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Archive for March, 2012

I’ll try again tomorrow

Funny the way God gives us hints that He is at work in the world and in us. I’ve always been one to believe that nothing comes to us by accident.

Take this week for example. In our school, we have started 7 new groups which we’ve called “houses”. They are groups of kids from Grades 1-6. Each are named for one of the 7 Aboriginal sacred teachings, which are love, wisdom, respect, humility, honesty, courage and truth. Along with two other teachers, I was put in charge of the “courage” group. “Courage eh?” I thought to myself. “Now why is this teaching coming to me at this time in my life?”

Believing that this is one of the ways God speaks, I began to think about what courage means. We all think of firefighters or soldiers when we think of courage. The image of entering danger and overcoming obstacles seems heroic, but we often forget the underside of these glamourous images. These people must exercise mental and moral strength to overcome their fears.

I sat up straight when Tuesday morning’s Lenten meditation was about courage. The story from scripture that day was about Jesus healing a crippled man. He was complaining that he’d been sick for 38 years and everyone else got to the healing pool first. Jesus just told him to pick up his mat and walk, and it happened. The guy was amazed but Jesus left him with a warning not to turn back to his paralysis, or “something worse will overtake you.”

In the meditation, the author (Richard Rohr) wrote about a common pattern when we are sent into new and risky worlds. The crippled man was asked to stand on his own courageous two feet. He’d always wanted someone else to do it for him, but true to his character, Jesus didn’t give him the easy way. When we are met with the challenges of our lives, and all those places that “push our buttons”, the temptation is to regress into our old selves. “I can’t!” we say with the crippled man. “I’ve been like this for 38 years!”

In Aboriginal teaching, the bear symbolizes courage. It is gentle by nature, but the ferociousness when a mother bear is approached is the true definition of courage. The website called “The Sharing Circle” says it well, “To have the mental and moral strength to overcome fears that prevent us from living our true spirit as human beings is a great challenge that must be met with the same vigor and intensity as a mother Bear protecting her cub.”

I met with the “Courage House” on Wednesday, and the teaching was exactly what I needed. I had googled some pictures of courage, and a quote had come to me, which I shared with the kids. “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.”  -Mary Anne Radmacher

I hung on to this quote all week. “I’ll try again tomorrow.” This became my prayer, and my reminder to move forward and keep growing in character and in God’s strength. My temptation, like the crippled man, is to stay with the old self (often crippled by my sense of failure), but God tells me that the challenges of our lives build character and hope.  God tells me that “In this world, you’ll have troubles, but I have overcome the world.” This is who I want to model my life after.

This teaching has come to me at an important time. When I tell people I teach Grade ⅔, I am often met with admiration. It is probably considered a noble profession. What people don’t see in me are the fears that regularly bring me to my knees in prayer. I was supposed to teach about courage, but as always, I was the student most in need of the lesson. I saw God is with me, strengthening my courage legs every morning, replacing my fears with new hope.

“Healing God, give me the courage to move forward, and help me to see that my deepest sin might be my unwillingness to keep growing.” (Richard Rohr)

Standing Against Temptation

Before nodding off to sleep on Friday night, I was reflecting on how exactly these blog topics come to me. I hear lots of guiding, true words during each week – from scripture, from my friends, from my readings – but they might not make it onto the blog. The experience I choose to share always has some kind of transformative power to it. It goes beyond “just words” to being mysteriously healing. A true Word fixes people up and it’s real. This week’s story is like that.

It was Thursday after work, and I was hurrying to get to the Y for my workout. There was a dust-storm of thoughts going through my brain, all related to how I felt at the moment, which was tired. The last thing I felt like doing was starting up the treadmill. With spring break around the corner, I was hanging on to what felt like the last shreds of my sanity. When I’m like this, I start to long for an easier path and stress takes over. It could be a comedy routine, actually, these Woody-Allen type worries that whip around, and if I’d had the presence of mind, I would have laughed.

Photo by Joel Penner

To add to the dust-storm, I had another thought – “I don’t even have a story for this week’s blog yet. Where exactly is God anyway?”

That was when, in the walkway above the pools at the downtown Y, I heard a healing Word. It sliced through my dusty thoughts and helped me to sit up straight. The Word was not new to me and was something Paul Patterson, minister at Watershed, told me some time ago. He had been telling me that I needed to stand against thoughts of wanting the easier way. See them as temptation and with God’s help, stand strong against them. He added the punchline that now came back to me. “God help you if you go soft.”

“Oh yeah,” I remembered. “These thoughts are temptations. They are not the only story going on.” I still felt tired, but it was like now I only felt tired. I no longer felt defeated by the tiredness.  Teresa of Avila, 14th century Spanish mystic and nun, famously said, “All things pass, but God never changes.”  Good words to remember during a dust storm.

Last weekend on Saturday, a few friends were having supper together, and Lorna shared a reading from author Richard Rohr that had stuck with her. It came back to me last night as I was reflecting on this blog topic. It’s a longer quote, but I wanted to share it because it contains a helpful image, and it’s a warning about what happens when we forget the bigger picture of our lives.

