Hope for an untangled future

Per our usual tradition, my family put up our Christmas decorations the day after Thanksgiving. (By the way, this isn’t a discussion about when you should or should not decorate for Christmas. You do you, merry-makers! Deck your halls and trim your trees until you can festoon no more! And if that helps you beat the blahs of a pandemic holiday season, keep them up until August!) We dragged the boxes from the basement and began unloading their contents. Wreaths on the windows and doors. Tabletop decorations and a nativity set for the bookshelf.

 

We set up one (pre-lit) tree in the sunroom with colorful lights, kid-made ornaments, and a Santa tree skirt. I always ask our kids to hang the ornaments on this one. It’s fun to listen to them reminisce and laugh at the clay snowmen, pipe cleaner candy canes, and photos framed by popsicle sticks, dotted haphazardly with red and green pom-pom balls. And we always have to tell the story about the time when one of my daughters took a bite out of a dog bone ornament because she thought it was a Scooby snack cookie. (Either way…why? Rule Number 754 Of Things I Didn’t Think I’d Have To Say Aloud: Don’t eat, lick, or even nimble anything that is hanging on the Christmas tree.)

 

The other tree went up by the living room window. This one is artificial, too. (This also isn’t a discussion about live vs. artificial Christmas trees. Why is there so much to argue about when it comes to this stuff, anyway?!) We’ve had this tree for going on twenty years. It loses tons of (fake) needles each time we set it up, so it will eventually be bald. Until that happens, it falls to me to wrap the branches in white lights before the ornaments go on. This is not my favorite part of the process. It involves a lot of lights, standing on stools, going around in circles, and sweating.

 

As I was plugging in each strand of lights to check that they still work before putting them on the branches, I congratulated my January 2020 self for taking the time to wrap the lights around pieces of cardboard to keep them separated and organized. It would be oh-so easy to just dump the lights in a jumbled heap in the bin, pop the lid on top, and forget about it. But how I would regret it!

 

If you stop and think about it, there are plenty of things most of us are able to do because we’re infused with hopefulness. Unconsciously, we make assumptions about where we’ll be tomorrow and what we’ll be doing. When I wrapped all those lights around cardboard rectangles the day after New Year’s Day, I was saying, “I have a hope that I will need these when another Christmas season rolls around.”

 

During bleak times, remaining hopeful can sometimes feel foolish or naïve. Should we even make plans anymore? What’s the point when so much is uncertain? It reminds me of what James, Jesus’ brother, said when he scolds people for focusing too much on their own plots and proposals. “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’” Good grief, James! This forces me to ask myself if I should even wrap those lights at all!

 

But then I search the Scripture for whispers of a living hope—hope for resurrection, hope for justice, hope that things will be made right. James goes on to say we shouldn’t boast about our own schemes, but spirit-filled hope is something we should shout about from the rooftops. Romans 5 gives us permission to boast, because we are bragging on a glorious and generous God who has given us a reason to be hopeful.

 

“And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;  perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” Praise God for the hope He continually gives us. Whether it’s in the form of another day or a newborn baby, looking forward is an essential quality.

 

But focusing on the future doesn’t mean you don’t act in the present or even ignore the past. The miracle of hope is that it can involve all three. C.S. Lewis said, “Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”

Great Grandpa

This pandemic may be called many things—scary, inconvenient, ill-timed, unprecedented. As a mom to two graduating daughters and two soccer-playing sons, the main word is aggravating. “Why now?” they ask. “Why did this stupid virus have to interrupt my final year of high school/senior prom/graduation party/mission trip/soccer season/out-of-town tournament/church camp?”

 

They’re pretty good kids, so after spending some time lamenting the loss of these events and milestones, they sit a little taller with a newly developed perspective. They’ve come to realize trips and parties, while fun, aren’t vital to our survival as a species. It’s an invaluable lesson about how the planets don’t revolve around them and their whims. And it’s a lesson we’re all learning every day as we strive to find better ways to appreciate our blessings and look out for each other like it’s our full time job.

