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Archive for August, 2013

Dare to Have Joy

This summer our community has been studying the book of Job in the Old Testament. If you aren’t familiar with the book, Job is the guy who goes through intense and huge suffering. He is met with one disaster after another. He loses his ten children, livestock, health and property.

Needless to say, he struggles to understand things, and his story raises the age old question – why does an all powerful and compassionate God allow suffering. The book is one of the wisdom books in the Bible, and Job’s poetically told story has a lot to teach.

While at the lake in early July, we listened to an audible version of this book. A background of birds and gently lapping water was a stark contrast to the crisp and angry reading of Job’s complaints and his friends’ advice which only irritated Job further. (He called his friends “worthless physicians”). I found myself wondering when it would end! Despite the dark content, it has been a profound book to think about this summer in our Wednesday Bible studies.

It occurred to me today how ironic it is that this book, so filled with tragedy, has been turning me toward gratitude. The message I have been encountering is that Job’s deep anguish was met by an even deeper consolation in God. It happened not through platitudes or even a literal answer to the question of why suffering exists. The consolation came through God appearing in the whirlwind, where Job was overwhelmed by God’s power. He had to admit that he knew very little in the face of God’s profound nature.till-we-have-faces-book-cover-1

C.S. Lewis has a similar story in the book Till We Have Faces. Orual, the main character, has a lifetime of anger stored up against who she names as “the God of the Mountain”.  Her complaints were recorded in a book that she carried around constantly and at one point she reads it in a rant against God.  When she was finally finished spewing her anger, the huge book she had been carrying was left in her hands, but was now somehow just a tiny, tattered rag.

Her suffering left her undone as she was caught up in the whirlwind. In the end, she was alone before the God of the Mountain who was much larger than she had known. What felt so huge became tattered and small. Like Job, she didn’t receive a literal answer. It was enough to realize that God was there, and was much larger than she had known.

So how do Job and Orual’s experience bring me to gratitude?  Reading Job, I was drawn in to Job’s angry complaints. They felt so justified. Whether personally or in situations in our troubled world, I think we have all felt hard done by at some point and wondered where God is in the mess.  But as large as the anger is, God’s answer in the whirlwind felt even larger.

Photo by Bev Patterson, design by Verda Heinrichs

Photo by Bev Patterson, design by Verda Heinrichs

Week after week as we studied Job, I would say that our whole group left feeling the same gratitude and profound awareness of God that I did. Hope stirred up in all of us that God was indeed greater than any situation. I had to

think of the prayer I came across a few weeks ago, as seen in this wonderful photo.

Urged by a friend, I have been reminded lately to focus more on this deeper God. I am guilty, as Orual was, of carrying around my book of woes, such as they are. I have been reminded that God is so much more than I can understand, and I am brought to writing a book, or at least a list, of another kind – a list of gratitude.

Thanksgiving is two months away, but it’s never too early to begin a list. “Dare to have joy” is what my blogging friend Mel call it, so here goes.

  • The lovely hibiscus plant on my balcony which bursts out with at least 3 new flowers every day.
  • My friend Marilyn who has been helping me set up my class.
  • Dear friends who read and encourage my writing, listening to my deeper heart along with me.
  • A full moon this last week which was so haunting and majestic.
  • The enjoyment of the farm share we’re a part of this summer, which has included a weekly visit to a neighborhood farmer’s market. Every week, I love meeting people there and seeing all the bounty of summer.
  • Turning against frantic school prep by going to the lake today!
  • Having coffee with friends this summer – a friend I’ve known since childhood (thanks Charlotte), a student teacher turned friend (thanks Karen Cook), a sister (thanks Lorie), and my parents.
  • Enjoying all the birds at the feeders and fountain in our backyard. Why can’t I get enough of them?
  • Great books that have been such good company this summer. Wild, Acedia and Me, And the Mountains Echoed by the author of the Kite Runner, The Scent of Water.
  • Being encouraged in so many ways to trust in the provision of God for the upcoming school year.

