Posted in Inspiration, Nature, Spirituality

Ascension Day: Salvation, Memorials, and Butterflies

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Yesterday, May 25th, 2017, was Ascension Day, the fortieth day of this liturgical year’s Easter celebration.  In the following, I attempt to give a brief explanation of this Christian feast day then reveal my spiritual encounter in regards to ascension. I say attempt because it is so hard to describe the indescribable. This is a condensed version of what I witnessed, felt, and believed following the passing of my father, Frank Thomas Snyder, lain to rest on June 8th, 2006.

My father earned seventy-six years of being an earthy man full of passion for all things living, all that moves and grows in humanity and nature.  He swiftly fell back into the earth while mowing his lawn, grooming the ground, the backyard that hosted his frayed yet favorite lawn chair where he read many westerns and dreamt of cowboys.  

Although his outdoor death was so shocking at the time, I believe it was the way his body was meant to return to his own Heavenly Father of whom he placed his utmost faith.  Forty days later, his soul soared.  May his Memory be Eternal!  

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Symbolically and spiritually, forty days represents many biblical tribulations, reconciliations, transformations, and probations.  The fortieth day of bodily death is highly important to the Christian who believes this to mark the departed’s judgment day. Specifically relevant to the soul is that the fortieth day commemorates Christ’s Ascension after His Resurrection.  Ascension Day is when the recently deceased may ascend to be taken up in the clouds to meet the Judge, our Savior, and Master, and thus be with Him forever (1Thes. 4:17).  

Ascension Day

According to Scripture, over the course of forty days (prior to the Ascension) the Resurrected Christ appeared to his eleven remaining apostles, multitudes of disciples, and followers.  He also stood alongside disbelievers and doubters.  He arrived as proof to try to convince the world that He is indeed the Son of God who trampled death.  He shared tales of His Father’s Heavenly Kingdom and instructed others to spread the word.

After the fortieth day, the one perfect human being, Christ, ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father.  This concludes His passionate thirty-three year-long journey to save imperfect sinners and raise them to be with their Father.  This is our salvation.  

As a mere mortal, I can only make assumptions about what I deem a mortal’s soul does for forty days prior to judgment.  As many ideas as I have on this span of time, I am no theological expert, so beyond these few words, I will keep quiet on the matter.  I don’t know enough about purgatory, toll houses, soul sleeps, and other theories of what a soul immediately does without the body.  

I simply have faith that God is good, forgiving, and wants us with Him.  I have faith that Heaven is indescribable beauty, peace, and joy.  Life after death is truly a mystery that I have no authority to attempt to explain.  Only Scripture, tradition, faith, actions, and love can give us a true sense of accepting what is beyond our understanding.  It’s a big, magnificent secret treasure that I humbly pray to discover when it’s my time.  Thy will be done.  

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I believe one of the most important memorial services for the soul is on the fortieth day, and that’s when we held my father’s first requiem in July of 2006.  In our Serbian Orthodox church this special service is called a parastos (pronounced pah-rah’-stus).

Such a glorious, yet humbling parastos was offered up to my father as our church abundantly crowded with loved ones celebrating his life and death with heartfelt remembrances and meaningful prayers. The multitude of candles lit for his soul dripped with tears of sympathy.  What an emotional mourning that fortieth morning.  

A lovely family luncheon was held after this memorial service.  Following the gathering, my husband, kids, and I drove 100 miles north to return home. Cara was aged four and Elena aged two.  

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When we got back, I didn’t unpack and do laundry like I usually would after a weekend trip. I needed to unwind and be away from checklists and chores.  I joined my family and Italia, our three-month-old golden retriever, at our patio and swimming pool.

The bursting thermometer and cloudless backdrop inspired frothy servings of smoothies and colorful sno-cones.  Cara and Elena, our giggly little loves, splashed and played, drenched and sprayed.  Pup Italia lapped liquid bullets while tempting the girls to squirt-gun her down, mafia style.  

While refreshing my feet poolside, Cara kept squirting Italia’s furry breast as I spied the black butterfly hover then merely skim the water.  This plain, yet somehow extraordinary, silhouette had become a part of our summer patio company, and his presence mysteriously captivated me.  He, whom I perceived as male, seemed as thick as midnight yet lightly fluttered about like butterflies do.   

