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Why The Blog Has Been Neglected…

It’s been an entire 2 months since my last post. It’s not because I’ve stopped seeing God in my days, but that I’ve had a new, exciting writing project on the go.

When I left teaching, a real anxiety came up as I wondered, “What am I supposed to be doing now?” For a while I thought I’d be working 1/2 time in teaching, but when that didn’t work out, a window opened for me with a 1/2 time job at my house church, and a lot of that has involved writing.

how-do-i-write-blog-postsI’ve been hard at work writing entries to a new blog, which is launching today. In 2015, Watershed did a study on the book of Revelation, that wacky book at the end of the New Testament which one author has called “off-the-charts weird”. It was such a helpful study for us that we decided to offer a summary of it in a 10-week “online course” called “Rescuing Revelation”. It became my first job assignment, and it’s been a doozy.

I don’t know what your associations are with this book, but it was a source of terror for me growing up. The idea of that Christian would be suctioned up to heaven (with “non-Christians” being left behind) in an event called the “rapture” was introduced to me as a teenager. (For the record, the word or concept of “rapture” is not ever mentioned in the Bible.) The church of my youth showed a 1972 movie called “Thief in the Night,” which showed people suddenly disappearing when Jesus came to get them.

It terrified me! Every time I came home to an empty house, my heart would start to pound as I thought  the rapture had happened and I was left behind. It led me to “asking Jesus into my heart” over and over again, which if you ask me is not a great way to start being someone’s friend! (Luckily we got through that rough start!)

I know I’m not alone in that experience. My heart grieves for others who were ever terrified or led astray like me from the heart of the gospel. The “left behind” theology is so dangerous because God loves the world, and God will never leave the world behind.

When we began our course in January, 2015, our first assignment was to listen to the book of Revelation straight through. It was like trying to listen to someone’s really long, bizarre and violent dream, and it wasn’t long before I began tuning out. Honestly, I was dreading the course, and I know I wasn’t the only one.

Like any tricky subject, having a good teacher makes all the difference. And Revelation is definitely a tricky book. You need to know what you’re reading and how to read it. A Lutheran theologian named Craig Koester was our main guide through the course. He has made the study of Revelation one focus of his life’s work, and through “The Great Courses” (which offers university-level video courses), he teaches about it in 24 video sessions. He makes the book clear, engaging and meaningful.

What we learned through the video series, the accompanying book and the guidance of our resident teacher and mentor Paul Patterson, is that Revelation is a call to faithfulness for anyone who is struggling or even seduced by the false powers of the dominant culture. Despite our deep initial reservation, Revelation went from being a book we were slightly embarrassed by into one that became hope engendering and profoundly practical.

Whenever someone has experienced a health conundrum, as I have with headaches, you need something greater than the problem to take you through it. Otherwise a person starts to despair. For me, my assignment of writing about Revelation has been that “something greater”. I had the honor of sifting through all the material again. I listened once more to Koester’s lectures and our rich discussions and began to summarize and synthesize the material. It’s largely how I spent my winter, and I’m still not done. The themes of love and healing in the book helped me maintain my focus and give me a deeper source of hope in God. I truly fell in love with this book as I wrote about it.

If you’d like to take a peek, here’s a link and an invite. The writing is mine and my friend Linda did the technical side of things. We’ll post a new blog entry every Monday for the next 10 weeks. And hopefully it won’t be too long before I write on this blog again.


Revelation is a book many people would rather ignore. With its violent imagery and a sword-wielding, warrior Jesus who seems straight out of a Hollywood movie, it hardly seems to emulate the “Love thine enemies” Jesus of the gospels.

Besides the skewed reading of the violence, Revelation has also been misused as a crystal ball over the centuries, in a (failed) attempt to predict the end of the world. Christians supposedly get suctioned up to heaven in a strange event called the “rapture”.

So, why should we read the book of Revelation? Read more…


Known and Loved

My dear friend Delia recently invited me to come share my faith story with the small house church she is part of here in the West End called Little Flowers. I pared my talk down for the blog.

Late in 2014, a book from 1958 on the parables of Jesus called The Waiting Father came recommended and I found a used copy online.  Making my way through each of the 16 chapters has been a slow and steady feast, each of them a sermon on one of Jesus’ parables.

money-03I’d come to the parable about the talents. You might know the story, where the master is going away and asks his servants to invest 10 “talents” (the local currency) while he’s away. Some versions call them pounds and one  just calls them money. Several servants invest the money wisely while the last servant hides his away, fearful of his master’s hard and cruel reputation.

