Saturday, December 14, 2013

advent academics

Image from www.onelittleminuteblog.com
I am in the midst of writing the last exam of my doctorate and perhaps ever! Of course there is still a dissertation to write and defend, but let's not think about that right now. This exam is a 6000-word essay which is due December 24. I suspect that I will email it to the professors late on the 23rd, after a careful final edit, and the next day board a plane to spend the holy days with family. Sigh of relief.

I must admit that I love the rhythm of the academic year. When you walk into your first day of class, you feel a nervous rush of excitement mixed with dread. You don't quite know what to expect, you are not certain you will be able to comprehend the material and do well on all the assignments, and you are never sure who will be with you on that particular slice of the learning journey (pardon the mixed metaphor), but the idea of diving into a subject you don't know much about is an invitation you can't refuse. Then there are the mid-term doldrums [1] where students and teachers alike are fatigued, overwhelmed, and struggle to maintain interest and energy. Then there is the final rush of work - exams and essays and long hours of studying - and just when you feel you have used up every last brain cell and you can't go another day without a proper meal and a good night's sleep, you're done! You exhale, not just one big sigh but lots of sighs. You sit in a daze, not quite able to imagine that nothing is due tomorrow or next week. You wake up that first morning after you have completed your last assignment and feel a lightness of spirit; the weight of impending deadlines no longer burdening your mind from morning till night and sometimes even invading your dreams. Simple activities like having a leisurely cup of tea or reading a novel or meandering down the street are infused with joyous wonder. You feel alive in a world where the colours seem brighter than they have in months and every moment is a gift. And then a week or two later when you get the news that - surprise - you passed the course with flying colours [2], a second wave of relief, thanksgiving, contentment, and joy washes over you.

For me, this is very much what the Christian season of Advent is like [3]. We celebrate and remember the coming of Jesus by entering into a time of waiting. There is the initial anticipation of something new. Perhaps we have an idea of what it will be like, but in reality we really don't know. In the middle of the ongoing waiting and endless preparation we can encounter the doldrums, times of listlessness, restlessness, and fatigue. We find ourselves asking why we signed up for this in the first place. But then we look around us and see that we are not alone; there are others in the same boat, so we band together and help each other to stay the course. Things get more intense, we give it a final push, and then what we have waited for, what we were afraid might never come at all, finally arrives. And we are overcome with joy, we struggle through denial and disbelief, we embrace it and reject it and embrace it again. We slowly become accustomed to a new reality: God is with us. And we breathe a little easier, we feel less burdened, we look at the world with renewed joy, and we pinch ourselves. Yes, this is real. God is here. He is come.

[1] Doldrums: a term adopted from historical maritime usage referring to a part of the ocean near the equator where a low pressure area results in calm winds. This could trap a sailing vessel there for days or even weeks.
[2] Flying colours: another naval expression used in centuries past to refer to victorious ships returning to harbour with flags flying from every masthead to let those on shore know they were successful in their quest.
[3] Advent: this word comes from the Latin verb which means "come to." It carries the sense of "important arrival," "coming," or "approach." It is also closely connected to the word "adventure." Yay, I like adventure!

Friday, December 06, 2013

7 invitations to grace

Image from americanvision.org
I have the book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, on my bookshelf. I have never read it. One of the reasons is because being highly effective is not one of my priorities. And that is because I don't think I can really control the effect I have in this world and on other people. Though I might do everything in my power to change a situation, in the end people choose whether or not they embrace change. Don't get me wrong, it appears that Covey has some very good advice which can help people develop good personal work habits and help them work better within a team setting, but like any self-help or self-improvement book, it probably focuses on what we must do to change ourselves and our environment. There is usually little room made for failure, for things we cannot change, for getting stuck. There tends to be little talk of receiving kindness and acknowledging that we are at the mercy of grace. Instead of another self-help book, I would like to offer another way: the way of grace.

I recently read an interview with Tullian Tchividjian (Billy Graham's grandson) in which he explains the subtle way in which we as Christians have twisted the gospel to be more about doing something for Jesus instead of what Jesus has done for us. I see myself in his critique. I want to be a better person so I focus on making better decisions, being a more loving person, being more grateful, being consistent and faithful in my commitments (with God's help, of course), and the road I end up on is self-improvement instead of self-surrender. Let me quote Tullian:

...it seems that the good news of God’s grace has been tragically hijacked by an oppressive religious moralism that is all about rules, rules, and more rules; doing more, trying harder, self-help, getting better, and fixing, fixing, fixing–—ourselves, our kids, our spouse, our friends, our enemies, our culture, our world. Christianity is perceived as being a vehicle for good behavior and clean living and the judgments that result from them rather than the only recourse for those who have failed over and over again. The fact is, that the solution to restraint-free immorality is not morality. The solution to immorality is the free grace of God. Only undeserved grace can truly melt and transform the heart. The route by which the New Testament exhorts sacrificial love and obedience is not by tempering grace but by driving it home. Charles Spurgeon nailed it when he said, “When I thought God was hard, I found it easy to sin; but when I found God so kind, so good, so overflowing with compassion, I beat my breast to think I could ever have rebelled against One who loved me so and sought my good.” 

The law, at least, assures us that we determine our own destiny—we get to maintain control, the outcome of our life remains in our hands. Give me three steps to a happy marriage and I can guarantee myself a happy marriage if I follow the three steps. If we can do certain things, meet certain standards (whether God’s, my own, my parents, my spouse’s, society’s, whatever) and become a certain way, we’ll make it. Law seems safe because it breeds a sense of manageability. It keeps life formulaic and predictable. It keeps earning-power in our camp. The logic of law makes sense. The logic of grace doesn’t. Grace is thickly counter-intuitive. It feels risky and unfair. It turns everything that makes sense to us upside-down. It’s not rational. It offends our deepest sense of justice and rightness. It wrestles control out of our hands and destroys our safe, conditional world.

While I hear myself cheering at Tullian's words, I find it very difficult to get myself to the place of grace (even those words "get myself" are rather telling in how counter-intuitive grace is). However, there are some entrance points, some doorways, some thin places where it seems easier to slip into the big easy-chair of grace, to put my weight into it and rest for a bit. These are not ways to regain control nor ways to ensure that things go right. No, these are just a few things that I have found helpful in positioning myself to receive grace instead of defaulting to self-improvement. These are invitations to receive grace and stop trying to do it all myself. These are not really habits at all, but ways to open our hands, our heads, our hearts, our lives to receive the gift of grace. Because grace is not a skill one can develop; it is a gift we must receive.

1. Don't be afraid. Don't be afraid of doing it wrong, of the future, of people, of what my past failures may have set in motion. Jesus (and numerous angels) was always telling people not to be afraid. Why? Because he was with them. Fear is basically mistrust. In contrast, being unafraid is putting myself in the vulnerable position of trusting someone. I believe that Jesus says "Don't be afraid" to me every day. Do I hear it? Do I choose to trust?
2. Say "yes" more than "no." I tend to see what is inadequate in people, in situations, in the work others do, in the work I do - you name it, I can tell you what's wrong with it. Having an automatic response of "no" means that grace is not in me. In order to give grace, I must be living in it, and living in it means saying "yes" to the embrace of God. God has already said "yes" to me, my failures and my successes, my ugliness and my beauty. The ability to say "yes" starts with knowing that God says "yes" to me, every day.
3. Let grace have a say in every horrible situation. In the middle of chaos or death or failure, stop and listen to grace. She has something important to say.
4. Let grace have a say in every incredible, wondrous situation. In the middle of great success, joyful celebration, outrageous good fortune, and jobs well done, stop and listen to grace. She has something important to say.
5. Look around you. See the people who stick with you through thick and thin. They are there, they are. Receive them into your life, even if you wish they were someone else or did things differently. Living in grace means not being so picky.
6. Create stations of grace in your house, your work, your neighbourhood, and your day. These are places or times or activities which make space for and trigger gratitude, peace, and contentment. Visit them several times a day. Let them be a place to feast on the unconditional acceptance of a loving and merciful God. It could be your dining room table (a good place for a feast), the bus ride to work, a walk in the park, your closet, sitting in front of a fire, reading a good book, having a cup of tea, or taking a hot bath. Give grace physical and temporal room in your life.

Sorry, there is no number 7. Can you have grace for my inconsistency? For not delivering what I promised in the title? For perhaps disappointing or frustrating you? I hope you say yes. Grace says yes.

