A Lesson In Compassion–Part One

26 01 2015

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First of all, I have to admit I can be pretty self-centered. Though I could blame my background for that shortcoming, (another story for another day) it is ultimately a problem I could control if I worked at it with more intensity. Maybe this post should have been titled ‘It’s All About Me’. Because it is.

Let me explain. I have a big yard with several flowerbeds which require constant maintaining. Just a few blocks away is Blandford Nature Center. It has a huge deer population, many of which love my yard. I swear after dark there’s a flashing sign in deerinese that says ‘y’all come and graze here’. So they do. A lot.

I’ve seen them meander across my yard during the day as well. You’d think they owned the place. Many flowers, bushes and trees have seen their demise because of these creatures. The purportedly ‘deer proof’ plants have been devoured with relish. Four hundred plus tulip bulbs were an appetizer. Gone. Thirty rose bushes served as dessert. (Why aren’t they blooming? Oh, silly me, the deer ate the buds.) The rest (or most of it) has been the main course.

Am I frustrated? You bet.

I’ve tried many remedies. Liquid Fence for the low, low price of $40 plus per container (I need at least two of those a year) and other more creative options have all failed. Can I say it without being judged? I hate the deer. Absolutely hate them. The hunters can just have at it as far as I’m concerned. (Wait, don’t send hate mail just yet! Please read on first.) Used to think the fawns were adorable and the adults were beautiful. Not anymore. They have cost me hundreds in replacement foliage, plus all the gallons of Liquid Fence. Did I mention the smell of the aforementioned spray? Well.

So yesterday I caught a glimpse of some type of large animal outside my bedroom window. When I looked more closely, I saw a full-grown deer leaning up against the house. Grabbing my iPhone, I snapped a couple of pictures as the deer stared at me not moving. It didn’t seem at all afraid as I shot the photos. The deer’s eyes were calm as it studied me and I saw no fear, only that steady gaze meeting mine. I could have touched it had there not been a window between us.

Then I saw something else. The deer was standing on three legs, the fourth held high off the ground. It was too close to the brick to see why it stood like that, so I waited. Several minutes later when it hobbled away from the house I was able to identify the problem. It had been permanently crippled, the back left leg somehow mangled. The deer stopped a few times, looked back at me, then limped on slowly working its way to the back of the yard.IMG_1058

I can’t get the image out of my head. I will never see the deer in that hateful way again. That creature will die this winter, of that I’m sure. Its ribs were prominent, the speed with which it was able to move was minimal, and it certainly had no allies. Here’s what that deer did for me: it made me see it as real. A living, breathing, beautiful yet damaged creature created by God. What an awful fate it will face. My heart broke for that deer looking for shelter and food.  A hard thing for this crippled one. And it made me think.

Although many of our handicaps aren’t visible, aren’t you and I damaged too? That part in the first paragraph of this post about it being all about me, that’s a handicap. My vision of the world around me is limited to how it affects me. Poor me. Pretty sad that I’m so absorbed in myself that I can’t see the pain of the world around me. Gotta work on that. When others get accolades about their accomplishments or have something good happen to them, it’s so human to think but what about me? I deserve that. I work hard. Why not me? Gotta work on that, too.

Can I become a better person? Absolutely. That deer taught me to appreciate what I have instead of envying what others have. My kind of crippled can be worked on, but that deer–well, its fate is pretty much sealed. Those animals need to forage in order to survive, regardless of what that does to my yard. As for me, I have hundreds of blessings to appreciate. It’s not all about me. God created me, so I know I’m not junk. He gave me much in relationships, in good health, in a  brain that serves me well, in circumstances that could be so much worse. . . He gave me enough. So if the awards or recognition don’t come, if I never make it in the publishing world, if all I do is write what is in my heart and share with those I love, leaving the rest to God, so be it. I’m working on accepting that, not as willingly as I should, but still.

By the way, I’m starting a new career–cheerleading.





