First Sunday in Advent

 It was one of those “serving” kind of weekends. On Friday night I served at the Seniors and Singles Dinner. Some good folks, both women and men, take it upon themselves every other month or so to organize an amazing dinner for the seniors and singles of our church. For only $10.00, they get mashed potatoes and gravy, meatballs, ham, baked beans, corn, green beans, applesauce, an assortment of rolls and breads, cauliflower and carrot casserole, seven-layer salad, cheesecake with raspberries, lemon squares and diabetic Mississippi mudpie. Not a word of a lie. All that, and seconds, for $10.00. Volunteers like me show up to serve and to help clean up. After dinner, the seniors play shuffleboard or cards or just sit and talk.

I served alongside my catechism student, Hannah, and her sister, Mackenzie, who was in my catechism class two years ago, and their mom, Tracy, who was my student in Grade 7 and Grade 8 at John Knox, and their grandma, Gertie. And NO, I’m not old enough to have taught her… :-). I chatted with fellow-gardeners Anita and Theresa as we cleaned up all the dishes, separating the “good” silverware from the ordinary silverware and putting all the dishes away. I snapped some photos for the next DVD I make about our church family.

Today I had to serve as an usher at church. That’s one of my new volunteer jobs, but it’s darn easy – just smile and hand out bulletins. The only hard part about that job is getting myself out the door in time. I had my camera with me again so I could take some shots of our guest bell ringers from Christ Church Anglican. These mature women in their bright red blouses were simply beautiful to me. Their black gloved hands rose and fell gracefully as they played their bells. I was amazed by the hushed hum they coaxed from the bells as they waved wooden wands around them.

 It was my turn to teach Sunday school today to my special needs student. I asked him if he wanted me to pray for anything special. He said, “No, everybody’s good,” so we thanked the Lord that everyone in his family is good and we prayed for our church family upstairs, too. The story today was about the ten lepers, all of whom said, “Please, Jesus, heal me,” but only one of whom returned to say “Thank you.” He was delighted with the story because it included the sign language for “please” and “thank you,” and he knew those signs. We completed our Sunday school papers and then played Pop-a-matic Trouble. We were getting lots of sixes, so we raced through the game. Today I won. Usually I don’t. We read a rhyming book about Zaccheus and then the considerate custodian brought him a cup of juice and then we were done.

 I had nursery duty in the afternoon service. There were only two children, a brother and sister, both cute as a button, and they both cried when their mom left. In no time, I had the little girl sharing a book with me and the little guy arranging farm animals in a barn. He laughed when I tried to put an elephant in the barn. “That doesn’t belong,” he told me. We read a lot of books. I read two different versions of “The Wheels on the Bus,” singing the song both times. I wasn’t even embarrassed that my teenaged assistant was there listening. He’s heard me sing many times anyway because he was my student back in Grade 5.

 We chatted a bit. He told me how school was going, about his summer job roofing with his dad, and what he hopes to do when he’s done high school. He wants to be a math teacher, so we talked about teaching for a bit. I told him it was an awesome career and he’d be good at it. He brought me up-to-date on his brothers and sister and told me about his Doberman.

 So, a busy weekend. Psalm 1:6 tells us that the Lord watches over the way of the righteous. Heaven knows I’m far from righteous. I know some of my own sins and failures all too well. The Lord knows them all. But a weekend like this brings me hope. My sinful self is there, counted, among God’s righteous people. I’m doing my best to be a blessing to them and they are, in turn, blessing me. God is watching over us all. I find hope in that.

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Some reading I’ve been doing…

Not that long ago, I finished reading Walter Brueggemann’s book, Journey to the Common Good, one of my Calvin College Bookstore purchases on my GR road trip with my good friend, Diane Plug. I keep wishing I had time to blog about it more comprehensively. I’ll read the book again, but it left me very unsettled. I found his discussion of Exodus, Jeremiah and Isaiah very much driven by an economic interpretation and his comparisons of the temple’s destruction to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 rather forced.
 
He’s a well-known scholar and I usually like reading stuff that challenges me, but this book made me exceptionally uncomfortable. His analysis of the extent of social justice concerns in the OT is good… and it’s much broader than I had previously ever realized. On the other hand, I felt like “my” OT was being hijacked. His negativity about the priests and criticism of the “regimentations of holiness” instituted by the priests left me confused. I had always been led to believe that the levels of the temple (from outer courts to the Holy of Holies) were commanded by God and had their spiritual functions. He maintains that these divisions were indicative of a “wrong” desire to differentiate people into castes and classes (like Egypt). He is critical of the wealth that Solomon pours into the temple as evidence of materialism and a love for gold and power (again, like Egypt). I always thought that the luxury materials were used to honour God. I’d always been led into OT stories and books through a “moral” door… God’s chosen people versus the pagan nations, the faithful versus the unfaithful. The lens was always spiritual, rather than economic. Not to suggest that the “moral” lens was necessarily the correct one, either. As I grow older, I sense how that lens conveniently ignores the social justice verses and the earthiness and physicality of OT stories. 
 
