Touchstones

Today is Superbowl Sunday. I do not understand football. I don’t even know for sure who is playing. But I know that a whole lot of other people will be tuned in to see grown, handsomely-paid men chase a bit of pigskin around a field! We will probably turn the tv on just to be part of the North American cultural experience.

Superbowl Sunday is one of those events that help us mark the days. But lately I have been thinking more about touchstones than touchdowns. It started as I chatted with a friend who had just moved to a new home. She talked about the fact that while she was excited about the new place there was some regret in that her daughter, now an adult, had just lost the only home she had ever known. I shared that I feel particularly blessed because the farm house I grew up in is still in the family and I am welcomed back home whenever I want and I can walk about as if it is still my own. It is a geographical touchstone for me. Sometimes I just need to go home. What a privilege that I still can.

I have spiritual touchstones too. There are scripture verses that mean a great deal to me. One I like is from 2 Timothy, “For God does not give us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of self-control”. The other is from Isaiah, “Behold I am doing a new thing, now it springs forth. Do you not see it?”

Longtime friendships are a touchstone for me. I still have deep and abiding friendships with women that I have known from infancy. Sometimes I just need to talk to one of them to be reassured or to share a laugh and in that be restored.

Music is a touchstone for me. Familiar songs that offer truth and inspiration often pop into my head at just the right time to set me back on track and keep me grounded.

One of the other huge touchstones for me is a faith community. I have always, for all my 61 years, been part of a faith community. I have moved around the country but wherever I have been, student, worker, minister, I have sought out a congregation to be part of; people to worship with, people to questions with, people to doubt with, people to rejoice with and people to just be with.

For a number of months now I have been part of a ‘Circle of Trust’. This is a small group based on the teaching of Parker Palmer. We have ‘touchstones’ that are part of our being together. They are a code of conduct or a way of being together so that we each understand what to expect and in order to build a safe place for conversation and reflection. Sometimes these touchstones are hard as they seem a bit artificial to the regular way of conversation but they do work and over time I have come to appreciate the way of silence and openness to one another.

I wonder what are some touchstones for you? What do you look to for stability or security? What gives you strength in times of doubt? If you feel able to, please offer some touchstones in the comments section at the end of this blog. I look forward to hearing of your touchstones.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

12 Drummers Drumming

I love the Season of Christmas. I don’t mean the hectic days from the 23rd to the 26th. I mean the 12 days of Christmas that stretch the season into the new year, when the long dark nights afford time for reading novels and playing Scrabble. The restful days to wear for the first time the new clothes received as Christmas gifts and when the shortbread and Christmas cakes tastes delicious with a cup of hot tea or, even better, hot chocolate decorated with marshmallows.

Yes, I still have my Christmas tree up and I am resisting the notion of taking it down even though Epiphany dawns heralding the arrival of the magi to present their gifts as the brilliance of the star reveals the gift of God in a new and sparkling way.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, according to the old Christmas carol, 12 drummers came drumming. Let me tell you about the drummers that brought good news today. It was a typical morning – a heap of snow fell overnight but that it was still snowing signalled no need to work the snow blower until the squall ended. A tall cup of coffee, a check of the emails … wait, there is an email from my Syrian friend now residing in Iraq as he and his family wait for a call from Canada. The email says, “Call me, it’s urgent.” I click the video camera icon on SKYPE and soon he answers. “I have a surprise. I have good news” he says with the broadest, biggest smile possible. “We have had the phone call to say they will call soon to give us a date for our interview. Sometime between January 15 and 19.”

We laughed. We cried. We tried to guess when they might actually get here. It was the perfect way to end the Christmas season with the best Christmas gift of all.

We first met, this Syrian family and I, on January 30th, 2016. So it is almost a full year that we have been waiting for this call to say the process of interviewing will begin. It has been a year of emotional ups and downs. Today, it feels like something might happen that will bring our hope of their relocation into reality. Such good news. Such a gift from the magi.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

And So This is Christmas

It has been a quiet day at our house. I made myself sleep in so I that I would have the energy to get through this evening of services and greetings. I baked a few cookies and put the finishing touches on my comments for this evening’s services. I was still in my pyjamas when a Christmas angel dropped off a plate of homemade cookies.

This is my 35th year of conducting Christmas Eve services. They have ranged from small intimate gatherings in little rural churches to crowded noisy affairs with a few hundred people. They have been tinged with sadness and filled with joy. They have always included many of the favoured carols and, of course, the beloved story from Matthew and Luke telling of the Nativity of Jesus. I love Christmas Eve and all that is means and what it represents in the human drama.

