Tuesday, December 30


Floating Encounters are experiences that Bob and I have been noting since we started attempting to live listening lives.

Oswald Chambers (My Utmost For His Highest) suggests that our lives are like a river. We're always moving forward; a current-pulled body that leaves it's mark on whatever terrain it's meandering (or rushing or white-capping) through. Because we're swept along, floating with the current, we don't, Mr. Chambers says, have the privilege of seeing our impact on the banks and rocks and debris we pass over. We're simply obeying the water's pull.

Today, after months of not-much-at-all (I think Danny was our last connection of this sort?), I coincidentally bumped into Kelly.

Kelly ~ A Floating Encounter

Kelly was our dog groomer before his business went belly-up. (I should clarify that when I say he was "our" groomer what I mean is that we'd taken the dogs to him a grand total of two times to be shaved naked so they'd stop coating our home in wiry black hair.) Several months ago, the last time we saw him, he was in a desperate situation: his finances were tanking, his addictions were consuming, anger and despair sat like two spectre's on either of his over-burdened shoulders.

That day was a typical summer day for me and the boys. Bob was at work and I was powering through the day, juggling schedules and meals and messes. Mid-morning, mid-tantrum, I was feeling particularly annoyed with the build-up of dog hair on my kitchen floor and thought that I really should get them shaved soon. I left the thought right where it was, filed under "Stuff to do Sometime," and went on with the day.

As the hours marched on, though, the thought persisted. Intently. Get the dogs groomed. Get the dogs groomed soon. Call the groomer and book an appointment. I shoved the thoughts aside. I had enough to do and couldn't be bothered to make the call. But by four in the afternoon, I was more annoyed by the insistent intrusion of groomer thoughts than I was by the dog hair. What started as a fleeting thought was now an all-consuming nuisance.

I picked up the phone a dialed, fully expecting to get a machine on the other end and wondering why one earth the OCD part of my brain was refusing to shut up about the groomer already.

I didn't get the machine. I got the groomer.

By his own admission, Kelly is a bit like Chef Ramsey (Hell's Kitchen) on downers. He's quick tempered and intolerant, focused and aggressive. His unkempt hair and weathered-by-rage-and-worry face frames icy gray eyes. He has the ease of conversation of a man who knows how to survive anything. He answered the phone with, appropriately, a bark. "What?"

"Uuuh. 'Just wondering if I can book my two newfie-labs in for a shave sometime in the next month."
"Yeah. Well. Whatever. If you want 'em done you'll have to bring 'em today. Like, right now 'cause I don't know if I'll even be here after tomorrow."
"Oh," confused silence to follow. "Uh. I wasn't really thinking about getting them done today. There are two of them. And they're big. It takes several hours to shave them both."
"Well, do what you want but I can take 'em now if you want me to."
"Right. Okay. I'll be over in fifteen minutes. With both dogs? You're sure you want them both? It'll take you until, like 9:00 to get them both done."
"Look. I'm really stressed out right now and I need the money, so this is kind of perfect. Just come right now."

I arrived at Kelly's hole-in-the-wall shop to find him very distressed, but, while he wrestles with common courtesies in the human world, he's very tender and funny in the dog world. He remembered the dogs and gently led them back into his shop, talking non-stop about his predicament. Rent was past due and the doors were going to close tonight if he didn't get his money. Bad investments, bad management, and bad business had landed him in an all around bad spot.

"Hmm," I mumbled. Listening. Inwardly waiting for the Holy Spirit's direction about how to engage in this situation. Suddenly my obsessive groomer thoughts became more about the possible leading of God than about my inability to control my mucky-floor thinking.

"So here's the thing, Kelly. I'm wondering if maybe the God who loves you has something for you today?" I told him about how hard it was for me to get the idea of getting the dogs looked after off my mind and how that had led to a four o'clock in the afternoon phone call.

"I think, maybe, that You were on the mind of God today. So He reminded me to think of you, too. What exactly do you need today -- right now?"

I had his attention then. I could see the addict/survivor in him wrestling with this-woman-is-a-stranger propriety. My defenses were up, too. I didn't want to be taken for a ride or to have what could be an investment on my family's part misused. I read him carefully, watching for signs that he was spinning a tale. I didn't care, really. By then I was convinced that God had me at the dog groomer's for a reason. It was just a matter of hearing what that reason was.

