Wednesday, January 26, 2011

kind numbers

On Monday after a few hours of research, I walked to the grocery store to buy some snacks for the week. As I am prone to do, I began by thinking I would get only a few items. I started to pile drinks and bagels and yogurt in my arms and then had to set everything down and go looking for a basket. After wandering down a few more aisles of goodies, the basket was starting to get pretty full, too, and a clerk asked me if I wanted a cart. What? No! I did a re-think and put some items back, reminding myself that I had to carry everything back to my room which was a 15-minute walk away, and I was only going to be here for 5 days.

I had one more thing on my list: fruit. Finding something good was a challenge. The apples and pears didn't look very appetizing, the grapes - meh; there was not much else for selection, and all of it was expensive. Finally, I found blueberries for 99 cents! Yay! I picked up 3 boxes, added them to my pile of popcorn and yogurt, and headed for the checkout.

Everything was going well until the blueberries were wafted across the scanner. The boxes showed $4.99 each! What? I told the cashier that I had thought they were 99 cents. She said that was only if I had a club card. Did I have one? Well, I obviously didn't and said No. I was about to tell her that I wouldn't take the blueberries when the man behind me said, "I'll put in my phone number." Before I could respond or say anything or do much more than stand there and stare, he had punched in a number and I saw my total go down by $13.93.

I was very grateful for his quick and kind act, and said thank you several times. The man smiled at me and then continued talking to his friend. It wasn't a big deal to him; it cost him nothing. Just a blip in his day, but it meant a lot to me. I stood at the door and wondered if I should do anything more for him. Instead of gushing and making a scene, perhaps graciously receiving, being thankful, and not hesitating to do the same for another person were a better idea.

We are so trained to protect our identity, our secret numbers, our passwords, our accounts, to build a security wall around our own tightly controlled private world, that the relaxed act of a total stranger punching in his phone number which gave me not only his discount but also his name on my receipt, seems almost dangerous! And that is heading in the wrong direction. Becoming so self-protected means that we have grown inward and selfish instead of outward and generous. Hesitating to help is just one symptom of that. God, let me be quick to help. Generous people will no doubt be taken advantage of on occasion, but so will selfish people, so might as well be generous. It is much better for not only my soul, but the whole world.

Thank you, Christopher W.

This is a picture of a driveway in Alexandria, Virginia, taken on the way home from the store today (2nd visit). The gate is open!

Monday, January 24, 2011

it's awfully quiet here

I am currently in Alexandria, Virginia. That's just 15 minutes outside of Washington, DC, in case you were having trouble placing it on the world map. I am sitting here in a dorm room at Virginia Theological Seminary, sipping tea and putting off getting to the evening's homework after spending several hours in the archives researching thesis stuff. Not that much different than at home, really, except there is no loud television playing some 'guy show' in the background and this particular library houses an Evelyn Underhill Collection.

I took a 16-hour train ride yesterday to get here. It was interesting, to say the least. Some of the people that crossed my path, ever so briefly, are still with me in some way. I don't know what to make of them, and honestly, I guess I don't need to make anything of them. That would be bordering on judging. Spending a week pretty much by myself, without a single soul that I know and only a few people in sight (the seminary is virtually deserted this time of year) makes me reflect on how little I take time to reflect these days.

I sat behind two nuns in white and blue on the way to NYC. It was an 11 hour trip and I don't think there was 15 minutes of silence between them the whole time. They were very chatty, and at several points, broke into soft singing and praying. They told the customs official that they were going to NYC for a month to pray, supporting a soup kitchen that their religious order was operating. Interesting. Would I enjoy that vocation? Praying for a month? I would like to think so.

I have to admit that I grew tired of their constant conversation after awhile. I was trying to read, catch some sleep, and gather my thoughts for the week ahead, and that was difficult at times with their non-stop stories about the antics of children in a church class and discussions on how the church is alive. The two sisters were very positive and excited about their vocation, which is great. And no doubt they were excited about their trip as well, which is wonderful. But this scenario made me think about the part that listening and waiting silently has in not only maturing a relationship, but in reflecting on the true motives behind our speech. Especially in conversing with God. Be still. Sometimes that is the hardest thing.

I guess this is a week of being still (and working) for me. It is a good thing. May it also be a week of prayer.

This is a photo I took from the train as we were crossing the St-Laurent River leaving Montreal yesterday morning.

