Sunday, October 31, 2010

behind

Today, I finally got to some ironing that had been too long neglected: 12 shirts and 3 pairs of pants. I don't think there was much left to wear in the closet, actually. It seems like I am perpetually behind these days. I am a week and a half behind in the schedule I have set for my reading course in order to finish it in a timely manner. I am always trying to play catch-up in household cleaning, buying groceries, and personal writing. I don't even want to imagine what Christmas preparations will do to an already packed month ahead.

This week I began to think about my education. In order to be all that I can be, I should be submitting articles, presenting at conferences, and applying for awards, but frankly, I just don't have the energy. I know I have missed opportunities for funding and deadlines for submitting papers for important conferences. That's what happens when I am trying to live a joyful, creative, and peaceful life while being a full-time student, a teacher's assistant, a member of a journal committee, a part-time administrator, a faithful friend, and a caring pastor.

I have been reading the story of Joseph in Genesis. It is another one of those biblical stories that doesn't quite make sense to me. In fact, parts of it make me uncomfortable, both in what it appears to be saying about God and in the odd behaviour that characters in the story exhibit. But today, as I was feeling like a bit of a loser, losing out on opportunity after opportunity because I am a person with limited energy who cannot multitask well, I was reminded that one of the common factors in these biblical stories is that people, no matter how hard they try, are not masters of their own fate. They cannot manufacture their own success.

Joseph, the man with loads of potential, was always at the wrong place at the wrong time, it seems. When he told people about his amazing leadership skills and bright future, he set a whole lot of terrible things into motion: he was grossly mistreated by those who should have protected him, he was falsely accused by his boss, he was forgotten for two years by a colleague who promised to help him out, and yet...things turned out very well in the end. Beyond anyone's wildest dreams! Because God had a better plan than the one that Joseph employed by trying to sell people on his skills. It involved learning to be a great leader by not relying on his own strengths, but on the dependability of his God.

The perfect example of this can be seen in Genesis 41 in Joseph's interaction with Pharaoh. The ruler says to him, "I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it." Joseph replies, "I cannot do it, but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires."

I cannot get everything right in my education process and all the life challenges that go along with it, but God will bring me to the place that he wants me to be. He always does, so I don't have to worry. Work hard, yes, but not worry.

This is a red pear that I let ripen for a few days until it was just right. Then I enjoyed its deliciousness!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Waiter

This is the spoken word piece I presented earlier tonight. It is based loosely on Genesis 32.

Someone...is waiting for me.
I can sense it when I walk home at night.
Out there, just out of sight,
waiting, watching, debating when to make a move.
I can feel it when the hairs on my arm rise up slowly
and there is a tingle on the back of my neck, only
it doesn’t stay there. That tingle, shivery tingle finds
the bottom of my spine
and that’s how I divine that
Someone...is waiting for me.
I imagine and hypothesize and theorize
that the encounter will happen in some dark alley.
The marked and the marker meet and greet and all manner of devastation is heaped on me
yes, that is what I fear.
Deep in my belly, that’s where I hear the fear talking
so when I am walking
I am praying, hoping, that nothing happens.

It’s okay, I’d say, to be praying...for nothing.
But still, I know something or someone will, eventually, catch up to me.
It might happen in broad daylight, who knows?
Perhaps I am in a park, and someone suddenly appears in a bush- whoa!
(Though I think that highly unlikely).
I think about it often, more often than not, that I’ll be caught off guard
when I open the closet door, the refrigerator door, the shower door, the elevator door
pick a door, any door.
I always feel like
Someone...might be waiting for me.
Sometimes I think I can see the “waiter” out of the corner of my eye

