So I was browsing a minimalist website last January, and I stumbled on Nourishing Minimalism. Within a few clicks, I found a post about a yearly decluttering challenge. The challenge for last year
Mocha came home two days ago. It’s not that she ever really left, but before I heard and saw her scratching at the back window forty-eight hours ago, I knew her only as a hushed whisper that watched me from shadows and teased me from between the top row of hay bales. I’d sense she was up there and try to lure her out, but in the last two or three years, I’ve probably touched her only twice. She’s old, and skittish, and much too independent for her own good.
But right now, she’s napping under the love seat. I can see the bulk of her dark calico self peeking out from beneath the scalloped wicker edge; occasionally, I catch the flicker of her brown and orange tail.
We’re anticipating the coldest days we’ve had in over a decade. In a few hours, winds from Canada are expected to swoop down and blanket this area with frigid, bone-numbing air. I have to wonder if Mocha, who will be fourteen in a few months, smelled the coming storm. I picture her lifting her head from atop her favored hay perch, wrinkling her black, triangular nose, and sniffing the breeze. I imagine her little quarter-pound brain scanning its files, pulling out a memory from ten or twelve years ago, and analyzing the remembrance with a growing sense of dread. Of her own choosing, she’s always been an outdoor cat. Not long after we brought her home as a kitten, and three-year old Zac welcomed her with an exuberant cuddle and rub-down in the recliner (“Mama, she name is Mocha”), the cat searched for the nearest exit and skedaddled.
But she’s here now.
Wise creatures scan the skies and smell the breeze and scrutinize signs. They take stock of their position, and when they determine that something ominous is on the move, they drop their weighty independence and seek shelter. They go to where they’ll be welcomed, and stroked, and loved — where a bigger someone is waiting to offer bowls of warm milk with egg, and safety from the storm.
That we would all be so wise.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!
–Luke 13:34 (NIV)
I learned all this when I found and skimmed Martha’s six-ring, refillable, 2001 personal planner in a nearby thrift store. Tucked in among the other planners—some oversized, some slightly scuffed, some just plain nasty looking—the small, earthy-colored tapestry cover caught my eye and drew my hand into the book bin. I loved the feel of the planner in my hand and the ease with which it unzipped. I knew instantly I’d buy it—even before I discovered Martha inside.
It startled me a bit to read such personal information about a stranger, but like a voyeur who happens upon a wide-open window, I kept looking. I found out that Martha went to the symphony in January, and that the Austen in her life had the same birthday as my middle sister. I learned that Martha had had a library book due back February 2nd, her new ID card expired in March, and she met a friend for coffee in early April.
But around that same time—early to mid April—Martha recorded a Wednesday afternoon doctor’s appointment
… and then another for the following Monday. By Thursday she’d added a new name, with the word “oncologist” after his title. In the flip of just three more pages it became clear. Martha had cancer.
It must have been a late-stages discovery, or such an aggressive cancer that the treatments didn’t touch it. For despite a flurry of doctor visits and scribbled notes about the side-effects of the prescriptions and treatments she tried, by summer of that year, Martha stopped writing in her planner. Standing along the back aisle of the thrift store, with canned music floating overhead and the cry of an irritated child somewhere to my left, I turned page after page, wanting to see Martha’s handwriting, wanting to find one indication that she’d lived to anticipate fall or Christmas or 2002. But Martha’s entries ended.
I lost a dear friend to cancer last year. I said another good bye just three months later. But both those women knew Jesus. Both knew that death was nothing more than opening a door and seeing, finally, the face of the One they loved most. So despite missing them, my grief was laced with joy. I knew where they were and Who they were with.
I couldn’t rest on that assurance with Martha. I hadn’t seen a single piece of evidence that she belonged to a group of fellow-sojourners or that she stopped at least once a week to turn her face heavenward. And no, a planner can’t capture the full essence of a heart or indicate the thoughts a dying person directs toward God. But I saw no evidence. Not even a hint.
And so, standing there in that dingy thrift store, surrounded by strangers, I grieved another, and reminded myself that our mission field is really no further away than the next person we meet.