Without a mythological context, sacred text, or some symbolic universe to reveal the greater meaning and significance of our life, we can become trapped in our own very small story. And in that limited story, without any larger perspective, our wounds can make us into embittered victims. We just keep repeating the story line to ourselves over and over, and soon it suffocates us like a python.

The Jesus way is to embrace our wounds and accept them as the price of the journey. We can choose to carry out wounds with dignity until the time comes when we forget why they were so important or debilitating to begin with. 

The people I know well all have pythons hovering nearby. One friend struggles with worry, another with perfectionism, another with depression and still another with the temptation to gain acceptance through success. These are all real struggles, but to see them as “small stories” is infinitely helpful. If we don’t, they suffocate us like a python.

That moment in the walkway above the pools at the Y was like a camera lens zooming out away from my small story, onto the bigger Story that has found me. I remembered our good friend Cal, who turned 50 that day. We’ve known Cal for over 20 years, and he’s part of our house church community. He too has pythons hovering nearby, but he keeps himself steeped in the sacred text that Rohr wrote about. He has a heart for God and has been a faithful friend with his gift to make people laugh and feel cared about. “Thank you God for Cal,” I prayed. Later, when I phoned him to wish him happy birthday, I told him thank you for giving me a good excuse to pray. He is part of the bigger Story.

In the above quote, some might wonder at the line that we must “embrace our wounds.” Is this “Jesus way” about living in pain? In a way, yes, but that’s not the whole picture. My understanding of this is that we are all wounded anyway, in some deep way. No one in this world has gotten away without that, not even those who seem the happiest. Whenever I try to deny it, it gets the better of me. I love Jesus because he was human, like me. He suffered but in his suffering he stayed connected to Who he loved. He called him Father, but I understand that God is much bigger than one gender.

Here is the rest of the Rohr quote:

I think we carry our wounds until the end; they do not fully go away but keep us humble, patient and more open to trust and intimacy. The healing lies in the fact that those same wounds no longer defeat us or cause us to harm ourselves or others. My favorite mystic, Lady Julian of Norwich, puts it this way, “our wounds become our honors.”

God help me to remember the bigger story of my life. Help me to stay patient in dust storms.

“We are often troubled, but not crushed; sometimes in doubt, but never in despair.”

– 2 Corinthians 4:8

What I’m Giving Up for Lent

I don’t usually give anything up for Lent. Our house church follows the liturgical church year, but taking on this ancient practice is certainly not mandatory. We are not formal like that.

Last year, however, my friend Bev decided to give up running for a while as she dealt with a muscle strain. It happened to be the beginning of Lent and it helped her to take the humble path as she gave her limitations up to God. Her example got me reflecting for this year’s Lent, wondering what I could give up.

I’d begun thinking about taking on this practice because I’d realized how busy my morning “prayer time” had become. A half-hour that’s supposed to be about prayer almost felt like a 3-ring circus. With a laptop balanced on my lap, I usually began by journalling about how the previous day had gone, or how sore my neck felt. Sometimes during journalling, I’d get an e-mail and the temptation to be distracted came up. I’d also journal prayers for the day after reading the day’s scripture, but lately it had left a taste in my mouth of skittering around the surface of life, like a water beetle that  never goes deeper. Today’s multi-media, digital generation, with our screens and constant “connectedness” left me inattentive to the deeper life of God.

Strangely, I began remembering years ago, when I used to take yoga classes, how we always began each class with meditation. The quiet, reflective and profound Ash Wednesday service we had a few weeks previous left me wanting more. And so it was one day, remembering Bev’s example, I had the thought, “Why not give up journalling for Lent?”

I love writing. Bringing order to my thoughts by tapping on the keyboard is one of the ways my batteries are recharged each week, but it was the way I was going about it that got me asking the question. I wondered what purpose each day’s journal entry was serving. After sharing my thoughts with Bev, I decided to give it up as an experiment for the 40 days of Lent, and to sit in silence more intentionally.

The tradition of giving something up for Lent comes from a story about Jesus from the New Testament. Jesus went into the desert wilderness and fasted and prayed for 40 days and 40 nights. This story is usually told at the beginning of Lent, and precedes Easter. Jesus was grappling with the difficult path ahead of him. He faced temptations, hunger and loneliness. The last thing he wanted, humanly speaking, was to turn away from worldly fame and to face the difficulties that came from his calling, but of course that’s exactly what he did. What motivated him was the love he had for God, and what he felt God was calling him to. People in generations since have followed Jesus’ footsteps because of this story. Easter resurrection can not happen without dying to the self.

