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Archive for December, 2012

The Seminary of Suffering

I love the feeling of rest that comes to me after a run. I love a great meal with loved ones and a good cup of coffee with a good book perched on my lap. I love quiet evenings to read and write or watch quality TV.  I love many of life’s pleasures. It’s all well and good to love comfort… though it can easily spell trouble when I get selfish and my happiness depends on it.

Who am I when these things are taken away from me? Who am I when I wake up with headaches that return despite my attempts to hold them at bay?  When I have report cards to write and am asked to sacrifice my precious down time? When the trials of life knock at my door? Paul Simon has a great line in his song Outrageous that goes, “Who’s gonna love you when your looks are gone?” My line could be, “Who’s gonna love you when your comfort’s gone?”

One of my New Testament heroes is the Apostle Paul, who wrote “I am content in all circumstances” (Philippians 4:11). He did not say this lightly since he experienced a lot of hardship for what he believed. He said God gave him strength and contentment no matter what outer circumstances were happening. His statement is such a contrast to me who gets worked up and anxious at the drop of a hat when circumstances don’t go my way and I am out of my comfort zone.

This week has been filled with many blessings – rest from work, celebrations with our church friends, meaningful conversations with family, relaxed time for recreation – and so perhaps it’s strange to read my blog topic of the week.

Suffering. There’s so much all around us when we begin to look. A former co-worker of mine is suffering the last stages of cancer this Christmas. My cousin Evy who I had the honor of having coffee with this week, is also battling cancer. Next week I’ll visit my friend Bill Howdle who is facing many health challenges. My own parents are experiencing increased diminishment as they face the challenges of aging. We all keep thinking of those parents in the States who are suffering a Christmas without their children after one man’s violent act.

All these shadows cross our paths and we wonder not if but when this Dark Visitor will come to us. We know with uneasiness that suffering will visit us all if it hasn’t already.

In November, I came across this topic in another blog I follow called Mere Inklings, a blog using the ideas of C.S. Lewis as starting points for reflection. Rob Stroud wrote about the autobiography of Freddie Sun who was a Christian in Maoist China and suffered greatly for being a believer. More than a decade was spent in a slave labor camp and he lost his career as a professor of Geology, all because he 51gJOGm28AL._SL500_AA300_would not deny Christ. Robstround’s review of the book, The Man in the Fiery Furnace, made such an impression on me that I asked for it for Christmas and it was well worth the read this week.

We are lucky in our country to have freedom of religion. It may be unusual to be a practicing Christian in this post-Christian world, but I do not suffer because of it. This man could have escaped his suffering by denying Christ, but he would not do it. Being made to suffer could have made him bitter, but instead he experienced a deepening of his faith and commitment.

His story is amazing, but here is what really hit the center of my comfort-loving consciousness. Sun described his imprisonment as his “seminary” experience: “Instead of learning homiletics, hermeneutics, Greek, and Hebrew, I was being taught the greater lessons of obedience, submission, forgiveness, love, endurance, and patience.” These greater lessons are what scripture calls the fruits of the Spirit.

My cousin Evy has had opportunity to learn these greater lessons in her seminary of suffering. She lives in Ontario, so I’ve only seen her a few times in recent years. She has lived with cancer for almost 6 years now. When I saw her this week, I could clearly see the effects of suffering etched on her face, but in her clear blue eyes and in our conversation I also saw the tenacious fruits of the Spirit.

We talked about trusting God in circumstances that bring so much suffering.These are not easy words to live by. At every turn of the road, she has cried and asked God why this was happening to her. She is often crippled with anxiety and fear.

Evy and I in 2009

Evy and I in 2009

She may not understand the why much of the time, but I can clearly see that suffering has opened her heart. I don’t often offer to pray with people, but even though we haven’t seen each other for over 2 years, she said yes right aways and together in the cold car we asked God for strength to meet trials, and for trust, endurance, patience and faith in all circumstances, as the Apostle Paul wrote about. We thanked God for the many ways God’s presence is made known to us, even in suffering. Her gratitude and quiet faith were a sign post to me that God was here.

