Sunday, December 29, 2019

Marking 10 Years of God Stamps

I remember having this specific thought, almost word for word, ten years ago this month: This is a sucky situation, and the only way out is worse. In September of 2009 Dana’s cancer took a hard turn, landing us in the hospital for a month. We came home to hospice in October which is when I began embracing the reality of the situation we were in. In late November I started reading to Dana a chapter-ish a day of the book of Revelation, one of Dana’s top 10 favorite books of the Bible (or in reality, one of her top 66). We were both buoyed by the book’s message of hope. But as we approached the end of the book I had a haunting thought: What’s going to happen when we reach the end of this book? That last verse has a pretty final sounding “Amen.” On December 22, 2009 Dana was a little more alert than she had been. We had had some Christmas carolers from Centerville Christian Fellowship (some of the dearest folks in the world) singing to us from the front yard while standing in the snow. Dana laughed at hearing Pastor Wes singing way off pitch. Later that evening, given her more engaged state, I decided to read two chapters out of Revelation, chapters 21 and 22, which included talk of Jesus wiping away our tears. This struck me in that we (we being me, Mama Sue, and many wonderful caregivers) had wiped away many of Dana’s tears in the recent months, partly from emotion, and partly from spontaneous tearing from medications. Those two chapters took us to the end of the book. The next morning, on December 23 at 9:10 am, the task of wiping Dana’s tears was officially taken over by Jesus.

At that moment of passing, I didn’t know how I was going to get to the next moment. But I did. And then I didn’t know how I’d get to the next moment, but I did. And soon those moments began to pile on top of each other. I eventually made it through the first day, then the first night, then the first week, then the first month, then the first year. And now, here we are, 10 years later.

There is only one answer for making it to this point: God. His presence. His grace.

I’d like to mark the 10-year anniversary by doing something similar to what the psalmist Asaph of Psalm 73 did. After writing of his tumultuous journey with life and faith, he wrote: But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds. I need to tell of a few of God’s deeds.

In these 10 years, I have, in order of appearance: dug through the mud of grief, met Jessica, married Jessica, travelled with Jessica, had Reade, had open-heart valve repair surgery (both in the same week, Reade and heart valve surgery), had Rachel. Then, Jessica was diagnosed with breast cancer, beat the breast cancer holistically, beat the breast cancer again with surgery, lost Jessica’s cousin by a rarer cancer, lost Jessica’s grandfather by 94 years of a great life, and most recently, lost Jessica’s (and my) dear friend Kristin by an aggressive colon cancer.

There is an irony to this active decade. During my first year of widowhood I articulated the thought that I am okay with simply gutting it out for the next 30 years, 30 years being my remaining actuarial life span; I’m okay with watching other people experience love, enjoy Christmas, and revel in other good things. I had experienced those things and was content with simply being an observer. I had great family love, both my own family and Dana’s family. While this mindset seemed brave at the time, in retrospect it was likely a process mechanism to protect myself. Thankfully, God had other plans. And miraculously, He prepared me for those plans.

In fact, over these past 10 years I think one of the biggest miracles God has performed, or greatest "deed" to use the words of the psalmist, is helping me not live protectively, at least not knowingly. I think our default inclination after loss is to protect our heart to minimize risk. It is no small accomplishment to say that today as a husband, as a dad, as a friend, I am all in.

I have full appreciation for the mercy God has shown me through His consistent reminders of His presence, what we in this journey have called God Stamps---weirdly coincidental sightings of rainbows and deer and other confluences like heart clouds that can only be explained by divine direction, comforting moments letting us know that “God’s stamp is all over this journey, ” a direct quote from Mama Sue during Dana’s hospice portion of the journey. For me, however, it took awhile to warm up to the idea of God’s presence being a comfort. In my most honest moments while in the epicenter of grief I’d find myself saying “God, your presence is great, but I’d rather have Dana’s.” But His presence is real, and it’s the biggest money-back guarantee we have from God: He is with us. In fact, it’s expressed in one of His Son’s most famous nicknames, Immanuel (which means, God with us).

