Wednesday, December 30, 2009

spar

My vacation is turning out to be much busier than I had hoped. The lazy days, sitting by the fire reading a book, are still strictly in my mind. We are planning a mega birthday celebration for my mother on January 1, and last night after a day crammed with lunch at the Mexican restaurant, a trip to a few stores to exchange gifts that didn't fit and redeem gift cards, scouting out the celebration facility, a trip to the photo studio for family pictures, and a late dinner, I sat down to organise the program (I am the MC), work on my power point presentation, and get the door prizes ready. I went to bed shortly after midnight and still left a few things undone. This morning I awoke, tired and coughing. Not pleasant.

One thing that has been going through my mind this week is the following question: What am I mad at God about? In fact, he was the one that asked me this in the middle of worship in church on Sunday morning. And then he said..."Let's talk about it. Don't just ignore it or stuff it down. Get it off your chest. Give me a chance to answer your accusations." And so, despite my deeply ingrained inclination to let God get away with everything because...well, he is God, after all, I told him what irritated me about him.

Mostly, it is the fact that I pray for Dean every day and yet, he can't seem to shake a very nasty recurring chest cough. And this morning, I was annoyed that all my hard work trying to serve my family is wearing me down and making me tired and sick as well. I don't understand why some guy named Paul can just speak a few words over people (I have been reading Acts) and they get up from their death bed, and I can't even get God to heal a simple cough. What's the point of asking if nothing changes? This does not encourage faith by any means. I am irritated that my prayers seem to be useless and that my concern and compassion for people are not resulting in much fruit. Of course, this is not totally accurate; there are areas of my life and some relationships that are flourishing and growing indeed, but let's let the discouragement talk for a minute.

So, this is the thing that I don't like about God. He is not my puppet. This morning in the shower as I was lamenting about my congested chest, God said, "So, now you can identify with Dean and have more patience with him." Oh. I hadn't realised how impatient I was becoming with his continual coughing, sniffing, fatigue, and overall noisy sickness. Isn't it funny how the very thing God lets into my life to give patience a chance to stretch its wings is the thing that makes me impatient. The long drawn out nature of something frustrates me, whether it be sickness, unresolved tension, or a project. And this seedbed of frustration is the perfect environment for some beautiful patience to grow and flower.

I believe I am too passive with God in some ways. Yes, surrender is good and necessary every day, but he also wants me to bring my frustrations and irritations to him; if I don't, I will never ask for (or perhaps even demand) an answer to the incongruencies of my life, and they will never be addressed. I need to give him a chance to explain what he is doing, why things are the way they are, and how I can work with him to make this the best life I can ever live. It is like a fight instructor waving his pupil towards him, in effect saying, "Come on, spar with me. Bring what you have. Let me show you what you can do with that pent-up energy."

I get stronger by wrestling with God, and hopefully, I learn to move and think like he does. A few bruises along the way are all part of the equation. Yes, God is my kick-boxing instructor. If I engage strongly and regularly with him, I am sure I will be able to handle anything life can throw at me.

This is a plate of Christmas spanakopita after the family got at them. Every boxer needs spinach to stay strong.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

matrix vs. avatar

We went to see the movie Avatar last night. Some tout is as the new Matrix of movies: breakthrough CGI, lush fantastical landscapes, and the epic story of two worlds clashing. I did enjoy the experience and appreciated the visual gymnastics and creativity, but something was missing: it wasn't about being human.

Avatar takes you to a fantasy world; the human earth pales in comparison. The blue people are at one with nature and each other, mystically and spiritually mature. There is nothing that they want from the humans; they find most of them ignorant and blind. Perhaps it was because they were virtual or virtually perfect, but I was not particularly attracted to the giant blue aliens. I did not want to live in their world or be one of them. Despite watching the movie in 3-D, I found the Na'vi two-dimensional and unreal and therefore, unbelievable and somewhat boring. Their eyes were not full of life. You can't draw that into a character's eyes. It is only present in real live human beings.

The Matrix, on the contrary, is about the gritty and ugly truth about our existence. Humans are ripped out of their comfortable state and get a brutal wake up call to the battle for their lives. Everything around them wants to replace the truth with a pretty lie. Visual tricks and fantasy are easier on the soul than the raw truth, it becomes apparent, but those outside the matrix fight to hold onto reality. The humans are more fragile and more real than ever, primitive and imperfect, making mistake after mistake, yet learning and growing and fighting and loving. It is not a beautiful world. It is crude and dirty, their clothes are frayed and their beds are hard. And yet, this is the world that I find myself drawn to and identifying with.

