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Archive for February, 2012

Nothing that is past is lost

As difficult as many days can be, I’m always grateful for the new start that each day brings. There is a feeling of new chances after rest, morning coffee and prayers for the day. It’s the same with my students coming in the door of my class. They are newly scrubbed (well, most of the time!), fed, with lunches packed for the day ahead and I am reminded that they are experiencing this too.

For me, our community’s meetings are kind of like the beginning of a new day as well. No matter how off track my addled mind and heart have become during the day, there is always a chance for renewal as we reflect on scripture, talk and pray together. More often than not, God uses these times to get me back on track. I know everyone in the group would say the same.

This past Wednesday, our normally boisterous group went downstairs to our meeting space at Cal and Linda’s house in silence. We were about to have our Ash Wednesday service. Some in the group that evening had never been to an Ash Wednesday service before and I wondered what they were thinking as we all watched the glowing candles.

I had been looking forward to this evening. I knew that I needed to get refocused on my deepest values and on my spiritual path. I took deep breaths in the silence, hopeful and expectant.

Church services might not sound like the most inviting thing to many people, especially during the week, but I have a hunch that seekers from whatever faith would love being with us. Our meetings are meaningful conversations on what matters most in life.

That evening, Paul gave a talk about Ash Wednesday. He talked about one of his first jobs, years ago, as an Educational Assistant at a Catholic school. Ash Wednesday rolled around and as a Protestant, he was taken aback by the black, cross-shaped smudges on students and teachers. Ever the curious student, Paul asked what the ashes were about, and a teacher (who was non-Catholic) gave him an answer that always stuck with him, “The ashes remind us that we are human, our time is limited, and our choices matter.”

Bringing this good quotation to life, Paul invited us in his talk to reflect on memories we had which dragged up our mistakes, losses or sorrows. It may not sound like a fun way to spend an evening, but as he talked, everyone’s ears perked up. We all have dark companions; character traits or problems that continually beset us. Depression and anger is like that for me. Sometimes it seems like they are the only reality of our lives. Paul’s teacher was was right, we need reminders that we are human, or else we begin to make poor choices. Like the character Amir in the book The Kite Runner was told, we all need a chance to be good again; to be forgiven for where we’ve blown it.

Paul talked about one of his greatest life’s failures – of the ideals he had had for a church more than 20 years ago, and how he began to love his ideals more than the actual community. His reforming energy led to perfectionism and a loss of love for God’s people. His dreams turned to ashes as he became burned out, his fondest hopes going totally off track. Like the nun had told him, he was reminded of his humanity. It was no accident that in those years (in the previous, larger church he pastored), we had our first Ash Wednesday service. He offered up his mistakes to God and invited us to do the same. Our small house church is proof that God can make something beautiful out what we think of as dead ends.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian most famous for standing up to Hitler (and being hung for it), once wrote a famous

Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945

letter from prison in the days leading to his execution, and Paul shared the quote with us:

Nothing that is past is lost… God gathers up again with us our past, which belongs to us… Everything is taken up in Christ… Christ restores all this as God originally intended it to be.”

The most moving part of Wednesday evening came when Paul asked us each to think of a memory that we wanted to offer up. We each did this silently, writing 2 or 3 words on a slip of paper. I wrote “Angry helper” on mine. We put the slips in a bowl which Cal and Linda burned one by one. We watched in silence as the small flames danced in the bowl. The silence combined with our problems offered up to the flames was evocative, and I teared up. It felt like I was letting go of my efforts and saying, “Here you go God. Take all of this. I don’t know how to fix this. Only You know how to bring healing.”

We were each invited to see ourselves as God saw us: forgiven and loved, warts and all. I was reminded of the famous Rumi poem which says,

Come, come, whoever you are.

Wanderer, worshipper, lover of living, it doesn’t matter
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come even if you have broken your vow a thousand times,
Come, yet again, come, come.

I think everyone in the room felt new hope stir up in ourselves as we gave our predicaments to God. We passed the bowl of ashes around the circle, making a cross on hands or foreheads as generations before us have done. Going home with Lyle, I felt becalmed and at peace. I still felt this the next morning. I knew that it was what I wanted to write about this week in the blog.

