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It’s been an entire 2 months since my last post. It’s not because I’ve stopped seeing God in my days, but that I’ve had a new, exciting writing project on the go.

When I left teaching, a real anxiety came up as I wondered, “What am I supposed to be doing now?” For a while I thought I’d be working 1/2 time in teaching, but when that didn’t work out, a window opened for me with a 1/2 time job at my house church, and a lot of that has involved writing.

how-do-i-write-blog-postsI’ve been hard at work writing entries to a new blog, which is launching today. In 2015, Watershed did a study on the book of Revelation, that wacky book at the end of the New Testament which one author has called “off-the-charts weird”. It was such a helpful study for us that we decided to offer a summary of it in a 10-week “online course” called “Rescuing Revelation”. It became my first job assignment, and it’s been a doozy.

I don’t know what your associations are with this book, but it was a source of terror for me growing up. The idea of that Christian would be suctioned up to heaven (with “non-Christians” being left behind) in an event called the “rapture” was introduced to me as a teenager. (For the record, the word or concept of “rapture” is not ever mentioned in the Bible.) The church of my youth showed a 1972 movie called “Thief in the Night,” which showed people suddenly disappearing when Jesus came to get them.

It terrified me! Every time I came home to an empty house, my heart would start to pound as I thought  the rapture had happened and I was left behind. It led me to “asking Jesus into my heart” over and over again, which if you ask me is not a great way to start being someone’s friend! (Luckily we got through that rough start!)

I know I’m not alone in that experience. My heart grieves for others who were ever terrified or led astray like me from the heart of the gospel. The “left behind” theology is so dangerous because God loves the world, and God will never leave the world behind.

When we began our course in January, 2015, our first assignment was to listen to the book of Revelation straight through. It was like trying to listen to someone’s really long, bizarre and violent dream, and it wasn’t long before I began tuning out. Honestly, I was dreading the course, and I know I wasn’t the only one.

Like any tricky subject, having a good teacher makes all the difference. And Revelation is definitely a tricky book. You need to know what you’re reading and how to read it. A Lutheran theologian named Craig Koester was our main guide through the course. He has made the study of Revelation one focus of his life’s work, and through “The Great Courses” (which offers university-level video courses), he teaches about it in 24 video sessions. He makes the book clear, engaging and meaningful.

What we learned through the video series, the accompanying book and the guidance of our resident teacher and mentor Paul Patterson, is that Revelation is a call to faithfulness for anyone who is struggling or even seduced by the false powers of the dominant culture. Despite our deep initial reservation, Revelation went from being a book we were slightly embarrassed by into one that became hope engendering and profoundly practical.

Whenever someone has experienced a health conundrum, as I have with headaches, you need something greater than the problem to take you through it. Otherwise a person starts to despair. For me, my assignment of writing about Revelation has been that “something greater”. I had the honor of sifting through all the material again. I listened once more to Koester’s lectures and our rich discussions and began to summarize and synthesize the material. It’s largely how I spent my winter, and I’m still not done. The themes of love and healing in the book helped me maintain my focus and give me a deeper source of hope in God. I truly fell in love with this book as I wrote about it.

If you’d like to take a peek, here’s a link and an invite. The writing is mine and my friend Linda did the technical side of things. We’ll post a new blog entry every Monday for the next 10 weeks. And hopefully it won’t be too long before I write on this blog again.


Revelation is a book many people would rather ignore. With its violent imagery and a sword-wielding, warrior Jesus who seems straight out of a Hollywood movie, it hardly seems to emulate the “Love thine enemies” Jesus of the gospels.

Besides the skewed reading of the violence, Revelation has also been misused as a crystal ball over the centuries, in a (failed) attempt to predict the end of the world. Christians supposedly get suctioned up to heaven in a strange event called the “rapture”.

So, why should we read the book of Revelation? Read more…


Those who know me well know that every December I crank out a document looking back at the year that was. I began it in the early ’80’s and just haven’t gotten out of the habit. It’s an example of what author and humorist David Sedaris says is “an awful lot of work for something no one is ever going to see.” But writers are an odd breed, forging on toward the torch that beckons from within.

To give you a taste of what I am not inflicting on the world (the word count is over 4000), here’s some of the scintillating titles in my list:

  • 2015 was the year that… (it’s how I always begin)
  • Best Decision of the Year (new job)
  • Household renovations
  • New routines
  • Passages (RIP Mom)
  • Music Highlights (not Adele)
  • Memorable TV (“Borgen” is amazing)
  • Best podcasts (Nomad)
  • Birding Highlights (how did that pileated woodpecker find its way to our back lane?)
  • Favorite Books
  • Learnings

Is your head spinning? I had hopes of boiling this document down to a wise summary and made a brave start this afternoon when my mind recalled a poem I wrote last year. It expresses the debt of gratitude I have for healing.


The poem was inspired by an encounter with a woman close to our house. I was driving home one afternoon when I noticed her on her way to the corner laundromat. In her state of inebriation, she didn’t notice the laundry dropping out of a hole in her black garbage bag. I quickly stopped my car in the middle of the street and began picking up her lost load, returning it to her in the laundromat.


Strange place for a baptism

this corner inner city laundry

but if a baptism is for cleansing

of what ails you,

then this woman surely fits the bill.

Black garbage bag splitting open

clothes strewn all down the street,

and lost in a substance haze

she barely even notices her bag is almost empty.


Hastily I park my car

running to retrieve the lost items,

not knowing that I’d find more than I bargained for.

I return the pile to her

and she barely notices

either that they were gone in the first place,

or the stranger who is helping her hapless wandering.


Some might see this as a kind deed

but no, she is my sister,

blood of my blood.

