Category Archives: Faith

Clouds and Miracles

“Mary!  Mary!”  I screamed eagerly as I pushed the front door open a little further and glanced into the living room.  The shrill sound of my voice caused my sister-in-law to run across the hardwood floor towards me.  My animated cries had disturbed her.  A look of anxiety began to crease her pretty face.  At first, I didn’t say anything more to her.  I wanted the moment to be a surprise, but I didn’t want Mary to worry.  So now, I smiled and said, “You have to see this!  Come on!”  I stepped back onto the porch as Mary followed me outside.  As she stood beside me, I started to babble eagerly.  “I just came outside to get something out of my car,” I told her as I gently pulled her over to the first step off the porch.  “And I stepped over here, looked up…”  I paused now for dramatic effect before I said, “And I saw that!”  I pointed down the street and up into the sky.

“Oh, my gosh,” Mary whispered as the anxious look on her face now transformed into a look of pure grace.

“I know,” I whispered.  “Isn’t it amazing?!”  And then we both stood quietly for a moment and contemplated the sight in front of us as we wrapped an arm around each other.

A few minutes earlier, when I had walked out of the house, I had stepped down off the porch, turned, and found myself staring at a large cloud.  That was it.  That’s all it was.  Just a cloud…and, of course, I have seen an endless number of clouds over all the years of my life.  But this one was very different.  This cloud was huge; it had to have been several hundred feet tall from the ground up.  Yes, from the ground up!  The cloud wasn’t up in the sky.  The base of it looked as if it was sitting down on the earth.  In fact, it appeared as if the cloud had come to rest at the end of our residential street and then fluffed up into the air like a giant mushroom.  The cloud was pure, new-snow white as it shined like candle wax against the dusky evening sky.  But there was another aspect about the natural wonder that had me intrigued.  At the very top of the cloud that soared up over the steeple of the small Lutheran church at the end of the street was an image of a heavenly being.  Within the fluffy folds of the cloud, I could see the full, feathery wings and the haloed head of an angel.

As my sister-in-law and I stared at the cloud, we both caught our breath as a golden light suddenly shined out from the cloud.  Though the dusky evening sky was clear, an electrical storm was taking place in the center of the cloud.  The sudden bright lightening contained within the cloud caused the angel to glow internally with a spiritual light.

After a few minutes, my sister-in-law walked back into the house.  I stayed outside on the steps for a few awhile as I stared at the cloud and watched the miraculous lightening strikes in quiet contemplation.  Over the next couple of minutes, the cloud slowly began to collapse and sink within itself.  But even though the cloud eventually dissolved into the darkening night sky I still continued to feel blessed and at peace.  I believed I had witnessed a heavenly phenomenon.  And I knew I would always carry within me the hope and glory of the golden angel cloud even when I am experiencing my own days of collapsing into darkness.

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Help Is On the Way!

“Friskie!  Cowboy!  Starburst!”  I hollered as I stood at the back door.  “Come on, dogs.  Let’s go!”

Friskie and Cowboy responded immediately.  Both dogs came running quickly across the backyard.  I laughed as I watched their small bodies leaping and gliding across the grass.  After running around in circles a few more times as they chased after each other, the Dachshund and the mutt bounded up the five wooden steps and into the dining room through the open back door.  I laughed as I pulled my legs out of the way so I wouldn’t block their progress.

All right, now where is Starburst?  I wondered as I looked around the backyard.  “Starburst!”  I hollered.  “Come on, girl.  I gotta leave for class.  Get yourself in this house.  Come on.”  I don’t know why I always try to reason with the dogs.  Somewhere in my muddled brain, I knew Starburst couldn’t understand what I was saying, but I didn’t care.  I still tend to talk to our three dogs as if they are rowdy, little kids.  And I was desperate now that they understand me.  I had to get all the dogs inside because I needed to be at the community college in just a few minutes.  The dogs were never left outside when there was no one home.

“Star!  Starry!  Starbutt!”  I ran through all of our little Shih Tzu’s known nicknames, but there was still no response.  I took a deep breath and fought back a flood of emotions.  First, I felt frustrated.  “Come on, girl!  I need to get going!”  When there was still no response, I began to get a little nervous.  God, what if the dog got out of the fenced backyard somehow?  Did someone leave the gate open?  What if someone took the dog out of our backyard?  Do people actually dognap?  Okay, maybe that is a little extreme, but I couldn’t stand the thought of something happening to our adorable, blond and brown, furry pet.

Taking a deep breath, I started to step away from the back door.  “Star!”  And suddenly, there she was!  I laughed as I watched the small dog running towards the house from the far back fence.  She was racing across the back yard with her long fur flying back, and her little tongue lolling out of her mouth.  “Come on, girl!”  I cheered her on.

But then, to my surprise, Starburst suddenly came to a complete stop.  “It’s okay, Star, get in the house,” I shouted.  But she wasn’t moving.  Star had been running excitedly towards the house but had come to a screeching halt when she suddenly found a branch from our large oak tree lying on the ground and blocking her way to the door.  She stood quietly still for just a moment as she stared helplessly at the branch.  “You can do it,” I told her as I remained by the back door.  “Come on, girl, just jump over it.”

But Star just stood there as she contemplated the obstacle that had appeared in her path.  Slowly, she stuck out one of her long, thin paws and pushed at the branch.  She swatted cautiously at a few of the spindly twigs that were sticking crookedly up from the long piece of wood.  As the branch rocked away and then rolled back towards Star again, the dog jumped and barked at the attacking limb.  I started to laugh, before saying, “Jump over it, Star.”  But the little dog hesitated at she swatted again at the branch.

