Are you ready?

 

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Here we are: December 16th. Nine days away from Christmas!

“Are you ready?”

I’ve been hearing this question asked at the bank, at my work potluck, in line at the stores…It CRACKS me up!

Christmas comes the same time and date each year. Not like Easter, that one can mess you up. Christmas has been December 25th for about 2000 years. So, it’s not like we weren’t told about it in advance. How come people aren’t ready?

ANTICIPATION

One of the most tantalizing feelings this time of year is the anticipation leading up to this special day. I remember it well as a child.–The inability to get to sleep on December 24th. My heart beating so rapidly as the agonizing wait for 6 am (this was the absolute earliest my parents would allow for us to awake them!) and we had to bring them with us when we went downstairs to find out if all that “being good” in the weeks prior had put us on Santa’s NICE list —

SURPRISE-What did Santa bring you?

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Unfortunately, one of the biggest surprises this time of year is the VOID.

Some face the VOID of celebrating their first (or second, or third…) Christmas without their loved one.

For others there’s the VOID felt in the bank account, leaving nothing for gifts.

Amidst all the beautiful lights, wreath adorned doors, the hustle and bustle and gatherings, there are those for whom this is NOT the most wonderful time of the year. 

I’ll never forget the surprise of my very first out of state Christmas working at Phoenix Police Department. I swallowed the lump in my throat after wishing “Merry Christmas” to family and friends far away as I clocked in for my overnight shift working the holiday. I fully expected the night to be filled with bookings from partying: DUI’s and noise violations from all the celebrating…

Surprise!

The most common arrests I saw that night were the domestic violence and family assaults.

Not everyone has a family they enjoy celebrating the holiday with. That Christmas felt like a “Reverse Grinch” moment happened to me as my heart cinched up and threatened to break.

My heart has these moments when I hear a parent threaten their overly rambunctious child, “Christmas is canceled this year!”

My heart breaks every Black Friday when I watch humanity crawl and punch their way to the front line for the door-busting deals.

My heart breaks when I see the VOID left in this world.

The only cure for this heart break and void is the VERY reason why I love this season and this time of the year.

No matter how dysfunctional your family may be, no matter how misbehaved your children are, no matter how empty your bank account is, you have available a reason to celebrate–the same reason the shepherds, three wise men and a young couple with nothing celebrated in a manger  2000 years ago.

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Every year, I picture Linus in the Charlie Brown Christmas Special telling Charlie the TRUE meaning of Christmas:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
Luke 2:8-14 (KJV)

He came to heal the brokenhearted.  He fills the void. He is the very reason for the season. So, the real question is:

Are you ready for Him?

 

 

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“Mister T” and the Peaches

School is back in session! Although I don’t have children, I get to reminisce and share in the excitement this year because my new husband is a teacher!

I not only love this teacher ;), but I LOVE teachers and I loved school! Looking back, even the teachers who were “mean” spent their lives making sure I learned to pay attention, to give respect, how to multi-task, and (ugh!) even how to do long division. And, (now I know) they took on this job while making “dittly squat” for an income!

Both inside and outside of the classroom, my teachers delivered lessons that still stick with me to this day.

I remain in touch with several of my junior high & high school teachers who had a profound influence on my life. This story is about one of these men; we will call him “Mister T.”

Colorado Peaches

Colorado Peaches

Colorado peaches are some of the best things on this green earth! A fresh Colorado peach is so juicy, sweet and tender, perfectly ripened by the Rocky Mountain climate and soil—they are out of this world!

My father loved peaches—only Colorado peaches, though. He loved them so much that he bought the tree and planted it in his yard so he could experience one of those beauties at his whim! Plus, as the cancer began to take over his body, his trips to the grocery store lessened.

Sadly, that tree he planted bore not a single peach.

Year after year—nada, nothing, zilch.

My father passed away March 29, 2008 and never ate a single Colorado peach from his tree.

Why?

