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2013 was the year that…

Since I was a teenager, I’ve kept a year end list of reflections on the year gone by. I have to say I’m kind of addicted to doing this. The routine, starting with the opening phrase of this blog title, is so ingrained in me that the new year just doesn’t feel right if I don’t look back. As author David Sedaris said of journals, “It’s an awful lot of work for something no one is ever going to see”, but still I forge on. For better or worse, it’s a habit I stick with.

I’ve noticed that the events in my bulleted list have changed over the years, leaning more towards just seeing the blessings and leaving out the difficulties. My sister Lorie and I used to have a year-end conversation of the “3 best and 3 worst events”. After a while, I stopped seeing the relevance of the 3 worst things. In my experience, difficult events or situations have lessons and blessings that are often the most meaningful and somehow part of the “best”.

Over the Christmas break, I dedicated a day as usual to sift through old e-mails, pictures, books I’ve read and blogs I wrote. The exercise left me grateful for every part of my life. Rachel Naomi Remen, author of Kitchen Table Wisdom, says that “It’s possible to have a meaningful life even if it isn’t an easy life.” Mine  is abundant in meaning, faithful friendships and blessings that keep me grounded. So here’s the blessings of 2013.

2013 was the year that…

  • Trip to Minneapolis – In May, Lyle and I took a weekend trip to Minneapolis to see a play adaptation of C.S. ImageLewis’ brilliant book The Screwtape Letters. Not only was the weekend very fun together, but the play was also so worth seeing. We got to meet our hero Max McLean (producer of the play) after the show. We also attended the church of a preacher whose books have come to influence us both, Greg Boyd at Woodland Hills Church. Despite having a  cold that weekend,  we were both so glad we went.
  • Passing of a friend – Very sadly, my dear cousin Evy passed away in July after battling cancer. She was an epically fun cousin to grow up with, but it was the meaningful way she died that will always be a legacy to me. She would much rather have lived, but she and her husband Jerry leaned into trusting God in difficult circumstances. She embodied the bible verse, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.” Proverbs 3:5 Rest in peace, dear friend.
  • Watershed Community – The community life, studies and worship of our small house church of Watershed continues to be the most abiding blessing of my life. I don’t know where I’d be without everyone’s encouragement and continual pointing to see God in my day. Whether it’s celebrating birthdays, singing, laughing, telling and listening to stories, doing stuff together, movie night, studying scripture and great books, worshiping together, or praying for and with each other daily, we are all the richer for our life together.
  • Adventures in Blogland – I finished my 3rd year of blogging. I am grateful for each person who took the time to read my scribbles and listen to my deeper heart, but I’m even more grateful for how it recharges my batteries . I have never walked away from the question of my blog without an answer, and this can only be attributed to God’s incredible mercy and endless creativity. The more I look, the more I see and I hope my awareness continues to grow.
  • Books Why is reading so calming? I suspect it’s because we turn our attention to something completely outside of our day to day experiences. As some wise person said, “Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.” In my own quirky academy awards ceremony, I annually give out two awards:  Best fiction of the year was Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and best non-fiction was Greg Boyd’s book Present Perfect: Finding God in the Now
  • Musical highlights – One of the gifts my parents and my Mennonite upbringing nurtured in me was a love of IMG_4472music. I’m convinced it is a way of praying. I’m so blessed to have two friends, Marilyn and Eldon, who practice new and old songs with me for our Sunday worship and other occasions. Musical highlights last year were singing with the seniors at Lion’s Manor, and preparing songs for some special events like our fall retreat, a 50th birthday party, our “Hanukkah for Christians” celebration with dear friends Arthur and Debbie, and who can beat a rowdy sing-a-long of “How Much is that Doggie in the Window” for our Christmas Eve party?
  • Proud of our son – I’m eternally grateful for our son Joel and how he is finding his way in life. 2013 was a year of milestones for him – he moved out, and got his B.A. in german studies from University of Winnipeg (with a gold medal to boot). He is finding what gives him joy (all things 482454_10151469840812773_177331308_nbotanical) and finding ways to express that through his creative and inexhaustible website at http://www.momentaryvitality.ca. Not only that, but surprisingly he is finding that he enjoys teaching and working with kids. He even works at the community centre connected to my school, and we love talking about students we know in common. I’m super proud of him and very, very grateful for the friendship Lyle and I continue to have with him. I’m also very glad that he remains open to a life of faith and learning in our community.

