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Archive for July, 2013

Where are all the monarchs, and other worries

It seems that worries have been making banners and parading through my mind  lately.

Take the monarch butterflies for instance. Those who know me know I am nuts about monarch butterflies. Around this time for the past 5 summers, I help run a monarch butterfly workshop for teachers with Monarch Teachers Network. I’m also the “butterfly lady” at school, bringing monarchs into the class at school for kids to see and learn from. It’s a cause that gives me joy and purpose.

Lately though, I have been worried to the point of obsession about the future of monarchs. Reports say that this summer, they are down 90% across North America. Their disappearance is not a sudden thing. Like many species in the world, climate change and the effects of drought, pesticides and habitat loss have put this beautiful insect at risk. As I understand it, the species is not yet officially threatened, but the phenomenon of migration is.

We’ve known these facts for a while, since scientists have been tracking a steady decline in overwintering numbers for many years now, but the monarch’s absence this summer has brought it home. I find myself worried, as many people are. I catch myself feeling angry at others who are abusing the planet until I remember that I am one of them! Sure, I recycle, compost and concern myself with environmental causes, but as I drink my Keurig coffee, drive my car and tap on my luxury computer, my “global footprint” is still larger than I realize. I am part of our North American lifestyle.

As I have observed this worry track through my brain lately, I have become aware of another one. After a spring with various health issues coming to the fore at work, I have been worried about the coming fall. I wonder about my vocation – am I still called to stay in this place? The other night I had my first back to school dream. These dreams have visited me regularly over the years, and I’m sure every teacher has them. The main plot is disaster – not getting to school on time, a lesson that is blocked from happening, an out of control class.

These worries point to a certain despondency  I’ve had all my life. Van Morrison sings about it – “Underlying depression and it’s starting in my backyard”. These lyrics run through my mind, hinting with dark insistence that my worries are the bottom reality of my life.

Well, I’ve discovered yet again that it takes a village, or at least a community, to raise me from my thoughts. I was reminded of something running deeper than my worries when our community had some verses to consider for our upcoming Sunday meeting. In particular, one verse has stayed with me. “Everything is held together by Him.” Colossians 1:17.

Eldon is the guy in our community who uses his artistic talents in creating centerpieces to illustrate spiritual truths. He wasn’t sure how to illustrate this verse until he thought of a gyroscope. I have never seen one in action until I saw this video. It is a pretty mysterious instrument, but the shortest explanation I could understand was that it will always keep spinning in the same direction. It is one of the laws that Newton discovered.

Centerpiece by Eldon Heinrichs - Photo by Paul Patterson

Centerpiece by Eldon Heinrichs – Photo by Paul Patterson

Gyroscopes are used in many ways. For example, in an airplane, no matter which way an airplane tips, the gyroscope will keep spinning in the same direction, indicating to the pilot when things are askew. It’s the same force that makes the earth keep spinning (more or less) in the same direction.

We talked about how God acts much like this gyroscope. No matter which way our lives tip over with worries and other dark underlying tendencies, God holds us and keeps us level. It’s not that God can do this, rather, God does it. Everything is held together in God, like the verse says. Like those trust exercises everyone has done where you let yourself fall backwards to arms waiting to catch you, it’s all a matter of trust in something beyond ourselves. Or rather, Someone.trust-3

It was a good reminder when I thought of my worries over the effects of climate change and my worries after disaster school dreams. Seen from a human point of view, things seem grim, but seen through God’s eyes, things take on a deeper view. Like the gyroscope, I don’t really understand how this consoles me, I just know that I left the Sunday meeting feeling more assured that, like Julian of Norwich says, “All will be well.”

As I write these words, I’ve just returned from our 8th annual monarch butterfly workshop. The livestock (yes, that’s what we call the caterpillars and butterflies) was much less abundant this year, and what we did have to show the participants seemed to have a much higher prevalence of disease and parasitism. It seemed a foreboding confirmation of all the bad news around climate change. Throughout the workshop, I tried to keep the verse from Colossians in my heart.