What were those pounds all about? I think I’ve always assumed it was the assignment God gave us to do on earth. The keeners will get it right and do the assignment correctly, but maybe some of us will procrastinate and do nothing, scared of getting it wrong or messing up in some way. In any case, it never sounded much like fun to me.

The author helpfully wrote that it’s not about any to-do list or assignment, rather, the pound is actually our name. I’m Lydia Helga, but it’s not the literal name Jesus had in mind. Scripture says each one of us also received a name from God. Besides our biological, flesh and blood birth, we’re born in the Spirit. Our pound, the currency we are to invest in this world, is the name God gives us. The author says, “We are not nameless little people. We are children who are known and loved. And this name, the name we bear as children of God, this is the pound.”

So I want to talk about the name God gave me, and my deepest hope is that you’ll hear your own name too.

Psalm 139 is my “life Psalm” that I adopted years ago, and it expresses well this identity of being known and loved. Here’s a few verses:

Lord, you have examined me.

    You know me.

You know when I sit down and when I stand up.

    Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.

You study my traveling and resting.

    You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.

There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord,

    that you don’t already know completely.

You surround me—front and back.

    You put your hand on me…

Where could I go to get away from your spirit?

    Where could I go to escape your presence?

If I went up to heaven, you would be there.

    If I went down to the grave, you would be there too!

I was born into a Mennonite family in North Kildonan, the youngest of 4 girls. They say your first memory is telling, and mine is a happy one. I’m lying on the bed with my sisters, just 1 1/2 years old. Our feet are up against the slanted ceiling on the second floor, and we’re laughing. Another snapshot of myself is seeing myself with my family at Caddy Lake as a toddler, so happy to be in nature, and happy in my place in a loving family.

These two memories seem close to the name God gave me. I think I was holding my “pound” pretty tightly;  knowing myself as a child of God who is known and loved.

As I grew older, I began to forget my true name. It’s a pretty common twist in the plot of anyone’s life. We start to layer up our hearts, and who we really are, like so many layers of an onion. In the parable, one of the servants takes the pound he was given, thinks the master is cruel and wraps it carefully in a handkerchief and pockets it.

If I look carefully over my life, I took my name and did just that. A shadow crossed my family’s life when my oldest sister died of leukemia when I was 7. It’s not unlike the grief that many families experience in one way or another, and for me it was a life-changer. Amid the free floating but rarely expressed grief of our household, I buried my own thoughts, feelings and deeper identity.

I know now that God saw our broken hearts, and was crying along with us, but at the time I don’t think I knew that darker emotions had a place in the Kingdom we heard about in Sunday’s sermons. And so, I took matters into my own hands and became eager to win everyone’s favor. I formed a habit which has given me much trouble in my adult life – I became a people pleaser. On the outside I was a good kid, but there was a deep restlessness. My God given name was hiding in a handkerchief in my pocket.

I remember when I got to grade 7, I found a friend who seemed to have the same trouble as me. We didn’t know how to be ourselves, so we developed this code. “Be Yourself,” we told each other. Or we shortened it to B.Y. But what did it mean? I could never put my finger on who exactly I even was anymore. What did it mean to be myself? I could never pull it off, and I sure didn’t feel any of the peace the Bible talked about.


Art by Eldon Heinrichs Photo by Paul Patterson

My pound couldn’t have been too buried in my pocket though, because I kept hearing my true name. It wasn’t that I was being such a good listener, instead I think the Good Shepherd was utterly faithful, creative and relentless in calling me despite my game of hide-n-seek.

So I heard God call in different places… at summer bible camp in the singing and the Bible stories that seemed new there; through youth leaders at church who accepted and prayed for this geeky teenager who wrote bad poetry; through my school, MBCI, which gave me friends and teachers who modeled Christ’s love. I heard my name often as a writer, and still do.

As an adult, God has used our small house church to call my name. Paul, our pastor, has helped myself and so many hear our true name. There’s a story in the Bible about finding a treasure in the field, which you’re so happy to find you’ll do anything to keep it. It’s the old name wrapped in the handkerchief.

