“I have a feeling this place is going to sell fast.”

AUDIO VERSION

In this series of posts I’m telling about the mercies I received as I relocated from East Lansing, where Priscilla and I lived happily for 15 years, to a new home in Pittsburgh.

Once I’d resolved that I should move to Pittsburgh, the next step was to sell my house. By now it was mid-December. I’d never seen for-sale signs in the winter in East Lansing before. They’d always sprouted on the lawns with the crocuses in the spring. But for some reason, this winter three houses on my street had already been put up for sale, and one of them had sold. So I thought, “Let me at least speak with a realtor to see what I’d need to do to get the house ready, and to ask for advice about when to list it.”

Some friends had agreed that whenever I decided to sell, they’d refer me to their realtor, who’d done a great job for them. Hearing about my intentions, they asked her to contact me, and she did so within hours. “Okay,” I thought, “this is moving kind of fast, but let’s see if God is in it.”

I was first able to meet with this realtor the day after I returned from a Christmas and New Year’s trip to visit my family and Priscilla’s. She was a Christian woman who considered it her ministry to try to match people with homes they could genuinely afford and that would suit their lifestyles and meet their needs. “Nothing beats getting the right person into the right house,” she told me. I was delighted to have her represent the property and signed her on as my seller’s agent right away.

She toured the house and declared it “move-in ready.” The only thing she asked me to do in preparation for the listing was to take down the Christmas decorations I still had up! She returned three days later, we wrote up the listing, and it went online the next day.

Over the next two weeks, there were nine showings. And some other things were happening as well. On one very memorable day near the end of the second week, I reached a point in my freelance work where I could put everything on pause for a while if necessary; that same day, an inspector came and signed off on some changes the city had earlier asked me to make to the outflow from the house’s sump pump. Now I was assured the city had no further concerns that could create a hindrance to the sale. And this was also the day when I came to terms with leaving the house.

As I’ll explain more in a later post, the thought of moving from the place where Priscilla and I had lived very happily for 15 years was a huge “grief trigger.” But I finally worked through to the recognition that “your house is not your home.” Your home is the dwelling you create through personal effects that allow you to lead your life distinctively somewhere. These effects become a storehouse of memories and experiences, and continuity is created when you take many of them with you to make a new expression of that same life in the place where you’re called to settle next.

So after that day I had a strong sense of closure, as if something were now ready to happen. The following day there were two showings, both in the evening, so we wouldn’t hear back from the buyers’ agents until the next morning. But I had trouble falling asleep. I kept tossing and turning. I was telling myself, “Something has happened. Something has happened.” Then it struck me: There had been an offer. I fell asleep.

First thing in the morning, I checked email, and sure enough, one of the people who’d toured the house the evening before had gone right to the office of their buyer’s agent and written up an offer. “I knew it!” I said. (Actually, this came out in French: Je le savais! I think I picked up from Priscilla, who’d grown up in Quebec, the habit of using that language spontaneously for special emphasis when the occasion called for it.)

The price that was offered for the house was quite agreeable and I was happy to accept it. I signed the sales agreement. This was less than two weeks after the listing was posted. My agent had said when she first toured the house, “Somehow I have a feeling this place is going to sell fast.” She’d been right.

But had it been too fast? The buyer requested a March 1 move-in date and I agreed to it. That was in less than five weeks. Could I get ready to move out by then? And where would I be moving to? I didn’t have anywhere to go!

One of the realtor’s photos of my house for sale. In the winter.

“What’s next?”

AUDIO VERSION

One of the things I want to do most in this next season of life is to tell more stories of God’s “endless mercies” to Priscilla and me, particularly in our years of local church and student ministry. But I’d like to start by bringing the current story up to date with an account of how and why I moved here to Pittsburgh. I’m still settling in these days, so the posts that tell this story will appear on an occasional basis, as I find the opportunity to write them up. (I hope to get back to regular blogging soon.) Here’s the first installment.

One Sunday morning last September, I walked into church and it was as if a light was shining on a certain couple. I had a strong feeling that God had a blessing he wanted to send to me through them. But I had no idea how that was supposed to work.