Friday, November 22, 2013

tough subject

Image from studyinuk.universiablogs.net
The next milestone in my doctorate is looming on the horizon: the dreaded comprehensive exams. Basically, these exams test the student's general knowledge of their subject and two other related areas.  In my case the three areas of study are 20th century theology, ethics end encounter, and performance studies. I have spent the better part of six months plowing through a reading list of 69 titles in preparation for this exam which has two parts: a 3-hour test and a research paper. To be honest, this was the element of the degree that I most feared when I considered doctoral studies.  I have no problem doing research, writing papers, or even teaching, but being put on the spot with no idea what the questions might be and a very limited time to prove that I know what I am talking about: that's a scary thought. I am afraid I will draw a blank. It has happened before. I am one of those people who comes up with the perfect answer or comeback line the day after a conversation.  
 
Surprisingly, I am a lot less apprehensive about the upcoming exams than I thought I would be. For the most part, it is because I know a lot more about the subject matter than I did a few years ago. But also, I don't scare as easily and I am more accepting of the process I need to submit to in order to get where I want to go. Something I came across in my readings, an article by Anglican theologian Rowan Williams, resonated with my experience of studying theology and the learning journey in general.

Williams observes that difficult texts were highly prized in certain cultures, and he identifies three reasons for placing an elevated value on troublesome subject matter: 1) we do not value that which we discover rapidly or easily, 2) the unraveling of obscurity brings delight, and 3) learning (especially from Scripture) is a process - not a triumphant moment of penetration and mastery; it is an extended play of invitation and exploration. Williams concludes that studying the scriptures is a pilgrimage, a parable of our life.

In my experience as a teacher in both ecclesiastical and academic settings, the valuing of obscure texts and demanding subjects is in short supply. Many students want the easiest way through a class, trying to get maximum marks for minimum effort. Likewise, a good number of people in church settings are looking for simple answers to complex questions. These just don't exist, and Williams gives three good reasons why they shouldn't. I think part of the problem might be that we view understanding the scriptures as a task, an object to master, instead of a loving friendship to give oneself to. Another factor is that we lead such busy lives that many of us no longer have the patience for curiosity, wonder, and play. If you have ever watched a child with a new puzzle or game, you will observe the hours they spend focused on the challenge. If a simple game can garner such a devoted investment of energy, thought, and time, shouldn't the eternal sacred mysteries engage us to an even greater extent? In our fast-paced world, our values seem a bit skewed on this. Perhaps the most important factor here is the relationship between knowledge and love. The Swiss theologian, Balthasar, wrote that love precedes knowledge, and it is believed that Goethe said that one learns nothing except that which one loves. This has proven to be true in my situation. Love opens our hearts, our minds, and our lives. Love offers us a gift, and in return, it asks us to give ourselves. 

So bring on the comprehensive exams. I pray that I will be able to give my answers from a place of both love and knowledge. 

Reference: Rowan Williams, "Language, Reality, and Desire in Augustine's de Doctrina," Journal of Literature and Theology 3.2 (July 1989), 138-150.

Friday, November 15, 2013

black and white

3D chalk drawing by Julian Beever
Some people (and I can be one of them) tend to see the world in black and white, in terms of either good or bad, right or wrong, hot or cold, left or right. It makes life easier in many ways because when there are only two choices it is simple to tell the difference between them. Compartmentalizing life in this way (either/or) means that when we find ourselves on the "good" side of things (and we place ourselves there most of the time, admit it), we can relax. No gray areas to worry about, no nuances to unravel, no complex ethical quandaries to wrestle through. Just do the right thing and we're good, no questions asked. But not asking questions is a bit of a problem. People who don't ask questions, who don't look at situations from different angles...well, we call them extremists, blind followers, and even radical fundamentalists. We know them as people who don't bother to engage in the complexities of human experience. We recognize them as people who find change and transformation difficult to embrace. And perhaps worst of all, we cringe at their tendency to judge too quickly, very often squeezing everyone into one of two boxes: either we are in the "good" box with them or we are excluded, relegated to the "bad" box.

So as comforting as it may seem to think of life in terms of black and white, it is pitifully inadequate. Life is not black and white or even different shades of gray. Life is a full spectrum of colour.  Life is so much more than two dimensions such as left or right, liberal or conservative. Our world is three-dimensional which means we cannot catch the different angles of it from only one perspective. In fact, illusions are based on the observer being limited to only one perspective, many times looking through only one eye. Optical illusions are fun, but making life decisions based on a limited perspective, an illusion, is a bad idea.
The drawing from another angle

One thing I have learned about this world and the people in it is that there is always more to it than I first thought. There is always more information to be gleaned, there are always different ways to engage with people, there is always more wisdom to be gained. Life is not static; the nature of living beings is that they grow and change and move. There are some things which are bigger than our lives, things like love, joy, peace, faithfulness, goodness, and justice, and though these are solid and unfailing, they are difficult to grasp. Simply acting good does not make someone good (Jesus' interactions with the religious rulers of his day illustrates that point). These virtues have to come from a much deeper place, a place which operates on a spectrum much broader and more colourful than black and white.

One of the best examples of full colour living is God. Hey wait, you may be saying, doesn't he view the world as either for me or against me? As righteous or unrighteous?  Either good or evil? In some ways, yes, there is indeed a definite distinction between that which belongs to God and that which does not, but for me to assume that I can always tell the two apart, easy peasey, would be a severe overestimation of my level of discernment. Only God truly knows if someone is coming towards him or walking away from him. Let's take a look at the scriptures which say that God changed his mind. This is always an uncomfortable concept to grapple with, especially if we view life as either black or white. But a closer look at these stories reveals that God "changed" because the relationship changed. God's actions are based in relationship, not in abstract ideals, because God is love and love is always relational, not a rigid structure or system.

Take the story of Jonah's trip to Nineveh. Jonah changed his mind, the people of Nineveh changed their minds, and as a result, God also changed his mind. (I realize that we are dealing with anthropomorphism here, but it is the only way we can talk about God, in terms of our experience. As Dorothy Sayers says, we have no other measuring stick.) God's love is unchanging, yes, and God's justice is reliable, but how exactly God enacts these in relation to humanity is a beautiful story which unfolds with a certain amount of unpredictability. I am not suggesting that God's character is unpredictable, but that because of his all-encompassing perspective, his interactions with his world take on a wonderfully spontaneous and dynamic character from our limited perspective. Where we try to whittle God's goodness down to a set of rules, God reveals the expanding nature of his generosity. Where we would limit righteousness to moral rectitude, God extends mercy farther than we think it can stretch. Where we would call down judgment on the evil in this world, God patiently goes about transforming death into life.  These overabundant, more than enough, multi-dimensional, colour-saturated perspectives are difficult for me to see, but every so often I catch a glimpse of a world where nothing is separated from God's love and my black and white view is flooded with colours that defy description.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

public vs. private

Photo by Jeff Gynane (www.123rf.com)
This fall I am facilitating a spiritual formation course based on the book "The Good and Beautiful Life" by James Bryan Smith. Each week there are what the author calls "soul training" exercises: simple tasks to explore and practice the week's topic. This past week we read a chapter titled "Learning to Live Without Vainglory." The task was to perform five secret acts of service. That sounds pretty easy, right? Do five things to help other people? Well, it proved to be a bit more challenging than I thought. The first thing I did was to make special preparations in my home for some guests; really, I went way beyond what I normally do.  When Dean came home, I pointed it out to him: "Hey, do you see all the extra decorations?" And while I was speaking, I realized what I was doing. Service: yes. Secret: no. Fail.

The next day I decided to get a special treat for my love. I found something I thought he would really like and I brought it home and put it where he was sure to find it. When he called me from work that afternoon, I mentioned that there was a surprise waiting for him at home.  And once again, as I said the words, I realized that I had failed. In trying to build anticipation and heighten the surprise, I had taken away any aspect of secrecy. Man, this was proving to be harder than I thought.  And it also made me think about why I feel the need to share things with Dean or a friend or the world of facebook or even this blog. Yes, I get excited about helping others and that's good, but part of me also wants to be noticed, to have someone affirm that I am indeed a good person, that my actions are pointing my life in the right direction. Because I often doubt myself and the decisions I make, and the encouragement of others goes a long way.

