Learning to Listen

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When William, was a toddler,  he distinguished between his two grandfathers,  calling one, “Pop”, and the other “Papa Horse”.  The first grandfather is still active in William’s life, a kind man, full of integrity, eager to share the things he knows with his grandsons.  The second, who also delighted in his rambunctious grandsons (there were no granddaughters at the time),  is fading into pleasant memory.

When the little boys were able to sit up and take notice, Jon would carry them out to the barn and plop them, bareback onto Rufus and Frolic.  It was high adventure for them all, but it was especially delightful to William, who lived too far away to see us frequently.  Those barn interludes eventually caused him to refer to “Papa Horse” in everyday conversation,  hoping that his parents would humor his equine yearnings and take to the road. But even before the words were present, his desires existed, and William let us know about them in a  language of his own. In the early days, we struggled to interpret his cries of frustration, feeling helpless to identify the problems.  But Jon could take William to the barn and set him on a horse, and magically, William’s face would break out in delighted smiles.  “Papa Horse”  had figured something out.  Instinctively, he’d learned to listen to his grandson.

Listening can be hard.  I remember a biology course I took in college,  where the teacher’s great idea was to furnish all the students with casette tape recorders in lab.  In this way, he dictated each step of the rat dissection for us without actually being there.  Jon thrived on it, while I,  frustrated at being tutored by a faceless voice, loathed it.  I struggled all through the course, and ended up turning off the stupid tape recorder, and doing the dissections by looking at the pictures.  It was a situation where I failed to learn to listen.

But as I’ve gotten older and slower, I’ve begun to listen better.  Last spring, I decided to learn some bird songs, wanting to know what bird was singing,  just out of sight.  I bought a game called “Larkwire” and began actively listening.  It was hard for me, and I undoubtedly required many more repetitions to learn each call, than my auditorily gifted family members.   I learned the “chick-a-dee dee dee” call of the black capped chickadee, and the liquid,  musical notes of the wood thrush.  Early in the mornings,  I heard the  pileated woodpecker  taunting me from deep within the woods, and  recognized its call as one of the “jungle sounds” often heard in movies.   It was a wonderful, energizing thing to comprehend a new language.  Even a little  knowledge made me feel more alive.

Birds and babies speak  a different language from me, and I have to listen hard to understand them- but I am motivated.  With babies, the need is obvious- they keep on screaming until I get a clue.  And bird language?  It’s not necessary that I learn it, but it’s fun.  So why is it that listening to  God is so hard? If I can slow down long enough to listen to screaming infants and random bird calls, why do I consider listening to what the Creator has to say as burdensome and complicated?  Scripture proclaims His messages over and over and creation shouts to me.  Although He has condescended to speak, I hide from a tete-a-tete on the basis that He is too far away or that He is incomprehensible.  The difficulty, in this case, lies not in translation, but in desire, and the results of handling things without His input can get ugly.  I tend to be judgemental, rash and superficial.  I let unimportant worries waste valuable time.  I concentrate on urgent trivia and forget people.  If I would just  listen to God, I could avoid making so many messes.

Too often, my cynical spirit says that God isn’t speaking  to me.  I wonder whether I’ve really taken the time to hear?

 

Whom have I in heaven but You?
And besides You, I desire nothing on earth.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
 For, behold, those who are far from You will perish;
You have destroyed all those who are unfaithful to You.
 But as for me, the nearness of God is my good;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
That I may tell of all Your works.  Psalm 73: 25-28

Standing on the Shore

 

 

Shortly after Jon and I got married, we left Alabama, loaded our worldly goods into a mid-sized U-Haul, and started driving north, towing our little car with its “Heart of Dixie” license plates behind us.  We reached Chicago’s Eisenhower Expressway at 5:00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, and  people honked and swore as Jon manuevered the cumbersome load from lane to lane.  By the time we located our exit, sweat was pouring off his forehead, and I was a nervous wreck.  Miraculously, we made it to our hotel without injury.

That  first trip across town became a metaphor for  life in the Windy City.  Although it could be frightening, exciting, and demanding,   it definitely wasn’t relaxing.   I was often homesick for quieter days,  screened porches, and real sweet tea with lemon.  I missed our families, our traditional foods (fried), and the slow tempo of life in the South.  That rhythm, partially dictated by the weather:  hot in spring, broiling  in summer, sweltering in early fall, and cool in winter, left me entirely unprepared for the bitter cold winters of the Midwest, and for the explosion of activity that occurred when spring finally did arrive. After the snow melted, our neighbors burst out of doors  like worker bees from starving hives- flower beds were prepared; bikes were ridden; windows were washed.  One spring morning, someone even mentioned “going to the beach for the weekend”.  I was confused.

