Last Year’s Word

For the past three years, instead of a list of resolutions, I have chosen a single word to focus my year.  In 2013 the word was trust, and I focused a lot on trusting God acting through me and through others.

snow, trees and sun

I still find it hard to be grateful for snow – even when the sun shines.

In 2014 I kept hold of the word trust, and choose a new word, gratitude.  Well, that word was seriously tested while I recovered from a badly broken leg for the second half of the year!

Still I found so much to be grateful for – from heat and light after an ice storm, to family and friends who fed and helped me for months after my accident, to people at work, and everyone I came in contact with.  I got back in the habit of writing thank you’s … and I ran out of thank you cards three times.

It seemed that each time I expressed gratitude, I received another gift in exchange – sometimes the gift of a person’s time or the sharing of something important in their life, perhaps a life lesson or the opportunity to help others in ways I had not even imagined.

I have been travelling on Wheeltrans, our city’s paratransit service for the past six months.  Often the rides are shared in a contracted taxi.  It’s a big city but eventually I have got to know some of the taxi drivers.

The other day I got in a cab and the driver said to the other passengers – “here’s Louise, you’re in for a great ride.  She always cheers people up.”  I was taken aback. But on reflection I realised my focus on gratitude had changed the way I interact with strangers.  I always speak to the driver or people in the taxi or bus – if they want.

I have listened to a stranger share his grief at becoming too ill now for a kidney transplant after nine years on the waiting list, and to a blind woman share her love for her job. I have heard the worry of a woman on her way – alone – to yet another surgery, and the pride of a taxi driver from Rwanda who has put three children through university – a doctor, an engineer and a teacher.

I learned from a cheeky double amputee from Jamaica that all I need in an emergency is “food, water, liquor and weed,” and from a 95-year-old woman still living in her own home that swimming three times a week is the answer to longevity.  I can’t untangle who blessed whom in many encounters, but I am grateful for every one.

One driver from Sri Lanka asked my permission and then prayed for me and my family – out loud – for most of the trip, then finished with an excellent theological rationale against infant baptism.  I still feel blessed by that experience, even though I demurred from converting to his evangelical church.

So this year of gratitude has reminded me to be grateful for every human contact, never knowing which encounter might make a small difference in someone’s life, including mine.

You may be wondering about my word for 2015 – I’m still trying it on for size, so you’ll have to wait for a few days to find out!

Street blocked with broken trees and ice

The aftermath of the ice storm in our neighbourhood.

On December 23, 2013 Toronto was in the aftermath of the Ice Storm.  Huge swaths of the city were without power.  But I had been visiting “Edith” in palliative care for a number of weeks and I was determined to visit her for Christmas.

I didn’t have power nor internet service at home, and last I had heard on the battery radio the subway was not running where I needed to go.  An hour cab ride later the sun had set by the time I arrived. The hospital was surrounded by darkness.  Inside the corridors were hushed and dim, the whole complex was running on backup power, the lonely corridors filled with the scent of institutional food and humanity…

I walk into Edith’s room – shared with two other people.  Only the emergency lights are on, and outside the window the city is dark as far as I can see.  The two other women in the room are asleep or unconscious – surrounded by loved ones keeping silent vigil.  A breathing machine roars and hisses in the corner pressing a dying grandmother to take one laboured breath after another.

Edith is sitting up and alert.  She greets me:  “You came!  No one else is coming because of some problem on the roads.”  I explain about the ice storm, the city-wide power outages, the trees toppled by the weight of the ice on every street.  Cut off from the news, she didn’t know about the storm. I water her plant, give her a Christmas card and settle in for a visit.  I ask what she remembers of the candlelight Christmas Eve services at her church.  We reminisce about the smell of the oil lamps and the music. Especially the music.

“Since you can’t get to church, shall I read from Luke?” I ask.  She nods.  I pull out last year’s Christmas Eve bulletin – all I could find in my darkened home – and read Luke’s account of the nativity.  In a loud voice, over the roar and hiss of the breathing machine in the corner, I read about angels and shepherds and a newborn baby.

Edith is rapt, soaking up every word.  I can feel the other visitors in the room leaning forward, listening.  “Do not be afraid; I bring you good news of great joy for all people.”  The words have new meaning in this room where the patients are weeks or days or even hours away from leaving this life.

The room is focused on me and I feel a little self-conscious.    “Would you like me to sing a carol?” I ask Edith.

“Oh yes!” she replies, her eyes gleaming with delight.

Summoning my best and loudest voice, channeling my meager music training, I sing a verse of Silent Night over the sound of the roaring, hissing breathing machine.

Edith mouths the words with me.  Her eyes shine.  A nurse changing a bed behind a curtain joins softly in the singing.

I launch into Hark the Herald Angels Sing.  The nurse comes out from behind the curtain and sings with me.

As I start O Come All Ye Faithful  two more nurses join in, singing from the doorway, and the visitors sitting with their dying grandmother sing too.  At that moment it seems that all the company of heaven is in that palliative care room.

It turns out that was Christmas for Edith.  No-one else managed to get through the ice clogged roads to visit her.  And there was no candlelit Christmas Eve service at her church either – the power was out.

Edith fell asleep in God’s arms a month later and passed into what awaits us on the other side of death.  I think she is singing with choirs of angels this Christmas, and tonight I will remember that precious night in the darkened hospital room as I sing Silent Night.


Mary did you know?

The highlight of my busy day was a quiet reflection before an evening church meeting with singing by the a cappella group Pentatonix.  This song asks Mary if she knows that her son is the Messiah – the great I am, the Lord of creation.  Surely she does not know all of these things as she cradles the newborn Jesus in her arms?

