Category Archives: Life, Love & Literature

explorations to inspire, perturb and uplift :)

The Resilience of Life—Spiritual Teachings from the Garden

DSC07324Of all the sunflowers that I planted last year, the one that flourished most was a surprise to me. I transplanted a handful of seedlings to the yard. They grew and grew. They also became tasty treats for grasshoppers as evidenced by the holes left behind in the leaves. One day, I noticed one plant’s stem was sawed in half. It was hanging on by a thread.

“What did this?” I wondered and felt sad for the little plant.

My neighbour suggested it might have been a cutworm. I didn’t have the heart to pluck it out of the ground. So I left it.

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Gradually, the plant formed a scar at the cut and the stem became thicker there. The stem formed a right angle and continued to grow up. The stem became thicker than the other sunflowers that grew tall but were thin and flimsy.

The plant eventually recovered and produced more flowers than any of the others. The cut, the scar, the regrowth and regeneration of the plant actually seemed to make it hardier and more resilient than the others. What a lesson!

This year, it was the same routine. I transplanted seedlings to the yard outside my window. There was another plant already starting to grow out there. At first I thought it was a weed but suspected it could be a sunflower so I left it. And indeed, to my delight,  it was a sunflower! Now this sunflower that planted itself from last year’s seeds is doing brilliantly. It exceeds the others in height and number of blossoms. Nature has produced something more amazing than I could have planned or prepared myself.

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I don’t consider myself a serious gardener. I put seeds or roots in pots and see what I can nurture into life. This is what the garden teaches me: to be humble, to be open to surprise, to respect the land. It is always an experiment full of surprises and lessons.

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River Prayer

DSC06688For years, rivers and creeks have called me into a practice of prayer. From the river flowing from Lac Leman to the creeks that feed Okanagan Lake, I have been inspired to reflect on the movement of the water.

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Standing on a bridge or on a bank near the river facing downstream: I identify all that I need to let go. All the things I don’t know I need to let go of, I surrender to the wisdom of the Almighty One.

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Facing upstream, arms wide:  I identify all that I am open to receive. I am open to surprise, mystery, grace, guidance.

As I open my posture and my spirit to this practice, the sound of the water washes over me, cleanses me, makes me feel renewed and whole.DSC06438

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The diving lesson

It was Saturday afternoon and I was doing laps in the pool. There weren’t many people around. It was calm and I was selfishly glad to have the “slow” lane all to myself.

clip_image001(1)“Excuse me?” said a voice.

I looked up and saw a boy leaning towards me from the edge of the pool at the end of my lane.

“Yes,” I said.

“Do you know how to do a back flip off the diving board?” the boy asked.

“No,” I said almost laughing.

Then I recognized him. He had been with a group of other boys five minutes earlier who were all doing tricks, flips and fancy dives off one of the regular sized diving boards.

“Um, but you’re a professional swimmer right?” he said absolutely sure of himself.

I had to chuckle. I am the last thing that comes to my mind when I think of a professional swimmer. I don’t wear a swimming cap, goggles or a particularly sporty looking bathing suit. And I was swimming with a flutter board for goodness sakes!

“No, I’m just a hobbyist,” I explained.

Then I realized he might not know what “hobbyist” means. He looked about nine years old.

“Oh, so swimming is just your hobby?” he queried.

I said, “That’s right” (clever, he understood what “hobbyist” means).

“Well do you know how to do dives?” he continued.

“Um, well actually, no.” I had to think for a while. When was the last time I dove into water? Probably when I was a kid. I wasn’t sure I remembered how.

“Oh, well I can teach you if you want,” he persisted.

I hesitated. I didn’t really want to get out of the water. I was on a roll with the laps. I came here to get fit not really to have fun. Though there was that one time I went down the waterslide. I felt kind of silly – a grown woman at the pool on her own going down the slide. And I never go into the shallow pool (which looks like a lot of fun) except that one time my youngest sister was in town (and she threw a ball in my face). There seems to be an unspoken rule, or maybe it’s just in my mind, that the shallow pool is only for children or adults with children.

“Okay,” I said finally, pulling myself out of the water.

He taught me how to do a regular dive, a sideways dive and a squat-down-like-a-duck-dive. He explained how each one was done step by step and then demonstrated them for me.

“Okay, now I’ll try and you let me know how it looks afterwards,” I said hoping I wasn’t about to break my neck or fall flat on my belly.

Arms pointed, aim, lean, I’m leaning, I’m falling, falling, FALLING, no… I’m diving, toes together. SPLASH!

When I resurfaced, I heard my personal coach cheering me on:

“Wow that was really good. Doesn’t it feel good to learn something new?”

“Yes, it does,” I said smiling.

“Now what about this, just hop up a bit when you leave the ground and dive in,” he said encouragingly.

I started to try and do it but it felt awkward and scary. Like the first time ever trying to do a cartwheel.

“I can’t do it. I feel scared,” I said.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I won’t make fun of you.”

“I think I’ll just work on my regular dive,” I said decidedly.

I dove in again and asked him how it looked as I pulled myself out of the water. It felt more like a belly flop.

“It looked good. Eight out of ten!” he said enthusiastically.

“Well, I need to get going,” I said realizing twenty minutes had already passed since the diving lesson began.

“Are you sure? I have a lot more to teach you,” he sounded disappointed.

He seemed kind of lonely and just wanted someone to hang out with. I felt bad and also empathized with his loneliness.

“I’m sure you do. I really do need to go though. I have an appointment in half an hour. But thanks for everything.”

“My name is Ethan,” he said while extending his hand towards me.

“Nice to meet you Ethan. I’m Natalie. Thanks for teaching me how to dive today,” I said while shaking his hand pruned up from the water.

I left the pool quite amazed. Did that really just happen. Did a young boy just randomly teach me how to dive? I am someone who feels claustrophobic when I attempt to do the forward crawl and am too shy to practice it in the public pool. Diving…I feel like I conquered a small fear I didn’t even know I had until invited to try something new and go beyond my regular routine and comfort zone. I was reminded that no one is too young to be a teacher and or too old to learn.

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Barot and the Basement – A Tribute to Elders of Resistance (ou “j’ai trouvé l’esprit œcuménique au sous sol)

When I worked for the World Council of Churches I would occasionally leave my desk, break the monotony of sitting in front of the computer responding to hundreds of emails, and retreat to the basement of the Ecumenical Centre (home to the WCC headquarters and several other organizations in Geneva).

The basement became a desirable quiet space—an alternative to the cafeteria tea break. I found myself again and again drawn into the bowels of the building as a way of reminding myself why I was doing this work and the mantle of responsibility I carried on my shoulders to honour the work and history of the ecumenical movers that came before me (a movement is made up of movers, no?). Down the spiralling staircase into the cool, quiet dark of the concrete basement I found calm in the stillness amongst shelves and shelves of records. I would walk between the books, papers and boxes and stop to read the labels of the archived materials: “1949 Youth Work Camp” or “South Africa Apartheid: Programme to Combat Racism.” As I touched these boxes I felt somehow connected to the voices and people represented by these records and greatly humbled. A few times I would invite people, colleagues or visitors, to come with me, “Do you want to see my favourite place in the whole building?” They probably thought I was going to take them to see the beautiful stained glass in the chapel or the large tapestry in the meeting hall or the diversity of flowers in the garden…no, down to the basement we went to connect to this ecumenical heritage.

I recently read André Jacques’ account of the life and work of Madeleine Barot published by the WCC in 1991 shortly before her death. After reading about Barot’s life, I realized how little I know of ecumenical history – only snippets here and there that are loosely stitched together. I wonder if we do not spend enough time across generations listening to stories, especially of elders, from whom we inherit this great legacy and project of unity.barot

