Geraldine

There is no snow.

The landscape on Rt 11 bleeds a bleak brown in forty degrees.

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Christmas comes anyway.

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Twinkle lights have been strung on the small lilac tree at the side of the house and the big wreath with its old red bow graces the fence.

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A peeling shutter bears a smaller one with a sign telling the postman where to leave the packages so the rain doesn’t slog all over them. Window boxes are filled with pine and winterberries. At the edges of a dark kitchen Handel’s Messiah can be heard playing.

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I can’t find the candles I put on the windowsills.  When the Fiery Irishgirl moved in last Thanksgiving, I put boxes on top of boxes to make room at the inn and I promptly forgot what it all is and where it all needs to be.  It has become one big puzzle shuffle of boxes and cartons and totes.

A year of living with my black-haired beauty and her little man turned ten makes the house merry and bright and we are learning how to make room for the things we are hungry for.

A bit of space.
A bit of quiet.
A bit of beauty.

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The rest of our things, the rest of our life, has been stacked, towered and leaned and we are learning to just go with it.

Things.
There are so many.
We think we need them because of the life remembered that comes through them.

Photographs.
Baby shoes.
A ticket stub.
A baseball cap.
A recipe scrawled and butter dripped by a grandmother. A dish polished smooth by a great-grandmother.

Today I pull Christmas boxes from a closet cave.

In one of the boxes buried beneath sword-wielding nutcrackers and winter wonderland snow globes lies the nativity story told in yarn and plastic. There is a bit of reverence here as I peel back the paper, humble lodgings, this. So like God to tuck away majesty in the ordinary.

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I am remembering the day Geraldine came bearing gifts.

My eye caught her awkward gait going past the window one day just before Christmas. She banged on the door threatening to crack it wide open. I opened up to see her standing there in a huge black Russian fur hat, (which she wore all year long), a man’s coat and two or three dresses layered over stained trousers tucked into broken down work boots. She stepped into the kitchen and promptly shoved a package wrapped in convenience store wrapping paper and wreaking of cigarettes into my hands. Merry Christmas.

Geraldine.

A not-so-quite old woman, hair white and wild from never combing, toothless, a Harry Potter-esque scar on her forehead, (“A beer bottle come flyin’ out a window and got me right in the head back when I was livin’ in Auburn. Stupid people.”) I’d find her pacing in front of my kitchen window every few days, her signal that she wanted a visit. As I’d step into the driveway to greet her she would, with shoulders leaning forward, take two steps back. Like she wanted to be close, but was afraid.

My hands were deep in mulch the first day I met her. Cleaning out a small flower bed just days after moving into our new house, I leaned back on my knees and caught a slight movement to my right. Pushing away leaves, a flicker of white flashed. I looked up. At the corner of the neighbor’s house stood this woman dressed in a stained white slip layered over a frayed housecoat. Her legs, bone china sticks, peered above a pair of work boots.

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(Google Images)

I said hello.

Nothing.

Again, hello.

She inched closer. I shielded my eyes to get a better look at her.

Her white hair stuck up and out in every conceivable direction. When she turned slightly I could see it had matted and there was burdock stuck all through it like she’d taken a nap in field somewhere.

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She stood before me filthy, smelling like cigarettes and urine. Small crusts of dried food edged the top of her hairy lip. Rocking forward, her voice cracked.

“Whatchorname?”

No hello.
No handshake.

Right off Geraldine wanted to know my name and she wanted me to know hers.  From that day on she spoke my name every time she saw me. She spoke my children’s names. She shouted my husband’s name. She loved him best, I think. She spoke the dog’s name and got it wrong. Instead of Gideon, he was called Gilligan until the day she moved away.

In the beginning she wouldn’t come into the house. Truthfully, I wasn’t too keen on it, either.

The smell of her.

It was a presence that settled into the room, settled into you long after she’d gone.  When she began patting, then hugging me, I had to brace myself for the assault of what it means to truly be unclean.