The good thing is that it made me grapple again (as did Sarah Miles’s book Jesus Freak) with the extent to which our own agendas and traditions drive our reading of Scripture. I will probably tackle the book once more… this may not be a fair reading. Just my first impressions…  
 

After my disenchantment the Walter Brueggemann book (some of which I still think might be related to the fact that I don’t really want to hear his message about economic justice), I’ve come across a wonderful book on culture by Andy Crouch called Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. I’ve been delighted with how many new things I’m learning. This is a great book for anyone who is interested in the intersection of Christianity and culture.

Crouch has a chapter on why God chose Israel (because she was the least of the nations) and why he plunked her in a place of central geographic importance (Canaan) to be a witness to the cultures roundabout. The smallness and peculiarity of Israel as a chosen people was intentionally tested by the location of the Promised Land in the midst of cosmopolitan cultural currents. Israel was in the very eye of the cultural hurricane of the day, not in some safe remote location. Some of this I had dimly grasped before, but the emphasis was always on Israel’s faithfulness spiritually. Crouch does a good job of expanding this to a cultural witness as well, that Israel had to model culture that was God-directed and God-informed, not just a religious or spiritual direction that was different than her neighbours.
 
Crouch does an awesome job of calling Christians to do more than condemn, critique or absorb culture, but to create new culture that is honest, genuine and reflective of thoughtful Christian convictions.
 
I’m very pumped by this book. Where Brueggemann’s book made me feel he was stretching the biblical text to fit an external kind of economic overlay that he was invested in, Crouch’s book is making me feel like “Yes, that’s substantiated by the text. How didn’t I see that before?” or “Wow. That’s cool. That fits with what I’ve always understood but takes it a step further into a broader context!”
 
I’ve got post-it notes all through the book. 🙂
 
 

Season of Thankfulness

(Christian Courier column, Oct.24th issue) 

I was asked if I would be willing to put up a Thanksgiving bulletin board at church. I said, “Sure.” So I went home to check out my boxes and supplies. That’s when it hit me – I’m a hoarder. I have over 200 pieces of student artwork, 30 journals, 20 poetry projects, six or seven essays by high school students, and about 100 hundred short stories, poems and paragraphs written by elementary students. I have all my daybooks from over two decades of teaching. I have 8 binders filled with scrounged “good ideas” and dozens of file folders with articles on pedagogical topics and bulletin board ideas. Maybe I need a reality show intervention.

 I’ve been retired five years now from teaching in the Christian school system. I wonder why I have such a hard time letting go of this stuff. I do not plan to return to teaching. Yet the physical process of weaning myself from the “stuff” of my career has turned out to be more emotional than I expected. I can’t do it. Somehow that stuff is me, every piece of art, every creative story written by an eager student, every exam I labored over, all those files so carefully organized.

 I sort through art samples looking for Thanksgiving ideas. Time collapses. Here’s a pastel composition, lilac blossoms and tulips exquisitely rendered by a Grade 6 student. A lesson on foreground and background. Here’s a seagull, painstakingly created from construction paper confetti. A lesson on texture. It took incredible patience by a Grade 8 student, working with a toothpick and a gluestick, to layer hundreds of circles into a perfectly-proportioned bird in flight.

 

Each essay, story and poem reminds me of the challenges of teaching writing: that initial writer’s block, the tedium of drafts, first and second, and sometimes third, stapled together, my handwritten encouragements on the back. The stunning results that can still move me, like this perceptive haiku by a Grade 7 student:

Winter’s gentle snow

falling weightless as paper,

weighing down branches.

 I’ve counted. My best estimate, given the vagaries of record-keeping and students who sometimes slip into a school and out again before you’ve even found a desk for them, is that I’ve taught over 600 students. Like their art and their stories, somehow they, too, are “me.” The one who made me cry in the staff room in my first year, the one whose compassion I counted on every day for two years to offer support to a disadvantaged peer, the one who lost his dad, the three who lost their moms, the one who was intelligent but couldn’t read, the one who was bullied and the one who bullied, the one who sang like an angel, the one who made me want to quit, the one who played Anne Frank so brilliantly in my first big drama production, the one who told me to f*** off, the one who was so gifted I felt abashed to teach him. They’ve written their names on my heart. I’ve become huge, bigger than myself, stretched, each one expanding my capacity to believe, to forgive, to endure, to love.  

