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Archive for July, 2011

Where Hope Is Found

What gives you hope? This is a question I have been asking myself lately as I’ve faced a health challenge. If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll notice a that I have a wonky head. My headaches tend to come and go, but they’ve been worse lately as my neck has been in almost constant pain. The solution to the problem is still out of reach, and it seems like lately my sense of hope has been chiseled away bit by bit.

Photo by Joel PennerChronic pain has a way of bringing the ceiling down on a person. The temptation for me is how I begin to think of myself – I can start to see everything through the lens of physicality (my friends will attest to this!) Every muscle ache is noted during the day with relentless observation. I forget about enjoying nature, reading books, enjoying friendships or any of the other many blessings in my life. The greatest danger is that I forget about the deeper side of life and exercising my faith muscles.

It was in this state that I went for a walk with my friend Bev last Sunday. I talked about the challenges I’d been facing. Friends do bear each other’s burdens and Bev is a compassionate listener. With gusto I started to list the appointments ahead of me – x-rays one day, a specialist the week after, another appointment later in the summer. I talked about them as though they alone would get me through this time.

Bev is indeed a compassionate listener, but she is also honest, and she later emailed me with “niggling thoughts”, as she put it. She noticed the frantic tone behind my list of appointments. It was like I was a drowning sailor clinging onto a tiny life preserver. “What are you placing your hope in?” she asked me. “These appointments might help you (and I hope they do), but are they your ultimate organizing centre? Don’t forget about God. He is there in thick and thin, in sickness and in health.”

As good friends do, Bev reminded me of who I really am, beyond just the physical. Her words brought me to my senses. As soon as she wrote, I could see it what I had been doing – or rather, what I had been forgetting. Forgetting the larger Story around my small story. Forgetting that we can’t ultimately count on health, but we can always count on God to provide meaning and unconditional love in our trials.

The next day found me setting off for Regina, Saskatchewan, where I was headed with a group from Monarch Teacher’s Network to present a workshop. After a visit in the car with my travel companions, I settled in with my book about King David (who we are studying at Watershed in the book of Samuel in the Old Testament).

Before he was king, David had to be on the run for many years, in fear for his life. He sought refuge in the caves and deserts of the Ancient Near East. Like me finding refuge in appointments, he had to come to face the question, “What gives me hope?”

As I read, I began to see David’s life mirrored in my own. I wasn’t running for my life, but  it still seemed that the words were meant for me.  A refuge is a very physical thing at first, yet David ultimately found himself saying that God was his refuge. What brought David into the desert was his troubles, but something more profound happened. Prayers erupted in him as he took refuge and found solace in God. Many of those prayers have been recorded in the book of Psalms.

As I kept reading on the road to Regina, I heard a gentle reminder in my heart to turn to God in my troubles. There’s a verse in the book of Romans that came to mind, reminding me of a reality beyond my understanding.   We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Rom. 8:28 

As I write these words, I don’t want anyone to think that it’s easy to trust like this. I still had neck troubles at the workshop, but I felt a gentle nudge to pray for help. Help to keep my eyes on the bigger picture. There are many blessings in my life, not the least of which is the fact that nothing can separate me from God’s love. I remembered my friend Fana, who chose to count her blessings instead of listing her complaints.   I kept returning to the word “refuge” – I could take refuge that God had a greater meaning in troubles, and was forming me in ways that I don’t always see from my limited vantage point. I certainly don’t always do this well, but there was no doubt of the reminder to hope in God.

There’s a scene in the book Tuesdays With Morrie that often comes back to me, giving me an example of the promise in Romans. In the book, Morrie has to face the diminishment of his life because of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. To get through his coughing, he has to breathe as deeply as he can, exercising his mind not to get swallowed up in pain. In one of the Tuesday lessons, he tells his friend Mitch that he now understood why he had severe asthma as a child. He had practiced this exact kind of breathing as a child, and this practice helped him with his present troubles.