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

Thanksgiving List

It was Thursday morning this week when the snow began. I always joke with students that they’re not allowed to say the “s-word” in October, but the weather didn’t listen to my corny rules. It wasn’t a lot and we all knew it’d melt after a day, but there it was, blowing

Picture thanks to CBC Information Radio

horizontally outside my living-room window. Putting away my shorts and sandals from the warm weekend only a few days earlier, I bundled up and braced myself from the nippy wind as I headed out the door for work. On the radio in the car, the weather was the talk of the day.

I wondered briefly if I needed to put my after school plans on hold. The school gardens desperately needed pruning and new perennials were needing to get into the ground before it froze. I had set aside this time to do the job and had one co-worker and 2 student’s parents committed to helping. “I don’t think this is the right day,” said Irene as soon as I saw her that morning.

I was undeterred, however, and said she was free but that I would brave the mud and wind. She looked at me like I was crazy and I said we’d talk again at lunch. The blustery weather began to wear my resolve away and by noon I realized Irene was right. My plans would have to wait a week.

All of this set the stage for one of the nicest things that happened this week.

I hadn’t had time to tell one of the parents that the plans were off for now and at 3:30 she showed up at my class door.  As usual, it had been a busy day. Crazy weather always affects the students, and lessons had felt a bit like an uphill battle, especially a math lesson in which I was learning a new method of assessment. Teaching is a challenging task at the best of times, like those circus acts you see with someone balancing ten teacups with two hands and spinning a plate on a stick on their teeth! Add something into the mix like picture day, or blustery weather, or a full moon (honestly the list is endless) and it’s a task for a saint or a fool! And I’m no saint.

So when this parent showed up, I was exhausted. The thanksgiving list I’d meant to write for my weekend blog was far from my mind. But I almost teared up on the spot when Crystal showed up. Spade in one hand and pitchfork in the other, she was dressed in her long winter coat, mitts and rubber boots. Actually, I found myself surprised that she still assumed the plans were on.

“Ready to go?” she asked enthusiastically. I apologized for forgetting to tell her at lunch that we were going to postpone the digging. “No problem at all!” she answered with complete kindness. “Just let me know what time next week.”

The next morning before work, I was reflecting on this moment with my cup of coffee. Feelings of exhaustion can make a person feel like throwing in the towel, but this simple act was like a ray of sunshine, injecting hope into my day. Her gift of encouragement and support came just when I needed it, nudging me to stay with the program and remember all the kindness in the world which helps us soldier on in difficult circumstances. As I write about it even now, it draws tears.

Suddenly, what I’d be writing about for my Thanksgiving post became clear: all those millions of small things that encourage me and provide hope where I might not have any. I see these as gifts from God. As I combed through the week, a list started to form:

