Dreams

A few years back, I acquired an air hockey table. Air hockey was just the best thing when I was a kid. It was all I wanted to play with at the arcade. When a friend down the street had an air hockey table in her basement, I always wanted to go to her house when we hung out. I would have loved to have an air hockey table of my own when I was younger. Now I have one. It sits in pieces in my son’s room.

Years ago now, I was walking home from my parents’ house one day, when I saw an air hockey table sitting by the road with a sign on it that said “free”. It came with both paddles, extra discs, and an extra  motor. I wondered how anyone could refuse such an offer. How had no one taken this treasure already? I was taking it home. It would be mine. My childhood dream would be realized. I would have air hockey forever!

Then my adult self had a moment of clarity. I live in an apartment. Where would I put it? Jon had the car. How would I even get it home? I could get it to my parents’ house, if they helped me walk it back over. But was that really a good idea?

I imagined this air hockey table sitting in my parents’ basement or garage, unused, not fitting into the apartment, not the fulfillment of a childhood dream, but a sad reminder that I’d grown up, and that dreams need to change as we get older.

Too bad for you, mature realizations! I brought it home anyway. I asked my parents to store it while I consulted with Jon about where we could put it, and I lived the dream of owning my own air hockey table. I seized the opportunity.

It sat in my parents’ garage for a while, then it came to my apartment, where it was too big to fit through the door, and now it sits in pieces behind a crib.

I keep hoping that someday we’ll have a house with a space for my air hockey table. At this point, I imagine my son playing air hockey with me. Maybe by the time he’s old enough, we’ll have somewhere to put it.

I’ve wondered lately if it would have been wiser to leave the air hockey table beside the side of the road. Perhaps someone else would have taken it and used it. I was afraid it would end up unused, just taking up space, if I took it home. And it has.

Of course, it had been set out at their yard sale, and it didn’t sell for $5. It was reduced to free, and I was the only one interested enough to lug it home. So maybe it really was better for me to be bold that day, to take home a dream in spite of all logic, and to keep holding onto that dream through delay after delay, instead of letting that air hockey table sit out until it was rained on and ruined.

Sometimes we need dreams, even if they are irrational.

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The Good and Bad of Our Easter Weekend

I was very glad this weekend was Easter weekend. It’s been a weekend full of reminders of God’s love and grace. Those reminders came in very handy as we had a very challenging weekend. Between emergency trips to the hardware store, the hospital, and my parents’ laundry room, it’s been good to have constant reminders that God loves me, and is there even when things don’t go as I’d have hoped.

I missed the Good Friday service this year, as I was working. I determined to spend that evening trying to be more prayerful and meditative to make up for it. I definitely followed through on that as the weekend started falling apart.

The first thing to fall apart was one of the hinges on the door to James’ change table. I prayed as I crawled around the floor finding screws and pins and springs, hoping I got them all before James got in there and swallowed any pieces I might have missed. An answer to prayer, he happily played elsewhere, and I think I got all the pieces.

Putting that problem on hold for the moment, we decided to go for a walk, and maybe even to the park. Shortly before we left, James seemed to be in some distress. Grandma came over to drive us to the park, and instead drove us to the hospital. Things in the hospital were moving slowly, James was a bit squirmy, and mommy was trying not to panic. So the praying picked up again. An answer to prayer, James stayed fairly content as grandma and mommy took turns walking him around the waiting room for a couple of hours before we got called into the examination room. Then, as we waited for another hour to a see the doctor, James was content to sit on the bed and giggle at the antics of the two sisters waiting in the exam room across the hall. Another answer to prayer, after two minutes of examining James, the doctor gave a few simple suggestions and told us he’d be fine.

We picked up grandpa, got dinner out at Burger King (where a nice employee gave James a toy that he happily banged on the table) and had James in bed by nine. That wasn’t ideal, but in answer to Jon’s prayer, that meant James slept in, so Jon didn’t have to be up late after working afternoons and then up early with our typically early riser. It worked out, I suppose, though it was a trying day.

