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Long Term Growth

This spring, our three backyard Manitoba maple trees needed pruning. I received a crash course on trees from the arborist we hired for the job. Craning my neck upwards, I listened as he opened up the world of trees to me. maple leavesHe explained which limbs he would prune and why. I had a sudden desire to become an arborist myself as I listened to the wise details of his trade. His business is aptly named “Long Term Growth”.

Normally, I love pruning — whether it’s unruly hair that begs to be cut, sentences that need editing, or trees that need trimming, there’s something about weeding out what is not giving life that seems so beneficial. I have become an amateur in all three areas.

When it comes to the deeper pruning of unhelpful aspects or habits of my life, the process can be tougher, but just as needed. As electric and handheld saws began to thin out the trees, I played “spot that metaphor” and reflected on the pruning in my own life in the last year and a half.

The pruning of my teaching job was filled with much consultation and prayers. Just like the wise arborist pondering my maple trees, I had people gently saying to me, look friend, this limb is not sustaining life anymore, maybe it’s time… It wasn’t the easiest pruning to make peace with, but time has shown that it was necessary and helpful for my own long term growth.

Leaving full-time work was just the beginning. Now that the big, obvious branches have been cut, it seems that the pruning is more subtle. My mantra has become “less is more” and I keep having to make decisions, large and small, of what to cut out as I learn to avoid headaches. More branches are being pruned all the time.

Ever since I learned that my headaches are not just physical in origin, I’ve become a bit of a detective, searching for clues. I have this long time habit which friends jokingly call my 911 tendency. I tend to project a calm exterior so people might not guess it, but I overplay the emotional dramas of life, engaging in histrionics. Like a druggie’s quick fix, it’s an unhelpful habit which really only serves to distract and prevent me from tapping the deeper roots of life.

RHS_PUB0002681_900998Sitting in my meditation room, this troubling habit is becoming more clear to me. When a headache flare-up happens, I am learning not just to ask for sympathy, but to ask myself, and the friends who know me well, whether I’m somehow feeding it. I’m learning that regular pruning is essential.

To do this requires humility, acknowledging that I’m not just a victim. But it’s something I deeply desire. Not only do I want to become well physically, I also want to be tethered securely to my deepest values, which for me rest in following Jesus.

Last Sunday I was asked to share reflections with my house church from the gospel of Mark 5:21-43. It’s a story, actually two stories, about Jesus performing two miracles. One of them is a woman who was bleeding for 12 years. She spent all her money on physicians, and not only did she not get better, she got worse (a story that I could identify with)! She was at the end of her rope, physically as well as socially since she was one of society’s untouchables. In her desperation, she reached out and touched the edge of Jesus’ robe. She was immediately made well!

But when Jesus stopped in his tracks and asked who touched him, she felt she was busted. An unclean person wasn’t supposed to touch anyone, let alone a holy man, but Jesus didn’t think like that. The social taboos of the day were manmade, not from God. Earlier in Mark, he said, “I came for those who are sick, not those who are well.”

Scripture says she came out of the shadows and “told him the whole truth”. In response, Jesus wished her peace and to be well permanently. Her shame was gone and she was restored to the community.

But he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go home in peace, and be free from your trouble.” Mark 5:35

The phrase about telling “the whole truth” has stayed with me. I too want to be honest before God and my Unknownfriends and confess my anger or my people pleasing. The stillness of the meditation room invites me to take a deep breath and quiet my reactions, quiet my thoughts, quiet the struggle, and go deeper.

And then I can pray, trusting that God the wise arborist is lovingly pruning those branches which are not life-giving. If the power saws sound alarming, I can remember that God only does this out of love and a desire for my long term growth. Then, like our lovely backyard maples, the wind of the Spirit can blow through my life with more ease and freedom. I’m so glad God wishes peace for all our gnarled limbs.