  • A co-worker giving an understanding word in passing in the hallway. Thank you Shauna.
  • Another co-worker who kindly gave me her prep last Friday so I could leave early for my retreat. Thank you Monica.
  • Amid all the ebb and flow of classroom events, I am constantly grateful for those moments that are “easy” – where genuine learning happens, or kind words are spoken, or energy is there and magic happens in the lesson. These moments remind me of why I’m sticking with teaching.
  • Having an honest talk with Lyle one evening and our relationship being able to sustain sometimes tricky conversations. I’ve been very grateful for the laughter that still flowed later, and for the same path we are on together. Thank you Lyle.
  • Seeing gorgeous fall colors and swirling leaves that rain down like snow. Thank you Creator.
  • On a freezing day, the farmer’s market is still open and we’re still able to pick up our luscious farm produce from our CSA share. When it feels like the ceiling is coming down and life feels crowded, bounty reminds me of the truth. Thank you Jonathan of Jonathan’s Farm.
  • Friends who stir up faith and kindness at our Wednesday night Watershed meeting, reminding me of the bigger picture. Thank you Watershed.
  • Prayers with these same friends at the end of the meeting, and words of faith that spill out, reminding us of our desire to follow God. Thank you everyone.
  • An article on a Christian understanding of suffering which appears in my Internet travels, which is clear and inspiring. Thank you Christian writers in New Zealand and the creators of the Internet 🙂
  • An email from Paul P., who generously answered my query with characteristic wisdom and love. Thank you Paul.
  • A beautiful bowl of tomatoes finally harvested from my humble garden. The lovely colors glow in a silent reminder of the beauty in life. Thank you Creator.
  • I had originally intended to write my blog post on the Josh Garrels concert that Lyle and I went to in Vancouver. This post will still be written one day no doubt, but in the meantime, I had been feeling so grateful this week for this fun holiday and wonderful concert with Lyle. Thank you Lyle and Josh Garrels.
  • Seeing my students enjoy Friday’s field trip to Oak Hammock Marsh thanks to some great staff people there, despite the crazy weather. Thank you students.
  • Former students who come to see me after school. Thank you.
  • A book about C.S. Lewis that I don’t want to end because it is so good. Thank you writers everywhere.
  • Another inspiring article on the love of books by the late Ray Bradbury. It was the last thing he ever wrote. Thank you Ray Bradbury.

All these gifts are exactly like Crystal showing up at my door, tools, kindness and enthusiasm ready to match the oft daunting challenges life gives us. I am grateful for these gifts which are like air and food, helping me stay on the path of faith and hope.

As you enter the Thanksgiving weekend, may you be inspired to reflect on your own list of “small things” and be encouraged on your own path. Whether you call yourself a “Christian” or not, I am convinced that God gives us all a never ending list.

Be Thou My Vision

“I want what God wants, that is why I’m so happy.” Desmond Tutu

This week I experienced God through an image which guided me and kept me on the path of faith.

It was Sunday morning and our community had gathered for worship. We’re a small group, less than 20, and we meet in Dave and Lorna’s living room. Just a motley bunch of very ordinary people but it never fails to be one of the highlights of my week.  Talking about what matters most in life with this group is always like a fire that warms the heart and gives us “words to live by”, as we often say.

One of our traditions is the centerpiece, set on the round glass coffee table, which reflects the morning’s theme. Eldon, who is an artist disguised as a mailman, is the one who usually puts this together. The centerpiece is always helpful, especially when the weekend ends and the rubber hits the road at work on Monday. I may not remember the nuances of what we talked, sang and prayed about, but I can remember the centerpiece and be guided back.

On this particular Sunday morning, the centerpiece was simple: a vase of flowers with a pair of glasses on either side. It illustrated the two ways of seeing that scripture often talks about – seeing life through human eyes or seeing life through eyes of faith. We had been talking about the passage for the morning from the gospel of Mark. Jesus is talking to his disciples and they’re trying to figure out who the heck this guy is. In fact, everyone is wondering. Is he God’s son as he claims? Jesus asks them, “Who do people say I am?”

The discussion that follows after Jesus asks them this question is actually humorous. They tell Jesus what others have been saying about him, but Jesus presses them and asks them, “But who do you say I am?” Peter steps in and perfectly illustrates the two glasses of the centerpiece, one minute giving a faith-filled answer, and the next minute losing his faith entirely as he tells Jesus he “shouldn’t talk that way”.

