Monday, 14 April 2014

Donkey Riding

On the day before Palm Sunday, I sat with four other church women, drinking coffee and checking in with each other before we began our bible discussion - sounds prissy and boring, but it wasn’t. Somebody mentioned Holy Week and Denise, who’s enduring a huge computer mess at work, disgustedly spat out the words, “Holy Week!” like a curse. We all laughed because we knew exactly what she meant. We felt her frustration at the discrepancy between everyday reality and formal church traditions like Easter. 

No matter how sincerely we want to follow Christ’s way of life, sometimes Christian festivals seem like a farce and we feel tired just thinking about them. On Palm Sunday, there's the story about Jesus the Messiah riding a donkey through cheering crowds – we shout “Hosanna” in our pews and wave tropical palm leaves. By Maundy Thursday, the plot comes to Jesus' weeping with dread in Gesthemane’s garden - we kneel in grief as our church sanctuaries go dark and silent. At the Good Friday service, commemorating Christ’s crucifixion, we cringe at the thought of nails splitting human flesh and consider our own guilty role in power grabs. Two days later, “Alleluia, Jesus is risen!” Joyfully, we begin Easter Sunday's celebration, our churches filled with colourful spring flowers and glorious music.
Whew, what a ride.

What do Easter traditions like Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, etc. have to do with actually following Jesus in the way we work, parent, vote or spend  money? Does this festival reflect the rickety jostle of being an intentional Christian or is Holy Week a distraction from reality?

I wondered if it would help to think of Holy Week as a donkey ride, bumpy and risky.
Do you know the old campfire song called “Donkey Riding”? You can find it here with the lyrics, sung by Great Big Sea. I was surprised to read the last verse - it sounds a bit like Palm Sunday! In fact this may be my personal hymn of faith from now on.

Just like the disciples in the bible story, we have high expectations of Jesus. We’d rather our Christianity were practiced and under control, like an expert ride on a thoroughbred horse that clears every jump and wins every race. Why would we follow a Saviour who rides a donkey right onto death row? His contemporary followers were shocked and completely confused. They’d had such high hopes for a rescuing hero. Even when they were amazed by his new life after death their ride was far from smooth. Sound familiar?

Instead, Jesus invited them to hop on with a God who is unpredictable; a Mystery who chose to show up as a Jewish carpenter advocating humble service instead of triumphant success. Christ calls us to mercy instead of retribution. In God’s kingdom we chant “Justice and compassion!” instead of “We’re number one!” For Easter week and for whatever comes next, may we trust God’s love and hang on for the ride. “Way hey and away we go, donkey riding, donkey riding”  

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Four Things That Made Me Smile

1. Driving through suburbia I was amused to see a real life version of those cheesy and rude lawn signs (landscape decorations? more like desecrations). You know the ones. They show the rear view of a bent over woman’s skirt and fat legs, supposedly gardening without bending her knees. I’ve always detested the image but in this case, I had to smile. From my car all I could see of a young woman on the sidewalk was her polka dotted leggings stretched tightly over her legs and her bottom while she tightened her shoe laces without bending her knees. I doubt she was aware of our view.

2. I arrived home already a bit chagrined at having to appear in our rusty wreck of an old van, the one that’s been toting, for six months, mind you, a chaise longue that needs reuphostery. The van is usually hidden behind our cute new Honda Fit but today the Honda was in for a check up. After I parked, I opened the driver's door, got out and then crawled back inside to reach across for all of my stuff that was on the passenger seat. Bad idea. I grabbed a shopping bag, a sunglasses case, gloves, my phone, two library books, and my too-warm coat. Backing awkwardly out of the driver’s door, arms laden, I fumbled the slipping pile. In my desperate flailing to catch everything, my elbow bumped the steering wheel hard. An embarrassing blast from the horn alerted the neighbours. Made me laugh.  

