A Lost Bird and The Ghost Dance of Abortion

A Lost Bird and The Ghost Dance of Abortion

She was so covered with blood that those who found her thought at first that she must have been severely injured. It had been four days since her people had been slaughtered and lay dying on the cold ground near Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. The bodies around her were stiff and emptied of blood now frozen under the snow. In a last act, a mother had found what shelter she could on a creek bank, bundled her baby as much as she could against the cold, and covered her with her dying body. For four days this baby girl had lived in the shelter of her mother’s frozen body. And that is where they found her.

Her name was never known or spoken again. It left with the breath of her people. She came to be called Zintkala Nuni, or ‘the Lost Bird’.

Yesterday, while the trees in our New England woods burned red and orange in the gray of the rain outside our windows, I learned along with my children about westward expansion. We talked about the railroad and gold in the Black Hills. We heard about men in comfortable chairs with papers spread out in front of them. And after my children left the plains and returned to their playing, I kept reading. When I was a child in school I remember seeing dates and names on a chalk board. There were thick text books with pictures of generals in the military and maps of battlefields. I’m sure there must have been a chapter on the Sioux of South Dakota. There must have been dates and names of treaties and of bills passed in the halls of congress. But when I sat at a school desk trying to memorize dates, names and places, I never experienced the ache in my chest like I did yesterday.

Later in the day, with the image of Lost Bird under her mother’s frozen body still fresh in my mind, I read about hearings before our modern congress. Once again there were testimonies and evidence being presented to our elected leaders, and once again people with good intentions were trying to discern truth amid double talk and to further what they believe is best for our nation. My mind filled with images of blood spilling in snow and on white sheets and in petri dishes.

It is always the most vulnerable, those with voices we can’t hear and languages we don’t understand, whose blood stains show up darker than the scratches of pens on white paper.

Lost Bird likely slept to the sound of the ghost dance; a circle of men and women dancing and crying out for a messiah to come and bring with him the spirits of their dead and restore to them their land. There were feet pounding, hands raised, voices crying in grief and loss and hope and desperation. She heard her people’s cries; longings for peace, for grief removed by resurrection, and for a land of the truly free. It pounded like a heartbeat as she slept.

Others heard the beat as well; a sound of death and fear.

And men sat in the halls of congress and signed papers. They weighed arguments and discussed what amount of human suffering was worth it for the good of the masses. While in another world, the ghost dance pounded with hope like a heartbeat.

I read the testimony of babies and science and women’s rights and money and freedom. There were pictures of intelligent faces and washed and manicured hands but all around I could see the red blood staining babies under the wounded bodies of their mothers and the white blanket of deceit and frozen conscience.

We haven’t changed. Mothers and babies have not changed. Men have not changed. But when as a society we tote things like #shoutyourabortion, I believe there is something that has died in places deeper than our wombs. In this world there are stories that make nothing easy and simple. The waters we wade as a society are deep and filled with many stumbling stones of fear and safety-seeking power. It’s so easy to paint a Native American or a soldier or an abortionist or a prolife activist as a monster. We’re so good at wiping war paint on our enemies and not seeing the people underneath.

But I truly believe that there is something broken in all of this. We have fought for our rights as women, and in the process we have let something more essential become a casualty of that war. We’ve despised a tenderness that calls us to sacrifice. Being a mother calls us away from our right to our body, to our time, to our personal growth plans, to our schedule, to our autonomy, to how we look to others. It weakens us in those ways; it makes our decisions no longer based on our wants or appearance or comfort or even what seems best for us.

But as we’ve fought for our rights and despised the weakness of motherhood, we have lost the strength of it as well. When a woman can stand over a petri dish that holds a child strewn in pieces, and that woman can laugh and say, ‘it’s another boy’, something is deeply broken. That is a loss of something strong and beautiful.

Strength, in both women and men, is what rises when we see vulnerable life and we would give our own lives to protect it. Strength is the mother who places her body as a shield between her baby and flying musket balls. Strength is in the finger nails of a dying mother as she scrapes in dirt on the side of a hill to shelter a child as the blood spills from her body. Strength is in choosing life when it means our own life is changed forever.

There is a lie we’ve embraced as a country and told to our young women. Instead of a baby, we see something we don’t need to love or protect called fetal tissue. We’ve looked once again at a people, and said they are not a people. They are less than those of us who can talk together about their fate and sign papers making something tragic legal.

And in doing so, we’ve created and become so many Lost Birds. There are children whose faces we will not see, and whose names will never be spoken. There are men and women who have moved past the decisions they made, gone on to have good and happy lives, and yet never feel completely whole. The death of the life in them was its own ghost dance; the promise of hope and the erasing of past injustices or mistakes. But for many, the ghost dance hasn’t ended with an abortion. There’s a grief, and a steady background beat of loss, that continues.

Near Wounded Knee Creek, before the massacre, the ghost dance pounded out the hope of life resurrected. It promised that someday the world would be made new and that peace and safety would come to a people who had been broken and essentially enslaved. There would be a reunion with those their hearts were aching over in loss. The enemy would be destroyed.

