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Archive for October, 2011

Switching the Dial

As I’ve been writing this blog over the months and asking “Where was God in my day?”, I’ve become more aware of the many ways God speaks. God can use the smallest thing to start painting a picture in my head of “God thoughts” which then weave through my heart all week, anchoring me in an identity deeper than my human foibles. It has become a rich discipline to keep asking the question, even during difficult times. I marvel that I have never yet been let down. One of my favorite Christian authors, Richard Rohr, says that “we live inside of an unexplainable hope” when we live in co-operation with God.

But let me get to this week’s story.

Last Sunday, I was heading out the door after Watershed’s Sunday morning service and lunch potluck when I had a brief conversation with my friend Lorna. “What do you have up for the rest of today?” she asked me. I told her it was going to be a full day and week ahead as my Math and Language Arts testing results were due. Without missing a beat, she gave me a reply that woke me up in my worried state.

“It’ll build your character,” she replied. We talked about that briefly and then off I went to an afternoon of marking.

Her comment, as small as it was, was like someone pulling a 180 degree turn in a car. I hadn’t realized how much I had been assuming that I would be overwhelmed, burned out and somewhat miserable this week with the looming deadline. Lorna reminded me that life can look different when we let God transform our ways. This was the small thought which began to sprout like a seed all week. “Where was God this week?” you ask. God was in this simple reminder from my friend.

Her comment got richer when she commented on last week’s blog by sharing a verse. “After talking with you this morning, the Romans 5 verse came to mind: we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

I began to realize how much habits of thought can take over our brains until they seem “normal”. Isn’t it normal to get burned out by outer circumstances? This strikes me as obviously false as I type it out right now, but I had to admit that I was stopped in my tracks as I’d been consigning myself to “normal”. I am a creature of habit. I notice it when someone invites me to a spontaneous plan, like going for an unexpected walk. Immediately my routines tempt me to say an automatic no. But sometimes we need to be jarred out of our routines, especially when they no longer give life.

This week we were studying the prophets in the Bible. The prophets of old, and of today, always critique and energize us to not swallow the attitudes of our world like a fishing hook. Think of Martin Luther King Jr. energizing a whole group of people to act against the way black people were treated. Bruce Cockburn, one of my favorite singer/songwriters and one of our modern day prophets sang, “The trouble with normal is that it always gets worse.”

In looking over the past week, I think the #1 fruit Lorna’s comment had for me was that it mobilized me to pray for help to live God’s way. I noticed how I’d gotten more reactionary and short-fused with the kids at school last week, and I knew it was a timely reminder. I gave God the unsavory attitude I’d been unconsciously harboring. In Christian tradition, this is called confession or repentance. We often think of repentance as just saying sorry, but it is more than that. It’s like that 180 degree turn, where we’re asked to walk in a different direction. It’s not easy giving up old habits because it’s often easier to go with the flow and become cynical and unbelieving. (If you don’t believe me, just start to complain at work and see how many people will join in.)

And so the prayers came out every morning, “God, help me with this load. Keep my imagination anchored in You.” I remembered the verse Lorna gave me, and kept on exercising and praying for perseverance and character, co-operating with God who gives birth to hope. I’m not saying I lived it perfectly, but more than less, I found myself more at peace in the bigger picture all week. And the marks got handed in without as much pain as I expected.

Richard Rohr gives an analogy which was also helpful to me this week. He writes that we are asked to become like a radio receiver station. “We slowly learn the right frequencies that pick up the signal of God.”

These receptors are trying to pick up radio signals from alien civilizations - now that takes listening!

I thank my faith friend Lorna who switched my radio dial for me and reminded me to stay tethered in God’s hope.

Other encouragements:

This week, I also had a few more observations of where God showed his face:

  • My new friend, Fana (who I wrote about in an earlier blogpost), from Habitat for Humanity phoned me up this week to say hi. I felt encouraged that she remembered me and it was great to talk to her. She’s looking forward to moving into her new house in December.
  • My son Joel was brave in rescuing a woman, likely a prostitute, who was getting beaten up in a truck. He stared the guy down who then stepped on the gas after dumping the woman out the door. Joel drove her home and gave her some money, after convincing her he wasn’t a cop. Joel did a “Jesus thing”. I’m also grateful he was safe at the end of the story.
  • I’ve been encouraged by reading a few new faith blogs lately. Drop by if you enjoy reading what modern people are writing and thinking about God: The Screaming Kettle and one that an old student recommended to me by author Rachel Held Evans (thanks Roselin!)