I often don’t understand the why of the limitations I face. In my worst moments, I act like a spoiled princess who thinks she is entitled to a life of clear sailing. But this week I’ve received nudges from friends and from my reading, reminding me to see this experience through God’s eyes. It became clear to me that this was the topic of my next blog post.

What I hear is, “Your ways are not my ways, my dear daughter. I am writing a larger story in your life, and I am working all things together for good. You can take hope in what perhaps feels invisible to you now. I am with you.”

Hope. It isn’t easy to exercise trust in what I can’t see, but this is where I’ve experienced God this week. Hope is different from optimism, which relies on everything turning out “all right in the end.” It reminds me of a wonderful quote I heard once in a sermon:

“Hope is forged on the anvil of adversity.”  The preacher, Peter Gomes, goes on to say that hope is not a wimpy word. Suffering can form character in us, and hope becomes much more than mere optimism. I love how he says that hope is muscular. “Muscular hope is the stuff that gets us through and beyond when the worst that can happen happens.”

To anyone who is reading this blog and is facing troubles of your own, I wish you and all of us this kind of hope.

Stoking the Flames of Faith

One of the ways I see God meeting us is through the people that are sent our way in our daily need to hear words of guidance. Has it ever happened to you? Someone says something and you realize it was just what you needed to hear to keep you going. Like the the rudder on a huge ship, it is just a small word, but the effects can make a huge difference.

This week I met God through a new friend. I spent four days working with Habitat for Humanity’s Blitz build on Regent Avenue. It is my fourth year with Habitat. I got started when my friends suggested I try it out since I like hands on types of jobs, and I was looking for a bit of structure for the summer break.

It’s hard, sweaty work, and refreshingly different from my usual job but what I love the most is meeting the people. Everyone, young and old, works together, from future homeowners to volunteers to Habitat staff, and as we work, there is plenty of time for stories (not to mention joking around). I love getting to know people. There’s something fun about talking while hands are kept busy with a meaningful task. No doubt it’s the vision of Habitat, but the work seems to bring out the best in everyone. I am curious about people – what brought them to Habitat, and what their lives are about.  And so it was amid hammers, nails and ladders that I met one of God’s messengers this week.

As usual, God’s guidance came in the midst of a predicament. Like many whose bodies are aging, I have been battling a seemingly chronic ache – this one in my neck. As with any physical issue, it makes any day tougher. It has forced me lately to take a break from running. I really feel for anyone who has to deal with chronic pain, because I know how it can bring a person’s spirits down. I wanted to continue with my commitment  to Habitat if I could.

Some days have been better than others, but the day that I met future homeowner Fana, I was having a tough day. I was glad to have a distraction from the pain as we started talking while getting to work nailing wire mesh on the side of the house. Some people are reserved about sharing their lives, but Fana was open hearted with me. Her english was not always easy to understand, so I had to lean in closer at times to catch her story, and I was lucky that she was a patient story-teller.

She was born in Eritrea (near Ethiopia, Africa) 44 years ago. The pain in my neck seemed small in comparison to what she has had to face. Conflict was brewing, like many countries in that part of the world and she remembers how for more than a month, her family had to hide in the mountains during the day, going back to their home at night when there was less chance of being caught. She left home at 19 for Sudan to find work, intending to come back home in the future, but ongoing strife in her country prevented that. She married in Sudan, had four children, and eventually immigrated to Canada, arriving 3 years ago.

As we walked back from lunch, she began to talk about all the friends God sent her way to help her, people who showed her kindness and guidance. “When I look back,” she told me in her lovely, gentle voice, “I see that God was always ahead of me, providing a way for me.”

“I don’t know if you can understand me,” she added, apologizing for her broken English. But I knew exactly what she meant, and I told her that. Her eyes seemed to radiate wisdom. It was like she was giving me the dose of faith that I was lacking.

