Monday, August 24, 2015

contentment...what's that?

Image result for cookies
Image from vegan-kitchen.co.uk
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 amazon.ca. 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

Blake Job 15.jpg
William Blake's illustration of Job 40:15
Image from wikipedia.org
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

Image from dogwalkerstarterkit.com
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

Image from developer.mozilla.org
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.)

Monday, July 27, 2015

Prayer Tasting

Home made blueberry pie
Last night we invited author, David Brazzeal, to lead 15 of us in what he calls a Prayer Tasting. The idea is that we eat a 3-course meal together and between courses, he talks about prayer and guides us through numerous prayer exercises. David likes to draw an analogy between enjoying a delicious meal and conversing with God: neither should be boring or rushed or just a rehash of the same old flavours day in and day out. He suggests that there are a cornucopia of ways to pray and together, we explored a few of them.

Appetizer: Strawberry spinach salad with almonds, Emmental cheese, and homemade dressing.
After the salad disappeared into our bellies, we were treated to the reading of a psalm to some instrumental music. The combination of dramatic inflections together with haunting, beautiful, dynamic music meant that the words snuck past my left brain (the thinking and analysing side) and let the heart and emotion of the psalmist touch me at a deep level. I felt like I was outside someones bedroom listening to them cry out to God. The words came alive in the speaking. But that was just the opener. The first exercise we participated in fell under the category of Praise. We were instructed to call out phrases that began with "God, you are..." (or "Jesus you are..." or "Spirit you are..." or "Lord you are..." You get the idea.), filling in the blank with adjectives or nouns. A simple exercise, really, but a great way to praise God together without the (sometimes) crutch of music and familiar songs. It seemed apparent that all the words and phrases people spoke were born out of personal experience or longing. The second exercise was Thanksgiving. We were given pieces of paper which resembled a slice of pie. David encouraged us to think of a slice of time in our life, whether it was school or a place we lived or a particular job or a time in the hospital, or whatever. It could be a good or a bad memory. It could even be a particular person that was related to a particular slice of our life. We took a few minutes to write down many things that we were thankful for in that slice of life. After the obvious ones were out of the way, surprising things came to mind, hidden things, things I had forgotten or overlooked. This exercise made me smile often and sigh with contentment a few times. God is good. Slices are good.

Main course: Grilled chicken drumsticks and breasts with Montreal spices, fresh peaches and cream corn on the cob with unsalted butter.
We licked our fingers and our lips after consuming the chicken and corn, and then it was time for two more prayer exercises. The first was Confession. David used the analogy of a selfie, a snapshot of who we are right now, right here. No time to dress up or make sure everything is perfect; this is a picture of ourselves, as is: the good, the bad, and the ugly. We were given papers to write our confession beginning each phrase with "I am...." It could include positive as well as negative aspects (I am being more patient lately, or I am angry at &*&$^ right now). It was an exercise in honesty and humility, being as real as we could before God at that moment. At the end, we were encouraged to offer these confessions up to God who sees us as we are and loves us and wants to walk through life with us. The second exercise was a Blessing exercise. David talked about blessing being like taking a mirror and reflecting the bright light and glory of God onto someone. We took coloured papers and coloured markers and were instructed to practice blessing a person by writing, drawing, doodling, constructing a Scrabble word formation, or anything else we might think of. I wrote Dean's name in big fat letters and filled them in with designs which each related to words of blessing. One of my sentences went roughly like this, "May you always be solid and steady, safe in turmoil and unbattered in storm and conflict." Dean drew me on a beautiful beach under a palm tree at sunset with some of my favourite words written at the bottom: Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (to the greater glory of God). It was touching to receive it from him.

Dessert: Home made blueberry pie warm from the oven and vanilla ice cream, sugar pie.
Now that we were full of sugar and cream and fruit, David closed off the prayer tasting by noting that we had yet not participated in any asking or petition or intercession. And yet, if I may speak on behalf of everyone there, I did not feel any lack or a pressing need to bring a list of requests to God. Too often prayer is only made up of asking, and that is a bland diet indeed, not to mention quite an unhealthy, self-focused relationship. David gave us some homework to try out a few different creative methods of asking prayer (for ourselves and for others), be it simply a body posture, words scribbled on a scrap of paper while riding the subway, pictures or doodles drawn over a period of time, or charts to keep track of ongoing requests or special needs. David mentioned that sometimes he takes pictures of his visual prayers and sends them to the person he is praying for (if that is appropriate). None of these prayer exercises have to take up hours of time (most of them took about 5 minutes), but depending on the time available, one can enjoy a simple 3-course prayer meal or take the time for an extended gourmet feast. Creative prayer exercises like this are not only enjoyable, but end up engaging us more fully and perhaps deeply than mere word prayers. They also require that we make ourselves present in body, mind, and spirit when we turn our attention to God.

Digestif: Wine, sparkling water, juice, and home made vanilla soda. 
After David finished his closing talk, we thanked him, and I suggested that we practice one of the blessing exercises he had mentioned, a Brazilian custom in which people bless someone going on a journey. In essence, the person doing the blessing grabs the one to be blessed by the shoulders and gently shakes them as they pronounce a blessing over them. So we did. Some spoke blessings over David from their seats while others got up close and personal with him, speaking shoulder-shaking blessings. I opted for the uncomfortable shoulder-shaking and was a bit overwhelmed by the intimacy and power of the interaction. Someone mentioned that we should add that particular form of prayer into our repertoire as a faith community. I agree. We make it a practice to bless everyone who goes forth from our church group, and this seems like a fitting addition.

This was a prayer tasting, meant to whet our appetites for more creative and life-giving interaction with God, be it in our individual prayer contexts or as a group. There are many more prayer categories in David's book (11 in all) and different settings in which to incorporate them. The evening inspired me to be more creative and intentional in my praying, making it one of the most enjoyable parts of my day instead of a mundane chore.

For more info, check out David's website. You can buy his book on amazon.ca.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

how to get more followers on Twitter (and other things I don't care about)

When this happens, I have to choose which grammatical sin I'll have to make in order to send a tweet.

Social media is very good at letting you know how much traction or clout you have, whether that is measured in likes, comments, retweets, numbers reached, followers, or shares. I like connecting with people via Facebook, I like writing this blog (most of the time) as a way of honing my communication skills while putting some ideas out there on subjects I am thinking about. I occasionally post on Twitter (my least favourite platform) and I love to post pictures on Instagram chronicling the interesting views I come across in life. At times, I do check how many readers on a particular blog, how many followers I have, and how many likes or favourites a post got. But it is a bit like seeing your salary in comparison to every one elses. Whereas before you might have been absolutely fine with how much you earned, when you see the numbers, discontentment is not far behind. Numbers go up and down, some things get no response at all while other posts generate a lot (comparatively speaking) of traffic. You begin to notice other writers/tweeters who have thousands of loyal fans because they are so accomplished at getting consistent and high quality content to their followers. But when you look at your own efforts, you feel like the last person picked for a team. Comparison does that. Counting social media influence does that, too.

To be honest, I am not trying to build a large Twitter following. I have little use for the 140-character limit which all too often means that people misspell words and use clever abbreviations to pack a lot into that tiny space. I would rather take the time to write a well-crafted sentence, with actual words, and explain myself fully in another format. I would also rather have a face to face encounter with one or two people than tweet something to hundreds of people that I don't know. Large numbers of followers and readers, in my experience, do not result in meaningful dialogues, deeper friendships, or make me a better person. Throughout history, fame and influence are too often paired with bad life choices, increased isolation from reality, and a downturn in humility and compassion. Therefore, if I have to choose between having a drink with a friend or posting a blog, I will go downtown to see my friend. Face to face is not always possible, I understand, but there are certain values present in personal encounter that I try to take with me into the social media milieu.

1. Encounter. One meaningful conversation, one face-to-face encounter is worth more than a thousand followers. Social media can be helpful to stay in touch with faraway friends, to become reacquainted with long-ago friends, or to make new friends over common interests. I love getting to know people who think like me and people who challenge me, people who need my help and who offer to help me, people who share common interests with me, be it movies or cats or travel or education or theological discourse or gluten free cinnamon rolls. I have a small circle of friends on Facebook for this reason: they are people who are in my life not as spectators but as participants (at least in theory). Most of them are people with whom I have had significant conversations. Others I just want to make sure I don't lose touch with because we don't see each other much. My online friends are ones whose comments feel like conversations over Chai latte instead of grandstanding or soapboxing or marketing. I recently had a chance to have an extended conversation with someone whom I had, up to that point, mostly interacted with through exchanging short, clever remarks on Facebook. I already liked them, but now I have a much deeper appreciation for who they are and what they do. Let social media lead me to more face to face encounters like that.

2. Reality. It is hard to engage in meaningful discourse through social media. Remote dialogue never feels natural to me, not even on a video call. I am getting more comfortable with it, but when meetings are not in person, we can only show a very select part of ourselves. I would venture to say that most people who have only read my words online and have never met me, think I am a lot more eloquent and knowledgeable and quick on my feet than I really am. In person, people get more of my context, my life, my struggles, my mistakes, my doubtings, and my idiosyncrasies. In person, they can tell when I am joking (most of the time), when I am overcome with emotion, when I am grouchy and tired, and when I think it is necessary to dance in public. I try to reflect reality in my social media postings. Since these are public forums, I am also very careful about how much I expose my family and friends, my work, my church, my home, etc. But in the mix of all that, I try to be real. I post pictures which are not the most flattering. I talk about my bad days. I talk about failing. I talk about the process of learning. I try to paint a picture of a life journey that people can relate to, not one which they fantasize about.

3. Vocation. The reason I say I don't really care about getting more followers or online friends or readers is because a larger sphere of influence has nothing to do with my vocation, my calling in life. Bigger is not better. If it was, our small faith community should be pitied instead of celebrated for the unique, variegated, encounter-oriented, transformational group that it is. I don't want a bigger platform; I want the platform that God calls me to. I do not need more social media influence; I need to be faithful to the people God has placed in my life. If I don't have a good idea of what my vocation is, I can get lost in the social media swirl, always trying to get more traction, more likes, hoping to see my ratings go up and up and up. But I know what God has called me to and it has more to do with embracing the overlooked than having lots of views. It has more to do with simplicity and humility than boosting my posts and knowing what's trending. It is not cheap and quick and remote. It is the costly work of being there for people in real life, looking people in the eye over and over again, and not walking away when things get rough. It is about cultivating contentment, peace, compassion, truth, and love. And in my experience, you can't do any of that really well on social media.

Don't get me wrong, online platforms have led to a lot of good things in my life, and at the top of that list are the times I have met someone in person who, up to that point, has only been a face or a name on the screen. In fact, next week I will be having tea with someone visiting Montreal who was introduced to me via email and subsequently became my Facebook friend. Exciting! The other "top of the list" moments are when I am reunited in person with someone after a prolonged absence, during which we have only had sporadic online communication. These coming-togethers are always so sweet. And sometimes unexpected, too. In those moments I thank God for the social media tools which can help us craft good and meaningful relationships.

May all our social media exploits be expressions of our God-given vocations, reflecting truth, love, joy, and encouragement. Above, all, may they lead us to many face to face encounters.

Monday, July 13, 2015

what happens at a conference

Part of the crowd at Vineyard Columbus
Last week I attended the Vineyard Church USA national conference in Columbus, Ohio. Around 60 nations were represented and over 4000 people were present. I won't try to give you a rundown of the week or the speakers or their talks. Check out the video archives of the main sessions if you want to get a glimpse (only available for a limited time, I am told). The highlights for many of us were Thursday morning's talk by Dr. Charles A. Montgomery on breaking down barriers (it starts at 1:35) and the worship led by David Ruis and Noel Isaacs from Nepal on Thursday evening (a particularly poignant lament song starts at 1:03).

The stuff that happened on the platform, in many ways, was just a small part of the experience. God doesn't need a microphone to speak nor does he require a crowd in order to be present. Our loving God is with us in so many ways if we have ears to hear and eyes to see. I came to the conference believing that I had something to offer; whether it was a kind word, a smile, a word of wisdom, money, or a prayer. The idea that I was there to give more than I was there to receive meant that I had no expectations, really. I did not need anything supernatural and significant to happen, I did not need to meet any of the big name speakers, I did not need to get prayer for any troubling situation, I did not need to sit with all my friends, I did not need to see the sights of Columbus or stay up late or go to bed early. I was there to encourage, to help, and to say yes to others. I was there to be truly present to God and to others and felt no pressure to have the most awesome experience ever.

I brought gifts for our hosts, I distributed cards signed by our faith community, I stroked the dog, two cats, and numerous horses at the place we were staying. I greeted complete strangers throughout the week, I asked volunteers how they were doing, I said thank you over and over and over again, I directed people who were lost, I saved seats for people who were late, I told people they were beautiful, and I prayed for people. One of the most touching moments for me was when I discovered that a friend from Chicago (whom I had only met once when she visited Montreal a few years ago) was sitting two rows behind me. We found each other in the middle of the worship time and wept as we embraced tightly, our hearts overwhelmed by the spirit of Jesus so present and so precious in the other. 

On Wednesday, I was asked to give a 2 minute talk at a Society of Vineyard Scholars meeting on Thursday morning and of course I said yes. At that same meeting, I listened to people around a table sharing their most important theological questions. One confessed that there was virtually no theological discussion happening in his church. Another said he wanted to know how to engage with Orthodox Christians. A woman thought it was important to make room for the voices of children. It was an honour to hear what was on their hearts; seeing total strangers open up to each other in that setting humbled me. I had several people ask me about theological education and I tried to offer them encouragement and a possible way forward. The topic of same-sex attraction came up and I tried to listen well because everyone has a personal story. I also tried to keep the discussion from getting polarised around a few issues, but sought to bring it back to Jesus, back to God's story, back to our call to surrender all our desires to God, back to walking together in humility. I spoke to people who were discouraged and I listened, I prayed, I shared their burden in a small way, and I offered what little wisdom I had.

I received much as well: some people bought me chai tea and ice cream, other people provided yummy food and drink. People prayed for me, people spoke many encouraging words to me, a teenager gave up her bed for me, and people invited me to hang out with them. I ended up in unexpected and pleasant situations like backstage talking to musicians, in a horse barn watching a young girl practice her riding, on a patio late at night listening to Noel tell me about the situation in Nepal, and in the airport hearing a stranger's experience in Jerusalem. 

My goal in going was to give something of myself and to share the riches with which I have been blessed. Conferences like this can be a bit of a challenge to introverts like me, but most of the time I felt like I was floating on grace, able to joyously embrace each person I encountered and accept each situation which came my way. Giving is a richness in itself, it seems, because I never felt depleted or exhausted. Whether we are the ones who give or the ones who receive (or both), the goodness of God never runs out.

Monday, June 29, 2015

word(s) of the day

Image result for fridge poetry
Image from thefw.com
I was reading a book a few weeks ago which said that according to a poll in the USA, the words people most want to hear are the following (in order of importance): 1. I love you. 2. I forgive you. 3. Supper's ready.

The first one is no surprise. We all want to know we are loved, and we all doubt it. We all feel unloved or unlovable at times, probably because we most intimately know our own internal ugliness and essential unworthiness. We are all too aware of our lack of love, our lack of kindness, our lack of faithfulness, and our selfishness. If we are honest, the words, "I love you," can be unlikely. In spite of all our shortcomings, and perhaps because of them, we long to be unconditionally loved, to have kindness gifted to us, to have someone be a faithful lover and friend, and to be the recipient of unselfish acts, especially if we find it difficult to reciprocate. These words not only feed our basic human desire to belong, but give us hope that we will be able to say these meaningful words to another.

I was a bit surprised by the second phrase, "I forgive you." I would have thought, "I'm sorry," would be right up there, perhaps because I am more prone to seeing another's wrong than I am to seeing my own wrongdoing. However, we are always on both sides of that equation: we wrong others and we are wronged by others. We need to ask for forgiveness as much as we need to forgive; they are two sides of the same equation. Someone's apology is rather useless if I am not willing to forgive them. And my attempt at reconciliation is of little consequence if the other party does not wish to make things right between us.

To me, the last phrase, "Supper's ready," is the most interesting, perhaps because it seems to be a culmination of so many basic human desires and needs. These two simple words invoke a sense of family and belonging, an image of a table set with steaming corn on the cob, fresh garden peas, and a golden brown turkey (you know what I'm craving right now...). These words invite one to a gathering together at the end of a work day to eat, drink, and converse; in them we have the idea of food lovingly prepared by skilled hands and the deep ache of hunger for sustenance as well as for good company. The words call me away from whatever I am doing and wherever I might be to join with others for a feast. The words imply that all the preparations have already been done and all that is left for me to do is show up and partake. The words make me want to say, "I'm coming," and, "Thank you."  They make me want to spring to my feet and make a dash for the dining room. They put a smile on my face.

If I were to ask myself what words I most want to hear, the answers would probably change day by day. Today I would want words of inspiration and revelation because I am at a difficult spot in my writing. I would want words of reassurance that I am on the right track. I would welcome words of encouragement that speak to the most vulnerable, insecure parts of my soul. I would delight in a clever, well-told joke and heave a sigh of pleasure if someone invited me for a long walk, telling me my work was done for the day. "Good job!" would be really great words to hear, as would, "You are beautiful!" I could get used to someone saying, "I like hanging out with you," and, "Let me buy you a Chai latte." And I always like to hear an enthusiastic, "Yes," when I ask someone for help. Perhaps the most humbling sentences are ones that begin with, "You have taught me..." and the disarming phrase, "I want to be your friend." So many ways in which words can feed me, unburden me, give me a second wind, direct me, show me my error, transform me, invite me deeper into relationship, make me more present to beauty, and carry me a bit further into wholeness.

And these words, these beautiful words that I want to hear, they are also gifts I can give to those around me. Let me offer them to someone today.