The Presence in her Absence

Most of the time I see my sister in waking moments. But on September 30, 2014, I was getting ready for work when the dream I had the night before rushed into my awareness. It was one of the most vivid dreams I have ever had, and although it is rare for me to remember even pieces of a dream, I recalled this one in its entirety.

I had wandered off the streets of downtown Nashville into a sparsely occupied coffee shop. I sat down at a small table to the right of the door and wondered what to order. When the door opened again, I looked up and in she walked. Her bell bottom jeans brushed softly against the wooden floorboards. She was wearing a loose-fitting plaid shirt, untucked at the waist. The long dark brown hair that hung limply from her head was tucked back behind the ears. Her face was troubled. I stared for several seconds. A double-take later, I realized I was looking at my sister, circa 1977. “You cannot be here,” I thought, “you’re dead!” She did not look in my direction as she sat down at the large table next to mine. Her back was to me.

More people trickled in. I did not recognize any of them, but I somehow knew they were friends of hers from college days. They filled up the empty seats around the table she had chosen, and soon an animated conversation about life and God ensued. I was mesmerized by her presence and could not take my eyes off of her. I sat, watched, and listened, resisting the urge to get up and join the group. I wanted to interrupt, to tell her how much I miss her. But I had the distinct impression that she would not have heard me anyway.

The veracity of the New Testament was the subject of the discussion. Of all people, my sister was patiently explaining the texts regarding Jesus’ death and resurrection. The young man sitting nearest her commented, “You don’t really believe that stuff, do you?” She replied in a calm voice, “Of course I do.” I got the sense from her statement that she was talking about something more definitive than faith or belief, something more like knowing. It dawned on me that now she sees and knows clearly, even as she has always been seen and known. For her, there are no doubts or uncertainties, only truth and love – oh, so much love.

I wanted nothing more than to stay there in that room, watching her, listening to her voice. Having a dream like that helps heal the scar of loss. Waking from a dream like that leaves a brand new one.

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Sunset on New Year’s Eve, 2014.

On the drive home that night, I thought again about the movie, What Dreams May Come and Robin Williams’s dip in paint. My sister adored color. I have known since the day she left this world that she sees it now like never before. That sunset gave me a little preview. She has painted lots more sunsets for me since then – each of them a creative masterpiece. I know that one day we will swim in them together.

One time at the beach, I asked her to draw the ocean for me. She did it, but then kept insisting she had not gotten the waves or the light quite right. I always thought that the waves and the light in her beach drawing had been perfect, but in this life, my sister had never been able to appreciate her own brilliance. The splash of color across that twilit sky on New Year’s Eve told a different story, a story of artistic abandon transcending the need to get things ‘just right’.

~ ~ ~

For many years I have had a vision of a house sitting on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the ocean. A garden stretches out in front of it, filled with every kind of flower. Now that she is gone, I can see her there, tending to the plants, anticipating my arrival. I should have known all along it was her garden.

Tattoo March 3 2016
Second star on the right and straight on ’til morning. – Peter Pan

Hawks still visit me from time to time. Her way of watching over me, I suppose. Love you bunches & bunches and tons & tons, Ditty.

~ Your Little Sis

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The Narrow Way

NarrowStairs       I have heard it said that the narrow way can be defined as the unique spiritual journey each of us must walk, and that to be on that path is to refuse to conform to the demands of those around us (to walk their path, or the one most people walk), but, instead, boldly trod the path meant specifically for us.

In light of that idea, tonight I had the privilege of taking a walk with a friend who let me share a part of the incredible journey I have been on since we were last really together, some thirty-six years ago. I was reminded that a lot can happen in thirty-six years. (Ya think?!?)

As a result of our conversation, I am making a list of the books (and the people who wrote them) that have had the most influence on my life, both in terms of my beliefs and my spiritual journey. I will list them in order of importance/influence (to me), however, what was important/influential to me may not be for you, understandably. So, eat the meat, spit out the bones, and take from this list what you need (if anything). As a general rule, people will appear first, with their works listed below; book titles will be underlined, other items italicized, and so forth.

