Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Gasping at Serendipity

Early one Spring, before any green leaves had appeared in Toronto, I noticed in a nearby park a bush whose branches were lined, every inch, with vibrant purple-pink flowers. From a park employee I learned that, contrary to its colour, the bush was named, “Redbud”. In all of my Ontario life I’d not seen this gorgeous magenta bloomer. 
Imagine my surprise, then, when recently I drove past acres of Virginian forests decorated with vivid Redbud bushes.  Here and there the woods were dotted with other trees blooming white or yellow, accentuating the Redbud's neon pink. I could hardly cope with the beauty as we sped along, gasping in grateful awe.
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During one stop on the same road trip, I walked through the colonial village of Williamsburg, VA, and happened on a sheep pasture. Two cute lambs stayed close to their grubby, waddling ewe-mothers. Our random group of tourists and locals smiled as we fondly watched the babies. At one point the lambs trotted down a small hill and, as they ran, one leapt straight up, with all four hooves off the ground. Anyone who’s seen new lambs in Springtime knows that these sudden hops look like the little animals are jumping for joy. 
The best surprise was hearing the sound all around me, as complete strangers joined in surprised delight. No one leapt into the air, but pure joy generated our spontaneous chorus of  “Aww’s.”
This, I thought, this is the kind of united “Yes!” that our Creator wants for us.  L’Chaim!
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At a hotel elevator, I stood waiting silently beside another guest. I noticed his shoulder bag, looking a bit incongruous on a middle-aged man. Hanging low at his side, the raggedy patchwork of cloth had been worn into a wonky art piece.
“I like your bag”, I said.
His face opened in a big smile,
“Thankyou! This is my favourite bag. I saw it at my brother’s house and admired it and he gave it to me! I’ve used it for seven years!” 
Charming enthusiasm.
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At Okrakoke Island, NC, a National Park beach borders miles of the Atlantic Ocean. On the Outer Banks in April, few locals or tourists visit the shore so I was alone with the spectacular expanse of sky, sea and sand. Feeling the breeze on my skin, and hearing waves whooshing rhythmically, I noticed Nature’s extra garnish of the scene. At high tide mark the hard, damp sand was lined with a mosaic of seashells, each one a detailed design of stripes, ridges, multicolours and curves. Gasp. 
Extravagant abundance.
Alleluia.

This web address will let you enjoy Jane Sibbery’s song about life’s beauty: https://youtu.be/Pj0eSfz7YZM


Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Gobble, Gobble

It wasn’t Thanksgiving or Christmas but “gobble, gobble” is the sound I heard in my head.
I realised that I was hurrying through the several subscription emails I receive daily, gobbling them up quickly by only skimming their content.  
This behaviour makes no sense because the point of these particular emails is inspiration. 
I have chosen to read, every morning, a few good writers who carefully craft short pieces about intentional living. This is my attempt to follow the wise advice from the Bible and from current behavioural psychologists: We will be healthier, happier and more productive if we fill our minds with positive and true thoughts, avoiding the negative self-talk that results in discouragement and self-centred wallowing.
Good idea, but too often I rush through these writings in order to get on with my day. I don’t have the excuse of employment or babies that demand my time so why do I gobble up five emails without taking time to think at length about any of them?

I also gobble food when I’m alone. Instead of savouring one cookie, I reach for a second immediately, as long no one’s there to disapprove. You’d think I’d been deprived as a child, or that I’m scarce on resources. Why this tendency to eat far more than necessary?

I gobble up books so fast that I remember little of what I read and often draw a blank if someone asks what I’m reading these days. I was amused and convicted by one author’s admission that her way of avoiding life is to make sure she has another book ready for when she finishes the current one. Uh-oh. Luckily for me and my book lust, the Toronto Public Library system is reputed to be one of the best, so there are always more books available. 

I consider myself a contemplative who has learned (mostly) to focus gratefully on the present moment, whether I’m waiting in a checkout line or chatting with a neighbour on the street, so what’s with the hungry gobbling? 
Back to school for me!
“…the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, will teach you all things
 and will remind you of everything I have said to you." Jesus 

Monday, 6 April 2015

Squirrel Synchronicity

Ah, the first joys of Spring! 
On a still-cold walk through the neighbourhood I noticed her, sitting on a low bushy branch, a red-breasted bird. Hurrah for this year's first sighting, “Hi Robin, welcome back!” 