The question that is never far away

The healing doesn’t come from being explained

Jesus please don’t let this go in vain

You’re all I have All that remains

-Mercy Me “The Hurt and the Healer”

If you’ve lost someone close to you, you know how it goes. Even though you feel your world has stopped; the world, in fact, keeps spinning. Time continues forward; people keep moving on; there is always the “TO DO” list.

As we went about the tasks of cleaning out his closets, settling accounts, paying doctor bills, we nearly missed what was happening with the tree.

Neighbors began calling.

He had one of the old voice message systems that recorded messages on a mini-tape. We heard his voice at every missed call. It was heartbreaking, like he was still here and waiting to return calls. “Just leave a message and I’ll get right back to you…”

At least four neighbors called and several family members who had been to the house; all with very similar messages –

“…Let us know if you need help. Especially with that peach tree…”

WTH?

So my sister and I went out to the yard to investigate.

What we saw stunned us into silence. With tears in our eyes, we looked up and shook our heads in disbelief.

Five years after he planted it and just two months after he passed away, that peach tree’s branches were so filled with peaches that several of the branches hung to the ground! Many had leaned over into each of the neighbors’ yards—No wonder they were calling!

 

Peaches at last!

Peaches at last!

Our silence turned to awe.

There were so many peaches that each of those neighbors and family members picked to their hearts content. We packed several baskets and took them to friends.

Abundance

Abundance

We had some ourselves and baked no fewer than 12 peach pies which we froze and enjoyed over the next two years. Those pies were absolutely heavenly! We’ve held on to one, saving it for a very special occasion…

It’s May 30, 2014 and a beautiful clear Colorado day; the day before I will to marry my “Mr. Right” in Golden, Colorado. He and I go for my favorite run to Two Ponds and then around by my Dad’s old house. As we begin our run, I always pass by one of my favorite junior high school teacher’s house. Every time we do this run I tell my fiancé— “One of these days “Mister T” will be out taking care of his yard. I can’t wait to introduce you!”

We round the corner at the exact time we see his garage door opening and guess who steps out and begins working on his fence?!?

Barely able to contain myself, I nudge my running partner, “Today’s the day.”

I continue to jog right up to my old teacher. It has been years and he has aged; I can see it in his eyes. His eyes shine with recognition and a little confusion.

“Mister T!” I say, “It is Julie…uh..Stoddard…uh.. but soon to be different.” I wink at my fiancé.

“Oh my God it is!” He says and wraps me in a big hug.

“I always remembered the Stoddard girls; that deep voice you girls have, just like your dad!”

We go through the introductions and the reason we are back in town. He is happy in sharing his congratulations and I tell him how much he meant to me as a teacher and mentor. I know he is still making a difference in young lives as he shares some of his latest endeavors. Yet, there is a sadness in him; a weariness.

“How’s your dad doing? He still up around the corner? He still doing well?” He asks.

It’s my turn to feel sad.

“He passed away just over 5 years ago.” I tell him of the death sentence he was given. I also share with him the 13 years of bonus life we had with him and the triumphs of the unconventional treatments. I hold back on sharing how tough those last months were, watching the losing battle, I don’t like to re-visit that pain.

He looks me straight in the eye, I see the sadness in him again, “I’m so sorry, Julie. He was a good man.” He looks over to my fiancé, “Not that you need to hear this right now, with your good news for tomorrow…But, my wife,” he stops and looks back at the door to his house, “Over 40 years we’ve been together…She’s in there…can’t walk; can’t take care of herself; wearing a diaper.” His shoulders sink, “I just got through prostate cancer. The next day she falls. Now she doesn’t even know who I am.”

I choke back the tears in watching my teacher struggling with this. It all just seems to flood out.

His eyes drop, then he looks up, “I used to talk to God all the time. Now I just have questions. Why? I just don’t know anymore.”

This breaks my heart. I remember those feelings; the anger, the questions, the frustration, the helplessness, the weariness, the very same struggle I see in him.

