The anticipation of germination

I’m so excited! I just rented a venue for an event that I’ve been dreaming about for years. It is a momentous, and I hope life-changing, day.

In fact, the whole day has been unusual. I had trouble sleeping last night, but instead of fretting, I played relaxing music, lit scented candles, prayed and listened to Scriptures. I finally fell into a peaceful sleep, but unusually, I kept waking up through the night. When the sun rose, I did too. As a night owl who’d just worked a 14-hour day with late-night meetings, I’d really hoped to sleep later. But instead of flitting away those “found” hours, which I covet so much to accomplish more things, all I accomplished at dawn was writing in my gratitude journal from my prayer chair.

That start to my day was divine. I reflected on 25 things I was grateful for but hadn’t journalled yet, and finished with a prayer that God would use me to bless someone today. That felt great. I’ve noticed that lately I’ve been praying for God to help me with mundane things, whereas it’s much more exciting (and appropriate) to pray that I can help God accomplish God’s goals.

What a relaxing start to my morning that prayer time was! It helped me log into work unusually calm. I know it was the prayer, not the circumstances, since we’re at the crunch time of a 5-month late project, understaffed and overworked. I remained calm even as I looked at the red-coded statuses on our project update, and told my manager I predicted a 2-week delay in my conflicting deliverables.

But the important reason that this was a momentous day is that an idea I’ve been gestating for years is coming to fruition – in just 5 weeks. And it happened by accident. Let me tell you how.

Yesterday I brought my bike to the shop because the tuneup I got last month failed to fix the shifting problem. Today I picked it up. It’s unusual for me to get off work early enough to make it to the bike shop two days in a row, and today I managed to pick up, test drive, and return the bike to the shop before it closed. My calmness carried me through that setback too; instead of being angry that I have to come a third day in a row when my life is already too hectic, I was grateful that it wouldn’t require two more trips to drop off and pick up.

So I was in a good mood on the unexpected walk home. It allowed me to visit the local bakery where the server is so friendly she gave me a hug last time – that took care of dinner. It allowed me to visit the new gelateria I just noticed today, and discover a wonderfully refreshing grapefruit sorbet. When the intermittent raindrops turned to a downpour while the sun was streaming, it was so pretty I didn’t rue getting wet, just that I didn’t have a camera to capture the beauty! Then I went into the venue that turned the gestation into germination.

I notice this place every time I go to the grocery store. I dropped in once, and I’ve always meant to visit again. But not for this. Today is the first time I envisioned this place as being the site of the seminal event.

I hate talking about things and never doing them. I dreamed out loud about this event extensively on new year’s eve, and made a checklist. I spoke about it again this summer, and someone volunteered to help with the planning. The venue was the big missing piece. Today, it fell beautifully into place. There are so many wonderful details about it that I haven’t shared with you – how the owner and I had a heartwarming talk; how she’s personally impacted by the mission I’m trying to accomplish; how new friends bring new pieces to the puzzle; and how the energy this step is creating in me is a huge confirmation that this is what I’m meant to do. The reason it might be life-changing is that I hope it’s the first of many such events.

I prayed this morning that God would make me a blessing today, and I believe this is part of the answer. God allowed me to bless two strangers on the street as well, pray for my friend who went to the hospital instead of our lunch date today, and hire another friend for her new consulting business. Isn’t it fun to pray audacious prayers & get them answered? The gestation has just turned into germination, and I can’t wait to see its fruition!

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Grace on butterfly wings

I’ve made a renewed commitment to pray every day. I can’t manage life’s busyness and stress without prayer. And now that summer is here, I like taking my Bible to the garden or park, where I find it easier to connect with God, and disconnect from my to-do list.

Last week I was reading about the ancient Jewish tabernacle, an elaborate tent about 15 metres long. Its ceiling was a beautiful tapestry, embroidered with cherubim, or angels, in rich blues, purples, and reds. The cherubim symbolised more than the angelic beings that serve and worship God in heaven; they represent God’s protective covering of his creatures here on earth:

“I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings” (Psalm 61:4).