* * *
But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you …
–1 Peter 3:15 (NKJV)Look around you! Vast fields of human souls are ripening all around us, and are ready now for reaping. –John 4:35 (TLB)
He was the tallest of my first graders, and probably the one with the best memory. Six-year old Garrett Smith loved two things: dinosaurs and Star Wars. On his first day of first grade (which happened to be my first day on my own as a teacher) Garrett asked me if I’d like to hear the opening lines to the Star Wars movie. He then stood with his head high, legs locked, and hands on his hips, and began the soliloquy he’d memorized from watching the movie: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …”
He knew the whole thing. And it so delighted me that I made frequent requests for encores throughout the year. “What was that opening line of Star Wars, Garrett?”
Because of the efforts of his mother, Ann, Garrett had an in incredible vocabulary. Whenever he got an idea, he wouldn’t say, “How about this?” or “I know! Let’s ….” Instead, he’d raise his index finger in the air and say, in his high, six year-old voice, “Mrs. Woodward, I have an EX-cellent suggestion!”
Garrett’s face and voice came alive for me when, while sorting through my newly rescued pile of letters and photographs, I came upon a lavender, dinosaur-stamped envelope. “Mrs. Woodward” was written across the center in distinctive first-grade handwriting.
Inside, I found two math pages. The first question on the first page showed six milk cartons lined up next to the number “6” and below, three milk cartons lined to the right of the number “3.” Big as life, Garrett had written “9” on the line beneath the problem, just like I’d taught him. He knew the next answer, too: “1 + 7 = 8,” and all the ones that followed. In fact, he’d received 100% on this paper. On top of the front side, I’d drawn a smiley face and written Great! On the flip side, I’d written Wow! Page two sported a colorful gold fish looking up at Garrett’s answers with bulbous, astonished eyes. Garrett had taken the time, on this picture, to color all his answers with blue, green or yellow crayon. Again, all his answers on this paper were correct. For his efforts, I’d given him a Yipee! on on side, and the coveted Super Duper! on the other.
Garrett had received his prize … and for whatever reason, he wanted to give it back to me. I don’t recall the conversation that occurred when Garrett handed that lavender envelope to me and I opened it to find his two perfect math papers. But I’m fairly certain I didn’t make the connection I do today. Today, it seems pretty clear to me that Garrett was doing what I’ll do when I reach the end of my life and face the One who gave it to me.
He was casting crowns.
The twenty-four Elders fell down before him and worshiped him, the Eternal Living One, and cast their crowns before the throne, singing, “O Lord, you are worthy to receive the glory and the honor and the power …'” –Rev 4:10-11 (TLB)
Last night was my turn at serving in the church nursery. But “served,” I must say, seems a far cry from what actually transpired. I was blessed to sit in that corner rocker, holding that beautiful new boy. Sean and I spent a quiet hour doing little more than rocking and staring. I don’t know what thoughts went through his little mind, but here are mine.
He’s less than three months old. His eyes have yet to focus on injustice; his heart hasn’t yet felt pain. All his needs are tended to by his mother — a girl I love like my own — and by his father, who still has that “What has happened here?” look on his face. When he’s in the building, Grandpa (John) elbows Grandma (Laurie) out of the way for a chance at touching and talking and tending. The rest of us, so very aware of our lesser-than positions, accept our Sean-crumbs with gratitude. This boy is loved; he knows nothing less.
But tonight, as I hold him close and watch his slender, almost-not-there fingers curling around mine, I think of the freshness of his slate and the span of his possibilities. Who will this child be when he emerges from this infant-fog, when he steps into the world and claims his spot? Will he be thinker … doer … leader … poet? Will the echoes of our worship build into a crescendo and lift his thoughts above himself? Will he offer all his maybes on the altar of devotion? Will he speak to his generation? Will he obey the One who fashioned him?
I don’t know any of that. I know only that this moment, in this place, those eyes see me, and those fingers curl about mine for anchor.
Lord God, keep me on my knees on his behalf. Keep me watching on his wall. Help me love him toward You.
And make him Yours … fully Yours.