Monday, December 24, 2012

questions without answers

A room in the Grey Nuns Motherhouse, Montreal
Monastic writings have taught me a thing or two
about the tension between trust and questioning

Some days I wake up with questions floating around in my head.  This morning was one of them.  I wondered why God does not communicate more clearly.  If he is so interested in a relationship with humanity, why all the mystery?  Why does he remain so hidden?  This lack of directness means that many people misinterpret who he is or what he is saying.  Many people don't think he communicates at all and take that as an indication of his absence.  Faith in God contains a good many question marks.

Perhaps the question bubbled up because I am reading a book (fiction) about a missionary family in the Congo in the 60s who use the Bible (and their North American version of God) as a sledgehammer to force certain cultural behaviours on the Africans.  It is quite disturbing.  If God spoke more clearly and regularly about his intentions, couldn't that kind of abuse of power be avoided?  Perhaps my question stems from the fact that I live in a secular, pluralistic society where faith in the Christian God is professed by a minority.  I have learned to listen to opinions and questions of all kinds about life and justice and God, hopefully with respect and a compassionate and understanding attitude.  I have found that quoting random out-of-context scriptures or repeating blithe biblical promises is usually unhelpful, especially to people who have little understanding of who the Christian God is or to those who have been burned by misguided folks supposedly speaking or acting in the name of God.  Why doesn't God correct all our silly misconceptions, our abuses of religion, our preconceived and inaccurate notions of who the Divine Other is and how the Holy One operates?  You'd think clarity and communication would be a priority for one who refers to himself as the living Word.

I have spent a good part of my life trying to communicate with, listen to, and understand the Divine.  Part of me thinks I was closest to it when I was a trusting yet fearful child.  Part of me wonders if I am nearer to the Spirit now in the midst of academic study where the questions loom bigger and the certainties are fewer.  Part of me knows that overemphasising reason can dull one's appreciation for profound mystery and inexplicable beauty found in things much grander than one's experience or understanding.  And the biggest part of me knows that questions like this are too small because they assume that the Divine Being's priorities and scope are the same as mine.  The answer to my question about God communicating clearly is not that Jesus came as a human being in history, though this is vital to the revelation of the Ultimate One.  Neither is the answer that the Bible contains everything I need to know, though these writings are also a very important part of the story of God's interaction with humanity.  The answer lies somewhere between my limited ability to comprehend the Infinite and the Infinite's wondrous ability to be hidden and in plain view at the same time. 

Is God someone who needs to explain himself to me?  No.  Will God occasionally/often do or allow something that will offend, disappoint, or annoy me?  Based on people's reactions to Jesus, I would say a definite yes.  Is this a problem?  Only if I equate my sense of right/wrong with the infinite wisdom of God.  So what to do with these questions which unsettle me?  I only have to watch a mother explain to her young child why they are eating vegetables instead of cake for supper to catch a glimpse of how short-sighted and selfish my questions/demands usually are. I don't really want God to communicate more clearly; I want trust to be easier.  I don't want misconceptions to be eliminated; I want faith to be obvious and reasonable i.e. popular. 

The Light and Life and Love of the Universe is always shining brightly, always breathing life into our world, and always loving extravagantly.  Whether I recognise this or not is more an indication of my narrow vision than of his limitations.  The question is not whether God is communicating clearly, but whether I am willing to trust his light, life and love more than my own. 

Job said to God: I’m convinced: You can do anything and everything.
Nothing and no one can upset your plans.
You asked, ‘Who is this muddying the water,
ignorantly confusing the issue, second-guessing my purposes?’
I admit it. I was the one. I babbled on about things far beyond me,
made small talk about wonders way over my head.
You told me, ‘Listen, and let me do the talking.
Let me ask the questions. You give the answers.’
I admit I once lived by rumors of you;
now I have it all firsthand—from my own eyes and ears!
I’m sorry—forgive me. I’ll never do that again, I promise!
I’ll never again live on crusts of hearsay, crumbs of rumor.

- from Job 42, The Message

Saturday, December 15, 2012

do we need another hero?

The end of the movie The Avengers from my theatre seat.
One of the essays I wrote for a playwriting class this term was on the concept of "hero."  This morning I read about a teacher who stood between a killer and her students and saved the lives of the young ones.  The word used to describe her was "hero."  In the face of so much bad news in the past few days, her story of bravery is being disseminated by many people who are encouraged to find hope in a dark place.  Me too.   

So what exactly is a hero?  The working definition I came up with is this:  someone who is relevant to our context (we can identify with them in some way) who exemplifies our best intentions or capabilities (we admire their courage and bravery).  In other words, heroes are examples of humanity at its finest.

Now take a look at Hebrews 11, a chapter of the New Testament filled with names of historical characters who are praised for their faith, "heroes of faith" if you will.  And in this list we find examples like the generous Abel and the mystic Enoch, but we also find tricksters like Jacob, prostitutes like Rahab, doubters like Sarah, and insecure, angry leaders like Moses.  What's up with that?  If heroes are supposed to be the "best of the best" this is a pretty sorry list.  But remember the two components of a hero mentioned above: someone who demonstrates the best of who we could be and someone we can identify with.   I don't know about you, but I can certainly identify with the doubters, the mistake-makers, the selfish, and the insecure.  In my opinion, mythology has not done us any favours by often portraying heroes as characters with divine origins who display superhuman strength and ability.  It is interesting to note that the creators of today's superheroes always inject a certain amount of self-doubt, a character flaw, or a fatal weakness into their characters in order to help us empathize with them.

Joseph Campbell, in his classic study of mythology, A Hero With a Thousand Faces, concludes that there is a common journey that all heroes undertake.  It goes something like this:  the ordinary world, a call to adventure, the reluctant hero, the wise old man (guide), crossing the threshold into the special world, encountering enemies, allies, tests, finding oneself in the inmost cave facing one's greatest fears, engaging in the supreme ordeal, obtaining a boon (benefit), the road back, resurrection (where the two worlds become one), and bringing the prize (elixir) of their journey to others.  While not every element listed above must be present in all hero stories, most of them can be found in heroic tales.  The Matrix is a good example.  The stories of Moses and Jesus are two more.  Campbell's observations were influential on George Lucas in creating the Star Wars saga, but Campbell never meant his findings to serve as a shortcut for script writers. The point, I believe, is that heroes are not made by a single act or event.  They have a journey which leads them to a decisive moment.

In my research, I came up with 4 elements that I believe are vital to the making of a hero: 

1) The triad of leaving, transformation, and returning.  Basically, this means that a hero makes a decision to leave their ordinary world, responds to a call, finds themselves in an extraordinary place where they face obstacles, enemies, tests and trials, and where they are ultimately transformed by facing their fears.  Finally, they return to the ordinary world to share the knowledge they have gained or to pass on the benefits of their transformation.  In some cases, they give their lives to do this.  

2) Being universal and unique.  This refers to the fact that the hero is human, often with flaws we can identify with, but she also exhibits great courage in overcoming obstacles and evil forces. 

3) Vindication.  This sounds like a weird attribute for a hero, but it refers to the hero coming to terms with herself and quieting all those voices which tell her that she is not good enough.  Her value and worth are finally realised by herself and others. 

4) Reconciliation.  This, to me, is the most important aspect of any hero's journey.  Here is a quote from my essay:  "If I were to distill the hero journey into one word, it would be reconciliation. In the end, the hero’s quest is complete not because he/she is endowed with a new sense of importance or goodness, but because they are reconciled with themselves and their world(s).  This is not a passive acceptance akin to some version of fatalism, but an ability to courageously face and embrace life and all that it entails."  In a sense, everything becomes one.  The hero is equally comfortable in the extraordinary and the ordinary worlds (think of Jesus after the resurrection, passing through walls).  Tests and trials are one with  developing courage and faith.  Enemies and allies all serve to further the quest for a full and generous life.  The hero is reconciled with themselves, with their circumstances, and with their destiny.  Reconciliation means that the hero moves beyond being primarily concerned about their own well-being and recognises they are an integral part of a greater whole.  The hero journey is one of fostering loving relationships and building a strong community.

