The Withering Beauty of Grace

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This withered and dying sunflower holds remnants of what was. It’s color is still true and some of the petals refuse to let go.

 

When I brought the bundle of yellow from the store some blooms weren’t fully open. Over the course of the week their petals relaxed and exposed more of the round center. Their stalks are thick and have the strength to support their brilliantly colored heads.

 

Over two weeks time I watched them cycle from full strength to petals dropping and starting to wither. Even as their blooms fade their beauty does not. The petals aren’t smooth or full. Yet it doesn’t negate their beauty. Neither has my admiration diminished. Through all of the stages they carry themselves with strength and a quiet grace.

 

Two years ago we lost the last of our parents. They are all gone on to glory now. We watched them age, color draining little by little. Dark hair to white. Energy slowly waned unable to keep pace with their younger selves or their great-grandchild. Some held tighter like the petals on the sunflowers. But life wins as it always does. The ultimate oxymoron.

 

Remnants have been left in their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Remnants of beauty that defies the kind in magazine pages. Beauty isn’t always smooth skin and clear eyes. It’s not about strength or memory. It is more. Somewhere in the withering and fading you see the grace.

 

 

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Pinterest Isn’t Always Right

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Pinterest has taken the place of magazines. It’s Better Homes & Gardens, Bon Apetit, In Style and Reader’s Digest all in one. I’ve saved recipes, fashion ideas and quotes. There are how-to’s from building a backyard cupola to a science project. It’s an encyclopedia offering information you didn’t know you needed.

I like good quotes and have collected quite a few but I ran across this one that made me wince.
“This will all make perfect sense someday.” I liked the style of it. The background was a bold yellow and the words looked like they were handwritten on white paper and pasted in the middle of the yellow. There was a lot of white space which we know draws our interest.
I wondered how many people saved that being comforted by the words.
Wouldn’t it be nice if someday it would make perfect sense?
Divorce
Cancer
Dementia
War
Hate
Bigotry
Violence
Mental illness
Addiction
Poverty
I can’t make sense of any of it but I believe there is hope. And hope is more than a verse in beautiful calligraphy on Instagram.
Hope is crying with the co-worker just diagnosed with cancer and hope is my friend who volunteers at a pregnancy crisis center. It’s teaching our children and grandchildren about respect and showing it to one another. Hope is smiling and holding the door open and making room for the person who doesn’t look like you.
I haven’t been able to make sense out of hope. But I believe it’s where we find God.

It’s Time to Jump

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Photo by Aniketh Kumar on Unsplash

 We are sitting midway back in the movie theater. Tom Cruise is gripping a cable attached to the bottom of a helicopter as it flies over mountainous terrain. I know he’s going to survive yet my palms are sweating.

 

My husband and I were walking up the metal steps of a lighthouse with our 17 and 18-year-old kids. Half way up, I froze. I felt the fear rise up in my chest as I stood there. After calming my breathing, I reached out to touch the wall as I walked back down every step trying to focus on the wall.

 

Since then I’ve made it to the top of two lighthouses. Both by holding the belt loop of my husband, walking so closely behind him that I barely saw where my feet were stepping. Once to the top, I stood with my back against the wall looking straight out to enjoy the view. It was beautiful. For about 2 minutes.

 

I can climb a ladder or tree or scramble on top of our kitchen cabinets to reach something. But somewhere there’s a point I can’t cross. I can’t even watch it on a movie screen.

 

My toes are perilously close to the edge of life these days. I don’t want to be there but age does that. It pushes you further and further out past your youth to a point where fear threatens to keep you from looking down. You brave a glimpse now and then and what you see is deep and murky.

 

The edge feels crumbly as if the ground may give way. Actually, it does seem to be breaking off in tiny bits. A clump of usefulness slips between your toes and you try to back away. Purpose and worth are crumbling too and if you could just tip toe around the soft spots …but there’s no place left to go.

 

Instead of sweaty palms my heart feels like it’s taking an extra beat as I peer into what’s ahead.

 

The ground that was solid and true for years has suddenly become marshy. I knew the way around motherhood and ministry. I understood my purpose and eagerly pursued it. There was room to walk and my footing was sure more times than not.

 

I stayed clear of the edge and maybe that’s the problem. What I see as clouded in a thick mist is where the mystery is. Perhaps that’s where God’s real purpose is. Not in my knowing but in me trusting.

 

No, I don’t like being nudged so close to this vast expanse of what looks like nothingness. I don’t want the anxiety that uncertainty brings.

 

In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor says, “The only real difference between Anxiety and Excitement was my willingness to let go of Fear.” 

 

Retirement from the known and purposeful is imminent. It is also scary and filled with anxiety and grief. Yet, here I am with toes on the edge getting ever so close to the mystery of what is ahead.

