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Archive for March, 2013

Finding God in Music

I’ve been on a one-week holiday from work.  No matter what your job is, everyone needs some breathing space once in a while. Life for all of us can get to feeling crowded, like being in a crawl space, crouched down, head butting against a ceiling that is way too low and heart racing, unable to even turn around. Sometimes the busy pace and to-do’s even becomes what “normal” looks like, and we forget that life can be different.

I’m so blessed to have a faith community that reminds one another every day that God’s world is full of space and expansion. As opposed to the tiny, crowded space, Scripture describes God’s world as a “house with many rooms.” (John 14:2) This is exactly what this week has felt like. Meals with friends, a bit of skiing, a good book to read, watching the birds at my feeders, naps. And music.

I took a chance on a recommendation from a music source called Noise Trade a few weeks ago and bought an album by a group with the quirky name of “The Oh Hellos”. Listening and re-listening to their wonderful album called “Through the 4063483765-1Deep, Dark Valley”, I’ve felt like I’ve entered the many rooms of God’s house. They are a Christian faith based group, but I’m convinced anyone would love the music as they sing about the whole scope of human experience, struggles and joys both.

Way back when I was a teenager, “Christian music” was my genre of choice. At the time I loved it (though I’m a bit embarrassed now to admit that classic groups such as The Beatles almost entirely passed me by for a decade or more). As my friends and I listened and sang these Christian songs, we declared to the world that we had the “answer”. “Jesus is the answer for the world today…”. I don’t exactly disagree with this assertion now, but it doesn’t leave room for doubt and struggle. There’s a certain heady inflation that comes with knowing all the answers. The lyrics weren’t exactly subtle, but that’s how I saw faith back then. Life was still pretty straight forward and I hadn’t yet bumped into life’s difficulties.

As I entered adulthood, this music didn’t satisfy me anymore. I didn’t need praise songs – it was more like I needed to learn the blues! I didn’t know what to do with my doubts and struggles except enter them. I turned faith over in my heart like a relic from the past that I didn’t know what to do with.

At this juncture, many young people leave the faith they were handed as a child, but Lyle and I have been oh so blessed to have found a faith community with a minister who wasn’t, and still isn’t, afraid to let God embrace the whole scope of human experience. I have experienced that faith can be relevant in this modern world. Jesus does have the answers, but only because he himself entered the darkest struggles in faith and came out the other side. Faith isn’t about being religious.

As I listened to this band over my week off, I felt my heart melt and open once again to the love and open expanses of God’s world. They sing about doubt, struggle, making mistakes and admitting we’ll make mistakes again, but also about the love that comes through it all. Even when we’re in the midst of struggle and God seems hidden, God is there with us, bringing meaning and faith in a world that so desperately needs it.

Over the years, I’ve discovered loads of other music like this. Some bands are overtly Christian, others not, but it all evokes faith and hope. Some of my favorites over the years are Bruce Cockburn, Stephen Fearing, Chic Gamine, definitely the Beatles, Paul Simon and Josh Garrels.

Today is Easter morning, a celebration that is about God bringing healing out of something as terrible as a crucifixion. I’m so grateful we can bring our full selves to God, “warts and all” as they say, and find God to be the best singer/songwriter there is, making a beautiful song out of the dark places of our lives.

Here’s a taste of the group’s music:

Finding Myself in a Story

It has been quite the week of story-telling. We had two wonderful story-tellers come to our school as part of “I Love to Read” week.  I myself told the Grade 3’s a story which used to be part of my bag of tricks as a music substitute teacher. I hadn’t told the story in 15 years, but there it was, stored in my memory like a trusted friend who sticks by you. It’s an epic tale of good vs evil and I reveled in the wide eyes of my students as they listened. Outside of school, we  also went to a story-telling themed 50th birthday party.

