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Archive for December, 2013

God in the Mess

A few weeks ago, I was hurrying out the front door, car keys in hand, ready to go to the gym.  When I got to the garage (after a quick side trip to the compost bin), the keys were gone. I muttered in annoyance and hurried to the front, expecting to retrieve them quickly, but the keys had vanished.

Has anyone seen my keys?

Has anyone seen my keys?

Over the next two weeks, Lyle and I became amateur detectives, spending literally hours shoveling and digging in the deep snow and in the compost bin, hoping to spot the keys. Every time we walk past the area, we squint at the snow, hoping to make them materialize by our concentrated effort like some crazed magicians. We even borrowed a friend’s metal detector but as of today, the earth has still swallowed them. We keep looking, but it’s all in vain. The keys may just have to wait until spring to be discovered.

I have observed an increasing tendency to lose things, so much that my students have begun to notice. The other day, when I was rummaging for something or other, one of them said, “It’s because you’re old Mrs. Penner.” Another student came to my defense, saying, “She’s not old, she’s just medium-old.”

I had to laugh at both assessments, but I wasn’t laughing the week I lost my keys. How could anyone lose something so thoroughly in such a small area? Despite knowing this is definitely a “first world problem”, I couldn’t shake the feeling of franticness that made me realize I’d lost not just my keys, but my perspective.

I got a text in the days following the key loss from our friend Cal. “Remember Lydia,” he wrote regarding the keys, “God is in the mess.” I knew it was the sermon topic for the coming Sunday, but it hadn’t occurred to me that God meant even this mess.

His message stopped me in my tracks and totally changed my feelings of frantic frustration. In all my Christmas rushing around, my imagination had once again become smaller. I had my eyes on what was right in front of me, and forgot the bigger picture – that God can appear anywhere, especially in the messes. Not only had I lost my keys, I’d lost my perspective, but thanks to God working in Cal’s text to me, I was nudged back to the Kingdom.

The passage in our Sunday homily was about Joseph, the father of Jesus. He too was reeling from a mess. He was engaged to Mary when she became pregnant with Jesus, allegedly by the Holy Spirit. He wanted to “dismiss her quietly” to save her the public shame, but an angel assured him to trust in God despite the ambiguous circumstances. When Joseph cried out to God, God

Matthew 1:20

Matthew 1:20

showed up with unexpected assurance that all would be well.

In the days of Jesus, the people had specific expectations of what the Messiah would look like. They expected a King who looked more like a superhero, not a baby whose parents were too poor to find a decent hotel for the night. Not a baby whose genealogy in the gospel of Matthew included 4 women of ill repute! The people’s expectations were shattered by how God showed up. We were reminded through this story that God is always bigger than we can conceive, and that God can show up in all our outlandish situations.

I had to think through this again for this blogpost. What exactly does it mean that God is with us in the mess? I was reminded of what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that the messes are necessarily cleaned up. It didn’t happen for Joseph and Mary. In fact, their mess just got bigger! It wasn’t long before they were a fugitive family, on the run from a murderous king.

But it does mean that God’s friendship changes everything, like how we see things. Joseph received a dream on how to navigate his difficult circumstances. Wise people came, affirming that God was with them on their path.

And God has been with me, both “in weal and in woe”, as Julia of Norwich so famously said. I was grateful how my frantic feeling vanished with the reminder that God was with me in my imperfections, not once I’d figured things out. And I have seen God’s bounty in so many other places lately:

  • I have seen God’s presence in our community’s Christmas celebration and in our lively  singing. There seemed to be a palpable presence of joy with us.
  • In the gift of faithful friends who help me feel more myself so regularly, by always pointing me to my deepest values.
  • In the Christmas concert at school when everyone banded together and our best came out despite many challenges.
  • In stories of amazing generosity and love poured into the lives of those who are in difficult situations in our community and beyond.

I hope I can always remember the lesson of my keys – that God is with me in every ambiguous circumstance, providing in ways I can’t even imagine.  Here’s one of my favorite Christmas poems, where Madeline L’Engle says it much better than I could.

