First of all, apologies to those of you who tried to check this site during the past few days and received an intimidating message saying you were forbidden access to it. There was a problem with security on the server, but apparently it is now solved.
It’s now been more than a month and a half since I posted anything here. I have wanted to write for quite a while and even started a note on September 15, but I never got it finished. Now, of course, I have way too much that I want to write about, and this will probably be ridiculously long.
The last few weeks of summer flew by. Eowyn had one further week of service-type work as a counselor on our church’s junior high retreat, and other than that both she and Alden had a little down time, which was good. I continued to slog away here in the house and in Al’s office at Westminster. The week after Jayne and I tackled the office and storage closet there, Alasdair and I took a full day and went through all of Al’s books at the seminary. Once that was done I heaved a sigh of relief, knowing that at least all the Westminster work was basically done. But apparently I was mistaken. Two days later Alasdair got an email from the man who is now acting as VP for Academic Affairs (Al’s last job) saying that he had found some books of Al’s in that office, and a while later I talked to the man who is running the Hebrew Institute that Al started, who said he would be glad to show me all the material of Al’s that is still stored there. Sigh… Someday we will have succeeded in going through all of Al’s stuff, but it won’t be soon. I have yet to even touch the basement and attic at home, and I can tell you that they’re pretty frightful. Maybe next summer I’ll get to them. On the other hand, I have to remember that we did manage to get an amazing amount of sorting done this summer, and I’m very thankful for that.
Over Labor Day weekend I had the blessing of going to Amsterdam for the wedding of a good friend, who is also the son of good friends of ours. In the past we have mentioned our very dear friends Eep and Lies and their two sons. Lies died almost exactly a year before Al, and it was for her funeral that Al and I traveled to Amsterdam just after we learned that Al had tumors in his lungs but before it had been definitively confirmed that they were melanoma. Three years ago Lies and their younger son, ArendJan, came to America for Alasdair and Lauren’s wedding. Over Labor Day their older son, Harmen, got married, and I was so glad to be able to be there for the celebration.
As you can imagine, there was sorrow mixed in with the joy of the wedding for everyone there, since Lies was not there to see and be part of it. For me there was the sorrow of Al being absent as well. But there was such happiness too. Harmen’s wife is a WONDERFUL young woman in every way, and I am happy beyond words, as I know Lies would be too, to see God blessing them with each other. The day was great from start to finish (10 am until after midnight!), I got to see and reconnect with many people I knew, and my Dutch (such as it is) came back more quickly than I expected.
The day before the wedding I was able to visit two friends, one of whom is 92 and in failing health and whom I am sure I won’t see again. Also, while I was there I borrowed a bike and rode all around the neighborhood where we lived as a family in 1995 and in 2002. I saw our apartments, the kids’ school, the park where they played, the canals we skated on, our favorite little café, and I rode on our favorite bike ride along the Gein River, where we had biked countless times. I can’t begin to recount all the memories that were triggered by those places: the place where Al kept taking sunset pictures until he got the perfect one, the conversations we had about the article he was writing on Zion in the historical books as we biked along the river, the stretch where Al used to race the barges or the trains (giving a big handicap to the slower vehicle), one of the windmills where we took our family picture, and on and on and on. SO MANY wonderful, happy memories! I wished the kids were there with me to share them all, and more than that, of course, I missed Al acutely.
So it was a pretty intense weekend, emotionally. Since Al died, we have certainly experienced life being “joy and sorrow sweetly mingled,” as a song says. The trip to Amsterdam for the wedding was that same mixture, only magnified and intensified a whole lot. The sorrow was very deep, but the joy was equally great, and I’m so thankful that I got to go. (BTW, my flight out of Philadelphia was delayed 7 hours! What is it about me and flying? At least we did get off the ground this time, but the delay cost me seeing one special friend with whom I was only going to overlap for a few hours and in whose apartment I stayed even though she was away. Missing out on seeing her was disappointing.)
