It was our last morning and we had big plans for the day, so we checked out of our hotel, waved goodbye to Carmel (and the classic car concours that was just getting underway) and drove to Pavel's Bakerei in Pacific Grove to get their delicious cheese bread (sourdough loaf) and an assortment of donuts to bring home the kids, the grandparents, and us. While we were waiting for them to get our order all put together, we ended up talking to a woman (with three kids in tow) whose friend had just moved to Mill Valley. Toward the end of the conversation, I mentioned that we sometimes came to Monterey for their free homeschool days (just in case they might be homeschoolers, to), but that didn't evoke any response. They walked out and I overheard an older woman tell the younger woman with her, "She must be a homeschooling mom. She has that look." The younger woman replied, "What? Calm?" The older woman started to reply in what sounded like a less than flattering way, something about the appearance of having it all together, and I interjected smilingly, "Actually that woman isn't a homeschooling mom, but I am."
You can believe she changed her tone after that! Especially because the younger woman, who turned out to be her daughter (or daughter in-law), wanted to know all about homeschooling, so that got me started on what has become one of my favorite topics, and while my husband was pouring our coffee, I answered their questions. The young woman's father (or father in-law) was also there, and it turned out that they were from Georgia visiting, because the family had just relocated to the Monterey area since the husband is in the Marines, and they have very young children, so she is starting to look at the possibility of homeschooling.
We were on on a bit of time budget to get to a final, fun destination on the way home (Filoli Gardens), so we walked out and were going to go a thrift store down the street before taking off, but my husband remembered something for his coffee he needed, so he went back inside the bakery. He came out and told me that the young woman wanted my contact info, so I gave it to her and we chatted some more....well, long story short, they all turned to be Christians! Again, we related to each other and encouraged one another. What a sweet ending - in more ways that one - to our 48 hour 14th anniversary adventure!
Into the Light - Part Four
We rolled out of bed and into the breakfast room (well, not really, but at the rate I'm telling this story, I figured I better speed things up) where we enjoyed two kinds of quiche - ham & cheese and vegetarian - also, fresh berries, which my husband had mixed with granola and yogurt. I normally don't eat until lunch, but I can't resist free food (well, included with our stay) and I needed to fuel up for our hike at Point Lobos, "the crown jewel" of the California State Parks, "the greatest meeting of land and sea in the world", just south of Carmel and north of Big Sur.
As we were driving along the coast, my husband (eagle eye), from behind the wheel, spotted a whale! He pulled over and we raced out on the rocks to see it. Sure enough, there was a sightseeing boat (definitely getting an eyeful) not far from where we could see the spouting blowhole and then a quick glimpse of it breaching. In all our years of coming to this area, we had never seen a whale, so this was quite a treat, even though (as usual) we had forgotten to bring binoculars.
A little farther on (keep in mind, the total distance from the hotel to our destination was only a few miles), he spotted the whale again! So once again, we pulled over, and ran to the beach (sandy this time, thankfully). It was Carmel River Beach and there were others there, but farther south, and none seemed to notice, despite us jumping up and down and pointing...so it felt like a special whale showing just for us. Thinking back on it, I am reminded of how it's like following Jesus. He shows up unexpectedly, but the more we seek him, the more He reveals himself to us. Meanwhile, we're beside ourselves trying to get others to discover and enjoy this wonderful treasure with us, but they are caught up in the cares of this world, and our enthusiasm comes across as lunacy to them.
A few minutes later, we entered Point Lobos (I almost said the wardrobe), parked at the farthest lot, and began our adventure on foot. As if the crystal blue water at China Cove wasn't enough beauty, we were treated the sight of harbor seals mothers and pups sunbathing and frolicking. We lingered there, gazing over the cliffs into the sheltered cove and out into the endless ocean. Continuing our hike, we found a set of stairs and climbed down to a gorgeous white beach, watching the waves and admiring the seascape.
