Tuesday, September 27, 2011

But Wait, There's More ...

The conclusion of my story of unexpected kindnesses goes like this:

The new plane I was booked on was also late. We were supposed to leave at 11:00 pm but we ended up leaving just after midnight. It was the last flight out for the night. The Maple Leaf lounge had even closed!

I called National Car Rental's toll-free central number when I found out about the delay; they worried about my time of arrival, as the airport branch closed at midnight. So they transferred me to the agent, whose response was, "Awww, that's just too bad. I'll just wait for you to get here. No problem!" 

[Public service announcement: See, kids? That's the correct usage of "No problem"!]

When I arrived Lynne was sitting by the counter, the only car rental agent still at her post. "You poor thing!" she greeted me. "You must have had a long day!"

I asked her how to get to the Sheraton Four Points, where I was booked to stay. She got out the map and started tracing this circuitous route that lost me after the first couple of turns. She must have glanced at my face because she said, "You know what, I live out that way, a little past where you need to go. Would you like to just follow me? You'll have to turn left on McCallum Road, and I'll go straight. You'll find it up the hill."

And so I went to my rental car and when she came out of the office she drove by Stall # 33 to collect me. 

I would never have found my way in the dark and the rain. Lynne waited for me when traffic lights looked like they were going to change; and where I needed to turn left, she just stopped in her lane that would take her straight and to her home. 

When I went to check in at the hotel, the front desk agent - who looked like he was all of seventeen - said, "It's so late: I'm upgrading you to a jacuzzi suite - would that be okay?"

When I gratefully thanked him, he smiled and said, "You're welcome."

What a wonderful end to a long, unusual day!

"Denied Boarding"

Sitting in the Vancouver airport this afternoon waiting to get to Victoria for a couple of days' work I could tell that everything was moving from one "situation" to another. The centre of the far gate area was filled with security and police officers while off to a corner men were getting searched over their loud protestations of innocence. If a person happened to venture into that area inadvertently a burly policeman would step forward and politely ask if he could help. Flight after flight was either delayed or cancelled. "Some bad weather but a lot of mechanical difficulty," was the official word.  

And - of all days - no one was not showing up, something all airlines count on when they routinely overbook their flights. Eventually the call came for a volunteer - and it was for my flight. Volunteers would get a $200 travel voucher for anywhere Air Canada flies, plus a small food voucher.

Why not? I thought to myself. I have no plans for this evening. I can work and read and think just as well in the airport as I can in my hotel room.

So I went to the desk and volunteered. The little man desperate to get on the flight thanked me profusely again and again.

I checked out the voucher - good for a year - and noticed that the reason listed was "DENIED BOARDING." I wondered, with the slightly negative connotation of those words, whether I should start feeling sorry for myself or something ...

I went and ate dinner, read a couple of chapters from my book and then had a little snooze. Finally I wandered down to the gate, and as I was doing so a call came out for a volunteer - for my new flight!

Is this possible? I thought to myself. Four hundred dollars is 25 per cent of my ticket to India! I went over to the desk and somewhat sheepishly volunteered again.

"What are you going to do with all this money?" teased the agent who had written up my first voucher.

"Put it toward my trip to India next year," I responded, at exactly the same time as the other agent said that another passenger had volunteered just before I had.

I turned to see a man with a very kind face. "I'll forgo so that she can get to India," he offered. Then he looked at me and said, "I've been to Nepal but I didn't make it to India. I've always wanted to go ... North India is what draws me."

The kindness of strangers never fails to move me. The chapter in the book I'm reading talks about being gentle with our fellow pilgrims. Here was a real-time illustration of how to help someone else, of how to be.

It turned out that at the time the flight was being boarded another volunteer was needed, and so he too got a voucher; this time they threw in a pass to the Maple Leaf Lounge as well.

Thank you, Mr Harrison, whoever you are. I hope that some day you make it to the Land of the Lotus Flower!
It turns out that there's a conclusion to this story ... http://nilgiristeahouse.blogspot.com/2011/09/but-wait-theres-more.html

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

If You Knew It was Your Last Day ...

"If you knew you were going to die today, how would you spend your last day on earth?" is how Dad started his new Sunday School class.

Of course that would be on his mind. September 18, 2007, was Mum's last day.

Would you want people running around after you, focusing on you, caring for you? Or would you try to make your imminent passing easier for the ones you love?

