Friday, May 25, 2012

the cracks are showing

Yesterday, I was talking to a friend and she introduced me to the French term "le non dit" which means that which is not said.  One of the theories in certain streams of medicine is that when we repress and internalise traumatic and painful situations, leaving them unspoken and undealt with, they eventually emerge and manifest themselves somehow in the body.  If we run with this theory, then various pains, diseases, and maladies might be related to the dis-ease and unhealthy state of our minds, souls, and relationships. I can testify to the fact that when I have been wronged or have wronged another person and there is tension in my relationships, my digestive tract is affected.

I watched a video this week where a musician was talking about the story behind one of his songs, The Lord is My Shepherd. He said this:

"I think one of the hardest questions I have had to answer for myself is 'What am I going to do with my pain?' because pain is just a reality of life.  I remember going through a really, really dark season. I was flying home from some event, and I was thinking of all the places that I have taken my pain, because I had only recently become aware of it.  And I'm like, oh, that season where I checked out in a television series for a week, yeah, that was probably where I was taking my pain. And I just said, 'Lord, I don't want to do that.  I want to find real healing.  I want to find real redemption in this, and I realise that the only place that I can find that is going to be in you.  And I want to take my pain, when I'm in pain and my heart's hurting, I want to wait on you.  I want to find you.'"   [1]

In our contemporary world, we have so many ways to avoid or "manage" our pain. One of the reasons that the first monastics retreated to the desert caves was in order to come face to face with their demons and temptations, not hiding from their broken humanity.  They recognised that when they brought the place of their greatest need and deepest pain to God, his strong and loving spirit became manifest.  Their concern was not primarily for their physical well-being (which is a bit of an obsession in our current age).  Their desire was to be transparent and honest before their Creator, knowing that he was the only one who could rescue them from their pitiful state.

And perhaps this is the first step in healing:  to admit that we are pitiful, we are sick, we have maladies that we are not aware of, that things are not good.  Theologian John D. Caputo says:

"If we could admit how bad things are, that would be the beginning of something good, of a kind of radical honesty with ourselves. … To confess the wounded, fractured condition of our lives – that is who we are!  And that would be the beginning of wisdom in deconstruction, of something good.”[2]

Yes, let's get on the road to something good. 

the photo:  a cracked pot on my balcony that I tried to fix

[2] John D. Caputo, After the Death of God (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 128.

Friday, May 18, 2012

me of little faith

Today I got the news that my paper proposal was accepted at the Theatrical Theology conference being hosted by the University of St. Andrews in Scotland in August.  This means that I get to present my thoughts on divine drama to a group of esteemed scholars and fellow researchers.  Very good news.  I hope that Dean joins me for a working vacation to a beautiful and intriguing part of the world. 

Two days ago we attended the funeral of the man who first gave Dean a job when we moved to Montreal.  He died of brain cancer.  Very sad.  The man's father wept openly as he gave tribute to a kind and generous son. 

Life seems to be an uncomfortable mixture of joy and heartache these days.  While my life appears to be on an upward trajectory both professionally and personally, many of my friends and acquaintances are battling some form of cancer or health crisis.  I get updates and prayer requests several times a week; sometimes things are going well, other times there are disappointing setbacks.  Honestly, I don't know how to pray.  I sense their powerlessness and I feel mine as well. 

I don't want to live in false hope where I expect Jesus to drop everything he is doing, immediately respond to my requests, walk into every situation I present him with, and miraculously heal everyone I know and love, ensuring that we all live happily ever after, free from pain and sorrow.  That seems counter to the way I see God interacting with people in the scriptures.  In those writings, there is a mixture of suffering and healing, and no discernible pattern, at least not one that I have figured out.  It is not as simple as praying prayer A and then person B gets healed!  And it is not like pain is ever totally absent from our lives.

I know God loves wholeness.  I know he can heal.  I know he wants to rescue us all from our brokenness.  I know the good news is that we are not alone, abandoned to our own devices.  And yet, I don't seem to pray with much conviction these days.  I do ask for God to intervene.  I do ask for healing.  I always ask for people in horrible circumstances to know that God is with them and that his goodness surrounds them.  I ask for God's will to be done.  I ask for mercy.  I say, "Come, Jesus."  And then I throw up my hands, my words sounding so inadequate and droopy, and admit that I don't know, I just don't know.

At one point this week, I asked God if I was losing my faith.  The fact that I'm still talking to him regularly probably means the answer is No.  However, there seems to be a change in how I pray lately.  Lots of silence.  Meditating on simple truths.  Lots of sighing.  More silence.  A few questions or requests.  More silence. Adopting a position/attitude of surrender as best I can.  Silence again. Saying more words, then stopping mid-sentence, leaving many prayers incomplete.  Though my prayers don't feel very significant, they at least seem to be honest.

Where is my hope?  My hope is in you, God.  Not in miracles or reversals of fortune or comfortable circumstances or things turning out well.  My hope is that your love is big enough and long and thick enough to cover everything. And everyone.  My hope is that nothing is stronger than this love and that it will have its way, both now and in the times to come.

One of the words translated "hope" in the Hebrew bible is qavah.  It is also translated as "wait" or "trust" in different versions.  It comes from a root that means to bind together.  And this is how I would describe my experience of hope and prayer right now:  all I know how to do is bind myself to the Strong One.

the photo:  some flowers in my neighbourhood.  They remind me of Matthew 6 where Jesus talks about the careful attention God gives to flowers. "If my father cares this much for flowers which have a very short lifespan," Jesus asks, "how much more will he care for you?" And then he says: "oh you of little faith."  Yes, me of little faith.