Being known and loved is not always a comfortable experience though. Those parts of ourselves we think of as ugly are exposed, and quicker than a blink we forget the other half of the name — that we are loved warts and all. Like the Psalmist says, nothing, especially not the ugly bits, can keep God’s love away from us. Sometimes we hear comforting words about God’s unconditional love, but sometimes the words are more like a surgeon’s scalpel of what we need to give up to follow faithfully. When we know we are soaking in God’s love, it’s easier to trust the Surgeon.

As we heal, we begin to see that everyone else has this God-given name as well; our neighbor, our colleague at work, the cashier at Safeway, those we disagree with and even our enemies — all bear the royal name. We can look at everyone with completely new eyes when we realize this.

We all go into hiding so routinely. Sometimes I invest the pound I have, at other times a faithful soul gives one to me. It’s an ongoing marketplace in God’s economy, this giving of coins that helps us remember who we are.

Years ago, Paul shared an old sermon with me from 1737 by a guy named Thomas Boston which has been a huge help over the years in correcting my view of God. Boston’s wife lived with paralyzing depression and he himself had what some think were chronic kidney stones.

UnknownThe sermon was called “Crook in the Lot,” and Boston wrote about our lives like a big lot of wood. There are many straight pieces of wood in the piles, but there’s also these crooked, gnarled pieces of wood, all the ugly pieces. You’d think God would want the straightest, best pieces to work with, the pieces with the best grain. But somehow, Thomas Boston preaches, God is like a ragpicker and looks at the crookedest piece of wood in the lot, picks it up, smiles and says, “This is the piece I can use the best.” God turns that crooked piece over and over in his loving hands, considering the beauty that can be made from its crookedness. This beautiful picture has changed my idea of God.

Lately, I’ve been turning my pound over and over in my hand like a treasure, andknotted ideas for investment seem infinite. A smile to a stranger, a door opened for a struggling mom, a joke shared with a student, a carefully written email, a blogpost, a prayer for my enemy in the stillness of the morning — all of these are investments. I have them to give away because I was given so many to begin with. In some kind of crazy math equation, every time I give my pound away, I keep getting 10 back. I feel like the luckiest person alive with all this wealth. And if by some choice I bury it again, I know God won’t quit calling my name, unearthing that treasure.

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.

Prayer and the Imagination

The alarm on my clock radio was going off way too early. Hadn’t I just gone to sleep? I’d spent a few too many late nights getting my school alarm-clock-ringingassessments done. My stomach was achy and my yawns were insistent.

But, habit is a routine hard to break, and I got up and went to my daily quiet time with scripture and prayer. As soon as I sat down, a cynical thought greeted me that morning. “Why are you even doing this prayer thing? It’s foolish not to be sleeping instead. It doesn’t change anything anyways.”

My disbelieving thought stayed with me for a moment. It felt so logical and I considered heading straight back to bead, but another thought kept me there. Unbidden, my friends in the faith came to my imagination, and I realized they’d never agree with the skeptic. They would (and do) encourage me to stick with the discipline of prayer, believing, as C.S Lewis once famously said, “we were made for another world.”

I stayed with the prayer time. I usually pray for my faith community, my family and others who come to mind, but that morning, I just imagined them in a circle with me, joining hands, united in a purpose beyond the logic of the world.

That prayer time, as with many others, came to me as a gift that morning and despite feeling hemmed in by the demands of the job, the day felt expansive. My cynical thought had insisted that prayer doesn’t change anything, but my experience proved otherwise. It stayed with me all week, and deepened a sense of gratitude even as I  took deep breaths trying to get everything done.

Present-Perfect-CoverPrompted by a book I read this year called Present Perfect by Gregory Boyd, I have been imagining Jesus with me during my prayer time. Boyd says that this practice helps us rest in God instead of making prayer an obligation. Jesus sits with me in my imagination, and encouraged by the verse which says to “cast all our anxieties on him”, I imagine giving all my worries to him. I literally take them and dump them on Jesus’ lap.  Boyd writes that this sense of resting in God is not just a technique, but is how we stay awake to what is true.

Over the months since I’ve been doing this, I’ve noticed a few things. First of all, it helps lighten what is weighing me down. I remember often that I’ve given things to God and it’s like resetting a computer or erasing my whiteboard at school at the end of the day. Jesus has become more real; Someone I love rather than an idea. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I have also been noticing far less bodily aches and pains in the months since I’ve begun this practice.

