Come Alive

Thoughts from Poland

The Journey Back

I love watching as a new team of short-term workers comes together.  The first team we get to work with this year is made up of people from Georgia, Missouri, and Wisconsin.  Some of them we’ve partnered with before and some we are getting to know, but God never fails to bring together a unique mixture of gifts and personalities to fulfill His mission.

This morning we worshiped together at the Christian Church in Ostróda, divided up tasks for tomorrow’s work day, spent some time resting and relaxing, celebrated birthdays and then met for a time of prayer and worship to prepare our hearts for the week ahead.

George Bajenski was able to join us and he gave a nice devotion for us including some history of the camp, the Jewish people, and Poland.  Before leading us in singing Come Alive (Lauren Daigle), Deb read a writing from Rabbi…

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The Day I Wore Red

Losing my mom has been hard. Very hard. Seems like every day I think of dozens of cute stories to tell her or questions to ask. I long to see that little smirk, or even have her raise that eyebrow of discipline at me. My memories of her are deep and rich, so losing her is just stinking tough. It’s been a whirlwind of a year, the “normal” of my life completely changing, and somehow making it through all the Firsts without her. In some ways I am just now beginning to truly process it all.

Last spring, when Mom had a bad fall, we knew that things were getting serious with her physical condition. I remarked nervously to a friend that when Mother’s Day came, I might not have one. Little did I know how true that would prove to be. As the date grew closer last year, I thought perhaps I might squeeze in just one more; but that did not happen.

Mother’s Day has always been special in my family. As my brother, sister and I got married and began our own families, the two days every year that we set aside – set in stone – to assemble as an extended family were Mother’s Day and Christmas Eve. Sometimes due to work schedules we had to celebrate Mother’s Day on a different date, but celebrate we did. I have many happy memories, and some goofy photo ops, from those occasions.

Then, with very little warning, everything changed.

Several days after the fall, my daughter and I were spending the afternoon at the hospital. I was feeding my mom lemon pudding. Those huge green, earnest eyes were gazing up at me. Even as her body declined so quickly, my mother’s eyes remained as beautiful as ever: The first eyes I saw when I drew my first breath. Eyes that could discipline me from across a crowded room without a single word. Eyes laughing at my horribly not-funny jokes. Eyes where I’ve seen joy and pain and anger and pride over my smallest accomplishment. Eyes closed as she taught me to pray, framed in the face of the woman who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.

I lost it.

Chelsey had to finish feeding her the pudding while I tried to collect myself.

That night as I said goodbye, we clasped hands, not willing to let go just yet. She reached her tiny, frail hand up, brushed away my hair and wiped a tear from my cheek. Then she said, “I hope you know how deeply I love you.” And those beautiful green eyes smiled into mine.

The reality hit me hard that day. There was no telling what the future would hold. Hopefully there would be many other moments of laughter and tears, but even then, I recognized this was precious moment I would carry with me for always.

 
In the following days, my siblings and I juggled our full-time jobs, hour-long drives to the hospital, and discussions of hospice and nursing homes, doing the best we could to provide quality care for the woman who had cared so well for us. Then, equally without warning, an ordinary Friday at work suddenly turned into one of the toughest days of my life. My precious little mama, who had been fighting off cancer for three years, took a sudden turn for the worse. I spent a long day with her, thankful for every breath, praying that there would be another.

Cancer is a merciless thing. It doesn’t care about your family pedigree. It doesn’t care about how intelligent you are, what a gifted artist or doctor or chef you might be. It doesn’t care if you are rich or poor. Cancer strikes where it will. Some kinds are more aggressive than others. Knowing that she had breast cancer and that it had metastasized into her brain – and how very ghastly that particular type can be – I began praying for two things: 1. For God’s perfect timing, and 2. That God would be gracious and take her Home before it became extremely painful for her. I just wanted her to have a peaceful ending.

And I do believe God answered both prayers. My precious Mama passed away at 3:00 AM Saturday morning, quietly in her sleep. I knew what was coming. I thought I was ready. I was not. Not even close. We all shed buckets of tears, knowing that she awoke in the arms of her beloved Savior, but brokenhearted at the thought of life without her. Then we dried our eyes, and began focusing on the happy event of this day – my niece Emily’s wedding. Here is where I believe the perfect timing comes into play. My family was able to channel our emotions into this beautiful occasion. We didn’t have to second-guess ourselves: Do I go to the hospital, or do I go to the wedding? That was no longer an issue. So we celebrated at one of the most picture-perfect, and fun, weddings I can ever recall. It was so therapeutic that in the middle of our grief, there was such an expression of love and joy.

