Monday, July 27, 2015

Prayer Tasting

Home made blueberry pie
Last night we invited author, David Brazzeal, to lead 15 of us in what he calls a Prayer Tasting. The idea is that we eat a 3-course meal together and between courses, he talks about prayer and guides us through numerous prayer exercises. David likes to draw an analogy between enjoying a delicious meal and conversing with God: neither should be boring or rushed or just a rehash of the same old flavours day in and day out. He suggests that there are a cornucopia of ways to pray and together, we explored a few of them.

Appetizer: Strawberry spinach salad with almonds, Emmental cheese, and homemade dressing.
After the salad disappeared into our bellies, we were treated to the reading of a psalm to some instrumental music. The combination of dramatic inflections together with haunting, beautiful, dynamic music meant that the words snuck past my left brain (the thinking and analysing side) and let the heart and emotion of the psalmist touch me at a deep level. I felt like I was outside someones bedroom listening to them cry out to God. The words came alive in the speaking. But that was just the opener. The first exercise we participated in fell under the category of Praise. We were instructed to call out phrases that began with "God, you are..." (or "Jesus you are..." or "Spirit you are..." or "Lord you are..." You get the idea.), filling in the blank with adjectives or nouns. A simple exercise, really, but a great way to praise God together without the (sometimes) crutch of music and familiar songs. It seemed apparent that all the words and phrases people spoke were born out of personal experience or longing. The second exercise was Thanksgiving. We were given pieces of paper which resembled a slice of pie. David encouraged us to think of a slice of time in our life, whether it was school or a place we lived or a particular job or a time in the hospital, or whatever. It could be a good or a bad memory. It could even be a particular person that was related to a particular slice of our life. We took a few minutes to write down many things that we were thankful for in that slice of life. After the obvious ones were out of the way, surprising things came to mind, hidden things, things I had forgotten or overlooked. This exercise made me smile often and sigh with contentment a few times. God is good. Slices are good.

Main course: Grilled chicken drumsticks and breasts with Montreal spices, fresh peaches and cream corn on the cob with unsalted butter.
We licked our fingers and our lips after consuming the chicken and corn, and then it was time for two more prayer exercises. The first was Confession. David used the analogy of a selfie, a snapshot of who we are right now, right here. No time to dress up or make sure everything is perfect; this is a picture of ourselves, as is: the good, the bad, and the ugly. We were given papers to write our confession beginning each phrase with "I am...." It could include positive as well as negative aspects (I am being more patient lately, or I am angry at &*&$^ right now). It was an exercise in honesty and humility, being as real as we could before God at that moment. At the end, we were encouraged to offer these confessions up to God who sees us as we are and loves us and wants to walk through life with us. The second exercise was a Blessing exercise. David talked about blessing being like taking a mirror and reflecting the bright light and glory of God onto someone. We took coloured papers and coloured markers and were instructed to practice blessing a person by writing, drawing, doodling, constructing a Scrabble word formation, or anything else we might think of. I wrote Dean's name in big fat letters and filled them in with designs which each related to words of blessing. One of my sentences went roughly like this, "May you always be solid and steady, safe in turmoil and unbattered in storm and conflict." Dean drew me on a beautiful beach under a palm tree at sunset with some of my favourite words written at the bottom: Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (to the greater glory of God). It was touching to receive it from him.

Dessert: Home made blueberry pie warm from the oven and vanilla ice cream, sugar pie.
Now that we were full of sugar and cream and fruit, David closed off the prayer tasting by noting that we had yet not participated in any asking or petition or intercession. And yet, if I may speak on behalf of everyone there, I did not feel any lack or a pressing need to bring a list of requests to God. Too often prayer is only made up of asking, and that is a bland diet indeed, not to mention quite an unhealthy, self-focused relationship. David gave us some homework to try out a few different creative methods of asking prayer (for ourselves and for others), be it simply a body posture, words scribbled on a scrap of paper while riding the subway, pictures or doodles drawn over a period of time, or charts to keep track of ongoing requests or special needs. David mentioned that sometimes he takes pictures of his visual prayers and sends them to the person he is praying for (if that is appropriate). None of these prayer exercises have to take up hours of time (most of them took about 5 minutes), but depending on the time available, one can enjoy a simple 3-course prayer meal or take the time for an extended gourmet feast. Creative prayer exercises like this are not only enjoyable, but end up engaging us more fully and perhaps deeply than mere word prayers. They also require that we make ourselves present in body, mind, and spirit when we turn our attention to God.

Digestif: Wine, sparkling water, juice, and home made vanilla soda. 
After David finished his closing talk, we thanked him, and I suggested that we practice one of the blessing exercises he had mentioned, a Brazilian custom in which people bless someone going on a journey. In essence, the person doing the blessing grabs the one to be blessed by the shoulders and gently shakes them as they pronounce a blessing over them. So we did. Some spoke blessings over David from their seats while others got up close and personal with him, speaking shoulder-shaking blessings. I opted for the uncomfortable shoulder-shaking and was a bit overwhelmed by the intimacy and power of the interaction. Someone mentioned that we should add that particular form of prayer into our repertoire as a faith community. I agree. We make it a practice to bless everyone who goes forth from our church group, and this seems like a fitting addition.