In my essay, I studied the story of Sarah (wife of Abraham) as an example of a primordial heroine, and in my research I found a very human, yet courageous woman who left a legacy of reconciliation. Her laughter of disbelief turned into a son named laughter (Isaac) who in turn was an ancestor of Jesus, the hope of the world.  Here is my concluding paragraph: 

"I posit that a heroine is one who is universal in her humanity yet exemplary in courage, and that the journey she embarks on is a transformative one. She moves from a weak status to a position of strength. She is vindicated by her detractors and mockers and faces her greatest fears and insecurities. She is not perfect, but she challenges us to walk her journey with her, to learn from her mistakes and to exult in her moments of transformation and joy. She reminds us that we are part of a much greater story, a story that requires our active participation in order for the legacy of promise and fulfillment to continue. And she inspires us to never lose hope, even when circumstances seem impossible. She shows us that there is always hope, there is always the possibility for laughter."

Anyone can be a hero, but the time to start the hero journey is now. 
 

Saturday, December 08, 2012

book review: Keeping the Feast

Dinner at 40 Westt, Montreal
I just finished savouring Milton Brasher-Cunnningham's tasty book, Keeping the Feast.  In the preface, he identifies his "hunger to be connected" as a driving force in his life, and this does indeed seem to be the glue (or should I say, gravy) that holds the book together.  Milton connects food to fostering community and relates both of these elements to celebrating the "Meal That Matters Most," the Lord's Supper.  And he manages to do it with a light touch, making this an easy read but one that will stick with you for some time. 

Milton is a multi-talented man (chef, teacher, minister, writer, small urban farmer, and musician) and his writing reflects his varied experiences and skills.  He manages to combine a lot of good elements in this slim volume.  Like a well-crafted meal, each chapter begins with an appetizing poem, then he spends some time serving up meaty thoughts cut into bite-size stories and sprinkled with thought-provoking observations, and he finishes with a mouth-watering favourite recipe which relates to the topic at hand.  The only thing I would have added to each chapter is a picture of food, perhaps the recipe in question, something that would allow me to linger on the metaphor a bit longer.

There are nine chapters which each take one food metaphor and unpack its spiritual implications.  For instance, in the chapter titled "Signature Dish," Milton indicates that the food he most loves to cook is comfort food.  He writes: "I want to make food that makes you want to come eat with me.  I want to make the kind of food that will make you remember our being together.  The signature - the distinguishing mark - of a great meal is in the memory it creates" (10).  He also writes a lot about the ritual or meaningful repetition of eating together as something that binds us to each other.

One of the most intriguing metaphors for me is his comparison of the soup kitchen line to the line of people waiting to receive communion in church, calling the latter the "sacred soup line."  In both we find people in need, people struggling with pain, people with scars and heartaches, all "walking wounded, all waiting to be welcomed and fed, needing something to sustain us beyond our fears, failures, words, and hunger" (67).  Having worked both at a soup kitchen and at fine restaurants, Milton maintains that feeding others is not really about food: "We are not serving meals, we are serving people,"(66) and this is a very important distinction, one that reveals his pastoral compassion and concern.

The book includes many stories:  there are sports stories, neighbourhood stories, cooking stories, family stories, movie stories, memorable meal stories, and a good dollop of references to a variety of sources including authors such as C. S. Lewis, Walter Brueggemann, and Jean Vanier.  The recipes at the end of each chapter are not complicated and pretty easy to follow.  However, I did notice that the recipe for "Open-Faced Chicken Pot Pie" neglects to include instructions for how to incorporate the buttermilk (54-55).  I'm pretty sure an experienced cook could figure it out, but a novice might be puzzled.  The recipe at the top of my "to try" list is the one he calls "Uncle Milty's Guinness and Chocolate Chili."  One of Milton's colleagues speculates that this chili is the reason that Milton's wife, Ginger, married him.  You can find the recipe here on his website.

The book meanders a fair bit, but I didn't mind.  It is not meant to be a theological treatise on the Eucharist, but a book that calls us to the table.  Reading it almost made me feel that I had pulled up a chair in Milton's kitchen and he was chatting about random things while cooking a meal for us to share.  Milton very much succeeds at conveying his love for food and his commitment to community and communion with Jesus and others.

"...Jesus sat with his disciples around the table and, as he served them bread, he said, 'Every time you do this, remember me.' What if we could hear those words as an invitation to communion and community in every meal, in every cup of coffee, in every beer at the pub: every time you eat and drink look each other in the eye and remember me, remember the love that binds you and do whatever you have to do to forget the lies you have learned that tear you apart" (117).

Bon appetit! 

 



Milton Brasher-Cunningham.  Keeping the Feast: Metaphors for the Meal.  Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2012.  122 pages.

Check out his website:  Don't Eat Alone.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

a visit to the vet

 
Today was Jazz's annual trip to the vet.  It went pretty much like it always does.  She starts to moan and hiss the minute I put her in the pet carrier (we don't use the word cage). There is loud meowing throughout the 10 minute drive, her face pressed defiantly against the wire mesh door.  The minute we get into the vet's office, the demeanour changes: she gets quiet and squishes her body against the back of the carrier.  Anytime anyone comes near her, she growls.  Today a big, leggy, brown dog bounded up to her cage to say hello and he got a death-glare.  It is always this way.  Anyone, human or animal, who stops by to say hi and remark on her beauty gets the same treatment.  Growl.  Hiss.  Death-glare.  

And then it is time to go into the small examination room.  I open the traveling compartment and there appears to be no cat inside!  She has pressed herself against the side of the carrier, determined to avoid all contact with the examining table.  I hold the carrier upside down, door open, but she has pushed all her paws against the walls, Mission Impossible-style, and is not coming out.  So I set down the carrier and drag her out, butt first.  Lots of screaming and hissing and trying to claw the table.  Throughout all of this, I am constantly speaking calmly to her and reassuring everyone around me that she is not the evil offspring of Darth Vader.  

We are allowed a few moments alone in the examination room and though she continues to growl and moan, we are doing pretty good, I think.  I can still see some green in her eyes (not all black) so that's a positive sign.  The vet enters: a small, young woman whom I have not met before.  She greets Jazz and me in French and English (as they do in Montreal), and unsuspectingly reaches out to pet the cute cat she sees on the table.  Her hand comes toward Jazz from above.  Let me stop here to suggest that the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy should be required viewing for all vets because it clearly teaches that cats are threatened by anything higher than them.  Just a suggestion.  Anyway, back to the story...  It is no surprise to me that as soon as the vet's high hand comes near Jazz's head, there is hissing, growling, and some quick, jerky movements.  The wee vet, startled, takes a small hop backwards, let's out a "Whoa!", and I see a bit of fear flick across her face.  Inwardly, I sigh.  Jazz has done it again.  She has intimidated the doc.  I reassure the vet that Jazz always puts on this type of show and that we will get through the exam, no problem.  I can tell that the vet is not convinced.

Nevertheless, the exam goes okay. I hold Jazz firmly, rub her neck and ears, talk to her about pleasant things like scratching furniture and winning a game of slapsies with Dean, while the vet probes her from butt to gums and listens to her heart and lungs.  All good.  The vet calls in a technician to hold Jazz while she administers a rabies shot.  It takes a few tries and in the first attempt, the vet spills a bit of the vaccine as Jazz does a super-fast lunge move, Jackie Chan-style, which catches the technician off-guard.  But no one gets hurt, there is no blood, and no property is damaged.  It is a good visit, overall. After the shot, Jazz can't wait to get back in the carrier, but she refuses to eat a treat I give her from the vet's front office.  No doubt she thinks it is a trick.  Or poison.