NOTE: This list is not meant to be exhaustive by any means. Each of these teachers has written and spoken much more than what I have listed here, however, these are the ones I have actually read and been changed by. Also, I doubt this represents even half of the things I have read or heard that have worked to shape me and my beliefs today; these are simply the ones that stand out in my mind.

If you have questions or would like any further explanation regarding any of these people or their works, please note them in the comments and I will do my best to either answer you, or direct you to a site that can answer better than I.

  • Baxter Kruger – Theologian, Author, Maker of Lures, Founder of Perichoresis Inc.
  1. Jesus and the Undoing of Adam (in my mind, the most important book a modern, Western Christian can read)
  2. The Shack Revisited (reviewed here on my blog)
  • Peter Hiett – Pastor, Author (where the shift in my journey really began)
  1. http://www.tsdowntown.com/images/EDITED_All_things_New_and_a_place_we_call_Hell_edited_12_12_13_blk_1.pdf
  2. http://www.tsdowntown.com/a-theology-of-relentless-love/intro
  • Rob Bell – Author, Speaker, Theologian, Innovator
  1. Love Wins
  2. Everything is Spiritual (video teaching)
  3. Jesus Wants to Save Christians
  4. Here is a great article regarding the firestorm created by John Piper’s Tweet, “Farewell, Rob Bell”, and this is something I wrote during that time.
  • Anthony De Mello – Catholic Priest, Author, Speaker
  1. Awareness (the teaching in this little book can be found on You Tube in several short messages as well)
  2. The Way to Love
  • Michael Hardin – Theologian, Author
  1. Stricken by God? (a compilation of many author’s works regarding the atonement – you can find some stuff around my blog about this book, especially here)
  2. http://www.preachingpeace.org for his blog and lots of information about this amazing author
  • Brad Jersak – Theologian, Author
  1. A More Christlike God (I recently reviewed this book here)
  2. Stricken By God? contributor

Good books on the topic of hell in the Bible:

What does the Bible Really Say About Hell? by Randy Klassen

Razing Hell by Sharon Baker

Evangelical Universalist by George MacDonald

Well, that should get you started. 🙂 I’ll end with one of my favorite theological illustrations:

God bless you as you seek and walk the narrow path laid out just for you!

First, a Leaving

On July 22, 2015, I drove thirty minutes to a nearby beach to watch the sunrise.

Darkness shrouded my walk from the car. For all that I wanted to live near the beach, this would be my last day. I would not leave without seeing another sunrise. My phone! I thought. I stopped, turned back toward my car, then thought better of it. No pictures today. No interruptions. This is your chance to take it in, to live in the moment, to somehow find the strength to leave.

The concrete eventually transitioned to sand and I took off my flip flops. A cool dampness greeted my calloused soles. Now to keep the callouses off of my soul, I thought, half smiling to myself. I took my time. This was not a moment to rush. I reached the little bridge that stretched over the inter-coastal stream and stopped again. On my left, the sand grass tilted gently in the morning breeze. Their billowy tops formed feathery silhouettes against the faint light to the east. It was quiet. Even the sand gnats were still. A mercy considering how they had harrowed us the night before.

I crested a little knoll and the path gave way to a wide expanse of sand. Looking around, my first thought was how empty the beach was compared to the last time I had come here to witness the dawn breaking. Had it been only ten days? I approached the water’s edge and felt a sudden rush of sadness. I will not pass this way again, I thought. The magnitude of that truth pounded through me like the waves crashing onto the sand. It was a familiar feeling accumulated over the past twenty-eight years. Had I really moved twenty-seven times? Was I seriously volunteering to make number twenty-eight a mere six or so weeks after the last one? And this time alone?

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I set my toes into the warm water knowing I would have to wade out knee deep to discover even a hint of coolness. Despite days of rain and milder nights, the water still felt more like a bath than an ocean. I was used to Virginia waters, so cold that only the Northerners braved it before the pounding mid-July heat had settled in. Even in August, a dip in the water off the Virginia coast was refreshing. But not here. Not in June, July, August, or maybe even September. I wouldn’t be here to confirm my assumption.

