Shared-ness

“Miss Olesen, would you please come look at our food?” He was standing at the classroom door, grinning in his apron. Today was their first cooking class, and he wanted me to come and see what they had done.

I had a pile of work on my desk to do. I’d just come back from vacation and was getting caught up. But I fought off the urge to read just one more e-mail. “Sure!” I said, getting up from my desk and following him to the kitchen.

A group of four boys were carrying a platter of intricately arranged fruit toward the table in the gym. They were carrying it together very carefully to be sure it wouldn’t get jostled and spill. The smiling excitement on their faces said it all: they were pleased with their work. Slowly the other groups of boys and girls were making their way out of the kitchen in a similar fashion, all with beautiful trays of fruit. They placed them carefully on the table and gathered around.

As I expressed my admiration for their lovely work, they beamed. It wasn’t just the pleasure in their work, or the fruit that they would soon enjoy. It was also the shared pleasure of the moment, of their accomplishment.

Yes, I was impressed with the fruit. It was gorgeous. But what was warming my heart just then was… them. They had done this together. They were going to enjoy it together.

I pictured them in their own homes, in years to come, living like this. Shared food, shared joy.

And I was thinking how this shared-ness of our lives speaks Christ to a watching world.

I’m so glad he invited me to share in that moment, with them.

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Christmas Carols

imageI’m staying in my old bedroom at my parents’ for Christmas. Mom has a box in here with old Christmas movies, music and books. At the top of the pile I found some old carol song books. Our local newspaper, the Alberni Valley Times, used to publish these each year, but now have closed their doors.

My Grandma also saved these so that we could sing together as a family. In the traditional Danish way, we’d have our dinner on Christmas Eve. After the rice pudding and the dishes had been cleared away, Grandma would bring out the coffee and cookies and then the song books. She insisted that we sing before opening any of the gifts beneath the brightly glowing tree. Even though some of the other kids were probably feeling impatient to get to those gifts, I loved this part of our celebration. I can still see Grandma sitting there by the tree in a pretty blouse, singing carols with glistening eyes. Usually my Auntie Carolyn (she was rightly named) and I would keep her company long after the others had stopped singing and were anxiously asking if it was time to open the presents yet.

I’ve always loved carols. As a teen, I joined Pat Miller’s choir. Somehow she took a group of teenagers and coaxed beautiful sounds out of us. I remember how every December we filed into our darkened high school auditorium to the sounds of “Silent Night”, each carrying a single white candle and trying not to burn the hair of the person in front of us, as we made our way through the audience up to the stage for our annual Christmas concert. My favourite part of the evening was listening to the handbell choir perform. One time we were even invited to sing our carols for appreciative shoppers in Woodward’s department store. That all seems to belong to a long forgotten era, in this day of “winter concerts” with songs that wouldn’t dare to offend anyone.

But would people really be so offended to hear carols sung in public? My most recent carolling experience tells me not. Our church was invited by the local business association to send a group of carollers up and down our street in Toronto on a Saturday afternoon. I did not expect the reception we had from the people on the street. Young people taking out their earbuds to listen and capturing us on their cellphones, older people joining in and singing, cars pulling up alongside and rolling down the windows to let the music in. A young woman who requested a carol (as she had never heard one sung live before) was moved to tears as we serenaded her.

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King!”

Carols touch the heart and move the soul with truth. Our own school’s Christmas concert this year was entirely carols and scripture. As I listened to the deep truths sung by young voices, my heart was glad.

The Restorative Power of Beauty

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What is it about beauty that refreshes me and puts my mind at rest? It’s not simply looking upon a beautiful scene or object that restores and delights me. It’s looking upon that beauty and knowing that it has the very fingerprints of God all over it. The truth that it comes directly Him, and is a reflection of His beauty, is what gives everyday beauty meaning and causes me to delight in it.

