Thursday, October 01, 2015

hospitality challenge

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On Saturday I will be presenting a paper at the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association conference. My topic is Theological Hospitality, and (spoiler alert) my main point is that we are all guests at the theological table, that we speak about God not from a place of ownership but as outsiders who have graciously been given access to divine mysteries. In light of this, we should adopt the same posture toward any who may act, think, and believe differently than we do about theological matters.

I love the idea of hospitality, of being open to others in personal, physical, and spiritual ways, but in practice, I find it rather difficult. Part of my research for the paper led me to a book by Jessica Wrobleski (The Limits of Hospitality) which cites several works by Henri Nouwen on the subject.  Because we are imperfect human beings dealing with other imperfect human beings, there is no such thing as totally safe or foolproof hospitality, but Nouwen offers wisdom on how to adopt a hospitable posture (which means embracing vulnerability and risk) in a grounded way.

He states that hospitality "requires first of all that the host feel at home in his own house." [1] This means that self-rejection, self-judgment, self-criticism, and complaining about our status in life make us inhospitable people; these habits keep us from making space for others. If we do not feel safe or welcome or comfortable in our own world, our own skin, how can invite others to share that space which we perceive as cramped and inadequate? Gratitude opens us up to the richness of God's abundant goodness, even in the most humble of circumstances, and reveals how much we have to give, to share, to celebrate. Nouwen writes that our most important movement is "not a movement from weakness to power, but a movement in which we can become less and less fearful and more and more open to the other and his world. This movement, allowing us to receive instead of to conquer, is the movement from hostility to hospitality." [2]

Celebration is another important part of hospitality, and Nouwen indicates that hospitality should create a space for guests "to dance their own dance, sing their own song and speak their own language without fear." [3]

However, hospitality is not absolute openness or some form of passivity. Nouwen recognises that both receptivity and what he terms "confrontation" are necessary in hospitality. The receptivity creates the friendly space for strangers to be themselves, while the "confrontation" (not aggression) is the articulate presence of the host, the particular context of their home and their unique identity. The guest is welcomed not with empty walls, nondescript food, and a neutral personality, but a decor which reflects the taste of the host, a meal which displays the host's culinary preferences, and the opinions, attitudes, and viewpoints unique to the host. The "confrontation" is between two (or more) distinct personalities and this encounter is where things can sometimes get uncomfortable, but it also has great potential. Nouwen insists that the purpose of hospitality is "to offer a free and friendly space where change can take place." [4]

This is the scary part of hospitality for me: not the hard work involved in making meals and cleaning rooms and washing bedding, not even the time it takes away from work, the invasion of my home office, or the high level of social exertion required on my part. No, the scary part is that when I invite someone to share my world, when I invite them into my safe and comfortable space, I must be willing to be changed.

Hospitality is not simply giving someone a meal or a bed while keeping a professional distance from them. Neither is it offering a service to someone as if they are a client or a customer. Hospitality has the potential to change relationships between two human beings. It can turn a stranger into an honoured guest and an enemy into a friend. We never know what will happen when we extend a welcome to someone, when we open our lives and our homes and our dinner tables up to others. But we are called to practice hospitality because this is what Jesus did for us. When we were unattractive sinners, when we were unworthy outsiders, when we were making bad life decisions, when we were contentious and hard to get along with, when we were angry and sad and bitter, he invited us to sit as his table and taste his sweet goodness. How can we not do the same for others?

[1] Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (New York: Doubleday/Image Books, 1979), 89.
[2] Henri Nouwen, "Hospitality," in On Hospitality and Other Matters, Monastic Studies 10 (Pine City, NY: Mount Savior Monastery, 1974), 3.
[3] Nouwen, Wounded Healer, 91-92.
[4] Nouwen, "Hospitality," 8.

Monday, September 21, 2015

why we make mistakes

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Last week I picked up a book at the library called, Better by Mistake: the unexpected benefits of being wrong by Alina Tugend. The author, a journalist. takes a close look at how we view mistakes, finding that there are basically two approaches: the fixed mindset believes that we have a fixed amount of intelligence, talent, and potential for change, and assumes that mistakes are to be avoided at all costs. The growth mindset believes that there is always the potential to do better, and mistakes are just part of how we learn. Therefore, it is important to take risks and develop perseverance in the face of inevitable setbacks.

In 2002, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article for The New Yorker called, "The Talent Myth." He concludes that companies which use the star system, hiring the brightest and the best, those who have degrees from the most prestigious schools, and paying them hefty compensation, are not as effective and successful as companies which hire few stars, pay modest salaries, and promote according to seniority. By creating a culture which worships talent, the first type of company forces people into a fixed mindset, and Gladwell notes, "we know from our studies that people with the fixed mindset do not admit and correct their deficiencies."

Tugend cites this example of a growth mindset: A promising junior executive of IBM was involved in a risky venture for the company and managed to lose over $10 million in the gamble. It was a disaster. When Tom Watson, the founder, called the nervous executive into his office, the young man blurted out, "I guess you want my resignation?" Watson said, "You can't be serious. We've just spent $10 million educating you!" For Watson, learning from mistakes was a part of moving toward success.

It is important to note that not all learning is equal. There is single loop learning, which is basically what a thermostat does; if it is too hot, it turns off, if it is too cold, it turns on. Single loop learning addresses only the immediate situation. This is good for routine tasks but inadequate in uncovering larger, latent problems. Double loop learning looks at the bigger picture, asking questions like, "Why is the thermostat set at 30 degrees?" or "Shouldn't we fix that big hole in the wall in order to make the heating system more efficient?" Double loop learning (looking beyond surface action or behaviour) is necessary to get at structural, systemic issues which might be causing the same mistakes to be made over and over again. Tugend observes that mistakes help point out flaws in how we approach work and life, and can teach us very valuable lessons.

Chris Argyris writes: "Because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure. So whenever their single-loop learning strategies go wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism and put the blame on anyone and everyone but themselves. In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it most." Herein lies the difference between perfectionism and excellence. Perfectionism seeks to avoid mistakes because anything less than perfect is seen as a failure. In perfectionism, there is a constant pressure to prove oneself. In contrast, excellence strives for improvement and sees mistakes as part of the learning process. The emphasis is on learning from mistakes and not making the same mistakes again. The goal is not on proving oneself but on improving oneself. Perfectionism breeds despair because one never quite measures up to expectations, but those who strive for excellence are able to celebrate every small step forward.

The apostle Paul writes: "You see, all have sinned, and all their futile attempts to reach God in His glory fail." (Romans 3:23, The Voice) The word "sinned" here is the Greek word hamarton, and it is a general term meaning to miss the mark, like an archer would miss the target. This term encompasses intentional and unintentional missing of the mark, ignorance as well as deliberate rebellion. Essentially, the results of mistakes and sin are the same: we fall short, we hurt people, we get hurt.

So what should our response be to this dire news that we will never be good enough to reach God's glory? Frustration? Anger? Despair? Trying harder? Jesus' first words to his disciples did not remind them of their mistakes and sins, but invited them to embark on a journey of transformation: "Come, follow me!" The disciples made many mistakes along the way: believing that Jesus was there to overthrow the Roman empire, acting out of fear and doubt, displaying overconfidence and a lack of love, and misunderstanding the purpose of authority. Jesus' growth mindset is evident in many stories, but particularly in his interaction with the woman caught in adultery (John 8). The first thing Jesus does is to remind her accusers of the bigger picture: no one is without sin, mistakes are part of humanity. Stop blaming. The second thing Jesus does is to remove condemnation from the situation and reorient it toward transformation. Jesus' response to failure is not to blame or condemn, but to invite people to a renewed way of living, of thinking, of acting (metanoia).

As someone who has perfectionist tendencies, I know the feeling of "never good enough." It is important to remind myself that God does not expect perfection; instead, he offers ongoing transformation.

"Let us run with endurance and active persistence the race that is set before us, [looking away from all that will distract us and] focusing our eyes on Jesus, who is the Author and Perfecter of faith [the first incentive for our belief and the One who brings our faith to maturity]," (Hebrews 12, Amplified Bible).

"I am confident that the Creator, who has begun such a great work among you, will not stop in mid-design but will keep perfecting you until the day Jesus the Anointed, our Liberating King, returns to redeem the world." (Philippians 1, The Voice).

"So lift up your hands that are dangling and brace your weakened knees. Make straight paths for your feet so that what is lame in you won't be put out of joint, but will heal." (Hebrews 12, The Voice)

God's part is the perfecting. My part is to embrace the learning and growing which comes from inevitable failure. God's part is to finish what he started, to perfect what he created. My part is to practice persistence on this journey, no matter what the setbacks. My part is to learn to avoid pitfalls, to straighten out any crookedness which might set me up for future mis-steps, and to strengthen and help those I meet along the path. (I did not take the time to develop it here, but Tugend points out that teamwork is one of the most important aspects of learning and improving. Together we are better. Note that Jesus always sent his disciples out in teams or in a group.)

Let us learn to rely not so much on our own efforts, but on the solidity of God's mercy and faithfulness. He is the one who called us to the journey, he is the one who continually upholds us along the way, and he is the one who will ultimately bring it to completion and fullness.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

true or false

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At present, there are two political campaigns happening in North America. The posturing for popularity mixed with defaming propaganda wears on my soul. As people and parties vie for power, so little of it feels genuine or honest. Despite their designation as public servants, government officials seem to have lost their way when it comes to knowing what it means to truly serve others.

In light of the times we live in, it seemed particularly fitting that we talked about the prohibition against "bearing false witness against your neighbour" this Sunday. People tend to associate the ninth matter in the Decalogue with lying, but it is a bit more nuanced than that. First, what is a witness? In its most basic form, witnessing is a passive role; we see and hear and observe a lot of things throughout the day, most of which we have no control over. However, being a witness is brought into an active, intentional role when we say something about what we have observed, or when we give a report of something that happened.

A further intensifying of this active role as a witness has to do with calling. The Greek word for witness is martus, and though we commonly associate it with the idea of being a martyr (dying for what you believe), it really means to bear witness to something with your whole existence, with your whole life, even up to the point of death. In Acts 1, Jesus calls his disciples to be his witnesses (martyres) beginning with their local setting and radiating out to different parts of the world. The idea of being a witness here is different from a single act of witnessing; this calling is to live as a witness, to have it be your identity. The disciples were not only to speak about what they had seen and experienced with Jesus, but their very lives were to be witnesses to the transforming power of God. It was essentially saying: "If you want to see what the love of God looks like, look at my life. It is a witness to this great love."

That's the positive side of being a witness, so what does it mean when we read the following in Exodus 20:16: "Do not bear false witness against your neighbour?" Is it really always harmful to tell a lie about something? Take, for example, these lies children and parents tell each other.
1. We woke up one morning to a clogged toilet. When my husband asked if anyone knew what happened, my 5-year-old hugged my legs and said, "Mommy, a bad, bad man came into our house last night and stole an apple and took some bites, then flushed it down the toilet!"
2. My dad told me people only get 10,000 words per month. If you reach the limit, you can't physically speak until the new month begins. Anytime I was especially talkative, dad would say, "Careful, you're over 9,000 by now."
3. I told my kids that when they lie, a blue dot appears on their forehead that only Mom and Dad can see. Every time they lied, for almost a year, they covered their foreheads.

Perhaps a stronger example is the story of Ahab and Naboth in 1 Kings 21. King Ahab admired Naboth's vineyard and wanted to buy it for his own personal use because it was nice and close to the palace. However, Naboth respectfully declined the purchase offer, stating that the vineyard had been in his family for generations. The king went home and sulked. Jezebel, his wife, took notice, and told him to cheer up; she would get him that vineyard. Jezebel wrote letters in Ahab's name proclaiming a public day of fasting, and on that day, when Naboth was in a prominent, public place, two men of bad reputation (under orders of Jezebel) accused Naboth of cursing both God and the king. Because two witnesses brought testimony against him (the requisite number), he was found guilty and dragged outside the city and stoned to death. Ahab then claimed Naboth's vineyard.

So why do people give a false witness against someone? The 5-year-old wanted to get out of trouble. The parents wanted to control the behaviour of their children. In the story of Ahab, it was for personal gain and perhaps to exact revenge on Naboth for not giving in to the king's demand. Other reasons for telling an untruth about someone could be to elevate our own standing, or to remove an opponent, or to make a tricky situation go away by creating a scapegoat. (see Mark 14 which tells about the false witnesses who were called to testify against Jesus).

What happens when we bear false witness against someone? Note that I am using Jesus' all-encompassing interpretation of 'neighbour' here (see Luke 10:25-37). The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that false statements contribute to condemnation of the innocent and exoneration of the guilty. When we partake in calumny (a misrepresentation intended to harm another's reputation) we violate both the commandment against false witness as well as the command to love one's neighbour as oneself. The Catechism goes so far as to indicate that gossip, slander, flattery, boasting, bragging, irony aimed at disparaging someone, mocking, and maliciously caricaturing someone are all contained under the prohibition against "bearing false witness" (again reminded of political campaigns here, God have mercy).

Some theologians make a connection between the 8th matter (do not steal) and the prohibition against bearing false witness. Matthew Henry states that acting as a false witness is "endeavoring to raise our own reputation upon the ruin of our neighbor's." Martin Luther wrote: "God wishes the reputation, good name, and upright character of our neighbor to be taken away or diminished as little as his money and possessions." In other words, by denigrating someone, we are stealing their good name and their reputation from them. This is a dangerous position to be in, because lying and stealing are the main activities associated with Satan (called the father of lies and the thief who comes to steal, slaughter, and destroy). In contrast, Jesus says that he comes to give life characterised by joy and abundance (John 10). The Hebrew name for God, El Emet (God of truth), reveals that truth is central to God's character. When we malign someone with our words, in essence stealing their reputation, we have joined the ranks of Satan, the one who desires to pull people down into ruin. Instead, we want to be followers of Jesus, the one who desires to lift people up and help them to flourish.

So why should we tell the truth about everyone? Because we want to align ourselves with God who is truth instead of Satan who is a liar. Because as recipients of God's justice and mercy, we now want to extend justice and mercy. Because we want to love our neighbour, not be in competition with them. Because we want to care more about God's gain and God's reputation than our own.

"By truth spoken in love, we are to grow in every way into Him - the Anointed One. ... Don't let even one rotten word seep out of your mouths. Instead, offer only fresh words that build others up when they need it most. That way your good words will communicate grace to those who hear them. It's time to stop bringing grief to God's Holy Spirit; ... Banish bitterness, rage and anger, shouting and slander, and any and all malicious thoughts - these are poison. Instead, be kind and compassionate. Graciously forgive one another just as God has forgiven you through the Anointed, our Liberating King." (Ephesians 4, The Voice)

Anne Lamott recounts this story: "I think often of the weeks after the end of WWII, in the refugee camps for orphans and dislocated kids. Of course the children couldn't sleep! But the grown-ups discovered that after you fed them, if you gave them each a piece of bread just to hold, they would drift off, it was holding bread. There was more to eat if they were still hungry. This was bread to hold, to remind them and connect them to the great truth - that morning would come, that there were grown-ups who cared and were watching over them, that there would be more food when they awoke. ... We are each other's holding bread."

Let our words and our witness be bread for a hungry world.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

learning to say THANK YOU

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September is here and school is about to start for another year. This term I will be working as both a teaching assistant and a research assistant in addition to finishing (fingers crossed) my doctoral dissertation (except for final rewrites). Some people have remarked that going from teaching a course at the university to being a teaching assistant seems like a step backwards. I don't see it that way. Every chance to be in the classroom is an opportunity to participate in another learning experience, a privilege I do not take for granted. Being a TA is a gift, actually: the professor does all the heavy lifting and takes ultimate responsibility for what happens in the course while I get to enjoy theological discussions and reading materials, grade (mostly) interesting assignments, answer questions from students, and exchange theological jokes with my fellow TA during class. No down side!

Seriously, though, I have found that being a student and a life-long learner means swallowing ones pride and sense of entitlement. When I spent a year in the Theatre Department, all of the students were very talented and bright, all were more educated and experienced in theatre than I was, and they all knew each other. Also, due to a bad experience with another doctoral student, one of my professors was unsure about me and how I would fit into her class. Yep, I was a bit nervous that first day, but, as you quickly learn in the theatrical context, you have to jump in and participate or you won't get anything out of it, so I did. I loved my theatre classes and found them to be places of mutual support and encouragement.

This summer I attended a session at a conference hosted by the Association of Theatre in Higher Education. There were no lectures in this particular session: all the chairs were pushed aside and we moved around the room in various directed exercises: individually, in pairs, and as a group. We got some things right and we got some things wrong, but we learned as we went. At the end, the facilitators, who mostly work in corporate and education settings, remarked on how willing and responsive everyone was and how we all "got" the exercises quickly. even the challenge of working together as one unit.

One of the things that was said in that workshop was that we need to learn to fail joyfully and with gratitude. We did an exercise where one person offered a gesture to the other. Instead of acting on it, the second person would simply take a moment to observe it, then return the first person to neutral position. The one who offered the gesture was directed to say, "Thank you," to the other for considering their offer even though they did not take action on it. In actual practice, both the givers and the spectators in several groups (including mine) ended up saying, "Thank you," to each other because we forgot who was meant to be thanking whom. Gratitude was everywhere! It was good practice to get used to offering something without assuming it would be acted upon, and to be not only okay with that, but grateful for the opportunity. It also reminded me that it is important to take the time to look and listen to someones offer/idea, giving them the dignity of being heard and seen, even if their idea may ultimately be rejected. The repeated utterances of "Thank you" around the room showed us how quickly an atmosphere of joy and camaraderie can be created by gratitude.

Another thing I learned, especially in my Playwriting class, is that the creative process is going to be longer than we think it should be, so we need to practice patience and diligence. Rewrites and edits and more rewrites are necessary if the characters and the work are to have real depth. and that doesn't happen overnight. Writers need to hear others speak their words in order to know if they ring true. When I saw my characters interact in the flesh, I was immediately able to pinpoint where my story was false, where it was overly simplistic or too complex, where it did not progress naturally, and where it was awkward and unrealistic. Don't get discouraged by the rewrites, our professor told us; trust the process to do its work. And to that I would add, enjoy the creative journey, rejoice in the failures and the roadblocks and the victories, because all of them are part of bringing something new to life.

For the past five months or so, I have sat in my office and pecked away at a keyboard, writing word after word and chapter after chapter of my doctoral dissertation. I try to find joy in the task everyday (some days it takes me longer to get to joy, I must admit), I try to be grateful every day for the unique opportunity given to me to study theology and theatre, and I try to be patient with the process, trusting that the thoughts and the ideas and the words will come. I try never to be discouraged for long, but to keep going back to the work, even if it means deleting most of the words I wrote yesterday. What I am discovering is that both theology and theatre put us in situations where we are expected to take huge risks and to be okay with making mistakes. Instead of being discouraged by our failures and shortcomings, we are to learn from them, to find joy hidden within them, and then get right back in there and try again.

Let today be another day when I jump in and risk, when I get better at navigating the tricky waters of progress and growth, and when all the ups and downs of work and life and love lead me to say, "Thank you."

Monday, August 24, 2015

contentment...what's that?

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I see a nice house on the beach and I think: I wish I had one of those. I see someone eating a cookie and I think: I want a bite of that. I read about someone publishing a book and I think: I wish I had a book on These kind of thoughts are normal, right? Nothing wrong with them. Or is there? Yesterday in our faith community, I talked about coveting and stealing (numbers 8 and 10 in the Decalogue, if you are keeping track). First, a few clarifications.

Jealousy, though usually used in a negative sense in our society, is actually a good thing in its pure form. When prohibiting idolatry at the beginning of Exodus 20, God calls himself a jealous God (YHWH Qanna). Jealousy is vigilance in maintaining or guarding something which is rightfully yours. It is protecting that which is precious to you.

Envy is discontent and resentment in response to someones possessions, qualities, privileged situation in life, or good fortune. Envy, it is obvious, is not a happy state of mind. Coveting is closely related to envy; it is desiring something which is not yours and you have no right to. Hence, in Exodus 20, all the prohibited objects of covetous desire are those which rightfully belong to a neighbour.

These inward emotions/desires can lead to outward action: stealing. Stealing is taking something which belongs to someone else without permission or legal right. It can also be keeping for yourself that which you have promised to someone else (withholding fees, taxes, payment, labour, tithes, etc.)  

So why is coveting a problem? It directly opposes generosity; it seeks to grab instead of give. It also erodes our trust in God, sabotages a healthy community (a coveting person soon becomes an untrustworthy person if they are always looking longingly at their neighbour's stuff), and decreases our ability to give and receive freely from God and from each other. Coveting is basically idolatry because it turns us away from God as the supreme object of our desire. And its by-product, stealing, feeds the idea that taking advantage of others is okay. When we seek to gain something at the expense of others, we are hurting them. If you have ever had something stolen from you, you know the sense of violation which accompanies that crime. And when we take things without permission, thinking that others won't miss it, or they have plenty, we are acting as moral judge and jury which we have no right to do.

Perhaps the most costly thing about coveting is that it puts us in a constant state of discontent. We believe that we never have enough, and that we are always in a state of lack. It reveals that we do not really believe that we have a good and generous God who loves us and is our provider. "There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these." (1 Timothy 6).

The Decalogue, given to a nation who had just come out of living in poverty as slaves, was meant to lead the Israelites into a life characterized by freedom and flourishing. Because they had been wronged and stolen from, they had to learn to be grateful and generous, despite years of being taken advantage of. They had to learn how to break the cycle of "never enough" and step into God's realm of "more than enough."

The two attitudes are on display in this modern parable:

A young lady was waiting for her flight in a boarding room of a big airport. As she should need to wait many hours, she decided to buy a book to spend her time. She also bought a pack of cookies. She sat down in an armchair, in the VIP room of the airport, to rest and read in peace. Beside the armchair where the packet of cookies lay, a man sat down in the next seat, opened his magazine and started reading. When she took out the first cookie, the man took one also. She felt irritated but said nothing. She just thought, "What the nerve! If I was in the mood, I would punch him for daring!"

For each cookie she took, the man took one too. This was infuriating her but she didn't want to cause a scene. When only one cookie remained, she thought: "Ah... what is this abusive man doing now?" Then, the man taking the last cookie, divided it into half, giving her one half. "Ah! That's too much!" she thought. She was much too angry now! In a huff, she took her book, her things and stormed to the boarding place. When she sat down in her seat inside the plane, she looked into her purse to take out her eyeglasses, and to her surprise, her packet of cookies was there, untouched... unopened.

She felt so ashamed! She realized that she was wrong... she had forgotten that her cookies were in her purse. The man had divided his cookies with her, without feeling angered or bitter, while she had been very angry, thinking that she was dividing her cookies with him.

In the end, these things in life are not really ours anyway, and the sooner we realise this, the less attached to them we will become. Coveting and stealing keep us from living in contentment and gratitude. Let us be free to give, free to receive, free to live with much or with little, able to flourish in good times and in not so good times, because God is the source of our life, our joy, our contentment. He is more than enough.

"Have you ever come on anything quite like this extravagant generosity of God, this deep, deep wisdom? It’s way over our heads. We’ll never figure it out. ...
Everything comes from him;
Everything happens through him;
Everything ends up in him.
Always glory! Always praise!
Yes. Yes. Yes."  (Romans 11, The Message)

Friday, August 14, 2015

Job, suffering, and a cat

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William Blake's illustration of Job 40:15
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These days I am spending a lot of time in the book of Job. It is not as depressing as it sounds. There is a compelling story, a cast of interesting characters, a lot of impassioned and honest dialogue, some amazing poetry on the subject of creation, and a good number of philosophical and theological questions to ponder. Readers of Job looking for solutions to the problem of suffering or seeking to justify God's goodness in the face of unexplained tragedy are inevitably disappointed. This is not a book of answers; it is a drama. And it is a good one. I don't know about you, but if I were to read a book or watch a movie about someone whose life was easy and everything worked out well, time after time, I would toss that boring book in the corner after the first chapter or two, and I would walk out of that trite, simplistic movie. Because life is hard, we know it is, and a story with nothing but innocence and goodness is a fantasy that we can't relate to and don't really want.

One of the articles I read in my research is "The Glory of His Discontent" by Don Hudson. Hudson believes that the perfection in the Garden of Eden was characterised by a naive innocence and as such, was always meant to be the beginning of the story but not the forever state of humanity. Just like we do not long to go back to the time when we were a newborn baby (at least I never have), we should not be trying to get back to the way things were in the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve enjoyed communion with God, yes, but they also had an ignorance of God's world, a world where chaos had to be ordered and snakes practiced deception. Hudson writes: "One of the most intriguing ironies of the fall is that we now know as God knows because we know sin and suffering. The serpent understood all too well that the fall would bring tragedy and death. But inherent within evil is one fatal blind spot: evil does not see that tragedy compels beauty and evokes repair."

Hudson goes on to say that God is a suffering God, that even after two thousand years, God is not "over" the suffering and death of Jesus because it is always with him, throughout eternity. This is what we celebrate in the Eucharist; a past event as well as an ongoing sacrifice which is effective today and tomorrow and always. The point of the story of Job, and indeed of the whole canon of scripture, is not to avoid suffering and pain and death, but to share in the sufferings of Jesus, of God, and thereby, to see the world as God sees it: beautiful, ready for redemption, on the edge of glory.

It seems fitting that today, while I am finishing up my chapter on Job, I receive news that my long-time feline companion, Jazz, has cancer. The vet expressed her condolences as she conveyed the bad news to me, and I told her, "No, no, it's fine, don't feel bad. Jazz is 17 years old and has had a great life. And she's having a great day today because she doesn't have to wear the cone anymore. Thank you for calling." I hung up the phone and smiled at Jazz, sleeping beside me. What a beautiful creature she is.

My tragedy is small compared to Job's, but I join him in saying, "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." Tragedy compels us in ways which "doing well" never does. Tragedy amplifies what is already at the core of our being. In Job's case, his unshakable loyalty to God came to the forefront, as did his desire for justice. Job's so-called friends relied on their tidy belief that tragedy is the reflection of a divine being who operates within a retributive, cause and effect system. YHWH, in his reply to Job, did not feel it necessary to explain suffering at all. Instead, he directed Job's attention to the glories of creation. As Brueggemann so succinctly says about this change of subject in the latter part of Job: "Theodicy is overridden by doxology." The need for explanation or justification fades away when we are confronted with the glory of God. So my prayer in the next few days, weeks, months, is that I see the glory of God on display in my household through a small cat, my own version of the untameable Leviathan, if you may. "On earth it has no equal, a creature without fear. It surveys everything that is lofty; it is [queen] over all that are proud." (Job 41:33-34).

People sometimes speculate on the questions they will ask God when they get to heaven. I think the hypothetical exercise is pretty much pointless. If, in the presence of the Almighty God in all his glory, I am focused on my petty concerns about why this happened and why not that, then I am to be pitied. Jesus invites us to share in his sufferings, to give up our lives for each other, to carry our cross, and to see the glory of God revealed in the darkest, painful places. This is the invitation, to courageously pray with Jesus, "Not my will, but yours be done." This is the glory of God shining in our lives: not that we avoid suffering, but that suffering loses its sting, that it cannot have its way with us, that it becomes but a single thread in the beautiful tapestry of God's goodness being woven in this world.

"Acknowledging the suffering of this world places us every day in the image of our Creator - we can create beauty out of nothing or we can repeat suffering in an endless cycle of destruction. Confronting suffering in our world becomes the fulcrum between ultimate tragedy or redemption. ... Ultimate tragedy is the evil one's story; redeemed tragedy is God's." - Don Hudson.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Adultery, dogs, and desire

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The seventh matter in the Decalogue is this: "Do not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14). The word used here is specific to a sexual relationship between a married person and someone who is not their spouse. In other words, it speaks to fidelity. Jesus had this to say: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matthew 5:27-28). Jesus indicates that before a sexual act of infidelity ever happens, something has already taken place in the heart and in the mind.

Let's talk about dogs for a bit. How do you walk a dog? Well, I checked around and here is some advice from dog trainers:
1. Remember you are leading, not the dog.
2. Be aware of your focus, your body language, what you are communicating to your dog.
3. Keep the leash short but not tight. Make it easy to communicate with your dog. Don't let her go wherever she wants.
4. Get your dog around calm, disciplined dogs.
5. Practice, practice, practice!

Now let me change just a few words and make it about controlling our desires. I believe the same principles apply.
1. Remember you are leading, not the desire.
2. Be aware of your focus, your body language, what you are communicating to your desire.
3. Keep the leash short but not tight. Make it easy to control your desire. Don't let it run off and go wherever it wants.
4. Hang out with calm, disciplined people who control their desires.
5. Practice, practice, practice!

One of the other  principles in dog training is that you can't teach a negative. People often want a trainer to teach their dog not to bark, but Justin, a professional, says that you cannot teach what not to do, you can only teach what to do! In many cases, a barking dog is a dog looking for a job, for something to do. If you give the animal a clear directive, they can, in most cases, easily be trained.

The ten commandments, for the most part, are negatives. They are giving us warnings, telling us that for our own well-being, we should stay away from these destructive behaviours. Negatives are good in that they only forbid one small thing (don't touch the hot stove) but leave you with a lot of other options (pretty much the rest of the house!). The problem with negatives is that they don't tell you what to do, only what to avoid, so they can keep you focused on the negative. I believe that negatives are always meant to go together with positives, that prohibitions should be paired with directives. That way we know where to put our energies. (Read the creation story sometime with this in mind, looking for the positive, broad options which go along with the warning not to eat of one particular tree.)

For instance, if I tell you not to look at the floor, you can do that, but you will probably be so focused on not doing something that you might actually be more prone to do it. This is because it takes up so much of your head space. However, if I tell you not to look at the floor but to be attentive to the person who is talking to you, you will have a much easier time avoiding looking down, because you know where to focus your energy and attention. Likewise, when we see a prohibition in the scriptures, we should always search out the positive directive in order not only to heed the warning, but to know where our energies should be directed. In the case of the ten commandments, we have to read a bit more of the story to find the positive directive. What we find is that God is a covenant God, a God who values faithful relationships and proves himself faithful again and again, even when the other party is unfaithful. So this prohibition against adultery is telling us that since we have a covenant God, he wants us to be covenant people as well. Adultery is letting desire or lust run away with us. It is a lack of self-control and discipline. It happens when we lose sight of our covenant God and our covenant to another person.

Desires like hunger, thirst, sex, and success are good desires given to us by God. Desires done right have great potency for goodness; but desires out of control end up sabotaging our lives, the lives of others, and the well-being of our communities. To use a car analogy, desires are powerful engines. They need skilled, knowledgeable, and responsible drivers. And we develop these skills by practicing restraint, demonstrating consistency, being knowledgeable and safe, and showing perseverance, In other words, we practice. We practice love and intimacy in the contexts of marriage, loving friendships, family, and community, learning to serve and give, not just feeding our own desires. We practice responding to our physical hunger and thirst by giving our bodies what they need to be strong and healthy, not just feeding our cravings. We channel our drive for success into reaching our full potential, but never at the cost of anothers well-being, and never to feed our own ego.

Self-control is the result of being filled with and walking in the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, it is a fruit of the Spirit which grows in us because we are rooted in relationship with our covenant God. As a result, our motivations, our identities, our senses of satisfaction are not found in feeding our desires, but in communion with God. When we submit our desires to God, we are asking God to rightly direct them, giving them a job to do which is constructive and not destructive. Right before he died, Jesus prayed, "Not my will, but yours be done" (Luke 22). Jesus did not desire to endure horrible humiliation and suffering and die a painful death. Nevertheless, he submitted his desire to God and offered himself as a sacrifice for many.

That's what love does. That's what faithfulness looks like. Because we have a covenant God, let us be covenant people, people who point our desires, like skilled archers, in the direction of lovingkindness, justice, and mercy.

Teaching children and children teaching

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One of the biggest challenges in our faith community is making space for and involving our kids in spiritual formation in a meaningful and appropriate way. A lot of our activities are geared toward adults and assume a pretty advanced ability to grasp abstract ideas. Since we don't yet have the resources to offer Children's Church every week, we decided to try an experiment for a few months: every fifth Sunday we have an Inverted Meeting. The basic idea is this: the whole gathering is accessible for children and there are a few tidbits thrown in for the adults (what usually happens is the reverse, hence the name, Inverted Sunday). As well, there are also plenty of opportunities for the adults to join in and help out. Re-thinking our Sunday morning gathering this way has been and still is a bit of a learning curve, I have to admit, but we are all discovering how to be together in a more equitable way. I believe we are also becoming a better community through it.

Just over a week ago we had our second Inverted Meeting. These meetings usually involve five elements: worship (giving gifts to God), prayer (talking with God about things that are on our hearts), a Bible story (learning about God), an activity (practicing what we learned), and communion (remembering what Jesus did for us). On this particular Sunday, I was assigned the Bible story, and since I am presently doing a series on the Decalogue, the scheduled topic for that day was. "Do not murder." I was tempted to abandon the topic and pick another story, but the Children's Church coordinator told me to stick with it. Okay, then. How do you talk with 2 - 7 years-olds about the prohibition against murder?

I decided that we had to start with life, so I told a truncated version of the story of Creation, how the Eternal God scooped dirt out of the ground, shaped it into a human being, and breathed life into it, making it a living soul. This breath is what makes us alive. I blew up a balloon to illustrate the difference between being lifeless and limp and being full of life, bouncy and buoyant. I told everyone that this breath is precious and we must protect it. Then I told the story of Cain and Abel, two brothers with different jobs who made two different sacrifices (one that is not pleasing to God and one that is pleasing to God). I talked about how angry Cain was when God did not like his sacrifice, but did accept Abel's sacrifice. Cain became so jealous of Abel that he led his brother into a field and killed him.

I had two volunteers acting out the parts of Cain and Abel, and both were holding inflated balloons to represent their aliveness. I said that when Cain killed his brother, he destroyed the breath of God in Abel, something very valuable and precious. Everyone knew what was coming, but I made sure to give a warning about the loud noise we would hear when Cain destroyed Abel's balloon. "Cover your ears!" I said.  I gave a countdown. I did every thing I could to prepare the kids (and the adults) for the impending destruction. And then Cain crushed Abel's balloon with a loud bang, and Abel fell to the ground. One of the young children (a visitor named N) reacted quite strongly, disturbed and upset by the whole thing. He was in the front row, so we all noticed. I stopped and apologised. Others explained that the person wasn't really dead, it was pretend. The child's parents comforted the young boy, but he would not be easily consoled. The young boy said he wanted to go, so his dad took him in his arms and they walked away from the scene.

I stood there and wondered, "What have I done?" I have traumatized a young child, that's what I have done. I looked toward the back of the room, where the young boy was pressed against his father's chest, and felt stabbed through the heart. This sweet, innocent child, so sensitive. And I began to tear up. Something about his reaction was so honest, so real, so pure. I stammered out words to this effect: "May we all be like this child. May violence and the destruction of another human being affect all of us this way. May we not be desensitized to the taking of human life." I saw a few people wiping their eyes. I composed myself and continued on with the Cain and Abel story: God punished Cain because he was dangerous, but did not take Cain's precious breath of life away, too. Instead, God protected Cain from others who might want to kill him out of revenge.

In Exodus 20 we have the commands Yahweh gave to the people of Israel. One of them is this: Do not murder. The Hebrew word retzach (kill or murder) has a broader meaning which includes being generally destructive and breaking things. In relation to this command, Jesus said: "Anyone who is angry with his brother will be judged for his anger. Anyone who taunts his friend, speaks contemptuously toward him, or calls him, 'Loser' or 'Fool' or 'Scum' will have to answer to the judge." (adapted from Matthew 5, The Voice). So, if we not supposed to break, dash to pieces, or destroy other people with our actions and our words, how are we supposed to act? Jesus tells us what to do: "My commandment to you is this: love others as I have loved you. There is no greater way to love than to give your life for your friends." The best way to show someone that you love them is not only to protect their breath of life, but to give them something really important. And the most important thing we have is our life, the breath of God. This is what Jesus did for all of us. He gave his life, he let himself be killed, so that we could keep breathing the breath of God. He did the opposite of what Cain did.

We followed the story with an activity where we moved into a large circle and were each given a piece of paper with a chocolate taped to it. We were instructed to write encouraging words or draw encouraging pictures. We then gave these gifts to the person next to us. I received a piece of paper from a parent/child team: a young girl named L had drawn a colourful, lopsided heart and the parent had written the sentence, "You are a blessing." That crooked heart, oh my (makes me touch my heart and sigh every time I think of it). Then we ate the body and blood of Jesus in family clusters, remembering his precious, loving gift, and prayed blessings on each other. Afterwards, N invited me to toss his balloon and chase him around his mother's legs. Which I did, of course.

It was a Sunday when the children taught us as much as we taught the children.
And a little child will lead them all. (Isaiah 11:6)

(This post also appears on the Vineyard Thoughworks blog here.)