“Then go around it,” I tried to tell her.  “Star, if you can’t jump over the branch, you can walk around it.  It’s not that big.”  There it was again.  I was trying to reason with an animal who couldn’t possibly even contemplate my thoughts.  But still, that didn’t stop the words tumbling out of my mouth.  “Come on, Star, just go around it.”

I watched as Starburst walked towards the branch and then jumped back.  Her little body leaped forward again as she barked at the unyielding limb.  Then she jumped back, pranced around on her long legs, and took a hesitant leap forward.  However, her movement was so awkward, she still landed on the wrong side of the branch.  Starburst still found her passage to the house blocked.  She reached out her paw one last time, pushed at the branch and then did something that I had to admit I had done on several occasions.

She just finally gave up.

Instead of fighting against the branch any longer, she just took a deep breath and then keeled over onto her right side.  She just lay there, motionless and helpless, against the branch.

“Star, oh my gosh, girl,” I sighed as I now left the doorway.  I walked across the yard, stepped over the branch and stood over the prone Shih Tzu.  I reached down and picked up the dog’s furry little body.  I placed her four paws on the ground and then said, “Like this Star.”  Then I raised her up high enough to jump over the branch and placed her on the other side.  As soon as her little feet hit the ground, Star was off and running again as if nothing had happened.  She ran towards the house with her little rear swishing back and forth and her tail wagging proudly.  As I followed the dog towards the house and stepped inside, I suddenly had a moment’s realization.  I couldn’t stop remembering the times when I had given up just because some small obstacle had suddenly blocked my path.  Yes, I would reach out occasionally and try to push the obstacle out of my way.  I would just bat at the problem a few times before finally giving up in tears and frustration.  How many times have I thrown myself down on the ground just like Starburst did?

But now, I also realized that there was one difference between Starburst and me.  The dog had gratefully and gladly accepted my help.  She didn’t resist the assistance I had given her and then once the situation was corrected she had just merrily continued on her way.

Oh, my gosh, how many times have I resisted help from other people out of a silly sense of pride?  How many times has my ego made me respond, “Oh, I’m fine, that’s okay, thanks” whenever someone had offered to help me move the obstacles away?  And how many times, when someone did help me, did I refuse to show sincere gratitude because I thought accepting help was a sign of weakness.  I refused help so I would not have to feel obligate to anyone without realizing that allowing others to help is a gift we give to each other.  It is a chance to feel needed and connected to another soul.

Now, I walked into the house and looked at all three dogs already cuddled together in their large bed as they slept peacefully.  Yeah, I suddenly realized I didn’t need to be strong all the time.  I could be vulnerable.  I could accept help.  I could be sincerely appreciative.

I leaned down and carefully ran my hand over the dogs as I patted each one in turn.  Such great lessons I have learned from animals…and ones I will never forget.

Float

I have to admit that I have a strange relationship with water.  Maybe it’s because I am not a strong swimmer.  Okay, to be honest, I’m not a swimmer at all.  However, over the last few years, I have found myself exploring various bodies of water.  There was the journey across the channel from England to Belguim and then to France, the cruise around Lake Mead, the voyage down the Colorado River, the expedition to view glaciers in Alaska, the whale watching adventure in Hawaii (which unfortunately, didn’t produce a single view of the large mammals), and even the gentle drift around the lake on a duck boat in Branson, Missouri.

So even though I have experienced a variety of watery journeys, I have to admit that I still feel a tense anxiety starting in my chest and rising up in my throat every time I board a boat.  Stress grips my heart and tightens my rib cage.  I find myself holding my breath as the boat begins to pull away from the dock. I silently begin to pray, “God, please, don’t let this boat sink.  Please, don’t let me fall overboard.  Please, I can’t swim and this lake (or ocean or sea or creek) is so deep…please, God, please, don’t let this boat go down…please…”

And then, I sigh an audible “…aaahhhh….” as the boat settles into the water and begins to roll back and forth on the waves.  At that moment, an amazing sense of peace and gratitude overwhelms me.  Like second nature, my soul just gives over to the need to be part of something larger than myself.  I look out at the water and feel amazed by the vastness of the universe.  My anxiety always gives way to the most luxurious feeling of peace once I find myself sailing along with the currents.  As the saying goes, “When I stop struggling, I float.”

So that’s why on August 30th, 2017, I was filled with both excitement and anxiety as I stood in front of the Hotel Pacific in Cairns, Australia.  I was waiting for the tour bus that was going to take me to the port where I would be getting on a boat that would be carrying me out to the Great Barrier Reef.  Though I was already praying for a safe journey, I still couldn’t shake the exhilaration that was pounding through me.  I was about to experience one of the best attractions in Australia.  After ten minutes of prayer and stress, I was finally aboard the Western Winds bus, which was expertly driven by a friendly, older man who looked like the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island.  The heavyset, incredibly kind man had gray wispy strands of hair straining around the sides of his head.  His blue captain’s hat tilting to the left and his crooked smile leaning to the right may not have inspired a lot of confidence, but felt immensely welcomed and respected by this driver as I settled into a seat near the front of the bus.

