In the Bleak Mid Winter


It’s been only a few weeks since we sang the familiar carol with words by Rosetti:

In the bleak mid-winter

Frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron,

                       Water like a stone;

                        Snow had fallen, snow on snow,

                         Snow on snow,

                         In the bleak mid-winter

                          Long ago.

The Advent and Christmas season had passed, but my soul felt as though it was stuck in the bleak mid-winter, hard as iron, like a stone. Colorado has more than its share of beautiful winter sunshine, so this couldn’t be attributed to SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Since Christmas I hadn’t felt well (unusual for me) but the doctor ruled out anything serious and slowly—very slowly—I was feeling better. In addition, the stress of travel, constant people, interrupted schedule, unfinished projects nagged. A skill I thought I was performing well—or at least adequately—was critiqued and criticized. The list of “shoulds” and “oughts” grew into a bundle like the one carried by Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress.

I performed the prescribed “soul check”: any sin to be confessed? any relationship to be mended? any discipline to be activated? After checking off the usual feel-better, get-out-of-the-funk procedures, I remained exactly in the same winter’s dark emotional place.

Now what? Shouldn’t Christians be triumphant? praising? always ‘on top’? Shouldn’t psalms or proverbs bring a sense of God’s presence? What about experiencing peace?

And then I remembered the title of my first blog just one year ago: Come Sit With Me. Could it be that all God wants—and all I need—is to sit with Him? No expectations? No check lists or prayer lists? Just quiet sitting? Not waiting for God. Just waiting with God.

I needed to read and meditate on Rosetti’s last stanza:

 What can I give Him,

Poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd

I would bring a lamb;

If I were a wise man

I would do my part;

Yet what I can, I give Him—

Give Him my heart.

 And so I sit.

And wait.

With God.


My Tribute to Bernice

Letter BTwo months ago a special person died. She was the last surviving person of that generation on my mother’s side of the family: my Aunt Bernice, widow of Uncle John. No one from that generation—no siblings, no sons-in-law, no daughters-in-law—remains. During my childhood I only saw her when we traveled from Michigan to Pennsylvania for summer visits, but I always seemed drawn to her. She was different than other women in the family. She never seemed interested in talking about the price of eggs, what color should Grandma’s living room be painted, never joined in quibbling about who-said-what-when-why. I picked up vibes from overheard conversations between my other aunts that Bernice was “different,” not as dedicated as they to baking from scratch, the pursuit of crisply ironed shirts and dresses, the seen-but-not-heard philosophy of raising children. She worked as a bookkeeper in a jewelry store in town and as such, knew many of the town’s leading (i.e., wealthy) people. People outside the close knit–closed–family circle. People whose ancestors perhaps didn’t come from central or northern Europe. Good heavens, she not only read books each evening but even wrote children’s stories for her church denomination’s newsletter.

It was as adults that we talked long on my infrequent visits. Now we were separated by an ocean but when we did get together, she asked about my feelings, dreams, goals. No one in the family had ever plunged into those frightening depths. In the summer of 2006, we had an especially meaningful conversation during which she shared bits of her life without a word of complaint or regret. She said these words had never before been spoken aloud. I came away with my heart full. The words below (written after that visit) are my tribute to Bernice. A woman who quietly influenced me more than she knew. More than I knew.

A woman of elegance trapped in an earthy world, united by unbreakable bond to a man whose plaid shirt reeks of tractor oil, tobacco and sweat. His physical world is just acres broad; his emotional, spiritual world miles narrower. He mows the grass, moves dirt from place to place as she reads of life in England or dreams of living in New York, Edinburgh, San Francisco.

I’ve seen pictures of her at age twelve—a dreamy, faraway look in her eyes even then. She loved to read, to study English, French and Latin. Her mother wanted her to be a teacher. Fine touches on her wooden porch—pink geraniums and trailing vinca in a white china pot, African violets in a linen-lined basket, white candle in a metal holder coated with velvet-like green patina, delicate flowers on the gleaming wood table—all these announce a woman whose eyes see more, whose heart hungers after more.

She married young under the pressure of I-love-you-I’ll-kill-myself-if-I-can’t-have-you. She said with a wistful smile, “I loved the uniform.” Children came soon. One. Two. Soon four. Life was hard with yet harder life to come. Sisters-in-law gave to help the family survive, but the giving was with strangulating ties. Bernice knew no repayment would, could, ever be deemed enough.

