To the Ponds

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He lets me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still and quiet waters.
(Psalm 23:2 Amplified)

I once considered joining a volunteer online group. They seemed to eager to accept me, then told me that attendance in person was required at monthly meetings at various locations. The closest meeting was in Vancouver. I said I couldn’t afford to fly and driving, especially in the winter, was not practical. The leader of the group responded that she looked at a map and Vancouver was not that far from where I live in the Kootenays in south east British Columbia. It shouldn’t take more than 3 hours.

Well, maybe — if you had a straight road with no speed limit like the Autobahn. It’s actually a ten hour drive in perfect weather with no construction, and more like a two day drive for me, considering the way I stop for photos and restrooms. I tried to explain mountain topology to her. We have really big hills and really deep valleys and a lot of going-around-the-mountain curves, but she had already decided I was exaggerating the amount of time it took and that I would not be a good candidate.

Whew. That rejection was a relief. I agreed that I was not a good fit and wished her well.

I thought of that incident when I drove that route recently. Ice and snow were not problems this time, but wildfire smoke was. I was tired and my eyes and throat burned. As we dropped into the valley where Castlegar is situated at the convergence of the Columbia and Kootenay rivers, I decided I needed a break and some place to walk around. This town needed exploring beyond the usually pit stop gas stations and fast food restaurants just off the highway. I headed in a direction down a street that was new to me. When I saw a sign that said “To the Ponds” I followed it.

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Wow! I never knew this place existed. I’ve been driving past it for years! In a park on the edge of the wide fast flowing river the land has been sculpted into three current-less pools surrounded by sandy beaches, green lawns, and flower beds. I wandered around and read a sign that told the story of the town and the large number of people who drowned trying to cross the river at this point as they rushed to the Wildhorse Creek goldrush very close to where I live. If I remember correctly (and I admit my memory for numbers is poor) 86 people died in that season.

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Now here, beside the place where so many had died in the rapids, was a place of rest. Here in this deep valley where I would soon be on that steep road climbing out the other side, three pools of still water beckoned me to come aside and be refreshed.

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I memorized the twenty-third Psalm for a choral speech arts competition when I was in elementary school, when the Bible could still be taught as literature important to our understanding of cultural references. I remember Miss Brown directing our classroom group, mouthing the words and alternately speeding up and stretching out the words with hand gestures.

He leadeth me beside the stiiill waaaters…

I thought about Miss Brown and the rich heritage she gave us. I was thankful, all these years later as I rested beside the still waters in the valley that had seen so much death. I thought about my life and the faith journey that is taking me through another scary valley involving doctor’s appointments and scans and procedures and trying different medications that only seem make life more complicated.

In the midst of the rush to get home I felt the Lord showing me that he has prepared a place of refreshment right here in the middle of my valley. Yes, the rapids still roar, but the water diverted from that river fills the first pool and it’s overflow fills the second, and the third. In the middle of stressful days I can come to Him, my shepherd, my pastor, and let him lead me to a place of peace he has prepared in advance. I can stop rushing and striving and be still in my soul.

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Psalm 23 is a warring psalm that teaches us that rest and trust is a mighty weapon against the enemy that comes to steal, kill, and destroy. There is gold on the other side of this valley.

Even though I walk through the [sunless] valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me.

A Gift

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Sometimes you are out in the backyard taking photos of sweet peas and sheets on the clothesline just because the flowers smell wonderful and the warm sunlight and shifting shadows are interesting.

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And then a hummingbird hovers in front of your lens just long enough to snap a shot.

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Thank you, Lord. What a lovely gift.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

(James 1:17 NIV)

 

Learning How to Fail

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My granddaughter and I were talking about the challenges she faces going to a new school in a new town in September. She’s an excellent student but worries about keeping up her grades. I told her that once when I was her age in a new school, I got 4% on an algebra test.

I felt so devastated when I received my paper back with that incredibly horrible verdict not only including an exclamation mark, but circled in red, that I slipped out the side door at the next break and ran home, tears streaming behind me. I thought I was the biggest idiot on earth. Who gets 4%? Not even the goofy guys at the back of the remedial math class got 4%! I wanted to quit school.

One – or maybe two – “fluish” days later, when I finally dragged myself back into the classroom and had the nerve to ask the teacher why I had done so poorly, he explained I actually only made one mistake, but I made it 24 times. (I did receive credit for the first non-computation question.) He showed me that I needed to invert something in a different place and on my next test I had a much better mark.

I still remember how difficult it was to walk back into that room and ask for help. My report cards always said “conscientious worker.” I had never failed a test before. I didn’t know how to handle failure.

