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Archive for September, 2012

Revised Reality

It was Wednesday morning when the idea first came to me. As usual, I had been scouting the week’s events for blog topics. It love having this muse as it focuses my thoughts on what gives me hope. I’ve noticed after months of doing this that more and more topics come to me, and that alone seems hopeful.

It was Tuesday and I was at the first Monarch Teacher’s Network meeting of the year,  starting to plan next summer’s workshop. The teachers on the committee received the good news that we were recipients of a grant for more flowers for our school gardens. After the meeting, I happily loaded two trays of prairie plants into the back seat of my car – Joe Pye, brown-eyed susans, milkweed, pearly everlasting.  Coming back to the car after stopping off for an errand, I discovered this lovely, subtle aroma of plants pervading my car. I wouldn’t have time until the next day to unload them, so the next morning, with the plants still in the car, I headed off to work. They still smelled beautiful.

Ah ha! I thought. A blog topic. Isn’t faith a lot like this? The effects of faith are not loud and splashy, but more of a subtle thing in one’s life. Noticing the life of the Spirit takes an awareness and openness, like noticing a beautiful tree or a smile from a friend that shifts a day towards hope. Many times my mind is scrambling around with a crazy to-do list or other such worries and I miss a lot of what God is saying.

All day I had fun playing with this idea of the subtle aroma, and I looked forward to heading back to the car after work, ready to inhale the lovely smell in the car again before I took the plants out.

When I opened the door, however, I was a bit startled to find that a smell that was no longer lovely. Maybe it had been too hot in the car all day, but my face turned a bit sour as I noticed a pungent aroma. Not only that, but now there were several flies buzzing around my head, not to mention a wasp that perched on my cheek. Not exactly the sweet aroma of the Spirit that I’d been musing on all day!

It was like that sour smell became enacted in my evening. First there was a frantic feel to getting supper ready, and then a feeling of depression set in as the music group practiced. Normally I enjoy practicing, but an oppressive feeling of all I had to do pressed on me. The last straw came at 3 am when I woke up with a headache and my mind was just spinning. Like a fast moving video stream from a movie, anxious thoughts rushed through me non-stop. I tried to breathe deeply to steady the swirl, but it didn’t seem to be working!

It occurred to me that “ideas” just don’t really cut it at 3 am when racing thoughts dominate the spirit, threatening to take over. Nighttime is like that. Mark Twain once said that we are never quite sane in the night. There are no distractions and the anxieties that we often block out during the day come to the forefront. The blog topic I’d mused on during the day seemed like an idea, not a real experience of God. Where was God now? I prayed but my prayers felt like the “hitting the ceiling” variety. Eventually I fell asleep.

God heard my prayers despite the feeling I’d failed at conveying them, for in the morning, a chapter in a book by Walter Bruggemann was infinitely helpful. Our community had been asked to read it in

At Falcon Lake this weekend

preparation for our annual retreat at Falcon Lake (which we just got back from). (You can read it online here.)

Bruggemann writes about our temptation to become “secular autonomous people”, paying lip service in which God is an ornament but not a real factor in life. I thought about my “blog idea”, wondering how many times I think poetic thoughts about God but then get caught up in the cares of this world in the blink of an eye. The temptation seemed to apply to me – in getting ensnared by the cares of the week, I became secular, forgetting my absolute dependence on God. Like the plants in the back seat of my car, something was smelling a bit sour. Or to quote Shakespeare, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”!

Bruggemann writes about Psalm 73. The Psalmist is also tempted by worldly thinking, being taken over by cynicism, envy and self-indulgence…until he goes into the sanctuary of God (vs. 17). “In that holy mystery, saturated with Torah memory, the psalmist receives a second, revised version of reality.” As I read the passage and the chapter by Bruggemann, I felt that I was receiving a revised version of reality as well. I felt forgiveness and peace return to my tired heart as I prayed with the Psalmist,

 Whom have I in heaven but You?

There is nothing I desire other than you.

My flesh and my heart may fail,

But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Psalm 73:25-26

I guess we all get our desires confused. Often I think my top desire is to get that to-do list in check. But the psalmist reminded me that morning that it is good to be near God. The aroma in the car was actually a wonderful metaphor, it was just that I forgot to do what the metaphor was all about – take whiffs of the more subtle things. Amid the food prep, I forgot to be grateful for Lyle and Joel. Amid my to-do list which made the music practice feel burdensome, I forgot to take a breath and remember that everything always gets done in good time as we entrust them to God. And as I tossed in bed at 3 am, I forgot there is a deeper current beneath the swirling emotions.

