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.