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)

Grace and That Time God Hit Restart

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My kids must have seen me coming. They managed to catch the chairlift for one more run down the mountain seconds before I arrived to pick them up from a school activity at the ski hill. At least I got a wave from them as they rose higher. That’s how I ended up sitting in the car with nothing to do for at least another half hour.

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I could have taken refuge in the coffee shop, but I didn’t feel like making small talk with anyone I might bump into. My life was falling apart. It was getting harder to fake it.

My identity was built on becoming a successful singer. I mainlined standing ovations. But those tiny membranes that created the sound were not working reliably. I kept getting laryngitis. A rival (with frustratingly robust health) told me that a singer is only as good as her last performance. My last performance was cancelled due to bronchitis. And the one before that. And the one before that. Calls stopped coming.

I tried to be a good mom, but I didn’t know how to do that either. My kids didn’t respond to techniques I read about in books on child rearing. I began to invent privileges just so I had something more to take away as a consequence for poor behaviour. Well, I was going to take you to the circus, but you just blew that.

I tried hard to be a good Christian, but I was tired of never feeling good enough. When I went to church my ears screened out everything but the shoulds. I don’t remember anybody saying it, but somehow, I picked up the idea that I was only as good as my last performance there as well. When my voice gave out while singing a song about love and I realized I had no idea what love was, I left the platform. A few weeks later I quit going to church at all. So much for happiness all the time and wonderful peace of mind. I possessed neither. Life felt like a bleak landscape.

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Sitting in the car that snowy day, I saw my Bible rolled up in the back seat where I tossed it a few weeks before. Loose pages fell out of alignment and it had a forlorn sat-upon look. I picked it up and dared God to speak to me. This was a showdown. He was real or he was not.

I opened the book at random. At fist I read passages about God being good and never leaving and shrugged them off. Then I flipped again, like another roll of the dice. This time it fell open to the book of Hosea, the story of a prophet whose life became a picture of God’s feeling toward faithless Israel. Hosea had married a prostitute.

Suddenly, I felt something different than I had felt before. It was a strong sense that what I was about to read would mark a moment when my life would begin to change. I can’t explain the feeling except to say that I knew God was there and he was tender and terrifying. I wanted to cling and run at the same time.

This is what I read:
“Therefore, behold, I will hedge up her way with thorns,
And I will build a wall against her so that she cannot find her paths.”

And further down the page:
“Therefore, behold, I will allure her,
Bring her into the wilderness
And speak kindly to her.”

I thought God only spoke when he was about to smite something.

“Then I will give her her vineyards from there,
And the valley of Achor as a door of hope.”

I needed hope.

“And she will sing there as in the days of her youth,
As in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt.”

Sing again?

“It will come about in that day,” declares the LORD,
“That you will call Me Ishi
And will no longer call Me Baali…
I will betroth you to Me forever;
Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice,
In lovingkindness and in compassion,
And I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness.
Then you will know the LORD.”

I admitted I didn’t know him, not like this. Later, at home, I looked up Achor. It means trouble. The valley of trouble as a door of hope? That didn’t sound good, but I knew God was somehow in this.

 

The valley of Achor for me was depression. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t concentrate. I lost confidence. Memories of my unexamined history surfaced and shook my world.

It’s hard to see things we don’t want to see. My escape routes were “hedged up.” I wandered in a bewildering wilderness resisting God’s help, trying to fix things myself.

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I had believed lies that led to self-loathing and insecurity. I had turned to forms of comfort that would have destroyed me eventually. I was headed in a direction that could have caused great pain for more people than myself. Even though striving and busyness look good and are admired in our culture, they separated me from God.

Trouble forced me to let go of my image of God as an impossible to please old grump. I gradually let go of my image of myself as a stressed-out performer trying to placate God and everyone else to earn a place in this world.

Grace took the form of trouble. Without it, the door of hope would have remained closed. I had to let go of the old ideas before I could hold on to new revelation and walk through that door into a life of faith.