A few years ago I met a brilliant science teacher who inspired many students to go on into even more brilliant careers in science.

“What’s you secret?” I asked.

“I make sure they fail,” he said.

“But you teach the brightest and best students in the district!”

“And that’s why I give them a test early in the year that they are guaranteed to fail.”

“That doesn’t sound fair,” I protested with a little sympathetic whine wheedling into my voice.

“Oh, it’s not fair. I intentionally give them a test on a chapter they haven’t covered. I base questions on misleading or incomplete information. I load it with trick questions and unclear directions and then I arrange for dramatic distractions to invade the classroom and tell them to put down their pens and hand in their work before they have had time to finish. It’s definitely not fair.”

He smiled, looking proud of himself.

“At the end of the day I place folded sheets of plain paper in front of each student,” he said. Their test grade is written inside — a failing grade. I then dismiss the class and rush to an “important meeting” which involves a location where I cannot be reached until after the weekend.”

“Why would you do that?” I asked.

“To give them time to let that failing grade do its work. Because this test is not about the material. This test is about tests. This test is about learning how to fail the way a martial arts student first learns how to fall. This test is about teaching high achieving students who have probably never failed an exam in their lives that resilience is more important than a perfect academic record.”

“How do they react to that?”

“Usually poorly. On Monday morning the helicopter parents are circling the principal’s office, the budding law students are lining up with prepared arguments, and the discouraged students, at least the ones that show up, drag themselves into the classroom to the tempo of a death march.”

“Poor kids.”

“Not at all. I hand out their written tests, and lecture them on failure and recovery as a necessary part of success.”

“You don’t let them re-write for a better grade?”

“No, of course not. It’s a stupid test. I invite them to re-write the test – but not the answers. I tell them to re-write the questions. Learning is about asking better questions. The test I gave them had unanswerable questions. I tell them to ask better questions – then I show them how to look for the answers to the test they designed.”

 

I realized that what this master teacher gave his students was an opportunity to develop perseverance and endurance in a new atmosphere of confidence free from the fear of failure. I also realized he was not the first person to teach this. James wrote about it in the Bible.

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.

If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You’ll get his help, and won’t be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought. People who “worry their prayers” are like wind-whipped waves. Don’t think you’re going to get anything from the Master that way, adrift at sea, keeping all your options open…

Anyone who meets a testing challenge head-on and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate. For such persons loyally in love with God, the reward is life and more life.

(James 1:2-8, 12 The Message)

Are you facing a test in which there seems to be no perfect solution? Maybe the test is about more than filling in the blank with an approved answer. Maybe it’s about developing enduring faith and the confidence to follow the trail of better questions.

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It’s Not the End of the World

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Two years ago, after the roads were re-opened, we drove home through a valley burned by a devastating fire.

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The formerly lush green landscape consisted of ash and blackened tree trunks at the time. It looked and smelled like death – the death of a forest, the destruction of homes, and the loss of wildlife.

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This week we passed through the same valley. In the place where ash and charred debris once covered the forest floor, wild flowers and green grass sprang up in an unrestrained chorus of colour under the old black stumps.

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Children in the campground squealed with delight when their moms said they could play in the cool water on the river’s edge. The smoke smelled like sweet barbeque sauce this time.

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Five years ago a microburst wind downed hundreds of trees in our area. Century-old fir trees leaned on telephone wires and giant blue spruce snapped like twigs, crushing cars and houses and garages as they fell. It was a disaster at the time. I mourned over the loss of our big shade tree. It used to cover nearly half the backyard and was a perfect place for tea parties and splash pool swimming with the little ones. When the trunk split in the wind and the tree tipped precariously over the garden we had no choice but to cut it down.

Today, if you wander around town, there are few signs of the storm that ravaged our neighbourhood that day. Roofs have been repaired and trees replanted. I now have two May trees springing up from the healthy root system the old tree left.

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Sometimes after a devastating loss, we feel like things will never be the same, and the truth is, they are not. tree crash IMG_8683But things would have changed had the disaster not occurred, just more gradually. When people visit a town after moving away the first thing they notice is all the changes. There’s a parking lot where the hardware shop used to be and the public works department cut down the big willow down by the park because its roots were getting into someone’s plumbing. But there’s a new wing on the hospital now – and a new recreational climbing facility by the soccer fields. We’ve adjusted. They haven’t.

People lived through both disasters (and a few more I haven’t mentioned). It could have been a lot worse. It was not the end of the world. We felt relieved that we had survived, then came the clean-up and labour-intensive rebuilding. Work crews restrung power lines, tromped through broken homes, cleared trails and rebuilt bridges for months.

