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Archive for December, 2011

Where was God in 2011?

I have kept a journal for most of my life, since Grade 5 in fact. As author David Sedaris has said, “It’s an awful lot of work for something no one is ever going to see”, but I still forge on. Somehow the act of writing brings solace and order to my soul.

Another tradition I’ve done for probably 30 years is to look back and reflect on the year’s scribblings. Nowadays, I open up a new document on the computer, but in the “old days” I would get out pen and paper. Whatever the medium, I always start the same way. I write a heading on top: “2011 was the year that…”.

Sifting through a year’s worth of writing can be a painful process. It reminds me of what it must be like to go through the rubble of a demolition, combing through lots of useless stuff to find what’s worth keeping: the gold of the year. It’s hard not to wince at how many emotional ups and usually downs I have, and I begin to utter prayers to live with greater equanimity for the next year. (I’m still waiting for that to happen!) I’m so prone to emotional dramas (though the person who might not know me that well may not guess it).

I used to summarize the year with the “3 best and 3 worst” events of the year. But I would always realize how the “worsts” were usually not that black and white. God uses each difficult situation as an opportunity to learn some hard-won lessons, when I am receptive (please remind me of this next time I start to complain!)

So, here are some highlights of my year; the ways God has been faithful to me in pouring out “grace upon grace”, as a verse in the Bible poetically puts it. Not the best, not the worst, just ways that God has met me this year.

  • This blog – In April, something happened which has been a huge blessing. An area newspaper called “West Central Streets” that I’d written for folded in February. In this writing void, I mentioned to my friend Bev that I’d been thinking of starting my own blog. The only problem was that I couldn’t think of a hook or theme to hang my thoughts on. It didn’t take before Bev, always the encourager, suggested that I use an old question that Paul gave me years ago, “Where was God in your day?” It has become a spiritual discipline that has helped to form my thoughts every week. My usual habit is to ride the waves of emotions within, but the trouble is that these do not have much wisdom in them! Emotional thinking does much to distract me from the calling I’ve heard to follow God’s path. So the blog has helped me each week to reach deeper within and articulate the ways I’ve seen God’s hand at work. Some weeks I wonder if I’ll come up with something, but it’s more like God comes up with something for me. I feel as though God has been creating a new language for me –  a language of hope.
  •   Turning 50 – I asked my friends to choose a poem to read at my 50th birthday “Poetry

    Surrounded by love at 50

    Slam and Potluck”. Everyone rose to the occasion and the poems brought a sense of wonder and depth to a great evening with dear friends. Another huge highlight of this party was that Paul said yes to writing a birthday homily for me – a short meditation of what it means to grow older. I have known Paul since I was 12 years old when he came to speak in the church I grew up in. At that time, he’d read a poem which struck me and which I later asked him for a copy of. Now, some 38 years later, he still had a relevant word for me. Sometimes the first half of life can remind us all too starkly of how we have failed to be the people we want to be, but Paul reminded me that he has seen the face of Christ shine in me. I felt incredibly blessed listening to his kind and gracious and faithful words. Read the homily here. It is called “The Shining: Lydia’s 50th Birthday Party”.

