Monday, August 22, 2016

job hunting

Image from www.masslive.com
I am on the hunt for a job. PhD in hand, I am a theologian for hire. The thing is, not a lot of places are hiring theologians these days, and if they are, they are usually looking for scholars with skills and experience outside my area of expertise. Today I found job opportunities for those knowledgeable in Religion, Race, and Colonialism, Philosophy and History of Religion, Islam and Society, Languages of Late Antiquity, Religion, Ethics, and Politics, and an ad for a Molecular Genetic Pathologist. Not one posting for a Dramatic Theologian with  a side order of Spirituality and a dash of Methodology.

I know, I know. My expectations are a bit unrealistic if I believe I will find an exact match for my particular skills. I know that job descriptions are wish lists to some extent, so no candidate is ever a perfect match. I also realize that one must adapt one's skill set according to the requirements of the job and be flexible. But there are so few jobs which come within ten or even a hundred feet (or meters) of what I do.

There are plenty of things I can do and am doing to give what I have to the world, like writing academic articles and teaching at my church and blogging here, but none of this pays any money. There is a question people ask each other when they get a bit weary from the grind: "If you didn't have to worry about making money, what would you do?" Well, if money were not a factor, there are a few projects I would immediately begin working on. I would fling my theological riches all across Canada (for starters), offering to teach and discuss and learn together with anyone who would have me. I would sign-up for unpaid postdocs or internships so that I could work alongside some of my favourite, gifted teachers and scholars. I would be an artist-in-residence in a community which nurtures creativity and write a book or a play. And in-between, I would travel the world and exclaim, "Oh," and "Ah," all day long and share that wonder and beauty with people through words and pictures. That's just for starters. But all these things would cost me a lot of money instead of putting any money in my pocket. I am a grown-up. I know you can't pay the bills with dreams and wishful thinking.

Last week I was once again pondering my future prospects (and lack thereof), kind of thinking, kind of praying, kind of complaining. It went something like this: Well, God, what are we doing? I can't seem to find a job which matches my area of expertise, and if I do find something remotely close, there are hundreds applying for it, many of them more qualified and experienced than I am. I'm not even sure I make a good academic or scholar. I want to write and teach from the heart as much as from the head. And there is that thing I have about forgetting almost everything after I read it. Really, what's the point? Maybe I should just work at the local movie theatre. At least I would always be around popcorn.

The thing about kind of praying something is that you invite the Holy Spirit to join in the conversation and intrude on your thoughts. In the midst of my complaining, I realized that I was making an error in tying my vocation to my provision; these are two separate things. My vocation is what God has called me to do. My provision comes from the Provider. I am responsible to walk in my vocation. God is responsible to provide what I need. In some cases, vocation leads to provision, but vocation is never the source of provision. In fact, God is very good at providing from a source completely unrelated to our efforts. In Genesis 22, where we find the name of God, YHWH-Jireh (The Lord will provide), this is exactly what happens. I won't go into the whole story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and the many questions it raises about what kind of God would do that. You can read a short piece I wrote on that topic here. The bit I want to draw attention to is this: when Abraham is called to do something and he responds to that call, God ends up providing what is needed, not Abraham. God takes on the role of provider, not Abraham.

So I have begun to think of my theological vocation slightly differently, and I find myself asking two questions: What is my job? What is God's job? My job is to spread the theological joy around as much as I can. God's job is to provide what I need to do that. I have found these questions helpful in other areas as well. When I am serving as a pastor/teacher in the church, I ask: What is my job? What is God's job? My job is to act lovingly toward others, to worship the Almighty giver of life, to open my home to strangers, to speak truthfully about God, and to pray for people. What is God's job? To transform, to convict, to draw people to himself, to build his church, to heal, to raise dead things to life, and to provide what we all need individually and communally. I admit, I overstep my job description sometimes and tread in on God's territory. Thankfully, I'm not very good at it.

