Leave No Unguarded Place

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I woke up with a verse of a song playing in my head.

Leave no unguarded place,
No weakness of the soul,
Take every virtue, every grace,
And fortify the whole.
From strength to strength go on,
Wrestle and fight and pray,
Tread all the powers of darkness down
And win the well-fought day.

It’s from the hymn, Soldiers of Christ Arise, written by Charles Wesley. His brother, John, is famous for leading a well-known spiritual awakening, but it’s Charles’ verses that come to memory for me.

I looked for a video performance of the song but none that I saw had the tone of gentle encouragement I felt when I heard this part of it in my spirit. Some of them used photos of modern military and others featured large choirs and brass fanfares.

None of them felt right because “wrestle and fight and pray” doesn’t take place in the middle of patriotic hoopla for me. The battle, for me, takes place mostly in my bed at night when I wrestle with doubt, fight fear, and pray from a position of being very aware of weakness. The only strutting involved is when I am trying to walk the cramps out of my legs, and technically, that looks more like lurching.

I don’t feel particularly virtuous when I am complaining about pain. I don’t feel particularly strong when worries attack without the defenses of daylight logic camouflage. My prayers contain no self-conscious public speech-making bravado. Mostly they are moans, for myself, for my family, for my friends, for my country, for this world where the powers of darkness, in a variety of costumes, seem to be clog dancing on the face of those suffering injustice.

And yet, I hear the voice of my Lord saying, “Get up. Put your armour on.”

In his kindness, Holy Spirit first points out places in my heart that need to be fortified with his love, joy, peace, patience kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. Then he reminds me of his lavish, empowering grace.

He reminds me that when I fall, I don’t have to go all the way back to the beginning. My new starting point is where I left off last time. I am learning that I can fall, admit it, and get up to fight from strength to strength with his weapons — and aim them at the real enemy, not the hostages.

The process involves acknowledging the unguarded places in my soul where lies about who God is and who I am in Christ have slipped in unnoticed. One common unguarded place is unforgiveness. Another is complaining. Someone told me that complaining is the worship language of hell and not to be surprised by who shows up for a pity party.

Wrestling, puzzling, pondering draws us closer to God. Sometimes trust means moving in obedience without any more insight than knowing he is good and he’s asked me to get up and pray.

Sometimes one crumb leads to another on the path to closer relationship. As I was pondering this song another came up:

Spirit of God, descend upon my heart;
Wean it from earth; through all its pulses move.
Stoop to my weakness, mighty as Thou art,
And make me love Thee as I ought to love.

Hast Thou not bid me love Thee, God and King?
All, all Thine own, soul, heart and strength and mind.
I see Thy cross; there teach my heart to cling:
Oh, let me seek Thee, and, oh, let me find!

Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh;
Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear,
To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh;
Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.

Teach me to love Thee as Thine angels love,
One holy passion filling all my frame;
The kindling of the heaven-descended Dove,
My heart an altar, and Thy love the flame.
-George Croly

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Today is Pentecost. The Holy Spirit came in power on a Pentecost day to enable the followers of Jesus to go from strength to strength. They couldn’t do it on their own.

Sometimes the next step is simply a practical one. While he fried up bacon and eggs, my husband patiently listened to me verbally process the significance of the music in my head and its metaphorical meaning.

“By the way,” he said, when I paused to take a sip of coffee, “You left the back door open last night.”

Note to self: check the doors before going to bed.

Self-propelled

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A bicycle will get you there.

So will a jet — but much faster.

Wait.

I woke with two songs in my head today. One is The Boxer by Paul Simon. The other is Take Courage by Kristene de Marco. That’s an odd combination.

It’s a puzzle. I feel like the Holy Spirit is dropping breadcrumb hints. I follow. They lead to Jesus Christ, and the pandemic response, and the week between Ascension and Pentecost.

