Tuesday, 1 March 2016

You will be missed

DJ, the author of Everyday Light, tragically died by suicide in December 2015. She suffered from chronic depression and our hearts are broken that this terrible illness took her from us.

She was creative, enthusiastic, loving, witty, and empathetic; she shared many of her life's experiences, new ideas, and spiritual values through expressive writing. Her contributions will be remembered dearly.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Same Old, Same Old WOW!

The worn-out story of Christmas is told again this week, acted out in ridiculous and charming children’s pageants, or solemnly revered at artistic crèches by priests with incense wafting. Our familiarity can blind us to any connection with modern life.
At the same time, thousands ignore or scorn what they consider a fairy tale for naïve adults, the equivalent of Santa Claus with his flying reindeer.
It’s challenging to see beyond our culture’s conflation of consumerism with its strangely seasonal compassion for the poor. Is Christ's birth worth celebrating?

In fact, the old bible story has contemporary spiritual themes: our yearning for positive change, our perpetual struggle against destructive egotism, and our battle between fear and hope. The characters in the nativity drama, like other ordinary people in bible stories, show us our human options.

Mary, for instance, was shocked by her private situation, an unwed pregnancy in a patriarchal tribe. Somehow she decided to stand firm and trust her own encounter with God’s outrageous promises.

Joseph was confused and embarrassed by his fiancee’s circumstance. Despite his social conditioning, he, too, went with God’s counter-cultural advice.

Sheep herders on the night shift were changed from nobodies to insiders when they heard gob-smacking news about a nearby miracle. Instead of pooh-poohing their wild vision of angels shouting, “Don’t be afraid anymore. God has a peace plan!” they ran off to see if it was true.

Foreign scholars were wise enough to be humble in their pursuit of knowledge and eventually discovered the unimaginable. 

Lacking such wisdom or humility, King Herod in his corrupting robes of power, gave in to ego’s lure. Hundreds of babies were murdered because of his raging tantrum. He gained nothing.

Anna and Simeon waited for decades, longing for a dream to come true; would their world ever be delivered from oppression? They refused to give up on God.

Common, but always miraculous, a newborn baby lay in naked vulnerability. Did Eternal Love in fact risk everything for brand new possibilities?

These characters made their choices as we keep making ours. In disaster, or ease, or tedium, may we hear, “Don’t be afraid. There’s great news! You’re not in this alone.”

Welcome to Christmas, dear Reader.

Monday, 14 December 2015

You Are

You are
…in the winsome sound of a men’s choir singing with utter precision the pensive Christmas song, “Mary, Did You Know?” 

…in the servant attitude of a teenager willing to travel between towns to wash windows and put up a Christmas tree for his older relatives.

…in the fierce confidence of a little girl who’s going to be a tiger for the church’s Christmas pageant.

You are 
...in the empathy of a worker at the deli counter, her slow pace keeping me waiting until she handed me sliced corned beef with a friendly smile and complimented my jacket. I walked away and then did a u-turn to thank her for her cheerfulness. When I told her about my husband’s illness, saying that her attitude had lifted my spirits, she frowned with concern and cooed hope for us.

…in the rescuing initiative of neighbours who united to sponsor a family of war refugees for immigration to Canada. 

…in the reassuring welcome of an easy-going radiation tech who greets cancer patients with a grin.

You are
…in the vulnerability of a rough-looking beggar who approached our group for money outside a downtown restaurant where we had enjoyed salmon and crème caramel at our annual Christmas dinner. 

…in the generous spirit of an atheist friend who chose a Christmas card for me that sparkles in huge red and green letters, “GOD IS GOOD”. 

Please, High Holy Mystery of Love, help us to recognize  where You are in our messed up world.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Careful Editing

( Dear friends who subscribe to my blog by email, please note that it’s a prettier read if you go to my blogsite instead of your inbox. One day I will switch to a better method of access.)

Writers all struggle with the editing process, even if their only editor is themselves. What should I put out there to readers and what needs deleting?

For instance, it seems nervy to describe in public my own grief and confusion during my husband’s brain cancer illness, when our story pales beside others far worse. Mid-Eastern  refugees are living in unsanitary tent cities. Those mothers hold their sick babies close while fathers guard the family's worldly possessions in a bundle about the size of my garbage can.
Our family's current challenge is nothing compared to theirs. The stress of facing a medical team who rattle off incomprehensible jargon and hand over wads of instructions while leaving the exam room does not equal the terror of facing armed soldiers who bar a border crossing. 

Edit carefully.
I don't want readers distracted by my words of self-doubt such as above, or to feel they need to respond with advice, to save me somehow from any negativity. 
But I firmly believe that mixed feelings about life are natural and healthy. Writers from King David through to Ann Lamott have described the seesaw between glory and gloom. Devout followers of Jesus remember that Jesus himself felt abandoned by God. 

Ideally, we consciously choose what to do with our emotions. Like many, I sometimes decide to write them out, not just in a private journal but in public. It’s a sacred wonder that my personal stories occasionally encourage others. What an honour!

I hope readers give at least equal attention to my joy in the ongoing sparks that can illuminate a dim day with bright delight.
Here are some recent shiny moments.
One neighbour bought a grocery item we needed, saving me an extra hair-raising drive through Toronto’s traffic. Another took my wristwatch to have a new battery installed, shortening my list of tiresome tasks. Of course these are errands I could have done for myself, but my days are newly tiring so a neighbour’s favour helps keep me functioning.

Women at church sent my husband and myself each a cozy “prayer shawl”, hand-knit with love. Wrapped in the woolly warmth we feel God’s consolation.

Last week, my husband enjoyed two nights beside Lake Ontario at a corner-windowed hotel room, upgraded by a sympathetic manager. He needed a day away to regroup, and found the 36 hours calming and inspiring. He reminded me that hotel rooms are more comfortable than convents. :-))

While he was away, I spent the day following my inclinations, one hour walking an outdoor labyrinth while listening for Sophia*, another hour happily buying gifts at a beautiful Nature store, and several hours reading. 

Recently we had fun taking grandchildren to see the animated Christmas window displays that include a charming underfloor mouse-house. We ate a one-star meal at a deli where we played our family's traditional “Pass the sugar packet” waiting game, and smiled at a six year old’s refusal to order a hotdog because the Children's Menu described it as “beef”, an idea that was confusing and off-putting to her. 

At a Christmas coffee party with new church friends
I received lots of lingering hugs and enjoyed seeing the elaborate Christmas decorations in the host’s gorgeous home. My aesthetic sense appreciated the break from hospital waiting rooms.

A member of my husband’s book club brought us an unusual present, a Ganesha mask. This friend thought of us because the Hindu god is known for help during difficulty. 

I wish I could divide up all my resources and supportive relationships to share them out with the thousands in Lebanon or in Toronto hospitals who lack such riches. 
I will do what I can to help, pray to accept life’s confusing fusion, and keep on celebrating. 
Thanks be to God.

* “Sophia” is an English version of the name that means wisdom. Wisdom is personified in the Bible book, Proverbs, Chapter 8, so some of us use it as one of many names for God.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Off Balance

This is the weirdest experience. 
Maybe a sorcerer transported me. Maybe I’ve been cast in the TV show “Once Upon a Time” where characters travel back and forth between their fairy tale lives (Snow White, Peter Pan, etc.) and modern reality.

In the past, if I heard that someone’s husband had been diagnosed with brain cancer, or was in some other dreadful crisis, I’d feel sick for them and wonder how they could function at all. Wouldn’t they be on the floor raving with pain or fear?
I’d eye grieving spouses at funerals, chatting with guests, appearing “clothed and in their right mind,”* and think,
“You must be part of an entirely different species. I could never cope the way you are coping.”

Now, here am I, down the rabbit hole. 
Even our considerate and careful surgeon referred to the pathology reports with the comment, 
“It doesn’t get much worse than this.” 
But who can believe such news? How can we imagine that death may actually be approaching much sooner than expected? Or that disability might increase to unbearable degrees? 
So far our lives continue normally…but not.

As I monitor pill-taking and chauffeur my cheerful husband who always preferred the driver’s seat, I feel disoriented. 
Last Sunday I went to church and spoke calmly to friends about our new situation. I laughed at the jokes in a discussion group.
But my dear neighbour looks so serious as she hugs me after hearing the news. 
Why are people bringing us generous surprises of home made meals? I’m not sick – and then suddenly, tears of stress well up. I am sustained by such kind comfort food.
Yes, I hauled the snow tires to the mechanic’s for the first time - no problem - but then, when I dropped them off, I didn’t know the answers to questions he asked. Seasonal tire-change hadn’t been my job.
Who’s supervising our money? My almost fine CFO husband who’s always been a controlling comptroller of our family finances? Money-know-nothing me? Newly designated helpers? I’ve never found group assignments easy.  This is so confusing.

A word that comes to mind is “liminal”. Besides liking the word’s texture in my mouth, its meaning feels familiar: in between, like having one foot on either side of a threshold. Am I in or am I out? Neither and both. Most of us are in between in some sense, never quite there, but on the way. Waiting and uncertainty are the norm in liminal-land. 

Of course this is exactly where Christian faith takes us whether we like it or not (NOT). God’s ideal for a healed and peaceful humanity burgeoned in Jesus, but how can this miserable world be governed by a loving God?! Look around at the crowds of wounded souls, bleeding out despair or revenge, some wreaking havoc in their pain. 

The preachers say that God’s peaceable kingdom is “now and not-yet”.  Such nonsensical but precisely accurate description can make you feel like tearing your hair out. 
And yet, compassion and beauty abound even during brain cancer.  Why is there peace and gratitude in my frustrated, scaredy heart?  Only God knows.

*An expression from Luke 8:35, used casually by my fundamentalist parents whose primary literary reference was the Bible.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The Beat Goes On

Thank goodness for funny moments.
I suggested to my husband that, as we waited another day for news about his brain illness, we listen to a significant CD together. 
He thought he’d lie down on the couch to hear it. It is a very touching CD by Steve Bell, with music and thoughtful words about dark times. Soon after the album began, as I was grabbing kleenex to wipe my tears, I heard my husband snoring, fast asleep. 
Off to bed he went for a nap while I continued to hear the CD’s wise comfort. 

A few years ago this Canadian musician put out the album called “Solace”, at the suggestion of a dying friend. The music CD comes with a second CD of Steve’s radio interview with several people. They discuss the difficult issue of Christian belief in an all-loving God who allows suffering. Obviously this conundrum has been a puzzle for the ages and comes without any solution, no matter how much faith we have.

During the show, besides a chat with my nephew Dr. John Stackhouse about his helpful book, Can God Be Trusted?, Steve also talked with Lydia Harms. Years ago she was widowed and left to raise four young children by herself. As a long time devout follower of Jesus, she was furious with the way God had let her down by allowing her husband to die so young. 
Not being a shrinking violet she responded aloud to some of the mindless comments people made in their awkward attempts to be polite or helpful during her grieving. One poor man at the funeral wished her, “All the best”. 
“All the best?!” she responded, “I just buried it!"
I think she refrained from actually hitting him.

I need no lesson about raging at God. S/He and I are long comfortable with that kind of honest relationship; God’s love has proved unconditional. 
What I found interesting was Lydia Harms’ admission that her fury at life’s injustice and at God’s mysterious silence in response, still erupts from time to time, even many years after her husband’s death. 
Her mixed and even paradoxical experience of celebrating God’s goodness one minute and feeling angry hopelessness the next, mirrors my own. 

As I wander through the new set of circumstances foisted on me recently, I might sound to others like either a determined spiritual pilgrim, in my gratitude for God’s faithfulness, or like an expert at distraction (three cheers for Netflix), or like a loser Christian who doesn’t really believe any of the bible’s Easter story when things get rough. And yup, that’s exactly what I am, all three of those. 

I am not ashamed of this admission. Only if God is truly greater than our weakest weakness, is there any point to Christian faith.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Sweet Storm

Soup, muffins, candy, banana bread, chili, lemon pie, salads, strawberries and more soup. The way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach. 
As my family and I wait in limbo, one minute laughing at TV comedy, the next crying in a neighbour’s tight hug, my heart needs all the comfort it can get.

I have done nothing to deserve the gifts that keep arriving during the onslaught of my husband’s brain cancer 
(Shh, don’t tell the surgeons. We’ve already guessed the truth that they won’t mention before test results confirm).
Sometimes I wail with fear at this unfair disaster storming in on my family. Other times I tear up at people’s kindness and generosity. 

Our neighbours cleaned out our eavestroughs and carried the leaf debris to the ditch.
A church acquaintance dropped by with baking and the kind of perfect empathy that only her own painful experience could offer.
Encouraging emails greet me when I click open my inbox, every single one an injection of optimism, to counter my default perspective on life.
A longtime friend of mine repaired a seam on my favourite sweater as my mind buzzed, “Will I need it for a funeral outfit? Will it be cozy in cancer treatment waiting rooms?” 
Others have sent gorgeous flowers and an amaryllis bulb sprouting toward red blooms.
One of our daughter’s friends added insulation to an attic corner so that my husband wouldn’t worry about that item on his to-do list.
A loving relative mailed us a magazine from The Gideons, its glossy pages filled with quotes from the Psalms and peaceful photographs.
The list is so long it’s bound to be incomplete.
Visits and phone calls and concert tickets …

It’s hard to ignore a little demon that keeps hissing in my ear,
“But what did you do for them in their hard times? They’re being so much nicer, behaving so much better than you ever have.” 
I'm tempted to feel ashamed of myself and embarrassed by all of this sweet attention.

Thanks be to God that such destructive thoughts disappear under the flood of lovingkindness provoked by this unwelcome storm. I have earned none of this caring support. I guess it’s called grace.

Bono’s best song, “GRACE”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IsFRQoYVzHc 
Sorry but you’ll need to copy and paste until one of you shows me how to enter a live link ;-) and furthermore, this song starts with a long instrumental intro, so be patient waiting for the exquisite lyrics.