Long Lived the Queen

About eight weeks back, we stood at the entrance to Buckingham Palace and waved at the Queen. Well, actually, our wave was intended for Her Majesty, but we don’t really know if she was at home that day or peering out her window. Then, we snapped our typical tourist pics as bona fide proof we were there. The beefeaters with their tall fuzzy, black hats and red jackets opened the gates to the palace, entered the portico, only to walk back out a few minutes later carrying a suitcase. I wonder if it had Paddington’s marmalade stashed inside.

The text dinged in from our Scottish friends last week just moments before American news reports.
Two words. “She’s gone.”
“The queen died peacefully at Balmoral Estate today,” read the news ticker.

Like the queen, who loved her Scottish home best, if I got my choice about where to die, the Highlands would be on my short list too. And now with the heather carpeting the hills interwoven with the color palette of greens and the sheep leisurely feasting on the table set before them, it doesn’t take much holy imagination to see the Shepherd, Queen Elizabeth leaning on His strong arm, wearing her wellies and a plaid wool scarf walking toward the next hill through the misty rain, trading one world for another.

Being Americans, many of us find a political system that has both a ruling government and reigning nobility disorienting. Our presidents come and go every four to eight years and generally we don’t get that attached—well, except maybe for Trump worshippers. We are, after all, rugged individualists who make our own way in the world. Our heroes are the folks with rags to riches yarns, the ones who grew up in poverty, created a line of boujie vegan dog biscuits or hipster computers with a cute little apple on the cover or a swanky casino empire with their name in neon lights. We’re skeptical, even grudgy about the families who were born with a silver spoon and pass it on like they’re in a relay race. The idea of living off taxpayer sovereign grants and a privy purse doesn’t win a popularity contest for most Americans.

But it’s different in the UK and other places where the Queen has ruled a conglomerate of nations. There is an abiding loyalty between the Sovereign and many of her subjects. For the Brits especially, she’s been the steady these past seventy plus years, which might as well be forever for the vast majority of their population. This loss, for our international family is monumentally historic.

Since September 8, some have been glued to their screens watching live coverage of the pomp and circumstance while others are at least slightly annoyed that a person who enjoyed every opulent luxury in life continues to be pampered post-mortem while simultaneously countless other average, everyday humans lived and also died on September 8, 2022.

And in recognition of those other humans and the ones who love them, I express my sincerest condolences as you grieve your losses. Here’s what I know to be true—that every soul God breathed life into matters equally to Him. That Jesus didn’t play favorites on the cross. And while our mortal stories are written with one of a kind diversity, God is attentive to every single one. Your beloved matters to Him and so do you.

Honestly, I struggle to reconcile British colonization and other inequities of life. I was born white in the USA where indoor plumbing, clean water and air conditioning are standard even up north where it’s only appreciated for about 6 weeks of the year– off and on. I’m privileged. Simultaneously, others in my universal family are drinking the water they bathe in and living with PTSD in refugee camps for decades after experiencing the trauma of genocide. Someday, I’ll get embalmed and buried in a satiny casket while someone else’s carcass will get dumped in a ditch. As a christian, I find these realities hard to make sense of. 

Queen Elizabeth, she lived a really cushe life. But everyone’s story has its very own hard and not even royals get a pass. There’s power jockeying between leaders on the world stage. And security concerns. There’s the utter lack of privacy. The imperative of political neutrality. The cumbersome protocols of ettiquete. The expectation of spot-on diplomacy every time. The pressure of knowing that the worldwide web will plaster a picture of the booger in your nose at a state dinner, your wardrobe malfunction on a windy moor or editorialize on the mid-life stone you gained right at the midline. Professional lip readers will share your words intended to be communicated privately on the evening news, assess the warmth in your body language with your husband. Extrapolate messages in your clothing choices and hairstyle.
24/7 you live in a fishbowl. 
You are not your own. You are the House of Windsor. No autonomy for you. You are a part of a machine. And so is your family. You didn’t chose it and you might not want it but you were born into it and it is your destiny.
No shopping days at the mall with a Starbucks and an Aunt Annie pretzel for you. The system dresses you. 
No meandering through the aisles at Meijer scoping out tonight’s dinner ingredients. The system feeds you.
No leisurely lunches sharing secrets across the table at Panera Bread with a good friend. The system socializes you.
No Zillow searches or planting annuals in the garden by your front door. The system houses you.
And the paparazzi, they follow your family everywhere for the express purpose of substantiating or fabricating a juicy story and slapping a catchy headline on it that will boost sales to curious readers.
As a parent, you miss your child’s first step, losing her first tooth, reading his first word,  performing in her first dance recital, playing his first competitive game of cricket because you are on tour for the sake of the Crown.
And like the rest of us, you experience the loss, grief and family drama common to man.

Truth is, that while we might like the perks of royalty, the price tag on those creature comforts is more than most of us would be willing to pay. Bottom line is that the Queen lived into her particular calling faithfully for all ninety six years God gave her life and breath and I think that deserves honorable mention.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. I like funerals better than weddings. Here’s why. Weddings represent pie crust promises that haven’t yet been tested. Funerals recount what it actually looks like to live in the integrity of those commitments over the long haul. And that inspires me. 
What is my calling?
How am I living into it today?

These are the questions we ask as we reflect on a life well lived. As Queen Elizabeth embraced the work for which she was chosen, may I be faithful to the unique calling that is mine alone. Writing generative stories. Creating lasting legacies. Leaving some corner of the world better than I found it.

In July, we walked the route from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey, the same route her funeral carriage will take. We attended an Evensong service in the Abbey too. Sat in the same chairs the  elite few thousand will warm for her funeral on September 19. Listened as the spoken Word ricocheted off the walls making it hard to catch.  Stepped over the graves in the ornate floor where famous historical figures who left their mark were laid to rest.
God bless them. 
God bless the Queen. 
God bless me. 
And God bless you. 
Not because we deserve it. We don’t. But because His love is long and high and wide and deep and His mercies are new every single day, He does.