3. In the middle of an exciting charismatic church service, the man beside me sat stone-faced. I, of course, was up and down, moving to the drums, waving my arms to the music. Mostly I avoided meeting anyone’s eyes in order to concentrate on God’s goodness, but a couple of times I glanced at my neighbour, hoping to share the moment. He didn’t return my glance. He sat slouched and stoic. Beside him, his wife managed their very young grandchild. The toddler was as active as you’d expect, climbing around and wandering as far as his grandmother would allow. Her husband ignored them both. Finally, the little one tried to climb onto his grandfather’s lap. I was relieved to see the man help him up and settle him facing forward. The little boy leaned his head onto his grandfather’s chest, rested his baby hands on the much bigger gnarled ones, and then turned his sweet face to look up into his grandpa’s eyes. I couldn’t see if he got any welcoming response but the child’s trusting and hopeful overture made me smile.
"Unless you become like children..." Matt.18:3

4. My neighbour, Sue, was holding a wrapped bouquet while she unlocked her car door.
“Oh, who are the flowers for?”
“My Mom.”
A passing stranger she’d met on the sidewalk had given her the blooms. When asked why, the stranger smiled, “ Oh, just a random act of kindness.” Sue was handing on the unexpected gift to her elderly mother. 
She told me a happy back-story. A couple of days earlier she had noticed a woman running for a bus that carried on without stopping for her. Sue pulled over to offer the stranger a lift to the subway and heard that she was on her way to visit an ailing uncle. Her long trip would include another bus ride even after the subway.
Sue and I smiled at each other, seeing the flowers as a sweet reward for Sue’s previous favour. Karma or an affirmation by our kind Creator. 

Wednesday, 26 March 2014


    Once upon a time there were two middle-aged, single women who lived together in the farming village of Markham, Ontario.  In my mind they transform the insult of "spinster" into an honourable title. Quaintly named "Dixon Riley" and "Kitty Alderson", they were refined women who lived in a modern ranch-style bungalow near my family’s ramshackle two-story. 
My parents had little money for décor or landscaping. By the time I came along as their fourth baby, they were too busy keeping food on our table to give us children much individual attention. Our mother wasn’t the expressive type; my little girl self was starved for both emotional warmth and aesthetic joy. 

Perhaps surprisingly, a fundamentalist Christian upbringing made me confident of God’s love, instead of driving me away from spirituality, the way it has some. While I credit that confidence to many adults from my youth, my trust in God surely stems partly from the kindness of Miss Riley and Miss Alderson.

Once a week they hosted a children’s club for any neighbourhood kids who wanted to attend. A gang of kids regularly showed up at their house. I loved arriving at their manicured gardens and nicely decorated living room, an oasis of beauty and peace away from my stormy home. 

They must have rearranged their furniture every week because I picture our sitting in rows of chairs. I remember the feeling of being truly welcomed when quiet Miss Alderson took my coat and Miss Riley greeted me with gentle words and a smile. There was no sense that they ever worried about our rambunctiousness in their pretty home.

 Somehow Miss Riley kept us entertained with games, bible stories in felt-board pictures, and songs about how Jesus loved us. We eagerly waited until the end of the club meeting when one of us would find a prize taped to the underside of our chair. I'm seeing a foot-long, pink-swirled stick of candy.

Only years later did I appreciate the effort, time, and expense these two women put into each weekly event. Like all children, I was self-absorbed. I know that I eagerly received every pat on the head, every cookie, and every encouraging word.

Thinking back, I admire Miss Riley’s memorization technique of removing from the felt board one word at a time, as together we shouted the bible verse over and over until we could all say it without any text left to prompt us.
I still entertain my husband with my sing-song recital of one verse I learned in the Shakespearean English of the King James Bible, “Man looketh on the OUTward appearance but the LORD looketh on the heart.”
Timeless truth.

If there is an after-life when we will see those we’ve lost, I hope to hug these two unassuming, childless women. I want to hear their life they became the generous women I knew. And I will be so glad to thank them for helping me believe in a God who loves.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

There She Is Again Part II

“Any visitors here today?”
 I put my hand up. 
“Where are you from?” 
Toronto! I’m just getting over my frost-bitten lungs after visiting your city a couple of weeks ago.”

