Violin Lessons

I closed my eyes and let the sound of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons bloom around me, the hisses and pops of the record player almost loud enough to be felt. Mom said yes! I smiled to myself. After years of wanting to play the violin, years of begging my mom to get a violin, years of being told to practice the piano instead… my mom had just told me that I would be getting a violin for my birthday. I leaned into the music… letting the trilling sounds of the bird float around me. Soon that will be me, I thought. Soon I’ll be strumming away, bow sweeping through the air, fingers flying. 

 


 

I sighed and let my arm fall to my side, holding my violin with just my chin. Learning to play was harder than I’d thought. Even after a year of lessons, when I practiced for long periods of time, I would just need to shake out my arm and give it a rest. My thumb absentmindedly caressed the small calluses that had formed on the fingers of my left hand. There were signs that I was growing. I could play hymns from the psalter hymnal now, the big songbook that we used in church. My dad could even sing along with me when I did so. 

“Beth! Mom says dinner’s ready!” my younger sister Karianne called from downstairs. Reluctantly I put down my violin. I would need to finish practice after dinner. I hadn’t yet mastered the new hymn I was learning. Four flats! I thought in annoyance. Why did they print the song in Ab? I thought. I carefully laid my violin inside its case. Even though I would be back right after dinner and dishes, I still took the time to gently and lovingly wipe the excess rosin powder off my violin and loosen the horsehair strings of my bow.

 


 

“Beth, get your shoes on! We need to leave now!” Hearing my mom’s voice, I quickly shoved the book I was reading into my backpack. It would get taken away if I kept reading it and didn’t get ready to go right away. 

“How long does it take to get to St. Thomas, Mom?” I asked. My beloved violin teacher had gotten married and moved away during the summer. This was my first day with a new teacher. My mom had called around everywhere, trying to find someone good for me. This was the closest teacher we could find who came highly recommended. 

“It’s at least half an hour. And I’m exactly sure where it is. We need enough time in case we get lost.” Like me, my mom was a big fan of getting to places early. Maybe I had actually learned it from her. 

 


 

“My name is Pieter,” said the big man in front of me. I was a little shocked. My old teacher had been a petite blond lady, nothing like this hulking, hairy giant, speaking with a thick accent. I timidly entered the room and put my violin case down, opening it and starting to prepare it to play. Getting it ready was a calming ritual, a feeling as familiar as home. I picked up the violin, turned it over in my arm, and slid on the shoulder rest, all under the watchful eye of my new teacher. 

“No, not like that,” he said brusquely. His voice boomed in the quiet of the room, all blank wooden walls. I looked up, puzzled. This is how I always put on the shoulder rest. How can I be doing that wrong? It feels right when the violin is on my shoulder! 

Pieter’s large hands picked up the violin from mine, surprisingly deft, and he slid the shoulder rest around an infinitesimal amount. “See?” I did not see how his position was any different from mine. 

Carefully, I laid the violin on the table beside the case. I flipped open the small compartment and grabbed the block of rosin, and then turned the piece of plastic holding my bow in place in the top of the case. For a moment I juggled both the bow and rosin while trying to tighten the hairs on my bow. I was flustered, being watched with Pieter’s eagle eye. Suddenly each step of the routine felt awkward and new, not the familiar friend I was used to. What are you doing, Beth? I asked myself, annoyed. You should be able to do this in your sleep!

Pieter watched as I tried to complete the task. I could feel the heat creep up in my cheeks and knew my face was turning red. I finally put the block of rosin down on the table, grasping my bow in both my hands. I turned the metal end 8 times, like usual, then tested the springiness of the horse hairs, pressing them against the back of the bow. Perfect, I thought. I picked up the rosin again. 

“No, no.” I flinched involuntarily at the big voice in my ear. Again, Pieter reached for my bow. He loosened the hairs ever so slightly, then held the bow out in front of himself, analyzing it critically.  “Yes.” He nodded, looking very pleased with himself. “You see?” 

I did not see. How is that any different from what I had before? I wondered. I sighed internally, not sure what he was asking me to notice. I took the bow back into my hands, holding it my left, the block of rosin in my right. Swish, swish, swish, swish. The rosin sang its nearly imperceptible song as it swept along, up, down, up, down.  I put the block down. 

This time I was ready for the voice from behind me. “No. More here.” Once again, the bow was lifted out of my hands. Once again, he swiped rosin just along the end of my bow. Swish, swish. “Like so.” 

Each moment of the lesson continued as it had begun. I stood to play, feet planted, and lifted the violin to my shoulder. “No, move your foot like so.” I raised my right arm to sweep the box down. “No, lift your elbow like this.” Pieter asked me to play a G scale. Easy, I thought. First scale I learned! Now he’ll see that I can play. Pieter stopped me after two notes. “Your fingers. Why do they clench like this? Loosen them. Let them dance.” He picked up his own violin and his fingers danced up the fingerboard, bow sweeping through the notes of the scale. He finished with a flourish, the final notes ringing in the room around us. My chest tightened. I don’t sound like that yet, I thought. I took a deep breath, holding my violin with my chin and wiping my palm on the leg of my jeans. Take two.

Again, I was stopped three notes in. I could feel the tightness in my throat, the burning in my eyes that meant tears were on their way. I’m better than this, I thought. Why can’t he just let me play? Again, Pieter showed me a tiny change to make. The first tear slipped out of my right eye, and I felt its hot trail all the way down my cheek. I turned slightly away so that he would not see it trickle down. This time I made it to the top of the scale before being stopped. Again, Pieter demonstrated a change in bowing he wanted me to make. I lifted my violin and began, my eyes overflowing and tears streaming down both cheeks as I blinked and sniffled. At least I have the scale memorized, I thought morosely. I don’t need to look at any music.

“Why you cry?” Pieter’s voice cut through my silent pity party. 

I just stared for a moment. Because you are correcting me at every single step. Because apparently I can’t do anything right. Because this is my dream, but apparently it’s actually a nightmare. Because you don’t seem to see or care that I actually know what I’m doing! For a brief second I considered speaking these thoughts aloud, imagined hurling the words at him like little daggers of self-defense. But I knew that speaking would turn the tears trickling down my cheeks into actual sobs. Instead, I shook my head, angrily brushed away the tears from my cheeks, sniffed, and lifted my violin again, part defiance, part stubbornness, part desperation to just get through this lesson and then tell my mom I wanted to quit. 

The lesson seemed interminable. 

 


 

“Okay, Beth. Tell me once and for all why you’re crying.” My mom had asked several times during the drive home, but I had sat stubbornly, face turned to the window, tears trickling down my cheeks silently as the fields slid by outside of the van. My dad had asked too, coming to meet us when we arrived back home, the surprise showing on his face when I slid out of the van, refusing to talk, only going inside and lying down on my bed. Lunch was done, dishes were finished, and my mom had called me to the living room alone, away from all of my siblings. I knew I wasn’t going to get out of this one. 

“Because… because…” Immediately, the chest tightness, the ache in my throat, the sting in my eyes all rushed back in. “Because I actually CAN play the violin, and Pieter just wouldn’t let me!” I was now nearly shouting through my tears, great heaving gasps of air rushing in and out of my lungs between phrases. “Because he wouldn’t just let me play! Because every single thing I did was wrong! I thought I was good at that, but I’m not and I hate it and I never want to take lessons again and I don’t want to play ever again!” The last words came out in a rush and surprised even me. I knew even as I said them that they weren’t true. But my dreams of being a concert violinist seemed dashed, broken, lying in pieces on the floor around me. 

My mom sat back in her seat. A smile played around her lips. “Oh, Ashes,” she said, her favourite nickname for me. “You don’t take lessons for things you can already do! You take lessons because you need to learn something!”

“Yes, but he’s making me do all the things I knew already! I can’t do any of it right!”

“Does Pieter play better than Marijka did?” Mom asked thoughtfully. 

I flopped back in the couch, crossing my arms begrudgingly. “Yeah, but -” 

Mom cut me off. “Then he will teach you well.” She got up. Clearly in her mind the conversation was over. 

