Monday, March 28, 2011

introducing...

The end of my master's degree is in sight, so I applied for graduation today. One would think that would be a pretty straightforward process. You click on the application form, you confirm the details that the university has on record for you, pay the $40 with a credit card, and hit submit. Whoa, not so fast. One of the details that continues to be amusing/frustrating/difficult to explain in this province is my name. It gets a little complicated, but here goes.

In Quebec, one's legal name is their name at birth. Hence, on all legal and provincial documents, the name used is the name that appears on my birth certificate. I can't change how they do things here, though Dean has expended quite a few vehement words and wagged a few of his meaty fingers in bureaucratic faces in various attempts. This NAB (name at birth) principle also applies to the health care system and to the educational system. I always have to pay special care when I go to the doctor's office because the name they call when it is time for my appointment doesn't sound familiar, especially when they get creative with the last name and its pretty vowels.

However, this so-called 'legal name' is not the name that appears on my driver's license nor on my passport. As well, I commonly go by a derivative of my real first name, so this means that the name in the university system does not resemble anything close to the name by which I am known to my friends and family. Usually, this silly situation amuses me, because the places where the issue arises are pretty isolated and easy to work through. But, it is proving to be a bit of a complex question on the academic end of things.

What will be the name on my degree? What will be the name I use for publishing articles (and maybe someday, books)? Will any of the people that matter to me know that I am the author if my NAB is used? Do I really want an academic name and a 'commonly known as' name?Over the past year, I have been in the practice of using all my names. It seems to cover all the bases, however, it is not really 'legal.'

I guess it would have been simpler if I had just stuck with the name I was given at birth and never changed it. But I have changed. I am not the same shy and quiet girl that I was at age 6. I do not have the same naive, slightly magical thoughts about God (at least not as much) as I did when I was 10. I may be about the same size as I was at 14, but I am stronger in so many ways, and yet less afraid to be weak. I am not the same 23-year-old girl who was afraid to go the funeral home and see her dad's body (though I still don't like the places). I am not the same college student who just couldn't work up the courage to talk to a guy she liked (now I talk to Dean non-stop!).

I have changed. My name reflects many of those changes. In the past few years, I have noticed certain friends and acquaintances adding an -ie to the end of my first name. It is indicative, at least to me, of a certain tenderness present in the friendship, and that I will always be a child in my heart of hearts. I love the evolution that has happened to my name over the years.

Perhaps it matters very little what name goes on a piece of paper. A piece of paper is not what whispers my name in the morning and says, "I love you." A piece of paper is not what shouts my name in a crowd, desparate to find me because we got separated. A piece of paper does not exclaim with joy when I call it on the phone. A piece of paper does not say my name in supplication, hoping I will say "yes" to whatever request they have. A piece of paper will never send shivers up and down my spine. Only a living voice can do that. And honestly, love can call me anything, and I will always respond.

This is a photograph of a funky candle holder I got for Christmas. You can see my hand, the camera, and a bit of my shirt reflected in its mirrored surface.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

pointing

March has been a bit crazy for me thus far. I am on the final push to finish my master's thesis, have to decide where to do a PhD in fall, am busy building an academic CV (presenting, publishing, applying for awards, etc.), and trying to fit in a normal healthy life with family and friends and a faith community. Oh, and insert coursework, lecturing on occasion, and some research on monasticism that is fun, but never-ending. In the past week, I came across two principles that made me sigh with relief and say a hearty YES at the same time, because they reminded me where this is all going and how it needs to happen. In case someone else needs help with those two things as well, I write about them here:

I don't need to promote myself. I heard this advice from a musician who works mostly in the church, but I find that this principle resonates very deep within me in my current setting. It affirms that I don't need to build the perfect CV (which lists all my incredible accomplishments that are supposed to make your jaw drop) or make sure I network with the best people or pursue the programs that have the best reputation. Though these things are considered necessary and important in order to position myself for really impressive learning opportunities and lucrative job offers, they guarantee nothing. And to be honest, I don't trust my future to them; only one is worthy of that kind of trust, and that is God.