In the place of isolation, in my wilderness season, cut off from my usual escapes of busyness and performance, I began to hear the Voice of love. Words bringing condemnation, anger and disapproval didn’t come from him. I began to understand that even if I never did another thing to try to win his favour, nothing would change his love me. I experienced his kindness in this drastic intervention.

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He allured me. He became my Ishi — hero husband, instead of my Baali –- master overlord. I sang to him in response to his singing to me. It was like he hit the restart button and my life began anew.

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I’m writing about this experience now, because I see so many people who find themselves in a fear-filled wilderness of isolation due to restrictions around covid-19. I know what it is like to be unable to turn to the usual distraction of constant occupation or watch things I worked so hard to accomplish fall apart. I recognize the silent questions. This sudden massive interruption of the world shakes our assumptions about how life works.

This atmosphere feels familiar. I recognize the finger of God about to hit the restart button. Some people are in a place to examine the previously unexamined and meet God for who he really is for the first time. Others will hear the faint sound of an invitation to return to what they knew from the start. Others will encounter opportunities to step into greater adventures with the Creator.

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These are troubled times, but these are also times of enormous hope for a deeper relationship with the Lover of our soul. He cares enough to use something the enemy of our souls meant for evil for good. He intervenes to say stop. He has so much more empowering grace for us to receive.

When God gave a promise through the prophet Jeremiah to people taken captive by trouble, he wasn’t offering a feel-good quick fix. He was talking about starting a process and a journey that would thoroughly change them and their values. Trouble would be an agent to give them a future and a hope.

 

Are you in that place? Stop. Wait. Listen. Be still until you have a better sense of who God is. Let his voice allure you. This could be your opportunity to start again.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV)

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Grace’s Baby

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It was the same sermon we heard this preacher deliver many times in the five or so years we sat in rows of hastily assembled chairs as he expounded from the pulpit. The illustrations varied from week to week, but the theme seldom did.

“Okay. Got it. Can we move on now?” my friend mumbled over her coffee later. “I think the man has issues.”

The man had issues. But here’s the thing: we all have issues. If you read or follow the same person for any length of time you will probably sense a theme. If the theme is one that prompts you to say, “Good grief. What’s your problem?” you either move on or, if a sense of duty keeps you entering the same doors week after week, volunteer in the nursery, or spend sermon time counting the offering, or  make coffee or something.

If the theme aligns with your own familiar issues, and if you hear God’s voice in another person’s words or actions, you listen, ponder, and engage. And ask more questions. I appreciate people who share what they have learned, but I know the really helpful concepts come out of their weakness, not their expertise, because the struggle is real.

If you read through the stories of people who have wrestled with God, you will notice he chooses people with issues. Answers floating around in the air only gain value when they attach themselves to questions.

The answer my questions have latched onto is grace. The twin enemies that have dogged my steps since childhood are fear and despair — fear of rejection and despair because I’ll never be good enough. They tell me I’m only as good as my last performance, which was, again, disappointing.

I have learned and I am learning. I have learned to apply the grace freely poured on me by the Giver of grace. I am still learning, because fear and despair still poke their ugly noses into my life when challenging circumstances show up. The Lord reminds me there is yet more empowering grace to experience.

For a long time, I mistook mercy for grace. I thought grace was a free get-out-of-jail card – unmerited favour. That’s mercy — and mercy is absolutely great. But grace goes beyond mercy to empower us to become the person God sees when he looks at us in Christ. He sees our true identity.

Sometimes I forget who he says I am. I see something else. I asked him to show me again.

I had a dream. A man who reminded me of Jesus was driving me around a neighbourhood similar to my childhood street. He stopped in front of a house and told me to knock on the door because someone in there was anxious to meet me. I did so reluctantly, because, well, I was afraid. The person who met me was excited. Apparently this was the home of my birth mother. Now I heard my own mother complain about my birth enough times to know I was not adopted in real life, but in the dream it seemed plausible.