And may each of our lives, not perfectly, but faithfully respond to that blessing with the lyrics of Ben Rector’s song. The one that wakes me up every morning, reminding me of the top priority on my daily to-do list.
“Please let me make something beautiful. A thing that reminds us there’s good in the world.”
Amen.

Life After Suicide

(Trigger Warning//Suicide)

I was 16 that October day in 1982 when the girl who shared my stand in band died by suicide. In a moment of abject fear after an imprudent choice with a boy at the beach, she lost her flashlight, couldn’t find a path forward and everything went dark. Permanently.

It wasn’t my first brush with suicide. That would be the neighbor lady, the one with kids who lived in the blue house on the corner. My mom’s yard sale buddy. I was too young to understand mental illness and addiction. All I knew was that she jumped from an overpass and was no more. For decades, I unpacked that tragedy in my nightmares. Then there was the older boy who rode my school bus. He sat a couple of rows behind me one morning and the next his seat was empty. There have been others— always too many- and each death or threatened loss leaves a mark of indelible black ink on the soul.

My baby was 16 last August when her frenemy died by suicide. After a turbulent relationship in middle school, they made peace with a more mature  high school version of each other. One day they were living the dream. Camping at the beach. The next it turned nightmare and he was gone.

Artwork by Starla.

There is no mathematic equation with an absolute solution for quashing suicide. The human experience is bound up in the amalgamation of a physical body and a tender soul. Both can be bruised, crushed and ultimately overwhelmed. The CDC lists suicide as the 10th most common cause of death in the United States. While it can confound the powers of reasoning for a mature, healthy mind, it honest-and-true can seem like the only viable option for pain relief to a brain that goes offline or is sick.  The most common bottom feeders for suicidal outcomes are: 

  1. Psychiatric Disease. These are the suffering souls who often navigate multiple diagnosis at once—things like traumatic stress, severe depression, substance abuse, anxiety and psychosis. Like a constantly dripping faucet, their brain chemistry torments them day and night with ungracious, self-incriminating, hopeless thoughts and feelings until they succumb to its despair.
  2. Crisis intersecting with an immature prefrontal cortex. These are mostly teenagers and young adults who feel desperately alone, ashamed or angry after an emotionally charged incident like a relational fissure, bullying or abuse. Because their brain is not yet fully developed, their fuse is short. Their toolbox of coping strategies is near empty. When triggered by an extremely undesirable circumstance, their thinking brain goes offline and they become neuro-physiologically disregulated, like a toddler who throws themself down onto a cement floor with a thud, kicking and screaming as they dispel energy from the cortisol rushing through their bodies. This is the teen who grabs the family gun, a belt, a rope, a container of pills and acts before they consider the permanence and irreversibility of their action.
  3. A cry for attention. This individual is less motivated for the perceived relief that death brings and more intent on finding a means to communicate the need to be seen, soothed and secure. It is a desperately dramatic SOS call whose intent is not to die but sometimes they actually do.
  4. A toxic all-play. The perfect storm. All of the above.

For every single one of God’s image bearing creations who die by suicide, the devastation ripples through families and communities. On average 200 people in the orb of the deceased are left traumatized and grieving. 

Last fall, almost 40 years later, I meandered through the cemetery where my grandparents are buried and stumbled upon the grave marker of my band stand partner, the one who’s death at fifteen was not God’s best plan. This was not how it was supposed to be. 

In God’s Book, He says that as Creator, He gets to decide the days, hours and minutes that we spend on our mortal pilgrimage. But sometimes, He defers to our recklessness instead. He assents to mental illness. He yields to our madness. He permits us volition to murder others and to terminate ourselves. And we are left with the tiny word that asks the biggest question ever—WHY? Theology teaches us that humanity’s sinful rebellion toward God plays out in our mortality. It unpacks the implications of free will and agency in our choices. But those cerebral explanations fall short of addressing the deep, guttural, personal anguish in the question.  Why him? Why her? Why us? Why now? Why this? And so, it is good to know that the God of theology is the same One who also counts our tears and saves them in His bottle. The One who cries, even weeps, over the death of His beloved and we are His beloved.

Today we stood at the fresh new grave marker of my kid’s buddy. The marker said “Beloved Son, Brother and Friend”. There was a cross etched into the stone and heavy chain necklace with a ring lying on top. My girl, she added the flowers she picked from our yard, the ones I planted and God made grow. We stood together quietly because sometimes there are no words. Only thoughtful silences that whisper softly of caring.

To those who remain, the nearest and dearest, survivors, the ones with an empty spot in their family pictures and at their kitchen tables, I honor the life of your precious. 
And, I honor the courageous journey that you are on.
There is no blue ribbon path through this. No winners. No best of show. This is a participation ribbon only experience.
And you are participating. You didn’t choose to. You didn’t want to. You shouldn’t have to but here you are.
Taking on your life one day at a time the best you can.
Breathing.
Eating.
Sleeping.
Crying.
Laughing.
Working.
Playing.
Talking.
Groaning to Jesus a language only He understands.
Well done.

The conundrum of our temporal existence is that life is so incredibly beautiful and so excruciatingly hard.
We don’t get one without the other.
It’s not either-or but both-and.

So, blessed are you, grieving mamas and daddies, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, all of you who greet your complicated lives with shaky hope.
Yours is God’s promise of fresh mercies, new every morning and somehow, always enough.
Yours is the guarantee that this temporal existence is not the final tragic end of the story but rather an introduction to eternal life. 
And yours is the confidence that when the story reaches its climax, the broken will be fixed. The sick will be healed. The dirge will become a dance for all who have collided with God’s undeserved forgiveness and unfathomable grace. 
God’s mammoth family reunion. 
Together.
Forever.
Amen.

This Is The Great Adventure

We did the thing. The great adventure. Lived the dream for 13 days straight.
All seven of us. 

The mustard seed of hope, the one where I would share my second favorite place in the whole wide world with my family—ever single one of them- it’s been dormant in the soil of my story for decades until the idea germinated last August. 
“How about if I save my paychecks and take us all to Scotland next summer.” I queried. “Here’s the thing,” I appealed, “Dad and I aren’t getting any younger and hiking the West Highland Way won’t get easier either. It’s now or never guys!” That’s my Enneagram seven wing talking.
“Would you go?” I asked sheepishly. It felt like a no-brainer to me, but you can’t assume anything once your kids grow up and live their own complicated lives.
One by one, they agreed. Some more reluctantly than others. 