Evy may not know it, but her life is a witness to me of Love being stronger than fears and anxieties. I am sure she would rather not have to travel this road, and I am sure it is infinitely difficult, but she has reminded me to trust God in the seminary of suffering.

C.S. Lewis wrote about how to understand suffering. In his famous book The Problem of Pain, he writes about how a loving God can allow evil to occur. He stated that suffering is not good in itself. “What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his [or her] submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads.”

Submission to God in suffering does not mean we don’t do what we can to change things. It means to “accept the things we can not change”, as the famous Serenity prayer says, trusting that God can use everything, even suffering, to create goodness and a light in the darkness.

This teaching has helped me understand the role of suffering in our lives. Lewis writes that God can make complex good rise out of simple evil. It does not excuse those who create the evil or suffering, but it does point to God being greater than anything that comes our way.

Earlier I shared Paul Simon’s question, “Who’s gonna love me when my looks are gone?” He also answers the question in the amazing ending to the song. I pray for Evy, and for all of us, that we might trust this answer in the darkest times.

“God will, like he waters the flowers on your windowsill.”

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Listening

This week, an intriguing question was posed to me. It was one of the questions in our community’s study of the gospel of Mark. My mind has been so scattered with Christmas prep, so it’s been good to focus and meditate on this question and what it’s taught me this week.

“Describe a time when you discovered something new in a common experience and how it affected you.”

l The question was asked in our Mark study to help us get a taste of what Jesus’ disciples experienced when they saw Jesus in a totally new light. For the briefest of moments on a mountain top, Jesus was transformed in front of them, his clothes shining in bright light, standing with the prophets Elijah and Moses. The disciples were baffled and tongue-tied, but they all knew it was a holy moment.

I remembered a time long ago when something common was touched by what felt like a tiny miracle. Because my parents were new to Canada, English was not our first language at home, and “children’s literature” was not that well known. Until I discovered the local library at age 10 or so (a treasure house, I thought), the books we had at home were a set of Bible stories for children, and some childrens’ books of German poetry.

I have a strong memory of reading and re-reading one of the poetry books. I read the verses and studied the pictures every day, and it was a huge but pleasant shock to me one day to discover something new in the pictures I’d looked at 1000 times already. In a window in one of the pictures sat a blue bird that I’d never noticed before. How had I missed it all the other times? I was touched by wonder, first at discovering this treasure, and second at the miracle of discovering something new in a book I thought I knew cover to cover.

Seeing the bluebird in the window felt like one of the holy moments of my life and still holds a lesson for me today. Like the question says, you never know when a common experience will deepen and shine with new light. In my adult language, it teaches me that God’s in-breaking is always near, even when we think we’ve read our reality 1000 times.

Monarch egg under the microscope

Others in our study group shared their experiences too. Bev remembered looking at the moon through a telescope for the first time and being shocked at how much detail could be viewed, even in Winnipeg’s inner city. She wasn’t expecting it and was, as she said, “transported, freaked out and in awe”. Her experience reminded me of the joy of showing students common things through a microscope. A monarch butterfly egg on a leaf is only a tiny white dot and nothing special, but under the microscope it becomes a ridged and shining greenish-white vision, stopping everyone in their tracks.

I was stopped in my tracks this week as well when I remembered what we had studied and heard a Word about listening.

After the disciples saw the vision of Jesus transformed, a voice came from a cloud and said, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7) We were asked what it means for us, all these years later, to listen more closely to Jesus’ voice. Paul Patterson (our community’s leader) gave a response that got me thinking. He said that in order to listen to Jesus, we must stop listening to the bombardment  of ‘white noise’ which we call thought.

Paul’s small reminder stayed with me this week. This time of year has a lot of white noise going on. Gift buying, school concerts, celebrations to plan, people to remember (and all this on top of regular work) and I realized that my addled mind had lost its focus. It wasn’t until Friday that I remembered I hadn’t even thought of a blog topic yet. I literally sat down on Friday evening (the official first evening of my holidays) to listen. That’s when I remembered Paul’s words and I realized I had been listening to way too much white noise. My mind has been overflowing with errands and I’ve lost a sense of resting in God lately.

