Hello, my name is Alyson…

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My son left for college last fall. He’s not coming home – not really. He has become an occasional visitor, no longer a resident. I’m very excited for him as he’s heading straight from school to a fabulous summer job in NM, but the loss of his presence is hitting me all over again, maybe even harder than it did in September.

He is one of my favorite people and one of my closest friends, and he was woven into the fabric of my daily life for 18 years.

I have been super busy with my girls, my saving graces (also my dear ones), so I have not had much time to sit around and contemplate feeling lonely. But as the emptiness hits me anew this week, I realize that it has been lurking under the surface causing chronic, mild (sometimes not so mild) depression. I have struggled with this sadness in my body, because in order to get through my days, it was not convenient for my body to be sad.

My brain and my heart obviously colluded in my subconscious and decided that a numb body was better than a sad body, and that deep desire to be numb took me straight into my addictive struggles. Instead of picking one single addictive vice and ending up in rehab, I take a more “controlled” approach and engage in moderately addictive behavior across a broad spectrum – eating, drinking, Netflix, and shopping for cool sneakers and sharp t-shirts. 

I don’t eat a sleeve of Oreos in one sitting, but I might eat twice the recommended serving size – and maybe I eat them right before my dinner, so the second piece of dark chocolate after dinner is just a normal dessert as the Oreos can technically be categorized as a snack. I might sip on enough wine to keep me a little relaxed between 6 and 10 while never being tipsy. I can spend 2 hours browsing Marshalls and come out with a $7 t-shirt, but those 2 hours are brainless bliss. 4 or 5 Doctor Who episodes in a sitting? Well, I’m just trying to catch up with my daughter.

With my deft addiction management, I appear socially acceptable, an addict undercover. Any one of my given vices is completely understandable to most people. However, the cumulative effect is quite deadly. I don’t type that phrase that lightly – if I maintain my current course, I will end my life earlier via heart disease and diabetes.

This is a very personal confession, so I hope you stopped reading a while back if it’s TMI, but it’s helpful to me to bring it into the light. It makes it real, and I’m tired of the social media showcase where we all appear to have it all together. Now for the good part…

My past response when coming to grips with deep struggle was to feel shame and self-contempt. There is a generally agreed upon list of responsible, grown-up behaviors, and I somehow cannot manage to follow that list.

A year ago, I would have berated myself as a childish hypocrite, but what I’ve discovered is that my shame response is actually pride in disguise. Hating myself means I think I’m too good to fail. Humbly embracing my whole self brings acceptance of my humanity – my shared humanity. It makes me seek community and support instead of withdraw into my shell and deeper into my addictive cycles.

This morning, while working out (yay me!), I listened to a brief podcast – Krista Tippett on Becoming Wise, was interviewing Matthew Sanford. The subject? Compassion for our bodies. Oh, my goodness. Here is the first sentence of the podcast:


“Grief and gladness, sickness and health, are not separate passages. They’re entwined and grow from and through each other, planting us, if we’ll let them, more profoundly in our bodies, in all their flaws and their grace.”

~Krista Tippett


 

Now stop reading and listen to this (it’s less than 10 minutes): https://onbeing.org/blog/compassion-for-our-bodies-matthew-sanford/

There I was huffing away on the stairclimber, and instead of judging my lack of stamina, I chose to notice how well my muscles were still working for me. Yes, my heart rate was higher than it should be and I bench pressed 15 pounds less than I did in September, but my body kept me going through a really hard year! It did not give up on me. And the few extra pounds that have accumulated are the evidence that I have been grieving because I LOVE my kids like crazy. 

I do want to be around for my kids, however. Rejecting shame is how I break free and return to better self care. And taking care of myself is one of the best gifts I can give my family.

As I left the gym this morning, I could feel more keenly how my intake of breath makes the tips of my fingers feel connected to the rest of me, how my ears are more attuned to the joyful birdsongs than they were a year ago, how I really need to get to the eye doctor because I cherish seeing the beauty around me and can’t do that as well as I could a year ago.

 

Yes, my body is declining, but it’s a good body. My heart has been numbing itself, but it’s good, too. It was simply trying to find a safe place. The more compassion I find for myself exactly as I am right now, the more compassion I automatically extend to every other declining human body and vulnerable heart.

