Thursday, July 31, 2008

delay

I am supposed to be outside right now. This morning, I did all my correspondence and inside work, then started to get ready to head outside on a grand walk to run a lot of errands, buy some food, check out a new hairdresser and maybe even the library. As I looked at my grocery list, I decided I would need my backpack to carry the milk and orange juice, so I scooped a sleeping feline off my black canvas bag and was annoyed to find it covered in cat fur. Egads, these cats need to pick a different spot to sleep than on my backpack! I began to brush and wipe and clean the stubbornly sticky tufts of brown fur off the bag and was starting to get slightly disgusted with how slow and unproductive I can be sometimes when I heard the light patter and then the pounding torrent of water on the roof. At that moment, I thanked God for Jazz and fur and slowness. Here I sit inside and dry instead of being caught unaware in the rain, far from any shelter.

The best plans of man (and woman and cat) are so pitiful and small and self-defeating next to the caring and loving plans of the Father. I go with him.

This is a picture of the sky outside my window right now. I think I will go outside.
P.s. Ten minutes after I returned home from my walk about town, it started to rain again. Crazy!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

intervention

One of the most mesmerising television shows I have ever watched is Intervention. A camera crew follows an addict around and you see all the destructive patterns they engage in. You sometimes see bravado, sometimes anger and bitterness, often hopelessness displayed in these poor ones souls as they shoot substances into their veins, drink their way into oblivion, or inhale smoke to alter their reality. They are trapped. They cannot help themselves. Things get desperate enough that the family and friends decide that an intervention is necessary. This means that the family makes a break; they stop making it easy for the addict to continue in their current lifestyle; they stop enabling the destructive behaviour. The handouts, the free food and board, the open door and welcoming arms, the acceptance of abusive behaviour, and the guilt gifts all stop.

It is tough stuff, letting someone you love suffer dire consequences for their bad choices. But bailing them out of trouble time after time does nothing to set them free. It simply reinforces the mistaken belief that they can continue abusing their spirit, soul, body, and mind, and take advantage of the goodwill of people who love them without repercussion.

But isn't that what love does? Give unconditionally? No. Love IS unconditional, but it does not give all to everyone in every circumstance. That would be indulgence. Love gives perfectly. Love calls one to more. Love invites the beloved to change. It is given freely, but it is not given cheaply. Love gushes out at the behest of the lover, not at the demand of the recipient.

Reading through Hosea, I see that God is in the business of intervention. He will not enable our bad choices nor keep funding our destructive lifestyles. He will cut off our escape routes and wipe out the places we go for our habitual fixes of self-delusion until the easiest choice is to surrender to his way. It is the only way to extricate us from the powerful web of death we have entangled ourselves in.

Come on, lets go back to God. He hurt us, but he'll heal us. He hit us hard, but he'll put us right again. In a couple of days we'll feel better. By the third day he'll have made us brand new. Alive and on our feet, fit to face him. - from Hosea 6, The Message

The best part of the show is always seeing the person months later, clear-eyed, content, and actually themselves for the first time in years after detox and some hard work at a rehab centre. And that would never have happened if someone had not stepped in and said, "No more."

When they finally hit rock bottom, maybe they'll come looking for me. - from Hosea 5, The Message

There is still so much I do not really understand about love.

This is a picture of Christ Church in downtown Montreal.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

nice girls finish last

I have another confession to make. I sometimes find group dynamics challenging. There have been times in the past few weeks when I have just wanted to cry or slap someone or scream out loud or perhaps most cowardly of all, slink quietly away so that no one would notice. And this was in a small group of people that I would call my friends. Why?

For the most part, I am a nice person, a quiet person, a patient person. I am not an extrovert and seldom naturally command the attention in a room. In fact, I sometimes feel quite inadequate and invisible when trying to be a leader or when I interact in a group. And yet, I know that who I am and what I have to say or contribute is often very valuable. But I usually will not force my voice to be heard, nor do something to make my presence acknowledged. I prefer it when people willingly listen and engage with me and offer their attention because they want to, not because I demand it. I detest manipulation and coercion and try not to participate in it.