I’ve been lost, wandering, less than vibrant,

not even aware of the wounds I was trailing,

when more than one of Jesus’ friends

picked up my filthy rags

helped me as I limped towards a baptism

towards a better life.


A Lightened Load

“God is greater than any loads we are carrying.”

In the span of a few weeks in September, two chapters of my life closed on me. One was my mom’s passing and the other was when I didn’t get the 1/2 time teaching job I was anticipating.

Both were not entirely unexpected. My mom had been ill with cancer and she was of course almost 90. And I had known the job possibility was tenuous. But still, even when the endings were expected, the closing chapters took some processing and pondering.

It’s the strangest thing to know someone and then they’re just gone; or to experience a lifetime of working with kids and then it’s over. It’s like a bird you see on the water. It seems so permanent but in the blink of an eye, all you see are ripples on the water or hear the last note of birdcall in the distance. My memories of what was are like ripples and distant birdsong.

On the day of my mom’s funeral, the minister provided a helpful ritual as we gathered to say good-bye at the graveside. September was still giving us beautiful weather, with blue skies, geese ambling around, and a warm breeze. The minister held a jar of stones. She invited us to take one or Witches-Bottlemore stones and use them as a symbol to represent gratitude, regret or both. Gratitude for the legacy my mom left, or regrets for words left unspoken or things that caused walls to come up. It may seem strange to some to talk about walls or unspoken words at funerals, but I think most people know exactly what that’s about. It’s the nature of relationships.

We were invited to leave the stones on the soon to be lowered coffin or come back another time to release it when we were ready.  One by one, those around the circle chose a stone or two as we said good-bye. I don’t know about everyone else, but the prayer I sent along with those stones has been a huge help for me.

In the three months since that day, I’ve thought often of those stones. I often have a hard time saying good-bye to people, even when I know I’ll see them again. I’ve sometimes wondered if the roots of this lie in when I said good-bye to my sister Hildi the night she died in 1968, and maybe it’s why I’m often the last to leave a gathering. The minister helped this problem I have by giving us this ritual. She was wise to invite us to give it all to God. What made it even more moving were the next words.

As you release the stones, 

remember that whatever we are carrying in our hearts, 

it is not too big for God.”

Turned out I had several stones to release in my readjusted work world as well. Like my mom’s life, the time for an ending to teaching seemed right. A new chapter opened up quickly and couldn’t have worked out better as I now work half time for my church, in a job that’s well suited for me as a “Communications Assistant”. It’s a much more sustainable arrangement for me, and I’m grateful beyond words for how life/God  has conspired to bring me such a creative solution.

And yet, I got blindsided for a while as some kind of weird sentimentalizing set in. I began to remember only the good parts of teaching (and forget how unsustainable it had become for me). It was as though I had only stones of gratitude, forgetting the walls that had become insurmountable.  Just like I had with my mom, I realized I needed to take not just one, but two stones for this good-bye as well. Gratitude for the legacy but also honesty in giving insurmountable walls to God. Being honest with myself helped me say good-bye to the past and enter the new chapter.


Leaving flowers at my mom’s grave

I’ve left all these stones with God, knowing that God’s imagination and restorative healing is beyond anything I can dream up. “Casting all your cares on God, for he cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:7

The meaning of all those years in teaching, and the meaning of my mom’s life, will unfold over time. The memories of both are with me everyday, and I know God has used both to shape me and help me grow.


Book Response

“The praises of the sick and the broken

excuse the silence of the healthy and whole.”

Rabbi Moshe Hakotun

What does it mean to have hope when life isn’t exactly running smoothly? Being sick and broken tests the faith we say we have when days are sunny. Isn’t just enduring and getting through the tough times the best we can do? What’s this about praising on top of it? Sorry Rabbi Hakotun, but having a transcendent perspective amid limitation seems just a bit far fetched.

This summer, I read a book called Joy in Our Weakness: A Gift of Hope from the Book of Revelation. The author, Marva Dawn, helps us deal with suffering by using Revelation as her text. She has lots of physical ailments. I couldn’t even hold a candle to what she has to live with — diabetes, constant intestinal pain, ResizeImageHandler.ashxincreasing blindness, a deaf ear, a crippled leg, and on top of everything, a cancer diagnosis. Finding joy in weakness isn’t theory for her. I was in a sump of despair about persistent headaches, and yet here was someone brimming with hope and gratitude even when dire circumstances did not change. Either she was completely deluded, or she was on to something. Despite my resistance, I decided I better give her message of God’s hope a chance and cracked open the book’s cover.

All my life, I’d heard how “God’s strength is made perfect in weakness” but to translate this riddle amid unwelcome circumstances is difficult. If I was honest, I didn’t want a transcendent perspective in weakness — I wanted the weakness to go away! It seemed to be making me ineffectual for the very service I thought I was called to. Where was the sense in that? What could the book of Revelation, surely the most confusing book of the Bible, have to say to me?

John, the author of Revelation, wrote the book for people who also had circumstances they wanted just to go away. Their lives had been changed by the coming of Jesus. His life, death and resurrection meant that things were no longer the same. But, when they looked at their present lives, they still saw much suffering and death. Jesus might have risen from the dead, but they and their friends were being persecuted and even killed for their faith.  They were up against the beast of the Roman Empire, having to confront the oppressive rule with their new values as Jesus followers. Surely suffering was the end of the story.

Yet in the word pictures of Revelation, they met with a God who didn’t portray himself as a strong lion, but as a suffering and slaughtered Lamb who was the hope of the world!  Through the crazy imagery and

Art by Eldon Heinrichs Photo by Paul Patterson

Art by Eldon Heinrichs
Photo by Paul Patterson

stories, the people were encouraged to believe that suffering was not an end in itself, but the path that Love walked on to the way to God’s kingdom. They met with a Suffering Servant, Christ, who reigned in the midst of suffering and experienced the presence of God, who would be with them in the same way. This became the central message for a beleaguered people. It’s certainly not easy to see in the moment, then or now, and I’d never say it glibly, but God can make times of trial into something good.