I bought the plane tickets in singles, then reserved hostels and airbnbs as I picked up shifts at the hospital and deposited my paychecks. Finally, I started ordering train and bus tickets for people moving our tribe from place to place. 
It sounds easy enough in print but sometimes it’s best if you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into until there’s no turning back.

I got introduced to Scotland the summer of 1985, returned with husband in 1992, a couple of littles in tow and one in the oven the summer of 2000 and then back again in 2017 celebrating the college graduation of my firstborn. “Don’t wait another 17 years or you’ll be 68.” That’s what my Scottish friend said as I boarded the plane in Glasgow that trip. So I didn’t. Last month we piled our suitcases into the van and drove to Chicago, bantering most of the way about the merits of frog tattoos. Then, we boarded a double decker Dreamliner,  popped a few Xanax and 12 hours later, we landed with a thud on a cloud covered, misty afternoon in Scotland.

The house I lived at in 1985.

Our friends were there to meet us. First there were waves, then hugs, after that, party-time at their house. A smorgasbord of local favorites baked by our very own Great British Baking Show ought-to-be. Harry Potter featured on the tele. Impassioned conversation about the latest political headline. People napping on the floor. Laughter intermingled with tears because some dreams, when they come true are worth crying about.

The next day we boarded a train, carrying our backpacks with raincoats inside and headed due north—my favorite direction. The plan, to hike the West Highland Way together. The seats were arranged in tables, some passengers looking back and others peering forward. Life is so like that. One direction Auld Lang Syne and the other, the unturned page on the calendar. This trip an amalgamation of both.

Over the next couple of weeks we exercised our freedom to roam through one sheep pasture after another. We hiked the Devil’s Staircase, climbed the tallest mountain in the United Kingdom, rode on the Hogwart’s Express, e-biked through the Yorkshire Dales and worshipped at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Two weeks of breathing and eating and sleeping together one day on top of the next.

I was eighteen years old when I first caught a glimpse of the grandeur of Edinburgh Castle alit on a rock cliff against the backdrop of darkness. It was love at first sight and my attraction to that beloved country has never diminished. I didn’t know if it would be like that for the kids but I hoped they’d love it too. Going into the trip, I held a handful of wishes like a dandelion, ready to be blown into the wind. 

I told them:
“When you get back from our great adventure, I hope that you see the world as bigger, more interesting and diverse than you knew when you left.
I hope that your souls are refreshed by the color palette of greens and the bleating of the sheep wandering amongst us on the moors, the hills and the mountains.
I hope that you’ll value the gift of a few good friends to share the journey of life with.
And, I hope that we will be present for each other with care and kindness, not perfectly, but the best we are able.”

And with those words, off we went…. 

I can’t quantify my favorite memories and the mercies were too generous to count. But when I sit quiet, remembering,
I hear boys voices volleying across the ridges,
“Can I get a hi-yaaaa?” one calls. 
Pause. 
Another responds, “Hi-yaaaaa!” in return.
And as I stand on a plateau surrounded by vast green wilderness with the one who was most anxious about coming, she says, “It’s so peaceful here!”

I see hundreds and thousands of sheep meandering around grassy hills contentedly chewing their cud.
And four determined climbers making their final approach to the finish line after hiking to the top of Ben Nevis and celebrating with a flask of whisky and a corporate reading of Psalm 121 at the tip-tip top.

I smell the scent of 8 hour pot roast wafting through the hostel in the Dales, the one with the dope Spotify playlist and the bleating of sheep, our nightly lullaby. 
And, inhale the fresh, clean breeze of the Scottish Highlands.

I taste mammoth plates of fish and chips being devoured by hungry hikers.
And savor delicate cakes and flaky pastries from the bakery on the main street of the town I lived in just shy of 40 years ago.

I feel misty drizzle mixing with sweat as I climb a steep and rocky hill and chilly wind bite my cheeks as we bike on paths between stone fences through tiny hamlets with pristine English gardens.

My kids talk about their take-aways and fresh ideas they want to carry back to their ordinary American lives.
“I’m going to have a rose arch in my yard someday.”
“I’d like to name my own little cottage.”
“I plan to be more intentional about  caring for the environment.”

We all made new discoveries about how to navigate family togetherness. 
Like eating at a restaurant is generally more of a stressor than a treat unless our weight-lifting dude gets hangry. That’s the time for mapping the closest McDonald’s to refuel with a couple of cheeseburgers. Otherwise, a grocery store and accommodations with a kitchen are our gig.
Big cities and crowds are not.
We all move at our own pace. Some forging a path to get us where we’re going, oblivious to the others who are stopping to pet the puppies and smell the roses.
Animals make us happy. All of us. But some happier than others.
And the snorers in the group need to unite and bunk together going forward.

There were plenty of “those moments”— the ones where where you start to feel  annoyed, exasperated  and slightly self-justified. But mostly we chose benevolence, generosity and self-sacrifice instead. Not always, but family love trumped rugged individualism for the win.

Friendships expanded cross generationally through shared experiences and a rousing evening of Name that Tune with a room full of Brits and Americans singing Veggie Tales, I Love My Lips as the grand finale.

Those wishes I blew into the wind, they landed in gentle places and came true.

This trip, it was worth all my pennies. The kids caught my love for Scotland like a contagion. Some of them want to relocate there. Others are scheming a plan for a return expedition. What happens next in their story is theirs to write but what happened this summer, we wrote together. Sometimes there are titillating tastes of heaven right here in this broken beautiful world. Sometimes the brilliant dreams we dare to imagine jump out of our heads and take on time and space, flesh and blood. First, we get to savor them in the moment. And then, we get to muse about them through the rear view mirror. Fresh mercies. New every morning. Supremely grateful.