“But Mom! Didn’t you hear me? I can’t… actually… play!” I emphasized each word clearly, trying to stress the importance of this to my mom, who didn’t seem to understand. 

“Exactly, Beth. That’s why you’re learning. Why don’t you go practice what you covered in your lesson today before you forget the finer points?”

 


 

I picked up the violin out of my case, slipping on the shoulder rest just so. I twisted the end of my bow, gauging how much curve there was in it. The rosin swished across, up, down, up, down, up, down. I planted my feet, raised the violin, and began playing, the sounds of the Bach Minuet filling the air around me. It wasn’t Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, but four months with Pieter had me sounding better than ever. I would get there. With enough practice and hard work, I would get there. 

The Tractor: Farm Lessons, Life Lessons

“Beth, I think it’s time that you learned to drive a tractor.”

At those words, I jerked my head up to stare at my dad. No one else reacted strangely; this was a typical rite of passage for a 12-year-old farm girl. My brother reached over one of my sisters to grab the jar of strawberry jam, and my younger sister slurped orange juice, earning her a reprimand from my mother. My dad had finished the morning milking already, but the summer sun was still low enough in the sky to stream in through the kitchen windows, illuminating the dust motes floating through our old farmhouse.  It was just a typical farm morning for everyone else. For me, however, the world had suddenly shifted on its axis.

“What do you mean, drive the tractor?” I asked. The words were clear enough, and I wasn’t asking what they meant; it was the implication behind them that terrified me. 

My mom jumped in. “We need everyone pitching in today. Everyone’s been assigned a different job – unloading the hay wagons, stacking bales inside the barn loft, or feeding the calves. Even Karianne is helping by taking care of Emily.” Emily was the daughter of our neighbours, and we provided daycare for her. She was like a little sister to us. “So you’ll be driving the tractor and baler,” my mom finished up.

I gulped. Once my mom made an announcement, it was as good as done. There was no arguing with her. That didn’t always stop me from actually arguing, but an argument never changed anything. A sudden sense of foreboding made my stomach clench, and I dropped my half-eaten toast onto my plate. I wasn’t hungry anymore. 

Within twenty minutes my dad and I were outside standing at the tractor. Breakfast was finished, dishes were washed, and the workday was starting. 

“Hop on up,” my dad instructed me. 

The tractor loomed over me, and I reached to grab the steering wheel above to haul myself up, but then paused and turned. “Dad, wait,” I said. I knew it was my final chance to argue against this lesson since my mom wasn’t present. “I can’t drive the tractor. I’m… I’m too young for this.” My voice broke on the word young and tears began to fill my eyes, a show of emotion which only made me angry on top of already being upset. “I’m not old enough to drive yet, and I can’t… I can’t… I just can’t!” My last words came out in a sob; I was crying in earnest. I had a sense of terror about the tractor that I just couldn’t express, couldn’t define. 

“Beth, this isn’t as scary as you’re making it out to be. The tractor is easy.” My dad was the calm voice of reason. 

“But Dad.…” I couldn’t even argue back, just sort of sputter away, tears streaming down my face. My inability to argue for myself made me feel defeated.

“Beth, you’ve been driving the four-wheeler by yourself for years. Believe it or not, this is actually easier. Hop in, and I’ll show you.”

My dad’s quiet, steady voice calmed me enough to climb up in the tractor. I wiped away the tears from my cheeks and sniffled loudly, hoping against hope for a little last minute sympathy. None came. I settled into the worn seat, took a deep, shuddering breath to calm my nerves, and looked at my dad for my next instructions. 

“Put your foot on the clutch here.” I had to slide forward in the seat to actually be able to reach the clutch. I balanced my arms around the steering wheel that was twice the size of a dinner plate. 

My dad was continuing. “That’s both your brake and what you need to do when you shift. You’re going to push it all the way down, pull this gear lever here,” my dad was pointing beside the steering wheel, “and shift into the gear that you want. Then the tractor will start moving, and you’ll steer to where you want to go.”

“Where’s the gas?” I knew that on the four-wheeler I had to control the speed with my hand, using the throttle. 

“Nope, there’s no gas here.” My dad was shaking his head. “You’re just going to shift into gear, and the tractor moves itself.”

“Just like the lawnmower?” I asked, perking up a little. I had been mowing the lawn with a riding mower for four years or so, and it felt easy. The difference with the tractor was the size and the scary equipment it was towing.

“Exactly,” my dad confirmed. “Let’s shift into first gear to start, but then you’ll actually use third when we’re out in the hay field.” He slipped around behind the giant tractor wheels, climbed up the hitch, and stood on the back of the tractor behind the seat. 

Timidly I pressed my foot all the way down onto the clutch and kept it firmly planted while I pulled the gear shift down into first. Ever so slowly I decreased the pressure on the clutch until the tractor began to roll forward gently. We moved so sluggishly that I eventually lifted my foot all the way off, and we inched forward down the laneway. 

“That’s all there is to it, Beth,” my dad said from behind me. “Push down on the clutch so I can hop off.” I did as he said, and he climbed down. “We’re heading into the field now, and we’re going to use third gear,” my dad reminded me. “When you get to the end of a row, look back at me, and I’ll point to the row you’re going to loop around to next. You’re going to keep your right tire aligned with the row of cut hay, and the baler will pick it up perfectly. I’ll let you know when the wagon is full and we’re heading out of the field to trade out wagons at the barn. Any questions?”

I shook my head. This really was easier than I had thought. My dad walked back behind the baler and hopped up onto the empty hay wagon. I shifted into third gear and lifted my foot from the clutch, and we lurched forward into the hay field. 

An hour later, my dad was waving to me that we were finished. As we passed the house on the way to the barn where my older sisters were waiting to unload the wagon onto the hay elevator that would bring the bales up to the loft, my dad yelled at me to stop. He ran into the house and reappeared a few seconds later, camera in hand, trailed by my younger sister who was carrying Emily on her hip. I shifted into park and hopped out of the tractor to stand in front of the first wagon I had helped to bale. 

“You know, Beth,” my dad said after he had snapped a picture, handing the camera to Karianne to take inside, “you’re stronger than you think.”

“Huh?” I had no idea what my dad was talking about.

Nodding his head toward the wagon, my dad said, “You don’t like trying new things. But you’re smart and strong and capable. So be brave. Life will require you to do lots of new things. And you might think they’re too hard, but you can do them. This was easier than you thought it would be, right?”

I was too stubborn to admit that yes, it was easier than I had thought it would be. But those words stuck with me as we climbed back onto the tractor and wagon to finish our chores. 

 

Guatemala 2020

I don’t know when I first fell in love with travel. I didn’t leave Canada and the United States until 16, although I did travel quite extensively through my homeland before that. But even before my first trip abroad at 16, I dreamed of going to France. I’ll admit that I held quite a romanticised notion of France in my head, helped along by my beloved Beauty and the Beast. But visiting France along with several other European countries at 16 only whet my appetite. Once I started experiencing other cultures and countries, it seemed like I couldn’t get enough of it. 

Combine this with my passion for education, and teaching overseas seems like a natural fit. But it took a long time to have the right place, right school, right time where I feel certain that this is God’s plan and God’s timing for me, not just my own hopes and dreams. 

So… in case you missed it – in case you didn’t come here via a Facebook post – I am taking a leave of absence from my current job teaching in Canada, and I am moving to Guatemala in the summer of  2020 to teach English at a Christian school outside of Antigua. 

 

To tell you the story of how I got here, I actually want to use something I wrote in 2014. I had just finished the Camino, and I was given the privilege of leading staff devotions with my colleagues as we returned to school in August. (Remember, that means references to the present as you read is 2014!)

 


 

For we walk by faith, not by sight. II Corinthians 5:7

I walked alone through the dawning day as mist swirled around me. It was not quite light enough to see easily yet, and I was carefully searching for arrows that would tell me I was on the right path. In Galicia, the most western province of Spain, mist is commonplace in the early morning. Eventually the sun causes it to disappear, but the first few hours of my day were generally spent in mist. Particularly when I was walking alone, I was aware that a lack of attention might mean missing a turn off the path and result in getting lost somewhere in the Galician countryside.

