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.