IMG_0931In the last week I have baked three batches of cupcakes. And while each has been topped with generous amounts of my homemade buttercream frosting and spangled with festive sprinkles, their destinations couldn’t have been more dissimilar. Or poignant.

The first two batches were for my great nieces’ birthday party.

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Lexi was turning 5 and her big sister Lilly, 7. Since Lilly doesn’t like chocolate (I know, weird), I made two dozen lemon cupcakes with lemon frosting and purple sugar sprinkles. I also made two dozen “ice cream cone” cupcakes, baking vanilla cake in the cones and topping with lots of frosting tinted strawberry pink. Oh, and chocolate sprinkles!

The party was fun. And rowdy. Dozens of kids ran through the house, laughing and playing. Adults formed small groups and talked for hours. We ate chicken and creamy mashed potatoes and fresh fruit salad. “Happy Birthday” was sung (twice) and candles blown (and blown) out. The present-opening session filled the living room floor with crumpled wrapping and discarded ribbon.

I left with a heart overflowing with love for my family…and a smile on my face.

The third batch of cupcakes was for a funeral dinner at my church.

I didn’t know Lois well. She was aging and ailing for as long as I’ve attended this church. But I am friends with her daughter and son-in-law. And I am especially good friends with her grandson, Nicky. (I won him over the year he was 4 and I created a “transporter room” for VBS, with different Bible characters beaming in nightly.)

I visited Lois in the hospital last year when she had pneumonia, taking her a copy of the Sunday sermon and bringing her communion. (We mostly talked about Nicky.) I also went to see her when she was moved to hospice a couple of weeks ago. She was sleeping when I arrived, but I sat beside her and read her a few Psalms and the 14th chapter of John.

Although I usually enjoy baking, I felt strange as I made my dessert for the funeral dinner. Are cupcakes even appropriate? Should they have black icing? I baked fudge chocolate cake and topped with swirls of pink buttercream. They looked happy. Too happy? On a strange impulse, I reached in the cupboard and brought out the confetti sprinkles. I shook a few onto the cupcakes. And then a few more. Now they looked downright festive.photo[1]

At church, I placed my cupcake creations among the more subdued apple cobblers and plates of cookies.

In the sanctuary, slides of Lois’s life glided past on the huge overhead screen up front. Lois playing the piano, one arm around a huge dog who was sharing the bench with her. Lois with a silly-looking stuffed beaver on her head. Lois smiling in front of a Christmas tree practically buried in presents. Lois holding the hand of her husband as they cut the cake at their 45th wedding anniversary party (the same husband who now sat straight-backed in the front row, staring at the casket). Lois happily holding Nicky at his pre-school graduation. Lois as a high-school graduate, wearing a dress imprinted with purple lilacs, a twinkle in her lovely dark eyes.

The eulogy was filled with stories showing how much Lois loved life, her family, her church. Again and again, people laughed out loud at the mischief Lois had caused, at the joy she had embraced.

Suddenly I was glad I had made cupcakes. And sprinkled them with confetti. I somehow think Lois would approve.

The Apostle Paul tells us, “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Romans 14:8). And it’s true. Birthday parties and funerals and everything in-between. All part of the circle of life, all held together by God.

And all connected, at least in my sphere of influence, by cupcakes.

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photo[11]I live a scant four miles from Lake Michigan, but I don’t frequent its shores nearly often enough. But when I do, I always learn something.

This morning was one of those times.

The day was cool and gray, the sky the color of dust bunnies. The water was calm, lapping at the shore with a whoosing rhythm. Best of all, I was the only one on the beach. (That’s what happens when you arrive at 7 a.m.)

I swished through the loose sand and down to the water’s edge, where the path was packed tighter by the constant kiss of the waves. I stepped around lost and left-behind items: a plastic SpongeBob SquarePants sand bucket, a pair of gray canvas shoes, an empty Crayola pack. The gulls clustered in abundance, eyeing me with interest and slight annoyance, scattering when I came too close.

