  However, I’m finding that I see these tasks as void of the meaning of the project as a whole.  Afraid that I may get too enamored and lose myself in the work – or be lost focusing too much on the end product – I create a utilitarian list of work and lose the heart and enjoyment.

In this place of frustration, I submitted my life to a sheet.  Each row was a project and each column was a pro or con response.  In each cell, the intersection of the project and the possible responses, I made a check or left it blank.  Tallying up the pros and cons, there are clear patterns.  I would like to say that now all my scheduling problems are objectively solved.  They aren’t.  But a larger picture of what and why I’m doing started to emerge again.  It is definitely subjective, but at least it reveals the subjectivity driving my decisions instead of hiding it behind a mushrooming task list.

It became quite clear that I most enjoy engaging with content – travel, reading, study, pilgrimage.  These are life-giving practices that I often set on the back burner until everything else is done.  This is the stuff in which I can get lost.  Yet this is the heart of why I want to write and teach – to share what has encouraged me and help others discover their better stories.  In my current mode of working, I fail to see how this is part of my current life and how to incorporate it in the future – whether in my life or that of others.

It’s time to write and teach out of these interests instead of trying to take on someone else’s methods.  For example, instead of looking around at what others are doing in campus ministry and attempting to copy methods that ‘succeed’ or that I think others expect, I could more fully incorporate ideas of story and pilgrimage.  I could also do some exploring on UC’s campus in the areas of literature and travel to discover ways to be a part of this world on campus.  Now to find a pilgrimage/study adventure with others.

Community is important to me as well, whether it’s built through the internet or in local groups.  It probably needs to be both.  Though this is scary as I think about stepping out.  I’m so used to being cautious, hiding behind limits posed from external and internal sources, making excuses for not being involved, and then fading away as I return to safe havens.  But there is much more to true community.  I want to go honestly into these groups, no pretension or hiding, but with a joy of living as the image of God that I and others carry.

Editing this darn book on literary pilgrimage is close behind building community.  Why is it so painful?  Why do I continue to put it off?  It’s in a place of limbo.  I don’t really know what it wants to be, yet haven’t really done research to see where it’s going. There is so much of me within it I am fearful that it/I will be rejected.  But I’m also afraid that it will die away.  It is almost a decade since I went on the adventures.  Oh, I just need to take time to dive into it again.  Maybe I need to integrate the pilgrimage of publishing within the other pilgrimage work.

This is not the end of the spreadsheet – the neatness of the rows and cells still call me.  Ironically, the stark gridlines have emphasized that something was missing from all this prioritizing – the heart, enjoyment, and life of work.  It’s not that these haven’t existed in the work that’s on my list, it’s primarily that I’ve forgotten them under the weight of planning to finish projects.

Heart.  Joy.  Life.  Who wouldn’t want to jump into work where these are found?

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