Jazz is quiet until we near home when she starts to meow and look out the window.  She can't wait to get back home where no one is poking her with needles or trying to look at her gums.  I get her safely inside our condo, release her from the carrier, and then go out to get something from the car.  When I come back inside, she is glaring at me reproachfully from the stairs, sitting higher than me.  Then she tries to make a dash out the door.  Everything is back to normal.

The annual visit to the vet with Jazz always reminds me of my own dramatic, fearful tendencies.  My reactions to situations are often overblown and unfounded.  I often find it hard to trust when I don't understand.  I sometimes respond badly because of unpleasant associations or past experiences instead of taking the present (and new) situation at face value.  And I am too often threatened by those who are higher, smarter, wiser, quicker, or appear to be more successful.  The truth is that I walk day by day with a faithful, caring God and a loving community.  Nothing changes that, not even my fearful heart.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

getting in the habit

Neglected piano sitting in a front yard in Montreal
I recently read that it takes an average of 66 days to form a habit.  By habit I mean something that turns from an occasional activity (or a never activity) to one that you do automatically and don't argue with yourself about.  It has become part of you and your routine.  There is quite a difference in the length of time it takes to develop a habit depending on the activity. On average, drinking a daily glass of water takes only 18 days to become a habit, adapting to the loss of a limb takes about 21 days, and doing 50 sit-ups before breakfast takes more like 100 days.

Two habits that I have been doing for many, many years are working out and contemplation/prayer. I feel significantly better when I follow a workout regimen; it gives me strength, stamina, and energy.  The benefits are numerous.  If I am running late, I can sprint to catch the bus and not get winded.  I have the energy to climb up Mont-Royal and carry heavy bags of groceries up three flights of stairs.  It helps provide stamina to get through busy seasons such as end-of-term assignments or crazy travel schedules.  And I'd hate to get caught in an emergency and not be able to react quickly if someone's life depended on it. 

The same holds true for contemplation and prayer.  Consistent prayer practice strengthens my spirit, helps me have more emotional and relational stamina, and boosts my patience, generosity, and positive energy. The quickest way to notice the effect that daily prayer and contemplation have in my life is to skip them for a day or two or more.  I become more negative and am quick to criticise.  The perfectionist tendencies begin to run unchecked and problems or challenges leave me overwhelmed and distraught.  Just this past week I was confronted with a stressful situation and I was quite amazed (and relieved) at how I instinctively calmed myself, spoke quiet words of reassurance to others, and invited the Holy Spirit into the situation.  All without even thinking about it.  It was an automatic response, which is what a habit is.

However, habits are not guaranteed for life.  They can be neglected until they wither away. Every time my schedule changes (which is several times a year) I have to reassert my good habits into the new timetable.  Busy school terms are notorious for making both working out and contemplation difficult to practice.  But I know the cost of not doing these two things is high, so I try to make them a priority.  I don't always succeed and there are usually a few weeks where things get a bit chaotic and all my good intentions go out the window.  When I need to get through a lot of work in a short period of time, I have been known to turn to caffeine to speed up my brain process (I am a slow reader and writer - part of the contemplative effect, I guess).  The crash afterwards is pretty brutal.  After a day or two of caffeine, I have never once thought, "Wow, that was great!  I should do it again!"  I always regret turning to a short-term spike in energy because it ends up draining my body and mind instead of invigorating them.

We live in a culture that does not always value long-term commitment, so the benefits of holy habits are sometimes lost on people who want an instant pay-off.  But a longer period of time is integral to the principle of compounding effects (just like compounding interest).  Dedication over a long period of time can build things that could never be imagined from a short-term viewpoint.  This does not mean that we won't struggle with commitment.  Some days I flow easily into holy habits. Other days getting to them is a battle.  But if I miss a few days, I just get back on track and keep going.  Long-term commitment is as much about not giving up when I have a setback as it is about consistency.

Here is a prayer attributed to Brother Lawrence who laboured in the kitchen of a medieval monastery.  He knew something about holy practices over a long period of time.

Lord of all pots and pans and things,
since I've no time to be a great saint
by doing lovely things,
or watching late with Thee,
or dreaming in the dawnlight,
or storming heaven's gates,
make me a saint by getting meals,
and washing up the plates.
Warm all the kitchen with Thy Love,
and light it with Thy peace;
forgive me all my worrying,
and make my grumbling cease.
Thou who didst love to give men food,
in room, or by the sea,
accept the service that I do,
I do it unto Thee.

Habit statistics from psyblog.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

faith is a journey

Arches in St. Andrews, Scotland

The last week or so I have been reading a book that I picked up at a conference in May.  It is called Journeys of Faith (edited by Robert L. Plummer, Zondervan, 2012).  When I saw it in a pile at a publisher's booth it caught my eye because the subject matter intrigued me and the book was on sale.  How could I resist?  It has been an interesting read thus far.  The book contains essays from four different people who have migrated from one part of Christianity to another.  After more than 20 years of being a Baptist pastor, one man became an Eastern Orthodox priest.  Someone who was part of the Protestant charismatic movement switched to Catholicism.  A Catholic had an experience with God at a mid-week service and converted to evangelicalism.  A Lutheran moved to the Anglican church. 

The format of the book is inclusive and balanced.  Each of the chapters in which these men relate the story of their faith journey and explain the major differences between where they came from and where they landed is followed by a critique of their adopted tradition.  These responses are written by scholars who are knowledgeable and invested in the particular tradition that the faith journeyer left behind.  Finally, the journeyer offers a brief rejoinder to the critical response.

As someone who studies theology with people who are Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, Evangelical, Lutheran, conservative, liberal, atheist, agnostic, and undecided, movement from one form of Christianity to the other does not shock or offend me.  It is heart-warming to see those recounting their various faith journeys do so with generosity and gratitude toward the tradition they came out of.  They tell their stories with grace and honesty, indicating that they spent many years searching, pondering, and struggling with the issues before they made their decision to migrate. 

The same cannot be said for all the responders, however.  These learned men who are heavily invested in their own tradition seem to be a bit annoyed at the obvious blindness of the faith journeyer.  Their words suggest that the pilgrim has betrayed them in some way, that the wanderer has failed to see the horrible flaws in their newly-found faith community.  It saddens me, to be honest.  While I am no stranger to theological debate and controversy, I am deeply grieved when brothers and sisters in Christ, all of us followers of Jesus, spend much of our time pointing out each others' faults instead of turning our attention to the object of our worship.  In effect, we become our own worst enemies.  We think it is important to defend positions like sola scriptura and the primacy of faith and grace; we belittle authority structures and liturgical practices that differ from those we adhere to.  I understand being concerned about misrepresenting God and misconstruing the nature of Jesus, but if any one of us thinks we have it all figured out beyond a shadow of a doubt and no longer need to learn from others, we are delusional.  All of us have wrong perceptions of God; it is only through God's kindness that we are invited to draw closer to him in order to see more clearly.  Focusing on my brothers' or sisters' perceived errors does not help me see God more clearly; from my experience it actually hinders my spiritual perception.

What was perhaps most surprising to me in reading this book was that I didn't really identify with the evangelical point of view.  I don't mean to be controversial, but positioning the scriptures as the supreme authority for Christian faith and practice is troublesome for me because it places the emphasis on ancient, written words instead of on the eternal, living Word, Jesus.  The Bible is important to followers of Jesus because it reveals God, not because it is perfect or infallible or the final word.  To my understanding, the Bible as a whole does not support positions such as scripture alone or grace alone or faith alone; overall, it clearly points to God as first and last.  Nevertheless, I understand the emphasis on scripture, faith, and grace in response to certain practices and beliefs present in medieval Christianity.

