Ashes in a Baggie

mom

Death is a strange thing. Today would have been my mother’s 89th birthday. Instead, it’s her first birthday since her death last August. Almost a year ago. In about five weeks, I will have experienced all the “firsts” — the first holidays, the first Mother’s Day, the first birthday.

My sister, two brothers and I took some of her ashes to the gravesite tonight. It’s the first time I’ve been there. And that’s when I realized how strange death is.

This woman lived 88 years. She had four children, numerous grandchildren and even more great grandchildren. She lived through the death of both parents and two husbands. She married, divorced, gave birth, attended school plays, had sex, danced, drank more than she should have, said that giving up smoking was the hardest thing she had ever done, rode a motorcycle with a lover. Her favorite picture of her mother was at her and my father’s wedding and her favorite memory of her was in a smart red suit.

She told me, on the last night of her life, some of her feelings about her life. A lot of them had to do with her mother. Maybe we are defined by our mothers in ways we can’t explain, ways we sometimes hate. But it’s who we are, and who they are.

And tonight I held the container that held her ashes. All of her 88 years, all of her memories, all of her life, loves, hates, fears, joys, laughter and tears contained in a baggie surrounded by a nice leather container.

Yes, really. That’s all that life boils down to. Ashes in a baggie.

Please tell me, I want to cry out, that there is something beyond. Lord, I believe, help me in my unbelief.

At the grave, my brother dug a small hole (yes, illegal). Each of us there — my brothers, my sister, my sister-in-law, my brother-in-law, my husband, my son and me — took turns putting a handful of ashes into the ground. As I left, I felt the residue of ash on my hands, making my skin strangely soft.

I haven’t washed my hands, haven’t brushed them off. Like a teenage girl who won’t wash her cheek after a kiss from a celebrity, I want to keep my mom close. Don’t leave! I feel the ashes coating my palms, feel them sinking into my creases, perhaps becoming a part of me.

And even as the evening goes on, as I type these words, longing to memorialize her in some way that I can’t hope to accomplish, the ashes fade. And life goes on.

Motivation

Your Only Limit Is YouI admit it. I like reading motivational quotes. “Be so good they can’t ignore you” — Steve Martin. “To be a champ, you have to believe in yourself when nobody else will” — Sugar Ray Robinson. “If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.” Not only do I like reading them, I believe them. “Nothing worth having comes easy.” “The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.” “Your only limit is you.” Yeah, especially that one.

Before I talk about that limit, though, let me say what I am NOT talking about. I am NOT talking about my bike riding. Although, certainly, all these quotes apply to that as well. “Stay positive, work hard, and make it happen.” Yeah, that one. I can apply that to bike riding, to my big goals for this year.

But I’m talking about bike riding only peripherally. This post is about writing. What, you didn’t know I was a writer? Probably because I don’t talk about it nearly as much as I talk about my bike. I don’t post on Facebook about my daily word count, but I do post my daily miles.

The truth is, it’s not hard for me to get the motivation to ride my bike. I just do it. I don’t drag my butt out of bed and think, “I hate this, but I need to do it, so just get on the bike and then it will be over.” No. The alarm goes off, and in 10 to 15 glorious minutes, I am on the road, breathing in the fresh air, my eyes filling with the beauty of the morning sunlight filtering through the leaves and creating fantastic patterns on the road in front of me. And the thing I hate on those mornings? The knowledge that I can’t ride to my heart’s content, that my ride is limited by my need for a paycheck.

So why is writing not the same?

I want to say that it’s because writing is hard work. But so is riding a bike. Especially uphill. And yet, I insist on conquering those hills.

I want to say that it’s because I don’t enjoy it. And yet, I do. I enjoy the stories and characters I create. I enjoy playing with words and deciding which word or phrase fits best. I enjoy creating a sticky situation and then writing my way out. I enjoy the resolution.

So why is writing not the same?

Honestly? I don’t know.

A friend of mine said my two problems are distraction and frustration. Distraction leads to frustration, and the frustration with myself for not writing, not creating, not getting off my butt, leads to depression. I can get sucked down that black hole pretty quickly.

My distractions are sometimes trivial. “I’ll play a game first, then I’ll write.” Sometimes they’re more important. A friend who texts, “I need to talk.” But the point is, whether trivial or important, they don’t stop me from bike riding. I make time for bike riding. I plan it. I schedule when I can go. I look at the weather and pick the optimal time. It’s just not a question of whether I’ll go or not. (Yes, I do take rest days.)

