Bird Lessons

birds on the ground surround a crab apple tree

The following post was written by a friend who wishes to remain anonymous. I have been encouraging this friend to impart the wisdom and lessons of her life by turning them into written words and sharing them. But doing so is a scary thing that requires a certain vulnerability. Following is her first attempt. She’s given me permission to post this little reflection here. If it speaks to you, please take a moment to indicate that it does, by commenting, sharing, or liking this post. I promise to pass along every one of your encouragements to her. Perhaps together, we can convince her to write again.

It has been bitterly cold the last few days. 

In our yard, we have a crab apple tree that is old and gnarled. There are always some leftover crab apples that I step or slide on in warmer weather. Many times I have implored my husband to have it taken down. 

But maybe I am wrong about that, because this morning, as I stood at my kitchen window, I looked out on more than forty starlings and robins.

I never knew they hung around together, but here they are in the tree and on the ground, eating the apples with gusto. There is a feast here for them!

I stood and watched them for a long while, enthralled, with their attentiveness to this provision. I could not help but think about the references in the Bible to how God cares for birds.

I am reminded of Matthew 6:26: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

And Matthew 10:29: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of the Father.”

As I watch them they are oblivious to where the food comes from—I even wonder how they knew to find it here. But they are being satisfied and kept alive by what they did not sow or work for. God’s hand has brought them here and feeds them.

So often I stand at this same window and look out with anxious thoughts and worries. Worry about the pandemic and how long it will last, will I succumb somehow to this dreaded disease? I think about how long it has been since I last saw some of my family who live so far away and if and when I will be able to see them again. I think of financial needs, retirement, health struggles, friends who are going through troubles and tribulations, those who are suffering mentally, emotionally. Sometimes these thoughts and worries threaten to overtake me. But then I see and look at these birds—God’s creation. He cares for them so lovingly and generously, will He not also care for me? Doesn’t He promise to?

Looking out at them stills my heart, replaces my fear with faith and restores my confidence in the God who provides and who I want to love and trust.

These birds have almost stripped the tree and are now on the ground getting that last of the harvest … they do not know that I have a plan, that I will spread the ground with peanuts and continue to help them through the winter. 

Will not God also spread a feast and provide for my needs, the Word tells me I am so much more valuable than even these little birds?

Lesson number 61

Patricia on her 60th birthday

When I drafted this list of 60 lessons learned over 60 years, I should have known that within days, it would feel out of date to me.

My 60th birthday came and went. The photo above was taken minutes after my pandemic birthday party ended, one week ago today on January 25. I don’t often take good pictures – but I like this one, snapped by my husband. I think you can see the genuine joy that was in my heart at that moment on my face.

Were it not for the fact that I had planned a “Zoom” birthday party, I wouldn’t have had the courage to host a party for myself. I’m uncomfortable with being too much the centre of attention. Even inviting my friends to a Zoom Open House – “come when you can, leave when you must” minimal commitment required – felt like a big ask. I worried that people would receive my invitation and think, “Who does she think she is?!” But a year of pandemic rules and lockdowns had made me lonely for my friends. And the reminders of our own mortality made me long to tell people how much they have meant to me over the course of my life while I could. Because, well, you just never know. Life is fleeting for all of us. I remember well my father’s 60th birthday party. We had a bit of a bash for him. He died at 70.

Besides, I truly never thought I would make it this far. And I felt like celebrating.

I have been blessed with many good friends. Dear people of intelligence and wisdom and good character who love me in spite of my many flaws. And so they showed up, and they shared kind words and jokes and memories on our call together.

A screen grab from my Zoom Birthday Open House.

I will never forget it. I went to bed that night overflowing with gratitude and thanksgiving. Over the days since, the kindnesses from friends and family have continued with notes and calls, gifts and messages. Just today, a kind and generous friend wrote to me that we need to “find ways to love on our friends through Covid,” because otherwise, she believes, a “little piece of our humanity dies through this pandemic.” So we need to “find ways to express ourselves outwardly.”

I think she’s right. And that, dear readers, is Lesson #61. If you find yourself in the midst of a pandemic, find ways to demonstrate your love to others. Do it because it will remind you of your own humanity. Do it because you never know just how much it may brighten someone else’s day to realize that they matter to you. Do it because, in the midst of this dark and dreary time, love still shines.

For my birthday, one of my wonderful friends – an artist through and through by the name of Lois Krause – took my list of 60 lessons and reduced each lesson to a single word, and then expanded those words into a poem. It took my breath away when she recited it, and so I asked for her permission to share it here. She gave it no title, so I’ve taken the liberty. I think of it as:

“Patricia’s 60 Life Lessons as Interpreted by Lois Krause”

My kids, their kids, these things I laud,

My spouse and things to learn  with him,

To travel, share a meal, a grin,

The Sabbath Day, a rest, a nap,

A walk, a diet, dog to pat,

Cooking, gardening, flowers and trees,

I’m thankful for each one of these.

Persist, forgive and try again,

Let go and broken fences mend,

Ask help and build your marriage strong

And give to those who don’t belong.

Give thanks and treasure time and sing.

Clean up and try in everything.

Prioritize and learn each day;

Speak gently and know good habits pay.

Be patient, know you are OK,

Good character will win the day.

Be humble, faithful strong and true

These are all things that we must do.

Know that it’s true you may be wrong,

But God can give your heart a song.

You can trust Him to bring you through

He’ll walk beside in all you do

And more than all of the above,

It’s true that we must love, love, love,

These things I’ve learned in sixty years,

These things I share with you my dear.

60 lessons learned over 60 years

60th birthday card

Adult birthdays have, for the most part, wafted past without much fuss for me. I’ve dreaded a few. (I remember 35 being particularly tough, for some reason.) More often they would come and go like a slight breeze on a summer’s day, barely causing any noticeable disturbance at all. But when the birthday card pictured above fluttered in on last week’s mail—a gift from a lifelong friend who celebrated the same milestone birthday herself just two months ago—I became teary at her thoughtfulness. The unexpected whiff of emotion, it turns out, was a harbinger of the gale to come. For soon, I was thinking about the reality that on January 25, I will turn 60.

Sixty sounds old, even to me who’s just about there. Certainly older than I feel. And yet, I know I’m fortunate to achieve the milestone. Too many people don’t even come close.

To mark the occasion, I decided to jot down 60 lessons I’ve learned from living this long. It’s a way of acknowledging that I’ve genuinely learned some stuff along the way, and I believe that some of what I’ve learned is worth sharing.