Then, came Sunday. Mother’s Day. I won’t lie; it was hard, so very hard. Facebook was filled with pictures of people with their mothers. I tried to stay away from that. It was just too raw. I didn’t so much feel jealous of those people, but the ache in my heart was fresh and deep. What I did do, that day and this one, was remember. So many happy, angry, laughing, problem-solving, creative, hard, wonderful moments spent with this amazing woman. I was the first person to hear her heartbeat from the inside. I was the first person she taught to ride a bike and use a spoon. I was the first set of ears to hear her stories, to have her stroke my hair as she sang and prayed over me. I curled up with her on Sunday afternoons and took naps in her big fluffy bed. I learned about Jesus from her lips and from her life. In all of this, I have been remarkably blessed.

The picture included with this post shows two women, connected by a series of events, large and small, that together add up to a lifetime. On the left, in pink, is my Mama. This was taken at my wedding. Moments before, she had sent her first baby girl off to begin a life of her own. The second picture, on the right, is me. This one was taken on the day of My Mama’s funeral. Perhaps red may seem rather unconventional for such a solemn occasion, but I wanted to honor this sweet and sassy woman by wearing her favorite color. In a way, on this day I was the one sending her off to a new life. The cancer is gone. My Mama is whole and perfect, and as a lifelong lover of Christ, her joy is now complete.

If you look very closely at my life, you will see Florence’s fingerprints all over it, both her strengths and her weakness, and even that little smirk. I feel so fortunate to be her daughter. She invested 50 years into teaching me, shaping me, loving me. Her work here was done. My job now is simple – to continue the legacy of faith and family, and to somehow, someway, one year, one breath at a time, to learn how to live without her.

I love you, my Mama.

I close this post with what my daughter wrote on the day of my mother’s funeral. How fortunate am I to be a conduit between these two incredible women.

 
Today will be tough. You taught me that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)
Today I will be sad and shed some tears. You showed me that “The Lord is close to the broken-hearted.” (Psalm 34:18)
Today we will celebrate your life. You without a doubt showed me that “His love gives life.” (John 10:10-11)
Today is not goodbye, it’s see you later, my beautiful Grandma!
“She is clothed with strength and dignity and laughs without fear of the future.” (Proverbs 31:25)

Chugging Along

It’s been just over a week since I made my bold declaration to quit moping around and start taking steps toward better health. This update is two-fold: to hold myself accountable; and to encourage others who may be struggling to make positive progress in some area of their lives, whatever it might be.

So far I’ve gone running three times in the past week. There would have been a fourth, but an impending thunderstorm interrupted that idea. In the end, it was a thunder sprinkle, but I am not so keen on the threat of a lightning strike. My eating habits were improved – not perfect, but considerably better than before. The clean- to processed- food ratio inverted itself, and there were fresh, crunchy vegetables at almost every meal. To further add to the encouragement of these small improvements, I’m down a pound or two from this same time last week. That’s not exactly monumental, but still a nice place to start.

As far as the actual running goes, I still have quite a bit of room for improvement. My legs know what to do, but my lungs haven’t completely gotten with the program yet. As I have been shuffling along and trying not to literally gasp for air (I sometimes giggle about what other runners on the trail must think I sound like!), slowly, oh so slowly, I am noticing improvements. Serious runners keep track of their split times, which means how long each individual mile takes over the course of a longer run. While I am still too embarrassed to state outright what my splits have been this week, I will say that today’s outing was 20 seconds per mile faster than the one a week ago. Afterwards, I felt sufficiently tired, but not inches from death. So, there’s that.