I’m crying out with a similar song. My hope is in a Messiah who let Himself become weak to save us with sacrificial strength. Rather than clinging to the right of autonomy over His own body, He gave it to us as broken bread. He died so that we could live. He looked at a people who were not a people, and covered them with His blood to make them a people. He calls for us to come and to be forgiven; to be held by Him. As we draw close there is no pain, or sin, or brokenness that makes Him despise us. We live sheltered by the warmth of His crucified and risen body. My hope is in a resurrection that has already taken place that ensures resurrection to come.

And yet, this world still suffers. We’re still waiting and pounding out a song of grief and wailing as we witness the suffering of the weak and the death around us, whether from abortion or war or sickness or injustice. So, what do we do as we wait for the last enemy, death itself, to die? We speak for those who cannot speak, and cry with those who mourn. We hold out plainly the truth as we see it and love those with whom we disagree. We embrace weakness when it’s what is required to love strongly. And we pray. We let our hearts feel the tenderness that sin would try to harden, we let our eyes burn with empathy for those who suffer, and we lift our voices to the only One who can speak light into darkness. We ask Him to replace our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, and to make them beat to the rhythm of His own; a steady pounding that resounds with the sure hope of a day when He brings all Lost Birds home.

Home At Last

Home At Last

“I could not look upon the peaks of Ascutney, Killington, Mansfield, and Equinox, without being moved in a way that no other scene could move me. It was here that I first saw the light of day; here I received my bride, here my dead lie pillowed on the loving breast of our eternal hills.”

-Calvin Coolidge, (on visiting his home state of Vermont)

In Maine, just as the blueberries were nearing their peak, I stood with my family on top of Haystack Mountain. I’ve always had trouble when people ask me where I’m from in Maine, in narrowing it down to a town. What I’d like to say is that I’m from the view off of Haystack.

That July night, after dinner but before dusk, I stood with my mother and we pointed out the places. Off to the east, in Searsmont, it was easy to pick out the patch of earth that was my father’s land. Forty six acres in the back section had burned in a forest fire this spring; you could see a gray rectangle of trees that had been charred and blackened and wouldn’t be bearing green leaves again. Closer to us would be the vegetable gardens, with cucumbers, beans and maybe my father bent over some weeds.

I moved my gaze slightly northward and could see the gap in the trees where the road stretches away to Belfast on the coast. Somewhere there, out of site, rests Islesboro in deep salt water and in the far distance, its steady gaze over both the ocean and the inlands, stood Blue Hill looking back at us.

Bringing my eyes closer again, I could see the Kingdom, where Cram Pond stands quiet and still but remembers when the mills and houses and school stood along the river and filled its shores with people. Stories still echo over the water like the eeriness of loon calls. It’s where my grandmother was born, one of seven children, and where my great-grandmother ran and wept by the waterfalls when she lost her husband. The powerful rush of water still tumbles down, all these years after her tears joined them in their course.

Past the Kingdom runs the road to Morrill. I could see it tucked into the hills in the north, hiding my sister’s houses, my grandfather’s and the church where my husband and I were married. It’s there that my sisters and I used to ride our horses across the side of Frye Mountain, passing one grandmother’s house on Rowe Hill and coming out hours later just below the other’s on Morey Hill. Frye Mountain, like Cram Pond, is a place where stories lie thick. Thirty-seven cellar holes are left up there, with apple trees growing beside in a wilderness. There used to be beautiful old farmhouses, with water running from springs in the side of the mountain into kitchens, and with big barns housing horses, cows and sheep. Once I stood with my grandfather as we looked from his house to Frye Mountain; he told me that he could still remember when there was barely a tree over there on the side of that hill. Looking at the trees covering it completely like a thick, tucked-in blanket, I almost didn’t believe him, though the miles of stone walls where pastures once were tell the same story.

Past Frye Mountain to the northwest is Hogback Mountain. They say that many years ago, two of my great great grandfathers were friends and could bellow back and forth from where they each lived on the side of the hills, having conversations across the miles. There are still stories echoing. They echoed all over, from every direction, as I stood and looked out at the view from Haystack Mountain.

Following Hogback, and coming closer West again, my mother pointed out the place where her own house sits in Montville. We moved there when I turned ten. That same year one sister went off to college, one sister left to get married, and my mother got remarried herself.  She and my stepfather bought the Montville house together, and moved my little sister and me to a new town with a new school district. It seemed at the time like I had been torn from my roots; all that was familiar and loved had been left behind. Now, it blends easily into the landscape of home as seen from Haystack Mountain. Even the house itself sits in a place that echoes family history. When my grandmother was a girl, her mother a widow, they left the Kingdom and moved right to the spot where my mother and stepfather dragged me so unwillingly. When my grandmother came to visit us that first year, she told stories of when she lived just down the hill and used to walk to attend school in what is now the house across the street from my mother’s.  She said something like, “I’ve been right here in this room before. The lady who used to live here was a seamstress and she was doing some sewing for a little girl. She saw me going to school and thought I was about the same size as that little girl. She asked me to come in so she could size a dress.” And in that spot where I felt so far from home, my grandmother said, “I’ve been right here before.”