The drive to the harbor was going to take about an hour with a few stops along the way to pick up additional passengers.  I thought that this would be a great time to catch up on my journal entries. I held my pen over a blank sheet of paper, but I couldn’t concentrate.  I just wanted to stare out the window and see as much of Australia as I possibly could through the large, slightly grimy, thick windows.  I wanted to climb every tree, smell every flower, and count every blade of grass.  I had even stared at all of the hotels and tried to count all of the doors and windows as I tried to commit everything I saw to memory.  But, of course, the bus was moving too fast to experience Australia in this way, so instead I was content for a few minutes to relax back in my seat and watch the two lovely bees buzzing around the front window on the opposite side of the bus.

Finally, we arrived at the pier and the bus driver, who would be traveling to the reef with us, pointed in the direction of the dock where our boat was waiting.  I was glad he was there to direct us; the harbor was full of a multitude of ships of various styles and colors.

Once aboard, crewmembers greeted the passengers in the cabin with coffee, tea, cookies, and an interesting presentation on coral and sea life by a marine biologist.  Twenty minutes later, as the boat revved up and started to move out into the ocean, I once more started to pray, “God, please, don’t let this boat sink…”

But within a few short minutes, the sense of awe overcame me and I started to relax as the boat rocked back and forth on the water.  Aaaaahhhh.  I couldn’t help the deep sigh of serenity that escaped my lips as the boat moved further away from the dock.  With the majority of the other tourists, I climbed the white metal stairway to the top of the boat.  My sudden sense of peace had compelled me to sit where I could observe the water, the sun, the fluffy clouds, the pure blue sky, and the other boats that sailed along beside us.

I settled down on one of the red vinyl benches that bordered the top tier of the boat.  I closed my eyes and let my body relax with the swaying of the ship as I breathed in the smooth, warm air….at first.

Within a few minutes, however, my eyes popped open and I sat up straight.  The strong currents were pushing the boat sideways and the wind was blowing so hard that the red canopy covering the boat began to snap loudly as it flapped up and down.  I put my hands down on the bench to grip the edge of my seat.  I felt my body beginning to roll as the boat rocked violently back and forth.  I glanced at all of the people sitting on the other benches around me.  Though everyone seemed to be gripping onto their seats or trying to push the widely blown hair out of their faces, I grew concerned that I was going to embarrass myself by getting sick.  I had never been on a wilder ride out on the water.  I was now mentally kicking myself for not accepting one of the seasick pills that the crewmembers had passed around before the ship left the dock.  I’m not a believer in taking any sort of pills unless absolutely necessary and I had never gotten sick on a boat before.  Anxiety and stress, yes, but never physically sick.

I decided then that my best course of action would be to go downstairs to the cabin and see if I could still get one of those little blue pills.  I pushed myself up from the bench and started to walk across the white wooden planks that made up the floor of the upper tier of the boat.  Oh, my gosh…what was happening!?  I couldn’t get my footing with the crazy rocking of the ship.  I hadn’t had any of the wine or champagne that the crew had offered earlier and yet I couldn’t walk a straight line no matter how hard I tried!  And I did try hard.

My goal was to walk over to the steps leading down to the galley.  However, as I tried to walk towards the stairs, I moved my legs straight and yet found myself high stepping to the left!  I tried to walk to the right and got my legs all tangled up and almost tripped myself.  I straightened my legs and found myself suddenly lurching to the left again.  I was suddenly aware, even with the noise of the wind whipping through the canopy, the flags, and various clothing items, that no one was talking or laughing anymore.  Everyone had suddenly grown still as they watched me walking (?) rubber legged across the upper deck.  Oh, my gosh, was my only thought now, these people must think I’m stinkin’ drunk.  I tried to force myself to straighten my back and hips and walk forward, but I was still all wobbly legged and continued moving right in order to go left!  I swear I was walking like a drunken sailor back from a three-day leave!  I struggled to get my footing and found myself sliding backwards two steps for every one-step I moved forward.

Finally, a young man  wearing a yellow t-shirt and multi-colored, striped shorts stood up and took a few steps towards me.  He started to reach out his right hand to grab my arm, but he was too late.  I tumbled away from him just as he made a grab for me.  The man tried one more time, but we missed each other again as he stumbled in one direction and my body was thrown the opposite way.  At that point, the man basically gave up as he threw up his arms and backed away, leaving me completely to my own devices.  Trying to regain some sense of balance, we both walked wide-legged towards the stairs as the ship rolled back and forth.

And then…success!  I did it!  I got to the steps first but I don’t think the man had put up much of a fight.  I suddenly realized that he had let me win so I would go down the stairs first and avoid falling on top of him if I fell.  So, now I was anxious to prove that his assessment of my awkward movements was completely wrong.  I was determined to get down the stairs without a stumble.  I gripped the white metal railing and carefully lowered myself down one-step at a time as the man followed cautiously behind me.

I now walked across the lower deck and entered the galley.  It wasn’t until I was on the carpeted floors of the cabin that I was finally able to walk straight.  Thankfully, the crewmembers had placed numerous little blister packets of the seasick pills in a large, plastic, blue bowl on a wooden counter by the door.  I still grabbed two of the packets and placed them in the pocket of my jeans as one of the male attendants reminded me that the pills only really work if taken before leaving port.  Oh, well…I would save them for the journey back.

After leaving the galley, I decided not to even try going back to the upper deck.  Instead, I carefully edged my way across the lower level and sat down on a bench.  Now, I felt more relaxed and calm as I sat by myself watching the tall waves as they splashed up against the boat.