In the passage, one of the disciples named Peter had a comedic but knee-jerk reaction when the disciples saw Jesus transformed. He immediately wanted to build a group of shrines to immortalize the event. Instead of listening deeply and reflecting on the experience, he was planning a project! His blurting comment reminds us today to listen more deeply. What could Peter have learned from Jesus’ transformation?

Like the egg shining under the microscope, Jesus’ transformation was not pointing to glory. The caterpillar about to hatch from the egg is destined to die before it can be fully transformed. Jesus would face trials and even death because of the message he was bringing. The clue to this meaning of the vision lay in who was beside him. Like Moses and Elijah, prophets before Jesus, Jesus’ message was about submission and dying to the self.

I was grateful this week that God gives me the same choice as he gave to Peter. I can listen contemplatively to the revelations I receive in prayer or tune them out with the white noise of too much activity. I would like to become better at listening.

I still have errands before me. Like Peter’s knee jerk reaction, it would be so easy to be swallowed in activity. But remembering the hidden life of the caterpillar, I am grateful for the reminder to listen more deeply in this busy season. On my own, I will only burn out, so I pray for the rest that only God can give.

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and loaded down with burdens, and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28

Nevertheless

Like many teachers these days, I am beyond tired, really ready for holidays. My voice is still not back to normal and I am straining it every day to talk to my students. I exercise, I eat healthy, and yet the body balance is still not there.

My difficulties, such as they are, are nothing compared to burdens that others have to bear. A dear retired co-worker is battling cancer and faces a difficult Christmas. A card was passed around in the staff room this week for those who worked with her, and we search for words to say. Simple ones are usually what everyone resorts to: you are in our prayers; our thoughts are with you.

Another co-worker is going through a difficult time and we all stumble for words or deeds that will support. One of my blogging friends, Bill Howdle, is facing an uncertain future with doctors telling him a stroke is imminent. Christmas is not always an easy time for people when suffering is thrown into the mix. For many of the students at our school, it can be the most difficult time of the year. You won’t hear about that side of Christmas in the songs piped into the malls!

In the midst of contemplating all these places of need (and now the terrible tragedy in the States), I was reminded of a

Please click on the picture to read an excellent short article about this word.

Please click on the picture to read an excellent short article about this word.

word that has given me hope. It is a word used in scripture: the word “nevertheless”. It can change a whole sentence or a whole context. In the original Greek of the New Testament, it is used after negative sentences, and serves to mark a transition to something new. Another way of stating it in today’s grammar might be to say simply, “In spite of all that…”.

One story in the New Testament illustrates the word. Simon Peter, one of the 12 disciples, was fishing all day and had caught nothing. Jesus told him to try again on the other side of the boat. Simon Peter really didn’t want to try anymore. He’d just spent his morning cleaning them. He was a fisherman by trade, knew the waters and his own expertise told him there was no reason to hope anymore. He told Jesus, “We’ve already tried.”

In spite of all the logical reasons not to try, Peter decided to listen to Jesus’ improbable idea. “Nevertheless, at your word I will let down my net.” Peter was shocked when there  were so many fish the nets began to break.

The word appears many times in the Bible and I think it’s a helpful word to remember as we face the difficult times. There is so much suffering everywhere we look. There are so many situations that are beyond our capacity to heal or intervene in.

Nevertheless, and in spite of ourselves, God can infuse our lives with hope and direction. It has reminded me that in the midst of the negative and desperate situations of this broken world, a transition to something new is possible in God’s world. God’s hope is not a sentimental, gushy feeling when times are good, but as the famous theologian Peter Gomes said, God’s hope is muscular. God’s hope helps us endure through and beyond the times that disappoint or threaten to destroy us.