Breathe

Sometimes I feel it’s all that I can do

Pain so deep that I can hardly move

Just keep my eyes completely fixed on You

Lord take hold and pull me through

-Mercy Me “The Hurt and the Healer”

And I did just what this song said. I fixed my eyes on the Lord and laid all my questions and feelings at the foot of the cross. I handed it over to the only One who I knew could bear my questions. I trusted Him to be faithful. But the heartache is still real; cancer is still cancer; Alzheimer’s is still a thief, death still happens. I still have questions.

But I trust I will be given answers some day.

 

“Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity.” 1 Corinthians 13:12 (The Hope Bible)

OR, like one of my new favorite quotes from Sonny Kapoor who repeatedly says in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, “It all works out in the end. And, if it has not yet worked out, then it is not yet the end!”

 

I grab ahold of my teacher’s hand and tell him the truth, “I wish you didn’t have to go through this. I don’t know why. I don’t have any answers.”

I really don’t. I hate this. I wish I had something hopeful to share with him. I am at a loss. I tell him he isn’t alone. I end up sharing how hard it was at the end for us with our father; the deep pain of watching one you love wither away, mentally, physically; the utter weariness and exhaustion of one’s spirit to witness such a thing.

But, I also tell him how I wouldn’t have survived without the prayers of my friends, encouragement from family and others sharing their struggles & stories. I tell him that God hasn’t left him and can handle his questions and to never stop talking to Him. I tell him how I believe God draws very near to us when we are brokenhearted; how I truly felt that. I tell him we will pray for him.

We continue on our run and we do. As we go by my father’s house and the tears come.

We pray for the pain we witnessed in “Mister T.” We prayed for his wife. And then I remember all those peaches.

I begin to wonder. Maybe, this is like those peaches that showed up after my father passed away?

Dad wanted those peaches so bad.

“Mister T” wants answers so bad.

But we may not get those “peaches” in our timing.

It’s the moment when humanity

Is overcome by majesty

When grace is ushered in for good

And all our scars are understood

When mercy takes its rightful place

And all these questions fade away

I fall into your arms open wide

When The hurt and the healer collide

-Mercy Me “The Hurt and the Healer”

 

 

And, just like this “divine collision” Mercy Me so beautifully describes, it is at this very moment, “Mister T”, my dad and I will sit down and savor that last peach pie.

The moment

The moment

“I’ll have what she’s having!”

Souvenirs

“I’ll have…”

I’m one of those people who always orders the same thing from the menu.

I say, “Why mess with perfection?”

I like what I like and the possibility of ordering something new and not liking it deter me from venturing out from my “norm.”

Why fix it if it ain’t broke? Right?

But, I have this friend–

She is a “skilled orderer.” Her mother, Grace, raised her with a love for food, an adventurous palate and infused her with passion and skill at mixing and experimenting with all manner of flavors, tastes, textures and variety. She’s been all over the world and knows what to order in every region. Not only does she have a published book titled “Souvenirs: A Creative Collection of Art and Cuisine”  that  fabulously pairs her recipes with her amazing artwork, but every time she cooks dinner, it’s a party for the taste buds.

Whenever we go out to eat, people’s senses are peaked and their eyes follow as the waiter walks by delivering her plate to the table. I giggle as they grab their waiter and point to her plate, trying to covertly ask what it was she ordered.

And, as the aromas from across the table make my mouth water, I watch with envy as she savors her choices.

Her husband is a wise man (for many reasons!) After years of sticking to what he was used to ordering and then sampling off her plate, (and eventually eating all of her food,) he has changed his ways.

Now he just closes his menu, nods and says, “I’ll have…whatever she’s having.”

But I don’t have the same tastes as she does.

But I don’t like hot and spicy.

But I’ve never heard of that ingredient.

But I can’t even pronounce that.

But, but, but…

So, I end up ordering the same thing.

And I miss out.

Isn’t this how we often end up doing life?

