Sure To Save

On March 29, 1869 two soldiers, Sgt. Adams and Pvt. McLoughlin, stood upon the shore of Newport Harbor. They braced themselves against Rhode Island’s biting, late-winter wind by pulling their blue, army-issued wool coats tighter around their shoulders. The young private blew a few hot breaths into his cupped hands before raising his gaze toward Fort Adams in the distance, which stood resolute against the ominous clouds beyond. 

They’d spent their short leave in the bustle of Newport, but they needed to get back to their posts before nightfall. The day had been unremittingly colorless and cold, and the rumble in the distance warned them that a storm was brewing. The harbor, though somewhat protected from the wild waters of the Atlantic, was infamous for becoming treacherous quickly.

But the two soldiers had hired a boy, a young sailor who’d sworn he’d be able to guide them to the safety of the fort in even the roughest weather. And they did really need to get back to their posts.

As soon as they set off dark clouds descended on them. The late-evening light withered into darkness, the wind began to howl, and the waters around them begin to roil and spill over the sides of the boat. 

The men were soldiers, not sailors. They had little experience with the grey, icy waters that churned beneath them, and they were beginning to see that their 14-year-old guide was far less experienced than he’d led them to believe. The rain lashed against them, soaking them to the bone, their heavy coats growing even heavier. As the wind spun them round and the waves toss them side to side, the three men became disoriented, uncertain whether the safety of the fort lay ahead or behind. 

Then through the squall they saw the faintest glimmer of light. 

From the lamp room of the Lime Rock Lighthouse a light shone faithfully—as it had since the day the Lewis family had first been given the task of caring for it. 

But if the three beleaguered men felt any sense of relief, it was quickly dashed as a mighty wave overturned their boat and tossed them into the icy water.

Meanwhile, in the lighthouse sat Ida Lewis, the eldest daughter of the light keeper. She was sick with a cold and trying to keep warm by the stove as the wind howled outside, forcing the shutters to crash against the house in an irregular staccato. 

Then Ida heard something, panicked shouts mingled with the howling wind and rain.

In a flash, she was out of her chair, throwing open the door to the fury of the storm outside. From the lighthouse’s perch atop the craggy island, she could see men in the water, struggling to find handholds on the upturned keel of a boat. She knew that the billowing waves would soon take the men out into open water.

Without stopping to put on a coat or shoes, Ida ran out into the night. 

She clambered over the rocks, slick with rain, and into her rowboat. As she pushed off from shore the wind and freezing rain threatened to drive her back, but she rowed with all her might. 

Wave after wave crashed over the bow, nearly sinking her, but the men’s desperate pleas gave her the strength to press on, her progress painfully slow. 

By the time she reached them there were only two souls left to save. The young sailor had slipped under the water almost as soon as their boat had capsized. But to save Adams and McLoughlin, Ida summoned all the strength in her 103-pound frame and dragged the nearly-unconscious men into the boat with her, lifting them over the stern as her father had taught her in order to minimize the risk of capsizing herself. 

When Ida finally reached the safety of the lighthouse she was frostbitten, Adams could hardly walk, and McLoughlin was unconscious. Yet in the end, both men lived. 

The men she plucked out of the storm that day were counted among the total of 18 lives that Ida would save throughout her life in the lighthouse, first as the child of the light keeper and then as the light keeper herself.

Of her, a poet once wrote:

In this world there’s none beside her,
none more true and brave.
In the tempest, on the wave,
none more sure to save.

In our lives the tempest and the wave will surely come. Be they disappointments, tragedies, worries, or unanswerable questions, each of us will have moments where we’ll find ourselves overcome by the roar of the squall and the rush of the tide. We will lose our way. Our lives will be caught up and capsized. 

And in the midst of those storms we may even see a light burning steady and true, but we find ourselves hopeless to reach it. We feel too far, too weak, too lost. 

But the glorious truth is that the light keeper’s child has already come to our rescue. He’s left the safety of his home, rowed out upon the troubled sea of our world, and braved the worst storms of this life so that we who are shipwrecked can be saved.

In the tempest, on the wave,
none more sure to save.

To see a performance of this story visit willowcreek.tv

Behind the scenes photography by Tyler Hoff

Primary source:
Skomal, Lenore (2010-06-15). Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter: The Remarkable True Story Of American Heroine Ida Lewis. Globe Pequot Press. Kindle Edition. 

And Then He Rested

Splash

The first day of vacation was… unexpected. And I should have seen it coming. 

We've fallen into the the wonderful habit of taking the same vacation every year. We borrow my in-law’s RV and find a cozy campground along the shore of Lake Michigan for a good, long stretch. We keep things simple so that we can keep ourselves together, trying to avoid filling up the hours with endless entertainments, simply allowing the days to unwind as they will so that we can do the same. 

And the first day was just that. We woke up and had breakfast. I went on a bike ride. We spent hours on the beach. At the end of the day we stopped at Whippi Dip, our favorite little ice cream stand. Then, as the sun began to sink, it’s golden light held captive in the wafting smoke from all the evening fires being lit throughout the camp, I sunk into a hammock, exhausted. 