Mum made it as easy for us as she could in her last days: She acquiesced to the inevitable. She ministered to her doctors and nurses, both through her words and by her demeanour. She planned her funeral. She spoke with each of us, reassuring us of her love. 

Dad went on to discuss how Jesus spent His last day before He was crucified, as told in the gospel of John, chapters 13-17. Because this is going to be a study, we covered just the first action on Sunday: washing His disciples' feet.

In the culture of the day, washing feet was the lowest task, performed by a menial servant in the household. And yet Jesus, whom His disciples called Master, washed their feet.

A couple of weeks earlier they had been arguing who was going to be the greatest in the kingdom to come. And here He was, indisputably the greatest, washing their feet!

He wasn't thinking about how they could best help Him or comfort Him; He wanted only to serve them, to help them prepare for what was to come. 

He already knew about His imminent death, His resurrection and His ascension. Now He looked to build up those who had been His family for the last three years. Looking at them, thinking about them, He loved them.

There was Thomas, sceptical and unable to take things at face value. In this he was joined to a certain degree by Philip, for whom seeing was believing: "Come and see," he invited the people when talking about Jesus; and he was the one who asked to see the Father, not realizing at this point with Whom he had been travelling and working and just being all that time.

There was Levi, the tax collector, despised by Jew and Roman alike.

There were the Sons of Thunder, zealots, hotheads.

Of course there was Judas; Jesus, knowing that Judas was about to betray Him, still washed his feet ...

And then there was Peter, Peter who had declared some time earlier, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!" As Jesus approached Peter, water pitcher in hand, Peter freaked out. "You shall never wash my feet!" he exclaimed, trying to limit Jesus' actions to accommodate what Peter himself could comprehend. When Jesus explained to him that Peter's foot washing was a symbol of what was truly important - keeping our hearts and minds clean - he pendulumed to the other extreme: "Not just my feet, in that case, but also my head and hands!" he demanded.

This same Peter, no doubt feeling guilty for falling asleep when Jesus had entrusted him to watch and pray for Him in the garden of Gethsemane, would slash off the ear of one of the soldiers who had come for Jesus; shortly after that he would deny the One he loved - three times.

But now Jesus was concentrating on washing His friend's feet.

Jesus already knew all about Peter, knew what he would do and say in the last hours leading up to His death. He already knew that by the end of the night Peter would be a broken man; but He never stopped loving Peter. Dad commented that God's love for us is not contingent on our love for Him; it's not dependent on the good works we do. He doesn't love us less when we fail Him or more when we succeed. I am not the sine qua non, the indispensable cause, for His love. His love for us originates within Himself, and therefore it will not change.

On this remembrance day we gathered after church as a family at Dad's and Mum's house, as many of us as could be there. Dad and Debbie cooked the delicious fare, a traditional Sunday lunch that would have made Mum proud.

Then after lunch Dad presented each of her children with a box. And in each box was a treasure "from me and Mum," he said.

I opened the lid of my box. To my amazement and delight I found, nestled in the green folds of tissue paper, an ancient Chinese bowl that I had long ago told Mum I would love to have some day. The reason I wanted this bowl was not for the intricate hand-painted exterior of the bowl or the magnificent lid, both of which tell a simple story of the human need for love.

What I had always been drawn to with this particular bowl, from when I was quite young, was what I discovered one time on the inside of the bowl:
It had been broken, quite severely at one part of the rim; but for some reason it had not been thrown away. Instead, a loving craftsman had carefully drilled tiny holes through the china and wired the fragments back together again. Then he had delicately applied a thin veneer of varnish to the outside of the bowl to seal the crack and to smooth the surface. 

The bowl is able to hold water, able to be used, able to display its beauty - a beauty intensified by its prior damage - because someone had valued it enough to gather up the shards and to rebuild it. 

The bowl reminded me of Peter. Peter, who was shattered the night that Jesus was captured and put on trial and condemned to die. 

After Jesus rose from the dead, one of His first tasks was to begin gathering up the shards of His friend's life. "Go tell my disciples, and Peter ..." He instructed in the sixteenth chapter of Mark's gospel. Later He asked Peter - three times - "Peter, do you love Me?" It was almost like He was drilling infinitesimally tiny holes into Peter's soul. 