The answer is the same for writing. Make time for it. Schedule it. Pick the optimal time. Make it where it’s not a question of whether I’ll write or not. Because I deserve that. The great thing is that bike riding creates a wonderful time to think about my writing, to plan the next section, to work through that sticky situation I put my main character in. (Oh, and depression? It can’t stand up against a good bike ride.)

So just do it. You always have time for the things you put first. Do something today that your future self will thank you for. Don’t stop until you’re proud.

 

Our Unlikely God

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to preach this at Oasis Community Church. I wanted to share it with the Stumbling Toward Grace readers. Thank you for another opportunity.

***

For those of you who don’t know, I’m in marketing at PATH Intl., which is the organization overseeing therapeutic horsemanship. Marketing for this kind of an organization can seem easy. After all, you mention “special needs” and people go “awwww.” You mention horses and people go “awwww.” So pretty easy job as far as PR goes. The problem is, not a lot of people know who we are, so we do marketing to make our organization better known. We want to get our message to the largest number of people possible, to the largest number of people who actually care what we do, and do it all for the least amount of money. So there’s always a weighing of the pros and cons of any marketing strategy. Yes, an ad in People Magazine reaches a great many people. However, not necessarily the people who care anything about our organization. So maybe Horse and Rider would be better for our audience and it reaches a great many people. However, it’s too expensive for our nonprofit organization. Just Horses is a small publication that only reaches the horse people in Idaho. But the ad would be cheap. Is it worth it though for something that reaches that few people?

I can almost hear the marketing meeting that God had with the angels before the birth of Jesus.

God says, “It’s time to announce the birth of My Son.”

Angel #1 says, “We need to announce it to as many people as possible! What’s the biggest city on earth?”

Angel #2 says, “That would be Rome. World power.”

Angel #1 says, “Not only that, but their communication system is second to none. Roads to all the major cities and they control the trade routes of the seas.”

Angel #2 says, “We could do far worse. With announcing it at Rome, we can be well assured that the whole world will hear of the birth of this magnificent Son.”

But God smiles and says, “I’m thinking Bethlehem.”

Angel #1 says, “Bethlehem? But it’s so tiny, so insignificant. It won’t make much of a splash.”

Angel #2 says, “Lord, that’s just crazy!”

Angel #1 says, “That’s okay. We’re in PR. We can still spin this. Who are the parents?”

Angel #2 says, “A king would be good. Maybe just passing through Bethlehem.”

God smiles again. “No. Just a simple carpenter and his young wife. They’re pretty poor. Oh, but there will be kings.”

Angel #1 says, “Well, thank You for that! Now, we can publicize the royal family of these kings. What is their lineage? Does it come down from Kings David and Solomon?”

God says, “Not quite. They’re not Jewish. They’re Gentiles. From the East. Astrologers.”

Angel #2 says, “Wow, that’s going to be a tough one to pull off, God. I mean, how are we supposed to announce it to the whole world? Can we at least still sing your praises from the heavens?”

And God smiles even bigger. “Oh yes,” he says. “And wait until you see who I want you to sing for.”

 

Who do the Heavenly Host sing for? That’s right. Not the kings. Not the worldly powers. Not the rich people. Not the priests or the teachers of the Law. The King of the Universe, the Holy Anointed One, the Messiah, God’s own Son is heralded by the Heavenly Host to a bunch of shepherds.

The first part of Michael Card’s song “God’s Own Fool” expresses it perfectly:

Seems I’ve imagined Him all of my life
As the wisest of all of mankind
But if God’s Holy wisdom is foolish to man
He must have seemed out of His mind.

We serve an unlikely God, who delights in unlikeliness. We see that unlikeliness with the shepherds. How unlikely was it for God to use the shepherds?

Today, we tend to think positively of shepherds because Jesus said He was the Good Shepherd. We recite the 23rd Psalm at times of distress in order to comfort ourselves and others. We get warm and fuzzy feelings when we think of sheep, or especially lambs.

But the truth is, sheep are dirty. Their wool picks up loose sticks and leaves and dirt. They’re not clean creatures. They won’t clean themselves the way a cat will.

Because of that, shepherds weren’t admired in biblical times. They are called loathsome to the Egyptians in Genesis 46:34, and being a shepherd was considered punishment. Numbers 14:33 says, “And your sons shall be shepherds for forty years in the wilderness, and they shall suffer for your unfaithfulness, until your corpses lie in the wilderness.”

“The shepherds were despised by the orthodox good people of the day. Shepherds were quite unable to keep the details of the ceremonial law; they could not observe all the meticulous hand washings and rules and regulations. Their flocks made far too constant demands on them; and so the orthodox looked down on them as very common people.” (Barclay, p. 17)

And yet, it is to these loathsome, unclean people that the angels announce the birth of the Messiah.

