It's Christmas Eve, and the lake in front of me is frozen hard. Snow surrounds the edge, crunching beneath my feet. The sun is beginning to sink and the trees, heavy with snow, cast long shadows over the paved path that runs along the shore. Several runners make their way around the perimeter, careful not to bump into the occasional walker on the inside of the path. I stand for a few moments in that familiar spot, beneath the giant oak tree, looking out over the smooth surface. As I'd driven through the icy streets on my way to the park, past familiar shops and sights, I'd noticed few changes in the three years since I'd been gone. I take a deep breath and exhale, leaving faint clouds in the winter air. I have work to do. I open the tailgate of my truck and grab the legs of the heavy wooden bench that I'd loaded earlier.
As I pull it toward me, I realize that it was going to be as difficult to unload as it had been to load. Bracing its weight as best I can against my chest, I inch the front legs toward the edge of the gate, hoping to then ease it to the ground. I hear footsteps behind me. "Need some help?" a young man asks, bearing the rest of the weight for me before I can respond. "Thanks," I say, grunting. Together, we position the bench under the tree and the young man walks back to the lake toward two little girls who are playing on the ice. I take a seat on the bench, knowing that I can't stay long. I can't be late -- not today -- but I'd run through this park so many times over the years that I just had to sit and take it in, if only for a few minutes.
When I was a boy, my father would wake me early on Saturday mornings and we'd drive to a lake, much larger than this one, on the outskirts of my hometown and push our tiny rowboat into the water. We'd always start before dawn. At the lake, we'd row out to our favorite spot and prepare our rods for a morning of fishing. Together we'd sit in silence and wait for the slightest tug on our lines. Often, we'd speak in whispers. My father was convinced that even the smallest noise spooked the fish, but when my father did speak, he'd say, "Be patient, Nathan. One will come," or "Be still, Nathan. Be still."
At the end of the day, we'd row back with our catch -- we threw back more than we ever kept - and then, as we approached the shore, my father would sometimes tell me about his hopes and dreams and ask me about mine. "Even God's smallest plan for us is bigger than any dream we could ever hope for," my father said one morning, pulling the boat onto dry land.
I don't know why I have always remembered that moment but I know exactly what my father was wearing and what the trees and hillside looked like behind him. Perhaps it's clear in my mind because my father is a man of few words-- he lets his life speak for him instead.
Maybe I recall that moment because there was a time when I was a boy that I'd prayed for a miracle that never came, one that would have kept our family intact and saved my mother's life. I was eight-years-old when she died of cancer during the first morning hours of Christmas Day. Earlier in the evening I had run to Wilson's Department Store and bought her a pair of shiny, beaded shoes. Looking back, I know they were gaudy and awful, but in my child's mind I thought she'd look beautiful as she walked into Heaven wearing them. I didn't know my mother would die that night and as I climbed into bed and pulled the blankets high around my neck, I prayed again for a miracle.
As I helped my father pull our boat onto shore years later, I wondered how he could believe that God's plan for us was greater than anything we could have ever imagined, if God wouldn't send a miracle when we needed it most?
One winter morning, just days before Christmas I went with my mother to visit my grandparents who lived high on a hillside. We drove up the winding road that led to their home and because the trees were naked, as I looked over the bluff at the top, I could see into the valley below. It looked so different from above, not as immense as I'd thought. We got out of the car and my mother took my hand on that cold, windy day and looked down into the valley with me. "I liked it better looking up," I said to her. "Everything's too little from here." She knelt down beside me and drew me close to her side.
"Time in the valley will teach you to be a man, Nathan. It's where your character will form." I looked down the slope and back to my mother. I didn't understand how roaming around in the valley below would help me to become a man. She laughed when she saw my puzzled face and stood up, taking my hand again. "You can only see small things when you're on top of a mountain. Do you know what I mean, Little Man?" I shook my head. No, I didn't. She knelt down in front of me and held my face in her hands. "One day you will, I promise. But I hope you don't go straight to the top of the mountain, Nathan. I hope you go through the valley first so that you'll learn how to love and feel and understand. And when life wounds you, I hope it's because you loved people, not because you mistreated them." I didn't understand anything my mother was saying. She smiled and kissed me. "Always remember that regardless of what happens, Nathan, in the end there will be joy. I promise." As odd as it sounded, I've come to realize that it was her heart's cry for my life, spoken not necessarily to me, but for me.
People talk about a defining moment in life. I've come to realize that there is no one defining moment, but instead a series of events and circumstances that define who we are. They change us little by little, leading us to something bigger or unexpected or maybe into a closed door and that is when we experience a grand moment of realization that drives us closer to our destiny. The times with my father on the lake and then with my mother overlooking the valley are two such moments.
Today, I know that each of us is destined for something, a purpose that often seems muddy, or vague at best. We want nothing more than to know what our purpose is, to know that we haven't just been plopped down to fumble our way through to the end, but that there's a reason for our being here. We may not discover that purpose in the way that we'd want, as time in the valley will be longer and darker than we imagined, but if we are patient or still long enough, we will catch it in fleeting glimpses. We will see tiny sparks of revelation that push us closer and closer to our destiny. There will be pain; sometimes more than we bargained for, but as my mother promised so many years ago, in the end there will be joy.
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