24 April 2021

Emptiness and Well-being

 Do you remember the moment the COVID pandemic became real to you? 

I do.

Juniors and seniors at the school where I work were preparing for their trip to Washington DC. It was Tori's senior year and I had been invited to accompany the group. Tim and I had just returned from a trip to the National Broadcasters Convention (in Nashville) and it was clear that the virus was worrying people. I figured the kids' trip would be canceled... in fact I was hoping it would be. 

It wasn't. We went to DC as planned, swinging through Hershey and Amish country on the way back north, but with the border threatening to close and the strong recommendation for all residents of Canada to return immediately and observe a strict 14 quarantine, the trip was cut short. 

THAT was the moment I realized life as we knew it had changed, at least for the immediate future. A year later, that still appears to be the case.

The day after our return to Quebec City, schools closed, eventually transitioning to online education. Mid-May, primary schools reopened giving families of elementary students the choice of sending their kids back to school following strict health and security protocols or continuing online education from home. 

Test positivity rates, case counts, hospitalizations and mortality decreased and over the summer, life seemed almost... normal. We met outdoors in a park for church and explored the north coast of the St. Lawrence River and Gulf, camping a stone's throw away from Point des Monts Lighthouse. While it was a lovely break, we were, unfortunately, unable to cross the border to see our family in Michigan

A new school year started with a whole host of required rules, regulations and protocols to try and protect both staffs and students from the spread of COVID as kids and personnel returned to school, masked and in stable class groups, typically referred to as a "bubble." This, of course, meant limited extracurricular options such as basketball and band. Thankfully, our school experienced only a few confirmed cases of COVID necessitating the involvement of public health authorities. This typically meant a class would switch to distance learning for a two week period, and this happened with Mary's class once. 

Post-secondary education remained mostly online. Once case counts started rapidly rising last fall, the three upper grades (including Jon's class) began alternating days : one day at school with the following one on line, thus reducing the number of older students in the building at a given time. On either side of the Christmas holiday, the entire school had a few days of distance learning, taking advantage of the holiday to create a "quarantine," with the goal of flattening the curve.

In January, an 8 p.m. curfew was instituted. As the one year anniversary of the first confinement approached, the situation seemed to maybe be improving. Certain sections began reopening over Spring Break, curfew was moved back to a bit later in the evening and plans to return the upper secondary to school 100% of the time started being discussed. 

Then cases of COVID variants arrived, first popping up but then snowballing, even as spring was arriving). We had been planning for our the return of our entire student body to in presence learning, at school, for the first time since back in October, after the Easter holiday. Thursday before Easter, the government announce another tightening of health and security measures. Instead of everyone finally at school, everyone would be distance learning, for at least that first week.

That first week has been prolonged on a week by week basis since. As I type, the hope is that May 3, students will return to school, although at the last press conference, the prime minister made it clear that the first priority was the elementary kids. About a month in to this most recent confinement (that is the word used in French), it feels a bit like a reboot of what happened last year. 

And, as I talk with some of my colleagues, that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, a symbol of hope and the need to persevere just  bit longer, now seems to have transformed into a fantastic, mythological creature that we talk about, but don't really think it exists.

In all reality, I can't personally complain (except for the current impossibility to travel back to Michigan). I am a hermit living in a family of hermits who all enjoy hermit-ing together. My kids miss their friends, but that is part and parcel of  missionary kid's life, so it isn't weird. They are used to maintaining relationships at a distance. In all reality, we are making the most of this treasure of time as as family, time that our busy preCOVID world and culture no longer seemed to prioritize. 

I know, however, that is not the case for many others.  Many are feeling empty, nothing left in the tank to give and still no end in sight. Even the idea of vaccination is tricky, at least as I listen to conversations here because the vaccine doesn't mean the masking, the distancing, the disinfecting, the whole kit and kaboodle... will necessarily stop. Distance teaching when you are responsible to manage the distance learning of your children at the same time is challenging... at best. Participating in planting a church that can only meet "on-line" is uncharted territory. 

I was reading the other morning in 2 Kings 4, the story of the widow who had emptied every possible resource and then realized that the only thing left was to sell her children into slavery. In desperation, she goes to the prophet of Elijah who asks her what remains. Her reply? "A small flask of oil." What he tells her doesn't make sense : "Collect a whole bunch of empty pots and dump that oil into them," which she could then sell to pay her debts and care for her family.

God loves. The Bible is full of stories where He gives worth to what is valueless, frees what is imprisoned, restores what is desolate and abandoned, breathes life to what is barren...

This story touched me because another thing God does is that He longs to fill with abundance what life, what this world, what sin, has emptied

Before leaving Niger, I taught through the first part of the book of John to the ladies' group at our church. Just a cursory recall of  that study, I see example after example of this: 

  • The wedding in Cana where servants fill empty pots with water, which Jesus changes into wine.
  • The Samaritan women came to the well to fill her bucket with water, but left filled with the living Water.
  • 5000 plus hungry bellies filled with fish and bread.
  • Blind eyes now filled with sight thanks to muddy spittle grace.
And that is just off the top of my head. I could keep on going.


God longs to take what has been emptied and fill it, with himself... 

As an assistant principal at the school, I see lots of official paperwork and a huge concern the Ministry of Education as well as the government is the importance of student and personnel well-being. There is tons of research suggesting that in this present reality, critical factors include :  
  • interacting with students and colleagues focusing on authentic care and kindness, 
  • prioritizing collaboration and compromise, 
  • focusing less on actual academics and more on learning processes, self-discipline and healthy lifestyle choices,
  • building a sense of competency and personal responsibility in learning, and
  • actually making a difference.
We want to promote well-being.

Yet,

as a follower of Jesus, I know that in this beautifully broken world, trapped in a pandemic and totally emptied by sin,

the only way to truly be well 

is to continually invite God to fill all those empty places.

09 February 2020

Rowdy Ruffians and Tough Tormentors

Sometimes people ask me what I do at École L'Eau-Vive. 

Sometimes, I wonder myself, because I wear several different hats. I imagine if I asked different students, I'd get a variety of different answers.


For instance ~

I'm not a teacher, although I certainly do do lots of teaching. 

I'm not an "orthopedagogue" or learning specialist, although I lead reading workshops and help students who struggle with reading learn specific decoding and comprehension strategies. I also write several intervention plans, or individualized education plans, each year.

I'm far from being a parenting coach, yet students' parents have been known to ask me for advice or suggestions, and not just about homework strategies.

I am a missionary and often have amazing conversations with kids about Jesus, who he is and what he came to earth to do. Working at a Christian school, however, is not a carte-blanche to talk about the Lord. I need to avoid "spiritual blackmail," where kids feel pressured to obey out of fear instead of a changed heart. Fear motivates quickly and effectively, but leaves out an important part of the Gospel - perfect love casts out fear.



When students ask me what I do, I most often say I'm like the police woman or detective for the elementary section. I spend many, many minutes helping children understand the rules and learn how to follow them; in addition, I help teach them about consequences for choosing to respect or not respect those rules.

My favorite...not favorite job (think sorry...not sorry), however, is that of mediator and peace-maker. Someone I respect exceedingly told me that that was what they saw to be one of my primary roles at the school. When wearing this hat, I'm usually dealing with violence, bullying, harassment or some other form of attack that has left at least two, and often more, injured - emotionally, physically, socially and/or spiritually. I say two because every conflict involves at least two, as both aggressors and victims are hurt by these encounters. This is especially true when working with children who are still learning all about social skills and relating to others.

Sometimes, it is easy to forget that last part... the bit about both being victims. Chris Colfer has said "When people hurt you over and over, think of them like sand paper; They may scratch and hurt you a bit, but in the end, you end up polished and they end up useless." In my role, it is important not just to help and support the victim; it is equally important to help the author of said acts understand the impact of what they have done as well as to teach them other ways to respond.

God provided me with an unpleasant lesson this weekend that I hope will help me as I intervene, intercede, mediate and adjudicate in school-related conflicts. While I never condone the actions of a bully, I can actually have a harder time identifying with and understanding those who allow others to walk all over them... 

My recent "lesson" gave me more than just a glimpse of that perspective. 

Friday and Saturday, we had a huge dump of snow. I think the final total snow accumulation was around 40 cm (16 inches), and it was blowing a blizzard for a day and a half. 


Saturday, however, was beautiful and busy. Snowplows and other snow removal vehicles were out in full force, which wreaks havoc with the traffic. Of course, living in Quebec, I quickly learned to appreciate those who do that job, for its better to put up with temporary inconvenience to have improved road conditions. I ran out to take Anna to her horseback riding lesson, and was hurrying back home because I had several things I wanted to get done during the afternoon. I followed another car into the parking lot for our apartment complex only to discover that they'd started plowing the snow and wanted us to clear the parking lot. 

The car before me pulled into a parking place, turned around and pulled out. I started to do the same and the driver of the snow plow started wildly gesticulating, clearly indicating that he did not want me to do that. I motioned, trying to indicate that I simply wanted to turn - around instead of having to back down a small hill, back up the other side and then out into snow plow traffic. He disagreed. 

He lifted the blade up, literally charged directly at my car, slammed the blade down just in front of me, creating a yellow metal wall wider and taller than the hood of our Infiniti. Then he started moving slowly towards me as though he would literally shove me, back end first down... up... and then out into the road. I was shocked and afraid, genuinely fearing he'd plow right into me.  I didn't stand my ground because I just wanted outta there! And so? I backed down the hill, up the hill and threaded my way amongst the other snow removal machines on our road (mildly traumatizing in and of itself). Then I spent the next thirty minutes driving around our large block, my eyes full of tears and castigating myself, all the while "thinking very ungenerous thoughts" about that snow plow driver.

I definitely got a taste of what it feels like to be bullied. Funny thing? I figured once I calmed down, it would just "go away." But it hasn't. I keep replaying it in my mind, getting angry once again at the dude and at myself. I've been much quicker to take offense when others have disagreed with or confronted me about something, even something banal and stupid, ever since. I feel guilty for not standing my ground (my kids were all really surprised that I didn't), even ashamed. My walk didn't measure up to my talk, and my gang has been spot-on in making sure that I know that.

Thankfully, my hubby is going to stand up for me now, even though I wasn't able to do so in the moment. He's going to talk to the administration of our apartment building, denouncing the behavior of that snow plow driver.

If I ever wondered about the importance or the relevance of what I'm doing each day, this weekend proved it to me...



My pain may be the reason for somebody's laugh. 
But my laugh must never be the reason for somebody's pain.     


Charlie Chaplin


Note : African proverbs images from: https://www.pinterest.fr/SimpleThingz25/african-proverbs/

19 January 2020

Language of Love

If you were to visit my house while my crew was sitting around, fiddling on their electronic devices, cleaning, folding laundry or working on homework some Saturday morning, the probability is high that you'd hear them singing a really (and I mean really) silly song called The Language of Love (by Ylvis). When I was a kid, it was Weird Al Yankovich... When my bigs were littles, it was Silly Songs with Larry

Today, we've got Ylvis and this song is all about a "puppy love affair", where a man and a seal fall in love and sing to each other. Ridiculous? Yes! But my kids have a blast, laughing and singing all in good fun, especially when someone decides to imitate the seal as she sings her love back to the man.



On a cold, snowy, blowy, white-outy wintry morning when all has been canceled and all have been advised to hunker down and shelter in place,  I've heard the song a few times. Funny thing? The title lines right up with reflections I've had this past week, returning to school... and ministry... after the Christmas holiday.

Many are familiar with Gary Chapman and the five "love languages:
  1. words of affirmation, 
  2. physical touch, 
  3. acts of service, 
  4. gifts and 
  5. quality time. 
My love language is, without a doubt, words of affirmation. I feel most loved when people gift me words, sincere and quality words. I feel most loved by God when I spend time studying, meditating and drinking in His Word. I most naturally and easily love and minister to others through words, both written and spoken.

At least until the last couple of years. Doing life and ministry in French makes communicating and using words well more challenging, complicated and definitely more exhausting.

There's no doubt about it. I just can't use words nearly so easily or as well. In fact, I am pretty sure I often sound like the "seal singing" part of the above mentioned song. Therefore, since moving to Quebec I've been pushed - more than ever before - to learn new ways to communicate God's love, ones that aren't so "word-heavy," ones such as acts of service, and quality time. 

Unsurprisingly (even though head-in-the-sand-me managed to be surprised) communicating love via those secondary and tertiary for me languages demands an investment, a significant one, of additional effort and time. Words are easy and natural, at least for this introvert. Those other love languages require that I do what comes much less naturally. Even when I do try to fall back on words, my first instinct and characteristic choice, additional time and effort is required.  




And while I can't quantify this type of daily life effort in the same way I can calculate effort using a physics equation, I have ascertained the following:
  • Compared to what I experienced while living in the developing world (i.e. my daily life in Niger), much less physical effort is required to "do life" in Quebec... and that's taking into account all the inconveniences that are a part of dealing with lots of cold and snow.
  • On the other hand, even though the French language has been an important aspect of of life and ministry in both places, in Quebec, it encompasses the majority of all I do. Most days, I communicate more in French than in English. I can do it, but the mental effort is significant.
  • When we first started this adventure 20+ years ago, I had no clue what choosing to live life in a language other than your maternal tongue demands. Today, I have enormous respect those who, whether by choice or necessity, do so.
  • My appreciation of those who regularly demonstrate love using one of the other "love languages" is increasing exponentially.
  • I'm learning to better recognize and appreciate those gifts of love when they are shared with me.
  • I'm thankful that using my less "natural" love languages is deepening my daily dependence on God, because I feel unable, tired and out of my league.
  • I'm learning to turn first to God's Word to help me communicate love when I want to use words, as well as to recognize when words just might not be the most effective tool.
Perhaps most significant of all, I'm realizing anew, literally every morning, just how dependent I am on God and his Spirit if I want to demonstrate and share his love - steadfast, sure and new every morning - regardless of the language.

20 May 2019

When parenting is agonizing


Two recent conversations have had me thinking a lot about what it means to wear the hat of "Mama." It is, undoubtedly, one of the titles in my life of which I am very proud. But it is also one which often leaves me immensely stressed.

Since Mary Michelle was born 10.5 years ago, we've gone through lots of transitions. We stopped adding to our family and kids have actually started moving away to start their own lives.
[Little side note to our bigs who often read these posts... Daddy and Mama are ready to start adding to the fam again... but its your turn! Significant others and then, Lord willing after that, grand-kids, are welcome. Mama's gotten to hold some really teensy tiny littles recently and she thinks it is lots of fun! She doesn't care if you think this little  «parenthèse entre guillmets » is goofy! And yes, she is referring to herself in the third person.]
Sorry for that interruption! Ok, not really...But back to what I was wanting to say: in between today and Mary's arrival 10 plus years ago, it seems like most of our friends, as well, moved out of that new-baby growing family stage. Recently, however, there's been a stampede of younger friends having babies. 

I went to visit one of those sweet little families the other evening. It was a treat to listen to all that God has done for them, to grieve with them a little those expectations that weren't realized, to excitedly anticipate what God will do in the days, weeks and months ahead, and to remember when Tim and I held our first precious gift in our arms. As parents, we often have the message preached at us, in one way or another, that "the well-being and welfare of children should always be our focus." We are to care for their physical, emotional and spiritual well-being to the very best of our abilities. As new parents, we are confident that we will do anything to do just that.

What those giving such sage counsel forget to mention is how easily those good goals become idols, and how we are often powerless and inept at protecting our children from what comes their way. Ensuring the security of our children, physically, emotionally and spiritually is a certainly a laudable goal and one for which we should aim.

But... 

But that desire needs to be balanced with the reality of life in a broken world, ravaged by the effects of sin and the truth that it is what comes out of us that defiles us, not what is inflicted upon us. Security in this world is an illusion we strive mightily to maintain, and is often an attempt to ignore the sometimes painful sovereignty of God.

I also recently visited with another mother. Her child is older, but is experiencing really hard, unjust and unfair things inextricably linked with the consequences of sinful behavior choices. My heart physically aches for her and her child. For no matter how old our children get (I'm convinced more and more of this fact), parents long to protect them, and will go to extremes to do so. This mother is agonizing over the fact that she can't force the bad to stop, erase the hurt and then move bravely forward leaving the trauma behind.


