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Archive for August, 2012

Heaven and Hell

Images of heaven and hell were quite vivid in my imagination as a kid growing up in a 1960’s Mennonite church. Becoming “saved” was a big deal and it ensured that we were heaven-bound. I made my “decision” for God as a young child, as did many of my friends and family. It was a a sincere decision and a consolation for my parents, but it also created a problem for me. I worried that I hadn’t done a good enough job of it. Again and again, I would ask Jesus into my heart, trying to be more sincere than the last time. What if God hadn’t really heard me, or worse, accepted me? What if Jesus came back and I wouldn’t be taken? To tell the truth, descriptions of heaven sounded a bit boring to me with everyone living forever. It sounded like I’d have to be in church for a long, long time, but despite this grim future, I still didn’t want to be one of those “left behind”.

I’ve written about discovering the writings of C.S. Lewis in our church library, and it was a huge relief to read The Great Divorce as a teenager. I realized that there was more than one way to understand heaven and hell. Lewis provided a story that gave my imagination (and my worries) room to breathe. I didn’t know it then, but I was embarking on a life-long journey of my understandings becoming broadened. Thank God.

The course in C.S. Lewis that our community is doing got me re-reading this marvelous classic lately. I began reading it at the lake in early July and by now in late August, I’m almost done reading it for the second time. A Lewis scholar wrote that it’s his favorite Lewis book and he makes a point of re-reading it every year and I can understand why. It’s chock full of life-lessons and wisdom.

The Great Divorce is an imaginary telling of people in hell who board a bus to visit heaven and are given a chance to reconsider. The book starts off with the narrator, presumably Lewis himself, in a gray, dismal, rainy city of empty streets. This is hell. There are no flames, devils or torments and that description alone is worth the read. Hell is empty because the inhabitants can’t stand each other! As there is a conflict, people can imagine a different house in a different neighborhood and poof, it happens. No one actually lives together. There are miles, even light years between neighbors. Life in hell is always moving away from core values such as love or cooperation or peace-making. Self-interest is what makes hell so empty and so boring. Sounds pretty accurate to me!

The other thing about hell is that it is very, very tiny, which was a great balm to my vivid childhood imagination. In fact, heaven is described as being very large and hell infinitesimally small, smaller than a grain of sand. Lewis described it like this, “All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World.”

The people from hell who visit all have reasons for coming which are mostly about getting their rights or stating their position. However, when they get there, they realize they are phantoms, unlike the “bright, solid people” from heaven. The phantoms have come to argue their rights, but the solid people attempt to explain the grace of God to them. In other words, the phantoms have a chance to gain substance and become real.

The phantoms also experience heaven differently than the solid people. Heaven is bright and beautiful, but because they have no substance, they can not experience the beauty. The blades of grass are as sharp as knives. Raindrops would go through them like bullets from a machine gun. They can’t even pick flowers, because the stems are far too strong for them.

Lewis receives a wise Guide, one of the solid people, by the name of George MacDonaldand together they overhear conversations between other ghosts and their Guides. In real life, MacDonald was a huge

The real George MacDonald in 1901.

influence for Lewis. Lewis wrote after reading one of MacDonald’s books, that his imagination was “converted, even baptized.”

Lewis begins to see that every phantom has a choice to make. My favorite quote in the book describes this freedom that God gives us all – the power of choice. “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” The first choice points to us putting our trust in God when we can’t understand the way. It’s like the verse that says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5) Invariably, almost every phantom seems to be one of the second kind of people, whom God will allow to have their own way and their own beliefs.

One woman who arrives receives her brother as a Guide, but she is disappointed. She had wanted her son to meet her. She demands that she be united immediately with her son, but her Guide gently tells her that she can’t see him because he would not be able to see or hear her. The mother needs to be “thickened up” so she can gain substance herself. Until she does so, says the Guide, she can not see her son.

What is preventing her from growing solid is her all consuming desire to see her son. In life, the mother became obsessed about her son after his death, keeping his room the same, ignoring the rest of her family and choosing to live in the past. The Guide tells her that she must learn to see God first. Her own feelings for her son seemed holy to her, but because her love never moved beyond her son, she was unable to become solid and love God.