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Photo by Blake Cheek on Unsplash

 

I want to grab hold of excitement for new possibilities like I held tight to my husband’s belt loops. I want my fingers to wrap around my truth and purpose, whatever it may look like, because I know my true worth can only be found in God.

 

You know the main character in the movie is going to make it. James Bond always survives. Jason Bourne and Indiana Jones escaped death multiple times as does Tom Cruise in the Mission Impossible series. They aren’t afraid to let go and jump.

 

Sweaty palms, racing heart…let’s jump!

 

Two Tragedies

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There are two tragedies with addicts. There is the tragic life of the addict. A person whose life has unraveled and become a stranger to all who knew them. They have changed in every way.

Physically they have aged. Meth and crack destroy their teeth. Opioids take them to skin and bones. Eyes become pinpricks and eventually flatten out to blankness. Flakka can leave long-lasting paranoia and mental confusion.
The once good looking brother, son, husband so well-groomed and well-mannered is hiding things, stealing from family, lying about jobs and money until everyone has cut them off. Until the crack house is the only place that welcomes them and even that will end when they can’t pay. One way or another. The lucky ones are put in jail which can lead to detox giving them a chance.
The second tragedy happens to those who love them. Addicts are the real walking dead.
“Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in his own heart and even losing his precious peace of mind? 
In short: “Who can take away suffering without entering it?”  
– Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society
These are the people who enter our lives and wreck our emotions forcing us to draw boundary lines and make hard decisions. They are why we’ve attended too many funerals and memorials. Their names are on my tears and they leave bruises on my heart.
*Tom has left. Again. When he came back this time he was thinner than the last time. He’s not a big man, only a couple of inches taller than me. But his eyes were alive before. Now they are desperate. He grabs me in a hug nearly every time he sees me and there’s something about it that isn’t him. The counselors have expressed his ongoing paranoia and I learn his last run involved Flakka. He has prescriptions but he’s decided the amounts he should be taking which completely violates our policy. We know his level of care has gone beyond what we can handle. We wish we had the power to Baker-act him. It would put him directly in the system to have a mental evaluation. It could give him a chance. But we don’t have that power. Before we can meet with him about options he leaves. He’s become sure he’s being targeted, a manifestation of his paranoia.
So he left. Walked out. To nothing. And I’m so afraid he’s going to die. Out there. Alone.
You’d think after 14 years in this ministry we’d become numb. There are many times I’ve wished for it and times I’ve felt it. There is a layer we must wrap ourselves in every day to be able to look at the night log to see if anyone has left. I can only explain our ability to still care by saying God is with us. I don’t know why we haven’t been destroyed by this except that He is with us. And right now I want him to also be with *Tom.
Two tragedies multiplied by every man in our Center.
“Dare to love and to be a real friend. The love you give and receive is a reality that will lead you closer and closer to God as well as those whom God has given you to love.” 
– Henri Nouwen

A Few Things I Learned This Summer

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It’s been a while since I’ve written a recap of things I’ve learned. It started with Emily Freeman‘s invitation to join her in keeping track of the things. She started a monthly review over on her blog that has become a seasonal account. It’s not easy to recall the lessons but being intentional helps us see that we are always learning and sometimes the little things are the big triumphs.

  1. Henry and I were invited to participate in a wedding this summer. It was a privilege and joy to see the transformation and restoration take place in this young man’s life. The wedding was in Philadelphia which gave us a few hours to explore the city and wish we’d had more time. We spent an evening walking in the historic downtown and enjoyed the mixture of history, urban and northern scenery. Who knew?
  2. I took a break. I put blogging on hold and released myself from self-imposed pressures of social media. It was the best thing I did for myself. I realized (aka learned) I’d been focusing on the wrong things. I felt like I was chasing after approval and life isn’t meant to be a chase nor do I need man’s approval. (Still working on that one.)
  3. I discovered Tazo Chai Vanilla Caramel tea. Delicious!
  4. Art is saving my sanity. I am an over thinker. Anyone? The only shut off button for my mind seems to be busy hands. When I’m sewing or painting or taking photos my mind is focused on what’s in front of me. It’s deciding which color of thread to use and cutting the fabric straight. Or setting up a still life shoot or doodling. I’ve known this but when I cut back on blogging I rediscovered what adds peace to my life. And to the lives of those around me 😉 You can check out my photos on Unsplash, a free download site.
  5. I learned to make Apple Cider donuts. YES! First, cooking is not my gifting. I often find it confusing and stressful. But…..there are these apple cider donuts we buy every August from an Orchard in North Carolina. And We. Love. Them. The donuts and the orchard because there is just too much goodness there. This year I set out to learn to make them. My only criteria was they had to be baked. I ordered donut baking pans from Amazon. There is still a bit of tinkering to do with the recipe but it was a success! If you’re interested you can find the recipe here.