About 30 minutes later, I was amazed to see a tall lighthouse situated on a small island come into view and the boat slowly began to drift to a gentle stop.  Our ship didn’t dock on the island.  Instead, like all of the other boats in the area, our vessel dropped anchor and we continued to bop up and down on the waves, the island still 100 feet away from us.  To get to the island, all passengers were transferred on to large sailboats.  Now, maybe from sheer relieve that I had survived the journey to the Great Barrier Reef, I joyfully and gracefully stepped across the gap between the two boats and settled myself into a seat.  I was now on a glass bottom boat and eagerly leaned forward to view the reef as the marine biologist pointed out various varieties of coral, fish, turtles, and clams.  I was so fascinated by the view that I completely forgot for a moment that I was still on a boat that was rocking with the currents.  I felt as if I was peering into an alien world, an advanced civilization that I could only see from the outside looking in.  I really wanted to be a part of that world but decided not to go scuba diving.  Again, I am not a strong swimmer (okay, honestly, once again, I’m not a swimmer at all!) and was afraid I would hold back the group that would be following along on a guided tour led by the biologist.

Instead, I carefully exited the boat and sunk my feet into the warm deep sand of the island.  I roamed around by myself for a while as I waded in the cool Pacific water, took long deep breaths, played in the sand, and snapped a lot of pictures, filling up a single memory card.  I probably overdid it with the pictures , but the scene was far too beautiful to trust it just to my memory.  I didn’t trust my jumbled and scattered brain to take it all in or remember the amazing sights.  After a while of roaming aimlessly and purposely, I sat with one of my fellow passengers in the shade and discussed our various travels.  The elderly gentleman was from Sydney, and joyfully informed me of all of the main attractions I had to visit when I explored that area of Australia the following week.

After a tour around the island with the marine biologist, the passengers and crew explored the lighthouse and the small grave that held the remains of the first woman to be the caretaker of the lighthouse.   I stood for a few moments over the grave and imagined what life must have been like for this woman, who had lived in solitude while her husband was away on the continent for the majority of their lives.  She had lived on this island, fighting the elements, surviving alone while making sure the lighthouse would always be bright to save the many ships from harm.  So many years ago, what had life been like for this strong, courageous woman?

All too soon, the sailboat arrived to take my group back to our boat.  Once again, everyone was settled into the gallery with cups of tea or coffee and cookies.  I sat in a booth with the elderly Sydney man and his wife as we talked about our homes and travels and waited for the boat to rev up again and carry us back to port.  Not taking any chances, I covertly swallowed one of the seasick pills and prepared myself for the journey.  I was hoping that the ride back would be much smoother.  We would be going with the currents this time since we were traveling in the opposite direction now, right?  But then, the Sydney man informed me.  “The journey to and from the island is always rough because we never go with the currents.  The distance between the dock and the island is always going across the currents.”  I just smiled and nodded as if I had expected this, but in my head, I had started to pray again.  “Oh, God, please, don’t let this ship sink…”

After a few minutes, I decided to be courageous and step outside onto the lower deck.  I took a seat on one of the benches as a middle-aged couple settled into seats to the right of me.  And this time, as the ship moved across the water, I couldn’t stop laughing!  Instead of rocking back and forth on this journey, the boat was literally bouncing up off the water!  The waves were so high that our ship would sail up into the air and then flop back down onto the water with a loud smack.  I had to jump up and change my seat several times as heavy waves splashed up over the white railings of the boat and flooded the lower deck.  A few times, I clung to my seat as the boat sunk down below the surface of the waves and then shot straight up in the air again.  Many times, my hands lost their grip on the edge of the seat and my body was basically airborne, with my little skinny legs kicking helplessly in the air, as I flew up over the deck and then smacked back down on my bottom on the bench again.

I don’t know if it was the seasick pills or just the joy of being alive, but I didn’t feel afraid.  Instead the wild ride exhilarated me.  I had never experienced anything like this before and I was excited by the whole adventure.  As a gigantic wave once again chased me out of my seat, I crookedly walked across the deck and stood on the other side as one of the female crew members walked out of the galley.  The young woman stood for a moment and brushed her long, blond hair back out of her face before she suddenly said, “Look!  Look at the whales!”  She pointed excitedly out at the ocean.  I turned quickly just as two large glorious whales leaped out of the water, their white and silver bodies glistening in the sun before they flopped back down into the ocean.   Their movement caused our boat to roll violently to the right side, but I didn’t care.  Oh, my gosh…there were large whales right in front of my eyes!  I carefully crossed the deck again and gripped hold of a thick metal white pole just as the two whales shot straight up out of the water again and this time a small baby whale jumped with the them!  I laughed out loud as I suddenly realized that the boat had been rocking and flying into the air because of the whales frolicking so closely to us.  The whales had been circling around us ever since we had left the island.  Now, all of the passengers were crowded out on the deck as the whales continued to cavort around us and follow our boat back into port.

After a few more minutes, our ship pulled up to the dock and all of the passengers carefully disembarked as we tried to now walk on solid ground with our legs still rubbery and wobbly.  Everyone  settled back on the bus again as our lovely driver drove back to our various hotels.  I was exhausted but also feeling very alive as I rested my head against the cool glass of the window by my seat.  I was so pleased now to have had such an amazing adventure on the ocean today.  I thought of the fear and stress I had felt as  I get on the boat and it all seemed so silly now.  I love the water!  Once again, the excitement, the beauty, and the basic joy of being alive had overcome my stress and fear.  And that’s exactly the way life should be…

 

 

 

 

The Perfect Holiday Gifts!

I really wasn’t trying to be difficult.  I wasn’t trying to be argumentative.  I wasn’t trying to cause stress or anxiety.  Instead, I was being completely honest.  Whenever anyone asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I always gave the same truthful answer.

