Sorrow and Joy

From then on Jesus began to tell his disciples plainly that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, and that he would suffer many terrible things at the hands of the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but on the third day he would be raised from the dead. (Matthew 16:21 NLT)

Sometimes I wonder what it must be like for people coming to Canada from tropical countries. If you have never seen it, would you believe it if someone told you, “There is a season coming when all the trees and plants and grasses will die? The world will be too cold for them to live and if you are not careful to find shelter and a source of heat you could die too. But don’t worry. After a few months of cold and long nights, they will come back to life again.”

I wonder if someone who has never heard of this or experienced it before would respond, “How exciting!’ or would they say, “No way! We will protect our gardens nd fields!” Many immigrants have told me their first winter was a shock and felt like it was never going to end.

Jesus told his disciples clearly, and more than once, precisely what was going to happen. When it did, they were shocked and dismayed. For all his declarations that Jesus would not be mistreated and killed under his watch, Peter had to face the fact that he was dead wrong. Jesus was arrested, humiliated, abused, and killed. The shock was so traumatizing it took a time before they remembered that he told them he would be raised after three days.  But how? They still had no grid for that.

Yesterday, I passed by a vine-covered wall. There has been no sign of life on those bare branches for months. Now there is. What appeared to be dead is awakening to new life.

Today’s prompt word for Creative Meditations for Lent is Sorrow/Joy. Sometimes terrible things happen. We reel with the shock of photos of bodies in the streets in the Ukraine. We wail at the news of friends dying of Covid and other afflictions after we prayed with fervour and declared they would not die. We make plans for next week, next year, and the next decades and deny as much as possible that we live in mortal bodies that 1 Corinthians 15 reminds us are perishable, even though as believers in Christ we are promised eternal life.

Perhaps the lesson we can learn from new green leaves on a bare vine is this: Even though we have no grid for resurrection from the dead in new bodies, it will happen. There is more to the passage on running the race than I quoted earlier this week.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12: 1-3)

Oh, how I love the spring! What a harbinger of much greater joy!

Let the Past Sleep

Our yesterdays present irreparable things to us; it is true that we have lost opportunities which will never return, but God can transform this destructive anxiety into a constructive thoughtfulness for the future. Let the past sleep, but let it sleep on the bosom of Christ. Leave the Irreparable Past in His hands, and step out into the Irresistible Future with Him.

Oswald Chambers

I could tell she was frustrated. The young woman standing beside my piano stopped singing and turned her face away. It’s hard to sing with a lump in your throat. I know. I did the same thing more than once when I was studying voice. I told her that discouragement after taking singing lessons for a few months was not unusual. A few months was enough time to learn about changes she needed to make, but not long enough to remember all of them at the same time and definitely not long enough to let go of familiar ways of singing that could eventually hinder her progress.

“For a while it will feel like trying to hold several beach balls under water when you only have two hands. Something always pops back up,” I told her. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. Relax. It will come.”

I don’t teach anymore, but I needed to be reminded of my own advice after these past few months. My creative process feels like it was wrapped in newspaper and packed away in a forgotten box. I sit down to write or sketch and realize my brain is as blank as the page.

We’re mostly settled into our new place. I should be ready to get back to some of the projects I was working on before we decided to move but something has been stopping me. As I prayed about the blockage, three similar articles came to my attention in the same week. The message they carried?  You need to say goodbye to the past and grieve for the loss of the familiar, both good and bad, before you are ready to move on.

I know this move was the right one at the right time. We had so many answers to prayer including selling our house before it was listed and finding a new place (without stairs) in the new city on the first day we started looking. In spite of my anxiety that I would forget something essential, everything fell into place and we realized, on the day of the first snow, that our prayer to be finished with the moving process before winter was answered.

But I have realized that even though everything looks like it is in place, I still have unfinished business.

