I have taught many a confirmation class over my 37 years of ministry. We always have a class on “The Sacraments”. I always tell them a “Sacrament is … A visible sign of an invisible grace”. Meaning it is when we use something tangible to illustrate something intangible; like water at Baptism and Bread at Communion. That’s right, in the United Church we have two sacraments – Baptism, when we use water to show God’s love and blessing through touching the forehead with water (mirroring Jesus baptism in the Jordan River) and – Communion, when we use bread and grape juice to show God’s nurture and to remind us of Christ’s last meal with his apostles. Other denominations have more sacraments but for us it is just those two. Baptism and Communion.

Many of you know that I have been having a bit of a tough time at home. My beloved has Dementia and the strong, vital, intelligent man he was is slowly disappearing before my eyes. As I think back over the past months and few years as the disease has gained its foothold I realize that I have experienced moments with him that, for me now, feel like sacramental moments. It struck me the last time he tried to fish and just couldn’t figure out how to thread the line and couldn’t manage to fling the line out into the water. I realized that he would likely never again enjoy that pastime that, for decades, was his passion. I look at the last shrubs he planted in our garden and know that planting, fertilizing and weeding a garden, something that was his domain for all our married life are tasks he can no longer manage. I see advertisements for the plays at the Stratford Summer Festival and I know that our annual summer excursion to enjoy a couple of plays is now only a memory.

So many things that we enjoyed together, so many things we took for granted are now moments and activities that we will not do together again. I am not trying to sound overly dramatic or maudlin here. But as I think back I realize the preciousness of that last time when we did a certain something not in any way realizing that it was the last time we could enjoy that activity or moment together. They feel tinged with sacramental power.

There are lots of inspirational sayings and reminders (especially on Facebook!!!) that we should cherish the moment. I have told people that myself. But the reality is that it is not really until it is taken away that you realize just how very precious it was. Given this, it is no surprise that the last supper that the apostles had with Jesus, the last time they broke bread together, the last time they sat at table together, a memory of their last event together that they could cling to, became within Christian practice, a sacrament, a sign of deep and abiding love. A visible sign of the love of God as lived through the person of Jesus.

Every moment, every encounter, every relationship is rich with the potential to be sacramental. Notice them, cherish them, remember them.

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Nostalgia through Fragrance

Today after church we served Strawberry Shortcake. It was an idea for a little “Fun-Raising”. The purpose being to provide some social time to visit and chat while enjoying delicious Ontario strawberries. It was a ‘Pay What You Can’ offering so people could just make a donation. We had two very cute little girls managing the donation baskets and they were hard to refuse!

One of the women from the church raided her flower garden to bring in enough cuttings to put a fresh bouquet of blooms on each table. When it was all over I got to bring a bouquet home with me. As I carried the flowers in the door I got carried away with memories. The spicy-sweet fragrance of one of the flowers reminded me of flowers from my mother’s garden. The heady aroma took my imagination to June days of my childhood. Every year on a Sunday afternoon in June we would take bouquest of flowers to the Cemetery service where my relatives were buried. It is a rural tradition in old Onatrio to have ‘Decoration Day’ at the cemetery and we would go every year to place flowers on the grave of grandparents and great-grandparents. It was a tradition that saw a gathering of the clan. It seems a bit odd to think of meeting up at the cemetery but there we were with fresh cut flowers in hand. Always flowers from the garden – lilcas and snowballs, mock orange and bachelor’s buttons. I am sorry to say the tradition has pretty much ceased with my generation. I can seldom get there on a Sunday afternoon and my very busy siblings are in the same situation, so my parents do not get flowers placed on their graves on a June Sunday.

I was stuck by the power of fragrance and how it can transport our thinking to a diferent time and a different place. I bet if I were to name a food you would be able to imagine its aroma. If I were to name a place you have visited you would conjur up in your mind the smell assoicated with it. Say Nicaragua to me and I immediately think of the rich smell of mangos. Mention the fall Fair and in my mind I can smell the sugary candy floss and the hot oil from the French Fry truck. ASk about my childhood home and I can smell the smoke from the wood stove.

There is a wondeful story in the gospels about Jesus, after a long and tiring day, having a woman annoint his feet. It says the fragrance of the expensive ointment filled the room. The writer must have heard that story over and over to include it in the writing and a feature to the story must have been the power of the fragrance.

We have five amazing senses to take in the world around us. Our sense of smell is not one we often focus on, it does not seem quite as significant as sight and hearing, but it sure does make life rich and wonderful.

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In That Great Company

I have joined the great company of care-givers. Given the statistic that the number of seniors in Canada now outnumber the number of children and the greatest growth area is in those over the age of 100, it is not surprising that many Canadian adults find themselves in the role of care-giver in one way or another.

It is one-year ago that my husband was diagnosed with Dementia. The diagnosis was not surprising to either of us having lived for sometime with his increasing memory loss, confusion and inability to focus and complete tasks, nonetheless it hit hard. This past year has been one of adjusting to our ‘new normal’ which seems to change with the day and sometimes even over the course of day.

I have always known people who were required to give support and care to a family member. My mother cared for my dad for several years after he suffered a devastating stroke. But it is only now that I am now realizing the huge implications that comes with the word ‘care-giver’. I have never fully appreciated the complete and total impact it has on one’s activity and involvement. I have a deepened appreciation for both the labour of love that is required and the grief that is comes with living with loss as a loved one’s personality and ability is gradually eroded. The hardest part often, is leaving enough space for the other to retain some independence, dignity and autonomy while being close by and ready with the safety-net should assistance be required. This stretches from casual things like turning on the television and remembering friends names to more complicated challenges like banking and doctors visits. Knowing when and how to intervene is a guessing game that is fraught with hunches and doubt.

I am blessed with a network of friends and a family who are quick to offer assistance and ever ready with a listening ear and words of encouragement. I also know several other women who are taking this walk with their husband and so I can reach out when I need to for advice and support. It is in times like this I am grateful for a faith community that understands and often, with a knowing look or gentle touch, reassures me that they are holding us in prayer.

Anyone who has cared for an aging relative or friend knows the challenge of compression stockings! These are the elasticised stockings that are often required by elderly folk to assist blood flow in the legs. Putting them onto another person can be like squeezing the stuffing into a sausage casing! I find each morning, as I do this, that a phrase from the hymn “Jesu, Jesu” comes to mind. “Kneels at the feet of his friends, silently washing their feet,”; it is the reminder of Jesus’ call to the disciples to be ready to kneel and wash another’s feet as part of the service of discipleship. According to the Gospel of John this was part of his last teaching at their Passover Supper on the night before he died.

I have come to see care-giving as a Spiritual Exercise. It brings humility and requires patience. It deepens the bond between the giver and the one requiring care. It draws on faith and fosters prayer. It is hard but I am so grateful for the resources that surround us and for the faith that graces us. I know we are not alone.

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Holy Week – Yep, I Got that Right!

Any religious-based calendar will tell you that Holy Week is the week before Easter; the days that stretch from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday and incorporate Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. We call it Holy Week because the days take us on Jesus’ walk to the cross. Several of those days are marked at the church with Christian ritual. But I sometimes that the days after Easter are pretty sacred too. I like to think of this week, as we continue to reflect on the mystery of resurrection and new life, as holy days. This is the POST-Easter Holy Week.

Like any holiday event stores promote early and long before the day and once midnight strikes everything of the moment disappears and they are on to the next holiday. Dollarama already has an abundant display of all things Canadiana for the Canada Day celebrations on July 1st. But, as I like to do at Christmas, I want to linger a bit with the celebration and enjoy Easter for a while – after all there is still lots of chocolate at our house so I think there should also be some pensive moments to reflect on the story of Jesus and what the Easter event means for me.

The resurrection is central to the belief of Christianity yet for me it is an event filled with mystery. Someone asked me on Sunday, “Why did Mary not recognize Jesus? Was his face different?” One other time someone asked, “Where exactly did Jesus go between his death on the cross and his resurrection?” Others rightly ask, “What actually happened to a broken, beaten and dead body such that it could come back to life?” All very good questions and in my reflection the answer is always mystery. It is a mystery what happened and how it happened. It is much like the mystery of why we fall in love and who we fall in love with. The practical, physical questions are a bit of chasing down rabbit holes. The story is told, each version with its different emphasis, to point to the astounding love of God that brings life out of death. That answer is often not enough for our practical scientific mindsets but for me that is the wonder of the tale. Wonder and mystery combined to say that God works against all obstacles to bring about joy and hope and love. Yes, we are left with questions but life is filled with questions and I am content to leave those questions as unanswerable. I put my hope and trust in the story that God defeats hate with love and death with life.

Happy Holy Week.

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What it Feels Like Is …

Yes, they have arrived. Last Wednesday we waited at the Toronto Airport for two hours after their plane arrived and then we saw them in the flesh. After a year of emailing and video call visits we were able to see them in real life. It was an incredible meeting. There were 17 of us there – 12 of us from the church and five of my family members who came to join in the fun. We had Canadian flags, posters saying welcome, flowers and a red-bedecked teddy bear. When Hassan, Berivan and Pella finally came through the sliding doors we hooted and hollered and laughed and cried all at once! There were hugs and more hugs. It was quite the experience for all of us.

Since then many have asked if I am happy. Well, yes, I am happy about it. Others have asked how it feels and I have had to do an inventory of feelings. Happy – check. Grateful – check. Delighted – check. The list goes on and when I get to the bottom of things what I mostly feel is relieved. Relief that this little family of three who were living as refugees are now safely here in Canada.