Earlier in his life, C.S. Lewis had quite an inner battle of the use of imagination vs. the use of reason. He used to think that reason trumped the imagination and became an atheist as a result. It began to dawn on him that everything that his mind came to solely through reason produced only a dull and unhappy life, whereas the places that his imagination led him produced joy. He began to see that while reason was the natural organ of truth, “imagination [was] the organ of meaning.”  His friend Owen Barfield, introduced him to the notion that reason and imagination could co-exist and it changed his world forever. Giving up his atheism, he gave his life to God, then Jesus and the world is much the richer for it.

It’s this sense of meaning that has accompanied me in my journey of imaginative prayer. I’m the furthest thing from an expert. I am often distracted by what the Buddhists call “monkey mind”, and my imagination clearly is often limited by mistrust and doubts. But I have tasted enough of Jesus’ presence to feel encouraged to continue; to steep my life in the reality that I am not alone in this universe.

When I was a teenager, our youth group painted the walls of a room at church with murals. Though the walls no longer exist since the church was circlesdestroyed by fire in 1998, one mural has always stayed with me. The mural depicted 2 thrones. On one throne was a great big S, which stood for a life where the Self directs life, and on the other throne was a cross. Here, the Self is not in charge anymore and the Self yields to Christ.

In both circles, the dots represent our interests. When self-directed, our interests result in discord and frustration, but given to God, they result in harmony.

It is a simple depiction of my deepest desire. I want always to sit with Jesus, giving everything to God’s care and serving God’s purposes. In the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu, “I want what God wants.” And on the days when my imagination is clouded by self-direction, when I am fighting this release, I give my scattered-ness to God, asking to “want to want” a life touched by God’s imagination. It is the only life I want.

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

God’s Smile

I know it happens to everyone at times, but I have been way off balance for the past while. A few things have been going on, but one is work. We had student led conferences to prepare for. It’s always a lot of work, but what gets my nerves jangled is being “on stage”. I start getting all anxious about my performance and get tempted by the “not good enough” scripts which are ancient in my DNA. For me, getting off balance usually means that the headaches kick in and then it becomes a double battle.

These anxiety laden times come and I know it is not just the outer circumstances. I bring it on myself.  I was praying, and keeping an open eye for God in the midst of it all. Besides the prayers and support of Lyle and my community, two signs, like angel messages, came to me which were clear signs from God.

The first sign happened after school one day. Reviewing some student work and cleaning the class before leaving for home, I was feeling quite down about all the challenges of the day. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I heard a quiet but quiet clear message in my inner ear, almost as if it was audible. The voice was full of compassionate love.

“I’m so proud of you.”

This message came to me from outside myself. It’s hard to describe this experience and it probably sounds more than a bit kooky, but I had to admit, someone was saying it… to me. It honestly felt like it was from God.

“Proud? Of me?” I immediately wondered. I only saw before me my own self-doubts and feelings of failure. How could it be true that God would be proud of me? But I could not deny what I had heard, and began to reconfigure my perceptions of my day and my week. Maybe, just maybe, my perceptions weren’t to be trusted, and I felt strangely consoled.

Anthony De Mello, a Jesuit priest who died in 1987, wrote “Behold the One beholding you, and smiling.” God’s words, so unexpected and kind, were a smile from beyond that kept returning to me during the week, reorienting this wayward child. It was a reassurance of who I really am, beyond performance.

That evening, my friend Lorna asked if I had a poem about metamorphosis. She needed it for her writing class, and since I’m the “butterfly lady”, she phoned me. I emailed her a poem my friend Marilyn once wrote for me, but in the meantime, Lorna emailed me a story she came across thanks to Google.

It’s the story of someone watching a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis. Seeing it 342265_r9HMXdefstruggle, the person took a pin and helped it out, only to watch the new butterfly die after being released. The struggle had been meant for its own good, to strengthen it for its new life. Without the struggle, the new life could not be completed.

I’d heard this story of transformation and the value of struggle years ago, and didn’t think too much more about it until the next evening.

At our Wednesday study night, my other friend Cal told me he had a short story he wanted me to read. Knowing of my being off balance, he’d been praying for me. “It’ll just take you a minute,” he said. He passed me a book by Thomas Keating called Invitation to Love, and the story inside was the same story Lorna had shared! It was a synchronicity. I hadn’t heard this story in years and the fact that it came to me twice stopped me in my tracks. This too was God speaking to me. I was being reminded that struggle is not only ok, but necessary for growth. I’d forgotten this.