Finally, in anguish, unable to bear it any more, Peter replied, "Lord, You know all things. You know that I love you."

Then Jesus started to thread the wires through those piercings in an action that would put Peter back together again, that would make him a vessel able to be used again, with His words, "Feed My sheep." And Peter was restored.

The bowl reminds me of myself, too. Sometimes the exterior glaze on the surface camouflages the tell-tale cracks inside. But God loves me despite myself; and so many times He has taken the splinters and knit them back together again. Then He has provided someone to come into my life and apply the fine glaze over the scar so that I can carry on, so that I can be filled and used in His service.

What a privilege it is to be able to have an example of how to die well from my Mum! What a privilege it is for all of us to be able to see how Jesus used the last hours of His life to build up and to prepare and to simply love His disciples!

And what a privilege it is to be able to see my father, who knows he probably doesn't have too many years left on this earth, already seeking out ways to build up, to repair, to minister, to let people know that they have value because God Himself loves them despite themselves.

A privilege indeed to see him gently apply a coat of glaze to the soul wounds that have been repaired by the Master's own pierced hands so that the people He sends Dad to minister to feel that they have value, that they can be of service, that they are loved.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"A Brick In Your Pocket"

One of the places I like to go every now and then on the web is Alex Chadwick's "Interviews 50 cents" - where Mr Chadwick sits at a card table with a couple of microphones and waits for someone to sit down and tell his or her story.

I find myself coming back to one story. It's one of the simplest, most poignant descriptions I've heard of living with loss. Alex interviews a man who is going to a baseball game in memory of his deceased son. It's about three minutes long:

There are lots of us out there, as the days slip from 30 degrees to 12 and the petals on the roses and sweet peas flutter to the ground, who might feel the weight of Fall, the heaviness of grief, start to press in on our hearts again from time to time. 

Dad compares sorrow to the pattern of waves on the beach. You can be going along quite nicely in your life when suddenly you're caught off-guard by a wave that swells and then crashes over you, tumbling you off your feet and knocking the breath out of you. When the wave has washed over you, you pick yourself up again and continue on.

Whether it's a wave or a brick, or some entirely different metaphor that sums up your feeling of loss, you are not alone.

Friday, September 9, 2011

"I Loved Her Very Much"

Today he laid a rose on her coffin.

Today he said goodbye to her for the last time on earth.

Today Wes laid the body of his beloved Leona to rest.

Dad and I met him at the church: "Have you seen Leona?" he said, startling me for a moment until I realized he was talking to Dad about the viewing. They walked slowly to the front of the coffin and stood there together, the one man silently welcoming the other to the awful club that has a single criterion for admission.

Dad placed his right hand on Leona's right hand - that hand still whispering the story of bruising IVs and collapsed veins and long suffering - and Wes slipped his right hand into Dad's left one.

"I might have failed her, many times, but not once did she fail me," he murmured. "But I loved her very much." 

The sun beat down on the cemetery. There would be no relief from the searing heat today. They gathered together as one, Wes' and Leona's family did. Their son anchored himself next to his dad, who never lifted his eyes from the coffin that glowed golden in the hot blue of the day. The four girls stood nearby.

Scripture was read. A hymn was sung. Words were spoken, words of comfort, words of assurance.

Dad, Neil and Wes, all who have said
Goodnight, not Goodbye
to their loves
And Wes kept guard, just as he had for so many nights, so many months now.

After lunch the solemn procession made its way to the front of the church. Wes had written a tribute to his beloved, which their son read for him:

"As Proverbs 31 verse 10 says, 'Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above jewels.'  This is Leona. She is worthy of what I say ... She has been most precious to me ... I have loved her dearly ... She stood by me through thick and thin ... 

"She was faithful ...

"She was forgiving ...

"She was willing: I would ask her to do something and she would always say, 'Just a minute,' and leave what she was doing. She was always at my side. We worked as a team.

"She was humble ...

"She was not only a jewel, she was a rare jewel. The Bible says that where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Our treasure is in Heaven today."

Dad spoke from Psalm 19, one of Leona's favourite passages in the Bible. His message was entitled Leona's Preparation for September 4, 2011. This Psalm divides into three little sections. 

The first talks about God's revelation from the heavens: "The heavens declare the glory of God ..." Even if there are no words spoken, humankind can feel the presence of God through nature, through the constellations.