Friday, January 21, 2011

the first day

Today was the first day of a seminar I am taking on University Teaching. As with all first classes, there was that period of awkward self-consciousness when you first meet the professor and your fellow students. There was also a sense of confidence when I had ready answers to questions the teacher was asking because I had done my reading and have some teaching experience. Then there was the brief surge of being overwhelmed when I looked at the assignments due in the next 10 weeks, as well as some excitement at knowing that yes, I will get it all done, and I will enjoy the learning process.

Life resembles the first day of class in many ways, and I think that's a healthy thing. It means that I showed up instead of opted out of a learning opportunity. In fact, one could say that the three elements that I identified above can serve as a good indicator that one is alive and well and making progress in life.

1. Unfamiliar and Maybe Awkward: I think there should always be something that makes me somewhat uncomfortable in my life. By uncomfortable I mean something new that I am faced with, a challenge that I wasn't expecting, some awkward or messy situation that I need to grapple with, relationships that must be worked out and developed, personal issues that need addressing, etc. A certain sense of being awkward and unsure means that I am facing something new, and that is a good thing. It is one of the marks of living in the present (instead of focusing on past accomplishments or future hopes). It also keeps me humble and somewhat vulnerable, and reminds me that learning, like life, is an ongoing process. There is always an invitation to participate in it if I want to.

2. Confidence and Contribution: All newness and awkwardness, without the occasional sense of accomplishment, can make for a fearful and miserable existence. Been there, done that, did not have a good time. Every day, it is important for me to dwell in the land of confidence for a bit. I need to see that I have some life skills, that I indeed do some things well, and that I have something to offer those around me. When I practice what I have already learned or teach it to others, I not only solidify and hone those skills, but I find myself carried forward into more opportunities to give and receive knowledge, skill, wisdom, and encouragement.

3. Overwhelmed and Excited: When I look ahead and see what mountains are ahead for me to climb (like the assignments in a course syllabus), it is okay to be slightly overwhelmed. If I nonchalantly react with, 'no problem,' to a difficult task, that might be evidence of pride, an over-estimation of my abilities and an underestimation of what lies ahead, a tendency towards stagnation (nothing new to learn here), and perhaps a certain sense of entitlement (expecting a great result from mediocre input). This misplaced and premature confidence will make me blind to areas that I need to improve in and deaf to valid input, especially from unexpected sources. It does me good to acknowledge that the task ahead will greatly challenge my abilities. It motivates me, helps me respect my teachers, keeps me aware that I will need help to make it through, braces me for difficulties that I might encounter, and calls me to find courage to face what is ahead.
Let me embrace the present newness and discomfort, let me remember past accomplishments and important lessons learned, and let me walk forward with courage into future challenges.

Welcome to the first day.

This is a photo of a rusty chain on an outdoor fireplace: rust is what happens when you don't keep things well-oiled and moving.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Lost and Found: A play in two acts

The location: automatic carwash at the gas bar
The actors: Matte, 2 black gloves, gas bar attendant
The setting: dirty CRV, cold winter day, line-up of 5 cars for the carwash

Act One: Friday

Scene 1: Matte gets in the line to wash the CRV because it is filthy from winter sludge. It will be a 20 minute wait, so she takes off her gloves, pulls out her iphone, and amuses herself. Her turn finally comes, the door to the carwash opens, and she slowly drives forward. She is careful to keep one eye on the ramp the left tire must hit and the other on the lit-up direction board in front of her that will tell her when to stop. She keeps driving...past the washing mechanism and halfway to the exit and still the direction board says GO. What? Something is wrong! She drives forward and back and forward and back and tries to make the direction board say STOP, but everything has shut down. Argh! What to do!

Scene 2: Matte sets her iphone down, gets out of the car, runs out the open garage door at the end of the carwash and into the attached gas station. She tells the guy that nothing is working. A technician comes in and gestures that she is parked in the wrong place! His expression is one of: silly blonde woman! He says to get another ticket and get in line again. Sigh. Matte drives out and obtains another ticket.

Scene 3: Matte sees the line-up of cars is even longer now and decides to try another day. At this point she realizes that she has no gloves on. She looks, but they are not in her pockets, nor in the car. Matte thinks they probably fell out of her lap when she jumped out of the car in the carwash. The carwash is in use and there is no way to get back inside. Matte goes home, car still dirty, no gloves, not happy. Makes popcorn.