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(Google Images)

The Christmas Geraldine came with her gift was the Christmas when a sword pierced my heart and I realized I wasn’t doing her any favors by being her friend. I wasn’t doing her a favor by being nice to her, or trying not to stiffen when she touched me. There was no goodwill in the occasional sighing and whispering complaint when she showed up unannounced wanting company. Instead, it was me God was doing a favor for by allowing her to become my friend. This strange, dirty, simple-minded woman, who some might count among the least of these, schooled me that day.

Geraldine rocked and swayed in the way she always did, smiling toothless.

“It aint’ much and I figured the kids would like it too cuz of the baby Jesus and everything….”

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I unwrapped it, my head bowing, my eyes spilling.

Cuz of the baby Jesus…

How did she know? Had I shared the gospel with her? Had I told her about Jesus? How did she know that His story, His coming, told in plastic and yarn would be the one thing that would mean the most?
Would be the best gift.

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Yes, Geraldine schooled me that day when she saw past my religious do-gooding, which turns out to be nothing but starched up kindness and propped up politeness.

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(Google Images)

The sort of kindness that drops off Christmas cookies, but won’t step into the squalor of a dirty apartment. The sort of politeness that will speak to the unlovely, but never look them in the eye.

Geraldine could see better than me. She knew what would bless me the most because somehow she knew me. No token gifts from this lady. No propped up religiosity. No proper pretty packages, no crafted tags and bows.

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(Google Images)

These days Geraldine’s Christmas story is given a prominent place in the dining room. I put it right where I can see it. Truly see it. The majesty cloaked in the ordinary.

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Like Geraldine. My friend.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Listen, November Speaks

“Nature should be read as one of God’s books which he made to reveal himself.”-                                                                                                                  Richard Baxter, 1656

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Saturday the brittle sound of brokenness cracks loud. Metal tines scrape and drag the piles of russet brown and speckled gold debris that just 40 days ago still swayed green above my head.

Not so now.

The garden has the musky smell of things dying and returning to the earth. I pull the last of the purple coneflowers and black-eyed Susans. Their roots resist like they don’t know it’s their time to go.

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

   a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot…

The rake cuts deep into the dirt and its handle cuts deep into me. Skin separates from the crook of my thumb. There is blood.

I never wear gloves and sometimes I think this is not the best idea, but it doesn’t stop me from reaching into the dark places to pull out the spent blooms because I want to feel all of it. In April, I touch a stem and leaf’s beginnings and in November I touch their endings.

I need to touch the message of the gospel with my bare hands.

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A hard thing indeed, this time to uproot.

All those tendrils and root- wisps have a strength that belie their size as they cling cling cling to the life they know is still in the dirt.

Sometimes it takes muscle.
Sometimes it takes a cutting away.
Sometimes it takes blood, sweat and tears.

I grip a mottled stem still green in places and pull. The slow ascent of the stem begins as I pull harder harder harder until it finally rips apart from its home in the ground.

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Life does not depart easily. Yet when November whispers, “It is time to go” the trees and flowers eventually bow down and give up their leaves.

The melancholy of November is the melancholy of the gospel.
It is the beginning of a coming darkness.

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For me, November speaks of darkness coming to another garden. A garden wet with its own spilled blood, sweat and tears. A garden where Jesus asks His father twice, if at all possible, if there is any other way, perhaps he, too could stay earthbound.

…yet not my will, but yours be done.

Nobody, no living thing, ever wants to die. It wasn’t part of the original plan. Nothing about death seems right.

Trees without leaves, a child without his mama, a mama without her baby, a man without his wife. Must the ground claim everything?

It used to be after the glorious shower of Autumn was over and the landscape was left brown and wanting, a dark shadow would come and live at the edges of my thoughts. In New England, the barrenness of November can mean a wait of almost six months before new life springs from the ground again and for some of us this would mean a silent fight to keep joy.