I tried to remind her: God's hand is sovereign and He controls all that touches the lives of our children. Even when we don't believe we can trust the people and events influencing and shaping our children, we can trust the ultimate artist. God cares for them so much more than we do, He is always present, and it is often in the most difficult that we begin to catch glimpses of the masterpiece He is molding our young people to be...

It is agonizingly hard... and I'm not talking about that theoretically. I've lived it.

While still in Niger, our older children attended a French language primary school. It was not a choice I originally wanted to make - my coup de coeur had always been to home school - but because of many circumstances outside of my control and our missionary budget realities, it was the choice we felt we had to make. And then came the day that one of our daughters came home from school with a lump and a decent cut (and blood stains in her blond hair) on her head. 

It was our 11 year old son who recounted the story. He, in fact, was the one who ran across the courtyard to protect his sister, not a teacher or one of the playground monitors.  Why did this happen to our daughter? Probably because she was a white girl with blond hair and blue eyes and the gal that violently accosted her probably wanted to intimidate her. If I remember correctly, she thought our daughter's long blonde hair was a wig or extensions, and she wanted it for herself. I was traumatized... 


Yet the next day, we had to send her right back into that lion's den, and I couldn't be there to physically protect her. What I really wanted to do was smack a couple of teachers' heads into the wall, first for allowing it to happen and then for not even having the nerve to directly tell us about it when we came to pick her up from school that day.

We, of course, did meet with the teachers and the administration. We spoke with the girl  that had hurt our daughter. We talked about and rehearsed strategies that our daughter could use to prevent a similar event from reoccurring. We put her brother on guard - he knew was to look out for her and to immediately seek adult help if he felt that something was off. It was awkward. Everything in my mother heart told me it was not enough, that the probability of a repeat occurrence was high.

It wasn't enough. Because all of those actions we took? They were what we could arrange on our own, without reliance on God. Ultimately, our security, the security of our children rests in the hands of our sovereign, all-powerful, omnipresent God. 

When I recently asked my daughter about returning to school the next day - if she was afraid, she said that while she clearly remembered the event, she did not remember being afraid. And then she told me why: she remembered the different strategies we gave her, she felt able to execute them, and she remembered that the other girl had been strongly reprimanded by the authorities at the school once they intervened. I think there was one other thing that helped her, even though she didn't mention it. She naturally and easily trusted God, with a child's faith, to work things out and somehow take care of her. 

If I hadn't sent her back to school that next day, she would have missed that opportunity.

Did He stop other bad things from happening to our children while they attended that school? While they lived in Niger? Once they returned to the States? After we moved them yet again, to Canada? 

No. In this life, stuff will happen. 

We won't understand why. 

We will feel powerless. 

We will be angry and overwhelmed by emotions we don't want to experience.

It is what I, as a parent, do with "all of that" - that counts. 

It is what I model for my child that matters. 

Do I use each difficult situation unjust circumstance as an opportunity to let Christ increase while I decrease as the protector, provider and preserver of my kid's well-being?


And today? 

Well, we recently saw that childlike faith and trust demonstrated again, in the midst of events that had her far-away-parents more than just a little worried. We saw her big brother step up to the plate and help look out for her - a skill he'd practiced at least once before, all those years ago. God allowed frustration after frustration in this particular situation, but He also brought His arms, His hands - in the form of His people - to lend a physical hand and care for her. So even while I'd chewed my nails down to the quick... 

God gifted me another opportunity practice trusting Him with some of the ones I count most precious of all.

May I never forget to thank Him for those moments.


04 March 2019

Ma chaise berçante... otherwise known as rocking chair "internship"

Tomorrow morning some time, my two older girls are taking off with a friend to visit their younger sister who is attending school in a different state. I'm delighted they are going to check up on their lil' sis. Yet, my mama-heart is exceedingly worried - the weather forecast ain't so great and even though they are all grown up and competent drivers, I know from personal experience how scary it can be to driving through the regions where they'll be driving in nasty winter weather.