Barot worked with youth movements like SCM and YWCA who came together to form the CIMADE (Inter-Movement Committee for Evacuees) in 1939. They asked themselves how God was calling them to act in the context of war where friends they had made with young people from other countries were now considered their “enemies.” Barot and other people active in the youth movements of CIMADE decided to live in the internment camps in France with Jewish refugees and those in the resistance movement. I realized their model was truly an early form of “accompaniment program.” They witnessed and experienced the internees’ daily life of imprisonment and tried to secure resources in scarce supply such as clothing, medical supplies and food. They provided pastoral care and organized prayers for those interested and demonstrated what seems to be a great deal of sensitivity to religious plurality (i.e. some Rabbis joined in the bible studies and offered their wisdom on the Hebrew scriptures). They helped people escape to Spain and Switzerland who were to be deported to German camps. They mobilized the churches in any effort they could to spare adult and children internees from death. They were active resisters to the racism, xenophobia and fascism experienced through the Nazi and Vichy regimes. People like Barot and her contemporaries in these struggles were instrumental in the formation of the WCC.  One quote I found both inspiring and challenging was from Barot’s address in 1947 to the World Conference of Christian Youth in Oslo (considered the first major postwar international, ecumenical conference):

 “Young people aspire to Christian unity not only on the level of theological speculation and doctrinal affirmations but also on the level of daily life…It seems to them that beyond the reality of divided churches, the different ecumenical movements have created the consciousness of Christian unity, but that this remains too intellectual. To become a revolutionary and creative power at the heart of this broken world, the creative action of the Holy Spirit is needed.”

Barot, was a young woman and a powerful leader who exemplified solidarity, ecumenical cooperation and persistence through her faith to actively oppose injustice. Her address from 1947 is one for unity—visible, lived unity. It is not enough to talk about our togetherness —we must act. She also goes on to say:

“Observing the life of the churches confirmed my impression that ecclesiastical institutions can paralyze the witness, service and presence of Christians in the world.”

Somehow her wisdom echoes into today’s church context. Where is the spirit of the ecumenical movement that once inspired these young people towards acts of non-violent bravery and compassion? How do we continue to follow the Holy Spirit in the midst of institutionalized church and ecumenism? How are we being called as witnesses and movers for justice in the world today?

I was reminded of another elder of resistance, Stéphane Hessel, after the news of his death on February 26th. Hessel was involved in writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. More recently, he wrote a pamphlet called “Time for Outrage” (“Indignez-Vous”) and is considered a major catalyst and inspiration behind the “Occupy Movement.”  Hessel says of his pamphlet:

“Do not accept the unacceptable. Take it upon yourself to resist and to be outraged. I hope that it (Indignez-Vous) will give courage to the young generation to feel that it us up to them to change the global society in a more humane direction.”

Stéphane Hessel, whose pamphlet Indignez-Vous! sold 4.5m copies in 35 countries

During his interview on CBC radio, Anna Maria Tremonti alludes to the fact that it must have been Hessel’s outrage that led him to join the resistance in France against the Nazis. Hessel’s reflection on the French resistance during the war in comparison with the challenges we face today somehow echoed what I felt after reading about Madeleine Barot’s life. As Hessel says,

“…of course, that (resistance to Nazism) was relatively obvious. I mean it was a difficult fight but it was an obvious fight. Today it is not as obvious. What are we supposed to fight against? What challenges do we have to meet today? They are not such obvious challenges as an occupation by a foreign army. But the challenges are there. The enormous difference between extreme poverty and great, great riches. That is the injustice that has to be fought against by a solidarity movement of all. The non-violent way of determined action but without weapons can be more successful. In my long, long life I have seen non-violence more successful than violence.”

Perhaps the challenges facing us today, such as climate change, are more complex or broad as Hessel seems to claim. I turn to the examples of people like Barot in the early ecumenical movement and elders of resistance like Hessel for strength and wisdom to face what we must do today. It is not just up to young people to work for the justice and change we need in the world but should be an effort across generations as we learn together what it means to be community and  live the unity given to us.

Sources:

The views contained herein are personal to me and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Church, EAPPI or the WCC. If you would like to publish the information contained here (including posting on a website), or distribute it further, please first contact me for permission. Thank you.

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International Day of Prayer for Peace

Creator, we give thanks for the signs of hope that you provide us

like trees growing out from rocks

help our roots to grow deep in your love

nourishing a sense of respect and care for all your creation

that we may, together with your guiding spirit, build a better world.

tree growing from a rock (on the other side of the separation barrier from Jayyous)

Resources for the International Day of Prayer for Peace: http://www.oikoumene.org/en/news/events/ev/se/article/1634/international-day-of-pray-10.html

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