Best summer decision: I set my phone on silent

069This summer, I was ready for a break after a tough year. I longed for quiet and solitude. I needed to step away from the frantic pace of life in ministry. One simple thing helped me accomplish it all: I turned off the ringer on my smartphone.

Normally, I have my phone set up so that it emits a chorus of small sounds.  A blip says my kids are texting me. A chime says I have an email waiting. A short beep alerts me to a Facebook message. And then, of course, there is the jazzy ring for phone calls when someone wants to talk and the song that sings when someone wants to facetime.

Those little sounds come out of my phone at all hours051 of the day and night. But not this summer. This summer, with none of those sounds, days feel quieter even when I have lots to do. I get to choose when to look at my phone and when to respond. I can thin the carrots uninterrpted or harvest cucumbers in peace. None of my converations are paused while I glance over at my screen and say, “I just have to answer this…”

Many religious traditions include the practice of keeping silence. Sadly, many of us in those traditions forget that it is a practice worth keeping. When I stay at the guest house with the 034Sisterhood of St. John the Divine, for example, I soak in the silence and let it revive my soul. The problem is that I only stay there for a few days once or twice a year. The rest of the time my ears are full of life’s cacophony.

As I revel in the fresh silence coming from my phone, I wish you some silence, too. Maybe you can turn off your ringer. Or turn off the TV. Or take the ear phones out of your ears, even for just a moment or two.

May you find a little time to rest in a quiet hush this summer.




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Homewood Health:

075Recently, I offered a pastoral visit at the Homewood Health Centre in Guelph. Although I was disappointed that someone in my community needed their services, I was delighted to have an opportunity to admire the healing space they have created on their property.

Homewood is mental health and addiction facility that sits on fifty acres of green space bordering on the Speed River. Along with out-patient programs, there are some three hundred people at a time who are able to access their in-patient care. When I visited a few weeks ago, it was because L. invited me to come during their stay.

085I was impressed at the the scope of the horticulture program, which invites residents to spend time in the greenhouse. Together they can watch new life grow as they propogate plants or nourish the trees and flowers that will be used inside the building or out in the garden. It is well documented that being in contact with nature is healing, and I can well imagine that there are residents who are deeply impacted by this program.

But it was a beautiful spring day, and we didn’t stay inside for long. As L. and I left the main building and began to wander the grounds, I discovered a beautiful healing space. There is plenty of room to walk, places to sit and talk, and a number of special destinations.

083There is a labyrinth that encourages a calm and meditative spirit. There is a memory garden where residents can visit to think and reflect on those they have loved and lost, and residents are welcome to leave mementos under the small tree there. There is also what looks like a large, enclosed vegetable garden set in a lovely symmetrical pattern where all the beds were prepared and waiting for a new season of plants.

It is clear that a huge amount of time, energy, money and hope is being invested in the property all around the buildings. Everything was neatly kept and in good repair. Every part of the property we found offered a sense of refuge and comfort.

081The two of us walked and talked. We stopped to notice the mint and sat for awhile in the gazebo. We didn’t solve the world’s problems by any means, but we did connect with one another in a different way than we would have in a coffee shop or in my office. Our conversation was relaxed, and sometimes lapsed into silence. It was a moment of God’s creating, and it was good.

I would not wish anyone the need for services at Homewood. Addiction and mental illness bring such terrible struggle for people and for the ones who love them. Many of us know this only too well.

079But I am glad to know that such a place as this exists. I am even more grateful that, as their website says, “an integrated team of physicians, psychologists, nurses, social workers, addiction counsellors, and other therapists deliver comprehensive care that addresses the physical, psychological, and spiritual aspects of disease.” They know that these illnesses will not be cured simply by writing a prescription. To find healing and wholness, there is a need for care that engages the heart, mind body and spirit. Beautiful, green spaces like this one are an integral part of that.




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I will arise and go now

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin built there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree
William Butler Yeats


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Chosen ones: Greening Sacred Spaces

What fun! The congregation where I serve was awarded a 2015 Greening Sacred Spaces Award (South Halton Peel Chapter). The best part wasn’t winning, though. It was enjoying an incredible summer evening at Joshua Creek Heritage Heritage Art Centre.

The e023vent was hosted by Greening Sacred Spaces (GSS), a Canadian program that seeks to recognize and resource faith communities as they honour the earth. It is part of a wider organization, Faith and the Common Good (FCG). If you haven’t heard of it, have a look here.