The risk of birth

This is no time for a child to be born.new-comet-mcnaught-1-100608-02
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out and the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born.
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour and truth were trampled by scorn—
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed and pride the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

Madeleine L’Engle

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Unlikely Friendships

For the last year, there’s been a calendar on my bedroom wall which I’ve adored. Each month features an “unlikely friendship” between two animals – 226419-bizzare-animal-friendshipsa dog and cat, a tiger and pig, or a cat and mouse. Often they are natural enemies but somehow life has brought them together, and they are bonded despite their differences.

3613467347_145d8ddbac_zI bought it because it’s an extremely cute calendar, but also because Lyle and I are unlikely friends. We are opposite in many ways, but a common faith and love has brought us together despite all the odds.

Somehow, every time I look at each month’s picture, my heart melts just a little. Whatever is conflicted inside me remembers that a new day is coming and that reconciliation, not division, will be the last word.

There’s a scripture verse that expresses what my calendar is all about, “The wolf also shall dwell ss-111014-unlikely-friends-organutan-tiger.ss_full-600x366with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” (Isaiah 11:6) As our church was preparing for the second Sunday of Advent, I realized that the calendar fits the hope of Advent perfectly.

The verse was announcing a time when harmony will reign supreme, and when places of enmity will become places of friendship. Looking at all the war and conflict in the world and at our doorsteps, it seems ridiculously impossible. Isn’t the way of the world all about predator and prey? The strong overpowering the weak and vulnerable? Yet the prophet was saying the time was coming when the natural order will be turned upside down. Jesus turned things upside down when he became a king who kept his attention on the sick, the marginalized and the broken people.

sITS1673766Our friends Arthur and Debbie invited our house church to celebrate Hanukkah with them last Saturday.  Arthur has been coming to our Wednesday night Bible studies for over 2 years and we have all enjoyed his friendship immensely. He is curious about Christianity, and as he’s gone through so many studies together with us, I’m beginning to suspect that the effect for him has been to deepen his own Jewish faith. He has helped us deepen our own faith as well, and as our friendship grows, we realize how little our “differences” matter.

This year we decided to give his family an “invisible gift” of a song. We learned the Hebrew prayer and the 3-part harmony and sang it for the circle of people gathered around the menorah last Saturday. It was one of those moments in life I will always remember. “Life doesn’t get richer than this,” I thought as the beautiful harmonies and strange but wonderful words filled the room.

The experience of practicing the song during the week was a gift to me, and steadied my heart which is so prone to doubt and fears. Just like Jesus came to prove, the lion of my fears began to lie down with the lamb of peace as we practiced during the week.  Time stopped and the words seemed to come to life as we sang. Translated, the words said,

“You’ve kept and sustained us in this season and time,

Blessed are You Adonai, Who makes the soul of the world shine.”

I couldn’t stop humming it to myself all week, and it had a calming effect on me. Like the pictures in my calendar which melt my heart, the song helped keep my sights on hope amid darkness.

Sometimes we get so used to our individual and collective monkey minds that we begin to think it’s normal. We get used to an outlook tinged with cynicism. It’s become normal to hear of murder rates in the North End. Of the homeless who fill up the shelters.  But like Bruce Cockburn sings, “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.” At our Advent service yesterday, we were reminded that Jesus came to bring us a “new normal”. A world that is “detoxified”, where every form of hurt and fear has been overcome. Like me looking at my calendar, all our hearts melted again when we saw ourselves the way God sees us, and remembered this unlikely friendship God invites us to.

Often it’s hard to truly see this “new normal”. Scripture says we see this new world through glasses that are foggy and dark, but that we are to trust BEST OF FRIENDS - THE ORANGUTAN AND THE BLUE TICK HOUNDthat it is much more true than our fears tell us. I’m reminded of this new world when I see pictures of predators inexplicably befriending prey.

And when I sang words of faith with my friends around the lights of the menorah, the world Jesus brought felt so close. Like the Grinch, my heart grew three sizes that day.

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