My body will eventually fall apart and stop breathing – might be 40 years from now, might be this afternoon. But while it’s still moving me along, I will live in a more connected way than I did yesterday. And as the other bodies and hearts that I love so dearly leave me over time, and I grieve again and again, I will remember the tender, softer grief of this year and the compassion I felt towards myself. In the future, I will be deeper, kinder, and more present in my grief and remember that it is intricately entwined with my joy.

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Banner Birding

I was bemoaning my to-do list because it has prevented me from going to the coast for a birding trip during migration. I gave myself an attitude checkup a week ago and decided to let it go and to savor the beauty in my own area. I wanted to share a little of what I have seen in the past 4 days. It has blessed me immensely.


“She is one of the most noticing people I’ve ever met, always paying attention to the birdsong in the background, the leaf on the tree.” ~Ursula K. Le Guin, No Time To Spare


These fascinating flying friends bring me joy. Enjoy my little slideshow. XOXO

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Clinging to Contempt

steadfast loveWhen Jesus says to lay our burdens down, I think one of the heaviest burdens he is referring to is shame.

When Jesus took on our sin, he did it with the full understanding of why we sinned, the hole we were trying to fill, and what hurts carved out that hole to begin with. We were locked in a cell, a life sentence, and he decided – ENOUGH! He did not simply excuse the life sentence, he served it for us. Then he opened the door of our prison cell to set us free. And yet many of us choose to stay there in our cell, a condemnation of our own making.

When I let shame fester, I am filled with self-contempt. Ironically, this is a form of pride. It’s me saying to God that somehow his solution is simply not good enough for the likes of me. It is me saying that my view of myself is more reliable than his view of me. 

Choosing the cage of shame is sad and small. Free life is offered to us, but we stay in a dark, dank room because we decide we don’t deserve freedom. We didn’t earn it. Oh, dear – there’s that pride again. If we earn something, we can hold it up to the world – look at me! I did this! When it’s a gift, the giver gets all the credit.


“Shame works like the zoom lens on a camera. When we are feeling shame, the camera is zoomed in tight and all we see is our flawed selves, alone and struggling.” ~Brené Brown


To reject this precious gift of freedom is to be like the fearful servant who buried his poor little talent in the ground. We despise the very gift that cost Jesus so dearly. We take LOVE and stuff it in a box and hide it in the back of our closet. Now that is a shame.

What if we took our “talents”, our freedom, the grace we have been granted, and invested it all in life, expansive and fearless and full of mercy for our family and friends, for ourselves, for our enemies? What if love became our filter instead of shame? That is the kind of laid-down-before-Jesus life I am after.

Nothing is out of the bounds of his grace.

Tennis Troubles

The stress last night was palpable. It seeped from her pores, visibly crept into her muscles – I could see the change in her posture as her shoulders tensed and her head slumped. A 3-day tennis tournament – in a room with 3 other girls, a new, real swimsuit (the last 2 years a swimsuit consisted of running shorts, sports bra, and tank top), anticipating the lack of sleep, knowing there will be no pause from social interaction. My heart ached as we navigated a stressful, exhausting 30 minutes of packing, trying to prepare and figure out what to pack that would help her feel comfortable and also maybe blend it a little bit.

Today, after 4th period at school, I met her at the tennis courts to exchange school bags for tennis and overnight bags. I could almost taste her ambivalence – she was thankful that I was there and wishing I was in Hong Kong at the same instant. The white bus with the head coach was filling with the cool kids. My heart sank. She’s not a cool kid in that book. Don’t get me wrong – I think her unique, artistic brain and her tender, insightful heart put her in a league of her own, but that does not make her fit into their club.

Oh, but then there is hope! The sweetest 2 cool kids – sophomores (one from our church:)) – climb into the black bus. I see her light up. And they see her light up. They are kind and motion for her to sit behind them. And her shoulders relax and her jaw loosens. Her smile is “her smile”. “Thank you, Lord,” I whisper under my breath, getting ahead of myself. Because 2 seconds later, a cool kid pops into the black bus: “Um… what are y’all doing? We saved you seats on the right bus.” 