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Now, when clouds hang low and twilight comes early, the message of the gospel resounds in the rustle of fallen leaves. All is well because the darkness holds no power. It can only point to a coming light.

The gloom of the cross held for a moment, but could not keep, the most glorious of Light, Jesus. The ground could not claim Him. And because of Him, it will never claim us.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

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These days I embrace November and her message of the gospel.
Darkness has no claim over me.

Joy pushes past the edges of my thoughts and I smile at the crackle of leaves as I stand in an empty garden.

I know what’s coming.

(Listen here to “Light Of The World, You Stepped Down Into Darkness”)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CBKzCpkXJR4

The Mystery Of Inequity

It’s not fair.

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So said some of the wisest of children at the bruised end of injustice.

It’s not fair having to move to the back of the line when someone has slipped in undetected by the teacher and cut.

Cut you out of your rightful position.

You were blithely going along, minding your own business, doing the right thing and this…this person….this selfish, entitled, ungrateful person elbow-jabbed right past you and took your spot.

You’ve been re-positioned, moved aside, cast down.

You’ve been left.

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You’ve been cut out of line.

Cut out of your job.
Cut out of your family.
Cut out of your country.

The stroke of a CEO’s pen, the closing of a door, the whizz of a bullet.
Life’s gut piercing elbow jabs, these.

Isn’t anyone going to do something about this?  Doesn’t anyone see what just happened?

The injustice of it all can be too much to bear.

“In my futile life I have seen everything: there is a righteous man who perishes in spite of his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who lives long in spite of his evil.”

So said one of the wisest of men near the end of his days.

“But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
    I had nearly lost my foothold.
 For I envied the arrogant
    when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.”

The mystery of inequity.
A wonder, this thing called Un-Fair-Ness.

One steps into the arena of old age, having been buffeted by abuse, abandonment, poverty and hands gnarling from disease, while another one, the one who abandoned, is seemingly unaware of the emotional cost others have had to pay for his choices. This one lives where the fireflies dance and the grass slopes green into a grove of trees, his hands not gnarled, instead muscled from the planing of  boards and the swinging of hammers.

The first smiles past the wince of all her cares.
The other whistles because he hasn’t a care.

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Life is so unfair….all of the time.

“They have no struggles;
    their bodies are healthy and strong.
They are free from common human burdens;
    they are not plagued by human ills.”

Jesus followers, God lovers, do-ers of good, they so often find themselves at the edge of a cliff only to have the winds relentlessly pounding at their backs, pushing pushing pushing. It takes everything, every heal digging bit, to keep from being tossed over the side.

“Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
    and have washed my hands in innocence.
 All day long I have been afflicted,
    and every morning brings new punishments.”

The cheaters and the stealers and the mockers and the smirkers seem to dodge bullet after bullet after bullet. They keep making more and more money. They keep their health and the spring in their step. They never, ever have to push past a crowd to grab His healing hem.

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But God….

The coffee-skinned girl lies on a guerney, rolled to her left side and wrapped in a simple white sheet. This young woman, full of mouth and cheek-boned beauty only looks up. Her eyes never meet the interviewer’s, who, bent low, whispers questions. Days before the girl found herself chained to a tree while men from a warring village broke her apart for their own pleasure. She, ravaged to the point of no longer able to bear children, lies on a cot, serene and pristine, her eyes wide up. My eyes are wide brimming.
What is she looking at?  

“For the brokenness of the daughter of my people I am broken; I mourn, dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has not the health of the daughter of my people been restored?”

The interviewer tells her she must be angry at her perpetrators and at the incredible violence done to her.

Silence.

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Then.

In a whisper laced musical, she says, “I love Jesus. Who am I to judge these men? That is God’s to do. I trust Him.”

Who says this?

Who can speak words barely heard, yet when they come out of her mouth they are like a balm covering and seeping and cleansing and forgiving every ravaged, jagged, rugged cut?

Is there no balm in Gilead?

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Yes. Yes, there is.
The balm Jesus smeared on another tree.

Only someone who has been in the sanctuary and experienced the Presence can say despite pain and brokenness that fairness and judgment is God’s arena. Only someone who has seen God in this way can leave their enemies with Him. They accept the mystery of inequity, not because they understand it, but because they’ve seen Him.
They keep their eyes wide up.

When I tried to understand all this,
    it troubled me deeply
 till I entered the sanctuary of God;
    then I understood their final destiny.

What does fairness have to do with anything at all when God Himself holds the times, the seasons, the epochs in His hands? He, who has and will make everything right. Jesus, who is Sovereign above anything and anyone invites us into His sanctuary, His dwelling place where we can truly see who He is.

It is there under the weight of His glorious that I really see. I see Him. I see others.
And then I see me.

Without Him, I too, can be a cheater and a stealer and mocker and smirker.
And it is not fairness that I will want.
It is mercy.

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The Aha Of Understanding

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I have 423 friends.
Of these, seventy four say they follow me.
The truth is I can barely count on two hands what’s really worth counting.

In the social media world I am to be pitied.

In the blood, sweat and tears world someone should smack me upside the head and wake me from my virtual reality coma.

No one can maintain, never mind sustain, four hundred and twenty three relationships. No one can do it with seventy four, unless, of course, these relationships are defined by likes and hearts and hashtags. Even Jesus, out of his twelve closest mates, had only one best friend if the beloved John had anything to say about it.

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C.S. Lewis writes, “Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: What! You too? I thought that no one but myself….

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It is a realization we get when we sit on the bench, or laugh across a junior high cafeteria table or bump shoulders at the office water cooler, and look into the face of someone who gets what we get. Sees what we see. Has thought the same wild, fantastical, out-in-left-field things we’ve thought.

Somehow we are surprised by this.

Surprised that we have made a connection based not on economics or popularity or a shared neighborhood, or even likes or dislikes. Instead, our connection happens with this other being, this different human, because of the Aha Of Understanding.

It is on this path of true understanding that friendship at its purest, deepest level occurs.

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It is not to be confused with the path of total agreement or even the sharing of the exact same philosophies or values.

It is an even deeper the path; one of knowing and being known.

Sometimes we speak this knowing with words, oftentimes without.
I know your joy.
I know your pain.
I know why you think that is funny.
I know why that makes you cry.
And you know it about me.

Jesus said it like this: I no longer call you servants, because a master doesn’t confide in his servants. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me.

I have told you everything…..

We come to an understanding even in the Kingdom.

Shouldn’t it be so in our closest relationships?

In this particular Aha moment we walk toward a place of simultaneous deconstruction/re-construction.

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When we meet someone who gets us and we get them, our prejudices, fears, and inhibitions deconstruct…maybe not right away….but cracks begin to appear in our protective walls and something inside is….relieved. It is because the weight of not being known is, and always has been, too much to bear.

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The marvel that is The Aha Of Understanding is that while a deconstruction is happening, a re-construction is going on, too. It’s like we can actually feel strands of unbreakable cords being woven together right there in the kitchen, all of us still in our pajamas and bed hair and morning breath on the 26th year of Girls Weekend.

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Friendships are formed within seasons and I am blessed to say that many of these I will take with me into eternity.

The season of my girlhood, the years that saw me awkward and acne-ed, flat and crooked in all the wrong places, was a season when four friends sat on the bench with me and in due time we experienced our Aha moment.

We shared Harry’s Pizza, cokes and Friendly’s french fries, football games, basketball games, a scary gym teacher, a funny math teacher, Pine Tree escapades, drive-in mishaps, cars, boyfriends, locker rooms, beds, beach towels, and beers. It was in these places we championed our successess and confessed our failures.
We knew and we were known.