The next few weeks leading to Easter will be a time where we continue to go forward in this spirit as a community. I am so thankful that God sees new beginnings where we see only endings. I don’t know where I’d be without this hope.

 

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It’s Not About Me

“Is it true? We are here for only a little while?

Let us at least leave behind flowers.

Let us at least leave behind songs.”

Three years ago this weekend, I went to Mexico for a week of professional learning with Monarch Teachers Network. I was so lucky that my administration supported my decision in letting me go, believing that my interest in monarch butterflies would benefit the students. Myself and about 30 other educators from the US and Canada went to see the overwintering site of the monarchs and learn about Mexico. We had two amazing teachers, Erik Mollenhauer from New Jersey, and Marcos Garcia from Mexico. This week I’ve had “Mexico on my brain” as I’ve reflected on this time which was so infused with God encounters.

My Watershed friends not only encouraged me to take the trip, but also to deepen my learning in my first ever blog. I read over the blog this weekend, reflecting on the experiences which became life-changing.

“Life-changing” might sound too extreme for a mere 7 days away from home, but I stand by this assessment, even now that 3 years have passed. I made many new friends in this week-long community, all educators like me, several of whom have stopped by Winnipeg on travels and stayed with us, and others who I still keep in contact with on Facebook. I ate amazing food. I became a student for a week, soaking up a huge variety of well taught lessons on history, biology, current Mexican culture, even astrology.  I stood in Mexican forests surrounded by millions of fluttering monarchs, a forest which felt like a sanctuary.

In keeping a blog about the experience, Paul (the pastor of my small house church) encouraged me to see the trip through the grid of the hero’s journey. It became invaluable as I filtered my experiences through this “roadmap”. Google “Hero’s journey” and you’ll come up with tons of links. Originally coined by American scholar Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey is a basic pattern that is in many stories around the world, from thousands of years ago (Moses, the Buddha) or in Hollywood movies (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or even Shrek).  Looking at a trip in this way changed my perspective.

The hero’s journey starts for any of us when our normal or known world is presented with a problem, challenge or adventure. We can refuse the journey (and many do when fears come up), but if we say yes, there are many stages to go through, complete with mentors, enemies and tests. There is wisdom to be gained in the journey, and we return to the ordinary world with the “elixir” or lesson which will help others in some way.

This story helped change my trip from a vacation to a pilgrimage as I began to contemplate everything within this pattern. I got the call to adventure in Salisbury House in September, 2008, when the women from Watershed were there for breakfast one morning. As I shared my dream to someday take this trip, they shocked me by suggesting that I could actually do it. Discerning the call was not easy because I had many fears and roadblocks, and I was tempted to say no. But the call was insistent and I pushed through the “no” and stuck with my decision. Many of the stages were chronicled in the blog I wrote at the time. There was one event which has stayed with me and has guided and maybe even changed me.

I probably would have forgotten the lesson of this event if I hadn’t reflected on it weeks later in the blog.  In contemplating the trip, I had often wondered what it would be like to finally step into the monarch forest. Neurotic person that I am, I began to worry – would it be a “big experience”? Would I see the miracle or would depression or headaches cloud my thoughts as often happens?

At El Rosario

We took the long trek up the mountains of the main butterfly sanctuary of “El Rosario”, a few hours west of Mexico City. Finally I began to see them, a few at first and then more and more – the overwintering monarchs stirring to life in the spring migration. I stopped at the edge of the field and a thought struck me amid my worries – “This is a miracle. No matter how I’m feeling physically or emotionally, it is and always will be a miracle. It’s not about me.”

“It’s not about me.” I don’t usually hear God’s voice directly, but this time it felt like I was. The voice wasn’t yelling. It felt more like a whisper from outside myself, a voice of wonder as I saw those first clusters of monarchs. This was a miracle that was much bigger than my many worries. Like my own life’s journey, these butterflies had survived so much in their migration and were proof of God’s hand. God works a huge miracle in our lives every day, despite all our bumblings and human fragility.

The group of women who had started my journey had given me a gift to take along. Each of them had chosen a quotation or verse for me to reflect on, and had set them in a book to read along the way. My dear friend Lorna had given me a quote which I read at the end of that day:

“And what was the purpose of our pilgrimage?

To let a new intelligence prevail.”

