Thursday, February 16, 2012

the Golden Girl and the Bear

Gold has always been the precious metal of kings and merchants. And for some mysterious reason known only to God, this rare commodity was bestowed on a young girl born in a small village in Greece. However, it was not the pliable metal itself that she was gifted with. No, she did not exit the womb with shiny bracelets on her arms and glowing rings on her fingers. Instead, she entered the humble home of Adonis and Melina Xrisomallousa with a unique halo of hair – hair of such luminosity that some said it made the sun look dim. The elder-women attending the birth even said they heard a sound like angels singing when the head crowned.

The golden girl (as she came to be known) grew up as a favored child in the community, and for good reason. Dreary, rainy, unprofitable days at the market inexplicably became filled with laughter and joy when she toddled down the narrow streets. Every plain and ugly woman felt strangely beautiful when the young child entered the room. Men, young and old, stopped curse-words in their mouths, forgot what they had been arguing about, and spontaneously wrapped arms around fellow workers or playmates when she looked their way. It was a blessed time in the tiny Greek village.

But as she matured, it soon became apparent that all was not well with the golden girl. The golden hair was a special gift, certainly, but the gift had not been accompanied with a ready-made humble heart. All the attention that her blessed, shining head garnered had brought a small measure of prosperity to the Xrisomallousa family, the result of a grateful village giving out of what little they had. The young girl quickly became accustomed to the improvement in her family’s station, and developed a healthy appetite for the finer things in life. Before long, the girl would eat nothing but the richest of foods, and the day came when she insisted that her bedroom at the back of the house was too dark, not at all appropriate for a child of light. Her devoted parents, though uncomfortable with the child’s increasing demands, felt they had no choice but to give up their own sleeping quarters to the golden girl.

This burgeoning of pride did not go unnoticed. The elders in the village began to see the spoiled, demanding child as a curse instead of a blessing. The wise women, the ones who had heard the angels singing at her birth, shook their heads and clucked their tongues every time the golden child walked by, fearful of what terrible trial might be ahead for the gifted one. They did not have long to wait. One day the girl, bored with the sleepy village (for the universe seemed cramped to her), wandered into the forest much deeper than she had ever ventured before. It was not long before she lost her way. The forest, which was so familiar to her, suddenly became a strange and scary place. However, she soon convinced herself that there was no possible danger – she was a golden child, after all. She walked and walked for what seemed to be hours until she came upon a little, well-kept house. She skipped up the walkway to the front door and confidently knocked three times, thinking, “I’m sure whoever lives here will help me find my way back.”

When no one answered, she let herself in. There she found three pieces of furniture. One was a large chair. The second was a table on which sat a bowl of lentil stew, and the third was a modest bed in the corner. The golden girl tried the chair first, but she found it hard and much too rigid for her liking. “Hmm, I haven’t eaten since morning,” she thought, and made her way to the table. She tested a spoonful of the steaming stew, but spat it out quickly, for it had burned her tongue. By this time she was overcome with fatigue from her journey and crawled into the bed in the corner. In no time at all, she was fast asleep.

Nearby, the occupant of the little house in the woods was picking fruit. He put both arms around the tree above his head and drew it down as gently as a lover, bringing the choke cherries to his lips as if to kiss them good-bye. Then he let the tree snap back upright in the sky. Slowly he made his way back to the house, tree by tree, the uncaged progress of the truly free.

Upon entering his home, he was surprised to find the golden girl asleep in his bed. Unwilling to disturb her, he sat back on his fundamental butt, lifted his snout and shut his eyes (for he was a great big bear). The girl awakened then and with a fright, realised that she was an intruder in the giant creature’s house. Seeing that the bear’s eyes were closed, looking almost religious, she slipped from the bed and began to tiptoe towards the door. Just as she crept in front of his great chair, the bear opened his eyes. The girl gave a little shriek as a massive paw came towards her. “Someone has been sleeping in my bed,” he growled and wrapped both paws around her small frame.

“Please don’t be angry with me,” the golden girl pleaded. I was lost in the woods and very tired when I came upon your house."

“And you ate my food and sat on my chair, too,” the bear continued, seeming to know more than he should.

“And you entered uninvited, might I add.” The embrace of the bear tightened as he spoke.

“I knocked first,” the girl said, thinking it was a reasonable excuse, “but you didn’t answer.”

“Ah, yes,” the bear nodded. “I have often knocked at doors myself, but I do not enter until bidden.”

The girl thought the bear a bit na├»ve and possibly too kind. Because of this, she thought it would be easy to strike a bargain with him. “I see that you are a kind and polite bear, so you will not be offended if I insist on taking my leave of you now. I will have my father bring you a basket of fresh bread to repay you for any inconvenience I might have caused.” She struggled against the furry arms, but found no room for movement.

“You are right. I am indeed kind,” said the bear, “but I am also unyielding if the situation calls for it. Since you are keen to make a bargain, I will offer you one that is substantially more profitable, but it will cost you more than bread. In exchange for your freedom, I will accept your golden hair.”

As he said this, the bear stroked her head with his unsheathed claws. The girl shuddered at the gesture, for she believed that her hair was what made her special. She thought, “I can never part with my most prized possession. Without it, I would be like any other child in the poor village – without advantage.” She could not imagine life without her glorious halo.

“You ask for too much,” she replied angrily. “It is unfair.”

“It is the price I have set,” the bear affirmed. The golden girl pushed out her bottom lip in a pout and was silent. After a few moments, she felt the bear’s grip loosen slightly, and she suspected the creature’s resolve was waning.

She smiled and lifted her haughty chin towards him. “Come, I will have my father add a wheel of aged cheese and a flask of fine wine when he brings the basket of fresh bread. That should settle things between us, yes?” The bear made no response. “And I promise never to enter your house or bother you again. I can give you no more. Are we done?”

To the girl’s surprise, a giant tear began to slide down the great bear’s face. “No, my dear child, we are far from done. You see, my home is always open to wanderers, seekers, and those who are lost. In it they find refreshment, rest, and a hearty meal. And to the brave and humble, I also offer my company. But to those who are blinded by pride, they find only an uncomfortable chair, food that stings their palate, and a frightful beast. There is a way for you to enjoy my hospitality and see my true identity, but you must let go of your golden crown. It has become a hindrance to you and to others. If I let you return home unchanged, your village will begin to suffer greatly because of your selfishness. But if you give up your gift, you will gain something much more valuable. What will you do?”

As the girl listened, it was as if her ears were opened. She nodded ever so slightly and bowed her golden head.

This is a story I wrote (incorporating elements of text from 2 other sources) for a Theology class exercise.

the photo:  a flower in my neighbourhood this summer

Monday, February 13, 2012

my "go-to" places

On Wednesday nights, I get together with a bunch of fine people who are interested in helping each other in our individual and collective spiritual journeys.  The trip there usually goes something like this:

I catch the 6:31 bus.  I play with my iPhone on the 7 minute ride to the metro station: maybe update my status, maybe just check out what's happening with my friends.  Then I say merci to the bus driver as I exit, go down 2 escalators, and grab a seat on the train - hopefully my favourite seat at the end of the car.  I pull out a fun book to read and enjoy 30 minutes of blessed riding and reading without worrying about traffic or driving or parking.  I exit the train at the appropriate station and begin the 15 minute walk to my friend's apartment where we are meeting.  On the way there, I stop in at a wee independent grocery store which carries unique organic products and pick up a ginger green tea and some chips or fruit to share.  I arrive at the apartment after a nice, brisk walk, ready to discuss the evening's topic.

Last week, we moved to a new location.  That meant I couldn't just auto-pilot my way to the gathering, so it looked kind of like this:

I caught the 6:31 bus.  I played with my iPhone for a bit, updated my status, then took in the unique personalities around me.  I thanked the bus driver, scuttled down the 2 escalators, and hopped on the metro car - yes! got my favourite seat.  I started reading a new book - not any heavy theology, just some anecdotes about being human and sincerely following God.  It also happened to be on the same topic as the discussion planned for the evening.  Cool!  I didn't get much reading in because I had to change trains after a few stops (new location means new transit route).  I exited at the appropriate station, 25 minutes to spare before the meeting started.  I checked my location on the iPhone and determined which direction to my destination.  I really wanted a ginger green tea like I usually get on Wednesdays, so I stopped in at 2 different convenience stores, but no success.  I arrived at the meeting location, still 10 minutes early, and headed on down the street.  I entered another small store:  the shelves were somewhat bare and an older gentleman was eating pizza out of a cardboard box as he stood behind the counter.  No go.  Time was running out, and I still had no drink and no snacks to share.  I decided to walk another block where I had spotted a pharmacy which I hoped had a better selection of snacks.  Just before I reached the pharmacy, I walked past a small grocery store with fresh fruit displayed outside and a wall of milk alternatives just inside the door.  Oooooohhhh!  I went inside and wedged myself down a narrow aisle which displayed all manner of bulk foods until I found the drink cooler.  Yes, they had the brand of tea I liked, but I did not see the right flavour!  Argh!  I thrust my hand into the cooler and moved a few things around:  behind a few yellow bottles I finally found a ginger green tea!  I grabbed a bag of organic chips on the way to the counter and was all set for the meeting.  Success!

Changing locations or schedules or jobs or eating habits means that I can't rely on my usual "go-to" places.  It can be uncomfortable, disorienting, time-consuming, and sometimes, a bit scary.  I don't think we realize how many habits we incorporate into our daily and weekly and even annual routines which serve to give us some sense of comfort and security.  Whether the habit is a useful and good one (working out) or a not-so-good one (5 cups of coffee a day), they are all pretty difficult to change.  A few of my friends have done or are doing a cleanse which severely restricts their diets.  These types of regimens usually prove to be quite uncomfortable and invariably challenge the person doing them not only to embrace a temporary new discipline, but to address some of the reasons why they eat what they do.  Very often in our Western culture, our eating seems to be more attached to our internal, emotional well-being instead of our physical well-being.  Changing that dynamic is no easy feat.

