Monday, December 24, 2012

questions without answers

A room in the Grey Nuns Motherhouse, Montreal
Monastic writings have taught me a thing or two
about the tension between trust and questioning

Some days I wake up with questions floating around in my head.  This morning was one of them.  I wondered why God does not communicate more clearly.  If he is so interested in a relationship with humanity, why all the mystery?  Why does he remain so hidden?  This lack of directness means that many people misinterpret who he is or what he is saying.  Many people don't think he communicates at all and take that as an indication of his absence.  Faith in God contains a good many question marks.

Perhaps the question bubbled up because I am reading a book (fiction) about a missionary family in the Congo in the 60s who use the Bible (and their North American version of God) as a sledgehammer to force certain cultural behaviours on the Africans.  It is quite disturbing.  If God spoke more clearly and regularly about his intentions, couldn't that kind of abuse of power be avoided?  Perhaps my question stems from the fact that I live in a secular, pluralistic society where faith in the Christian God is professed by a minority.  I have learned to listen to opinions and questions of all kinds about life and justice and God, hopefully with respect and a compassionate and understanding attitude.  I have found that quoting random out-of-context scriptures or repeating blithe biblical promises is usually unhelpful, especially to people who have little understanding of who the Christian God is or to those who have been burned by misguided folks supposedly speaking or acting in the name of God.  Why doesn't God correct all our silly misconceptions, our abuses of religion, our preconceived and inaccurate notions of who the Divine Other is and how the Holy One operates?  You'd think clarity and communication would be a priority for one who refers to himself as the living Word.

I have spent a good part of my life trying to communicate with, listen to, and understand the Divine.  Part of me thinks I was closest to it when I was a trusting yet fearful child.  Part of me wonders if I am nearer to the Spirit now in the midst of academic study where the questions loom bigger and the certainties are fewer.  Part of me knows that overemphasising reason can dull one's appreciation for profound mystery and inexplicable beauty found in things much grander than one's experience or understanding.  And the biggest part of me knows that questions like this are too small because they assume that the Divine Being's priorities and scope are the same as mine.  The answer to my question about God communicating clearly is not that Jesus came as a human being in history, though this is vital to the revelation of the Ultimate One.  Neither is the answer that the Bible contains everything I need to know, though these writings are also a very important part of the story of God's interaction with humanity.  The answer lies somewhere between my limited ability to comprehend the Infinite and the Infinite's wondrous ability to be hidden and in plain view at the same time. 

Is God someone who needs to explain himself to me?  No.  Will God occasionally/often do or allow something that will offend, disappoint, or annoy me?  Based on people's reactions to Jesus, I would say a definite yes.  Is this a problem?  Only if I equate my sense of right/wrong with the infinite wisdom of God.  So what to do with these questions which unsettle me?  I only have to watch a mother explain to her young child why they are eating vegetables instead of cake for supper to catch a glimpse of how short-sighted and selfish my questions/demands usually are. I don't really want God to communicate more clearly; I want trust to be easier.  I don't want misconceptions to be eliminated; I want faith to be obvious and reasonable i.e. popular. 

The Light and Life and Love of the Universe is always shining brightly, always breathing life into our world, and always loving extravagantly.  Whether I recognise this or not is more an indication of my narrow vision than of his limitations.  The question is not whether God is communicating clearly, but whether I am willing to trust his light, life and love more than my own. 

Job said to God: I’m convinced: You can do anything and everything.
Nothing and no one can upset your plans.
You asked, ‘Who is this muddying the water,
ignorantly confusing the issue, second-guessing my purposes?’
I admit it. I was the one. I babbled on about things far beyond me,
made small talk about wonders way over my head.
You told me, ‘Listen, and let me do the talking.
Let me ask the questions. You give the answers.’
I admit I once lived by rumors of you;
now I have it all firsthand—from my own eyes and ears!
I’m sorry—forgive me. I’ll never do that again, I promise!
I’ll never again live on crusts of hearsay, crumbs of rumor.

- from Job 42, The Message

Saturday, December 15, 2012

do we need another hero?

The end of the movie The Avengers from my theatre seat.
One of the essays I wrote for a playwriting class this term was on the concept of "hero."  This morning I read about a teacher who stood between a killer and her students and saved the lives of the young ones.  The word used to describe her was "hero."  In the face of so much bad news in the past few days, her story of bravery is being disseminated by many people who are encouraged to find hope in a dark place.  Me too.   

So what exactly is a hero?  The working definition I came up with is this:  someone who is relevant to our context (we can identify with them in some way) who exemplifies our best intentions or capabilities (we admire their courage and bravery).  In other words, heroes are examples of humanity at its finest.

Now take a look at Hebrews 11, a chapter of the New Testament filled with names of historical characters who are praised for their faith, "heroes of faith" if you will.  And in this list we find examples like the generous Abel and the mystic Enoch, but we also find tricksters like Jacob, prostitutes like Rahab, doubters like Sarah, and insecure, angry leaders like Moses.  What's up with that?  If heroes are supposed to be the "best of the best" this is a pretty sorry list.  But remember the two components of a hero mentioned above: someone who demonstrates the best of who we could be and someone we can identify with.   I don't know about you, but I can certainly identify with the doubters, the mistake-makers, the selfish, and the insecure.  In my opinion, mythology has not done us any favours by often portraying heroes as characters with divine origins who display superhuman strength and ability.  It is interesting to note that the creators of today's superheroes always inject a certain amount of self-doubt, a character flaw, or a fatal weakness into their characters in order to help us empathize with them.

Joseph Campbell, in his classic study of mythology, A Hero With a Thousand Faces, concludes that there is a common journey that all heroes undertake.  It goes something like this:  the ordinary world, a call to adventure, the reluctant hero, the wise old man (guide), crossing the threshold into the special world, encountering enemies, allies, tests, finding oneself in the inmost cave facing one's greatest fears, engaging in the supreme ordeal, obtaining a boon (benefit), the road back, resurrection (where the two worlds become one), and bringing the prize (elixir) of their journey to others.  While not every element listed above must be present in all hero stories, most of them can be found in heroic tales.  The Matrix is a good example.  The stories of Moses and Jesus are two more.  Campbell's observations were influential on George Lucas in creating the Star Wars saga, but Campbell never meant his findings to serve as a shortcut for script writers. The point, I believe, is that heroes are not made by a single act or event.  They have a journey which leads them to a decisive moment.

In my research, I came up with 4 elements that I believe are vital to the making of a hero: 

1) The triad of leaving, transformation, and returning.  Basically, this means that a hero makes a decision to leave their ordinary world, responds to a call, finds themselves in an extraordinary place where they face obstacles, enemies, tests and trials, and where they are ultimately transformed by facing their fears.  Finally, they return to the ordinary world to share the knowledge they have gained or to pass on the benefits of their transformation.  In some cases, they give their lives to do this.  

2) Being universal and unique.  This refers to the fact that the hero is human, often with flaws we can identify with, but she also exhibits great courage in overcoming obstacles and evil forces. 

3) Vindication.  This sounds like a weird attribute for a hero, but it refers to the hero coming to terms with herself and quieting all those voices which tell her that she is not good enough.  Her value and worth are finally realised by herself and others. 

4) Reconciliation.  This, to me, is the most important aspect of any hero's journey.  Here is a quote from my essay:  "If I were to distill the hero journey into one word, it would be reconciliation. In the end, the hero’s quest is complete not because he/she is endowed with a new sense of importance or goodness, but because they are reconciled with themselves and their world(s).  This is not a passive acceptance akin to some version of fatalism, but an ability to courageously face and embrace life and all that it entails."  In a sense, everything becomes one.  The hero is equally comfortable in the extraordinary and the ordinary worlds (think of Jesus after the resurrection, passing through walls).  Tests and trials are one with  developing courage and faith.  Enemies and allies all serve to further the quest for a full and generous life.  The hero is reconciled with themselves, with their circumstances, and with their destiny.  Reconciliation means that the hero moves beyond being primarily concerned about their own well-being and recognises they are an integral part of a greater whole.  The hero journey is one of fostering loving relationships and building a strong community.

In my essay, I studied the story of Sarah (wife of Abraham) as an example of a primordial heroine, and in my research I found a very human, yet courageous woman who left a legacy of reconciliation. Her laughter of disbelief turned into a son named laughter (Isaac) who in turn was an ancestor of Jesus, the hope of the world.  Here is my concluding paragraph: 

"I posit that a heroine is one who is universal in her humanity yet exemplary in courage, and that the journey she embarks on is a transformative one. She moves from a weak status to a position of strength. She is vindicated by her detractors and mockers and faces her greatest fears and insecurities. She is not perfect, but she challenges us to walk her journey with her, to learn from her mistakes and to exult in her moments of transformation and joy. She reminds us that we are part of a much greater story, a story that requires our active participation in order for the legacy of promise and fulfillment to continue. And she inspires us to never lose hope, even when circumstances seem impossible. She shows us that there is always hope, there is always the possibility for laughter."

Anyone can be a hero, but the time to start the hero journey is now. 
 

Saturday, December 08, 2012

book review: Keeping the Feast

Dinner at 40 Westt, Montreal
I just finished savouring Milton Brasher-Cunnningham's tasty book, Keeping the Feast.  In the preface, he identifies his "hunger to be connected" as a driving force in his life, and this does indeed seem to be the glue (or should I say, gravy) that holds the book together.  Milton connects food to fostering community and relates both of these elements to celebrating the "Meal That Matters Most," the Lord's Supper.  And he manages to do it with a light touch, making this an easy read but one that will stick with you for some time. 

Milton is a multi-talented man (chef, teacher, minister, writer, small urban farmer, and musician) and his writing reflects his varied experiences and skills.  He manages to combine a lot of good elements in this slim volume.  Like a well-crafted meal, each chapter begins with an appetizing poem, then he spends some time serving up meaty thoughts cut into bite-size stories and sprinkled with thought-provoking observations, and he finishes with a mouth-watering favourite recipe which relates to the topic at hand.  The only thing I would have added to each chapter is a picture of food, perhaps the recipe in question, something that would allow me to linger on the metaphor a bit longer.

There are nine chapters which each take one food metaphor and unpack its spiritual implications.  For instance, in the chapter titled "Signature Dish," Milton indicates that the food he most loves to cook is comfort food.  He writes: "I want to make food that makes you want to come eat with me.  I want to make the kind of food that will make you remember our being together.  The signature - the distinguishing mark - of a great meal is in the memory it creates" (10).  He also writes a lot about the ritual or meaningful repetition of eating together as something that binds us to each other.

One of the most intriguing metaphors for me is his comparison of the soup kitchen line to the line of people waiting to receive communion in church, calling the latter the "sacred soup line."  In both we find people in need, people struggling with pain, people with scars and heartaches, all "walking wounded, all waiting to be welcomed and fed, needing something to sustain us beyond our fears, failures, words, and hunger" (67).  Having worked both at a soup kitchen and at fine restaurants, Milton maintains that feeding others is not really about food: "We are not serving meals, we are serving people,"(66) and this is a very important distinction, one that reveals his pastoral compassion and concern.

The book includes many stories:  there are sports stories, neighbourhood stories, cooking stories, family stories, movie stories, memorable meal stories, and a good dollop of references to a variety of sources including authors such as C. S. Lewis, Walter Brueggemann, and Jean Vanier.  The recipes at the end of each chapter are not complicated and pretty easy to follow.  However, I did notice that the recipe for "Open-Faced Chicken Pot Pie" neglects to include instructions for how to incorporate the buttermilk (54-55).  I'm pretty sure an experienced cook could figure it out, but a novice might be puzzled.  The recipe at the top of my "to try" list is the one he calls "Uncle Milty's Guinness and Chocolate Chili."  One of Milton's colleagues speculates that this chili is the reason that Milton's wife, Ginger, married him.  You can find the recipe here on his website.

The book meanders a fair bit, but I didn't mind.  It is not meant to be a theological treatise on the Eucharist, but a book that calls us to the table.  Reading it almost made me feel that I had pulled up a chair in Milton's kitchen and he was chatting about random things while cooking a meal for us to share.  Milton very much succeeds at conveying his love for food and his commitment to community and communion with Jesus and others.

"...Jesus sat with his disciples around the table and, as he served them bread, he said, 'Every time you do this, remember me.' What if we could hear those words as an invitation to communion and community in every meal, in every cup of coffee, in every beer at the pub: every time you eat and drink look each other in the eye and remember me, remember the love that binds you and do whatever you have to do to forget the lies you have learned that tear you apart" (117).

Bon appetit! 

 



Milton Brasher-Cunningham.  Keeping the Feast: Metaphors for the Meal.  Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2012.  122 pages.

Check out his website:  Don't Eat Alone.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

a visit to the vet

 
Today was Jazz's annual trip to the vet.  It went pretty much like it always does.  She starts to moan and hiss the minute I put her in the pet carrier (we don't use the word cage). There is loud meowing throughout the 10 minute drive, her face pressed defiantly against the wire mesh door.  The minute we get into the vet's office, the demeanour changes: she gets quiet and squishes her body against the back of the carrier.  Anytime anyone comes near her, she growls.  Today a big, leggy, brown dog bounded up to her cage to say hello and he got a death-glare.  It is always this way.  Anyone, human or animal, who stops by to say hi and remark on her beauty gets the same treatment.  Growl.  Hiss.  Death-glare.  

And then it is time to go into the small examination room.  I open the traveling compartment and there appears to be no cat inside!  She has pressed herself against the side of the carrier, determined to avoid all contact with the examining table.  I hold the carrier upside down, door open, but she has pushed all her paws against the walls, Mission Impossible-style, and is not coming out.  So I set down the carrier and drag her out, butt first.  Lots of screaming and hissing and trying to claw the table.  Throughout all of this, I am constantly speaking calmly to her and reassuring everyone around me that she is not the evil offspring of Darth Vader.  

We are allowed a few moments alone in the examination room and though she continues to growl and moan, we are doing pretty good, I think.  I can still see some green in her eyes (not all black) so that's a positive sign.  The vet enters: a small, young woman whom I have not met before.  She greets Jazz and me in French and English (as they do in Montreal), and unsuspectingly reaches out to pet the cute cat she sees on the table.  Her hand comes toward Jazz from above.  Let me stop here to suggest that the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy should be required viewing for all vets because it clearly teaches that cats are threatened by anything higher than them.  Just a suggestion.  Anyway, back to the story...  It is no surprise to me that as soon as the vet's high hand comes near Jazz's head, there is hissing, growling, and some quick, jerky movements.  The wee vet, startled, takes a small hop backwards, let's out a "Whoa!", and I see a bit of fear flick across her face.  Inwardly, I sigh.  Jazz has done it again.  She has intimidated the doc.  I reassure the vet that Jazz always puts on this type of show and that we will get through the exam, no problem.  I can tell that the vet is not convinced.

Nevertheless, the exam goes okay. I hold Jazz firmly, rub her neck and ears, talk to her about pleasant things like scratching furniture and winning a game of slapsies with Dean, while the vet probes her from butt to gums and listens to her heart and lungs.  All good.  The vet calls in a technician to hold Jazz while she administers a rabies shot.  It takes a few tries and in the first attempt, the vet spills a bit of the vaccine as Jazz does a super-fast lunge move, Jackie Chan-style, which catches the technician off-guard.  But no one gets hurt, there is no blood, and no property is damaged.  It is a good visit, overall. After the shot, Jazz can't wait to get back in the carrier, but she refuses to eat a treat I give her from the vet's front office.  No doubt she thinks it is a trick.  Or poison.

Jazz is quiet until we near home when she starts to meow and look out the window.  She can't wait to get back home where no one is poking her with needles or trying to look at her gums.  I get her safely inside our condo, release her from the carrier, and then go out to get something from the car.  When I come back inside, she is glaring at me reproachfully from the stairs, sitting higher than me.  Then she tries to make a dash out the door.  Everything is back to normal.

The annual visit to the vet with Jazz always reminds me of my own dramatic, fearful tendencies.  My reactions to situations are often overblown and unfounded.  I often find it hard to trust when I don't understand.  I sometimes respond badly because of unpleasant associations or past experiences instead of taking the present (and new) situation at face value.  And I am too often threatened by those who are higher, smarter, wiser, quicker, or appear to be more successful.  The truth is that I walk day by day with a faithful, caring God and a loving community.  Nothing changes that, not even my fearful heart.