While I was reading, a butterfly landed on my book. Its wings were open, revealing the bright orange and black beauty of its inner wings. I watched its iridescent colours for minutes, not wanting to disturb it, or cause it to take flight.

Eventually I moved, and it flitted away. I was thrilled this winged creature alighted to illustrate this verse so beautifully. Smiling, I thanked God for the visitor, and read another verse:

“He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart” (Psalm 91:4).

The butterfly returned! Its face was turned towards me; I felt like it was looking at me, both of us curious and enjoying communion with another of God’s creatures.

I continued reading:

“How priceless is your unfailing love, O God! People take refuge in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 36:7).

The Psalmist may have had the tabernacle in mind when he wrote about being covered by God’s wings. As I reflected, I felt a gentle tickling on my knee. Slowly I leaned over and confirmed that my winged friend had returned. Now it revealed its outer camouflage, grey and brown spots, like the bark of a burled oak. I sensed that God gracing me with its presence, reminding me that no matter how gently, God’s presence is always with me.

Jesus also used the metaphor of wings when he said,

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, …how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matthew 23:37).

Not only are God’s wings symbols of safety and refuge; they’re images of maternal love. I felt God’s personal love for me that day, as my winged friend returned at least twenty times, a special sign of God’s presence with me. I believe God felt my communion with her, and my delight in her messenger.

Often, it seems, God’s presence is intangible, so it can easily go unnoticed. When life’s circumstances are challenging, we may even feel that God is absent or neglectful. But once in a while, as with the butterfly, God gives us a sign of God’s presence.

Did you notice that these verses don’t equate God’s presence with the lack of trouble? On the contrary, they reflect some pretty dire circumstances. God’s presence is most needed when we’re most in trouble. David shares that he wrote Psalm 57 when he had fled from Saul, the king who personally hunted him down for years, causing David to hide in caves in fear for his life:

“Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me, for in you I take refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed” (Psalmn 57:1).

I’m learning to trust that when circumstances are difficult, God is there. When life takes more than I can give, God is my strength. When storms come or enemies attack, God is my refuge. When God’s presence is iridescently colourful, I rejoice in the sighting. When God’s presence is tangible but invisible, I give thanks for inner sight.

God, open my eyes to both your tangible and intangible presence today, and help me share it like a butterfly on the knee of my friends.

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One of those days

You know the kind of day when you want to quickly mow the lawn before starting your taxes (last year’s, but who’s counting), and you bring down the compost since you’re going to the backyard anyway, and find the bin open because you wanted the rain to water it (which it did, copiously), so you seize the moment and stir it too? Then you notice the weeds around the bin are multiplying like crazy and about to drop seeds, so you decide to quickly pull them (after all, a stitch in time saves nine), but you stop yourself before doing the whole garden because you’re supposed to be mowing, so you get the lawn mower out (proud of your restraint), and notice there’s just one bolt left holding the handle to the bottom, so you decide you’d better buy bolts with lock nuts before you lose the last one in the grass. By now, you’re too hungry to do all that first, so you go in to grab a bite before you go buy bolts, and since you’re out anyway, you pop in to get an orange, because that everlasting tofu you had for lunch, and dinner, and lunch again is still not finished (the first manufacturer to realise that single people eat tofu too will make a killing), because then you can finish it tomorrow with a nice waldorf salad but you won’t have time to go shopping tomorrow, and you (proudly) buy just 3 things because your mission is to mow that lawn, and with laser focus you leave your milk on the porch when you get back because by then the motion sensor lights are going on and you need install those bolts and mow the lawn in the dark like you meant to hours ago?

I’m having one of those lives.

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Happy Easter!

Christ is risen!

In our tradition, we respond, “He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!” And we joyfully proclaimed it this morning!

I feel blessed to overflowing. This weekend I went to four different churches, using the different expressions of prayer, praise, and worship to lead me more deeply into Jesus’ paschal journey.

On Maundy Thursday, we sat at the table where Jesus shared his last meal with his friends, celebrated the Jewish passover, and remembered that Jesus is our passover lamb.