Legacy

16 07 2014

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My father was born in 1915, the youngest of seven, to farm-laborer parents. He was the only child who had farming in his blood and after completing sixth grade, he became a full-time worker in the fields alongside his father.
As he grew older he knew he wanted to farm, but buying land in the Netherlands was impossible. He decided his best avenue would be to learn a trade and save up to move elsewhere, though the place he would go wasn’t yet clear.

After taking night classes and completing his required training, Dad became a barber, first as an apprentice and later owning his own shop. When he and my mother married in 1943, he began in earnest saving every penny he could, a difficult task since war had begun the year before.

The thing about Dad was, he had the most optimistic view of life of anyone I’ve met. Pair that up with sheer determination, add an adventuresome spirit and a fearless attitude, and you have Dad. So he packed up his little family of four and set off for America in 1947. And he worked hard.

Fast forward to the 1950’s and Dad owned a small, seven acre farm in Washington where he raised asparagus and tomatoes and milked a handful of cows. He moved us from farm to farm until he purchased a forty acre parcel growing concord grapes, with a contract to sell each crop to Welch’s for juice and grape jelly.

Dad became a successful man who farmed well and worked hard, but most importantly who loved his family and his God without reservation. A man of principle and faith, devotion and loyalty. A truly good man. The world was blessed to have him for 92 years.

And I miss him.





Landscapes of the Past

23 06 2014

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My brother and I named the area of trees and bushes at the back of my father’s farm The Jungle. We were kids, and the world was an exciting vista awaiting our discovery. I spent hours wandering by myself through this magical place, my imagination running wild. Pretending to be lost in the myriad of streams and trees, my heart would pound as a delicious sense of adventure kept me looking for wildflowers and tracks of mysterious creatures. We had heard of wildcats back there, though we never saw one. There were insects and baby turtles and snakes interspersed with the plants. The river was just a short distance away with its bounty of rainbow trout and salmon. That larger body of water fed these tiny streams I followed and sustained the vegetation around me.

The fields of the farm have long since gone to seed. Where the house once stood there is a charred area surrounded by weeds, though the trees shading the side of our home still stand sentinel. Two of the trees are bare, long dead but still upright. My brother and I walked the farm a few years ago as part of a trip to pay homage at the graves of our parents. It was, in our eyes, a memory tour, a visit to our childhood. So much had changed.

That trip verified that nothing stays the same. Maybe it’s our memory that’s at fault, the events of the past being shrouded in this cloak of happy times that preclude the hard things. When you revisit, truth replaces memory and changes the images that were there. Regardless, I choose to hold on to the magic I felt as a child, allowing one memory to weave into another to create an endless stream of recollection.

Four years have passed since we revisited the farm. If I close my eyes, I can envision my young self there again. The pasture where our old sway-backed horse grazed isn’t fenced now, but I can see him there, lifting his head as I walk by. He shakes his mane, pauses a moment, his liquid brown eyes gentle on me. He lets out a soft whinny and goes back to doing what horses do best, being content to nibble at the grass of the field. I wave and walk beyond his world to my own, that magical Jungle of my childhood. And I lose myself in memory.





A Gala for Death

18 04 2014

Imagine a huge party with millions worldwide attending. Laughter and joy fills the space, the celebration going on and on through day and night. There’s dancing and singing and more food than you’ve ever seen in one place, an event unlike any you’ve ever experienced. Happiness paints the floor, the walls, the ceiling, and reflects off the faces of those who are here. The very air shimmers with joie de vivre.

Outdoors, sparkling stars are dancing in the heavens, circling the moon, the sun and each other in a frenzy of wonder. Every creature on earth is leaping, crawling, flying, swimming, moving in sheer joy, no longer enemies or predator and prey. Nature has joined in with a wild, gloriously flagrant display of color and perfume.

In the midst of all the happy chaos sets a casket. It’s ugly, black, non-descript, unembellished, no flowers in tribute, no notes of sympathy around it. And you realize—this is a funeral. But whose is it? It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

Over my lifetime I’ve attended many funerals. Funerals for infants, children, young people, adults of every age. Parents, spouses, children, sisters, brothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, good friends. The causes of death vary from illness to accidents of all kinds to murder to old age. None of the funerals have been happy occasions. Sometimes the death was welcomed in the sense that the deceased suffered much in those last days, or was very old and had lost all sense of who they were due to dementia or Alzheimer’s. But the pain of loss was still felt, tears still shed by someone, and a precious soul still missed.