Stories have a way of opening spaces in our lives, letting us breathe more freely. I saw this in il_fullxfull.273380167the smiles on parents’ faces as they left the gym on the school story-telling evening. For a while, we forgot about troubles in our own lives as we found ourselves in another place, another time, with story characters who had their own set of problems to face. “Once upon a time” can be a safe juncture through which we can view our lives.

Another story was told on Wednesday night during our study on the gospel of Mark. The chapter we looked at was the one in which Jesus pleads with God to let the cup of suffering pass from him. Meanwhile, his friends let him down by sleeping instead of keeping vigil with Jesus in his difficulties. Worst of all, one of his disciples betrays him to the authorities and gets him arrested and ultimately killed.

Sometimes, stories reveal something darker to us and show us a glimpse of an issue that we’ve been ignoring. This was the case for me in the Mark story. Paul, our pastor, led us through an imaginative retelling of the very familiar story of Jesus’ suffering, betrayal and arrest. We all closed our eye and listened to the story. We smelled the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemene, declared our loyalty to Jesus when he told us we’d betray him, and felt the tug of sleep as Jesus was praying nearby.

But I experienced a different twist. As we closed our eyes, I saw the scattered state my mind was in. I tuned in and out of the story as incidents from the day and to-do’s on my errand list whisked my attention around like a bag blowing in the wind. As Paul finished the active imagination exercise, I realized I had been just like the disciples. I didn’t exactly sleep, but my plastic-bag306x172distractions had a sleepy feel of avoidance to them.

The rest of the evening was rich in conversation and learning as usual, but I left still feeling sheepish about my distracted mind. As the week carried on, however, I realized this experience had been instructive. Part of the evening’s teaching had been about how sleepiness can take on different forms, one of which is exactly this distracted state of mind. It is a bit deceptive though. Being busy appears to be  anything but sleepy, but there is an avoidance of deeper issues going on. Being busy can leave us flighty and missing out entirely on the more weighty matters of life.

I realized, not for the first time, that this is a pattern I have. When there is something difficult to face, if I don’t watch myself, my unconscious impulse says, “I’d rather be anywhere but here,” and I drown myself in distractions.

I had gotten caught up in this pattern this week. I’d woken up with a headache. Meds helped, but I still found myself in a “grit my teeth and get through it” type of mood all day. Instead of facing my troubles and giving them to God, I stayed busy. When Paul began to tell his story, I was spinning.

Finding myself in the story helped me wake up to this pattern of wanting to get out of suffering. I confessed it to God the next morning and asked for help in overcoming this. It was such a small thing, but it helped so much to give it to God.

When trouble comes in my life, if I am asked to go through a trial, my deepest hope is that I’d face it with God as my strength, instead of swirling around in avoidance. Good Friday is Christ-in-Gethsemanecoming up this week. I want to be like my hero Jesus, who was honest with his fears but still trusted. He asked for the cup of suffering to be taken away, but when God seemed to be giving him a “No”, Jesus prayed, “Not what I want, but what you want.” (Mark 14:36) Even though it felt like God was abandoning him, Jesus was accompanied, even to hell and back.

I came across a prayer on one of my favorite blogs this week, a prayer by a Roman Catholic priest named Francis de Sales (1567-1622). It was a good encouragement, reminding me that when we are walking with God, nothing is too difficult to face.

“Do not look forward to what might happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day. Either He will shield you from suffering or he will give you the unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace, then, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.”

Be Careful

hi-wpg-snowbank-130117Spring in Winnipeg these days looks an awful lot like winter, with high snowbanks that are melting too slowly and temperatures that are dipping way too far below zero. One day this week I was winding my way home down a snowy back lane when a truck needed to pass me. I pulled over. Snowbanks and rutted lanes made navigation tricky for the truck so I decided to back up a bit and then… BUMP! I hit a car I didn’t know was behind me ever so slightly.

