Sunday, December 21, 2008

Meeting Warren... And Wally Lamb

Why did it have to be so cold, I thought, as I hunched over and made my way towards the subway. It wasn't snowing, but the frigid air was damp and seemed to penetrate my layers of clothes and sink into my skin. Despite my eagerness to get home, I stopped in at the Starbucks down the street and bought myself a coffee. At least I was done for the day. Five clients in a row wasn't much for some trainers, but it always wiped me out. The barista had filled my cup a bit high, and even with the lid snapped on tight, it sloshed over my hand as I stepped back onto the sidewalk. Damn! The coffee was hot. I slurped it, willing myself to relax after five continuous hours of human interaction. As cold as it was, it was nice to be silent for a few minutes. I paused outside the entrance to the subway to get my token ready and in the process glanced over at the large Indigo across the street. The past week I'd met one of my literary heroes, Wally Lamb, at a book signing. His new book was about the collateral damage of anger, specifically the aftermath of the Columbine shootings. Although the subject matter in his books was often grim (though laced with hope), he was a storyteller par excellence and a truly great writer. It'd been quite a moment for me.

I opened the door to the subway and nearly tripped on the man inside the door. He was sitting up, with a cup in front of him for change. I'd seen him here before, but usually he was passed out. I pulled some change out and put it in his cup.

"How're you doing?" I asked him.

"It's pretty cold out there." He slurred his words, so that 'there' sounded like 'thar'. I could smell the alcohol on his breath.

"Where are you going to sleep tonight?"

"Probably here." He said, motioning to the hard red tile at the top of a stairwell.

For a moment, I was at a loss at what to say.

"I'm Steve." I said, offering my hand.

He lifted his right arm to reveal a cast beneath his weathered coat.

"What happened?"

"I'm not really sure (shhurr). I think I fell down these steps." He paused. "I'm Warren."

I held out my left hand and he took it in his own, gripping it tight, as if unwilling to let it go. Finally, he released it.

"Have a good night." I said, not quite knowing what else to say.

He nodded, working hard to focus on me. I'd started down the stairs when he called out.

"If I don't see you before Christmas, have a good holidays, Steve."

I swallowed a lump in my throat.

"You too, my friend. You too."

The subway ride was especially long that night. I thought about Warren the whole way home. Just five nights earlier, I'd met one of my heroes, yet it was my meeting with Warren that stayed with me for the next week.

It was snowing when I woke up. The kind of snow I liked too, fluffy and thick and falling softly, the stuff that brought to mind other worlds and dreams yet unfulfilled. I stood on the stoop with my coffee, the steam rising from the mug, staring across the snowdrifts and wind that whipped across the street. It was a good day to be home, I thought. Although it was a Friday, I suspected that quite a few people wouldn't be working today. A good day to write and read and perhaps watch a movie. As I stared out into the whitened world however, my mind drifted to Warren. I wondered where he would be sleeping. Back on the subway steps or perhaps a shelter somewhere. I tried to convince myself that he was in a shelter. I'm not sure why it made me feel better, but it did. For the moment, at least.

I headed back inside to work on my book. After an hour or so, I stretched, made another coffee and decided to spend some time on the stoop. It wasn't an exaggeration to say that a day like this -- the way the snow was falling -- was my favourite weather. There was something in watching the snow fall that spoke to me, a whispered assurance of the world's gentler side. Or a covering perhaps, I wasn't sure. I found it helpful for my writing, which had received a boost after meeting Wally Lamb.

I sipped my coffee and thought about what it'd been like in that stuffy room at the bookstore. Wooden chairs wedged together, about sixty people in a cramped space, sweltering because some employee must have thought the author would be cold. (I guess they didn't realize he was from Connecticut) I'd had to hurry when I arrived at the bookstore; most of the people were already seated. I bumped into the woman sitting across the narrow aisle as I pulled off my parka, apologizing even as I tried to scrunch my large frame into the last seat on the second row. I glanced around, somewhat nervous and excited. Despite having written for a decade, I'd never been to an authour reading before. The faces around me were mostly those of women in their thirties and forties, and one man who looked like a college professor. No other sweating weightlifters with shaved heads however, none that I could see. I fidgeted and squirmed in my tiny seat. When Wally Lamb finally came forward, I was nearly exhausted from the heat and attempting to hold my body upright in the rickety chair.

Lamb was in his late fifties, and reminded me of Sean Connery, what with the glasses and last bit of snow speckled hair receding from a lean, unmarked face. He read first from his updated bio, and then a bit from his new book. He told us how he'd searched for a story after writing his last number one selling book ten years ago, and how it had come to him in a New Orleans cathedral shortly after Katrina. He took questions, of which I asked the first, and when he signed my book, he was gracious and encouraging. What struck me the most, I think, was how much he had inspired me.

"Steve, one more thing," he said to me as I was walking away, "Writing is more about perseverance than ability. Keep at it. You'll get there."

When I called Bethany, shortly thereafter, I was a bit giddy. Soon enough I was on the subway, planning my writing schedule for the next week. I bumped into three people at alternate places along the ride and exit, lost as I was in my plans for the future. I had literally ached the past twelve years for a word of hope about my passion, fretted and cried and laughed in my attempts to break through as a writer. I'd had some limited success, just enough to push me forward. Mostly however, I'd experienced too little recognition to think that I would ever really make it. Maybe this time, things would be different, I thought. Maybe Wally Lamb would push me past the finish line.

I interrupted my reverie to shovel the stoop, but it was still slippery even after I'd cleared it, and I walked carefully down the steps to put the shovel away. I'd fallen on these stairs before. Once safely at the bottom, I sipped my coffee, which was now lukewarm, and watched the snow fall. One thing bothered me. If writing was so important, why had I spent more time thinking about my meeting with Warren than the one with my literary hero?

We've all read stories of people who'd made it and their lives afterward. Part of the reason Wally Lamb had so appealed to me was his work with a women's correctional facility. Oprah's law, he'd said at the reading, when it came to success, was to take what you needed and pass on the rest. Collateral goodness, I thought. I wasn't sure where I'd heard the phrase, but it certainly applied here.

I liked Oprah. It was easy to be cynical about successful people, but she always struck me as someone who modeled what she believed. Here yet, was another example of her generosity. (Her Book Club had propelled Lamb to literary superstardom.) And here was Lamb, doing the same to give back.

I realized that my fingers had gone cold. I kicked the snow off my boots and headed inside to warm up. We all have ideas about ultimate success and what that looks like. Whether it's having our own business or being published or promoted or putting out a CD or making a movie or starring in one, it's hard to remember sometimes that the dreams we have are never less than the journey itself. That it is the journey towards the dream that must yield the fruit of a purposed and passionate life. Dreams provided hope and direction, but the more our dreams reflected egocentric ideals (this will be good for me), the less fulfilling they became.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that as much as I would love to have both the ability and career that Wally Lamb had forged for himself, a great success by any measure, my life would always be my own. Gifted, as we all are, with our unique set of talents and abilities, I realized that no matter how many books I sold, my life would always point to Warren. That the measure of my life would never be my literary status, but my willingness to speak to and for those who could not speak for themselves.

It is hard sometimes, to keep our eyes on those around us in the blinding light of our dreams, and harder still to keep our eyes on the finish line when life becomes difficult.

Dreams come cheap these days, don't they, especially at this time of year, when we are swarmed with requests and wants and needs. Through all the shopping dilemmas and packed parking lots and crowded malls, it is easy to lose sight of why we're here. My prayer this week -- this Christmas -- is that you will remember the dreams of your youth, not the small ones we rented as we got older, but the big booming ridiculous ones that once called to us to change the world. Lost in the great Wally Lamb of a dream, but aware that the true value of any dream was in the way it propelled us to help Warren.

Blessings, my friends, as you set the course for this next year. Don't be afraid to embrace your giftings and step towards what God has called you to do. Just remember that along the way, if you could, to provide the collateral goodness necessary to make both your dream, and your journey, a success.

Merry Christmas everyone.


Monday, December 15, 2008

An Interview With Ravin

I fidgeted in my chair and glanced down at my watch. 5:27am. I was about to interview someone famous for the first time. Not only was she famous, but a known killer. The conference room was small, with white walls and no windows, as she'd requested. No place to put a camera without her seeing it. I thought about the movies I'd seen and what I'd read about hidden technology. There was always a place to hide a camera if you had enough money, but we didn't have the budget. (and this was Canada) I leaned on the oak table and tried to catch my breath. What did you ask an assassin? What did you ask the most notorious at-large criminal in your country's history, one that was more popular than Jim Carrey or Wayne Gretzky or any of its other celebrities?

I checked my watch again. 5:31am. She'd only agreed to the interview because of the piece I'd written for the Post, which outlined her crimes in a sympathetic manner. I hadn't expected to ever meet her, but when a woman had called and identified herself as the Blonde Nightmare's agent, I couldn't say no. In the literary world, I was nobody. My piece was one of the few I'd published in the past few years, and the only reason the paper had bought it from me was because of an incidental run in I'd had with one of her friends. With that lead in, and with the media feasting over any scrap of news about her, they'd snapped up the article.


I was getting nervous. Maybe she wasn't going to show up. Despite her popularity, the authorities were still avidly looking for her and had even offered a reward for tips leading to her arrest. She embarrassed them, I think. Her agent had said that she would meet me -- but that if things changed she'd be in contact with me. I sighed and doodled on my notebook. I didn't have to study my notes, I'd memorized them last week. What did I know about the Blonde Nightmare? About as much as everyone else, which is to say not a whole lot. Her story had become something of a legend in the past year. That she was a stripper, or a former stripper, only added grist to the story. When she'd started pulling men aside at gun point and making them strip, most of us thought it was little more than a wacky stripper pulling a well, very serious, college prank.