Just before our pastor started his sermon, he invited the husband to come forward and share something with all of us. The man began by quoting Scripture: “The eyes of the Lord run to and fro over all the earth, to show himself strong on behalf of those whose hearts are wholly committed to him.” Wow, I thought, that’s a favorite of mine. The next thing he said was, “We are his workmanship, created for good works in Christ, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” That was another one of my favorite passages. I’d used both of them often in counseling and encouraging my parishioners when I was a pastor. “I don’t know what this guy’s selling,” I said to myself, “but whatever it is, I’m already in.”

What he was “selling” (at no cost) was the opportunity to meet with him and his wife, and anyone else who was interested, for an hour before church about ten times over the next three months to listen and discern what God had for each of us in the next season of our lives. This was exactly what I needed at that point. I’d just recovered enough of my strength and energy after becoming clinically exhausted as a caregiver that I was beginning to ask, “What’s next?” And this was a question I needed some significant help with.

In preparation for each meeting, we were given “homework” to do—reflection questions on how God had designed and equipped us to this point, and what this suggested about where God might be leading us now. One question was, “What do you envision yourself doing in the next season of your life?” My answer was, “It could be any one of a hundred things.” A follow-up question was, “What would you need to get greater clarity about this?” I responded, “A miracle.”

We shared our answers in the group and everyone laughed at mine. But they also promised that they’d pray.

Later that I week I had a dream. I was attending a college reunion and a school official came up to me with a clipboard. “We just want to make sure that our records are correct about what you’ve been doing since you graduated,” she explained, and she went over the information with me. When I confirmed that it was right, she asked, “And what will you be doing next?” And I told her!

“I want to do more writing,” I said. “I want to continue my blogs that answer questions about the Bible and tell about God’s endless mercies. I also want to write more books about what the Bible is, what it says and how it says it, and how we can continue its story in our own lives.”
At that point I woke up. I said to myself, “That’s it! That’s exactly what I want to do.” I shared this experience with the group the next time we met and we were all encouraged. When we seek intentionally to listen to God’s voice, God actually does speak to us!

The reflection and processing in community continued quite helpfully throughout the fall, with a few breaks for reflection and consolidation, until the only question remaining before me was, “Where?” In theory I could do what I wanted to do just about anywhere. I decided that if there were no other considerations, I’d stay where I was, specifically so that I could remain part of this Christian community that had been so supportive of Priscilla and me during her illness, and of me during my bereavement and now my renewed vocational explorations. But then something happened to show me that actually there were other considerations.

I was on a trip and hadn’t been able to check email for a couple of days, so when I finally reached a place where I could do that, I pulled out my laptop and started booting it up. (I’m not part of the smart-phone world just yet.) Suddenly I had a thought: “I hope my mother is all right. I hope she hasn’t had a fall. I’d feel badly if she did and I wasn’t there to help.” And when I picked up my new emails, sure enough one of them reported that she had fallen. Mercifully, she hadn’t suffered any serious or permanent injuries, and she soon recovered. But this episode showed me my heart. I wanted to be near my parents in Pittsburgh so that I could help them. This would also put me near my sister and one of my brothers and their families, and of course it would be good for me as well to be close to all of them.

Our homework for the next group meeting had been to think about a “difficult conversation” we might need to have and ask God to help us with it. My difficult conversation would be with the group itself! I had to share with them that I was now feeling led to move to Pittsburgh and that I would no longer be able to be a regular part of this church community. Fortunately I didn’t have to find a way to bring this up; all I had to do was say it when I was called upon to share my response to the homework. We were all sad at the thought of parting, but we also acknowledged that God was leading clearly, and that in effect our hopes and prayers for the whole group experience were being realized. So how could we argue?

Thus began the next adventure that I’d like to tell you about in the series of posts ahead. They will be about how I experienced more of God’s endless mercies as I relocated from Michigan, where I’d lived for 15 years and from where I’d sent Priscilla off to heaven, to a new home in Pittsburgh.

The city I now call home.

A Christmas Card from Priscilla

AUDIO VERSION

I just got a Christmas card from Priscilla. It’s one she picked out for me herself, and it came today.