So here’s my list of 60 random lessons, in the order in which they occurred to me:

  1. Progress, not perfection.
  2. Love people for who they are, not for who you wish them to be. (Thanks, mom for teaching me this one, again and again.)
  3. Fresh flowers make any room beautiful, and any mood brighter.
  4. Raising a good dog is work, but it’s worth it.
  5. Building a good marriage is work, but it’s worth it. (Here’s an earlier list of lessons I’ve specifically learned from marriage.)
  6. When the world feels wrong, a walk outdoors can help it feel right again.
  7. Self-discipline and good habits can help to build a happy life.
  8. Observing a weekly sabbath or day of rest is actually a form of self-care.   
  9. Rather than focusing on what you don’t have, giving thanks for what you do have turns resentment into joy. 
  10. Gratitude, over time, can build contentment.
  11. Contentment, over time, can build your savings account.
  12. Love is more than a feeling, it is a choice and an act of the will. Making the deliberate choice to love when the feelings aren’t there can make the feelings follow.
  13. When in a sad place it’s okay to pour out that sadness on trusted friends who can be counted on to get you laughing or at least help to put things into perspective. And if they can’t help, then it’s okay to turn to professionals. Over the years I’ve sought professional help from caring pastors and from counselors. Every time, it made a difference.
  14. Giving generously to church and charities hasn’t always been easy for me. At times, I’ve given grudgingly. But as I look back over a lifetime of charitable giving, I believe that giving consistently even when I haven’t really wanted to, has been good for me. (See #7)
  15. Building and maintaining a friendship is work, but it’s worth it.
  16. I have no memory of life without God. All these years of walking with Him has shaped who I am and given my life meaning and purpose. Decades ago, a friend told me that he thought faith was a crutch. It’s a crutch I’ve been thankful for.
  17. Making my bed is work, but it’s (usually) worth it.
  18. We don’t know what we don’t know. Remembering this truth can be key to humility.
  19. There’s more that I don’t know than I can possibly imagine.
  20. Pride and ego get me into trouble every time. When I’m certain of my convictions I tend to forget #19.
  21. When I don’t understand, it helps to remember that God does, and God can be trusted.
  22. I believe #21 is true because I believe God loves me and every human being—passionately.
  23. I believe #22 is true because of Jesus.
  24. Raising children is work, but they’re worth it. Part of the payoff comes from seeing them grow into adults you enjoy and are proud of; another part is grandchildren.
  25. Life is hard. And in one way or another, it’s hard for all of us. When I’m confronted with people who are difficult to love or even just to be around, it can help to remember that life may have been harder for them. Whenever possible, give people the benefit of the doubt.
  26. Cooking a tasty meal for family and friends brings joy. 
  27. Running out my kitchen door to my little garden, picking some fresh vegetables and herbs for a meal or a salad brings me a crazy amount of satisfaction. A garden is also work that’s worth it.
  28. Family can make you crazy. But it’s a gift to know that there are people on this earth who will always be there for you, no matter what. Through thick and thin. Even though you make them crazy too.  
  29. A soft or gentle word really can turn down the heat.
  30. What we believe matters because it determines how we live.
  31. It’s never too late.
  32. Forgiveness can feel impossible. But if you persevere, you may be pleasantly surprised to realize it’s not.
  33. If you don’t want to lose the ability to do something, don’t stop doing it. (Thanks to my mother-in-law who taught me this one.)
  34. There are many ways to live a life, but we only get one life to live.
  35. Character matters. In partners and in politicians.
  36. Truth matters. Keep your mind and heart open to the search for it because it can be found in surprising places.
  37. Don’t defend lies just because you may have previously believed them to be true. Doing so discredits the one who called himself “the way, the truth, and the life.”
  38. The heart is deceitful. It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you are better, more righteous than you are. Regular self-examination can be a good antidote. 
  39. The heart is deceitful. Allowing words of self-condemnation to exist on a playback loop in your brain will lead you into dark places. You are a child of God, dearly loved by Him, created for a purpose. Honour that.
  40. When you’re confronted with hard truths about yourself remember that these things are also true: mercy, forgiveness, and grace.
  41. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right. (Thanks to my dad for this early lesson.) Over the course of my lifetime, my own learning has led me to expand the principle and modify it: if you give something your best, then if you fail, at least you can honestly tell yourself you gave it your best. 
  42. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly. #41 might lead you to think that some things are not worth attempting. You’ll miss out on a lot of life if you tell yourself that. If something is worth doing, it’s also worth attempting, even if you know you’ll do it badly. 
  43. Losing weight is hard.
  44. If you fall off the wagon today, remember that tomorrow is a new day, and you can start again.
  45. The “to-do” list is never done. A healthy life will mean regularly ignoring the list in order to make time for more important things. 
  46. Hardship and pain make some people better, and others bitter. Choose better. 
  47. When something has served its purpose in your life, it’s okay to let it go.
  48. Not everyone will love you—or even like you. But you can determine in your own mind to love them anyway. (See #12).
  49. If you love to sing, but lack talent in that area, then make a joyful noise—even if only in the privacy of your own car, your kitchen, or your basement (during online church in the midst of a pandemic). (See #42)
  50. We’re stronger than we know. It helps to remember that during times of testing.
  51. Life is a gift. We show our appreciation for it by stewarding well the time we’ve been given.
  52. It’s good for the soul to get outside of the city every so often, to go outdoors after dark, throw your head back, and marvel at the stars. Take along a pillow so you don’t get a crick in your neck.
  53. God can heal what is hurting, restore what is lost, and repair what is broken. There is always, always hope.
  54. Travel. Just do it.
  55. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. The same principle works for writing a book, running a marathon, earning a Master’s degree, and almost anything else that seems formidable. Break it down into bite-sized pieces (or achievable steps), and then tackle it one “bite” at a time.
  56. For years, your children’s lives are yours to steward. But they will grow up, make their own choices, and walk their own journeys. And when they do they will still need you to root for them, believe in them, and pray for them. 
  57. Where is God in the suffering? Working through His people. Want to see less suffering in our world? Then, get to work.
  58. It’s easier to clean up the kitchen as you go than to leave a great big mess for the end. It’s easier to clean up the kitchen before bed than to face a sink full of dishes in the morning.
  59. There’s always more to learn.
  60. Life is full of surprises. When I was young, I never imagined myself living to 60. But here I am. And I am thankful to have arrived.

Lessons from my grandson

Baby hands holding hair extension

One of the realities of living in a social media age is that in this time of COVID-19, even though our social interactions are limited in the physical sphere, it’s easy to see when people are struggling. Some put their anxieties on display by literally posting about them, others ask to be seen by sharing an endless stream of selfies, while still others evidence their worry and fear through political rants or argumentative comments. And there’s much about which to be anxious: lost loved ones, lost jobs and livelihoods, the sense of lost time and experiences, and of times that will never be regained.

