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Archive for August, 2011

Prayer: A Spacious Place

Every week, I scan my reflections and experiences to answer that rich question, “Where is God in my day?” The answer that has been bubbling up more than once lately is “in prayer”. The topic came while listening to “On Being” as I exercised, a radio show I’d highly recommend, based out of Minnesota. The host, Krista TIppet, always has rich conversations with people on topics related to faith and meaning. The particular show I was listening to that day was a repeat, one of my favorites called “Approaching Prayer”, and it got me thinking about prayer in my own life.

What does it mean to pray?  When I was a kid in elementary school, the class recited the Lord’s Prayer every morning after O Canada. The words were so ingrained in me that I hardly thought about them, like the rhyming german prayers that my sisters and I whipped off obediently before meals at home. To this day, I can recite those meal prayers so fast that they sound like one word! We hardly thought about the words before we ate (though looking back, it probably didn’t hurt to practice a habit of gratitude for the food).

Images of people reciting a list of requests also comes to mind, which assume God to be that great Santa in the sky.  And, though conversations about faith have largely left our culture, people still sometimes say, “I’ll pray for you,” when a friend is going through a tough time.

One of my first memories is of praying before bed. My sister Hilde, the oldest of us 4 girls, was battling  leukemia, and I remember kneeling at my headboard, and asking (in german, which I thought was God’s language!) that she get better. God didn’t answer that prayer the way we expected, since she passed away in 1968, but the memory of those heartfelt prayers stayed with me. In my child’s faith, I never questioned that God was listening, the same way I knew He was watching over us as we grieved.

Another childhood prayer came as I contemplated a painting on the wall of my bedroom. In the famous picture, an angel is guarding two vulnerable children as they walk across a rickety bridge. I was fascinated with that picture even as I was horrified by the dangers of the kids faced. Despite my terror, I always had that sense that God was like that angel, ever present in my life, guarding my steps and not far from my thoughts.

Thanks to growing up in the faith communities of my school, church, family and now in my house church, I have always kept up the habit of prayer. But as an adult, I am hardly an expert at it. In fact, most times when I am caught up in life’s troubles, I lack faith and my prayers feel like trying to speak a foreign language. My prayers often feel like they are bouncing right back to me from the ceiling! But I know that I can be grateful for all my worries, because without them I would likely never feel the need to pray. There’s a great quotation that often comes to mind, “I only pray when I’m in trouble. But I’m in trouble all the time, so I always pray.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

Prayer to me is not just formal prayers that begin with “Dear God” and end with “Amen”, armed with that famous Christmas list. Prayer to me is an attitude of the heart. The Bible says to “Pray without ceasing”, and this seems like a tall order unless you consider that God surrounds us all the time, even if we are unaware of it. Being aware of God’s presence is what I would consider prayer, and what I most desire in life. I begin and end my days with prayer, but through scripture, I am encouraged to turn to God all day long, kind of like a sunflower turns towards the sun, its source of growth. Scripture also gives us the image that we are to “abide” in God, much like leaves are part of a vine.

It is often difficult to do this. For some odd reason (call it the human predicament), I am often much more bent on trying things my own way. This invariably leads me into a tangled heap of trouble (see above quote), and it’s back to prayer I go, humbling asking for guidance since I am pretty clueless on my own. Abraham Lincoln once said, “I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”

Nowhere else to go. More and more as I am getting older, I see this to be true. I’ve tried so many self-help cures, and nothing has truly helped more than “abiding” in God, whether it is through prayer or reading scripture, both alone and with my church community.

My prayers honestly do feel awkward and bumbling, but I take solace in the image that, like a loving parent, God is overjoyed to hear us coming home, no matter what shape we’re in. The Bible says that God knows what what our needs are before we do, and knows what we are going to pray even before we know it ourselves. Groans and end-of-the-rope sighs are a language that scripture says God knows how to interpret. Like that angel, God is always surrounding us, looking out for our needs.

Does that mean that troubles are always solved when we pray? Hardly! Troubles don’t necessarily go away (as they didn’t for my sister who lost the cancer battle), but I find that my perspective on them changes, and my burdens get lifted. What I am coming to understand is that God is with us, no matter what is happening in our external reality. We can say, “All will be well” in any circumstance, because we can know that God is guarding our hearts from cynicism, doubt, anxiety, despair or loneliness. We may not always get the answers we want in prayer, but I believe that we always get what we need. In God’s reality, the world is expansive. A verse from the book of Samuel in the Old Testament says, “He brought me out into a spacious place.” 2 Samuel 22:20  This spacious place in God gives me lots of hope.

