Finding the treasure hidden within…

The ad said the workshop would teach us how to carve a “mystical house” from a piece of cottonwood bark. I was surprised that there were no pictures of these “mystical houses” with the ad – just a general description of the techniques we would be learning. Well, it sounded like fun so I signed up.

When I got to the workshop, my heart sank. Examples of the finished product sat on the instructor’s table. Lovely, detailed, charming, breathtaking little houses with shingled roofs and tiny staircases leading up to hidden doorways. Funny windows and brickwork chimneys. Each one individually carved and each one of a kind.

“Oh boy,” I thought. “I sure am out of my league here.” It didn’t help when I noticed that several of the other participants had their own carving tools – not just one or two, but ten, twenty, plus wet stones and honing strops, and other bits and pieces I didn’t recognize.

I took my seat with some trepidation, put on the apron provided for us, and looked at the two knives allotted to me. They looked sharp. I figured that if I got out at the end of the day with all ten of my fingers, I would consider the workshop to be a success.

“Help yourself to a piece of wood,” the instructor said, pointing to a pile of blocks, each about 12 inches long by about 5 inches, some with bark still on them, some with interesting outcroppings and “rooflines” already in place. I grabbed one, not really looking at it. It certainly didn’t look like anything that would ever be a “mystical house”.

And so we started. Step by step, cut by cut. I found the initial stages hard going – for part of the time I was holding the larger knife the wrong side up – but managed to find a roof line and put in a few rows of shingles. Then, the walls of the house, the door, windows, steps… and before I knew it, a little “mystical house” was emerging.

I found myself looking at the wood, letting it show me where the next knife cut should be. Bit by bit, the wood led me to the house within.

“I fear an obsession coming on,” I told the instructor. I wasn’t wrong.

There is something profoundly satisfying in taking an ugly block of wood and finding the little house that is hidden within it. From a piece of dead wood comes something of joy and beauty.

And it occurs to  me that life is like that, too. “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” they say. How true that is! From the least likely sources we can find deep joy and discover new directions for our lives. That person we catalogued as “boring” turns out to have hidden depths we never suspected. It’s all about being willing to discover the hidden treasure within…



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That time of the year…

Welcome to the “February Fed-Ups”. Not the blahs, not the blues, and not the dumps or the doldrums. Not even the KMN (twitter speak for ‘kill me now’) moment as yet another snowfall looms on the horizon.

Just fed-up.

I know that I’m taking a big risk here, speaking of being ‘fed-up’ when I live in what is affectionately called The Left Coast, or even, La-La Land. We were lured out here by the siren call of a promise that whispered, “It doesn’t snow out here. We don’t get cold temperatures. Life in the winter is easy.”

And so it seemed. But this year, like the rest of the country from coast to coast to coast, we are enduring the kind of winter that is normal elsewhere but hasn’t been seen in these parts for nearly twenty years.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” they say, as I shovel out the end of the driveway where the park plow (a garden tractor with a small blade), has piled up the snow against my carport/tent.

“Oh, look at the trees all covered with snow,” they say, as I jab my broom up against the inner roof, trying to dislodge the snow that is weighing the plastic canvas down into deep pockets.

“There’s enough snow to build a snowman!”, they exclaim as I shovel out an area big enough for a little dog to do what needs to be done.

“And we’re getting more tomorrow, too,” they remind me as I trudge out to the bird feeders and dole out a generous supply, and then re-heat the hummingbird nectar and rehang the feeders, and fish out a couple of slices of bread for Mr. and Mrs. Mallard.

“Don’t you just love it?” they ask as I dig the snow out of my window boxes filled with early primulas, inspect my defunct jasmine vine, and break up the ice in my little fish pond.

No, I don’t love it. I’m fed up with it. It’s not what we were promised. It’s not what I expected. It’s not what we’ve enjoyed for the past two winters.

Arriving as winter refugees in the promised land, we never thought we’d ever have to endure winter hardships again.

I re-read my words, “Winter refugees in the promised land”. I feel a catch in my throat and my eyes fill with tears.

How can I so write so lightly of “refugees” when my ears are filled daily with stories of boats overloaded with desperate people navigating through dangerous waters to a distant shore; of people trudging through deep snow across an empty landscape to the small town of Emerson, Manitoba; of worshippers in Quebec City whose prayers are shattered with the sounds of gunfire; of angry rhetoric, protest marches, and the frightening reality of hate and racism becoming the norm in a world that seems to have lost all humanity and love.

“Love your neighbour as yourself.” Not just the person next door or down the street, but the downtrodden, the afflicted, the lost, the weary, the frightened and the oppressed.


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Cast your bread upon the waters…

There is a small inlet that runs along the front of our property, and from there, flows into the little lake around which our community is built. In the winter, the inlet is filled with water, but by mid-summer, it is much diminished as the rains dry up and the sun takes over. I’ve seen a few ‘critters’ in the inlet, the odd bird now and then, but by and large, it is mostly deserted in both winter and summer.

Until this winter.

This winter, the lake froze solid for the first time in 25 years, and that meant that a lot of the lake dwellers were suddenly without open water. Our inlet, although frozen in the middle, remained open along the edges, and all of a sudden, we were the most popular place in town. Little birds used it for drinking water; stray cats patrolled its banks; the otter appeared several times. And, a pair of mallard ducks decided it would make the perfect winter getaway.

It started with that pair of mallards who boldly marched up the bank and demanded to be fed. I surmised that they were usually well taken care of by the many people who visited the boardwalk and dock along the lake, but now, with a frozen lake, the bounty had all but disappeared. They showed no fear as they waddled up to the path and quacked at me, demanding that I  ‘do something’.

So, I brought out a couple of slices of bread (premium bread, I might add, bought at the local bakery). Graciously, they accepted the hand-out.

They began to watch for me, and as as soon as I came down the path, there they were, waiting and quacking loudly. As the premium bread supply dipped alarmingly low, I decided to buy “duck bread” at the store – two loaves for $3.00 – and started to carry a couple of slices with me when I left the house.

As the weather warmed up and the lake ice melted, I saw less and less of my pair of Mallards. I must admit to a slight feeling of annoyance – they only liked me for my easy hand-outs.

And then, they were back. But with friends – no doubt their closest relations – grannie and gramps, a couple of siblings, maybe a cousin or two. It got busy at feeding time and the bread supply became a standard grocery list staple. But, I will admit, it was also fun. The “duckies” have become part of my daily routine, one that I look forward to and enjoy.

As I stood there and doled out bread today, I remembered Jesus’ admonition to “Cast your bread upon the waters…”, and the promise that it would come back to you multiplied many times. Perhaps what he really meant was more like feeding the ducks – make two ducks happy and you’ll have more ducks.

Tell two people about the love of God and they’ll tell two more, and so on, and so on, and so on….


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Four days in…

It’s cold. Not the mind-numbing, face-hurting, deep-freeze of the East, but nevertheless, cold. Below normal, they all tell me. Not usually like this, I am assured.

I get little comfort from their words.

When we moved to the “warmest city in Canada in the winter” (according to Environment Canada), we did so as winter refugees. We were among that band of poor, sad little people trailing in from the far reaches of the continent, hoping to find a land of milk and honey, or at least, of rain and greenery. “Bring us your frozen, your battle-weary, your shovel-laden”, they said, and so we came.

And it was good. January was a time when spring first raised its head, showing itself in green shoots of daffodils along the verge of the road. The warm wind from the Pacific would waft in and the smell of verdant earth hinted of things to come. Bird song filled the mornings – yes, in January – and the black birds called in the marshes of our little lake.

And our little lake – not frozen – but alive with flotillas of ducks.

Not so today – four days into January, when I was expecting a  little respite, a little hope, at the very least, a faint zephyr of warm wind after an unseasonably cold December.

But hope died because today, it’s cold. I rise at dawn to replace the frozen hummingbird feeders with warm nectar (and yes, we do have year-round hummingbirds here). I hear their little clickings of encouragement from the depth of the towering trees as I trudge out in my dressing gown and thick sweater. Then, I top up the bird feeders on the deck and down in the yard. I break the ice around the small hole of bubbling water in the pond. I look out across the frozen inlet and then to the frozen lake beyond, and put out bread for the Mallard pair who have taken refuge in the inlet.

It’s cold and I don’t like it.

And then I remind myself that spring will come – maybe not as soon as I thought it would, but it will come, just as the sun always rises even after the darkest night.

It occurs to me that sometimes our Christian walk is the same. It’s not what we expected. Not what we think we were promised. Not comfortable, not easy, not fulfilling. But, there is always a turning point when the Creator leads us onto a new path, one that is all that we hoped. And in that new walk, we realize that the dark hours we spent were part of our growing process.


(The photo was taken last December during one of the rare snowfalls here.)


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One starry night…

Some stories are worth repeating. This is one of them.

I don’t know where I heard it, but someone once told me that donkeys know the Christmas story because it was a donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem and was there when Jesus was born. At the time, we had three donkeys – Old Maggie, Tessa, and a young colt named Lexi. I wondered if they really did know the story, so on Christmas Eve, my daughter Cherith and I decided to read it to them.

It was late. The barnyard was dark and still. The chickens murmured sleepily as we passed their coop. After the icy cold outside, the stable felt warm and cozy. The donkeys crowded around us, pushing their noses into our pockets, looking for the usual treat.

I brought out my bible. Bright, lash-fringed eyes regarded the book with donkey curiosity. My daughter held the flashlight steady while I began to read. “And it came to pass in those days…”

Maggie snorted softly and nodded her head several times. Tessa moved a little closer, her large brown eyes seeing things far away, as if remembering a dream. Lexi brushed lovingly against my arm, her ears brushing the side of my face. “And there were in the same country…”

The stable was silent and still except for the sound of the donkeys’ soft breathing. They were listening intently to me, their ears bending to catch every work. “And they came with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.”

A long sigh from Lexi blew hot breath down my neck. She looked towards Old Maggie, wanting to know if the story was true. Maggie gently nuzzled Lexi’s ear, whispering donkey words to her. Tessa nodded her head and blinked her eyes several times.

“Maggie knew the story,” my daughter whispered, her voice full of awe, “and I think Tessa remembered it. And now Lexi knows it, too.”

“I think Maggie would have told her tonight if we hadn’t come out,” I said.

My Dad used to tell me that at midnight on Christmas Eve, the animals all kneel down. He said he saw it once when he was a little boy, and after that magical moment with my donkeys, I believe he really did.



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Are we there yet?

Overheard in a very, very long check-out line at a local box store:

“If you don’t stop whining, I’m going to tell Santa Claus what a bad little girl you are and he won’t bring you a single thing for Christmas.”

“I bought three more cans of that pine spray. Since we got the artificial tree, it just doesn’t seem like Christmas.”

“I got Vic in the office gift thing. What am I supposed to buy for a loser like him? They want us to spend thirty bucks. Thirty bucks! For Vic!”

“I just love Christmas! Jerry had a great party on Saturday; everyone was, like, totally wasted. And there’s another one tomorrow night at Connie’s.”

I’m discovering that it’s a long, hard road to the Manger, and it seems to be getting farther away every day. I find myself reverting to my six year old self on a long car trip. “Are we there yet?” I whine to myself.

Yet, I know it’s there…just over the horizon. And it will happen as it always does, in the telling of the age-old story, in the songs of the choir and the hush as the baby Jesus is placed in the manger. Once again, we will cry out, “He is Born! Glory to God in the highest!”

It’s not far now.


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Glimpses of Glory…

Why is it that so many of us feel that Christmas is bearing down upon us like a juggernaut, crushing all in its path and leaving us feeling bruised and beaten down? Could it be that it all starts too early and goes on too long? It’s not even December and yet the Malls have been filled with Christmas decorations and the never-ending music of “Frosty the Snowman” for weeks.

No wonder I have trouble remembering what this season is all about. Before I know it, my calendar is filling up with events and I’m caught up in the rush-rush, hurry-hurry, go-go mentality of the season. “Have you done all your Christmas shopping yet?” the clerk asks me as she bundles up my groceries.

And I’m overwhelmed with the feeling that I’m behinder than the dog’s tail and if I don’t get myself in gear, I’m never going to “get it all done”!

Yet, in the midst of it all, there are glimpses of glory – if we look for them. Small moments that remind us that we are on a journey to a manger in Bethlehem, not to a Christmas tree in the Mall.

I had a such a moment today in the check-out line – a long, slow check-out line. I was feeling anxious and rushed, wondering why I’m always in the slowest line in the store, when I noticed a young mother in front of me with a baby asleep in the cart. “How old?” I asked. “He’s two and a half weeks,” she said proudly. She leaned over him, her face alight with love, and gently stroked his cheek. And in that moment: a glimpse of glory reminding me that Christmas is a manger, a mother and a babe, and love.

These glimpses are all around us: a kindergarten choir singing “Away in a Manger”, the sound of the jingle bells at the Salvation Army kettle, the sight of the nativity scene on the church lawn. They’re there, everywhere, if we just look for them.

And when we find a glimpse of glory, for one wonderful moment, in the midst of the madness of this world’s commercial Christmas, all else fades away and we find ourselves on the road to Bethlehem.



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