Home is where the heart is…

Home should be where the heart is
Never were words so true
My heart’s far, far away
Home is too.

There’s a map of the United States in my kitchen, with pins marking cities where dear friends and family live. When you make college memories in both Michigan and Arkansas, and move across the country twice in a decade, you leave a trail of memories marked by time and place. Bits and pieces of my heart are left behind in the lives of others.  Imprints from others exist on my own life and heart. I’m a different person than I was when I left home at 18, or even when I left for seminary at 49. For this, I am truly thankful. As Thomas Wolfe said, “you can’t go home again” and even if I could, neither home nor I would be the same.

I’m not the first to recognize that sometimes friends are more like family, and sometimes family shapes us as much in their absence as they did with their presence. Who we are is due, in part, to those who invested in us years ago. But “who we are” is also shaped by those who preceded our generation without any intentional investment at all. Their existence shaped us indirectly by the choices they made, the places they lived, and the people they loved. I’ve sometimes been surprised at how easily I found my way “home” in new cities, new churches, new communities. It may be because I’ve offered my heart in new relationships wherever I’ve lived. I’ve always discovered new people and places to treasure – and “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt 6:21). My map of memories is marked with heart-shaped pins in recognition and celebration of that.

There’s a place called home I can almost see
With a red front door and a roaring fire and a Christmas tree
Yes a place called home…full of love and family
And I’m there at the door watching you come home to me…

My mom died earlier this month after a long illness and the painful effects of separation during COVID while in an assisted living facility in Arizona. I doubt that she thought of that room, however sunny and spacious it was, as “home.” Each time she had to downsize some (3 times in 3 years) it broke her heart to let go of more possessions. She was longing for home – the home she’d curated for years. In her mind, home always included husband and kids (and later, grandkids). Home was family. Home was a kitchen filled with good smells and large quantities of baked goods. Home was being surrounded by family photos, dad’s puzzles, and furnishings she loved. On second thought, maybe she felt a little “at home,” since she did have some favorite furnishings and nearly all the family photos.

Except for a brief, outdoor visit on Mother’s Day, even my brother and sister in law in Phoenix weren’t allowed to visit very often. They would stop by and chat through the window screen. We would call or FaceTime from out of state, but towards the end Mom struggled to hold onto her phone, or understand what to click (or not). Sometimes when we talked, her mental clarity was fading, and she spoke of “going home from work” and “making cookies yesterday.” She thought she was back home in Indiana. I’m sure in these last few months, she was missing family. And in her mind, family was a jumble of those still living, and those who’d passed on. She was longing for home – a different one.

This world is not my home, I’m just a’ passing through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore

The last year has been a painful season of loss for our family. With our granddaughter’s diagnosis in July 2019, we entered a world of hospitals, chemo, questions, and fear. A few months later, my dad passed unexpectedly after a short illness, weary of life and day to day caregiving. Isla and my mom entered hospice care, miles apart but within days of each other. And after Isla died August 11th, we said our goodbyes to mom only weeks later. The older I get, the more loss I experience, the less I feel “at home” here on earth. The more I long for home.

When I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing
It would sure be nice to be back home where there’s love and affection…

We all long for home, even if “home” means something different to you than it does to me. If your parents provided you with “love overflowing” but it seems lacking today, you think longingly of that earlier time. If you were in a relationship that ended painfully, looking back on happier times may be easier than imagining what’s next or what’s new. But to be fair, all of life is a mix of blessings and curses, highlights and dark days. We may look back nostalgically to our memory of home, but we know there were good days and bad then, just like in our current reality. When we were in them, they weren’t necessarily the “good old days.” Our longings are elusive. We’re not really sure what we need. But God knows. God is the only one who can satisfy. You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you… Because your love is better than life… (Ps.63:1–4)

“Sometimes I feel lost,” said the boy.
“Me too,” said the mole, “but we love you, and love brings you home.
I think everyone is just trying to get home.”
“Home isn’t always a place, is it?” *

When all seems lost, when death wins, when chaos reigns, we long for home.
But longing for home will prove insufficient. Home is not a place, but a person.

Only Jesus is a steady rock on which to lean. A home for our longing hearts.
Always, only, Jesus

*from The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse (Mackesy, 2019)

A Time for Everything: the Life Cycle of Cosmos and Butterflies

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die… (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

Nothing about the death of a child makes sense.