  • Singing – Singing at the seniors home with my friends Eldon and Marilyn has been a blessing this year, as I’ve often written about. Like the blog, it is a place where I am reminded of my deeper values. The seniors in their fragility help me remember that my job (or whatever else is distracting me) is not nearly as important as I think.
  • Lessons in limitation – This year I was thrown into disorientation when neck problems meant I had to give up running for a while. Limitation always brings with it lessons of leaning on God. In a society which values independence and youthful strength, we want to brush aside times of trouble. One thing I usually learn pretty quickly is how body obsessed I can get, mistakenly thinking that God is only present when I am comfortable. I always remember (usually through the nudges of friends) that hope does not lie in appointments or “cures”, but in God who is a friend in all circumstances.
  • Strength in study – Every year at Watershed, Wednesday nights are dedicated to the study of scripture and faith matters. I am definitely not a scholar, and I’m sure many would say the same, but there is something that happens each week as we study together. The actual evening plus the reading and questions we answer to prepare ourselves, are always life-giving, rooting all of us in a deeper life. It’s like taking a multi-vitamin which somehow re-orients my perspective. This year we studied 1st and 2nd Samuel (Old Testament) and a book by Marcus Borg called Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: How to Read the Bible Seriously but not Literally. 
  • Movie Night – Watershed also hosts the “West End Movie Group” which meets once every 2 months with the outside community to watch and reflect on a movie. Through the leadership of Linda Tiessen Wiebe and Lyle Penner, we always have great discussions afterwards. I have never been failed to be encouraged by these evenings. 2011 movies included Troubled Waters, The Big Kahuna, Of Gods and Men, Get Low, Departures, Mary and Max, and the PBS video series “God in America”.
  • Reading – Every year, I pick my top reads of the year. Reading is another one of those mercies which keeps me anchored in what matters most. This year I had 14 to choose from (down from 20 last year, ouch!). And the winners are:
  • Podcasts – I often jokingly say that I can’t give up running because that’s when I listen to some great podcasts. My top favorites are:
    • On Being with Krista TIppet. This show from the States has weekly conversations about “religion, meaning, ethics and ideas”. I think my top favorite of the year is a show with a favorite Biblical scholar and author Walter Brueggeman.
    • Tapestry (from CBC) – Though I don’t listen to each week’s broadcast, this show often has themes of meaning and faith. My favorite from the year has to be one about hope with author and nun Joan Chitteser.
    • CBC’s Canada Live, which features a concert by a Canadian group. For someone like me who tends to stay with my tried and true favorites, it’s a great way to be exposed to new music. Favorites concerts of the year were those of Matt Anderson, Ray Bonneville, Danny Michel and Kim Dunn.
    • I also love and would highly recommend The Moth  (“true stories told live”) and This American Life with Ira Glass.
  • Best Blog – I have followed a blog written by Winnipeger Bill Howdle when the Free Press wrote about it a few years back. He calls it the “Dying Man’s Daily Journal”, so named when his doctor told him at age 52 that he was dying of a brain tumor and of congestive heart failure. He is 56 now and I’m sure he’d say that writing his blog keeps him alive. This year I left my “lurker status” to thank him on his blog for giving me the idea to start my own, and since then we have corresponded back and forth. He has been an encouragement and next week he and his wife Vi have even invited me over for coffee.
  • Holiday at High Lake – In early July, we joined friends Dave and Lorna in their rented cabin near Falcon Lake. I saw God’s “Yes” in their generosity and kindness in their gracious hospitality. We laughed a lot (for example, at an army of mice in the cabin which prompted side splitting jokes), ate great food, listened to a retreat by favorite author Richard Rohr (and Ron Rollenheiser), almost sank a canoe and listened to wolves howling at midnight.

    A Sinking Canoe!

Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read my blog this year and provide encouragement, whether in the comment section, emails or in person.

What about you? What were some ways life has shown you the face of God this past year?

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Blessings

This is a short blog post on a beautiful Christmas morning to wish all a blessed Christmas. I am grateful for the meaning and love that surrounds me this Christmas, and I wish it for all of you, whatever your circumstances. May you all hang on tight to your faith and to your hopes and dreams. If like many you are experiencing difficulties or depression this Christmas, may these words bring you hope:

The struggle of life is one of our greatest blessings. It makes us patient, sensitive, and Godlike. It teaches us that although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.

~ Helen Keller

 

Nothing is Impossible

This week, I joined my friends Marilyn and Eldon to go to a local senior’s home again to do some singing. Lugging guitars, jingle bells, triangles and rhythm sticks, we sang our hearts out to Christmas tunes with a few Beatles favorites mixed in. “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Octopus’ Garden” is a perfect Christmas mix, don’t you agree?

Like always, this time is like no other during my week. All my seemingly important Christmas plans and lists drop away as we enter another time zone, one with people who no longer have a schedule and are the vulnerable ones in our society. These people are unfailingly a gift to me as they remind me of what is truly important.