Leaving Maine, and the view from Haystack, was difficult this time. Sort of like when I was ten, and didn’t want to leave Morrill, my heart kept crying out, ‘but that is home’.  And I shed some tears, and I had some attitude about living away, and I finally decided that I didn’t have to be on top of Haystack to look back toward home. I started looking for the stories. I decided to research and write about those places, and was drawn especially to the forgotten and echoey places like Frye Mountain and the Kingdom that are so rich with history.

And, I’m finding the stories. I’m finding that so many people have been right here before.

There are old family papers my grandfather collected in two briefcases with finicky latches, photos and newspaper clippings, letters and genealogies spreading over pages like branches or roots. A library archive of interviews about Frye Mountain were waiting like treasures in a mine; I’ve been pouring over transcripts that hold voices of a generation that is fast disappearing, telling stories of generations that they are the only ones who remember. There are maps marked with family names and old names on roads and corners and gravesites. Names copied from family Bibles, names from lists of men going off to war, names with just dates of birth and marriage and death. Names that are all we have left of each life full of stories. Names that tell us that so many people have been right here before.

Spending time with these names, and the stories that I have in pieces from times past, is helping me with my homesickness; maybe even by taking it to a deeper level that is truer. It’s reminding me that, despite how firm a stake in life we feel like we have as we work and entertain ourselves, we will only hold our place here for so long; day passes day and it wasn’t so long ago that others stood on these hills surveying the landscape. It isn’t so long before our turn will be past and others will take our place. And perhaps in a surpassing way, when we reach heights where we can see beauty and expanse, our hearts are moved by longing. There’s an echo in the air of a deeper, greater story. In a way, no matter where on earth we tread, as we strain our ears for the rest of the story, there’s a pang of homesickness in our souls. It’s okay to not be totally satisfied. There’s appropriateness in not feeling a sense of complete belonging. There’s a call in the air but it hasn’t been answered. It isn’t the time yet that we can finally say, with those who have gone on ahead of us, that we are truly ‘home at last!’

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…”

CS Lewis, from ‘The Last Battle’

What I Need to Say Before ‘Thank You’

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Thanksgiving. I know it’s really important. Not the turkey or cranberry sauce and eating pie all afternoon… not even the Pilgrims and Squanto.  It’s the act of remembering, appreciating and being grateful. Being grateful to Him. It matters; it’s important and it’s good.

But I can’t just turn on thankfulness like a faucet. That deep appreciation and thanks isn’t pouring out of me right now.  And, he’s not an account in the sky where we need to deposit our yearly dose of thanksgiving before we carve the turkey and pass the mashed potatoes. He’s not the universe or ‘The Unknown God’ of the Athenians in the book of Acts. He’s Someone. He says, ‘I Am.’ He tells us about himself because he wants to be known… and he already knows each of us intimately. So, before I give thanks, I need to give honesty. I need to come to him with the questions weighing on my heart and making the thanks feel inauthentic. He’s real and I need to be real as well.

So, God, before I come to you with my thanks, I’m going to be honest and come to you with my sorrow.

Pressing down on me as I roll out pie crust is a weight of sadness for a woman I don’t even know well; we only spoke a few times. But her loss is so significant that just hearing about it has crushed part of me. Less than a year ago, we sat together after Sunday school and talked about her oldest daughter, just nearing school age. She wasn’t sure what she should do this year. We talked about the pros and cons of home, public, or Christian schools. And God, the whole time we were talking, you knew. You knew that a couple of months into her kindergarten year, that sweet five and a half year old girl would come home with a sniffle and be gone a week later. And it doesn’t make sense. It’s hard to get a thank you past the big, heavy ‘why?’. This doesn’t feel right. I don’t understand you in this.

But I keep going today with preparations for Thanksgiving. As I peel apples and make rolls, I’m thinking of another friend. We have her big, goofy dog in the front yard as a reminder that she’s not in a position to take care of him and that the future is unknown. It weighs on me every day; this feeling that things aren’t the way they are supposed to be. I bury my face in the thick fur of her sweet dog, with his tail that wags even when we’re pulling out porcupine quills, and I wish the world was just as sweet and gentle. And I need to tell you, Lord, that it just doesn’t feel right.

There are things that are so broken. I need to check in with my sister and find out if a little girl is at her house for Thanksgiving. This little two year old spent the first year of her life in my sister’s home and now comes back for visits. I am thankful that they have that time together, but, God, it still hurts. I know when my sister hugs that little one, they both remember their hearts have been broken a million times and will probably break a million more. The hardness of the foster care system and most of all the hardness of this world breaks people. It seems like you could do something. Like you should have done something already. It doesn’t make sense, Lord.

And God, I’m sorrowful because I’m so lonely this year. This is the first Thanksgiving I’ve experienced without a grandmother somewhere in this world. I want to hear Grammie B ask me what I’m thankful for and hear her say, like she always did, that she was thankful for her salvation and for all of us. I want to know Grammy J is in her kitchen today, sifting flour, baking up a storm of pies and mincemeat bars and getting Grampy to peel the apples. But they aren’t here. I know my grandfather’s heart is breaking today as well and I could just cry and cry. I know I need to thank you, but I want to tell you that I don’t like how this works. Death and leaving and being apart. It seems so wrong and I wish it wasn’t this way.

