The Glorious Muddle
glimpses of grace in the messiness of life

November 9, 2017

A Birthday Worth Remembering

Last time I posted, I looked ahead to my looming birthday. Now I look back on it. It happened. I survived. And it was one of my best yet.

Both my husband and I were involved in ministering to others. We’ve discovered that the first weekend of November is a very popular one for church retreats. In the past, Steve’s gone to his favorite retreat, The Guys’ Thing, in Northern California, and I’ve hosted 34 college co-eds with Cru in our home—all on our mutual birthday.

I used to feel miffed that other activities competed with my celebration; then I resigned to the fact that, of course, you’d want to plan a weekend event on the one weekend when we “fall back” and gain an hour. And now, I welcome it.

Steve helped with an event called One Day with God at a local church. Select minimum security prisoners and their children–the often neglected casualties–were brought together for a life-changing day of bonding, fun, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

I spoke at a retreat, put on by a nearby church I’ve always admired (one of their pastors helps out with the local Cru group). A delightful former student I used to mentor directed the retreat and asked me to speak.

I loved being with the women; I have many new kindred-spirit friends now. One really fun thing we discovered is that many of their husbands were with mine, at the day for the inmates and their children.

As I prepared for the weekend, I prayed God would use my words—that they’d in fact be his words. The women tell me that happened.

The theme of the weekend was Being Renewed. I used water as a metaphor for renewal, and to illustrate the point, it poured all weekend!

I followed the Samaritan woman at the well throughout the series (John 4). Friday night, I spoke on The Wellspring of Life: Your Heart Renewed. The next morning the topic was Overflowing Streams: Your World Transformed.

As Steve embarked on his eighth decade of life (what?!) and I nestled in comfortably to my seventh, we turned the calendar page while giving to others. There’s no better way to celebrate a birthday.

 

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October 23, 2017

What I’ve Learned about Growing Old(er)

I have a birthday coming up soon, but it’s not my birthday I’m thinking of now, sleepless in the wee hours. It’s my husband’s. We share our birthday. Same day, different year.

Last year, I celebrated a milestone birthday. We’re skipping mine altogether next week. This year is all about him. It’s his turn for a milestone. (Sorry, Steve. You knew the risk when you married a writer.)

When we married later in life (in our 40s and 50s), I recited Robert Browning’s poem in my wedding vows:

Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be,

The last of life, for which the first was made:

Our times are in His hand, who saith “A whole I planned,

Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”

I changed it to “Grow older along with me” and we laughed; we didn’t feel the least bit old. Since that day, it feels like two minutes have passed, but the calendar tells me it’s going on 17 years. Now it’s not so funny. Now we stand on the threshold of old.

The question I’m pondering late at night is this: What exactly is old?

Whatever “old” is, it keeps moving. It’s always far beyond where I am. It’s beyond my husband’s age. Each time my next milestone rolls around, I’m so used to it, I might as well get on with it. I’ve lived with that age already for nine years. I’ve tried it on. I know how it feels, what to expect.

Not too long ago, Steve and I heard a doctor speak. He quoted a prayer of Moses from Psalm 90. “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures.” He said that even with all the medical advances, the average lifespan is still about the same as it was thousands of years ago. If we’re fortunate enough to reach 70 or 80 years, then anything else is just bonus. I turned to Steve and said, “I’m glad he’s not your doctor.” Then Steve laughed his hearty laugh out loud–and I mean loud–and I slid down in my seat and shushed him.

But I digress. There are a few things I’ve learned about age and getting older.

First, the number of years doesn’t matter at all.

Many people say what matters is your outlook on life. And I agree, to an extent. I know people my age who seem much older than I do, and also ones whose energy seems boundless, and I know there has to be more to it than how young you feel.

The verse I love to write in birthday greetings is one I’ve borrowed from a dear friend, inserting a couple words in brackets. They seldom reflect on the [number of] days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.” (Ecclesiastes 5:20)

Growing old gracefully is more than elasticity-laden skin, well-lubricated joints, or that elusive youthful attitude. It’s contentment with your life. What counts is the interior state of your heart. Peace that’s independent of circumstances–peace that I believe only comes from God.

Second, any birthday, but especially a milestone birthday, is a perfect opportunity for gratitude, reflection, and change.

Gratitude that you’re still alive. Thankfulness for the people who’ve touched your life, the opportunities you’ve had, the ways God has met you. All of it is a gift.

As you reflect on your life, consider if you’ve lived it well. Do you have any dreams unchased, opportunities left fallow, forgiveness to seek, relationships to mend?

