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Archive for April, 2012

“You gotta believe something”

At our house, one of our favorite TV shows is the Dog Whisperer, a reality show featuring Cesar Millan who works with problem dogs. Cesar Millan is one of my heroes. He advises people to become “pack leaders”, to use “calm, assertive discipline” and to create healthy, balanced dogs by applying the philosophy of “exercise, discipline and affection”  (in that order) when working with dogs. We don’t own a dog, but Cesar’s wisdom has often been a guide for me in working with my students. (His methods even work in some ways for our two cats!)

God used this gifted man to speak to me this week. Lyle and I watched an episode on Tuesday night. For some reason, something Cesar said stood out for me and I began musing on it all week.

In one of the episode’s three stories, a couple was distraught over their out of control Australian sheep dog. Walks were nearly impossible because of the aggression and intense barking that would make neighbors think that a small child was dying. The wife described it all to Cesar and fixated on the problem, stating and restating what always happened and how frustrated she was. Cesar is very empathic, but at one point he knew that mere empathy would not solve the problem. “Just venting about the problem won’t help,” he gently reminded her, “You gotta have a belief system.”

A belief system. This is what perked up my ears. People tell me I come across as a positive person, but scratch the surface and like this woman, I can be quite the complainer when faced with challenges. I am easily overwhelmed and swamped by my feelings. It’s funny how we think that just venting about problems will solve them. Like a ship without a rudder to steer it, this has never led anywhere productive for me.

What do I believe? This is the helpful question I reflected on all week. (It’s not that I’ve never thought of this question, but like the lens of gratitude in last week’s blog post, it was a helpful point of reflection.) At Wednesday night’s study, someone stated something that resonated with me. “I believe that God is a God of love, and that no matter what trouble I get into in my life, God is there, always looking for me, inviting me back and restoring me.”

This stated it so well, and I mulled it over. It reminded me of one of my favorite Bible stories: the Good Shepherd. The shepherd has 100 sheep, but one gets lost. He leaves the 99 in the fold and goes out to find the one that is lost. It’s not just theory to me – I see this story enacted over and over again in my life and in the lives of many people. In so many ways, God finds us despite ourselves, despite the many ways we get hopelessly entangled in our human dilemmas. Through prayer, the loving kindness of friends, scripture and so much more, God brings peace where there was heartache, love and forgiveness where there was division, and renewal where there was burnout.

Two things have to happen for a belief system to work, which are not actually that easy. One is that we have to quit the complaining long enough to look elsewhere. Our egos want to stay in charge, and it can be the hardest thing to admit that our way isn’t working. Like the woman in the Dog Whisperer, we fixate on our problems. In large part, this is a failure of imagination, forgetting that there can be a larger world view. Luckily, the woman on the TV show trusted Cesar Milan and listened to his advise.

The second thing that has to happen after a moratorium on complaining is what Alcoholics Anonymous calls surrender to “a Higher Power”. One day in particular was pretty tough last week at work, and I prayed before sleep for God to find me again because I felt like I was that ship without a rudder, adrift in a sea of emotion. The rudder started working when I remembered Cesar’s gentle prodding of the woman, “Lydia, you gotta believe something!” I remembered that Good Shepherd who was looking for me even before I knew I was lost.

It was more than a good rest that restored me that night. This rudder makes all the difference in the world.

1 Corinthians 2:16, “Put on the mind of Christ.”

Gratitude

If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice.  ~Meister Eckhart

This was a week filled to the brim with activity. Besides the day’s work, each evening held an event. I love my quiet evenings at home, so I was bracing myself for exhaustion.  When Friday finally arrived with a free evening, my eyes couldn’t stay open much past 10 p.m., but there was something else there, which had woven through the week like a golden thread.

Gratitude. The word had come to me on Monday morning, announcing itself as this week’s blog topic. Topics don’t often arrive that way, but I tucked it into my heart. It became like a telescope to view each day’s events through.

