Saturday, December 20, 2014


Annunciation by Francisco de Goya
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I was reading Luke 1 a few weeks ago, you know, the story where Gabriel the heavenly messenger brings messages of hope to the old priest, Zechariah, and then to the young girl, Mary. In both cases, women who could not technically have children were given promises that they would conceive and have a boy.  Zechariah was astonished and expressed doubt that this would be possible. He was soon given a sign that anything is possible with God. Mary was also taken aback and wondered how she could conceive a child since she had never been intimate with a man. Gabriel assured her that "Nothing will be impossible with God." Luke 1:37 RSV

And this is where I stopped short in my reading. The word "with" in verse 37 jumped out at me. It was like I had never noticed it before. So I took my dusty Greek bible off the shelf and took a closer look at the verse in its original language. Here it is:

ὅτι οὐκ ἀδυνατήσει παρ πν ῥῆμα

Then I pulled out the big, green lexicon and translated it (yep, my Greek is really rusty). Here are the meanings for each Greek word:

ὅτι (hoti) = now
οὐκ = by no means (because it is placed at the beginning of the sentence, this word carries extra emphasis)
ἀδυνατήσει (adunatesei, verb, future active indicative, 3rd person singular) = it will be powerless, impotent, impossible, disabled 
παρὰ (para) = beside, in the presence of, with, before
τῷ θεῷ (to theo) = the god (dative  case, primarily a case of personal relations, the root idea is personal interest, of god, from god)
πᾶν (pan) = all, every
ῥῆμα (rema) = thing, object, matter, event, word
Put it all together and you get: "Now by no means will it (all things) be impossible with God." Pretty much like the translation from the New Revised Standard Version I quoted above. 
So let's take a closer look at the word "para" which is translated "with." It includes ideas such as:
People or things together in one place
In the company of, alongside
Two or more people or things doing something together or involved in something
Used as a function word to indicate a participant in an action, transaction, or arrangement
So as to be touching or joined to, in relationship to
In respect to, so far as it concerns
What became apparent was that my understanding of "with" in Luke 1:37 had always been the last, least used definition, the one that translates something like this: "In respect to and as far as God is concerned, nothing is impossible." See how I just removed the human element from the equation? And that is the opposite of the intention the I believe is present here in this word, "para." Para is a relational preposition, putting people and things into contact with each other, beside each other. You might recognize "para" from some other words:
Paralegal/paramedic – working with, beside a lawyer/doctor, enhancing their work
Paradigm – to show side by side, pattern, model
Parallel – alongside one another
Parasite – alongside food, the idea of eating at another’s table (that one was just for fun)
Paraclete – to call alongside, advocate or helper, used to refer to the Holy Spirit (John 14:16)
All of these uses of "para" include the idea of doing something together with someone, in the presence of another, of being "with" someone in intentional, close proximity. "Para" invites collaboration and emphasizes relationship. When Gabriel says that nothing is impossible "with" God, he means that when we are in close proximity to God, when we work together with God, when we say Yes to God and cooperate with God, the very things that limit us, that stop us, that are obstacles to us...lose their power. When we are with God, dis-abilities or in-abilities give way to possibilities. When we are with God, the places we are powerless become occasions for demonstrations of glory. This is what Jesus came to show us. In fact, he was identified by that very concept of "with." 
Matthew 1:23. "A virgin will conceive and bear a Son, and His name will be Immanuel (which is a Hebrew name that means “God with us”)." (The Voice) 
Yes, God is with us. May we be with God as well.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

there is no such thing as a free gift

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It somehow seems apropos that I am doing research on the idea of gift during the Christmas season. When I first began to write this chapter of my dissertation, I was pretty sure where I would go with it. I was headed for the idea of the perfect, pure gift. A gift given without self-interest, without obligation. A gift which did not shy away from sacrifice and sought to bring the other person delight. Yes, that was the kind of selfless gift I was going to write about, the kind of gift motivated solely by concern for the other with no thought for oneself.

Earlier this year I read The Gift (1925) by sociologist, Marcel Mauss, his influential work dealing with gift-giving practices in primitive societies. Mauss concluded that gift-giving practices in archaic tribes located in Polynesia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Northwest were actually part of a whole system which involved economic transactions, wealth dispersion, political power, familial ties, and honour codes. In short, Mauss was writing about obligatory, self-interested gifts. Which were not gifts at all, I thought. I was going to rip his idea of a gift economy to shreds, and leave it in the dust with my pure words about the perfect, free gift which makes no demands of the recipient.

But when I read him again this week, I realised that I was wrong. What Mauss observes in certain primitive societies is the important role which gift-giving plays in building and maintaining relationships. Sure, the practices are imperfect, tainted by abuses of power-hungry chiefs and tribal rivalries. Sure, certain gifts are associated with magic powers and occult practices. But, doggone it, Mauss is onto something important.

The Maoris believed that an object carried the hau or spirit of the person it belonged to. Therefore, when someone gave a gift to another person, they were actually giving a part of themselves. Now, this idea soon distorted into the donor having some sort of power over the recipient, and due to the inclination of the hau to return to its original owner, things got a bit poltergeisty, but let's not get distracted by that. At the heart of the Maori idea of gift is this: a good gift is not selfless; it contains the self. And this is what the concept of ideal gift, with its hoity-toity disassociation from the self and its self-righteous refusal of reciprocity is lacking: relationship.

