Salem means Peace

“I wish I had met my big sister.”

I was standing in the cemetery behind Salem Church in Lena, with my 12-year old son, Joshua.  Salem Church is where I was serving as pastor 13 years ago yesterday, when my wife Christy gave birth to our first child.  Caitlyn Marie Woosley was stillborn, in the 26th week of pregnancy.  Katie isn’t a morbid or overbearing presence in our lives, but neither is she forgotten. So it is that Joshua is aware that there was a child before him; so it is that we return to Salem periodically, most years as close to her birthday as possible, to remember, and to look ahead.

This year Katie’s birthday was on a Sunday, and we were able to join our friends at Salem for worship.  Going to worship isn’t easy for our nine-year old, Zach.  He’s not great at sitting in one place for an hour; he’s not great at staying quiet for the liturgy and preaching; he doesn’t exactly love unfamiliar places, especially when he has to do things like sit still and stay quiet.  So, eventually, Zach and I found ourselves outside, as worship continued inside the stone walls of Salem’s sanctuary.

I was only at Salem for six years (I’ve been gone nine years now), but as we walked out of the front of the building, onto the snowy steps, the sense of familiarity seeped warmly into me.  Zach turned left, headed for the lawn between the sanctuary and the parsonage (and even more for the play structure at the back of the parsonage).  As always, the snow formed a drifted ledge between the two buildings, but what stopped me cold was not the wind.  The large lilac bush that had long stood at the corner of the yard – a personal favorite, spreading gentle fragrance across the property – was gone.  And as I looked through the space where the lilac used to be, I could see that also gone was the cherry tree in the middle of the yard.

After Caitlyn died, the other members of my clergy group had given us a certificate for a tree – we were free to pick the tree of our choice, and to plant it in memory of Katie. When spring arrived, we selected a Montmorency Cherry tree.  I liked the idea that it would flower in April, when Katie had been due, and that it would be fragrant and fruitful.  When springtime came, we planted the tree together.

Now, where the Cherry tree used to be, there was a young evergreen, with a stake next to it for support.  My initial shock quickly shifted into the realization that the cherry tree had been there for more than 12 years, which is not an unusual life span.  It would seem the tree had died out, and the current Pastor (who has always been exceptionally sensitive to our history there) had planted a new tree, perhaps even as an intentional replacement.

Nothing in this life lasts.  Certainly not a Cherry tree.  This was no revelation, but a melancholy reminder on this birthday.  I don’t have a teenaged daughter.  I have a son who I would not have if she had survived to full term.  This year has brought reminders that I have no more control over keeping and protecting him than I had over that pre-born daughter.  I don’t enjoy those reminders, the realization that we are so limited, so powerless, so dependent upon the provision of God.

This is, in my bones, what I believe.  We are in the hands of the one who made us.  And we are living in a broken world.  Which means that God holds us, but we are not always free from the pain of the brokenness.   My daughter died during the season of Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of God in the world.  Jesus of Nazareth changed the world, and will one day further change the world.  What is broken will be no more.  No more pain, no more tears, no more death. No more separation. At the second Advent.

“I wish I had met my big sister.”

“Me too.”

“You believe that in heaven, we’ll get to meet her, right?”

“Yes, I do.”

On other days, this has led to blizzards of questions I have no answer for: what age will we be in heaven? Will everyone be (or appear to be) the same age? Will we get older? How will we recognize each other? But not today.

“Katie, I’m sorry we were late getting over here.  I, uh, got lost looking for your headstone, and then I was stuck waiting for dad to get the snow out of my shoes.”

“I hope everything’s good there in heaven.  I mean, it is, right, Dad?”

“That’s what I believe.”

“I look forward to meeting you someday, Katie.”

Me, too.

 

A Day Like Any Other Day

I’m sitting here, in my back yard, enjoying the blessings of technology: plinking away this post on my Super Tablet (that’s the Asus Transformer 300, which I will take over any iPad), streaming new music all over the yard, taking advantage of the waves of wireless internet that emanate from my kitchen.

At the same time, I’m a little bit lo-fi: I’m in the back yard today because I’m the keeper of the smoker.  A basic cooking vessel, a little charcoal and hickory wood, some simple spices, and a very ordinary hunk of pork will provide us with a magnificent mountain of pulled pork by dinner time.

It is a good day of Sabbath rest for me.  Your Sabbath might look different: maybe you are outside, too, but are instead taking up the charge to care for and cultivate the creation, bringing out the beauty of the flowers and trees, or gathering the good harvest of the garden; maybe you are inside, sitting quietly with the word of the Lord, listening to his voice, savoring his presence, speaking a little but mostly hearing and being wrapped in the divine arms of love; maybe you are walking with your grandson in his wagon, exploring mile after mile, careless as to where you are because you are together, enjoying the gift of each other; maybe you are hiking the trails of a majestic mountain, seeing the wonders of wildlife and feeling your body pushed by the elements.  These are fitting ways to take Sabbath (and, of course, there are many more), for God is present with you in every one of these places, and you are able to be attentive to his presence, thankful for his goodness, resting in him.  Receiving his gift of Sabbath rest.