And then she'd shot her first victim. Roberto Gomez. He'd made the mistake of trying to attack her after she'd pulled a gun on him. She didn't kill him, but she didn't stop going after the men either. About a month after Roberto Gomez was shot, three young guys set a trap, but she figured out what was going on and one the three guys, Shawn White, was killed. The other two were hospitalized with gun shot wounds and bruises to the face, presumably from her kicking them repeatedly after she'd shot them.

There were two more incidents, and then she'd disappeared, amidst a swirling of rumors that she'd been captured by some Venezuelan cult. She'd come back from her experience changed, or so the rumors went. Her victims had changed too. She still patrolled the strip clubs, but the victims were chosen carefully, or so it seemed. Jeffrey Irons was a former group home worker suspected -- although never convicted -- of molesting two of the boys in his care. Marjorie Allenby was a convicted felon, a former foster parent who'd "accidentally" shaken a baby to death. There was a third victim, Jesse Stillco, a thirty two year old white male without any prior crimes or suspicious activity. None that I or anyone else could dig up, at least. All three had been killed -- two shots to the head -- execution style.


Apparently something had come up. I stood and tucked in my chair. Maybe it was for the best. Did I really want to interview a murderer? A killer? It reminded me of Dan Rather groveling before Saddam Hussein. A journalistic coup perhaps, but a cloying display that was nauseating to watch.

It was still dark and raining as I headed outside. I scrunched over and hustled down the stairs to my car in the underground lot. What had I been thinking anyway? I fumbled with my keys. Maybe it had been just some prank call, some kid-

"Robert Stephens?"

The voice was husky and strong. I turned slowly. She stood about five feet from me, and I glanced around the dimly lit parking space, suddenly realizing what I'd done.

"Relax, Robert, I'm not going to kill you." She said.

Her reassurance was strangely unnerving. I nodded, but couldn't find the words. Maybe I'd built her up too much in my imagination, but I felt myself nearly trembling in her presence. She was tall, nearly six feet, wearing a tight purple skirt and loose blouse. Her long blonde hair was pulled back and hung nearly to her waist. She wore no makeup that I could tell, but her lips gleamed a ruby red in the pale light. She carried a purse under her left arm, and I glanced at it, wondering if she was carrying a gun.

"I always carry a weapon." She said nonchalantly, reading my thoughts. "A necessity, I'm afraid."

I nodded dumbly.

"Well, when you're done staring, let's go for a ride." She paused. "You don't look much like a writer to me." She said, taking in my wide shoulders and shaved head.

"Well," I said, finding my voice, "You don't look much like a killer to me."

She laughed and touched my arm.

"Touché. Can we go?"

"Sure, but your agent said-"

"I don't have an agent."

"Then who- got it. Well, where to then?"

"Do you know where Vaughn is?" She paused and motioned to the receipts and empty Starbucks cups on the floor of my 1997 Geo. "I like your car."

I found her sarcasm annoying.

"Yeah, well, I wasn't expecting the Queen to visit."

She smoothed her face and then laughed.

"Good." She paused. "Good. Maybe you're the one."

"The one to what?"

She didn't respond, and I didn't press. We drove for a while, and the only sound in the car was the swish of the wipers. I wondered why we were going to Vaughn. It was a small town, north of Toronto, but I hadn't heard of any previous connection for her there.

"Make a left at the next street."

The town was ragged looking, but maybe it was the rain.

"Slow down." She said. "In here."

She pointed to set of buildings, and I turned in the parking lot. Andrew Munson Elementary School. Rain slid down the windows and when I looked over at her I thought I saw tears in her eyes.

"Why here?"

"My mom went to school here."

"I wasn't aware- I thought your mom-"

"She died when I was young. After she died, everything went to hell. Including me." She rolled down the window an inch and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. "Do you mind?"

I shook my head.

She lit one and took a long drag. It was hard not to stare. She reminded me of those classic actresses I'd seen in old film footage from the 1940's. Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner and the like. The way she held her head, the way she fingered the cigarette as if it were a prop. Regal, I thought. There was no other way to describe it.

I gave myself a mental shake. She was a killer. She was a stripper. My old priest had once said that what a person did defined them, and killing was what she did.

"So how did you grow up?" I asked.

She turned and looked at me for what seemed like a long time.

"Why do you want to interview me, Robert? Why do you want to know my story?"

"Well, it will make me famous. I might even make a bit of money with this writing gig."

"Wow. Well, at least you're honest." She paused and flicked her cigarette through the open window. "But I don't believe you."

"I just told you-"

"I heard you, and I know some of that is true. But why do you want to interview me?"

I leaned back in my seat and glanced out at the sagging school. I thought about all the kids I'd worked with through the years, the ones that had no chance, the ones that could barely make it into the school because of the family mayhem, the ones left alone and lonely, the ones who would step into adulthood four years and a lifetime behind the others. I thought about the young girls I'd worked with, the ones without protection, the ones who learned to take the abuse of life without ever learning to live.

"Well?" She said.

"I want to tell your story because I think it matters." I said, my voice quiet. "I think it matters that you survived. But I don't respect what you do and I want to know why you did it. You're a horrible example. You make killing glamorous and sexy. I understand where the anger comes from, don't get me wrong, but who appointed you judge and jury? What do I say to the teenager who reads about your actions and tells me your victims deserved it?" My voice started to raise, as I thought about the "fan" effect of the Blonde Nightmare. "Did they really deserve it? If you're going to go that way, don't you deserve it? Maybe I should be the one with the gun right now."

She looked at me, her face impassive. I fidgeted in my seat and clenched my jaw.

"Thank you for your honesty, Robert." She pointed to the school. "I don't remember much of my mom. I was ten when she died-"

"I said I understood-"

"Wait, Robert, please. Let me finish."

I nodded and swallowed back a sharp retort.

"But I remember how beautiful she was, how the men would always be at our home. My mom never made it to high school, so she took care of us the only way she knew how. Men loved to give her gifts, and it wasn't just the sex. She wasn't a prostitute, the way we think of it now, she just dated a lot."

I imagined the little girl growing up in an environment like that. It felt so... inevitable. It didn't change things however, about who she was or what she did.

"What I do remember is asking my mom why so many men loved her. Her answer is as true now as it was then. 'They don't love me, kiddo. They love what they think they see.'"

"It doesn't change what you did." I said. "It doesn't change what you do!"

"What makes you think I killed those men?"

"The reports, the rumours, everybody knows..." My voice trailed.

Without warning, she slowly pulled up her blonde hair and tugged it off her head. Her black hair was cut short, she ran a quick hand through it before setting the wig on her lap. She looked at me, and I suddenly saw her for the first time. Her nose was bent at the tip, and there were lines beneath her eyes. She was hunched over, her arms folded across her stomach as if she was in pain.

"My name is Felicia Kovolchuk." Her voice was no longer husky, but soft and quiet with a bit of a squeak to it.

I was in a sort of daze at her questions and at the change.

"How did you- Who are you?"

She looked down in her lap, and then back at the school. Her eyes filled with tears as she fidgeted with the wig.

"I don't know, Robert. All I can tell you is that I didn't kill those men."

I found myself wanting to believe her, to comfort her, but I'd seen a lot of acting in my days working with teens.

"Have you ever killed someone?"

"Once. It was an accident..." She sniffed and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. "I still think about it. He had a knife and..."

She took a deep breath. I could literally see her gather up her emotions and bundle them into a tight package, and when she looked at me again I knew that I wouldn't see that side of her again.

"Well, if what you say is true, why don't you go to the police?"

"Do you think they'd believe me?"

"Well, sure, I mean, why wouldn't they?"

She didn't answer, just looked at me as if waiting for me to get it. And I did. We were all just people, all guilty of stereotypes and projection. Felicia fit the bill perfectly for a classic femme fatale, and even as someone trained in helping young people find their way out of their projected familial roles, I'd done the same thing. There wouldn't be a jury anywhere that would believe her innocence, and certainly no police department. They'd assume she was acting, that she had purposely embarrassed them. And with her looks...

"What can I do for you?" I asked.

"You've heard my story."

"The cult, the kidnapping, the sacrifice... are you saying it isn't true."

She shook her head and reattached her wig.

"No. It's true. But I want to tell you what really happened. Maybe someday I'll be able to live free again, if enough people believe your story."

"Okay." I said, just to say something.

She opened the car door.

"Where are you going?"

"They found me. I have to go."

"Who found you? What are you talking about?"

I checked my rear view mirror, where a grey sedan had suddenly appeared, and it whipped past me in the parking lot. Four men in suits jumped out yelling directions at one another. One of them pointed at me, and I stared back, too terrified to move. Fortunately, they seemed more preoccupied with finding Felicia, at which point I immediately felt guilty. You're such a coward! When I looked for Felicia however, she was gone. One of the men pulled a cell phone and chatted on it briefly, before motioning to the others. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest as the car whipped past my own, and I waited a full ten minutes before finding the strength to start the car.

I pulled my car out of the parking lot. I didn't know what to think, because she'd been so much more, and less, than what I thought she'd be. Only one thing mattered however. I believed her. I believed that the Felicia I'd seen was the real Felicia, perhaps buried under years of allowing others to project their own fantasies on her. For a few minutes, she'd let down her guard and shown me the scared young woman inside that regal costume.

I hoped she would contact me again. And I wished I could do more to help her. I also wished I wasn't so scared at the thought of getting involved. I pulled out my cell and called my wife, who picked up on the first ring.