I was in a Spanish-style building in southern California, a continent away from my hometown where I’ve given up on attending church. I was at the worship service partly for my husband’s sake and partly because I had noticed La Jolla Lutheran’s lawn sign that read simply, “We follow Jesus”.
Now that’s the kind of church I dream of – one where following Jesus took precedence over ego, where apologies and forgiveness would be the norm, where humility and the desire to improve ruled. That kind of church could make a difference in the local community.

Imagine my surprise when the minister proceeded to spend half of his sermon recounting a story set in Toronto. With wit and self-deprecation he told how years ago he had encountered the supernatural presence of God at what is now called "Catch the Fire", a church near Toronto's Pearson airport. He attended meetings during a “revival”, a phenomenon that sometimes springs up when people become deeply hungry for the new way of life that Jesus offered the world. At these meetings many people experienced strange sensations and inexplicable physical healings that convinced them of God’s reality and Jesus’ divinity. 
The minister’s stories were the kind that cause the same two reactions that people in bible times had to Jesus. Either this is really God or that guy’s totally lost his rational mind.

The preacher admitted that he himself had remained sceptical until he collected more evidence, but that he eventually became convinced that God does things that don't necessarily make sense to us. His thesis was that we should avoid scornfully dismissing what others do or say before we consider whether it could be of God. We can't confine the Eternal One to our comfy Sunday rituals or familiar traditions. 

I had a hard time sitting quietly in my pew as I thought, “There She is again!”
I sensed the One who is greater than the internet, the One capable of attending to every human being simultaneously, not to offer clear answers like a search engine, but to interact with each one of us intentionally, like the wisest of coaches. If we're willing, it seems that God shows us how to change for the better, enlivening us to add love and justice to our corner of the planet, just as the members of this local church were doing.
Instead of scolding me for not hanging in there at any church right now, apparently God looked with love on my hopeless disillusionment and surprised me with this visit to one church that seemed to be serious about following Jesus. These Christians didn’t only put up a lawn sign that stated their commitment, they also hosted a free art show for local artists, staffed an overnight shelter and diningroom for homeless folks and provided sermons that warned pew-sitters not to be judgemental. 

Is my thinking so simplistic and self-focussed that I imagine the Source of Life arranged a special church service in California for this Torontonian on the one Sunday in February, 2014 when I'd be at La Jolla Lutheran? Haven't I noticed that  there are important global issues that need divine intervention?
There you have the paradoxical mystery of Christian belief. God, who is beyond human understanding, uses every way, in every place and time, to whisper to every person,
"Here I am. My love for you is endless. If you look for me, you will find me. I intend to heal creation and I hope you will join me. Follow Jesus." 

Maybe, on that morning in delightful San Diego, my eyes and ears were wider open than usual. The Pacific's gorgeous surf roared nearby and days earlier I’d been stunned by the miracle of tiny streams trickling through the vast stony desert at Borrego Springs. It was easy for my vacationing heart to well with gratitude and delight. There She was again, God's invisible self, in a church building, of all places.

It’s harder to feel the same joy and confidence when I'm writing today in my Toronto basement during freezing winter weather (yes, still). And, yes, I still don't know a local church where I would fit in. But as I endure the annual wait for Spring's green uprising, I’m remembering the hard truth described in Hebrews 11:1,
"Faith is the assurance 
that what we hope for will come about, 
and the certainty that what we cannot see exists."

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Blue Chip

 The flight was scheduled for 6:00 p.m. so we arrived at the airport at 4:00. I had slept badly the night before because of a cold and was in that worst phase when you can hardly breathe, your nose is running, you’re coughing and your throat is starting to hurt. All I wanted to do was sleep, but instead we began the process of lugging suitcases, backpacks and my purse that held the vital travel documents through check-in, luggage-drop and American customs. I kept drinking water and coughing and rummaging for more kleenex.

We thought we knew the tiresome routine. Quelle surprise! Our dear neighbours to the south have instituted an extra treat for visitors to their country. After check-in, American customs now includes waiting for an available computer kiosk where you insert your passport, opened to your photo, and stare at a camera that takes a new photo and prints it out.  With print-out (and passport and boarding pass) in hand, you then haul yourself and your carry-ons over to the next official who looks at your print-out and your passport to see if they match, before discarding the printout into a garbage can and waving you wordlessly on to the next part of security. Just what we needed, one more step in the tedious process. 

