Thursday, April 24, 2014

Reclaiming the Territory



"If you know what you want, then you're one step closer to it. If you take a step in that direction then you're actually making it happen. Think small when it comes to steps and big when it comes to dreams.”
(From Begin with Yes by Paul Boynton)

Who knew? I always thought you had to accomplish a goal or hold up a diploma or show your credentials or beam at the camera, trophy in hand – in order to realize a dream.
But the writer suggests you are already swinging something into momentum if you take a step in that direction. That's pretty cool.
So here's a shout-out to all of us who feel stymied by inertia. To the one who is in between jobs, staring at another email that says, “We'll keep you in mind.”
For the one with big ideas and empty pockets, edging ever closer to the safety of a “real job” with a steady-income-minus-the-dreams.
To the shadow-dweller who has something to say to the world, but hangs back, silenced into obscurity by the prettier, the brighter, the smarter ones.
For the one still figuring things out, feeling confused by the critics; just wanting a mentor to come for the journey.
To the person leaving a cluttered desk at the office, returning to a chaotic household, wondering when life shifts into neutral.
For the unrestored, the broken. The one ready to forgive, but nobody's beating a path toward the reconciliation.
To the one like you, like me – holding that piece of chalk and staring at a blackboard of symbols and numbers which absolutely do not add up.
These are the gloomy in-between places, the gaps that yawn, the caverns that loom black and bottomless. These are the intervals of the-not-yets, the waiting, the places where the only answer is an echo of silence.
But maybe, just maybe, we're stepping in a direction that holds the answers.

The other night, I sat for an hour in total silence. It turned out to be a blessing, a benediction on what had been a noisy day. All that day, I had pursued an answer to a life problem. I had pushed words into the air with my prayers and pleadings. Unsatisfied, I had turned up the car radio and thrummed out the questions in my head with a drowning out melody and back beat. When that didn't work, I gave way to anger and listened to the darker voices of doubt and fear. They only led to confusion and more questions.
Drained and at wit's end, I drove to a favorite spot for viewing the sunset. In golden, utter silence, almost without breathing, I witnessed the hand of God putting the world to bed. A green and gently sloping landscape was bathed in reds, oranges, purples and pinks. An American Flag unfurled audaciously in a crisp breeze. Trees-not-yet-green looked hushed and majestic.
The world stopped, and I bore witness to it.
God placed His signature across the horizon as the sun gathered in the rosy light and penciled it neatly across the tops of hills. Hills in silhouette. Orange orb dipping behind, silent and profound.
Blessed, blessed benediction.
I drove home.
The Great Silence had tapped me on the shoulder, inviting me to be okay with no-noise. Exhausted now, I rested in its presence, reveled in it.
Later, the questions would come again, niggling me with their persistence. But my new ally, Silence, pushed a hush against the noise, and I slept all through the night.
Silence – and I – reclaiming lost territory. Taking back the unknowns and learning to live with them. Learning to live inside the intervals, the in-betweens, the not-yet-but-maybe-soons, of life.
Allow Silence to join you in the journey, and take an hour some evening to witness the unfolding of a glorious, golden sunset.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

An Unfaithful Vigil


We say we'll keep watch, but we fall asleep.
This week as I pause in the holy hush of Jesus' willing death on the cross, I need to look and see and understand my vigil falls desperately short.
Consider these passages from Mark, Chapter 14:

They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled.
Eugene Peterson, in The Message, paraphrases it this way: “He plunged into a sinkhole of dreadful agony.”
My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here, and keep watch.”
Jesus then moved away from the three and began to pray. When he returned and found them sleeping, he said, “Simon, are you asleep? Couldn't you stay awake for even an hour?”
(Selections from Mark 14)