As a pastor’s wife and a campus staff worker, she would often find out spontaneously about somebody’s birthday, anniversary, engagement, graduation, etc. So that she could wish people well under those circumstances, she always maintained a supply of greeting cards. She picked them up whenever possible from a variety of sources—store closeouts, etc.—and kept them for when they were needed.

I went through her supplies this morning looking for Christmas cards. I discovered one that said, “For my husband.” There’s only one person Priscilla would have gotten that card for! She must have been planning to give it to me but never got the chance because her illness intervened.

Well, actually she did get the chance, because now I have it. It’s already making the first Christmas season without her a lot brighter.

christmas-card-2016

What do you get for the woman who has everything (because she’s in heaven)?

AUDIO VERSION

At the beginning of this month, I pulled out the giant plastic bin of Christmas decorations that Priscilla had carefully maintained. When I opened the lid, one of the first things I found was the beautiful pair of Christmas stockings she’d made for us from the same fabric she’d used for the curtains and pillows in the living room. This posed a bit of a dilemma.

Should I just put up one stocking this year? Awkward.

No stockings? That didn’t feel like the holiday spirit.

So I decided to put both of them up and try to think of some appropriate “stocking-stuffer” for hers. It didn’t take me long to realize that I could do something in her memory and honor for those whom Jesus had called “the least of these.”

I hadn’t gotten much farther than that in my planning before I went to church this morning. I discovered an “angel tree” set up in our fellowship area. A refugee family had just moved in nearby and had approached the congregation for assistance. They hadn’t been able to bring much with them, and since they’d come from a country with a warm climate, they hadn’t had any winter clothes in the first place. Now the Michigan winter was approaching. Would we help?

On the tree were paper ornaments representing specific needs of the children, whose first names and ages were given. I saw that the two girls, aged 12 and 14, each needed winter boots. That made me think right away of a story Priscilla often told about Christmas.

One year, when she was a young teenager herself, she’d needed new  boots for the Quebec winter. She had her heart set on a pair that was sturdy, warm, and stylish. But her parents told her regretfully that there simply wasn’t enough money for them. She’d have to pick a cheaper pair (one that would presumably be somewhat inferior in those three regards).

On Christmas morning, there was a present under the tree for her that was the shape and size of a boot box. When she opened it, inside was the very pair she’d wanted! A relative had heard about the situation and provided the extra that was needed. She often cited this story as an early experience she’d had of God’s love and care.

In this light of this story, I couldn’t think of a more appropriate stocking-stuffer for Priscilla than to buy boots for some girls who were about the same age she’d been and who were in need. So I took those two ornaments and after church I went shopping. At one store I found just what I was looking for, pairs that met the feature “trifecta” of warm, sturdy, and stylish. The two different sizes I needed were available.

Then I saw a sign indicating that I’d caught the final day of a three-day sale: 20% off all clothing purchases. And when I checked out, the register issued a special coupon: $5 off any gift card purchase of at least $50. I figured this was probably designed to encourage customers to buy gift cards as presents for others. But why not buy one with the discount and use it personally on my next visit? “Hey, if I saw a five-dollar bill on the ground, I’d sure pick it up,” I told myself. So this was effectively a further reduction in the price. God had provided just the right opportunity for me to honor Priscilla in a meaningful way. But, I wondered, had He also liked the idea so much that He’d decided to go in on the present with me?

When I bring the boots to the church so they can be delivered to the family, I have to return the paper ornaments for tracking purposes. But I’ve made photocopies and tucked them into Priscilla’s stocking.

The original tags (borrowed for the photo-op) in Priscilla's stocking. (The his-and-hers brass reindeer were how we told our stockings apart.)
The original ornaments (borrowed for the photo-op) in Priscilla’s stocking. The his-and-hers brass reindeer were how we told our stockings apart.

 

The leaf blower and the breeze

(Photo by Priscilla)
(Photo by Priscilla)

AUDIO VERSION

The lawn needed to be mowed. But a thick layer of leaves had fallen onto it. There’s no problem with mowing a few leaves into the lawn. They actually make great mulch. But there were so many of these that they would have choked the grass. I needed to rake them up.