If you feel a tug for a mid-course correction, do it. Now. If you need a fresh start, it’s never too late. You can make the changes that need making for your life to bring that gladness of heart.

Third, the one constant thing in your life is the one who formed you.

He was present at your birth, he’s been there every day since, and he’ll keep on carrying you until your last breath. Where does fear or dread about getting older fit with that?

“Listen to me … you whom I have upheld since your birth, and have carried since you were born. Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you. (Isaiah 46:3-4)

The best part of birthdays? They’re a chance for friends to let you know how they feel. When you have a life rich in people, who cares what age you are?

 

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October 10, 2017

Overloaded

I’m in the middle of a major transition. I have more time at home now, but it’s time to work. I am NOT retired. Please. I’m much too young to be retired. Besides, how can you be retired when you have two part-time jobs?

My time at home, thank you very much, is not for doing art projects or shopping or visiting friends or, heaven forbid, cleaning my house. (However, I must admit to a mid-morning latte break with Steve every day–the one indulgence I allow myself.)

Three weeks into my new normal and I’ve got my schedule well-planned. It’s an organizational marvel, written out in a variety of colors on my monthly and weekly white boards. I’ve been able to squeeze in two full days devoted to nothing but writing (and that mid-morning latte break).

A few years back, when I needed a quiet place to spend hours writing and reading for my master’s degree, I started converting our guest room into a multi-purpose office for me. Funny thing was that when I’d go upstairs to work, I actually felt as though I’d entered a different world, miles away from my home.

Everything I need is poised within reach and ready for me, if I’d ever sit at my desk and open my computer for real writing. No one can say it better than Flannery O’Connor:

Every morning between 9:00 and 12:00, I go to my room for a piece of paper. Many times I just sit there with no ideas coming to me. But I know one thing. If an idea comes between 9:00 and 12:00, I am ready for it.

So what’s the problem? Why can I still not catch up? I mean, it’s been three weeks. So what if I was sick one week. Come on!

The reason is: I’m overloaded. I just have way too much to do. Even two days is not enough.

I have a feeling you might be able to relate to that.

When I tick off my to-do list, it grows to yeti-size and I start hyper-ventilating.

Yes, I know. Take it one small chunk at a time. The problem is, I don’t know where to start. Which chunk do I break off first?

I have article deadlines. Agents to query. This blog to write. Retreat talks to prepare. A novel to revise. (Are you ever finished revising? I don’t think so.)

Then there’s new writing to do. A new novel I’ve barely started. I pile pressure on myself about that one. I can’t let my writers group down. I joined the group for accountability, and instead I get guilt. The guilt comes straight from me.

My biggest overload comes from teaching a college class for my first time ever. What was I thinking? I’ve always admired teachers, but now, with my vast two month’s experience, I don’t see how they do it. The time I spend preparing for class and grading papers is time away from actual writing.

On top of everything, life interrupts. It just does. There’s nothing any of us can do to stop it. Just last week, I had my monthly Grand Jury duty, a colonoscopy (yuck!), a filling, and 20 three-page papers to grade.

But here’s the thing. There will always be something (someone) tugging on us and yelling to us, trying to pull us away from what we want to do. The scream of urgent tasks deafens the murmur of important ones.

Writing is my important task. It’s the reason I left my full-time job. It’s the dream God gave me.

And so I try. I sit at my computer, answer emails and like things on Facebook. Then I get hungry and I walk downstairs. As I re-enter my messy home, the distant memory of cleaning it tries to get my attention. Dust bunnies call to me.

But, hey, it’s October. I love everything about October. The colors. The cooler temperatures. The falling leaves.

Here’s the best part about October. I can let the spiders take over. Their webs become free decorations.

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September 21, 2017

Carpe Diem!

I did it. It is finished. I left my full-time job, downsizing to only two part-time ones.

Why haven’t you heard the shouts of jubilation I’d promised? Probably because the three jobs had me so utterly spent that I crawled home and promptly caught a doozy of a cold (or is it allergies? I can never tell.)

I planned to leave the office, pumping my fists and hopping from desk to desk crying, “Carpe diem!” Instead of seizing the day, I’m sneezing all day.

However, colds don’t last forever and I’m certain that my level of joy will rise. Since we returned from Eastern Europe, the summer has been margin-less, not how I’d envisioned it at all. I’ve juggled finishing my administrative job (with a massive pièce de résistance being a college president’s inauguration), teaching a college class for the first time in my life, and even serving on the Grand Jury one day a month for a year, tortured by the cases I hear.

