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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Your mission, should you choose to accept it

Photo: The Mission

Your mission, should you choose to accept it

The woman told me to be careful because there were nails sticking up in some places, but that most of the floor boards that could break had been replaced.

“That was a classroom,” she said, stepping over a pile of debris, “And this is the room where kids went to die.”

“What?” I said.

“Mostly T.B., but other stuff too. The other children weren’t supposed to know, but they did. Kids who went in this room just disappeared.”

She was showing me the old residential school on the St. Eugene Reservation. This was years before the Band’s greatest source of shame and sorrow transformed into their greatest asset.

Much has been written of the horrors of the residential schools in Canada where First Nations children were removed, sometimes forcibly, from their parents and placed, not always gently, in dorms and classrooms where they were raised by people who couldn’t speak their language or understand their culture or who had even had children of their own. It is our national tragedy, our national source of shame.

It would be easy to hate the perpetrators of this cultural fiasco, but many people, misguided though they may have been, thought they were leaving their own comforts behind, living in the wilds to try to improve the lot of children who were not educated to cope with European ways.

Alas, one may leave one’s comforts behind, but one’s discomforts and old wounds come along. This is why we call it baggage. Our methods of coping with baggage are the chief source of collateral damage to succeeding generations.

Some of the people who found their way to teach in isolated residential schools were pure evil, no doubt.

I think many others meant well, after all this is how many Europeans treated their own children. They still do. We still romanticize the boarding school concept in books like Harry Potter. Missionaries’ children are still routinely flown off to walled English-speaking compounds in another country to be raised by people who have sacrificed the comforts of their own homelands to raise other people’s children.

Many refugees of institutionalized European upper crust bullying continue to bully as adult leaders in government institutions and multinational corporations. Some guilt-proofed adult children of the foreign fields, who felt they mattered less than the people their parents were trying to reach, still bear scars as well –even though their substitute parents meant well.

I think it may actually be easier to forgive someone who drives over your foot intentionally than someone who drives over it accidentally. If a person you love and respect drives over your foot accidentally, then expresses how terrible, awful, horrible, miserable and wretched they feel, the victim can forget that they were the victim in the effort to comfort the driver. Some people think forgiveness is saying, “That’s okay. It was no big deal,” when it was a big deal. Whether your foot is crushed accidentally or intentionally you still have pain and you still limp, and if that injury is never given proper attention and healing you limp for the rest of your life.

Then there is the matter of what to do with the anger.

If only everyone who hurt us was the picture of pure evil we could aim all our screaming, kicking and ranting at them. This is why novels have villains. Oh how we love to hate a well-constructed villain. But what do we do with a best friend who drove drunk just that one time? How do we remember a teacher who said one stupid, cruel thing that devastated us for years? How do we forgive a parent who was usually kind, but in a war-time flashback saw us as the enemy? How do we forgive and yet still acknowledge the tremendous pain that resulted from these choices?

Forgiveness is complicated, but ignoring pain causes us to take it out on the next generation. Unresolved anger hides in our suitcase ready to lash out at any curious child who opens it.

The First Nations people on the St. Eugene Mission have done the most remarkable thing. They have inherited the rights to the old mission property, one of the most beautiful places in the world, on which sits a big old stone building that had a room where kids went to die. They have taken the most painful memory of their people’s history and transformed it into a luxury hotel. Some people see only the beautiful setting. Some people see only the memory of horrid pain, but these outstandingly gracious people see both. The object of hatred, the old residential school, has been reborn as a source of education (no denial of pain) and of hospitality (reaching out). They have opened their doors to the world.

What an example. When I took this photo yesterday as I stood on a hill over the Mission it was as if I heard: Yes, you have pain, you have anger, you have scars. You have been hurt by people who meant well, but who had never dealt with their own pain. You have a choice about what you do with that thing in your life that sits like a big red-roofed stone building in the middle of an otherwise beautiful inheritance. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make something useful, beautiful, and hospitable of your inheritance, both good and bad.

God bless the Ktunaxa.

Historic St. Eugene Mission church in winter