Often during these misty mornings my mind would turn to Paul’s words in II Corinthians – we walk by faith, not by sight. This was my theme verse for my journey, and it was literally true for parts of the Camino. There were times I would be walking for a while without seeing an arrow or waymark, but trusting that I was still on the right path. Or there would be places where the arrows seemed to point away from the direction that intuitively seemed right. I learned the hard way to follow the arrows. It takes faith to believe that they are leading to the final destination. We cannot see the whole scope of the journey in one view, but we trust that we will get there eventually.

In my personal devotions time about a year and a half ago (context = early 2013), I began praying with urgency to know what God’s plans were for my future – not just the immediate next step, but I longed to know EVERYTHING God has planned for the rest of my years on earth. I am without a doubt a planner. I want to be prepared and equipped. I wanted to know ALL the good things God wants me to do, and what the timeline is for them.

The image I kept receiving from God was of the Good Shepherd leading me, one step at a time, up a rocky mountainside. The way is difficult, and I can’t look up from the path too much as I am walking, because I have to be concerned with where my feet are at present. The path is winding, and I can’t actually see where it is heading beyond the next curve. Plus the Good Shepherd is in front of me, and he is kind of blocking the view.

This was an image that kept returning to my mind throughout my journey this summer. It probably helped that I was actually climbing rocky mountainsides, but I also couldn’t help but think, if I had actually known, at the beginning of the trip, what the whole thing would be like, I wouldn’t have started. I would have given up before I began. Sometimes I think God purposely does NOT reveal everything to us. Walking by faith instead of sight is not a task given to us by a mean-spirited God, but by a heavenly Father who has our best interests at heart as he continues the sanctifying work in our lives. If we knew all the experiences that lay ahead, all the challenges, all the difficulties, would we dare continue?

 


 

I want to pause here from what I wrote back in 2014 to take you through the last year. Actually, let me stay in 2014 for a minute and tell you that even back when I was walking the Camino, living and teaching in another country was a dream of mine. One of the things that I was praying while walking the Camino was that God would give me clarity about when and where and how to do that. I felt a little let down arriving at the cathedral in Santiago without feeling like I had an answer from God. It was after I had dropped off my bag at my hotel, showered, eaten lunch, and returned to the cathedral to pray that I heard the Holy Spirit’s words, “Follow me.” 

Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do, God! Was my unimpressed response. And God again brought to my mind this vision of the Good Shepherd leading me, but not being able to see more than one next right thing, more than one foot step at a time. 

Fast forward to 2019. I finally felt like God had led me to the right place, the right school, the right time. I had found a school I had actually seen in a country I loved in a place where I was learning the language. It’s a school that cares deeply about educating kids to grow within the Kingdom of God, creating shalom in the lives of the kids and families and teachers. I had met the TEFL department director, visited the school, sung with kids in chapel, sat in on English classes. I could picture myself there. All that remained was actually making the plans. 

A year ago, I started 2019 with a trip with EduDeo to Nicaragua to work for 10 days helping to construct a school classrooms and learning about Christian education in Nicaragua. At one point during the trip, one of my school colleagues very astutely said to me, “So when are you finally going to move to central America and teach somewhere?” Uhhhhhh…  I sort of stuttered, very shocked for a moment. I’m hoping to do that in January of 2020! You see, central American schools generally run from January to October, so my plan had been to start my leave of absence at Christmas break. 

But by March break, I felt like God was saying, “Just wait!” Okay, God… if I still feel like it’s the right place and right school, then what are we waiting for? 

When my principal approached me about staffing changes and taking on the lead teacher role for 2019-2020,  that was an opportunity I was really excited about. And considering that and wanting to finish the year well at John Knox, it seemed clear that the half  year would be in Guatemala instead of at JKCS. I prayed and prayed, and the path seemed to be made clear again. In the summer, I inquired, applied, interviewed, waited… and received word that I was accepted to teach for the partial 2020 year that I was available! 

Labour Day weekend, I went home to tell my parents that I was planning to move to central America and oh yeah I had just been in the hospital two days but hopefully that would all be sorted out soon. After all, none of the doctors I had seen seemed too concerned over my condition.

Enter September, October, and part of November which I can’t even tell as a coherent story because they were a haze of new medication that made me feel awful all the time with at least a weekly visit to the hospital, referral to specialists, or diagnostic test, plus so many blood tests I lost track. My doctor started using the word tumour when talking about a possible diagnosis. I wondered what on earth God could possibly be doing… but I also absolutely experienced the peace that passes understanding. Even now when I think back to those three months, I don’t understand the peace that God provided. And of course now when I think back and imagine having planned to leave in January 2020… well, thank God that his plans and his timing are better than ours. 

By November, I had a diagnosis and awaited a referral to a surgeon. When can I expect surgery? I asked the assistant when I got the news I was officially referred to surgery. Well… consult by spring and surgery by summer, she told me. I asked everyone who knew about my condition to pray for something speedier than that… and was shocked when I had a consult scheduled in two weeks.

Meeting with my surgeon was enlightening as he explained anew all of the details of my condition. He assured me that surgery would actually restore me to health and I would be amazed at how great I would feel. I explained about my plans, and he assured me that I will have surgery before I need to leave and will be able to carry out my plans. I have again experienced God’s peace as I continue to await a surgery date. (Yes, prayers appreciated as I wait for surgery to be scheduled!)

If there’s one thing that I’m certain of moving forward, it’s that things will not always seem clear of where I’m supposed to go and what I’m supposed to do, but the Good Shepherd will continue to lead, one step at a time. And I will follow, even when I can’t see the destination. 

 


 

Let me return to that writing from 2014 to finish things off: 

Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, God has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. Even though we cannot see the whole scope of God’s work, we rest in God’s faithfulness.

Even when we do not know how our work will be used in the Kingdom of God, we will persist in believing that God has good works for us to do, planned long ago. Even though sometimes, the way God is leading us seems to be the opposite of the direction we should be going and we don’t understand what God is doing, we follow in faith. Even when we experience great difficulty and hardship, we will trust that God can work things together for good. 

 


 

Friends, I hope that you also experience the beautiful leading of the Good Shepherd.

Thin Places

I’m standing in Lake Huron at sunrise. I’m all alone, except for the birds that keep swooping overhead, singing out their delight and joy. I’m up to my knees in the water, and I have my beach cover-up hauled up and knotted at my hip, and I’m thinking that I don’t want to get wet, only giant waves keep rolling in toward the beach, and as they crash around me, I keep getting splashed. Like, seriously splashed. Water all the way up to my face. And each time it happens, I laugh in sheer delight. 

I’m all alone except for the birds, and except for the presence of God with me, and I’m basking in God’s presence wordlessly, silently, except for the wind and waves and my laughter and the song of the birds. It’s a moment outside of time, a moment of deep joy and peace. So much so that when I return to the campsite, one of my friends asks me what I was doing down at the beach because apparently my face is still radiating that joy. 

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Standing in the waves in Lake Huron

There’s another moment like this one. I go to Niagara Falls. It’s a trip on a whim, for an utterly gratuitous reason: I want to walk across the Canada/US border. I decide that, once I’ve walked to the US, I’d better do something and not just turn around and walk right back. I walk along the Niagara Gorge to the Cave of the Winds. I wait in line with a horde of others. I descend by elevator into the Niagara Gorge, don the thin plastic rain poncho, and follow the path to the boardwalk over the rapids at the foot of the American falls. The experience is utterly humdrum until it’s not. It’s not extraordinary until it’s totally, wildly outside of the ordinary. 

The top boardwalk is designated “Hurricane Deck”. Water comes rushing over the edge of the gorge, hits a rock, and sprays out across the deck, blown about by winds that must be as strong as a hurricane. 

I turn around and back into the spray. And suddenly there is only me, inside this waterfall and hurricane. I’m laughing, but the roar of the water and wind drowns me out. I’m so alive. The water has a chill to it, and the sun hasn’t risen high enough to shine down into this side of the gorge. The wind keeps blowing the plastic poncho up, and my shorts are getting wet, but I don’t care. I shiver a bit, but I can’t make myself step out of the water. It’s just God and me and the roaring waterfall. I don’t know how long I stand there. It’s not about “getting my money’s worth” anymore, or taking enough time to make a walk across the border worthwhile. It’s just me and the wind and God, and I’m thinking about Elijah and the still small voice, only this time God really is in the wind, not the still small voice. 