Before he left, Jesus told his disciples it was to their advantage that he leave. That must have been confusing. After he rose from the dead, he told them to wait to be empowered from above.  That must have been even more confusing. He had just come back. Something was coming that could not be explained with words common to their experience. They couldn’t understand. All they could do was trust and do as he said.

The Boxer, I realized as I listened again this morning, is about three responses to stress: flight, avoidance, and flight. The boy flees to the city. He succumbs to loneliness and takes comfort in loveless sex. The boxer, “in his anger and his shame,” fights on without success.

Take Courage talks about responding to stress with courage, steadfastness, and trust in a time of waiting when we don’t understand.

Today I heard the cry of more leaders in Christian ministries who are fleeing, self-medicating, and fighting not so gainfully on. All lament they feel like failures. All of them want very much to love others, relieve suffering, fight injustice, and make a difference in the world. They put in maximum effort, but they are exhausted, disappointed, broken.

One burned-out pastor, after receiving an invitation from his board to resign for failing to “put more bums in seats,” told me that with the current way most church structure operates, clergy are more like butlers than family members. They are there to work day and night for the betterment of the family, but when they themselves are tired, hurt, or losing hope, they learn they were never considered part of the family after all. They were hired help.

If you look around, it’s standard practise in many places to fire pastors when they are down. Perhaps there is more to loving each other than what we accept as “standard.”

There’s a reason why Jesus said to wait for this whoever-it-was to show up. The Holy Spirit would be their destiny, their comfort, their strength. He would teach them, reminding them of what Jesus told them. He would convict, he would transform, he would empower. Unlike Jesus in physical form, he could be everywhere and with everyone at once.

Without an external source of power, a self-propelled bicycle cannot go the distance. Without God’s grace to be who he empowers us to be, we all eventually become like the exhausted, disappointed, disillusioned character(s) in The Boxer.

In the Liturgical calendar, we are in the time between the Ascension (when Jesus was taken up in a cloud to sit the right hand of God) and Pentecost (when the Holy Spirit came in power). Many of us are sensing a shift in the spiritual atmosphere. Something is different. God is doing something, but what? I don’t know.

What I do know is that when we attempt to save the world through our own efforts we are in danger of breaking down. We need the Holy Spirit to lead, teach, convict, comfort, and empower. Waiting on the Lord requires steadfast trust as we lean in to hear the One whose promises never fail.

I am angered by lies and injustice and suffering all around. I am even more angered by my weaknesses. I want to do something – anything – to help. But I’m tired and in pain and struggling to understand truth in a barrage of “misinformation.” When I pray for wisdom, I hear, “Wait.”

So I wait.

 

 

Sketchbook, circa 1971

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“I’m not having a porch prom!” my granddaughter protested when she learned her high school graduation celebration had been cancelled.

She had a porch prom. We attended by Zoom. Her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins praised her dress, her taste, her beauty, her intellect, her perseverance, and her attitude. Except for taking screen shots and cell phone shots of the computer screen, and the absence of any escort, friends, or fellow graduates, it was like the evening of her father’s graduation. We praised him, celebrated him, and took photos of him on the porch too. Then we waved as he left to pick up his date for the prom.

But her grad ended on the porch. No ceremony. No sitting in the sun in a stiflingly hot gown while some minor dignitary issued platitudes about adult life on a glitchy sound system. No diploma in hand, no hat in the air. No discovery that friends in expensive formal attire are still the same imperfect people they were all year.

I sympathized with her disappointment as I dealt with my own. We were unable to travel to see a very precious person cross the stage. I remembered my grad. I sang a solo at the ceremonies, but I wasn’t allowed to attend the prom. My parents forbid me to go to a dance. That was disappointing.

I dealt with more disappointment this week when a faucet burst and water poured out, unobserved for too long. My back was killing me by the time I moved the last crate in the storage room to higher ground. It looked then like I would have to toss out the empty frames and old sketch books it contained. It looks now like the frames can be salvaged, but not the sketch books. They were old anyway.