Up at the top and out on the trail again, a man and his wife pointed out a sea otter to us and let us use their binoculars for a closer view. That brought back memories to an earlier anniversary, our first time at Point Lobos, when I had been pining to see a sea otter (my favorite ocean animal), and sure enough, God brought us several to enjoy (and again, my husband was the one to spot them first). As we walked on, we encountered a family from the Bay Area - it turned out that the man had just got a job in our county (in San Rafael, where I grew up, one town south of our town) and was about to start work. We encouraged them about the possibility of moving to Marin (from the east Bay) and all that it could offer their family.
We made our way back to the car (saying goodbye to the seals one last time) and tried to drive out to Cypress point, but there was no room in the lot, so we drove to Whaler's Cove (where we had seen the sea otters that other time), and hiked out there. We found seals again, but the dads this time - we could tell because each of the big lugs was on his own rock...except when one would go for a swim and another would steal his "recliner."
I had told my husband about reading 1 Peter, so we had decided to read it aloud to each other, which we did in a private little spot we found overlooking a secluded cove. We only got through the first chapter, but it was just right. Then my husband convinced me to steal away under the roped off area and climb down to look into the beautiful water in the cove, which we did for a few minutes, but I couldn't full enjoy it since I felt like an outlaw!
As we hiked back, we saw a group of Japanese tourists pointing out to sea - a whale sighting! We kept vigil, me with my camera/phone ready, but of course it didn't resurface, so we walked on, and then there it was again, with no one else to see it but us. This was the clearest view yet and I even got some semi-decent pictures, albeit from a distance. My husband was convinced it was the same whale all three times. I wasn't so sure, but either way, it was an amazing blessing for the first full morning of our trip to be graced with glimpses of such a magnificent creature, and that just we two would be privy to that unique beauty of God's creation.
That was our second divine appointment and in less than 12 hours. There would be two more to come that afternoon and evening, and another the following morning, which I hope I can relate in the fifth and (Lord willing) final post...but it might take sixth or seventh installment...
Into the Light - Part Three
Continuing on with our 48 hour 14th anniversary adventure...we left off in dreamland on Sunday night, but let me back up a little bit. I wanted to read God's Word before going to sleep, so because we were on vacation, it felt right to play "Bible Roulette," you know where you randomly open the good book and see what you find. That can be pretty hit or miss, but with the way things were going, I wasn't surprised when I hit the jackpot. I turned to 1 Peter and read the whole book, because it's short (a mere five chapters) and amazing and I had already underlined a bunch of stuff in my little travel Bible, such as:
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense for anyone who asks you for the reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if it should be God's will, than for doing evil. ~1 Pe 3:13-17
That passage was especially reassuring because the week leading up to our trip, I had (and still have) a Christian hating atheist trolling my Facebook page. He hasn't liked my page or commented, and he uses his page rather than his profile, so banning him is not an option. What he does is to "like" all of my posts (many of which he disagrees with) using his vile, blasphemous profanity-laden Facebook page name. From his page, I know that he was part of the Mormon church and that his son is homosexual and just got "married." Reading those verses reminded me that instead of being angry with this man for bullying me, I need to pray for him (which, in fact, I had asked my readers to do) and receive his insults as confirmation that I am doing good, and so to continue to fight the good fight by speaking the truth in love.
The book of first Peter also says two times to be "sober minded." That seemed appropriate also, what with this being our first alcohol- free anniversary getaway.
That night I actually heard a verse in my dream and I woke up with it in my head (the only good thing about having to pee in the wee hours): "Be at peace with everyone as far as it depends on you." (Romans 12:18) That seemed to apply to all things - the troll, friends (and strangers) whose values are postmodern rather than Biblical, and more importantly, my family, especially my husband. After the dark night of the soul, I had researched marriage books (despite the fact that we have a whole shelf of them, mostly unread) and ordered one called The Couple's Survival Workbook. I chose it because it's not a book that you use with your spouse. It's something you do on your own to help bring change in your own character and communication, the theory being that if you approach your marriage differently, it will change, even if your spouse doesn't. I have been crawling through the book, but it's really good stuff, and if I had to encapsulate what I've been learning into one sentence, it would be that verse from my dream.
