“…you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink
but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone
but on tablets of human hearts.” II Corinthians 3:3
Last week I traveled to Southern California, the land where I grew up and lived until I married. Five days of returning and rejuvenating was definitely good for my soul. Although I often visit there each summer to see my sisters—usually in August–this was my first trip in the month of May. (There are some definite perks to being a retired teacher). I knew the area had seen more rain than ever this year so I was looking forward to green hillsides, rich tropical flowers and blooms of the jacaranda trees.
I was especially looking forward to eating fresh California strawberries.
As soon as I hopped into my rental car I headed down the freeway to one of the last remaining strawberry farms in the So Cal beach area. The bright colors of fresh produce were a balm to my eyes, if there is such a thing, and the aroma of fresh strawberries jogged a place deep in my memory.
After selecting three baskets of ruby red fruit, one of the farm’s owners and I chatted about changes we’ve seen in the last twenty-five years. The near disappearance of strawberry fields which dotted varying plots of land throughout Orange County, including several acres across the street from Disneyland. Also gone were hundreds of acres of orange orchards; the fragrant smell of orange blossoms on the evening breeze a thing of the past. No more open spaces, just tracts and tracts of homes on the hillsides, crowded beaches and ten-lane (!!) freeways. Yes, the land of my birth had changed drastically.
I was surprised to see signs between the airport and the ocean announcing “Tourist Information Ahead.” The place where our humble (poor) family lived all my growing up years was now a tourist destination. I wondered if there were maps for the movies stars’ houses (or maybe mine?)
Anticipating sunshine, warm temperatures and blue skies, I happily settled in after arriving at my sister’s house. My brother and sister-in-law also joined us for the week ahead. One great joy I had during the week was going out two different mornings to watch my brother the surfing pastor paddle out and ride the waves. (He caught two!) There may not have been any orange blossom fragrance wafting on the breeze, but with my back to the crowds and my eyes on the sea, I was at home; the sand at my feet and ocean view the same as I remembered.
Water and waves still form and crest as they always had. Shorebirds chased back and forth, rocks rolled towards my feet in the drenched sand. The water, waves, birds and shore were unchanged.
The culmination of our visit was a ‘goodbye house’ party, thrown by my sister on the occasion of her upcoming move. My siblings and I, along with our spouses and children, have twenty nine years of memories in that house–hours in the pool, movie nights together, backyard barbecues. Baby showers, weddings, birthdays–years of special gatherings. Because my siblings are all close in age and went to the same schools, we also shared many of the same friends, some of whom were invited that night.
Life is weird in high school, to say the least. But it’s funny when you’re older how cliques and cool cars and the right clothes pale in comparison to true friendship. My sister had stayed close to a small of circle of classmates whom my brother and I also knew; most of us had been friends for (cough) fifty years. My heart overflowed with gratefulness as folks sat around the living room, desperately trying to follow varying conversations. The decibel level rose and fell, people were sharing photos on phones, telling old stories, laughing at “rememberwhens?”
As I stopped to listen, I realized most of the people in the room–all of the people in the room–had been there for my sister during devastating, difficult times, including a cancer diagnosis and the loss of a child. These were true friends, a rare treasure.
I thought about how orange trees form and grow only to be torn down, strawberry fields are ripped out, paved over open land becomes freeways….but what remains? Is there anything we can recognize, count on, remember by?
I’m mixing images here—waves and water and friends that anchor us—but I couldn’t help thinking about the Israelites setting up stone markers as monuments to God’s faithfulness over the years. Every time there was a deliverance or God intervened, the people were told to gather stones and pile them in place to remember. Decades would pass, places would change and grow, populations would impact the landscape but one thing that remained were the markers of the goodness of God.
Sometimes people are those markers. When the land you’re born in is unrecognizable or you feel adrift, friendships that last through thick and thin, good times and bad are like the waves and water—constant, true, powerful when you need them.
No matter where I live or what it looks like, the friends who’ve stayed in place remind me of not only who God is, but who I am and where I am in the world.
Those friends are letters written not in stone, but etched deep in my heart.