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.