“Will you be flying?” I asked.

“No”, she replied.

“Well, if you’re not flying, how are you going to make it to the beach and back by Monday?”

She was amused.  “Surely, you know that Lake Michigan has a beach”, she said.

“Oh”, I thought,  “not a real beach.  You people don’t understand.”

To me, “the  beach” meant the Gulf of Mexico, with its white sand and warm water, a place my parents took us each summer.  While Dad fished,  Mother painted sea scenes, and my brothers and I romped through the waves, built sand castles and looked for shells.  I loved the gulf in all its moods and colors.  I loved the fresh breezes and the afternoon showers.  I loved the sound of the waves breaking against the sand, and the cry of the laughing gulls.  I loved the sight of glistening dolphins arcing through the water, and sailboats running before the wind. When those memories blow across my mind I feel a great yearning to be there again, because being near the sea feeds my soul.  Consequently, I found John’s vision in Revelation 21, distinctly disappointing:   “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea.”

Some commentators think that this statement is purely metaphorical, that the sea represents evil, and that it is evil which will be swept away instead of  the oceans. Others remind us that the sea is not only the cause of many deaths, but a future portal for the antichrist, and conclude that it  cannot  be part of the new creation.  Then there are those pragmatic few who think  that any island prisoner would hate the sea,  and naturally regard it as an evil in a perfect world.  I find myself in deep waters (idiom intentional) when I read these commentaries.

I’m pretty sure that John didn’t delete the ocean from his vision because he hated it.  He grew up by the sea, worked on it as a fisherman, and watched Jesus walk on it.  And,  if he was using the sea only as a symbol,  why did he  juxtapose it with something he clearly saw as concrete (“a new heaven and a new earth”)?  As for the sea representing evil, what about the Genesis verses where God pronounces His whole creation “good”?  We live in a cursed creation.  People fall off mountains.  They die of thirst in deserts.  It doesn’t follow that mountains and deserts are evil in themselves.  Likewise, water  is just…water…no matter how big.  I don’t think that John was editorializing, but merely relating what he saw, and what he saw was surprising.  There was “no longer any sea”. 

Although part of me urgently wants to join the “purely metaphorical” contingent, I realize that I love the sea most, not because of what it is, but for what it reminds me of.   Simply put, the sea reminds me of its Creator:   His voice is in the surf; His eternity  in its vastness; His power in the turbulent waves.  It is not the ocean, but what is beyond it,  that calls to my soul as I watch and wait on the shore.

God is a master communicator, and He uses creation to point out the obvious, namely, that ” He is”, and He wants us to believe that He is.  That He created us.  That He loves us and has provided salvation for us.  In the new world, He will live with us and speak to us face to face.  Perhaps the oceans will be done with then…perhaps.   But as this world is only a distorted version of the next one, I can expect to see greater things.  If the sea is gone, I won’t be missing it.

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;

Let the sea roar, and all it contains;

Let the field exult, and all that is in it.

Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy before the Lord,

for He is coming,

For He is coming to judge the earth.

He will judge the world in righteousness

And the peoples in His faithfulness.  Psalm 96:11-13

Becoming Heroes

 

 

I  love the story of David and Goliath.  Once, our church dramatized it  for the children’s sermon, using a retired pro football player for the part of Goliath.  He was impressive- the biggest guy I’d ever seen, and when he walked into the room in his Goliath suit, the little kids began to back up.  Their eyes, if  not the size of saucers, were perhaps  the size of small pancakes.  The point that the children were supposed to carry home with them was that God gave David the victory against great odds.

We are  struck by the combatants’ differences – David was a teenager with a slingshot; Goliath was a nine foot tall armor-bearing Philistine warrior with a spear like a weaver’s beam.  Both camps considered Goliath a shoo-in.    King Saul, himself, tried to discourage the young shepherd from fighting.  So the stage is set, and we assume that David, who plays the part of hero, must be secretly terrified, even though he doesn’t show it.  Somehow, maybe because of all those flannel graph cut-outs portraying David as a skinny, rosy-faced kid in a striped bathrobe, we get the idea that David took a deep breath, uttered a nuclear prayer, and gave it his best shot- literally.  And because God was with him, the stone found its mark, and Goliath fell.  The story, seen in this light, is a little discouraging.  I wonder if I could drum up that much faith in an emergency?  

