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Archive for October, 2012

Sabbath Rest

If you know me in person or through this blog, you’ll know I’m the type of person who is often driven by a list of to-do’s. While I value reading and learning, I have to confess that in past years, when the school year hits, my books start to collect dust. Each year I regret this. Reading typically gets squeezed in here and there, but kicking the hamster wheel lifestyle seems impossible. It can happen even in the summer when school is out. “Hi, I’m Lydia. I’m a workaholic and adrenaline addict.” You can all reply now: “Hi Lydia!”

Was I always this way? I’ve wondered about that lately. I seem to remember taking long bike rides as a kid, playing loads of neighborhood baseball and hide-and-seek games, and piling books up beside my bed to read in the morning on days off from school and loving every moment of it. As we become adults, do we start to feel the need to prove our worth, losing this sense of holy leisure?

This school year, however, something has been changing. I think it began with the September weekend in Vancouver, when I decided to forego last minute school prep for a fun trip with Lyle. It actually took discipline for me to just “be” – hanging out in Stanley Park, walking around Granville Island, taking in the Josh Garrels concert (the whole reason we went) or hiking on a gorgeous walk to the ocean.

I say it took discipline because my natural tendency is to be an activist. All weekend, I was twiddling my thumbs in a good way, but it was almost like I had to act like another person! Lyle and I spent several hours on the ocean shore “just” reading and staring at birds through our new binoculars. Loads of good jokes, coffee, walking and reading marked our days. Who knew the world could turn without me, or that the school year would unfold without too much toil a few days later?

Hanging out with Lyle in Vancouver

Looking back, the holiday is a gift that keeps expanding even into October. I think I made a decision that weekend to try to “waste” time more often. Taking up my friend Cal’s example, I decided to put aside one evening a week to read before doing any school work. One hour after supper on Monday nights. Didn’t sound like much, but it was a start.

Scripture talks about the importance of keeping “Sabbath”, a time of rest. When I was a kid, stores were still closed on Sundays and my religious upbringing dictated that we were not to work. Sewing (for my mom) and other work was discouraged. Church in the morning and the evening was the rhythm of our lives then, with an afternoon of trying to be quiet so as not to wake napping adults. I imagined that Heaven would be like one long Sunday, and I shuddered.

Looking back, however, there was wisdom in the weekly rhythm of stepping out of the normal pace of life. I am coming to crave rest – not an exhausted collapsing at the end of the day but true soul renewing rest. In fact, I have been longing for it more and more. It’s not so much that I need another vacation as I need a vacation from myself!  A vacation from the hamster wheel where urgent to-do’s and self-thoughts often dominate me and make me a driven person.

I know I am not alone in this, for our society urges us to be efficient and productive with our time. I always thought I couldn’t find room within my “busy life” for consistent holy leisure but I don’t want the old ways anymore. As Bruce Cockburn sings, “I’ve proven who I am so many times, the magnetic strip’s worn thin.”

Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk who has written and practiced a method of contemplation called Centering Prayer, talks about our thoughts being like a whirling wheel.  Anyone who has been unable to shut off their mind and go to sleep will understand the tyranny of this state of mind. Keating says that meditation and prayer helps a person to put a stick into the spokes of our whirling wheel and stop for a while.

Taking time to read or write in the evenings has been acting like this stick, and I have been noticing its calming effect, as I wrote about in last week’s blogpost. “Silence is God’s first language”, wrote the 16th-century mystic John of the Cross. Entering into this  silence is difficult at first because usually all I’m noticing is my whirring mind. It almost always takes me a while to get into reading or writing. I am usually preoccupied with something from the day but invariably the text before me, whether it’s studying scripture, reading a good novel or typing away at my next blogpost, has a lot more depth. As I begin eliminating hurriedness from my life, a larger perspective starts to creep in and strangely the to-do’s feel a lot less urgent. More often than not, by the end I can barely remember what felt so pressing a few hours earlier.

These days, I’ve expanded my hour of reading to Friday night as well, and now here it is, Thursday night, and I’m taking time to begin my blogpost.  I look forward to my “hour” all day long. I know it is not a magic wand to create warm feelings, but somehow I have a hunch that God uses it to heal broken people like me.