A small older woman entered the room supported by several friends. Her name was Grace. Just like in the TV shows about reunions, she held me and wept with relief and affection. Then she and her friends brought me gifts. These were gifts she collected for me since birth. Since I have reached retirement age in real life, the number of wrapped presents was overwhelming.

I noticed a name tag on all of them. It said “Ashira.” I had never heard this name before. Grace said it was the name she gave me at birth. My “driver” stood in the doorway, smiling. I woke.

I searched the name Ashira. I found it on one of those baby name sites. It means “she who sings.” Then I realized the dream was telling me I was a child of grace and now a recipient of the gifts of grace. Nice.

A few minutes after I told my husband I felt curious about the dream, people arrived for the Bible study he leads, we read a passage in Galatians 4. This chapter is about freedom from performance-based religiosity. Paul includes an allegory (I love allegories.)

Abraham and Sarah were promised a child. When no child was conceived they tried to make it happen their own way using Sarah’s slave. That didn’t turn out so well for any of them. Eventually, miraculously, supernaturally, a child was born to Sarah. He was the child of promise, not slavery, not self-effort that thinks the end justifies the means.

This is the passage in The Passion Translation that stood out to me:

These two women and their sons express an allegory and become symbols of two covenants. The first covenant was born on Mt. Sinai, birthing children into slavery—children born to Hagar. For “Hagar” represents the law given at Mt. Sinai in Arabia. The “Hagar” metaphor corresponds to the earthly Jerusalem of today who are currently in bondage.
In contrast, there is a heavenly Jerusalem above us, which is our true “mother.” She is the freewoman, birthing children into freedom!” 

My dream! I met my “true mother.” She had gifts for me. Verse 28:

“Dear friends, just like Isaac, we’re now the true children who inherit the kingdom promises.”

I asked, “Lord, who am I?” He answered. I am a child of the free woman, the child of grace.

Verse 31: “It’s now so obvious! We’re not the children of the slave woman; we’re the supernatural sons of the freewoman—sons of grace!”

Oh, and Ashira? She who sings? I’ve learn that for me, the best way to defeat fear and despair is by singing about the goodness of God. He’s reminding me my weapon is a melody. My chosen pen name means Grace Song. I was a singer most of my life and now I use my “voice” here and other places to communicate this theme: God’s grace is sufficient. He loves people with issues, because His power is perfected in weakness.

Who do you think you are? Who does God know you are? Do the identities match? Ask him.

 

 

Why Have Children?

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I have been reading articles and listening to young friends talk about reasons they choose not to have children. They have given thought to this and their lists of reasons are logical. Children do make demands on time, finances, and emotional and physical resources. Some people would rather spend their efforts on pursuits they consider to be potentially more rewarding. Some don’t think they would be good parents. Frankly, I would rather people recognized that factor before neglecting or abusing a child. Sadly, some don’t want to risk a repetition of the home they grew up in. Intentionally childless people’s decisions are not illogical; the choice is evidence-based and values-based, but it is a unique choice historically.

In times past, when food was plentiful, and wars weren’t tearing couples apart, the population grew. Today, in many of the wealthiest countries of the world, the birthrate is shrinking below replacement levels.

All of this has made me wonder why people do choose to have children. Why, in the decades after WWII, when shortages were still a reality, and even in the years when birth control became less complicated, did people have children? I don’t think couples intentionally filled the station wagon with kids as some sort of patriotic duty to re-populate, at least not consciously. I asked some friends from my parents’ generation. One person’s response surprised me.

“It was a celebration of life, in defiance of death,” she said. “After so much loss in our homeland, we longed to share what we still had: life. We survived. We had little to give materially, but we could give the most precious thing that was given to us – the beauty and joy of being alive.”

As I thought about this, I realized that each of us owe our existence to at least two other interdependent human beings living in interdependent relationship with others. None of us got here by our own efforts. There is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. We all needed mothers who shared their bodies, and fathers who, at the very minimum, contributed part of the life force given to them. Most of us also had communities that helped raise us.

boy playing monkey bars bwI thought about beauty and joy. I remembered the beauty of a field of beaming sunflowers and the first warmth of an April sun on my face. I remembered seeing the Ice Capades with stunning athletes in sparkling costumes glide through colourful spotlights chasing them around the rink. I was five years old and wondered if my eyes could take in anything more beautiful. I remember the joy of playing with my funny kitten, Mittsy, and of discovering the delicious cold thrill of strawberry ice cream on my tongue. I remembered how I gloried in the confidant vigour of my young body as I swung on the monkey bars. These were not only gifts from my parents, but gifts passed on from a good God.

I thought about joy and my search for it through difficult times in the valley of depression when I nearly lost hope of finding it again. Last night, as I entered rest, I had a simple, but profound revelation. I have learned, through experiences that have not always been easy, that joy is discovering that God is who he says he is. He is the one Jesus came to show us.

We often think a successful life is one in which a person has an admirable career,  money to spend on pleasure, and many decades without suffering. What if there is more? Today I felt overwhelmed with shared joy as I listened to my giggling, happy grandchildren making new discoveries. At this stage of my life, when I live with the reality of a life-threatening disease, and the greater reality of death-defying hope of  life both here and in eternity, I can say this is my distilled list of reasons to have children:

  • Beauty.
  • Joy.
  • Love.
  • Hope.
  • Life. Life here and now and life forever in Christ.

I love life!

There is more provision set aside for us than we could ever possibly imagine. I thank my parents for giving of themselves. I bless them.

I thank God for creating beauty, for loving us, and sharing his joy.

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For the beauty of the earth,
For the beauty of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies,
Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our grateful hymn of praise.

For the beauty of each hour
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flower,
Sun and moon and stars of light,
Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our grateful hymn of praise.

For the joy of human love,
Brother, sister, parent, child,
Friends on earth, and friends above,
Pleasures pure and undefiled,
Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our grateful hymn of praise.

(From For the Beauty of the Earth by Folliet S. Pierpont, whose parents gave their baby a distinctive, original name)

 

Choices: Hope in a Culture of Despair

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This time of year reminds me of a day 24 years ago when a close friend made the choice to terminate a life — her own. I still mourn. That choice ended all other choices.

She was in despair. A few weeks before graduation from her final year of university she was dropped from the program. Her supervisor said she did not have the temperament for her chosen field and would not receive certification.

It was the same temperament she exhibited the entire time and the decision so late in the process was a blow. She felt ashamed and like she had wasted nearly four years of her life. The rejection not only dashed her dreams, it became part of her identity.

Reject. Shameful failure.

When she talked about ending her life I interfered. I meddled. I made it my business, and I do not apologize for that. I arranged for professional help. I got her to the hospital.

I understand despair. I know what depression is like. I know the feeling that hope has been chased away by the ugly trio of anxiety, shame, and dismal forebodings. I know what it is like to make my failures my identity. I know what it is like to believe that the world would be better off without me.

I also know what it is like to be healed, to see the sun come out from behind the clouds and warm my heart again. I know the joy of hope restored. I know what it is to be loved for myself and not for my accomplishments. I have met the God of hope. He healed me and lifted me out of the pit of despair.

I know she told people what they wanted to hear to get out of the hospital. She still saw herself as an unwanted reject. I urged her to accept help, but she refused.

We talked on the phone a lot, frequently in the middle of the night. I told her how learning the truth of the simple child’s song, “Jesus Loves Me” rescued me from hopelessness. That story brought an angry response.

“Quit cramming religion down my throat. I’m tired of religious people condemning me. You can’t tell me what to do!”

I wasn’t condemning her, but she had grown up with a lot of legalistic religion with impossibly high standards, so that’s how she interpreted what I said. She was right that I could not tell her what to do.

I could not tell her what to do with her body. She had free will. It was her choice. One night she hung up on me and chose to overdose. She told the paramedic who transported her to hospital that she changed her mind. But it was too late. She had an allergic reaction to the antidote and died. The consequence of her choice put an end to all other choices.