“Nothing,” I always said to all of my friends and family members whenever they asked about Christmas presents.  There honestly wasn’t anything I wanted.  I already had everything I needed to be happy.  I have good food, clean water, safe shelter.  I have books and music.  I have clothes, a job, a car.  I have my five senses—and, many times, a sixth.  According to a lot of people, I have an overabundance of emotions…and they are probably right!  I consistently laugh, cry, and love without boundaries.  I have family, even though I may get on everyone’s nerves sometimes.  I live with three dogs who love me, and a cat that is still on the fence but is slowly getting used to me.  I have friends who may not always be in my life but are always there for me when needed.  I have freedom for adventure and travel.

What more could I possibly want, especially on the holiest day of the year?

As I have gotten older, the traditions of Christmas have changed for me.  For the past several years, I haven’t decorated trees, or put up wreaths and holly, or accepted presents.  I usually like to spend Christmas alone in meditation.  Some people find this unusual but for me it is the best way to honor the Savior without the distraction and stress that usually comes with the holiday.  I enjoy simple pleasures.

For example, I woke up at around 2 am on Christmas morning.  I climbed out of bed and walked into the living room.  I had a strong desire to look out of the big picture window and stare at the dark night sky and gaze at the stars.  But instead of darkness and stars, I find a night white with quietly falling snow.  I sat snuggled up in a blanket on the living room couch as I leaned towards the window and watched the snowflakes magically dancing across the front lawn.  I prayed, meditated, and sang songs Christmas carols to myself.  My mind also kept swirling around the events of the day.  The afternoon of Christmas Eve, 2017, was spent going out to lunch with my brother, sister-in-law, and nephew.  The day was full of laughter as my brother and nephew tried to “out-funny” each other.  I tried to compete with them, too, but I couldn’t keep up with their quick wits and sly one-liners.  I’m usually laughing too hard at their comedic challenge to think of anything funny to say.  But that’s okay, because I have since become one of the best laughers around.  This afternoon was no different; the event ended again with my brother mockingly yelling to his son, “You’re grounded for being funnier than I am.”  And again, I found myself laughing joyfully before I finally got up from the couch and went back to bed to snuggle warmly and contentedly under the covers.

When I awoke again on Christmas morning, I carefully drove my car across the dusting of snow on the side streets to the local Quiktrip.  I parked in a narrow space at the far end of the small lot.  I grabbed my purse and climbed out of my vehicle.  As I walked toward s the entrance, I noticed a young woman holding the door open for several people who walked into the convenient store.  Her back was towards me so all I could see was her long, dark blond hair that flowed over the collar and down the back of her black and white checked winter coat.  I approached the woman and circled around in front of her to get to the door.  I reached out my hand to take the door from her, but she pulled back away from me before swinging her hand towards the entrance.

“No, please, go ahead,” the woman said to me as I now saw her sweet face and beautiful, big smile.

“Oh, you don’t have to do that,” I said to her.  But then I stopped and smiled at her as something my brother, Tony, always said to me.  Whenever I refused gifts or tried to be defiantly independent, Tony would tell me, “Don’t deny other people the right to be good to you.”  So, now, I smiled at this young woman and realized that she was giving me a gift.  Kindness, the willingness to do simple things for other people, is a dying art lately.  So, now, I looked at this woman and said, “That’s very sweet of you.  Thank you so much.”

As I walked through the door the woman held open for me, she happily shouted out, “Merry Christmas.”

“Thank you.  You, too,” I said back as I stepped into the warmth of the crowded store.  I couldn’t help laughing as I looked around at the other patrons.  Everyone was wrapped up in a heavy coat to ward off the winter chill.  And yet, underneath the coats, everyone was wearing cozy, colorful, flannel pajamas or tattered, comfortable sweats.  I have found my people, I thought with a laugh.  I, too, had just slipped on an old jacket over my sweats before leaving the house.  I love people best at their natural quirkiness.  I love people who are just as comfortable walking around in nightwear as they are in business suits.  And, of course, today was a day like no other as everyone politely dodged around each other as they whispered, “Excuse me,” “No, you first,” and “Merry Christmas.”  I listened to the joyful, happy voices as I paid for my coffee and walked back out to my car.

I spent the rest of Christmas day in quiet contemplation.  I was feeling blissful and at peace, just the way Christmas is supposed to be.

So, see, there wasn’t anything I needed for Christmas.  But I had received the best gifts of all: laughter, kindness, peace…and once again, I had received from God and the Savior the perfect Christmas holiday!

 

 

 

The Climb

 

I carefully raised the paper towel up off of my foot and peeked underneath.  Damn!  The wounds on the top of my right foot were still bleeding.  I had similar marks on my left, but they did not seem as deep and, thankfully, were not bleeding.  I pushed the towel back down again over my foot with the hope that direct pressure would stop the blood flow.  It didn’t help.  Blood continued to flow from the cuts.  While tending to my feet, I cursed myself for doing something so stupid.  In the weeks leading up to this adventure, I had envisioned myself walking on sunny beaches and kicking off my shoes to dig my toes into warm sand.  With this image in mind, I had bought a new pair of flip-flops to specifically wear on my vacation in Australia.

However, there was one problem.  I didn’t even try on the shoes before leaving America.  And, now, the pink plastic straps on the top of the flip-flops had pulled so tightly that before I had realized it my feet were cut deep enough to bleed.  I knew that this certainly was not a medical emergency and I would heal in time without any scars.  However, I was concerned because of an event that was scheduled for the next day.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect since tomorrow’s activity had been suggested by my travel agent, Ken.