I tried to pray. Try is the operative word here, since my mind was constantly rushing off into the territory of “must do” lists and wandering through my cluttered calendar of commitments. Lately, the world had seemed a bit overwhelming—problems at church, friends who were ill, aging concerns that seemed to always visit around 2 a.m. And the international news was hard to understand, must less articulate in prayer. Nothing I did felt important, life-changing. What were even my best efforts against the troubles of the world?

And then I spotted it. A glimmer of blue, tiny and bright, half-buried in wet sand. I bent to retrieve it. Beach glass. It was half the size of my pinkie fingernail, yet I had noticed it. Deep, deep blue, the royal of king’s robes and priceless sapphires. Where had it come from? What did it used to be?

I kept walking, holding the tiny shard in my hand. Praying came easier. Little things do matter. Small acts are noticed. God is in control of an out-of-control world.

I brought my bit of blue home and added it to some of the other beach glass I’ve found. It is by far the smallest piece. And by far my favorite.photo[14]

 

beach cropI spent last week with my friend Lurlene, her three teen-aged granddaughters…and Jesus.

Lurlene drove up from Chattanooga, bringing Kylie, Olivia and Abbie with her. The girls live in Alabama, and part of the sightseeing and shopping fun I’d scheduled was two days in the big city of Chicago.

I was a little surprised when Kylie said, “I want to be sure and bring Flat Jesus with me.”

Flat Jesus?

I’d heard Jesus called lots of things, but never flat!

I soon realized that Flat Jesus was a holier incarnation of Flat Stanley, a fictional character who is flattened by a bulletin board and has lots of adventures in his new “flattened” state.

Flat Jesus didn’t make an appearance during our shoe shopping experience (nothing looks as cute in a red sparkly pump as a 15-year-old foot!) or when the girls played dress-up in my closet (who could resist stacks of hat boxes and baskets of dreamy scarves?) or when we stopped by the Indiana Dunes to leave a few footprints in the sand. He didn’t show up when I took the girls horseback riding at my friend Barb’s. But once we were Chicago-bound, Jesus suddenly appeared.

Kylie & Jesus cropHe was, well…flat. And dressed in a rather sporty-looking yellow robe with green trim, topped off with a purple sash. He was, of course, bearded. And for some reason he was holding a smiling gecko-type creature over his head. (A flat pet?)

Everywhere we went, someone would call out, “Let’s show Flat Jesus!” Over and over, Kylie pulled him from her purse to let him (Him?) experience some new wonder.

Photo opps, of course, followed. Flat Jesus on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower. (He wasn’t the least bit afraid of the height, even when we walked out on the glass ledge. I can’t say as much for the girls.) Flat Jesus riding the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier. (I got this funny feeling he would get a kick out of rocking our car of screaming females.) Flat Jesus salivating over Chicago-style pizza. (At least he didn’t multiply it to feed the entire restaurant…bad for business.)

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It was all great fun.

But I couldn’t help thinking that having Flat Jesus along made me more aware of the real Jesus. Of the fact that He is present in all the silly and sacred moments of my days. He’s there when I make the kind gesture…or the sarcastic comment. When I say my morning prayers…or rush past them to begin my workday. He knows my thoughts and dreams, my frailties and failures.

And, amazingly, He loves me through it all.

Lurlene and the girls left Saturday morning (after a rather frantic search for a pair of missing glasses and two attempts to close the trunk on all their loot). The house sank into a quiet that, while refreshing, was a bit morose. My flip-flops echoed as I walked through the empty house.

Empty? Not quiet.

Jesus was there with me, as He always is. And there is nothing flat about my powerful, constant Friend!

photo[9]It’s that time of year again. The time when birds sing and grass sprouts, when one is driven to gratitude and song…and stealing. At least I am.

It’s not a big theft. Just a snatch and grab. And I never take more than an armload.

