How to Inhabit Time, James K.A. Smith, Lake Michigan, Lament as a Christian Practice, Lessons from the Wilderness, Life's Storms, Living Faithfully, Moving during a pandemic, When God is Silent, when it hurts too much to pray, when time stands still, When your mother dies

“Some Years are Longer than Others”

I had a solo 6-hour drive to Chicago last week, and the time just dragged. As a matter of fact, the time always drags when I leave this place. As a child, my grandparents would pick us up after school, a tin full of ground ham and peanut sandwiches (ick) on the back seat, and the nose of their old Buick turned toward the bluff in northern Michigan. Time sped up in glowing excitement-my mind bursting with out-of-the-city-and-into-the-forest-and-dunes anticipation of the carefree summer at hand. The opposite occurred around Labor Day weekend. We’d buried our newest treasures, released our “pet” salamanders, and hiked our last dune until next year. Time back to Chicago on that same well-worn road crawled, the summer gone so quickly, a heart full of memories, shoes full of sand.

I am slowly reading my friend and former colleague James K.A. Smith’s newest book, “How to Inhabit Time.” jameskasmith.com It’s not a slow read because it is difficult. No, this is like a deep, purply glass of royal wine; it is to be savored. Part of the reason is that I am just coming off a time of deep change and challenge. Of loss. Of leaving. Of the critical illness of our only child who lives far away. All things filled with longing, lament, grief and fear. Of feeling as if God had retreated to the margins and adopted a hands-off stance. My prayers were whispered. Then shouted. Then stilled altogether. The temporality of life invaded the heart, and the future became the present, which became my history with blinding speed. Yet, it felt as if time had stopped. Even the ticking of my grandmother’s clock was irksome.

It has been a 3-year tempest with numbing spiritual paralysis. In writing about light and darkness in the Arctic, Jamie Smith asks, “What if all the sunlight in your life comes late, at an oblique angle? What if the sun cyclically disappears from a life for nights that seem like they’ll never end?”  

Some years are longer than others” he writes.

James K.A. Smith. How to Inhabit Time. Brazos Press. 2022. Quotes from Chapter 2.

Amen to that my brother. For the last 3 years I have stayed almost manically busy. Traveled. Cooked. worked the garden and the food pantry, watched more than a few Hallmark movies. But now, it is time to begin the great, long-awaited reconnection because we are finally settled. The pain of the uprooting is subsiding. The flow of words has reversed course, ready to run like a river. Our daughter’s health is stabilizing. We will soon be joining a new church. Things like a pot of homemade chicken soup and a fresh loaf of bread are no longer tasteless sustenance; instead they waft glorious whiffs of goodness and rightness throughout the house. We are sleeping well in our own bed; Jamie Smith reminds us to treasure the truth that “there is rest in the dark.”

Rested and ready.  There was evening and mourning. Then morning. A day.  A year. Three years. Only the grace of God gives us the strength and endurance for dark times. And those times are critical to our growth in perseverance and character and hope (Romans 5), creating our own unique history to inevitably shape all our tomorrows.  

If you are in a dark time, hang on. The wilderness eventually gives way to glorious and flourishing life because

God is preparing you for something wonderful!”

He and time are on your side.  

Thanks for reading!

J.A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

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jpraywalton.writing@gmail.com

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At Home in the Here and Not Yet

It has dawned a clear, crisp early November day at the Bluff following two days of gales on Lake Michigan. As I sit at my desk writing, Mark is out with his chainsaw helping saw up the neighbor’s fallen ash tree. The whipping wind pushed it right out by its roots.

There’s something doleful yet timeless about a tree’s newly exposed roots- it is death, and homelessness, and loss, and capitulation and rebirth all rolled into one.”

I have been thinking about home lately-all the places I have called home, making a new home here at the Bluff after pulling up our lives at Trout Creek by the roots, and all the years my heart was searching for a home when what it really needed was God himself.

Being at home is a sense, a feeling of being nurtured yet challenged, content yet ever searching, with a pillow for your head and loved ones within reach. I have been at home in hiking boots on the slopes of the Rocky Mountains, the rain forests of Costa Rica, and the stony paths of the French Alps. I once had a home in Wales for a semester, rope-climbing the steep cliffs that face the Irish Sea, and paddling the wild Welsh rivers. I have made my home in a flat in Paris, writing for a whole blessed month while my daughter was at work. I was at home for many years in my calling as a college professor, enjoying the gift that thousands of students unknowingly gave me to fill the emptiness of infertility.