Act Two: Saturday

Scene 1: Matte decides to try the carwash again. There is no line-up! She drives in slowly. At first, the carwash does the same thing, but after a bit of waiting, the carwash finally sees her car, gives proper directions, and the carwash starts. After it is finished, Matte opens the car door and glances out to see if she can see her gloves. Yes! There is one on the floor. Matte gets out and picks it up. It is soaking wet and dripping muddy, sandy filth. The timer is running on the carwash, so she hurriedly gets back in her car and drives out.

Scene 2: Matte decides that one glove is no use, so she goes to talk to the gas station attendant. The gas station is not busy, so he says, "Follow me," and they run to the back of the store, through a locked storage room, and into the car wash. Matte sees nothing at first. The gas guy is asking, "Do you see anything?" He has to get back to his counter. Matte runs up to the tire ramp and looks underneath it. There is the second glove! She yells triumphantly and grabs the dirty glove.

Scene 3: Matte tosses the gloves in the washing machine and half an hour later, they are smelling great and look no worse for wear. Matte is very happy. More popcorn. The gloves are happy, too, because they get to live with Matte again and keep her hands warm instead of decomposing slowly under the wheels of car after car after car.

Epilogue: The gloves: $5. The carwash: $14. The experience of rescuing something that others would have given up on: priceless.

This is a photo of my gloves after they were washed! Sparkling clean!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

11 things that made me feel alive

Very often, I am struck by the unique importance and beauty of each day. I try to savour every minute, each mundane task or challenging moment, and not only do it well, but with fervour and grace. I work hard not to let frustration, worry, anger, fear, or petty criticism steal any of these moments away from me. I don't always succeed, but I am getting better at it.

Here are some of my richest experiences in the past 24 hours. This list may not look especially momentous or impressive to anyone else, but even in the grand scheme of things, I can't think of anything else I would rather have been doing at these very moments.

1. Last night on my way to the theatre, I managed to miss two buses in the space of 20 minutes. I ran for at least a kilometre in the cold night air of Montreal between 3 different bus stops, and finally caught a bus at the third one. I tried to text the person I was meeting to let them know I would be late, but the texts refused to send for some unknown reason. Instead of getting frustrated with the horrible way everything was going wrong, I stayed focused, enjoyed the adventure, and arrived only 15 minutes later than agreed, still in plenty of time to catch the show. I felt like I had just won The Amazing Race!

2. A colleague from university invited me to the live theatre production mentioned above, and it was a most pleasant evening. The writing was witty, the acting sincere (though sometimes uneven), the conversation before and after, amiable and engaging, and the wine and cheese excellent! We were the last to leave the party! I love the combination of art, food, and meaningful conversation with genuine, interesting people. I am blessed to be surrounded by good quantities of all of the aforementioned.

3. I had a cleaning lady come and clean my floors today. I have never had a stranger come into my home and do this and had been quite hesitant to call someone, but it was a very positive experience. I was impressed by Martha's focus (yes, we have the same name!), her diligent work, and her constant smile. We joked about our struggles in learning French and about the abundance of fur that one cat could produce. I realised that paying someone to do a task that I don't enjoy and don't have the time or energy for is a smart move. I like sitting here in my clean house, working on the things I do love!

4. Dean called me from Los Angeles around noon (9 am his time) as he was walking to the trade show where he would be working all day. We didn't really talk about anything important (warm weather in LA, of course, and how everything was going at home), but I smiled the whole time I was talking to him. I love it when my best friend calls me for no particular reason!

5. Today, I spent some time reworking an assignment. I had handed it in a few weeks ago and knew that it might need some tweaking. Yesterday, my professor gave me some comments, a few points of critique, and some suggestions to improve it. To my amazement, I was not at all discouraged by any of it. I saw what he was saying as soon as he pointed it out. Yes, I can definitely make it better! I am so thankful for kind and knowledgeable people who are helping me to do better work by not only demanding more from me, but helping me through the process.

Some other random 'feeling alive' moments:

6. A good boxing workout.
7. Eating yummy yogurt with fruit and granola.
8. Running up and down the stairs countless times and feeling light on my feet.
9. Cutting Jazz's nails and for the first time, having her purr while I did it!
10. Striking 4 things off my TO DO list.
11. Taking the garbage outside (I love not having any garbage in my house!).

May your day be filled with life-giving moments and may nothing steal the joy of them away from you.
This is a picture of my clean floors and a gift from a friend.