When I originally discussed my Australian trip with the agent, Ken asked me what events I was interested in and what I wanted to see.  Of course, I mentioned the most obvious tourist sites.  I wanted to see the Australian Zoo.  I wanted to tour the Sydney Opera House.  I wanted to visit Ayer’s Rock.

Ken had a lot of other great ideas: camel rides into the outback to see the sunset, hiking the gorge into Kata Jyata…and, hey, what about the Sydney Bridge Climb?

I had never heard of the bridge climb before and Ken was more than happy to enlighten me.  He had participated in this activity several times and was very enthusiastic about the climb up the Harbor Bridge.  “Sure,” I told him, “sign me up.”

Hhhmmm….I should have done a little research.

The Sydney Bridge Climb consists of 1332 steps up 445 feet above the Sydney Harbor.  From the top of the bridge, there is a full 360 degree view of Sydney, Australia.

But right then, speaking with Ken, I thought it sounded like a great adventure.

But now, here I was sitting in my hotel room the night before the bridge climb carefully wiping away blood from the cuts on the top of my feet.  When the bleeding began to ease, I covered the wounds with the only medicinal product I had with me.  I smeared Vaseline over the top of my feet and prayed that I would be healed and ready for the bridge climb the next day.

The morning of the climb, I woke up and looked immediately at my feet.  The Vaseline had served as a temporary seal over the cuts and the bleeding had stopped.  Now, completely excited, I quickly showered, dressed, and walked out of my hotel.  Once outside, I looked over the map I had picked up the day before at the tourist information center.  The attendants at the center had been nice enough to sketch out the route I needed to walk to get to the office of the Sydney Bridge Climb.  I sighed and then balanced myself carefully as I alternately rotated my ankles around in circles.  Though my feet felt slightly achy, I was ready for the long walk, which would give me the chance to take a good long look at the city of Sydney.

I walked around Darling Harbor to Bathurst Street and then strolled confidently down George Street.  I tried not to look like a tourist but I couldn’t help staring wide -eyed and snapping pictures as I walked passed amazing cathedrals and government buildings.  I walked passed malls, a large 3-story book store, and high priced specialty shops.  I walked passed crowds of people hurriedly walking down the street or sitting comfortably in small cafes.  I marveled at the old artistic architecture that prominently stood out against the strong backdrop of modern skyscrapers.

Then, I quickly climbed the two concrete staircases that lead up to the overpass of Cumberland Street where the Bridge Climb Office was located.  I easily find the office but there was one problem.  I was several hours early.  I honestly didn’t know where I was going and I didn’t want to be late, so I had left the hotel at 10 am in order to get to the right location in time for my 2:15 pm appointment.

I sighed and told myself there was no problem.  I at least knew where the office was now and could relax with a quick lunch and a cup of tea before the climb started.  I turned around, walked back down the two staircases and strolled back down the busy streets as I searched for a comfortable place to rest.  I kept telling myself that I needed to sit down and relax somewhere.  I had been walking for over an hour on wounded feet that would soon be climbing 1332 steps into the air.

But I just kept walking.  There was too much to see to settle down in any one place.  Most people who know me would tell you that’s how I live my life, too!  But finally, when my feet began to protest by throbbing heatedly, I entered a small coffee shop and relaxed with a sandwich and hot tea before starting on my way back to Cumberland Street.

When I left the café, however, I still had an hour before my climb, so I decided to go down to the harbor for a while and take a few pictures of the ferries, the ships, the bridges, the people, the water, and the seagulls.  I quickly fell into step with a small group of people who were moving towards the harbor.  I felt happy and relaxed as I stepped down off a curb and, then suddenly, to my totally surprise, my right foot slipped out from under me and…

Wait!  What?!  I’m falling!?  I’M FALLING!

And before another thought could go through my head, I found myself sprawled on the ground after landing heavily on my right hip.  A sharp pain speared down my right leg and my right wrist throbbed from trying to stupidly use my right hand to break my fall.  I sat on the ground for a moment until a group of four elderly citizens kindly stopped to help me up off the ground.

“Are you alright?!”  I nodded my head yes as I forced a smile though tears that stung my eyes.

“Are you hurt?”  I coughed out a no as I assured them I didn’t break my leg or wrist.

“Do you have everything? Did you drop your wallet?”  I assured them that it didn’t matter because I didn’t have any money anyway.  This made them laugh which helped ease the tension.

I sincerely thanked this group of kind seniors as they gave me one more quick brush off and then slowly walked away.

I took a deep breath and steadied myself against the pain in my right hip before walking down to the harbor.  I felt better when I was by the water, even though my right hip and leg continued to throb.  I stood very still for a moment as I realized that in half an hour, oh my gosh, I would be climbing 1332 steps!

I took several deep breaths and walked away from the harbor.  I walked stiffly down the street and stood at the bottom of the concrete staircases leading up to Cumberland Street.  I took a deep breath and forced my aching body up the steps.  As I half walked and half limped into the Bridge Climb office, I hoped that a bright smile on my face would disguise the dull pain I was experiencing in my hip, my wrist, and my feet.

I walked up to the reception desk and spoke to a young woman who sat at the computer.  The woman was friendly with a bright, happy smile and a warm, welcoming demeanor.

“Hi,” I said, “I’m Jamie Zunick.  I’m scheduled for the bridge climb at 2:15.”

