A Moving Train

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A train picture from my most recent trip to England.

Moving Train

Written in the Austrian Alps. Spring of 2010.

“When I die, I will be very sad to leave you. But, know that I will be alright.”

She said looking out the window at the country side that passed by us quickly. The golden light of the day caught in her hair, and her blue eyes, and she looked suddenly quite young. There was nothing dark in the words she had spoken. Nothing foreboding in the future she told. Only what was true.

I sat opposite her, and suddenly, I wished I sat beside her. But, I could not move, so holy a picture she presented me with, I felt I would have disturbed it to stir.

“Someday I will die you know, but you will be alright. ” She looked at me, and a shadow passed over her face. I had never seen her look more lovely.

The train rocked, and yet somehow, she was still. I will ever hold it in my memory. The look of peace, and wisdom that settled on her face. Her face so familiar to me, taken by an unearthly glow that I had never seen. My heart ached to think of such things. I hated to know the suddenness and constancy of change in this life. It seemed to me that nothing so good as a mother could ever pass away. Nothing so sure as her love could ever become intangible. I wanted a way to tell her it was not true, but there was truth in every breath she took, in every word she spoke.

I anxiously shifted my toes inside my shoes, and looked out my the window to the green fields.

Oh, why didn’t they stop moving? I could only for a moment capture in my mind the hints of beauty that passed by me so quickly. The golden flowers. The grand and sweeping mountains. The housewife in her garden. In ethereal watercolor and smudged pastel it passed away. Oh, why wouldn’t it slow down?

With every disappearing landscape, and every stop, a feeling of insatiable urgency settled around my mind. Soon, I would have to get off. I would have to leave the movement, beauty and wonder of the magnificent train ride.

“We’re almost there, honey. Get your bag.”

I gathered my things in a delirious rush. The train slowed down. Momma opened the compartment and stepped out. And, I, with sadness in my heart followed her. Time seemed to creep as we walked down the narrow train car. The train stopped.

The train heaved a great mechanical sigh and the doors opened to the platform. I could see a suspicion of green from behind the grey station. Momma climbed carefully down the train steps, and turned to the right; she was hidden from my sight. I hesitated a moment, and then all in a breath, I found myself treading on solid ground. Behind me, the doors shut. The whistle blew. The tracks screamed. And I felt the wind pass behind me, and toss hair into my eyes as the train passed away into tiperary. It was gone. I would never again ride on that train. I would never again see the fleeting beauty. The impression of reality. It had died in my mind. I turned, and then, I saw the truth. The solid vast country side, reaching beyond my gaze. The real beauty, the honest truth.

“Ah, we’ve finally arrived.” Sighed my momma. I finally understood.

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Asthma and Grace

IMG_3803 1:30 AM like clockwork. I would awake with a gasp. As I struggled to sit up, my chest would ache, my heart race, and my lungs rattle as I drew a labored breath through my marshy lungs. I need mommy. I’d scamper down the hallway of our one story home, tug at the sheets on her bed till she rolled over. Knowing the routine, she would fold my little body into her mama arms, wrap me in a towel, turn the shower on as hot as it would go, and wait for the steam to untangle my swampy lungs.

And she would tell me “Joy Stories.”

Bunnies, horses, cats, dogs, wallets… I saved them all in my Joy stories. As the steam did its work in my lungs, and my breath became deeper, my mama’s voice would sing gently on, weaving stories in which I mended a bunny’s leg, or returned a wallet, or rode a horse across a blue bonnet field.

As I sat huddled, grey, and bloodshot, my mama would take me to a place in my imagination where the world was bright and clear and I was a hero.

This routine was nearly nightly up until we moved to a drier climate. Some of my clearest and earliest memories are of these early morning asthma attacks, and they are oddly positive.

Asthma has taught me a great deal about grace.

Breath is one of those count-able-on-able things. Everyone learns in their Freshman biology class that thanks to the autonomic nervous system, your brain carries on commanding your lungs to breath, your heart to beat, your stomach to digest. You don’t have to say to your lungs, “Hey, lungs! Please breathe.” And if you do have to, something is terribly wrong.

Breath is a gift and a necessity. Grace is like that too.

Then the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person. (Genesis 2:7)

When we exit the womb, red and screaming, we really have very little to do with it. We are just indiscriminately given this marvelous gift of existence. But most of life is like this. Your looks, your parents, your skin color, your place in the world, your socioeconomic status, you did nothing— either negative or positive!— to deserve it. We none of us particularly deserve this wonderful, terrible, glorious and indecorous life. We are born into it on winds of fire and blood with this strange notion of “fair and not fair.”

I think we walk around with this fascinating assumption that we are in control of our lives. We pat ourselves on the back and say “look what a nice job you’ve done!” or even “you’ve messed this all up.” I really think this is giving ourselves too much credit. If you’ve ever had your lungs stop breathing, or your heart stop beating, or legs stop standing, you know what a fragile and marvelous thing it is to be alive.

This is mainly what asthma has taught me: my breath, my life, is contingent.

Unmerited favor.

Prevenient upholding.

So I take two puffs of my inhaler.

I’ve been reading Running With Horses by Eugene Peterson, and he says something that has very much impacted me along these lines:

We enter a world we didn’t create. We grow into a life already provided for us. We arrive in a complex of relationships with other wills and destinies that are already in full operation before we are introduced. If we are going to live appropriately, we must be aware that we are living in the middle of a story that was begun and will be concluded by another. And the Other is God. … That means that everything I think and feel is by nature a response, and the one to whom I respond is God. I never speak the first word. I never make the first move. (Eugene Peterson, Running With Horses, 2009).

That is what Asthma has taught me. I never make the first move. My life is essentially contingent. Everything I receive on this earth— the good, the bad, and the asthma— has been given to me, and I live my life in response. This is not to diminish the power of choice in shaping our lives. It is only that I think we live much more powerful lives when we acknowledge the basic reality that every element of our lives is gift and miracle. A grace.

And there is another thing: Story.

We are born into stories. Each one of us is given a setting, characters, time period. We may have very little to do with our arriving on the scene of our lives, but we have a great deal to do with how the story might turn out. We are born into the winding and ancient stories of our families, countries, and our religious heritage. But I believe we are born into an even deeper, broader story, should we choose to accept it: the story of the Kingdom of God. It is a good story, of bravery and righteousness and redemption, and perhaps most of all grace. When we let this reality sink into our souls, we live thankfully and urgently. For some reason, I have been born into this family, at this time, with these lungs. Could I be the plot twist in a long line of dark stories?

Just like my mama’s “Joy Stories,” we must see ourselves as given this breath to be heroes.

I’ve had asthma this week, for the first time in a long time.

As if to remind me of my general lack of control over life, my lungs decided to have an asthma attack while on the phone with my mother, 4,000 miles away.

Just to make sure she worries about me.

So, she prays for me. I hang up the phone and begin the old routine. And in a tiny shower half way across the world, I sit and wait for the steam to untangle my swampy lungs. I am not afraid because this breath so generously given to me was never mine to begin with.

I smile.

I begin to breath deeply.

What a gift, this life.

How shall I live it?