Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Lesson of the Red Mittens

I am wearing a pair of red mittens.  They are warm and cosy and bright.  They are also highly impractical, as I have to take them off in order to use my hands for anything requiring more than holding a cup of coffee!

These mittens are old - at least 15 years - and they were a Christmas gift from a former colleague of mine.  I rarely wear them, and I am not sure why I kept them (let alone brought them to Africa) except that they remind me of the gift-giver.

Dondi was the receptionist at the church where I used to work.  She was the one who answered the phones and helped people who walked into the office.  She was, in other words, the point of entry for anyone contacting the church.  And she was the bravest woman I ever met.

Dondi battled cancer for many years.  This is not so unusual in and of itself, but Dondi battled a vicious cancer - one that infiltrated nearly every cell of her body.  How she managed to gather the resolve to come into work every day I'll never know.  It was obvious that Dondi battled with pain - her body gave that away - but her face and her spirit were bubbling with life.

"It's a beautiful day at Big Valley Grace Church! How may I help you?" was Dondi's way of answering telephone calls.  When the phones weren't ringing she was busy sewing puppet costumes or planning lessons for children's church.  If a staff member walked through the office hurriedly, feeling overwhelmed by the challenges of the day, Dondi would stop them, cause them to pause, and simply dance with them for a few minutes.  Dancing with a woman who is fighting for her life tends to put things in perspective.

Dondi finally succumbed to cancer after a seven-year-battle, passing away on Resurrection Sunday (how fitting) fourteen years ago.  The first place I ever took my newborn daughter was to Dondi's funeral.  And now - 15 years later - I am sitting at a computer wearing these warm, cosy (and highly impractical) mittens, wondering "What's this all about?"

You may not be the point of entry for a church, or even an office, but you may be the point of entry to something else.  Indeed, may I suggest that all of us are points of entry in one form or another - to Hope, perhaps.  Healing.  Faith.  Reconciliation. 

May I also suggest that - no matter what challenges or circumstances cross our paths - we pause and take the time to dance for a few minutes, because despite all that ails us and threatens to rob us of joy, "It's [still] a beautiful day"... wherever you are in the world.

Dear South Africa...

May I join in your song, your dance, your beauty? I know I am not indigenous but I promise to be respectful of all that is. I desire to see you reach your potential and to contribute in whatever way I can toward helping you achieve greatness - both as a nation and as individual people.

I humbly commit to learn your cultures, your languages (at least a few of them!), your values and your philosophies. I will rejoice in and celebrate your uniqueness, and hold dear all that you have to offer, to teach, and to share.  I will honour and respect you, and work for your benefit.

I offer myself to you; would you allow me to learn how to become a grace note to you?

Friday, June 29, 2012

To the Three Men Who Robbed Me

I sit still,
silent for so long
I imagine
I am sinking into the earth...
Transplanted -
no longer rootless -
my toes press down, strong,
into the cool, dark soil
My fingers unfurl -
stretch forth through the air -
to respect, shelter, celebrate life,
extend grace
I stand securely,
face to the sun,
breathe deeply and
Grow, here.
Bear fruit, here.
Become beautiful, here.
and maybe - one day -
Die, here, because
I am home, here...
South Africa.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Power of Music and Food

"When we share the gift of food new spaces are created where other gifts can be given and received."

"Songs are the musical story of us:  our culture, our history, our loves and losses. To share them is to remember, to be reminded, to look to the future with hope. To listen to them is to open ourselves empathetically to the stories of others."

"So it is that as we prepare feasts and music for others we do so in the spirit of becoming 'artists of the invisible' - offering all that we have and are to God, allowing it out of our sight and ownership, and thus receiving it back as a gift to share that we can all be thankful for."

- Kester Brewin, Other

Friday, June 22, 2012

Thoughts on Being Present to the Moment

I saw a bird I've never seen before the other day - a bearded woodpecker.  I would never have seen it if I hadn't been waiting outside for a few minutes, and I never would have seen it if I hadn't looked up.  Usually in such circumstances, I would quickly check my email or answer some text messages, but this time I chose to intentionally be present to my surroundings and to the present moment.  I was rewarded with the honour of viewing a new (to me) bird species.