Summer Solstice and Fireflies

The shortest night of the year. The summer solstice. Out on my prayer walk, I watched the sky go from salmony blue through various shades of gray until it turned black. Right around the tree line, it looked like Christmas, the twinkling white lights playing peek a boo in the branches. I remember our peanut butter container with a red cap and air holes on top. Every single night, my littlest girl and her daddy would chase the fireflies and see how many they could catch in their jar. Catch, count and release. Some nights it was a little like  the dudes who couldn’t catch any fish at first and then Jesus decided to give them so many their nets broke. I bet they giggled as delightedly as my baby did when her jar was full.

I tend to camp on those kinds of memories. I spent a few solitary hours scrolling through kid pictures of one of my princesses on her last birthday. My girls have varying levels of disinterest in childhood photos, but for sure, you’d never find them choosing to spend a riveting evening watching a slideshow of old iPhotos. Me? I’m always ruminating about the past, reflecting on the present and projecting about the future. Trying to assemble it like a puzzle until I recognize the picture. I started with the edge peices. Those formed the structure that contains the image. I like knowing there’s a frame and that I put it together, but the center can feel overwhelming and mysterious. I’m not sure how to fit the pieces together or even what it’s supposed to look like when it’s done. Sometimes I want to just give up, put it away unfinished. Other times, I’m determined to see it complete. Most of the time, I find my reading glasses, sit down and fish around until a few stray pieces snug up to each other and then I set it aside for another day. I truly am trying to love the future, to harness the momentum of the past to live into it fully but, honestly, what I really want is a better do-over of what I’ve already had.

It’s not like that for my little women though. One of them told me that when she looks back on pictures of her childhood, she never feels the desire to backdate the time machine. She loves her life and her autonomy. The tough lessons she’s learned in the school of hard knocks, she has no interest in repeating.

Truth be told, I resonate with that. It’s not all the way back to my childhood that I want to go either. Being a kid is both so easy and so incredibly hard. On the one hand there are no bills to pay, no job to work, no image to present, no adult responsibility to shoulder. But children still carry their own heavy burdens on weak, tiny shoulders. They’re born into varying configurations of families. Their primary caregivers range the gamut of reasonably normal to entirely unfit. They come into the world utterly helpless needing to be seen, safe, soothed and secure—not 100% of the time because that’s impossible, but more often than not. That’s how they build healthy attachment patterns and when they aren’t, their inner world becomes a conflicted place of false narratives they weave together unwittingly. Because they aren’t abstract thinkers yet, they end up blaming complex problems on themselves and trying to fix multi-faceted dilemmas that are out of their control. Sometimes they’re abused and neglected. They’re often bullied and rejected and the uncharitable judgments children speak over each other stick. They want to be good, try to be good, feel pressured to excel, succeed and attain perfection but fail and lose instead. On top of their own disappointment, they are quick to recognize the look of dissatisfaction in their parents, teachers and coaches eyes and wounded when they receive berating comments. Children are often taxed beyond their physical and emotional resources. They don’t have the vocabulary for or the maturity to recognize their feelings and control their impulses. And the stakes only get higher as they move into puberty. Teenagers are unrelentingly exposed to confusing messages about gender and sexuality, porn and sex, drugs and alcohol. With undeveloped frontal lobes and insecure identities, they often make impulsive decisions that result in toxic addictions, STD’s, pregnancy and other long term health complications. Generally, kids are doing their best but their best doesn’t feel good enough. Some nights, they lie in bed feeling overwhelmed and scared, with no idea how to navigate through their raging storm.

When I look back at my kids’ pictures, I hear happy little voices creating, playing, exploring, giggling, singing and talking. But I also acknowledge that being a kid is way more complicated than it looks and I hope that in those images of the little people that they were, and even in the more archival photos of who I was, we can all see ourselves and feel delight, kindness, compassion and gratitude for our younger “me’s”. That we can frame our moments within God’s faithful companionship and trace His ongoing mercies in our stories. Fresh and new each morning. Always, always, always enough.

The Ravaging of the Sunflowers

Though the fig tree does not bud and no fruit is on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the field produce no food, though the sheep are cut off from the fold and no cattle are in the stalls, yet I will exult in the Lord; I will rejoice in the God of my salvation! Habakkuk 3:17-18

My sunflower crop got ravaged overnight.
Where I least expected it. On my back deck. Right outside my patio door.
This time it wasn’t my garden 50 feet out on my side yard with the more mature plants. It was the most vulnerable. The tiniest new growth, 150, still in their white paper cups.
I stagger the crop based on days to flower. This variety was my over acheivers. Slated to bloom in 50-60 days.

I’ve been watching my big garden daily, reapplying my very expensive repellent and turning on my hose when it doesn’t rain. I lost a half dozen in one corner to a hungry predator one night but sighed with relief that for whatever reason, it satisfied itself with an appetizer.
Never have I lost any plants off my deck where their failure to thrive wasn’t on me.
This morning, I walked outside ready to tend them with care. Lord knows, I needed the hope of their sunshiny future and found them 
Destroyed
Uprooted
Killed
Their roots pulled out of the soil, exposed and burnt, their leaves chewed off leaving a still greenish stem. Others had pinprick looking holes left where the entire plant had been consumed. For those yet to shed their seed and become real, the varmint had cracked the shell open, eaten the life and left the carcass behind.
Some were only injured—roots still intact but growth whittled down to the soil line.

For a few minutes I just stood paralyzed. Speechless. Until I couldn’t stand and so I sat down, right in the middle of the war zone and wept. I know they’re just sunflowers and I recognize that the loss I just described is absolutely trivial compared to countless other casualties but they matter to me and their untimely devastation feels like the deathblow on a week where I’ve already been beaten to a pulp. The particulars in my story and the stories of the ones I love are ours alone but everyone has had their own kick in the gut some fateful day, week, month, year, decade, lifetime even…. and for each and every one of us, it just plain hurts. It throbs. It’s a red, frowny, teary face on the pain chart.