I wasn’t even sure whether to get out, that’s how lightly our bumpers touched, but I got out anyways. It was the last thing I had wanted to do. What I wanted was a nap! The young driver got out his iPhone and took pictures of the very light scratches on his bumper and we exchanged particulars. I apologized and felt chagrined at my silly error. He was kind BeCarefulenough but as we parted he said, “Be careful.”

At first I felt defensive at his words of caution. I had barely done anything! But as I drove away, I realized his words were not out of place. An old high school teacher used to say to us students, “Let a word to the wise be sufficient.” I knew right aways that I had been driving home with feelings of anger after a tougher than usual day with the kids. Some days the role of “cop” (i.e. conflict solver) gets to all us teachers, and it can leave me a bit crusty around the edges. I had lost the “big” perspective of life, at least temporarily.

I could easily blame the students who tested my patience, but I also knew I had left the inner place of “emotional sobriety”. A few months ago our pastor Paul told me in passing how incredibly important it was for me to practice this.

Emotional sobriety is a concept important in alcoholism and other addictions recovery.  It’s all about regulating the negative feelings that come up. For addicts, the purpose is to avoid discomfort, craving and ultimately relapse. At first, literal sobriety is the most pressing issue. Long-term emotional sobriety is a slow and steady battle not to let events and upsetting emotions throw one off kilter.

In recent decades, people of faith have realized the relevance of the rich tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous and the teachings of its founder Bill Wilson. I first learned about the 12 steps not because of a substance abuse problem, but as part of a meditation/study group in my church. That class so many years ago is still foundational for me.

I can’t imagine anyone alive who doesn’t have some type of problem that is addictive in nature. For me, I have this strange addiction to negative emotions. I’ve written about it before I’m sure, but in short, the addiction is  something I call my “9-1-1 tendency” – a pull towards being alarmed and getting a charge out of drama. Like any drug, I suppose it gives a high but it is a false friend.  All it took was one day of forgetting this week, and there I was driving home angry. I forgot to give it all to God, as I wrote about in last week’s blog.

To me, “giving it all to God” is another way of describing prayer, that mysterious word which is partly a verb and mostly just a state of being. It’s like cultivating an interior silence and relationship to God. Jesus practiced it all the time, despite the demands of his huge popularity with the crowds. In fact, the classic invitation of prayer comes from him: “When door-1you pray, go to your inner room, close the door and pray to the Father  in secret…” (Matthew 6:6) [note: God is also our Mother].

It’s no coincidence that after writing about empty rooms last week, God reminded me again to go back to this inner room of prayer. It wasn’t wrong to have a tough day or have feelings of frustration. What was wrong was to think I had to carry it all on my shoulders or in my heart.

My little accident (and thank God it was so tiny) came with a word of caution from God this week. God’s messenger came disguised taking pictures with an iPhone and, as God always does, spoke in a short sentence. “Be careful.” “Lydie, don’t let that small stuff settle in your soul. Like barnacles growing on an ocean vessel, it’ll clutter up your heart.”

After swallowing my pride, I took a breath, took that nap before supper, and thanked God for the wake up call.

Empty Room

The most predominate thought in my mind/heart this week has been the empty room upstairs. Our son Joel has moved out and the last time the room was empty was when we were expecting him over 22 years ago, before we loaded it up with a crib and change table and of course,

The empty room

The empty room

the baby. We have literally come full circle. I know the “empty nest” syndrome is as old as the hills, but for me, this is all new territory. The word for the week has been “surreal”.

Don’t get me wrong, Lyle and I are both super happy for Joel (and we even love the quieter house too). His situation in life is good – he’s with a good friend, surrounded by all the support he needs and more, he is resourceful and he is happy. I find myself so grateful for these blessings in Joel’s life, and yet, for me it still feels very weird.

My poetic right brain has begun to reflect on the room upstairs – the silent sunlight that streams in, the new space for my morning yoga. This morning I put the ironing board to use in there, but I almost felt like tiptoeing in this mystery space. So much happened in that room, and now it’s empty.