This wee exercise showed me a few things, some good and some not so good. First, the good. I realised that I do have a heart to serve others and am not quite as self-centred as I sometimes accuse myself of being. Second, I am very blessed to be part of a community that values kindness, goodness, and loving service for others. This community is very encouraging to me, and I have learned much from them, especially how to love better. On the not so good end, I seem to have an internal narrative that believes my actions need to acknowledged in order to be valid or effective. Part of the reason is because I don't always trust my judgment in matters dealing with interpersonal relationships or large-scale vision. I have made errors in both areas and there is definitely a time and place for others to give helpful feedback and input. However, there is also a time and place when it is just between me and God.

I want to cultivate a profound and rich spiritual life which does not need constant outside validation. In my experience, this inner life flourishes when I plunge my face into the fountain of Life and drink deeply, not by constantly asking others if I am close enough to the water. In any intimate relationship, certain matters are not for public consumption. The more significant the friendship, the more exclusive are the conversations, the experiences, and the communication.  The little intimacies of lovers demonstrate vulnerability, trust, and a certain amount of sacrifice. In order to protect the integrity of an intimate relationship, these precious moments must not be flaunted in front of the world, must not be the subject of boasting or coarse jesting, must not be used as a measuring stick of comparison, must not end up as an illustration or anecdote, and must not be made to serve as a stepping stone for a greater purpose.  Because this depth of spirit, this intimacy, is the greater purpose. And it needs no advertising or applause to validate it. What it does need is gentle tending and diligent protection against becoming a means to a self-serving end.

Take care! Don't do your good deeds publicly, to be admired, for then you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give a gift to a beggar, don't shout about it as the hypocrites do - blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you in all earnestness, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you do a kindness to someone, do it secretly - don't tell your left hand what your right hand is doing. And your Father, who knows all secrets, will reward you. And now about prayer. When you pray, don't be like the hypocrites who pretend piety by praying publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. Truly, that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray, go away by yourself, all alone, and shut the door behind you and pray to your Father secretly, and your Father, who knows your secrets, will reward you. - Matthew 6, The Living Bible



Saturday, October 26, 2013

legendary

Image from break.com
What type of story captures our attention?  Is it the tale of a hero, a person who does extraordinary things in the face of great obstacles? Is it an adventure, a grand story that takes us to exotic lands? Is it a love story which makes our hearts pound with passion? What type of people impress us? Those who are well-spoken and intelligent? Those who are charismatic and funny? Or perhaps we are attracted to the beautiful and graceful ones.

This week has been a hodge-podge of reading for me: everything from biblical texts to anthropology, philology, play-writing, fiction, and memoirs. Some of the stories and characters have gripped me; others have left me unimpressed. It makes me wonder: what's the difference?  What am I looking for? What do I want to immerse myself in?

Erich Auerbach (he's a philologist, a person who studies language in ancient literature) observes the difference between two types of epic story: the legend and the historical account. His examples are Homer's Odyssey and the biblical story of Abraham. While the Odyssey is full of generous explanations, includes lengthy excurses here and there to give background to an event, and makes the reader privy to the inner thoughts of characters, the biblical account is stark in comparison.  So much is hidden. The God we encounter is mysterious, only select scenes of a person's life are included, many details which would seem important to the story are left out. And yet, says Auerbach, the biblical characters are so much more complex and developed and real than those in Homer's legend. Why? Because they are not fully set forth once and for all; they always invite further contemplation, further investigation, further interpretation.

He goes on to observe that the collection of biblical stories seems to lack cohesion. The details often collide and large gaps are evident; and yet, it smacks of historical importance because of these very things.  A simple and straightforward tale with all the loose ends tucked carefully inside is a legend.  A messy, confused story which runs variously here and there: that's history.

The legend creates its own world, it is a separate phenomenon where everything is brought to fullness. The legend invites us to escape reality for a few hours and enjoy this enchanted, unified place. In contrast, the biblical stories have no other unity than a rather obscure God. God is the only factor that ties the disjointed accounts together.  Nothing is included that does not relate to him in some way. Unlike a legend, the Old Testament does not offer an escape to another world. Auerbach writes:  "Far from seeking, like Homer, merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, it seeks to overcome our reality; we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history." (Auerbach, Mimesis, 15). This makes reading the Bible an uncomfortable undertaking many times. It insists that it is relevant and that its story is our story. We all too often prefer a neater version of life, in other words, a legend.

People who write memoirs or stories of their lives have to resist the temptation to make things neat and tidy. They have to be vigilant against the tendency to spin tales that make them out to be more heroic than they actually are or the urge to heighten certain events to make them more fantastic than they actually were. We can all tell when a tale is too good to be true because intrinsically we know that life is not legendary stuff. Even writers of fiction who have to construct unified stories if they are going to draw us in, know how to make their stories messy enough that the reader will be able to identify with the gaps, the mystery, the unfinished nature that we all recognize as part of life.

The problem is that we can be drawn to stories and characters who appear to have the things we lack. We would love the ability to overcome tremendous obstacles without breaking a sweat, to rise from obscurity to fame, to find the perfect mate who is both rich and good-looking, to live an adventurous life without messy attachments or responsibilities, to solve a grand mystery, to have a superpower, etc. Legends are great entertainment, to be sure, but they are safe stories. They require nothing of us. In fact, they can render us somewhat delusional because they offer a reality that is anything but real. History (real life) is messy. We have to live with constant mystery. We will never know the reasons behind many things. We also inherit a messy history which means that if we want to move on, we have to repent for past misdeeds and forgive those who have wronged us. We have to deal with people who are unkind and dishonest, and if we want any sort of meaningful relationships, we have to learn to love those who are not beautiful nor always lovable. And even if we do the best we can, things won't always work out the way we want them to.

And that's a good thing because it makes us look beyond our story. Unlike a legend which is a closed world, the story of God is a living story which invites us in. It invites us to make our story part of something larger, and it offers us the chance to experience a more unified life by becoming united with the great unifier. We may still be surrounded by obscurity and mystery, but we can be at peace with it because we are not trying to be legendary; we are just keeping it real.

"The sublime influence of God ... reaches so deeply into the everyday that the two realms of sublime and the everyday are not only actually unseparated but inseparable." (Auerbach, Mimesis, 22-23).

Friday, October 18, 2013

failure

K2. Image from  imgur.com
It's not as easy to fail as one might think.  Oh really?  Yes, because a lot of the time what we take to be failure is not. In fact, one could say that many of our ideas about failure (not achieving a desired outcome) are more myth than truth. And I don't mean myth in the sense of a traditional story concerning the early history of a people, a folk tale, but that it is a widely held but false idea. Often our concept of failure is too simple, and we jump to the "F" word quicker than a cat off a hot stove. The equation seems rather straightforward: I want A. I need to do B to accomplish. A. I was unable to complete B.  I did not accomplish A. I failed. Now, wait just a minute. Let's back this up a bit and look at some of the problems with this equation.

1. We assume that A is obvious and very specific. The fact is that the more specific we make our goal, the more likely we will need to adjust it as we go along. Keeping A rather broad allows us to interpret and apply it in different ways, allowing lots of flexibility and creativity. For example, loving others is a very flexible, broad goal which can be pursued in numerous ways. On the other hand, buying a new car for our neighbour is a much more specific and difficult goal. And it may not be the best way we can show love to our neighbour.

2. We assume that there is only one way (B) to accomplish A. This type of narrowness sets us up for failure. There are many ways to get something done, so it is best to explore a few different options, ready to switch methods if one doesn't work out. Because life always throws something at us that we weren't expecting, the path to our goal is often not a straight line.  We should always be more committed to the goal than to the method. I am not saying that the end justifies the means, but that there are lots of means. Don't get locked into just one.

3. When we do fail to accomplish a certain task, it does not mean that we have failed overall or that the goal is now unattainable. It just means that we have hit an obstacle along the way. We probably need to stop and re-evaluate, look at different options, get some wise counsel if we can.  As long as we have not reached A, A is still possible. Somehow. Someway.

4. When A really looks like a lost cause, perhaps it is time to dig a little deeper and see if it was indeed a worthy and reasonable goal.  Sometimes we set our sights on something which, though useful in getting us started on a journey, is not really what we ultimately want or need.  As we go along, we might realize that the goal we had in mind is not really adequate. Our desires might be misguided or unrealistic. We may have mistaken fear, nostalgia, compulsion, anger, or any other strong desire or emotion for the motivation and confirmation of our goal. It is totally okay (and often wise) to re-imagine and re-adjust our goals as we go along.  If we don't do this, we might want to question if we are learning anything as we journey through life. Have we gained more information that needs to be taken into consideration? Have we heard some wise counsel which changes our outlook? Have we experienced healing in a way that has removed former compulsions and might significantly impact our goals?