“Oh… see ya, girl – have fun…” And they are gone. And she is there with her usual crew – the stragglers – the strugglers – the ones that don’t check enough of the boxes. 13 kids on the white bus, 5 on the black bus. At least she’ll be comfortable…

My heart feels like it has a vice clamp bearing down on it, but I’m also grateful that it did not occur to her to fight for a seat on the white bus. I hope she always finds herself with the strugglers and the broken ones. I hope she is driven by love to bring them kindness and healing when the world tosses them aside.

I have also prayed every moment since (the last 7 hours) that somehow God will meet her this Easter weekend, that somehow her suffering will connect with Jesus’ suffering, that the celebration that He is alive brings her life and hope of a better world to come, a healed and loving world.

Note: Text from the hotel: she says she’s doing “amazingly well” – all the girls are 4 to a room except for her and one other struggler. They each get their own bed.:)  

And one more thing… My other 2 kids and I showed up for the last day and a half and we really enjoyed each other. She took the photo below when she went birding with me – said she was capturing the sadness in post-hurricane Port Aransas. What a blessing when your parents and siblings are your real friends – they tend to stick around. Life can be hard, yet grace abounds.

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Gloomy Goodness

IMG_5011I want to disappear for a while – to read British mystery novels, sleep, drink grownup hot chocolate and not see a soul. Even better, I want to hibernate in an isolated cabin instead of my house – I’m tired and lazy, so my house is a mess, and that distracts me from my books and Netflix.

In the past, I would fret, with what little energy I had, about this winter slip into what many would describe as mild depression. This year, I look at the dreary rain drops dripping from the bare, gray branches, and I welcome the slight sadness with a warm fuzzy blanket.

For I have learned that this feeling always precedes the buzz of anticipation that happens like clockwork at the end of every February, when the first buds appear and the early migratory birds arrive. I would not appreciate the coming light without first knowing the darkness.


“For me it was important to be alone; solitude was a prerequisite to being openly and joyfully susceptible and responsive to the world of leaves, light, birdsong, flowers, flowing water.” ~Mary Oliver


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Forget New Year’s Resolutions

This week, we reflect – Christ came. He came as a baby at a particular place and time, but in an eternal sense that no words can explain, he comes again and again. He has come to me. He comes to all who call upon him in the midst of the current chaos of this world, in the midst of the chaos of their own internal world.

Fully man, he continues to enter our fleshly, decaying world as only one who has lived in a fleshly, decaying body can.

The advice lists for new year’s resolutions 2018 have started to float across social media networks. The more sophisticated lists now advocate “new year’s intentions” and sound deep and mature: things like kindness to the grocery cashiers, time in nature, daily focused meditation, simplifying, etc.

All good things, but then I read this in my favorite prayer book, The Valley of Vision.  I think I have found my new year’s, my rest-of-my-life hope and intention, because everything else loses its luster in the light of it.


“Give me a deeper trust, that I may lose myself to find myself in thee, the ground of my rest, the spring of my being… Plough deep in me, great Lord, heavenly Husbandman, that my being may be a tilled field, the roots of grace spreading far and wide, until thou alone art seen in me, thy beauty golden like summer harvest, thy fruitfulness as autumn plenty. Quarry me deep, dear Lord, and then fill me to overflowing with living water.”


As anyone who knows me can tell, I am a woman who often processes in images. I called to mind the last time I saw a huge commercial tiller running through the rich, deep-black soil. Have you seen a tractor plough up close lately? Those are some awfully big blades. Isn’t that how life feels sometimes? Like huge blades are shredding our hearts? What if that shredding could be laying the groundwork (couldn’t help it) for the person we are meant to grow into?

(Side note – I was looking at images online of tractor ploughs as I wrote this, and I came across a website from the UK called The Society of Ploughman – it’s awesome. They have competitions and everything. Check it out. The internet is amazing.)

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a quarry close up. When I think of a quarry, I always think of this scene from the film Garden StateGarden-State-Screencap-indie-films-1931521-1024-436I consider the violent demolition needed to create a gash in the earth the size of this, and I shudder a bit when I consider applying that image to my life. But the writer I quoted above longs to be quarried so that he might overflow with living water. That makes me tremble with excitement.

It is life in Jesus Christ, life in the one God-man, the one whose birth we celebrate this week, that can plow and quarry our hearts for the purposes of love and expansive grace. This is the life that I am scared to want, but still, want it I do. Oh, quarry me deep.