But non-flannel graph David,  responded to the skeptical Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, 35 I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. 36 Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God.”  (1 Samuel 17:34-36)  What David is saying is:  “I’ve been here before.  This guy is dogs’ meat”.

David had a history of fighting off predators.   The bear he fought may have been the Syriac brown bear.  This bear weighs up to 550 lbs. and can run at speeds of 30 m.p.h.  The lion he encountered was probably the Asian lion, which can weigh almost 400 lbs, grow to a length of 9-10 ft., and can run in short bursts at 50 m.p.h.  In addition, it can jump 12 to 15 feet vertically and up to 45 feet horizontally.  Both animals can run better, jump better, hear better, see as well or better (especially at night), and have an incredible sense of smell.  David’s resume indicated that he’d been up close and personal with their teeth and claws, so he probably wasn’t as terrified of a nine foot  human as we might expect.

The real question  is:  “How had he managed to survive bears and lions up to that point?”  David gave the answer in verse 37:   “…The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”  Apparently, David’s knowledge of and faith in God had grown during those years of ovine guard duty.  He didn’t have to drum up faith when he faced Goliath; it was already there, and it had grown while he did his day job.

I have a small life.  I don’t create software, write rocket fuel formulas, run marathons, climb mountains or travel to exotic places.  I am not quick-witted; I can’t sing;  I’m not beautiful.  My flannel graph character would be a short, chubby, grandma with glasses and a book bag.  A most unlikely heroine….  But the quiet life of non-flannel graph Nana  is full of ups and downs, and opportunities to trust God or to despair.   Just like David, just like Ruth, just like Peter, my story is being written- every minute of every day, through all the years of my life.  I would edit the story if I could, but I can’t go back.  What I can do is to trust the Author, and He will create a story that the bards will sing about.

“…He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)                      

Singing in the Snow

 

 

 

Eastern Towhee Photo

 

Not so long ago, the drive to church was a noisy affair. The car was jam-packed with family, and we were usually running late. But today I would be arriving early and alone. As I drove, mental post-it notes whirled through my mind, and I felt a little anxious. I’d worked on this map project steadily for a month: compared gospel accounts,  read articles, scrutinized atlases, pestered  my well-traveled friends with questions about Jerusalem and the outlying areas, all to visualize Jesus’s wanderings during the last week of His life.  The idea was to examine His steps for that week-  to study the trips to and from Bethany;  to understand the escalating conflict with the religious establishment; to feel the ominous presence of the Roman military.  I wanted the children to understand that Jesus didn’t show up one fine day and offer to die that afternoon.  Although that would have been a staggering gift of love, what He did was so much more.  He set His mind to save us, and steadfastly walked, day after day, toward the cross.

Loaded into the back of my car were many of the props for the project:  30 lbs. of clay, 40 pizza bases, 320 tiny banners and 320 toothpicks  to mount them on, 40 tiny wooden crosses, 40 blank calendars;  the list went on and on.  Had I forgotten something?  Would the kids be bored stiff?  What if they didn’t learn anything?  Wait- was this idea just dumb?

Abruptly, memory  invaded my anxious thoughts.  I was in the car with Jon, heading for Kettering Hospital and his first cat-scan- a surreal errand to run on Easter morning.  We  found the waiting room empty except for the receptionist at her station.  As he signed in, Jon smiled and gave the traditional Easter greeting, “Jesus is risen!”.  The receptionist stared briefly and told him it’d be a few minutes.  He tried it again on the cat-scan technician.  “Jesus is risen!”, he called out.  She smiled uncertainly, and proceeded with the scan, but  when the scan was done, she said, “I get it.  It’s an Easter thing”.  Jon and I were to discover that it was more of a “survival” thing- a three word manual on joy.

Joy is generally defined in terms of emotion:  delight, happiness, exultation, euphoria, etc.  But the writers of the New Testament had an irritating habit of commanding Christians to “rejoice always”.  Feel happy when you’re being persecuted?  Delight in diaspora?  Not likely.  Obviously, in their minds, joy was made from a different material.  What’s more,  it was constantly accessible to those who knew where to look for it.  So what were they always rejoicing about?  They were rejoicing in that “Easter thing”.  They were rejoicing in a resurrected Savior.

