Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Finding home #3: Going South--When Life Doesn't Happen As Planned

In retrospect, the fact we decided to move to a place where we had never been, didn’t know anyone, and didn’t have jobs lined up probably wasn’t a good reflection of the wisdom we should have acquired at our age.

But as opposite in personality traits as my husband and I are, we share one thing in common—gumption to go with the big picture and not worry about the details. It’s not that we don’t have any idea of the details; they are there in a blurry sort of way, like the flowers and forms in an impressionistic painting.

 I suspect we both enjoy watching the unexpected unfold new pathways to consider. Maybe some of this derring-do comes from being a part of that seventy-eight- million strong boomer generation “full of the presumption of economic security, and possibility and promise” (Walker Smith and Ann Clurman describe in their book Generation Ageless).

The danger, of course, is there might be a day you go expecting to collect your Monet and find instead that Salvador Dali had gotten a hold of it.

A day when none of the lines makes sense.

My husband, full of confidence in his wife’s history of good judgment, suggested I go ahead alone and buy a house while he wrapped up his commitments at the church.  We knew what we wanted—a ranch, simple, one-story, private yard, no maintenance. Bob wanted a garage, and I wanted a swimming pool.  Armed with printouts of thirty choices, I flew to Greenville. The people at the real estate agency eyed my list warily. I had tried to forewarn them: “I’m a fast-moving northerner with three days to buy a house.” They handed me over to their youngest, most aggressive agent.

With ruthless decisiveness we swept through one house after another. Hopeful homeowners hadn’t gotten to the end of the block before we were out the door and onto the next house. By two o’clock the first day, we had eliminated my whole list.
Back in the office at the end of the second day, Jordan, my not-to-be-discouraged sidekick, booted up a new search. The office manager popped in and handed us a printout. “Did you see this one?” she asked.

I stared at the grainy image. The sloping sides of the hip roof and the unwieldy azaleas ringing the wrap-around porch intimated a Southern belle from times past. It certainly wasn’t a simple ranch, and I didn’t see any sign of a garage, but there, in the background, was the tip of a gazebo. I scanned the spec sheet— and an in-ground pool.

The sunlight playing off the Caribbean blue liner warmed my vitamin-D- deficient flesh, beguiled my senses, and befuddled my judgment.  Warnings unheeded, I ignored the cat-urine soaked carpeting and nicotine- stained wallpaper. I dismissed the yellow duct tape holding the back door trim together, and although I knew we said we were finished with renovations, my penchant for making ugly things beautiful, energized by thirty-six feet of a newly refurbished, dazzling pool in the back yard, overruled my usually sensible nature.

Most people looking to simplify their lives would have recognized a project of gargantuan proportions, but I envisioned dinners in the gazebo, midnight swims, and a writing career birthed at the side of the shimmering pool.

I flew back to Vermont.  It doesn’t actually have a garage,” I told Bob, “But the back porch is large and screened with plenty of room for your tools, and it has a walk-in crawl space. I’ve looked at thirty houses, and this is the only one I found we can afford that has character and a pool.”

Ah, daughter of Eve. Following in my distant mother’s footsteps, I handed Bob the offering of the lust of my eyes. “We are handy; a little remodeling and we can easily make it beautiful,” I promised.

All our possessions trailed behind in the Penske moving truck as we pulled into the yard on the day of the closing. Bob had seen only cell phone images. I watched him carefully. There was no turning back now.

The vinyl siding made a good first impression. It didn’t, however, prepare him for what lay beyond. Waves of pent up smells wafted past us as we forced open the front door. Bob’s face went still as his eyes shifted from one forlorn room to another.  I could tell he wasn’t seeing lazy afternoons with sweet tea by the pool.

His guardian angel was probably covering its face under its wing in unbearable sympathy as Bob tried to assess just which room, which small space we could actually live in while he tried to make some order in the place that he knew was about to suck our time, energy, and life savings into the void of its decrepit interior.

