Resolving the Old Year

Photo by Kevin Dooley, Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Kevin Dooley, Flickr Creative Commons

Today is New Year’s Eve, although I prefer to think of it as Old Year’s End. Our culture glorifies the new, worshipping the latest trend, the vigor of youth, the newest products. We start forming our “resolutions” for the New Year and eagerly look ahead to what’s next… what’s new. We are urged to leave the old behind us–to forget and move on.

In the words of the Counting Crows, its been “A long December and there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last.”

The word resolution has come to mean, at this time of year, “the act of determining” (thanks Webster). And I will think – tomorrow – about what I determine to add or take away from my life. Good habits I’m determined to form. Bad habits I’m determined to expunge. I think it’s a good practice, as long as we don’t treat it as a complete make-over. As long as we are realistic and care-full and kind with ourselves. (More about that – if I have time – tomorrow.)

Today, however, I want to take a moment to think about the year past. Because the word resolution is also about answering, about “solving again.” There is a cyclical reconsidering implied, and its etymology carries connotations of loosening and releasing. And there are things I need to answer for myself about this year. Things I need to loosen and release.

2014 was a good year in many ways. I am so happy with my new job at Columbia Bible College. It’s such a good fit for me and we have enjoyed reconnecting with our BC friends (and having a book budget!). But leaving Bon Accord has meant that we left a tight church community, that we no longer live in the vicinity of my family, and that my husband is currently unemployed. There is deep sadness in all of these things. Sadness that I need to take time over. There was also a release, in 2014, of our struggle with infertility. That is something I will need to reprocess, rethink, “resolve,” every year, I think, before I can dive into the next one. I need to ask again the question of how one fulfills a calling to parenthood without the gift of children. 2014 was also a year that brought joy and extreme sorrow and pain to some of our family and friends. Those joys and griefs are weighty – and as such they, too, deserve my time and reflection. I need to answer, to solve the question of how the good and the bad of this year have/will change me. Of how to loosen and release those joys and sorrow – not to forget or to “move on” – but to see them as a part of myself that I can carry forward rather than a weight that pulls backward. I need to loosen my self-concern and consider how to lift my head to care for my community. I need to pursue the question of how to continue to grieve and celebrate well – for myself and with others.

Photo by Ginny, Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Ginny, Flickr Creative Commons

So today – as the old year fades away – maybe take a quiet moment to yourself to reflect on 2014. To pray. To resolve. To loosen and release any chokeholds. To ask the Spirit some of the burning questions the year has raised. To listen for God’s answer, however hard it is to understand.

Then raise a glass to the joy and sorrow – toast the old year, in all its spotted-glory, before you ring in the new.


Merry Imperfect Christmas!

Watching TV the other night, I was struck once again by the number of companies urging me to have a perfect Christmas. Every year we are bombarded. Get the perfect gift. Make your house perfectly clean. Get the perfect lights, the perfect tree, the perfect tinsel. Cook the perfect turkey. Set the perfect table. Have the perfect family. BE PERFECT.



Not this year.

This Christmas I’ve been given the power (by the powers that be) to grant you a few permissions:

2011, 2012 030

Andrew and Stacey’s Wonky Christmas Tree, 2011

This Christmas, you have permission to grab a crappy tree from the bush because that’s all you have time to find. Or to grab the first tree leaning outside your local grocery store, without looking for the BEST one. Put some home-made kids’ ornaments on it and call it a day. Make some hot chocolate and sit and admire the imperfection together.

This Christmas, you have permission to leave the dirt and dog hair on your floor for another day. Go out for a moonlit ski or snowshoe instead. There’s dog hair and dirt out there, but nobody seems to mind. Why should your house be any different?

This Christmas, your kids are allowed to yell and be crazy and get dirty. Because kids are kids. Run around with them for a bit. Push them down a hill. Instead of cleaning your bathroom, make a few snow angels and some snow polar-bears OR a snow polar-angel-bear! Instead of washing your dishes, make two forts and pelt each other with snowballs. Let the kids stay up late. Let them help. When people look at you with raised eyebrows because your kids are over-tired and a little ill-behaved and your house is a mess, just tell them it’s my fault. Pick ONE thing to do in a day and throw away that list of “perfect family Christmas memories.” Don’t look at Pinterest.