Sometimes I think that it would be nice to live the fantasy: no worries about finances, jobs, interpersonal conflicts, failures, sickness, the future, or hard decisions. But there is something incredibly beautiful and satisfying about the struggle to be truly human. About having a soul that longs for unity with others and carries an inherent spirituality that cries to be awakened. About walking this earth, tasting and feeling every moment that passes, whether it be sweet pleasure, mundane tasks, or waves of pain. I want unclouded truth more than pleasant fantasy. I want real life rather than false comfort. I want my eyes to be alive.

These ideas do not originate with me. I see them in Jesus. He deemed it an honour to come and live with us as frail and earthy human beings: to masticate and defecate just like any one of us do. He left the perfect world to enter the imperfect one, drawn by his attraction and love for the ignorant and blind. He was the prime example of unity. Unity does not come from a simple twining together of body parts; it grows through extended periods of costly yielding and surrendering, often interspersed with loud clashes. Unity requires that I be fully present and honest. Unity requires all of me and then mysteriously gives it back, richer somehow.

Avatar offers superficial rightness. The Matrix rips away the pretty packaging and shows us just how desperately we need help. I choose the red pill instead of the blue people.

This is part of a painting done by people in my home group a few years ago, the only blue and red thing I could find in my line of sight.

Monday, December 21, 2009

the list

What do you want for Christmas? As an adult, I don't get asked this question much, and when I do (mostly by Dean), I am a bit uncomfortable answering it. I don't like being greedy or needy. I do like being content. But I also know that I do not stretch my hope and desire muscles enough, and that is not contentment - that is complacency.

God asks me almost every day what I would like (after I have talked to him about all the important people in my life and asked him to provide for them with extravagance, he usually asks...and what about you?). I am getting better at giving him a response. I am getting better at expressing my real desires (not for stuff, but those things that add genuine richness to my life) and daring to live in that scary place between deep longing and sweet fulfillment. It is where I live every day, if I am honest: some days more on the longing side and other days, leaning more towards the fulfillment end of things.

Here, then, are the things that I would like in my life, at Christmas time and any other day as well:
1. Friends. So many people come and go in my life, affected by time, distance, work, studies, life changes, different interests, etc. Right now I seem to be in flux, between solid, mutual friendships. Dean is the best, most generous longterm companion I have. Yeah! But there are others that I want to walk through life with in a fun and meaningful way. Jesus, show me how to be a friend and have good friends.

2. Grace. I get annoyed when things don't go the way I want them to. I disappoint myself and others. Others disappoint me. I would like grace that looks beyond small and big annoyances and sees the wonder of life in motion. I want to bring a softness to harsh edges and inspiring patience and growth to every situation. I want to stop judging and start measuring out scoop after scoop of yummy grace that opens mouths instead of closes hearts.

3. Gratitude. This is the secret weapon of my life, but sometimes I find it dull and rusty. Practice, lots of practice is what keeps this weapon sharp. I called Dean on the phone today and after I hung up, I thought WOW, I can talk to him just by pressing a few buttons. What a privilege to have a phone! People for the greater part of history did not have this technology and could not do this! I love my phones!

4. A new pair of jeans. My old, comfy ones are getting pretty worn.

5. More storage space or the ability to live a more organised and streamlined life.

6. The capacity to love Dean well and put a smile on his face every day.

7. The desire to learn something new every day and never get side-tracked by the learning curve side-effects (ugh, I feel inadequate, slow, and stupid).

8. Enthusiasm for whatever phase of life I find myself in.

9. A generous spirit that does not fatigue because it relies on God's goodness and not my own resources.

And that's basically it. Here is a photo of a gift from a friend...3 candles inside of a gift bag. (Probably a fire hazard, don't try this at home.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

trojan movie

I went to see Invictus last night. Good solid movie, nothing flashy, story simply told. Halfway through it, I realised it was a trojan horse (sneaky device to get inside at your vulnerable bits). The movie is the story of South Africa coming together over a rugby team and the leadership of Nelson Mandela who saw what could be instead of what was. The Springboks are the SA rugby team, not the best rugby team by any means, and they are painfully aware of it. But that doesn't seem to matter to Mandela. He does not see their dismal record; he sees an opportunity for the country to rally together and overcome their division.

I sat in the movie theatre and realised that I am all too aware of my limitations. I am only a timid, simple, fairly emotional and reactive woman who can't remember dates and facts very well because I live so much in the moment; I am often too slow to speak when it matters the most and too quick to voice my thoughts when I should keep quiet or at least think things through a bit more. I obsess about the small things and neglect the weighty stuff.

This week at school, I missed a vital component of an assignment for some reason (just didn't catch on clearly what was being asked for) and received some criticism from my professor. It caused me to wonder what I was doing in grad school if I couldn't even do an assignment right. And God showed me that I am afraid. I want to be in a situation where I shine and do well, but that is not greatness; that is just being comfortable. I am afraid of being in way over my head. I am afraid I don't have what it takes to measure up. I am afraid that I will disappoint those who have high hopes for me. I am afraid of being put in a situation of crisis or great responsibility where chances are, I will screw up at least a few times. I am afraid of having my weaknesses and unlearnedness exposed.

