Thursday, November 19, 2009

What's Lost

The other night I had a dream that I went into a small thrift shop. After a quick scan of the nearly empty shelves, I turned to leave but was stopped by the quiet voice of an old lady behind the counter. “Don’t you want to take a look through those boxes?” To humor her, I started flipping through a box of old baby clothes when all of a sudden something caught my eye.

On one of the outfits, I recognized a small embroidered patch that was on the baby sleepers I had when my own kids were little. In the dream I held it up to rub on my face and was filled with longing and deep sorrow. The old lady was watching me closely and she said, “It’s like the lost coin. Or the lost son.” I turned my head slowly to look at her face and just before I could see it, the dream ended.

When do we get back that sense of newness and hope that comes with the wistful nostalgia of remembered childhood? As Wordsworth says, “There hath pass’d away a glory from the earth” and we are often left with a kind of permanent low-grade depression at the way things turn out. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at this; after all, Christ himself said “in this world you WILL have trouble.” But expecting suffering makes it no less easy to bear. Nor does some far-off sense that “one day” the story turns out for good.

So what do we have in the meantime? The hope that in the least likely place, we might be surprised by something lost but still loved; that there is some part of us able to be new again with a child’s unfettered hopes; that in the faces we are often too busy to see we might find gentleness and hear words of grace that will keep us going for one more go through the boxes.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


There is a large plot of land in a city-owned utility corridor that one of my neighbors has taken as a garden. As we walked by there this summer, it was lovely to see his well-tended rows of veggies and produce grow. There was one section that had a whole plot of flowers. I kept waiting for the time when he would dig them up, section them off into pots or hanging baskets, because why else would you plant so many flowers in a spot virtually no one would ever see? But he never did.

There is something lovely and extravagant about that—planting flowers in abundance just for your own joy when you’re working in the garden. Planting them for unknown neighbors who wander by with their dogs. Planting them not for economic profit but just because they grow and they are beautiful.

If you looked at the front of my neighbor’s house, you would not see much at all, but in that secret place out back he has tons of flowers blooming. With this hidden beauty, he feeds those of us who know.

I am looking for that kind of evidence of grace—purposeless, extravagant, beautiful, hidden out back behind the house—because I know there has to be proof of this “exceedingly more than all we ask or imagine” everywhere around me and I’m just lining up my pots and planters too guarded to try it for myself.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

We are here today ...

Today is the first day of school. I dropped off my son to the care of his new teacher and found it hard to just walk away and leave him sitting at his little desk. “This is Jon,” I said to his teacher, who responded with a friendly “Hi, Jon” and turned his attention to something else. I almost blurted out “he likes rockets” because I wanted the teacher realize something about him, something that makes him special, not just another name in a room full of kids.

It was no easier bringing my daughter to her first day of junior high, as I was filled with questions: Why do the kids look so BIG all of a sudden? Didn’t I just bring her home from the hospital? But even though she was nervous, she walked in to her classroom, greeted her teacher in French, found a friend, sat down, and said an unequivocal “bye, mom.” Her confident demonstration of strength under stress was also enough to make me want to cry.

Beginning routines again in September is a way of orienting us again to the order that was placed in the world at the moment of creation. Elementary school classrooms tell us in a hundred different ways “we are here.” Students sit each morning before a bulletin board decked out in bright complementary colors with the basics: today’s month, day, months of the year, numbers, seasons; and also some added information like the letter of the day, special person of the week, who has a birthday, who is absent, and in case you really are keeping track, how many days you’ve been in school so far.

I like the call to remember the rhythms of things—the things that happen every day again no matter what else is uncertain: the date and seasons change, the sun goes up and down again, the months fold over one on top of the other, there are special people who surround us, and patterns in the details of our lives if we pay attention to such things.

We are here today. And no matter what else we may not know, that much is certain. We are here today and there is a world of comfort in the daily-ness of our routines. Routines that speak to an order greater than the smallness of our stories. We are here today, and someone knows where we were yesterday and where we will be tomorrow. We are known, and we are here. That’s a good place to start this fall and a good reason to give thanks.