I was really hoping I'd get this story wrapped up in three parts, but as I write, more things are coming to me, so at this rate, it may be a five parter...or more (eek!)...but I'd prefer that God lead my pen (so to speak) in His good time than to tell it my way and miss something He wants me to say. Continue to part four...
Into the Light - Part Two
Into the Light - Part One
Yesterday my husband and I celebrated 14 years of marriage. We actually started the party two days before that. Every year we get one or two nights away to be by ourselves, something very foreign to us, what with children ages 13, 10, and 8. Usually I start planning about four or five months before 8/11. This year, though, was different. We had come through the dark night of the soul, culminating in the worst Mother's Day on record (if I kept records, that is). We were bruised and battered, our marriage tattered, but not shattered. We were still totally capable of rhyming, though. That goes back to our first date, when he took me to the children's section of a bookstore and read me "Oh, the Places You'll Go." I really had no chance after that. A man who fed me Chinese food and serenaded me with Dr. Seuss was clearly a keeper.
There was another hitch with this romantic getaway I had to plan. No alcohol. We had not had a drop since that no good terrible very bad night, and the plan (at least in my mind) was to never have it again. Or at least not for years and years. It wasn't that either of us was an alcoholic - it was just that it had become a problem (his tendency to overindulge and my hypersensitivity toward that because of an alcoholic stepdad). It complicated and escalated arguments. It brought our marriage to a state of crisis. And it had become a crutch for our relaxing "couch dates," which meant both that we weren't fully relying on God and that it was masking trouble between us. In other words, alcohol had become a wedge and an idol. It was very subtle, and we had gone through periods of no drinking (sort of recalibration), but always with the intention to return to moderation (i.e. sticking to the rules we had agreed on in terms of quantity, frequency, and type of beverages). And yet, I could look back at all our most memorable fights and point to one thing - alcohol. It was either the cause of conflict or it had turned a disagreement into something much more ugly.
We had spent the last four anniversaries in the wine country. Clearly that was not meant to be for this first ever sober celebration. My initial thinking was to isolate. As an introvert, that thought comes pretty naturally to me. My husband, on the other hand, is an extravert, so I did have him to consider. But really, he would be happy anywhere there were two things - me and fish ("have rod, will cast anywhere"). I very nearly booked us a cabin on the lost coast where I figured I could hole up reading and writing while he fished, with walks and meals together in between. My motherly self vetoed that, because there was no cell service and wifi was spotty. I cannot relax, let alone retreat, if I am not assured of communication with my kids - not just for emergencies but for their good night check-in and chat. Perhaps when they are all teenagers, I'll get over that.
I thought back to our earlier anniversaries when we had enjoyed going to the Monterey peninsula. We had stayed in Pacific Grove, but in recent times, we had gone to that area with the children (homeschool days at the Monterey Bay Aquarium), so now it was hard for me to think of going there without them. There was one place that I didn't associate with our kids, but it had always seemed too ritzy: Carmel-by-the-Sea. Also known as Carmel. But not caramel, though that's good, too. If there is one thing I enjoy as much as (and sometimes more) than a vacation, it's researching a vacation. So I got to work and found a bed and breakfast right by the beach, in our price range, without a wine and cheese hour (cookies & tea instead) - am I good or what? No, I can't take credit. God led us to The Sandpiper. The proof of that will be in the next post...
Dark Night of the Soul
Death begins at birth. From the moment of conception, we are on a journey to the grave. None of us knows the span of of our lives - some don't make it past the womb; others experience well over a century of history in the making. We are all dying, but do we say it would be better never to have existed? Few believe that (though sometimes others make that "choice" for them) and fewer still intentionally end their own lives. Why do we cling to life when know death will eventually overtake us? Why do we embrace life all the more as we deteriorate?
The cycle of birth, life, and death in our natural bodies parallels with our spiritual existence. When we are born again, what follows? Death, death to sin and death to self. And yet unlike our new birth, which happens instantaneously, death to self is a process. A series of deaths, if you will. On our way to eternal life, we die a thousand spiritual deaths. Though our sins are forgiven, our sinful nature continues to tempt us to live for ourselves rather than dying to ourselves and being conformed to the image of Christ, in whom we were created and have been redeemed.
