Happy New Year to me and you

(Christian Courier column, Jan. 25, 2016)

500_F_89774017_UxRlaLQr8qEu0rYjbK589CZsHT2xJW1e[1]It’s January 2nd. I’ve been reading year-end columns. James Bratt of The Twelve offered an intriguing sweep of major historical events that occurred on January 1, 2, and 3. Examples include the pivotal 1492 surrender of the Moorish Grenada to Christian victors and the 1905 Russian surrender of Port Arthur to Japan, a catalyst in the fall of the Czarist empire. He ends his survey provocatively with a wry “And with those echoes, gentle reader, a very happy 2016!”

Analyst Gwynne Dyer took the opposite approach, assessing our current global state. No wars in Asia or the Americas, and Ukraine the only trouble spot in Europe. Forty of 50 African nations relatively stable. The Middle East is a powder keg, he conceded, but the majority of earth’s peoples are living in areas without armed conflict. He proclaimed 2015 a good year.

Author Leslie Leyland Fields reflected on the story of Jesus walking on water. She’d always admired Peter’s extraordinary faith as he jumped overboard to join Jesus. But then she realizes that Peter’s action actually stems from doubt: “If it is you, tell me to come to you on the water.” When he sinks, Jesus rebukes his lack of faith.

When ferocious storms attack, Leyland Fields advises us to stay in the boat – the Word, the Body — recognizing that the Lord is always coming to us: “It is I. Do not be afraid.” In that awareness, she says, we can keep shouting out encouragement to one another, we can find the strength to keep rowing together. She quotes G.K. Chesterton: “We are all in the same boat, in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.”

My gambit was to review my journals. What occupied my attention in past Januaries? In 1996 my dad was dying. My first entry: “Not a lot of time to write. I have to mark French tests and Sounder tests. Just a note about Dad. He has been more and more fatigued. Mom says he needs to take more morphine each night just to get through the evening without falling asleep. They are going to play with the amount a little to see if he can take it earlier and so be able to stay awake for the evening.”

In 1997 I was struggling with an intractable student: “I have a lot of mixed feelings about going back to school tomorrow and dealing with Jennifer (not her real name). I want to stay positive; I don’t want my kids to think working is a mere burden. Lord, I pray for all my students, but especially for Jennifer and me. Help me be whatever she needs me to be. For tomorrow I plan on remembering the song from (singing duo) Siep and Marg: ‘He’s not far; he sees you where you are.’ Also this: ‘The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble, and he knows them that trust in him’ (Nahum 1:7). Hopefully, that will get me through the day.”

Some entries, like those from 1999 to 2003 are too sad to share. Those were the years when our family imploded with difficult situations that are still painful to remember.

On New Year’s Eve, as is traditional, our congregation sang, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” With its spotlight on time, “like an ever-rolling stream,” it’s fitting. But the hymn’s bald depiction of our fleeting lives is somber indeed.

Surfing the net, I happened upon British artist Andy Goldsworthy, creator of ephemeral art. His raw materials include only natural elements like twigs, mud, ice and rain. The artworks are intended to decompose or disappear, their beauty and significance intimately shaped by time. Goldsworthy explains, “It’s not about art. It’s just about life and the need to understand that a lot of things in life do not last.”

Inspired by Goldsworthy, I’m envisioning my earthly life as an ephemeral work of art designed by God. It’s not going to last, but while it does, it’s a one-of-a-kind piece, lovingly sculpted by his hand. He’s invested a great deal in me – surrendered his own flesh and blood, monumentally, on the cross — a physical act rippling through infinity, the very antithesis of ephemeral.

Despite my cowering spirit, I survived all those Januaries. With the help of family, friends and church, I stayed in the boat. And Jesus was right there in those storms. He saw me even when I couldn’t see him, my vision blurred by whipping wind and waves. Every year brings new challenges, but until I reach my eternal home, God promises to be my shelter from the stormy blast.

He promises the same to you.








Serving by sitting

(Christian Courier column, December 31st, 2011)

Maybe this has happened to you. You have to go to a meeting. You don’t really feel like it.

One Thursday night last month we had our fall congregational meeting. I didn’t feel like going at all. It was our first cold night, the kind of November dusk when inky blackness suddenly spills from the sky, cloaking the houses across the street by 5:30 PM. The kind of gloom that signals your inner grizzly bear to lumber to the nearest den. We’d had an early supper, the dishes were done, blue and orange flames  capering in the woodstove. It was a perfect night to stay home, enjoy a cup of coffee, curl up on the loveseat and watch the hockey game with my husband. I’d already been out on Tuesday night for catechism and choir practice and would have to go out again the next night for another event.

But, you guessed it, I went. I stared down my grumpy grizzly, touched up my makeup, re-fluffed my hair, left my husband to cheer on the new and improved Leafs alone.

I’m glad I went. The clerk had worked hard to get all the materials prepared in advance. He’d photocopied the agendas the previous week and inserted them into the mail slots. He’d set up the sound system and powerpoint the night before. He was slated to read the minutes from the spring meeting and to present the clerk’s report, so, naturally, he had spent time on those items, too. Before the meeting he also had to meet with the guest speaker and help her get wired up for her presentation.

The council chairperson had prepared for the meeting, too. He’s a busy guy. But he’d written out some remarks. The pianist, too, had prepared. She’d been busy that day, volunteering at the Christian school, but there she was, on this dark and windy night, ready to play, arriving with her music in hand.

The custodians had prepared. They’d set up the chairs, made coffee, and baked some cookies. After the meeting, they would do the dishes, check that the lights were turned off and make sure the doors were locked. They would get home late.

Our guest speaker, Marg Smit-Vandezande, had travelled some distance to speak to us about a Counselling Assistance Program offered by Shalem. This program helps churches and other organizations provide counselling services to their members. Her talk was accompanied by a clear and helpful slide show that she’d brought along. It was good for our congregation to hear about how we might be able to offer immediate assistance to hurting individuals or families.

Our treasurer and our finance committee had prepared a preliminary budget. We voted on that. Some other people gave reports about the ongoing work and ministry of our church. My friend Olga gave an enthusiastic review about the Day of Encouragement that she’d attended in Ancaster. Several individuals stood up to share opinions and thoughts on a variety of matters. We sang three hymns together. We prayed.

I had a serious five minute talk with an elder on my way out. It was a heart-warming moment of trust discussing things close to our hearts. He’s not someone I have a chance to chat with often.

All I really had to do at this meeting was sit. I simply had to provide the affirmation of bringing my body along to warm a chair. It’s a humble service, offering only your presence and your interest, but this, too, I think, is love.

And here’s how I know that’s true. After I’d grabbed my coffee and found my seat, the chairperson opened the meeting with these remarks: “Thanks for coming out tonight. It’s a cold night, and maybe you felt like you’d rather stay home, but thank you very much for coming out and caring about the business of the church.”

We’re in this together. An old African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” That’s why I made chili for the potluck luncheon hosted by the Enfolding Committee, attended the Mission Trip planning meeting although I’m not signed up for the trip, and why I’m sitting in the pew at the second service pretty faithfully. There are a myriad of small, unsexy ways we can serve Christ and our neighbour if we have the will to do so. Here’s another quote I picked up on Facebook: “The measure of a life is not its duration, but its donation.” And guess what? Donation can be as easy as showing up and respecting the effort of others. It can be as simple as sitting in the circle, enlarging it just a bit.

Another year is dawning. Annie Dillard, Pulitzer-prize winning author, said, oh so wisely and succinctly, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” May we measure our days and our years in donations. Even the smallest, like sitting at a meeting, count.