“…and underneath are the everlasting arms.”

We are somewhere in the Pilliga – that million acres wild – when it appears:

Alice, Please call Search & Rescue

A silent automated message on the screen of my mobile phone.

(We’ve been loading firewood, the children and I, all gloved and farm-clothed and John-Deere-capped. A cold front is coming in over the weekend and their daddy’s a thousand miles from home. He’s a thousand miles from anywhere, almost: he and his brother in the red outback.)

But I can’t call anyone from here. There’s signal enough for my phone to receive text, but it’s still half an hour’s drive through this uncooperative country before there’ll be service enough even to make a phonecall.

My tall girl has handed the timber-cutter a parcel of her homemade Anzac biscuits, and I have handed him cash. We’ve climbed into the ute and waved our thanks and goodbyes. As I’m navigating the rutted track back to the old man’s front gate, the children have already forgotten his arthritis and his red-dusted collie and they’re wanting to know who the message is from.

I tell them it’s a secret and thank my boy for getting the gate, and when he questions my speed and reminds me about the trailer I try to conjure clever red herring excuses; and I will my voice to flow quaverless across my parching lips.

I am speeding towards phone service and I know I’ll have it when I get close to town, and somewhere in mental recesses wild like the million acres of scrub in my rearview, the thought appears that it would be safer to drive in the opposite direction; to find a track leading to oblivion – surely there is one? – one that will never lead to a town. In that moment I discover why JFK’s bride tried to climb backwards out of that Dallas motorcade. Because I am heading inexorably towards what can only be bad news and isn’t that the opposite of survival instinct?

It’s a long way to town and neurons fire lightning fast and by the time I reach the 50k zone I’m deciding to be intentional about where I will stop to call.

I want to be on the outskirts and I want to be near the bridge and I cannot think of a single sane reason why.

I cannot find a place worthy of the news I might receive. I cannot find a picture I want engraved on my memory as the altar of my initiation into widowhood. Because I know this man, and I know his strength, and I know this is no accidental signal. I know this is only life and death.

By now there is voicemail and it’s Southern in accent and when I return the call he tells me, between the Yes Ma’ams, that he’s in Texas, that he’s a US Marine. He reads me GPS coordinates and I’m surprised when he pronounces Oodnadatta and he tells me they know nothing more but will let me know when they do.

The next message is from the capital and I hear words like Search and Aviation; the voice is kind and professional until – just for a millisecond – he cannot mask the surprise when I finally explain that I am the wife. (There’s never been a definite article in front of that title before, my subconscious points out to my barely conscious self, so something dreadful must have happened indeed). I have answered questions all calm and cool control and if he can’t hear my teeth or my knees he might indeed be impressed. I remember details like model numbers and helmet colours and birthdates and first aid kit contents, and I list Spot Tracker options and I rattle it all off like I’m reciting a memorised poem.

But my body is shaking uncontrollably and the fear, it must out somehow, even when the heart remains deceitful above all things.

It’s another half hour’s drive home to the farm and my mind has nothing to do now but run.

I think of my grandmother widowed at my age and I know in that moment I will never remarry and I will never remove this wedding band.

I think of my neighbour so recently widowed and as I pass her farm gate I want to ask how she lives it out with such grace.

I think of my friend widowed young and still beautiful and how her own farmer left her four children and a farm.

I think of my bed and the shallow emptiness there has been beside me this whole week long, and I wonder how deep it will grow when it’s forever.

I think of churches and burials (town cemeteries, farm plots).

I think of the bagpipes we didn’t have at our wedding, and I wonder if he would would like those.

I think of Jackie Kennedy and the riderless horse and the poignancy of the honour. I think, how very much I want to honour him.

I think of a prayer recently offered on our behalves, and how that man said, “YOU are the One writing this story.”

(Later when I try to read my hastily scrawled words on a notepad by the phone, I find they are illegible. My shaking has been wild.
But I can feel You, the Author-Narrator, under and over and beneath the whole tale. My lasting impression will be of that impossible peace.)

There is a question ranging uncertainly in the back fields of my mind, and every now and then it catches my eye from a distance. When it does, I’m not sure whether the words are black or white: If death has separated us, wouldn’t I somehow feel it?