I want to point my life in the direction of Jesus, and when I do that, my steps will fall into place, because pursuing God always leads to the best outcome (not easiest, but best). Whatever is God's good will become my good. The goal is not a great career; the point is to live my life as a friend of God, and anything I do with God is always a good adventure. It is also good to remember this in every area of my creative ventures, be it blogging, photography, music, giving talks, or drama. I don't need to promote myself. It has always felt awkward to me, anyway. I would much rather spend my energy developing my ability to follow Jesus. The pay-off is much better.


We are made for journey in a direction. Today in class we were talking about good and evil (always an interesting topic). In discussing Augustine's take on this, it was brought out that he believed too much weight was given to evil when we present it as the antithesis of good. The two do not have equal power; evil is not the yang to God's yin. Instead, Augustine saw all evil as a distortion of good. What this implies is that evil cannot exist on its own; it was not created and has no creative power - it is simply a distortion. Whatever is pointed in the direction of God is good; it is what all of creation was made to do. Whenever anything gets off target (sin basically means "missing the mark"), it becomes evil, because it is pointed towards a purpose other than God's purpose.


Everything God created was made to move. We are all built for journey and pilgrimage, geared to orient ourselves to an object and move in that direction; we are not static beings. We move towards an object of affection or interest or admiration or even hatred, but we move. And whatever we are oriented towards, wherever we point ourselves, that becomes the direction our lives take. We can develop great skill at hitting a target, but all our efforts can be futile or even very destructive if we are not facing in the right direction. These two principles have clarified some major choices in my life lately. All the stuff of life can appear so confusing and complex at times, but it really isn't. If I remember never to turn away from looking at Jesus and forget about promoting myself (it really never was my job), I will end up where I want to go. And that is good. Very good.


This is a photo of a gear clock that sits in my living room.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

the many faces of "I don't know"

My thesis on Evelyn Underhill is coming along slowly but surely, thanks for asking. In my last post I pointed out some of her shortcomings, which was mainly due to the fact that I was immersed in a chapter dealing with her critics. If I was to write about her today, I would tell you about her struggles and how they positively informed her spiritual journey (the current section I am working on). My thoughts tend to reflect where I am in the writing process, so please know (oops, spilled some tea, cleaned up the mess) that I am fond of Underhill and feel that I have a lot to learn from her.

Okay, now that I cleared that up, I want to write about something else I have been thinking about lately. It is the commonly used phrase, "I don't know." As a student, I say this a lot, though I try to word it more eloquently using phrases that go something like "Oh, I have often wondered about that as well." As a teaching assistant, I probably say it even more often, because questions come my way that are beyond my scope of knowledge. My clever response usually goes something like this: "That would make an interesting research topic." I don't know about you (see how I snuck in the phrase right there?), but this sense of not knowing something is a part of my world every day. However, it can mean many different things.

1. I don't know could mean that I don't have the information and will have to make some effort to get it, but someone knows it and the answer can be found. The state of not knowing is temporary and I can do something about it.
2. I don't know sometimes means there is no way I can know the answer. Will there be rain on the first Monday in May? I don't know. We will have to wait and see. This is also a situation of temporary ignorance, but I have no control over it.
3. I don't know can also reflect the fact that I don't really want to know. This means that I am content to stay ignorant about something. It is just not a priority for me to find out exactly how many screws it takes to hold my house together or what kind of tread my mailman has on his shoes. I am happy not to clutter my life with these details.
4. I don't know can also refer to a puzzling problem that many struggle with. Why do bad things happen to good people? We just don't know. People may speculate, and philosophy and theology attempt coherent answers, but in the end, this is beyond us and we know it is. However, it doesn't stop us from asking, wondering, searching, learning, trying to see part of the answer.
5. I don't know can be a scary place to live when it is the response to questions like: What will I do now that I lost my job? How will my friend recover from a devastating accident? My son is missing and I don't know where he is! Really scary stuff.
6. I don't know sometimes indicates a dead end. It can be a reflection that we have given up hope. There is no way forward that we can see. How can I go on? What options am I left with? Is there anyone who really cares?

For the most part, "I don't know" is a good place to be in temporarily. It helps us acknowledge our ignorance and spurs us on to learn something we didn't know. However, when it comes to the big questions, to those parts of life where the answers are not found through a search on google or wikipedia, "I don't know" can be problematic.