Sometimes loss clears the way for something new, something different or even something better. When an old forest burns, it opens up the forest floor to light where seeds, long dormant, can grow again. When my big shade tree came down I had more light so I planted a vegetable garden. We ate some of the tomatoes today.

I was thinking about unwanted change as I looked at photos I took in the fireweed- covered Kettle Valley last week.

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I had good news and bad news after specialized medical scans in Kelowna (which was the purpose of our trip.) The good news is that although there is more than one tumour they are in the same area and the doctor thinks the cancer can be treated with surgery alone. It has not spread to major organs! It is treatable! Thank you, Lord! This is not the worst case scenario. This is one of the better scenarios!

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I felt so relieved and grateful that it took a couple of days to realize, hey, wait a minute… The good news is that I get a free complimentary appendectomy with the removal of parts of my body I’ve thus far been rather attached to. Removing this bit means that bit and that bit won’t have adequate blood supply anymore, so they have to go too. That doesn’t feel like good news today. This will be the third “…ectomy” this year. It feels like autopsy by installment. It’s like being rescued from a burning building or yanked out of your car before a falling tree smashes it like a coke can. It’s a much better than the alternative, but still, when the dust settles, something hurts.firewee vertical ch rs IMG_8517

Don’t get me wrong. I am very grateful that the outcome of the tests was not as bad as feared. But can I admit I’m tired of loss? I’m tired of the work of restoration. Our house has still not been repaired after the flood in March. I don’t want to take more time to recuperate. I’m finally able to get out for a walk in the woods after two surgeries earlier this year.

The hardest part for me is needing to ask for help. I’m the one who comes to the rescue when other people need me. I don’t like needing. I don’t like asking. I don’t like depending. I don’t want to have to trust someone else’s judgment. I want to do the driving.

God is still working on my heart. I whine, then I realize that if I want Jesus’ promised peace that passes understanding I need to give him my right to understand.

I look at our restored city with streets lined with young trees and rain bouncing off sturdy new roofs. I see the ash in the valley replaced with wild flowers and horses and cattle grazing in the newly fenced fields. I see tomatoes and beans and peas growing in my backyard where there was too little sun to grow before. I see change that came about in a way nobody wanted but they appreciate now. There is joy in the journey.

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Again, I have to say, Lord, help me to see from your perspective. I’m going to keep asking for total healing, but I choose to co-operate with you, however you want to do this. I would rather have an instantaneous healing miracle but if surgery is the way you are going, well okay. Let’s do it. I am thankful for physicians with skills. Because you have shown me over and over again that the gold lies on the other side of the valley of shadow, because letting go of my own plans allows your brilliant purpose to shine in dark places, because you have kept your promises and always been faithful (even when it didn’t look like it at the time). I trust you. You give love, joy, and peace. I know you will provide everything I need when I need it.

It’s not the end of the world, but even if it were, you would still be there with your arms open wide.

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You point the way to limitless possibilities.

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And thank you for fireweed. It’s beautiful.

 

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There’s More

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When I was a young girl my parents gave me a white leather-bound Bible for my tenth birthday. On the dedication page they wrote: “Our prayer for you – Psalm 91″

Years later I decided to record a list of scripture verses that have stood out to me, that got me through tough times, or spoke to me about my relationship with God. The 91st Psalm was one. I realized this psalm was part of my inheritance and had been for a long time. I took time to study it and meditate on it daily, mining it for riches I had previously overlooked. It became precious to me. In time I moved on to other personally meaningful passages.

This morning I awoke with a line from a line from song recorded by Selah playing in my head. “When I feel like I can’t go on You deliver me. When the road is winding and way too long, You deliver me…”

What does “deliver” actually mean? Maybe I shouldn’t make assumptions. I learned the word “deliver” used in many translations of the Bible can come from more than one word in the Hebrew language. One means to transport like delivering a prisoner to a jail. One means to snatch away, rescue or provide a means of escape. (That’s the meaning I was assuming.) Another can mean to rescue but it can also mean to arm, equip, invigorate or make strong.

Psalm 91 uses two different words. The third verse talks about being delivered from a trap. This is the “plucked out/escape” word, natsal. The other word, chalats, shows up in verse 15. The Passion Translation recognizes the difference. Instead of saying you will be taken out of the situation it says, “You will find and feel my presence even in your time of pressure and trouble.”

Yesterday I was looking at photos I took on the drive home from a hospital a day’s drive away. I spent two days there undergoing specialized tests looking for more cancerous tumours. That’s a scary prospect.