Falling Upward

I’ve worked with a lot of students since I began teaching in 1987. Not just different nationalities, but students who came with all kinds of challenges and strengths. I marveled at the myriad personalities that I got to work with — some malleable, trusting and easy going, others requiring a more sensitive approach to get them to open up, still others needing me to grow a thicker skin and nerves of steel. I’ve seen it all, the whole spectrum and then some. Many have come to mind in reflection in this past year, always with gratitude for all they taught me, especially the challenges.

Now, at St. Aidan’s, I’ve been privileged  to work with a new type of student — the new Canadian who must learn to speak English. I have worked with these young people since last fall, and have enjoyed the challenge of introducing a new alphabet, with new sounds, to them. Some have already accepted their new status and are more than ready to learn, others are still longing for their homeland and reluctant. I’m sure I barely understand the effects of the reasons they fled their country to begin with.

The long, fancy explanations teachers are so fond of giving, as a “sage on a stage,” no longer work (oh wait, they never did). Now I depend on gestures, simple words and acting to get the meanings out. Sometimes I get smiles of comprehension, other times I get puzzled looks. How do you explain that the letter “a” is sometimes long, sometimes short? Or that “c” can be pronounced two ways? English seems cruel with all its exceptions and rules that break.

Once, I brought an Arabic/English picture dictionary from the library to go over with IMG_0579Stephania, a new student from Eritrea. She showed her alphabet and it was a good exercise in empathy for me. The  characters of that language all seemed the same to me, the subtle differences incomprehensible to me but no doubt plain to her. I imitated the sounds Stephania spoke, but when she corrected how I said them, I didn’t understand my mistake. I tried to say them the way she did, thinking I’d aced it, but she kept shaking her head in laughter.

I’ve often remembered that experience when I see students struggle with what seems obvious to me. For example, it never occurred to me before how similar the letters “t” and “f” look. Explaining something once doesn’t do the trick, it is a process that will be years in the making as they acquire a new language and a new culture. Any successful connection that occurs during a lesson is a joy.

I’ve been a “new language learner” myself in the last year, as I’ve navigated my way through leaving full time teaching. My new dialect is the language of the “second half of life”. In the first half of life, I was preoccupied, as people rightly are before their 50’s, with establishing myself — career, home ownership, parenting…building a proper platform for my life. The game was all about establishing an identity. In teaching, I took courses, learned the latest programs, taught after school and lunch clubs, bravely staged concerts, and said yes to a lot of extras, as many, many teachers do.   Life was all about the word “more”.

Now life has become about less rather than more, and I am in the midst of a paradox with the new language I’m learning. Where my old language said, “Work hard. White knuckle your way through,” the new language is gently encouraging me to begin letting go, reminding me that less might translate to more.

Until I was faced with the task of letting go, I didn’t know how tightly I’d been hanging on, as if it was the only identity I could have. But as I’ve been letting go, I feel I am gaining more in an upside down way. Saying no to the busy life I once led has felt like a loss, but there is new life springing up as well.

Author Richard Rohr describes this paradox beautifully in the phrase (and book) 9780470907757_p0_v1_s260x420Falling Upward”. At first glance, falling hardly seems to describe the first half of life. Isn’t it all about rising, achieving, accomplishing, and performing? I think falling refers, not to the first half of life, but to our transition into the second half of life. I didn’t have to manufacture the falling part, it happened when I couldn’t do it anymore. I think this must come naturally in every life.  Letting go feels like falling, and falling always involves suffering of some kind. Suffering is never fun, but  headaches have served to topple the illusion that I was in control, or that I could even build a tower of success. My little kingdom had to fail me.

I’m so grateful I’ve heard God call me to a kingdom greater than my small self, which in Christian language Jesus calls the Kingdom of God. It’s what Rohr meant by the phrase “falling upward”. Now it’s no longer about me looking good, or making money. The picture has grown smaller in some ways, but in the most important ways, life has gotten bigger.

