Thank You!

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Today is the second anniversary of the day I was afraid I might not see another glorious autumn in the Kootenays. On that day surgeons removed a malignant tumour from my abdomen. It has not returned.

I’m still here.

I’m still rejoicing.

I’m still learning about confident trust.

I’m still changing.

God is still magnificent!

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Behold—God is my salvation!
I am confident, unafraid, and I will trust in you.”
Yes! The Lord Yah is my might and my melody;
he has become my salvation!
 
With triumphant joy you will drink deeply
from the wells of salvation.
 
In that glorious day, you will say to one another,
“Give thanks to the Lord and ask him for more!
Tell the world about all that he does!
Let them know how magnificent he is!”

(Isaiah 12:2-4 The Passion Translation)

 

You Can’t Make a Story Without a Problem

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I checked the weather report before I left to drive to Calgary. Mixed cloud and sun with occasional showers. Perfect.

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I like driving the Cowboy Trail when the weather is unsettled. The road runs north on the east side of the Rocky Mountains from the Crowsnest Pass. Light constantly changes in these conditions. Vistas are never quite the same. Cloudscapes and sunbeams arrange patterns of shadow and sun on the hills, telling a different story with every shift of wind. The photographer waits, anticipating drama – a story told in darkness and light.

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As part of my continuing story, this trip involved another trek to see specialists in a larger center about my complex health challenges. It’s one of those battles raging between good days and bad days, like plot shifts set in an ever changing landscape of unexpected symptoms.

DSC_0281 (5)I thought about the elements of story (a long road with few services leaves ample time for thought.) Even my little granddaughter had it figured out by the age of four.

“Every story has to have a good guy and a problem,” she said, drawing an exceptionally long-limbed princess on the first page of a storybook we decided to create one rainy afternoon. “Sometimes it has a bad guy, but it doesn’t have to. You can make a story without a bad guy, but you can’t make a story without a problem. Now what is our problem going to be? Maybe the princess has nobody to play with?”

A fellow writer had this to say about a memoire she was asked to review: “I’m happy for the writer. She’s had such a lovely life, but I feared falling into a never-ending sleep of the mostly dead before reaching the final chapter. Nothing out of the ordinary ever happened to her – no disasters, no life-or-death crisis, no betrayal, no wayward children, not even a single regret worthy of a flight to a priest in another town for a trembling ten minute confession. I’ve had a hellish life myself. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but at least it wasn’t boring. I can’t relate to this book. What should I say? Reviewer dies from toxic dose of niceness?”

Jesus understood the power of story. “It’s like this,” he said, communicating a complicated concept people could not relate to by referencing something familiar.

“It’s like a Father who had two sons, but the youngest one…”

“It’s like a rich man who went on a journey and trusted a manager to look after his business while he was gone, but…”

 

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I watched the clouds along the highway and hoped for a place to stop where the views were best. A couple of times the clouds dropped their loads and the rain was so heavy I had to pull over to the side and wait them out. My windshield wipers couldn’t keep up. I could see nothing. But stories are like that too, especially our own, especially in the middle of a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding downpour.

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It’s hard, on the underside of a deluge, to remember that God is in the story with us. In fact, he has gone to some lengths to arrange circumstances that will give us stories.

Everything we think we know about him is merely theory until we experience him in the storm. Everything is dull until we see the light flooding the plain with hope. Every seed is dormant until awakened by the rain.

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I could pray for a nice life without stress, without doubt, without the need for divine intervention.

I could, and I have, but one night, in a dream, the Lover of my soul came to my door and called my name. When I opened to it, I saw him astride a beautiful white horse. He held the reins of a saddled bay and said, ”Come on! I want to show you something.”

We’re still writing our story together. It’s been an adventure, even when the skies have been cloudy all day, because, well, when that sun breaks through, it’s glorious.

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“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”– Jesus
(John 16:33 NIV)

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Even the Nights Are Better

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Another painted prayer from last weekend.  As I met with friends who also feel an urge to pray for our city, our valley and for our country, I kept hearing the phrase, Even the nights are better.