What will this new/old room become? A meditation room? A yoga room? An ironing room? All of the above? It has been a fun riddle to ponder. Themes of letting go and the silence remaining have been echoing in my heart, gratitude and tinges of sadness mixed up together.

Our friend Cal has been sending out short, daily Lenten meditations by the writer Thomas Keating. Thursday’s quote caught my eye, reminding me of my empty room reflections and I knew I had my blog topic for the week. He wrote that the spiritual journey is not a career or success story. It is more like the clutter of our false self getting cleared out of the inner rooms of our soul. It all “makes room inside us for the Holy Spirit to come in and heal. What prevents us from being available to God is gradually evacuated.”

To use another metaphor (says Keating), the spiritual journey is like an archaeological dig, as layer after layer of our false selves is removed.digsite When do we get to the bottom? When do we get to the empty room? No doubt it is the process of a lifetime, but  hopefully we are getting close and closer to the centre of who we really are.

Over the past few months, I have begun to become aware of a room of mine that has been very cluttered for probably my whole life. I could name it as the room of “feelings”. I normally consider myself a feeling person. I have been known to “tear up” easily and can easily empathize with the suffering of others, but my own feelings are in a blindspot. I was trying to explain it this week to Chris, my friend from work and she helped me express what I meant. “You have lots of feelings, but maybe you’re looking at other people’s feelings, not your own.”

That was exactly it. In my lifelong desire to be accepted by others, I direct energy towards what others need, but I have often ignored my own needs or feelings. My friend and pastor Paul has often given me the Bible verse, “Cast all your cares on God, for He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7) I could list a million cares from the world, but my own heart? It has been a challenge for me to even know what to say to God.

I noticed a shift in me this past Christmas. Paul has often told me that my headaches are perhaps more psychological in nature, and after hearing this maybe 100 times over the last 30 years, I decided to practice “casting my cares on God” more. For me this has meant simply becoming more aware of disturbing emotions and giving them to God. That’s it.

To use Keating’s metaphor of an archaeological dig, layer after layer of emotions are just sitting there, waiting to be uncovered, and it’s a messy business! I pray and give these emotions to God, and it’s kind of like handing over dirty rags – fears, anxieties, angers, resentments.

I honestly don’t know what to do with them other than humble myself and hand them over to God the healer. Caring for others might make  me look good, but giving my own cares to God makes me realize I am not as good as I thought. I have to trust that God means it about unconditional love. I’m loved not because I’m good, but because I’m a beloved daughter. (Or, to put it another way, “God does not love you because you are good, you are good because God loves you.” -Richard Rohr)

It’s now March and I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but my headaches have lessened. I know because my headache medication has been lasting longer. Last Saturday, on the day we moved Joel, I woke up with a lot of aches and pains, much more than usual and they stayed with me all day. At the end of the day, it dawned on me that maybe this was just about saying good-bye to Joel. I wasn’t even aware of sadness, but my body was. I prayed about this too and felt a lot clearer the next day.

kidzs-cast-cares-on-jesusPraying about these dark places goes against what culture normally recommends. The moment we feel these things, we are encouraged to do something about it – shop, eat, call a friend, have a bath, have a coffee… these are not bad in themselves, but sometimes they keep us from the heart of the matter and ultimately, they do not satisfy us. They keep our rooms full to the brim. Going back to Keating’s words, the distractions can keep us from being available to God.

I know I have so much more “false self” that needs to be excavated – anger that still flares up, worries about being accepted, the pride that says “Look at me”. I pray to remain open to the lessons God has for me in the tough times. God, keep the heart of my room empty for you to fill.

Two Stories

This week I have two God stories to tell.

Story #1 – Years ago, as part of a course on Stephen Covey, I was given the assignment to write a “mission statement” for my life. What did I truly believe was important for my life’s journey? I had done this once before, years earlier, but the mission statement was so long and wordy that I promptly forgot the particulars or even the gist of it (though I’m sure it was “brilliant”… or something like that!).