Monday, August 24, 2009


“I hear this most gentle whisper from one I never guessed would speak to me.”
—Psalm 81:5, The Message

There are a thousand ways the world does violence to us every single day—from the harshness of unkind words to the subtle reminders of time passing and decay. We are dying. And whenever we stop long enough to notice that in any of its forms, the grief brings a sort of violence to our hearts.

Over and against the reality of that violence, there is the gentleness of God. Sometimes that gentleness comes as sweet relief, as the remedy of breathing space in a world that constricts us. Other times it is almost unwelcome; to hold that gentleness means we are unable to give ourselves over to defensive anger protecting us against a life that is hard. God is here; we cannot give in to despair.

Thomas á Kempis, medieval mystic and author of The Imitation of Christ, had this to say:
Banish discouragement from your heart as best you can, and if trouble comes, never let it depress or hinder you for long.... The violence of your feelings will soon subside, and grace return to heal your inner pain.
Whatever violence we feel, there is one who stands ready to help and comfort, one who speaks with gentle whispers where we do not expect to hear anything at all. Receiving that gentleness can itself cause pain when it comes as such sharp contrast to the suffering within us, but it is perhaps one of the best and most hopeful signs of our humanity that we remain willing to feel it.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Both of my kids love to make things. My daughter’s room is filled with scraps of paper, bits of plastic, and a giant vat of markers, colored pencils, and crayons—all of which she keeps “just in case” she needs to make something. Because really, at any moment, you could be called on to make something and you have to be ready.

My son tends toward the recycle box when it comes to crafts. Lately he was making a very long racer car from a plastic box that used to house a set of blinds. He was stuck for wheels and the other night he pushed me to help him find some. I was impatient, thinking of the boxes of Lego in the basement wondering if I could dig out at least two sets of plastic wheels. I discouraged him at first, “No, we don’t have any wheels; maybe wait till Dad gets home and he can help.” But my son’s persistence paid off and I finally gave in with a half-hearted, “Well, at least let’s Google it.”

We found a website with directions to make wheels out of tealight candles. Thanks to the fine folks at IKEA, I had a large bag of over 100 little candles that I never seemed to use. My son was joyous with excitement as we put the wheels together. “They even look like REAL wheels!” he said on seeing the finished result wrapped with electrical tape. He then proceeded to invent three new games using said wheels that did not involve putting them on the car, but rolling them back and forth on the table using bamboo skewers like a pinball machine to repel your opponent’s wheels.

There is something holy in that moment when what you want becomes what you have, when you look around and are willing, even eager, to make something new out of the scrap heap of your life. There is something holy about creation, to be ready at any moment to put your hands to the familiar and find joy in the transformation.
Creator Spirit, by whose aid

The world’s foundations first were laid,

Come, visit every pious mind;

Come, pour Thy joys on human kind;
From sin, and sorrow set us free;

And make Thy temples worthy Thee.
In the quiet following the joy of creation, I took a candle, lit it, and watched it burn the rest of the night.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Throwing Prayers

Excerpt from a sermon I gave last Sunday:

Perhaps it is the very act of prayer itself, the act of longing and waiting and crying through our times of waiting and emptiness, that trains us as God’s people. Not prayer for once, but over and over and for always. Prayer that teaches us almost like the physical act of throwing, training each muscle again and again to strain toward God, developing strength that never would have come if we did it only once and expected to be done. And every time it is a healing kind of prayer. Prayer that gives up easy answers and makes its home with the churning sludge of uncertainty and mystery, prayer that gives up a faith that cannot survive the worst and the worst that cannot survive faith, and simply says to God, “Here I am. Take all of me.”

We are called in our times of waiting and emptiness to voice our cries and give our prayers to God. To lift the heaviness of disappointed hopes and the difficult work of grief and forgiveness as many times as we need to and throw them back to the one who made us, the only one in whom our stories have a chance of making sense, the one who in his mercy, may remember us.

And through this practice we may come to see, however dimly, that it is on the edges where God makes himself known—on the edges of deep suffering and grace, of terrifying darkness and impossible light, of community and solitude, of words and silence—that we live our lives as those who trust, but know not, those who have grown so accustomed to throwing prayers that we believe in the strength it produces, over and over training deep in the very muscles of our bodies a yearning for God that will never die.