Funerals have one thing in common; there usually are mourners, even if it’s just a single individual. At some point in the deceased person’s life, he or she was loved by at least one person. People are devastated by the death of a loved one. They cry over their loss. Tears and pain are a tribute to the importance the loved one held in their lives. It’s honoring to them.

So my post title may not seem to make sense to you, but trust me, it does. I assure you, there will be one funeral yet to come at which there won’t be one tear shed. Everyone on earth will want to attend, to celebrate for days on end. Not one person will be sad. Instead I believe there will be a huge party of celebration and great rejoicing.

And here’s the best secret ever: it will be the LAST funeral we will ever attend. The last one.

At the very end of time, the biggest event will be the death of Death. When the day that God has preordained to be the last day finally comes, I look forward to that final funeral. What an event that will be, the funeral for Death. Never again will the awful words ‘Death’ and ‘funeral’ need to be spoken. That black-cloaked figure with the scythe who comes after every living person will himself be inside the casket, never to reap a life again. Imagine the joy of all mankind on the demise of Death!

Want to join the party? It’s easy to be included in the guest list, and your invitation is printed all through the New Testament. Just believe in, trust in, rely on God. Right after Paul and Silas are released from their chains in prison because of an earthquake, the jailer falls down in front of them and asks the question we all need to ask.

“…what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Acts 16:30-31 (NIV)

Oh, and the celebration? It goes on forever. I, for one, want to part of that.





This is the Day

17 03 2014

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I knew this day would come—it was inevitable. And our tears are there to bear witness.

One year ago today was a beautiful Sunday. Spring was bursting out all over the yard, coaxed by warm temperatures and bright sunshine. Mel and I attended our church that morning, thinking ahead to Easter Sunday coming in two weeks. We were sure a season of promise and new beginnings was finally upon us.

It didn’t turn out that way. Who would ever have thought that the unthinkable would happen on such a perfect day.

Everything’s different this year. This day, this wintery day after the longest, harshest winter in many years, is the total opposite. Snow has coated the earth for months, unrelenting cold causing furnaces to run constantly, and we are all weary of shoveling snow day after day after day. But that’s not the biggest difference.

This is the day my family and I and our close friends will never be able to erase from our memories. One year ago today, at about 3:20 in the afternoon, my husband was ushered through the gates of heaven by God’s angels. By the time we knew this, he had already spent over an hour in his eternal home, rejoicing and worshiping with all those who had gone before him.

The pain of that loss, so fresh and unfathomable then, is still fresh, still incomprehensible. We don’t understand, nor do we want it to be true. We don’t want to celebrate this day, the anniversary of his home-going, because it means we no longer have him here. The joy of knowing he is with his Father, his Lord, can’t begin to erase the hurt in our hearts, nor can it fill the hole in our lives. Our reality is that he is gone, never coming back, never here again to celebrate all the wonderful occasions through years to come. And it’s just not fair.

Sure, we have our faith. I doubt I could have made it through this year without it. But here’s the reality—he’s still gone. The comfort of knowing where he is can’t negate the fact that we no longer have him here. So what do we do with that? How do we face another year knowing Mel won’t be part of any of it?

This past weekend we spent time together, my three kids and I, talking about Mel, going through things that are precious to us all, missing him, crying over the emptiness we all feel. We held his things, looked at all the tools he used to create gifts for all of us, and realized once again that he will never touch those things again, never carve another piece of Christmas décor, never build that table out of the weathered wood, never repair that old chair he found at an antique store. Never is such a cruel word.

It hurts. Faith doesn’t lessen that. But it does help us cope. We are left behind, left to deal with the finality of his death. We are the ones who have to figure out how to do this in a new reality. How well we do it speaks to how much we trust. So we let ourselves fall into God’s arms–knowing that He is there to catch us, enfold us, comfort us, and give us the peace we so desperately need. He knows all the reasons, and in the end isn’t that really all we need to know?