This second attempt at a mission statement, I decided, had to be memorable, and catchy enough to remember at the drop of a hat. I wrote something that has stayed with me through the years, so I guess I succeeded.

My mission statement: “To love as I have been loved.”

My pithy sentence came to mind last weekend after seeing a movie. Once every two months, our house church hosts a community “movie night” called the West End Movie Group. We watch a movie and talk about it afterwards over dessert. Our evenings are a fun blend of laughter and deeper talk which we all walk away grateful for. Anyone reading this blog is welcome to join us.

asitisinheavenThis past Saturday we watched a movie called “As It Is In Heaven”. Anyone would love this movie, but especially if you’ve ever sung in a choir. It is the story of Daniel, a musician who had a mission of his own. Since boyhood, he wanted to make music that would open people’s hearts. Trouble was, though he was very gifted, he was also a very driven man. Though the music he created was exquisite, he hounded both himself and those he conducted with a ruthless perfectionism. Daniel was far from his boyhood dream.

A heart attack changed everything and all his work came to a stop. Forced to end his career, he moved back to his tiny childhood village in Sweden, his heart “worn out”.  He decided his only goal now was to listen.

As great stories have the power to do, I felt invited to reflect on my own life.  My lifelong dream has been to love others but how well have I done that? If I’m honest, I saw myself in the angry musician of the movie, my interactions with others unconsciously so often driven by issues of insecurity and ego rather than love. I haven’t had a heart attack like Daniel, but my heart has become worn out over the years by the unbalanced symphony and the internal dramas going on within. No doubt my headaches are a result of this.

God has been with me as I’ve reflected on this question. I know this because I have not felt condemned for the blindness and shortcomings of my youth, which has been the way I’ve often responded in the past. Instead, a verse came to mind which I’m sure I’ve written about in past blog posts. “You do not have because you do not ask.” (James 4:2)

A prayer has been in my heart, which is the prayer of my mission statement. “God, help me. Help me to love others the way You in your vast mercy have loved me. Heal me of my self concerns and open my heart to love my students and all others who cross my path.”

The movie has left me with this prayer. On the days when I am back in that smaller world and my petty ego seems to have grabbed hold of the steering wheel again, it is of infinite help to know that God is only a breath away. I don’t have to stay there. All I have to do is ask.

Story #2 – This story is probably the longest one, but I will be short. Perhaps I will write the longer version another day. Our son Joel moved into an apartment with his buddy Erik this weekend. He’s 22 years old so it seems like the right time. An number of circumstances seemed to line up the right way and he was “ready for take-off”. Yesterday we launched him into the world. Actually, it’s more accurate to say he launched himself. He is resourceful and I’ve always thought he’ll land on his feet in this world.

Image Image 1It is an epic and kind of surreal experience as a parent. The last time his bedroom was empty was over 22 years ago before we bought the crib and change table! I don’t want to make too big a deal about it, because after all, it’s a pretty normal thing, but it does take a certain balancing act to bracket our own feelings and let the guy go. As Lyle and I prayed for him on Friday, and asked God to be with him, I had more than a few tears. There’s a whole gamut of feelings that both Lyle and I noticed. In so many ways, we see he’s ready, but in many other ways, we see his youth and lack of readiness, as I’m sure our parents saw ours when we left home. I understand more and more why our parents have told us so often over the years, “We’re praying for you.”

And so it was with all these feelings and thoughts that friends came over to help with the move yesterday. There is no better salve for epic times than the good wishes and help of solid friends. They brought laughter, absurd jokes, Tim’s coffee and muscle power. They reminded us of their prayers for Joel. They celebrated Joel’s step into the world.

As Lyle said, moving all the furniture and boxes and plants and computers seemed a bit daunting at first, but in community it’s really a different story! I think Joel felt the same way.

God, hold Joel tight.

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