Monday, May 30, 2011

out of the box

Last night we returned from a 4-day road trip to the East coast. We took in the annual gathering of Vineyard churches from the Atlantic region of Canada and managed to squeeze in a short stop at Bangor, Maine on the way there and a night overlooking the water in St. Andrews by the Sea on the way back. The break with Dean was a welcome one, though the conference was rather busy. Not only was I taking care of the registration for the event, I was also speaking at one of the sessions. It was no surprise that I fell asleep in the car on the way home as Dean drove through Maine.

The topic that I was asked to speak on was "Out of the Box," especially in relation to how we live life as followers of Jesus. It was such a privilege and treat to interact with a group of people who were up for exploring the risky venture that we know as transformation, and who were not afraid to engage in a slightly different format from what they were used to encountering in a church setting. It is amazing how creative and responsive people will be when you give them the space!

Here are some of the ideas we wrestled with together on the weekend:

1. Context: Recognizing our context is integral to being able to act and respond in honest and creative ways to those around us. And in order to see our context, we have to take a step back sometimes, get out of our box, so to speak. The letter "X" can indicate anything from a variable factor in an equation to an important mark on a treasure map to being part of the word, "exit." The explanation is all in the context, and our larger context is that there is nothing outside of God's purview; everything is penetrated by God. How we view history, the present, and the future cannot be outside of God’s operation and involvement. The small and the big and the in-between are all connected to him. He is involved in it all, creating a beautiful story with every intricate detail having its place and purpose. Church cannot be the paradigm. Spirituality is not the paradigm. Our life and our job are not the paradigm. God is the paradigm, and this must be basic to an understanding of our own context.

2. Risk something! Many things come in boxes: computers, Cheerios, Kleenex, even shaving oil! The product is useless unless one takes it out of the box and uses it for its intended purpose. Cheerios are not meant to be admired and discussed; they are meant to be enjoyed and eaten! One of the saddest facts is that church has become associated with middle-class comfort and safety instead of with risk. Following Jesus is always about risking something and carries a certain element of danger. Faith and surrender and love are very dangerous words to live out! Unfortunately, our society has ingrained in many of us the necessity of protecting ourselves at all costs, and this builds a culture based in fear. It is not only unhealthy, it will eventually kill everything we deem as important. A certain amount of danger is good for us. (I am quoting Alan Hirsch in this last sentence. Click here to see his 4 minute video on Communitas.)

3. Go big. When we consider living a big life or embarking on the adventure of faith, we need to look beyond our smallness, our weakness, our lack, and see the greatness of God. Otherwise, we will never have the courage to step outside of what we know. In Exodus 6-7, God asks Moses to take the lead in delivering a whole nation from slavery by going to speak to the Pharaoh. Moses responds, "Look at me. I stutter. Why would Pharaoh listen to me?" God adjusts Moses' perspective with these words: "Look at me." If we want to enlarge our life, we must change where we are looking. Instead of looking at our limitations, we must look at God and his greatness.

4. Go small. When talking about someone as immeasurable as God, we often tend to think that he likes to do things in a big, flashy way. We expect a grand exhibit of power or dynamic change to occur right before our eyes. While this is certainly a possibility, it is not the way in which we find God usually dealing with people. In Numbers 20, we see God instructing Moses to speak to a rock in order to provide water for thirsty people. Instead of speaking, Moses chooses to strike the rock in a grand and angry display, thinking this reflects God`s intention. A soft word was all that was required, no theatrics. In another time and place, when God shows himself to a depressed Elijah (see I Kings 19), this divine being is not to be found in the earthquake, the strong wind, or the raging fire. He comes in a whisper, a small voice. The small, humble ways are often more reflective of God`s interaction than the overwhelming sensory overload that we associate with greatness. Mother Teresa said: Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.

5. Go sideways. In an era when 'linear thinking' and '5-year plans' are everyday phrases, it is sometimes difficult for us to make space for the unlikely, the unexpected, and the strange. How often do we stop to notice and engage with something off the well-trodden, carefully-planned path? In Exodus 3 we read that while Moses is busy shepherding, he stops to look at a bush that burns but is not consumed. And because he takes the time to stop and look at this unusual phenomenon, he is presented with an opportunity to step into a role that will change his life and the course of a nation. It was not something he was looking for. It was not something he had conceived. It was much more uncomfortable, challenging, and strange than he could have imagined. And that's the point: we cannot imagine or plan what is in the heart of God. We have to be prepared to go sideways when something unusual presents itself.