I walked then. Following the shoreline, I stepped slowly in the direction of the lightening sky. My purpose was nothing more than just to enjoy – one more time – a stroll through shallow surf at sunrise.

The sky grew almost imperceptibly lighter. I glanced out over the water searching for the birds I had seen hunting just a few days ago. I stopped walking to scan the horizon as well as I could in the near darkness, but my eyes found only empty crests in the choppy, predawn sea. Where are they? I wondered, futilely. I didn’t even know what species of bird they were, Tern, Osprey, or Frigate. It was fascinating to watch their gray forms skim over the water in pairs, threesomes, and more, one straight line of outstretched wings that occasionally beat in no discernible rhythm. Then one or two would break from the flock, rise higher, and plunge headlong into the surf. I was too far away to see the prize held in its beak. I could only watch it rise from beneath the crest to float on the surface of the water. I was struck by the bird’s willingness to abandon itself to the sea in order to survive. In more ways than I could count, I had abandoned myself again and again to the whims of a capricious ocean. Like those mysterious birds, I had no roots, but had flown endlessly over a barren sea looking for life below the surface. Mercifully, I had found it in the most unexpected swells. Now exhaustion dragged at my wings. I could no longer maintain flight. It was finally time to land, but first I would have to leave.

Deep in my soul, I think I had known for a long time that there would never be a landing without first a leaving.

I turned my attention to the water splashing over my feet. As I watched tiny waves form to crash onto the sand in uneven bursts, I noticed how they all began as individual crests, only to merge into one shallow wash of water that moved in an almost circular motion. Pushing forward, the water strained against an inexorable pull back into the unplumbed depths from which it came, only to begin the cycle all over again. The constancy of the syncopated rhythm of the ocean continues to mesmerize me. The simplicity of wave after wave merging into the complex ebb and flow of tides in and out, day after day, year after year, millennia after millennia only makes me and my decisions feel small. That one section of beach and my narrow vision of those few waves represented less than a drop in the bucket of uncounted miles of shoreline around the globe. My mind can barely grasp the enormity of so many coasts, much less the vastness or depth of the sea itself. But even as I feel smaller, as I watch myself shrink in the face of the sheer magnitude before me, I understand that like my tunnel vision of this small stretch of beach, my everyday decisions – small in themselves – when put together, made up an entire life. And there is more to a person than their decisions, their actions, or even their thoughts. As I pondered all of this, I caught a glimpse of the vastness within myself I still had yet to explore.

The sky slowly began to change color. Deep blue gave way to paler shades overlaid with oranges, purples, and hints of pink. There would be no blazing ball today, at least, not for me; only colorful clouds whose outlines continually transformed in the early morning breeze. Every blink revealed a subtle shift of color in the jagged edges of cloud cover overhead.

Around me camera lenses began opening and snapping shut. That had been me a few days back – working hard to capture a memory on the canvas of a photo lens. Somehow I knew that today needed no lens; the memory of this sunrise would live on in me for as long as I could remember. Forgetting would be harder. My failure to stay the course, my inability to love in the end, the hurtful words that had left implacable scars on the soft places left in my heart – these would be much more difficult to forget than the skies’ colors, even my camera, I knew, could not faithfully capture. But forget I must. What bird would ever dare to dive back into the deep dark if it did not forget the promise of a waiting predator below the silent surface? The bird’s only chance is hope – hope that the shadow spied below is nothing more or less than its morning meal.

The sunrise complete, I returned the way I had come. With the light of day behind me, I chose hope and gratitude. The past twenty-eight years had by no means been wasted – rather, they had shaped me into who I was that day, just as that day would shape who I was the next, and the next, and the next. This was not the end of a story, but the definitive close of a very long chapter (that now felt strangely short). In any story, from chapter to chapter, the characters may change, the scenes may shift, the plot may take an unexpected turn, but the storyline continues, and so would I.

Taking one final look over my shoulder, I glanced sidelong at the sun, still hidden in brilliant cloud, and said farewell to broken dreams, hopes unfulfilled, and the shadow of a bleak future. As I crossed back over the inter-coastal, I knew that I was doing the only thing I could do in leaving these shores; and, with my back to the rising sun, I walked straight into the arms of a bright, new day.