Workaholism has at its root the assumption that we can never do enough and, worse, that it all falls on our work weary shoulders. Sabbath is an ancient practice and began to remind us that it’s not about us doing enough. The ancient Hebrew word “Shabbat” literally means “to cease and desist”. Sabbath invites us to stop the endless striving that characterizes so much of modern life. I’m afraid I fell prey to this striving for many years, but I’m beginning, perhaps, to grow out of it. At any rate, I’ve grown very tired of the toil it’s brought me and I long for holy leisure once again.

What a restful thought to remember that the universe will turn without me. I can let go of my grip on the constant need to accomplish and prove my worth because I am already loved, as I am, in God’s eyes, just as I love my son as he is.  Just as I was loved as a child. I can let my life – past, present and future – rest in God and trust that I will receive what I need when I enter into doing mode once again. My future doesn’t depend on my accomplishments, but on God’s unconditional love in Christ, who accepts me as I am today.

As I finish up these reflections, it’s Sunday morning. It has been so fitting that this topic came to me because I have more “to-do’s” than usual this weekend. Assessments are due tomorrow along with regular school planning. The demands crowd in my brain and start to make me feel crazy, but I’m so blessed to have God’s perspective to contemplate all weekend in this blogpost. Is it true? Can I rest? These can’t just be ideals I am writing about.

I know I don’t always live this way, but it is my hope to let every moment become characterized more and more by Sabbath. A restful living in whose I am.

“Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

I don’t know about other teachers, but Mondays are usually a tougher day at work. Come to think of it, I guess Monday’s are usually difficult for just about anyone heading back to their routines, whether school or work. No more sleeping in or “free” time. Schedules, lessons and the tasks of self-extension beckon once again.

I’m not immune to the Monday morning blues, and I don’t even have a difficult home situation to cope with like some of my students. Even so, I am often exhausted by day’s end and this Monday was no different. In the evening, I had decided to work on my questions for our Wednesday night study. I’d sat down with my cup of coffee but my mind was a whirlpool. While I was trying to focus, a stream of consciousness movie played in my head but it was the heavy heart that was the most distracting. Where was the off switch to my mood?!

These types of moods always seem so convincing, as if they are a permanent state of mind, and I tried to focus. Luckily, my environment was quiet and I had the house to myself but I was squirming. It felt like the waves ruffling my surface would never settle. I took a few (ok more than a few) deep breaths and tried to bracket these alarmist feelings. I’d given myself an hour before I needed to turn to my school work.

Slowly, as I concentrated on the content of the questions, the negative turmoil lessened and I was surprised by the end of the hour that I was a lot more settled and at peace. Focusing on the scripture for Wednesday had been really helpful, turning my attention on to something much more life-giving. I was delivered! It was such a turn-around that I found myself wondering whether it’d be the God-experience of the week.

I learned a valuable lesson that Monday night. Reflecting on it later, I realized it was exactly the type of choice I often have to make. My thoughts went back to the day before and the sermon we’d heard and talked about at our Sunday morning.

The scripture for the service was the story of the rich young ruler. He had asked Jesus what he could do to be saved. Jesus told him to follow the

“What must I do to be saved?”

commandments but like me on Monday night, the man was still restless. “I’ve done all that, what else can I do?” Jesus looked at him lovingly and told him to give away everything he had to the poor and to come follow HIm. The rich young ruler walked away sadly, unwilling to take that radical step.

After the homily, we were asked to reflect on the question, “What is Jesus asking us to give away?” People talked about various things that have become precious – time, doing things right, projects, status, relationships. These are all things that are not bad in themselves, like the ruler’s riches, but when they become all consuming, we are prevented from following God in freedom and single-focus.

The “precious commodity” that kept coming back to me was “emotions”. I give way too much authority to them when they are turbulent and I know deep inside that I get addicted to a 9-1-1 emotional buzz. I added my prayer to everyone else’s that Sunday morning, asking for help to keep my focus on God and not on lesser things.

Long ago, maybe 22 years now, Lyle and I were going to Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, an inner city church that became the precursor to Watershed, our present day house church. Its pastor was our present pastor, Paul Patterson. Paul has led us on many fantastic studies over the years. His love of God and love of learning have left our lives vastly richer as we’ve dived into his courses, which evoke not just the head but the heart as well.

After my Monday night experience, my thoughts went back to a study we did of an old Christian Classic called Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Published in 1678 when Bunyan was in prison, it has been almost as popular as the Bible. It has never been out of print and has been published in more than 200 languages. Not bad for a guy in prison who was often tortured by fearful visions and mental turmoil.