It’s their utter fragility that is a gift to me, opening up a holy space. They have become emptied of many of the

"Wavy Translucency" by Joel Penner

things that formerly identified them. Yvonne seemed stirred by the conversation to say things, but then didn’t have access to words or thoughts long enough to express herself.  Craig, a young man struck by Multiple Sclerosis, was unable to join us due to a mysterious lung infection. Eldon dropped in to see him before we left, and our hearts went out to him in his difficulties. Sue, usually an anxious woman, beamed as we sang and clapped with enthusiasm during and after each song.

All sit with us, prisoner to their various ailments, resting in their wheelchairs or with their walkers. Whether it’s their minds, bodies, spirits or all three that have been struck by limitation, they have nevertheless joined us for an hour of singing, and I can’t help but love them. The music brings us all out of ourselves, lightening our spirits and binding us together in love, no matter what our predicaments.

After the singing, we wheel or walk these folks back for their evening snack. Rose, a kind woman, was a newcomer to the home that week.  As we got ready to go back, Rose felt lost. “I don’t know the way back to my room,” she confessed to me. I took her wrinkled hand and said, “Don’t worry, take my hand and we’ll figure it out together.” We didn’t say much as we walked down the hall at a snail’s pace, searching for home, but my heart stirred as I was struck by how real God felt in these moments. It’s a great metaphor –  slowed down by life’s predicaments but still walking together, searching for home.

I woke up at 3 a.m. that night with a headache, and couldn’t get back to a deep sleep. With the school Christmas concert and a Wednesday night presentation ahead of me that day, I desperately needed sleep, but it was not to be. Strangely though, as I lay awake, the holy moments seemed to continue with me. I felt love and gratitude for people in my life who show God to me every week. Lyle and Joel, my soul-friends at Watershed, co-workers who kept encouraging each other during the concert prep, and my parents who pray for me every week without fail. All these people point me towards my home base. These people all rested in my heart, like a backdrop canvas of proof that despite my own limitations and propensity to anxiety, God is abundant in our world.

For our Watershed Sunday service this week, we are thinking about Mary, the woman who bore Jesus. As the story goes, she was just a teen-ager, a nobody, when the angel told her she would be the bearer of the Son of God; a miracle. She was one of the underprivileged of the world. Wondering how on earth this could happen, she was told by the angel, “Nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). Instead of resisting and coming up with a million excuses why she couldn’t do this, she simply put her doubts aside and said, “Here I am”. Her simple and open-hearted trust in God continues to be an example to millions of people each year.

During my sleepless night, I had a vision of love for the people around me, yet when I got up that morning, I remembered that living out this love is not always as easy. The “holy glow” of visions can lose its sheen when we trip with clay feet into our days. We bump into each other’s weaknesses all the time – is God’s birth in our world even possible? The seniors and I might well say with Mary, ”How is love supposed to come alive amidst all this limitation and emptiness and pain?”

Meister Eckhart, a famous German theologian, philosopher and mystic, born in 1260, reminds us: “What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the son of God some 1400 years ago and I don’t give birth to the son of God in my person, in my time and in my culture?

God always reminds us that nothing is impossible with God. Life may harden our hearts, but God can break through any barrier we put up. I know this is true because it keeps happening to me, week after week. In so many ways, God keeps taking my hand, bringing me back home. The only requirement is our open eyes and a willingness to admit we’re lost without God.

Eat this book!

“God comes to us disguised as our life.” -Paula D’Arcy

This week I am going to pull the lens away from my week and look at something God has used to help me over the years. The Bible has become a lifeline for me. It has pulled me away from dead-end ways of thinking and has given me new direction more times than I can count. It has kept me tethered to meaning and purpose, but it certainly wasn’t always that way.

This topic occurred to me this week because I’m one of three people presenting a short book review at Watershed’s next Wednesday night study. Paul Patterson, our pastor, gave many of us a book to read a few month’s back, with the question “How has this book changed your way of reading the Bible?” More on my book later.

I’ve always grown up with the Bible being central in my family and church, but I can’t say I really read it for myself as a kid. I listened to stories in Sunday School and elementary school (yes, they read us a Bible story every morning. That was a different era.) Preachers preached from it every Sunday, but it never occurred to me to read it on my own.

