Friday, May 31, 2013

faith like a mustard seed

That's a mustard seed in the palm of my hand.
The dot right in the middle. Live long and prosper.
This is the story of a mustard seed.  On January 22, 2013, as part of a spiritual formation course I was teaching (based on the book, The Good and Beautiful God) a small group of us planted mustard seeds.  It was an activity which was supposed to help demonstrate the nature of faith.  I provided small plastic cups, black earth (not rich, extra nutrified potting soil, but just simple black dirt), and mustard seeds.  Most people took 2 or 3 or 4 seeds, just to make sure that at least one of them would sprout.  I opted for just one lone mustard seed, buried it in its black grave, watered it, and set it in a window which caught the afternoon sun in the middle of a Montreal winter.

It sprouts! 5 days after planting.
Within 5 days, a wee sprout popped out of the ground, a welcome sign of life.  I continued to check it almost daily, watering it when it was dry, making sure it was getting enough sunlight, and placing it out of reach of the cat's inquisitive claws and teeth.  We went away for a week in February (a house sitter took care of both the cat and the plant) and after we returned, I forgot to check on the mustard plant for a few days.  When I finally took a look at it, the soil was dry but the plant looked green and healthy. Phew!  And it had grown quite a bit in my absence.  In fact, it soon outgrew its spot in the narrow windowsill.  I moved it to a ledge which received indirect sunlight from a high window (there are not that many places in my house which get sun and are out of reach of the cat).  In the next few days I noticed that the edges of the leaves were starting to yellow and wilt.  It became obvious that the plant had outgrown the small plastic cup.

About 4-5 weeks old.
I transferred it to a slightly larger pot and it perked up within a few days, happy for the extra breathing room and nutrients in the additional soil.  The plant continued to grow at a good pace and soon I could tell that it was getting too big for the small pot; it started to look top-heavy, its leaves and stalk thin and elongated, as if it were stretching toward something.  I urged it to hold on for another month until I could transplant it outside.

In the middle of May, I took the gangly, overgrown plant and pulled it out of its small clay pot. It was not a gentle removal by any means.  There is just no way to remove an impacted root-dirt bundle from
a solid clay pot without it breaking into many little pieces. The messy transplant complete, I wondered how the little plant would fare.  After a few days outside in bracing cold temperatures (I even had to pull it inside one night to avoid frost), the leaves began to wither.  I speculated that I had killed it, but a tiny new leaf shoot appeared at the centre which gave me hope.  Within a week, all the old, big leaves had pretty much withered away, so I pulled them off and left just the few tiny, new leaves.  The plant was only a tenth of its former size. Disappointing in some ways.  Then we had a week of rain.  Much to my amazement, the plant seemed to thrive in the constant cloud and wet.  It grew exponentially, becoming a lush, thick, green plant, its foliage beginning to look like large lettuce leaves.

Transplanted to the small clay pot.  New spot to grow.
Today the sun is out and the wild, wondrous plant is basking in the warmth.  Yesterday I discovered a few holes in some of its leaves and saw a few ants crawling around; they looked quite guilty and fat.  I put some ant repellent on the pot today and hopefully that stops the freeloading ants.

Often I just stand and look at the mustard plant on my balcony and think of Jesus' words to the disciples after they asked him why they were unable to drive out a particularly nasty demon: He replied, "Because your faith is much too small.  What I'm about to tell you is true.  If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, it is enough.  You can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there.' And it will move.  Nothing will be impossible for you."  (Matthew 17, NIV).  

In light of these puzzling words, here are a few observations I have made in my experience with a mustard seed/plant which seem to have something in common with faith.  