Keating writes that when we are in the midst of temptation and difficulties, God does not necessarily rush to our rescue. The struggle itself is opening us and preparing us for God’s divine energy of grace. In God’s world, struggles strengthen us. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4

GodLovesyouSpring this year in Winnipeg has been slow in coming. Snowbanks in our yard are still higher than my knees, but I’ve noticed something. With the ever-lengthening hours of sunlight, the sun’s persistent smile is lessening the snow bit by bit despite the cool temperatures; despite appearances.

Many times our hearts are like this wintery spring, like C.S. Lewis’ description of Narnia, “always winter but never Christmas.” We hold an icy disbelief in our hearts that God could ever love us just as we are. I had a glimpse this week of God’s infinite smile, and I am so grateful. God never stops melting our resistance and breaking the barriers we hold.

I pray that spring will arrive fully and finally in all our hearts.

Out With the Old

This week our house got upheaved as we had our kitchen painted. We carried countless items to another room, marveling with dismay at how much “stuff” we’ve collected in our 22 years here. Our friends Cal and Sean scraped, filled in holes, washed, sanded, caulked and finally painted.  The kitchen is sparkling new now, transformed from lifeless beige to “Lazy Sunday” blue with white trim. Thanks to their

The new kitchen

The new kitchen

hard work, we’ve entered the new year in style.

My work began once the last of the drop sheets and paint paraphernalia had been carted out –  the sorting and tidying of the post-renovation task. It became an opportunity to decide what we wanted to keep and what could be given to thrift stores. De-cluttering is a time-consuming job, but also energizing as we made our lives a bit more simple and organized.

As I spent time emptying cupboards, I realized that much of the de-cluttering would be hidden. Few people besides us cooks would really be looking into the far reaches of the cupboards. Yet it was still an important task, as we emptied our lives of things that were no longer useful to us.

I’ve also been doing a fair bit of sifting through the events of 2012, and the parallels began to emerge as I cleaned the kitchen. I realized that God had done some cleaning up of the hidden corners of my soul this past year. Like the items in my thrift store pile, some old attitudes just don’t feel important anymore.

One of these hidden corners is my outlook on my job. For some reason this fall, a shift took place in me. My friends and family can attest to all the years of agonizing I’ve done over my role as a teacher – all the planning and stresses that come with the territory which I’ve taken way too seriously. I have not done this perfectly, but it has felt like this time is over. Like living in a new room, I have been reading or writing more in the evenings, and have come to value and draw strength from this place of inner quiet. To me, this is one way that  prayer feels real.

I think the weekend trip to Vancouver that Lyle and I took just before school began had a lot to do with it. Instead of stressing about

Josh Garrels live in Vancouver

Josh Garrels live in Vancouver

school, we took walks, “wasted time” in Vancouver’s beauty, and of course took in a great concert. It was like I was marking the destination of my year as tending to my soul rather than to the many manufactured crises that I think I was previously addicted to.

Perhaps I state it better if I say God gave me an invitation to walk a different way: “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10) Ironically, within the stillness, I have felt more myself with my students and co-workers.

Another old attitude that God cleaned up in 2012 was that God helped me let go of a situation that I could not resolve on my own. In place of anger, God gave me forgiveness and freedom. It was a true testament to the power of prayer.

2012 was a year of many visible blessings:

  • Running
  • The many times of study and worship with our community which kept us steeped in God’s hope and meaning
  • Singing at Lion’s Manor with my buddies Marilyn and Eldon
  • Volunteering with Habitat and Monarch Teachers Network
  • Increasingly enjoying my job
  • Seeing Josh Garrels live in Vancouver with Lyle
  • Seeing many great movies, plays and concerts with Lyle

These were some of the visible things that happened this year, but as I cleaned out the kitchen cupboards, I realized it was the hidden healings that I felt the most grateful for. I know it is something I still need to nurture and tend, and I certainly don’t do this perfectly, but I look forward to 2013 with hope and gratitude. God’s got a pretty good track record, so I know that when (not if) I flounder, God will set my feet back on the path.

Hanging out in Vancouver

Hanging out in Vancouver

Now it’s off to the thrift store!

The Seminary of Suffering

I love the feeling of rest that comes to me after a run. I love a great meal with loved ones and a good cup of coffee with a good book perched on my lap. I love quiet evenings to read and write or watch quality TV.  I love many of life’s pleasures. It’s all well and good to love comfort… though it can easily spell trouble when I get selfish and my happiness depends on it.