Even in the grand matters of life, I still think "I don't know" is a good starting place. It means that we have to trust someone other than ourselves, and that's good. But it is a bad place to remain, because it can lead us into despair and hopelessness. It can get us trapped in a cycle of fear and small thinking. Staying in "I don't know" can cause the world to close in on us instead of helping us to open up to possibilities that we might not have dreamed of. "I don't know" should lead me to risk trusting, lead me to risk stepping out in faith and go beyond what is known to what is hoped for. Let me believe in something bigger than myself. Let me give my troubling "I don't knows" to the one who created knowledge. Let me be content to know Someone who knows all things.
This is a photo taken of an interesting light fixture in the W Hotel in Montreal.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

through

I am in the middle of writing my master's thesis on Evelyn Underhill, a British writer on mysticism from the early twentieth century. Last night I was working on the section that deals with her personal correspondence; it is interesting to see how a spiritual journey is reflected in language. In contrast to the personal letters, her published books carry a certain sense of distance from her subject, the necessary academic objectivity, one might say. But to go along with that, I also get the feeling in many of her early books that she doesn't quite grasp what she is talking about (sorry, Evelyn!).

There is something about being intimate with one's subject, about letting knowledge come through you and touch something deep inside of you, changing you before you pass it on to others. It modifies how you deliver the message, because you are not just passing on knowledge, like participants do in a relay race; you are handing on something you have lived with and learned to love.

This morning, I was reading a story of Moses (see Numbers 20) where he was again caught between complaining people and a holy God. The issue this time was that they were out of water, so God told Moses to speak to a rock and water would come forth. Apparently, God's instructions were only partially received by the great leader, Moses, because instead of speaking to the rock, he chided the people and then struck the rock twice! Moses took what he believed was the message from God (anger and impatience) and delivered it rather vehemently to the people. Perhaps he wasn't listening all that closely to God and did not catch the whole message. Perhaps the message became only another package to be delivered, another complaint to respond to. Unfortunately, Moses seems somewhat disconnected from both God and the people in this story, because he does not listen carefully to God nor identify with the thirsty people.
This distancing meant that Moses stepped away from trusting God, from truly listening, responding, and obeying. He misread the message, adding his own interpretation, and ended up misrepresenting God. Moses' anger also meant that he had ceased to identify himself with the people he was leading, which was quite a change from the many times in the past when he had pleaded as an intercessor before God on their behalf. So God declared that Moses' time as a leader was coming to an end because he had lost that sense of being the meeting place between Truth and those he was leading. He had disengaged from both sides and become his own party, which is always a mistake.

As teachers and leaders, let us always listen closely to Truth, Wisdom, Love, Compassion, Mercy, Justice, and Grace. And let us never lose sight of the fact that we are one of the people, one of the learners, one of the followers. They are us and we are them. Let me have ears to hear what God is saying, and let knowledge always pass deeply through my life before I attempt to pass it on.
Photo from communities.canada.com.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

getting down

This morning, one of my facebook friends announced that he was uncluttering his "friend" list. He said that due to the sheer number of said "friends," he was finding himself overlooking the important people in his life. Never an easy position to be in - whittling life down to the truly important things. In an interesting twist, he has asked his many "friends" to purge themselves from his list. Are any of us that brave? That humble? To "defriend" and reject ourselves in order to assist our "friend?" It is an odd invitation, though I dare say, perhaps more familiar to us than we might realise.

Last night I led a discussion on humility. I took some of the core values from the Benedectine Order (one of my side research projects) and read a few stories to illustrate the foundational part that humility plays (or rather, should play) in our lives. Here are a few ideas that came out:

1. Listening. So often we are occupied with outside stimuli such as different media, work, music, entertainment, and people around us that even when we get alone for some quiet, our thoughts are not at rest. We are also relentlessly self-occupied. Benedictine monks set aside several hours each day to pray and let the scriptures flow through their minds. They do not merely respond and react to what is happening around them, but draw on the riches they cultivate deep in their soul. They listen to God. This in turn, enables them to be attune to the needs of others. There is a story of two people who were walking along a busy sidewalk in New York City. One of them stopped and said, "Listen. Do you hear that cricket?" The other was astounded. How could his companion hear a cricket in the din of the city? The listener explained. "We hear what we are trained to hear." He then dropped some money onto the street and immediately several people stopped and looked. [1] What are we training ourselves to hear?