We talked about our experiences. Most of us are familiar with night seasons. Some in our group wake during the night hearing a call to pray for someone or something that burdens their hearts.  For others, struggles with pain of all sorts seem more intense at night; loneliness, loss, and physical pain arise in the darkness. Circumstances that confront us with the unknown can take us to a place where the façade of being in control impresses no one. But everyone agreed, the night season has its beauty.

In that quietness, in that place void of daytime distractions, we can learn to enter another type of rest — that is, when we stop protesting long enough to hear to the still small voice that whispers comfort.

While the band played and the people sang, I picked up my brush and quickly painted the picture in my mind. It reminded me of the beauty of the night season when the Lover of my soul, my Keeper, my True Hope comforts me with his songs and when I can respond to him with my own.

Yes, Lord. In your presence, even the nights are better.

 

Yet all day long God’s promises of love pour over me.
Through the night I sing his songs,
for my prayer to God has become my life…

So I say to my soul,
“Don’t be discouraged. Don’t be disturbed.
For I know my God will break through for me.”
Then I’ll have plenty of reasons to praise him all over again.
Yes, living before his face is my saving grace!

Psalm 42:8, 11 TPT

Carefree in the Care of God

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I looked out the window above my computer. This is what God’s voice sounds like — the rush of wings. This is what God’s voice looks like — birds feasting on berries in a mountain ash tree on a cold Canadian winter morning.

I was worrying. I went to the pharmacy this morning, expecting to pick up a prescription. It’s a unique medication formulated for a unique condition. (My case is “complex,” the doctors say, nearly every time I see them.)

The dear people who faithfully count out my pills told me they were just informed that the medication was on back-order and the company didn’t expect to be able to send any in the dosage I require until July. They seemed as shocked as I was.

This is not a medication one can suddenly stop taking without dire effect. I have an eight day supply left. My pharmacist is working to find a solution.

I was sitting here at my desk not feeling frantic with worry, but somewhat perturbed with worry when I heard a rush of wings and saw a flock of birds swoop past my window. The breeze they stirred up shook the panes slightly and immediately caught my attention.

In unison, they flew away, circled around the neighbourhood, then flew back. Then they flew away again. When they returned, they landed on the mountain ash tree, full of red berries ignored by other over-wintering birds and hanging from branches too high for the deer to reach.

It’s like a feast of unique red fruit was prepared months ago during the long hot days of summer and now, it beckons. A table spreads before them in the winter wilderness of snow and ice.

I suddenly remembered Jesus talking about his heavenly Father providing for the birds. All morning, well all week, really, I have teetered on the teary brink of feeling like I felt so often during my childhood — unnoticed, unimportant, out of step, and out of season in a wrong place/wrong time sort of way.

The unspoken question as faint as a birdwing fluttered in my heart: Do you see me? Do you care? Will you look after me when my own responses to “take care of yourself” are not enough?

The birds whooshed away and whooshed back a few minutes later. I watched. I listened. I heard.

“Take the carefree birds as your example,” He said to my heart. “Do you ever see them worry?”

“They don’t grow their own food or put it in a storehouse for later. Yet God takes care of every one of them, feeding each of them from his love and goodness.

Isn’t your life more precious to God than a bird? Be carefree in the care of God!”

(Luke 12:24 TPT)

He’s got this.

 

Why I Write

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I open the file. I re-read the last chapter I wrote. I stare at the empty white screen. I close the file.

Why am I doing this?

I can’t answer. I can’t remember. I doodle excuses.

I ask friends. Why do you write?

They give answers. The responses look familiar. I`ve probably said the same things in the past, but none of them fit the curves and angles of my own puzzle pieces now. Saying right out loud that I have lost sight of joy in the process releases a barrage of comments from the trolls in my head.

Who do you think you are?
Who would want to read your stuff anyway?
Seriously? You’re no expert. You’re not qualified.
What makes you think you will live long enough to finish this?
You are old. You are sick. Why put this pressure on yourself? Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die.