One thing I love about the gospels is how I can relate to the disciples. They are a bunch of dim-wits, “dumber than a bag of hammers” as Paul Patterson likes to say, always getting it wrong. Jesus is incredibly patient with them. It seems he is forever repeating his kingdom vision to them and they keep getting it wrong. They forget his previous miracles and words and act as though Jesus doesn’t know how to turn “the-way-things-seem-to-be” on its head. They keep having one set of glasses on and Jesus urges them to put the lenses of faith on instead.  Like a good teacher, Jesus doesn’t let them get away with sloppy thinking. He keeps admonishing them, “You are thinking like everyone else and not like God!” (Mark 8:33)

I’m right in there with the disciples because I get it wrong so often during the week. Like Peter, I can be full of faith but then the smallest thing happens and I’m doubting. This week I noticed it when a lesson that was supposed to take 10 minutes fell flat. The wind went out of my sails for the rest of the day and my “old way of thinking” set in.  My lenses got all skewed and I lost the vision that had me inspired. I start feeling insecure about myself, doubting all the words of faith I heard earlier. My co-workers probably wouldn’t notice but inwardly I was scrambling for affirmation. “Am I ok?” (and the voice of doubt answered, “No!”). Invariably, this human way of thinking seems very convincing.

I was tempted to think life is small but that evening I remembered the centerpiece and heard Jesus’ voice reminding me alongside Peter, “You are thinking like everyone else not like God”. “Which pair of glasses do you want to wear there kiddo?” I came back to a place of prayer, asking God for help and confessing my slip.   It helped to meet with the group on Wednesday night, this time to talk about C.S. Lewis again.

Desmond Tutu is a South African activist and retired Anglican bishop who became a famous voice against apartheid in the ’80’s. He is a very down to earth man who loves to laugh, and words of his that I heard years ago came back to me this week. “I want what God wants, that is why I am so happy.” He has the right lenses on, I thought. That day, my vision had been corrected and I felt I was saying the words along with him because I experienced how living God’s way restored me. I certainly don’t live this way very consistently, but it is my deepest desire in life to “want what God wants” too. It’s the only desire that has ever led to happiness, that is, deep happiness that doesn’t depend on circumstances.

Sometimes I think the only thing that’s happening as I’m getting older is that I’m learning not to trust my insecurities and doubts. They are like bad friends, not to be trusted. What can be trusted is God’s promises.

During the week, I often ponder what to write for the blog, and at one point my heart felt like it was overflowing and I wanted to write an early Thanksgiving list. This list will be written soon no doubt. Until then, this is my declaration of where God has been this week, repeatedly correcting my vision, being the World’s Best Coach as I am guided back to my deepest desire. That is why, no matter what the weather, I find myself echoing Desmond Tutu, more often than I used to, that I am so happy.

Week after week, God stitches me back together this way and it’s as though an unseen Hand gently takes off my human glasses and corrects my vision again and again.

Be Still

A day reading on the beach

We saw a lot of water when we were in Vancouver last week. I haven’t seen the ocean for many years and it’s a huge expanse out there – channels, harbors, bays, creeks and rivers. So much water makes for a green and lush landscape, and we basked in it for 4 days. We were blessed with perfect weather, and each time we ventured near water, things were calm and tranquil, even when waves were lapping on the shore.

Transitioning to the pace of a new school year was what lay ahead of me as our plane touched down on Monday night. I began with the usual prayers whispered on my own and the prayers and love of my faith community. Underneath my happiness at seeing students once again were the usual fears, nervousness and worries that I won’t measure up. These unsettling emotions are so predictable to me now that I’m not surprised to see them. They seem like the current under all that water we saw.

The first day with students began well enough and hope bubbled up within me but during the second day, I felt like I was treading water hard. It’s amazing to me how convincing an illusion can seem – that I wouldn’t make it this year, and that all things negative would swallow me. “I’m not cut out for this. How will I do 198 more of these days?”

I consider it a huge blessing and sign of God’s providence that all week God was faithful and gave one reminder after another, nudging me away from the illusion and back on more solid ground. With God the loving parent and I the distracted child, I kept being redirected.

The first healing nudge came from our Wednesday night discussion. In a discussion about C.S. Lewis’ book The Problem of Pain, a woman in the video talked about her son’s battle with cancer and her own deep struggle. Some people allow their battles to make them cynical, but she only became more convinced of God’s abiding friendship. When difficulties come, we may think God is cruel, but she said, “Whoever we think God is, God is always more than what we think. God is Mystery.”