1. It is embarrassingly small to begin with.  Really, one can hardly see it.  But smallness has very little to do with its potential and ability to grow.
2. I cannot make a seed (faith) grow, but I do have to feed it, protect it, tend it, and care for it. I cannot neglect it or it will die.
After being transplanted outside, 4 months old.
3. Patience is necessary.  The plant (faith) does not reach its potential overnight or even in a few weeks. Just a bit of sun, just a bit of water, just a cup full of dirt, and every day it grows just a little bit.
4. The seed (faith) is pretty hardy. Though I might forget about it for a few days and conditions might not always be the best, it still keeps growing.  A few setbacks will not kill it.
5. Room to grow (change) is necessary.  Though transplanting can be hard on the wee plant, it will become unhealthy if left in the small, safe environment in which it sprouted.  Every time the plant (faith) is provided with a new, bigger place to grow, it expands, it gains extra nutrients, its roots can stretch out and provide a firmer base, and it becomes stronger.  
6.  A new environment impacts the plant's (faith's) growth. Stress can cause the old leaves (familiar ways) to wither away, but if the roots are in good shape, new leaves will spring up to take their place.  Regeneration and regrowth are part of a normal growth process.  Prune the old, dying leaves to provide more room for new growth.  
7.  What is above ground (leaves) reflects how well the seed (faith) is doing below ground.  Dry leaf edges, yellow leaves, holes in the leaves, and wilting leaves all reflect that there is a problem.  If one does not pay attention to these problems when they first arise, the plant (faith) will end up in serious trouble.
8. Rain, not sun, is what causes the plant (faith) to have a growth spurt.
9. Growing a plant (faith) has less to do with sheer willpower and stamina and more to do with wonder and loving tenderness.

Perhaps you have a few observations of your own.  Feel free to share them.  

Still growing.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Jesus and sexuality

Wedding limo in the rain in my neighbourhood
A few days ago, I gave a talk entitled Jesus and Sexuality.  Well, that's what I set out to talk about, but the emphasis shifted slightly as I began to read the relevant biblical passages. Let me explain. Sexual identity and gender issues are hot topics these days so I thought it would be a good idea to see what Jesus has to say about all this stuff.  Alas, Jesus does not spend a whole lot of time on the topic.  An obvious oversight on his part, one would think, since there were people engaged in all kinds of "questionable" sexual practices in his day (temple prostitution, homosexuality, sex outside of marriage) pretty similar to our times.  But Jesus doesn't really address any of these issues, not even when the religious leaders thrust a prostitute in front of him, allegedly caught in the act, and try to force him to take a position. And when he talks to a woman who is living with a man who is not her husband, the topic turns away from immorality to the longing for something eternal and lasting. Nope. Jesus doesn't get caught up in it. What he does spend a lot of time talking about is the kingdom of God: what it looks like, its counter-intuitive nature, the many ways it contradicts our conventional cultural and business practices, and how it is always much closer and more available than we imagine.

Since Jesus doesn't have a lot to say on the topic, I took a look at two of the main passages in the New Testament where homosexuality is listed as one of those sins which will send one straight to hell (I think that's how they are commonly interpreted).  First, 1 Timothy 1:3-11.  I won't reproduce it here, so take a moment to read it now if you like.  Here we have a letter from Paul to Timothy who has remained in Ephesus to continue working with the church there.  The first directive Paul gives is to steer clear of engaging in speculative and confusing controversies; instead, they are to focus on what God is doing.  Hmmmm, sounds kind of like what Jesus did.  Paul reminds Timothy that the goal is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith (verse 5). Then he goes on to talk about the role of the law (made for the ungodly) and here we find the list which names, among others, murderers, the sexually immoral, those practicing homosexuality, slave traders, and liars.  Paul sums up the "unholy" like this: that which does not conform to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God (verse 11).  Basically, unholiness is anything that does not shine with the unique, pure radiance that comes from living in the presence of God.  One soon notices that this passage is not primarily about condemning certain sexual behaviours.  The focus is clearly stated in verse 5:  the goal is love.  Placing a spotlight on the "list" is a really bad interpretation.  In fact, Paul goes on to talk about the grace and mercy which were poured out on him, a horrible sinner, and he draws the reader's attention to Christ's immense patience in dealing with broken humanity (verse 16). He always bring it back to the love of God, the work of God, and our invitation to participate in it.