I asked the Lord if there was anything I still needed to let go of. I remembered walking in the snowy silence of the forest near our old house. Around the snow-covered tree trunks that fell in that big windstorm a few years back and down a deer path, there was a stump where I used to sit and pray. Suddenly tears welled up. I miss my stump! I miss my trees and my mountains! I miss not being able to walk very far (one of the reasons behind downsizing) and I especially miss my time with the Lord out in nature where I most easily feel his presence.

“What do I do with these memories and feelings, Lord?” I asked.

“Give them to me,” I heard.

I wrote memories on a sticky note and put them in a little paper box. More memories came, not just of beautiful people and places I loved, but also sad memories of goals unattained, of relationships that remain unreconciled, of disappointments with myself. I wrote down my worries for people I wanted to help (okay, fix) but I left them behind still suffering pain and mess. Finally, I realized that I left behind a young, energetic woman who could accomplish much more in a day than the one who sits writing this now.

There is always grief involved in saying goodbye, I guess. I added to the pile of sticky notes in the little box and tied it up with a piece of string.

“Lord, I give this to you. It’s not as impressive as I wish it could have been. There’s some disappointing and embarrassing stuff in it, but I know you’re not surprised because nothing surprises you. You know all about it. There’s some good stuff in there too, really good stuff — and it’s hard to let go. But I trust you. I know you have more to show me and a purpose for the time remaining in my life no matter the circumstances. Here you go.”

Transformation comes with the willingness to cooperate with God’s process. (I think I wrote that somewhere.) When our hands and hearts are clinging to the old there’s not much room for the new. Letting go of the past is the only way to move forward. The little box is a symbol of my intention to do that.

This is not the end.

The Torch: Be Yours to Hold It High

When I was a young bride far from my family in the days before easy communication, four elderly women who lived together in a heritage house  extended themselves to become family. Rhea and Kathleen, the sisters who inherited the house, showed me how to can fruit, and frame artwork.  They invited us to important events and introduced us to influential people. Dorothy, a retired college principal, recommended excellent books and engaged us in thought-provoking conversations. Mavis, a retired English nanny, became my much-appreciated resource when our first baby was born. I loved these women.

Something made me wonder though. They were outstanding women of character, intelligence, and grace. Old photos showed them as once attractive, fashion-conscious girls and young women. Why were they all single?

Finally, I asked Kathleen, “Did you ever think about getting married?”

“Of course,” she said. “But my young man died in the war.”

“Oh Kathleen! I’m so sorry. I never knew. What was his name?”

“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “He died before I met him.”

She told me this with the mischievousness of someone who had lighted upon an answer that served her well for many years. There was also a sting of truth to it I had not considered before.

Her sister explained, “When we reached the age to consider marriage, we realized many of the young men we had known never came home after the first world war. There was a severe shortage of men. Frankly, neither of us met anyone who shared our interests and passions and we didn’t care to compromise. Between our careers and caring for our parents as they grew older, we filled our time well enough and were content. We learned how to create family in other ways.”

Each Remembrance Day we honour those who fought for freedom from oppression. We sing songs, recite poems, lay wreaths, and invite school children to submit artwork and essays to express thanks to those who served in the military. This year, as I remember the old house and the ladies who showed us how to celebrate each day as a gift, I would like to honour those who bore the heavy burden of war as bereaved parents, widows, fatherless children, and young women whose lovers died before they had a chance to meet. They were the ones who picked up the torch and held it high.

To you from failing hands we throw

    The torch; be yours to hold it high. 

– John McCrae

New Life, New Hope

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Beware of harking back to what you once were when God wants you to be something you have never been.

Oswald Chambers

The sun shone brightly. A warm gentle breeze stirred the topmost branches to tap a joyful rhythm against the window.

My friend came by while I was in the house and released Mason bees into the forsythia bush, now laden with new blossoms. She told me with delight that she watched a female immediately find a mate.

Last week, our spirits fell along with the temperature and bare branches (save one leaning against the warmth of the window) collected more snow. Last week was winter.

This week, the first bright colour in the garden arrived suddenly. This week is spring.

