Thursday, October 30, 2008

the lecture

I attended a lecture last week hosted by the Theology department at my university (no, I don't own this place of higher learning, but isn't it interesting how much of life is "mine" in common English usage. Anyway...). A very well spoken and highly educated pastor from a local Presbyterian church was the guest presenter. The talk was titled: Biblical Interpretation: Where Hermeneutics and Revelation Meet. Interesting. I hadn't planned on going because I had a French course at the same time, but one of my professors scheduled it as a make-up class so I did the unthinkable, skipped out of French early, and showed up at H-403 to hear what was to be said.

The 45 minute presentation was immensely wordy. Most of the time wonderfully wordy, but sometimes my brain could not follow all the complex linguistic helixes being constructed by Dr. T. Nevertheless, I did catch a few things that I liked in what he said. He cautioned against the purely academic study of the Bible, especially methods that removed God from the equation. Yes, he came down pretty harshly on those who would say they are trying to be objective. He insisted that a vacuum left by removing faith will quickly be filled with something else. But he is a pastor, after all, and I loved his passion for connecting God with people in a spirit of grace and integrity.

A professor in the Theology department offered a response after Dr. T. sat down. He defended the historical critical method of interpreting the Bible and cited some examples to back up his points and insisted that one can be critical of the text without being critical of God. He pointed out that the purpose of these interpretation methods is to safeguard against errant viewpoints. I agreed with him as well. Here were two men, both experts in their field, who might be heard to be taking opposing views, but I saw them as complementing each other, both encouraging the pursuit of truth through the scope of their chosen vocations and in that way, presenting a fuller, more complete picture.

I guess not everyone felt the same way. Many of the people in the room seemed to fall into one camp or the other. One of my professors was sitting beside me and after a bit of a discussion, she offered her comments. I can still feel the passion in what she said, her excitement belied by the strong use of her arms and voice. She made a bold call to stop the division between academia and theologians, for we are all part of the church. As she went on, I suddenly found myself all choked up. Oh no, not here, you can't cry here in a university lecture surrounded by academics and especially when you are sitting beside your esteemed professor who holds one tiny part of your future in her hands. Though I have learned that it is not a good idea to stifle the movements of the heart, I tried to maintain a quiet control while letting myself respond with a loud internal YES to the powerful challenge to embrace unity with courage and refuse to stand divided.

After the session ended, I somewhat timidly offered my appreciation to my professor for her comments and in the middle of doing this, found myself close to tears again. Oh, well, there was no getting away from it. I finished my sentence in a quivery voice and explained my behaviour by saying that these things moved me. My professor put an arm around my shoulder and told me that I reminded her of herself when she had started out. I smiled and nodded and could not say anything. It was like the voice of a beloved one had said, "You belong here and you're going to do okay. You don't have to compromise who you are or stifle your passion. Bring who you are to your studies. Bring life and learning and love and wide-eyed wonder, even if it is unrefined and unsophisticated and sometimes raw, to everything you do and watch what happens. Watch yourself grow and blossom and bear fruit. And watch the world around you grow as well. Let me teach you."

Is it really so amazing that one should hear the voice of Jesus when studying the Bible?

These are some crunchy leaves on my street earlier this week.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

me too

I think we've all done it. I was walking down the sidewalk in St. Laurent today, on my way to the pharmacy across the street. While I was still about 20 feet from the intersection that I was heading to, I saw people start to cross the street up ahead and I began to run, wanting to make sure that I didn't miss the green WALK light that had obviously just begun. I stepped out into the street and darted in front of a car that was slowing to a stop for its red light. But the driver honked instead! What? I looked at the pedestrian signal and found that it did NOT say walk, in fact there was a big red hand warning me that it was not safe to cross. I had just darted into the street in front of a car that was rightfully driving through a green light at quite a nice speed! Oh, crap! Those pedestrians I had so willingly followed were just in a hurry and trying to squeeze in-between the traffic, disregarding the law and their own safety. In looking at them instead of the traffic light, I had put myself in a dangerous situation. Thank God for an alert and considerate driver!

Somehow, when we see a few people doing something, we assume that it is okay. I am experiencing the same phenomenon in my French class. For the first few weeks, most students showed up on time, at 8:15 am. Then a few of them started to arrive a little later and realised that there were few consequences for this. Each week fewer people showed up on time and today, I was the only person in the classroom at 8:15 am, besides the professor. What one or two started to do, everyone soon adopted as acceptable behaviour. The effectiveness of the course has been circumvented in measure by the attitude of a few. And it makes me sad.

Because I am guilty of the same thing sometimes. I fall into this pattern of easily being influenced by others' less than stellar behaviour and letting that be my standard instead of what I know is good and right and lawful and the best that I could be doing. And I am ashamed of that part of myself, that weak and pliable and comprising part of me. Do I really have so little inner conviction? Am I just a follower and not a leader? Will I refuse to stand out from the crowd and make my stance known when it really matters?

In one of my university classes we were talking about a controversial matter and someone said, "Well, people have been doing that for all time!" As if that makes it right or normal or the best option! People have been killing each other for a long time, too! Does that make it normal and desirable social behaviour? I find that people often follow the easiest and most self-serving route instead of choosing to step out in a way that serves others and promotes respect and commitment. How often do we stop to think about why we do the things we do and how our actions affect others and where they are ultimately leading us? The pattern is predictable: if a few people are doing it, especially our friends, we just go along with it and adopt the behaviour as our own. It is easy. It is less costly. It requires less of us. We abdicate our responsibility to make the right choice by resting on the choices of others.

I am often dismayed at what I see evident in our church group. Here too, commitment and service and a desire to grow and learn and build something in our community are rare things. It all too often comes down to the lowest common denominator of "What is convenient for me, and what do I feel like doing at the moment?" I guess I just want to know...where are the leaders? Where are the people who will rise above the mediocre behaviour of the crowd and influence others in a positive way? Where are those who will commit themselves to the things that Jesus made a priority and not put their own comfort first? Where are the faithful ones? Where are the ones who will stand no matter what happens around them?

Where am I?

This is a solitary nail sticking it out near St. Lazare.

Friday, October 17, 2008

cut off

You might not want to read this. It is going to be messy. And embarrassing. And slightly more revealing than you might have the stomach for. Just thought I would warn you.

In case you don't know much about me, I am a very good and spiritual person. Really, that is what people think, and I hate to disappoint them. I am a leader in our church group. I teach and pray and give life advice and take theology courses that boggle the average person's mind and openly admit to loving reading the Bible and talking to God (and it's true!). I show up early to meetings and set up and clean up and provide snacks and plan events and have people over to my house for meals and do all kinds of wonderful stuff for others. And most of the time I love it. But there are days...

For the past few months I have been having a rough time at the Wednesday group that I lead. Each week I spend a few hours preparing a discussion and activities on a topic, or thinking up cool stuff for a fun night that will bring joy and a sense of community and encouragement to all who come. I usually get really excited at this point and can't wait to get there. But by the time the evening is done, I am pretty much close to tears and just want to quit it all. Sometimes I feel like nobody got anything out of it. Sometimes I grind my teeth in annoyance at some of the behaviour I witness and sad to say, am unable to withhold some looks and snorts and words of derision (sorry if you have been the recipient of any of those). Some days I want to smack some folks over the head because they are being such jerks (from my perspective, of course). Some evenings I wonder if I know anything at all because so much of what I say or do seems to be tainted with an agenda that smells of superiority and sweaty effort to get people to change to be more to my liking. Some days, after a really meaningful time of preparation, I get to the group and listen to myself babble on and on while I see people talking to each other and laughing at private jokes and making plans for cool stuff to do later. Many days I wonder if anyone really wants to do this except me. And now I don't know if I want to do this either.

I know that to some degree, I set the tone in a group, so while all these horrible thoughts are playing through my mind in an endless house music loop, I feel guilty about my shameful thoughts and lack of grace. There is this urge to wail out with loud weeping, yell out my frustrations, and maybe even break something, I might feel better. But I am a very good and spiritual person. So I keep it inside, so as not to offend or freak out or bring anybody down.

But there comes a point where one just gets tired of trying to manage the war within. The struggle to be good is not working. There seems to be no progress, no getting over the hump, no relief from the pain and the hurt and the destructive thoughts. And at that point, I am finally desperate enough to say, Okay God, show me where I am off, show me the worm-eaten core where all this stinking stuff is coming from. And I get the feeling that I have been living with some twisted lie for a long time, letting it inhabit a room in my soul, letting it hide behind a certain sense of justice in order to avoid discovery. Yes, uncover me, I say. And then the awful truth comes out.

I want to be validated by this group. I invest a lot of my time and energy into these people and I think I deserve some payback for that. No one is as dedicated to this group as I am. Surely that merits some recognition, at least some pats on the back, a 'well done', some attention to what I am saying, some regular attendance and punctuality, and oh please, most of all, love me for it. Treat me as a special friend for all I do. Somebody tell me and show me how valuable I am. I have brought all my best stuff, isn't that worth something? Isn't that enough? Can't that buy me some love and acceptance and admiration?

Well, that's a pretty ugly animal when its greedy claws come out. Having seen the beast, I am initiating a siege. I am retraining my soul to know that its value does not come from the reactions of people nor from how much attention they pay to me. This is especially difficult with those people who are on the receiving end of a lot of my energies. It is hard not to demand some return where great investment is made. But I have learned the hard way that I am always disappointed when I go down that road, because the needy validation bugger is insatiable.
And so I lay siege. Whenever I feel the growling hunger of this selfish sabotaging monster, I sing the truth: My help comes from you, Lord. All I need is you, Lord, is you, Lord. And when I do, I can hear the sweet ping of tightly wound restrictive cords being broken. I have let myself be hindered for too many years. It is time to taste the freedom of giving without measuring.

This is one of the sharp knives doing what it is meant to do in my kitchen: cut out the inedible bits.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

aha!

I had an a-ha! moment this week. I was sitting in my Tuesday evening class, listening to a lecture on source criticism in the Hebrew Bible. It is much more fascinating than it sounds, really. We read through a few passages in Genesis, observing the parallel stories and contradictions between them. This leads one to conclude that several sources were used in compiling the book since the style, vocabulary and details are quite different in different sections. The point is not the different versions of one story, but why the compiler felt it necessary to include multiple stories. It is not hard to see that each story reveals a different aspect of God's character in some way. These writings were never meant to be accurate scientific documents or historical databases, they were recorded to show us who this God is and how he interacts with humankind.

At one point, someone asked a question about the story of Abraham and Isaac. The ears of my heart perked up immediately. I have always found this story of God testing Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his only son as distasteful. What kind of God promises a gabillion descendants, makes someone wait decades for a child to be born, and when he finally appears, asks for him to be given back? It made no sense to me, and honestly, I did not like the God in this story. He was mean and unpredictable and not the kind of God I thought I knew. I have wrestled with this story for many years, even taught on it, thinking that would help me discover what it meant, and I finally made my peace with it by just shrugging my shoulders and admitting that it was a mystery to me. God is God and he can do what he wants.

And then my classmate asked the question. My professor said that this was a difficult story and one had to understand the time it was written in. At that time and place, Abraham was living in a culture where there were many pagan gods being worshipped around him. Many of these pagan gods, such as Molech, demanded child sacrifice. It was not an uncommon thing to be asked to burn your child in a sacrifice to appease the gods. So Abraham prepared his sacrifice. And God sent an angel to stop him. What was the point of this story?

God was saying to Abraham, I am not like those other gods. I do not ask you to sacrifice your son. I am different from those pagan gods who make these demands of you. Yes, I want you to dedicate your children to me, but I do not ask you to sacrifice them. There is only one sacrifice, and that is the one I provide, and he will be my son, not yours.

And when I saw what God was trying to show Abraham about himself, I breathed a sigh of relief. My soul suddenly felt lighter, like some edge or shadow of doubt had fallen away. Years of harbouring a sliver of mistrust disappeared and I thought, Yes, this is the God I know and love! He always has more love than I can imagine or see in any situation. He always shows himself to be far above anyone or anything else that I place my trust in. He never disappoints if I wait on him, and he never demands something just to prove that he is God. He will continue to show himself as greater and more loving and kinder and more wise and generous than I could ever dream up. If I just let him. If I will see. If I will hear.

I offer my sincere thanks to my dear professor and my curious classmate.

These are some pumpkins stuffed with flowers on my neighbour's steps. They always make me smile when I walk past them.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

feed me

I am getting used to being somewhat perpetually tired and hungry, at least Monday to Friday. It is good for me. It puts things in another perspective. Some ugly thing called worry wants me to believe that there is never enough time, but I know that there will always be just the right amount of time each day to be the person I am to be and do the things that God sees as important right now. And there always is. God can be trusted regarding time. Seeing that play out every day is like witnessing the miracle of sunrise over and over again; no matter how many times I experience it, it still takes my breath away and extracts a sigh of gratefulness and wonder.

The other impulse I have the joy of engaging and seeking to get some self-control over is the one that raises its horny head when my reserves are down. When missing the recommended amount of food and sleep, the needy devil starts to scream for all kinds of soul fast food to satiate its selfish appetite. It wants attention lavished on it and looks at others as competitors in this arena. It wants to be served and coddled and fed flattery one juicy tidbit at a time. It wants presents and adulation and admiring looks and to be desired. It wants to be the one to say no instead of having no said to it and can throw a hissy fit if it senses rejection in any form coming its way - it can even project rejection being tossed its way where there is none! It wants someone to read its mind and make sure it never lacks for anything. It wants the universe to revolve around it and pouts if that is not happening. All the secret fears and wants that I get so good at keeping under the surface can no longer hide. They come out in my dreams, my emotions, my actions, and my words. And that is a good thing.

Let me starve out the selfish parts of my soul and feed the generous, loving, trusting, submissive, strong, and hopeful bits. This is the strategy for overcoming my worst enemy - my unruly self.

Here is a picture of the most amazing stir fry I made last night right next to the reading I still have to do this weekend.