So what do we do with our ravaged gardens. The ones we nurtured and loved and had such beautiful hopes for? Here’s the only thing I know to do. Start by sitting in the devastation for as long as you need or at least as long as you can. Look at your uprooted plants. See what has been lost and grieve that the hopes you had for them will not be realized. Cry your tears. They’re legit. Then, assess the damage and start cleaning up. Separate what’s salvageable from what has to be thrown into the compost bin. It’s not a race. Do it at your own pace. Let yourself re-assess the damage as you go and give yourself permission to feel what you feel. Dispose of what has been lost. It cannot be retrieved. Nurse what has been wounded with the tenderest care you are able to give.
Now, take your now seedless cups of soil and plant more sunflower seeds. Yeah, I really did say that. Choose courage to hope that the next effort, the next seed packet can live and thrive and bloom and be gloriously mature.
It’s an incredible risk. There’s a part of me that wants to just rototill my garden, let it grow weeds  and entirely give up. There’s no risk in that. There’s nothing I value that I can lose. But that is the path of despair and at the fork in the road, I will not choose to take it.
Today, I will sow. I will water my pinkish-red strawberries and and the other flowers in my porch pots. They’re alive and in bloom. They can’t take the place of my sunflowers because they aren’t sunflowers but they are a mirror— reflecting back the reality that hope is worth it and some times our good dreams are realized and they’re beautiful.

Here’s what I have to offer up to God today:
God bless my sunflowers.
Bless the tiny ones I just buried in the compost pile. 
May even their decomposition contribute to your plan for the earth and its regeneration.
Bless the injured plants with new growth and energy.
Bless the seeds that I poke into the soil today. May their life be full and may they bloom according to their design.
Bless my garden and all of the plants that are growing toward the sun amidst perils they cannot comprehend. 
Bless me, God, would you honor my courage to persevere as a gardener? 
Would you comfort me in my loss of my crop?
Would you enable me to hope that there will yet be beauty even though I’ve suffered devastation?
God, would you count my sunflowers, each and every one, just as you do my tears and the number of hairs on my head? And, would you tend them with your most gentle and protective care even though I cannot?
I trust the garden I love to you, God. You made the plants and you loaned them to me to steward, to appreciate, to nurture and enjoy.
I have done my part the best I can. With your help, I will continue to be faithful and wait to see what you will do.
Amen

School Massacres and Other Tragedies: Part 1

I can see now that the world is jolted by events that are wonderful and terrible and gorgeous and tragic. I can’t reconcile the contradiction except that I am beginning to believe that these opposites do not cancel each other out. That life is so beautiful and life is so hard. -Kate Bowler

It’s kind of like 9/11 for me. In a heartbeat, I’m back to that sunshiny, blue sky spring afternoon, the trees on the cusp of budding with new life and possibility, the windows down on our black Chevy Venture. The cool, crisp breeze blows against my cheeks, rumpling my short brown hair. I glance back at my 2 little girls buckled into their car seats, princesses they are. The older one is telling the younger one a story. Always. 

That was the afternoon of April 20,1999. Up front, I was listening to talk radio loudly, the volume competing with the open window. A news bulletin interrupted the show. Two gunmen had opened fire at a high school in the sleepy suburbs of Denver, CO mowing down students and teachers alike. 15 shot dead in cold blood. 16 more injured. There was chaos and screaming and crying as the reporter interviewed people who lived to tell the tale. In the moment, my brain couldn’t connect the dots. How do you complete a picture where a mama packs a sack lunch for her kid one morning, counting down the days until summer vacation. She calls out a quick goodbye as the child rushes out the door to catch a school bus. Late again. She notices that the hug got missed. Moms always do. But told herself she’d be ready at the door tomorrow. She’d hug her baby tomorrow. And now, tomorrow will never come. There won’t be any more tomorrows with her beloved. No lunches. No hugs. No summer vacation. No anything.

 I had no hooks for that horror story. Columbine slapped my parental naivety in the face.That’s when I knew. I decided right then and there behind the wheel of my minivan that I would homeschool my kids. I know, you can’t protect your kids from every risk or potential danger. Believe me, I know. But you can move heaven and earth to protect them from the things you know could hurt them and when you hear a story like Columbine, you know school could hurt them and you can’t unknow once you know.

My husband had been advocating for home education for at least a year. The next fall our firstborn would be headed to Kindergarten. I was a certified special education teacher. He thought it was a no-brainer. A college professor, he admired the academic prowess of his homeschool students. “They’re better thinkers,” he claimed. “They don’t just learn for the test.” That impressed him. Meanwhile, having never been an out of the box thinker myself, I considered it to be overrated and not evidence enough for home schooling. I, on the other hand, am one who assesses decisions largely through a relational grid. I’d been an only child for my first eleven years and the loneliness of that part of my story painted a background on my life canvas. I’d always sleuthed out a few good friends. The best, actually. And I wanted our girls to be able to connect and find relationships too. I didn’t want them to be the social misfits homeschoolers were stigmatized as back in the day. I had been thinking traditional school. Christian school, of course. I didn’t want my little sweethearts to be indoctrinated by secular atheists and influenced by unwholesome family values. How to afford it? That was a formidable obstacle. But my parents managed on a school custodian single income salary with some savvy resourcefulness and humility enough to ask for scholarships. Until that day, that had been my plan. But that day, I threw my playbook into the Grand River on our family walk later that evening and signed on to homeschooling. We all have defining moments that change everything. Columbine shaped our family story forever.

I went to Littleton this winter. Almost 23 years after the tragedy. All but one of my kiddos are now grown up and none of them have yet been a victim of school shootings. Thanks be to God! I went to visit a friend, unaware she’d moved less than a mile from the infamous school. I took a walk one afternoon along the trails that wound through her neighborhood and wondered if I passed either of the shooters childhood homes. I pondered if any of the people who lived in the houses I walked past still live with PTSD and other injuries from the events of that day. 