A true gift of these God Stamps over these past 10 years has been experiencing the thinness of the veil between here and There. A big booster in this gift was the “conversation” I had with Dana when I wondered how she would comfort me in my pain (If you’d like to take a look at that, see post here). I’ve tried to live in the reality of this thin veil. This has kept me in proper perspective as we continue to navigate loss. In fact, in the eight years that Jessica and I have been married both of our families and some dear friends have experienced crushing loss. And in these losses, God continues to mercifully remind all of us of His presence with God stamps, adding to our stamp collection of rainbows, deer, ladybugs (see our dear friends Chuck and Sue Bost) and a heart cloud. It’s abundantly evident that these past 10 years are not about me and recovery, but about God and His presence.

In the most recent loss of our friend Kristin, a good friend of Jessica’s from graduate school at USC, we’ve added sunflowers to the God stamp collection. The sunflower was Kristin’s life symbol, and at her memorial service the church was filled with sunflowers. All of us close to her since her passing have been experiencing curious sunflower moments. For me it was in October when bike riding on a trail a few days after Kristin’s passing. I was thinking about her and her service (I was to be involved) when I passed a trail walker wearing an In and Out Burger t-shirt…in Ohio! I then thought “It would be nice to see a sunflower right now.” Within a minute, I passed a garden I’ve passed dozens of times this summer on my rides, and there, as big and bold as ever, a huge sunflower…in late fall…in Ohio!

This past December 23, the actual 10-year date of Dana’s passing, I took a random incoming call at Atrium Medical Center, where I’ve been working since March as a patient representative (long story for another post). The caller was a Middletown Journal writer asking for a patient’s condition. The caller was Rick McCrabb who was the Middletown Journal reporter who wrote about the rainbow story that happened when Dana and I began the battle of her recurrent breast cancer in 2006. In the 10 months I’ve worked in the hospital position and in the dozens of incoming calls I field every day, I had never taken a call from a reporter for a patient condition update. I shared the connection with Rick and he was as wowed as I was. Unbeknownst to me, throughout that day, Jessica had experienced several sunflower moments, similar to the one I experienced on the bike path in October. We later concluded that Kristin and Dana must have met for coffee and were letting us know.

On Christmas Day, while we were driving to Preble County for some family Christmas time, Jessica was texting Kristin’s husband Bob to check in with him and share about her sunflower sightings on December 23. She looked up from her phone to gather a thought and her eyes landed on a big ol’ metal sunflower in the middle of a yard. Yes, it was yard art, but we’ll take it! Later that day at my sister Beck’s house we were sharing about these sunflower sightings, and the call from the Middletown Journal rainbow writer. My niece Maggie, an artist who has been posting a sketch a day for the past year as a personal challenge and who has been oblivious to our journey with the sunflower, asked if we happened to have seen her Christmas Day post that day. We hadn’t. She showed it to us. It was a sunflower, potted in loose dirt in a red Radio Flyer wagon, She explained that sunflowers have represented light and hope to her. She shared how she equivocated on sketching and posting an item that is not traditionally associated with Christmas but something compelled her regarding its appropriateness for Christmas Day. It was a God Stamp moment. Jessica then posted that story, sharing Maggie’s sketch and her sunflower sightings. Within a few hours, Kristin’s brother Bryan who lives in Germany, posted the photo you see below of our  “sunflower” in a red Radio Flyer wagon.

You can’t make this stuff up! I love it when God shows off and I hope this encourages you as much as it has me. I am witness to the fact that His presence is real. I am testimony to the fact that His presence brings hope. I am evidence of the fact that this hope brings lifesaving refuge and miraculous redemption. Those are just a few of the great deeds of God that have become the monikers of this past 10 years: His necessary refuge, His merciful presence, His palpable hope, His exhilarating redemption.

Thank you for your prayers, your support, and so much else.


Saturday, December 23, 2017

Saying Goodbye to Good Ground

It was eight years ago today that Dana accepted a better offer of where to spend Christmas (as her Unkie Jon described it), passing from the land of fake angels on treetops to the land of real angels with Jesus.

On the occasion of the date of Dana’s passing, I thought I’d commemorate a different life passage of sorts that my family has recently experienced, a passage which is somewhat connected to the passing of Dana.

When I was in grade school my folks did something that seemed strange to me: they bought a plot of land. The land had no house. No cornfields like what we were used to. It looked a little scraggly with lots of rocks. But it featured giant tulip poplar trees (which could be seen from miles away), a creek, a bank, and even an island carved out by the creek.