You see the truth is, we will see him again. On that someday in the future, we will be reunited, not just with Mel, but with so many other dear ones we have lost, and those we will lose in years to come. That’s the thing; it’s all going to be good in the end, because as long as we believe and place our trust in God, we will see them again.

What a blessing. What peace that gives us. And maybe, just maybe, it will help us heal on this day. This, the hardest day.





Thar She Blows!

17 02 2014
Mount St. Helens

Mount St. Helens

Beauty from Ashes

My parents lived about one hundred miles east of Mount St. Helens in the state of Washington. As they were coming out of a worship service one Sunday morning in 1980, the sky was turning a strange, deep shade of gray. There was little wind, which would have signaled a sandstorm, and as the sky gradually darkened and the wall of gray advanced, the parishioners were frightened and began to speculate in hushed tones. What could it mean? Was it the end of the world?

Mom told me about the eerie silence that hung in the air as sunlight disappeared and it became dark as night. Panic stricken and not knowing what they should do, people huddled together. Mom described it as a very bizarre experience.

Later, my parents learned that Mount St. Helens, a dormant volcano, had erupted that morning. A strong earthquake registering 5.1 on the Richter Scale caused pressure to build inside the mountain. That in turn released a plume of steam, and within seconds the cloud turned black as ash shot into the sky. Rock and ice trapped in the mountain exploded, and soon hot gas, ash, chunks of ice and huge pieces of rock were catapulted upward. It was determined that the blast was 500 times greater than the 20 kiloton bomb that fell on Hiroshima.

The darkness the parishioners experienced was caused by a fine, thick blanket of ash that crawled across the state like a curtain, slowly shutting out the light. Even though the volcano was a hundred miles away, the volcanic residue changed day into night. Amazing.

A few years later, my husband and I and our three children took a road trip on one of our visits to my parents’ home. We saw the devastation the volcano had caused—millions of fir trees, many 200 year old, mowed down like so many bowling pins, and the lake below filled with pines sheared and shoved down the mountainside into the water by the force of the blast. And gray. Everything was gray. Once, this had been a lush, green range of pine trees teeming with wildlife. Trees of every size had populated the slope, making it look like a green carpet rising up to meet the sky. Beds of wildflowers, spread like quilts in the sunny patches between copses of trees, had splashed color randomly across the forest. Now, there was no life of any kind. Only ash. Gray, lifeless ash.

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Fast forward a decade. My next visit to the area revealed something amazing. Yes, there was still gray. But now there were small pine trees pushing through the ash, some vegetation and flowers beginning to grow. The mountainside was regenerating, starting anew, covering itself with a fresh, young shade of green that indicated new life. Beauty out of ashes.

This week I ran across an old newspaper I had saved from May 19, 1980, the day after the volcano erupted. As I remembered that week, the phone conversations with my parents, and the impact the ash had on the farm area where they lived, I realized that my current situation is similar. My life has undergone an enormous change these past months since my husband’s death. The ash of sorrow has darkened my days and covered me with a deep sense of hopelessness. It seems as though it will never go away, never be bright and good again.

Still, every now and then there comes a spark of hope, a hint of joy, a ray of light. It’s a new life for me as I face the future, but who’s to say it won’t be good? The cover of ash is being replaced by a fresh crop of optimism. No, it will never be the same. My children and I are facing a future without our anchor, but we are gradually emerging from the cloud of ash and are beginning to see potential ahead. God is revealing to us a new future with new hopes and dreams. It’s been there all along, really. He knew that, knows it now, but is giving us evidence of it one day at a time, as we are able to understand, accept. All we have to do is believe and trust.

Beauty out of ashes. New life in spite of death.

It’s nothing short of a miracle.





Finding Joy

10 02 2014

The trim white houses stretch as far as I can see, clones set in a row like soldiers at attention. Each yard is manicured, each drive an exact replica of the others. Mailboxes have no numbers to distinguish one from the rest. Panic overtakes me. Where is he?