Twice again, Jesus went away to pray. And twice again, he returned to find his friends asleep. He had asked them to keep a vigil with him, and they had failed at even this simple assignment.
I remember being absolutely stunned when I first encountered this passage in the story of Jesus' crucifixion. It was shocking to think his best friends would ditch on him like that. Self-righteously, I indulged in the idea that I'd never do that; I'd never fall asleep during the holiest of vigils, the night before my Savior's death!
But as I journey and grow wiser in my faith, I understand his followers, The Twelve. I get it. Because, how many times have I failed my Lord? Too many to count. And how many times have I listened to a sermon and decided it was for someone else, but not for me? Too many times, way too many times. How often has He asked me to keep watch? Warned me to be alert to the enemy of my soul? Gently chastened me when I wound another?
Asked me to stay awake in the garden?
A simple request. A profound honor. A no-brainer. Just. Stay. Awake. But I don't; we don't, not always and not at the most critical moments.
So I suggest we cut the disciples some slack this Holy Week and think about what they didn't have.
Those guys did not have the New Testament Pocket Guide with Study Notes at the bottom of each page. You laugh! But it's true. Yes, they had the Lord, in the flesh, the Great I Am in their midst. Jesus taught and blessed and performed miracles and washed their feet and served The Last Supper. They had front row seats to all of it.
But the Gospel, the Good News, was still unfolding. The story of the perfect lamb, as prophesied in the Ancient Teachings, was about to come true. They were a part of the story, but they didn't have the entire picture, like we modern-day Believers do.
Jesus, at the end of their time together in the Upper Room, explained what would happen in the hours ahead. He tried to warn them, to tell them a time was coming when he would be destroyed and they would disperse in fear and confusion like sheep without a shepherd.
He even knew the ways in which they'd fail!
Jesus told the men a Comforter would come; the Holy Spirit.
But think about it. Those guys couldn't look it up by Chapter and Verse, and then cross-compare it with other translations.
It was a final meal with feet-washing, followed by a profoundly vulnerable time of Jesus putting them into the care of God as a benediction. Combine this intimate time of sharing with fear and political unrest and angry mobs and betrayal just hours away.
They had face-to-face access to The Savior but they didn't fully grasp His words. They were ordinary humans with flaws and doubts and God chose them to be part of the Plan of Redemption.
They only knew He had called the Passover Meal His own body and blood – broken and spilled for them. How strange that must have been, and really kind of scary. And confusing.
Let's float them a little grace this Holy Week approaching Good Friday. In the doing, we might also be able to receive grace for our own inadequacies.
As Anne Lamott so transparently puts it, “I do not understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”
And so, rather than being disappointed about the garden napping, I see the disciples with a stirring of recognition.
Jesus saw Peter, James and John at their worst – and He loved them anyway. However often they failed Him, He would never fail them.
And when I am unfaithful to watch and stay awake, He still loves me enough to die for me.
Make of me a faithful vigil in the heart of darkness, I want to be a sentinel through all the dark hours. When the deep darkness falls, let me be your star. Name me One Who Watches Through the Night. Reveal to me the holiness of lingering with mystery. Employ me in the holy art of waiting. O teach me to live with a vigilant heart.

>Litany of the Hours






Sunday, April 13, 2014

Something The Lord Made

"When God is going to do something wonderful, it starts with something hard." Anne Lamott

The movie, "Something The Lord Made," starts with something hard, nearly impossible. Two talented men are thrown together in a world dominated by bigots; one is a respected heart surgeon, the other is a black man who might as well be invisible. Except for his hands. We'll get to that in just a minute.
Dr. Alfred Blalock is a pioneer in his field. It's the Depression era. He needs an assistant - he finds the quiet but brilliant Vivien Thomas. Thomas, the Dr. discovers, has an uncanny grasp of new trends in the field of heart medicine. He also has an astonishing set of hands: the agile, skillful hands needed in the critical intervals between life and death.
Pushing against the prevailing racism of the time, Blalock brings Thomas into the operating room. He praises Thomas' hands as being "like something The Lord made."
I love this true story. It's a story of greatness recognizing genius. What could have been squelched due to "class" or "color" was reverently celebrated and, much later, awarded an honorary doctorate.
If you boil the story down to its essence, what you have, really, is a miracle -- a miracle set into motion by a Creative God, and, more importantly, a witness to the wonder. The privileged surgeon has talent but esteems his assistant as one set apart.
Society pushes Thomas to the margins, but medical science needs him. And that's another miracle: countless "blue babies" plagued by a desperate lack of blood oxygen, are saved.
Writer Anne Lamott says it beautifully: "When God is going to do something wonderful, it starts with something hard. And when He is going to do something exquisite...it starts with something impossible."

