Thursday, October 6, 2016

McKinley Explorer {Lone Star to Last Frontier, 2015}

For the backstory, please see the post, "Courage, Dear Heart!" This post includes many photos, so e-mail readers may prefer to view the Web version of McKinley Explorer.

From McKinley Princess Lodge in Talkeetna, we took a double-decker train, the McKinley Explorer, north to Denali National Park. (The President had visited Alaska less than a month before we did, and at that time he officially announced that the name of the mountain would revert from Mount McKinley to the original Native American name, "Denali," or "Great One.")

We rode upstairs in these cars and ate lunch on the lower level.

The conical structure is a beaver lodge.

This is Hurricane Gulch, the most dramatic view we had, since it was too cloudy to see Denali from the train.

Hurricane Gulch again

Eagle's nest

Beaver dam in progress

Completed beaver dam

The highest point of our rail journey, approximately half a mile above sea level

Not in Texas anymore!

Home away from home for two nights

In one of those unexpectedly lovely travel serendipities, we went to the pizza place on the lodge property for supper after checking in and unpacking. It was Sunday evening, and the Dallas Cowboys were playing their season opener against New York back home. We asked a waiter if he minded changing one of the televisions to that channel so we could see the last quarter of the game. (Ironically, if we had actually been in Dallas, the last quarter of a Sunday night game would have been past our bedtime, so we'd have had to record it and watch it the next day.) Romo led the team in one of his signature eleventh-hour comebacks, and the Cowboys won in the final play of the game. It later proved to be the most exhilarating game of the whole season.

We were surprised to hear one other family in the restaurant cheering and celebrating, too. It turned out they were from San Antonio, and the common sports allegiance led to a pleasant conversation about places back home.

It wasn't a dramatic photo op or an amazing glimpse of wildlife, but it was a sweet little gem of a moment all the same. Coming as it did in the final days of our journey, we welcomed the connection with home and an opportunity to share an experience with our family members there watching the same game at the same time.

Thursday, September 29, 2016


I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1 ESV)

Yielding is the definite, deliberate, voluntary transference of undivided possession, control, and use of the whole being--spirit, soul, and body--from self to Christ, to whom it rightfully belongs by creation and by purchase (Ruth Paxson, Life on the Highest Plane).

After 29 years of walking with the Lord, I have not yet outgrown the need of that reminder. Every loss of a treasure is an invitation to yield all of myself, all that I treasure, all over again. The letting go is not only taking my hands off, but transferring the beloved into His hands, those hands forever marked with the price of His love for me. In those hands, there is peace.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Monarchs, Milkweed, and Migration

Change is in the air here at Wits' End.

On this first day of autumn, days have grown and are growing shorter. Temperatures have not cooled much, but we have probably seen our last hundred degree day, and the early morning low is in the 70s rather than 80s.

Change is in the air in other ways as well. Bible study friends move away from because of job tranfers, ministry redirections, and family obligations. Family dynamics, duties, and joys as we move through life's seasons together. Nephews forbid us to hug them in public. {Smile.} Jobs and addresses change and change again. My church has a new senior pastor. Other pastoral staff positions are also changing for a variety of reasons. Health concerns wax, wane, multiply. Each day brings new challenges, opportunities, and faithful mercies from God.

One of the happiest changes is the coming of the monarchs.

Along with the hummingbirds, they visit our garden for a few weeks each spring and fall during their annual migration between Mexico and Canada. In May Amore replaced some terminally ill rosebushes with native milkweed, which monarchs must have to reproduce, to make our garden more attractive to them.

Although you wouldn't know it from gazing out our windows, the monarch population in North America is in danger. The open prairies where milkweed grows wild have been increasingly displaced by development. Well-meaning garden centers have addressed the problem by selling tropical milkweed for home gardens.

Sadly, the Creator designed the monarchs to migrate. The blooming, dying, and reseeding of the wild native milkweed varieties lead them from Canada to Mexico and back, as surely as the pillar of fire and cloud led the Israelites through the wilderness. Tropical milkweed blooms too long, pleasing gardeners but luring the monarchs into overstaying the safety of the habitat. Instead of migrating, they stay put and find themselves trapped by extreme heat or cold.

I,too, am a creature of habit, happy to settle down indefinitely. I prefer tropical milkweed. Comfort zones, routines, and ruts are some of my favorite places. My natural tendency is to resist change as an enemy to comfort.

