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?

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Dying well

Hand holds sign saying It Is Well

I suppose I first began to think about what it means to die well 19 years ago, when my mother brought my father home from the hospital to die.

She knew he was dying and he knew it. We all did. After battling colon cancer for almost five months in hospital, a doctor had confirmed our worst fears; the cancer had spread and there was nothing more they could do for Dad than to keep him comfortable.

Mom believed she could do a better job of that at home, and so that’s where Dad went joyfully, to a hospital bed set up in their living room. Together our mother, my siblings, and I established a 24/7 care team. Supported by hospice volunteers and visiting nurses we looked after dad until he died two weeks later. He passed away peacefully, holding my mother’s hand. I remember being overwhelmed by the feeling in the moments after he had taken his final breath that his was not an “ending” but a “leaving.”

Doing things with and for one another

Almost a decade later, I enrolled in a 10-week training program with my own community’s hospice organization. I thought I’d like to help others the way that the hospice volunteers had helped our family throughout my Dad’s final days. I completed the program but concluded I wasn’t ready for that kind of work just yet.

But I’ve once again been thinking—a lot—in recent months about what it means to die well. First, because I helped to usher a friend to eternity’s threshold this past summer, and more recently still, because my mother-in-law is now receiving palliative care.

“In the Christian practice of dying well,” writes Amy Plantinga Pauw in “Dying Well,” her essay composing chapter 12 in Practicing Our Faith, “Christian people do things with and for one another in response to God’s strong love, translating into concrete acts our belief in the resurrection of Christ, and for ourselves.”

Our culture has a different idea of what it means to die well. Personal autonomy reigns supreme, and so our laws today grant people help and support in ending their lives prematurely.

The Christian way

I do not believe that is the Christian way. However, faith and trust in God does allow for the “conscionable category,” as Pauw describes it, “of ‘ceasing to oppose death,’ making room for caring for the dying.”

It means recognizing that God gives and takes life. And when bodies signal that life is drawing to a close, loved ones can listen. Medical interventions that merely prolong a life that has been reduced to suffering may not be heroic but horrific.

We will all die; that is certain. And faith is not a guarantee that we will die serenely. “Christian practices hold no magic formula for transforming premature, tragic, or unjust deaths into good deaths,” Pauw observes. “When a life is cut short—by accident, suicide, disease, or violence—Christians view it as an evil.”

Dying well, then, is not something that we carry out on our own. But it is something that, in community, we can help to give to others. And if this is true, then we can also live our lives in such a way that we can hope that there will be others to help us to die well when the time comes.

Then, when we are gone, there will also be others whom we leave behind who will mourn and remember and tell the stories of our lives.

*

Note: When I saw the image at the top of this post, I knew I wanted it to illustrate the subject of this blog. One of the hymns I have been singing with my mother-in-law over the past couple of weeks has been the 1873 hymn by Horatio G. Spafford, “It Is Well With My Soul.” The words in the first verse of that hymn are:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul!

*

Practicing My Faith, Part 13 – This post is thirteenth 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.

Forgiveness

Cropped shot by Felix Koutchinski, unsplash.com

The Christian practice of forgiveness is another one of those topics I approached with just a teensy bit of dread. I’m old enough to have learned a few things about myself in the course of a lifetime of forgiving, not wanting to forgive, asking for forgiveness, not being forgiven, and being forgiven when I felt unworthy of it.

I’ve learned, for example, that not wanting to forgive someone—thinking that they’ve hurt me so deeply or intentionally that they don’t deserve my forgiveness—can lead to an ugly sense of self-righteousness that blinds me to my own faults and failings. Unforgiveness quickly roots and grows into a huge plank in my eye. I’ve also learned that there’s a thin line between lack of forgiveness and self-deception; that I’m capable of being pleasant towards someone who’s hurt me—in an “aren’t I doing well to forgive them?” kind of way—then consoling my still-present hurt by talking about it to others. Like eating a bowl full of Hallowe’en candy, one peanut butter cup after another, such gossip feels good in the moment, but leaves me feeling sick afterwards.

These are not pretty things to acknowledge, let alone to put into writing.

But on the up-side, I’ve also learned a few things about the actual practice of forgiveness. Here are five of them:

  1. Forgiveness is essential: Christians believe people were made for relationship, but we are broken. Invariably, we hurt one another.
  2. Sometimes we need to forgive again and again. And then again. And again.
  3. Sometimes forgiveness is easy. Sometimes it’s so hard it can seem impossible.
  4. Even when it seems impossible, prayer, time, and deliberate acts of love for the one who has offended us can make forgiveness real in our minds, and in our hearts.
  5. True forgiveness requires acknowledging our own brokenness and need for forgiveness. It means resting in the fact that God alone is worthy to judge both the other person and me, and that God can be trusted to judge fairly because He loves us both equally, whether we both love Him back or not.

Small potatoes

Those are five things I’ve learned. But when I read L. Gregory Jones’ essay, “Forgiveness” in the tenth chapter of Practicing Our Faith, I was reminded of a few more.