Reading Journeys of Faith is challenging me to think about why I value certain precepts in Christianity and why I devalue others.  But more importantly, it is drawing me toward a more ecumenical stance.  Each chapter which recounted a faith journey caused me to rejoice that a pilgrim had found a spiritual home in which they were called to deeper and more reverential worship, to more lively communion with God, and to learn humbly from the fathers and mothers of our faith.  May I continue to be drawn to a more worshipful, vibrant, rich, and authentic spirituality as well.

God have mercy on us all as we stumble toward him in our faith journeys.   

Saturday, November 10, 2012

when discouragement comes to visit

A bright row of houses visible only after going through a tunnel.  Edinburgh.
This past week was pretty hectic for me with two major presentations due one after the other.  On Wednesday I had a workshop reading of my original play which meant that I spent the last few weeks rewriting at least half of my first draft in response to feedback I received. One never knows if a play will be a cohesive, believable piece until it is workshopped.  The comments afterwards were more positive than I could have hoped for!  People said it was a solid piece with a good arc, believable dialogue, and strong characters.  There are still a few problems that need to addressed, but that's to be expected.  Overall, I was very encouraged by the response. 

On Thursday afternoon I had another presentation, this time for a performance studies seminar.  The readings in this seminar are outside of my usual genre and sometimes I feel like I am barely keeping my head above water.  So I was hoping to do well.  During the informal presentation, one person wondered why I was making these connections. Was my theme trauma?  What? Not at all!  I tried to explain myself, but I wasn't sure if I was being clear.  Others in the group offered observations and comments and these seemed much more informed and nuanced than anything I had said.  Oh well. On my way home, I started to get really discouraged.  Though everyone in the seminar is always friendly and gracious, I thought...perhaps I am doing really badly in this course and I don't even know it.  Yes, that seemed totally likely.  The silly, uninformed theology student was totally out of her league in a performance studies graduate seminar.  A pit of uneasiness started to grow in my stomach.  This was going to end badly, I knew it.  And then I recognised that I was being visited by discouragement.  What do you do when you are visited by discouragement?  I decided that instead of letting myself be carried away by it, I would try to be honest, gracious, and responsible in how I responded.  So here is what I did.

1.  I acknowledged the discouragement.  I didn't brush it aside as unfounded negative thoughts or try to overcome it through positive talk.  I didn't want to avoid what was happening inside me.  I tried to be truthful about how I felt and vocalised it, telling God what my thoughts were.  I tried to let the emotion connected to the disappointment out in a safe way.  Discouragement can be a bit like mourning because some aspect of hope has died, so I tried to face it with grace and courage and let it run its course. 
2.  After the emotion subsided a bit, I took a look at the situation.  Was there a valid reason to be discouraged?  I wasn't sure; all I had was my gut feeling and my perceptions of how people had reacted.  I decided that I had to find out more about the situation to see if my response was merited.
3.  I made contact with my faith community and got a friend to pray with me.  I gave the situation over to God.  I gave the emotions over to God.  I gave the past, the present, the in-between time, and the future over to God.
4.  I ate a good meal.  I went for a long walk.  I read an inspiring book.  I played with the cat.  I breathed deeply and listened to some music. I let lots of life in.  And then I got a good night's sleep.
5. The next day I contacted my professor and expressed my concern about how I was doing in the course. He provided the clarification I needed and gave me some ideas for how to move forward. It wasn't nearly as bad as I had imagined and feared.

The visit by discouragement was relatively short and it left gently, easing off my soul bit by bit until I felt light and filled with hope again.  There is still much work ahead of me in my course of study, but I no longer feel like I am floundering.  And I am not afraid of the next time that discouragement comes knocking.  I know what to do.

Monday, November 05, 2012

is this epic or what?

Mary Queen of the World Cathedral, Montreal
I am in the middle of a playwriting course. At the same time, I am teaching a series on reading the Bible as narrative.  This means that for the past few months I have been pretty immersed in studying the aspects of story.  Below are some of the gleanings from my reading, studying, writing, and teaching.  It may be a bit more scholarly and less personal than usual, but that's all part of telling stories, as I explain below.  Here goes... 

There are different ways of telling stories.  In literature one finds two categories which illustrate the opposite ends of the story spectrum.  First there is "epic."  This is an objective approach which takes a step back from the action and looks at things from a bird's eye view.  Often an epic tale incorporates a third person narrator.  In epic tales, we often find many vignettes which cover a long period of time and tell us a grand story.  The characters are subordinate to the plot.  What is important in telling an epic tale is clarity, completeness, objectivity, systematic thought, overview, and being comprehensive.  Star Wars is an example of an epic tale.  It covers a lot of territory by linking together many different scenarios in fairly quick succession. 

The second category, "lyric," is much more subjective.  It is concerned with the inward journey, self-expression, and the present moment.  Relationship is its main concern and the lyric story is filled with intense moments that incorporate hopes, fears, doubts, and desires.  Because it is so focused on the individual, there are often loose ends which are not explained.  The lyric tale can appear messy, full of ups and downs, but also very imaginative.  We are invited to identify with the characters and plot takes a back seat.  Very often the story is told in the first person.  The television series Seinfeld is a example of stories told from a subjective viewpoint.  They have the feel of being told in the first person, one gets to know the characters intimately, and the time frame is very limited.  There is no grand overall plot; it is entirely based on the characters and what they experience.

It doesn't take much for me to extend these categories to ways that people view the world.  Dean is very much a big picture, epic kind of person.  He can take in a lot of information at once, organise it, analyse it, see a pattern, and bring clarity to a situation.  He finds it easy to step back from whatever is happening and see where things are headed; he also is quick to pinpoint where actions need to be adjusted in order to reach a certain goal.  I, on the other hand, view the world in a lyric way.  I get caught up in the characters of any story.  I notice individuals and wonder what they are thinking, what they are feeling, and how things impact them.  I am quite comfortable living with ups and downs and embracing the imaginative aspect of life.

There are some weaknesses inherent in both of these types. Epic focuses so much on the overall story that the individual can get lost.  As a result, it is usually difficult to identify with any specific character in an epic story.  Similarly, there can be a lack of compassion or empathy in people who tend to see things through an epic lens.  In contrast, lyric stories can focus so much on what is happening with one individual that other characters fade into the background and we can end up with a skewed perspective.  In the same way, people who view life in a lyric way can lose sight of their responsibility to others and to a story larger than themselves.

The combination of these two aspects, epic and lyric, is what makes drama.  Good drama embraces both the objective and the subjective.  It maintains a sense of plot and purpose without suppressing individual characters, diversity, and complexity.  It gives room for perspectives and motivations while never loosing sight of their context.  The same applies to people:  it is good for epic people to hang around lyric folks.  This ensures that the "big picture" thinkers don't lose sight of compassion and the "in the moment" people don't get stuck or lost. 

This also has implications for theology.  Over the centuries, people have tended to relegate the Divine being to either the epic or lyric category.  Some of us think that the ultimate Being is mainly occupied with keeping the universe on track and not very present or active in individual lives.  This presents a concept of a rather aloof God.  Others believe that God is very invested in their personal story, intimately involved in every detail of their lives.  This can present itself as a form of religious self-absorption.  Our prayers can reflect on which side of the spectrum we tend to fall on.

The Bible reflects a God who is both epic and lyric.  In Genesis 1 we are told of a Creator who is above all, systematically and methodically creating and ordering a world which is cohesive and complete.  However, in Genesis 2 we see a Creator who is literally down to earth, who gets his hands dirty and is concerned about human vocation and relationship.  In fact, as one reads the other books of the Bible, we continue to get glimpses of both of these aspects:  a God concerned about the history of the world and its trajectory and a God intimately involved in the details of life like eating, drinking, and the messiness of community.  The ultimate illustration of God as both objective and subjective is the appearance of Jesus.  Here we have a God who is orchestrating the healing of all of creation while at the same time living in the middle of it with all its pain and pleasure and uncertainty.  It is a role that no one else has ever been able to play and because of this, it is the greatest drama ever staged. 

