Contrasts

Two very different scenes this week that nonetheless come together.

Scene One: It snowed over the weekend, starting Saturday night and through Sunday evening, with about five inches of snow here at the house. (See the picture from the dining room into the back yard.) Roads were pretty slick Sunday night, but by Monday enough plows had been through that roads were better, and I headed out to do some errands.

As I drove, I noticed how postcard-perfect the roadside scenes were. The sky was a soft shade of light blue that contrasted beautifully against the snow-covered landscape. The trees themselves were frosted with caps of snow on the branches; a string of evergreens looked like a Christmas tree forest, glistening under the winter sun. Nearby our house is a great set of sledding hills, and we can hear the shrieks of delighted children. But yet, muffled: I love walking in the snow, as it dampens sound and makes everything quieter, hushed, more peaceful. It truly was a magnificent scene, and gave my heart cause to praise God the Creator for this tremendous gift.

Scene Two: Heartbreak. Our daughter had been pursuing a course of action academically that was not working out for her. It had been her hope to succeed at this new school, and yet her health is not such that she can achieve what she needs to achieve. And so she had to come to the point of deciding what to do: to try to push on, or to step out.

Every parent fiercely wants the best for their child, and every parent’s heart breaks when their child can’t get what they want. I’m no different, and so I ache for her to have to make a difficult decision.

And in the midst of it, the Father’s heart is breaking as well, I am sure. Two thoughts come to mind. First is the beauty of the snowy scene, and how it shows the magnificence of God. Look, he is saying: you’re right to feel for your child. But look around you, and see how much I love you too. I love you enough to give you this entire creation to enjoy, and it’s beautiful. And I love you enough to give you this gift even though you don’t deserve it. Receive my gift; lift your head, stop focusing on your own troubles and look at the magnificence I have for you.

And second: Remember the promises God makes throughout history.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)

I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13)

Our daughter’s troubles will pass. There is hope. And we see that hope in the love of God, reflected in the beauty of his creation on a snowy January day. Come, Lord Jesus, fill the hearts of your faithful, and wrap us in your love.

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Grace In The New Year

Happy New Year 2019!

Mary and I started the year with a long-delayed anniversary trip to the UK. We’d talked about doing this last year, but then with my appendectomy at our anniversary, and other stuff going on, it wasn’t the right time. But with my 2-for-1 coupon (and I could use miles!) expiring on January 6, and David home for the winter break, and no classes until February…it felt like the right time. (Add onto it a government shutdown and I’m not missing any time at work!)

And so we left for London on the night of New Year’s Day. On Thursday the 3rd, we visited Parliament (more on that later), and roughly the site on Aldersgate Street where John Wesley experienced his heart warming, and started a movement. I say “roughly” because the building that had been there has long since been torn down; it’s at a traffic circle now, and so one plaque is on one part of the pedestrian wall around the circle, and a monument to Wesley is above it, on a pedestrian bridge outside the Museum of London. Really, you have to look for it. But we found it! It’s a bronze flame of Methodism.20190103_125608.jpgAs I read the words on the flame, which are John’s diary entry for May 24, 1738, I felt my own soul in agreement. He describes seeing little touches of grace during the day, where God’s word spoke to him a couple of times, including the phrase, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” Then that evening he had his heart-warming experience. I know some of what John wrote about, in seeing little touches of God’s grace flick at me here and there, before sending his more powerful words to me. It’s like that, I thought.

And then I had the chance to live into that grace yesterday morning. We both didn’t sleep well overnight, and so dramatically overslept. Like, after noon. Like, being awakened by the front desk asking if everything was all right because we hadn’t checked out yet. Ugh. Scramble to get ready, and now we’re late, now we won’t have as much time at Windsor Castle, now we’ll be getting to our Airbnb in Oxfordshire after dark and I don’t know where I’m going and I’m having to drive on the left and…AAAHHHHH!

Mary to the rescue: “I’m just going to put my trust in Him,” she said. Sigh. Yes. Of course. Isn’t that part of the message of grace? And so we still made it to pick up our car, and we still made it to Windsor (OK, we were almost literally the last people admitted), and we still found our way to Churchill, Oxfordshire. And all day long I kept hearing in my mind Aaron Shust’s song:

My hope is in You, Lord
All the day long, I won’t be shaken by drought or storm
A peace that passes understanding is my song
And I sing my hope is in You, Lord

Yes, Lord. Forgive me when I still think it’s up to me. Thank you for the little reminders of your grace you scatter before me. Help me to see them more clearly, and to rest in you when I do.