Have you ever had times where you felt it was unlikely that God would use you for anything? Maybe because of sin in your life, maybe because you see yourself as insignificant. We know enough theology to be able to parrot the words we hear so often, that God loves all of us and saves us in spite of our sin and our uncleanliness. But sometimes I think we believe that we’re just barely scraping by, that we’re getting into heaven by the skin of our teeth. That God is scouring over the record of our lives, looking for the one thing that will allow Him to send us on our way to Hell. And instead of being welcomed into Heaven with all the saints, He peers at us over the rim of His glasses and disapprovingly says, “Well, you found the loophole that says I should let you in, so fine. Go stand over there in the corner, but don’t you dare think of eating any of the cookies.” And so we hang our head low and scuttle off to the corner, hoping no one sees us and questions our presence in this place of shining whiteness, us with our dirty fingernails and snot-crusted nostrils. And sure, we got in because of that loophole, but there’s no way in Heaven or in Hell that God can use us. He saves that for pure people, for the missionaries and the ministers. Not for us.

If you believe that you are an unlikely person to be used by Him, that’s great! Because the truth is, we have been set apart by an unlikely God. He is the God who delights in using prostitutes and murderers. His story is told by common people, and He is served by anyone who loves Him. He uses everyone He has saved.

So take a look at yourself. Where is God using you? Where is He saying, “YOU are the perfect one to do this particular task”? No matter what the PR people say. The chorus of Michael Card’s song calls us to follow this Madman.

So we follow God’s own Fool
For only the foolish can tell
Believe the unbelievable, come be a fool as well.

Come be a fool as well. We serve an unlikely God. Be unlikely. Be what no one suspects. Love the people God brings in your path, even if other people raise their eyebrows and wag their fingers. Be unlikely.

 

Writing and Grief

My mother’s death has left me with … nothing. Maybe I should just say that it has left me. At times I feel in a fog. At times I forget. At times I remember and grief wrings at my heart the way my mother used to wring out wet clothes. It’s been three weeks. And there’s a nagging feeling that I should get back to life.

In some ways I have. I’ve been biking. I’ve been working. I’ve been going to church, going to dinner, going out with friends. In some of that, there is forgetfulness. On the bike, I can lose everything else and just focus on the sky, the trees, the sunlight, the feeling of the saddle, the peddles, the wind. At work, I can focus on the tasks that need to be done–although some of the bigger tasks feel beyond me at the moment.

Being with friends or family means grief can’t be overwhelming. I want to be with them, I want to TALK, I want to cry and scream and yell “MY MOM IS DEAD.” Instead, we talk of normal life, sometimes of inconsequentials. My words get clogged in my throat, unable to get past the tears traffic-jammed there. I want to cry out to them “help me in my unbelief.” Tell me that she still lives in the afterlife. Tell me that this isn’t the end. Tell me that I will see her again, that she right now is with my dad.

I want to be held while I cry, I want someone to say, “Shhh, everything is alright.”

In other words, I want my mom.

I should get back to life. So not just bike riding or working. I should get back to writing. Just a few words, I tell myself. She wouldn’t want me to stop writing. And yet, it feels so unimportant. Who the hell cares about a rescue operation run out of a bakery? Or a sin-eater named Moth? Or any of the other stories I’ve started and can’t finish. Words on a page don’t seem to mean anything compared to the ashes that rest beside me. They aren’t as solid as a graven headstone.

And yet words were important to her. She loved reading. Some of my earliest memories of her were in a library picking out books to read. She passed that love of reading on to me, and I was so excited when I got old enough to pick books out of the same section of the library that my mom frequented. She loved fiction, mainly mysteries, thrillers, horror, and she shaped a lot of my early reading years. To this day, I can remember the characters of those early books.

So again I ask the question of myself–who the hell cares? Are these things unimportant. No. They connect us to each other, and in some mystical, spiritual way, maybe my words will still connect me to my mom.

I should get back to life. Back to my life. Back to writing. Back to Moth. Back to the Salvatore bakery. As unimportant as they seem sometimes, they are my life.

Even as I write that, another part of me says “tomorrow.” Because right now, it just hurts too much.

 

Yes, Homosexuality Absolutely is A Choice

Very insightful and articulate post about hetero- and homosexual choice.

john pavlovitz

FingerCouple

Confession time.

To all of my Christian brothers and sisters who insist that homosexuality is a choice, I need to break down and finally admit something: I agree with you.

I believe that it absolutely is a choice too, only not in the way that you may have meant.