 


 

Everything about the medieval cathedral was designed to inspire awe and wonder and point the visitor to God. The medieval peasant would feel the effects of the cathedral’s design before even entering the building. From any place in town, the cathedral spires would be visible, soaring above any other building, reminding one of the glory and magnitude of God. Daily life carried on in the shadows of those spires which stood as silent sentinels, pointing the way to God.

Upon entering the cathedral, the bustle and noise of the medieval town fell away, and the hushed reverence of the interior of the cathedral would evoke the same reverence in the congregant. The light filtering through stained glass would draw the eyes to stories of God and his people, or of saints whose lives were held up as examples of holiness and service to God. The luxurious altar with paintings and gold leaf was designed to bring glory to the risen Christ while reminding one of the glorious riches of blessings available in Christ. The rising incense reminded people of their prayers, rising to God. Each colour was a symbol, each carving a wordless reminder.

 

I have a beautiful coffee table book called The Secret Language of Churches & Cathedrals: Decoding the Sacred Symbolism of Christianity’s Holy Buildings. I love paging through this book and seeing the beautiful cathedrals around the world, learning about their storied histories, seeing details in their design, painting, stained glass, and carving in close-up pictures. (One of the oddest details that I’ve learned from this book is that peacocks are used as a symbol for the righteous, because of a mistaken belief that when peacocks died, their bodies didn’t rot. Carve a peacock, therefore, and remind people of eternal life, of the incorruptible flesh that Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 15.)

You’ve probably been to a cathedral or two (or lots, if you love them and love travelling, like me). You might have entered into the hushed silence feeling a bit of the awe that the medieval congregant may have felt. But consider your experience in the cathedral nowadays. In New York City, you can visit Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, a beautiful and magnificent building, to be sure. And then you can go across the street and take the elevator up 30 Rockefeller Center and look way down at the tiny cathedral from above. 

In many denominations, our churches are often no longer buildings that inspire a sense of God’s glory in us. We often build them to be functional, and they might look a little like performance spaces with large stages and bright lights and big sound systems. And when they are dwarfed by other buildings, it’s hard to imagine that they might call out a sense of awe in us. 

So maybe in place of the cathedrals, we need moments standing in Lake Huron, being splashed by waves. Maybe we need to stand in the hurricane-force spray from Niagara Falls. Maybe we need quiet moments of vulnerable conversation with friends who see us as we are and who remind us of God’s truth about who we really are. We need moments alone at a piano, moments watching the sun rise above a silent lake, moments snuggling a newborn baby, moments laughing with friends. We need these moments to remind us to be alive, to be aware of God’s glory around us, of God’s goodness. 

These are some of my moments when I experience God. What are yours?  

 

What Do We Do about Suffering?

My great aunt was a big believer in faith healing. She came to visit family in Canada while one of my great uncles was fighting cancer. “If you just had enough faith, you would be healed,” she told him. Within the decade, my grandma made a trip to the Netherlands to visit her sister who was by then fighting her own battle with leukemia and not expected to survive. The topic of faith healing was conspicuously absent from conversation between the sisters, my grandma later told my dad. 

It’s not that I don’t believe in faith healings – I absolutely believe that God heals people miraculously. But what about when God doesn’t? What about when we’ve prayed and fasted and wept and proclaimed and believed all we can and yet God doesn’t give the miracle we’ve been waiting for?

If our response is to tell the ones suffering, “If only you had enough faith, then you would be healed,” then I think we need to ask some tough questions about our theology. Prosperity gospel ideas (that God wants you to be wealthy and healthy) have maybe invaded our theology more than we’ve realized, eroding the firm foundation that our faith can stand on when we are sick, lose a job, struggle with mental health or addiction, lose a loved one, experience a tragedy, or any of the things we know are part of being alive. 

God wants goodness for us, of this I remain convinced. God’s plan for us, God’s design for us, and God’s desire for us is shalom, an idea so important to me that I have it tattooed on my body. All the pain and brokenness in our world is a result of sin, not God’s design or desire. And Christ has conquered sin and death… but we live in the “already and and not yet” of Christ’s kingdom, where there can be miraculous healing, and yet there is still sickness. Where there are answered prayers, and yet there are still loved ones who die, people who suffer with chronic illness, people struggling with mental illness. 

I started thinking about this a lot in the fall of 2019. I’d had enough hospital visits and referrals to specialists where doctors had sort of shrugged and said essentially, “Whatever’s wrong, it’s not this. It’s not my department.” I needed the right doctor, and we finally found each other on Labour Day weekend in yet another emergency room visit. He took things really seriously, referring me to what felt like endless tests and imaging and blood work. I remember so clearly sitting in church the first Sunday after my first non-ER appointment with the new doctor. I went from feeling like I needed to fight to be taken seriously to worrying about how serious the new doctor was taking things. “Okay, God,” I prayed. “I know you’re in control. You already know what’s wrong, and with you, I’m going to be okay.”

“What if you’re not though?” I heard the Holy Spirit whisper in my soul. “What if you’re not okay?” Is your faith big enough to survive that?” I went home from church with that question still spinning in my head and heart. 

Later that week, I wrote this in my journal:

It’s so tempting in the middle of this medical mystery to think, “It’s okay. It’s going to be okay. God’s got this under control.”

I see a little bit of that in the encouragement and reassurance of my friends who know a little bit about what I’m in the middle of. It’s not that I *don’t* think God is in control of all that happens… it’s just that I don’t think that’s a guarantee of a happy ending. It’s not a certainty that I’ll be okay. 

My brain wants to justify this – my years of church life – to say, “Even if I die, that’s just God’s will. It will be okay because I’ll be with Jesus and not in pain or fear of the next bout of symptoms.”

But is that *really* God’s will for me? Is that really God’s deepest desire for me, for my family, for my friends, my students?

What if it’s actually more true to say, “Whatever happens, Jesus is with me? Whether it’s awful or okay, Jesus is with me. If it’s awful, Jesus can use that to shape me, to teach me who he is. If it’s good, Jesus can use that to shape me, to teach me who he is. If it’s awful, Jesus will mourn with me. If it turns out okay, Jesus rejoices with me. Life doesn’t always turn out okay.”

People live with chronic illnesses. People die young and we say their lives were cut off tragically short. This isn’t God’s desire. And yet God is with us anyway. 

 

I’m still wrestling through this. I finally have a solid diagnosis and a surgery ahead of me that the surgeon tells me will make me feel so much better. Meanwhile, whether from the tumour or side effects of medication, I have a headache or migraine so frequently. I’ve had a headache for so many days of Christmas vacation that the days without a headache fade away and I start to feel like I can’t remember the last day when I felt good, like this is just my life now. I have to challenge myself to remember, to actively remember the truth, running my fingers over the word tattooed into my skin. 

This isn’t part of God’s design. But God can use it. God is here with me, Emmanuel, in my suffering. 

Advent Week 3: Emmanuel – God With Us

 

I shiver in the chill of the night and pull my cloak tighter around my shoulders. The darkness is still and calm around me, with only the rustling of the sheep and the occasional bleat to punctuate the silence. Every once in a while the low sound of a voice wafts over from the conversation of the other shepherds. I sit separate from them. An outcast among outcasts. The only woman in the group. I am tolerated, if not accepted, because of the presence of my brother, Simon.

I rub my hands together, calloused skin brushing against calloused skin, hoping to create enough warmth to stop my shivering. The night stretches ahead of us, interminable. I shiver again. Not just because of the cold, but because of the night. I hate the night. I hate the memories that come creeping in along with the evening shadows. I hate the darkness and all of its unknowns, all that it keeps hidden. I know too well what kind of evil hides in the darkness. 

I shake my head, trying to shake off the memories that flood in unbidden. It doesn’t work. It rarely does, in the darkness of the night. This is hardly a surprise. It was in the darkness of the night that my life was shattered. And so in each darkness, it seems to shatter again. 