Merry Christmas, 2018

This Christmas was different, of course. The head of the dining room table was empty this year, with Mom passing in October. And the call to Vermont was missing a voice, with Mary’s dad passing in June. I made it through the day pretty well, but for hearing that silly “Christmas Shoes” song, and immediately thinking of Mom.  And yeah, crying.

And yet, there was brightness to the day. We were allowed to sleep in until well past nine; in fact, I was the first up, to start the coffee cake. Sarah was in much better spirits this year than in some past years, which gave me joy to see her happy and engaged. (Are the teen years ending?!?) We exchanged gifts and some very creative ones came out (I have a dozen new pairs of silly socks to wear to work, for example), and of all it, only two duplicates that we have to take care of.

In so many ways, this was a better Christmas than I expected, or have any right to deserve. I know so many others didn’t have a fire in the fireplace, or a turkey dinner, or the luxury of dozing by the first after the second. And as the years go by, the pile of presents gets a little smaller, and that’s okay: I don’t have anything to prove by great hordes of presents. In fact, quite the opposite: it truly isn’t the getting. The day is about much more.

The day is about love. The day is about the most tremendous love, far beyond anything we can imagine, breaking in and disrupting our lives. It’s about all the contradictions inherent in the fact of the Author of the Universe coming to us as a tiny, defenseless, utterly dependent baby in an insignificant backwater town two millennia ago. It’s not about the loss of our parents, it’s about love–the love they had for us, surely, but all the more, the love that wraps them now, the same love that pulls me in and won’t let go. It’s a much, much fuller Christmas than ever before. And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Merry Christmas!

Advent: Anxiety?

So how has the Sabbath been going, has Advent remained somewhat peaceful?

Yes? And…no?

I’ve been blessed with a fairly stress-free December at work. And with one week to go in the current Continuing Resolution, it’s anyone’s guess whether the Department will be shut in a week (and me with it!), or…not. So there’s a little touch of anxiety there, but perhaps for a reason you might not expect.

You see, if we’re shut, I’m not terribly worried about surviving. Most likely I’ll be paid for the inconvenience in the end. And even if not, we can carry ourselves for a bit here. It’s not like we live paycheck to paycheck like we did when we were just starting out.

No, it’s more an anxiety over, What will I do with myself? My last paper is due Monday, so I won’t have classes hanging over me until February (which will be a wonderful and welcome break). And being bored is…well, it’s terrible for me. I might get some reading done. Maybe tidy the basement. And part of me wonders what’s going on at church that week that I could maybe help out with?

I just know that if I spin down from the pace of classes into a pace of watching whatever the heck I want on Netflix, it’ll be difficult to spin back up again. I need something to occupy me. At least for about ten days before Mary and I go on our vacation to the UK.

Again, I can feel the nudge. Yep, spin down. That’s exactly what I need you to learn how to do. Rest in Me. Then you can do anything.

Advent: Taking a Breath

Advent is a season of anticipation. There’s the anticipation of Christ’s birth, and with it, the anticipation of his Second Coming. And all the more, there’s the anticipation of everything that the holiday season brings with it–the food, the shopping, the errands, the food, the cards, the food…

Often, the holidays are an insane time for us. Well, sure, isn’t it for everyone? There’s all the holiday parties, the shopping, the various church services, all the obligations of the season. And for me at work, layered on top of that is the fact that OMB’s passback of the next President’s Budget always occurs the week after Thanksgiving, and can linger well into December as we work towards final settlement. Late nights, stress, unpredictable days… And this year, of course, I’m taking two classes at seminary, both of which will wrap up in the middle of the month, with all that entails.

And yet? The early part of Advent 2018 has been surprisingly…calm.

In one of our classes, we’ve been talking about (and I’ve been convicted by) keeping a Sabbath, creating a dedicated time of rest in God. Sabbath?!? Are you KIDDING?!? Have you SEEN my to-do list?

But yet, I feel God is breaking through with a word of rest, a word that reminds me that my to-love list had better be more important than my to-do list. Case in point: We reached settlement with OMB in a surprisingly early, and easy, fashion this year. We didn’t have any ridiculously late nights at the office during passback week itself, and since then things have gone fairly smoothly. I might not have to stress at work this year!

And! The two classes I have are pretty well in hand at this point. For Old Testament, I have an essay due Sunday, and a discussion board posting to make. For Vocation of Ministry, I have a final paper, an essay that just became optional (!), and a quiz, but all those will be done by the 14th. I might not have to stress over classes this year!

