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Archive for January, 2012

Breath of Kindness

What made us friends in the long ago when we first met? Well, I think I know; the best in me and the best in you hailed each other because they knew that always and always since life began, our being friends was part of Gods plan.  – George Webster Douglas 

Today we are having a party for my friend Bev, who turns 50 in a few days. It’s a fun process to get ready. Buying gifts, choosing recipes for the supper and overhearing Bev’s anticipation and trepidation of the milestone has given me

At the MB Marathon, 2011

pause for reflection on our friendship. She has certainly been one of God’s great blessings to me in the last almost 30 years.

I met Bev in my early twenties when we were both students at MBBC, Mennonite Brethren Bible College in Elmwood (now part of Canadian Mennonite University). MBBC was a formative place for a lot of us. Besides studying scripture and learning what the Christian life was all about, many of us at Watershed met lifelong friends there. Bev was from B.C. and I was from Winnipeg. We were in the same circle of friends and got married in the same summer. We were each other’s bridesmaids and shared important milestones together. Looking back on those years, it’s almost like we were kids together.

When I was in elementary school, I used to sing a round song:

Make new friends, but keep the old, 

one is silver and the other gold.” 

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized more and more the wisdom of keeping old friends, who have known and supported each other through many life stages. Sometimes families, when they are healthy, can be good, old friends together.

Trouble is, sometimes “old friends” lose touch with each other for various reasons, but Bev has been one of those old and gold friends. Our lives changed in significant ways: we left our MBBC context, she divorced and remarried, our church folded and regrouped into what it is today. About 10 years into our friendship, it became clear that I hardly new Bev anymore.

It’s easy for friendships to dissolve and fade amid those kinds of changes. We would have lost our deeper friendship as well had it not been for the wise insight of Paul Patterson, our pastor and Bev’s second husband. He told us at an important juncture that we too could keep our friendship as long as we let go of the old ways we had related which didn’t make sense anymore. This happened 20 years ago now. It was difficult at the time because it felt like I was giving something away, but as I’ve discovered often in the years since, it’s often when we let old things die that the new has a chance to move in.

There was an important visit over coffee where we once tore up an old picture of us together, but made a commitment to continue to be friends. I kept those torn up pieces, wondering what would come in its place. In the years since, our “new/old” friendship has indeed morphed into something better than what we had. Bev’s remarriage had deepened her and I began to realize that she had my best interests at heart. With both our hearts desiring a meaningful life of faith, we kept talking and being formed together in our community’s Bible studies and so many hundreds of meaningful events.

Somehow, Bev is one of those friends who I feel sees to the heart of me, no matter what “warts” of mine are clouding the picture. Put another way, she sees me as I believe God sees me, loved above all else, and often tells me so in many ways. In the early days of Watershed, I wasn’t sure how I fit into this group of people. Many were (still are) more scholarly than I and different in temperament. When I confided my misgivings to Bev, she told me that she was sure I belonged. This small observation in the early 90‘s was a huge encouragement to me at the time, and helped me find my unique fit in Watershed.

I am often prone to depression and negative thinking, but with Bev, as with any soul friend, I can breathe easier and just be myself, knowing that she will graciously give me the benefit of the doubt and keep seeing God in me. She has also been caring enough to be honest and give me a loving “kick in the pants” when needed. She has always pointed me to who she knew I was at a deeper level and called me to become my best self. What greater gift can a friend give? I know I can count on her for advice, for a good laugh, to talk about our sons who grew up together and are still good friends or to borrow that proverbial cup of sugar.

As a teenager oh so long ago, I used to carry a poem in my pocket by George Elliot. I’ve been reflecting on this poem for this blog post as it seems to capture exactly what I mean.

“Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all out, just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness blow the rest away.” – George Elliot

In Elliot’s poem, there is a “faithful hand” that takes and sifts all the chaff and grain of life, keeps what is worth keeping and with a breath of kindness, blows the rest away. (God I love that poem.) For me, that faithful hand is God.