The woman looked at her computer screen for a moment and then stated, “Oh, yes, Jamie.  I see your reservation right here.  First, I need you to read and respond to this statement.”

The woman handed me a small laminated paper and I quickly read that I was to report any health problems I was currently experiencing.  Hhhmmm…

The card read, “Do you currently have…” which was followed by a double list of health problems.  I read through the conditions quickly and then handed the paper back to the woman.

“I don’t see clumsiness listed here, so I guess I’m okay,” I told her.

The woman looked at me for a moment and then gleefully laughed out loud.

She thought I was joking.

Then the clerk handed me a ticket and told me to enjoy my climb.  As instructed, I turned to the right and pulled myself up the stairs to wait with several other people for the 2:15 pm climb.

Then, right at the appointed moment, there was a sudden flurry of activity.  The climbers were asked to fill out health forms, permission slips, and emergency contact information sheets.  We watched a video on bridge safety and were given breathalyzers.  We were issued jumpsuits to pull on over our clothing and ushered into changing rooms.  We placed our personal items in lockers and walked through a metal detector.  Our tour guide, Leah, got us all situated in our security belts and cables.  She then placed radios, earphones, cables, hats, and jackets on our bodies.  Leah gave us final instructions and guided us up and down the stimulation ladders to practice safety climbing.

And somewhere, within all of this activity, my right hip and leg stopped throbbing.  My right wrist could easily rotate.  My feet no longer hurt.  Somewhere in the excitement of the moment, the adventure had grown bigger than the pain.

Then, with Leah enthusiastically guiding us, my team of eight tourists were walking through the tunnel that lead from the building to the bridge itself.  With that first step out onto the steel beams of the bridge, my heart began to exhilarate.  But it was a fast beating that pumped not just blood but life and energy to all areas of my body and spirit.

I followed immediately behind Leah when the other members in our group suggested I go first.  How did that happen!?  It wasn’t like I asked to be in that position!  But now, I was thrilled to be the first in my group to find myself on the bridge as I listened to Leah describe the history and construction of the structure.  Leah was incredibly knowledgeable about the bridge and I was thrilled to hear her stories.  Listen to the guide’s information, I eagerly followed along behind her wanting more of everything.  More information, more knowledge, more steps, more adventure, more thrill, more life.  We climbed a series of metal staircases and ladders.  And then we were stepping onto the arch of the bridge.  Even with the wind whipping viciously around us as we climbed, I didn’t feel any fear.  I usually experience anxiety in different situations.  Panic attacks run in my family, especially among the females.

But here, right now, as I climbed, I not only let go of pain, but of fear, too.  Though I was tethered to the bridge by a hook connected to a steel cable, I had never felt so free.

And then, there I was at the summit.  I stood beside the Australian flag and knew I had found my “happy place.”  I was in heaven 445 feet up above Sydney, Australia.  I stood there at the summit as the wind pushed against my body, rocking me furiously back and forth.  I stood there looking down 360 degrees around beautiful Sydney.  I stared down at the harbor, down at the city, down at the Sydney Opera House, down at the highway, down at the cars and trains that rumbled below us on the very bridge where we stood up in the sky.  This had to be heaven because there was no pain, no fear, no anxiety, no depression, no worries…all of those things that hold me back while I am on earth.

And I realized then that that is the heart of Australia, the heart of Sydney, the heart of all people, the heart of the earth…and maybe, just maybe, the very heart of me.

We bleed, we hurt, we cry…

And then we brush off the dust and the dirt and the tears…

And we climb 445 feet up a damn bridge!    I climbed it!

Pennies from Heaven

When my mother was a small child, she always carried coins in her black-and-white saddle shoes for safekeeping.   It became a habit that she continued into her adulthood.  My mother always placed pennies in her shoes before putting them on her feet.  “It brings me good luck,” she would say whenever I questioned her about it.

I never could figure out how Mom’s ritual brought her good fortune, especially when her old shoes had numerous holes.  But my mother truly believed in her superstition and, I guess, there were a few times when it was a true blessing.  When I was a child, I remember watching my mother scrape spare change together from the bottom of her purse to pay for the weekly groceries.  If she was still a few cents short, Mom, standing right there in the check-out line, would step out of her shoes and pick out the coins that she had placed there for providence.  She would hand the coins to the cashier, and then, with her head held high, she would step back into her shoes, gather together her groceries and children and proudly walk out of the store.  Yeah, there were times when those pennies brought her real luck and good fortune.

Though I never put pennies in my shoes, there was another coin tradition Mom taught me that I completely embraced.  Mom believed in “pennies from heaven.”  Every time she randomly found a coin on the ground, Mom would tell me that an angel was watching over her.  Whenever angels are near they leave gifts of coins and feathers.  I have always had a great belief in angels and continually looked for spare change whenever I needed a boost of faith.  I rarely found the reassurance I was looking for.

Well, that was until my mother passed away on March 16 of 2010.  After that day, coins suddenly seemed to appear around me at the most random times and in the most unusual places.  From the very first penny I found after Mom passed, I truly believed it was a sign from heaven that she was still looking out for me.  And whenever I found more valuable coins I felt doubly blessed.  Whenever I find pennies, I always think of Mom and her ritual even though I keep the coins I find in a special glass vase and never in my sneakers.

For some reason, I’m not sure why, I suddenly thought of Mom and the spare change she kept in her shoes while I was at work on Easter Sunday.  I didn’t consciously concentrate on the memory.  It just came and went as a passing thought.