Lilacs.

For years I depended on my mother-in-law’s bushes. They were ancient and gigantic and always loaded with fragrant purple blossoms. “Don’t forget my lilacs,” I’d say to my husband Gary. And he never did. Spring after spring he brought me bouquets so big I had to divide them between several vases.

At last those bushes grew too overgrown, too old. And one day Gary and his dad pulled them out and planted a row of pines. (Sturdy but unexciting plants.)

After that, I always had my eye out for an “abandoned” lilac—an empty house or a forgotten bush beside the highway. Usually I was able to grab at least a cursory bouquet.

But it wasn’t the same as having Gary deliver them to me, as having my house filled with the perfume of love that came with those flowers. It wasn’t the same as knowing that Gary had climbed out of his truck, reached into the bush and pulled the flowers into his denim shirt for me.

Then, a few weeks ago, Gary commented casually, “I’ve been looking for some lilacs.” I smiled, thinking about him lumbering down county roads in his dump truck while casting furtive glances toward fencerows and fields, searching for a flash of purple.

On our way home from dinner the other night, we took a shortcut down a bumpy back road. Gary had torn down an old house there a few years ago, and I found myself looking into the overgrown yard where it used to me.

“Lilacs!” I screamed.

Gary, being used to me after all these years, executed a smooth transition to the berm of the road. Then we climbed out and over the gate blocking the driveway. (I seem to remember something about a “no trespassing” sign…) The blossoms where high up, and Gary had to wade into brambles and undergrowth to bend the huge limbs down to where he could tear off a bouquet.

When he made his way toward me, I could barely see his blue eyes (the ones I’ve always loved) above the mass of flowers.

I insisted on a picture; Gary insisted that we get going as soon as possible.

The Apostle Paul tells us that “love is patient, love is kind.” Love is also thoughtful and generous, expressed in an endless number of ways.

Some of them involve lilac bouquets.

 

 

DSC06431The poor thing had seen better days. That was obvious before I even pulled into the driveway. Still there was something majestic about it, standing skeletal and stately against a blue spring sky.

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The whole family was due soon to watch the demise. My husband had already brought over the excavator and cables. Before moonrise, this old barn would be gone.

I walked around it, snapping picture after picture. It seemed important that I document that it had been here, that at some point it had stood proud and tall—the center of a bustling farm. I could almost hear cows lowing to be milked, smell fresh hay tossed into the loft, catch the snort of a workhorse weary from a day in the fields.

“Nina! Nina!” I looked up to see my grandchildren running toward me, all legs and smiles and energy. Their mothers weren’t far behind, cameras and video recorders in hand.

It was a momentous event.

The old barn stood on property owned jointly by my son and daughter. Now Brett was getting ready to build a new home for his (growing!) family on a gentle rise a thousand feet off the road…and the unsightly and unsafe barn had to go.

Kids were corralled as Brett climbed into the excavator. “Sure the cables are secure?” he asked his dad.

Gary nodded, motioning for him to begin pulling. The cable drew taut. The barn moaned, then swayed. Moments passed. All had gone silent,  kids and adults equally awed at the site of the structure trembling with the effort to hold itself erect.

But an excavator is a powerful force. And soon the barn fell, collapsing on its side like an exhausted elephant.

Oddly, no one cheered.

The kids began a game of football on the grass nearby while their mothers talked among themselves about soccer schedules and summer plans. Brett began working the debris into what had been the basement of the barn, crawling the big orange machine over the wreckage and compressing it again and again.

I walked around back, needing to be alone to absorb the loss of the barn. Lately, I’d been feeling a bit old and battered myself. The world seemed to be moving faster than I liked. And I was pretty sure a few moans had escaped my lips recently.

Then, suddenly, there they were. Daffodils! Dozens and dozens of them, zigzagging across the field, blowing in the wind like dancing fairies. I laughed aloud.DSC06423

I glanced toward the hill that would someday be home to my family. I imagined the laughter of my grandchildren, the calls of their mother urging them to “come in and wash up for dinner.”

