All of Life Is a Pure Gift

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Gratitude goes beyond the ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ and claims the truth that all of life is a pure gift. In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.

~Henri Nouwen

The Climb

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When I was a child we often spent summer vacation in the Okanagan. Warm evenings on the beach, and hot days picking ripe cherries and peaches growing in orchards full of giving trees. Mmmm. You could reach up, pick the fruit, and bite in as the juice ran down your chin! For a girl from the prairies who had seen snow in every month of the year and who had only ever picked crab apples from a tree, it was heaven.

I must not have been the only one to feel that way because members of our family have moved to the area — and I get to visit them. One of them lives on the shores of the lake below the vineyards and wineries on the mountainous hillsides.

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While we stayed there we needed to drive into the city several times. We planned for the extra time it takes to drive on roads that definitely do not pay attention to the route a crow would choose. The lanes wind through orchards and vineyards include steep inclines and hairpin curves. I watched the compass on my dashboard switch between opposite directions several times before I reached the highway on the other side of the hill.

I learned to drive on Alberta country roads laid out in a grid that headed north, south, east, or west without hindrance. Rivers and correction lines were the only diversions. Roads in the mountains straighten out only long enough for prairie drivers to speed up for the half kilometer-long passing lane.

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The hairpin turns in Lake Country caught my attention. It felt like the path in my life lately where I have been making progress moving in one direction, then suddenly circumstances force a sharp turn and I am headed in the opposite direction. Gathering/divesting. Constructing/deconstructing. Extending latitude/enforcing boundaries. Making connections/breaking off connections. Gaining health/losing health. Learning/unlearning. It looks like vacillation, like I can’t make a decision and stick with it.

So what’s going on here, Lord?

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Then I notice that although a hairpin road takes me in the same direction from whence I came,  it now takes me higher. The territory is familiar, but the view is slightly different. I have a better perspective. I can see farther. I wonder if this is a place and time in the journey where God has called me to come up higher, but the direct approach is too steep.

Just before he was led away to be crucified Jesus told his disciples, “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”

What was about to happen was a reversal of the direction they were expecting. It was illogical. From their perspective, before the Holy Spirit had come in power, it made no sense.

Sometimes the faith life is realizing logic that functions only in our limited perspective is not reasonable. It’s realizing that aligning with greater perspective — God’s perspective — necessitates change. And change again.

In his kindness, the Holy Spirit gives us a vision of the way things could be. We set our hearts on the dream God planted like the orchards in the sun – and then he puts us on a road that appears to be going in the opposite direction. What?

Sometimes following Jesus results in miraculously rapid acceleration. Sometimes learning to follow him means steadfast unwavering marathon-endurance running with eyes fixed on the goal. Sometimes learning to follow means willingness to make sudden  changes in direction that may not make sense to us.

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Not everyone is at the same point on the road, but wherever we are in this journey we remember that Jesus is walking it with us. He promised he would never leave us or forsake us. Even when it doesn’t make sense. Yet.

 

When Kindness Isn’t Kind

 

“PRAISE GOD! I’M FREE!” he shouted as he leapt onto the grassy bank from the back seat of my car.

poke kids fighting IMG_0047My grandson threw his arms in the air and did an enthusiastic Pentecostal two-step right there. I laughed, but I understood the feeling.

I took my young grandchildren to the splash park this week. We had a marvelous time and I was impressed with how well the children got along and looked after each other.

Then we drove home.

Securing three car seats in a space usually taken by jackets and stuff that won’t fit in the trunk of my car was a challenge, but we did it. It meant my grandson was squished in the middle seat between his sisters though. Opportunity for boundary violations abounded. All three took advantage of those opportunities.

Finally, after a useless lecture on the dangers of escalating a conflict with over-reaction, I put on my stern voice.

“No! You may not poke each other! If you continue this I am stopping the car right now!”

That was a useless threat thirty years ago and its effectiveness has not improved, but you know, tradition.

Finally I commanded, “I want you to do one kind thing for each other, right now!”

That’s when the kissing started. Big sister planted a sloppy wet one on brother’s shoulder. His eww inspired another then another. He leaned away but that put him in range of little sister who covered him with similar passive aggressive affection. The girls giggled. He protested. Loudly.

Ten blocks to go. Nine… eight…

Later, as I was telling his Dad about my amusement at his son’s actions (the joyful exclamation part, not the misbehaving part – that’s between us) I remembered times when I was equally as happy to be freed from the “kind” ministrations of people with a self-serving agenda. False kindness can be like sending truckloads of used junk to disaster areas that have no place to put it as an excuse to clean closets and feel good about ourselves at the same time. Perhaps well-meaning, but not well thought out.