So it is difficult for me to sit back and be ignored in a group when I see others vying for attention - making loud noises and smart comments and being silly and talking about themselves. And it is even more difficult to see the group follow the loud ones, the demanding ones, the forceful and vocal ones, just because they assert themselves and elbow to the front of the attention span queue. I am at a loss in these situations. At first I got annoyed and bitter. Then I thought I should do something instead of just sitting in a corner seething or being hurt, so I threw my voice and antics in with the rest of them. I hated it. I was participating in that which I had no respect for and the reward was empty. So I retreated back to the corner and waited. Sometimes it seems that nice polite girls finish last.

I tried a third tactic and that was telling someone how I felt. I really just wanted to point out unhealthy patterns I saw, but I don't think it was all that helpful because as the words left my mouth, I realised how incredibly judgemental and negative they sounded. So I am now on plan number four. I am simply asking God to help me let it go. I am determined to be myself and to interact with people honestly and lovingly, and to let the rest go. I sat in a group this week and observed someone interrupt my conversation with a friend and then proceed to exclude me from the interaction. I heard people turn the topic of conversation to themselves over and over again and wondered if I ever did that. Probably. And I let it go.

I have decided that I value interaction and attention and relationship and affection and responses of all sorts that are freely given, much more than any I can coerce or manipulate or finagle out of people. I may be ignored more than the loud ones. I may end up last in the attention queue. But I don't necessarily want to be first. There are a lot of things more important than first. I want to be someone who is content with who they are and not have my value fluctuate with how others treat me. I want to have integrity. I want others to know that I can be counted on to be faithful even when it costs me something. I want to become more unselfish. I want the things that last, and most of the time, that means I won't come in first. Because for the most part, good things don't come fast or easy or get flashy attention. And I'm okay with that.

This is a small group of raspberries on my patio table, exhibiting perfect group dynamics.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

humble beginnings

Last night I finished reading Anne Rice's book, Christ the Lord - Out of Egypt. For those of you unfamiliar with her, she is the author of some 27 well-researched historical fiction books with usually dark supernatural elements, her most famous one being Interview With The Vampire which was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. Her author's note at the end of the book I just read is almost as revelatory as the story itself. After being raised a devout Catholic, then becoming an atheist for most of her adult life, she began to research the historical Jesus and was challenged to dedicate the remainder of her writing career to him. She had an epiphany that this story, this man, this God, was the one she had been looking for all along. As she says in an interview, she now lives in the light.

It is a very restrained book and I took my time reading it, not wanting to race through the pages lest I miss some nuance, some fresh way of seeing things, in the telling of this familiar story. She has done and continues to do more research on this time period than I will ever do, and I admire that and want to learn from it.

Near the end of the book, I read a paragraph that made my head and heart and spirit and whole inner being soften with a gentle conviction. It provoked an immediate repentance. Let me quote it (don't worry, it won't spoil anything in the book for you). These are the words of Mary, his mother, after they find the 8-year-old Jesus at the Temple where he had disappeared for a few days, giving his parents a fright.

And now you come home with us to Nazareth. Not back to the Temple. Oh, I know how much you want to stay at the Temple. I know. But no. The Lord in Heaven did not send you to the house of a Teacher in the Temple or a priest in the Temple or a scribe or a rich Pharisee. He sent you to Joseph bar Jacob, the carpenter, and his betrothed, Mary of the House of David in Nazareth. And you come home to Nazareth with us. - Anne Rice, Christ the Lord - Out of Egypt

I have always felt a bit at odds with where I come from. I feel slightly out of place when I go back to the Mennonite community where I grew up. I do believe I had the best childhood in the whole world and a magnificent family, but they struggled to understand me sometimes. There were just not that many artistic, spontaneous, emotive, mystic, adventurous free-thinkers in that small farming community. While some of my creative exploits were admired and tolerated, it was hardly seen as a viable lifestyle. More of something that one should grow out of. Unfortunately, I also developed some bad habits during my formative years, such as conservatism and judging people that were not like me. And some deep fears were planted in my young soul. These attitudes were all around me, and I did not have the wisdom to say no to them. All of us come from a mixed background like this, where good traits are mixed in with some shortcomings, so I am not picking on any one people group here. What others did during my childhood is not the point. The issue is how I responded to my environment, the attitudes I adopted, and my lack of submission to what God brought into my life.