It was this sense of the fleetingness of time that prompted my husband and me to pack our winter coats, boots, and mitts, late last month, load the car with a month’s worth of essentials, and drive the two-thousand kilometres from our home—through Ontario’s blazing fall colours north of Lake Superior, and on to Winnipeg. After months of yearning, the time had come to jump through whatever pandemic hoops we needed to jump through in order to get to know our now eight-month-old grandson.

The “hoops” included three days of driving, two nights in hotels, and two weeks isolating in an Airbnb. But we were strongly motivated; not only did we long to spend time with our first grandchild, to know and be known by him, but we also hoped to demonstrate some practical support for his parents. They’d resolutely accepted the hand this pandemic had dealt them, but we knew it couldn’t have been easy caring for a newborn with no family or friends to provide even a moment of respite in all those months.

A gesture misunderstood

The day we arrived, Davy held up his arms to me in what I interpreted as an invitation. My heart leaped with joy. My daughter’s daily FaceTime calls had clearly allowed him to see me as someone familiar. But as soon as I took hold of him, he burst into tears, shocked I suppose at the realization that my once disembodied face and voice had the power to separate him from his mother.

Fortunately, he warmed up to us quickly and we’ve had a wonderful visit. My husband has relished pitching in and helping out around the house by doing minor repairs in between bouncing Davy on his knee. I’ve loved joining my daughter in the kitchen, taking long strolls, spoiling them all just a little bit, and playing and cuddling with my grandson. I’ve been thrilled to sense his growing trust in me, to perceive him relaxing into my arms as I read to him, or to feel the weight of him grow heavier as I sing and rock or slowly dance him to sleep. These experiences have been such gifts.

Other gifts

But there have been other gifts too—gifts of watching Davy with his parents. He is closely bonded, and deeply secure. When upset, he likes to soothe himself by stroking his mother’s long brown hair the way some children stroke a blanket or stuffed toy. If he goes for too many hours without clutching her tresses, I can see him, like an addict, grow antsy for his next fix.

On a recent shopping excursion, as I pushed his stroller he started to fuss. It was getting close to nap time, and I became aware of a new sense of urgency in my daughter as she recognized it was time to head home. We were only a short drive away, but we both began to wonder if we would make it before he completely erupted.

When circumstances bind and blind us

You see, Davy dislikes his infant car seat—even when he is rested and his tummy is full. He is an active baby and he hates being immobilized. In the enforced rear-facing position he cannot see his mother. He doesn’t understand that she secures him there to keep him safe. And he cannot know when he is buckled in how long the drive will last—or that he will soon be home with her again, released from his confines, and taken up into her arms.

So it was in a moment of motherly inspiration—or desperation—that on our way out of the mall, my daughter dashed into a dollar store and purchased a cheap hair extension. Climbing into the back of the car with him for the trip home, I unwrapped and offered the ridiculous thing.

The moment he gripped it, his crying stopped. It was instantaneous. Stroking and pulling at the hair he murmured contentedly, the whole way home.

He was unhappy. He was in a situation beyond his control. He couldn’t see or touch his mother, and he needed to. But that hairpiece served as a sensory reminder of the comfort she brings. And it was enough.

Amused and amazed as I watched him clutch it and listened to his purring, a long-forgotten song lyric came to mind:

When you can’t trace His hand, trust His heart.

It had been years since I’d thought of the song, maybe even decades, so it seemed inexplicable that it should come to me then. When I got home I looked it up.

A pandemic hymn?

Here are the complete lyrics of the song called, “Trust His Heart”:

All things work for our good
Though sometimes we don’t see 
How they could
Struggles that break our hearts in two
Sometimes blind us to the truth: Our Father knows what’s best for us
His ways are not our own
So when your pathway grows dim
And you just don’t see Him,
Remember you’re never alone

God is too wise to be mistaken
God is too good to be unkind
So when you don’t understand
When don’t see His plan
When you can’t trace His hand
Trust His Heart

He sees the master plan
And He holds our future in His hand,
So don’t live as those who have no hope,
All our hope is found in Him. We see the present clearly
But He sees the first and the last
And like a tapestry, He’s weaving you and me,
To someday be just like Him

God is too wise to be mistaken
God is too good to be unkind

I’ve been singing it to myself ever since.

Singer-songwriter Babbie Mason popularized the words of the refrain, which are thought to have originated in this sermon, “A Happy Christian,” by nineteenth-century preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon.

It is, I think, a perfect song for this time of the pandemic. If you are struggling right now because life is too hard, because you are scared or grieving, or anxious because there is so much going on in our world over which you have no control, I invite you to have a listen. And maybe also to remember my grandson.

*

“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” – Romans 8:28 (RSV)

Small expressions

Tube of toothpaste neatly rolled

It’s not as if I haven’t noticed it before, because I have. It’s something I see—first thing every morning—when I lurch from bed into the bathroom: a tube of toothpaste, lying there on the vanity.

A tube is almost always lying there because truth be told, neither my husband nor I are such neat freaks that we feel compelled to stow such things away out of sight. Besides, I suppose we rationalize it, leaving your toothpaste out in the open and within easy reach is just more convenient when you need to use it.

But this morning when I saw the tube for the umpteenth time in our married life (and we are coming up to our 35th anniversary next month, so by my count I’ve probably looked on such tubes in such places more than twelve thousand times) I paused and thought about what that tube represented.

Maybe I let my eyes linger on it because news broke this week of the marital infidelities of yet another long-married evangelical celebrity couple in the U.S. Or maybe it’s because I went wedding dress shopping with our youngest daughter last week, so marriage is definitely top of mind. Or maybe it’s the simple fact of our own rapidly approaching anniversary. But I looked at that tube and I smiled. And then I breathed not one, but two of those “essential” one-word prayers that Anne Lamott talks about; specifically, “Wow.” And then I whispered, “Thanks.”

You see, I’m a grab-the-tube-and-squeeze-it-in-the-middle kind of person. Always in a hurry to get the essentials over and done with so I can get on with my day, it’s faster and easier to just grab the Crest and curl my fist around it in firm pressure until the blue goo oozes out onto my toothbrush. Pop the lid back on, set the tube back down, and I’m good to go.

But Doug prefers his tubes neatly rolled from the bottom end. So when he finds my misshapen left-behind messes, he patiently smoothes them out and rolls them up from the ends. He’d done just that the night before, and so the lovely tube pictured above, awaited me.

You’d think he’d complain, but he doesn’t. You’d think I’d become a little less selfish and take the time to repair the damage I cause after each day’s assault on the toothpaste because I know it matters to him, but I never have.

And it was that thought that set me first to marvelling this morning and then to thanking God for the gift that Doug is and has always been to my life. Flattening and rolling the toothpaste tube so that it’s lovely and smooth, and readily squeezable has been his silent act of thankless service. It may be a small gesture, but done again and again, willingly and without complaint—times more than twelve thousand!—well, it’s pretty huge.