Years passed before I accepted there was nothing more I could have done to change her mind. It was her body, her life, her choice. I still miss her. I still love her. I still put flowers on her grave.

I read something another young friend wrote today. (For Danika’s excellent blog “My Life, My Choice” click here.) Danika’s life was also interrupted by a change of plans. She was on her way back to college to complete a program in a chosen field in which she excelled when she learned she was pregnant.

Her doctor urged her to get an abortion. She didn’t want her “to throw away everything she had worked so hard for.”

As I thought about it, I realized the doctor accepted the same belief as Lisa. Success in this culture is achieved through hard work leading to money, status, and power. Circumstances that set us back in this competitive atmosphere, in which everyone is too busy chasing goals to quit the race and stop to help another human being, are cause for despair.

Resiliency carries less value as a character trait when hope is lost. Compassion in a world of despair can offer only a cruel kindness. Abortion may look like a kind rewind but it ends the life of a living being whether or not you believe it is human or of any value. It permanently ends the possibility of any other choices.

I began to think about the many women I know who felt coerced by partners, social workers, doctors and family members into a choice that increased their sense of being a failure, whether it was failure to produce a male child, or a perfectly healthy child, or simply remain unpregnant. Some, feeling there was no place in the world for themselves if they could not keep up in the success race, assumed there would be no place for their child either. For some, despair and hopelessness led to a kind of suicide by proxy. Someone told them the world would be better off without their child and they believed it.

Danika chose a third way. She defied the edict that declared her only choices were to “throw her life away” by remaining pregnant or terminate and become a success by finishing her degree and getting a job. Her career plans have shifted and now she has started her own successful business and is studying online. Her little girl is a bright ray of sunshine in the lives of everyone who knows her. This child will grow up with free will and the right to make her own choices.

It has not been easy. I’ve watched Danika struggle, but I’ve also watched her accept help from community resources and family and friends who genuinely care, people who by their actions told her she is loved and valued for who she is and not just her accomplishments.

There was a time when suicide was against the law. What’s the point? I don’t think abortion can be legislated away anymore than suicide (although I certainly don’t want to be a part in it anymore than I would want to supply anyone with a lethal dose of pills). You can’t tell people what to do with their own bodies. They will follow through on intentions whether or not the process is “safe.” You can only be there to help, to support, to point out other options, to let the goodness of God show through your actions, and to point to the source of hope. The abortion issue is about more than a change in laws. It’s about change in hearts. It’s about hope.

Unless those of us who value life in the womb address the problem of the lack of love, honour, forgiveness, and hope in this world and until we live in a way that exemplifies resiliency and joy in trusting God to not only get us through tough circumstances, but flourish through them, we will have no influence. Until we are willing to care for others in non-condemning, self-sacrificing practical ways, we will only spend more years laying flowers on graves on our way to protest marches.

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:17 NIV)

And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Romans 5:5)

He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. (Psalm 147:3)

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“Christ in you” is not only your best hope of glory, it is the world’s only hope.

Instead

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Seek silence in the midst of the tumult,

seek solitude in the masses,

light in the midst of darkness;

find forgetfulness in injury,

victory in the midst of despondence,

courage in the midst of alarm,

resistance in the midst of temptation,

and peace in the midst of war.

-Miguel de Molinos (The Spiritual Guide, 1675)

 

Faith is not blind. Faith is not oblivious. Faith is not in denial.

Faith simply refuses to stop too soon.

Faith keeps looking until it sees what God wants to do instead.

 

Dark Woods

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“Oh, when we are journeying through the murky night and the dark woods of affliction and sorrow, it is something to find here and there a spray broken, or a leafy stem bent down with the tread of His foot and the brush of His hand as He passed; and to remember that the path He trod He has hallowed, and thus to find lingering fragrance and hidden strength in the remembrance of Him as “in all points tempted like as we are,” bearing grief for us, bearing grief with us, bearing grief like us.”

~ Alexander MacLaren