To Be Together: A Holiday Guest Post by Berry Simpson

For a special holiday treat, I thought I'd try something a little different. In this post, my friend Berry Simpson, author of Trail Markers, Remodeled, and other books, shares his heart and wisdom on the gift of family togetherness. Since my introduction to Berry's writing in 2012, when I edited Remodeled, I've appreciated his gift as a writer for sharing plainspoken, heartfelt wisdom gleaned from his life as a runner, an outdoorsman, a Bible teacher, a blogger (What I've Learned So Far), and above all, a lover of God and his family. It is this last that he writes about here in his piece titled . . .

To Be Together

(C)2017 by Berry Simpson

We had a family photo shoot Saturday afternoon organized by our daughter, Katie, with her extraordinary photographer friend, Cindy. We were in Mansfield, Texas, about five hours from our house in Midland. That might seem like a long drive for pictures, especially since we were all together the week before for Thanksgiving. I would have thought so myself a few years ago, but nowadays I think it makes complete sense.

We had our entire tribe: our daughter, Katie, and her two girls, Madden and Landry; our son, Byron, who drove down from extreme north Dallas; Zoe, an adopted tribe member and exchange student from Germany currently living with Katie and the girls; and Cyndi and me. We met at a local country club, a location that Cindy, the photographer, uses often, since “they’ve never chased me away.” It was a fun afternoon. We posed in every possible combination: the girls, the girls with their mom, the entire family, the family with Zoe, Cyndi and me with the girls acting silly in the grass, and the crowd favorite, Cyndi and me kissing.

The Gift That Can’t Be Wrapped

The morning before, I participated in a video conference with my great friend Gary from Colorado Springs. He was recording an interview about how calling changes your life and ministry, and we started talking about our recent Thanksgivings. We laughed at how being grandfathers has changed our family gatherings. For instance: I remember asking my parents what they wanted for Christmas, and all they would say was, they wanted us to be together. We wanted them to tell us something we could wrap and put under the tree; they would never commit to a gift that I could put in a box.

Now I am the one who tells my kids that for Christmas, all I want is for us to be together. Only now do I realize how important that is. Now I get to watch my kids roll their eyes. It has come full circle. Like that.

We are blessed as a family. I thank God for that every time we are together. We are able to spend time with each other and still remain friends. I never knew how rare that was until I heard so many men tell their life stories. Now I am convinced we are blessed. For Thanksgiving we had mostly traditional food. (Zoe was fascinated by my process of carving turkey! Had I known how closely I would be observed, I would’ve watched a few more YouTube videos to polish my skills.) We enjoyed grilled sweet potatoes, homemade bread, homemade apple pie, homemade hand-decorated sugar cookies, brisket chili rellenos, sweet potato pie, all the other favorites—and no green bean casserole! But what we most relished sharing were the stories and the laughs and the embarrassing family memories.

My Father’s Greatest Legacy

This year was my first Thanksgiving holiday in a decade with neither of my parents present. My mom died in 2014, and my father died just last March, eight months ago. Several people, both family and friends, asked how I felt about not having my dad with us, and was I OK being the oldest person in my lineage. To be honest, the topic had never occurred to me. I said, “When Dad died, we were all caught up. There were no stories untold and no grudges or secrets between us. His was a peaceful and well-deserved departing. Dad left us in good shape, loving each other and loving Jesus. The holiday was great.”

On her most recent Christmas album, Amy Grant sings:

When you open up that door

To old familiar rooms of love and laughter

Coming home just the way you are

Knowing this is all that really matters

To be together

And so, only a week after we saw each other at Thanksgiving, we were all together again taking official family photos. It was fun. And our favorite part was when Cindy the photographer asked us to move closer to each other and snuggle more.

I’m not so naïve as to think everyone has together moments like this. But whatever time you have with the people you love, I hope you lean in and find a way to enjoy each other.


Forgiveness: Paying the Cost

Forgiveness can be as swift and easy as accepting a friend's apology for being ten minutes late for lunch at the restaurant. Or it can be as grueling, as costly, as seemingly impossible, as forgiving a divorce or a business betrayal. What makes the latter kind of forgiveness particularly difficult is this: the other person may not care in the least. They may feel utterly justified in their mistreatment of you. They may even take pleasure at the injury they've caused you--or they may take no thought at all. Whether you forgive them or not means nothing to them because you yourself are of no consequence.

That's the kind of forgiveness reflected in Jesus's words "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing" (Luke 23:34). Father, they just don't have a clue. No idea whatsoever. They're prisoners of their ignorance, blinder than beggars and twice as poor.

Mercy and compassion toward those who showed him neither: that's the extreme brand of forgiveness Jesus showed toward those who were killing him. Jesus didn't pray "Father, forgive them" in order to set a lofty example; he prayed those words because he meant them. In his heart he longed for something far better for his persecutors than vengeance; he longed for them to one day see, and understand, and live.

What's particularly important to note is, forgiving his executioners didn't change Jesus's immediate circumstances. The black iron spikes remained in his wrists and feet. The agony of crucifixion wasn't relieved. Jesus still died a torturous, shameful death hanging naked on a post for all Jerusalem to see.