In junior high, a new edition of the New Testament called “The Living Bible” came out, designed just for kids like me. Being a new paraphrase, the language was modern and fresh, and it had lots of photos of young people. I sat through many church services flipping through this book, studying the pictures and reading the intros to each chapter. It was through this edition, called “Reach Out” and later called “The Way” which included both testaments, that I first had the inkling that the Bible could be relevant to a person’s life. The Bible wasn’t just something that was preached from every Sunday.

As I grew up, I had several experiences of the Bible being a “living thing”, like the high school Bible study group that met each week through our church. I felt loved and cared for there through our very kind leaders Hans and Lorna Boge. I also studied the Bible while attending Mennonite Brethren Bible College in the 80’s, and I loved understanding the Bible in a deeper way. In both these places, scripture came alive.

But it wasn’t until I experienced failure in later years that I began to embrace the Bible as a lifeline. Separation in my marriage (which wasn’t permanent, thank God), and struggles with depression brought me face to face with the reality that I needed something, Someone, to guide me. Failure becomes a gift when it brings a person to the place of dependence, needing to trust in something higher than themselves.

Individualism and “doing it my way” is so rampant in our society that you don’t often hear about submitting to something outside yourself. But when doing it your own way just gets you in trouble, you become a seeker, and that’s what has happened to me. I began to trust in the Words that come to me through Scripture more than my often faulty ways of thinking.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that each week’s story is kinda the same – in some way, I’ve gotten lost and God keeps finding me. There’s a famous story about God being like a good shepherd who goes out looking for his lost sheep, and I keep being found like this, week after week.

The book I was given to read is Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, by Eugene Peterson. Through the fall, I read a chapter each week while exercising on the elliptical machine at the YMCA. When I was done and went to the weight machines, I left the book lying on the floor and often wondered what people thought of the book title’s command: “Eat this book”. The title is a reference to a passage in the New Testament book of Revelation. The writer of the book, John, is having a vision and he goes up to an angel who is holding a scroll. John wanted to read the scroll and asked for it, but he got a strange answer back. He was told that instead of reading it, he was supposed to take it and eat it. “It will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth,” the angel told him.

Peterson uses this verse as the basis for his whole book, and like the title suggests, I’ve been chewing on its meaning for months. Eating something means it’s going to enter your bloodstream and your very muscles, giving energy for the day. It’s not something that happens merely in the mind or for a momentary taste sensation in the mouth, but in every part of you. It keeps us alive!

As I crack the Bible open each morning during my prayer time before work, I’ve often asked myself – are these words going to stick, or will they just fall out of my ears the moment the rubber hits the road in the real world? Peterson’s book kept nudging me each day in recent months. Are you eating this as if your life depended on it? Most often I have to confess I don’t.

There’s a verse in the New Testament that comes to mind as I type this morning.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.” – James 1:23-24 (The Message)

As I’ve been getting ready for my book presentation, I’ve been wondering why so often I’m like that person in the mirror, who walks away and totally forgets what I look like in God’s eyes. I forget because I have a mistaken understanding of God. In a way I often come to the reading of scripture hiding my face, thinking I’ve got to have everything together before I’m accepted. No wonder the words often don’t stick. I’m not even listening.

But God isn’t someone I need to hide from. Like the best friend imaginable, God always sees through to our essence, in the midst of our messy and muddy lives. We can bring it all to God, trusting that we are not employees before a critical review board, but beloved children.

When I read scripture with a hidden face, it is merely information. I don’t eat it at all. It’s when this messy life is submitted to hearing a Word from God, often through scripture, that I begin to chew on something that gives me life. I love this quote which Richard Rohr often refers to:

 “God comes to us disguised as our life” – Paula D’Arcy

These words remind me that I don’t need to have it all together. In fact, when I look back, it’s always the mistakes I make which loosen the ground for God to get through to me. It’s a miracle really.  When I have seen myself as forgiven and beloved, the whole world begins to look this way. Who wouldn’t want to eat those words.

Each week, God gives me a feast to chew on. Some words are sweet like honey, bringing words of promise and blessing and consolation. Others are “bitter in the stomach” when they make me uncomfortable with the truths they bring. God’s words are sometimes difficult to digest and hard to obey, usually because my ego wants things to be easy. But my experience is that God’s words, whether sweet or bitter, always always lead to freedom and hope.

