Thursday, April 28, 2011

whirlwind

It is a windy day today. This afternoon I took a long walk which included stops at the grocery store, the bank, the pharmacy, and the dry cleaner. At one point I thought I was going to lose a pair of pants as the wind lifted the plastic dry cleaner bag above my head, but I managed to get everything safely home, including my hair.

Things have been moving quite quickly in the past few days - it feels like a bit of a whirlwind. On Tuesday I submitted a thesis on behalf of a colleague who is no longer living in Montreal, and while I was printing out the multiple copies at the library and annoying a few people who were queued up after me, I received an email that let me know my own thesis had just been approved by my second supervisor and was good to go! The next morning I did one last proofread of the 114-page document and headed to school to print my own copies and hand them in to the various offices. Today, I just received news that the formatting is all okay (no changes) and that I now have a tentative date for a thesis defence at the end of June. After weeks of working, writing, and then waiting, everything seems to be happening very quickly.

On the one hand, things moving forward quickly is good, but on the other hand, I am all too aware that the impending completion of my master's degree means that many things will come to an end. First of all, there are people whom I have grown quite fond of, and I am not sure how much contact I will have with them in the future. As well, the very enjoyable and satisfying experience of serving on what I believe might be the best graduate journal committee ever is winding down. There is a bittersweet aspect to crossing this finish line.

Aware of this, for most of this final term I have determined to enjoy every minute of the experience, knowing that all too soon it will be over. I tried to relish every class I taught as a TA, every conversation I had with a student, every lecture I got to listen to, and every essay I had to grade. I made a point of appreciating every meeting or brief conversation I had with my supervisor. I took more time to hang out and interact with a few of my colleagues who had become good friends over the past years. I tried to take mental snapshots of this incredible time in my life so that I would not forget the richness of it, even in the midst of hard work and late nights.

Aside from all the other things I have learned at university, this might be one of the most important lessons: that today is to be savoured, never rushed through or wished away, and never complained about to the degree that it loses its sparkle of life and I lose my gratitude. Let me always take time to savour the tiny details and simple interactions, these rich moments that make me feel very much alive. They will never happen quite this way again.

This is the last photo I took with my wee Nikon Coolpix 7600, my first digital camera, before I sold it last week. Good times!

Monday, April 25, 2011

the trouble with resurrection

I was asked to speak on the topic of "resurrection" on Easter Sunday. It seemed like a pretty straightforward task, so I mulled it over in my mind for a few days, read all the gospel accounts of Jesus being raised from the dead, studied some Greek words, researched what a few others had said about it, and tried to put something together. It was much harder than I had anticipated. For some reason, nothing I came up with excited me, and this was troublesome. How could I be so disconnected from the whole concept of resurrection when it is such a foundational aspect of what I believe?

Dean suggested I read what Paul had to say about it, so I went to 1 Corinthians 15 and found some disturbing answers to my question. Here are a few thoughts from my talk on resurrection yesterday:

1. I have removed myself from the context of resurrection. I used to work with a woman who could only eat chicken by never thinking about where it came from. For her, a yummy thai chicken dish originated in a nice sanitized package in the grocery store, not in a bloody death. And this is part of my problem with resurrection: I have sanitized it and taken it out of its bloody context. Following Jesus is not that dangerous anymore (like it was in Paul's day when he faced death numerous times), so resurrection has become less important. Life is pretty good; danger and death are at a distance. My hope has subtly been transferred from resurrection to a nice sanitized (we call it 'good') life. This is mainly because I am ignorant of the death in and around me and don't realize how much in need of resurrection I am. Jesus said: "So thick-headed! So slow-hearted! Why can't you simply believe all that the prophets said?" See 1 Corinthains 15:30-34.

2. Deep down, I am a skeptic. Yes, I am a person of faith, but there are many places where I am confused and want answers, perhaps a detailed diagram, certainly some explanation, and of course, some eye witness experiences. But resurrection (and much of who God is and how God does things) remains a mystery. God does not follow life's rules: he does not provide proof upon demand, and he asks me to believe things I will never see with my own eyes. And even if I did see resurrection with my own eyes, would I recognize it? Mary did not recognize the resurrected Jesus, neither did two fellows walking along the road to Emmaus. Would I fare any better? The disciple Thomas (who demanded to see Jesus' scars before he would believe in resurrection) reveals another unattractive truth about skeptics: we are control freaks. We demand to set the parameters for what we will or will not believe. This basically reveals our so-called faith to be reliance on our own ability to prove something rather than on the faithfulness of Jesus. Jesus said: "The people who have faith in me without seeing me are the ones who are really blessed!" See 1 Corinthians 15:35-38 and John 20:24-29.