Who am I when these things are taken away from me? Who am I when I wake up with headaches that return despite my attempts to hold them at bay?  When I have report cards to write and am asked to sacrifice my precious down time? When the trials of life knock at my door? Paul Simon has a great line in his song Outrageous that goes, “Who’s gonna love you when your looks are gone?” My line could be, “Who’s gonna love you when your comfort’s gone?”

One of my New Testament heroes is the Apostle Paul, who wrote “I am content in all circumstances” (Philippians 4:11). He did not say this lightly since he experienced a lot of hardship for what he believed. He said God gave him strength and contentment no matter what outer circumstances were happening. His statement is such a contrast to me who gets worked up and anxious at the drop of a hat when circumstances don’t go my way and I am out of my comfort zone.

This week has been filled with many blessings – rest from work, celebrations with our church friends, meaningful conversations with family, relaxed time for recreation – and so perhaps it’s strange to read my blog topic of the week.

Suffering. There’s so much all around us when we begin to look. A former co-worker of mine is suffering the last stages of cancer this Christmas. My cousin Evy who I had the honor of having coffee with this week, is also battling cancer. Next week I’ll visit my friend Bill Howdle who is facing many health challenges. My own parents are experiencing increased diminishment as they face the challenges of aging. We all keep thinking of those parents in the States who are suffering a Christmas without their children after one man’s violent act.

All these shadows cross our paths and we wonder not if but when this Dark Visitor will come to us. We know with uneasiness that suffering will visit us all if it hasn’t already.

In November, I came across this topic in another blog I follow called Mere Inklings, a blog using the ideas of C.S. Lewis as starting points for reflection. Rob Stroud wrote about the autobiography of Freddie Sun who was a Christian in Maoist China and suffered greatly for being a believer. More than a decade was spent in a slave labor camp and he lost his career as a professor of Geology, all because he 51gJOGm28AL._SL500_AA300_would not deny Christ. Robstround’s review of the book, The Man in the Fiery Furnace, made such an impression on me that I asked for it for Christmas and it was well worth the read this week.

We are lucky in our country to have freedom of religion. It may be unusual to be a practicing Christian in this post-Christian world, but I do not suffer because of it. This man could have escaped his suffering by denying Christ, but he would not do it. Being made to suffer could have made him bitter, but instead he experienced a deepening of his faith and commitment.

His story is amazing, but here is what really hit the center of my comfort-loving consciousness. Sun described his imprisonment as his “seminary” experience: “Instead of learning homiletics, hermeneutics, Greek, and Hebrew, I was being taught the greater lessons of obedience, submission, forgiveness, love, endurance, and patience.” These greater lessons are what scripture calls the fruits of the Spirit.

My cousin Evy has had opportunity to learn these greater lessons in her seminary of suffering. She lives in Ontario, so I’ve only seen her a few times in recent years. She has lived with cancer for almost 6 years now. When I saw her this week, I could clearly see the effects of suffering etched on her face, but in her clear blue eyes and in our conversation I also saw the tenacious fruits of the Spirit.

We talked about trusting God in circumstances that bring so much suffering.These are not easy words to live by. At every turn of the road, she has cried and asked God why this was happening to her. She is often crippled with anxiety and fear.

Evy and I in 2009

Evy and I in 2009

She may not understand the why much of the time, but I can clearly see that suffering has opened her heart. I don’t often offer to pray with people, but even though we haven’t seen each other for over 2 years, she said yes right aways and together in the cold car we asked God for strength to meet trials, and for trust, endurance, patience and faith in all circumstances, as the Apostle Paul wrote about. We thanked God for the many ways God’s presence is made known to us, even in suffering. Her gratitude and quiet faith were a sign post to me that God was here.

Evy may not know it, but her life is a witness to me of Love being stronger than fears and anxieties. I am sure she would rather not have to travel this road, and I am sure it is infinitely difficult, but she has reminded me to trust God in the seminary of suffering.

C.S. Lewis wrote about how to understand suffering. In his famous book The Problem of Pain, he writes about how a loving God can allow evil to occur. He stated that suffering is not good in itself. “What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his [or her] submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads.”

Submission to God in suffering does not mean we don’t do what we can to change things. It means to “accept the things we can not change”, as the famous Serenity prayer says, trusting that God can use everything, even suffering, to create goodness and a light in the darkness.

