Tuesday, August 31, 2010

vacation?

Dean and I are on day 4 of our vacation in Manitoba. So far, the days have been full. Hours of travel time, a visit to the farmer's market, shopping for school clothes, reading stories and playing "hide Mr. Lion" with my niece, a brief overnight trip to North Dakota, and much, oh much too much, eating. This afternoon as we were driving into Winnipeg, I asked myself, "Is this really a vacation?" Yes, it is a change of pace, and it is good to see the family, but the list of activities to do and people to see is getting longer, and there are several tasks that I have to keep on top of for school, not to mention some reading and writing that I can't neglect.

The thing that probably bothers me the most is that I am not as joyful, energetic, and passionate about life as I want to be. A vacation sounds exactly like what I need, and yet, I am finding that rest is one of the hardest things to do really well. Spending time with a 2-year-old makes one realise how young we start to resist the notion of rest. Why is that? There is no doubt that we all need rest (it is built into our physiology, how handy!), but what is it, really? How do I know if I have rested? How do I know if I have sabbathed? What should be the quality that I come away with after a vacation? After a day of rest? Here are some thoughts on the matter, inspired and provoked by Genesis 1-2.

1. Rest is not primarily a cessation of work, nor a change of pace or scenery, nor a much-needed break from a busy life. It is more than a necessary pause just because I am tired. It is not doing nothing (sorry about the double negative). It is more than getting away from it all and forgetting about the pressures of life for a bit. It is so much more than playing and having fun.

2. Rest is taking the time to celebrate what is good in my life and to enjoy the creative work I have done, without criticism and without speculating about the future. If I can't find anything to enjoy in what I have done, can't refrain from criticising it, or feel the constant urge to tweak the 5-year plan, I am not at rest.

3. Rest is being quiet (God didn't speak on the seventh day). If I feel the need to add my words, I am not at rest.

4. Rest never has anything to report. It will not be evaluated.

5. Rest is like admiring a picture after it has been painted. The true value is only found by those who take the time to see and absorb the beauty. Rest is looking, listening, inhaling, smelling, touching, tasting, and seeing that God is good.

6. Rest is a blessing; it increases me, grows me, matures me, and strengthens me.

7. Rest is holy; it sets me apart as belonging to God, and it requires surrender. I can fight it (as we often fight off sleep), but blessed are those who step away from their self-occupation and surrender to it.

In all honestly, I don't think I have rested much at all this past year, but I am working on changing that. And the first thing I have to realise is that I can't really work on it. I have to surrender to it.
Come, blessed Rest, Lord of the Sabbath, and sabbath within me.
This is a picture of the neighbour's cat, in repose on his balcony.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

why theology?

The past week has been a flurry of house guests, meetings, welcoming newcomers to Montreal, and trying to get through some books for my reading course before we leave on vacation. Another thing I did this week was to write a short article answering the question, "Why theology?" In case you have ever wondered why people study theology, here is one person's explanation (that would be me).

The Theology Adventure

Everyone has their own reasons for exploring a discipline. Sometimes classes in a specific genre happen to work out best in your schedule. Or a particular avenue of study may be the most attractive and least painful of your available options. Perhaps you have always had a curiosity about a certain subject and decide to try a class or two to test the waters. There is also the possibility that family and friends influence your decision, offering solicited and no doubt, some unsolicited, advice. Whatever the situation, the best case scenario is that you are in a program of study because of love.

People study literature because they love words and the imaginative pictures one can paint with them. People study art because they love beauty and are invigorated by creativity. People study science because they are fascinated by the intricate mechanics and details of the universe. In fact, it is difficult to study a subject that one is not fond of to some degree. I study theology because I love God, and that is not merely a nice sentiment or a convenient cliché.

All disciplines involve the exploration of ideas, facts, theories, or some form of organised information. While this study is a noble and worthy pursuit, it is only the tip of the iceberg. Behind the data, beyond the facts, figures, equations, and conclusions, we find the really intriguing stuff, and that is personality. The unique beauty of theology is that in it we encounter a person, a story. And we study a person in a different way than we do facts or a skill set, or at least we should. While objectivity is still heralded in many circles as the only way to arrive at the truth, it is no substitute for loving proximity. Both of these positions, subjectivity and objectivity, deliver different and complimentary results and should never be divorced from one another.

We cannot truly understand someone’s contribution to knowledge unless we know something about them and their context. We cannot fully appreciate the point of view they offer us unless we are willing to see through their eyes. Most importantly, we will not have the patience to graciously and respectfully search for the hidden pearl of wisdom that resides in every human being if we do not find some measure of love for them within ourselves.

A lack of love results in premature, biased conclusions. A lack of love allows us to categorise theories and opinions without coming face to face with the truth that we need to be examined every bit as much as the data or the text. Love and humility open the door to genuine learning that is not only enlightening, but transforming.

Theology is an invitation. It is a welcome mat. It invites us to come and bring all our thinking about life, about meaning, about truth, about unity, about justice, about the Divine, and to submit it to careful, courageous, sometimes slightly messy, but always loving, interaction. It invites us not only to study the grand story, but to give it a place to grow in us.
Someone recently asked me, “Why are you studying theology?” I replied, “Because I love it, and I want to learn how to make it accessible to people who will never enter the classroom. After all, that was what Jesus was about – making God accessible.”

I believe that a skilled theologian is able to explain profound concepts to a scholar as well as to a 5-year-old. And a good theologian knows that she can learn a thing or two from a 5-year-old, as well. Children appreciate mystery more than we adults do, because they do not feel the need to explain things that only ask to be wondered at. And in the adventure that is theology, one must always be willing to be surprised by wonder: wide-eyed, wordless, reverent, and loving wonder.
This is a photo of Montreal's old port taken on Saturday when we walked around the city with our house guests. Wonderful!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

phone book

video

I just finished an online spiritual formation course. The final assignment was a creative project based on some concepts we studied over the last 4 weeks. Usually, ideas line up in my brain and eagerly pepper me with scenarios for possible projects. But this week, much to my dismay, everything was silent.

On Saturday, I tried to put some ideas down on paper, but after three attempts to come up with something creative (all of them whined about the fact that I was uninspired), I stopped. What do you do when you lack inspiration? Everything seems deflated and limp, void of life. Words fall flat - monotone and without meaning. Music becomes mechanical. I abandoned another idea mid-sentence and scribbled two words beneath the mess: phone book.

My lack of inspiration was reminding me of a saying. When something does not hold our interest, we say that it is about as exciting as reading the phone book. On the other hand, it is also said of someone who has great charisma that they can read the phone book and hold people's attention. And then I realised that a phone book, a book full of the names of real live people, is actually very exciting. Each name represents a living, breathing, human being on this planet. If I met them, I would likely find them engaging, interesting, and want to hear their story. No matter what their situation in life, they would also be carrying the image of God: that attractive, energising element of his glorious spirit. The whole earth is filled with God's glory, and that includes Jim, Lisa, Roger, and Nancy.

I woke up the next day and the idea was still there. So was some excitement about it, and the seeds of some practical ideas as to how to put it together. I also realised that being inspired is not just a feeling. Nor is it the ability to fill a bucket full of creative ideas time after time. It is having the breath of God in me, the life of God pulsing deep inside my soul. And that is as constant as he is, not as fickle as my emotions or thoughts.

Here, then, is my attempt to read the phone book. All photos are taken from my personal collection. I trust that my friends and the random strangers pictured here will not mind lending their faces for a brief second to show the glory of God. Big thanks to Dean who did his magic on the audio engineering side of things.

Big white phone books are no longer printed, so I got creative and accessed a few other lists, most of them online. The names used include all the children our church sponsors in South Africa, some employees at the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, DC, a few of my neighbours in Montreal whose last names start with "D," and pretty much the entire rundown of services and businesses in a small town in Botswana (Maun) found under the letter "R."

The whole earth is indeed so much more glorious than I am able to see. Open my eyes, God. Let me see your glory today. In all things great and small.

Friday, August 13, 2010

sabotage

I am typing this very carefully. Yesterday, I went to see my osteopath because my right arm has been a bit sore and on occasion, I have felt slight tingling in my fingers. Not good. I have been doing a lot of reading and taking notes (typing on my laptop) this summer, so I figured I had better get it checked out.

She worked my arm over real good and then warned me that I was 'this far' (put your forefinger and thumb a few inches apart) from developing tendonitis. Yikes! The cause is my very unergonomic way of sitting at my desk when I am studying. Usually I am so involved in what I am reading or writing that I am not aware of how contorted and tense my body is while I am doing it. My body is probably sending me signals like, "Hey, rest your arms on the desk, stop hunching over, don't twist yourself to one side like that," but I am not listening to the subtle hints.

This morning, in the shower, I was contemplating how to get through a heavy day of reading and writing without causing further strain on my body and realised that I must be deliberate about how I position myself. I have to position myself to work with my body instead of against it. It is more than just an attitude or frame of mind - it is a matter of my physical body coming into agreement with my intention and cultivating awareness in that area.

I am reminded of how often we have good intentions, even good goals, but we sabotage them by putting ourselves in positions that work against those desires. How often have I heard people say they want to make good choices and then see them hanging out with people who make questionable ones? The people whom I surround myself with will influence me. I am not saying that I shouldn't befriend those that need some guidance, but they cannot be my primary buddies. If they don't share the same intentions, they will always end up pulling me away from pursuing them.