But that afternoon, my right shoes suddenly felt a little funny.  I took a few steps and felt a strange pressure at the bottom of my right toe.  I shook my foot trying to shake away the feeling.  It didn’t help.  Every step I took caused a small achy pressure into my toes.  I tried hard to ignore it.  I was at work and didn’t want to be bothered by something so trivial.  I knew there was something in my shoe but didn’t know what it was.  Finally, when the pressure was too annoying, I took off my right shoe, held it up over my left hand, and shook my sneaker.  To my surprise, a nickel fell out of my shoe and came to rest  in the center of my palm.

I stared at the coin in surprise.  I don’t know how the nickel suddenly got into my shoe that Sunday afternoon.  What an amazing Easter gift.  I whispered a quiet thank you to my mom and my many angels for always looking out for me.  Even though I had to work on this holiday, it was, without a doubt, the best, most blessed Easter I had  ever had.

Thunderstorms and Fridays

Today, I was wide awake and feeling happy and peaceful as I drove to work.  It didn’t matter that it was 3:00 am.  I could feel my heart beating rhythmically and energy was buzzing through my body making me feel very alive and aware.  Though I always enjoy driving in the early morning darkness, I’m normally not this awake and alert. But today…today was very different.

I drove down Highway 435 with a smile on my face as I sang along to the songs that were streaming out of my stereo.  About twenty minutes later, I turned into the lot and parked the car.  I didn’t get out of my car immediately.  I sat in silence for a few minutes as I contemplated the day ahead of me.  Suddenly, I heard a beating and pounding cadence against my car.  Rain!  I sighed excitedly.  I love rain, especially when it is accompanied by thunder and lightning.  Now, I was happy to just sit still and listen to the rain beating against the roof and windshield of the car as a thunderstorm began to brew all around me.  I have never been afraid of thunderstorms.  I love hearing the thunder clattering around me.  The sizzle of lightning crackling across the sky always electrifies me.  Thunderstorms always make me feel that there is something more, that there is something bigger than what we are in this world.  I like to be reminded that there is a powerful universe all around us that supercharges our very beings and creates our destinies.  Thunderstorms also remind us that we are stronger and more powerful than we have ever imagined.  It’s empowering to know that we can weather the storms.

This morning, while I sat in quiet contemplation listening to the rain, I remember something that my mother had told me when I was about five-years-old.  When I was a child, my mother told me that whenever a storm occurred on Good Friday, it was God crying out and raging over the death of his son, Jesus Christ, who had been crucified on that day.  And it seems, ever since my mother told me this, there has been a storm on every Good Friday I have spent in my hometown of Kansas City, Kansas.  I used to love lying on the floor of our family home, staring out the large picture window in the front room as a powerful storm brewed outside on Good Friday.   I love feeling, with every slap of thunder and crack of lightning, that God is all around me.  I love to think that I can witness the complex emotions of an almighty God in every thunderstorm on a Good Friday.    I am fascinated that God can be so hurt and so angry over a moment that held such great meaning for him.  If God could rage over the memory of his son’s death, I surmise, then how incredibly great his passion must be.  I love knowing a God that is emotional and impassioned.  I love knowing a God that can care so deeply about his people that he can display all levels of emotion.

So ever since my childhood, I anxiously look forward to thunderstorms on Good Friday.  And so, today, Good Friday, April 14, 2017, I was sitting in my car in the middle of a thunderous downpour.  As the storm raged all around me, I said several words of gratitude to God and Jesus Christ for their many sacrifices to save their people.

Finally, my prayer completed, I opened my car door.  It was going to be a long run to the building because I had to park at the back of the lot.  I took a deep breath and got out of the car.  I took my first  few steps forward and suddenly  I felt overwhelmed.  The rain bouncing onto the earth released an amazing aroma that made my heart swell.  For me, the smell of rain on earth is completely intoxicating.

I didn’t want to run now.  I wanted to walk slowly in the rain and breathe in the earth.  I wanted to glory in the feel of the rain against my skin and enjoy the wonders of the universe and the dramatic emotions of a passionate God.

Finally, I walked into building and was relieved to realize that I could still hear the rain against the roof as I went about my work.  I worked hard throughout the day, but I did stop every few minutes to listen to the rain and pray as I tried to stay in a state of grace during a workday that can be usually be frustrating.  To keep myself in a sacred space, every now and then, I would wonder over to the back doors and stare outside to watch the rain fall over the ground.  On this holy day, the day of Christ’s crucifixion, the thunder, lightning, and rain kept me in a pure state of being.  Eventually, I got caught up in my work and had to stop wandering off.  But I still remained at peace

Finally, my workday ended.  I walked outside…and immediately smiled.  The afternoon was flooded with bright glorious sunshine.  Brilliant golden rays sparked out between the clouds and warmed my skin.  The rays shined down on me as if I had been kissed by angels.  And I knew that God loved the world so immensely he had given his only son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins.  And now, the glorious sunshine let me know that he had forgiven his people.  God above all knows unconditional love.  No matter what we do he will never forsake us.  The occasion reminded me of God’s great passion and love for his people.  God rages and then forgives…and always, above all, he forever loves.  This is what the entire season of Easter is all about.   Sacrifice, rain, fear, storms, guilt, lightning, sunshine, love, warmth, peace…forgiveness.  God’s emotions are on display.  He is one of us—dramatic and emotional and passionate.  But so far above us with his kindness, forgiveness, and compassion.  And above all, God’s storms continually demonstrate his immense love for his people even though we are far from perfect.  We are forever in his grace.

This is why I love thunderstorms…especially on Good Friday.