What changed was that the back of hatred was broken. It lost its self-perpetuating power--because the One who did know exactly what he was doing absorbed its worst blow and countered it with love for those who inflicted it.

Sometimes today we hear stories of that radical brand of forgiveness: The father who adopts his child's murderer and raises him as a son. The college woman who, without minimizing the violence perpetrated on her, refuses to harbor bitterness against her rapist. The prisoner wrongly convicted who, when the truth is finally revealed, forgives those who took fifteen years of his life from him and far more besides.

For such people, forgiveness is no glib thing. It is big-ticket, and those who have been wronged are the ones who must foot the bill. Doing so may begin simply with this thought: "If I had the power to send those who have hurt me to hell...I would not."

Forgiveness desires life, God-life, for the offender. It desires vision for the spiritually blind. It chooses--often against the forgiver's own conflicting emotions--to pray for the release of those held captive by their own hate or sheer, selfish unconcern for the pain of others.

Forgiveness is not trite. It is not easy. It may even be miraculous. It is one choice followed by as many more choices as it takes.

If--no, when--we are deeply injured, may Jesus grant us his eyes to see clearly what the other person cannot see at all. May he give us the grace to pray from our heart, "Father, forgive them. Help them to see. Help them to know your love for them and for others. And grant them what you have so graciously given me: life--true, deep, powerful life."

For the Love of a Tree

Child of the Monarch

Child of the Monarch

Across the stream behind my late-boyhood home in Cascade, Michigan, there stretched a forest where hepaticas bloomed purple and pink in the spring, profusions of trilliums scattered like popcorn beneath the understory, and colonies of downy rattlesnake plantain and shining club moss nestled amidst a sprawl of partridgeberry. A network of trails, known well to my feet, led up and down wooded hillsides, over streams, and across clearings past the stone ruins of pioneer homesteads, all the way to the banks of the Thornapple River a mile away.

In that forest, not far from my house, a tall old white pine stood sentinel on a hillock overlooking a tiny swamp. During the awkward and often painful years between twelve and eighteen, when a boy goes through his confusing transition to early manhood, that white pine became my friend.

It was a magnificent tree whose bark had long ago roughened from the gray slickness of a sapling to the brown, rugged furrows of a monarch. To say it was a wise old tree would be to impose too much on it. It was a tree. But it knew how to listen. And it knew how to welcome me to its sheltering shadow, where a circle of soft, fragrant needles spread like a blanket on the forest duff. There I could lay me down in the shade and silence, and look up through the branches at the clouds passing over, and smell the piney air, and simply be. I had a place to go and think and pray, and a great pine to talk to whose murmur in the breeze became all the reply and exactly the companionship I needed.

When life got difficult, as it often did, I would go to my friend the tree. It was always there. My place, my tree. My good friend. My beloved white pine.

In the spring of my eighteenth year, the sound of chain saws invaded the woods. Next came the bulldozers, and shortly after, the inevitable. There came an afternoon when I arrived home from school to find a massive strip of raw earth carved through the woods, down the hill to the edge of Trout Creek. The beautiful, tall tamaracks, which for years had lit the swamp like candle flames in the fall, had been thrust heedlessly aside. And sprawling in their shattered midst, its branches reaching skyward in mute supplication, lay my friend the white pine.

I dropped my books, ran across the homemade plywood bridge that spanned the creek, and rushed up the slope to where my pine tree lay. Tenderly I stroked its branches. And as golden pine pollen rose about me in a cloud, I wept. My friend—my dear, dear old friend. My heart is broken. I will miss you so!

Ten or twenty feet distant, just beyond the ruin of the bulldozer, I spotted a pine seedling, no more than a foot and a half tall. Undoubtedly it was the child of my giant white pine.

I recrossed the bridge, picked up my books, and headed to the house. In the garage, I grabbed a shovel. Then I headed back across the creek, and I dug up the tiny white pine, and I took it home and planted it in the side yard next to the garden.

That was more than forty years ago. My father died ten years later, my mother and sister moved to Grand Rapids, and in the ensuing years I have rarely visited the old neighborhood. But this evening I drove past the house on the corner of Tanglewood and Tricklewood Drives. It looks well kept, and the yard has filled in beautifully with trees. And there on the side, the white pine I planted long ago is growing still. I would like to say it has attained stately height and dimensions, but it appears that the homeowners have trimmed it so that it resembles a white pine bush rather than a tree. Nevertheless, it is vigorous, and I am satisfied that my old friend and confidant from decades past lives on in one of his progeny. The owners haven't a clue as to the origins of their pine bush. But I do. I am part of the story.

My friend the white pine gave me his shade, his fragrance, his patient presence, and a place to talk to God and rest my teenage soul. In return, I gave my friend's offspring a chance beyond the earthmovers that converted a noble forest into backyards where wild orchids no longer grow nor ruffed grouse drum in the spring.

I did it for the love of a tree. It was what I could do; it was the least I could do. And I am glad today to know that my small deed was not in vain. My friend's lineage continues, and with me his memory remains, golden, like pine pollen rising as a cloud and glowing in the sun.