Last Sunday our community observed the second Sunday of Advent. Eldon is the one who usually does the centerpiece. It is some kind of artistic representation of what the morning meeting is all about, and after all the words have been spoken and the songs have been sung, this picture is usually what stays in my mind through the week.

Image 1

Photo by Lyle Penner and edited by Paul Patterson

For this particular Sunday, Eldon brought an Inukshuk for the centerpiece, those beautiful Inuit stone creations from the north. They are usually about 6 feet high and are made of stones piled together to look like a person. Amid the snow and bleak landscape of a treeless northern winter, this representative person shows the way. It might point the way to where caribou can be found, or which way the seal hunt is. If someone is lost during a storm or the white outs of winter, it points the way home.

Like that inukshuk, the scriptures for the morning were pointers for us, giving us hints of how we could be reconnected to God in a meaningful way. They told about people who were in exile and who had lost hope, and yet God promised them that “every high impassible mountain would be made low and the valleys would be filled up to make a level ground to walk safely on.” Where we see a mountain that is too high, God sees a road that is straight. When we are inconsolable or burdened, God brings unexplainable strength to carry on.

It is not logical, but despite all the bad news around me, I have felt a gratitude every day that defies explanation. It’s not like I don’t step over into the dark side, where I notice cynicism, unkind thoughts or a temptation to wish for an easier job, but nevertheless, I have felt a sustenance that I know must be the answer to prayers. It’s like some Mystery has been nudging me towards yes despite myself.

  • I am worn out but nevertheless, love for the students bubbles up in me from somewhere and is more true than my passing symptoms. I know it is from the prayers of my community, and from the promise that God will never leave me to fend for myself.
  • Focusing on scripture as I did course work for our Mark studies kept my thoughts steered in the right direction each day.
  • My blogging friend Bill Howdle is facing difficulties every day, but I know from reading his blog that even though he “has his moments”, nevertheless, God’s love and peace is guiding him daily, trumping his difficulties.
  • I see my students who are an example to me every day of resilience and spirit, many times despite circumstances that are unspeakably difficult. And they sang beautifully at the winter concert (here’s a video if you want to check it out).
  • On Friday morning when Lyle and I had a sudden argument, somehow through sheer mercy, love and true words prevailed and we resolved things quickly.

I am grateful for all these Inukshuks that guided me through the week and pointed me to God’s hope despite myself. I can’t explain it, but I have felt very grateful.

God in the Messes

As a kid growing up in North Kildonan, we were pretty much anchored in the life of the church. My mom went to various women’s groups, my dad was forever preparing for adult Sunday School lessons, not to mention leading choirs and going to church business meetings, and we daughters went to various clubs such as Pioneer Girls and of course Sunday School. Even German School was held in the church on Saturday mornings, which is probably what led to my early assumption that God spoke German. (I still clearly remember the day I had the Aha realization that God spoke English as well!)

appartment-bath-tubBut the highlight of each week was the Sunday morning service, which began on Saturday night with The Bath.

Like a strange baptism, the bath (with its resulting curlers to be uncomfortably slept on) got us ready for God. Off went the dirt of the week. I remembered reveling in getting extra grubby that day, riding my bike and playing hard with friends. Whatever family squabbles had gone on during the week, we were dressed in our Sunday best by the next morning, showing our clean and shining side at church, like families everywhere.

These memories came to me this week as our group got ready for our current study of the book of Mark. We read the story in Mark 7 of how in Jesus’ day, cleanliness rituals were a huge deal. There were rituals around hand washing, food preparation, handling utensils and what you could and couldn’t touch, or could and couldn’t eat. Touching a dead body or a person who was diseased was strictly forbidden for example. The religiously scrupulous didn’t practice these rules to be obsessive, but because they were part of their belief system; what they believed God wanted.