Next you must take off your shoes, empty your pockets, remove your belts and, like half-dressed children, listen to loudly repeated instructions and threats by the adults in uniform.
“Any liquids should be discarded or consumed or you may be taken aside to have your luggage searched... Any liquids should be disc…”
In sock feet you nervously shuffle through an x-ray doorway, your eyes glued on the stern guard who stares impassively at you and then checks her screen. Will she nod her permission to proceed or send you back to try again for entrance to paradise? Given the go-ahead, you feel pressed by the huddled masses behind you to get out of the way quickly. You hurriedly grab up armfuls of your scattered possessions and hop on one foot in order to put on your shoes on and feel like a grown-up again.
No one offered a smiling, “Welcome to America.” 

We finally made it onto the plane just after 6:00, and dutifully strapped ourselves into the tiny padded cells where we would be confined for our five hour trip from Toronto to California.
Oh, how friendly the "Captain" sounded as he welcomed us and thanked us for choosing Air Canada.
 “We will be taking off shortly after a quick stop for de-icing.” Having never been de-iced before, I believed him.
Yes, it was snowing in Toronto and we were grateful that our flight hadn’t been cancelled. That’s the last moment I can remember having a warm feeling of gratitude.
From then on I quoted to myself, through gritted teeth, bible verses about joy and peace.
Time passed in the cramped and over-heated plane. As usual I had turned on every air-vent I could reach, desperate for a calming breeze. More time passed and our plane continued to sit at the de-icing station. I drank water to soothe my throat, sucked on cough drops, and blew my nose, cough, cough. An hour passed and the plane's wheels didn’t move an inch but could we use the toilets? No, we could not. The seat belt lights were still on. 

“Do not lose your inward peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset.” St. Frances de Salles
You know, at my age, I’m fed up with the fact that every bit of good advice is easier said than done.

Eventually the trucks surrounded our plane and sprayed it with something green. 
We’re moving! Of course the seat belt lights stayed on for take-off and ascent to “cruising” level. I calculated that by now it had been two hours between the last opportunity passengers had had to use the washrooms in the airport lounge and the moment when the seat belt lights first dinged off.
 You should have seen the stampede! It was a race to unclip seatbelts and line up in the aisle for the measly two washrooms provided for us plebs. Instead of politely asking her to move, I climbed rapidly and apologetically over the poor woman who was sitting in the aisle seat of my row and managed to be third in line at the “Occupied” door. Luckily for me, I was heading back to my seat past the rest of the anxious line-up when I heard a “ding”. 
“The Captain has turned the seat belt lights on. Would all passengers please return to their seats” 
Are you kidding? What were those poor people supposed to do? Amazingly, they dutifully left the washroom line-up and returned to pull a seat belt across their distended bladders and wait until the evil lights went off again. 

For the next five hours it was like every slapstick comedy – funny to watch but miserable to experience. Desperate passengers would stand up to head for relief and an announcement would start, “Would all passengers please return to their seats until the Captain turns off the seat belt lights?” I silently cheered one elderly man when he defied the command by continuing toward the washrooms past the flight attendants who were happily strapped in, doing nothing for most of the flight except telling passengers to go back and sit down. Mercifully they allowed him to use the bathroom despite the Captain's orders.
Every time the lights turned off there would be another rush to the aisle and a few lucky souls could take their turn squeezing into a cubicle before the now-hated Captain’s voice would start again, “Sorry folks, we’re experiencing more turbulence. Please return to your …”
I started fantasizing about the turbulence I’d like to cause by storming the cockpit and demanding entrance to the flight crew’s washroom. 

Meanwhile, the cabin was stifling. Furthermore, the movies and TV shows offered were feeble and few, half of the screen's "menu" unavailable. I was tired and I was ill. By the time we arrived at San Diego airport I had prepared a short speech for the Captain, but he was nowhere to be found as we exited the plane.