"Awww. You know. Really? You think God was thinking about me? Me?"

"Yeah, I'm kind of thinking so, Kelly. And I'm thinking this might have more to do with who you are as a man than it has to do with your business and your bills. The God who made you is interested in who you have become."

Kelly had a lot to say about that ~ the usual defensive-reasons-I-haven't-had-time-for-God-stuff-lately chatter. I was saying personal and uncomfortable things. He doesn't know me and I don't know him. This was a risky situation.

"What do you need today," I asked again.

"Hey. You know. Nothin' really. Well. If I could just do the dogs that'd give me a bit of cash. Maybe enough to fill the tank with gas and clear my stuff outta' here so I can leave before they come after me for the rent."

Dodgy. God, I silently wondered, what's my family's role in serving this guy? 'Not crazy about helping him avoid the inevitable. God was quiet. Have I mentioned before how really silent He is in these moments?

"Okay. Well, I'll leave the dogs with you, then. When should I come back for them?" We set a time. "Anything I can do for you before I go?" Then, in response to another of those flit-through-your-brain-so-quickly-you-hardly-notice-it thoughts, I asked, "Have you had anything to eat today?"

"Well, no, but I'm fine. But," he pauses, "I could really use a smoke." I beetle to the Mac's around the corner and buy him a pack (Steady hands on the razors that will be next to the dogs' skin seems like a good enough reason for that purchase!) and then head for home.

I call Bob and outline the day's drama and we started to talk about what God might have for Kelly. We had no clue. Not one. What he needed was money. We got it that any money we gave might be funneled into any number of wacky fixations or addictions. That's always the risk, right? No telling how your "gift" will be handled once it's out of your hands.

We settled on an amount (using the usual "What dollar amount popped into your head when I brought this up, Hon?" approach. It works remarkably well. We're always within a few bucks of each other.). We gave it when Bob went to pick up the dogs. And that was the end of that. We prayed for Kelly. We wondered what had happened to him. We forgot about him.

Until today.

God whispers. He's not in the storm or the earthquake or the fire, right? He's in the teeny whisper.

Today, at the video store, He whispered a really holy instruction: This would be a good time to look for that movie Cory's been wanting to see. I didn't know it was Him, of course. If I'd known it was Him I would've gotten all weird and sanctimonious about listening, or some such nonsense. But I didn't know it was Him. I thought it was me having a brilliant idea and so I asked for a hand from the desk staff and proceeded to extend my run-in-and-grab-a-movie trip to Blockbuster into an extra-long hunt for a misplaced flick.

And then God stepped out from behind the whisper. Kelly walked through the Blockbuster door. I couldn't place him immediately. I caught his eye, recognition struck, and I acknowledged him by name. He had no idea who I was until I said, "Hey Kelly. I'm two black newfie-labs."The light came on behind those sad, cool eyes.

"You. I never got to thank you. Sandra. You sent your husband, Bob -- really tall guy -- for the dogs so I didn't get to thank you. You'll never know what you did for me that day." He, remarkably I thought, pulled both of our names from whatever memory bank they'd been stuffed into.

"No? Well, umm, it kind of seemed like God wanted to connect with you, hey?"

We spent a few minutes updating his story. The business went under, but he was able to pay his bill. He'd left the city for another province and had spent four months in rehab. "It didn't take," he grimaced. And now he was trying to help his parents deal with a brutally messy divorce. Life was hard. Life is hard.

He extended his hand for a goodbye shake and said how glad he was that he'd had a chance to see me again. I agreed and said again that God's interest in Him went beyond business and into things like rehab and broken family.

"Yeah. Well keep praying for me. The people that are praying for me -- it must be workin' 'cause I'm still here."

I want to downplay that assessment. You're still alive? That's something worth acknowledging God for? But I catch myself and re-think it. For Kelly just staying a live is a big deal. If that's where God's meeting him than that's enough. And he's gone.

