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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Then Bursting Forth In Glorious Day

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I lost a friend today. I was shocked when I heard the news. She was a relatively new friend, someone I was getting to know and appreciate, but we had many mutual friends. Our most important mutual friend was Jesus Christ.

She prayed for me when she learned I had cancer, when I went through surgery, when I started treatment and when I learned the disease was in remission. She was often there beside me praying because that’s what she did.

I was the one who was sick. I never expected her to be the one who went to dance in the glory of paradise first. She left mid-conversation. One moment she was here and the next she was stepping through gates of splendour. I’ll bet God called her by his own name for her since she was not fond of the one she bore here.

I met a man from a part of the world where people in his family of believers were often killed for their faith. He said, “You North American Christians sing about heaven, but nobody seems to want to go there. It is not so with us. We do not fear death. To be with Christ will be a wonderful thing.”

Now my friend is seeing this wonderful thing. I grieve for and with her much-loved family and friends, but I rejoice for her. We have lost her for now, but not forever.

We sang this song together only a few days ago:
Then bursting forth in glorious day
Up from the grave he rose again
And as he stands in victory
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me
For I am his, and he is mine
Bought by the precious blood of Christ

No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is the power of Christ in me
From life’s first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny
No power in hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from his hand
Til he returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I stand

(from In Christ Alone by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty)

You are truly shining in the light of his glory, Margo. Dance, girl, dance.

Praise Every Morning

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It was warm enough to take my coffee out on the deck early this morning. I sat quietly and thanked the Lord for his goodness.

This is the first morning I’ve had a chance to sit in my own garden after a trip to the cancer center for a six month check-up.

Good news! No evidence of new tumours.

It’s a new day and I am deeply grateful.

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This I recall to my mind,
Therefore I have hope.

The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.

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They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.

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Mine is the sunlight! Mine is the morning
Born of the one light Eden saw play!
Praise with elation, praise every morning;
God’s recreation of the new day!

(from Morning Has Broken by Eleanor Farjeon)

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Looking At the Yesterdays

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For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a godly person. Yet when I look at the yesterdays of my life, what I see, mostly, is a broken, irregular path littered with mistakes and failure. I have had temporary successes and isolated moments of closeness to God, but I long for the continuing presence of Jesus.

I want a lifetime of holy moments. Every day I want to be in dangerous proximity to Jesus. I long for a life that explodes with meaning and is filled with adventure, wonder, risk, and danger. I long for a faith that is gloriously treacherous. I want to be with Jesus, not knowing whether to cry or laugh.

~Mike Yaconelli

Looking back I can see the path of my spiritual journey. It looks like a haphazard trail created by a person lurching from crisis to crisis interspersed with resting places called “Good Enough.”

It’s a looking back kind of day. My Daddy died on this day three years ago. I call him Daddy today because the space between now and the day he took his last breath is like a vista where time is less sequential and light shines on foreground, midground, and background equally. Today I can look up to my confident Daddy standing in the field at the same time as I look down on my confused father lying in the hospital bed.

My Daddy always told us stories, but he didn’t leave the good enough safety of a job he hated to become a writer and professional story-teller until he was nearly sixty. He said his tales of a Saskatchewan boyhood had just enough truth in them to make them believable but enough fiction to right the wrongs of people broken by hardship. He wrote and published his stories, saw his book become a best seller (by Canadian prairie province standards), then settled in a cottage called Good Enough that looked out on the past. The future caught him by surprise. It’s hard to re-write the future.

Sometimes I envy those who are content to stay as they are, where they are. But I also feel a need to run from those who shrug and say, “It is what it is.” I joke about my addiction to potential and tendency to collect more artistic “raw material” than I will live long enough to use, but I don’t want to look into my grave and ask, “Is that all there is?” I know there is more for us both here and beyond the horizon.

I have taken up residence in places called Good Enough for long stretches in my life, but eventually I catch a glimpse of the future me — the way God sees me outside of the sequence of time – and I long for more. It’s a holy discontent that wants to partner with God. I hear him whisper, “Come away with me and I will show you things you never knew before.”

The advantage of having a diagnosis of cancer is receiving the fulfilment of David’s prayer in Psalm 90: Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Cancer is not a death sentence that people without cancer do not also have. It’s like a mileage sign post to give you a heads up that you will be approaching an exit ramp sometime in the future — but not yet.

God’s not finished with me yet. When I look at my yesterdays I know that’s who I was but it is not who I am going to be. I am still changing. Like Mike Yaconelli, I feel that holy discontent rising up. The desire to be in dangerous proximity to Jesus and whatever he is doing is growing again. I hear Holy Spirit say, “Get your coat. Let’s go. There is more.”