When I joined him in the kitchen for breakfast this morning before I did anything else I wrapped my arms around him, gave him a little squeeze, and thanked him for demonstrating his love for me in such a practical way all these years. Of such small expressions can a good marriage be made.

***

It occurred to me after writing this that the toothpaste, and my prayers, were never just about the shape of the tube. They were, rather, pointing to a deeper truth. The tube of toothpaste is really just a metaphor for all of the give and take that happens in a marriage. And the older I get, the more I realize that it’s really the “give” that makes a marriage strong.

For 31 other things I’ve learned about marriage, you might enjoy this: 31 things I’ve learned from 31 years of marriage

The Minister’s Wife

Front cover of The Minister's Wife

I was in middle school when I started babysitting for the minister and his wife at the little United church in which I was raised. George and Lois were still just a young couple with a baby boy when they enfolded me into their family. George was academic and bookish, Lois was lively and fun. He patiently answered my many questions about our Christian faith on drives to and from their home for babysitting appointments, she often had home-baked treats waiting. He was passionate about liturgy and readily loaned me books from his own library, she was pretty, had her own career, and adored her family and friends.

I quickly loved them—together with their son, and the daughter and the dog who soon followed. It wasn’t hard to do. They felt like a second family to me, taking me to their cottage in the summer, allowing me to witness the realities of clergy family life, which turned out to be not so very different from my own family’s life. Just like my family, they were not perfect. But they were good people.

I’ve long thought that George’s sophistication, encouragement, and teaching together with Lois’ transparent and joyful faith helped to set the foundation for my own faith journey in the years that have followed. The way they built into my life is no doubt part of the reason I have continued to seek out the various ministers and their wives—in the churches I’ve attended—for wisdom and friendship; I suppose I’ve been inclined to associate the people in such roles with George and Lois’ goodness and grace.

I don’t know when I first learned that my friend Karen was a minister’s wife. I don’t remember if it was a fact that she revealed to me soon after our friendship began to blossom, or whether that information was some time in coming. But I am certain that knowing she occupied that role would not in any way have given me pause to reconsider our friendship. If anything, it probably only made me want to know her more.

Karen is warm and real, loyal and honest, funny and fierce—all of the qualities that make for a good friend. And her newest book, The Minister’s Wife: A Memoir of Faith, Doubt, Friendship, Loneliness, Forgiveness, and More contains all of the very best of Karen.

In it, she reveals, “Being a pastor, and being married to one, is a complicated life and vocation. People may put you on a pedestal: They assume you are better, nicer, kinder, and more holy than you are. Or they may skedaddle: They assume you are unkind and judgmental, or just weird.”

In truth, they are none of those things, because of course, ministers and their wives are just people on a journey, trying to do their best in the life to which they feel called. Like we all are.

I’m grateful for Lois and George’s friendship long ago, for Karen and her husband Brent’s more recently, and for all of the ministers and minister’s wives I’ve been privileged to know in between. My life has been richer because of them.

If you don’t know a minister or a minister’s wife, maybe you should think about changing that. If you read Karen’s book, I think you will want to.

 

 

 

 

 

Reading in a time of stress

four books

I’ve been thinking about stress, and how we all respond to it so differently. This time of pandemic is highlighting some of those differences.

I have friends, for example, who need to shut down, taking to their beds to block out the noise and pressure. I have other friends who channel their nervous energies into creating art projects or music or tasty treats. (The latter generously populate their social media feeds with images proving their productivity and setting the rest of us to salivating.) You know who you are. Be warned: when this is all over, I’m coming over for coffee and something delicious! 

Me? I get busy, pouring myself into work, making meals, taking walks, reaching out to friends and family. But besides that? I read.

At first my reading was all coronavirus, all the time.

But you can only do that for so long before you start to realize that maybe one reason you’re not sleeping is because your diet of TOO MUCH NEWS is just proving to be too much. For me, my all news diet lasted about a week. Then I turned to listening to online lectures (first a series about the Black Death, and then a series about Augustine of Hippo’s City of God, (which he wrote following the sack of Rome).

And then – when I’d exhausted those uplifting subjects – I turned to reading books.

The first book I picked up had been at the bottom of the pile on my nightstand for a couple of months. Given to me by my mom, Tuesdays with Morrie (by Mitch Albom) was just what I needed. It’s a gentle story that proved to be the perfect antidote to anxiety. And for a few days, the minutes that I spent each bedtime with Mitch, and his mentor Morrie, offered me the welcome chance to reflect deeply on what it means to be human, to live well and to die well, all in ways that brought comfort and courage.

I’m also reading Fortitude (by Hugh Walpole) aloud with my husband. This is a novel we read to each other in the first year of our marriage, and then again after about 20 years. We’ve now been married almost 35 years, and while I remembered nothing about the book, it was the title that appealed and caused us to pick it up again. Who doesn’t need a little fortitude now? It begins with this thought, “Tisn’t life that matters! ‘Tis the courage you bring to it.”

My 87-year-old mother and I are reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (by C.S. Lewis) together, via FaceTime. Unable to visit in person, our daily FaceTime calls quickly devolved into:

“What’s new?”

“Not much, what’s new with you?” All while I stared at her forehead. She hasn’t quite gotten the hang of holding her iPad so that I can see her entire face. (My mom is not of the selfie generation – she looks at her screen to see my face, and clearly forgets to look at her own.)

But now we are keeping the company of Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy in Narnia – a first for my mom. I was introduced to the book in high school, and then years later, read it again to my children. My mom is loving it. I am too. And I’m relishing the chance to exercise my best witch’s voice.

The other book I’m enjoying is The Diary of a Russian Priest by Alexander Elchaninov, a book I picked up last fall while on a visit to St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York as part of a writers’ workshop. “God created life. The devil defeated it through death. God repulsed the victory of death by Resurrection,” writes Elchaninov.

It’s an eclectic mix, these books, but as I consider the collection now, I see a common thread: each one touches on themes of living and dying, of courage, and of times of upheaval. So maybe I should not be surprised that they are nourishing my spirit.

How about you? What are you reading these days, and why?

 

 

5 work-at-home strategies to ensure work gets done

bookshelves

For more than two decades, my work has involved working from home. For many years, that meant a 30-second stroll to my home office five days each week. But more recently, my weeks have been a mix of both “at home” days and longer commutes into an office in the city.

Today, my home office is a space I love—with bookshelves crammed full of my favourite books (that’s them above), artwork that inspires, a much-loved antique desk, a bright window to let in the sunlight, and a door to keep out the noise. But for years I worked in corners of our basement, corners of the family room, or on corners of the kitchen table. I’ve shared desks with my kids’ homework and craft projects, and occasional piles of laundry. I’ve worked in chaos and in solitude.

