For When We Suspect Nothing is Happening

Cool mountain air drifted in through our open window, carrying high-pitched beeps and deep rumblings that broke into my slumber. I lay in the dark of our tiny room at the back of the lodge and tried to place it. A tractor? A road grater? I recognized that sound. I knew what it wasn’t but not what it was. And then I remembered.

It was a snow groomer.

I recalled seeing one as twilight settled across the mountain the afternoon before, its headlights flickering between the distant trees as it lumbered across the slope like something straight out of a Star Wars movie. But snow groomers aren’t science fiction. They are tools. Machines meant to move and manipulate snow, they transform crusty, slick, worn sections of ski slopes into something smooth, navigable, and safe.

I’d forgotten about them, about how they spend the overnight hours when the skiers are sleeping and the slopes are quiet doing their restorative work: crushing and grinding away the scurf of the day—the icy slopes, the washboard wear—rearranging the snow to create the best possible surface by morning.

Corduroy

When the sun rose, the groomed surface, aptly named corduroy for its evenly grooved finish, glowed fresh and smooth, inciting us to hurry to get out the door and onto the slopes. By afternoon, however, every groove was worn away and the snow polished to a slick sheen, transforming what had previously been easy and enjoyable into exhausting, sometimes frightening labor.

We spent only one night in that tiny room on the back side of the building. The next morning, I woke early again, this time on the front side of the lodge, lay in the dark, and listened. But there was only silence where the previous morning’s beeps and rumbles had been.

With no fresh snow on the mountain,  the sound of the groomer instilled hope for the best possible conditions. Its absence boded the opposite.

It had been eighteen years since I’d skied this mountain or any other. Memory told me that grooming was an ongoing process. If it was needed, it happened. Maybe, I thought, the weather indicated that is would be a bad idea to groom. Or unnecessary. Maybe snow grooming practices had changed in the last eighteen years. Other things certainly had. Or maybe I just remembered wrong.

As I waited for the sun to rise, I didn’t just wonder about the silence. I worried. A groomed surface made—for me, anyway—the difference between a good day of skiing and a survivable one. I wanted emerge from the lodge in the morning and find smooth, navigable, safe snow where crusty, slick, worn slopes had been. I wanted to see the mountain transformed.

Eventually, the sun rose and rest of the family woke. We ate, donned our gear, and climbed the little hill to the path behind the lodge, where I saw a snow groomer trekking across the face of the mountain, returning from its pre-dawn work. The path and every slope I could see was covered in corduroy.

A freshly groomed path

I’d made the mistake of believing that just because I couldn’t hear the work being done it wasn’t happening.

I stood on the freshly worked, inviting snow and saw that I too often do the same thing with my life. When I’m waiting (and aren’t we almost always waiting for something?) I hold tight to an underlying suspicion that if I can’t  perceive progress there must not be any. And that just isn’t true, because walking by faith more often involves what we can’t see than what we can.

This is true: Sometimes, maybe even often, the transformative work on our hearts that make us navigable and useable and approachable often comes from the unmistakable, crushing weight of the heavy and the hard.

This is also true: Sometimes it happens silently, in the background, without us even noticing, until we look back and see it. The change is evident, but the work is a process played out in quiet moments of walking by faith, one sometimes-faltering step at time.

And this is true, as well: God doesn’t act in the nick of time. He acts in His time.

When we pay attention to the path that brought us from where we were to where we are, we find a series of small steps and long stops. We see progress in what felt like paralysis. And we discover purpose in a pace that was once unfathomable.

The work is being done—whether we perceive it or not.

And you, fellow traveler? Are you waiting and holding onto a suspicion that nothing is happening? What truth can you speak to yourself to encourage your own heart today?

The Spiritual Discipline of Expecting Delays and Great Scenery

Because of the invisible cord that ties writing to life, it is with some trepidation I acknowledge that my anticipated writing topics for the coming months center around a theme which can be summarized by a road sign, especially a road sign in a construction zone bearing this kind of verbiage: Expect delays and great scenery.Expect Delays and Great Scenery

Oh, I’m all about the scenery.  I’m just not fond of delays. I don’t want to wait. For anything.

That the roads we wander will need repair is a given. That there will be delays, an inconvenient fact. That they will occur at the nearly the worst possible time seems to follow some universal law. To plant an expectation of great scenery takes a leap of greater optimism.

Expectations almost always disappoint.

Except that we tend to find what we look for. Whether we gaze out the window for the view or at the clock to measure wasted time, that’s what we’ll see.

