Friday, June 29, 2012

I don't want to win the lottery

There are people that play the lottery.  There are people that talk about finally landing that perfect job.  There are people who long for a dream house.  I am not really one of those people. 

I have been thinking about transformation this past week.  How does transformation happen?  Is it really the result of one major, life-changing event?  Like winning the lottery?  Or getting struck by a bright light on the road to Damascus?  Is it a proactive event where I must work hard to get results?  Or do I merely surrender to a higher power and let him do all the work?

Last night I had a dream, a dream that I seemed to remember having several times before.  In it, there was some impending catastrophe and I knew we had to get out of the situation and do it fast!  There were two ways to make it to safety: one was by climbing a set of very narrow ladders through inclining, tightly enclosed passageways leading ever upwards and the other was by following a group of people through a series of complicated twists and turns in a building and then being propelled through a long tunnel of water. 

When I awoke, it was clear to me that this dream was about transformation.  The only way I could avoid things ending badly was to move from where I was and go through some very uncomfortable situations.  I noted that I had to face my fear of heights, of tight spaces, of getting lost, of having to rely on others, of being underwater and not being able to breathe.  Very uncomfortable.  But transformation usually is.

I don't believe that change or transformation is instant. Yes, there are sometimes great reversals in our lives (like a healing or a sickness or a loss of job or an influx of money or a change of location/status), but that doesn't change who we are, really.  It usually only reveals what is at our core: what we really believe in or what we are afraid of.  When a reversal happens in our lives, we are faced with a decision:  will we change as well, or will we continue as usual?  I can be healed from a terrible disease but never change my mentality about being a victim.  I can be diagnosed with some horrible cancer yet continually display a grateful and generous countenance.  I can win the lottery but squander away every penny because I never learned how to be a wise investor.  The many small decisions I have been making every day after day and year after year are the ones that determine who I am and where I am going, not some big, life-changing event.

But what about God's intervention?  I have been reading through the book of Job.  It is a great example of what gets revealed when a reversal happens.  Fortunes came and went, but Job would not let go of God: he questioned and demanded justice and got angry, but he would not walk away from his maker.  The conversion of Saul is another interesting example.  Yes, there was a dramatic encounter during which all his beliefs and assumptions were challenged.  But then Saul had to decide whether to embrace this Jesus or not.  And then he had to walk out what that decision meant.  Reversals are opportunities for transformation, but they are no guarantee of them.

There are also two facets of transformation that I see:  there is the quick leap and the long, arduous path of daily, diligent decisions.  One can never really be transformed through leaps or shortcuts alone; the change won't stick.  Most often, the long and arduous path leads to a leap (which can look like instant change but there was a lengthy process involved) or there might be a long and arduous path to walk after a jump start.  I have experienced both in my life.  And will no doubt continue to do so.

Today, I get the sense that I am again being invited into renewed and deliberate transformation by God.  The decisions I make today matter.  The attitude I have today matters.  My responses to situations today matter.  They are all part of my daily transformation.  And who knows when a quick leap of grace might unexpectedly appear along my long and arduous journey. 

the photo:  a lovely glass mosaic at a local store - many small parts make up the whole.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

forgive me, for I have sinned...

Yesterday I was on the subway going downtown for an appointment and read another chapter in Acedia & Me by Kathleen Norris.  I have been reading bits and pieces of the book here and there (it requires some digestion after reading, so one can't race through it) and found the stories she told about her husband's troubled adolescence and his mid-life suicidal tendencies incredibly honest and touching.  Then Norris hit me with a chapter that landed squarely between my eyes and poked at the complacent spots in my life.  Mixed metaphors AND conviction!  Ouch!