We are always learning something but it happens in such ordinary ways we forget the little strides we’re making. I’d encourage you to keep track of the lessons. Jot them down in your day planner or write them on the wall calendar. Make a “Learned” list in Evernote or tell Alexa to keep track but do it. (she says to herself) It’s a gift to yourself.

 

The Things We Keep

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It had been a while since my father-in-law died when I saw his phone number still in my husbands contact list. It was thoughtless of me to call this to his attention but I did. He knew it was there, of course.

Mama had the same phone number over 30 years. It was the only one I knew by memory not speed dial. She was the last to maintain a landline, one that would give a busy signal because she never used an answering machine.
When Alzheimer’s progressed to where she needed the safety of a nursing facility I never deleted the phone number from my contacts. I can recite it today as fast as my own.

It’s been 2 years and three months since mama died and I get it. I’ve cleaned out my contact list a couple of times since her passing and both times my finger paused at her name before going on to the next. As if leaving her name in print in my electronic contact book will secure her place in my life.
I am slowly starting to sort through things as we prepare our move into retirement. Clutter is not me but there is So Much Stuff. Every room I walk through holds more things to decide what to keep and what to let go. On the wall is a framed cover of Carole King’s Tapestry album. I practically wore the grooves of the vinyl down the summer of my 14th year. It’s never the item but the memory connected to it.
Every year when we bring out the boxes of Christmas ornaments there is a gold-painted construction paper macaroni star made by one of our kids in preschool. Our kids are in their late 30’s. Dried pasta and Elmer’s school glue are amazing.
I may not be a pack rat but I have a sentimental heart that holds tightly to memories.
At some point I’ll need to let go of our daughter’s favorite rag doll. The one she carried by the braided pigtails until they came unglued from the side of her head. I’ll have to find a new home for our son’s first teddy bear that he named Freddy and the Star Wars figures he’s insisted we keep for him the past 20 years.
Letting go of the things feels like a betrayal. As if all the stories are tied to an object when the most precious things for us to keep are the stories.
There are tangible things we keep. Granny’s dishes kept packed in a box. Ticket stubs from our first trip to England. Family bibles. And phone numbers in contacts.

The Mist

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I don’t know what early mornings look like the other 11 months of the year in this part of North Carolina but many mornings in August the mist hangs low, almost touching the surface of the lake. There is a stillness even as the geese glide across the glassy water.

Any time of day is quieter here by this lake surrounded by the Smokey Mountains. It’s offering a peace your body forgets it needs until the stillness finds you.
Life is going on as usual. Bills will come in, issues will have to be dealt with at home, laundry needs to be done and meals prepared. But none of it seems burdensome cloaked in the mist and sound of nature.
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We hear the crunch of gravel as cars rumble past our house just off the lake. They are few and slow. Bird song and voices carry from across the way penetrating the stillness.
Being surrounded by layer upon layer of nature helps me realize why people forsake the tidy neighborhoods of cookie cutter homes in cities and suburbs.
Five houses on the left daisies reach across the asphalt of the one way road giving access to our side of the oval shaped “neighborhood”. The red clapboard house next door has window boxes of flowers and some days we catch sight of a rabbit foraging on the ground between our houses.
Swans swim at one end of the lake while geese waddle at the other with random paddleboats and kayaks in between. It’s a 3 mile walk around this lake that’s lined with a multicolored rose garden. There’s no place you can go in this small town without a burst of color. It is the only sound that complements this quiet.
We share this space with family. The quiet will be short lived. Soon voices will be making decisions and dissections. We’ll decide which pies to order for our midweek gathering as we dissect the message at the morning’s meeting – part of our work that brings us here.
There are responsibilities that have traveled with us. We haven’t left all of life’s noise behind. The difference is the easy temperatures that invite us to sit on the porch and listen more closely to the call of the birds. We hear a distant saw and the buzz of crickets or cicadas. (This city girl doesn’t know the difference.) Being in these surroundings provide a layer of resistance to the demands that make me wonder can I do this at home?
Why does it seem easier to allow frustration to rule at home? We can’t change our physical surroundings. August in South Florida is stifling with humidity that makes porches empty. Our night skies are polluted with artificial light from below making the stars above invisible. There is a constant rumble of sound: a grinding truck, roaring motorcycle, bass beat throbbing from a car or neighbor’s radio playing across the backyard of our zero lot line homes. The noise in our heads is the hardest to quiet. I want to think if only. If only we lived here. If only this was our setting. If only this quiet, this mist that shrouds reality could follow me home.
The mist finally parts and we see clearly the houses on the other side of the lake.
When you can’t change things you accept what is. Acceptance and I aren’t on good terms. I fight it like a toddler fighting a nap. When faced with denial or acceptance I like to think I choose acceptance. All be it begrudgingly. Reality stares me down and wins.
 