Immense

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This is a big country. I stopped by a field on the Cowboy Trail in Alberta on my way home this weekend. I am overwhelmed by the immensity of the sky and land I can see from one spot in one place on one road. I cannot comprehend the size of this province or this world, let alone the universe.

I’ve met some extremely intelligent people in my life. I love scientists. Many of them have spent a lifetime learning all they can in a field the size of a clump of clay. Even astrophysicists who look at the big picture and gaze into the sky beyond the sky admit that all their accumulated knowledge is humbling. Questions multiply like the expanding universe. The more we know the more we have to admit we just don’t know.

The same difficulty is seen in developing wisdom on how to rule a nation or get along with other countries. If two people, who care deeply about each other, cannot agree on the best way to earn a living, clean the house, raise a child, or even the best route to drive to the grocery store how can we trust a few people in positions of power and who despise each other to make wise decisions for all of us?

When I read the news and sense the current atmosphere I feel frightened. Sometimes I know too little; sometimes I know too much. The problems are too complex to figure out all by my little self.

Someone reminded me of a story the author of ‘The Hiding Place’, Corrie ten Boom, wrote. She lived in difficult times and sometimes felt overwhelmed. Her father reminded her that when she was a child and excited about going on a train trip with her Papa he didn’t put her ticket in her hand until it was time to actually get on the train. In the same way, God often doesn’t give us the grace to handle a problem until we need it.

I was overwhelmed with anxiety as I faced another medical scan on Friday. I wrote about it here in Real Time. I clung to Corrie’s story, trusting God to hand me a ticket when I needed it even though I was shaking so badly when I arrived at the hospital I could barely hold a pen to sign the permission paper. I wanted to cry. While the nurse started an I.V. for the contrast I wished for a power failure or something — anything– to give me an excuse to escape the place.

Panic attacks attack reason. It magnifies annoyances and projects them on the screen in the mind as terrifying monsters. The night before I convinced myself I could endure ten minutes in the tube. I had serious doubts about lasting twenty minutes. Then I was told the test would take sixty minutes.

The doctor had given me pills to take to calm anxiety, but, like last time, they weren’t helping much. When my name was called I felt like I was marching to my doom, or at least an embarrassing display of illogical immaturity.

And then it happened.

My heavenly Father handed me my grace ticket. The technician told me this MRI machine was significantly larger than the one I was crammed into last time. I felt peace flow over me.

I got on the less narrow bed, closed my eyes, and entered the place where God promised to meet my every need. I thanked him for his goodness. I chose to find delight in him by picturing his beautiful creation. I sang a song of praise. Soon I was in an orchard grove feeling the soft grass bed and warm dappled sun on my skin like I did when I was a child. Then I was in a cool pool of blue water like a mountain lake feeling Holy Spirit’s hands underneath me like he was teaching a child to float. My part was to be still and trust. I felt his smile.

It didn’t feel like sixty minutes. It felt like I was in that place where time didn’t matter. I felt immense peace as wide as the Alberta sky. When the technician told me they were finished, slid me out and helped me to my feet I knew I had experienced the strength that comes from resting in the Lord in more than a theoretical way. If you have never suffered from anxiety attacks this won’t make sense to you, but to me it felt like a miracle.

We all face uncertainty and fear, some of us more than others because of personal history, or loss of physical or mental strength, or seemingly overwhelming circumstances. I know I’m not the only one who is sensing an atmosphere of increased anxiety in the world. Many people, especially children and young people, are experiencing high levels of anxiety like never before. I do believe we need to turn to God in humility admitting that we need help.

I am learning that if God says he’s got this, he’s got this. Even when the atmosphere fills with threatening clouds the warmth of his love can shine through. We have the freedom to ask, then quietly trust like a contented child at rest on a mother’s lap.

Lord, my heart is meek before you.
I don’t consider myself better than others.
I’m content to not pursue matters that are over my head—
such as your complex mysteries and wonders—
that I’m not yet ready to understand.

I am humbled and quieted in your presence.
Like a contented child who rests on its mother’s lap,
I’m your resting child and my soul is content in you.

O people of God, your time has come to quietly trust,
waiting upon the Lord now and forever.

(Psalm 131 The Passion Translation)

Thank you, Lord. You are so good.

Real Time

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It’s 3:30 a.m. Instead of sleeping I am here, on the computer. I’m also eating some ridiculously expensive fat-free, dairy-free strawberry rhubarb ice cream which I stashed in the corner of the freezer for an auspicious occasion.

This is not an auspicious occasion. I can’t get back to sleep after I woke from a nightmare about being sealed in an MRI tube by people who lied to me about how long the procedure would take, and then forgot I was in there.

Fear is custom-designed.

Being stuck in an MRI machine that is several sizes too small happens to be a fear designed for me.  I have a scan scheduled for later this week. It doesn’t help to know doctors are looking for evidence of metastatic cancer in my liver. This is the faith journey in real time.

It would be so easy to say, “I am struggling with fear.” We often hear that expression, but when I hear someone say, “I am struggling with jealousy,” or “I’m struggling with pornography,” I want to respond, “No, you’re not. You are choosing to surrender to obsessive resentful thoughts about your colleague. You are not “struggling.” You are giving in to self-indulgent lustful curiosity via photographic image.”

It’s easy to be smug when other people’s temptations are not tempting to me. But I face my own temptations. The Bible says don’t you go accusing God of tempting you. Temptation only latches on to weird stuff you are already hoarding in the basement of your heart and secretly nurturing with strawberry rhubarb ice cream.

When you are tempted don’t ever say, “God is tempting me,” for God is incapable of being tempted by evil and he is never the source of temptation. Instead it is each person’s own desires and thoughts that drag them into evil and lure them away into darkness. Evil desires give birth to evil actions. And when sin is fully mature it can murder you! So my friends, don’t be fooled by your own desires! (James 1:13-16)

The first step to getting free from “the struggle” is to admit that it is there. The root of my fear is the lie that my heavenly Father is distracted by more attractive, more important, more rewarding relationships with his other children. Sometimes I feed that nasty monster in the basement bits of bitter memories of being forgotten and ignored and misdiagnosed and mistreated before. That’s when the devil and his minions say, “Oh. You’re bitter and scared. We can help you with that.”

The thing is, being mistreated and forgotten was not my heavenly Father’s doing in the first place. That was a result of the brokenness of people with their own ways of coping with pain caused by the one who comes to steal, kill and destroy. God was the one has consistently got me through those situations. He’s a good, good father. Jesus came to show us what he was really like – and I can’t imagine Jesus sealing me up in a noisy metal tube and leaving me there.

He delights in us. He wants relationship. Like the Lover in the Song of Songs he invites to come away and walk with him in a flowered spring orchard like the one I saw in the Okanagan this week.

The Bridegroom-King:
Arise, my dearest. Hurry, my darling.
Come away with me!
I have come as you have asked
to draw you to my heart and lead you out.
For now is the time, my beautiful one.

The season has changed,
the bondage of your barren winter has ended,
and the season of hiding is over and gone.
The rains have soaked the earth
and left it bright with blossoming flowers.
The season for singing and pruning the vines has arrived.
I hear the cooing of doves in our land,
filling the air with songs to awaken you
and guide you forth.

Can you not discern this new day of destiny
breaking forth around you?
The early signs of my purposes and plans
are bursting forth.
The budding vines of new life
are now blooming everywhere.
The fragrance of their flowers whispers,
“There is change in the air.”
Arise, my love, my beautiful companion,
and run with me to the higher place.
For now is the time to arise and come away with me.

(Song of Songs 2:10-13)

Okay. I’m putting away the ice cream now and choosing to evict the lie. I choose instead to be thankful for modern medical procedures that can give assurance that liver cells are doing what liver cells were intended to do or can diagnose hidden nastiness before it gets out of hand. I am thanking the Lord for his promise to never leave me and to heal not only my body, but my wounded heart. I’m choosing to give up the struggle and surrender to his love by putting my trembling hand in his big strong hand. He’s got this.

Don’t worry or surrender to your fear. For you’ve believed in God, now trust and believe in me also.  – Jesus (John 14:1 TPT)

Doubt and That Time Jesus Got a Gun

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“I don’t see him that way,” my friend said. “He’s more like a desert rose.”

“That’s what I always thought,” I told him, “But in the dream I was talking on the phone when I heard a gun go off. In my ear! It was so shocking and so loud everyone else in the banquet room heard it too. They dropped their desserts and scattered in every direction.”

“I don’t think Jesus would do that,” my friend insisted. “He has certainly never been like that for me. Perhaps you should pray some more about it.”

“Well,” I continued, not wanting to argue about how much prayer was sufficient, “the next thing I did in the dream was to run to the place where the phone call originated to make sure everyone was alright. I saw a gun leaning up against the cupboards in the kitchen. “

I could tell my friend had already lost interest, but I kept going.

“You did it!” I said to the man who I knew represented one aspect of Jesus in my dream symbolism. “You shot the gun! Why would you do that?”

“Got your attention!” he said. “And you quit talking and came looking for me.”

My friend shrugged, “I still don’t think Jesus would use a gun.”

This is part of a much longer dream that came to mind this week, not because of all the discussion about guns in the media (although that may be a backdrop), but because God is again grabbing my attention in unexpected ways.

Earlier this week another friend mused about what Jesus was doing on the days he didn’t use to go see Lazarus, after being told his beloved friend was deathly ill.