Throughout this time, I’ve learned some things about maximizing productivity and minimizing distractions. Given that so many people right now are experiencing for the first time what it’s like to work from home, I thought I’d share some of my favourite strategies for ensuring the work actually gets accomplished. Please note: my husband is now retired and we are empty nesters. So I share these strategies in the spirit of imparting what took me years to learn and hone. People living with little ones, or with teens or elders will, of course, need to build in more flexibility.

  1. Structure and routine are my best friends. As soon as I realized late last week that as a result of the pandemic I would be working from home, full time again, and for the foreseeable future, I put myself on a schedule. Here, roughly, is what that schedule has looked like this week:
  • 5:00 am – 7:00 am – I know, it’s crazy early. But I’m an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of person. So as soon as I’m awake, I’m up. Make coffee, Bible-and-devotional reading, journaling, and prayer. Then I do an email check, read the day’s news feeds, and spend a few minutes on household budgeting, bill paying, and online banking. With the added stress of the last week or so, I’ve been waking earlier than normal – sometimes as early as 4:00 am. I’m sure this will settle down, but in the meantime, I’m just enjoying some additional quiet time at the beginning of my day.
  • 7:00 – 8:00 am – Cajole my (now retired) husband (who is NOT an early-to-bed, early-to-riser) out of bed, throw on some clothes, and head out for a walk together. Then home for breakfast and a quick game or two of Monopoly Deal.
  • 8:00 am – 12 noon – Work on computer.
  • 12 noon – 1:00 pm – Lunch. Another game or two of Monopoly Deal.
  • 1:00 pm – 5:00 pm – Work on computer.
  • 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm – Another walk. Dinner prep. Dinner. More Monopoly Deal. (We’ve started a “Social Isolation Tournament” during these days of social distancing, in which we are tallying our games. I’m ahead.)
  • 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm – Check in with loved ones. Read. Watch TV. Listen to an audio book or podcast.
  • 9:00 pm – 9:30 pm – Bed.

2.  Get dressed for work. I’ve never been one of those people who could accomplish much in my jammies. There’s something about putting on actual clothes that seems to help send a signal to my brain that I’m ready to get down to business. The other day my husband asked me why I was bothering with earrings when I was just working from home. I told him they helped me feel ready to work. (And besides, I had a few zoom meetings scheduled.)

3.  Taking regular breaks is important. Very important. I try to force myself to push away from the computer for 10 minutes out of every hour. I think of it as my “water cooler” time. I’ll use that time to read an article, throw in (or fold) a load of laundry, chop vegetables for the next meal or to pen a note to a friend. Getting up from my computer is not only good for my body but good for my mind.

4.  Self-imposed boundaries can make the difference between a good day and a bad one. I’m a news junkie, and global pandemics are a great excuse for justifying “just a quick check of the news headlines.” And the 24-7 news cycle offers an enormous temptation, because there’s ALWAYS something new to read. But one too many such checks throughout the day and it’s easy to get to the end of the day, look at my “to do” list, and realize that very little got done. Limiting myself to such headline checks at the beginning, middle, and end of the day makes for greater productivity.

5.  At the end of the work day, push away. I admit this one can be challenging – particularly in the midst of a major global news event. To be completely candid, this week I’ve been struggling with it a bit. (I suspect that’s in part why I’m waking up at 4 am.) I know from experience that I’ll have both a better sleep at night, and a better day the next day if I call it quits at a reasonable hour, allowing my brain some downtime.

How about you? If you’re new to working at home, how are you coping? If you’re an old hand at social isolation because you’ve long worked from a home office, what works best for you?

 

Now’s the time to build a better world

Patricia Paddey with husband Doug and their grandson Davy

“A child is born into the womb of the time, which indeed enclosed and fed him before he was born.”

– George MacDonald

I’ve been thinking a lot about these words and their wisdom, which someone shared with me a couple of months ago. I became a grandmother six weeks ago. And so, even as I’ve been reflecting on the time into which my grandson has been born, (that’s him with my husband and me in the photo) I’ve found myself thinking about the future and what it will look like for him.

“Unprecedented.” That’s another word that’s been rumbling around in my brain, because, of course, there’s been nothing quite like this global pandemic to confront this generation – and by that I mean any generation now living – before.

It’s going to change our world. Heaven knows it already is. For those of us who find change unsettling – and isn’t that most of us, if we’re being honest? – it can feel like the ground is shifting beneath our feet.

As a person of faith, I find comfort in believing that this pandemic did not take God by surprise. He is not the author of sickness, death, and sadness, and He has promised to be with those who cling to Him in the midst of such things. That does not mean that we will be spared suffering. But it does mean that we may experience it with a kind of strength and courage and peace that’s simply not accessible to those who choose not to avail themselves of God’s good gifts. It heartens me to know that come what may, I am not alone because He is with me.

In a column titled “Pandemics kill compassion too,” New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote recently of the impact that pandemics have on the world. “Some disasters, like hurricanes and earthquakes, can bring people together,” Brooks said, “but if history is any judge, pandemics generally drive them apart.”

Already, we’ve seen evidence of this: with hoarders rushing to stockpile items – not in the hope of having an abundance to share – but to deliberately deprive others of basic necessities in order to profit from the resale of such things.

What kind of world will we be left with when this is all over? What kind of world are we building yes, building, in the midst of this terrible event – to leave to our grandchildren tomorrow? What behaviours will they see us model for them to follow when the next disaster strikes? We know things will be different. But how they are different – to some extent, that choice is up to us.

When I feel anxiety rise, I find it helpful to take my mind off my own cares and worries for those I love, to think about others. That’s why, on Sunday afternoon, I printed off a stack of letters intending to introduce me and my husband. We put on our coats and stepped out into the sunshine and knocked on doors. Maintaining the recommended safe social distance, we hand delivered the letters to houses up and then down both sides of our street. I included our cropped image from the photo above – such a happy recent moment – and our contact information. I wrote, “if you find yourself in need in some way and think that a friendly neighbour may be able to help, please feel free to reach out to us.”

“No one should feel like they are alone in the midst of a global pandemic,” I concluded the letter. “It goes without saying that human beings need one other. Maybe we need one another now more than ever. If we can be neighbourly by helping out, please don’t hesitate to give us a call.”

Our neighbours have been responding in kind – sharing their names and contact information. It’s a small thing that we – and they – have done. But maybe it will lead to bigger things. And maybe when this is all over, we will point to such things and recognize that they helped to make a difference, for our grandchildren, and for our world.