On Friday, we walked with Jesus to the Golgotha, helping him carry the cross, and wiping his brow. We also envisioned Jesus in our lives, guiding us to help others, and giving us the strength to do so.

On Saturday we held vigil, mourning Jesus’ death, which extinguished the light of the world. Then slowly, the Christ candle flamed into life, lighting our own candles to shed light on our path. Finally, the “bright and morning star” rose, eclipsing the sun with its brightness. Jesus did not die — death died! Our bodies may cease to exist, but our souls never will!

Today, we celebrated Jesus’ resurrection at church. I wept for joy at the gift of God’s salvation! What love compelled Christ to die for me? How could God so love his servant that he was willing to sacrifice his son — especially since my rejection of God is what made the sacrifice necessary? It’s unfathomable! Thanks be to God, he fathomed it, then did it.

I actually spent most of this Easter alone. It’s the first time I didn’t have a family dinner; instead, I celebrated a Seder with only one member of my family. In the last three years, I buried my father, then my mother. I have no husband, no children, and no immediate family in my city. I didn’t have anyone to celebrate Easter with today except friends at church and God, yet it was glorious! I sang all day! I wasn’t lonely or sad.

On Thursday, I prayed that God would help me enter into Easter and journey it with him. I confessed that I hadn’t kept my intention to pray more throughout lent (deciding to add something in, instead of giving something up), and that I didn’t feel prepared for Easter. Thank God, he answered my prayer.

His presence was so sweet this morning, I knelt in our Baptist church while everyone around me stood. We don’t kneel in public, but I couldn’t keep from doing it. I also lifted my voice (and my hands) in joyful celebration; it was glorious! I continued singing all day; my heart is overflowing.

Thank God, just as Jesus never experienced sin but took it on for us, we who have never known its absence can have it removed from us. This is just a glimpse of its fulfillment in heaven, but just to glimpse it is awesome! No earthly joy can compete with the joy of God’s presence. And the presence is also a gift. So is the faith that it is possible, the will to believe, and the desire to follow God. All of it is a gift. We bring nothing but the acceptance of the gift — God leaves that up to us. And after our first faltering step God runs to us, and continues to walk with us all the way home. The way leads to our mortal death, and that is scary, but it’s way less scary when you know God is with you. As God’s presence grows stronger, so does the joy that the curtain will finally be lifted, and we will finally be with God, face to face. Mom exemplified this joy strongly when she died.

The perception that death means God is forsaking us is false. It’s not death that makes God leave us; it’s sin. And God will come quickly when we call on him. I’ve called on God many times. When I ask “Why?,” God is silent. When I cry, “Help!,” God comes quickly. Quite literally, he’s dying to come to us. Why don’t ask him to today?

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Easter Saturday

It’s Easter Saturday — the day after we commemorate the death of Jesus. Jesus is in the grave. It’s the Sabbath, the day of rest, so his friends cannot embalm him, or prepare for a funeral — it would go against Jewish law. But how necessary was that enforced rest for them. They must have been exhausted with shock and grief.

Just one week ago they had danced in a joyful parade, ushering Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey — the sign of a king coming in peace. Throngs of people lay palm branches before him, singing, “Hosanah! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

But now he was dead. How deeply they must have grieved when they saw Jesus die on that cross — and with him, their hopes of the kingdom of God. Jesus had often talked to them about God’s kingdom, saying it was at hand, it was near. They took this literally, envisioning him overthrowing the Roman occupation and becoming the new King of Israel, like his forefather David. (Lately, Jesus had often also told them that he must die, then would be resurrected, but it was such a crazy story they didn’t take it literally; it just washed over their heads.)

So it was into an appropriately darkened church that I entered on Saturday night, to continue retracing the paschal events of the first Easter long ago. Only street lights shining into the stained glass windows illuminated our path to the pews. People waited quietly, prayerfully, until the choirs lifted up a lament. In the dark, we relied on the choir and cantor to lead us. We were without light, without direction, in solidarity with the mourning disciples.