Shrouded Supermoon

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My lens is pointed directly at the setting supermoon, and yet a billion tiny things stand between my lens and that moon, rendering it invisible to me. Countless droplets of water conspire against me, each so tiny that I cannot make out a single one.

This is often a picture of my life. The BIG THING is right in front of me, and yet I am oblivious to its presence because I have let a billion tiny, almost-invisible things get between me and it.

My busyness, my wandering or fretful thoughts, the noise, the tweets, the news, the TV, the sugar and caffeine, other people’s expectations and their subsequent disappointments… I am so used to the bombardment. It has become my constant background, so I rarely notice it is there.

But sometimes I feel fretfully lost and see the path fading in front of me. For a brief spell, I acknowledge the dense fog and consider what grand thing might be right before me, hidden from view.

(I’ll be back for you this evening, my moon.)

Read More Stories!

Angle of ReposeLast night, I finished Wallace Stegner’s lengthy masterpiece, Angle of Repose. I set it down and contemplated what a privilege it was to have time to read. I read a lot of books, a lot of amazing books.  Because of the sheer length of my booklist, if your book is not well-written, it will be quickly discarded.

I have pages and pages of highlighted quotes, notes, and references from my favorite wise non-fiction writers (Krista Tippett, Parker Palmer, Richard Rohr, Brennan Manning, Frederick Buechner & David Brooks come to mind – all highlights of last year), but there is something different that happens when I read a great novel. While non-fiction works tend to ping around in my brain and sometimes sift their way into the deeper places of my heart, stories just march right in my heart’s front door. What is it about a story?

We are all living stories. God’s story telling confounds me sometimes. Bible stories, especially the most ancient ones, can pull up confusion and even revulsion. But I do believe God is the grand storyteller, and a story weaver in our lives. He created us in his storytelling image – story is quite literally in our DNA.

Written story stands apart from any other form of storytelling. I was staring at a page in a real book – printed on actual paper. The font was small enough to challenge even my 1.75 readers (I love my Kindle). I took off my glasses so I couldn’t make out the words, and I noted that the vast majority of the page was white. All those tiny black letters probably took up 10 percent of the space. And it struck me – that’s what a satisfying novel does – it’s leaves us space to bring our own stories, our personalities, and our circumstances with us into the reading. No one will leave Angle of Repose changed in the same way it changed me, for no one else brings what I do to all that white space.

Characters are filtered through my life’s characters, whether I mean to or not. Their faces, their voices and smiles and joys, the way they move, their successes and failures take on unique forms in my mind based on what I know. So each novel, if it is written well, becomes customized to my soul.

I have a hard time remembering Jesus’s specific theology from his sermon on the mount, but the parables stick – I often think of the lost sheep, the woman desperately hunting her coin, the scene where the prodigal son is at last spotted by his father, the struggling seeds, the grumbling workers – these are the things that inform my spiritual life automatically.

My point is made. We should all read more epic stories. Maybe one day I’ll even write one. Every time I finish a remarkable novel, I wonder why I don’t read more! Here are a few of my favorites from the past few months. Please take a moment to comment and tell me a couple of your favorites. Or connect with me on Goodreads.

Wallace Stegner:  Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose, Ann Patchett: State of Wonder, Fredrik Backman: A Man Called Ove, Marilynne Robinson: Gilead and Home (these probably top my list), Kristin Hannah: The Nightingale, Adam Johnson: Fortune Smiles, Wm. Paul Young: Eve and Cross Roads, Frederick Buechner: The Storm and Godric, John Steinbeck: Travels with Charley.

Your turn…

Put a Frame Around It

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I have not written much of anything for a while. I have been lost in the fog of family illnesses and my son departing for college. I think I have been hibernating, but my heart and my brain started to wake up this week.

I have ideas popping again –  song lyrics, book themes, photo shoots I want to plan. But I stopped myself yesterday and wondered why in the heck I do these things – write the words and melodies, snap the pictures. I don’t make a dime. It takes loads of time. And yet… I think it might be what I am called to do.

For any of you who have read my blog, it will come as no surprise that I found my answer in a Frederick Buechner book. There are 2 new Buechner books out – 2 books!! – I could hardly contain my excitement pouring over new words from him yesterday. I am about to finish the first of the 2 called The Remarkable Ordinary. The second is called A Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory. It’s next – I’ll keep you posted.