The main character in the story is Christian, who is making a journey to heaven. Along the way, he meets with many dangers and traps which of course are metaphors for the struggles we all encounter.

“On the right, there lay a very deep ditch, into which many had fallen in all ages, and perished miserably. On the left there lay a marsh so dangerous that even a good man, if he were sucked in, was never seen again.” -John Bunyan

One picture remains as one of the most vivid memories of the study so long ago. In this scene, Christian has to walk a narrow path. On either side of him are deep gorges which would spell his death if he took one misstep. I remember what Paul taught us about this picture at the time. He said that we have to walk between emotionalism and rationalism, being careful to stay to the path God has given us to walk.

James Gillray, Britannia between Scylla and Charybdis (1793)

Walking carefully between two evils is an old idea. We talk of being “on the horns of a dilemma”, of being stuck “between a rock and a hard place” or “between the devil and the deep blue sea”. I’m told all these expressions go even further back to Greek mythology, where sailors would have to navigate between two treacherous sea hazards, a rock and a whirlpool. These became known as the sea monsters “Scylla and Charybdis”. Located in the waters of Italy and Sicily, a sailor would have tough decisions to make. Avoiding one would mean getting too close to the other and vice versa.

I don’t know about you, but I find this image incredibly helpful. Steering our way safely through multiple things that can harm us sounds like daily life to me. I am more prone to emotionalism, but I can also become overly rational if I try to “think” my way through my problems, which I am hopelessly poor at. Most times if I am in trouble, I can’t even think my way out of a paper bag! Either way, I can’t win.

A third way is needed, and to me, this is perfectly symbolized by the narrow path that Christian teeters on in Bunyan’s story. In the story about the rich young ruler, Jesus tells his listeners that it is as hard as a camel walking through the eye of a needle. They are all astonished and ask Jesus, “Who then can be saved?!” Jesus told them, “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27)

I desire to stay on God’s path but I know I can’t do it on my own strength. The only thing that has ever seemed to work is placing my trust in something, or Someone, who I can’t see, asking for help as I navigate through the often churning waters. The only choice before me is to bring my will there, and I don’t think I can even do that by myself!

But I remember the verse, that all things are possible with God. Daily I find that I am never left alone, and that a third way is possible with God. I am so grateful for this path and the friends I find who are walking along with me, reminding me to stay steady.

Consider it Pure Joy

There was a song I used to sing with kids when I worked in daycare. It told the story of going on a lion hunt and coming to a mountain. “Can’t go under it, can’t go over it, can’t go around it, gotta go through it.”

These lyrics went through my head this week as I was faced with a challenge that feels as daunting as going through a mountain. Every fall, our school division requires us to assess our students in math and language arts. It’s a good idea to know where our kids are at in their skills and assessing them is helpful. The mountain I’m facing is that I have trouble understanding the math tool they’ve given us. Suffice it to say that while it is a good model, I feel the method of testing is unclear. It’s one of those “don’t get me started” issues. As a student in high school, I loved math, but I have become a bit math-phobic with this task.

Luckily, a math consultant has been giving me guidance, but even so, I’ve gotten somewhat worked up about it all lately. I stopped at a co-worker’s room after school one day and vented about it all. I am not alone in my feelings, but after a while I heard myself say, “There’s no way around this. I know I just have to go through it.” There was nothing I wanted to do less, but if I was going to catch that lion, I knew I had to go through the mountain.

Even with guidance and resolve, though, I’ve had a few emotional meltdowns and 4 am wake-ups lately. Something had to change if I was going to stay healthy and happy at my job. I realized I was hanging on to anger: anger at the people who designed this assessment poorly. It was on this week’s Tuesday run that a Word from God came to me.

It may sound strange to talk about a “Word” from God. Did I see a burning bush like Moses? Is she hearing things, you may wonder? Well, I’d say no … and yes. I did hear something but it didn’t come out of a burning bush. Some scripture came to me in a song I was listening to on my iPod as I ran and I realized it addressed my dilemma. God doesn’t give Math help (at least not as far as I know) but gives wisdom when we are facing trials.

