malcolm marler

on a mission to embody grace and compassion in all relationships

Month: July 2010

The Grief of Leaving

“I CANNOT believe you are leaving that place!” one friend wrote on my Facebook page.  “Why in the heck would you want to sell this jewel?” another one asked.

Other legitimate questions have come from friends and acquaintances since Mary and I put our lake home on the market a few months ago.  This is not a “second home,” but rather our only home where I have lived since 2002, and where my new family has lived with me since 2005.  I designed and built this house with the encouragement of friends, a bank, and a builder.

Now there is nothing unusual about people selling their house. And to be honest, most people really don’t care what we do since it is our personal decision.  On the other hand, just because our house is on the market, it doesn’t mean we are moving into the city of Birmingham anytime soon.  Most people say it couldn’t be a worse time to sell a house.

And even if we do get an offer, we may discover that emotionally it is too difficult to sell and we decide to stay.  We are open, and we shall see.  We are living into the mystery and cannot know until we know.

The deeper question I want to explore with you, my readers, is why would any of us want to let go of a dream that has been realized?  What process do we go through to leave something we love for something that we do not yet know?

For me personally, this is a process of grief. It is also a process of realizing new possibilities.  But first, I have to experience the grief.

When I was a kid, I went to the lake with Steve Hope and his family.  Steve was one of my boyhood friends who lived two doors down from us in Montgomery and his family had a cabin and boat on the lake.  They would invite me to go with them and I loved water skiing, swimming, and riding in the boat.  Water has always been life-giving for me.  I loved hearing the night sounds of the lake and seeing the stars that I could not see as clearly in the city.

When I lived in Connecticut and had a day off from my church duties, I discovered a state park that had a lake where I could go and swim and relax in the sun.  I loved skinny dipping when no one was around, and I still do.

After I moved back to Alabama and my divorce was final in 2006, Libby Potts gave me the keys to her family’s lake house for a couple of days.  I sat in silence, staring at the water for hours, and felt the cool, healing water against my skin.  I dreamed of the day when I could have a place on the lake.  This dream seemed impossible on the salary of a chaplain who was struggling to pay off debt and start over at forty years old.

But six years later, building a house on the lake became a reality.  And now, I have lived here for eight years.

I love living on the water in the country.  I love the spectacular sunrises and sunsets.  I love the wildlife of blue herons, loons, wild turkeys, deer, raccoons, and rabbits.  I love swimming and skiing and boating though I have done it less and less, year by year.

Why would any of us choose to go through the grief of leaving a place we love? Well, our lives change.

There is a yearning for simplifying my life.  I want to own less stuff, instead of my stuff owning me.  I want to cut my mortgage in half this year and eliminate it totally in less than ten years.  I want to own only one car.  The list is growing.  I will share more later.

What have you left that you loved? Why did you do so?  What have you discovered?  Do you have any regrets?

Thank you for walking this part of the journey with me.

Swimming Upstream

When I was in high school I remember saying, “I can’t wait to go to college.” By the time I was a senior in college,  I was excited about graduate school.  Then came my marriage, job opportunities, divorce, houses, remarriage, children, and more.

If we are not careful, we will find ourselves believing the illusion that peace and happiness is just around the corner, instead of being available right here and right now.

If we are not careful, we will miss the gifts of where we live today, the relationships we have in our lives already, and the vocation that is part of our daily routine.

Mary and I have one of these challenges right now.  We have an empty nest with both kids entering their sophomore years in college.  In the past year I started the most challenging and enjoyable job I’ve ever had, and Mary has multiple opportunities for her work and education.

We want to simplify our lives, which is of course complex.  To simplify one’s life in the U.S. is like being a salmon who swims upstream.  Our American culture is the river and our new dream of owning less is the salmon.  To simplify is to go against against the flow.

One of our “simplicity decisions” is deciding where we want to live at this time in our lives–the lake where we presently live, or in the city of Birmingham.

As many of my friends know, when I was a “single again man” it took me six years to get back on my feet financially and emotionally.  And so in 2002, I decided to build a house on the lake.

It was time to go for a dream to live on the water. I went to the bank and borrowed the maximum amount I could, bought a couple of acres, and before long a house was built and I moved in.  Six months later, I met Mary, was swept off my feet and married about eighteen months later.  Much to my surprise, we moved our new family to the lake in the country so that we could all live together.

Our home has been a wonderful place to be family with one another.  Beautiful nature has renewed our souls on a regular basis.