This was a task that Priscilla and I used to polish off together in a couple of hours on a crisp fall afternoon, raking the leaves into piles all over the yard and then dragging them on a tarp to our compost heap. But I soon discovered, when I tackled the job yesterday, that doing it by myself was a lot harder, and took a lot longer.

For one thing, when two people are working together, it’s more efficient. For example, one person can be bringing the tarp over while the other is putting the finishing touches on a pile.

It’s also more fun. When Priscilla and I would rake the yard, sooner or later a “leaf fight” would break out, along the lines of a “splash fight” in a swimming pool, and a pile would then have to be raked back together as we both pulled leaves out of our hair and clothes. We’d have hot chocolate together when we went inside.

But two people also each contribute their own energy. If you’d run out of energy just as you were completing a job with somebody else, that means you’d run out of energy halfway through (or perhaps even less, because you wouldn’t have those efficiencies) if you were doing it by yourself.

After raking leaves for three hours, I was exhausted, and I’d only done half the yard. While I’m making good progress recovering my strength and energy, I still need to be very careful. So I quit for the day, resolving to finish today, if energy permitted.

Kind friends have offered to help me with my yard work, and I may well take them up on it when the rest of the leaves fall. (These ones were just the “early birds.”) But this time around, something very interesting happened.

I realized that I could use the leaf blower, which I customarily pull out only to clean off the driveway and walkways after mowing, for its intended purpose. When raking, the idea is to make piles all over the yard and come get them with a tarp to avoid moving ever-growing (and ever-heavier) quantities of leaves unnecessary distances. “Don’t bring the leaves to the tarp, bring the tarp to the leaves.”

But with a blower, since you’re going to have to “sweep” the whole yard with it anyway, and it’s no more effort for you whether you kick up a few leaves or many, there’s nothing wrong with moving ever-growing piles of them to one end of the yard. So just before I called it quits yesterday, I did a little experiment. I tried to see if I’d be able to blow all the leaves on the remaining half of the yard down to the end closest to our compost heap. It would be easy to load them all onto a tarp for a short drag from there. It seemed as if this would work fine, so that was my plan for today.

The problem was, when I tried to carry out this plan, I found that I was  facing a stiff breeze. (Yesterday was calm.) When I kicked up the leaves with the blower, a few of them would move a couple of inches forward. But a greater number would lift into the air and come back towards me, in many cases landing farther from the compost than they’d been to start with.

“This is horrible!” I said to myself. “I’ll be fighting that breeze the whole way. It’s going to take for-e-ver.”

Then it dawned on me. I could blow the leaves away from the compost heap into one big pile at the far end of the yard. I could still pick them all up in the tarp and drag them from there to the heap. This would be a somewhat longer distance, but it would represent only a trivial increase in my overall workload.

I tried out my idea. The blower kicked the leaves up into the air and the breeze carried them away down the yard.  I finished this second half in about thirty minutes. I said to myself, “I can’t believe how fast that went!” It really was as if someone else was working with me and helping me. I had plenty of energy to mow the lawn right afterwards.

The lawn now looks immaculate. And I’m sipping hot chocolate as I write.

Priscilla’s Gardens: The Slideshow

Back in July, when I published the post entitled Gardening Therapy, I promised that at the end of the growing season I’d present a slide show of all the flowers that came up in Priscilla’s gardens. Now that the last ones have arrived, here they all are together, over 50 varieties! (Ten of them are still blooming at this point in October.) I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

WordPress doesn’t currently host audio in slide shows, so please play this audio track for the musical accompaniment. (It’s J.S. Bach, Aria in G Major from Suite No. 3, “Air on a G String,” performed by the Amelia Island Cello Ensemble at the 2007 Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival)

 

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(If you receive these posts by email, you may need to go online using the link in blue at the top of the page in order to see the whole slideshow.)

The best seat in the house

AUDIO VERSION

 

Those who’ve followed my story to this point will recognize that Priscilla and I had some unfinished business with some people.  I’d left things open with my other graduation guest, and the young man Priscilla had met at her cousin’s wedding was still supposed to come see her in Quebec.

So I wrote to Anne.  (You know, that awkward moment when you need to tell the girl you were dating that in the few weeks since you last saw her, you got engaged to someone else.)