"I was worried." She said, without saying hello. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah. Sort of. I'm good."

"You're rambling."

I took a deep breath and told her what had happened with the other car.

"What about her? What's she like?"

"She's a scared young woman. I... I... want to help her."

My wife paused, and I could hear what she was thinking. Why us? What she said however, was the reason I'd married her in the first place.

"We'll do what we can, Robbie. Are you coming home now?"

"Yeah, I'll see you in a few minutes."

The rain continued to bleed down my windshield as I zipped back onto the highway and thought again about our meeting. I wasn't sure I'd ever see Felicia again, but I'd learned a lesson I wouldn't soon forget.

Over the next three months, Felicia contacted me several times. We never met in the same place, and her outfits changed as often as her wigs. She never again revealed herself as she had in that first interview, but she did tell me her story. She also met my wife, Joy, and had dinner with us once.

She's gone again now, said she wanted to do some traveling. There's more to it, of course, but for her safety and the safety of my family, I can't tell you any more than that. If I've learned anything this past year, it is the realization of how dangerous fantasy can be. Not only does it prevent us from seeing and accepting people in all their weakness, but it also prevents us from seeing how truly remarkable they are. It's a difficult lesson, but when we project on others who we think they should be, we cover what they can be.

I know there are mistakes in the story you are about to read, and I did take some license in my own 'projections' when I wrote it. Felicia read some of my early drafts however, and gave her approval, although she was a bit uncomfortable with the idea of her being portrayed as any sort of 'hero'. "I did what anyone would do" she would often grouse at me, especially after I would comment on her courage. Her only demand was that I record this book as a novel. "It isn't a biography." She would tell me, "and people wouldn't believe it anyway." Much better, she would say, that they find what truth they could in the story itself.

It's raining today, just as it was the first day we met. Joy and I still talk about her quite a bit, about how much she changed our life, and about how much her story has grown. When it comes to people, I'm not sure you can create a mythical figure. As history has shown us, the person is important, but oddly, they often finish a distant second to time and place, to the culture in which the story occurs, and to the way people respond. Felicia was not what I had expected. Nor would, I suspect, Joan of Arc or Elizabeth I be exactly as I imagine them. I'm not comparing her to these two remarkable women of history, of course, except in the understanding that beneath the story is a person like you and me. The truly surprising part of this whole ordeal was that in discovering the person, I found her to be more remarkable than the tale itself.

There's something else I have to tell you. Although I wrote the story, I can't explain everything that happened. There are some things that happened -- many of which I was able to verify -- that made me question the very core of my beliefs. About what's real and what isn't. About God and the supernatural. About why certain things happen and why we live the way we do. I can't explain it and I won't try, because in the end, it's up to you anyway, isn't it?

This then, is her story. The story of how one abused soul managed to survive her nightmares and in doing so, create a story of mythic proportions. The story of how one woman escaped not only those set against her, but also the expectations of those who would have her be more than who she was, and how, in the process, she created a legend.

This... is the story of Ravin.

-Robert Stephens, December 2008

Monday, December 08, 2008


I could hear the trees crackling in the cold as I headed out to start my car. The wind was quiet, but the cold was so intense it imposed a quiet stillness upon the neighbourhood, as if willing it to silence. It'd been a long week: an overlong stay from cold that had racked my throat and sapped my energy along with a difficult week at work. None of these mattered however, as I started my car and scraped the ice from the windshield. The sun beat down from a clear sky, bringing light but little warmth.

There were days I wondered why I bothered at all. Days when my life seemed little more than a treadmill upon which I ran with no destination or purpose. Today however, I disdained to entertain those ideas. As easy as it was to focus on the struggle of life, the struggle to making ends meet and my relationships work, more rewarding was the concentrated effort on seeing what could be. What one had and what might be in the future.

This past summer I'd had the great fortune to meet the woman of my dreams, a woman who loved me for who I was, in all my strengths and weaknesses. Unexpected and unprecedented, it'd taken me a while to accept it for what it was... a gift from God. Still, a part of me scoffed at the idea of an ideal relationship. Part of me brought back the memories of countless "false starts", of relationships that hadn't worked. Of relationships that had caused nothing but pain. Some days it was hard to hold on to what I had in the face of these painful memories.

I let the car warm for ten minutes before climbing in. The warmth covered me, and for a moment, I rested in its embrace before shifting gears and heading out. Memories were powerful things. Most of us lived, whether we knew it or not, by the force of our experiences. Unfortunately, it was these very 'lessons' that worked to keep us from experiencing so many good things in life.

As a teacher, Experience is narrow minded, and too often we give it the power to influence our future. Experience most often teaches from the basis of fear. It does not allow for exception or the exceptional. And if something happens that does not fit into the pattern of our life, the typical response is to shut it down. Better the devil we know... or so the saying goes.

For many years, this was true for me. It was easy to look at my life or at the people around me as their lives became absorbed by tragedy or apathy or both, and wonder why I even bothered pursuing my dreams. Everyone struggled. Why did I think that an exceptional life was possible for me? Of course, I never really thought about what "the exceptional life" looked like, only that I was certainly not living it. And that is where experience often fails us. While the emotional memories and warning signs can be powerful, they are often vague and undefined. After a while, we no longer think about what life could be, only that it is a disappointment. The real tragedy is that we often don't even know why.

The highway was clean, the snow piled lightly on the shoulder as I whipped along, staring ahead and at the empty, snow covered fields to each side. Stouffville was a small town about ten miles north from where I lived. Bethany had an important exam the next day. I was heading out to give her a study break, and a bit of brain food. (i.e. chocolate) Twenty minutes later I pulled onto Stouffville road, a hilly, country road that was often difficult to drive in the rough Canadian winter. It was clear today however, and I zipped along, anxious to see my girl.

It'd been a long time since I'd felt this way about someone. In fact, I was sure I'd never felt this way about anyone. Just the thought of seeing her, of holding her close, of laughing with her, was enough to bring a smile to my face. Every time I thought about her, about what she meant, I could feel my emotions quiver...

I passed a gas station and debated pulling over to get some snacks before deciding to wait until I got into town. Just past the gas station on the right hand side was an old cemetery. I slowed, glancing at the pale grave stones partially covered by snow, wondering, as I always did, about the lives of the people now gone. Had they reached for the stars? Had they lived as they wanted to live? Had they experienced the fullness of life?

I have always thought it amazing when to hear someone speak positively about life. Humanity is not set for 'positive thinking' and life deals more blows then rewards. And worse, in our consumer culture, we are not taught to be happy, but to be unhappy. Despite being the richest continent on the planet, we are taught from the time we are children that we are in need. Of something. Of everything. A new TV. A new car. A new house. New furniture or lawn equipment or computer stuff. New make up or clothes or power tools. Our culture is set against gratitude, because it is need that sells, not contentment. And of all the things that make our lives full, perhaps it is gratitude... simple thankfulness... that is most important.

I hear it all the time. This warning not to look at the world through rose colored glasses. True enough, if you're looking at those around you. When it comes to our vision of the world, we must teach ourselves to see the need in others and the blessings in our own lives. This is the proper view of the world, I think. The Kingdom idea that Jesus had in mind. Thankfulness is important because it is based on what is already present, and unlike experience, is detailed and sure.

Thank you, Lord, for my family.
Thank you, Lord, for my car.
Thank you, Lord, for my job and a place to live.
Thank you, Lord, for my loving wife, my partner in this crazy world.

Bitterness arises because too often we allow our culture tell us what we don't have, we allow it to muddle our understanding between need and want, and we allow experience to teach us that an exceptional life is impossible.

I waited for the light to turn green, smiling in anticipation of seeing my girl. I glanced at the bag of chocolate on my front seat. It would probably take her two months to go through it, I thought, unable to stop grinning. I pulled in the driveway a minute later, only to hear Micah, their family dog, go crazy in the hallway.

"Heya pal!"

The half Lab rubbed against my legs, wagging his tail and pushing his grey whiskered face into my neck. Bethany's parents laughed as I finally made my way into the hallway. I chatted with them for a while, enjoying it as I always do, until finally she came down. My heart beat a little faster as I kissed her and held her tight. I wasn't sure there were any words that could accurately convey my emotions at that moment, save one: exceptional...

It's easy to look at life and see what's missing. It's easy because it is exactly what our culture teaches us to do. Much harder is the practice of looking at our life and being thankful for what we do have. My prayer this week, as we continue in the Christmas season, is that not only will we realize how much we have, but how much we can give. Not only with gifts, but with smiles as well. With a love that only God can give. And perhaps the greatest gift of all, the echo of a life filled with thankfulness.


Monday, December 01, 2008

The Power of Passion

"Sweet Hommmme Alabama!"

The voice was so off-key it made me smile as I walked the last part of the tunnel towards the busker singing his heart out near the exit.

"Sweeet, sweet home!"

The crowd filed through the narrow corridor, and I moved to the right, slowing slightly to get a look at this terrible singer. He was straight from the 1960's, with a scraggly beard and long hair. The one side of his guitar had some fur attachment on it, like one of those coats you see for small dogs in the winter. I was trying hard not to laugh as I passed by, but he caught my smile and misinterpreted it.

"Have a good weekend!" He said.

I nodded, his face suddenly bathed in a mask of joy as he belted out another song. His voice wasn't that bad, I thought. It wasn't the voice that had changed of course, merely my perception of it. And instead of laughing at him, I was suddenly smiling with him. All because of the singer. All because of his passion for his task.

I headed up the stairs into the cold night, unable to stop thinking about the simplicity and power of passion. If humanity was continually engaged in "a war of influence", passion was probably the single most important ingredient in the mix. Too often however, it was packaged and commercialized as nothing more than another item on the "psychological need" shelf. As just another thing to be learned and added to our repertoire.

It wasn't difficult to locate religious books on the "passionate life." Unfortunately, they inevitably ended up commoditizing faith and using passion as something to help market "the gospel." Suddenly the one thing capable of transforming the human experience, the one thing able to make our hearts sing in the face of life's tragedies, was downgraded into yet another product.

The ten-minute walk to my car was cold one. I shuffled forward, hunched over, unable to stop sniffling. My sickness had lingered these past weeks, and some days it was all I could do to maintain the energy at work before crashing at the end of the day for much needed sleep.

"What the..."

Jammed into my windshield wiper was a plastic bag, with yet another note "From the Committee of the Neighbourhood Watch." Although the spot I'd started parking in was legal, I'd picked the curb outside a million dollar home. "If you can afford to drive, you can afford to pay for parking." the note said. They left me these messages every day. The plastic bag was new, the latest effort to "preserve" the note in light of the snow and rain we'd received recently. Some days, just for fun, I posted the previous notes under my windshield wiper. A preemptive maneuver, one I supposed was better than being rude or writing a nasty message back. Something like "my car was a gift, you prick" or "your home is worth a million dollars, and you have time for this?" or "don't you have anything better to do?" But then, maybe that's why we get stuck on rules. Why we so often became stuck on telling people how wrong they were and how right we were about the slightest infractions.

People who had no passion often found zeal instead, and there was nothing more dangerous than a zealot. Unlike those who have found what makes them uniquely them, zealots have accepted the substitute, usually in the form of religion or politics and usually involving the delineation of the human race. Why my country is better than yours. Why my race, my gender, my sexuality, my whatever, is better than yours. A zealot is dangerous because the drive for life is adopted -- like playing a role -- and as a result, cannot be simply explained away, not without having to endure the painful psychological extrication from something they don't even believe in the first place. Most wars are started by zealots. Most religions are defined by them. The unfortunate truth is that those who love the least love the loudest, and so zealots often win the "war of influences" by default. Those who have found true passion do not wish to be engaged by those who they consider to be fake, and those who have neither zealotry or passion are inevitably influenced by both.

Part of the appeal of post-modernism, for me at least, was this sense that authenticity and being and yes, passion, should be more prevalent in my life. That too much of my life was fake. That too much of my life was about what was practical, or what others thought I needed, and not enough about the "real" me.

You can get lost in the philosophical aspects of "the real me" and what it means, but the heart of it was this sense that I didn't want to pretend anymore. That I didn't want to feel like an actor slipping into another role. That I wanted to unveil that deep sense of self and be at peace with how and who I was. We all have days when we feel a stranger to ourselves, when the world feels out of place, when we wonder just how we got "here" at all. Part of what held me back however, was this whole idea of passion. Releasing myself into that was not an option. I'd been passionate before, and it was more than a disaster. In essence, I became what I hated. Even now, thinking back to those times, I still feel the regret. And the loss.

So much the loss...

The rain had picked up, and it drizzled along my windshield, blurring the night into a sea of yellows and shadows. I glanced over at the two or three leaflets on the floor of the passenger seat left over from my parking spot. the ones from the Committee. I remembered a time when I was younger, driving in the rain, my floor covered with leaflets from another "committee". Religious pamphlets that explained "the gospel" (How to Know God) in four easy parts. I remembered delivering them, handing them out to people with burning sincerity and zeal to change the world.

In those days, God was all, and the pamphlets were as much symbolic of the driving hunger for a life that mattered as they were a real part of what I believed. To friends and strangers alike, I burned with a fire that would not be quenched, and I refused to take no for an answer. God could change their life. He had changed mine. Be changed! Be like me!

I quickly became the master of the argument. I could walk people through Scripture or discuss the nature of God in philosophical terms. I latched onto every new archeological discovery that "proved" the Bible. I shouted and beat my chest into the winds and rains of a culture infatuated with everything but God. For four years, I carried pamphlets in my car, knowing that I might need them. Understanding that a soldier must always be prepared to fight. I was the epitome of passion, and living the life I had always wanted. Or so I thought...

The rain had stopped, and I turned off my wipers as I glided to the final stoplight before home. The leaflets lay crookedly on the floor, my gaze inexplicably drawn to them once again. What I didn't realize when I was younger was that I wasn't living a life of passion at all. I'd become a zealot. I didn't understand the difference between the two, and didn't care. That wasn't unusual of course, since zealots generally don't care about such "trivialities".

Of course, there's nothing trivial about the difference between being a zealot and living a life of passion. Passion comes from within you. It is not forced, and it isn't fake. Zealousness is always amplified with external help. (This is why cults and fundamentalists maintain such strict "socializing" disciplines. Get a zealot away from the bolstered environment and it breaks down quickly.) In my case, I was going to church four times a week. I had no non-Christian friends. And if I did hang out with a "non-believer" (catch the language there) my goal was to convert them so they'd believe what I believe.

Passion does not seek imitation but likeness. Someone who lives a passionate life is not looking for disciples or converts, but seeks instead those who find in life -- in all its heartache and pain and joy -- a humane reality that is at once authentic and real and heartfelt.

Important question: does a Zealot know that they are being "fed", that they have been given a "passion alternate" by people who inevitably use this psychological drug to control both people and their environment? Sometimes. Rarely. I didn't understand why it all felt so wrong until I left the church for two years. Somewhere along the way I realized that I had accepted the "zealot's pill" as an alternate to a life of real passion. The life God intended for me.

The rain had changed to snow, and I pulled into the driveway, still thinking about the busker with the fur guitar. I picked up the leaflets from the floor and threw them in the garbage on my way inside. No more games. The house was quiet, and I unlocked my room and stepped in, grateful to finally be home. These days I had a better understanding of passion and what it really meant. Why it was so important, and how much it meant to follow a life led from both above and within.

One only had to go on the internet to find crazy and hateful dialogue from people who called themselves Christians, or Christos, followers of Jesus. Clearly, they had, like me, accepted the life of a zealot, rather than the passionate life of someone in pursuit of God.
Passion is not enthusiasm. It is not charisma or results or what appears to be excitement, although that can be part of it. Passion is the allowed expression of our inner self in our daily life. It is the freedom found when we anchor our heart to our life. Zealousness is much different. Zealousness is comparative. It is always seeking to convince, to influence, and to promote. Passion has no need for this, because the goal is not to see other transformed by us, but to see in others the freedom we find in our own uniqueness, our own special-ness, our own stamp of God's creative touch. Passion invokes invitation. Zealousy invokes coercion. And lies.

(Part of the reason so many young people leave the church when they are eighteen is because the church, like other human organizations such as political parties, knows zealousy better than it does passion. Young people do well to avoid it.)

A life of passion is one of moments, when time stands still, when there seems to be complete unity with what we are doing and who we are, when our actions no longer look to the world for recognition. It is in those moments, when our passion has united the "all" of who we are, that we know what it means to be fully human. And the result is stunning. Someone who is truly passionate does not need to sell or convince anyone of anything. They do not need to convince or coerce or convene.

They need only to live.

The house was quiet, and I turned my music on to put the finishing touches on my latest novel. I still hadn't made it as a novelist, and there were days when I wanted to give it up, but I could fell my inner self smiling when I wrote. It was my passion. And to that end, I didn't need a publisher to convince me I'd made the right decision. I would write because I was supposed to, I would write because I was born to, I would write... and I would love every minute of it.

Passion has always been an important part of life, especially in Western culture. Too often however, we have accepted the substitute, and in so doing, have cheapened our faith. Cheapened our relationships. And most importantly, cheapened the world's perception of a Creator much greater, and much more loving, than we give Him credit for.

We all have passion inside of us. It resides in the parts we rarely visit, past the pain of disappointment and the cynicism of a life spent watching zealots. Past the discouragement of those closest to us and the "good sense" that keeps us as square pegs in round holes.
My prayer this week is that you will work past the pain and hurt, that you will open yourself to the person you have always wanted to be, and that you will discover the life of passion -- complete and broken and yet still joyful -- that God had in mind when He created you.


Monday, November 24, 2008

If Love is the Answer, What's the Question?

There's no wind this morning, and the sun peeks out from behind a white cloud as my breath fogs the air. Down the street, smoke rises from one of the chimneys against the blue sky. Everything is quiet and still. It reminds me of the street I grew up on, with the big maples and evergreens growing side by side, shadowing the road. It is a wonder to think about those times as a child, to think about what life was like then and what it is now. About what I believed then, and what I believe now.

As a kid -- and later as a young adult -- I knew exactly what I believed and why. These days, I'm not as certain. But how can I be sure about things when the evidence of life inevitably points to the contrary, especially when I consider some of the goofy stuff I believed as a child?

Just Trying To Fit In

The coffee warms my hands, and I bring my face close to sip it. A few houses over, a father is playing hockey on the driveway with his dad. I smile, remembering the time with my own dad as a kid.

When I was twelve, my Christmas gift was goalie equipment. Real pads and a real blocker and trapper. My dad set up a net in the basement, and we'd play down there for hours. He'd pretend to pass it, wheeling around in front of me, "Ketchup over to Mustard, back to Ketchup, in the corner to Relish - shoots!" at which point he'd whip the tennis ball at the net. I was never sure why his top line consisted of condiments, but I thought it was pretty funny as a kid. Still do.

"Challenge the shot. C'mon out of the net. Challenge the shot. Yeah!"

The father's voice echoes along the quiet street. When you're a kid, you don't worry about your beliefs too much. You worry about your parents. Your family. Your friends. You don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about what you believe or why you're different. You spend most of your time just trying to fit in. As we get older however, we need an increasing amount of assurances that outline just how different we are from those around us. And yet, for the most part, we lock ourselves into patterns of thought that do the opposite, and prevent us from the life we really want; a life of freedom.

"Don't go down so easily! Stay up, and wait for me to make my move."

I look over in time to see the boy nod to his dad's instructions. Freedom sounds great, and people of faith talk about it enough -- but the truth is that most days I don't feel the freedom to simply "do" as I did when I was young? Instead, I end up with 'reasonable' answers to the questions about what I should and shouldn't do. About what I can and cannot be. In fact, sometimes I think that adulthood is primarily an education in being reasonable.

Stop Being 'Reasonable'

As humans, we are always trying to influence one another. Most of us try to do it with language. Speeches. Pamphlets. Books. Television. And talking. Lots of talking. Somewhere in the midst of this never-ending "war of influences", we are taught to moderate our thinking, to make it reasonable -- aka palatable -- for those around us.

To not do this makes us arrogant and impossible, but to fall into this trap of 'reasonable thinking' costs us in other ways. It becomes a form of self-teaching, so when we see things that we could do to make a difference -- speak to the homeless person, start a charity, volunteer at a kids club, help at a Seniors center -- we "reason" ourselves into a life that is oddly reminiscent of every life around us. And so the uniqueness we all seek is lost in the tangles and squabbles of language, the buttressing of this doctrine and this creed, the "here-to-fores" and "thou shalt nots" that we believe separate us, but in fact, do nothing but reinforce the fact not only are we all sheep, but we're all sleeping in the same pen.

It is one thing to say that you are pursuing your dreams, quite another to pro-actively go for it. It is one thing to say that you are humble, quite another to admit someone with less money and no home is just as important as you. And it is one thing to say you believe we should love everyone, when it is clear that we do not.

Maybe we hold up these religious phrases, like "loving our enemies," simply to make ourselves feel better. Maybe we do it because we know what we're supposed to believe, and because we know that no one expects it from us. We're too "reasonable" for that. And so this outrageous idea of love, this true act of separation, becomes something quite different. And while we pretend to absorb this idea that a Creator who loves us must somehow make us unique, we reject the absurdity of the actual message. Instead of doing "love," we promote it.

Selling "Love," Don Draper style
We talk about it. We write about it. We defend our words and our songs. We defend our ideas about God and our ideas about holidays. Our ideas about prayer times and prayer cloths. We examine gender roles and gender issues, issues about sex and sexuality. We look at diet plans and dietary constraints until we have so shredded and stapled and cut and reordered the "gospel" to fit into our lives that it really isn't good news anymore. We cut down whole forests to promote an endless file on the way to love people "reasonably", and yet we remain haunted by this idea that no matter what we believe, we're no different from the people around us.

Whadda-ya Got?

So what do we believe? And why do we believe it? What does any of it mean, if we are merely the stewards of yet another religious diversion?

To think like a child makes us children, but to act like one is what it means to be free. Perhaps then, the idea is to worry less about the question, and more about the answer. To pursue less the science of influence, and more the struggle of love.

"Nice save, Sammy! Atta-boy!"

"Shoot it again, dad!"

I glance over at my neighbours and smile. There is something quite profound in being what we believe. Putting our creed down on paper may make us feel better, and delineating exactly why our beliefs are different -- better -- may make us feel more secure, but in the end, it takes us farther from the extraordinary life we all seek.

My hope this week is that you will lay down your paper barriers, that you will see through the walls you have constructed to separate yourself from those around you, and find in God the freedom of a life lived, and not simply believed.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Treadmill and the Trampoline

Two Lives - One Life


Have you ever had one of those days when you feel like something is going to happen, something important, but you don't know what it is? Or why? The story I want to tell you happened on that kind of day, and looking back, I suppose it wouldn't have mattered if I had known what was going to happen. Sometimes the person we trust the least is ourselves, I guess. Before I tell you what happened though, I should tell you something about me. I used to think that I could control things in my life by the decisions I made, that I was the master of my own universe. I suppose I still believe that, but what that means to me now, and what it used to mean, are very, very different. I know I'm getting ahead of myself, but it's important you understand what I used to believe, and how things have changed since that day.

I worked in a church for many years, and I have worked with people my entire life. I can't tell you how many times I heard people asking me to pray for them, that they needed a miracle in this situation or that situation. I generally like people, but I sometimes found myself wondering why they needed a miracle at all.

You live in North America. You own a beautiful house and two cars. You have a nice family. Sure, you have struggles, but isn't that part of life. Things can't be great all the time. You don't expect THAT, do you?

Just the same, I would agree to pray for them and offer what counsel I could. This went on for many years and I still didn't understand why so many people were looking for a miracle until the hedges of discipline and duty broke down in my life, when I began to realize the rhythms of life too often had little to do with my choices. I still believed in God, but this sense of powerlessness rattled me to the core. What if our choices didn't matter? What if I wasn't actually choosing? This went against everything I'd been taught in the church, and I didn't know how to handle it, so I just kind of sucked up and hoped for the best.

Until the day I got my own miracle. I didn't ask for it, not consciously at least, but it happened nonetheless, and things have never been the same.


It was warmer than I expected when I finally left the gym, the crowds thick along the street as I headed towards the subway and home. It was an uneventful ride and within a short time I was headed towards my car, my traveler's mug in one hand, my gym bag shifted well over my right shoulder. Another long week had ended, but I wasn't tired. I was oddly fresh, enjoying the bright sun and cloudless sky as I ambled along the sidewalk. The trees had lost their leaves, but even without their vibrant colours, today they seemed to glow and reach towards the heavens in the quiet stillness of the bright afternoon sun.

When I finally reached my car, an older woman with fiery red hair was sticking a piece of paper in my windshield. I shuffled forward quickly, my bag bouncing against my leg.

"Hey, I'm allowed to park here!"

I'd been forced to park further and further away (yup... parking tickets) from the subway until I was a full ten-minute walk away.

She saw me and smiled, and then removed the note.

"Oh good. You're here. I was wondering if you'd ever get back."

"I scheduled another client late..." My voice trailed off as I realized what I was saying. "Is there something I can do for you?"

She was a heavyset woman, wearing a purple scarf over a bright pink coat that was tattered along the edges, her lips painted a garish red that matched her hair. I instantly felt sorry for her, although I wasn't sure why.

"Can you give me a ride?"

I looked at her for a long minute. I don't always give rides to strangers, especially to the ones who hang around my car, but like I said, I felt sorry for her.

I opened the door and she slid in beside me, laboriously adjusting her thick coat and scarf. The musky scent of old perfume and sweat momentarily engulfed me, and I tried not to be obvious as I rolled down my window a crack to get some air.

"Where to?" I asked.

"Take me anywhere. Somewhere far away from here."

It was a ridiculous answer, but instead of questioning her further, I put the car in gear and pulled out. I glanced over at her while I was driving. Her face was craggy and lined. Other than the lipstick, she wore no other makeup else that I could tell.

"Do you have a place to stay?" I asked, my voice gentle.

"Yes. It's the same place it always was. It changes but never does, you know what I mean?"

I tried to check her pupils, but couldn't keep my gaze off the road long enough to see if they were dilated.


'What do you mean 'sure'?" She barked, her voice suddenly strong and narrow. "That's the first dishonest thing you've said to me."

I swallowed and didn't respond, suddenly wondering what I'd done. Had I picked up a total psychopath? Maybe it was my mood, but I decided to play along.

"You're right. I don't know what you mean."

She smiled, her face suddenly soft.

"Yes you do. But I appreciate your honesty."

"No, I mean it. I'm not a fan of so-called 'cryptic' statements because usually they don't mean anything. People say things just to say things, or say that they believe something and don't even understand why they believe it in the first place."

"It's not very helpful, is it?" She said.

"It's destructive."

She looked at me, and I could feel her gaze, which had somehow become stronger.

"So what do you believe?"

A blue Civic swerved in front of me, and I grimaced but didn't say anything for a minute.

"I'm Steve, by the way."

She smiled again, and when she didn't say anything, I began to worry.

"Seriously, where can I take you? There has to be someplace-"

"There is."

She pointed, and I sighed when I realized where we were. I pulled into my driveway.
I bent my head over the steering wheel. I knew that I was having a hallucination of some sort, that the woman beside me wasn't real. At least, I was almost positive that she wasn't real.

"I don't understand."

"Good. And you never will. That's the point."

"See, that's exactly the type of BS I hate!" I said, my voice rising. "The point is ALWAYS to understand! That's what it means to be human!"

She looked at me, her scent suddenly overpowering.

"Is it? Your problem, Steve, is the same one most people have. You have never accepted that you are human. You are not God."

"What? I know that!" My voice began to break. "Better than most, I think."

She reached out and patted my knee. Her hand was warm, and at her touch, I felt a surge of emotion.

"Thinking little of yourself is no different than thinking too highly of yourself. Both are a matter of pride. It is discouraging though, when some people use God as a tool to keep others unaware of their humanity, and keep them reaching towards divinity. God sees, but in this, he asks us to stumble and reach toward him. To see God is to accept who you are. How can we say that we believe God became human if we can't even acknowledge our own humanity?"

"I don't know if it's that." I said, my voice steadying a little. "It's just that life never really turns out the way we want it to, I think." I said. "I don't think people are always greedy, I think they're just being... human."

I looked at her, but when she didn't say anything, I turned my gaze back towards my house.

"Why don't we get what we want? I think that's what most of us struggle with. And even when we get what we want, we don't really want it. Or something."

"What do you want, Steve? What do you REALLY want?"

Her question lingered as I lifted my head and stared at the house. I thought about Bethany. About my family. About Mark and Jackie and Mireille and Ernie and all my friends. I thought about Szymon and Nads and all my housemates. And I thought about those who were struggling and broken, the ones who saw no way out and that not only wanted a miracle, but also truly needed one, the ones that touched my heart more than any other.

She shifted her shawl.

"I have a question for you, Steve."


"Do you like working out?" She asked.

I wasn't sure what her question had to do with people getting what they wanted, but then, I was having a conversation with either a highly delusional woman or hallucinating, so I wasn't sure it mattered.

"Sure. I've been working out for a long time."

"Do you like running on the treadmill?"

"Well, no, it's boring. Unless there's a TV it's okay-"

"Have you ever been on a trampoline?"


I saw where she was going and gave her a rueful smile.

"Life is both a treadmill and a trampoline, Steve. As a trainer and someone who likes to workout, you know that you can't always choose your gym, given the circumstances, but most of the time you can choose how you're going to exercise."

"I've heard this before, you know." I said. "This isn't exactly a new idea."

She laughed.

"No, it isn't a new idea. The difference is that you heard it, but didn't believe it. Didn't accept it. Knowing and understanding are very different things."

I paused.

"Are you an angel?"

She smiled and opened the passenger door. A fresh blast of air rushed into the car. She leaned in and glanced at my notebook on the back seat.

"Keep writing, Steve. It matters. Keep loving people. And tell your readers that even if they can't understand why life makes no sense at times that they should pursue the better. Our lives are a reflection we see only dimly even in the best of times. Tell them not be afraid to ask for God's help, and when they get the choice, to choose the trampoline."

I nodded, unable to speak.

I watched her walk away, her scarf lifting in the breeze, until she disappeared from sight.


I know you probably don't believe my story. Heck, I don't believe it and it happened to me. Well, I think it happened. Maybe it was a dream. Still, things haven't been the same for me since that day.

The change hasn't come all at once, of course. Some companies and religions like to promote "instant makeover" or a "new life today", but anyone who thinks about it for more than a minute understands the ridiculous (and dangerous) premise to that notion. And in the movies, you only have a couple of hours for lives to be changed forever. But in life, the changes that last forever take just as long. Some days I still forget that, and I feel lost and unsure, but when I think back to that day, I remember her words. Treadmill or trampoline? It helps that I work at a gym, but maybe that's why she chose that example in the first place.

Every day I go to the gym. I like it most days, but it's still work, and I have to be there. In that sense, I guess I'm not choosing. And when it's time to work out, there are days I find myself wanting the treadmill, not because it's fun, but because it's functional. Because I don't have to smile. You can't force happiness, I don't think, but when I bounce on that trampoline, its hard not to laugh a little. I'm not sure what this all means, if anything, but my angel (or whoever she was) told me to tell you, and it really has made a difference in my life.

To embrace God is to accept our humanity. And when we can accept ourselves, in all of our foibles and brokenness and selfish nature, we are not only more likely to ask God for help (especially when it comes to loving other people) but there's a better chance of us finding the trampolines in our life. At least, I think that's what she meant.

So there it is. Another to story to dwell on or brush aside. My only hope is that you will at least think about it, and if it helps in some small way, well, then maybe you can pass it on to someone else. I haven't met many of you, but someday we may meet, and when that happens, maybe you'll have a story for me too. Maybe we can get a coffee and talk about it, after spending a bit of time on the trampoline together.


Monday, November 10, 2008

Two Words, One Phrase, and the End of Hope

Saturday Night, 2:30am

I didn't see it the first time I walked outside that evening. I didn't see it when I came back in or later that night when I went outside to spend some time with my housemates on the stoop. By the time I finally said goodnight to Bethany and walked her to the car, I still hadn't noticed the plain manila envelope with my name and address on it. It wasn't until my night was over, when my Friday smile seemed complete, that I chanced to glance upon it, tucked beneath a book at the front door where one of my housemates had left the Friday morning mail. In a very short time, that envelope would turn my Friday happiness to abject discouragement. Its contents would hold up to me a simple question, a phrase that had haunted me for most of my life, and despite the implications, would compel me once more to reflect on them.

But that was still to come.

Friday Evening, 5:20 pm

I'm standing under the awning outside the subway entrance, away from the drizzling rain as the traffic snarls around the corner, horns honking, the cars stuck halfway through the intersection. I love Fridays. No work, some time to write, and the week's wait to see my girl is finally over. Daylight has already started to fade, and the crowds jostle past me along the sidewalk as everyone hurries home for the weekend. A group of teenagers, excited and slightly blind to the people around them, sweep past me. Two construction workers amble along behind them, arguing about the Leafs. Mostly though, I notice the professionals. The suits and sharply clicking heels. There seems an endless stream of them. They stride with good posture as they chat on their cell phones, impervious to the people around them. I glance down at my workout pants and running shoes. Soon enough I'll be heading home, to the tiny room I call home and the house I share with my nine roommates. I watch a man in a dark suit, who looks to be about five years younger than me, stroll by, laughing into his cell phone even as he glances at the shiny silver watch on his wrist. I nod to myself, determined to not give away my Friday happiness or think about what might have been as I head down the stairs to the subway.

When I was a kid, I tended to flit from dream to dream. One year I wanted to be a boxer. No coincidence, it was the year I saw Rocky III. The next year I chanced upon the movie Breakin', while on vacation with my parents, and for a whole summer I wanted to be a professional break-dancer. (Not ideal for the chubby, white suburban kid.) And so it went. From sportscaster to wildlife biologist, I finally 'settled' on professional ministry, believing it was what God wanted from me, and believing my abilities matched that which was required to work in the church.

At first, I was right. I loved the ministry. I loved the people. The purpose. The ideals. The surety of it all. Somewhere along the way however, it started getting messy. I asked too many questions, witnessed too many things being ignored, and could no longer find the willingness to work in a world that seemed so largely composed and ruled by the Western tendency towards commoditization and moral religiosity. Somehow, we'd taken the gospel, and all the hope it contained, and buried it in post-Enlightenment Rationalism, this idea that we have all the answers. That we must have all the answers. That God is a neat package to be delivered by us. That we are Jesus.

I never really adjusted after leaving the cozy world of ministry. No matter what job I took, the world forever seemed strange to me. I bounced from job to job, and as I grew older, watched quietly as my friends grew into homes and families and promotions, even as I would begin yet another 'career.'

I felt like a traveler walking the long roads between towns, stopping to rest for a while, but forever pushing forward. A part of me longed to settle down, but my feet had their own ideas. Perhaps it was the memory of my time in the church, and how it'd felt when I left. This crashing of life and hope when the world I believed in proved itself to be nothing more than a simple human creation that often had little to do with God.

Friday Evening, 5:43 pm

The train is packed, and I'm forced to stand near the doors. The woman beside me, a tall, thick blonde wearing an expensive looking skirt suit, is typing away on her blackberry. She notices me briefly, and with a look of disdain, turns her gaze back to the blackberry. A part of me wants to tell her not to be so egocentric. That she's not that special and that she merely happened to be in my line of sight. Who is she to look at me like that? I can feel my indignation rising, my jaws tightening.

I may wear workout clothes, but just wait until my books are published. Wait until it's my turn to look at you like that.

Leaving the ministry had the lasting effect of this feeling like I was a permanent stranger, but as my inability to feel as if I fit in somewhere deepened, I began to write more, and along the way discovered what would become my singular passion in life. Writing could be done anywhere if one had the discipline. It was writing that saw me through my divorce, writing that helped me move through my battles with depression, and writing that helped me work through the different questions in my life, not the least of which was this sense that I'd irrevocably messed up along the way, and that "normalcy" and "success" would forever be a stranger to me. In writing, I discovered that there was one dream to which I could always return. One place. One hope. One constant outside my faith that would help me navigate the seemingly transient nature of my personality. Year after year, I worked on my craft, occasionally publishing articles in magazines, but knowing that until a publisher said yes to one of my books, I would forever hold myself in doubt as "real" writer.

In some ways, I guess my hope was that the recognition would cement my credentials as someone who had done something, as someone who had accomplished something. It wasn't about the approval of others; so much as it was the approval of myself.

Friday Evening, 5:56 pm

I'm staring at the blonde now, waiting for her to look up so I can sniff and look away. Give her a taste of her own medicine. It's all contrived, I want to say. Sure, you have money and a career, and I might not look like much to you and your rich coterie, but you're just a shallow egg in a world of instant chicken. Just wait until I start publishing books.

My mind, as it often does these past two weeks, goes to my latest book proposal. Three months have passed since I sent it away. I am expecting to hear back from them some time in the next week.

I'd worked hard on my latest project. A year writing the book. Months editing. Another two months on the forty-page proposal. I had picked a publisher suited to my book. The only thing left was to wait.

My excitement builds the more I think about it, and by the time I get off the train I am no longer aware of the blonde or the two lawyers who bustle past me. Throughout the years, I have developed patience when it comes to the pursuit of my dreams. I know the publishing world is fickle. I know that there are tens of thousands with whom I am competing. Still, a part of me believes that perhaps finally, after so many years, my time has come.

Friday Night, 1:20am

I wave as Bethany drives away. As always, a piece of me sighs with sadness and then smiles at what I've been given. It is hard to pursue your dreams, hard to wait for success. For now, I am grateful for my new job, my family and friends. Soon, I tell myself, perhaps very soon, I'll finally realize my dream. I step inside and take off my shoes. As I slide them off to the side, I notice the manila envelope with my name on it.

My hands are shaking as I carry it up the stairs with me. I peel off my coat and gently set it aside. No longer able to wait, I slide my thumb underneath the flap and pry open the contents. The first page is a letter, and within seconds, I have my answer.

"Dear Stephen,
Thank you so much for the opportunity to review your proposal... unfortunately, we are unable to find a place in our publishing schedule for your manuscript, so we are returning your proposal..."

I let the letter slide from my fingers onto the table, and flip through my unmarked forty-page proposal before tossing it to the side. For the moment, I am numb. I've been rejected before, but somehow this one feels different. It feels... complete.

If only I'd stayed at one job. If only I'd accepted the truth about life. If only I'd made better decisions about my career. And about my writing. I'd still be unpublished, but at least I would have something to show for it. A house. A career. Some security. Because of my thoughtless and naive belief in pursuing my dreams, I'd made myself into a poor writer-wanna-be. A writer in name only. And a failure by any measure. I thought about the two lawyers in the subway. I knew that I was burying myself in self-pity, but I couldn't seem to escape it. If only I hadn't bothered to pursue my dream. If only I'd learned to appreciate more the simple things in life, and the rule by which most people lived. Why couldn't I be more normal? Why did I always have to be so...

I slipped my coat on and headed back outside, glancing only once at my carefully worked proposal now scattered across the kitchen table like yesterday's newspaper.

It was drizzling still as I ambled down the driveway. The streetlights reflected off the puddles like hazy film, the quiet of the early hour unusually oppressive. If only. Two words that had haunted me my entire life. I knew the words were dangerous, because they reflected on what could never be. They were hope thieves, words that created space for the not-possible. If only. Two words that could never be used in a positive way. Two words that spoke, not of the future, but of the irreversible past. Comparative in nature, to use the phrase "if only" was to reflect on what never would happen, and do so in the most disparaging nature. Unlike its distant cousin, "what if", that allowed and encouraged hope to endure, "if only" recognized one thing, and one thing alone:

"You failed. You failed and it was your fault. You failed, it was your fault, and you will regret it the rest of your life. Even worse, there is nothing you can do about it. You will never be able to change or alter what you have done."

In the distance, a car splashed down the road. I glanced up at the tree in my neighbour's yard, its leaves gone, glistening in the dim light of the street like a wet stick. I tried to remember how I'd felt moments before, to recall the gratitude, but it was a vague memory that suddenly seemed like another lifetime.

If only.

It was a long time before I finally headed in, and longer still before I fell into a rough sleep.

Sunday Afternoon, 1:30pm.

Another rainy day, only today is colder. I am outside, holding my coffee to warm my hands. I am still not sure how I feel. The weekend has given me time to process my rejection, but if I dwell on it for too long I can feel the emotions, tender and bruised, rising within me. I am hoping that to feel some encouragement. To be able to look forward again as I did just this past week. And most importantly, that I will be able to encourage people with my words and life. For now, however, I am lost in a cloud of sadness.

I know that I will bounce back, that I will once again press forward, hopeful and excited about the one passion around which I have carried for so long, and which has carried me on its shoulders for even longer. At least, I think I will bounce back. For the moment, I feel truly insignificant.

I feel like a failure.

Sunday Afternoon, 3:20pm.
I am in my room now, my papers and books scattered as always across my desk. My TV is off. The cursor blinks in front of me, and from my speakers comes the soothing sounds of Thomas Newman and Alan Silvestri. "If only" is more than a phrase. It is a statement of belief. It is a creed of the impossible and the destroyer of hope. It speaks the language of regret, and offers us coal in the place of diamonds. Perhaps the worst part is that it forces us to look at our past and give ourselves a failing grade. It doesn't allow for natural human weakness, for the rhythms of life, or for the possibility of chance. And most importantly, it does not allow a place for God. It speaks with surety about what was lost, and offers us nothing in return.

But life is surely more than that, isn't it? I am struck by the number of people, who like myself, wrestle with this idea of failure. This idea of a "progressive" life. What if life isn't supposed to be progressive? What if life is more than the next promotion, the bigger house, the better clothes? What if life is really not about the success we find, but the character we create along the way? The one that says "yes" to God, and "yes" to those around us.

Eliminating the phrase does not make things easy. Even now, I can feel the inner bruises, and the scars I know it will leave from this latest rejection. I wish I had a better answer about where God is in this process. I wish I knew why my friend, Ernie, who is the best artist I know, couldn't get his pieces into a gallery. I wish I knew why the relationship between talent and success made little sense, and why some people fulfilled their dreams and while others spent their lives in pursuit.

What I do know is that to find success and to fulfill your dreams are not necessarily the same thing. That to hope for the future is always better than to dwell on what never will be. And that the pain we feel when we experience failure is better than the emptiness of a life on the treadmill to nowhere. In that, this feeling, yes, of pain, is the feeling of a life hungry and hopeful. The rich and fabulous can have their cell phones and surety. Let them have their assured airs and marbled moments. Perhaps the life worth living is not the one we see on television or in the magazines, but the one carved out of the inevitable sorrow in the pursuit of our dreams.

"If only" may whisper that we are failures, and for a time, it may even convince us that it is true. My prayer then, this week, is that we would remember the most influential person who ever walked the planet never published a single book. Never traveled more than 35 miles from his hometown. And lived as a simple carpenter for most of his life.

To follow your dreams is to travel the road less traveled. And while there may be times you get lost, times when hope seems a distant memory, and times when the loneliness of the pursuit threatens to pull you under, remember that the only life worth living is the one you've been given, far beyond the shiny medals of self righteousness of those who would look down on you. Sadness will come, but only for a time. Pursue the life you were born to live, and hold fast to the passions of your heart. It will not be easy, but then, I don't think it is supposed to be. It is in our deepest sorrows that we discover who we truly are, and it is in those moments, more than any other, when we face up to the waves of doubt and discouragement, when we acknowledge what has happened and yet press forward, that we achieve something greater than our dreams.


Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Audacity of Hope-lessness

He's there again. Curled inside the subway entrance, his emaciated body prone, his hand clutched tightly around a bottle. The other arm is tucked under his head as a pillow, his faded sweater draped over his still form like a flag. I pause, as I always do, and then walk past. It makes me feel, but I can't identify the emotion. Pity. Compassion. Anger. Indifference. Every time it's different, and it worries me that a sad sight would make me feel something other then sad. Must our response to the world always emanate from our own selfish projections? Must it always be about me?

It's been a long day and I try not to think about it as I head down the long flight of stairs to get to the train. It will be good to sit down. This past week I received a few emails, but none that touched me so deeply as one from a dear friend, who had read my blog and, in her own way, echoed the comments of others. "How am I to find hope, as you say, when my life seems only to return to the same troubles and heartaches, time after time?"

The train arrives and it is surprisingly empty. I take a seat near the back and ease into it. Two women drape themselves into the seats across from me, carrying their conversation onboard. Their voices are loud and angry, but when I close my eyes, I am able, for a time, to ignore them.

I'm thinking about my friend, and about the many who have written me, not just this past week, but the past few years, telling me their story and asking the same question, if phrased differently, about hope. How do we find hope in a world that returns, as it were, to the same rotten pool, year after year, century after century, civilization after civilization? Despite our accrued knowledge, the human condition has changed little. Moreover, if history teaches us anything, it is that while the world changes, people do not. We all want joy. We all search for love. And we all need hope. And yet, no matter how rich our country, no matter how high our education, too often hope remains an ideal. Very rarely does it enter into our life as anything approaching reality.

"That bitch needs to be shot."

I open my eyes, no longer able to block out the conversation from the two women, who are cursing and complaining about their day at work at so loud a volume I find my hand groping for the remote. The train is two stops from home, but the force of their negativity is so stifling I nearly ask them to be quiet and complain somewhere else. Not everyone wants to share your anger. We all have problems. I take a deep breath and swallow my frustration. I've had days like that, too.

Two seats over is a copy of the morning newspaper. On the cover is a picture of Sarah Palin, but it isn't another Lenscrafter advertisement. She photographs well (with one exception), and she is always smiling. But listening to her is difficult. The words from the "pit-bull with lipstick" seem quite in contrast with her smiling pictures. Not particularly eloquent, she is forceful and direct and, beneath the looks and smiles, seems every bit as vicious as the dog in her now infamous "joke."

In the middle of the paper is another article about Obama, about the man "selling" hope. No doubt "Obama-mania" is, as one writer expressed, a "runaway train", with the finances and smooth workings of a machine-like campaign. And Obama himself, who uses the word "hope" perhaps more than any politician in recent memory, at times feels as abstract as the theme of his campaign. But is he real? Does he really believe in hope? Or is he merely a projection of that which we all long for?

The train squeals to a stop, and the two women leave, still complaining, their voices carrying until the doors hiss to a close and washes the subway in blessed silence.

If hope were easy, it would never hold the thematic weight of a presidential campaign. If hope were something endemic to the nature of humanity, it would not capture our imagination to the extent that it does. And it certainly would not hold us in its wake as such an integral, if mysterious and hidden, principle for a better life. That said, as difficult as it seems to find hope in our lives, the audacity of hopelessness seems equally shocking to me.

The train stops for the final time, and I wearily climb the three flights of stairs to the surface. The sky has begun to fall, and the tall glass buildings outside the subway seem almost liquid in their reflections. I pause at the hot dog stand just outside the exit. They remind me of times when I was young, when my friends would come over during the summer months, when we would play basketball in the driveway and the carport would be filled with the sounds and smells of hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill. I'm still deciding if I should have one when a man in his mid-forties wearing a gray suit and red power tie steps in front of a woman in line and orders before she has a chance. The look she gives him could scald a small planet, but he blithely ignores her and takes his time fixing his food. The look on his face is as empty as his actions. I shake my head, my decision made, and head toward my car.