 

 

 

 

 

On pie, plans, and principles: or, “how we launched our book”

pie buffet

It was our first time ever hosting a book launch. We’ve been to a few such launches over the years of course. You probably can’t be a passionate reader or a writer with writer-friends and not wind up attending one or two. So when it came time to planning our own book launch for Craft, Cost & Call: How to Build a Life as a Christian Writer, we had a few ideas about how we hoped things might go.

The launch happened this past weekend, and looking back, I believe that things went well.

I think what helped them to go well was that we tried to let our plans be guided by our principles.

As people who believe that we are called to love others as ourselves, I can see in hindsight that it was the principle of loving others that drove our decisions. Not consciously. But as I reflect on the weeks leading up to the event and the event itself, I think it was the desire to try to treat others as we would want to be treated that shaped and undergirded most of our choices.

What kind of atmosphere would we, ourselves, most like to experience at such an event? (Relaxed fun with candlelight.) How long would we want to have to sit? (Not long at all.) What sorts of things would we most enjoy hearing? (Definitely not the authors droning on and on.) Should we serve food and beverages? (Yes, of course.) Should we do a hard sell? (Definitely not.) Should we sign books? (In advance, so as not to keep people waiting. Although, truth be told, we also wanted to avoid the awkwardness of sitting at a table if no one actually wanted to buy books.)

Again and again, we came back to the realization that even though our book launch would be a celebration of something that we had done—we did not want it to be “all about us.”

So we invited other writers to tell us a bit about their writing lives, to read portions of our book, and then to respond to it. A fire blazed in the fireplace, candlelight flickered throughout the room, dinner jazz played on the sound system, and our guests visited with us and with one another and feasted on a delicious pie buffet.

As for Karen and I, once the first guests began to arrive, we relaxed and delighted in the visible reminder that we are blessed to have people in our lives who care enough to show their support and come to a party celebrating this thing that we have done. And yes, we sold some books. We also enjoyed our guests. We ate pie. Our cups overflowed. Our hearts are full.

 

A reflection on a favourite saint, for All Saints Day

Joan of Arc

Who were your childhood heroes? In honour of tomorrow being the eve of All Saints Day—a Christian celebration remembering those who’ve gone before us in the faith—I thought I’d share a little about one of my own childhood heroes. Although my faith tradition doesn’t celebrate All Saints Day—or venerate saints with a capital “S”, Joan of Arc is definitely one of those.

I first heard of Joan of Arc when I read a book about her. I was 9 or 10.

She was a 15th century, illiterate, French peasant girl.

At the age of about 17, she followed what she believed was God’s leading, and took command of an army. She liberated her country from English occupiers and changed the course of her nation’s history. At 19, she was unjustly condemned following an ecclesiastical trial during which she confounded the greatest theological minds of her day. She was burned at the stake on trumped up charges of heresy; 25 years later, the results of her trial were annulled. In 1920 the Roman Catholic Church declared her a Saint.

The book I read about Joan was one my mother passed on to me. She had read it as a girl and loved it. I loved it too. I remember the musty smell of its yellowed pages and the feel of its hard, red cover, fraying at the edges. I remember pouring over the colourful illustrations depicting “Joan the Maid” in a gleaming suit of armor atop a strutting steed. I remember feeling inspired by her courage and daring in taking on a vocation that was without precedent for a woman. I remember being moved by her ardent love and intense prayer life. I remember thinking that if God could speak to Joan then He could speak to me too. I remember crying at the injustice of her execution.

When I came to the end of the book, I mourned her for days.

But I never forgot her. Looking back, I realize she helped to shape my life by shaping my belief—early in life—that a relationship with God was not only possible, but worth pursuing.

So it was an interesting exercise to revisit the life of Joan of Arc recently, more than 40 years after we’d first met, as part of the requirements for a course I took in Christian History and Theology. This time I read biographies, scholarly research, an epic poem and—what was most compelling of all—Joan’s own words translated from letters and trial manuscripts. As I read, she came alive to me once again. I couldn’t get enough of her.

I’ve come to believe her story has lessons for us today.

Lessons about leadership, strength in the midst of suffering, human nature, and injustice.

When she took charge of her army, she gave new hope and courage to her countrymen in the midst of deep despair, reminding me that hope is essential—not only for military battles—but for all of life. It was her vision, devotion to her mission, courage, integrity, honesty, and selflessness that made her an accomplished and trusted leader.

Today, we tend to label as “crazy” those who profess to hear voices from heaven like Joan did. I don’t know what to make of her voices. But I am struck by the thought that her devotional life brought her to a place of knowing her God intimately.

Reading the translated transcripts of her trial, I was amazed at her wisdom—and at the efforts of her judges to trip her up. They were men who represented the greatest theological minds of that time, yet they were vindictive and self-righteous, reminding me that the powerful have always made life difficult for those who threaten them. Their example can serve as a warning for those who hold positions of authority and influence—that great wrongs can be perpetrated in the desire to do what is right. Joan’s interrogators were also learned men; as such, they offer up a cautionary note to those of us who pursue academic study or intellectual development at the expense of spiritual maturity—that great learning can lead to arrogance and spiritual blindness.

But above all, Joan’s example bears witness to me today, no less than it did more than four decades ago, that remarkable things can happen when we seek God’s direction, step out boldly in faith as He leads us, and trust Him to accomplish all that He promises.

Announcing: Craft, Cost & Call: How to Build a Life as a Christian Writer

Craft Cost Call book title

I had forgotten the sheer joy that could come with crafting words into meaningful sentences, the exuberant rush as paragraphs and pages poured out from some inner well deep within. But this new book, Craft, Cost & Call represents the most writing fun I’ve had in recent memory.

Like dancing to a favourite song when no one is watching, part of that experience came from the fact that there was no client on this project. The only people my co-author and I were striving to please were our book’s eventual readers.

The other part of writing with abandon no doubt came from the fact that my co-author happens to be a dearly loved friend. Karen Stiller is a woman I admire greatly. Anything done with a friend can be more fun than doing it alone, especially when you laugh together as much as Karen and I do. We believe that ours is a friendship that was heaven sent; it began more than a decade ago when my name literally popped into her mind one morning while she was applying mascara. She subsequently reached out to me with a partnership opportunity, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now, our history will forever include this little soon-to-be-published book, Craft, Cost & Call : How to Build a Life as a Christian Writer. 

It was years in the making, not only because we worked on it together for that long, but also because it represents the sum total of decades worth of all we’ve each learned so far about what it means to earn a living as writers who are also people of faith.

I’m proud of this little book. I’m thoroughly delighted with the outcome. It gives me deep pleasure to think of passing along some of the hard-won lessons learned through decades working as a freelance writer. And I’m thankful for the way that working on this project together with Karen not only took my writing to new places—reminding me of the joy to be had in practicing this craft I believe I’ve been called to—but because it took my friendship with Karen to new places too.