The next day started with me getting up late, and not being able to find my visor for work. I looked everywhere. I couldn’t find it. I got to work barely on time after my frantic, prayer-filled, apparently not-so-thorough search, and asked if there was an extra hat in the office I could borrow. I was told there was. Yay! But there wasn’t. Rats. Resume the praying. One of the girls on the night shift graciously let me borrow her hat for the day. An answer to prayer, and a reminder that God’s had eternity to arrange things I’ve only just encountered. Maybe it doesn’t seem like much in the big picture, but having someone on shift before me willing to lend me a hat seems to me like God moving pieces into place, knowing I’d need the help.

I was determined to keep with my resolution to be more prayerful and meditative this weekend, especially in light of a smoother than anticipated hospital visit, and a miracle hat, and I made it through work in a fair state of mind, all things considered.

Shortly after arriving home, Jon informed me that James had been ill that morning, but had improved throughout the day. I was worried he’d picked up some horrible hospital bug after our evening there the night before, but since he seemed okay at the moment, we figured he’d gotten over it.

We went out that afternoon and found almost identical hinges to the one that had crumbled earlier, which Jon attached to the door while I kept James occupied in a bath. By the time we had done our errands, and chores at home, I was thinking we’d made it through the worst of the weekend. I had to bake biscuits for Easter dinner, but after that I was ready to have a restful night, a meaningful service in the morning, and a family dinner in the afternoon. The only hiccup ahead was finding time to Skype with the out-of-town relatives.

The praying resumed in the morning, when I went to get James from his crib and found him standing in a puddle of what had been last night’s dinner. I sent him off to wake up daddy while I scrubbed the crib, the floor, the teddy bear. Then I got to scrub our bed too, as James had apparently not finished getting rid of whatever was bothering his stomach. We hummed and hawed about what to do, as I was supposed to sing at church, but James seemed unwell. We figured we’d give it a bit more time before deciding. James seemed sleepy, so we thought we’d make the call after a nap. Nap time was interrupted as we heard unpleasant sounds from the nursery, grabbed James and held him over the sink for while, then decided it was time to go back to the hospital.

Sitting in the waiting room, watching ambulance after ambulance come in, I was again praying for a content baby, a quick diagnosis, the correct treatment, and to just make it through the weekend, because it looked like Easter dinner, whether we were out of the hospital by then or not, was just not happening.

We got called into the exam room faster than on Friday, and James was fussy but not overly squirmy, so that was okay. He clung to me until he threw up in my hair and all over my coat. Then he wanted to lie down quietly. I had prayed for a contented baby, so that prayer was answered. I was trying to focus on that rather than on the smell of my hair.

The doctor saw us promptly and gave him some medicine. At this point, the major concern was dehydration. If we could get his tummy to settle, and get some fluid into him, we could go home and let him rest until his stomach bug cleared up on its own. Twenty minutes after the medicine we gave him juice. The doctor checked on us and said we could go home, but to come back if he threw up later. We got James into his boots and jacket, and he threw up all over himself and daddy. Now we all smelled bad. I went and found a nurse, who went and found the doctor. The doctor pointed out it was a good thing it had happened while we were still in the hospital. I did find myself thanking God it hadn’t happened in the car.

The praying continued as I was growing desperate for something to work, as I was starting to imagine spending the night in the hospital, curled up in an uncomfortable hospital chair, as James tried to sleep while plugged into an IV. Another nurse came in with a needle, and while it hurt, it did help. Twenty minutes later we got James some more juice. Thankfully, this time it stayed down and we got to leave.

Back to Burger King for lunch, as it was 1 o’clock and neither Jon nor I had eaten anything that day. We got lunch, got cleaned up, and let James rest. We decided to show up to say hi to family, but to skip dinner and let James rest. We got home, Skyped with the out-of-town relatives briefly as James struggled to stay awake (every time he fell asleep in the hospital he had to wake up for treatment or for juice), and then put James in his crib. He looked around for his bear, which was still drying. He managed to sleep without it.

I went and put a load of laundry in the machine in our building, and threw the coats into the tub with detergent. Jon and I ate leftovers and hotdogs for dinner, and figured we’d try some toast for James when he woke up. The toast went down fine, which was another answer to prayer. I was about prayed-out, and was just ready for the day, the whole weekend, to be over.