Living a big life does not necessarily mean doing a big thing, but aligning ourselves with a God who is bigger and smaller than we could ever imagine or dream. And by the way, there is no box.

This is a picture of the deserted terasse of The Gables restaurant on a chilly, foggy night in the small town of St. Andrews by the Sea, New Brunswick.

Monday, May 23, 2011

out of order

What do you do when certain things are not working in your life? You can't really call a repair man (or lady) to fix it because life doesn't have an 800-number to call in situations like this. For the last few days I have been experiencing general fatigue. I seem to always be tired, appetite is low (lower than usual), and I don't have a lot of grace for others. Perhaps I just need a vacation (yes, definitely!). Perhaps I have a bit of a sinus infection or something. Or perhaps I have run out of my own strength once again.

Being weak and vulnerable is always such an undesirable position to be in, and I find myself there at least a few times a year. It is when the capable and smart and funny and loveable me has left the building, and all that is left is the tired, drained, uncreative, complaining, and selfish me. Ideally, I would like to hole up in a monastic retreat until I recoup my composure and refresh my spiritual and physical self. Alas, this is rarely the case. At times like this, almost always the number of people through my home increases and the needs and needy are more present than ever. Though I have become better at not being a total jerk when finding myself taxed beyond my abilities as a giver of care and hospitality, I know I fall far short of being loving. I don't like the person I am at these times.

Inexplicably, though, Jesus still does like me and believes that I have something to offer besides whining and behaviour that borders on being rude. Why else would he trust me with some of the most challenging group situations at times like these? The difficult part is setting aside my social and physical exhaustion (which easily becomes an excuse) and reaching out for the giant helping of godly compassion that he offers me. This compassion is always available. I have never known it to be in short supply, and it always functions perfectly, softening my heart and the hearts of those around me. It is to my own detriment that I do not embrace it more often.

Weakness is hard to admit to. Weakness is hard to give up, too, because it requires giving up selfish-centredness as well. Strength that is not mine is hard to accept because it requires a certain and non-negotiable surrender. And one thing I am learning about this life is that any day void of the element of surrender is a day I have lived as an island, in isolation, without faith.

I am weak today. Be my strength, oh Mighty One.

This is a photo of the antique cash register at Le Placard Café in Montreal. It now serves as a display of flyers and sugar caddy. Very cool!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

ironic

Perhaps you remember Alanis Morissette's song from the mid-90s called, "Ironic." Many of the situations she mentions in the song could not really be classified as ironic (how ironic is that?) because irony, by definition, does not merely refer to coincidental or improbable events. Irony speaks to the incongruity and poignant nature of a situation. To quote one of the free online dictionaries: "Something is ironic if the result is the opposite of what was intended; an ironic event is an incongruous event, one at odds with what might have been expected."

In mid-April we delivered our spare futon and frame to some friends so that they would have a comfy bed for visiting family members to sleep on. We let them know that if they liked it, they could keep it. We have been considering re-purposing our spare bedroom, which does not really get a lot of guest traffic these days, into an office for me so that I can study in peace while Dean makes a lot of noise in the living room. I estimate that out of 365 days of the year, the room only gets used by guests about 30 of those days. In contrast, I use my office about 350 days of the year. We still want to put some sort of sleeping solution in place, but it would be something that takes up much less space than a full-size bed.

While we have been looking into different options regarding desks, bookshelves, futons that unfold into beds, murphy beds, built-in storage, and sofa-beds, the room has been pretty much bare. And since the bed exited our condo a month ago, I have had 3 sets of unexpected house guests. Ironic. Truly. We borrowed air mattresses from friends and most of our guests have been happy to pretend they are pseudo-camping and have not complained. However, it is far from ideal. The guests are not being fully accommodated and I have no improvement in my office situation. The challenge of finding a workable and beautiful solution that provides much needed storage space for all my books and files and expands my working space while easily converting into a temporary guest room is proving somewhat complex. One of the most innovative and efficient solutions, the murphy bed/desk combination starts at about $3000. Hmmmm.