This was a prayer tasting, meant to whet our appetites for more creative and life-giving interaction with God, be it in our individual prayer contexts or as a group. There are many more prayer categories in David's book (11 in all) and different settings in which to incorporate them. The evening inspired me to be more creative and intentional in my praying, making it one of the most enjoyable parts of my day instead of a mundane chore.

For more info, check out David's website. You can buy his book on amazon.ca.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

how to get more followers on Twitter (and other things I don't care about)

When this happens, I have to choose which grammatical sin I'll have to make in order to send a tweet.

Social media is very good at letting you know how much traction or clout you have, whether that is measured in likes, comments, retweets, numbers reached, followers, or shares. I like connecting with people via Facebook, I like writing this blog (most of the time) as a way of honing my communication skills while putting some ideas out there on subjects I am thinking about. I occasionally post on Twitter (my least favourite platform) and I love to post pictures on Instagram chronicling the interesting views I come across in life. At times, I do check how many readers on a particular blog, how many followers I have, and how many likes or favourites a post got. But it is a bit like seeing your salary in comparison to every one elses. Whereas before you might have been absolutely fine with how much you earned, when you see the numbers, discontentment is not far behind. Numbers go up and down, some things get no response at all while other posts generate a lot (comparatively speaking) of traffic. You begin to notice other writers/tweeters who have thousands of loyal fans because they are so accomplished at getting consistent and high quality content to their followers. But when you look at your own efforts, you feel like the last person picked for a team. Comparison does that. Counting social media influence does that, too.

To be honest, I am not trying to build a large Twitter following. I have little use for the 140-character limit which all too often means that people misspell words and use clever abbreviations to pack a lot into that tiny space. I would rather take the time to write a well-crafted sentence, with actual words, and explain myself fully in another format. I would also rather have a face to face encounter with one or two people than tweet something to hundreds of people that I don't know. Large numbers of followers and readers, in my experience, do not result in meaningful dialogues, deeper friendships, or make me a better person. Throughout history, fame and influence are too often paired with bad life choices, increased isolation from reality, and a downturn in humility and compassion. Therefore, if I have to choose between having a drink with a friend or posting a blog, I will go downtown to see my friend. Face to face is not always possible, I understand, but there are certain values present in personal encounter that I try to take with me into the social media milieu.

1. Encounter. One meaningful conversation, one face-to-face encounter is worth more than a thousand followers. Social media can be helpful to stay in touch with faraway friends, to become reacquainted with long-ago friends, or to make new friends over common interests. I love getting to know people who think like me and people who challenge me, people who need my help and who offer to help me, people who share common interests with me, be it movies or cats or travel or education or theological discourse or gluten free cinnamon rolls. I have a small circle of friends on Facebook for this reason: they are people who are in my life not as spectators but as participants (at least in theory). Most of them are people with whom I have had significant conversations. Others I just want to make sure I don't lose touch with because we don't see each other much. My online friends are ones whose comments feel like conversations over Chai latte instead of grandstanding or soapboxing or marketing. I recently had a chance to have an extended conversation with someone whom I had, up to that point, mostly interacted with through exchanging short, clever remarks on Facebook. I already liked them, but now I have a much deeper appreciation for who they are and what they do. Let social media lead me to more face to face encounters like that.

2. Reality. It is hard to engage in meaningful discourse through social media. Remote dialogue never feels natural to me, not even on a video call. I am getting more comfortable with it, but when meetings are not in person, we can only show a very select part of ourselves. I would venture to say that most people who have only read my words online and have never met me, think I am a lot more eloquent and knowledgeable and quick on my feet than I really am. In person, people get more of my context, my life, my struggles, my mistakes, my doubtings, and my idiosyncrasies. In person, they can tell when I am joking (most of the time), when I am overcome with emotion, when I am grouchy and tired, and when I think it is necessary to dance in public. I try to reflect reality in my social media postings. Since these are public forums, I am also very careful about how much I expose my family and friends, my work, my church, my home, etc. But in the mix of all that, I try to be real. I post pictures which are not the most flattering. I talk about my bad days. I talk about failing. I talk about the process of learning. I try to paint a picture of a life journey that people can relate to, not one which they fantasize about.

