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.

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

Love in the Deep

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Choose love not in the shallows but in the deep.

~ Christina Rossetti

Falling in love, as wonderful as it feels, is mostly about the way someone makes us feel. Love is not limited to romance. An uplifting sense of approval prompts us to carry our heads higher when a person we admire offers praise – or better yet, asks our advice. Feeling loved allows us to see ourselves through the eyes of another and enjoy the view. Awakening to love returns us to the place of early childhood. Babies receive love but they don’t extend love very well. There is more.

My neighbour taught me a new word this week. Firgun. In contemporary Hebrew it means the opposite of Schadenfreude – that perfect word describing the guilty pleasure we experience when seeing someone we dislike humiliated. Schadenfreude may occur when the… ah… um… person who just sped past us on a dangerous curve is now parked on the side of the road in front of a vehicle with flashing lights. That shamefully satisfying feeling is Schadenfreude,  not firgun.

Firgun is simple unselfish pleasure that comes from seeing another person receive something especially good, even though we ourselves may have been overlooked for a similar honour or windfall. Firgun is rejoicing with those who rejoice. Firgun is jealousy-free genuine joy. Firgun is mature love.

Years ago, on a hot summer day I joined my sweet friend in a cool private swimming pool. We had it all to ourselves and happily wallowed in the shallow end to cool off. I didn’t know she couldn’t swim. She didn’t know the pool had a deep end.

She took a step over the line that marked the beginning of the plunging floor. When she couldn’t touch bottom she panicked and flailed about so dramatically I thought she was joking. She wasn’t. I could still touch bottom so I reached out to grab her.

My kind, sweet, caring, gentle friend nearly drowned me.

She pulled me into the deep end with her and tried to push herself up with hands on my shoulder and head. That pushed me under. The problem was that she wouldn’t let go of my hair as she strove for air.

Finally I broke free, swam to the edge, got out of the pool, and, when I was on solid ground, extended the pole that hung on the fence.

We both lived, but she avoided me for a while. I knew she couldn’t help it. Desperation drove her, but the feeling of being held under the water until I feared blacking out stuck with me for a long time, too. She had not been in a position to be considerate of my needs and without anything to stand on I became just as vulnerable.

A verse in the Old King James translation of the Bible talks about provoking each other to excel in doing good. A more contemporary translation says this:

Discover creative ways to encourage others and to motivate them toward acts of compassion, doing beautiful works as expressions of love. (Hebrews 10:24 TPT)

Healthy competition inspires by demonstrating what is possible. I’ve seen too many people, including couples who have sworn to love each other and friends who have known each other for years, engaged in unhealthy competition that looks more like a desperate attempt to keep heads above water by pushing the other one under.

Sometimes we can depend on another person to carry us in a way that makes us turn them into an idol who will eventually disappoint. Sometimes our desperation turns them into someone we treat as expendable in the face of our overwhelming need. In desperate times we can cling with such ferocity to a human source of support that we nearly drown them. Sometimes we are the ones who need to disentangle and leave before we can help.

I’ve been thinking about why love is so hard. I wonder if reaching out to love other people when we don’t feel loved ourselves is like being pulled into the deep end against our will. Love has to be a choice or it is not love.

Love in the shallows (and I’m not just talking about couple love here) becomes love in the deep only when we no longer cling to another mere person for approval or for our sense of identity. Love in the deep is love that gives, because it has learned how to receive from the source of love and has something to give.

Mature lovers know that even in the deep they can be grounded in rest and on the firm foundation of  Jesus Christ’s love. They also refuse to let themselves become a god to anyone else and instead help them to connect to God themselves. They can stand firm and extend His love like I extended the pole to my struggling friend.

How do we know the difference between mature love and self-serving love? Firgun. Can I be genuinely happy for another person’s healing, or financial gain, or  recognition without triggering my own sense of lack? Does their success give me pleasure and release a flood of praise to the Giver of all good things? For close family and friends perhaps, but for most people, on my own,  no.

I can’t give what I have not received. But when I am in Christ and he is in me? Then I can remember that the love the Father has for the Son includes me. When I center my life in Him, and focus on who He is, His grace empowers me to do the creative good works he designed for me. He will show me how to become a mature lover of others without drowning in old pain. He makes me into a giver with firgun.

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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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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