Our faith community changes locations fairly often, mostly out of necessity (our present location is probably short-lived as well).  It seems counter-intuitive in some ways, but it is good for us because it reminds us that our faith is not linked to a locale.  I was reading 1 Chronicles 17 a few days ago.  David is looking at his luxurious surroundings, sees the Chest of the Covenant of God in a tent, and decides that God needs a luxurious house as well.  While I admire David's generous intent, I believe he (and most of us) assumed that God wanted a house, a permanent home, a "go-to" place.  But God replies:  "Why, I haven't lived in a 'house' from the time I brought up the children of Israel from Egypt till now; I've gone from one tent and makeshift shelter to another.  In all my travels with Israel, did I ever say to any of the leaders I commanded to shepherd Israel, 'Why haven't you built me a house of cedar?;" (The Message)

God doesn't want or need a permanent physical building or house.  Instead, he offers to build David a 'house', meaning a lineage which would carry on worshiping God.  And that's what Jesus requested of his disciples as well:  people who would follow in his ways and do even greater things. God does not seem all that interested in getting some good "go-to" places where we can all settle into a comfortable faith routine.  He seems to like makeshift shelters where people come and go and where the focus remains on the one important thing: the covenant between the Creator and the created; everything else remains somewhat flexible, movable, and temporary.  And yet, we insist on building our version of stability into our lives through housing, habits, job security, favourite restaurants, 5-year plans, and annual vacation spots.  What are we really building?  What is left when my "go-to" places are taken from me?

Let God be the one I go to for stability and comfort.  Period.

the photo:  the train station in Washington DC.  A place I went to a year ago, but didn't stay for long.

Sunday, February 05, 2012


I awoke at 7:41 am this past Saturday morning in order to attend a morning lecture on the subject of understanding incorporating the works of theologian Bernard Lonergan and philosopher Paul Ricoeur.  Though I arrived with pretty low expectations and a medium chai latte, the morning proved to be a provocative one.  I am going to be processing all that was brought up in the lecture/discussion for quite some time.  Let me just mention one thing here:  in the melange of Dr. James Pambrun's remarks about encounter, cognitional operations, epistemology, the multiplicity of symbols, and narrative, he lobbed in a few short sentences about bias.

Basically, he suggested that while bias can be one of the obstacles that keeps us from being open, from learning, and from maturing, it can also be a good thing.  A good bias orients us toward something to such a degree that we become committed to it, are more receptive to it, and give a great deal of attention to it.  In some way, this leaning into something (or someone) makes us belong to each other.

This week Dean and I have been talking about orientation quite a bit.  Where are we looking?  How are we positioning ourselves?  What are we really trying to accomplish here?  It is becoming clearer to me that often my goals are too small.  I am task-oriented (forgive me).  This means that I can put a lot of energy into accomplishing a challenging task, but be left with very little to show for it in the grand scheme of things.  And by grand scheme I mean noble goals such as developing and sharing important life skills, growing in maturity, and demonstrating godly character (love, patience, forgiveness, all that easy stuff).  

I am teaching a course in Christian Spirituality this term.  I love it because I love the subject (and the students are pretty cool, too).  During the course of the term, we are taking a brief look at 32 different figures throughout history in order to observe what Christian Spirituality (life by the Spirit) looks like.  Fascinating stuff.  The goal of the course is for students to develop an informed understanding of Christian Spirituality and be able to identify the values behind certain traditions.  The goal is not for them to have a good time in class, not to think I am a cool teacher, not for them to get good grades, not even for me to come up with 13 awesome powerpoint presentations that mesmerise and astound.  I could do all those things, but if the students have not come away with a good understanding of Christian Spirituality, then I have failed.  I have become dis-oriented from my goal.  I am not teaching; I am simply doing a few small tasks well, like making awesome powerpoint presentations.

Decisions are very much about orientation.  Dean and I just planned a vacation.  At first, my goal was to get away to a nice beach somewhere and not pay a lot of money for the privilege.  But I realised that this goal was inadequate.  It was not really about finding the best beach resort or the best deal or even getting a tan and drinking pina coladas.  The goal (in the grand scheme of things) was for us to have a rest, a time for re-connection, a time to not only play, but to open ourselves more fully to God and to each other through a change of pace and letting go of burdens.  We wanted to be healthier people in mind, body and spirit when we were done.  Where we went became rather immaterial when I realized that, and the vacation plans fell into place very quickly because we were now looking at options that we would not have considered otherwise.

My bias still needs some work.  Lately, I have been too biased toward doing the job right and getting the behaviour right.  That's basically working to rule (a tactict to get someone to capitulate to your demands).  Not good.  Where I really want my bias to be is towards God's goodness and love.  Yes, let me lean into the love of God, and then let me lovingly lean outward.

the photo:  these trees on Mont Sourire are biased toward the sky.