3. Vocation. The reason I say I don't really care about getting more followers or online friends or readers is because a larger sphere of influence has nothing to do with my vocation, my calling in life. Bigger is not better. If it was, our small faith community should be pitied instead of celebrated for the unique, variegated, encounter-oriented, transformational group that it is. I don't want a bigger platform; I want the platform that God calls me to. I do not need more social media influence; I need to be faithful to the people God has placed in my life. If I don't have a good idea of what my vocation is, I can get lost in the social media swirl, always trying to get more traction, more likes, hoping to see my ratings go up and up and up. But I know what God has called me to and it has more to do with embracing the overlooked than having lots of views. It has more to do with simplicity and humility than boosting my posts and knowing what's trending. It is not cheap and quick and remote. It is the costly work of being there for people in real life, looking people in the eye over and over again, and not walking away when things get rough. It is about cultivating contentment, peace, compassion, truth, and love. And in my experience, you can't do any of that really well on social media.

Don't get me wrong, online platforms have led to a lot of good things in my life, and at the top of that list are the times I have met someone in person who, up to that point, has only been a face or a name on the screen. In fact, next week I will be having tea with someone visiting Montreal who was introduced to me via email and subsequently became my Facebook friend. Exciting! The other "top of the list" moments are when I am reunited in person with someone after a prolonged absence, during which we have only had sporadic online communication. These coming-togethers are always so sweet. And sometimes unexpected, too. In those moments I thank God for the social media tools which can help us craft good and meaningful relationships.

May all our social media exploits be expressions of our God-given vocations, reflecting truth, love, joy, and encouragement. Above, all, may they lead us to many face to face encounters.

Monday, July 13, 2015

what happens at a conference

Part of the crowd at Vineyard Columbus
Last week I attended the Vineyard Church USA national conference in Columbus, Ohio. Around 60 nations were represented and over 4000 people were present. I won't try to give you a rundown of the week or the speakers or their talks. Check out the video archives of the main sessions if you want to get a glimpse (only available for a limited time, I am told). The highlights for many of us were Thursday morning's talk by Dr. Charles A. Montgomery on breaking down barriers (it starts at 1:35) and the worship led by David Ruis and Noel Isaacs from Nepal on Thursday evening (a particularly poignant lament song starts at 1:03).

The stuff that happened on the platform, in many ways, was just a small part of the experience. God doesn't need a microphone to speak nor does he require a crowd in order to be present. Our loving God is with us in so many ways if we have ears to hear and eyes to see. I came to the conference believing that I had something to offer; whether it was a kind word, a smile, a word of wisdom, money, or a prayer. The idea that I was there to give more than I was there to receive meant that I had no expectations, really. I did not need anything supernatural and significant to happen, I did not need to meet any of the big name speakers, I did not need to get prayer for any troubling situation, I did not need to sit with all my friends, I did not need to see the sights of Columbus or stay up late or go to bed early. I was there to encourage, to help, and to say yes to others. I was there to be truly present to God and to others and felt no pressure to have the most awesome experience ever.

I brought gifts for our hosts, I distributed cards signed by our faith community, I stroked the dog, two cats, and numerous horses at the place we were staying. I greeted complete strangers throughout the week, I asked volunteers how they were doing, I said thank you over and over and over again, I directed people who were lost, I saved seats for people who were late, I told people they were beautiful, and I prayed for people. One of the most touching moments for me was when I discovered that a friend from Chicago (whom I had only met once when she visited Montreal a few years ago) was sitting two rows behind me. We found each other in the middle of the worship time and wept as we embraced tightly, our hearts overwhelmed by the spirit of Jesus so present and so precious in the other. 

On Wednesday, I was asked to give a 2 minute talk at a Society of Vineyard Scholars meeting on Thursday morning and of course I said yes. At that same meeting, I listened to people around a table sharing their most important theological questions. One confessed that there was virtually no theological discussion happening in his church. Another said he wanted to know how to engage with Orthodox Christians. A woman thought it was important to make room for the voices of children. It was an honour to hear what was on their hearts; seeing total strangers open up to each other in that setting humbled me. I had several people ask me about theological education and I tried to offer them encouragement and a possible way forward. The topic of same-sex attraction came up and I tried to listen well because everyone has a personal story. I also tried to keep the discussion from getting polarised around a few issues, but sought to bring it back to Jesus, back to God's story, back to our call to surrender all our desires to God, back to walking together in humility. I spoke to people who were discouraged and I listened, I prayed, I shared their burden in a small way, and I offered what little wisdom I had.

I received much as well: some people bought me chai tea and ice cream, other people provided yummy food and drink. People prayed for me, people spoke many encouraging words to me, a teenager gave up her bed for me, and people invited me to hang out with them. I ended up in unexpected and pleasant situations like backstage talking to musicians, in a horse barn watching a young girl practice her riding, on a patio late at night listening to Noel tell me about the situation in Nepal, and in the airport hearing a stranger's experience in Jerusalem. 

My goal in going was to give something of myself and to share the riches with which I have been blessed. Conferences like this can be a bit of a challenge to introverts like me, but most of the time I felt like I was floating on grace, able to joyously embrace each person I encountered and accept each situation which came my way. Giving is a richness in itself, it seems, because I never felt depleted or exhausted. Whether we are the ones who give or the ones who receive (or both), the goodness of God never runs out.