Transformation is like that. We wait and wait and wait, then suddenly life changes — and nothing will ever look the same again. We are not who we used to be.

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Correction Lines: When Staying the Course Will Get You Off Course

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When we were kids, Mom and Dad took us on trips back to Saskatchewan, where they grew up. People dropped in on each other in those days, and there were plenty of folks to visit. I counted cousins one day. Including close second cousins and those almost a generation older, we had over fifty — and many of them still lived near our grandparents’ homesteads. That meant a lot of visiting and a lot of driving on prairie roads.

Our house on a hill in Calgary faced the mountains to the west. My heart was drawn in that direction. My parents’ hearts were drawn in two directions, to the rugged blue mountains we could see every morning from the living room window, and to the immense sky of the flat prairies to the east that was still home in their memories. Maybe that’s why they chose to live in a place of geographical transition where they could see both.

I liked it when we left after school on Friday before a long weekend because it meant Dad drove late into the night and I could sleep through the boring parts — which was pretty much every thing after the Flintstonesque Badlands in Drumheller. By the time we reached the Saskatchewan border I was bored with the sight of fields and fences. My parents’ admiration of the big open sky failed to impress me.

After we turned off the main highways onto the gravel roads Dad knew well, I felt like there was nothing to do but count telephone poles sailing by. I tried to sleep in the backseat — when my brothers stopped teasing me. I know we asked, “Are we there yet?” A lot.

We drove on straight roads that never turned. Until they did. For some reason I didn’t understand, every once in a while Dad had to stop, make a turn, go down the road a little way, make another turn and keep going. This action annoyed me because it woke me up. No slough or gully that I could see blocked the way. A stop sign marked the road’s end at a T intersection and we stopped.

When I asked him why, Dad said, “Sometimes staying the course will get you off course.” Then he explained correction lines to me. “The earth is smaller at the top because it’s round,” he said. “These jogs in the road are correction lines to keep us heading north toward the north pole. If roads went all the way up to the top of the earth you would see all the north-heading roads in the world converging on one spot, right?”

I pictured a globe. “I suppose.”

“Engineers built in changes to the square grid of these back country farm roads to keep us heading true north. ”

“…strong and free!” my brothers and I both sang from the backseat.

I’ve been reminiscing about family trips and the efforts it takes to get together now that my own children and their children are spread across the continent. That’s when I remembered my dad talking about correction lines and the wisdom of his observation, “Sometimes staying the course will get you off course.”

Even institutions that are careful to make meticulous plans for the future will find themselves off course eventually if they do not focus on Jesus Christ who said he was the way, the truth and the light. They need to stop and change. Circumstances in our lives can appear as inconvenient stop signs at T intersections. They can force us to pay attention and make adjustments to the direction we are heading. Determination to keep going the way we have been going may not take us where we assumed it would.

We like to hear stories of dramatic shifts in other people’s lives (and not so much our own), but sometimes drama is the result of not making smaller adjustments along the way. Judgment doesn’t always mean condemnation. Sometimes it means listening to the adjudicator’s assessment and accepting advice on how to improve. That’s submitting to discipline, exchanging our naivety (or arrogance) for wisdom that leads to change. A loving Father brings loving correction.

Becoming a disciple means following Jesus and transforming our thinking as he leads. Big dramatic turn-arounds may not be necessary when we slow down and pay attention to correction lines on the journey. It’s when we ignore signs and fences and ram our way through  muddy fields that we get stuck. Jesus said his commands are not burdensome. They don’t weigh us down like thirty pounds of prairie clay in a wheel well.

Jesus’ commands to base our choices on the law of love have a way of bringing us closer to him and closer to each other.

Everyone who trusts Jesus as the long-awaited Anointed One is a child of God, and everyone who loves the Father cannot help but love the child fathered by Him.

Then how do we know if we truly love God’s children? We love them if we love God and keep His commands.

You see, to love God means that we keep His commands, and His commands don’t weigh us down.

(1 John 5:1-3 The Voice)

May the light of his love draw us all closer to his heart as you celebrate the long-awaited arrival of the Anointed One this season. Blessings to you and your family.

 

 

Putting God to a Test

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We adults pulled our chairs into a circle in the back yard near the barbecue. The kids talked loudly and simultaneously at a table nearby. We decided the cousins needed the flat surface more than the adults -preferably some distance away. I watched our tribe balance coleslaw and hamburgers on paper plates that tilted at precarious angles on bare knees.

This clan of brothers, sisters, parents, and in-laws soon engaged each other in an enthusiastic exchange of ideas. Shop talk. Honestly, I would choose them as friends even if we weren’t related. I’m very fond of them.

Our family events are never quiet. If you hesitate to jump in when someone takes a breath there may not be another chance for several minutes. It’s like a double Dutch skip rope conversation with unwritten, but understood rules of rhythmical verbal exchange for entering and exiting a discussion. No one is shy. All of them are accustomed to speaking in public. They do it for a living.

Looking around, I realized we have a lot of teachers in our extended family. Some of our kin studied medicine or the arts, but most found their place in education in one form or another.

I admire all of them, whether they’ve guided at-risk children in preschool, juggled the needs of gifted and learning-challenged kids in the same elementary school classroom, instructed their own kids around the dining table, taught adults in a university lecture hall, tutored overseas pupils online, demonstrated songs to adolescent musicians in the studio, or communicated important concepts from a pulpit. We share a common drive to impart knowledge — and maybe just a bit of common need to be the expert.

The conversation this time centered on performance evaluations for both teachers and students. The bane of all classroom and online teachers – marking assignments and tests– arose as more than theory. Two of the on-line summer school teachers needed to leave the party to grade tests. A physics teacher offered to help the math teacher work his way down the pile sitting in his computer inbox. The volunteer asked if there was a marking key. There was.

My divergent mind started to wander off in another direction.

A marking key has all the answers. Both teachers put on their reading glasses, opened their laptops and got down to the business of comparing the students’ answers to the key. No arguments. Correct. Incorrect. Total grade. Pass. Fail. Next.

The art teacher didn’t have as simple a task. Each submission required consideration of abstract symbolic statements and knowledge of the student’s personality and skill level. Her job was to evaluate how they expressed a concept, but not to tell them what to say. She tried to stay unbiased but still gave a grade based on predetermined criteria she herself established for this assignment.

This is where my rabbit trail veered sharply toward the woods. I remember someone preaching about the dangers of using a marking key with God when we put him to a test. God invites us to try him to see whether or not His promises are true. Some translations of the Bible use the expression “test Me.” This kind of test Me is different from putting God to a test. Putting God to a test is like comparing his responses to a marking key which we have made up ourselves. We decide what the correct response should be before he answers.

Then the accuser transported Jesus to the holy city of Jerusalem and perched him at the highest point of the temple and said to him, “If you’re really God’s Son, jump, and the angels will catch you. For it is written in the Scriptures:
He will command his angels to protect you and they will lift you up so that you won’t even bruise your foot on a rock.”

Once again Jesus said to him, “The Scriptures say: You must never put the Lord your God to a test.”
(Matthew 4: 5-7 TPT)

The accuser determined the acceptable answer which would decide whether Jesus passed the test for proving he was God’s son. Angels caught him, he passed. Angels didn’t catch him, he failed.

Could angels have caught him? Of course, but when the accuser made himself the judge of what God’s behaviour should look like he put himself in the position to judge of the King of the universe with an authority he definitely did not have.

We often hear people say, “If you really love me you will _________.” Children and narcissists love this game.

If you really love me you’ll buy me a pony.

If you really love me you’ll let me go to the party.

If you really love me you’ll let me spend our savings on a boat or a vacation — or anything else I want.

If you really love me you will never challenge me or cause me to feel stressed.

Way back in the years of my youth, Janis Joplin performed a satirical song (at least I hope it was satirical) about what she expected God to do to prove himself.

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town.
I’m counting on you, Lord. Please don’t let me down.
Prove that you love me and buy the next round.
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town.

If you recall, she also expected a Mercedes Benz and a colour TV.

We laugh, but the truth is we sometimes set up a key for marking assignments we give God. Instead of praying in alignment with his purposes we sometimes hand him a list of requirements that look like the instructions an entitled rock star’s agent might submit to a concert manager. Bottled water from Fiji and a dish of red M & M’s only or he walks. We want personal peace, a perfect partner, and a palace on Paradise Boulevard.

Sometimes He answers with the stuff we want because he’s a good Dad and enjoys giving good gifts to his kids. Sometimes he answers with a character-building test of his own – an inescapable obligation, an impossible co-worker, an incomplete map.

We pray, “If you are really a good God prove it by buying the next round.” And he does – in the form of a flood, or a forest fire, or a false accusation, or a failed career, and includes a free blank sheet of foolscap and a pencil.

We compare his response with our marking key. None of these circumstances qualify as correct answers. In fact, they don’t even make the A, B, or D multiple choice list of close but wrong options.

We are confused. We cry, “God would not do that, therefore he is not God.” We walk away because God failed the test. We continue to consider ourselves the ultimate authority who prepares the correct answer on our own marking key.

Sometimes we project that grading ideal onto someone or something else – scientists, philosophers, politicians, self-help authors, organic foods, husbands, meditation -– anything really. When  answers fail to match our marking key, we move to the next thing until our bitter options dwindle down to A) absence B) anger C) apathy D) all of the above.

God is a good father and cares more about our character than our comfort. He could easily make things easy, but he doesn’t always. He loves us too much.

I’ve lived long enough to be disappointed with God many times. There were years when I only spoke to him in times of desperation because, well, the other options were worse. He loved me anyway. He is devoted to my eternal well-being. One day he invited me to take a chance on him. I did. He showed me aspects of himself I could not have seen if he had responded the way I wanted and expected him to.

Here’s the thing: God is God and I am not. He is smarter and wiser and more compassionate than I am. His perspective is from a place beyond eternity. His thoughts are higher than my thoughts and his ways greater than my ways. He wants relationship, which means he wants to connect and be understood. Tests are about learning what we have learned and what we have yet to learn. We need them. God doesn’t.

“How can these trying circumstances help me understand you, Lord?” I ask.

“Sit down. Pick up that pencil and the sheet of foolscap. Take notes,” he says. “I’ll show you.”

There is more.

The Graceful Icicle

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I bobbed around changing position, but the light kept getting in my eyes. I have a thing about natural light and my desk is near the window. I’ve set up the computer screen in front so it faces away from the light and remains readable. But for a brief time during the shortest days of the year the low sun will shine in my eyes in the afternoon. Then I have to lower the shade.

Yesterday the light was almost blinding. I got up to see what was causing it when I saw the sun shining through an icicle on the corner of the porch roof. I grabbed my camera, of course.

It’s not a talent I asked for, but I can tell the difference between a depression-induced hallucination, a vision, and the sun behind frozen water that had dripped from an eaves trough that is probably blocked again. This sight still caught my attention.

The icicle, which I barely noticed before, was, in a way, a reminder of failure (we really should have cleaned out those eaves before the snow fell) and the cold cruel world out there that took away all my colourful flowers and froze the water pipes this week (another  pain to fix).

Then light shone through failure and coldness and turned it into a glowing sword.

Sometimes I feel like a failure, done in by procrastination yet again. Sometimes my heart is cold in response to a hard season and I think all I can do is hang in there until circumstances change. I don’t feel particularly effective in making a difference in this world.

But this is what I saw. When I am subject to the light shining through unguarded transparency, without any reliance on my own brilliance, I am transformed. That’s grace.

Graham Cooke says grace empowers us to become what God sees when he looks at us. His grace shining through and entering our very being transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary.

This is amazing grace. Christ in us, the hope of glory.

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