 Now, on the other side of the career, it occurs to me that these hoarded bits and pieces of student work, cobbled together in my imagination, form my own pointillistic masterpiece, each one emblematic of a tiny dot of effort in the moment. Fleeting, random. But, stepping back from the canvas, the flecks and dabs arrange themselves into a “still life” portrait. A thankful woman. Me. The one who thought she was teaching when she was really being taught.

 When I was teaching, busy, busy, busy, attending to the details of the job, raising a family, supporting church and school ventures, if I was thankful, I was thankful on the fly. Sometimes I was too depleted or too frustrated to be thankful. But retirement is a season of thankfulness. With all those names inscribed on my past, I carry a precious koinonia, a fellowship of teaching and learning, into my future, whatever it may bring. 

  I’ll keep those boxes in the basement. They remind me how immeasurably blessed I was to have participated in a communal and incarnational endeavor where the classroom was redeemed by the presence of Christ and the chalk dust and mud in the hallway was holy ground.

And now I recognize that my imaginary artwork is not mine at all. See there in the corner?  It’s signed by God.

The mystic in the Dutch library

(Christian Courier Column, September 26, 2011)

I’m the bulletin editor at our church. I was doing my Thursday job in the Dutch Library, running off 150 bulletins, 116 inserts for the mail slots, and 40 children’s bulletins. Yes, believe it or not, we still have a “Dutch Library.” And it’s used regularly! There are a few faithful seniors (mostly women) who borrow the (mostly romantic) books with their 1950s covers depicting glamorous young ladies who are in dire need of some sincere Christian gentlemen to rescue them. There are no cards to sign out the books, and no one is keeping track. To be fair, there are also a large number of seriously weighty Dutch theological books, unremarkably bound with plain, boring covers.

These are some other things in the Dutch Library:
1.    the photocopier and paper cutter, which I use for the bulletins
2.    stacked boxes of paper
3.    a stretcher and trauma kit
4.    a portable pulpit
5.    ropes to block off the back pews during the afternoon service (the non-conformists and rebellious just unclip them and sit where they want anyway)
6.    a TV/DVD stand for catechism (we still use Lew Vander Meer’s videos on the Belgic Confession from Faith Alive)
7.    extra tables
8.    a shelf with office supplies and Bibles and Blue Psalter Hymnals
9.    a blackboard covered with four Vacation Bible School posters portraying the story of Peter walking on the waves toward a charismatic Jesus who is flashing an astonishingly white smile. The last poster shows Peter also smiling broadly. This is the moment when Jesus rescues him, and Peter is feeling very relieved. The posters are from Gospel Light, a betrayal of Faith Alive that causes a ripple of unease to reach the beachhead of my denominational loyalty.
Sometimes I read the Bible while I wait for the bulletins to be copied, but mostly I pray.

Ten identical worksheets are taped to the wall, each of which says “Prayer: no worries” and has an illustration of a kneeling woman lifting up her hands in prayer. The GEMS have written Philippians 4:6 on their papers: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Allison’s worksheet stands out. She has used glitter markers to add some freehand special effects:  a bouncy and shiny yellow ponytail to the head of her kneeling woman and a sparkling yellow sun, partly hidden behind a blue cloud, with the requisite rays streaming down.

That Philippians 4:6 is a tough verse for me. I am anxious far more often than not. Worry is a strong contender for my besetting sin. (Those of you who know me can probably cite a few others, but let’s not go there.) Maybe that’s why there are ten sheets with the same message lined up on the wall where I do the bulletin each week! Allison’s drawing reminds me that whether it’s sunny or cloudy or somewhere in between, I can pray to relieve my worries. Last Thursday I prayed for my family. I prayed for my church and for the people listed on the bulletin. I prayed for several online friends, asking the Lord to prosper their ministries and their outreach. I prayed for those who are burdened with disquieting personal struggles. I prayed for the one who is dying.

 
It’s my kind of mystical. Saint Allison prophesying from a worksheet in a tacky Dutch library. Blessed are the fainthearted, the anxious, all you worriers who need daily reminders that God rules in the heavens. Blessed are you when you present your requests to him who controls the weather and your life. Blessed are you when you consider the rich heritage of faith and belief you’ve received from the wayfarers who’ve gone before. Blessed are you in those visionary moments when the Son’s rays illumine the far-flung network of believers to which you belong – at home, online, at Faith Alive and even at Gospel Light! Be thankful! Be brave! 

 My wavering faith is pulled from the billows. Whenever, like Peter, I flounder, which is far too often, Jesus reaches out, smiles, and says, ‘I’m right here.” Even in the Dutch library. He never tires of rescuing me.