I love that it is about a child born, one who will make a difference. I love that it is a truth held in story, an improbably and unlikely story but one that captures our imaginations and our hearts and moves us to ponder the deep human struggle of homelessness and poverty, of oppression and loneliness. It is a story that speaks to the condition that many refugees and homeless find themselves facing this very night. It also speaks to those of us who live in fortunate and comfortable conditions. It tells of the conundrums of the human condition and what it means to have God reach into the very fabric of our lives.

I hear people gathering in the sanctuary as I type this. The hum of conversation the occasional squawk of a little one. This is Christmas. People gathering to be reminded that God is in our life. What a blessing.

Kevin just came by my office door. I told him I was writing my blog and asked if there was anything he wanted to say. “Just Merry Christmas and you can quote me.” And so I do. Merry Christmas. May the message of God’s love touch your heart and life tonight and always.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Day Before the Day Before

It is December 23rd. The day before the day before Christmas. Here at the church it has been a flurry of service preparation. There are four bulletins lined up and ready for distribution. We will have four services over the next couple of days – three tomorrow evening, Christmas Eve, at 5:00, 7:00 and 10:00; and then one on the morning of Christmas Day at 10:30. There have been lots of people dropping into the church in the first part of the week but that has slowed as people now intensify their home activity. It is such a busy time with such high expectation for family harmony and the hope that everyone will get along.

I am not sure why Christmas has taken on such hype. We put such demands on ourselves that everything by just so and that there be so many gatherings and events to mark the season. It can be exhausting and stressful.

One of my favourite poets is Ann Weems. Sadly she died this past March at the age of 81. Over her life she wrote 7 books of poetry to be used for worship and personal devotion. The focus of her poetry was Christ centered and often sought to inspire change in the church.

In 1980 she wrote the book “Kneeling in Bethlehem” a book of poetry to be used in Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. I am holding on to one of her poems today. Here it is …

What do I want for Christmas?
I want to kneel in Bethlehem,
the air thick with alleluias,
the angels singing
that God is born among us.
In the light of the Star,
I want to see them come,
the wise one and the humble.
I want to see them come
bearing whatever they treasure
to lay at the feet
of him who gives his life.

What do I want for Christmas?
To see in that stable
the whole world kneeling in thanks
for a promise kept:
new life.
For in his nativity
we find ours.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Season of Music

There is lots to say about the season of Christmas preceded in the church by the season of Advent. There are the lights, the candles, the special food, the cards and greetings, the presents, the travelling but for me it is all about the music. And not just for me. This past weekend there were concerts put on by various musical groups on Friday, Saturday AND Sunday nights. And we are just one small town – imagine the music that was being offered across the country. Our church choir has been practicing for weeks the music for the Service of Lessons and Carols this coming Sunday. Last Sunday, at each morning service, our small but stalwart children’s choir of four girl singers sang out beautifully “Gloria Deo’.

The resonant sounds of praise begin in Advent with the old classic, ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ and with the newer offerings of ‘People, Look East’ and ‘All Earth is Waiting’. But people long to sing the favourite Christmas carols that they have been singing for years. ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ ‘Joy to the World’ and ‘Silent Night’. Everyone has a favourite from ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ to ‘The First Nowell’ people know the verses by heart and sing them lustily.

Today we have been hearing news reports of the fall of Aleppo and the devastation and deplorable violence that has overtaken many, many citizens. Innocent civilians have been killed and the city destroyed by the violent aggression of Assad. As I think of the tragedy that has beset them I am reminded of the lines of my favourite carol, ‘It Came Upon the Midnight Clear’. IT is in verse three that we sing:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world hath suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

The carol ends with the longing for peace. How our world needs peace but instead it seems that the rhetoric of violence and one-against-the-other gets stronger. Mistrust of others has escalated in the past little while, in part, I believe, fanned by the attitude and platitudes of Donald Trump. I pray God that Canada will not go down that slippery slope but we kid ourselves if we don’t realize how possible that slide might be.

So I sing, I sing the age-old carols, I sing the fun new songs, I sing with the angels that herald the birth of God into the world, I sing to raise my spirits and I sing to save my soul. I sing, because for thousands of years people have sung, sung alone and sung with others, sung words of hope and words of longing, words of joy and words of celebration. And to me that is what Christmas is about.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Locking Doors and Making Coffee

Today is Thanksgiving Day in the US. Our American friends will be gathered round their tables skirting difficult conversations to keep conviviality alive! Here in Canada we are settling in for the winter season. This morning I woke to see the ground covered, white with snow. Last Sunday afternoon, mid-way through a concert at the church, I thought to myself, “Why is it so cold in here?” Then I realized it was because I had not turned on the heat for the afternoon event. I am out of the habit of thinking about that detail as we have enjoyed such a long, warm, summer-into-fall season. I jacked up the heat and enjoyed the second half of the concert so much more.