It reminds me that I don’t know what wonders God will do in my life either.  I’m not expecting my children to walk on water, but God is at work in them – and in you – in wondrous ways.    Skip the ad and take a quiet minute to breathe and listen.



Mary did you know that your baby boy will someday walk on water?

Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?

Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?

This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you.


Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?

Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?

Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?

And when your kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God.

Oh Mary did you know

The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again.

The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb


Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?

Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations?

Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?

This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am.


Tree ornament.

Take time to have a conversation about faith.

I don’t expect my Jewish friends to greet me at work with “Happy Hannukah,” nor my Muslim colleagues to wish me “Eid Mubaarak.”  Nor do I call out “Happy Birthday” to everyone on my own birthday, even if it is the best ever.

So then why would I wish a couple a “Merry Christmas” when one is Jewish and the other Buddhist? Especially when I know they plan to spend December 25 at the movies simply because they both have the day off work?

I try to recognize others’ holy days.  I say Happy New Year in the fall at Rosh Hashanah.  My pronounciation of “Kung Hei Fat Choy” is pretty poor, so I tend to stick with Happy New Year with my Chinese friends in winter too.  And my friends do the same for me – a Jewish friend has no problem wishing me a Merry Christmas, because she knows that’s what I celebrate.  And I appreciate it.

By now we’ve missed Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, but many of us are celebrating holy days – or holi-days – in December.  And even for those who question the existence of God or who shy away from organized religion (one quarter of Canadians claimed no religious affiliation in our 2011 census), December 25 can be an important time for family and children.  So I have no problem saying “Happy holidays” – the root of the word is holy days, after all.

I know it can be difficult to know what people celebrate – and I don’t want to say the wrong thing.  But defaulting to “Merry Christmas” says at best that I don’t care what you celebrate and I am not interested in knowing and, at worst, there is something wrong with you if you don’t celebrate Christmas like me.

Perhaps for some people “Merry Christmas” is a form of misguided evangelism, but I doubt anyone has converted or returned to Christianity after being wished “Merry Christmas” a few times in the mall.  If we want to share the message of Christianity, let’s feed the hungry, clothe the poor, stand up for injustice, protect our planet.  Let’s stand up for the workers who are forced to work on their holy day (whatever that may be), let’s advocate for decent affordable housing or wages above the poverty line.  But let’s not whine about why we should all say “Merry Christmas.”

I try to learn what a person celebrates this time of year.  I find that taking the time to listen and connect can be the beginning of a conversation about faith and meaning.  That’s where real evangelism happens.

That’s why I won’t wish everyone “Merry Christmas” this season.

yellow crocuses

Faith that, come spring, there will be yellow crocuses.

Somewhere buried under the snow are small brown bulbs encased in the frozen earth.  Planted in an act of faith, trusting that after winter, spring will come, as it has come for millenia.

They were planted trusting that the soil will warm again and green shoots will emerge from seemingly lifeless bulbs.

Planted in faith that after a dark winter, the days will get longer and the sun warmer.

Faith that reminds us that even in darkness, there is light.  And that light will overcome the darkness.

And in faith that, come spring, there will be yellow crocuses.



Last Christmas I was given a 2014 diary with a cheerful bird on the cover – a book with a week on two pages.  I already use a smart phone and a huge family calendar in an ongoing struggle to stay organized, so a third daybook was going to add to the confusion.  But it seemed like the ideal book for a gratitude journal.

Many people encourage the use of a gratitude journal to focus on the positive in your life.  I started on January 1.  Many of my entries focused on practical essentials: A furnace that works.  Warm, sturdy boots.  Electricity.  Sunshine.  Warm mittens.  Enough money.  A home.  Sleep.  Smoked salmon.  Chocolate.  Definitely chocolate.

2014 diary book

Blessings are not shared when they are trapped inside the pages of a gratitude journal.

I was often grateful for family and community: My son, such a wonderful kid. An inspiring teacher. A helpful colleague.  Bright new interns full of enthusiasm. Church. My creative daughter.

And the world around me:  God’s love, birds singing, a bright red cardinal, laughter, snow melting, singing, a puppy next door, a cellist playing a haunting melody in the subway, and the time to sit with someone in the last week of her life.

But after a few months, I got bored with the whole gratitude journal thing.  Sitting down at the end of the day writing down what I was grateful for was too passive.

It is not enough for me to count my blessings like Scrouge counting his coins.  I need to do the harder work of actively living out gratitude in my life.  Blessings are not shared when they are trapped inside the pages of a gratitude journal.

I think blessings are a bit like coins – sure, we can count them, and we can share them. But blessings are much more powerful than coins, because when we share our blessings they multiply.



How are we blessed?

The other day I met a tiny elderly woman from Greece.  Her husband, she explained with great pride, had gone home to Greece to pay their taxes.  They emigrated 40 years ago but every year they go home to pay the taxes on their small Greek property.

berries on a branch

God has blessed us with a fruitful and wonderful earth.

After bemoaning the state of the economy in her home country, she pointed out that here we have a good economy, roads, transit, hospitals and schools because people pay their taxes.

We are so lucky to live here, she said, very lucky.  She lives in a modest one bedroom apartment in a low-income area of the city.  Yet she counts herself lucky.

We are lucky.  Some would say blessed, but the word “blessed” in this context troubles me.  How is it that I was born to this family, and not to an impoverished family in the developing world?  Did I get an extra dose of blessing at conception?  Are others somehow less blessed because of their birth family?  Does God bless some of us more than others?

What I do know is that we have enough resources on earth to feed everyone.  Maybe God has blessed us with a fruitful and wonderful earth, and we’re supposed to figure out how to care for it and share it.

As for me, I don’t need to buy a lottery ticket.  I have already won the lottery just by living here with so many advantages.  The challenge is how to share.




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