The KOG relay runners, 2011

If we didn’t have the larger context of meaning that we do in our house church, I think our friendship would not be this way. Bev is this kind of friend not just to me but to everyone in our group. As we all steep ourselves in scripture and prayer and forging a life of faith together, the face of God begins to shine in each other. God has used Bev to stitch our community together in many ways, whether its through her amazing and generous baking and cooking, her watercolor art, her smiles and small kindnesses or her words of encouragement, wisdom and faith.

I am so thankful that I feel safe with another person in this way. In a world where so many are lonely, I see this as a golden treasure from God.

Happy 50th Birthday my dear friend. I love you.

Habitat Home Dedication

Today I had the good fortune of using my school division’s first ever “personal leave day”, to attend a Habitat house dedication. I was unsure at first whether to spend my day this way, but I’m so glad I did.

My friend Fana and her family, who emigrated to Winnipeg from Eritrea in north-east Africa, received her Habitat home today. I got to know Fana in the summer of 2011 when I worked with Habitat. Her stories of faith in God during difficult times was an encouragement to me. Fana would give me a warm hug every time I saw her. “We are now friends,” she told me more than once.

I was greeted with the same solid hug when I entered her new home today at 11 a.m. The house, still empty of furniture, was filled with well-wishers. Fana and her 4 children lined up the the living room (minus her husband who is presently in the hospital with a hopefully treatable stomach ailment) as the ceremony began.

One by one, people gave speeches to bless the home. A Habitat employee gave the family a toolbox with tools for any minor repairs in case they’d missed anything (“and if you call us, we can help you with it”, she was told). He also gave them a Bible as another tool they could use for the rest of life’s problems. One of Fana’s Canadian friends gave a warm speech about this loving family, and how deserving they were. Fana had told me about this friend last summer – an

Fana and her children and friend

“angel”sent to her to help them in their early settlement in Winnipeg. Now I heard from the friend how much she herself had been blessed from knowing Fana and her family. A win/win situation.

There were more gifts – Tim Horton’s coffee and coffee maker, a broom, shovel and water hose, and many other practical gifts, all given with gracious speeches.

It was all so moving because these were not just words. Many hundreds of loving hours had been given by volunteers to build and finish the house, not to mention companies who believe in Habitat’s vision and routinely donate shingles, skylights, labor and much more.

It’s sometimes difficult to believe in the good news of God’s love in this world filled with bad news stories. I am sometimes very discouraged at day’s end at the problems I see in people’s lives, or in the darkness such as anger in my own soul. But, standing in this living room, I saw a clear glimpse of God’s kingdom. People spoke of their vision of how children thrive when they have a stable, loving home; of wanting to give affordable, decent housing to many. The love for this family, still so new to Canada, was palpable. My eyes didn’t stay dry for one minute of the dedication ceremony. Their pastor prayed a blessing in their language. Even though I didn’t understand the literal words, their gratitude and dignity was moving.

In the end, Fana gave a speech. In her broken, beautiful English, she began, “My English is not good, but I will speak from my heart.” She went on to say thank you to many. Thank you too Fana, for the chance to witness God in your humble and loving life. And thank you God for giving someone the vision for Habitat for Humanity, a place that brings out the best in people.

Already/Not Yet..and a song

Maybe it was a combination of the cold snap this week (indoor recess all week for the kids) and the regular grind of body aches, but I woke up on Thursday morning this week feeling down. Nothing dramatically wrong, but my life felt lack luster and my thoughts banal. “Is this all I am?” I wondered. Am I making any positive difference in the world at all?  On top of that, it was already Thursday, and a blog topic had not yet come to me. It was one of those weeks where I asked God, “So, God, where are you anyways?” The eyes of my heart felt dulled.

Bad news had been happening in our neighborhoods as well: a $1 million apartment fire a few blocks away, started because of gang warfare. A woman died tragically in a car crash on a local bridge. Students of mine trying to grow up normal in the midst of huge family dysfunction. When does the bad news stop?