One of the reasons that I had decided to do a project instead of a thesis for my MA was because I want to do something practical with theology and not just have it be an intellectual exercise. However, last night I realised that another reason that I chose the project option is because I was afraid of the thesis. I find it easier to do a project because I do it every day - practice theology in the real world. It is something I am very comfortable with, something I know I can do. So last night, in the bathroom after the movie, I had a conversation that went something like this:

G: Why are you afraid to do a thesis?
M: Well, right now I am doubting my writing ability. I didn't do so well this week. I was told I still write like an undergrad.
G: So you have something to learn, then? Aren't you there to learn?
M: Yes, I am, but a project is just more me. A thesis seems a bit out of my league. I am not as clever and quick as a lot of these people. I don't know if I would do well.
G: So you want to be in an environment where you know the outcome, you know you will shine. A big fish in a little pond. You are afraid to try something great because you feel small.
M: Arggghghgh, yes I like to shine. Who doesn't? With a thesis, I don't know how I will do. I might stumble badly. I might be mediocre.
G: But even if you stumble, you would finish. Even if you didn't come away with an A and wow everyone, you would still have done it.
M: Okay, but I am also afraid of defending a thesis. I have heard some nightmare stories. It seems very stressful. I might not be able to answer all the questions they throw at me. I might freeze.
G: It all depends on the topic you pick. Here's what you do: you pick a topic that you are passionate about, that you love, that gets inside of you. Then you live with this topic for a year and let it become part of you and pour it out onto paper. Then you go in there and defend that sucker because you believe it. Are you afraid to defend something you believe in?
M: No, I mean yes, I mean I don't want to be.
G: You don't need a great mind. You need courage, little one.

This morning I read the story of Thomas Kelly, a devoted and studious philosopher, pastor, and scholar who wrote a doctoral dissertation and failed the oral exam because of a memory lapse. This resulted in a personal crisis out of which came a deep encounter with God. He changed his emphasis from straining and striving in his education and knowledge (a noisy inner workshop) to becoming a person who cultivated a holy sanctuary of adoration to God in the secret places of the heart (through surrender and listening).

I realise that I have defined success as doing well in school, being respected by my peers, and having the approval of my professors. It is an inadequate and hollow definition and will inevitably lead me to disappointment and questioning myself. I may or may not do well in all my scholastic endeavours and that's okay. There is something much greater at stake than a good GPA. Am I willing to put myself in the game, not because I am strong and know I can win, but because this life is much greater than me and my immediate results? Am I willing to stumble through in order to let something great be built in my home, my friendships, my family, my city, my country, my world? Yes, please give me the courage to say yes.
Let us explore together the secret of a deeper devotion, a more subterranean sanctuary of the soul, where the Light Within never fades, but burns, a perpetual Flame; where the wells of living water of divine revelation rise up continuously, day by day and hour by hour, steady and transfiguring. - Thomas Kelly
This is a photo of my guide to paper writing and my night light.

Friday, December 11, 2009

gun-shy

We all have them. Friends who have had a bad experience at church, people we know who have been hurt or judged by Christians, and acquaintances who have seen the freaky side of religion and don't want to get anywhere near it. I feel for these people, I really do. I have been on both sides of the equation, so I know what it is like. I have freaked people out and judged others who are not like me. I have also been judged and condemned and seen things done in the name of God that made me cringe. These things bother me.

For all those people who have had a bad encounter with the church, I am truly story. I wish you could see that Christians can be really cool people: full of life and love, genuine in their honesty, and relentless in their pursuit of truth and transformation. Above all, I wish that you could see that they love God. They really, really love him and everything that he is about, because they know he can be trusted. They are not perfect, and they need grace for their mistakes just like everyone else does, but they are not afraid to give themselves to something, or rather someone, bigger than themselves.

I have quite a few people in my life that are gun-shy about God-stuff, especially church-related issues. I try to be sensitive to their sensitivity, careful what I say around them, restrained in my questions about their beliefs, and never pushing my ideas and experiences onto them. I really want them to like God, because he will be the best friend they ever had. I don't want to push those buttons that remind them of their bad church experience. I want to make them comfortable around me so that they take who I am and what I say seriously.

But honestly, I cannot protect them from ever being turned off or offended. If they came to one of the gatherings where we worship God together, they might see something that would freak them out. They might hear things that they thought were weird. They would probably meet someone who was a bit strange. If you read the gospels, you see Jesus in the middle of a lot of scenarios that would make us uncomfortable: demons screaming, sick people begging, desperate parents crying, prostitutes uncomfortably close, protests breaking out, and really, really, really long talks. Jesus attracts all kinds of people in all stages of life, and that's a very good thing. It give us all hope. It keeps us all in touch with reality.