Playing it safe; sticking with what we know.

Saying, “That might work for you, but I am just this way…I have always been this way…I always order this.”

And we end up missing out.

But not anymore.

My friend is always gracious and allows me to sample everything she orders. And my taste buds burst out in celebration!

It has taken me some time, and I often think of all I have missed up to this point, but as I grew in trust, I’ve been encouraged and emboldened to try new things as we dine together.

 

And God is cooking up something in life for each of us that is so much more that we could ever ask for or imagine (or order!).

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

Bigger plans than that thing you always do.

And the beautiful thing is–He doesn’t expect us to do it on our own. He brings people into our lives to help us along the way. People who will inspire and encourage, or just another soul who has walked in our same shoes for awhile and who understands.

God knows us inside and out and figured out we would need a helper to move us forward into areas that frighten us.

He brings people into our lives that challenge us, hold our hand along the way and embolden us to try new things.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating that all things are good choices for all people. Discernment and trust are key factors. (My friend always asks about my allergies and preferences before cooking up her magic!)

 

But, when we place our trust in Him, seek Him and ask Him for help, He will align himself with us, reminding us we are not alone. He will encourage us, guide us and light the way for our path.

“You hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel.” (Psalm 73:24)

“And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”(Matthew 28:20)

He invites us to spend time with Him; to savor His Words of healing, wisdom and direction. He asks us to dine with Him; to take and eat of the bread of life and sip from an everlasting cup.

“I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends.” (Revelation 3:20)

So, the next time you hunger to try something new, or you find yourself salivating with envy over someone else’s choices, just close your eyes. Listen for God’s whispers of faith and focus your eyes on Him.

Breathe deep; smile and envision the café scene in When Harry Met Sally…

Open your eyes, and say it with conviction, “I’ll have what He has for me!” 😉

 

Dedicated to my fabulous, foodie friend Heidi Rosner. –Thank you for encouraging me in so many things!

Check out Souvenirs and all of her artwork at Celebration of Fine Art in Scottsdale, AZ through March! (or at www.HeidiRosner.com)

Or, better yet, just share some food with her! 😉

LUCKY 13

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October is Breast Cancer/Cancer Awareness month.
Through FaceBook, Carrie Ann Coomes-Kemp shares her story and we’ve seen her “warrior” against breast cancer. Every day.
Saturday, October 5th we lost a friend, Colleen McEahern, to cancer.
Also on Saturday, October 5th, I gulped down tears (and a Coors light in Colleen’s honor,) as the Avett Brothers played Paul Simon’s “Slip Slidin’ Away” :

“I know a woman
Became a wife
These are the very words she uses
To describe her life
She said a good day
Ain’t got no rain
She said a bad day’s when I lie in bed
And think of things that might have been”

If you have cancer, or if someone you love has it, every second of every day is Cancer Awareness.


She nearly died TWICE “on my watch” on two different trips to Arizona.

Very frightening for a granddaughter to see in her beloved grandmother.

She enjoyed long talks with the Avon lady, days at the hair salon with Desi, gambling at the penny machines “up on the hill” and anything with family.
She loved gifts, butterflies, shoes, the color purple, scary movies, buttered popcorn, chewy brownies, grandpa, angels, Jesus and, did I mention she loved gifts? 8)
Because we loved her so much, we all competed to give her great and creative gifts.

She gave me the very best gift.

Born October 13,1927, she would say, “Thirteen is my lucky number. It’s the day God placed me in this life.”

Before every NFL team wore pink in support of it, before Susan G. Komen made #savetheboobs a communal rally-cry and before every school had a “pink week” to raise money, my grandmother got her first (of several) cancer diagnoses. Aggressive breast cancer at 41 years of age. There was no 5K run in support. Her co-workers didn’t shave their heads to encourage her. This was before people were aware.