I may not have a full-time theology job, but I don't have to have one in order to do what I am called to do. I can study, write, teach, present papers, and hang out with colleagues any day of the week. The opportunities are there if I look for them. I also don't need to be paid as a pastor in order to pastor people, or be paid as worshiper in order to worship, or be paid as a teacher in order to teach. I just need to do my job. I leave the provision up to the Provider.

Let us pray together with Jesus: "Give us today our daily bread." - Matthew 6:11 (New English Translation)

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

why we run

Mo Farah falls during the 10000 m race in Rio
Image from sports.vice.com
I have been watching the Olympics for the past week and a half and there have been some truly inspirational moments, moments which made me stand up and cheer, moments which caused a swell of emotions in my chest, moments which left me speechless, on my feet in front of the television. For me, it is not the best performances which are memorable, but the inspiring stories of the athletes. I mention only a few here.

Simone Biles, a dynamic gymnast from the USA, has won four gold medals in Rio. She is gymnastics phenom: powerful, composed, and consistent. What some might not know is that her childhood was anything but promising: her mother had substance abuse issues and her father abandoned the young family. After bouncing around in foster care, Simone was adopted by her grandparents when she was six.

Yursa Mardini, a promising swimmer, grew up in Damascus. After their house was destroyed in the civil war, she and her sister decided to flee Syria. A year ago, they were smuggled onto a boat with eighteen others and headed for Greece. The engine stopped working early into the voyage, and the dinghy (meant to carry seven) began to take on water. Yursa and her sister got into the sea and pushed the boat for over three hours until they reached the shore. In the 2016 Olympics, Yursa was part of the first ever Refugee Olympic Team. She did not qualify for any medals, but given that she saved the lives of eighteen people, that hardly seems to matter.

In 2009, Chris Mears, a diver from Great Britain, suffered from a ruptured spleen which caused him to lose two litres of blood. He was given very slim chances for survival and was told he would probably never dive again. While recovering, he suffered a seven-hour seizure and lapsed into a coma for several days. This type of traumatic episode usually results in brain damage and physical disabilities, but Chris made a slow recovery and was competing within eighteen months. Chris Mears won a gold medal in Rio in synchronised diving.

I could go on and tell you about Mo Farah of Great Britain who suffered a fall early in the 10k race and went on to win the gold. Or Etenesh Diro of Ethopia who stumbled and lost a shoe in the 300 metre steeplechase semi-final, then went on to finish the race with one shoe off. Though her time was technically not fast enough to qualify for the final, the judges put her (and two others who were entangled in her fall) through to the finals.

Some of the most compelling moments have been when competing athletes cheer each other on and celebrate each other's success. When Penny Oleksiak (Canada) and Simone Manuel (USA) tied for gold in the 100 metre freestyle swim event, Penny immediately swam over to Simone to congratulate her. The first comments Usain Bolt offered when interviewed by CBC after his gold medal 100 metre run were to congratulate Canadian Andre De Grasse (bronze medal) on his performance. When the rugby sevens team from Fiji won the gold (the first ever Olympic medal for their county), the team formed a circle and sang, "We have overcome, we have overcome, by the blood of the lamb and the word of the Lord, we have overcome." In the medal ceremony, they graciously knelt to accept their medals from Princess Anne. Fiji beat Great Britain with a decisive score of 43 to 7 to capture the gold. British journalist, Sir Clive Woodward, had nothing but praise for the Fijian team. He wrote, "All power to Fiji, they have finally won the Olympic gold medal their extraordinarily talented rugby players deserve. Who couldn’t be moved by their singing and communal prayer at the end? That is the moment of the Olympic Games so far for me. In fact it’s exactly what the Olympics is about and you won’t find a single person in rugby who begrudges them their moment." [1] The spirit of the Olympics is exemplified in people whose actions and attitudes bring competitors and countries together as one.