I also need to tell you about the guilt I feel when I even think of thanking you. I have a five and a half year old daughter as well. She’s so excited about learning how to make pumpkin pie this afternoon. She’s happy and chatty and she’s alive. I am so, so thankful… thankful it wasn’t my daughter you chose to take away. And, tomorrow, my family is going to be home together. Our own puppy will be looking for crumbs on our dining room floor and my husband, who makes me feel safe and understood, will be there with us. My baby will climb on my lap to put his fingers in the whipped cream on my pie and take it for granted that I’m his momma and I will never leave. I have so many reasons to be thankful. You have blessed me in every way. And the contrast between my thanks and others’ sorrows makes me feel those pangs of guilt. I know life isn’t ‘fair’. I don’t understand your ways, Lord.

And, God, I need to come to you with yet another emotion. It’s fear. As I think of all the good things you’ve blessed me with, like a home and family, bountiful food and healthy children, I’m reminded of how fragile these blessings are. They could be gone in a breath, a moment, with a missed stop sign or with a spark from the woodstove. Nothing here is secure. As soon as I start thanking you for these things I hold so carefully, I am reminded that you might take them away. I’m afraid because I love them so much. And, the reality is that when I look around at the hard things in life, I don’t completely trust you. Your ways just don’t make sense to me.

So that is the reality, Father. I have sorrow, guilt and fear. But you knew that. You are acquainted with all that’s inside and even before I say the words, you know them already. You know and you want me to come to you with them. Thank you for caring. Thank you for wanting to hear them just as much as you do my words of appreciation. Thank you for caring about me… right where I am. For real.

And this is when the real giving of thanks begins. We’re real together. Jesus is the ‘image of the invisible God’. We know you because you revealed yourself and your character to us in a way we could understand… as a human. And you were fully human… You wept. You were tired. You asked to be spared suffering if at all possible. And, you trusted, somehow in the mystery of the Trinity, that the character you have shared for all eternity, the Father’s love and justice, was enough to make the suffering, the weariness, the tears all worth it in the end.

You tell me it will all be made right. It is going to be okay.

For now, you are weeping with those who weep.

The reality of that is big enough for my sorrow, my guilt and my fears.

Thank you, Lord.

Yesterday, my baby came up to me and lifted up his arms. I reached down and picked him up and held him close. He wrapped his pudgy little arms around my neck and we rested for a minute, heart to heart. I was filled to the brim with love for the little guy, and with sudden wonder, I realized that he was feeling the same thing. He was in my arms, snuggled in and feeling love for me, too. We just held on for a moment, and thanks filled every fiber of my being.

That’s how I want to be with God this Thanksgiving. It’s good to count our blessings. It’s good to remember we have been given so much.

But, ultimately, the Giver wants to give us Himself.

I am so thankful that God isn’t just a power, but that he’s real and responsive and feeling. It means that I can come to him, lift up the reality of my heart and let myself be held for a while. I can rest in his arms and be thankful. Thankful not just to him or for him… but I can be thankful with him.

For I am sure that neither death nor life,

nor angels nor rulers,

nor things present nor things to come,

nor powers, nor height nor depth,

nor anything else in all creation,

will be able to separate us

from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38-39

The Cow Lady’s Gift

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Yesterday I shelled our dry beans. I cracked the brown, crinkling pods and dropped the large, purple speckled dry beans into a basin. As I did one after another, my thoughts turned to the cow lady.

We told her we were in the process of moving but that she could keep her two Jersey calves in our barn temporarily. Only the black and white Belted Galloways were left in our pasture and they would be leaving soon. The sheep, and horse and our own little family of Jersey cows had all been sold. We’d already signed papers and knew we were leaving the farm ourselves. It was an aching time of packing and waiting and living in an ending.

Our own two Jersey cows were named Daisy and Buttercup. They were half sisters and the farmer was willing to give us a good deal if we took them both during a January cold spell. We brought them home and fussed and worried and I sewed them fleecy jackets. When that week the temperature hit nearly twenty below, my husband talked about sleeping in the barn with a space heater. Bottles three times a day had us out in the cold. We trudged out through the sharp dawn, later, the sun high and reflecting on crusty snow and still again in the evening to notice each gradual change in the moon’s shape. I remember cabin fever didn’t hit that year like it usually did in February.

Daisy was mine because she was sweet and Buttercup was my daughter’s because she was frisky. Spring brought halter training and romps through the pastures. It must have been the bottles of milk when they were young that helped, but while the beef cows were usually pretty content to keep to themselves, the Jerseys would follow in our tracks as we did chores. To my daughter, Buttercup was a confidant and playmate. For a few precious years the fawn colored girls were part of our family and our future plans.

This was a golden age of our brief stint as farmers and then things changed suddenly. A day came when someone drove in the barnyard and loaded Daisy, Buttercup and their calves onto a trailer. They looked through the bars and money exchanged hands and somehow they weren’t ours any longer. Even though a little girl cried herself to sleep night after night, they were gone.