As I was wrapping up my last mile today, however, the best thing happened. OK, maybe not as great as being given a private resort/writing sanctuary on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean…but it has definitely been the best part of this new health improvement journey. I noticed that I was THINKING like a RUNNER! Let that sink in for a second. I noticed I had a stride and not a shuffle. My arms were straight and pumping in rhythm with my foot-falls. My mind was calculating what to put in my run bag so I would be ready at a moment’s notice to come running next week. AND I was already mentally planning the next run: what day it could happen, skills to focus on, challenging myself to beat today’s time. Today I wasn’t thinking like a formerly fluffy, formerly thin, getting fluffy again girl just trying to counter the effects of too many Cheetos. I re-found that little something-something that used to drive me on, to set goals and annihilate them. I am a runner. I am a RUNNER! It’s still a tiny spark, but it’s there. Every good decision now is simply more fuel for the fire.

Pushing That Train Back Up The Hill

Several years ago, I lost a significant amount of weight. It was no easy task, but I was determined and dedicated, and I cut no corners. It took a little time to see success, but slowly, ever so slowly, I did. Then, it was almost as if I could barely keep up with the ever-increasing need for smaller clothes, I was losing weight so quickly. Once I reached my target weight, with the perspective that only time can bring, I equated a health and wellness journey to pushing a train up a hill – it is laboriously slow and difficult in the beginning, but once you crest that peak, you better hold on, baby, because this machine is about to take off!

And so it was. During this golden era, I stubbornly made good food choices. The junk food I formerly craved lost its appeal. Trying to entice me with that slice of cake? Not interested. Give me some fresh coconut and raw snap peas and I was one happy girl. I exercised almost every day – not because I “had” to, but because I just enjoyed it so much. Fat burned away. Muscles, though tiny, began to give my silhouette a sleek, strong stance. My confidence sky-rocketed. It. Was. Fantastic!

Then, as is so often the case, life happened. My work loads at school and church increased significantly, as did my stress level. Instead of making my way to the gym, I started making excuses. And for a while I almost had me fooled, because, after all, I am a wordie girl, and the bent logic I fed myself was almost as delicious as the mac-n-cheese on my plate. Almost. The trouble with excuses, of course, is that they never stand up to any real scrutiny. The pants, however, do not lie.

And so it would go. My clothes would get tight. I’d say, “This is bad. I need to get up and exercise.” Two fairly decent weeks of physical fitness would begin. Followed by another slacking off. Then, the tight clothes. “This is bad…” and on, and on, and on it went.

About a week ago, I almost blew a gasket. I am tired much of the time. Most nights my sleep is fitful. My pants are oh-so-tight. More than anything though, I seem to have misplaced that confident, can-do attitude. My work life, my physical health, my spiritual life all suffer from the emotional weight brought on reverting to those old ways. That simply will not do! I got so mad – seriously PO’ed at myself. Why on earth did I just sit still and let this happen? I worked so hard to build a healthy lifestyle. Why did I let myself to default to all the negative habits that I knew perfectly well were the reason I had been heavy and unhappy in the first place?

Enough. ENOUGH! It is far past time to push this train back up the hill. I am finally fed up with settling for mediocrity and making excuses. Although putting some weight back on is certainly an issue, the number on the scale is not the primary problem. The simple truth is when I eat healthy food and exercise regularly, I feel better. I think and act and speak more efficiently. I am more creative and productive. No doubt, I am more pleasant to be around as well. And that sleek, poised, Wonder Woman? I sure do miss her smiling back at me in the mirror each morning, ready to tackle the day.

Sometimes you’ve just got to get fed up with your own junk and choose to do something about it.

Here are a few positive affirmations as I snatch my own rumpus back in gear:
• I may not have been acting like Wonder Woman, but that is who I am.
• I will act like who I am. Not who I’m afraid of oozing back into, but who I am.
• That same determination and dedication that brought success before is still right here inside of me.
• Being a stick-thin supermodel is not my goal.
• I want this earthly temple to be an honorable dwelling place for the Holy Spirit.
• Strength and good health are more satisfying and last much longer than any slice of cake.
• I really do like coconut and raw snap peas.
• The train is not so far in the valley as it was seven years ago.
• This week, I have already put my shoulder to this caboose and moved it forward an inch or two.
• I WILL push this train back over that hill. I WILL.

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PS This is the first time I’m double-dipping with my FB health journey page “Running After His Heart” and my Coddliwompling.com blog site. Feel free to check them both out.

A Tale of Two Tables

Friday was hard for me. Actually, it all began much earlier than that. I have been away from home for almost a month now. The homesick that had been nipping at my heels for weeks finally caught up. A friend in Israel I had been so looking forward to connecting with was unable to meet with me. It was the first time in 27 years I missed my daughter’s birthday. It was a trifecta of circumstances, the perfect storm for a pity party. Thursday night I cried myself to sleep, silent sobs of deep despair.