But I guess that’s largely the crux of the problem we have here. I think you use your terms too loosely without really thinking them through. When you say quite matter-of-factly that homosexualityis a choice, I’m not sure you really know in that moment, just what you mean by “homosexuality”.

Far too often Christian, when you make the statement that being gay is a sin, what you’re really doing without realizing it is reducing all LGBT people down to a sex act; as if that alone defines sexuality.

You’re denying any emotional component in their lives; any capacity to feel real love or show genuine affection toward someone…

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From Golgotha to the Grave

SepulcroIt’s a long walk from Golgotha to the grave. Not in terms of footsteps or roads or the hours, minutes and seconds that make up a day. Not in terms of anything that is measurable.

It’s a long walk from Golgotha to the grave. In footsteps that drag with grief gone wild. On a road that still recalls the stirring whirring dust devils created by a crowd wanting to see the latest spectacle. In the hours, minutes and seconds when the sky turned black and it seemed the devil had his day.

Bitterness consumes and eats away at joy until it is no longer to be found. Sadness is an anchor that drags a soul under turbulent waters until it is difficult to breathe. Hatred burns away flesh and humanity until nothing is left but unfeeling and uncaring bone. Fear crouches in the shadows of the mind until freedom is mired in the mud.

It’s a long walk from Golgotha to the grave, and a lifetime is lived in the word “until.”

But joy grows in the soul until it blossoms as it finds meaning in sorrow. Faith provides strength and courage until it is no longer needed because its object has become Reality. Hope stirs in the cold heart until bitterness and regret are vanquished. Grace is the wings that hide a wounded soul, heals the brokenhearted, opens the eyes of the blind and makes the lame to walk until all things are made new.

It’s a long walk from Golgotha to the grave, and a lifetime is lived, crucified, dead and buried in the word “until.”

Love overcomes hatred and fear until death itself is no longer the final word. Love burns bright in the darkness until a stone is rolled away. Love destroys barriers until an empty tomb is revealed. Love consumes. Love burns. Love blossoms. Love stirs. Love heals. Love is crucified. Love dies and love is buried. Love frees. Love redeems. Love resurrects. Love dies until all men are drawn to Himself, to LOVE.

It’s a long walk from Golgotha to the grave, and a lifetime is embraced and loved in the word “until.”

Why do you look for the living among the dead? See? The stone itself has been rolled away.

Spontaneity

bike drawingI have been riding a bike now for two and a half years. When I first bought my bike, which I dubbed Baby Blue, I wasn’t sure how much I would like it. What if it was too hard? What if I hated it? What if I had just wasted $189?

It didn’t take long to discover the joy of movement. It took a little longer to learn how not to fight the bike but work with it, to work the gears, to realize that there was no embarrassment and certainly no shame in shifting to lower gears when going uphill. Of course not! It became an exercise of listening to my body and what it was telling me, and I didn’t need to listen to anyone else. It was me and Baby Blue against the hills, against the wind, against the world.

The first ride I took was only about three miles. I don’t remember how long it took. Then for that first summer, when I would ride in the mornings before work, I would go less than five miles and only about seven or eight miles per hour. It didn’t matter. I was outside, I was riding.

Now, two and half years later, when I ride in the mornings before work, I go nine or ten miles before I have to go back and get ready for work. (I’m sure my co-workers can tell when I haven’t ridden my bike in the morning—surly is the word, and I’m not talking about the brand of cycles.) But on the weekends, when I can ride as much as I feel like, I will regularly go between 15 and 20 miles both days, generally averaging at least 12 miles an hour. It feels glorious.

I had never planned on getting faster. Or necessarily going farther. I hadn’t planned my muscles becoming stronger. I hadn’t planned on losing weight. But all of that happened. It is perhaps true that if I had planned (“plan your work and then work your plan!” “those who fail to plan plan to fail!”) I might be riding even faster, even farther now. All of that may be true.

But there is a certain joy in spontaneity, a certain glee in doing something just for the sheer pleasure of doing it. No hidden or not-so-hidden agenda. No motivation needed other than the activity itself. Some people, some planners, never learn that. And while in my job I must schedule, and in my creative endeavors I must outline, and in my marketing efforts I must plan, I reserve the right in my cycling to do none of those things, to simply go where my heart, my legs and Baby Blue will take me on any given day.

Perhaps in life—anyone’s life—there should be one thing, one place, that is structure-free. It doesn’t have to be all of life. It doesn’t even have to be something large. Just something that you, as controller of your own life, can say, “What the heck — I’m going to do what I want to do.”

Here’s to spontaneity.