In our limited, logical understanding of life and death, of time and mortality, we expect death to come for the elderly. And as we ourselves grow older, it is always and only those “even older” than us that we identify of as “elderly.” There is a paradox often mentioned that as we age, time seems to pass with even greater voracity and speed. What seems like only a moment ago was my high school graduation. What happened yesterday is often forgotten.

Parts of the last year seem to have taken very long indeed. So much waiting. Such a long winter. Certainly spring will come – but how long? Yet, parts of this last year vanished like a mist with Isla. When I was at the hospital with her in July, we laughed and sang and looked forward to healing and transplant and…life. Now, only 8 weeks later, time is flipped on its head and death leaves us waiting again for spring, for resurrection.

Spring in the Midwest is its own paradox, sending out hyacinths in February only to be blanketed by snow in March. Wednesday’s sunny breeze invites hope, but Friday’s bitter wind confirms a cold reality. But spring eventually came, right? It is possible I missed it this year. But even during COVID, we still had daffodils and 70 degree days and new shoots of green grass.

In the heat of an August afternoon, we forget.

“Teach us to number our days…” (Ps 90).

When I dream of spring, a couple of images come to mind. One is a butterfly, a perpetual reminder of rebirth, transformation, and resurrection. Isla loved reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Eric Carle did his homework on that one – caterpillars really do eat and eat and eat, multiplying their weight exponentially! How fascinating to see an egg hatch into caterpillar who makes a cocoon, before the stunning metamorphosis into a butterfly! What kind of creator goes to all that trouble for the beauty of a butterfly, whose life cycle ranges only from a week to a few months?

Another image is a flower…in so many shapes and colors that it’s not one picture, but dozens. From the earliest lily of the valley to April lilacs; from June roses to the sunflowers towering overhead in August, here is another species where God simply shows off.  Their fleeting beauty and lasting fragrance are visual reminders that creativity and beauty are part of our heritage as God’s image-bearers. Isla loved flowers too, including the tiny yellow ones she gave me in May, now pressed in my bible.

That same month, just after the kids found out Isla would need the trial drug before transplant, Autumn ordered beautiful matching necklaces with an imprint of a cosmos bloom for herself and Isla. Regarding her choice, she wrote, “Not only is cosmos the flower for her birth month, October, but it represents peace, wholeness and joy in life. Cosmos is a hearty flower than can thrive in a variety of soils and conditions much like Isla.” And Isla did thrive in a variety of conditions, her young personality evolving from shy toddler to courageous preschooler during her year in the hospital. She won the hearts of doctors and nurses, therapists, and friends with her fierce determination and joyful spirit, even in the midst of leukemia treatments.

I wish Cosmos were perennial.

Hope does not disappoint… (Rom 5)

Autumn’s post continues, “It is my hope that her body will find wholeness, our family can find peace, and the years ahead will be filled with joy…” Reading her post again today reminded of the scripture that says  “…we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (Rom 5:3-5).

I’ve seen suffering produce endurance, character, and hope in our family this year.
But I choke on the phrase hope does not disappoint…

Hope disappointed us this time.
Isla’s body did not find wholeness. Peace is still illusive. Joy seems unimaginable.

And then, I remember the butterfly.

For those of us who believe in the power of metamorphosis, of resurrection, we trust that her body will find wholeness in transformation, in the wonder of a life to come.

We believe that which is sown in weakness is raised in power (1 Cor 15:43).

We believe that the peace of God surpasses all understanding (Phil 4:7) even when the death of this child doesn’t make any logical sense.

We believe that the God of hope will fill [us] with all joy and peace (Rom 15:13).

Maybe not today. But there’s a time for everything…

Another grief, observed*

Last week doctors told our family “There’s nothing else we can do.”
When people ask how we’re feeling, finding words is excruciating.
Metaphors and mystery are all we have.

No words.
Phrases form and
Fall flat

Shards of glass
Pierce, slash, and tear
An open wound

Slammed into curb,
Knocked into neutral
The car unaffected
(or so it seems)
I keep driving

Waves of nausea
Froth under the surface
Crash against the shore
When least expected
Unrelenting.

I can’t breathe,
Drowning in pain
Suffocation a proclamation of my
Indignation at
the [in]justice of God.

I can’t sleep
but dream in color.
Nightmare with no end
Falling with no place to land
And wake in pain.