Despite my opposition, Marva held my attention. I kept turning the pages. In the stories she shared, I met the friends she had dedicated the book to, a quadriplegic and another with kidney disease and dependent on lengthy dialysis. Through them, Marva saw that people didn’t have to be defined by their suffering but could instead be changed by the reign of God in their lives.

These two men, Linden and Tim, along with Marva, became my guides. They bore witness that our times of weakness or trial can help us recognize the true meaning of faith in the Suffering Servant.

h1-how-longThose suffering in the book of Revelation asked the same question echoing through the ages, “How long?” When we hear the constant stream of bad news in our world and in our neighbourhoods, we join the lament. “How long oh Lord? How long until this suffering ends?”

Marva Dawn points out that true biblical patience can turn our lament around by asking another question, “Who is God in the midst of this?” “Such patience does not mean waiting until things change, but learning to wait because of who God is even when things don’t change.”  What wins the day is not the oppressions that drag us down, but the character of a God who loves when the battle is grimmest.

As I told my friends about the book, what kept bubbling to the surface were the stories which fleshed out the theory. The one I repeated the most was of the time Marva Dawn was in despair over her health issues. “I don’t have time for this!” she complained. “This is taking years off my life.” How often had I had the exact complaints with headaches! Her friend Linden, a quadriplegic, quietly answered, “I try to see that God is the Lord over my body too.”

Or the story of her horror when due to the latest complication of her diabetes, doctors thought her foot might have to be amputated. In response to her panic, her friend gently suggested that whatever God wanted her to do in life, if worst came to worst, maybe she wouldn’t need a foot to do it. This might seem like cold comfort, but what it suggests is that perhaps God can use us more effectively in our limitations than if we were dependent on our own powers. These quiet voices of Marva’s stories might seem small, but a new perspective slowly began to take the place of the despair I had been feeling.

For me, the pivotal point in the book came as the author took a deeper look at the verse I knew all my life, “My strength is made perfect in weakness.” The verse comes from 2 Corinthians, where the Apostle Paul describes his suffering from the thorn in his flesh. Three times he asked God to take it away, and three times, God answered that God’s grace was enough.

Marva suggested that my childhood verse could use a better translation. Looking more closely at the original Greek, she offered this in its place: “Our power is brought to its end in weakness.”

Over the next weeks, like a mantra, I kept turning this phrase over and over in my mind and heart. “Our

Art by Eldon Heinrichs Photo by Paul Patterson

Art by Eldon Heinrichs
Photo by Paul Patterson

power is brought to its end in weakness”. Power. My power, the lion power I thought I had when I was well and everything was going according to my plans, was being brought to an end, like a slaughtered lamb. And what did I have in its place? Weakness. Dependence. The kind of weak dependence that brings a person to their knees, hoping for Someone who understands and can let the light into a dark corner. Our ego power is brought to its end in weakness, but God’s power is stronger than what would bring us down. A lamb can be stronger than a lion. The victory has already been won, even though it often looks otherwise.

Instead of kicking against reality, I was learning that struggling with illness and limitation could help me learn to become a trusting child of God, dependent on God’s vast imagination which knows how to turn even the worst news into something new. Revelation 7 talks about a God who still “tabernacles” or tents with us in every circumstance. When we endure circumstances that might not change, we can point to our God who still tabernacles with us. A God who stays with us and whispers, “It’s not the end of the story. Keep reading.”

Reading Marva Dawn’s book was a perfect counterpoint to the well-worn grooves of cynicism in my heart as I remembered God’s abiding friendship. Our troubles may be too big for us, but they are never too big for God to carry for us. (And oddly, since I’ve read this book, I can’t help noticing the headaches are not visiting as constantly.) Who is God in the midst of suffering? Like the best marriage partner, God is with us in both sickness and health, bringing out the best in us.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” 2 Corinthians 4:8-9

Remembering My Mom

Today marks just over 2 weeks ago that my dear mom, Kaethe Sawatzky, passed away of a sudden stroke. It feels as though everything has shifted. Life is the same but different as we are left with memories and a new routine of supporting our 91 year old dad left alone after 65 years of marriage. This person, so familiar to me (and so similar in many ways) is gone, and while the intense feelings of her passing and the funeral week have begun to subside, she is not far from my thoughts.

I had my first dream of her the other night. In the dream, I came across a photograph of her holding a monarch butterfly.

My dad has just released the monarch butterfly. Can you see it by the tree on the right?

My dad has just released the monarch butterfly. Can you see it by the tree on the right? -Photo by David Regier

She is smiling broadly. No doubt, the dream was prompted by the butterfly release we did at her graveside, and it makes me smile as I realize that like the monarch, she is now free.

I will write another blogpost of the many ways God was present to me in the whole experience, in very concrete ways like the support and love of others, and in the more intangible, mystical experience of a deep sense of God’s presence in a time of grief. But for today, I’d like to post the tribute I said at her funeral service.


September 22, 2015

My name is Lydia and I’m the youngest daughter of Kaethe and Frank, or as Mom sometimes embarrassingly told people in the store as I was growing up, “The baby of the family”. I’d like to share a few memories of Mom.

Mom bravely ready to go on a classic road trip with the family. I'm the little one in front.

Mom bravely ready to go on a classic road trip with the family. I’m the little one in front.

