beauty, Creator, death, Dying to Self, Faithful Living, joy, Life's Storms, Pilgrimage, Prayer, Uncategorized, vigil, wisdom

In the Sunset of Our Lives

I have been away from the blogging keyboard for the past month, dealing with the sudden decline, then death of my mother. Thanks for waiting for me.  Mom was in decline from Parkinson’s Disease for the past 5 years, the last year and a half in full-time skilled nursing. I started this blog two years ago so that I could write (in small chunks), yet still be readily available to my mom. We knew this day was approaching last July when she just could not summon the energy to be interested in anything– food, news, a new pair of PJ’s, a wiggly grandchild… not even chocolate could elicit an emotional response or sense of thankfulness.  And yet, we knew she was still “in there.”  I could make a joke and get her unforgettable “heh-heh.”  The last thing she ever said to me was, clear-as-a-bell, “Now, you take care.”  Then she went silent, took to her bed, became feverish and semi-comatose, and God, in his great mercy, called her home. In the Old Testament, biblical heroes were said to pull up their feet, breathe their last, and be gathered to their people. And so it went for my mom, my heroine, strong and true to the end.

In her last days, I held her paper-skin hand, kissed her, and told her over and over again how much I loved her, how much God loved her, how eagerly Jesus was waiting for her, and that it was OK to go. We read her Scripture and prayed. I knitted. We listened to hymns. Keeping watch is a time-honored, and somewhat lonely biblical and human action.

The Book of Common Prayer’s nighttime prayers include praying what I’ve come to call the Three W’s: prayer for those who are working all night, those who are not sleeping but weeping, and those who are watching through the night with a dying loved one.

Oh, how I embraced the knowledge that people I don’t even know were praying us through the watching…and now, the weeping! Time rolls on, our elders now all gone. My husband remarked it was a strange mix of a childlike bemusement of feeling orphaned while simultaneously taking on the mantle of “eldest” in the family.

In the evening of my life I will look to the sunset,

At a moment in my life when the night is due.

And the question I shall ask only I can answer,

Did I keep Faith – strong and true?

Did I fill the world with love my whole life through?[1]

So, it is a bitter, yet sweet time of loss, memories, and knowing that we must now make our move. Literally. We will leave our small, cozy home at Trout Creek and move to the bluff permanently next year. We will leave our church family of 25 years. My mom’s leaving is a springboard to more leaving. It’s ironically sad and liberating, both.  Three days ago,

the late afternoon at the bluff was dark, cold, impersonal. I was thinking of mom when the sun broke beneath the cloud bank and lit up the waters like a cosmic smile. Mom’s words went right through me: “Everything is all right. It is just right. Now, YOU TAKE CARE!

Because there’s so much death and life “stuff” to sift out, sort, and settle, I will take a long hiatus from this blog. This time next year, I hope to really have the personal space to get working on my book projects. I am grateful that you have read along faithfully with my little musings. Thank you for reading. And, as always, remember that standing on this side of the river, there’s a home waiting for you on the other side with God in Jesus Christ.

~J.A.P. Walton

[1] Fill the World With Love lyrics, Petula Clark, as amended by JAPW; camp song, Cheley Colorado Camps

Accomodation, Affirmation, Creation, death, Dying to Self, Faithful Living, Forest, hiking, Lessons from the Wilderness, Nature, Parasites, Pilgrimage, Religion, Sacrifice, Serving Others, Trees, Uncategorized, wisdom

The Plover and the Crocodile

Last month, we hiked through a mixed forest of beech, oak, pine, and hemlock. It is evident all through the north that these hundred+ year-old forests are stressed; the ash still standing are all dead from the ash borer, the beech are ringed with deadly fungus, and the hemlock is next, expected to succumb to the wooly adelgid in Michigan as the tiny insects migrate from the east.

When we came across this tree (pictured), I began to think about the nature of parasitism, that form of symbiosis between species in which a squatter takes advantage of a host. The deer tick is a good example; it sucks the host’s blood, and transmits Lyme disease. Obviously, there is nothing good in the relationship for the host. The photo is of a hoof fungus on a decaying tree. It is a true parasite, attaching to a vulnerable place on the tree and causing stem rot, which eventually kills the tree.

Other symbiotic relationships can be mutually beneficial, in which both host and parasite benefit one another. In Egypt, the plover and the crocodile have made peace for millennia. The crocodile opens wide, the bird flits in and eats the rotting food stuck in the croc’s teeth, and, in apparent gratitude, the croc doesn’t eat the plover. Voila!  The bird eats and the reptile gets a free dental cleaning.

