Saturday, January 31, 2009

out of the cage


For: The Institute of Contemporary And Emerging Worship Studies, St. Stephen's University, Essentials Blue Online Worship Theology Course with Dan Wilt

I am grappling with a few concepts in my own personal systematic theology right now. The first issue I am not sure about is the concept of the Trinity, and the second one (creation 'ex nihilo' or out of nothing) just popped up this week. I am not questioning whether these are true or not (okay, I am but just hang on), more like whether these are adequate concepts for us today. Each people group in their own place and time has to find language and concepts that relate Truth to where they are at. This is not relativism; this is the beauty of eternal Truth taking some concrete form in our human world and being able to touch every person at every point in time. Some ideas that were explored and explained centuries ago still find a hold in our day and time, but others do not.

If anything, I feel that the concepts of trinity and creation 'ex nihilo' are too small and limiting. The fact that someone really smart wrote eloquently about them a long time ago makes us think that the theology has been figured out, that in some way we have got a handle on this part of God. And if there is one thing I know by now, it is that one cannot get a handle on God.

I loved what Dan Wilt said in the video lecture (Essential Worship Theology): "Trinity is God saying don't put me in a box. I will express myself how I want to, in ways you don't understand, and you will have to figure out how to process it."

The problem with systematic theology is that it is a system. God cannot be systematised, described, itemised, or labeled. He cannot be contained in our minds, thoughts, or hearts. He is the uncontainable. He is more than trinity, and where he is, there is never nothing. I don't know what God looks like; I don't know how to put words to someone who is some and one at the same time, but I sure would like to give him more breathing room instead of keeping him in the theology cage.

These are two bears in a cage at the Ecomuseum. You don't mess with bears.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

confront


This is another journal entry in response to some reading I am doing for my Christian Spirituality course.

Of the four essential disciplines that Rolheiser mentions in chapter three, the one that appeals to me most is also the one that challenges me the most. The first "pillar," private prayer and personal morality, has been an integral part of me for pretty much my entire life and though these healthy habits are not always easy, there is a consistency and rhythm in that area that comes from long practise. The second, social justice, is something that, though definitely of great importance, does not tug at my heart strongly. As to the third item, mellowness of heart and spirit, most days I am grateful and not prone to anger or malice or anxiety.

However, the fourth discipline, community life, can be quite a challenge, especially for an introvert. My favourite sentence in this whole chapter comes from page 69: "Schleiermacher pointed out that, separate from historical religion, namely, the churches with all their faults, the individual in quest of God, however sincere that search, lives the unconfronted life." (Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing, 69)

I find it easier to be right than wrong. I find it easier to hang with good friends of like interests than make an effort to include the people on the fringe. I find it easier to sit at home and read a book than to call a friend who needs help and encouragement. I find it easier to see the shortcomings of others than to take a good, hard look at where I treat others with injustice or a lack of kindness. I find it easier to deal with my inadequacies and issues myself than to live and learn my life lessons in a community setting. Me and Jesus have a pretty good thing going, and sometimes I find it bothersome to include others in that equation - it just gets too messy.

But in some inexplicable way, I have come to love this unlikely community that I find myself a part of at Vineyard Montreal. More than just a group of people from various countries and walks of life, these human beings have become my family. Some I love so hard that it hurts to be apart from them. Some I find annoying and immature at times (like a younger sibling), but I still want to keep them close. Some get angry at me and say hurtful things, but there is always a place for them in my life and in the group. We listen to each other. We ask each other hard questions. We go to each other's homes. We eat and drink and pray and play together. We celebrate birthdays, holidays and achievements together, and we commiserate over bad days at work, exams, and relationship disappointments together.

I do not want an unconfronted life, comfortable as it may be. I believe I would find it altogether boring and dissatisfying. Having been a witness to and a participant in the beauty of personal metamorphosis, I would not trade one day of itchy, ill-fitting, chafing community life for the static monotone of a carefully constructed and self-controlled environment. Community life is messy, but growing, changing things usually are. I believe that this seedling desire to be part of a vibrant group of people that live with their lives touching each other is one of the greatest gifts I have received in Montreal.

This is a picture of Montreal taken last summer - lot of green stuff growing.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Your mission should you chose to accept it...