Monday, January 10, 2011

presence

I had to take Jazz to the vet for a shot yesterday morning. I asked Dean if he wanted to come with me and he said no, so I bundled her up in her cage and we trundled off to the garage. Our garage opens with a keypad, so I held Jazz's cage in one hand while I entered the code and got the door open. Our car fits rather tightly into the garage, so I struggled with the heavy cage as I dodged a hanging bike and opened the back car door a crack to wedge her cage through the opening without scratching either the wall, the car door, the leather seats, or myself. Not an easy feat. Finally, we were on our way and Jazz serenaded me with her rendition of "I Know Where We're Going and I Don't Like It!" all the way to the vet's office.

I won't regale you with all the details, but because of the slushy mess on the ground and a large bag of cat food that I acquired at the vet's, more awkwardness ensued in various parking lots. I finally got Jazz in the door of our condo and grabbed the shopping bags to head to the grocery store for much-needed supplies. Dean was still not dressed, so I deduced that he would not be accompanying me on this errand either and left in a bit of a huff. As I pulled out of the driveway and onto the street, I heard a strange noise. I kept driving, and soon saw my neighbour running towards me, waving her hands. I was dragging a Christmas tree under the car (someone had dumped their tree right at the edge of the driveway and due to the angle of the road, I had not seen it sticking out). I pulled over and thankfully, it dislodged itself, but my annoyance was increasing.
I complained to God about how Dean wasn't there for me that day when I really could use the help. And then I stopped. I was sure that Dean could make the same complaint about me many times, but he never did. And I was sure God could list countless times when I did not make myself present for him. Sigh. I was whining and making things more difficult than they needed to be, certainly, but there was something else at work here. Demanding that another be present to me sort of defeated the gift of their presence. And if being present is indeed a gift, freely given, why does it seem like such a hard thing to do sometimes? A task that I often drag myself to, knowing that it will require a lot of energy?

Perhaps being present is not as hard as I think it is. When I am busy or tired, I tend to see being present to someone as one more thing I have to put effort into, something I have to make happen by pulling myself into the moment and hanging on tightly so as not to be distracted. It becomes another burden and more work added to an already overworked schedule, but it is the responsible and right thing to do, so I oblige. And I sigh. And now I realise that I had it all wrong. Being present with a person is (for the most part) not an intense effort. It is simply letting go of everything else.

Sitting down in a chair is not a heavy labour; it is letting go of standing. Sleeping is not hard work; it is letting go of consciousness. Being with God does not take concentrated effort; it takes letting go of everything else that demands my attention and instead, coming into the state that I was made to be in. Being present touches on something basic, important, and vital to our spirits because it reflects God's own identifier: I AM. It is ceasing to be caught up in the past and future, not looking at the "still to be done's" and the "what have I done's," but being present to a person who is right in front of us. To put it another way, we are "I AM-ing" in imitation of the ultimate I AM.

Sometimes being present does seem to necessitate pushing away all other distractions and urgencies, but this is not because it is inherently a labour-intensive task; it is because we have become so entangled in the un-present that we have to fight our way free. Being present was never meant to be this big deal; it is supposed to be a natural, joyful, frequent occurrence. When we have a hard time falling into bed or sagging into a comfortable chair, our muscles must be taught again how to let go instead of living in tension. Lying in bed in the morning just after I awake is one of my favourite times because there is an endless, peaceful quality to this undefined moment before the rush of the day kicks in. Lying there does not require a strong grip; it just requires that I not move from that spot.

Let me not move from the spot where Jesus is, always present, always I-AMing, always inviting me to join him. Let me learn to fall and sag into his presence.
This is a photo of the end of the celebrations on Christmas day. I noted the moment with a photo because it seemed important to savour.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

contrast

I am currently a teaching assistant in a course called Introduction to Christian Origins. One of the books that I just finished reading for this course is a fictional, but historically-based account about what life was like for Christians in the first century. Yes, it inevitably ended with one of the main characters being martyred. Nowadays, the word 'martyr' has somewhat negative connotations because we associate it with radical political and religious action, such as recent terrorist acts. That is unfortunate, because by devaluing the term we miss out on some incredible lessons in devotion and courage.

I have been thinking about what it looks like to be someone who has devoted their life to following Jesus in the present age. The three M's, becoming martyrs, monks, or missionaries, are no longer the obvious options for whole-hearted surrender that they were at different times in history. But then, is a radical change of lifestyle, location, and livelihood vital in order to follow Jesus? Are extreme sacrifice and large doses of asceticism important to the integrity of a contemporary Christian? I don't know. What I do know is that everyone has to answer these questions for themselves. We can't just go along with what those around us are doing, or emulate the behaviour of someone we admire from another time. My guess is that the question of how belonging to God contrasts with living according to society's mores will not be quickly answered. However, personally wrestling with this challenge will hopefully not only reveal how strong or weak my devotion is, but will cause my devotion to grow. Not through comparison with saints and martyrs, but through recognizing what it means to belong to Someone holy.

