Wednesday, August 27, 2008

2 wives

While ironing the small gaggle of wrinkled clothes that had accumulated over the past few days, I watched an episode of Wife Swap earlier this evening. In case you are not a fan of reality tv (though I don't understand how anyone can fail to be mesmerised by the tragedies and joys of others' lives, albeit a carefully orchestrated and edited version of reality), this is not a kinky show with sexual overtones. They simply take two families that are very different, have the wives switch places and assume each other's daily tasks, and then see what drama ensues. The first week is spent living by the rulebook that the resident wife has written to the visiting wife. The second week, the visiting woman gets to introduce a new set of rules, reflecting what she believes is lacking in the current family situation. Can you see the potential for volatile situations yet?

Tonight's episode was about one woman who spent most of her time cultivating her art and personal creativity to the neglect of her children. While she wrote in her journal, the kids were expected to fix themselves breakfast. Of the 4 bedrooms, only one was allocated for the two girls and one boy. The other 3 were for the parents' use. The wife drove the only vehicle while the rest of the family had to get around on bicycles. The children were told not to disturb her while she painted, and their fun consisted of breaking crystal rocks with golf clubs in the back shed (and the parents thought this was a wonder of resourcefulness and commended it).

The other wife spent all her time promoting and catering to her two sons who spent 11 months of the year traveling in a family motocross stunt show. This wife said her life was all about her son's wants and needs; she proudly acknowledged this as her identity and stated that parents need to sacrifice for their children.

This made me think of the tension I sometimes find myself in: that pull between investing in yourself and investing in others; between a life of sacrifice and the pursuit of all that you were meant to be; between cultivating your abilities and giving your life for another's dream. One of my friend would say that there is a balance to be found between the two extremes; the writer of Ecclesiastes would say there is a time for everything. Some would say sacrifice is always the higher call, the way of love. But I have seen people lose their very selves by always placing themselves in the servant role, choosing the easy way of passive submission instead of taking a place of uncomfortable leadership, no matter how badly it is needed. I have also seen people so intent on serving their own vision that anyone who gets within 10 feet of them is caught up in their swather of inflated self-importance which demands and harvests every one's sacrifice but never offers its own.

I am not a big believer in balance. I read through the Bible and see a God of extreme justice and extreme mercy, of judgment that makes one cringe and love that leaves one breathless, of peace that swallows all confusion and war to end all wars. The concept of balance may be a reasonable one, but I do believe I serve a higher god than being reasonable.

Jesus walked through life with great purpose. He did not back away from who he was and what he was called and equipped to do. He did not turn aside from it for a second, no matter what was happening around him, whether people cheered or ridiculed or betrayed him, he walked steadily toward his goal. But this journey was strewn with service and sacrifice, greater than many of us will ever dare. This walk was not passive and weak, but humble and strong, sometimes offensive and violent, always inspiring followers while often inciting fear. This marriage of self-realisation and self-sacrifice seems to be a conundrum until ones realises that the prefix "self" is the very problem. It has very little to do with self. It is about giving your whole person to Love and letting that largeness make more of your life than you ever dreamed possible.

This is a picture of The Forks in Winnipeg, where the Assiniboine and Red Rivers meet.

Monday, August 25, 2008

books and quotes

We returned from our vacation two days ago to a big pile of fur and a slightly bigger pile of to-do items, the largest of these being organising a church retreat for this coming weekend. I am also trying to register for a French course which begins next week and have managed to find a centre that offers the times I need and is within a reasonable commute, though the classes start at the unreasonable hour of 8h15!!!!!! It never ceases to amaze me how all the information for those wanting to learn French is only available in French. Not so bad for the intermediates like myself, but how the heck do beginners manage to sign up at all? Thank goodness phone numbers are in a universal language for the most part.

Today I want to share a few good quotes with you from my journey to Manitoba.

I read the story of Jonah while on vacation and loved what Eugene Peterson said in the introduction to the book:

One reason that the Jonah story is so enduringly important for nurturing the life of faith in us is that Jonah is not a hero too high and mighty for us to identify with - he doesn't do anything great. Instead of being held up as an ideal to admire, we find Jonah as a companion in our ineptness. Here is someone on our level. Even when Jonah does it right (like preaching, finally, in Nineveh) he does it wrong (by getting angry at God). But the whole time, God is working within and around Jonah's very ineptness and accomplishing his purposes in him. Most of us need a biblical friend or two like Jonah. - The Message, intro to Jonah
It is so good to know that God is not put off or thwarted by our ineptness.

On Friday while wandering around The Forks (that's a shopping area right by the water where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet in Winnipeg), I picked up a really cool book called The Mystics of the Church, printed in 1925. Mysticism is not something you often hear talked about in church circles these days, in fact, detached intellectualism often substitutes for faith in our western world. I do consider myself a mystic, despite not knowing everything that might encompass. The words I have read thus far in this book have been like a nourishing soup on a cold winter day, or a soft chair at the end of a long upward climb. Here are a few bits for you to enjoy:

The Christian mystic therefore is one for whom God and Christ are not merely objects of belief, but living facts experimentally known at first-hand; and mysticism for him becomes, in so far as he responds to its demands, a life based on this conscious communion with God. It is found in experience that this communion, in all its varying forms and degrees, is always a communion of love. - Evelyn Underhill, The Mystics of the Church

The mystics are the greatest of all teachers of prayer, and of that deeper communion to which disciplined prayer can lead. This they can do because of their solid hold upon unseen realities in which, at best, most of us merely "believe." In an experience which often transcended all their powers of expression, they realized God as an abiding Fact, a living Presence and Love; and by this their whole existence was transformed. And this happened to them, not because He loved and attended to them more than He does to us; but because they loved and attended to Him more than we do. - Evelyn Underhill, The Mystics of the Church

My first attempt at a lengthy work of fiction was about a reluctant mystic. I am in the process of rewriting the shitty first draft (this endearingly irreverent term is taken from Anne Lamott's wonderful book on writing called Bird by Bird where she so honestly describes the process of getting on paper the things deep inside of us that must be told) and making the story more cohesive and readable. Hard work and a long process, but I believe the story is worth telling, and I will wrestle with the thoughts and words until the story is free. Feel free to see the work in progress at http://www.outwordplus.blogspot.com/.

It seems to be a season of studying and learning for me, so much so that I am considering going back to University in the coming year. And what exactly does a mystic study at university and what jobs await them after they graduate? Good questions. Got any answers?
This is my fuzzy friend at the pool of my brother and sister-in-law in Winnipeg. Metamorphosis is all around.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

the "H" word

So here's what happened. I got on the plane a week ago to come to this place where I am from, this small town rural community in Manitoba, and frankly, not my favourite vacation spot in the world. And as is often my practice when going somewhere, I asked God, "So, what about this trip? What are you doing?" The answer was swift: "You need to practice some humility."

Don't you hate it when God asks you to humble yourself? I have come far since I left my hometown: I have had strange and wonderful experiences which include supernatural and mystical phenomenon, I have drunk alcohol and realised it is not the end of my salvation, I have made friends from all over the world, I have learned another language, I have overcome a lot of fears and prejudices and lost reams of religious trappings, I have participated in planting several churches, I have spoken in public and taught and written articles to some public acclaim. So most times when we visit, I feel a certain smallness in the community here, like it does not look far outside itself or embrace change all that well. And I am all about change - learning, growing, stretching, and going beyond what I know.

So you see how easy it is to go from my trying to live in the largeness of this life God has blessed me with to looking down on those who will never travel far from where they were born and tell me they are afraid of the changes they see coming. I really don't understand that mindset, and I must admit, I have judged it. Oh heck, let me just get the ugly truth out there: I think I am beyond this place, better than this place, wiser than this place, cooler than this place, and more spiritual than this place. I am proud and arrogant and self-centred and stink with self-righteousness. Yes, I need to learn humility. I definitely need it.

And so I landed in Manitoba with a prayer: to see this small town where I am from the way Jesus sees it, to value it like he does, to hear and embrace and enjoy everything that God saw fit to plant into this community and not lace my observations with comparisons or criticisms. To listen more than I talk. To receive more than I offer (because I think I have oh so much to offer, you know). To empty myself of my self-importance for a few days and look and love and breathe and see the life here instead of the lack.
It is remarkable what a small dose of humility can do. I can honestly say that I am having fun here. I am enjoying my interactions with people and making it a point to seek out some folks that I normally would overlook. I stop and make time for those chats with the random, semi-forgotten acquaintances that one always encounters in a small town. I try to be pleasant and approachable and real and down to earth in every situation, whether it involves talkative children in the bathroom needing some help with the soap dispenser or a person I have not seen in years who asks awkward questions. These people are valuable. God loves these people. He hand-picked this part of the world as the best place for me to grow up, and I must believe that it was an extravagant act of love on his part.

If there are walls between myself and the people here, I have put them there. If there is disappointment in how things progress here, it is because I have not extended grace. If I am not willing to serve my family and friends in this place, I am a sorry excuse for a follower of Jesus.
This humility is more enjoyable than I could have imagined, and not all that hard. All you have to do is get down. And stay down. Much easier than trying to raise oneself up all the time.

This is a photo taken from the plane as we landed in Winnipeg.

Friday, August 15, 2008

saying goodbye

I am in Manitoba visiting family for 10 days. I am a bit at a loss as how to describe this vacation thus far. On the one hand, the familiar prairie landscape is amazing and beautiful and makes me stop and look long and often at the vast skies and sunsets that go on forever. My new niece is a treasure, and seeing Dean animatedly educate her about all the musical artists we are listening to and offer sound business advice on career choices is priceless (she is 4 months old). I loved hanging out with my big and strong nephews and beating them at mini golf (they will tell you otherwise, but don't listen to them - I think the scoring system was slightly biased and did not offer the proper handicap for people from Montreal). This rural life almost takes on a Disney movie quality in its wholesomeness and simplicity.

But there are also some bittersweet moments. The one that probably touched me the most was going to the hospital with my mother. Her younger brother is dying of cancer and she visits him every day. I have not seen this uncle in over ten years, so I thought it was important to accompany my mom on one of her hospital trips. We walked into the room and I saw a rather frail, thin man lying on the bed, his eyes closed. My mom touched him gently and called his name. His eyes fluttered open and though he did not say much because he is quite weak, his eyes followed my mother as she asked a few questions, fussed over his blanket, and helped him drink from a glass of water. She offered a bit of news from the day and I stood off to the side, not wanting to interrupt their exchange which was familial and tender and somehow poetic.

As the time came for us to leave, I wondered if there was anything I could say to him, aside from a brief goodbye, that would be meaningful. Sometimes I have this desire to rise up and say grand things that will make everyone stand back and nod and murmur, "Ah, this is a great truth and we are truly changed by this utterance." But I think this time I mostly wanted him to know that he was a good man and I liked him. My uncle made some bad choices in his life, haven't we all, and I believe that most often we are all too aware of all our shortcomings and really don't need anyone to point them out. What we really need is someone to tell us that we can be forgiven. That there is enough grace in the heart of God to make something good out of all our messes. That all is not lost and hopelessly screwed up. That things can end well, no matter how many chapters of destruction we have written.

As we took our leave, I looked into my uncle's eyes for a long time, but no words came. I wanted to say something, but I feared that a big messy blurt of words might gush out that would confuse him instead of bring clarity, and so I just offered a simple goodbye. I wanted to tell him that the loft bed he built in my bedroom was the best ever, a childhood dream come true, and I loved watching him build things and thought he was a very kind and patient man with a funny, teasing way about him that made me like to be near him, and that it didn't matter about all that bad stuff, I still liked him and thought he was a good man and that my mom loved him very much and so did Jesus and he didn't have to be afraid. But I just said goodbye. And I hope that was enough.

This is a field of bales beside the hospital.

NOTE: My uncle died 3 days after I saw him.

Monday, August 11, 2008

leaving

I am leaving for Manitoba tomorrow morning...way too early, really, but Air Canada likes to change your flights after you book them, just to keep things interesting. I had a list of items that I needed to accomplish today. Things looked good up until 1 pm or so and then the list and the schedule just began to ignore me and dance to their own song, something from the 90's, I think. What can one do? I went with it. Well, at least we were still moving, and dancing is always fun if you give yourself to it. So I did. I don't regret the leisurely lunch with a friend, nor the pedicure that Dean insisted that I get before I leave, nor the spontaneous YES to a simple request that meant so much more than just the errand. I am learning that time spent with people, serving people, doing things with people, even on a day like today when the list is long, is never a waste of time.

It is 11:39 pm and there are still 2 big items on the list: ironing and packing. But I'll get to them after I finish writing this, because this is important.

Yesterday at church, Dean showed a video on forgiveness. It was moving and relevant and the truth was so present I could feel it poking at my soul with its pointy bristles. Yes, I acknowledged, this is important. Not that I have any big unforgiveness in my life, I am pretty set in that area, but hmmm, it was a good topic that many people needed to hear, for sure. Good job, Dean. I went to the bathroom near the end of Dean's post-video talk, and while I was sitting there, one word boomed in my head: disappointment. Don't you love the bathroom revelations? Since I wasn't going anywhere right then, I asked, "Okay, God, what about disappointment?"

Here's how the conversation went.

G: Matte, you have some areas of disappointment in your life: things that have not worked out as well as you would have liked; people that are not wholly who you would like them to be; circumstances that are less than bright and shiny in your memory. You are okay with these things, you have resigned yourself to how things are, and you are not bitter. But you still carry some residue of disappointment around in you. And where it lives, where it clouds your brightness, you have not totally forgiven. It is the last little bit that you have not let go -changing your expectations, your demands, your wishes, your ways to align with mine. And until you let it go all the way, you are not free. Your life is partially in the shade. It hampers your full enjoyment of who you are today and what I have for you.

Me: (slight pause while I take this in) Yes, you're right. Show me the stuff. I want to let it go, every last bit of it, the dregs at the bottom of the cup and the fingerprints on the window. Let me come totally clean. I don't want my world tainted by resentment or disappointment, not even a gram or second of it. (flush)

I didn't even know I was holding onto it. Wow, things can be even lighter and brighter and there can be more peace and love and fullness in this gift of life? And I thought things were already pretty sweet. Amazing!

This preparation of my heart, I know, is more important than the ironing or the packing, which I will get to now.

Here is a photograph I took of a duck on Lake Ouareau, at our friends' cottage. He appeared when we walked down to the dock. I asked him to stay there while I got my camera, which he obediently did. He let me snap a few pictures of him while he paddled back and forth right in front of us, and then went on his way. Thanks, Mr. Duck.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

complaint

Some of my friends were complaining about church this week. Normally, I try to listen and smile and nod and give the appearance of taking it all in stride (I don't think I am too successful), but on the inside I take this type of criticism quite personally and am secretly offended by their horrific ungodliness and lack of commitment. Yes, I take it all too personally because, well, my husband and I are two of the so-called leaders in our humble church group and how can I not? Even though we are one of the most embracing, interactive, flexible, contemporary church groups around, people still find something they don't like. But this time, after the first few dents and dings to my ego, I decided that being offended was not that useful of a reaction. In fact, I could identify with some of the things they were saying, in a general kind of way. I am not satisfied with the way we do things either. Though I never think it a waste of time to show up for a church meeting, I often leave disappointed at the lack of results or enthusiasm or really, any significant sign of positive change.

Many days I don't want to be a church leader. I don't want to love everyone that walks in the door, especially the uncool people with bad hair and no sense of humour. I don't want to pray for the whiners who talk about themselves too much and seem to make the same bad decisions over and over, no matter what you tell them. I don't want to be the one in charge all the time, the first one to arrive and the last one to leave. I get tired of being the one that everyone expectantly looks to like I have some secret formula to make it all better, or at least a plan that won't suck. I want to enjoy it more and not feel like sometimes I am the only one who really wants to do this.

Now keep in mind this is a bruised ego and a sometimes emotionally volatile female talking, so take these words with a heaping helping of salt and grace. And please don't assume I am talking about you. We all know you are one of the cool ones and not a whiner and though you might occasionally have a bad hair day, most of the time you could be a spokesperson for Pantene.

Let me get to the point, which is that for some time now, I have been feeling a desire and need and in fact, some gentle but persistent inner urging (which I have come to think is the spirit of God pointing me in this direction) to pursue reformation in how we think of and do and be the church. The unrest is a clue that it is time. People, including me, want more. And wanting more can be a powerful catalyst for drastic change, if we let it.

This is what I wrote in our weekly church email on Tuesday:

I have been thinking about how we do church for a few months now, and I realise that it is inadequate in so many ways. It is difficult to get past a certain mentality that is prevalent in our current culture that a meeting once a week on a Sunday is somehow “it.” That this Sunday meeting defines the lover, the bride of Jesus, more than anything else that we do. Inadequate hardly begins to describe how I feel about that itty-bitty, missing-out-on-so-much, in-the-box way of thinking. Love cannot be contained in a meeting, or even two or three if you count home groups. What do lovers do? What does a family do? What does a living organism do? Is “do” even the right verb? I have been asking God about this and I sense a paradigm shift on the horizon. If you have any thoughts, insights or wisdom on this subject, please send me a note.

The responses were immediate and affirmative and confessional and even encouraging. Yes, people want something to change. I want something to change. I don't have a 5-point plan of action and think it might be disastrous to outline a structure for how to do church in a new way before we get the heart of it right. I know we should be more invitational. I know we should not focus on meetings as much as meeting or connecting. I know we must be more inclusive and available and intentional about our pursuit of God - loving who he is and what he does and who he brings our way. I know that the Sunday meeting is a sacred cow and it must die in order to make way for genuine, life-encompassing worship. I know our desires and wants and dreams are much too small and limited because we only know what we have seen. I know that we can never go home after church because we are the church. I know God is inviting us to come closer, to stop building protective fences between him and us, and to fling ourselves into the abyss of surrender and finally believe what he says.

I think perhaps I should be more afraid than I am.

This is the unsettled sky that accompanied a torrential rainstorm we drive through on Saturday.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

solid

I spoke at church on Sunday night, so for 99.99% of the planet who was not there, here are the notes.

How can one build a life that is solid? Where the stresses and strains of life don't crush you? Where temptation does not ruin you? Where catastrophes and rough times do not cause you to collapse or lose hope? Where the pressures of life and the world we live in won't carry you away with them? Where you stand solid no matter what comes at you and bad times bring out the best in you instead of the worst? Here are 4 things I have found helpful in my quest for the solid life.
1. all in (James 1:2-8)
Faith is your friend. Doubt is your enemy. Doubt is keeping your options open instead of putting all your hope in God. Who or what are you betting on? Are you waiting for a better hand in life or will you go all in with what you have right now? Trust means there can be no back-up plan if God does not come through. The greatest thing I can do every day is to submit myself to God, to go all in. Faith is always a risk and God LOVES faith.

2. online all the time (John 15:4-14)
Develop a lifeline to God. Get a plan (daily, monthly, by the minute). Don't go anywhere without your Gphone (God connection). Can God always reach you? Do you answer when he calls? Do you read his text messages? Do you have long meaningful conversations? Do you download the stuff he makes available? Do you turn off your Gphone sometimes because you are too busy? Do you forget it at home? Do you get annoyed with his constant desire to keep in touch? Do you block sender? Do your spend more time with your Gphone than with your iphone?

3. scaffolding
Every well-built structure needs scaffolding to make sure it goes up straight and strong and to provide a way for all the necessary equipment and materials used in building to have access. Set some good scaffolding in place in your life, structures to help you grow straight and strong.
a. have friends who encourage you to make the right choices
b. practice practice practice
How do you become good at anything? How does a great musician come to play skillfully? How does an athlete qualify for the Olympics? Practice practice practice. Make time to get to know this God. Study the stories of his interaction with us. Talk to him, listen to him, worship him, submit to him. Be part of a learning community. Let people into your life. Show up. No one feels like going to school every day, but you still show up because this is how you graduate, get your degree, become a doctor or teacher or lawyer. And those days when you don't have the energy or the desire, someone else in the class will, and you can be inspired by them. But that can't happen if you don't show up.

4. hammer
Work God's words into your life. Embody them, live them. Hammer them in so that they are a part of you, not just an external decoration that flutters in the breeze and washes away with the rain.

These words I (Jesus) speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on. If you work these words into your life, you are a like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Rain poured down, the river flooded, a tornado hit - but nothing moved that house. It was fixed to the rock. But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don't work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his house on the sandy beach. When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards. Matthew 7:24-27 (the Message)

Have you made a deliberate change in your life in the past month? Either in your actions or attitudes? How many times have we heard something challenging and true and said, "Yes, that's a good idea, I should do that, I want to work on that in my life," and nothing ever comes of it? These "heard it but did nothing about it" areas are where we will be vulnerable in a crisis, where we will make mistakes and trip up again and again until we learn to incorporate the truth into our lives and make a change.
Beloved, let us build something solid with our lives.
Random photos from the internet. Thanks, www.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

the patient

I like being patient. It is so much more fun than being impatient. Yesterday I spent the day with a friend who was shopping for a desk. She had requested my company because I have a car and hey, I am just so much fun. It turned into an all day event that included lunch, the mandatory crying in the restaurant over stories of redemption, plenty of bathroom stops, numerous bouts of indecision over colour and size, a brief ride on the shopping cart, thorough research of all the store's other fine articles offered for sale, an excursion into the "as is" section, talking to a polite Spanish guy in front of me who had the best hair and seemed to be buying enough stuff to furnish a small house but was stuck waiting in line while his friend collected more articles for purchase, delivering the desk to my friend's house only to discover that it was damaged inside the box, returning to the customer service area at the store and waiting for another half hour to get a new desk, and then preparing a late supper for all of us (mmm...grilled meat) before the friend was finally delivered home with the new desk, almost 10 hours later.

It was an enjoyable day, though much of it was spent just waiting for someone else to make a decision. I actually surprised myself. Not once was I annoyed, not once did I say something out of irritation, not once did I try to hurry up the process, though when asked, I did offer my opinion. I wanted my friend to make a decision and feel good about it after she got home. And I could not do that for her nor would it have been right to put pressure on her to speed up the process. But, I could be a pleasant companion, an encourager when things got a little discouraging, a person who seeks to bring clarity and narrow down the viable choices, a provoker to think on the profound things in life a little more often, and a willing driver.

I think patience is underrated in this busy western way of life. Everyone wants everything done faster, but faster is not a fruit of the true spiritual life. Who knew patience could be such a pleasant experience? What else am I missing out on by not embracing it as part of my life?

This is a picture of the fireworks competition in Montreal (United States was the competitor this evening) taken from the 28th floor where another friend resides. Big, loud, fast, flashy, expensive. Oh well. Fun, nevertheless.