It was midnight, Toronto time. We trudged though another airport and after the excitement of finding our luggage on the carousel, hauled it outside to wait for a shuttle bus to the car rental location.
“There’s a Thrifty’s van! Oh, it’s already full and pulling away.” 
When we jostled with other arrivees to get on the next shuttle I felt bad for those with children, but not quite bad enough to let them take the last seats on the van. For hours I’d been praying like Ann Lamott, “Help me, please”, so that I didn’t murder anyone (the Captain in particular). I was a wreck.

After a short, bumpy ride, twenty of us were about to leap from the shuttle and form yet another line (at midnight, mind you) for our rental cars. My husband and I strategized, having lost all compassion for other human beings.
 “I’ll get the luggage. You run to the Blue Chip desk.”
I'm proud that I beat everyone else, especially those with little kids, to the First Class, Blue Chip desk, and shamelessly called out, “Is anyone serving the Blue Chip?” as the crowd stared at me through bleary eyes.
Sure enough, Thrifty staff snapped to and we were in our rental car and pulling out of the driveway while those other people were still standing in line with their exhausted children and luggage, waiting for their turn at the NOT-Blue-Chip counter.

How sorry I felt for them all as we drove away. How happy I was that we had filled in the free registration forms for Blue Chip service at Thrifty’s. How much more I loved my sick and tired self than I cared about anyone else in the world. How fervently I vowed never to fly Air Canada again. How grateful I was for an ordinary bedroom at a nearby Best Western hotel as I lay down at 2:00 a.m.
Sad but true.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

There She Is Again

The ocean was wild that day.
The first rainfall in months was hitting southern California and storm winds blasted the shoreline. Just outside La Jolla’s famous Children’s Cove, we watched sea lions ride the surf. One baby sea lion was having trouble escaping the waves to follow its mother up onto the beach where they could rest from the hectic water ride. Although every wave pushed the small animal shoreward, the outgoing water sucked it back into the sea. Blindly, the baby kept heading right for a cement staircase that people used during low tide, and the waves were dashing the little one again and again onto those hard steps. It was painful to watch and a few of us couldn’t help groaning aloud, lamenting each time the baby missed the chance to head for the open beach instead of the staircase. Tension grew as we waited helplessly.

But instinctive mother-love prevailed. The mother sea lion returned again and again, calling to the baby, and doing her best to get between the waves and her offspring, steering the little one toward safety.
What a relief to see the baby finally swim in a different direction. They both slid up onto the beach and awkwardly humped across the sand until they were beyond reach of the dangerous waves.

A few minutes later we watched another mother who wasn’t so lucky. At the more sheltered shore inside the cove, tourists line the fences to see dozens of sea lions and seals that are always lolling on the sand. The group included several babies who stuck close to their mothers. Some of these pairs looked to be having fun, playing together in the waves before landing. In dismay we noticed one little body that wasn’t moving. Its mother was pushing it further up the sand to keep the waves from washing it ocean-ward but it would just drift back with each wave. At one point she grabbed a flipper in her mouth to drag it to safety. When she got it away from the water, she lay down beside it. Once in a while she would nudge it with her nose, clearly not understanding yet that it was dead. We guessed it must have drowned in a struggle similar to the other we had seen. For as along as we could bear to watch, this mother stayed beside the small corpse.
I felt sad, hoping that animals don’t have the emotions they  seem to express. I thought of the many human mothers who have lost a child and how I daren’t even imagine their grief.

And then I recognized that I was glimpsing a part of God. There S/He was in these mother seals, showing us a miniscule picture of how much She loves each one of us, her human offspring, of how She faithfully and endlessly tries to nudge us in the right direction, of how She longs for us to live life fully. Everywhere I look, there She is again.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Gnocchi No More

It was Valentine’s Day and my dear husband had planned a surprise outing to add to his romantic gifts of a glorious bouquet and my favourite chocolates.
I assumed we’d be driving downtown to a restaurant for lunch, but instead we headed out of the city and north past snow-covered farm fields. After several dry and ugly Toronto winters, this year’s repeated snowfalls had kept every landscape sparkling white, exquisite in both sunshine and moonlight. 
We arrived at an old stone mill beside an ice-laced river. Yippee! We had lunch reservations at the Inn’s elegant dining room.
After a brisk walk through snowy pine trees we took our seats and warmed up with wine, anticipating a very special meal.