Here is something that that I read today that gave me some perspective on this question:

One of the stubbornly enduring habits of the human race is to insist on domesticating God. We are determined to tame him. We figure out ways to harness God to our projects. We try to reduce God to a size that conveniently fits our plans and ambitions and tastes. But our Scriptures are even more stubborn in telling us that we can't do it. God cannot be fit into our plans, we must fit into his....'Holy' is the word that sets God apart and above our attempt to enlist him in our wish-fulfillment fantasies or our utopian schemes for making our mark in the world.

Holy means that God is alive on God's terms, alive in a way that exceeds our experience and imagination. Holy refers to life burning with an intense purity that transforms everything it touches into itself. Because the core of all living is God, and God is a holy God, we require much teaching and long training for living in response to God as he is and not as we want him to be. (Eugene Peterson in Introduction to Leviticus, The Message)

May I be transformed by Holiness today and every day.

This is a photo of some long grass along the ditch, glorious in its winter coat of fresh snow.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

more nothing and a few other things

I don't really do resolutions, but I do like to learn, so here are a few things that I would like to get better at in the next few months by turning my attention to them.

1. Not complaining. This is not merely a matter of squelching the oft-present urge to see the negative side or stuffing my tendency to criticize deep down inside of me where it can fester. Instead, I want to redirect my energy, my attention, and my focus to the goodness of God all around me. Gratefulness is the secret weapon that can transform not only my perspective but the tone of any interaction or task. I want to take gratitude out and wield it more often.

2. Being True. One of my favourite tv shows right now is "Lie to Me," a drama about a deception expert who reads faces in order to tell if someone is lying or hiding something. The amazing principle present here (and yes, the show is based on an actual science) is that our bodies are made to tell the truth! Every time we venture into deception, our bodies send out a signal to say that they are not in agreement. It could be a flinch, an aversion of the eyes, or any number of "tells." We were made to not only tell the truth, but to embody truth. I want to cooperate with my body more this year in those things that it was meant to do, and one of those is living the truth.

3. Having more nothing. Today at our church gathering, we were singing the old hymn, "Nothing But the Blood." Part of the chorus goes like this: What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. I started to think about that word, "nothing," and realized that I have quite a few "somethings" that need to become "nothings." If I really believe that I am only made complete, healed, and whole by the loving sacrifice of God in the person of Jesus, then the somethings that I have been counting on to get me through life need to be relegated to the nothing pile. What are the somethings that need to become nothing? Perfectionism (setting very high standards for myself and everyone else around me) cannot take away my sin and it cannot make me whole. Self-sufficiency (resisting asking for help, devaluing vulnerability, and under-developing relationships) is not a healer. Comparison (I'm not so bad when you look at those other folks, and I sure did better than a lot of my friends) is a bed-fellow to deception and pride. Having nothing, on the other hand, is a close companion of humility.

4. Motivating people to choose a more generous and loving way (starting with myself). This is not to imply that I want to control people or put undue pressure on them (though positive influence is a very good thing and somewhat undervalued in our independent, free-choice culture); more precisely, I want to cease demotivating myself and others. Criticism is a big demotivating factor. So is constant praise (no need to change or improve if everything is always great!). Lack of goals or appropriate challenges can cause me to flounder. Too much information or too many demands can be overwhelming and may tempt people to give up. It may also lead to depression and discouragement, and cause one to lose sight of the many small steps of improvement already made. This means that I have to keep my mouth shut more (really, who needs to have it pointed out every single time they miss a comma or don't use the right word?) and carefully choose which challenges are important to focus on. I have to take the emphasis off of what is lacking and instead, direct my eyes (and the eyes of those whom I deal with) toward the goal, rejoicing in every step of progress made along the way.

5. Being present. I have long since given up multi-tasking, but it is still a struggle to be present to what is happening here and now, especially when I have a lot of things to prepare for and think about in the next few months. This tendency to be thinking about something other than who and what is right here in front of me means that I also tend to forget that God is present with me. He always says, "I am here." It never changes. No matter whether or not I sense it, see it, or know it, it is always true, because He says it is. May I hear God's, "I am here," often each day, and may I respond with my own: "I am here!"

This is a picture of some of the items I found on my table today. They conveniently formed themselves into this number.