This teaching has helped me understand the role of suffering in our lives. Lewis writes that God can make complex good rise out of simple evil. It does not excuse those who create the evil or suffering, but it does point to God being greater than anything that comes our way.

Earlier I shared Paul Simon’s question, “Who’s gonna love me when my looks are gone?” He also answers the question in the amazing ending to the song. I pray for Evy, and for all of us, that we might trust this answer in the darkest times.

“God will, like he waters the flowers on your windowsill.”

First Things First

“First things first.” I’ve heard it said that God speaks in short sentences, and this is the one that kept coming to me all week.

I’ve been writing lately of making a switch in my evenings and holding off on the to-do list in favor of reading or writing. I started toying this week with the order – maybe, I thought, I ought to get the school work out of the way and then sit down to read, but I knew that it wouldn’t work. “First things first,” I kept repeating to myself. Often, the outside world demands attention, but “first things first” is the order of the day. Like a soldier carrying out orders, it is the new normal.

The phrase was made famous by Stephen Covey, the author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, a book that our community studied years ago. “First things first” is the third life habit out of 7 that he says will guide our lives to “true north”, the direction we most desire our lives to face. It is a book filled with wisdom which has guided many of us at Watershed over the years, including our kids who studied the teen version of the book together a few years ago. According to Wikipedia, U.S. President Bill Clinton read the book and invited Covey to Camp David to counsel him on how to integrate the book into his presidency.

Covey has a great analogy showing the importance of this habit. He talks about the “big rocks” of our lives – those things that reflect our deepest values. Time with loved ones, reading books that inspire, exercise, service to the community/church, recreation,  learning and study, a cause, a project dear to the heart, teaching or mentoring others, time for reflection, meditation and prayer. Writing for me is a big rock, as is studying scripture, singing and being with my faith community.

Covey says that if we first fill our lives with the countless small stones that fritter away our time, we’ll never fit the big rocks in later because the jar is already full. Small stones are the non-important things that feel pressing but can swallow up our time. They can be urgent (interruptions, distractions, some phone calls, most e-mails) or non-urgent (spending too much time on the Internet, mindless TV, escape activities). Someone called this the “tyranny of the urgent”. Big on this list are the dramatic inner crisis that feel so important but are not – insecurities, worries, moods, physical discomforts. The list is endless.

“First things first” says Covey. If you put the big rocks in first, the small stuff can fit in around it. He calls this a shift in perspective, or paradigm shift. Scripture has a great verse that I would like put on my gravestone, “Seek first God’s kingdom, and all these things will be added unto you.”  (Matthew 6:33)

My old perspective believed that the goal of each day was to get a lot done. It sounds logical and effective, but when it came time for fitting the to-do’s of my deeper values in, time was up and I often felt frustrated.

What I have noticed in this re-prioritizing is this: I feel more myself. When I get back to the to-do’s later, they don’t feel as urgent and pressing as before. It’s not that I necessarily “feel” better, but there’s something about trusting in True North that reminds me of the Why and more important, the Who of my life.

Jesus calms the storm- drawn by Barbara James Lyon

This week in our Mark study, we looked at some stories of Jesus getting interrupted. His to-do’s pressed in all around him: preach and heal the sick who all clamored for his attention. In one of the stories, Jesus was in a boat on the lake with his disciples. He was exhausted from a day of work and fell asleep when a huge storm hit. The disciples paniced, but Jesus was so deeply anchored in his faith that he was able to sleep. After he calmed the storm, he asked his disciples where their faith was.

I wish I could say I was more like Jesus, calm amid each day’s storms, but usually I begin to panic over many things, like the disciples. Jesus reminds me of the change in perspective that happens when my sights are set on True North. I take a breath and put down the many small stones I’ve been anxiously grasping and pick up one of the big rocks instead.

P.S. – If you’d like to see an older, somewhat cheesy video of Covey explaining the big rocks, here’s the link.

A World Within A World

This week I’ve been mulling over a certain phrase. I’ve just finished the famous and wonderful autobiography of C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy, and I learned that one of the things he used to say over and over in his classes was, “The inside is bigger than the outside.”

The mythical wardrobe from the Narnia books is a good example. The 4 children are playing hide and seek in the house on a rainy day and are having fun enough. This is the outside of their experience. But when one of them enters the wardrobe, a whole new and more expansive world opens up, that of Narnia. The inside of a closet became bigger than the outside.

