Going Through Hell – Joyce Sasse

“If you are going through Hell, keep going”.  That was Winston Churchill’s advice, learned from his experience as Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War II.

Those trying to “keep going” through the heat, drought and fire threats of this past summer well understand Churchill’s advice.

We do what we can to help each other “keep going”, though often we are tempted by bursts of anger.  We grit out teeth when we hear others say “The Town” is required to provide all protective services because we pay our taxes.  We fume when we are reminded of the importance of conserving water, but notice who still has green lawns…

Lessons learned from living through successive years of drought has been invaluable for me.  Constant water shortages and the need to learn rules imposed at the Public Bath House, during four years in South Korea, are not to be forgotten.

It is as we talk about our fears and share our experiences that we help each other keep going.  Even when the rains come, how much and how long will it take to reduce the risks?  To replenish and restore?  What evidence of the stress will be reflected through our physical and mental health status?  What spiritual reserves can we call forth?

Rodney Atkins wrote song lyrics based on Churchill’s advice.  In part they read, “The good news is there’s angels everywhere on the street /  Holdin’ out a hand to pull you back on your feet …”  The chorus suggests “(If) you’re on your knees keep prayin’.”

At any time, even while fear constricts our throats, we can reach out and be an angel to another.  The Spirit, which dwells in each of us, helps us help each other keep going through the darkness.

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In the Face of Drought – Joyce Sasse

This past month I’ve waged war on the mother deer and two fawns that hang out in my backyard – eating blossoms and fallen apples.

But a discussion with a friend brought me up short.  When she noticed deer eating her cucumbers, she reasoned they had to be really thirsty, so she set a tub of water out for them and the birds.

With this prolonged drought, there is no watering of lawns and the creek is barely a trickle.  Where do the wildlife go for a drink?  Instead of being driven by the compulsion to over-protect what is mine, I needed to be reminded to consider the bigger picture.  How long will these conditions go on?  What all is affected?

When the landscape suffers, all who are part of that landscape share the pain.  The reminder awakened my deeper self to think of others who face extreme heat, little water, and often great poverty.  Can we learn from them?

What about those facing the extremes of nature in other places: hurricanes, floods, droughts and forest fires ….    Can we better understand their trauma and their grief?

While we long for signs of hope that the rains will come, we look for ways we can reach out in partnership to all who share our turf. I’m trying to think how I can transform my own fear and self-centredness in more constructive ways.

There are times when we are forced to go to places deeper within ourselves for spiritual enlightenment.  For some, our strength comes with the understanding that God acts in love.  Drought is not a judgement caused by God, but becomes one of those opportunities when God can help us face the worst of times.  How do we know this?  Because the Almighty came into our midst in human form to show us compassion and the depth of what love can mean.  As we are loved, so may we become the conduits through which God’s love is shown to others.

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Venting Stress – Joyce Sasse

“There’s immense power in asking someone how they are doing”, one farmer commented when asked how stress was affecting him this summer.  “Just ask!” he said.

An excellent article in the Aug. 27 edition of the Western Producer looks at the importance of helping farmers talk about the mental burdens that weigh heavy on them through the long period from seeding to harvest – and especially with the weather as extreme as it has been this year.  Of course, the stress factors carry through the rest of the year.

The seven-day intensity of demands, combined with the isolation of working alone, while dependent on financial and supply businesses who aren’t always supportive, readily festers depression.

A “suck-it-up” mantra only compounds the problem.  It perpetuates the belief these matters are best kept private.

From the pastoral point of view, in the midst of a previous drought cycle, when I asked the churches in our area to sponsor a “Drought Stress Workshop”, it took considerable effort to get fellow clergy to support the project.  In spite of the fact our region had been declared a ‘Drought Disaster Region’, because the clergy hadn’t heard these issues being raised by parishioners they didn’t think such a gathering was necessary.

To some degree things have changed over the past twenty years.  “Farm Stress Lines” are now available on a 24-7 basis, and the agriculture industry is starting to put in place “Mental Health First Aid in the Prairies” training programs for managers and senior staff members.  Also, through social media, some farm folks are wise enough to start discussions that allow for them to vent their thoughts.

Meanwhile, so much more could be done if we learned how, as friends, neighbours and concerned citizens, to avail ourselves to “just listen”.  As the astute young farmer said “There’s immense power in asking someone how they are doing”.  Show you care!  “Ask!”

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Bread for the Journey – Joyce Sasse

“For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven…”

The leader reflected on this passage from Ecclesiastes at the conclusion of her time with a group of teenage campers.

During the week she had been inviting them to explore, in a variety of ways, how they could express their understanding of what the surrounding mountains, sky, water and flora meant to them.

It was so appropriate that she now used the words of “The Preacher” (as the Hebrews called him).  The Book of Ecclesiastes is a collection of wise insights The Preacher had gathered through a life-time of experience.  This Wise One shared his thoughts with young men embarking on their own life-journey.

The rhythm of life, as he described it, is like a pendulum swinging back and forth: “the time to plant” swings over to “the time to harvest”, “hate” swings to “love” …  But with each swing, we can also imagine the spiral circles on a screw.  With each experience, we dig deeper into a more complete understanding of what lies at the heart of life.

This guidance is as rich a gift as any mentor can impart in these days when we are repeatedly confronted by the extremes of the swinging pendulum – from violence to compassion, for ignorance to exhilaration.  It is as we live through these times and seek to broaden our understanding that we look deeper into the heart of God.  Like Bread for the Journey, we find ourselves nourished and nurtured.

The Preacher concludes “Don’t let life be a burden.  God has given us the right time for everything – even though our understanding is incomplete.  Be happy.  Do the best you can while you are still alive.  And trust yourselves into the hands of God.”

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Opening Ourselves to Innovative Opportunities – Joyce Sasse

Innovative contributions which recent immigrants can offer us are often left unrecognized by rural communities.

We hit roadblocks when we ask “What do we have to do for them?”, instead of asking “What do they have to offer us?”

Several years ago a Saskatchewan Mennonite congregation invited a group of immigrants, known to them through urban counterparts, to spend a day or two in their small community.  It took focused effort to plan the particulars for visitors on shift-work, who required transportation as well as accommodation.  But I recall hearing many accolades about the venture being memorable.

It makes me wonder how many of our newcomers have a rural background or enjoyed going to the country-side for holidays and special occasions.  Does our habitual way of thinking that they won’t like small-town life reveal more about the urban biases of our bureaucrats than about those they are trying to place?

People from cultures radically different than ours have much to offer in our world where we are constantly needing to accommodate ourselves to change.

When threatened with weather that is dryer and hotter, for example, might Middle Eastern folks be able to show us alternative methods of agriculture, or ways to survive without demanding more air-conditioning and sophisticated technology?

While having an African pastor serve our community for a number of months, our horizon was broadened.  His family were landowners and they were very aware of drought threatening certain parts of their country.  The insights he shared as we tried to help him adapt to our culture gave us food for thought.

Think of the great contributions the Ukrainian immigrants made in the 1890’s when they were settled in the West, because they knew how to farm in Parkland spaces.

Given a chance, our newest settlers can indeed help us see possibilities with fresh clarity.

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Greatest Compliment – Joyce Sasse

(The sign on the plumber’s truck read “A Laugh Is as Good as A Flush”.  We all need a good laugh as we survive this summer!)

He couldn’t leave camp feeling that angry!  Ten-year-old Mickey was at the bottom of every prank, but I had a feeling something troubled him.

Camp leaders reported he was particularly hard to manage during the morning swim.  A trouble-maker?  Or was it fear?

On the last morning the whole camp gathered to play in the water.

Mickey fell into deep conversation with his new best friend.   Finally the two of them selected life preservers and ask permission to take a canoe.  They got the canoe to the water’s edge, got in and started to move along the edge of the swimming area.  That’s when my best leader, for reasons unknown, rocked the canoe and flipped it.  The two boys were furious.  Mickey in particular was so angry I thought he was going to explode.

I left the errant leader try to do damage control – to no avail!  Slowly I walked over, as if I hadn’t seen a thing, and wondered if Mickey might take me for a paddle.  I explained that I couldn’t swim and was afraid of the water, but I wanted one boat ride before I left camp.

“I noticed when you were in the boat with Jimmy you sat in the rear.  You must know something about paddling.”

He was startled enough to agree to take me “just a little way”.  What a sight!  My front end of the canoe rode so low he could hardly reach the water with his paddle, but he worked hard.

Soon the dinner bell called us back to shore.  When we beached the canoe, I told him to head for dining room.  As I came in to eat a few minutes later, a raspy voice from the other end of the table proclaimed “I think fat people are wonderful!” 

Obviously Mickey had recovered. And I went home feeling as if this was my greatest compliment!


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Building Cathedrals – Joyce Sasse

“You are late getting home from school”, the 8-year-old’s father commented.

“I know, dad.  Jenny’s doll got broke!”

“So you helped her pick up the pieces?”

“No.  I sat down and helped her cry.”

We may live in a crazy, up-side-down, erratic and irrational world, but still we can help each other get through the rough spots and find meaning in life, such as our young friend did.

On the one hand, we can allow ourselves to get caught in a trap of helplessness and despair and float like a cork on the ocean.

Or, following the advice of Nazi death camp survivor Viktor Frankl, we can find purpose for each day.  In the camp, he noticed those who took responsibility for helping another person, or who tried to find meaning through music, or who valued the way their suffering gave them deeper understanding – were the ones who survived the terrible atrocities.  Something so simple as deciding to share a piece of bread with another brought a wisp of joy.  Each act of outreach reflected a glimmer of hope.

How important it is to realize we can either surrender when the going gets tough, or we can decide to do something positive.  We have a choice.

The exact words of a poem elude me, but I recall a story told of two prisoners working in a quarry.  One saw himself endlessly breaking stones.  The other believed that his stones might be used to build cathedrals.  Can you imagine who found extra endurance?

Attitude makes all the difference.  That can be the life-saver!

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Looking Past the Divide – Joyce Sasse

When asked about racism in her school, a thoughtful teenage friend wrote the following:

“I know from experience that it is hard to get along with people who are so different from me.

“In my class, there are four First Nations girls in particular with whom there has definitely been some friction within the class. I don’t think it’s because of racism, but rather because we have nothing to do with each other and seemingly have so little in common.  So, any interaction we do have results in arguments.

“Sometimes it feels like the four girls are the ones who are starting the arguments, but I have to remember that I usually play a big role in fueling the flame, even if I don’t do it on purpose. For example, my group of friends and I can be quite arrogant, especially when it comes to grades. We make a big deal out of a less-than-perfect grade, because we’re all interested in academics and getting the highest mark possible. For those four girls, I can imagine that it must be tiring hearing about our minuscule struggles when I know they are dealing with some much bigger struggles of their own – including one who has had some difficulties with her parents and another who has gotten into some fights and been sent to court. When we sit there loudly complaining about how we should have gotten 100% on a test, I can imagine that it wouldn’t feel so uplifting to them when some of them struggle to keep passing grades.

“For most of the school year, the relationship between these girls and the rest of the class is strained because of an unwillingness to befriend others with such different interests. Nobody really makes an effort to talk with them for fear of starting an argument. And they don’t want to talk to us because all we seem to care about is school and grades. For most of the year, we keep our distance.

”But when volleyball or basketball season rolls around, our attitudes change. They are no longer the quick-tempered girls in the back of the class, but teammates. They’re pleasant and friendly, especially when you talk to them about sports. Being teammates helps us get along with each other, or maybe we just make more of an effort. Once we have something in common, like sports, we can overlook our differences and appreciate our similarities. When we’re strategizing about our next game, both groups realize that we’re very much alike in character.