One of my favorite writers, Ann Lamott, says that there are really only two prayers. One is “Help me, help me, help me” and the other is “Thank you, thank you, thank you”. I often remember her words. Both become true for me as I ask for and receive help again and again. God has never let me down.

Another quotation that has been with me for a long time is from the French philosopher, social activist and Christian mystic Simone Weil, who says that “Absolute unmixed attention is prayer.” I am often practicing anything but unmixed attention as my thoughts get scattered with worries and cares, but the call back to prayer never leaves me. A verse in scripture invites us to “Cast all your anxiety on him, for he cares for you.” (I Peter 5:7 TNIV) God does not expect us to come to prayer as perfect people, but only as children would turn to a loving parent. There is no right way to pray.

The Psalms are a rich source of prayers that can guide us when we are at a loss for words. In the podcast on prayer, Krista interviewed Stephen Mitchell, a famous American translator and poet. He recited a “free form” translation of Psalm 4, which I want to share you with you all since it seems to embody perfectly that expansive world of God. It is a prayer that contains both a “Help me” and a “Thank you”.

Psalm 4

“Even in the midst of great pain Lord, I praise You for that which is. I will not refuse this grief or close myself to this anguish. Let shallow men pray for ease. Comfort us, shield us from sorrow. I pray for whatever you send me and I ask to receive it as your gift. You have put a joy in my heart greater than all the world’s riches. I lie down, trusting the darkness, for I know that even now, You are here.”

Setting Aside Advantages

I did my last two days with Habitat this week. With August almost done, I will soon trade my hard hat for pencils and lesson plans as preparation for a new school year is ahead of me. As I nailed wire mesh and vinyl siding and worked beside friends this week, I reflected further on how God has been with me through my days with Habitat.

I know I’ve written about Habitat more than once in this blog already, so you’ll have to humor me, but the experience was rich for reflecting. Like usual when I extend myself, at first I want to do anything but move out of my comfort zone and sacrifice “me time”. The days almost always began with me wondering, “Why am I doing this again? Someone remind me!”, especially if the temperatures promised to soar into the 30’s. Wouldn’t I rather be sleeping or tackling my famous to-do’s in my air-conditioned house?

But other thoughts play through my mind at the same time. I know how too many days puttering alone at home can give me too much time to “think”. My eternal insecurities start to take over, like weeds in a garden with no direction. When the days that I committed to with Habitat come up, despite the initial resistance, I am almost always relieved to be given structure and a task. 

It’s not just about keeping busy. It’s that the vision of Habitat starts to make me happy as I pick up my hammer.  I am given the privilege of serving something outside myself. In this case, it is helping to build houses for people who ordinarily wouldn’t be able to buy decent housing on their own. The task itself is enormous, and my contribution is incredibly tiny, but there is immense satisfaction in doing it. Somehow, despite the heat and the discomforts, I receive way more than I give.

I receive the privilege of meeting all kinds of people. These are ordinary people like me, but I believe that the vision of Habitat brings out the best in people. I have been blessed to meet many homeowners who work alongside us as they complete their sweat equity hours. If I had to describe them with one word, it would be “grateful”. Many of them have experienced the hard knocks of life, through war, poverty,  and cultural disadvantages, yet they have been given them an unexpected gift of stable, quality housing. Many of them juggle two jobs and struggle to find child care to finish their hours, but they are gracious and grateful people. Four summers ago when I met and worked with my first homeowner, I watched her tear up as she told me how the new beginning she was receiving through the house was giving her hope.  “It’s changed my life,” she told me with gratitude. She had many of us over for more than one meal to express her thanks.

I’ve also been blessed to meet many people from many walks of life. I’m always curious to find out what led them to volunteer and I start to ask questions. One woman last year volunteered in honor of a friend who passed away. Others come because, like me, they love this kind of work and have always wanted to help out. Still others come as part of their company’s commitment to annual community volunteer work. Many are teachers, like me, with too much time on their hands. Some people are retired and want to stay involved in life. What unites us all is putting aside our own agendas to commit to a common vision.

I also receive the great gift of “hands and heart” both being kept occupied at once. I grew up with a handyman dad, but when I helped him, we had a combination of a willful teenager (me) working with my dad who (God bless him) was a bit of a perfectionist! Though I have inherited his inclination to be a “handy-person” (and a perfectionist!), it was not a happy combo at the time. The supervisors at Habitat almost always have a good sense of humor as they work with us. They help us all relax as the sometimes hapless volunteers bumble our way through our work.