2. Obedience. This is a rather harsh word to our modern ears. We prefer to speak of freedom, choice, and mutual respect. It reflects how little we know about humility, because by this subtle aversion to obedience and submission, we show that we consider ourselves to be the supreme authority in our own lives. A benevolent authority, perhaps, but supreme nonetheless. One day, the abbot at Blue Cloud Abbey told Brother Rene that he would be playing the organ to accompany the chanting of psalms in the service. Brother Rene no doubt informed the Abbot that he did not know how to play the organ, but the order from the Abbot remained. Rene was given two weeks to learn. He did. The community was well served by his music and worship, and visitors never guessed that he was a novice on the instrument.[1] This is obedience in action. It serves, it learns, it does not grumble at the tasks it is given. We will not discover what God can enable us to do if we don't venture into the territory of difficult obedience.

3. Lack of status. Our society is very much set up to honour and recognize different marks of status, so we spend a lot of energy not only acquiring or chasing these, but talking about them and flaunting them if we have them. Educational degrees, impressive resumes, designer clothing, contacts with important people, awards, number of hits on twitter or facebook, lucrative contracts, distinctions and recognitions we have garnered, etc. We splash them liberally into our interaction with others so that they recognize our value. Unfortunately, these things have nothing to do with value. Love is what makes us valuable, and we are all loved by God. A recent MBA graduate, asked by his employer to sweep the walk, reminded the superior of his status: "I have an MBA!" The employer responded, "No problem. I'll show you how to do it."[3] Status only hinders us in serving and loving. Let status fall away and let humility grow.

Welcome, humility! May you become a permanent resident instead of intermittent guest in my life.

This is a picture of Jazz taken from a walk last summer. She likes to get up high and see the world from that vantage point (it is how cats show dominance). Here, she climbed onto a ledge at the top of a garage and sat there, out of my reach. All I could do was take a picture until she decided it was time to come down.

[1] Story adapted from Dennis Okholm's Monk Habits for Everyday People (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 49.
[2] Okholm, 65.
[3] Okholm, 105.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

saying no

As part of a call to prayer that our faith community is involved in, I am fasting this week. This means that I give something up (usually food) for a set time for a spiritual purpose. Fasting and prayer are ancient spiritual practices, often done in tandem, but their link is not always understood. Basically, I see it as two sides of the same discipline: fasting is saying no to myself and praying is saying yes to Jesus. One is meant to fuel the other.

A few years ago I heard somewhere that a square of dark chocolate a day is good for you, so I thought I would buy some and have it on hand so that I could nibble on a piece now and then. I also discovered the yumminess of Chai tea a few years ago, so now it seemed natural to have a piece of chocolate with my tea. While doing schoolwork or working on a writing project, I go through numerous cups of tea a day, and it became a habit that after I made my cup of tea, I would reach in the cupboard for the chocolate. What had begun as an occasional treat soon became a regular habit that I did without thinking. Feeling a bit hungry? Grab some chocolate! Need an energy boost? Grab some chocolate! Finished with your meal? Grab some chocolate! And then it came time for a fast. I decided to say no to all sweets in general and also late night snacking (I am notorious for not eating meals and snacking my way through life). The habits were not amused. They let me know that it would be better if we went back to the old way! They didn't appreciate being interrupted and put on hold. But my mind and my body and my spirit breathed in deeply and appreciated the open space.

So much of our lives are filled with actions that we do automatically. What started out as something we had to think about has now become ingrained in many cases. This can either work for us or against us. When I leave my house, I automatically put on my coat, then my boots, check for my gloves, put my phone in my purse, and lock the door. I usually don't have to think about it much. I also try to rise in the morning and fall asleep with thanksgiving and gratitude on my lips. I miss these things when I don't do them, and that's good! But if do something on an impulse (I think I'll put off my homework and go out with friends instead), it can easily become a habit. It might be good to evaluate where this might lead and see if it is indeed serving us or we are serving it.