It's even scarier as their mother... I literally texted one of them today and asked if we could Skype tonight just so I could be sure and hear their voices again if they died. Fortunately, said daughter kindly understood her mother's freak out...


I remember being a young adult, I remember my mom being worried. I remember having to work really hard (not always successfully) to not be offended by that worry. I had no idea how visceral and real and almost decapitating (as in the panic can sometimes interfere with any semblance of logical or reasonable brain activity) that worry can be... My family and God are pounding yet another parenting truth into my rather hard head.

One of my coping strategies to try and manage this overwhelming - and if I'm blunt, sinful, since it is me trying to micromanage their lives mostly for my own comfort with more than a dash of "their own good" mixed in - panicky concern is nostalgia. The fact that I recently heard a radio program highlighting the benefits, physical and mental, of rocking - for both big and little people - has had me mentally meandering through my rocking chair memories. 


The stories this chair could tell...

My parents gave me this Amish rocker shortly after we announced we were expecting our first child, in other words, back in 1995. I've sat in this chair during every pregnancy, rocked, nursed and sang to every one of my babies in this chair. It traveled to Niger (yes, Africa) in a container and spent several years, creaking and cracking on the back side of the Sahara Desert. I'm sure if I looked closely, I could still find bits of desert orange sand in the joints. Fortunately, it was spared during the great termite infestation that destroyed a couple thousand dollars of home school curriculum, videos and other termite delicacies while stored during a home assignment back in the States.

Then came the great conundrum. We were leaving Niger. We weren't shipping a container home. But I wanted my rocking chair. So I took it apart, carefully packed it into a suitcase, and brought it back to the American side of the Atlantic. Of course, taking it apart was much easier than getting it back together. Even with all the pictures we took. Tim offered to buy me another one. I refused.

I didn't want another one. I wanted THAT one. My rocking chair...

The chair I rocked in when my back was KILLING me during or immediately after each of my pregnancies (Believe it or not, I did not enjoy even though I've spent approximately 75 months, 3236 weeks, or 6.25 years - of my life pregnant. And yes, I was counting.)

The chair where I rocked and breathed and read until I memorized Philippians 4 after waking with panic attacks at 3 am repeatedly... until I experienced physically the "peace of God that guards my heart and mind."

The chair where I cuddled and nursed and deepened that relationship with each little life God's gifted to Tim and me.

The chair where I've read Winnie the Pooh or the Wheel on the School or Ruth to each one, because whether they remember it or not, I do.

The chair that I far too often left neglected in the corner of my bedroom for long stretches because I was too busy to stop and take the time, too concerned with my own dreams, my own plans.

The chair where I've spent uncounted sleepless nights with sickies praying for patience and health yet also appreciating those long moments of quiet with just one child rocking snuggled close in my arms.

The chair strategically placed under the air conditioner where I'd listen, the sweat still rolling down the back of my knees, to Jan Karon's audio books during sieste on a sweltering Niger afternoon.

The chair where I held my neighbor's deathly sick and desperately needing surgery little girl who continually moaned in pain while knowing there was nothing else I could do - just to give her mama a few minutes break.

The chair where I've prayed for bigger kids when they've been far from me and I've been worried about them - their safety or the wisdom of the decisions they were making.

The chair where God, along with my family, has persistently worked to gentle stubborn, hard-headed and selfish me, giving me a long "internship" in choosing joy while putting my desires (and sometimes needs) aside for a few moments to focus on serving another.

Chaise berçante... those words, pronounced in French even sound like the gentle to and fro of my chair as tilts forward and back, that God has used to gentle me. A place so comfortable, so comforting, that moves so gracefully - where I've learned some of the hardest yet most important lessons of my life.

That chair represents more than just the many precious or challenging memories of parenthood. It represents much of my journey with my Savior. I often wonder what that chair would recount... if it could.

Thankfully, a dear gentleman in one of our partnering churches was able to help put my Amish rocker back together. But it is definitely worse for the wear. Today, it sits beside our fireplace, held together by duct tape... 

...as today that "internship" continues. I pray it continues for many years, encore!



PS My girlies made their trip safely and are now hanging out and s'encouraging (yes, that's franglais). I wish I could be there with them.

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