Wallace Stevens

It’s not about me. This “new intelligence” became the calling that I carried forward into the world after that trip. It feels vulnerable to write it, because the implication is so obvious, but I have been a narcissist, obsessed with the small story of “me” for far too long. God gave me a gentle nudge that day, reminding me in what has become my mantra, that there’s more to life than I see in my often limited imagination. “Stay open,” it seemed God was saying to me, “Let your life migrate, just like the monarchs, to your home in my expansive world.”

After that memorable afternoon in the mountains, we trekked back down and bought quesadillas from a roadside vendor. I sat with Erik, our teacher, and shared what had happened and what I’d heard. He is a spiritual man and quickly resonated with what I said, telling me a story of how the miracle of migration had changed his life as well.

Later that week, in a thank you speech to a local school who had hosted us, Erik quoted a line from a poem written by an ancient Mexican philosopher emperor, which I began this blog entry with:

“Is it true? We are here for only a little while?

Let us at least leave behind flowers.

Let us at least leave behind songs.”

I read this short poem again this weekend in my trip blog, and was reminded of the deeper purpose of my life. I am forever grateful that God has called and is still calling me out of the small world of my story into the expansive world of “The Story”.

Walk the Line

It’s Anti-Bully month at schools, and lately I taught a lesson to the kids that once again has been the very thing I myself have needed to hear. We’ve been learning about walking away from a bully. I lit a candle and we talked about flames being helpful or hurtful, and that a bully is hurtful. I then put a cup over the candle. Depleted of oxygen, the flame went out. 

It’s hard to talk in metaphors to 7 and 8 year olds, but when we came back to the lesson a few days later, they had retained it. Starving the flame of oxygen is like walking away from a bully, or at least ignoring as best as we can. Good friends can help by walking away with us, ignoring what is hurtful.

I don’t have any literal bullies around me but in this lifetime I have found that I’ve had some inner “walking away” to do. My inner bullies have been in the form of false thoughts. I’m sure everyone has them. Insecurities, jealousies, lazy thinking, anger, greed – all these provide ample opportunity for false thoughts to grow like weeds in a graden.

My inner bully – The biggest false thought that I had to battle this week probably fits under the category of anger when I suspect that I don’t belong. I don’t “get things” as quickly as others, or my thoughts are off the beaten path of others and I just don’t know how to jump into conversations quickly. The thoughts go something like this, “You’ll never get it. You aren’t connected to others.” Like Frankenstein’s monster, I get to feeling doomed to wander alone, separate from community. These thoughts are not new to me but for some reason this week, they were stronger. Feelings of depression and separation seemed to be gaining the upper hand. Like a lake freezing over in winter, my inner landscape can become frozen, no longer animated and free. Everyone has their demons to battle.

You can see now why I need to write this blog! I would be a lonely person indeed if I didn’t have an answer to the question of “Where is God in all of this?” Franz Kafka said long ago that “A book should serve as an axe for the frozen sea within us.” I had some chopping to do to counter the false thoughts and I kept wondering what this week’s blog topic would be.

Birthday e-card from dear friends

The first chop of the axe came in a birthday e-card given to me from friends Paul and Bev, and is a verse from Romans. “I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s Love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.”   When we have false thoughts, it is the hardest thing in the world to ignore them, but this verse helped me to begin walking. “Nothing can separate you from God’s love, Lydie”, is what this verse kept telling me. So I kept praying and saying no to the lie that I was separate. Knowing too that my friends pray for the same thing for me helped a lot too.

Another axe-chop came on Wednesday night at our weekly Bible study. We are beginning a study of the book of Romans, and it is a daunting study. Romans is a very complex letter. Our friend Eldon was leading that night and he talked about Paul (the author of Romans) writing to reconcile groups who thought they didn’t belong either. Eldon told us that “God’s tent is huge, big enough to welcome anyone, no matter what they think separates them.” My greatest wish for my students at school is that they feel welcome, no matter who they are or what challenges they have, and I remembered that God wishes the same for all of us. The tent is big enough to fit me too.

