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Archive for May, 2013

My Mother-in-law’s hands

We are back in Winnipeg this weekend after the funeral of my mother-in-law in Medicine Hat, Alberta. As difficult as the week was, it also abounded in reflections and experiences of God being with us. Prayers, supportive emails, phone calls and flowers from back home, a Image 1 hospitable sister and brother-in-law, hearing Lyle’s heartfelt tribute to his mom – all these served to keep us grateful and tethered to meaning.

One thing that came out repeatedly during the reflections was mom’s many acts of service – quilting, sewing, flower arranging, cooking, baking, gardening, house renovations – you name it, her hands were never idle. Lyle and I have a closet full of quilts and crocheted afghans to prove it. It was all in service to others. I’ll never forget the huge box of thoughtful kitchen and household items she got ready for me when I married Lyle. When they used to visit us, our kitchen cupboards would be restocked with canned goods, baking and the most amazing homemade noodles. She was a quiet woman, but if hands could speak, her acts of kindness would have qualified her as an extrovert.

At the funeral, the official minister gave his sermon, but it was “Uncle Leo’s” 5-minute tribute to his oldest sister that stayed with me the most. Mom had asked that her siblings sing a hymn called “Take Thou My Hands Oh Father”. It happens to be one of my favorites, with rich words and beautiful harmonies.

Before they sang, Uncle Leo used the metaphor of the hymn and talked about his sister’s helping hands. They had always been so active, but in her declining years, she had to let others give her a hand. This was not so easy for her to accept. Parkinson’s and other ravages of old age robbed her of the ability to use her hands well. The first thing she had to give up was the hours in the kitchen. It was difficult for her to let others serve her. For someone who had been so busy, it became humbling to let her hands lie still in her lap. When she first had to use her walker and then her wheelchair, she didn’t want to go to church and let others see her in her limited state, but eventually she went. Her hands were fragile by now, and she had no choice but to lean on others.

One of the items from her life on display at the front of the church was the scarf she had been knitting for our son Joel just weeks before she passed away. She had not been happy with it and had unravelled it more than once in frustration. I’ve heard that the Amish intentionally put an error into their quilts, to remember that they are not perfect and to stay humble. Olga’s scarf was filled with errors, but we see it for what it is – a rich symbol of a selfless life. Joel plans to finish it, leaving the mistakes intact, evidence of someone’s display of love even amid difficulty.

Her increasing limitations reveal what is true for us all. Youth and strength can fool us into thinking that we are self-sufficient, but the truth is that we are all dependent on God.  Not realizing this leads to pride and the independent attitude that so permeates our culture. The funeral hymn had a very fitting prayer, “Take thou my hands oh Father, and lead Thou me.”

In the days after the funeral, this prayer has become a wake-up call. There is so much I worry about. How often I forget my dependence and try to work solutions out on my own. I have had what feels like an everlasting cold in recent weeks, and it has made me wonder how much my worries have made me more vulnerable to getting sick. I’ve often written about giving my worries to God, and during this week, away from my regular work, I’ve felt called anew to give what is beyond my control to God, trusting that God has my back, guiding me where I am lost with wisdom that is beyond my limited sight.Image

Lyle prepared a slideshow for the funeral, and one picture stood out for me. Last summer, when his dad passed away, we released monarch butterflies at the graveside. There’s a picture of Lyle’s hands helping his mom’s hands to hold the monarch just before she released it. The contrast between young and old is so vivid and the picture is poignant and beautiful. Mom’s hands are fragile and wrinkled. To me it is emblematic of God’s strength amid our fragility.

I am grateful for Olga’s life, and the faith, trust and humility she exercised as she continued to let God take her fragile hands. It was not easy for her. I pray that I might not fight limitation and worry, but instead offer my hands to God and let myself be guided, like the good hymn says.

 

Angels

In the last 8 days, Lyle and I have made 2 trips by air – one planned and the other unplanned. The first was to see a stage production of C.S. Lewis’ classic The Screwtape Letters in Minneapolis, performed by one of our favorite actors Max McLean. I used our school division’s personal leave day and off we flew. Both of us were under the weather, but it was nonetheless a very fun trip, made meaningful by such a profound play. We even got to meet our hero Max McLean after the show!

Image 5

Olga Penner 1925-2013

The second trip began on Friday after learning of the sudden passing of Lyle’s mom Olga Penner, from a massive stroke. We were anticipating the long weekend at home, but within a few hours our plans changed and we suddenly find ourselves in Medicine Hat, Alberta, planning a funeral and reflecting on Olga’s life, feeling sad but also grateful in the liminal space that death brings.

I’ve been reflecting on what threads to tease out for the blog. Where has God been in all this? Something I have been struck by over and over again is gratitude for the people who seem more like angels of mercy on our travels. When you’re away from home, you feel more vulnerable being out of your comfort zone. It’s amazing how much small acts of kindness mean on a trip, especially when grief strikes so suddenly and tears are not far away.

You realize what is always true, that we are all dependent on the acts of kindness that bring healing to this broken world of ours. The list for us is long and growing longer every day: thoughtful servers at restaurants, strangers, friends and family who offer kind words, the hospitable owner of the bed and breakfast place we stayed at in MN, the kindness, empathy and support of my co-workers when they heard about my mother-in-law, the generosity of my sister and brother-in-law who are hosting us, so many people who offer their thoughts and prayers and condolences – and the list goes on and on. These small encounters are truly a life-line.