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Sitting with the Discord

For those who think I wake up with rainbows and shamrocks swirling around the room, think again. 
I love to write, and I particularly like to lean into the positive stuff of life. There, are, however, days and moments that wound. There are odd niggles of doubt and sometimes huge dark caverns of grief. They come at random times, even in the middle of joy. Especially in the middle of joy.
My faith teaches me we live in a fallen world. A world where tiny seeds shoot up green and strong in tiny bits of earth inside Dixie Cups to flourish and delight and, eventually, die. 
A world where pet goldfish are named and loved and sung to by a child who's heart will break because the fish will not live forever.
A world where laughter spills out only to be interrupted by grief and bitter salty tears.
A world where hands reach for one another and also where hugs are rejected. These contrasts are listed in the Book of Ecclesiastes. This is a portion of God's Word that reveals truths and challenges the status quo.
A blogger friend recently helped me grapple with the idea of what he calls "writing my truths".
"How," Ken wanted to know, "does an honest writer pen the truth without causing pain?"
His daughter wisely suggested we "keep the essence but protect the innocent".
I like that. Keep the essence. Keep from wounding.
Still, it's a fine line. For instance, I want to blog about a rift between me and my best friend. I could wait until the mending happens, but what about today - the way I'm gazing sadly across a canyon of misunderstanding? What about the anger that still churns? And the truth that I should rush toward forgiveness and yet I remain locked in resentment - what about these essential doubts and struggles?
A writer wants to speak in an authentic voice. So arriving at Reconciliation requires a gritty view of the fallout in the harsh light of Now.
Writing my truth changes things. Revealing the angst can hurt. What's odd is my concern for the offender: wanting to protect her from seeing the flesh wound her own words inflicted.
A counselor once advised me to "Sit with the discord." She meant I should stay still and have a good hard look at what is Real and what is True. Even when it hurts. Her counsel was wise, because I have learned, over and over, that our Loving Father will not keep us locked in discord for longer than we can endure.
Think of a night at the symphony. The program promises Mozart but delivers Noise. You feel gypped. You want a refund. But wait! As you shift uncomfortably in your seat, a sweet note emerges. Then another. Then healing layers of harmony are settling around your shoulders, and you know you are moving toward Reconciliation.
You simply had to sit with the discord for a while.
That's my truth today: Writing it down can be good. It may hurt. Revealing it requires the courage to write from a broken, discordant part of myself.
Telling it lays raw the flaws in my character that maybe you don't want to see.
But if my being honest gives you courage to look over the rim into your own abyss, then we've made a connection. It's going to be okay. 
Unseen mending is set into motion. For a little while, though, we must sit with the discord. One sweet note will shift our view; the world will recalibrate, the harmonies will return.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Shaking Winter Loose




April is the month that sets the year in motion, shaking winter loose, turning the world towards the sun, blooming into nature's brightest colors. This change of season is so full of momentum, no wonder we call it spring.”

This delightful quote comes from the pen of Vivian Swift and her book,
When Wanderers Cease to Roam”. In this charming celebration of settling down, Vivian exchanges her worn rucksack for a permanent home in a small town. She begins to explore the neighborhood, discovering little waterfalls and ancient entrances and enchanting little streets named after trees.
In the chapter, “April,” she writes of “Shaking Winter Loose”.

Shaking winter loose. I love that phrase. It makes me think of my grandma in days long ago, when she did her annual spring cleaning. Grandma would “shake the winter loose” when she hung quilts and blankets and curtains on the clothesline out back. She throttled them with a broom and I giggled. She handed the broom to me, and I gave the blankets a few whacks.
Laughter and sunshine and shaking winter loose, with the promise of hot cocoa and homemade cookies in Grandma's snug kitchen.
She would sweep and dust and I would help. I keenly remember the way the dust particles danced in a shaft of sunlight.
Shaking winter loose.
The still crisp breeze of April ribboning through the windows, colliding with the aromas of Baking Day: bread, sticky rolls and pies.
This side of heaven, there is no aroma more splendid than that.
Shaking winter loose.
It also means rummaging through the closet for last year's sneakers and lighter jackets, shaking off the doldrums with a walkabout. It calls for the yearly ritual of walking familiar streets to take in new things: porch furniture, early blooms, robins on worm patrol, babies in strollers, toddlers on tricycles.
Winter's dull blanket is swaying in the wind, shaken loose and pulled back to reveal the unclothed trees of pre-bloom wonder.
Memories, too, are stirred awake. I can see Grandma, looking regal in her everyday apron, brewing coffee on the old wood stove for Grandpa, cranking open the windows and sweeping out the wood chips.
Dust mites, earth's dormant gems, are scattered awake to dance in the ribboning breeze.