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The trolls make me cry. They hurl lies wrapped in scraps of truth the way they have done for decades of my life.

I am tired and in pain, but one candle flickers in my darkness. I remember the written words of the lamenting prophet Jeremiah, with whom I have had a love/hate relationship since I first slammed his books shut –then opened them again.

I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.
(Lamentations 3:19-23 NIV)

I go to bed. I dream.

Two doctors behind a counter review my complex case. They seem optimistic and excited. One asks if I have ever worked on a research project. I tell them I helped with a project that examined why a person’s voice changes when they have a cold. (I haven’t actually done this, but I used to teach singing in real life.)

I tell them our findings. Beyond problems with producing a steady sound with inflamed vocal folds that don’t vibrate properly, sinus congestion and swelling of the throat tissues reduces the capacity for resonating space.

(This was something I was careful to teach. Produce the sound in such a way that relaxed natural resonance can do the work of projection for you. That way you will not strain and cause tension or muscle fatigue to fight you. Resonance needs space surrounded by a solid surface to produce a pleasant full sound. Think of the difference between the constipated duck sound of a trumpet mouth piece alone and the resounding fanfare sound when the horn is added. Then I joked to my students that good singers have resonance where ordinary people store parts of their brains they never get around to using anyway.)

In my dream, the older doctor comes around his desk and sits beside me in a fatherly way.

“It appears that your illnesses and challenging circumstances of late have led to apathy – a-pathy, no passion. You’ve experienced a reduction in the space where passions thrive and where your “voice” is produced. The result? A lack of compassion for others,” he said, treating me like an intelligent adult. “You need healing to create larger capacity to contain God’s love so that it can resonate in you before you release the sound.”

He patted my shoulder as he rose to his feet. “In other words, you don’t need to strive. Let resonance work for you.”

He stood up and handed me a file. “We would like you join a research project. When you get home try to team up with Gideon,” he smiled. “He knows something about fear and the stress of trying to work in confined space.”

I wake and write the dream down.

 

I am stunned. He gave me the answer to the question of why writing fails to flow lately. A lack of compassion. I’ve written here about thinking, acting and feeling in alignment with God’s thoughts, actions and emotions. Jesus, who demonstrated what God the Father is actually like, wept with compassion.

The dream doctor suggested a research project? But I am tired, so very, very tired. Mundane, but necessary tasks take twice as much time as they used to. I’m not volunteering for much lately. I don’t have the energy to take up causes when I’m using up my limited supply to try to keep a check on my own symptom and side-effect tainted emotions. More than ever I am aware of the long-term damage of lies I have believed as they surface in unguarded reactions. I need to concentrate on thinking differently but my brain wants to slide into default grooves.

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“I feel weak,” I tell God. “Frazzled.”

I hear his voice urging, “Now, in this place of weakness, it’s time to learn to access the grace I promised to supply. My power is made perfect in weakness.”

I pray and read about Gideon emerging from his wine-press pit of fear (story in Judges chapters 6 to 8). Three sources “just happen” to show up where I can’t miss them – in an email, on a CD on the shelf beside me, and in a friend’s Facebook post. All three talk about finding opportunities in places of confinement like Gideon’s. The key to moving into wider spaces, they say, is using the promises God has given us as weapons.

While Gideon still cowered, the angel of God told him that he was the mighty warrior who would lead his people into freedom.

Promises are found in passages of scripture that have grabbed our attention at various times in our life. Promises can be revealed in insistent phrases in songs; in co-incidences and repeated themes in books, films, sermons, podcasts, and random circumstances; in friends who are sensitive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit; and in that still, almost silent Voice that speaks in our hearts when we are at peace enough to hear it. Promises resonate in our hearts.

Jesus had emotions – strong emotions. “The passion of Christ” refers to his motivation for going to the cross. What made him angry? What triggered his expressions of elation? What broke his heart and made him cry? I am looking again.