3. I don't like death. My dad died when I was 23. It is the closest that death has ever come to me, and it changed me drastically. On the day that the most stable presence in my life was taken away from me, another presence made itself known. I remember washing my face in the bathroom shortly after I had received the news of my dad's death, and in that instant, I knew that everything that my dad had shown me about God was true. I also knew that I would never walk away from this God who became immanent when death arrived. When death touches us, something changes. The gaping hole that death leaves is the place where resurrection (life in a new way) can build a home. It hurts like hell, no doubt about it, but if I want to participate in something as powerful as resurrection, I have to be willing to let death near. There is no other way.

In our culture, we have devalued death. Nearly every movie or television show has someone dying. Many video games are based on killing. The news is filled with death that renders us somewhat numb to the whole subject. We are confronted with value-less death all the time, and I believe it is one way of distancing ourselves from it, of not getting real about it. In reality, death means that I have nothing left. In death, God has to come through or I am done. It is an uncomfortable place to be, but a necessary one. Resurrection only shines in a dead place. Jesus said: "You don't have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?" See John 11:14-26.


This is a photo of flowers I saw in a shop during our walk on Mont-Royal street on Saturday. I love how the sunlight reflection overpowers the picture.


All scripture quotations taken from The Message.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

On Being A Nation

I had a dream this morning that was rather vivid. In the dream, I had written a book entitled On Being a Nation which was meant to inspire people by reminding them what it means to be a nation. In the book I outlined the responsibilities and privileges that come with nationality and surprisingly enough, it turned out to be quite popular.

Dreams are strange things. I used to dream a lot and was convinced that many of them were revelatory in some way. Perhaps they were. At least a few of them translated into actual experiences, and others provided wisdom and encouragement for people that I dreamt about. At the very least, they motivated me to pray about the situations and people I encountered while I slept. I kept journals for many years of my dreams, even wrote a novel based on a set of dreams about a specific person (you can read chapter one here), but for the most part, dreams remain a mystery to me.

Nevertheless, they do sometimes set my mind in a direction that I never would have gone during my waking hours, so I try to give a bit of thought to the tangents I go on in my dreams, just in case there is something worth mining there. And so today, I am thinking about what it means to be part of a nation. If I were to write a book by that title, these might be the synopses for the first three chapters.

Chapter One: Nation as United Aggregate
Yep, being part of a nation means that in some sense, we are one. We are many (aggregate), but we effectively act as one (united). Not in the sense of the mind-controlling, dehumanising Borg from Star Trek, but like a family unit, or an Olympic rowing team. All the parts (people) come together to become something greater than they are by themselves. On occasion we are witness to this unique collective, synergetic way of thinking. When team Canada plays hockey against team USA, we all become hot-blooded Canadians bonding over the event. Should a disaster befall some part of the country or a beloved public figure, we rally around to offer support. However, when no one is threatening our hockey prowess or there is no looming disaster to heighten our sense of responsibility to each other, we all too quickly invent our own disasters and tensions by turning on each other. We have forgotten what it is to be a nation.

Chapter Two: United
Unity continues to be a hot topic in Canada. I live in Quebec where separation is never far from the political agenda; this takes the form of provincial and federal parties who have both written separation into their mandate. Our governmental and judicial systems are founded on adversarial models which, to no one's surprise, result in people working against each other instead of with each other in the pursuit of a just, strong, and healthy nation. We tend to spend so much energy on trying to ensure our own well-being by taking it from another that we have forgotten that we are in effect, taking from the whole to which we belong. We are united, whether we like it or not, and how we treat each other affects our nation. If you have ever been witness to or part of a bickering family, you understand how extremely toxic and destructive an adversarial mindset can be. It is not the Liberals against the Conservatives. It is not Quebec against the rest of Canada. It is not the prosecution against the defense. It is not even the Canadiens against the Maple Leafs. Until we realise that we are not against each other, we will not truly be a nation.

Chapter Three: Aggregate
One of the reasons that I love living in Montreal is because of its multicultural, multilingual dynamic. Here, I am always in the minority in some shape or form, and that is good for me. It reminds me that I am a significant, though small part of this vibrant city. I am not superior to or more powerful than my neighbour. Even though she is better at French and accounting than I am, and I am probably better at theology and English than she is, we are not in competition. We have much to offer each other. At this point you might think that I sound like a champion of communism, and that would be true to the extent that we are talking about healthy community life. However, I take strong issue with the kind of commonality that sacrifices valuable differences in the name of manageable uniformity.