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Five girls, some of us soft in the belly now, yet soul-muscled from forty years of letting down walls and constructing unbreakable bonds, mark the calender for a weekend get-away every summer where we come to an understanding.

We see and are seen. We get and we are gotten. We have embraced the deconstruction and the re-construction.

To my girlhood friends: here’s to GW2016

The Substitute Teacher Goes To School

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They say teachers, like parents, have eyes in the back of their heads.

It is not true.

What is true is, like a good parent, a good teacher has honed the God breathed ability to read between the lines…the giggles…the whispers.

A good teacher is like a good shepherd.
Each member of the flock is a priority.
Each one under the watchful eye of a caring leader.
Good teachers don’t have eyes in the back of their heads.
What they have is telescopic vision.

They can see way deep. They can see way far.

When the blinders come off and one looks past the rising stigma of public schools in general and public educators in particular, sometimes seeing becomes believing.
Believing that, despite all the out-dated buildings, humanistic philosophy and common core anxiety, Jesus just might make an appearance in a public school.

Hard to believe, I know.

It’s like sensing God’s holy presence in Wal-Mart.
What could He possibly have to do with Broken-Cart Wal-Mart?

Unless it’s the broken down, people-forsaken places where we actually find Him.

The news rhetoric that public school in America has become a people-forsaken place.  A federally-funded, low scoring, hormonally charged public space full of socially wired and overly medicated children; soul-bruised and belly hungry because, quite simply, mom and dad just don’t get it.

Poor. Uneducated. Socially wired and overly medicated moms and dads navigating this world with nothing but a broken cart.

Teachers, the good ones, must learn to look past the first thing they see; the poverty of mind, body and soul. They learn to see what could be, what is meant to be.

A subsitute teacher sees things too.

But this one has taken the better part of sixteen years to see past the first thing to the second thing where God is.

When you learn to see the second thing, what is meant to be, you put your rocks down.

Mercy enables you to walk away from a stoning.
Grace enables you to recognize it was Jesus’s idea to help you to do it. 

As school winds down this week, I am reminded of the many grace moments that I have seen throughout the years. Grace moments that have opened my eyes to the holy assignment of teaching.

Moments like when you, teacher, have come in early and stayed late for the sake of being prepared to impact a child.

I’ve seen you pick up countless pencils and twisted paper clips and wads of paper and used straws.

I’ve seen your intimate relationship with the photocopier. I’ve seen your struggle with the laminator.

I’ve seen you read thousands and thousands and thousands of words.

I’ve seen you write slowly and perfectly for the beginning reader every single time.

I’ve seen you reach down, reach up, and reach over one more time when you really want to escape to the teacher’s room for one minute of peace.

I’ve seen you buttoning, zipping and tying all of the unbuttoned, unzipped, untied places.

I’ve seen your overloaded bags and totes and carts.

I’ve seen you navigate the rough waters of hurting parents who hurt back.

I’ve seen you buy pants and shirts and sneakers and coats and Book Fair books with your own money for kids who will never stand in line at the cash register to get something cool.

I’ve seen you restore dignity to an unruly child.

I’ve seen the weariness in your eyes when you’ve chosen to keep going until you see understanding’s light appears in a child’s eyes.

I’ve seen you stand on the tracks willing to take head on a train wreck of a kid.

I’ve seen you stand up to bullying with the understanding of a seasoned diplomat and the heart of a mother bear.

I’ve seen you eulogize a young girl who couldn’t see past her pain to your outstretched hand and took her life anyway. I’ve seen how your words breathed hope to a grief-bashed community.

I’ve seen a student’s disappointment when it was me sitting at your desk and not you.

I’ve seen children love you.

If you are a teacher reading this, may this Summer refresh you in such a way that, come Fall, new mercies and grace will be upon you for another year of opening up your telescope and seeing what you are believing for.

This is dedicated to my dear teacher friend, who retires this year.  A shepherd of children, she has led many of them by the still waters of understanding and learning to the deep oceans of grace.