I’ve knocked on dozens of doors, but there’s no answer. I’m frantic. Not a soul is in sight—no children playing in the yard, no fathers mowing lawns or trimming hedges, not a single car to be seen on the road. Fear constricts my throat as I try to call his name, but I have no voice. The stillness is eerie. I hurry on, searching for him somewhere on this endless street, searching, searching. Where is he?

I awaken with a start, my heart pounding as my eyes dart around the room. I see the familiar tie-back curtains, the floral throw pillows on the chair. My heart begins to slow, panic recedes, and I tell myself it was just a dream. Slowly, I rise, pull on my robe. It’s Saturday morning. The coffee will be on in the kitchen, the day ours to plan.

But then reality shoves aside my normal, and I’m forced to remember. That comfortable routine is forever gone. My husband isn’t going to be there, and coffee won’t be waiting for me. My normal will never be normal again, at least not in the old way.

He died. That’s the short version of the story. Grief has taken over my days and my nights, all aspects of my life, and it has changed everything. Forever. He’s gone.

I’ve been a Christian for as long as I can remember. My parents endured a cruel war in the Netherlands before they brought our family to America in search of a better life, and their first years here were hard. We had little money, but there was an abundance of faith. I remember my father whistling hymns, my mother singing them, sometimes in Dutch and other times in English. I suppose you could say I inherited my faith. I didn’t question God in those formative years. But it didn’t feel real then the way it does now.

Much later, when life began to happen, the soul searching began in earnest. When my daughter was ten, her best friend, Shelly, died of cancer after a long, painful battle. She spent her last three months in the hospital, basically waiting to die, and it was heart-wrenching to see that brave little girl be so sick. I would scream at God with tears streaming down my face on my way to the hospital and again on the way back. I cried, I yelled, I questioned. I was so angry.

God was silent. And Shelly died. How do you reconcile that with the God who loves us?

I researched the word grief. Book after book gave me the clinical “steps of grief.” If I went through the steps, I decided, then I would be done. But you know what? I never dealt with it. Instead, I allowed my anger and frustration to stuff the grief and then I smugly walked away. All better.

As I look back now I see that God was laying groundwork for me, preparing for this day more than thirty years later. I’m learning to lean in to my grief instead of ignoring it. My husband is gone. I won’t see him again until the day I go to heaven. But God is never going to leave me. It took several months for me to learn this lesson. Initially I was angry, depressed, filled with pure black pain.

There was a glint of hope every now and then, but most of the time I was bleeding grief. Words don’t penetrate that kind of pain, but I found that music can. Slowly, as I heard the words of praise songs I had come to love, the message began to make sense. God loves me. He’s right there beside me, showing the way, holding me up when I can’t walk the path.

I don’t know the why of my husband’s death. But there’s a much bigger picture here than I can see. It’s like that giant tapestry that looks like a tangled mess from below. When you see the right side, the beauty of it is breath-taking. Someday I’ll see the finished tapestry, and I’ll understand. But in the meantime, my job is to trust.

I read somewhere the phrase, “The work of grief.” It’s an appropriate description of a hard event. Yes, grief is hard work, but it can also be something holy. Grief is my way of honoring my husband. It honors the 49 years he was part of my life, it shows evidence of his importance to me.

Make no mistake, it’s messy. It hurts. Sometimes it strangles. Nothing about it is easy. But I’m learning a new meaning to the word joy. It’s not a sense of happiness, or fun. Joy has a much deeper meaning, a gift God gives us if we accept it. Joy is that sense of peace that even on the most painful days, even in “the valley of the shadow of death,” we are not alone.

I’m working through my grief, not just for the loss of my husband, but for the loss of Shelly all those years ago. I don’t expect to get over it. True grief never leaves you. But those sharp edges that cut at you begin to wear down, and gradually the pain dulls and recedes. In its place you begin to feel peace, thankfulness. Grief becomes a companion, always there, but in a good way. And you learn to feel joy.

You see, God knew grief, too. When His son died on the cross, God’s grief was magnified beyond our comprehension. But He did it for love, and who are we to question that?

Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift.