Thursday, June 25, 2009

the social

I just finished reading the book, The Search to Belong, by Joseph R. Myers. It explores the 4 primary spaces that relationships happen in our lives.
1. Public: we connect to strangers through an outside influence such as a sporting event; there is little interaction beyond this event or location, but it is significant to our lives.
2. Social: we relate to others we have a connection with, we present "snapshots" of ourselves as we encounter others in a casual setting and relate briefly.
3. Personal: we develop friendships and share private experiences, feelings, and thoughts.
4. Intimate: we are "naked" and intimate with a few people in our lives, sharing our inmost thoughts and feelings without shame.

I do very well in the public setting because I love the energy of a large group where there is no need to engage with everyone. But, I naturally gravitate to the personally intimate spaces, and sometimes find the social setting frustrating because I believe that I need to have a deep and meaningful conversation in order to feel like the event was a success! That is a totally unrealistic expectation, and reading this book helped me understand why I have left so many group outings feeling deflated and overlooked. I was looking for intimacy in all the wrong places.

The other challenging point Myers makes is that we should be relating to God in all of these spaces and not trying to hurry everyone to the intimate place as if it were the only one of real value. Yes, I have done that. I sometimes introduce intimacy at inappropriate times instead of letting people encounter God and each other in all spaces. I forget that God made us to be social beings as well as communal beings.

Every space is valid and necessary for a healthy and whole community life. We only have the energy for a few intimate relationships, so I should not try to have that kind of closeness with everyone I meet. Being intimate with everyone means that there is no real intimacy! The ratio Myers gives is roughly this: for every 8 people in your public space, you will have 4 social connections, 2 personal friends, and 1 intimate relationship. A healthy and vibrant community is made up of a group who has connections on every level in harmonious balance, seeing God at work in all of them.

Yesterday, I participated in a group outing. There were about a dozen people, some coming and going throughout the day, as we celebrated Quebec's national holiday. We started with brunch, then played several games of Mafia (I nailed the part of the Doctor in one game - oh yeah!), then headed to the park for frisbee tossing, water balloon catch, and a pick-up game of soccer. After that, we went back to a friend's apartment for a rest and a drink, then headed downtown for dinner at a Thai restaurant. After the meal, we wandered around downtown Montreal for a bit, got some ice cream and drinks and sat by a fountain, talking and relaxing in the warm evening air. It was one of the best days of my life in Montreal.

Part of the reason was that I had prepared myself that morning by saying, "This is a social outing, Matte. Don't expect to have any deep conversations about people's inner thoughts. Just enjoy the day, play games, relate to others in an easy and friendly manner, and take delight in every person that you interact with, no more expectations than that." And so I did. God was very present. His name came up occasionally in the conversation, we spontaneously prayed for a friend with a sore knee, and every time I ran and jumped and drank water and laughed at the silliness of someone and commended the skill of another, or saw other people do the same, I felt his pleasure.

Imagine that: God being present and alive in a casual social setting and that being as valuable as a Bible study or a time of worship! Yes, it's true!

This is me on my balcony just before heading out to celebrate Quebec with friends.

Monday, June 22, 2009

is this what you expected?

This is from a talk I gave at a church meeting last night.

I was reading Luke 7 this week and the question that John the baptist asks jumped out of the page at me. He was in prison and sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus, "Are you the One we've been expecting, or are we still waiting?" Despite John's extensive preparation work for the long-awaited messiah, he still wasn't sure that what Jesus was bringing was what he had been expecting. Sometimes this life of following Jesus is not what I expected, either. I'm with you, John.

It got me to thinking about my love/hate affair with expectations and I came up with these delineations:
Expectation is:
- a prospect of success or gain
- belief that someone should behave in a particular way
- focus on a particular outcome
- Dean comes home with flowers for me.
Expectancy is:
- anticipation
- excitement, feeling hopeful
- focus on a catalytic factor, not an event
- Dean comes home and that brings many possibilities with it.

I showed a 5-minute clip from a video by Dan Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, who talks about Expected Value, which is a probability formula in mathematics. Basically, the formula goes like this: Expected Value = (Odds of Gain) x (Value of Gain). The problem is that most people are not very good at estimating probability and value and therefore, make poor decisions.

We have a tendency to compare with the past instead of the possible, and this often stymies our ability to see true value. Shifting comparisons also add inconsistency to the mix. Basically, comparison is a very slippery slope on which to assign value. Interesting stuff, but I felt it was lacking a key factor. So, I rewrote the formula and put God in the equation.

Expected Value = Odds of Gain (certainty that God will do what he says, but most likely in a way beyond my imagination or experience) x Value of Gain (the value of what God brings to the equation is beyond comparisons, beyond my realm of possible: i.e. peace, freedom, love, union with God, communion with others, and more).

So, here are some tough questions for us:
1. Do I place my hope in a good God OR do I have a sense of entitlement that certain things should happen in my life because I believe in him?
2. Do I have faith in a creative and faithful Father OR do I presume to know what he will do and how he will do it based on past experience or some fantasy I have conjured up?
3. Do I actively submit to God's undeniable ability to be more than I can comprehend OR do I insist that he should enact my version of justice here and now?
4. Do I expect God to respond to my call, to act on my behalf, to be true to his character, and to bring honour to his name OR do I expect a certain event to happen in order to make me feel better?

I think that many times my expectations are not in line with what God is offering, and that results in frustration and disappointment on my part. I have started to pray: "God, what are you offering today?" Instead of just running down my list of requests, perhaps things would go better for me if I would see what he is bringing into my life and get ready to receive that.

Back to John's question. Jesus replied with the following list: "the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the wretched of the earth have God's salvation hospitality extended to them." Then he turned the question back on John. "Is this what you were expecting?" Luke 7: 21-23.

Based on that, here is what I think we can expect when we follow Jesus:

1. To spend a lot of time with the poor and broken, fighting for their healing.
2. To encounter evil and do battle with it.
3. To be involved in the process of freedom on a daily basis
4. That not everyone will respond favourably to the invitation to experience God's saving hospitality.
5. To see the dead raised and yet give our lives (John was put to death shortly after this).
6. That Love will conquer all, but will take the time to woo its opposition.
7. That Love will never leave me nor forsake me.
8. That by hanging around with Jesus and practicing, I can learn to do the things that he did.
If we are expecting these things, we are blessed!
This is a picture of an empty chair on a quaint porch on the plateau in Montreal.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

fixing a fridge

My friend had a fridge meltdown last week - literally. He called me to tell me that everything in his freezer had melted, there was water dripping over the food in his fridge, and the motor kept turning off and on erratically. Since he was on his way out for the evening, I told him I would come over the next day to see what was going on. I mentioned that if he kept the fridge door closed, his food should be alright until then.

I like fixing small things around the house and enjoy the challenge of making something right that was not working before, so sometimes my friends call me up when they have a problem. When I got off the phone, I researched fridge issues on the internet and found that this particular problem might be the result of dirty coils which were affecting the performance of the compressor. There was an easy solution. However, if this didn't work, he would have to ask his landlord for a new refrigerator, which might turn out to be a bit of an ordeal since the corporation he pays his rent to is not known for their attentiveness to their tenants' needs.

The next day, I packed up my supplies and did my impersonation of a refrigerator repair woman. His particular fridge looks like something straight out the 50's. It is an apartment size model and has a tiny freezer compartment within the fridge. The bottom shelf is missing and some of the storage compartments lack their original hardware. The freezer is small to begin with, and as time goes on, it becomes caked with frost and diminishes even further in size. Nevertheless, it is clean and reliable and does the job, at least it has until now.

I cleaned the coils and the compressor at the back of his fridge. Surprisingly, they weren't that dirty. After an hour or so of work, we laid hands on the appliance, said a quick prayer and plugged the fridge back in. The motor started, then immediately shut off. Oh well. Plan B. Contact the landlord and hope we get some action.

We went downstairs to the superintendent's apartment and to our surprise, he was at home. My friend explained the situation and the tall man said he would see if he had another fridge around somewhere and perhaps deliver it tomorrow. Well, that seemed too easy!

The next day when my friend returned home from work, a new fridge was standing in his kitchen. Well, new to him at least, and definitely newer than the last one. This new model was also apartment-sized and boasted all its original shelves PLUS a separate freezer compartment nearly double the size of the old one. It was an upgrade in every which way: colour, features, size, and looks! The broken fridge had been a blessing in disguise!