We would visit this land from time to time. Maybe do a picnic or take a hike. Mom and Dad would do some work (clearing, mowing) and Beck and I would explore. It always felt like we were entering an unusual land. We were used to cornfields, ponies, and things you find around an old barn. This was a land of weird crawdad mounds and creek life which included water spiders that could rest on the water surface, tiny minnows, and the crawdads that made those weird mounds.

On several occasions when we’d leave the land of woods and creek to make the 30-ish minute drive back to our farm, mom would say something like, “Someday it will be good to see a nice home with warm, glowing lights nestled back in that woods.”

Within a couple of years, Mom and Dad realized their “someday” dream for that scraggly, wooded, creek-split land. With the help of construction friend Bob Creech and all the friend help they could muster (which was a formidable crew), Mom and Dad built that home with the warm glowing lights.

And for over 40 years those warm, glowing lights welcomed friends, strangers, family, new family, and babies. It became a first stop for couples with news to announce or struggles to share. It was a sanctuary for prayer and rest. We sang. We celebrated. We cried. We laughed.

Its dining room table hosted countless birthday parties, Christmas dinners, and New Year’s Day sauerkraut buffets—the perfect food for the day’s football binge. The legacy of the dining room, of course, is the Sunday dinner: roast beef, mashed potatoes, Grandma Ruth gravy, and vegetable variations which were superfluous to the meat and potatoes. Two things I know about those Sunday dinners: First, Mom seemed to pull those off as easy as pulling a meat tray out of the fridge. Second, of all the weekly dinners stretching over 40 years I don’t think we ever had the same table crowd from one week to the next.

Creek and woods life eventually became second nature to Beck and me. We enjoyed introducing friends and cousins to our woods and creek: catching minnows and crawdads, climbing the bank, and of course, making world class forts. The large front yard, naturally, became our sports arena: football, kickball, softball, Frisbee, whiffle ball, and much more.

It’s been idyllic ground to grow up on and an era that I thought would never end. But as the upkeep of such a place has outpaced the abilities of Mom and Dad, the end of the era has in fact come. Just this week, 44 years since flipping the switch for those welcoming warm lights, Mom, Dad, Beck and I took our final tromp through that woods. We told stories, we reminisced, we paid our last respects to our beloved collie who made the move with us from the farm and is buried in the woods. We tromped with Beck’s husband Rick, their daughter Maggie, and with my kids Reade and Rachel—a fitting patrol representing how that land nurtured the original four and welcomed our growth. A few minutes after all us kids left, Mom and Dad met up with the next owners and handed over the house keys.

In the movie “Gettysburg,” a film depicting the Civil War battle of Gettysburg, we’re introduced to the descriptive phrase of “good ground.”  It’s a phrase I’ve come to use to describe Mom and Dad’s idyllic plot of land in Preble County. It’s the phrase I’ve used to describe Preble County in general. In fact, it’s this ideal that led Dana to say, even before facing a life-threatening illness, “If anything happens to me, I’d like to be buried in Preble County.”

It’s good ground.

If I might find the common ground in all of this: No matter what life might throw our way, if our feet are set on good ground, we will not only survive, but thrive. And of course, when we’ve enjoyed such good ground, whether it be a plot of land or a deep relationship, it’s sad when our feet step away from that ground. But it’s a privilege, and a gift, to have had such a ground. It makes us better people, “grounded” people if I may, who are on a constant search to provide good ground for those we love.

I leave you with some images below. First, the original foursome to inhabit the welcoming lights of this home in front of the tree trunk, and then the tree, of our first Christmas tree in our home of welcoming lights. Yes, for our first Christmas Mom and Dad bought a Christmas tree with a root ball that could be planted. This tree has been the faithful witness to all that was written above. And finally, I leave you with a picture of those warm lights that Mom spoke of 44 years ago, a picture taken the evening of the final tromp through that good ground.