It’s now been almost 3 weeks since that Ash Wednesday service. I have been using the book Wondrous Encounters by Richard Rohr, which I wrote about last week. I read each day’s meditation and scripture, and then sit with the starter prayer that Rohr provides. No tapping on my keyboard. No “ping” sound from my e-mail server to let me know about new messages. No big production. Just silence, listening for what God is saying. Listening for prayers that might be bubbling up from within. Since our living room lights have developed a strange high-pitched sound lately, I even sit with only one light on. No one else is up. It’s just me, my coffee, my cats snoozing beside me, and the prayer.

You might find yourself thinking, “Boy, she’s sure trying hard!” The last thing I want is for people to think I’m some spiritual saint. I’m not. It’s more like surrendering and letting go, and just listening. Lord knows I have enough static constantly going on in my brain from all my anxieties and negative thoughts. What I desire most deeply, and what I need like air, is to listen to God. There’s a verse that says what I want well, “I live no longer my own life, but the life of Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

And, what I’m finding is that God is not silent. When the rubber hits the road with my students and my patience is tested, it has been so helpful to go back to the day’s prayer. Bev and I have been having email exchanges about the day’s meditation, and that too has been helpful for me. We are prayer sisters, another part of the Lenten journey.

I’ve definitely experienced God’s presence during the week. I’m a slow learner in this life, but bit by bit I am absorbing this truth: that God is there with me, and that I never need to face any situation alone.

What is real?

Since the Ash Wednesday service I wrote about in last week’s blog, life has had that interesting feeling of being “the same, yet different”. The same challenges and routines go into each day, but there’s been a different undercurrent of thought going on in me. Perhaps more reflective than usual. Many of us in our community are going through a small book of daily meditations for Lent by one of my favorite authors, Richard Rohr. It is called Wondrous Encounters. Each day has a short reading based in scripture, ending with a prayer Rohr gives as a “starter prayer”.

My friend Bev and I decided to support each other through this Lenten journey with some email exchanges, writing about the themes that Rohr brings up. We’re sharing the struggles we both have, and how God meets us in the ups and downs. Sometimes the emails are just prayers that we write out, for ourselves and each other.

Something struck me during the week. I began to wonder, “What exactly is real here?” Almost always, I have a battle with anger or depression or anxiety going on just under my skin. No doubt if you’ve read my blog, you’ve noticed this! These battles can feel so real, like they are the only thing that is true, but what exactly is real here?

Like clouds in the sky, these battles come and go. I know the battleground well enough by now to know that there is something deeper going on. They are not the only reality I encounter. There is a truth, or a person, or a Reality (capital R) which is more true than all those battles. This Reality is what I call God. Julian of Norwich (14th century English mystic) famously said, “All will be well.” When the inner dust settles (and it always seems to, sooner or later), I am reminded again that everything really was well all along. Scripture says that there is a “peace that passes understanding,” and this describes what I mean.

As I bring the Lenten meditations with me into each day, I thought about Plato’s story of the fire in the cave. It’s one of the lessons I remember well from from my Intro to Philosophy class in university days. In his famous story, there are prisoners sitting in a cave. They’re chained and forced to face a wall. Behind them is a fire and a parade of human life walking across a bridge, which casts all kinds of shadows on the wall in front of them. Because they’ve been chained there all their lives, they think that what they see is real. In his allegory, Plato is teaching his students that the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and freed to understand that the shadows were not real. The shadow of a person, for example, is not the same as a real person. (For an excellent 3 minute claymation of this allegory, check out this youtube video.)

This is a very helpful allegory as I consider what I see each day. The shadows on the wall are obvious enough to me, but I am no prisoner. I am free to step into the light of day and see what is true. This stepping into the light of day is the pilgrimage of faith that I am called to. As I considered these things this week, here’s what I saw:

What is real:

  • Prayer helped me remember that I’m not alone in this life. There is a mystery called God who helps me along by restoring peace and a deeper will to stay rooted in what matters most. It’s hard to describe, and my prayers are almost always faltering, but God breathes life into me. The email exchanges between Bev and I have been part of that prayer this week.
  • Like when I run, I often feel like quitting, but there is something, or Someone, who urges me to carry on and keep my eye on the goal. Something greater than me always seems to kick in during each day, in running and in life, and for that I am eternally grateful.
  • Friends who are on the same journey are real. They constantly encourage me, pray with and for me, remind me to laugh at myself and remind me of the bigger picture.
  • On the Louis Riel long weekend, I had coffee with my dad, who wanted to talk. After reading my blog, he shared with me struggles he has which are similar to mine, but also the prayers and scriptures that have helped him. I felt encouraged by our visit, and reminded that there is a Spirit which connects us beyond our blood connection. Thanks Dad for your and Mom’s love.
  • I am always thankful at how our community get togethers (movie nights, bible studies, suppers together, etc), are restorative.  I often notice that Lyle and I are happier and easier together afterwards, which to me is a good sign.
  • This week Marilyn and I sang at the senior’s home, and our joy at the simple act of singing  some old tunes together was one of the highlights of the week. We were all lifted out of ourselves.

    This joy is for real!

God, help us all remember what is real. Help us to see life through Your eyes and Your vision for the world.

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