Monday, September 28, 2009

time sandwich

Dean left on a business trip this morning at 4:30 am. This leaves me and Jazz unsupervised with knives and video cameras within easy reach. You can understand why it is important to have constructive tasks to keep us occupied while he is gone.

No worries. I have a retreat to organise this weekend which will include planning a menu and buying groceries for 18 people as well as preparing a talk on "What are We Looking For?" There are also the usual readings and assignments in the next few days, several hours of office work tomorrow, regular household tasks, and I hope to take in a movie and coffee with friends as time allows. Jazz, I am sure, has an agenda packed with personal grooming, a litter box quota to fill, toys to stuff into small spaces, and meowing and pacing drills to practise.

On a totally different topic, this is what I was thinking about yesterday while preparing my heart and my head for taking communion.

Remember. This is what the Israelites were always being told to do. Remember the God who brought you out of Egypt. Jesus told his disciples the same thing at the last meal they shared. Remember me. There is something very important about not forgetting the faithfulness, the presence, and the intervention of God that we have witnessed in our lives and that we see in the lives of others. It reminds us that we are not alone and that things are never hopeless. We do well to remember the sweet embraces and bittersweet wrestling encounters with the living God and to do it regularly. It puts things in perspective. It keeps our faith healthy.

Imagine. Often in the middle of one of my panicky moments, or during an emotional meltdown, or while having a less than mature reaction to some situation, I hear a small voice ask me, "Would you like to see what is it like to live without this weakness in your life?" Sigh. Yes, yes I would. If I can imagine what life would be like without selfish compulsions, without fear and frustration and greediness, then I am halfway to surrendering to that better way. If I can imagine what the goodness of God looks like in this world and in my life (not fantasy, mind you, but actual down-to-earth goodness), then I am more likely to see it and participate in it. If I can imagine that God can and will act on my behalf because it is in his nature to be generous and loving and just, then I have just given birth to hope. Imagination lets me walk away from my current failure. Imagination lets me look forward to God's good purposes.

In-between this remembering and the imagining, there is the now, the present. It is often a place of tension where I try not to dwell on past things too much (either the good old days or that horrible thing I never want to live through again) and keep myself from fantasizing and daydreaming about things magically working out without my ever lifting a finger or doing the hard work of surrender and staying on course. It is the joy of endless possibilities and the angst of nothing ever being finished. But it is where I live, and I have learned to love this in-between place and to invest it with passion so that the richness can be squeezed from it.

This "remember<imagine>sandwich" is what communion is all about. We cannot forget that Jesus came and that changed everything (hello, Life!). Body and blood. Sip, chew. We must imagine and dream with hope about all that the Father has yet to reveal to those he loves (that's this whole world). Restoration and wholeness. Sip, chew. And in the present, saying yes to the sacrifice of Jesus brings renewing energy that gives me courage and comfort - Spirit. Sip, chew.

Let me enjoy this sandwich of faith, hope, and love every day.
This is the historical Admiralty Arch in the background, a London cab waiting for a fare in front, and some walking tourists sandwiched in-between.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

letting God pick

Yesterday was my birthday. A lot of the birthdays in my life have been rather disappointing affairs, I have to admit. Nobody's fault, really. Being born in the middle of the crazy busy harvest season on a farm meant that there was usually very little time to make a special occasion of it. I got used to no big deal being made out of the day I was born. I remember coming home from school one day and seeing a brown paper bag on the table, a gift for me, but no one around to share the celebration; they were all working on the field. I also remember one year my mom promising to get me those shoes I really wanted, but I would have to wait a week or two. It was just the way it was for many years.

Unfortunately, these small details left a big impact on my sensitive soul. I became super sensitive to being overlooked and forgotten. I craved affirmation that I was special and important, especially on that one day. And I heaped such high expectations on my husband and my friends to make a memorable birthday experience, that most times I was left slightly disappointed. I didn't tell anyone that, of course, but that's the sad truth.

This year, I decided it would be different. The past few months I have had to take a good, hard look at some of my most deep-seated areas of insatiable neediness, and by God's grace, I believe I have put them to rest. This birthday would let me know if things had indeed changed. I decided to take the pressure off Dean and plan my own birthday party. It was a fabulous idea, too. It would be a reverse surprise birthday party, where all the guests would show up and not know what was happening. And then I realised that I was just trying to make sure that something cool happened, that my need to feel special on that day was being met, and I said, "Okay, God, I take my hands off the whole thing."

I woke up yesterday morning and lay in bed, talking to God, as I usually do. I thanked him for the day and decided that I would not ask for anything specific for my birthday. No requests for special times with friends, no pleas for people to read my mind and get me the perfect gift, none of that. I said, "God, whatever you have for me today, I receive it. I will be grateful and content with whatever happens, no expectations and fantasies to fulfill. This is a good day because you gave it to me and that's enough. If I get together with people, great. If I end up at home alone watching a movie, wonderful. Whatever you want to give me today is good. You pick. I trust you with my birthday."

I received numerous happy birthday messages from friends and thought, "Awww, that's so nice." I did my workout and read my Bible and ironed some clothes and then got down to some homework. Two friends texted me to see if I would like to have coffee with them, one before my evening class and one after. I said yes. Dean told me he had a dinner with some people, so we would do something another night. I was content with it all. In fact, I felt like I had balloons of gratitude swelling inside my chest. Having finally let go of my expectations for an extraordinary day, every little thing felt like a gift.

I had a most wondrous drink (green tea with honey) with my friend before class. I told her of my unusual contentment and we laughed and smiled and enjoyed a half hour of mutual affection. I had an interesting class on the relevance of miracles and then met my other friend after that. We went to his place and when I walked into the kitchen, a whole herd of my friends yelled "Surprise," threw balloons at me, sprayed me with water pistols, and cheered. Dean was there, too (this being the 'dinner' he had), and we ate watermelon, popcorn, chips, and margherita pizza (all my favourite things). It was a loud and friendly evening, filled with laughter and games and synergy. I received more gifts and kind words and heard the silly stories of how the party evolved.

When the adrenaline and excitement finally wore off at 1:30 am, I lay in bed and marvelled at what a wondrous life I have and what a stellar day it had been, especially because I let God pick instead of telling him what I wanted and needed. He knows that better than I do, and he will never disappoint.
Thank you to all my friends in Montreal for the best birthday ever! And thank you to my family for faithfully loving me all these years, every day, and not just on my birthday. Contentment and gratitude are two gifts I never thought to ask for, but they came anyway.

This is me on a street corner in Bath, UK. Dean gets the credit for the photo. May I stand under the sign of surrender every day of my life.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

the void

I don't know about the rest of you, but as a creative person, I have a recurring fear. And that is that I will never have another creative idea, or come up with anything worthwhile to say or do again. I fear that I only have so much in my creative bank account. Since creativity basically means that you never do the same thing in the same way twice, the pressure mounts with every task that comes my way.

When I am faced with a another paper to write, a talk to prepare, a presentation to give, a picture to paint, or a blog to compose, there is often a gaping void that taunts me. There is a chaotic formless flurry of scattered bits that I can't make sense of.

On Sunday, the void visited me again. I had a presentation to prepare for Monday night and when I jumped out of bed, the dark chaos was waiting. Fortunately, I was doing a presentation on Genesis 1-4 and the first thing that came to mind was: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.

God had the same experience as me! The formless and void stage is not something to be feared, it is part of the creative process! That's how it starts: from formlessness into something being formed; from a dark void into light and goodness! I began to recognise that yes, this is what happens everytime I attempt to create something. There is a nothingness, a chaos without order.

The thing I often do not see (even though it is very present) is the spirit of God moving over the surface of all this darkness - brooding, waiting. When I ask God for help (and I try to do this very early on in the creative process) and for inspiration, for clear thoughts and ideas, something happens. One word comes to mind and sticks there. One idea catapults itself out of the void, something I see catches my attention, or I have a dream that clarifies my chaotic thoughts. It is like a light turns on and I can begin to see the beginning of how it will take shape.

Notes to self:

1. Never fear the appearance of the formless void. It is the beginning of something good.
2. Always remember that the Spirit is already moving over the void. God has already begun the process and is waiting for me to participate with him.
3. Ask for God's help, jump in, and start exploring.
4. Separate the dark from the light, the energetic from the lifeless, and primary from the secondary.
5. Speak words of light and life into the process. Remember, if God is involved, it is good.

This is the sky over London.

Friday, September 18, 2009

questions

This school year has started with a bang! Though I am only taking 2 courses at the Master's level and have a small part-time job, some extra things have come up this month that have served to overwhelm me a bit. And for some reason I seem to be extra prone to overwhelmedness right now.

In the next 2-3 weeks I also have to plan and organise a church retreat, apply for a major government award which means that I have to write a very detailed research proposal (something most people don't start to think about until later into their first year and something I have never done before!!!), and manage the logistics of a move for our church meeting space. Today, I have an occupancy permit application to write, I hope to begin on that research proposal, and there are readings for next week and a class presentation on Monday. Plus, I promised to get together with some good people today, which is very important for my sanity. And we haven't even talked about cleaning bathrooms or buying groceries yet! You see how my mind starts to tally up the list and become anxious?

Last night we were talking about the kind of questions that we ask God. I have been learning that I don't ask the best questions which is why I often don't feel like I am getting a lot of answers. I ask things like: how is this all going to be possible? what will my life look like next year? why is that person treating me like that? why don't you take away all my fears? why isn't that person healed? and does anything ever really change? Bad questions. Questions that sound more like I am the one in charge and someone needs to give me some decent explanations.

In truth, I really don't want or need to know the answers to most of these questions. What I really want to know, deep down in my heart, is simply this: do you love me? are you with me? do I need to worry about this? When I ask those questions, the answers are always: Yes, yes, and no.

All the other details become peripheral at that point, because when I am in love, it doesn't really matter what I am doing at each moment. That silly "I am loved" grin sits on my face in all circumstances. It just matters that someone thinks I am special. When I have a friend that I can count on to walk with me through the most difficult and challenging tasks and provide support, encouragement, and wisdom, I have no doubt that these things will get done in a good and timely way and be characterised with spurts of joy. When someone much more powerful than me says he is taking care of it, I really don't have to worry about how everything will work out. I just have to stick close to him and follow his lead.

I read the story of the woman at the well in John 4 today. She asks Jesus a lot of questions, and I love his response to her first query: If you knew who I was, you would be asking me something else.

May I know who HE is and may my questions always reflect that.
This is the canal in Stratford-upon-Avon, with signs telling me where it leads and how far away the places are.

Monday, September 14, 2009

half full or half empty?

This is from a talk I gave at our church gathering last night.

I have been feeling somewhat empty in the last month or two. I can't explain exactly why that is, but it has thrust me into a quest to pursue more wholeness in my life and hard as it may be at times, it is a very worthwhile journey.

Yesterday as I was thinking about the difference between emptiness and fullness, I decided to explore the classic "half empty or half full" question. I held up a glass and asked, "What is this?" The answer came back: "An empty glass." I filled a glass halfway with water and set it on the table. I asked, "Is this half full?" "Yes," was the response. Then I asked, "Is it half empty?" The response was again positive.

Then I submerged an empty glass into a large bowl of water and we all watched the liquid poured into it. I raised it up. "Is this glass full?" I queried. "Yes," people called out. Then I took another empty glass, turned it upside down, and pushed it into the water. Though surrounded by liquid on every side, the glass remained empty.

"What happened?" I asked. "Why didn't the water go in?"

People answered, "Because the glass is full of air."

"So what has to happen in order for the water to come in?" I questioned.

"The air has to leave," was the response.

I tilted the glass to the side and we watched as the air bubbled out and the water gushed in. Once again a lifted up a glass half full of water and asked, "What is this?" One person called out, "It is full. Half full of water and half full of air." And that is exactly right.

Sometimes we see our lives as full in certain things and empty in other areas, but our life is always full, full of something. The real question is: what are we full of? I have a lot of good stuff in my life: passion, hunger for truth, energy, love, humility, curiosity, etc. I also have some other, not so good, stuff taking up valuable space in my life: loneliness, fear, and self-centredness to name a few. The question is, how do I make the exchange? How do I get those annoying air pockets out so that the really good stuff can get in?

Simply immersing myself in the correct atmosphere and being surrounded by all things good and lovely doesn't mean that I automatically take in these qualities. I somehow have to position myself so that the things I don't want in my life are allowed to exit and the things I do want are allowed to enter. And I would venture to say that the position I am in now, the way I deal with life now, probably is not adequate to make such an exchange, or it would already be happening.

On a slightly different note, here is a little something about the phrase "fullness of time" as used in the Bible:
It is referring to the right, appropriate, or fitting time for an event to occur, often in the light of specific predictive prophecy. Thus time itself does not really get full but what the terminology means is that when God has said the time is right, something will happen, especially if He has said it will. The time preceding the event is thus like a glass of water slowly filling up as the time rolls on until when the glass is full it has reached the time for the designated event to occur. - from http://www.wikianswers.com/

We mostly see time in a very narrow way. We understand things in terms of 'on time', 'late,' 'early,', or 'not having enough time.' But is a glass half-filled with water 'on time?' Is it late or early? It is none of these things. It is being filled, one drop at a time, or perhaps in a sudden gush, and when it reaches that tipping point, that point of fullness, then the time is right and fitting for something to change. The question is not "when will the event occur?" but "how full is the glass?"

What are we full of? How do we make the exchange between useless air pockets and life-giving water in our lives? And how do we keep keep marching towards the "fullness of time" regarding all those wonderful things that God has said he wants to make a reality in us?
My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you'll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ's love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God. - Ephesians 3:14-19, The Message

This is the modern Selfridges store in Birmingham, England (full of expensive articles) against a blue sky (full of the glory of God).

Thursday, September 10, 2009

which one?

Today is one of those days when I need the super-powers of decision-making and forward-thinking. There are so many things to plan and direct in the next few months and it all starts now.

I have to construct a tentative schedule for our small group for the next three months so that we don't all just show up and stare at each other while we eat potato chips (though admittedly that's not the worst thing that could happen). I have to choose which reading to do a class presentation on (which means skimming the whole coursepak) and get a topic for a Christology paper for this term. I have a paper to edit and submit to a publication and a major funding application to complete which needs me to outline what great contribution I will be making to society with my MA in Theological Studies. And I haven't even started my second course yet!

Probably the largest decisions right now (besides what to have for lunch) are choosing a track to follow for my MA project and selecting the area of concentration for a major research paper, both of which will take up a good portion of my energy for the next two years.
On the positive side of things, yesterday I turned down the offer to adopt another kitten, knowing that this was not the time to add to our feline population. Some things are definitely clear. Others are still a bit fuzzy.

This morning I read the story of Jesus turning the water into wine in John 2. I love that story, partly because it reveals the extravagant and restrained nature of Jesus all at the same time, but primarily because it serves no religious pragmatic purpose. No one is healed from a deathly illness. No one repents and gives everything away to the poor. Not one demon is cast out. People are partying, and Jesus makes the party better. He turns something ordinary into something very extraordinary. I like that. I need that. Every day of my life I want that.

Here is my water, Jesus. Turn it into something filled with spirit and kick and celebration.
This is a cider and a diet Pepsi at The Plough pub in Tyttenhanger near St. Albans, UK. You pick.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

something changed

For the past month or two, I have been feeling unsettled, empty, not quite myself. I have been emotionally raw at times, paranoid about situations and relationships, hyper-sensitive to pretty much everything, annoyed and annoying, and some days wondered if I was on the verge of depression or losing my mind. Not too pleasant for me or for my friends, I have to admit.

It was a bit like waking up every morning to the moment just before you get on a really scary ride at the amusement park. Or the first day of a new and illusive job which might make or break you. I was unsure of what was going on and I was fearful of what lay ahead; my mind went in crazy circles fixating on worse case scenarios, and all manner of irrational thoughts bombarded me for much of the day. I knew my perception was off and I was not tracking with the truth, but for the life of me, I couldn't get a solid grasp on it. I talked to God a lot, I tried to stay calm and not take things too seriously, I read my Bible, I listened to worship music, I repented of everything I could think of, I had numerous people pray for me, and it provided some relief, but I could not shake the butterflies in my stomach and the 'oh-no' prickling sensation in the back of my head that always seemed to be there from morning till night.

I began to think that perhaps this was a battle I would have to fight every day for the rest of my life. That I would have to scrape and claw for every inch of sanity and peace that I could find, and that each moment of soundness would require a very long and hard-won struggle.

On Sunday I listened to a lot of worship music and went for a long walk outside in the sunshine. It was a pretty good day, as recent days go. I asked God to do something at our church gathering that evening and I began to have a certain expectation and sense that God would indeed come and do something significant, if not for me, then for others there. At the end of the worship time that evening, someone began to talk about the Houses of Healing from The Lord of the Rings. I don't remember much of the words, but it was about coming to the end of your rope, doing everything you knew how and it not being enough. And this was when the healer stepped in. I knew it was for me. I sat down at the back of the room and closed my eyes for the next hour while my friend sat with me and prayed. I could feel a thick blanket of unearthly peace on my head and I didn't want to move from it.

That night, I slept over 9 hours. I awoke with a clear and a settled heart and head. That evening, I went to a dinner with friends and laughed and played with joy. The old paranoia tried to flare up at times, but I didn't let it stay. If I could describe it, it would be like a small but deep-rooted sliver of emotional immaturity and neediness (trying to grasp at anything to fill those gaps in my life) had worked its way up and been pulled out from the depths of my being. The wound is still a bit fresh, but the body is clean and no longer bothered by the intrusive element.

Removing splinters is never a pleasant task. They seem to go in easy and usually have barbs that keep them in place. Pulling them out is painful, but it feels sooooo good after it is done. Today, I feel like the luckiest girl in the world. I have been blessed by the tweezers of grace and each moment of peace is like an unlaboured breath, twice as sweet because it was not always so.

Grace, come and sit with me today again. I am lost without your constant gifts. I walk and run and sleep in your embrace. Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life. I'm back home in the house of God for the rest of my life. (from Psalm 23, The Message)

This is a sand sculptor at work on the South Bank of London.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

the cake of life

I was talking to a friend today and somehow, somewhere, in the course of our wandering conversation, I compared my life to baking a cake or some fine confectionery treat.

There can be a lot of flurry in the kitchen: ingredients are tossed about, the flour gets spilled on the counter, batter gets splattered, sticky spoons and fingers are everywhere, an egg might fall on the floor, dirty messy bowls start to pile up, and if you have any passion in you at all for what you are doing, there might be some yelling and screaming and loud banging of pans as the egg whites just won't form stiff peaks or the butter refuses to cream with the sugar because you got the temperature wrong or you realise that you are all out of icing sugar.

Not everyone can handle being in the kitchen of my life. Everyone wants to taste the cake, the wonderfully sweet and delightful end product, but not all are up for witnessing the sometimes chaotic process or seeing the inevitable flop that I toss in the garbage before I finally get it right.

I can be a pretty intense person; I feel things deeply and am not afraid to be affected by life's events. The fierce emotions have been known to scare and annoy some people, but they usually pass in an hour or two and to me, they are worth it. There is a maturity of compassion and an experiential wisdom that can come from laying one's life open to the bumps and painful discomfort along the way that will probably never come to the stoic or the person who keeps things carefully under control.

Not all of my friends are up for cooking with me in the kitchen. I have learned that. I am happy to serve them the tasty fruit of my labours while they repose themselves in the safety of the separate dining room. However, for the few who do venture into the mess and noise and clutter of my life in process without running away, I say, "Welcome, brave soul. Let's create something so beautifully delicious that everyone will want the recipe!"

These are some ingredients from my kitchen.