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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

Affirmation, beauty, Burnout, Creation, Creator, death, Faithful Living, Heaven, Henry David Thoreau, Home, John Muir, joy, Lessons from the Wilderness, Nature, Outdoor Adventures, Outervention, Pilgrimage, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Saint Augustine, Travel, Uncategorized

Are Your Feet on the Right Road?

As a publishing company launch team reviewer, I have been reading a colleague’s forthcoming book about Saint Augustine . [1]  It has been the most important read of my life so far, and I hope you will read it!  Why? Because it returns me, yet again, to the wisdom of Augustine, a 4thcentury bishop, whose young life was stained with aggressive ambition, relentless restlessness, and sordid living. All he wanted from life was the freedom to be, to go, to escape. Repeat.

We leave in a few days for Lake Superior. The brothers will canoe while I keep camp (in the RV). I have too great a respect for the Ojibwes’ gichi-gami to contemplate 2 weeks on its unpredictably stormy deeps. But, with Augustine ringing in my ears, it puts me in the mindset of trying to understand human restlessness.

Lately, an outdoor sporting goods company called Backcountry has been running Instagram ads about burnout, beseeching people to get outside every day, to take long weekends in Nature,

to answer chronic workplace stress with big seasonal doses of “outervention.”  [2]

Even Augustine wrote about burnout, about the vanity of the chase (so did Solomon for that matter in Ecclesiastes). And you will find all kinds of advice to get out and “GO” in the works of Thoreau, Emerson, Muir, Abbey, Leopold, Dillard, and other nature writers.

Their collective point? Humans are restless, and Nature is the balm.  But, none of this deals with the fact that escapism only delays the inevitable.  That our love of the road, of its freedoms, and that the destination is usually vague and indefinable.  Think of the way people dream about throwing off the shackles of work to take to the open road:  retiring young enough to travel; taking a year off to see the world; developing a bucket list.  Always, the focus is on escaping one’s present circumstances, and none of us is immune. And almost always, the goal is to master and revere creation rather than to revere the master Creator.

Augustine would argue most vehemently against our propensity to flee, particularly when the destination is not well-understood. 

The truth that is buried in our subconscious is that this earth is not our home. That nature is not our mother- it neither cares for us nor nurtures us in tender protection-it simply is. That death is the final outpost.

So, where is our real home? Augustine would encourage you to think long and deep about this;

that all the roads we desire on earth will lead to nowhere; that the only true road is the one that leads us home to God.

Christians believe this road is the way of Christ’s gospel, and it’s not a vacation, but a vocation-a lifelong endeavor to be about God’s work.

Feeling the burn of your workaday world? Dreaming of the beaches in Jamaica, the Grand Canyon’s wide-open arms, or sightseeing in Europe?  All wonderful things, to be sure.  But none of them set your feet on the right road.

As you prepare to enter winter through the colorful gates of autumn, I pray you can find some time to sort out why you feel so restless, and Who it is that can lead you to the road of peace. And, paddle on, even when it’s into the wind in rough waters.

~J.A.P. Walton

[1]Smith. James K.A.  On the Road with Saint Augustine. Brazos Press. Available October 1, 2019.  #OTRWithAugustine.  More info available at See more about Jamie’s book here:

[2  Backcountry Info

adventure, Affirmation, beauty, Blue Skies, Cancer, canoeing, Creation, Creator, Darkness, Faithful Living, God, Hope, Lake Michigan, Lessons from the Wilderness, Life's Storms, Nature, Peace, Perseverence, Rain, River, Storms, Uncategorized, Water, wilderness, Wilderness Paddling, worry

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

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Where Words are Unnecessary

I must confess that I covet the times my husband and I paddle a river alone together. Being surrounded by boats, family, friends, and visitors, we are more often than not on the water in big groups.

He is a much stronger, abler paddler than I. He can read the currents and the wind in ways that let him slither downriver like a water snake-completely at home and at one with the boat. It is a marvel to watch him, when the edges of man, boat, and river blur into lovely moments of being in nature, rather than standing over it.

We met 57 years ago as children.  Now, the canoe and the wild river are symbols of our relationship. Stable and still in deep quiet water, swift and determined in the face of life’s challenges and submerged snags. We seek out the wilderness for our own restoration as individuals and as man and wife. We travel the rivers and lakes because this is how man has traveled the deep, dark forests for centuries, taking us where no road can go, no cell phone can reach. We go quietly. Reverently. Following the world’s first paddlers past rocks and pines, scrub oaks and scarred outcroppings, shallow sandbars and towering eagles’ roosts.

Out here, life hangs on; a tree’s roots cling with enduring hope, it’s branches reaching for God. Every breeze lifts a melody. The deer snuffs and stamps. The kingfisher scolds. The milkweed suckles the Monarch.

And all the while, the waters flow down, the land bowing to its power and majesty. John Muir said, “The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing.”

My husband and I need to be where words are unnecessary that we too might glide, and where creation does all the talking and singing for us. Where there is healing at every bend.

Where the earth’s broad sighs, and the sun’s nightly farewell give the soul hue and heft, and space and weft. Like candy at a parade, the wilderness tosses us joy with remarkable abandon, and we unwrap each treat with childish wonder that our hearts, together, could know such timelessness and beauty.

It is breath. It is gift. It is life. It is marriage. And it is ours.

~J.A.P.Walton

Thanks for reading!

 

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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.