Thursday, April 12, 2012

So Teach Us to Number Our Days

One day, several months after our ninth baby Zac was born, I managed to get my four oldest kids close to tears after starting what seemed to be a happy conversation.

"Do you know that Mr. Friend was the ninth of ten children in his family?  He's just like baby Zac!  They lived right there in that house where he lives now.  They had even numbers, too–five boys and five girls, pretty close to our family."

Oh, everyone thought that was wonderful.  We all looked at Zac and made him laugh.  We thought about 87-year-old Mr. Friend being a happy baby with lots of big brothers and sisters. And they remembered happy and funny stories, too, that he has told us about his growing up time.

We talked about that for a while, and then 6-year-old Ben asked "But, if he's got all those brothers and sisters, why does he live alone?"

"Well, he never got married and he loved farming, so he lived with his mother and father all his life and helped them farm until they died a long time ago, and his brothers and sisters all got married and moved to homes of their own.  He ran that farm by himself for over thirty years.  And now eight of them have died and he has one brother still living, but he (we've met him) hasn't been feeling well lately and can't come over to visit anymore."

Ben took this in matter-of-factly and went on his way, but I looked up to see my older four children standing there wide-eyed and silent.  They were feeling it in their gut for the first time that eventually they too will grow up, their lives will unfold and they will be separated by time and place and circumstance and some way or another all of them would die.  And Mom and Dad, too!

Lydia broke the silence.  "But . . . that's so . . . sad!"

And there they were.  Four children aged 15, 11, 10 and 8, near tears, looking at me and me looking back at them.  Thinking.

It's rare that I sit across the table from my old friend in that quiet house, that tidy house, that bachelor's house, where he lives alone– and not try to imagine that space filled with five young men and five young women talking and laughing while they eat their meals.  Their mother sitting to the side and watching her growing and grown children, catching most of their words while she turns to comment in Swedish to her husband.  In my mind the empty barn is filled again with sixty dairy cows and fifty, or sixty or one-hundred chickens and a dozen pigs are over in the yard.  The diesel tractors parked in his garage are gently replaced by three teams of horses - the six of them the only animals with names on the farm.  Except for the dogs, of course.

My friend grows young before my eyes as I hear stories from his youth–jumping from wood beam to wood beam on the lawn while his older brothers and father and friends built that big red barn in 1929 when he was 7-years-old.  Or later, strong from daily work, when he could carry ten-gallon-pails of water in each hand to the pig pen fifty yards away from the pump. Or back further when he was a small boy, and his sister fell through the soggy land shelf by the stream in the wild area and they thought she'd drown–but they got her out safe and sound after all.  Or when they'd all try to look busy doing something all the time (or at least keep out of sight) lest their dad would find some job for them to do, even the youngest set to work in the yard digging dandelions to get out every root.  Or when four brothers were called up to serve in World War II, but the local draft board decided that my friend should stay at home and help their father farm, so our country would have enough to eat during the war.

Can you imagine the joy around that table the first time they ate together after all four brothers came back home alive from that war?

He tells me where they slept when they were all still living at home - here, there and everywhere in the house depending on the hunting season or the harvest and who needed to get up at 3:00am and who could sleep in until 5:00 or even 6:00.

I look at all the neatly placed cookware on the shelves, and pretty plates set up above, and the place where the pipe went through the wall when they used an old cook stove and wonder if his mother could ever imagine a time when that house would be still, and quiet, and tidy, and chores all finally, finally done and the house–now home to just one aged son–would nearly echo with the lack of busyness.  A dish or two a day now washed in that sink, and one glass used all day long. And though the laundry is no longer done by hand, the machine is only needed once a week or so.

Five sons and five daughters and a man and a wife once occupied these rooms where my friend has lived every day of his life and where he continues to live since he retired from farming but not from life.  Just my friend and one older brother are left from that generation that built that house and farm.  But a patient  stream of nieces, nephews, neighbors and friends pull in and out of the yard through all his days.

And as I think these things, I remember that I really should not talk so long–for my own kids are back in our house around the curve in the road.  A house not quiet, or tidy and with many chores still needing to be done!  This is my time to go home and live it.  I look over at the ninth child born to his house, while I hold the ninth child born to my house in my lap.  Old, sparkling, blue-eyes are bringing laughter into young, blue-eyes from across the table top.  Laughing myself, I rise to go.

It's hard to imagine a moment, let alone day after day when my house could ever be quiet, tidy and chores all finally, finally done.