When we scanned the menu I was a little disappointed that their only meatless entrée was gnocchi, those gluey dumplings that I had tasted once but would never prefer over other options. However, since I don’t lack for food and was touched by my husband’s thoughtful plans for Love Day, I just ordered the gnocchi. We both enjoyed parsnip and apple “veloute” (fancy word for soup), as our appetizers, and my tummy was happy to just taste the gnocchi and make the best of it without complaint.

As my Husband enjoyed his pork entree, I ate a few gnocchi in a tasty cream sauce but stopped well before half was gone, laying my cutlery in the usual “I’m done” position. He asked if my dish wasn’t good. I explained that it was just fine but I wasn’t a fan of dumplings and really I’d thoroughly enjoyed the soup and felt full enough, thankyou, Darling. Please don’t worry about it.

Unfortunately, this was not your local diner. When our server next returned, she noticed my plate. No matter what I said, she was worried that I would be a dissatisfied customer. She offered to bring me something else on the menu. I was forced to confess that I didn’t eat meat but that the soup had been excellent and I had eaten enough and she didn’t need to do anything further. She remained unconvinced, but after multiple apologies took my plate away.

Minutes later she returned. The chef was not happy that I hadn’t enjoyed his gnocchi (Boy, do I know how to pronounce that Italian word now). He was making me my own special vegetarian dish if I wouldn’t mind waiting a bit.
I was already full and we were almost ready to leave, but clearly I couldn’t refuse the gesture and break culinary hearts on Valentine’s Day. As we waited I worried, not only because I felt full, but because I’m more of a no-meat person than a true vegetarian who would relish tofu and seaweed. What would appear that I would be obliged to eat politely? Many cooks reach for eggplant as a meat substitute - ugh. We grinned across the linen table cloth at each other, chuckling at the silly dilemma this luxury meal had wrought.

Next thing I knew, a handsome young man appeared from the kitchen, dressed in an apron and tall white hat, scanning the room for the woman who had rejected his expert cooking. He zeroed in on me and approached with a dinner plate in his hands.
I smiled with embarrassment and apologised for not eating his undoubtedly perfectly prepared GNOCCHI, as he placed a brown and green thing in front of me with a flourish. He proceeded to describe in detail such a long list of ingredients that all I can remember is the word “edamame”. At least I’d heard the word before. I silently wondered whether it meant seaweed or beans. The chef had been so kind (and was so cute) that I beamed grateful smiles at him and fawned excessively. “Thankyou so much! You did not need to do this. How good of you!” Babble, babble.

Now what?
I stared at my plate. There was some kind of thick white “veloute” beneath a large pile of tiny brown beans, many stringy mushrooms and a heap of watercress. My gut groaned at the prospect, but I dug in. 
It’s too bad I don’t have a clue what I ate because it tasted delicious. The chef out-did himself with his esoteric concoction. But I was not hungry. I begged my husband for help. He, a committed meat-lover, selflessly ate a few mouthfuls and then pushed back my plate and fork with only half the food gone.
Well…I refused to leave these hard working restaurant employees feeling badly. Gulp. One forkful at a time I slowly finished every last bean and sprout on that plate. When she returned, I told our delighted server that it had been scrumptious and sent my sincere compliments to the chef. I managed not to scream, "NO!" when she asked if we would like to order dessert.

After staggering out to our car I heard from my husband that my meal (both of them) had been “comped”. How kind. Moan.  At least vegetarian food is inexpensive for the restaurant.

It took an uncomfortably long time to drive home. I spent the next 12 hours tossing and turning in bed, sleeplessly cancelled my next morning’s responsibility and vowed never to look at another gnocchi.
My husband and I will laugh together every time we remember the Valentine’s Day that held so much extra love that I could barely stomach it all.