It was an honour to even be nominated for an award, which was given to two faith communities who strive to care for God’s creation, because so much great local work is being done. We were selected because we have the community garden out front, of course, but we also compost and recycle, have programmable thermostats and partner with Food for Life, which diverts tonnes of good food from landfills. We have participated in the Yellow Fish Road program, and every year for twenty years we have hosted a site in the local Earth Week Clean Up.

I had never been to the Heritage Centre, and was really excited about going. About fifty of us gathered in the main room, but we barely had a moment to sit down before we were invited outsid004e, into a wide expanse of green grass behind the center’s main building. There, each of us was offered the opportunity to walk an eleven circuit chartres labyrinth which has been cut into the tall grass. It is absolutely enormous–it takes at least forty five minutes to walk from beginning to end!

I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity for quiet in the midst of a busy week. The rain had cleared, leaving behind the golden sunlight of early evening. There was a beautiful chorus of bird songs and the breeze was warm. I noted the man who walked so fast it looked like he had a train to catch, and the one who clutched his umbrella the whole time (even though there was no threat of rain). I smiled as I passed the woman who must have worn the wrong shoes, because she took them off and walked barefoot instead. It was good to be in that place, at that moment.

We had a leisurely hour or so before we wandered back to the sweets that had been laid out for us. And then came the next wonderful part: hearing Dr. Stephen Scharper, an author and associate professor 015at the School of the Environment and Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto. He spoke about why it is so good for faith communities look after the environment, and with gorgeous photographs and poetry, he unpacked three important reasons: interrelationships, joy and love. Amen to all three!

We were given a lovely certificate that night to recognize our achievement. What was even better was the gift of a beautiful evening. Thank you, Greening Sacred Spaces!

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Oh no! I killed the children’s plants.

It hurts to  admit it but it’s true. Even after everything had started out so well…

I was super excited a few weeks ago when one of our Sunday School teachers announced that she was going to help her class create a butterfly garden. This would be accompanied by teaching about the butterfly as an Easter symbol of resurrection, as well as marvelling at God’s beautiful world and learning how to care for it. Amazing! I said. Let me know if you need anything!

Next, I spoke with this faithful teacher who said she had done a great deal of research on plants that attract and feed butterflies. She showed me the seeds she bought to start in pots: sunflowers, marigolds, and zinnias. There were other seeds that would be planted directly in the soil when the weather warmed up, she said. I gave her a little packet of yellow and orange cosmos seeds from my own garden. I was still excited. Everything was still good.

014After church, this patient teacher stopped by my office. She had a large tray filled with pots, and each pot had a brightly coloured plant marker with the name of the seeds printed in children’s handwriting. Some of them even had big stick-on butterflies! As I admired them, she wondered if I could help her. Could I make sure they were watered every day? Of course! I said, full of enthusiasm.

I dutifully took the tray home. I smiled at them and watered them for a whole week. They were right there in my kitchen. I would never forget to water them if they are staring at me first thing in the morning. And it was true. I never did forget to water them.

I was so pleased when little tiny shoots appeared in those pretty little pots! Hurray! The kids would be thrilled! But now they were going to need more sunshine, and they would never get it sitting on the kitchen table in April. That’s not a problem for super-gardener! I picked them up, took them downstairs to my little greenhouse room (some people call it a bathroom) and put them on the shelf under the grow lights. Voila! Children’s seedlings coming right up!

016That’s when it happened. In all of my super-ness, I neglected to turn the timer on for the lights. A week and a half later, I awoke out of a sound sleep and realized that those tiny little seedlings had been sitting in the dark the whole time. Gulp.

Sure enough, when I finally worked up the courage to go downstairs and look, there were tiny dead sprouts hanging over the edges of the pots. It was as if they had tried valiantly to prop themselves up while waiting for someone to come to their rescue. The children had planted their little seeds full of hope and happiness and I killed them. I was gutted.

Not one of us likes that feeling when we have not only failed ourself, but disappointed someone else. It’s embarassing. Anxiety-provoking. Awful. But what is there to do? Take a breath and assess the damage. Apologize. Figure out how to make amends.

018The good news was that it was still springtime and the pots still had dirt in them. I dug around and found half a packet of sunflower seeds plus a recycled envelope with some Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) seeds someone had given me. They are a favourite of monarchs, I’m told. A quick trip to the garden centre and I had marigold seeds, too. I planted them up. Watered them. And then moved them outside into real sunshine, just outside my kitchen door where I wouldn’t forget them.

Only a few hours later, I noticed that two tiny little sprouts had come back from the dead. Hallelujah! Now I just hope that the faithful, patient, wonderful Sunday school teacher and her students will forgive me, too.






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Do you want to help someone who is depressed?