This is what Lewis believed as well. At the end of his book The Great Divorce, the immortal souls of all the world’s people are watching over the tiny chess pieces of their  lives on earth. I remembered this image as I was temporarily adrift in my ocean of swampy feelings. It was a shift in perspective, helping me remember that God is the immortal part of me, and is much larger than what I usually imagine. “Whatever I’m feeling,” I mused, “it is not so huge that God is not much much bigger and able to sustain me.”

A verse on a bookmark I’d bought in B.C. came to mind – “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)  As I prayed, I remembered this verse. There are no swirling waters of doubt when we are still enough to become aware of the God who is always there. It is my hope for this year and always.

Calm returned the next day and with it the awareness that I was more in the center of this stillness, and in the heart of God all along. It is amazing to me what a difference a change in perspective can make. When God readjusts my brain yet again and reminds me that Love is greater than all, a love for my students bubbles up once more. No challenge is too difficult and no waters seem too deep or swift. A bounce in my step returned.

I thought that my doubts were the current under the water, but I was wrong. It’s God, deeper than anything my over-active imagination can throw at me. Or maybe God is like an anchor amid all the human swirling. Like Josh Garrels sings in the song Bread and Wine,

“I was wrong. Everybody needs someone to hold on.”

My prayer for the year will be to hold on to the anchor of Psalm 46:10, and I wish that for everyone reading today.



Heaven and Hell

Images of heaven and hell were quite vivid in my imagination as a kid growing up in a 1960’s Mennonite church. Becoming “saved” was a big deal and it ensured that we were heaven-bound. I made my “decision” for God as a young child, as did many of my friends and family. It was a a sincere decision and a consolation for my parents, but it also created a problem for me. I worried that I hadn’t done a good enough job of it. Again and again, I would ask Jesus into my heart, trying to be more sincere than the last time. What if God hadn’t really heard me, or worse, accepted me? What if Jesus came back and I wouldn’t be taken? To tell the truth, descriptions of heaven sounded a bit boring to me with everyone living forever. It sounded like I’d have to be in church for a long, long time, but despite this grim future, I still didn’t want to be one of those “left behind”.

I’ve written about discovering the writings of C.S. Lewis in our church library, and it was a huge relief to read The Great Divorce as a teenager. I realized that there was more than one way to understand heaven and hell. Lewis provided a story that gave my imagination (and my worries) room to breathe. I didn’t know it then, but I was embarking on a life-long journey of my understandings becoming broadened. Thank God.

The course in C.S. Lewis that our community is doing got me re-reading this marvelous classic lately. I began reading it at the lake in early July and by now in late August, I’m almost done reading it for the second time. A Lewis scholar wrote that it’s his favorite Lewis book and he makes a point of re-reading it every year and I can understand why. It’s chock full of life-lessons and wisdom.

The Great Divorce is an imaginary telling of people in hell who board a bus to visit heaven and are given a chance to reconsider. The book starts off with the narrator, presumably Lewis himself, in a gray, dismal, rainy city of empty streets. This is hell. There are no flames, devils or torments and that description alone is worth the read. Hell is empty because the inhabitants can’t stand each other! As there is a conflict, people can imagine a different house in a different neighborhood and poof, it happens. No one actually lives together. There are miles, even light years between neighbors. Life in hell is always moving away from core values such as love or cooperation or peace-making. Self-interest is what makes hell so empty and so boring. Sounds pretty accurate to me!

The other thing about hell is that it is very, very tiny, which was a great balm to my vivid childhood imagination. In fact, heaven is described as being very large and hell infinitesimally small, smaller than a grain of sand. Lewis described it like this, “All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World.”

The people from hell who visit all have reasons for coming which are mostly about getting their rights or stating their position. However, when they get there, they realize they are phantoms, unlike the “bright, solid people” from heaven. The phantoms have come to argue their rights, but the solid people attempt to explain the grace of God to them. In other words, the phantoms have a chance to gain substance and become real.

