Friday, December 22, 2006

publish me

I got my picture taken for the school paper yesterday so I guess that means they are going to publish the “Peace and Radicals” article I submitted (see the December 7 blog). It is a good feeling when something you have created turns out to be appreciated by someone other than yourself or your immediate circle of friends and family. As a writer (and photographer and musician and actor and artist at large), it is my job to create and explore beauty and truth and that gives me great joy. Sometimes, though, the pressure to be published or shown or get a paying gig or recognised in some way by the general public takes some of the pure passion out of my creativity. I had a very interesting conversation with a fellow writer this past summer in Mahone Bay.

We had both spent the better part of a year writing our first work of fiction and were entirely thrilled to find someone else who had gone through this intense creative process. We were both invigorated by the challenges of writing something of that length and totally investing ourselves in the story and its characters. But after a second look and some constructive criticism from trusted friends, each of us had discovered that while the process had been an incredible learning and growing opportunity as a writer, the book itself was not in any shape to be published. Neither of us regretted having done our projects, but at this point, we both wondered what to do with almost 100,000 words of toil, sweat, and tears on our computers. It is somewhat embarrassing when people keep asking you, "So, is your book done? When is it going to be published?" And the only true answer you can give is: "At this point, it is not good enough to be published and I am not sure if I should spend the better part of another year rewriting it or simply move on to the next project and chalk it up to experience." It sounds too much like failure.

As my friend and I walked along in silence and I pondered my questionable future as a thriving and self-supporting artist once again, a thought struck me. “Why does something have to be published to make it valid?“ I asked my friend. “That is a total unrealistic and unhealthy way of looking at things. Does every song have to be recorded to make it worth something, to make it meaningful? Does every piece of poetry have to be printed in order for someone to appreciate the beauty in the words? NO! That is just the way the world system makes us think - fame and reimbursement make things valid and that’s a lie.“ I asked my fellow writer why he had written his book and he said it was in honour of his friend. I asked him, “Is the story worth telling?“ He said, “Yes,” to which I replied, “Then it is worth reading, at least to me.“ I asked him to send me his book and I promised not to read it with a critical or editorial eye, but appreciate the story as a gift, a way of seeing something that only he could express. I got so excited about this new “validity” concept that I shared the idea with a few others and they immediately said they would also love to read something like that, just to appreciate the story.

Creativity is not owned by the publishing and recording and production companies who pretend to buy and sell it. It is found in the people who have let a spark ignite in their souls and added their hard work and ingenuity to it in order to make something unique and meaningful and beautiful and over time, increasingly more well-crafted. I believe I have many things to learn as a writer and artist, but I have ceased to make my goal that of being published. That is a dream far too small. I want to change the world by telling stories that no one else can, by presenting truth and beauty in interesting and unique, yet recognisable forms. I want to point my camera at things that no one else has thought to stop and look at. And I will tell my story and my vision and my dreams to those around me…one by one by one. This is worth my time. This is worth my effort. This is what a voice in the wilderness does.

“Prophets are those folk among us who dare to stop doing good. That is, they dare to be less busy, less consumed by the legitimate demands of the present day. Their peculiar asceticism is to stop the busyness, and in the stillness to listen. Only as the absorbing and distracting demands of the present are stilled will we hear the sounds of the future. This is a considerable risk. The good we are doing now not only fills our day but tells us who we are. In it we find our worth. Without it, who would we be? What if we quiet our hearts and then hear nothing? But the gift of the prophet is to seek silence, convinced that only then will we hear the subtle murmurs of God's Spirit. These sounds alone can tell us what time it is.”

James D. Whitehead and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead
The Gift of Prophecy, SPIRITUALITY TODAY
Winter 1989, Vol.41 No. 4, pp. 292-304.

Friday, December 15, 2006

NTKB: need to know basis

I want to know things. Big things, little things, future things, profound things, things that are true and certain, things that will not change, things that will change, things that make decisions easier, things I can depend on. I have noticed that I am not the only one. Especially when discussing life and faith issues, many people want to know things. How can I know God is real? Will things work out for me if I do this? Can I trust God? What is my purpose? How can I forgive when justice is not done? Why do bad things happen to innocent people? Is this the right career path? Is this the right person for me? What happens when I die? Will good really win out over evil? Why doesn’t the Bible make more sense? How long will I live? We all want answers to our questions, but what happens if we don‘t get the answers we think we need? All too often, I think we are waiting for some assurance that the outcome will be to our liking before we commit to something, and that keeps us on the sidelines, watching and evaluating and calculating, instead of participating and experiencing and investing.

Very little in life is certain or predictable. We live one day at a time and at the end of that day we are blessed if we still have a job, a home, all our loved ones in good health, shelter and food, more happy moments than sad, and hope for the future. Knowledge is a good thing, a very good thing, but it is not the only thing on which to base our entire lives. I cannot know everything - I am not omnipresent, I cannot predict the future nor totally control what happens in my world, I am not omnipotent nor all-wise, and I often perceive more than truly know these things we call facts or truths because my experiences (both good and bad), my self-image, and overall view of the world colour how I interpret the information I receive and how I fill in the blanks when things are not spelled out clearly.

Demanding that we know all the ins and outs of something before we commit is simply unrealistic and perhaps more truthfully, fearful and self-protective in an ungenerous sort of way. One should always make informed decisions, and I wholeheartedly support the practice of thinking things through and doing some research before making choices, but knowledge is never a guarantee and at some point, one must simply take that leap and give it a try. If you must have every question answered before you believe God is real and trustworthy, you will never believe in him. If you must know everything about a person before you marry them, you will never get married. If you must know exactly what a food tastes like before you try it, you will never eat. If you want to know how every business venture works out before you risk any funds, you will never be an entrepreneur. Life is experience after experience, not fact after fact.

When I look at the life of Jesus, I see someone who, though he had the knowledge of God at his disposal, put that aside to become one of us, and that lack in no way hindered a life filled with faith, passion, wholeheartedness, and undeniable integrity and effectiveness. His most precious and useful knowledge was not of facts and events, but of what was in his Father’s heart. That fuelled every decision and under girded all his authority as a healer and teacher. Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions. Instead of demanding proof and guarantees and specific directions and neat solutions, we should be asking God to show us his great big heart which encompasses every situation and need that could ever arise, which transcends all knowledge and time, and best of all, makes a way for freedom, redemption, and wholeness.

Perhaps the next time I have a question about some tangled life situation or complex intellectual or social problem, or am faced with a dead end, instead of demanding an explanation or an assurance that I will not be disappointed, I will ask some better questions. Where is God in this place? How much does he love me? What can I do right now to walk in peace? Can I trust the most faithful person in the universe to make a way? Why has this opportunity been given to me? Who knows everything about my situation and can give me the best advice and direction?

The question is not do I have enough information, but do I trust God with what I don’t and can’t know?

I don’t think the way you think. The way you work isn’t the way I work.- God’s Decree. For as the sky soars high above the earth, so the way I work surpasses the way you work, and the way I think is beyond the way you think.“ from Isaiah 55, the Message.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

and now for something completely different...

Last night, or rather early this morning, I wrote a little something for the brand new student newspaper being started at my school. Though I set out to compose a lighthearted inspirational story that would bring a smile to many faces and most importantly, not offend anyone at this multicultural, multi-faith, in some ways anti-faith institution with a definite rough side to it, the following is what came out of my head at 2:00 am. It is much too wordy and slightly argumentative and I don't know how the name Jesus snuck in there when I was really trying to be inoffensive, but I submitted it this morning trusting that God did in some way answer my prayer to give me the right words.

PEACE AND RADICALS

If peace is indeed defined as an absence of war or conflict, then the hope for friendly co-existence between the peoples of this earth seems as far-fetched as it has ever been. When questioned as to the source of this growing climate of dis-ease, many people blame the “radicals” of different belief systems for the degradation of a general sense of security and safety in our world. While there is a grain of truth to this sentiment, it is primarily a misleading generalisation and a misuse of the word “radical.”

“Radical” is first defined by Webster’s dictionary as “of, relating to, or proceeding from a root; of or relating to the origin, fundamental.” A radical in the truest sense is one who embraces a system of belief at its very root and follows these beliefs through to the smallest stems of life. Any belief system that does not hold true at the fringes the same as it holds true at the foundation is a faulty system, and any blame for inconsistent behaviour should not be put on the so-called extremist, but on the inadequate set of values and principles. If a person, however, misrepresents the root values, then the blame for any destructive behaviour rests solely on his or her shoulders and should not detrimentally reflect on the system of belief, for these individuals are not true representatives of any faith but that of their own invention. The discernment to tell the difference between the two appears to be sadly lacking in this day and age. It is much easier to blame radicals and extremists than to take a cold hard look at the fundamental problems in our society that we in fact propagate by our participation.

Tolerance has become a politically correct and desirable attitude to adopt, when in fact it is nothing but passivity which paves the way for the lowest common denominator to pull everyone down to a base level instead of challenging anyone to rise to a higher standard. It is time to stop blaming the radicals for all our problems and instead, develop a set of values whose foundations as well as their outermost limits stand up to the tests of conflict, suffering, and pursuing peace in a pluralistic society over the long haul. True radicals have deeply held convictions that have withstood the test of time, and contrary to resisting change, know how to apply these principles to current situations and new challenges. They are not passive, they are active. They change their environment by example instead of by force. They pursue peace but not at the expense of truth and justice. They are characterised by trustworthiness, faithfulness, love, and compassion. They are transparent in their motivation and do not react defensively to criticism or aggression. The escalating violence in this world is not because there are too many radicals out there, but rather, because there are not enough REAL radicals.

One of the greatest examples of a true peace-maker and radical was Mother Theresa, the recipient of the Nobel Peace prize in 1997. She influenced an entire world by believing and acting upon the words of Jesus which urged people to love one another. She said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Peace is not the absence of conflict, it is the presence of trust, and in order to trust, we must first love each other.

“It is not the magnitude of our actions but the amount of love that is put into them that matters.” (Mother Teresa)

“Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” (from the song by Sy Miller and Jill Jackson)

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

pearls

In the course of a conversation over a week ago, the phrase “The Pearl of Great Price” came up. Since then, these two little verses from Matthew have been following me around in my mind and in conversations and correspondence and other encounters.

“Again the kingdom of heaven is like a man who is a dealer in search of fine and precious pearls. Who, on finding a single pearl of great price, went and sold all he had and bought it.” Matthew 13:45-46.

This morning I picked up the book I had started to read last night and encountered this very phrase again. Let me just go ahead and admit that I have been running from this concept. I started to write something on it last week, but found other things more pressing. Every time I hear the phrase in my head or encounter it elsewhere, I keep telling myself, I will take some time later to think about it. But most telling is the fact that I have not opened my heart to let God speak to me about it. I have not asked him what he thinks about it and why it is relevant in my life right now.

The word “cost” scares me. The words “great price” make me cringe, and I know my perspective is wrong here, for the words that should grab my attention are “fine and precious.“ Cost is always relative to what something is worth. I have no problem paying $10 for a fine meal, but at $100 I would probably walk away because it is merely a temporary satiation I am looking for and temporary things have much less value than long-lasting ones. You would pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a house because it is an investment, it retains its value, you can live in it, and it lasts for a very long time. Paying a similar amount for a vacation or an event seems to be a questionable investment of your resources as the item has a limited longevity: a few weeks and it is all over.

The other word that should have stood out to me is “search.“ The person was actually looking for this very thing, searching for something precious and when they found something beyond their wildest dreams, they did not have to give it a second thought - they cashed everything else in and sunk all their resources into the most incredible and precious thing they had ever encountered.

What is the thing I am searching for? What am I willing for it to cost me? How will I know when I encounter it?

A small way for me to understand this is marriage. When I was single, I was looking for a friend, someone to love me and accept me and challenge me and be with me for a long time without it getting old or boring or predictable. When I met Dean, all the important things I had been looking for were found in one person, and I sold my independence, my self-centred life, my desire to look elsewhere for love and attention, my freedom to live anywhere and anytime I chose, and in return I got something of great value, fine and precious and long-lasting and deep and faithful and nurturing and life-giving and growing and fun.

I have been talking about decision-making with some friends and I acknowledge the fact that I need to become a more decisive person and here in these two verses I find the steps to accomplishing that:

1. Know what you are searching for. Keep the goal always in mind.

2. Search. Look. Be active. Make decisions that put you on the path to finding the things you are searching for. If you are saving up to buy a precious stone, don’t be hanging out in dollar stores or spending all your money on candy.

3. Be knowledgeable. If you are going to recognise something precious, spend time with those who also value the precious and valuable things. Learn from them. Read, ask, pray, and think. Practice recognising precious things and dealing carefully and respectfully with them.

4. Save yourself. Don’t waste your hard earned collateral and energy and your very self on shiny or temporary things. Save what you have for that which is worth it - the thing you are looking for. Sometimes you might see a counterfeit and almost talk yourself into buying it because you are tired of searching and it sure looks good, but resist the temptation to settle. You know better.

5. Jump in. Once you encounter something that seems to be “it,“ you are most likely to have second thoughts. The truly precious may not be perfect, but it will be pure; it will be clear and undiluted, though perhaps covered in dirt. It may be smaller and less significant than you expected, but it will be bright and powerful. It may not be the exact colour you wanted, but it will exude an aura of love that you can’t take your eyes off of. You may scrape it but it will not be chipped. You may put it in your pocket but it will not be contained. You may try to walk away but it will not give you peace. This is the precious, the thing worth selling everything else for. Do not be afraid.

I am talking to myself, you know, and perhaps next time I will have the courage to get more personal with the pearl. But this is a start.

Friday, November 17, 2006

what are U looking at?

I workout to an exercise DVD 3 times a week. I have been doing this for several years now, and though I occasionally change the DVD, most times it is the kick-boxing workout that I follow, and after watching it umpteen times, I can predict every move and every word that comes from every person. There are 3 females on the DVD; one is the instructor, one is the faithful side-kick and fellow personal trainer who has been with her for years, and the third is the new gal. After a few months of following the DVD and getting the moves down, I found myself watching the new gal a lot, because she was the one that often stood out - the one making the mistakes and falling behind and needing the instructor to help her out. I began to notice every time she hesitated, every time she faltered, or moved to the left instead of the right, or did not lift her hand quite as high as the rest - mostly because it gave me something to focus my mind on and avoid boredom as the whole thing was getting predictable by this point. After awhile, I also saw that her boxing technique was sadly lacking - a lot of her moves were stiff and her arms sometimes unnaturally flailed about like some drowning man with too-short limbs. Well, she really isn’t that bad, but the more you watch something, the more those tiny mistakes stick out.

Wednesday morning while watching the unfortunate girl once again struggle occasionally to keep up with two pros, and somewhat gloating that my moves were now better than hers, I heard a loud and somewhat chiding voice in my head say, “What are you looking at? Keep your eyes on the right way, not the wrong way.“ Oh oh. There was my judgemental and critical attitude flaring up again when I wasn’t looking. My bad. Yes, I admit it, I do tend to pick up on mistakes and point out the errors that people make, even if only in my head. I don‘t know why, but the inconsistencies just jump out at me and take my focus off all the good stuff going on right beside it and I know that is not a good outlook on life.

One of the rules for safe and defensive driving is that you always look at where you want to go, not at what you want to avoid, because you will naturally steer towards what you are looking at. So if an accident happens in front of you, or unexpected danger comes into your path, keep your eyes on a clear path around the problem instead of ogling the mayhem. I KNOW that it is better to keep your focus on the RIGHT things instead of the WRONG things because we eventually go towards that which we focus on, but it is something I must continually work at.

Yesterday, on the way home from dinner with a friend downtown, we were listening to the radio and someone who administers lie detector tests was being interviewed (www.jacktrimarco.com). I was most impressed with the man’s integrity and respect for the truth. He was quick to point out the limitations of what he does (polygraphs done by experts are usually 90% accurate, and can only measure what people BELIEVE to be true, not actual truth), but the thing that impressed me most about him was one situation he mentioned. A few times a week he will have a distraught young woman come to him wanting him to test her husband or boyfriend because she thinks he is cheating on her. He usually answers the person with something like, “What will the results do for you? You already do not trust him, so if he fails, you will only strengthen this belief that he is untrustworthy. If he passes, you might perhaps celebrate the outcome but it won’t be long until you probably see something else you don’t trust in him. Do you want to come back here every time something suspicious comes up? I think you would be better spending the money on marriage/couple counselling than a lie detector test.”

I believe the trait that makes this man, Jack Trimarco, one of the best in his field (he used to work with the FBI), is that even after a lifetime of encountering liars and dishonest people, he still maintains an unshakeable belief, respect, and admiration for the truth. His standard is unwavering and he will not stoop to even seemingly harmless common sales techniques in order to sell his services when he feels they are not useful or necessary - that would be dishonest on his part. How knows what the truth looks like and therefore, can easily point out the disguises untruth might take on, however slight the change might be.

I want such a familiarity with truth and purity that anything else is two-dimensional in comparison. Every time I see imperfection and unrighteousness, let it reaffirm my love for the truth and drive me to refocus on what is right and good. Let me be constantly looking at my goal of the upward calling of Jesus, so much so that it gets deep into my subconscious, and even when I am not thinking about it, this being pointed in the right direction becomes my detente and natural position.

“Summing it all up, friends, I'd say you'll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.” Philippians 4:8-9 The Message

Friday, November 10, 2006

detemined choices #$&^Q(#&$)(*&$

I have just finished painting the first coat on the walls of my newly renovated bathroom. I can be pretty indecisive at times and I am trying to work on that, so it was no surprise that right after I bought the paint colour that Dean and I had agreed on, I had second thoughts and almost went right back to the store and bought another colour just as a back-up. I have been living with my indecisiveness for many years and know it as part of the fear and paranoia I am trying to rid my life of, so I ignored the familiar urge to re-think the decision and instead, went home and spread the paint on the walls and am happy to report that it looks good and I have no regrets. A friend of mine says that making no decision is worse than making a bad decision - with a bad decision you can always learn from your mistake and in most cases, right things in some way, but in the case of indecision, you are paralyzed. Being faced with choices is something we all have to deal with and the better we get at making good choices in a timely manner and sticking with them, the better off we will be (I am preaching to myself here).

I have been discussing determinism and free will with someone this week and was pleasantly surprised to find out that I have made some good progress in the choice department. I will not let anyone tell me that my actions are caused by social influences and circumstances and that like a billiard table - once the play is set in motion, there is little we can do about it. I can’t even fathom why someone would WANT to believe that, for it removes the adventure of living - like participating in a game where the outcome is already set. What’s the point? I suppose there is some sort of fatalistic comfort in assuming that you are not totally responsible for your life, but I want none of that. I own every choice I make, good or bad. I have opportunities and setbacks thrust upon me and depending on how I choose to respond, both can be equally valuable in my becoming the person I want to be. I enjoy the roller coaster ride and would not trade some of my worst mistakes for anything mundane because in those low places I have often learned the most precious lessons.

The people I admire the most are those who have not let their circumstances dictate their state of mind or status in life - they have broken limitations and expectations; they have set their eyes on something larger than themselves; and they have never stopped trying and learning and living. Most of them have also made many mistakes along the road for they are never afraid to try something that seems like a good idea.

I guess what I am trying to say is that my deterministic friend will probably give up before he does his best work or stop short of love that conquers all obstacles for he does not have a basic trust that God is at work with a purpose higher than the one he can see. One must have hope, one must have faith, one must have love. That will make all the difference in my choices.

“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” - Thomas A. Edison

Friday, October 27, 2006

the feast of KINDNESS

I spoke about one of my favourite Bible stories almost 2 weeks ago at church: the one where Elisha defeats the raiding enemy people by hearing their ambush plans from God and after he has captured them, preparing a feast for his enemies instead of killing them (2 Kings 6 if you want to check it out). The bit about the servant’s eyes being opened to see the supernatural fleet of horses and chariots of fire that were God’s protection around them is really cool, but the part that struck me this time around in the story was the feast of kindness. Amidst all of the killing and conflict and rooting out of evil in the story of a nation of people trying to dwell in a sometimes wild and somewhat unconquered land, this unlikely act stands out in bold contrast.

This past week has been a bit of a tough one for me: all the activities and guests and medical appointments and paperwork deadlines and phone calls and travel plans and care-giving just seem to clump together sometimes and the last few days have been like that. I found myself getting a little tired and grouchy from the constant demands and expectations and even found myself listening to the ugly anger-demon at one point. Sigh. And during this most inconvenient of weeks when I was at a dangerously low level of generosity, God very clearly asked me to prepare a feast for one of my friends. After several days, I realised that if I didn’t make time to do it soon, I was going to procrastinate my way right into disobedience, so after another full day of activity and service, I drove to a drugstore that was open late at night and asked God to show me what would make a good feast. It was a fun and productive excursion and I came home with the beginnings of my feast. I added a few personal and handmade touches and completed the project just after midnight and delivered it the next day.

My world did not turn into a glorious glow of warm pinks and oranges radiating kindness and beauty after I had completed the task, in fact, I just got more tired and ungracious. And then God began to speak to me about another feast. I don’t live a very stressful life and most times set my own schedule and just go with what comes my way, but one of the things my fluid schedule has robbed me of (my own fault, I admit) is making time to feed my soul and body. I don’t mean taking a day off from all activity, though that is a very healthy and godly principle, but being able to live from a constant attitude of rest and fullness because I am constantly drawing life from an eternal source and at peace within myself. If I cannot come up with patience and kindness and mercy and gratitude and generosity and grace when I am feeling less than 100% and under pressure, then of what use is my faith? How am I different from the rest of this tired and cranky world who is always in need of more grace than it gets? Love and compassion that become thin after lack of sleep are no good to me. Patience that does not rise to the occasion in the most demanding situation just isn’t real patience.

I have used tiredness, lack of food and drink, my introverted personality, and an occasionally demanding schedule to excuse my sharp words, my cold heart, my lack of interest and unwillingness to serve, when the fact is, I have not pulled up to the feast that is God himself and despite that fact, have tried to pull a feast for others out of my own pantry which is sorely depleted many days. It is to be expected that I will have lack. Every person on this earth is born with lack, but the idea of being a follower of Jesus is not to simply reproduce his good works and kindness by imitation, but to eat of his flesh and drink of his blood and thereby BE life. When I partake of Jesus and offer some of this incarnation to others, it is a gift of an everlasting nature; it is not food that rots or a cheap, glittery trinket that looses its appeal all too quickly. I can give and give and give of this feast and my soul’s cupboards will never become barren, because I am not the supplier; I am simply another guest at the infinite table.

So this is an ongoing quest for me: to have the strength and fortitude and sensitivity to be a giver of love and life no matter what my natural state. Not to serve despite tiredness and busyness, but to radiate love because I am overwhelmed by the incredible brightness of being the apple of my lover’s eye and the constant object of his attention; to never leave the ocean of a love so deep and wide that all the days of my life will not be enough to explore every inch of it. I am loved totally and wholly at all times - how can I not be a lover 24/7?

"I can't see unless it's you there with a spark to keep me lighted up" - Gabriel Mann

Saturday, October 21, 2006

the bathroom lady comes over

I had an interesting experience a few weeks ago when I contacted a company to come out and give me a quote on installing a shower in my bathroom. The person on the phone called me to get directions to my house, which is totally understandable as I live next to nowhere. I explained all the twists and turn, starting with…when you get to a split in the road, keep to the left. The lady called me back fifteen minutes later, saying that she had turned right at the split as the way left just didn’t seem right to her and now she was lost. That was a bit odd, but I instructed her to turn around and take the appropriate exit and then told her which street to turn onto from there. She called back in ten minutes, at a crossroads, not sure what to do next. I explained which street she should be on and after telling me I had spelled it wrong which was why she could not find it, she seemed to be okay. Five minutes later, the phone rang again. She was getting annoyed at this point, calling my neighbourhood retarded and letting me know she was going in circles. I reiterated which turns to take and pointed out some landmarks she should be seeing. She said there were no such landmarks that she could see, so I tried another tactic and stayed on the phone as she drove. She panicked when she saw a cul-de-sac sign and was telling me this could not be right when I assured her that it was right and I would get her to my house. Finally, after nearly an hour, she arrived at my front door, flustered and irritated at the city planners and probably me as well. I tried to be gracious and told her all that mattered was that she was here now.

Things didn’t change much as we walked into the bathroom and I told her what I wanted done. Her first response was, “Why?“ Taken aback a bit, I explained what I was going after, the limited space we had, and how I envisioned the bathroom being used. She again asked, “Why would you do that?“ I could hardly believe what I was hearing, but I said I was open to suggestions. Without so much as checking the plumbing (I had opened up a back wall to let workmen see where everything was) or much of anything else, she proceeded to tell me what she would do instead and that any bathroom would cost $4500, in fact I could spend up to $100,000 if I wanted to! I asked when this work could be done and she reassured me they could find time before Christmas (within 3 months), which was not soon enough for me, but I kept listening. However, at the point that she misunderstood where I wanted the fixtures and I had to act it out for her to illustrate that putting the vanity in the corner the way she suggested would only leave 4 inches for anyone to stand in front of it…I had made my mind up that this woman would not be getting my business, despite the fine reputation of her company. I thanked her for her time and let her out. However, one idea she had suggested about configuring the room stuck with me as very viable and perhaps more aesthetically pleasing than my original plan. In the end, I decided to go the new plan inspired by the non-listening lady and together with a local contractor, finalised the design details.

My encounter with this woman had a real impact on me as it highlighted several important lessons I need to learn:

1. LISTEN. LISTEN. LISTEN. It was most frustrating being with someone who did not listen. I know sometimes I can get so stuck on my own agenda or way of thinking that I am not the best listener. Listening is how you build trust. I must learn to listen better and not always assume I know better.

2. Don’t dismiss something simply because of a negative or obnoxious presentation. So often there are riches concealed in less than desirable packages. In the midst of useless blather, there was a geniunely brilliant idea from this lady. Let me be someone who can look past the way something is offered, and recognise truth no what form it takes.

3. Being gracious is a good thing, but I did that lady no favours by not kindly pointing out that her lack of listening was not a very positive selling point for her company. I never gave her a chance to learn and improve, and that was wrong. She deserved to know this and to have it presented to her in an accessible, non-judgemental way. Simply avoiding the conflict was cowardice on my part. I must learn to tell the truth in love.

Bathrooms are a good place to listen and learn things.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

from the shower to the grave

After almost a year of thinking and planning and measuring and calling people and sighing over large sums of money and looking at all the models available and realising walls were in the less-than-ideal places and asking plumbing questions and overall indecision…we are getting our guest bathroom downstairs remodelled and a shower installed. I love having a house with space for visitors and friends, and one of the first things I had hoped to do after we bought this home was to install a shower in the second bathroom so that our guests wouldn’t have to traipse up 13 stairs to use the shower on the main floor. Instead, we ended up doing almost everything else first, for no other reason than every time I tried to make the shower thing happen, I hit some obstacle, until a week ago when everything just seemed to fall into place. Timing, it seems, is something you just can’t fight. But we do.

There is a natural ebb and flow to seasons and growth and rest and work and play, but our North American mindset too often sees big goals instead of slow and steady growth and tries to force its way into the desired end at an efficient and cost-effective pace. Growth hormones and chemical fertilisers and all sorts of unnatural processes are utilised in the growth and production of our everyday food supply in order to ensure larger, plumper, juicier, more consistent and generous portions along with long shelf-life, and we are finally starting to notice that this may have adverse long-term affects. Now, I am not an organic fanatic, but I do believe that ‘natural’ is the healthier way to go in every aspect of life. Fighting against the flow of something just seems to be a waste of energy in most cases. And that brings up the next thought…what exactly constitutes ‘natural‘? Because this world has been ravaged by evil and selfishness and the effects of millenia of sin and corruption and weeds, the ’natural’ or ’normal’ state of things is hard to recognise sometimes.

I have naturally wavy hair. To straighten it every morning with 30 minutes of hot air and awkward arm movements seems totally ridiculous to me. I am also short-sighted and need glasses or contacts (which I deem necessary and not ridiculous) in order to see anything clearly past 3 feet away. Both are natural, but the latter is not normal. Weeds and bugs that eat away at plants and kill them are also natural, but not normal. A lion killing a deer for food is natural and normal but not ultimately the way things should be. In the garden of Eden, there was no food chain - everyone ate from the fruit of the land without death for death is never the way things should be.

And I guess that is the way one can judge if something is healthy - does it involve death? At its core or over the long-term, is it killing me or helping me live? Though I am mostly a vegetarian, I have recently realised that meat is required for me to be healthier and have more stamina and strength. Death is not always the dead-end it seems to be (excuse the play on words). This strange mixture of death and life is often evident in this fallen and imperfect world where one catches glimpses of redemption sprinkled throughout. Redemption seems linked with death in the ways of God, yet there are totally evil ways to die and very right ways to die. A man sacrificing his life to avert a disaster and save many is a right way to die. A man throwing himself off a building in despair is a wrong way to die.

How did this go from installing a shower to the topic of death? Really, the two are related. Why do we take showers? The plain and extraordinary process of living produces dirt and old skin and sweat and oil. We need to slough off the old and decaying and dying in order to aid renewal and rejuvenation of the body and skin, plus it makes us smell better. Death smells bad and I don't want to smell bad.

This whole walk of faith is a process of day by day getting rid of the death in my life and embracing the things that bring life, of being a shower-builder and not a grave-digger, of smelling like life and not like death. I am all too aware of the death around me and point it out often and that makes me a negative person sometimes. I need to breathe deep the breath of God and become one who can sniff out the faintest whiff of life in the deepest heap of decay and dung. That would be the most natural and normal and right thing I could become.

Monday, October 02, 2006

TASTE & see

Oh taste and see that the Lord is good… Psalm 34:8

There is so much of God
to know
Experience
See
Hear
Taste
Touch
smell and feel
that he has invented a space and place called…eternity
so that we can begin to fathom
who this one we call FATHER is

He is a perpetual feast
a cornucopia of adventure
and mystery
beauty so rare and captivating
that in a lifetime of gazing
we will not be able to fully comprehend it

This wild
bigger than life GOD
asks us to come
taste
participate
grab hold of
and enjoy the very essence of himself -
It is not a polite sampling he invites us to
no dainty drawing room portions
but the reckless
throw-caution-to-the-wind
do not hold back
dig right in partaking
that a 2-year-old indulges in when presented with chocolate pudding
or honey
or watermelon.
The experience is smeared all over his face
and caught in his hair
his eyes shine with delight
and nothing else exists right then but the sweet stickiness of joy in his mouth.

Throw away the fork and knife of care and worry
and calculated rations.
This feast has no end
the table is never empty
and the invitation is always open.

So…
is there a gnawing hunger in the pit of your belly
for something
not tinged with disappointment and bitterness?
Does your throat ache for a cool, refreshing wetness
that carries life and rejuvenation in its very molecules?

Taste and see that the Lord is good…
What are you waiting for?

(the above is a little something I wrote awhile back but just found again and enjoyed!)

Thursday, September 28, 2006

ankles and serpents

Watering lawns can be hazardous to your health - just ask my husband. He fell off our budding new grass this week and broke his ankle. Strange as that may seem, it is true. Other contributing factors were darkness, uneven terrain, a 3-foot embankment of soggy clay, and khaki pants (they attract incidents involving dirt and mud).

Being the strong and easy-going guy that he is, he joked through most of the afternoon that we spent at the clinic and emergency room, spoke encouragingly to the resident that attended him, and gave the nurse a teasing hard time when she demanded he use a wheelchair. I cannot complain about his positive attitude towards this mishap and his calmness in the midst of it all. Nevertheless, after a long day at the hospital followed by a long evening when I tried to catch up with all my work and homework while tending to his few needs…I found myself in a complaining and whining state of mind. I felt bad that instead of supporting and caring for and nurturing the wounded one, I was irritable and terse and negative, even though I was not the one in pain! How selfish of me! Other contributing factors were lack of sleep and adequate food, plus the draining experience of being an empathetic person surrounded by people in pain for 5 hours. I was overwhelmed by all the stuff that had been thrust on me and found myself wanting to be cared for instead of doing the caring. I went to bed knowing that my outlook and ability to cope would probably be better after some sleep.

I was still quite tired and un-cheery this morning, so as I drove to school in the autumn sunshine, I offered the day and my attitude to God. BAM! In a flash I saw the ugliness of my heart once again: I resented having to change my little world in order to serve someone else. Agh! I thought I had already repented of this ugly controlling desire, but alas, it is the sin that trips us all up, the original biggie, the one that dealt the deathblow to mankind, the one even an angel could not resist falling into, the one I will battle all my life as it seeks to reassert its ugly serpentine head over and over again. This morning I said, “NO!” to it once again and though the fatigue did not subside, the miserable attitude did and I gained a more rational perspective on things once again.

I was discussing something on a forum with a Muslim this week and I asked him the question, “What makes one a Muslim?” He responded that at its very core, the term refers to one who submits to God. I asked if this also applied to Christians and he said that in general, Muslims believe that Christians today are perverse and have strayed from the original teachings of Jesus, at least according to an Islamic perspective. I was strangely convicted by this, for I do not know if someone who encounters me would readily say, “Ah, yes, this is a person who submits to God.” Submission is not my middle name; no, rugged independence seems more apt for a pioneer, an artist, a free spirit, a creative thinker and mystic. But love is one that submits itself for the sake of another; it can be assertive, but never for its own good. It is not demanding or pouty or slighted or irritable or whining. It does not take or demand attention for itself.

Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first,“ doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end. Love never dies. (From 1 Corinthians 13, The Message)

So for the sake of love...I submit.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

the lawn...part 2

The lawn on our property was finally planted on Monday - five days later than planned due to non-favourable weather conditions, but there was nothing we could do about that and I assured my landscaper that I wasn't worried about a slight delay. Monday turned out to be a perfect day for the job and we finished ahead of schedule. After 6.5 hours of labour, I let out a big sigh of relief as I surveyed the perfect black soil evenly spread and compacted to safely house its precious seeds. It rained the next day and that made my lawn and me very happy. Yesterday, however, the predicted rain never really materialised and I knew watering would have to commence. This was easier said than done.

I live in a town with very strict regulations regarding lawn care and the like. No pesticides, herbicides, or chemicals are allowed and water usage is kept down to a minimum. Last week I purchased the necessary permit from the town hall to water new vegetation and was somewhat shocked to find that I was only allowed to water my lawn from 9 pm to midnight for the 15 consecutive days the permit covered. My lawn-to-be is over 6500 square feet and I complained to the man who issued the permit that I doubted whether I could adequately water my yard in the allotted 3-hour time slot. He shrugged and suggested using 2 hoses. Obviously, he felt it was my problem and not his.

The problem with the 9 to 12 timeframe is that at least 2 to 3 times a week I have meetings to attend in the evenings and do not get home till 11 pm. Of greater consequence, I discovered last night, is the fact that it is DARK at that time! My husband and I returned from a meeting downtown last night around 11 pm. We immediately dragged out the hoses and set them up, one in the front yard and one in the back. After realising the settings on the sprinklers were wrong (it is really hard to read anything in the dim light of a single bulb on the deck 20 feet away), and the water pressure not adequate to run both at full spray, we adjusted and fiddled and finally got somewhat of a system going to move the sprinklers at 15 minute intervals and cover most of the pregnant earth with at least some measure of moisture. We also managed to muddy 2 pairs of pants and 4 shoes, implant deep footprints in the previously unmarred soil, get the neighbours’ house and half of the deck wet, and utter an unsanctified word or two.

I have a whole new appreciation for rain. Water and sun and heat in the right proportions will make my lawn grow. Rain means that my day will not have to include 3 hours of muddy, cold, and fumbling-in-the-dark watering that interrupts the evening’s activity every 15 minutes, and as I see the ever-increasing marks of hoses and feet criss-crossing the previously smooth ground, it also makes me wonder if I am doing more damage than good. Since God’s method of watering is far superior to man’s in evenness, coverage, no time limit, and efficiency without wear and tear on the ground, I pray for rain daily. I got ecstatic this morning when I heard that the weekend is looking less than sunny and clear.

I admit that the sigh of relief at seeing the seed in the ground on Monday afternoon was premature. The birth of anything new is exciting and it always feel like a major milestone has been reached, but we all too easily forget that the bulk of the work in bringing it to maturity is ahead and will include late nights, a lot of effort, a good amount of mess, and times of frustration when we reach our limits and seem to be making very little progress.

In the end, the growth is up to God. One plants, one waters, one nurtures, but God brings the multiplication.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

fascination

Yesterday, a young gunman entered a downtown college here in Montreal and opened fire, killing one person and injuring 19 others. Montreal police were on-site immediately and thanks to their courageous and timely intervention, the 25-year-old killer was neutralised in relatively short fashion (he died in a confrontation with the police).

I am hesitant to even write anything on the topic because I have been so inundated with non-stop talk and news about this shooting in the past 24 hours that part of me cringes every time the gruesome details are replayed or more updates and theories and personal anecdotes are presented. It is not that I am squeamish, though I do think of myself as a fairly compassionate person, but through all the attention this event is getting, the focus seems somewhat off-kilter and unhealthy in some way.

This morning during a break in my French class, I was wandering the halls of the Adult Learning Centre I attend (all students are 16 and older) and happened to pass through a group of teenage guys grouped together by some lockers who were obviously talking about yesterday’s tragedy. One of the guys said, “Man, I wish I had been there. Not that I got hurt or anything, but I got to see it.” Ah, yes. There it was again.

We as human beings are fascinated by aberrations, be it some sick evil deed, or a malformed person, or destruction and death by bizarre means (as the Darwin Awards popularise), or hideous diseases and accidents, or dangerous and psychotic behaviour, or serial killers, or genius criminal minds, or the unfortunate kid with a limp in ones class. Normalcy is boring to most of us, and good has little power to intrigue us. Any movie or television show depends on captivating drama, usually portrayed as a conflict between some form of good and evil, its flawed characters in tension, and most times engaged in some violence or extreme behaviour. This is what people will come to see. This is what we are drawn to.

In discussions around me today, the theories were abundant about the role that violent video games and heavy metal music played in this alleged young murderer’s demise. Personally, though I acknowledge that these are not always the best use of one’s time, I don’t believe that in themselves they carry any inherent power to corrupt a mind or soul. Playing violent video games will not make you an assassin any more than listening to the Bible all day will make you godly. We do have control over our thought patterns and our actions, though how often we exercise it wisely is another matter altogether.

However, the things that we are fascinated by, those are the things that we will begin to become like, and I fear in this day and age, very few are fascinated by the concept of goodness. I suppose it is a lack of seeing truth and love and justice and mercy and honour portrayed in their full glory that makes us see most good characters as rather one-dimensional. Is God (the definition of good) one-dimensional, boring, predictable, or even safe? Hardly. When I was involved in theatre, it was commonly accepted that an evil character was more interesting to portray than a good one, and I can attest to the truth of that from experience, but I don’t think the lack is in the concept of goodness itself; I believe the lack is in our understanding of it and thereby, our ability to adequately portray it. Evil has a flashy stage show, so we turn aside to watch, but it has no core, no real depth to it and it always ends in self-destruction. Truth may seem simple at a first glance, but its multi-faceted beauty must be explored and pursued to be truly known; it does not need to titillate or entice – it just is.

And so I grow tired of listening to the account of yet another angle of the rampage, for it does not fascinate me. I do not visit the troubled man’s blog to find out all about his deranged mind. Instead, the story (at least for me) is about the police officers who confronted the gunman without hesitation and risked their own lives to cut his deadly plan short. The story is about one student who, with a trembling voice, urged all his fellow classmates to be brave and go back to school and not give in to fear because going on with life and pursuing their education was the right thing to do. He was determined that the actions of one man who wanted to instil fear and disrupt society would not have him as a victim by taking his freedom and peace of mind.

Notoriety and infamy are over-rated and I mean to undermine them. I fondly remember August 31 not as the day Princess Diana was killed, but as the anniversary of the day I was married to a wonderful man. You cannot take that date away from me nor change its meaning. September 11 will always be the day I was overwhelmed by the love of God in a powerful way on the train on my way to work – not the day some terrorists had their way. September 13 will always be the date Eden was born, a bit of a miracle child for two good friends, not the day a crazy man walked into Dawson College with a gun.

These good and precious things are what truly fascinate me and will be what ruminate in my mind and soul today and over time. As my young student hero said…it is the right thing to do.

"I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” - Martin Luther King Jr.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

the LAWN

On September 13, I will be getting a lawn. We have lived for almost a year in a modest but beautiful home surrounded by crushed rock, weeds, sand and dirt. I spent a lot of my summer putting in flower beds and painting the deck and improving the yard as best I could, but in the end, weeds and rocks are still rocks and weeds and even the prettiest flowers look a bit sad against a backdrop of prickly, spindly thistles, misplaced rocks, and rain-pocked sand.

I started getting quotes for installing a lawn early in the spring. The first two quotes I received were enough to send threatening quivers of impending extinction through my bank account and I quickly moved on to other, less expensive projects (flowers starting at $4.99), but as August drew to a close, I knew we had to tackle the issue again, for I was determined to have a lawn before the frost of a Canadian autumn hit the ground. So I asked God to provide me with a nice lawn at a reasonable price and to point me in the direction of the right landscapers who were knowledgeable and honest and could help me accomplish this end. And then I started making phone calls.

I hate calling strangers – just shy, I guess, especially when so many of the people I contacted did not speak English very well and I am still struggling to speak basic French, not to mention having to wrestle with landscaping vocabulary which we don’t seem to spend a lot of time on in my French class. Nevertheless, I am tenacious and I called company after company and requested a quote for a lawn. Some never called me back. Some promised to make a trip out to my house but never did. Some came to my house while I was away and called me from my front yard with a quote. Some made an appointment and never showed up. One man got frustrated with my poor French and just hung up on me. Sorry, sir. I finally got the quotes down to what I thought was reasonable (more than a thousand dollars less than the original price I received in Spring) and showed the two choices to my husband. I was comfortable with both companies, though I slightly favoured the tall, dark, English-speaking gentleman with 'Bachelor of Agriculture' printed on his business card.

After twenty years of marriage, I should have known better than to expect easy acquiescence from my husband. He negotiates deals for a living and juggles tight budgets all day long. Basically, everything is always too much money, and in typical Dean fashion, he said, "That’s better, but let’s try to knock off another two to three hundred dollars." What? How was I supposed to do that? I had two quotes at exactly the same price from reputable, local landscaping companies and I was running out of time! Within two weeks, the window of warmth for seeding a lawn would be closed. How did he propose that I just “knock off another few hundred dollars?” Sigh. Well, back to God with my request to make it all possible within our budget and time restraints. This was becoming a daily prayer by this time. I picked up the weekly paper as was my habit and scanned the ads. This time I saw one for a local landscaper that I had not seen before, so I called him and he offered to come out that evening.

He showed up an hour early and his mannerisms reminded me of my charismatic friend from Lebanon – Pat included me in his personal space (touching my elbow when he addressed me directly), talked about his experiences with other customers, and overall, treated me more like a new-found friend than a possible client. He spoke English very well (except that he muttered to himself in French which I found endearing), invited me to measure the yard with him (all other landscapers had kept a certain professional distance with minimum conversation and personal contact), and made a point of finding out exactly what I wanted, what was important to me, and what kind of person I was. I mentioned my limited budget and he immediately tried to accommodate me by offering different options. One of them was asking if I was willing to work with him and his wife on installing my lawn and deducting my hours from the price. Heck, yeah! This is exactly the type of situation I was looking for – someone whom I could work with and learn from and was interested in team work. He said he would call me the next day with a price.

I was hopeful, but not too hopeful. The situation sounded too good to be true and in the end, I feared that his price would reflect the high value I was putting on his abundance of advice, remarkable flexibility, and desire to make me a happy and long-term customer. He called me at 8 am the next morning and gave me the breakdown of costs and all the options. I was still not quite awake so I said, "What does that all add up to?" We tallied everything together and the figure so surprised me with its reasonableness, being four hundred dollars less than the limit my husband had set, that without even consulting my budget-savvy mate, I told the guy on the phone, "Let’s go ahead." We made an appointment for early on September 13 and Pat said, “It will be fun – we’ll work and talk while we do it and have lunch together and at the end of 8 hours, you will have a lawn in the ground.”

I am looking forward to it. A day of hard work, people to share it with, an investment of time and labour and money in good proportion, and a sense of satisfaction at seeing a major project well-started (it will need re-seeding and maintenance next year as well, which is fine by me).

Life lesson: In the landscape of my life, there are many major projects that need to be done, and I have discovered that I love it when God asks me to be a part of his green team, to work with him, to learn from him, to develop skills in pulling weeds in my life, improving the soil of my soul, and growing good things that last. You can ask God to do it all for you while you sit back and watch, but I don’t see that as his modus operandi most times (just look at the story of the Israelites taking over the promised land and all the work He left for them to do in order to make it their home). He loves to work together, to chat and laugh and develop friendship while we do it, to teach me things he knows, to share food and drink, and at the end of the day, to rest and enjoy the progress. Sounds kind of like how things might have been in the Garden of Eden. I like that, and so I christen my work-in-progress yard…Eden.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

why are you angry all the time?

This question came from a friend of mine this week and I thought it was a tongue-in-cheek, ridiculous observation designed to annoy and provoke me and therefore, merited nothing more than a laugh. So I went ahead and laughed and then, not wanting to be rude, asked them…are you serious? Well, yes, they were. So I stopped and thought for a moment. Truly, I don’t see myself as an angry person, and was feeling no animosity towards anyone at the moment so I wondered where this comment was coming from? What signals was I giving off that made it appear that I was angry? I have made it a point to be open with my emotions (too much so at times, but I am working on that) and often react spontaneously to situations instead of thinking things through and as a result sometimes inappropriately blurt out the first thing that comes to mind (working on that as well) and tend to be reactionary instead of initiating and deliberate and visionary (yes, yes, I know…I need to work on that too).

Sigh. In the long run, I do suppose I am often annoyed (however briefly) and show some displeasure (at whatever situation) to those around me whom I feel free to be spontaneous and unguarded with (yes, I KNOW, never end a sentence with a preposition…argh…adding that to my list of things to work on!). And that’s not fair. The people whom I hang around with on a regular basis should not always be the ones experiencing the majority of the frustration I feel in my life. I am thankful that they are generally so forgiving, but not thankful enough, I know. I was quite convicted of the lack of overall thankfulness in my life a few weeks ago, and I guess this question reminded me that I must make a conscious effort to change the negative patterns and reactions in my life. This negativity is a path I choose to go down, and I know I can just as readily choose another, more positive way. Habits can be changed with a little bit of effort and lots of practise.

On a recent road trip with friends, we played an interesting game in the car. We were talking about telling the truth in love and I came up with the idea of practising on each other. What was I thinking??? So each person picked someone in the car and told them one thing they admired about them, and one thing they thought could use a little improvement. Sounds harmless enough between good friends, but it was challenging as we all suddenly felt very vulnerable. Not to worry, as everyone was kind and gentle, yet truthful, and that made it all the more poignant and profound. An off-hand remark or insult can easily be brushed aside, but a trusted friend graciously telling you that you take things too personally – well, that just cut deep into me because it was true, and because it was done in a loving way. Yes, I too often take offense where none is intended. I assume things are directed at me or about me when they are not. I let things affect me out of proportion to what the situation merits. And right about now as I write this I am starting to feel a bit of despair at my incredible immaturity and self-absorption.

Well, isn’t that the way it always is. Just when you feel you have things under control in your life and stuff is going well and you know you are a pretty fine and decent and wise person and people love you for it…well, the truth comes and slaps you in the face and the best thing you can do is hit the floor and repent and cry out to God for grace and mercy and ask your friends for more of the same because truly, I am only able to produce filthy rags that like to parade as righteousness.

I must stop trying to find excuses for those idiosyncrasies that really are at odds with the way Jesus does things and let him be those things I cannot. His life, not mine.

Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you merci merci merci merci merci merci merci merci merci thank you thank you...just practising my new habit.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

l-u-x-u-r-y

What is luxury? I had an email from a British friend who, after heightened security measures came into effect in England recently, considered it a luxury to be allowed to bring a book onto a plane. It is strange how the idea of luxury changes with ones circumstances. When I was growing up, a television and a dishwasher were luxury items. Now I have more tv’s than residents in my house and a dishwasher is not a negotiable item if you talk to my husband (insert smiley face).

Three meals a day are considered luxury in many parts of the world, yet to many of us in countries like Canada, a day without a chocolate bar or a trip to Tim Hortons or Starbucks is cause for feeling deprived. Over time, the commonness of things seems to make them less of a luxury item and the inverse is true as well: handwritten letters have become more of a luxury and email a necessity. Cars are a vital part of our lives and a long walk is luxury. Hand-made items are more valuable than mass-produced goods (it used to be that hand-made goods meant you could not afford store-bought items). Sleeping in a tent and cooking over a fire are considered leisure activities while a master bedroom with an ensuite bathroom virtually mandatory for a middle class family.

So this made me start thinking about what I consider luxury in my life and what its place is. Is extravagance ever a good thing in my life? The short answer is yes, I believe we all need extravagance in our lives – love is the best extravagance of all, and no one can have too much of that. The problem is, we have often confused luxury with material possessions. Extravagant living is not at all about what you have – it is about how much enjoyment you get out of things. Here is a little list I made. Perhaps you want to make your own.

Matte’s luxuries (things that make me feel rich, but I can do without if I have to)
1. an ice cream cone from Dairy Queen
2. handmade kettle corn from a street vendor
3. reading a book in the sunshine
4. a phone call from faraway friends
5. a walk in the woods
6. going out for a meal with people I like
7. people praying for me and not stopping after 5 minutes
8. Kate’s popcorn with real butter
9. my mom’s little blueberry pastries
10. someone telling me they love me every day
11. having someone to whom I can say “I love you” every day
12. seeing the ocean
13. driving through mountains
14. sleeping till I am not tired anymore
15. learning something new
16. photographs of good memories
17. playing music
18. the touch of someone dear to me
19. being generous
20. being healthy

Have a luxurious day…

Thursday, August 10, 2006

precisely

I occasionally participate in a discussion forum online and one of the threads I frequent is the one on religion. I have noticed a trend among many of the participants that is rather disturbing to me: they base their assumptions on the viewpoint that science as we know it today is the ultimate gauge of truth and precision is its essence.

While I agree that science and precision are definitely included within the spectrum of truth, I do believe it is a rather small worldview to parade facts as equal to truth. Truth is so much larger than accuracy. While you can freely discuss music and movies and relationships and art and even politics on this forum with emotion and a certain amount of ambiguity (i.e. admitting you only know a part), once you enter the realm of religion, it seems that to a majority of participants, everything must be scientifically proven and free from any hint of wonder or uncertainty or mystery and even reliable ancient Hebrew and Greek texts are not sufficient to substantiate anything since they are not scientific documents and therefore, obviously biased.

I just want to know…when did religion become a science? A course of study you take alongside calculus and chemistry? Why can there be only one answer for every question? What happened to the exploration of ideas, the mystery of profundity, the beauty of words and images, and the fluid development of relationship?

These well-read and informed and intelligent people that offer their opinions online often accuse religious people of being ignorant and intolerant, yet they are some of the most closed-minded and biased people I have ever encountered. I want to have a meaningful discussion with them, but most of the time our worlds and values seem too far apart to even find a common language and all too often, anger and degrading words enter into the picture and then I am truly sad that I have not been able to understand and be understood.

This past week we were at a gathering of Vineyard Churches in the East Coast and what struck me in many of the meetings and talks and encounters was a conviction that how I deal with those “other” than me, those I do not easily identify with, is an important test of how strong and healthy and loving and real my faith is. And I am not sure I pass this test at all. My compassion seems low for those who treat me with disdain. Understanding is something I would admittedly rather not bother with when I encounter a person who repeatedly does things to make myself and others cringe. Love is easier when I don’t have to work side by side with an abrasive personality. Faith is safer in an anonymous setting.

The challenge for me has always been to be a real Christian in a real world – not a religious caricature, but a living, breathing, human being with strengths and weaknesses, thoughts and emotions, good days and bad, struggling to get my motivations right more than wrong and my compassion larger instead of smaller. I do not hope to live my life with precision, but with love. I do not aspire to answer every life-question correctly and completely but in the process of life-long learning, to always enjoy the mystery and wonder of the gift of living. My desire is to be a great friend and lover, not a noted scientist.

And how does all of this apply to online forums? I guess that is what i have to learn.

Friday, July 28, 2006

2 kind of related things: feasts and counting

1. Tomorrow we leave on vacation for a week. As I write this, the last of the laundry is drying, clothes are laid out on the bed (as are the cats), the air mattress has been patched and packed, the list of supplies is ready and waiting for me to go shopping, and directions and reservations have been made and confirmed and communicated. Oh, and 8 other people are joining us on this road trip to the East Coast to participate in the National Gathering of the Vineyard church.

There are times to rest and enjoy solitude, there are times to rejuvenate ties with ones spouse/family, and there are times to celebrate and refresh your spirit and soul with feasting and partying and communing within the context of a large group of people who are similar in their love for God but very different in their expression of it. You read a lot about these types of feasts in the Old Testament and personally, I think we could use more of them in our community of faith. We tend to be too preoccupied with getting things done in our Western society and the pattern God originally laid out for his people was to stop often in the day and the week and the calendar year to celebrate and remember his goodness and faithfulness - alone and together with others.

2. Two days ago a friend of mine asked me, "How often does God speak to you in a day?" I had never been asked this question before and somewhat at a loss, I was not quick with an answer. She continued, "Between 2 and 10 times, on average, would you say?" Arghh...I really had no idea. I finally came back with, "As often as I stop and listen, yeah between 2 and 10 sounds right." I don't feel it was an adequate response.

First of all, it seemed strange to be trying to quantify communication with someone, especially the creator of the universe, but I understood where she was coming from; she just wanted to know what this communion with God looked like in someone else's life. If you asked me how often I talked to one of my friends, I could answer that quite easily, because one can count phone calls, emails, and msn conversations. But if you ask me how often I talk to Dean in one day...well, how do you define that when you live together? Your lives are intricately intertwined and there is no definite stopping and starting to your communication and togetherness. Some days are more silent than others, but that does not mean your thoughts are not on them or you are not actively seeking to make their life better or encourage them in some way or just let them know you like them. I hope that my communion with God is much like that - we live together so he is always present and affecting my world, whether it is an 'out loud' moment or not, whether it is visible or invisible.

Secondly, I do believe that it is my responsibility to take the time to listen, to do my share of communicating, to sit down and initiate the conversation, and to be available. Some more pertinent questions might be...How often do I talk to God? How often do I listen for him? And how often do I wait for his response instead of moving ahead with my plans?

Pray without ceasing.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Legit or not?

My computer died this week. Let us take a moment of silence to remember its overall faithful and productive service, and even though its last month was fraught with difficulties and illness, I speak no curse words against it. It was simply finished. Sigh.

Today I have been wondering what the difference is between an excuse and a legitimate reason or cause. Is anything that stands in the way of accomplishing something good and honourable an excuse? Should you always find a way to overcome whatever obstacles there are? My computer was ill and I spent days trying to nurse it back to health all to no avail, but really, I could have made time last week to write something on this blog - we have a work computer I can access (and I am doing so right now) so was the computer acting up an excuse for not writing, or a legitimate reason? As I have been mulling this over today, this is what I have come up with. Feel free to add your insights if you like.

1. Priorities: I guess it comes down to this in many ways. Today I have an upcoming trip to organise, laundry to do, cleaning to finish, emails to answer, plants to water, yardwork waiting for me, some office admin stuff, cats that need a nail trim BADLY, and preparations to complete for guests coming tonight. But I decided that I would start the day by doing my workout (it keeps me healthy and gives me stamina), reading my Bible (I always need God's perspective on things), taking a walk to get the mail (this is also my 'talk to God' time), and writing something here before I tackled all those other "must get to" tasks. I am trying to develop habits that over the long term will produce good things in my life. Some days I get it right...other times I don't and perhaps feel that I need to respond to a certain pressure to look like I have accomplished something short-term or made some tangible or monetary difference. Things tangible and monetary should be the by-products of a fruitful life, but in my opinion, are not worth putting in my immediate priority list.

2. Comfort: This is in direct opposition to faith, I think, and I have a lot to learn in this area. Too often I am passive and do not exert concerted and extravagant effort into overcoming obstacles. I am a whiz at being able to take circumstances and make do with whatever comes my way without much frustration whatever, and that is a good quality trait - being extremely adaptable and quick to use whatever is at hand. But I lack the drive and ambition that entrepreneurs and great leaders have. Am I making an excuse by saying...I am just not built that way? Or do I lack discipline and drive to see something through to the end no matter what comes my way? In reality, I think I lack the ability to know the difference between what is worth pursuing with that type of intensity and what is not. Plus, I will admit I do not have certain confidence to believe that my goals are worth pursuing with that kind of energy.

3. Pride: I hate to be wrong and thought of as stupid and a failure and not likeable and I hate being disappointed and waiting for something that never happens and making promises that I don't know if I can keep and I don't like something that requires all of me - I like to keep a little for myself; I like to be secure and safe and successful and warm and certain that I will have enough to eat today and I hate feeling hungry and empty and tired and sick and unimportant and unnecessary and I hate being ignored more than anything else because I like attention and being loved.

Those are my excuses and today I will try to live by faith instead of these weak props. As I have said to others before and my friend reminded me again today...we are responsible for our own maturity and growth. What is keeping me from progressing today? I must cut it out of my life without mercy.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

inside my head and heart

It has been way too long since I wrote something. Trips and visitors and feeling like I had nothing to say have kept me away from this blog. Actually, I did sit down one night, attempted to write something, came up with a few paragraphs of absolute drivel, turned off the computer and walked away. Probably just as well - I have not been in a stellar state of mind.

These past few weeks have been an interesting period for me - while a lot of cool things were happening on the surface, beneath the skin of everyday life there was a cold-blooded sickness trying to make a home in my soul. I have never battled with depression or mental illness, but in the last little while, I felt like I could better understand how someone could fall prey to an unruly mind. My thoughts were barraged by scenario after scenario of every insecurity of mine being played out to its logical and disastrous conclusion. Before I could get a grip on my thoughts and say...wait a minute, this is ridiculous...they were off and running again and had written another chapter in the book of how my world was turning against me.

One of my insecurities is being alone and unloved and unwanted. Aside from the odd pang of discomfort or loneliness, it does not bother me much because I know the truth is that I am loved and I am ultimately not alone. However, those facts were hard to remember a few weeks ago when a tornado of negative and disturbing thoughts unexpectedly started whipping through my mind and I was caught unprepared for the onslaught. It was amazing how one look from a friend or the silence of the phone could be turned into a betrayal of epic proportions dramatized scene by painful scene in my always active but usually well-behaved imagination. The truth was somewhere in an internal cranial crevice, but I had a difficult time accessing it and day after day became a muddle of just trying to get through my tasks without descending into despair. I yelled at my brain, "Stop it!" I hit myself on the head hoping to jar it out of its delinquent behaviour (lightly, never fear), I prayed a sentence and tried to pray more but even found that difficult to do as my mind would not focus on anything but this hopeless inward dramatic tragedy for any length of time. And it was beginning to show on the outside.

Somewhere in my innermost being I knew this was a test, a battle I must win, a lesson to learn, a strength to develop - controlling my mind - but how does one do that? In the end, two friends prayed for me, infused loads and loads of hope and truth into my soul and over the course of an evening, the majority of the mind games left. The next few days, I still felt an uneasiness lurking around the edges of my thoughts and I knew I would have to take care of this last bit myself - that was my part, to keep the tornado from coming back through the swath it had already cleared. It is said that once your mind begins to think in a certain way, new neural pathways are forged and then it becomes a habit and a way of life that is incredibly difficult to break. There was no way I was allowing that to happen, so I made an effort to deal with these tendencies and weaknesses at the root.

1. I am lonely because I centre my world around people instead of around God. This sets me up for disappointment because people will always fail me at some point - they cannot be with me 24 hours a day and they cannot fill my insatiable desire for love and attention. My well-being must ultimately depend on God's faithfulness and presence, not those of others, and in order for my mind to accept this and operate from that standpoint, I must know it and believe it totally at the core of my being. I must give myself to this truth, sit down on it as if it were a solid chair, float on its liquid purity and trust that it will buoy me up, sleep with it wrapped around me knowing that nothing can harm me while I let my guard down.

2. I have dampened these cravings for closeness and intimate friendship because to do otherwise is too scary and after all, one must adhere to society's acceptable levels of affection, it is only wise. One need only read some stories about Jesus and King David to see examples of society's mores being smashed in the arena of seemingly inappropriate affection. In fact, I believe this whole episode I have gone through has been a sort of awakening of a long-asleep passion, a strong desire to give myself totally in an intimate way and in turn, to be wholly taken. A few days ago I listened to someone talk about God's heart for us as graphically described in Song of Solomon. Yes, it rings very true to me now. This strong sense of longing to be with someone is God asking me to allow him to be the friend that I have always wanted, the lover who never leaves, the intimate companion who never tires of my company, who knows all about me but waits for me to reveal more of myself to him, who never ceases to give himself to me, who sometimes waits to be pursued, but will always be found by those who search. The desire has been awakened, I cannot go back now.

I am my beloved's. I belong to him. I am not alone.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

lesson from a funeral

I am currently in Winkler, Manitoba (the centre of the universe, my husband would say) for a family visit. I flew out to play at my niece's wedding and one of the first things I did was attend a small family funeral service for my uncle who had just passed away.

Now, you should know that I HATE funerals and have not been to one since my father's in 1983. But in Winkler you are expected to attend the funeral of anyone you know, and there was no way I could gracefully bow out of this one. I did want to see my aunt and let her know she was in my prayers and thoughts, so I decided I could probably handle the small family gathering the day before the funeral and then it would be okay to skip the more formal public funeral the next day. I borrowed some funeral clothes (I had not brought anything sombre enough - a black strappy sundress was voted as unacceptable by my family) and let my mother drive me to the funeral home. We visited with some relatives outside for a bit because my mom had insisted on doing the culturally acceptable thing and being way too early, but finally the time came to go inside and view the body and as we opened the door and I smelled that funeral home smell, I took a deep breath, bolstered my internal fortitude, and said a quick prayer for grace.

The evening turned out to be a pleasant surprise. The bittersweet mix of tears and laughter, smiles and sadness, and conservative stoicism and people showing genuine affection (often rare in Mennonite circles) was an atmosphere that touched me quite profoundly. The awkwardness that I have always felt around death seemed to have been lost somewhere along the way as I have walked with Jesus these past 23 years and I suffered from no lingering, haunting images.

Aside from the warmth of family and friends, one "eureka" moment during the evening will remain in my memory for a long time. There was a gospel quintet that sang wondrous songs about the love of God and the joy of heaven, but that wondrousness seemed to be stuck in the words on the page and never reflected on their faces which remained expressionless throughout their musical renditions. In fact, their countenances were somewhat similar to someone straining to swallow a large pill or perhaps a parent disappointed in the report card their child had just brought home. Anyone growing up among the Mennonites is used to this detached form of singing just as the Irish are used to the immobile torsos in Celtic dancing, but now coming in as an outsider, it looked somewhat odd to me. And while I was listening to this quintet, I clearly heard a voice in my head ask me, "Do you believe it?" and I knew it meant...do you believe the music?

I had been rehearsing for several days since I arrived in town for the wedding I was playing at and was having difficulty with focusing and "getting" the music. I thought perhaps I was just tired or getting used to a new piano or perhaps needed more meat in my diet (at least that's what my friend says is the answer to ALL my problems), but I knew this question was a key to the music, the words, the whole shebang we pay lip service to and sing and say and act on. Do I believe it? The answer was, "Yes, of course I do." And again I heard, "Then play like you believe it," and I knew the core of my problems with the music was not a physical or practical one, it was a spiritual one. I had not been playing like I believed the music - I was hesitant and timid and slightly bored with the repetition and even begrudging the duty that had been thrust upon me and afraid to make a mistake and disappoint people.

I changed my attitude and after two more days of rehearsing, I went on to play at the wedding (not perfectly) but with more depth than I think I have played with in a long time. I was able to enjoy the simple beauty of a single note and not feel I had to add embellishments to keep people's interest. I played with more clarity and enjoyed the cadences of old, old hymns like they were a breath of fresh air. I became less aware of the proceedings going on around me (and that can be dangerous at a wedding), but I determined to enjoy the music and play it to its fullest instead of continually checking to see how things were going and if perhaps I should cut it short or stretch it to accommodate the circumstances. At the beginning of the day I had told God that I trusted his timing (the trickiest thing in wedding music) and the only time I did second-guess it and looked to people for my cue instead of God, I made a mistake and started the wrong song (easily fixed, don't worry).

This is a big lesson, this one: trusting God and his timing, and a big part of this is letting it show by playing loudly, fully, confidently, simply, without hesitation and without apology.

I believe it. And most days, I hope you are able to tell just by looking at me or listening to me sing, talk, play, laugh, cry and live.

Friday, June 09, 2006

playing and working

I am rehearsing the music for a wedding I am playing at in 8 days. Playing for weddings is an interesting thing…I do not really find it all that enjoyable, though I get a great deal of satisfaction from doing it well and making someone’s special day everything they want it to be. You have to leave your own personal taste and artistic ego aside, for you usually end up playing pieces you do not like, having to learn some challenging selections that you would rather not put into your repertoire, playing some boring music (surely these people know there are more than 3 chords!!!), and spending hours and hours of your life preparing to play basically background music which most of the people attending will never remember and in fact, during much of your fine performance, will most likely end up talking over it. To be fair, there are usually a few pieces that I truly enjoy and some friends have given me much liberty in song selection, but the thought of being a professional wedding musician –it just holds no appeal for me.

I have spent most of my life as a volunteer church musician, and the occasions on which I have received any remuneration are few and far between. Truly, I do this because I love it, because music gives me joy, but I have also had to develop the attitude of a servant in order to not become a bitter, under-appreciated artist with a chip on my shoulder. One cannot be upset at being overlooked, taken for granted, or thought of as difficult when you balk at a request, for most people have no concept of the amount of effort that goes into rehearsing or the money you have invested in your instrument and training. Just because you make it look easy, people assume it IS easy, and they are quick to ask you to play just a little something for their occasion and usually don’t think twice about what it costs you.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining, and though I would love to be handsomely compensated every time I place my fingers on a keyboard (who wouldn’t?) I realise it is not realistic. The reality is that in most church circles, preachers and teachers are regularly paid for their 30-minute presentations, while the faithful musicians who show up week after week and set up gear and rehearse never see any part of that. I don’t really know the reason for this (the rare exception was one church that my husband used to play at as a guest drummer and they always paid him for his services…it really lent an air of integrity to their leadership). Does the church as a whole undervalue its artists? Do we truly believe that teaching is more vital to the life of the church than worship?

While I was working at an office job at a world-class theatre, one of my colleagues found out that I regularly played without any pay and was appalled at the way the religious establishment was taking advantage of my talents. Hmmm…it was interesting to see it from the point of view of someone who worked in the arts. Artists can be some of the most highly paid people in the world, yet in the world of faith…they are notoriously underpaid or never paid at all, yet absolutely vital to every meeting.

Now before this gets to be a poor artist pity party, which I really did not set out to do, let me say that musicians and artists will always do what they love to do, to get together and create and play and make something out of almost nothing, but when they are exercising their creativity at the request of another party, when repertoires and demands and song lists and time limits and expectations are thrust in their way, perhaps those who are making the demands should offer some compensation in keeping with the quality and quantity of artistic endeavour they are asking to be graced with.

And to all those pianists and organists and singers and songwriters and guitarists and bass players and drummers and dramatists and any other creative artists, and even those under-appreciated soundmen, THANK YOU for your faithful and generous hearts. You are among the most humble and interesting people I have ever known. May the measure of your true value and the realisation of what your gifts and sacrifices are worth come from the Master Creator himself, and never be diminished by any lack of appreciation or ignorance you may encounter in humankind.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

I AM NOT A FAX MACHINE*$&%&%$*

I have been receiving calls from a fax machine for…oh…for about 5 or six weeks now. The calls happen pretty much everyday, Monday to Friday, sometimes starting as early as 7:30 am and usually in a sequence of 5 or 6 calls at 5-minute intervals as the machine is obviously programmed to automatically redial when it does not get through.

After a few days of this, I was getting slightly annoyed so I pressed *69 and got the number and had my husband send a fax asking them to stop calling me and letting them know they had reached a residence and not another fax machine. It was no use. The calls continued. I tried to look up the number on the internet but only got a location…no name or address because the number was being serviced by a third-party phone provider. Two weeks into this, I called Bell and told them about my problem. They promised to sort it out, but it would take a few days. That was about 3 weeks ago and I have begun to make peace with the possibility that the fax machine and I might develop a long-term albeit one-sided relationship. One can only stay annoyed so long before resignation sets in. It is becoming part of my daily ritual like brushing my teeth and making the bed or cleaning out the cat litter.

Last night my husband figured out a way to get our computer to accept faxes, so this morning, when I picked up the phone and heard the familiar beeping sound, I rushed over to the computer and set it to receive a fax. Predictably, five minutes later, the phone rang again and I was uncharacteristically excited about it! After pointing and clicking a few times, I was receiving a fax! Finally, the mystery would be solved, the information received and the fax machine able to rest from all its labours! Yes!

No!!! The fax was a list of service calls completed by technicians for Home Depot in the last 15 days. There was a company name at the top of the page (a division of GE) but no other information. And the fax machine called me 6 times this afternoon again. Argh! I suppose there is another all-important list that it is sure I must read, and it won’t rest until I get it. And I suppose that every few days it will send another list as it wants to make sure I keep abreast of all the happenings of the technical department of GE Mabe.

I don’t know what the point of this is. I am not one to believe much in coincidences and can usually assign profound meaning to the smallest incident in my life, or find an important life lesson that I must learn from the mundane and occasionally extraordinary events that make up my days, but this remains a mystery. I only know that I am not a fax machine and someone else is convinced that I am. I was hopeful that once the message was transmitted, once they got through, all would be sorted out, but it has solved nothing; it has only given me more words to type into Google in my search for the anonymous sender.

I suppose I could spiritualise this by saying it might be somewhat like God trying to communicate with us – we as earthly beings often cannot interpret the heavenly information he is trying to send and therefore, ignore it. We can even get annoyed because it seems intrusive and meaningless and senseless…until we tap into the spiritual “fax” realm and finally receive the message – but unfortunately, that does not solve our life problems or make things any easier…it only leads us down another road in an effort to decipher the mysterious message. I could say that God is persistent and will keep sending messages to us, even if we do not get them, but I would stop short of saying God only sends messages Monday to Friday. Frankly, I am hesitant to go down that whole spiritualization road because at this point, I really don’t have a sense that I get what any of this might mean, other than even when I get the message, I don’t get the message. I am clueless, but the good news is, I am a more patient clueless person. And perhaps that is something.

Last week I attended a well-produced high school Christian theatre production where, predictably, the hero got into trouble, repented, everything turned out all right and he got the girl in the end! It had a profound effect on me, for I was struck with the oversimplied and dumbed-down rewrite of the struggle of faith we as North American Christians have embraced, and I cringed at the thought of having any of my friends without faith view this rather shallow version of Jesus' message as an accurate presentation of truth. Not everything needs to be explained and worked out neatly, and we do the mystery of truth a diservice by assuming that we can and we must.

I cannot tell you why a fax machine calls me everyday and I cannot tell you why God speaks in parables and I cannot tell you why there is suffering in this world and why one person dies and another lives. I am not God. I am not a fax machine, either, but I can tell you that in my experience, the neverending, sometimes painful and humbling and often frustrating pursuit of truth, of Jesus himself, is most days a blindingly sweet and bright and mysteriously beautiful and tasty endeavour that leaves me breathless and changed.

NOTE: The day after I wrote this, I received a fax that included a cover letter complete with the sender's name and phone number. I spoke to Jackie at GE and everything is sorted out now, but I must admit, I miss the fax machine just a tiny bit - the phone is awfully quiet these days.