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.