As an example: if you are an audiophile, you will know that much of today's music makes use of two recording tools (compression and pitch correction) that are useful in producing a very polished product, but alter the natural characteristics of the voice so that it sounds somewhat synthetic. In my experience, after a steady of diet of this artificial sound it is refreshing to hear the raw, true quality of a real, live, unadulterated voice. The natural voice showcases an artist much better than some snazzy studio production, because the little nuances are intact. Have we forgotten how to celebrate and highlight the nuances of our nation? Have we have forgotten how to sing with our real voices, in harmony with each other, in a song that is uniquely our own as a nation?

And that's as far as my ideas go on the book. Perhaps you have your own to offer.

This is a photo of the Canadian flag I own.

Monday, April 18, 2011

flux

It is an unsettling day today. The weather has been windy, rainy, sleety and much colder than normal. I am unsettled as well. An important meeting that was supposed to happen this afternoon was cancelled. I am in limbo about how things will unfold in the next few months as I finish my degree. I just received a second offer of admission for doctoral studies, which probably won't change my direction, but it adds another factor to the mix. We are in the process of moving my work space to the guest bedroom (which doesn't have a lot of traffic these days). Also, any vacation plans we have tried to make in the last month have all fallen apart due to scheduling conflicts or unique opportunities that keep popping up.

Unsettled. The path is not clear ahead. I cannot step forward decisively. I must wait until the things that are in flux touch down. Flux. That's an interesting word. It means 'flow' or 'moving across' and has a dynamic quality to it, like a river which is always in motion. Despite feeling a bit like I am going 'round and 'round in a washing machine today (as my clothes have been all afternoon), being unsettled is good for me. If I go with the flow of life as God allows it to unfold (as I prayed this morning), I find myself listening more closely. I often see things I had not noticed before. I remember to hold things lightly, and make time for contemplation and rest.

If I fight against the current of the flux of life, I tire quickly, because despite my best efforts, I don't get anywhere. I cannot make the skies clear and the clouds stop hurrying across the landscape. I cannot force a meeting when numerous other people are involved. I cannot control the speed at which institutional administration decisions are made. I cannot transport furniture from one room to the next and conjure up new furniture out of thin air (though I would love to be able to do that today). I cannot inject extra days into a calendar. All these things are feeble attempts to fight against flux.

Aside from being a term used in physics to denote magnetic and electric flow, flux is also a word that refers to the turnover of molecules in the body. Like what is happening right now as a cut on my finger heals. Flux is the movement of life. It is necessary not only for healing, but for growth and progress. It keeps me buoyant and moves me along from one place to the next. If I embrace it, there will be no painful wrenching or uprooting.

I read something today that reminded me of this type of fluidity in the context of living by the spirit: Let prayer become life and life become prayer.

This is a photo of the rope that holds the drumhead taut on Dean's djembe - an example of well-placed tension that allows small movements to become become beautiful sound.

Monday, April 11, 2011

day off

I remember having a regular day off last year. It was a nice break to spend 24 hours not thinking about the demands of school, and I felt it was imperative for my overall well-being. This past school year, however, that practice of taking a day off fell by the wayside. Taking on the additional responsibilities of a teaching assistant and facing looming deadlines for numerous large projects, I did what needed to be done, and I did it whenever I needed to do it. This meant that I worked 7 days a week on reading, writing, taking notes, teaching, grading, applying for programs and submitting proposals, as well as attending class. I did take 2 nights a week to participate in gatherings with my faith community, but often rushed home afterwards to complete any assignment I was in the middle of. On occasion I would also go to a movie with Dean, but there was no guarantee of a weekly date.

Since it was only a temporary situation, I had no problem embracing the intensity of those 7 months or so. I do realise, however, that this cannot become a permanent way of life, and it is something I need to guard against becoming the norm as I pursue doctoral studies, which will no doubt be an increase in intensity once again.

I read something this week that made me stop and think about this concept of a day off. It was in Deuteronomy 5 where Moses is reminding the folks (Israelites) that God commanded them to take a day off (sabbath). And the reason? Because they needed to remember that they were not slaves anymore; they were free. As slaves, they worked 7 days a week, no breaks, but as people who belonged to a kind and loving God, they could enjoy rest. So I ask myself: am I a slave to anything in my life? To finishing my degree? To my desire to do well in all my courses? To my love for learning and teaching? To my GPA? To my professors who expect a certain level of academic excellence from me? To my own perfectionism? To an unrealistic schedule? To a system that does not reflect God's values? To the pressure I put on myself never to disappoint people? To an elusive, demanding career?

Anything that keeps me from resting, from trusting God, from living with my hands open to give and receive, enslaves me. Hard work need not be slavery: I work hard because I am FREE to work hard. Slaves can't walk away, can't negotiate, don't have a respite from their labours, don't have a say in how things happen, and for the most part, are resigned to their situation. I am not a slave. Or am I?

It is interesting that there are several words that are translated "servant" in the Hebrew bible. The most prominent one, and the one found here in Deuteronomy (ehbed) is often rendered as slave because it implies a person in bondage. A second, quite uncommon word (sharath) is used of someone who waits upon someone and ministers to them. I would think that trusted and faithful leaders such as Abraham, Jacob and Moses would be referred to as ministers (sharath), but no, they are always referred to as bondservants (ehbed) of God. To our 21st century ears, that just sounds wrong, doesn't it? Slavery implies that I can't walk away, and that is what all these great leaders acknowledged: they would not and could not walk away from God.

It is a strange paradox - being free while being bound to someone. In many ways, I am a servant to Dean, because I have chosen to tie myself to him. Our destinies are intertwined. And perhaps this concept of linked destinies is one of the key ideas that defines my work as well as my day off. Who or what am I tied to? Whose destiny am I invested in? Who or what am I aligning myself with? If I am tied to God, then I cannot serve anyone else. And this God says that one of the signs that I serve him (and am not enslaved to some other person or authority) is that I take a day off.


To identify with God and his way of doing things is to extract myself from the frantic modus operandi of so many environments or disciplines. Instead, it means that I align myself with his ways. By his words, by his breath, by his spirit, something good is made (see Genesis 1). And only when God says it is good is it truly good.


This is a photo I took outside my condo this afternoon. Spring plants!


You might want to check out Bob Dylan's Gotta Serve Somebody, done by Natalie Cole here:


Saturday, April 09, 2011

psalms of Matte

In the book I am currently reading, The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris, she writes a chapter about the Psalms and how in contemporary spirituality, we tend to avoid some of them, especially the "cursing psalms" as she calls them. Seldom do you hear these read in public or expounded upon. The brutal, angry language is unsettling and uncomfortable. And yet, she insists, these psalms smack of reality - a reality that religion tries to ignore too often.

Following Jesus is not about positive thinking, which in many cases can be a form of denial. It is cowardly to pick and choose the pretty, uplifting parts of the Bible and leave out the bits about injustice, revenge, darkness, and pain. Even if I am not currently in a situation which echoes these themes, someone I know certainly is. How can I purport to love God and not identify with my neighbour?

Many years ago, on a quest to become a better writer, I began my own book of psalms. Though I never made it to my goal of writing 150 of them (perhaps I should take up the task again), I learned much in the process. Let me share a few of them with you here:

#14
Blue. A little life form.
Self-contained. A tornado of energy.
A warm ball of companionship.
What was unfamiliar in the beginning
grows dearer with every day.
It's a strange thing
the way we attach ourselves to animals
only to know they will probably cause
us sadness when they are gone.
Friendship is always this way.

(Blue, a kitten I had just adopted, died 4 days after I wrote this.)

#18
Why does God not show himself in my life more often?
Is it up to me?
So I ask.
God, come.
Must I do something first?
So I ask.
I don't know.
Is it just his way to come and go?
So I ask.
His ways are higher than my ways.
I wish he was more consistent in
showing himself to me.
Perhaps he wishes the same thing about me.

This is the blind on the window right next to my office. I can't see very clearly through it. Like life sometimes.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

great

Strong reactions. People have them. I have them, too. This week I came across some strong reactions that were puzzling to me because they seemed out of proportion to what was going on. Then I realized that sometimes when people get offended, it has very little to do with the actions of others (though I have been known to be quite offensive at times, so that's always a possibility). Many times when I get offended or react strongly to something, it has everything to do with me and my insecurities instead of something going wrong. The supposedly really horrible thing that someone has done or said was just the trigger.

At times like this, I remind myself of a few things:

1. I have no interest in undermining any one's authority or making anyone look bad. It is never helpful in any way. Neither am I willing to spend a lot of time and effort protecting or defending my own authority, position, or reputation. I will protect vulnerable people, yes, and I will not needlessly give away areas of responsibility and influence that have been given to me, but I will not demand that respect be paid to me because of some title, position, or right.

2. I am not great. Yes, I want to do something great with my life, and any of us might have moments when we touch largeness, some creative and generous brilliance, but it is fleeting. Greatness is most often found in small acts of kindness and sacrifice that no one notices. No one is really great. We are humans, flawed and prone to pride and fear. I hope I always maintain the ability to bow in front of real greatness: a self-sacrificing God, the smile of forgiveness from a child, or the fragile petals of a spring flower.

3. Humility erases offense. When in doubt about what went wrong, I want to be quick to say I'm sorry. When I feel slighted, let me graciously exercise thankfulness. When others blame me, may I be merciful with myself and with them. Humility goes a long way to reducing all kinds of stress and anxiety.

4. Keep focused on reconciliation instead of what went wrong. Forward is always the way I want to keep facing, not stuck in the past digging for definitive answers which don't exist anyway. A good grasp of the facts is good, but beyond that, I want to ask: What can I do right now to make this situation better for everyone? How can I bring love into the equation?

5. I would rather be at peace with myself (and my God) than in conflict in an attempt to maintain or improve my position and reputation. Let me pursue peace, inside and out, and walk in wisdom, refusing to make unnecessary adversaries.

6. Trust God ultimately. I will falter, others will fail me, and 'a sure thing' can fall apart. If I don't trust God, I will soon find myself in an unstable situation. He is my only rock.

After a bit of a shaky start, this has turned into one of the best weeks ever! I am at peace.

This is a picture of the moon tonight. It is one of those great things in life: beyond me.

Monday, April 04, 2011

riting

I sent my MA thesis to my supervisor on Sunday afternoon. Big sigh of relief! I am sure that more revisions will be required, but for now, it is off my plate. It seems that I have spent most of the last two months writing and writing and doing more writing, which is probably why I didn't write much here.

At the same time, I have been doing quite a bit of reading on monasticism for a presentation I did a few days ago called: "What is monastic about the New Monasticism?" One of the books that came highly recommended to me because it touched on the topic was The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris. It was written in 1996 by a married woman of Protestant background who became associated with a monastery (an oblate, in technical terms). The book loosely follows the format of a diary, with interesting stories and thoughts and confessions woven throughout. Ms. Norris is a poet by trade, and the writing is beautiful, honest, and poignant. As it turns out, this book is not doing much for my research, but it is feeding my spirit.

Writing satisfies and depletes me at the same time. It is a joy to express ideas clearly or to put inner thoughts into some exterior cohesive form, but it requires a vast amount of effort on my part. And sometimes, especially right now when my writer's larder is pretty barren, I need to remember what it is that I do and why I do it. This morning on the subway, I was reading The Cloister Walk and came across a story that made me stop and do just that. It was like coming across a deep well of clear water and suddenly realising that I was very thirsty indeed.

Norris tells the story of coming into an elementary school in North Dakota as a visiting artist to teach a class of fifth-graders about metaphors and similes. Here is what she does in the classroom:

I tell them that for this adventure of writing poetry, we can suspend many of the normal rules of English class. No, you don't have to write within the margins; no, you don't have to look a word up in the dictionary to make sure you're spelling it right - we'll do that later. For now just write the word the way you think it's spelled so you don't interrupt the flow of writing; you can print or use cursive (that's a big issue in third grade); you can doodle on your paper; you can scratch things out (here I show them my own rough drafts, so they can see that I mean it); you can write anonymously or even make up a name for yourself as a poet. ... if I do suggest some rules to follow, I always say, if you can think of a way to break these rules and still come out with a really good poem - go right ahead.

... By now the good students may be feeling lost. They're often kids who have beaten the system, who have become experts at following the rules in order to get a good grade. ... But it's the other students, the bad students, the little criminals, who often have a form of intelligence that is not much rewarded in school, who are listening most attentively. It's these kids, for whom helplessness and frustration are the norm at school, and often in life - maybe their mom's boyfriend got drunk and abusive the night before - who take to poetry like ducklings to water. [1]

And here is a poem that one of those "little criminals" in that class wrote:

My Very First Dad
I remember him
like God in my heart, I remember him in my heart
like the clouds overhead,
and strawberry ice cream and bananas
when I was a little kid.
But the most I remember
is his love,
as big as Texas
when I was born. [2]

This boy, who had been born in Texas, whose father had skipped town on the day he was born, and who had never been known as a good student, found a way to tell his story that day because a poet, a writer, gave him the freedom.

This is why I continue to write - because it is an exercise in freedom. Freedom to let what is inside come out, freedom to tell my (and your) story, freedom to be heard, freedom to learn, and freedom not to be tyrannized by rules.

[1] Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), 55-56.
[2] Ibid, 54.

These are strawberries on my kitchen counter. They remind me of summer...and ice cream.