 I paused and marvelled, for moments such as these are holy moments.  It is one thing to be amazed by viewing a new species; it is altogether wonder-ful to consider that there are thousands upon thousands of additional species my eyes have not (yet) seen! To think that I would never have seen this incredible bird if I had not chosen to be intentionally present to the moment makes me pause and consider how many beautiful things I have missed because I was not present - my mind was preoccupied with to-do lists or the circumstances of the day.

When did emails and text messages become more important than God's creation?  Is there a way to reverse this, to reclaim a sense of wonder and presence to what is around us?  May I dare to suggest, absolutely!... if we breed and foster an intentionality about it. 

(By the way, the emails and text messages were all attended to a little bit later... not one was "lost".)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Story Behind the Story, Part II

I was what you might call a "nerd" in school.  I was President of the German Club. I was in the marching band.

I also competed in the Math Bowl, which pretty much sealed my fate as an "untouchable" in the social hierarchy.

 Consequently I never got asked to a school dance - not once.  I never attended my school's prom. I ate lunch in the chemistry lab every day (but truthfully, some of my lunches belonged in the chemistry lab!).  I was fine with all of this until my tenth reunion.

I didn't want to be the "nerd" anymore.  I was not upset about the choices I had made in school; I enjoyed all of the activities in which I had participated, but I was tired of being the social pariah because of it.  So I was never a cheerleader... so what?  So I had a decent brain... again, so what?  Did this make me less of a human or place me at the bottom of some social hierarchy?  NO!

I bought a red dress (which was not easy to fit into, given that I had a newborn baby at that time!), and I walked into that building, head held high, my husband by my side, and... the first person I bumped into was the former football quarterback, the guy every girl in my class had a crush on.  I had a split second of panic, but then remembered that I knew who I was... I no longer had to be intimidated.

The guy looked at my nametag, looked at me questioningly, looked back at my nametag, looked at me again, and finally said, "Well... hot damn!"  And that was worth more than all of the dances I was never asked to attend.  :-)

The Story Behind the Story, Part I

This is one of my favourite photos of Dan and I, taken thirteen years ago.  If you knew nothing of the story, you might guess that we were going out on a date or attending a function in which we had to dress nicely.  We look happy and young.  You might comment on our clothing or the styles, which are dated to some extent, and then you would set the photo aside with a closing comment such as "What a nice-looking couple."  The photo would soon be forgotten.

There's a story behind the story, however.  There's always a story behind the story, and it is that story which gives the photo meaning, that story which is intriguing, and that story which will change how you see the photo.  It's not that it's a great story; it's that it's a deeper story.  It's what led to this moment in time which was captured on film and cemented positively in my memory. 

If we only see the surface value of people and their stories, we will most probably miss the deeper stories that make their lives so rich with meaning.  Never stop at "What a nice-looking couple."  Probe deeper.  Question.  Be curious.  You might learn some amazing things.  At the very least, you will hear some fascinating stories.

Sunday Quote

"When the time comes, I shall withdraw from life, not as one leaves home, but as from a temporary lodging place. On that brightest of all days, when I depart from the confusion of this world, I shall set out, I believe, for a far-off Divine gathering of spirits...
"But, if I am mistaken, in that I believe men's souls to be immortal, I am glad to be mistaken...
"And all my life I shall continue to believe it."

Friday, June 15, 2012

What Gives Life Meaning?

The question was posed to me last week, "What gives your life meaning?"  I immediately thought of the typical Christian answer (upon which I won't elaborate), but what struck me was that the answer revolved around me and what I wanted to do with my life ("Obviously," you are likely saying).  I think if you asked any Western (and especially American) Christian, you would receive a similar response, though the specifics would be different.

