Catalpa Musings

In my backyard stands an old catalpa tree. I’m not an arborist, so I have no idea how old she is…but she is definitely old. Her trunk is hollow now, and yet she stands firm. At least one of her lower branches has a hollow place in it, too. There’s another hollow where her trunk divides into two main branches. Lots of space in that old tree.

Despite the local utility company regularly hacking off her branches that grow too near the electric wire (I nearly weep each time they attack her with their saws), she continues to spread her branches, providing perches for all sorts of winged creatures–raucous bluejays, tiny finches, fat robins, cooing morning doves, brilliant red cardinals, and even the occasional black buzzard who stays way up in the top and never for long, thank God!

For many years the squirrels nested in the hollow at the split, and then they mysteriously moved out. It didn’t take long to figure out why–honeybees had moved in! But this spring a brave little squirrel has made her nest in the hollow of a branch. I sat mesmerized one morning watching her carry up twigs and leaves and all sorts of makings for a cozy nest, laughing as she would scamper along the branch only to suddenly disappear into the hollow.

DSC02090Chipmunks play around the base of the trunk, scurrying in and out of the hollow’s big opening. A few years ago a raccoon checked out that big hollow, perhaps considering it as a new home? He didn’t stay long–another opportunity for giving thanks to God!–and the chipmunks resumed their scurrying.

The leaves of this old catalpa are wide and deeply green, providing luscious shade for the back of our house. Even on the hottest of summer days, I can find cool shelter from the sun under her broad canopy.

She sort of reminds me of a wise old woman… In late spring she produces beautiful white, sweet-20160607_065239smelling blossoms en masse, like a full head of white hair. Her bark reminds me of an old face, wrinkled with age. Her hollows are like an empty bosom, ready to receive whoever needs the nurture of a safe and protected space. Her branches welcome all sorts of creatures who bring delightful music and bright flecks of color to the vibrant green of her leafy canopy.

God is so very present in the most ordinary things of life, always with something to teach or share. That old catalpa tree inspires me. I want to be like her as I grow old. I want to be a warm and welcoming soul for those who need nurturing. I want my life to be decorated by the comings and goings of all sorts of people. I want to be wise, not despising my gray hair or my wrinkles, but rather considering them evidence of a life well-lived…by God’s grace, a life lived for his glory.

Amen and amen.

 

 

Grief: A paradoxical gateway to gratitude

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. Along with the expectation for turkey and pumpkin pie is an even greater expectation of a heart bursting with gratitude. Some years that feels like a lot of pressure. This year is one of them for me.

I spent yesterday retreating from the busyness of the world, choosing to spend the the day in silence and solitude at my favorite retreat center. The day began with frustration and disappointment, but I shrugged it off as I made the 30-minute drive, happy to enter the quiet beauty of the center. I settled into a favorite chair with my Bible and my journal, prepared to encounter the Lord in whatever way He chose to present Himself. I was surprised to see what first flowed from my pen onto the page of my journal…

Thanksgiving is two days away…and I am here to grieve. Perhaps so that I can be truly thankful in two days.

Seriously, I had no idea that was what the day would hold.

I miss my Mom. I understand now how she came to be the person I often didn’t like, and my heart feels tender now towards that woman. The life she lived was not easy, and she didn’t have Jesus to lean on. (I am so grateful for you, Jesus!) I wish I could tell her that I understand now. I could be kinder and gentler and less angry now. But it’s too late. Nevermind that I had to experience the loss in order to arrive at this plac of understanding. Perhaps I need to be grateful for that, too–but I don’t think I’m quite there yet.

I miss youth. I’ve never wanted to be a person resentful of the aging process. It’s inevitable, so what’s the use in fighting it? But I don’t like it, nor do I want it really. My body doesn’t move as fast or as easily as it used to. I can’t see as well or think as fast. I want to welcome that as a green light to slowing down the pace of life a bit. But, truth be told, I am afraid of feeling useless.