My growling stomach breaks the silence and stops the downward cycle of my thoughts. I’m so hungry. Bethlehem. I sigh to myself. The name of the town we live outside of means House of Bread. I’m sure our ancestors who named it wanted to remind themselves and all their descendents of Yahweh’s goodness, of his provisions for his people. As shepherds, do we experience this? Hardly. We are looked down upon, scorned, left to survive on our own. Any attempt we make to improve our lives or to step out of our poverty will only see us stomped back down by those who consider themselves better than us. Anything we make or find cannot even be sold for profit because the religious leaders have declared that it must have been stolen. 

So even living in the hills surrounding this House of Bread, I go to bed most nights with an empty stomach. 

I think back to my childhood, back before the sheep, before the brokenness, before The Night. My childhood was a typical one, a happy one, I think. My parents told us the stories of Yahweh and our people. Simon and I were raised on the stories of God’s faithfulness, of God coming to save his people again and again and again. 

God’s people are enslaved in Egypt? God sends Moses and the plagues to free them. God’s people are being chased down by the Egyptian army? Through Moses, God parts the Red Sea and they walk through. God’s people are in the desert with nothing to eat? God provides them with manna to eat. 

And now, God’s people, under the thumb of the Romans. What will God do? When will God act? 

And am I still a part of God’s people? What about me? Will God act on my behalf? On Simon’s? Simon did nothing wrong except defend me, and now we live as outcasts to our people. It seems Yahweh has forgotten his people. 

I shake my head in another attempt to dispel the dark thoughts. They seem to be my constant companion in the darkness. Even in sleep, they come and plague me. 

Tonight is going to be a long night. 

Just as my head is finally nodding and I am drifting off into sleep, it’s daylight. No, not daylight. And yet the night sky is filled with a dazzling light, a terrifying light. Even as I’m still trying to figure out what is happening, I hear Simon call my name, my older brother always coming to my defence. I reach out blindly, grasping for him, hoping to find something solid and known to hold on to. 

And then the voice speaks out of the brightness. 

“Don’t be afraid!” That is a ridiculous command, and yet I am immediately less afraid. As the voice continues, a shape starts to take form amidst the light… is this an angel speaking to us? “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Saviour – yes, the Messiah, the Lord – has been born today in Bethlehem, in the town of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: you will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

My mind is spinning with this news, but there is no time to think about it and understand because suddenly the whole sky is filled with angels. They are singing the most beautiful song, its harmonies ringing through the sky, through the whole celestial sphere, resonating inside me.

Suddenly the lights disappear, the angels gone, their song ringing in our ears. The world is black around us again, and I can’t see, my eyes needing to adjust to the darkness. A voice I recognize as my brother’s speaks out into this darkness. “I’m going. Let’s go to see this thing that has happened!” If Simon is going, then I know I will inevitably end up going too. Other voices speak out their agreement, and we’re on our way in mere seconds. Simon sounded so sure when he declared his intention to visit this newborn baby. I do not share his certainty. Not that this baby has been born – it seems hard to deny the angels. But I have no conviction that we’ll be welcome. No certainty that the arrival of this baby, if he is indeed the Messiah, which it seems he must be if angels are declaring it so – no certainty that this baby will change anything. Especially for us – shepherds. Outcasts. Especially for me. Broken. 

The others speak excitedly as we walk. I hardly pay attention, my mind turning my thoughts over and over and over. 

Finally I can bear my own thoughts no longer and dash around the others to catch up to Simon who is leading the way at the front. 

“Simon,” I blurt out, and then pause to try to catch my breath from the running. He doesn’t slow down. I look at him as he continues to walk, his pace fast enough and his legs long enough that I am nearly jogging to keep up. I can see his face in the starlight well enough to recognize the determined set of his jaw. But the excitement glinting in his eyes that is softening his resolute expression reminds me of the boy he once was. 

He doesn’t stop, so I ask my questions as I hurry along beside him. We’re on the last uphill section into town, and my questions must be asked now or they will not be answered before we enter. “Simon. Why us? Why did the angels give us this news? What is Yahweh doing? We’re nobody. We’re shepherds. They’re not going to let us see this baby. They’re going to send us away!”

He doesn’t slow down even to answer me. “I don’t know. I don’t know why us, I just know that we have been chosen! I’m not going to question it, I’m just going to believe it! And if we have been chosen for this news… they’ll let us see, Deborah. They’ll let us see.”

He seems so sure. I’m not even sure who the “they” is that we’re referring to. The… the baby’s parents, I suppose. This seems so backwards. My head spins. How is the Messiah here, but as a baby? How is this going to fulfill Yahweh’s plans? 

And then suddenly we find the place and the others are barging in and I can’t see what’s happening but I’m just worried we’re going to be laughed out of the place or driven out by someone enraged that shepherds would dare insert themselves here. I still can’t see, but suddenly I notice the smell. It smells like us, like me. Like animals. Maybe we won’t be laughed out of here. And then the men in front of me finally make way and I can see, and it is just as the angel told us. The baby, wrapped in strips of cloth. Lying in a manger. His mother kneeling beside him. She is looking at us not with the alarm that I would expect, but with a serene calmness, and an almost expectant look about her. Like of course a group of shepherds would welcome themselves into this room where she has given birth and is contemplating her newborn. 

Her eyes pass over the group of us, and she makes eye contact with me. Now her expression changes a little – startled, perhaps, to see me in this group of me. She considers me momentarily, and then gestures toward her little newborn, holding my eyes and clearly speaking to me and not the men surrounding me. “Would you like to hold him?”

Would I like to hold him. This baby, the messiah we have longed for as a people for centuries. Would I like to hold him, an outcast, a woman who by the rights of Jewish law should have been stoned to death for the acts committed against me, to me. 

I wait for this woman to realize what she is suggesting and rescind her offer. But she does not. 

This baby is my complete opposite. Innocent and new, while I have been broken by the world. If he is indeed the Messiah, he is the most important person in our people, while I am no one, worse than an outcast. This baby represents all that has been stolen from my life – the chance for my own family, a loving husband, the gift of children to laugh with and love. It’s that thought that stops me short. If I will never have my own child to hold, then I will hold this one for a moment and experience a baby filling my arms for the few minutes that it can happen. 

The woman is still waiting, patiently. She does not seem concerned that her simple question is taking me a long moment to think through. I look up at her again finally and simply nod, barely able to swallow past the lump that has lodged in my throat. 

She gently picks up the newborn from where he lays, sleeping. Then carefully she rises from her knees to her feet. I step forward from the doorway where I have been hovering since entering, taking step after step forward as if in a dream. We stand facing each other on either side of the manger, and she leans forward, putting her newborn in my arms. She looks into his face, a look filled with such a tender love that the lump in my throat threatens to overwhelm me, and I rapidly blink back tears. 

A man comes to her side – her husband, maybe, judging by the tender way he approaches, touching her arm. “Mary, come and sit again.” 

She does not immediately do so, but looks at me still. “Come and sit by me,” she says gently. I step around the manger, taking slow and careful steps, mindful of the baby in my arms. Her hands guide me as I kneel, then take a seat on some blankets laid out. She sits next to me, watching the other shepherds who are watching us. 

Now sitting down, I can finally turn my attention to the baby in my arms. A warmth permeates through the cloth wrapped around the baby, warming me. I lean down and inhale. His sweet baby smell fills me with an indescribable ache. For all that I have longed for and lost. For a delight in his innocence.

I think again of the angel’s words. This is the promised Messiah? This is the one Isaiah wrote about saying, “The virgin will conceive. She will give birth to a son and will call him, Emmanuel, which means God with us”?

This promised Messiah has not changed anything. My heart is still shattered. My reputation still in tatters. My life still a story of brokenness that this baby in my arms cannot change. 

The baby wrinkles his nose and lets out a sigh. 

I cannot believe this baby matters the way that we thought he would, but I also do not want to give him back to his mother. I hold him close, barely daring to breathe in case it wakes him. 

Eventually there are rustling sounds around me, and I see some of the men get up from their positions kneeling around. I stay still. The sounds continue, men beginning to head out. I remain still, staring at the baby. A hand touches my shoulder, and I hear Simon’s voice, low and gentle. “Deborah.”