A good gift should certainly be appropriate and uniquely chosen for the recipient, but this criteria does not exist in a vacuum. A good gift means that I put myself out there along with the gift. A good gift is unique not only because it is specially selected for the recipient but also because a unique person gives it. It is important to note that a gift, like an invitation, can be refused but it cannot be un-given. Therefore, giving a gift puts a person in some kind of relationship with another. And if we are in relationship, what one person does affects the other. We have become inter-connected. I agree with Mauss that there is no such thing as a free gift; there is cost involved for the giver and there is responsibility placed on the recipient to treat that sacrifice with respect. Good gifts are better than free; they are the building blocks of relationships.

People give gifts which they believe will please the other person. This is what we normally classify as a good gift. But what about people who give gifts which reflect their own personality and tastes? Is this selfish? I don't believe it is. Let me suggest that it is often an expression of their desire to connect with another person by giving something of themselves. We readily recognise this in children. The scribbly drawing of a purple dog is valued not because of its aesthetic quality, monetary value, or intuitive knowledge of the recipient, but because the child gives something of himself. It is a gift which is intimately connected with its giver. Because of this simple offering of the self, we feel connected to the child and proudly display the imperfect artwork. We would never think to belittle a gift such as this because, in truth, this type of gift is more generous and vulnerable than many sophisticated, expensive, luxury items which adults bestow on each other.

Thanks to Mauss, I am asking myself some different questions this gift-giving season. Questions like, "How can I generously receive the people who give me gifts, the people who give me a part of themselves, no matter what the gift is?" And "How can I give gifts which emphasize connection over correctness?" And this one, too: "How can I recover the generous, simple attitude of a child who gives an imperfect gift but gives it perfectly?"

In thinking about this familiar Bible verse, "For God so loved the world that he gave (made a gift of) his only Son..." (John 3:16) I am struck by the goodness of this gift, not because it was exactly what the sad and sorry world needed, but because God gave himself. And in doing so, God expressed a desire to connect with us, to nurture a tenuous relationship and see it flourish, and to build a community of child-like givers and receivers.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

vive la différence!

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Over the past few weeks and months I have spent a bit more time than usual with people who have slightly different views or priorities than I do. It has happened in church meetings, at school, in social settings, and in random encounters. My conservative heritage tended toward steering clear of people with different worldviews, but I have found that real connection with those who adopt another way of looking at things is, in general, good for my personal growth as a follower of Jesus. Instead of responding to different viewpoints as threats (fear-based), I have learned to see them as instructive occasions. This is because they challenge me to differentiate between core values (guiding principles that I live my life by) and superfluous add-ons which are mostly based on preferences, tradition, or culture and which can change in different circumstances and times.

As important as this personal discernment process is, there is another, equally important, relational aspect to hanging out with those who are different. These encounters give me the opportunity to practice empathy, compassion, and unconditional love. But only if I let go of some bad habits which I often use to protect and insulate myself from otherness. Too often self-protection or self-promotion can be our default instead of doing the hard work of accepting and serving others like Jesus did.

Bad habits (don't do these):
1. Name dropping or recounting our past accomplishments: This may seem like a legitimate effort to connect with someone, but it is not. It is quite obvious, at least to the other person, that we are trying to set ourselves up as someone to be admired, someone important, someone with valuable experience, someone who is very capable, someone who brings a lot to the equation. In other words, someone who is better than them. In contrast to this, Jesus suggested that humility is the best approach.
2. Criticizing instead of discerning, feeling superior instead of compassionate: When we see different practices, it is natural to compare them to our own practices. There is nothing wrong with this, but I have to admit that the leap from noting differences to criticizing them is a small one for me. I dismiss others' practices because they are so obviously inferior to my own, so immature, so much less nuanced or sophisticated, so uninformed, so "been there, done that." And that's a problem, because these stinky attitudes will drive people away instead of inviting them to dialogue. I will also miss any chance of learning anything new. Criticism and compassion just don't go together.
3. Talking instead of listening: When I do find some point of connection between a person whose viewpoint is different than mine, I can latch onto that one subject and talk and talk and talk and talk. This is bad news because it tunes that person out, I have become a lecturer and instructor instead of a fellow student, and unless someone specifically asks for a lecture (preferably in writing), one should never offer one. Once again, I have assumed a superior role and that is unattractive.
4. Leaving when things get uncomfortable: I used to do this a lot. I would find myself with a group of people who had different values than I did. I would start to feel uncomfortable and my first instinct would be to leave, to escape, to protect myself. It never crossed my mind that I might have something to bring to that particular situation, perhaps a gift of generosity or kindness or acceptance or hope which would be graciously accepted if I could just get past my fear and be brave enough to offer something. Nope, I just thought about myself. Thankfully, things have changed. Now, when I get uncomfortable in an unfamiliar setting or in strange group, I take a deep breath and ask the Spirit if there is anything I can bring to the party.
5. Pointing out differences instead of celebrating what we share: This is another way of separating ourselves from others instead of building bridges. Jesus was a master at making people feel safe and accepted instead of alienated and inferior. Let me offer the same atmosphere to those I encounter, especially those whom I identify as the other. It helps when I remember that through openness we more easily find our way to repentance, surrender, and transformation. And I love transformation!