He had me born into a conservative family, placed in the middle of a rather strict religious community, and isolated from much of what I would have loved to pursue, especially in the arts. And He was not ignorant or mean in doing this. God carefully and lovingly gave me this childhood and heritage. There were things for me to learn there that I could not learn anywhere else. I know I am still discovering them. The only time I do not learn is when I get stubborn, ungrateful, impatient, and proud.

Last night I lay in bed and breathed my repentance for looking down on my humble background and thanked God for every bit of my childhood circumstances, even those things I would have preferred to be different. Somehow, a carpenter's home was the place for Jesus to become a mature man of God and the greatest teacher in history. It was not in the household of a wise rabbi as might have seemed logical. And in the same way, a small, simple and somewhat isolated and restrictive community was the place for me to start to become the best creative thinker and artist that I could be. My heart is full of gratitude for this grace and my eyes get watery when I begin to sense what a great mercy this was and still is. What a mistake I have made in not wholly submitting to such a loving hand.

This is the prairie landscape near Winnipeg, Manitoba, on a visit home in December 2006.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

pick me

I began reading the book of Hosea this week. I couldn't help but think that this was not how Hosea had pictured his life would turn out. What young man dreams about growing up and marrying a prostitute? Who wants to love someone who will toss that love aside lightly time after time? Why would one run after an adulterous and unfaithful partner and take them back? If God had posted this assignment on http://www.monster.com/ would you have signed up for it? Yes, please, pick me! I want to be used and rejected and hurt in a relationship. Surely, anyone knows that these are just not good boundaries. This kind of depraved and uncivil behaviour is more than enough reason for divorce. And it seems to be a waste of a perfectly good man. Surely he could have married a beautiful girl who loved him dearly, appreciated his dedication and good character, and returned his affection. Isn't that what each of us wants? Isn't that what we deserve if we live right?

And yet, God invited him to marry a whore. And Hosea did it. Why? I believe that he recognised the opportunity that God was presenting to him. It was an invitation to so much more. God was saying, "I am asking you to act like me, to love like me, to be a picture of my uncontainable and extravagant attitude towards you. Where everyone else would walk away, I pursue. I make you lovely and lovable by my love. You are desirable because I desire you, not because of anything you are or do. No one knows this kind of love, it is foreign to people. Will you show them? Will you live it out? Come, work with me on this masterpiece of love."

I believe that at any given moment, we are either whores or lovers. We are takers or givers. We either seek to please ourselves or we please another. I am on a journey to pursue less of my own desires and chase more wholeheartedly after those things that God loves. And most of those things are actually people just like me whose lovability exists mainly in the truth that God loves them.

We live in a world awash in love stories. Most of them are lies. They are not love stories at all - they are lust stories, sex-fantasy stories, domination stories. From the cradle we are fed on lies about love.... Hosea is the prophet of love, but not love as we imagine or fantasize it.... It is an astonishing story: a prophet commanded to marry a common whore and have children with her. It is an even more astonishing message: God loves us in just this way - goes after us at our worst, keeps after us until he gets us, and makes lovers of men and women who know nothing of real love. - Eugene Peterson in the introduction to Hosea, The Message

This is a fire hydrant on the street in front of my place.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

the point

There are some things I don't understand in life. Okay, there are a lot of things I don't understand in life. Every day I lack understanding about something and for the most part, I think we all get used to this feeling. We accept odd patterns of behaviour and ways of being because they become familiar, not necessarily because things are as they should be.

Dean has been sick for 10 days. It is not a good thing. He was flat on the couch for 2 days and then got a bit better and now has the energy to go to work but not much else. He can't eat much of anything because his digestive system just rejects most food (yes, it comes out either one end or the other in case you must know). It is just some silly stomach virus but it is going on way too long and I don't know why. I don't understand.

Yesterday I prayed, "God, if there is some particular purpose that you have in Dean being sick, then we embrace it and co-operate with what you are doing. But if there is no purpose in this, then you stupid sickness, get lost and leave Dean alone." A friend of mine said she felt something powerful when I prayed that. I don't know. I felt nothing. But when I called Dean that afternoon he said he felt much better. So much better that we went out to watch a movie last night. Alright!