Today is Labor Day, and this seems like an appropriate day to take Sabbath rest.  Even as we recognize American workers and the labor movements that have protected them from abuses, there is one with an even longer history of putting work in proper context.  The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus is the one who gave the commandment-gift of Sabbath to his people, telling them and us that Your Work Does Not Own You.  The key is understanding that Your Leisure Does Not Own You either.  Every day of Sabbath rest, however it is spent, is a day that proclaims that I am owned by my God, my Maker, my Redeemer, my King, who has invited me into his household with all of its blessings.  Including rest.

Over the last two and a half weeks I have seen two friends die suddenly.  One was 24, still at the beginning of the journey of adulthood, and the other was a grandfather, but both were surrounded by family and friends who longed for more time with them, even just one more day.  Every day of this life is a gift from God, and none of them come with a promise that it will not be the last such gift.  Which means this is the day that the Lord has made, to love your family and friends, to do what the Lord has given you to do with excellence, to serve your neighbor, and above all to rest in the Lord of this glorious day.

Every day.

Finding Zuzu

My son Zach has 32 Zhu Zhu Pets.  For the uninitiated, Zhu Zhu Pets are animatronic hamsters which, when activated, make a variety of noises (coos and purrs, as well as words and nonsense noises) and explore their environment; one can buy a host of accessories, as one would for a real hamster, but they will also zip around the floor, responding to various stimuli they encounter.  There are dozens of distinct “characters”, each with a name, and unique coloring, markings, and phrases that they say.

Since I told you Zach has 32 Zhu Zhus, I probably don’t need to tell you that he loves them.  He will set up tracks, and then line them up to all go through the track one at a time.  He will set them all up on the dining room floor and then activate them, so that the room is over-run with furry, squeaking robots.  And, when one of them ceases to properly function (the most common problem is that the button on their back, which activates them, will break) Zach is grieved.  We are currently going through a mini-crisis, because Zach wants to replace Rocket (or Rock-it; I forget).  Rocket appears to be out of production.  Rocket’s not coming back, and Zach’s not happy about it.

But the amazing thing I wanted to tell you tonight is that Zach knows them all, by name.  At bedtime, Christy told Zach to pick up all the Zhu Zhus and put them in a new plastic bin we have for storage.  Zach dutifully moved from room to room, gathering up pets and putting them in the basket.  Christy tried to join in helping him, but this proved problematic, because even after all of the pets seemed to be off of the floor, Zach kept searching, saying “Zhu Zhus.  Zhu Zhus.”  Finally, Christy showed him the basket, and together they inventoried all of the pets that Christy had added to the basket – he was still looking for those pets!  As soon as the inventory ended, Zach went back to searching, now saying “Zuzu.  Zuzu.”  “We got all of them, Zach,” said Christy.  “Zuzu.  Zuzu,” said Zach.  And then we remembered: there is a Zhu Zhu pet named Zuzu.

Josh remembered what Zuzu looks like (which was amazing in itself, since Josh doesn’t have any affection for the Zhu Zhus), and we all continued to search for a light brown puffball that looks a little like a porcupine.  Sure enough, Zuzu was hiding in the bathroom.

Zach still has a hard time forming sentences, and really can only do it for things he wants or needs.  Zach can’t always remember my name.  Zach forgets basic safety rules, like ” no wandering away,” or “no walking into the street.”  Zach has a hard time connecting with new people.

But Zach’s not stupid.  He can look at a box with 31 of his pets, and he knows which one is missing, and what it looks like.  And he won’t stop until all 32 pets are together in the box.  Is that an obsessive behavior, or is he shepherding?  I’m going to choose to see the latter, and I’m going to pray that it’s a little bit of the image of Jesus in Zach, a child of God.

How Do You Like Them Apples?

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I wrote last year about my apple trees, which had primarily climbing trees for Zach. He’s not climbing those trees this year (probably because he’s grown so much; he’s moved on to an evergreen – cedar, I think – in the front yard), but something else is happening. One of the three trunks had blossoms, and now apples are starting to grow. There are at least 20 that I can see, all roughly the size of one knuckle of my thumb. Another year, and another way this tree becomes a blessing to our family!

Great Moments in Being a Nine-Year Old Boy

I just came in the house and discovered Zach doing something wonderfully, hilariously neuro-typical*: While exploring in the yard, he evidently found what appears to be a beetle.  He brought it into the house, and when I found him, he was carefully observing it walking around on our Dining Room table.  He’s still absorbed by this beetle, even as I type this.  He’s giving the beetle a lot of freedom, but when the bug gets up against a barrier it can’t pass (like our placemats) he picks it up and relocates it.

He hasn’t said a word the entire 10 minutes or so I’ve been watching him do this, except 30 seconds ago, when he said, “Bug.”  However, here’s the slightly less neuro-typical part, and what makes life around here fun: while he watches the bug wander around the table, Zach is periodically providing background music by humming “The Flight of the Bumblebee”, which was used during a sequence on bugs in one of the Baby Einstein videos that Zach loves so much.

Just another day with a boy, a bug, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.  Spring is a beautiful time.

*For those who don’t know it, Zach is not neuro-typical; he has autism.