Thanks to all those others, those not like me, who have made my life richer and taught me much.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Perfect Gift

The cat is sleeping on the bed behind me. An early snow is resting softly on the balcony outside, deaf to my passive-aggressive hints that it take a hike. The kettle has just boiled for my second cup of chai green tea. After a few busy days and weeks, including another research trip to University of Notre Dame, I am back to reading, researching, and thinking about the idea of "gift."
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It is exciting and frustrating at the same time. Gifts should bring out the child in us, making us ready recipients and willing donors, eager to participate in generous interactions without calculating future obligations or feeling the pressure of expectations. But it turns out that a true gift is really hard to find. Scholars and researchers write about the dark side of gift, the contradictions in gift-giving practices, the evaluation of the gift economy as a system which provides much-needed social cohesion and stability in our relationships, the importance of self-giving, and the near impossibility of separating giving from taking. Sigh. All those things which should be associated with gift - altruism, compassion, love, spontaneity, joy - seem to have faded into the background. It's a bit deflating. But pretty accurate when I think about it.

As Christmas approaches, I am warmed and inspired by the idea of celebrating the greatest, most astounding gift ever (Jesus), but to be honest, that all too often takes second place to feelings of being exhausted and overwhelmed by the flurry of activity, the obligations and expectations of gift-giving, and the stream of family and social events. Call me Scrooge if you want, but I won't accept the moniker. I don't believe I am particularly stingy nor a habitual party-pooper. I think my disillusionment with Christmas, at least in part, stems from a profound desire for genuine gift(s) to be more present in our lives.

One bright light in my reading thus far (there will be more, I am's early) has been an article by Russell W. Belk entitled, "The Perfect Gift." [1] He is a business and marketing professor who researches the meaning behind collecting, gift-giving, possessions, and materialism. He contends that "the perfect gift symbolizes the giver's agapic love toward the recipient" and the only source of the perfect gift is God. Whoa, Russell! That's crazy stuff for a business professor to be saying! He goes on to say, "When agapic love motivates a gift, it is not selected and given to communicate a calculated message at all, but rather to express and celebrate our love for the other. It is spontaneous, affective, and celebratory rather than premeditated, cognitive, and calculated to achieve certain ends." Keep talking, Russell! I am starting to get excited about giving!

Professor Belk goes on to describe six characteristics of a perfect gift, gleaned from well-known stories in literature and drama which have resonated with people for a century or more. He suggests that people intuitively recognize a perfect gift.

1) The perfect gift involves extraordinary sacrifice, displaying selfless generosity and wholehearted commitment to the other.
2) The perfect gift is motivated by altruism. The other's well-being is truly more important than our own. If the recipient suspects otherwise, the gift is not perfect.
3) The perfect gift is extravagant, having an element of luxury. It is not a necessity, not fulfilling lower-order needs but addressing higher-order needs for love, self-esteem, or self-actualization. The extravagance of the gift is "a tangible demonstration of the richness and depth of the love the giver feels toward the recipient."
4) The perfect gift is appropriate. This means it is not impersonal (like money) but unique and specially suited for the recipient.
5) The perfect gift is a surprise. To ask for a gift negates its value because a true gift is not reciprocal or obligatory. It is not a market transaction nor a disguised self-gift. With a spontaneous gift, there is little doubt that the giver is motivated solely by the desire to please the recipient.
6) The perfect gift results in delight. Any gift given to secure some form of reciprocal action or behaviour is more of a bribe than a gift. It turns out that when creating the perfect gift, receiving is as important as giving. Russell suggests that a gift falls short not because the gift itself is wrong, but because the gift-givers and receivers have become entangled in something other than agapic love.

Now I realize that some may find the above description of the perfect gift rather intimidating, but I find it reassuring. It is an ideal, to be sure, but ideals are what give direction to our lives. We all want to be better at loving, hoping, and creating (to name just a few) and this is why we read inspiring stories and watch movies which tell of courageous men and women. We are pulled forward and upward by ideals. Russell's description of the perfect gift gives me hope. It inspires me to step away from the "have to" and "should" which so often characterize the Christmas season in our North American world and moves me toward cultivating deeper and more genuine love for my family and others. If I give an extravagant gift but have not love, I am nothing. If I give out of obligation, I have entered into a business transaction, not celebrated love.

Let me protect and nourish the child giver in me, the one who does not hesitate to draw wild, colourful creations to present to loved ones, who will spend an afternoon baking lopsided, blue cupcakes to serve to guests, and who will take their own beloved, ragged stuffed bear and give it to another. This is the purity of heart with which I want to give gifts. It will take practice. I will get it wrong sometimes. But it is the only way great skills are developed.

[1] Russell W. Belk. "The Perfect Gift." In Gift Giving: A Research Anthology. Edited by Cele Otnes and Richard F. Beltramini. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Press, 1996, 59-84.

Monday, November 17, 2014

My Name is Matte and I am a Control Freak

There. Now you know. I have little problem identifying this tendency in my life now, but it was not always this way. Control, like pride, can be difficult to identify in oneself. Business writer Shelley Prevost believes that controlling people seldom know that they are acting in inappropriate and unhealthy ways. She says: "Control freaks rarely know that they are one. They believe that they are helping people with their 'constructive criticism' or taking over a project because 'no one else will do it right.'"

So...what is a control freak? A control freak is someone who is focused on controlling outcomes. They attempt to control their own lives, the lives of others, and circumstances in general. An extreme form of control can be found in Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder where people are rigidly preoccupied with details, rules, lists, and dominating others at the expense of flexibility and openness. Control freaks can be perfectionists and often struggle to embrace spontaneity. It is probably no surprise that control freaks are generally bad listeners.