These two truths are what I walked towards as I walked away from the inner lies that kept tempting me. “You belong” and “You are loved” are true. When I tell the kids to walk away, I know how incredibly difficult it is. Like people who can’t help gawking at an accident scene, we seem drawn to fixating on our inner dramas. What helped the most was just going back to prayer and asking for help. “Casting our cares on God” can be difficult when pride gets in the way, but I really believe what St. Augustine said so long ago, that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.” Our restlessness drives us back to God again and again. There is one relationship in my life which has an as-yet unhealed rift in it, and once again, I gave this relationship to God. I realized it had been heavy in my heart again lately. I pray that healing will someday come, and giving it to God helped to stop obsessing about it.

Strangely, what also helped is something that I’ve noticed before. It helped to be with the kids at school. They are master welcomers! Inside were these inner battles, but the kids bring out something better as compassion and kindness get called out of me. I think that’s why, no matter how difficult it can be, I am grateful for my job.

As the week went on, what I noticed is that the battle lessened, and this is how I experienced God. The power of the inner bully’s flame seemed to be extinguished as the cup of God’s truths was placed over it. Maybe you could say that peace came in the place of heaviness.

I pray for us all as we battle the demons that we might be able to walk away. As Johnny Cash sang, we gotta “Walk the line”. For me, the you in this song is God.

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine

I keep my eyes wide open all the time.

I keep the ends out for the tie that binds

Because you’re mine, I walk the line.

Stamina

This week, I’ve been reflecting on some words from my wise friend and pastor Paul, who once told me to live my life the way that I run. His advice has been in my thoughts all week.

I took up running in 2008, thanks completely to the encouragement and guidance of Vic Keller, a running coach who works out of the downtown YM/YWCA here in Winnipeg.  Even though some mornings, my body is as creaky as an old barn, I feel blessed that I can still lace up the runners and head out the door. Some days I wonder how I’ll make it to the end of my goal, and other days the time flies by and I feel strong. I know every runner probably has the same experience.

One of the things I consistently notice when I run is that the first 10 minutes is the worst.  I know that running is as much a physical challenge as a mental one as I begin to battle my inner protests. I invariably have thoughts like, “This is crazy.  I am out of breath, my nose is running, my eyes are tearing up – I can’t keep going. Why am I doing this?” Etc. Etc. I huff and puff and feel like quitting. I’m so used to these thoughts that by now I just tell myself it’ll get better, and it always does. It’s not that the rest of the run is a breeze, but something kicks in and I’m able to put up with the sweat and pounding heart.  I listen to podcasts or music, I try to enjoy the scenery if I’m outside, and I keep going. In the end, I’m always glad I didn’t give up.

I talk to my students all the time about exercising stamina when they are practicing their reading. Knowing that we only get better at reading by reading, I remind them to stick with it and not to let themselves get distracted when reading is difficult. My own words come back to me constantly as I run.

I was reflecting on all this during the week and it got me back to Paul’s wise words about running and life. “Try to exercise inner stamina during your days,” Paul told me, “like when you run. As you meet life’s challenges and keep your eyes on your goal, you are increasing your longevity and stamina and as you do you become stronger.”  

Paul knows me pretty well, and knows what a softie I am inside. Like my protests in the first 10 minutes of my run, I seem to automatically prefer an easier life. I don’t know where I picked this up. Maybe it’s just human nature. Whether it’s body ills, that old propensity towards depression, or students whose troubles in life affect me, I can get whiny pretty quickly.

It’s become a spiritual discipline to counter my propensity to being soft with exercising inner stamina. I don’t mean just gritting my teeth and putting up with things. I mean overlooking discomfort because of the goal before me, and to me, the goal is one word: God in Jesus (ok that’s 3 words). If I see my challenges in life through my own eyes, I become discouraged, but to see them as Jesus would changes everything. In Jesus’ eyes, everything belongs, even challenges. Instead of giving in to discouragement, I can remember that God uses every experience to form us. Inner protests come and go, but it is immeasurably helpful to turn them into prayers for help instead of mere complaints.

Paul gave me a verse from the New Testament to go with the encouragement to exercise stamina:

We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. (Romans 5:3)

Another wise person has said, “Never put a period where God has put a comma.” Troubles are never the final word with God. They are the building blocks of character because God is using everything in our path to continue the story of healing and love. I am usually short-sighted, but God keeps reminding me to keep my eyes on the goal.

These thoughts wove their way through the ups and downs of my week and gave me hope and perserverance.

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