How often have I heard people express a desire to get their lives on track with God, yet they don't position themselves in a faith community or in a gathering where people worship God? We all do it. We intend one thing and with our body and our actions, do another. Usually we are so focused on something in the moment that we are unaware of how we are sabotaging our overall well-being. It very often takes someone else to point it out to us. Dean will say to me sometimes, "Matte, sit up straight," because I am not aware of this bad habit that over time will make me the Hunchback of St-Laurent.

It is time to stop typing and give my arm a rest.

May I embrace people who will point out my inconsistencies and bad habits. I prefer if this is done lovingly, but whatever form it takes, may I receive it. May I have the grace and humility to not only hear these things, but to change what I am doing. May healing, courage, transformation, and strength take the place of sabotage in my unconscious places.

This is a photo of the sky clearing (the dark clouds moving on) at our friends' chalet in the Laurentians.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

thirsty

This week in my online spiritual formation course, we are talking about the importance of community, and comparing it to the element of water (nurturing, collective, cohesive, running to the lowest places). Here is what I wrote for my assignment.

I often wake up thirsty. There is nothing like the first drink of the day (I am talking orange juice, of course). I love all kinds of drinks: water, chai tea, fizzy diet Dr. pepper, a cold cider, orange juice, wheat beer, green tea, and the occasional cappuccino (all of which have a large element of water in them). Communal life is also something that I thirst for, in the many shapes and forms that it takes.

Two words from Gregg Finley’s talk on things Celtic [1] stood out to me: availability and vulnerability. They apply both to drinking orange juice and to the intentional and interactive elements of being in community.

Availability: do I lie in bed and think about how thirsty I am or do I get up, stumble down the stairs to the kitchen, and open the fridge door? Do I whine when I run out of orange juice or do I put on my shoes and walk to the store? Do I stare longingly at the juice on the store shelf or do I reach out for it, pay the cost, and own it? (get out of my comfort zone, go where people are, reach out, willingly pay the cost, take ownership)

Vulnerability: do I open my mouth wide and let it pour in? Do I hurriedly gulp it down or savour the richness of it? Do I insist on a particular brand/kind of orange juice (Tropicana no pulp) or will I try something new, give others a chance? Will I go back and again and again, every day, for more orange juice, knowing that my body needs it on a continual basis? (be open, enjoy the experience, be inviting and take a risk, be consistent and faithful)

Let the answer be “yes” every morning, Jesus. “Yes” to you and your friends.

This is a picture of a close community of fresh croissants in the bakery in St. Donat.

[1] Gregg Finley, The Celtic Way of Worship, online lecture from http://www.worshiptraining.com/.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

acting again

I used to be an actress. Well, I can still act my way out of a paper bag, but I haven't been doing any drama lately, other than vying for the title of "drama queen" in my own household. Jazz gives me a run for it on most days.

While doing my MA in Theological Studies, the talk of doing a Ph.D. sometimes comes up. Due to the nature of the program at my university, something interdisciplinary would be a very good way to go. If I were going to pursue further studies (nice to dream about it sans all the frustration and hard work), I think I would like to combine drama and theology. I checked it out online last night and what is out there is pretty sad. Most Christian drama is one-dimensional, blunt like a hammer, and not that interesting or relevant or well-written. There is always a badly-hidden agenda, too. Sigh.

Then I found this talk by an acting coach, and my hope was renewed again. Acting, for me, has never been about being a not-so-sneaky tool to present the 4 spiritual laws. It is about reality. About putting yourself out there. About empathy. About living in a beautiful story.

Here is the clip which I found on Ted.com:



Yes, I want to act again. I want to get involved in this telling of truth and being present.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

c+o+n+n+e+c+t

I am currently reading The Tangible Kingdom by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay. It puts into words so many things I have been thinking about in the past year or two. That church is so much more than a weekly meeting or two. That the lack of enthusiasm people have for church and religion has very little to do with the life-changing adventure of following Jesus. That every aspect of life can be relational (connecting with God and with others) if I look for it. That Church was never meant to "happen" behind closed doors. That helping others (not just watching out for my own interests) is much easier and natural than I thought, yet much more challenging than is comfortable.

This summer, I have been trying to get better at connecting with people outside of my immediate circle of friends (read "comfort zone"). Once a week or so, I make a point of calling someone up that I would not normally hang out with and inviting them to go for a drink. They might be people I have not seen for awhile. They might be people I don't really know, but have seen around. They might be people I keep thinking about for some reason. They might be people that have approached me in the past, and I never gave them much time. They might be a random person that I strike up a conversation with.

Without fail, all of these encounters have been interesting, fun, and as far as I can tell, meaningful and encouraging for both of us. Sometimes they start a bit awkwardly, but as soon as I let my guard down, so do they. Let's face it. Everyone can use a friend, a listening buddy, and someone to let them know that they are valuable enough to have an hour or two devoted to them.

And last week, I found someone who has lived with these ideas much longer than I have, and he says it much more clearly than I could. Here's Hugh:

There are 4 things that Mr. Halter suggests should be part of a life that seeks to connect well (with God and others):

1. Leaving: get out there. Go where people are. Invite people not only to participate in your life, but express interest in theirs. A few examples are: 1) let people live with you for extended periods of time. 2) have dinner with people (not just the usual friends). 3) do what you love with others (invite someone you are just getting to know along on a bike ride). 4) go out of your way to build relationships (walk over and say hi, don't just hurry along on the way to your next appointment, and hey, maybe leave early to allow time for these connections). 5) look for chances to talk (neighbours and mailmen and bank tellers and waitresses need friends, too). Oh and by the way...selfishness is the enemy of "leaving."

2. Listening: let people tell their story. Make space for them in your life and day. Don't feel the need to offer advice or relate it back to yourself. Watch and listen and let people reveal themselves to you. It is a gift most people only give to the patient, loving, and trustworthy. You know what? Arrogance is the enemy of "listening."

3. Living Among: If we are incarnational people (that means letting Jesus live in us), we will develop the habit of living among. We participate in the natural activities of the culture around us with whimsical holiness. We are at home with people of all walks of life and don't try to separate ourselves from certain types of folks. Jesus really knew how to do this. The religious of the day felt uncomfortable around him, but the sick and needy and people with issues didn't. He came to their homes, he ate with them, and he hung out in public places with them. You guessed it: fear is the enemy of "living among."

4. Loving without strings: people can tell if we are just trying to get them to sign up for something or take them on as an improvement project. I need to become comfortable with receiving unconditional love (from God), and then get good at giving it out. Love is the most attractive force in the world. And wouldn't you know it: having expectations is the enemy of loving.

One nice quote from Hugh to end it all off: I've concluded that, almost without exception, relationships are formed, important dialogue and conversation begin, and powerful moments of ministry occur during spontaneous, unplanned moments while we are sharing our lives together. In many cases, these events occurred when I didn't want to be some place or have someone with me. Over time, I have learned that "interruptions" are the very place where I look for God to work. It's almost as if God creates interruptions as his last attempt to get me out of my own life. - Hugh Halter

These 4 points and the ending quote shamelessly ripped (with paraphrasing by Matte) from the pages of The Tangible Kingdom by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008.

This is a photo from the Mardi Gras parade in Montreal thus summer. Who wants to be a knight in shining armour?

Monday, August 02, 2010

inspire (breathe in)

I am doing an online course in spiritual formation. We studied inspiration last week: what breathes life into us? The following is based on an assignment I wrote on that topic.

I love standing outside and watching planes fly overhead (did that 5 minutes ago – YES!!); It makes me think of adventure and being an explorer.
I love walking, running, jumping, and skipping.
I love breathing, stretching, and the feel of clean water on my body.
I especially love mountains and oceans; they make my heart burst with their immensity and raw, unstoppable beauty. I love being small next to them.
I love watching little bugs. Their wee, tiny legs move so fast and they cover so much ground.
I love touching soft fur and rough elephant skin.
I love drinking chai tea and sitting close to Dean. Comfort.
I love moments of silence when I am just a part of the universe without trying to impress anyone.
I love time and the splashes of flavour that squirt from it as it passes.
I love being able to hear and see and smell and taste.
I love the touch of another person’s hands in healing care, so I love going to the dentist and the doctor.
I love going to the bathroom because it is cleansing, like confession.
I love not having to worry and just going with the flow of letting Jesus be in charge.
I love creative, quirky, misunderstood people.
I love the authenticity of someone singing words they believe and live.
I love thinking and reading in the quiet. I also love shouting and dancing.
I love the unexpected. Boo!
I love moving from one house to another. It helps me clear out all the old stuff I don't need anymore and gives me a blank canvas on which to paint, "HOME!"
I love walking on the beach. Ocean is endlessness I can hear.
I love sitting in front of the fireplace.
I love phone calls from people I don’t know.
I love learning. A present in every day.
I love helping people in transition. Not everyone loves change as much as I do, so I try to lighten their load.
I love having conversations with God. He is very interesting and smart. Funny on occasion, too.
I love Church; she is beautiful. So much potential.
I love the me that Jesus made.
I love Life. He breathes into me every second of the day, whether I am aware of it or not.
Inhale!
This is a picture of insubstantial me running around on the beach in Hawaii while the camera does a slow exposure night shot. Probably not the best composition with a crooked palm tree, fire torch, and a garbage can all vying for the centre of the attention, but I like it. Makes me smile!