There is something about beauty that has the power to elevate the human spirit in the worst of circumstances. When Corrie ten Boom and her sister, Betsie, were imprisoned during WWII, they were living in separate cells at one point. Corrie was wondering how her sister, who so loved beauty, was surviving the drab dungeon-like atmosphere of a prison cell. One day she had the opportunity to view her sister’s cell, and described what she saw there:

“…Unbelievably, against all logic, the cell was charming… the straw pallets were rolled instead of piled in a heap, standing like little pillars among the walls, each with a lady’s hat atop it. A headscarf had somehow been hung along the wall. The contents of several food packages were arranged on a small shelf… Even the coats hanging on their hooks were part of the welcome of that room, each sleeve draped over the shoulder of the coat next to it like a row of dancing children…”[1]

Betsie made that horrible place as beautiful as she possibly could for all of its inhabitants. Beauty is a gift that we can give to those who share the spaces we inhabit.

What about when we live in a place in which it is more difficult to see beauty?

 

In my former home, I was swimming in it… literally. After school, I would walk down the road to the Strait of Georgia, where I might spy a blue heron standing on one leg, or spot a seal surfacing not far from the shore; all against the breathtaking backdrop of the coastal mountain range.

 

 

 

On rainy days, I’d go out my back door into the west coast rain forest, where the moss hung like tinsel from the fir trees, and the raindrops bounced off the lacy ferns that lay at my feet.

After a long day’s work, I would look forward to these times in nature, and would return home refreshed and feeling almost as if I’d had a bath (perhaps in the rain, I had!)

I went through a kind of beauty withdrawal when I moved to the city. Beauty is here, but it isn’t as easy to get to. However, the joy and surprise when I unexpectedly encounter beauty now is a wonderful gift.

Today, I walked to a neighborhood park and spied some lovely trees all dressed in their autumn best, with a delicate carpet of leaves spreading out beneath them.

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I realize that I appreciate beauty more now when I see it. It’s like a cool drink of water in a desert of concrete and graffiti.

It’s also a very special gift from the One that I love. When I appreciate His gifts, it causes my heart to rejoice in the Giver of those gifts. It reminds me of His beauty, for He is the most beautiful One of all.

Lately I have been considering how we help children to appreciate and enjoy beauty as a gift from God and a reflection of who He is. Not beauty for beauty’s sake, but beauty as it points to God’s glory and grace.

I was on a hike through some spectacular scenery recently, and one of my fellow hikers pointed out the hollowness of trying to enjoy the beauty we were surrounded with, if we didn’t have a God to thank and praise for it. I had to agree! Our loving God gives appreciating beauty meaning; otherwise our appreciation stops short of the full-orbed awe and wonder it was meant to provoke in us.

When beauty leads us to rejoice in the goodness, power, and majesty of our God, then it serves its restorative purpose in our lives. It restores us to our humble position of gratitude before our Maker, the One who has made everything beautiful in its time.

 

[1] from p. 150-151, “The Hiding Place” by Corrie ten Boom with John and Elizabeth Sherrill, 1971, Chosen Books.

Singing in a Foreign Land

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The White House

 

I was in a foreign land this past week: the United States of America!  It’s amazing how foreign the U.S.A. can actually feel to a Canadian, even though it’s just across the border. Little things, from the all-green money to different names for common items, remind you that you’re not in Canada anymore.

For example, teachers have to become familiar with the American use of the word “grade”: that’s “5th Grade” instead of “Grade 5”; and as a verb, it’s “grade students’ papers” rather than “mark students’ papers”.

My destination was the state of Maryland, where I attended a teacher training conference put on by Rockbridge Academy, a classical Christian school in Annapolis. It was wonderful to meet and interact with my American colleagues! It was a week filled with both worshipping God and learning, reminding me how necessary these are to one another if we are to glorify Him.

While I am still mulling over the many things that I considered this week, and I’m sure as they marinate I will eventually be able to articulate them better, these three points stand out to me right now:

  1. Our graduates will look like our faculty. Very sobering thought for teachers! (Matthew 10:24 says, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.”) We need to be passionate worshippers and lovers of God ourselves if that’s what we want our students to be.
  2. Our students should be able to hear the good news of the gospel woven in and through and underpinning all that we teach. Our discipline of them ought to be gospel saturated. It’s not about moralizing. It’s about continually pointing them to our need of Christ and His cross.
  3. Stories are powerful ways to communicate truth to our students without moralizing. We want to read them stories that help them to learn to love the things that God loves, and hate the things that God hates. That’s the goal.