I often find myself hedged in between darkness and light.  Three years ago, it was cancer on one side and “Jesus is risen!” on the other.  Today,  I was wedged between self-doubt and hope. Then I saw it.   How ridiculous I was being,  obsessing over little clay models of Jerusalem, and forgetting the message that gave value to the project!   At once,  anxiety evaporated, and laughter took its place.  Sunday’s lesson would be just fine- whatever I forgot or didn’t forget.

Monday was bright and warm, and as I walked the dog, I saw a towhee singing on a sycamore branch.  It was quite a display: he was proclaiming his territory, trying to entice a female to join him. Twenty-four  hours later, the temperature had dropped 50 degrees.  As I waited, shivering, for Dugan to do his business,  I heard a bird singing above me.  It was that towhee- singing on a snowy branch.  The weather hadn’t changed him.  He was created to sing in spring, and he was determined to sing- no matter if the day was sunny or snowy.

Whether the moment is bright or dark, we were created to rejoice, to sing.  Because the truth is:

Jesus is risen!

He is risen, indeed!

 

“Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice! ”   Philippians 4:4

 

Bagel Making and the Gentile

imageElizabeth calls them “sadiversaries”- memorials to grief, forced remembrances of sad days. I avoid these whenever possible, running in zig-zag patterns and keeping my head low, but sometimes, they catch me anyway. I got caught when the kids suggested that we get together for dinner on January 31st. They wanted to cheer me up on the second anniversary of Jon’s death. This being the case, I thought it would be a good idea to fix my mind on a better memory, and establish a happier tradition. A recollection soon presented itself: Liz and Livi baking in my Mississippi kitchen, filling the air with the smell of rising bagel dough, and the sound of their soprano laughter. The memory of pony-tailed girls with sticky hands inspired me. I knew what I’d do- I’d bake bagels for the kids to take away with them after dinner. But I couldn’t find my bread cookbook- the one written by a Jewish couple. “Oh well,” I thought, “Mr. M., the Food Network guy looks like he’s spent plenty of time pounding dough. His recipe is probably just as good”. And so, I embarked on a baking jamboree that lasted all day.

First off, the recipe called for a Yukon Gold potato, an ingredient my tried and true recipe definitely did not include. Add thirty minutes to boil the potato, five to mash it up, and ten to pick out all the skins. Oops.

Next, make the dough. Here I felt competent. I’d come a long way since the days of compact, hard as a rock, all grain brick loaf. When Elizabeth was still at home, we spent hours kneading dough for rolls and loaves, and we’d gotten pretty good at it. Recollections of beautifully risen oat bread, fragrant and cooling on the counter, rose to give me confidence. I mixed the dough, added in the mashed potato, and began to knead. Push away, fold over, turn. Push away, fold over, turn. The dough ball looked just right- shiny and elastic- and I put it in a warm place to rise.

It rose beautifully, as I knew it would. I could hardly wait to punch it down and form the bagel rounds. Only- the dough was a little moister than I remembered. Well- maybe it was the potato’s fault. I began to form the bagel balls, placing them on the parchment lined jelly roll pans. 30 more minutes to rest and rise.

The mounds turned into bigger mounds. In fact, they were all smushed up against one another- not evenly spaced as Mr. M’s were. And they looked funny. Why weren’t mine smooth? At this point, I should have saved myself trouble, thrown the evidence away, and headed for Kroger’s bakery, but I am persevering. I’m told it’s a desirable trait.

Step the next said to “Form the bagels”. Simple instructions. Eloquent. Pregnant with promise. The only problem was that the dough balls were in love with the parchment paper. They clung to that paper like candle wax on a carpet. Each time I tried to remove one to put a hole in the center, I deflated and deformed it. A depressing little platoon of misshapen bagels sat waiting to be boiled.

Boiling them only made the situation worse. Rough, gooey, lop-sided bagels went into the water, and pale, rubbery, lop-sided bagels came out. Maybe baking them would help. 10 minutes, Mr. M said, in a 450 F oven, then an egg wash, and back in for 15 minutes. 25 minutes later, I examined the final product. There they sat, wrinkled, holey, hockey pucks. Clearly, they were not destined for breakfast gift bags.