I hope and pray that my life will have more of an inner generativity. God in the second half of life is showing me a way to do this as I’m writing and editing more than I ever have. Most days it feels like chicken scratches, but I’ve heard a clear call that this is where God has called me to. When I write, I feel like I am falling upward, falling towards God, falling in love. I feel I am where God wants me to be.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. John 12:24

Written On Our Hearts

If I could choose one word to describe this past while, it has been “transition”. At long last, I signed on for a one-year commitment to work 1/2 time at St. Aidan’s Christian School, a great little independent school servicing recent African immigrants in the inner city. I have been volunteering there since last September, and when the administrator there offered me a 1/2 time position next September, MB Teacher’s Society said yes. It’s out of the norm for MTS, but they are seeing it as part of my “rehab” on my medical leave. I have been very grateful for this creative option, which couldn’t be a better fit for me. I actually begin unofficially in one week.

The other side of the coin has been finally realizing that I will part ways with my old school. It isn’t really new news for me, but it has still left me with loads of mixed feelings — gratitude for having worked with the best co-workers and students for 11 years, sadness at saying good-bye, regret at not having said a better good-bye at this time last year and worry about how I’ll handle a regular schedule again. Not surprisingly, it’s translated to a few more wonky head days than usual lately.

As usual, God has been seeing me through this time. The prayers and guidance of my faith community and the learnings that God always seems to whisper in my ear have kept me moving forward.

The biggest lesson (and it’s not a new one — I’m a slow learner!) has been that it’ll be ok to let go. When I first went on leave, I began noticing the over-attachment I had to work and this identity of “teacher,” and it seems the lesson is springing up again. Like a mantra, I’ve been remembering that all these identifiers are temporary. There’s nothing on this earth I won’t have to say good-bye to eventually. Though it sounds cliche, the only thing that really endures is God.

I’ve been given the rich opportunity lately to contemplate this story as I’ve been writing and editing for a blog on our church’s website. Recently, we finished a study of a book called The Story of God, the Story of Us, by Sean Gladding, and we wanted to share our experience online.

Gladding’s book tells the big-picture Story of both Old and New Testaments through an imaginary group hearing the stories for the first time. These are stories I’ve heard all my life in Sunday School and church, and sometimes they feel so old that I tune them out. But as we studied the book, and particularly as I have gone through each chapter with a fine tooth comb, re-reading the themes for the blog, I’ve had the chance to hear the stories at a deeper level.

I’m hearing that though we humans continually mess things up, chesed_etymologyit’s not the most important half of the equation. The “story of God” is that God loves us with a love called chesed in the Hebrew language. The word translates as “loving kindness.” When the Israelites kept betraying the covenant God had made with them throughout the Old Testament, God was never tit-for-tat, but always remained loyal to it.

That means that nothing we can do can separate us from God’s benevolence, like having the best parent ever. Even when our hands and minds and hearts are closed to hope, God finds ways of continuing to stay loyal and forgiving.

When you’re in a time of transition, and worries for the future and regrets for the past stir up ancient headaches at 3 a.m., this is something solid to rely on, let me tell you! Tossing one night, I began to search for what was true. What could I hang on to? My own story is not as reliable as I thought it was when I was so busy earlier in my life, building my career, raising a child and securing my house. Now the only lifeboat that felt solid came from the darn summaries I was writing about in the blog — the story of God as it weaves through my own.

Written On Our Hearts

“Written On Our Hearts” – Art by Eldon Heinrichs, Photo editing by Paul Patterson

I’ve hung onto this moment of 3 a.m. insight, which I have no doubt came from God. It’s all gonna be ok kiddo, God was saying. You can let go of all that and I’ll still be here in the morning.

As transition times probably always are, this one feels messy and soaked through with sadness. Even if I’m going through it imperfectly, God is sticking with me, showing me that perfection is not what God is after — only that I keep remembering the Story that is greater than my own. I know the Story is fixing me, bringing me home.

“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Jeremiah 31:33

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.

Reflections on 2014

This past year was a year unlike any other as it marked a transition in my work situation. I’ve written far less blogposts during this time because it became difficult to know “what to say” as I underwent a major change in my life circumstances.

