Monday, September 29, 2008

not the worst party ever

I had a birthday party on Friday night. Dean invited a few people over and we made food and talked and played games and even walked around the carnival set up at the local mall parking lot just before it closed. Pretty fun! Well, in theory, yes. As it happens, I just had one of the busiest weeks of the year with classes, assignments, meetings, and just a lot of stuff going on which meant I was over-tired from running from one happening to the next and trying to keep my list of things to do from falling behind and in the midst of it all, not getting a whole lot of sleep. I don't know about you, but I am not at my best when I am overtired.

As the evening progressed, I felt less and less like I was part of the festivities and more and more like the party was going on without me. I had the urge to leave the room and lie down somewhere so that I didn't have to be happy and sanguine and sociable and the perfect hostess and seen to be having the best time of my life which was really the furthest thing from the truth. We sat down to play a video trivia game and the cloud of isolation intensified. I didn't know what to do, but I was dying inside, so I did the unthinkable. I stopped the party. I got up, stood in front of the TV which brought the trivia game to a screeching halt, and said, "I'm sorry, I'm having a hard time. I feel really isolated and I just can't do this anymore." Silence in the room. One kind person offered to have me join his team, but it wasn't about being on a team. It was that I felt so very alone, even among some of my best friends.

They gathered around and prayed for me. It was what they knew to do. I just wept and blew my nose and remarked on what bad quality tissues I had purchased and didn't feel all that much better. On the inside, I was crying out to God, "What is going on? I don't want to feel like this! Why can't I enjoy this gathering? What do I do?" The words of reassurance kept going through my mind...You are not alone, you are not alone, you are not alone. I knew it was true, even though I was not feeling it at the moment.

More silence. My friends really didn't know what to do now. They cared, they appreciated my honesty; a few of them wondered what was going on while others had some empathy. We all sat there and looked at each other. And I wanted to change this from the worst birthday party ever to something that we could all remember with a smile. I was empty, I was tired, I was spent and lonely and whiny, but as I looked around at the faces of these people who would give up their Friday night to be with some pathetic emotional wreck, I wanted to give them a gift.

Earlier that evening I had come up with the idea to make my version of the fortune cookie which was an envelope with a blessing in it, a simple prayer for some particular aspect of life along with an every day item that symbolised the blessing. I handed these out after dinner and everyone seemed to be sincerely touched by the generosity of the words and how they uniquely applied to their lives. And I wanted to touch my friends more, to connect more, to go beyond hey that was a fun evening, we drank some wine, we ate some food, we played silly games and enjoyed each other's company. But I felt totally unable to connect with them in my current deflated state, and so I asked God what I could do. He told me that the only way I could really connect with them was to connect to him first.

And so I began with the person closest to me. I laid my hand on them and brought them before God and asked him for something big and special on their behalf. In a way, I simply let them hear how I prayed for them day after day. Out came my deepest longings for their completeness and wholeness, for their fullness of life experience and strength of character built on the consistency of right choices, for them to be continuously surrounded by a sweet bath of contentment in realising their belovedness, to know the constant care of a benevolent creator, a Father whose thoughts are always on them. And I asked for their lives to be blown forward by the wind of the spirit, for this time in their lives to be marked by significance and growth and success. I did not choose my words as carefully as I usually do, I did not keep my eyes on them to watch for a reaction, I just reached out to my God and asked him for dear and precious gifts for my dear and precious friends.

Connecting with people is a hard thing for me to do sometimes, especially when I am tired. But connecting with God is easier sometimes when I am in a vulnerable state. He is close, he is attentive, he is attracted and drawn to my weakness. He loves it when my guard is down and I see just how much I need him. He loves my honesty, he loves my humility, he loves the fingers of my soul reaching out for help when I am drowning in my pitiful alone-ness. I am a witness to this mystery that the place where you run out of your own resources, this place where you find yourself flat on your ass with nothing to cushion your fall is the place where you will find something stronger than a little help. You will find transformation.

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. James 1:2-4 from The Message

One of my friends remarked at the close of the evening...best prayer ever!