Change often is an enemy to comfort, but it is a friend to spiritual growth and well-being. The Lord designed Christians, like monarchs, to be migratory creatures, at least where we now live, between the Fall and the Consummation. We are pilgrims, sent into all the world to share the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ and to make disciples. We are not meant to be too at home here but to long for our true Home, when we will see the Lord face to face.

Paul describes this longing for our permanent Home, specifically as it relates to our permanent resurrection body, like this:
For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:1-8 ESV)

The author of the letter to the Hebrews writes of an unshakable kingdom and the shaking of the whole created world:
At that time [the giving of the Law to Moses] his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe. (Hebrews 12:26-28 ESV)
In that passage, the voice shaking the created order is God's own. Change is a gift, that we might grow in gratitude for His kingdom, which cannot be shaken.

There are groaning and shaking in this present season of change. There is longing for Someday and Home and Life. There are tears and heartache.

But there are also laughter and celebration of the joys of this present place and moment. We are learning not to take for granted the opportunity to talk and love and hug today, right now.

By God's good grace, there is also the comfort of the Spirit as a guarantee that this longing will be fulfilled. By God's good grace, there is real courage: not all the time, not in what always feels an adequate measure, but real all the same. More than I could ever have on my own. There is gratitude; there is worship. My Lord is the unchanging rock which stabilizes in the midst of the change. He is in that pillar of cloud and fire which leads us through the upheaval and protects us from the unseen hazards of our comfort zones. He is with us and does not forsake us.

Change is not my favorite place, but it is a hopeful place. It is a good place, because the Lord is in it. Today I thank Him for the monarchs. I will miss them when they leave, but I will not second-guess the migration their Creator designed.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Whittier to McKinley {Lone Star to Last Frontier, 2015}

For the backstory, please see the post, "Courage, Dear Heart!" This post includes many photos, so e-mail readers may prefer to view the Web version of Whittier to McKinley.

On the morning after our 2 days among the glaciers, we disembarked the ship at the port of Whittier and boarded a bus north to McKinley Princess Lodge near Talkeetna, Alaska.

The long drive began with a one-lane tunnel; it was not for the claustrophobic, but by the time that discovery were made, there would be no help for it. The direction of the traffic in the tunnel changes approximately every 20 minutes. Our driver helpfully (but not so reassuringly) pointed out to us the recessed niches in the walls of the tunnel where we ought to take refuge in the event of earthquake, landslide, and/or fire.

Suffice it to say, the expression "the light at the end of the tunnel" took on a much more vivid meaning for us after experiencing this one.

Our driver told us many stories about life in Alaska. He drives this bus route in the summers and withdraws to his home in the bush country the rest of the year. Living in the remote Alaskan wilderness is both physically and psychologically rigorous, and because of the community's interdependence for survival in the long, cold winters, the entire group decides whether a prospective newcomer may move there.

We drove alongside Turnagain Arm in Chugach State Park. Turnagain Arm, a branch of the Cook Inlet, is famous both for its beauty and its treachery. Lives are lost every year when hikers walk along the water's edge at low tide, become mired in the quicksand-like mud, and cannot be reached by help before high tide rushes in.

Yes, really: moose crossing.

Other than our driver's fascinating stories, some beautiful autumn color, and passing within a stone's throw of Sarah Palin's childhood home, the only notable occurrence of the drive was seeing the great mountain briefly known as Mt. McKinley and now called again by its Native American (or First Peoples) name of Denali.

At the time of these photos, we were still more than 200 miles distant from the mountain. There was no opportunity to stop and leave the bus to fight the rain for a better photo, but at least we saw it, or rather its base.

After unloading our bags at the hotel, we explored the grounds a bit and enjoyed the beautiful,oversized flora and bronze sculptures of local wildlife which were scattered throughout.

Rose hips


Only 50+ degrees cooler than North Texas that day!

Then the men left for a lakeside hike and discovered sunshine along the way, while Mom and I enjoyed the lodge's coffee and a crossword puzzle she'd brought from home. The following photos are from Amore's snapshots of the hike.