This morning he was back on the toilet emptying out his body. I don't understand.

I just finished my first exhibition of photos. It was a very good experience and I met some wonderful people. The comments I heard were all incredibly positive and I sold a few pieces, but I am not even close to breaking even. I might get a few orders out of the whole thing after the fact, and I do understand all about humble beginnings. In reality, I am not all that disappointed because I really had no expectations, but some of it I don't understand. When the amount of effort put in seems to greatly outweighs the results, I must admit that I don't get it.

Part of it, I am sure, is that we take into account such a short timeline and such a limited scope. I really want to see what God's purposes are in everything. So my question these days is, "What's the point?" I want to be aware, as much as possible, of what God's point is in all my circumstances. I want to walk in his purposes and if I am unaware of them, I will tend to fight against them, being the niggardly self-centred person that I am.

One day last week when all my appointments careened hopelessly out of control and I was late for everything which I absolutely detest because it is so rude, and I had no idea what the purpose could be in inconveniencing others, I found myself murmuring over and over, "Even in this, God will be bring glory to himself." And he always does. Even when I don't understand.

This is the spire of a huge church on St. Urbain.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

3 blog time stealers

Things have a been a bit slow in my blog-world lately because my usual schedule has been disrupted by wonderful but time-consuming events. ONE: I opened my first exhibit of photos this week. It is kind of a strange sensation to see ones art displayed in a public setting and have people study it up close and offer their comments. I have been pleasantly surprised by the reaction of all and am always amazed by the wonderful support of the folks in our church group and my friends from all walks of life. One of them even compared the dilapidated old stone church basement with fluorescent lighting where the exhibit is being held to the humble beginnings of some famous artist whose name I can't remember right now. I like the concept of humble beginnings because it is something Jesus loves as well. And beauty shows well in humble beginnings. TWO: I have been helping a far-off friend search for an apartment in Montreal. She emails me the details of a place she is interested in and I go scout it out, take some pictures, and tell her all about it. Among other things, she wants a view. I have seen several apartments for her in the past few weeks.

One had a view of trees out the living room window, but you had to get past the busy street and hydro lines between you and them. Oh, and the kitchen was just sad. One had a view of a parking lot and since it was a half-basement, the grills of various cars were staring into the bedroom. One had the view of another brick building across the alley. Another had a view of the freeway when you stood at the front door, but on a good note, the stark concrete landscape was offset by the various articles of furniture on the sidewalk that people had abandoned. One had a gorgeous park just to the left. That was a definite possibility until we learned that two other people had already applied to make it their home. One lovely apartment had a quiet view of well-manicured lawns and quiet backyards framed by mature trees. Truly wonderful, but the owner was unwilling to rent it to someone he had not met. Yesterday I saw two more. The first was above a Chinese restaurant with a view of fire escapes, brick walls and to top it all off, one of the bedroom had no windows. The second one was in the funky, trendy part of Montreal called the plateau with a ginormous old church just across the street. The rear balcony offered a view of the neighbour lady hanging her laundry not twenty feet away, wondering why I was taking a photo of her wet clothes.

I understand the importance of a view. What we set our eyes on, we become like. And if the things we are always looking at are unlovely and contrary to our value system, they in some way become our focus and we find them seeping into our souls. And so the search for the view continues.

THREE: We had our first house guests in the new place. Shane and Alli graced our home for three action packed days of shopping, sleeping and serious eating. We consumed bagels and French toast and apple pie and talked for hours and climbed Mont Royal and had a beer overlooking the Old Port and Shane even tried to overthrow our home group with his radical ideas, but we just agreed with him which takes the wind out of any radical's sails (you know I'm just messin' with ya, Shane). Brave Alli fed the cats one night in my absence despite much hissing (on the cats' part). They were the first friends to see my exhibit and offer their, "Well done, Matte." The house seems a little quiet right now without their Irish accents.

photo one: me looking like a deer caught in the headlights on opening night at the exhibit. Photo credit to Shane.

photo two: some lady's laundry, view from the back balcony of an apartment on St. Urbain.

photo three: Shane and Alli and me from the lookout on Mont Royal. photo credit to some random kind stranger.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

lesson from Daniel

I am reading the book of Daniel. It is depressing. Daniel does everything right. His integrity knows no bounds. He stands up to the kings of his day and tells them horrible news and defies their direct orders (respectfully, of course) and what happens? He gets promoted! Usually after he faces some horrible crisis and certain death, that's true, but even then he doesn't freak out. He knows his life is in good hands. Kings die and get murdered and pass on but Daniel stays, a highly respected man of incredible insight and wisdom who puts everyone else to shame. A man who is so squeaky clean that no one can find any fault in him except that he is loyal to God. And he doesn't seem to care what anyone thinks of him. He knows he is with God and that is all that matters.