Why do I write? I’m starting to remember. It’s not about praise, or recognition or material gain. Not anymore. I write because God loved me enough to bare his heart of compassion and to give what was dearest to himself to demonstrate his love.

When I submit to him by allowing him to cleanse and heal my heart, when I quit insisting, like a toddler, that I can do it myself, I begin to understand his motivation. I come into alignment with his thinking, feeling, and acting. I start to be moved by the things that move him.

Why do I write?

Love. Resonating love.

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Eternal Light

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I haven’t painted anything for nearly a year. Sometimes I take out a canvas, put it on the easel and ask, “What should I paint?” I stare at it for a while. I go through my idea file of photos looking for something that inspires me. Then I pack everything back in the closet and go fold laundry or check Facebook again.

It’s kind of like spending an hour looking for just the right Netflix show to accompany a nap on the couch and then, failing to be enticed by yet another description of the protagonist’s discovery of a “dark secret,” turning the TV off and going back to work without the satisfaction of either a movie or a snooze.

Ususally I am energized by creative endeavours, but I’ve been slacking off writing lately too. I’m trying to discipline myself to make more progress on a big project, but it feels like I’ve been on a long climb for a long time.

It’s a strange place. The air is thinner here. My steps are slower. My stride shuffles rather than bounds. I measure progress on the novel by paragraphs completed instead of chapters. I measure personal progress in terms of surviving another day without letting fear or irritability dominate…too much.

I’m not depressed. I’m well-acquainted with what depression feels like. This is more like the fatigue that comes from working on a restoration project that has no end in sight — or climbing a mountain that is a lot higher than it seemed when the trek started.

Nasty side effects of medication I’m told I need keep me house-bound more than I like, even as an introvert. After four surgeries (one which was only the removal of a big toenail, but hey, that took a disappointingly long time to heal), my body is going to need time to fully recover. I understand that.  But I’m tired of being tired.

This week, friends issued an invitation for artists to come and paint during an evening dedicated to worship. Burn 24-7 calls for no agenda but focus on God and his goodness. People who attend are free to worship in whatever way the Lord leads them. Some sing. Some dance. Some wave banners. Some sit quietly. Some paint.

I’ve heard this type of art experience labeled prophetic art. Others call it worship art. One of my friends calls the finished pictures “painted prayers.” Any of those terms work for me. I decided, despite not feeling well this week, that I needed to go. I need to worship.

As I packed my tubes of paint and checked the condition of brushes I asked the Lord what I should paint. I had no idea. When I have painted at events like this before I often don’t know what’s going to happen until the music plays for a while. Nothing profound came to mind, but when I got there I realized that part of a choral song called Lux Aeterna had been playing in my head all day. The English translation is, “May light eternal shine upon them, O Lord, with Thy saints forever, for Thou art kind.”

I remembered a day almost a year ago when I walked through the tall cathedral of autumn-gold trees by the Elk River in Fernie, B.C.. We stopped for lunch on the way to an appointment with the surgeon who would remove the tumour from my abdomen. Fear almost won that day. I wanted to run in the opposite direction. I was afraid I would never see my favourite season again.

And now as summer becomes autumn, the trees along the path once again turn to gold. I am still here. My Lord still holds my hand and walks with me just as He promised.

I decided to paint my favourite cathedral – the forest. With the words “eternal light” still in my head I painted a prayer for that light to continue to shine in the scary shadowy places in my heart. I painted the celebration of another season of colour, and then I painted myself as a much-loved child holding the hand of the Lover of my soul. He leads me toward glory in the comfort of His friendship and humble majesty.

I can’t explain it, but there is something about an atmosphere of dedicated prayer and worship that makes painting faster and easier. Except for a few touch-ups this painting came together in one session.

I sat back and looked at it. “What are you saying today, Lord?” I asked.

This is the scripture passage that came up when I searched my Bible.

For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:17.18 NASB)

He is kind. He is forever kind. He promised to never leave.