Most of the time I am at peace, but sometimes I feel stressed. Driving up the steep Kootenay Pass on the side of the east side of the mountain with no guard rails between us and a sudden drop of hundreds of feet was one of those moments. I don’t have any photos. There is no place to stop.

I didn’t really want to stop. I just wanted to get out of there.

We parked in a wide lot when we reached the top and I walked around beside the little lake up there. Pacing helps me regain calm.

I took this photo from inside a cabin beside the road. When I looked at it this morning I felt I saw in the picture an open-door invitation to step out of the confines of my own thinking into a greater concept of what safe and secure deliverance means. It could mean being rescued from a situation or it could mean being armed and invigorated in preparation for a greater victory right in the circumstance.

God is creative and not reactive. The road up the mountain is the same road whether a guardrail is visible or not. I don’t know the results of the tests yet. From here the view is a bit scary, but he provides shelter and rest stops along the way. Whether he rescues me from this circumstance or equips me for battle and wider definition of what victory  and holding ground looks like, he has assured me of his presence. He’s got this and he’s not leaving.

After all these years there is even more to be learned from this precious psalm.

For here is what the Lord has spoken to me:
“Because you have delighted in me as my great lover,
I will greatly protect you.
I will set you in a high place,
Safe and secure before my face.
I will answer your cry for help every time you pray,
And you will find and feel my presence
Even in your time of pressure and trouble.
I will be your glorious Hero and give you a feast!
You will be satisfied with a full life
And with all that I do for you.
For you will enjoy
The fullness of my salvation!”

Psalm 91:14-16 The Passion Translation

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Infuse

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I pray that God, the source of all hope, will infuse your lives with an abundance of joy and peace in the midst of your faith so that your hope will overflow through the power of the Holy Spirit.

(Romans 15:13 The Voice)

When I see different thought streams start to converge and ideas come together I feel excited. I want to talk about them – a lot. I’m a verbal processor and for some reason I can I hear my thoughts better when I bounce them off people.

This can be wearing on friends, I know. To spare them from a barrage of words and ideas which I may discard the next day, I intentionally spend most of my time alone. Sometimes I journal. Sometimes I ruminate. But nothing works as well as a listening ear. Fortunately my husband understands. He’s a verbal processor too.

I’ve learned not to take him seriously until he comes to some sort of conclusion and he does the same for me – most of the time. Both of us have to keep apologizing because when we’re on a roll it’s hard for people who think hard before they speak to find a gap in the conversation large enough to stick a sentence in.

I’m learning to be a better listener and to ask better questions and honour long silent gaps in a conversation. I’m also learning to bracket interesting tangents my friends may inspire and come back to them later. But it’s not a consistent habit yet. It still takes conscious effort.

There are other areas of my life the Lord is working on. It’s like an episode of a TV show about hoarders. He has moved into the central living room of my life and the hearth of my heart, but the outer rooms are still being cleared.  Some of them are still piled with superfluous stuff like habits and unexamined ideas I’ve collected from garage sales. My intent was to re-purpose them into something, if not beautiful, then at least useful. Yeah. I know. That never really happened. Clutter. Toss it.

Changing annoying habits based on stupid ideas is a lot easier in theory than in practice. As long as I am concentrating on eating only healthy vegetables, for example, all is well. If I’m watching an exciting movie and an open bag of potato chips just happens to perch itself on the coffee table, I can crunch through a couple of handfuls before I even notice. And I don’t even like potato chips.

Change starts with an idea, but remains merely theoretical without practice.

Lately the Lord has been bringing opportunities to put into practice the things he has been teaching me, like listening more, and responding with a positive, trusting attitude when he sends prompts to engage his promises. It’s a chance to live in an abundance of peace and joy and overflowing hope. Alas, my response is not yet automatic when I am reading the instructions for preparations for another scope or scan, like I was doing this morning. I tend to catastrophize.

I need a better thought.

Sometimes I need to let new ideas infuse themselves into my life before the actions they inspire show up in all my words and actions. Like the process for making a proper cup of tea the process for heart-change cannot be rushed. I need to let it steep for a while. I need to listen and re-listen and meditate and study God’s words before they start to infuse every part of my life.

How to meditate? Someone told me once that if you can worry, you can meditate. Instead of mulling over the eternal ramifications of what can go wrong, try looking at what can go right, at what God has promised you, the dreams he placed in your heart, the way he has, by his grace, brought you this far. Rest in his presence and enjoy his company.

I just looked up and saw a post-it note I plastered to the edge of the shelf above my computer a few weeks ago. It says: Your God is present among you. Happy to have you back, he’ll calm you with his love and delight you with his songs. (Zephaniah 3:17)

Time to listen to his choice in music.

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