Some deep thoughts, and I’m fairly certain the full impact of this week has yet to hit me!

Happily, I also had the opportunity to visit some local sites of interest. Annapolis has a historic downtown area, with many old buildings, brick streets, and a beautiful harbour.

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Maryland State House was once the Capitol of the United States

 

 

 

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One evening in the harbour we were even treated to the sounds of a jazz band made up of men in uniform. The city is the home of the United States Naval Academy.

I set aside an evening to travel to nearby Washington, DC and walk and pray through the National Mall.

Capitol Hill

Capitol Hill (United States Congress)

I love the American people! I met so many kind and generous folks on this recent trip. Just one example (of many) was the lady ahead of me in the line up of cars on the interstate in Pennsylvania. We were backed up for miles because of construction, and were at a standstill. She could see that I was melting in the intense heat without air conditioning, even with the windows rolled all the way down in the car. She jumped out of her vehicle and ran over and handed me a frozen water bottle! God bless her!

As I prayed for America this week, my heart overflowed with God’s love for the people. I thought not only of them, but of Christians worldwide who are struggling with how to live Christianly in today’s culture.

Something many Christian educators and parents around the world are pondering is how we can teach our children to be joyful and impactful Christians in an anti-Christian culture. Many might feel like hanging it up and retreating. The Israelites faced a similar struggle in Babylon:

“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.

    On the willows there we hung up our lyres.

    For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

     How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1-4 KJV)

Should we simply hang up our lyres? Or how shall we sing? Yes, for Christians there will be times of confusion and perplexity, even of discouragement and genuine grief. But in verses five and six, we are told the secret to overcoming even in the midst of those times:

“If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!”

The answer is to remember. We remember our God and His faithfulness. We remember Jesus and His life laid down for us. We remember the Holy Spirit and His indwelling, comforting, abiding presence. And we remember the Kingdom of God and the promise of the New Jerusalem! If we do not remember, it is like our tongues stick to the roofs of our mouths, and we can’t sing of His goodness and glory. But if we remember, how can we keep from singing?

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lam. 3:21-23)

Control Freak

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Image: Creative Commons

 

“Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Control freak! Now you gotta say Control freak who?”

 

After I stopped laughing at this student’s joke, inwardly I cringed. We teachers can be control freaks. In all fairness, though, it’s kind of expected of us.

We’re expected to be in control of our classrooms. We’re expected to maintain order and not allow things to descend into chaos. We have to act as managers of many things all at once, all the time.

There’s a difference, however, between governing and dominating. Students do appreciate it when a teacher keeps control of the class, but no one wants a Nazi for a teacher. It’s one thing to helpfully guide and contain your class, and quite another to act as if you have to control every aspect of it.

It’s not healthy to regulate students so tightly that they can’t breathe. Not all, but some of the decisions about their learning have to be theirs. They need to be allowed to make attempts at things without being hovered over to ensure success.

There are times it’s painful to let them make decisions that we know are going to lead to hardship and grief. It can be difficult to let go and watch a student struggle with something, and even fail.

What can also be challenging for teachers is not to carry over the watchfulness we have over our classrooms into our daily lives and relationships. I was just talking about this challenge with a new teacher-friend this week. We agreed, sometimes it’s tempting for us to go into control-freak-mode and try to manage situations that we should be keeping our hands off of.

Why can it be so hard to shake that mind-set, “If I don’t do something about this, then no one else will”?

That mind-set reveals an attitude of pride and unbelief.

Pride says, “I’m the only one who is willing to do anything to help in this situation.”

Unbelief says, “God doesn’t seem to be doing anything about this.”

So operating in pride and unbelief, we meddle in situations we have no business meddling in, all the while telling ourselves that we are trying to help. The truth of the matter is, we’d be better off minding our own business and leaving the person or situation to God.