I suspect that it will take time for this new lifestyle–my new normal–to sink in. It will take time to decompress, or as my husband likes to say, “decompose,” which feels much more appropriate at the moment.

My last week as an administrative assistant, I had nightmares every night. Regularly, I woke at 3:00 a.m., in a sweat because I was late for work and it was the big inauguration day. Each time, I had to remind myself that it was just a dream.

For six years, I’ve longed for the flexibility in my schedule that I’m about to enjoy. This isn’t retirement; it’s just changing my workplace. I’m making this transition for one reason. I believe this is what God has called me to do.

Besides my two teaching gigs, I plan to spend the bulk of my time writing at home. I’m motivated to work hard, but there will be freedom in that. Nobody will look at their watch and frown if I step into my home office five minutes late. That alone will be glorious!

Every job, every situation in life comes with both good and bad parts. Nothing is ever ideal. I know that. The job I left is no different.

At times, the drudgery of being a creative person confined to sit within the same four walls, every day from 8:00-5:00, got to me. Being under-maximized in a position you’re over-qualified for is never a pleasant combination.

And yet, I learned to cope. I survived and I found ways to break the tedium. At first, what kept me going was helping with the Cru group on campus. I’d meet with the female students over lunch and stay late when they had their meetings. My passions and experience found an outlet. I never expected to find that at my small university.

Later, I took a shaky step, with much self-doubt, and entered a master’s degree in writing–a perk of working at a university. I was in my fifties and I never expected to finish. But I did, and because of that degree and all that I’ve learned and all the people I’ve been privileged to get to know, opportunities are opening up for me.

Yes, my job has been a blessing in more ways than the reason I took it: health insurance.

The best thing that came out of it was the friendships I made, which will continue. As a newbie in North Carolina, the people I worked with taught me what about my new home. I am now richer in friends than I was before I started.

It shouldn’t have surprised me how difficult it was to say good-bye, but it did. I expected to skip out of the office, laughing. Instead, I was conflicted by how bittersweet the moment felt. What would be sadder than not being sad after six years invested in a place? And so I’m thankful for the tears.

I am ready to seize this new day in this new season of my life. But first, I have to snee …

 

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August 22, 2017

It Only Takes a Spark

While my husband got to eat moon pies and join in an impromptu eclipse party with our fun neighbors, complete with solar glasses all around, I slipped outside my office with a few co-workers to gaze up at the sky at precisely 2:39 p.m.

As each of us stepped outside, one at a time, donned our passed-around pair of glasses, and looked up, we all had the same response.

“Wow!”

There were no words for what we saw.

Our special NASA glasses made the world totally black. But when we aimed our eyes upward, a tiny sliver of yellow peeked out from behind an inky round ball.

In the middle of the day, crickets chirped their beautiful night melodies. Somehow they knew.

I’d read all about the eclipse in preparation. But something surprised me:  it wasn’t all that dark.

We stood about 80 miles outside of the 70 mile swath called the Path of Totality. The sun was 97% covered, yet it was still light. The shadows were longer, and the sky had darkened the way it does just before a big afternoon thunderstorm. Yet we could see each other just fine.

I’d expected it to be dusky, maybe for the automatic lights to flicker on. My husband the engineer told me that illustrates how bright the sun really is. With only 3% showing–a miniscule fraction of its fiery surface, it still illuminated everything. Just like the impact one small flickering candle can make in a dark world.

On the news at night, I watched the thrill of crowds gathered across the country, in awe of the beauty of creation. They cheered. Some cried. All seemed moved.

It made me think of the majesty of the Creator and wonder if others did, too. A passage in the Book of Psalms came to mind.

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky displays his handiwork. Day after day it speaks out; night after night it reveals his greatness. There is no actual speech or word, nor is its voice literally heard. Yet its voice echoes throughout the earth; its words carry to the distant horizon. In the sky he has pitched a tent for the sun. Like a bridegroom it emerges from its chamber; like a strong man it enjoys running its course. It emerges from the distant horizon, and goes from one end of the sky to the other; nothing can escape its heat.”

Eric Metaxas thought of that verse as well. He writes:

“Three thousand years ago a man in Israel wrote: ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.’ That man didn’t have a telescope or a Brittanica, but he saw something many of us today still do not see. He saw a God behind it all.

“It may be true that seeing a Grand Designer behind these breath-taking events requires what we call a leap of faith; but it may also be true that seeing mere coincidence behind them requires an even greater leap of faith. In my mind, much greater.”

What did you see when you looked at the sky?

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