The kids and grandkids arrived, shedding coats and boots, and unbundling babies. I was too busy sending dogs downstairs and welcoming the masses to notice what Eagan was doing. This grandson of my heart, who looks like my son, who looks like me, has also inherited our love of food, as well as the agility to procure it, kitchen counters being no obstacle to this three year old athlete. So I wasn’t surprised when I heard the word “Cookie” amid the hubbub. I turned around, and there he stood, a miniature Colossus, with an ugly bagel in each hand.

Grinning widely, he repeated the word, “Cookie”.

“Go ahead, Baby,” I said, “eat that cookie”.

And he did. Not only that, but he began giving them out. Pretty soon, all the grandsons were enthusiastically gnawing on that tough, yeasty bread, as if it had come from an ethnic bakery. Frankly, I was astounded – and also relieved that I didn’t have to look at my little food failures any more. Astonishment gave way to merriment, and all the adults began to laugh…and laugh….and laugh.

I’m afraid that my reputation for good baking is now slightly tarnished, and the word “bagel” will be an eternal joke, but, in the end, because of my culinary incompetence, a happy memory was born.

“A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones”. Proverbs 17:22

Small Things

image Photo by GJShehane

It’s winter, and every morning, before dawn, a dog who can’t wait one more minute to go to the bathroom, begins to bark. I get up. I put on Jon’s barn coat, cinch the hood with a hand-knitted scarf, and pull on my great galumphing boots. Then I release two of the dogs into the back yard. Dugan, who tends to run off, has to be walked on leash. So while Bonnie checks the perimeter for deer scat or foxes, and Jack waters trees, I tromp around in the snow with Big Dog, aerating the ground with my microspike boots. Round and round we go, too slowly for him, but too fast for me. Because it’s bitterly cold with blowing snow, I pray that he’ll do the big job quickly.

When the urgent business is completed, Dugan and I go back inside. Off come the scarf, the coat, the great galumphing boots and the leash. Dugan takes the stairs like a racehorse out of the starting block, and I follow slowly, taking care not to get in his way. His cohorts are waiting on the back porch. They stand outside the glass door in characteristic attitudes: Bonnie’s pointy ears are laid back and her plumy tail creates arcs in the air; Jack looks anxious even though his butt is wiggling. It’s cold; they want to come in and have breakfast. Oh joy! Kibble! Again!

One, two, three, dogs are fed and crunching away. Dugan bolts his food; Jack eats warily and quickly; Bonnie chews delicately, taking her time. While they eat, I fix the pony’s food; softening his alfalfa cubes with boiling water, and mixing it in with senior feed and fat supplement. If I have an apple on hand, I dice it and throw it into the bucket as well. Lastly, I turn my attention to the barn cats and fill their dish. Done! The entire process has taken 30-40 minutes. But, I’m not really finished. The dogs must be fed once more, later on, and the pony two more times. And of course, Bonnie, Jack, and Dugan have to be released for bathroom breaks throughout the long winter day.

I used to do all this without thinking twice about it. I wasn’t fazed by the weight of a full feed bucket, and I wasn’t nervous about being jerked off my feet by an excited dog. I didn’t calculate how much time it took to feed the zoo, or comprehend how it tied me to the house. But now, plodding through snow, in the freezing, dark winter mornings, I have a tendency to resent these obligations, this mundane scut work, and envy friends who winter in Florida, or friends who are doing bigger things. This introduces reflection about choices made that cannot be unmade, and about what I mean by “bigger”.

As for choices- I could have chosen to keep tropical fish. I didn’t. Or I could choose to give the dogs away, shoo the cats and shoot the pony. I won’t. So much for actions that affect the present situation. But the question about doing bigger things remains. Or maybe, the question I should be asking is why I consider doing repetitive tasks at home “small”. There is a certain glory, after all, that comes with doing what we should. The trouble is- I rarely realize that- especially when I’m wearing heavy boots and walking through snow.

God gave me the gift of creature cravings. But I often forget that it is a gift – a trust. I forget that any given capacity for doing good in specific ways, in specific circumstances is a big deal. It opens up a whole frontier of “good works created beforehand” for me to walk around in, and to delight in- even in January.

Zechariah 4:10 contains a question: “For who has despised the day of small things?”

I think the correct answer is “Not me”.

Thanksgiving Story

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Celebrating Thanksgiving 1988, with a new dog was the last thing I wanted to do; we had four children then: ages 7, 5, 3 and 1. But Jon had seen a litter of Lab puppies, and wanted me to see them too. Not being quite so dumb as a post, I met this proposal with strenuous objections, overwhelmed by visions of doggie poop and baby poop- not to mention nocturnal walks in the snow with a shivering puppy. Jon countered with, “If you don’t like them, we don’t have to get one- but, Deb…it’s almost Christmas”.

The introductory visit magnified my pessimism: his puppy was the only one wandering outside the enclosure when we got there- and the evidence of its explorations was all over the floor. Naturally, when Jon called him, he came running. And, naturally, even as a tiny thing, he retrieved the ball of paper when it was tossed to him. At that moment, Jon saw a future full of successful duck hunts, and I saw more messes. But the deed was done, and I knew it, so I petitioned for the privilege of naming our new brown wriggler. Blaming Jon’s Irish heritage for the stubborn streak that stuck me with a new puppy, I named the dog “Finnegan”.

Although Jon bought Finn for hunting, he ended up being a family pet, the gentle dog all parents want for their kids. The fact that there was no place in his doggie brain for meanness made sense to me, when I discovered that all those neuronal pathways were devoted to mischief instead.

Finn could turn on the outside spigot with his teeth. He could climb seven stairs to the kids’ tree house and bark at the neighborhood dogs. But, perhaps the most memorable thing he did, was to invent a game which inevitably reduced Jon to silent, gasping laughter. Finn would charge at our youngest son, swerving at the last second to bump him with his shoulder. Knocked down, Tim would roar, unhurt, but furious. Goal achieved, Finn would scoot to the opposite end of the yard, to wait for the small human to stand up, and then he’d charge again. Oddly, this game did not inspire fear in Tim; he loved the crazy brown dog, in spite of being used as a bowling pin.

Most of his waking hours Finn spent with me and the kids, but he was foremost and finally, Jon’s dog. He retrieved everything his master threw, and came running whenever he called- even when that obedience deprived him of a delicious decayed morsel the buzzards had left behind. Only encounters with live raccoons or possums would keep the dog from answering a summons – except for this, he was an obedient, loving pet. He was not effusive in his loving- he rarely licked us, but Jon liked that. “It was”, he maintained, “a manly type of affection”.

Years passed, and we toted kids and pets from Wisconsin to Missouri to Mississippi. One day, someone startled our older dog awake from his slumbers, and he snapped at the perpetrator. “How odd”, I thought, “that’s not like Finnegan”. But Finn appeared apologetic for his departure from dignity, and even licked the victim, who bore no teeth-marks. Since the situation never recurred, I mentally filed it as random animal behavior, and temporarily forgot it. I should have realized that it was significant.

Soon after, on Thanksgiving Day, Finn followed his nose, and left our property. At first no one worried; we gave thanks, ate, and watched football games. Periodically, one of us would wander outside and whistle, expecting to see our brown dog come trotting up the driveway. But no dog came. Jon got concerned, and hopped in his truck to spy out the neighborhood. He came home alone, and occupied himself with other things. I whistled and watched, until I grew tired and depressed.

It began to rain in the afternoon, and by nighttime, a cold fog set in. Fidgety and anxious, I told Jon I was going to look around one last time before bed. I think I took the human bowling pin, now eleven, with me. We walked down the lane in the cool mist, not conversing, only hearing the crunch of gravel underfoot. Every once in a while, we’d whistle, wait for a familiar woof, and set off again- further into the fog. Crunch, crunch, crunch, whistle, wait. We realized it was time to give up for the night- but we decided to go just to the rise of the hill. We’d stop there and call one more time.

“Fineeee”, I yelled, “Finnegan! Where in the blue blazes are you?”

Silence.

“FINNEGAN SHEHANE! GET HOME RIGHT NOW!”

“Wait. Did you hear something? Listen”.

We stood and listened and strained our eyes, and then we saw him- walking forward, then hesitating, stopping beneath a street lamp to sniff the air. I can see him now, paused, with ears forward and nose raised, inhaling clues from the moist air. “Finny!”, we called again, and he began to wag his tail. We hugged him and took him home, where he fell asleep, exhausted from his ramblings.

That holiday journey was the last adventure for Finn. We discovered that he was losing his sight, so he was kept confined and comfortable in the back yard -with his favorite pear tree. People sometimes asked us if we didn’t think it was cruel to let him live that way, and I’d point out that Finn was adjusting. He learned to navigate his environment, finding sticks and bones and tennis balls. He nosed around to find fallen pears. He lay in the afternoon sun, while little birds pulled out his excess fur. He wasted no time moping. But I grieved a little, watching him, remembering his high-jinks with kids and water and pear branches.

Finnegan died at thirteen, full of years and pears, but every Thanksgiving, I remember him as he stood in the misty lamp light, motionless and alert- a blind dog smelling the air as if his life depended on it. Finn was more alive to me in that instant than in all his years of youthful mischief.

I think of that night, when I feel lonely and restless- an alien on the earth, and remember a promise God made to apostate Israel:

” Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me, and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29: 12-13

I do have a home. We all do. But like Finn, we have to look.

Beyond Winter

Flaming Red Oak

I just took a road trip up and down the highways of West Virginia, and I didn’t mind paying the toll because the autumn color was fantastic .  As the trip progressed and the sun descended, the colors got  deeper and richer, and the leaves glowed like they were lit up from the inside.  A landscape that compelling  made me want to keep on looking;  stopping to blink was sacrilege.  But  I had to stop looking.  There were signs that warned me to pay attention to the road: “falling rock”, “steep down-grade”, “strong cross-winds”, and “run-away truck lane ahead”.  Yikes!

So, I paid attention to the interstate, but I kept thinking about the populations  of bright leaves.  They reminded me of people clustered in communities.  Some were oak people; some were scarlet maple people, some were pine people, and so on.  I reflected glumly,  that I would probably be a brown leaf,  instead of what I really wanted to be – brilliant red.   Even as an imaginary leaf person, I was disappointed with myself, until I thought about it for a few more miles, and realized  I had forgotten to factor “time” into my calculations.

Time changes the appearance of foliage.   New leaves emerge in the spring,  tiny and yellow- green.  By the time summer comes, the leaves are  darker, bursting with  light-catching pigment.  But chlorophyll production grinds to a halt when days get shorter in the fall, and with the green pigment gone, the glorious hidden colors are revealed.  At the end of the cycle, a barrier forms between the leaf stem and the tree.   The winter leaf releases its hold on the branch, drifts downward on chilly winds,  and crackles beneath my feet.  A leaf has its sunny days, its fall festival, its winter dance- and no more.  Like all  organic things, it ends in dust.

Leaves die.  We die.   Why is the prospect of dying (except for the rational fear of suffering)  so distressing to us that we deny it,  ignore it as long as we can, or spin fanciful “maybes” about it?   I have a theory about this.  I don’t think it’s because we’re afraid of non-being-  unconsciousness isn’t unpleasant.  I think what we really fear is being thrust, conscious, into the unknown.  I think we  know- deep down- that we don’t end.

The apostle, John, wrote to the church about this issue.  He said, “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are.  For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him.  Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be.  We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.   1John 3:1-2 

John doesn’t give us the details we crave, but he tells us something important.  We don’t reach our final destination until we see Jesus.  And we won’t be complete  until we are  in His presence.

In the “fifth” season, my hidden colors will finally be revealed, but it will no longer matter to me.  I’ll be looking at Him.  

The Boss

She was tiny and unobtrusive, a dainty, quiet cat.  She first appeared as a minute skin and bones, tail-less kitten, huddled in the road, too weak to budge.  My son, Josh, rescued her, telling me excitedly that he’d found a manx.  Not exactly- more like a fan belt cat.  For three weeks, the starved, pitiful bundle of dull fur spent most of her waking hours on my shoulder.  My husband, not exactly a cat lover, suggested rather forcefully that we rehabilitate and re-home her.  Naturally I hated that idea, but I had some time to figure it out, and so I kept at it.

Little by little, Boss put on  weight, and even left my shoulder from time to time.  She refused to use the litter box, and had to be taken outside to potty.  One Monday morning, something spooked her, and she streaked off into the woods.  We looked and called, but any cat savvy person knows how effective that was.  After a few days, we quit looking, but I admit to praying that she would come back.  Jon said, with some satisfaction, that she’d  found a new home, probably muttering  aside, “Or the coyotes got her”.

Later in the week, Jon did a remarkable thing; he suggested we take a walk.  Now, although I loved a good ramble,  I knew it wasn’t  his favorite activity.   Besides, it was a hot, humid, Mississippi afternoon- oppressive, in fact.  Not sure what had gotten into him,  but happy to oblige, I put on my walking shoes.  We strolled up our ridiculously long gravel driveway, out onto the dusty residential lane toward the pond.  Nothing ever seemed to happen around the pond, unless you counted the time five cows escaped and stopped there for refreshment.  And so, today, we expected to see a snapping turtle or a snake- or if we were lucky- a red-headed woodpecker.  We weren’t especially quiet, so it was surprising we even heard the faint mew.

Jon stopped and turned  in the direction of the sound.  His face said two things:  “Impossible!”  and “Oh no!”.  I began to croon “kitty, kitty, kitty”, and a tiny figure bounced out of the brush and headed straight for my incredulous spouse.   She played him for all she was worth, ignoring the one who had practically worn her for weeks, the one who had fed her every few hours when she arrived.   She made a beeline for  DOG MAN and wouldn’t leave.  She rubbed against his legs.  She mewed pitifully.  She gazed up at him with baby kitty eyes.  And it worked.  He sighed, picked her up, and took her home.  I could almost hear God laughing.

Jon let her stay even though she never repeated the adoration dance for him, and things returned to normal with Boss spending most of her quiet time in my lap. When we migrated to Ohio, Boss went with us.  She enjoyed roaming around the barn and garden, and she always slept at the corner of my bed.  Close- but not too close- never pushy or demanding.

A few months ago, Boss died of throat cancer.  It seemed ridiculous and unnecessary, and I was angry.  What possible difference could it make to let her live?  I am still puzzled by the timing and the manner of her death- almost exactly a year after Jon’s departure.  But a delightful fantasy plays in my mind:

Jon is summoned to the throne room, and approaches Jesus, who stands with His hands behind His back.  

“Jon”, He says, “Debby sent you something….”

And all heaven laughs as Boss does the adoration dance.

What We Don’t Know

A friend of mine recently used an annoying psychological test to evaluate my strengths and weaknesses.  Most of the results could have been predicted by anyone who knows me.  Although we all like to think that we are deeper than deep, that we have more gifts than common folk, and that we hide our weaknesses well, we are fooling ourselves.

One thing really did surprise me– that my need for independence was exceptionally, off the charts, high.  Would it surprise my family and friends?  I’ll have to ask them sometime, but I doubt it.   What didn’t shock me was that I have a tendency to be a mite…critical.

Putting people in mental boxes gives closure.  And I like rapid closure, so that I can get on with my very important plans. If someone hurts me-or at the very least- doesn’t help me, he becomes the bad guy.  So once my rapid assessment is made, once the needle moves to “He’s an idiot”,  I’ll just move on- without him.   But there’s always a moment, between the  criticism and the dismissal, where if I listen,  I’ll hear a “What now?”.   Like a warning bell,  “What now?”  reminds me to slow down, calm down, and admit that I don’t know everything.  And sometimes, when I look closer, I find a truth that stuns me; that makes me less prone to be self-righteous, callous, or impatient.

A Jewish nurse found an elderly patient sobbing one day.  When questioned, all the  old lady would say was, “They won’t give me any bread.  They won’t give me any bread.”  Apparently, this was not a new grievance; the staff had learned to ignore it.  Noting that the patient looked well fed and alert, the nurse found this perplexing.  Then she had an idea.  “What kind of bread won’t they let you have?” she asked.  The patient took a deep breath and explained, “They won’t let me have challah bread for the Sabbath, and I only need a small piece.”  Enlightened, the nurse found a bakery, bought a little challah, and soothed a soul.  Unwilling to label her patient’s request as a senile perseverance, she paused between criticism and dismissal.

How easy it is to let criticism have the last word!  Mentally celebrating labels like :  “senile”, “selfish”, “hypocritical”, “arrogant”, “shallow”, “vain”,  “touchy”, and allowing them to stand as symbols for human beings makes severing  relationships all too easy.  John Ortberg writes:  “One of the ministries to which I am called is to free people- repeatedly if necessary- from the little mental prisons to which I consign them.”  But aren’t people senile, selfish, hypocritical, arrogant, shallow, vain, and touchy sometimes?  Of course.  But there is always so much that we don’t know.

Jesus’ command “Do not judge and you will not be judged“, is found sandwiched between “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful“, and “Give, and it will be given to you“.   A merciful impulse can overpower a judgemental attitude and generate gifts that bless.

Maybe I should put my “off the chart” longing  for independence to good use- in choosing mercy over judgement.  All I have to lose is my self-righteousness.