I have always felt a deep connection to Buechner’s writing, as if he gives words to the thoughts that swim right between my dreams and my waking – things that drive to the very core of me but I can’t quite explain. And then he just writes it – or even better, he shows it to me in one of his stories. Few characters have influenced me the way his have.

Back to yesterday: here I am, in my little existential crisis about the meaning of my work, and I open a new Buechner book and he is writing about ART. Of all the things! Here is one of my favorite quotes:


“So, art is saying Stop. It helps us to stop by putting a frame around something and makes us see it in a way we would never have seen it under the normal circumstances of living, as so many of us do, on sort of automatic pilot, going through the world without really seeing much of anything.”


And there it is. That is why I write this post, why I get up before dawn and ignore mosquitos or heat or cold to take my photos, why I spend hours trying to get a melody just right. First, it is for me. It is my way of telling my heart, “STOP! Look at this. Really look at this.”

Then I share some of these things with you so that you might say to yourself, “STOP! Would you look at that? What a wonder!” And I don’t mean I want you to look at my photo of the moon and say, “STOP! Look at my friend’s post. She is a great photographer.” What I’m really hoping for is that you will see the mind-blowing marvel that any human being got to stand where I stood and see such a site, and, “Oh my gosh, I can do that, too!”

My hope is that next time you see the moon, you stop and realize that no one who has ever lived or who ever will live is standing in the exact spot as you, at that exact time, with the specific memories and emotions and dreams you bring to that exact moment. That moment is a gift from the entire universe, from the Creator himself in my opinion, for you and you alone. Now tell me that doesn’t put this broken world into perspective for just a minute

So art – art spawned from a heart of wonder – is framing miracle moments- an image, a sentence, a note – that calls on all of us to slow the heck down and pay attention. And if I can influence just a handful of people and deepen their desire to find their own such moments, I am contributing to the very work of creation – I am bringing wonder and love,  grace and peace in a way only I can bring them

And you and I are also works of art. As we pay attention to the world’s wonders, we begin to see each other through new lenses. More from Buechner:

“So we are to see each other like that, as Jesus sees us, framed as if each one of our faces is seen by him.” 

May you all find your own unique moments of wonder this week, and may we all see each other – and ourselves – as the spectacular works of art that we are!

 

The Only Why That Matters

This is a letter to my son, but as I wrote this, prayed this, over him, I found myself praying it also over my own heart and over the hearts of many friends, so it seemed appropriate to post it here.

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Dear Son,

It’s the day after coming home from our amazing, long vacation – I have had that vacation in my mind since the summer before you started high school, and I have no regrets about the money or the time we spent. Other than the obvious privilege of enjoying the mountains for 3 weeks, one of the biggest blessings was watching you just be you – no classes, tests, applications, matches, work, pressure, or alarm clocks. No striving. Just you – doing, being, treasuring the time, challenging yourself on that mountain bike WAY beyond my personal comfort zone.

I found myself celebrating the man that you are – your courage, your curious mind, kind heart, occasional quirkiness, the big, deep laugh to go along with your brilliant, nuanced sense of humor.

Coming back to reality – the land of “S T U U U F F!”, as you guys hollered out in the car when we crested the hill into Amarillo, my heart struggled. This STUFF makes me feel burdened and a little dead inside sometimes. That mild despair deepened when the reality of your upcoming departure hit me afresh when I walked in the door. This morning God tenderly helped me sort it out.

Why are we here? There is only one WHY that matters.

This world pretends to have big dreams for you, but sadly, the world’s dreams are deceptively small and slippery. In our constant conversation throughout high school regarding college entrance and scholarships, I am afraid I let my own heart adopt some of those dreams for you as well. My reading this morning took me to 1 Timothy chapter 6 – your namesake, Timothy – that was my first signal that something good was coming. God reminded me what His dreams are for you.