When things do not go "according to plan," a control freak will have a negative reaction, often disproportionate to the situation. Outwardly, they can exhibit anger, violence, become very vocal and demanding, have an emotional outburst, have a temper tantrum, or more subtly, resort to manipulation, payback, or passive-aggressive behaviour such as giving someone the silent treatment or engaging in emotional blackmail. Inwardly, control freaks can suffer from anxiety, fear, jealousy, and emotional paralysis as well as an inhibited ability to make decisions or act. But being a control freak is just a symptom of a deeper issue.

Let's take a look at the story of the rich young man in Mark 10. He approaches Jesus and asks, "Good teacher, What must I do to gain life in the world to come?" Notice something here. The greeting, "Good teacher," was an unusual one at that time. Some scholars believe it might have been a bit of flattery or an attempt at subtle manipulation. Whatever the case, Jesus recognizes that something is a bit off in the way this man approaches him and he calls him on it. Jesus doesn't make a big deal out of it, just enough to let the young man know that he is not fooled. Then, he gets back to the young man's question. Jesus responds by citing some of the commandments of Moses and the young man indicates that he has done all of these things since he was a child.

So here we have a young man who is concerned with attaining a certain outcome (eternal life) and very good at keeping rules. He is also a man who assumes the outcome relies on his own ability (he asks, "What must I do?"). Jesus recognizes that the young man is sincere and responds out of love for him. Jesus is good like that. He says there is one more thing which the young man must do, and that is to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor, exchanging treasure on earth for treasure in heaven. And after that is done, the young man is to come and follow Jesus.

The young man believes that Jesus can give him what he wants (eternal life). He is looking for a profitable transaction, but Jesus sees right through the young man's intentions and reveals what is at the heart of the issue. By asking the man to give up his financial security and set aside his future plans, Jesus upends the young man's agenda and puts him at a crossroads, There are basically two ways to react when things don't go according to plan: either one embraces the change or withdraws and tries to regain control. The young man chose to walk away.

Though the desire of the young man was a good desire (gaining eternal life), he could not accept how it was to be received. He was more interested in attaining a certain outcome than in following the way of Jesus. Jesus' challenge exposed the young man's self-constructed world which made him feel safe and secure and in control. Jesus' way would have put him out of control. Tough stuff, indeed. Clinging tightly to our own little world makes us incapable of participating in the kingdom of God, because the kingdom of God operates on trust, faith, surrender, and loving freedom. With humans, this equation is impossible, but with God, all things are possible. Instead of asking the question, "What can I do to gain eternal life?" a better approach for the young man might have been, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

Here are the underlying issue(s) which I see behind being a control freak:
1) We attempt to control because we want to feel safe and have our version of a perfect world.
2) We attempt to control because we want to avoid the anxiety of unknown outcomes.
3) We attempt to control because we are afraid to fail, to be rejected, to experience pain and loss, and to re-live bad outcomes.
4) We substitute rules, standards, restrictions, and planned outcomes to avoid the risks involved in relationships which require trust, vulnerability, freely giving and receiving, and above all, living in love.

So how do we move away from control and toward loving submission and trust? Here are some practical ways to counteract the tendency toward being a control freak.
With respect to ourselves:
1. Ask Jesus to help us let go of outcomes and cling only to him.
2. Say Yes more than No (exercise spontaneity).
3. Be okay with imperfection (everyone is on a journey).
4. Be vulnerable with people, invite mutual trust.
5. Be realistic in our expectations.
6. Accept that life is filled with unknowns.
7. Accept that pain, rejection, failure, and suffering are all part of life. Following Jesus does not eliminate these things from our lives, but it does transform them into places of healing, strength, and beauty.
With respect to dealing with others:
1. Ask Jesus to heal and transform others; fixing others is not our job.
2. Quit the passive-aggressive nonsense - be direct.
3. Avoid blaming others; let us take responsibility for our own well-being.
4. Never try to control a controller. Instead, let us adopt a direct, caring approach.

I don't believe that we can ever root control completely out of our lives; we are willful, independent beings who want our own way instead of submitting to God and to one another. It takes daily diligence to walk in trust instead of control. With that in mind, let me offer this.

The (recovering) Control Freak's Pledge:
I trust in God, not a particular outcome.
Outcomes are in God's hands, not mine.
God's outcomes are vastly superior to any I can dream up. Help me believe it and act like it!
Relationships are more valuable than results; let me act accordingly.
Perfection in this life is not possible; healing and wholeness through Jesus are.
Therefore, nothing in my life is off-limits to God.
Jesus is my outcome. I pursue Jesus.

A summary of the talk I gave at my faith community on November 16, 2014.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Names of God - Lord of Hosts (Part 5)

Here is the summary of the talk I gave on Sunday, November 2, at my faith community.

This week we are looking at the name of God, YHWH Sabaoth. You will remember that the word, YHWH, often pronounced Jehovah, means the Existing One and suggests the idea of "to become" or "to become known." YHWH is translated LORD in most Bibles. The most common compound name used with YHWH is Sabaoth, occurring 261 times in the Hebrew Bible. Sabaoth means hosts or armies and can refer to angel hosts, armies of heaven, and every living thing. Therefore, YHWH Sabaoth can be said to be the military name of God. It means the all-powerful ruler of the universe, the One who commands armies of heaven and will eventually defeat all enemies. All power and authority belong to YHWH Sabaoth. We find the Sabaoth name (also used together with Elohim) frequently in the writings of the prophets, especially Isaiah (84 times), Jeremiah (80 times), the short book of Haggai (14 times), Malachi (25 times), and Zechariah (50 times).