Remembering Who We Are

This week I’ve been thinking about messy rooms. I know, it’s an unlikely topic for  a blog, but I was reminded this week of a “messy room” story from my past. Well actually, the story has two rooms. I’ve realized that a story can become a place where God begins to play during the week, bending my imagination towards hope.

It’s a story that my Dad told me years ago about his own mother. I never met my paternal grandparents. They both died in circumstances surrounding the war long before I was born, but I was named after my grandmother, Lydia Sawatzky, and apparently like me, she loved to write.

The story goes that my grandfather had built a small hut in the back of the house for his wife (my grandmother) to get away and write when she could. She would be away from the messy household and child care responsibilities and have a quiet place.

I could hardly believe this story when I first heard it. This was in the early 1900’s in what was then called Russia. Would any male really have supported his wife’s vocation in this unconventional way? The story seems unlikely, but over the years, it has taken shape in my imagination, becoming a sort of myth, one I didn’t want to ask about again in case I heard it wrong and it wasn’t true. Whenever I have doubted my own inner calling to write, I have remembered this story and thought that my own writing inclination was meant to be. Maybe in some way beyond my understanding, it’s written in my DNA.

This story came to mind for an assignment in our Wednesday study group at Watershed. We’ve been studying this awesome book called Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally, and this past Wednesday, we were looking at myths, the “big stories” of our lives that have shaped us.  The myths of the Israelites’ day, such as the story of the Red Sea parting, while not necessarily literally true, still shaped their history and their self-understanding. In preparation, we were asked to reflect on any “larger than life” stories in our own lives. Is there anything of the story that’s still true for us today?

I’ve been thinking about the messy spaces that my Grandmother would leave behind as she trekked out to the writing hut, pen and paper in hand, and I marvel that she had the vision to go against the flow. These messy spaces can feel so commanding for us all, as if there is some kind of warped holy scripture: “Thou shalt” get this all done!” I’m almost hard-wired to become a slave in trying to stay on top of everything. The worst part is how my heart can become messy with a lost perspective. I can’t imagine that I’m alone in this.

But every time I sit down to write, it’s as though I’m joining my grandmother in this vocational place, away from the bustle of daily life. Writing is a sacred activity, one where life slows down as I recall my deepest values. I go against the grain of my inherent anxieties to consider where God has been. I am so very grateful for this place. What usually happens is that those all consuming worries become much smaller and a faith perspective returns. I remember who I am again.

I have silently thanked my grandfather many times for building that hut for his wife. I may not have a handyman husband who can build a literal shed in our backyard, but he did buy me this computer, keeps the software on it updated and most important always supports and reads my writing, so maybe that old story is still alive.

For the last two days, I’ve been at a great workshop called “Voices from the Land”, where we created some art out in nature and wrote

Here is the art piece our group created at the workshop

poems to go with them. The presenter, Erik Mollenhauer, asked us at the beginning of the workshop, “Who are we, really? What knowledge sleeps in your soul?” He told us about an experiment where day old chicken chicks ran for cover when the shadow of a hawk was flown across their cage. A less sinister shadow of a goose was flown across, and caused no reaction among the vulnerable chicks. How did they know without being taught, that a hawk would pose a danger?

In the same way, we have knowledge imprinted on our souls, knowledge that shapes us in ways we may not even be aware of. I believe that my soul has been imprinted with knowledge which whispered to me even as a young kid, which said, “You are designed for this.” I’m not claiming to be a great writer by any means, but I do know that it feels like it was meant to be.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his disciples not to be so consumed with worry as well. “Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions”, he told them. “Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.” (Matthew 6:33 Message translation)

As busy as life has been especially lately, and as often as I have been tempted to get swamped and lose heart, God has been nudging me onward, reminding me of the bigger Story that surrounds our lives.

A poster at the workshop also said it all, and I’ll end with this:

Miracles rest simply upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what there is about us always.” Willa Cather

If you’re reading this today and have lost perspective, I wish you your own sacred places of restoration, so we can all enter into our weeks with open eyes, ears and hearts, to see what is about us always.

My Thanksgiving list

For the last almost year, I have been following a blog written by the wife of a friend we knew at Bible College (MBBC) back in the early ’80’s. Ramsy was diagnosed with brain cancer less than a year ago. His wife Shannon wrote of their year walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Two weeks ago Ramsy lost his battle to cancer and passed away with his wife and 3 teenaged children by his side, telling him he was free to go.