It was a few months after that when a neighbor called saying that a friend was coming to town and needed a place to keep two Jersey calves. Two little heifers just under a year old. I wanted to say no, and yet, we didn’t have a good reason. It wouldn’t be easy to find a place to board them in our little town and we had the space. So, in a few days, two calves showed up in Daisy and Buttercup’s pole barn again.

I really don’t remember the lady’s name. The kids all called her the cow lady and that’s how I remember her. She’d come twice a day to do chores and sometimes my daughter would join her and walk the calves with her up and down the road. It was bittersweet to see a sight so familiar and yet know that this was a chapter of our lives that had ended. We were just experiencing a long, drawn out goodbye while we waited for everything to be settled and to leave the farm for good.

It was the cow lady that gave my daughter the bean seeds. In February, for her tenth birthday, the cow lady gave her a little box and inside were five large seeds and a note with planting instructions.

By Spring, the cow lady had moved on and so had we. We turned the soil in our little garden patch in the woods and my daughter found a stout pole and planted her seeds around it. Unfortunately, the chickens (who besides the dog were the only animals that made the move from the farm), managed to break into the garden and scratch in the soil until only two bean seeds remained. These two weren’t even left by the pole but managed to grow along the garden fence where they had been flung by the chickens.

By August, the vines had wrapped themselves high and the plants were in blossom. They were a deep orange-red against the green in the garden and bees and hummingbirds were drawn steadily to their blossoms. In the fall, the long pods had browned and dried and my daughter excitedly picked and shelled them and found that she had a jar full of beans identical to the ones she had planted in the spring. From those two, misplaced, dropped in the earth, purple seeds a bounty of a harvest had grown. Each new season, we find at harvest time that they have multiplied again and this year we had a row planted all along one side of the garden, growing tall and winding around the fence and sunflowers.

So, yesterday I stood shelling bean after bean.

We’ll use some for soup but I’ll be sure to set some aside for planting in the Spring. These beans, falling out of the dried and brown pods, are just resting. What seems dead and dry and lifeless, is holding all the potential for tall green vines and the brightest flowers in the garden.

While I stood shelling those beans, I had other thoughts. With my hands busy my mind could wander to situations that needed sorting and loved ones that needed prayer. I turned over the words of a friend dealing with heartbreak and brokenness.  I thought of so many who are dealing with painful, dark days. Days of prayers that don’t get answered in ways that make sense to our hearts and minds. Days when the first thoughts of the day are painful and it’s hard to get to sleep at night.

But as these thoughts and names passed through my mind, my hands held the cow lady’s gift; the gift of remembering grief and death and leaving and the gift of seeing hope and new life and revealed purpose. The gift of seeing with renewed thankfulness the joy of today and the blessing and goodness that came from hard changes. The gift of my daughter’s happiness. The gift of remembering seasons and that spring always follows winter and that what is sown in the ground doesn’t stay there.

After I cast the last of the brown pods into the compost, I took the basin of seeds in my arms and carried it into the house. Before I reached for a jar, I counted out five, large, purple speckled seeds. With a prayer, I placed them in an envelope for a friend.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Camp

I took the key down from the nail where it’s hung for decades and opened the door just as I’ve done a hundred other times.  As I took a step inside, my chest felt heavy and I fought back tears, not because it was different, but because it was so much the same. The yard sale finds on the shelf beside the novels, the rugs on the floor, the pillows on the couch, even the silly talking ant from ‘A Bug’s Life’ that the kids love; they were all there. It’s as if they didn’t know things had changed.

I used to find the ‘sameness’ of camp every year comforting. Even when I was a little girl I recognized it. When I was ten years old a dozen things changed in my life.  My two oldest sisters moved out, one to go to college and the other to get married. My mother also remarried and bought a house with my new stepfather meaning a change of neighbors and schools. Even my dog had to be put down. I felt like I had been shaken out of everything that had seemed steady. I remember walking through the same door to camp that long-ago summer, sitting down on the couch and noticing some plates hanging on the wall. They had pictures of a fish and a bear and a deer and I thought about how I had seen them my whole life and with a sigh of relief, I realized that camp doesn’t change.

Before we made the trip last week, one of my younger sisters cleaned and vacuumed. She filled the bowls on the counter with candy and treats so they were just the way they always had been. When I set the key down beside the bowl filled with ‘Devil Dogs’ and Hershey’s minis, the tears broke through.

It’s strange to me how food and grief go together.

The kids all came running in with their sleeping bags and backpacks and chattering voices and stopped short when they saw me. The three year old turned back and I heard her say to my husband, “Mommy’s sad! Mommy’s sad!”

So, I breathed deeply and dried my tears. I reminded them that this was the camp that belonged to my Grammy and they understood and the chattering started again and I got busy helping with all the negotiations of who sleeps where.

I’m thankful for how children and life go together.