The by-now familiar confusion (What the heck was that all about?) that follows these floating moments settles in. I didn't say anything amazing or do anything miraculous ~ again. I hope that Jesus in me connected with need in another. Another bit of "Oh! I should listen to that little voice," settled into place. And that's all. No great moral. No flash of holy light or polished halo. Just Jesus injecting Himself into human experience.

I don't imagine we'll ever see Kelly again. If we do, I won't likely have anything more to contribute to his life. "Oh. Hey! How's that God thing going for ya'?" or some such fumbling. But He's on God's radar, right? Always. I'll just keep asking Him to continue to offer freedom and hope to the dog groomer. And He will. Because He's a God who invests in small moments in small amounts through small people. He will.

Sunday, December 28

Polaroid Jesus

In the picture of Jesus that I carry around in my head, He’s always laughing. He has a sort of “Why are you guys taking everything so seriously?” smirk on His face, and His arms, His hands are always reaching – away from Himself, toward His listener. Toward me. Toward you.

I love the way that Jesus served people when He was here. He was so raw and counter-culture and in-your-face about taking care of felt needs while pointedly (sternly?) addressing matters of sin and conscience and faith. He made wild suggestions: if you want to be worth something, serve somebody. If you want to master all of God’s laws wrapped into one, Love. Love God, love others. If you give even a cup of water to the broken, the ignored, the left-behind, it’s like you’ve given Me that cup of water.

A Jesus like that must be at ease with laughter and open-armed invitation. He didn’t discriminate, He just reached toward. In a time when women were marginalized and hated, He, without making any sort of show of it, walked alongside them as companionable equals. His best friends were nobody’s and somebody’s. He had the nerve to stand up to soul-killing tradition while carefully upholding Life-saving law.

And one day we’re going to be toe-to-toe with that One. We’ll see His face and know His ways and why’s and how’s. We’ll touch the hands that reached toward us and pulled us, urged us from our not-so-laughable dark. We’ll laugh, too. Without restraint or fear or shame. We’ll laugh too

Thursday, December 18

Need a Nudge?

It happens to all of us. We get stuck. Stuck in the mud. Stuck in the snow. Stuck in old offenses and even older fears. Stuck in our laziness. Stuck in our loneliness.

We're in a deep freeze right now (I'm sitting at the computer wearing sweater layers, knit slippers, and a winter scarf), with just enough snow covering just enough super slippery ice to keep everybody just a little on edge on the roads. Our small car is, we've discovered, a summer vehicle. It gets high-centered on snow heaps and hopelessly stranded in it's parking space as the snow mounts around it.

Our neighbors have been getting stuck, too. We're all kind of slipping and sliding around, alternately careening around corners and navigating the skating rinks that our parking spots have become. Cars have been abandoned all over town as drivers give up trying to navigate their way out of their predicaments.

The key to getting unstuck is to trick the tires into thinking they're on friction-friendly ground. Sometimes just a crank of the wheel, changing the direction they're facing, is enough to get them on the move. Driving a teensy bit forward, and then a little bit back, might do the trick, too. Two steps forward, one step back. Repeat.

But sometimes all of the cajoling in the world won't work. In that case, a little more force is required. Force in the shape of a friend, or two, or (as in one case down the street this week) six. Said friends, by forcibly rocking the vehicle back and forth while it's in gear, can get a trapped car unstuck in no time. It takes a lot of effort (much more on the part of the friends pushing than the vehicle owner behind the wheel, come to think of it), but it works!

If you're really in deep all of the efforts of well-intentioned heavyweights might leave you stranded. In that case, the really big guns, the tow-truck drivers, might need to be called in.

Are you stuck? Maybe you've already tried the easy stuff: changing your approach to the problem, going back over hard won understanding and trying again. Maybe you've left off caring and have abandoned the struggle all together. Or maybe you just need a shove ~~ someone to get in your face and none-to-gently push you out of the slippery, rut-stuck, spot you're in.

It happens to all of us, right? We grow complacent and bored. We shrivel away in bitterness and small mindedness. We become self-indulgent and self-satisfied.

Do we have the courage to pop our head out of the window of wherever we are and call for a hand? Will we, when our friend shows up to throw their weight at the challenge, extend them gratitude instead of annoyance or rejection? They are the ones, after all, risking the heart attack!

Whatever your ice patch, whatever your drift, there's a way off and a way out. You might have to ask for your friends' weighty assistance, but you don't have to stay put. You can get moving again.

Sunday, December 14

A Watery Christmas

Eleven sleeps until Christmas. We're so fortunate, as a family, that this is a generous and simple and exciting time for our tiny five person world.

We've been doing the 12 days of Christmas instead of stockings this year: One stocking stuffer-like gift each day leading up to the 25th. We preamble the exchange with a quick conversation. We started with the simple, "What's one thing we're thankful for from this past year?"

Today, Bob asked, "What's one goal you're setting for yourself in the year ahead?" The boys' initial answers were funny ("Stop walking the dogs." "Stop picking my nose.") but they came up with some good stuff, too (I'll keep those between them and us.). When Bob's turn came 'round we all tuned in more attentively.

Bob's a terrific goal-setter. He sets personal goals consistently and, once he's achieved a mark, he sets new ones to replace the one he accomplished. He talked about some personal things he'd like to reach for and then he suggested a not-so-new new one that we all quickly adopted as our own.

Bob's been out of the boat for awhile now. He's left off old comfort zone attitudes and behaviors in exchange for stretching himself in areas of faith and practical Christianity. "This year," he said, "I'd like to find a way to live even more out of the boat. A way to help or volunteer or something."

That doesn't sound like a big deal on paper, I guess. But it is big in our out-of-community experience. One thing that structured, meet-on-Sunday's Christianity offers is an (unending!) array of opportunities for service. Sound systems need to be run and chairs set up. Children need to be minded or taught. Youth group's need running and prayer ministries need facilitating.

When you're not involved in that structure, opportunities to serve and help need to be actively sought out. And that is trickier than it sounds! We've looked for God in a lot of areas in this, but have found ourselves floundering a little. It's not enough to simply be tuned in to our community and their projects; sure we'll clean ditches and help the neighbors and give at the door, but we're looking, honestly, for a cause that we can give our heart's to as a family.

As I write, I'm wondering if that might be misguided. Maybe the goal should be to become more fully committed to Jesus and to looking for His in-this-moment opportunity for service. Maybe we should be looking to hone that listening-doing lifestyle.

That's an uncomfortable thought. Because many, many days feel purposeless and silent and undirected. It'd be so much simpler (and I so love simplicity) to have one sure thing! Maybe we'll be able to work it out more specifically in the next few stuffed stocking days. Or in the New Year. Or a few Christmas's down the road. Or maybe it's not something to be figured out, but surrendered to and experienced. The thing will be, any which way, to hang out with Bob -- out of the boat.

Sunday, December 7

One Step, One Thousand Steps

I'm on kilometer number four and heartily wishing that I'd taken fifteen seconds to change out of my jeans and into some sweats before hitting the treadmill. Two kilometers to go and I am grumpily uncomfortable in the confines of unyielding denim.

A thought pops into mind -- a distant memory of a "diet tips and tricks" article that I'd read years ago. It was probably printed on one of many glossy pamphlet's promising sleek results in thirty days if I just went on a particular herbal regimen. This particular list of weight loss to-do's asserted that the first key to success in losing pounds is to wear comfortable clothing. This one step alone, they cheered, is a great motivator for movement.

As I trodge on, cranking the incline to it's maximum height, I think of how inane that suggestion felt to me at the time. At two hundred pounds with fussy knees and a head full of despair there was no way I was going to be motivated to keep my butt moving just by slipping into something a little more comfortable!

One of the stark realizations that came along with my initial baby steps toward health was that I was going to have to make friends with discomfort in a right rush. I had to accept that there was going to be absolutely nothing easy or natural about the thousands-of-kilometers journey I was starting.

In that first year I strapped on sneakers and whatever clothes I could squeeze into and I walked. Every day. Every day. I walked in hail, rain, and minus thirty temperatures. I walked with twisted ankles and screaming knees. I walked if I had the flu. I walked whenever time allowed ~ if that meant I didn't get out there until 10:30 at night, then I walked tired-out and ready for bed.

My body protested shrilly. My calves clenched into wooden shafts. I experienced heal spurs for the first time. My back grumbled and cranked, bitterly resisting each new pair of running shoes.

I was embarrassed. Mercilessly. I was big and jiggly and slow, so I took myself out into nearby fields determined to navigate rugged, bone-jarring tilled ground rather than expose myself on urban sidewalks. I didn't have any confidence that I was going to be successful. I only knew that I wasn't going to stop moving.

I was uncomfortable. For sixty minutes every day I thumbed my nose at discomfort in the hopes of leaving obesity and shame in those dusty fields. I didn't feel inspired or motivated. I made a choice and followed it through. I didn't feel self-satisfaction or increasingly fit and strong. I felt tired and unsure.

I decrease my incline and increase my speed. Now, many months and countless kilometers later, I can afford to think about whether or not I'm "comfortable" when I'm moving my body. If my knee's and back are screeching for the couch, I'll walk for 45 minutes instead of the usual sixty. I wear clothes that fit and move well. I take one day off in a week - if I feel like it. Usually I forget and just chug along. I use the treadmill on weathery days instead of insisting on heading outside in the wind and chill and wet.

I poke the "stop" button on the machine console. Dripping with sweat and vowing not to go the blue jean route again, I slip out of my worn out Zeller's brand sneakers and consider my culture and how it pushes against the discipline of discomfort. I'm aware that the allure of a soft couch, a bag of something salty, and a plate full of cookies will likely always have a strong draw on me and that, at any time, I may choose to leave off the work it takes to keep seventy pounds off my frame and out in those fields.

I punch the "off" button on the fan and head upstairs to slog an enormous amount of water. One more day of doing what needs to be done under my belt and off of my waistline.

Friday, December 5

What? This Ol' Thing?

I still think about her all of the time (I think it was this time last year that I wrote a bit about her). It's a geographical sort of remembering. I drive past her old condo and the apartment where she died. I fill up with gas at her favorite gas station and walk on sidewalks where we walked together. She lived where I live.

I think she shapes my thinking ~ invades my paradigm, maybe ~ more than I realize. She was everything that I am not: Brash. Cold. Drunk. Sharp witted. Keen eyed. Unapologetic. Always unapologetic.

Religion, apart from the odd trip to a psychic or her devotion to the daily horoscope, didn't touch her everyday. When I showed up on the front porch with cookies in one hand and Miss-Goody-Two-Shoes Jesus in the other, she didn't even flinch. We formed a friendship over time and I listened to hours of her story (A novel's worth of experience and suffering and hard living). She sometimes let me talk about mine.

At the time, I was being cajoled into thinking that I was something that I was not. The small church family that we were part of needed care and I was encouraged and praised and twist-my-rubber-arm led to believe that I was the gal for the job.

Deb saw right through the manipulation and fancy words that I, at the time, found enticing, alluring. "Why would you do that, Sandi? Nothing in it is real." She had no patience (and her impatience was something to behold!) for made-up compliments or feel good ego stroking.

But I was (and still am) looking for purpose outside of my work at home. The offer of an almost real job with almost real consequences and opportunity and responsibility was too tantalizing for me to ignore. I took the care giving role at the church. And Deb refused to talk to me about it.

She's been gone for, I think, three years (could it be four already?) and it's only been in the past month that I've begun to see what her fifty-something insight spotted right away: Flattery. I listened with hungry ears to false praise. My family is still working out the kinks that my choice then worked into the fabric of our home.

You might be seeing this in the lives of women around you, too. Women leaving their husbands ~ even their children ~ in pursuit of personal success. Women who are taking month long or repeated vacations just to "get away". Some are pursuing schooling ~ not because they feel purposeful or inspired or need to help with the family income, but because they are angry and are looking for ways to punish their men by forcing the guys to "step up". Some are openly having affairs. Some are just screaming silently, held prisoner by the duty and unending drudgery of their schedules.

For women who are pushing against the perceived confines of their circumstances, a little flattery might go a long way to convincing them that they are, indeed, capable of, deserving of, so much more than they have.

Deb would have told me that we really are capable and deserving, but her hard won experience also taught her that what we think is critically important in this life really amounts to nothing in our final days, months, years.