I was invited to my Habitat friend Fana’s brand new house for supper on Monday evening, along with many others who she and her husband and family wanted to thank. I had student led interviews coming up on Thursday night, and had a million and one things to do, but who can resist authentic Ethiopian food with friends? She and her husband Rediet thanked everyone from their hearts before the meal. Rediet said a prayer of thanks in his language, and I didn’t need to know the literal words to understand the prayer. His gratitude touched my heart and reminded me of the bigger picture – that God is somehow holding all of us amid all our difficulties, even when we don’t understand, bringing gifts that keep us steeped in love and blessing.

Tuesday evening’s activity was singing at Lion’s Manor with my friend Marilyn. One of the residents who always comes to sing is Jackie. Jackie has Altzeimers. She loves to talk and contribute. Her thoughts are not always coherent, but there is one thing about her that is always clear. She is always grateful. She thanks us every time we come, not once but continually. She is always making positive comments and like a self-appointed manager, she walks us to the elevator and thanks us one last time for coming and wishes us well. I always think that she must have practiced gratitude throughout her life for it to be such a lasting habit. No matter how I’m feeling, she never fails to encourage me.

On Wednesday night, Lyle and I went to our usual Bible study. Even after the study was over, most of us stayed past 10 p.m., talking about life and weaving God’s

Photo by Joel Penner

meaning into the situations of our lives. When friend Cal reminded me he was praying for me as I was leaving, I told him how helpful it had been to be around such rich conversation tonight. Like looking at the depths of an ocean, I was reminded that life is much more than my worries and tasks. I felt gratitude despite myself: gratitude that God is with us no matter what the storms are pounding. God has provided me with a faith community that shores me up again and again.

A 12 hour day lay ahead of me on Thursday, but like usual, all went well despite my worries as I talked to my students’  parents. Afterwards, tucked into one of the returned report card envelopes, was a note from a parent saying a simple thank you. She had no idea how much her small act of gratitude meant to me.

Lyle and I pray together before work twice a week. It isn’t anything fancy. It was my turn to pray on Friday morning and I began by saying, “God thank you for all the ways you carried us this week.” I was so tired that I could have prayed many complaints, but this small prayer of gratitude once again brought me to myself.

I want to be like Jackie, Rediet and Fana, and exercise the muscle of gratitude. I want to practice it so much that it becomes the default setting to my heart.

“Why is everyone hungry for more?

“More, more,” they say. “More, more.”

I have God’s more-than-enough,

More joy in one ordinary day

Than they get in all their shopping sprees.

At day’s end I’m ready for sound sleep,

For you, God, have put my life back together.”

-Psalm 4:6-8 (Message translation)

Then and Now

During the week ahead at school, my students are going to get ready to show their work to their parents or caregivers. The theme is “Then and Now”, where they’ll look at their work from the beginning of the year and compare it to now. They don’t know it yet, but they’re going to see a change. Spelling is improving, reading levels are higher, sentences are getting longer, math challenges are being overcome. They’re almost imperceptible changes, but when you look at them over time, they add up. The kids are not the same as they were in September. These changes were evident to me this weekend as I sifted through photos to show at the conference.

I’ve had a bit of “then and now” reflection going on this week too. My ears perked up at our Wednesday night study on Romans. With thoughts of our upcoming parent/student conference on my mind, I heard the presenter say that one of the key concepts to understanding Romans was the thought, “Once you were this, but now you are this.”  “Hey! That’s ‘Then and Now’ thinking going on!” I thought. Romans is one of the more complex books in the Bible, and it helps to grab on to the “big ideas” of the book as we study.

Briefly, the idea in Romans is that we have an old self and a new self. The old self is what all of us, including me, live under much of the time. Dominated by selfishness, anger, laziness (often in subtle ways), or the many forms addictions take, we get caught in a snare of an old way of thinking and being. When we realize the trouble and unhappiness we’ve gotten ourselves into, the new self is freed from this snare as we give it all up to a Higher Power. For me, this higher power is God, and mysteriously, God is able to do what I can not do, and that is free me and begin to grow a new understanding in me.