The first night at camp was hard.  Jon slept in the middle of the sea of wiggly sleeping bags and told stories into the night so that the baby and I could sleep more peacefully in Grammy and Grampy’s room. I didn’t pull back the covers of the bed that Grammy might have been the last one to make, but slept on top with my head on one of her pillows. I saw some sheets and a decoration left on her bureau like she had been working on something and moved on before she finished.  Her camp shoes sat behind a chair next to the wall, the soles worn smooth. Her hairbrush sat in a basket.  I thought of Grampy, who says that nighttime is always the hardest, and heaviness pressed in around my heart as I closed my eyes and slept.

Many mornings I wake up with something like a theme song for the day in my head. Sometimes it feels like inspiration, sometimes it feels like a little joke from my subconscious. When the baby was teething a couple of months ago, and I hadn’t had adequate sleep for days, and the children had been bickering more than usual, I woke up with ‘a little ditty about Jack and Diane.’ My first conscious thought of the day was, “Oh yeah, you know life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone…” But, thankfully, that first morning at camp, I found myself singing the line of a different song as I woke.

Jesus has overcome

The grave has been overwhelmed

The victory is won…

 Until I got home tonight and searched for it online, I couldn’t remember the rest of the song. (It’s Chris Tomlin, ‘I Will Rise’.) But, those few lines were what I needed that moment. It was the reminder that death isn’t the end. I know there is something beyond the grave because I know Some One that has passed through it. The victory is won.

Last summer some work was done on the camp’s foundation. Grammy isn’t here to help with the landscaping but Grampy said he’s trying to do things the way she’d like them. He planted some perennials and showed me where he had started some flowers from seed. One of the neighbors at camp had included a package of forget-me-not seeds in a sympathy card and Grampy planted them this spring. They are starting to grow, just little seedlings when I saw them yesterday, but those forget-me-nots are making their way up from the soil next to the bleeding heart plants.

Flowers and grief and life seem to all go together.

I cut a little stem off of Grammy’s rose bush in front of camp before we left today. I’ve never tried growing a rose from a cutting but I’m going to attempt it. It sat sticking out of a water bottle in the console on the long drive home. Like a little birthday gift from Grammy.

When I was growing up, I was happy to have a summer birthday because it meant that I got to celebrate it at camp. When I was a little girl some relatives would gather and there would be presents and singing and Grammy’s marble cake. Even when I was a teenager I would invite friends to celebrate with me at camp and we’d play music and swim in the lake and still Grammy would send over a marble cake. This year, I woke up at camp on my birthday, and I knew that there would be no marble cake. This year, even if the camp is the same and sits steady on its new foundation, something has changed. Something has shaken.

But there are still unshakeables.

Jesus has overcome

The grave has been overwhelmed

The victory is won…

This morning the loons were calling as I woke up. I quietly put on a swim suit and tiptoed past the still sleeping bags and made my way out of camp and down to the shore. I love mornings at the lake. Everything is still. It feels sacred to be the first one to break through the glass-like water and send the first ripples of the day into the lake. This morning I waded in slowly, remembering past birthdays and wondering about the year ahead. I stopped when the water was up to my knees and I looked out over the blue to an island and then to some tall pines standing on a hill to the east. The sun hadn’t quite reached over their topmost branches.

I thought of all the people, here and gone and young and young once, that this place has meant something to. And I thought of the One who knows us all. I prayed. I prayed for them and for me and was thankful for Him. The quiet of the water became the quiet of my soul and I whispered the words, “Into Your hands I commit my spirit,” and I dove headlong into the water.  As my face met the surface once again, the sun was just rising over the tops of the pines.

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A Beautiful Church

There’s a little Baptist church in midcoast Maine that makes me catch my breath when I walk through the doors. I’ve never been a member or even a regular attender but there is a powerful wind of memories that meets me as soon as the doors swing open.

When I was a little girl, I would come through those doors once a year wearing a pink, flowery dress and an Easter hat. I would sit close to my grandmother and she would hand me peppermints during the sermon and quarters to place in the offering. I still remember one of the sermons. The pastor enthusiastically told the story of Jesus using whips to drive the money changers out of the temple. Close to thirty years later I can still picture the pastor waving his arms and feel my shock at hearing that the same Jesus holding little lambs in my storybook Bible could use whips and turn over tables.

Yesterday, I didn’t hear much of the sermon when I visited the little church. I paced in the back with a fussy baby and noticed that some extra pamphlets from my grandmother’s funeral the day before still sat on a table. For so long there had been two strong grandmothers in that little town and for the second time in three years I had come home and to this church to gather with family in a goodbye. Beside the table where the pamphlets sat were double doors leading to the sanctuary. I remembered how my sisters covered the little windows with white paper on my wedding day so that my husband-to-be wouldn’t catch sight of me until the wedding march was played and the doors were swung open.

My baby was getting louder so I made my way to a side room where a lady I didn’t recognize was working in the nursery. After we spoke for a few minutes she asked me my maiden name and when I told her, her eyes lit up. “I went to school with your father… I used to be a substitute teacher in your kindergarten class and bring in my guitar and sing. Do you remember that? You were so shy! It’s nice to see you are talking now!” We laughed and I vaguely remembered the guitar and the songs and the shy little girl.