The phantoms also experience heaven differently than the solid people. Heaven is bright and beautiful, but because they have no substance, they can not experience the beauty. The blades of grass are as sharp as knives. Raindrops would go through them like bullets from a machine gun. They can’t even pick flowers, because the stems are far too strong for them.

Lewis receives a wise Guide, one of the solid people, by the name of George MacDonaldand together they overhear conversations between other ghosts and their Guides. In real life, MacDonald was a huge

The real George MacDonald in 1901.

influence for Lewis. Lewis wrote after reading one of MacDonald’s books, that his imagination was “converted, even baptized.”

Lewis begins to see that every phantom has a choice to make. My favorite quote in the book describes this freedom that God gives us all – the power of choice. “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” The first choice points to us putting our trust in God when we can’t understand the way. It’s like the verse that says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5) Invariably, almost every phantom seems to be one of the second kind of people, whom God will allow to have their own way and their own beliefs.

One woman who arrives receives her brother as a Guide, but she is disappointed. She had wanted her son to meet her. She demands that she be united immediately with her son, but her Guide gently tells her that she can’t see him because he would not be able to see or hear her. The mother needs to be “thickened up” so she can gain substance herself. Until she does so, says the Guide, she can not see her son.

What is preventing her from growing solid is her all consuming desire to see her son. In life, the mother became obsessed about her son after his death, keeping his room the same, ignoring the rest of her family and choosing to live in the past. The Guide tells her that she must learn to see God first. Her own feelings for her son seemed holy to her, but because her love never moved beyond her son, she was unable to become solid and love God.

As I re-read this book on my summer break, the effect it had on me was the same as it had on me as a teen. It evoked wonder and a much more evocative, inviting understanding of heaven than I received as a youngster. I realized that God is a God of incredible love who not only gives us an infinite number of second chances on earth, but in the afterlife as well. Even after choosing hell over heaven, the ghosts can always re-board the bus and visit heaven once again (though this choice became more and more remote the more times the ghosts choose their own will). Lewis was insistent that his book was just a fantasy and that readers shouldn’t take his imaginings literally, but I want to hang my hat on his view of the grace that God extends to all, no matter who we are or what we’ve done.

The childhood fear of a frowning God who wouldn’t accept me followed me into adulthood. It wasn’t the only aspect of my faith life, but showed up as a shadow of perfectionism and this feeling that I had to earn my salvation. The Bible calls this “works righteousness”, and I had it bad, but as I grow older, I realize I am being healed of this. Through the persistent and solid teaching in my faith community, my mind and heart have been shown another way and like Lewis himself, my own imagination has been baptized by a God who is incredibly loving and doesn’t expect me to be perfect before being accepted.

Gathered up in Grace

I began sweeping at around 9 a.m. I was back at the Habitat build site, volunteering for my 4thday of the summer. Unlike the Blitz Build of July which saw over 100 volunteers each day, our group in the “Post-Build” was around 10. My vinyl siding skills were rusty, so when they said the four houses needed sweeping out, I said yes.

Photo by Joel Penner

Quickly I realized that I was the only one. For me, talking to other volunteers as we work is one of the highlights of the Habitat day, so I was a bit disappointed. “No worries,” I thought. “I’ll think about topics for the blog.”

I don’t know about you, but being alone with your thoughts can be tricky. I was still waking up and feeling slightly grouchy. My thoughts felt anything but blog-worthy. For the moment, I was concerned about my neck and hands – how were they going to survive this repetitive movement for 8 hours?! It was a lot of sawdust.

The process of choosing a topic for the week is sometimes an odd challenge. My thoughts were a loose assortment of thoughts and experiences from the week. I still had thoughts of my father-in-law. His passing had prompted a softening of heart in our neighbor. He and his family had signed a condolence card. Handing this to me along with a pie from his mom, he also offered an apology for the recent misunderstanding over the new fence we’d built. We had prayed for this reconciliation, and here it was. It was a sign of God’s kingdom for sure.