The part in our marriage vows where we promised to “have and to hold, for better or for worse,” came in pretty handy in the ensuing days. 

I felt terrible about the mess I had gotten us into and was thankful Bob never blamed me for it, although I suspected the thought had crossed his mind. We ripped out hundreds of feet of soiled carpeting only to discover the flooring underneath was rotten, and when we pulled down the smudgy drop-ceiling tiles, instead of baring lovely old ten-foot high plaster ceilings, we discovered warped and water-stained aqua-colored wainscoting.

Various trades people marched through, each gravely handing over their verdicts along with their bills. The pest control man was happy to see the old house being fixed up. He told us about all the animals he had removed from the junk-filled premises—even copperheads. I stared uneasily at the holes in my bedroom floor. 

The HVAC technician had a thick southern accent. She told me she couldn’t guarantee that the coals were any good. I squinted at the metal box.

Coals?”  I said, “I have coals in my air conditioning?”

Slowly, as though pronouncing a word phonetically for a child’s spelling test, she repeated, “Coils, I don’t know if your coils are any good.” 

Everyone who came through our door eyed the ancient bark clinging to the now exposed wall studs, the worn, rotted flooring and said the same three things, “Wow, you have a lot of work to do. But it’s going to be beautiful when you are through.” And then incredulously—“Are you living here?’

Yes, we said, we were.

Again, I appreciate your stopping by for this part of the journey, as once a week I tell our story of going South. Later in the week I will I post a more typical devotion topic. Please know, I pray for each one, unknown to me, but known to God, who lingers here.

Today, may you rest in trusting in the Lord with all your heart, even if you have no understanding of the situation or times.



Friday, April 26, 2013

A Moment in Metaphor: Pursuing Emptiness

The reader in me delights in rich imagery and metaphor—the kind that makes Rick Bragg’s writings so satisfying:  Describing a class reunion—“The boys in the photos had hair cut severely short on the sides. Their ears jutted from their heads like a 36’Chevrolet with the doors open.”*

As a writer, I’m thrilled to come up with an original and fitting metaphor. When I described in Call of a Coward, the heaviness of the year following our return from Guatemala “as though it were a lead apron on my chest,” I thought I had had a flash of metaphoric insight, (only slightly diminished months later, when in reading something by Anne Lamott, I came across a similar analogy).

But no one uses imagery so perfectly as to capture the essence of a point as does the Holy Spirit. Scripture is a veritable gold mine of metaphor and imagery. I’ve found myself having to back up my reading and soak in the riches of word pictures I might have glossed over. (Will have to talk about the scarecrow in a cucumber patch another day.)

Today’s image-rich meditation was from Jeremiah: “They walked after emptiness and became empty” (2:5). The chapter relates the tragedy of Israel’s abandonment of the One who led them through “drought and deep darkness” into a fruitful land. Although they were God’s people, “they exchanged their glory for that which does not profit.”

Pursuing emptiness. Becoming empty. Or as the Preacher in Ecclesiastes says, “toiling after the wind,” as futile as trying to hold the wind in your hands.

Oh Father, may we not pursue emptiness, or exchange your glory for gods that do not profit, but turn instead to you and be filled with the breath, the wind, the Spirit of the Sovereign Lord that does have substance and power and beauty and might and brings life to everyone who is born of it.—John 3:8

Wherever in the world you are, I thank you for coming by here. May your weekend/week be filled with joy and presence of the Living Lord!


*Somebody Told Me

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Finding Home #2: The Leaving

The disclaimer: I was afraid to come back. Stuck my neck out there and got all personal, then fought off a thousand belittling demons. I even had an intense dream about someone putting a curse on my back. In the dream I was full of power of the Lord and knew down to the very marrow of my bones the truth of Jesus’ power and wasn’t afraid. But in my wake state, I buckled under insecurity.

Seems there’s a bit of that self-doubt and fear going around. Both Jennifer Dukes Lee and Robin over at Pensieve Me addressed this paralysis on their blogs this week. Sometimes you just have to hear it a gazillion times before the crack splits wide.