a glimpse, just out of my peripheral vision,
like when you’re sitting too close at the theatre during a Bruce Willis movie and a fight breaks out in a restaurant, as you know it has to, and there are those two guys in the background that never really come into focus and they hope you won’t notice that one of them is looking right at you.
Yeah... Someone...is waiting for me.
I know he is, or she is, or they are, or it is.
NO, not 'it.' Maybe 'he,' maybe 'they,'
maybe someone big enough to convey “they” even though “they” are one.
Yes, some ONE is waiting for me.
This One is so patient. The patience of God, it would seem.
This One is always present. I cannot shake the feeling, asleep or awake, that I am never alone.
This One is annoyingly hidden. Like the wind, I can see the effects, but these eyes can never truly catch a glimpse of exactly where or what or who One is.
This One watches. I know this and do not know it.
When you feel the gaze of someone upon you, you are drawn in their direction. You know?
I know! We know! Some One is watching!
Some one... is waiting for me.

But...I am waiting, too.
I am waiting for the day when I will have the advantage.
When I turn around a corner just a second before the One expects me to
or I open that closet door and catch the One on the floor, asleep
or I peek behind that bush in the park and the One is relieving himself
Hah! I will definitely have the upper hand then.
And when that ‘then’ happens
When opportunity presents itself to me like a stairway to heaven
I will get right up in the elusive One’s face,
You would think we were going to embrace, but I will have quite another purpose in mind.
And I will ask
What do you think you are doing? Following me around all these years and never showing yourself?
I will call the One a coward, or a control freak, or whatever accusations come out of my mouth at that moment to give voice to the years of fear and anxiety and doubt that I have suffered under those invisible eyes.
If he has a lethal weapon, I suppose I will die before I get to say the next bit,
but if he is a doddering old fool, and some days I suspect that he is, I will tell him that this isn’t funny.
Not amusing in the slightest degree.
Can’t he see that people get freaked out by someone they can’t see?
Who are you? I will ask. I need to know who you are!
Are you the long lost brother that I never knew I had?
Or the old man I pissed off years ago, who has been getting angrier and angrier by the day
watching and waiting until the time is right to make me pay?
And that’s as far as I get in my fantasy, because I can’t see his face and
it seems kind of pointless.