We always end the workshop with a butterfly release and we only had 2 butterflies this year. One had a broken wing and the other had a crumpled wing and possibly a disease called OE, but we gathered outside with the butterflies in our hanging net. To everyone’s shock and amazement, these two butterflies decided to begin mating on the spot. They had only just met, but that didn’t stop them! They managed to fly off after separating their brief connection.

When I returned home, I reflected on the event and the meaning of it began to hit me. It was like these

Mating Butterflies about to be released

Mating Butterflies about to be released

two broken butterflies were defying the odds and displaying that the life force was greater than what was wrong with them. It seemed to me to be a perfect enactment of the verse that had struck me earlier in the week. There’s a lot wrong in our fragile world, but maybe, just maybe, there’s a balancing out that is happening beyond our understanding.

Somehow, tiny bit by tiny bit, it’s all starting to sink in that God has not only my back, but the universe’s back in control. Like the pilot trusting a gyroscope, I want to trust that in God’s good time and in God’s way, “All will be well.”

We cannot fall beneath the arms of God.

However low we fall,

They are still underneath us.

-William Penn (1644-1718)

Summer Reading

One of the benefits of a slower pace in the summer is that I get to read more. While at the lake last week, I cracked open a book with the odd title Acedia and Me by Kathleen Norris. “I thought this could be relevant for you,” said my friend Cal after he and his wife Linda acediaandmelrgpicked it up for me on a trip. Cal knows me well since he and I often struggle with the same types of issues. “Let me know what the book is like,” he added, and even though I am only ¼ of the way through the book, I thought I’d begin to answer Cal’s request. He was right, the book has been very relevant already.

I had heard the term acedia over the years as one of the seven deadly sins. Some think of acedia as sloth or depression, but it is more nuanced. Norris defines it:

“…as the spiritual aspect of sloth. The word literally means not-caring, or being unable to care, and ultimately, being unable to care that you can’t care. Acedia is spiritual morphine, but it does more than mask pain. It causes us to lose faith in ourselves and in our relationships with others.”

The word was originally coined by the desert fathers and mothers of the 3rd century AD. They were a group of hermits and monks who lived in the deserts of Egypt to escape the pagan world and flee the persecution of Christians. Renouncing any pleasures of the senses and  embracing solitude, they deliberately removed distractions from their lives so they could enter a deeper relationship with God. The spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, poverty and celibacy were practiced.

images-2I know when I remove distractions from my life in order to focus on something, it doesn’t take long before I get squirrely and restless. Simply opening a new page to begin a blogpost invites the urgent need to clean my keyboard or check my Facebook status. Any distraction seems much more inviting than what I had set my mind to doing. I can become like a horse veering off course without blinders.

As the monks sat in their cloistered room (called a cell), seeking to follow God’s call in prayer or scripture reading, they frequently reported being tempted to want to be anywhere but where they were. As Norris writes, acedia’s assualt wasn’t just an occupational hazard, it was a given. They became restless and faint-hearted.  One monk from the 4th century wrote that acedia made it seem that the sun was barely moving, if at all, and that the day seemed fifty hours long. It became the worst at noon as the sun became hot and the monk was hungry and fatigued. He became highly susceptible to the suggestion that a commitment to a life of prayer was not worth the effort.

The monks went to the desert fathers for advice and the condition was diagnosed as acedia, whose greek root meant “an absence of care”. It was said to be the vice that caused the most serious trouble of all, and it began to be known as “the devil of the noonday sun”.

Every diagnosis needs a prescription, and the monks received the spiritual direction to resist the temptation to want to leave their cells. In fact, they were told to stay in the place that was the most difficult, right where the demon seemed to visit. “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything,” one monk was told. In another piece of advice that could be a fridge magnet, a monk was told to “Water a dry stick daily until it bears fruit.”