Sometimes I think I try too hard to fix up something that is not working. I tweak and clean and take it apart and push everything back into place and sometimes even replace a few parts to get a bit more life out of it. Duct tape will keep it together for a few more days. Another screw will keep it from falling apart. A good cleaning will prolong its life for a bit. Why am I so reluctant to let the old crap go? When its time is done, when I see the telltale signs that it is breathing its last breath, why do I insist on spending a lot of time and energy and sometimes resources on making it last just a bit longer? (I am not talking about human beings here, don't worry.)

When God comes into a situation, he makes everything new (Revelation 21:5). He doesn't fix up the old stuff in order to squeeze another month out of it. He replaces it with something way better, something that carries his life (which get better with time) instead of my death (which causes things to deteriorate over time). Let me not hesitate to trade in my broken junk for the the new stuff, the stuff that comes from Jesus and carries his vitality and character and lifeblood and not a whiff of the stench of decay. That's a trade that is always worth it.

This is my refrigerator with a fridge magnet from Australia.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

the incident of the sunbather and the prodigal cat

It is a rainy day. Jazz the cat is sleeping on the couch not six feet away from me as I write. I just paid my hydro bill online, answered a few emails, and my cup of chai green tea is empty. Pause. Okay, the cup is full again.

My summer schedule has been going well. The boss is firm but flexible, and has let me change up the hours on occasion as long as I get my work done. So on days when the 12-3 writing schedule just doesn't work due to a dentist appointment such as I had on Monday or an online lecture that I participated in yesterday, I work a little later or split a shift.

Just before my writing shift began yesterday, I had a little incident involving Jazz. If you are averse to stories with embarrassing personal details, you might want to stop reading right now. It was a beautiful sunny day and I thought I would lie outside for a bit and get some colour on my skin before I sat down at the computer for the rest of the afternoon. I have been sitting inside way too much this spring and the skies have been mostly overcast for the past few weeks, so I wanted to take advantage of the cloudless day to get my dose of Vitamin D happiness and even out those funny tan lines from my sunburn when we were in Florida.

I was lying out on my third floor terrace, enjoying the warmth on my back, when I heard Jazz scratching at the patio doors inside. I make it a point not to leave her outside unsupervised, so I thought it would be fine to let her sit there with me for the last 10 minutes of my sun break. I opened the door and she lightly stepped onto the bright balcony. She settled down in the corner under the patio table and looked out over the neighbourhood. I watched for a bit and was content that she would not run away. The sun was bright and beautiful, so feeling free and summery, I undid the back of my bathing suit.

Five minutes later, I heard some animal howling, but it was far away, so I relaxed and soaked up some more sun. After another minute, the yowling came again and then I realised that only one cat made that exact sound. It was Jazz! I leapt up, remembering to grab my bathing suit top just in time, and peeked over the railing of the balcony. Jazz and another cat were circling each other in a parking lot 2 buildings away. It didn't look like they were physically fighting, but the sound was definitely hostile. How did she get down there without me noticing? I called her name and she looked at me, briefly disengaging, but I knew she would not back off unless I came down there.

I fiddled with my bathing suit top, but those clasps are difficult to close at the best of times, and impossible when one is in a hurry. What to do? Just run down and get her, barefoot and half-dressed? Or go inside, throw some clothes on, and hope a bloody fight doesn't happen in the meantime. I chose the latter, you will be thankful to know. I ran inside and up a flight of stairs to my bedroom, pulled on shorts, a top, and my sandals. Then I hurried back outside and flew down the 5 half flights of stairs. Jazz and the other cat were on the lawn beside the neighbouring parking lot, fur high and backs arched.

I called out to Jazz as I walked toward them and to my amazement, she immediately turned and started to trot in my direction. I kept talking to her the whole time, calling and encouraging her to do the right thing. And she responded! She ran right past me, across the back lawn, and started up the stairs, all without much intervention on my part. When she got to the last landing before our balcony, she flopped down and started to pant, as if to say, "I'm done!" I was pretty impressed with her quick return, so I picked her up and carried her the rest of the way inside. There was no hissing, no fighting me, just a limp body in my arms, ready to come home. Amazing! I gave her a treat when we got inside and she spread herself out on the kitchen floor, spent from the ordeal.

I like this change in Jazz. She has become more attentive to my voice and less stubborn about getting her own way. She still has a very strong territorial instinct which makes her unloving and ungracious and ridiculously protective of her space and her stuff and her food, but my voice got through that beastly selfish urge yesterday and she responded with obedience instead of anger. She didn't fight me. She came home of her own will. She trusted me instead of herself.

Jesus, help me be more like Jazz.

This is a picture of my view today.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

the "J" word

Every once in awhile, I struggle with jealousy. It is not attractive. For some decrepit reason, I start to look at other people's lives and think that perhaps some of what they have would be better served if I were to possess it. I compare my situation and theirs. I nitpik over minute details and keep score of who has what. I am not proud of any of this, and so I am confessing it.

This week the jealousy flared up a bit again. It never makes me feel better about myself; it only leaves me with an empty and poor spirit. It never puts a smile on my face and a bounce in my step; it only saps my energy and my sense of gratitude. It never helps me to love and serve with compassion; it only makes me irritable and either pouty or possessive. So why do I still entertain the thoughts when they come my way? I really don't know. I have asked God to help me jettison the root of jealousy out of my life lots of times, and for the most part, it is gone. But every once in awhile, it slams me when I am not looking.

This week as I was again doing battle in my mind to keep my thoughts true and real and loving, I read a story in Luke 5. A man with a horrible disease comes up to Jesus and says, "If you want to, you can cleanse me." And Jesus replies as we all knew he would, "I want to. Be clean." Really, when does Jesus NOT want to help and heal and make things clean? So I started to pray the same prayer for my situation. If you want to, Jesus, you can clean up this destructive pattern of jealousy in my thoughts.

I would have been happy with an immediate, "I want to. KAZAM! It's done!" But, of course, God is not a system where I can just punch in the correct sequence of prayer words and get the desired results. Copy cat prayers hardly ever produce copy cat results. From what I have seen and read, God never does anything the exact same way twice (being the master of creativity that he is), especially because no two situations or points in history are exactly the same. Instead, the response I got was, "Do you want it?"

Of course I want to be free! I wouldn't ask if I didn't want to be healed and changed! There is no up side to the "J" condition. Yes, I want to stop ever comparing myself to anyone again. Yes, I want to graciously accept that God is totally in charge of who gets what and never complain about any seeming incongruencies. Yes, I want to have my only sense of value come from what God says about me and not rely on my status, success, or the compliments of others. Of course I would like to give up the right to be angry and put off when I am overlooked and someone else receives what I honestly had coming my way. Hmmm...might need a little help on that one. Yes, I want to stop feeling sorry for myself and yes, I want to always rejoice with others when they succeed, even if it is at my own personal cost. Ouch, that one might hurt a bit. Yes, please let me never want to indulge in the guilty pleasure of seeing others not have everything work out for them, either. Sigh. Tougher than it sounds.

I do want to be free, and I know Jesus wants me to be free even more than I do. But in his great wisdom, he refuses to fight the whole battle for me while I sit back passively. "We are in this together," he says. If I want to get out of this bondage, this slavery, I can't act like a slave anymore (the powerless victim). God is not a slave to me, there to do my bidding, and I am not a slave to my sin. The battle in my mind is over so much more than a few jealous thoughts. It is about thinking like a free person thinks. Like a lover thinks. Like a friend of God thinks.

This a picture of a tug boat and a cargo boat on the Hudson River. Getting there together.

Friday, June 12, 2009

what does hockey have to do with anything?

We are having a hockey party tonight. Well, I do live in Canada after all, and we love our hockey. And tonight, though neither of the final two teams are from my native land, we will gather in our living room to watch the last game of the NHL playoffs and cheer and yell and boo and eat burgers and sausage and drink beer. Of course, we are cheering for Nova Scotian born Sidney Crosby (and his team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, by default). It will be a great way to end a good week.

On Monday, I embarked on my new summer schedule. No, it is not 3 hours by the pool, 4 hours in the park. I don't even have a pool, unless you count the half inch of water that accumulates on my balcony after a sweet, summer rain. When the school year ended at the end of April, I said I wanted to do a bunch of stuff this summer that I didn't have time for during the year due to a hectic study and work and church stuff and life schedule. And after the month of May raced by with its parade of non-stop visitors and a road trip to a conference in the East while I blinked, I realised that June was going to do the same if I didn't take action. I sure didn't want to end up at September and realise that not a single thing on my list of "Things I Want to Do This Summer" had been crossed off.

So I became my own boss. I gave myself a job description. For the next three months, I am to blog at least 3 times a week, I am to complete my online work of fiction if possible, and I am to read at least one chapter a day to familiarize myself with the writings of Evelyn Underhill, a 20th century mystic on whom I will be doing a major research paper starting in September. That means from 12 - 3 pm, Monday through Friday, I write, edit, and read. Sounds easy, right?

At 12:01 pm on Monday, the laundry screamed that it needed to be done immediately. My stomach growled and demanded that lunch be served first. I had travel arrangements to research and accounting to do and emails to answer and a bank deposit to make. I had milk to buy and a bathroom to clean and 2 good fiction books that I just started. Plus, the bed wasn't made yet! But my boss was firm. She shushed all the screaming and said, "Not now. I'll get to you later. This time has been set aside for the creative process to breathe and for the mind to expand, and that's what's going to happen." And that is what did happen.

I often find the same pattern when I try to read my Bible or talk to God or even write a note to a friend. The dishes are yelling at me and the TV starts a really good show and the counter begs to be tidied up and there are weekend plans to confirm with friends and the whining Jazz to let out on the balcony for a few minutes. The things that need me to be quiet and open my spirit are not demanding at all. The voice of God rarely badgers me. It waits for me in the still corners of my soul. As a general rule, it does not interrupt. It waits for a space in my life where it can be heard, when I am really listening, when the ears and eyes of my soul are open, when my mind is not racing ahead, and when my attention is pulled from the screaming voices in my life to the thrilling whisper of a still, small, loving voice.

I am learning the power of "shush" in my life, the ability to still all those voices and tasks that demand my immediate attention like unruly children, and to give my spirit time and space to be, to create, to listen, and to grow.

Here's to Sidney Crosby and reaching one's goals. *clink of glasses*

This photo of SC from

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

prayer from the ground

This was my prayer yesterday:

God, may the ditches of every lack and inadequacy in my life be filled in so that I stop falling into them.

Please scrape off the prickly bumps of jealousy and frustration and meanness that I wear and smooth them over with grace. I don't want those pointy things sticking out of my life anymore and hurting others.

Can you straighten out the detours that I have taken, and help me to start choosing wisely, no longer avoiding the direct paths of submission and love and obedience.

Father, I have ruts in my life, big ones, caverns caused by rejection that I cannot let go. Please pave over them and make my life a road where everyone can see the parade of God's salvation.

It seems that the only way I can prepare for your presence in my life is by your present and active assistance. Welcome.

(adapted from Luke 3:4-6 in The Message)

Sunday, June 07, 2009

I receive

On Wednesday, I took my car in to the garage to get the air conditioning fixed. They ran a diagnostic on it, emptied out the freon, refilled it, and sent me on my way after almost 3 hours of waiting, telling me it should be better. On the way home, the air conditioning failed again. I called and complained, not too happy about just spending $180 for nothing! Enrico, my service guy, ever so patiently squeezed the schedule to give me another appointment later in the week. After I hung up, I felt badly about my attitude. I had been whiny and impatient and a touch demanding on the phone. Whiny is never attractive, and demanding is not the most effective way to deal with people. But I also don't like feeling like I have been ripped off. So I asked God what was going on and I felt like he answered, "I'm giving you another chance to see Enrico." Somehow, the $180 or the non-functioning air conditioning didn't seem to be on the top of his list of things to be concerned about.