In-between diagnosis and despair
A thin blue line forestalls my
Descent into chaos
Fear in the rearview mirror.

Panic in the pandemic
Unmasked
Unheard
Undone

Only prayer and pain in a
Quarantine of grief
Holding my heart in Your hand
Broken

*in recognition of the book by C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed.

Remembering Dad

When I was in third grade, we moved into a Cape Cod house in Nashville, Tennessee. The magnolia tree begged to be climbed, mimosa blossoms scented the yard, and a sloping driveway went all the way around back to the basement sliding door. The basement included a den along with bedrooms for my brothers and me. Upstairs was a rented apartment accessed only by an outdoor stairway; the flat roof of the garage served as its porch. The formal living and dining areas were reserved mostly for Sunday dinner guests who entered the front door

But our family entered through a breezeway between kitchen and garage. The year dad remodeled that kitchen, I fell in love with home design watching the 1930s galley become a 1970s L-shaped wonder with avocado green appliances. At one end was the door to the formal dining room. At the other end were two doors; one led to the garage, and one to my dad’s study. That door was always open.

Dark paneling and carpet sucked the sunlight out of the study, window to the front yard notwithstanding. Along one wall, bookshelves extended ceiling-ward, and along the opposite wall was my dad’s desk. There were lower bookshelves next to the desk, and stacks of Bibles and commentaries across the top. And on a plastic mat in the middle of the floor was my dad’s office chair. Curved and smooth, the well-worn arms of tiger oak radiate strength and stability just like my dad. The base was a metal post with four swivel feet and it rocked backward. But dad always leaned toward his desk, eyes straining at the text as he hand wrote sermon notes for Sunday.

Decades later, I’m in another study of dad’s, helping them pack for a final move to Phoenix. Because I’ve moved quite a bit myself, I’m incredulous at some of the items my dad kept. What in the world was he thinking? The reason behind such choices is surely subconscious; we’d be hard-pressed to describe those selections to anyone else. But what we choose to keep communicates something about what we value.

A glimpse of our past; what we treasure most.

Dad’s desk was like a paper trail of the last five decades. I found pocket calendars dating to 1994; mail from siblings as well as high school classmates; programs from musical performances he was in or directed; ancestry notes on his family; term papers from high school. Of this last category, one was titled “That Inferior Feeling” and described the uncertainty of not-quite-measuring-up to (self-imposed?) standards. I imagine my dad at that young age and I wonder whose expectations he was trying to meet. I think of myself at that young age, and my dad making note of the one “B” on my report card of mostly “As.” Compassion and empathy increase as I realize that his parenting grew out of his own experience, with parents and teachers alike. We are all products of our past, sometimes broken, doing the best we can with what we’ve received.

One entire bookshelf was filled with 9×6 inch black notebooks, each one a three-ring binder of sermon notes, carefully typed outlines from his decades of preaching. In the mid-90s (when his old typewriter died but he hadn’t yet made the move to a personal computer) you see a shift to hand-written sermon notes, still in outline form. As the years progress (and his job becomes part-time) the hand-writing becomes more wobbly and the dates of sermons less frequent. As far as I can tell, he kept every single one, noting both date and location of its delivery. They are didactic in nature, not reflective or contemplative. Still, I struggle with whether or not to keep them as is, let them all go, or translate them all into an eventual festschrift of his preaching career. The notebooks serve as a window into his belief set, a time-worn record of his lived-out theology.

I always loved dad’s study. I loved the books, and the sound of my dad’s pen, and the atlas that rivaled the size of my younger brother. I loved the swivel chair so much it now sits in my own office where I write blog posts, research papers, and yes, sermons. My path to ministry has often been a winding and surprising journey. My daughter and I both followed in his footsteps as ministers, an ironic detail he missed in his commitment to a men-only church leadership model. We are shaped by our past, but we don’t have to be permanently defined by it. I think I honor him best when I follow God’s will, just as he did, even if he couldn’t understand the path I travel.

Maybe someday Dad’s chair will belong to my daughter. Maybe she’ll look through my books and files someday, wondering why I kept and wrote what I did. She’s walked a different road than mine, finding affirmation for her call through her college years, and ministry with a Chicago church plant. She’s also published articles, and walked through lots of open doors. Sometimes I think about ministry doors that slammed shut because of my gender. But the door to dad’s study was always open.