Boundary violating kisses I have known often started with:
~I’m telling you this in love.. (because even I realize the action is not exactly communicating “love”).
~I have a ministry opportunity for you…
~This worked for me so it will obviously work for you…
~I know you have a weight problem, but I made these cupcakes just for you…
~I read this on paranoid tendencies.com and you need to implement the findings immediately…
~Thus saith the Lord, if you do not heed the advice of this, his servant, it will not go well for you…
~This is what you need to do because, in my opinion, this is how a good Christian dresses, or worships, or prays, or votes, or diets, or donates, or handles Hallowe’en…
~I’m just protecting you. These are the teachers/preachers who disagree with me or give me an icky feeling. Shun them.

One day I finally realized I was free to jump out of the confines of that harassment. “Praise God! I’m free!”

Kisses can be loving and kind. Sometimes these were about good things the speaker learned and wanted to pass on. He or she meant well, but, it was still a bit self-serving. It’s difficult to untangle a desire to help from a desire to be in control. I’ve done it too – and suffered the consequences. When you remove people’s power to self-govern they tend to express exasperation in unexpected ways. We with a yearning to teach also need to learn to share knowledge and still honour people’s ability to think and decide for themselves. One size does not fit all.

I have noticed in the scripture that Jesus responded to individuals differently. He didn’t heal the same way every time. He didn’t use the same tone of voice with everyone. Even now he speaks to his beloved according to their needs and temperament and meets them where they are.

Maybe a brother or sister needs a kiss. Maybe they need to be noticed and a friendly poke or a holy kiss, or a culturally appropriate side hug is the perfect response. But maybe they need respect and space to work it out with the Lord on their own. Maybe they need freedom.

You are perfectly free to ignore this if it doesn’t minister to you. Just sayin’.

Learning How to Fail

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s you secret?” I asked.

“I make sure they fail,” he said.

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

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

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

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

He smiled, looking proud of himself.

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

“Why would you do that?” I asked.

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

“How do they react to that?”

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

“Poor kids.”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Struggle

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“…you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.”

~Flannery O’Connor

I know the Bible says in 1 John to “Love not the world, neither the things of the world.” I’m not talking about loving or cherishing the things of the world or the approval of others as idols or replacements for having our needs met by God. When I talk about cherishing here I mean extending oneself to care deeply for people who don’t, or can’t, care back. I mean seeing value and the image of God in every person with an opinion, regardless of how irritating they can be at the moment.

Miracles, signs and wonders pale in significance to the wonder of the supernatural ability to love the ones whose threats strike fear or those with followers who seem to oppose everything you think or say or do.

It’s easy to become defensive or to retaliate when you are misunderstood and misrepresented. I don’t want to be identified with “them” – or “them” either. Sometimes I want to hide from conflict and leave a note on the door of my bomb shelter: Call me when you’ve worked it out.

But we don’t have that option. Love compels us to walk into the middle of the struggle, armed only with the grace we ourselves have received and the humble authority it produces.

Thank God, his grace is more than enough. It’s abundant. It’s powerful.

Breadth, Length, Height and Depth Perception

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“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.”

~ C.S. Lewis

I’ve been trying to capture the sun. It’s not easy.

Smoky haze filled the valley this week. A forest fire about 45 minutes drive away closed a major highway. Massive fires that have emptied towns in the central interior of British Columbia are hundreds of kilometers away, but winds carry the smoke here. Even people in the US Pacific Northwest are complaining about air quality because of the fires.

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Forest fires are a seasonal hazard in this part of the world and, I suppose, like people who live in areas prone to hurricane, tornadoes, floods, blizzards, and earthquakes, we have learned to keep an eye on the situation and, for the most part, get on with life.

 

From our vantage point we see the sun turn an amazing neon orange red colour as it lowers in the evenings. I tried to capture it with the cameras I had available (a cell phone and my trusty Canon point and shoot) but neither could reproduce what I saw. I even tried shooting through sunglasses lens. No luck. Neither had the capacity to handle the wide contrast.

Amazingly, the image my camera registered was the opposite of what I saw. I saw a glowing orange/red ball against a pale grey/blue sky. It saw a white sun against a glowing orange/red sky. I could not see what either the phone and camera saw, nor could the man-made devices record what I saw.