So, you might be wondering, how exactly is this “God”? Couldn’t someone who wasn’t calling themselves a Christian receive the same joys in volunteering? I’m sure they could, but I have the particular lens on life of desiring to live like my friend and hero Jesus. This week, I read a passage in scripture which helped me decide on this week’s blog theme. It’s quite a famous passage in the New Testament, written over 2000 years ago, where this guy named Paul the apostle wrote a poem describing what Jesus did when he came to earth. Jesus is considered “God’s son”. If we think of Queen Elizabeth’s sons and grandsons, we think of lives of incredible privilege and advantage. Despite Harry and William losing their mom tragically, they have had every advantage a human being could get.

Jesus was the son, not of “royal blood” (what does that even mean?), but of the ruler of the universe! Paul’s poem in the book of Philippians, however, says that Jesus gave up all that status to come to earth, become human like us, tell about the vision of his Father and be killed for it. Not only did he get killed for it, but instead of thinking of revenge, he just prayed asking for forgiveness for his killers, telling God that they didn’t really know what they were doing.

As a follower of Jesus, I want to be like him. Despite my often wayward actions which contradict my deepest intentions, this is what I want most dearly in life. Here’s a portion of that famous poem, which I read in that passage this week, and took along as I worked at Habitat:

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, become human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges… Philippians 2:5-8 (The Message translation)

The poem goes on to say that this humbling process led to his death, but that God in his creativity honored him “far beyond anyone or anything” by making death not be the last word.

I was thinking about this passage yesterday, and realized that work with Habitat is something Jesus would have loved. He would have worked alongside immigrants who have escaped refugee camps, many of whom are misunderstood by society because of the color of their skin or the rough edges of war. He would have taken joy in meeting Aboriginals who won’t let themselves be defined by their past. He would have smiled in seeing people who were looking beyond themselves, searching for meaning outside themselves and our materialistic North American culture. He would have loved the many fine people who have seen a vision and stake their lives on it. Jesus would have also had fun swinging a hammer, since he was a carpenter!

All these people, some of whom come from privilege and opportunity like me, have set aside advantages to work. So much of society encourages us to say, “Me and mine first!” but I believe that the life of sacrifice and letting go of status is the way to happiness. I’m grateful to have been given the example of Jesus who has given me a path to follow and helps me every step of the way, despite the many times I forget.

Consider the Lilies

For the last few months, I’ve had a broken molar tooth, which I’m finally going to go get fixed at the dentist this week. It’s funny how my tongue keeps investigating this broken section in my mouth, as if a new discovery will come of the exploration. It has struck me that I have lived too much of my life like this, worrying about the gaps, about what is “wrong” in the world and in my day. How do I identify myself? After my last blog post, my friends gave me a bit of a nudge, suggesting that maybe I’ve been over-identifying (ok, even obsessing) with my body.  There are some famous verses from Jesus’ sermon on the mount which often come as a reminder to me when my lens on life has gotten skewed.

Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. So don’t keep worrying about what you’ll eat and wear, for God knows exactly what you need. Matthew 6:28-29; 32

So I have been “considering the lilies”, thinking of all the ways that this summer has been a “Yes”. In short, where has God shown his face to me.