My letter to her crossed in the mail with a letter from her to me, reporting that she’d just gotten engaged.  She, too, had spent the summer serving in another country, where there was a different language and culture, and there she and another young man had received guidance as remarkable as my own that God was calling them into a lifetime partnership.

Anne actually hadn’t been that surprised to receive my letter.  She later told me that the moment she first laid eyes on Priscilla, she said to herself, “This is the person Chris is supposed to marry.  Let’s see how long it takes him to figure that out.”

For her part, Priscilla wrote to the guy she’d met at the wedding and explained the recent whirlwind of events.  Understandably he had questions, but the two of them worked things out in a phone conversation, and at the end he very chivalrously wished us every happiness.

This would be the place to mention that Priscilla had actually gotten engaged once before, a few years earlier, to someone from her church.  But her parents had not felt he was right for her, and her friends were similarly concerned.  The two of them had real difficulty communicating and making decisions together.  She eventually realized that she’d made a mistake in agreeing to marry him.  She went to a woman who was a trusted advisor, one of those friends-of-parents that children call “aunt” or “uncle.”

“What should I ever do?” she asked.  “You can just give him back the ring,” the woman explained, “and tell him that you’re very sorry, but you no longer feel it would be the right thing to do to marry him.”  So that’s what she did.  This man later found a very compatible wife, and after Priscilla and I were married, the two of them even had us over for a no-hard-feelings dinner.  As I think back over these stories, I’m amazed by, and very grateful for, all these people who approached delicate matters of the heart with such generosity and grace.

Priscilla’s family moved her down to the North Shore of Boston, where she’d accepted a secretarial job at Gordon College.  This was only a short distance from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where I was scheduled to start in the fall.  Her family took a vacation by the ocean and then they all came to visit my family.  There was feasting and celebrating, but I could only take part in a limited way, because I’d broken my jaw and it had to be wired shut for five weeks.  Ultimately this led me to postpone seminary first for a semester, then for a full year, as we arranged for our wedding to take place a few months before I started seminary.

In the end, I would get married when I was still only 22 years old.  But in retrospect, I’m very grateful for the circumstances—Priscilla’s move, and even my broken jaw—that combined to bring this about.  They ensured that she and I would have many wonderful years together as husband and wife, more than I had anticipated, before she went home to be with the Lord.

I got temporary office work in Boston.  I also found housing a few blocks north of Harvard Square in exchange for working as a tutor and governor for the son of a German countess.  She was dividing her time between America and Europe and didn’t want to take her son with her when she traveled because she didn’t want him to miss school.

On weekends I’d take the train an hour north to see Priscilla, or she’d take it down to visit me.  A great group for young couples had formed in the church I’d attended as a student—some couples newly married, some engaged like us, others dating—and together we worked through many of the issues that came with this stage in life.

As we sent out our wedding invitations, I told God that I wanted to invite Him to the wedding, too.  I explained that I couldn’t get an actual invitation to Him in the mail, but promised that we’d save Him “the best seat in the house”:  bride’s side, front row, on the center aisle.  We would instruct our ushers not to let anybody sit there; that seat would be reserved for God.

I felt as if God responded that He’d be delighted to attend, and that he was going to send us a wedding present in advance.  A couple of days later, one of Priscilla’s co-workers said to her, “I hear the two of you are looking for furniture for your future apartment.  A friend of mine has a queen size bed that he wants to give away.”  We gratefully accepted it.

Priscilla and I were married in a bilingual ceremony on May 23, 1981, at her family’s home church in Sherbrooke.  My father and her pastor performed the ceremony.  Her sister and mine were bridesmaids.  One of my brothers was our reader and the other two were groomsmen, along with the friend I’d driven home just before my two-car accident.

While it’s customary for the best man and maid of honor to serve as the witnesses to a marriage, Priscilla and I asked our fathers to be our witnesses.  Since they’d thought of each of us as a good match for their child the first time they met us, this seemed only appropriate.

And our ring bearer was the toddler son of Priscilla’s brother and his wife, who was the same young woman who’d sat with us on the hillside that evening years before as we watched the moon rise.

 

Wedding sunset