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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.

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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.

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

Eat this book!

“God comes to us disguised as our life.” -Paula D’Arcy

This week I am going to pull the lens away from my week and look at something God has used to help me over the years. The Bible has become a lifeline for me. It has pulled me away from dead-end ways of thinking and has given me new direction more times than I can count. It has kept me tethered to meaning and purpose, but it certainly wasn’t always that way.

This topic occurred to me this week because I’m one of three people presenting a short book review at Watershed’s next Wednesday night study. Paul Patterson, our pastor, gave many of us a book to read a few month’s back, with the question “How has this book changed your way of reading the Bible?” More on my book later.

I’ve always grown up with the Bible being central in my family and church, but I can’t say I really read it for myself as a kid. I listened to stories in Sunday School and elementary school (yes, they read us a Bible story every morning. That was a different era.) Preachers preached from it every Sunday, but it never occurred to me to read it on my own.

In junior high, a new edition of the New Testament called “The Living Bible” came out, designed just for kids like me. Being a new paraphrase, the language was modern and fresh, and it had lots of photos of young people. I sat through many church services flipping through this book, studying the pictures and reading the intros to each chapter. It was through this edition, called “Reach Out” and later called “The Way” which included both testaments, that I first had the inkling that the Bible could be relevant to a person’s life. The Bible wasn’t just something that was preached from every Sunday.

As I grew up, I had several experiences of the Bible being a “living thing”, like the high school Bible study group that met each week through our church. I felt loved and cared for there through our very kind leaders Hans and Lorna Boge. I also studied the Bible while attending Mennonite Brethren Bible College in the 80’s, and I loved understanding the Bible in a deeper way. In both these places, scripture came alive.

But it wasn’t until I experienced failure in later years that I began to embrace the Bible as a lifeline. Separation in my marriage (which wasn’t permanent, thank God), and struggles with depression brought me face to face with the reality that I needed something, Someone, to guide me. Failure becomes a gift when it brings a person to the place of dependence, needing to trust in something higher than themselves.

Individualism and “doing it my way” is so rampant in our society that you don’t often hear about submitting to something outside yourself. But when doing it your own way just gets you in trouble, you become a seeker, and that’s what has happened to me. I began to trust in the Words that come to me through Scripture more than my often faulty ways of thinking.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that each week’s story is kinda the same – in some way, I’ve gotten lost and God keeps finding me. There’s a famous story about God being like a good shepherd who goes out looking for his lost sheep, and I keep being found like this, week after week.

The book I was given to read is Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, by Eugene Peterson. Through the fall, I read a chapter each week while exercising on the elliptical machine at the YMCA. When I was done and went to the weight machines, I left the book lying on the floor and often wondered what people thought of the book title’s command: “Eat this book”. The title is a reference to a passage in the New Testament book of Revelation. The writer of the book, John, is having a vision and he goes up to an angel who is holding a scroll. John wanted to read the scroll and asked for it, but he got a strange answer back. He was told that instead of reading it, he was supposed to take it and eat it. “It will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth,” the angel told him.

Peterson uses this verse as the basis for his whole book, and like the title suggests, I’ve been chewing on its meaning for months. Eating something means it’s going to enter your bloodstream and your very muscles, giving energy for the day. It’s not something that happens merely in the mind or for a momentary taste sensation in the mouth, but in every part of you. It keeps us alive!

As I crack the Bible open each morning during my prayer time before work, I’ve often asked myself – are these words going to stick, or will they just fall out of my ears the moment the rubber hits the road in the real world? Peterson’s book kept nudging me each day in recent months. Are you eating this as if your life depended on it? Most often I have to confess I don’t.

There’s a verse in the New Testament that comes to mind as I type this morning.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.” – James 1:23-24 (The Message)

As I’ve been getting ready for my book presentation, I’ve been wondering why so often I’m like that person in the mirror, who walks away and totally forgets what I look like in God’s eyes. I forget because I have a mistaken understanding of God. In a way I often come to the reading of scripture hiding my face, thinking I’ve got to have everything together before I’m accepted. No wonder the words often don’t stick. I’m not even listening.

But God isn’t someone I need to hide from. Like the best friend imaginable, God always sees through to our essence, in the midst of our messy and muddy lives. We can bring it all to God, trusting that we are not employees before a critical review board, but beloved children.

When I read scripture with a hidden face, it is merely information. I don’t eat it at all. It’s when this messy life is submitted to hearing a Word from God, often through scripture, that I begin to chew on something that gives me life. I love this quote which Richard Rohr often refers to:

 “God comes to us disguised as our life” – Paula D’Arcy

These words remind me that I don’t need to have it all together. In fact, when I look back, it’s always the mistakes I make which loosen the ground for God to get through to me. It’s a miracle really.  When I have seen myself as forgiven and beloved, the whole world begins to look this way. Who wouldn’t want to eat those words.