To get a bit of a background on acedia, read the first post I wrote on it.  I won't go into detail about its definition here, but in the chapter I read yesterday, Norris deals with the aspect of acedia that refuses to take responsibility.  You may want to stop right here.  It gets pretty rough.  The story of shifting responsibility onto someone else starts in the garden of Eden and continues to this day.  Nowadays, however, Norris suggests that we have redefined it, excluded sin from the equation, and called it progress or freedom or some other trendy term.  And to add insult to injury, we are proud of our so-called progress, thinking that boredom or hyperactivity is a sign of an enlightened and affluent society.  Let me toss in some quotes from the book:

At bottom, to dismiss sin as negative is to demonstrate a failure of imagination.  As the writer Garret Keizer asserts in Help: The Original Human Dilemma: "Everyone believes in sin, the people who charge their peers with political incorrectness and the people who regard political correctness as the bogey of a little mind."  He adds, "What everyone does not believe in, as nearly as I can tell, is forgiveness."  It requires creativity to recognize our faults, and to discern virtues in those we would rather disdain.  Forgiveness demands close attention, flexibility, and stringent self-assessment, faculties that are hard to come by as we career blindly into the twenty-first century, and are increasingly asked to choose information over knowledge, theory over experience, and certainty over ambiguity.  This mentality may be of some use in a business, but in a family, including the family of faith, it is a disaster. (117)

She talks about our priggishness in overvaluing our ideas, habits, and notions and disparaging those of others, even those of biblical characters in the Old Testament.  She describes this attitude:  We're good people, or good enough, having willed away the prejudice, tribalism, and violence in our hearts.  We are at a loss to explain their presence in the world around us. (117)

It is indeed acedia's world when we have so many choices that we grow indifferent to them even as we hunger for still more novelty.  As luxury goods and pornographic images permeate the culture, no longer the province of a select few, we discard real relationships in favor of virtual ones and scarcely notice that being overly concerned with the thread count of cotton sheets and the exotic ingredients of gourmet meals can render us less able to care about those who scrounge for food and have no bed but the streets. (125)

Norris also quotes Karl Rahner, a German Jesuit who wrote this some time after the second world war :  "[I]t has gone strangely with [us] in the recent decades of European intellectual history. While many felt that, having "struggled passionately against the tutelage of Church, state, society, convention, morals," they could not claim true autonomy, they often found it an empty freedom.  What had originated as "a great, honest struggle" devolved for many into "a foolish protest that mistook licentiousness and unrestraint, the freedom of error and ruin, for true freedom." Far from finding release, Rahner concluded, modern people fell into "a very odd slavery...slavery from within." (120)

She concludes the chapter by observing that we are doing more and caring less.  And though we do profess to care, it is most likely only about our own present circumstances.  We are prone to justify our actions and ideas (which all too often reveal spiritual poverty instead of true freedom) by refusing to take responsibility for the state of our communities, our nations, and our world.

An article that I came across yesterday illustrates this all too well.  A student was justifying downloading thousands of songs without paying for them by making the following points:  1) it is up to the record companies to make it more convenient to buy music, 2) it is up to the government to better regulate downloading, and 3) in the end, hardly any of the money collected by big music companies goes to the actual musicians.  Someone took the time to write a thoughtful response and responded with his own points:  1) buying music online just takes a few clicks, so perhaps it is not the inconvenience that is at issue, but clicking the "buy" button, 2) it is not the government's job to regulate our integrity; that is our own responsibility, and 3) the assumption that it is the record companies that get all the money is incorrect (the writer was fairly knowledgeable about how the music industry works).  He went on to explain how most record contracts work and concluded that by refusing to pay for music, one basically guarantees that the artists will never see the money.  In addition, the writer suggested that the student (who incidentally claimed that she hoped to land a job in the music industry) should perhaps take a look at her ideas and see how they were sabotaging the very industry she said she wanted to help advance.

This brings me back to the very point that bashed me between the eyes when I read Norris' chapter:  that we are often deceiving ourselves into thinking that we are managing pretty well and making progress.  We are convinced that we are overall good people, have faced most of our demons (if we are willing to admit that there are demons), are fighting for the right causes, and are more enlightened than the masses.  And yet, we have more poverty (physical and spiritual), hate, aggression, and instability than ever.  However, we are content to shift the responsibility for the state of things to governments, big corporations, political agendas, leaders, messed-up world economics, or whatever our pet peeve may be.  By not taking responsibility for our sin and our lack of compassionate action, we are not only lying to ourselves and to our world, we are crippling it. 