Winter is shaken loose, and the world is reborn.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

I'm Nobody! Who are You?


I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us -- don't tell!
They'd banish us you know!

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell one's name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!
>Emily Dickinson

Lately I've been listening for the peepers. A Spring peeper is, according to Wikipedia, "a small chorus frog."
Small, perhaps, but mighty en mass with all those chirpy voices rising into the night. Peepers fill their vocal sacs with air until they look like a balloon, then they let out a "peep" as they release the air.
I love it. 
The sounds in the boggy back fields near my mom's house are so wonderful this time of year. Evening's Great Silence has been unlocked. The tiny heralds of Spring inflate and release their mini balloon warbles in a chorus of celebration.
A spring pond full of peeping peepers can sound like sleigh bells jingling -- only louder.
The poem above, by Emily Dickinson, is one of her most famous and playful works. Ironic, since the author penned nearly 1800 poems but published fewer than 10 of them in her lifetime. 
The peeper frog is tiny; no bigger than your thumb-nail, and its balloon chirp is a comical part of nature. So it is with Dickinson's pithy verse: brief and whimsical.
Yet the combined impact of thousands of these little frogs is, well, shrill and clamorous. It's a collection of chirps, warbles and trills that joyfully announce the next season.
Is it Spring yet? Are we finally rounding a corner? 
Daytime temperatures are getting balmier, and green shoots are popping up everywhere. Porch swings are coming out of storage, and barbecue grills are being called into service. 
The happiest commotion of all is what you'll hear when you lean into the breeze and hear the sounds it carries: the peepers returning and reclaiming the night.



Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Swan

April is National Poetry Month. Here is a beautiful poem by Mary Oliver, titled "The Swan":

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air -- 
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned 
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music - like the rain pelting the trees - like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds -
A white cross Streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings Like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

I'm so glad I found this poem to share with you; it captures my recent experience in a nearby cove. Knowing that a pair of swans returns each Spring to the river to nest, I drove to the sequestered spot at water's edge. All the locals know it, and respectfully watch for the birds' return. Their arrival is a harbinger of Spring.
Sure enough, as I inched my car along the riverbank, he was gliding toward me. Dignified. Calm. Regal. I parked, and got situated with my camera. He coasted a bit closer, as if to say, "Here I am. This is my good side. Snap the picture now."
And I did.
Another bird watcher was inching her car along the river's edge, and she motioned me over. In hushed, almost worshipful tones, she enthused, "Go downriver a little ways, and look across the water. She's building the nest!" 
She continued on, smiling and waving like we were old friends. And we were, in a way -- kindred spirits having survived one of the harshest winters Northwest Pennsylvania can dish out. I know our smiles were giddy with relief at having made it through, our faces turned upward toward a benevolent sun. 
I took another look at Mr. Handsome. Then I got back in the car and moseyed on downriver.
There she was.
I didn't want to disturb; peering through the passenger side window, I took it all in -- a beautiful ritual, an affirmation of Life and Rebirth and Spring. A poem, really. She was nesting, and I was a grateful witness. She was sure, intentional, like any mother of the house. Sitting in pure white splendor amid the mud and reeds, she was a study in contrast. Her billowy feathers and gracefully arced neck provided a white ribbon of hope in the debris of winter. I imagine she will be keeping the eggs warm at about the time of the Great Greening Up; that mysterious interval when the forest goes from weary to lush in one eternal blink of our Creator's Eye. 
Oblivious to my presence, she looked this way and that, carefully selecting twigs, grass and reeds for her beautiful egg harbor. She was building and I was watching and the meter of it was a poem - a lovely, awakening display of snowy plumage arranging the loamy earth around itself. 