In mid-April, I left school and sat in my car and wept. I was going on medical leave for headaches and while I was (and am) incredibly grateful for the break, I felt torn and sad about leaving my school of 11 years and career of 20+ years. Staying with the decision was very difficult at first, to say the least. How could it be right when it felt so wrong? I felt I was letting many people down, especially my students. As someone who outwardly gave an optimistic face to the world, I’m sure many never guessed the turmoil and soul searching that led to the decision to say yes to what my friends and doctor were telling me.

In the nine months since this decision, I can say it has been a wise one, and probably one of the best of my life. Finding yourself in a “dark wood” (as Dante famously called a difficult time), made me dependent on God like never before, and I’m so grateful that I was not left alone in the impenetrable place of chronic headaches.

I could not have done it without many mercies that came my way. Here’s a list of the many ways God was faithful when I cried out, “Help me!”:

  • Community – God regularly provided the prayers and guidance of many people I have come to see as angels, both in and outside the church. My faith community of Watershed has given invaluable counsel, love and prayers during this time.
  • Faithful friends  – I’m grateful for two angels in particular — my friends, our pastor Paul and his wife Bev. Their counsel, much of it through email since I love writing, got me through many days of uncertainty and lostness. They 4697399154_5bcddffd3fremain an abundant source of wisdom, both in emails and in person in our community life together. As they do with so many, they stood with me and saw God in me when I felt less than human to myself. I hope that I will pass this on to others.
  • Outside help – The MB Teacher’s Society has had my back as well, giving step by step guidance and advice on how to continue, as has my wise doctor.
  • Signs – Along the way, there were also many songs, books, sermons, events, people, dreams, “synchronicities” that came my way — which continued to prove to me that I was being nudged along by an Unseen Hand. Two notable ones were:
    • When I initially went off work, I had a visceral experience in the middle of a bad night of praying “Help me” to God. It is hard to describe. It was more like God prayed it for me, bringing me to a confession that my own efforts on the spiritual journey were inadequate. When I shared this with Paul and Bev the next day, they said they had just read a meditation that morning entitled “Help me”, where a Canaanite woman in scripture begged Jesus to help her and desperately cried out when he ignored her the first time. “She pleaded again, ‘Lord, help me!’” (Matthew 15:25) At the time, it seemed like a sign that God had heard me, and it gave my heart peace. My efforts had taken me only so far on the spiritual journey before their inadequacy showed up. I’ve read that this is the goal of the crisis of faith: total surrender. A knowledge that, like the AA people say, we are completely dependent on a Higher Power. I know surrender is a lifelong process, but this moment was pivotal.
    • I discovered the song “Wasteland” from the group Needtobreathe, which perfectly articulated where I was at.
  • Meditation Room – The advice from Paul to spend each day “writing, reading and praying” in my meditation room was truly the best of all. I’m certainly no saint with a glowing halo. It’s more like I have discovered that a more contemplative life has been restorative, and has helped me take an honest look at the deeper roots of my health issues. For someone who has led a very extroverted life, the meditation room has become a magnet for me. One of the books I read this year was a historical fiction of the life of Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic who spent most of her life cloistered in a “cell” (a room)  beside a church as an “anchoress”. I began to see the meditation room as my “cell”, and it remains my favorite place to be every day.
  • Learning to use my inside voice – As I’ve written in the last blogpost, my headaches, while not gone altogether, have been eased by learning how anxious my people-pleasing had made me. Now I’ve just got to keep practicing what I’m oh so slowly learning.
  • St. Aidan’s Christian School – I was resistant at first, but as part of my “rehabilitation”, MTS mandated that I begin to volunteer. From talking to someone at Habitat one summer years ago, I learned about  a small independent school servicing immigrant students called St. Aidan’s, and chose that as my place to volunteer. I’m now up to 4 half days per week (soon to be 5), teaching English as an additional language one on one. I have been so grateful to have found a new home there, somewhere I can continue to work with young people. Grateful because for so long, I didn’t know what kind of future was left for me. I’ve felt a bit like an immigrant myself, having left the “old country” of my former work. The administrator there has been so welcoming to me (as she is to all the students), and being out of the class environment has been helpful in easing the headaches. My Jewish friends Arthur and Debbie have a Hebrew word, “bashert”, which means “meant to be.” I feel that my being led to St. Aidan’s has a “bashert” feel about it.
  • Reading – Besides writing my way through the dark wood, reading has provided another flashlight. Here are my favorite fiction and non-fiction books of the year:

I did many monarch releases in 2014, but one stands out for me. In July, our monarch committee did our annual workshop, and this year had been scheduled to take place in the school I’d just left. It stirred up all kinds of feelings to return. As usual for our workshops, we held a monarch release at the end.