And this is why it is the topic of my doctoral research.  Yay! How exciting! 

Some of these observations taken from ideas presented by David F. Ford and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Friday, October 26, 2012

beautiful moments

Me on the climb up Salisbury Crags in Edinburgh. 
Basking in the beautiful sunshine.
I did not post anything here last week, despite all my good intentions, because it was one of those times in the semester when everything piled up and it was all I could do to get my readings done, my assignments completed, my funding application sent in, a tutorial planned, host several social events in our home (Dean kept inviting people over!!!), put together a talk for our Sunday gathering, and get some sleep.  In the midst of all the craziness, there were several beautiful moments.  Let me share a few of them here.

1. I was on the metro one day and it was standing room only.  I was a bit annoyed not to get a seat because I like to sit and read, especially in the seats at the end of the car.  I was just getting over my wee bitterness when an elderly Chinese man hobbled onto the car.  A young guy immediately got out of his seat and offered it to the man, however, the old man kept peering out the subway car doors which were still open, not paying any attention to the empty seat.  Then we all saw why.  An elderly Chinese woman, hunched over and limping, slowly made her way into the car and the old man reached for her when she came through the doors.  Immediately someone else gave up their seat and now there were two empty places for the old couple to sit.  However, their joy at having made the trek into the metro car together made them oblivious to the waiting seats.  And it captured the attention of a good many of us in the car as well.  After a moment, they became aware of the offered seats and I watched them navigate their way to the blue bench, the man making sure that the woman was safely settled before he let himself sink down into his own seat.  I clearly remember the smile on the old man's face when he saw his wife enter the metro car, their grasping for each other in that moment, both a bit tottery. It was one of the most beautiful things I have witnessed in a long time.  After they sat down, I kept watching them and soon had a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. I can't even tell you why.  Maybe it was their utter dependence on each other.  Maybe it was their excitement at managing something simple yet challenging.  Maybe it was the way they interacted with each other.  Maybe it was the difference between what I was seeing and our culture's emphasis on self-confidence, individualization and independence.  I don't know, but I really didn't care about getting a seat or reading after that.

2.  Once every two weeks I attend a bible study/prayer group.  I was really tired this week and considered not going, but I went because I knew it was probably the best thing I could do after a trying week, and I knew I would come away refreshed.  I always do.  Sometimes we do a lot of discussing and reading, but over half of this week's meeting was spent in prayer, first silently and then with words.  It invoked a very peaceful atmosphere, a place of rest and invitation, a place where the Spirit was welcome and present.  Near the end of the evening, we were directed to pray for a particular person in the group.  I had no words, so I just went to sit beside her, close up, touching.  And it became a special prayer of getting beyond alone-ness for both of us.  I hadn't realized how much of my life I do alone and how solitary that sometimes gets.  It was a moment of being present to God and to each other.  We all need that.  That beautiful moment was better than a good night's sleep or a night off.

3.  For those of you who remember my last post, I described a meeting with someone who was to write part of my funding application and that meeting didn't go as well as I hoped it would.  Well, I received word last week that my supervisor had also initiated a conversation with this person and they responded very favourably, saying this sort of interaction (which myself and my supervisor were doing with them) was exactly what they wanted others in the program to do.  The person in question is new to the position and there is no doubt that it is a very challenging one.  There are many different students, each with an individualized program of study, and the diversity and size of the group, combined with this person being mostly in an administrative role and not a pedagogical one (meaning we don't encounter them in any teaching situations) makes it extra difficult for them to engage with us.  It was like a drink of fresh, cool water to hear that our efforts at interaction were helpful.

4.  Dean got new glasses this week and he looks absolutely brilliant, handsome, and beautiful.  I would marry him all over again if he asked.   Even if he didn't ask, I would marry him.  He's that pretty.  And smart.  And generous.  And good looking.  Like I have said before, everyone needs a Dean in their life.

Friday, October 12, 2012

it was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

This photo represents 2 mistakes: 
a cup of tea I forgot in the microwave for a day
 and a scorch mark made years ago by using a metal container
Thus begins the novel A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  And thus began my week.  This is the time of year when many major funding applications are due for academic pursuits.  This is my third try for a federal award and the second time for a provincial one.  Last year I missed one of them by only two rankings (that means if two of the people had dropped out of the competition and gone to Morocco instead of pursuing their degrees, I would have received an award).  So, I have been writing and re-writing and editing my program of study to make it more appealing to those who dish out the money.  In essence, it has to be exciting, cutting-edge, unique, essential for life on the planet to continue, sexy, and of interest to everyone everywhere.  And it goes without saying that it has to be understandable and compelling, because the people who write the cheques are not theologians.  In other words, I am trying to write The Hunger Games of proposals.

This week, I had a meeting with someone regarding my application and it didn't go so well.  I explained my research proposal to them and though they were very polite, it was clear that they were not sold on the idea.  Part of the problem might have been that they were not from a theological background and admittedly skeptical about the appropriateness of theology combined with theatre, especially in light of abuses in the past when theatre was used as an indoctrination tool.  However, the most discouraging part of the interview was hearing that the person didn't understand what I was studying.  My heart just sank.  Really?  If I cannot clearly explain what I am researching in a few sentences, that's a serious problem.  I left the meeting very discouraged.  The person was kind enough to offer some very helpful suggestions as to how to improve my proposal, but the whole thing left me doubting my ability to write and communicate.  I felt like an impostor in the academic world, exposed as a fraud.

Later that afternoon, I received word that an article I had submitted a few months ago had been accepted for publication in a reputable academic journal.  And here's the exciting part: the only changes requested were the addition of a few headings to make it easier to read.  Yes, a group of academic editors thought my writing was clear and my ideas fresh and worth disseminating.  And the acceptance indicated that they believed I communicated in an intelligent and scholarly manner, no need for a re-write.  It was the worst of times followed by the best of times. 

So how do I reconcile these two scenarios?  It's pretty simple.  I am not perfect.  I will have successes and I will have failures in this life, and if I want to keep on learning and maturing as a human being, I must learn how to respond well to both.  I have done a fair bit of research and writing on certain aspects of theology (like the article I submitted), but the work I am doing now is new to me and as a result, the exact topic of my research is still a bit elusive.  This means that I am less clear than I should be in how I present it.  Though I have done some solid work in the past, I am once again swimming in deep waters.  I tend to get discouraged.  I sometimes panic.  But in truth, I really have no reason to do either.  I am still swimming; as long as I keep moving my arms and kicking my legs, I will go forward, even if it is not always pretty.

This week I also read a chapter of Eugene Peterson's book, The Way of Jesus, that deals with perfectionism (very common among graduate students). He writes:  "Perfection is not an option.  It is a seduction.  It is the devil's offer to avoid dealing with sin by various sleight-of-hand verbal and behavioural strategies." (p. 100)  In other words, those of us who struggle with perfectionism are prone to believe that we can erase our shortcomings (sin) by performing at a high level, by becoming spiritually or intellectually or physically or financially elite.  By crossing every 't' and dotting every 'i' until no one can find fault in what we do.  But it is not our high quality of work that endears us to God.  And it is not our accomplishments that make us a pleasure to live with.  And it is not our ability to stick to a regiment that builds a healthy community.  It is the love of God that makes us lovable.  And it is cultivating my ability to receive and give love that constitutes a life well-lived, not my great achievements.

When I can love and appreciate the person who criticizes my work, when I refuse to hide my mistakes or be my worst critic, when I stop feeling the need to defend myself, then I am starting to climb out of the prison of perfectionism into the wide open world of God's grace.  

Saturday, October 06, 2012

the stories we are part of...