Then there was Lion’s Manor. Eldon, Marilyn and I went on Thursday night to sing with the seniors. Lately it has been dawning on me that an ancient dream of mine is coming true. Growing up, I’d always wished I had the talent to be in a band; to sing my heart out onstage. There are no microphones and glamor here, and our little group is certainly humble in its output, but perhaps my dream has come true, though in a different way than I imagined. Who would have thought our audience would be seniors whose memories are slipping fast, yet it is a joy to sing with and for them. To see faces light up as we all sing, despite all they’ve lost, is a reason to “get up in the morning”, as they say. We sing oldie goldies from the war years, like “Red, Red Robin” or “Roll Out the Barrel”, and  suddenly it feels like heaven is touching earth in some intangible but real way.

As I mulled over these thoughts, I kept on sweeping. By 10 am, my right thumb muscles began aching and my neck wasn’t getting any less sore, but the physical aches were a little less distracting. Soon it was time for coffee break.

We sat by the picnic tables, grateful for the shade already at this early hour. I grabbed a coffee and granola bar and found a place among the volunteers. There we were, a house leader, 3 teachers, 1 insurance worker on her holidays, an engineer with long dreadlocks who had dreams of building houses for the poor in Africa, the Habitat supervisor, and 4 or 5 homeowners who were putting in their sweat equity hours.

It’s always great to meet the homeowners and hear their stories. They are always humble people who wouldn’t ordinarily be in the position to purchase a house – new immigrants, families with low paying jobs – and their gratitude is always infectious. They have been given a break in life, a chance for a new beginning that they never thought they’d get. This day I realized one of the homeowners was the parent of a former student of mine. It’s hard not to be happy for them, and it stirs up hopes for new beginnings for everyone.

I always enjoy hearing people’s stories, but soon it was back to work in the stuffy and increasingly hot house, sweeping away with my thoughts to keep me company. As my garbage bag slowly filled up, my thoughts turned to our friends who were away for the week, on holidays. Our community’s pastor wrote in an email that the favorite part of the trip for him had been meeting an elderly couple at a bed and breakfast. “To see such a vigorous, well read, and humble couple was delightful. Lord help us keep life interesting and our hearts open to others,” wrote Paul. 

I mulled over this thought and soon it turned into a prayer. “Lord, help us keep our lives interesting.” I thought of all the blessings that came my way which kept my life “large” – singing, my quirky and ever growing interest in monarch butterflies and all things nature, writing, our community discussions and studies, our present study on C.S. Lewis which is so interesting, coffee, interactions with friends which help me interpret events through a grid of faith. At a certain time in my life, my mind had been much more trained in thinking of all the things that were wrong. I feel so grateful for this subtle but sure healing of my heart. Some days it seems hidden and small, but it is there to be sure. What a sign of God’s grace.

As the day wore on, it felt like my thoughts were being gathered up like I was gathering up all the loose sawdust. Crankiness was replaced by increasing enjoyment, and the group seemed to become more cohesive. Mr. Dreadlocks told me all about his hair and how growing them out 11 years ago had marked the beginning of a change in his life towards “clean living”. If any of his waist-long locks ever fall off, he told me, “it’s all ok. It’s up to God.” I chuckled inside, happy that even such a small detail could be given up to God’s providence.

By now, my industrial strength garbage bag was almost too heavy to carry. I thought of asking one of the guys to lug it over to the garbage for me, but I was able to manage after all. I was very hot and sticky, and today my thumb muscle is achy, but hugs and good-byes were shared among our motley crew and I went home feeling energized and happy.

God always manages to gather me up like this. Seen through my human eyes, the bits and pieces of life can feel like so much sawdust, lackluster and without meaning. Small things such as achy muscles or morning grouchiness can seem like the end of the story. But faith in a bigger story is a gift given so regularly that I’m beginning to realize I can trust God’s provision even when it seems missing. Like Lyle often tells me, “Everything will be all right.” Day after day, God’s grace gathers us all up.

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