 

I averted my gaze to this particularly unremarkable fella flickering around for his brief interludes.  With just a sheen of bluish-green scales outlined in ivory specks, his velvety shadowed wings had little décor. I always expected butterflies to personify rainbows, but I discovered that a less colorful, simpler design can also serve as a spectacular specimen.

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Sailing above and then lightly diving to the earth, he lingered brushing my cheek with a kiss.  As he resumed his winged dance to the sky, I burst out of tranquility and jolted with a stifling thirst:  I needed him.  I had to hold on, or I’d dry out from my tears that could potentially flood the pool.   

I frantically jumped up screaming, “Get the net!  Where’s the butterfly net?  We have to catch that black butterfly.  He belongs here!”  Our puppy nearly rolled into the pool, while my stunned husband and daughters froze.  I chaotically shuffled through a basket of outdoor toys for the prized Dollar Bargain butterfly net.  I grasped it and leaped and stretched like a clumsy majorette trying new baton tricks.  I scooped nothing but the wind. Of course, I couldn’t catch him and had to watch him disappear into the endless sky. I whispered with humble faith, thanks, and love,  “Thy Will be done.”

In various spiritual circles, butterflies represent the spirit of the departed.  The butterfly dies as a caterpillar, is buried in the cocoon, and enters a new life.   As a majestically changed creature, it takes flight in earth before breezing through heavenly clouds.

On that fortieth afternoon after my father’s death, my grief began.  I finally accepted that he physically left this world forever.  Eternity vs. Nevermore comprise the greatest extreme opposites of time that challenged my clock that somber summer.  I could barely consider these temporal concepts and felt like I was drowning when contemplating a soul lasting forever and a body being used again never.  

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Nearly eleven years later, I still grieve the loss of my father, but I take comfort that he is with God who opened up the heavens to mankind on Ascension Day, when Christ was taken up to heaven.

I also continue to perceive occasional visits by the black butterfly as something special and granted by God. My personal connection and journey with the black butterfly continues to strengthen my spiritual beliefs. I know there is no doctrine or proof in my experience, but when a beautiful black butterfly shows up precisely when I need an “extra” lift, that to me is a divine gift to encourage or reward my faith.

Many people have their own signs, symbols, and things they believe is contact from a lost loved one. Besides the black butterfly, I have felt other spiritual touches in nature via bunnies, birds, dogs, and flowers. If it leads me to spiritual thanks and praise, I consider that faith. God bless us, everyone.  

What special encounters have you had that cause you to connect, remember, and give thanks?  Memory Eternal to your lost loved ones.

Posted in Inspiration, Review

The Shack: Part-Time Sunshine’s Review

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Like millions of readers, I enjoyed the bestseller The Shack by William P. Young.  Eight years ago it was a title chosen in my book club. This story profoundly stuck with me since, and I give the book 10/10 Shines.

Yesterday, I went to the movie theater and saw the film version of The Shack directed by Stuart Hazeldine.  I wasn’t sure how the film would live up to the book  (a reader’s constant concern), but I think it did it justice and give the film 9/10 Shines.  The pieces extracted and played out from the book worked for me on the screen.  

With that said, I recommend reading the book before seeing the movie. If you are looking for a better appreciation and comprehension of the multi-riddled, bizarre concepts of faith then this is the starting point.  Please note that this is not true dogma or theology and is a work of fiction. Even though The Shack is made up, I still think it conveys profound life lessons:

To try to be good

To avoid judging

To love all including enemies

To know you’re not alone

To forgive others

To forgive yourself

To have faith and hope

To be open to healing

The main character, Mack suffers the unfathomable loss of his little girl who gets abducted and is brutally murdered. His greatest pain comes from the guilt that he couldn’t protect her.  He is angry at the God he blames for letting this tragedy happen.  In the midst of his relentless grief, Mack ends up having an unexplainable, mystical experience to soften and soothe his darkened heart.

The Shack can be coined as religious, spiritual, hokey or all of the above.  The vision that Mack has can be viewed as a dream, a miracle, or a bump on a head from a tornado blown house (whoops, wrong story, but still another inspirational one.)  My vision of God doesn’t match Mack’s vision, but as a reader and viewer I don’t feel pressured to believe how he does.  

As a Christian, I am captivated by Mack’s journey to confront the haunting permanence of his daughter’s death.  I don’t know what in this mortal world, besides faith in another world–a better world like Heaven–would ever help me personally heal from such a thing.    

