A Promised Land

Last night, Brian and I boarded a massive, double-decker jet and flew halfway around the world to Israel.

This tiny scrap of land about the size of New Jersey is celebrating its 60th birthday as a new nation this year.  Ever since its rebirth, Israel has been a political and religious battleground.  Enemies within the country fight for territory.  Middle Eastern neighbors surrounding Israel would be pleased to remove this country from the map.  In fact, the battling over this land began long before 1948.  Disputes trace back to the Biblical accounts of Genesis and continue through the Old and New Testaments.  So much attention given to a land whose size pales in comparison to the countries around it.  It has hardly known a time of quiet and stillness.  Yet, amidst the wars and the invasions and the changes of power, over two millennia ago a baby was born in Bethlehem who forever changed the face of this Holy Land.  He was Jesus, the Prince of Peace.  Such a good and perfect gift in Jesus arriving in such a tumultuous place.

This vacation, although I have brief moments of concern for plummeting myself into a contentious part of the world, I am mostly just thrilled to celebrate the life that offers peace and hope to a struggling world and to examine the events of Jesus’ time where they actually occurred.  As we left the Tel Aviv airport earlier this evening and boarded our bus for the 2-hour drive to Tiberias, Lon Solomon prayed, among other things, that we would have a life-defining experience on this trip.  You know, if we are following hard after Jesus, I’m wondering if it’s even possible not to have a life-defining experience.

Bill Shakespeare Would Be Proud

My grandparents used to take my mom and uncle to Nelson Ledges in the fall when they were young.  My mom carried on that tradition with my brothers and me, every fall if possible.  We typically started our day in the picnic area, enjoyed a lunch together, and tossed around a football or frisbee in the open field for a bit.  Afterward, we all hit the outhouses and then walked across the street from the picnic area to the ledges.  Degree of hiking difficulty here is determined by the group.  Hikers could casually stroll above or around the ledges, or could opt for more demanding descents, climbs, and crevasses through which to crawl.  We usually elected for anything that would challenge us or that looked like it had not been explored before.  If I made it through the Devil’s Icebox without losing my footing – which meant drenching my foot in the cold, orange, mineral-deposited water – then the day was a success.

November ’07 we introduced the state park to the next generation’s boys – four of my nephews.  This month’s masthead is a photo of Brian and the three youngest nephews heading in to the hiking area.

My brother, Tod, explained this sign best as “where your pee would go if you #1’d right here.”

It is customary for our family to stand on this balcony and recite, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?…”  Thanks to Brady, it looks like licking the balcony may become a new tradition as well.

Being silly, I had captioned the photo of Tod, Cliff, and me as “Siblings in love” in a family album.  When my mom was showing the album to my nephews, she asked if they knew what ‘siblings’ were?  Evan, seven years old at the time, said, “Yeah.”  “What are siblings?”  He explained matter-of-factly, “People in love.”

At the end of the day, my mom rode home with Tod and his two boys.  Nate, five years old then, must have been observant of the chatting and laughing that my mom and I did throughout the day, and then saw the hug and kiss we exchanged as I headed back home to Pennsylvania.  In the car he asked, “Granny Joanney, how do you know Aunt Michelle so well?”

Must be all those trips to Nelson Ledges.

“Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner”

A week ago today we had the funeral service for my grandmother. Of course there were many moments of tears and sadness, but the weekend overall was really nice. Nice? Yes. Because the entire weekend was about our family. My mom and step-dad, my brothers and their families, my uncle and aunt, my cousins, family friends, other extended family… Amidst our mourning there was room for joy and laughter because of the bond we share with each other and the fun memories we have of Grams.

A couple times my mama asked, “What are you going to say about me when I die?” I think this question arose for two reasons – 1) she knows that there are several things she has done in her day that make her vulnerable, and 2) she, the daughter, spoke at Grams service and if I, the daughter that occasionally is accused of being unrelated because of my total weirdness, would have the charge of speaking at my mom’s service, she would again feel very vulnerable left in my hands.

Well, just as you felt it was challenging to speak about Grams in fifteen minutes, Mama Bear, I also feel like I would need at least five days to sum up what I would want to say about you at your funeral. But yes, I probably would share the story about you telling Tod that you couldn’t figure out how to rewind his DVD. I would have to talk about you letting me stay up until 2am one night when I was in elementary school so that we could all go over to your friends’ houses and mischievously decorate their yards with toilet paper. Celebrating your life would not be the same if I didn’t offer up to everyone the pictures of you dressed as a sumo wrestler in a purple dress or in an old-person mask to greet people at airports or to liven birthday parties. Dress as a horse with a friend and canter in to the church office to wish the senior pastor happy birthday? That’s my mom! When I learned last weekend that you wore an olive barrel to high school on dress down day, at that moment I better understood why you helped me make an outfit out of garbage bags for a high school dare rather than scoff at the idea. We get each other that way.

All these things you love to do, it shows the world that you love life, love to laugh, and love to make others laugh. You have that legacy of joy and laughter from Grams and Grandpa, and you spread it like wildfire into the lives of others.