My three year old heard there was Play-do and snacks so we made our way to the Sunday school class in the basement.  On the stairs I met a man holding the hand of his own little boy. There was a greeting and a brief memory of being seventeen and decisions that felt so heavy and confusing. Later, as I saw his sweet wife walk by with a new baby, I smiled and thought how God is kind and forceful and we don’t really choose but He moves and He purposes and He creates.

My little one finally fell asleep so I carefully eased into the back pew.  My husband sat with my newly widowed grandfather and a row of our blonde headed children. I remembered sitting in the same spot one Sunday as a teenager and not being able to hold back tears. I didn’t even know why I cried. A sense of something too beautiful for me to own overwhelmed me and loneliness welled up as the hymns were sung. It was surreal to remember and see through time the pew, both full of my people and the girl that I used to be as she sat in the wave of loneliness.

After the service, my eight year old boy asked about the old, cast iron bell that sits in the entry. It used to hang in the old church that burned down. In that old church his great, great, great grandparents used to come and sing and pray. Tucked away at home, I have a poem my great, great grandmother wrote to their beloved pastor when he was ill. She used to pray and write and listen to the bell that my little boy stood longing to ring.

I love history and small towns and feeling like there are roots that twist from the blood in my veins into the buildings and soil and old bells.

Nearly every Sunday for the last twelve or thirteen years, my growing family has made our way to another New England church. This church is in a college town and most of us are from someplace else. When I look around at the congregation I don’t see extended family, old friends or teachers. There are no ghosts of me as a girl. There isn’t even a church building with a bell and steeple, just a high school auditorium rented for the day.

In the Old Testament, before Jesus walked as a man with fishermen and sinners, God’s people built a temple where they could worship. God’s Spirit dwelt in a special room deep in the temple called the Holy of Holies and a thick curtain hung to separate this dwelling from the people. God was too holy to approach. Only once a year the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies in order to sprinkle blood of atonement at the mercy seat.

The day Jesus died on the cross, when He said ‘It is finished’, the earth shook and this curtain of separation split down the middle. Jesus, being holy himself and the only completely sufficient sacrifice, was able to do what no amount of ritual had been able to accomplish. The Spirit drew near. Now the church heard the words, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?”  Instead of separate and impenetrable, the Holy of Holies became the Christian heart.  Instead of looking to a physical temple or a church building, we look to the people God has chosen and we see him abiding in their midst.

Some Sunday mornings I don’t want to go to church. I’ve thought it would be nice to worship alone and I would feel more near to God in the woods and the stillness and beauty of the trees. But, God hasn’t made his Holy of Holies out of wood or boards or branches or blue sky.  He’s made it out of people.

Part of me says that there’s no way this can be true. I’m a Christian and I know that I’m not holy of holy. I see other Christians and they aren’t holy of holy either. I still see God in the distance waiting for me to clean up my act. Out of the corners of my eyes I peek to see how other Christians are doing and judge us all according to the progress we’re making. The progress we’re making on the road that isn’t there.

God isn’t far away. He’s with his people.

And Jesus is passionate. The same zeal that made him fashion whips out of cords and throw tables to cleanse his Father’s house consumes him. It’s what nailed him to a cross where the blood flows and gives us something better than roots. He gives us grace and breaks the curtain.

He loves us. He’s passionate about us. When we get that, it changes us. Suddenly we are the holy of holies. His Spirit abides and overturns our old nature so that we love him and we can love each other.

His church is beautiful and it’s not because we’re perfect or because of the white steeple or because of history in the pews or because we like each other.  It’s because we’re His, and He’s in us and we belong to one another. It’s because we’re all dressed in grace and where there is grace and His Spirit, love flows. We are tied by blood that isn’t in our veins but that washes our hearts and calls us to look to the cross. His church is beautiful because we are singing the same song and clinging to the same message.

“And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.” 1 John 4:14-16

Waiting By the Door

My husband helped a friend drag his ice shanty off the lake Sunday afternoon. It was cold for March and our friend brought his toddler to play with my kids while they worked. The little guy arrived with his backpack full of extra diapers, snacks and juice and I pulled out trucks and trains from the toy closet. I scooped him up with a smile but he looked back with arms outstretched and wanted to be with his Daddy. There was a goodbye, a closed door and tears. Eventually the distractions of toys, a houseful of kids and snacks dried the tears but every now and then he’d shuffle over to the door, point and say, “Daddy?”

As I pacified the little boy with some goldfish crackers, I looked in his teary eyes and I knew how he felt. He wanted his people and we weren’t them. He was waiting for the one he loved to open the door.

I’ve been feeling homesick myself. I’ve had this vague feeling of separation anxiety. Last week I drove on familiar roads leading to familiar places and a sense of belonging stirred. This was where ‘my people’ lived and had lived for generations. This is where my memories lived and the hills and back roads and houses are brimming with them. Strangely though, one of those memories is that even when I lived there, there was a feeling, even on those familiar roads, that I didn’t fully belong. I was homesick in the only home I ever knew.

My grandfather married my grandmother just a few months short of seventy years ago; just days after they said their vows, he left to fight in the war on the other side of the world. Their daughter was born while he was away and he came home to a little girl almost a year old.

