Wednesday, July 13, 2016

lessons from a theological memoir and a television series about lawyers

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It's a hot Wednesday afternoon, so let's talk about false binaries. Basically, a false binary or false dichotomy happens when a person's options are artificially limited to two choices, thereby excluding all other possibilities. Insisting on the limited choice of either A or B leaves no room for middle ground or another, more creative solution. In other words, a false binary assumes the rest of the alphabet (after A and B) does not exist.

Binary thinking is quite prevalent in our society. Either you are for me or against me. Either you are guilty or innocent. Either you are a Democrat or a Republican, conservative or liberal. Either you are a Christian or a pagan. Either you are all in or all out. Admittedly, it is convenient to see things as either black or white, but we live in a multi-coloured world and not everything fits neatly into two categories. This is why insisting there are only two choices when, in fact, other options exist, is labeled as a fallacy in logic and reason.

This week I came across two examples of false binaries. One was in a book I am currently reading, theologian Stanley Hauerwas' memoir entitled Hannah's Child. He describes a scenario that I have seen all too often in Christian circles: a leader getting all defensive when someone critiques their ideas. Instead of listening to the person's honest concerns, the leader interprets the critique as a vote of non-confidence, or worse, a sign of infidelity to the purposes of God.

Here is the story. A new pastor, keen to implement a church growth strategy, was hired at Hauerwas' church. She laid out her plan for the future of the church at a committee meeting: two services, a phone-a-thon, and becoming a less tight-knit community in order to welcome newcomers. She also planned to lead a delegation of members to a megachurch to find out how they did things. Hauerwas was stunned and upset. The community church he had lovingly served for years was about to be torn apart for the sake of higher numbers. He made an appointment to see the new pastor. When Hauerwas expressed his concern about her plan because it went against everything he stood for, she accused him of being against evangelism. Didn't he want to bring people to Jesus? (See the false binary there? If you are not on board with church growth plans, you are against evangelism. No other option possible).

I quote Hauerwas: "I told her the problem was not that she wanted to bring people to Jesus, but that she wanted to do so with means shaped by economic modes of life incompatible with the gospel. She asked me how I could be so critical of what she was trying to do. She had, after all, graduated from Duke Divinity School." Just so you know, Duke Divinity School is where Hauerwas teaches. He replied in his typical, no nonsense manner: "I told her that I found it profoundly embarrassing that she was a graduate of Duke Divinity School. What in the world were we doing to produce people who did not seem to have a theological clue about what they were ordained to do?" [1]

Hauerwas' story is as sad as it is instructional. As a theologian who works in ethics, Hauerwas is concerned that our words, our actions, and our methods are in sync with the gospel of Jesus, and that we never disconnect any one of these from the others. In the above scenario, he rightly saw that using marketing methods to bring people into contact with Jesus was an exercise in counter-productivity. The method would be fighting against the message the whole time. However, since the new pastor was working from the assumption that there were only two options - either Hauerwas was on board with her church growth strategies or he was anti-evangelism - she was unable to see that there might be a problem with her plan. She was blind to other options. Though Hauerwas' answer comes across as a little harsh, he is actually taking some of the responsibility for her narrow way of thinking about evangelism.

The second example comes from a BBC series I am watching on Netflix. Silk is the story of a group of barristers in London and their professional and personal challenges. The main character is called Martha and she is a bright and shining light of integrity in a world dominated by politics and power (you see why I like it!). Nevertheless, the system she is in has severe limitations because it is an artificial binary. As you get to know her clients, you soon realise that no one is truly innocent. But neither are people entirely guilty; there is always more to the story than the viewer supposes.

Though the justice system is supposedly built to get at the truth, it actually masks it in many cases. And this is because it is a very limited, binary system. Even worse, it is an adversarial system, pitting parties against each other instead of having them work together to seek truth and justice. Prosecutors and defenders end up trying to hide certain facts from each other or skew the story in a way which favours their side. An adversarial system inevitably becomes more about winning than about the stated goal, which in the practice of law is justice. It becomes more about being proven right or capable, or protecting one's reputation or status, than about discovering and revealing the truth. A binary system (either guilty or innocent) overlooks the complex motivations of the human heart and our context within a community. The false binary assumes that we can either be declared blameless or found entirely responsible. Seldom is it either. It also allows little room for repentance, restitution, and restoration.

Binary systems appear to make things simple, but many times, they are false. And by insisting on them, we reveal our faulty assumptions and lack of creativity. An incident in Joshua 5 illustrates this: "Now when Joshua was by Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him. In His hand was His drawn sword. Joshua went to Him and said, “Are You for us or for our enemies?” He said, “Neither, for I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” Then Joshua fell with his face to the ground and worshipped. Then he said, “What does my Lord wish to say to His servant?” The commander of the army of the Lord said to Joshua, “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” So Joshua did this." (Modern English Version)

Joshua was getting ready for battle, so he assumed that anyone he encountered was either for him or against him. He was incorrect. Instead of engaging in a battle, he found himself on holy ground. The required action was not to take up a sword but to remove his footwear and worship. May we lay down our swords and assumptions and recognise holy ground when we stand on it.

Here is one final false binary. This time, Jesus is the one who blows it apart. "Jesus passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But it happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him." (John 9, MEV)

May we lay aside our false binaries and listen for the creative, instructive words of the Spirit of Jesus so that the works of God may be displayed more fully in us and in our world. Amen. 

[1] Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010), 259.

Monday, June 27, 2016

faith + full

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Talking about faithfulness can be tricky. Many of us have been beaten over the head with the faithfulness stick, told that we should be doing more, doing it better, and doing it more often, because this is what God expects and demands from us. To that I say a simple No. I want no part of burdening anyone with that heavy yoke, so this is not that.

We have all had people break their promises, not show up when they said they would, bail on us when we needed them, reverse their good opinions of us, or just disappear from our lives. It hurts when someone is unfaithful. I think we all agree that the world would be a better place if everyone was faithful, but this character trait does not come easy. Becoming faithful people, people who reflect the nature of a faithful God, does not happen by sheer determination and will-power. Just as we learn to love by being loved, we learn to be faithful by trusting the Faithful One.

If we look at the word, faithful, it means one who is full of faith. The Greek word for faith (pistis) has two different modes: In the active voice, it means trusting and believing in someone or something. In the passive voice, it means being someone who is trustworthy and dependable, inspiring faith. In other words, we have faith in someone who is faithful. The Latin word for faithful is fidelis and it means firmly and resolutely staying with a person, group, cause, belief, or idea, without waver, despite the circumstances. The motto of the United States Marines, Semper Fidelis (always faithful), reflects their unswerving commitment to each other and to their mission. In Hebrew, there is no one word consistently translated as faithfulness, but chesed (goodness, lovingkindness, steadfast love) is often used together with emeth (firmness, truth) to emphasize God's loyalty to his people. The idea here is that of holding fast or steady, of inspiring trust in others. In the Hebrew Bible, God reveals himself as a covenant-maker (which is not the same thing as a deal-maker), faithful to himself and to his promises, even when the other party, Israel, is not.

We are called to have faith in God and trust him because he has shown himself to be a faithful God. Faith is a response to the revelation that God is loving, kind, and trustworthy. "But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Psalm 86:15). "The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning" (Lam 3:22-23). Faith and faithfulness are meant to work together, each one supporting and expanding the other. God reveals himself as faithful, therefore we have faith in him. As we trust him more, we see more of his faithfulness, so we rely on him more and more. In the process of learning to trust, we begin to become faithful people ourselves, more prone to reliability than doubt, duplicity, and hesitancy. Being in relationship with a covenant God means that we are called to be covenant people. Because faith and faithfulness are intricately related, very often a lack of faithfulness on our part can be a sign that we are having trouble trusting God.

In the book of Daniel, we read about three friends who exemplified faithfulness. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego were taken from their home in Judah when Nebuchadnezzar conquered Israel and forced its finest youths to live and work in Babylon. They were expected to adapt to a foreign culture with strange food, different religious practices, and a new set of values. Their captors called on them to work not for the well-being of their own nation, but for the prosperity of their enemies. For all intents and purposes, it appeared that God had forsaken these young men. However, they worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Though Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego could perhaps not recognize the faithfulness of God in their immediate circumstances, they no doubt knew their history, that God had been faithful to Abraham, and then to Isaac, and then to Jacob after that. The covenant-making God had proved his faithfulness in generations past, so even though this particular chapter (captivity in Babylon) wasn't looking so good, the three friends trusted that God would keep his promises.

When the megalomaniac king, Nebuchadnezzar, erected a giant statue for all to worship, they refused. The angry monarch threatened to toss them into a fiery furnace, asking them, "What god is there who can rescue you out of my hands?" Even though God had not rescued the three young men from captivity in Babylon, they responded with faith in God's ongoing faithfulness. "O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to answer you on this point. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire, and He will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up!” (Dan 3:16-18). Whether or not God would rescue them from death in a furnace was not the basis of their faith. They knew that the larger story which there were a part of, the story which had at its core the covenant God made to bless Israel and all the nations of the world, would never be derailed. God was a faithful God, and an angry, powerful king was no threat to God's trustworthiness. Therefore, they did not hesitate to be faithful witnesses to this God. The story goes on to tell about their remarkable rescue from the fire and the presence of a fourth man in the flames.

When God is described as the God of God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it refers to a God who keeps his promises from generation to generation. This phrase receives a new twist when Nebuchadnezzar responds to the miraculous turn of events he has just witnessed: “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, who has sent His angel and rescued His servants who believed in, trusted in, and relied on Him! " (Dan 3:28). The three friends now had their own story of God's faithfulness to pass down to future generations. This story gives me hope (and I don't mean to be presumptuous) that someday people will look at my life and respond similarly: "Blessed be the God of Matte who rescued her and has done great things for her." The story of the covenant-making, promise-keeping God is told in each generation in its own way.

Most of us won't encounter a fiery furnace scenario in which we can demonstrate faithfulness, so let me suggest a few other areas in which faithfulness can be practiced.
1. Time: Faithfulness is not a one-time thing. It is demonstrated by regularity, consistency, and longevity. It is doing the loving thing over and over and over again. The psalmist declares to God: "Your faithfulness endures to all generations." (Psalm 119:90)
2. Action. Faithfulness means that words and actions match up. In other words, we don't say one thing and do another or say something and never get around to it. Read the creation account in Genesis 1 to see how inseparable words and actions are for God.
3. Presence. Faithfulness means that we show up, we are not absent. We do not excuse ourselves from difficult or challenging situations. "The Lord is near to all who call on him" (Psalm 145:18).
4. Integrity. Basically, this means being true to oneself, being dependable, being a covenant person. Even if everyone else bails out or changes their mind, a faithful person remains true. "If we are unfaithful, He remains faithful, for He is not able to deny himself" (2 Tim 2:13).
5. Selflessness. A faithful person is not self-interested, only doing what they want. They look out for the interests of others. Just ask a US Marine which is more important: their own safety or the safety of their unit? We see this same attitude in Jesus: "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve" (Matthew 20:28).
6. Generosity. Faithfulness is not an equal exchange. Just because a person breaks a promise to you does not mean that you are excused from being faithful. Our covenant God gives freely, not expecting to be paid back, because faithfulness is based in steadfast love, not reciprocity.
7. Being Invested. Faithfulness means that we invest ourselves in something greater than ourselves. We recognize that what we do matters, so we do not expect others to pick up the slack while we relax or rely on others to clean up our messes. We take ownership of our areas of responsibility. The good and faithful servant in Matthew 25 was an investor.

I believe God is calling us to be faithful people in a faithless world, but not merely because it is the right thing to do. We are called to be faithful, covenant people because our God is a faithful, covenant God. And the more we love him and trust him, the more we become like him. God says: “I will never [under any circumstances] desert you [nor give you up nor leave you without support, nor will I in any degree leave you helpless], nor will I forsake or let you down or relax My hold on you [assuredly not]!” (Hebrews 13:5, Amplified Bible).

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

who wants to be vulnerable?

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Over the past few weeks, I have sensed a renewed call to vulnerability. Life is a bit unsettled right now because I am in a transition from student to who-knows-what. In times like this when it is hard to find one's footing, the tendency can be to come up with a plan and implement it as soon as possible. This can give one the sense that things are on track, at least for a short period of time, but most often that plan just delays the inevitable. Lobsters and butterflies teach us that maturity requires periods of vulnerability, times when our old shells and forms must be shed in order to undergo a necessary transformation. These transitions are not to be hurried through. Take at look at your own body and you will see that healing and growth happen slowly, one cell at a time, at a pace which allows your body to adjust to the change with minimal trauma.

The theme of vulnerability was reinforced for me in three different settings this past week. The first was during a leadership retreat held in a remote location on the shore of Lake of the Woods. Leaders and pastors from all across Canada gathered in a room and, with the calm lake visible through the windows, we worshiped God, we prayed, we conversed, we cried and laughed, we ate, and we dreamed. Though there was a rudimentary structure to our gatherings, plenty of space was made for things to develop organically. One such moment happened when a leader veered from the schedule and instead of giving a report, vulnerably admitted his weakness. We surrounded him in silence, our physical bodies forming a wall of protection around him. Another place where vulnerability gave way to generous grace was when differing opinions and viewpoints surfaced within the group. I watched in amazement as every voice was listened to and heard. Instead of dividing the group or setting off arguments, the differences became part of the process of working together and getting to know each other. Some of us struggled with adopting a learning posture when it came to things we thought we knew or had already worked through, but the gentle responses of the group and an overall commitment to openness and humility prevailed during some potentially awkward exchanges. Vulnerability generated compassion and a renewed sense of community.

Scenario number two: Immediately after the leadership retreat, we headed to Winnipeg for a series of gatherings called Metanoia (think again) which focused on listening, prayerful interaction, worship in various forms, and re-thinking some of our practices and presuppositions as Vineyard Churches in Canada. Michael Raburn, a friend and scholar from North Carolina, challenged us to be a people who tell the truth to each other. Michael referenced Augustine who says that we all lie all the time. The only times we really tell the truth are in adoration (worship) and in confession (prayer). Too often we slide into fudging the truth in order to manipulate others or we distort the truth in order to conquer those we consider inferior. Perhaps most insidiously, we can withhold truth because we believe we need to protect people and act on their behalf (paternalism). All three (manipulation, conquest, and paternalism) are forms of lying, concealing, and distortion meant to reinforce or ensure our superiority. This is not how it should be. We must be people who tell the truth, and this means we must be willing to be vulnerable.

Finally, I read something on the flight home which spoke to me about the necessity of vulnerability in prayer. I have been working my way through In His Image by Dr. Paul Brand, a book which explores different aspects of the body as an analogy for the church. This particular chapter was on the interaction between the brain and the body. The brain, for all intents and purposes, has no direct contact with the outside world. It is housed in an armoured vehicle known as the skull, and though it is intimately involved in all aspects of the body's functions, it never encounters the body's environment. The brain is constantly sending out signals to the body, telling legs to walk, arms to lift, and eyes to blink. Similarly, the body is constantly sending signals back to the brain so that the brain can make the necessary adjustments. The brain tells the legs to walk. The legs respond and after a few steps, send back signals that the foot has just stepped on a sharp object. The brain sends a message to quickly lift the foot in order to prevent further injury, and another message to shift weight to the other leg. It receives a message that the body is now off balance, so it sends a command to adjust for the shift. The brain sends signals for the eyes and hands to check out the foot to see what the damage is, and after a brief touch and look, the hands and eyes let the brain know that it is nothing serious. The brain then sends a message to the legs to resume walking at a slower pace and tells the eyes to scan for other potential dangers. The constant stream of messages going back and forth from the brain to the body is what allows the body to function as a marvelous, interconnected whole. And inter-connectivity requires vulnerability. Each part of the body has to trust that the messages it receives from the brain are not random, but a result of millions of bits of information received and collated. The leg has to trust that a command to take on extra stress is for the good of the body as a whole. Likewise, the brain relies on the different parts of the body to be in constant communication so that it can properly monitor the overall well-being of the body and respond to any changes in the surrounding environment.

Now the analogy can only be pushed so far before it begins to break down. Christ is not a brain inside an impenetrable skull (that would leave no room for the incarnation), and the church is not nearly as attentive to and cooperative with Christ as the physical body is to the brain. Nevertheless, the perpetual communication between the head and the body, necessary in order for life to be sustained, is worth noting. We not only receive directives from the head, but the head longs to hear from us. Every little bit of information, every stimulus, every pain, every joy, every fear, every strength and weakness, all are important to the head. The survival of the whole body, including the brain, depends on the constant communion of the head and the body. In truth, both the head and the body make themselves vulnerable by their reliance on each other.

We are called to be vulnerable because God made himself vulnerable in the form of a helpless baby. If the Eternal One could rely on others, imperfect as they were, to care for him, to feed him, to protect him, to teach him, and to comfort him, perhaps we can learn to trust each other (and ultimately, God) with our weaknesses as well.

"Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change." - Brene Brown

Thursday, June 02, 2016

getting my bounce back

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This afternoon I listened in on a webinar on soul care put on by the Vineyard Church in Canada. One man told his story of how he burnt out as a pastor. After months of struggling, he finally quit and it took him four years before he was able to dream again. He identified some of the problems: the inability to admit we are weak, never giving out of abundance but living paycheck to paycheck (spiritually and emotionally), the pressure to succeed and do well, the fear of failure, and the desire to have people look up to us. I have struggled with most of these in my role as a teacher and pastor. The pressure to perform and do well are constant. I even feel it on this blog. I should be putting up posts weekly (at least) and addressing current, trending topics in order to get my readership up. But some weeks I have nothing to give, and that's okay.

I have spent most of May trying to get my bounce back. The euphoria that followed the successful defense of my doctoral thesis at the beginning of April lasted a few weeks. It carried me through the minor revisions and the final submission of my dissertation eleven days later. Then, it lent wings to my words as I crafted a paper and subsequently presented that paper and also participated in a play reading, responded to a theatrical performance, helped lead a liturgy, and hosted a table at a women's breakfast at a conference at the end of April. After I returned home, I was definitely ready for some down time. I had been warned that after finishing a PhD, I would probably experience a bit of depression or a sense of being lost. And this is to be expected, considering the fact that something which has taken up most of my thoughts and energies and focus for the past five years (8 years if you count my qualifying year and my master's degree) is suddenly no longer there.

I was not burnt out, but I was very depleted. Feeling the pressure to do something with my degree, I started looking at job opportunities and they all seemed to require so much effort. Instead of exciting me, job listings filled me with dread. I could never measure up to a university's expectations. And the application process itself was so involved. And there were usually hundreds of applicants for every position. It was overwhelming. I knew I needed some time to replenish, so I turned to a book that had been sitting on my shelf for the past few years and decided now was the time to work my way through it.

The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron is a book which guides the reader through 12 weeks of exercises and readings meant to unblock the artist within. It seeks to give one a road-map for ongoing creative flourishing and freedom. The material itself (at least thus far) is not totally new to me, and I already have quite a bit of freedom in the creative process, but the exercises have helped a great deal in uncovering unhealthy pressures and restrictions in my life. Years of being a doctoral student and a lecturerer led to an unspoken pressure to be the person who knows things. Every subject which came up, I had to know something about it, and if I didn't, I immediately started researching it. It was always a losing battle, let me tell you. One of the exercises in the course is reading deprivation. Just the thought of it sent me into a mild panic, but I decided it was important for me to learn contentment in not knowing, to learn that I did not have to research every little thing that came across my path or came up in conversation. I told myself it was okay not to be the expert, to say I don't know and leave it at that. Being knowledgeable is a pretty big pressure in academia, and it is a burden I have carried for many years. I want to see knowledge as a gift, not a burden.

Cameron offers two basic tools in the book: morning pages and the artist date. Morning pages are simply three pages of longhand written every morning, stream of consciousness, whatever comes out of your head and heart and hand. It is a means of listening to yourself and listening to the Holy Spirit. At its most basic, it is uncensored prayer. The artist date is a means of feeding or replenishing your artist, your inner child. Each week, you are encouraged to take yourself on a date, to do something which makes you feel alive and refreshed. These simple excursions have made a noticeable difference in me. I no longer rush away after our church meetings, totally worn out by speaking and ministering to others, but find myself talking, smiling, and engaging with people during our informal lunches together. That hasn't happened in many, many months, perhaps years.

I missed going on an official, intentional artist date last week because I was away on a trip, and it didn't take a psychologist to tell me that I have less energy to give to others and to my tasks this week. Artist dates are food, and without food, everything starts to fall apart. The creative self feeds on images, on touch, on delight, on nature, on story, on movement, on adventure, and on connection. Cameron suggests that long walks are a good place to start; in fact, she incorporates a daily regiment of walking into her schedule because she has found it helpful in maintaining a healthy balance in her life. For my first artist date, I went to a place I had meant to check out for a few years (one of the cat cafes in the city) and I was as excited as a kid going to Disneyland. It was a beautiful, warm spring day and everything around me teemed with new life. I might even have squealed a few times during my outing. My second artist date focused on the sense of touch. As I walked through my neighbourhood, instead of just looking at things, I touched them. I touched grass, flowers, leaves, rocks, brick, bark, wood chips, and cool water. I took off my sandals and walked barefoot. It was amazing how much pleasure I derived from this simple sense exercise which reminded me of my childhood (kids are always touching everything in their world). These days, we are so oriented to the visual (screen time is a big factor) and the virtual, that we are often out of touch, quite literally, with our environment.

My artist date this week will be doing something badly and delighting in it. Again, this is something children do quite naturally: producing a lovely mess baking cookies, boldly making awkward scribbles on a white page, and laughing through wobbly moments while learning to ride a bike. I plan to sit outside in the park tomorrow and sketch the scene in front of me. It will no doubt barely resemble the real thing, but I will enjoy being free to create without the pressure to do it perfectly. Just yesterday, I felt the old familiar tingle of excitement over a possible job opportunity and I actually started thinking about crafting a proposal for consideration. It has been two months, but I am slowly starting to dream again. The bounce is coming back.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

God, me, and a rope

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Take a rope and hold one end in your hands. Imagine that God holds the other end. What does your relationship and communication with God look like? Are you the one constantly pulling on the rope, trying to get God's attention, hoping that he will give you what you need, trying to drag him closer to you and your situation? Or does it feel like the Almighty One is doing most of the pulling, making demands on you, insisting that you move, yanking you out of your comfort zone all the time? Or maybe somewhere in the craziness of life you feel like you have accidentally dropped your end of the rope and now you can't find it. The connection seems lost.

Henri Nouwen believes that loving (or rightly relating to) God involves moving from illusion to prayer. And what is the illusion? Or more accurately, what are our illusions (plural)? We might think that we are in control, that it is our story we are telling, our drama we are living. Or that it is up to us to make things happen. Or that God is a hard task master, easy to displease. Or perhaps that God is like us and has our attitudes, prejudices, temperament, biases, limitations, etc. Or that our life and the lives of others must be defended as property instead of received as gifts. Regarding this last point, Nouwen says, "By acting on the illusion that the world belongs to us as private property which nobody ever can take away from us, we become a threat to each other and make intimacy impossible." Perhaps you can add a few other illusions to that short list, illusions which keep us from developing intimacy with God. Unmasking illusions is hard, ongoing work. Just this past Sunday, during our communal gathering, I spent most of the worship time battling the illusion that our humble faith community is falling apart because we are incapable of getting things right. This illusion relies on the assumption that we are the ones responsible for building the Church when in fact, Jesus indicates that he is the one who does this important work.

Some of us do not suffer much from nagging doubts or thoughts of incompetency and failure. Instead, we are prone to illusions of grandeur; we believe we are doing something great for God. Both extremes are distortions of the truth, a remaking of God based on our own perceptions. Nouwen states that, "The idols of our dreams ... are humbling reminders that we still have a long way to go before we are ready to meet our God, not the God created by our own hands or mind, but the uncreated God out of whose loving hands we are born." As followers of Jesus, we want to come out of the landscape of illusion and enter into meaningful, intimate communion with God. In other words, we want to learn how to pray.

So what is prayer? Once again I turn to Nouwen to offer some clarity: "The God with whom we enter into a new relationship is greater than we are and defies all our calculations and predictions. The movement from illusion to prayer is hard to make since it leads us from false certainties to true uncertainties, from an easy support system to a risky surrender, and from the many 'safe' gods to the God whose love has no limits." The paradox of prayer is that while it is a gift, a communion which only God can initiate, it is also a skill which we must practice and as such, it can be challenging, demanding work. Nevertheless, communing with God is meant to be natural, as much a part of us as breathing. Nouwen states: "We are like asthmatic people who are cured of their anxiety. The Spirit has taken away our narrowness (the Latin word for anxiety is angustus - narrowness) and made everything new for us. We receive a new breath, a new freedom, a new life. This new life is the divine life of God himself. Prayer, therefore, is God's breathing in us, by which we become part of the intimacy of God's inner life, and by which we are born anew."

Moving from illusion to prayer is not only an internal posture; there are certain practices, readily observable in the lives of those who regularly pray and commune with God, which can guide us. Nouwen lists three:

1. A contemplative reading of Scripture (receiving the words as a seed). Nouwen explains: "Instead of taking the words apart, we should bring them together in our innermost being; instead of wondering if we agree or disagree, we should wonder which words are directly spoken to us and connect directly with our most personal story. Instead of thinking about the words as potential subjects for an interesting dialogue or paper, we should be willing to let them penetrate into the most hidden corners of our heart, even to those places where no other word has yet found entrance. Then and only then can the word bear fruit as seed sown in rich soil."

2. A silent listening to the voice of God (learning to be still). "Being useless and silent in the presence of our God belongs to the core of all prayer. In the beginning we often hear our own unruly inner voices more loudly than God's voice. This is at times very hard to tolerate. But slowly, very slowly, we discover that the silent time makes us quiet and deepens our awareness of ourselves and God." Nouwen notes that reading the Scriptures makes silence more fruitful and keeps it from being stale. Similarly, being still makes room for the God-breathed words of Scripture to do their re-creative work.

3. A trusting obedience to a spiritual guide (embracing submission within the community of God). Those of us within the Evangelical tradition might not be too familiar with the idea of having a spiritual director, but some type of ongoing, loving feedback is important if we want to make sure we are not deluding ourselves. On our own, we are tempted to equate our speculations and desires with the will of God. We need someone to guide and encourage us, as well as someone to discourage us when we are tempted to make rash and unwise moves. Spiritual guides can assist us in discarding our illusions and can also keep us from developing new ones. Spiritual guides come in many forms: trained spiritual directors, wise friends, trusted leaders, historical figures, traditions, even examples of prayer and the writings of the saints. It is up to us to look for them and to heed them. Spiritual guides are all around us if we but open our eyes and trust the Spirit of Jesus to lead us. In an age where individualism is over-emphasized, we must remind ourselves that we do not walk this path alone. We are part of a holy community and as such, we must learn to trust the Spirit of Jesus in the community to aid us, correct us, and teach us.

In Psalm 46 we read: "Our God says, 'Calm down [be still, be quiet, cease striving], and learn that I am God!" (Psalm 46:10, my additions). The Hebrew word which is often translated "be still" is raphad, and it comes from a word which means "to slacken." We can apply this idea of slackening to the image mentioned at the beginning, that of a rope being held by two people, one at each end. If we stop pulling on the rope and instead, take a step toward the person on the other end, the rope goes slack. The connection is still there, but the tension is gone, the pulling is gone, and the two parties are closer together than they were before. The illusion is that the connection between God and us requires a constant pushing and pulling, that it is a never-ending struggle (and at times it definitely can be). But prayer is not a tug of war, it is not a power struggle. When we are still, when we cease striving, when we let the rope slacken, we find that he is closer to us than we imagined.


This is part three of a series called The Three Interconnected Loves. You can read part one (Loving Yourself) here and the second part on Loving your Neighbour here. Many of the ideas are drawn from Henri Nouwen's excellent book, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Doubleday, 1975).

Monday, May 09, 2016

loving my neighbour

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I have been teaching a mini-series in our faith community dealing with the three interconnected loves found in the answer to the question, "Which is the most important commandment?" Jesus' reply is this: "You should love the Eternal, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second great commandment is this: Love others in the same way as you love yourself. There are no commandments more important than these" (Mark 12:30-31, The Voice).

You can find a summary of my first talk on loving yourself here. Now I turn my attention to what it means to rightly relate to our neighbour, or to the other. It is imperative to remember that we cannot neatly dissect these three relationships; how we relate to ourselves is directly related to how we perceive God relates to us and likewise, how we relate to others is directly related to how we believe God views the other. If any one of these relationships (to ourselves, to others, to God) are out of whack, the others are affected. I have been reading a book by Kathleen Norris on the vocabulary of faith. It is her attempt to review and reclaim some of the terms which have been hurtful and unhelpful in their use within religious settings. One of the chapters is titled, "Hell," and she makes a rather shocking statement which directly ties together our relationship with God to our relationship with the other. She writes: "How human beings treat each other has everything to do with our concept of hell." [1] Really?

What she is saying is that if we view God as a cold, harsh judge who declares certain people in (you deserve to enter heaven) and certain people out (you deserve to be cast into hell), we will treat others in this same, cold manner. We will either accept people into our circle or reject them based on our assessment of their goodness. Is this what Jesus calls us to do? Let's look at Matthew 25 where Jesus is telling some parables about what the kingdom of heaven is like. He first talks about the wise and foolish virgins waiting for the bridegroom and then about the master who left his servants with talents to invest during his absence. After these stories we find another metaphor in which the Son of Man, the King of glory, is compared to a shepherd who separates the sheep from the goats. The emphasis has often been placed on the statements of judgment: "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" versus "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." However, I believe that the point of the story is not to show us a glimpse of the final judgment, but to describe the actions of sheep who know their shepherd's voice; in other words, it is another description of what it looks like to live in the kingdom of God. It is about how to love (rightly relate) to the other.

Jesus says: "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." The language here is that of hospitality: treating others with kindness, having a welcoming attitude, and offering the basic necessities to the marginalized and outcasts of society. We also see the language of proximity: those who are welcoming and generous are seen as coming closer to the King of glory (come). Those who do not extend hospitality are depicted as becoming more distant from the King (depart from me). Finally, there is the language of recognition: Jesus indicates that the Son of Man, the King of glory, can be seen in the other, especially the outcast, the poor and the needy. We are invited to recognise Jesus in these unlikely (and perhaps unlikable) forms, and to love God through loving others. Kathleen Norris writes: "Christ will recognize us at the judgment if he already knows us, if he has seen our faces as we served the outcasts of this world; the hungry, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned. The promise is that we will recognize him as well, as we have already met him in these others." [2]

As Christians in the Western world, we can assume a position of superiority all too quickly. Jesus is quick to condemn this attitude. In Matthew 5, he says, "If you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell [gehenna] of fire." Norris comments on this: "I shudder to think of all the times that I have dismissed other people in this way, at least in my thoughts, which count. It may be permissible to identify another's behavior as foolish, particularly if it also forces me to reflect on my own foolishness. But to say, "you fool," is to negate God's presence in a creature God has made. It is to invite God's absence, which is my definition of hell." [3] Strong words. We would do well to heed them.

Henri Nouwen indicates that as followers of Jesus, our relationships to others should move from hostility toward hospitality. Our vocation is to convert the enemy (hostis) into a guest (hospes), a loved one. When we see Jesus present in others, we seek to reveal the promise they carry within them as image-bearers of God. In rightly relating to others, we are called to create space where change can take place, both in ourselves and in them. We are to do what Christ has done for us, and that is to love without the assurance that we will be loved back. "But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). Nouwen also notes that in order to truly appreciate hospitality, we must become strangers ourselves and be willing to give up the position of host. This means that we are willing to relinquish home turf and situate ourselves outside of places of comfort and plenty; we are willing to embrace discomfort and need.

In contrast to the assumption that we need to have much in order to be hospitable or generous, Nouwen suggests that poverty makes a good host. He outlines three areas where we can practice poverty and thereby, become more hospitable to others [4]
1. Poverty of posture: "We can only perceive the stranger as an enemy as long as we have something to defend. But when we say, 'Please enter - my house is your house, my joy is your joy, my sadness is your sadness and my life is your life,' we have nothing to defend, since we have nothing to lose but all to give."
2. Poverty of mind: "Someone who is filled with ideas, concepts, opinions and convictions cannot be a good host. There is no inner space to listen, no openness to discover the gift of the other."
3. Poverty of heart: "When our heart is filled with prejudices, worries, jealousies, there is little room for the stranger."

I started off my talk by tossing out a few names and asking people to say the first word that came to mind. I mentioned Justin Bieber, an inebriated street person outside the library where our church meets, our current Prime Minister, and the person sitting next to us. It was no surprise that there were kind words spoken about some and rather strong and distasteful ones spoken about others, but according to Jesus, all of these people are our neighbours. The lonely, needy, and hurting among us may indeed be the outcasts of society, but they may also be the rich and famous. The very briefest look at the lives of famous people from the past few decades, those whom we tend to idolize, will reveal that they too are broken and hurting, in need of healing and wholeness and friendship, just like the rest of us.

How do we relate rightly to (love) the other? By recognizing Jesus in them and making space for them at our table, in our minds, and in our hearts. Why? Because this is what Jesus does for us every day.

[1] Kathleen Norris. Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 312.
[2] Norris, 314-15.
[3] Norris, 315.
[4] Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1975), 73-75.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

a hospitality conference: eating, drinking, and changing my thinking

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I was privileged to be a part of Society of Vineyard Scholars conference last week. The theme of the conference was Hospitality, Holiness, and the Kingdom of God. It was hosted by the lovely folks at the Raleigh Vineyard Church in South Carolina, and we all got a taste of Southern hospitality in the form of local favourites such as sweet tea, biscuits, pulled pork, and shrimp and grits. Yes, focusing on hospitality meant that we were offered kindness, meals, housing, and rides to and from the venue, but it also meant that we were invited to do a bit of hard work: the hard work of embracing the unfamiliar and the strange(r). Here are a few snippets from my conference notes.

Hospitality is more than inviting a few people over for a meal in the comfort of my own home. This is a limited form of hospitality because in this scenario I remain on my home turf and, for the most part, still make the rules. True hospitality challenges me to "play the game" on the field of the stranger, to not only welcome them but to rely on them for my well-being and growth. Hospitality or xenophilia (love of the stranger) requires that I give up those things commonly associated with the hospitality industry (privacy, comfort, and security) and instead, relinquish power and preferential treatment in order to take on the posture of a guest, to be a displaced person, so to speak.

Jesus practiced a form of hospitality which placed him in both roles simultaneously: he was a guest who relied on the kindness of strangers (today I am coming to your house, Zaccheus) as well as a host who generously offering himself through friendship, food, healing, and transformation to all who would accept his offerings. To continue the sports analogy, he was seldom on home turf and had no home field advantage to speak of. This was intentional. The gracious, generous nature of the incarnation indicates, in part, that God took on human form not in order to assimilate us, but to protect and enjoy the particularity of humanity.

Some of the talks at the conference included harsh reality-checks, such as realising how inhospitable we can be to different traditions of music, how limited we are in styles of preaching and leadership, and how we are slow to adapt to increasing multi-ethnicity. Instead, we expect the world to adapt to the way we are used to doing things, and make little effort to truly welcome others by becoming informed about their traditions and history and seeking to learn from them. Being hospitable in this way means we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, with embracing different ways of doing things within our faith communities even when everything inside us wants to recoil and react because certain practices seem so foreign to us. Please note that I am not talking about changing core values of the kingdom of God, but ways and means. In short, hospitality is difficult stuff.

Christine Pohl reminded us that hospitality is not an instrument to an end, not a way to catch donors or members, not about return on investment, not a strategy for church growth and evangelism. Hospitality is related to holiness, and it is a place of vulnerability where we give people a home, a place in a community, a space to add their unique contribution. Hospitality means that we can no longer view our time and resources as our own, because most opportunities for hospitality arrive as interruptions.

Luke Bretherton said that if we are to be a hospitable people (for we have a very hospitable God), we must not only host others, but be in relationship with others, and foster a common life together. As followers of God, we strive to listen to God, but we must also listen to the cries of those among us. We are not only a community of faith (joined by our devotion to God) but a community of fate (part of the lives of those around us). For this reason, we must be attentive to the dynamics in our neighbourhoods, our work contexts, and our informal gathering sites. We must be careful not to define the world through our own eyes and history and experience, but to realise that we are meant to figure things out together. We need to learn to work and play together with those who do not look and sound like us.

These are just a few of the notes from the conference which ended up being a place of great joy and connection and challenge for me. I will close with a personal story. The venue where we had the conference was not really within walking distance of anything (that felt a bit strange to a city girl who walks everywhere, but hey, that's how things are down there). This meant that after I got a ride to the conference in the morning, I was pretty much stuck there for the day. There was plenty of food and drinks to be had, but I was missing access to some of my favourites like chai latte and Diet Dr. Pepper. I was wandering around the building on Friday morning, just checking things out, when a friend asked if I needed anything. I said, not really, I was just looking around. And then I jokingly added that what I really needed was a Diet Dr. Pepper, but there was no way to get to a store.

A short while later, while I was sitting in a session, someone plopped a bag down on the seat beside me. Inside the bag were two Diet Dr. Peppers. I glanced around and saw my friend slipping out of the room. I was stunned and didn't know quite how to feel. I was thrilled to receive the precious drinks. I felt guilty because I had whined about not being able to walk to a corner store. I wanted to save the gift because it was sacred and at the same time, I wanted to guzzle down the drinks because I was thirsty. I wanted to give back and I wanted to humbly receive and let that be enough. I just sat there for a bit, teary-eyed that someone had been so attentive, so willing, so selfless, and so hospitable to me. Being on the receiving end of loving hospitality can be very disorienting to someone who is in giving mode a lot of the time. Finally, I blinked my tears back and opened one of the drinks. The liquid was like an elixir to my soul which, after a very eventful and taxing term at both school and church, was somewhat depleted. Each sip was a reminder that all of us are guests of the Most High and of each other. Undeserving as we may be, we are constantly being offered good gifts in the most unexpected and often unfamiliar ways. May we be moved to gratefully partake.