I found myself in the gardens I’d planted, saying good-bye to the monarchs with the

Photo by Holli Webb Hearn

Photo by Holli Webb Hearn

adult workshop participants and children from the daycare. As usual, I invite people to say a prayer, which the monarchs can “wing their way to their Creator”. It’s a speech I’ve given countless times, but this time I could barely get through without getting choked up. I offered up a silent prayer for myself, and for everyone who is searching for a way out of a dark wood.

Those monarchs flew well that day. Just look what kind of a Creator we have. One who answers prayers with such abundance, and with far greater imagination than I ever could have.

Thanksgiving in December

For so long on my medical leave, I’ve been pressing the pause button, on a soul-searching  interlude, listening for answers to deep questions. Blogpost titles have reflected this, with titles like “Waiting,” “Solitude,” “Tight Places” and “Who Am I”. And it seems to me that all this waiting is starting to bring answers. Both Canadian and American Thanksgiving have passed, but it’s never too late to express gratitude at what I’m beginning to understand.

For at least 6 months or more, I’ve answered people’s questions about my headaches with an unsatisfying answer, “Not better yet.” I didn’t usually tell people, but the headaches seemed even worse, something I couldn’t understand.

In late fall, I made a list of all the things I’ve tried to solve my headaches over the last 25 years, and I was shocked. I think there are 24 things on my list by now. Chiropractic (with countless neck adjustments), physiotherapy, acupuncture, thousands of dollars worth of vitamin regimens, colonics (don’t ask), massage, osteopathy, cleansing fasts to rule out food allergies, medication, to mention just a few. I even got hypnotized once! I groan when I think of all the money I’ve spent. Well meaning people often ask me, “Have you tried such and such?” and I roll my eyes and tell them they have no idea.

In the beginning, I would feel a surge of confidence and revived hope at each new “solution” I tried, trusting the practitioner who promised big changes. It always felt empowering to be “in charge,” at least at first, and I drove my friends crazy with my latest miracle cure talk. As the years went on, I continued to try new things, but with increasing desperation and unease, trusting my new saviors just a little less each time.

Some things on the list helped here and there, while others, like massage, made the locked-doorheadaches worse. In recent months, on medical leave, still in regular battle, I finally began to concede that maybe my ladder has been up against the wrong wall. I made my list and took a long, hard look. How was all this effort and money for naught? It made no sense. I’d failed to fix myself. There seemed to be no more open doors. I prayed for a way forward, an open door in my tight place. And God heard my prayer.

October 17th will go down this year as a watershed day for me. It was the day my pastor and spiritual mentor Paul told me, “Your headaches are not primarily physical.”

Though I’d been told this before, being at the end of the road has a way of unstopping the ears. It was as though I heard it for the first time. With a great heave-ho, I threw my long list over the metaphorical cliff and said, “No more!” I began to listen for what deeper issues lay at the root of this gnarly weed.

I’ve been learning just how much my efforts to be good in the world, to be a “Mother Teresa,” have led to my predicament all these years later. The emotional and the physical are connected in a much more profound way that I’ve ever realized. Sure I have a biological propensity to migraines in my family, but it’s only part of the story. With a deep rooted fear that I was not good enough, I became a person whose every unconscious effort became to secure love in this world by being everything to everyone — in short, I became a people-pleaser. After 25 years, it left me so sick I had to give up the vocation I loved of working with kids.