On to the next passage:  1 Corinthians 6:7-20.  Again, take the time to read it now if you can.  Here, Paul has received some bad reports about the church group in Corinth (divisions in the church, immorality, lack of remorse for unloving behaviour, irreverence for the Lord's supper, etc.).  He writes to the church people addressing these issues and in chapter 6, we see Paul taking them to task regarding their attitude of entitlement.  They would rather fight one another in court and treat each other with contempt, demanding what is owed them, than humbly let the matter go.  (One needs only read the Passion of Jesus to see that this is not how he responded to being wronged).  The Corinthians seem to be obsessed with seeing wrongs done to them punished to the fullest extent of the law; mercy is nowhere in sight, and this attitude, Paul indicates, puts them in the company of "wrongdoers."  This particular list of wrongdoers includes thieves, sexually immoral, idolaters, men who have sex with men, the greedy, drunkards, slanderers, and swindlers (verses 9-10).  But Paul does not stop there; remember, he is speaking against those who exact harsh and merciless judgement.  He follows "the list" with these wondrous, generous words:  "And that is what some of you were.  But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God" (verse 11).  Then we come to the section on sexual immorality which basically boils down to these two ideas:  People were saying, "I have the right to do anything" and Paul counters with "You are not your own.  You were bought with a price.  Therefore honor God with your bodies" (verse 19-20).  The whole point here is that we are not free to do as we please, not if we have accepted the merciful gift of grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ.  We are then bound (our bodies as well as our spirits) to the purposes and ways of God.  We are temples (places of holiness and worship) of the Spirit of God.

In summary, here is what Jesus has to say about sexuality:  not much.  Instead, he focuses on the kingdom of God.  We might be wise to do likewise.  And here is what Paul has to say about sexual issues:  the goal in everything is love which comes from a pure (100% whole, not mixed) heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.  We are not our own, we are not entitled to do whatever we want.  We are in relationship with the most holy God and our bodies are to be locations for worship and holiness.  Freedom does not consist of giving in to every appetite of our bodies.  Freedom is the gift given by a generous God who invites us to participate in something much bigger than ourselves and much larger than any of our petty wants and desires (see the story of the woman at the well in John 4).  Freedom is Jesus not condemning us for our many shortcomings (see the story of the prostitute brought before Jesus in John 8).  Freedom is learning to say no to things that harm others and ourselves.  Freedom is saying yes to the kingdom of God.  Freedom is never letting anything get in the way of love, the kind of love that Jesus showed, the kind of love that does not demand, does not take, does not dishonour others, does not seek its own interests, does not keep a record of wrongs. The kind of love which protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres.  The kind of love which would give its life for another. And that's a whole lot more demanding than going around condemning or condoning certain kinds of sexual behaviour.

All quotations from New International Version of the Bible.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

shame

I bought these shoes because they were cute, even if they didn't quite fit.
I finally admitted it was a bad idea and sold them.
Let's talk about shame.  You know those places in our lives where we feel ugly, stupid, useless, imperfect, slow, and lazy?  Those things we don't like to talk about?  Those are the places where shame can live.  In general, I am not a person who carries a lot of shame.  For the most part, I love the gift that is my life and bounce joyously into each new day (well, in the mornings I usually drag myself around sluggishly for a few hours, but by mid-afternoon I am close to bouncing).  However, the past few months I have felt a growing dread and dis-ease; it was shame and I didn't even know I was carrying it.  I finally realised it about 2 weeks ago when I saw it in another human being and identified with it.  Now, we all know that shame is counterproductive which is why none of us consciously goes the store, picks up a giant box of shame, pays for it with a flourish, and then displays it proudly in our lives.  No, shame likes to hide and it convinces us that we should hide ourselves as well.  It can seep into those cracks where we are not whole, where we feel insecure, where we are hurt, where we doubt, where we compare ourselves to others, and where we have lost hope.  And by covering it up, we give it space to grow.  

I could talk about a number of things of which I am mildly ashamed:  my changing body, my aging skin, my not-so-perfect teeth, my inability to look and act professional, my lack of knowledge in my field of study, my recent rejection from a publisher, not acquiring funding for three consecutive years, my forgetfulness, my meandering lack of career path over my life, my poor French-speaking ability despite years of lessons, my lack of discipline in eating and exercise, my tendency to sleep late...  you get the point. Some of these things are out of my control, so I just need to learn to embrace them instead of measuring myself against unrealistic expectations of perfection.  Other things on the list I can definitely do something about, but for whatever reason, I don't.  Most days these small things don't get me down because I realise that they are just part of life and in the grand scheme of things, nothing to complain about.  But one thing has been increasingly weighing me down: my inability to make any significant progress on a current reading list.  In preparation for my comprehensive exams in fall, I have to read over 60 titles.  After compiling the list (in consultation with my supervisors) in January, I figured I could get through about one-sixth of the list (10 titles) by the end of April.  Well, to date, I have read 2 titles.  There it is.  My shame.  I have several good excuses, but it doesn't matter.  What matters is that I feel like an incompetent loser.

