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.