Yet, it is a certain thing that this life is fleeting.   Kevin helped me realize this from the start.  When we were first left alone with minutes-old, firstborn Grace in the hospital, we were both looking at her sleeping in my arms with tears in our eyes.  Then he quietly said, with his hand on her head, "Tomorrow she will be burying us." It was jarring. At first I couldn't even fit that into that moment, couldn't understand his words.  But I keep that in mind now that the days seem long, and the years seem short.   And as much as I want my children to grow up in the shelter and safe harbor of a happy and loving home, much more do I want their foundation and source of joy and security to rest upon unshakable and eternal realities so that when their life unfolds with its joys and trials and inevitable loss they will rest upon our sure hope in God.

O Lord, teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12)


So Teach Us to Number Our Days was included in the Chapel column of The Old Schoolhouse ® Magazine, Summer 2011. My writing agreement stipulated that I had to remove this article from my blog until six months after publication. I'm happy to be able to share it here again with friends and family. 

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls."  1 Peter 1:3-9

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Irrepressible light on Good Friday...

Recently, I was thinking about the meaning of communion and the symbolism of His body broken for me, and His blood poured out for me, and unexpectedly I had an upwelling of love for our Lord Jesus and His sacrifice for us. It was wonderful for affections for Him to break through the mundane superficiality of my life and the experience was received as a gift. I knew there was nothing in me that had changed. He had opened my heart and I was grateful. Heading into Holy Week and Easter weekend I was hoping that by my own observance of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and then the joyful Resurrection Sunday that I could somehow recapture those feelings I had a few weeks ago, and also, somehow think deeply and dig deeply into my heart to get the whole picture of what He has done for us, for me. Instead–I've been sleep deprived, busy, irritable and distracted and I'm flying up to Easter with only surface attention to the passing days. How like God to give me a gift when it is obviously not of my own work and then let me see what happens when I try to "make" my own experience!

When I was in the middle of my deeper affections a few weeks ago, I found myself reading through the Passion Week scriptures and really noticing the experience of the women who were closest to Jesus. Oh, what love! What darkness they experienced to the core of their being! And finally, what joy! They followed Him to the cross; they watched the horror unfold; they clung together; they watched their last hope fade; they watched Him suffer on the cross; they stayed until He died from crucifixion; they watched as His death was confirmed with a spear thrust to the side; they stayed to see Him taken down; they followed to see Him laid in the tomb; they left to prepare spices and ointment as darkness fell; they observed the Sabbath and left the tomb alone for agonizing hours as He lay alone, His body unprepared; they came again to anoint His body as soon as they could possibly call it dawn; they arrived to find an empty tomb; they were greatly distressed; they received the good news and explanation of the resurrection from angels; one stayed and heard the Lord Himself speak her name; they returned to the disciples to share the news of the angels and with the report of seeing Him alive... only to be received as women speaking idle talk.

But–their story was confirmed–He appeared again, and again, and again.

They loved, they feared, they followed, they watched, they were devastated, they were confused, they grieved, they cared, they waited, they went to care for his body–all dark, dark days. I try to imagine the darkness of their grief, but it is well beyond my experience. Then they were the first to hear the good news from angels, to find the empty tomb on the third day . . . just as He promised. Mary, lingering and thinking that her grief had been compounded by enemies stealing her Lord's body, is instead called by name by the resurrected Jesus. Her joy is well beyond what I can imagine.

Thinking through my impossible plan to try to feel my way through the weekend really experiencing the dark leading up to Easter, and then the joy–I find that I'm never able to get to that place of grief because the joy and light keep poking in. I'm too tired to concentrate on keeping them out and feel the darkness. I know He is alive! I can't forget the Good News because it is the strength and joy of my life. I don't feel separated from my Lord during Good Friday. I am, at times, overwhelmed with what He has done to atone for sin, once for all. But death could not keep Him in the grave. His sacrifice is perfect and He conquered death for Love and His Glory. At the same time He is here with me on my superficial, tired days, leading me and carrying me and taking me where I need to be step-by-step and giving me the gifts of feeling His presence and feeling deep affection for Him when it is best for me.

Let us remember His suffering.  Let us believe in Him and receive His salvation. Let us be transformed into His bride. And if in our weakness, poor affections and pale imagination we can't grieve properly on this Good Friday for our Lord's dark day or for our sins, let us rejoice that we live on this side of Easter and that what He has accomplished is not dependent on what we do at all.

Yes, let us rejoice this Easter and every day, for the Lord is Risen, Indeed!


ps.  I wrote this on Good Friday 2010, but it reflects so much of my feelings this year as well, I decided to repost.  We are weak . . . Rejoice!
Treasure from the Junk Drawer
copyright © Sara Shull
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•Art illustrations by Sara
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Bible verses:
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (ESV)