More pointless than I know
because one day, the One just appears.
He is not here,
and then he is here!
(I don’t do boxing, but I have often thought it would be a good sport for me.
I am fast and can think on my feet.
But fast feet only get you so far.
You’ve got to be able to land a punch, and do it convincingly. But look at these arms. Are you convinced? Me neither.)
Anyway, the One appears.
No time for fear.
The One is here. I am here. Game on!
You know, I thought he would use his invisibility to take advantage of me.
I thought he would catch me off guard and hit me hard.
I thought he would play on my fears, drive me to tears, for sure.
But this One. This one is not what I thought.
I don’t even know how I know it is him when I see him, but I know.
And being fast on my feet, I make the first move:
Power blow to the chest! I expect him to crumple to the ground, stunned
but he grabs me and we both go down, tumbling.
(I suppose wrestling would have been a more useful sport to fantasize about than boxing.)
My arms are my weakness and I have no hope of getting a good hold on the One.
Not a full nelson, not a cobra clutch, not the chin lock. Nothing sticks.
I needn’t worry about using any wrestling tricks, though
because he is holding onto me
in a giant bear hug,
the kind a big black bear might use, a grip that says you are mine because I’m hungry and it’s going to be a long winter.
But I am fast, and small, and I wiggle and wriggle and struggle and wangle my way out of his grip.
I leap back on my feet: You can’t have me, I say!
The One, he stands up and waits.
I don’t know what he is thinking, but the longer I look at him, the more I am sure I don’t like it.
So I make another move. I call it the "All In Maneuver!"
This time, I will have him! All four limbs are in the air as I execute a flying tackle.
But I feel only the bounce of my body off a solid surface.
He is no longer a bear. Now he is a rock!
I grab at the slippery smooth wall of some familiar yet foreign substance and find no handhold.
And I am afraid again. The elusiveness is back.
I thought I had him, but I have nothing.
I will not be left with nothing!
Not after all this! Not now!
I grasp for something, anything that will keep the One from disappearing.
The edge of his shirt finds its way into my hand and I hold on tight.
I will not let go, I say to myself.
You will not let go, I tell my hand.
I will not let you go, I say to him.
Not until you give me what I want! I demand, as if beggars and losers get to make demands.
I think of all the “why’s” I want answered and all the fears I want to be assuaged,
but that is not what comes out of my mouth.
The One is waiting (by now I know he does this very well)
and I decide that this is the advantage that I have been waiting for. It is mine for the taking.
I want what you have, I cry!
That confidence, that strength, that lack of uncertainty, that ability to wait and wait and wait and never get discouraged.
The One speaks: What’s your name?
What? He’s been following me around for all these years and he doesn’t know who I am?
But then I realise, surely he is saying this because he is about to pull out his chequebook and bestow a great gift on me! He just wants to get the name right! Of course!
I reply: I am Trying To Get Ahead in Life. With one “i”.
The One smirks, at least that’s what his face appears to be doing. I think it is odd.
But before I can finish the second “d” on that thought, I am on the ground.
He has me pinned, flattened, crushed. I count to ten in my head but it doesn’t matter.
It could be one or a thousand, it would be all the same.
I cannot move. I can barely breathe. I think I might be paralyzed or maybe dead.
‘Ouch’ does not even begin to articulate what my bones are feeling.
Something is definitely out of place.
I feel woozy and would fall down if I was not already...down.
Suddenly, the pressure lifts and I am alone.
I look around and see no One.
Only me, and the ground, and a small piece of paper near my left hip.
It IS a cheque, and it is made out to "Good Wrestler." Or maybe there is only one “o.” I can’t quite tell.
I get up off the ground, bruised but a whole lot braver.
Strange. How is it that I can lose the fight, yet feel like I gained the whole world?
Something is definitely out of place here (smile).
These are two leaves on the ground (not wrestling, but resting) close to my house.

Friday, October 22, 2010

needs improvement

I just finished grading a whack load of essays and exams as part of my job description as a Teaching Assistant. The students have a lot to learn...and so do I. I occasionally drop my jaw and say, "Oh, wow!" at some of the creative answers that I come across (like mistaking the incarnation of Jesus for the endless cycle of re-incarnation), but the thing that really amazes me is that as much as the students' responses reveal how well they have grasped the material, my response to their work also reveals how much I have to learn in dealing with people.

One of the abilities I have developed over time is being able to see what is missing or where something is inadequate, so I make a good proofreader and a fairly accurate and meticulous grader. However, I can also discourage people by always pointing out what is lacking. Not only in their work and their writing, but sometimes I comment on people's actions and life choices as well. You see where this ends up - I am not always that pleasant to be around. In fact, I brought a student to tears this past week. Not that I was mean or nasty, but I was insensitive to the fact that for someone writing a paper for the first time, having all their mistakes pointed out can be very overwhelming and extremely discouraging, especially when they have put a lot of effort into it. I was gently reminded by my gracious Teacher that behind every essay and every exam that I am grading, there is a human being. And the remarks I write on the paper will affect that human being. I may be correcting words, but I am interacting with a person. I can't forget that. And every interaction must be filled with love and grace, even while offering correction.

I have been on the receiving end of remarks that cut me deeply and discouraged me. I know the professor was only trying to help me improve my writing, but my expectations, my subjective attachment to my work, and the many hours I put into the project made it difficult for me to hear that I had not done the assignment properly. That I had missed the point to some degree. After the initial shock of a disappointing result, I looked for someone to blame (the professor), and then it slowly started to sink in that, yes, I didn't get it totally right. I have something to learn. And this is why I am here, after all: to learn. I need to listen more carefully and read more thoughtfully and pay attention to what is being asked of me. This is humility. And this is the only way that I will make progress: by humbling myself.

The professor I am working for is a kind and wise man. He gives me a great deal of positive support as well as a lot of opportunity to learn by doing. One of the things he said to me has become my mantra in this job: be humble, yet confident. And that is what I want to help these students to embrace as well. I want them to develop the confidence to try something new, to explore something they know little about, to offer their thoughts and grapple with hard questions. But I also want them to remain humble in the process, open to correction, always attentive to others, and never assume that they got it all right.

We are all students. Some of us have just been at it a bit longer.
This is the view I saw last this week when I was waiting for the bus on the way to the university: the yellow leaves of fall, the freshly painted white line which a car drove over and smeared onto the manhole cover, the asphalt crack from the weight of traffic and the unforgiving weather, and the beautiful symmetry of the circle.

Monday, October 18, 2010

seeds

Today I planted some seeds.
I planted thoughts: some about how good God is and some about how stupid people are.
I planted ideas: some about how to get my work done this week and some about how to get out of commitments I have made.
I planted words: words of kindness to a stranger and words of pride to a friend.
I planted attitudes: admiration for some colleagues and judgments against some others.
I planted pictures: beautiful yellow leaves on the trees outside and overpriced designer clothing that I will never be able to afford.
I planted sounds: the laugh of Dean on the phone and the swearing of strangers on the street.
I planted a few criticisms as well, mostly of myself. Some of my body, some of my tardiness, some of my lack of love for others.
I planted a fantasy or two: one about praise I would get for an assignment and another about the look of disappointment on my professor's face when I failed to do well.
A bit of doubt jumped in the ground, too. Self-doubt and doubt that I can trust others.
I planted some weariness at the end of the day, as well as some satisfaction over two big tasks completed.

These seeds will all grow over the next few days. They will become bigger and stronger and more of what they are. What I plant, I will harvest. What I go back to over and over again, will become larger in my life. What I let my mind dwell on, will be what begins to influence and guide my thoughts. I try to pick my seeds carefully, but I sometimes forget the law of sowing and reaping.

Today I read these words which I was happy to put in my soul garden:

It remains an experience of inestimable value that for once we have learned to see the great events of history from below, from the perspective of the excluded, the suspected, the ill-treated, the powerless, the oppressed and despised, in short, the suffering.

If only no bitterness or envy has gnawed at our hearts at such a time, so that we can see the great things and the small, happiness and misery, strength and weakness with new eyes, so that our perception of the significant, of humanity, justice and mercy has become clearer, freer and less corruptible; so that personal suffering becomes a more useful key, a more fruitful principle for viewing and actively understanding the world than personal happiness.

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian who was killed for his stance against Hitler during WWII.

Thanks to Michael Jones for reminding me about the importance of sowing well.
This is a picture of one of my favourite seed flowers: the sunflower, here in an arrangement in a country church at the Fall Festival.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

words and pictures

This past week (and month and a half, actually) has been so crazy busy for me, that I have not had a lot of time to think, contemplate, and have long conversations with God. I miss that. But with a lot of reading to do, lectures to prepare and give, papers to write, several more meetings a week than last term, papers to grade, and being present for my friends and Dean...well, there aren't many words left in my head that don't relate to a paper or project that I am working on.

There are fewer words between Father and daughter, fewer words between Friend and be-friended, less words between Lover and beloved, but there are still words. The conversations I have these days with God are shorter, simpler, perhaps more direct, but also more gracious and overtly invitational. And they basically come down to 3 phrases that I hear over and over again.

1. Do you trust me with that? This is what I hear every time I start to think about situations that are out of my control, that are not what I wish they were. Situations where something went wrong or is about to go wrong, or where I feel wronged. Do you trust me with that? I relax my shoulders, sigh, and say, "Yes."
2. You can ask me to help you with that. This phrase quietly inserts itself into my frantic thoughts when I am trying to figure out how to tackle a large project, approach a paper, prepare a lecture, how to wrap my head around a new and complex situation, or how to respond to tricky personal interaction. You can ask me to help you with that. I stop the crazy zoo in my head and ask. I ask for a partner, someone with much more clarity and better ideas. God, what do you think we should do here?
3. Don't be afraid, I am right here. This reassuring phrase comes randomly throughout the day. When I am overwhelmed, when I lack confidence, when I would rather run away from responsibility, when I am tempted to be silent instead of speak up, when I am confronted by something unexpected and intimidating. A large, looming sense of strong Love, much like a grizzly bear slowly raising itself on its hind legs, brushes itself up against me and makes its presence known. Don't be afraid, I am right here. I know I am safe.
There may be fewer words these days, but there are a lot of pictures. Here are a few from the past Thanksgiving weekend we spent with friends in Ontario.
photo one: purple flowers in the field
photo two: Ball's Falls.
photo three: yummy turkey just after it came out of the oven
photo four: looking out of the cellar in an old flour mill right beside the falls

Thursday, October 07, 2010

remember me?

Since I started my MA in Theological Studies, it seems that I am forgetting things at an alarming rate. Names. Dates. Details. Questions. Answers. I will remember something someone said, but not who it was. I will remember reading an interesting thought, but not remember where it was or when I read it. Part of the equation is that I am inundated with more information than ever before, reading huge quantities of texts and volumes that not only cover quite a range of topics, but rather large expanses of history. My brain is not amused.

I am particularly bad at names for some reason. I have been teaching a few university classes this term as part of my job as a TA (teaching assistant). I enjoy it a lot. I have no problem standing in front of 40 students and talking, but the topic of Christian Spirituality is broad, and I have to cover many important historical figures and texts. Each class I have taught, I have managed to forget or wrongly identify the name of one of the people I am lecturing on. Thankfully, bright young students quickly correct my error, I make a joke about my mental lapse, and we move on. I hate forgetting. Because I know how it feels to be forgotten. In some ways, it is the ultimate insult - that one is forgettable or easily overlooked when there is a distraction.

This past week has been filled with many meetings, classes, office hours, group activities, visitors, and lots of studying and reading. It is during busy and challenging times like this that forgetting can happen, both by me and to me. We become people in passing, involved in fleeting events, rushing through encounters and tasks as we hurry on to the next important thing.

Early yesterday morning, my new iPhone (best birthday present EVER, Dean!!) buzzed on the table next to my bed. I quickly picked it up, realizing as I did so, that I was starved for personal connection and meaningful remembering. It was my friend from Germany. He had written me a lengthy note relating how he had read something I wrote, and it impacted him in a strong way. He told me what he had been thinking about, then mentioned other literature he was reading, and how it all seemed to point to the same thing. His encouraging words ended with a suggestion of some fiction that I might like. It was a note tailor-made for me by someone who knows me and loves me.

I laid my head back on the pillow, deeply touched by the words of my far-away friend, and a gentle Spirit voice spoke to me: I remember you. Every day and every moment, I remember you. You may not remember me, but I always remember you. I am your Father, and I always remember you.

When I have moments that I feel forgotten and overlooked, I want to remember those words. To remember means to keep something in the mind, to remain aware of something or someone, and to do it again and again. Let me not only remember that I am remembered, but let me remember the Rememberer, and let the gift of remembering seep into every area of my life. The slogan on our license plate is, after all, Je me souviens, or I remember. Instead of starting the day by remembering all my appointments and tasks, let me begin by remembering the important people in my life. Let me remember God often: in thoughts, in words, in deeds, in eating and drinking, in wine and bread, in sleeping and waking, in laughing and crying.

May I live in constant remembrance of the Name that comes before every other name. And may this mindfulness infuse inspiration, breath, vigour, and clarity into each moment.

This is a photo of a cake we ate last night in celebration and remembrance of the birth of our dear friends' baby one week ago. Blissful baby slept through the whole party!