Jesus was acting unpredictably, that’s what he was doing. He may have been doing something we don’t know about in his private conversations with his Father and his compassionate heart may have been in deep pain (we know he wept in public later) but whatever he was doing he was not bowing to the will and expectations of people around him, as much as he loved them. He listened only to his Father and his Father said, “Wait.”

When I was a kid we sang a song with the line, “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, look upon this little child.” I have experienced Jesus’ gentleness. I have seen demonstrations of his meekness, but desiring to follow him on a trail that just gets steeper has taught me he is anything but mild. He will kick the sides out of any box we design to define him. He will grab our attention by shocking or offending us if he has to.

The roots of word define mean to determine the ends or limits of something. You can’t define God. His majesty has no limits.

Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. I can imagine the women running outside to see if Jesus was coming yet. I imagine Lazarus asking where Jesus was as he gasped for breath. I can feel hope dying like a sputtering candle as they realized it was too late and disappointment growing like a monstrous dark shadow that filled the room. Where was he? Why wasn’t he coming?

When Jesus did finally show up Martha’s first words were an accusation. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Mary stayed behind in the house. Was she too devastated to move? When she did speak to him, her first words were the same as her sister’s. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!”

When I have found myself in situations where the Lord didn’t grant me what I asked when I asked for it, I heard my own voice cry out, “If you had been here, things would have been different.” Then the truth at the root of my pain: “You are not who I thought you were!”

Can I admit that moments in which I have discovered people were not who I thought they were, have been by far the most painful events in my life? Of all the stories in the Bible, this is the moment in which I sympathize with Bible characters’ dismay the most: Mary and Martha deep in grief and baffled that their friend and master did not come until it was too late. Intentionally.

In such moments doubt forces me to ask, “What if he is not who I think he is? What do I do with the profound sense of insecurity and fear that disappointment triggers in me?”

I throw myself at his feet and weep.

Where were you? Why did you let this happen?

He doesn’t answer. These are not the questions he is waiting for.

Who are you? What am I supposed to do now?

Yes. These are the questions he will answer.

In order to see the majesty of God, Mary and Martha had to let what they thought they knew about him die. Dying to self means acknowledging that God is God and I am not. I get to let go of my right to define him by my own limited understanding, or to use him to fulfill my own agenda.

The women only said what everyone was thinking. In John 11 we read, “Yet others said, ‘Isn’t this the One who opens blind eyes? Why didn’t he do something to keep Lazarus from dying?’”

Jesus let his disciples in on his purpose before they started the journey the Bethany. He made it plain to them, “Lazarus is dead. And for your sake, I’m glad I wasn’t there, because now you have another opportunity to see who I am so that you will learn to trust in me. Come, let’s go and see him.”

They didn’t understand.

Jesus told Martha her brother would live, but she didn’t believe him. She thought he was talking about the afterlife. When he asked for the tomb to be opened she protested that his corpse was unapproachable because he had been dead four days. She didn’t have a grid for what he was about to do.

Jesus looked at her and said, “Didn’t I tell you that if you will believe in me, you will see God unveil his power?”

Their concept of who Jesus was, even though the women believed he was the Anointed One, was too limited. He was about to show them something about himself they could see in no other way. He offended them to reveal more powerful love than they had ever imagined.

The period of time between losing the surety of what we think we know about God and the revelation of something greater can disorient us to the point of wailing. In the beginning of my dream everyone was partying, enjoying the abundant life. Then the gun went off. When I returned to the banquet hall, the dessert table was empty and the crowds were gone. Basic nutritious food was on a high shelf. I had to stretch to reach it.

The gun has not only gone off for me lately, it’s blasted for a number of people I care about as well. Life changes due to car accidents, divorce, loss of careers, loss of reputation, loss of property, loss of health, loss of loved ones or betrayal of all kinds can all cause us to cry out, “Where were you? If you had been here…

Sometimes we can be in this disorienting pain for a long time. Battles with doubt occur daily. We don’t always win.

But Jesus said we have the choice to stop doubt in its tracks. We can remember. What did Jesus say after the biggest most confusing disappointment of all when he lay dead in a tomb himself only a short time later, when he entered the room full of stunned, disoriented, grieving disciples?

Be at peace. I am the living God. Don’t be afraid. Why would you be so frightened? Don’t let doubt or fear enter your hearts, for I AM! Come and gaze upon my pierced hands and feet. See for yourselves, it is I, standing here alive. Touch me and know that my wounds are real. See that I have a body of flesh and bone.”

Did Jesus just kick the sides out of the box you had him in? Did a gun just go off in your ear? Doubt need not win. You can have faith because the Faithful One has no limits.

What aspect of Himself is He about to show you next? Annie J Flint, the hymn writer penned:

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.
~Annie J. Flint

Limitless.