I think the most interesting of these relationships is that of commensalism, in which a parasite attaches to a host for a free ride. One benefits, while the other is not harmed; think barnacles on a whale. Or a person who has asked for prayer.

This has had me thinking mostly about human relationships.  I am people-shy by nature,

in a lifelong struggle to reconcile scriptural demands to love my neighbor with the fact that I prefer solitude. Instead of open arms that welcome “the inconveniences and suffering that love requires,” [1] I tend to flee into myself, wrapped, not in apathy, but in a dread-frosted cake of isolationism.

I do not want to be needed. I do not want my energy to be sucked dry like a tick sucks blood. I do not want to be used. And, to be sure, there are people who are parasitic on one’s time, emotions, money, and good intentions. Thus, most of my freely-given time goes to things like making the coffee, offering to pray for people, serving a meal, helping people move across town, even recover from a hurricane. I can do these things without much chance of exposing my inner self to the deep, sometimes twisted, often long-term (even endless) neediness (especially emotional neediness) of others. It is as much as I can do to avoid parasites while agreeing to a time-constrained spell of commensalism.

I guess, if I am honest, I dislike sacrifice.

And that’s too bad. Here, Nature is such a good teacher. I know that, like the plover and the crocodile, the Church is full of people who both need and love God.

I know that people will come alongside me to model what it means to love without dread, to give without constraint, and to be the hands and heart of God to someone who is hurting-even when that someone, someday, is me.

We always want our relationships to be mutual, in which both parties benefit. I see this naiveté all the time when young people head out on a mission trip; it’s less about sacrificial service than they like to think.

Truth is, the foundation of faith is sacrifice. And bloody.

Freely given that we might be greedy takers of forgiveness and salvation.

But, once freed from our wayward living, the expectation is that we follow. All the way to our own death if necessary. I believe this, but I have to continually pray that God helps me in my unbelief.

~J.A.P. Walton

[1]www.desiringgod.orgaccessed July 13, 2019. John Piper. Future Grace: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God.  pp. 283-284. 2012.

Affirmation, Cancer, Cancer treatments, Creator, Darkness, death, Desert, Dying to Self, Faithful Living, God, Heaven, Lessons from the Wilderness, Life's Storms, Mary Oliver, Pilgrimage, Uncategorized

Pilgrim

Another brother has cancer.

We are not stunned like we were with Hugh. All the same, it’s another round of watching and waiting and praying it through.  It is true: our body ages and decays in this broken world. I have never stopped wondering at the marvel: that we are created body, soul, and spirit together. An amalgamation of identity and being. It isn’t an integration where one is a receptacle for the other, like lock and key, but blended, so tangled up together that they cannot be distinctly teased out.

It is a ONENESS that defies full description, almost impossible to appreciate or embrace but for a blind faith in God who is himself three yet one.

So, when our body gives way to time, disease, unlucky genes, and the random tragedies of this earthly life, we spend most of our resources on trying to eradicate the physical dis-ease with drugs and surgery, while often ignoring the impact this all has on our whole self.

It’s easy to forget that the wilderness, which we seek out for its inherent beauty, quietness, and solitude is also constrained by the world’s brokenness. We tend to think, wrongly, that the wilderness is eternal, unchangeable. But, even its fullness is stained by decay, predation, random fire or flood; dangers lurk in its untamed, and indifferent beauty.

Upon hearing her own cancer diagnosis, poet Mary Oliver wrote,

Why should I have been surprised?  

           Hunters walk the forest without a sound. 

           The hunter, strapped to his rifle,

            the fox on his feet of silk,

            the serpent on his empire of muscles-

            all move in stillness,

            hungry, careful, intent.

            Just as the cancer entered the forest of my body,

            without a sound.*

The same goes with us. Though God promises us eternal life –conditional on our recognition and acknowledgement that we cannot save ourselves- we walk as pilgrims through (rarely around) life’s wilderness and dangers. And, for each of us, there is an appointed day in which the shroud of our whole self is forever torn by death, our body returned to the dust from which it came. What was once whole is now separated, that our soul and spirit can rise unburdened to God. Who can explain it?

And so we go forward, hand in hand in the hope of healing for our brother, the one who’s “got next”. If God is for us, who -or what- can be against us? We call the treatment of cancer a battle, and its eradication a victory. A curious thing, that it is couched in war language. But, it’s not just our physical self that is saved is it? All through the wilderness of living is the battle, often unseen, for our soul and spirit too. God wants, he demands that we yield all of what and who we are, cancer or no. On this side of the river, you just can’t be whole without it.

~J.A.P. Walton

* Mary Oliver. “The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac” in Blue Horses.2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Affirmation, Blessings, Dying to Self, Faithful Living, New Year, Uncategorized, virtue, Winter

A Voice in the Wilderness: “Prepare!”