School started just three days after I got back. But one other thing intervened before the start of school: we spent a day at the beach. The way our school district works, everybody starts school on the Wednesday after Labor Day except the upper classmen at the junior high and high school. (That gives the kids in the youngest grade a day to get to know the building without all the hordes of bigger kids around.) This year both Eowyn and Alden happen to be upperclassmen, so they didn’t have to start until Thursday. So, at the suggestion of Kristen (who was the kids’ youth group leader for a number of years and a good friend and who is now living with us), we took off for the beach on that Wednesday and spent the day riding the waves and relaxing on the sand. Now, a day at the beach is delightful anytime, but I have to tell you, there is something extra sweet about floating in the surf when you know that most of your peers are sitting in school classrooms! Legal hooky-playing—you can’t beat it.
In addition to coming up with the beach idea in the first place, Kristen said something there that stuck with me. She collects shells and said she used to search for perfect, unbroken ones (and rarely found them), but now she picks up broken shells and enjoys beautiful things about them—unusual colors, interesting shapes and so on. She just made an offhand comment that maybe that’s how life is: we want things to be perfect, but they rarely are, and instead we can learn to look for and appreciate the surprising beauty that God works into the broken world around us.
I think that is some of what has happened for me this past year. Up until a year and a half ago my life seemed pretty close to perfect. I grew up in a wonderful family where I was loved, nurtured and encouraged. I married a wonderful man who loved me and with whom I shared a wonderful life of God’s love. I have four wonderful children who are an incredible blessing to me. But now I have a slightly better picture—or at least a little glimpse—of the way most of the rest of humanity regularly experiences life. It’s a rare person who gets to live a “perfect life.” Most people’s lives have lots of brokenness in them, or they are worn down by the constant tossing of the waves. And yet God brings joy, blessings, beauty, and redemption into the brokenness. It is good to see and experience that—to feel pain and sadness and yet to see God’s infinite and transforming grace in the midst of it, perhaps even more clearly for the contrast.
The kids definitely did NOT want to go back to school. Usually there is a combination of not wanting summer to end, on the one hand, and an underlying excitement about seeing friends again, starting a new year, finding out who is in your classes, etc. on the other. But this year there was none of the latter sentiment. Not a trace. I think it is because last year was so hard, and we were so relieved to survive it and to stagger across the finish line into the reprieve of summer vacation. The thought of going back to the way things were last spring seemed about as appealing as a kick in the gut. For Eowyn, knowing that the workload junior year is extremely heavy didn’t help. Last spring was grueling, as she tried to dig out of the hole of schoolwork that piled up around the time that Al died, and the idea of this year being even worse than that was horrifying. However, as demanding as junior year will be, it will not be as bas as that, because she won’t be starting out being many weeks behind and then trying to catch up.
In fact, the transition back to school went better than Eowyn and Alden had expected, I think. They do have lots of homework, and they are still doing school and life without their dad being here, but it is manageable, and certainly better than last spring. Alden made the school soccer team, and Eowyn made the school play, neither of which were to be taken for granted. When we received those bits of good news I realized something about the outlook on life we had come to hold. A song we like to sing called “Blessed Be Your Name” talks about two contrasting sets of circumstances: one is the land that is plentiful, where God’s streams of abundance flow, where the sun is shining down on me and the world is all as it should be. The other is a desert place in the wilderness, a road marked with suffering, with pain in the offering. The song talks about blessing the name of the Lord in both sorts of times. This past year and a half we have done a lot of walking on the desert road and have definitely seen and felt God’s love and tenderness in the midst of suffering. That has been a deep blessing. As the school year started up again, I think we subconsciously braced ourselves for more tough times, automatically assuming without even thinking about it that life would be hard, challenging, and full of disappointments and sadness, but that we would know God’s care in the midst of heaviness. When Alden made the team and Eowyn got the title role in the play, I think we were all fairly astonished. The sunny road of abundant, happy blessing that we used to walk on regularly in years past now felt foreign to us. We had forgotten that life can be like that too.