When we thought we were getting close to the end of our writing, we sent the manuscript out to some other writers we admire and asked for their feedback. We were encouraged and overwhelmed by their enthusiastic response. Read their kind words of endorsement here.

Then we invited my daughter Jenna, an illustrator, into the project. Her drawings add a touch of whimsy to the book’s pages. Our hope is that readers will experience as much delight during the time they spend immersed in this book, as we did in writing it.

Craft, Cost & Call is our thanksgiving offering to the community of writers that has nurtured us over the years, and to the community of writers of faith who are yet to come.

 

 

 

When God speaks in a daffodil

Daffodil against garden shed

I believe God speaks. I believe He speaks constantly. I believe He is a communicating God, who reveals Himself in various ways and means to those who take the time to listen, who have ears to hear, and eyes to see.

No, I’ve never heard an audible voice. I’ve never seen a message written in the heavens or a burning bush. But I’ve sensed that “still small voice,” speaking within my spirit at needed times. I’ve had words jump out at me from Scripture that led or taught or directed or encouraged or comforted me in important ways at crucial moments. I’ve sensed “promptings” or “intuitions” that I’ve acted on, only to be convinced later as a result of outcomes that it was God who was leading me. And I’ve seen things in nature—incredible, memorable things—that felt like messages meant for me.

I received one such message yesterday, and then again, this morning. And it was such a lovely bit of encouragement at just the right time, that I felt it ought to be shared.

A week ago yesterday, my mother-in-law, Dora, passed away at the age of 102. Her death was expected—she’d been receiving palliative care for weeks—and my husband, Doug, and I were at her side when she took her final breath.

Doug was her only child. And while she was feisty and amazingly independent right up into her early 90s, he’d been caring for her in one way or another since his dad died 30 years ago. Thirty years is a long time to bear the responsibility of caring for an aging parent. The last 10 years, after she gave up driving, Doug’s caring meant biweekly (at least) trips to her home in Thorold, Ont. (from our own in Mississauga) to take her shopping, to the bank, or the pharmacy and then to doctor’s appointments. Four years ago, we moved her to a retirement community 10 minutes from our home, and visits and excursions became more frequent. For the past two years, she’s had several lengthy hospital stays, which have meant more frequent visits yet. Sometimes every day for weeks or months on end.

It’s felt at times like a long road, for her and for us. She told us again and again that she was ready to go. And while death is never easy, there can be a sense in which it can come as both a release and a relief. Even as we witnessed the release of her spirit last Friday, we felt relief that her suffering is over, and our long responsibility for her soon will be too.

Thursday her body was laid to rest next to her husband’s, and her long-time pastor spoke words of remembrance, comfort, and truth at her memorial. Our three children eulogized their “Granny,” the ladies of her church congregation prepared a beautiful lunch, and for dessert, everyone feasted on a buffet of pies—in her honour. (She was a wonderful baker in her younger years famous, especially, for her pies.) I couldn’t help thinking how delighted she would have been by it all.

Yesterday morning we awoke early in order to head to her apartment to begin the two-day process of clearing out her things. As I sipped my first coffee of the day, I opened the blinds to look out into our little backyard, and couldn’t help gasping. For there, up against our garden shed, was a single, bright yellow daffodil, almost ready to open.

I planted a row of daffodils against that shed 27 years ago, when we first moved into this house. Their leaves came up faithfully, year after year, but they had never yielded a single bloom, not once in all those years. Every spring I would watch as their green shoots would push through the soil and grow tall, spreading out their leaves. Every year, I would hope. But not ever in all those years did we see a flower.

Until yesterday. It felt like a sign, a message from above. As I looked at that daffodil, I sensed God saying, “It’s all okay. She is at rest. And good things are ahead.”

This morning, on the final day of the move, and what we anticipate will be the last of our significant responsibilities for her, the daffodil was in full bloom.

*

 

Life abundant

gift

Honoring the body. Hospitality. Household economics. Keeping Sabbath. Saying yes and saying no. Testimony. Discernment. Shaping communities. Forgiveness. Healing. Dying well. Singing our lives. To explore the full range and depth of any one of these would take not a single chapter but an entire library, not a single life but many lives joined together in a community that spans generations.”

So begins the fourteenth chapter of the book, Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People.  And so, too, ends a month-long blogging project for credit towards my Master of Theological Studies at McMaster Divinity College, which was also something of a hopeful experiment for me. “Could I,” I wondered, “intensify and strengthen my own faith practices by reading, reflecting on, and writing about 12 Christian practicesand thus arrive at a new place in my journey with Christ?”

It has been an intense time of thinking deeply, of wrestling with the implications of what it means to practice my Christian faith, and of reflecting on how and why it’s worth taking the time to do both. It has also been a time of vulnerability; I’ve shared things about my life even as I’ve wondered about the wisdom of disclosing them, but trusted that American writer Frederick Buechner is correct when he writes, “The story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.”

My only regrets as I look back on this experiment? That it’s over, and that due to class deadlines, I didn’t have more time to put into embracing each practice, one by one.

And yet, my learning has been profound.

I mean that. I actually think I’ve been changed in some important ways. I’ve realized among other things the need: to do a better job of caring for our planet and for my body, to live my life in an attitude of greater openness to strangers, and to more fully receive God’s gift of the Sabbath, to continue to sing my faith with confidence and boldness, and to turn to God with prayers for healing as a first—rather than last—resort.

Looking back, I realize that I began this project, somewhat naively, and with some incorrect assumptions. The first idea I had wrong was that Christian practices can ever be “practiced” in isolation. I know that there are many people today who live out their spiritual lives as lone wolves. But that was not the way of Christ, and it was not his intention for his church. That is why the Apostle Paul used the metaphor of a body to describe the community that Christ called into being. I’ve been reminded again and again over the past month that to really live in Christ and to grow and thrive and be healthy it is important to remain connected to a community of believers.

I had imagined at the outset gathering together a community of readers who might also share their experiences with practicing faith. That did not occur to the extent I had hoped; whether the timeline was too short, my musings too personal, my writing too weak, or my topic of too narrow interest, I don’t know. But I am grateful for every person who did read, comment, or tell me that you, too, were learning and thinking about what it means to live out your faith in such a way that it really seizes your life. You encouraged and energized me throughout this experiment and I thank you for giving me your time, attention, and feedback.

Necessarily and essentially communal

Part-way through this project, I interviewed the man whose leadership initiated Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People, Craig Dykstra. He told me, emphatically, that Christian practices are not individual, but “necessarily and essentially communal. They’re not just devotional. They’re about a way of life—about everything we do.”