And what, is God’s response? His response is ever and always the same … he is silent, he is comfort, he is unfathomable in the pain of evil in this world, he is full of a love so beautiful it takes our breath away. We hold in our hands both grace and pain and cannot say at times which is the heavier. But whether our cup is full or whether our heart is broken, let us take them both as from God’s hand and throw our lives—every moment, every day, every act—as a prayer back to him.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


I have been learning about the Jewish prayer of mourner’s kaddish. This prayer is said by those who have lost a loved one and must be said in the presence of a minyan, or quorum of ten people. It is said daily anywhere from thirty days to eleven months. The theme of the text is the exaltation and eternal nature of God. Here is a translated excerpt:
May His great Name be blessed forever and to all eternity. Blessed and praised, glorified, exalted and extolled, honored, adored and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He; and say, Amen.

Beyond all the blessings, hymns, praises and consolations that are uttered in the world; and say, Amen.
There are so many things I can learn from this about grieving. First, it is a healing ritual to repeat prayers in the presence of others. While so much of grief takes place privately, in tears cried in the dark night, the presence of others who care for the mourner is a way to honor and give voice to that grief, to reassure the person that not only are they not crazy for feeling it, but there are others who are willing to stand beside them and listen. The length of time given to these prayers also says that grief is not rushed, cannot be swept away as quickly as our western tradition seems to desire. There is length and space and community to give the mourner what The Message version of the psalms calls “wide open spaces for healing.”

Finally, the mourner’s kaddish focuses on exalting God. Beyond any consolation uttered in the world, beyond the searing pain of suffering and the impossibility of knowing how to go on, there is a God whose name and whose love goes on forever, who is to be praised and adored forever and all eternity. And say, Amen. Amen.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Breathing Holes

Walking in our neighborhood park, I see again the signs of spring: there are plugs of dirt all over, aftereffects of aerating the soil. You have to loosen the dirt, to poke holes through the layers of thatch in order to keep the grass healthy and growing. Soil that is not properly aerated will not absorb water because it becomes too compacted. The thick dead grass weaves together over the surface and keeps the nourishing rain from reaching the roots.

In the fabric of our life together, we can become like compacted soil. We grow rigid with the passage of too much time and too settled habits, crushing underneath like cement the path of our routine. Our work is to make space for the water of life, to cut away all that has grown shallow and dead, and get beyond the choked-off surface of things.

It’s much easier to keep things as they are, to smile and float along on the surface of relationships without daring to go deeper. And yet without a conscious choice to do something about it, our church services and our interactions never get beyond that tight, shallow surface of dead grass. It takes honesty and authenticity to cut away the pretension and get deeper to the heart of things. Without this work, we will eventually die off, with no room to receive.

The work of Pentecost is the work of God’s Spirit coming to us, like wind, fire, or the sharp metal blades of an aerator, to move away what is killing us, to help us grow and somehow in the process of change, once again to let us breathe.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Things That Don't Go Together

“… that they would seek God, perhaps grope for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” —Acts 17:27

This past week I saw two things that didn’t seem to go together. One was a dusting of snow on our newly unfurled tree leaves. The other was a ridiculously active sloth at the zoo. Frozen spring leaves. A fast-moving sloth. Things that don’t go together. This got me thinking about other things that don’t go together, words that should never be in the same sentence like “child” and “cancer.” All of us, if we have our eyes open, will be called at some point to hold grace in one hand and pain in the other and wonder how we’re supposed to put them together.

The life of Christ perhaps best exemplified this holding of opposites, putting together things like “blessed” and “mourn,” “death” and “resurrection.” To ignore the places where these words clash together is to miss something fundamentally important about faith. And yet there are people who resolve the tension by choosing one side and ignoring the other; whose placid smiles choose grace and can’t really get their hands dirty on the pain side. The world needs more people who are willing to stand in that place of tension and be honest about pain, even the pain of holding on to faith in the midst of loss.