Then the priest lit a fire to give us light. From it he lit the Christ candle, from which were lit all of our tapers. The dim light allowed us to find our way gingerly, joining in the words of the prayers and hymns by candlelight. The light got brighter and brighter as we approached morning, when Jesus arose from the dead. The physical light mirrored the spiritual light, which that great and glorious morning shed on our path. Jesus, the light of the world, throws the world, dark in its understanding, into spiritual light.

Around midnight, when we relived the resurrection of Jesus, choirs, cantors and organ rose in tumultuous praise. Before and behind us, voices rose in victory; the congregation rang bells and song, giving God the glory! Priests and deacons took their tapers, and reignited all the candles that had been extinguished in sorrow. Our hearts burned within us with the renewed light of Christ.

“Oh death, where is your victory? Oh hell, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory'” (The Bible, I Corinthians 15:55-57, 54).

Praise be to God!

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Good Friday

It’s Good Friday, the day Christians remember the death of Jesus. To remember more vividly, I prayed the stations of the cross at a Catholic church. The prayers led us in imagining ourselves as bystanders of Jesus as he carried his cross to the place of his execution, then envisioning Christ’s presence in our daily lives and relationships. At the end of the prayers, we made our way to the cross, kneeling before Christ to pray our silent prayers.

One of the fundamental practices of the Christian life is reflecting on the unseen to hone our spiritual eyesight in order to see the “upper story,” as Randy Frazee calls the spiritual dimension of life. We’re often only tuned into the “lower story,” or human dimension, of our life. Visioning prayer is one of the ways I find most helpful to do remember there is a spiritual dimension to everything. Without this awareness I often incur spiritual losses for trivial temporal gains. That’s not how I want to live.

Meanwhile, at the Anglican church, they slowly darkened all of the lights and extinguished all of the candles, then kept the sanctuary open for private prayers all night. This allows people to “watch with Christ one hour,” as he asked his closest friends to do that night in the garden of Gethsemane. It’s poignant to read how fervently Jesus needed to pray for the strength to face his suffering and death. The physical agony must have repelled his human self, but the spiritual agony Jesus faced by assuming the depths of human depravity was probably much more repugnant. Whereas we cannot imagine freedom from pride, pleasure, leisure, prestige, lies, greed, anger and violence, this would be the first time Jesus experienced any of these faults. If you read the creation story, these are what caused the separation — more like the impassible chasm — between God and humans. Before sin, God used to walk and talk with humans, face to face. Whether that’s literal or metaphorical is beside the point that God is holy, we are not, and we need to be purified to approach Almighty God. These faults were laid on Jesus so he could atone for them on the cross, exchanging our sinfulness for his holiness.

Jesus’ most anguished cry on the cross was, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” It wasn’t because Jesus was being killed that Christ felt forsaken by God. In fact, that cannot be why, for as hard as that was, God and Jesus agreed “from the foundation of the world” that if people should break fellowship with God through sin, they would provide the remedy of salvation. No, God was not forsaking Jesus in his death, He was accomplishing salvation together with Jesus through it. So why did God forsake Jesus? For the same reason God forsakes us — because a holy God cannot partake of the sins that Jesus now bore. Jesus had never felt the separation from God, just as we have never felt its absence. And now Jesus felt the weight of all sins, to full measure, all at once. It must have been horrible! Kind of like our daily existence — constantly wanting to please our heavenly Father, but never being able to. And on our own, we never will. We are in desperate need of that remedy Jesus was effecting — the end of our lonely, existential, separation from God.

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Maundy Thursday

It’s Maundy Thursday, or Holy Thursday in the Christian calendar — the beginning of Easter, our most sacred holy day. The whole weekend is devoted to remembering Jesus’ teaching, betrayal, death, and resurrection. From Thursday to Saturday, we will keep vigil, reading Biblical records of this weekend’s events over two millennia ago. We will pray, fast, repent, and remember. We do this to reground ourselves in God’s word, God’s love, God’s sacrifice for us, and the sacrifice that God requests of us. We are trying to live out John the Baptist’s prayer in our own lives — that Jesus increase, and we decrease.

I love Holy week, and am especially thirsty for it this year. The winter has been dark; my spirit feels dark. I’m like a bulb under the brown, lifeless earth — earth that is still frozen in my wintery Canadian home. I feel like I didn’t bloom last spring, nor the spring before that — the springs I watched my mother lose her life to cancer. So I’m desperate for this time to pray, read, rest, and remember; this time for rebirth.

Tonight we celebrated a Seder — the Passover meal Jesus shared with his friends on this historical night, long ago. We prayed the prayer of thanksgiving over the cup, then drank it, just as Jesus blessed the cup, then gave it to his friends to drink with him that Passover.

From pitchers of water on the table, we cleansed each other’s hands. It was poignant that we needed each other’s help to wash; we’re no more able to wash away the grime of life, than our sins, ourselves. As my sister poured water over my hands, I accepted it as water of cleansing, forgiveness, and grace for my faults. As I poured water over hers, I prayed forgiveness, grace and blessing over her. She heard my unspoken words; taking my hand in hers, we felt a renewed communion and love flowing through them. We prayed the blessing over family members we missed dearly at the table.

How powerful the image, indeed, the act of cleansing each other is! Jesus took this common ritual to a profoundly deeper level that Passover night. Even though he was Lord, he stripped himself of its title (and trappings), kneeling before his followers in a towel. The wrongness of this image so offended his disciple Peter that he vowed Jesus would never wash his feet! But Jesus insisted that if he didn’t let him wash him, he would share no part in him. Then Peter eagerly submitted, asking for a full bath to fully partake of his Lord! How vain my pride felt remembering Jesus’ servitude, and foreshadowed sacrifice. The image of cleansing remained with me all night.

We read how God delivered the slaves from Egypt; eating parsley dipped in salt for their tears, and spilling wine to lament the death of the Egyptians, we prayed for the deliverance of modern-day slaves.

We broke the matzot, remembering Jesus’ body, broken for us, and drank the fruit of the vine, remembering Jesus’ blood, shed for us.

We sang a hymn, and blessed the Lord with the ancient words of the Jewish Passover Haggadah, “I will bless the L-rd at all times; His praise is always in my mouth. The ultimate conclusion, all having been heard: fear G-d and observe His commandments, for this is the whole of man. My mouth will utter the praise of the L-rd, and all flesh shall bless His holy Name forever and ever. And we will bless the L-rd from now and forever; Halleluyah praise G-d.”

Driving home, my heart overflowed with gratitude. Reflecting on the evening, I recognised how deeply I need to reflect and re-member, that is, to re-join my spiritual and physical actions, re-connect with my family, re-new my soul. A long-forgotten memory came to mind, of visiting an oasis in the deserts of Kenya. After 7 hours bumping down a dusty dirt path beside a paved road (because it was smoother going than the deeply potholed road), we emerged into an oasis in the desert. This man-made oasis grew where our friends helped Somali nomads plant trees for fruit and shade, vegetables to supplement their diet, giving sustenance to people whose land and bones were equally sun-baked and lean. The transformative ingredient was water, directed around the plantings by soil and concrete trenches. We laughed with the refreshment of grapefruits dripping down our chins, their coolness contrasting dramatically with the hot, plastic-tasting water in our jerrycans.  The farmers shared their pride and produce with us, with tales of how life-giving this oasis was. But walking through the garden, I noticed some trenches that were dry, silted with sand that prevented the water from flowing past it. Nothing on that side of the sediment flourished.

How like our lives are those gardens; how like our spirits are those trenches; how like the spirit of God is the water; how fruitful our lives are when it flows freely!

But how like the silt are our sins and sorrows. We can’t help our failings and frustrations, or prevent life’s sufferings or death. Sand gets blown in, kicked in, and sometimes thrown into our spirit-channels with our very own hands. We can no more prevent the muck of life from soiling our lives, than those farmers could prevent the winds of harmattan from blowing dust into those trenches.