That baby, my aunt, died of cancer several years ago. My grandmother died on Saturday.

I had always heard that my grandmother wasn’t interested in Christianity. My grandfather would have gone to church but she didn’t want any part of it. I stood in her kitchen on Friday and my grandfather told me through his tears that things had changed this past year.  Grammy had prayed a prayer of faith and belief. Her heart softened and she found hope and grace in the message of the gospel.

When doubts enter in, I find that I have a default religion. In our own way, on our own paths, we’re all headed home and will end up in a better place. It’s what we hear over and over when someone dies. This is a familiar road my heart travels. It says that a decision my grandmother made doesn’t make any difference. The love and beauty of my grandmother’s life is enough and she will either rest peacefully or if there is a heaven the doors will be flung open. It says there is no need for what Jesus did on the cross. In some ways this seems bigger, more universal, more satisfying on the surface than my Christian faith. Strangely though, it leaves an emptiness. It doesn’t ring true or complete.

In the kitchen, with my grandmother a room away and the life fading from her body, the cross made all the difference in the world to my grandfather and me. It didn’t just put a mask on the ugliness of death; it faced it head on and said that it wouldn’t have the victory. It opened up the floodgates of hope and it meant that when my grandfather finishes his commission here, she will be waiting once again with my aunt for him in Heaven.

But still there’s a nagging thought in my grief this week. A familiar thought. What if I didn’t have the assurance my grandfather gave me that day in the kitchen? Can I live with a religion that says there is such a thing as Hell? Do I really believe such a place could exist and that someone from this world could end up there?

One day a spider made his way into our house on a log destined for our woodstove. Just as I was putting the log in the fire I saw him start to scurry from his hiding place. As I saw him there, looking for a way of escape, I was overcome with a sense of guilt and of my power. If I tried really hard I might have been able to save him. I didn’t try. I left him to the smoke and the flames and the heat and as I closed the door, I felt wicked. The spider had done nothing deserving of being burnt up. I had made a calloused decision to let him die. I had sent him to his own Hell. It wasn’t fair.

I left, or tried to leave, Christianity once for this reason. I could not reconcile a God of love with the idea of Hell. I decided my empty, default religion was preferable. I believe in love, in gentleness, in beauty. That’s where I want to live. That’s the religion I want to cling to.

So, then, what do I do with what isn’t love and gentleness and beauty? This world is not the Utopia my default religion would like to create apart from God. There is evil. If I existed in a world where there is only love and kindness and children never got sick or were abused or starved, and someone told me about this world, I would say there is no way a loving God could let something like this be. This world with its pain and hate and awfulness could never exist. But it does. And if I’m honest, I know that the evil I see in the world exists in my very own heart. I’m not as innocent as the spider that I left in the fire.

I found myself praying even after I told myself I had given up Jesus. The truth is that I need him more than I need to have answers to all my questions. Who God is draws me back even when I don’t understand His ways. One day as I struggled in prayer, verses about thanking God came into my mind. There was one thing I had never thought to thank God for and that was Hell. What could there possibly be to thank him for about that? But, maybe out of obedience, maybe as an experiment, I said the words, “God, thank you for Hell.” And, then, I found I could keep talking. “Thank you that you overcome evil. Thank you that the things I hate about Hell… like pain and death, hate and suffering… you want to destroy.” God is not neutral or calloused about pain and suffering. He is not going to let evil continue.

There is so much I don’t understand. But I know He is good. I know that what has been revealed about His character means that He is trustworthy.

I’ve been looking at a lot of photographs of my grandmother. In just a few moments I can flip through photos of her as a child, a young wife and mother, a grandmother. I knew her for my thirty five years as her grand-daughter. There is so much of her life that I didn’t experience. Even during the years I was part of her life, there were parts of her that weren’t mine to know. We each knew her differently. Only One person knew her from the time she was forming in in my great-grandmothers belly until the time she lay on the bed in a stream of light from her window breathing her last days’ worth of breath. He knows her now. He knows her completely.

Today, my grandmother is the same woman in all the old photographs, but because her heart clung to Jesus at the end of this life, she is new as well. Grace changes us. Jesus said that when we finally see him we’ll be like him because we’ll see him as he really is. We’ll see reality apart from the evil that is in this world and in our own hearts. My grandmother is more like herself than she’s ever been before.

I can’t wait to see her again in the beauty she wears in Heaven.

And, until I make my way there myself, there will probably always be something in me that feels like the little boy at my house waiting for his daddy. There’s a little insecurity, a little doubt. There are a lot of questions that aren’t answered. But on Sunday, when the door finally opened, the little boy squealed and bounced for joy and was in his daddy’s arms and the reunion was complete. He was in the place he belonged with the one who loved him.

Someday the door will swing open for each of us. What we believe about the one who is on the other side means the difference between running and hiding as from a stranger or seeing him as our loving father and running into his arms. Faith can seem too simple, too narrow. But Jesus said that to enter the kingdom of God, we need faith like a little child. Faith is what knows and trusts the sound of our Father’s steps and waits with outstretched arms.