The journey continues.

A Season of Testing

 

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The last of the lilac blossoms fade and scatter outside my window. I love lilacs. Their scent is wonderful, if you are not allergic to them – and I’m not. For some people, lilacs can trigger memories of glorious spring and the approach of summer freedom. For others, lilacs annoy the unconscious brain with recollections of hay fever and the approach of long hot hours picking strawberries, followed by picking rocks, picking tobacco and picking fights with other tired irritated pickers.

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Not everyone loves the smell. My friend was devastated when her neighbour hacked off the branches of a mature lilac bush between their properties just as blooms emerged. To one who loves lilacs and waited the whole winter through for their appearance it felt like witnessing a murder, or at least severe persecution. To some, lilacs are an aroma of hope-filled life and to others, an aroma of foreboding death.

The neighbour must have experienced serious nasal congestion to follow through with such an act, but, if I think about it, I have also been driven to desperation by head colds that went on for weeks and kept me from sleeping like a bad conscience. If I knew being around lilacs provoked my miserable reaction I might make a midnight foray with a hatchet myself. I don’t know. I’m not in her bedroom slippers. It just felt sad.

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Lilacs also remind me of year-ends tests. I remember sitting under the lilac bushes in the back yard while cramming for a high school math exam. That image might define mixed emotion for me. Frustrating formulas and fabulous fragrance at one picnic table.

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The association between lilac season and tests continued for many years. Dates for Royal Conservatory and Trinity College of London singing exams often showed up at the same time as a bower of mauve blossoms over the venue’s door. The fragrance wafted through an open window in the waiting area. I think one of the songs may even have been ‘Lilacs” by Rachmaninoff.

I remember waiting for my grandfather to pick me up after completing an exam that I thought went quite well. I sat on the steps outside the building, cradled clusters of flowers in my hands, and breathed deeply. Lilac blossoms also smell like relief.

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When I became a music teacher, I rushed past the lilacs to fit in an extra lesson or a make a rehearsal with the student and accompanist. I never realized until then that external exams were tests for the teacher as well. Her, or his, professional reputation could hinge on how well somebody else performed. Sometimes smiles and encouraging, cajoling words hid a desire to use stronger modes of motivation on students who didn’t take practice (and my ego) seriously enough. When I finally had time to appreciate my favourite flowers most of the petals flitted on the breeze and showered down on the grass like confetti at a fairy wedding.

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Now I have time to sit in the garden and enjoy, but the scent still carries the undertones of test papers and pencils and nervousness. I used to encourage students by telling them, “Tests can reveal areas that need improvement, but mostly they prove that you have learned what you set out to learn this year. I have just heard you sing this song perfectly. As far as I am concerned you have already passed the exam. All you need to do is show up at the right time and right place and get credit for your hard work. No matter how you do in the examination I will still be here for you. I have faith in you.”

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This past year has been a season of testing for me. I’ve discovered a lot of areas in my reactions to hard questions and frustrating puzzles that need improvement. Sometimes I wished I could hack it all down and make it go away. There is so much more I need to know, but I have also learned that many concepts that seemed sound in theory have proven to be sound in practice.

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It’s like I’ve been sitting at that picnic table in my parents’ garden, feeling the pressures of remembering and applying what I read and heard and studied and even wrote about.

It’s been like walking, with great fear and trembling, into an empty concert hall where an examiner seated at a table waits sharpened pencil and exam form.

It’s required thankfulness and remembering that in the middle of testing, I am surrounded by the beauty and fragrance of Jesus who gave himself for me.

It’s still recalling the encouragement of the Holy Spirit who said, “You can do it. I’m not leaving.”

It’s receiving the approval of my heavenly Father who gives the gift I have always longed for – his unfailing love.

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And continue to walk surrendered to the extravagant love of Christ, for he surrendered his life as a sacrifice for us. His great love for us was pleasing to God, like an aroma of adoration—a sweet healing fragrance. (Ephesians 5:2 TPT)

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