I went to get our laundry, and found that the dryer I had used for our clothes was broken. The heat worked, but the drum was not spinning. Only the very outside layer of laundry was remotely dry. Jon laid out all the clothes on the bed, and had the fan blowing on them, trying to get them to dry. I would have hung them in the bathroom, but the bathroom was full of drying winter jackets. Despite many prayers for peace, and despite hours of meditation on God’s loving provision, I was ready to cry.

Then, another answer to prayer showed up, as a phone call from my parents. How was James? How were we? I told them James was better, and I was exasperated with the laundry. They asked if I would like to bring our soggy laundry over to their working dryer. Yes, please! I arrived with my laundry basket, which my dad dubbed my Easter basket, and left the laundry to dry, to be picked up when we could get back over there. I also left with a box of Easter dinner leftovers. Hurray!

James is doing mostly well today. He’s not entirely better, but there’s no need for a hospital yet today, so I’m relieved. I’m also relieved I don’t work until Wednesday, so I can stay home and take care of him. Hurray for God’s timing again. I occasionally work Mondays, and I’m very glad this Monday was not one of those occasions.

I went into this weekend determined to focus on God’s love, God’s answers to prayers, and God’s presence in our lives. I found myself clinging to those concepts as lifelines during this very challenging weekend. This is the weekend in the Christian calendar where God’s love is most front and centre. On Good Friday, we remember Christ’s sacrificial love that rescued us from God’s wrath and opened the door for us to receive God’s unconditional love. On Easter Sunday we celebrate Christ rising from the grave, giving us hope for life in paradise after death here on earth. I’m glad that if James had to get sick, it was on this weekend full of love, hope, and God paving a way through the impossible. I needed those reminders to get through this.

As I look back on the many hours holding James and whispering to him that we loved him, were taking care of him, and doing our best to make everything all better, I think God was doing similarly for me. I imagine, as God was helping me through every trial and paving the way for every miracle of good timing, and helpful people surrounding us, He was whispering to me that He had it under control, He loved us, and it was going to be okay. It was a hard Easter, but it was also a good Easter, because though I missed every church service and spent every other day in the hospital, I also received many confirmations that God cares for me. For that, I am grateful.

Decisions

I don’t like making decisions. I have always struggled with decisions. I still remember agonizing over what doughnut to pick as a child. I always got the same kind – the one with sprinkles. Eventually I wanted to try a new one. But what if I got a different kind and didn’t like it? What if, for whatever crazy reason, this was the last time we’d ever get doughnuts, and if I got one that wasn’t my favourite, I’d never get my favourite doughnut ever again? I always chickened out and got the sprinkle doughnut, even though it became a source of secret shame.

So childhood me was fun, right? Now I’m edging closer to thirty, trying to buy a house, trying to figure out if I’ll ever want a second kid (because there’s no point in keeping boxes of baby things if I don’t) and trying to figure out other major life decisions, and I’m no better at this. I’m still at that doughnut counter, wondering if I should be brave and get the one with filling, or if I’ll regret a change of course for the rest of my life.

Honestly, there are days when I really hope we invent time travel soon. I would love to go back and tell younger me that it’s okay to try new things, and when it comes to doughnuts, there is no right or wrong answer. It’s really going to be okay.

Sometimes I wonder what older me will be thinking about present me. Will I someday want to come back to this time in my life, give me a hug, and tell me it’s going to be okay?

The thing is, while I was just a kid trying to pick a doughnut, it seemed like a huge deal. Now that I’m older, my choices seem like even bigger deals. To be fair, they are. I don’t have to live in a doughnut. Although, with the current real estate market, maybe I actually might…. Anyway, the point is, every stage in life comes with new, and often bigger, decisions to make. Every decision we make along the way is a step toward building a decision-making model for next time. In theory. I still can’t make decisions in any kind of timely manner, and tend to default to whatever I did last time. Clearly, whatever I did last time didn’t kill me.

Well, living with secret doughnut shame for years has been fun, but I think I need a new decision-making process. That in itself is a big decision, and I think that’s enough progress on my part for one night.

 

Aspiring to Be Average

I watched a talk the other day that really made me think. It was called “Is It a Sin to Be Average?” by Larry Osborne. In short, the answer is no. How can it be? Logically, half of us are average or below. It’s just reality.