I don't know what that sign is talking about. This looks totally safe to me. {Kidding!!}

When Mom and I ran into the brick wall of our ignorance and gave up finished our puzzle it looked like the sun might be peeking through for us a wee bit too. Mom indulged me with some photos of the mountains beyond the lodge's viewing deck while we waited for Denali to show its lovely self.

Denali is right behind her in that last photo. Do you see it? No? Completely underwhelmed? Here's the map to give you a hint:

Do you see it this time?

What, you still don't see it? I don't either. How could we not see the biggest hunk of granite in the United States, a mountain with net base-to-summit elevation greater even than Everest?

Two words: cloud cover.

If you will bear with another stupid question, here it goes: do you believe Denali is really there?

I do. The testimony has been confirmed by too many different sources who have seen it when clouds didn't "veil its lovely face." Plus, I did see it once. I saw it from a great distance as we drove. A mountain that big doesn't just cease to exist. At least, outside the events of Revelation it doesn't.

We were disappointed not to have a better view, but that in no way diminished our belief in its reality.

In ladies' Bible study right now, Mom and I are learning about and discussing perseverance in hard times, especially the relationship between perseverance, character, and hope. The study highlights the need to "look for lovely" to fuel our endurance. One way we do that is to fix our eyes on God's character, ways, and Son. In the second surviving letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul says it like this:
Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor. 4:16-18, HCSB).
In the same way that we persisted in believing in the truth of Denali though we couldn't see it, we may persevere through affliction by persisting in belief in that incomparable eternal weight of glory ahead. We may also persevere through affliction by recognizing that the very affliction which seems to destroy us is producing the glory awaiting us. Instead of focusing on the clouds, we (I) need to focus on the reality beyond them. We have an abundance of reliable, inspired, inerrant testimony in the Scriptures as well as our own less reliable but real memories of God's glory in our past experiences. Flipping through the pages of Scripture and our own mental photographs of spiritually sunny days can provide just enough help to focus on the unseen and experience renewal of our inner selves when all outer circumstance may look dim or even bleak.

It is my closing prayer for you and for me that these middle verses and the refrain from "My Hope Is Built," by Edward Mote, would become our testimony, too:

When darkness seems to hide His face,
I rest on His unchanging grace.
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.
His oath, His covenant, His blood,
Support me in the whelming flood.
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my Hope and Stay.
On Christ the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

Courage, dear hearts!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Fifteen Years Ago

Fifteen years ago today, September 11, 2001, was a completely, utterly normal day for Amore and me in Bangkok, Thailand, where we then lived. We went to language school as usual, ate spicy Thai food for lunch at the cafeteria there as usual, rode, probably standing, the Sky Train and bus home to our apartment as usual. We stopped at a lower floor to eat supper at the cafe in our building before boarding the elevator to the 25th floor of the second tower in our complex. What did we do that evening? I don't remember. We probably read or wrote e-mails before going to bed around 9, oblivious to the fact that life back home in the United States was at that moment experiencing a crisis that would shape the coming decades (or more) of our history. The country we returned to would be radically different from the one we'd left, even more than we could have imagined when we embarked for the mission field.

We went to bed and slept peacefully in anticipation of our Wednesday off from language school. We slept peacefully because Bangkok was 12 hours ahead of the east coast of the United States. The North Tower of the World Trade Center had been struck only minutes before our bedtime. The other planes had not struck their targets yet, and neither WTC tower had fallen. We had only turned on the television two or three times in our 8 months in Thailand, for the Presidential inauguration and perhaps a soccer match and a classic movie. We were not in the habit of watching CNN or BBC World for English-language news.

Melted, twisted I-beams from the World Trade Center, displayed at the George W. Bush Presidential Library

On Wednesday morning before 7:30, our apartment phone rang. This usually meant a call from family after my parents were home from work. That was uncommon but not so much so as to cause alarm. They knew it was our day off and called every month or so.

Amore was in the shower, so I answered the phone to hear my dad's voice. He didn't sound right and said he had something to tell us. Then he started his story (by this time knowing all the targets hit and having a fuller understanding of the human cost), and I wasn't keeping up. I thought my attention had lapsed, and I'd missed the sentence where he said this was a movie they'd seen the weekend before. Maybe something with Bruce Willis. I might have even said, "Hold on a minute. What movie was this again? I missed something."

"It's not a movie. This is what just happened in New York City and Washington, D.C.."