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I turned the wet margined pages of a sketchbook/journal I used when I was a teenager about the age my granddaughter is now. It felt like an archeological uncovering of my own history nearly half a century ago. I took photos of some of the less damaged yellowed pages. These quick cartoons were observations from my teenage point of view.

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1971 was a year of shift too, particularly in ideas of what it meant to be a woman, which, of necessity, included adjustments in the ideas of what it meant to be a man. I was, in equal parts, angry, enthused, confused, determined, and concerned.

In 1971, sexual harassment was called “Boys will be boys.” (that story for another day) I received one third less pay for the same summer job boys working beside me took home. One of my brilliant female classmates with a 98% average failed to get into pre-med in university. She was told, apparently without shame, that since she would probably drop out of medical practice when she had children, the spots were reserved for those most likely to benefit society. Another classmate, male, who I knew was not particularly brilliant since I helped him with math, was accepted. His father was a Member of Parliament.

In 1971, my pastor suggested I go to seminary, not to study and become a pastor, but to meet a pastor because he thought I’d make a good pastor’s wife. I looked at the lives of pastor’s wives I knew — and ran the other way.

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In 1971, many women wanted to be able to choose to have a fulfilling job where they would receive recognition in the form of a pay cheque. Now, many women happily pursue careers that fit their talents and interests, but the other side of the story is that many women feel they have no choice but to show up for less-than-fulfilling jobs to meet expenses. Not all, certainly, but some women long for the seemingly unattainable luxury of nurturing and teaching their own children at home themselves. I suspected in 1971, and finally knew in 1986, after leaving a sick child behind to fulfill a contract for rehearsals and concerts, that I was one of those.

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When I was growing up, my mother had a job. I had a house key. I wanted both and I wanted neither. As a teen, I didn’t know what it meant to be a woman, and I often resented what I saw, but it never occurred to me that I could choose not to be a woman as some of my granddaughter’s friends have done. I never foresaw that foundation crumbling.

So I tell my granddaughter not to let these circumstances break her stride. She is an exceptional person with impressive insight in spite of  “unprecedented” times. I wonder how she will see her journal in half a century?

In the meantime, here are some pages from mine.

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And Then…

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Sometimes it takes me a while to figure out where my emotions are coming from. I agree with people who say we ought not to be led by emotions, but I don’t discount them. God created us with emotion for a reason. Jesus demonstrated a full range of emotional experience, and demonstrated their rightful place. Like the Psalmist I have been asking my soul, “Why are you downcast? Why are you disquieted?”

Grief has roots that tangle under the surface. You can’t tug on one without unsettling memories of other losses and separations. This time of pandemic-led physical separation, although not permanent (we hope), is also stirring up feelings of old losses. I miss my loved ones. I miss my friends. I miss my freedom. I know we shall soon meet again, but these nebulous emotions all end up in the same pot like some strange concoction of lament that ignores reason. It feels like grief.

I’ve been feeling a bit down and unusually nostalgic the last few days. Old movies, old songs, old photos, old recipes, and even old cars make me laugh, but also shed tears. This morning, it being Mother’s Day, I thought about my mother, who passed away eleven years ago. I wish I could sit in her kitchen and tell her about my day. I read many posts from motherless children and childless mothers on Facebook, so I know I am not the only one who is aware of the ambivalent feelings this day evokes.

Then I remembered this week also marks the anniversary of separation from my Dad as well.

Time shrinks and stretches with age, moreso without the usual daily landmarks that keep us oriented. What day is it? Has it been three or four years since I received the call that Dad died in his sleep? The fence needs painting again. Didn’t I just do that? Was it really almost sixty years since Daddy took the photo of Mom serving Kool-aid to the pretty little girls in their birthday party dresses? The house I grew up in shows up on Google maps. It is dwarfed by the trees my brother and I planted as seedlings we received at school. When did that happen?

