Friday, February 24, 2017

Five Minute Friday: SLOW

Today I'm linking up with Kate Motaung for Five Minute Friday. This week's word is SLOW.


Richard and I have been watching the Lord of the Rings movies this past week (something I would highly recommend, by the way). In one scene, two little hobbits named Merry and Pippin have escaped their evil captors and taken refuge among the Ents, who are like huge, gnarly trees that can move and talk. The hobbits urge the senior Ent, Treebeard, to gather the other Ents and take action to fight their foes.

But the Ents are ..... SO .... VERY .... SLOW.

Merry grows impatient with their lengthy deliberations. When he asks if they have made a decision, Treebeard says, "No ... We only just finished saying ... good morning."

Merry cries, "But it's nighttime already. You can't take forever. We're running out of time!"

When the Ents finally act, they are strong and fierce -- but it takes them SO LONG. It's hard for Merry to understand why, when the stakes are so high, they don't move more quickly and decisively.

A couple of months ago our pastor gave a sermon on John 11, highlighting this sentence in verse 6: "When Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days."

That's a strange decision too, on the face of it. Lazarus and his sisters are close friends of Jesus. As our pastor pointed out, most people, when they hear a loved one is at death's door, drop what they're doing, pack their bags, and rush to be with the person; they don't hang around for two more days before acting. 

Lazarus's sisters' response when Jesus does arrive shows how bewildered and hurt they are by his sense of timing: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."

But Jesus has another, higher purpose, as the rest of the chapter shows: Lazarus does die, but Jesus brings him back from the dead. It is an incredible miracle that demonstrates Jesus' power and authority and brings even greater glory to God than preventing Lazarus's death in the first place would have.

I think in our culture we have made an idol of speed -- and not just in obvious ways like high-speed internet or fast cars. When a pressing issue arises, so often we want others to respond instantly, in the exact way we expect them to. And if they take time to deliberate or their priorities don't seem perfectly aligned with ours, we can be so harsh and judgmental.

Maybe we need to stop worshipping at the altar of FAST. Maybe we're not running out of time. Maybe, as Jesus and the Ents show, there is actually plenty of time to take it SLOW and still accomplish what needs to be done.


Thursday, February 23, 2017

Swan signs

 photo Hinterland Who's Who

It has been a tough week. Jonathan was a little under the weather late last week, but he was well enough to go to school; then on the weekend he had a fever and slept most of Saturday away. He seems to be feeling better now, but he also seems to have this general crankiness hanging on that is really difficult to deal with.

Tuesday morning before school, he refused to eat breakfast. This is becoming a habit with him, and it's worrying: for a teenage boy to head off to school with no food in his tummy is not good, especially if he'll be doing something high-energy like going to the Y for fitness or swimming, as he often does with his EA. Lately he's slightly more inclined to eat breakfast if Richard prepares it for him -- but Rich was working that day, so no go.

The half hour before school was miserable. Our conversation went like this:

"Swimming pool."
"Yes, you're going to the swimming pool."
"Swimming pool."
 "Yes, you're going to the swimming pool."
"NO SWIMMING POOL!" (Enraged voice.)
"Yes! You're going to the swimming pool."
"Play beach ball."
"Yes, you can play with the beach ball with Matt at the pool."

"Play beach ball."
"Yes, beach ball."
"NO BEACH BALL!" (Enraged voice.)

.... over and over and over again. It's so tiring when, no matter what answer I give -- even positive reinforcement of what he's just said -- he screams angrily in response.

Just before 8, we went outside to wait for the bus. The back-and-forth continued, and I kept checking my watch: where WAS that bus, anyway?

Suddenly Jonathan said, "Geese!" He loves watching geese fly over, and he always sees and hears them long before I do. The honking didn't seem quite right, though. We looked up, and what we saw were three trumpeter swans flying overhead. I've never seen them in flight before, nor heard the sound they make. They were so big, and so beautiful and majestic.

After Jonathan had left on the bus, I thought again about those three swans. Maybe they had a message for me. Maybe they were Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, flying over our house and blessing it, letting me know I'm not alone in these exhausting and frustrating times.

But then I had second thoughts. 

Why am I imposing meaning on a simple, natural event? They were just birds, doing what birds do: flying. Why am I interpreting their appearance as some comforting personal message? And if it is a symbol, maybe it's a symbol of something else: abandonment, for instance. Maybe the fact that those swans flew over without even a glance in my direction means that God's left me on my own. (And let's not even speculate on what it would have meant if they'd pooped on me.)

And if I take swans as messages from God, then am I any better (or worse, for that matter) than the person who sees a feather on the ground and interprets it as a message from their dead relative, who collected feathers? You see how these things can get out of hand.

If I'm honest, I know the swans didn't mean anything. And I do believe in my heart that God is with me, so I don't want to become dependent on swan sightings to shore up that belief.

But they didn't mean nothing, either. They were a sign.

... A sign that life is beautiful.

... A sign that marvelous things happen every day, things that are both miraculous and commonplace at the same moment. Huge, graceful creatures can soar above above the treetops; that's amazing!

... A sign that there is a world beyond my immediate concerns, and that stepping out into it can shift my perspective and cause me to see things I'd otherwise miss. Jonathan and I were outside at the right moment to see something we'd never seen before.

 I want to stay open to those signs, even when things are difficult.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Five Minute Friday: WEAK

I'm linking up with Kate Motaung for Five Minute Friday;  today's word is WEAK.


As I mentioned last time, I teach an online course in essay-writing at Queen's University. A couple of weeks ago I was checking email on a Sunday afternoon and saw a message from a student who wanted me to look at her plans for the assignment she was working on, due the next day. It quickly became clear that this student needed some help to get on the right track. I made a few suggestions that I hoped would help her clarify her ideas so that she'd ultimately do much better on the assignment.

A little while later I received this reply:

"Thank you for taking time out of your Sunday afternoon to point out these flaws of mine."

She wasn't just grateful that I'd gone out of my way to accommodate her on a weekend ... she was grateful to have her flaws pointed out. 

And not only that: she asked for it! 

I don't make a point of asking others to comment on my weaknesses, at least not often. I do share my writing with my writers' group, and I try to welcome critical comments as well as praise -- but in general I find criticism painful, so I don't go around inviting others to "point out these flaws of mine."

Maybe I should, though. The Bible says that God's strength is perfected in weakness (II Cor. 12:9) and that God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the strong (I Cor. 1:27). 

So maybe I should be more open to recognizing my own weaknesses so that I can be more aware of the exact places in my life that God is showing his strength and power.



Friday, February 10, 2017

Five Minute Friday: SAFE

Today I'm linking up with Kate Motaung for Five Minute Friday. Today's prompt word is "SAFE."


I teach an online course in essay-writing at Queen's University here in Kingston. When I checked my email first thing this morning, there was the weekly electronic newsletter from the university -- and the first words that appeared at the top were "Providing a Safe Haven."

This is how the article with that headline began:

Queen’s announced today a number of additional measures to assist students and academics impacted by changes in entry and transit policies announced two weeks ago by the United States.

“As a university, it is our collective responsibility to do what we can to assist those in need,” says Principal Daniel Woolf. “By offering a safe haven for those impacted by this policy to continue their studies or their research, we are reaffirming the values of inclusion, diversity and equality that are central to our mission as a modern institute of higher education.”

I got thinking about what I do as an instructor to make my course a safe haven -- not only for those affected by the travel policies, but for all students.

One thing I have been doing this term is revising our course policy on gendered pronouns. Up to this point, I would have told students (and instructed my TAs to tell students) that a sentence like "A student must do their work" is wrong, because "student" is singular and "their" is plural. And I would advise revisions like "A student must do his or her work" to include both sexes.

*** (here's where the 5 minutes ended, but I had a bit more to say) ***

However, times are changing. Some students do not self-identify as male or female, so they don't consider "his or her" a helpful or accurate alternative. Usage in this area is undergoing a shift in the culture in general; the university has an express policy statement on this very matter.

So I'm changing our course material to reflect this shift, and I'm encouraging students to write in a way that acknowledges it as well. I want them to know that grammar is not more important than people, and that learning to write well is more than just knowing the rules.

I realize this is a hot-button issue for a lot of people, particularly Christians. And I don't see a direct commandment in the Bible about how I should handle a situation like this. There isn't much there about grammar, usage, or noun-pronoun agreement.

But when I rewrite this material, I feel as if I'm serving my students -- treating them the way I'd want to be treated. Maybe I'm making just one student feel a little safer.

Monday, February 06, 2017

My poem, "duplication on chromosome 16," published at ALTARWORK

Today I'm honoured to have one of my poems, "duplication on chromosome 16," published at ALTARWORK, a beautiful site that features Christian writers and artists.

This poem is very near to my heart. I always describe it this way: "It's not science, and it's not a sermon; it's a psalm."

Click HERE to read it.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

What's saving my life right now?

In the introduction of her book An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor talks about how she was once invited to speak at a church in Alabama. She asked the priest what he would like her to speak on, and he replied, "Come tell us what's saving your life right now." Taylor says, 

It was as if he had swept his arm across a dusty table and brushed all the formal china to the ground. I did not have to try to say correct things that were true for everyone.... All I had to do was figure out what my life depended on.

Today Modern Mrs. Darcy is having a "What's saving your life?" linkup on her blog. Early February--when the glow of Christmas is past and spring seems a long way off--seems to be a suitable time for this kind of stock-taking, so I thought I'd join in and write about the things that come to mind when I ask myself, "What's saving my life right now?" 

They're not dramatic, earth-shattering things, really; I don't want to give the impression that I'm dangling off the edge of a cliff by my fingernails. But life can be stressful. And we all have things, big and small, that make us feel strengthened, encouraged, and grounded. Here are a few of mine.

1.  Writing poetry. I've found it hard to immerse myself in big writing projects these past few months, but I have been doing quite a bit of work on my poetry. I've been using Tanya Runyan's book How to Write a Poem as a guide to help me generate and revise my poems. Poetry is a slow art that involves a lot of revision and constant tweaking of a word here, a line break there. It's hard to get it just right, but it's a great feeling when it "clicks." To me, writing poetry is the perfect combination of relaxation and hard work.

2. Pizza night. We've been doing this every week for years, usually on Saturday night. When the kids were small it used to be just Richard and me, but now Allison joins us: we eat after Jonathan's gone to bed. We have homemade pizza with dough made in the bread machine, topped with oven-roasted turkey (the kind you get thin-sliced in deli packages; we like this as an alternative to ham), tomatoes, pineapple (actually we keep one quadrant pineapple-free for Allison), and cheese. While we eat we watch one Andy Griffith Show episode; then we have ice cream; then we play a game. When the pizza is in the oven and I start to smell it baking, I just go, "Ahhh." It's such a comforting, cosy routine.

3. Extend-a-Family. Extend-a-Family is a great local organization that provides respite day programs for special-needs kids and adults. Jonathan has been going to their programs for seven or eight years now. He attends their summer camp, Christmas camp, March Break camp, and a couple of Saturday programs a month. This week he's been going to EAF every day because it's high-school exam week, and his school program doesn't run. EAF is a real home-away-from-home for Jonathan, and we're so grateful for it. It's great for him to have something structured to attend when his regular activities are disrupted. At left is a picture of Jonathan with Nick, his best friend from camp.

4. My OneNote notebook in MS Office. I was just thinking the other day how useful this application is. I rely on it particularly for the online course I instruct: I use it at least 10 times a day to keep track of students' marks and progress, make lists of things I want to edit or update in future courses, and file information from various campus sites and services that pertain to my course. In other folders in the notebook I keep recipes, lists of songs I've used when leading my women's study group worship time at church, favourite quotes, cover letters I've written for submissions to literary journals, books people have recommended to me .... and more. There are probably lots of other great notebook programs out there, but this is the one I use. I'd be a lot less organized without it.

  5. Flannel-lined pants. Seriously: I got these pants on sale at Mark's Work Wearhouse and they are so cosy! I walk a lot in winter for exercise, and sometimes I don't want the bulk of snow pants, so these are perfect. They're a little long, so I can turn up the cuff to let the plaid show, Bay City Rollers-style.

6. Taking one day at a time. This may seem like a strange one; it's not like there's any alternative to living one day after another. But as a mindset, it helps me a lot. Just this week Allison was making plans to reactivate her university acceptance after deferring it for one year. She said the prospect made her feel stressed, but I reminded her that going to university is something you do one step at a time, not all at once. And that's true of all of life. I'm a worrier, so I try to live out all the steps in advance and anticipate all the potential problems and their solutions -- but in fact I can only live from one moment to the next. I can only take one step and then another, not all the steps at the same time.  

One of my favourite Bible passages says that God's mercies never fail and are "new every morning." (Lamentations 3:22-23) This encourages me because so often I go to bed feeling discouraged, like I've really blown it -- especially with my kids. But grace is in fresh supply every day; it doesn't drain away at the end of the day, forcing me to scrounge for it tomorrow. When I realize that God's grace is abundant, renewed fresh every day, I can go forward into that day.

What about you? What's saving your life right now?