There are times we seek God with our minds and our rational beings and there are times when, failing everything else, we are left to grope in the dark. Times when there are no easy answers, when there are no answers at all. But we who are compelled to ask the questions stand there, hands open, looking now at grace and now at pain, and raising our hands in surrender to the one who reconciled opposites, who reconciled us, with his blood.

Friday, May 8, 2009

I'm Just Asking a Question

“Jim, what are you doing?”
“I’m asking a question.”
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, on meeting “God”

“God may well slay me; I may have no hope. Yet I will argue my case before God.”
—Job 13:15

I’ve heard two people recently point to something good in their lives and give God thanks for it, along the lines of “God knew I needed this.” And while I am happy for their good fortune, I wonder if they have taken time to go the next step: if God knew they needed it, what does mean when someone else, someone equally loved and valued by God, does not receive the thing that is needed? God knew you needed it. Does God not know that she needs it too?

Even though I wish it were otherwise, a large part of me still believes the lie that God’s love is equal to God’s provision for me. God loves me, therefore good things happen to me. Bad things happen and I am thrown into doubt. God has not provided. I know the key to what we are promised is God’s presence with us, not abundance or smooth sailing or anything of the sort. “In this world you will have trouble.” That is what we are told.

But I want to ask God a question. I want to know how we are supposed to believe he is with us, trust that he has not forgotten us when all the evidence points to the contrary. I want to ask God: “Where are you? Where are you for all the voices that even this night are crying out for relief from sickness, sorrow, and suffering? Where are you? And why don’t you do something?”

I’m just asking a question. I am made bold by biblical companions like Job, the Talmudic tradition of arguing with God, and even the modern-day example of Captain Kirk. What am I doing? I am asking God a question. I don’t expect an answer. Just, for a while, to burn with the words I need to ask. And to hope, as a friend reminded me with a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke, that I am able to “love the questions themselves” and trust that one day I will “gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Cross, The Grave, The Skies

Every Easter the song “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” gets me in some deep gut place and almost always causes me to cry. I’ve sung it after the deaths of people I love with triumphant expectation, I’ve sung it in the midst of sadness as a prayer for newness of life, and I’ve heard it sung by a child with enough heartache in his life to make his unabashed alleluia’s humble me into hope.

But this Easter what struck me most was the part that says “ours the cross, the grave, the skies.” We want the resurrection, the skies, the triumphal alleluia’s. But ours is also the cross and the grave. There are times for the hopeful ascension of the skies and there are times to identify with the sufferings of Christ and say, yes, there is a cross that is mine also. There are times for feeling the pain of the women who could not stay away, who needed to lay their hands on cold stone and do something to mark the place where their beloved died, times for feeling their pain and saying yes, in the grief of my heart this day, mine is also the grave.

I am praying for courage to embrace not only the alleluia’s but also the time for bearing crosses and the unflinching death of dreams. And to realize that even in those blackest of times, the disciples were not alone. They had each other as they walked to the stone and its finality; they had each other to listen and cry and hear the story as they asked for the thousandth time “Is he really gone?” They were not alone.

And I have learned that the promise of those who are with me in suffering is enough. It is enough to let me survive till that lovely “early in the morning” time and the whisper I’ve waited my whole life to hear from the one who holds it all—cross, grave, and skies—who knows my name, and says to me cutting through a thousand deaths with these words of promise:

 “Woman, why are you weeping?” 

Monday, March 30, 2009


“The world is enchanted.
Lean closer to see it.”
—Aaron Niequist, “Enchanted”

I have been thinking a lot about imagination, and in particular finding extraordinary moments in the ordinary things of everyday life. I want to believe that just below the surface of things there is a glory, an enchanted beauty that sparks and flames if only I have eyes to see. Sometimes in the midst of routines, doing dishes, picking up laundry, and driving through the eternal mud of an Edmonton spring, I wonder about that. But if I can’t believe in that kind of everyday beauty, how can I believe in grace, in hope, in new life, in all the things that make my faith live?

So I decided to do a little experiment. To walk not more than 10 feet from my house and see if I could, by looking closer, find something glorious in the everyday sights of my front yard. And here are the results.