Since YHWH Sabaoth is a military name, I thought it would be appropriate to hear from a reliable source regarding what a military commander does. Lieutenant General Russel Honoré (retired commanding general of United States First Army, known for leading the military's relief efforts following hurricane Katrina) says that his role is "to provide wisdom, vision, and motivation." General Honoré indicates that a leader does not boss people around, but seeks to set them on the right path. He says, "Leadership means forming a team and working toward common objectives that are tied to time, metrics, and resources. The purpose of the commander and the staff is to do the planning and then to motivate the execution." Thanks, General.

A closer look at the English word, "host," introduces some additional, important nuances. One of the Latin roots is hospes (where we get "hospitality") which is someone who invites in and cares for others, like the host of a party. Another related Latin root is hostis (where we get the word "hostile") which refers to a stranger or enemy. Both of these meanings, a God who cares for others and a God who is the conqueror over enemies, are present in the Old Testament. A third Latin root which is relevant here is the word hostia which means "victim" (sacrifice, offering), and it is the word we use for the bread in the Eucharistic Body of Christ. [Thanks to Mark Hart for these insights.] So in YHWH Sabaoth we have the Lord of hospitality, the Lord who overcomes enemies, and the Lord of the victim. Let's take a look at biblical examples of each one of these.

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1. Lord of the victim and underdog. The story of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1 (the first occurrence of YHWH Sabaoth) gives us a story of a woman who is childless, ridiculed by others for her barrenness. This causes her great sorrow and shame. On a visit to the temple, she decides to take her distress to God. We read in 1 Samuel (Names of God Bible): "Though she was resentful, she prayed to Yahweh while she cried. She made this vow, 'Yahweh Tsebaoth, if you will look at my misery, remember me, and give me a boy, then I will give him to you for as long as he lives.'... And Yahweh remembered her. Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel [God Hears], because she said, 'I asked Yahweh for him.'" Her appeal to the LORD of Hosts indicated that she believed God would not only listen, but could and would do something to change her circumstances, to relieve her distress.

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2. Lord who overcomes enemies, opposing forces. Here we turn to the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. The Philistines have declared war on Israel, and instead of mounting an all-out charge, they bring out their champion, the giant Goliath, and challenge Israel to send out their own champion to fight him. The winner of the duel would win the victory on behalf of their people. This is basically a no-win situation for Israel for no one is seen to be capable of or willing to try to defeat Goliath. David, a young shepherd boy visiting his brothers who were in Israel's army, happens to be there when Goliath marches out and issues his challenge. David immediately jumps into action, rightly discerning that this is essentially a challenge to God's power. He says to those around him, "Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should challenge Elohim Chay [Living God]?" David, with utmost trust in God, indicates that no one should be discouraged, and he is willing to fight Goliath. "David told the Philistine, 'You come to me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come to you in the name of Yahweh Tsebaoth, the Elohim of the army of Israel, whom you have insulted. Today Yahweh will hand you over to me.'" (Names of God Bible). And we all know how the story goes: Goliath, with all his battle regalia and weapons, comes lumbering down the valley, David runs out to meet him with his slingshot, takes a stone, and with a single shot, fells the giant. The LORD of Hosts grants an impossible victory.

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3. Lord of hospitality. Our last story has to do with the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 6). Though the name YHWH Sabaoth does not appear in the passage, the idea is clearly present. The king of Aram is fighting against Israel, and every time they launch an attack, Israel is always ready for them. This annoys the king greatly, and he sets about trying to find the traitor in their midst. He is soon informed that there is no traitor but there is a prophet, Elisha, in Israel who seems to know everything they say to each other in Aram. The king determines to capture Elisha and sends horses and chariots and soldiers to his location. When Elisha's servant gets up the next morning, he sees that they are surrounded by enemy soldiers! He panics and asks Elisha what they should do. Elisha replies, "Don't be afraid. We have more forces on our side than they have on theirs." The eyes of Elisha's servant are opened and he sees a heavenly host of fiery horses and chariots surrounding the enemy army. In a dramatic turn of events, the soldiers of Aram soon find themselves surrounded by the Israelite army. The king of Israel asks Elisha whether he should kill the enemy soldiers and Elisha's response is rather surprising. He says, "Give them food and water. Let them eat and drink. Then let them go back to their master." So the king prepares a feast for the enemy soldiers and sends them back to their master. And the Aramean troops stop raiding Israel's territory. In this case, the kindness and hospitality of the LORD of Hosts lead to peace (see also Psalm 23:5).

It is important to understand that the ultimate goal of any military commander is not war nor conquest over another nation, but to bring peace, to make friends out of enemies. Interestingly, we find the name YHWH Sabaoth in Isaiah 9 which outlines the reign of the Messiah, the Prince of Peace. Here we find that the reign of justice and righteousness is brought about by YHWH Sabaoth, the LORD of Hosts.