Don't get me wrong, I am not advocating indecisiveness, breaking commitments, or endlessly changing course until one is confused and lost. What I am talking about is seeing temporary setbacks or adjustments as just that - temporary. Not the ultimate failure. I am talking about the need to hold fast to broad goals (love each other) and keep more specific ones (buying someone a car) in an open hand. By all accounts, I have failed many times in one of the goals I set for myself this year, yet I am still working away at it. The methods have changed, the timetable has been adjusted, and my expectations have fluctuated. But I am still on the path (though I floundered several times) and I am happy to say that the end is in sight.

This week I started reading Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin. It is the story of a man who set out to honour his sister's memory by climbing K2 (2nd highest mountain in the world, considered by many the most difficult mountain for climbers to scale) and leaving her necklace at the top.  By all accounts, Greg Mortensen failed. After months of preparation, an incident involving another member of the team cost him his shot at the top. After a grueling 96 hour supply climb and descent, Mortensen and his teammate were called on to rescue a fellow climber in trouble. With only two hours of rest, they set out again and climbed for 24 hours to reach the sick man who was suffering from a pulmonary edema (and by this time his brain had begun to swell as well). There were two other climbers with the sick man, so all four men spent another 54 hours dragging and lowering the incapacitated man down craggy rock faces before they reached K2 base camp.

Mortensen and his fellow climber had so depleted their physical resources that they decided it would be too risky to attempt an ascent that year.  They both headed back toward civilization. Due to K2's remote location, it took another seven days of hiking to reach the nearest town. In his weakened state, Mortensen wandered off the path numerous times, once for several hours which left him alone on the glacier for a night with very limited supplies. On the last day, when his porter had gone on ahead, Mortensen again took a wrong turn and ended up in a small mountain village he had never heard of. Exhausted, he collapsed into the hospitality of the people of Korphe and slept in the house of the chief elder.

Mortensen felt something special in the town of Korphe and chose to recuperate there. As he regained strength, he got to know the resilient people of the mountain village and saw the struggles they faced. When Mortensen asked to see the village's school, the chief took him to an open area where 82 children (only 4 of them girls) knelt on the frosty ground and did their lessons without a teacher. At that point, Mortensen made a decision. Here is an excerpt from the book:

Standing next to Haji Ali,on the ledge overlooking the valley, with such a crystalline view of the mountain he'd come halfway around the world to measure himself against, climbing K2 to place a necklace on its summit suddenly felt beside the point. There was a much more meaningful gesture he could make in honor of his sister's memory. He put his hands on Haji Ali's shoulders, as the old man had done to him dozens of times since they'd shared their first cup of tea. "I'm going to build you a school," he said, not yet realizing that with these words, the path of his life had just detoured down another trail, a route far more serpentine and arduous than the wrong turns he'd taken since retreating from K2. (Three Cups of Tea, p. 33)

Mortensen did fail at reaching the summit of K2 and planting his sister's necklace there. But in failing to do so, he saved the life of a teammate, he made friends with the people of Korphe, and he founded an organization that has built over 170 schools in remote Pakistan and Afghanistan, providing education for many children, including 54,000 girls. His goal in honouring the memory of his sister was reached in a way more fantastic, meaningful, and far-reaching than he first imagined. And that's not really failure.

All that is gold does not glitter
Not all those who wander are lost
The old that is strong does not wither
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken
A light from the shadows shall spring
Renewed shall be blade that was broken
The crownless again shall be king.

- from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

NOTE: There are some questions about the veracity of certain parts of the book and most recently, Mortenson has come under investigation for handling of funds for his charity, CAI. While I acknowledge these difficulties with the story, I do believe that the point of this blog still stands.


Friday, October 11, 2013

The MEDIUM

Mixed media on my table this morning
As part of the homework for a spiritual formation course I am facilitating, I took a two-day media break this week. Since I was working and still needed to attend to necessary correspondence and research, I didn't forgo the internet entirely, but what I did do was stay off Facebook, not take any pictures, not post anything anywhere, not watch television, not listen to music, not read emails that didn't need a response, and not research anything that wasn't directly related to my work. Two days is a relatively short period of time, and not all that stringent of a media break, but I found it quite instructive.

The first thing I noticed was that I had to deal with a compulsion to regularly check all my usual haunts (Facebook, email, Instagram, Words with friends, etc.).  I also had to resist the urge to instantly look up something I was curious about and fight against the habit of passing the time on the bus by fiddling with my iPhone. Things that we do on a regular basis become like second nature, so to change a habit requires a bit of effort.  I had to say no a lot and I am happy to report that my no feature works fine! This is probably one of the most beneficial aspects of any kind of fast or period of denial: giving the no muscle a workout.  It was most encouraging to experience not being at the whim of my desires and impulses and realising that I can direct my thoughts and actions in the way I want them to go. I have the ability to say no to temptation. I am not implying that this is easy, it is not. It is always simpler just to keep doing what we are accustomed to doing, but like the trainer on my DVD workout says: transformation is not a future event, it is an everyday activity. And saying no to compulsion is part of transformation.  Whenever I had the urge to check on something (and there were several times where I pulled out my iPhone and was poised to type in something that I thought I needed to know about right away, but I resisted), I reminded myself that the only thing I want to be compelled by is love (2 Cor. 5:14). One of the happy side effects of saying no to compulsion is that we avoid distractions and going down tangential bunny trails. It meant that I had two of the most productive days of work ever!

Part of the problem with being so attached to media input is that we lose the sense of immediacy. The word "medium" indicates that there is always something or someone in the middle, an intermediary, an interpreter, an intervening agency that distances us from the source. This is one of the reasons that the Old Testament forbid consulting mediums or spiritists (Deut. 18). God invites people to address him directly, to meet with him, to be in a close relationship. But we are prone to use a medium because it allows us to keep people (and God) at a safe distance (see Exodus 20). The media do most of our work for us, interpreting the news, only giving us what is deemed important or noteworthy, and serving up endless information for our consumption and amusement with relatively little effort or commitment on our part. On the other hand, real relationships take a lot of work: more attention must be given than posting a status on Facebook, writing a short tweet, or liking someone's photo. In real relationships we can't just show our best side and we can't edit what people see and hear. Real, one-on-one, face-to-face relationships require a lot more courage and dedication than media interactions.

Last night I got off the bus and turned around to see a most spectacular sunset happening. There were pinks and greys and blues; there were variegated clouds in intricate patterns extending across most of the sky. My first impulse was to whip out my iPhone, take a picture, and post it. But I said no. Instead I stopped, stood silently for a few minutes, and just took it in with my eyes. No camera between me and the sky. And it was one of the most satisfying moments of my day. Like letting a chocolate dissolve in your mouth instead of chewing it quickly.

Staying away from media for a few days was also a good reminder that the world keeps on turning whether I update my Facebook status or not, whether I post a photo of that great view or not, whether I blog or not. The false sense of urgency fades. For anyone who is trying to build a network or gain traction on social media (some writers and artists depend on these platforms to earn their living, so I understand the necessity of consistent good work) it can be tricky not to feel pressured to put something interesting and amazing out there every day in order to keep your audience coming back for more. But I never want to make writing and creative decisions based on how many people follow me or how many hits I get on my blog. Again, I only want to be compelled by love, so I often repeat the following mantra to myself: if I don't have a genuine gift to give to others, there is no need to post something. There is no need to fill up space.

This week I came across something that really resonated with my exercise in saying no.  It challenges our contemporary definition of freedom as "the right to choose." In truth, this idea has more to do with consumerism than with real freedom.  Thankfully, freedom has not always been this cheaply defined.  

"...for philosophers such as Aristotle, freedom was not an end in itself; we became free only as we acquired the moral capability to guide our lives. To lack such capability was to be subject to the undisciplined desires and choices of the immature. Thus freedom did not reside in making choices but in being the kind of person for whom certain options simply were not open. Freedom was not a status but a skill." (Stanley Hauerwas. The Peaceable Kingdom. University of Notre Dame, 1991, p. 8) 

Let us develop the skill of freedom not only by our yes but also by our no

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

doing theology in reverse

Due to a hectic reading schedule and a trip to the apple orchard on my day off, I didn't have time to post anything this week, but go ahead and check out the blog I wrote for a practical theology forum here. It talks about what I have been reading lately in Christian ethics and how a different reading of the story of Cain and Abel challenged me to think about how we naturally gravitate towards positions of favour instead of willingly taking on the role of humble servant.