These thousand deaths to self are usually little deaths. They are uncomfortable but bearable. Sometimes, though, after following Jesus for a long time, we slip into complacency, and we quench the Spirit rather than put to death certain persistent sins. And then it happens. The Dark Night of the Soul. When God, in his love and mercy, disciplines us so severely that we may even wish we were dead. He shows us the destructiveness of our sin and how it is killing His spirit in us. We have to die an excruciating death to self or else be enslaved by it and lose our lives.
Sometimes it is not our own sin. When we are married, we are one with our spouse, and when God is dealing with their sin, it feels like we are dying as well. It could literally be a dark night, the darkest we've ever experienced, brought on by the worst fight we've ever had with our spouse, in which the sin was being killed, but it went out kicking and screaming. The battle was not with flesh and blood, but in the spiritual realm. It felt like the end of everything had come and there was no hope, but actually it was just the opposite - it was a new beginning.
You rose from the ashes, scarred and weary, humbly clinging to the One you felt - for that dark night - had abandoned you. You were badly shaken, fearful, and desperate. Then you became empty and numb. The damage seemed irreparable, your house utterly ruined, your garden desolate...but something caught your eye - a tiny, green shoot that sprung up overnight. You had a glimmer of hope. That God had extinguished the old life, so that you could start a new and better life together. It would take lots of time and more struggle to heal from the fatal wounds, but this body, this one flesh made of husband and wife bound together in Christ, would eventually be stronger than the previous union, and the new house God was building would far surpass the old.
Your Dark Night of the Soul would give way to a bright and glorious morning. But you would need to be patient. And keep dying. Dying to self. Weeding out sin. Basking in the light of the Father. Drinking in the water of life of the Holy Spirit. Abiding in the vine that is the Son. Growing (with all the pain that entails) in the body of Christ, beginning with your own family.
The Dark Night of the Soul had another purpose, too. It brought you back to your first love. It woke you up to the truth that God is the only one who will not let you down. You may have felt abandoned, but He was with you. He wants you to depend on Him alone. To put all your hope in Him, not another human being. Only His love is perfect and His love is all you need. This is also why you must forgive.
We are unworthy, selfish recipients of His grace. He gives it unconditionally and so we must freely extend His grace. Receiving and giving grace is the most direct path to healing. This is assuming repentance and change are underway (be it ourselves or our spouse or both). That the death really happened on the Dark Night of the Soul and the new life together began - whether it be a literal night in which it all culminated or a more gradual coming into the light over time. If morning has broken, then the work of rebuilding trust must begin right now.
It may feel like there is a void where the sin used to be. You have to discover who you are as a couple without that thing. So it's not just the person "with the problem" (really, just that particular problem) who will feel loss and pain. It was enmeshed in your marriage and now there's a hole where it used to be. It feels kind of drafty and weird. We may thirst and hunger like we never have before. It won't always be this way - over time, love will fill it - but for now it is a way of keeping the death real (when we are tempted to forget or minimize it) and a vivid reminder to turn to Jesus to fill us. His love poured into each of us will trickle into the hole, eventually transforming it into a well, deepening our marriage as our souls are rejuvenated. Where sin once poisoned us, life giving water will flow.
When I let the cat out on the patio, I was allured by the aroma of the roses budding and blooming, so I walked over to smell them. That's when it happened. A putrid odor mingled with the beautiful fragrance, overpowering and defiling it. It was an all too familiar experience, so immediately I turned on the source of this treachery - the cat. "How can a creature so beautiful be so foul?" He had used our garden as his bathroom, despite my husband's masterful attempts at preventing that (chicken wire around and on all the plants, elaborate placements of planters, etc.).