As I drove home later that day, I thought back on her words. Going over the Nairn overpass, I knew with a heart’s certainty what the next blog post would be about. Her words were a good corrective to the way I can so often start to pity myself and have a lack of imagination in life’s trials. Through our visit, the frustration I had had at the beginning of the day was replaced by a new yet not-so-new way of seeing my life. It was like binoculars that come into focus as I remembered that like Fana, God has gone ahead of me in so many ways, providing for me.  My body may not be that reliable, but I have always been able to bank on being given a life rich in faith and meaning and friendships. There has never been a mess so tangled that God hasn’t shown me a way through.

What’s amazing to me is that God seems to specialize in using these life messes for his purposes. What seems like pointless, low-grade pain can begin to become transformed when God works with it, like a master carpenter making a beautiful creation out of a gnarled piece of wood that others might throw away. Beautiful creations such as patience, empathy for others, and prayer come to me as gifts shaped by God out of physical limitations. While it’s difficult, I have met God in so many ways. I am often reminded of singer Bruce Cockburn’s lyrics, “You know, it’s all going somewhere.”

The next day, I told Fana how she had been an encouragement to me, and she smiled but her stories and wisdom were not yet done. She told me about how her family arrived in Winnipeg in September of 2008 and 3 months later, how she slipped and broke her arm on Winnipeg’s winter ice. It was a bad break, requiring several metal plates, many stitches and much pain, in addition to not knowing English and missing her home country in our minus 35 degree weather.

“Life became so hard,” she told me, “but there came a point when I knew I had a choice to make. I could choose to count my blessings, or to keep on complaining to God. I thought about my list of blessings, and I knew that if I counted them, the list would never end, but my list of complaints just had one thing – my broken arm. I decided to choose the longer list and count my blessings.”

There’s a great old Christian classic called Pilgrim’s Progress, written in 1678 by John Bunyan as he sat in prison. We studied it years ago at Watershed, and an image from this fantastic allegory came back to me as I reflected on Fana’s words. In the story, the hero Christian sees a fire burning in a hearth. Christian sees a man standing throwing buckets of water on the fire in an effort to put it out. We are told that mysteriously, instead of going out, the fire burned higher and hotter. Christian wonders what the heck is going on. “Why is this?” he wonders and asks Interpreter, who is standing beside Christian.

That’s when Interpreter shows Christian how, hidden on the other side of the wall, there is another person throwing oil on that same fire, and that’s why it burns and keeps on burning. “That is Christ,” Interpreter explains, “who continually, with the oil of His grace, maintains the work already begun in the heart.” He stands hidden, at the other side of the wall, the Interpreter goes on, but this is to show that sometimes it is hard for us to realize that Christ really is still maintaining His work in our souls.

Fana’s stories of faith and trust in God were like oil being thrown on the fire, renewing a flame of faith in me. I was reminded of the Bible verse Paul Patterson (Watershed’s pastor) gave me on my 50th birthday this year:

2Cor. 4:16   So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.

Fana and I parted ways yesterday, handing in our hard-hats and exchanging email addresses, promising to get together again. I hoped that she knew how my inner nature in God had been renewed through her witness. They say God speaks to us in short, clear sentences, and her words fit the bill. “Lydia, don’t worry. I’m ahead of you on the path and I’ll provide what you need. Remember to count your blessings. The list won’t end.”

Life can throw many buckets of water on our fire of faith, but there’s always a faithful hand, often hidden, throwing the oil of grace on the flames, maintaining the work of God  already begun in our hearts.

Strength in Weakness

Last week, God met me in a place many would consider unlikely. Once a month, my friend Marilyn and I trek out to a senior’s residence, where we dig up some old tunes to sing for and with a small group of seniors. Trouble was, I really didn’t have the energy. June is always a super busy time of year for teachers, with loads of loose ends to tie up, field trips and other year end activities. The previous week’s headache battle was done, and it left me worn out. Rather than needed rest, what lay before me was my motley crew of kids, hyper with holidays ahead and needing my direction. With that challenge, it felt like the last thing I wanted was to add another activity to my plate and head out to sing with the seniors.