I grieve unmet expectations. I have never been one to dwell long on regrets and I don’t want to start now. But I realize that I have precious few years left, and I don’t want to get to the end of them and be sad that I let opportunities pass by. There is so much of this world that I want to see and experience, and not nearly enough time left.

I’ve always loved the change of seasons, but today I grieve the end of warm sunny days. Winter is upon us. Lord, please don’t let it settle in my heart, too.

And the Lord graciously answered. I wept (honestly, I wailed!) until I had no more tears…and I didn’t apologize for it, not to God or to myself.

Then I went for a long walkdsc_0054-2 where I encountered beautiful fall color in the midst of the dull brown of approaching dsc_0122-1winter, admired the beauty of a bright red cardinal, and sat with a turtle slowly making his way through the fallen leaves. I took a nap. I sat in the afternoon sun, wrapped in a blanket, on a gently rocking porch swing and finished a really good book.

And at the end of the day I wrote…

I feel better, I think; ready to face home again. Maybe ready to be grateful as Thanksgiving arrives. It’s been a good day. Thank you, Lord, for listening while I poured out my grief, for collecting my tears in your bottle, for gently wiping my face dry. Thank you for legs strong enough to carry me down the trail and back up again, and for a camera that helps capture that which my eyes don’t see as well as they used to. Yes, it’s been a good day and I am grateful.

There’s something about grieving that opens our eyes and our hearts to gratitude. If you are struggling to be grateful on this day before Thanksgiving, perhaps you need to grieve a little…or a lot. Do it. And I will be praying that you, too, find it to be an unexpected gateway to gratitude.

 

 

The slow work of God

Contrary to what Oil of Olay, Revlon, L’Oreal and countless other cosmetics promise to do, fighting old age is senseless…a futile waste of energy. I see this every time I look at my mom. She spent most of her adult life trying to avoid aging. She spent a lot of money on  expensive ointments and creams that promised to stop–or even reverse!–the signs of aging. I guess they were helpful for a time, because for much of my adult life people asked us if we were sisters. Mom and I were both proud of her youthful appearance.

Eighteen months ago Mom fell and broke her hip, catapulting her into dementia. In that relatively short amount of time, every minute of her 85 years caught up with her. All the lines and wrinkles she worked so hard to avoid have now creased her face and body, and there’s no amount of cosmetics that will make them disappear. In this respect, I am grateful for her dementia as I know she would be distraught over her appearance.

Much in our culture today glorifies youth and disparages age. Yet trying to preserve youth is pointless. The book of Ecclesiastes puts it this way…

You won’t be young forever.
Youth lasts about as long as smoke. (Eccl. 11:10, MSG)

The Book of Proverbs, however, presents a little different take on aging…

Gray hair is a crown of glory;
    it is gained in a righteous life. (Prov. 16:31, ESV)

Youth may be admired for vigor,
    but gray hair gives prestige to old age. (Prov. 20:29, MSG)

I have journaled for close to 40 years. I’ve been thinking recently that I need to do something with all those old journals I’ve kept stored in a box all these years. They take up space. More importantly, I am not convinced that I want anyone else to read my ramblings! I’m closer to the end of my life than to the beginning, and time is a-wasting. Before destroying them, however, I feel the urge to look back and see how God has been at work throughout my lifetime, mentally stacking stones for an altar or two to mark his faithfulness.

During the early years I was inconsistent, sometimes writing every day, sometimes going months without writing a word. There were seasons of intense spiritual growth, every day filled with wonder at God’s goodness. There were other seasons of spiritual stagnation, where my writing evidenced my angst. But as I reflect on these past 40 years, I am blown away by what God has accomplished in me and through me, most of which I was unaware in the moment.

It takes years for God to do his work in us and through us. The best vantage point comes towards the end of life, looking back to observe the slow work of God.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

-Teilhard de Chardin, SJ; excerpted from Hearts on Fire

Perhaps old age is not something to be avoided after all! aging (2)