Yes, there are times when it’s difficult to know whether or not we should intervene and act. But something I’m learning (oh so slowly it seems!) is that I have to check my heart and my motives.

  • Is pride in charge of me? Do I think that I have the right solution, and that I know what’s best?
  • Am I harboring unbelief? Do I think it’s all up to me, and that God seems to be asleep?
  • Am I operating out of fear? Am I afraid of what will happen if I don’t get involved, and am I trying to control the outcome to make it turn out the way I’d like it to?
  • Have I made myself too important in my own eyes? Am I forgetting that God has other servants who are available to Him, perhaps someone much better suited for this situation than I am?

I also think there is a direct correlation between how desperately we desire something and how likely it is that we will try to control the outcome. The more it matters to us, the more tempting it will be to meddle.

So, what’s the cure when we find ourselves slipping into ctrl-freak territory?

The first thing is recognising what we’re doing wrong, and confessing that to God, and to those who will keep us accountable for not doing it anymore.

Repentance involves agreeing with God that I’ve been operating from a place of pride and unbelief, and affirming that He is God and I am not.

If I think that I love a person more than God does, I am seriously deluded. When we ask why God would allow suffering, though, isn’t that what we’re calling into question? So I have to repent of how I am questioning His love, and affirm that His love is so much higher than mine, and His ways are higher than my ways.

I’m in Genesis this week, and as I read again of Abraham binding his son Isaac to the altar, I was struck afresh by his trust in the faithfulness and love of God. That trust was unshakable, even in the face of what seemed like a cruel joke.

That trust in the Father’s loving character was shown supremely in Jesus Christ as He faced the cross, and allowed God to have His way with Him, because He knew beyond all insinuations to the contrary that God loved Him.

When we trust in the Father’s loving heart and allow Him to control us, then we can respond in faith to His promptings and obey Him in what He is asking of us in regard to others. We let Him be in control and with an attitude of trust and faith, we release the outcome to Him.

There’s a little song I learned this year at our school musical, and the lyrics are so appropriate:

God is in control

God. is. in. control.

God is in control

My God is in control…

The God who is the very definition of love is in control, so I don’t have to be.

Love Thy Neighbour

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“God is calling us to so greatly love others that we do not desire for them anything that might separate them from God.” – Rosaria Butterfield

 

This quote not only speaks to how I ought to love my students and coworkers, but how I ought to love everyone who crosses my path. It’s a challenging quote, because it calls me to sacrificial love. It’s a love that puts the good of the other ahead of my own comfort.

I’ve been contemplating the meaning of friendship lately. I think my biggest question in relation to my friends is, how do I best love this person? Rosaria’s quote above really speaks to the meaning of love and what I desire for my friends.

To love someone well means relying on God for wisdom, even to know what love is and what love demands in each circumstance. I am continually confronted with the reality that I do not know how to love. My love is often confused with sympathy, or tainted with my own selfish desires.

So often I’d just like to have a set of rules that tells me how to behave. I’ve had this old book on Etiquette for years, and there’s something tempting about reading it and knowing exactly what the “polite” thing to do is, and how to behave in a socially acceptable way. But then I am confronted by Jesus with the woman at the well; Jesus accepting having his feet washed lavishly with perfume and long hair; Jesus eating with tax collectors. While He didn’t necessarily set out to break all the rules and offend people, He certainly didn’t let social conventions stop Him from loving people.

In my sermon notes from June 12th, I wrote this: “Christ is the love of God embodied in a person.” (I don’t remember if that was a direct quote from Joe or not?) Then later, I wrote this down: “Love means we obey God with respect to the person.”

Those two truths really say it all when it comes to love, don’t they? Christ is the very definition of love, and by walking in obedience to God, we are being conformed to His loving nature.

So, does love confront sometimes? “In the gospels, Jesus seemed to be confronting and rebuking His disciples and others with an extreme forcefulness. Jesus was driven by tenderness and compassion to deal forthrightly and convincingly with any issue that might have separated His loved ones from Him.”[i]

I’d rather avoid lovingly confronting someone because it’s uncomfortable and I don’t want to deal with their potentially negative response, or experience rejection. But if I don’t do it, then I’m failing to love that person.

