Wednesday, January 21, 2015

beautiful money

Abstract Painting by Jolina Anthony, image from fineartamerica.com
I was in the subway a few weeks ago, waiting for the train to come. We have a lot of subway musicians in Montreal, people showcasing everything from rap music to classical opera to electric guitar solos to saxophone riffs. As is to be expected, some are better than others. This particular afternoon, as I stood and read my book while I waited for the train, I heard a ukulele being strummed and it made me stop reading. That in itself is quite something. Then I heard a sweet voice singing to the strumming, and I was compelled to turn around and look at the source.

She was young, with long blond hair and baggy clothes. Her right hand was rhythmically stroking the strings, her eyes were closed, her face was tilted slightly down and to one side, and she sang a song that pierced my soul. I don't remember the lyrics, but I remember feeling like someone was showing me their most vulnerable, yet strong side. I stood there, a bit in shock, wondering if anyone else was witnessing this incredible moment. Most people just went about their business. I wanted to let the young musician know that I appreciated what she was offering, so I made eye contact and gave her a big smile. She returned the gesture.

And then I had this deep conviction that I needed to give her money. I immediately felt awkward. My train might show up at any time and I would have to dig around in my wallet to see what change I had, walk over to the place where she was... You know, just silly excuses. But I knew it was important, so I opened my wallet, grabbed some change, and dropped it in her ukulele case. I wish I could have listened longer, but my train arrived and whisked me away.

This encounter got me thinking about money. Why was there such a contrast between the two actions? The music was so beautiful and my act of donating a few coins seemed so crass. I wanted what I did with my money to be as beautiful as the music I was hearing. It made me think that perhaps money is like crayons or brushes and paint, creative tools through which we express ourselves. And as with any art form, one needs to develop skill with money, exercise a certain amount of discipline with money, but also make room for spontaneity and freedom and creativity and above all, strive for beauty with money.

I was reminded of the story of the woman who poured expensive perfume on Jesus's head at a dinner party shortly before the Passover (see Mark 14). When she did so, the dinner guests thought it was wasteful. Why, the rare perfume could have been sold for almost a year's wages and the money given to the poor! Jesus defended her, indicating that her act was an extraordinary show of kindness and a symbolic preparation for his upcoming death. After this event, Judas, the disillusioned disciple, met with the chief priests and arranged to betray Jesus in exchange for a monetary reward.

I find four different attitudes to money in this story. First, the woman acted out of the notion that money should be used to make something beautiful, to perform an act of worship which in some small way reflected the extravagant love that Jesus had for her. In contrast, the dinner guests, solid upstanding citizens that they were, had a more practical approach to money. Money was a tool to do the most good for the most people. Efficiency mattered. Reputation mattered. Third, we have the chief priests who recognized that money could be used to "grease the rails," to make things go a little smoother, to make sure that the right side had the upper hand. Fourth, Judas the opportunist thought that money was a way to get ahead, to better his situation. That didn't turn out too well.

What I see here is the principle that money follows love. Jesus said that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also (Matthew 6). Wherever our love is, the money will follow. If we love our families, our money will be spent on them. If we love ourselves, the money is spent on things we want. If we love our enemies, we won't think twice about lending them money or helping them alleviate a need. If we love God, we use the crayons of money to create beautiful expressions of worship which reflect the kingdom of God. Like the poor widow who placed two small coins into the temple treasury, we give freely, selflessly, as an act of gratitude and worship to the God of heaven and earth. We are compelled by love. Our money follows love. It is the way of integrity.

But what if we are short on love? If love is lacking, money will find something else to follow, some other strong force in our lives like fear, pride, insecurity, greed, unforgiveness, lust, etc. Money used for any other purpose but love brings many sorrows. (1 Timothy 6). We cannot judge others and how they deal with money, but we should certainly look at what kind of picture we are painting with our money. Do I see my use of money as an act of worship, a display of gratitude reflecting God's generosity toward me? Do I use my money to contribute toward a generous, benevolent community or am I mostly concerned with my own needs and desires? How does my money reflect my relationships, values, and goals? Do I live as if money has power or love has power? Does my money follow love? And if not, what does it follow? How does my use of money reflect the kingdom of God? Do I sow money like the farmer scatters seeds, knowing that some will land on good ground and some will never bring a return, but I freely sow anyway?

Let us paint beautiful pictures with the money we have in our crayon box, pictures which reflect love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, generosity, mercy, grace, and gratitude. What's in your wallet?

Friday, January 16, 2015

unpacking faith

Image from blog.oxforddictionaries.com
It is interesting to note that in common usage, the verb "to believe" is a weaker word than "to know." If I say, "I believe there is some chocolate in the cupboard," what I mean is something like this: last I checked, it was there, but someone may have eaten it in the meantime. When I say, "I know there is some chocolate in the cupboard," I mean something along the lines of: I was just looking in the cupboard and saw it there. However, when we are speaking theologically, the word "believe" is a very strong word indeed.

The Hebrew word, emunah comes from the root aman which means firm, something that is supported or secure. You can find it in Isaiah 22:23 for a nail that is fastened to a "secure" place. When emunah is translated as "faith," it is related to firm action. In the Old Testament context, to have faith in God means that one not only knows that God exists or that God is faithful, but one acts with firmness toward God's will.

In the New Testament, we have the Greek word pisteuw which is translated as "believe." The noun version, pistis, is usually translated as "faith." The word carries with it the idea of conviction and trust compelled by a certain inner and higher prerogative. The Amplified Bible expands the verb,  "believe" to read "trusts in, clings to, relies on."

Let me unpack the idea of faith, theologically speaking, by pointing out three key elements.
1. Faith includes recognition of who a person is. This means we have logged some time with them, know something about their character, have some basic connection or relationship.
2. Faith includes confidence in someone's abilities. Our confidence in a person is rooted in some knowledge of their ability either through direct experience, the witness of others, documentation, etc.
3. Faith includes making a decision to trust someone. This carries with it a certain amount of risk, because though we have some idea of a person's character and some indication of their ability, our knowledge is always partial. In other words, we cannot absolutely know how things will unfold.

Faith is informed and discerning. Its strength and legitimacy lie not in itself (how strongly we believe something) but in the object of faith. Faith is trusting action based on compelling experience and knowledge. It is not blind by any means, but neither is it without risk.

Let's say that we meet world record weightlifter, Behdad Salimikordasiabi. We have a meal together and get to know a bit about him. He is 6 ft. 6 inches tall. He weighs 377 pounds. He is from Iran, 25 years old, and holds the world record for the snatch (lifting weights in one continuous motion from the floor to above the weightlifter's head). Oh, and the snatch record which he set in 2011 is 214 kg or 472 pounds. We are understandably impressed. Then Behdad does the unexpected. He asks if he can lift us up above his head and run around the room. Um...awkward. First, because we are in a really nice restaurant. And second, it's just awkward. But really, think about it. This is a once in a lifetime chance to be lifted by one of the strongest men in the world!

Let's look at what we know: 1) Behdad is a nice guy. In our conversation we did not sense any anger, tendencies toward revenge, or ill feelings toward us. In fact, he seems genuinely concerned about our well-being. 2) Behdad has a reputation as being very strong. We have not seen it personally, but there are witnesses, records, pictures, and stories to back up his reputation, so we are inclined to believe it is true. Plus, he exhibits no signs of injury. And so we come to the moment of decision: do we trust Behdad enough to put ourselves in his hands? Do we take the risk? Are we okay with perhaps looking foolish? Are we okay with people not understanding what is happening? Are we okay with taking a risk in a public forum? And we decide, yes, yes we are! And we say to Behdad, "Let's go, friend! I have faith in you! My life is in your hands. I go where you go." And so Behdad does what he loves to do (be strong) and I laugh with delight and, at times, scream in panic as the world whirls by from the secure vantage point of Behdad's strong and capable hands.

"Do not let your hearts be troubled (distressed, agitated). You believe in and adhere to and trust in and rely on God; believe in and adhere to and trust in and rely also on Me." - Jesus, John 14:1, Amplified Bible

Watch Behdad's record breaking snatch (2011) here.

Friday, January 09, 2015

God questions

Image from remnantresource.org
Yesterday I taught the first class of an undergraduate university course called Introduction to Theological Studies. Besides looking at a Van Gogh painting (beauty as the starting point of theology), listening to a Richard Dawkins interview (the limitations of closed system inquiry), and talking about theological sources, terms, and definitions, we spent some time thinking about the kind of questions we ask to find out more about a subject. One of the exercises I had the students do was to take out a piece of paper and write down two questions they could pose to someone in order to find out what kind of person they were. Then I had them turn to their neighbour and give their questions a try. 

It was not surprising that no one asked how tall someone was or how old they were (scientifically verifiable questions which would have pleased Richard Dawkins). Instead, they asked questions which required thoughtful responses. One student asked another, "If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?" The responder lifted their eyes upward and began to speak of faraway places they dreamed of visiting, explaining why these particular sites were important to them. Another student informed the class that he had been asked, "How do you want to die?" He indicated that one could not answer that question with a surface response; he had to dig deep.

It was (hopefully) a practical way to illustrate that the questions we ask about God, in large part, determine what kind of answers we get. Asking for scientific evidence for the existence of God might seem important, but it tells us little about who God is or what kind of God we are trying to prove exists. Because God revealed himself through the person of Jesus, I believe that the questions we ask about God should not primarily focus on matters of science or language or historical accuracy, but matters of character. When we get to know someone, we are not particularly concerned about how they make a sandwich; we want to know if the person is good, trustworthy, kind, just, generous, wise, interesting, capable, creative, and fun to be with. No offense to sandwich-makers. 

This made me think about my own questions about God, and in particular, my prayers. What kind of questions do I ask of the Divine? Simple yes or no queries?  A litany of requests for help and a desire for things to turn out well? Or do I ask questions that search deeper into the person of God? What if we asked God the questions which my students came up with?

God, if you could go anywhere, were would you go? I believe we find the answer in the cry of a humble baby born to a young mother in Bethlehem: "I want to be close to my beloved people." Here we have a God who pursues loving relationships. 

God, how would you want to die? If we look at the crucifixion of Christ, I believe we have our answer: "I want to die by giving my life for the sake of another." This is a God who freely gives himself.

May I learn from my students and begin asking much better questions of God. 

Thursday, January 01, 2015

A Special New Year's Eve

Image from maxwellswaterloo.com
We didn't do anything really special to ring in the new year. Frankly, I was still a bit celebration weary from the holiday events with our family and Dean was reeling from a very busy few days at work. Having part of the afternoon off on New Year's Eve meant we could get some groceries, go to the gym, and make a trip to the bank. Pretty exciting stuff, I know. But really, it was good. As we sat at home on the couch right before midnight, watching television and eating jalapeno hummus, I heard that old, subtle, accusing voice telling me we should have made more elaborate plans, should have gone to a party or headed downtown, anything which would have yielded photos showing how hip and cool and happy we were. This low key evening was almost embarrassing, hardly worth a mention on social media, certainly nothing to emulate or envy. Or was it? We were content. We were thankful. We were tired but happy. And this seemed like a good way to spend an evening, even New Year's Eve.

There are times to plan and participate in elaborate celebrations because we want to honour someone or remember a significant event or just because we are alive. But honestly, I don't need any more hyped-up events added to my social calendar just because it is the thing to do. What I do need more of is the ability to walk faithfully through this life, doing the mundane tasks with joy and gratitude, and never tiring of the faces I see most regularly. Can I jump and dance and sing and celebrate even if it is not New Year's Eve? Do I need props like fancy food, sparkly dresses, liquor, loud music, large crowds, and pulsing lights to get me into celebration mode? I hope not. Let the celebration always be within me.

One of my spiritual disciplines is to have my first and last thoughts/words of the day be, "Thank you, God." This exercise invites me to live each day inside a gratitude sandwich. It postures me to start the day with a full and content heart instead of from a place of anxiety or need. And it allows me to see the events of the day as good gifts instead of through the lens of regret, jealousy, anger, or the black hole of depression. In effect, every day becomes its own unique mini celebration,

So let me re-word my opening sentence. We did something really special to ring in the new year. We celebrated living in a land of plenty by buying food. We celebrated being healthy and strong by going to the gym. We celebrated being able to give and receive generously by going to the bank. We celebrated the fruit of a long-standing friendship by enjoying an evening in each other's company, free from pressure or tension. I celebrated the beauty of language and story by reading a book. Dean celebrated the creative vibrancy of music by listening to new artists from the UK. We celebrated living in a place of peace by going to bed with no worries for our safety. And that's pretty special.

May 2015 be filled with many special days for us all!

P.S. One of the best things I read in the past few days on crossing the threshold into a new year is from Parker Palmer. Here it is for your reading pleasure: Questions to Live By

Saturday, December 20, 2014

para

Annunciation by Francisco de Goya
Image from goyapaintings.org 
I was reading Luke 1 a few weeks ago, you know, the story where Gabriel the heavenly messenger brings messages of hope to the old priest, Zechariah, and then to the young girl, Mary. In both cases, women who could not technically have children were given promises that they would conceive and have a boy.  Zechariah was astonished and expressed doubt that this would be possible. He was soon given a sign that anything is possible with God. Mary was also taken aback and wondered how she could conceive a child since she had never been intimate with a man. Gabriel assured her that "Nothing will be impossible with God." Luke 1:37 RSV

And this is where I stopped short in my reading. The word "with" in verse 37 jumped out at me. It was like I had never noticed it before. So I took my dusty Greek bible off the shelf and took a closer look at the verse in its original language. Here it is:

ὅτι οὐκ ἀδυνατήσει παρ πν ῥῆμα

Then I pulled out the big, green lexicon and translated it (yep, my Greek is really rusty). Here are the meanings for each Greek word:

ὅτι (hoti) = now
οὐκ = by no means (because it is placed at the beginning of the sentence, this word carries extra emphasis)
ἀδυνατήσει (adunatesei, verb, future active indicative, 3rd person singular) = it will be powerless, impotent, impossible, disabled 
παρὰ (para) = beside, in the presence of, with, before
τῷ θεῷ (to theo) = the god (dative  case, primarily a case of personal relations, the root idea is personal interest, of god, from god)
πᾶν (pan) = all, every
ῥῆμα (rema) = thing, object, matter, event, word
Put it all together and you get: "Now by no means will it (all things) be impossible with God." Pretty much like the translation from the New Revised Standard Version I quoted above. 
So let's take a closer look at the word "para" which is translated "with." It includes ideas such as:
People or things together in one place
In the company of, alongside
Two or more people or things doing something together or involved in something
Used as a function word to indicate a participant in an action, transaction, or arrangement
So as to be touching or joined to, in relationship to
In respect to, so far as it concerns
What became apparent was that my understanding of "with" in Luke 1:37 had always been the last, least used definition, the one that translates something like this: "In respect to and as far as God is concerned, nothing is impossible." See how I just removed the human element from the equation? And that is the opposite of the intention the I believe is present here in this word, "para." Para is a relational preposition, putting people and things into contact with each other, beside each other. You might recognize "para" from some other words:
Paralegal/paramedic – working with, beside a lawyer/doctor, enhancing their work
Paradigm – to show side by side, pattern, model
Parallel – alongside one another
Parasite – alongside food, the idea of eating at another’s table (that one was just for fun)
Paraclete – to call alongside, advocate or helper, used to refer to the Holy Spirit (John 14:16)
All of these uses of "para" include the idea of doing something together with someone, in the presence of another, of being "with" someone in intentional, close proximity. "Para" invites collaboration and emphasizes relationship. When Gabriel says that nothing is impossible "with" God, he means that when we are in close proximity to God, when we work together with God, when we say Yes to God and cooperate with God, the very things that limit us, that stop us, that are obstacles to us...lose their power. When we are with God, dis-abilities or in-abilities give way to possibilities. When we are with God, the places we are powerless become occasions for demonstrations of glory. This is what Jesus came to show us. In fact, he was identified by that very concept of "with." 
Matthew 1:23. "A virgin will conceive and bear a Son, and His name will be Immanuel (which is a Hebrew name that means “God with us”)." (The Voice) 
Yes, God is with us. May we be with God as well.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

there is no such thing as a free gift

Image from wpcg.ca
It somehow seems apropos that I am doing research on the idea of gift during the Christmas season. When I first began to write this chapter of my dissertation, I was pretty sure where I would go with it. I was headed for the idea of the perfect, pure gift. A gift given without self-interest, without obligation. A gift which did not shy away from sacrifice and sought to bring the other person delight. Yes, that was the kind of selfless gift I was going to write about, the kind of gift motivated solely by concern for the other with no thought for oneself.

Earlier this year I read The Gift (1925) by sociologist, Marcel Mauss, his influential work dealing with gift-giving practices in primitive societies. Mauss concluded that gift-giving practices in archaic tribes located in Polynesia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Northwest were actually part of a whole system which involved economic transactions, wealth dispersion, political power, familial ties, and honour codes. In short, Mauss was writing about obligatory, self-interested gifts. Which were not gifts at all, I thought. I was going to rip his idea of a gift economy to shreds, and leave it in the dust with my pure words about the perfect, free gift which makes no demands of the recipient.

But when I read him again this week, I realised that I was wrong. What Mauss observes in certain primitive societies is the important role which gift-giving plays in building and maintaining relationships. Sure, the practices are imperfect, tainted by abuses of power-hungry chiefs and tribal rivalries. Sure, certain gifts are associated with magic powers and occult practices. But, doggone it, Mauss is onto something important.

The Maoris believed that an object carried the hau or spirit of the person it belonged to. Therefore, when someone gave a gift to another person, they were actually giving a part of themselves. Now, this idea soon distorted into the donor having some sort of power over the recipient, and due to the inclination of the hau to return to its original owner, things got a bit poltergeisty, but let's not get distracted by that. At the heart of the Maori idea of gift is this: a good gift is not selfless; it contains the self. And this is what the concept of ideal gift, with its hoity-toity disassociation from the self and its self-righteous refusal of reciprocity is lacking: relationship.

A good gift should certainly be appropriate and uniquely chosen for the recipient, but this criteria does not exist in a vacuum. A good gift means that I put myself out there along with the gift. A good gift is unique not only because it is specially selected for the recipient but also because a unique person gives it. It is important to note that a gift, like an invitation, can be refused but it cannot be un-given. Therefore, giving a gift puts a person in some kind of relationship with another. And if we are in relationship, what one person does affects the other. We have become inter-connected. I agree with Mauss that there is no such thing as a free gift; there is cost involved for the giver and there is responsibility placed on the recipient to treat that sacrifice with respect. Good gifts are better than free; they are the building blocks of relationships.

People give gifts which they believe will please the other person. This is what we normally classify as a good gift. But what about people who give gifts which reflect their own personality and tastes? Is this selfish? I don't believe it is. Let me suggest that it is often an expression of their desire to connect with another person by giving something of themselves. We readily recognise this in children. The scribbly drawing of a purple dog is valued not because of its aesthetic quality, monetary value, or intuitive knowledge of the recipient, but because the child gives something of himself. It is a gift which is intimately connected with its giver. Because of this simple offering of the self, we feel connected to the child and proudly display the imperfect artwork. We would never think to belittle a gift such as this because, in truth, this type of gift is more generous and vulnerable than many sophisticated, expensive, luxury items which adults bestow on each other.

Thanks to Mauss, I am asking myself some different questions this gift-giving season. Questions like, "How can I generously receive the people who give me gifts, the people who give me a part of themselves, no matter what the gift is?" And "How can I give gifts which emphasize connection over correctness?" And this one, too: "How can I recover the generous, simple attitude of a child who gives an imperfect gift but gives it perfectly?"

In thinking about this familiar Bible verse, "For God so loved the world that he gave (made a gift of) his only Son..." (John 3:16) I am struck by the goodness of this gift, not because it was exactly what the sad and sorry world needed, but because God gave himself. And in doing so, God expressed a desire to connect with us, to nurture a tenuous relationship and see it flourish, and to build a community of child-like givers and receivers.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

vive la différence!

Image from petsfoto.com
Over the past few weeks and months I have spent a bit more time than usual with people who have slightly different views or priorities than I do. It has happened in church meetings, at school, in social settings, and in random encounters. My conservative heritage tended toward steering clear of people with different worldviews, but I have found that real connection with those who adopt another way of looking at things is, in general, good for my personal growth as a follower of Jesus. Instead of responding to different viewpoints as threats (fear-based), I have learned to see them as instructive occasions. This is because they challenge me to differentiate between core values (guiding principles that I live my life by) and superfluous add-ons which are mostly based on preferences, tradition, or culture and which can change in different circumstances and times.

As important as this personal discernment process is, there is another, equally important, relational aspect to hanging out with those who are different. These encounters give me the opportunity to practice empathy, compassion, and unconditional love. But only if I let go of some bad habits which I often use to protect and insulate myself from otherness. Too often self-protection or self-promotion can be our default instead of doing the hard work of accepting and serving others like Jesus did.

Bad habits (don't do these):
1. Name dropping or recounting our past accomplishments: This may seem like a legitimate effort to connect with someone, but it is not. It is quite obvious, at least to the other person, that we are trying to set ourselves up as someone to be admired, someone important, someone with valuable experience, someone who is very capable, someone who brings a lot to the equation. In other words, someone who is better than them. In contrast to this, Jesus suggested that humility is the best approach.
2. Criticizing instead of discerning, feeling superior instead of compassionate: When we see different practices, it is natural to compare them to our own practices. There is nothing wrong with this, but I have to admit that the leap from noting differences to criticizing them is a small one for me. I dismiss others' practices because they are so obviously inferior to my own, so immature, so much less nuanced or sophisticated, so uninformed, so "been there, done that." And that's a problem, because these stinky attitudes will drive people away instead of inviting them to dialogue. I will also miss any chance of learning anything new. Criticism and compassion just don't go together.
3. Talking instead of listening: When I do find some point of connection between a person whose viewpoint is different than mine, I can latch onto that one subject and talk and talk and talk and talk. This is bad news because it tunes that person out, I have become a lecturer and instructor instead of a fellow student, and unless someone specifically asks for a lecture (preferably in writing), one should never offer one. Once again, I have assumed a superior role and that is unattractive.
4. Leaving when things get uncomfortable: I used to do this a lot. I would find myself with a group of people who had different values than I did. I would start to feel uncomfortable and my first instinct would be to leave, to escape, to protect myself. It never crossed my mind that I might have something to bring to that particular situation, perhaps a gift of generosity or kindness or acceptance or hope which would be graciously accepted if I could just get past my fear and be brave enough to offer something. Nope, I just thought about myself. Thankfully, things have changed. Now, when I get uncomfortable in an unfamiliar setting or in strange group, I take a deep breath and ask the Spirit if there is anything I can bring to the party.
5. Pointing out differences instead of celebrating what we share: This is another way of separating ourselves from others instead of building bridges. Jesus was a master at making people feel safe and accepted instead of alienated and inferior. Let me offer the same atmosphere to those I encounter, especially those whom I identify as the other. It helps when I remember that through openness we more easily find our way to repentance, surrender, and transformation. And I love transformation!

Thanks to all those others, those not like me, who have made my life richer and taught me much.