Norris writes of Maurice Sendak’s book Pierre, where a child keeps saying “I don’t care” to imagesevery parental inquiry. Finally a lion encounters the boy and wants to eat him. When the boy habitually responds with “I don’t care,” the lion pounces and eats him. The book has a happy ending when the lion is shaken upside down and Pierre emerges images-1and is happy that he is not dead and realizes life is worth living. This image of being consumed by apathy, says Norris, is a perfect image of acedia.

As I sat reading beside the placid lake last week, I read these ancient words and thought of my own profound inclination to be distracted and sink into an “I don’t care” outlook on life when life gets difficult. The metaphor of watering a dry stick is exactly how it often feels to stick with the discipline of prayer or ask the blog question, “Where is God this week?” Isn’t it just easier to give in to the insistent voices that say my anxiety or self-absorption is all there is?

I felt addressed by the book, both in having my own “I don’t care” tendencies diagnosed as a spiritual temptation as well as the advice I received that it can and needs to be resisted. Norris makes it clear early on in the book that acedia is a vice that is best countered by spiritual practice and the discipline of prayer. She spends quite a bit of time distinguishing between acedia and depression, the latter being an illness that is best treated by counseling and medication. This route has never worked for me.

I’m no monk, but our home becomes a bit of a hermitage when Lyle and I spend time reading and set regular times aside to pray, alone and together. Our community is a hermitage in our gatherings where we study scripture, pray and worship together. It has been good to recognize the temptations that exist in this calling and that I don’t have to be a victim.

“You will not fear the terror of the night,

Nor the arrow that flies by day,

Nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,

Nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.” Psalm 91:5-6 (ESV)

Tribute to Evy: Strength in Weakness

In the last 2 weeks, I have been combing over memories of my cousin Evy. She passed away on June 22nd. She has been in my thoughts and prayers in the entire 6 and ½ years that she lived with cancer, even more-so in the last 6 months when we heard the end might be nearing. It feels impossible to do this adequately, but here is my tribute to her.

It’s a mystery to me how someone I have seen less than 10 times in my adult life can be someone I felt so close to, and whose death has prompted so many tears. Even as I sit to type these words, tears spring quickly to the surface. She married in the same summer I did, but our paths took different turns when she and Jerry moved out of province. Considering the years and miles between us, it is hard to logically explain the place she has in my heart, but it is indisputably true.

Pondering memories of Evy has been like walking on the beach, uncovering a never-ending supply of stones, finding a mini-world under each. I began to call these memories the “Evy Canon”, and I have bent the ears of any friends who would listen lately. As I saw when I went to the Winnipeg memorial for her on July 1st, I am not the only one. Someone mentioned the phrase, “Evy lore” – everyone had stories about her pranks and jokes and creativity and love.

I have described her as a female “Huck Finn” in my life. Growing up, the Mennonite world was quite conservative with its list of “Thou-shalt-not’s”, but she brought a spark of adventure and fun to each family gathering. When we cousins tried to read the plaques bearing Bible verses in indecipherable Gothic German script, we dissolved into irreverent laughter. That particular sin of ours never got discovered by the adults in the next room, but our attempts at playing “baptism” did and we were reprimanded. Who knew that it was wrong to “baptize” each other in the air in our Oma’s front hallway? Evy was the one who invented these and other crazy games we’d play in the upstairs spare room that we sought retreat in.

There were 4 of us who were similar in age, and Evy was quick to secure our bond by giving us one name – “Hemestevia” was comprised of Hemmy, Esther, Evy and myself (Lydia). When Esther’s family moved to Calgary, Evy hatched a plan at one gathering – why not ask our parents if we could take the train (without parents of course) to go visit her? To our astonishment and delight, they said yes and a pack of pre-adolescent girls began our adventure. Everyone on the train became friends and once we got to Calgary, “Hemestevia” did not stop laughing. To this day, that trip is one of my fondest memories, and in recent weeks as Hemmy and Esther and I have shared over Facebook, it is #1 in the memory bank.

Evy also was a master at making little books to give to people. The occasions of birthdays prompted a home-made book, and it was an art I took up in my own adolescent circle of friends. To this day, I love making cards for my friends and I think the seed came from Evy’s love of unique creativity.

Evy was two years ahead of me in school, and her antics became legendary. I heard of the time she skipped class and borrowed the janitor’s hat and pail and squeegee and climbed the ladder, washing the window of the very class she was skipping. Her jokes were always marked by absurd and bizarre humor. Her laughter was intense and gutsy. She taught us to speak “Egg-Latin” and when we took a Singer Sewing course together one summer, we sang through the entire Sound of Music, no doubt to the bemusement of our teacher who was used to more demure young ladies.

I often took the same paths she did – she was the yearbook editor and I followed in her footsteps in my grade 12 year, my friend and I pulling off a ridiculous campaign marked with crazy humor much as she would have. I went to the same Bible School in Colorado as she did, and when our paths crossed again at MB Bible College in Winnipeg, she passed on the torch of editing the college newspaper, opening a vocational path for me like its name, “The Door”, promised.

When cancer entered Evy’s life in 2007, it was hard to believe that a shadow of death could fall on this beautiful life. I was privileged in that first year to go for coffee with her and a few other cousins when she visited Winnipeg, and it was then that our friendship went to a new place, beyond jokes and pranks. I heard of the deeper journey she’d set on – the many anxieties and fears surrounding her and the relationship with God that was sustaining her. She was open about both the fears and the faith, and my heart opened up about my own journey as we talked. It was the beginning of the closeness in Spirit that I would continue to experience with her despite the miles. As Jerry her husband said at her memorial, Evy had touched so many people in her strength, but would paradoxically go on to touch so many more people in her weakness. “My [God’s] grace is sufficient for you, and My strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Through the years, praying for her has invited me on a path of trusting God’s sufficient grace amid my own weakness, amid circumstances I

Evy and I in 2009

Evy and I in 2009

don’t always understand. Like many others, I prayed for her routinely, giving thanks when test results seemed positive and praying for strength and faith when news didn’t seem good. Knowing that she too was trusting in the “no matter what-ness” of God gave me strength in whatever trials I was facing.

Evy and I had a bond in my own sister Hilde who had passed away from leukemia in 1968. As children and adults, this had impacted both of our lives deeply. In those early years of cancer, Evy told me how much she had thought of Hilde. I’ve always believed that Hilde is somehow an angel guide for me in this life, and I began to believe this for Evy as well.

We went on to have a few more visits, phone calls and letters over the years. I am infinitely grateful that I was able to visit with her over coffee this past Christmas. It was clear that cancer had taken its toll and she was much quieter, but love still shone through blue eyes whose clear beauty I had never noticed before.  We prayed together at McDonalds, giving thanks for deep friendship rooted in faith, and for the meaning and love that cancer can not steal from a life. We prayed for God to still carry us all through whatever lay ahead, and for peace that is stronger than fear. The trust in God and the simple love for me touched me deeply. The prayer broke my heart even while it strengthened it. A famous hymn says it perfectly, “Joy and sorrow flow mingled down.”

In the last year, during my Saturday morning runs, I make a stop by Winnipeg’s Assiniboine River to pray for a few minutes. For a long while, Evy has been on my prayer list and I don’t think I will stop now. I will continue to pray… for her family who now must grieve her loss, but I will also give prayers of thanks for this spark of life which has been such a gift to so many.

Evy, I am so grateful for all the fun you brought into my life, but I am even more grateful for the witness to God you became in your weakness. You gave thanks to God and trusted even when doctors and hospitals and even alternate treatments could no longer help you. I hope I can honor your memory by believing, like you did, that with God, all things are possible. Rest in peace dear friend. I love you.

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