Monday, 23 March 2015

Oh, Them

He spoke with a guttural Eastern European accent that was hard to understand over the phone.  My heart sank a bit – isn’t there any construction contractor in Toronto who speaks English clearly? 
My frustration with this very common Toronto experience provoked unwelcome thoughts about other non-anglo immigrants: Poles who cling to their native tongue, still not fluent in English despite decades of Canadian residency; ubiquitous Filipino nannies walking through my neighbourhood with strollers, understandably more comfortable with their Filipino sisters than with my attempts at friendship; sales clerks who use English with me and then turn to a co-worker to carry on chatting in their mutual foreign language.

I force myself to remember how hard it is to learn a second language, not to mention the challenges of emigration itself,  but…

Current news headlines report a Muslim woman who believes that Allah is better pleased when she covers up her beautiful face, even while declaring the Citizenship allegiance to Canadian values of equality and community. How can we welcome you, Muslim sister, and build bridges, when there’s a black cloth barrier preventing us from seeing your smile? 

One of the most vivid sightings of ‘us vs. them’ surprised me during a political campaign meeting. Nervously I watched a person from one side violently grab and rip up a sign held by someone on the other side; audience members shouted down speakers they opposed. The police showed up. Ugh. It revealed how little some of us respect others' rights to disagree. 

Another time I sat in on a discussion where church people spoke disdainfully about fellow Christians. They scorned those "born agains" who understood Jesus' teachings differently - wrongly, in their opinion. 
“Oh them!” An accompanying spit was implied.

What a challenge it is to keep our hearts open to “those people”.  But Jesus showed the richest, deepest, most joyful way to live. He said to care for our neighbours as much as we care for ourself, and to treat even our enemies with unselfish love.

Because of my own ugly prejudices, I relish every experience that decreases such bias. I long for the healing of our divisions.
Yesterday, in a hardware store, I passed a young Muslim girl wearing a bejewelled headscarf, stretched tight across her forehead. She stood waiting for her parents to finish shopping. I gently touched her sparkles and said “So pretty!” She responded with a sweet grin. I shudder to think of how wary Muslims must feel in Canada these days.

It's easy for me to reach out to young girls. By contrast, stone-faced men make me nervous, especially if they somehow appear “foreign” (clothes? Hairiness? Wha?).  As it happened, one such was ahead of me in the long lineup at the Express check-out. He put his basket of groceries on the floor in front of me and hurried away, presumably to get a forgotten item. Before he returned, the line had progressed, so I stepped around his basket to put my two cartons of cream on the counter. Then he reappeared. I offered to let him go ahead but he refused, shaking his head silently with a mute gesture for me to move along.
I turned away, feeling a touch of rejection, to continue with checkout, but my heart lifted when I heard a male voice say, "But, thank you!" That simple appreciation from him connected us and gave me a bit more courage for my next timid border crossing into StrangeManLand. 

Still it's hard not to act hatefully by ignoring and distancing “those people”. There was the immigrant in my Toastmasters Club who chuckled about how he tries to remember not to bribe police here in Canada the way everyone did in his homeland. His differences became even harder to tolerate when he was annoyed that I couldn’t always understand his heavily accented English on the first attempt. Because he could speak English quickly he thought he was fluent, and maybe he was to his compatriots, but not to me. I was glad to say a permanent farewell when my membership ended.

Hard truth: if we want a peaceful planet, or even a peaceful neighbourhood, we have to make peace with others, even them.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Frozen Melt

Winter in the North holds sway with deadly cold, treacherous layers of ice and snow, power outages, and broken water mains.

When humans struggle to survive, and some poor souls die from exposure, how can a feathered body the size of a plum keep from freezing stiff? How does that tiny heart keep beating, its blood keep flowing? If I feel chilled in my insulated, minimally heated basement, how can there be the sound of a sparrow chirping outside my window on this March morning?
Sweeter than honey are such natural miracles of the Creator’s magical mystery tour.

Metaphorical winters can be deadly, too. Bitter losses and tragedies can smother joy like snow piled high. And still our hearts melt at kind words and stories of compassionate outreach.

In Marianne Robinson’s novel, Lila, she offers an acute perspective on the jarring discomfort we feel when life tosses us between beauty and horror. An elderly minister in the story drafts his sermon and we read this poetic wisdom,

“Life on earth is difficult
 and grave
 and marvellous. 
Our experience is fragmentary. 
Its parts don’t add up. 
They don’t even belong in the same calculation. 

Sometimes it is hard to believe they are all parts of one thing….
joy can be joy
and sorrow can be sorrow
with neither of them casting 
either light or shadow on the other.”

Hang on for a wilder ride than any drug trip: 

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Shocked into Humility

You never know when something’s going to hit you. Today I was struck by some vivid language in the bible book, “Jude”, shocked by how it reads like a current newspaper column about irresponsible politicians or corrupt financiers or faithless church leaders. 
What an accurate description Jude gives of people who are slaves to their own ego, and blind to the limitation of their own perspective. Adamant that they matter more than anyone around them, they machete a bloody path through life, careless of the pain they scatter on all sides.