I can’t think of my childhood without Mom. Mom looked after us in so many ways, as moms do. She was in the kitchen making bountiful meals, always canning pickles, crabapples (from ours or our neighbor’s backyard), peaches, pears, jam. Mom truly enjoyed tending the household and never seemed to mind cleaning up after me. Mom was always making quilts in our basement with my Oma or at the NKMB basement with the “Frauen Verein” (Lady’s Groups) for MCC. After I left home, Mom never failed to send food home with me. Some days I would come home from work to find a box of food lovingly packaged by mom and delivered during the work day by my dad. And of course, Mom gave loving support as Lyle and I raised our son Joel.

Other memories are more unique. In the difficult years when my oldest sister Hilde was sick, I was around 4 or 5, and I remember hearing her boots squeak in the snow as we walked to the bus to go to the hospital, and I was grumpily saying to every footstep, “I’m tired. I’m cold. I’m hungry.” Now doubt she had to be patient with me as she was going through her difficult time!

When I was young, she let me have my own space in the garden on Arby Bay and rejoiced with me when I grew a huge pumpkin. When I needed a job at age 16, she went to Wiebe’s J-Mart on Edison on my behalf and asked Mr. Wiebe and got me my first job as a cashier. She was always proud of her innate ability to play guitar and piano, and when I developed an interest in guitar at age 18, she and dad bought me my first guitar for Christmas. Guitar playing has been with me all my life.

I was also proud of how Mom loved to read. She passed that on to all her daughters. I would always laugh because even in these later years she would say that her eyes weren’t good enough to read anymore, but then in the next breath she would tell me stories of what she was reading.

One memory that makes me laugh is that all through my MBCI and MBBC days, I was almost always running late out the door to catch the city bus. She was forever pushing me out the door. This summer when mom and dad were over for lunch, she shared this memory with Lyle and he told her that now he’s the one always pushing me out the door! “I took over your job,” he told her and they had a good laugh.

Mom was also sensitive to me. When I was a bit quieter, even this last summer, she would ask me if I was ok. I think Moms always seem to know their children, perhaps sometimes better than the children know themselves.

I know that mom took great joy in raising all her children, as well as being Oma to her 7 grandchildren, and 3 great-grandsons. Mom baked cookies with Joel and all the grandchildren as they were growing up. She took great interest in all of our lives, and prayed for everyone daily.

Despite her growing pain over the last few years, she did not hesitate to make food for us and to the end she was lovingly still feeding dad and making sure he had meals and especially cookies. She worried about who would feed him if she went first, but don’t worry Mom, we’ll make sure he won’t starve!

It wasn’t just her biological family that mom loved. She seemed to have a heart for so many. She gave me a very fun little sister as her and dad welcomed our foster sister Louise into our family after Hilde’s death, and continued to love her all through the years.

Growing up, she always enjoyed seeing my friends and making them feel welcome. My MBCI friends told me more than once how welcome they were made by my mom. After high school, mom always made a point to ask me about different friends from my church and she remembered details about their lives and always showed an interest. I’m honored today that my friends from church, Marilyn and Eldon, could come sing for us today. In recent years, Marilyn and I visited my parents a few times, even singing together for them once, and Mom had a special fondness for Marilyn. I’m sure Mom is pleased that she could come. It’s a gift when Moms can care for their children’s friends.

Mom also loved my students. For years and years when I was a teacher, she lovingly baked gingerbread men cookies at

Mom visiting my class in 2008 (the cookies she baked for the students are hidden in their stomachs!)

Mom visiting my class in 2008 (the cookies she baked for the students are hidden in their stomachs!)

Christmas and heart-shaped iced peppermint cookies for them on Valentine’s Day. Mom even visited my class more than once and spoke to the students about her growing up years in what is now the Ukraine and her experience of coming to Canada.

But she didn’t just feed them, she also prayed for them. Every year when the class picture would come out, I gave her a copy with all the student names printed out on the bottom. That picture stayed on her fridge, attached by magnets, until it was replaced by the next year’s picture. Every day, she would pick one of the students and pray for them by name. I highlighted a few students who needed a bit of extra prayer, and she made sure to pray more for these students.

Over the years, when we would talk about this prayer routine, she would always remind me “And Lydie, every day I pray for their teacher,” which was me. Over the years I told her often that these student prayers were one of her greatest gifts.

Mom gave me the gift of faith in more ways, and there is one memory I have which she might have forgotten. In the early days of my marriage, one day Mom gave me an article she had cut out of a magazine, maybe the Reader’s Digest, of the importance of forgiveness in relationships. At the time, I know I probably rolled my eyes a bit and brushed it off, but its message stayed with me and has grown in importance. I’ve never forgotten her life-changing message to me.

In our many visits on the phone or in person, she was always happy to see me. “How good it is to hear your voice,” she

Mom and Dad visiting us in recent years

Mom and Dad visiting us in recent years

would say. There were a few things I could always count on during our visits, she would tell me about all the latest news from the community, questions on how Joel was doing, how my work was going, and assurances that she was praying for us all. One day this summer, when she was having a tough day, we prayed together. She thanked me sincerely and said we should do it again. Though we never did pray over the phone again, I’m so grateful that on the evening she died, the family prayed and sang the hymn “Day By Day”, which Marilyn just sang for you.

Mom also often told me to keep on writing. She always told me that she felt someday I would still write a book. I do love to write, and if I do someday publish something, it will be in part due to her constant encouragement.

Like all moms have to do, I know Mom had to practice letting go of me too, something that didn’t come easily to her of course, but I would say over the years she let me go with grace, making sure to always let me know she loved me no matter what. Looking back, that was a mature, respectful thing to do. She trusted us, even when we probably made some decisions that she disagreed with. She gave us freedom, something parents need to do, however hard it is to do in the moment. Thank you!

I like to thank everyone for their encouragement of mom, their support and willingness to visit, make phone calls, and all the rest — especially during mom’s hard last few years.