But there’s no room in this wilderness for less-than-worst-case scenarios; it’s a drama but the stage is impossibly small. The idea does not suggest itself that anything less than death, and the death of him, has occurred, and I wonder if that is a mechanism designed for our own good?

Because when, five hours later, I sit the children down, and communicate the first of any of it to them, I announce to them that I have just had some very good news.

(I have instructed them to unload the firewood, feed the animals, do the chores – while I make some important phonecalls in Daddy’s farm office. I must not be interrupted, I explain. And after fielding calls from the State Police regarding fixed wing aircraft and missing persons, and from the International Emergency Response Coordination Centre in some distant bunker about satellite beacons and next of kin…I have lived out my whole long future in five short hours. And it is amazing how elastic a lifetime can be.)

With one last phonecall, all that has been borrowed from me is rapidly returned:

‘We have made ground contact. One of them has a severely injured leg.’

I deliver the news to the children with a smile: “Either Daddy or your uncle has broken his leg.”

They look at me like I have lost my mind.

“Mummy,” frowns the youngest, “that is not good news.”

“Yes it is,” I assure her. She has no idea her father has just been resurrected. “Yes it is. It is very good news.”

Of Fractures and Fractions and Family Trees

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It is only now, almost 3 weeks after the hurt, that I recognize it as an answer to prayer.
Her pain has been severe enough, prolonged enough, that her exhaustion means she can no longer hold down the pain that comes bubbling up from underneath it, from long ago.
The sobs begin as a valve venting the physical ache, but as they gain momentum they are stops open and pipes roaring glorious organic truth, the beautiful mess of a young life lived: and they are no longer voicing a bodily broken bone but a fractured heart.
And as she moans it I see that my child’s pain is but a fraction of the fracture I have felt in that same fibia – the leg limping on a rug pulled out from under, and trying to make a stance that will be on solid ground.
She misses the childhood place, the soul’s connection, the loss of which she has not – till now – realized I have felt and mourned a hundredfold.
She sees it now, humble, compassionate; she hears an empathy in my voice and I see her mind curtsey gracious to it, elegant child that she is. She hears my heart speak through the moan that will not quite escape through this tightened throat, under the princess castle gauze of her mosquito net hung duskly.
Oh, my child, how thankful I am that this is all He is asking you – me – to give up! Of all that He could require for relinquishing… Only this? Praise Him.
And yet I acknowledge the pain. It is a grieving for a dying and He never promised it would not come to this. He only promised it would be worth it. He simply invites, ‘Follow Me.’
And those disciples, they dropped nets and they stepped into the shallows and didn’t turn back, not even when the shallows became depths which threatened to engulf. Then they walked on that water, overcomers, not undergoers. They followed Him, leaving EVERYTHING, and when they knew Him they knew that He. Is. Worth It.
Oh, dear heart, sweet child of mine, the ounce of pain in your eyes? It is an answer to my prayer. I knew it when I prayed it that it was a danger to you and to me, but I asked Him to do what it took to let you know Him and His worth. Gentle, gracious Father – that this is ALL it is: Thank You.
Oh Lord, don’t let it be wasted.
Bring her near now to Yourself.
I love her.
I love You.
Thank You that You knit her heart just like You knit her bone, and both of them together in my womb.
Thank You for showing me a fraction of the feel – of the Father’s hundredfold sacrifice mirrored in the child’s hundredth eyes.
God of Generations, God of recompense; pay it back now a hundredfold!
Glory to You now in the church and in the Tree.
In Jesus’ Name.
Amen.

Four Score Years

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These are the feet of a daddy who climbed a ladder to lower himself.

He humbled himself, quietly, in his old workboots and jeans, with a hammer and nails one July afternoon.

To serve his oblivious child.

With his farmer’s hands, Dad repaired what I could not, because he knew the surprise-guests would soon be arriving, and I, in my Sunday-best, would feast shameless in his wake.

As he did it, he spoke silently of the One who descended to earth – to raise us to heaven, all inverted-like.

Of the One who wrapped a towel around His waist, and knelt, to wash my dusty feet.

Of the One who with hammer and nails served me, His oblivious child – before I could perceive my own need.

Of the One who repairs in me what I am powerless to restore, so that I may feast at last all Sunday-clad in the wake of His grace.