Yesterday when I was talking to God about some of these people who have been burned by their church experience, he asked me this: "Do you trust the Holy Spirit?" Hmmm, I guess I wasn't acting like I did. Instead, I was trying to make all the circumstances align in order for these people to encounter God in the prefect scenario; I was walking on eggshells hoping not to crack the fragile souls. Be assured that I don't go out of my way to be strange and religious, and I do try to be wise in my words and my actions, but deep down, I know that I will never be able to do it just right. If people don't want to be near God, there will always be a reason they find to stay away. Heck, even Jesus couldn't accomplish that feat. He did it all right and people still walked away.

It is not my job to woo people to God. That's his job. He is the ultimate lover. Do I believe that God knows how to draw people to himself and that despite the crazy mistakes we make as human beings, he can still reveal himself to someone? Absolutely. What is the best way for me to help people get over their fears and hurts regarding Christians? By being myself, relating to them and to God in a natural and loving way, and showing them the truest picture I can of a real and dynamic relationship with God. What they do with that is up to them. I can stop fretting about all the ways I might turn someone off God and relax. The Holy Spirit is present, moving, and active. I trust Him.
This is Dean at the shooting range. He's not afraid of guns because he knows them well.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

one down

Today, during the first snowstorm of the season, I handed in one of my two term papers. For those of you interested in a glimpse into the subject, read on. For the rest of you...go ahead and grab a snack during the next few paragraphs.

My topic was the significance of Jesus' first miracle as recorded in the gospel of John: the infamous turning of water into wine, notably one of the most practical, compassionate, and life-changing miraculous works Jesus did. Okay, I am being facetious, but let me tell you what I read about how people interpret this story. Mostly, theologians hold one of two positions: 1) they decide that it is an unfortunate story, not really a fitting start for the saviour of the world and either dismiss it as relatively unimportant or try to explain how it really wasn't about people getting drunk at a wedding party, or 2) they symbolise and allegorise and analogise the heck out of it, saying the whole thing is all about the Eucharist (communion for you reformers) or Jesus' superiority to the old Jewish law. This lets them neglect the awkward details of the account like the manner in which he speaks to his mother, the incredulous amounts of wine made, and the lack of any real pressing need. In short, it is a bit of a tricky miracle to get your head around.

And that was the point of my paper exactly. As the first sign - Jesus' coming out as Messiah, so to speak - it was appropriate precisely because it was so troublesome, don't you think? You either loved his quirky and challenging remarks or you were irritated by them. You either enjoyed the party he was celebrating or you were scandalised by his extravagance. You were either intrigued by his lack of explanation or you were annoyed by his evasiveness.

Jesus reveals God and his greatness in whatever way he decides, whenever his timing is right, and to whomever he chooses. This can appear to be scandalous (what's up with having to hang out with the dregs of society on a regular basis? and why couldn't he cooperate with the ranking religious guys instead of insulting them? that certainly didn't earn him any brownie points) or it can be alluring (mmmm...free fish and bread, and woohoo, crippled people walking!). He follows no rules but his own, and that can be pretty irritating, especially when we have rules that we think are working pretty well for us. He throws a party when we would rather he withhold his generosity, and his benevolence seems sadly lacking just when we think a good dose would be the appropriate gesture.

Yep, Jesus' first miracle is in the book for a reason. It forces us to decide what we really think about him. Here are the last three sentences of my paper:

Some people were scandalised by Jesus because they found it difficult to picture a divine Saviour in such an unflattering and insignificant role. Others were attracted to him because he sought out the needy and promised them more than they could ever gain on their own merit. The question remains: which side do we find ourselves on?

If I know I am needy, I am more likely to be attracted to Jesus. If I think things are pretty good the way they are, or I have a certain standard that God needs to measure up to in order to impress me, I am probably a bit disappointed and offended by Jesus. My decision.

This is the scene outside my window tonight.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

dead end?

Do you ever have times in your life when you just want to say, "Forget it?" Being pretty much an "in the moment" type of person means that I sometimes lack the long-term perspective needed to keep me from getting discouraged by one or two apparent setbacks. One of the places I feel this most right now is in my faith community. The numbers are slowly dwindling as people find that work and school and life-stuff are taking on a higher priority in their lives; their connection with us is being squeezed out of the picture. I can only pray that their connection with God is not suffering the same fate. The dynamics of friendships are changing as well as we become less present in each other's worlds and lives.

Another place I feel this is in a slightly more structured setting when someone hijacks a discussion in class or in a home group and we end up way off topic and focusing on the interests of one person. This makes me uncomfortable. I am hesitant to say anything because some of the people in the group seem to be genuinely interested in the diversion and in what is being said, or maybe they are just being polite. And who am I to impose my own agenda into the foray? I am a person who loves to go with the flow, so I ask myself...where is the flow going? And when I am not sure, I don't intervene. I just write the rest of the discussion off with an internal, "Forget it."