“Yes, there is some friction created between the two groups, but I don’t think it’s because of racism. It’s not because of their First Nations backgrounds that we don’t always get along, but because of how each of us respond to certain circumstances. In their case, they don’t like how we react to our grades, and—in our case—we don’t like to need to argue about everything. I think this cause for division is the case in a lot of the classes in my high school. It’s not always because of racism between different cultures, but because of lack of interaction.  Once we find something that draws us together, it is easier to get along and see each other as friends.

“In the future, I hope we can have this relationship all throughout the year, not just during a sports season. This coming year, I want to try to bring the volleyball court attitude into the classroom, in that we are always “teammates”. We are always encouraging each other when someone messes up, and congratulating each other in our successes. I also want to start up conversations with those four girls about something other than sports. When we find more things to connect on, it’s easier to be friends.

“One way to look past this divide between races is to find something you have in common with another from a different cultural background. Whether it’s a love for sports, an interest in music, or a fascination with trying new foods, I believe we can always find similarities between people of two very different cultures. That is how we can look past the divide…”

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Recollecting our Stories – Joyce Sasse

Reunions can be a great time for telling stories.  Memories long forgotten come back to life.  Sometimes it takes a little prompting.  But the story, put together by the memories of others, becomes important to how we look at these events in our lives.

“Story-telling (and story-recalling)” we are told “helps us make sense of our lives.”  How true!

Friends from Korea came to visit, and we started talking about a day we spent together in the Han family’s traditional family home-city.  I was more than glad to have use of a vehicle for the trip, and was more than proud to catch a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how the children were taught what this family’s pagoda-pavilion meant.

I completely missed the way some bystanders scorned us because a foreign woman drove the car.  I also missed the way the Han family patriarch introduced himself to those on-lookers, and immediately won their respect because of his high ranking in Korean society.

Recalling this story thirty years later, with each of us, adding what we remembered, made the event come back to life, and made it an important part of our shared experience.

Another important aspect of story-telling — anthropologist Margaret Mead’s children recalled that their mother “always let us have our memories”.  She never tried to correct those memories, though she also shared her memory of the incident.  What a wonderful way to respect each other!

What about recalling the Biblical stories?  Are they just something someone gabbles on about?  That we only half hear?  That we don’t bother to remember?  When and how might they become part of our story?  When might a memory from a particular story come to mind to help us through a difficult time?  When might the words of Scripture, speaking of the awareness of God’s presence in the human scene, give expression to our feelings of hope?

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As The Heat Continues – Joyce Sasse

There are those who relish the heat.  But there are others of us who find ourselves becoming more and more depressed by its excess.

Confinement to curtain-closed homes, stifling apartments, or air-conditioned spaces that irritate while they cool all take their toll.  Add the threat this may be more than a few-day phenomena –we look for positive ways to find relief.

Through the hot, sticky summers I spent in South Korea, I regularly sat in front of an electric fan with my feet in a basin of cool water.  Through drought days in Saskatchewan I retreated to the basement to escape the wind and dust-laden atmosphere.  Here in Alberta another concern is the forest-fire smoke.  Add the experience of loss of crops, homes, businesses, even entire neighbourhoods.  When the land suffers, those who are connected also feel the pain.

Most important is that we be there for each other.

The first winter after I was ordained, we had an exceptionally cold January.  I rousted myself to do pastoral visiting.  The seniors I visited that day put life back in perspective for me.  One lady was making cookies.  Another kept close watch on a sick friend.  A third made sure the new preacher stayed for lunch.  Their lives were purpose-driven.  Their day had a focus.

In tough times we can easily surrender to the disillusions and distresses that depress us.  Or we can be more proactive as we realize we have responsibility within our community to initiate phone-calls, to share memories with a friend, to consider what assets we have that we can pass to others …

Part of our God given capacity of resilience is echoed by the kid who proudly shouted “God made me, and God don’t make junk!”

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