And when the guests do drift through, I wonder how practical sharing an office with them will be. I need access to my officey stuff pretty much every day for several hours, much more if I am in the middle of a school term. Do I sit in my office and write at my desk late at night (as is my custom) while the wanderers snore several feet away from me? Or do I move books, files, and my computer out of the room for the duration of their stay? How important is it to welcome others into our home? Very, I would say. But how does it practically fit into work, study, life, and available resources?

I would love to have a very private space for guests to enjoy. I would love to have a dedicated office space that never gets disrupted. I would love for Dean and me to have our closet not located in the guest bedroom! I would love for guests to have their own bathroom. However, that is not how things are right now. At this point, every time people stay with us, we must all graciously share a bathroom, a small kitchen, closet space and balcony access.

Sharing. It seems that I need to learn how to do this better. And it is what our guests will get a chance to do, as well.

This is a photo of two tomato plants sharing space in a planter on my balcony.

Friday, May 13, 2011

certitude

A week ago I took a mini road trip to Syracuse, New York to attend the American Academy of Religion Eastern International Regional meeting. Basically, it was a bunch of religion scholars from New York, Ontario, and Quebec together presenting ideas, exchanging information, eating finger food, and drinking wine. Very nice, actually. The SUNY campus is lovely and I spent what little spare time I had wandering around a bit of it and taking pictures.

Two of the talks I attended that sparked quite a bit of discussion were ones that dealt with certitude, doubt, and struggle. It seems that in some circles, 'doubt' is the new 'faith.' One of the men presenting a paper plainly stated that certitude is our enemy. And he seemed quite certain about that! (just pointing that out). While I understand that he is reacting to a tendency to offer simplistic, pat answers which indeed are unhelpful for the most part, in my opinion he pretty much substituted one pat answer for another. And honestly, I am not looking for certitude. When it comes down to it, I don't believe many people are. I believe people are looking for faithfulness, and that's a whole different thing. As opposed to certitude, which is found in facts, faithfulness is found in a friend.

I had drinks at a local pub with a few people yesterday afternoon with the intention of talking about some of the questions that we have about God, the Bible, faith, Christianity, etc. Hard questions, questions that you are afraid to ask sometimes. As we talked (and it was interesting to hear each person's doubts and problems with Christianity), I realised that we all have different questions about God as we have perceived him, as he is portrayed by others, and what we have read about him in the Bible. I believe that our questions reveal what the real issues are in our lives, what we are really looking for. And in my opinion, it is never certitude.

Those who say they have certitude (the bible is a neat and tidy document full of proof texts) are most likely uncomfortable with mystery and often feel safest when they are in control of their environment. Some people want to know how God can smite people and destroy whole cities in the Old Testament. They are looking for a merciful society where kindness and compassion rule, but don't usually have a strong sense of the inherent repercussions that our actions carry. Perhaps they are only too aware of their own shortcomings. Some people want to know why God picked Israel and no one else. These people probably want to belong, to feel special. Some people don't like all the patriarchal language in the ancient biblical texts (where is the equality for women?). They are mindful of the underdog, the outcast, and might even feel like one themselves. Some people want to know why God does not show himself to us, speak clearly in an audible voice, or make himself easier to find. These are people who are hungry for relationship and love.

I know that is a rather simplified way of looking behind some of these questions, but you get my point. I try to listen carefully to people's questions because they reveal what is important to them and more often than not, what we are lacking. I realise that I don't ask a lot of 'why' questions. For the most part, I am not looking for the answers to life's mysteries because I enjoy the beauty of mystery and don't need it explained. What is important to me is that God is present, that I know that he is near, that he walks with me through life, and that he is trustworthy. One of my most frequent questions to God is, "Can you help me today?" And he always answers, "Yes."
The first photograph is of the Hall of Languages at Syracuse University, where the conference was held. On the lawn across the street, I found this installation of orange paper cranes in support of the tsunami victims in Japan.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

book review: Revise Us Again

I recently ordered a book by Frank Viola called Revise Us Again: Living From a Renewed Christian Script. The agreement was that I would get a free copy in return for reviewing it here on my blog (thanks to Speak Easy bloggers). Good deal, right? I had read bits and pieces of Viola's writing before - most of it I found to be prodding and often provocative rhetoric that sought to point the church in a more authentic and biblical direction. There were several glowing endorsements of the book in the email that notified me of the book's availability for review, so I took the bait.

