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Known and Loved

My dear friend Delia recently invited me to come share my faith story with the small house church she is part of here in the West End called Little Flowers. I pared my talk down for the blog.

Late in 2014, a book from 1958 on the parables of Jesus called The Waiting Father came recommended and I found a used copy online.  Making my way through each of the 16 chapters has been a slow and steady feast, each of them a sermon on one of Jesus’ parables.

money-03I’d come to the parable about the talents. You might know the story, where the master is going away and asks his servants to invest 10 “talents” (the local currency) while he’s away. Some versions call them pounds and one  just calls them money. Several servants invest the money wisely while the last servant hides his away, fearful of his master’s hard and cruel reputation.

What were those pounds all about? I think I’ve always assumed it was the assignment God gave us to do on earth. The keeners will get it right and do the assignment correctly, but maybe some of us will procrastinate and do nothing, scared of getting it wrong or messing up in some way. In any case, it never sounded much like fun to me.

The author helpfully wrote that it’s not about any to-do list or assignment, rather, the pound is actually our name. I’m Lydia Helga, but it’s not the literal name Jesus had in mind. Scripture says each one of us also received a name from God. Besides our biological, flesh and blood birth, we’re born in the Spirit. Our pound, the currency we are to invest in this world, is the name God gives us. The author says, “We are not nameless little people. We are children who are known and loved. And this name, the name we bear as children of God, this is the pound.”

So I want to talk about the name God gave me, and my deepest hope is that you’ll hear your own name too.

Psalm 139 is my “life Psalm” that I adopted years ago, and it expresses well this identity of being known and loved. Here’s a few verses:

Lord, you have examined me.

    You know me.

You know when I sit down and when I stand up.

    Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.

You study my traveling and resting.

    You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.

There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord,

    that you don’t already know completely.

You surround me—front and back.

    You put your hand on me…

Where could I go to get away from your spirit?

    Where could I go to escape your presence?

If I went up to heaven, you would be there.

    If I went down to the grave, you would be there too!

I was born into a Mennonite family in North Kildonan, the youngest of 4 girls. They say your first memory is telling, and mine is a happy one. I’m lying on the bed with my sisters, just 1 1/2 years old. Our feet are up against the slanted ceiling on the second floor, and we’re laughing. Another snapshot of myself is seeing myself with my family at Caddy Lake as a toddler, so happy to be in nature, and happy in my place in a loving family.

These two memories seem close to the name God gave me. I think I was holding my “pound” pretty tightly;  knowing myself as a child of God who is known and loved.

As I grew older, I began to forget my true name. It’s a pretty common twist in the plot of anyone’s life. We start to layer up our hearts, and who we really are, like so many layers of an onion. In the parable, one of the servants takes the pound he was given, thinks the master is cruel and wraps it carefully in a handkerchief and pockets it.

If I look carefully over my life, I took my name and did just that. A shadow crossed my family’s life when my oldest sister died of leukemia when I was 7. It’s not unlike the grief that many families experience in one way or another, and for me it was a life-changer. Amid the free floating but rarely expressed grief of our household, I buried my own thoughts, feelings and deeper identity.

I know now that God saw our broken hearts, and was crying along with us, but at the time I don’t think I knew that darker emotions had a place in the Kingdom we heard about in Sunday’s sermons. And so, I took matters into my own hands and became eager to win everyone’s favor. I formed a habit which has given me much trouble in my adult life – I became a people pleaser. On the outside I was a good kid, but there was a deep restlessness. My God given name was hiding in a handkerchief in my pocket.

I remember when I got to grade 7, I found a friend who seemed to have the same trouble as me. We didn’t know how to be ourselves, so we developed this code. “Be Yourself,” we told each other. Or we shortened it to B.Y. But what did it mean? I could never put my finger on who exactly I even was anymore. What did it mean to be myself? I could never pull it off, and I sure didn’t feel any of the peace the Bible talked about.

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Art by Eldon Heinrichs Photo by Paul Patterson

My pound couldn’t have been too buried in my pocket though, because I kept hearing my true name. It wasn’t that I was being such a good listener, instead I think the Good Shepherd was utterly faithful, creative and relentless in calling me despite my game of hide-n-seek.

So I heard God call in different places… at summer bible camp in the singing and the Bible stories that seemed new there; through youth leaders at church who accepted and prayed for this geeky teenager who wrote bad poetry; through my school, MBCI, which gave me friends and teachers who modeled Christ’s love. I heard my name often as a writer, and still do.

As an adult, God has used our small house church to call my name. Paul, our pastor, has helped myself and so many hear our true name. There’s a story in the Bible about finding a treasure in the field, which you’re so happy to find you’ll do anything to keep it. It’s the old name wrapped in the handkerchief.

Being known and loved is not always a comfortable experience though. Those parts of ourselves we think of as ugly are exposed, and quicker than a blink we forget the other half of the name — that we are loved warts and all. Like the Psalmist says, nothing, especially not the ugly bits, can keep God’s love away from us. Sometimes we hear comforting words about God’s unconditional love, but sometimes the words are more like a surgeon’s scalpel of what we need to give up to follow faithfully. When we know we are soaking in God’s love, it’s easier to trust the Surgeon.

As we heal, we begin to see that everyone else has this God-given name as well; our neighbor, our colleague at work, the cashier at Safeway, those we disagree with and even our enemies — all bear the royal name. We can look at everyone with completely new eyes when we realize this.

We all go into hiding so routinely. Sometimes I invest the pound I have, at other times a faithful soul gives one to me. It’s an ongoing marketplace in God’s economy, this giving of coins that helps us remember who we are.