I’d love to know who comes to mind when you read these excerpts:

“They are waterless clouds carried along by the winds; autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame…” 
“…grumblers and malcontents; they indulge their own lusts; they are bombastic in speech, flattering people to their own advantage.”
“It is these worldly people, devoid of the Spirit, who are causing divisions.” 

Oh, those bad guys! 
Whenever I express concern to my little grandchildren about their watching animated shows full of explosions and “Pows!” they protest “but those are the bad guys!” 
Sadly most of us haven’t fully outgrown such simplistic dualism. Just like many of our leaders we divide humanity into good and bad. 

If so, which am I? Do I ever grumble? Have I ever flattered someone so they'd like me? Do I ever add to the divisions between people by negative comments about some group? I don’t know about you but I am too aware of what I see in the mirror to imagine that I deserve to wear a white hat. A Michael Jackson song comes to mind.

Because we are not purely good guys, the Church season of Lent calls us to self-examination, and a humble turn-around toward God’s better ways. The more clearly we see the mess, the greater our gratitude for Good Friday and Easter morning.

 Jude goes on to encourage us:

“But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ… 

“To him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.”

Michael Jackson, bless his heart, sang that we needed to change the world by first changing ourselves. Jesus said that if we follow him, God's Spirit will give us the ability to live into that change.

Enjoy the music at:

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Happy Valentine's Day!

Is it true love?
What is that fleeting feeling and why is it just the best? You know what I mean -  the moment when you find yourself not just on the same page, but with the very same perspective as another person. I’m not talking romance here. It might be with a stranger or a relative with whom you have little in common when, for a split second, you both connect so fully that you’re like one person instead of two. 

It can happen when a cashier patiently waits for a slow customer rooting through his wallet and you, in line behind him, share a fond smile with the clerk. You catch each other’s eye, just for an instant, and bam, a flash of empathy. 
Babies in public places prompt many such moments – beaming faces all round unite in delighted adoration. 

One wintery day, as I passed a security guard on the sidewalk in front of my bank, I thought I heard a tune being hummed. I did a u-turn and asked "Are you singing?"
He answered, "Oh yes, I am" and broke into "My Girl" a pop song from my youth. I joined him in a street corner duet, "I've got sunshine on a cloudy day...". Pure joy for both of us.

I wonder if these moments are a taste of true love, the mystical idea of universal oneness, the kind of communal connection that Jesus offered humanity.  Does that instant of joy, untainted by any of the usual divisions and egocentricity, show us what the Easter promises meant? Are we glimpsing the coming world where True Love rules, the kind of human wholeness for which “all creation groans”?

I was at Pike Place, the popular outdoor market in Seattle, Washington. Tourist websites had all mentioned the stall where workers threw fish to each other, so I made a beeline there to ask what I had to do to see a fish get thrown. 
“Buy one!” the aproned man replied. Duh.
After I explained that I was on the road and couldn’t cook anything, he cheerily carried on chatting. 

As we stood next to each other, waiting for someone to order a fish, I suddenly felt hands kneading my shoulders and realized that the tall young worker was treating me to a quick massage as he waited for his next customer. If I hadn't been his mother's age, it would have creeped me out. As it was, I relaxed into the pleasure of his strong fingers digging into my tense muscles and then grinned up at him. 
“Will you marry me?” 
He hesitated and quipped, “Uh, how do you feel about student loans?”
We shared a laugh of true love…joy, peace, kindness, goodness. 

Whether we receive Valentine gifts or not, true love surrounds us. Celebrate!

Monday, 2 February 2015

January Fails

January 2015 wasn’t much fun, that’s for sure. 

First I had to endure several outlandishly awful hours for a medical test “they” say is a good idea. I started out feeling just fine before they got their hands on me. Then life stopped for two days of fasting and, shall we say, cleansing. After test day I staggered out of the clinic and typed, stamped, signed, and mailed to my family doctor a vow that no matter what, I will never endure that test again. In my opinion, every person who prescribes a test should experience that test at least once.

Then a beloved in-law died of cancer long before her time. She was exactly my age. For weeks we heard sad updates on her deterioration until the end came in January.  We researched flights, funeral locations, and family preferences in between empathetic tears of sorrow for her children and the grandchildren who would have no memories of this vivacious, athletic woman. I find death unbelievable – how can that lively person be gone from the face of the earth? Impossible reality.

Next I was stricken with gastroenteritis, the fancy term for what we used to call stomach flu. Oh, the tricks one’s body plays while it fights dastardly invaders – REVOLTING and exhausting.
Samuel Johnson said that the prospect of being hanged wonderfully concentrates the mind. Fear and pain likewise detour any determination to be grateful. It’s hard to think about anything but how much it hurts. From the bathroom floor, death by hanging starts to appeal.

During January I heard of people dying in Paris and Nigeria, of suicides and illnesses. Such news added to my own trials, tempting me toward gloom. As you know, all of the Wise Ones affirm the bountiful by-products of suffering. Christianity promises that one day God will fix the mess but meanwhile, what do I do with January’s fails? 
As I age, the probability of more pain ahead, both physical and emotional, is taking centre stage, and I want to know for real how those lovely theories make any practical sense. As my guts twisted I wondered how there could be any good at all in this suffering. HELP! 
Through tears over personal and global pain, I asked God for more understanding re bible statements like, “I can do anything through Christ’s strength in me” and,  “Everything works together for good to those who love God and want to live according to God’s plan.”

God answered me in my distress. Here’s January’s short list of goodness.

1.  The medical test woke me up to the need to take my own welfare in hand and make informed choices now instead of trusting any professionals, beyond mining their expertise as part of my research. No specialist cares about us as much as we care about ourselves.
2. The loss of a fine woman brought about tender and intimate conversations and ways to show loving care that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Maybe shared tears accomplish in a relationship what shared laughter cannot. 

3. A temporary but overwhelming illness deepened my appreciation for my amazing husband with whom, on regular days, I am in continuous frustrating negotiation. Who’s driving when are we leaving are you free then did you eat yet you missed the turn forgot your sunglasses, blah blah blah scream.  During my ugly incapacitation he nursed me patiently, running errands and cooing sympathy, and even afterward continues to tell me I’m beautiful. I could describe what I looked like when I was sick but you do not want to picture it, believe me. I feel so warmly toward him for his faithful caretaking that I haven’t growled for several days now.
And I’m relieved to say that I didn’t lose my temper with him at all while I was ill either, so maybe we can do some things by God’s strength that don’t come naturally.

The forage for goodness continues.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

All Clean Again

Don’t tell my husband, but I just took our car up the street and paid twelve whole dollars for the carwash staff to scrub off the filth. It’s an extravagance we rarely allow in our family’s money management, but our white Honda Fit was covered in dried mud and it’s a beautiful sunny day so I splurged. 

I was a novice at the local carwash so I shamelessly asked the driver waiting in front of me how it worked. She sweetly explained without sneering.

I smiled at every worker I encountered, all men, and without fail they glared stone-faced back at me, poor things.  I wouldn’t feel smiley myself if I were in their boots.

When I reached the cash counter a young woman took my receipt and we chatted. 
Since there was no one waiting behind me I thought it was a good chance to get rid of the heavy coins in my wallet. I took out a $5 bill and emptied my change onto the counter. After finding only five dollars in “loonies” I apologised and started to put my change away, digging for another bill. 
She stopped me.
”No, No, wait, maybe it’s here.” The two of us went through the change together, counting out quarters and dimes.
She was right. We found $7 in coins. Satisfaction, hers. Gratitude, mine. Happiness, shared.

 I moved outside and watched five men towel off my shiny car, with nary an answering smile to my own appreciative grin. Oh God, help them, these cherished sons of yours.

Driving the clean car along in the sunshine felt almost as good as having freshly washed hair. How exciting to be able to see clearly when you’re driving. 

It seems there are metaphors everywhere for spiritual profundities. 
Do I notice them due to my saintly eyes of Christian faith (not), or because a retired person has the time to pay attention, or is it just the effect of my long ago studies in English Lit.? Whatever, I'm grateful.

In Jesus, God offers us the free car wash of redemption (weird religious word). 
Although the process feels painfully slow, God patiently welcomes the worst messes, carefully cleans up what can be used, and sluices away the detritus to bring new clarity and joy.
We get to choose. 
We can grimly endure whatever splashes us, or take it to God, smiling at each other with hope that, one day, the change will all add up.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Playing with Desert Goats and Habakkuk

"God is my strength, giving me feet like the feet of a deer, 
enabling me to go on the heights."
 (Habakkuk 3:18)

It was a California desert trail between the brownest of mountains, no northern evergreen trees or snow-capped glory. The ground was dry, dry, dry, and the steep rocky slopes were covered in gravel. 
There, above us, wild goats, old bearded ones and newborn kids, tapped out a hollow percussion as they hop-skip-jumped from rock to rock. They could turn on a dime, running swiftly up daunting hillsides. It looked like they were having fun and occasional stumbles didn’t take them down.
(If you look hard at the centre-right of the photo you may see a white adult goat looking tiny compared to the huge boulder jutting out from the left.)

God of Jesus, please give my spirit the agility of a mountain goat, the kind of confidence that Habakkuk expressed above, after his lament at the mess in his world (Habakkuk 1:2-4). 
Let me believe, as he did, that with You I can hop, skip and jump over everyday bumps and unwelcome news from near or far. 
Let me hear Your wise direction for my next turn. 
Help me stand firm or take action with a peaceful heart and a playful optimism. 
Remind me, as you reminded Habakkuk, that with You, unimaginable things are possible.

"I am going to do something in your days
that you would not believe, 
even if you were told." 
(Habakkuk 1:5)