As a mother, I can’t imagine this heinous disaster, and the truth is, I’m not sure I could even begin to forgive something like this on my own; I am human and therefore a judge of good and evil.  The story pulls from the Bible and claims that God will judge and deal appropriately with all the wrongdoers.  This is hard to just accept in the face of tragedy, but I believe it is possible.  In this regard (and many others), The Shack could serve others as a resource of hope and fortitude.  

One of my biggest takeaways from The Shack has been the concept of the Holy Spirit as breath and wind.  When I became a runner, I embraced this notion.  I like to think I am out there wrapped up in the Holy Spirit.  

The Shack reiterates the Christian concept of a good God who is omniscient who is everywhere at all times.  Mack’s vision gives him a tangible way to feel and believe in the Trinity which is revealed to him in a multitude of ways: as a man or woman of any age or race; as an amazing garden or weeds of wildflowers; as a perfect meal, as a stick of poison (when alone, it’s deadly, but when combined with something else it heals), as the wind, as feelings, emotions, and knowledge.

Viewing The Shack inspired me to be a more vigilant and active Christian during this Lenten Season. The reminders of how to fight the good fight as a sinner are all there. 

On a personal note, I’d like to add that human beings crave living proof, yet faith is a belief that is not proven.  I think if you are open to accepting it, signs that inspire faith happen.  I have personally experienced God in unconventional ways too.  He has shown up just when I needed him in nature, music, and a plant that should have died ten deaths by now.  If I told you I last saw my father as a black butterfly, you may believe or doubt me, but it doesn’t matter.  This is my miracle which I find great comfort in. I have faith that it’s the most beloved of all the signs I’ve ever had from God.

What miracles have you experienced?  Share and help others shine on!

Posted in Dogs, Inspiration, Running

Thank You, Dear Dog, for Making me a Runner

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On January 18th, 2017, our golden retriever Italia suffered an unexpected and fatal heart attack.  Italia is the reason I became a runner, and three days after her recent death, I ran ten miles in honor of each year I had with her.  On February 18th, one month after she crossed the Rainbow Bridge, I ran another ten miles in tribute to her.  img_8513-version-2

I’m actually shocked I went that far because I have not run double-digit miles in almost two years.  Since my last half-marathon in the spring of 2015, I haven’t gone more than six miles, yet both runs were a breeze.  Italia’s spirit and memory carried me every step. During these ten-milers, Italia joined me in a brand new way, no leash needed.  

The following narrative is an excerpt from a longer piece I composed.  Italia was particularly instrumental in healing my grieving heart after my father passed away, and she continued to bring so much peace and comfort to my family  over the past decade.  Here is the story of how a puppy taught me to run.  NOTE – I edited the tense to reflect the current moment.

From The Reckoning of the Black Butterfly:

I significantly changed my life by improving my: mind, body, heart, and soul when I became a road runner at the age of thirty-three.  I discovered this activity ten years ago and continue to love it.  My first jog (klunk, klunk, almost kerplunk) happened a season after my father’s fatal heart attack.

I was mindlessly eating through my summer grief and earned a six-pack (times four!) Aside from being consumed with calories and sadness, I was queen bee-busy in our new house with my husband, two toddler daughters and a spunky puppy.  Oh how I craved health, happiness, strength, and peace;  I accidentally gained that and more with unplanned runs that were meant to be walks with my golden retriever pup, Italia.  

Italia was just eight weeks old when we brought her home days before the Fourth of July. This adorable, furry baby had the energy, boom, and attitude of a firecracker.  Although she got a lot of  “oohs and ahhs” she was a painfully hard to keep up with and settle down.  img_1096

When September rolled around, it was time for me to go back to work and teach high school English.  After such a stressful summer, I was exhausted, irritable, and couldn’t fit into anything that zipped or buttoned.  I resorted to elastic waistbands and flowy dresses, and my school yearbook picture that fall revealed a puffier, unrested, joyless me.  

When I would get home from work and release Italia from her kennel, she bounded, bounced, and begged for exercise.  She and I started by strolling our new neighborhood.  It felt great to get outdoors, but she kept pulling on her leash to go faster. Instead of training her to slow down, she trained me to speed up, to see more, to move beyond.