This is a one of those wonders, a leaf which changes colour, on the sidewalk on the way to my French class last week.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

present

Yesterday was my birthday. It was a good day - busy, but good. I spent 7 hours in class, 2 hours commuting, 1 hour in a meeting, 1.5 hours on administrative work for the church, just under 1 hour on errands to the bank and post office and such, and then had a lovely Mexican meal at the end of the day with the attentive Dean.

During my walk from the metro to my morning French class, I usually talk to God. And yesterday I was telling him what a great day it was to be alive and well and surrounded by good friends and family and the opportunities to learn. And then I wondered if it was okay to ask him for something for my birthday. Oh yes, I immediately knew that the good and giving God that I serve and love wanted me to ask for something special on a special day. But what? I have a hard time asking for things, especially from God, because it seems so self-centred and points all attention to me, but I really did want something amazing to mark the day that I took my first breath on this earth.

So I started to think and soon the thoughts and words were pouring out of my mind and heart and I could not see very clearly because my eyes were misting over and not just because of the wind. I asked for the gift of moving forward, of that gentle nudge or push that would take lives one step closer to where we are going and who we want to be. I asked for obstacles to be removed that keep us stuck; I asked for windows and doors to be thrown open and the time to be now for pages to turn and new chapters to begin. I asked for fruit and growth to come out of years of hard work and sowing seeds. I asked for perseverance to be rewarded by results. I asked that September 23 would be marked in the lives of myself and those whom I love and care about as the day that things shifted, and we saw movement forward and upward and outward in a significant way. I asked that hope would become reality and the light would shine forth on a new day. And not because of our hard work or amazing abilities, but simply because I asked and God likes us.

I hope you enjoyed my birthday, too. Tell me if something changed in your world.

This is the earth in Haskett, Manitoba, where I grew up.

Monday, September 22, 2008

mine [not]

I was on the subway last week and observed a man in a business suit get on one of the trains, look around briefly at the seats which happened to be all full, and give a disgusted little huff like someone had insulted him. I thought his reaction was astonishingly self-centred, like no one on the train deserved a comfortable place to sit as much as he did.

Two days later I found myself on that same metro line, riding down to my French class early one morning. I was tired and not quite awake and just wanted to sit alone and read a book and not be jostled or have to stand pressed against other commuters. I happened to catch the train before it filled up and got a seat at the end of the car, away from the rest of the people; my most favourite seat. I love this seat, my special seat, I thought to myself. And then I realised how silly that sounded.

That was not my seat. Hundreds of people sat in that seat every day. I planted my bum on it for 15 minutes that day, but that hardly made it mine. I was just a traveller, a momentary sojourner, and many had come before me and many would come after me. I had no particular claim on that seat, even though I was especially happy to be in it that morning. Yep, I was pretty much like the man in the suit with the huffy attitude. Perhaps he also thought that there was a seat that was his, a train car that he owned a part of in some way, if only because he happened to be in a certain place at a certain time and wanted things to go well for him.

Most days I do wish the world would be more accommodating to me, but in truth, I am just passing through and I am slowly beginning to realise that my expectations are often unrealistic and embarrassingly ego-centric. The huffs I heave as I travel along are not self-righteous; they reveal how impatient and childish I can be as I claim things as "mine" that I really have no right to grasp at. I have had no part in building any of this - I share this world, this space, and this time with millions of others.

Dean was telling me about a podcast he heard about thankfulness the other day. The speaker was talking about how the early saints were examples of this grace, how even in their suffering and in the midst of some pretty horrible persecution, they exhibited an attitude of joyfulness at being given the gift of living for one more day, no matter how painful it might be. This life is a gift and no matter what hard things come with it, it is still a gift and we should be thankful for each moment which we are given. I think they knew a bit more about real joy than we do in our consumer-driven world.

This life is not mine, that I should demand things go a certain way - it is a gift. Each day is not mine, that I should expect a certain measure of happiness and success to be bestowed on me just for showing up - it is a gift. The seat on the metro is not mine, that I should imagine my name stamped on it and always reserved for my comfort when I have want of it - it is a gift to be shared with many.