We have been studying the book of Hebrews in our small group, and we recently read through the list of heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11. Like the Olympians mentioned above, these are people with inspiring stories. Here we find Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Rahab. These were people out of sync with society, they suffered through many hardships, they did not see their dreams realised, but they are commended because they did not give up. Through faith, they kept on trusting God, even when things were not going well. Hebrews 12 continues: "What about us, then? We have such a great cloud of witnesses all around us! What we must do is this: we must put aside each heavy weight, and the sin which gets in the way so easily. We must run the race that lies in front of us, and we must run it patiently. We must look ahead, to Jesus. He is the one who carved out the path for faith, and he's the one who brought it to completion." [2]

N. T. Wright notes that the type of race the writer of Hebrews is referring to is not one where people compete against each other, but a journey together of God's people. What matters most is not who wins, but that all make it home safely. This is a team sport, not an individual event. So how do we run this race, this journey with God? There are three directives found in the passage.

1. Get rid of the baggage that slows us down. Training with weights is one thing, but carrying unnecessary baggage in a race is another thing altogether. We all know the value in learning to suffer well and in bearing another's burdens, but obstacles which trip us up have no redeeming value whatsoever. We must learn to put aside things like sinful habits, petty grievances, bitterness, prejudice, anger, and self-indulgence. They are like chains around our ankles which keep us from making any progress in our spiritual journey, and we must be rid of them.

2. Run with patience. The life of the spirit is not a sprint, but a long haul race. Let us pace ourselves, let us not run out of energy or faith, let us not lose heart when things take longer than we hoped, let us continue to grow in faith and faithfulness every step of the way, and let us cheer each other on as we go.

3. Keep our eyes on Jesus. The long list of heroes we find in Hebrews 11 culminates in Jesus. He is the pioneer who first ran the course to completion, and we are following in his steps. He opened up the way to God so that we can come into the holy presence of the Almighty. Jesus is more than our example, he is the way; it is by and through him that we are made children of God. And Jesus cheers us on; he is praying and interceding for us, and he is with us through his Spirit. We do not run this race alone. Jesus never loses sight of us, so we do not have to lose sight of Jesus. He is our goal, he is the one to whom we run.

Mo Farah, the 10k runner who fell mid-race, commented, "At one moment I thought my dream was over, my race was over." The 33-year-old said it is “difficult to get back up and win” after falling but he was determined to do it for his stepdaughter Rhianna. He said: “I was thinking 'no, no. I can't let Rhianna down'." [3]

Many run to win, but those who run because of love are in a class all by themselves. Run, beloved, run!
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[1] Sir Clive Woodward, "Rugby sevens is here to stay as gold medal winning Fijians embody true Olympic spirit during celebrations," The Daily Mail, August 12, 2016. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/olympics_2016/article-3735537/Rugby-Sevens-stay-gold-medal-winning-Fijians-embody-true-Olympic-spirit.html
[2] Translation by N.T. Wright.
[3] Caoline Mortimer, "Rio 2016: The moment when Mo Farah thought his Olympic dream was over," The Independent, August 15, 2016.  http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/olympics/news/mo-farah-fall-rio-2016-olympic-gold-medal-10000m-team-gb-win-a7189866.html

Thursday, August 04, 2016

the sound of two small coins

Schwartz's deli on Monday night
I have a love/hate relationship with hospitality. In theory, I love opening my home and my table to friends and strangers, and in the process of preparation, whether that be cleaning bathrooms and floors, converting my office into a guest bedroom, or buying and preparing food, I am mindful to prepare my heart as well, to create a space where people are welcome. I do this because I realise that I am a constant recipient of God's gracious hospitality, that I have been warmly embraced by a heavenly Father, and that there is a seat at the feast of Jesus always available to me. And yet, because I am a person of limited resources and social energy, my hospitality, when stretched to its limits, begins to look more like resentful hostility. I hate it when that happens.

We came back from a wonderful, whirlwind tour of Europe last week. The people who had been staying in our condo while we were gone remained with us for another week after we returned home. A day after they left, another set of house guests arrived for a 24-hour stay. In between the two visits, I spent a whole day doing umpteen loads of laundry and giving my house a thorough cleaning. It was exhausting. I struggled to keep a positive attitude, to resist complaining and whining about the enormous amount of energy back to back visitors required. To be clear, both sets of houseguests were wonderful, kind, generous people who were very respectful of our home, but we do not live in a big place. Dean and I sleep in a loft which has no door and is open to the living space below. We have only one shower which everyone must share. Every time we have guests, I move part of my office upstairs to our bedroom. It is less than ideal.