This Christmas, you have permission to NOT make three million cookies. Just a tub or two will do. Unless you like making cookies. Then make five million and give some to the neighbours.

This Christmas, your table can be decorated with a few candles and some branches from the yard. Or not at all. And your turkey does not have to be perfectly browned and moist.  Just don’t’ give anyone salmonella poisoning. Maybe have a wiener roast instead. Let people help you in the kitchen. Accept all offers to wash dishes. Let people bring food. Spend more time visiting and less time slaving. Cook with wine so you can have a glass. Sometimes soup from a can or pasta from a box is the only way to go. You can drink wine with that.


Snowy Christmas Walk (a.k.a. Sacred Moment)

This Christmas, you do not have to exude “Christmas Spirit.” What on earth IS that, anyway? Instead, pay attention to the Spirit. Notice the moments in which the kingdom of God breaks in – they will be small. The joy of a child going off-script during a Christmas play. A single line from a well-worn Christmas carol that suddenly sounds new, and fresh, and scary-in-a-good-way. The sight of your breath rising in front of you as you tromp through snow-covered fields with your dog. The shouts of children as they play outside, their snow-suit-shrouded forms ungainly, and their mittens-on-strings flopping at their sides. A quiet moment to yourself, re-reading the story of Christ’s incarnation by candle-light, tree-light – opening yourself again to the hush of amazement.

And, if you are a worship leader, you have permission NOT to plan the perfect Christmas service, or the perfect Christmas program, or the perfect Christmas banquet. Give jobs to children. Let them screw those jobs up. Allow a few sour chords to make the rest sound sweeter. Practice, but not extensively. Keep it simple. Just tell the story. But tell it in a way that reveals its imperfections. Tell people about the poop in the stable. Tell people about the smells and the sounds. Tell people that Mary was young, and that her pregnancy made her look disreputable. Tell people that Joseph wanted to abandon her. Tell people again that, to God, KING looks different. No gold. No power. No throne. Just a baby in a barn.

You see, all the perfection we are supposed to achieve at this time of year – all of that work – takes something from us. It takes away Christmas.

That first year there was no perfectly browned turkey, no perfect tree, no beautifully decorated home, no hushed angelic children’s faces gathered around a perfectly lovely crib. There was mess, and noise, and smelliness, and discomfort. Dirt and a fair bit of chaos. A crying baby. That is the standard.

So this year – maybe let things slide a little. I’m going to.

Have a merry imperfect Christmas!

“Dulce et Decorum Est “

This photograph was taken on the western front in France, 1916. It shows British troops going over the top of the trenches during the battle of the Somme. This was one of the bloodiest battles of World War One, claiming over a million casualties in five months. Photography copyright Getty Images.

This photograph was taken on the western front in France, 1916. It shows British troops going over the top of the trenches during the battle of the Somme. This was one of the bloodiest battles of World War One, claiming over a million casualties in five months. Photography copyright Getty Images.

Every November 11, Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” eats away at my mind. His poetry, and the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, capture in a unique way the panorama of war “sans propaganda.” Both poets, friends, were soldiers during WWI. Like many of Owen and Sassoon’s war poems, “Dulce et Decorum Est” is graphic, vile, and disturbing. It portrays a poison gas attack in vivid images and does not cosset its readers. Rather, it aims to portray the horror of war in a way that dispels the mythical “glory” that traditionally called youth to the battlefield. I would encourage you, on this November 11, to take some time to read through some of Owen and Sassoon’s other war poems.