My hope is to continue to write the list every day. I realized yesterday that I’m not praying for more blessings to occur. It’s more that the eyes of my heart need to become open more widely to seeing what is there in such abundance all the time.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.”  Issiah 55:8

Rising and Falling

I have made a new friend this summer. Ok, I haven’t actually met her in person, but she has been open, honest and wise with me, sharing lessons from a difficult life. She is writer Kathleen Norris, author of Acedia and Me which I began to review in an earlier blogpost.

In pondering the theme of my next blogpost, a phrase from her book has stayed with me in recent days. She quotes a desert monk from the 3rd century who told his disciple,

Brother, the monastic life is this: I rise up, and I fall down, I rise up and I all down. I rise up and I fall down.

This quote reflects one of the lessons I am learning this summer. Those who know me know that I am prone to perfectionism. This tendency to need to get everything right has given me (and no doubt others) much grief in life. People frequently tell me that I’m too hard on myself, something I know all too well, but I catch myself at it all the time. Like an addiction, I don’t know how not to do it without a Higher Power. How do I give up trying to get it right, and the larger problem behind it of wanting to be seen as a “good person”?

Norris’ book has reminded me that I’m not alone in my struggles. She writes of facing many struggles: her husband’s illness and death, and her own tendency towards depression and perfectionism. She has reminded me that the true failure is not in having struggles common to everyone. The real failure is forgetting that God is with us amid them.

321e4bbc08c97370010f78258e54e998This summer, I’ve had to do a bit of climbing out of what John Bunyan in Pilgrim’s Progress calls the “slough of despond”. With health and emotional issues in the spring, I felt I’d lost the battle to “get it right” as grouchiness and a sense of despair gripped me, and was left with a sense of underlying depression. As I’ve sat with it in prayer, in talking with friends and in my reading, I’ve realized God has been speaking to me in my time of perceived failure, reminding me that like the old childhood game of Ring Around the Rosie says, “we all fall down”, and that, by God’s incredible mercy, we all rise up as well. The monastic life is this: I rise up, and I fall down.

You might be thinking this is pretty obvious, and I agree. The teaching is not new to me, but in the application of it, I think I am a total beginner. The question is, have I accepted God’s love of me as I am, warts and all? As the new school year approaches, can I learn to live in whatever each moment has for me, whether rising or falling, and learn contentment? I feel a stirring of hope in me lately that God is digging these lessons more deeply. And as the 13th century poet and mystic Rumi wrote, the invitation never ends:

“Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving,
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Even if you have broken your vows a thousand times
It doesn’t matter
Come, come yet again, come”

Back in early May, Lyle and I went to Minneapolis for a weekend. We had a great time, but the congested cold I had combined with an airplane ride left me with stuffed ears, a condition called barotrauma. It’s been 13 weeks, and while it is slowly healing, I am still living with this weird symptom.

As I’ve been considering the lessons God is teaching me, I have to confess that my inner ears have been

plugged as well. God was speaking all along but I was so caught up with falling that I didn’t hear God’s invitation; God’s reminder that falling doesn’t matter. What matters is walking into the future with trust that God is in every rise and fall, forgiving our stumbles even before we know they’ve happened.

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
Psalm 121:5-6

Picture from vladstudio.com

Picture from vladstudio.com

Good Medicine

It was an early Monday morning in July when I drove to my friend Moira’s house. Three of us were carpooling to Winkler to set up for the teacher’s monarch butterfly workshop. My half awake eyes were greeted by the sight of Moira emerging from her garden, clippers in hand and a look of wonder on her face.

“I have to tell you something,” she told me with a smile. “It’s the strangest thing.”

Moira works as a resource teacher at several inner city schools. Aboriginal elders sometimes give teachings and a certain bit of wisdom had stuck in her mind lately. She prefaced her revelation with something they had taught her.

images“The elders teach that when you are looking for medicine, you need to pray. The medicine is everywhere, all the time, but we need to pray for it to be revealed. When you pray, the medicine will reveal itself to you until you don’t need it anymore.” The medicine she was talking about were the many plants Aboriginal people use to heal various ailments. I pictured someone looking for sage in a meadow, not seeing any, but suddenly seeing it everywhere after praying for help.

