Tuesday, July 22, 2014

need some rest?

 Wallpaper cat, yawn, lie, fluffy
Image from wallpaperscraft.com
We didn't take a winter vacation this year and I can tell. There is an underlying, low level of fatigue that I just can't seem to get rid of. Most of our vacation days this year will be spent attending events: a wedding, a family celebration, and next week we will be going to a church conference. All good things, indeed, but they end up not being all that restful for me.

I have been trying to figure out this "rest" thing in the past few months and yesterday while I was on the subway going to the beach (to get some rest), I read something that made me realize that rest is not an event, either. Rest is not a day at the beach. Rest is not a week at a resort. Rest is not a weekend at the cottage. Rest is not something I can simply schedule in and then - BAM - it is done! Going on vacation or taking a day off is great, but it may or may not be restful. It may end up just being another event.

So how do I enter into rest? Essentially, rest is the ability to lay down my burdens. Burdens can take many forms: all the things that call out for my attention and demand my concerted effort, all those problems which take up brain space by causing me to always be searching for creative and effective solutions, or all those nagging past mistakes which make me overly cautious or hesitant or self-critical. These are some of the burdens which keep me from rest.

But really, rest is possible anywhere, anytime. I know that for me, rest is closely tied to wonder and beauty, because it is in the place of simple appreciation, in expressions of childlike delight and surprise, and in stunned or sweet silence, that I am my most trusting. I am at rest when I stare at the clouds and go, "Wow!" I am at rest when I run along a beach and squeal with delight as the ocean licks at my toes. I am at rest when I notice a new flower has lifted its fragile head to the sun. I am at rest when I see my cat stretching and stop whatever I am doing to touch her soft fur. In these moments, I am alive. I am so overcome by the goodness around me that I join with the Creator and take time to simply enjoy it.

May my day be filled with many restful moments today. Moments when I look around me, listen carefully, breathe deeply, and enjoy the gift of being alive.

"And this is why we walk this road: to behold the wonder and savor this aliveness. To remind ourselves who we are, where we are, what's going on here, and how beautiful, precious, holy, and meaningful it all is. It's why we pause along the journey for a simple meal, with hearts full of thankfulness, rejoicing to be part of this beautiful and good creation. This is what it means to be alive."  - Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking (Jericho Books, 2014), 6.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Lesson in Timing: ripe for the picking

A: Knock, knock!
B: Who's there?
A: Interrupting cow
B: Interrupting c---
A: Moooooooooo!

Timing is tricky. In comedy. In music. In cooking. In relationships. In life. Sometimes it is hard to know when the time is right for action and when it is better to wait. Let's ask the tomatoes for wisdom.

I am not the world's greatest gardener by any means, but I have grown quite a few things in my day; when I was a child on the farm, my mother had the generous foresight to assign me two rows in her garden every year to plant whatever my little heart desired. So I grew the things I loved: corn, peas, watermelon, and one year, a whole row of bright red poppies.

Now that I live in an urban setting, I grow things in pots on my balcony. This year I planted Sweet 'n' Neat Cherry tomatoes. The plant is doing better than I anticipated: very early it started to produce bunches of little green balls. Each day I go out, water it, and check for ripe fruit. Just because a tomato is red doesn't mean it is ripe. The test I use to check if fruit is ready to pick is this: I gently cup it in my hand and move it back and forth a bit; if it freely drops off the stem, it is ripe. If there is some resistance, I leave it for another day.

I think the tomatoes tell us something important about timing. If we are looking for the juiciest and sweetest fruit, it is best to wait till it is ripe. If you have ever tasted a tomato ripened on the vine and then a tomato ripened on the truck or in the store, you will know that the difference in taste is significant. I find that the same often goes for life. If we believe the time is right for something, we can put our hand to it, give it a gentle nudge. If it surrenders to us, it is ready. If there is resistance, perhaps we should let it be for a bit longer.

I am not talking about circumstances aligning perfectly in life (they seldom do) but more about maturity and surrender, both on the part of the fruit and on the part of the harvester. I have tried to force many things (picked fruit before it was ripe, went ahead with a plan before people were ready, rushed unprepared into a situation because it felt urgent, tried to bring correction into a fragile friendship, etc.). It made for a bumpy ride; sometimes things worked out after a bit of adjustment, other times it was a pretty big mess. I have learned that some of the things I think are urgent are just expressions of my impatience or misplaced passion. I have learned that it is usually better to wait a bit and go together than to forge ahead early and alone. I have learned that focusing on solid foundations and shared values is important, and that including people in the process of change builds a much healthier community than racing ahead with new ideas. I have learned that until I learn the art of surrender, I cannot expect it from anyone else.