To Carol, With Love.

When All You’ve Got Is A Shovel.

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Sometimes you just have to get to work.
There is a job to be done and in that moment you are the one to do it.

It matters not that you feel unqualified.
It matters not if you like the it.

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For this moment, you are the one.

It’s as if you’ve been assigned.
You think this way because your viewpoint is not bound to terra firma.

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You spend the whole month of May cleaning and hauling and dragging and burning and throwing away and giving away and every single day of it you walk past The Tree With No Name. She has suffered the ravages of two brutal winters and most of her branches are dead. You’re sad, but truthfully, sometimes you just plain hate that tree. She’s gnarly and old and past her prime, apparently. Yes, there are a few wispy leaves near the top, but it’s just a matter of time before she rots from the inside out. You think, if you were Jesus, you’d curse the thing to its root for being such a poser.

You turn away and let your blade split the ground. It cuts through the roots, the bone and marrow of an unruly hydrangea because you know that this kind of surgery yields life. It doubles, triples, even quadruples the splendor of petals.
This is your hope, anyway.

But when the blade cuts deep, you can’t help but feel, like the hydrangea, that you are losing.

Losing your normal.
Losing your routine.
Losing your productivity.
Losing your space.
Losing your spot in the garden.

The only thing to gain at this point is trust in the gardener.

There are blooms all around you, but your pot, at the moment, appears empty.
Like you’re the poser.

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Days bleed weeks bleed months and you keep digging.
Digging into the Word.
Digging into the Spirit.
Digging into Jesus.
You have become a ditch digger.
A digger of trenches where water will flow.

You are believing that all the changes and upheavals and new normals will yield something far greater than any of your perceived losses because in an upside down kingdom it’s the losers who ultimately win. Things like forgiveness and freedom and healing and passion for what God is doing.

Sometimes all it takes is to look a little closer. To fix your gaze on what is right in front of you, but so easily missed. To look past the dead things, the lost things.

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On a warm spring day, after you’ve spent the better part of it elbow deep in dirt wondering about your life and the next chapter, your next assignment,  and you suddenly find yourself enveloped in a shower of small white petals….look up.

The Tree With No Name will be standing there in all her white blossomed glory, her blooms heavy laden near the top past her broken places.

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She is no poser. You are no poser.
With your shovel in your hand you just need to see.

Underneath The Rubbish

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Words.

They can be such flimsy, wasteful things on the one hand and killer knife blades on the other. I run to the backyard where I seek refuge amongst the sticks and stones.
No one sees tears here.

So much has fallen down this winter. Tree branches. The arbor. Me.

I climb over the dead christmas tree to get at some of the branches wedged between the fence posts. Some of the limbs prove too heavy for me to move to the burn pile. I will need the chainsaw.

I break smaller branches over my knee. The crack of the dried wood echos my own heart’s cry as I muscle my way through the mess of things here on the ground. We have all messed it up so badly, I think.

I have messed it up so badly.

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The knife edge of winter is still present in the spring breeze and I pace the yard to keep warm. There is so much to clean up I don’t know where to begin. I turn circles in the yard and in the twilight I see a little white orb blooming underneath winter’s rubbish. A dark countenance shrouds the petals trying to break through broken things.

There are just six of them. They look like jewelry. Delicate. Refined. Exquisitely white.

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No one.
No one but God Himself knew they were there.
Now I do.

I kneel down in my sorrow of a day gone south and push aside the dead things, and suddenly the words that spat in the kitchen only moments ago fracture and fall into an ash heap. Kneeling precedes repentance and, as I free one of the blooms from the clutches of a dead leaf, I hear His still, small voice whispering to me: This is you. 

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My vision blurs.
I gently wipe the dirt from these littlest of flowers and I smile because truth doesn’t always shout loud. Sometimes it comes softly, slowly like a petal opening up after a long hard winter.

It is in this moment God wipes the dirt off of me.

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