I would like also to thank the North Kildonan and McIvor church communities here for being a source of encouragement, a welcoming place for her service, and a context for her faith to grow for over 65 years. It’s hard to think of mom’s life without all of her connections to this community.

I would also like to thank my sisters Lorie, Marlene and Louise for being steadfast caregivers in mom’s waning years. I know mom truly appreciated your support and love.

Today we gather in gratitude for mom’s unique personality, her giftedness and sincere kindness. I will always thank God for you, Mom. I love you and will always miss you.

My parents in the 50's.

My parents in the 50’s.

Moving On

This August I was determined to do something I’d been putting off since March which is when I’d picked up 25+ boxes from my old school. These boxes contained all the vast amount of clutter a teacher accumulates over the years — educational books, kids’ books, art supplies, random stuff teachers save “in case”, files, more files, photo books containing memories through the years…


The remnants of many years of teaching. There’s more boxes on the other side, not to mention in the basement!

When I first got the boxes, I peeked inside a few and valiantly tried to sort through things, but it was too soon, not to mention too cold in the garage where they’d all been stashed. But even when the weather got warmer, it was easier to ignore what I was leaving behind.

By August it’d been over a year since I left full-time teaching, and I knew it was time. I’d had enough distance from my old full-time job that I could let go, a process that had already begun. Three piles began to form — throw away/recycle, give-away, and a (hopefully small) keep pile.

It’s been such a strange process to look back over a lifetime of things that once defined me. First of all, wasn’t it just a few years ago that I began? Was I a brave or just plain foolish soul back in 1987 when I got my first job? Probably like most teachers, I was a mix of both. Teach French? Sure! (The fact that I knew only the tiniest bit of french was no obstacle.) Organize the Christmas concert? No problem!  Oh how courageous the young are. I had no idea what I was doing as I encountered situations they didn’t teach you in university. Like all teachers everywhere, I improvised and learned on the fly. They say courage is only fear that has said its prayers so I guess you could say I exercised courage.

Yeah, that's me in the middle, way back in '87. Oh so brave.

Yeah, that’s me in the middle, way back in ’87. Oh so brave.

I wouldn’t have predicted that almost 30 years later, all that effort would end in a state of burn-out, but I’m sure I’m not the first or last. (I’ve found that not everyone talks about it!) As I began opening the boxes, looking through reading plans, spelling programs, math units and projects, books on “behavior management”, music materials — all tools I had used in my role as teacher —I strolled down memory lane.

I was not at all unhappy to part ways with the remnants of the math testing system our division uses. I opened boxes of the paper teachers are so fond of, pages and pages of worksheets that had gone unused — these got shared with an inner city kids art centre. I looked fondly at pictures of students smiling on field trips, or engaged in class activities. Not all made me smile though. One picture was of a grade 5 boy who was tragically murdered in Winnipeg streets as an adult. Each of those students has made an imprint on my heart in some way or other. Each of them across the spectrum became my teachers.

As I sorted and sorted some more, my heart went out to the 26 year old who began. Newly married, I got used to my new name, “Mrs. Penner.” Though I love kids (still do), the world of teaching always felt like fitting a square peg in a round hole. As any teacher will tell you, among all the hats you wear as a teacher, the hardest one is being “on” all day, being the manager of the class, walking that line between being firm yet fair. Many days, “Fake it till you make it” became my mantra.

One of the dangers, for me anyway, of sorting things from the past is getting snagged in too much sentimentality. Tender and emotional remembrances can feel kind of good, but they can have a dark side, especially when the excessive feeling doesn’t have a basis in reality. (Think Tony Soprano and his cruel cronies sniffling at old movies.) It was well and good to have my heart well up in thinking of all the students, but defining all those years with sentimental goo was over-simplifying and even idealizing things. There was much good that came as I stretched my teaching wings all those years, but if I was totally honest, many times the constant task of being “on” for the kids, and playing the many, many roles felt more like an emotional wringer. A wringer which in the end brought about an early end to my task.

I recognized that another danger of letting too many teardrops fall into all those boxes was the temptation to forget the future. They say that when God closes a door, he opens another window, and that has been the case for me. I’ve worked with students in a different capacity at St. Aidan’s School, teaching English to new Canadians, but the best window that’s opened for me has been more writing and editing. In the last months, I’ve been editing old sermons from various community members at Watershed, and summarizing the contents of our study in Revelation for an upcoming blog. It’s like I’ve been handed the best job description ever — to steep myself in the vast mystery and depth of the Christian faith.

So as I unpacked and said good-bye to so many years of my life, I dug beneath the sentimentalism and felt gratitude as I contemplated my life with more realism. Gratitude that despite the many bumps along the way, God had guided me so often in my teaching journey, providing me not with an easy life, but a meaningful one, with friends who encouraged me to build my foundation on Christ. I was not a perfect teacher, but I was guided by One who is. Still am.

Whenever someone in our church community moves or takes a new step in life, we often send them off with the old prayer by St. Patrick:

“Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.”

When I first thought of letting go of my past identity as “Mrs. Penner,” my mind was filled with denial and a bit of horror. How on earth could I do it? But Christ was definitely behind me all those years, even and especially in times when I didn’t always see the big picture. I think I will always notice Him behind me, teaching me the lessons from those years. Christ has been within me nudging me along when it was time to call it quits, reminding me that all these things we identify with on this earth are only temporary. And Christ is before me, always showing me what the next step is. Like God’s children everywhere, God has all our backs, and like the best Parent ever, wants only what is good for us.

I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. Jeremiah 29:11

Summer Reading

Since our kids were little, my friend Bev and I have been taking regular walks together. One of her favorite questions for me is, “What have you been reading?” It’s always fun to describe the books I love to another book lover, and always seems to take the conversation to a deeper level. Books have a way of taking our minds off whatever is worrying us, gently guiding us like a loving and wise friend, to something bigger than ourselves.