Unlike many, I do not believe hopelessness to be merely a reflection of our education or circumstances. Hopelessness is a reflection of our attitude. It is true that often it is hard to find our way, when unmet expectations and disappointments crowd our life. People lose hope (especially as they age) because, like the woman at the hot dog stand, they realize that things will never really change. That people will be selfish. That people will disappoint us. That life will never be truly easy. And that the distractions so easily available in our culture are probably worth more of our time than the relationships around us, the ones that too often break our hearts. Hopelessness, I think, is a direct result of our loss of faith in humanity. The Enlightenment taught us that humanity was progressing, that we were becoming more civilized. More just. More humane. But any casual glance at history, and at the world around us, reveals otherwise.

The church has done it too. Religion has often taught that to follow a particular viewpoint, a particular creed, is what we need to keep us safe and give us hope. If not now, then certainly in the afterlife. We hold fast to these creeds, cling to them as if our lives depend on them, because, in so many ways, they do. It is the way, seemingly the only way, we can justify the extremely un-relational tendencies in our lives. We pass the broken woman on the street corner, ignore the news about the poor, and then hand out tracts and pamphlets and argue with strangers to promote "God's love." And yet, in those small, still moments, we wonder why the darkness still follows us, don't we?

The day has turned to twilight, and the heavens burn a bright orange as the sun sinks low for another day. I hunch forward, pulling up my hood, eager to be home. I remember what it is like to be without hope. I remember because I still wrestle with it at times. What I've learned however, is that often my lack of hope is a result of my own unwillingness to spend my life for those around me. It seems a paradox, but I've learned that the only way to find hope, is to give it away.

My car is alone on the street. I'm the last one to go home tonight, it seems. About ten feet from my car, an elderly couple is crossing the street. They walk slowly, holding hands. At the sidewalk, the man gently helps his wife up onto the curb. She smiles at him, and her smile says more than words could convey. I watch them shuffle past me, their hands gripped tightly, their bodies leaning together, until they pass from view. My stomach clenches, and I can feel the emotions rising inside me. I shake my head, breathing deep, happy to have witnessed such a tender moment.

Hopelessness asks one simple question: "Why bother?" A person of hope has only one answer: "I exist to love the people around me. It is who I am. More importantly, it is why I am."

To my knowledge, serving others is the only way to stay off the inevitable treadmill of self-perpetuating disappointments in the endless search to "have more" and "get more." And accepting God's help is the only way I know to keep us on the right path.

The truth is that we will never find the life we seek through our successes. Not through our accomplishments or even the recognition we receive in the moments we are unselfish. Hope, real hope, the kind that breathes into your life and fills your soul, exists only when we accept what it means to be human. So long as our lives serve to echo the love that God offers to us, so long as we do all we can to give encouragement and love and yes, hope, to the people around us, we will know what it means to walk as we were meant to walk, and to live as we were meant to live.

My car starts easily, and for a moment, I am still. I breathe a prayer of thanks for my job and my life, for those who have made my life possible.

There is an audacity to hopelessness that most of us do not like to admit. Some days I prefer to dwell on what isn't. On what I've lost and on the failures and disappointments in my life. It's easier then working on this thing called hope, and this other thing called humanity. People may never change, but we can.

You have much to offer the ones around you. Over the years I have no doubt that you have faced discouragement, that people have cut you down and cut you off, that loved ones have abused your love and taken advantage of you. I understand it because I've been there too. We all have.

My prayer then, this week, is that you will realize how much God loves you. Not one we so often create, the one we remember from our childhood, with all the petty rules and harsh vindictiveness of humanity, but the Creator who is so much greater than we could ask or imagine. The One who loved us so much that for a time, He joined our race to help lead us toward home. Toward a life of hope. More than any religion, precious is this understanding, this understanding of a God who longs to extend his love to us, and to those in our lives who need it most. I believe it is in those moments, when we are able to ignore the pressing urge to serve ourselves, when we see in others what we so desperately long for in our own lives, and when we push through our own struggles to offer just a bit of light to those around us, that we will find our path, and hope will come home to stay.


Monday, October 27, 2008

When Autumn Leaves

The breeze was gentle, enough to ruffle the leaves still clinging to the branches. I hustled along the sidewalk beneath their bright oranges and golden yellows towards the subway. About half of the leaves had already fallen, and every few strides, another would drift from the branches at the gentlest push of the wind. It was hard to believe that autumn was nearly gone, and that very soon winter would be here, in all of its dark and icy coldness, with its blustery winds and heavy snow storms.

It wasn't that I didn't like winter, even the long winter here in Canada. Every season had its high points, and for every storm was a night of peaceful snowfall, when the sky seemed luminous, and the world quiet and restful. No, it wasn't about the approaching winter, mostly it was about time. How fast life moved as you got older. I slipped on my toque. Summer had just left and already I could feel the iciness in the wind.

Seasons change.

I left the sunlight as I moved down the endless flight of stairs and into the dark tunnels, past the elderly Busker playing a polka on his accordion. The music brought back memories. Family gatherings and weddings growing up. I remembered taking my first sip of wine at my cousin's wedding when I was fifteen, procuring a cigar from my uncle and doing Humphrey Bogart impersonations all night. I remembered the laughter and careless joy that seemed so easy and endless. Mostly I remembered the striking sense of hope and optimism that permeated the clinking glasses and fresh scents of cologne and perfume. Through it all we danced, polkas and waltzes, and of course, the chicken dance, my favourite as a teenager. (What kid knows how to do a waltz?)

The subway is nearly empty. Finch station is the start of the line, and we will pick up people as we approach the downtown core. The train fills up slowly, and I watch the people as they file in. Some are smiling, but most have that faraway glaze to their eyes so common on public transport. With my shaved head and relative bulk, no one sits next to me. I'm not offended. Subway seats are too small anyway.

The music from the accordion is still in my head. Usually I work on my files or study on my short trip to work, but today I am able to let go the ever pressing urge to "be productive."
I haven't been to a family wedding in a long time. The gatherings stopped about ten years ago, and when I moved seven hours away to Ottawa, my contact with my extended family dwindled.
Unfortunately, the little contact I've had hasn't been encouraging. Some of the relationships have lasted, but not many. The hope and idealism I felt as a teenager at those gatherings now rings false, and if I dwell on it for too long the disappointment becomes heavy.

Seasons change.

The sky is bright as I leave the tunnel, but the tall buildings of downtown Toronto cast the busy sidewalk in a cold shade, and the new winter wind already has people hunched over as they hurry along. This is my third job in a year. The gym is a bright and positive place, and I like both my co-workers and clients. I never expected to be working as a personal trainer at the age of thirty-six. By now, I assumed I would be a senior pastor somewhere, established, wearing collared shirts and greeting families every Sunday morning as a religious shepherd.
These days, I wear workout clothes and running shoes, working alongside people whose backgrounds in science and kinesiology and nutrition dwarf my years of personal study in those areas as I study and struggle to catch up. It isn't what I expected, but in so many ways, I am doing what I have always done. Working alongside people to help them grow and adapt, as life casts upon them the sorrows and heartaches and disappointments endemic to the human experience.

Seasons change.

We all have our stories, don't we? We all have our youthful memories, when everything seemed so alive and full of possibilities, when we looked upon the world with eyes of hope, when our desire to change the world and our expectations to create change were not just dreams, but living realities. As we get older however, it becomes increasingly difficult to hold fast to what we once dreamed so vividly. The weddings become bitter divorces, the smiles we remember seem fake now, and through our adult eyes, we recognize the too often desperate nature of "celebration."

Buried in these memories, even when do not articulate them in a conscious fashion, it becomes increasingly easy to allow cynicism to rule our hearts. It becomes easy to say to God "you don't exist; my life is not what you promised." It becomes easy to let the burdens of care for the world to be swallowed into the winter wind and the seemingly endless cycle of disappointment, to stay behind the mortar of our black and white "realities" and let hope stay buried in the past.
We all make choices, and our past struggles often make it difficult to choose hope in the face of such an absurd and tragic existence. Our memories tell us that all does not end well, and that most things actually end very badly. Perhaps it is this loss, the loss of our idealistic innocence, that is the most difficult to overcome. It takes away our ability to believe that something more, something greater, is still possible. And when that happens, the lights in our imaginations, which once burned so brightly in every room, slowly flicker and die. And as they die, we die along with them.

Seasons change, as they always will. And as in our life, the question becomes simple. What will we do? Will we allow ourselves to be permanently trapped by that which has come before? Will we forever hold ourselves prisoners of our mistakes and errors of years past? Or will we resolve to make the present, the now, a place of possibility once more?

I still remember vividly those times with my family. And while I am saddened by the losses and heartache that has followed so many of those hopeful moments, how so many of the people close to me have suffered, colouring those memories with sadness seems not only unfair, but also wrong. They were happy moments. Were they true? Did I really understand what was going on? Perhaps not. But it shouldn't diminish those times.

Sorrow casts about like pigeons in a downtown park. It is easy. Hope is more difficult, and sometimes we must strain to look forward, to use our imagination to see past the hurts and tragedies of our memories and the lives around us.

Seasons change, my friends, as we do. My prayer this week is that you will not lose yourself in the disappointments of unmet expectations, but that you will reach forward and embrace the possibility of a new season. The world is not what we make of it, but what we make of our world lies within our own willingness to adapt to the seasons that inevitably come and go. My prayer is that despite what you see around you, despite the struggle and tragedy of life, that you would dip into your imagination and see again what it could be, and find hope once more.