What follows are my candid and honest opinions. You need not agree with my assessments and thoughts, but I offer them here for your consideration. First, let me say that Viola is by all indications a lover of Jesus dedicated to the purity and authenticity of the Church. That's a good thing. He hits his stride in a few places on this theme of revision: in chapter 6 he uses personal experience and numerous examples from the Bible as well as influential historical figures to develop very helpful delineations of the reality of God's presence. These are clear, concise, and serve to clarify much of the confusing language we often hear on this topic (briefly, here are his 4 distinctions: God as actually present with his people, a perceptible sense of God's presence, setting one's mind and heart actively on his presence, and the unnoticed but ever-present consciousness of God's presence).

The afterword is chock full of scriptures which illustrate the point Viola has been trying to make in the preceding 10 chapters: that our life script must come from our identity in Christ, and all actions and attitudes should naturally flow out from this realization. Those are the really good parts of the book.

Sadly, much of the rest of this easy-to-read volume finds Viola vacillating between being too general and then offering overly detailed, specific scenarios; the result is that much of the book is hard to identify with unless you are an American who has been steeped in a variety of the contemporary Christian worldviews prevalent in the USA. He assumes that we share many of his experiences, but it is just not so, Frank. He also begins most every chapter with neat and negative categories of what is wrong with current Christian thought and practice. All of us have a religious heritage which has conditioned us towards these unhelpful and inadequate mindsets, he assumes, and I venture to say that this assumption is too narrow.

No doubt the audience that he is writing for (Bible-belt or cultural Christians looking for a fresh and authentic perspective, perhaps?) will find much of what he says helpful. That's good! But unfortunately, Viola's main weakness is his failure to follow the very principle that he is putting forth: that it all begins with our true identity in Christ. Again and again, he begins addressing an issue by drawing lines such as those between libertines and legalists; he makes boxes and then herds what he calls charismatics, quoters, and pragmatics into them. None of them are getting it right, of course. Much of the time Viola uses a deconstructionist methodology which, at least in my opinion, fights against his main theme of changing how we think about who we are. While he purports that all must start with Christ, he seldom does.

Some of the generalities that I found irksome (sorry, Frank) were that Viola tends to make sweeping assumptions like "a large portion of the Christian world today has neglected a number of vital elements of the gospel" (page 58). There is no support for or explanation of statements such as this. Also, there is no definition or clarification of many of the terms he uses such as fundamentalist and literalist and we are left to assume that he is using them in a rather loose, colloquial sense.

Viola draws on a rather broad pool of references for this small book, and unfortunately, seems not to have done his research on a number of them. He is not careful with words either, sometimes choosing a clever turn of phrase over an informative and clarifying one. At one point he has a fictional stereotypical figure refer to "the subjective soup of mysticism" and becoming "lost in the sauce" (page 48). A very evocative word picture, yes, but as a student of mysticism, I can authoritatively say that it is not an accurate or informed one, even if it was coming from a fictional character. At another point when he is talking about old wineskins versus new wineskins, he states that "the new wine is always better than the old wine" (page 113). I have never heard a wine connoisseur utter those words, in fact, they all pretty much say just the opposite. Perhaps Viola is referring to a spiritual principle here, but he never explains it, so the phrase just leaves one puzzled because it is so counter-intuitive.

When Viola concentrates on the centrality of Christ, the book flows wonderfully and inspires the reader to let all of life be moored to this simple truth. However, when he spends page after page chopping contemporary Christian experience and culture into bite-sized pieces and analyzing their lack of nutritional content, the theme gets lost. Perhaps a kind but rigorous editor might have helped him keep on topic as well as take more care to exemplify his theme. The book would be much better served if it were characterised by more renewing language (as the title suggests) instead of being so focused on deconstruction.

Thanks for the read.

This is a picture of my copy of the book and the requisite reading snack.

Monday, May 02, 2011

how to live to be 100

I watched a talk on longevity a few days ago given by a researcher/explorer who, along with a team of scientists, studies pockets of people who live significantly longer (10+ years) than the average life expectancy. And keep in mind that he is talking about vigourous, disability-free life, not bed-ridden, incapacitated elderly folks.