There’s always this dual story happening  – struggles with the old, but a constant realization that the new Story is there too, weaving it’s healing way through my days, leading me from slavery to freedom.

“Then and now” came up for me this week as I went to a 2 ½ day teaching conference. Another teacher was planning to go but was ill, so it was unexpected for me. Suddenly, I was making plans for the substitute and also juggling my plans as I realized I had to give up a precious Saturday morning.

Whenever we go to a conference, teachers grow in empathy for their students as they realize how hard it is to sit still for any stretch of time! I’ve also been around the teaching block enough times by now to wonder about any new ideas in teaching. As I sat in the large, windowless ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel, I wondered – Is this another flash in the pan idea? Or is this a new paradigm that will change things? I have to admit that I had one foot in both worlds as I listened. I know that change does not come easily to any of us. For these ideas to really work, a lot of hard work and planning needs to happen. My dad used to have a book on his shelf when I was a kid. For some reason it caught my eye and always made me wonder about its contents. It Didn’t Just Happen. This book title came to mind as I realized, this won’t just happen unless we all really come together.

As my 4 colleagues and I sat through the many sessions (most of which were actually quite good), my mind went back to the lesson from Wednesday night about the old and the new self. Which self am I here? I wondered. The old self would be cynical, inflexible and curmudgeonly, like the old muppets who heckled from the sidelines. A cranky critic, listing all the reasons that the new just won’t work. It sure is easy enough to do. Teaching is such a complex job. At any given moment, we juggle the hats of social worker, parent, cop, doctor, lawyer, counselor… not to mention teacher. Just don’t give me another system to try to implement and feel bad about.

This person was certainly within me, but I realized that such thoughts didn’t fall under the new self. The new self within me is more hopeful than that, and is open to treating others the way I’ve been treated – with unconditional love and a determination to bring learning “no matter what”. By Friday, I noticed the resistance within start to melt away as a new vision caught fire.

My prayer is to always move forward in hope. Not an unrealistic hope, but a hope that is grounded in the “Now” of my life, the new self that God keeps reminding me of, despite the old curmudgeon in me. Thank God for this constant reminder.

Romans 8:9,11 – “But if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of him. …When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life.”

2 Corinthians 5:17 – “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

Glitches and God’s Grace

Our community is meeting for Easter Sunday this weekend, and we’ve been asked to reflect on how we’ve experienced the resurrection in our lives. Easter is all about victory over the struggles in our lives. The ultimate example for me of course is that death couldn’t keep Jesus down. Talking theoretically or abstractly doesn’t cut it here. During Lent, I have taken this question with me. How will I experience victory over what I struggle with? The question sometimes seemed to mock me when my struggles felt all too real.

This has been the most reflective Lent than I can ever remember. It began with our Ash Wednesday service around 40 days ago. The struggles I’ve always had (seems like forever) seemed to come to a head this year. My struggles are usually around this extreme sense of failure that I have about myself. As much as people can tell me that I’m doing a good job, I seem to take each problem that comes up personally. This glitch in my brain has given me huge grief in my life. My observant administrator at work is onto me on this one. All the positive reviews she can give me don’t seem to trump this feeling within that I don’t measure up. Maybe I got it from growing up in a church culture that taught us to come to God out of a fear of hell. Whatever the source, it seems pretty ingrained in me.

Last weekend, I heard in my favorite podcast that the Buddha taught that we all have one of 5 “fallback genetic glitches” that come up for us when life challenges us. When life pushes our buttons, we all seem to do one of 5 things. Some people fret or worry. Some people get angry. Some people lose heart. They lose all their energy and don’t know what to do with themselves. Some people think, “It’s me, oh oh, I didn’t do things right. I messed  things up.” And some people need to be “sensually soothed”. “Where’s the donut shop? Where’s the pizza?” they ask.