Osborne talks about how this plays out in the church, but I find his points connect to other areas of my life as well. Many people feel frustrated and disappointed if we’re not the best ever at everything. We feel we have failed. But we can’t all be the best at everything. That’s just not possible. Not everyone can be the pastor of a church of a million people, or the person who has zero dollars in their bank account and lives on donations as they travel to Africa to build churches. Someone has to run the sound in the church so the speaker is heard, and someone has to hold down a steady job in Canada to support the missionaries who live on donations. Some people are extraordinary, and are applauded for their excellence. Some of us are average, and we feel like failures. But is being average so bad?

The problem is, average never seems like good enough. If you’re an average student, that’s bad. It’s not good enough for college, not good enough for scholarships. You work hard and do above average? Congratulations! You’re above average. But you’re not excelling, and you’re still not good enough for college or scholarships. You get straight A’s, participate in extra-curricular activities, and have hundreds of volunteer hours to boast of? Good job. You can now go to college and be at the bottom of the heap there.

The thing is, even though we know that realistically speaking we can’t all be the bestest best ever, we keep trying. I have nothing against aspiring to improvement. It’s good to be the best we can be. It’s not good, however, to feel that the best we can be is inadequate just because other people are better.

I was told that people who go to university have better jobs, make more money and are generally better off than those who don’t. So I got A’s, and then went to university and got A’s there. I now work a minimum wage job. Good for me, right? But is that so awful? I do a good job, show up reliably, earn money to support my family, and am a contributing member of my community. I’m not rich; I’m not broke. I’m not a homeowner; I’m not homeless. I’m not excelling at much right now, but I’m also not failing as an adult. I’m just kinda average. Still, maybe that’s okay. Maybe there’s an argument to be made for finding contentment in an average life, instead of continually feeling guilty for not being the bestest best ever at everything.

Maybe instead of failing in my aspirations to be great, it would be better to aspire to do a great job in my average life.

Christian Artists

Back in the good old days at Redeemer University College, our friends were at one point having a debate about some bands that we all liked. The members of the bands were Christians. The songs were not evangelical. Were the bands still Christian bands, or were they just bands made up of Christians?

This debate came mind not long ago when I had Youtube on autoplay, and in the middle of my Christian song jam, The Comeback by Danny Gokey came on. It didn’t mention God at all. I thought, “Odd, how did this make it into my playlist? It’s clearly not by a Christian artist.” Then another Gokey song came on, and it was an explicitly Christian song. My bad. Apparently he is a Christian artist. I jumped to a conclusion, there, didn’t I?

It’s kind of an odd debate, when you think about it. Is the person a Christian? Yes. Are they an artist? Yes. So aren’t they a Christian artist by default? Good question. As someone back at school pointed out, we weren’t having this debate over painters. If someone paints a nativity scene, and then goes out and paints a flower, we say, “What a lovely painting of a flower by that Christian painter who painted the nativity scene last year. I like his art.”

This does not seem to hold up for Christian musicians. It’s more like, “Is this song about a guy and a girl? It’s not an allegory? It’s not a metaphor? Well, why not? They’re supposed to be a Christian band, and this song isn’t about Jesus!”

As a Christian artist (the literary kind of art, not painting, I can’t paint) I have had this debate most often over authors. J.R.R Tolkien was a Christian and a writer, and his trilogy The Lord of the Rings redefined the fantasy genre back in the day. It is not about Jesus. C.S. Lewis was a Christian writer, and he wrote some allegory, some Christian fantasy, and he also wrote Until We Have Faces, which is a retelling of the story of Cupid and Psyche. That last one, surprising as it may seem, is not about Jesus.

I’ll admit to being very confused when I was younger and found Until We Have Faces lying around the house. This was the Narnia guy, the guy who wrote Mere Christianity, who wrote Christian stories and apologetic writing prolifically. I read the whole book, waiting for the gospel message to show up. I looked really hard for allegories and metaphors. Guess what? It’s a Greek myth retold. It’s a Greek myth really, really well retold, but it’s just that. Are you all shocked and scandalized? Hang on, then. We studied this novel in one of my fourth year courses in my Christian university. We also read The Lord of the Rings in the same course. At a Christian school. And they’re still not about Jesus.

We read these books by these Christian authors, and studied the authors’ lives – you know, the whole English course deal. The books were amazing. The lives were amazing, too. They lived through world wars, taught in universities, and wrote books that changed lives and genres. Interesting fact: When Lewis and Tolkien met, Lewis was an atheist. Lewis and Tolkien became good friends, taught at the same school, and were in the same writing club. After many long talks with his Christian friends – like Tolkien – Lewis came to know the Lord, and became a prolific Christian apologist, and was even asked to speak about God on the radio during WWII, because the country needed a little hope. And now it makes sense why we studied these authors in a Christian school. They were writers who wrote amazing things, and they were also Christians who helped others find God and hope in their lives.

While the art a Christian produces is important, I think it’s also important to remember that the art a person produces is not the sum total of their impact on the world. Lewis’s Christian impact is best seen in his art – writing and broadcasting. Tolkien’s is not. Still, their faith and their art were important, and both had an impact on the world around them.

I guess my thoughts on the original question – Christian artist or artist who is a Christian? – are basically this: If you’re a Christian, be a good Christian. If you’re an artist, be a good artist. Where they intersect, don’t let one suffer for the other. If an artist worries so much about what defines a “Christian artist” that the art ends up being neither good art, nor a good Christian witness, it doesn’t do anyone any good. I’d say that as long as the art fits within a Christian worldview, and the artist gives glory to God – whether directly in the art, or in the thank you’s, or in the comments made to fans at the book signings – the artist is a Christian artist. I think it’s more about how you live, art included, than just about what you produce as an artist.

Where Does Magic Come From?

Someone once asked me to think about the origin of magic in fantasy stories. Where does it come from? Well, it depends on the book/movie etc. Sometimes it comes from gods, demons, leftover power from the time of creation, an alien whose body and mind respond to our world’s properties differently than ours do, the progress of evolution… It depends on the story, and it depends on how you define magic. Some people would include Superman’s powers as magic. Some would say it has to be wands, like Harry Potter. Some people include anything extra-ordinary, including alien technology our science hasn’t caught up to yet.

Is that really the answer, though? In once sense, yes. The characters in the world of the story would say yes, the magic comes from those sources. Really, though, I suppose the magic comes from the author. Can the characters make something appear from nothing? If the author says so, yes. What does the magic require? Whatever the author says. So magic comes from the author.

Still, I’m inclined to think there is something beyond the author. After all, authors are influenced by many things outside of themselves: religion, culture, scientific background, literary background etc. Even mundane things like our jobs can influence us. Had a rough day at work, trying to understand customers who order a large medium coffee and insist that’s a thing? Wouldn’t it be great if I could read that mind and see what they really want? That would save so much time. And there we have it – my next character is a psychic whose abilities are triggered by need and irritation. Too bad she can’t read her boyfriend’s mind, as he makes her happy. I wonder what he’s hiding. Thus, a story is born. The magic is telepathy, the limitation is emotion, and the origin point is my desire to make mundane situations less aggravating.

I think magic systems are often born out of wishes, and reflect our own lives. There are systems that rely on a character’s needs and devotion to good. That reflects a certain type of wish, doesn’t it? It’s the kind of thinking behind people saying, “Why do bad things happen to me? I’m a good person.” Of course. If you’re good, life should just course correct to make everything better. Everything should just work out, as if by magic. The characters with the purest motivations should be stronger, better. That’s how it works, no?

Maybe it works another way. Maybe it’s not motivation. Maybe it’s hard work. After all, I grew up being told if I got straight A’s, worked hard, and tried my best, I could do anything. Well, I got A’s, worked hard, tried my best, and I still can’t fly or throw fireballs. It would be nice if life responded to effort directly. Many magic systems depend on this. The strongest are the ones who learn the most spells, practice the most with weaving elements together, study the way the universe works longer than anyone else. That would be nice. I can learn, practice, study. If I could just do that long enough, and life would get better, that would be nice.

Magic systems reflect the way we want life to work. We want our integrity, our effort, our needs to matter. Some days it seems like they don’t. So we go home, pick up our fantasy novels, and see a good person, or a determined person, rewarded with the ability to make life better.