I realize that there are many theological tangles regarding pacifism and “just war” – tangles too thick for me to unwind here (and too beyond my expertise for me to make the attempt). And, truth be told, my soul pulls both ways. But whatever you believe about war, we can all agree that it contains a base horror that is unmatched by any other human experience. And, as such, it is right and good that we take some time today to feel deeply for those who have experienced, and those who do experience, war as a daily reality – as soldiers and as civilians. And whether or not we believe there is ever a valid reason to go to war, we must keep faith with those who have been there by refusing the rose-coloured glasses that try to present war to us as “glorious.” The rough translation of the Latin phrase at the end of “Dulce et Decorum Est” is: “It is sweet and right to die for your country.” It’s taken from one of Horace’s Odes and its context is an exhortation to Roman citizens to gain military strength and skill for the glory of Rome.

Whatever your views on war, whatever your views on Remembrance Day, on poppies, on current political realities – I hope you take some time today to consider the depth of evil humanity is capable of. And I hope you take some time today to pray for those who have, who do, and who will experience that evil. And I hope you take some time today to pray “Come, Lord Jesus, Come” in the midst of that evil – because peace will not reign until Christ does. And we are all waiting, longing, praying – I hope – for peace.

Dulce et Decorum Est

deviantArt by Aadore inspired by "Dulce et Decorum Est"

deviantArt by Aadore inspired by “Dulce et Decorum Est”

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Nagasaki Fires. Photo by Yusike Yamahata.

Nagasaki Fires. Photo by Yusike Yamahata.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under I green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

diviantArt by ringosdiamond

diviantArt by ringosdiamond

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

~Wilfred Owen (1890-1918)

A Season of Thanksgiving

This Sunday, September 22nd, our little church entered a “season of thanksgiving.” Every Sunday from now until Advent, several members of our congregation will stand up, before our congregational prayer time, and name some of the things they are thankful for at this point in their lives. Nothing fancy. Just simple thanks. This is my introduction to that season.

Thanks and HopeMy parents moved recently. This, of course, means that all the boxes that I have stored, out of sight and out of mind, in my parents’ attic for x number of years have come to light – and have come home to roost in my garage. As we sifted through some of their contents, I came across a small disco ball with a tiny pair of Japanese shoes attached to it.

When I lived in BC – 3 years before I moved back to BC to attend Regent College—I went through a deep period of depression. There were a number of circumstances involved, but chief among them: I had just returned from a two and a half month trip to Ethiopia. I returned on an incredible high – sure that God was going to move in my life, sure that big things were going to happen. And they did. Our house burnt down, my childhood home. I had to resign from my job in a very messy set of circumstances – without a safety net. I was unemployed for more than six months, living in my friend’s parents’ home, with no idea how to move forward in any aspect of my life.

It was winter changing to spring at that point. In the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, Canada, this means grey, grey, grey, grey, grey. The weather was no help at all.

I can’t remember how I ended up with my little disco ball. Did someone give it to me? Did I see someone else with one, and track one down for myself? I don’t remember. But I hung it from the rear-view mirror of my little Subaru. Not, I think, with any real purpose; I may have thought it made my car look cool.

And then – one day – the sun broke through the screen of grey. And my car was filled with all these little dancing points of light. And I was so thankful. So thankful just to see the sun. Thankful every moment the sun shone. That little bit of thanks, those little points of light, kept me going through a very dark time.

Then I went to Japan for a year. Again, when I came home I was convinced I would participate in big things. Momentous things. I didn’t. I ended up living back at home with my own parents. With minimal employment. In the middle of a long, cold Albertan winter. Again unsure of how to move forward.

I hung up my little disco ball again – this time adding to it a little cell-phone charm I had purchased somewhere in Japan. A little pair of shoes: a little pair of Geta – Japanese flip-flops (although they are usually made of wood, and so are neither flippy nor floppy) – summer shoes. They reminded me that all I had to do was to keep putting one foot in front of the other; they reminded me – spring will come, darkness will end, winter cannot last forever.

Thanks and HopeThese two things – the disco ball, my little pair of flip-flops – were the only two things that came out of those boxes immediately. Much to Andrew’s annoyance I hung them in our new car immediately, realizing that I need that message again: thankfulness, hope.

