The story of Humans in The World
reads like hope and redemption
because the Author of Life
lived the words that bring life,
creates order from chaos,
and knows exactly when,
where, and how
the story ends.
Reflection. Best of lists. Highlights. Anticipation. Resets and resolutions. So many rituals connected to the ordering our lives on the foundation of time. We live into chronology like we traverse airports on moving walkways, the past recedes as we are perpetually propelled forward. Life becomes a timeline, the significant moments labeled and dated, new years noted as harbingers of progress.
This metaphor works because it is not wholly inaccurate, but it falls short of explaining the full-orbed experience of life. Life, like time, is also cyclical. The hands on the clock circle round and round measuring minutes and hours. The earth rotates as it circles the sun, measuring days and months, seasons and years. My own life is better understood through recognizing its cycles than by resolutely marching down the number-line of accumulated age and years.
Progress occurs through returning again and again to perspectives that continually shift and grow or shrink as more learning and living inform my understanding and my choices. Growth is less linear, and more a circling back to build on what was before. Sometimes to scrap and start anew. Sometimes simply to try again. Sometimes to repeat what didn’t work last time only to experience despair or self-recrimination…again. Cycles can create ruts, and dangers lurk there to be sure.
And maybe this is why we often use the metaphor of “going in circles” to describe lack of progress, lostness, “stuckness.” We can certainly experience all of these at any given time, but what if going in circles could also mean building layers of learning, like the rings of a tree. Or patterns of beauty like the concentric circles of a chrysanthemum. Or habits of faith like the woven materials of a sturdy bird’s nest. What if going in circles means recognizing repeating seasons and being more intentional about how we cycle through them. Or, especially in our relationships with God and others, what if it means rotating on the axis of a deepening love, commitment, and understanding. What if going in circles is about growth rather than stagnation. What if.
As we spiral our way through the days and year ahead, may our circles be as wide and wondering or as narrow and tight and focused as needed to let our hearts be tilled, planted, and watered by God’s good work in us. May we return again and again to what is good and true and right, and turn away always from what is not. May our wounds gain another layer of healing. May our cycles of grief be buoyed by hope and comfort. May our ruts be filled in with the core layers of repentance, grace, humility, forgiveness, and belonging. May we collect treasures of joy and goodness in each loop and lap and curve. May we know above all, that the God who first ordered time into morning and evening, days and years makes “everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.”
I’ll spend the next years of my life circling back to ponder the implications of that last sentence. Which is exactly what was intended, I think.
Here’s to going in circles…
Praise God for all things.
All things, God?
Barren trees with branches blown
down haphazard on dirty snow?
Skies of grey upon grey upon grey?
Leftovers for lunch and supper
and supper again?
Renovation dust populating
every. single. surface?
Cold hands, dry skin, tired eyes?
and unanswered prayer?
It’s easy to praise you for every
blessing that feels like a blessing —
retune my heart to praise you
for all the things that don’t.
Grey snow clouds smudge the horizon. Falling snow blurs the middle-ground and slowly whitens the foreground. I bundle up for a New Year’s Day “Thinkski.” Although I skied these trails yesterday, the new snow muffles my tracks, leaving them at best discernible parallel grooves, at worst, blown into oblivion by the wind or stamped out by snowmobiles. Maintaining my own trails is both an exercise in futility and an act of love for skiing. I reset the tracks more than I ever simply ski them nicely packed and smooth.
As I settle into a rhythmic swish-glide, I think about how this almost daily resetting feels so much like the past year where so many days required a reset of expectations as the world was blown over and apart by pandemic fears, racial violence, political divisiveness, and conspiracy theories. Many days felt like a beginning again, a re-finding of something we used to call Normal even though its exact configuration has always been so elusive that we keep renaming it The New Normal to accommodate all of its mutations. Ski, snow, blow, storm, reset, ski, thaw, snow, reset…
My eyes scan the snow ahead, looking for signs of the trail, but it is my feet that tell me whether I have found it or not. The foundation trail beneath the fallen and blown snow is firm and reassuring. This is the way, it says, ski here.
I think there is a foundational trail through the year ahead as well, just as there was one that brought me through last year and the year before that and the year before that… Choosing each day to orient to that foundation is most certainly an act of loving life and Lord and neighbour. “Stand at the crossroads and look,” said the Lord through Jeremiah, a prophet well acquainted with unrest & lament, “ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”
This is the way, God says, walk here. He is firm and reassuring, a faithful refuge, a steadfast guide.
Cold settled to the bottom of the sky this week, left glitter hanging in trees, spread a generous helping of white over autumn’s abandoned and decaying glory. The night the cold arrived, a stray kitten found a warm hideaway shelter, curled its baby tail around its pink baby nose and settled into that deep, world-abandoning sleep recognizable in babies of all shapes and sizes. In the early(ish) morning, the little kitten, a soft-grey tabby, went on an unplanned, very un-kitten-like adventure — to school.
The stowaway was not discovered until the student pulled into the school parking lot and heard something other than the usual purr of his truck engine. And so it was that kitty, smelling slightly of engine oil and still oblivious of the dangers of fan belts, found himself tucked into a flannel-lined jean jacket and smuggled into Room 210. Not that the secrecy part of the smuggling operation was particularly successful. The teacher, somewhat experienced with reading student body language and quite knowledgeable in techniques of interrogation, was quick to spy the bulging jacket, ferreted out an equally quick confession, and further declared that if kittens were going to attend English class, then she, as the teacher, would exercise her authority by being the first to cuddle it. Which she did. Of course.
And so it was that kitty found new warm shelters in various laps, explored an intriguing maze of legs (human and non-human), left tiny paw-prints on papers and desk tops, tapped a few Chromebook keys for good measure, and purred and purred and purred (and meowed), and then, oh glory of all glories, lapped up a dish of goodness made from three creamers smuggled (successfully) from the staff-room fridge, the contents mixed with a bit of water, and, once that was gone, munched on a generous scoop of tomato-basil flavoured tuna graciously donated from someone’s lunch. Oh, that all un-kitty-like adventures could result in such bounty, such an embarrassment of riches.
Any suspicions about how much school-work was actually done that class are probably warranted. Kittens are magnets and there is nothing in the high school English curriculum about magnets. Or kittens for that matter. Nothing. Nada. However, there is an entire general outcome related to collaboration and group work, and if one were to assess the class ability to collaborate based on their collective responsiveness to kitty’s frequent meowing and their ability to offer lap-space in an equitable manner without any squabbling, then it could be argued that, even in Grade 12, having a kitten in class is conducive to learning. And if the quality of learning was gauged by the full, round kitty-belly and the steady, rumbling purr, then the class certainly achieved a standard of excellence that day.
Last week I spent several days helping my mother-in-law move into a senior’s home. To use a common metaphor, she has entered a new chapter, one of the ones typically reserved for the final pages of life.
The book metaphor for life is a familiar one. The visual of turning a new page seems appropriate to describe new opportunities, especially if those opportunities signal hope for something better than previous pages. We end chapters and start new ones at graduation, marriage, the launch of a career, the birth of a child…the move to a senior’s home. The metaphor seems to serve us well, but I wonder if there is a better one.
Rather than compartmentalizing life into chapters or stages or pages, I’ve been envisioning it as a unified and continuous whole – a scroll, if you will. Although my mother-in-law’s circumstances have changed, she is still the person she was prior to this move. At almost 92, she embodies many experiences and roles and geographies that influence and shape who she is becoming. Yes, I think she is still becoming even at 92 – still learning, still being formed by her choices.
We all are, regardless of our ages.
The person I was before high school graduation is still very much a part of the person I am now as a wife, a mother, a teacher. The person I was before marriage informs the person I am in marriage. I am no less a mother to my adult children than I was when they were toddlers or teenagers. My responsibilities have shifted, to be sure, but motherhood is not relegated to some earlier chapter of my life.
The scroll metaphor challenges our desire for tidy endings. Pages have final words. Chapters have closing paragraphs. Stages of life should as well, shouldn’t they? But what if they don’t? Perhaps our need for closure on certain experiences leads us to peremptorily punctuate them with a definitive end-stop period, and in doing so we fail to recognize that God can use even hard, hurtful things to transform us, to aid us in both being and becoming.
On this weekend, the ninth anniversary of our son’s death, I know the heaviness of a grief that doesn’t have a definitive end in this lifetime. But I can’t compartmentalize it away in some previous chapter. It is written into my life, a scroll that continues to unroll and reveal that God has been at work in me from the moment I was born, from the moment my son was born.
Binding my life into a metaphorical codex encourages a form of survival-ism — a penchant for wishing a particular situation would just end, for adopting a ‘just-get-over-it-already’ mantra, for believing that things will be better when/if this or that happens. I just need to survive until then. If I’m tough and brave and courageous like the self-help gurus suggest, then I’ll make it to the next (and better) page or chapter. Maybe.
There are situations that need to end, we do have to move forward rather than cling to some things, sometimes life does improve when this or that happens, but rather than make those endings or beginnings the focus (and myself the mastermind behind them all), I want to see my behaviour patterns for what they are and recognize God’s relentless work to bring necessary change and growth.
He has begun a good work in me, but it is an ongoing one, a continuous whole that unrolls with each new mercy, with each day’s grace and goodness that never waver in the face of current circumstances, poor choices, or overwhelming emotions.
His steadfast love is writ large across this scroll, not merely footnoted on a page here or there.
A raven flew past my kitchen window
and turned to look back over his shoulder
where another raven was gaining air
on his starboard wing.
Were they playing cops and robbers?
Racing madly to the river?
Competing for First-to-the-Food?
(Who knows what ravens do!)
It was the shoulder check that caught my eye;
I, too, have been casting backward glances
at all the ways our world was
In this prairie place where I live, old farm machinery testifies to the tenacity of generations beyond our ken. Forget regal statues and impressive monuments to mark history. Give us some rusted metal contraptions of various sizes, shapes, and purposes and we can find our roots entwined in there somewhere.
While the massive combines and specialized equipment of modern farming are impressive, what I am most fascinated with is the cockeyed arrangement of gears and chains and wheels and belts that somehow all worked together to make this old threshing machine rumble and chug and separate wheat from chaff.
That this unglamorous, boxy, metallic conglomeration even had a useful function seems unlikely. That its functioning depended completely on the contribution of even the tiniest gear cog speaks to both its ingenious design and its vulnerability.
The metaphors for living in family and community are not lost on me. As ungainly and disparate as our interconnectedness may seem at times, we need each other: a simple truth with all the complexity and intricacy of an old threshing machine. This, too, speaks to ingenious design and vulnerability.
But oh, the grain-like goodness we can thresh, the chaff we can winnow out, when we all cog and sprocket and pulley at the speed and rotation we were individually designed for.
Let’s rumble and chug, shall we?