The morning the second set of houseguests were to arrive, I sat at my dining room table and offered the day and all its challenges to God. I wanted to be hospitable, but felt woefully inadequate. Our home is small and my heart was a bit small as well, weary from travel and weeks of demanding social situations. How could I be gracious and generous when I had so little to draw on? Help me, God, I prayed. I immediately thought of the story of the widow's offering. Jesus was at the temple in Jerusalem with his disciples. "He turned His attention from the religious scholars to some wealthy people who were depositing their donations in the offering boxes. A widow, obviously poor, came up and dropped two copper coins in one of the boxes. Jesus said, 'I’m telling you the truth, this poor widow has made a bigger contribution than all of those rich fellows. They’re just giving from their surplus, but she is giving from her poverty—she’s giving all she has to give.'" (Luke 21, The Voice)

The widow, disadvantaged by having no husband to support her, gave two small lepta, the least valuable coin in circulation at the time. Her entire offering constituted only a fraction of a Roman penny. And yet, Jesus' praise for her was high because she gave all she had to give. She gave that which cost her much. That morning, I could identify with the widow in the story, and as I cleaned and scrubbed and made beds and tidied, tired and sweaty, I repeated the prayer, "I don't have much today, Jesus, but I give it to you. I give out of my poverty of hospitality."

The houseguests, whom we had never met before, arrived later that evening. They were relatives of an acquaintance from the UK and had chosen Montreal as the starting point for a cycling trip down to Pennsylvania. They had their own challenges to deal with because their plane was delayed, one of their bags didn't make it, and one of the bikes had been damaged in transit. We deposited them in the guest room, chatted a bit, and then headed downtown for a late dinner. 

The barbeque place Dean wanted to try was closed, so we ended up at Schwartz's deli, a Montreal landmark. The place is noted for its aging decor, rather abrupt serving staff, crowded tables, and classic smoked meat sandwiches. We found an empty table near the back and placed our orders. Halfway into our meal, we were joined by a young couple (everyone sits family style at long tables). We acknowledged them and continued with our conversation. The guests asked about my doctoral dissertation. I always feel inadequate trying to distill my thoughts on dramatic theology into a minute or two of light conversation, so I fumbled a bit trying to find the right words. I talked about God not writing a set script for us to follow, but inviting us to create a story together with him, much like improv where what everyone brings to the story matters. In essence, God says, Yes, I will be affected by you because this is the type of relationship I desire. God does not give us a set of rules to follow, a guidebook (the Bible) which details how to do things right, but a living story into which he invites us.

The man who had been sitting next to us eating a plate of meat, interrupted our conversation and said to our guests, "Listen to her. What she says is important. I did not mean to listen in, but she speaks words of life. I know because this is how my mother talked. These are pure words. We need more of this in our world. God bless you." I don't remember every word that man said to us, but I remember turning my face to him, stilling my mind, and listening as closely as I could, because in that moment, in a crowded deli late at night in Montreal, a Middle Eastern man eating a meal with his pregnant wife was speaking the words of God to me.

Many days I feel small, insignificant, weak, under-resourced, inefficient, and powerless. I am the widow with only a few small coins to my name. I can be prone to clutching them tightly in my fist, unwilling to share. I can complain about my lack, feeling the injustice of it when I see others with more. Sometimes I suffer the ache of life's disappointments silently, letting sadness rest in my soul. But, thank God, there are also times when I take those pitiful coins and toss them freely into the treasury of God, offering them to the Creator who can make something out of nothing. In the economy of the kingdom of heaven, two small coins clang louder than the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange and make more noise than a lavish display of fireworks. That night, over smoked meat, french fries, and black cherry sodas, I was given a gift that weighed much more than a thousand bars of gold. When the man had finished speaking, I bowed my head to him and uttered a simple, "Thank you. God bless you." In that moment, I was a very rich girl.