Monday, May 14, 2012

end of semester thoughts

Phew! Another semester over and done with!  I just handed in my last essay this afternoon.  The topics I was dealing with this term were 1) Hans Urs von Balthasar and the role of the witness (audience participation) in God's drama and 2) Rembrandt's self-portraits as an illustration of Paul Ricoeur's idea of narrative identity.  Very interesting and perhaps I will write about them here at a later date.  This afternoon I am sitting at my desk, enjoying the breeze wafting in from the back balcony, drinking a cup of tea I accidentally added 2 sugars to (oops, got distracted), doing the laundry, baking bread, and trying not to jump right into editing 3 more papers for presentation and publication. 

One of the most intriguing and thought-provoking books I read this semester (I always have one non-theology book on the go to read on the subway) was Fire Season by Philip Connors.  I picked it up at a book sale at the university store and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was not the drivel than often ends up, deservedly so, in the sale bin.  The book chronicles his 8th summer as a wilderness lookout in the remote Gila National Forest in New Mexico.  Five months of sitting in a tower during the day, keeping a watch for fires, then retreating to a small cabin at the base of the  7 x 7 foot tower for an evening with his dog and some books - more solitude, only at a lower altitude.  His particular tower requires a 5-mile hike-in, and aside from radioing in once a day, he spends most of his time without human contact.  Connors does get a few days off, 3 days every 2 weeks, if I remember correctly, and his wife usually visits him once or twice (yes, he is married!), but it is the time alone that attracts him to this job every year.  He calls it "holy silence" and it does remind me in many ways of the writings of the monks.

The book is not a self-indulgent memoir chronicling his inner struggles and thoughts during those 5 months.  He takes great care not to make it all about what goes on inside his head.  He captures the rhythm of the job and the difficulty in transitioning in and out of primitive, solitary life.  He provides a great deal of history not only about the region but regarding the relationship between humanity, nature and fire.  Evident in the Smokey the Bear campaign, all forest fires used to be seen as dangerous and destructive.  Nowadays, the value of spontaneous fire (by lightning) has been recognised as part of what makes the wilderness sustainable.  Many of the lightning fires are left to burn, carefully watched to ensure that they do not pose a danger to humans.

Connors is a pretty good writer and an introvert.  No surprise, really.  What extrovert would ever sign up for a job like that?  This past year, I have come across some good writings in defense of introverts - it seems that we are an undervalued and misunderstood bunch at times.  I make no apology for being an introvert, but I also know the subtle temptations that come with the territory.  As one who spends a lot of time thinking and looking inward, it is easy to become self-focused and make all of life about what goes on in my head. Likewise, extroverts, who gain their energy from interaction, are tempted to make life one, big, never-ending party without taking much time to reflect on the deeper implications of their actions.  At least that is my observation.  Extroverts, correct me if I am wrong.

More importantly, what we have in common as extroverts and introverts (and everyone who fits somewhere on the I/E spectrum) is this:  we are always tempted to make our temperament self-serving, to over-indulge, like undisciplined gluttons, in what feeds us.   Introversion is meant to be a gift to society; the great thinkers, artists, inventors, prayers, and writers have extraordinary insights and talents to offer that make us all richer.  Extroversion is also a gift:  prodding us into expressions of community, rallying us in celebration, and ensuring that we don't hide from each other.   It is great to celebrate these temperaments, but let us also know our weaknesses.  May our innate tendencies always be developed into gifts to the world around us instead of excuses for self-indulgence.

the photo:  a small sapling growing at the edge of a man-made lake in Angrignon Parc, Montreal.

Monday, May 07, 2012

advice for leaders (not from me)

I didn't get around to blogging on Friday because I was in Halifax at a conference.  Lots of good things happened there, and two of the best things were seeing Dean again after his 8 days away in Memphis on business and getting a chance to connect with friends old and new.  And I got to drive around in a Nissan Pathfinder. It worked!  I found my path from the conference to the hotel, no problem!

The talks given in the leadership meetings we had before the general conference were from people who have been leading for a long time.  They offered some of their lessons learned.  Let me share a few of the ones I that I thought were really important for me to remember as a leader, a student, a teacher, a person in community, and a follower of Jesus.

Ed Piorek talked about how we as leaders can operate out of a core insecurity.  This insecurity can manifest itself in competition. In the context of pastors, it often means trying to get a bigger church and have a broader ministry.  Of course, competition implies comparison, whereby we measure our success in relation to how others are doing.  And as is prone to happen when comparisons are made, we discover we are not doing as well as we had hoped. This can cause us to try to take more control and manipulate the situation in order to improve our station, hoping this will result in us feeling better about ourselves.  But it never does.  Behaviour borne out of insecurity always circles in on itself and results in more insecurity.

Gary Best offered some principles that he had learned in serving as a pastor and National leader.
1. Always serve the story; don't use the story to serve you. 
2. Have a compass and a keel; in other words, know where you are headed and hold the course.
3. Realise that we cannot always be sure that we are right.  Don't burn bridges by insisting that your way is the only way. 
4. The only thing that lasts is something that touches a heart to become part of the greater story.  It does not have to be called (insert name of your denomination or pet belief here) to be a part of the grand story of God. 
5. Learn to embrace a smaller world by being willing to do less, step out of the limelight, and be a background player.  Remember that our participation is a privilege, not an obligation.

Ed also offered some advice on how to develop as a secure leader.  Being loved and knowing our value, especially in God's eyes, is the only thing that can deal with core insecurity.  Living in love means that we act out of love.  Love secures us.  Love sets us free from all those urges to control and manipulate and compare.  Love sends me out to serve others.  What does that mean practically?  Do the next thing in love.  That's all.  Do the next thing in love.

Thanks to Ed and Gary for sharing their wisdom and experience.  You guys rock!

the photo:  rock on the side of the road between my hotel and the conference.  Reminds me of The Group of Seven paintings.