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Archive for December, 2014

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 – which I had somehow found 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. Tonight I will remember that precious night in the darkened hospital room as I sing Silent Night.

 

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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.

 

Lyrics:

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.

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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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My daughter has been doing a high school careers course. It is inspiring to watch her strive to understand her gifts and talents, and dream optimistically about her future.  But how many of us have shared our dreams and been ridiculed or told “there’s no money in that”?  How quickly we learn to hide our dreams deep in our heart, and settle for a practical, and sometimes soul-crushing,  path!

God does not laugh at our dreams.  Nothing delights God more than when we use our God-given gifts for God’s purpose.  Whether our passion is for numbers or writing, building or art, counselling or cleaning, God wants us to use our talents to their fullest.

At each season of our lives we may take our shriveled dreams off the dusty shelf to revisit them – perhaps with regret, or perhaps with renewed resolve.  For some a mid-life crisis may cause us to muster the courage to pursue our dream, having developed enough faith to step out into the fog, hand-in-hand with God, trusting that he will lead us safely in the right direction.

Mountains looking into the distance

We may wish for a life-changing voice from the mountain top, and a clear view of our destination.

Chances are you have a copy of What Color is Your Parachute by Richard Nelson Bolles on your bookshelf.  With ten million copies sold, you will find it in every bookstore and used book sale.

The exercises in his book will guide you through identifying your career direction and job search, but last chapter goes further.  In my 2009 edition it is titled “Finding a Life that has Meaning and Purpose.”  I commend it if you want to explore your mission on earth, God’s purpose for you.

And although we may wish for a life-changing voice from the mountain-top, it is more likely we will walk through the fog in faith, hand-in-hand with God.

As Bolles puts it:

When the question, ‘what is your mission in life,’ is first broached, and we have put our hand in God’s, […] we imagine that we will be taken up to some mountaintop, from which we can see far into the distance. And that we will hear a voice in our ear, saying ‘Look, look, see that distant city? That is the goal of your mission: that is where everything is leading, every step of your way.’

But instead of the mountaintop, we find ourself in the valley – wandering often in a fog. And the voice in our ear says something quite different from what we thought we would hear. It says ‘your mission is to take one step at a time, even when you don’t yet see where it is all leading, or what the Grand Plan is, or what your overall mission in life is. Trust me; I will lead you.’

 

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I have been reflecting on this text by Teresa of Avila, a 16th century nun who was a mystic and a writer.

 

collage of hands and a cross

We are God’s hands in the world.

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)

 

The image is my collage expressing the idea that we are God’s hands in the world.

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