No, we can’t prevent the silt, but we’re responsible for preventing the sediment that accumulates, preventing the water of God’s spirit from nourishing our lives. That’s because we each are part of God’s garden, and without all of our fruit, there won’t be sufficient sustenance for the world. We are each unique, but essential, plants in the garden.

How can we wash the silt away? By asking God (and others) for forgiveness quickly. By meditating on the Scriptures, remembering that our ways are not God’s ways. By nurturing God’s spirit within us, until it produces the tears, streams, rivers, and fountains that well up within us to wash away the silt. Then the silt will flow to the delta, fertilizing mangroves in which other life flourishes. Because by God’s grace, nothing is wasted — not even our failings and sorrows.

“Give thanks to the G-d of gods for His kindness is everlasting.”

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Walking on Water

We sang Hillsong’s Oceans (Where Feet may fail) on Sunday; it’s a beautiful song about following Jesus onto the water. It alludes to the passage when Jesus walked past the disciples on a stormy sea, while they struggled against the wind in a boat (Matthew 14, Mark 6, John 6).

Envisioning the scene, Jesus is on the lake; I’m on the shore. If I’m going to follow Jesus, I’m going to have to get my feet wet.

Why do we avoid so strongly getting our feet wet, or our hands dirty? We seek so carefully to remain at the least safe, and more often, comfortable.

Jesus is on the lake; I’m on the shore. If I’m going to follow Jesus, I’m going to have to get my feet wet.

Letting my mind enter the story which inspired the song, I sat down on the dry ground at the side of the sea of Galilee. Thirsty, and beginning to feel physically hungry after slating my spiritual hunger on the rabbi’s words all day, I lie back and close my eyes. Before realizing I’d fallen asleep, the family beside me said, “Ma’am? Ma’am? Would you like some bread?” Not just bread, but fish. Who had provided such a feast for strangers? Wanting to leave enough for those behind me, I took a small loaf and piece of fish. But the basket didn’t lighten; in fact, it seemed to replenish itself from a hidden oasis. Laughing, I took 4 loaves and 2 fish, enough to feed me now, plus sustain me on the long trek home. Everyone else was laughing too, eating, or once they’d finished, getting up and starting to dance. After watching for a few moments, I joined in. I’d never known such joy admidst a few fellow townspeople and hundreds of strangers! Not even at weddings was the party this festive!

The rabbi, too, shared our joy. When his disciples finished distributing the food (actually, it looked like they were collecting food), the women among them started singing. Joining hands, they formed a circle and started dancing clockwise. Soon the men formed an outer ring, passing the women in a counterclockwise whirl. For more than an hour songs broke out in one part of crowd, then another, as people expressed the joy that seemed be tangibly present – like a wedding guest who invited you to dance, and wouldn’t take no for an answer!

When night fell, I was one of the last ones to leave Jesus. As a woman, I knew I was vulnerable to any threat, but I feared no evil. Surely the grace of this day would burn in everyone’s heart forever, and I knew Jesus would protect me, although he was already disappearing up the mountain.

“So I will call upon Your name, and keep my eyes above the waves. When oceans rise, my soul will rest in Your embrace, for I am yours, and you are mine.”

The chorus reminded me of the next part of the scene. The disciples are in a boat, and they fear for their lives. Jesus is on the raging waves, and his faith allows him to overcome the laws of nature and walk on water. It’s not his divinity that allowed him to walk on water; remember, Peter walked on the water too, and Jesus chastised his lack of faith when he fell. So his faith must have enabled Peter to make those steps, and if he kept having faith, he could have kept walking. I’m not convinced that the miracle can be repeated without the physical presence of Jesus; I think we’d need to have him command us to walk on water in person before we could muster up enough faith to even try. But for a few moments, a human did! I applaud Peter’s faith, and empathise with his doubt.

For myself, I don’t want to stay on the metaphorical shore, safe and dry, debating whether or not we can walk on water. I want to follow Jesus! I hope he leads me by still waters and green pastures, but if he should clearly call, I want to be willing to “walk on water.” To me, that’s a metaphor for getting in over my head, tackling something that can only succeed with God’s miraculous grace. I want to be willing to get my feet wet, and if called, have the faith to go as deep as he asks. I’m afraid he’ll ask me to go in over my head. I might sink, but then again, I might find myself as buoyant as I do in salt water. Even in fresh water we are incredibly buoyant, but only when we relax. Relaxed, I can swim for hours. Fearful, I can drown in minutes.

If the weather gets rough, and I can’t keep my head above water, I think Jesus will help me learn to breathe water. As a scuba diver, trusting my tank was terrifying at first. Now, it enables me to see a beautiful underwater world that would otherwise be inaccessible to me. Maybe God gives us oxygen in new ways when we follow him into waters that are, humanly speaking, over our head.

Maybe God gives us oxygen in new ways when we follow him into waters that are, humanly speaking, over our head.

The most exciting ways I’ve walked into deep waters so far have been pursuing a career change into international development, and risking financial security to visit Africa to see how I can help. After stepping out willingly (but scared) on the first trip, I’m now impatiently waiting “on shore” for another chance to go. I’ve spent about a year in Africa so far, and I can’t wait to go again. I know it’s had a much greater impact on me than on the people I’ve gone to help, and I often fear the limitless needs will overwhelm me. Still, I want to hold whatever I have in “open hands,” trusting that as I give, God will lead others to meet my needs. It’s still scary, though. I trust more in the “5 loaves and 2 fish” on my paycheque, than I do that God will send more guardian angels my way. New friends have given me phones which helped me stay in touch from a lonely place, rides when my pockets were empty, free housing when I had no resources, and I made it through 3 months of surprises without an ATM in sight. It’s humbling to be in Africa and receive such generousity, but God does provide, and keeps teaching me that it’s safer in his hands without a safety net, than pretending my job or retirement plans are solid and secure. His will is the only safe place to be.

Come in, the water’s warm.

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Happy New Year! What are your hopes?

Last night as I shared a toast to the new year with a friend, we shared our hopes for the coming year. We both plan to finish house projects to enjoy peaceful surroundings where we can enjoy entertaining more, but our truest hopes go deeper. He wants to find a perfect-for-him, God-inspired way to give to people. I want to implement some of the ideas that I already have.

2013 was a hard year. I lost my mom, the family matriarch, after a very brave battle with cancer. So it was a year of drawing in the family circle, surrounding and caring for mom, then taking care of innumerable details after her death. They should finally be finished by this March. That means that 2014 can be a year of widening the circle, reassessing my priorities, and investing in new adventures.

In contrast to my friend, I don’t need the right opportunity to arise; I have numerous opportunities already, and I have to stop imagining new ones until I’ve finished the ones that exist. Three ideas keep invading my imagination and delighting me with promise, so I’ll focus on those. Timing dictates that I pursue one of them first.

This May, as I have for the last 4 years, I’ll visit Kampala, Uganda, as a board member for ISIS-WICCE (WICCE stands for Women’s International Cross Cultural Exchange). ISIS-WICCE is a little known, but high-impact organisation that focuses on leadership development for women working on peace and post-conflict development. Their two-year International Leadership Institute bears wonderful fruit, such as enabling 15 of South Sudan’s first members of parliament to successfully run for office after the birth of the nation. However, the research that its participants conduct is documented, then published, in paper format. This restricts it to hardcopies in Kampala, the researcher’s country, and our academic, governmental and non-governmental networks, primarily in Africa.

As an ICT consultant, I am thrilled by the challenge of helping cash-strapped NGOs even conceive of the idea of digital data collection in the field (ICT stands for “information and communication technologies,” if you’re not familiar with the term). I’m even more excited by the prospect of sharing the research results globally in an online open data format. When I shared the dream of end-to-end digital data sharing at our last board meeting, it was enthusiastically received; now is the time to begin the implementation. It will be extremely challenging. The board members have greater digital access and skills than our NGO partners, yet our chairperson is restricted to a shockingly slow Internet connection in Liberia, and we haven’t managed to use an intranet or Skype to carry on our work digitally so far. If enabling digital data collection for our participants is going to happen, I’ll have to do to a proof of concept and train the staff in Uganda, while doing my day job from there via an SMS modem. I’m thrilled at the possibility! My motto is “have laptop will travel,” and my job affords me the freedom to do so. However, I haven’t had the opportunity to make longterm trips recently, and I miss the excitement of being in the field. It’s also a perfect continuation of my Nigerian field research on video as a medium for digital data dissemination. Mostly, however, I am excited because the research data is like buried gold, and the opportunity to help “mine” it for action is priceless.

That’s the idea that I want to bring to fruition in 2014. There are so many challenges, starting with clearing my schedule to research the best multilingual, platform-agnostic data collection tool, then the logistics of finding housing in Uganda and managing a busy work week on top of the project. Next will come fundraising for the devices, building a prototype,  and training the participants to use the technology. More challenges will arise as we enter implementation, support the grassroots researchers remotely, and start disseminating the data, but those will come later. Step one is sufficient for now.

What are your hopes for 2014? If you’re like me, you may have to pick just one. You may have to start with one small step, ignoring the future challenges until you get there. And like me, I think you’ll experience the joy that I’ve found by beginning to do something that you’ve just been dreaming about so far.

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Expectant Hope

It’s advent, the season of expectant waiting. In my life, the spirit of Christmas doesn’t magically appear anymore. I veritably bristled when I saw my first retail Christmas display just after Hallowe’en, luring us to buy, buy, buy our way into the Christmas spirit. It hadn’t yet awoken when the keen neighbour’s decorations went up, and was barely stirring when the easy-listening station switched to all Christmas music. So I’m nurturing expectant hope this advent by creating space for it. I’ve strung up the lights, tuned into the Christmas station a few times, but what expands my advent-space widest is sitting in my prayer chair, lights low and music soft, reading advent devotions nightly.

This weekend I’m definitely celebrating an advent theme. I enjoyed a medieval musical Christmas show Friday, there’s a candelight carol sing Sunday, and tonight’s delight was attending Jeanine Noyes‘ “He is Here” concert. Jeanine is a gifted singer/songwriter, and she brought us to joyous ecstacy, then quiet reflection, with her melodious voice and talented band. But the most profound moment for me was when Dale Yim performed Tom Carson’s poem, “Snow Angel.” Snow melted on my tongue like the eucharist – how profound! But instead of Tom’s imaginary priest, I envisioned God serving us communion personally, the vaulted ceiling of his cathedral shimmering with snowflakes. Almost too small and fragile for us to glimpse with naked eye, the splendor of each flake fills the night sky with diamonds! The hush they create is loquacious – as Tom put it, I wish I spoke star… Then God bends down and serves us communion… my heart explodes visualising the image.

God, we long to see you! At advent, we remember when it was once possible; the expectant hope is that we’ll have that chance again. We wish it was with our eyes, but I think you hide yourself from eyes so we’ll learn to see you with other senses. Help us see you in your creation. Let us envision you playing in Orion’s nebula, behind the stardust so we can’t make you out. Let us notice your handiwork in the intricacy of snowflakes, and how colourfully you decorate ocean depths. You don’t paint them for human enjoyment, but solely for your delight. Especially, God, help us to recognise you in human faces, where you breathed the spirit of God when you created us in your image. Help us not scar our (and others’) faces with the blows of life; help us wash off the dust so your spirit glows.  But mostly, God, help us recognize you in others. Readily, warmly, embracingly.

As I’ve explored my longing to see God tonight, and my desire to have my expectant hope fulfilled physically, I’ve remembered that God is indeed visible to me every day – he’s just in a different body, rather a multitude of bodies, than the one he incarnated millenia ago. Then, we could see him face to face, but in just one time and place. Now, we can experience him more closely, all the time, if there is room in the inn of our hearts for him.

Peace of Christ to you this Christmas.

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