Tuesday, September 30, 2014

the power of YES

Image by Gunnar Wrobel on Flickr
The note on my calendar for last Saturday read: 3:30 Montreal Improv. A few months ago I had discovered that a local improvisation group offered free workshops, so I scribbled this note on the calendar to remind myself to check one out. I hoped it would be informative and relevant for my research on theatre practice. At the time it sounded like a fun thing to do on a weekend. However, on Saturday morning when those words glared at me from the calendar, the thought of walking into a room filled with strangers and making things up off the top of my head activated the anxiety tarantulas in my stomach and head. I immediately found a bazillion excuses for not going. And just as promptly decided that I would not be held hostage by fear and anxiety.

Dean offered to drive me to the workshop and on the way there, I talked to God about the upcoming nightmare. I was mainly afraid of two things: freezing when it was my time to speak or act and being thrust into a scene which was going places I did not want to go (off-colour). The Spirit reminded me that I had a gift to bring to the people there, and no one else could bring what I brought. That thought calmed my fears to some extent, and I walked up the stairs to the improv theatre, still a bit anxious, but also excited.

There were about 25 people there of various ages, and the instructor started us off in a circle with a simple, invisible ball-tossing exercise. This progressed to an imitation exercise, then storytelling in pairs, and finally, scenes with another person performed in front of the entire group. The facilitators were great: demonstrating the exercises, applauding each small success, laughing at everything that remotely resembled something close to funny, suggesting ideas for improvement, and inserting ideas if people got stuck.

As we went along, the instructor outlined a few basic principles for doing improv:

1. YES and... This is the idea that you never refuse an idea a fellow actor is offering to you. You can take it and run with it, you can morph it into something else, you can toss it back to them with an added twist, but you can't say NO! There were a few times during the workshop when a person did say NO in a scene and the instructor asked them do it again, offering suggestions on how to get the idea of unwillingness across without outright denial. These second attempts were always more interesting and comedic than the NO. The "and" means that you always add something to the idea offered by the other person by either moving the plot along or adding details to the situation. Improv is meant to be exponential with everyone bringing a gift to the party.

2. Giving and Receiving. The first few exercises all had to do with being able to give and receive freely (catching and throwing an invisible ball, exchanging eyebrow lifts, etc.) The instructor said the idea is to create an environment where ideas are accepted and embraced. This meant that we had to watch closely and listen to what was being said. Several times someone would hesitate in the invisible ball toss, unsure if the thrower really meant to give the ball to them. The instructor said that if you think it might be you, it's you! Out of these exercises of giving and receiving came three ideas: 1) be clear in your intention, 2) communicate constantly (eye contact), and 3) commit 100% in your action or response.

3. Mistakes are gifts. One of the reasons we are hesitant to commit to a course of action is because we fear we may make a mistake. The instructor told us to get used to "sucking" and not be afraid to make lots of mistakes, especially at the beginning. He even made a few unintentional missteps in his demonstrations and pointed them out to us without shame; it is just part of the process, he told us. And he added that when you embrace your errors (using a wrong name, stepping out of character, inconsistencies, etc.) you can end up with a more interesting story with lots of cool surprises. Good improv-ers know how to take anything that is thrown at them and make it part of the story, creating complex characters and situations in the process.

Near the end of the workshop, when the time came to do scenes with another person in front of the whole group, everyone was ready to try it. There was no hesitation as the instructor asked for volunteers, people just popped up and walked to the stage. Some of the scenes were hilarious, some very clever, some faltered and needed a bit of help, but all of the short sketches brought us moments that were funny, creative, and unexpected. Each person succeeded! All because they were willing, open, and saying YES and...!

I walked out of the workshop totally thrilled with the experience! After the first 5 minutes my anxiety had totally disappeared, and I felt excited to be a part of a group which was so responsive and alive to what was happening in the moment. We became a small community of YES people and it felt like anything was possible, anything could happen, if we just said YES!

Still buzzing from the experience, I walked outside and, less than 40 feet from the front door of the improv theatre, was stopped by a man on the street, asking for some money to get a shower and a change of clothes at a shelter. Now, normally, I avoid eye contact with strangers. I also find it awkward to encounter people begging on the street so I usually say no politely, smile in their general direction, and hurry on. But after the improv workshop, I was wide open, living in the land of YES. I looked the man straight in the eye and asked him his name. We introduced ourselves, I shook his hand, and asked him where he was from and why he was in Montreal. He told me a bit of his story, I offered some information about a drop-in centre where he could get a good meal and new clothes, and then I gave him a few dollars, not because I felt I had to, but because I had a choice about what to give him, and I decided that a bit of time, a listening ear, some information, a promise to pray for him, and a bit of money was the gift I wanted to leave with him.

