Monday, August 31, 2009

england part two

One of my most memorable moments from our time in England was the day we went to Bath. The lovely Emma took us there for the day to visit another one of our wonderful friends who had spent some time with us in Montreal a few years ago. After we arrived at Hannah's place we had a cup of tea, caught up on life, prayed for good stuff, and headed downtown for a yummy lunch.

Then we wandered the streets of Bath, one of the most beautiful and interesting places I have ever seen. I was snapping pictures left and right as we walked past the Roman Baths, Bath Abbey, and street after street of unique architecture. Several times I almost lost the rest of the gang while I stopped to capture a particular scene or ran into a tourist centre for some information. Hannah, Emma, Eden, and Dean were all very gracious in waiting for me as I tried to take it all in during the few hours that we had in Bath.

As we leisurely walked to one of the most famous places in that city, The Circus, Dean pointed out an interesting restaurant across the street that he thought would make a great picture. I stepped to the edge of the sidewalk and was waiting for the cars to pass so that I could get the perfect picture. One car pulled up to the curb right in front of me and obstructed my view. Then I heard a voice call my name, "Mattie, Mattie!" I looked into the car and it was Rebecca, another girl who had spent some time with us in Montreal. She said, "What are you doing here?" I replied, "I thought you were in France!" She told me she was in Bath for the day to look at a flat because she was moving there in the fall, having just finished her stint working at a community in France.

She pulled away to find parking and I was jumping and screaming like a 6-year-old who just won a trip to Disneyland while I told the rest of the gang what had just happened. A few minutes later, Rebecca joined us and hugs and lots of talking went around as we made the most of the 30 minutes or so that she had to spare before her appointment. Dean and I don't know that many people from England. We had made plans to see pretty much all of them, except for Rebecca, because we didn't think she was around.

The encounter was particularly poignant to me because I had been feeling a little empty and disconnected and downcast that morning and had asked God for a gift, anything to remind me that he was near to me and still bringing his goodness into my life every day. It was a gift beyond anything I would have imagined. To bring one of the only other people we knew from England across our path as each of us was visiting a city of 85,000 during one small window of time...well, it defied logic, luck, and chance.
It reminded me that I am not alone, that God sees and cares, that he loves to bring people together and can do so even without great effort on our parts, and that he does listen and act when his children call out to him. I like God because he first liked me.
This is Rebecca and Dean standing in a slight drizzle in The Circus in Bath.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

england part one

I got back from my trip to England yesterday around noon. It was a fabulous 8 days filled with new sights and foods and adventures, and lots of very precious people encountered along the way. The reason for going to London was to attend a friend's wedding, after which we were taking 5 days to see other friends and a bit of the country.

It started off not looking so good when I arrived at Heathrow just before noon last Friday after an all-night flight and heard my name paged in the luggage area. A nice man informed me that my bag had missed my first flight to Halifax and had then been sent to Toronto where the weather was not so good. He hoped that it would arrive the next day. Okay. There was nothing I could do about that, so I headed off to my hotel, checked in, and then jumped on the tube to spend the day seeing the sights in downtown London. I came back to the hotel later that evening to have dinner with a friend and my bag was still nowhere in sight. The next morning I checked with the airline and they said the bag had arrived and was with the courier. I could expect it in a few hours. Since I was leaving for the wedding in 2 hours, I hoped and prayed that it would be sooner than that, but when our ride arrived at noon, my bag and Dean (who flew in a day after I did) were still missing.

Thankfully, Dean arrived 20 minutes later, fresh off the plane and already in his suit (we had only packed one piece of luggage between the two of us and I had taken it) . My bag, however, with my dress, shoes, make-up, contact lenses, deodorant, toothbrush, comb, and two wedding gifts, never did make it in time. It showed up at the hotel 27 hours after I touched down and while we were at the reception.

But the important thing was that we were there, so I spritzed on some Celine Dion perfume which Rachel, our friendly driver and friend of the bride, had with her and off we went. No one seemed to even notice that I was in jeans and a black t-shirt amidst all the dresses and a few hats. The wedding was informal and relaxed and we were made to feel right at home even though we only knew two other people there. We hugged people and witnessed the ceremony and talked and laughed and took pictures and ate lots of English food (first time I tried clotted cream) and met cool people and danced to a great jazz band and then found our back to the hotel via the train and bus thanks to Tammy from South Africa. It was a very full and fun day - a great beginning to our week in England.

I have never been so glad to brush my teeth as I was that night, and clean clothes have never brought a sigh of delight from my lips like they did the next morning. I managed to mail the wedding gifts on Monday from a post office a block from our hotel downtown. All things came out well. I realised that people are more gracious than I give them credit for, and that I am still too preoccupied with what I look like and compare myself too much with others. I also get freaked out about things that don't really matter to anyone else but me. This wedding experience was a wonderful gift to me, as I hope our presence was a gift to Matthew and Emily.

This is St. John's Church in Egham where the wedding took place.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

on the road

I leave for London, England tonight at 7:50 pm. Dean (whose flight leaves tomorrow night after work) and I are going to attend the wedding of a good friend on Saturday in Egham. I am still amazed at how the plans have come together for this trip. At times all the details and flights and arrangements seemed almost impossible to untangle, starting with our not able to fly together due to one flight being through Aeroplan and the other one the most convenient for Dean's work schedule. It is also a challenge to try to see London and friends in neighbouring cities without a car and within a limited Canadian budget.

In the end, everything has worked out better than I imagined. We are going to be moving around a lot, traveling to 5 different locations and meeting up with friends every day, going to places I would never have thought to include in our little trip. Unexpected delightful detours! Through the helpful suggestions of various people, we now have a self-directed walking tour we can follow during our 2 days in London, and the hotel we are staying at happens to be a 23 minute walk from Westminster Abbey, so we will try to catch the Evensong service there on Sunday. We always like to take in a church service on our travels when we can - it is interesting to worship the same God in a different setting than we are used to, n'est pas? And come on, one just has to go to Westminster Abbey while in London, right?

Today I am packing and wondering again at what an amazing world we live in. I count it a privilege to be able to travel to other countries and connect with old friends again. It is always a learning experience to see how others live. One of the greatest honours we have in this life is to be able to stay in someone's home, because for a few days we become part of their family and those times remain among my most cherished memories. I don't know exactly what I will encounter on this trip, but I know that I will be a richer Matte when I return, even if my bank account may beg to differ.

This is Dean walking along a country road near Digdeguash, New Brunswick.

Monday, August 17, 2009

good and bad

I used to think that life was hills and valleys - you go through a dark time, then you go to the mountaintop, back and forth. I don't believe that anymore. Rather than life being hills and valleys, I believe that it's kind of like two rails on a railroad track, and at all times you have something good and something bad in your life.. No matter how good things are in your life, there is always something bad that needs to be worked on. And no matter how bad things are in your life, there is always something good you can thank God for. - Rick Warren

Someone sent me a Rick Warren interview just over a week ago and as I have been thinking about this excerpt, I have found that there is much truth in it. I do tend to see things quite black and white, good and bad for the most part, and that means I miss much of the richness and depth of the multi-dimensional life we live, not to mention the accompanying mystery and beauty of it!

For example, I know that I am sometimes easily influenced by others, and I have always thought of that as a weakness of mine. After I read this quote, I realised that this pliability is actually what makes me a very good and quick learner. I adapt easily, I pick up new ways of doing things, and I will try almost anything. Where I only saw the bad, I missed a whole chunk of real goodness that was tied to it. If I try to eliminate this flexibility from my character, I will lose a very valuable gift that I have. Good and back existing together. The challenge is not to root out the bad which might very well pull out something good along with it, but to encourage the good to grow without giving power to the bad.

On the other hand, when something good comes my way, a blessed opportunity, I can develop an ideal of perfection in my mind and project it onto this good thing before me. You know what happens then...I get disappointed when these high expectations are not met, because there is always the weakness of humanity and the brokenness of this world that must be taken into account. It does not make the redemption of God any less effective, in fact, it heightens the need for mercy and showcases the unbiased generosity of God's beautifying grace.

Our goodness is never as good as we would like it to be, and our badness is never as deadly as we fear it will be. Good and bad - both are but tools for divine glory in the hands of a very creative and mighty God. Let me not be so preoccupied with the tools that I fail to see the grand work of art the master is working on.
NOTE: I am not trying to blur the lines between good and evil here, but there seems to be something quite diminishing about casting the most powerful being in the universe (and beyond) as the better half of the classic struggle between opposing powers. He is God, after all, and nothing exists without him. If there is any appearance of a clash or battle, it is because he has chosen to limit himself and become involved in our struggle for some purpose much greater and more beautiful than we can fathom.
This is the wharfinger's shack at St. Andrews, New Brunswick.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

thank you A-Z

Just for fun, I thought I would name 26 things I am thankful for today, alphabetically, of course.

A - air. I like having plenty of it all around me all the time. Cool stuff!
B - breathing. It happens all day and all night without supervision, keeping me alive.
C - clothes. I have clean clothes to wear every morning, and most of them look good on me.
D - dreams. Awake or asleep, I love thinking about things that are bigger than me.
E - exercise. My body was made to move! I love to walk and run and jump.
F - feet. They take me lots of places every day, what would I do without them?
G - gas. I just ate fresh pineapple followed by cream of carrot soup. Bad mix, but nothing that a good belch didn't fix!
H - hair. It covers my pointy head and gives me a reason to buy nice smelling shampoo.
I - iced coffee. I had a medium one from Tim Hortons on this hot and sunny day...mmmmm!
J - Jazz the cat. She follows me around and purrs loudly when I pet her. Nice to come home to.
K - Karen my osteopath. My back was hurting pretty bad after I fell down the stairs a few weeks ago and she did me right. I didn't even think about my back today!
L - love. I would be a mess without it.
M - me. I like what God put in me.
N - names. How would I know what to call people if they didn't have names?
O - outside. I like being able to go outside without putting on a jacket.
P - pockets. They hold cell phones and kleenexes and important notes.
Q - quiet. I like to think and read and write in the quiet.
R - roof. It keeps me dry during the rain and in the shade on a hot day.
S - sweat. Just a little something to keep the body cool on a summer day.
T - transportation. The bus and the subway get me all around town. I love it!
U - up. Can you imagine a world without up? It inspires me and keeps me humble.
V - voice. I love to sing and talk to people. That way they don't have to read my mind.
W - washing. Almost anything can be fixed by washing it.
X - one of the letters in a very nice email someone wrote to me today.
Y - yawn. How else do you know when to go to bed?
Z - zillions of blades of grass which make the earth fun to walk on.

Try it yourself if you like. This is the harbour at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

Monday, August 10, 2009

consistent and persistent

This is from a learning session that I led at a church gathering last night.

I read the story of the persistent widow again this week. You know, the one that involves a slacker judge who is not all that interested in justice and the woman who keeps badgering him to make things right for her until he finally relents and does so. Jesus told this story to teach us the value of consistent and persistent prayer. Kind of a backwards way of doing it, don't you think? He contrasts God to an unwilling and uncaring judge who gives the woman what she wants only after she has worn his resolve down by her constant asking.

Sad to say, many times the contrast between God and this dead-beat judge does not seem to be all that great. We can ask and ask and ask him for something and when nothing seems forthcoming, God does indeed seem unwilling to act on our behalf. Does he need convincing? Is he slow? Is he trying to teach us a lesson?

Let me give an example. Someone comes to me and asks me for 10 dollars. I take 10 dollars out of my wallet and give it to them. A simple transaction, it doesn't take more than 10 seconds. The request has been answered and the person is on their way, happy to have received what they asked for.

Let me rewrite this story just a bit. Someone comes to me and asks me for 10 dollars. I take out my wallet and give them 1 dollar. They go on their way with the one dollar and realise that it is not enough, so they come back for more. I take out my wallet and give them another dollar and ask how things are going. What did they do this week? They reply that they went to camp and go on their way with the second dollar. Still not totally satisfied, they come back again and I give them another dollar. This time I ask what happened while they were at camp and they tell me a funny incident about falling in the septic tank (this is actually what was told to me when I enacted this story)! I laugh and they go on their way. They quickly turn around and come back, taking the next dollar and continuing to tell me about the aftermath of their fall. It brings a smile to my face. The next few transactions progress with the person coming to me for one dollar at a time until he loses count of how much has been given to him, but he keeps staying longer and telling me about his school, his favourite subjects, and something about his family. After I give him the tenth dollar, I give him a hug and tell him I have enjoyed our interactions.

This is what persistent and consistent prayer is about. It is not about showing up at the vending machine of God and getting what we want, it is about developing a relationship through the habit of coming to God often - for small things and big things. He does not withhold things or ask us to wait because he is mean or slow. He is exactly the opposite of that unwilling and unjust judge. This benevolent Father wants us to keep coming back so that we realise that the thing we asked for is not the main thing. In fact, we could probably make do without many of the requests we make of God, but we cannot do well without a living relationship with the Lover of our souls.
This habit of coming to God consistently and persistently is what will make us people of great faith. It will grow the realisation in us that we can always come to God and count on him to give us something. And that tomorrow, he will have something more for us.
Go ahead, ask him for something now. And keep asking.
This is Niagara Falls, where the water just keeps coming and coming and coming....

Friday, August 07, 2009

travel agent

This morning I booked hotel rooms for our trip to London, England in 2 weeks. If you have ever checked it out, you will know that London is an expensive place to visit, especially when you are used to Canadian prices. I just don't think that breakfast at a hotel is worth 25 pounds, or 45 Canadian dollars, do you? They obviously think that I can eat 45 dollars worth of food, so perhaps I should give the Brits credit for their extreme optimism.

Anyway, after weeks of research and asking around, during which time I found a lot of overpriced hotels, a few reasonably priced rooms accompanied by horrible reviews, and one or two deals that disappeared while I thought about them, everything fell into place last night. It's funny how waiting can bring clarity. The foggy impossibility of the task, given the myriad of locations to research and the limited budget we were working with, vanished as the right choices became clear, like someone was highlighting them. It was all so obvious last night that I wondered why I couldn't have seen it before.

There is something creative about the element of time. It makes a way for patience to grow. It involves waiting - an opportunity to ponder things we don't make time for otherwise. It brings information and learning and knowledge our way that informs our choices. It leaves room for interactions to happen that point us in a better direction. And it builds trust if we let it.

Near the beginning of this process, I had impatiently asked God why I was having such trouble finding the right flights and hotel rooms. In my opinion, the perfect flight dates had already been lost because we were too busy to get back to the booking immediately after I came upon it, and that put me in a bit of a panic. Available dates and deals were disappearing, didn't he know that? What was I supposed to do? Spend even more time researching every available avenue to dig up the meagrest of savings? Compromise on dates and location and safety and cleanliness and budget and common sense? Why didn't he do something? And his answer was straightforward and calm. "Can you wait?" It was something one would say to a child begging for ice cream just before dinner. Yes, of course, I could wait.

I let those words change the panic that nothing would come of my efforts to trust that he could provide. The responsibility to make everything happen was no longer mine. I left the search alone for 5 days while we went away on a leadership retreat, and then leisurely started to look at it again when we returned. Last weekend, some visiting friends gave me some good advice from their visit to London a few years ago, and I incorporated their suggestions into narrowing down my search criteria. Ten days after I laid down the panic and 13 days before we leave, all has been arranged.
We have flights, me arriving a day before Dean and checking into the hotel with a friend. The flights were $100 more than I had wanted, but the hotel cost is $100 less. This was due to hitting upon the idea to split our stay between two locations: one near the airport and the wedding we are attending, and the other closer to downtown for a day of sightseeing. In this way, I was able to get the best prices and accommodate everyone involved. As an added bonus, both hotels I booked have over 80% positive feedback. I am sure not everything will be perfect on our trip, but the important things are covered and for that I am very grateful.

I came across this quote from Oswald Chambers today on a friend's facebook status: If we have a purpose of our own, it destroys the simplicity and the leisureliness which ought to characterize the children of God.

Let the simplicity and leisureliness in my life that comes from trusting my Father continue to grow.

These are flowers by the side of the road near Digdeguash, New Brunswick. They do not toil nor worry about what to wear.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

the younger

I am the youngest of three children. And yes, I exhibit a lot of the characteristics of this particular birth order station in the family. I want to differentiate myself from others, I sometimes battle feelings of being inadequate and small, and I can be outgoing and lots of fun when I have had a few cappuccinos.

This morning I read the story of the father and his two sons in Luke 15. The youngest one demanded his inheritance early (a typical desire not to be overlooked or treated unfairly) and went out to do his own thing (stop comparing me to my older sibling!). But that's where the similarities to the baby of the family end for me. You see, I have never run off and done something really stupid, causing lots of people to worry about me. For the most part, you can find me faithfully going about the necessary business of life, so dependable that it's almost boring.

I tend to lose patience with people who mess up and need lots of hand-holding to get back on track. I totally understand the resentment over a lavish party thrown in honour of a dishonourable son just because he eventually got one thing right. Inevitably, there is more rejoicing over the troublesome child who finally puts in an effort and gets a passing grade than over the child who quietly studies every day and pulls off straight A's. And this seems unfair to me. But then, I am assuming that the ultimate Father runs his universe on a system of merit and reward instead of mercy and grace.

Deep down inside I know that it is horrible not to be able to wholeheartedly celebrate when good things happen to not-so-deserving people, but it doesn't make it any easier. Sometimes it just seems to pay to be a little bit bad. Is faithfulness really its own and only reward? Oh please, there has to be more to it than that.

Perhaps it can be likened to the difference between winning the lottery and putting a little into a savings account every day. Though both parties might end up with virtually the same amount of money, one of them knew where they were headed all the time and plodded down a steady and sure course. The other lived through a roller-coaster experience: many lean and desperate days interspersed with a few reckless highs which were always not quite high enough to keep the momentum going. What younger brother would not be grateful to land safely after the stress of that? And what older brother would not be thankful to have made good choices early on and stuck to them?

There were two brothers in the family. I think the point of the story is not to compare them or evaluate which one was doing what wrong, but to see that this is the story of family, a family held together by a generous and faithful father. They belonged together. Through thick and thin, in spite of betrayal and bitterness, they were a family. Given the choice, I do believe I would rather have small intimate dinners with my father every day rather than necessitate an occasion for a grand homecoming after a painful and extended absence. And that is indeed the choice I have made.

This is some green stuff and some wild berries on the Dominion Hill property in New Brunswick.

Monday, August 03, 2009

the bird

It was Alfred Hitchcock day on Friday. I was watching an old movie, called Rebecca, by the famous director around noon on that fateful day. Really, I was supposed to be cleaning my house in preparation for guests, getting some groceries, writing this blog, working on my fiction, and picking up some dry cleaning. But, in doing some research for our book club, I stumbled upon this movie and started watching a few clips. Besides, viewing a classic movie is an excellent warm-up for housework, isn't it?

As I was watching the unnamed heroine interact with the evil Mrs. Danvers, I heard a strange noise coming from somewhere. I looked over the balcony rail to see if there was any unusual cat action happening, but all was quiet. I continued my movie and again heard a rustling. It was coming from my right. I walked over and saw Jazz intently staring at the fireplace, her face with its big eyes pressed close to the glass. And then I saw a brown flutter and heard that familiar rustling again. There was a bird in my fireplace! (reminiscent of Hitchcock's The Birds)

It was not a small sparrow, but quite a large brown bird. He was not happy to find himself in the small glass enclosure and had no idea how to get back up the chimney, so I flung wide the window beside my desk, not six feet from the fireplace, and pulled open the fireplace door. Dean later told me that this was not what one does in these situations. I wish I would have known that then.

The bird did not see the open window. He flew straight to the highest point in my house, which happens to be a bright sunny window at the peak of the vaulted ceiling, some 30 feet from the floor. And this is where he started to thrash about, hurling himself at the window over and over again. He would take a brief rest, during which I swear I could see him panting, and then he would bang himself against the window like some demented lunatic with voices in his head. It was most distressing to watch.

I ran down the stairs and opened several more windows as well as the front door which led to a common hallway. I talked and cajoled and pleaded and pointed and prayed and the bird continued to beat himself against the window. A few feathers and a few drops of stress-induced poop fell from his perch. Jazz was going crazy, licking her lips with the juicy excitement. I called Dean.

By this time, I was freaking out just a bit because there was no solution in sight. This bird was going to beat himself to death after pooping all over my place, and then leave me with his dead body rotting high above my head, totally out of reach. After Dean's laughter subsided a bit, he told me that birds will always fly to the highest point and are not likely to see an open window. I should have trapped the bird in a box first and then released it outside. Okay, so noted for future reference. But what do I do now?

During my phone conversation with Dean (he had several people in his office when I called so this provided some amusement for his colleagues), inbetween bursts of laughter, he tried to give me advice. I kept trying anything I could think of. I took a broomstick, stood on the couch on my tiptoes, and beat the pole against the wall under the window, trying to get the bird to move. Nothing. I could just not get close enough to the bird. I ran down a flight of stairs to the open door and called, "Birdy, look down, look down!" In answer, he flapped his wings and beat himself against the window, leaving several greasy bird marks on the glass. Argh!

Jazz was circling, waiting for the bird to drop within her reach. Dean suggested that I call an exterminator, someone who specialised in bird extraction. It seemed to be the only way out of this. I was still running around the room, calling and making a lot of noise and commotion, hoping to startle the bird out of his crazed focus on the top window. Suddenly, I had a bright idea. I would turn on the ceiling fan. I flicked the switch to full blast and then hurried to the counter to grab a pen and paper to take down the number of the exterminator that Dean had found for me. I scribbled down some wiggly numbers, the adrenaline making me a bit jittery.

And then I saw the bird swoop down. Maybe it was the ceiling fan. Maybe it was all this talk of exterminators. Maybe it was an angel come to the rescue. I yelled the good news into the phone. The bird landed on the windowsill near the front closet. The window was one that I had left wide open, and I encouragingly called to him, "Go out the window, birdy, fly out. Go out, go out, go out!" He turned and looked around, a bit confused, and then he flew outside. I skipped over to the window and stuck my head out, breathlessly telling Dean about the blessed exit in a high-pitched voice, running all my words together.

And then Jazz came over to me and started to meow menacingly, very perturbed by the recent events and blaming me for it all, I guess. She swatted at my legs with her paws and stalked me while I yelled at her to back down and stop being so unreasonable. I was barefoot and in shorts, so my legs were a bit vulnerable to her fangs and claws. She glared at me with big eyes, but settled down a bit.

Dean was happy to hear that everything had been resolved and thanked me for providing the entertainment for the day. No problem, Dean. I hung up the phone, closed the door and the windows, and sat down on the stairs, still breathing rather quickly and shallowly.

"What was that all about, God?" I asked. And this is what I thought he answered. "This is what it is like to work with the poor and destitute and lost. They land in your house, needing direction and freedom. They mess up the careful order of things and they can totally stress you out. Learn to welcome them in the proper way. Learn to guide them in the proper way. But never close your door to them."

Be free, little bird.

These are some signs at the Welland Canal in Ontario.