I wondered about those boys mamas. Who are they? And what must  it be like to hold a baby to your breast and sing him lullabies one day and the next he becomes a  mass murderer before he can legally smoke a cigarette. In my psychology classes, we are taught that the cardinal rule for setting a human up for relational health is early nurturing by a primary caregiver. A baby needs to know that there is someone in the world that they are secure with, who will soothe, see and keep them safe. This builds a foundation for healthy attachment and has the power to shape a life. I questioned, as I meandered through that Colorado neighborhood, did those parents royally screw up? When I got back from my walk, I just had to google search where they lived. What’s their family story? I came across an article written by Dylan’s mom years afterward called A Mother’s Reckoning and I watched her speak on a TED talk. She wasn’t an absentee parent and their family had been intact. She appeared to have loved deeply and tried her best. Honestly, she sounded alot like me. She told about her cauldron of grief mixed with intense shame and isolation following that fateful day. “No matter how hard you try, you might not know your child and they might not let you,” she said. 
Ouch! I’ve been that kind of child and I’ve had children like that.

When I was younger, I’d have been more comfortable to make sweeping judgements against Eric and Dylan’s mamas and whatever mistakes they may have made. To console myself as a Christian with Biblical promises I pulled from Scripture regardless of their context but that effectively nurtured a prosperity gospel teaching that if I do my part, God will bless.  I worked sincerely, perseveringly hard to follow what I thought was Scripture’s recipe for correctly training up my children in the way they should go and claimed what I believed to be a promise that when they are old, they won’t depart from it.

Christians have a tendency to throw around Bible verses like they’re a money back guarantee. Why do we do that? When God, who identifies Himself as Father created His original children, formed in His image, it didn’t even take a single generation of flawless parenting for His kids to rebel, to lie and to demand autonomy completely naive of their own ignorance. That went so well for them that by the time God had grandchildren, the siblings were killing each other. Truth is, I can’t guarantee that my kid won’t be a mass murderer or that she won’t be the victim of one.

I’m sitting at my kitchen table as I write. There’s a Mama Robin flitting back and forth between my maple tree and the hanging fern on my front porch. She crafted her nest carefully and laid 3 blue eggs in the center a few weeks back. There’s another nest tucked right under the back deck in the cross beam of the supports. Mama Robin #2 is tending that nest. Thanks to both of their maternal instincts, their two broods of babies are both brilliantly protected. Perched in the nearest trees, the mamas supervise with vigilance, leaving only to secure snacks and meals for their little ones. Any action around the nests result in a dramatic lecture to the humans who encroach. As far as it’s up to those mamas, the babies are likely to grow and thrive. Thing is, there are so many other dangers and perils within and without and the depressingly low statistics say that likely not more than 1 out of the 6 birdies will live to see their first birthday.
That is the sad, undeniable truth of life under the sun. There are no guarantees for birds or humans except for this one.

The steadfast love of the Lord never changes, His mercies, they never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness, O God. (Lam. 3:22-23)

And to all of us who are living our own stories of dashed hopes and dreams, losses and disappointments, illnesses and disease, but especially to the dear ones in Uvalde Texas, I cling to this promise—the one that actually is a promise- that somehow God’s love, mercy and faithfulness will be enough for today and new again tomorrow.

The Blessing of the Sunflowers

They were tucked into the garden yesterday morning. Tiny shoots. 600 of them. I started them out a few weeks back in little paper cups with holes in the bottom. One after another, I filled each container with potting soil and poked the seeds under the surface. I watered and watched them take root and grow their first tender leaves. Then, I transplanted them into the plot to the side of the house. That’s where, according to their season, they’ll grow taller than me. 

Those evil, microscopic, late-spring insects that attack anything that exhales carbon dioxide made a meal out of me in the process. No sacred space on my body was spared and now I look like someone with a case of itchy chicken pox. Still, I’m satisfied to see my plants, so young and possessing so much potential, planted in neat rows. I rummaged around the garage for a water hose and oscillating sprinkler then set it up right in the center of the garden. To thrive, those babies will need vigilant nourishment at the start. Afterwards, I sprinkled pellets that smell like rotten eggs along the periphery, an olfactory fence to deter unwanted guests. 

The next part of the process is a conglomeration of working, waiting, hoping and praying recognizing that there are no guarantees. 
So much of life is like that…..

I sighed contentedly as I scanned my yard, the peonies all pink and white and red, the lilacs in fragrant bloom, the petite Siberian yellow and purple iris standing straight and tall bordering the driveway. I peered across my garden and prayed for my sunflowers because if God cares about sparrows and lilies and hairs on my head, He cares about sunflowers too.

God bless my sunflower garden.
Let it bring me joy as I tend to its care.
May the soil be balanced with just enough sand to invite the roots to spread deep and wide.
Give rain and sunshine in abundance to nourish my baby plants.
May the flowers growth outpace the weeds.

God bless the deer and lead them to virgin paths away from my garden.
God bless the rabbits and provide for them more desirable hors d’oeuvres than my plants.

As I steward my little plot of land, may I delight in the Creator and Sustainer of all that is beautiful.
Help me to wait patiently for my flowers to mature.
Let the good, good gift of blooms multiply exponentially into a field of plenty so I can share generously from the bounty.
Someone is going to need their happy sunshine about August.
And so am I.

God bless my sunflower garden.
Amen

About a Sheep Farm and Psalm 23

We loaded up Lily‘s Subaru with heated seats and drove to Wisconsin together. Find Friends says we went 120 miles from home but that’s only if you swim it. Our destination? A sheep farm. Put Lily in a pen with animals and she animates like a wind up toy. Sometimes she wonders if she missed her calling and should’ve been a farmer. I say, she can be both/and instead of either/or if she wants to.

We parked in front of an idyllic white farmhouse owned by Josh and Kelli. Four years ago, they bought the property and gave it a name: Velvet Sheep Farms. They didn’t actually know how to be sheep farmers at the time, but they wanted to be, and so they jumped in feet first, landed solidly and got to work. Since then, they’ve been crafting a life for their family that stewards their little corner of God’s world with care and kindness. And sharing it with others too.

For two days, we mostly pet their animals. Not every minute but often. And from our second story bedroom window, we could look down onto the rams’ pasture. One morning I watched them all eat breakfast at the trough and reflected on Psalm 23 where God describes himself as a Shepherd and calls us his sheep. I thought about what Josh told me about shepherding and this re-write emerged.

Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd;
I have all that I need.

He lets me rest in green meadows;
he leads me beside peaceful streams.

He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths,
bringing honor to his name.

Even when I walk
through the darkest valley,[a]
I will not be afraid,
for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
protect and comfort me.

You prepare a feast for me
in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil.
My cup overflows with blessings.

Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the Lord
forever.

Good Shepherd, every morning you feed me. You’re out in the elements early, putting high quality hay in my trough so I’m not hungry. You sow grass in my field so I have a nourishing snack to munch on all day long. You care for me with reliable rhythms so I don’t feel abandoned.

You build fences around my pastures as a boundary line because without them, I would wander adrift, following the next blade of grass. I’d meander away from your protection and provision, askew from your kindness and care. I’d be vulnerable to cars and predators and other risks I can’t even comprehend. Still sometimes, I find myself in places I don’t belong. When that happens, you find me and corral me with your sheepdog, rattling me out of my aimless rambling, back to the lushest turf.

You have placed me  in a flock. I share my life with my herd, feeding from the same manger, drinking from the same bucket, rambling through the same fields. Sometimes we fight. One of us powers up and heads butt. Other times we rest contentedly together under the shade of the tree you planted in our enclosure.

There is a time for everything and my Shepherd calculates the seasons.
All winter long he leaves me to sport my “hippe-do” so I’m warmed by the insulation of a thick coat. And on the cusp of summer, he shears me down to my “pixie-do”. I don’t understand why he manhandles me onto my back. It’s not comfortable and I resist, but he shaves me anyway so I’ll stay cool in the summer heat.

The Sheepshearer, Vincent Van Gogh

New lambs are always born in the spring. Some years, I birth ewes. My shepherd provides what I need so I can give them what they need. My babies tether themselves close, grabbing incessant snacks from my swollen teats. For awhile, I am their polestar and we are inseparable. We romp the field together as I introduce them to grazing and lead them out to the borders. As they mature, they wander more, gone longer between nibbles. And when they no longer need my nourishment, they forge their own paths around the pasture, head down, eyes on the grass right in front of their noses.

You chose shepherding and you are committed to my wholistic care and my ultimate good. 
You see me. 
You know that my long, soiled coat gets itchy so you provide scratching posts as a way for me to deal with my irritation. 
You watch for signs of distress. When I am limping, you trim my hooves so I can walk comfortably again. When I am sick, you call the vet, who comes right to my field in a mobile truck loaded with tools to diagnose  and treat my infirmity. Then, you pay the tab for my care because you are so benevolent. And if you hear me bleating in the witching hour, you jump out of bed in a heartbeat to come to me. If you find a predator attacking, you declare war on my behalf.

My shepherd, he envisions potential in my raw, filthy, tangled wool. He gathers the yield of my haircut and cleans and dries and picks and cards it, knowing that someday, after it is dyed and spun, it will become exquisite yarn in every color of the rainbow. He knows that my coat repurposed, can provide warmth and protection that extends far beyond the borders of my little farm and I can unequivocally trust my shepherd to steward my contribution of wool to the big, wide world.

Shepherd, your life is so much more sophisticated than mine. You know things I don’t fully understand about what I need to live my best life. Still, you don’t humiliate me for my simplicity, nor do you expect me to be more than I am. You mininstrate me with magnanimous goodwill even though I can’t repay you.

And so I rest in the field you have sowed for me, under the shade of the tree you planted with the herd you gave me as companions. The sun shines, the breeze blows, the rain falls and the snow alights atop my winter coat season after season, and I remain here in the company and care of my Good Shepherd who chose me and delights in me because I am His and He is mine.

A Lent Reflection

It’s Lent. Those 40ish days leading toward the Christian comemoration of a busted up, brutalized Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha, iron stakes driven clear through his feet and hands right before he dies. It’s the saddest season in the church calendar, where all roads point to suffering. At least, that’s the First Act.

Driving away from my cardiologists office after a thorough assessment for heart palpitations, I’m reminded that I too, will be swallowed up by death eventually.

There’s a cemetery just around the corner, the one where my baby boy is buried. An early March meltdown a few weeks back eliminated all but the dirty snow mounds at the end of parking lots. Now that the landscaped morphed from white to green, I knew that if I pulled into the circular drive, I’d be able to find his grave and say hello to my son.

In the center of “the baby section” stands a cluster of mature arborvitaes with a large marble gravestone front and center. The monument has a metal cast 3D image of Jesus with a gaggle of children crowding in close. When Angela was a munchkin, she’d run excitedly up to the headstone calling, “There’s Jesus!” and plant a big unrestrained kiss smack on His cheek.

Today, I stood over Seth’s tiny marker, square with a heart in the center. It’s slowly getting swallowed up by the surrounding settling earth. I thought about Jesus carrying my baby in His arms close to his heart. I looked toward the cast metal Jesus just out front of the arborvitaes but sometime this winter, those trees lost a  battle with the wind. Large branches lay snapped, split on their sides. Dead. Obscured by the debris, I couldn’t see Jesus. From the vantage point of my son’s grave, there was just rubble, so I walked closer, peered over the fallen limbs and brush and there He was, just as I remembered Him, totally intact, reaching invitationally to all His children. Even me.

With a Few Good Friends

Meandering through my mental memory book, I see us both in our cute little pleated skorts and a team sweater.  Mine was blue and gold, hers, blue and white. We met on the b-ball court, each cheering for opposing junior high teams. Our chant went like this.
“My name is Erin and I’d like to get to know you!”
“My name is Dolly and I’d like to get to know you!”
The words concurred with grand gestures in formation, jumping, pointing and clapping.
That was my exclusive foray into cheerleading. Trust me, it was best that way. Her bouncing blonde ponytail, wide smile  and frenetic energy, however, continued to rev up courtside fans all through high school.