The thing about shame is that it is relatively easy to displace through openness, forgiveness, implementing specific, realistic expectations, and engaging in positive action.  Last Friday night, I was talking to some fellow scholars/students at a Religion conference and one of the doctoral students mentioned that she was starting to tackle the reading for her comprehensive exams.  I spoke up and said that I was doing the same and finding it hard to get traction (that's as close as I ever got to admitting my shame).  A professor who was in on the conversation said that what she had done was chart out the entire reading list on a large calendar, writing in what she needed to read each day.  I nodded at the idea, calm and thoughtful on the outside, while inside I was screaming "I have to do this!  This will get me out of the hole!"  On Monday, I printed out calendars of the next few months and began to break down my reading list.  It took a fair amount of work because I had to confirm the length of books, the contents of chapters, and make sure I had access to all of the titles.  And yes, the guilt of not doing any reading that day because I found another "important" task to do was biting at my ankles, but I kept at it until I had a plan for the next month.  On Tuesday, I read the pages I had assigned for that day and after I finished, I completed the rest of the monthly charts, working late into the evening to complete them.  Today, I once again read all the pages assigned and was delighted to have a bit of time for some writing and editing tasks that I have been meaning to get to.  I am starting to think that I can actually do this!  And I no longer have to talk vaguely about my reading list; I know exactly when I will be done and how I will accomplish it, a bit later than I had hoped, but probably more realistic and productive.

A few thoughts regarding my experience.  
1. The first step in getting rid of shame is to get it out in the open.  Shame keeps you beating up on yourself with no end in sight, and the only way to get a more truthful perspective (and get free) is to let trustworthy people into that place. Then repent and accept forgiveness for getting stuck there.
2. The second step is to get help (again, from those you trust).  Shame focuses on the problem and never offers any viable way forward.  Find others who have dealt with similar problems and ask them how they got through it.  It is possible, it is always possible to find a way out.  
3. The third step is to act:  get a plan, be specific, be realistic, and then follow it, one day at a time.  Shame keeps us hiding, paralyzed, stuck.  Sometimes (this is what I tend to do) putting unrealistic expectations on ourselves without a specific and realistic plan sets us up to fail.  And when we fall short of this "perfect" plan, we feel like a failure and - bam - there's shame banging on our door.  

In case some of you think this sounds a bit like the 12-step program, you are not far wrong.  Here is a story I read last week recounted by Brennan Manning (in his book Ragamuffin Gospel) about a man named Phil who spoke up at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.  It grabbed my attention.
"As you all know, last week I went up to Pennsylvania to visit family and missed the meeting.  You also know I have been sober for seven years.  Last Monday I got drunk and stayed drunk for five days."  The only sound in the room was the drip of Mr. Coffee in the corner.  "You all know the buzz word, H.A.L.T., in this program," he continued.  "Don't let yourself get hungry, angry, lonely, or tired or you will be very vulnerable for the first drink.  The last three got to me.  I unplugged the jug and..."  Phil's voice choked and he lowered his head.  I glanced around the table - moist eyes, tears of compassion, soft sobbing the only sound in the room. 
[ Others responded:]
"The same thing happened to me, Phil, but I stayed drunk for a year."
"Thank God you're back."
"Boy, that took a lot of guts."
"Relapse spells relief, Phil," said a substance abuse counselor.  "Let's get together tomorrow and figure out what you needed relief from and why."
"I'm so proud of you."
"Hell, I never made even close to seven years."
As the meeting ended, Phil stood up. He felt a hand on his shoulder, another on his face.  Then kisses on his eyes, forehead, neck and cheek. 
"You old ragamuffin," said Denise.  "Let's go. I'm treating you to a banana split at Tastee Freeze."

That's what happens when we stop hiding and reveal our shame to loving, trustworthy people.  We find a supportive community that wants to help us move forward.  