The man left and I stood there, surprised by what I had just done. The instructor told us that one of the beautiful things about improv is that the audience gets to witness those delightful moments when performers surprise themselves. They end up doing things they never planned or imagined would happen, all because they put themselves in that vulnerable, wide-open place of YES! This reminded me of the talk I gave just over a week ago on the phrase used often in the Old Testament: "I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of [slavery.]"  Too often we have a slave mentality, fearful of being leaderless, paralyzed by options and responsibility. We fear unpredictable circumstances and people because we don't want to lose control. We fear intimacy and keep ourselves at a distance from others. We find refuge in cynicism, doubt, and disbelief because hope and trust are too scary. But hope and trust are what freedom looks like. Freedom is a giant YES to life!

Let me practice trust, freedom, and hope all the days of my life. Let me say YES continuously! Thank you, Montreal Improv, for a very special gift.

In case you are interested, here is more info on Montreal Improv

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Names of God: Out of Egypt

File:Illustrerad Verldshistoria band I Ill 004.jpg
Image from wikimedia commons
This past Sunday I continued my series on "Names of God" by exploring the ideas associated with the phrase, "I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt."

First, a bit of back story: The family of Jacob came to Egypt to escape a famine which was happening in the land. Joseph, Jacob's son, was already in Egypt working as a high-ranking official who was managing the food stores during the famine. The famine ended, time passed, and the descendants of Jacob became numerous. The officials who had known Joseph and treated his family with kindness were now dead and the new rulers saw the many descendants of Jacob (Israel) as a threat, as outsiders who would surely take over the land. They began to treat the Israelites as second-class citizens and eventually forced them into slavery. This subjugation lasted over 400 years or 17 generations.

God then called Moses to deliver his people out of slavery, and through a dramatic process (10 plagues and an exodus through the Red Sea) the Israelites came out of Egypt and were once again free people. But after 400 years of living in bondage, freedom proved to be a difficult concept to grasp. This is why, three months after their exit from Egypt, we see God giving the people ten words or sayings to guide them in this new life. These ethical guidelines were in direct contrast to the life of slavery which had become second nature for them. We find these ten sayings in Exodus 20.

The first four have to do with differentiating YHWH Elohim (the Eternal God) from the pagan gods of Egypt and their harsh taskmasters. Exodus 20:2: "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." In essence, YHWH is stating that serving him is liberty, not slavery, and if they start serving other gods, they will be turning back to a life of bondage. The second "word" takes this further, indicating that the Israelites are not to make idols or images of gods in order to worship them. This directive was the first one to be disregarded when Aaron saw the people getting restless, anxious about not having their leader, Moses, in sight. Eager to calm the panicking people down, Aaron provided something for them to look at and serve, a golden calf made out of jewelry. In fact, Aaron told the people that "this was the god who brought them out of Egypt," suggesting that YHWH could be represented in an idol, a small statue, something they were familiar with instead of the frightening, awesome Being who spoke through thunder and lightning. He was wrong.

The directive not to use the name of YHWH for their own idle purposes suggests that YHWH Elohim takes his name very seriously, that his name(s) speak of a holy and unique relationship with his people. God's name is his word, his action, his faithfulness, and not to be taken lightly or used to gain leverage for oneself. Keeping a Sabbath day was something that would have been unfamiliar to slaves, and YHWH wanted to establish that the relationship between YHWH and his people was based in rest, not in back-breaking effort to please a God who was never satisfied. There was to be joy and enjoyment in the relationship.

The next set of guidelines relate to community life and illustrate what it looks like when people love and respect each other. They honour their parents, they do not kill each other, they do not betray intimate relationships, they do not take what is not theirs, they do not lie, they do not covet what belongs to someone else. It all seems rather basic to us today, but this would have been a drastic shift in values and mindset for the Israelites who were coming out of a brutal, violent context where survival displaced all other ethical values.

John B., an ex-member of a religious cult, writes with insight about the slave mentality which would have been part of the Israelites' mindset: "Those who were set free had been born into slavery, and had no point of reference for what freedom might mean. They knew that slavery was not fun, but it was at least understood. It was comfortable. They knew what to expect. They knew the rules and how to play the game. But freedom? That was like a big city driver who suddenly finds himself on a country road - where do you go when there are no cars to follow? What do you do when there is no one to give you orders?" The idea of wide open spaces and no one telling you what to do with every minute of your day would have been a very strange and uncomfortable place for them.