She didn’t drive. She carpooled with a “gentleman” to her government job. After she was diagnosed and began her treatments, (that she rode the bus to!), her carpooling partner explained he had to quit taking her to work because he couldn’t risk catching what she had.
This was before reconstructive surgery was “approved.” They took her breast, lymph nodes and so much tissue (including scraping a rib or two) that they developed a bodysuit for her to make her look “normal.” You could say she was the impetus of the original Wonder Bra!–She survived this treatment (from doctors and from co-workers) and persevered through many more cancer diagnoses and treatments. Eleven major surgeries in twenty years.
I never once heard her complain. Not even when she lost every single strand of her hair (which happened with Desi at the hair salon.) My grandmother fixed her jaw and stood strong while she watched as Desi wept.

Lucky 13?

The letter is green and hand addressed to me in Arizona and bears her characteristic, barely decipherable, chicken-scratch lettering. It is written on paper embossed with butterflies:
“…The rooms were great and I won just enough so that I didn’t have to spend a lot. Eleanor took $650.00 and I had $450.00. We didn’t want to carry that much in our billfolds so we devised a scheme. We hid it all in my fake boob behind and under my fake silicone boob. Eleanor called it our boob safe. I had a nice birthday and your mom cooked a great dinner for us as usual…”

She gained strength through every trial. She was an over-comer and had such humor about life.

I am 22 and we are in a red velvet lounger at a buffet in Las Vegas enjoying some special grandma/granddaughter time. I asked her how she could be so strong.
She said, “Your grandpa and I have seen so many of our friends and family die, we know each day here is a gift.”

Just after we nearly lost her in Arizona, they released her into my care so she could gain strength to return to Denver. She slept in my bed while I slept on the air mattress and brought her soups and cheese and crackers. We played cards and talked about life.
I had to know, “Did you see the light?”
She smiled. She said she knew where she was going. She was at peace. She soon would be with the Lord, but she remained because my mom and uncle weren’t ready.
She passed away shortly after her return to Denver.
She shared her attitude with all who would listen for 74 years before she “slip slided away.”
It was my grandmother’s “gift of gab” that endeared her to so many (and it was what drove us a little crazy.) One time I counted; she told me the same story FIVE times!
I would give all I own to have her back now and to hear one of her stories. But I know, deep in my bones, because of her faith, that where she is–sickness, sorrow and pain no longer pursue her. She is in the Lord’s presence.

What a gift.

An article from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association addresses this very thing, “Heaven is the place of perfect happiness — and one of its greatest joys will be our reunion with those who have gone there before us. God loves us, and He won’t withhold that joy from us!” (from BillyGraham.org)

“Slip slidin’ away
Slip slidin’ away
You know the nearer your destination
The more you’re slip slidin’ away”

The next time someone you love is driving you a “little batty”—remember it’s these little things that make them so endearing; so treasured and so unique when they are gone.

Because of the free gift of grace offered in Jesus Christ, I know that one day I will be able to laugh with my grandma and hear her stories for all eternity.

Pretty darn lucky.

In loving memory of Nancy Sterkel 10/13/27-4/30/01

And in honor of all the Valiant Warriors who have and who are battling cancer.

FIERCE LOVE

fierce love

FIERCE LOVE
“I will cease to live if I cannot be with you.”

Sounds Shakespearian, or maybe a line from “50 Shades of Grey,” or a RiHanna song?

It’s all about context.

Now-a-days this could be a codependent red-flag if spoken by a boyfriend, lover, stalker, etc.
Change the context; it changes everything.

–Scene change–
Picture these words being spoken by a parent or grandparent who, through no fault of their own, is faced with the thought of being denied access, sight and time with their beloved young child or children.
Though I am not a parent, I have been witness to this type of love; a fierce, almost angry, wild love.

Altruism: the sacrificial love of one for another.

It is a willingness to set aside your very life for the life of someone you love so intensely that life wouldn’t be worth living if they aren’t a part of it.

Soldiers do it for the love of their country.

A parent will step in and sacrifice for their innocent children.