Each week, God gives me a feast to chew on. Some words are sweet like honey, bringing words of promise and blessing and consolation. Others are “bitter in the stomach” when they make me uncomfortable with the truths they bring. God’s words are sometimes difficult to digest and hard to obey, usually because my ego wants things to be easy. But my experience is that God’s words, whether sweet or bitter, always always lead to freedom and hope.

May we all enter this week, bringing every part of our lives honestly to God, waiting to hear what God has to say.

It’s All About the Comma

“Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” -Gracie Allen

This was another week rich in help and guidance from God. Good thing because I am someone deeply in need of this help and guidance. Without God and my faith community, I’d be lost.

There’s a comic that used to hang in the staff room of my old school which showed the progression of a week from Monday to Friday. At the beginning of the week is a cool cat, with smoothed down fur, calm and collected (imagine a cool Garfield cat). By mid or end of week, the cartoon showed Bill the Cat from the old Bloom County comic strip who has seen better days. The cat’s most frequent spoken sentiments are “Ack!” and “Thbbft!” and his main pastime is coughing up fur balls. The comic poked fun at how teachers are usually more than ready for a break by Friday.

One day last week I drove home feeling like Bill the Cat and it was only Wednesday. I felt about as coherent as Bill, only able to cough up the dregs of the day.  The calm cool of Monday was long gone. I take things too seriously. My friends know that this happens to me, and I’m learning ever so slowly not to coddle this state of mind.

On this day though, it was quite distracting, and instead of switching on the radio, I decided to pray as I navigated my way home. Often when I pray, I say something and wait to hear what God might say back to me. My end of the conversation went something like this: “God, I was too impatient today. I became a hardened cop dealing with problems instead of the encourager I am on better days. I’m tired and discouraged. What would you say to me?” Feelings of self-recrimination flowed through my prayer, as I felt I “should have done better”.

In the silence of the car, it didn’t take long for a Word to filter through to me. They say that God usually speaks in short sentences. What I heard was a line from the poet Rilke from the famous and wonderful book Letters to a Young Poet. Rilke advises the young poet, “Be patient with all that is not yet finished in you.”

Was this the Word for me, I wondered? God’s patience. It made sense to me to let go of my worry and to remember that in God’s eyes, we are all works in progress. For someone prone to perfectionism like I am, God’s compassion is always a bit of a shocker. Where I am quick to judge myself for mistakes, God always gives second, third and millionth chances to turn back again to the light and hope. Be patient with yourself, God told me.

This short sentence made all the difference on the rest of the ride home and the rest of the week. I still felt tired, but my thoughts now mingled with God’s thought. Maybe it wasn’t my impatience that was the problem, rather, maybe it was how I was thinking about my shortcomings. I had forgotten that God uses everything (and not just the good times) for good and for an unfolding story of how love changes everything. God doesn’t turn his back on me when I perceive myself to be messing up, instead, God  always forgives and seeks to strengthen and deepen us.

On the rest of the ride home, I remembered something that had come to mind earlier that day. A line from my favorite psalm, Psalm 139 –  “You are familiar with all our ways.” God knows all this stuff that I’m going through, I remembered. When I am frazzled and can’t think my way out of a paper bag, God knows what I need much better than I do. And so my prayers back to God began, “Strengthen me God. Grant me what I need, not necessarily what I want. Develop my character and keep me steeped in your hope.”

Wednesday night is the night of our community’s Bible study. That night we were studying the Apostle Paul from the New Testament. Somehow during the rich discussion of the evening, the word from the Psalm came to me again, as if God was still whispering to me. “Lydie, I see you. I know you. Don’t worry, I’ve got your back. I know your needs way better than you do and I won’t abandon you.”

Some might ask, how did I know that was God speaking to me? You know when you are hearing capital T Truth because it’s not just in your head. It settled in my heart and was a source of consolation. In short, I felt revived.

A few summers ago, my son Joel and husband Lyle went to Chicago. A picture they took from that time held a great quotation which someone also mentioned on Wednesday evening:

“Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” -Gracie Allen. 

How quick I so often am to say the story’s over and that a period comes after words like discontent, hard day, discouraged. But to God, all that is about is our human condition, which we usually don’t see the way God does. God sees possibility and the continuation of a story in us.

It comes as no surprise that the rest of the week went more smoothly than Wednesday. It wasn’t without problems, but my feet were planted again in a bigger world. God’s world. I am freed to be human, depending on God for wisdom for every step.

I pray for that we might all experience the hope of second chances with the God who never forgets us.

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