Basketball season wasn’t in the spring but that introduction was the harbinger of a blossoming friendship. Both of our feeder schools melded into the same high school, where our paths crossed again in 10th grade. In some ways we were polar opposites. She was gregarious, confident, a quick and ready response always on the tip of her tongue, and funny too. She did anything and everything—choir, band, drama, tennis, cheerleading and debate—a Jill of all trades. I, on the other hand, was little Much Afraid—limping along with my own brand of a crooked foot, afraid of my shadow, tomorrow, the chemistry test next week and mostly the big bad wolf. 

But just under the frost line a bleeding heart and a daisy don’t look that different and we discovered a kindred-spiritness from the inside out. We talked alot about mutual interests—ice cream and boys. She worked at a shop called Temptations that perpetually smelled like fresh waffle cones and we consumed copious amounts of dairy back in the day. Calcium for our growing bones. One lick after another, we’d fantasize about real and  imagined prince charmings who overwhelmed by their affection, would sweep us off our feet, mount us on their horses and with a backward glance and a wave, we’d gallop away into happily ever after. Everybody needs a friend like that to dream with and Erin was mine.

We were teeny boppers who’d just earned our wings. Sometimes, we’d cruise around in her yellow Maverick— before she didn’t notice the yield sign and it was no more. Sometimes it was feet to the pedals of her tandem bicycle sailing down the steep, winding hill on the street leading away from her beachfront home.

It was around the long wooden rectangular table that now resides in her Colorado dining room that I was first introduced to homemade ham balls on rice. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 girls, plus me, and  a set of parents, floor to ceiling windows high on a bluff overlooking the Lake. Anything served for dinner with that view tasted like a delicacy. I still pull out their recipe and prepare it for my family every Christmas as tradition and I learned to love it sitting around Erin’s family table. 

Her mom, a no-nonsense, Dutchwoman marked family singing rehearsals in permanent black ink on the calendar, often right after dinner. ”Be There!” Period. For friends like me, it became a spectator sport, watching them practice at home before taking to the road like  the Von Trapp family singers. Five daughters in 4 part vocal harmony, a mom at the piano and a proud papa in the front row seat.

To get to their private, sandy beach, we climbed down a bunch of creaky wooden steps. At the bottom, there it was. The finest fresh water great Lake of all, waves lapping against the shore. Feet crunching in the soft sand, we walked due north, my favorite direction, toward the breakwater, a weathered wooden vertical construct jettying out toward the water, perfect for sitting on and imagining our bright futures once we squeaked our way through Algebra 2. It was there that we wondered together how our itty-bitty selves would find a place to match and a person to match up with in this great, big, beautiful world. Back then, we didn’t know what we didn’t know.

We wandered our way through our twenties living and learning, sometimes excruciatingly painful lessons that we hadn’t imagined on the beach. We each found our own oasis in the desert and  started to write our adult stories, pursue our unique educational pathways and marry our partners. 

My name became Mama first. But one summer, both our bellies bulged and we birthed baby girls just a few September days apart.

We’ve never lived in the same state since those days on the breakwater but every second week of June my phone rings or dings with this message,  
“I’m coming home in a few weeks, can we get together?” 
There are 4 of us in on that gig—myself, Erin and two other beautiful souls we call friends from way back when.  Mostly, the four of us live our separate everyday lives connected by December Christmas cards and our June dinner meet-up.

Last summer, we sat around a table telling each other hard stories of transition, eroding confidence and insecurity. Even though we’re mature now, old enough to be members of AARP,  we still don’t know what we don’t know and our uncertainty takes us back to the days on the breakwater.

June morphed into December in the blink of an eye. On a whim, I texted Erin one day in lieu of sending a Christmas card. 
“Hey, want to get together this winter and do a retreat?” 
“I love it. Let’s talk after the holidays,” she replied.

January was rough with all those navy blue days. When it was almost time to flip the calendar my soul needed some sunshine, so I texted again. 
“What do you think about me coming to your house for a few days next month and we figure out solutions to the worlds problems… or maybe just try to machete a path forward with ours?”
“Let’s do it. Come!” 
And so I did. Cashed in some Southwest points and boarded a plane with nothing more than yoga pants and sweatshirts except for the last minute addition of a swimsuit for her hot tub.
We spent the next couple of days walking, talking, tubbing, laughing, crying, deep breathing, painting Ethiopian angels, listening to podcasts, practicing psychological exercises and celebrating our half birthdays with the most decadent flourless chocolate cake imaginable.

We’ve taken some significant personal, parental and professional hits these past few years. They’ve left us feeling like we’re in free fall. Like we boarded a plane to take a trip to a pre-planned terminus and found ourselves on a skydiving exploit instead. We lost control of our destination and got booted out of the plane against our will. Puking our way down in mid-air, which is a real thing, according to my son-in-law’s report, we’re wondering how in the world we’ll ever find the parachute pull cord and land safely, let alone gracefully.

We feel alone but we’re actually harnessed to a Pro and if we crash down with a splat, so is He, and that just won’t happen. He’s prepared to pull the ripcord if we can’t and together we’ll float down to where the wind carries us. And it’ll be right where we belong.

Through the rear view mirror we’ll likely reflect back on our airborne adventure with awe and wonder.
After all, we’ll have survived. 
We’ll have coped.
We’ll have learned. 
We’ll have grown.
We’ll be more than we were because we experienced this crazy encounter.
And we’ll have a story to tell.
And that story will inform other new stories we have yet to write in this epic called life.
And those stories will connect to an even bigger story of faith, family, community and humanity.

I keep writing forward the number next to my age, and with every passing year, life seems more unfixably broken than I could have perceived and more beautifully redeemed than I can comprehend. Simultaneously. I’m left with the conundrum of holy and not-so-holy indignation merged with deep gratitude and astounding wonder. Life isn’t as monochromatic as I used to think. Black and white values mixed together with pigments create more than shades of grey. Maybe maturity is marked, at least in part, by blessing the messy process by which the Master Artiste creates a Great Work using the entire color palette.

Seems like the more I learn, the less I know, but here’s one thing I’m bona fide certain about. While my life has been, oh, so ordinary, the friends who’ve travelled with me on this pilgrimage, they’ve been, oh, so extraordinary. And for the privilege of journeying together, I just feel genuinely, tremendously grateful!