This trip has been so good, yet nothing – absolutely NOTHING – has gone as expected. I have seen some absolutely amazing places and God has opened my eyes to things in Scripture that I never noticed before. Yet the things I most wanted to happen, the conversations and stories I most wanted to hear, didn’t. I began to question why I was even here. What was the purpose? I only know that God said, “GO!” The how and why of what He will do with these experiences remains to be seen. In all fairness, I did pray for God to wreck my plans with His. On the one hand, it is exciting that He most certainly has, but perhaps I will be a little more selective with my choice of verbs the next time I pray something that bold. 😛

Friday morning as my friend and I joined our hosts at the breakfast table, I was a basket case. At first I tried to hide my feelings, but I simply could not stop crying. Five good minutes would pass then the tears would start up. Again. The three people sharing this incredibly awkward meal did all they could to point me in a positive direction. They acknowledged my sadness but did not allow me to wallow. Sometimes the best thing to do is just keep moving. We went to Nazareth Village that day. The more the day progressed, the more my focus shifted. I learned so much in this humble place, and my emotional energy was transferred from myself to the wonder of all that Christ has done. Seeing this site, perhaps more than any other during this trip, made me hungry to revisit Scripture now that I have walked where they took place: the vineyard, the olive press, among the almond blossoms, the grazing sheep, the flowers of the field, the dust of the paths. What an honor that is!

Friday evening, just after sundown, we sat again at that very same kitchen table. What a stark contrast this meal was from the one mere hours before. I celebrated my first Israeli Shabbat. Our hosts invited us to join them and a couple friends for this weekly feast. We lit the candles and sang songs of praise and worship. We spoke traditional prayers and blessings over each other. We toasted the fruit of the vine. We ate challah and roasted chicken and apple pie. It was a time to reflect on the goodness of God, to be still, to rest in His Presence.

My bent heart is mending. Although the book I envisioned writing simply is not going to happen right now, I choose to trust. I believe there are still stories for me to tell. I have mourned the perceived loss of a dream, but in my quiet times, God has been taking me beyond that kind of thinking. In some crazy way this time in Israel feels more like an introduction than a conclusion.

Galilee Birds

I’ve been thinking today about birds. Birds and rocks. We’ll get around to that subject later. I’m staying in this apartment for the next week or so and the balcony faces the Sea of Galilee. With the exception of a couple apartment buildings, it’s a pretty wide open vista. Ravines in the mountains of the Jordan Valley just across the lake are clearly visible, as are clusters of homes along those mountains. This may a real stretch here, but I have all ideas that people live in those houses, people who are, at their core, not all that different from you and me.

At any given time, no matter where you might look, there are birds. Birds, birds, and more birds. Sea gulls flocking around tour boats, black birds flying in a straight line, one orange-faced Syrian woodpecker who seemed rather distraught. Birds eating and flying and resting on the water, or on top of a boat, or on top of any structure that their feet find to light upon. Pigeons of every imaginable size and color variation. Tiny, iridescent Palestinian sunbirds. Sparrows and ravens and cranes. Everywhere. Always on the move.

Luke 12:22-25 (NIV) says, “Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable are you than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” Jesus reminds us that His Father, who provides for the tiniest…or even most annoying…birds will provide for us as well. We don’t have to fight and demand our rights. We don’t have to “better ourselves” at the expense of someone else. We need not worry. Yet we do. All the time.

Somewhere near the Jericho area, we passed through a military checkpoint. I had to show my passport. The guard asked our driver a few questions in Hebrew. I sat there wide-eyed as the officer slowly went through my passport, one page at a time. I feared she would quiz me on where I’d been and where I was going. Even though I’m just a tourist, seeing the sights and stimulating the Israeli economy, it’s hard to be completely relaxed when facing someone toting a machine gun. There is a great deal of tension in this area. There has been for thousands of years. Security is not a thing anyone can become totally lax about. I understood the reasons for her inspection of my documents, but it still made my internal butterflies start doing a few acrobatics.