Monday, September 30, 2013

at your service

Setting up lunch at the conference
I was working at a conference (Christian Faith and the University) this past week in Montreal.  The schedule featured many top scholars in the fields of Christian history, ethics, biblical studies, and practical theology. If anyone has ever been a conference assistant, you know that it means being the first to arrive and the last to leave. It means setting up the registration desk, greeting people, making  coffee and arranging refreshments in an aesthetically pleasing way, accepting deliveries from the caterer, setting up meeting spaces, putting up posters and signs, carrying cases of water and trays of food up and down flights of stairs, and basically doing anything and everything that needs to be done to help the conference run smoothly.

Some of the benefits of working at a conference such as this are that you get to meet many interesting and influential people who know a lot about different aspects of theology, and you can take in some of their presentations and talks. For graduate students such as me, this is a prime opportunity to listen to the latest thoughts and ideas from people working in the same field. This can add to your knowledge and enhance your own work. In addition, you have the chance to introduce yourself to people who might give you a job down the road or be able to guide you in your research. At least that's the theory.

Friday was a super long day starting at 6 am and ending when I got home just after 10:30 pm. I had spent most of the day making coffee, setting out refreshments, cleaning up after people, answering questions, and carrying large quantities of food down a flight of stairs.  My fellow conference assistants were doing what they were supposed to do which meant that at times they took a break to attend some of the sessions and I was left alone to hold down the fort. By the end of the day, I was feeling a bit sorry for myself. I hadn't had a chance to take in very many talks, I had not really made any connections, and I felt more like a waitress or stewardess than a doctoral student.  Here is a dramatized version of the conversation I had with God that night.

M: All I do is make coffee and set up cookies while everyone else gets to network and meet important people and hear amazing talks which help them in their research!  What about me? When do I get a break?
G: Oh, little one. Your job is to serve. So serve! Do it well and do it with joy. Don't worry about promoting yourself. That's not your job. Can you focus on serving and trust me with everything else?
M: Yes. I think I can.

On Saturday morning I arrived at the conference, tired but with a new attitude.  I was there to serve, so I made coffee while others were attending and giving presentations. I set up cookies and helped the caterer carry lunch down a flight of stairs (with some help this time, yay!). When the attendees arrived for their meal, I volunteered to be on hand to see to their needs and direct traffic.  I saw the woman whom I had met over drinks the night before go through the line, so I quickly said hi and told her I had enjoyed hearing about her work in practical theology and spirituality and hopefully we would see each other again. She promptly invited me to a conference she was organizing in Zurich and told me she could probably fit me in as a presenter. The conversation was no longer than 5 minutes; she went off to eat her lunch and I continued to assist the lunch-eaters. But my heart was pounding.  Had I just been invited to attend a conference in Switzerland to speak about Christian spirituality? Without even trying to promote myself?

I was reminded of the story about how two of Jesus' disciples tried to secure favoured positions for themselves in the kingdom of God. After Jesus indicated that he was not able to grant them their request, he called all the disciples together to set things straight..

When the ten others heard about this, they lost their tempers, thoroughly disgusted with the two brothers. So Jesus got them together to settle things down. He said, “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for the many who are held hostage.” (Matthew 20:24-28, The Message)

Jesus came to serve and he asks us to do the same.  Whether we gain great positions in this world or the next is not really our concern. We are simply to serve.  And we have to be careful not to see serving as some sort of magic key which unlocks success; that is not the point of my story. The point here is that when I do what Jesus asks of me (to serve) then I align myself with the ways of God. My life ends up going "with the grain" of the kingdom of God, so to speak, instead of being at odds with it. And when we are going with Jesus (obedience), his purposes are accomplished and our life flourishes. Flourishing may not look like worldly success (Jesus ended up being killed) but it always brings the kingdom of heaven to earth. It always gives a gift to those we come into contact with. And it always shines bright with hope, grace, and love.

May I continue to learn how to serve in every situation.  Even in Switzerland.

Friday, September 20, 2013

shortcut theology

Image from cshughes.com
One of the byproducts of studying theology is that I listen very carefully to how we talk about God. While it is often indirect, our language can reveal that we believe God is tough to please, slow to respond, and slightly stingy. Other times we speak about a God who is so accepting and non-judgmental that justice and discernment never seem to enter the picture. Sometimes we use words that speak of God as an enigma that we are trying to decipher. We may also conclude that the world is a direct reflection of God which makes him a pretty messed up Creator. Our words also reveal what we expect or want from God. We ask for healing, for money, for jobs, for a life partner, for well-behaved children, for good grades, for direction in life. We basically want our lives to turn out well.

Now there is nothing wrong with desiring a good life, but part of the problem is that we have a rather impoverished notion of this "good life," equating it with comfort and riches. The other problem is the way many of us go about trying to "wrestle" this good life from the hands of God. Sadly, it reveals that we often partake in what I call "shortcut theology." Basically, we want a life filled with miracles and divine interventions instead of one that includes difficult challenges, painful transformation, and ongoing surrender.

Shortcuts are helpful at times, no question, but a life made up of shortcuts builds a different kind of character than one which is dedicated to truly walking with Jesus through death into life. Take the analogy of a builder: do you want to hire a builder who uses shortcuts or one who lays each piece of wood and pounds in each nail with care and patience? Do you want a builder who is happy with a product as long as it looks good on the outside or one who measures every cut twice and pulls out every crooked nail? This is not to say that God is not a healer, a miracle-worker, and a generous giver; God is all that, but he also reveals himself as a suffering servant, obedient to the death. God's gracious gifts are never meant to be shortcuts to the "good life," but come to us as a natural expression of who God is. Let me expand on this a bit more by addressing some of the limiting views we can have of God which might result in "shortcut theology."

1. God is not a "means to an end" God. In other words, God is not utilitarian by nature. He does not "use" people or situations in order to achieve a purpose. I realize that some of the Old Testament accounts might read this way at first glance, but remember that the leitmotif (guiding theme) of the story of Israel is the covenant phrase "You will be my people and I will be your God." It is relational, not utilitarian. We may explain sickness or a challenging time in life by saying it is meant to build character or correct us or set us on a different course. While these could indeed be some of the results, we must be careful about this type of reasoning. Seeing God as utilitarian means that we see him as somewhat of a manipulator, pulling strings to get a certain result. A utilitarian God would see people as objects and projects, constantly being "worked on" in order to be made holy, righteous, and fit for the kingdom of God. We would be on God's holy assembly line, so to speak; it is easy to see that this model of God as "fabricator" is not personal or intimate at all. The question "why" figures heavily in the utilitarian equation. Why did this horrible thing happen? So that God could purify us. Why am I not healed? Because it would be bad for me in some way. For every event, there is an explanation. If you have ever read the Bible, you will know that it is not a book full of explanations, providing reasons for every event, a because for every why. We must be careful not to reduce God to being the ultimate purpose-driven personality.

2. God is not an "exchange" God. By this I mean that life with God does not operate in neat equations whereby we do x and God responds with y. I repent = God grants me salvation from hell. I do something bad = God makes me miserable. I give money to the church = I become richer. Projecting Newton's law of physics, that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, onto the Creator of the universe is extremely problematic. First, it means that our view of God resembles a sophisticated power tool that we are trying to master, and second, it reveals that we are attempting to "use" God for our own purposes. That never turns out well.

3. God is not a "mastermind" God. When we believe that life is a conundrum to be figured out or a mystery to be solved, we often use vocabulary like "finding the secret" or "discovering the key." We might think that God has concocted a puzzle and once we properly decipher the clues, we will have entry into the "hidden" ways of God. However, God has not created an elaborate system for which we have to crack the code in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus spent a lot of time teaching about the kingdom of God/kingdom of heaven and he insisted that it is near, it is close, it is right beside us. There is no secret to unlock. God may be impossible to fully comprehend but he is not looking for clever people to unravel a mystery, he is asking us to be his friends.

Let me suggest another way of looking at God. God is radiant. God shines. God penetrates. God brightens. God illuminates. God exudes, emanates, emits, gives out, shimmers, flashes, burns, is brilliant, is resplendent. God is light and in him there is no darkness. This One is not primarily linear, not an equation, not a secret to unravel.  This One is glory, pure and beautiful.  This radiant One eradicates sin, injustice, evil, and pride. This One somehow incites and dispels fear at the same time. This One is pervasive and persuasive, yet invitational. Like the warm sun, this One's light transforms a seed in a dark place into a flourishing plant which bears much fruit. This One is Light, Life, Truth, Love, and the Way (the how). This One asks to be enjoyed, to be lived in.

NOTE: I drank a bit too much caffeine last night.  As a result, I was lying awake at various times of the night and early morning thinking about what I have been reading lately and how it applies to my doctoral dissertation. This post contains some thoughts that came out of these musings.  I realize that it is a bit underdeveloped and overextended at this point, but I wanted to begin to articulate some of these ideas to see where they might lead. Your comments welcome.  

Friday, September 13, 2013

are you kidding me?

Concordia University, library building just visible on the far left
There are days when I am glad I am not a brain surgeon.  Well, that's pretty much every day because those surgeons start work really early, but yesterday was one of those days when I was thankful that when I have an "off" day, people's lives are not at stake (don't mean to offend any surgeons or theologians by that statement). So, yeah, a lot of little things went wrong yesterday, many tasks ended up being much more complicated than they had to be, I was not at my best, and the combination was not pretty.

Yesterday I had a meeting scheduled with my supervisor at the university, there was a book I needed to read at the library (only available on a 3-hour loan), and I had a few errands to run, so I thought I would pack up my laptop, a few supplies and books, and spend most of the day at school. The first thing I did when I got downtown was to head to the post office to send a money order. The nice gentleman at the counter informed me that they could not process my request and I would have to go to a bank.  Oh well, I had no time for that at the moment. My meeting with my supervisor went swimmingly (British for 'very well') and then I did the 10 minute walk to the bank to complete my first errand.  After that was done, I walked back to the school and picked up the 3-hour book (flashbacks to Gilligan's Island, anyone?).

I headed up 2 flights of stairs to the graduate study room only to find a sign posted on the door that said the access code had been changed and I would need to get the new code from the circulation desk.  Okay.  Back down 2 flights of stairs to the circulation desk which had bars across it...what? It was closed! At 3:30 in the afternoon! (I actually said, "Are you kidding me?" at this point, very softly of course because I was in the library.) The sign informed me that the employees were voting on something for their collective agreement so they had been given 2 hours off. Okay. Change of plan.  I found a quiet study carrel on the third floor, set up my computer, pulled out my book, and started reading.

All my study notes are on dropbox, an online storage service which allows me to access my stuff from anywhere and serves as an automatic backup as well.  I tried to sign into the university wireless network but was unsuccessful.  Something needed to be configured in my computer. But wait! I had my iphone with me so I went to the university's IITS website where I knew the instructions were posted. Alas, the steps would not open up when I tapped my finger on them; obviously the site was not mobile-friendly. Sigh. By this time I was aware of stomach grumblings and plunging energy levels and realized that I had better eat something. Since there is no food allowed in the library, I packed everything up and headed across the street to the coffee shop where I had a quick bite to eat.

After I had some calories in me, I went back into the library, found the circulation desk open, acquired the new access code (which was the exact same as the old access code????!!!!!???). Obviously, I should have tried the "old" access code when I was there the first time. Silly me. Anyway, I was not in the mood to trek all the way to the graduate study room, so I plunked my stuff down in a nearby study carrel and cracked open the book once again.  I took notes without getting online and managed to finish the first chapter before the volume was due back in the reserve library. Not as productive a day as I had hoped it would be.

As I was leaving the library with my loaded backpack (laptop, several books, jacket, water), I glanced at the computer stations on the 2nd floor. Then it dawned on me that I could have used one of the computer stations at the university, gone online, and accessed my file. I hadn't really needed to drag my laptop downtown. Sigh. I was low on energy again, so I went to the cafe in the university and ordered a smoothie which listed the ingredients as yogurt and fruit. Yay! I love yogurt and fruit! I watched the guy make the smoothie and noticed that he poured milk into it and added no yogurt. The smoothie he handed me was runny. I asked him if he had included yogurt and he said yes and asked for $3.50. Well, I didn't want to accuse him of lying, perhaps he was using special yogurt-infused milk (yeah, right), so I took my runny smoothie and started the 40 minute walk to my next appointment: a bible study/discussion group.

It was nice afternoon for a walk, but my backpack soon got heavy and my legs got tired. I stopped at a used book store for 15 minutes and browsed but they didn't have anything I really wanted, so I arrived at my friend's house 15 minutes late. But I did have a bag of lime and black pepper potato chips in my hand to share with others! We had a good evening reading sections of the book of Luke and praying for our province. At the end, I told my friends about my day and they graciously offered to pray for me. I told them that what I was most disappointed in was not all the little things that went wrong or my inefficiency, but the agitation I felt rising up in my soul.  Why did a few little (okay, quite a lot of little) inconveniences cause such unrest in me?  If I couldn't handle a bit of a messy day with peace and grace, then how would I respond in the face of real pressure or real trouble?  This was my concern.

In truth, dealing with really big trouble and tragedy often seems to be easier because we know we have to draw on reserves bigger than our own, we surround ourselves with prayer and supportive friends, we cry out to God, and we focus on the important things, becoming more mindful of our thoughts and actions. But with everyday annoyances, we forget to practice this path to serenity and we end up being reactionary instead of thoughtful and intentional. We forget the habits of serenity and peace.

Today I found this in Jeremiah, a book packed with doom and gloom and trouble:

But blessed is the man who trusts in me, God,
the woman who sticks with God.
They're like trees replanted in Eden,
putting down roots near the rivers -
Never a worry through the hottest of summers,
never dropping a leaf,
Serene and calm through droughts,
bearing fresh fruit every season. (Jeremiah 17, The Message)

And this is my prayer, that I would be serene and calm not only on the outside (yesterday I appeared pretty calm externally) but on the inside, in troubles and inconveniences big and small, in drought and heat as well as storm and rain and wind.  May I stick with God, put my roots down deep into his Life, and from that source bring forth good fruit in every season, not just the pleasant ones where everything goes well.  And may God bless all brain surgeons with steady hands, quick, alert minds, and serenity in high-pressure situations.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

a funeral and a wedding

First course at the wedding feast I attended
Dean and I just returned from a brief vacation in Manitoba. My nephew was getting married so the plan was to fly out the week before the big celebration and spend some time relaxing and hanging out with family and friends.  But things changed.  In the middle of the week we flew back to Montreal to attend the funeral of a dear friend.

When I arrived at the funeral, I wasn't sure what to expect.  Because our friend had moved away a few years ago, we had not had much contact with him recently. I wondered if the end had been painful, wrenching, heartbreaking. And because he was so young, I assumed that a sense of premature loss would permeate much of the atmosphere. I was wrong.  His family set a tone of peaceful, restrained celebration. His mother told me the story of his brave last days when courage overcame pain and hope outshone disappointment.  She told of the final chapter of his life when clarity, revelation, and surrender guided him to make some tough decisions in order to calibrate his life more closely to his saviour, Jesus. Together we rejoiced in a life lived with a sense of adventure. We celebrated the hope that death is not the final goodbye. We sang loud songs of joy and beauty. We laughed and cried and recounted amusing anecdotes. I was privileged to say a few words, so I spoke about his unique gift of making extraordinary friends, his ability to make people feel special, and his determination that we should all be our best selves.  A few of us went out to dinner that night and raised a glass to our friend, our brother, the one who went down the path before us. The day left me with a sense of closure, a certain satisfaction and contentment in the remarkable story this short life told.

The wedding ceremony three days later had some of the same mix of emotions as I experienced at the funeral. There was drama as the hot, sunny day changed moment by moment due to a passing weather system which caused the clouds to swirl around us.  During the song "How Great Thou Art" we all heard the rolling thunder, and light rain began to sprinkle on the assembled guests as the pastor gave a brief homily. By the time the papers were signed and the officiant was ready to announce the newly married couple, a strong gust of wind was blowing, the air was about ten degrees cooler, and the grey clouds were racing across the sky, an ever-changing canvas. The evening continued under a tent in the park where we ate, talked, laughed, danced, and celebrated in the glow of love.

People at funerals often ponder the question why?  Why was this life cut short? Why was there so much suffering? Why did things turn out this way?  Why didn't God heal? These questions cannot be answered from our limited perspective and honestly, I believe they are not all that helpful because they can end in hopelessness. Perhaps the more appropriate (and answerable) question would be what? What is suffering about? What does healing look like? What can death teach us? Like a two-year-old, we sometimes tend to jump to the question of why? before we really know much about the subject matter (the what?). It seems presumptuous to ask why God does not heal when I have spent little time exploring the grand Healer's invitation to wholeness. It seems presumptuous to ask why a life was cut short when I have spent little energy investigating the impact of choices in my own life and the world around me. It seems presumptuous to ask why there is suffering when I have not sat with those who suffer and learned from them.

It is interesting to observe that we seldom ask the question why? at weddings. Though we don't really know what attracts one person to another, or how the phenomenon of love causes us to become irrationally selfless, or how the journey of two people will end after their vows, we never really ask why?  We just join in the party, almost blindly optimistic, sure that there is a bright and promising future ahead for them. And this strikes me as being quite similar to a funeral for one whose hope is in Christ. We don't need to answer the question of why? We are simply invited, as part of the larger community of Jesus followers, to join in a grand hope for a bright tomorrow, to anticipate the ultimate wedding feast, and to let faith, hope, and above all, love, carry us forward.

On Wednesday I was speaking at a funeral and three days later I was dancing at a wedding. A striking picture of death and resurrection that I will not soon forget.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

open house

Downtown Montreal this past weekend
Dean and I are always considering our options when it comes to housing, so while we are doing a few minor fix-ups on our condo this summer, we thought we would also check out what living downtown might look like and what it would cost. One of the display condos we wanted to visit this past Sunday was closed by the time we got there, so when we saw a sign advertising several open houses in a building right next to our car, we decided to take a look. The first place the real estate agent showed us was two lofts that had been converted into one.  It was exceptional, he told us. And so was the price, he added. We walked into a large foyer and I could see floor to ceiling windows, gleaming wood floors, and exposed brick.  The kitchen was imported Italian marble, the office had custom cabinets along one entire wall, and the master suite included a large walk-in closet, an elevated sleeping area, and a spacious bathroom. The furnishings were carefully chosen, comfortable yet stylish and unique, a mixture of old world and modern. It was a beautiful loft with a fabulous view of the city and the price was fabulous as well at over one million dollars.

The real estate agent, no doubt having assessed that we were not going to put down a cash deposit then and there, whisked us off to three other lofts, each a quarter of the size of the million dollar splurge, but still modern, tastefully decorated (one had a wall mural featuring a large face), and interesting in their own way.  One had a bathroom custom-designed by the owner so that they could watch television from the bathtub. It was a bit weird to have the bathroom separated from the main living area by sliding frosted glass doors, but if it worked for her...

The last place we went to was across the courtyard in an ultra-modern building.  In contrast to the studio lofts we had been seeing, this one was listed as a 2 bedroom. The real estate agent knocked on the door and when no one answered, used his key to get in.  I heard him talking to someone as he stepped inside the door and a male voice responded saying he didn't know about the visit/open house and that he was busy working.  Nevertheless, he said we could look around, so we entered.  It was indeed an ultra modern condo on two levels, but there were a few odd things about it. First, there was a large bed in the living room. Second, there was a guy sitting at a desk in the dining room who never turned to look at the five of us who were invading his home. His eyes were glued to his computer screen. We took a quick look around the first floor (they hadn't really tidied) and then headed up the open staircase with the bright red railing. The guy in the dining room gave a quick yell that people were coming, so it became apparent that there was another person upstairs. The real estate agent had the same exchange with the second guy (did you tell me about this visit? you did? well, I guess it's okay but I'm busy working).  The upstairs guy was also at a computer at a large desk in an open office and hardly glanced our way.  I wondered what kind of work they were doing on a Sunday afternoon that required such undivided attention.  We quickly toured the bedroom which featured clothes scattered all over the floor, saw a glorious deck that was apparently used for smoke breaks, peeked at a disheveled bathroom, and wondered how the open office/den could be classified as a second bedroom.  It was quite an uncomfortable visit and I began to feel increasingly agitated as we walked around.  We didn't stay long.

As we drove off, I realized that this last visit had quite an effect on me. I felt stressed and jittery, ill at ease.  Dean had observed that the "work" that these guys were doing was playing online poker. He assumed that this was how they made their living.  He guessed that they each had about six screens/games going.  Well no wonder I was feeling a bit agitated; I had no doubt picked up on the stress, pressure, and high stakes of the unpredictable world these guys lived in.

I gave a talk on Ignatius of Loyola on Tuesday and in it I mentioned how he discovered that emotions and feelings can help us to discern the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in our lives. He divided emotions into two categories, consolation and desolation, and used these as guidelines to help him pay attention to what God was doing. If emotions were from a good spirit, they would give courage and strength, bring inspiration and peace, would remove obstacles, and help the soul make progress in good works. Even tears would be cleansing and healing. The good spirit of consolation should be accepted because it would inflame one with love for the Creator and increase faith, hope, charity, joy, peace and quiet. In contrast, an evil spirit would bring anxiety, sadness, obstacles, false reasoning, and no progress would be made in good works. The bad spirit should be rejected because it would lead to darkness of the soul, turmoil of the mind, an inclination to low and earthly things, restlessness from disturbances and temptations, a loss of faith, loss of hope, loss of love, and a tendency toward being apathetic, sad, tepid, and ultimately separated from the Creator.

When I thought back on my experience on Sunday afternoon, I recognized my emotions as coming from a bad place; they would lead nowhere good.  So I rejected them (asked the Spirit to wash them from me and then set my mind on more beautiful things) and prayed for those two guys who lived in this restless, anxious world. Emotions which are "bad" can point out places in our lives where change might be necessary. They can highlight situations that we need to commit to prayer.  They can show where we might need to take decisive action or when to help a friend in need.  Or they might reveal obstacles that we need help to overcome. Emotions which are "good" enrich us and those around us by spreading peace, joy, love, and forgiveness.

As someone who can be quite emotionally sensitive, I have at times struggled to keep my emotions from overwhelming me and taking me somewhere I don't necessarily want to go. But I have found Ignatius' insights about the role of emotions in discernment to be true. Emotions are gifts. They are meant to draw us closer to our Creator and to each other. But they are not all helpful. Let us live in consolation and walk away from desolation.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

the lessons I keep on learning

Fork in the path in my neighbourhood
There is a basic principle that I (and a great deal of humanity, I suspect) have trouble remembering. And it is this: What I do today affects who I am tomorrow.  It seems rather obvious that the choices I make right now will set me on a certain trajectory for the future.  But somehow, the present moment tricks us into thinking that it exists in isolation from everything else.  We believe that just this once, we will be able to escape proven consequences, or on the other side of things, that this is going to be the time when I will reap rewards way beyond the effort I put in. We like to hope that we can have our cake and eat it too.  And all too often I hope that the bag of chips I ate at 10 pm won't make me feel like a bloated hippo the next day.  Not so.

I have been reading Isaiah, a book which is all about the decisions people make and how these lead them either to destruction or toward God's goodness. Some of the pronouncements of judgment are difficult to read, but they illustrate the lesson that is to be learned: keep on making bad decisions and you will end up in a downward spiral. Thankfully, there are a lot of hopeful promises in Isaiah as well, inviting the readers/hearers to make good decisions, to turn toward the graciousness of God, and to walk in humility, quick to recalibrate when they mess up.  

Here is a list of some lessons that I have learned but often fail to remember in the moment:

1. Going to bed late makes it harder to get up the next morning. It also makes me less productive, not as sharp, and more likely to forget something I was supposed to do that day. This is a hard lesson for a night owl like me.
2. When I watch stupid television right before I go to bed (I happened to watch part of a rather senseless romantic comedy this past week, hoping that it would move on from the swearing and rude sexual references to the point of tension between the main characters, but it never did) those unpleasant images and ideas will be in my dreams and stick with me for most of the next day. I hate that.
3. When I need a small break from my work, I will always feel better after gazing out the window or going for a walk instead of spending that same time watching television or surfing the net.
4. When I check my phone first thing in the morning instead of taking some time for silence and prayer, the day is more frenzied and less peaceful.
5. When I drink an iced coffee, I will get a spurt of energy and then be jittery for a few days. Not worth it!
6. When I say something unkind to a person, I will be thrown into a day or two of turmoil and personal anguish.
7. Starting a project early and spreading it out over a few weeks or days will produce better results than doing it all the day before it is due.
8. Proofread everything at least twice before hitting "send."
9. Don't post anything on the net that you wouldn't want your mother, your boss, or your students to read. Don't say anything about someone that you wouldn't say to their face. When in doubt about a judgment call, ask a trusted friend.
10. Freaking out does not make things go better or faster.