Apparently, Lewis was fond of saying this often to his students. I would say it helps me understand why writing this blog has served to bring me to a deeper experience and understanding of God.

The things we all experience are like the “outside”. We drive to work and listen to the radio – news and weather reports, sports, music. We park our cars. We enter the work day and experience the usual dramas, challenges and tasks, boring or fun. We prepare and eat food. We interact with people. We experience setbacks. We take part in our recreations.

Looked at from this perspective, life is hum-drum, repetitive and a certain wonder that we had in childhood can start to escape us as we become habituated to routine.

The journals I used to fill up every year are a good example of this. For some 40 years, since Grade 5 in fact, I filled the pages with handwritten accounts of my days. Perhaps I wanted to grasp on to life after our family experienced the death of my sister Hildi in 1968.

If you were to take a peek into my closet, you might be surprised at the stack of them. They were filled with the chronicling of the outside of life, for the most part. I tried going deeper, and I’m sure I sometimes did, especially in more recent years when I began to write out daily prayers and hopes that I had. But for the most part, I wrote about what I “did” or experienced each day. Fun or difficult, it was like the children running around in the house before their great adventures began.

The life-changing question that Paul Patterson gave me, “Where was God in my day?”, has been like going into the inside of things. This year, I have stepped way back from journalling as it dawned on me that it was only serving to keep me skittering on the surface of my life. I still pop in occasionally to write of important events, like my father-in-law’s death, milestones in Joel’s life, or important movies, concerts and celebrations we’ve taken in. I began to realize that the real journal of my deeper thoughts was in my blogposts. I have not missed it, and I have grown to love blog reflections more and more. They serve to ground me every week in my deeper values in a way my journals never did.

Take this week for example. In the old days of journalling, I would have written (once I’d felt better) about the 1½ sick days I had to take, and the agonizing feelings of having the flu and a bad headache at the same time . I’d had written about the frustrations of body limitations and wondered why.

Besides venting, I’m really not sure how useful this account would have been to me or anyone in the long run. We all experience illness and frustrations. As I lay recovering in bed, a far more useful reflection point was asking that question, “Where is God in all this?” I was feeling useless and pretty down, and when I looked at things from this perspective, I had every reason to keep feeling useless and down. Even asking the question, however, gave me cause for hope as I remembered that God is in every experience.

And I did experience God. First in the love of Joel and Lyle, who themselves didn’t just see me as the zombie walking in the house. In their acts of kindness, they reminded me that I was worthy of love and not just the scorn I was feeling from my body. I experienced the same from the kindnesses of co-workers and friends.

I also experienced God as I kept hanging on to the thought, “The inside is bigger than the outside,” and I said it like a mantra. The outside (feeling sick) was certainly not giving me hope, but remembering that God had an “inside” to this kept me going. Every experience can be transformed by God for the healing of the world. “Nothing is ever wasted,” said a wise person.

And so I took consolation in this mysterious truth. God can use this difficult  experience to build compassion and empathy in me for others when they are sick. Sickness can turn our thoughts negative, and it helped me remember that there was more to life than my current overcast thoughts. God is here.

C.S. Lewis himself wrote about keeping a diary, and it illustrates well this distinction between the inside and the outside. In the last pages of Surprised by Joy, he wrote that when he turned from Atheism to believing in God, one of the benefits was that it cured him of the “time-wasting and foolish practice” of keeping a diary.

You put down each day what you think important; but of course you cannot each day see what will prove to have been important in the long run. (C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy)

This was confirmed in him when he began to write out his autobiography. He began to read over his old diaries and he said they did not prove to be nearly as helpful as he had hoped. I’m afraid this will prove true of all the stacks of journals I’ve still kept in my closet!

Asking the question, “Where is God in my day?” is just like wondering what is most important in the long run, like Lewis wrote. What is more important than writing out the events of my days, I’m finding, is lifting up layer upon layer, and finding God’s way of seeing the world.

In the closing pages of the seventh and final Narnia book, The Last Battle, Lewis writes perfectly about all this, so I’ll end with it.

The further up and further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.

Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden at all but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

“I see,” she said, “this is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below. … I see…world within world, Narnia within Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Mr. Tumnus, “like an onion: except that as you continue to go in and in, each circle is larger than the last.”

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