Later that afternoon I circumvented the church checking that all the doors were locked, this after walking through the building and turning out all the lights that had been left on. It got me thinking about how I spend much of my time – locking up, picking up, cleaning up, setting up, sorting out, taking down. None of it very glamourous work. But work I see as valuable. I am always a bit bemused when I work with interns. Understandably the main things they want to learn include how to preach, how to do weddings and funerals, how to conduct a baptism. But in reality really, much of ministry happens between the coffee urn and the piled chairs. I use to tease my Bible study group that at theological college we should have been given a course in how to make coffee because that is what I spend most of my time doing! This is not a bad thing. One of the important hallmarks of Christian witness is hospitality. I rather enjoy making coffee, setting out a plate of cookies, turning on the lights, arranging the chairs, so that when people arrive they know they are expected, wanted, and that there is a place ready for them. I think that kind of welcome adds a layer of grace.

I remember attending a workshop years ago. It was a two day workshop on Stewardship. The one, and only, piece of information I remember was to always make an effort to care regardless of how small the effort is. The leader said, “If you walk through a room and you see an empty coffee cup then it is your job to pick it up.” He reiterated, “It is your responsibility to pick it up and not leave it for another person to do. That is respect, care and stewardship.” It is a rather broad definition of stewardship but it IS stewardship. Picking up, looking after, being responsible are all aspects of what it means to be a good steward of a place and time.

So, with a nod to the American Thanksgiving, today I am thankful to have a set of keys to use responsibly, to know where the thermostats are and where the coffee is stored. It gives me an opportunity to provide service to others and to offer grace. I am grateful.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

In a Minute

WHAT??? Here it is the end of October …just how did that happen? Do you remember when you were a kid and it seemed on Monday morning that the week loomed in front of you and that it would take an eternity for the days to pass until it was the weekend again? Now it seem time is a rapidly vanishing commodity. While a minute might seem like a long time if you are waiting on hold, the days evaporate and the weeks fly by. It always seems to me these days that there is just not enough time. At the end of each day I look around my office and wonder what I actually accomplished in that day as the piles of papers that need sorting and the books that need reading remain stacked on my desk.

Here it is Saturday, that last Saturday of the month, only eight more Saturdays before the end of the year. Time flies, indeed! And yet, each moment is packed with so much that to look back allows opportunity to treasure conversations, feel the warmth of a hug, savour a delicious meal, reread an email, breathe deeply, sleep a bit longer, walk a bit further, or listen a bit longer.

Recently a friend gave me a little pocketbook of daily reflections. It is called “Whispers of Encouragement – Inspiration for Every Day”. This morning as I faced a busy Saturday I needed a little encouragement in just figuring out how to get everything done and still have a bit of a “weekend”! I opened the book to this quote by the late Ruth Bell Graham. “It may be one more request than we think we can fulfill, one more responsibility than we think we can manage…interruptions never distracted Jesus. He accepted them as opportunities of a richer service.”

Ah, there is that word popping up again, service. Yes, if we totally focused on our self we would have lots of time to do the things we need to do, but the very things that prevent us from marking things off a “To Do” list is the interruptions. Most often the interruptions lead to offering a listening ear, a helping hand, a shoulder to cry on, an opportunity for service.

So, take the time, enjoy the moment, seize the opportunity. It only takes a minute to make a difference.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What It Means

Thanksgiving Weekend is upon us. Our incredible weather means that I am still wearing sandals on October 7th. The forecast for the weekend means that family gatherings will likely include hikes, sitting on the dock one last time, walks around the block and other outdoor activity before we all hunker down for winter.

Thanksgiving is typified by many things – turkey dinner, family gathering, final yard work, putting away the lawn furniture and, particularly in our area, driving around to check the coloured leaves. It is also a time to do an accounting of what we give thanks for. I am wondering what is on your list this year? I have been thinking of my ‘gratitude attitude’ as this Thanksgiving Weekend approaches and I realize that what I am most thankful for directly reflects what is going on in my life these days. As you may know, I continue to connect by social media with our Syrian family still stuck in Iraq. My beloved is facing some major challenges as age overtakes him and this means lots of trips to appointments of various kinds. I am looking ahead to 2017 as my job restructures and I work less hours. Sunday afternoon I will gather with my extended family on the farm where I was raised and where my niece still lives with her family but the 407 has taken the lower acres of the farm and highway construction has changed the countryside all around them. It seems there is change at every front but still I find myself filled with gratitude for all that brings robust joy to my life. Here is what is on my list. How be you make a list too?