In summary, here are some of the ideas we can pull from the name, YHWH Sabaoth.
1. YHWH Sabaoth is the name of God we find used when someone is at the end of their rope.
2. YHWH Sabaoth is the God who is greater than any other power or force, so we do not need to be afraid or discouraged.
3. YHWH Sabaoth is the one for whom nothing is impossible, the one who hears our cries for help and is able to do something about our situation.
4. YHWH Sabaoth is the all-powerful one when we are powerless, the one for whom victory is never in question, the one who instills confidence in his people.
5. YHWH Sabaoth is the one who brings us out of fear and anxiety, out of feeling small and outnumbered, out of being troubled in our spirits, out of timidity and doubting and hopelessness ... to being confident that the LORD of Hosts is present and able to help us.
6. YHWH Sabaoth is the one who brings peace.

If you want to take a few minutes to meditate on the name of God, YHWH Sabaoth, perhaps you will find this song helpful: Be Still My Soul.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

work and pray

St-Benoit-du-Lac Abbey.
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Last weekend I organized and participated in a women's retreat. For those of you who know me, you know that I am not particularly fond of all-women events, but this turned out to be a lovely, restful, rejuvenating, and fun time. Ten of us spent two days at a quaint bed and breakfast in Magog, and there was plenty of free time to relax, read, take a walk around town, sit on the porch in the sun, chat with a friend, or go on a hike to a local lookout point. Each evening we gathered together to pray for each other, and these were precious times of laughter, honesty, and encouraging one other.

On Saturday afternoon we all piled into cars and headed to a nearby monastery, Saint-Benoit-du-Lac which is a Benedictine abbey situated on Lake Memphremagog. The abbey is remote, nestled in the countryside and at this time of year, surrounded by bright, colourful foliage. We wandered around the grounds in the cool fall air, bought cheese, honey, chocolate, and apple sauce in their shop, then all came together for Vespers (evening prayer), entering the chapel as the bells chimed above our heads. Most people who visit monasteries remark on the incredible peace they feel there, and our group made similar observations. As we joined together with others in the chapel and quietly took our seats, an expectant silence hung in the air.

About 35 monks in long, black robes filed in and took their seats in the chancel. What followed for the next 40 minutes was prayer in the form of Gregorian chant, primarily in Latin, but I did catch portions which were in French as well. At times the monks stood, at times they sat, at times they faced each other across the centre aisle, at times they faced the altar, and at different times in the prayer they all bowed low (I believe it is when the three persons of the Godhead are mentioned). Sometimes the prayer was chanted by a single cantor, at other times all the monks sung together. Some of the people in the chapel joined with the monks as they sat, rose, or bowed. Others were content to sit in silence without moving.

Participating in a time of prayer in which most of the words are unfamiliar and unintelligible can be a freeing experience. Because you are not trying to follow or understand the words, you begin to engage at a deeper and perhaps simpler level with the spirit of God. Praying ceases to be a mental exercise and moves toward being a posture of receiving and resting, of simply being in the presence of God and staying there.

Saint Benedict, who wrote the Benedictine rule which is followed by many monastics, coined the phrase ora et labora. This means "pray and work," and indicates that Benedict viewed these two elements as partners. Work should never be done without prayer, and prayer must find its way into action. The monks at St-Benoit-du-Lac meet for prayer in the chapel seven times a day. This pattern of prayer is known as the Divine Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours. For them, Vigils (or Matins) is said at 5:00 am, Lauds is at 7:30 am, Terce is at 9:45 am, the Eucharist Mass is at 11:00 am, Sext and None are at 12 noon, Vespers are at 5:00 pm, and Compline is at 7:45 pm. Times between prayers are filled with taking meals together, study, Bible reading, work, and social time. What might seem like a restrictive schedule to those of us used to a bit more free time and the occasional day to sleep in, is actually an attempt to develop a rhythm which draws one into an awareness of the presence of God in all that one does, each and every moment of the day, individually and as a member of a community.

What one notices at St-Benoit-du-Lac is that there is a steady, slow pace to life. There is no frantic rush to get things done, no pressure to produce, no competition, no threat of rejection. And yet, there is simple confidence in their work and prayer, a consistency and quality to all they do (their cheeses have won numerous world class awards), and an overall simplicity and beauty which is a testimony to careful stewardship and generous hospitality. For the monastics, work is not interrupted by prayer; it is infused with life because of it. Prayer is not work or obligation; it is worship, it is supplication, it is rest, it is communion.

Since I returned from the visit to St-Benoit-du-Lac, I have not only enjoyed some good cheese with Dean, I have also found myself more at peace, more prone to fuse work with prayer, and less frantic even during a particularly demanding week. It is true that in confidence and quietness one finds great strength. In prayer and work much is accomplished.

God bless the monks at St-Benoit-du-Lac who freely open their doors to visitors so that we might experience silence, peace, beauty, and in simplicity of mind and heart, take time to enjoy the presence of God.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

the first class

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I have been trying to finish chapter two of my thesis (the rough draft is complete, thanks for asking) and also prepare for a class I am teaching tonight. As well, I had to plan a presentation I will be giving next week and write an abstract to be circulated ahead of time. And did I mention a house guest last week and a run of conference calls and evening meetings? Several times a year things clump up like this (hence no blog last week), but I no longer get all that stressed about it. In the journey of life, sometimes we sprint, sometimes we jog, sometimes we stand and wait, sometimes we sit down, sometimes we lie down and rest. One needs to be okay with different paces at different times.