Ramsy was a crazy and fun guy when we knew him at MBBC, full of bizarre humor. My friend Cal remembers him once jumping into the bushes on a lark. I remember a bizarre conversation I once had with him when the choir was on the bus coming back from touring. On the bus, he and I spent over an hour talking about all the philosophical implications of being an orange (yes, the fruit). When you’re young and leaving home for the first time, the world is open wide isn’t it? Ramsy played the trumpet for us at our wedding back in ’84, but we’d lost touch since then.

Lost touch that is, until I got to know him again thanks to his wife Shannon’s words in his blog. Ramsy had gone on to bring his unique style to the world as a minister. He was known for his commitment to the community and to his church, to bringing faith and encouragement to people through his sermons and his music, and for his gentle and kind ways. I witnessed the progression of his illness and saw the heart-breaking acceptance as his family realized that he wouldn’t get better. Yet, Shannon’s blog posts were always a witness to me of a God who doesn’t abandon us during hard times, but surrounds and sustains us.

This last weekend, after the funeral, Shannon wrote a blog post about all the things she’d been able to be thankful for, such as how Ramsy had been himself all the way to the end, how he’d had relatively little pain, and how the losses had happened gradually and they’d all been given the grace of time with him to let go gradually. The biggest witness to me was the last one, saying she was thankful especially how “God is trustworthy even when we do not understand how he works or doesn’t work.”

Shannon’s Thanksgiving blog in the midst of her circumstances got me thinking of what my own list would be. Shannon wrote that no matter where we are in life, in easy or difficult times, we can all wish each other a “Happy Thanksgiving”. There’s always a way we can see God in each circumstance, leading us to “light a candle of faith instead of cursing the darkness”, as the old saying goes.

My circumstances are obviously not as dire as Shannon and Ramsy’s, but I found that it was a helpful exercise to ponder through the week. At our last Sunday worship service, Cal preached a Thanksgiving sermon which confirmed this line of thought (another one of those “coincidences”). Cal began the sermon with the “bad news”. We are all tempted to let the seeds of our “lesser selves” take roots: jealousy, taking work too seriously, pride, the easy way out, gossip, hanging on to resentments instead of forgiving others. The list goes on and on in our humanness. But Cal reminded us of the good news, and of all the ways that God nudges us during the week. It might be through the words of a friend who truly desires the best for us, through a dream, someone else’s blog post, a song, an encounter with nature. The ways of God are truly endless. As the old hymn says, “Great is thy faithfulness”.

It is true that we don’t always understand God’s ways, but when we trust the universe where God is so faithful, we find that God is completely trustworthy. I believe that every time we say thank-you, we are saying good-bye to a view of the universe which says that God is not here. I could easily be a complainer, cynical of myself or those around me or angry (and often am). But another way has been planted in me, and this lifetime is training me in God’s ways.

So here is my list.

  • This year I have had to give up running, for now, maybe for good, because of a neck situation. So far it’s been more than three months. I can get down about it all, miss it and the chronic pain can get me cranky. This situation has constantly asked of me that I trust in God’s provision. In my limited vision, I don’t always understand God’s ways, but I am constantly encouraged to lean into trust that as scripture says, “all things work together for good”. I am thankful, when my head is on straight, that I can still exercise in other ways, but more than this, I am thankful to remember that I am still God’s child in all circumstances. Paul Patterson has often reminded me that suffering is part of our life but there is a hell of a lot better stuff going on than just aches and pains.
  • I am thankful for the many reminders in my faith community of God’s ways. Through sermons, singing together, conversations with “soul friends”, reading and studying together, we are all stitched back together constantly. I know I often write about this, but I truly don’t know where I’d be without it.
  • At my work, I have been grateful for my co-workers. This week my friend Eva (who is the resource teacher) sat down with me after work and listened to my thoughts on how to work through the math testing we have to do right now. It wasn’t so much what she said (though that helped too), but her patient attention and friendship that encouraged me.
  • I am grateful for the gift of prayer, which I have written about before. Though my prayers often feel like child’s babblings, I am grateful for a place I can always go to, asking for help and guidance. We are truly never alone.
  • Lately I’ve been very grateful for nature. In particular, I’ve still been going out on our balcony in the early morning, coffee and scripture in hand. Ok, so I’m out there with the heating pad keeping me warm (I know, I’m nuts), but I have loved hearing the birds wake up and come to

    Chickadee at my balcony feeder

    the feeder. It’s been a reminder of transcendence, and a quiet place that has stilled me. Soon enough I’ll be inside again, but this gift is never far.