When you walk into a senior’s home, it’s like walking into another time zone. Busy “to-do lists” evaporate at the door when you see people who sit out their days in pain and limitation, with time interrupted only by meals, activities in the home and perhaps a visit from a loved one if they are lucky. We are the able-bodied ones and there to serve them, but there’s something about these fragile folks that loosens my grip on all my precious lists.

Celtic spirituality has a great phrase which I will use to describe this place. Thin places are where the dividing line between the holy and the ordinary is very thin. Ordinary things somehow seem sacred and become a window to God. This small room where we sing feels like a thin place. These people are dependent and vulnerable and so very human. Job descriptions are no longer important.

There’s a famous Catholic writer and priest, now passed away, named Henri Nouwen, who came to one such unlikely thin place. His job had seemed to rob him of any inner sense of God. He had become so caught up in doing that he was burned out and no longer able to give. It was in this state that he visited L’Arche, a Christian community for mentally and physically handicapped people. He suddenly found himself just sitting with people whose limitations were unimaginable. All he had to do was sit with people who couldn’t talk or walk.  They didn’t need his words and didn’t even recognize that he was a world-famous writer. These broken people ministered to him in his brokenness by giving him a silent place to sit and slow down, resting only in their shared identity as God’s children. L’Arche became a place of healing for his burn-out, and Nouwen became a life-long supporter and champion of L’Arche, even going on to write books about it.

This is how it seems to me when we sing. We are all broken people, coming together and met by something greater than ourselves. Photo by Joel Penner

Marilyn and I are just ordinary people, but there’s something transcendent  that happens in that room when we sing. They sing along whether they know the words or not. Yvonne doesn’t remember much about her life, but she knows the words to some of those old songs and she closes her eyes and it looks like she’s in heaven as she sings along. Eileen also has memory loss, but doesn’t hesitate to beam at us when we catch her eye. Mary is no longer able to walk and will sit on her grand wheelchair until machines lift her back into bed, but her soft blue eyes come to life, especially when we sing her favorite song “You Are My Sunshine”. If we talk about the meaning of some of the songs, she affirms it with a quiet exclamation –  “It’s true!”

Some of them go to sleep as we sing, some just tap their feet, others sing along, but we all get enlivened by the music. They are not perfect people – they have their cranky days like we all do, but it often seems there’s a third invisible presence in the room that feels sacred.

For much of my days, I worry way too much about my job, and habitually make mountains out of small problems that seem to turn out ok despite me. These people give me a place to remember what matters – a smile, a kind word that lifts the spirits, and most of all an open heart. A hospitable space opens up where I can just be myself. I don’t have to impress anyone with being “together”.

There’s a Bible verse that seems to capture the mystery of what happens here. 2 Corinthians 12:10 says that “When I am weak, that’s when I am strong.” It’s one of those riddles in the upside-down world of the Bible. Our society always rewards and even reveres the strong, the young, and the beautiful people, but there is something about resting before God in our weak, dependent and vulnerable state which can make a person more open to love.

As much as I fight weakness myself, whether physical or emotional, I can see that’s it’s exactly those places that break down my ego and make me more open to the love of God. Weakness turns into strength. It’s a strength which is not my own doing, but comes from remembering that who I am is not my job or my to-do’s, but a beloved child of God.

And so it was that last week, the music stitched us all up in some way, as it usually does. We’re all broken people, yet mysteriously met by God’s love in the music and the conversation. The lists still awaited me, but I was reminded of a deeper calm beneath the ripples on the surface of the water.

I was glad I had stepped out of what I thought was so important that Tuesday night. Sometimes the last thing we want ends up being the first thing we need.

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