Acceptance says be thankful for the time away and enjoy the change of scenery. It reminds us to have gratitude for little things: air conditioning at home, and, big things: meaningful work to do. Acceptance acknowledges God is in the mist just as he is in the cloudless blue skies; in the mountains and the oceans.
Acceptance is a soul-saving surrender to a loving God.

Sunday

As long as I can remember, as long as I’ve been on this earth, Sunday has been a day of gathering.

 

Born into a church family from a church family, born to preacher parents, all other days pointed to Sunday.

 

We gathered Sunday clothes and Sunday books, Sunday people and Sunday dinner. The doors opened wide on our little churches begging for a bigger gathering of people week after week.

 

Sunday was the day we all got up with the same purpose, same intention, same schedule. And somehow, we got there without contention and we got there early, amen and thank you Jesus.

 

Sunday is where I learned beauty isn’t always external or pretty. There was the Sunday beauty of Billy, an older man who sat at the organ every week, shoes off with his socked-feet on the pedals, greeting everyone who walked by.

 

Billy was different. I never heard the real story but the mark on his head seemed to confirm a head injury of some kind. His was an awkward beauty, best seen when looking back and realizing his testimony was his faithfulness.

Beauty in the kids squirming about and the homeless man who wandered in, welcomed by Ed, stone cold deaf but it never stopped him from nodding in agreement with whatever was said that he never heard.

 

It was one of our pastors at our long time church who had the courage to cancel Sunday night service one year on Mother’s Day. It was all our group of peers could do not to stand up and let out a hearty cheer for his sheer bravery. The pastor said seemed like this was a good day to gather with our families.

 

Turned out that was a test and not long after we stopped having Sunday night church all together. We didn’t stop gathering. Relationships were strengthened in those afternoons on the tennis court or a cookout with friends. Our families grew together watching our kids play. Fellowship beyond the church doors made it a lasting beauty.

Today it’s me and Hudson doing the gathering of stuff Sunday mornings; sermon notes, laptop for media, prayers for everything. It’s the two of us gathering an extended family of men once stained with the disease of addiction, many struggling still and even in struggle we see how beauty doesn’t give up.

 

We will gather songs and words and hearts along the way. We will pray our sinful lives will be restored and we thank God for recovering the beauty he made in us all along.

Sunflowers

It wasn’t a garden but a patch of dirt beside the asphalt parking lot. There they were, taller than my 5’4″ and showing off their beauty, reflecting the glory of their Maker. These yellow beauties seem rather ordinary in these parts.

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They were mixed with other flowers but the sunflower commands attention. It’s boldness of color and height all seems to scream “look at ME!”

Clyde’s

She was staring hard at 15, talking about driving and getting way ahead of herself on this road of life. She’s the last one to be with us at our one-week-in-August-lake-house, the youngest of our combined families and the one that’s been tagging along more than her memory recalls.lake house

We’ve been ten years in the same house, the glory house because glory shown down on us the day my sister-in-law found this one and locked us in with a “Just roll our deposit over every year” talk with the realtor.

There have been other houses in our string of annual pilgrimages to this respite from the heat of most of the south.

The really old and really dusty house we never stayed in again.

The really old and really dusty house we never stayed in again.

Yep, 13 of us in this house for a week.

Yep, 13 of us in this house for a week.

There were the houses without air conditioning that sounds lovely for a week in the mountains but really is just insane for anywhere in the summer. We need to sleep at night people!

The one that nearly pushed us over the edge was the “Rainbow House”. Rental houses in that area are named and Lord only knows why that house carried that name because we would have named it the Dust Bowl or the “Are you kidding me?” house. Maybe the “House where rust water comes out of the bathtub faucet” house. Or the, “That’s NOT a sleeping porch. It’s just a screened in porch with NASTY CANVAS FOR SHADE!”

It was…..memorable.

This place is our memory maker place. Every year our two families (one year 5 families combined) make the trek and live under one roof together, visiting the same potter and fudge shop a few towns over and ordering homemade pies from the same orchard.

Traditions are made when the youngest one says, “We always go to…..” even though last year was the first time but you go again.

That’s how we stumbled on Clyde’s.

The youngest was the only one left with the grownups that summer. The two men left for an early round of golf and she decided we should go to breakfast. We found Clyde’s diner across from the newly built Wal-Mart Super-center.

It was our second or third year of pulling into Clyde’s when we saw the message on their sign: “Closed for vacation”. I’m sorry, WHAT? Do places do that? Yes, in the little town of Waynesville, North Carolina, they do.

We found another place that isn’t as memorable as Clyde’s blueberry pancakes. We hoped we’d not meet that misfortune again.

This year we did a preliminary drive-by to head off any possible disappointment and there it was, a beautiful sight:

Clyde's diner