When Alaska Taught Me Everything

The weather in San Diego is exactly the same as it has been, but Target is now selling leather lace-up boots next to the rack of mismatched, heavily discounted bathing suit separates.  There are more plaid button-ups, fewer neon tank tops, and my mother now ends every phone conversation with, “What are your plans for Christmas?” Summer is almost over. It actually is completely over, but I use the word “almost” to soften the blow.

We spent a lot of time this summer pushing a stroller on long evening walks, dabbing residual spit up out of sofa cushions, and finding creative ways to make meals from a pantry stocked with impulsive grocery store purchases.

It was the summer of discovering baby sleep schedules, baby feeding patterns, and viral hashtags at the exact moment they stopped trending.

We spent evenings at home crouching over a slippery baby in a bubbling bathtub, reading aloud stories that rhymed, and vowing to never again let the baby roll off the bed.

On the evenings we were out (and there were a lot of them), we learned why parents of young children do not stay out past 7pm. On those nights we bounced a hysterical baby up and down as we begged the waiter to please hurry with the check. We aggressively broke the speed limit on the way home while trying to make eye contact with an exhausted child in the rearview mirror.

This was the summer I felt needed and used more than ever before. I worked jobs and did laundry and changed diapers. I worked for invisible things like the health of my child or the atmosphere of my home or the image of Christ that very much needs to be developed in me.

I completed a lot of tasks while plugging my nose or holding my breath or fighting back tears. I found myself starting and ending each task with a deep exhale and the word: “OK.”

It might be because I’m a new mother or because this is a season of high output, but I never knew the bloated size of my selfishness until it outgrew the strict confines of my life. Of the 20 things on my daily to do list, I didn’t feel like doing 19 of them. The single thing I did feel like doing was a no-brainer task that I added just to cross off: “Finish coffee” or “Keep baby alive.”

It makes me feel like an adult to consider that the work I would rather not do is work that is not optional. I need to finish work projects even when they are boring, speak to my baby gently even when she poops in the bath, and listen to my husband even when my brain is already too crowded. Maybe this is what it feels like to mature, to grow up, and to suddenly realize that daily workouts and daily showers and daily lunch breaks are not actual necessities. Life goes on whether or not you have good grip on it. You can do it tired and hungry and a little smelly in the armpits, or you can… or you can what?

We went to Alaska at the end of the summer after months of work-intensive stretching and pulling and wringing out. I arrived at the icy shores feeling used, spent. I knew that God was growing me in the character of generosity, that he was changing the pliability of my will, but it felt like being bullied. Why was he asking so much of me? Why did I have to be faithful when I would rather be comfortable?

When I didn’t feel generous, God brought me to the people who were.  In Alaska we spent time with new and old friends who gave to us from their closets and their free time and their freezers full of Alaskan salmon. They spent their resources on us in ways we couldn’t repay.

Our friend Greg told us over and over again that we were good parents. He set the pace up a steep mountain trail, a seasoned dad and adventurer himself, and told Mike and me that we were doing a good job with Molly. He told us this without knowing how much we needed to hear it.

After a long day of exploring and caring for a toddler, my friend Shannon sautéed onions at midnight so we could have breakfast casserole in the morning. A tired mama herself, she stood over a stove in the middle of the night to invest in the humble labor of hospitality. I still can’t believe she did that.

And my friend Alli shared with me her favorite coffee spot, favorite hiking trail, favorite pizza, and even her nice shampoo. From her Alaskan home she sat on the couch across from me and shared a deeply resonating conversation about homesickness—the tension between wanting to be near family but not feeling ready to go home yet.   She gave me the gift of feeling understood.

We said thank you over and over again to our deeply gracious friends and for the first time in a long time I felt indebted instead of overdrawn.  In Alaska I suddenly had eyes to see all that I had been given instead of what I had been asked to give.

It was as if I walked in on the surprise of a generous God.  It felt like a strange coincidence, a revelation that arrived by accident. That is how surprises always go, isn’t it? A girl walks into a room assuming she has been neglected or forgotten, when actually she has been extravagantly loved. Someone went to the great trouble of secretly orchestrating every detail of that reminder.

At the end of the trip we stood at the base of Exit Glacier, a glowing aqua mass melting into a bubbling stream that would eventually disappear into a great big ocean. There was a sense of loss in realizing that the glacier wouldn’t be there for very much longer. It was expiring right in front of us, liquidating by the invisible work of a heating sun. I kept thinking: “Was this supposed to happen? Were glaciers supposed to be preserved or liquidated? Is it being put to use or is it being wasted?”

I stood at the base of that magnificent glacier and asked God, “Am I a glacier, too? Am I supposed to be preserved or liquidated? Am I being put to use or being wasted?”

I asked because there are so many things we all have to do tired and hungry and a little smelly in the armpits. We all enter into a different crucible of maturity— parenting or marriage, ministry or career, moving from home or returning to it—and it is there that we discover the great battle between an entitled will and a generous soul.

The will fights for preservation.

The soul fights for generosity.

And at the end of the day I am a glacier that would like to remain a glacier even though I’ve been called to be a living sacrifice.

This summer I experienced the stretching and pulling and wringing out necessary to expand the territory of my willingness, the parameters of my generosity.  I stood on the icy shores of the Last Frontier, the edge of the continent and the end of myself, and I looked into the glassy waters as an exhausted child finding her Father’s eyes in the rearview mirror. I took a deep exhale and said, “OK.”

It occurred to me that I was not the first one to face this fight of the willing. Not too long ago a group of disciples gathered in a darkened room after their King was nailed to a cross. They must have asked the same questions: Was Jesus purposefully used or accidentally wasted? Was this sinless man intended to be preserved or liquidated? On the other end of their questions was a brilliant resurrection, the greatest display of generosity in all of history.

Sacrifice is not the end of the story if you believe the resurrection is coming, if you believe that Heaven scoops up all the willing ones and provides generous returns on invisible investments.

May we  be willing to invest in the right things, give in the right ways, and stretch the very edges of our generosity.

May we be faithful even in the invisible tasks.

May we have eyes to see all that we have been given instead of what we have been asked to give.

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