This teaching had come to mind not while Moira was looking for plants, but for monarch caterpillars for our workshop. In a summer with such a dearth of monarchs, it has been no easy search for any of us. The act of looking, she decided, was like praying for medicine. What she was astounded by was how these caterpillars kept revealing themselves to her, just like the elders taught. She scoured her milkweed patch, thinking she couldn’t have missed any, and then she’d come upon a huge caterpillar. When I showed up for the carpool, she had just discovered a few more.

Moira probably didn’t notice, but when she shared this teaching, I began to tear up. It was almost a visceral feeling and it struck me strongly that this was a message for me.

Lately, I’d been praying to find hope and a way through the despondency I’d been feeling about teaching. Just the day before, I had asked my community for prayers in this regard at our Sunday morning service. Before heading out to my carpool the next morning, I sat down to pray for a few minutes and I kind of heaped my prayer onto Jesus’ lap. “I don’t know what to do God. I need a way through.” Before even thinking about it, I heard a reply from Jesus. “I’m already on it girl.”

It’s been two weeks since that service, Jesus’ assurance that I wasn’t alone and the teaching about medicine I received the next day. It’s hard to describe, but in these two weeks, I feel I have been receiving the medicine I had prayed for. The medicine, in fact, that those who know me best were also praying for. It has come in small doses, but noticeable enough that I have kept remembering my prayer.

My first dose of medicine was that I met two students from the first classes I ever taught, way back in the late ’80’s. They are both now teachers, and they greeted me with smiles. One woman even told me it had been the best year of her elementary schooling. Were these meetings pure chance, or did they line up with the prayer request for help? I can’t say for sure, but what I do know is that they got me thinking back to my beginnings as a teacher in the late ’80’s.

I was working in daycare at the time, wanting a job in teaching but not receiving one. One evening, I found myself praying for direction, and literally 20 minutes later, I received a phone call asking if I’d be willing to fill in for someone’s maternity leave at the school I’d been volunteering for. At the time, I took that incredible piece of timing as divine guidance. I felt God wanted me there.

Despite a lot of inner angst which seems to be characteristic of me, I have always received encouragement from parents, students and friends, confirming the calling I’d heard. When I was a kid, I used to play “school” with my best friend Doris, and the “teacher name” I gave myself was “Mrs. Penny”. With my married name being Mrs. Penner, it God was giving me another big hint that I was working where God wanted me.

Another bit of medicine God opened my eyes to was meeting a little girl across the back lane from us. Rheanna and her mom live in an apartment close by. One day when I was cleaning the car, Rheanna came to help me and we quickly became friends.  Her mom insisted she show me respect by calling me “Auntie Lydia”. Now I often see her and we have brief conversations about her cat or life in general. In a summer where I’ve been wondering how I’d go forward, her open-hearted and joyful approach to life has been a gift to me. She has given me a simple reminder that I love kids.

A scripture verse for our Sunday service yesterday talks about medicine in another way.  “Set your set_your_minds_on_things_above_poster-r0a8bd4f6e1db4904b70cf332e6c1153e_iqw_8byvr_324minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”  (Colossians 3:2)  The Message translation puts this in more contemporary language: “Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective.” 

As another school year approaches, I’ve been reminded to see things from God’s perspective. Like the medicine Moira talked about, ever since I prayed about it, I seem to be seeing a way through. Maybe I’m imagining it, but like I heard that first morning, I think God has already been on it, figuring things out. Seen from my perspective, the ground is shaky and my wonky thoughts threaten to topple my best intentions. But seen from God’s perspective, I’ve been called and I’ll be given what I need to keep walking the path of faith.

I may be a fool for thinking this way, but I’d rather pray and look for medicine than walk around with my eyes shut.

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