Farther along

During recent storms (or threats of storms), I found myself looking at the weather app on my phone several times a day. Knowing that my sons were scheduled to have soccer practice that evening, I would check the predictions of bad weather even though I saw only blue skies and innocent-looking, white wisps of clouds above. On the radar, I saw our fair city sitting clear as a bell in the middle of our state. Nothing to fear, right? Then I would zoom out on the map and see ominous, swirling reds and yellows and menacing blobs of green. These storms were crowding around us, just out of view. That visual was a perfect representation of 2020. Destruction seems to be crouching at the door, waiting to pounce.

 

At the grocery store today, I found myself singing a hymn I hadn’t sung or even thought of in years. (This is one advantage of wearing masks in public—I can sing or whisper to myself but no one knows!) I was singing the song “Farther Along” as I picked out my produce and chose the right bag of shredded cheese. I was singing “Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine…” while I waited on my deli turkey to get sliced. I was telling myself, “Farther along, we’ll understand why.” And I needed this hymn today. Because of my faith, I know those spinning blobs of scariness swirling around me are temporary, but that doesn’t always make me feel less scared.

 

The history and authorship of the hymn “Farther Along” is uncertain. Some attribute the lyrics to a preacher named W.A. Fletcher, a man who allegedly wrote it while traveling in the Indian Territories in 1911. Apparently, he was sad that he was away from home for the birth of his first child. Whether the story is true or not, you can imagine Mr. Fletcher, sitting lonely and discouraged on a train, trying to cheer himself up. He was attempting to remind himself that there was a greater purpose for struggles and a reward waiting for him after all his “toils of the road.”

 

I need this kind of reminder, too. I need to know that what I see as unfair or illogical or frightening will make sense eventually. Over the more than 100 years since its first publication, there were some who objected to the chorus of the song. They took offense at the notion that “we’ll understand it all, by and by,” as if we would ultimately know everything that God knows when we get to heaven. But I think there’s a difference between knowing what God knows (just typing those words might make my brain explode) and understanding why. Maybe we don’t have to get all the way to heaven’s pearly gates to understand why the wicked sometimes prosper and the good are liable to be oppressed.

 

The Scriptures hold plenty of clues as to what suffering is for. The Apostle Paul suffered more than I’m sure I ever will, and he comforted others with these words: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8) So if you’re in the midst of suffering, comfort yourself with the promises of future glory. If you’re in that “clear as a bell” zone of the weather map with only sunny skies as far as the eye can see, bolster your faith with Paul’s words like a team filling sandbags before a hurricane. Then cheer up, my brother, and live in the sunshine.

Donut cloud

A few days before we took our twin daughters to different cities to move into their respective college dorm rooms, I found myself in a parking lot sitting in my van at our older son’s soccer practice attempting to concentrate enough to read a book. Though it was mid-August, it was especially breezy and almost pleasant.

I looked up and noticed a strange cloud in the evening sky. It looked like a ginormous, fluffy donut with the sun shining through the hole. I snapped a picture of it with my phone and tried to get back to my detective novel and the page I had already read ten times without comprehension or any idea of who the murderer was.

 

Seconds later, I glanced back up at the sky again and saw that the donut cloud had disappeared, blown away by the gusty wind.

The moment was gone, and I suddenly found myself crying. It didn’t help that I was also watching a dad heft two pink bikes which belonged to his young daughters into the back of his pickup truck. One of the girls was pouting because she didn’t want to leave, but the dad barely registered her disappointment. As he continued to load up, the girl grouchily made her way to the back seat of the truck, moving in that way that kids do when they want to show their resistance to a command while simultaneously obeying you. Her arms hung limply at her sides and her feet moved forward an inch at a time without bending her knees.

 

I knew that my tears weren’t really about clouds or even hot pink bicycles. I knew I was feeling the weight of my daughters’ approaching departure from home, just as I knew they were ready to go and on their way to great things. Over the weekend before they moved out, I’ll admit I was pretty teary-eyed. It got so bad that our 9-year old noticed. One day he warily approached me and said, “Hey, mom. That’s a nice shirt. Where did you get it?” I looked down and saw I was wearing the $5 gray Old Navy flag shirt which we each owned an identical version of. I could tell it was time to get myself together.