23427_10150158979050722_10150120062685722_11800975_2796993_n1-300x240It’s hardly surprising that they were shocked when Jesus and his band of followers broke every rule in the book. In the passage we studied, the Jews were infuriated when they saw Jesus eating with his disciples and ignoring the hand washing rituals. When they challenged him, he challenged them right back, asking them why they obeyed outward rules yet paid no attention to following God’s inner, heart laws such as loving their neighbours. They were show-offs in following the rules, but lived how they wanted, not how God wanted. Jesus had confronted them with the heart of the matter, and as my students say when someone gets confronted, “Oh yeah! You just got told!”

As we studied these stories, our community considered whether we did the same thing. What Biblical teaching do we give verbal assent to yet don’t always live by? The resulting discussion has stayed with me during this week, giving me food for thought.

One teaching that came to mind for several of us was our difficulty in accepting forgiveness. I believe (and Scripture teaches) that God is a God of infinite forgiveness. Growing up Mennonite, we were good at feeling guilty for our sins, but not as good at hearing God say, “I love you warts and all”, and it’s a hard habit to let go of! As an adult, I can understand in my head that I’m forgiven, but often live as a guilty sinner, trying in many ways to appease a God whom I can unconsciously think is angry at me.

We reflected more on this feeling of “guilt”. Sometimes, in fact probably many times, our feeling of guilt is coming from somewhere, and we just haven’t dug it deep enough. Our society is so bent on “feeling better”. We hate the misery of feeling crappy about ourselves and like addicted people, we often want a quick fix without looking at the root of the problem. Don’t I do the same thing as the religious establishment, and follow outward rules without digging deeper and reflecting on the deeper laws of God?

During our discussion, we pondered this and Eldon provided the helpful image of a tree with rotten fruit. We bemoan the rotten fruit and all of our wishing for it to be better distracts us from the need to check the roots which may be diseased.

The whole discussion left me wondering, how open am I to hearing the truth, even when it is painful? Scripture tells us that “the truth will set us free” (John 8:28), but it just might make us miserable first. The deepest lessons of my life have often been the ones that required soul searching honesty and were most painful to learn. When I hear the truth and become defensive or (worse) play dumb and pretend not to understand, I am blocked from becoming free.

Another side to this coin is the question, how open am I to being honest with someone, even when it is uncomfortable.

This all led me to wonder – what truth has God been telling me lately? I would say that I too am often obsessed with how “clean” my day looks. In some strange and twisted logic, a “good” day = I am good, and a “bad” day = not quite as good! (Time to try harder…)  As my days get messier with illness or other challenges, I can get discouraged and think God will only be there when I “get all my ducks in a row”.

But what if all notions of what is good or bad get wiped away in God’s kingdom, and everything is just what it is? Certainly Jesus modeled that example as he partied with his disciples and people who weren’t important in society’s eyes, without even washing his hands.

As I went through my week, amid the messes, one part of me labeled the imperfect bits as “bad”, and I had a hard time thinking of where God was. But Wednesday night helped me to remove the labels and remember that God is in the midst of messes, in days that feel good or bad. When I remembered that, everything seemed different and it was no longer difficult to figure out where God was.

I remembered the song “Imagine” by John Lennon which I taught to my students for this week’s winter concert. Their enthusiastic singing and love of the song opened my heart all week and in the midst of my lingering cold and feeling tired, they were a gift to me, helping me remember why I love kids. I remembered how our community helped a student in dire straits at an inner city high school and how happy it made us all to make the right decision, through group discernment. I remembered the restorative conversation at our Wednesday night study, and the prayers for healing at our Sunday morning service today. I’ve been so grateful for these contexts which are such a support.

One of the names for God which we hear about during this Advent season is “Emmanuel” which means “God with us”. May we all hear the truth that God is with us. Not when we’ve cleaned up our acts, but now, in the midst of our messy lives. May we all open our hearts and be free to listen.

Praying for an Open Heart

“Someone will come for you, but first you must open your heart.”