The second section talks about God's revelation through His Word, the Bible: "The law of the Lord is perfect ... sure ... right ... pure ... clean ... true and righteous altogether."

The third section is a prayer, culminating with these words:  "...Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer" (verse 14).

Dad said that Leona had been preparing for years for September 4, 2011, by learning this passage of scripture by heart and by keeping it in her heart. "Your death does not change the direction of your life," he cautioned. Leona took to heart these words and here is how she responded:

For the first part, she had a relationship with God. When she was young, she gave her heart and her life to God. Secondly, she loved His Word. And thirdly, she pursued holiness, pursued God. Verses 11 and 12 exclaim that we cannot always know even ourselves, and the psalmist asks God to preserve him from errors, secret faults and presumption.

I am Your servant, he says to God in verses 11 and 13, and You are my strength (rock). And You are my redeemer, the last word having the same idea of kinsman-redeemer who, like Boaz in the wonderful love story of Ruth, purchases and frees his beloved. 

This is how Leona lived, Dad, said. She spoke the words, but the truth of them lived deep in her heart. She was God's servant and He was her strength.

Wes had mentioned that he had said to Leona on one of those last days, "If Jesus calls you, be sure to go."

And she did.

Now she is in the presence of the One she loves even more than Wes, and we can release her to Him, triumphantly, as she echoes the words of the Queen of Sheba, "The half was not told to me!"

Wes comforted by his great grandchildren 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Windows of Heaven - A View From the Valley

Yesterday was Olive's and Bob's 58th wedding anniversary.

And yesterday was Dad's 79th birthday.

He made lunch for all of us - roast chicken, biscuits, two different chiffon cakes.

Giving thanks for breakfast -
oopmah made by Deborah Joy.
Notice the floury cuff from making biscuits!
He also spoke at Bethel Church that morning. 

His text was from 2 Kings chapter 7. The story is of the Israelites, who were in the throes of a great famine. Great means enormous, overwhelming. But the root of this word, Dad explained, means to twist: this famine was wringing the life out of the city. Literally. People were eating their own children. They were driven to unspeakable acts because of their desperation.

When the king heard of this atrocity he tore his clothes in grief; and it was revealed that underneath the rich, royal robes he wore sackcloth - the garment of mourning, of repentance - next to his skin. Dad commented that we might very often be in contact with people who are suffering in ways we cannot imagine; everything seems to be the status quo on the surface, but underneath that layer there are real hurts, real sorrows, unbearable pain.

Not only was the king in deep mourning, he was also furious. He roared for the head of Elisha.

He intended to destroy the one person who had spoken the truth to him, the one person who would be able to find a way out of the darkness for the city of Samaria.

But God protected his prophet, who got a message to the king through the latter's servant that the very next day there would be food and to spare.

However, one of the king's closest advisors scoffed at the notion: "If the Lord Himself should make windows in heaven, would this thing be?"

Elisha responded that because of the man's lack of faith, he would see that "this thing" would indeed be but he would not eat any of the food that would be provided.

And so it was. That night four lepers - outcasts, living on the outskirts of the city, starving along with everyone inside the city walls - decided to take a chance. They figured they were dead any way they looked at it, so they might as well throw themselves on the mercy of the Syrians who had surrounded the city and laid siege to it.

You're probably familiar with the story: earlier that night God had caused the armies of Syria to hear a noise that sounded like armies surrounding them; and so they fled, leaving their tents, their food, their plunder, their livestock.

The lepers came upon this abandoned camp and, falling onto the food, ate their fill. They took everything they could carry; and then they paused. They mulled it over with each other, coming to the conclusion that if they didn't pass the word on to their people that there was food for the taking, bad luck would surely hit them.   

This was no deep spiritual prompting that made them share the good news; rather, it was a very natural response to the potential of getting into trouble if they didn't act. So they told the porter at the gates, who got the word to the king.

God used a combination of divine power - causing the army to flee the scene - and humanity - the lepers - to save the city from starvation and death. In His providence, Dad said, He involves human beings to accomplish His great works. Look at even the birth of Jesus, for example: Jesus didn't simply fall out of heaven onto earth; God used Mary as the channel through which Jesus was born and the person who would bring Him up.

The people of the city, when they were given the news, stormed off in the direction of the abandoned camp. And the king's advisor, who had been standing guard at the gate of the city, saw the food, saw the people racing to get it, but was trampled underfoot in the stampede.