 I tell my stories to share what God has done and what He has shown me about himself, but in doing so, I chance exposing my limited understanding and (un)limited insecurities. Please know, I only hope to cheer along those seeking a glimpse of what I have seen, and to encourage those of you who have better grasped the mysteries of grace and redeeming love, to encourage me.

In the end, I know experiences come and go, and it is only in seeing Jesus for who he is that we can press on. When I first came to the Lord, I was afraid to “experience” God because of my New Age delvings from my past, but the Lord kept showing me his love in a hundred tangible ways. Ironically, I was living in a household of prayer-warrioring, demon-casting, vision-seeing believers.

I soaked in their fervency as I hovered on the periphery of their prayer time, seeking discernment and wisdom.  Later, my husband and I took courses through Liberty University and I traded in my controversial prayer tongue for sturdy Baptist footwear.

Now, many years later, I feel more confident about discerning the voice of God, experiencing his presence while standing on his Word (and using my prayer language).

Still, I am cautious. I certainly don’t want to bow down to an image I have made up about God.  I constantly pray for him not to let me err. To anchor me in Truth. In Jesus.  

 Meanwhile, I will continue to add my testimonies to that cloud of witnesses who have gone before. And as Groucho Marx said—“If you’ve heard them before, don’t interrupt me. I’d like to hear them again.” So here we go:

Finding Home #2: The Leaving

I suppose we could have just thrown a dart at a map of the United States; we had no particular reason to choose one place over another. The idea that had been gnawing at the edges of our minds for the past few months had suddenly become a certainty.

Bob was weary. Pastoring a small Vermont church for the past eleven years had taken its toll. The church had grown from a fifteen person, two-hymn bastion of tradition to a faith-filled worshiping community of more than one hundred believers.  It was vibrant and healthy. But it needed new energy. And we didn’t have it.

As sure as we were that God had put us there, we were sure He was relieving us. The problem was He wasn’t showing us what to do or where to go next. No pillar of fire by night or cloud by day. Just—“Go.”

We had gone before. After all, we were the same two people who had packed our ten-year-old daughter and three trunks’ worth of carefully chosen possessions into our Ford Explorer and driven from New Jersey to Guatemala to work in an orphanage. And we were the same two who had walked away from financially secure jobs to pastor a tiny Vermont church.

 But lurking beneath our bravado was the realization that we were different—we were too young to retire, but too old to include dates on resumes.We stared at all our diplomas on the wall, certifying us as masters of something. Bob was also a journeyman electrician with twenty years of experience in a New York City electrical union.

Surely we’ll get jobs we said. Resolutely, we spread the map before us and listed our priorities: sunshine, east coast, access to mountain and lakes, culturally alive city with a sense of community and vibrant job market. My sister in Raleigh suggested Greenville, SC.

 I Googled it. Compared days of sunshine. Greenville has about 60 more days of sunshine than the town we lived in. That was a definite plus. I compared cost of living: Greenville was reportedly about 20 per cent less expensive to live in than our area. Best of all, were the low taxes.

The dart stuck in Greenville.

We were excited; we were scared.

As we began to disentangle ourselves from all the things that had identified us, we realized how deeply rooted in so many lives we had become. We knew a lot of secrets; knew who had triumphed through a personal difficulty and knew who hadn’t. We had joyfully pronounced young couples husband and wife and had cried in early morning hospital rooms over the death of a child. We cheered friends’ kids on at soccer matches and played murder mystery games with friends over dinner. 

But we had sold our house, reduced our possessions to what would fit in a 26 foot truck and were ready to go.Like the rising bubbles in a lava lamp, each of our relationships rose to the surface and began to slowly break away.

On a sunny September evening as the sun lowered itself behind the western hills, we hitched the car trailer to the truck, bid teary goodbyes to faithful friends, and headed south out of Rutland.