ImageOne angel we met in Minneapolis was Max McLean. He is an actor we began to follow when our church used his dramatic readings of scripture for our Wednesday Bible studies. It was inspiring to see his play but a bonus surprise was the Question and Answer time at the end of the performance. A part of the great discussion was learning about the vision of the company he founded in 1993 called The Fellowship for the Performing Arts. We live in a world where being a Christian is often badly represented and to many seems quaint, irrelevant or sadly, even repulsive. To counteract this, McLean had a dream: “to produce meaningful, compelling theatre from a Christian worldview that speaks to a diverse audience.”

We had just experienced a play that fit that mandate exactly – the play we saw was meaningful and compelling indeed. It was the highlight of our weekend. We walked away with food for thought and full hearts. McLean was quoted as saying that the words of C.S. Lewis “have intellectual integrity and dramatic power”. His stories hit us in the imagination. To think that someone out there cares about giving voice to the deep message of Christianity to is so hopeful to me. (I was also thrilled to learn they are adapting my favorite Lewis work, The Great Divorce.)

Lyle and I celebrate our 29th wedding anniversary today, May 19th. Over the years, we have stuck together (and almost split up at one point) through Image 1difficult times, and the single most important glue has been God’s faith and love for us and our being part of a meaningful faith community. We found ourselves surrounded by meaning and a lot of fun on our “anniversary weekend” together, and I have been so thankful for this not so small miracle. There were times when I could not have imagined the story would turn out that way, so I know that our God means it when scripture says, “I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

I am so grateful for all the angels that have been sent our way from God over the years, strengthening us every step of the way, giving us hope and a future.

Practicing Gratitude

“For each new morning with its light, For rest and shelter of the night, For health and food, for love and friends, For everything Thy goodness sends.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

The exercise in my morning prayer guide caught me by surprise. “Write down 10 things you are grateful for today.” I was coming down with a cold, and hadn’t yet reconciled myself to being out of bed, much less to facing a day of teaching with a scratchy voice and the prospects of being sick. Gratitude seemed like the last item on the menu of what I could offer the world.

Seen at a cursory glance, the world certainly doesn’t seem to encourage gratitude. There is so much around us that evokes only dark and cynical thoughts. The world “as-it-is” has a lot of problems! Bombings, parents of my students who neglect their kids, our culture of materialism. But never mind the world outside. My own inner world is clouded with problems as well – pride, anger, a lack of faith. Doesn’t too much of life seem like “two steps forward and three steps back”?

Richard Rohr writes that “God forbids us to accept “as-it-is” in favor of “what-God’s-love-can-make-it.” And so, putting aside my inner protests, I began to write my list.

  • I became aware of the gorgeous flowering Christmas cactus in our bathroom. I had barely paid it a moment’s notice the last few days. How is it that I routinely miss the miracles under my nose?
  • The night before, I realized with a start, as I often do, that it was already almost mid-week and I still hadn’t thought of a blog topic. Thoughts of “where was God” accompanied me as I drifted off to sleep, which was much better than the anxiety laden mindset I’d had a few minutes prior.
  • Even if I was coming down with a cold, I was grateful that I could take a day off if I needed to (which I ended up doing).
  • Earlier in the week, Paul (our pastor) had sent me an email. He’d been thinking of me while listening to a sermon online, and had some thoughts to share and encouraged me to listen to it too. I was grateful someone was looking out for me, offering mentorship.
  • I feel so grateful for the migrating birds which are so abundant these days – juncos, fox sparrows, yellow-bellied
    Ruby crowned kinglet

    Ruby crowned kinglet

    sapsuckers, purple finches, common redpolls, even a ruby-crowned kinglet – all of them such a delight to see and hear, and in my own backyard!

  • Last weekend, by chance, I bumped into an old university friend I hadn’t seen in over 25 years. When I last knew him, I was a pretty confused and lost 20-something year old. In the wake of that meeting, I realized how rich my present life is – rich in meaning and friendship and community and spirit. Even amid struggles, I know God is never far off.

As I continued my list, my heart began to shift and my doldrums lifted. Bible scholar N.T. Wright often says that God is “putting the world to rights”. As much as we are tempted to see the world “as-it-is” as small and getting smaller, God is always at work, pushing back the boundaries and making everything bigger. Where would we be without all these “chiropractic adjustments” that God does constantly, putting our hearts and world to rights?  I thanked God for each story on my list and as I continued with my day, I was surprised to find how that simple exercise had changed my day for the better. My outer circumstances didn’t change one iota, but my inner eye was seeing better.

prodigal-son

Prodigal Son by John Hrehov

At our Wednesday study night, we talked about the set point – the image of God that is our bottom line. Our imaginations can get so small and we easily lose perspective on who God really is. The story of the prodigal son offers an excellent set point. In this classic story of love and forgiveness, the son has done everything possible to separate himself from his father. Predictably, his world has become so small that he longs to eat the slop that the pigs he’s feeding are eating. As he returns, and hopes at best to be offered a job as a hired servant on his father’s farm, he finds instead a father who has been waiting the whole time and is ready to throw a party for his son who has returned.

“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged prodigal-son680him and kissed him.” Luke 15:20

Rohr says that a true Christian is an optimist, and is asked to believe that Love is constantly transforming the world into something better, despite appearances.

Am I a true Christian? I seem to be riddled with so much doubt and struggle that I’m often really not sure. Often I trudge home to God with a small imagination of who’s waiting for me. Thank God that the Parent who is waiting for me is not a “one-false-move” God, waiting to teach me a lesson for straying. Thank God that constantly, when I look up, I find forgiveness and a world that is much more expansive that I could have dreamed.

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