When fruit is ripe, it surrenders. This surrender is part of the natural process of growth, maturity, and change. What am I ready to surrender to? What is ready to surrender its fruit in my life?

My tomato plant this morning

Monday, July 07, 2014

Daniel in the Lions' Den

Daniel's Answer to the King by Briton RiviƩre (1890)
This past Sunday I finished my series on the stories in the book of Daniel. The last one is a familiar story, in fact, when I asked if anyone had ever heard it or read it, virtually everyone in the room raised their hands. You can read it in Daniel 6, but let me briefly summarize it here.

A new King, Darius, is ruling over Babylon where Daniel has spent most of his life as an expatriate (not by his choice, I might add). Darius is a smart and powerful man, and he sets up a hierarchy of officers and governors to ensure that he maintains control over this newly conquered land. Daniel finds favour with the king and quickly rises to prominence. This leaves the other leaders with a bad taste in their mouths (yep, it's jealousy) so they hatch a plot to get rid of Daniel. Since they can find no fault in his work, they decide to attack his loyalty to Jehovah, the God of the Jews. It's pretty easy to convince a king addicted to power to issue an edict which declares that he alone should be worshiped for the next thirty days. And it was just as easy to walk in on Daniel in the midst of his daily prayer routine after the edict was issued. When the malcontent leaders brought their charges against Daniel, serious charges of disobeying the king's direct order, the king was very upset. The last thing he wanted to do was get rid of his most valued leader, but he could not reverse the edict.

Reluctantly, the king had Daniel tossed into a den full of hungry lions to meet his fate. The king uttered some final words to Daniel, "May your God, the God you have served so faithfully, rescue you," and then spent a sleepless night troubled by the unfortunate turn of events.  The next morning the king was out at the lions' den first thing, calling out, "Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, the One you have served so faithfully, been able to rescue you from these hungry lions?" Daniel responded that, yes indeed, God had rescued him. The king was beside himself with joy. After Daniel had been extricated from the den, the king issued an order for the conspirators and their households to be tossed to the lions. They were not as fortunate as Daniel and lost their lives. Darius then drew up another edict and instead of commanding people to worship him, insisted that all people fear the God of Daniel. The story ends with Daniel continuing to thrive under Darius.

As I was researching this chapter, I came across several articles which identified a chiastic structure in the story. This is a literary device especially common in ancient literature such as the Bible. Basically, chiastic structure is an inverted parallelism used to add emphasis and bring clarity. As contemporary readers, we are taught to look for the main point at the beginning or the end, but the chiastic structure places the focal point in the middle (like the juicy meat in a sandwich).

Here is one example of the chiastic structure in Matthew 6:24 (taken from Thomas B. Clarke).
A  No one can serve two masters
     B  either he will hate the one
         C  and love the other
         C' or he will be devoted to one
    B' and despise the other
A' You cannot serve both God and money

The parallel phrases are identified by corresponding letters. To modern readers, this verse seems to be pitting God against Money, as if they are in opposition, but the chiastic structure reveals that the central idea has to do with love and loving the right master, not with a power struggle. Pretty cool, right?

So what happens when we look at the story of Daniel and the lions' den through the chiastic lens? What becomes central to the story is not the happy ending for Daniel and the justice served to the evil conspirators, but the reaction of Darius. Let me draw on the work of Biblical scholar, Wayne S. Towner, for the parallels in the story.

A  Introduction: Daniel's success (v. 1-3)
    B  Darius's edict and Daniel's response (v. 4-10)
        C  Daniel's opponents plot his death (v. 11-15)
            D  Darius hopes for Daniel's deliverance (v. 16-18)
            D' Darius witnesses Daniel's deliverance (v. 19-23)
        C' Daniel's opponents sentenced to death (v. 24)
    B' Darius's edict and doxology (v. 25-27)
A' Conclusion: Daniel's success (v. 29)

While deliverance is definitely a focal point, the person most affected is not Daniel, but Darius. Daniel seems rather unperturbed about his fate; he serves at the pleasure of High King Jehovah and at this point in his life (he is in his eighties) knows that while kings are fickle, God is faithful. However, Daniel's faithfulness to God and God's faithfulness to Daniel result in remarkable changes in King Darius. Here are the ones I noted:

1. Darius has HOPE that Daniel's God is the real thing. In contrast to the culture of power and competition that Darius lives in, Daniel and his relationship with God are based in trust and friendship. This paradigm, so foreign to a conquering king, is nevertheless extremely attractive to him.
2. Darius is a WITNESS to the faithfulness of God. This is due to Daniel's refusal to hide or downplay his devotion to God. It is also due to Daniel's willingness to suffer at the hands of faithless men for this supreme loyalty.
3. Darius exhibits JOY and EXCITEMENT at the deliverance of Daniel from certain death. Darius saw a demonstration of values directly opposite to those of his cutthroat world and it gave him joy! Darius declared that Jehovah's kingdom would never be overthrown, in effect recognizing that here was a power greater than his own. Quite a statement coming from a king who had overthrown a few kingdoms himself.

Like Daniel, I am someone who lives in a land other than the one in which they were brought up (life as an expat). It is not always easy to live in a foreign place, but Daniel shows us how to do this in a way that not only honours God but is good news for our current place of residence.

Inspired by this story, here is a prayer I wrote for expats:

Let us be bringers of HOPE to the world.
Let us allow people to WITNESS the faithfulness of God in our lives (and not hide it).
Let JOY and EXCITEMENT follow us as we live as citizens of the kingdom of God.
Let us operate from TRUST and FRIENDSHIP instead of power and competition.
Let this land be a better place because we are here.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

why we need visitors

Clock tower at Old Port in Montreal. Picture taken on my boat ride.
Summertime is the season for visitors. We have had our share of house guests, dinners out with friends old and new, showing people the sights of our fair city (including the Jazz Festival), and organizing group events like a Friday evening BBQ and a Sunday afternoon picnic in the park. And that's just in the last 3 weeks! I love it, I really do, even though it can be a bit tiring. Not only is it a joy to introduce people to the wonders of Montreal, but I find that inevitably I discover something new as well. A few weeks ago I took a cruise around the port of Old Montreal for the first time because I thought it would be a fun activity for my mom who was visiting. It was lovely!

Spending time with people who have never experienced this place before means that I also get to participate in that sensation of new sight, of seeing something for the first time.The gift of seeing with new eyes has been particularly timely for me. I have been a bit restless, feeling a bit unexcited by the same old routine and the familiar places, people, and work to do. But it is not the same old thing, no no, it never is. Each day is a fresh and exciting start. Each moment is pregnant with hope and potential and change. But sometimes that is difficult for me to see. So thank you, visitors and house guests, for helping me see with fresh eyes again.

When I get tired of my condo and my neighbourhood, tending to notice only the things I don't like about it, my visitors come over and oooh and aaah at the cathedral ceilings, remark on the fireplace in the mezzanine bedroom, gaze wide-eyed at the green spaces and nearby parks, and get a thrill at the view of planes flying overhead. It reminds me that yes, I do live in a fabulous place!

When I start to complain about the endless construction, roads in disrepair, and the lack of customer service in this metropolis, my visitors make me notice again the vibrant downtown, the beautiful people from all nations, and the amazing mixture of architecture. Yes, I live in one of the most spirited cities in the world!

When I arrive at a church gathering for the bazillionth time in my life and feel a sense of fatigue and strain, even isolation, my visitors are thrilled to meet every unique person in our faith community, they remark at the variety of cultures and languages represented, they bask in the simple songs of worship, they hang on every prayerful word spoken over them, and they think it a privilege to hang out for lunch afterwards because it means the community vibe can continue just a bit longer.

Thank you, visitors, for allowing me to see my life through eyes of gratitude and wonder once again. Visitors are good for the soul. Have you entertained any lately?

Be ready with a meal or a bed when it's needed. Why, some have extended hospitality to angels without ever knowing it! - Hebrews 13:2, The Message

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

book review: The Life and Remembrances of Martha Toole

Image from amazon.ca
The Life and Remembrances of Martha Toole by Jason Derr. Temple Foundry Mediaworks, 2014. (The ebook pdf version used for this review, 50 pages).

An email popped up on my screen in the middle of June offering me a copy of Jason Derr's latest work of fiction, The Life and Remembrances of Martha Toole, for review. Words used to describe the novella were "a magic realist exploration of nostalgia and reality" and "an epiphany in a single setting." I was sold! I clicked the link and ordered the ebook. I read it in one sitting yesterday afternoon and, I must admit, struggled a bit to enter Derr's magic world.

Derr's characters are richly painted, especially the matriarch Martha Toole. Her abrasive, direct manner makes one squirm with recognition (haven't we all had a fussy, old relative whom we have tried to avoid?), yet the obvious loyalty to her family is never in doubt. Each detail with which the author describes the southern family's strained interpersonal dynamics is vibrant with undercurrents of past struggles and scars. I found the father, Nathaniel, especially endearing with his endless tinkering and fixing in an effort to fend off intimacy or confrontation.

The critical moment when the artist son, John David, encounters the younger Martha in a surreal scene on the old family homestead, shifts the story from being about family relationships to one which focuses on Martha's transformation from a young, vibrant woman into a cantankerous, elderly matriarch. In theory, this device should have carried the reader into another world, a place between real and unreal where the past and present collide. In practice, I found the scene a bit clunky, and the integration of a younger Martha into the rest of the story, sharing the same time and space as the old Martha, underdeveloped. To me, the tale seemed to hover briefly in a magic place and then it thudded soundly back to earth. The subsequent interactions between younger Martha and the other characters lacked any ethereal energy, and the ready acceptance of a "ghost figure" into the family read like a missed opportunity, in my opinion. It could have led to so many dynamic interactions and interesting plot developments.

Another problem I had with the book was the lack of proper editing. On one page alone (p. 13) I found four errors (missing period, missing possessive apostrophe, inappropriately placed commas, and an awkward sentence in which the subject and the verb did not agree). There was one jerky transition which actually caused me to scroll back and forth a few times wondering if I had missed a paragraph (p. 23). I will admit that these mistakes distracted me from the story to some extent, and I believe the work would benefit greatly from a thorough going-over by a skilled editor.

All in all, this is a story with some good bones but it still needs work.

This book is provided to me courtesy of the publisher and SpeakEasy in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

confessions of a non-morning person

Image by Jim Davis. Found on pinterest.com
I have been following a post by a colleague (whom I have never met but we have mutual friends and are both studying theology) in which he writes about his efforts to change into a functioning morning person, mostly out of necessity due to being a parent and a writer (his words). I am not a parent so I will not comment on the challenges that children present to sleep and work patterns, but I do a fair bit of writing and find myself chafing at the assumption that disciplined and successful writers do their best work in the early morning.  I am not sure that such a generalization is true or helpful.

It seems to me that there is a bit of prejudice against late-night functioning people. We can be viewed as somewhat lazy, undisciplined, still lingering in that teenage/student phase of staying up late and sleeping in late. Similar to the subtle disdain for introverts that our Western culture exhibits (social skills are highly valued), late night-ers are generally not championed as leaders, go-getters, or entrepreneurs who will change the world. And that is sad. Let us not forget all the roles which require late night alertness: medical professionals, emergency responders, truck drivers, musicians, construction workers, hydro-electric repairmen, security personnel, office cleaners, chefs, and members of the police force (to name just a few).

I am thankful that not everyone in the world is an extrovert (how loud would that be?) and that not everyone is a morning person (who would explore the wonders of the stars or watch over our cities as we sleep?). It brings variety and balance to the universe. However, having a dominant trait or being a certain type of person is not an excuse for selfishness or rigidity. At times I am called upon to function as an extrovert: to be friendly, chatty, outgoing, and hospitable. And this is good for me; it helps me develop character, compassion, and discipline. However, the cost is high. It requires more emotional, intellectual, and volitional energy than when I operate within my preferred/inherent role. Therefore, it is important for me to be aware of the cost and make sure I have adequate resources and the time and space to replenish them afterwards.  The same goes for early mornings. This past term I taught a university class at 8:45 am. I actually surprised myself at how well I could function at that time of day, but I was also aware that it was pretty taxing, much more than teaching an afternoon or evening class. I was able to function well because I came prepared, I gave myself a good amount of time for thought and contemplation before heading into the classroom, and I made sure I had a good meal and some downtime afterwards.

Perhaps I am not the only late-night person who has read those Psalms about early morning prayer and felt slightly guilty (Psalm 5:3 for example). Does God want me to get up at sunrise to pray? Does it make me a more devoted follower of Jesus if I read my Bible before 8 am? I don’t think so. Just as both early morning and late night work take discipline, so both early morning and late night prayers require that we bring our whole selves before God. Psalm 4 is a night prayer which extols the provision of God and the ability to sleep in peace because of God’s faithfulness. The daily examen, an Ignatian prayer exercise which seeks to discern the presence of God in the events of the day, is done right before one falls asleep. Psalm 127 talks about the folly of both early mornings and late nights when they are motivated by self-effort instead of reliance on God. In the end, whether we are early risers or late night-ers, the issue is not what side of the clock we prefer, but whom we trust, cling to, and rely on. Let Jesus be Lord of every hour, both waking and sleeping. Let us embrace our natural, creative rhythms with joy and abandon them when we need to for the sake of love. With God all things are possible.

"Unless the Eternal builds the house, those who labor to raise it will have worked for nothing. Unless the Eternal stands watch over the city, those who guard it have wasted their time. God provides for His own. It is pointless to get up early, work hard, and go to bed late, anxiously laboring for food to eat; for God provides for those He loves, even while they are sleeping."
Psalm 127:1-2, The Voice


Monday, June 09, 2014

the dressing room dream

rack of dresses by airinisbomb
image from airinisbomb.deviantart.com

A week ago I had one of those dreams. You know, the kind that sticks with you for hours after you wake up and, like a C. S. Lewis masterpiece, pierces you with its truth and vivid images. This is what I dreamed: 



I was in a dressing room in a fashionable and rather expensive clothing store. I tried on several beautiful dresses; some I liked more than others. I wasn't really thinking about buying a dress that day but I thought there was no harm in trying on a few. The salesperson did her job well, bringing me numerous outfits, all quite interesting and lovely, so I just kept trying them on. The last item she brought me was a pair of shorts which were priced over $400. At that point I made a decision: I was not going to pay that much for a pair of shorts so there was no point in trying them on, no matter how nice they were.

After I made that decision, I suddenly noticed several things around me that I had not been aware of before. First, there was a small kitten sitting in the dressing room. It was a bit on the skinny side and seemed quite lethargic. Apparently it had not been fed for quite some time. Second, a person called out to me, reminding me that I had documents that needed signing and work that was waiting for me in my office. Third, I realized that days had gone by while I was in the dressing room trying on pretty clothes. I said, "I've kind of made my home here." Then I left the dressing room, fed the kitten and got to work.

Let me provide some background: We have been considering moving from our lovely condo to a place perhaps a bit bigger and a bit closer to downtown. With those two features come a substantial jump in price, so for the past few months I have been researching properties a fair bit and we even visited a few open houses, trying to find something in our price range. This dream brought me up short. In a good way. It made me aware that I was starting to get really at home in a sort of fantasy-land, a place where I dreamed about what could be, where I tried on lovely things just to see what it would feel like, where I let myself pretend for just a moment that I lived in a new, modern loft, that it was all real, even though it was beyond my means. The titillating world of "trying-on" can become so mesmerizing that we end up neglecting our responsibilities in the real world. We forget to care for the people and the things we love. We forget about the work that has been entrusted to us. We forget about the real and the mundane because the unreal and the fantastical feels better. But this is a dangerous place to make our home. It is the breeding ground for addiction and escapism.

I love my imagination and my research abilities; reading and writing projects can transport me to worlds that beg to be explored. However, they are not usually places where I learn the difficult skills of selfless love, of generosity, of service and sacrifice and humility. The dressing room of fantasy requires nothing of me. It allows me to float above everything real as if it doesn't matter, and that is a lie. The mundane tasks matter to someone. Whether or not I pay the bills or wash the clothes or feed the cat or answer the phone matter to someone. Whether I buy a new house or not matters very little. What matters is whether I am hospitable in my present home, whether I speak kindly to my present neighbours, and whether love and laughter and gratitude live here now, no matter how small or inconvenient the place might seem.

Time to get out of the dressing room, put on some work clothes, and joyfully engage in the life I now have.