From The Message translation, starting in verse 6: A devout life does bring wealth, but it’s the rich simplicity of being yourself before God. (I could almost stop right here because there is so much in that one sentence! Being yourself before anyone is a minor miracle, but being yourself before the loving, perfect, creator God? Wow.) Since we entered the world penniless and will leave it penniless, if we have bread on the table and shoes on our feet, that’s enough… Lust for money brings trouble and nothing but trouble. Going down that path, some lose their footing in the faith completely and live to regret it bitterly ever after. But you, Timothy (David), man of God: Run for your life from all this. Pursue a righteous life – a life of wonder, faith, love, steadiness, courtesy. Run hard and fast in the faith. Seize the eternal life, the life you were called to, the life you so fervently embraced in the presence of so many witnesses.” (This last part made me think of you and your friends at camp this summer.)

Striving for money is like having a boat anchor around your neck in the middle of an angry ocean. It will take you down. You have heard the phrase, “What you own owns you.” And it’s true. Food on the table and shoes on our feet – those are words to remember. Another thing you will be soon tempted to own is debt, and there will likely be times, for a vehicle or a home, where this is your chosen path as it has been ours. But remember that it gets a piece of you, so stick to that food and shoes image as much and as closely as you can.

You are pretty darn smart and heading off to study smart things with smart people. If you can frame your pursuit from day one with the idea of using whatever you learn to honor God and help others, you can take your studies as far as He leads you. You have the beautiful freedom to consult your heart instead of consulting only your future bank account.

My favorite prayer book is called The Valley of Vision. Here is a portion of the prayer that “happened” to be next in line today – reminded me that God is faithful to tie things together for us when we listen.

“LORD OF ALL BEING, There is one thing that deserves my greatest care, that calls forth my ardent desires, that is, that I may answer the great end for which I am made – to glorify thee who hast given me being, and to do all the good I can for my fellow men; verily, life is not worth having if it be not improved for this noble purpose. Yet, Lord, how little is this the thought of mankind! Most men seem to live for themselves, without much or any regard for thy glory, or for the good of others; they earnestly desire and eagerly pursue the riches, honours, pleasures of this life, as if they suppose that wealth, greatness, merriment, could make their immortal souls happy. But, alas, what false delusive dreams are these! And how miserable ere long will those be that sleep in them…”

Our society is obsessed with standing out and being special. I buy into that at times with myself – trying to figure out what my grand contribution is supposed to be. It’s not that my brain, my writing, or my art are unimportant. They are simply unimportant in the traditional thinking about success. Followers, viewers, and listeners do not define the value of my contribution! The only measuring stick for any of it is whether or not it answers the “great end” for which I was made – glorifying God and doing what good I can for my fellow man.

You have grown up in a strange land, a land of excess, of sameness – a land where many spend as much on their vacations as the average citizen makes in a year. You have also been observant enough to realize that these riches do not make people happy. If anything, they are distracting and dividing. C.S. Lewis says, “Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is “finding his place in it”, while really it is finding its place in him.”

You have not had much of a place in the high school social strata (thank goodness). It might be tempting to “find your place in the world” as you swim into friendlier waters. My hope is that you find your mission to the world instead. If, along the way, your journey includes a sizable paycheck, find ways to remind yourself who it truly belongs to. (Food and shoes, food and shoes…)

So you and and your gifted brain – go try to figure out how nanobots can cure cancer, or help design some brilliant machine that improves eyesight or a medicine to end Malaria – OR – maybe one day you will find yourself doing some job just to put bread on the table and shoes on your kids’ feet – and your GREAT END will be to love your family well and show kindness and compassion to whatever coworkers you are thrown together with. Our measure of what is great and what is important must be constantly brought back to God’s measuring stick. It is absolutely the only one that will matter in the end.

You will leave this world one day with only your soul. No penny, no person will take that particular journey with you. So, fill your soul. Listen to your heart. And don’t forget the first words that Paul uses to define the righteous life for Timothy. He starts with “a life of wonder”. Such wisdom! The wonder of creation, of science, of poetry and beauty – wonder will always lead you back to the God of Wonders!FullSizeRender (6)IMG_7234

So, when you catch yourself slipping into the sticky web of the world’s idea of success, get outside or read something amazing. Break the cycle and come back. Find the “rich simplicity of being yourself” before the God who made you and loves you – beyond your wildest imagination – exactly as you come.

Of course, a letter of this nature from a Mom of my nature, must end with a quote from my favorite.

“Power, success, happiness, as the world knows them, are his who will fight for them hard enough, but peace, love and joy are only from God.”

~Frederick Buechner

Love, Mom

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