That also corrected another faulty notion I had at the start—that there were a limited number of Christian practices, and if I could somehow manage to just get them right, then I would become the sort of Christian I long to be. I learned that there are hundreds, if not thousands of practices, and that two of them, according to Practicing Our Faith, “run through all the others, fostering attention to God, who grounds this whole way of life. These practices are prayer and Bible study.”

This fact helps me understand why I’ve seen my prayer life take on new and meaningful rhythms and dimensions over the past month, and why my times spent reading or listening to my Bible have yielded good and important fruit.

Jesus taught that he came so that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). As I’ve focussed on practicing my faith to a deeper degree over the past month, I know that I have tasted life more abundantly. I’ve relished that taste; it’s made me hunger for more. So much so that I end this project with a determination to continue to intentionally practice the practices of my faith.

And yet

I also know that this past month has challenged me in some ways that feel somewhat unsustainable; it may not be realistic to expect to keep thinking so deeply, daily, about my behaviours, actions, and reactions in the midst of life’s routine busyness, its ups and downs.

“What does it mean to live the Christian life in 2019? And am I living it well, as well as I could be?” These were the questions that provoked me to embark on this journey. I’ve learned that there is room for improvement in every one of the 12 practices on which I’ve been focusing, even though I also know that practice will never make perfect. But that’s okay, for I’ve been reminded of the truths of Romans 5, beginning with the fact that I already have “peace with God,” through Jesus Christ.

Living the Christian life for me in 2019, then, has to begin with the recognition of God’s grace to me, which is always present. With that thought, the yearning with which I began this exercise has quieted. Because, ultimately, that’s what the Christian life comes down to for every one of us: God’s amazing grace.

“We shall not cease from exploration

And at the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.” – T.S. Eliot

I remembered Eliot’s words this morning and looked them up as I thought of the irony of where I’ve landed. “At the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

At the end of this first phase of deliberate exploration of practices of my faith, here is what I know: Jesus loves me, in spite of my faults and failures, just as He loves you in spite of yours. And he wants us to experience life in all its fullness. The more we embrace him and the wisdom he offers, the more we receive that gift of life abundant. It’s there for the taking. The degree to which we accept it—just as the degree to which we practice the practices of our faith—is up to us.

*

Practicing My Faith, Part 15 – This is the final post in a 15-part series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.

Singing our lives

Bird on a wall singing

I have no memory of life without God, and the reason this is so, I believe, is because of my mother’s singing.

I do have a memory—it must surely be one of my earliest ones—of being rocked in my mother’s arms as she sang. My mother has a beautiful voice, and she loves to sing. She sang in her church’s choir before her children came along, and I have seen photos of her in her choir gown, long brown hair curling, cascading to her shoulders, smiling broadly.

The Old Rugged Cross  and In the Garden were two of her favourites. I think I’ve known their words and melodies and of the God who inspired them, thanks to her singing, my entire life.

I’ve always loved my mother’s voice.

I still do, and I count it a blessing to stand beside her in church Sunday after Sunday and hear her sing. Her 86-year-old voice doesn’t have quite the strength or range it once did, but it’s still butter-rich and smooth. Sometimes, I try to harmonize with her, the way we used to when I was a girl as we did the dishes in the kitchen after dinner. I always harmonized badly in spite of her heroic efforts to teach me otherwise; in the vocal department it seems, I inherited more of my father’s gift for making a joyful noise unto the Lord, than my mother’s ear, pitch, and tone.

Given that I trace the beginnings of my faith to my mother’s music-making, it felt appropriate that the final chapter in Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People should consist of Don E. Saliers essay, “Singing Our Lives.”

Describing music as “the language of the soul made audible,” Saliers says that “human voices, raised in concert in human gatherings, are primary instruments of the soul.”

I’ve long been self-conscious about my voice. When, in my teens, I had the opportunity to sing back-up vocals as part of a Christian pop band for a teen television program, I auditioned, shyly, by singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” I got the part, much to my amazement, but I spent the next three years convinced that I was unworthy of it (in spite of my ability to keep up with the nifty dance moves.) Whenever our rehearsals would be interrupted because “someone” was flat, I just knew the someone was me.

And yet, I loved to sing.

When my husband and I were dating, and I mustered up the courage to suggest we sing one day while making the 90-minute drive to his parents, I knew he was the man for me when he joyfully joined me in singing “You Are My Sunshine,” and didn’t wince at all upon hearing my voice. “Here is a man,” I remember thinking, “who won’t mind my singing in the kitchen.”

Later, hoping to pass on the gift of faith to our three children, as my mother had done to me, I rocked and sang to them all. Our firstborn’s bedtime routine consisted of “three stories and three songs.” By the time our third came along, I’d cut back to “one story and one song,” for each of them, but the songs and hymns were an ever-present part of evenings in our home for many years. I had my own copy of our church’s hymnbook so that I could expose my children to a broader range of the music of our faith than my limited repertoire would allow. Usually, it went well, although I have a vivid memory of my son clapping his hands over his ears one night as he pleaded,“Mummy! Stop singing!”

But singing is in more than just my  DNA.

Singing is also the lifeblood of the church and it has been from the beginning. (We may not sing many hymns any more, and using hymnbooks is not the contemporary way. Today, congregational singing at my church largely consists of following the words to choruses projected onto a screen, while accompanying tunes played by instrumental and vocal “worship leaders.”)

The music has changed over the centuries, but, it has always been an integral part of Christian faith and worship. “The Christian church was born singing the songs of ancient Israel, the synagogue, and the Greco-Roman world,” writes Saliers. “Psalms and canticles formed the heart of prayer and the music of the earliest Christian assemblies.”

Embodying theology  is what we do when we sing our faith.

“Where people sing of God, an embodied theology—a way of living and thinking about life in relationship to God—is formed and expressed,” writes Saliers. “Through this practice, music lends its power to all the other practices that shape and express who we are.”

It seemed fitting then that I should conclude my musings on 12—out of possibly hundreds or even thousands—of practices of my Christian faith, with this reflection on the importance of singing our faith. For it was in my mother’s singing of her  faith, that the seeds of my own relationship with God were planted.

I’ve written previously in this series about singing hymns with and to a loved one who is dying, and of how doing so seems to be reminding her of important truths to which she has assented her entire life. It’s also affirmed my  faith to sing these songs of worship with her.

So when our church was seeking, recently, to dispose of the old hymnbooks that once graced our pews and guided our congregation’s worship for so many years, I asked for three, one for each of my children.

Because some day, God willing, they will sing to me.

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Practicing My Faith, Part 14 – This post is fourteenth in a series and part of a culminating project for a course I am taking on Spiritual Discernment and Theological Reflection at McMaster Divinity College with Dr. Wendy Porter. For context, read part 1 and part 2.