Ah, the end of another year! I always enjoy looking ahead to a new year. For me, there is a certain pleasure to be found in getting things ready and in order. We do it every time we pack for a paddle or camping trip, make and shop for a week’s worth of menus, or stock up on necessities (nothing worse than finding out the hard way that you’re out of toilet paper!).

How do we prepare for another year? Usually we don’t to be honest. We shuffle along without looking back or forward, content to use these last vacation days to eat, sleep, and play with loved ones. Still, there is precedent for preparing oneself, for understanding the lay of the land in our heart, mind, and soul. To do that well, we need to study history. In warfare, the best leaders know from history how to confuse the enemy. They know to send out a vanguard to spy out the situation. They draw up plans of attack.

In our own life, the way the past year transpired can be instructive for directing our future steps. The year’s end is a good time to do the hard work of review. I have lately been thinking about the virtues-beautiful concepts like love, honesty, courage, hope, steadfastness, kindness, chastity, charity, humility, temperance, prudence, justice, and diligence to name a few. I have been wrestling with the question: which virtues do I regularly display in my life, and which are weak?  If I wasn’t humble before, an honest survey like this will help develop humility, because there is much work to be done in the arenas of the heart, mind, and soul.

Our family cottage in the woods is not winterized, so it sits shuttered all winter, mantled with snow, empty of life except for the mice that squeeze in through the cracks. Each spring, someone takes on the task of making the place habitable. Opening the cottage is a yearly ritual of “getting ready”- airing out the dank, musty rooms, sweeping away dust and cobwebs, washing windows, baiting mousetraps, making beds, turning on the water, and setting wood in the fireplace for the first fire.

I think it’s a good analogy for what we should do at the New Year with our own insides.

Where have we been lazy? What needs airing, sweeping, washing?

How have we been treating others? How can we smooth our roughest edges to be more hospitable, more just, more charitable, more loving? How can we be wiser about finances? About the way we use our time for the greater good instead of our own numbing leisure? It all starts with the virtue of honesty. How honest are you willing to be about your own shortcomings? And, how willing are you to accept the responsibility for growth?

God has the future in hand. We look forward, yet are sometimes too fearful and protective about our lives. Yet Jesus and the angels’ most frequent reassurances were always, “do not be afraid.”

Can we be bold enough to believe God, and to understand that our own shortcomings and sins, when dealt with honestly, become a faith-filled path toward virtuous living? As the ball drops at midnight, listen for the voice of one calling in a wilderness to make way for God in your heart. Be honest with yourself, make plans, and you’ll be surprised what the New Year brings!

~J.A.P. Walton

Affirmation, Creation, Creator, Darkness, Dying to Self, God, Heaven, Starry Skies, Uncategorized

When Mercy Begot Grace

It’s fair to say that I am a fan of what my writing workshop instructor cautiously termed “strong verbs,” (she didn’t like my writing, but wanted to say something encouraging).

Words can evoke a visceral response in the same way a simple whiff of (fill-in-the-blank) floods the mind with childhood memories… right now I am conjuring up the smell of crayons, peppermint Chiclets gum from the bank, of Fels-Naptha soap, and a cigar box of writhing, doomed earthworms waiting to bait some fat perch.

The words for this time of year are powerful too.  Darkness. Brokenness. Cold. Despair. Hope. Joy. Salvation.   These last three are worth dwelling on.

Last night we hunted the comet 46P/Wirtanen slowly cruising way out in the outer black void of space, tucked in a lane between Taurus and the Pleiades. It’s always a wonder to look upon something 7 million miles above and know what you’re seeing- in this case, a fuzzy, Christmas-green ball decorating the twinkling night sky. I love comets for their predictability and promise of return, knowing that people long dead and those not yet born have seen, or will see what I see.  Comets, like sunrises, and tidal ebbs and flows, and spring hounding the heels of winter make us hopeful that the world will go on.

Last night, the darkness could not hide the light of the moon, stars and comet. The cold could not penetrate the happy warmth of stargazing. The despairing news of the week could not harden a seeking heart set on hope and joy. Because, of course, it is the season we celebrate the best news of all. God come down from the heavens, heralded by a star to light the world with Wisdom that bids us seek the Lord while He can be found. It’s the same Light that split the silence and the temple curtain when mercy begot grace, and sacrifice rebirthed an inheritance long rejected. Like the crisp night sky of winter, it can fill you with wonder. Because He is called Wonderful. Everlasting. The Prince of Peace.

Wishing you and yours a Christmas of wonder, light, joy, peace, and the resurrection of the Word in your hearts.

~J.A.P. Walton

Photo credit: S. Zetterberg