I truly can’t remember which song it was by the group Beautiful Eulogy, but the lyrics referred to a verse from the New Testament. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” James 2:1-2 The verses talk about the character that is produced in us when we lean on God for wisdom in the mountains we face.

I had been feverishly working on lesson plans, anxiously running on the hamster wheel trying to get my assessments done, but I realized I hadn’t been giving my trials to God. There was something of a surrender that happened as I ran. I confessed my hopeless feelings. I realized that getting through the mountain somehow meant reconfiguring this task. Instead of seeing it as the bane of my existence, I felt directed to see it as something God could use to form my character.

It kind of felt like I was sobering up. Few would argue that I had a case in my complaints against “The System”, but it wasn’t helping me address my task. More important, it was only serving to keep me steeped in anger and frustration. I remembered back a few years ago when our community studied a tiny classic from the 1700‘s, still in print today by Jeremiah Burroughs called “The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment”. It’s one of those books I could read over and over for the rest of my life. The whole book comes from one verse which is much like the verse from James: “I have learned, in whatever state I am in, to be content.” (Philippians 4:11) Burroughs says our afflictions can become something

Jeremiah Burroughs (1600-1646) was a well known preacher in his day

that draws us closer to God as we trust that God is with us in all circumstances, not just the good times. He writes that our attitude can become inward and quiet as we “melt our will into God’s will.”

He writes about “murmuring” against God, and that when we murmur and complain at what life gives us, we undo our prayers. Instead of living in trust that God knows us and will provide for us, it makes our souls restless and discontent. It’s like living with the glass half empty, focusing on what life should be but isn’t. Busted! That was me.

This morning as I’m writing this blog, I’ve googled this wonderful little book and even reading over the chapter headings is a great review of the book (those writers from long ago were prolific writers). Chapter headings read as more Words from God: “There must be grace to make the soul steady”; “Do not grasp too much of the world”; “Exercise much faith”. Another chapter heading seemed to diagnose exactly where I’d been going wrong: “Do not pore too much on afflictions”. It was exactly what I’d been doing, and it was making me miserable.

There was a turn of heart in the rest of my week. My burden seemed to feel a lot less, even though the task was still ahead of me. Instead of looking at my trials, it was like I surrendered to the Mystery that is God, who I know from experience works healing into whatever we are going through. I began having more hopeful (and maybe even more mature) thoughts about Math, thinking that maybe in the big picture, this “new” way of doing math could help me make a shift in my teaching.

At our Wednesday night study, my friend Cal said “Hang on to hope Lydia!” as I was leaving. We had been kind of joking around, but his words stuck with me. He didn’t know the struggle that had gone on, but he was confirming what Burroughs had said.

It’s an upside down way of living, this way that Christ shows us. The world would not encourage us to consider trials “pure joy”, or to be content in every circumstance. In the world’s way of thinking, this is nonsense and actually impossible, but I remembered this week that with God, anything is possible. Like a thread of hope, this Word from God wove its way through the rest of my week. I want to hang on to this hope and am grateful for the nudge God gave me.

“To be content as a result of some external thing is like warming a man’s clothes by the fire.  But to be content through an inward disposition of the soul is like the warmth that a man’s clothes have from the natural heat of his body.”

~ Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment

Thanksgiving List

It was Thursday morning this week when the snow began. I always joke with students that they’re not allowed to say the “s-word” in October, but the weather didn’t listen to my corny rules. It wasn’t a lot and we all knew it’d melt after a day, but there it was, blowing

Picture thanks to CBC Information Radio

horizontally outside my living-room window. Putting away my shorts and sandals from the warm weekend only a few days earlier, I bundled up and braced myself from the nippy wind as I headed out the door for work. On the radio in the car, the weather was the talk of the day.

I wondered briefly if I needed to put my after school plans on hold. The school gardens desperately needed pruning and new perennials were needing to get into the ground before it froze. I had set aside this time to do the job and had one co-worker and 2 student’s parents committed to helping. “I don’t think this is the right day,” said Irene as soon as I saw her that morning.

I was undeterred, however, and said she was free but that I would brave the mud and wind. She looked at me like I was crazy and I said we’d talk again at lunch. The blustery weather began to wear my resolve away and by noon I realized Irene was right. My plans would have to wait a week.

All of this set the stage for one of the nicest things that happened this week.