I don’t think there is inherent virtue in expecting a “default setting” that renders life either easy or difficult. Expecting that God will give abundant pleasant blessings all the time can be the result of a secure grasp of God’s generosity, but it can also potentially come from presumption and selfishness. On the other hand, expecting that God will send hardship and trials as daily fare can flow from an appreciation of the hidden blessing of growing closer to God in suffering (it may even “feel holy” somehow), but it can also potentially stem from doubting his goodness. Rather than expecting either one, assuming we know what the Lord has in mind for us and why, I think he wants us to simply walk with him on whatever path he chooses for a given day or season. He wants us to be content to put our hand in his and trust him because he is the Lord, because he will bring into our lives what he alone knows is best, because he will walk the path with us, and because he has promised that ultimately he will turn every circumstance to our blessing and his glory.
That trust, of course, has to be a continual choice. For me, these days, there are so many details to deal with and stay on top of that I can feel overwhelmed, and when I discover that I’ve dropped the ball on something important it makes me worry that there are other important balls out there somewhere that I’ve forgotten about and am in danger of dropping, too. I sometimes wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning (possibly because of the birds singing), and, given half a chance, thoughts and worries will rush into my mind and keep me from going back to sleep. They can be as simple as phone calls I’ve forgotten to make or as complex as single parent issues I need to navigate. Last week I was reading Psalm 3 about God being a shield around David, and noticed that David said, “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.” The setting for the psalm is David’s flight from Absalom. David didn’t know whether he would wake up at all or whether Absalom would find him during the night and kill him, yet he was able to lie down and sleep because he trusted in God’s care for him. If God is so reliable that David could rest in him in such dire circumstances (and he didn’t even know about God’s greater love shown in Jesus), then I can too. So now if I wake up at 5:00 I firmly head off the details that would like to storm into my mind, and I choose to remember instead God’s unfailing, trustworthy love and care, and I am able to drift back to sleep.
This fall I am taking two courses at Westminster—both of them outstanding and very interesting. Of course I was already behind by the second week of classes, and way behind by the third week. But I am counting on the sage observation one of my classmates made several years ago, which is, “The sooner you get behind, the more time you have to catch up.” Works for me (I hope).
So, on we go. There are still things that trigger tears, and that is perfectly fine. There are some moments when I think maybe I am feeling some of the healing-of-heart that time brings and that the sadness is less close to the surface. However, I am learning that those times are often followed later in the day by fresh sorrow.
And sometimes the tears are not about grief at all. A friend dropped off a CD recently that has a song on it called “I Can Only Imagine” about what it may be like to be in heaven, seeing and walking with God. The chorus goes like this:
Surrounded by your glory, what will my heart feel?
Will I dance for you, Jesus? Or in awe of you be still?
Will I stand in your presence, or to my knees will I fall?
Will I sing “Hallelujah!”? Will I be able to speak at all?
I can only imagine.
I can only imagine.
Becky played that song for me a long time ago, before Al was even sick, and I loved it. Now I listen to it and think of Al actually being there, singing, dancing and shouting out praises to the Lord or maybe breathless and speechless before his holiness and majesty. Knowing how much Al loved the Lord, how captivated he was by him and how much he longed to see him some day, I really can only imagine what it must be like for Al to be there. The joy, the awe, the wonder he must be experiencing I can only guess at. Sometimes we listen to that song and cry for the joy Al must be finding. At least once when I was alone I knelt down right in the kitchen and joined the worshippers. And sometimes I feel so aware of heaven, as if I were right there in the throne room with Al and with the myriads of others that it seems more real than this world around me. If I just close my eyes, I’m there, almost feeling the light of God’s glory shining on my face… I can only imagine, but that imagining can be very real.
Glad to be on the King’s highway to that place,