Part of prayer is paying attention to the stirrings in our hearts as we lean in to hear our heavenly Father. God often speaks to me through music. As I asked him to bring clarity to this messy emotion a song started to play in my mind. It is Brahms’ setting of John 16:22. In English it reads:

“So will you also pass through a time of intense sorrow when I am taken from you, but you will see me again! And then your hearts will burst with joy, with no one being able to take it from you!” (from The Passion Translation that seeks to include emotional content)

These were Jesus’ words to his friends before he was taken from them. We know the next part of the story – that he conquered death and appeared to them again before ascending to his place with the Father. He told them, on that same evening he gave the warning, that something better was coming. He was sending the Holy Spirit to advocate, teach, comfort, and empower in his place.

We have the advantage of living on the other side of the cross. We know loss here and now, but we also know that Holy Spirit will never leave. He reminds us of the promise that is for both here and now and even more in the future: “Then your hearts will burst with joy with no one being able to take it from you!”

 

Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.

(Psalm 42:11 NIV)

When We Have Exhausted Our Store of Endurance

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In northern climates, spring is just beginning. Oh, how I welcome the signs of season change this year. Sitting in the warm sun without a coat, even if I am sitting alone on my deck, feels like the world is starting to open again. This has been a tough season – for nearly all of us.

As a student, I noticed a pattern in my educational history (because I notice patterns). I seemed to have seasons when learning new things came easily and seasons when study felt like slogging through hip-deep snow. The slogging season ended with new shoes and clothes, because in those seasons I grew physically. Another common season, the one my mother thought was my perpetual dwelling place, was the season of not much happening, not visibly, at least. Those times became the opportunity to enjoy relationships and put into practice and some of the good habits Mom tried to drill into us.

Years later, I read an article by someone else who noted the same pattern – and took time to research it properly. Children tend to alternate physical and mental growth spirts.

As an adult, I noticed that spiritual growth also came in spirts. Just as there are rhythms in nature, there are rhythms in the spiritual realm. I’m learning to ask the Lord what he wants to show me in whatever season I find myself in. I don’t believe we are all in the same place at the same time, nor do we all progress at the same rate. Sometimes change occurs suddenly. Some seasons do drag on. This has been a drag-on one for me.

A verse from an old hymn showed up in answer to my prayer about what this season is about and what provision the Lord has set aside for me now.

When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.

His love has no limits, His grace has no measure,
His power no boundary known unto men;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.

(From He Giveth More Grace by Annie J. Flint)

It’s about endurance. Patient endurance. It’s about provision of physical, emotional, and spiritual strength fueled by hope and learning to run with it.

Our cross-country running coach back in high school trained us for endurance races by pushing us to go farther each time we ran. His was not my favourite class. Not even close. Undiagnosed exercise-induced asthma made gym class a miserable experience for me. I didn’t wheeze. I went directly to heart-pounding dizzy and sick. I just about puked on his shoes in an oxygen deprived moment one day, but even that failed to win sympathy. He tolerated no whining. If I dawdled, I got an extra lap. I didn’t die, and even though I often came in with the last stragglers, my endurance improved significantly that year. After I forgave him, I could acknowledge some gratefulness.

The writer of Hebrews talked about the necessary quality of endurance in running the race set before us. I want to whine that I’m hurting, that I’m tired, that this is too much. It’s as if the coach is indicating that another lap is required before this season of uncertainty is over. Really? I don’t think I can do it, but he thinks I can. And he is right. I can go a little farther in trust than I did before.

Seasons when I learned about God’s goodness and discovered his love and abundant grace and favour were more fun than this one has been, but learning that God is faithful, steadfast, and will provide what I need, when I need it (and not a moment sooner) builds endurance. Learning that pain is bearable siphons off some of the fear the enemy used to manipulate me in the past.

The discipline of running the race set before me, and not another person’s race, has helped me to stop comparing. I may take longer than others, but I make better time than I used to. That feels good.

There’s also something about patient endurance with focus on a goal that makes us willing to pare down and drop things that don’t matter as much as they once did. I’m travelling lighter.