John B. goes on to offer a more modern example: "After the American Civil War, when the slaves had been set free by proclamation, many of them opted to remain where they were. Perhaps their masters had not been so cruel. They had housing, food, and work. They were willing to accept a little pay to stay put and not be thrust suddenly into the terrifying world outside. ... They simply did not have the energy or courage to forge a new life, with the attendant fears and unknowns, so they continued to work for their old masters."

So what does this oft-repeated phrase, "I am the LORD God who brought you out of Egypt," tell us about God?
1. This is a God who, out of love, calls people out of bondage (Hosea 11:1).
2. This is a God who does not want us to trade one slavery for another but live in freedom as his people.
3. This is a  God who has the POWER to free us from bondage.
4. This is a God who addresses internal as well as external bondages. Here are a few internal bondages which I have identified as being linked to a slave mentality.
     a) Fear of severe punishment if we get it wrong
     b) Fear of being leaderless, paralyzed by options and responsibility
     c) Fear of unpredictable circumstances and people, which translates into fear of losing control
     d) Fear of intimacy, wanting to maintain a safe distance in order to avoid being hurt. This results in being very self-enclosed.
     e) Finding refuge in cynicism, doubt and disbelief because hope and trust are too scary.

It doesn't take too much searching for me to find some evidence of slave mentality in my life. It is in those places where I would rather be closed in than find myself in a wide open space, those places where I cling tightly to the familiar (though uncomfortable) tight, small spaces in my soul because letting go is too frightening. Those places where I am so intent on protecting myself (survival mode) that I don't see the multitude of options available to me, or would rather not see them. Those places where courage and energy don't seem to exist and it is just easier to remain where I am. Those places where fear is my first response and cynicism is second nature.

These places let me know that I am not in relationship with the LORD God who brings people out of Egypt, but with a false god, a harsh taskmaster who is intent on keeping me small instead of inviting me to live large. But listen, freedom is calling. The door is open. We can take that first step and walk away from bondage. We can be free. Because we serve the LORD God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt.

I am the Eternal, Your True God. I liberated you from slavery, led you out from the land of Egypt. If you open your mouth wide, I will fill it. (Psalm 81:10, The Voice)

"Be strong, all you people of the land," declares the LORD, "and work. For I am with you," declares the LORD Almighty. "This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear." (Haggai 2:5, The Voice).

Friday, September 19, 2014

Life is Beautiful!

Image from thegardenparty.co.nz
This past week, while I was on a research trip at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, I received news of another suicide. This time it was not a celebrity but someone close to my family. News like this cuts like a sharp knife. Breathing becomes more difficult when that heavy, dark stone has been dropped on your chest. Anger, sadness, despair, hopelessness, regret. These emotions flit through your soul with speed and sting. Without warning, your mind dives into dark thoughts and morbid scenes flash before your eyes. You have no words, no answers, no reasoning, nothing but silence and sighing.

I received the shocking news about fifteen minutes before I was scheduled to attend a performance of Medea, a Greek tragedy by Euripides in which a mother exacts revenge on her unfaithful husband by killing their children. I didn't know if I had the fortitude to see tragedy heaped upon tragedy, but it was a unique opportunity to see a world-class production and I didn't want to miss it. As I walked to the theatre in the fall sunshine, a phrase formed in my head and I felt the need to speak it out loud, to declare the truth of it to the dark lies murmuring in my head. I whispered: Life is Beautiful. I spread my arms out wide and took in the trees, the crisp, cool air, the wide, blue sky, and said it louder: Life is Beautiful! I took my seat in the dark theatre and as the play unfolded before me, every time the hopelessness threatened to creep into my soul, I chanted the mantra in my head: Life is Beautiful!

The play was brilliantly acted and the scenes ingeniously portrayed, but while I admired the stagecraft, I refused to give the characters any empathy for their destructive choices. I breathed the words, Life is Beautiful, but they could not hear me. They were deaf and blind, intent on deceitful and costly power games. A twisted version of justice became more noble than life itself. One of the most memorable scenes was one in which Medea convinced herself that killing her children was the best thing she could do. In an effort to still the voice of reason and the instinct of motherly love, she chastised herself, called herself a coward, beat herself on the thighs, and whipped herself into an altered state. She became an impenetrable fortress of cold determination fueled by wounded rage, unstoppable in her madness.

And still I whispered to her, Life is Beautiful. I felt sadness that she was blind to the truth, that pain had rendered her dull to the symphony of joy and love and life all around her. Pain can be a very loud siren call. Suffering can make slaves of us.

I do not have adequate words for my family. I do not have much in the way of wisdom or comfort. But what I do have is an unwavering conviction in my heart, in my mind, in my soul, in my spirit, that Life is Beautiful. And my hope is that none of us ever forget it, no matter how obscured our vision may be. Let us help each other see the beauty of this fragile gift, this thing we call life.