The first thing Jones reminded me of is that the things I’ve had to forgive over the course of my life are small potatoes. “Thinking about forgiveness—to say nothing of finding the courage to practice it—can be difficult,” he writes. “Merely to consider this practice causes us to think about horrifying evil: slavery in the United States, or the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, or individual acts of rape, child abuse, and domestic violence.” Or, we might add, acts of terrorism against defenceless victims. “It is difficult to comprehend the depths of pain and suffering in such situations,” Jones says.

There was a time in my life when I thought that even considering the possibility of true forgiveness in such cases was inconceivable.

I don’t any more.

I’ve read about Truth and Reconciliation in Rwanda and about the Charter of Forgiveness issued by Canada’s Indigenous peoples. I’ve visited an Amish community in Pennsylvania where a deranged shooter took an entire school hostage, killing children and himself, only to have the parents of the victims express forgiveness within hours of the tragedy. I’ve read about Corrie Ten Boom and interviewed people like Kim Phuc. I’ve seen that forgiveness leads to healing, restoration, and hope, like sunshine in March leads to the buds on my magnolia bursting into beautiful blooms in May.

But I honestly can’t fathom what it means to forgive in such circumstances. I feel a little afraid to even think about it, to be honest. Afraid that I might one day find myself in a big potatoes kind of situation. And that makes me realize I’ve still got some learning to do, that learning the practice of forgiveness—that practicing the practice of forgiveness—as Jones points out, is a lifelong process.

The alternative, in Jones’ penetrating words is leading a life of “chilling apathy … loveless indifference … where people rest content with low-grade bitterness rather than struggling to transcend it.”

However his essay also offers help for discerning a way forward. He writes, “If we are to grow in the practice of forgiving one another, we need also to come to a better understanding of the shape of Christian forgiveness, of God’s practice in forgiving us.”

I’ve learned that forgiveness is shaped like a cross.

Some time ago, I was struggling with a deep sense of betrayal as a result of the actions of someone else. As I was journaling and praying about what to do with my feelings, I got a mental image of Jesus on the cross, praying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Suddenly, I knew in a way that I’d never known before that his prayer concerned me, because it was for my sins, too, that he died. “They know not what they do”  applied to me. How often had I gone about my day-to-day life not thinking about the full impact of my words or actions on others, and so sinned against them and against God? How many people had I betrayed, without realizing the impact of my betrayal? “You don’t become a Christian and stop being a jerk overnight,” as one writer friend puts it, and we’re often incapable of knowing what we don’t know. It’s harder to see the jerkiness in ourselves than it is to see it in others. But that day, I saw it in myself anew, and recognized that I had been forgiven, which caused me to realize that I, in turn, could pray, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,”  on behalf of others.

That’s surely why Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” It’s intended to be a daily confession and request for forgiveness because Jesus knew we’d need to offer up such prayers every day.

So it was that on that particular day, in that moment, the plank fell out of my eye and I confessed the way I’d been nursing my hurt by ruminating on it. And for the first time in a long time, I felt truly free.

*

Practicing My Faith, Part 11 – This post is eleventh 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.

Shaping communities

hands by Tim Marshall, unsplash.com

My intent today was to blog about the Christian practice of “shaping communities,” the subject of the ninth chapter, by Larry Rasmussen, in Practicing Our Faith.

I was going to write about “the perennial Christian strategy,” as Rasmussen calls it, “to gather the folks, break the bread, and tell the stories.”

I was going to say that my own particular expertise was not in how to shape such a community, but in how the Christian communities—of which I’ve been a part over the course of my lifetime—have shaped me.

I was going to write about the United church congregation in which my parents raised me, my memories of sitting on the floor at the feet of my Sunday School teacher, taking in the stories and lessons told with flannel graph Jesus.

I was going to write about coming to genuine faith there, about learning important Christian doctrines, about being confirmed, participating in the Lord’s Supper for the first time, and then learning to serve by teaching Sunday School classes, and writing skits to be performed by little ones during the Sunday service.

I was going to share my memories of the Pentecostal church I attended in university, where I heard apologetics and learned to study the Bible, and where I experienced the practice of Christian hospitality like I’d never seen it practiced before, when one particular family invited me to their home for a roast beef lunch on a Sunday after church (it was their habit to open their home in this way every week to university students who found themselves away from their own homes) and offered me a place to lay my head after the meal.

I was going to write about the little Christian and Missionary Alliance church my husband and I have called home for 30 years. I was going to tell you about the lifelong friendships I’ve made there, the mentoring, teaching, and counselling I’ve received, the support and help in raising my three children. I was going tell you about the hugs I get there every Sunday. I was going to reminisce about serving throughout all those years—in the nursery, or in Sunday School, or in Pioneer Girls, or Kidz Kamp or in the kitchen—even when I didn’t really want to, and how such service molded me and taught me things. And how I watched as my children also learned to serve and how proud of them I felt as I watched them learning sometimes hard but always character-forming lessons.

I was going to tell you about the fact that I study in a Baptist seminary, and work part-time in an evangelical Anglican one, and how both places offer community that is shaping me in other profoundly important ways.