Here’s a peak at some of the books that are catching my imagination this summer.

UnknownInside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova — As a teenager, the custodian of my church had a rare disease which made him walk very strangely. He was progressively losing his muscle control, making it look like he was drunk. He had Huntington’s Disease, a lethal neurodegenerative disease with no treatment or cure. What was worse, his children had a 50/50 chance of inheriting it, which some of them did. It is a cruel disease, said to be like having Parkinsons, Alzheimers, and Lou Gehrig’s diseases all at once.

When I heard a CBC radio interview with Lisa Genova about a novel she’d written about this disease, I turned up the volume in the car, remembering our church custodian. Lisa Genova, a neuroscientist, has written several books about illnesses and disorders – autism, early onset Alzheimers, brain injury. Still Alice (about Alzheimers) is probably her most famous since it’s been made into a movie.

The book did an excellent job of teaching about this disease through the lives of the O’Briens, a family whose cop father develops the disease. While news of this disease, which some have called the worst disease in the world, shakes the family to the core, it is more deeply a story about courage and love.

P.S. By now I am on my third Lisa Genova book. Still Alice, and Love Anthony are also informative and deeply engaging, building  awareness and compassion and offering hope for all who struggle.

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzail — I’d received this book as a gift in 2014, but it sat unread on my shelf for over a year. 51ADCrSbkxL._AA324_PIkin4,BottomRight,-54,22_AA346_SH20_OU15_Then this spring we heard Malala being interviewed (for the second time) by John Stewart on “The Daily Show”. Done the day after the tragic Charleston shootings, the interview was so inspiring that I knew it was time to pick up the book and I’m glad I did.

Malala of course is the girl who stood up for education in Pakistan and was shot by the Taliban in 2012 when she was 15. She was not expected to survive. Now at 18, she has become a global symbol of peaceful protest and has won the Nobel Peace Prize. She speaks and advocates for education for all.

Reading this book reminded me of how much I take for granted every day: freedom of speech, freedom to get an education, freedom of religion. It opened my eyes to life on the other side of the globe, and to political situations that I usually don’t spend much time trying to understand. I also learned more about the deep and profound truths of the Islam faith.

Something I love to do after I’ve read a memoir (my favorite genre), is to listen to the person speak on the internet. It’s like meeting someone who just became your hero. So I googled “Malala’s United Nations speech” and listened to the speech she gave on her 16th birthday at the annual UN conference. I’d encourage anyone to listen, it is a powerful and moving testament from a humble, loving person who does not sensationalize what happened to her, but who lives and forgives her enemies. She says she is only “one girl among many” whose lives are affected by terrorism. She is one of my heroes.

51O0o9+wVcL._AA324_PIkin4,BottomRight,-54,22_AA346_SH20_OU15_The book of Revelation — Yes, that’s right, that book at the end of the Christian Bible that make people think of the end of the world, apocalypse, and cartoon like crazy monsters and villains.

Instead of taking summers “off”, our tiny church battles hazy lazy summer brain by going full-tilt into study together. Invariably, it ends up being the highlight of the week for us.

We are half-way through a film course from the “Great Courses” series called “Revelation and the End of All Things”, by Craig Koester. I recommend it highly, especially since Revelation is the most misunderstood and misinterpreted book of the Bible. I myself barely knew much about it and I’ve been a Christian all my life. Koester is a teacher who makes the book clear, engaging and meaningful.

It’s been a wild ride so far, and a rich study.  As another author describes it, Revelation is “off-the-charts weird”; definitely not a book to be read literally. (Try to understand what a 200-mile-long river of blood is all about!)

When read as a piece of literature, and understood in its historical and cultural context, it has a lot to say even to us modern readers who are often caught in a world torn with conflict and which tempts us to compromise our deepest values.

What I’m learning through the film, the accompanying book and the guidance of our resident scholar Paul Patterson, is that Revelation is a hopeful book for anyone who is struggling. Far from telling the future, it is a book that tells even us modern readers what to believe in tough times. At the centre of it all is a King who wins the day not by force, but through love which sacrifices and stands with the weak and powerless (think Aslan for fans of the Chronicles of Narnia).

The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It by Peter Enns — Ok, this book might not be for everyone. But if you’re like me, raised on the Bible and sometimes given interpretations that were not the most Unknown-1helpful, this book is a must-read.

First of all, the book is incredibly funny, not to mention easy-to-read. I kept thinking as I was reading that it was more like a novel in how engaging and page-turning it is. But even though it’s a fun read, it is backed by reliable research.

He is totally honest with how odd, bizarre, contradictory and even violent the Bible often is. What do we do when the Bible doesn’t “behave itself”? (Canaanite genocide anyone?) It’s enough to confuse believers, and I know of many people who have had crisis of faith or just turned away from faith or the church because of this. To help us begin, Enns says, “I believe God wants us to take the Bible seriously, but I don’t believe he wants us to suppress our questions about it.”

What he wants you to know is, relax, it’s ok, there’s a way of understanding the Bible that helps us make sense of it. It’s not a rule book or owner’s manual. It’s a collection of stories, known and passed down by God’s people. It’s a living Word, able to stretch across the centuries and be relevant to us today. But we have to know how to read it, and Enns gives a pretty decent set of tools.

I’d recommend it to people who identify as Christian or are seeking to know more about Christianity. It’s not, as one blogger put it, for the faint of heart. The idea that the Bible isn’t “perfect” can be deeply unsettling for evangelical Christians. Enns argues that in the Bible, God lets his children tell the stories about him (and tell them imperfectly). God is ok with that, and God is also bigger than those stories.