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace. - Frederick Buechner

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Do not be afraid. - Frederick Buechner

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Names of God: The God of Abraham

Image from thebooksoffoundation.blogspot.ca
Sorry for the lag in posting. It has been the season for house guests, family events, starting new courses, various meetings, and travel. So it's a week later than it should be, but here is a summary of the second talk I gave on Names of God. This time I decided to tackle the recurring phrase, "The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," which appears often in the scriptures, especially the Hebrew Bible. Once I got into it, I realised that I could only really cover one name at a time, so here is my take on what "The God of Abraham..." means.

The first task when exploring this phrase, at least in my mind, is to familiarise ourselves with the story of Abraham (who starts out as Abram). You can read it in Genesis 11:27 to the end of Genesis 23. After this, the story switches to focus on Abraham's son, Isaac. It would be best if you took the time to read it yourself, but let me offer a very brief summary here. God called Abram (then aged 75) to engage in a covenant with YHWH. Here is the gist of it:

The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father's family; and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you." (Genesis 12:1-3) Abram's wife, Sarai, was 65 years old at this time and they had no children. And being a nomadic people, neither did they have any land.

Abram sets out, taking his nephew Lot with him. Already he has failed to stick to the covenant (leave your relatives behind). As the story continues to unfold we can pick out a few recurring themes: 1) God reiterates his promises often, adding more details and reassurances as time goes on. 2) The second theme is one of worship. At many points along the way Abram builds an altar and worships God, often in response to reassurance of God's promises. 3) The third theme is that the good is mixed in with the bad. Abram does some things well and gets other things really wrong. There is faithfulness and trust intermingled with insecurity, fear, and wrong turns. Some of the missteps include passing off his wife as his sister in order to avoid trouble, parting ways with his nephew Lot who then gets in a lot of trouble (sorry for the horrible pun), going along with Sarai's idea to have a son by her maid, Hagar because at the 10-year mark in to the covenant, nothing was happening in the descendant department. This resulted in great grief for all parties involved and we see some pretty bad behaviour all around.

A side note here is that the pregnant Hagar is mistreated and runs away, finding herself alone in the desert. She calls out for help and God (El-Roi, the God who sees me) answers with a promise that she and her son will be okay.

At the 24 year mark of the covenant, still no land and no descendants are in sight, however God changes the name of Abram (exalted father) to Abraham (father of nations) and Sarai (princess) is changed to Sarah (mother of nations). And finally, at the 25 year mark, Sarah has a son and names him Isaac (laughter). The final installment in this story (in my truncated version) is the test of Abraham. Here we see God asking Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son (this practice was not uncommon in the pagan religions of the time). When Abraham does not hesitate to offer his son, an angel of God stops him. A ram caught in the bush becomes the sacrifice instead. To me, this story is not so much a test of Abraham as a revelation of who God is. God (in contrast to the demanding pagan gods) is a God who does not require the sacrifice of a son, but in fact, gives his own son as a sacrifice for the world. This story points to a God who provides (here we find the name YHWH Yireh = God Provides). At the end of Genesis 23 Sarah dies at the age of 127. Abraham negotiates to purchase a plot of land in Canaan (near Hebron) to bury her. He now has land as well as a son. It is the beginning of a great and grand story of a nation.

So who is the God of Abraham?
1. This is a God who calls people to a new life, a life of adventure. It means leaving what we know, being able to receive blessing, and then transmitting the blessing freely to others.
2. This is a God who makes covenants and binding promises and keeps them. Another side note here. There are basically three types of ancient covenants: 1) A Parity Covenant is between two equal parties. 2) A Suzerainty Covenant is between a greater power and a lesser power where the greater power places obligations and restrictions on the lesser power. 3) A Royal Grant is also between a greater power and a lesser power; here the greater power bestows free gifts (often land) and benefits on the lesser power for faithful and loyal service. Though much of the Levitical laws tend to read like a Suzerainty Covenant, I believe that they are all part of a Royal Grant type of covenant, a gift given by God, benefits which we could never hope to earn or merit. This is because God not only wants to reward faithfulness but also desires to cultivate it in us.
3. This is a God who keeps reminding people of his promises, adding details and answering questions and doubts.
4. This is a God who changes identities.
5. This is a God who is faithful, but this must be viewed over a long period of time. Don't look for instant fulfillment.
6. This is a God who is not deterred by human error, multiple detours, or seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
7. This is a God who makes things right and provides justice for the oppressed.
8. This is a God who gives himself.

The faithfulness of God is always unfolding in our stories. Let us not be impatient with God but instead, choose to participate in acts of faithfulness throughout the journey.