As I re-read this book on my summer break, the effect it had on me was the same as it had on me as a teen. It evoked wonder and a much more evocative, inviting understanding of heaven than I received as a youngster. I realized that God is a God of incredible love who not only gives us an infinite number of second chances on earth, but in the afterlife as well. Even after choosing hell over heaven, the ghosts can always re-board the bus and visit heaven once again (though this choice became more and more remote the more times the ghosts choose their own will). Lewis was insistent that his book was just a fantasy and that readers shouldn’t take his imaginings literally, but I want to hang my hat on his view of the grace that God extends to all, no matter who we are or what we’ve done.

The childhood fear of a frowning God who wouldn’t accept me followed me into adulthood. It wasn’t the only aspect of my faith life, but showed up as a shadow of perfectionism and this feeling that I had to earn my salvation. The Bible calls this “works righteousness”, and I had it bad, but as I grow older, I realize I am being healed of this. Through the persistent and solid teaching in my faith community, my mind and heart have been shown another way and like Lewis himself, my own imagination has been baptized by a God who is incredibly loving and doesn’t expect me to be perfect before being accepted.

Deep Roots – Guest Blogpost

My friend Marilyn

Marilyn is one of my dear Watershed friends. Together we sing with the seniors at Lion’s Manor, work out at the Y, watch movies with Lyle on Friday nights. These things are all fun, but what unites us most deeply is a love of God as we seek to live out this life of faith together. It’s the best root for a friendship that I have ever known.

Earlier this summer, Marilyn wrote an email to Watershed, telling a story from gardening, and she is my second ever guest blogger. Marilyn works at a Winnipeg high school, and she had just been to the grade 12 grad. Sometimes when we see successful people, our lives feel lackluster in comparison. Her story came to mind this week as I noticed some discontent of my own floating around.  Here’s Marilyn’s story.

After coming away from the convocation today, I felt thirsty for…..success, accomplishments,  significant impact, children etc. Things that seem absent in my life – at least from a societal perspective.

As I went out to my box garden and planted some chard seeds, I began to pray. “Lord…I’m bummed,”  turned into “Lord I thirst.”

Interestingly, George our neighbor came along to feed and water his tomato plants.  He stuck one of his fingers in the soil, and said, “There’s still moisture down there.”  He proceeded to tell me that if you water too often, the plants do not send down their roots to find moisture, growing stronger.  He pointed to the big elm trees.  “Nobody waters those. Think of how deep they have sent down their roots.  Deep into the  bio-world.”

It was a great reminder that God allows circumstances to make me thirsty so that I might send down roots deeper into the narrative of God’s people, and grow stronger.


Gathered up in Grace

I began sweeping at around 9 a.m. I was back at the Habitat build site, volunteering for my 4thday of the summer. Unlike the Blitz Build of July which saw over 100 volunteers each day, our group in the “Post-Build” was around 10. My vinyl siding skills were rusty, so when they said the four houses needed sweeping out, I said yes.

Photo by Joel Penner

Quickly I realized that I was the only one. For me, talking to other volunteers as we work is one of the highlights of the Habitat day, so I was a bit disappointed. “No worries,” I thought. “I’ll think about topics for the blog.”

I don’t know about you, but being alone with your thoughts can be tricky. I was still waking up and feeling slightly grouchy. My thoughts felt anything but blog-worthy. For the moment, I was concerned about my neck and hands – how were they going to survive this repetitive movement for 8 hours?! It was a lot of sawdust.

The process of choosing a topic for the week is sometimes an odd challenge. My thoughts were a loose assortment of thoughts and experiences from the week. I still had thoughts of my father-in-law. His passing had prompted a softening of heart in our neighbor. He and his family had signed a condolence card. Handing this to me along with a pie from his mom, he also offered an apology for the recent misunderstanding over the new fence we’d built. We had prayed for this reconciliation, and here it was. It was a sign of God’s kingdom for sure.