Tree with Berries

Muddy Road

Pine Tree

I think the world is enchanted. And if I lean closer to see it, I find God is everywhere. Even in the winter same-ness of my own front yard.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Saving Light

I know that daylight savings has to do with getting as many hours of light possible during our waking hours. Originally it had something to do with farmers, I think. Today I watch the sun just beginning to set at 7pm and it feels wrong. It shouldn’t be this late yet. My body clock has not clued in to the new number on the time clock.

There are times my Christian life is the same: though I know in my head and my heart what the “time” is supposed to be, it just feels wrong somehow. And I am at odds with God, debating, suspicious, fighting hard to act obediently in spite of it all.

But there are other times when things seem to click; when the words match the inner sense of wholeness, when the light comes and goes with the right kind of regularity, and when I am most able to see the rhythms and patterns of God’s kingdom around me. And for those times, while I seem to have less to write about (!), I also have a deep and settled sense of gratitude and a desire to save that light against the next time I am out of sync with the things of the Spirit.

For now, I close my eyes and soak in the sun. And I say “thank you” in as many ways as I can. “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people.” (John 1:4)

Monday, February 23, 2009

In Praise of Boredom

Sometimes it takes going away to get a new perspective on what you have. The very same house that might have seemed like the walls were closing in a week earlier suddenly is familiar and comforting after a brief absence.

My kids told me yesterday they are bored by church. And while part of me worries over this, wondering how to engage them authentically in things of faith, another part of me thinks boredom is okay. Because every week they hear the same words again, it’s like solid ground is growing beneath their feet, solid in the reliability of words that outlast the ages.

One day they will be away, and some great need will drive them to their knees. Their hands will reach to that ground and find that words that floated past them so many times, words like redemption and hope and sacrifice, will have grown heavy in their hands, with comfort and weight enough to sustain them through even the darkest night. And if that means now, for a time, they are bored? I’m willing to live with that.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Underneath It All

My prayer life is nothing like it used to be. Whether that’s a function of our move and a total change in community or some move in my own spirit to a place of wilderness, the fact is I pray way less now than I used to. Sometimes I miss God, or miss the intensity of how I used to pray. I was sure of God listening and sure of him speaking to me. That was a green and growing time, one that I miss in the long dark dull of winter that I seem to be in now.

But today I am reminded that though all the world is covered with snow, there is still a certainty: I know where the ground is. And underneath it all is God. No matter if I pray for hours, minutes, or seconds. Underneath it all is God and his love for me goes on and his reaching to me does not depend on the duration or quality of my reaching to him.

Underneath it all is God and in the absence of so much else, I see in the endless blanket of white that there are dips and ridges and a thousand tiny intricacies. Though my mouth is silent, I could spend a lifetime uncovering the mysteries of one square foot of snow, running my hands along each gully and listening for the almost imperceptible sound of my hand brushing across. I thought because I had words to name that endless white of snow, I understood it. But in the silence there is so much mystery. And what surprises me most is there is also so much certainty: underneath it all is God. This much I know. Underneath it all is God.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Dwelling in Possibility

“With God, all things are possible.”
—Matthew 19:26

If there is one gift I could ask for this coming year, I would ask for the gift of possibility. One of the things I love about working in a university is being surrounded by people for whom anything is still possible—not just as some far-off thought but something you could do now, this summer even!

It is much harder to believe in possibility as I get older. Habits are set, relationships settled, budgets are tight, and in all those things and more I realize what is not possible. As the years go by, I tick off the things that are no longer possible: I will never be an Olympic champion. I will not likely have any more babies. I will never know what it’s like to live in town with people I grew up with. I will never own two cars.

Not all of this recognition is bad. With the narrowing of possibilities also comes the ability to bring more intense focus to a few deeply loved things. There is a spiritual side to believing in possibility too. Because the minute I give up on possibility, I give up on the power of God to make all things new. There is a fine balance between cynicism, a Pollyanna-like naivete, and the life of faith, which holds both the knowledge of self that wisely says “this is not possible” and the hopefulness of the heart that so wants to believe “yes, it is, it still beautifully is possible.”

So if I have a resolution this new year, it’s to believe, a little more than I do now, that all things are possible with God. Even helping me to believe that is true.