The unexpected prize in this season of patient endurance is joy. Jesus’ endurance was a result of seeing the joy set before him. I’ve been praying for more joy. This joy doesn’t feel like giddy happiness, but it does feel like something inexplicably wonderful lies ahead. The joy I see reminds me of something as wonderful as new life awaking on  branches that appeared dead for so long. It smells like the scent of hope blooming in the spring sun. It feels like the certainty of sweet fruit.

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Jesus encourages, “Look at me! Eyes here! Come on. You can do it…”

One more lap. One more…

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1,2 NKJV)

That Other Time the World Was Inconvenienced

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It must have seemed like the whole world had been inconvenienced – everyone except the leaders and bureaucrats who ordered the chaotic mess. What were they thinking?

What ordinary citizen could afford to walk away from a shop or farm or business and travel for days, simply to register for the privilege of paying more taxes? With the town’s resources stretched and tired traveler’s incomes pinched, tempers flared. They usually do when people feel out of control.

Only two people could afford to appreciate the unprecedented circumstances. Eventually a few more outsiders on the bottom rung of the social ladder understood,  and later some inquisitive foreigners showed up, but most people had no idea the world was about to change. They dragged themselves into the next day not knowing they had just entered a new era.

Seven years ago, I stood in crowd of hot, tired people from every place except the town we were in. We all waited for a chance to squeeze into a ridiculously small room with a metallic star around a hole in the floor. This place, the tourist machine told us, was the birthplace of the Christ.

Our guide had his doubts. He made a quip that locations of famous events in Israel were more likely to be determined by the availability of parking for tourist busses than archeological evidence. He favoured an empty field north of the edifice. Nevertheless, on tired legs and aching feet hundreds of us shuffled forward on a worn stone floor as the cacophony of many languages surrounded us.

Today, looking at photos, I remember the crowds in Bethlehem. It was the Sabbath. Christian sites were open on the Sabbath, so it seemed like a good day to go. Bethlehem no more lay in peaceful stillness that day than I suspect it did on the day Joseph and Mary arrived for the census ordered by Caesar Augustus.

We passed armed soldiers at check points beside high walls and rolls of razor wire. Later in the day, loud fighter jets passed overhead while we wandered around ruins on the outskirts of town. A man in our group, who was a native Israeli raised on a kibbutz, became very serious and immediately took out his cellphone.

“This is not good,” he said as he waited for someone to answer. “The Israeli air force never flies exercises on the Sabbath. They’re on a mission.”

We felt the tension in the air. When we returned to our hotel, we learned the planes had attacked a convoy of trucks in Lebanon. With only partial information available speculation and rumour filled in the blanks.

I don’t think I’ve had a discussion with anyone in the past month, on an online group call, or by text, or yelling across the fence, that hasn’t begun with observations of these strange times and unprecedented circumstances we find ourselves in. As the repercussions of a halted economy begin to sink in, and voices express more irritation with inconveniences, speculation and rumours fly.

The lull in the daily-ness of life in the past six weeks provided me with time for reflection. I see a young Jewish couple in my mind’s eye.

The woman is very pregnant. They have walked for days. Her back aches and she needs to pee again. The baby’s head is engaged and intermittent cramps make her stop and lean on the man while she waits them out. Yet she and her husband smile at each other and exchange knowing glances. They know what this means.

The God who sent an angel to bring both of them into his plan played the politicians and experts who thought they were in charge. He inconvenienced the whole country to arrange to get them here in this place at this time. Without fanfare, an ancient prophecy is about to be fulfilled. In the midst of enormous upset, strain, and confusion, the world was changing forever.

On this night, at the perfect moment, predetermined from the beginning of time, the Messiah arrived. God with us. The crowds queueing in the streets, worried about finding accommodation and having enough shekels to pay for everything, had no idea they were entering a new era.

The fullness of time arrived.

Nothing would ever be the same.

Joseph and Mary knew. God graced them with his favour – not with a life of painless ease, not with social approval, not with wealth, but with inclusion in his plan. He shared the secret of the ages with them.

They knew.

God smiled and the angels rejoiced.