These were my thoughts as I sat with my coffee on the couch in the early morning quiet before heading off to work. I love having this quiet time, but some mornings it’s difficult to face my thoughts. It’s like cracking open the newspaper and wondering where God is in the midst of bad news. What’s wrong with the world (and us) seems so much more overwhelming than thoughts of the presence of God and God’s love, peace, patience, and kindness.

It was in the midst of this general malaise that I experienced how scripture can revive a person’s soul. I remembered a verse from 2 Corinthians that helped me remember who I am in God’s eyes. 

But we have this treasure in clay jars to show that its extraordinary power comes from God and not from us. 2 Corinthians 4:7  

I used this verse as a starter prayer in the early morning. Nothing fancy, but my prayer went something like this: “God, I certainly identify with the clay jar part. I feel so ordinary and my thoughts often feel weighed down by clay-like thoughts. Somehow You are telling me that despite all appearances, there’s a treasure within, which is no less than You. Help me live today as if that were true.

There’s this great phrase in thinking about whether God’s reality is here with us now, as we live our lives and witness the too often overwhelming presence of bad news. God’s kingdom is indeed with us now, but it’s like this: “Already/not yet”.  It’s here already, but it’s also not yet here. They say that we live in the tension in the middle of this.

When I was a kid, we prayed the Lord’s Prayer every morning in school. Like my friends, I prayed this without much thought, but it is now etched in my life. I pray it often and it becomes what I often fall back onto when words fail me. One part of it echoes this already/not yet tension: “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” 

Already – Scripture tells us that God’s kingdom has already been established here on earth. We can see God actively working, sometimes even miraculously, in the present day. I see God all the time – in the strong, resilient spirit of my students who demonstrate kindness despite all the odds they’re up against. I see God in my co-workers who might not even say they are people of faith. I see God in people who give their lives to making the world a better place in some form of service where “me” is not the top agenda. I see God in my faith community at Watershed.

Not yet – But we also know that this knowledge of God at times seems so limited. The effects of war (far away or here in our own neighborhoods), poverty, sickness, inter-personal grief, violence – all of this continues and we realize that God’s kingdom is also not yet fully here. We are caught between two ages.

I saw the “already” part of the phrase this week when I remembered that the treasure within can never die, despite all appearances to the contrary. My life can seem lack luster. A cold snap can make the kids at school squirrely and completely unfocused on the “brilliant” lessons I want to give them. Body ills can dull my heart to seeing God’s presence.

But this verse fixed my perspective this week, and stirred up a joy for living again. A bounce returned to my step and I saw God again in my students, whatever state they were in. I saw God in my life, even in mundanity. The bounce in my step also returned as I realized I had the blog topic for the week!

My cousin Evy, who is battling cancer, responds to the question “How are you?” with the sentence, “I’m well.” Being well doesn’t necessarily mean that all problems are solved, but that God is with us in whatever we’re going through. Evy’s life is certainly a witness to this. I know that she has experienced the “clay jar” of her life – limitation and even the prospect of death. Yet she knows that the treasure of God’s love is stronger than all this.

When my perspective is restored, it is always like the curtains part and I can see God clearly again. I am thankful that even when the curtains seem closed, God is still at work in the world and in our hearts, restoring all things to the Kingdom. May we all have faith during “not yet”, holding fast to faith until “already” shows its face to us.

I wanted to share a song that carries this theme. It is by Josh Garrels, a folk musician from Portland, Oregon. I have listened to this song, called “Beyond the Blue” many times in recent weeks. His lyrics are deeply spiritual. It’s a song all about already/not yet: “Everything ain’t quite what it seems/There’s more beneath the appearance of things.” Listen to his song here.

Moving from “Help me” to “Thank you”

It’s strange how the subtle things during the week sometimes become how I experience God. As I thought about this week’s topic, I kept going back to an experience I had early Tuesday morning. It’s one of those experiences that seems kind of like a dream – ineffable and hard to describe, but since it seemed real, I’ll try anyways.

I went back to work this week. I’m usually a good sleeper, but on Monday night, I had a night of bad sleep. Maybe it was renewed worries about the months ahead, but my sometimes wonky neck and head kept waking me up. I have a little routine I usually do on nights like this. I stretch out on the living room floor, trying (usually in vain) to stretch out the aches, and I begin to pray.