Above the Clouds - Vlad Studio

Above the Clouds – Vlad Studio

I’ve been learning that the answer to this habit of people-pleasing is to sink my life more deeply into depth and meaning. For me this translates into solitude, writing and reading. It isn’t as though I’ve never done this before, but doing so after an accurate “diagnosis” has made a noticeable difference. The headaches have not disappeared altogether, but I am becoming more aware of what to avoid.

My habits are so old in me that often I doubt I can ever shake them, but I keep remembering the door that opened when I thought I was in a locked room. God can fix far more in us than we can imagine.

Instead of making myself look good by “being everything to all people,” I have been learning a second language that I am “good enough” already. Instead of trying hard, I can let God forgive, restore and deliver me from all of this. I don’t need to feel guilty, but to realize that I’m already forgiven, and am already being restored to a new way of living from the inside out.

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”  John 20:26 (NIV)


“Will life always be this way?” I found myself lamenting to Lyle the other day. I’ve been off work now for 6 months, and I often wonder about the future. While I continue to be grateful for the time and space to heal, worry can kick in when I strain to understand what lies ahead. What will life look like in another 6 months? In a year? The image from my last blogpost of waiting inside a chrysalis continues to be an apt one, and it is not easy to rest, holding on for God’s good timing!

One of my life’s dreams is that someday I might write a book, perhaps in my favorite genre of memoir. Is this God’s dream for me? My dad has often told the story of his grandmother, my great-grandmother, whose husband built a writing shed behind the house in Russia because she wanted to write a book. It’s the only detail I know about this woman, besides the fact that she died young and never did write that book. It’s an amazing story, especially for the late 19th century, and with hope I wonder if I’m meant to follow in her footsteps.

It’s not a bad dream. I’ve loved writing since I was in grade 2 and my friends, not to mention my parents, have always encouraged it in me. We all have mercies in our lives that bring out the “better angels” within, and for me, it’s writing.

"Brevity" cartoon used with permission. www.gocomics.com/brevity

“Brevity” cartoon used with permission. http://www.gocomics.com/brevity

But when I thought of “The Book” last week, it was surrounded by my worries for the future. It felt like I was grabbing onto something, anything, that could get me out of the waiting game. I recognized that I wanted it to puff me up with significance, unlike these days of uncertainty. Pride is a sin that comes up regularly for me and here it was again. “Lydia Penner: Most humble woman of the century” would be the ironic author bi-line.

It was into this quagmire of unease that I heard a distinct Word, countering my dreams of grandeur. Like the tiny rudder steering a large ship, a small thought came to me that changed my direction: “Isn’t it enough just to be God’s child?”

It was like a load lifted off my shoulders. I was reminded how often I long for significance, and like the master planner I’m not, try to bring it about in some way. It’s almost like I was born with a sign that said, “Notice me!” This clamoring effort never brings about the results I crave, in fact, like all addictions, my attention-getting leaves me wanting more. Beneath the pride of my “Notice me” sign is a deep fear that I am worthless and unloved. How quickly I try to fill my own bucket.

One of the biggest realizations I’ve had lately is how even my headaches have been connected to this fear. As I’ve begun to release my people-pleasing agenda and rest in solitude, the effect on my headaches has been better than any medication or therapy I’ve ever tried.

The poet Rumi says that “Someone fills the cup in front of us,” and I know that Someone isn’t me. Remembering I was loved brought rest from my clamoring need to be important in the world’s eyes. I remembered that God loves us even when we are not achieving.

It’s the same with my son Joel. I’m proud of the accomplishments he’s making in the world, but there’s truly nothing he can do to make me love him more. In the same way, God loves us in all our ups and downs, whether we are humming with productivity, frustrated with failure, or stumbling in the whole spectrum between.

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Photo by Paul Patterson

Maybe someday I’ll write that book, but in the meantime I desire to sink ever more deeply into the knowledge that I’m loved, not because I’ve earned it, but because God loved me into being. This knowledge is enough for me, a treasure beyond compare.

I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.” Romans 8:38-39 Common English Bible (CEB)

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