I do not want to leave. I snuggle the baby closer to my chest. This baby, who changes nothing. And yet I can’t hand him back over to his mother, the woman named Mary. 

Why can’t I give up this baby?

The baby lets out a sudden cry. My heart jumps in alarm. I look quickly to Mary, but she seems unconcerned. Babies cry all the time, I suppose. But this baby is special! He shouldn’t be crying! 

It is a small spark of realization, like the first light of dawn piercing the darkness. But the realization grows and grows until it is the light of the sun, gleaming down, a light that bathes me in its glory. This baby doesn’t change anything? No, my circumstances remain the same. This baby doesn’t wipe away my past like the wind blowing away footprints left in the dust. He doesn’t heal my wounds or take away my brokenness. He doesn’t make it all okay. 

But he’s here with me in the brokenness. 

Yahweh, the God of glory and holiness. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God so holy that meeting with him made Moses’ face shine with radiance. God is here with me. In my brokenness. God with us, Emmanuel. God, taking on human form, able to cry himself, to feel the pain and brokenness of our world. 

I almost can’t take in a breath at the wonder of this realization. I look up and catch Mary’s eye and I realize she understands this too. That has been the look of wonder and peace in her eyes, the understanding at a dirty group of shepherds bursting in on her new family mere hours after labour. 

Simon speaks my name again, more insistently this time. But Mary seems unconcerned with how much time I have taken, how I am still holding her baby. 

I rise to my knees slowly, tenderly, careful not to jostle the sleeping newborn in my arms. I lean toward Mary and put the baby back into her arms. Our eyes meet again. And that spark passes between us again. No words are needed for this communication; our hearts recognize the truth of the gift that we have received. 

I leave without breaking the silence. The other shepherds are ahead of us, nearly skipping along in their joy. I can hear them talking excitedly about telling others, sharing this news that God seems somehow to have chosen us, lowly shepherds, to receive first. 

Simon walks more sedately beside me, a companion in my silence. 

My mind thinks back over all that has happened tonight. I still do not understand, but keep returning to this thought: God has come to be with me in my brokenness. 

We walk along, and my mind turns this over and over and over. 

“Emmanuel,” I whisper to myself, still in awe. 

And I hear Simon’s whispered response, equally awe-filled: “God with us.”

Advent Week 2: God’s Upside-Down Kingdom

It is the sudden silence that I notice first. 

I turn, and there it is. An… an angel? I nearly drop the lamp I am filling with oil in preparation for the evening hours, which are drawing nearer. 

“Greetings! You are beautiful with God’s beauty, inside and out! God be with you!”

I am taken aback. What kind of greeting is that? I grew up on the stories of my people. I could name the encounters that people have had with God’s messengers in the Scriptures. An angel with Daniel in the den of lions… an angel with the three righteous men thrown into King Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace… the prophet Elijah ministered to by an angel. But then there was also the angel of the Lord bringing judgment to Israel or its enemies… what can this angel be doing here? And what can he possibly want with me? 

Maybe the angel sees my confusion, maybe he senses my hesitation, because he continues: “Mary, you have nothing to fear.” Even as I’m trying to understand the fact that the angel knows my name, he… it? is saying something even more shocking. “God has a surprise for you: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus. He will be great, he will be called the Son of the Highest. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. He will rule Jacob’s house forever – no end, ever, to his kingdom.” 

I do not understand. The ways of God are mysterious, yes… angels often seem to be involved with the more mysterious of these events, but… “But how?” I can’t help but ask. Not out of disbelief, but out of curiosity. “I’ve never slept with a man…” Yes, God can protect Daniel in his den of lions and keep alive men in a fiery furnace… but how? Is it wrong of me to be curious and mystified? 

The angel answers. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the Highest hover over you. Therefore the child you bring to birth will be called Holy, Son of God.”

I don’t know if that really answers my question. And yet that really is a God type of answer. But the angel isn’t done yet. “Did you know that your cousin Elizabeth conceived a son, even as old as she is? Everyone called her barren, and here she is six months pregnant! Nothing, you see, is impossible with God.” 

Yes. These last words from the angel are exactly what my heart needs. I am full of questions, but the unknowable and all-knowing God will do what he says. 

I give my own answer to the angel, to God, trying to keep the tremor of fear from my voice: “I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve. Let it be with me just as you say.”

As suddenly as the angel appeared, he is gone. I notice again the birds outside my window. I look out. It’s become dusk. 

My hands return to the lamp. I fill it with oil, trim the wick, and light it, all without paying attention to what I am doing. My mind is still spinning. I have only questions. I still don’t understand how I will become pregnant. And maybe that is the least of my questions… How can I be mother to the Messiah? And yet… and yet if this is the Lord’s plan, then surely God will bring it about, and as I said to the angel, I am the Lord’s servant, ready to serve. 

 


 

The next morning, I am up before sunrise, having awakened to a pounding heart and spinning head. My questions are not done yet. I feel like I have not slept at all. I am ready to leave at the first light of dawn to visit my cousin Elizabeth. If there is anyone that I can talk to about this, surely it is Elizabeth, who the angel said is experiencing her own miraculous pregnancy. 

I set out as the first hints of orange tinge the sky, as soon as it is light enough that it is safe for me to walk. I walk, and I think. 

What about Joseph? Surely he will want to divorce me now. He will certainly assume that I have broken our engagement vows. 

Why has God chosen me? Out of all women… out of all ways to bring his promised one…

How will I raise this baby alone? How is God going to work this out? 

And yet, as I walk, my questions fade. They don’t disappear, certainly. My brain keeps spinning, but my heart is centered. I don’t know how God protected Daniel amongst the lions. I don’t know how God protected men from a fire so hot it killed the men who threw them into the furnace, while they came out of the fire without even the smell of smoke. I don’t know how God works, but I know from the stories of my people that God does. My curiosity remains, my uncertainty, but a peace that could only come from God rests in my heart. 

It is with surprise that I look up from the road and from my thoughts and see that I’ve arrived at my cousin Elizabeth’s house. An unfamiliar woman is working in Elizabeth’s garden, singing while she works. It takes me a moment of wondering why there is a stranger to realize that it is in fact my cousin herself, her countenance so changed since the last time I saw her that I did not recognize her. 

“Elizabeth!” I call out, excited. But then I pause, unsure of how to begin my conversation. I had set out this morning with only questions; I arrive with questions accompanied by a peace that might be harder to explain than my circumstances. 

Elizabeth looks up, and her face breaks out into a smile. Her hand goes to her stomach, already substantial in size, and her smile only grows, joy evident in her face. I can’t remember the last time I saw Elizabeth happy, let alone joy-filled. She reaches the other hand out to me and pulls me into a hug.  “Blessed are you among women! And blessed is the child you will bear!” she says by way of greeting. I stiffen in surprise. Another question, another curiosity. How can she know such a thing that I have only found out so recently? And yet, hasn’t my own unknowing shown me that some things cannot have earthly explanation? I sink into her embrace, tears trickling down my face. Finally, we step back. Elizabeth is brushing tears from her cheeks, just as I am. 

“Why am I so favoured,” Elizabeth asks me, “that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” I thought I was done crying, but my eyes immediately overflow again, and I cannot speak. But Elizabeth continues: “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

And I do. Despite all of my questions, I do believe that the Lord will fulfill his promises. Suddenly I feel filled with the fire of God, like a prophetess of old, like the mighty Deborah sitting beneath her palm tree, speaking God’s truth to everyone who would come to listen. Or like Miriam, picking up her tambourine and leading Israel in a song of praise. The words erupt out of me. 

“I’m bursting with what God is doing! My soul celebrates the God Who Saves!

I’m only God’s humble servant, and yet God has noticed me. 

I’m the most blessed woman on earth! 

What God has done for me will never be forgotten!

God’s mercy keeps coming, flowing in wave after wave. 

God doesn’t choose the strong; 

God sends away the proud and gets rid of the tyrants. 

God doesn’t choose the people who think they’re the best. 

But the ones who are poor? The ones who are humbled? 

The ones who have been trodden down by life? 

God chooses them!

The hungry? God fills them with a feast. 