Popular author Anne Lamott says that we all really have only 2 prayers, “Help me, help me!” and  “Thank you, thank you!” (I once read that she now has a 3rd prayer: “Wow.”) My middle-of-the-night living room floor prayers are always of the first variety. They don’t get a whole lot fancier than “Help me!” “Help me make it through the day tomorrow with my students God.”  “Help me get better.”  “Help me get through this.” And just plain, “Help me God.”

This night was no different until a thought came to me. It occurred to me that maybe I was catastrophizing things just a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I truly believe that God wants us to “cast all our cares” on Him in prayer, but I began to wonder if in praying my “help me” prayers, I was overplaying a crisis. This is one of my worst habits and it gets me in trouble all the time. I take things too seriously and life becomes burdensome. I somehow unconsciously think I am a queen who deserve a life of no suffering. In a strange way, life’s challenges get warped into something to be desperately wished away.

Graffiti seen near my house

It was literally an “Aha!” moment where my perception got shifted. I had never thought of my prayers for help as being part of my habit of catastrophizing. Lying on the floor, it felt like I got snapped awake and I stopped my moaning. Maybe my trial wasn’t as big of a deal as I was making it out to be. Like the old game of hot potato, I dropped my help me prayers and became silent.

Through the rest of that night, I replaced the prayers, or perhaps I should say that God replaced my prayers, since I believe that it is God, not us, who prays through us. I prayed a string of thanks for all the people in my life who have shown me God’s face. And I prayed the Lord’s Prayer  (usually getting only a ways in before I got distracted and had to start again!)

For the rest of the week, I thought of this moment of insight on the living room floor. When I was a teenager, I once memorized a poem and a line of it kept running through my head, “Into each life some rain must fall.” Sometimes I forget that everyone experiences some form of suffering and that I am certainly not alone. I might not be able to choose my trials, but I can choose how to respond.

When I was at the Y the next day, running on the treadmill, I was listening to Romans in preparation for our upcoming Watershed study, and a verse struck me, “We can even rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4)

It takes a real view of the big picture to see our troubles as something we can rejoice in. Usually I start whining immediately to be rid of my troubles! But these verses remind me that suffering brings with it some hard-won lessons, but only if we open the eyes of our heart to see. I remembered earlier last year when I was given words of advice from our pastor Paul to become tougher on the inside instead of steeling myself on the outside against what life brings me. (I wrote about this advice in a previous blog post.) Becoming tougher on the inside speaks to me of developing stamina and remembering that character and hope can be borne out of what is difficult.

Running on the treadmill, I knew these verses were a confirmation of the insight from the night before. When I shared my experience with my friend Bev the next day, she nodded enthusiastically. “It sounds right, and I’m sure Paul would say so too,” she said.

It’s not like I’ve never heard these verses from Romans before, but as I dropped my desperate prayers, I heard them in a new way. Like any human being, I’d rather not experience troubles, but if I must, I pray to lean on God, and allow them to produce perseverance, character and hope in me. God knows we need more of these virtues this in our troubled but beautiful world.

It’s a Wonderful Life

Over the holidays, I’ve been reflecting on another time, years ago, when God intervened in my life to bring me hope through an old movie. Hope doesn’t always mean something is easier – it often means the eyes of our heart get opened and we are given new perspective. Here’s the story.

We had our son back in 1990. It was certainly a new beginning for us, as for all parents, but in our lives, there was also a painful ending happening. Our church (Cornerstone Christian Fellowship) was folding. A small remnant of under 20 people stayed together from the defunct church. This group has been together ever since and is the house church we are now a part of.

But at the time, this ending was a difficult time for many of us. Many were suspicious of our new group and we had to hold on to the fact that we felt called to be together and stand fast amid the controversy. Not only that, we were together without the structure of the Mennonite Brethren church around us. Were we even a church?

In the midst of these difficult years, Lyle and I couldn’t ignore the marriage troubles we had had since the beginning of our marriage in ’84. We ended up separating in October of 1993. Joel was just a little guy and it broke my heart to hear his tears when for instance he was visiting Lyle in his apartment and phoned me. We weren’t the only ones disoriented and confused.