 

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Other people in the valley talked about how remarkable it was. Many posted photos on Facebook, taken from their locations between the Idaho border up to Radium Hot Springs. The pictures looked dramatic and lovely but none of them looked like what I saw.

I began to think about perspective and perception. To those in airplanes flying high above the smoke the sun appears to be the same as always. Down here in the forest by our home, it shone with a strange warm diffused glow even at midday.

smokey forest ch rs IMG_9003I tried putting a sunglasses lens in front of my camera lens to see if it would change the way the camera saw the neon colours of the sun. It did, but not the way I hoped. Now the sky took on a muddy dark colour and the sun was still blown out white.sun dull sky IMG_8936Where we are positioned in time and space affects how much we see. This is perspective. How we interpret and remember what we see is perception. The lens of experience will alter one’s perception. My little camera did not perceive what my eyes perceived. It did not have the capacity.

I remember a time when experience handed me a dark lens. A group of musicians invited me to participate in informal monthly concerts. Some of these people were professionals working on new pieces they wanted to try on small audiences before they hit the road. Others were music teachers who needed motivation to hone their skills.

I had dropped out of the classical music scene about five years earlier. My babies slept poorly and I couldn’t find time or a place to practice that wouldn’t have the neighbours banging the walls.

Okay, the real truth is, I quit because I was discouraged. It wasn’t fun anymore.

Singers will tell you that three weeks without practice makes you feel like you have to start training all over again. Getting back up on a stage after a long absence felt like a daunting challenge. I was nervous.

I sang my first set of songs, nothing difficult, three simple Schubert lieder. Before I finished the last song, a man in the audience I recognized as the concert master of the city orchestra got up and walked out.

My heart sank. I knew I wasn’t good enough to be there.

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I had another longer aria to sing later in the program. It was all I could do to force myself to go through with it, but I did, putting on a good theatrical face. I assumed the applause was because people were being politely generous. I took a bow, but all I wanted was to dash out the door for home and go throw myself on the bed for a good cry. On the way out the concert master blocked my way.

“There you are!” he said. “Listen, I was so excited when I heard you in the first half I couldn’t wait for intermission. I rushed out and called some friends and told them to get down here. I’ve got some people I want you to meet…”

I was shocked.

Later I realized that my experience up until that point had mostly been singing for teachers, examiners, critics, and judges, in tests, auditions or contest situations. As a matter of fact, my performance had once been torn to shreds before an audience by an adjudicator in a music festival (more aptly called “music court”) on that very same stage. I won the competition, but the trophy didn’t make up for a sense of humiliation that poured liked a sweaty flush of embarrassment over my head. Up until the concert that evening, I had rarely sung for an audience who were there simply to enjoy themselves at the end of the work week. My years of experience in competitive environments formed a lens of expectation of criticism.

neon sun IMG_9056The lens was like the sunglasses lens in front of my camera. It cast the shadow of darkness that felt like rejection across my perception. What I saw when the concert master walked out was a negative reaction that pointed to to my failure. I was unable to imagine that his action was actually a sign of approval.

Music is not the only area affected by negative expectations. Past experiences of feeling condemned and unable to measure up to religious standards caused me to see through a lens that didn’t provide a capacity to imagine God could possibly approve of me. It took a long time to change that lens. I know I’m not the only one. It’s a story I hear frequently.

The idea that God considers a close relationship with us to be the reward that Christ earned is one that doesn’t register for a lot of people. We all have different ideas about the nature of God depending on our perspective from whatever point in time and space we occupy on this road. That changes as new positions add new understanding. But when our ability to perceive has been darkened, it needs healing. It needs a new lens. We need increased capacity to handle the light God wants to pour into our hearts.

Analogies break down at some point and my singing performance story runs aground here. This is not about performance. This is about seeing ourselves as God sees us and seeing who he really is and how he feels toward us without negative expectations. He loves us because he loves us and there is nothing we can do that can change that fact.

Part of Paul’s prayer for the believers in Ephesians was that they would be strengthened to have an enlarged capacity to comprehend this brilliant love, to see it as it truly is – glorious.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-17 NASB)

Last night the sun peeked under a cloud on the horizon before it set and I snapped one last photo. The colour of the sun I saw was reflected on the deck railing.  Around 11 p.m. we stepped outside to say goodbye to our guests. In spite of a forecast that said there was a 0% chance, it was raining. Showers of blessing in fire season. Thank you, Lord!

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