Marriage turned out to be more difficult than she had dreamed. Alcohol began to muffle his love, or at least his expressions of love. The heart knew wounding, but she loved yet and forever. When the youngest child started school, she took that job in town to survive financially. Or was it to simply survive? From nine to five she escaped the drudgery of economic poverty and emotional starvation.

Years pass, children grow, husband settles ever more into his small world. Dreams of college fade as does bitterness over missed opportunities, unfulfilled expectations. Her outside world looks much the same, but her inner world continually develops. She pursues intellectual growth through reading, emotional growth through writing and awareness of more, ever more. She cooks roast beef and mashed potatoes but dreams of Monet’s kitchen herb garden. She lives with, and loves the man in the sweat-stained shirt but occasionally wonders if she’s missed her own Bridges of Madison County experience. The sisters-in-law would be horrified.

Her children and grandchildren pursue careers of craftsmanship, tilling land, caring for the elderly, repairing engines, keeping house, each one carrying a remnant of her quiet grace. Life is short and ever shorter, but as she looks at these traces of her real self, she knows that all has not been in vain. In a way she never imagined, her dreams have come true.

Thank you and goodbye, Aunt Bernice.

Winding Roads and Center Lines

Winding RoadIt was near the end of our first day on the road for what would be a 1300-mile journey. Tired and hungry, we eagerly anticipated a comfortable motel room and hot meal, but before relaxing we faced one last stretch of canyon driving. This is a beautiful stretch of road on sunny days, but now rain-turning-to-snow began to fall and except for the glare from oncoming cars, the night was inky black. Years of driving experience served to alert me to the reality of what could easily become a dangerous situation.

I sat up straighter, positioned my hands correctly on the steering wheel and concentrated totally on the road ahead. In the darkness, only a few things were clear: the short distance ahead of the car, the precipitation glistening in my headlights and the road’s center line.

It was that center line that became my guide for the nerve wracking miles ahead. I couldn’t see the line 100 yards ahead, only those few feet as my headlights brought it into view. When I saw it begin to curve, I knew the wheels of the car needed to do the same. When it became a double line, I knew—or hoped!—no oncoming car would be passing into my lane. My mind concentrated fully on driving—no wandering creative thoughts allowed!—but later I reflected on spiritual applications from that night.

A new year faces us all. Parts of our journey in the months ahead will be like summer driving in that canyon. Trees from light green aspens to the almost black of forest pines. Gurgling streams that call us to walk their banks. Flowers peeping out alongside forest trails. We scarcely need a center line to guide us through those days.

But the new year will also bring challenges, some we’ve faced before (or are facing now), others will scream into our lives without warning, like attacking banshees. Where is the center line then? What is the center line then? How do we stay the course when hands-on-the-wheel—otherwise known as full control—is not only insufficient but impossible?

As I’ve asked these questions of myself, many thoughts surfaced. Community is essential. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls…” My experience has been that it is when the nights are dark, when the drenching rain of self-doubt seeks to drown the very life out of us that Christian community reaches its apex, becomes most like that provided by and experienced in Jesus.

Another essential for driving through life’s canyons is a belief in, a working knowledge, increasing understanding and practice of biblical principles. That’s a complicated sentence and one to be developed at another time, but once again, in my personal experience, it’s been the Spirit of God speaking through the Word of God that has sustained.

The single most important center line in my life when canyon walls seemed to imprison, when tears flowed with more intensity than pounding rain, was one unprovable, impossible and undeniable fact: God loves me. I couldn’t explain it. I certainly didn’t deserve it. I desperately clung to it. And it brought me to safety. Many times the storm rumbled on, but in its eye was the “peace that passes understanding.”

I sadly suspect that 2015 will continue as it has begun: terrorism, hunger, poverty, epidemics and earthquakes. In the middle of those canyons, the love of God will provide strength for His followers to move forward, not just for guidance along personal paths but perhaps more importantly, for the power to drive into those dark places with healing words and actions for others.

My center line? “I have loved you with an everlasting love… (Jeremiah 31:3)

Prayer for the New Year

May today there be peace within.

May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.

May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.

May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you.

May you be confident knowing you are a child of God.

Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.

It is there for each and every one of us.

–attributed to St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Theresa of Avila