To everything there is a season. A time to build and a time to tear down. A time to mourn and a time to dance.

A time to celebrate all the seasons of your life.

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photo 2What do you get when you cross 14 kids with 275 plastic eggs filled with stickers and chocolate and quarters? Mayhem, bedlam…and more fun than you can shake a package of Peeps at.

That was the scene at my house yesterday. After church and lunch, all the kids and grandchildren, all the nieces and nephews and great-nieces and nephews showed up for a dessert buffet and egg hunt. (The weather was perfect—the warmest Easter we’ve had in four years!)

My sister and I had baked all day Saturday: a chocolate double-layer “sunflower” cake, buttery yellow cupcakes piled high with homemade icing, chocolate chip bars (my personal fave!), cheesecake topped with home-canned cherry filling, six dozen decorated sugar cookies (that’s 72 works of art!), bowls of fresh strawberries and melon and…the treat that stole the show: Peep-kabobs!

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The kids raced and giggled their way across the yard, pulling bright eggs from tree branches and car bumpers and bushes. Everyone was happy; no whining or complaining. When grandson Mace, age 5, found the “Grand Prize Egg” with the $20 inside, his two older brothers seemed genuinely happy for him.

After the frenzy subsided, the adults launched into a volleyball tournament while the kids ate chocolate and jumped on the trampoline. A few of us volunteered to stay inside and take on the “job” of holding the two babies, grandson Cole and great-niece Eve.

The party broke up just as the sun was setting, a great ball of orange that seemed a kiss on the wonder of the day. Cries of, “Where’s my bag of candy?” and “Get your shoes on” and “Thanks, Nina!” filled the air.

And then it was quiet. I watched the last car pull out of the driveway, tiny hands waving out the window. My family.

This morning, I saw my niece Scarlet had posted a picture of the kids all lined up by the garage, bags in hand, waiting for the egg hunt to start. She had captioned it: “We have enough kids to have our own egg hunt—14!”

As a child, I always wanted to be a missionary. To trek through the jungle waving my King James Bible overhead, looking for natives to convert. Although my heart was willing, I never got that call from God. I have spent my entire life in the Midwest. But, looking at that picture of my family, I smiled. Mission field? I’ve got one right here, literally in my backyard.

Chances are you do, too.

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photoMy grandson, Cole, is one stubborn little boy. I don’t know this because he refuses to share his toys or deliberately disobeys his parents.

He is, after all, only one day old.

But for months and months, Cole resolutely stayed upside down in the womb, refusing to turn even when it was time to begin his exit strategy. This position was difficult for his mother to handle. Stacy’s heartburn was extreme. Her hips and lower back ached and pained her terribly. As the weeks wore on, you could almost see in the way she carried the baby that something was very wrong.

“I need the baby to turn,” Stacy said to me.

“We’ll pray about it,” I said. And we did. I emailed my friends to seek God’s help in this. I put Stacy on the prayer chain at my church.

Days went by. Weeks went by. The baby didn’t budge.

“I don’t want a C-section,” Stacy told me after one of her doctor’s visits. I could hear the tears she was holding back. Stacy had already given birth to three healthy, lively children—Isabelle (6), Knox (4) and Will (2)—and she would need to take care of them when she came home with the new baby. “I need the baby to turn.”

Little Will did all he could to help. He would place his face close to Stacy’s belly and talk to the unborn child. “Baby, this is Will. Flip! Come out and I will hold you.”

Stacy is a firm believer in prayer. But she knows that answered prayer often depends on our doing all we can to achieve the hoped-for outcome. So she read and listened to strategies others said had worked in the past with breech babies. She went to the health club and did handstands in the deep end of the pool. (I am truly sorry I do not have video of this for you.) She submitted to acupuncture. “The baby wiggled around like crazy but didn’t turn,” she reported. She went to the hospital, along with her husband, Brett, and two doctors worked all morning trying to turn the baby by manipulating (pushing!) on her belly. Needless to say, this was painful. And, unfortunately, disappointing. The week before she was scheduled for her C-section, she went to a special pregnancy chiropractor every day.