Before I knew it, she and I became a running team.  She could go as far as five miles (and so could I!) Italia was my one true running partner and was my primary motivation for getting out there.  Every run brought us a new scene.      

She got so excited when we were about to wag and whisker through the wind for a journey.  She acted like it was Christmas morning every time I pulled out our running gear: laces and leashes.  I had to keep extra leashes on hand because she would get so pumped-up that she’d bite and tear through them like wrapping paper if she got the chance.  

I never realized how beautiful the natural scenery of Meadville, Pennsylvania, truly is until I perceived and absorbed it as a runner.  There is certainly a magnitude of rural splendor in my own backyard.  My simple Crawford County world frames the mental snapshots of my small town hills, valleys, dirt roads, and meadows.

Running has provided me with the added bonus of pulling up those once stuck zippers and snapping stubborn buttons on my jeans.  I continue to thank God and Mother Nature for joining me and my four-legged love on these journeys.   Italia’s big chocolate eyes have always viewed nature majestically, and I’m forever thankful to her for helping me rediscover a healthy focus in nature and for pushing (and pulling) me further.  May we all go further tomorrow.  

Memory Eternal!

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Posted in Inspiration, Storytelling, Writing

Dedicated to my Mother, an Amazing Inspiration for Storytelling

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Today, on my mother’s birthday, I wish to share how influential she has been to me as a storyteller.  Ever since I was a little girl, I tuned into her talent for spinning a tale, sharing an anecdote, and captivating her listeners with heartfelt and humorous narratives.  Her stories stick with you like a favorite song you need to hear over and over again.

Her life has been blessed with a variety of experiences that she is more than willing to share with those interested. She is busy, involved, witty, and approachable, so she has a lot to talk about.  Her stories touch and include audiences of all ages, genders, and backgrounds.  Her plots grow out of the seeds of her actions, observations, and conversations which continue to dot her active, golden years.

My mother, a master of the oral storytelling tradition, is not a writer, but is a vibrant speaker.  Her knack for painting pictures with words encouraged me to use my voice as both speaker and writer; I am a high school English teacher with a  passion for storytelling.  I read, write, listen to, and tell stories, and I require my students to do the same.

I got more serious about my writing five years ago and composed a memoir of my life with my beloved father who is deceased.  Aside from writing many non-fiction pieces: personal narratives, essays, and reviews, I wrote one piece of fiction that is being published by The Wild Rose Press, Inc.

It is a novella about a a pencil sharpener, of all things, and my mother inspired my development of the protagonist and plot.  Most of the story is fiction, but it is based off of my mother and what she did on her birthday, exactly four years ago.  Here is how I recapped the situation then:

Happy birthday to my mother Mildred today! She continues to be witty, courageous, outrageous, youthful, and beautiful. She performed quite a stunt this evening when she visited her old Monaca home which she sold over three years ago!

Her mission was to ask the “new” owner if he still had the old heavy duty metal pencil sharpener that my father used to sharpen the tools of his artwork. I recently told her I regretted not dismounting that from the basement closet where it eternally hung. Tonight, she knocked on our old Washington Avenue door, reintroduced herself to John, the buyer/homeowner, and inquired about the piece of nostalgia, the sharpener I wished for my own classroom. John graciously unscrewed it from the cellar closet and gave it to her.

Wow! I’m not sentimental about “things,” but I truly can’t wait to get to polish dull pencils with that old powerhouse of a device. As a teacher, I know the value of having a strong writing tool, and although we put iPads into every student and teacher’s hands at my high school this year, I still embrace the reliable, old school pencil/paper method.

My mother continues to be as bold and beautiful on this birthday as on the few others she’s had. I’m excited and thankful that she retrieved such a mechanically symbolic tool that my father’s hands turned so often.

I’m thrilled we get to continue to exalt my mother in this world. A little touch of heaven poured into her hands full of #2 pencil shavings tonight. Each spin and point will keep my father’s Memory Eternal. Blessings and memories abound around precious birthday candles. May God grant her Many Years!

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Her retrieval of this treasure is the entry point of The Pencil Sharpener.  This piece is in the final stages of edits and will be available for purchase as an eBook when complete.  This will be my first published work, and I dedicate it to my mother, an amazing inspiration for storytelling.

Happy birthday, Mother!  Have a day you dreamed of!  xoxo