She had the career(s). She had the men. And the women. She was a published author and had her pilot's license. She'd done a bit of traveling and knew how to run a successful business. She'd abandoned her husband and son, too, to find herself and become all that she could be.

She was dead in her apartment for three days before anyone knew she was gone. Her son wept at her funeral, but his grief was detached, forlorn. I still don't know how to grieve for my friend who'd seen it all, done it all.

But I'm listening to her pointed interruptions as I watch the stories of new friends wind their way through months and years. I wonder if we'll see flattery for what it is and avoid being drawn into opportunities that look good and right and something-for-me-for-a-change motivating.

Is it possible to leave off that sort of temptation and just faithfully attend to what is True and future-building? I don't know. And how do we tell the difference between the thing that is going to hurt us and the thing that is going to build our lives and the lives of our loved ones?

Deb's life ~ and death ~ remind me that what we think we want or need will one day be exposed for the shadowy nothings that they are. And we will want our children. We'll want our Beloved. We'll want our sisters. We'll want our Daddy's. We'll be looking for hope beyond this side of life.

I'll keep driving by Deb's old place and remembering. She'd be so angry at me for getting all philosophical about these things! If she knew I was talking on like this she'd probably whip up the hem of her housecoat to show me how long her leg hairs had grown since I'd last seen her (Shaving was one of the many "useless" habits she'd abandoned in her final years!) or pull me over to the computer to show me her high score on the gambling site she loved so much. We'd settle into a game of Word Whomp...and she'd whomp me and gently chide me for being "actually sort of slow" at that kind of thing.

And she'd be right. And I'll keep figuring that out. But I'll get it, we'll get it, eventually. We'll figure out what's really important and give our all to pursuing that.

Check out Tia's post, "Drawing The Line" for more perspective on this. Just click on "Tia" on the sidebar.

Wednesday, December 3

Hairbrush Hand Grenades

This morning, CBC radio had an extensive report on gang activity in Canada. 'Turns out, our land is rife with gangs and they are wildly out of control. The younger generation of "gangster" is not governed by the decorum of their forefathers: they are carrying their weapons as badges of honor and wielding them publicly and with no thought of anonymity. The killings that once took place in back rooms and underneath bridges and in old cars are now occurring in front of children's hospitals and in residential areas.

Our own neighborhood is feeling a little dodgy of late. Houses, just a few blocks away, are invaded, their resident's bound, babies and all. Homes are riddled with bullets. Drug deals go down in my back alley. Yesterday, in the middle of the afternoon, I watched as the police drove off with one of my neighbors in their backseat.

Last night as I was scrubbing the dishes, I happened to glance up to see my sons in the living room. The lights were off, except for seasonal glow of the Christmas tree. The three of them were playing a game, content to be together and uninterrupted. At ease. Unthreatened. It was a vision of unmarred sanctuary.

For the past several days the guys have been waging war throughout the house. Sticks, water guns, air soft guns, belts, the ab roller (thank goodness it's getting some sort of workout), and a couple of hairbrushes make up their arsenal. Men rise and fall as strategies are worked and re-worked. I don't know who's at war or if the "good" guys are winning, I only know that it's a fight to the death.

While my sons lob their hairbrush hand grenades and fire imaginary bullets at contrived enemies, the sons of others are raising very real weapons, tilting them to the side, and firing ~ as many shots as they can squeeze off (another unique trait of the new generation of bad guy) ~ into the heads and chests of their rivals.

As this contrast sharpens in my city ~ on my street ~ I do not know what our family's response will be. We are affected by it. Daily. My boys need to learn independence, but they know what's out there and their not crazy about braving it alone. I know what's out there, and I don't want them to die. And I don't want them to be drawn into that world. That world. Two doors, ten doors down, two blocks over. That world that is so far removed from the peace of this home, but so unnervingly close.

The CBC didn't attempt to end their report on a positive note. There's not a lot of hope out there that this very old threat can be efficiently dealt with in new ways.

I'll hold on to hope, I think. Hope that fatherless boys will encounter purpose ~ Purpose that outranks fat bank accounts and violent power. Hope that dead morals and dull ethics will find fresh meaning in reborn souls. Hope that justice and Right will win the day.