Long Term Growth

This spring, our three backyard Manitoba maple trees needed pruning. I received a crash course on trees from the arborist we hired for the job. Craning my neck upwards, I listened as he opened up the world of trees to me. maple leavesHe explained which limbs he would prune and why. I had a sudden desire to become an arborist myself as I listened to the wise details of his trade. His business is aptly named “Long Term Growth”.

Normally, I love pruning — whether it’s unruly hair that begs to be cut, sentences that need editing, or trees that need trimming, there’s something about weeding out what is not giving life that seems so beneficial. I have become an amateur in all three areas.

When it comes to the deeper pruning of unhelpful aspects or habits of my life, the process can be tougher, but just as needed. As electric and handheld saws began to thin out the trees, I played “spot that metaphor” and reflected on the pruning in my own life in the last year and a half.

The pruning of my teaching job was filled with much consultation and prayers. Just like the wise arborist pondering my maple trees, I had people gently saying to me, look friend, this limb is not sustaining life anymore, maybe it’s time… It wasn’t the easiest pruning to make peace with, but time has shown that it was necessary and helpful for my own long term growth.

Leaving full-time work was just the beginning. Now that the big, obvious branches have been cut, it seems that the pruning is more subtle. My mantra has become “less is more” and I keep having to make decisions, large and small, of what to cut out as I learn to avoid headaches. More branches are being pruned all the time.

Ever since I learned that my headaches are not just physical in origin, I’ve become a bit of a detective, searching for clues. I have this long time habit which friends jokingly call my 911 tendency. I tend to project a calm exterior so people might not guess it, but I overplay the emotional dramas of life, engaging in histrionics. Like a druggie’s quick fix, it’s an unhelpful habit which really only serves to distract and prevent me from tapping the deeper roots of life.

RHS_PUB0002681_900998Sitting in my meditation room, this troubling habit is becoming more clear to me. When a headache flare-up happens, I am learning not just to ask for sympathy, but to ask myself, and the friends who know me well, whether I’m somehow feeding it. I’m learning that regular pruning is essential.

To do this requires humility, acknowledging that I’m not just a victim. But it’s something I deeply desire. Not only do I want to become well physically, I also want to be tethered securely to my deepest values, which for me rest in following Jesus.

Last Sunday I was asked to share reflections with my house church from the gospel of Mark 5:21-43. It’s a story, actually two stories, about Jesus performing two miracles. One of them is a woman who was bleeding for 12 years. She spent all her money on physicians, and not only did she not get better, she got worse (a story that I could identify with)! She was at the end of her rope, physically as well as socially since she was one of society’s untouchables. In her desperation, she reached out and touched the edge of Jesus’ robe. She was immediately made well!

But when Jesus stopped in his tracks and asked who touched him, she felt she was busted. An unclean person wasn’t supposed to touch anyone, let alone a holy man, but Jesus didn’t think like that. The social taboos of the day were manmade, not from God. Earlier in Mark, he said, “I came for those who are sick, not those who are well.”

Scripture says she came out of the shadows and “told him the whole truth”. In response, Jesus wished her peace and to be well permanently. Her shame was gone and she was restored to the community.

But he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go home in peace, and be free from your trouble.” Mark 5:35

The phrase about telling “the whole truth” has stayed with me. I too want to be honest before God and my Unknownfriends and confess my anger or my people pleasing. The stillness of the meditation room invites me to take a deep breath and quiet my reactions, quiet my thoughts, quiet the struggle, and go deeper.

And then I can pray, trusting that God the wise arborist is lovingly pruning those branches which are not life-giving. If the power saws sound alarming, I can remember that God only does this out of love and a desire for my long term growth. Then, like our lovely backyard maples, the wind of the Spirit can blow through my life with more ease and freedom. I’m so glad God wishes peace for all our gnarled limbs.

Falling Upward

I’ve worked with a lot of students since I began teaching in 1987. Not just different nationalities, but students who came with all kinds of challenges and strengths. I marveled at the myriad personalities that I got to work with — some malleable, trusting and easy going, others requiring a more sensitive approach to get them to open up, still others needing me to grow a thicker skin and nerves of steel. I’ve seen it all, the whole spectrum and then some. Many have come to mind in reflection in this past year, always with gratitude for all they taught me, especially the challenges.

Now, at St. Aidan’s, I’ve been privileged  to work with a new type of student — the new Canadian who must learn to speak English. I have worked with these young people since last fall, and have enjoyed the challenge of introducing a new alphabet, with new sounds, to them. Some have already accepted their new status and are more than ready to learn, others are still longing for their homeland and reluctant. I’m sure I barely understand the effects of the reasons they fled their country to begin with.

The long, fancy explanations teachers are so fond of giving, as a “sage on a stage,” no longer work (oh wait, they never did). Now I depend on gestures, simple words and acting to get the meanings out. Sometimes I get smiles of comprehension, other times I get puzzled looks. How do you explain that the letter “a” is sometimes long, sometimes short? Or that “c” can be pronounced two ways? English seems cruel with all its exceptions and rules that break.

Once, I brought an Arabic/English picture dictionary from the library to go over with IMG_0579Stephania, a new student from Eritrea. She showed her alphabet and it was a good exercise in empathy for me. The  characters of that language all seemed the same to me, the subtle differences incomprehensible to me but no doubt plain to her. I imitated the sounds Stephania spoke, but when she corrected how I said them, I didn’t understand my mistake. I tried to say them the way she did, thinking I’d aced it, but she kept shaking her head in laughter.

I’ve often remembered that experience when I see students struggle with what seems obvious to me. For example, it never occurred to me before how similar the letters “t” and “f” look. Explaining something once doesn’t do the trick, it is a process that will be years in the making as they acquire a new language and a new culture. Any successful connection that occurs during a lesson is a joy.