May I be free from that all too funny and horribly familiar incessant cry (mine, mine, mine, mine) of the seagulls in Finding Nemo. It is not mine. And the sooner I realise that, the more true thankfulness can burst forth in my life.

This is the ever generous and giving Nelly, always thankful to see everyone.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

stop and smell

My sincere apologies for the lack of posts here lately. My schedule is slightly overfull these days due to being a full-time student, a part-time administrator, and a willing volunteer with several leadership roles that I continue to fill in our church group. Most weekdays it is a challenge just to make sure I get some real food in my stomach and a reasonable amount of sleep. This week I have not done too well on either of those counts, but hey, this is a no whining zone, so let's get on with the important stuff. I have a giant can of Arizona green tea with ginseng and honey and a yummy apple and cheese salad in front of me, plus I had a little nap today when I got home at 5:30, so we're all good.

I have often said to myself (and whoever will listen to me) that if this faith, this truth, this belief that God is good and loving and wants to be with us and infuse our lives with meaning and purpose - if this truth is no good under stress, then what good is it? If I get grumpy and irritable when I am overtired, if I say mean and foul words and lose my cool when people treat me badly, if I throw a little tantrum and freak out in bad situations, if I have no grace when it is especially needed, for myself and for others, then what is the point of having God in my life? These are the very times when his presence should shine, when I should notice a marked difference between those who try to live life on their own terms and those who submit their ways to God. I am not suggesting that things will always work out better for me because I am on team Jesus - a careful look at the Bible and the life of Christ pretty much blows that me-centric idea out of the water. What I am saying is that if I truly am relying on the creator of the universe and not myself, then how I interface with this life should change. And I believe, by the grace of God, mine is.

Today I spent the usual 4.5 hours in French class. After that, I had an appointment downtown at 1:30 pm to view some spaces for rent that might be more suitable for our church group than our present situation. I had packed a little snack so I ate on the subway ride there and arrived a few minutes early. The location was perfect and everything was looking good. I went inside at 1:25 and found the office door locked. hmmm. I waited 15 minutes and called the number of my contact. I could hear it ringing inside the office. Obviously, no one was there. I left a message and continued to wait. By this time I was talking to God, wondering what was going on and what I was supposed to do. I really didn't have this kind of time to sit around waiting for someone to show up, or even worse, waiting and not having anyone show up. Time. God, this is MY time we are wasting here. You know I have to pick up a book at another location, start on two assignments, catch up on some reading and I really NEED SOME LUNCH. Aha! I quickly realised my mistake. It was not my time. Okay, this is your time, God. If you want me to stand here and wait, I will. I will wait until 2:10 pm and then I have to go. I think that's reasonable. And if this is the place for us, if you want something to come out of this, then please make a way.

So I leisurely loitered in the general vicinity for 45 minutes. At 2:10, two ladies entered the building and I could tell they were looking for someone as well. We had a small conversation and indeed, they were here to view an office space. When I told them the manager was not here, they replied that they had been told to look for the concierge. The older woman wandered through a few hallways and came back with large friendly man. He grabbed some keys from the office, showed them a space on the 6th floor, and they left. Then he asked me what I was interested in. I told him that I wanted to see a space for a live band and church meetings. He was interested in that seemingly strange combination, and we went on a grand tour of 5 spaces, all the while having a very interesting conversation that ranged from his religious fanatic relatives to what my name stood for to how did Jesus become a white guy to music production to drinking beer in church. I liked this man. When we had finished the viewing, we returned to the office and the manager had returned and offered his profound apologies for not being there earlier. He had been visiting his mother who was not well and...he didn't even have to tell me what had caused his tardiness, I was not upset at all. What was happening here in this place was much more interesting and useful than being annoyed. In fact, I thought he was a caring son and silently prayed for his mother's well-being. And then we got down to business.

We discussed a few options, I asked a few questions, and then he said, "I want to rent to you. I will give you either space A or space B for the price you quoted. Which one do you want?" I told him I was not the one to make the final decision and that I would have the people in charge come in to look at the place in the next few days. Inside, I was yelling, "Yippee! I can't believe this prime downtown location and the huge loft spaces he has and so many of the other tenants being musicians and how he is not put off by anything I have said about making noise or public meetings or that word that makes most landlords beat a hasty retreat or hang up the phone: church!"

After a bit more light banter between the three of us, we shook hands and I left the building, convinced that I had just met two very kind and interesting people that I wanted to get to know better and would definitely enjoy having a business relationship with. I am hopeful that the decision-makers will see and feel and know the grace that I experienced there today, but it is not my place to say.

I am honoured that God granted me a time of parenthesis, a pause in my day that made me able to more fully appreciate those two men and that unique place and all my interactions with them instead of just seeing it as another entry in my day-timer and hey, let's get on with it, boys. God takes time for the things that are important to him. He is not in a hurry. He knows the value of preparation, in fact, I think he values it as much as the actual event or result. By simply rushing from place to place, I don't believe I would have been truly prepared to experience and receive everything that he was offering there today. May I always be up for what God is offering to me this day.

These are some flowers at our friends' cottage near Lake Oaureau. Stop and look and smell...it is always worth it.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

up

I won't bore you with the details of how crazy this past week has been, but with most days being 10 to 12 hours long (time I have to be away from home, before I do any other work), I am pleasantly surprised at how well I am holding up without any artificial stimulants or bad habits. I have decided that the best way to handle the stress and the vigorous demands on my life right now is to go as natural as possible. Not that I have joined the ranks of the raving organic freaks (though I love my friends who lean that way and have learned much from them), but that I don't rely on artificial means to achieve a short-term goal because I believe -no, make that I KNOW that I always end up paying more for that type of quick fix in the end.

So here's the deal.

1. I don't do caffeine (just the occasional chai latte). The brief burst of energy is not worth the crash a few hours later, unless of course you top it up with another jolt. It is okay to feel tired, I don't mind it. It encourages me to go to bed at a reasonable hour or take a nap or move at a more modest pace. It gives me a more realistic sense of how my body is doing. Natural adrenaline kicks in when you really need it, but the fake stuff is a cheap imitation. Keep in mind that any kind of stimulant is meant to be used sparingly and not become a lifestyle. Long-term ill health effects can ensue.

2. I try not to do junk food. My weakness is potato chips, but I have decided that my digestive system functioning well is worth a lot more than the mouthwatering crunch of yummy salt and fat. I ate half a bag of chips one night last week because I didn't have time for supper. The next day was pretty much one big long "ughhhhhh" for my stomach. I think it might be better to skip a meal (maybe drink a bottle of V8 or juice) instead of stuffing junk food into my system. Fasting also makes one more alert, in case you never tried it.

3. I avoid sugar except in small amounts. After a long 4 hour class last week, I was really hungry and feeling slightly faint, so I grabbed a Polish donut while I ran around the city on an errand. Delicious donut. Bad idea. The little bit of a boost was followed by 4 hours of not feeling well at all. Now I try to carry fruit and water with me, plus some dry cereal. I find that a real home made meal with fresh ingredients does wonders for my spirit, soul, body, and morale. Don't go for the fast fix; the real thing is worth waiting for.

4. Don't worry. It sounds simple, but on days when I get overwhelmed by everything that needs to be done, I push all those demands out of my head, and just try to do what needs to be done at that moment. If I am in class, all I need to do right then is listen and learn. If I am taking a break and hanging out with friends, then I should be totally present with them instead of running through some mental to-do list over and over again in my mind. You can't enjoy the time God has given you right now if you are always living in another time, whether that is thinking about what you have done, or what you still have to do.

5. Talk to God frequently. I spend about an hour commuting (bus, metro, walk) every day. Good time to think and pray and read something other than school work, something inspirational. I thank God at the beginning of the day, I continue the conversation at many points as I go from class to class, or meet people, or encounter a difficult assignment. Knowing that he is always with me and already at work in my world and the world of those around me takes the pressure off me to figure it all out and keep it all together. I can enjoy what the day brings, whatever he is giving to me and trust that to be enough.

6. Live in grace and extend that to others around you. It is not worth getting annoyed at the slow person in front of you, or the rude guy on the subway, or the ill-behaved loud children on the bus or the long line-up at the counter. A smile, a prayer, a gesture of kindness (let someone else go first) will get you further ahead in life than a hurried and frustrated attitude. Everyone wants to encounter a kind and considerate person in their day. Let that person be you.

Ever onward and upward, my friends.

This is the stairway leading from the lake to the cottage at Lake Oaureau.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

double down

I wrote an email in August. Just a simple inquiry stating my possible interest in pursuing studies at a master's level in the discipline of Theology. I do have a rather ancient Bachelor of Theology from a bible college which is not accredited, so I wanted to know how that would translate into further studies at a major university. I love learning in general, but have often found it difficult to pin the tail on that illusive donkey of higher education because my interests are spread across so many fields, especially the arts. How can I pick just one? Since my first degree pointed me in a "most likely to get somewhere" direction, I decided to start there. Ask a few questions. Find out the options. No harm in that. And since we now live within an easy 25 minute commute on public transportion to downtown, it seemed like the perfect time to explore the possibility.

I had done some research into Theology programs in universities in Montreal, and the scope and tone of the one at Concordia excited me the most, partly because it included a project option instead of all research and writing, plus it boasted a faculty focused on interpretation of the Bible. I'm into that.

The first response to my email was a request to meet in person. Okay, that was positive. I forwarded the list of courses from my first degree and after a few schedule conflicts, we were able to hit upon an agreed date and time for the meeting. The morning I took the subway down to the university, I was just recovering from a church retreat that I had organised and felt slightly under-prepared for the rendez-vous, my mind and body still reeling from a weekend packed with activities and people which left me with no time to myself to contemplate (my major form of preparation). Oh well. It wasn't an entrance exam, it was only a wee meeting with the graduate adviser. Surely a few bags under my eyes would add to the "I could be a student" look.

Within a few minutes of shaking his hand, the adviser was outlining a few courses for me to take, 4 in total, in preparation for entering the master's program. One of the them was starting that evening, so he marched me across the hall to the office of the professor who was teaching it and she told me (with a confident salesman smile on her face) that I simply must take this course because it would enable me to write better research papers and give me a solid foundation in everything from exegesis to interpretation to milking a cow (she was very enthusiastic). She also informed me that this course was only offered every two years so it was an opportunity not to be missed. The fact that I was not a registered student and only there to ask a few questions which would enable me to think about my options for a few months didn't seem to matter to anyone.

I walked out of the office with a map of the campus, a book of current courses offered by the university, a large pink sticky note with the adviser's suggested courses scribbled in pencil, and my heart beating slightly faster. I called Dean and told him I was going to check out a class that night. Contrary to his usual, "How much is this going to cost?" line, he simply said, "You go, girl!" I love this man!

Four days later, I feel like my life has been placed in a bag of crispy shake and bake and given a good toss. I now get up at 6:40 am 5 days a week (for those of you who know me, this is a change along the scale of some hectic jet lag) to spend 4.5 hours in an intensive French course (I had already signed up for this before my interview at the university). Two afternoons and one evening are spent at the university where I am enrolled in two fourth year undergraduate courses. I have already selected a text for one research paper and the reading due for one of my next classes is sitting on my kitchen table, half-finished. In the past few days, I have managed to register as an independent student, snarled my way through forms and online details and affidavits required to get the correct tuition rates, stood in line to buy school supplies and textbooks, got a student ID card, and with the help of a diligent administrator, bypassed those pesky pre-requisites that blocked me from one course.

I have definitely felt shaken and baked this week and battled some exhaustion as my schedule took a ride on the tilt-a-whirl. Nothing that a little bit of organisation and streamlining and asking God for his perspective and wisdom can't fix. Oh, and a bowl of popcorn and some steaming chai tea are good for the soul, too. But overall, the sensation is of being very much alive, of my head and heart and soul leaning forward into the wind of some great journey that I can't fully see the end of.

Some have told me, in their cynical, glass-half-empty way, that the Theology program must not be too full and they are looking for students to fill their classrooms and their coffers. But I make it a habit not to listen to cynics. One of the people at home group on Wednesday night was talking about times in your life when the door of opportunity swings open before you, a chance that does not come your way often, a time in your life when rapid growth and change and the favour of God and men rests on you in a special way. And it is those times when you fling yourself through the doorway with force. You go ahead full speed, you seize the day and the hour and the minute, you ride this grace for however long it lasts, and you put your back and your legs and your heart into it so that you can cover as much ground as possible. He called this "doubling down," a blackjack strategy used when you come into a situation where you have been dealt extraordinarily good cards. You double your bet because you want to get everything out of this incredible opportunity.

And this is my time. I am sprinting forward. There are risks: I still don't know how much this will cost and how exactly we will pay for this, nor how long this degree will take me or if I will even do well in these preliminary courses or have any new options available to me after this is all over. But I must go. I must double down. I would be crazy not to.

This is the view from the top of the hill overlooking Lake Oaureau, which we came upon on Sunday afternoon at the church retreat after a one hour uphill climb. Totally worth it.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

retreat with Jonah

I just came back from our first church retreat. Splendid stuff! Squish 25 people into a 4 bedroom cottage, get them to make meals and wash dishes together, take them boating, drag them on a 3 kilometre hike up a hill, force them to participate in a talent show, circle them around a bonfire and stuff them with marshmallows, and talk to them about Jonah while overlooking a body of water. We are better people for it, I know we are.

The lessons from Jonah were profounder than even the deepest part of the lake. The first morning, someone gave us a candid snapshot of their life, bad decisions and all, and we heard first-hand about the mercy and the cost of second chances. Let me paraphrase one incredible statement that this person made. Their initial experience of walking with God was like waking up every morning with a certain euphoria; they were full of love and joy at this amazing presence and power in their life. After a detour of several years that delved into darkness, they turned back to God and noted that this second turning to God was like waking up in a jungle with a machete in their hands. There was a lot of hard work ahead, but every hard-won step has been worth it.

Dean spoke about God's justice and how different it looks from our idea of justice. We sometimes venture into jealousy instead, wanting blessing and pleasure and prosperity instead of righteousness, and wanting it to come easily. Justice is primarily an action, not an ideal or something we simply say we believe in.

The last morning, I spoke about why we run from God. I think that sometimes we don't hear his call as an invitation, but a demand, and we don't like being told what to do. Many times we think his way will be unpleasant. At our very core, we are pretty much stubborn and independent (at least I am). Like Jonah, we often times don't like where this whole scenario is headed and don't want to participate. But for me, the biggest reason I don't run towards God every time he invites me to something is because I don't see Jesus at the end of the road. I see all kinds of dull and unattractive details, annoying people, potential struggles, and years of hard effort, and I let these cloud my vision, I let these become the focus and I balk at the idea of following his lead.

Jesus said he knocks at the door, wanting to come in and eat with us. That is where this knocking is always headed...to sit with Jesus and enjoy him and see him provide everything we need. If I lose sight of Jesus at the end of the road, I stop, I wander off, I turn around and head off in my own direction. I run away. We argue about paths and rest stops and shoes and maps and obstacles and gates and all manner of details along the way, but unless we keep our eyes on Jesus at the end of the road, we will always be prone to get off course. And that's when all kinds of storms and gigantic fish start to come our way...to get us back on that course, of course.

Another thing I noticed about the story of Jonah this time, for the first time, was that it all began with this: God's word came to Jonah. And this is where things always start. Nothing happens until this initiating call, invitation, word, or message from God enters the picture.

This is the view from the dock at Lake Oaureau, site of the Vineyard Montreal church retreat.