I wondered if others might need the same message: simple thankfulness, quiet hope. So we will spend some weeks together, in Bon Accord Community Church, simply telling each other the little things – and sometimes the big things – that make us thankful. Maybe there is some small item, some reminder that can hang in your room, sit on your bedside table, or hang from your rear-view mirror to prompt you to thankfulness, and to keep you putting one foot in front of the other.

We want to be a church, we are a church, that is honest with each other – that lets the cracks show – a church in which the answer to “how are you?” does not always have to be “fine.” Because sometimes you’re not. Sometimes I’m not. But sometimes the darkness that we face, and even the little annoyances we deal with on a daily basis, can become so overwhelming that we see nothing else. We lose sight of the good. We can’t see any more that the sun is shining. But it is! And taking the time to notice that little good might push the darkness back a bit and help us to refocus.

It may be that some of the things others are thankful for are things that you lack. Things you want – maybe desperately. I know that will certainly be the case for me. That’s ok. Because we all, every single one of us, have something, somethings to be thankful for. And if we can be a church that both cries with those who mourn and laughs with those who rejoice – then we will always be a place of welcome. And you might find, maybe you will find, that by taking a moment to celebrate what someone else has, and you don’t have, some of that darkness lessens in you as well. Because it’s out there. There is hope. And even if the sun is not shining over you right now. It’s there. And it’s as bright as ever.

I am thankful for sunshine.
I am thankful for my body:

it will never be on the cover of Vogue, but it works—in a basic kind of way—well enough for me to function and to get things done. I can walk, and run, and jump, and almost reach the highest shelf in my kitchen. I’m kind of happy about that.

I am thankful for my friends and family:

Too many people to mention. None of them are perfect. But they are all a joy – at least some of the time.

I am thankful that I am greeted with joy, exuberance, and great hairy wagginess every time I come home:

Finn (our dog) is pretty great too. ;) Andrew and I have walked through some pretty dark moments together, but somehow we still find the time and energy to be silly with each other. And we still find the time and energy to get out and walk with our dog. I’m so grateful.

Finally, I am deeply thankful for this church:

for the warm, generous, and occasionally raucous crowd we have found ourselves in. And that they have graciously allowed us to lead – even experiment. I am humbled and so very grateful for the opportunity to be here in Bon Accord.


How about you?

Fidelity, or “Why do we bother?”: Chapter 28 of Joan Chittister’s ‘The Liturgical Year’

by Ian Walden

The sun is setting. The feast of Easter is fading to memory. Ahead lies the long road of Ordinary Time. The next ‘high point’ in the Liturgical Year is a long, long way away. So when the candles are out, the colours are muted, and the words are, well, ordinary – why do we bother with these routines, these rituals, these practices?

The end of the noise and fuss and excitement is a good time for this question. It’s already forced me to re-examine my motives. It’s convicting to hear Sister Joan remind us that “we do not live a liturgical life to look good to other people. We do not develop a liturgical spirituality to affect a kind of spiritual dimension to our lives. And we certainly do not go to Mass regularly to avoid hell.” Ouch. Too often my newbie enthusiasm for this liturgical lark is akin to a shopper’s delight at a little-discovered bargain – consumerism ethos included.

So what’s a better answer? Chittister’s is that we are all (like a character in a parable she tells) being asked, silently but daily, the searching question: Are you Jesus? And I for one would like to say (perhaps also silently, but daily nonetheless) that yes, indeed, I am. I would like my Ordinary Time, my ordinary life, to be lived extraordinarily well, “no matter what other elements of life emerge to seduce us as the years go by.” No matter how far removed Jesus’ first earthly presence seems, no matter how absent his Spirit feels, no matter how improbable his Return appears, I want my life to be the evidence of Things Unseen. I want it, even this summer, to be both site and source of redemption in this world. More than a sacrifice, I need re-creation. I need my life to be witness that I am (and therefore all are) defined by the beautiful future, not the tragic past.