But mostly Stacy prayed. Day after day. All day long as she went about her work and while taking care of her family, she would place her hands on her belly and pray that God would flip this child.

The night before she was to go into the hospital, Stacy and I talked on the phone, finalizing the plans for my taking care of the other three children. “Do you have your head around the fact that you will be having a C-section in the morning?” I asked. I thought it important that she accept what was going to happen to her.

“No,” Stacy said with a nervous little laugh. “I don’t.”

Stacy has a stubborn faith. I had talked to her about how God’s will isn’t always what we pray for, that no matter what comes our way God will work it for our good. She agreed…but in her heart continued to believe her baby would turn and be born naturally.

The day of the procedure arrived. I prayed that the doctor would have a steady hand, that the incision would be small, that the baby could be snatched whole and healthy from the womb. I waited hours for my son to call me. Finally the phone rang.

I grabbed it and blurted out, “How is everything? Did the surgery go well?”

Brett chuckled. “Well…the baby turned. Now we’re waiting for Stacy’s labor to begin.”

I couldn’t believe it.

But I’m sure Stacy could.

Hebrews tells us that, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” It’s a good thing to trust God’s will, to acknowledge that what comes our way has been filtered through the hands of a loving Father. But I think perhaps we “mature” Christians give up too easily. That we need to hold fast to that which we pray for, to that which we long for. Maybe we need to be a bit more stubborn.

Like Stacy.

And like baby Cole.

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Izzy & Nina“Look at this one, Nina,” Isabelle said, pulling a large book from the tightly packed shelves. “The Man in the Moon,” she pronounced proudly. I smiled. At six-years-old, Isabelle has just learned to read, and the wonder of it is not lost on her. Or me.

When I picked her up after school today, she jumped into the van waving her library card. “Look what I brought!” So of course we headed to the library. On the way there, Isabelle read to me from a Junie B book. “They’re my favorite,” she said, pulling several more in the series out of her backpack.

My small town library is one of those remarkable places that nurtures wonder. And imagination. In the children’s area, you can enter the picturebook section by ducking through a small door in the wall. Along the windows stands a re-creation of the Polar Express, where kids can climb inside and settle down for a trip to the North Pole. A big checker board, with wooden snowflakes and clouds for pieces, sits on a table near a bank of computers.

I wasn’t sure which of us was having more fun.

Finally, Isabelle had made her choices. The Man in the Moon and Inside Outside Christmas (because “it’s always ok to read about Christmas”). Also tucked under her arm was Delia’s Dull Day—which I suspicioned was not going to be dull at all. She’d even chosen one for her two younger brothers: B is for Bulldozer.

At the checkout desk, she proudly presented her library card. I stood to the side, letting Isabelle handle the transaction on her own. The librarian scanned each book, then slid a piece of paper in the top one. “These will be due on March 11,” she said pleasantly as she handed the stack across the counter.

Isabelle stood there for a moment, a serious expression darkening her blue eyes. “I don’t really keep track of days,” she said matter-of-factly.

I assured the nice lady that the books would be returned in due time, and Isabelle and I headed back to the van with her armload of treasures.

But I couldn’t get those words out of my head: I don’t really keep track of days.

How long since I could say that? As a child, only a few days each year had been truly noteworthy: Christmas, my birthday, our annual 4-H trip to Coney Island Amusement Park. These were peaks, rising from the valley of contented play and daily chores.

Now my calendar is full. If I find a day with nothing written in, I assume I must have forgotten something. Appointments with the dentist and doctor. Lunch with friends. Deadlines. Church commitments. Family obligations and plans.

I keep track of days. Boy, do I!

And you probably do, too.

