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."