Thank you, Mary Oliver, for your poem, The Swan. Your parting challenge, "And have you changed your life?" haunts me. It calls to me on the edge of the wind and nudges me into places I haven't thought about since Winter's grip came calling.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Moorings


I need a bumper sticker that states, "I brake for lakes". The lure of a lake has pulled on me ever since I can remember. One of my favorite lake views is at the crest of Big Tree Road when you're about to drop into Lakewood. It's always astonishing, and never the same twice. Draped in fog, locked in ice, gleaming in sunlight, smooth as glass or choppy as a tossed salad, the lake beckons. The road dips toward it and you feel like you might want to drive straight to the water's edge. Which you can do, sort of. At the end of Big Tree, you have to dog-leg it into a cozy waterside neighborhood and wend your way to the edge. 
Moored boats fascinate me. Tethered securely to the pier, rocking gently in nautical rhythms, their sales tucked in, they suggest Tranquility. 
Tranquility and Patience. Soon enough, their sails will billow in a crisp June breeze. Voices will call to each other over the water, and gulls will soar on a trade wind. 
For now, though, the boats wait. Anchored or tied, they wait in that ethereal place where earth and water and sky still cling to the edges of winter.
Capricious winds will tease. Spring Zephyrs will ripple the veiled waters.
And so it is with us, you and me.
Our moorings are in place, but Oh! How we long to sail headlong into the next season. A giddy awakening stirs in our innards, calling for greener horizons; softer views; benevolent watery sunsets.
For now, we must wait. Hunker down and bob gently on slumbering waters. This weekend as I daydream about waving to the passengers on the Chautauqua Belle, I will listen for sneakered feet on a creaky dock. I will imagine the clang of the Captain's bell. I will listen for the cry of the heron. 
The boats are waiting. The world is hushed, still cloaked in browns and greys. This time, too, is important as we sail on toward the greens and blues and deep, vivid hues of Summer.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Listening is Love

Listening is a verb. I looked it up. If you need a quick reminder, a verb is "a word expressing action," according to Webster's. 
Hmmmm. "Action" suggests movement, flow, shifting, adjusting. If anything, listening seems passive, fixed, static.
But when you really think about it, listening takes a certain skill set. It involves intentionally hitting the Pause Button of your day and entering into another person's story. And their story matters. Your choice to listen is an action of love.
There's a cute story I heard once, about a little boy who wanted desperately for his Mommy to know everything about his day. The lad burst into the kitchen where she was prepping the evening meal. As he told his fabulous story, she continued dicing, slicing and sauteing. I'm sure she heard every word; we moms are professional multi-taskers.
Still, that wasn't enough for the boy. He became exasperated. "Mom!" he cried out. "You're not listening!
"Oh, yes, honey. I'm listening," she replied.
"No! I need you to listen with your eyes."
Wow.  The kid has a point. Listening, if it's truly an action word, involves putting down the spatula and locking eyes with the storyteller. 
Listening is something we think we are doing, when in fact we are pushing the storyteller to the margins; hearing him on the periphery. We think we've heard the story, but oh! How much we miss. 
I am guilty as charged. Countless times, I have "listened" to the ones I love while checking my phone, scanning the menu, watching the weather channel and searching for my car keys. Is this listening? Really?! 
No, actually not. It's minimizing the storyteller, telling that precious soul we are taking in words, but not absorbing the weight and importance of the words.
How likely will this lovely daughter, this marvelous human being, come back to me with new stories to tell? The odds are getting slimmer.
I need to hit the Pause Button, silence the phone, pull the car to the curb, and just listen.
Now, before you think you are already well-versed in the art of listening, I have a simple challenge: try listening with no agenda. Go ahead. Try. It's really hard. Honestly -- I sat with a friend recently. As she shared her story, pouring out her heart, I could hardly wait to find an opening and tell my own story.
This is really not okay. Because, in that place where my brain was buzzing with the answers, the opinions, the questions and my own stories, I was missing her words. And they weren't just words; they were pieces of her heart, laid out there on the table -- bare and trembling and aching to be heard.
To march in with my pat answers is a lot like pushing her stuff to the edges because my stuff is far more interesting.
That's kind of rude. 
Listening is love. It's an act of the will, an intentional nod in another person's direction. When you love the storyteller, you need to be willing to listen without formulating your answers. That person really doesn't need your opinion; she needs your humility and grace. She needs your ear and your uncluttered mind. She needs you to lock eyes with her, so she knows without a doubt you care.
This is exhausting. No wonder listening is a verb -- the action of truly listening is a workout. Your listening-muscles will ache later, but keep at it. You just never know when a storyteller needs you to be ready.
Listening is love. Just ask my mom - she's really good at it. I'm quite sure that's why I carry all my most precious stories to her kitchen table. She pours tea. She sits across from me and gives me the gift of her undivided attention.
Thanks, Mom! Thanks for listening with your eyes.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Patch-Word Quilt