I am in agreement with Keizer.  We protest against corruption and inequality.  We demand more rights and better services.  We like to point out how "other people" don't get it or get too much of it (depending on what "it" is).  We don't like to repent and forgive.  And that hardly seems like progress to me.  Thanks, Kathleen, for your words, hard as they may be to hear.  Even harder to  practice.

Quotes taken from Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer's Life by Kathleen Norris.  Riverhead Books, 2008.

the photo:  The parliament buildings in Ottawa.  God, help our leaders.  God, help us.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

what do you see?

I like to take pictures.  I take quite a lot of them.  My iPhone is full of random snapshots that I like to capture while I go through life.  I take pictures of food before I eat it.  I take pictures of my neighbourhood as the seasons change.  I take pictures of unique products and silly situations and beautiful scenes.  I take pictures of things that make me laugh.  I take pictures of moments that I want to remember.  Sometimes when I go back and look at a picture, I see things that I never saw when I was there in the flesh at the moment I took the photo.  A picture can remind me of things I have forgotten.  At best, a picture allows me to slow down and really see.

The picture above is one I took on rue St. Laurent yesterday of a band that was playing at the street festival.  I remember the energetic music and the vibrant performances of the musicians.  I remember the jazzy rhythms they incorporated in their songs and the way they made people smile and stop walking.  I remember seeing Dean swaying gently in time to the music.  But when I look at the picture, I notice details that I never took in when I was actually there.  I don't recollect that they were playing in front of a drugstore.  I don't remember the bikes parked on the sidewalk.  I don't remember the oil stains on the street.

And this is what life is like.  It moves by at such speed that we cannot take in everything that is happening at any given moment.  I choose what aspects I remember, what parts of life my mind lingers on.  The snapshots in my mind are, for the most part, those things which I have placed value on.  Sometimes the choices are subconscious, but in general, I believe that my memories are a collection of what I am looking for.  If I am looking for fault, I will notice the dirty street before I hear the joyful sounds.  If I am looking for friendship, I might notice the way the musicians interact and communicate without words.  If I am hungry or thirsty, I will see the drugstore which sells cold drinks and snacks.  If I am in a depressed state, I might observe that the two-dimensional picture is in black and white, lacking animation and colour.  If I am nostalgic or looking for renewed hope, I might imagine the brilliant, intricate harmonies coming from their instruments and place myself in the sunny setting for a brief moment.  If I am looking to make sense of life through details and facts, I might make a note of each finger position and try to deduct what key they are playing in.  What I see in large part reflects what I value and how I perceive life.

To my chagrin, I very often see the negative before I see the positive. I often find fault before discovering hope and enjoyment.  I have been known to ignore people and focus on tiny, rather meaningless details.  But looking at this photo today, I realise that yesterday I was seeing as I want to see.  I saw beautiful people in a beautiful city doing something beautiful together.  I saw people making good music and good memories.  And I remember looking at Dean while the band was playing and exchanging knowing smiles in that moment.  May I embrace more moments in my life with that kind of gracious and open joy.

Friday, June 08, 2012

I do care...

While in Waterloo, Ontario to attend the Canadian Theological Society's annual conference last week, I picked up a few books, one of them being Kathleen Norris's Acedia & Me.  Sometimes defined as sloth or associated with depression, acedia is a word that, though commonly used by the ancient monks, has not found a prominent place in contemporary spiritual language.  Norris describes what acedia looks and feels like by writing about her own experience. 

Basically, acedia is an absence of care.  Norris writes:  "The person afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so.  When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet you can't rouse yourself to give a damn." (p. 3)  Monks knew this affliction well.  They called it the noon-day demon because the temptation usually made an appearance around midday when it was hot and they were hungry and tired.

As I read the first few chapters, I found myself fascinated and intrigued by what Norris was writing.  Then she began to talk about how acedia appeared in her life as a shy teenager and the topic got a little too close for comfort.   Norris struggled with tedium, with disappointment and discouragement, withdrawing from the "pains and joys of ordinary life" by keeping a busy school schedule and choosing to hang out with adults instead of her classmates. (p. 10)  She describes her behaviour as rejecting time, living just barely, and refusing the gift of each day. (12)

For her, one of the temptations was to rebel against the repetitive nature of the necessities of life.  She refused to make her bed every day.  She writes:  "'Why bother?' I would ask my mother in a witheringly superior tone.  'I'll just have to unmake it again at night.'" (13)  While non-bed-making is a fairly common phenomenon in teenagers, Norris associates her underlying attitude with acedia and an inability to take pleasure in the details of life involved in self-care and caring for the world.  Instead, she identified in herself a desire to do everything once and for all and be done with it (14).

This same attitude of disdain towards repetition and discipline proved troublesome in her music lessons.  She neglected scales and exercises in favour of playing what she enjoyed (that was me for much of my musical education).  Her teacher wisely observed that if she liked to play rather than practice, it marked her as an amateur (15).  Ouch!

Acedia is a spiritual dilemma.  It very often attacks the very places we are the most gifted or show the most potential.  It threatens to contort these areas into a series of self-serving binges instead of life-long, disciplined paths to progress.  Acedia is spinning gold into straw instead of straw into gold.  It is never living in today, but always valuing a future moment over the present.  It perceives time and tasks as stretching out for a long period, which in turn makes one want to drop out and forsake the path.  For monastics who live their entire lives by a certain, set rhythm which involves a lot of repetition, acedia is a constant threat.

I identify many of the symptoms of acedia in myself.  I am easily overwhelmed by tasks and life and find it a challenge to start projects because I just can't fathom how they will ever be completed.  I used to think of myself as lazy.  I long to live in the moment of completion and I sometimes dwell there in my mind before a task is even started, basking in a hypothetical sense of accomplishment instead of just getting started.  Writing this blog or any assignment for school usually produces a small rush of anxiety and a fair bit of procrastination because the process seems too long and arduous.  Plus, I don't believe I have anything to say and if I do, it will probably be mediocre and unclear.  It is tempting to just quit (I regularly think about quitting my blog, my leadership responsibilities, and I thought about quitting every job I ever had). 

The good news is that acedia is only a temptation; it can be overcome.  We do not need to give in.  I acknowledge the pattern of anxiety or feeling of tedium that comes over me when faced with a challenging task.  I may be tempted to quit, but I don't.  I ask God for help to make it through and the gift of grace always meets me in the process.  I talk about my silly tendencies with close friends in order to be open and accountable.  It is easier to stay on the path when others are with you.  I also cultivate those repetitions of life-care that I enjoy.  I love doing laundry, I love cleaning up my kitchen at the end of the day.  I love taking care of my cat and watering my plants.  And I find creative ways to adapt those tasks that I find difficult.  I don't particularly like ironing or cleaning my house, so I have taken to ironing while looking out my window (the ever-changing sky is magnificent) and that makes it a more pleasant job.  I pay someone to clean my house and that has removed a lot of anxiety from my life in that area. 

There is power in repetition, I can testify to that.  I have managed to keep up a workout regimen for over 30 years.  It is an important part of my well-being.  I change formats every few months just to avoid boredom in my mind and body, but I never question whether or not I will keep at it.  I also never question whether or not I will study the scriptures and converse with God.  These disciplines have become so much a part of me and I have seen so much good progress in my life as a result of them that acedia has virtually no access to them.

As I come to the end of another blog entry, I sigh with relief.  Yes, I have overcome the temptation of acedia once again.  I have written about something that is important and relevant to me today.  And I believe I have made myself clear, for the most part.  Yes, every day can be an overcoming day, and that gives me great joy in this moment.

References taken from:  Kathleen Norris.  Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life.  New York: Riverhead Books, 2008. 

the photo:  the sky outside my window today.  Magnificent!

Friday, June 01, 2012

Esther's protest

I have been hesitant to write anything here pertaining to the student protests in Montreal, partly because I didn't believe I had any solutions to offer and partly because I just wanted to stay out of the controversial mess it has become.  Besides, I have studying to do.  But this weekend, something changed.  I read the book of Esther.