Many things shape an author’s wishes and beliefs. These wishes and beliefs shape magic systems. Speaking of beliefs, I’ve heard one more explanation as to why we have fantasy stories. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, and a Christian, suggests fantasy is an innate part of us. As a Christian, he believed that we are made in the image of God, and God is creative. God created everything that is. If we’re made in His image, why wouldn’t we be creative? Tolkien called authors of fantasy sub-creators. We are not gods and can’t really make universes, but we can imagine places that don’t exist, with rules that don’t adhere to our reality. Maybe fantasy and magic aren’t just ways to fulfill wishes, or to make life work in a way we find fair. Maybe the desire to make new things, and to make those things function in a logical way, is part of who we are. Why incorporate magic into these worlds we’ve ‘sub-created’? Because if everything worked exactly as it does in real life, it wouldn’t be much of a new thing.

Where does magic in fiction come from? It depends on who you ask. Ask the character how they got it, ask the author how they thought it up, or ask who we are as a species, and you get very different answers. Which answer is most important? I’d say it’s the last. I think magic systems reflect who we are, and who we want to be. I think they have an incredible ability to make us examine our own motivations, needs, and values. Regardless of where magic comes from, I think it can take us places philosophically in a way few other mediums can. Maybe a question equally important as “Where does magic come from?” is “Where does magic take us?”

Redemption

There is a verse in the Bible that confused me when I was growing up. Okay, there were a lot, but one in particular came to mind the other day. This verse is, “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” Roman 8:28 (NLT) When I was younger, and didn’t really understand this verse, I interpreted it as, “God makes good things happen if you love Him and He loves you.” 

When things go wrong, and they do, we want to know why. When bad things happened to me, I would ask why God didn’t love me enough to fix it, or how much more I had to love God to stop bad things from happening. That’s totally wrong thinking.

Bad things don’t mean that God has stopped loving us, or that we have not loved Him enough, or that we are completely off track instead of following God’s purpose for us. Sometimes we do our best, and things go wrong. The Bible doesn’t lie, so what does this verse mean?

It means that God can take even bad circumstances, and redeem them for His glory and our ultimate good. One of my favourite stories of this kind of redemption is the Old Testament story of Joseph.

Joseph was one of 12 sons of Jacob, and he had dreams from God showing him that he’d one day rule over his family. That rubbed his 10 older brothers the wrong way. They decided the best way to deal with his destiny and their jealousy was to sell him to slavers. Joseph ended up in Egypt, where his master’s wife falsely accused him of assaulting her and he was imprisoned.

Bad things happened, even though God had promises Joseph an amazing future. Was God unready for the people around Joseph? Was God surprised by Joseph’s brothers, and the master’s wife? No. God knows what’s going to happen long before it does. He doesn’t always stop the circumstances, but He can redeem them. In prison, Joseph interpreted dreams for two men, one who was freed, and wound up serving in Pharaoh’s court. When Pharaoh had some crazy dreams of his own, Joseph’s prison buddy recommended Pharaoh call Joseph to interpret for him.

Joseph heard the dreams and predicted 7 years of plenty, then 7 years of famine, and gave Pharaoh an action plan to save up for the hard years ahead. Pharaoh put Joseph, the man with the plan and the vision, in charge of the kingdom. There it is, Joseph is a ruler. God promised Joseph he’d rule over his family. That came true. When the family hit, Joseph’s brothers came to the one place where there was food. They had to come to Joseph. Joseph forgave his brothers, and sent for the rest of his family to come live in Egypt. Joseph and his family were reunited, and Joseph was ruler over them as they now lived in the kingdom where he ruled.

The story of Joseph is amazing because it shows God’s sovereignty and care. He made a promise, and despite all appearances to the contrary, He kept His word. God had seen the jealousy of the brothers and the pettiness of the master’s wife, and He incorporated their choices into His plan to put Joseph where he needed to be.

Romans 8:28 says that God will make things work for good, not that only good things will come. Joseph said to his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.” Gen 50:20 (NLT) God worked through the faithfulness of Joseph, and God worked through the harmful intentions of the people around Him. “God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.”