I may have forgotten, but thankfully God did not forget me. I remembered that I am God’s child. I am not protected from the struggles of life, but I can always enter God’s sanctuary, which is not a where but a when – whenever I remember whose kid I am.

Be Thou My Vision

“I want what God wants, that is why I’m so happy.” Desmond Tutu

This week I experienced God through an image which guided me and kept me on the path of faith.

It was Sunday morning and our community had gathered for worship. We’re a small group, less than 20, and we meet in Dave and Lorna’s living room. Just a motley bunch of very ordinary people but it never fails to be one of the highlights of my week.  Talking about what matters most in life with this group is always like a fire that warms the heart and gives us “words to live by”, as we often say.

One of our traditions is the centerpiece, set on the round glass coffee table, which reflects the morning’s theme. Eldon, who is an artist disguised as a mailman, is the one who usually puts this together. The centerpiece is always helpful, especially when the weekend ends and the rubber hits the road at work on Monday. I may not remember the nuances of what we talked, sang and prayed about, but I can remember the centerpiece and be guided back.

On this particular Sunday morning, the centerpiece was simple: a vase of flowers with a pair of glasses on either side. It illustrated the two ways of seeing that scripture often talks about – seeing life through human eyes or seeing life through eyes of faith. We had been talking about the passage for the morning from the gospel of Mark. Jesus is talking to his disciples and they’re trying to figure out who the heck this guy is. In fact, everyone is wondering. Is he God’s son as he claims? Jesus asks them, “Who do people say I am?”

The discussion that follows after Jesus asks them this question is actually humorous. They tell Jesus what others have been saying about him, but Jesus presses them and asks them, “But who do you say I am?” Peter steps in and perfectly illustrates the two glasses of the centerpiece, one minute giving a faith-filled answer, and the next minute losing his faith entirely as he tells Jesus he “shouldn’t talk that way”.

One thing I love about the gospels is how I can relate to the disciples. They are a bunch of dim-wits, “dumber than a bag of hammers” as Paul Patterson likes to say, always getting it wrong. Jesus is incredibly patient with them. It seems he is forever repeating his kingdom vision to them and they keep getting it wrong. They forget his previous miracles and words and act as though Jesus doesn’t know how to turn “the-way-things-seem-to-be” on its head. They keep having one set of glasses on and Jesus urges them to put the lenses of faith on instead.  Like a good teacher, Jesus doesn’t let them get away with sloppy thinking. He keeps admonishing them, “You are thinking like everyone else and not like God!” (Mark 8:33)

I’m right in there with the disciples because I get it wrong so often during the week. Like Peter, I can be full of faith but then the smallest thing happens and I’m doubting. This week I noticed it when a lesson that was supposed to take 10 minutes fell flat. The wind went out of my sails for the rest of the day and my “old way of thinking” set in.  My lenses got all skewed and I lost the vision that had me inspired. I start feeling insecure about myself, doubting all the words of faith I heard earlier. My co-workers probably wouldn’t notice but inwardly I was scrambling for affirmation. “Am I ok?” (and the voice of doubt answered, “No!”). Invariably, this human way of thinking seems very convincing.

I was tempted to think life is small but that evening I remembered the centerpiece and heard Jesus’ voice reminding me alongside Peter, “You are thinking like everyone else not like God”. “Which pair of glasses do you want to wear there kiddo?” I came back to a place of prayer, asking God for help and confessing my slip.   It helped to meet with the group on Wednesday night, this time to talk about C.S. Lewis again.

Desmond Tutu is a South African activist and retired Anglican bishop who became a famous voice against apartheid in the ’80’s. He is a very down to earth man who loves to laugh, and words of his that I heard years ago came back to me this week. “I want what God wants, that is why I am so happy.” He has the right lenses on, I thought. That day, my vision had been corrected and I felt I was saying the words along with him because I experienced how living God’s way restored me. I certainly don’t live this way very consistently, but it is my deepest desire in life to “want what God wants” too. It’s the only desire that has ever led to happiness, that is, deep happiness that doesn’t depend on circumstances.