Then there was Lion’s Manor. Eldon, Marilyn and I went on Thursday night to sing with the seniors. Lately it has been dawning on me that an ancient dream of mine is coming true. Growing up, I’d always wished I had the talent to be in a band; to sing my heart out onstage. There are no microphones and glamor here, and our little group is certainly humble in its output, but perhaps my dream has come true, though in a different way than I imagined. Who would have thought our audience would be seniors whose memories are slipping fast, yet it is a joy to sing with and for them. To see faces light up as we all sing, despite all they’ve lost, is a reason to “get up in the morning”, as they say. We sing oldie goldies from the war years, like “Red, Red Robin” or “Roll Out the Barrel”, and  suddenly it feels like heaven is touching earth in some intangible but real way.

As I mulled over these thoughts, I kept on sweeping. By 10 am, my right thumb muscles began aching and my neck wasn’t getting any less sore, but the physical aches were a little less distracting. Soon it was time for coffee break.

We sat by the picnic tables, grateful for the shade already at this early hour. I grabbed a coffee and granola bar and found a place among the volunteers. There we were, a house leader, 3 teachers, 1 insurance worker on her holidays, an engineer with long dreadlocks who had dreams of building houses for the poor in Africa, the Habitat supervisor, and 4 or 5 homeowners who were putting in their sweat equity hours.

It’s always great to meet the homeowners and hear their stories. They are always humble people who wouldn’t ordinarily be in the position to purchase a house – new immigrants, families with low paying jobs – and their gratitude is always infectious. They have been given a break in life, a chance for a new beginning that they never thought they’d get. This day I realized one of the homeowners was the parent of a former student of mine. It’s hard not to be happy for them, and it stirs up hopes for new beginnings for everyone.

I always enjoy hearing people’s stories, but soon it was back to work in the stuffy and increasingly hot house, sweeping away with my thoughts to keep me company. As my garbage bag slowly filled up, my thoughts turned to our friends who were away for the week, on holidays. Our community’s pastor wrote in an email that the favorite part of the trip for him had been meeting an elderly couple at a bed and breakfast. “To see such a vigorous, well read, and humble couple was delightful. Lord help us keep life interesting and our hearts open to others,” wrote Paul. 

I mulled over this thought and soon it turned into a prayer. “Lord, help us keep our lives interesting.” I thought of all the blessings that came my way which kept my life “large” – singing, my quirky and ever growing interest in monarch butterflies and all things nature, writing, our community discussions and studies, our present study on C.S. Lewis which is so interesting, coffee, interactions with friends which help me interpret events through a grid of faith. At a certain time in my life, my mind had been much more trained in thinking of all the things that were wrong. I feel so grateful for this subtle but sure healing of my heart. Some days it seems hidden and small, but it is there to be sure. What a sign of God’s grace.

As the day wore on, it felt like my thoughts were being gathered up like I was gathering up all the loose sawdust. Crankiness was replaced by increasing enjoyment, and the group seemed to become more cohesive. Mr. Dreadlocks told me all about his hair and how growing them out 11 years ago had marked the beginning of a change in his life towards “clean living”. If any of his waist-long locks ever fall off, he told me, “it’s all ok. It’s up to God.” I chuckled inside, happy that even such a small detail could be given up to God’s providence.

By now, my industrial strength garbage bag was almost too heavy to carry. I thought of asking one of the guys to lug it over to the garbage for me, but I was able to manage after all. I was very hot and sticky, and today my thumb muscle is achy, but hugs and good-byes were shared among our motley crew and I went home feeling energized and happy.

God always manages to gather me up like this. Seen through my human eyes, the bits and pieces of life can feel like so much sawdust, lackluster and without meaning. Small things such as achy muscles or morning grouchiness can seem like the end of the story. But faith in a bigger story is a gift given so regularly that I’m beginning to realize I can trust God’s provision even when it seems missing. Like Lyle often tells me, “Everything will be all right.” Day after day, God’s grace gathers us all up.

Seeing God in my Father-in-law’s passing

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.

In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. -Proverbs 3:5-6

These two verses were my father-in-law’s favorites. They were the ones he chose as his “life’s verses” when his mind was still untouched by Alzheimer’s; the ones that would be said at his funeral.

Norman Penner passed away one week ago today. The week of traveling to Medicine Hat and being with family as we buried him has been very meaningful and I knew that it would be the topic for this week’s reflections.