House on the Isle of Iona, Scotland
I have been writing a play for the past month.  It is part of my studies that are focused on how we tell our stories.  You'd think that writing a play would be pretty simple.  Come up with two interesting characters.  Put them in a dramatic situation.  Slap down a few pages of dialogue as they work it out.  Reveal a few things about their past that makes the audience go "Ohhhhhhhh" and wrap it up nicely with the protagonist having an epiphany.  Pretty standard stuff.  Not so fast.

Characters are living things.  Even fictional ones.  And they resist one's attempts to box them in or predict where they will go.  The main character in my play is an older priest.  I am taking a bit of license with the role, but in general he is a faithful, well-respected, and honest man.  Or so I thought.  Before I had finished the first page he was exhibiting a tendency towards profanity, a lack of self-control, undercurrents of violence, and some obsessive compulsive behaviour.  Huh?  What happened to my straight-forward good guy having a bit of a mid-life crisis?  What was going on?  I just wanted him to face his humanity for a scene or two, but this guy was going overboard!  That's what characters do.  They surprise you with their depth and all the different layers of their personalities.  If you let them, they will show you things you never dreamed could lie beneath such benign exteriors.  As a writer, you will soon notice that your characters will inevitably show you something about yourself and reveal what is important to you.  And they seem to  have fewer problems baring their souls than we do.  That is the role of characters in stories, after all.  They let others see what is going on inside them so that the audience can wrestle with the implications. 

One of the most effective and simple forms of real-life storytelling is a format adopted by Playback Theatre which was founded in the 70s.  In a performance someone in the audience tells a moment or story from their life, and then actors use improvisation and various theatrical techniques to bring the story to life.  It has been used in schools, in the aftermath of a hurricane, in racial reconciliation events, in prisons, in immigrant and refugee organisations, and in workplace training. One of my favourite stories is from a hospital where a young child on the cancer ward was afraid to talk about his fears regarding his illness.  The playback performers asked if he would like to have his story told and he agreed.  It gave everyone present a chance to see and hear things he found difficult to articulate.

Stories are also meant to be mirrors.  They can show us who we are, provide us with much-needed perspective, offer clarity, validate our experience, help us own our mistakes, allow us to laugh at our mis-steps, bring issues to light, or help us face painful experiences we might have buried.  Narrative is a powerful tool indeed.  One of the mistakes I believe we often make as followers of Jesus is to forget that the Bible is basically a narrative, not a how-to manual or a doctrinal document.  Here we find the stories of people like us or people we know, but mostly, we find the story of God.  A God who is a Father, living and active in the world, a God who creates, loves, is wise, and has the ability to redeem and remake.  This book is meant to grip us in its story so that, as N.T. Wright says, we might read it and realize that this story can be our story too.

I recently began teaching a series on "How to Listen to the Bible" and a few weeks ago I offered some starting points to help us stop reducing scriptural stories to moral instructions or treating the Bible like a celestial information centre.  Instead, let us engage with these earthy, dynamic, complex stories by entering into them.  That's what good stories do:  they draw us into their world.

Here are the starting points:
1.  Pay attention to the Bible. (Not as easy as it sounds. For anyone who has lived with a person or done a job for a number of years, you know that over time we start to pay less attention to what's going on and instead start to assume things.)
2.  Do not sit in judgment over the Bible.  (Authority does not reside with us, ultimately.)
3. Don't come with a preconceived notion of what a particular story or passage has to mean. (Even though we have read it many times before or heard someone knowledgeable teach on it.)
4.  Let God speak truths new to us through the Bible. (There is always something God can show us that we haven't seen yet.)
5.  Be willing to live with texts that don't make sense to us and be uncomfortable with them, for years if necessary. (It's hard, but necessary, not to try to make things make sense before we receive revelation. It's okay to say "I don't know.")
6.  Do not impose one view on a section, never letting that be enlarged, informed or changed. (There are multi-faceted implications to every story.)
7.  Let the Spirit brood over us as we read this book. (I often ask Jesus to sit with me and explain things while I read the Bible.)
8.  Read with a sense of scripture as a whole, reading stories as a whole. (For example, only by reading Exodus as a whole, N. T. Wright observes, do we realize "the awful irony whereby the making of the golden calf is a parody of what God wanted the people to do with their gold and jewels.")
9.  Keep in mind the purpose of the Bible:  to glorify the Creator and heal creation. (If we don't see these points in a story, we are probably missing the point.)
10.  People who engage with the Bible are people who should be being remade, judged, and remolded by the Spirit. (YES!)

Most of these points are adapted from N.T. Wright's article, "How Can the Bible be Authoritative?"  Vox Evangelica 21, 1991, 7-32.

Friday, September 28, 2012

using God

The only way to get this view is to take the ferry to the Isle of Mull.
I love books that start off with heartwarming observations on Christian spirituality and then, just when the warm fuzzies are getting really fuzzy, deliver a powerful punch to the gut.  We don't have enough of these books, in my opinion; we do have the Bible which is undoubtably punchy, but I am talking about writings from contemporary Christian thinkers.  And let me assure you that I am speaking figuratively here and not encouraging anyone to take up boxing.  I am also not talking about gut-punching just for shock value or to be provocative or to make sure the point is not forgotten.  I am referring to the ability to speak the truth plainly and simply and make no excuses for it.  I am talking about being able to clear away the rubble of our 21st century thinking so that truth can do exactly what it is meant to do: get to the heart of matter.  Here is one example of just that.

I am currently reading Eugene Peterson's book, The Jesus Way. In it he explains what it means when Jesus says, "I am the way..."  Though Jesus is definitely the means by which we have access to and relationship with the Father, the metaphor goes much further than that.  Peterson starts by observing that our world is good at getting things done in a way that is mostly impersonal (systems, techniques, guidelines, programs, organizations, etc) and we are prone to transfer this to how we follow Jesus.  This is counterproductive because the means by which we follow Jesus often threaten to sabotage the message we bring of Jesus.  Let me give one of Peterson's examples.

He interprets the temptations of Jesus as a necessary and primary event in Jesus' ministry because it served to clarify "how" Jesus would do his work as Messiah.  The three temptations did not involve the "what" or purpose of his work, but the "how."  He explains them in a way that relates to contemporary followers of Jesus.

The first temptation (turning stones into bread because he was hungry) is a temptation to use God's power to fulfill needs.  Not that feeding hungry folks, including ourselves, is not a good thing to do, but the important word here is use.  "It is the temptation to deal with myself and others first and foremost as consumers" (31).  It is a temptation to use Jesus, to reduce Jesus to someone who fills needs.  He is the ultimate customer service agent, if you will.  This orientation towards need becomes impersonal very fast, and the very purpose of Jesus' life on earth was to reveal the personal, intimate involvement of God in this world.  I always cringe when someone says "God used me" because many times it reflects this attitude of consumerism.  We are not tools in God's belt; we are sons and daughters in the family of God.  In the course of following Jesus we will no doubt find ourselves responding to many needs, but this is not our goal.  The goal must always remain this:  to love God and love our neighbour.

The second temptation (jump off the roof of the temple and be saved by angels) is the temptation to dazzle people with a show, to chase the rush that we feel in worship, to make miracles the main attraction.  In other words, we can become bored with just following Jesus, loving, suffering, and serving as we go.  We are a people who are used to being entertained, and we can translate this into a belief that Jesus needs to provide a diversion, something that will attract us and keep us and others coming back for more. It is an addiction to spectacle.  "The temptation is to reduce Jesus to escapism and thrills: an impersonal rescue, an irresponsible diversion, a manipulative reprieve from the ordinary" (32).  However, following Jesus is not a "sequence of exceptions to the ordinary," Peterson says. It is living fully and deeply in the place we find ourselves (33).

The third temptation (rule the world and bow down to the devil) is the temptation to use God to impose a just, peaceful, and prosperous government.  In effect, we are tempted to sacrifice freedom so that we can have a well-run society.  People are reduced to a function (do right, support what is right) to build a utopian community.  Ultimately, those who do not comply to our interpretation of a righteous society must be sacrificed for the good of the organization.  "War has always been the classic way of choice to impose our idea of what is good on the people we don't like or disapprove of.  It still is" (34).  The God whom Jesus reveals does not impose his government on the world.  The mistakes and abuses throughout history are evidence of this.  Much to our disappointment, people have always been free to make their own choices, even when they do not align with our morality.  But love is not impersonal, love does not impose its will on another, and love cannot be legislated.

I see myself in all of these temptations:  I have given to the poor and then felt I was a pretty good Christian for filling that need or participating in that project.  I have chased after supernatural experiences as a way of affirming that God loves me and because it was pretty thrilling.  I have tried to impose my will on others because I believed I knew what they should be doing.  None of it was love.  None of it was personal.  I was a consumer, using God for my own benefit.  I have to fight every day not to be a user, not to sink into the endless void of chasing entertainment, not to enforce my version of "right" on those around me.   Love is more beautiful and mysterious and stronger than all that.  And freedom is precious.  Jesus is the way of love and freedom.

A few more quotes from The Jesus Way by Eugene Peterson (Eerdmans, 2007).:

"A technologized world knows how to make things, knows how to get places, but is not conspicuous for living well" (28).

"To follow Jesus means that we can't separate what Jesus is saying from what Jesus is doing and the way he is doing it" (22).

Friday, September 21, 2012

unoriginal

Watching the waves at Lunan Bay, Scotland.  Each one slightly different.
This past week I had to pitch an idea for a play to my fellow writers in a Playwriting class.  It was a bit scary because all of us were putting something out there that was not fully formed, and though we were excited about it, we didn't really know if anyone else would be.  And if no one is interested to see the story or meet the characters...that's a pretty bad sign for a play.  As I was waiting to do my pitch, I got to listen to a lot of other play ideas, most of which were pretty good and some which were quite outstanding, to be honest.  One of them in particular caught my attention: it was a scenario presented by a young guy who had chosen two characters almost exactly like mine and a situation that was very similar to the one that I had typed on a paper and stuffed in my notebook.  I am pretty sure I turned a shade whiter as he described his protagonist/antagonist and the storyline. 

When it came to my turn, I made light of the fact that my ideas were so similar to my colleague's and assured everyone that we had not been sharing brains.  The teacher graciously indicated that people often write about similar topics or situations and not to be discouraged about this; nothing is really new, she said, but no one will write the play that you write.  That helped...a bit.  My presentation was well-received (people seemed interested to see it fleshed out) so I was happy about that.  But at some point that afternoon I did think that I was one of the most unoriginal people on the planet.  Could I really not come up with something unique? Or original?

I was reading a book a few days ago which uses the model of improvisation to talk about ethics.  One of the ideas that made me sit up and take note was regarding the notion of being original.  The author suggests that being original is not the point in improvisation; the goal is to be obvious.  Hmmmm.  In fact, he goes so far as to say that we are in dangerous territory when we have "being original" as our goal.  I have read this in books on playwriting as well, that writers who try to be original usually write bad plays because they tend to sacrifice too many elements that have been proven to be helpful and important to storytelling.

Anyway, back to the book.  A claim that Samuel Wells makes is that even original sin is not original.  (By the way, original sin is a concept that Irenaeus developed in the 2nd century and Augustine built upon so it is technically not a biblical idea.)  Basically, what Wells is saying is that when we try to be original we attempt to place ourselves in the first act (creation) or in the final act (eschaton) when only God rightly occupies these places.  He suggests that instead of pursuing the idea of being "original" we should go for "obvious."  He defines obvious as "trusting that God will do what only God can do."  Part of me is annoyed that Wells is trying to take my originality and creativity away from me, but a larger part agrees with him and is actually relieved.  You have no idea how much pressure a creative person feels to always come up with something new and exciting.  And how much we believe that for the most part, we fail at this.  Or perhaps you know this very well.

Yes, we can be very creative creatures, but nothing we come up with is totally new; it is always based on something we saw or heard or observed or experienced or read and the best we can do is put our own twist on it or come up with another version or combine it with something else or package it differently.  In the case of sin, I would venture to say that it is our attempt to improve on the freedom which God gifts to us, and which is really no improvement at all.

A perfect example of the difference between trying to be original and being obvious is the Hans Christian Andersen story called The Emperor's New Clothes.  An Emperor, bored by everything, hires two weavers who promise to deliver a suit of clothes which will be invisible to those who are stupid and not suited for their station.  When the suit of clothes is delivered, the Emperor is too embarrassed to admit he cannot see it and so, it seems, is everyone else.  It takes a child to state the obvious and uncover the scam.  Chasing after originality can lead one down some slippery slopes. 

One of the most important things I have learned over time is that the things which are obvious to me are not obvious to everyone. For this very reason, I need to bring my "obvious" to the equation and offer it for the consideration of others.  So, I don't need to write a play about a never-before-thought-of situation; I only need to write a good story that states the obvious.  Obvious things like "love is stronger than hate" or "forgiveness is harder than we think but easier too" or "you don't have to be perfect to be a good friend" or "everyone feels lonely sometimes."  The play I am writing seems really obvious to me, but that is because it is something I have experienced.  And no one will be able to tell the story exactly like I do.  You might call it truth-telling or honesty.  And if people can recognise that aspect in my work and in my life, then I have done well.  Even if I am not original.

The book: Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics by Samuel Wells (Baker Publishing, 2004).

Monday, September 17, 2012

happy ending

Ethie Castle, Scotland (colour enhanced)
I watched  a rather disturbing documentary this past weekend about a Canadian woman who climbed Mount Everest and died on the way down.  An untimely death is always sad, but I found this one particularly so.  A number of circumstances factored into the incident, especially the crowded conditions (150 climbers trying to get up the final approach in a small window of good weather), but according to the report, she died in large part because she was unprepared and unknowledgeable.  She relied more on her determination and positive attitude than on training for the ordeal.  Sources claimed that she insisted on going up against the advice of her guide who considered her inexperience a danger to herself and others.  Basically, she spent all her energy and oxygen climbing to the summit and had nothing left for the descent.

Before I judge her too harshly for lacking common sense, I must remind myself that I am very much an "in the moment" person and don't always think things through before embarking on a course of action.  I can get caught up in the excitement of something as simple as going out with a friend and be halfway out the door before I realise that I don't have money in my wallet and I should probably bring a jacket because it is cold outside!  The consequences of being under-dressed are nowhere near that of a life or death situation like climbing a mountain, but the attitude is much the same.

This attitude is one that we all exhibit every time we artificially inflate the value of a certain milestone without considering the hard work that must follow (and many times precede) it.  For example, though most people consider getting married to be a major achievement in their life, some give very little thought to what happens in the days and months and years and decades after the ceremony.  They might spend thousands of dollars and countless hours preparing for a single day of celebration and very little time cultivating the interpersonal skills and generous humility necessary for a life lived together with another human being.  Some want to land that dream job or earn a graduate degree or buy that perfect house.  But if these milestones are seen as ultimate goals instead of stepping stones that are part of a much larger journey, we can find ourselves in disastrous predicaments.  This "happy ending" delusion can cause us to neglect vital preparations for the future because we get so focused on one splashy event.  (I am referring here to the artificial happy ending that many fiction stories and movies close with where the guy finally gets the girl or the girl marries the guy and we are left to conclude that this is the pinnacle of achievement and nothing of much consequence happens after that.)

Jesus talks about the danger of substituting momentary excitement for proper preparation.  He cautions those who would follow him from making a hasty decision without counting the cost of finishing what they started (Luke 14:25-32) and he offers this proverb:  "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God" (Luke 9: 62).  He also chides those foolish young women who neglected to take extra lamp oil with them while waiting for the bridegroom to arrive.  The assessment might seem a bit harsh, but their lack of preparation caused them to miss the whole celebration (Matt. 25).  Some situations where we jump in ill-prepared have weighty consequences, especially when others are involved.

For the past few days I have been asking myself questions about how well I am preparing myself for what lies ahead along the path of following Jesus.  Do I practice love and generosity every day? Am I quick to turn around when I make a wrong turn? Do I listen well to the advice of wise counsellors?  Am I cultivating stability and peace to help me stay on track?  Am I building up stamina and grace for long-term commitments?  Am I increasing my flexibility so that I react appropriately and lovingly to unexpected situations?  Am I making sacrifice and worship familiar habits so that I feel at home in humility?   With God's grace, I am trying, yes.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

learning to learn


The school term has started with a bang.  I am armpit-deep in scripts, playwriting texts, performance theory, and theology basics.  I am taking courses in the theatre department this semester and it is humbling and stimulating at the same time: humbling because I am pretty much the most theatrically-illiterate person in all my classes and stimulating because theatre (which is basically showing instead of telling) is inherently incarnational. 

I read Shakespeare's Hamlet yesterday; it is quite a different experience to see a character act out revenge than to read a philosophical, psychological, or theological exposition on the desire for justice through retribution.  When I see something "in the flesh," I seem to comprehend it at a much deeper level and to more complex and nuanced degree.  It gets inside me, to some extent, if I let it.  As Hamlet indicates, a play has the potential to capture our consciences, to prick our hearts, and to show us things that reason simply cannot. 

Yesterday I met with one of my classmates from the playwriting course to prepare a short presentation for this week's class.  Our discussion wandered through many topics including a question that has been on my mind for many years now and is coming up again in my studies:  how does one pass on wisdom, values, perspective, knowledge, and insight from one person to the next without coercion?  In other words, how do we make real disciples?  There are a few methods that are used to facilitate this transfer:  formal education (schools), apprenticeship (working with a master of the craft), internship (learning by working in the field), formation and modeling (parenting and mentoring), and self-instruction (through practice, research, or exposure to a subject).  This is not an exhaustive list, but it represents many of the ways we acquire knowledge, skills, and values. 

In the course of our discussion, my classmate mentioned that she practiced the Baha'i faith from 6 - 12 years of age.  We both acknowledged that beliefs we are taught when young can be very influential in our formation (my Christian heritage certainly was), but at some point, we all ask...Why am I doing this?  Do I go to a Sunday church meeting just because that is what my parents did?  Do I read the bible just because my pastor said it was important?  Do I sing worship songs just because that is the practice of my community?  To begin with, yes, but effective discipleship means that even when the teacher/mentor is no longer present, the students take up the mandate.  This is what Jesus modeled.  He taught, he showed, he explained, he answered questions, he called people to walk with and work with him, he challenged ways of thinking, and much much more.  Many followed him, but not many stuck with him.  Many were intrigued by his teachings, but not many lived them.  Many came for the miracles and the food, but not many could stomach the suffering.  But in the end, he had some faithful disciples that he trusted to carry on his work.

I am not Jesus and I can't just "do what Jesus did."  I have yet to develop the ability to turn a few loaves and fillets into a meal for thousands.  Just as there is no simple formula for being a great artist, there is no 5-step plan for living a creative and holy life.  I do, however, have the spirit of God to guide me, the stories in the scriptures to show me what it looks like to belong to God, and an encouraging community of saints (those who have chosen to follow the Holy One) which together provide everything I need in order to develop into a whole and holy person. 

I guess what I am learning right now is that I am always a follower, always learning how to be a disciple.  And this is perhaps the best qualification for teaching others:  to be taught every day by the Master Teacher.

the photo:  A bench at the nunnery in St. Andrews.  One can sit in the same place where others learned and practiced devotion to Jesus centuries ago.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Scotland day 8 (end of trip)

Edinburgh Castle
We drove into Edinburgh just before noon on Saturday, parked near the airport and caught a bus downtown.  We had been told that navigating and parking can be troublesome in UK cities, especially in summer, so we opted for finding our way into the city via the top deck of a double-decker bus.  We stepped off near Edinburgh Castle and were immediately surrounded by a large park, bustling shops, throngs of tourists, and Starbucks.

High Street in Edinburgh.  Dean is on the sidewalk.
After gawking at Edinburgh Castle for awhile, we sauntered around the park, slowed down to listen at a music stage, then headed up the hill to High Street.  It really is high, you know.  The first thing we encountered once we reached High Street was (you guessed it) a bagpiper, this time with a drummer.  A really funky combination!  We spent the afternoon walking from Edinburgh Castle (we didn't have time to go in, but we saw the police dogs sniffing around the stands for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo which were situated right in front of the castle and that was pretty thrilling for us).  We sauntered all the way down High Street until we reached Holyrood Castle, which is the Queen's residence when she visits.  Along the way we looked in some shops (whiskey, tartans, and wool and cashmere scarves for sale everywhere), stopped briefly at the house of reformer John Knox, and I met a friend from the conference in St. Andrews and we chatted for a bit while Dean snapped pictures.


House of John Knox.  I'd like to have that phrase carved above my door, too.
Because the Edinburgh Fringe Festival was on, the streets were packed with street performers and people handing out invitations to their shows.  We wished we would have had a few more days to take in a few of the performances, but because we only had a week in Scotland, we had to run around at a fairly rapid pace.  After picking up some of the Queen's shortbread, we headed to the park to hike up to Arthur's Seat.  Dean took one look at the hill and thought I was trying to kill him.  A slow death, I replied.

We never really saw a map of the paths up the hill, so instead of taking the east path to Arthur's Seat, we ended up on the west path up the Salisbury Crags which are right beside Arthur's Seat.  Pretty stunning, nonetheless.  The views of Edinburgh were amazing, it being another clear and sunny day in Scotland!  I rewarded myself with an ice cream cone at the bottom of the hill and then we hopped on a bus back to our car and headed back to Glasgow for our last night in Scotland.


Climbing Salisbury Crags
When we got to our hotel, we were in for a surprise.  Due to a glitch in their booking system, the hotel was flooded with reservations and had no room for us.  However, they generously offered to put us in a taxi which would take us to a downtown hotel which had room (no extra expense to us).  Okay.  We hopped in the taxi and within 15 minutes were at Hotel Indigo in downtown Glasgow with glowing fuschia lights and decor.  Everyone we encountered whispered to us, "It's a much nicer hotel," and it was.  The room was twice as big, the decor stunning, and items in the stocked mini bar were free for the taking!  I just stood and stared at the shower for a minute when I saw it.  I want one like that, please.  We walked down the street to Tesco (grocery store) and spent most of our last British pounds on a light supper which we enjoyed in our luxurious room.


Dean talking to someone in Hotel Indigo, Glasgow
The next morning we drove to Glasgow airport, returned our rental car, and after another romantic meal in an airport, hopped on the plane and flew back to Toronto.  We had a bit of a delay in getting out of Toronto because I could not find our parking ticket to pick up our car, but a nice customer service guy came to sort it out for us and we were soon on our way.  I found the ticket the day after we got home, of course!  We pulled up to our door around 2:30 am on Monday.  I drove most of the way from Toronto to Montreal fuelled by Diet Dr. Pepper and cappuccino because Dean had to work that day.  Jazz met us at the door, eager to sniff our clothes and inspect our luggage, wondering why everything smelled like dogs.  I meant to explain to her that everyone in Scotland has a dog, but I fell asleep.

And thus ends the tale of our adventure in Scotland.  It was more beautiful than I had imagined, had a greater impact on both of us than we expected, and the untamed nature of the land and the down to earth generosity of the people were a constant source of inspiration.  Like I mentioned in another post, I believe the beauty of the place had a rather profound impact on me. Though we were physically tired when we returned, I felt refreshed, like I had drunk from a well that had access to very deep, cool, springs.  Thank you, Scotland, for giving us such riches.


Into the taxi and on our way home