I thought to myself, This isn’t working.

You see, in the cracks of all the things I’ve already said, there’d been all the same guiding, herding, laughing, whining, crying, and correcting that everyday brings when you have three kids, and my response to all of it was pretty much the same too. I was still riddled with hurry and impatience, with frayed nerves and too-quick words. I still wasn’t resting. 

A few days before we’d left, I'd read these words:

Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)

I’d nearly cried. And then I’d kept reading, and I did cry.

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:29)

I can find rest for my soul? For me? My tears told me just how deeply I longed for that rest, deep down rest, all over rest, soul rest. And I gave myself a little pep talk. God’s giving you this word to get you through until vacation. He’s great like that. The rest you want is right around the corner. Just a few more days. Hang in there. 

So there I was—literally hanging in a hammock on day one of vacation—feeling all the feelings that feel nothing like rest. But I was trying to rest. I’d turned off my email. I’d emptied my calendar. I’d erased my to-do lists. I even had the beginnings of a sunburn to show just how hard I was working at this resting thing.

The cicadas were singing in the trees as dusk fell and the campground grew quieter. And I grew quieter too. In my mind the words of Matthew 11 came floating into view, like the writing on the wall but intended for some other lucky soul. I looked at the lines and quickly latched onto the two phrases that had so deeply spoken to my longings:

I will give you rest.
You will find rest for your soul. 

I was still pining for those things. And then the whole passage seemed to dissolve again. Only three words remained.

Come to me. 

Oh how quick I’d been to skim right past those words. There’s a difference between weariness and readiness. Just because I was weary didn't mean I was ready to rest. In fact, like I said, I’d been working hard at resting. I’d been busy patting myself on the back for how restful I was being, and all the while my head and heart were working as hard as ever. I’d tried all the things other than the one thing I’d been told to do. 

It’s like someone who’s been invited to dinner. But when they arrive they walk right by the welcome mat, going all around the house, banging on the windows, begging to be let in. I’d wanted in on the feast, but I’d ignored the front door. I’d looked for entry some other way. But the invitation read, plain as day: Come to me.

So I started trying that. Because nothing else was working. Because two weeks later, vacation was over. Because we can’t save up and stockpile a few weeks off and expect it to satisfy our bodies, our souls, our families, our workplaces, and all the rest. We have to find ways to rest in the midst of all of these things. No more of this just hang on a few more days… or weeks… or months stuff. I want to find rest now, in this moment, in the midst of the life I’m in, the work I’m given, the mission I’m on. That’s the kind of rest I want to taste. So I’m trying to regularly find the front door where the host stands, saying: Come to me.

Rhyme As Reason

A collective gasp, then the room erupts. People are out of their chairs; the roar of shouts and screams is deafening. And I just have to laugh.

This was a few years ago. Sixty or so of my friends and co-workers were on a retreat, a couple days of glamping, all of us in cabins tucked into the folds of the hills that stretch down to meet the Pacific near Santa Barbara. At night we could hear the ocean, and the insects, and the occasional scurry of a skunk crossing the cabin’s porch. We enjoyed all the retreat classics: campfires, s’mores, bocce tournaments, etc. On the last night was the talent show, a mix of bad skits, bad raps, bad costumes, and all in good fun.

Near the end of the night, just when everyone was getting tired of laughing or groaning, this guy gets up, this unassuming guy. He’s the guy you’ve said hello to a hundred times but haven’t really talked to. He’s the guy who’s fairly quiet but who everyone likes.

And suddenly, he’s someone else. He’s doing magic. He’s charming, and polished, and funny, and he’s doing full-on magic. He’s calling cards and making things disappear and reappear, and after every illusion the room erupts in chaos. People are losing... their... minds.

Granted, it was some pretty great magic. But the real kicker was that we just never saw it coming.

That is the power of surprise and delight.

It’s different from shock and awe. Shock and awe renders us wide-eyed, dumbfounded, speechless. But surprise and delight feels like a gift, one that's been personally wrapped and marked with our name. Surprise and delight is exhilarating, and warming, and it leaves us deeply, powerfully grateful.

We love surprise and delight. So does God. I often think of the Holy Spirit as the bringer of conviction, intuition, power, or comfort, and he is all of those things. But I think the Spirit is also the bearer of those twin gifts of surprise and delight, constantly causing good things to spring up in the places we least expect them.

When you send forth your Spirit, [living things] are created, and you renew the face of the ground.
Psalm 104:30

I haven’t been writing much lately, at least not much personal writing. I’ve said before that a dry-spell in my writing is usually the indicator of a bit of some parched ground elsewhere in my life.

A few days ago I sat down at my computer, opened the app that I use to journal, and guiltily tapped out…

I haven’t been doing much writing…

Blinking cursor. Blinking cursor. Blinking cursor.

And then… a word suddenly popped into my head. Inviting.