What I love is being able to get into the zone when things get crazy busy. Instead of feeling stress or pressure, I find excitement building, I feel positive adrenaline coursing through my blood, and I revel in working with increased focus. Today, as I write in my home office there are two carpenters with drills and saws working less than 20 feet away. They are replacing the drywall in a closet which suffered significant water damage this summer. Pleasant guys, both of them. Not an angry word, not a trace of tension between them. It is a "shitty job," one of them jokingly told me when he saw the tiny, unlit storage space under the stairs. But I hear the more experienced one patiently guiding the other, I hear one take a call from his better half and tell her that he loves her. There is laughter, encouragement, problem solving, silence, and the steady sound of work progressing.

Unfortunately, I have also worked around unpleasant people. When someone brings stress, conflict, impatience, or anger into a space, everyone around them is affected. When someone is sad, afraid, depressed, or insecure, we all feel it. And hopefully, we want to help. I am a pretty sensitive person. Sometimes I wish I could dial it down a notch, but for the most part, I like that side of me. It makes me more attentive to how my words, my feelings, my mindset, and my tone affects those around me. When I am stressed, I raise the level of stress in others. When I am impatient, it breeds more impatience. Conversely, when I am excited about something, I see others embrace some of that excitement. When I respond with graciousness instead of anger, others are also more gracious.

As a teacher, I am very aware that I set the tone in the classroom. This is why I carefully map out the first class of every term for it sets us up for a certain trajectory. More important to me than laying out the requirements of the course is the implementation of practices which let the students know what kind of learning experience they can expect. The first class always includes my welcoming the students and telling them a bit about myself and why I love theology. I can't expect them to get excited about it if I am not excited. There is a general explanation of the topic and why it is important and relevant to their lives. I present information that I hope will intrigue, stimulate, and invigorate their minds and their imaginations. There is humour, interaction with classmates, a time for questions and answers, usually a video which showcases a contemporary example of theology, and perhaps a short writing exercise to get them thinking (depending on the length of the class). I let them know that there will be hard tasks ahead, but if they are diligent and consistent, they will do just fine. I let them know that inevitably they will disagree with one another and that's okay. We can disagree as long as we do it with respect, and I encourage them to recognize that we often learn the most from those who are different from us. I encourage them to ask questions if things are unclear and to seek out help if they run into trouble. I let them know we are all on a learning journey together and while I hope they learn things from me, I will surely learn something from them as well.

I try to let them know that every voice matters, from the know-it-all who wants to answer every question to the self-absorbed person who tends to go on and on to the shy student who makes us wait through an awkward silence before they find the courage to speak. I try to make a safe space where they can learn not only about the subject but about themselves, for in the end, it is really about transformation. May my students become self-learners, wiser, more thoughtful, slower to judge and quicker to ponder, more generous to the stranger, more open to the divine, and better equipped for life than before they took this class. This is my prayer.  

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Power and Jealousy: Names of God Part 4

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Here is a summary of the talk I gave in our faith community on Sunday, October 5.

Power and jealousy: these are not really popular concepts in our culture. We have seen too much abuse of power, I suspect, and jealousy (the green-eyed monster according to Shakespeare) is something we all want to avoid. But despite the fact that these two words leave us with negative or at least mixed feelings, we find them associated with the name of God in the Hebrew Bible, so let's take a little closer look at them.

Power (El Shaddai):
Edward Abbey says, "Power is always dangerous. Power attracts the worst and corrupts the best." That's a pretty negative view of power. Ghandi presented a more nuanced view. He said that, "Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective than the one derived from fear of punishment." Power in itself is not evil or corrupt; the motivation behind it determines whether the results will be good or bad. In Luke 6 we read that "Everyone wanted to touch Jesus because when they did, power emanated from Him and they were healed." Power can be used to accomplish great good and this is how we see Jesus using it: with considerable restaint politically but in great liberation for healing.

El Shaddai, which is usually translated God Almighty, is found 7 times in the Hebrew Bible. The word refers to someone who is powerful, has great might, and is able to do things which we cannot do for ourselves. The word, "Shaddai" can also mean one who is enough, who is sufficient, who is sustenance, who is nourishment. In its uses in the Bible, it is intimately related to the idea of covenant, meaning that El Shaddai is a God who is committed to carry through on his promises.

In Genesis 17, we find the first occurrence of El Shaddai and it is when God speaks to Abram, twenty-four years after he left Ur. The promise of a new land and fathering a great nation has seemingly had no traction for Abram is still a nomad, still childless, and has encountered more than his share of troubles. Here is what God says to Abram: "I am the God El Shaddai. Walk before me. Continue to trust and serve me faithfully. Be blameless and true. If you are true and trust me, then I will make certain the covenant with you that I promised. I will bless you with a throng of descendants." (adapted from The Voice)  God was giving Abram a reminder that not only was El Shaddai powerful enough to make the covenant promises happen, God Almighty was enough, El Shaddai was all that Abram needed. Abram had tried to make things happen for himself (those attempts turned out badly), but a covenant doesn't work that way. A covenant is based on trust, on faith.