But maybe what the world needs is a few blank squares on calendars. A minor revolt against progress and performance. Jesus said, “Consider the lilies of the field…” (Maybe I should pencil that in….) In our efficiency at filling our time, we forget how precious time is. We assume more is better, that even God will be impressed by our diligence and hustle.

I’m not sure He is.

God, who lives outside of time, is concerned with how we spend ours. “Be still, and know that I am God” (46:10). “In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). He wants us to take time to ponder our days, to savor our hours, to resist the urge to overschedule.

Of course, we are all (more of less) grown-ups and, unlike Isabelle, we must keep track of days. But perhaps we can relax a bit.  Perhaps we can, with the Psalmist, thank God that “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:16).

Be still. That fits nicely in a few of the spaces left on my calendar.

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“Look what I found,” my sister Libby said, holding aloft a small yellowing index card.

For the last several days, I’d been helping my sister move into a cozy little house closer to me. We’d gone through box after box of “keepsakes” and old quilts and…well, junk.

I reached for the card. “Jam Cake” was written on the red line running across the top. The lines and ink had faded, but the words were still legible. And I knew the handwriting well — I’d received hundreds of letters in that same confident cursive. “It’s Mother’s recipe,” I said, taking the velvet-soft card from Libby’s hand.

Mother was most at home in the kitchen. She loved food…and feeding people. Nothing made her happier than piling a table with homemade meatloaf and mashed potatoes and gravy and corn-on-the-cob and hot biscuits and peach cobbler. The food was simple and hearty, perfect for the farm life we led.

But her jam cake was something special.

I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. I seldom eat the cupcakes and sweet treats I make for my family. (Of course, I’d walk over crushed glass to get to warm chips and fresh salsa…) But as a child, I always looked forward to the jam cakes.

So that’s how I came to be in my kitchen, early last Saturday morning baking. The house was quiet and still. The snow outside deep and white. I pulled out the big white bowl, the one with bright tulips adorning the side. The one that I’d seen mother use a thousand times.

It will taste just like hers I thought as I assembled the ingredients for the jam cake.

5 eggs beaten – I lifted the Styrofoam lid and reached for the eggs. Mother’s would have been fresher, recently gathered from the hen house.

1 cup butter – I pulled two sticks out of the freezer and popped them into the microwave to soften. The butter Mother used didn’t come out of a cardboard wrapper; it came from milk we churned.

1 cup buttermilk – I laughed out loud to see that I’d bought low-fat buttermilk. Mother would be appalled.

And the jam. Mother’s would have come from the berries we picked during hot July days. Ruby raspberries, plump strawberries, wild blackberries scavenged from fencerows. Mine came from the grocery store. Smuckers black raspberry and blackberry jam.

Step by step I made the cake. Creaming the butter and gradually adding the sugar until “light and fluffy.” I skipped sifting the flour; I forgot to dissolve the soda in the buttermilk. I did dredge the raisins and nuts, making a floury mess on my counter.

And, lastly, I added the jam.

I wasn’t prepared for the transformation the batter would make. With each swirl of my spoon, the crimson jam spread across the bowl. And, suddenly, the batter was purple. Rich, royal purple. Mother’s favorite color.

I stared, the spoon suspended. Then, I could almost feel Mother’s hand press down on mine. “Finish it, Mary Lou. The oven’s nice and hot.”DSC06362

The older I get, the closer the past seems. Things I did, said, heard. People I loved, lost, laughed with. Hebrews 12:1 assures us that we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” — the faithful who are cheering us on.

It’s good to be encouraged. And to encourage others. Sometimes, it’s the best thing possible. Encouragement can make us more confident, happier. It can give us hope and spark new ideas and solutions to problems. It can make us kinder and taller (ok, maybe not taller).

jam cake cropYes, encouragement is good. Whether you’re running the race to heaven…or baking your mother’s jam cake.