Nowadays, having endured the moving of the house back from the bluff’s edge and reconstructing the entire lower level, we are finally settled into home at the Bluff. Since I was five years old, I knew I would live here someday. That is because it has always been the place I come back to; on this side of the river, this has always been my one true home. This is where I set down roots and made lifelong friends, clothed in the balm of nature’s call and care. Here, I am embedded in forest and dune, blissfully at home on the long, lonely stretches of beach with a cherished petoskey stone in my sandy pocket. Here is the delight of slowing down, of welcoming the unplanned coffee and conversation with a new friend, and of taking the time to read, and reread some timeless favorites.

We are one short step from heaven here, figuratively, and literally.

 I know full well that this home is as temporary as all the others.”

Even as I wait on God in prayer and obedience, he too waits for me to finish my upward climb to my last and forever home with him. On that day, that most glorious day, my physical body tumbled like a dead ash tree by the gales of age, my soul will be loosed to heaven, my new and forever home. I can’t know from this side of the river what that will be like, but I suspect the surprise outweighs the not-knowing.

Keep climbing-your home awaits.

Thanks for reading,

J.A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

Contact me at jpraywalton.writing@gmail.com

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Picking up the Pen

Dear Readers,

The desk is cleared. I am ready to write again. My prayer is that you will be willing to read along once more after this very long span of silence.

What do you do with silence?

There is so little quiet in our easily-agitated lives. And though my writing voice has been silent, my life most assuredly has not, so I relish the thought of sitting quietly at this desk. 

Why have I not been writing? That would take a long answer over a deep cup of tea, extra sugar. A short version would be a chronological list: 

  1. Mom died (late 2019)
  2. I settled her estate
  3. We inherited the family home on the Lake Michigan bluff in northwest lower Michigan
  4. Covid and its severe restrictions in Michigan created a literal standstill
  5. We sold our Trout Creek home, and moved ourselves to the Bluff in a pandemic 
  6. A one-time bluff cave-in of 20-25 feet, brought the bluff house to within 55 feet of the edge in a high-water climate
  7. Prayer-lots and lots and LOTS despite the physical separation from our church of over 25 years 
  8. We decided to keep the property and initiate moving the entire house back 110’ to the rear of the lot
  9. Built a barn to hold house contents during move 
  10. Remodeled the kitchen 
  11. First Christmas at the Bluff 
  12. Removed and stored everything from ground floor then demolished the entire lower level of the house ourselves (friends and family helped) 
  13. Removed 50 trees (a very tearful day to lose our little forest)
  14. Found somewhere to live for 8 months (thanks family and RV!); moved out (homeless)
  15. Moved the house (see photo) 
  16. Daughter Molly, our only child, was diagnosed in France with a blood clot in her brain (let’s talk sometime about how you can be calm and in a panic simultaneously); (clot still there, but she is better)
  17. Re-built the ground floor walkout side before winter
  18. Moved back in (spring ’22)
  19. Remediated the entire lot with new native planting and 24 trees (in a drought)
  20. Rebuilt the lakeside deck
  21. Celebrated with a spur-of-the-moment Happy Hour on the new deck with 40 friends, family
  22. Settled in (this has been nothing short of lovely over the summer)
  23. Molly and Stéphane visited in August and were engaged to be married
  24. Today: the house is nearly finished. At 82, our contractor moves slowly, so the back deck off the kitchen may have to wait until 2023. We also await EGLE ‘s (Michigan DEQ) sign-off on our permit. 
  25. God and Mark have gently nudged me to start writing again. So, I have joined Redbud Writers Guild, a diverse group of women who write about faith in community and culture (link) I am hoping it will help me be accountable to regular postings!
  26. SO! Time to write!

I will be setting down to write some of the pent-up things that have been swirling in my heart and mind, and

I invite you to come alongside and share with friends.

Some will be written here at the beautiful and flourishing bluff space-to which you are all invited for respite. Some from an RV trip to the southwest in search of sun. Some from writer’s retreats. Some from trips to France. No matter what, I hope to present you with heart-and-mind-filled pieces that bring God close, that describe his revelation in and to our world, that provide words of both comfort and challenge, and help create in you a refreshed desire to look for him in your daily life and relationships. 

May it be a blessing to you as you stand on this side of the river.

~J.A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

Feel free to email me directly at my email: jpraywalton.writing@gmail.com

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Soldiering On

There is a dead calm in the trees today after a string of gusty days. The calmness amplifies animals’ movements; looking out just now, I can see a doe raise a front foot, then continue her slow browsing in the woods across Trout Creek.