How do I receive it when someone confronts me? As uncomfortable as it may be at the time, and although my initial feeling might be anger or annoyance, if I’m wise I will dismiss those feelings quickly and consider their words carefully. Mostly when this has happened, what I actually end up experiencing is gratitude that the person loves me enough to risk being honest with me.

Love is a risky thing. As C. S. Lewis said, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

It’s riskier not to love.

 

 

[i] Intrater, K. (1989). Covenant Relationships. Shippensburg: Destiny Image.

 

Metamorphosis: Lessons from the Butterfly

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A package for me arrives in the school office, and as the children and I pass through on our way to the lunch room, I quickly stop and check the return address. I smile as I announce to the children, “It’s from the butterfly farm!” Squeals of excitement erupt through the line up, and they can hardly wait to finish their lunch so we can unpack the special delivery.

Tiny larvae wriggle in the transparent container as I pull it from the box, with the children’s expectant eyes all fixated on the box’s contents.

The questions begin:

What are they eating?

How come they’re so small?

How many are there?

How long will it take ‘til we have butterflies?

These little squirming critters don’t look very impressive.

“Gross!” exclaims one girl, and internally I agree! Wriggling around atop their food they are a little reminiscent of maggots.

“…how much less man, who is a maggot, and the son of man, who is a worm!”[1]

“Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I am the one who helps you, declares the LORD; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.”[2]

We place the containers in an empty fish tank in a prominent place in our classroom, ready to watch them eat and grow. Each day the children check on them to see if they are getting bigger. “Eat, guys, eat!” they urge.

By the end of the week they are ready to be moved into their own individual containers, an operation which has to be performed by me. Squeamishly I fish them out with a paintbrush and gently drop each one into it’s own small home with a lump of food: wheat germ and soy. Now they eat, writhe, and rapidly grow – but one of them doesn’t get any bigger and its food is left uneaten.

Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.”[3]

The children are fascinated by these creatures’ acrobatics! The maturing caterpillars climb all over their containers and even hang upside down. Their skin changes color and they develop little spikes all over their bodies, like a suit of armor.

“Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.”[4]

Ten days go by, and finally one of them takes action and begins to form a chrysalis. It’s a beautiful golden tomb of sorts. There’s no turning back now. Never again will they be caterpillars.

“What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.”[5]

The chrysalis formation is mysterious. “How do they know how to do that?” the children ask. There’s no explanation, other than that God made them to do that!

I pin the little golden pea-pod shaped cases to some netting that I fasten atop the glass tank. They hang silently in rows, glistening slightly. I ask the children to imagine what is happening inside, but from the outside it’s hard to tell that anything is going on in there at all.

Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”[6]

One caterpillar doesn’t form a chrysalis. It just keeps eating. Eventually, it stops moving, but nothing seems to be happening in there.

“Is it dead?” the children ask.

“Maybe,” I reply.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”[7]

A few days of waiting, and then one morning a new creature inhabits the tank! It flaps it’s wings and sports fancy antenna, a long skinny curly tongue, and delicate legs.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”[8]

We watch the others emerge, one by one. They burst forth from the chrysalises, and hang upside down for a time, pumping meconium through their wings. They are undeniably beautiful.

“So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.”[9]

We make them a little garden in the tank with some natural objects (or as one student commented, “You made them a jungle gym!) We give them flowers and fruit. The children are delighted as they watch the insects flutter about, taste the sweet food, and climb over the flowers.

On Monday, we will walk the tank to the park and release them into the wild. They will not live long. The hope is that they will go and lay their eggs before their short lives come to an end.

“For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you… So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”[10]

[1] Job 25:6

[2] Isa. 41:14

[3] 1 Pet. 2:2-3

[4] Eph. 6:13

[5] 1 Cor. 15:36

[6] John 11:39-40

[7] John 12:24-25

[8] 2 Cor. 5:17

[9] 1 Cor. 15:42-44

[10] 2 Cor. 4:11-12, 16-18