Today I read the story in Acts 16 where Paul and friends were travelling. They attempted to go into Asia, but their way was blocked. Then they set off for Bithynia in the north and it says the Spirit of Jesus wouldn't let them go there either. (Don't you love it when God blocks your way?) They went to a seaport called Troas and there Paul had a dream that people needed them in Macedonia. So they got on a boat and off they went. Once they landed, they met some cool people who welcomed them and their message. Good stuff! This was followed by a public beating and being thrown in jail. Bad stuff! Here is where the famous story of Paul and Silas praying and singing loud praises to God at midnight from the jail cell comes in. They were so sure that this was where they were supposed to be that nothing discouraged them - good stuff and bad stuff were not the measuring stick to determine if they were on track. They were there because God wanted them there and whatever happened, they were going to see it through and praise God in it all.

I suppose that is my problem. I am not always sure that this is where I am supposed to be. When things are not going as well as I had hoped, I question whether God is slamming the door on some things in my life, suggesting that I change direction. Or is this just part of the territory that comes with being here? I guess I have to stop looking at the dynamic of good stuff vs. bad stuff and get back to the basic question. Is this where God has asked me to be? If yes, then I need to stick with whatever is happening and focus on worshipping God. Remembering that it is God who has brought me here will silence the "forget it" in my head and help me keep my energy focused on walking with God instead of evaluating how things are looking at the moment. And if and when it is time to change course, I trust that he is very capable of sending an unmistakable roadblock to let me know.
This is a dead end sign right in front of our ex-house in St. Lazare last winter.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

one-day remedy

So, my one-day recovery plan didn't work. I have been fighting (everything short of screaming and kicking) this silly cold for almost 9 days now. It is a vicious bugger of a virus and won't give up its warm and cozy host easily. I had a pretty busy week with classes, assignments, dinner parties, and a day of fun activities with Dean on his day off. By Friday night, or rather, Saturday morning at 2:00 am, I was feeling pretty bad. I decided to take Saturday and do a one-day recovery. Sleep in. Not exert myself. Sit on the couch and rest. Maybe read a bit. Drink lots of liquids. Avoid sugar and milk products (which are Mr. Phlegms' favourites). Take a nap. Give my body everything it needed to kick the virus.

It was a good day. I got plenty of rest. I didn't leave the house. I drank plenty of tea. It should have been enough to get everything back to normal, or so I thought. I had high expectations for the next day. I was up at 8:00 am on Sunday morning to go to a visiting church where Dean was playing drums. It was a long service and lots of people wanted to chat and then there was packing up the gear and well, we got home around 2:00 pm. I was hungry and tired and coughing and not feeling great at all. A brief nap and we were back to Reggie's Bar for our 6:00 pm regular church group meeting, out for dinner later, and home by 11:30 p.m. We just have a lot going on right now.

I am happy to report that I have felt stronger for the past two days, thought I still have coughing bouts morning and evening and my head is a bit stuffy. I wished my one-day recovery plan had worked. It was a great idea, really: to cram all my efforts for wellness into one dedicated day. To make my health a priority for a whole 24 hours or so. I don't understand why my body didn't respond better. And then again, maybe I do.

This long-term thing we call health, well-being, or strength and vitality does not respond well to instant or short-term remedies. It requires continuous care and vigilance. It can never drop off the priority list. One day of concentrated effort does not eradicate a disease or produce complete healing. One magic pill or well-intended action does not change the course of an entire circular system. It was never meant to work that way.

Unfortunately, I have also tried to practice the one-day remedy in other areas of my life. If I spend a few hours at a bible study or at a church meeting, that should fix my spiritual life for the week, right? I don't need to connect with God all the time. I got too much other stuff going on. If there is a misunderstanding with a friend, a conversation over dinner should send the message that everything is okay, right? I don't have to get to the root of what caused the misunderstanding in the first place and make the effort to change how I communicate and interact with others, do I? It just gets too time-consuming and draining. Right? Wrong.

If I want a strong and healthy body, I need to eat right, rest well, exercise regularly, and avoid behaviour that is detrimental to my health. I need to do this every day. If I take a break from this, there are long-term repercussions. I will have veered off the road of health and started down the road of my body breaking down.

Anything important in my life, anything that I place any value on and say that I prioritise in my life cannot be fixed or even maintained by a one-day remedy plan. Careful attention to it needs to become part of my natural regiment for living. It must become part of life itself, like breathing and eating and drinking and eliminating and sleeping. It is meant to be the fullness and substance of my life, not simply an interruption to everything else that I have going on.