Though a calm is often just a comma between storms, we should pay attention to it, because it invites introspection and watchfulness, a time heavy with anticipation like a maple leaf just waiting for the wind to ask it to dance.

I am at a point in life of watching and waiting. Watching sick loved ones cling to life, waiting for God to answer prayer. My eyes see misery clawing at hope. My pulse drones in my ears and pacifies the waiting like an undisturbed river flowing deep and sure.

Vigil is the gutsy response to life’s gusty times.

It is a posture of watching with loved ones, and waiting for an outcome while in the eye of the storm.  Every day I see adult children in their 60’s and 70’s visiting aged parents at the nursing home.  The visits are difficult-many residents can’t even remember their kids’ names-but the children soldier on out of respect, accepting the duty to honor the last days of a parent’s life. There is calm, and order, and rightness in the watching and waiting.

Vigil gives time for forgiveness and reconciliation, for sharing old memories, and for meditation on the way all of life soldiers on.

At the bluff, there is a lone cedar tree about 10 feet from the dune’s edge.  The dunes along this stretch of Lake Michigan have been unstable since the ice age created them, crumbling in the constant onslaught of waves and winds. The property my grandparents bought has lost 88 feet since the early 1960’s. This means that the cedar soldier was once deep in the forest at the back of the dune, playmates with the grand, towering beech, the stately ash, and the playful maple.  But, time has marched on with unstoppable force. The other trees succumbed to the storms of disease or the loggers’ saws. The dune continued to roll into the deeps.  So, now this cedar stands alone and bent, facing its inevitable demise with deep roots and grace in its vigil of watching and waiting. Each morning it greets the eastern sun and takes delight in the jays and cedar waxwings that haunt its branches, and the bald eagle who hunts from its crown. At night, it lifts its face westward, basking in the sun’s glow, a view it never had in its youth.

Today, my dad would have been 90 years old. But, like the ash and beech, disease took him before he could have a better view, a vigil cut short. Like the cedar, my mom stands at the edge, soldiering on through the indignities of Parkinson’s disease, in a vigil for glimpses of heaven.  Watching. Waiting. Praying.

~J.A.P. Walton

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It’s Going to be All Right

The weather along Lake Michigan has been noticeably unsettled this summer, like a nervous groom before his wedding.  We are missing the long stretch of sunny days under high barometric pressure that bring such deep blue skies and the warm assurance that winter is still far away.

What we need is a really good storm.

Of course, the weather takes special watchfulness in paddling situations. You don’t want to be caught out on the water in wind and lightning when a big blow rises up. It’s one of the rules of paddling: to pay attention to the signs and barometer when heading out.

Once on a paddle on the Au Train River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we got caught in a late afternoon storm. The lightning was too intense to safely shelter under the big trees that leaned over the water. Paddling furiously back upstream, we returned to hunker down under a bridge we had passed earlier. The fury of the storm flashed and crashed all around us as the wind was funneled under the bridge. Trees came down, and grasses were flattened while the sedate river of just minutes ago became a roiling, angry maelstrom in pure, unleashed cacophony.

Life is filled with unexpected blows.

Things are sunny and pleasant, and we loll happily in our unwary hours. Then out of the blue, the skies darken, the storm threatens, and we are caught unawares. Examples abound: the day of 9-11; a cancer diagnosis; an accident; a death.  There seems nowhere to take shelter. Nowhere to turn. Nowhere to hide, or huddle.  Life’s storms can be terrifying, and sometimes they pile up and train down on us one after another.

All I can say is that with perfect predictability, all storms pass. In our canoe, after 30 long minutes of hanging on by our fingertips to the overhead girders, the tempest grudgingly moved on, leaving the river to calm its nerves, the trees dripping with diamonds, and a permeating whiff of fresh-bathed forest in every direction- abrupt silence, achingly beautiful crystal lighting, and a newly-birthed loveliness.

God himself set up the physical laws that create storms. He also has his reasons for allowing them to roil our lives.

But, no matter what assails us, God works only good for those who love him.  He is always for us, so that the storms of trouble and hardship cannot separate us from his love.

Not storms. Not evil. Not hate. Nothing high, nothing low, nothing in all of creation can separate us from how much God loves us.*  The most oft-written phrase in the Bible is,
“Do not be afraid.”

In a storm?  Let God be your bridge. Your shelter. Your hope. It’s going to be all right.  Don’t be afraid. Just hang on and let it blow.

~J.A.P. Walton

* loose paraphrase of Romans chapter 8 in the Bible