Sometimes I think the only thing that’s happening as I’m getting older is that I’m learning not to trust my insecurities and doubts. They are like bad friends, not to be trusted. What can be trusted is God’s promises.

During the week, I often ponder what to write for the blog, and at one point my heart felt like it was overflowing and I wanted to write an early Thanksgiving list. This list will be written soon no doubt. Until then, this is my declaration of where God has been this week, repeatedly correcting my vision, being the World’s Best Coach as I am guided back to my deepest desire. That is why, no matter what the weather, I find myself echoing Desmond Tutu, more often than I used to, that I am so happy.

Week after week, God stitches me back together this way and it’s as though an unseen Hand gently takes off my human glasses and corrects my vision again and again.

A Centre That Holds

We live in a 105 year old house in Winnipeg’s inner city. One of its best unique features is a second floor balcony which I use constantly in the warm months. Now that the weather is cooling, I am still crazy enough to head out there before work in the mornings, coffee and Bible in hand, along with blankets and sometimes even a heating pad, determined to hang on to the “outdoor quiet time experience” as long as I can. My cats usually brave the weather with me and keep me company, each competing for lap space. The best part is watching the bluejays, chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers pay a visit to my feeders, each with their beautiful sounds. From where I sit, I see my neighbor’s roof, an apartment block, our maple trees and some grand old elms way off in the distance.

Even though the weather forecast was predicting high winds by noon one day this week, it was still quiet at 7 am and I sat studying the trees. Their branches were beginning to sway and maybe it was all the hurricanes in the news lately, but I began to marvel at how a tree usually stays strong during a storm. The beginning of a school year brings that challenge to me, asking me to stay strong amid life’s faster pace. This particular week was a difficult one with my old headache battle. Would my branches and limbs hold steady? Sometimes I felt myself snapping with the challenges. As always, these tests are what bring me to prayer. Nothing like limitation to remind me of my dependence on a higher power.

Recently a friend has been going through a wind storm of challenges of her own, and something she said has been coming back to me lately. “There is something about the Christian story that offers a center that will hold,” she wrote in an email. Over the 25+ years that our community has been together, through all our ups and downs, “the gospel has had the power to hold people together over the long haul.” This life of faith has substance which is a glue during tough times.

As I sat watching the tree soon to be swayed in the windy day ahead, I thought about this phrase, “a centre that will hold.” My eternal temptation when times get tough, it seems, is to wimp out. How can love prevail when my head is pounding and my lessons don’t feel planned enough? It often feels crazy to pray nonetheless, trusting in a reality I cannot always see with my human eyes. I held onto that image all week, stepping out in faith that the Centre, which for me is Jesus, would hold me together.

And it did. Despite my wonky neck and too many deadlines making my head swim, I found myself feeling grateful this week.

Image from vladstudio.com

Grateful for friends at work who made me laugh despite myself and helped me out with lesson advice. Grateful for our Wednesday night study which held reminders about this invisible world of faith running deep like a river beneath the appearance of things. A desire to stay tethered to faith got stirred up in me during this mid-week meeting.

I was grateful also for my students. I certainly have my times of impatience, but in my deepest heart, I love those kids. As my dear teaching friend Karen said to me lately of her new class, “I like my kids. I even like the ones I don’t like.” I laughed and said I understood perfectly. In my heart of hearts, I am glad for each one of them. They challenge me to respond in a way that brings out their better selves. I certainly don’t always pull it off, but they are good teachers for me. There’s a certain joy that comes as I exercise this muscle. In last week’s Winnipeg Free Press, local celebrities talked about a teacher who had made a difference in their lives. Ace Burpee, a local radio personality, talked about a grade 1 teacher who was “kind, fair and patient.” All week I kept rolling these 3 words in my head and soon it turned into a daily prayer. “God, help me to be kind, fair and patient today.” I think I’ll make this the prayer for the rest of my career!

I also oddly found myself grateful for my physical challenges, such as they are. Perhaps the more accurate thing to say is that I’m grateful that physical challenges are not the only reality and that God is greater. I’m also grateful for the chiropractor who helped me yesterday, but limitation always reminds me to lean on God. My mother-in-law battles Parkinson’s every day, and on the phone yesterday, I reminded her of our prayers and love, and I knew that this heart-felt wish came from empathy that God grew in the garden of my own battles.