Every day is remedy day. I choose today whether I contribute to my long-term physical, spiritual, emotional, and relational health and growth. I can't play catch-up with any of these areas. If I am not nurturing them, they are getting sick. And I hate being sick. I really hate being sick.

This is a picture of a pharmacy in Stratford-upon-Avon in England.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

sick

So...I have a cold. It is not pleasant. I means that I dream about not being able to breathe. It means that there is a damp spot under my nose when I wake up. It means that my chest is tight and I get winded climbing the stairs to my bedroom. It means that my throat is scratchy and I am always thirsty. It means that everything seems like a bigger deal than it really is.

This morning, the doorbell buzzed while I was still in bed, sleeping the open-mouthed, sweaty sleep of the sick. I woke up, a bit groggy, but aware enough to know who it was. The mailman was delivering books which I had ordered. Yeah! I was waiting for this shipment and was happy to receive it before the Friday deadline. The mailman usually just leaves the package in the hallway of our condo building when I am away, so because I was feeling kind of rough and certainly looking like someone's nightmare (plus, I didn't want to infect the poor man with whatever I had, I reasoned), I decided not to answer the door. I stood just inside and listened. And I heard a little voice tell me that I was just being proud, unwilling to let someone see me not at my best. Yes, I was unwilling to have someone think, "Whoa, that woman just woke up and she looks scary!" So I waited until he left, then tiptoed down the stairs to the building's mailboxes.

There was no box waiting for me. What? I saw the mailman get into his red and white truck and just stared at the sad empty space above the mailboxes. Why hadn't he left my package? Didn't he know I was waiting upstairs, afraid to come down because I wasn't wearing my best jeans and my cute purple top, and because I had not taken a shower, brushed my teeth, put on any make-up, combed my hair, nor wiped my face clean of sleep and mucus? Didn't he trust me to come and get it the minute he was gone and I could pick it up without being seen? All that was waiting for me was a notice that it would be available the next day. I briefly thought about racing out into the street and trying to catch him before he drove away, but I knew that I wasn't up for it, so I watched him drive away with my precious books. Didn't he know that I didn't have the energy right now in my weakened state to walk 20 minutes to the post office to pick it up? I guess not.

Sometimes when I need it the most, I am the most unwilling to put myself out there to receive something. I don't really want the package or the gift that badly, I realise. I would rather have people think well of me, not show them my weakness, my sickness, my disease. I would rather wait and do it my way, expending much more effort just to avoid being seen as I am. That's just stupid pride and it has cost me dearly over and over again. Hopefully, this time I learned something. When God brings an opportunity or a gift to me, I will not hide behind my door, self-conscious and afraid, but boldly step into the open and receive that most wondrous thing that I have been waiting for, in whatever state I find myself in. It is worth it. I don't want to miss the chance again. Good receivers have to leave their comfort zone.

This is a picture of me saying "no" to the camera in my bathrobe.

Friday, November 20, 2009

decoration

What is a decoration? The dictionary lists it as "an addition that renders something more attractive or ornate." It is something you can do without, but it sure is prettier with it there. We have made a whole industry out of the art and science of decorating in our culture. These decorations are not necessary, but really nice. They make life more pleasant and beautiful.

I was typing a post for an online forum on Wednesday about some writings by Richard Rolle. The topic was the fire of love, and Rolle relates the first time that he felt this physical warmth and heat in his heart; he was taken aback and delighted at this sense of being internally on fire. It brought him unexpected comfort, fed his soul, spread an interior sweetness in him, and left a hunger for more in its wake. [1]

The last line of my post read: God is a consuming fire, not a decorative candle. And as soon as I wrote it, I was convicted that I myself often use God as a decoration in my life. I splash God on at the beginning of the day and walk around feeling better about myself. I add a dash of God to my meals and they appear brighter and shinier and more wholesome, like some religious MSG. I intersperse my sentences with God-talk and drop a few religious phrases in my conversations and the world just seems to be a better place because of my timely droppings. I tie a God-ribbon around my job and my studies and the package looks very well put-together, neat and tidy. I place a jaunty God-hat on my head when I go to any church function and everyone knows I belong to the spiritual club. I pin a God-flower onto my friends and this assures me that my interactions with them are all about love and peace and not harming anyone. I crawl into bed with my God teddy bear at night and feel comforted and secure.

How much of my religious practice is merely decoration added to a strongly self-directed life? How much is a surface addition - seasonal, temporary, and mostly for effect? Decoration does not change anything at the core. It is a coat of paint, a throw pillow for a punch of colour, a dollop of whipped cream to sweeten up a bland and dry chocolate cake. I have merely added God to who I am comfortable being, hoping to shiny things up a bit. But am I interested in deep transformation? Do I want the master chef to mess with my list of ingredients to what I hold to be a tried and true family recipe? Am I willing to have him rip the agenda page out of my diary?

