Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A book review: Patmos

Patmos Book CoverPatmos by C. Baxter Kruger. Jackson, MS: Perichoresis Press, 2016. 240 pages (ebook version used for review).

Kruger is a huge fan of The Shack, in fact, he authored a book called The Shack Revisited (Faithwords, 2012) in which he unpacks the theological ideas in Paul Young's popular book. Patmos is Kruger's contribution to the Christian mystical fiction genre (my term), and in many ways takes its cues from The Shack. The main character, Aidan, has an out-of-body experience and ends up on the isle of Patmos with the apostle John for three days. While there, he finds answers to his many questions about God and healing for some past wounds.

The author has a PhD in Theology from University of Aberdeen, so there are some rich nuggets tucked into the story: a discussion of nuances found in the original Greek in the first few chapters of John, some ponderings on the nature of the Trinity, a brief structural analysis of Revelation, snippets of church history, and the reframing of several biblical stories. Kruger's main point is that much of Christianity through the ages has emphasized separation from God instead of believing in the inherent unity of the Creator with his Creation through Christ. It is a valid and important point.

In chapter 15, the main character observes that throughout history, Western tradition has exhibited, "a dualistic mind-set occupied with separation, condemnation, legal justification that didn't really touch our broken humanity, certainly not mine. You talk about the lie of separation! As I think about it now, I see everything was separated: spirit separated from body, head from heart, heaven separated from earth, the Farther separated from the Son, people separated from God, elected people separated from damned people, the saved from unsaved, the Word separated from the words." John's description of Jesus in us is key to Kruger's distinction between the lie of separation and the truth of unity with God through Christ. In chapter 17, John the apostle says to Aidan, "The gospel is not the news that we can receive Jesus into our lives. The gospel is the news that Jesus has received us into his - union, my son." This is the thesis of Kruger's mystical tale.

Despite a strong theme and some sound, creative theological writing, the work has its flaws. First, there is a minor issue with formatting. In writing dialogue, a new paragraph should start each time the speaker changes. Kruger clumps different speakers together into the same paragraph. This causes some confusion for the reader and at times, I was not sure who was doing the speaking.

Second, the pages are filled with stilted, forced similes. I know Kruger is trying to portray a character from the South who uses colourful language, but I found the overuse of mismatched similes annoying and distracting. I suppose they were to lend humor to the story, but for my part, they were just bad writing. One example: "His gaze made me think of a fine tea, subtle with a variety of flavors." The last half of the book seemed less plagued by these intrusive, awkward similes, or perhaps I just became immune to them. Whatever the case, I think they distracted from the story instead of adding to it.

Third, the premise lacks some believability. The main character is supposed to be a theology professor, but is frightfully ignorant of very basic theological concepts and comes across as someone who has never traveled outside his hometown. He is continuously having his mind blown and world shattered. He is always on the verge of being flabbergasted and baffled through hearing the unfathomable, things that are too good to be true. Much of the time, he is in a state of shock, knowing that his life depends on the next great, momentous, monumental thing to come out of John's mouth. Those are just a smattering of the descriptors liberally scattered throughout the book. I understand the author wanting to build tension and suspense, but many scenes end up being melodramatic and overstated. Might I suggest another round of editing which would cut out many of these extra descriptions and superfluous similes so that the story can shine through without the wordy baggage. A reader appreciates a bit of subtlety.

Finally, at times the theological content overshadows the story and comes off a bit heavy-handed; basically it reads like a sermon. Again, the author would do well to give the reader some credit for being able to make connections and draw conclusions on their own.

Overall, it was an okay read. I very much enjoyed the chapters in the middle which unpacked the idea of separation vs. union, but felt that the book suffered from a lack of finesse which made it difficult to become immersed in the story. Nevertheless, every writing venture is a learning experience, so bravo to the author for trying his hand at fiction.

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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.

Friday, September 23, 2016

trying hard

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Image from www.reference.com
We all love success stories. But in these stories, the success shouldn't come too easily. There should be some setbacks, maybe a disadvantage or two. And struggles, doubts, and a point of nearly giving up. But then, when hope is almost lost, our hero should rise up to overcome the odds and show us that hard work, perseverance, and determination pay off. Of course, don't forget the help of faithful friends who are just as determined and hard working as our hero is; it is a team success. This is the classic hero tale, evident in most myths and movies. But is this what really happens in our lives? 

I have spent many years working hard, persevering, determined to do all I can do. I want to make things work out for myself and others, to make this world better, to complete the tasks I believe I have been given to do. I admit that I am also a bit too uptight about these tasks and a tad perfectionistic, which makes it difficult for me to share the load, to make it a true team effort. But I try. Really, I try hard. 

The place where I try the hardest is in the church. I want so badly for people to have peaceful hearts, to be whole and healed from the blows they have suffered in life, to enjoy healthy relationships with God and with each other, and to be able to give and receive with joyful grace. This is endless work and I feel ill-equipped to do it, but I try. I try hard.

And then I look at Jesus and am undone, because the main thrust of his message isn't hard work, perseverance, and determination. It is not about trying hard to get it all right. He speaks words of rest to the heavy-burdened, not so they can catch a bit of a breather and then get back to it, but so that they will never pick up that burden again. He rebukes the perfectionists, not so they will chill out for a bit and not be so hard on themselves and others, but so that they will never require things of people that God himself does not require. He heals those who come to him, not to empower them to live fuller, more complete lives, but because in the presence of Jesus there is mercy and grace and wholeness. He redefines relationships, downplaying established hierarchies and highlighting the hidden, not because he seeks to start a revolution to free the oppressed, but because he wants to show us what God is like, and that his kingdom is not based in might and power.

We talk about love being the underlying message of Jesus, and it is, but for me, even that word, love, is closely associated with work: giving more, treating people better, being more outgoing, trying harder. Sad, I know. I am basically a Pharisee. I know a fair bit about religion, I try really hard to do the right thing, and I have impossibly high standards for myself and others. On the outside, it looks like success of a sort. But this is not what the kingdom of God looks like. It's not even close. 

Instead of talking about success, perhaps we should be telling stories of surrender. Surrender is so much more difficult than working hard. Letting down a wall of protection is harder than building one. Trusting someone to catch you is not as easy as being the catcher. Letting go of power is more challenging than being competent. Surrendering my dreams and desires takes more out of me than drafting a 5-year plan. And it gets no applause. Surrender is not trendy, because it looks suspiciously like giving up, like passivity, like laziness, like a lack of strength, like you just can't do it or perhaps don't care. But it is the deepest expression of love and community that we know.

I have been reading on the subject of Trinity and community this week and I am grieved by how little I live in this space of mutual serving, mutual trusting, mutual loving, and mutual surrender. Nothing is ever grasped tightly in the Trinity; all is open arms. Nothing is forced or demanded, always freely given. There is no hierarchy, no patronizing, no democracy. Only loving, mutual surrender. Surrender is not a temporary stance, not a respite, not a resetting of power, not a negotiating tactic. Surrender is what God invites us to do because it is what God does. He is always facing outward, toward the other, arms and heart open, not afraid. Surrender is a kind of death.

“[Jesus] freely assumes death as ultimate expression of his love for whoever rejects him. He wants the last word to be that of communion rather than exclusion. Jesus dies in solidarity and in communion even with the enemies who condemn him so as to assure the victory of love and communion. ... If we want to be united with the Blessed Trinity, we must follow the same path as Jesus: pray with intimacy, act radically on behalf of justice and communion, and accept our own death as a kind of total surrender and ultimate communion even with our enemies.” [1]

This is not easy stuff. I want so badly to make a success out of my life, my faith community, my family, my work. But Jesus shows me his way is surrender, giving the best of myself not to the work, but to the other, to him. That is all.


[1] Leonardo Boff, Holy Trinity, Perfect Community (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), 21.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Look at the grass

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Image from www.freepik.com
I have been reading Paul's letter to the Colossians. The words are joyous, buoyant, effervescent, not the kind of correspondence you would expect from someone in prison. I suppose the words appeared especially bright and bubbly to me this past week because I found myself inexplicably dark and gloomy, not to mention negative, critical, and impatient. It is clear to me now that it was that old demon of control baiting me because, well, things are out of my control. Yes, people make mistakes, unexpected situations happen, and life has a tendency to be overwhelming and disappointing at the same time. But mostly, I believe the trigger was my current state of job limbo. It is scary. So, naturally, being impatient and complaining are the solution, somehow. Demons make no sense.

Anyway, there is nothing like a walk outside in the sunshine to put things in perspective, so I pointed my feet to the park and away we went, me and my irritations. I saw trees, I saw sky, I saw water. It was all good. And then I saw grass. Oh my, what lovely grass. The first grass I noticed was just under three feet tall, its tips soft and heavy with rows of pale seeds. It waved at me as I walked along the gravel path, and I greeted it with a jaunty Hello as I ran my hands through the thin stalks. A few steps further, the grass on the other side of the path beckoned. This grass was taller, its stalks thicker, its seeds more delicately formed in small clusters. I stopped to look at the grass, to really see it. I held it gently between my fingers for a moment, then ran my hand along the top of the grass patch. It felt like a gentle caress.

There were gardeners working in the park that day. Some were using hand-held trimmers, noisy and ruthless instruments. Another man was riding a large industrial mower. As I watched, he attempted a sharp turn around an evergreen tree on a steep incline and stalled the machine. I stopped to watch the scene for a few minutes. The gardener backed up, pulled forward, stalled again, got off the machine, said a few choice words, got back on the machine, started it up again, and stalled again. Oh grass and trees, you are so patient with those of us who trim and groom and try to manage your green growth. Even when our machines fail, you don't gloat or claim a victory. You just keep on waving in the breeze in all your vibrant green glory.

As I headed for home, I came upon some swaths of newly mown grass and I stooped down to touch the soft, damp piles. I took out my phone and tried to capture the many subtle variations of green displayed in that small patch of grass, but my camera wasn't up for the challenge. Oh, grass, what a wonder you are.

And then the grass preached a sermon.

Look at the grass in the field, in the park, all around you. The grasses are here now, but they will be gone soon, cut down, burned, discarded, dormant in winter. And yet, God clothes and colours them so radiantly. How much more will He clothe you and colour your life, you of little faith, you who have no trust? So do not consume yourselves with questions: What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear? Where will we get a job? What about our finances? What about security? Others make themselves frantic over such questions because they don’t realize that your heavenly Father knows exactly what you need. Search out first the kingdom of God, make it a priority to live according to God's economy and His way of making things right. Then you will find that these other small details fall into place and the worrying stops. That's right, you don't have to worry about tomorrow. Living faithfully is a large enough task for today, so do that. [1]

Thank you, grasses for teaching me that my first job every morning is to raise my hands high to the sky and thank the Creator. Whether it is rainy, sunny, windy, or snowy, I begin by thanking the Creator. Even if it is the day when the gardeners come to cut and weed and trim, I lift up my eyes and thank the Creator. Thank you for reminding me of my humble place in creation, that I have made none of this beauty and yet it is here for me to enjoy every day. God cares about each blade of grass in the field and every hair on my head. so there is never any need to be frantic or worry, no need to complain or be impatient. It accomplishes nothing. Standing up tall and waving my hands to the Creator, like you, lovely grass, do every day, that is participating in glory. That is faithfulness. That is surrender. 

[1] Matthew 6:30-34, my adaptation of The Voice translation.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

same old same old: quantum physics and questions

Image result for quantum physics meme
Image from physicsworld.com
Last night I attended a lecture entitled, "Quantum Physics and Christianity." I know, who could resist a topic like that? Quantum is the Latin word for "amount" and in physics, it refers to the very small increments into which energy, such as light, is subdivided. The lecturer was Dr. Arnold Sikkema, a professor of Physics from Trinity Western University. There was a lot of talk about electrons and particles and how physics is increasingly verisimilitudinous (we are always learning more about how things work), and even mention of a cat, though not in a very pleasant way (what do you have against cats, Schrodinger?). It is common to associate science with certainty, precision, and verifiable predictability, but in reality, the more scientists discover, the less they speak in terms of certainty.

Dr. Sikkema mentioned that in the last hundred years or so, worldviews in science (and much of culture as well) have shifted from certainty to uncertainty, from dualism (either/or) to duality (both/and), from predictability to probability, from determinism to indeterminism, from believing we can be objective observers to realising we are subjective participants, and from reductionist tendencies to a more holistic outlook. All of these shifts are marks of progress, not because uncertainty has more value than certainty, but because these outlooks more accurately reflect reality. We are naive to think we have it all figured out or that we know how things will turn out.

My favourite part of the talk had to do with epistemology (how we know things). In quantum physics, it has been found that the questions you ask affect the answers. For instance, if you ask, "Does light behave as a wave?" it will give you wave properties. If you ask, "Is light a particle?" it will give you particle results. It is now believed that light is both a wave and a particle (dualism shifted to duality). There is an important principle to be noted here: the best way to know something about a subject is to let the subject inform the type of questions we ask. For example, if I want to know something about a piece of furniture, I hope I would ask different questions than if I want to get to know a person. If I want to know something about electrons, I would ask different questions than if I want to know something about key lime pie (don't you want a piece right now?). The object of our inquiry actually tells us, or at least gives us clues to, what the pertinent, important questions are, if we are willing to listen and watch and learn.

Basically, the art of asking good questions is closely tied to revelation. The object of our study will reveal itself to us over time if we are patient and attentive, but we must also be responsive to what is revealed. If we insist on foisting our own questions on the object, paying no heed to what it tells us or shows us, that revelation will be obscured or blocked.

Always asking the same questions doesn't get us anywhere, not in quantum physics, not in philosophy, not in theology, not in relationships, not in art, not in life. The basic questions are more or less constant (who? what? when? where? why? how?) and we flesh them out to apply to different situations. Sometimes, our questions get stuck in a rut and as a result, the answers are rather unsatisfying. If I go to a party and ask everyone the same two questions (What's your name? What do you do?) I will end up knowing less about the people there than if I ask a variety of questions (What is satisfying/challenging about your work? Where would you like to travel? Who inspires you?).

I have been revisiting the book of Job this week as I edit one of my dissertation chapters for possible publication. Job is full of questions for God, good questions that deserve answers, or so he thinks. But they are always the same questions. Why are you silent, God? Why are you picking on me? Why don't you defend me or help me or even kill me? When God responds, he doesn't answer Job's questions. He speaks of glory and creation instead of suffering and injustice. The questions that Job was asking were not the questions that God was answering. Revelation usually happens when we are willing to change our questions or set them aside.

Quantum physics teaches us that if we want fruitful research, the object of our inquiry must inform the questions we ask. I believe life, especially the life of faith, teaches us the same. What questions have you been asking lately? Are they the same ones you have been asking for years? Perhaps it is time we stop and listen, stop and look, and interact with the object of our attention instead of interrogating it. Perhaps we don't need answers to our particular questions. Perhaps we need a bit more revelation.

Monday, August 22, 2016

job hunting

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I am on the hunt for a job. PhD in hand, I am a theologian for hire. The thing is, not a lot of places are hiring theologians these days, and if they are, they are usually looking for scholars with skills and experience outside my area of expertise. Today I found job opportunities for those knowledgeable in Religion, Race, and Colonialism, Philosophy and History of Religion, Islam and Society, Languages of Late Antiquity, Religion, Ethics, and Politics, and an ad for a Molecular Genetic Pathologist. Not one posting for a Dramatic Theologian with  a side order of Spirituality and a dash of Methodology.

I know, I know. My expectations are a bit unrealistic if I believe I will find an exact match for my particular skills. I know that job descriptions are wish lists to some extent, so no candidate is ever a perfect match. I also realize that one must adapt one's skill set according to the requirements of the job and be flexible. But there are so few jobs which come within ten or even a hundred feet (or meters) of what I do.

There are plenty of things I can do and am doing to give what I have to the world, like writing academic articles and teaching at my church and blogging here, but none of this pays any money. There is a question people ask each other when they get a bit weary from the grind: "If you didn't have to worry about making money, what would you do?" Well, if money were not a factor, there are a few projects I would immediately begin working on. I would fling my theological riches all across Canada (for starters), offering to teach and discuss and learn together with anyone who would have me. I would sign-up for unpaid postdocs or internships so that I could work alongside some of my favourite, gifted teachers and scholars. I would be an artist-in-residence in a community which nurtures creativity and write a book or a play. And in-between, I would travel the world and exclaim, "Oh," and "Ah," all day long and share that wonder and beauty with people through words and pictures. That's just for starters. But all these things would cost me a lot of money instead of putting any money in my pocket. I am a grown-up. I know you can't pay the bills with dreams and wishful thinking.

Last week I was once again pondering my future prospects (and lack thereof), kind of thinking, kind of praying, kind of complaining. It went something like this: Well, God, what are we doing? I can't seem to find a job which matches my area of expertise, and if I do find something remotely close, there are hundreds applying for it, many of them more qualified and experienced than I am. I'm not even sure I make a good academic or scholar. I want to write and teach from the heart as much as from the head. And there is that thing I have about forgetting almost everything after I read it. Really, what's the point? Maybe I should just work at the local movie theatre. At least I would always be around popcorn.

The thing about kind of praying something is that you invite the Holy Spirit to join in the conversation and intrude on your thoughts. In the midst of my complaining, I realized that I was making an error in tying my vocation to my provision; these are two separate things. My vocation is what God has called me to do. My provision comes from the Provider. I am responsible to walk in my vocation. God is responsible to provide what I need. In some cases, vocation leads to provision, but vocation is never the source of provision. In fact, God is very good at providing from a source completely unrelated to our efforts. In Genesis 22, where we find the name of God, YHWH-Jireh (The Lord will provide), this is exactly what happens. I won't go into the whole story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and the many questions it raises about what kind of God would do that. You can read a short piece I wrote on that topic here. The bit I want to draw attention to is this: when Abraham is called to do something and he responds to that call, God ends up providing what is needed, not Abraham. God takes on the role of provider, not Abraham.

So I have begun to think of my theological vocation slightly differently, and I find myself asking two questions: What is my job? What is God's job? My job is to spread the theological joy around as much as I can. God's job is to provide what I need to do that. I have found these questions helpful in other areas as well. When I am serving as a pastor/teacher in the church, I ask: What is my job? What is God's job? My job is to act lovingly toward others, to worship the Almighty giver of life, to open my home to strangers, to speak truthfully about God, and to pray for people. What is God's job? To transform, to convict, to draw people to himself, to build his church, to heal, to raise dead things to life, and to provide what we all need individually and communally. I admit, I overstep my job description sometimes and tread in on God's territory. Thankfully, I'm not very good at it.

I may not have a full-time theology job, but I don't have to have one in order to do what I am called to do. I can study, write, teach, present papers, and hang out with colleagues any day of the week. The opportunities are there if I look for them. I also don't need to be paid as a pastor in order to pastor people, or be paid as worshiper in order to worship, or be paid as a teacher in order to teach. I just need to do my job. I leave the provision up to the Provider.

Let us pray together with Jesus: "Give us today our daily bread." - Matthew 6:11 (New English Translation)

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

why we run

Mo Farah falls during the 10000 m race in Rio
Image from sports.vice.com
I have been watching the Olympics for the past week and a half and there have been some truly inspirational moments, moments which made me stand up and cheer, moments which caused a swell of emotions in my chest, moments which left me speechless, on my feet in front of the television. For me, it is not the best performances which are memorable, but the inspiring stories of the athletes. I mention only a few here.

Simone Biles, a dynamic gymnast from the USA, has won four gold medals in Rio. She is gymnastics phenom: powerful, composed, and consistent. What some might not know is that her childhood was anything but promising: her mother had substance abuse issues and her father abandoned the young family. After bouncing around in foster care, Simone was adopted by her grandparents when she was six.

Yursa Mardini, a promising swimmer, grew up in Damascus. After their house was destroyed in the civil war, she and her sister decided to flee Syria. A year ago, they were smuggled onto a boat with eighteen others and headed for Greece. The engine stopped working early into the voyage, and the dinghy (meant to carry seven) began to take on water. Yursa and her sister got into the sea and pushed the boat for over three hours until they reached the shore. In the 2016 Olympics, Yursa was part of the first ever Refugee Olympic Team. She did not qualify for any medals, but given that she saved the lives of eighteen people, that hardly seems to matter.

In 2009, Chris Mears, a diver from Great Britain, suffered from a ruptured spleen which caused him to lose two litres of blood. He was given very slim chances for survival and was told he would probably never dive again. While recovering, he suffered a seven-hour seizure and lapsed into a coma for several days. This type of traumatic episode usually results in brain damage and physical disabilities, but Chris made a slow recovery and was competing within eighteen months. Chris Mears won a gold medal in Rio in synchronised diving.

I could go on and tell you about Mo Farah of Great Britain who suffered a fall early in the 10k race and went on to win the gold. Or Etenesh Diro of Ethopia who stumbled and lost a shoe in the 300 metre steeplechase semi-final, then went on to finish the race with one shoe off. Though her time was technically not fast enough to qualify for the final, the judges put her (and two others who were entangled in her fall) through to the finals.

Some of the most compelling moments have been when competing athletes cheer each other on and celebrate each other's success. When Penny Oleksiak (Canada) and Simone Manuel (USA) tied for gold in the 100 metre freestyle swim event, Penny immediately swam over to Simone to congratulate her. The first comments Usain Bolt offered when interviewed by CBC after his gold medal 100 metre run were to congratulate Canadian Andre De Grasse (bronze medal) on his performance. When the rugby sevens team from Fiji won the gold (the first ever Olympic medal for their county), the team formed a circle and sang, "We have overcome, we have overcome, by the blood of the lamb and the word of the Lord, we have overcome." In the medal ceremony, they graciously knelt to accept their medals from Princess Anne. Fiji beat Great Britain with a decisive score of 43 to 7 to capture the gold. British journalist, Sir Clive Woodward, had nothing but praise for the Fijian team. He wrote, "All power to Fiji, they have finally won the Olympic gold medal their extraordinarily talented rugby players deserve. Who couldn’t be moved by their singing and communal prayer at the end? That is the moment of the Olympic Games so far for me. In fact it’s exactly what the Olympics is about and you won’t find a single person in rugby who begrudges them their moment." [1] The spirit of the Olympics is exemplified in people whose actions and attitudes bring competitors and countries together as one.

We have been studying the book of Hebrews in our small group, and we recently read through the list of heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11. Like the Olympians mentioned above, these are people with inspiring stories. Here we find Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Rahab. These were people out of sync with society, they suffered through many hardships, they did not see their dreams realised, but they are commended because they did not give up. Through faith, they kept on trusting God, even when things were not going well. Hebrews 12 continues: "What about us, then? We have such a great cloud of witnesses all around us! What we must do is this: we must put aside each heavy weight, and the sin which gets in the way so easily. We must run the race that lies in front of us, and we must run it patiently. We must look ahead, to Jesus. He is the one who carved out the path for faith, and he's the one who brought it to completion." [2]

N. T. Wright notes that the type of race the writer of Hebrews is referring to is not one where people compete against each other, but a journey together of God's people. What matters most is not who wins, but that all make it home safely. This is a team sport, not an individual event. So how do we run this race, this journey with God? There are three directives found in the passage.

1. Get rid of the baggage that slows us down. Training with weights is one thing, but carrying unnecessary baggage in a race is another thing altogether. We all know the value in learning to suffer well and in bearing another's burdens, but obstacles which trip us up have no redeeming value whatsoever. We must learn to put aside things like sinful habits, petty grievances, bitterness, prejudice, anger, and self-indulgence. They are like chains around our ankles which keep us from making any progress in our spiritual journey, and we must be rid of them.

2. Run with patience. The life of the spirit is not a sprint, but a long haul race. Let us pace ourselves, let us not run out of energy or faith, let us not lose heart when things take longer than we hoped, let us continue to grow in faith and faithfulness every step of the way, and let us cheer each other on as we go.

3. Keep our eyes on Jesus. The long list of heroes we find in Hebrews 11 culminates in Jesus. He is the pioneer who first ran the course to completion, and we are following in his steps. He opened up the way to God so that we can come into the holy presence of the Almighty. Jesus is more than our example, he is the way; it is by and through him that we are made children of God. And Jesus cheers us on; he is praying and interceding for us, and he is with us through his Spirit. We do not run this race alone. Jesus never loses sight of us, so we do not have to lose sight of Jesus. He is our goal, he is the one to whom we run.

Mo Farah, the 10k runner who fell mid-race, commented, "At one moment I thought my dream was over, my race was over." The 33-year-old said it is “difficult to get back up and win” after falling but he was determined to do it for his stepdaughter Rhianna. He said: “I was thinking 'no, no. I can't let Rhianna down'." [3]

Many run to win, but those who run because of love are in a class all by themselves. Run, beloved, run!
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[1] Sir Clive Woodward, "Rugby sevens is here to stay as gold medal winning Fijians embody true Olympic spirit during celebrations," The Daily Mail, August 12, 2016. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/olympics_2016/article-3735537/Rugby-Sevens-stay-gold-medal-winning-Fijians-embody-true-Olympic-spirit.html
[2] Translation by N.T. Wright.
[3] Caoline Mortimer, "Rio 2016: The moment when Mo Farah thought his Olympic dream was over," The Independent, August 15, 2016.  http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/olympics/news/mo-farah-fall-rio-2016-olympic-gold-medal-10000m-team-gb-win-a7189866.html

Thursday, August 04, 2016

the sound of two small coins

Schwartz's deli on Monday night
I have a love/hate relationship with hospitality. In theory, I love opening my home and my table to friends and strangers, and in the process of preparation, whether that be cleaning bathrooms and floors, converting my office into a guest bedroom, or buying and preparing food, I am mindful to prepare my heart as well, to create a space where people are welcome. I do this because I realise that I am a constant recipient of God's gracious hospitality, that I have been warmly embraced by a heavenly Father, and that there is a seat at the feast of Jesus always available to me. And yet, because I am a person of limited resources and social energy, my hospitality, when stretched to its limits, begins to look more like resentful hostility. I hate it when that happens.

We came back from a wonderful, whirlwind tour of Europe last week. The people who had been staying in our condo while we were gone remained with us for another week after we returned home. A day after they left, another set of house guests arrived for a 24-hour stay. In between the two visits, I spent a whole day doing umpteen loads of laundry and giving my house a thorough cleaning. It was exhausting. I struggled to keep a positive attitude, to resist complaining and whining about the enormous amount of energy back to back visitors required. To be clear, both sets of houseguests were wonderful, kind, generous people who were very respectful of our home, but we do not live in a big place. Dean and I sleep in a loft which has no door and is open to the living space below. We have only one shower which everyone must share. Every time we have guests, I move part of my office upstairs to our bedroom. It is less than ideal.

The morning the second set of houseguests were to arrive, I sat at my dining room table and offered the day and all its challenges to God. I wanted to be hospitable, but felt woefully inadequate. Our home is small and my heart was a bit small as well, weary from travel and weeks of demanding social situations. How could I be gracious and generous when I had so little to draw on? Help me, God, I prayed. I immediately thought of the story of the widow's offering. Jesus was at the temple in Jerusalem with his disciples. "He turned His attention from the religious scholars to some wealthy people who were depositing their donations in the offering boxes. A widow, obviously poor, came up and dropped two copper coins in one of the boxes. Jesus said, 'I’m telling you the truth, this poor widow has made a bigger contribution than all of those rich fellows. They’re just giving from their surplus, but she is giving from her poverty—she’s giving all she has to give.'" (Luke 21, The Voice)

The widow, disadvantaged by having no husband to support her, gave two small lepta, the least valuable coin in circulation at the time. Her entire offering constituted only a fraction of a Roman penny. And yet, Jesus' praise for her was high because she gave all she had to give. She gave that which cost her much. That morning, I could identify with the widow in the story, and as I cleaned and scrubbed and made beds and tidied, tired and sweaty, I repeated the prayer, "I don't have much today, Jesus, but I give it to you. I give out of my poverty of hospitality."

The houseguests, whom we had never met before, arrived later that evening. They were relatives of an acquaintance from the UK and had chosen Montreal as the starting point for a cycling trip down to Pennsylvania. They had their own challenges to deal with because their plane was delayed, one of their bags didn't make it, and one of the bikes had been damaged in transit. We deposited them in the guest room, chatted a bit, and then headed downtown for a late dinner. 

The barbeque place Dean wanted to try was closed, so we ended up at Schwartz's deli, a Montreal landmark. The place is noted for its aging decor, rather abrupt serving staff, crowded tables, and classic smoked meat sandwiches. We found an empty table near the back and placed our orders. Halfway into our meal, we were joined by a young couple (everyone sits family style at long tables). We acknowledged them and continued with our conversation. The guests asked about my doctoral dissertation. I always feel inadequate trying to distill my thoughts on dramatic theology into a minute or two of light conversation, so I fumbled a bit trying to find the right words. I talked about God not writing a set script for us to follow, but inviting us to create a story together with him, much like improv where what everyone brings to the story matters. In essence, God says, Yes, I will be affected by you because this is the type of relationship I desire. God does not give us a set of rules to follow, a guidebook (the Bible) which details how to do things right, but a living story into which he invites us.

The man who had been sitting next to us eating a plate of meat, interrupted our conversation and said to our guests, "Listen to her. What she says is important. I did not mean to listen in, but she speaks words of life. I know because this is how my mother talked. These are pure words. We need more of this in our world. God bless you." I don't remember every word that man said to us, but I remember turning my face to him, stilling my mind, and listening as closely as I could, because in that moment, in a crowded deli late at night in Montreal, a Middle Eastern man eating a meal with his pregnant wife was speaking the words of God to me.

Many days I feel small, insignificant, weak, under-resourced, inefficient, and powerless. I am the widow with only a few small coins to my name. I can be prone to clutching them tightly in my fist, unwilling to share. I can complain about my lack, feeling the injustice of it when I see others with more. Sometimes I suffer the ache of life's disappointments silently, letting sadness rest in my soul. But, thank God, there are also times when I take those pitiful coins and toss them freely into the treasury of God, offering them to the Creator who can make something out of nothing. In the economy of the kingdom of heaven, two small coins clang louder than the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange and make more noise than a lavish display of fireworks. That night, over smoked meat, french fries, and black cherry sodas, I was given a gift that weighed much more than a thousand bars of gold. When the man had finished speaking, I bowed my head to him and uttered a simple, "Thank you. God bless you." In that moment, I was a very rich girl.