Perhaps you have a few of your own lessons which you keep on having to learn. Whatever the challenges may be, may we become more consistent at making good decisions today so that we can be the people we want to be tomorrow.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

an unimportant question: the church and sexuality

University of Toronto doorway
In the past few weeks I have come across quite a few writings or conversations about the church and sexuality.  A pastor I know has written a book allowing for the option of same-sex marriage.  Another pastor I know says that the Bible clearly places this practice in the realm of sin (contrary to the ways of God).  A third pastor embraces all people in his church but insists that certain lines must be drawn when it comes to leadership roles.  One pastor indicated that the first question he is often asked is "What is your church's stance on homosexuality?"  He indicated that this is now being used as a kind of litmus test for people to either embrace or reject the church in question. And this is unfortunate.  I don't mean to sound insensitive, but I don't believe that this is a really important question.  Let me explain why.  First, it reduces the complexity of human relationships to one question. Second, I suspect that the questioner is most likely way way way down the track of deciding how this should all play out and wants to hear a specific answer instead of honestly grappling with the basic (and hard) question about what love looks like. As a result, the question is most often a set-up for instant rejection/approval without taking the time to get to know anyone (and that's not very loving).

But perhaps my biggest problem with this question is that it makes so many assumptions, all of which run counter to what Jesus taught.  These assumptions end up being very unhelpful when trying to live in a loving community. And, rather embarrassingly, they show how much our beliefs and actions are reflections of our current culture rather than the "main and plain" teachings of Jesus. Here are some of the assumptions I see in the question:

1. It assumes that the matter of sexuality is of such importance that it should divide us. The fact that Jesus never talked about sexuality at any length should be a clue as to how out of proportion our attention to this topic is. Jesus did spend a lot of time showing people how to love the unlovely, how to be instruments of healing, how to be generous, how to live by faith instead of making judgments based on perceptions, how to give and receive forgiveness, and how to walk in grace instead of law.  If we find a faith community which is missing some of these things, perhaps we are the ones to bring them!

2. It assumes that our views on sexuality determine whether or not we are true followers of Jesus. Let's face it, all of us are on a journey to wholeness. This means none of us can claim undeniable, infallible righteousness as our own.  The disciples are excellent illustrations of what it looks like to be sincere, yet messed-up followers of Jesus. And yet Jesus trusted them to carry on his work.  It is important to remember that brokenness does not disqualify us from following Jesus; it is meant to keep us close to him.

3. It assumes that other matters of faith can be discerned from this one question. A person should never be reduced to their views on a certain subject such as sexuality or politics.  Jesus called a despised tax collector (part of the corrupt system) as well as people of questionable reputation (Mary Magdalene) to follow him.  There were also people of good standing in the community that were his supporters.  Just because someone holds a certain position or viewpoint does not give us license to extrapolate this to every area of their life.  Jesus never did this. He treated each person as a valuable, multi-dimensional, and beloved individual, not a caricature.

4. It assumes that there is an obvious answer to the question.  I don't believe there is.  People were always asking Jesus questions about current issues of the day, hoping that he would prove them right or prove himself a fake.  Jesus didn't fall into these traps; instead, he often turned the question back on the questioner, making them look at their own motives and invariably, their lack of compassion and generosity.

5. It elevates issues to such a high status that a flourishing faith community becomes unsustainable.  If we get the answer we want (yes or no) and join a certain church, I suspect that a few years down the road, we will find something else in the community that we disagree with and use that as our cue to exit, probably self-righteously.  Aligning with others along an issue is no way to build a community. A true community gathers around persons, not things, and a Christian community gathers around One, Jesus.  Dean and I are very different people and we come to different conclusions on many things, but that is no reason for us to part ways.  Living with and loving others means that we must become comfortable with tension and learn to use it as a springboard for meaningful interaction, gracious encounter, and an opportunity to embrace the "other."  This is exactly what we find in the life of Jesus. He built (and is still building) a community of people who had only one thing in common: they were all going Jesus' way (reminds me of Lenny Kravitz's song Are You Gonna Go My Way?).  And sometimes even that was in question. Yes, they got things wrong, they failed, they fought and sometimes they exchanged harsh words, but they kept following...together. And as they lived and walked together with Jesus, they were changed.

To me, the real issue is not sexual identity or same-sex marriage, but whether we are learning to love as Jesus loved. A simple assent to same-sex marriage does not guarantee a loving, flourishing community.  Nor does seeing homosexuality as an untenable lifestyle make someone a rigid legalist.  As human beings, we have a track record of being able to tarnish and breakdown and destroy what was meant for good. We can make 'living hells' through divorce, abuse, selfishness, infidelity, greed, violence, immaturity, jealousy, and hatred. On the whole, we do not love well.  We use others to fill our needs and to alleviate the pain of rejection, loneliness, and insecurity. In general, we tend to take instead of give, and we have little capacity for humility, suffering, and commitment. And this is sad, but not hopeless. We can learn to love well by walking with the One who shows us what real, unending, self-giving love looks like. And to me, that is the more important question: whether we are still answering Jesus's call to "Come, follow me."

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Introduction to Latin

I finished my summer Latin course last week.  It was a great learning experience in many ways. First, the method was immersive: we just cracked open our Latin books and started reading a story, figuring it out as we went. There was not an English word in our textbook. This is the most natural way (children do it) to learn a language.  It is surprising how much one can pick up just from recognising root words, considering context, and a few helpful drawings.  For example, take a look at the phrase tempus fugit.  It is pretty easy to figure out. Tempus relates to time and fugit relates to fugitive, so tempus fugit means "time flies!"  See, you can read Latin!

Second, the course was bilingual (trilingual if you count the Latin component). About half the class were French speakers, about half English, so each student participated in the language of their choice. Not only did I get to study Latin, I got to brush up on my French!  Bonus! At times, it was a bit much trying to function in three languages, and yes, sometimes I found myself getting annoyed at the amount of French spoken in class, but I kept reminding myself that this environment was good for me. Essentially, it was stimulating the language centre of my brain to make new and helpful connections faster than in an English only environment.

Notes from my Latin class
Third, it forced me out of my comfort zone...again. When one learns a new language, the first thing that happens is that we compare everything new to something familiar.  This is normal, but the habit of constant comparison soon gets in the way of progress.  At some point one just has to let go of the "English" way of thinking and dive into the deep end of the "Latin" pool.  Comparison, which can be helpful in giving one a starting point, a foothold so to speak, soon begins to stymie progress because it keeps one from really living in the new language. Comparison can be useful as a stepping stone, but it must never become a place to live.

Fourth, it reminded me that perfection is not the goal. Studying a language is an ongoing process. It is never about understanding everything perfectly, but about understanding more today than one did yesterday.  And understanding only happens when one opens up to new ways of constructing meaning and communicating.  Once again, I had to learn to have patience with myself.  Some days I felt smart and other days I felt stupid, but each day I had to be willing to try, I had to resist the fear of making mistakes, and I had to keep my mind and ears open.

In my experience, I have found that Christian spirituality (living by the Spirit of Jesus) is much like learning a new language.  The most natural way to learn how to follow Jesus is to do what the disciples did: leave the past behind and start on a new path, picking up the basics as one goes along.  Immerse oneself in the teachings, ways, and story of Jesus.  Let it seep into one's life.  Part of learning to follow Jesus is rubbing shoulders and walking side by side with those we don't totally understand.  It takes hard work on our part to truly understand what others are saying, to embrace who they are without judgment, and to humbly resist demanding that they accommodate us.  Following Jesus also means that we cannot live by comparison. What happens when we compare is that we end up focusing on the comparative element instead of on Jesus, so it is really counterproductive. Finally, following Jesus is not about doing everything right; it is more about showing up every day and being willing to learn, about patiently turning our attention to the master teacher, Jesus, and being willing to leave our old ways behind and have our thinking changed.  It is about bringing ourselves to this process with joy, gratitude, humility, and love.

Nihil difficile amanti (nothing is difficult for a lover)