And! With the unfortunate passing of President Bush, I even have an extra day off to  do things, yes–but perhaps to rest a little too! As I did: Starbucks in the morning, Christmas decorating in the afternoon, and smoking, slowly, a rack of ribs for dinner tonight. A leisurely pace.

Now, I know all this can be knocked aside in an instant. Work can get crazy again, or it’s harder to finish classwork than I anticipate, or any of a hundred other things could crop up. But y’know, for today, I’m able to rest. I’m able to be at peace, and I can see God’s hand at work in teeing up a wee bit of Sabbath for me.

Thank you Lord. Come into your Sabbath. Come into your world. Just…come. Amen.

Giving Thanks, 2018

Y’know, in so many ways, I am so, so ready to see the backside of 2018 as it heads out the door in another five weeks. This has been a tough year: the loss of Mary’s dad and my mom were certainly huge reasons to wish this year a speedy farewell. But there were other times of toughness in the family: struggles in school, for one. Watching the nest empty a little, for another. An emergency appendectomy on my 25th anniversary, no less. It hasn’t been the easiest of years.

And yet…

And yet there remains much to be thankful for. It might seem trite, to do a list at this time of year, but Abraham Lincoln may have been onto something in 1863 when he established Thanksgiving as a holiday in the midst of the Civil War. We do need a reminder, every now and then, to stop down and to be thankful for what is going right. And so, in 2018 I give thanks for:

  • The first 25 years of marriage to the one who is still my bride, Mary. Despite the appendectomy on the day, it’s been a good year for celebrating us. Like dinners out, and plans for a week in the UK at New Year’s. Losing her dad and seeing the effect on her mom, made me imagine what it would be like without her. And I shudder.
  • And the kids, David and Sarah, who each have their own path, and that’s great, and it’s terrific to see the young adults they’re turning into.
  • Quite simply, without them I couldn’t have answered the call that I’m receiving, beckoning me towards ordination. They have given me space to explore this and permission where I needed it.
  • Starting seminary this year, and figuring out how to juggle all that entails while holding down a job and doing everything else. Learning how to do online classes, as well as fitting in with the in-person classes…it’s been a shift, and I’m grateful for it, and for the endorsements I’ve received along the way. (Just a couple of weeks until my second semester is over!)
  • David’s trip to Spain (and Portugal) this summer, where he had the chance to complete his field school, refine his archaeological techniques, and learn about grad school programs that are now his choice for what to do after Radford (can you believe he wants to go to GRAD SCHOOL?!?)
  • Sarah and her servant leader’s heart in being the leader for Chrysalis weekend C-99 in the summer. She had to overcome a lot to get it done, and she had to buckle down in some places where it was hard to do so. But it’s easy to see how she simply comes alive in leading worship and bringing others to Christ!
  • My own teaming experiences on Emmaus weekend E-185, Kairos weekend K-75, and soon to be Chrysalis weekend C-100…for Adam, Michael, Shannon, Larry, Hollywood, Joel, and everyone else who got to experience God’s love (and I got to have a front-row seat).
  • Sarah’s job! She’s experiencing the wide world of work, starting this fall at Sheetz and learning how to deal with managers, customers, managers, other coworkers, and managers. Oh, and managers.
  • The beginning of the emptying nest, as David and his roommate Nathan got an apartment…and David promptly emptied his bedroom. Our baby boy is all gone now! (Ask Mary about her new lounge/study/nook room)
  • Good friends: reconnecting with Adam in a way we hadn’t in the last couple of years, and bowling with Ken and Trish each month, and…so many others!
  • Work–having some, of course, and that it pays well helps, and that it’s a little less crazy lately has been an added bonus.
  • The love and support of Sydenstricker UMC in the candidacy process. I was truly touched and humbled by the unanimous vote to recommend me to pursue candidacy. That was a special moment.
  • Fergie. The Pums. The happy puppy. Despite her entering, technically, into “senior dog” status as a 7-year-old this year, and picking up the first couple of silver bits of fur in her black coat, she’s a 50-pound chicken who truly knows how to love. You cannot out-love a dog.
  • Sharing a weekend in Vermont with Glenn, being able to showcase some of my home state to a Texan who’d never seen it before. And all the more, his support over that weekend as my mom passed away. Truly, a brother.

I know I’m leaving things off…but I also know this is so much already to be thankful for. Lord, you give and you give. And sometimes, yes, you take away. But your love is always constant, and I can see it looking back even in years like this. May your name be praised!