Friday, July 7, 2017

A Rainbow Moment

So I just took a quick end-of-day bike ride that ended up being a ride of dodging raindrops and racing a looming storm. Occasionally the sun would poke out so I was sure I was going to see a rainbow…and I felt strongly that somebody needed to see a rainbow…so I found myself saying “C’mon rainbow!!” But to no avail. My rooting for a rainbow did, though, spark a thought: somebody on this earth, at this moment, is seeing a rainbow. And then I thought, “You know, I bet you can pretty much count on the fact that at any given moment, with all the sun on this earth and all the rain, somebody somewhere is looking at a rainbow. And, according to Genesis 9, God is also looking at that rainbow. And then I thought of a rainbow moment I had a couple weeks ago. So, I share a special picture of a rainbow from a couple weeks ago…and I share it in honor of a few things:

1. The rainbow in this picture was the rainbow that was spotted when I was on a similar bike ride a couple weeks ago…a ride that I took specifically to think about the upcoming wedding ceremony of a dear couple, Alex and Eric, whose ceremony I’d be performing that next Saturday. As I was riding in and out of rain and sun, thinking about their relationship and their families, this rainbow was spotted and photographed by Jessica---confirmation of what we already knew, that God is on the edge of His seat in anticipation of this marriage.

2. Today is the birthday of my mother-in-law for life, Mama Sue. She and I spent a journey ringing every drop of hope out of many rainbows. We now are both living in the redemption that God kept mercifully reminding us of.

3. We are two days away from the heartbreaking two-year anniversary of cousins Mike and Susan in the loss of their dear 3-year old son Will . They are redeeming their loss with color, encouraging folks with #BrightForWill and their newly formed foundation named, Bright for Will.

4. My lifelong friends, Randy and Roxanne, have begun a battle against Roxanne’s recently diagnosed lung cancer. Randy’s nickname, from his high school baseball days and how I still refer to him: Rainbow. (My understanding is that this was one of those “ironic” nicknames in that when he threw a baseball, it was anything BUT a rainbow.) When I found myself rooting for a rainbow today, I found myself rooting for Roxanne and Rainbow.

I was impressed this evening with the thought that somebody needs to see a rainbow (which is why this post has not yet been wordsmithed/edited/crafted). So, maybe this can be your rainbow…an assurance that God is with you no matter what.

Prayers and peace to you!

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Clapping for Honor in Our Jammies

Older Dad Note No. 83
Five weeks ago today, we left our DC hotel early morning for an 8:30 a.m. flight out of Reagan National. (Jessica had sung at the Kennedy Center in DC, with family in tow, family being Reade, Rachel, and me.)  This meant waking up solidly sleeping babies before the sun was up (which feels like throwing money out the window, such a waste of good sleep time). But we kept them in their jammies which added to the cute factor. Turns out we needed this cute factor and cashed in on a couple occasions (so maybe it wasn’t money out the window). 

Ticketing and security went relatively smoothly and as we were wrapping up in the security area we suddenly heard applause around the corner. It’s something you hear occasionally in an airport these days and I’ve come to recognize it right away. An Honor Flight of veterans had just arrived. They would be spending the day in DC visiting the memorial of their war. They began to walk by us as we were recovering from our security experience, clapping as we repacked our bags and regained our strollers. And then we saw on their t-shirts from where these vets came…Dayton, Ohio! Sudden affinity and camaraderie took over…several O-H-I-O’s were exchanged. “We’re headed to YOUR airport!” I would blurt out, unable to resist making all possible connections. And then we saw walking along in the flow of veterans a dear friend, Ron Frame, from Franklin, a small town near Middletown. He had served in the Navy in the Vietnam War. Hugs and tears all around.

There is something serendipitously special about being caught up in an arrival or departure of an honor flight in an airport terminal. It’s an opportunity to see humanity at its best. Hurried travelers stop and clap. They create a spontaneous, MacGyver-type of parade, showing celebratory respect with anything they have handy. They give up precious airport time to express appreciation. They push the limits of their boarding time. In fact, we were the last to board our plane, foregoing the coveted pre-boarding for “those with small children.”

It was worth it.

On the Honor Flight website you’ll see a quote from Will Rogers: “We can’t all be heroes. Some of us have to stand on the curb and clap as they walk by.” That was us and several hundred others.

That special moment in Reagan National sparked something in me as a dad. There are some things I want to be sure to teach Reade and Rachel:

1. Clap for veterans. They're heroes.
2. Be comfortable in saying “Thank you for your service.”
3. Honor sacrifice.
4. In between bites of hot dog and hamburger (or “hanggeber” as Reade, and now our family, calls it), give at least a moment of deep reflection on the reason for celebrating Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day.
5. Read the Declaration of Independence every July 4.
6. Know where and when your family members served, especially your grandpa, great-grandpa, uncles, great uncles. But go back as many generations and wars as your heart leads you.
7. Cover your heart for the Pledge of Allegiance. Stand for the National Anthem.
8. Vote in every election, the big ones and the small ones.

