I would visit the lake.
There’s a lake just west of Youngstown that’s been special to me since I was about 7 years old. It’s called Lake Milton. I don’t know the story behind how it got its name; I can share my story of why it’s special.
Many of you know that my dad was an alcoholic. Didn’t drink every day but when he did, he couldn’t stop. And he’d get loud and angry and abusive toward my mom. It was awful and frightening. I remember listening to the arguments and shaking uncontrollably. This went on for several years.
Fortunately, my dad eventually recognized he needed help and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. His sponsor was a funny, kind man named John. He became part of the family – we called him Uncle John. He and his wife, Fran, owned a cottage by Lake Milton. They encouraged us to use it for a week each summer.
We had great times there.
We’d get away from the city lights and see the sky dotted with so many stars that it took your breath away. We’d race across the lake in inner tubes until the insides of our arms were raw. Play Whiffle ball in the backyard. Take the metal boat out on the lake and go fishing. Play Jarts (yeah, that was back when kids were allowed to have sharp-tipped toys).
In some ways, those times saved me.
Playing in the water together showed me that family can have fun together. That’s it’s possible to be family. I looked forward to returning to that place every summer.
The lake was a God-filled place when I really needed one.
Over the years, the lake has showed up in my dreams many times. I’ve often thought: I need to go back someday. More than 30 years passed. Eventually, I added it to my bucket list: Go back to the lake.
And here it was as I drove home last week.
The interstate took me right over it. I pulled off at the exit, starting driving around and got lost. I remembered that the turn-off place was a three-way intersection bordered by a gas station. Certainly the gas station was long gone.
Holy crap! There’s the gas station!
I turned right and drove down a narrow, two-lane road and felt like I was back in the fire-engine-red station wagon loaded with a week’s worth of clothes for my parents and siblings and me.
I found the cottage, which is now a bit rundown. The backyard where we played Whiffle ball seemed small and overgrown – you couldn’t have a game there now.
I went the final two blocks to the place where we had our boat dock – the place where we swam and fished and raced with inner tubes – and pulled off the road. I got goosebumps. It was all still there, and it hadn’t changed much.
The pier I fell off while fishing? There. The grassy beach. Even the wooden stairs that led down the hill to the beach – the ones my mom always used, while we boys sprinted down – those stairs were weathered, but still there.
And the lake? Even more beautiful than I remembered it.
Wow! Just wow.
I quickly took off my shoes and socks and rolled up my pants legs and waded in. I stood there and smiled and watched the seagulls fly overhead and the boats churn up little waves as they went by.
I felt like I was being baptized in the real sense of the word. Reminded how amazing it is just to be part of something so beautiful. Reminded that you’re loved and that everything is going to be OK, no matter how it turns out.
That God-filled moment soaked in like the waves soaking my pants legs.
I have a friend who tells about going to a park that felt God-like and helped her settle the chaos in her head and find peace for a while. I like to think that we all have our God-filled places and spaces. They’re different for everyone.
And they go beyond lakes and park benches.
One of my biggest ongoing challenges has been to see relationships as God-filled places. To look into another person’s eyes, see love and grace, and summon the courage to take off my shoes and socks and wade in.
To leave the beach, and leave behind my fear of sinking and drowning. To create a sacred space.
In a sense, when we put ourselves into loving relationships, we’re digging a deep space. And God comes along and fills it with rainwater. And soon there are birds flying overhead and docks dotting the shore.
Together, we become a God-filled place. A place oh, so beautiful that it takes your breath away.