I am not an expert. I offer spiritual care, but not medical care. Although I have visited, supported and prayed for people struggling with mental illness, I do not have any fancy certificates to hang on my office wall saying that I am a qualified therapist. And yet, as someone who has suffered through several bouts of clinical depression in the past ten years, I have gained some insight into the kind of help that is (and isn’t) useful.

478To begin with, mental illness is a thing—a very real thing that messes up the brains of otherwise healthy, intelligent people. There are people and organizations in Canada working to bring this issue out into the open, and with good reason. I can attest to the fact that it causes all kinds of physical and emotional suffering, damages relationships, slows careers and harms families. It’s lousy.

You might know someone who is suffering right now. Perhaps you are a caregiver or a professional or a next door neighbour, and I appreciate that you want to help them. That is a beautiful thing. But first, I want you to consider something. There is a tendency with health care professionals, friends and well-meaning loved ones to offer support that sounds like this: You know what will help? You need to __________ (fill in the blank).

You. The depressed one. The suffering one. The weak one who can’t even put her makeup on without crying. Yes, you really should get right on that. All by yourself.

I know that there are many strategies that will help: fresh air, exercise, therapy, drugs (the list goes on) and I don’t want to downplay those strategies. But when the onus is automatically placed on the one who is suffering there are two problems.

The first is that the person struggling with depression probably doesn’t have the energy. He or she may not have the brain power to look up a phone number, call and talk to a receptionist, and figure out transportation to that appointment. Or she might be too busy lying in bed sobbing to be able to go for that healthy walk or cook up a quick batch of lentil stew. Chances are good that if you ask a depressed person to go and do something—especially something big or that they don’t normally do—they aren’t going to do it.

The second problem is this: it very quietly blames and isolates the victim. No one really means to do that when they suggest exercise or seeing a therapist. Those are great ideas. But placing the onus on the patient communicates that they are the ones who got themselves into this mess, and they are the only ones who can get themselves out.

702One of the best things we can offer someone who is suffering from depression is the gift of presence. Sometimes that just means hugging them while they cry. Other times it means saying, “I will go with you,” or “I will make the phone call for you.” It means recognizing that the person you love cannot get out of this mess by themselves. Frankly, if that was true they would have done it already.

Of course this is not the easiest gift to give. It requires time, courage, and the willingness to be uncomfortable. People who are depressed can be sad and angry. They can be weak and frustrating. They might receive your help grudgingly and without thanks (although they may well be very grateful much farther down the road). A depressed person is not always a fun person to hang around with.

This is one of the most painful parts of depression. It makes someone feel as if they are terribly alone, even if they’re not. And when those they love tell them that all they need to do is give it a good old college try alone, it only isolates them further.

So if you want to offer comfort, hope, help and healing to someone you know, I have some ideas about where to start. This is just the beginning. I know you will have other amazing ideas to add.

  • It would be great to talk. Why don’t you get your shoes and we’ll go for a walk outside together while we chat?
  • Do you need help eating well? I could make you soup. I will bring it over later today and we can have lunch together.
  • Maybe it’s time for more help. Can we book an appointment with the doctor for you? I will be happy to drive.
  • What do you have coming up that you are looking forward to? Could we make plans for something good? Let’s call and book ____________.
  • I know you usually find a bath comforting. Why don’t I run a tub for you while you find your bathrobe?
  • Do you need groceries? We can register online and get them delivered to your house.

091Did you notice that every suggestion offers to take at least some of the responsibility? They also include a question, which respects the fact that your loved one may or may not find your idea helpful. They involve being with you care about. Because no matter who we are or what we’re up against in life, we need each other.

If you are the one who needs help because you are depressed, know that this is not your fault. No matter how alone you feel there are people who want to help you, even if they don’t quite know how.

And if you want to help someone you love who is suffering, I hope that this list helps you understand a little better what it’s like to be on the other side of depression. Thank you for caring enough, and begin courageous enough, to reach out.

Sometimes depression and other forms of mental illness can be severe. If your life or someone else’s is at risk, please gather up your courage and phone a local helpline or even 911. Even when symptoms are mild, getting good help can keep someone from getting worse. Please reach out and connect with a health care provider, spiritual leader, or social worker.

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Trouble sleeping? The answer is in the garden.

edinburgh1 046My husband jokes that I haven’t had a good night sleep since my oldest child was born over eighteen years ago, but the truth is I’ve always been a light sleeper. Now, however, with a busy church, schoolwork and a house full of teenagers I find I can’t even get to sleep to begin with. I lie in bed, willing myself to sleep, while I find one thing after another to worry about. Ugh.

I have read a million articles about getting a better sleep. Because of what I’ve learned, my routine often includes herbal tea, a sleep mask, a cool room, no electronics, deep breathing, saying the alphabet, breath prayers and if I’m desperate, a warm bath and a set of ear plugs.

But then a friend gave me the best fall-asleep advice ever.

sunflowerFor years E. has found sleep by simply closing her eyes and creating a serene room. It started with imagining a beautiful bedroom exactly the way she would love it, with her favourite colours, textures and pillows (no price tags! no spacial limits! no one else’s opinion!). Now she has gone on to create an entire home where she can go and distract her mind from the day’s worries. She falls off in minutes.

I am no interior decorator. We’ve been in this house for two years and I still have no curtains in the living room. So I went outside instead. I lay still and imagined my backyard. I thought about what plants I might want to add next spring (roses? more sunflowers?). I debated in my mind whether I would put Shasta daisies (one of my mom’s favourites) here or there. I forgot my to do list entirely and the next morning declared my new technique a success!

034I have always had a good imagination–too good, perhaps (in child birth classes, they told me to imagine relaxing on a beach and I immediately worried about sunscreen and sand fleas). But you don’t have to be a creative type to make this work for you. Just dream. Imagine. Let your mind’s eye surround you with fresh air, green places, beauty, anything you want.

So there is my advice for you today if you can’t sleep. Forget counting sheep (which never worked for me, anyway). Plant tulips, hydrangeas, apple trees. Sculpt flower beds, fountains, trellises. If you run out of room in your patio or backyard, take down fences and borrow space from your neigbours.

Relax. Rest. Sleep. Sweet dreams!

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Isn’t “winter garden” an oxymoron?

This year for the first time ever I managed to stretch my growing season into October and I had bok choi and lettuce to harvest along with a few onions and some very persistent kale. Now, of course, I am not in the garden at all. The beds are mostly cleaned out and bare. The lawn has turned a dull shade of brown. The air is not cool but freezing cold. The days are short and the nights are long.

I have now come inside, content to put a fire in the fireplace and make a cup of tea and ignore the yard outside my window. Perhaps if I don’t look, it won’t be so bad and spring will come that much sooner.

038Many of us are familiar with the winter season, but it may not be just in the garden. There are times for all of us when the landscape becomes bleak and the winds bitter. Seasons change and the beauty we knew has gone. Relationships have withered. Money has disappeared. We no longer remember what it was like to be in good health, to be happy, to get a good night’s sleep.

Often, when our own personal landscape becomes barren we respond as I have to my winter garden. We close the drapes, light a candle and desperately try to shut out the trouble. If I can just close my eyes tight enough, we think, it will go away. I will just wait quietly until things change.

I have a new gardening book called, “The Winter Garden.” When I first picked it up I thought the title was an oxymoron. Here in Canada there is snow and sleet and slush in winter, not tulips and petunias. There will be no digging or blooming or harvesting come January or February.

But the author of the book, Jane Bennett, wants to change my mind. While it may be true that colours change and plants become dormant, “the garden need not be forgotten in winter and simply left to await the first shoots of spring,” she says. There is still scent and texture and movement to enjoy. There is life out there, and beauty, if only I would put on my mittens and go out to explore it.

036Writer Barbara Brown Taylor  (I have been reading her new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark) agrees that this is true not just in the garden but also in our lives.  Doubt is not something to avoid. The cold and darkness of our suffering do not disappear because we refuse to acknowledge them. We may in fact, miss the mysterious and beautiful gifts that would be ours if we only had enough courage to claim them.

Reading about winter gardens made me wonder, so I went outside this week and do you know what I found? The broad leaves of a purple cabbage. Stubborn green leaves of swiss chard held up by pink and yellow and orange stalks. Sage that is still full and fragrant. Even the mint, which looks like nothing much from the window, is blithely carrying on despite the calendar that says December.

To pause for a moment out there in my winter garden was to discover crisp air and moonlight and wind singing through the bare tree branches. Yes, it was cold and it certainly isn’t the season for sitting out on a lawn chair and reading a good book. But out there in my winter garden there was still room for wonder, for beauty, for signs of life.

171Is it possible that in those winter seasons of our soul, those times when all seems lost and God is far away, that beauty is still there? Is it possible that if I poke around a little instead of just hiding inside in my wooly sweater, I might find friendship, or nourishment, or glimpses of fresh hope?

Perhaps you already know. But if you aren’t sure, may God bless you with the courage to get out there. And may you discover that “winter garden” isn’t an oxymoron after all.