I am thankful for…
technology that takes me to friends and loved ones around the world
a medical system that takes seriously the aged and their particular challenges
a car and the ability to drive it
a pay cheque and the promise of a pension
money to pay for help that is needed
a heritage and a place to call home
family and a network of friends
work colleagues who value community with all its ups and downs
the sunflowers sitting on my desk, brought in by a parishioner
that my baseball team is winning and they provide hours of entertainment
a cup of coffee carried to me by a friend
a grocery store to shop in and resources to buy what I need
a lawn to cut and a garden to weed
a faith to sustain me and a God to thank

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

RETREAT!

In my previous work I spent a fair bit of time planning and attending retreats for various committees and groups. Once my beloved said to me, “Retreat, retreat, retreat, when are you going to advance?” I thought that was a pretty funny line (and held a kernel of truth in it!). Nonetheless, there is great value in retreating and I am still on a bit of high from this year’s BUC Women’s Retreat.

This was our 9th annual retreat. It is a fall tradition that started the second year I was here at BUC. It has grown from our humble beginnings of an overnight and now is a full weekend with lots of excellent programming. We had 35 women retreating this year, many returning but some there for the first time. We have found accommodation that works well for us and we have realized the wonderful talent from within our midst to offer leadership and activities.

Our theme was “Deepening the Connection …with self, others and God”. Our planning team worked very hard to craft a retreat that was varied and interesting. We had speakers, activities and some quiet time for reflection. It is always fun to read the evaluations – the first thing I do when I get home – and see what people thought of the weekend. We had many positive comments and some good suggestions for next year. It helped that we had such terrific weather and we could spend time outdoors as well as in the spacious and comfortable meeting room. Oh, and the food was great!

I have been thinking about our topic since returning. What does it mean to deepen the connection with God? For me it will be moving into a place of trust and letting go. As I move forward to a reduced work load and lessening my responsibilities at the church I know that I will need to ‘reformat’ how I see myself as a disciple. My life has been so tied up in my work as minister that I will my shifting my perspective and self-understanding in the months ahead. I am going to need to go deep into my spiritual well. I am grateful the retreat started that journey for me.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Frozen Money – Frozen Love

25 million dollars. That’s right 25 million dollars. According to Anneka Smit, professor at Windsor University and member of the steering committee of Canada4Refugees that is the amount of money sitting in trust, by groups like ours from across Canada who have raised money, in good faith, to welcome and support a family from Syria. We were matched with our family in January of 2016. Prior to matching we had to raise sufficient funds. Consequently, we have about $40,000 sitting in the bank waiting for the Khaled’s to come. Meanwhile, they sit in their apartment, Syrian refugees in Iraq, desperate to get here but the bureaucratic bottlenecks are making it impossible for them to even think of when that might happen.

Professor Smit, who was interviewed on The Current yesterday morning, observed that the government has done a massive job to date by bringing in the refugees that have already arrived. This was supported by the enthusiasm and generosity of Canadians but what started with buoyant optimism and charity is turning into a wasted opportunity of human power and good will. Our own small family is a perfect example. We have lists of people who wish to help. We have, as said previously, money in the bank. We had furniture organized, drivers lined up to ferry them about, people wishing to help teach them English. And now we all wait. It wouldn’t be so bad if we had not been encouraged to think it might happen soon. When we were matched we thought they might be here within a few months, maybe even two or three, but the months have dragged by and still they wait and we wait. They have used up their savings. It is impossible for them to get employment. But the hardest thing, as it is for anyone at anytime, is not knowing. Will it be this year? Will it take several years? We all know that living with indecision is extremely difficult. It is no different for refugees waiting for sanctuary.

However, there is one delightful element for me in all this waiting. I have been able to forge a friendship with the family. We skype and email regularly and we have developed a comfort level so that teasing and kibitzing happen easily and when sadness overwhelms them, tears flow too. I have been able to skype with them from various places in Muskoka – even once while out fishing on Lake Muskoka. So they have been given a view to the landscape and the lifestyle. I have introduced them to a number of people so when they arrive there will be familiar faces to greet them.

All that has to happen now is for the processing and paperwork to happen so we can thaw that frozen money.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment