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.