But then I heard about the cold-blooded mass murder of so many families in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand that happened yesterday. And my heart felt heavy. So I checked in, via Facebook, with a Muslim friend. And I saw comments on her profile there that made me realize that she feels about her mosque community the same way that I feel about the all of the Christian communities that have shaped and that continue to shape me.

And then I did the only thing I could think of to do: I dropped to my knees and I prayed for my friend, for her community, and for the victims. And I prayed for those who are growing up without the benefit of loving, shaping communities, for future perpetrators who are just waiting-in-the-wings, for those who struggle with mental illness, and for those whose anger and outrage and sense of injustice leads them to hate.

May God have mercy on us all.

*

Practicing My Faith, Part 10 – This post is tenth 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.

On discernment

forest paths by Jens Lelie, Unsplash

Our culture thinks it’s cool to be discerning, or at least, to be thought of that way.

Guidance on becoming discerning is everywhere. A recent article on Forbes.com counselled business leaders to seek discernment. News headlines pay homage to “discerning foodies” and “discerning shoppers” as well as “discerning investors” and “discerning audiences.” The lifestyle section of the newspaper offers horoscopes and advice columns for those who seek help in discerning how to live their lives.

Discernment for the Christian is different 

But for the Christian, discernment takes on another dimension, according to the essay by Frank Rogers Jr. titled “Discernment,” which is the eighth chapter of Practicing Our Faith. That’s because Christians believe that “God is present, hoping and urging, in the midst of all the situations of life.” In light of that, discernment becomes the practice “by which a community or an individual seeks, recognizes, and intentionally takes part in the activity of God in concrete situations.”

The Apostle Paul teaches us in his first letter to the Corinthians that there are some things that come from God that can only be spiritually discerned. But, as Rogers points out, “The history of the church is littered with the stories of people who have claimed guidance from the Spirit when the prejudices of self-deception reigned instead.”

So, it was out of a desire to deepen the practice of spiritual discernment in my own life that I signed up for a course by that name at McMaster Divinity College. I wanted help not just with making wise decisions and choices, but with rightly understanding the on-going call of God in my day-to-day life.

One of the required texts for the course immediately challenged me that the process of spiritual discernment must begin and end in prayer, for as Henri Nouwen writes in Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life, “the discipline of prayer and being in God’s presence … is the starting and ending place out of which guidance emerges.”

Practicing the discipline of prayer

Prayer has come easier at some times in my life than at others. And I realized that unless I found a way to make prayer more of a discipline, then I would always struggle with it.

So one of the practices I’ve incorporated this semester is that of the Daily Examen. The Examen is an exercise developed by Ignatius of Loyola, who lived from 1491 to 1556. It’s essentially just a technique that helps to focus your prayers at the end of the day, such that you learn to better detect God’s presence in the day just over, and to anticipate God’s presence in the day to come.

It typically involves five steps, and need only take about five minutes. My course text book, The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making by Elizabeth Liebert, outlines the steps as follows:

  1. Give thanks for all God’s gifts and benefits: Jesus, you have been present today throughout our world … I rejoice in …”
  1. Ask for light: Be near now. Let us look together at my day. Let me see through your loving eyes …”
  1. Review the day: thoughts, words, deeds, desires, consolations, desolations*: When did I listen to your voice today? When did I resist listening to you today?”
  1. Express gratitude, sorrow, and purpose of amendment: Jesus, everything is gift from you. I give you thanks and praise for the gifts of today … I ask your healing in … I ask your forgiveness and mercy for …”
  1. Ask for the graces you desire for tomorrow: Jesus, continue to be present with me in my life each day …”

I don’t pray it perfectly.

Sometimes I forget one step or another, and sometimes I forget to pray the Examen altogether. But when I have taken the time to pray in this way, I’ve found it to be helpful.

I like to read in bed each night before sleep, and I try to remember to pray the Examen once I’ve put my book down for the evening, but before I turn out my light. (Praying with my light on helps to ensure I don’t fall asleep in the middle of my prayers.)

Just beginning my night time prayers with, “Jesus, you have been present everywhere in our world today and you have been present in my life …” focuses my thoughts and causes me to feel gratitude for his presence. That sentence has been a powerful reminder to me of God’s goodness and grace—daily to our world and to me.

And then when I reflect on my day, the good and the bad, the ups and the downs, I’m reminded again and again that He has been with me. I see Him more clearly when I pause to take the time to reflect in this way. Confessing my failings during the course of the day through this exercise also relieves my conscience, and helps me to fall asleep; it helps me to resolve to do better, to be more attentive to signs of Him “tomorrow.”

I’ve found that reliving my day in my mind—step by step—in a conscious effort to look for evidence of His presence and help has not only made me more aware of Jesus in my life, it has made me more alert to his image in others.

It has also given me a deeper sense of contentment, gratitude, and yes, joy, as I go about my days. That has been a surprising but welcome by-product of the exercise and of my quest to deepen my practice of spiritual discernment.

*

* Note: according to Rogers, “Feelings of consolation are those that give rise to life, love, peace, joy, creativity, and communion. … Feelings of desolation are those that give rise to despair, confusion, alienation, destructiveness, and discord.”

Practicing My Faith, Part 9 – This post is ninth 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.