Have you stopped lately, to admire the skills of a quilter? I so appreciate the handiwork of quilters -- the way they can whip up a nine-patch, or spend untold hours piecing together a memory quilt. When I was a girl my grandmother talked wistfully about a quilting circle she had once belonged to. Weekly, these ladies gathered to stitch and sew and talk and laugh and stitch some more. It sounded wonderful to me, but sadly I never learned to sew beyond buttons and occasional hems. When I'm really pressed for time, I resort to duct tape hemming. 
But back to Grandma. One of my favorite quilts that she made was a whimsical patchwork of odd bits: cast-offs; the remains of aprons, hand-me-downs and even worn faded pieces of Grandpa's plaid shirts. "This quilt," she told me, "is made from things nobody wanted anymore." Wow. A full-sized quilt made from dozens of scraps and remnants. Things nobody wanted anymore. Which, all these years later, has got me to thinking. Maybe I can try my hand at quilting. But mine would not be sewn from fabric and thread; mine would be pieced together with words. 
When life stops at its undefined, uncertain edges I could add a bric-a-brac of merry, fortifying words. 
And when I keep tripping over the same memory for the umpteenth time, I could hem it up, silencing the fabric of yesterday with words of healing and resolve.  
To weakened, worn out seams I could sew words of encouragement. This would require good strong thread. The more colorful, the better. 
To become a skilled crafter of "patch-word" quilts, I would need somebody to emulate.
I would like to sit under the tutelage of a master wordsmith...and Who better than God Himself? He takes the frayed edges of our scattered, torn selves and gently mends. His choice words are a patchwork of fulfillment; a story of redemption, personal and real to each of us. To the emptiness at the end of ourselves, He, the Lord, weaves in vibrance and texture and glorious bits of surprise confetti, just because He loves to see us rejoice. 
Your quilt will look different than mine, because your Creator knows the unique stuff that makes you tick. Just as a doting grandma pieces together special fabrics for a beloved child, the One who watches over us all is carefully soothing our hastily basted, gaping wounds and suturing them up with His love. He sees the absurdity of our self importance, and gathers us up in His exquisite embroidery of grace.
Who else but our Creator, our Master Wordsmith, could take the odd bits that nobody else wants, and stitch together a masterpiece? If He can do that -- and He can -- then maybe, just maybe, He can use my feeble attempt at word-weaving to touch a heart, heal a hurt, invite a laugh, quiet a desperate soul. 
If you come to my home, you won't see any handmade quilts. But I hope, during the conversation, you'll enjoy a verbal patchwork of color and joy and hope. And the best part is, you will have added to the finished product; we will have enjoyed our very own quilting circle.
Grandma would be so proud.