  • Last weekend I went to see my parents for Thanksgiving, and whenever I leave, there are usually several hugs. I felt especially grateful for my dad’s hugs and him telling me he loved me. Even now, I still get teared up remembering it. I guess that relationship is an echo of how God sees us – as dearly loved children.
  • I am grateful for Lyle (hubby) who prays with me and doesn’t take my faults too seriously, and gives me signs of love through thick and thin. It isn’t a perfect relationship, but more than less, we are both finding unity together in Christ. No small gift after 27 years!
  • I am grateful for our son Joel who I see being guided by love in community and in God, and who is enthusiastic in his life’s endeavors. I’ve always prayed that God would find him, and I see the answer to this prayer unfolding often.
  • I’m also thankful for this blog and all the people who encourage me in my writing and read my blog. I know that at the end of the year, this place will be one of my top “bests of the year”, a place that keeps my eyes in the right direction.

I wish all of you a happy Thanksgiving and a list of your own, no matter what circumstance life finds you in. May we all be rooted in gratitude.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly. Teach and admonish one another in all wisdom and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. Colossians 3:16 (NRSV)

Keeping My Eyes on the Prize

This week while driving to work, I popped in a CD that I hadn’t listened to in a long time, songs by Mavis Staples, the legendary American rhythm and blues gospel singer and civil rights activist. Mavis has a voice that is earthy and soulful, and on that particular morning, the song “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” got my foot tapping.

I used to listen to that song while I did my running. I don’t know about you, but when I exercise, my human love of comfort makes me want to give up as soon as the sweat sets in. The nagging question invariably comes up, “Why am I doing this again? Why am I not at home napping on the couch?”  The answer seems obvious (exercise is good) but I usually have to do some self-talk to keep myself going and not cave in. “Keep your eyes on the prize.” I’m reminded again of that old word “stamina” (see last week’s blog).

Mavis sings the story of Paul and Silas in this song. These two New Testament characters had been thrown in jail for following Christ, but instead of moaning about their troubles, they were singing! They knew what their lives were focused on.  Had they had Mavis’ CD back in 35 A.D., no doubt they’d have been singing along.

It’s funny the things we think are good for us. As I write this blog entry, I’m on my balcony, outside in the morning sun on yet another balmy October morning. My present circumstances are good – long weekend ahead, a few days of R & R before I head back to work.  If it were up to me to set life’s agenda, I’d choose this easy, breezy existence for each day. Who wouldn’t? I’d never say no to some rest from the daily agenda, but I’m usually the last person who knows what’s good for me. Like that exercise routine, taking the easy road would not hold much benefit for me or the world.

It’s hard to describe what the days at work are like to anyone who isn’t in the world of teaching young children. It’s a rich and rewarding job and I could tell 100 stories each day about the complex and lovely students in my room, but it’ll ask everything of you. Hardly anything ever goes as planned. Someone once said that being flexible in teaching is like trying to change a part on a jet engine while it’s speeding through the sky. Just like exercise when the heart starts pounding, teaching will test your resolve. Expectations of how I think things “should” be must give way to accepting and rolling with how life actually unfolds. What are my eyes focused on?

Teaching asks of me that I hang on to the hope and love that I’ve found in Christ with a singular focus. I’m here to confess to the blogging world that I’m lousy at focus! Sometimes I think I’m given this job just to learn these tough lessons. I’m so quick to lose hope and to think that bumps during the day will do me in. But if this was all I had to write about, this blog would not exist because there’d be no “God in my day”.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about choosing to keep my focus on Christ and the hope I’ve found, and it’s the clearest answer to this question about where God has been lately.  It’s not about white-knuckling it and repeating “Calm blue ocean” a million times everyday. It’s more about trust and staying in relationship to Christ. Like Mavis sings in another song, “Jesus is on the main line, you’ve gotta tell him what you need.” So as I drive to work, and other times during the day, I pray for peace of heart. I pray for love to guide me. I pray for patience as I respond to each moment. It all feels like one huge lesson of late. It’s not easy, and often I feel like the battle is lost, but I hang on anyways and keep praying. God has never let me down yet.

I follow another faith blog, and this week she expressed these thoughts exactly. “I don’t want an easy faith, I want a brave faith.”

A brave faith. This is it exactly. I want a faith that stays steady in the storm and that holds onto trust like an anchor amid doubt. Thing is though, it’s

Watershed - my faith community

not my faith! If it was, I’d be toast. Somehow, like a huge merciful gift, God has planted this faith in me and I know it is being tended lovingly and constantly. I know this because I see signs of God everywhere in the day. I see signs in the smiles of kindred spirits at work who encourage me. I see signs in the prayers of faith I share with Lyle and my faith community, prayers which keep me going. I see signs in the forgiveness that is shown to me daily. My dear friends see Christ in me rather than my bumbles and lack of faith. I see Christ in the words of scripture which speak to me daily and remind me of the source of hope. I see Christ when I hear “just the words I needed to hear” in a song on the way to work.

