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Posts tagged ‘Habitat for Humanity’

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.


If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice.  ~Meister Eckhart

This was a week filled to the brim with activity. Besides the day’s work, each evening held an event. I love my quiet evenings at home, so I was bracing myself for exhaustion.  When Friday finally arrived with a free evening, my eyes couldn’t stay open much past 10 p.m., but there was something else there, which had woven through the week like a golden thread.

Gratitude. The word had come to me on Monday morning, announcing itself as this week’s blog topic. Topics don’t often arrive that way, but I tucked it into my heart. It became like a telescope to view each day’s events through.

I was invited to my Habitat friend Fana’s brand new house for supper on Monday evening, along with many others who she and her husband and family wanted to thank. I had student led interviews coming up on Thursday night, and had a million and one things to do, but who can resist authentic Ethiopian food with friends? She and her husband Rediet thanked everyone from their hearts before the meal. Rediet said a prayer of thanks in his language, and I didn’t need to know the literal words to understand the prayer. His gratitude touched my heart and reminded me of the bigger picture – that God is somehow holding all of us amid all our difficulties, even when we don’t understand, bringing gifts that keep us steeped in love and blessing.

Tuesday evening’s activity was singing at Lion’s Manor with my friend Marilyn. One of the residents who always comes to sing is Jackie. Jackie has Altzeimers. She loves to talk and contribute. Her thoughts are not always coherent, but there is one thing about her that is always clear. She is always grateful. She thanks us every time we come, not once but continually. She is always making positive comments and like a self-appointed manager, she walks us to the elevator and thanks us one last time for coming and wishes us well. I always think that she must have practiced gratitude throughout her life for it to be such a lasting habit. No matter how I’m feeling, she never fails to encourage me.

On Wednesday night, Lyle and I went to our usual Bible study. Even after the study was over, most of us stayed past 10 p.m., talking about life and weaving God’s

Photo by Joel Penner

meaning into the situations of our lives. When friend Cal reminded me he was praying for me as I was leaving, I told him how helpful it had been to be around such rich conversation tonight. Like looking at the depths of an ocean, I was reminded that life is much more than my worries and tasks. I felt gratitude despite myself: gratitude that God is with us no matter what the storms are pounding. God has provided me with a faith community that shores me up again and again.

A 12 hour day lay ahead of me on Thursday, but like usual, all went well despite my worries as I talked to my students’  parents. Afterwards, tucked into one of the returned report card envelopes, was a note from a parent saying a simple thank you. She had no idea how much her small act of gratitude meant to me.

Lyle and I pray together before work twice a week. It isn’t anything fancy. It was my turn to pray on Friday morning and I began by saying, “God thank you for all the ways you carried us this week.” I was so tired that I could have prayed many complaints, but this small prayer of gratitude once again brought me to myself.

I want to be like Jackie, Rediet and Fana, and exercise the muscle of gratitude. I want to practice it so much that it becomes the default setting to my heart.

“Why is everyone hungry for more?

“More, more,” they say. “More, more.”

I have God’s more-than-enough,

More joy in one ordinary day

Than they get in all their shopping sprees.

At day’s end I’m ready for sound sleep,

For you, God, have put my life back together.”

-Psalm 4:6-8 (Message translation)

Switching the Dial

As I’ve been writing this blog over the months and asking “Where was God in my day?”, I’ve become more aware of the many ways God speaks. God can use the smallest thing to start painting a picture in my head of “God thoughts” which then weave through my heart all week, anchoring me in an identity deeper than my human foibles. It has become a rich discipline to keep asking the question, even during difficult times. I marvel that I have never yet been let down. One of my favorite Christian authors, Richard Rohr, says that “we live inside of an unexplainable hope” when we live in co-operation with God.

But let me get to this week’s story.

Last Sunday, I was heading out the door after Watershed’s Sunday morning service and lunch potluck when I had a brief conversation with my friend Lorna. “What do you have up for the rest of today?” she asked me. I told her it was going to be a full day and week ahead as my Math and Language Arts testing results were due. Without missing a beat, she gave me a reply that woke me up in my worried state.

“It’ll build your character,” she replied. We talked about that briefly and then off I went to an afternoon of marking.

Her comment, as small as it was, was like someone pulling a 180 degree turn in a car. I hadn’t realized how much I had been assuming that I would be overwhelmed, burned out and somewhat miserable this week with the looming deadline. Lorna reminded me that life can look different when we let God transform our ways. This was the small thought which began to sprout like a seed all week. “Where was God this week?” you ask. God was in this simple reminder from my friend.

Her comment got richer when she commented on last week’s blog by sharing a verse. “After talking with you this morning, the Romans 5 verse came to mind: we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

I began to realize how much habits of thought can take over our brains until they seem “normal”. Isn’t it normal to get burned out by outer circumstances? This strikes me as obviously false as I type it out right now, but I had to admit that I was stopped in my tracks as I’d been consigning myself to “normal”. I am a creature of habit. I notice it when someone invites me to a spontaneous plan, like going for an unexpected walk. Immediately my routines tempt me to say an automatic no. But sometimes we need to be jarred out of our routines, especially when they no longer give life.

This week we were studying the prophets in the Bible. The prophets of old, and of today, always critique and energize us to not swallow the attitudes of our world like a fishing hook. Think of Martin Luther King Jr. energizing a whole group of people to act against the way black people were treated. Bruce Cockburn, one of my favorite singer/songwriters and one of our modern day prophets sang, “The trouble with normal is that it always gets worse.”

In looking over the past week, I think the #1 fruit Lorna’s comment had for me was that it mobilized me to pray for help to live God’s way. I noticed how I’d gotten more reactionary and short-fused with the kids at school last week, and I knew it was a timely reminder. I gave God the unsavory attitude I’d been unconsciously harboring. In Christian tradition, this is called confession or repentance. We often think of repentance as just saying sorry, but it is more than that. It’s like that 180 degree turn, where we’re asked to walk in a different direction. It’s not easy giving up old habits because it’s often easier to go with the flow and become cynical and unbelieving. (If you don’t believe me, just start to complain at work and see how many people will join in.)

And so the prayers came out every morning, “God, help me with this load. Keep my imagination anchored in You.” I remembered the verse Lorna gave me, and kept on exercising and praying for perseverance and character, co-operating with God who gives birth to hope. I’m not saying I lived it perfectly, but more than less, I found myself more at peace in the bigger picture all week. And the marks got handed in without as much pain as I expected.

Richard Rohr gives an analogy which was also helpful to me this week. He writes that we are asked to become like a radio receiver station. “We slowly learn the right frequencies that pick up the signal of God.”

These receptors are trying to pick up radio signals from alien civilizations - now that takes listening!

I thank my faith friend Lorna who switched my radio dial for me and reminded me to stay tethered in God’s hope.

Other encouragements:

This week, I also had a few more observations of where God showed his face:

  • My new friend, Fana (who I wrote about in an earlier blogpost), from Habitat for Humanity phoned me up this week to say hi. I felt encouraged that she remembered me and it was great to talk to her. She’s looking forward to moving into her new house in December.
  • My son Joel was brave in rescuing a woman, likely a prostitute, who was getting beaten up in a truck. He stared the guy down who then stepped on the gas after dumping the woman out the door. Joel drove her home and gave her some money, after convincing her he wasn’t a cop. Joel did a “Jesus thing”. I’m also grateful he was safe at the end of the story.
  • I’ve been encouraged by reading a few new faith blogs lately. Drop by if you enjoy reading what modern people are writing and thinking about God: The Screaming Kettle and one that an old student recommended to me by author Rachel Held Evans (thanks Roselin!)

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