They came to church Sunday morning, troopers that they are, and were quickly held in the warm embrace of the congregation. The love in the sanctuary was palpable as they stood at the front beaming at the crowd of people who made their move to Canada possible.

Many unknowns await them. Job opportunities, learning Canadian customs and habits, eating our food that seems so odd to them and the general feel of living in a foreign land. But right now we are all hanging on to the sense of relief, relief that they are finally here safe and sound.

As we rode the bus all the way back from Toronto Hassan kept saying, “Thanks God.” Thanks God indeed. Prayers answered. Hallelujah – what a relief.

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Never Giving Up

I have never really understood the poem by Emily Dickinson until this year. In 1862 she penned,
Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words, And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard; And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird That kept so many warm.

The idea of “a thing with feathers” in the soul, was always a curiosity to me. But this year I think I have experienced that.

As many of you know, like other Canadians, a group of us were stirred to action by the picture of the body of that little Syrian boy, Alain, who drowned with his brother as his family made an effort to escape Syria. We decided we had to do something. A team of us put our heads together and put some plans into place, money was raised very quickly. An application was submitted and we were matched to a family of three – mom, dad, infant daughter. Last year, on January 30th I received the first, of what would become a steady stream of emails. In that email Hassan introduced himself and his wife and daughter and attached a photo of them. We all thought they would be here within weeks. We were looking for housing, we were recruiting drivers, we expected them to be on a plane in no time. Little did we know how long the processing and screening takes. The mantra of a refugee could be, ‘hurry up and wait’.

Over the year Hassan and I have kept in regular correspondence through email and video conversations. He feels like a member of the family. My husband and I would sometimes have a video conversation while we were at the table eating lunch and it felt like he was right here with us. The eight hour time difference meant that often as it was the afternoon here they were home in the evening and we could chat and visit. At different times we each became discouraged wondering if the endless wait would come to an end. It was necessary on occasion to buoy each other up. When tragedy continued to strike his homeland and threaten his family he would become despondent. When information from our government was not forthcoming I would become frustrated. It was a seemingly endless year of encouraging one another that the process was working its ponderous way and we would see them in Canada soon.

It felt like something was in my soul, something with feathers, something delicate but persistent, something that would not give up, would not go away, despite the gale of doubt and misgiving. It felt like hope. Hope that one day something good would come of all this. And now it has. Their checks are done, their belongings sold and given away, their suitcases are being packed and their plane tickets are ready. They fly to Toronto next week. We are so grateful.

It has been a long year of waiting. A long year of tested patience and frustrating disappointment but finally hope is singing a new song and next week we will be at the airport to greet these new Canadians. Praise God.

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We Are Family!

Yesterday was Family Day here in Ontario so I have been thinking about family, what makes for family, how it is to be family etc. etc. Sister Sledge sang the words, “We Are Family, I got all my sisters with me…” and it sounded like a wonderful, exuberant, fun-filled experience and often family is. But, family can be hard work and difficult and sometimes families break apart.

I have been blessed, and I do count it a blessing, to have a close and supportive family. We get along and we enjoy being together. But sometimes challenges arise and conflicts and hurt feelings happen. We like each other but we don’t always agree on everything. Okay, I will admit it, sometimes we don’t always like each other either! Thankfully that feeling is rare.

Families come in all shapes and sizes and descriptions. I am glad that our province has a day to celebrate family and gives the day off work for many so that we can spend time together as family. I did that yesterday and it was a good day.

We often speak of the church as family although I had a professor once caution against that. He advised that many people have family issues that can be carried into congregational life especially if we encourage people to think of the congregation as family. He thought it better to use the word community as that word carried less “baggage”. I understand that approach but I think the word family can be a good descriptor of a congregation and, in fact, sometimes in congregations the way we treat each other (for good or ill) is more like family dynamics than community dynamics. Recently I was chatting with my sister. Our church experiences often come up in the conversation and we concluded, “Nobody can fight like church people.” And it is true. People are sometimes surprised that conflicts arise in church but it should not be a surprise. People’s faith and corporate experience of faith is very important to them. Passions run deep around this primal spiritual expression. It is no wonder that people get exercised when they feel their church lets them down and as a result their confidence and grounding is diminished. St. Paul wrote many of his first century epistles to congregations with the message to get along and urging them to resolve their conflict.

Facing negative feelings in family can be hard. Hard to admit to and hard to sort out but that is what it is to be a fully engaged human being. Working through the hard feelings can take us to a deeper spiritual place. Facing our anger, our disappointment, our failings and then forgiving ourselves and others can open us to a place for healing and a place for God. Family is the arena where this happens most often and is the place where we exercise our humanity to its fullest. It was Robert Frost who wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

Thank God for family. Whatever it looks like, wherever it is, however hard or joyous it is.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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