On a more general note:

1. Be humble and kind (thank you singer Tim McGraw and writer Lori McKenna).
2. Pull over for funeral processions.
3. Don’t be afraid to sacrifice, from the little to the big.
4. Pay attention to the subtler special days in people’s lives: death dates of loved ones, anniversary dates of sobriety, the mark of another year of “cancer free.”
5. Visit cemeteries. Piece together the stories on the headstones.

And finally, set an alarm. Good things can happen when you get out of bed early. Even if you stay in your jammies.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Hope from a Squiggly Line

Some thoughts on loss and comfort on this, the 7-year anniversary of Dana’s passing.

Earlier this month I volunteered to write an Advent devotional for our church and was assigned a snippet out of Psalm 103. It goes something like this:

Praise the Lord, my soul; my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5, NIV)

I stumbled over the phrase “heals all our diseases” because the obvious retort to that declaration is, “No, He doesn’t.” So, what gives? Is David, whose name is in the byline, using figurative parts of speech that point to eternal “ultimate” healing? Is he writing while on a spiritual high and over-promising on behalf of God? Or does this simply mean the Bible can’t be trusted? None of these seem likely in that all other benefits from God in this passage are very literal and are for now: forgiveness, redemption, love, mercy, and good. And David himself had been around uncured diseases: the lameness of Mephibosheth as well as the loss of his first son. Yet he still writes that the Lord “heals all your diseases.” There is obviously something deeper in play here.

Well, here’s what I got. I’m seeing the “something deeper” as two things, and they are two things that God is most jazzed about all through Scripture: 1) ultimate healing in heaven; 2) helping us out until we get there.

But first a confession. I’ve never been comforted by the concept of “ultimate healing,” as in when someone passes away from disease and we say, “Well, now she is healed.”

It’s true. Our loved one is healed. But also gone. I’ve viewed, maybe unfairly, the idea of “ultimate healing” as just a convenient way to give God an out for not delivering a miracle. I didn’t find much comfort in that. My exercise with this psalm has helped me find comfort in that. In fact, I literally found it in the form of a squiggly line in Psalm 103 in Dana's Bible.

For me, the New Testament message blurs the lines between mortality and immortality, between temporal and eternal. Our personal eternity begins at the point of believing in Jesus. Death, having lost its sting, then simply becomes the moment we step out of our mortality and keep walking with nothing but immortality, like when your boot gets stuck in the mud and your foot slips right out. From God’s perspective, it’s that simple. But after millennia of existing in our fallen state, we’ve gotten very attached to our mortality. It’s all we see, and quite frankly, all we know.

You’ve heard me speak of God stamps—those moments in my journey when it was mercifully obvious that God’s hands were all over my experience. In a post titled “Lessons Learned Along the Trail…and Journey” I wrote about a stamp that brought great comfort to me and has since brought comfort and encouragement to many others. The penultimate point of that stamp was me, while at a mountaintop cabin in Montana, hearing words from Dana from her perch on the Other side (I’ll let others figure out the conveyance mechanism on that: Angels? God? Holy Spirit?) saying to me that it didn’t matter how bad life gets. It didn’t matter how sucky her cancer battle was. It didn’t matter the pain I was feeling. She had seen where this all goes and could resolutely say “It…IS…worth it!” The ultimate point of that stamp (and I humbly encourage you to read the post if you haven’t) came a couple days later while hiking a trail when I found myself having the EXACT same conversation with hikers about a boring trail leading to a glorious overlook. I was on my way down and they were on their way up. They asked, “Is it worth it?” It was comedic timing. Yes. The glorious overlook was worth the boring hike.

It’s all about the glorious end. The thing is, it’s actually frustrating that this truth seems to shape God’s modus operandi. He knows where this is all headed and He knows it’s going to blow our minds. This is likely why He seems slow and even silent when we think He should be loud and miraculous. Yes, He may perform a miracle. But He gets more excited about the glorious end. We, naturally, would like the miracle.

So what about now? How can this “It’s Worth It!” theology help when we are fighting all our diseases and everything else that a fallen world can throw at us? The prospect of the glorious end isn’t all that comforting or motivating and quite frankly we have many God-given blessings to enjoy right here and now. Thankfully, and mercifully, God does more than say, “Just wait. You’ll see.”

I think this is the second thing in play that jazzes God up in Psalm 103. He helps us get by until we get there. When we are in the pit, God climbs in with us. Further, He redeems the experience of the pit. I remember thinking while in the pit of the cancer fight that, while I’d rather not be in the pit, I’m going to take advantage of the perspective and take a look around, knowing that I would see things and experience aspects of God that I would not have seen or experienced otherwise. We’re told in Philippians that there is great fulfillment in joining in the fellowship of suffering with Jesus, that we find a depth of intimacy we would not otherwise have experienced. I have found that to be true. I am also experiencing the fruit of redemption. In fact, one of those fruits is finishing up her oatmeal while sitting in her high chair as I type. She’s even thrown some fruit on the floor to help emphasize the point.

At the moment our friends and family members seem to be experiencing more than their fair share of fallen world these days. We have young friends fighting new cancer battles, dear friends in a marriage that’s falling apart. We have several friends, neighbors, and family who have experienced tragic loss in recent months, most recently our dear sweet Erin, Jessica’s cousin, whose husband Mike stepped out of his mortality just this past Tuesday after a 2-year battle against cancer.

There is reality in the notion that God loves to help us through this fallen world, and there is truth in the notion that God can’t wait for us to see what’s waiting for us. When Dana and I were in the final weeks of care-giving, I began to read the book of Revelation to her, about a chapter a day. It was her favorite book of the Bible. Each chapter brought salve and comfort to anxiety-filled days. We could feel God’s hands and were mercifully reminded of His presence through all the God stamps we were collecting. About midway through the book I had a haunting thought: What’s going to happen after we read the last chapter? It has such a final “Amen!” On Tuesday, December 22 Dana was more interactive than usual so I read two chapters. They happened to be the last two chapters of the book. The next morning she passed away. In Revelation 21 Dana heard these words:

‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

That sounds an awful lot like “He heals all your diseases.” Leave it to the book of Revelation to tie it all together. To give us comfort in the pit, and hope for the future.

As I was seeking insight on the absoluteness of “heals all our diseases,” and trying to push through my own bias against “ultimate healing” in writing the Advent devotional, I consulted several commentaries, and in a last-ditch effort for some insight, I dug out Dana’s Bible (her “brown” Bible that she often mentioned) to see if she had any comments on that phrase, particularly in light of fighting a disease that threatens life. When I turned to that psalm, my eyes landed on the picture you see nearby. The only notation in that psalm, a squiggly penned line under “He heals all our diseases.” I have no idea when she noted that phrase. Was it pre-cancer? Was it during cancer recurrence? I did have a couple clues. The fact that it was squiggly, and not a neat straight line (she usually used a straight-edge) coupled with the fact that she made no notes with the line (she always noted why something stood out) indicates to me that she underlined this phrase in the final months of fighting her disease—when she was too worn out to care about the details of neatness and comments. (The dates you see noted of ’04 and ’06 were read-throughs she had done, with a straight edge, and making notes.) She was pinning, or actually penning, her hopes on healing. I may never know, this side of heaven, which healing she most had in mind when she squiggled that line. In a nod to the blurred line between mortality and immortality, it doesn’t matter. What I do know is that on December 23, 2009, she stepped out of her mortal shell and into immortal glory.

She left her diseased boots sticking in the mud. She was healed. Of all her disease.

I’m glad I found that squiggly line. It reminded me of God’s presence in the pit. It assured me, even convinced me, of the beauty in ultimate healing.

I don’t know what you’re facing at the moment, but I hope you find a squiggly line that gives you blessed assurance in the hope of heaven where the sting of death is gone.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Celebrating 60 Years with Mom and Dad!

It’s presumptuous to think that you can write something that’s a worthy commemoration to 60 years of wonderful marriage. So that is not what I’m setting out to do. Instead, please accept this simply as a humble tribute to my parents whom I dearly love.

Two big things have to happen to be married for 60 years: 1) you need to live a long time; 2) you need to stay married a long time. Mom and Dad, the blessed Bonnie and Miles Shafer, are ably doing both. They continue to redefine for all of us each new decade of age they enter, and in their marriage they actually seem to be counting backwards, getting younger and more vibrant in their love as they go along.