First, some background:  the unrest started early in the year when a group of students decided to protest the tuition hikes proposed by the Quebec government ($325 a year for the next 5 years).  Seeing that tuition rates have been frozen for almost ten years, it seemed reasonable to the government to increase them to reflect rising costs.  This did not sit well with some students, and they organised an ongoing protest in which students were encouraged to boycott classes and refuse to hand in assignments.  It has now grown into a movement which has staged several organised, peaceful marches numbering in the hundreds of thousands as well as many smaller gatherings, temporarily closed some colleges, and earned student representatives a chance to negotiate with the government.  Sadly, the latest talks again resulted in an impasse. 

The movement has also been tainted by vandalism, interruption of the city's public transportation system, and the continuing disruption of the lives of peace-loving students and citizens.  While I appreciate the fact that some students are willing to stand up for accessible, quality higher education, I also observe that their motivations and their methods seem less than altruistic.  Asking corporations or taxpayers to contribute more and more while students pay less and less (in 1964, Quebec students contributed 26.4% of the actual cost of tuition; in 2009, it was 12.7%) is a good deal for the students involved, but taxpayers already carry heavy financial burdens and corporations don't have unlimited resources; Quebec has been witness to the fact that businesses will leave the province if conditions become unfavourable and they believe can be more profitable elsewhere.  In the same way that proposed tuition hikes have had consequences, increased taxation or shifting funds away from one source and channeling it into another will also have ramifications.  Every action has its consequences (beyond the intended ones) and in my observation, those involved in the protests have not shown much appreciation for this fact.  I for one, am grateful to benefit from some of the lowest tuition rates in all of North America, even after the proposed tuition increases. 

Anyway, I don't mean to argue a particular point.  What I see is that there are two sides of the issue and neither group is willing to give in to the other or offer much in the way of creative compromise.  The government is demanding that students pay more.  A minority of students believe they are justified in demanding that someone else foot the bill.  It is indeed an impasse and it makes me sad.

Back to the story of Esther.  Esther was queen to King Xerxes and also a Jew.  The Jews were not well-liked by Xerxes' right-hand man, Haman, and he proposed that the kingdom of Xerxes would be better off without them.  Xerxes gave Haman freedom to do what he wanted, since he was using his own funds, and Haman began to plan how he would extinguish the Jewish people in Xerxes' lands.  Esther's uncle, Mordecai, informed her of Haman's dastardly plan, and at first she was hesitant to get involved because her own position and very life could be in danger if she approached the king.  But Mordecai responded with these words:  "Don't think that just because you live in the king's house you're the one Jew who will get out of this alive.  If you persist in staying silent at a time like this, help and deliverance will arrive for the Jews from someplace else; but you and your family will be wiped out.  Who knows? Maybe you were made queen for just such a time as this."  (Esther 4, The Message). 

Esther then approached the king (and fortunately he extended a welcome to her and didn't put her to death for showing up unannounced, which he had a right to do in those days) and invited him and Haman to dinner.  I will stop the story there and you can read how it ends for yourself (a rather brutal turn of events), but the point that leapt out at me when I read it this past weekend was this:  Esther was threatened and her response was to extend hospitality.  She did not first demand justice; she invited the people she had issues with to her quarters for a fine meal.  And at that first meal, there was no discussion of her agenda and no requests made.  I believe there is something to learn here.  Esther had a life and death issue that urgently required action, and her first action (after praying and fasting) was to extend hospitality.  Not to demand something, not to be forceful and aggressive, not to manipulate or malign, not to induce guilt, but to offer hospitality.  Everything else stemmed from that.  

If we want people to extend generosity to us, I believe we have to be the ones to first show generosity.  Before we ever bring up our agenda, there must be hospitality.  This is how we must deal with each other if we are ever to cultivate a just and mutually beneficial society.  Otherwise, we all end up selfishly grabbing for our own piece of the pie and inevitably putting an elbow in someone's face or jostling them out of the way.

I don't know exactly what this means for me.  Perhaps I should invite Mr. Charest over for waffles.  Or take some disgruntled students out for Thai food.  Or make cookies for both parties.  All I know is that I can't sit by and do nothing.  I must extend hospitality.  I must show generosity and hope that it multiplies.

the photo:  a group of protestors blocking the street in front of Concordia University.