The rich? God dismisses them. 

The powerful? God chooses the weak instead. 

And his people Israel – just when we were losing all hope, 

God showed us that we are not forgotten. 

Why are we surprised? 

This is all that God promised, from Abraham and Sarah on down the line.”

 

My poem of praise comes to an end. I’m a little overwhelmed by all that I have just said, but Elizabeth is nodding fiercely. She grabs my hand once more and leads me inside for some food and rest. 

 


 

I stay with Elizabeth for several weeks. Her body is obviously growing; mine looks the same. But I feel different, inside and out. 

Each time that we sit down to a meal together, we speak the blessing over it. “Blessed are you our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” Or, “Blessed are you our God, King of the universe, through whose word everything comes into being.” 

All that there is comes from God. Our spirits are nourished by God’s goodness and grace. Our bodies are nourished by the food that God gives. And now, within me, God, King of the universe, is being nourished by my own body. God isn’t just choosing the powerless; he is becoming the powerless. 

Of all the mysteries of this moment, this is surely my greatest. 

 


 

The time has come to set off home again. The changes within my body will soon be visible. Whatever the response of Joseph, I am ready to face it. Whatever the scorn of the world, I will remember that it is the poor and downtrodden that God keeps choosing, time after time. 

I’ll keep collecting my questions. I have a feeling this won’t be the last of new ones. I’ll keep noticing what God is doing. And I’ll move forward, not with certainty about what is happening, but with faith that God will do what he has planned, and with peace that God remains in control.

Advent Week 1: Waiting

I was named after the wrong ancestor. My parents, proud of our Levite heritage, named me after Elisheba, Aaron’s wife. But I should have been named Sarai after my foremother whose arms were empty for so much of her life. The ancestor who bore the same burden of barrenness that I bear, this same badge of shame. 

Elizabeth – My God is bountiful. That is not my experience of God. My name mocks me, reminding me that others experience this goodness of God that I do not. That others taste and see that the Lord is good, while I have waited and waited and waited, yet I seem to be passed over. And now I am old. My childbearing years are over. My arms remain empty. And I fight daily against an empty heart as well.

Zechariah helps me keep my sanity. My sweet Zechariah. How many nights have my tears soaked his tunic, his hand stroking my hair as I have cried myself to sleep in his arms? Somehow he has held onto his faith. Somehow his name has been his truth, and when I turn to him in tears, he reminds me, Yahweh has remembered; Yahweh will remember us. 

But this week I find myself alone again. Zechariah’s turn to serve in the temple has come again, and he has gone to Jerusalem to do his priestly duty. My husband loves his work, loves shepherding his flock, calling the people to turn their hearts toward God. He has been faithful to God and has served diligently as a priest, and yet his reward has been to suffer the whispers and suspicions of our neighbours, wondering what sins we have committed and kept hidden to deserve our childlessness. 

So without Zechariah, I cry myself to sleep alone, asking Yahweh why he has not remembered me. Asking myself why I cannot abandon God the way God seems to have abandoned me. 

 


 

Sabbath comes. The blueness of the sky and the bright sunlight seem to mock me as I make my way to the synagogue. By now, I am used to the sidelong glances from the other women, their hesitation to befriend. They sit next to me in the synagogue only when the other seats are full. It’s not their fault, really. They are just sure that my barrenness is a curse from God, a sign of punishment. If only God would vindicate me! If only God would show them that my conscience is clear, speak on my behalf! If only I could stop caring what they think. If only my heart were truly as empty as I wish it were, and I were actually immune to the pain, as I pretend to be. 

The scroll is unfurled and the reading begins from Isaiah. “‘Sing barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labour; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,’ says the Lord.”

I stiffen my back. Suddenly each woman around me is still, afraid to move, afraid to even breathe. No eyes are cast in my direction, no one turns to look at me, but I feel the weight of everybody’s attention, keenly focused on me. 

I keep my eyes open and stare directly ahead. But I close my ears and I close my heart. I don’t hear another word of the reading.

 


 

Sunrise, sunset. In my numbness, the week passes in a blur. After the next Sabbath, I look up from the herbs I am gathering to see Zechariah hurrying toward me, followed by a small group of men. I want to rush forward and let him gather me into his arms, but the presence of the men prevents me. My husband lifts his hand to wave a greeting to me, and before I have a chance to wonder why he is surrounded by men I barely know and why he is not greeting me, they rush over themselves to explain, their words tripping over each other. They are talking about an angel and good news and I suddenly catch the words, “You will bear a son!” I almost laugh at the thought of that, and think maybe I really should have been named for Sarah. But then I catch the look in Zechariah’s eyes and clamp shut my mouth and finally the men realize that we are paying them no attention and leave. And then we are inside, and in signs and without his voice, Zechariah is explaining to me that it’s true, an angel did visit him and promise us a son, and his inability to speak is a sign or a punishment and he will be able to speak again only when our son is born. 

And tonight it is Zechariah’s tears soaking my tunic, only his tears stem from his great joy. And I stroke Zechariah’s hair, murmuring to him, wondering if it can really be. I think back again to my foremother Sarah. Suddenly her laughter bubbles up inside me, only it is not the laughter of deprecation and doubt. It is the laughter of joy and hope and promise, of something new being conceived. “Zechariah,” I whisper. “Zechariah, Yahweh has not forgotten me!”

 


 

When the growing season comes, warmth returns to the world incrementally. Seeds grow underground for days before their tender green heads pop up above soil. So it is with the changes inside my body. Days go by while I caress my stomach in wonder at this miracle taking place inside me. Then, as slow tendrils of green unfurl in the world around, slow tendrils of growth unfurl in my body. 

As time passes, my heart begins to thaw as well. Seeds that had lain dormant for decades suddenly pop their heads above the soil.  Tender shoots of joy in my daily work where before there was only the bitter resentment of work never finished. A smile for my neighbour chasing her toddling son through the dirt where before there was only the bitter resentment of empty arms. A heart hardened after years of pain is slowly, incrementally warmed.

My body grows so slowly that each day I cannot see a difference, and yet over time the changes are obvious. My heart grows in the same way – only its changes are bigger still than the ones taking place in my body. God has taken away my disgrace. My heart is light. I am filled with a quiet joy. I think back to the words I heard read aloud in the synagogue on the Sabbath when Zechariah was visited by the angel. The words were a reproach to me then, but now, my heart does burst into song, that song even overflowing occasionally to my lips. 

I stay in seclusion, letting my body prepare itself for the work ahead of growing and birthing this child. Letting my heart prepare itself for the new work of motherhood. Letting my spirit be restored from the years of pain.

 


 

My cousin Mary comes to visit. When she sends word that she will arrive, I first assume that it is out of concern for my seclusion. But when I see her face radiating with the same peace that I now feel, I know that is not her purpose. And my son, my yet unborn son, leaps inside me, his joy an echo of my own, confirming what I know in my heart. 

I pull Mary into my arms. “Blessed are you among women! And blessed is the child you will bear!” I feel Mary first stiffen in surprise, surely wondering how I know. But as I keep my arms around her, she melts back into my embrace. She has experienced the miraculous enough to allow her to know that which she cannot understand. Finally, we step back, both brushing tears from our cheeks. 

“Why am I so favoured,” I ask my cousin, “that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Mary’s eyes overflow with tears again. She does not need to answer. I tell Mary, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

I may have doubted, but Mary believed. Nevertheless, now Yahweh has turned my doubt to faith, turned my heartache to joy. 

Mary stays several weeks with me. We spend much time letting praise overflow from our hearts, singing together in our work. But at other times, words are not necessary, and we sit silently as our hearts contemplate all that God has done. 

 


 

The time for the baby comes. My old body groans and cries out with the pain of labour. But my heart overflows with joy. The pain and the tears and the sweat and the blood mingle, and in the midst of this pain something new is birthed, something that had been conceived in me at the same time as this baby: hope and joy and mystery and wonder. 

The midwife places the baby in my arms. I recall the name the angel gave to Zechariah: John. The Lord has shown favour. Yes. And my own name is a truth I now know to the depths of my soul: My God is bountiful. 

Vista al Valle

What. A. Day.