I found paper and something to write with and started taking notes--because that's how I process information--as he started his story over again, more slowly. It was still just too much to take in.

Amore came into the room and asked if it was my parents. I nodded and motioned for him to turn on the TV. He looked at me like I was crazy. I turned away from the receiver and told him, "Too much to explain. Just turn on the news."

The rest of the conversation with the family included assurances they were all okay. Mezzo was in Germany at the time. Since her time zone was closer to theirs, I think they had already spoken with her before calling us. Otherwise, I don't know how we concluded the call before the farewells and exchanged love.

While I was on the phone and Amore was glued to the television, our house helper Dtoh came in. Her family did watch the evening news, and she had fretted ever since that she would come to work and have to be the one to try and communicate the news to us across a language barrier. Having no knowledge of U.S. geography, she also worried that New York and Washington were close to Texas and our families had been harmed.

The television was on much of the rest of the day. There may have been a couple of other phone calls from the States. For me, that was the loneliest day of our year in Bangkok. When tragedy strikes, my natural instinct is to circle the wagons. Being present to and with family doesn't change anything about sad events, but it always feels like the right place to be.

We muddled through the rest of the day somehow and got up and out the door to language school on Thursday. The sun was shining; the sky was blue. The women at the food stands blared their radios, as usual. Street dogs wandered around, scavenging for scraps of food, as usual. Cars and motorcycles filled the busy street, sometimes using the lane markers as extra lanes, as usual.

Nothing had changed.

Everything had changed.

No, not everything. God's character had not changed. His promises had not changed. We had each other, and our families were safe. Our job had not changed. At that moment, even if we'd had means to fly home, grounded flights would have made it impossible.

We prayed and grieved and wept. We gratefully accepted the sympathy and condolences of our language teachers and the international mix of church members present at service and breakfast the following Sunday. We watched the State of the Union address and listened for stories of God's grace in the midst of the tragedy. We shared the admiration of our homeland for the many, many heroes of 9/11 and prayed for the survivors and bereaved.

Word reached us weeks later of a special gathering at the U.S. Embassy in honor of a national holiday. I suppose Veteran's Day is the most likely. Ordinarily we would not have gone, but after 9/11 it felt essential to be with other Americans, even though we wouldn't know any of them. We left school early, dressed in our best clothes, and took a taxi to the Embassy. We could hardly see the fence because of the stacks of flowers, cards, and stuffed animals the lovely Thai people had left there in sympathy. There was even a sort of guest book like one would have at a wedding, and it was rapidly filling with kind wishes from the local people.

Once we were cleared by security and inside the grounds, we found our way to a temporary pavilion filled with folding chairs and a podium up front. It was a larger version of the same kind of dark pavilion under which we sat at my grandparents' graveside services. The ambassador and other officials made their customary speeches and announcements for the holiday in question, but they also made a special point to remember those who had lost their lives in 9/11.

What I remember most about that gathering, however, was the singing. Hands over our hearts, we sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" in front of the flag. Then, which may not have been planned in advance, someone started "God Bless America." We continued to "America the Beautiful." After all these years, I probably have the order wrong, but I remember the songs and the comfort it gave to sing patriotic songs and prayers among other expatriates, the first group of Americans we'd encountered since the tragic events of that beautiful September Tuesday when U.S. history changed in lasting ways.

This day is not about me, of course, but it is a day haunted by memories for Americans. Whether we personally know people who laid down their lives or not, we all experienced loss that day. Previous generations have their stories of where they were when they heard the news of Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy assassination or both. September 11 is my generation's day of infamy and courage, so far, at least. We have not told our "where-were-you" story in writing or on the blog before, but it seems right to share it now.

On this fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, my prayers go out to those who lost dear family members and friends that day. May the Lord comfort you in the grief that will never truly leave. To the surviving first-responders, thank you for your sacrifice and heroic example. May the Lord help you as you grieve and give you all the help, provision, and wisdom you need for the health and emotional problems caused by the horrible things you faced that day. May your families receive all the help and patience they need to love you well. To the surviving members of the terror cell, may you come to know the forgiveness and cleansing only the Lord Jesus Christ can give.

"O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!
America! America! May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine!" (Katherine Lee Bates, "America the Beautiful").

**all photos from the somber 9/11 memorial exhibit at the George W. Bush Presidential Library on the campus of Southern Methodist University