Christmas of that year rolled around. One evening, I had taken Joel for a drive to see Christmas lights and I had just put him to bed. When there’s trouble in the air, Christmas can make people feel separation more keenly. I was feeling empty and despondent and unsure of the future and feeling of course like a huge failure. I had no idea how to fix my marriage.

It was into that context that I saw the face of God and received a glimmer of hope. I flicked on the TV and decided to watch the old movie It’s a Wonderful Life. Here was the story of another man who was brought to despair by the circumstances of his life. Contrary to the title of the movie, George Bailey saw everything in his life as miserable after a theft of money left him with bankruptcy and the death of his dreams. “It would have been better if I’d never been born,” he tells Clarence, the angel sent to rescue George. The pressure and despair finally gets to George and he decides to kill himself by jumping into the raging river.

No hope

I picked up my unhappy head and watched the movie. How would this tension be resolved I wondered? One moment of the movie stood out for me. As he is storming out of the house before heading to the river, he goes down the stairs and grabs the newel on the top of the stairs, something that has never been screwed on properly. As he grabs it, it comes off again and it’s like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. George sees no hope in his circumstances.

His lack of hope continue even as Clarence the angel shows him what life would have been like had he never been born – his brother would have been dead, his wife alone, and the town would have fallen into the clutches of Potter, a money-grabbing banker who did not have the interests of the community at heart like George Bailey did. At first,  George obstinately holds on to his despair with each scene that Clarence shows him, but eventually (like Scrooge in that other great Christmas classic A Christmas Carol), George’s cynicism breaks down and he begs the angel to tell him that this alternate reality is not true.

George’s conversion happens as his perspective is restored. He is given his old life back, but a miracle has

Hope restored

happened. Customer after customer comes to George Bailey’s house and pours money to help cover the debts left after the robbery. The mercy and love that George had always shown to down and outers came back to George himself as his true friends helped him in his own hour of need. But even before George realizes this miracle, he knows his life is wonderful even in its brokenness. His perspective has been restored.

I’ll never forget the scene where George rushes into the house after realizing that he has his old life back. He runs into the house and grabs the newel, still unattached, but now he is so grateful that he kisses it.

Lyle and I watched the movie again this Christmas, and the tears flowed just as they had in ’93 when a glimmer of hope for my own dire circumstances began to form in my heart. The fact that love won over despair in George’s life was a huge gift to me that Christmas. It was like the tight bands around my heart popped open as I saw a situation of bounty and love form instead of a black hole. Hope stirred once again. I wasn’t alone.

George thought that money and his failure was the most important thing, but he was given eyes to see (and how he resisted!) that it was a tiny dot when seen in the light of the beauty of his life. At the end, Clarence the angel writes him a note that says, “Remember that no man is a failure who has friends.”

Friends and the hope of God are who came through for Lyle and I in the following weeks. We had three healing circles where our closest friends sat us down (first with Lyle and I separately and then together), and talked to us of where they’d seen us go wrong. It was like a wise and skilled doctor carefully cutting out a bad tumor. There’s an old saying that says, “The truth can set you free, but at first it will make you miserable.” It was painful to take an honest look at our lives, but as we opened ourselves up to the process, we saw a future with hope. We agreed to forgive each other and with God’s and community’s help, set our sights on healing and not division.

This movie and the healing of our marriage remains one of the greatest miracles of my life. I could not see a way through the situation, but God provided one. The almost 20 years since then have not always been easy. Lyle and I have had a lot of growing up to do, but God has not left us alone. The bounty that George Bailey found has been our experience too.

Lyle and I viewing hope (actually birds) through binoculars at High Lake

Frank Capra’s immortal Christmas film reminded me in ’93 and still reminds me that despite appearances that sometimes make it seem otherwise, it’s indeed a “wonderful life”. The message from my angel tells me, “Remember Lydie, no one is a failure who has friends who hold Christ’s candle of hope for you in the darkness.”

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