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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.



The One That Got Away

In my community, we have a tradition that goes way back. We give generous gifts. I think it is because we are all so grateful for our humble group and the way it keeps us tethered to the meaning and hope we have found in this faith journey together.

Usually if someone goes away on a trip, someone else takes on the duties of house-sitting or at least checking in on the cats, watering flower pots outside, taking in the mail, and so on. Upon returning home, the vacationing friend comes bearing thank you gifts, which are most often way out of proportion to what actually happened. For instance, just for one cat visit over a weekend this summer, my friend Linda bought me soap and various chocolate treats. “You didn’t need to do that!” we always exclaim. Practicing gratitude in this way has been good for me, since it slowly heals me of my Mennonite tendency to be a tad penny-pinching!

A few weeks ago, my friend Marilyn went to Watertown Lake in Alberta for a family reunion. I usually drive her to the airport and was surprised when she got home to find myself the recipient of a gift, thanking me for the ride. I got a Waterton t-shirt, but it was the slogan on the back of it that had caught her eye. There is a picture of someone fishing, with the caption, “Be the one that got away.” The meaning of course is that we need to take a break from our lives and get away to renew our spirits.

There is a personality typing system that I learned over 25 years ago called the Enneagram. It is an insightful system into our tendencies and I’d recommend it for anyone who wants to understand themselves more. Anyone who studies it usually find themselves described in one of the 9 basic personality types.

I am a “2” in that system, otherwise known as “The Helper”. 2’s try hard to please others by being helpful and understanding because they are motivated by a need to be accepted. The shadow side is that they find it difficult to say no to others and can feel drained from overdoing for others. Doing things for ourselves is tricky because we think it’s selfish. I often think, “Am I doing things right? Am I giving enough?” and this outward focus can make me very cranky after a while!

Marilyn thought of me when she saw the t-shirt at Waterton because she knows that “getting away” is exactly what I need to do. Anyone who knows me, knows that I like to keep busy and often see my life as a long “To-Do” list. I often marvel at Lyle who knows how to kick back and “waste” an afternoon on golf or napping or reading.

“Getting away” has been a helpful thought to contemplate lately as I’ve been gearing up for another year of teaching. I’ve now had over 20 years of this September routine, and you’d think I’d be over it but it has never failed to stir up anxiety and a feeling that I just won’t measure up. I think the only difference as I get older is that I now recognize it. It’s like once again seeing the monster that routinely frightens you – after a while you can start to make choices. “Oh yea, it’s you again.”  I’ve been praying to stay focused on my inner life of faith this year. It’s the only thing that has ever truly sustained me.

And so I’ve been gratefully noticing the things that have kept me calmer over the last few weeks. God has quieted me through these gifts, reminding me that I don’t need to get burned out by blindly living for others.

One such gift has been listening to music. A careful reading of my blog over the last year will reveal that musician Josh Garrels has been an enduring source of not only wonderful music but profound lyrics reflecting the Christian journey. Normally, I don’t listen to the “Christian music” genre, but Josh is a huge exception. He is human and no stranger to struggle, but has found hope in a relationship with God. The faith he sings about is evocative and opens my heart.

As I’ve readied “Room P6” at school, dusting and organizing and putting up bulletin boards, his albums have been a huge gift. My anxieties may have spoken, but his music spoke louder. One song in particular has stuck with me called “Fire By Night”. There is a story in scripture about God leading the ancient people. They were lost and leaving a place of bondage in Egypt, but God didn’t abandon them. They were guided by a pillar of fire by night, and a cloud by day. Josh sings their story and I found myself in this meditative song. He melted my anxieties, reminding me  that even though “tomorrow a mountain we will climb”, God always guides us and finds our deepest souls by calling our names.

“Cloud by day, and the fire by night

We will never look back.

Young and old with a sojourner soul

Illuminate the path.”

Trying to describe the effect of this song is like trying to describe a mystery – I just can’t do it and you might just have to discover his music for yourself (check out this song at the end of this blogpost). I just know that I kept being reminded of what Lyle and all my friends tell me constantly, that everything will be ok, and that I can find myself primarily in God, not in this anxious and ancient business of trying to earn acceptance.

An incredible gift has actually come my way this weekend. My love of Garrels’ music got Lyle and I signed up for a Vancouver concert this Sunday. Our friends Eldon and Verda are already in Vancouver to drop their son Sean off at U.B.C. They lucked in on his first Canadian concert and we crazily decided to

“Getting Away” in Vancouver!

blow some cash by coming out here too. We’re enjoying the beauty and sights of Vancouver for a few days, drinking too much coffee and biding our time till tomorrow night when we get to meet him in person. I can still hardly believe my luck. I really took Marilyn’s t-shirt to heart by “being the one that got away”, especially on a weekend that would normally see myself cramming in lots of school prep.

The Song of Songs is a book in the Bible that compares God as a lover who is always inviting us into relationship. Our community will be meeting for worship tomorrow morning and even though we won’t be there, we got to read over the passages for tomorrow. One line struck me and seems to be the voice I’ve heard lately.

My beloved speaks and says to me: 

“Arise, my love, my fair one, 

and come away.

Songs 2:10

No doubt as I enter another year donning the hat “Mrs. Penner”, there will be twists and turns and times when I get lost. But I have hope that I will always be found again. It has never not happened. I hope always to “be the one that got away”, balancing my incredible penchant for doing by simply being God’s daughter, accepted not by what I do but simply because of whose I am.

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