We probably have ideas about what would promote longevity (don't smoke, don't work too hard, don't eat fatty foods, don't live a dangerous lifestyle, take health supplements, exercise regularly, think happy thoughts, etc.), but surprisingly, none of those appeared as decisive factors in the case studies. Considering that only 10% of longevity is genetic and 90% is behavioural, the findings are in some way applicable to all of us.

Here are a few of the points he made that I found significant:

1. How we treat older people impacts how long we live and how healthy our younger generations are. In a society where old age was equated with equity (value), the life expectancy rose by at least 4 years and disease was markedly decreased in younger generations.

2. Make sure you travel through life with a number of good friends who exemplify healthy values. If you hang out with people who are obese and inactive, chances are you will end up that way as well. Connect with faithful friends and stay connected.

3. Always know why you wake up in the morning; never retire from a purposeful life.

4. The sanctuary of sacred time is imperative to continued well-being. Those who are involved in a faith community at least 4 times a month add between 4-14 years to their life.

5. Move naturally; set up your life to be constantly nudged into physical activity. Do away with conveniences and enjoy intentional and natural physical activity (walking, gardening, stairs, etc.)

6. Eat wisely: have a bit of wine every day, eat a diet high in plant content, eat small portions.

It is interesting to me that these researchers so clearly saw that long and vigorous life is founded on being connected in a meaningful way to a committed and supportive community. If we take a good look at our friends, it might tell us a lot about how long we are likely to live.

You can watch the original talk on TED by Dan Buettner here. It is about 20 minutes long.

This is a photo I took today on my walk back from casting my vote in our federal election.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

displaced disgust

I read one of those troublesome parts of the bible last week. You know, one of those parts where God (through Moses) commands the nation of Israel to attack a foreign city and kill the people. Sometimes, like in Deuteronomy 20:13-14, the Israelites could take the women, children, and livestock as plunder. Other times, like in Deuteronomy 20:16-18, they had to kill every living creature in the city when they attacked it. Brutal.

I had someone ask me about these stories the other week, and I answered that the point is not the killing of another nation, but loyalty to God. She listened politely, but said that these parts of the bible still bothered her. I had to admit that my answer did sound a bit weak and pat, though I believe it was true.

A few days ago, I saw something in the bible that I had not noticed before. Nay, four things! Taking into account that we are reading a story from another time and place when tribal warfare was common and life was much more brutal, there are a few things that stand out in stark contrast to this primitive setting. First, in this particular story in Deuteronomy 20, before any attack was made on a city, they were to attempt a peaceful settlement with their enemies (v. 10). War was a last resort, not the only mode of operation. Secondly, they were to take care with how they used the natural resources: not chopping down trees at will, but preserving those that were necessary for food (v.19,20). Thirdly, those soldiers who had a new home, new crops, a new wife, or were afraid and disheartened were excused from battle (v.5-9). In the midst of this brutality, we find several indications of the desire for peace, a responsible use of resources, and some hints at kindness and gentleness that should not be dismissed.

However, the main thing that stood out to me as I read this chapter was verse 18: If you allow them [the inhabitants of these other cities] to live, they will persuade you to worship their disgusting gods, and you will be unfaithful to the LORD. I believe that part of our problem (yes, let's take ownership of our lack of understanding) in coming to terms with these brutal biblical war stories is that in our 21st century worldview we have a heightened responsibility for humanity and our earth and a very low sense of responsibility towards God. When push comes to shove, we believe it is more important to save the earth and be tolerant to our fellow human beings than to be faithful to God. It is called humanism.


It is interesting that we are easily offended by stories of mass killing (and I am in no way negating this horror), but are not much moved by how offensive our unfaithfulness (infidelity or dare I call it adultery?) is to God. We are just like the tribal people of Deuteronomy, easily swayed by the values of the society around us and too often guilty of disproportionate disgust. The strong language in these stories reveals that God knew all too well what fickle people he was dealing with and what kind of destructive unfaithfulness humanity was (and still is) capable of. Ask yourself honestly: are we capable of living in a society that operates with a value system that largely disregards God and not be affected by it? Very difficult, indeed.



Perhaps the fact that these war stories bother us reveals more about how little we value fidelity to God than about how advanced we have become in our attitudes. God have mercy on us.



This is a photo of a building in downtown Montreal. I love this city, but I love God more.