    • Hospitality of friends – I remember reading long ago that true hospitality invites someone to be truly themselves. In July, Lyle and I experienced true hospitality when we were graciously invited to join our friends Dave and Lorna at their rented cabin at High Lake. The trip was just one short day after my school year had ended. Typically, I am burned out by the end of June, and this year was no exception. I hadn’t even felt clear headed enough to clean my room decently before leaving. So I went to High Lake feeling that I wouldn’t be good company. But I needn’t have worried as our dear friends told us they had no expectations, and just to relax and be who we were, warts and all. It put me in mind of that A&W jingle from my childhood, “Hop in the car, come as you are…to A&W.” Come as you are. Hilarious jokes began tumbling out of us, no doubt as a response to the process of winding down. We laughed, we had some meaningful talks, and saw beautiful nature (including an army of mice in the cabin who were taking advantage of that hospitality as well.)  Dave and Lorna’s hospitality reminded me of the God who loves us unconditionally, and provides restoration to the soul when it is needed.
    • Hammering with Habitat for Humanity – Some may wonder why I volunteer for part of my summer. When it’s hot outside and I’m sweating under my hard hat, I sometimes wonder too, but I really believe that, if you can, volunteering is a great way to spend time. It has been a win-win situation. I contribute, but I receive just as much or more. I have met so many great people, many of whom give up even shorter holidays than I have to volunteer. My idea of fun is talking to someone about their lives while our hands are busy with a meaningful task. I have felt very privileged to meet with Fana, my friend from Sudan who is one of the homeowners. She said to me last week in her gentle voice, “You and I will remain friends after Habitat.” I often remember the quote: “A vision without a task is but a dream. A task without a vision is drudgery. A vision and a task is the hope of the world.”  (from a church in Sussex, England, c.1730) To me, Habitat brings together a vision and a task.
    • Raising monarch butterflies – For many years now, I have this unique hobby (obsession?) in the summer of raising butterflies. I do it for my own enjoyment, but also to share with the Monarch Teacher Network workshops I have become involved with. I also love to involve others in their care and release, at the seniors home, my son’s old daycare, or with neighbors. It is a perfect blend of a vision and a task, especially when I can bring this beautiful part of nature to my students in the spring and fall. With every butterfly’s release, I have begun to say prayers for people I know who are suffering or struggling in some way. I really believe that the best motive for us to take care of God’s earth is by nurturing a love of it.
  • Focusing on the good in life – I know I’ve written about it before, but I have seen God’s face in the senior’s home that we sing at. These dear people, incapacitated as they are in so many ways, still show that they respond to life and love. At our last visit, I brought along my cage of 6 monarch butterflies, which had emerged just that day. After our singalong, we walked and wheeled into the courtyard downstairs to release the butterflies. Though we didn’t bring a camera, the picture of all of us enjoying this symbol of freedom gives me much hope and joy.
  • Reading – Summer brings with it more space to read. I love how books can take you to a different place, expanding and deepening your world. It’s actually a discipline for me to take time to read, being the “doer” that I am. I’ve enjoyed Half-Broke Horses and am presently reading The Help. I’ve been reading a non-fiction book for our Wednesday night Bible study on the book of Samuel by one of my favorite writers Eugene Peterson. It’s called Leap Over a Wall.
  • Bird Watching and Saved Trees – This summer, we had to make a decision about our backyard trees. We have 3 beautiful old maples, and 2 are showing signs of aging. One of them particularly has a huge rotting cavity in the trunk, a result of an improper pruning from years ago. I procrastinated and was already mourning what I thought was the inevitable, but I finally called in Kildonan Tree Services, assuming they’d tell us to take them down. To our surprise, he suggested that we be creative with the tree, doctoring it so it can last longer. Since bird watching is one of my favorite pastimes, we were thrilled to hear it. I have loved watching the blue jays, chickadees, woodpeckers and nuthatches while reading or writing out on our balcony, but the blue jays have got to be my favorite. I have marveled at their many different calls, which include whistles and clicks of the oddest kind. It’s almost like having a parrot as a pet (no, I haven’t taught them to talk…yet :-)). I have often reflected that God treats us the way the tree guy treated our trees. God sees difficulties and imperfections in our lives, and lovingly tends us, finding creative ways to make beautiful what was once diseased.
  • House Church Meetings – I know I’ve written about my house church Watershed. It’s difficult to explain to people how this faith-based community is one of my greatest blessings, because churches these days are often considered irrelevant for day to day living. We meet together every Wednesday for study night, every other Sunday morning and for monthly movie night, where we watch and discuss meaningful movies. But we are also a community, supporting each other through the thick and thin of life as we eat, walk, email, phone, work, laugh and just hang out together. Unfailingly, whenever we meet, it is like refocusing a camera because I come away encouraged and with my outlook on life somehow restored. God renews us with rich meaning, no matter what we are going through.

So I invite everyone to slow down and consider the lilies of your own life. Where has God led you to see the “Yes” of life? Where or when do your worries and cares dissolve or at least lose their importance in the greater vision God has for us?  My hope for us all is that God grant us a greater and greater consideration of our identities in God’s depth and goodness. “Consider the lilies.”

The Refiner’s Fire

Have you ever had a dream that made you ask, “What the heck does this mean?” Dreams at night are such strange beasts, with their convoluted images and bizarre story lines. Often we dismiss them, laughing about them with friends. I don’t dream very often, and when I do, I might wonder about their meaning for a day, but then they are usually gone from my memory.

Every once in a while, we all experience what I call “Big Dreams”, dreams that seem really important, as if they are coming right from the “Book of the Meaning of our Lives”. Back in June I had a Big Dream, one that has stayed with me.  I have turned this dream over and over, puzzling over it like Sherlock Holmes. I’ve realized lately that God has used this dream to speak to me, giving me an interpretation of my experience, and it is the winner in answer to where I have seen God lately.