On the other hand, it has been challenging because the grocery store and our church are a thirty-five minute drive one way, and my work is an hour away.

So why and what are we planning to do?  We don’t know yet, but we will when it’s time.

Over the next few days or weeks, I am going to write about my journey of deciding where to live and the reasons behind it.  I need to do so for my own sake.

There is grief to work through and new dreams to pursue.

I hope it will be helpful to you, my readers.

In the meantime, I am thankful for this day, where we live now, and for new dreams in my life.

When have you chosen to simplify your life?  What was it like?  Was it worth it?  Why or why not?  I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below.  Let us learn together.

Peace be with you, today,

Malcolm

The Many Faces of God

In our congregation, we receive communion at the front of the sanctuary and kneel (if able) to receive the bread and wine.   It is a reflective, grace-filled time as familiar choruses are sung softly by the congregation.

This part of worship has become meaningful to me as I watch individuals and families make their way to the altar before and after us.  Because our church is small, we have friendships and connections with many of the participants and know some of their personal stories.

I see an optimistic friend who makes his way to the altar with a cane next to his wife.  I think of him as he stands, unable to kneel, and how we have held him in our prayers for the last few months as he has endured chemotherapy (again) to battle his cancer.  I think about all that he and his wife have endured and breathe a prayer of thanks for his presence.

A two year old girl catches my eye who was born in China as she is held by her adopted mother.  As the little girl passes by our pew, she looks at me and grins.  I return her smile and she starts waving at me with her whole arm and hand in big motions.  I wave back.  The wave becomes contagious and every person on our pew eventually joins in. Our spirits are lifted.

After worship, I move directly to my friend who has cancer and I hug him to welcome him back to church.

He says through a broad smile, “It is good to be back home.”  I am surprised by my own emotions and all I can do is touch my heart with my hand.  I reach out and touch his chest with my other hand for a few seconds.  My voice catches in my throat, “I’ve been praying for you.”  He responds with a “thank you.”

No other words are needed.

Today I experienced God’s presence through my adult friend, and through an adorable two year old girl who is adopted and loves to greet others with a friendly wave.

And I am thankful for God’s adoption, by grace, of me too.

I wonder what God’s face will look like tomorrow?

Thank You God, Thank You

He is in his early 20’s, young, and so much life yet still to live.

I met him in his hospital room.  He had a severely injured leg from an accidental gun shot wound and was scheduled for surgery to amputate his leg in a couple of days.

Even though his life was changing and nothing would ever be the same, he welcomed me into his world.  I tried to listen, to encourage, to learn from his life experience.  He was thankful to be alive, and yet was grieving the upcoming loss of a leg that had always been his companion.

The day of surgery came and his mother was waiting and praying for her son. She abruptly got up and walked over to the phone at the receptionist’s desk and asked to speak with her son’s surgeon before the surgery.  It was an unusual and inconvenient request for all concerned.

When the surgeon was handed the phone, the Mom said, “Please take one more look at my son’s leg before you begin, just one more look.  Please be sure.”  Anyone who is a parent would understand the request.

I will take a look,” the surgeon replied.  “I understand what you are saying but we both know that your son has signed a consent form and he is of age to do so.”

“I know, I know, but please look it over one more time,” the mother pleaded.  “I will look,” the surgeon relented, “but I do not expect to see anything different.”

About thirty minutes later, a nurse came into the waiting room to find the mother and told her the doctor wanted to speak with her.  “I want you to know,” the surgeon said with a smile, “that I am surprised to find as much pink skin around the wound,” signifying the leg could possibly be saved.  “I am not going to amputate this leg today.”

The mother shouted, “Thank you God, thank you!” as they stood in the hallway.  Her loud praise spilled into the waiting room and before long people were coming over to see what was happening.  The story was repeated throughout the surgical waiting room and it encouraged others who were waiting.

A few days later I walked into the young man’s room and he showed me a journal, “So that I can remember and tell others my story so that they can be encouraged too,” he said with a broad smile.

Some days all of us are the young man, thankful to be alive but grieving parts of ourselves that will no longer be the same.

Some days all of us are the surgeon, hearing the request to look again at what is routine for us, and if we do so, we are sometimes surprised.

Some days all of us are the other families in the waiting room, concerned about our own but inspired by the good news of another.

And finally, some days all of us are the mother, willing to ask the inconvenient question believing against all odds that things can be different.