Years ago, Paul shared an old sermon with me from 1737 by a guy named Thomas Boston which has been a huge help over the years in correcting my view of God. Boston’s wife lived with paralyzing depression and he himself had what some think were chronic kidney stones.

UnknownThe sermon was called “Crook in the Lot,” and Boston wrote about our lives like a big lot of wood. There are many straight pieces of wood in the piles, but there’s also these crooked, gnarled pieces of wood, all the ugly pieces. You’d think God would want the straightest, best pieces to work with, the pieces with the best grain. But somehow, Thomas Boston preaches, God is like a ragpicker and looks at the crookedest piece of wood in the lot, picks it up, smiles and says, “This is the piece I can use the best.” God turns that crooked piece over and over in his loving hands, considering the beauty that can be made from its crookedness. This beautiful picture has changed my idea of God.

Lately, I’ve been turning my pound over and over in my hand like a treasure, andknotted ideas for investment seem infinite. A smile to a stranger, a door opened for a struggling mom, a joke shared with a student, a carefully written email, a blogpost, a prayer for my enemy in the stillness of the morning — all of these are investments. I have them to give away because I was given so many to begin with. In some kind of crazy math equation, every time I give my pound away, I keep getting 10 back. I feel like the luckiest person alive with all this wealth. And if by some choice I bury it again, I know God won’t quit calling my name, unearthing that treasure.

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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.

Coincidences and Stamina

“Coincidence is the word we use when we can’t see the levers and pulleys.” –Emma Bull

Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by noticing a coincidence? Perhaps you think about a friend from long ago one day, and the next day you bump into the same person. One morning this summer, I chanced upon a friend on an early morning bike ride who I had just dreamed about. Since I rarely see that person, I was so shocked I couldn’t speak for a few moments. The other day a friend of mine switched on the radio in the car and happened to hear an interview with an obscure author he’d only recently begun reading for the first time.

Coincidences make me smile. They make me wonder what the Creator is up to. Perhaps reality is being tweaked just enough to give us pause and remind us of a design in the world that is more mysterious than our own thoughts. Was this “meant to be”? Am I being spoken to in some big way?

When I was wondering this week what to write about for my blog, I kept returning to a series of coincidences that have been happening lately, all related.

I start my mornings with a cup of coffee and a devotional reading of the Bible. For the last almost two years, I’ve been going through a series of meditations from a book called Solo: An Uncommon Devotional.  I read to listen for a “Word to live by” for the day. A “Word” (capital W) is different from words. It is something you hear that gives guidance and feels sacred.  I am amazed at how often I read something from scripture that is just what I needed to hear. It may be comforting or it may be a nudge that is uncomfortable but true.

A Word has been coming to me more than once lately and the weird thing is that it’s very much like something I’ve been teaching to my students.

I’m trying something new in my class this year, and that is a teaching method called “The Daily Five”. It’s simply a way of organizing the daily teaching of reading, writing and word study. One of the themes I keep talking to the kids about is that we are all building our stamina in these areas. Reading for 30 minutes at a time doesn’t just happen for a 7 or 8 year old – we build up the minutes day by day. If students get off track, we talk about why we practice our reading in the first place (the joys of reading). This coming Monday, our class will be at 27 minutes and I think they’re doing pretty well.

I have loved talking with my students about stamina because it’s the exact word that has been coming to me in my morning quiet time. The difficulty of the learning curve I wrote about in last week’s blog often tempts me to want the easier way in life. But God has been a determined teacher lately and has given me a series of scriptures that have all said otherwise. They’ve all been talking about stamina.

Here’s a sampling of verses that have come to me. It’s like God meets me in my temptation for the easy road and says stuff like this to me:

  • “Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 Message Bible)
  • “Purse a righteous life – a life of wonder, faith, love, steadiness, courtesy.” (1 Timothy 6:11 Message) (The word steadiness really caught my eye that morning.)
  • “Run hard and fast in the faith.” (1 Timothy 6:12)
  • And then of course was the verse I wrote about last week, “God will surprise you with gifts of unending help and confidence.” (2 Thessalonians 2:17, Message translation)

What I hear God saying to me through these verses is: “Lydie, I will help you but you also must decide to accept my help. Your will and My will come together to rise above the temptation to go soft.”

Paul Patterson (Watershed’s pastor) once gave me a Word to live by. He noticed my tendency to get angry in reaction to life’s difficulties, and he told me I was a bit like a crab, tough on the outside but soft on the inside. In other words, I was reacting to life but

had little stamina or character.  In contrast, he encouraged me to be the opposite, become softer or kinder on the outside and tougher on the inside. His words have been coming back to me often this fall. It’s like running a race, reaching within for God’s help when the going gets tough, holding on to hope like a lifeline.

A student brought me a huge smile this week. It was the annual Terry Fox walk at not just our school but schools around the world. I love teaching about this Canadian hero. Maybe it’s because my own sister lost her battle with cancer, but telling the kids about heroes who rise above their circumstances and don’t let go of hope inspire me.

One of my lovely grade 2 girls came to me after watching a short film about Terry Fox in the library. “Mrs. Penner,” she said with a bright smile, “I was listening to the Terry Fox story and guess what word we heard? Terry Fox had stamina. Can you believe it?!”

I grinned with her, knowing that the string of coincidences just increased for both of us. Maybe the Creator is speaking all the time to all of us, reminding us constantly of lessons that’ll take us through and increase hope and faith in the world.

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