Here in Iowa, our open roads and flat terrain allow travelers through construction zones to slow down more often than stop. When it does require a full stop, it’s usually short, governed by a traffic light rather than a pilot car. Those are more common to the mountains, where the roads are winding, the stops long, and patience is not simply a virtue—it’s a survival skill.

When my husband and I came upon this sign along the road to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, it wasn’t hard for me to believe. We were already in the mountains. The Tetons are known for being photogenic. I already expected great scenery. I just wasn’t interested in a delay.

Whether I’m on the road to Yellowstone and the Tetons or a highway in the heartland, I believe that there’s something to see, that it’s worth paying attention to the landscape of our lives, that there is, as Matthew Henry wrote, “a great deal of good to be learned from what we see every day.” All this I believe, but I forget because I am in too much of a hurry to stop and remember.

Hurry focuses on tasks instead of people. On outcomes over processes. On destinations and not the journey. It leaves little room for the slow unfurling of all the good to be found along the way.

Delay interrupts hurry.

On the same trip that we saw the sign, J and I drove into Yellowstone from the Tetons, arriving later than we had planned. We had only one task to complete that day, but it was an important one: find a campsite, something more easily accomplished early in the day than late. J is more easy-going than I. The need to get to the campground weighed more heavily on me than on him. I was in a hurry.

Within a few miles of the campground, we found ourselves in a long line of stationary vehicles. It didn’t have the look of a typical Yellowstone bear-induced traffic jam, but we couldn’t see the source of the blockage. We had no idea what the holdup was. We didn’t know how long we would be sitting there, waiting. After a while, J suggested we turn around and have dinner at a small picnic area we’d passed a few miles back.

The promised delay had materialized, interfering with my rush to get to the campground and procure our campsite. I was torn. We could sit and wait for the traffic to move while I watched the clock, tormenting myself with each moment that passed, or we could wait by the water in the woods, enjoying the scenery we’d driven across the country to see. The truth was, I wanted to go where I wanted to go and do what I needed to do. And I wanted to do it now, not later.

I wasn’t interested in the scenery.

Tree in the Bluff Yellowstone Lake

In the end, we turned around. After we lugged our Coleman stove and a cooler full of food to a table on a bluff overlooking Yellowstone Lake, I prepared our meal to the soundtrack of waves hitting the shore and J moved on to his natural habitat: the rocks above the water. And an hour later, when the snarled traffic finally loosened, freeing vehicles to whiz by, we lingered in our solitary place among the pines long after our leisurely dinner was done. The delay had dissolved my habitual hurry and created space to see beyond the pressure of the clock, to enter fully into the moment rather than simply passing through.

It seems we are always waiting for something. And while I relish good scenery, I’m more comfortable with hustle, with arriving where I want to be according to my own  itinerary.

Maybe that’s precisely why we need delays: there are unexpected things to see and do and learn that don’t fit into the plan. The expectation of delays and great scenery predisposes us to a willingness to wait, to submit to a timetable not of our own creation, to believe there are purposes and treasures in the long pauses of life. Delays can free us from the crushing weight of tasks and outcomes and arrivals, creating space for us to slow down and lift our eyes to the world around us and the God who gives us life and breath and the ability to move at any speed—whether it’s comfortable or not.

And you, Fellow Traveler? Because we are almost always waiting, almost always in the midst of some delay on life’s road, let me ask this: Do you look for the scenery or do you seek the fastest way through? What would it look like for you to pause and embrace the inevitable delays the coming year will bring?

 

 

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Sparkling in an Unfamiliar Life

My great-grandma was a woman of summer. She kept a garden. She grew the flowers and vegetables that graced her table. She picked the berries that topped our ice cream. Once in a while I helped her in the garden or the berry patch and it always shocked me when she showed up wearing slacks. The garden was the only place I ever saw her dressed that way and even there she wore a dress over them, with a long-sleeved shirt and a wide-brimmed hat. She was dressed to work.

Right there are four important lessons she taught with her life: Wear appropriate attire. Protect your skin. Shade your eyes. And, of course, keep a garden.

I should have paid more attention.

She was teaching all the time. She just wasn’t obvious about it. Maybe she wasn’t even aware.

Grandma knew how to respond to her circumstances. In the garden, she wore slacks. In the face of a deer standing in the yard looking like dinner, she became a hunter. After an unexpected move, she looked to Jesus.

She’d moved before, first with my great-grandpa from the river valley to a rural acreage and then alone to a tidy mobile home on her daughter’s farm. When her health failed she moved again, this time to a nursing home.