My sister, Becky (“Beck”), and I know that we are blessed. We’ve had the gift of being reared by loving, selfless, nurturing parents. Of course, that’s because they were a loving, selfless, nurturing couple to begin with. They met at the Church of God Campmeeting grounds in Springfield, Ohio. Mom, the daughter of a faithful church pastor; dad, the son of a faithful family every pastor wished they had in their church. Dad was helping to park cars at Springfield Campmeeting on a summer evening in 1953. Mom was in one of those cars with her family. To hear Mom tell it, she was smitten by this handsome young man in his t-shirt and official car-parking whistle. To hear Dad tell it, it was her cuteness and charm that got his attention.

It was a match made in heaven and on September 29, 1956 they declared “I do” to something God had already put together. And you know, they’ve been following that pattern, in some form or another, ever since. Mom and Dad are what it looks like to reap the benefits of living the gospel message, being obedient to what God puts before them: to speak truth when needed, to dispense grace when needed, to bestow forgiveness when needed, to keep at bay those things that try to sneak in and destroy. They are what it looks like to live a humbly contented life, free of bitterness, jealousy, envy and other things that erode the body and harden the heart. It’s this humble contentment, I think, that has freed up their minds and hearts to love so selflessly on Beck and me, on our extended family, on our church, on friends, and on anyone who made their way to Mom and Dad’s dining room table.

This humble contentment certainly put them in position to be the best parents in the world—all due respect to any present-company parents reading along. If I may, let me count a few ways.

First, there is their hidden, surprising sense of adventure. Before they knew how to camp, they took us camping. When they felt the nudge to leave the city to find solace in the country, they left familiarity and moved. Before they knew about livestock and farming they brought home three ponies. Knowing nothing about construction, they built a house with the help of friends. Neither finished with a college degree, but they sent their two off on that wonderful college adventure. For their 50th wedding anniversary we took a hiking trip to Big Mountain and Glacier National Park in Montana.

Then, there is their high capacity for music. Through day to day life they taught music to both Beck and me and encouraged us with formal lessons. Car trips always involved singing. Of all the great voices I’ve heard, Dad’s mellow baritone is still my favorite and I’ve always loved that Mom can play anything on the piano—anything! Over the years, Dad has faithfully kept Preble County’s pianos in tune while they both blessed the Eaton First Church of God with professional-grade music long before the church was able to hire a professional-grade musician.

Of course there is the open sanctuary of their home. Whether kneeling for prayer in the living room, or gathering for meals around the table, or saving your fork for apple pie, Mom and Dad’s home has provided sanctuary by the tableful. Through Beck’s and my high school years our back yard served as the after-game gathering spot for players, band, fans, parents, coaches, and of course, Squeak our dachshund, who turned into an actual hotdog after eating a nightful of scraps.

Speaking of pets, Mom and Dad graced us with many. History has shown Squeak and Lassie (beautiful black and white collie) to be our primary pets with many other animals serving as worthy back up pets (cats, ducks, gerbils). This also meant Mom and Dad ministered gracefully to us when it was time for each pet to find its way to pet heaven. What you don’t know at the time is that in between comforting you and being strong they are having their own cry times. And of course, they knew from the start that those times would come. But they knew the pet experience would be worth the pain. In retrospect, that may have been one of their smartest moves in truly preparing their kids for life.

I close this writing while sitting at my desk with the window cracked open, listening to the night bugs and sounds. And that’s appropriate. Mom and Dad taught us the joy of the simple. They provided the kind of home environment in which something simple like the sound of night bugs can minister to your heart, quiet your mind, and drift you off to sleep. If you can hear the bugs, it means you can’t hear other noises that might keep you awake: traffic, city sounds, noisy neighbors, your own mind. It’s peaceful. And there you have it. That’s the word. Of all the great words that could sum up home life under my parents, I am inclined to choose peaceful simply because it’s the byproduct of all the other great words that are added into that sum: selfless, loving, secure, and of course, fun.

We are blessed to have our folks reach this milestone, the Diamond Anniversary. I love Mom and Dad. I love who and what Beck and I have been able to become because of who Mom and Dad are. But it’s not just us, it’s all the people around Mom and Dad. Beck and I are blessed, not just because of our wonderful folks, but because of the people they have impacted.