And as we’re all learning, in the Pentecostal economy, becoming like Jesus (learning to think like he thinks, to act as he acts, to allow his life/mind/heart to saturate ours) is something that can be learned. And learning takes repetition, re-enactment, constant re-membering. It takes fidelity, constancy, regularity. All else (and this also, paradoxically, is all the difference) is the in-breathed, dry-bone-stirring  Life of God.

Where have you seen Jesus lately? Where has his life continued in your midst, in the habits, reflexes, instincts, or desires exhibited by Jesus people – including yourself? Was it surprising, extraordinary, or surprisingly natural? Was it obvious, or seen only after reflection? What kind of practices, what kind of liturgy, might possibly (feel free to speculate, to guess!) have contributed to this miracle, this new Presence?

In the hope of glory, Amen.

Gardener God

 Reprinted with permission from Regent College: The Regent World, Spring 2010, Volume 22, Number 2.
While I now have a yard and a garden to enjoy (no longer am I limited to four square feet of balcony!), I was reminded of this article as I placed trays of seeds out on my window sills a few weeks ago. I still feel “winterish” in my soul – but there is always the promise of spring.

In my prairie farm home, spring always began with foil trays of potting soil lined up on our window sills. When green shoots of tomatoes, marigolds and geraniums began to poke above the surface, I knew that spring thaw couldn’t be too far away.

After last frost, my mother would sit down at the kitchen table and draw a map of the garden. With packets of seed scattered across the table rows of peas, beans, and carrots, plots of zucchini and corn would sprout from her pencil across the page. We would enact her map later that week: unrolling lengths of string and tracing straight rows along them, filling trenches with water, dropping seeds in and covering them over; taking bright green seedlings out of their foil trays and sinking them deep in the soil of flower beds and garden plots.

Perhaps it is because of this family history that I am fascinated by the Genesis 2 description of God as gardener: “Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food” (vv. 8-9). The LORD God planted—not spoke into being, but planted—got down on his hands and knees and dropped seeds into trenches in the earth, waited for them to grow.

Not only does God plant a garden, but he plants humanity within that garden (v. 8)—and gives humanity its first task: “to work [the garden] and take care of it” (v. 15). As image-bearers of our gardener God, we are charged with the responsibility of tending the earth.

This is a responsibility I took for granted when I lived on my father’s farm, worked in my mother’s garden. Now that I live in the city, with only a small balcony to connect me to the outdoors, I feel disconnected from the origins of food, experience few consequences of my actions in nature. When my garbage is swept neatly away every week, what does it matter how much of it I produce? When I buy my food in plastic trays and bags at the grocery store, what does it matter if it doesn’t rain? I have become seduced by convenience: throwing out what could be saved; expecting fruits and vegetables to be readily available, regardless of season; accumulating unneeded possessions that gather dust on my shelves before being consigned to some far-removed rubbish heap.

When the prophets pick up on the image of God as gardener, they give it a different twist. Israelis described as a well-watered garden under God’s hand (Nm 24:6-7, Is 58:11, Jer 31:12), or, when in rebellion against God, as a desert or wilderness, untended and unproductive (Is 5:1-7, Is 51:3). Living in cities, removed from the earth that sustains us, we struggle not only to fulfill our task as image-bearers of a gardener God, but also to understand the work of a gardener God in our lives, to understand ourselves as garden: as pruned, weeded, watered, as weathering the seasons.

For four years now, I have felt locked under a blanket of snow, barely surviving through a very long winter. Spring may still be months, or even years, away. The temptation is to despair. Instead, I cling to this image of God as gardener: God drawing out garden rows, in the midst of winter; filling foil trays with potting soil; setting them on the window sill and watching, with me, for the day that green shoots will begin to appear.

In the meantime, in my city apartment, I try to remind myself in as many ways as possible of this gardener God, to remind myself of my image-bearing role as gardener. I grow tomatoes, chives, rosemary and thyme on my balcony, and alfalfa and bean sprouts on my kitchen counter. I sort my garbage and haul recycling and compost inconveniently to recycling sites in the city. And, every year, before the last frost has left the ground—while it is still winter—I plant seeds in foil trays and set them out on my window sills.