Regardless who we are in the story, our response is one of gratitude, “Thank you God, thank you.”

How Much Work Is Enough

Whether we work alone or with thousands of people in an institution, the lesson is consistent.

We believe that working long hours demonstrates what good employees or workers we are. We believe if we stay just a little longer we will get caught up.  We believe that one more hour, or two or three, will allow us to answer all of our emails and phone calls.

I fall into this trap often.

The only problem with the above is, there is never enough.

A few years ago I started carpooling, and then van pooling, to help with my one hour commute to work.  My group leaves from the highway exit at 6 a.m. sharp and we leave Birmingham at 4 p.m. on the dot.  We are accountable to one another.  If I am a couple of minutes late, I have to apologize to eight other people in the van.  As a result, I’m rarely late when I ride the van.

But when I am accountable only to myself or to my family, it is much easier to stretch the limits and boundaries.  Interesting.

Since I started my new job, I’ve ridden the van less and have worked longer hours.

Yes, I understand that we are not robots and there are exceptions.

But the point of setting parameters on work is still worth noting.

How much work is enough for you?  And how do you know it?

How do you know when to say enough, and have a life outside of work?  What is a healthy view of our work and how much time we devote to it?

Will you share with me how you do it in the Comments below?

Turning Why Into How

A couple of patients reminded me of an important lesson recently.

When bad or hard things happen to us in our lives, it is reflexive to ask “Why?”

“Why did this happen to me?” we say as we wonder silently, or maybe aloud.  We are searching for meaning or a lesson in the event that was predetermined, fixed, static.

Whether it is a death or a diagnosis in the life of someone we love, it is easy to ask why and then get stuck.  “Why?” “Why?” “Why?”  Unfortunately, no booming voice comes out of the sky to announce the lesson and make everything alright.

On the other hand, it is more empowering to be co-creators with God and to look forward to ask the more productive, action-oriented question of “How?

The question is, “How can this experience (even if it is tragic) work for good in my life and in the life of others?

The “How can this work?” question is one of faith. The “How” expects lessons to be learned, perspective to be changed, and new meaning to come to light.

Don’t misunderstand me. The “How” question is not a quick fix.  It can take months or even years to discover an answer.  But when an answer is found, it is an answer we can trust for bringing new purpose and meaning into our lives.  It is like discovering a deep, life-giving water for our dry, thirsty, parched lives.

So I ask you my readers, how have hard, difficult events been used in your life to change you and impact the lives of others, with God’s help?

I’d love to hear the “How” of your lives in the comments below.

Peace be with you.

Taking Time to Remember

My wife, Mary, has a blog that recently reminded me of the importance of centering myself, being still, and getting back in touch with my spirit and that which is greater than me.

And so this morning before I dive in to work, I want to be quiet and reflective.  Writing helps me to remember.

I breathe deeply from my diaphragm through my nose.  Over and over again.  And I remember.

I remember last night being clear and without humidity, and the millions of stars popping out of the sky as we sat on the deck.  And the night sounds of country living at the lake that include cicadas and tree frogs.

I remember close friends who spent time with us over the weekend.  Time for long conversations and the sharing of dreams. Why don’t I do this more often?  This is part of what gives life meaning.

I remember the laughter of children who loved swimming in the lake and riding in the boat.  I marveled at my godsons’ kayaking abilities and his maturity, while also remembering the day he was born that seemed like yesterday.

As I drove out of the driveway from our home this morning, I slowed down two or three times to let the wild bunny rabbits get out of the way.  The sunrise was spectacular on our county road.  I laughed out loud a couple of miles later when two newborn calves were chasing one another looking like puppies bouncing as they ran awkwardly in the pasture.

I remember how thankful I am for my marriage to Mary Beatrice Sullivan.  We celebrated our sixth anniversary yesterday with friends, and then planned an upcoming getaway weekend.

I remember that Mary Sullivan has changed my life. I was lost after my divorce in 1996, my father died in 1998, and I had eventually given up on finding a life-giving marriage after seven plus years.  But on January 29, 2003, I was swept off my feet by Mary.  I have been happy and in love with her ever since.

We married on July 4, 2004 and it is hard for me to put into words what she means to me.  Her spirit reminds me to live life fully every day.

Mary has also given me the opportunity to be a stepdad to Brendan and Kiki.  I have always wanted to be a dad and this gift is grace for me.

I remember I have so much to be thankful for.

Thank you God for being with me, even when I forget.

Today, I remember.

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