Two other details are significant about this story, Dad remarked. The first is that all the action - every bit of it - took place in the night. It was in the evening that the lepers decided to go to the camp of the Syrian army. It was night when they reported their findings to the porter, who passed the word on to the king. And it was still night when the people stormed the gates in their need to get food.   That food had been made available to them because at twilight, even before the lepers went to the camp, God had caused the army's wholesale evacuation. God had already made provision before people had discovered it.

Dad reminded us of the story of the Red Sea parting for the Israelites as they fled from Egypt. This parting of the waters of the Red Sea in order that the people could cross over in safety was also accomplished at night. 

Jesus Himself died in the supernatural darkness that descended on the land for three long hours.

The other thing Dad said that struck a real chord with me is this: God promised the king, through Elisha, that the people would be fed. The king's advisor mocked the idea. "Unbelief does not negate or nullify God's promise," Dad reminded us. God doesn't need my buying into His promise in order for Him to carry out what He has said He will do. And He often works when I can't even see what is happening; He does some of His best work in the valley of the shadow. His provision is sufficient for all; but it is efficient for those who believe what He says.

Dad sang the old familiar gospel hymn:
The beautiful valley of the Thompson River
Kamloops, twilight Sept 5, 2011

He leads me beside still waters
somewhere in the Valley below
He draws me aside to be tested and tried
but in the valley He restoreth my soul ...

If I can believe, even in the valley of sorrow and desperation and heartache, I will ultimately be able to see the windows of heaven open with the provision I need, the provision that is waiting for me.

In the third event of yesterday the windows of heaven opened for our beloved friend Leona. Wes and Leona celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary last year. And as afternoon made way for twilight this September 4 he sat by her bedside in the hospital, stroking her arm gently to relieve her anxiety. When it first happened he was able to calm her quite easily. When she became jittery the second time, it took much more effort. And so this saint, while soothing his wife, opened his heart to God in total faith, in simple trust: "Father, you know I need her," he prayed. "But if it's her time, please take her; don't let her suffer ..."

Wes and Leona early 2011
As he finished praying he lifted up his head to look at the dearest face on this earth to him; and she was gone. Wes, believing, had unlatched those windows of heaven for his beloved. And now as he prepares to make his lonely journey through the valley of the shadow cast by her death he can look upward and know that his darling is waiting for him, watching through the windows of heaven for the day that they will open and reunite him with her.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Distracted Driving, or, Our Government at Work for Us

Our new "Distracted Driving" law came into effect in Alberta yesterday. No phones. No texting. No eating. No putting on lipstick. No map reading, or any reading for that matter. Strict rules on drinking and even HOW you drink.

I threw my hands up in despair. And then I emailed my friend Greg, a lawyer in Ottawa:

Heading to Calgary and just found out I'm not allowed to eat, drink or talk on the phone while driving. How will I stay awake? If I hit and kill someone because I've fallen asleep, will you plead my cause? I'm SOOO tired ...

His answer was immediate and, as always, pithily amusing:

I'm your lawyer. I stand on guard for thee.

A couple of hours later came this message:

Did you get to your destination safely?

Your lawyer.

I responded grumpily:

Yes thank you counsellor. Now I have to shop for food, which I won't be able to eat on the way home. Can't you DO something about these laws? I mean, does Canada really care if the Rest of Canada is distracted and / or killing each other on the highways? Less PC fans ...

He shot back tartly but sweetly, a crab apple in the Halls of Justice:

Canada and I both care about you and your future. We would hate to find you plastered on the Calgary TV channel as a statistic.
Please dont eat and drive.
Please drive then eat.
Please drive slowly and eat well.

See? It's not so unreasonable, when you put it like that!

Greg is one of the smartest people I know. He's earned his Doctorate in Laws, has authored several tomes, spends his career advising others, and lives his life caring for others. I'm always incredulous that he condescends to befriend me; but I'm grateful for the serendipity of events that introduced us to each other.

(Although FYI, sir, Calgary is a town of more citizens than comprise Ottawa. We manage to have more than one TV channel these days ...)

I'm home again, safe and sound. And I didn't speed or talk on the phone while driving, not even once.

Tomorrow I'll figure out my brand new phone head set ...

And I sincerely hope I have breached no client-attorney privilege!