 

I had one of those epiphanies last week when we attended the funeral of my husband’s 94-year old grandfather. We traveled a couple of hours to a funeral home where we knew the attendance would be low. The visitation was family-only, so 15 of us sat in the chapel and visited with mask-muffled voices, as Grandpa lay in his casket at the front of the room.

 

Eventually it was time for the graveside service, so we drove down the road to the cemetery where Grandma is also buried. On the drive, I told my husband how sad it was that more people weren’t there to pay their respects to this amazing World War 2 veteran. A radio operator on transport ships in the Pacific, he was so proud of the fact that he was on the ship next to the USS Missouri when the Japanese foreign minister signed the peace treaty to end the war. After the war and until his death, he lived in Oak Ridge, Tennessee where he worked at the National Lab. (Grandma also worked there as a Guardette tasked with, among other things, making sure everyone had left the building in case of an evacuation. Her time there and her exposure to uranium led to her battle with breast cancer.)

 

Grandpa traveled with bombs and parts of bombs. He was a genius at fixing things—weed-eaters, chain saws, telephones, watches. He was the one they called in to pull wire through buildings and set the locks on giant safes. These were my thoughts as we parked at the cemetery and saw car after car lined up beside us. People were standing around, mostly strangers to us who had gone to church with Grandpa, waiting for us to take our place under the canopy and sit in the folding chairs reserved for family.

 

Then we saw the two naval officers in their dress whites, standing at attention by Grandpa’s flag-draped casket. They were facing each other, as still as statues. As one of the men crisply spun around and stepped away from the group, I noticed he was holding a bugle. At a safe distance from the crowd, he removed his face mask and began to play Taps. Those sad and lonesome notes drifted above us as we looked forward in silence, tears trickling down the sides of my face before being absorbed by my mask. When the bugler returned to the canopy, he removed the flag and worked with the other officer to meticulously fold it into a perfect triangle. Then the other officer held the folded flag in front of my father-in-law and said, “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Navy and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.” Once the offered flag was taken, he snapped back and saluted with perfect solemnity and respect.

 

I had started the day with an unshakeable feeling of sadness that this aggravating virus would prevent a dear man from receiving the deference and appreciation that was due him, but, in the end, I was wrong. Like so much of these last few months, the essential was revealed and lessons were learned. Each of these days which fall under the heading of PANDEMIC CONTINUES will not end in the way I would choose, (because…why should life start being perfect now, anyway?) but when things do turn around and the clouds part and we get a little sunshine where we expected thunderstorms, it’s always worth mentioning.

Fireflies

A friend recently told me about taking a group of Texas teens to Nashville for a mission trip. As they sat outside at an evening devotional, the group became fascinated when one by one fireflies emerged from the grass and shrubbery to soar around the darkening sky. The majority of the mission team had never seen fireflies before. My friend showed them how to catch the insects without harming them and how to capture them in empty water bottles (from which they eventually released them). She told me that one of the girls in the group began to cry. The beauty of these tiny insects overwhelmed the Texas teen who’d never witnessed their brilliant dancing in her hot, dry hometown.

 

As someone who has spent each and every summer in places where fireflies are common, I was amazed at their reaction. For me, it is a case of the extraordinary becoming ordinary through repetition and the assumption that it will always be there.

 

Later that day, after I had told my family about my Texas friend’s story, my daughter was standing outside with a group of friends. Prompted by my friend’s experience, my daughter asked a guy who had just come to Middle Tennessee from another country if he had ever seen fireflies before. They were outside, so she pointed to the flying dots of light.

 

“No,” he said. “I’ve never seen them before.”

 

“Aren’t they awesome?” she asked.

 

He shrugged, unimpressed.

 

His reaction surprised me. Is he so accustomed to seeing strange insects that this particular species failed to astonish him? Is he so well-read about the cold light of bioluminescence that seeing this energy produced right in front of him left him unmoved? Whatever may be the reason for his indifference, it’s a cautionary tale for me. I don’t want to be a person who loses the wonder. I don’t want awesometo turn into boredom.