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

indirect learning

I meant to capture the window display, but got the streetview instead.
Hans Urs von Balthasar is "my guy."  And by this I mean that the Swiss theologian is at the core of my doctoral studies.  Frankly, a lot of the time I don't get what he's saying.  His ridiculously broad base of knowledge in pretty much every field of the humanities leaves me in the dust.  Nevertheless, when I am reading one of his more than 60 books, every few pages or so I come across something that strikes at the heart of the matter and I utter a "Yes!" and feel a slight shift in my thinking, like another piece of the puzzle falling into place.  More recently, I have begun to read a series of articles by 15 scholars compiled into a book entitled:  How Balthasar Changed my Mind.  This companion to Balthasar's writing has been delightful because of its easy, accessible style, and its ability to break Balthasar's incredible theological contribution into bite-sized pieces. It is written by scholars who, in essence, invite you to sit with them while they regale you with stories and explain profound and complex concepts in conversational language.  Though I am appreciating and understanding Balthasar more than ever through these writings, I am perhaps equally impressed with the skill of these scholars to transform a difficult subject into a friend.

How do they do it?  I believe some of the most effective teaching methods are the ones which result in indirect or accidental learning.  In other words, something is "caught" or "rubs off on" a student rather than being directly taught.  Here are some of my observations on a few of the effective teaching skills exhibited by these writers.  While there is nothing really new here in regard to educational methodology in general, it is of particular interest to me because these methods are not always evident in a field such as theology.

1.  Modeling ongoing learning.  In the introduction, Larry S. Chapp writes: "I will never make any pretense to truly understanding the full scope of Balthasar's theology or the intellectual currents of thought to which he was responding."  Phew!  Thanks, Larry!  I thought I was the only one who was relatively clueless!  When I read this, I immediately felt less pressure to "get it" and more relaxed about my topic.  A good teacher knows how to lower stress levels, and very often this is done by letting the student see the teacher's own process, incomplete as it may be.  An honest "I don't know" can go a long way when inviting others along on a journey of diligent learning; it can also significantly reduce the immense pressure to understand it all.  As a result, the amount of energy that might have been wasted in stressful worry and coping with feelings of inadequacy can now be harnessed for productive and creative learning.

2.  Incorporating humour.  One of my favourite anecdotes in the book is from Larry S. Chapp's time in minor seminary when he was struggling with the theological understanding of the modern world.  One of his teachers, a "curmudgeonly German and a convert from Judaism," called him into his office and tossed a copy of Balthasar's Love Alone is Credible on the desk.  The young Chapp asked, "Who is this guy?"  The teacher responded:  "Never mind that.  Just read it.  It will make you less stupid."  I laughed out loud when I read this.  There is something to be said for humour in the learning process.  Humour opens a back door, it seems, where truths and insights can slip in almost unnoticed while our mouths are open in laughter and our minds are skipping in delight.  Suddenly, we find ourselves poked in the ribs, and we see or know something that just a laugh ago we didn't. In addition, anything learned through humour is more memorable, and due to the enjoyment factor, provides a pretty powerful incentive to continue learning.  Humour produces openness and openness is the beginning of learning.

3.  Showing instead of just telling.  Much of learning (especially theology and philosophy) can rely heavily on passing on information in a rather straightforward, unadorned manner.  But true teaching, in my opinion, always "puts on skin."  Martin Bieler writes about being a high school student in Basel and buying a few of Balthasar's books from a local bookstore.  The bookseller noticed his interest and told him that the theologian lived not far away.  Bieler bravely wrote to Balthasar and the great scholar immediately responded with an invitation for Bieler to visit him at his home.  At their first meeting, Bieler was struck by Balthasar's friendliness, his childlike ability to be astonished at things, and his willingness to spend time discussing various topics with a young man interested in theology.  Bieler says that he never left Balthasar's house without being given a book, very often from the theologian's own publishing house.  It is apparent that Bieler's generous and meticulous interpretations of Balthasar's work are based on his encounter with a generous and meticulous man.

I want to be a teacher that offers a lot of opportunities for students to learn in these ways.  Most of the time, it just means being myself and being open and unafraid.  May life be filled with many moments of indirect and accidental learning sprinkled liberally throughout the more deliberate exercises which are required of us.

"Balthasar has always acted like an intellectual antihistamine that simply allows me to clear my mind of clutter and to see things more clearly." - Larry S. Chapp

Quotes taken from Rodney A. Howsare and Larry S. Chapp, eds.  How Balthasar Changed My Mind: 15 Scholars Reflect on the Meaning of Balthasar for Their Own Work.  New York:  Crossroad Publishing, 2008.