While I can identify with each of these, it’s obvious which camp I fall into most of the time. I seem to think I mess things up and that everything is my fault. It’s a ghost that pays me regular visits. If a student acts up, my first thought is not, “Oh, maybe he/she had a bad sleep or is having some other trouble.” No, I think, “I didn’t plan my lesson well enough. I didn’t respond wisely enough.” What sets in like a vice grip is this sense of depression. It’s no surprise that life can lose its joy.

I often brought this to God in prayer over the last weeks. “God/Jesus, you gave sight to the blind and raised the dead. Heal this in me, please.” We can carry our wounds with us only so long before we realize we need help. Like the first step of the 12-step program of AA says, we have to admit we’re powerless over something before it can change. We turn it over to a Higher Power, and for me this Higher Power is Jesus.

This awful feeling of failure is not the only reality of my life. As I went through Lent, reading daily meditations and sharing reflections on them with my friend Bev, I began to notice several things. First, I noticed that I am not alone in my struggles. Bev, my Lenten email (and in person) friend, struggles big time with worry. Her imagination kicks into overdrive as she imagines worst case scenarios which turn her into a scared rabbit. She joined me in turning our glitches into occasions to pray to God in trust for healing. Prayer, sometimes as simple as taking a deep breath, is an immediate way of knowing that failure is not the only thing.

I  also began to notice this sense of resiliency – that even though depression visits me, hope always returns in some way, usually by the next day. In one sermon a few weeks ago, we were given the image of an elastic band to illustrate this sacred tension between despair and hope; between our human glitches and God’s victory.

Picture from vladstudio.com

Christian tradition teaches that we all have a means of grace – ways that stretch that rubber band back to God and refocus us on the bigger picture of our lives. For me, these means of grace are plentiful – email exchanges, friends who pray for and with me and remind me often that there’s more to life than this darkness. Sometimes a simple nap is a way of giving my struggles over to God. Writing this blog is a means of grace. Listening to music, running, reading, and even preparing a good meal are all things that remind me of the victory of Life over death.

I think I will always have this genetic glitch of self-blame, but I am beginning to get it. It’s not the only choice I have before me. I used to be at the mercy of the glitch, thinking it was all there is. But I am beginning to understand that I have other choices before me. When it happens, I can take a deep breath. I can pray for help. I can remember the dear friends who are on the same path. I can pray for others who struggle without hope. I can pray for others who have enormous life challenges before them and feel alone. I can listen to music or turn to scripture. In short, there’s a mysterious sense of Someone else being with me that I’ve become more aware of and it has trumped the glitch. It is real.

My Dad gave me a gift a few weeks ago; a means of grace that he has used over the years. Over coffee in February, he shared with me that he too has had a life-long struggle with these same things. He told me that he prays the Golden ABC’s when he can’t sleep and has no peace. The Golden ABC’s are a list of Bible verses, starting with each letter of the alphabet, which are great to say during times of struggle.

Bruce Cockburn, one of my all-time favorite singer/songwriters has a song called “Rumors of Glory”. Sometimes this Easter victory just sounds like a small rumor of glory, and other times it is resoundingly clear. I’ve been grateful that this week, I’ve heard it clearly. My heart has been glad and grateful. When I began to wonder what I’d write about in my blog, it felt like I had no end of things to write about. When my vision becomes less clear, I pray for the faith to keep believing anyways, knowing that God will never leave me to face my struggles alone.

Above the dark town

After the sun’s gone down

Two vapor trails cross the sky

Catching the day’s last slow goodbye

Black skyline looks rich as velvet

Something is shining

Like gold but better

Rumors of glory

-Bruce Cockburn

Crooked Lines

There are no wrong turnings. Only paths we had not known we were meant to walk.” – Guy Gabriel Kay

Our small house church has been together for over 20 years. People have come and gone, but there’s a core group that has been together since the beginning. Lyle and I had one son, Joel, and other families had 4 more young lads, all of whom are now adults and grew up with this context as their “church”. It was quite different from what I grew up with, and all his life, Joel has been steadfastly thankful for Watershed.