Saying “So Long”

The memorial service for Mom was last weekend, November 10, 2018. While not extensively attended, it was widely attended–people there from all aspects of our lives, and it was so heartening to see them all there. As part of the service, Joel, Deb and I each read a passage that Mom had wanted read, then offered our reflections on her. She had asked me to read 1 Corinthians 13 (the “love chapter”), and here’s what I said.

* * * * *

Love. A mother’s love.

I want to share with you some of the stories I have about my mother, and in the process, you can see what she loved, and how she loved.

One of her first memories was being taken at age three to the center square of her hometown of Easton, Pennsylvania, with the throngs of people celebrating V-E day. This began a lifelong love of history for her, and patriotism, and love of everything having to do with America and the Fourth of July, which was always a special day to her. Her love of history and government lives on in my own work for the Federal Government, as well as her grandson’s love of history and his career in archaeology, finding new history.

Her passion was teaching elementary age kids. Her first classroom was a first grade class in Allentown, PA, where she taught for a couple of years while earning her Master’s. Then after being a stay-at-home mom to us, teaching us as we grew up, she returned to teaching, and became the media center director–never just librarian–for Chamberlin Elementary School. She was the first to bring computers, including an Apple Lisa, into the school for the students to use and learn. And she took an old claw-foot tub, painted it, filled it with blankets and pillows, and set it by the check-out desk for kids to curl up in and read. All to enhance kids’ abilities to learn in a fun way.

The mother’s love extended to keeping us out of trouble. In third grade, we moved from Vermont to El Paso, Texas, and I got in trouble in my first day in Miss Escobar’s class. She had asked me a question, and I answered, “Yes.” She said, “Yes what?” I honestly didn’t know there was more to be said! My mom had to be the one to call the school and explain to the principal that “he wasn’t being disrespectful, that’s just not how teachers are addressed up north.”

In the late 1970s she rode the wave of emerging political activism, helping to found a newspaper in South Burlington, VT, and leading the League of Women Voters. She loved her music and arts: when she was at the assisted living home, she loved going with us to see Ben Cook in one of his productions, and telling everyone about it. We had to reassure the staff that yes, she really did know someone on Broadway!

She was a woman of strength. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1985, and after her second husband passed in 1987, she fought to stay independent and live in their home until 2006, when the PD began to expect more of her than she could do alone.

She had her own style. When we were making plans to move her to her assisted living apartment in 2011, and discussing what furniture to take and what to leave, she noticed in the lease agreement that she was allowed to paint the walls in her room. And so it came to be that she moved in with walls I’d painted for her, of colors she’d chosen: slate gray on most walls, and two bright red accent walls. Staff were forever popping in just to see it, a room that wasn’t in institutional white. She was really disappointed she couldn’t do that in her nursing home room. You know, Jesus promised us that “in my father’s house, there are many rooms.” I know one of them right now is painted in slate gray and red, and decorated in Early American antiques.

There were two things she really loved: one was the music of Barry Manilow. I have no idea how she found out, after moving to Virginia in 2011, that in 2012 Barry Manilow would be at Wolf Trap, but she did, and insisted on going. So I took her, in her wheelchair, to the special seating at the back of the arena. There was a comedian who came out first, and he was OK, then the lights went down, they rearranged the stage…and a single spotlight came on, shining on a single man in a white suit as the music started…and my mother started squealing like a 16-year-old at Shea Stadium for the Beatles! I was horrified!

The other thing she loved most was the works of Beatrix Potter, and Peter Rabbit, as anyone watching her PTRABIT license plate around town would see. The last movie she went to was this spring, when Peter Rabbit came out. I took her, and we were easily the oldest people in the theatre, with dozens of five- and six-year-olds there. I would just watch her, enthralled as she was with seeing her favorite character on the big screen. At one point, the action is very slapstick, and the five-year-olds behind us are squealing with joy. Mom leaned over and said, “I’ve missed that sound.”

But what she loved most of all was her grandkids. Nothing would outdo her love of hearing stories of what they were up to.

And so what am I going to miss about my mom being gone? I’m going to miss not being able to take her to her grandkids’ college or high school graduations. I’m going to miss having her over for family dinners, or the times she would make a big production of her own family dinners. I’m going to miss Christmas: mom always made it special, always decorated so much, that this Christmas is going to be hard.

And I’m going to miss a mother’s love. I’m gonna miss my mom.