Her sorrow hung in the room as we stood with awkward smiles, trying to make conversation while she arranged her few belongings on top of a dresser. She’d been there just a day or two and it was through a set jaw that she mumbled something about trying to make the best of it. I knew she wanted to. She wanted to even in the midst of her mourning.

It wasn’t long before she noticed that there were other people there with her, people who might not know Jesus. That was all it took. She got up, left her room, and went out to where the people were.

Life in the nursing home gave Grandma something she’d never had, something none of us expected: freedom. She’d never driven. She relied on her husband, and later her daughter, to take her where she wanted to go. In the nursing home she needed neither car nor chauffeur. She had shoes and a Bible, and that’s all she needed to carry out her purpose in that place and season.

Her favorite hymn was “Trust and Obey” and that is how she learned to live an unfamiliar life. She trusted. She obeyed. And it was enough. She was free to be happy, not in her circumstances but in Jesus.

My husband and I have lived in four different cities, which is exactly three more than I imagined we would. Each move was unexpected. While some have been like coming home, others were a step into an unfamiliar life.

My grandma’s quiet lesson about how to live with trust and obedience is another one I should have paid attention to long ago. It’s one I need every day, especially as I step into the unfamiliar areas of my actual, everyday life.

Not long after her move, Grandma made a small change to her wardrobe: She began to wear bead necklaces. I noticed but never asked why. At the time it seemed simple. They were pretty and she liked pretty things. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to believe they were more than mere adornment. Each was a badge of contentment. When the direction of her life’s road led away from her garden and her home, she found freedom to thrive, not in her circumstances but in Jesus. And that, like the necklaces which graced her neck, made her sparkle.

How about you? What do you hold onto as you step into unfamiliar places in your life? Where do you find freedom to thrive? Do those things give you sparkle?


 

“Sparkling in an Unfamiliar Life” is an edited version of an earlier post.

The Bird and the Wire

Bird in flightSummer mornings, I walk the gravel line between the drone of highway traffic and the twitter of birds in the pasture. A road that knows few cars and fewer houses, its ditches prosper rabbits and bees and the birds which lay down my morning soundtrack. I rarely notice the animals when I walk. Because I’m prone to tumble, I tend to keep my eyes fixed on at the ever-changing place where my feet meet the road. It’s hard to watch with my eyes glued to the ground.

Even so, one morning I noticed a movement in the ditch. A bird flew straight up the front of the fence barrier that separates our rural road from the local four-lane. She fluttered up, past row after row of squares, squares not wide enough for her wingspan. After passing the top one, she squeezed underneath the sagging barbed wire strung across the top and continued her ascent on the other side.

She could have avoided that precarious squeeze. There was plenty of space on the country side for her to rise into the air, space which looked safer, smarter, and better. In just a few inches she could have crossed over without wedging herself between the wires, if only she had looked up instead of straight ahead.

Because I tend to anthropomorphize the natural world, projecting onto it qualities which belong to humans, I wondered what she was thinking.  Why would she make that squeeze when she would have been free to fly wherever she wanted had she waited just a second longer? Why would she take what looked like a dangerous way when safety waited just inches above? Was she trying to challenge herself?

A bird’s life doesn’t require additional challenge. It revolves around survival. Find food. Avoid danger. Evade predators.

It looked to me that maybe she flew just the way I walked, eyes fixed just ahead, just far enough to see the next thing, oblivious to all the rest.

Like the bird, I’ve sometimes got my eye open for the first out. In marriage, in motherhood, and even in own my mind, I’m tempted to look for the easiest way through even though I know that in everything that matters there is no easy way and the first out is almost always a bad idea.

The bird made it through the barbs and on to freedom. She avoided the hazardous wires. She survived.

That was enough for her.

But you and I were intended for more than a song bird’s life, crafted for more than mere survival. We were made to sing, but when our vision is focused on finding the first out, the song can get lost–if ever it is sung at all.

A bird’s song is its song. It can’t sing a new tune. A cardinal sounds like a cardinal, a chickadee like a chickadee.

We, however, can sing most any tune we want. Often the most beautiful melodies are hard-won, springing from waiting places, dark places, places of weariness and discouragement that try the soul, the ones where the temptation to take the first out is strong.

But we weren’t made for escape. We were made for something more, to be drawn out by the God who loves us and to sing his song. And sometimes, it’s in those hard places that we discover the melody.

Bird New song

Grown up life brings with it more hard places than easy ones. What is the nature of your place today? What is your song?

Linking this week with the writers at Thought Provoking Thursday and Small Wonders.