The story really begins last night at dinner, during a torrential downpour so loud that we had to yell at each other to be heard. Lucy, our fearless World Renew coordinator, took a phone call, talked briefly with her colleague Adolfo, and then called us to attention.

“Guys, we have a… well, a situation,” she told us. Guatemalans all over the country set up blockades today in political protest, and there was one planned for the town we’re staying in. But that meant no way to get out to get to the community we were supposed to visit.

“I’ve talked to Adolfo. We are going to get up early, leave at 5 am, and drive to La Tinta. We’ll have breakfast there.”

There was some minor groaning and a few jokes about the early hour, but mostly we were excited about the adventure.

So: up early this morning. Breakfast in La Tinta. A quick stop at ADIP offices (ADIP is the World Renew partner here in the Polochic region). And then we changed buses, because our regular van apparently wasn’t going to make it up the mountain. (That’s really saying something, considering what we’ve already made it through in that van.)

Our bus left the town and started driving straight up the mountain edge. And I do mean straight up, and I also mean mountain edge. The road wound back and forth, continually climbing in altitude, winding around and around the mountain’s curves. It was more or less a one lane road, so meeting anyone else along the way really necessitated one driver pulling over as far as possible and the other one squeezing by. A Guatemalan bus is practically required to have one guy who stands in the doorway and can hop out and tell the driver how close to the other vehicles he is. (On a chicken bus, this will also be the guy who yells out the destination and collects money from passengers.)

Eventually we left the gravel and sometimes concrete road and hit the dirt road. That was a whole new level… Remember last night’s torrential downpour? (Actually happening again as I write this!) On a mountainside, all that rain has only one way to go. And factor in dirt roads…. well. There were some washouts. Sometimes that meant rocks on the road that had fallen from higher up and meant driving carefully around. Sometimes that meant driving over a waterfall that made its way over the road. And sometimes that meant driving next to a washout from the down side of the road – making the road uncomfortably narrow.

I was sitting across from the door (open, with a guy hanging out, remember!), and at times there was no road beside us, only a drop off. It was a little scary! Even better, the guy hopping out to rearrange the giant rocks on the road so we could drive over them. And then the time that the guys all got out to push us up – at the most narrow, most washed out place!!!

Finally arriving in the community was a bit of a relief because it meant death no longer felt imminent. We were introduced to the community members, we had a sort of opening welcome to the whole day, and then the women came up to do a presentation for us. It began with two songs, and then proceeded to explain and dramatize the Village Savings and Loan program. (A really superb program that you should learn about if you haven’t heard of it, but too long for tonight’s explanation.)

Then we were invited up to a community member’s house. I should mention that areas like these are called communities because they are not towns, not villages, not even hamlets. Most people are subsistence farmers, so they live a little walk away from each other with just enough room to farm in between.

We headed directly up the hill behind the community centre, up a dirt path that was just wide enough for one person to walk up. And I do mean directly up – at least as steep as stairs, but without the convenient steps to help you up. Plus remember that torrential downpour again? That washes down the mountainside in a ditch like the one we climbed, so it was rather muddy and quite slippery. AND, if you know what my lungs are like, you know how much they HATE climbing! (Only stopped once for my inhaler, and I survived!) Plus our host Eduardo did that whole climb with plastic chairs from the community centre so that we’d have a place to sit when we got inside his house. He proudly toured us through his coffee, yuca, cardamom, and banana plants that were on the way to his house. It felt like an accomplishment just not falling down the mud on the hill. I can’t imagine climbing that multiple times a day – I would just stay home and never go out!!! Eduardo also toured us around his home garden, chicken coop, latrine, and then house. His wife had prepared lemonade, huisquil, and malanga for us to enjoy.

Our trek back down the mountainside wasn’t as hard on the lungs, but it was maybe more treacherous because of the mud. But then we were back in the community centre, enjoying soup prepared for us by some of the women. (I love Guatemalan food, and this soup reminded me of Home Away from Home!)

In the afternoon, we “participated” in activities that ADIP and World Renew were running. Today’s was dividing by women and men and then filling out a clock according to the activities done every hour. The women generally get up between four and five and are working generally until ten at night. The amount of things that they do is insane! I should also mention, because they speak the Mayan language Q’eqchi, that got translated into Spanish, which was then translated into English for us. Everything was a PROCESS. After the women and men were done, we rejoined and compared notes. While the men get up earlier than the women at 3, their hours of work generally totalled 9 while the women all agreed they generally work 18. Pretty eye opening!!!

Finally after lots of picture taking, some playing with kids, and saying good byes, we were on our way. We had some extra passengers on the way – we dropped off a couple of families on the way down, because they would otherwise need to walk the way we were driving to make it to their farms. And a couple of people came all the way to La Tinta with us.

One of these girls sat right in front of me, and Eduardo, our host from earlier, sat beside me. I provided them with a lot of entertainment at my terror over the narrow road sections – but the thing was, the drop off was now on the same side of the bus as me, and if I looked out the window, I wouldn’t see road but just a several hundred … thousand… foot drop! (I don’t know how far it was – just way more than I wanted to go!!!)

Thankfully Eduardo was great at distracting me by asking all sorts of questions and giving me a chance to practice Spanish. (He’d lived in the capital city briefly and did a stint in the army, so he is fluent in Spanish.)

Ever so thankfully, by the time that we made it back to ADIP offices, changed into our familiar old van, and drove all the way back to our hotel in Telemán, the road blocks from this morning were done, and we could actually stumble right on home. And now time for me to stumble right on into bed!!!

Hello, Old Friend!

I have some kind of wanderlust deep in my bones.

I love traveling and exploring, seeing beautiful places around the world. I especially love the minutiae of day-to-day life – witnessing little old ladies coming out of their houses in Spain as the bread delivery truck honks its horn through the winding streets; buying farm fresh eggs still covered with feathers at a road-side market in Tanzania; living with a host family in Guatemala and telling jokes with Carlos over lunch, or hearing snippets of Gladys’s life story over tea after dinner.

For a long time, I only traveled to new places. What can I say – I’m totally a checklist kind of a person! And if a trip didn’t let me scratch off at least one new country on my scratch off world map (because of course I have one of those!), well… I would still love the trip but might be a teensy bit disappointed!

But over the last two summers, I’ve gotten to experience the delight of going back to a place already visited. I’m discovering what it’s like to anticipate a trip while already being confident about what I’ll experience while I’m there. Returning to Guatemala for a second time last summer and again for a third time this summer meant knowing what I was looking forward to. It meant pulling my old quetzales out of my drawer to spend. It meant sleeping all afternoon after a red-eye flight and still knowing exactly where I wanted to go for dinner, and not needing to change any money or stop at an ATM before doing so. It meant getting to see things that I missed the first time. It turns out you really can’t see it all in one short trip! It’s been trying new foods while still getting to visit my favourite ice cream shop.

It’s meant going deeper, not just broader.

Coming back to Antigua this morning felt like coming home. I was so excited for my new friends to see all of the places that I love! And each landmark was like a familiar friend, with old friends scattered throughout the city to check in on. (Special thanks to my new friends for taking a detour just so we could walk past my favourite ruins!)

Stopping by the Cerro de la cruz this morning made me smile, because I couldn’t help but remember the last time I was there. I had said goodbye to my fellow student housemates before they left for school, knowing I would never see them again. Only to walk down the hill at the cross and hear someone say “Bethany?!” and to turn and see Jess, who had just happened to go up to the cross with a friend that afternoon.

And even a short one day visit to the city provided the opportunity to see things I’ve missed before – this morning’s visit to Finca Filadelfia coffee plantation was something I skipped both summers I’ve been here before in favour of a much needed Saturday afternoon nap.

And then a visit to the Capuchinas ruins included a holy experience that will be treasured by all of us forever – descending into a round basement and singing hymns in the most vibrant acoustics. It was a moment that words cannot adequately express.

My heart is so full of contentment and joy to have been able to return to my old home away from home. To see my old familiar friends. To be here with new friends. To be learning and growing and discussing hard but beautiful things.

Hello, old friend! I’ve missed you! I’m so glad I got to see you today, however briefly!