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Stones of Remembrance

Years ago, a dear friend invited me to lunch. We sat at the river's edge, our picnic table adorned with a simple cloth and bag lunches. In the breezeless August heat, we were oblivious to the future, basking only in the noonday sun. She placed a pile of stones on the table and asked me to choose one. Each of them had a word engraved on it: Forgive, Love, Cherish, Dream, Remember. I liked them all. "Pick one," she encouraged. "Pick one, and keep it - my gift to you," she said. 
Forgive. Amongst the pretty stones, that's the one that called to me, not with urgency, but with a quiet nudge. 
Forgive.
I knew that was my stone. Struggling with a recent move across the country and all the tangled adjustments our family had had to endure, I was kind of upset. Mad, really. Okay, I was really mad: rage with a forced smile; wrath under a thin veneer of contentment. The simple word, "forgive," would start me on a journey that day. 
I put the small stone in my pocket and we talked. There was no judgement at that table, no accusation. Only grace. My friend didn't even ask why I chose that particular stone, but I would tell her later. In that moment, I only needed to feel the heft of it in my pocket, to feel the weight of the word in my heart. 
In the Bible, Joshua 4, there is the story of the "Stones of Remembrance." Twelve stones served as a monument to God's faithful provision -- a reminder of the cutting off of the Jordan River so Israel could cross on dry ground. That pile of stones served as a visual reminder of what God did for His people and the story filtered down to all generations.
My "forgive" stone, on a personal scale, has done much the same: It traveled with me in my pocket, my purse, my palm, on my bed stand. There were times I'd hold it and my heart felt as cold as that little stone. But I knew the word, and wanted the word to belong to me. 
Forgive. 
It was something that had to happen before I could move on and embrace our family's new life. It was time to let go of my old job, a job I'd loved. I had to release my out-West friends and grieve my beloved, silhouetted Rocky Mountains and the jagged majesty of them at sunset. 
With the squeezing, sometimes, of the little rock, I had to open the hand that held the past; I had to release it in order to receive and hold onto the present. Mostly, I had to relinquish my resentment toward the man that brought us back to the home front -- my husband. Slowly, steadily, and with much prayer, I was able to forgive. And it was a great relief. The rage subsided. The realities around me did not change, but my heart did. The struggles did not go away, but now I had the strength to face them. Happily, I was able to talk with my husband, my hard working, frugal, tractor-driving, cop-turned-farmer-husband. We talked, we remembered our love, we reclaimed lost territory that had come between us. 
I remember the summer night I laughed at everything and nothing while the two of us gathered up hay bales in the back field. I drove the tractor while he threw the hay onto the wagon. The sun was setting, and silhouetted against an orange sky I saw, maybe for the first time, the rolling green of the Allegheny Mountains. The view was stunning. We couldn't see the future but we could take in the view, and for that moment it was enough. The word "forgive" had followed me around until I yielded to its gentle call. 
How could I know that a few months later my frugal German farmer husband would die unexpectedly of a heart attack? 
How could I possibly understand that later, much later, I would rediscover the little rock with the big word? Yes, and it would find its way into the pocket of another person I needed desperately to forgive.
I don't know where the stone is now; maybe it's been passed along to remind another soul of God's love in the middle of the mess. All I know is, my friend's ministry of the stones is sending ripples of grace into the community, and now I'm a stone-giver too. I find them in little gift shops, and sometimes I find them on the Lake Erie shore and write my own words on them with a Sharpie marker. I give them to my friends. I say, "Keep this for as long as you need to, then pass it on." I have no idea where the stones might go, but my prayer is they will serve as little reminders in a world filled with uncertainty. May they anchor fragile hearts. May they become stones of remembrance.
A week ago I found the stone that says "Strength" and carried it to a funeral. In the receiving line, I slipped it into the hand of a newly-minted widow. She looked at me. "Something to hold onto," I whispered. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Laughter Spills Out

I hope today you laugh. Not because it's April Fool's Day, not necessarily. I hope you laugh because something strikes you funny and mostly because laughter releases light and hope into the world. You may burble up in the quietness of your own home -- but still, you've changed the quality of the air and charged it with happiness particles.
I hope today you laugh. Maybe, if you're especially blessed, you'll watch a baby giggle and just watching that pure bubbling delight will pull out the giggle in your own gut. Giggling sends out a message: Life is hard but I have this moment, and right now it's joy that occupies this space. Pure joy.
I hope today you laugh. May the ironic, the ridiculous, the just-plain-silly -- grab you by the shoulder and invite you in. I hope you'll laugh out loud in the grocery line. In traffic with your window down. With a friend at lunch. Next to a stranger in the waiting room. Waiting rooms, especially, need the infusion of laughter.
I hope today you'll laugh. Have you noticed? When you pass by a room full of laughter, it pours out of the walls and windows like so much warm sunshine, spreading warmth over everyone in its path. Smiles will curl up on worried faces and laughter will escape, even from unpracticed throats; it's just contagious. Even the slightest murmur reaches heaven.
I hope today you laugh. Not the manufactured stuff of sit-com tracks, but the genuine, belly-jiggling, side-splitting, absolutely irresistible music of your own voice letting out joy. Laughter around the dinner table is a particular gift. It bursts into the room like a beloved guest. You want it to stay all evening.
Laughter is medicine for the soul, affirmation for the doubter, a pocket of peace for the worry-worn, an embrace for the desolate.
Release it into the waiting world, a world that offers up countless wonders and comedic creatures; a world that softens the raggedy edges with a sense of the outrageous, the frivolous, the offbeat wackiness. A world that needs more goofy and less grumpy. More lightheartedness and less lead.
The universe grows smaller and more inviting when two souls share a joke, a smile, a rare splendid moment.
I hope today you laugh. Distractions will tug on your sleeve, bills will cry out to be paid, deadlines will shadow you, appliances will quit, people will drive like idiots. Still, there will be moments. Show up for them. You won't be sorry; neither will the people who need to hear your voice chortling out the music -- the off-key, blessed, bursting and brave music -- of laughter.