This love is found between siblings, partners, families and spouses who willingly lay down their life to save their beloved.

But what if you were asked to sacrifice your life for something you didn’t care that much about?

Envision being asked to die for your abuser.

Or, for a follower of a different faith that harmed your country;

Or, the ex-boyfriend who dumped you for the larger breasted, more popular girl in school.

What about for the friend who betrayed your trust?

Or, being willing to give your full life for the child who turned away from all your teachings, stole from you and chose a drug ridden path on the streets…

**gulp**

This type of love happened.
This love happens.
This love is available to us because of Jesus.
It is the love He demonstrated on the Cross.

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-7)

God, our father in heaven, loves us with such intensity that he sent us the ultimate sacrifice so that we would not cease to live. What He accomplished on the cross makes a tough life worth living, makes death not final and turned everything on its head. It’s the upside down that made things right; the death of an innocent for the lives of the unworthy.
It is the most quoted and therefore the most recognizable verse: John (3:16) “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

He seeks us out when we are lost. He calms the storms of the seas of our life. He provides daily for our strength and gives us a hope worth clinging to when all else seems void.

Just know that no matter how unworthy this life can make you feel; that no matter what shames haunt your heart and, despite the burdens that weigh down your willingness to carry them one second longer, you have One that knows you, One that empowers you, One that believes in you, One that died for you because of His fierce, fierce love for you.

Behind the cover of “grace”

The RiverOne of my favorite stories about my first fiction novel “grace” is about the cover. I had completed the manuscript and was struggling through the cover images for it.  A few years prior, I moved to the Scottsdale condo community where I currently reside. All my neighbors and community pointed out that I was closest neighbor to Heidi Rosner, the artist.  I knew nothing about her except that she was very well liked in the community and was an artist.

For the record, I don’t believe in coincidences and I am a somewhat private person. Yet, God kept nagging at me to talk with her about the cover.  Up to this point, we had only brief conversations and interaction as she spends much of her time at her other home in California and I was working three jobs at the time. Nonetheless, opportunities kept presenting this one particular day when I should have asked her, but I chickened out.

I was returning from getting my mail and Heidi approached me!  We began a light conversation: “What have you been up to?” “Not too much.  You?”  blah-de-blah–I mentioned to her I was self-publishing a book in the near future and sure enough, the chance came up for me to ask her what medium of art she worked with. When she told me she was a painter mostly focusing on landscapes and florals, I was urged to question her if she would be interested about doing a book cover.

“Well, tell me about your book.” Heidi asked.

I stammered on about the southern Oregon setting, the four friends that it centers around and their struggles with life, death, forgiveness, faith, etc.

“So what’s it called?” She asks.

“Grace,” and when I answered with this, I was not expecting her response.  Her lips quivered, jaw clenched and tears filled her eyes. “Are you okay?” I was stupified. What had I said???

“Julie, I have been feeling my mom’s presence with me today.  Really.  All day just feeling her talking with me.  She passed away just a few weeks ago. I recently returned from her funeral. Her name was Grace.” (this is a paraphrase but pretty darn accurate!)

Now it was my turn to have the lips quiver, eyes fill with tears, etc.

And that was how “the Heidi Rosner” agreed to do the cover of “grace” with her amazing painting of THE RIVER.

PLEASE COME AND JOIN IN THE “CELEBRATION OF GRACE” AT A FREE COMMUNITY EVENT!
JUNE 1ST AT ASU’S SKYSONG CONVERGENCE ROOM (SE corner of McDowell Rd and Scottsdale Rd)
Enjoy a free continental breakfast and hear a reading from “grace”
A book signing and Raffle will follow.
Event is FROM 10 AM TO NOON
(for more info check details at AZCentral.com, Phoenix New Times.com and on the events page at K-LOVE.com)
“grace” will be available at the event ($15.20 for SC, $33.75 HC and $5.00 for the e-book) and also at Amazon.com and other online retailers.