As I type these words, it’s another windy day in Winnipeg, and I’m watching the same trees in the distance, swaying in the wind. I’m grateful for my friend’s reminder of the Center that holds no matter what the weather. Where would I be without this?

Be Still

A day reading on the beach

We saw a lot of water when we were in Vancouver last week. I haven’t seen the ocean for many years and it’s a huge expanse out there – channels, harbors, bays, creeks and rivers. So much water makes for a green and lush landscape, and we basked in it for 4 days. We were blessed with perfect weather, and each time we ventured near water, things were calm and tranquil, even when waves were lapping on the shore.

Transitioning to the pace of a new school year was what lay ahead of me as our plane touched down on Monday night. I began with the usual prayers whispered on my own and the prayers and love of my faith community. Underneath my happiness at seeing students once again were the usual fears, nervousness and worries that I won’t measure up. These unsettling emotions are so predictable to me now that I’m not surprised to see them. They seem like the current under all that water we saw.

The first day with students began well enough and hope bubbled up within me but during the second day, I felt like I was treading water hard. It’s amazing to me how convincing an illusion can seem – that I wouldn’t make it this year, and that all things negative would swallow me. “I’m not cut out for this. How will I do 198 more of these days?”

I consider it a huge blessing and sign of God’s providence that all week God was faithful and gave one reminder after another, nudging me away from the illusion and back on more solid ground. With God the loving parent and I the distracted child, I kept being redirected.

The first healing nudge came from our Wednesday night discussion. In a discussion about C.S. Lewis’ book The Problem of Pain, a woman in the video talked about her son’s battle with cancer and her own deep struggle. Some people allow their battles to make them cynical, but she only became more convinced of God’s abiding friendship. When difficulties come, we may think God is cruel, but she said, “Whoever we think God is, God is always more than what we think. God is Mystery.”

This is what Lewis believed as well. At the end of his book The Great Divorce, the immortal souls of all the world’s people are watching over the tiny chess pieces of their  lives on earth. I remembered this image as I was temporarily adrift in my ocean of swampy feelings. It was a shift in perspective, helping me remember that God is the immortal part of me, and is much larger than what I usually imagine. “Whatever I’m feeling,” I mused, “it is not so huge that God is not much much bigger and able to sustain me.”

A verse on a bookmark I’d bought in B.C. came to mind – “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)  As I prayed, I remembered this verse. There are no swirling waters of doubt when we are still enough to become aware of the God who is always there. It is my hope for this year and always.

Calm returned the next day and with it the awareness that I was more in the center of this stillness, and in the heart of God all along. It is amazing to me what a difference a change in perspective can make. When God readjusts my brain yet again and reminds me that Love is greater than all, a love for my students bubbles up once more. No challenge is too difficult and no waters seem too deep or swift. A bounce in my step returned.

I thought that my doubts were the current under the water, but I was wrong. It’s God, deeper than anything my over-active imagination can throw at me. Or maybe God is like an anchor amid all the human swirling. Like Josh Garrels sings in the song Bread and Wine,

“I was wrong. Everybody needs someone to hold on.”

My prayer for the year will be to hold on to the anchor of Psalm 46:10, and I wish that for everyone reading today.



The One That Got Away

In my community, we have a tradition that goes way back. We give generous gifts. I think it is because we are all so grateful for our humble group and the way it keeps us tethered to the meaning and hope we have found in this faith journey together.

Usually if someone goes away on a trip, someone else takes on the duties of house-sitting or at least checking in on the cats, watering flower pots outside, taking in the mail, and so on. Upon returning home, the vacationing friend comes bearing thank you gifts, which are most often way out of proportion to what actually happened. For instance, just for one cat visit over a weekend this summer, my friend Linda bought me soap and various chocolate treats. “You didn’t need to do that!” we always exclaim. Practicing gratitude in this way has been good for me, since it slowly heals me of my Mennonite tendency to be a tad penny-pinching!

A few weeks ago, my friend Marilyn went to Watertown Lake in Alberta for a family reunion. I usually drive her to the airport and was surprised when she got home to find myself the recipient of a gift, thanking me for the ride. I got a Waterton t-shirt, but it was the slogan on the back of it that had caught her eye. There is a picture of someone fishing, with the caption, “Be the one that got away.” The meaning of course is that we need to take a break from our lives and get away to renew our spirits.