God is not a decoration to perch on top of an already basically good life: He is life. He is a consuming fire, not a decorative candle. Does my life smell like some artificial room freshener or is the odour of singed pride and living sacrifice in the air? God is not here to make my life prettier. God is creating something much more solid and terrifying and beautiful and multi-dimensional than anything I could imagine. And it starts by surrendering myself to the fire of his love. Let me take down my trite decorations and take a good look at what I have as a foundation.

This is a photo of a decorative candle in my living room. It is from South Africa (the candle, not the living room).

[1] Richard Rolle in Devotional Classics, edited by Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

awkward place

I don't like awkward situations. Like when one person in a group expresses an opinion quite forcefully and in a way that belittles any other position, and yet, you know that a number of people there hold to a different viewpoint. Like when a friend tells you that they are not sure they want you to meet their other friends. Like someone trying to uninvite you from a party. Like making a comment about how unattractive something is and then realising that your conversation partner is really into that particular thing.

The awkward feeling goes away after a bit, but that doesn't mean that it is resolved. These are the situations where I feel most inept, wondering whether to inject a comment, try to smooth things over, expose a misunderstanding, apologise, make light of the situation, or clarify by a few well-directed questions. I have let things lie and many times, that feels like the issue is never dealt with but remains lurking under the surface. I have tried to clarify and ended up making things worse, or so it seems. I have apologised and felt that I avoided the truth and any conflict instead of facing it bravely. And so I continue to bumble along, trying to get it right, trying to be real and truthful and loving.

God reminds me that the story is not finished; relationships are not static. The tenuous nature of some of my interactions with my friends and acquaintances are just a temporary phase and not the final chapter. Love is a long road. It is not for the timid. Love braces itself for the strong winds and calmly waits through the dry, still, heat, but it will not abandon the journey. It takes awkward moments in stride, like a pebble in one's shoe.

I will not walk away from this road of friendship. I will learn to graciously ignore the thoughtless mistakes of others, but to gently offer guidance if they stumble in a wrong direction, and to discern the difference between the two. I will learn to be honest and humble, admitting when I am wrong and sticking to the truth when it is challenged, but not at the expense of another person's dignity. I will keep my thoughts to myself and pray for God's kind and patient presence in someone's life when I have no way to appropriately address the situation, however, I will not be silent when someone is slandered or misrepresented.

Help me, God, this is not easy.

This is a photo of a fall bush along the path near our house.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

step in

I attended a seminar at the American Academy of Religion annual conference in Montreal on Monday. For those of you who don't know (like me before Monday), it is a "learned society and professional association of teachers and research scholars" boasting over 10,000 members who "teach in some 1,500 colleges, universities, seminaries, and schools in North America and abroad." My professors had encouraged us to check it out, so I perused the offerings and found a round table discussion on Monday morning that piqued my interest: Practicing Faith in Graduate School. They promised free coffee and snacks, so how could I go wrong?

There were only three of us that showed up for this particular session, and that was fine with me. I prefer a small group discussion to a person reading their paper to me from a podium any day. I grabbed a juice and a cinnamon pastry and sat down at the table. The facilitator was a pleasant fellow from Pennsylvania who worked as a pastor and adjunct professor at a local college. As the hour progressed, it turned out that he had quite a few stories about how scholars were labeled as heretics in the church community, how the pastors he ran with probably couldn't understood half of the books he reads, how he received a monetary bonus for reaching certain membership goals at his church because that was the only way they could afford him (my chin almost hit the floor), and how appalling it was that his undergrad students didn't know the creeds.

The second fellow, who was a professor at a divinity school in North Carolina, was a mild man who countered with a story of his recent experience of changing to a new church to be with his fiancée, a church predominantly blue collar and military, and finding this a wonderful opportunity for him to relate to others from different walks of life. I liked his open and accepting attitude.

It didn't take long for professor #1 to suss out that I did not have my doctorate, did not know who Tom Altizer was, could not summarize the "Death of God' controversy, and wasn't even a member of the AAR (due to my being the only one present without a badge). The talk in the room soon became a discussion between the two doctorate holders in the room on scholarly topics. I started to feel excluded and that old familiar urge to flee came over me. Whenever the dynamics in a place feel wrong, I often get a strong desire to leave and get away from the uncomfortable scene. It happens when I feel overlooked, misunderstood, overwhelmed, oppressed, underqualified, or threatened in some way. However, I have been learning that fleeing, while appropriate in some dangerous situations, is not usually the best option. I have something to bring. I have something to say. I have a point of view that no one else has, and I need to bring it.