At your funeral, I would also share about another trait you inherited – your kind, giving heart. I know you often feel tired and spent, which in part comes from being such a diligent worker, but the main reason for the exasperation is because you spend your days giving every piece of yourself away to those in need. Like Aunt Helen, who outlived her husband and her son and didn’t have much family around her, you poured your energy in to helping her move, helping her pay bills, reminding her to laugh, and giving her company when she had none. You answered her frantic, confused calls at the wee hours of the night. You planned medications and treatments for her with the nursing staff. Teens with deficient parents. Your elderly parents. Your aging husband. Ro spoke for so many when he grabbed your hand that one time and said, “I don’t know what I would do without you. I wouldn’t be here without you.”

I have been on the receiving end of this sacrifice and generosity. Okay, so there was the one night when I was a child and I wanted to crawl in to bed with you because I thought there were millions of bugs crawling all over my walls. I came in to your room late at night, explained my predicament, and begged, “Pleeeease could I sleep in your bed just like the kids did on the Cosby Show?” You told me to pretend Jesus was with me and to go back to bed. So not the most shining moment of theology or sacrifice, but in your defense, I did just wake you and I was annoying sometimes as a kid.

With those few minor exceptions aside, you gave and gave and gave to your children. Moonlighting so that I could have luxuries like braces or a high school trip overseas, taking us on mystery trips, relinquishing personal time in favor of our sporting events and household upkeep, doing word searches with me, reading Bible stories at the dinner table, leaving a touching note in my sock drawer on my first day of college, loving me unconditionally even when I was a brat – you offered these things and more without asking in return. At the age of eight, I didn’t think about the inconvenience for you when I barfed beef and noodles in my bed and hair in the middle of the night. But I do remember you patiently consoling me and cleaning me up, and the next day buying me a 101 Dalmatians sticker book.

By your words and more importantly by the way you live your life, you have taught me to be committed, to never give up, to be crazy, to work my hardest, to be strong, to walk humbly, to love God, to serve others. You saw my talents and strengths before I did and helped me to develop them. I remember you created a game out of memorizing Bible verses on our road trip to California in ’87, and I am still able to recite many of those verses today (not so hot with the state capitols, though). It was your firm foundation that gave me confidence to go forward courageously in life. Sometimes I sit and think how I could repay you. There’s no way I could. It would be like trying to create a beach one teaspoon of sand at a time. All I have to offer is teaspoons compared to the bulldozers of treasures you have bestowed upon me.

And then there’s this magical bond that you and I have. It’s uplifting and encouraging in times of need.  Other times it takes on the form of plastic bugs, Dirty Dancing quotes (the other day you sounded just like Jennifer Grey, by the way), unabashed laughter, or gentle petting (usually me petting your baby butt soft face). One of my favorite laughing moments was when you called me while we were IMing. We both held the handsets to our ears, but never actually spoke one single word. As we continued IMing, we got to laughing so hard on the phone that we had to hang up and put on oxygen masks. We have this unsquelchable connection that runs mysteriously deep.

At your funeral, I would need to capture your wit and creativity and come up with the best stories to exemplify your strength and athleticism (sooo many stories to tell!). So beautiful, so smart, so wonderful. My job will not be easy. I have an idea – you must NEVER DIE!

Finally, I would share the story that Grandpa shared at his mother’s funeral and that you shared at Grams’…

The young Mother set her foot on the path of life. “Is this the long way?” she asked.  The guide said,” Yes, and the way is hard. You will be old before you reach the end of it. But the end will be better than the beginning.”

But the young Mother was happy, and she would not believe that anything could be better than these years. So she played with her children and gathered flowers for them along the way and bathed them in the clear streams. The sun shone on them and the young Mother cried, “Nothing will ever be lovelier than this.”

Then the night came, and the storm, and the path was dark. The children shook with fear and cold. The Mother drew them close and covered them with her mantle. The children said, “Mother, we are not afraid, for you are near and no harm can come.”

The morning came and there was a hill ahead. The children climbed and grew weary, and the Mother was weary. But at all times she said to the children, “A little patience and we are there.” So the children climbed, and when they reached the top they said, “Mother, we would not have done it without you.”

The Mother, when she lay down at night, looked up at the stars and said, “This is a better day than the last, for my children have learned fortitude in the face of hardness. Yesterday, I gave them courage. Today, I have given them strength.

The next day came strange clouds which darkened the earth – clouds of war and hate and evil. The children groped and stumbled. The Mother said, “Look up. Lift your eyes to the Light.” The children looked and saw above the clouds an everlasting glory, and it guided them beyond the darkness. That night the Mother said, “This is the best day of all, for I have shown my children God.”

The days went on, and the weeks and the months and the years. The Mother grew old. She was little and bent, but her children were tall and strong and walked with courage. When the way was rough, they lifted her, for she was as light as a feather. At last they came to a hill. Beyond they could see a shining road and golden gates flung wide.

The Mother said, “I have reached the end of my journey. Now I know the end is better than the beginning, for my children can walk alone, and their children after them.”

The children said, “You will always walk with us, Mother, even when you have gone through the gates.” They stood and watched her as she went on alone, and the gates closed after her.

They said, “We cannot see her, but she is with us still. A Mother like ours is more than a memory. She is a living presence.”

Your Mother is always with you. She lives inside your laughter. She’s crystallized in every teardrop. She’s the place you came from, your first home; she’s the map you follow with every step you take. She’s your first love and your first heartbreak.

Nothing can separate you. Not time, not space…not even death.

You have always been and will always be a living presence in my life, my friend, my hero, my teacher, my mother. I love you!