You see, I am planning to sell my car this month and that was to have been my last service appointment with Enrico. Admittedly, it hadn't gone so well. So I determined to be a more pleasant person to deal with and to make my last appointment with him something that we could both look back on with a smile and a sense of mutual respect and honour. Early Friday morning I drove up to the service centre. Enrico had a small crowd of people around him, all wanting something from him, so I waited. When the space in front of his desk finally cleared, he politely greeted me, ready to try to make things work out. Man, how many people do you know who consistently try to make things work out well for you and are pleasant every step of the way? Anyway, I gave him my best smile to let him know that I wasn't irritated with the situation, and told him things looked pretty crazy in the shop that morning! He said, "Yes, and it never stops." I was beginning to appreciate this man and what he did more and more.

I told him I had some errands to run and would be back later. Then I walked over to the local office store to make copies and mail some documents. As is my habit when I am walking somewhere, I had a conversation with God. In the last few days I have been realising that the way I see things is not always the way things actually are. Reading the story of Mary again has taught me so much about the generous nature of God. Too often I see things in my life through the lens of how my situation compares to others'. If God picked Mary for a special job, that meant that he did not pick me. But, I forget that he also picked Elizabeth and John and Joseph and Zachariah and Simeon and Anna, all to tell a different part of a wonderful story. I am a very good single-tasker, but it makes me somewhat blind to the vastness of God's ways. God picks everyone, but he picks them all for different purposes. And the blessing of God in one person's life consequently blesses me because I am part of the larger community! It never means that I am left out of the equation.

I am also beginning to see that I deflect many good things in my life simply because I am unable to recognise them, or am too busy complaining, or looking at someone else's good fortune, or feeling unworthy and pitiful. I am not in receiving mode, so no matter how much cool stuff people say to me, or how many interesting things God wants to bring into my life, I am not able to accept them. I am too preoccupied with some worry or disappointment. My prayer is, "God, I need this one thing," instead of, "What are you offering me today?" Do you ever find yourself brushing off a compliment, or denying someone's offer to pay for a meal? This is where I am too often, unwilling and unable to receive. Not a good place to be, believe me.

So as I walked outside on Friday morning, I decided to do something to change my attitude. I wanted to be a good receiver. I started saying, "I receive," out loud, over and over like a mantra. I receive. I receive. I receive. Yes, I receive anything you are wanting to send my way today, God. Anything. Let me see it. Let me accept it. I receive.

Two hours later, Enrico called me to tell me that the technician wanted to speak to me. Okay then. When I got back to the service centre, the three of us sat down in the waiting room and the technician said, "I have a bit of a story for you." I rubbed my hands together and said, "Oh goody, a story!" He smiled at my silliness and told me everything that he had done on my car thus far, and that he had discovered an unusual problem with my air conditioner. Though the condenser was not broken, the magnet that engaged it was corroded. This meant that it worked only sporadically. One could not just replace the magnet, so I would have to get a whole new condenser in order for the air conditioner to work properly. He said that I had 3 options. First, he could try to clean the magnet and position it closer so that it engaged better. This was the cheapest fix, about 45 minutes of his time, but there was no guarantee that this would solve the problem. Secondly, I could get a used condenser and get it installed. That would be about $500 - $600 dollars. Thirdly, I could install a new condenser from the manufacturer and that was $2500 plus labour. I thought the latter option was really funny, because my car is not worth too much more than that. So I told him I could install that and sell the car for double what it was worth. Great idea! Both of them laughed at the absurdity of that.

Then he looked at me and asked, "When do you plan to sell this car?" I told him that I hoped to do so within the month. Then the technician said, "Here's what I would do if I were you, and I am shooting myself in the foot here. I would do nothing. Tell the buyer the truth about the air conditioning and they can do what they want. It is not worth putting that money into it. I will clean up the magnet as best I can and hopefully it works a bit better. It will take about half an hour or 45 minutes." He looked at Enrico who nodded and we all agreed. I would have a small bill for the time the technician had spent on my car today, but at least I knew exactly what the problem was and had a list of options for the potential buyer. It was not the perfect scenario, but it was okay.

Half an hour later Enrico came into the waiting room and said my car was ready. I took the keys and the bill from his hand. He wished me all the best with the sale of the car and I bid him a thankful goodbye, happy that we had ended our relationship on such a friendly and pleasant note. I unfolded the bill and the amount at the bottom was 0.00. I receive!

This is Dean receiving a birthday cake from me in May.