I’ve been a “new language learner” myself in the last year, as I’ve navigated my way through leaving full time teaching. My new dialect is the language of the “second half of life”. In the first half of life, I was preoccupied, as people rightly are before their 50’s, with establishing myself — career, home ownership, parenting…building a proper platform for my life. The game was all about establishing an identity. In teaching, I took courses, learned the latest programs, taught after school and lunch clubs, bravely staged concerts, and said yes to a lot of extras, as many, many teachers do.   Life was all about the word “more”.

Now life has become about less rather than more, and I am in the midst of a paradox with the new language I’m learning. Where my old language said, “Work hard. White knuckle your way through,” the new language is gently encouraging me to begin letting go, reminding me that less might translate to more.

Until I was faced with the task of letting go, I didn’t know how tightly I’d been hanging on, as if it was the only identity I could have. But as I’ve been letting go, I feel I am gaining more in an upside down way. Saying no to the busy life I once led has felt like a loss, but there is new life springing up as well.

Author Richard Rohr describes this paradox beautifully in the phrase (and book) 9780470907757_p0_v1_s260x420Falling Upward”. At first glance, falling hardly seems to describe the first half of life. Isn’t it all about rising, achieving, accomplishing, and performing? I think falling refers, not to the first half of life, but to our transition into the second half of life. I didn’t have to manufacture the falling part, it happened when I couldn’t do it anymore. I think this must come naturally in every life.  Letting go feels like falling, and falling always involves suffering of some kind. Suffering is never fun, but  headaches have served to topple the illusion that I was in control, or that I could even build a tower of success. My little kingdom had to fail me.

I’m so grateful I’ve heard God call me to a kingdom greater than my small self, which in Christian language Jesus calls the Kingdom of God. It’s what Rohr meant by the phrase “falling upward”. Now it’s no longer about me looking good, or making money. The picture has grown smaller in some ways, but in the most important ways, life has gotten bigger.

I hope and pray that my life will have more of an inner generativity. God in the second half of life is showing me a way to do this as I’m writing and editing more than I ever have. Most days it feels like chicken scratches, but I’ve heard a clear call that this is where God has called me to. When I write, I feel like I am falling upward, falling towards God, falling in love. I feel I am where God wants me to be.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. John 12:24

Written On Our Hearts

If I could choose one word to describe this past while, it has been “transition”. At long last, I signed on for a one-year commitment to work 1/2 time at St. Aidan’s Christian School, a great little independent school servicing recent African immigrants in the inner city. I have been volunteering there since last September, and when the administrator there offered me a 1/2 time position next September, MB Teacher’s Society said yes. It’s out of the norm for MTS, but they are seeing it as part of my “rehab” on my medical leave. I have been very grateful for this creative option, which couldn’t be a better fit for me. I actually begin unofficially in one week.

The other side of the coin has been finally realizing that I will part ways with my old school. It isn’t really new news for me, but it has still left me with loads of mixed feelings — gratitude for having worked with the best co-workers and students for 11 years, sadness at saying good-bye, regret at not having said a better good-bye at this time last year and worry about how I’ll handle a regular schedule again. Not surprisingly, it’s translated to a few more wonky head days than usual lately.

As usual, God has been seeing me through this time. The prayers and guidance of my faith community and the learnings that God always seems to whisper in my ear have kept me moving forward.

The biggest lesson (and it’s not a new one — I’m a slow learner!) has been that it’ll be ok to let go. When I first went on leave, I began noticing the over-attachment I had to work and this identity of “teacher,” and it seems the lesson is springing up again. Like a mantra, I’ve been remembering that all these identifiers are temporary. There’s nothing on this earth I won’t have to say good-bye to eventually. Though it sounds cliche, the only thing that really endures is God.

I’ve been given the rich opportunity lately to contemplate this story as I’ve been writing and editing for a blog on our church’s website. Recently, we finished a study of a book called The Story of God, the Story of Us, by Sean Gladding, and we wanted to share our experience online.

Gladding’s book tells the big-picture Story of both Old and New Testaments through an imaginary group hearing the stories for the first time. These are stories I’ve heard all my life in Sunday School and church, and sometimes they feel so old that I tune them out. But as we studied the book, and particularly as I have gone through each chapter with a fine tooth comb, re-reading the themes for the blog, I’ve had the chance to hear the stories at a deeper level.

I’m hearing that though we humans continually mess things up, chesed_etymologyit’s not the most important half of the equation. The “story of God” is that God loves us with a love called chesed in the Hebrew language. The word translates as “loving kindness.” When the Israelites kept betraying the covenant God had made with them throughout the Old Testament, God was never tit-for-tat, but always remained loyal to it.

That means that nothing we can do can separate us from God’s benevolence, like having the best parent ever. Even when our hands and minds and hearts are closed to hope, God finds ways of continuing to stay loyal and forgiving.

When you’re in a time of transition, and worries for the future and regrets for the past stir up ancient headaches at 3 a.m., this is something solid to rely on, let me tell you! Tossing one night, I began to search for what was true. What could I hang on to? My own story is not as reliable as I thought it was when I was so busy earlier in my life, building my career, raising a child and securing my house. Now the only lifeboat that felt solid came from the darn summaries I was writing about in the blog — the story of God as it weaves through my own.

Written On Our Hearts

“Written On Our Hearts” – Art by Eldon Heinrichs, Photo editing by Paul Patterson

I’ve hung onto this moment of 3 a.m. insight, which I have no doubt came from God. It’s all gonna be ok kiddo, God was saying. You can let go of all that and I’ll still be here in the morning.

As transition times probably always are, this one feels messy and soaked through with sadness. Even if I’m going through it imperfectly, God is sticking with me, showing me that perfection is not what God is after — only that I keep remembering the Story that is greater than my own. I know the Story is fixing me, bringing me home.

“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Jeremiah 31:33

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