-Kate DeCamillo in The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

It’s an interesting process to decide on the topic for each week. I often find myself wanting to write about several experiences and ideas, but since I must choose, I sift through them, asking myself which one was the most real experience of God. More often than not, writing requires me to be vulnerable, exposing my weaknesses which is not easy to do. But always, I find they are taken up in God’s strength, so ultimately I hope this blog points to God. In some mysterious way, God uses weakness as a finger to point the way to God. Mining these experiences, while not easy, is always helpful to me and I hope to some who might read it.

This week, I’ve kept going back to Monday evening. I have felt myself being drawn more and more in recent months, into the quiet places of reflection. Writing and reading are two of the things I most look forward to each day. On this particular Monday evening, Joel and Lyle were both out. It’s not that I don’t love their company, but a quiet house is also a treat, as I’m sure anyone with a busy life would understand.

Our community has been exploring a meditation practice called “Centering Prayer”, made famous by the Trappist monk prayer-spirituality-teach7_clip_image002Thomas Keating, among others. It is a method of silent prayer where one sits for 20 minutes in silence. Swirling thoughts are gently addressed with one word which the practitioner chooses, such as “love” or “peace”. Some in Watershed have been practicing it in recent months and talking about their experience.

This time of silence prepares a person to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, where the relationship with God is fostered. So often our minds and hearts are filled with fears, worries, busy plans, all of which get in the way of the deeper stillness where the mystery of God is found.

Many years ago now, I practiced yoga. My first teacher, Heather, introduced me to silent meditation. She loved meditation with a passion, and we would begin each class with 10 or sometimes even 20 minutes of silent sitting. Often the word “Om” was playing from the stereo, the chanting bringing a calm backdrop that I sometimes still hear in my imagination all these years later. I sat with Heather and the small group for years, but deep inside I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about, though I even practiced at home dutifully and with devotion.

It’s strange, but all these years later, I have felt drawn back to meditation, but this time with a Christian not Buddhist, entry point. I dug out my old meditation cushions. “Heather, you would be proud of me,” I said silently with a smile, and sat down.

Looking back on the week, this is where I experienced God the most clearly. No light beams from heaven shone on me and no voices from God spoke. I just felt that God was close. Some poet has said that God is always closer to us than our own breath and I think most of the time we put so much clutter in the way that we miss this.

I know that many times, prayer can seem like words hitting the ceiling, going nowhere, and that in the silence, sometimes all we hear are our own thoughts, but like an advertisement from God, this time felt like an invitation to come again. The rest of the week was a mixed bag of smooth and bumpy sailing, as always, along with a nasty cold to battle, but I kept having the sense that, like Julian of Norwich said, “All will be well. All will be well.” The sense that God was close stayed with me and is with me still.

I wondered what the difference that all these years have made. Why is my heart more open to sitting now? I think getting older has a lot to do with it. I am now the ripe “old” age of 51, and what I know now that I didn’t know when I was 31 is that I can not heal myself. Back then, I was trying a million things to cure my headaches and the underlying depression I would experience. Yoga was one of them. By now, I know, at least a little bit more than I did then, that there is no cure.

You might think me cynical, but I don’t mean to be. It just seems to me that in this life, we all must experience some kind of limitation, something that, despite our best efforts to fix, keeps coming back, nipping at our heels like a persistent dog. I used to think that I needed to be “better” before I could be happy, but there is something more true than being tumblr_lxtb54vJzk1rnql18o1_500cured, and that is being healed by Love.

One of my all time favorite novels to read to my students is called The Miraculous Journey of Eduard Tulane, by Kate

Things begin to go wrong for Edward

Things begin to go wrong for Edward

DiCamillo. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, Eduard is a stuffed rabbit who goes through a treacherous journey where many, many things go wrong. Like all of us, he experiences radical limitation. Without giving the plot away, he is not cured, but becomes healed by love in many forms.

My students absolutely love this book, and I can never read the ending without tearing up. I think that even in their young lives, these students understand that Love trumps all the bad news, and that like Edward, we are never left alone.

At one point, an old doll tells Edward amid his troubles, “Someone will come for you, but first you must open your heart.”

Like the Grinch and Scrooge and Edward Tulane, may God keep cracking open these hearts of ours.

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