The dream went like this: I am on an island, where a fire is raging. Across from me is a row of beautiful old pine trees that are going up in flames. No one is there to battle the blaze. All I can do is watch the destruction, powerless to do anything. I notice that the bottom of the trees won’t burn because the flames are going up and I am glad that at least the roots won’t be disturbed. Yet despite this consolation, I still panic at the destruction of the fire.

There is more to the dream, where more trees and even the pillars of old houses catch fire, but the image of flames burning the top halves of the trees is what stayed with me. What could it possibly mean? I wondered. I went about my days, making a mental note to ask my friend Marilyn about its meaning, since she has a knack for dream interpretation.

As June turned to July, with my neck pain burning like those flames, the dream kept coming back to me. It seemed to be saying something important about what I was going through. I wrote last week about having hope amid trials, and even though the dream was about fire’s destruction, it seemed to me that it had a message of hope for me, but I still couldn’t crack the dream code. I finally mentioned the dream to Marilyn, who pondered it and came up with words that seemed to click.

“The fire is like your neck pain”, she suggested, “and the trees are like the gains of wisdom in your life. Your trials seem to destroy the wisdom, but it doesn’t kill the roots.”

I’m a pretty slow learner, and I had to sit with this interpretation for a few days. Fiery trials make us all wonder what God is up to in our lives. What did it mean that the roots of God’s wisdom would stay intact? Last week I wrote about God being so creative that he can work together with us to create good out of any circumstance (Romans 8:28), but thinking about this during difficulties can sometimes evoke a cynical laugh. How can anything good come of sickness? Our society wants pain-killers, not pain-interpreters!

But, the longer I pondered Marilyn’s interpretation, the truth of it dawned on me. It became a helpful and hopeful grid to understand my experience. I was reminded of a story I came across in an email from a friend, about God being a refiner of silver. Malachi 3:3 in the Old Testament says: “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.” A Bible Study group had studied this passage, and wondered what it meant. One woman phoned a silversmith and  made an appointment to watch him at work. She watched as the silver was held at the centre of the fire where the flames were hottest. He had to sit there the whole time the silver was being refined, keeping his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver was left a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed.

The woman asked the silversmith how he knew when the silver was fully refined. He smiled at her and answered, “Oh that’s easy – when I see my image in it.”

So often when we are in the heat of the fire, we want nothing more than to escape. I realize my pain is nothing really compared to what many go through, but when you’re tossing at 3 a.m., escape was my #1 priority. In my dream, I tried using a branch to put out the flames. Anyone looking on in the dream would have laughed, and in the dream I soon realized the effort was futile. Like trying to put out the fire with a small branch, I have felt powerless to really change my reality.

Isn’t this the way it often goes in our lives? We think we have a handle on a certain problem, but it continues to pester us. Mine lately happens to be physical, but there might be a troubled relationship, an addiction (large or small) that gets the best of us, a sense of emptiness or disappointment at what life has brought us, or depression.

We wonder about some of the things we have to go through. I know I spend way too much of my time scrambling to put the fires out, thinking that with my small branches I can control reality. How different things would be if we exercised trust amid our trials, trusting that the hand of God was holding us, watching us with loving eyes, waiting for the impurities to be burned away.

One impurity that I began to see was my pride at running. I realized that over the last 2 ½  years, I have been proud of my own self-accomplishments in running. I forgot that it was God that even gives the energy or will to do anything. A certain humility set in when I remembered that everything comes from the hand of God. I saw my pride and gave it to God. Only the Silversmith’s grace can transform this into a higher substance.

One of my favorite writers named Richard Rohr has a book titled Falling Upward. His book title describes what happens when we choose to let problems move us forward into deeper wisdom. We fall, yes, but with God a paradox happens as he takes our often dark situations and transforms them for good.

Rohr says that there is a “necessary suffering” to human life, and if we avoid its cycles we remain immature forever. If we let suffering be for the good that Romans talks about, we somehow mysteriously begin to fall upward. People in the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous talk about giving their will over to a Higher Power as they realize they are helpless to fix things on their own.

I love thinking of God this way, that he is lovingly tending the trials of our lives, never leaving us alone for a second. God has been faithfully present with me in this last month. I see his face through faithful friends such as Marilyn who don’t let me forget about God, through the gift of prayer that my husband Lyle gave me on the toughest evening (I have mysteriously felt a lot better since that prayer), through the seniors who we sing with at the seniors’ home who still see good in their difficulties, and through the many ways I witness Love being stronger than anything we go through. This is the image of God that shines through the transformed silver.

The end of the email is my wish for us all: “If today you are feeling the heat of the fire, remember that God has his eye on you and will keep watching you until He sees His image in you.”

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