I moved along to feisty little Mimico Creek. Now crowded by development and buttressed by ugly gabions, it winds through Toronto’s west end heading for Lake Ontario. Careless garbage mars its banks, and yet it offers the luscious sound of water tumbling over stones, as mallard ducks ride the current. How can it never, ever, ever, ever  stop flowing? This constancy always seems like an impossible miracle and reminds me of when I was intrigued in elementary school by the "precipitation cycle".

Aha! I almost swooned when I saw some green shoots in a  sunny garden warmed up early by a stone wall’s backdrop. No blooms yet, but I recognized the first new leaves of tulip, iris and hyacinth. Three cheers!

The crisp quietness was interrupted by a vehement “CAW” from a king of the world on a high, bare branch, no reticence for him. Shout it out - Hallelujah!

Outside the daycare, toddlers in parkas pushed plastic lawnmowers across their snow-free asphalt play yard. Like sprouting bulbs those miniature bodies were growing toward adulthood. 

Suddenly, from out of a driveway rushed two squirrels, barrelling right toward me on the road. I froze in panic; which way should I move? Just in time, they noticed me, slammed on their brakes and pulled sharp right turns with parallel synchronicity. I laughed as they dashed away in their spring fever.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Holey, Wholly, Holy

Call it Easter Week or call it Holy Week, for Christians this week is the biggest annual festival of all.
Forgive the punning, but my holey self wants to enter wholly into this sacred celebration. The timeless story of Jesus Christ's execution and resurrection prompts a spectrum of thoughts and feelings.  

On this part of the planet, we’re crawling out of winter’s stark cold. Trees are still bare and there are no flowers at all. Nature's lingering death season makes it easy for us to identify with the dark hopelessness of the characters in the bible's Easter story. When everything we see is grey-brown it's almost impossible to believe that the greening will ever arrive. 
Besides his family and friends, and hundreds he had healed, lepers, blind people, the mentally ill and sick children, Rabbi Jesus had also embraced local cast-aways, like a Jewish woman deemed “unclean” because of her chronic bleeding, a financial cheater named Zack, an adulteress woman on the verge of being stoned to death.  All of these, so grateful for Christ’s miraculous kindness and life-changing message, must have felt bleak beyond bearing at the news of his arrest.

This week, on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Vigil Saturday we imagine what it was like for his followers at his last Passover meal where he spoke and acted in confusing ways. When his team disappointed him by falling asleep as he begged for their support, how did it feel for him and for them? Led by insiderJudas who kissed Christ's cheek, terrifying soldiers arrived to arrest him and chaos erupted as the disciples scattered and Christ was dragged away. Next came excruciating torture and finally his grim death by crucifixion. 

Re-hearing the ugly story with its elements of weakness, fear and betrayal, Christians think about our own cowardice when it comes to standing up for the poor, or to speaking out against wrongs.
We recognize our fears for the future.
We admit our own reluctance to take seriously Christ’s way of healthy humility that eagerly helps others.
We confess that we clutch our possessions tightly, murmuring privately, "Mine, mine, mine.”
We remember thousands of our sisters and brothers who are without safe drinking water and adequate nutrition, never mind our ham-happy Easter dinners and egg hunts.
What can we do but throw our puny selves face-down in our helpless hope for God’s forgiveness. We deserve nothing but punishment for the ways we have messed up our relationships, our ecosystems, our human community.

And then Sunday comes. Relieved and excited, we greet the dawn, millions of us all around the planet, reliving Mary's astonished shout, “I have seen him! He’s alive!” 

Better than the sight of Spring's green shoots, better than a newborn's arrival, better than a wedding day, Easter morning's shocking news calls for wild joy. Trumpets sound and the party’s on. Countless voices over the centuries in every language announce, "Once I was blind but now I can see. Once I was dead to hope but now I can trust. Once I was handcuffed in so many ways but now I am free. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!"

In the biggest mystery of all, somehow, Jesus the promised One rose from his grave to an unending new life. He was God's open invitation to peace, justice, kindness, and all goodness, welcoming all. The Life-Giver, the Holy Someone beyond our imagining, deigns to accompany us every day, to enliven us with the Love that wins.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

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: 
www.youtube.com/watch?v=PivWY9wn5ps