There is a personality typing system that I learned over 25 years ago called the Enneagram. It is an insightful system into our tendencies and I’d recommend it for anyone who wants to understand themselves more. Anyone who studies it usually find themselves described in one of the 9 basic personality types.

I am a “2” in that system, otherwise known as “The Helper”. 2’s try hard to please others by being helpful and understanding because they are motivated by a need to be accepted. The shadow side is that they find it difficult to say no to others and can feel drained from overdoing for others. Doing things for ourselves is tricky because we think it’s selfish. I often think, “Am I doing things right? Am I giving enough?” and this outward focus can make me very cranky after a while!

Marilyn thought of me when she saw the t-shirt at Waterton because she knows that “getting away” is exactly what I need to do. Anyone who knows me, knows that I like to keep busy and often see my life as a long “To-Do” list. I often marvel at Lyle who knows how to kick back and “waste” an afternoon on golf or napping or reading.

“Getting away” has been a helpful thought to contemplate lately as I’ve been gearing up for another year of teaching. I’ve now had over 20 years of this September routine, and you’d think I’d be over it but it has never failed to stir up anxiety and a feeling that I just won’t measure up. I think the only difference as I get older is that I now recognize it. It’s like once again seeing the monster that routinely frightens you – after a while you can start to make choices. “Oh yea, it’s you again.”  I’ve been praying to stay focused on my inner life of faith this year. It’s the only thing that has ever truly sustained me.

And so I’ve been gratefully noticing the things that have kept me calmer over the last few weeks. God has quieted me through these gifts, reminding me that I don’t need to get burned out by blindly living for others.

One such gift has been listening to music. A careful reading of my blog over the last year will reveal that musician Josh Garrels has been an enduring source of not only wonderful music but profound lyrics reflecting the Christian journey. Normally, I don’t listen to the “Christian music” genre, but Josh is a huge exception. He is human and no stranger to struggle, but has found hope in a relationship with God. The faith he sings about is evocative and opens my heart.

As I’ve readied “Room P6” at school, dusting and organizing and putting up bulletin boards, his albums have been a huge gift. My anxieties may have spoken, but his music spoke louder. One song in particular has stuck with me called “Fire By Night”. There is a story in scripture about God leading the ancient people. They were lost and leaving a place of bondage in Egypt, but God didn’t abandon them. They were guided by a pillar of fire by night, and a cloud by day. Josh sings their story and I found myself in this meditative song. He melted my anxieties, reminding me  that even though “tomorrow a mountain we will climb”, God always guides us and finds our deepest souls by calling our names.

“Cloud by day, and the fire by night

We will never look back.

Young and old with a sojourner soul

Illuminate the path.”

Trying to describe the effect of this song is like trying to describe a mystery – I just can’t do it and you might just have to discover his music for yourself (check out this song at the end of this blogpost). I just know that I kept being reminded of what Lyle and all my friends tell me constantly, that everything will be ok, and that I can find myself primarily in God, not in this anxious and ancient business of trying to earn acceptance.

An incredible gift has actually come my way this weekend. My love of Garrels’ music got Lyle and I signed up for a Vancouver concert this Sunday. Our friends Eldon and Verda are already in Vancouver to drop their son Sean off at U.B.C. They lucked in on his first Canadian concert and we crazily decided to

“Getting Away” in Vancouver!

blow some cash by coming out here too. We’re enjoying the beauty and sights of Vancouver for a few days, drinking too much coffee and biding our time till tomorrow night when we get to meet him in person. I can still hardly believe my luck. I really took Marilyn’s t-shirt to heart by “being the one that got away”, especially on a weekend that would normally see myself cramming in lots of school prep.

The Song of Songs is a book in the Bible that compares God as a lover who is always inviting us into relationship. Our community will be meeting for worship tomorrow morning and even though we won’t be there, we got to read over the passages for tomorrow. One line struck me and seems to be the voice I’ve heard lately.

My beloved speaks and says to me: 

“Arise, my love, my fair one, 

and come away.

Songs 2:10

No doubt as I enter another year donning the hat “Mrs. Penner”, there will be twists and turns and times when I get lost. But I have hope that I will always be found again. It has never not happened. I hope always to “be the one that got away”, balancing my incredible penchant for doing by simply being God’s daughter, accepted not by what I do but simply because of whose I am.

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