Why this seemingly obvious response stood out to me - rather profoundly, in fact - is because it had little to do with community, with being a part of something bigger than myself.  It removed myself from the context of the community and relationships in which I live, to determine meaning based solely upon what I did with my life.  And that bothered me.

Imagine your favourite song.  Picture yourself as one note in that song.  Do you only like that one note, or do you like more - the lyrics, the chord progressions, the rhythms?  If it is your favourite song, chances are you like everything about the song and not just one single note.

When we focus on our individuality too much we lose sight of the whole song, so to speak; we care very little about the notes that came before us (setting the stage for our turn to play) or the notes that will come after us (and our responsibility to those notes). We take ourselves out of the context of the song as a whole.  I would like to suggest that our life actually loses meaning and significance when we do that.

In truth, what would give my life meaning is to be a part of something bigger than myself, something that I am a part of but could never accomplish on my own.  I see myself as one note in a grand symphony (with God as the conductor) which began when the world was created and will continue long after I am gone.  I have a part to play, yes, but it is in relation to all that played before me and all that will play after me. 

Is this mutually exclusive of a Western Christian mindset?  I don't believe so, but it might require us to loosen our grip on our individualism.  One note, or part of an amazing song?  What gives your life meaning?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Ever Get a Song Stuck in Your Head?

Imagine (How God Can Sing)

Imagine how God can sing
How His voice delights the universe
With a range that blends eternally
Into chords of His love.

Imagine how God can dance
Moving gracefully up to our hearts
To invite us to be intimate
And share in His joy.

And imagine how God must feel
When we move back away from Him
To design our own destinies
Living lives of desiring and fear.

Then imagine God's happiness
When a wanderer cries out to Him
For the peace that only He can give
For the grace He grants to truly live
And when the choice is made to look to Him
And finally draw near.

 Written by John Barlow Jarvis and Phillip McHugh

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Thoughts on Grace Notes

Grace notes are funny little things.  They ornament and enhance the note to which they are attached, but from a position of submission and service.  By definition they cannot stand alone. Grace notes are printed much smaller than the principal note, often with a slash through the stem (ouch!). 

What's even more remarkable about grace notes, however, is that they have no mathematical value in terms of the beats per measure.  In other words, they don't count.  If you have four beats per measure, the grace notes will not be included in those four beats.  Sure, they take a small amount of time away from the note to which they are attached, but they are not factored in when writing the music.

Small, seemingly insignificant, marred, and counting for nothing... yet they're referred to as "grace notes".  Why?

"Grace" as a verb can mean the following things:  to beautify, enrich, elevate, ennoble, honour, favour, dignify, or distinguish.  A grace note does all of these things for the principal note to which it is attached.  And I begin to formulate an intention:

I want to be a grace note.  I don't mind being small, seemingly insignificant or even marred.  Counting for nothing is a harder pill to swallow.  But to beautify, enrich, elevate, ennoble, honour, favour, dignify or distinguish this amazing country which I now call home... that is what I long to do.  I know I have a long way to go, but that's okay.  If I've learned anything in the past four months, it's that questioning and defining your intentions counts for a lot.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Remembering Ray Bradbury

"Cayenne, marjoram, cinnamon."
The names of lost and fabulous cities through which storms of spice bloomed up and dusted away.
And looking at one single label on a jar...
The word was RELISH.
And he was glad he had decided to live.
RELISH! What a special name for the minced pickle sweetly crushed in its white-capped jar. The man who had named it, what a man he must have been. Roaring, stamping around, he must have tromped the joys of the world and jammed them in this jar and writ in a big hand, shouting, RELISH! For its very sound meant rolling in sweet fields with roistering chestnut mares, mouths bearded with grass, plunging your head fathoms deep in trough water so the sea poured cavernously through your head. RELISH!
- from Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury

Thank you for the many books you wrote, Mr. Bradbury, and for inspiring the imagination in all of us.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Joys of Learning Another Language...

Today I made what might possibly be my worst Afrikaans mistake yet.  Worse than the time I said, "I would like to cook your mother for dinner." Far worse than the time I said, "You're all Englishmen!" to a group of Afrikaners.  A thousand times worse than the time I said "plakoek" instead of "vlakoek."

It is worse because it was part of a birthday greeting I was giving.  It is worse because I thought I was doing really well in learning Afrikaans.  It is worse because, well... because I'm humiliated and my pride has been mortally wounded (yes, I know, that's not necessarily a bad thing...).

What I meant to say was: Mag die volgende jaar voll met wonderlike verrassings wees.
What I actually said was:  Mag die volgende jaar voll met wonderlike verassings wees.

Do you see what's missing?  One tiny, little letter "r."  So innocent.  So inconsequential.  So vitally important!

What I meant to say was:  May the coming year be filled with wonderful surprises!
What I actually said was:  May the coming year be filled with wonderful cremations!

I think my ego just had a surprise cremation ('n verrassende verassing?)...

Matthew 14: Food for Take Away

Matthew 14 is a long, quirky chapter filled with random, disconnected stories... yet each story is a book in and of itself.  If I had to summarise what I've learned from this chapter (not an easy task), I might say something like this:
  1. It's okay to withdraw for a while when processing grief or trauma.  Go hide under the covers for a day and extend a little grace to yourself.
  2. If you want a good leader, be a good follower.  In other words, make it as easy as possible for them to do the right thing and not cave to pressure.
  3. Don't quit before your second wind kicks in. You have more strength than you think.
  4. Acknowledge your limitations, but offer what you do have - skills, time, etc.  Collaboration is a pretty cool thing.
  5. Some days we're emotionally all over the place.  That's okay.  Tomorrow will be different.
  6. Some queues aren't worth waiting in.  Others are.  Question why you're in the queue, and if you're in it for a good reason, wait patiently.  Good things are likely to come when it's your turn.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Matthew 14: A Really Long Queue

Matthew 14 ends with a funny little story lasting a few short verses:  Jesus lands at Gennesaret, is recognised by the people, and pretty soon everyone is bringing their sick friends and relatives to Jesus, begging him to just let them touch the edge of his cloak so they can be healed.  The chapter ends by saying, "...and all who touched it were healed."  At first glance, it seems like the people were filled with such faith that they felt they only needed to touch that which touched Jesus (his cloak) in order to be healed.  But upon second glance...

Let's do a little contemplative imagination and place ourselves in the story.  Pretend you're in the queue (it's a really long queue), waiting to be healed. It's hot, and people are starting to become impatient.  Someone shouts out, "Aww, Jesus, just take off your cloak and pass it around.  If we can touch it, we'll be healed and can all go home in time for dinner."  Jesus (who was fully God but also fully man and therefore also hot and tired) agrees. 

People clamour to touch the cloak, are healed, and leave the place jumping and dancing and generally whooping it up as people do when they are miraculously healed.  But there is a small remnant of people, still standing patiently in a queue.  Why?  Perhaps, for them, the cloak is not enough. Perhaps what they really want is Jesus himself.  You find yourself in that queue - hot, tired, but willing to wait for Jesus himself rather than the quick-fix of touching the cloak.  You wonder if it's worth it.

Finally, it's your turn.  As Jesus looks into your eyes, what do you see?  What kind of a look is it? Jesus breaks the silence (though volumes were likely spoken in His look upon you). "Why did you wait all this time when you could have just touched my cloak?" What would you say?

I sometimes wonder if I want Jesus to do things for me more than I want Jesus himself.  I'd like to reach a place where being with him - being in his presence and aware of that presence - is the end goal, regardless of anything he might do (or not do).

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Little Debussy

"Music is the expression of the movement of the waters, the play of curves described by changing breezes." - Claude Debussy

"There is nothing more musical than a sunset. He who feels what he sees will find no more beautiful example of development in all that book which, alas, musicians read but too little - the book of Nature." - Claude Debussy

You don't have to be a musician to hear the music in running water, the wind through the trees, or to see the music of a sunset.  Listen, look, and enjoy!