Monday, March 30, 2020

On The Ascension

These last few months, I've had a tremendous amount of spiritual fruit borne from a topic that I never really dipped into until recently: the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven.

It all started with me complaining to Christ in prayer one day: "Why are you taking so long to return?"

The inaudible response was clear: "Patience, James. I'm still embracing my Father."

It hit me like a ton of bricks. Jesus was fully human, and had human emotions. Yet as fully divine, his union with the Father within the Trinity was the very essence of his existence. I thought of how this swirling lovers' dance of Father, Son, and Spirit was all he knew - and it was and is indeed everything. Yet he shed that divine union, not clinging to it when he became man. And he missed it; he longed for it. He took on man's fallen form, which lacked the Trinitarian cohesion which was the very nature of his being. The divine plural became a divine singular. Yes, he was still fully God and still fully Divine, but paradoxically he also wasn't at the same time that he was. The latter is the state of humanity: created for union with God, yet splintered away through sin. It was that splintering which he came to seal up again.

The Catechism defines the reason for the Church's evangelical mission: "The ultimate purpose of mission is none other than to make men share in the communion between the Father and the Son in the Spirit of love." (CCC 850)

The very character of the nature of the Trinity is thus our goal and our end. We were created to enter into union with these three Divine Persons.

Jesus missed the Father. It was why he prayed. He sought his Father out at every opportunity, knowing that only by carving off significant chunks of time to seek a glimpse of that lost Trinitarian unity (yes, I know, it wasn't lost, but it also kind of was... just bear with me for the purpose of this meditation; now that the hair has been split asunder, I shan't split it again) could he recapture a fragment of what he had known before being born of a virgin.

With this in mind, I re-read the Gospels. As I read how Jesus as a twelve year old stayed behind in Jerusalem and let Joseph and Mary go on without him just so he could be in his Father's house, I realized how instinctive and elemental his desire for the Father was. It was such a part of his nature that he didn't comprehend how anybody wouldn't look for him in the Temple before any other place.

In his adult ministry, I was amazed to see how often Jesus squirrelled away to pray, dodging the crowds and his disciples. It was his default activity: the one thing he did when he had nothing else to do, and the one thing he made time for by shirking off other responsibilities.

My default activity is pulling out my phone.

If Jesus himself regularly needed to spend serious time to seek communion with the Father, should I be doing any less? This insight has convicted me, and has given me a deeper longing for prayer than I've ever felt before.

I read how he hinted at his ultimate purpose - to bring us into the communion of the Trinity - when he taught us the scandalous phrase: "Our Father."

He suffered the most complete separation from the Father on the Cross. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" And yet we also see his complete trust in the Father who had abandoned him: "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."

And then when he rose, and Mary Magdalene found him at the tomb, Jesus says to her, "Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father."

I've always wondered at that. It seems like kind of a jerk move. Jesus has to know how badly Mary's heart broke at his death, and how high it soared at seeing him resurrected. Why would he not permit her to embrace him? Accept a hug, dude!

I think it was because he was simply excited to return. His mission was complete, his separation was over, and all that remained was to rejoin the Father and the Spirit in their intimate embrace of love. As much as he loved Mary, his love for the Father was far, far greater.

And then here's the best part. Jesus adds, "But go to my brothers and tell them, 'I am going to my Father and to your Father, to my God and your God.'" We are now his brothers! We now have the same Father!

Time and space are funny things when one considers the Incarnation. I don't understand why Jesus had to ascend physically up in order to return to the Father, but that's what he did. However long that ascension took after he disappeared into the clouds, I now think that the burst of love at the moment of Divine Reunion is what sent the Holy Spirit rushing forth at Pentecost, unleashed upon the disciples and all who would receive him in the ages to come.

So why hasn't Jesus returned yet? I think it's because he's still celebrating the completion of his mission, and that he is lost in the embrace of the Father.

You've had those moments, haven't you? Those times when you finally see a loved one long absent, and the embrace just lasts and lasts and lasts... until the moment when it just feels like the hug has been long enough and you both reluctantly pull away, yet remain together, smiling through tears, staring into those eyes... catching up on missed memories.

That's what the Son and the Father are doing right now. He hasn't forgotten about us. He hasn't abandoned us. He hasn't left us to stew in our juices and figure out our own solutions. No - he's simply rejoicing in his Reunification.

Let's allow him that triumph, while we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

On Goodbyes

Today I dropped off my eldest child at the airport. She's bound for Ottawa, where she'll begin training to be a missionary for NET Canada, and we won't have her back until May of 2020 (excepting a short break at Christmas).

This has been a dream of hers for years. She applied this last winter, went through a handful of phone & video conference interviews, and waited seemingly forever to hear back whether or not she'd been accepted. I remember the day she got the news. She quietly slipped into my room as I was tidying up, and when I turned around, there she was with this big goofy grin on her face, and tears in her eyes. "I'm going on NET!" she proclaimed, and her grin erupted into a miles-wide smile that melted this daddy's heart.

A year like this can revolutionize a young person's life. It was on a similar tour that I met the people who introduced me to genuine Catholicism, and also where I met my wife. So I know there's a good chance that the experiences she'll have and the people she'll meet will open up a world of new possibilities to her. And of course, I know that her journey is her own; it won't be a duplicate of mine or her mother's.

She graduated high school in June 2018, and has spent the last year still living at home and working to save up some money to do mission work and post-secondary school down the road. As I've been emotionally preparing myself for this day when I'd bid her adieu, I have been gradually awakening to the realization that I don't raise kids to keep them. I raise them to send them out into the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ on their lips and in their hands.

Daughter #2 is off at a summer camp program this week, and had her own tearful goodbye with #1 on Sunday. Observing that was a foretaste of the emotions I'd experience today, and even last night. As we said our family rosary, I could barely whisper the final Hail Mary, knowing it would be the last one I would say with her for many months.

Seeing #1 give a farewell embrace to her brother, #8, our four month old who will be double his age when she sees him next, sent tears streaming down my face like water down the outside of a leaky garden hose. She sobbed too, and I know he'll be the one she misses the most.

As I write this, her plane has landed and she's doubtless already begun making new friendships with her team members. She sent me a quick text during her layover that the excitement is finally hitting her. The goodbyes were hard for her too, but she's got an adventure ahead of her.

So with that, the first bird is out of the nest, but I've got at least another eighteen years of these hard goodbyes ahead of me. It's so easy as parents to define ourselves by our children, and then when they leave we can forget who we are as husband and wife. As strange as it may sound, I'm feeling convicted to invest more energy and attention into my wife and our relationship these days, so that when our nest is finally empty, we'll know we still have each other.

And when death separates us, the prime relationship we have with our creator God, the one unchanging constant in life, will be the rock we cling to. That ties right back into the missionary work that #1 is now embarking upon, for nothing matters if you don't go to heaven.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

What Is A Missionary Family, and Why Are We It?

The Catholic School of Evangelization in St. Malo, Manitoba is a camp and retreat centre less than an hour from Winnipeg. It provides full week summer camps (July & August) and weekend winter camps (February) for English and French youth ages 8 and up, and is available for groups to rent privately as well. In its past it had hosted a small number of year-round students in a discipleship formation program, as well as organizing an outreach team to go do mission work in various communities and Catholic parishes around the province of Manitoba, but those programs are currently not operating.

The facility has fourteen air conditioned rooms, each with anywhere from two to ten bunk beds, and at its maximum capacity can sleep around eighty people. An older yet functional commercial kitchen allows for meal preparation, and a modern chapel provides a setting for spiritual nourishment as well. Opportunities for outdoor activities are numerous, with the large backyard and an expansive school field next door. Just a short walk across the highway one finds a Lourdes grotto on the river bank, along with a provincial park with a beautiful beach on St. Malo Lake.

My family has had many positive retreat and camp experiences at the CSE. When they posted in the spring of 2018 that they were looking for a new Missionary Family to take up residence there, both my wife and I heard the call independently of each other. Upon discussing it together, we were somewhat surprised to learn that the other was open to it. We discerned (that was a big process, which I won't get into detail about here), applied, went through some interviews, had background checks done, and were chosen by the CSE’s director in consultation with the staff and board. We've committed to serve through the end of June 2020.

We have a house in Winnipeg, and the perfect renters came across our path in a way only explainable by the existence of a God who orchestrates events to facilitate obedience to his will.

In addition to hearing this call to serve as Missionary Family, we also heard the call to have another child (our eighth) …. because this wouldn’t be hard enough already! We answered that call too, and Raphael was born on March 30, 2019. We had him baptized here in the CSE’s chapel on Easter Sunday to cap off the annual Triduum Retreat there. To the best of our knowledge, this was the first baptism ever to happen in the chapel since it was built nearly twenty years ago. He's probably also the first baby ever to take a bath in their kitchen.

The Missionary Family serves two roles for the CSE. The prime duty is to be a welcoming presence for retreat groups throughout the off-season by preparing the facility for their arrival and supporting them in their time in the building. We are not expected to do the cooking or cleaning for the groups - we simply stock the washrooms, unlock the doors, show them around, confirm they understand the commercial dishwashing procedures, be available for support as they use the facility, and do a final walkthrough to ensure all is in good order when they leave.

The secondary duty is general upkeep of the building and yard, requiring a total of 20 collective hours of work every week. The CSE staff budget is slim, so a formal custodian isn’t possible, and there is an added benefit for security and insurance to have people living on site. Snowblowing the parking lot is of prime importance in our Canadian winters, and rooms need a fresh coat of paint from time to time, but beyond just maintenance we are also doing some proactive beautification. Our eldest daughter is a gifted artist and has been using her painting skills to adorn the doors of each dorm room with a painting of the saint for whom the room is named.

Our daughter Libby, painting the door on the St. Agnes room

In return for providing this service, the family is allowed to live rent-free at the CSE, occupying a few of the rooms. There are ten people in our family, and we chose to live in the older suite of four bedrooms on the second floor. These are more removed from the main common areas of the facility, making for a quieter environment to have our young children in when there are groups here.

The summer is the CSE’s peak camp season, and they need us to vacate temporarily to make room for the campers. They allow us to keep our personal items in one locked bedroom, and they have a storage area we can use as well. At the time of this writing, we are living away from the CSE while the summer camps program is running. A nearby family we know through mutual acquaintances had planned a European vacation, spanning exactly when we needed to be out of the CSE. They have a small hobby farm with laying hens requiring daily care, and our availability to house-sit was as good for this family as it was for us. Checkmate, atheists!

In a few weeks, camps will end and we’ll be back there for another year… and after that, who knows? God seems to light our path only in small increments.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Formative Upheavals

I promised some people that I would write a post today. I've not got a specific subject in mind, so this will be a true rambling of a post-Commonweal gentleman.

I was looking back over my blog posts from a decade ago (!) wondering how I wrote so much back then. I was far more politically engaged and cared more deeply about how the nation was being run, and my reading on that topic fueled many of my posts. My faith, while no less vibrant and engaging then than it is today, drove me to write extensively on my conversion to Catholicism, but now that I've been Catholic for nearly as long as I wasn't, the topic isn't fresh anymore.

Of course, my family has grown substantially, since those hectic posting days of yesteryear. When last I updated gentle reader, I believe we were at five children. Now we're at seven, with number eight (God willing) coming to a birthing canal near you in April 2019.

Volunteer activities and kids' activities have consumed much of my time too.

However, a massive shift in our lives has thrown everything up in the air.

The Catholic School of Evangelization, a faith formation and retreat centre in St. Malo, MB (45 minutes south of Winnipeg, if you need a frame of reference), posted recently that they were looking for a new Missionary Family for a year-long term. This family would live on site, claiming a section of the dorms for themselves, and their role would be twofold: first, to prepare the facility to retreat groups coming in, welcoming them and being present to provide support, and second, to maintain the facility, performing minor maintenance and general groundskeeping. There's no income for this position, but the rent and utilities are free, so it somewhat balances out.

My wife and I both felt like this was something God wanted our family to do, so we pitched the notion to our children and began exploring the possibility of putting our names forward. To make a long story short, it's us: we are the Missionary Family.

This has uprooted us from our home, which we are renting out to a trustworthy family whose need for temporary furnished lodging providentially coincided with our term at the CSE, and as I write this we have been settling in to these dorms for the last ten days. Already we've welcomed one group in, and another comes this weekend.

When groups come, we need to give them their space as they are coming with their own agendas, programming, and community. We are to be background servants only, keeping out of their way as much as possible. This proves difficult with a shared kitchen and dining area, but we'll find our way.

The other opportunity we have here is to grow closer as a family while we embark on this shared mission together. I am a relatively handy guy and am seeing the needs this aging building has, but my big struggle is in involving my kids in my repair jobs so they can learn how these things are done and become more self-sufficient as adults. As a German, I'm all about efficiency, and involving an easily distracted nine year old boy when I'm replacing a doorknob slows me a down A LOT. That slowness bothers me... but it shouldn't. This mission isn't a glorified work bee. It's a shared evangelistic opportunity to grow in faith, and I'm as much a student at this school as anybody else. I am finding, even ten days in, that my focus on beautifying the building is not conducive to our family communion. It's not that I need to do less. It's that I need to do these things for the right reason and in the right spirit.

Another massive bonus here is that we literally live under the same roof as the Eucharistic Lord, as there is a chapel here. We're using the chapel for our family prayers and - truth be told - my heart was so full of angst as I started to write this post that I picked up my laptop from the dining room table and am now seated three paces from the Lord in his Tabernacle.

His presence is soothing, and in this rambling introspection I feel he is coaxing me to be more of a Mary than a Martha; to drink in the moment, even if it's a year long.

If you are reading this, dear friend, utter a small prayer for me, for my family, that we would be good missionaries.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Christianity LS

Here's a picture of the roof console of my Chevy Uplander van, which has the LS trim. LS is the lowest of the General Motors trim designations, behind LT and LTZ. That means any GM vehicle with an LS after its name is without the bells and whistles that come automatically with the more expensive trims.

None of those buttons do anything. The blank placeholders indicate that I've got no rear power window vents, no built-in DVD player, no parking sensor, no heated seats. The very presence of the empty spaces is evidence that I'm missing something.

For the Protestant portion of my life, this was Christianity for me. But I didn't have the luxury of seeing a visual display of what "features" I was missing. Then one day I sat in somebody else's Christi-van-ity (just... just roll with it) and saw all these extras on the console like the Eucharist, the profound definition of a sacrament, the beauty of the liturgy, the Apostolic Succession and the See of Peter, the vivid and simple logic of the Eve-Mary parallel, even literal bells (but no whistles, although sometimes clackers during Lent). Yet despite all these extras, I was still in the same type of salvific vehicle.

I then returned to my own Christianity LS and realized what I was lacking. I couldn't stand it; I needed those upgrades like I needed air. I could not have been fulfilled as a Protestant Christian any longer.

Chesterton had a similar experience, and I've quoted this from him before"When a man really sees the Church, even if he dislikes what he sees, he does not see what he had expected to dislike. Even if he wants to slay it he is no longer able to slander it; though he hates it at sight, what he sees is not what he looked to see; in that place he may gain a new passion but he loses his old prejudice. There drops from him the holy armour of his invincible ignorance; he can never be so stupid again."

I had been raising thinking Catholics generally were not heaven-bound. We even had a bit of a backhanded compliment about this notion: "Sure, Catholics can be Christians too, if they accept Jesus as the Lord and Saviour." And yet here I realized that not only were they on the right road and knew it better than I did. They were also travelling in style.

If you're reading this as a Protestant, have you ever seriously considered what you might be missing?

Monday, July 24, 2017

So Close...

For my whole life, I've spent part of nearly every summer at Arlington Beach Camp north of Regina, Saskatchewan. The camp a mission of the Free Methodist Church in Canada, and is a hub of the denomination's western-Canadian presence.

I was raised a Free Methodist, and even had my sights set on the ministry. In my mind's eye, I foresaw me receiving pastor's training, marrying a piano-playing gal who could help lead worship services, and taking assignments in backwater prairie towns, feeding the flocks there with the word of God. To fulfill that vision, I attended the now-defunct Aldersgate College in Moose Jaw, SK to begin a Bachelor of Theology degree. Life, however, took me in another direction after my first year concluded, and the following year the college closed. Suddenly rudderless, I drifted around, and during my travels and wanderings I found myself summoned into the Catholic Church. That's a long story for another post... if I haven't told it somewhere else before. Here's the part where I apologize to any faithful readers I have left for the long gap between posts. This one ought to make up for it.

Being a Catholic has changed the flavour of my visits to Arlington. I still love being there, as many dear friends I've made over the years still attend camp, and it's always been a favourite meeting place for my family, who are scattered over the prairies. And I still encounter Christ there in my personal prayer life and in the Christian community and events. But in order to fulfill my obligation to attend Sunday Mass, I need to leave the camp and drive with my wife and kids at least 40 minutes to the nearest Catholic parish. The means that a 3 hour chunk of time during each week at Arlington is spent away from my extended family and friends. They don't understand the nature of the Catholic Sunday obligation, and they certainly don't understand my love for the Eucharist that beckoned me across the Tiber. And they've never really had the patience to sit through an explanation of the scriptural reasoning that led me to Rome; those conversations usually get heated before they devolve into "let's just agree to disagree on our interpretations." For the sake of peace, I back down, but my heart still burns within me to help them see the truth as it's been revealed to me.

My most recent journey to Arlington was no exception. But this year was the first one in a long time that found me able to participate in the organized Family Camp activities as an adult. That specifically meant I could attend a Bible study through Philippians led by one Free Methodist pastor, another study of church hospitality led by a different pastor, and evening sessions on the divinely inspired rhythm of rest and revolution, led by the new bishop of the Canadian Free Methodist Church.

Here's where my post title of "So Close" comes into play.

On eight separate occasions within those sessions, I found myself seeing a logical next step in the teachings presented that, if taken, could merge beautifully into Catholic doctrine, but the pastors/bishop would always stop before that step. It was eerie. I know that we're all Christians and we have a lot in common already, but the proximity to specifically Catholic ideas was startling.

For example, one pastor talked about John Wesley's wish that his followers would be partakers of constant communion. Growing up Free Methodist, a communion service was something that was done perhaps once every two months. Long before my conversion, I remember thinking how weird it was that Catholics could potentially have communion every day. But this apparently was a concept close to Wesley's heart, which is logical considering he himself was an Anglican priest, which just one step removed from Catholicism. Still, Free Methodists are a couple of steps farther away, so for one of their pastors to wish for more frequent communion services made me want to stand up and shout, "Yes! God wants this for us, more than you know!" And indeed they had frequent communion services during the week (I did not partake), and one time they kept the leftover bread and grape juice on display on a table at the front of the big tent in which we had our worship meetings each night. This had a semblance to Eucharistic Adoration. Of course, Free Methodists and Catholics have a very different understanding of what communion is, and nobody was venerating the exposed bread the way Catholics worship the Eucharistic Lord. Still, they were so close right up until that last understanding, at which point they veered off wildly.

Another example in the same vein: this pastor also talked about how knowing there is communion after his sermon really takes the pressure off him to "perform" well as a preacher. It was all I could do not to point out to the group that the highlight of the Mass is always the Eucharist, and that bad music, unintelligible preaching, and unfriendly pew-mates don't matter to me as long as I can participate in the sacrifice of the Mass.

The third so close moment was when the bishop talked about the importance of confessing our sins to one another, verbally and out loud. He pointed to James 5:16 to drive this home, and touched on how forgiveness comes only after a verbal confession of sin. Unfortunately, he didn't connect that to John 20:22, where Jesus gives the disciples the authority to forgive sins through the Holy Spirit. But never before had I heard a protestant preacher talk about the importance of a spoken, verbal confession of sins.

Fourth: one pastor talked about how in Acts 15, the apostles came together in what's known as the Council of Jerusalem to decide on the question of whether non-Jews needed to become Jewish as a prerequisite for becoming Christian. The council decided no, and issued a letter stating their authoritative teaching on this matter. Today Catholics would point to other definitive councils in history, most recently Vatican II, as equally authoritative as the Council of Jerusalem because they are done under the apostolic administration of the Catholic Bishops, who are the spiritual descendants of the original apostles. These councils have been held to address the larger questions facing the Church in its current culture, and will certainly continue until the Lord's return.

Fifth: the bishop talked about the importance of a specific venue for private prayer. Catholic churches have always understood this need, which is why many of them have side-chapels, perpetual adoration chapels, and alcoves within the main sanctuary. The bishop was specifically referring to having a place in one's home, and many Catholic families I know have this because it's been ingrained into them by what they see in their churches. So close...

Sixth: the bishop led an interesting teaching on how different prayer postures can facilitate different types of prayer. He saw merit in praying with one's hands stretched up to the sky, in kneeling, in being prostrate, in standing, in sitting, etc. To a Free Methodist listener this is pretty radical stuff. But Catholics get it. Throughout the liturgical year we see all of these positions several times.

Seventh: one night, the bishop read from James 5:14 about how those who are sick should seek out the leaders of the church and request anointing with oil and prayer. If you're reading this and you're Catholic, you'll see that this is one of the spiritual bases for the Sacrament of the Sick. And not only did he preach on this, but he also had the pastors come to take up stations to offer an anointing with oil to any who were sick or needed prayer. I partook of this opportunity, while realizing it wasn't a valid sacrament per se, but hey, free prayer is always good. Again... so close!

Eighth and finally, one pastor outlined salvation history this way, as a five-act drama:

  • Act one: Creation in the image of God
  • Act two: Sin and the fall, with the promise that the woman's seed would crush the serpent
  • Act three: the promise made to Abraham and Israel that as God's chosen people they would be the instrument of the world's reconciliation with God
  • Act four: Jesus and his redemptive sacrifice
  • Act five: the Church's fulfillment of the promise of salvation, culminating in the return of Christ

He maintained that the fifth act is incomplete because it's being lived out in our lives right now, and continuing the theatrical metaphor stated that we as the actors are basically doing improv until the Lord's return, with only the scriptural account of the early church to give us direction. I had the occasion to suggest to him privately afterward that as a Catholic, I have a script for these last days, and it's provided by the Church. I had done the improv thing, but once I found the script and discovered that it fit the flow of the production seamlessly, I could never go back to making it up as I went along. 

We couldn't get much deeper into it at that time, and I have written this post in large part to be able to articulate all of those "so close" moments that I didn't get a chance to share with the people I ached to share them with.

Jesus, before beginning his Passion, uttered a prophetic prayer to his Father in John 17:11, asking the Father to keep his followers "one just as we [Jesus and the Father] are." My decision to become Catholic was less an act of will and more an act of obedience to this prayer. I didn't want to become Catholic; I needed to. Me being a Catholic is my personal response to Christ's prayer for unity among his disciples. I've surrendered all doctrinal differences I had with the Church; no cafeteria-Catholicism for me! I saw no way to remain outside of the original Church and the teachings handed down by the apostles and their descendants, and at the same time honour Jesus' wish for unity among his people. I pray that all will feel the same conviction.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Story of a Soul

This year I've taken up the challenge of a reading bingo.  It's a 5x5 grid with a different type of book in each square, so that means with the free square in the middle (yippee!) I need to read 24 different books this year.  So far I've finished six books, most recently The Autobiography of Thérèse of Lisieux, which she titled The Story of a Soul (buy it at Stephanchew's if you're in Winnipeg).  I selected this book to fill the category of "a book written by someone under thirty."

St. Thérèse, if you're not familiar with her, was a Carmelite nun who lived from 1873 - 1897, dying at the tender age of 24 from tuberculosis.  She is better known as Thérèse of the Child Jesus, or the Little Flower, or the architect of The Little Way.

She wrote the book under a directive from the Mothers Superior of her convent; it's doubtful that she would have put pen to paper in this manner if she hadn't been so ordered.  She was a quiet soul, longing to be taken into the convent at a young age and finally accepted at age fifteen.  The book was first published two years after her death, and has remained a beloved tome of the Church.

I was surprised to read that St. Thérèse shared a common thought with me: she felt that she was woefully inadequate compared to the giants in Christian history like Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and their illustrious ilk.  While she was still quite young, she voiced this feeling of being too small to her elder sister Marie.  She recounts the tale to Marie thusly:

I told you once that it puzzled me that God did not give everyone the same amount of Glory in Heaven and I feared they could not all be happy.  You sent me off to fetch one of Father's big glasses and made me put my little thimble by the side of it; then you filled both up with water and asked me which I thought was the fuller.  I had to admit that one was just as full as the other because neither of them would hold any more.
That was the way you helped me to grasp how it was that in Heaven the least have no cause to envy the greatest.

Lessons like this convinced her that she could still attain sainthood (and indeed, today she is known as a Doctor of the Church, meaning we hold her teachings right up there with Aquinas and Augustine) through what she called The Little Way.

You know that I have always wanted to be a saint; but compared with real saints I know perfectly well that I am no more like them than a grain of sand trodden beneath the feet of passers-by is like a mountain with its summit lost in the clouds. 
Instead of allowing this to discourage me, I way to myself: "God would never inspire me with desires which cannot be realized, so in spite of my littleness, I can hope to be a saint.  I could never grow up.  I must put up with myself as I am, full of imperfections, but I will find a little way to Heaven, very short and direct, an entirely new way. 
"We live in age of inventions now, and the wealthy no longer have to take the trouble to climb the stairs; they take a lift.  That is what I must find, a lift to take me straight up to Jesus, because I am too little to climb the steep stairway of perfection."

I could get on board with that.

Books can have many different effects on us.  They can entertain, they can challenge, they can frighten, they can educate.  This is one of the most unique books I've read - I don't know how else to describe its effect on me at this point on my journey other than to say that it seems to have strummed the strings of my soul with brilliant, harmonic chords.  She is so very real in how she relates her journey; so very simple, straight, and thin - but her zeal burned so hot, she was like a hot knife which impossibly seems to cuts through the coldest brick of butter with ease.

St. Thérèse, pray for us!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Why Did You Let Me Fall?

When I was a young man I drove a taxi.  That was a fun job - I got to drive nice old style boats - Caprices, Lincolns, and even a Cadillac from time to time.  Once I got to drive the firm's limo for a wedding - that was a neat experience.  I used downtime between fares to read good poetry and to write bad poetry. I developed incredible defensive driving skills which still benefit me to this day.  And I built friendships with many interesting people.

One of these people was a sweet old black lady named Mavis who used to call on us every now and then to take her to the doctor's office or the mall or other such places.  She was exceedingly charming, full of vim, and always had a story to tell.  I had actually known her casually for several years before I started driving the cab, and as I got to know her better in the ensuing years, I witnessed her pass a frailty threshold to the point where she always need an arm to lean on to get in & out of the car.  Being the consummate gentleman, I always obliged her cheerfully.

One icy winter night, I was escorting her across a particularly slick sidewalk to my cab (I had picked a bad place to park, in hindsight).  Her steps were timid and hesitant.  "Hold on tight," she admonished me, and I gripped her around her waist with one arm, holding on to her arm with my other hand.

But it was too slippery, and as we were almost right up to the cab I sensed her losing her footing and starting to fall.

My mind raced as time slowed to a crawl.  Despite her frailty, she wasn't exactly a petite woman, and I was not positioned well enough to support her weight and still keep my own footing.  Somehow, I instinctively knew that the only way to keep her from falling hard and breaking something was to let my hold around her waist slide up to under her shoulders and then to ease her gradually and carefully to the ground.  Somehow I managed to control her fall safely and gently, her legs sliding under my parked taxi in the process.

This must not have looked at all graceful to any onlookers.

Time resumed its normal speed.  She let out a whimper, and looked up at me with those big white eyes glistening in the starlight, crying out in her creaky, weathered voice, "Why did you let me fall?"

My heart broke.  I felt like I had let her down (pun unintended and shamelessly left exactly where it is).  But I knew that if I hadn't controlled her fall, she would have been in a much worse state than merely horizontal and a bit chilled.  I tried to stammer out an explanation but she wouldn't hear it; in her mind I had betrayed her by not protecting her absolutely.

I was able to raise her up again and get her safely into the cab, and I got her home and to her door with no further incident.  But the memory of that moment, and of the utter shock and hurt in her eyes and her voice, has stayed with me.

Today this memory sprung unbeckoned to mind, and it struck me that there's a lesson here.  I'm no stranger to sin, and as much as I do try to walk closely with God each day of my life, sometimes I am on slippery ground and don't realize my danger until it's too late.

But God is good, and his arms are wrapped around me.  If I am to fall, he's still got me, and he can protect me even in the face of mortal sin.  I can think of many times when my slips into sin have been unnaturally cushioned by grace at the end of the plummet.  And on those occasions, if I were to look up at God and ask, "Why did you let me fall?" I now realize the hurt that must cause him - he has done nothing but protect me, even if I made that more difficult for him by choosing to walk on slippery ground.

Mavis, wherever you are, thank you for being God's instrument in my life.  And I'm sorry for not choosing a better spot to park.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Transformations #44 - 49

If you've visited my home within the last year (or read my last post), you'll be aware that I performed an extensive renovation of our basement.  It was a pretty much a complete rebuild - we had an imperfect concrete floor that made use of the space for an entertainment room next to impossible, and we also wanted to add a bathroom.

I could go into great detail with what we did, but these before/after shots tell the tale more simply than words ever could:

Aside from tearing out the old & pouring the new concrete floor (Sturgeon Construction did that and did it very well), roughing in the plumbing (ahem), and taping & mudding the drywall (shout-out to my friend Lionel of St. Joseph's Carpentry for rocking that!), I did all the work myself, with the help of family and friends.

From the little errors I made as I progressed, I learned many renovation tips during this massive project, and they seemed noteworthy enough to count as the little Transformations I am still tracking in my life.

#44: Plan your framing to include corners for drywall mounting.  This might seem obvious to somebody who has done this before, but I hadn't, and I was left scrambling to figure out a way to screw in my drywall properly at the corners of the rooms.  It's all fine now, but do me a favour and don't lean on the inside corners if you visit.

#45: Consult a financial adviser when moving big money around.  We had stockpiled some money into our tax-free savings account, and drew from that to cover some of our costs.  After having a chance discussion with a financial adviser later, she cautioned me that I could get hit with a tax on moneys I withdrew from the account.  Fortunately it would have been a relative pittance, as most of the project was funded through a line of credit.  I dodged a bullet, but it was still a good tip I wish I'd known before.

#46: Practice a new thing first - i.e. putting in drywall screws - you get better at it as you go along, so mess up on a practice area first, instead of leaving your learning curve on display for everybody to see later.

#47: Inspect contractors' work thoroughly & don't be afraid to ask for corrections.  Most tradespeople will stand behind their work (ahem) and want to leave you with a good impression.

#48: Cut your holes in drywall for electrical boxes very tight - start small and work them bigger gradually as needed.  And cut circles (not squares) for circles.  If you know what I'm talking about, you'd be impressed with how I covered up those errors!

#49: Always have a shop vac, broom & dustpan, and large garbage container on hand.  Seriously.  Keep your workspace clean.  I've extended this lesson to my house in general, and have been able to keep my nice new basement clean as a result.

Oh, and Phillips head screws?  You suck.  Come on world, get on board with Robertson!

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

An Example of Bad Service

I've got a bone to pick.

Last year, we did an extensive renovation on our basement, gutting it down to the dirt and finishing it.  It's now my favourite place in the house.  I did most of the work myself, but brought in professionals for the concrete, plumbing, and drywall finishing.

My complaint is with my plumber.  My concrete vendor recommended him.  I was a little leery, as I couldn't find any information about him in my due diligence (he has no website, no company profile on the BBB website, and no mentions at all of his name or business online, which is part of the reason I'm writing this post).  But I trusted the reference and booked him.  His name is Jason Borgstrom, going under the company name J.Son Mechanical.  I was happy with 99% of his work.  It's that nattering 1% that has escalated and has now completely soured my experience with him.

The job we had for him had two main elements.  Part one was roughing in plumbing for a 3 piece bathroom.  Part two was removing our 100 year old cast-iron main drain and replacing it with PVC pipe & a backwater valve.  Previous owners of our home had done some plumbing upgrading, and the main venting stack had been replaced with PVC and tied into the cast-iron drain.  This is where that little nattering problem came up.

The main stack, if you're not familiar with plumbing terms, is a vertical pipe that sticks out of the roof to allow air into the plumbing system.  This lets draining water be replaced by air as it flows out of the house - without this, you'd create a vacuum in the system, and drains would drain slowly, if it all.  The stack ties into the plumbing on every floor of the house.  In my house, this 2½ story piece of pipe is held in place by nothing other than the ground on which it sits, which is not a problem as that ground doesn't move.  But when my plumber removed the horizontal cast iron drain from underneath the vertical stack, suddenly the weight of the whole stack assembly was held in place by the thinner pipes that connected into it from the sides, all the way up through the second floor.  One of those connections, the one from the kitchen sink, cracked and started dripping.  It was a slow drip, so we didn't notice it right away.  But when we did notice it, we opened up the kitchen cabinets to find the source and deduced the cause.  We called the plumber back to correct it.

He insisted that he did not cause the damage, but agreed to repair it, and did so.  Up to this point, we were still at 100% in terms of satisfied with his work.

But then he billed us for the repair, to the tune of $65, on top of his $3425 invoice. [Seeing that, my satisfaction dropped to 99%.]  I objected to being billed for that since it was damage that he caused, and told him via email that we would subtract the $65 on our payment, which we sent him promptly.  This was his reply:

If you believe it was caused by the stack, then so be it. I am not going to make a big deal out of $65.00. Thanks very much for having the courtesy to inform me of the difference. Thanks again.


As a customer service professional, his snarky tone really irritated me, but that was the last I heard of it and I let it go.  I figured that maybe I had just caught him on a bad day.

But a few months later we learned that the city was offering a substantial rebate for renovations done where there was a backwater valve installed, which we had done.  They required a detailed receipt from a plumber showing the exact work that was done, but our invoice was very basic and did not meet the city's requirements.  So I emailed Mr. Borgstrom asking for a more detailed version.  He didn't reply, so I figured a phone call would be better.  When I talked to Jason, he said that he remembered me, and he flat out refused to help me, saying, "Maybe next time you'll treat your contractors better."


I am now of the opinion that Jason Borgstrom of J.Son Mechanical has deplorable customer service skills, which, in a referral driven trade such as plumbing, is very unfortunate for him.  I'm quite well networked, and have recently had several friends ask me if I can refer a plumber to them.  My response has been that I don't yet know any good ones.  While I don't wish him any ill will, I do hope that this post helps future prospective customers of his make an informed decision.

There is a happy ending though: the city, once we informed them of our situation and Jason's intransigence, agreed to make an exception and is proceeding with our rebate application.

Look at the powerful customer service lesson here: Jason had an opportunity to keep my satisfaction at 100%, and to generate referral business, by owning up to his mistake and not charging me $65 for the repair.  He had another opportunity to get me from 99% back to 100% by saying, "Sure, that's reasonable.  No problem."  And he could have got me from 50% back up to 99% if he had taken 10 minutes and done up the paperwork I needed when I first requested it.

Instead, he was unreasonable and rude.

For the record, Sturgeon Construction did an amazing job breaking up & repouring our concrete floor (that was a hard, hard two weeks for them), and St. Joseph's Carpentry did incredible work with our drywall mudding and taping (virtually dust free!).  Both firms had no problems coming back to fix minor issues.  I'd heartily recommend them to anybody.