As I searched for the source of the nauseating fumes, I contemplated the paradox of all that my senses were taking in - the beauty of the blossoms and of Romeo, our Snowshoe Siamese; the perfume of the roses and the noxious odor of Romeo's waste. God's creation, both of these, yet one had marred the other. It reminded me of how we are made in God's image - full of his beauty, truth, and goodness - but when we let our sinful nature lead us, instead of God's spirit, it pollutes us and those around us. Sin doesn't fertilize the garden - it stinks it up and eventually destroys it.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)
While brushing my teeth, I was reflecting on the way I use Facebook and how it is actually a spiritual metaphor:
With people I don't know well who are my Facebook friends, I see Facebook as a way for us to get to know each other better - reading posts, viewing pics, liking, commenting, etc.
With people I do know well, but with whom there is a barrier to spending time together (either life or geography getting in the way), I see it as a way to maintain the friendship and let it continue to flourish, in the same way as I described above (reading, viewing, liking, commenting).
In both cases, Facebook is a way of spending time with people, but with the ultimate motivation (where possible) of being together face to face. Not because we feel obligated, but because we are actually drawn to each other, both by what we experience through our online interactions and by our history of being with each other (even if it's been short, brief, etc.). We want to get together and we make plans to that effect, even if it's months (or sometimes more) between visits.
These interactions take place throughout the day or week in short, but relatively consistent bursts.
And now...drum roll, please...the spiritual analogy:
When we intersperse our day with Scripture, prayers, praises, thanksgiving, worship music, and keep a constant (albeit constantly interrupted) awareness of God, it helps us maintain and grow our relationship with Him. It also makes us desire Him more. It motivates us to set aside time alone with Him, which should be what we most look forward to. We may not make it happen every day (Lord knows I don't, though I wish I did), but by "practicing the presence of God" (see book by the same name), we are nourishing our spirits and the longing we have to be intimate with our Creator, Savior, and Lord.
It's the start of a new year...for Christians who realize and recognize it, that is. The church calendar begins four weeks before Christmas. That's a full month ahead of the rest of the world. The Christian year revolves around Christ, whereas the civic calendar has a humanistic focus.
Society tends to experience December as one big party, culminating in a New Year's eve bash, with January first launching a season (usually very short lived) of self-improvement for the purpose of self-fulfillment.
For Christians, it's a time to renew our faith and worship through reliving the story of salvation, starting with Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, then moving into Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. In repetition, we find newness. As we move through the same liturgical seasons in different seasons of life, the familiar rhythm grounds us while opening our hearts to as yet undiscovered melodies.
This is the part where I want to talk about the reflective retreat I go on for a weekend every year in November and how for me, it's become a prologue to the new year, and how inspired me to create a prayer closet (which I later undid) and then to resurrect said closet just recently...but I need to save that for another post (which will actually be picture based) because if I have learned anything, it's that I need to be here now, in the present. Life moves way too fast for me, which is why my ideas and things have piled up on me, so when I actually seize a moment, like this one, which is so timely, I cannot possibly let it get hijacked by what could happen to this very dangerous and rambling paragraph. (!)
As I was saying, today is the first day of the Christian year, and so, without further ado, here is some of what stood out in my readings this afternoon:
From Mark 13:33-37:
Be aware. Be prepared. (paraphrased)
From God With Us (various authors):
The Greek word for liturgy means "the work of the people."
Liturgy is incarnational, involving our bodily and sensory participation in worship.*
From the Mosaic Bible (quoting Pope John Paul II):
Advent is then a period of intense training that directs us decisively to the One who has already come, who will come, and who continuously comes.
From Preparing for Christmas (Richard Rohr):
We Franciscans have always believed that the Incarnation was already the Redemption, because in Jesus' birth God was already saying that it was good to be human, and God was on our side.
The Word of God, however, confronts, converts, and consoles us - in that order.
Advent is, above all else, a call to full consciousness and a forewarning about the high price of consciousness.
(*remind to come back to this in a future post about intuiting types and liturgy)
I would like to unpack all these quotes, but if I did that, this post would never get published. I would also like to say that I am going to share insights regularly during this season, yet the reality is I have to take it one day at a time, one post at a time. The good news, which Advent proclaims, is that there is no deadline. We want Jesus to return, but God keeps us waiting. In that space between the now and the not yet, He is with us - Emmanuel - and we are doing His work just by living the lives He has given us, breath by breath, moment to moment, and so will it be into eternity.