God, grant us all not an easy faith, not easy lives, but a brave faith. Help us all keep our eyes on You, our prize.

Coincidences and Stamina

“Coincidence is the word we use when we can’t see the levers and pulleys.” –Emma Bull

Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by noticing a coincidence? Perhaps you think about a friend from long ago one day, and the next day you bump into the same person. One morning this summer, I chanced upon a friend on an early morning bike ride who I had just dreamed about. Since I rarely see that person, I was so shocked I couldn’t speak for a few moments. The other day a friend of mine switched on the radio in the car and happened to hear an interview with an obscure author he’d only recently begun reading for the first time.

Coincidences make me smile. They make me wonder what the Creator is up to. Perhaps reality is being tweaked just enough to give us pause and remind us of a design in the world that is more mysterious than our own thoughts. Was this “meant to be”? Am I being spoken to in some big way?

When I was wondering this week what to write about for my blog, I kept returning to a series of coincidences that have been happening lately, all related.

I start my mornings with a cup of coffee and a devotional reading of the Bible. For the last almost two years, I’ve been going through a series of meditations from a book called Solo: An Uncommon Devotional.  I read to listen for a “Word to live by” for the day. A “Word” (capital W) is different from words. It is something you hear that gives guidance and feels sacred.  I am amazed at how often I read something from scripture that is just what I needed to hear. It may be comforting or it may be a nudge that is uncomfortable but true.

A Word has been coming to me more than once lately and the weird thing is that it’s very much like something I’ve been teaching to my students.

I’m trying something new in my class this year, and that is a teaching method called “The Daily Five”. It’s simply a way of organizing the daily teaching of reading, writing and word study. One of the themes I keep talking to the kids about is that we are all building our stamina in these areas. Reading for 30 minutes at a time doesn’t just happen for a 7 or 8 year old – we build up the minutes day by day. If students get off track, we talk about why we practice our reading in the first place (the joys of reading). This coming Monday, our class will be at 27 minutes and I think they’re doing pretty well.

I have loved talking with my students about stamina because it’s the exact word that has been coming to me in my morning quiet time. The difficulty of the learning curve I wrote about in last week’s blog often tempts me to want the easier way in life. But God has been a determined teacher lately and has given me a series of scriptures that have all said otherwise. They’ve all been talking about stamina.

Here’s a sampling of verses that have come to me. It’s like God meets me in my temptation for the easy road and says stuff like this to me:

  • “Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 Message Bible)
  • “Purse a righteous life – a life of wonder, faith, love, steadiness, courtesy.” (1 Timothy 6:11 Message) (The word steadiness really caught my eye that morning.)
  • “Run hard and fast in the faith.” (1 Timothy 6:12)
  • And then of course was the verse I wrote about last week, “God will surprise you with gifts of unending help and confidence.” (2 Thessalonians 2:17, Message translation)

What I hear God saying to me through these verses is: “Lydie, I will help you but you also must decide to accept my help. Your will and My will come together to rise above the temptation to go soft.”

Paul Patterson (Watershed’s pastor) once gave me a Word to live by. He noticed my tendency to get angry in reaction to life’s difficulties, and he told me I was a bit like a crab, tough on the outside but soft on the inside. In other words, I was reacting to life but

had little stamina or character.  In contrast, he encouraged me to be the opposite, become softer or kinder on the outside and tougher on the inside. His words have been coming back to me often this fall. It’s like running a race, reaching within for God’s help when the going gets tough, holding on to hope like a lifeline.

A student brought me a huge smile this week. It was the annual Terry Fox walk at not just our school but schools around the world. I love teaching about this Canadian hero. Maybe it’s because my own sister lost her battle with cancer, but telling the kids about heroes who rise above their circumstances and don’t let go of hope inspire me.

One of my lovely grade 2 girls came to me after watching a short film about Terry Fox in the library. “Mrs. Penner,” she said with a bright smile, “I was listening to the Terry Fox story and guess what word we heard? Terry Fox had stamina. Can you believe it?!”

I grinned with her, knowing that the string of coincidences just increased for both of us. Maybe the Creator is speaking all the time to all of us, reminding us constantly of lessons that’ll take us through and increase hope and faith in the world.

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