May we all enter this week, bringing every part of our lives honestly to God, waiting to hear what God has to say.

It’s All About the Comma

“Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” -Gracie Allen

This was another week rich in help and guidance from God. Good thing because I am someone deeply in need of this help and guidance. Without God and my faith community, I’d be lost.

There’s a comic that used to hang in the staff room of my old school which showed the progression of a week from Monday to Friday. At the beginning of the week is a cool cat, with smoothed down fur, calm and collected (imagine a cool Garfield cat). By mid or end of week, the cartoon showed Bill the Cat from the old Bloom County comic strip who has seen better days. The cat’s most frequent spoken sentiments are “Ack!” and “Thbbft!” and his main pastime is coughing up fur balls. The comic poked fun at how teachers are usually more than ready for a break by Friday.

One day last week I drove home feeling like Bill the Cat and it was only Wednesday. I felt about as coherent as Bill, only able to cough up the dregs of the day.  The calm cool of Monday was long gone. I take things too seriously. My friends know that this happens to me, and I’m learning ever so slowly not to coddle this state of mind.

On this day though, it was quite distracting, and instead of switching on the radio, I decided to pray as I navigated my way home. Often when I pray, I say something and wait to hear what God might say back to me. My end of the conversation went something like this: “God, I was too impatient today. I became a hardened cop dealing with problems instead of the encourager I am on better days. I’m tired and discouraged. What would you say to me?” Feelings of self-recrimination flowed through my prayer, as I felt I “should have done better”.

In the silence of the car, it didn’t take long for a Word to filter through to me. They say that God usually speaks in short sentences. What I heard was a line from the poet Rilke from the famous and wonderful book Letters to a Young Poet. Rilke advises the young poet, “Be patient with all that is not yet finished in you.”

Was this the Word for me, I wondered? God’s patience. It made sense to me to let go of my worry and to remember that in God’s eyes, we are all works in progress. For someone prone to perfectionism like I am, God’s compassion is always a bit of a shocker. Where I am quick to judge myself for mistakes, God always gives second, third and millionth chances to turn back again to the light and hope. Be patient with yourself, God told me.

This short sentence made all the difference on the rest of the ride home and the rest of the week. I still felt tired, but my thoughts now mingled with God’s thought. Maybe it wasn’t my impatience that was the problem, rather, maybe it was how I was thinking about my shortcomings. I had forgotten that God uses everything (and not just the good times) for good and for an unfolding story of how love changes everything. God doesn’t turn his back on me when I perceive myself to be messing up, instead, God  always forgives and seeks to strengthen and deepen us.

On the rest of the ride home, I remembered something that had come to mind earlier that day. A line from my favorite psalm, Psalm 139 –  “You are familiar with all our ways.” God knows all this stuff that I’m going through, I remembered. When I am frazzled and can’t think my way out of a paper bag, God knows what I need much better than I do. And so my prayers back to God began, “Strengthen me God. Grant me what I need, not necessarily what I want. Develop my character and keep me steeped in your hope.”

Wednesday night is the night of our community’s Bible study. That night we were studying the Apostle Paul from the New Testament. Somehow during the rich discussion of the evening, the word from the Psalm came to me again, as if God was still whispering to me. “Lydie, I see you. I know you. Don’t worry, I’ve got your back. I know your needs way better than you do and I won’t abandon you.”

Some might ask, how did I know that was God speaking to me? You know when you are hearing capital T Truth because it’s not just in your head. It settled in my heart and was a source of consolation. In short, I felt revived.

A few summers ago, my son Joel and husband Lyle went to Chicago. A picture they took from that time held a great quotation which someone also mentioned on Wednesday evening:

“Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” -Gracie Allen. 

How quick I so often am to say the story’s over and that a period comes after words like discontent, hard day, discouraged. But to God, all that is about is our human condition, which we usually don’t see the way God does. God sees possibility and the continuation of a story in us.

It comes as no surprise that the rest of the week went more smoothly than Wednesday. It wasn’t without problems, but my feet were planted again in a bigger world. God’s world. I am freed to be human, depending on God for wisdom for every step.

I pray for that we might all experience the hope of second chances with the God who never forgets us.

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