These are the feet of the one who introduced me to the Milky Way – and to the One who spilled those stars across the void.

Those stars which speak, all crystalline-tinkling, of the Voice who spoke them into visible diamond-words.

“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!”

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“…the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:15, 17 NASB)

Evergreen

We woke at 3:07am on Saturday morning to a resounding crash. It was the creaking groan of a breaking bough and the splintering fall of timber. Adrenalin quivered in my fingertips as the needles shook on the ends of their own spindly limbs.

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The tree stood all ragamuffin at the corner of the verandah, and the french doors were open for any minstrel of a breeze. February means hot summer nights on this antipodean farm.

February also means a new school year for us, so Saturday afternoon finds me in the study, reading about poetry and history and art… (We study history like a multi-stranded rope, snipping it open at a given point and investigating some variegated threads: literature and music and science and language and art and technology and ideas, all woven into one spectacular, linear story…).

This season we’ve selected the thread of our own family history: a familiar strand for the littlest students in our home to grasp, while we introduce them to the foreign, to the further afield… And so family stories and photos and timelines are spread out over the study table, for the fleshing out of a paper family tree.

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If history is a story – and the universe, as Aristotle said, requires a beginning, a middle and an end… then it follows that history has an Author. And an Author who transcends but writes Himself into His own story: that is the golden thread running through the centre of the rope, from ‘In the beginning’ to ‘Amen’.

So we study His Words, and discover what He has to say about the parts of the story to which we’ve turned.

In this case: a Family Tree.

One might be forgiven for expecting a list of unpronounceable ‘begats’… But instead it is the words of an ancient prophet which speak the Author’s heart and thrill my mother’s soul:

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I had written it in gold on the study window…

George Macdonald has defined art as “the revelation of the true through the beautiful”, and it is not until I see the fallen tree branch through the chalked study window that I recognise it as art: Truth and Beauty superimposed.

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“They will be called Oaks of Righteousness…”

This, this is our charge. Entrusted with acorns: to raise strong saplings.

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To so nurture the branch of a family tree in our home that when drought comes, its roots are deep and it knows where to find the Source that will quench desperate thirst.

To train its leanings in this short growing season in such a way that when the time comes, its timber will be strong and ready for use…

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“Remember that the LORD your God led you on the entire journey these 40 years…”

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I have prayed God’s own words back to Him as my birthday wish: that I might “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ…” (Ephesians 3:18 NIV)

Not for a moment did I suspect that His answer would come in the surprising form of this graceful family tree, weaving and reaching its sap-filled branches all the way down the garden path to my door.

Their love, it is wide enough to envelop these beloved neighbours into the fold and to interlace branches with my own family’s sweet boughs; it’s long enough to reach forward into the shadowed not-yet, for the tendrils of children unfurling over the fields; it is high enough to worship the One for Whom we are made and to laugh like crazy over the stories we tell and retell; deep enough to reach back through the years (we re-enact photos from my father-in-law’s 40th year: I remember the security of my own father’s side and the peanuts in a bowl and the smooth verandah floor…).

This love is surprising.

I should not be surprised.

It comes from the Father Himself, “from whom His whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name.”  (Eph. 3:15):

Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott

A mighty fortress indeed.  I testify:

“He has watched over your journey through this immense wilderness.  The LORD your God has been with you this past 40 years, and you have lacked nothing.” (Deuteronomy 2:7 HCSB).

Thank You Jesus.  You are my Promised Land.

 

“I’ve been with you these twenty years.”

(Genesis 31:38)

This Man, Man of the Soil

This man, he is farmer, not writer
– but when he does this I am slain:

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He is more than farmer, more than writer.  He is like the poet-warriors of old.

“The man is a fighter, but when he is not fighting he is a farmer…” (David Malouf, Ransom p4).

Happy twenty years, Man of the Soil:  “You are the most excellent of men.” Psalm 45:2 (NIV)

Thank you for fighting the good fight for us, for keeping the faith through every seedtime and harvest.

Happy twenty years, Author of that faith:

“I am the God of Bethel, where you… made a solemn vow to me.” Genesis 31:13 (HCSB)

Thank you both for your “name-changing, story-changing love” (Tullian Tchividjian, Unfashionable p153); for making my heart your home.

You are my home also.

You are my Abode.