Two generations later we find Jacob (Abraham's grandson) at a crossroads. Family troubles have plagued him for years. His father-in-law tricked him, his children have been involved in rape and violence, and now his fellow citizens are turning against him. God tells him to leave Shechem and return to Bethel, the place where Jacob had encountered God before. In Genesis 34 Jacob speaks to his household: "'Get rid of any foreign gods you have in your possession. Purify yourselves; bathe and change your clothes. Then come with me. We're going to Bethel so that I can build an altar there to God who answers me whenever I am in distress and who is with me wherever I go.' ... God appeared to him again at Bethel and blessed him. 'Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be known as Jacob (supplanter).  Israel (he who prevails with God or God who prevails) will be your name. ... I am the God El Shaddai. Be fruitful and multiply, You will give rise to a great nation; indeed nation after nation will come from you. Kings and rulers shall be numbered among your descendants. Your children will one day possess the land I promised to Abraham and Isaac.'"

Here again, God's power is revealed within the context of covenant. El Shaddai has the power to change someone's name, to alter their identity and their destiny. El Shaddai has the power to fulfill the promises of a covenant. Note that it is an exclusive covenant; Jacob is asked to give up other gods. This power to accomplish all that was promised is fueled by passion, and that passion is sometimes described as jealousy.

Jealousy (Qanna):
Augustine says that, "He that is jealous is not in love." Not a very positive spin on jealousy, in fact, he excludes it from the arena of love. A more positive definition of jealousy is found in this passage penned by poet Alfred Lord Tennyson: "Guard your roving thoughts with a jealous care, for speech is but the dialer of thoughts, and every fool can plainly read in your words what is the hour of your thoughts." In this context, jealousy is seen as a protecting force and closer to the intent we see in the Hebrew Bible in relation to God.

Qanna is used 6 times in the Hebrew Bible in reference to God. Qanna means jealous or zealous. There is a bad kind of jealousy and a good kind of jealousy. The bad kind of jealousy concerns that which is not rightfully ours. Bad jealousy comes out of selfishness, insecurity, suspicion, greed, need, a desire to control, and to want what we do not have. In essence, it desires to drag someone down so that we can get ahead (see Genesis 37:11 where Joseph's brothers are jealous of him). Good jealousy, on the other hand, concerns something which is rightfully ours. It is grounded in covenant, commitment, relationship, concern for the protection and well-being of the other, and results in the blessing of the other. Good jealousy desires the best for someone and lifts the other up.

We find the first occurrence of Qanna in relation to God in Exodus 20 when God gives the commandments to the people of Israel, newly freed from slavery. In many ways, these guidelines were meant to show the Israelites what it looks like to live in freedom, to serve a good and generous God instead of a slave-driver. "I am the Eternal your God. I led you out of Egypt and liberated you from lives of slavery and oppression. You are not to serve any other gods before Me. You are not to make any idol or image of other gods. In fact, you are not to make an image of anything in the heavens above, on the earth below, or in the waters beneath. You are not to bow down and serve any image, for I, the Eternal your God, am a jealous God." Jealousy here is an indication that God wants to protect the people from falling back into a slave mentality and worshiping gods who displayed neither the power nor the generosity inherent in YHWH's covenant.

Before these directives were properly communicated, the people had already gone against them. The people got restless, perhaps a bit concerned with the absence of Moses and afraid of being leaderless, so they fashioned a golden calf to worship, a god small and powerless. This action reflected their state of mind: they were already stepping outside the protective and exclusive covenant of blessing offered to them by YHWH and reverting back to their slave mentality. Nevertheless, God was patient and merciful and reiterated the covenant with some added directives. In Exodus 34 we read God's words to the people of Israel: "Be careful. Do not make a covenant with the people who now live in the land where you are going. Any promises you make to these people could entrap you. Destroy their altars and pillars, and cut down their sacred poles because you must not worship any god except for me. My name is jealous and I am a jealous God."

The jealousy of God is a strong passion that reveals how much he loves the people of Israel. He desires to remain in an exclusive covenant with them, to bless them, to protect them from harm, to guard their well-being. Jealousy (motivated by love) lets someone know that you care. That what they do matters to you. That you are in active pursuit of an intimate relationship with them. A lover who does not care about the unfaithfulness of their beloved is a poor lover indeed. (Read Hosea on this theme).

Patrick D. Miller has this to say about the jealousy of God: "To speak of the Lord as a jealous God is to make a covenantal claim about God and to express a very positive word about the proper and inherent exclusiveness that belongs to the nature of the relationship between God and God's people, or to the nature of covenant. As a covenantal claim, the jealousy of God has a double force: 1) jealousy for Israel's full and exclusive worship of God and 2) jealousy or zeal for God's powerful commitment to and love for his people. The jealousy of God, therefore, is that dimension within the divine encounter with the Lord's people that brooks [tolerates] no other final loyalty and ensures no other recipient of such unbounding love and grace. It is God's way of saying: 'I will have nothing less than your full devotion and you will have nothing less than all my love.' It is the kind of attribute that belongs to a marriage relationship. There is a proper covenantal jealousy in marriage."

In summary, then, this is what power (El  Shaddai) and jealousy (Qanna) reveal about God.
1. This is a God who has the power to forgive sins, to heal us, to give us life, to lay down his life for us, to overcome evil, and to free us.
2. This is a God who is zealously, passionately invested in pursuing an exclusive relationship with us, who promises to be our God if we will be his people. (See Isaiah 54:5 and Revelation 19, God as husband.)
3. This is a God who says, "I have the power to change the course of your life. I can offer you a life that is full and free. I give you my love, faithfulness, goodness, justice, mercy, and grace. Will you give me your undivided love and loyalty? Will you be mine?"

"I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine." Song of Solomon 6:3