Fasting is a great way of breaking out of the everyday habits we have accumulated over the months and years and checking to see whether they are hampering our spirits, weighing us down, or helping us say yes to Jesus. Let my YES continue to get bigger and bigger!

I took a photo of this piece of chocolate and then put it back in the cupboard. I will eat it next week...maybe.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

when are you?

I am not a big history fan. This can be a bit challenging when so much of what I am studying, especially this term, has to do with history. Some of my colleagues love the adventure that comes with a sense of the past, and historical details come easily to them. I tend to struggle a bit more with this linear way of looking at the world and have to make an effort to grasp the bigger picture. But there are other things I do see quite well, like the human element present in history and the impact of interesting personalities in our world. This is because I am basically a PRESENT person.

If you are a PAST person, you tend to think about what has happened. On the plus side of this, you would make a great history professor and can handle a great deal of information and detail about events with relative ease because the past is important and interesting to you. The past is also stable - it won't change - which, although it means that you can't alter it, also means that you are always dealing with something known. Of course, parts of history are somewhat fuzzy, open to interpretation and reinterpretation, and research can always reveal new information, but all in all, it is pretty concrete. It has brought us where we are today; it provides us with context. On the other hand, a person who likes the past might have a bit of difficulty dealing with the challenges of the present and the unpredictability of the future. Persons who emphasise the past can have a disinclination to move on, they can get stuck in a moment (as U2 put it in their song). Unforgiveness and bitterness can be some unfortunate side effects of focusing on the past. On the positive side of things, some great lessons and insights can be gleaned from the stories of those who have gone before us.

If you are a FUTURE person, you are most likely filled with hope. You are always waiting for the next exciting thing to happen. Who knows what could lie ahead? You could win the lottery tomorrow! You could meet the love of your life next week! You could get a fabulous job offer! There is so much to look forward to, indeed, but being a person who is always looking ahead can also mean that you fail to deal with the challenges of the present. Some people who are looking ahead are very diligent planners. This is a very good thing, though they sometimes get disappointed when things don't turn out according to plan. Others futurists are doomsayers, looking ahead with trepidation, seeing the road ahead getting rougher and rockier. For the most part, looking to the future is captivating because it is unknown. You can basically make up anything you want and it might happen! The great thing about forward-looking people is that they are always considering multiple possibilities. Unfortunately, the down-side to always having an eye on what's coming up is that you might miss out on what's happening right now.

I am a PRESENT person, I admit it. What is happening here and now is what I most relate to. Anything that calls for a spontaneous act in response to the opportunity and vibe of the moment is where I shine! The down side is that sometimes I don't think about the consequences of such acts. I can also forget to consult the wealth of information that is available to me in order to put today's spontaneity into context and infuse it with wisdom. I try not to live in expectation of the future or in disappointment with the past, which has its pros and cons. Realism and contentment are the pros. Hopelessness and ignorance are the cons. The PRESENT person might also find themselves unprepared for some very tough situations, and simply relying on their 'go with it' skills might not be enough.

It seems likely that everyone has a tendency towards one of these, and for good reason, because we need all of these perspectives (I need some good PAST people to help ground me and some hopeful FUTURE people to help me see where I am going). A whole bunch of PRESENT people makes a great improv group, but not a good financial advice company. A room full of PAST people can clean up in any trivia game, but don't ask them to be at the forefront of change. The FUTURE folks can produce an inspiring sci-fi movie, but would no doubt lose patience with a group therapy session working through issues.

I am working on developing my PAST and FUTURE skills, but I know my strength is in the PRESENT, and I want to bring everything I can to it (spoken like a true PRESENT person!).

Jesus said, "I'm A to Z. I'm The God Who Is, The God Who Was, and The God About to Arrive. I'm the Sovereign-Strong." (Revelation 1:8, The Message) Thankfully, he's got all of time covered, so I can always look to him for a bigger perspective and trust him with what I don't comprehend. Yes, may he be Lord of my past, my present, and my future, and may I view all of these in light of Him.

This is a picture of the stairway in the lobby of the W Hotel in Montreal taken on Saturday night. I love their inviting and mysterious nature.