Years ago Mom and Dad bought 2.5 acres of woods with a creek running through it and a clearing near the road. When the idea of building a home on that idyllic plot of land was still just a glimmer in their eyes, we would head to that woods to play, grill out, and do mowing and clearing. Each time we’d pull out and head to our farmhouse home, usually just after dusk, mom would point at the woods and say, “Someday won’t it be nice to see some warm lights glowing in a home right at the edge of those trees?” That someday soon came and those lights have been serving as a beacon for friends and families on myriad journeys and have left a glow in the hearts of all those who’ve been inside the home, most likely gathered around the dining room table.

I love you Mom and Dad! Happy Anniversary!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

"Children Everywhere!"

Over the past months several families close to us, some close by friendship and others close by blood and friendship, have lost a child, either by disease or tragic events. These recent losses have, of course, triggered memories of children lost in recent years.

In my own journey of loss, today, August 28, is a date that rings true in that it was the birthday of my late wife, Dana. So it seems fitting to share a story from the journey today that might bring encouragement and hope to those who’ve experienced one of the worst heartache’s this world can dish out, the loss of a child.

First, some necessary, and brief, backstory. This blog, A Journey Observed, is the chronicle of my journey of loss and recovery: the loss of Dana that left me feeling that I don’t need to love again, and the recovery that led to actually loving again. Loving again times three, in fact; not only as husband to Jessica but as father to Reade and Rachel…proving that God is not only miraculously redemptive, He’s also funny.

Dana and I didn’t begin thinking family until a few years into marriage. But, a few months after deciding to let nature take its course, instead of getting pregnant, we got breast cancer, which tends to mess up child bearing plans. And just to seal the deal, on our 5-year “all clear” anniversary from breast cancer, and at a time we could still consider a narrow window into parenthood, we learned that Dana would need a hysterectomy.

We grieved the loss of parenthood but eventually embraced our new position in life and, with a few longings here and there, were relatively fine with being the non-parents in our circles. Dana always had a soft spot for the babies and children in those circles, a spot that took on new significance once child rearing was completely out of our picture. She coined the phrase “baby holdies” as in “I need some baby holdies,” capturing the restorative, divine vibe that comes while holding a baby. When knitting became her forte, booties were a “must knit” for any new babies that came along. She certainly carried the nurture gene and I would get a little sad when I thought of her not getting to maximize that gene. To this day one of my favorite pictures of Dana is her displaying two freshly knitted sets of booties for friends pregnant with twins.

Within a few days of Dana’s passing, even before her funeral, I received an email from our good friend Karen Norval. I had known Karen for many years through youth ministry circles and she was serving on InWord’s board of directors at this time. She and Dana were good friends but had not spent a lot of time together. In her email, Karen shared that she had a dream about Dana the previous night. In her dream she saw Dana in heaven and then she wrote, “Barry, there were children everywhere.” Karen is a soulful, thoughtful, discerning person. I take her dreams seriously.

For many years I was comforted by that scene…by Dana getting to experience the joys and fulfillment of nurturing children in ways immeasurably beyond what she could imagine. Of course, it would only be the joys and fulfillment part of nurturing, not the frustrating parts of nurturing…this is heaven, after all.

But I had a specific epiphany (“spepiphany”?) while sitting in church a couple months ago that has melted my heart: I can now picture some faces in that scene of “children everywhere.” I don’t want to presume to know what God has going on for our little ones who’ve gone before us. But when I feel the pain of our friends and family who’ve lost their precious ones, I am comforted by the redemptive circle that is being completed in heaven. I share this in the hopes that it may comfort them, if maybe for just a moment.

In the months we spent in hospice mode, in the shadow of heaven’s gate, we had two very clear moments that reminded us of how thin the veil is between here and There…moments of assurance that all you believe about heaven is true, moments of assurance telling you that you can trust all your instincts and beliefs about hope, that God is indeed communicating with you through unusual means, including dreams.

So it seems that we can take heart in a particular reunion in heaven: children whose lives have been robbed of being raised by their nurturing, loving parents connecting with someone whose life was robbed of getting to nurture and love her own children. It’s God-parenting at the highest level. Literally.

Whether we feel like it or not, we are part of something that’s bigger than what we see.

I leave you with a picture from one of Dana’s scrapbooks, just sent to me by Dana’s mother, my mother-in-law for life, Mama Sue…a little something that might help us picture that particular reunion in heaven. This is Dana showing toddler Buzzin Cara (“beloved cousin”) how to play the harp. Cara, now married to Aaron, is a beautiful woman with two energetic boys of her own.