A rhyme. Writing and Inviting. I knew that inviting was the word that needed to end the next line. And I smiled. I smiled because I realized God was aiming to surprise and delight me again. You see, for years now he’s been using rhymes. Sometimes they’ll come out of the blue, phrases or whole stanzas, but far more often they come one line at a time. It’s as if he’ll whisper the last word and then grin as I find my way there. Inevitably, by the time I’ve written up to the rhyme the whole reason for the line will come as a revelation—the answer to something I’ve been puzzling over, the feeling I didn’t have words for, the diagnosis of what’s really going on. It’s like a conversation. Although, I suppose it’s not like one; it is one.

The rest of the conversation went like this:

I haven’t been doing much writing…
I haven’t been inviting
in the supernatural muse
who longs to infuse
my myopic views
with so much more
than the bore
of just getting by.

For weeks I’d been just getting by. My view of my world had narrowed down to the point that everyday was just a telescopic view toward the finish line. So here God was, gently reminding me why. For the sake of getting things done I’d written God off as a luxury, dismissed quiet, solitude, and study as the activities of those who’d never seen a deadline. I felt convicted and sorry.

But I also felt seen and loved because God had gotten my attention in the most personal and wonderful way. I’d written a single line just so I could say that I’d tried to write something, and then he’d used a rhyme to guide me back to reason. I hadn’t seen it coming. He had surprised and delighted me. He does it all the time. And I just have to laugh.

Learn As You Grow

I remember standing alongside Karen's bed in the delivery room in La Jolla, California. In the moments before our first kid was born I held her hand and wondered if, through all her pain and effort, she could tell how sweaty my palms were. In my head I was cycling through all the ways life was about to change, all the ways I needed to change if I was ever going to have any hope of being good at this fathering thing. 

In that hospital room I let all the fears of the coming years crowd in at once. They  jammed together and overlapped so that my unease over changing diapers smashed right up against my concern of how I'd help him navigate the world of dating. My fear of holding babies kept company with the worry that I'd never be able to help him with math homework more advanced than long division. To say nothing of colleges, weddings, careers and the natural hardships, feelings, and healing that life brings our way.

The tears I shed that day were an equal concoction of awe and panic.

Today, the most frequent advice I give to new fathers and fathers-to-be is: Relax. You'll learn as you go. 

We don't have to figure out fathering all at once. Those first couple weeks all they need is to be held. And then to be changed, fed, and put back to bed. And trust me, that's enough. Those tasks will feel like more than enough. 

Then they'll become second nature, and just when you've begun to master them you'll find you need another skill. You'll learn to interpret fussing from crying. You'll learn the difference between hungry cries and hurting cries and angry cries and just crying to cry cries. (There's a lot of crying.)

And later you'll learn how they like to be loved. How they need to be disciplined. How they best receive encouragement. All three of my kids help me know what they need and what they need me to be for them. Bit by bit they've taught me how to be a father.

But throughout a really wonderful Father's Day weekend, I realized that my kids have taught me so much more. 

A few days earlier Finnden and I were in the basement together. I was working on some things, and he was in the corner by himself, quietly playing with Legos. Just before we went upstairs he turned to me and said, "Dad, I have something for you." He came over, took my hand, and led me to where he'd been working. I looked down to see that he'd spelled out Happy Father's Day out of Legos. 

He looked at me with a huge grin and said, "I did it because we both like Legos so much." 

Finn is one of the most kind and empathetic people I've ever known. He sees people. He sees the things that mean something, and then he imagines ways to make those things mean even more. He teaches me—with a hug, or a word, or a drawing—what God's love likely looks like.

We went to the pool this weekend where I spent more than an hour wading in four feet of water so that Ellis could jump to me over and over and over again. She's still learning to swim, so she didn't want me going an inch further than her jump could carry her. To tease her I'd take tiny backward steps, and she'd say, "No, no, no. No farther." Half an hour into this game she said, "Stop, Daddy! Stop right there." I laughed and went a little further, to which she finally stamped her foot and shouted loud enough for the whole pool to hear, "Stop right there in the name of the Lord!"

That little girl is fearless and ferocious. She knows her mind and she speaks it. And she teaches me that maybe I don't need to always run my thoughts through an endless loop of what will they say? or the filter of what will they think? before those thoughts form into words. She teaches me to be brave.

On Sunday we were coming back from errands, and I opened the door next to Ona's car seat to find her beaming at me. Then she squealed and reached for me. As if that wasn't enough, when I scooped her up she nestled her little nose into the crook of my neck and held it there for a rare cuddle. When she pulled back I smiled, and then I watched her close her eyes and lean forward until her forehead touched mine. We stood like that, motionless—I barely dared to breathe—until she suddenly wriggled to get down. 

I set her in the grass to toddle off, my heart filled to the brim. I've never seen someone so quick to smile, that bright, big, whole-faced kind of smile. She teaches me what it looks like to spread joy and how just a few moments of intention can fill a heart to overflowing.

As I said before, somewhere along the way I realized that in fathering, my kids help stagger the lessons. We learn to be parents as we go. But this weekend God pointed out how often my kids are helping me learn to grow. They're teaching me how to be a better human. My children are teaching me how to be a child of God.