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Good news for bad apples (or, Why making applesauce was good for my soul)

At our weekly fresh food bank, we receive a variety of produce, meat and dairy products. Sometimes they are near their expiry date, other times they are just not quite nice enough to sell. Last week there were cases and cases of less-than-beautiful apples.004

They were a variety of different reds, greens and yellows. They were pock-marked, bruised, and misshapen. A few were huge, some were tiny, most were in between. We sorted from the cardboard cases into small bags, with half a dozen in each.

When we spread the food out each week for people to collect, some things are very popular. Meat is always in demand. Milk and cheese are popular. Once we had big Toblerone chocolate bars and they disappeared in no time at all.

But not these apples. By the time all the families had left, taking crackers and vegetables and meat and juice, there was still a big pile of apples. No one wanted them. So, as sometimes happens, the volunteers disposed of them. I took home four bags.

001Today I unpacked those four bags of terrible-looking, unsellable, unwanted apples. I got out my peeler and knife, and went to work to see what I could do.

Half an hour later I had an enormous pot of applesauce on the stove that smelled delicious. And in the process I began to feel good, too.

As I peeled and chopped I realized that every single apple that looked awful had sweet white flesh inside it. Every unwanted fruit was put to good use. There wasn’t a single apple that had nothing to offer. I may have started with a whole bag of bad apples, but I ended up with dessert. And I love dessert.

007It is at the heart of my theology that every one of us is created in God’s beautiful image, and that God can redeem absolutely everything. But today it was apples that told me the news I need to hear: no matter what messages the world sends me I, too, am wanted, beautiful, and useful. And if it’s true for me then it’s true for you too: you are wanted, beautiful, useful.

So here’s my advice the next time you are feeling unsure of yourself, unwanted by someone, or just a little bruised. Go to the grocery store. Head for the reduced produce section. Buy some of the rejected apples. Go home and make applesauce.

It will be good for your soul. I promise.

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California is for preachers. And gardeners.

For the last couple of years I have been a participant in a Toronto Micah Group, which is a program of Fuller Theological Seminary in California that aims to form “empowered, wise preachers who seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, leading others to join God’s mission in the world.” This week I went to California and met a whole bunch of others doing the same thing. There were some cool people there.

Alas, I am an introvert and a tired one at that. So before I was ready to dive in to the program, I took an early morning walk. I left my room at first light (just before 7am) and headed out into quiet, deserted streets. In Ontario fall is in full swing, but in Pasadena it smelled like a warm summer morning. I breathed deeply and enjoyed the gardens full of things we can only buy in flowers shops, like the huge bed of Birds of Paradise.085

I passed a short hedge and noted in my head that it seemed a bit ragged….and then realized that it was actually an entire hedge of rosemary! I stopped and rubbed my hands in it and breathed it in (I also hoped that no one was watching the crazy lady fawning over a bush). I sighed a wistful sigh. It’s my favourite herb and I only grow a little pot of it at home.

A cup of hot tea in a little cafe made my morning even more luxurious, and meant I was ready for a day of important work like learning, meeting new friends and taking pictures of tattoos.089

When I met Aaron I said, “I don’t like tattoos. But I love yours. Can I take a picture of it?” and I am so glad he didn’t mind. Because we got talking and I discovered we had gardens in common. Front yard gardens, even!

Yes, Aaron has an amazing front yard where he has even grown a crop of wheat (he and his kids did the threshing in a plastic kiddie pool!). He called it edible landscaping and showed me some great pictures on his phone. I showed him my garden (I think other people might show off pictures of their kids?) and told him about the bylaw officers who visited me when my front yard garden was first installed.

wheat garden

Best of all, we talked about composting. I asked if he had a worm composter and he asked me if I was sure I wanted to hear about it while a group of us were still eating breakfast. Sure, I said bravely….and then heard how he used to have worms but now has maggots instead. Yes, black soldier fly maggot composting in actually a thing. A gross thing, but also pretty effective, according to my new friend. They even dispose of meat and dairy products, and do it so fast there isn’t even a bad smell left behind. Wow.

I know it sounds like I didn’t actually do any real work while I was in California (I did, I promise. We talked about preaching justice, finding courage, launching our new 2015 groups and all manner of relevant topics.) But sometimes the moments you remember most are not the main thing, but the moments that surround the main thing.

So having begun this conference on Thanksgiving Monday, I am grateful for those not-quite-the-main-thing moments like rosemary hedges and front yard gardeners. I’m even glad I heard about maggots. Thanks, California. I had a good time.   090



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