I squished my finger under a box of cat litter today. It was pretty traumatic. For a brief moment, I wasn't sure if I would retain full use of it in a meaningful way. Thankfully, the throbbing stopped a minute later, and the incident is now a distant and slightly embarrassing memory. I probably panicked more over that finger incident that Daniel did over being tossed among the hungry lions. Like I said...depressing.

How does one make the right choice every time? How do I know which things are worth getting upset about? How do I see truth instead of just my perception of things?

At home group this week, we talked about how one learns life-changing lessons. My theory is that many lessons learned through crisis are probably lessons that we could not or would not hear in the calm. We all have different ways in which we learn. I believe that recognising truth, loving it, pursuing it and then living it is something we can cultivate. But too often it seems illusive, foggy, unclear, confusing or just a big silent blank. Why? Fear muddies the voice of reason. The desire to be liked and accepted or powerful and successful amplifies the wrong voices. Independence, that notion that I can get along just fine without God's intervention or others' help, erects a giant barrier that keeps out the catalyst of all truth, the Holy Spirit.

But if Daniel can do it, then so can I. Depressing, no. Inspiring, yes.

Let every waking and sleeping moment be an opportunity for epiphany in my life, this I pray.

This is a tree, named Daniel, standing alone on the shore of some part of New Brunswick.

Friday, July 04, 2008

the middle

Last night we walked around the Jazz Festival and saw a very cool band called Naturally 7. They use only their voices and if you weren't seeing seven guys in front of you with nothing but microphones, you would swear there was a full band playing with drums, bass, guitar, keyboard, and even strings, a horn section or a DJ at times. Amazing what can be done with the human voice.

I saw a preview for a new reality TV show called The Singing Office where a quasi-famous host surprises people in an office and asks them to sing. Some results are bad, some are surprisingly good. They take a few of these people, give them some vocal coaching and choreography help, and then bring them back to do a little performance for their colleagues. A silly little premise and a not-so-original concept, but it inspired me. If someone walked up to me and stuck a microphone in my face and said, "Sing!" what would come out? One of my old favorite songs or something new and original? A tune I can't get out of my head or something I've been wanting to say/sing for a long time? Perhaps just the next sentence I was going to say but put to music.

So, not wanting to be caught off guard in case these people come knocking at my door, I have been practicing. I was talking to God and decided it would be more fun to sing my prayers today. I sang while walking up the stairs. I sang in the subway (those noisy engines cover up quiet vocalisation, no worries), I hummed along in the grocery store. I sang to the cats. There is so much more truth and life and joy and beauty and profoundness and silly fun that I want to portray with my voice. But I don't know exactly what to sing when that microphone of opportunity is thrust in my path.
These days, I am in the middle of many things. I have started a few projects, I am preparing for an exhibit, I am in the middle of a couple of searches for property for different purposes, and I have a few problems to solve like a dryer that won't dry right. The things that intrigue me most, however, are areas that I know God is trying to show me something in. I can feel it, sense some truth or profound insight scratching at the door of my spirit and mind, and yet I can't quite figure out where the whole thing is going or what the point is.

I open my mouth, my mind, my heart, but aside from a few words dropping out, not much is happening. But I will continue to open my mouth and make sounds and one day soon, I will find the right words for the right time. And one day soon the truth will sidle up to me like an old friend and a mystery will be solved which will give me hope that the other mysteries are not hopeless puzzles. And until that epiphanic moment, I will show up every day and practice. There is no substitute for walking through the middle to get to the end.

Check out Naturally 7 on youtube.com. This is a very blurry picture of them taken from my white phone, but trust me, there are 7 of them.