I hadn’t had time to tell one of the parents that the plans were off for now and at 3:30 she showed up at my class door.  As usual, it had been a busy day. Crazy weather always affects the students, and lessons had felt a bit like an uphill battle, especially a math lesson in which I was learning a new method of assessment. Teaching is a challenging task at the best of times, like those circus acts you see with someone balancing ten teacups with two hands and spinning a plate on a stick on their teeth! Add something into the mix like picture day, or blustery weather, or a full moon (honestly the list is endless) and it’s a task for a saint or a fool! And I’m no saint.

So when this parent showed up, I was exhausted. The thanksgiving list I’d meant to write for my weekend blog was far from my mind. But I almost teared up on the spot when Crystal showed up. Spade in one hand and pitchfork in the other, she was dressed in her long winter coat, mitts and rubber boots. Actually, I found myself surprised that she still assumed the plans were on.

“Ready to go?” she asked enthusiastically. I apologized for forgetting to tell her at lunch that we were going to postpone the digging. “No problem at all!” she answered with complete kindness. “Just let me know what time next week.”

The next morning before work, I was reflecting on this moment with my cup of coffee. Feelings of exhaustion can make a person feel like throwing in the towel, but this simple act was like a ray of sunshine, injecting hope into my day. Her gift of encouragement and support came just when I needed it, nudging me to stay with the program and remember all the kindness in the world which helps us soldier on in difficult circumstances. As I write about it even now, it draws tears.

Suddenly, what I’d be writing about for my Thanksgiving post became clear: all those millions of small things that encourage me and provide hope where I might not have any. I see these as gifts from God. As I combed through the week, a list started to form:

  • A co-worker giving an understanding word in passing in the hallway. Thank you Shauna.
  • Another co-worker who kindly gave me her prep last Friday so I could leave early for my retreat. Thank you Monica.
  • Amid all the ebb and flow of classroom events, I am constantly grateful for those moments that are “easy” – where genuine learning happens, or kind words are spoken, or energy is there and magic happens in the lesson. These moments remind me of why I’m sticking with teaching.
  • Having an honest talk with Lyle one evening and our relationship being able to sustain sometimes tricky conversations. I’ve been very grateful for the laughter that still flowed later, and for the same path we are on together. Thank you Lyle.
  • Seeing gorgeous fall colors and swirling leaves that rain down like snow. Thank you Creator.
  • On a freezing day, the farmer’s market is still open and we’re still able to pick up our luscious farm produce from our CSA share. When it feels like the ceiling is coming down and life feels crowded, bounty reminds me of the truth. Thank you Jonathan of Jonathan’s Farm.
  • Friends who stir up faith and kindness at our Wednesday night Watershed meeting, reminding me of the bigger picture. Thank you Watershed.
  • Prayers with these same friends at the end of the meeting, and words of faith that spill out, reminding us of our desire to follow God. Thank you everyone.
  • An article on a Christian understanding of suffering which appears in my Internet travels, which is clear and inspiring. Thank you Christian writers in New Zealand and the creators of the Internet 🙂
  • An email from Paul P., who generously answered my query with characteristic wisdom and love. Thank you Paul.
  • A beautiful bowl of tomatoes finally harvested from my humble garden. The lovely colors glow in a silent reminder of the beauty in life. Thank you Creator.
  • I had originally intended to write my blog post on the Josh Garrels concert that Lyle and I went to in Vancouver. This post will still be written one day no doubt, but in the meantime, I had been feeling so grateful this week for this fun holiday and wonderful concert with Lyle. Thank you Lyle and Josh Garrels.
  • Seeing my students enjoy Friday’s field trip to Oak Hammock Marsh thanks to some great staff people there, despite the crazy weather. Thank you students.
  • Former students who come to see me after school. Thank you.
  • A book about C.S. Lewis that I don’t want to end because it is so good. Thank you writers everywhere.
  • Another inspiring article on the love of books by the late Ray Bradbury. It was the last thing he ever wrote. Thank you Ray Bradbury.

All these gifts are exactly like Crystal showing up at my door, tools, kindness and enthusiasm ready to match the oft daunting challenges life gives us. I am grateful for these gifts which are like air and food, helping me stay on the path of faith and hope.

As you enter the Thanksgiving weekend, may you be inspired to reflect on your own list of “small things” and be encouraged on your own path. Whether you call yourself a “Christian” or not, I am convinced that God gives us all a never ending list.

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