 

And if you’re thinking that it can’t happen to you, beware. The Israelites had seen amazing things in the land of Egypt: the Nile turned to blood, three days of total darkness, a river that was split for them to march through just in the nick of time. And yet, they complained that the manna—their food which fell from the sky—just wasn’t tasty enough. “We don’t want to sound ungrateful or anything, but this bread that we’ve been gathering every day just isn’t cutting it anymore. We know that all we have to do is pick it up from the ground and eat it, and don’t get us wrong—it was great…at first—but we could really go for a hamburger. Actually, a cheeseburger would be even better.”

 

How could they have lost the wonder so quickly? Who has the nerve to complain to a God who had produced these miracles?

 

I wish I could say that I’m always in the “Awe Zone,” but it isn’t true. I forget to be grateful, forget to see how far He’s carried me, forget how I didn’t get here on my own, just forget.

 

So when I look at those fireflies, at least for this summer, I’ll remember the wonder.

Just another day on Venus

As I was listening to the radio recently, I heard some interesting facts about the planet Venus. I already knew a few things, like that it’s the second planet from the sun, which I remember using that old mnemonic device from elementary school: My Very Educated MotherJust Served Us Nine Pizzas (Now that they’ve removed Pluto from the lineup, Mother serves Nachos, by the way). It’s the hottest planet, with a really muggy atmosphere…so pretty much just like Tennessee in August.

 

I didn’t know that it rotates backwards from the direction of most other planets. Hot and spinning backwards is never a great combination for me, think Tea Cups ride at Disney World. But Venus makes it work, lighting up the night as the brightest thing we can see in the sky apart from the moon.

 

The most surprising fact I learned was how slowly Venus rotates. It takes 243 “Earth days” for Venus to rotate once on its axis, making one Venus day. But the planet orbits around the sun in 225 “Earth days”, making one Venus year. Hence, a year on Venus (225 Earth days) is shorter than a day on Venus (243 Earth days). Just let that sink in a minute.

 

In the last few weeks, many of my friends have sent their children off to college, some for the first time. They packed them up and drove them miles from home so their sons and daughters can begin a new and exciting chapter. I still have two more years before this will be a chapter in my daughters’ stories (Chapter titles might include: “Twin Daughters Study Twice as Hard” or “The Library is Her Favorite”).

 

When it comes to evaluating moments like the first day of kindergarten or the first day of college, studying for spelling tests or preparing for driving tests, it’s hard not to say things like: “Where has the time gone? Weren’t they just in diapers yesterday? They can’t be this old!” We say these things because we humans are complicated creatures. Why else would something as measurable and concrete as time have a feeling? We say a Monday feels like a Tuesday. We say that 8:00 pm feels like midnight. We joke that “time flies when you’re having fun.”

 

There are times when we are metaphorically dropped onto the hot, clammy surface of Venus, and we think that the calendar mustbe wrong. We want time to spin backwards or at least stop for a bit so we can catch our breath. It’s easy to feel like we’re waking up from a coma, seeing our kids as if for the first time in years. He used to come up to my elbow, his hair just the right height for me to run my hand across it to wrestle with that cowlick. Now I have to reach up to pat down his unruly tufts of hair, and we’re eye-to-eye. Good grief! How long was I out?

 

But there was no coma, only the day-to-day moments that make up their childhood. The hectic mornings out the door and grabbing supper on the way to ball practice. The busy schedules and the good night hugs. The sweet memories and the discouraging frustrations. That feeling that we only get one chance to do this right because, in the end, it seems so fleeting.

 

So pretend that for today, you are a Venusian—a hot-natured inhabitant of the planet Venus. Make a “New DayResolution,” giving the next 24 hours your attention as if this day were as consequentially important to fully live as a whole year. Treasure the blessings and value what’s really important.

Welcome to Venus!