Norman Leslie Penner 1928 – 2012

Waiting for someone to die is a surreal experience – it is not like any other time. The time is liminal (being on the threshold of life and death), and while it is difficult, I would say it’s a sacred time.  It certainly was that for Lyle, and for me. For those who held vigil in the hospital, it was a time of anguish and reflection and prayer. Lyle was present at his passing, but it was also a surreal and sacred time for myself here in Winnipeg. Thoughts of Dad and the family who were in the hospital were ever present.  I spent much time praying; prayers in the car while on errands, prayers as I prepared supper, prayers even while I read in the evening. They were simple prayers. “God, be with Dad. Be with Lyle, Mom, Shelley, Cheryl, Bob, Paul… Give them strength.”

You realize how important simple acts of kindness are during difficult times. Lots of people, from our church community to family to co-workers, simply told us they were thinking and praying for us and wished us peace. I saw God in each person who took time to sympathize and some who lent a listening ear. Our church community sent flowers out west. In Medicine Hat, local church people started a parade of food donations to my sister and brother-in-law’s house. It meant that Cheryl and Paul didn’t need to do quite so much food prep for all the company and the fact that people were so kind would bring unexpected tears to my eyes and does even now as I write this. (And ironically, just now our dear friend Verda brought us supper here in Winnipeg, so this story of love is still growing. Thank you Verda.)

I also saw God in the actual event of his passing. In obituaries you often read that a person was surrounded by loved ones as they passed. It’s almost a cliché, but up close, it is a miracle. Everyone who was there was at peace with each other and with Dad and had nothing but love for him as they let him go. In the end, love becomes so clear. Dad’s foibles, as small as they were, were completely forgiven and I witnessed Lyle’s gratitude well up within him. Gratitude for the legacy of faith and unconditional love that his Dad had given him. Death really makes people see more clearly and it is a reminder to hold each other close like that during the rest of life as well.

In the last hours before he passed, Shelley, Dad’s oldest daughter, made it in from Washington. It was as if Norman was waiting for her, being ever the thoughtful guy that he was. They spent a few hours reminiscing about him – his strengths, his weaknesses, the memories they had. They were able to laugh and cry together. And then, as if God was welcoming him, a glorious sunset began outside the hospital window. When

The sunset outside Dad’s hospital room as he passed, taken by his son-in-law Paul Durksen

it was done, he passed.

The next morning after his death, I wrote some reflections of his life and I became quite struck by something. I think it’s fair to say that Dad’s life was not without its share of suffering. He struggled with almost constant headaches throughout his life, and inherited the Penner tendency to be a worrier. He probably suffered from depression as well. So when I saw and heard of how wonderful his passing was, I was so moved. It was as if God was saying, “In this life you had suffering, but I am and always have been with you in the midst of it.” God showed his love to Dad through the sunset and through the love of so many people (including incredibly kind palliative care nurses) who stayed with him to the end.

The day before my son Joel and I traveled out by car, I told the story to anyone who would listen.  In a small store, I told the shop owner about the sunset and about how he was surrounded by love, and she and I both got all teary. Four different people that day told me their own stories, through tears, of the death of a beloved parent. Dad’s death opened up conversations of depth.

The verses Dad chose about trusting in God were undoubtedly not easy ones to follow in his lifetime.  I’m sure it was not always easy for him to trust in the midst of doubts and struggles. Lyle says that growing up, his Dad would just sit for hours and think. I’m sure he was in many ways trying to piece together his own understanding of things, but he always chose to go back to trusting in God. Trusting in a Bigger Picture that was beyond his understanding. His and Mom’s life together was that of service and humble dependence on and acknowledgment of God. From my vantage point, I can see that like the last part of the verses say, God directed their paths and gave them fruitful  and meaningful lives in the midst of any doubts and struggles.

Lyle and his sister Cheryl shared memories of Dad at the funeral and this too was such a clear witness of God to me. I saw how grief brought out depths of feeling in both of them. So much gratitude for dad has made this week so meaningful. I have been very grateful to have been a part of it all.

Thank you Dad for your humble and kind-spirited life. You were a good example to me in always trusting in God, even during your many headaches. And of course, you gave me Lyle and Joel, whom I am so thankful for. Bless you as you are now with God.

Dad’s obituary can be read at this link.

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