BTW: It was delicious! jam cake cut

Here’s the recipe if you want to bake one yourself. I divided the batter into 3 layers.

MOTHER’S JAM CAKE

5 eggs beaten

2 c. sugar

3 c. flour

1 c. butter or shortening

1 c. buttermilk

1 t. soda; ¼ t. salt; ½ t. cinnamon; 1 ½ t. cloves; 1 ½ t. allspice

1 c. raisins

1 c. chopped nuts

1 c. jam

Cream butter and gradually add sugar. Cream together until light and fluffy. Add well-beaten eggs. Sift flour before measuring and add spices and salt to it. Dissolve soda in buttermilk and add to flour mixture. Add mixture gradually to the egg sugar batter. Beat after each addition. Lightly dredge nuts and raisins with extra flour. Next add jam. Mix to get good distribution. Bake 2 layers @ 325 degrees until toothpick comes out clean. When cool, frost with crème cheese icing.

Debbie & ML cropIt began with a text, short and to the point. “Green or black. You choose.”

Green or black what?

Then I noticed that the question had come from my friend Debbie, and I knew some fun was afoot. “BLACK” I punched in. How could black not be the right answer? I love black. Half my closet is filled with black clothes and footwear. (Ok, 2/3 of my closet….)

Her reply text said: “A little surprise from New York. You are going to love it!”

If there’s one thing I love even more than Debbie, it’s New York. Now I could hardly wait to see what she was sending me! I watched the mail everyday, tossing aside ads and bills and newspapers, looking for a box with my name.

Finally it came…badly dented on the bottom and one side. Oh no! I picked it up (it was amazingly light) and shook it. No rattling—a good sign. Carefully I slit open the top and pulled aside the tissue paper. A hat! Debbie had sent me a hat! I pulled it out to see a lovely black felted wool hat with yellow flowers. HUGE yellow flowers clustered in happy proximity to each other on the front. One, two, three, FOUR of them. I laughed aloud. It was somewhere between chic and Dr. Seuss…and so very me!

I was quick to text my thanks, using lots of capital letters and exclamation marks. “There must be a story,” I said. When one writer sends another writer a present, there is always a story.

“I bought it from a street vendor in New York City,” Debbie said.

Now I loved it even more. I could imagine Debbie hustling down the street, hurrying to her next meeting or lunch with her publicist. Taxis honking, pedestrians bumping shoulders. And, suddenly, there it was, at a corner display of wares offered for sale. A “Mary Lou” hat. Black with sunny flowers. A happy spot of color amid the wash of concrete and sidewalks and dirty snow. I can see Debbie pausing, inquiring the price, digging (with gloved fingers) in her purse for the cash and then continuing on with the newly-acquired bag

Surprises. Who doesn’t love them? Especially when they come from the hand of an old friend who knows you well. Admittedly, though, some surprises are less than welcome. A flat tire. Those three pounds you gained over the weekend. A sore throat. But life, by its very nature, is filled with surprises. We open newspapers and websites and birthday presents, unsure what we’ll find inside. We don’t know what waits around the corner—both literally and metaphorically.

When I was a teen-ager, my friend Melva and I used to sing duets in church. She’d take the melody line, and I’d improvise an alto part. The chorus to one of those songs proclaimed: “Many things about tomorrow, I don’t seem to understand. But I know who holds tomorrow, and I know who holds my hand.”

That’s the basis of Christian hope. Not that we are given infinite sight, not that we can see all the bumps in the road or around the curves. We’re given, instead, a Traveling Companion. One who sends us surprises…and sunrises…and strength when what we get is not what we want. One who rejoices with us and mourns with us. One who will never surprise us by leaving us to our own devices—or our just deserts.

Yes, I have a new hat. It arrived when the temperature was -15 and the snow was knee-deep. I was in desperate need of something to warm my insides, to make my heart happy, to encourage me to smile. The timing couldn’t have been better.

But knowing God—and Debbie—that doesn’t surprise me.

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