This week I’ve been pondering where God has been at work in the lives of these fine young men who I’ve had the honor of watching grow up. When I was a kid growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, church-going parents had the hope that their children would “accept Jesus as their Savior”. I wrote about the story of my own coming to faith in one of my first blog posts. Suffice it to say here that I “signed my name on the dotted line” and “became a Christian” one summer during Daily Vacation Bible School at my neighbor’s house with my best friend’s mom, Tante Bargen. It was supposed to be the straight line to God, but what followed were many times where I was afraid that the conversion “didn’t take” or that I hadn’t asked with enough sincerity or piety. It’s kind of a humorous story now, but I remember the fear I felt at the possibility that I wouldn’t “get in” to heaven.

The lasting boon of that decision however, has been that thanks to many people in my life who loved God, I have always been encouraged to search for God. I remain forever grateful for the faith that has been given to me. More than anything, this is what I wanted to pass on to my own offspring.

One thing I’ve learned (and I began to figure this out already as a teen), is that coming to faith is not a one time decision like I thought it was as a 7 year old. There

No wrong turnings

are many twists and turns on the faith journey. I have seen this in Joel’s life.

The most basic lesson we taught Joel is that “God is everywhere.” I still see that as a great foundational lesson, one that guides me each week as I comb the week for where God was. There are no experiences where God isn’t, even difficult and dark ones. As a child, Joel had no trouble trusting us on this one. “Where is God?” we would ask the cute kid just learning to talk. Without hesitation he would enthusiastically answer, “Everywhere!”

The challenge for any child becoming an adult, as it was for me, is to make faith their own. We parents nurture these precious lives, instilling our values as best as we know how and watch as they inch toward the edge of the diving board, ready to launch into their own adult life. Lyle and I have watched Joel’s own faith life unfold as he’s begun to dive off in recent years. As my parents no doubt witnessed in me, we have seen an interplay between faith and doubt. Don’t get me wrong, he’s grown up to be a good person and I am incredibly proud of him, but I’ve been reminded again and again of the twists and turns on the road to God.

On Monday of this week, some Watershed folks were together planning the next worship meeting and the conversation fell to talking about the kids and how they were doing lately. Some parents in the group expressed worry over these now adult kids. Worry over their decisions, and worry about the twists and turns. Paul (pastor and teacher) had a good word of faith when he reminded everyone of the big picture. “No one ever gets to God in a straight line,” he said. There were prayers for the guys, as I know my parents often prayed for my life with its twists and turns. I wasn’t at the meeting, but my own heart got more settled as I heard about it.

This image of the crooked path to God stayed with me all week. I’ve been on holidays this week, so I’ve had more reflection time, and it’s an image that has given me hope and patience. I remembered that God is the ultimate loving parent and has been watching over Joel’s path all his life. One of my favorite Psalms says that God sees our every step, “You know when I leave and when I get back; I’m never out of Your sight.” (Psalm 139:2) Every step, including missteps, can be used in God’s creative nurturance of our lives.

In my impatience, I often want things to be more straightforward and clean-cut. But of course, life is not like that. Most days, life is more like a messy plate of spaghetti! The important thing is to remember that everything can be taken up by God’s providence. Every meandering path can lead to God as surely as the river leads to the ocean.

I will never quit praying for Joel and for the other great guys I’ve watched grow up: Sean H., Sean P., Kelsey and Erik. My #1 prayer since before he was born has been this: “God, in Your great love, keep drawing and pulling Joel and all of us to You like a magnet.” As I pray, I sometimes remember the first God lesson that Joel got, that God is everywhere, and I am strengthened to know that this magnet surrounds all our lives.

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