For: The Institute of Contemporary And Emerging Worship Studies, St. Stephen's University, Essentials Blue Online Worship Theology Course with Dan Wilt

Usually there is one thing that sticks out in the hours of reading and listening and writing that I do for this online course. This week it was something that Dan Wilt said in his video teaching (Dan Wilt, Essential Worship Theology, Week 2 video of Essentials Blue online course). And I quote, "We don't have a mission; a mission gets a hold of us."

I was preparing a few thoughts to contribute to our home group meeting last night. The topic was Decision-Making: directing your life without being a control freak. Interesting topic. As I thought about it and asked God about what he had to say on the subject, I remembered this line that Dan used in the video. And at that point I clearly saw that we are a very individualistic, self-centred, self-indulgent, and unsubmissive people. We act like we are the rulers of our own one-person countries. The decisions that we make and the goals that we strive towards inevitably revolve almost entirely around what we want and how we see things.

This became evident in some of the questions and comments that came up during the evening. Questions about why God does not give us specific direction in our life but seems to leave us hanging in major life decisions. Questions about why, if Jesus has truly healed us and set us free, should we stay away from certain things? Do you see how all these queries have the black vortex of self at the centre? What these questions are really asking is "Why are you not making my life as good as I want it to be?" It is asking "What's the point of Jesus dying if it does not make me free to do what I want?" And those are just bad questions. N.T. Wright says "Many of the questions we ask God can't be answered directly, not because God doesn't know the answers but because our questions don't make sense."[1]

I am as guilty as anyone of making myself the subject of every sentence. I am always the one acting, feeling, thinking, believing, having a mission, learning, pursuing, conquering, meeting, relating, and perhaps even sometimes loving. But it is a skewed and deceptive paradigm that we are operating in, always relating everything we encounter to how it affects or impacts us. I am not the leading role in my own life: God is. I am not the primary subject: God is. I am not even the object: he is the one who originates everything and it all ends up back at him as well. How long will I write and re-write noble goals and missions for myself that sound oh so spiritual and wise before I realise that the true mission is so much bigger than me, my life, or anything I could come up with?

We discussed our purpose in life last night. Some said they want to serve God, and all their decisions are based on fulfilling that purpose. Some said they wanted to enjoy God and be enjoyed by him and they are trying to have their life choices reflect that. I realised that most of all, I want to be caught up in something that is way beyond me. I want to be overwhelmed by a larger-than-this-life God and see what he can do. I want to be so mesmerised by his beauty and love and energy that my tiny wants and desires are swallowed up into the vast wholeness of his being. I want to submit to him and to his mission.

This is the sun streaming through my window this afternoon, eclipsing everything else in the room.

[1] N.T. Wright, Simply Christian (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 122.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

knives


This is part of a journal assignment for a course, Christian Spirituality, I am taking this term at Concordia University.

For one who has been on a spiritual journey since a very young age, I thought that a course on Christian Spirituality would be a rather undemanding exercise. How quickly I forget that a commitment to lifelong learning and maturing means that every day I see again how far I still have to go. In the course of this week I have felt incredibly intelligent and mature as well as fragilely stupid and incompetent. Each day that I ask the question, "God, what are you doing?" I am surprised by the honest participation and submission the answer requires of me, and the presence of both an "aching pain" and a "delicious hope."

The key word that Rolheiser uses to describe spirituality in the first part of his book, The Holy Longing, strikes very close to home. Desire has not been an active part of my vocabulary for much of my life. Having been raised in a rather conservative and restrictive religious environment, I see my past illustrated in his explanation of the divorce between religion and eros. Desire is not a dirty word, yet for much of my life I have embraced fear instead, believing that it was the safer of the two choices. How wrong I have been. Fear stymies all attempts of love to break into my life, and its accompanying paralysis does a pretty darn good impersonation of death.

I am still learning what a wondrously passionate person I am, filled with desires so strong and fiery that I sometimes singe myself and my surroundings with immature thrusts of their power. And yet, I dare not retreat back into the world of fear.

We bought a new set of kitchen knives from a gift certificate we received for Christmas. The old set of blades were cheap and dull and required a lot of pressure to perform their task, so we figured it was time to get a good quality set. The new steel tools are nothing like the old blades and seem to play by a whole different set of rules. Suddenly, I am handling sharp and well-made instruments and I don't quite know how to manage them. I have already sliced my thumb once and feel like a child who is cutting with scissors for the first time: everything seems awkward and crooked and badly executed. I realise that I have to develop a new, more precise set of skills to work with these much more sophisticated and powerful tools. And so it is with passion or desire.

It has been easy to live with a certain dullness and safeness in my life, but that is not what this powerful gift of life is for. I am saying yes to passion every day of my life. I am willing to learn the skills needed to wield this God-given energy in a mature and skilful way. And I am not afraid of a few cuts along the way.

References are from The Holy Longing by Ronald Rolheiser (New York: Doubleday, 1999)

This is a photo of me handling an even more powerful tool at the shooting range last weekend.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

the simple and the awkward ways of worship



This is my first blog for the online worship course I am taking (see the above lengthy subtitle that will herald each of these posts). There is a plethora of reading, listening and watching to do each week which is enjoyable, but after a few days of this input, it sort of gets muddled in my head for two reasons: first, because I inexplicably just don't remember specific details about things that I read or hear after a few days, and secondly, I am also taking several university courses at the same time and there is only so much my brain can process and hold! For this reason, I take notes and try to write down the things that strike me as important.

But there are some things that do not have to be written down; they are the things that impact me in a deep way and that often hit me like a good, refreshing slap just when I need it or a warm cup of soup in the middle of a cold and lonely day. They can be phrases of hope, the glimpses of glory, and the flashes of truth that make my soul quiver with life, recognising that this is exactly what I have been looking for. It may be a convicting shudder, or an obvious fact that makes me blink twice, or a new way of blending human and divine with a beauty that takes my breath away.

This week it was a simple sentence uttered by Brenton Brown during the webinar last Wednesday. Many interesting things were said and it was all good, but the sentence that screamed out at me (and I am paraphrasing quite liberally here because I didn't take notes on this!) was when he said that he loves the awkward worship times, those small groups where no one has a guitar and you start to sing a song and no one really sings out with you and if they do, it isn't pretty. Yep, been there, done that, don't want to do it again. Except that when Brenton said it this time, I really DID want to do it again, because I glimpsed the simple beauty of it. Without instruments, all we have to bring is ourselves and our voices, that most vulnerable of offerings for musicians and non-musicians alike. There is no fancy picking to hide behind and get our cues from. There is no clear-cut arrangement that puts everyone at ease because they know what to expect. And at that moment, this nakedness of worship was what I was longing for.

So that night at home group, without any musical aids whatsoever, I started to sing. It was the chorus of a fairly well-know song and I sang it slowly and for once in my life, unself-consciously. It was a gift I was offering to God - to do the thing that put me at my most uncomfortable so that nothing got between the words, the voices, the hearts and our God. Others joined in and we struggled with some words and some pauses and some notes being too low, but nobody seemed to care. I looked around the room at one point and saw people that usually find it hard to engage with God leaning back with eyes closed and a visage of peace on their face.

Sometimes we set out to make beautiful and skilled music and that is pretty much what we end up with. That night, I don't know if any of us were thinking about the music. I was thinking that this amazing being that I call God, far from being diminished by a group of scratchy and humble voices, shines brighter whenever humanity bares itself.

Thanks, Brenton.
This is a photo that isn't so great of me and is really good of the fire. And that's the point.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

walk on

This past week has been a bit of an upheaval for me. I don't really do new year's resolutions, but as I began to contemplate some areas of my life and where they were going, something slammed me hard: for several days I felt alone and overlooked and neglected and like someone had taken a big chunk of my chest and ripped it out. There was a gaping wound and vacuum where a sense of belonging and companionship and love should have been. This made me take a long hard look at the relationships in my life and ask questions that I usually don't like to ask.

1. In what relationships am I investing heavily in without much return?
2. In what relationships do I expect the other person to always come over to my side of things?
3. In what relationships does the other person usually expect me to come to their turf?
4. What people are ready, willing and able to spend quality time with me and invest in who I am?
5. What people make me feel like they always want something from me, like the relationship is based on their needs?
6. What relationships make both parties come alive and carry a good balance of give and take and most importantly, are a place where both of us are always truthful?

After an honest look and a few heart-wrenching observations, I have decided to focus my friendship and relationship efforts on only a few people this year, and those are the people that I feel genuinely give life to me and receive life from interaction with me. This does not mean that I will neglect all the needy people around me or refuse their requests, but it does mean that I will try not to work from expectations (mine as well as others) anymore, but from truth.

I want to be more honest with the people who are my friends (and with myself) and not feel like I must avoid upsetting people by stifling or adjusting what I honestly feel and think. I have found myself saying more of what I truly think and see to a few people (with an attempt to be gracious, of course), and they have responded in the most wonderful and embracing way, proving that they also want to pursue truthful and growing friendships.

These few friends are people that I can learn with, that I can grow with, that get as excited by positive opportunities for change as I do. They are not easily offended and have plenty to give and are not too proud to receive. I have spent too much of my life trying to be a mediocre friend to pretty much everyone that displays some interest in me or pursuing people that feed some deep, dark craving in my needy soul. Enough of that. It is time to bring all this stuff out of the closet into the light, to sort out the old and worn and ill-fitting habits. And to bring out the garments that are made for this season, that really bring out who I am.

Let me respond to the life I find in those friendships that God is feeding and not settle for endless servings of inadequate and unmet expectations based on insecurity and need instead of love.

These are Dean's boots inside the door of the house in St. Lazare. They are made for walking.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

back to school

My university classes start again tonight and I already had the first conference call for my online course yesterday. Part of what I have to do in two of the classes is blog or journal about my weekly readings, so I hope you don't mind being part of my education, because I will be posting some of those musings here. I also teach/moderate a Wednesday night group where we explore finding God in our everyday lives, so I might occasionally post the thoughts I prepared for that group on here as well. Don't worry, it won't get stuffy and boring and I won't turn into a droning, dry professor (though rest assured, none of my teachers are anywhere near boring). It will still be personal and real, but perhaps on a few more varied topics and issues. As I am inspired in my journey of learning, my hope and prayer is that you may find something that will benefit or encourage or challenge you as well.

So, here are some thoughts from yesterday's Wednesday night group.
The topic was "Welcome to Your Life 2009."

First, I asked three people to make paper airplanes. To one person I gave a square of ordinary green paper. To another, I gave a piece of stiff corrugated cardboard, and to the last person, I gave a facial tissue. The green piece of paper, folded into a sleek flying machine with crisp lines, flew straight and fast. The piece of cardboard, roughly manhandled to bend sort-of in half, landed like a chunk of beef a few feet away. The tissue, carefully folded into a limp shape, flew and floated and fluttered to the ground, beautiful but not very easy to direct. The point I made was that if we want to get somewhere in life, to be directed by God in this journey, we must not be too inflexible and stubborn, not too soft and sensitive and wishy-washy, but have a strength and availability which provides the least resistance to what God is doing, yet easily accepts and holds the shape that his hands mold us into.

Then I asked everyone to make a quick one-year plan using the following six areas:
1. Spiritual -how do you want to mature spiritually this year?
2. Physical - the most popular ones are usually join the gym and lose weight
3. Professional - perhaps you want to get a promotion or change jobs or get A's in your classes.
4. Financial - get out of debt? win the lottery?
5. Relational - call your mom more often, develop deeper friendships, find a mate
6. Missional - how do you want to change and better the world around you?

After this, I had everyone turn over the piece of paper and answer these questions:
1. what have I been thinking about lately?
2. what have I been reading in my Bible (or other inspiring book) lately that stood out?
3. what are patterns in my life right now? things that keep happening that are out of the ordinary?
4. where are things not working out? where do I seem stuck?
5. what things are working really well? where do I find lots of opportunity?
6. what things annoy me and frustrate me right now? what type of people or actions get on my nerves?
7. what are things that people say to me a lot?
8. what are my challenges right now that seem a bit daunting?
9. what lessons have I learned lately?
10. what lessons do I think I still need to learn?
11. what makes me want to escape so that I can forget about it for awhile? what am I avoiding?
12. what makes me uncomfortable or causes me pain?
13. what do I find hard to hear? what don't I want to talk about?
14. what are the questions I want answered right now?
15. are there any memorable dreams I have had lately?

From my experience, these last 15 questions can give us clues as to where God is already active in our lives. These are things that are coming up because he wants to teach us something through them, wants to bring our attention to them and show us a better way. It is his way of communicating in our lives.

The one-year plan (the first six categories) can reveal our idea of how to direct our lives so that we become better people, more comfortable and happy with who we are. I have learned that if we set our own goals, wonderful and good as they may be, we will have an awful lot of hard work ahead of us for minimal return if God is not active in them.

The second set of 15 questions are meant to reveal what God is already working on in our lives, where he wants to bend us and adjust us and mold us into the people he intended us to be, to show us how to fly. If we look for what God is already doing in our lives, what areas he is already active in and bringing to our attention, the positive changes and rapid progress we can see in these areas will be truly incredible if we cooperate with him, because our small efforts go a long way when we attach ourselves to his incredible transforming energy and get on board with his timing.

I ended by stating that my goal for 2009 is to be blessed by God. And inspired by the first part of Matthew 5 in The Message, here is what that looks like:

1. I will not be afraid to get to the end of my rope and find God there.
2. I will let go of the things that I hold dear if I find my value in them instead of finding my value in being dear to God.
3. I will be content and thankful with who God made me (in person, time, and place).
4. I will cultivate a healthy spiritual appetite including diet, exercise, and elimination.
5. I will give something of myself to the people God brings across my life without needing a return to think it was worthwhile.
6. I will build others up instead of comparing myself to them.
7. I will not be afraid to be offended or to offend, as long as truth is held in high regard.

This is a picture of a painting that I did years ago inspired by Exodus 39.

Monday, January 05, 2009

attention

For those of you who might be wondering, Dean and myself and Tea and Jazz all survived the holidays quite nicely. Tea is continuing her recovery and I was happy to find that, thanks to the wonderful caregivers who fed her and loved her while we were away, she improved while we were away. Dean is back at work and I am bracing myself for another busy term with two university courses and one online 15-week worship training thingy. This is sounding altogether too much like a newsletter so let me stop with the update thing right here and move on to more interesting stuff.

Yesterday, for no particular reason, I had a low day. I woke up feeling less than bouncy. I had a lot to do and oodles of reading and writing that should have been tackled, and perhaps a spiritual exercise or two that might have been helpful, but I didn't have the energy or the heart for it. I just felt flat and unexcited ,and I realised that I was empty. I give out a lot of words (mostly good and kind and true words, I hope) and sometimes it seems like I run out of ideas and words and energy; I have a feeling of being unrecognised and not very valuable. I have the sense of being overlooked, forgotten, and neglected. None of this is 100% true, but everyone, even me, needs encouraging words and careful attention paid to them on occasion, especially when you are the one who regularly supports and encourages and teaches and cares for others.

So my pathetic prayer began like this: God, I need some attention. I would just like someone to tell me that I look nice and that the outfit I am wearing makes my eyes stand out. Why does no one ever say that to me? Have you forgotten about me, God? Don't overlook me today.

After moping around the house with the cats and watching some boring television, I flopped open my bible and decided to read the next section of Matthew where I had left off a day or two before. It said, "What's the price of a pet canary? Some loose change, right? And God cares what happens to it even more than you do. He pays even greater attention to you, down to the last detail even numbering the hairs on your head!" (from Matthew 10 in The Message). I read that word attention over and over again. I didn't feel like God or anyone else was paying any special attention to me, but I wanted it to be true, I wanted to believe it.

And so I dragged myself to church and didn't even pretend to be the cheerful effervescent pastor's wife. I helped with the set-up like I always do and managed to avoid greeting anyone except for a distant wave because I am just too honest and transparent and would have said, "Not so great," if anyone had asked me how I was doing. I wasn't really sad or in a bad mood, I just felt like I had nothing to offer anyone because I was empty. Then the meeting started and I sat down beside one of my lovely friends. She turned to me and said, "That outfit really makes your eyes look nice." I blinked and smiled. Yes, she had said those exact words to me. Perhaps someone was paying attention after all.

After the meeting, three of us were praying for each other and another one of my friends said that she had something kind of random to say to me. Okay. She said, "Matte, you are young and you are beautiful." Uh-huh. It was finally starting to sink in.

So I ran across the room, grabbed my Bible, and showed her what I had read that afternoon about God paying great attention to us. I told her how I had asked for a few specific things to be said to me because I needed to know that I was not forgotten or overlooked by God, and that she had spoken one of them. And then she told me about something that happened to her that morning and how what I had just read in Matthew spoke to her in a very specific way as well. And then we were both crying and laughing and talking all at the same time, and I suddenly realised that I no longer felt empty and drained. I had words to say to people again. The sentences I had read about God's heart towards me -his special caring attention to me - had been demonstrated as true. Sometimes it takes more than just reading or hearing something to believe it - we have to experience it.

These are the twinkly lights in our front window with some cool reflections of our living space and some random lady across the street thrown in for interest.