But today, I considered the birds. They recognize no such borders. They are unencumbered by political boundaries or affiliations. Syrian fish taste just as good to them as those from Israel, or USA, or China. What do birds care who is in the White House, or the Bedouin settlement, or the apartment in Tiberius? They have fish to eat, naps to take, nests to build, babies to raise. They come and go as they please, doing what they need to do and not bothering themselves that a flock of geese has moved into the neighborhood. There’s food enough for everyone if everyone takes only what they need. Seasons pass; storms come and they go. Political borders and environments change, and the birds adapt without a lot of fanfare. The birds keep being birds. It’s what they do.

I wonder what lessons we might learn from them.

Gethsemane

On Saturday, we took a taxi to the Garden of Gethsemane. Since it was Shabbat, much of Jerusalem was still and quiet – or at least more so than normal. I’m not ever quite sure what to expect at holy sites since they have all become commercialized to some degree. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Over the centuries, followers of Christ have attempted to some form or fashion to acknowledge the places were key events took place. Some are simple, almost Spartan in appearance, while others are elaborately ornate, bordering on gaudy had the sentiment behind the expression not been so intense. Even when I know exactly where we are going, it still takes a minute to wrap my head around what I’m actually seeing.

The moment we stepped out of the taxi, we were greeted by an older gentleman with a cane and trench coat; he was a calmly confident man who introduced himself as a guide and offered to explain things to us. While it would prove to be a costly tour (and he didn’t spring the price on us until we were done – well played, Mr. Guide.), it was worth it. Whether Christ follower or not, he spoke of the Garden and its events in a venerable warmth that went far beyond some sing-songy relay of facts.

We began with a stroll around the perimeter of Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed with His disciples, and was there betrayed by Judas. The name in Hebrew means “olive press” and, indeed, olive oil is still produced from the Garden’s trees. There’s a fence around the area now, probably to protect the Garden from over-zealous pilgrims, but it somehow manages to contribute to the quiet charm of the space. I can easily imagine Jesus choosing this place to be alone with His Father on the eve of the greatest event in the history of mankind. Even today, people speak in hushed tones as they circle the Garden, respectful of its unassuming sacredness. The olive trees there are believed to be, if not original, then definitely descendants of the trees growing at that time. They are estimated to be anywhere from 1000-2000 years old. Our guide told us that olive trees never really die. At first I wanted to disagree with him, but closer inspection revealed life emerging from gnarled trunks that one might otherwise assume dead. New limbs continually spring from the old. There’s a subtle metaphor for life in their example.

In the immediate vicinity, there are several strongly contrasting church buildings, ranging from the incredibly ornate Church of All Nations (where Chinese Catholics were observing mass), to the tiny and simple Grotto run by Franciscans, to the Tomb of Mary. Here Greek Orthodox and Armenians share the space. The ceilings are stained black from the candle smoke, coming from the largest collection of chandeliers and lamps I’ve ever seen in one spot. This particular site is more symbolic because no one knows exactly where Mary was buried.

Of the three structures, I preferred the Grotto. I found the other two to be, well, ostentatious. I mean no offense to my Catholic friends in saying this. I understand people who have a great love for their Lord and want to give Him their very best, most beautiful offerings. That just isn’t my style. I prefer the unpretentious little space. This is a natural grotto, where Jesus and His disciples often camped at night, including that fateful night when they slept while He prayed.  It feels real and homey to me. Like those men did so long ago, this is the kind of space I would choose to rest and pray and think.

After being offered clippings from the olive trees, which were pruned the day before, we took a crazy twisty uphill drive to the top of the Mount of Olives. Several important biblical events took place on this mountain: David fled here to escape his son Absalom, King Solomon set up pagan shrines here for the gods of his foreign wives, Ezekiel had a vision of “the glory of the Lord” stopping over the Mount, and Zechariah prophesied that the Mount of Olives is where the Lord of Hosts will stand at the final defeat of the forces of evil. Many people want to be first in line for this long-awaited event and are buried on the hillside.

The Mount of Olives would be a reasonable place for Jesus to look over the city of Jerusalem, weep over her, pray for her. This has also been my favorite view of Jerusalem. Here you can see the outside of the Western Wall and the closed Eastern Gate, where Messiah will make His triumphant return. There is something deeply spiritual about the place that is impossible to explain. Standing there, you cannot help but sense the connection between its sometimes dark and tumultuous past and its glorious future.