 

I needed some strategies to survive this new phase. I was already planning to avoid going in my girls’ shared bedroom. I wasn’t going to sit on their beds and stroke their bedspreads and smell the clothes they left behind. Uh-uh. No way. That’s a suicide mission. Instead, I started praying. I began a dialogue with God about what I was feeling and fearing. I told him I was blessed and beholden. I asked him to protect them and point them in the right direction. And I consistently received the same 4-word sentences: “Your world is expanding” and “God is big enough”.

Additionally, a couple of Scriptures have begun a rotation in my thoughts:

“Stop and consider the wonderful miracles of God! Do you know how God controls the storm and causes the lightning to flash from his clouds? Do you understand how he moves the clouds with wonderful perfection and skill?” (Job 37)

“I am the Lord, the God of all the peoples of the world. Is anything too hard for me?” (Jeremiah 32)

Nearly a week after the donut cloud, my girls were all moved into their new rooms—curtains and pictures were hung, throw pillows were fluffed and area rugs were unfurled. (I’m guessing this will be a really different process with my next kids…two boys) Now I can see why my heart is feeling this heaviness. What I’m realizing is that it’s not just that I’ll miss them—their help with their younger brothers, their stories after school and before bedtime, their general presence in the kitchen while I’m cooking or on the sofa while I’m watching TV—it’s an acknowledgement that things will never quite be the same. It’s like that fleeting moment with the donut cloud. The new cloud arrangement wasn’t bad, in fact it was doing just what clouds are supposed to do—move and change and re-form. I’m just happy I looked up from my book in time to see it.

Rivals

Like many sports-loving, competitive 9-year olds, my son Ezra loves to talk about rivals. While watching a football or basketball or soccer game on TV, he’ll point to the two teams and ask his daddy, “Are they big rivals?” He wants to know the stakes for that game, how important it is to the players and the fans.

 

And it doesn’t just apply to sports. He recently asked me about other rivalries. “Who’s Chick-Fil-A’s rival?” he asked. I guessed Kentucky Fried Chicken. Then he asked, “Who’s orange juice’s rival?” That one threw me. I thought a minute, then I answered that I thought it should be toothpaste because of what happens when a freshly brushed mouth takes a sip of orange juice. He rolled his eyes and said, “No, Mom, it’s apple juice.”

 

I asked him to explain his answer. He opened up the refrigerator and pointed to the spot where the orange juice and apple juice sat, side-by-side. “Daddy said rivals live close together,” he declared as he shut the refrigerator door and strutted away, proud of his profound analysis.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about rivalry lately. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Watching Auburn play Alabama on a fall day is exciting. And when the game is over, fans from both sides go on with their weekends, (mostly) without hating each other. There are rivalries in business: Coke vs. Pepsi, Microsoft vs. Apple, McDonald’s vs. Burger King. These rivalries create a strong market where businesses are encouraged to compete for consumers’ cash with better products and prices.

 

But there are rivalries that shouldn’t exist, mostly created by a fear of being replaced or forgotten. A certain amount of sibling rivalry is to be expected, but when jealousy and mistreatment changes brothers and sisters from friends to enemies, it’s gone too far. Neighbors might compete for a “Best Yard” award, but beyond that they should be first and foremost neighbors—people on the same street and the same team.

 

The word rival shouldn’t be synonymous with enemy, a philosophy my 9-year old may have understood before I did. Ezra may be looking for rivalries because he loves the thrill of competition, but he isn’t looking for enmities, groups in an active state of hostility toward another. Though his competitive streak is often exhausting for me, I kind of love that he’s looking for orange juice vs. apple juice battles right now. Still, it breaks my heart to know his future won’t always be filled with well-meaning, carefree rivals. I know he’ll have his share of orange juice vs. toothpaste battles ahead, so I pray that we all get better at loving each other.