So I brought what I had to that round table discussion, confidently but graciously. I told the learned men that if we can't explain our faith to a 5-year-old or the average person on the street, then what good is our education? I said that being in a minority is good for one's humility. I affirmed the great opportunities that lie in rubbing shoulders with those who are not like us, for we have something to learn from every person, and they have something to learn from us. I pointed out that most of their viewpoints were decidedly American and added that here in Montreal, I counted it a blessing to be in a secular society where one can talk about God and faith to people who have a relatively "clean slate" regarding their religious pre-suppositions. At the end of the session, I thanked them both for the time and their contribution, wished them all the best, and left the room.

That evening I attended one of my classes at university and noticed a difference in how I interacted in the class discussion. I was no longer as timid, measuring every word and hesitating before speaking. I threw in my comments when appropriate, added my thoughts to the discussion, and jumped right in after someone else spoke without having to go over the whole speech in my head first. I brought myself. I stepped forward. I contributed.

Too often, just because we don't look like, talk like, or have the same experience as others in the room, we assume that we don't have anything to add. That is not true. I always have something to bring. At the very least, I can interact kindly and offer an affirming smile or word. Other times, I bring a point of view that others have not thought of. Sometimes, I can turn things from negative to positive by posing a simple question. Always, I pray that I bring the Spirit of Jesus so that his presence is near. And I can't do that by walking away.

Here is a video I stumbled across called, "Dare."


Those are my feet at the top. Stepping in.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

that just don't sound right

There are things that I hear people say that just don't sound right to me, but sometimes I don't know exactly why. One of them is that "my Christian friends are not as much fun and way more high maintenance than my non-Christian friends." Hmmm. While there may be some element of reality in that statement, especially when you are viewing a small slice of someone's life, I believe at its very foundation, this is a lie. And here is why:

1. People who follow and love God are committed to transformation. This is a slightly more taxing goal than having fun and going with the flow (understatement), but definitely more rewarding. A friend of mine said that it was very easy to hang out with his old friends, drinking and passing around a joint, but much of the time it was to avoid having to do the hard work of taking responsibility for one's life and to numb the pain that inevitably comes from this bumpy road we all find ourselves on. Being committed to transformation is about rooting out and eliminating anything that is an obstacle to loving wholeheartedly, living freely, and trusting a good God. A joyful countenance and a graceful, grateful nature are side effects of surrender to God's love, but real and lasting transformation is not an easy journey. It is only for the courageous. (Thanks to Michael Jones for articulating this point and getting me thinking about this.)

2. People who are friends of God are committed to walking through life with others, even when those "others" might not be a whole lot of fun to be around or a drain on our resources at times. It is easy to hang out with people of similar likes and dislikes, people who demand very little of you and who never challenge your self-sufficiency and independence. It is not so easy to be a part of a real familial community. To be clear, I am not endorsing ongoing bad or co-dependent behaviour, but we all go through phases where we have to face difficult situations and deal with certain destructive and unhealthy attitudes, in ourselves and in others. Some of us take a little longer to get through these challenges than others, but as long as there is a willingness to change, there is hope. I know I have been grateful for people who have had the patience and the graciousness to walk with me through my unlovely valleys. How could I not be willing to do this for someone else? This is what community is all about. The strong ones support the weak. We look out for each other. We don't let someone fall by the wayside. We don't walk away.

3. People who are brave enough to walk with God in a vulnerable and open way are some of the most stable, yet unpredictably funny and outrageous people I know. Their wildness is safe but not tame. They need no outside stimulus to have a good time. The gift of life is their excuse to party, and they do so with gratitude and generosity. They are real, truthful, genuine, and dependable. They engage with life in an earthy, deep way, but have the ability to transcend the banal distractions of life, including their own mistakes and those of others. They can make cleaning a toilet, putting together a bookshelf, taking out the garbage, making a meal for 12, or deciphering a messy spread sheet one of the most fun and memorable things you will ever do because all of life is holy and precious and large when God is in it.

I want to be a friend that people like to be around, but more than that, I want to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus. I don't know of any person more attractive than him, though he sure did piss some people off. I guess it just goes with the territory. Cheers!
This is a mysterious plant in the woods near my house. Earthy brown, yet filled with wisps of light, white fluff.

Friday, November 06, 2009

together

Yesterday I spent 3 hours at my university campus. It is interesting how one can be surrounded by thousands of people and still feel quite alone. I ate my supper in a large student lounge area and tried to prepare for a Bible study later that night. Nothing much was inspiring me and God seemed remote and distant. I have been living with a sense of displacement lately. I am not exactly sure where or with which group of people I belong. I enjoy my studies and my colleagues, but I don't feel totally at home there. I love the people I encounter in my faith community, but we are in flux right now as well, changing places and dynamics and comfort zones. Many of my friends are at a crossroads or on a bridge in their lives and that affects how we relate to each other.

So I was walking towards the library yesterday afternoon and talking to God. I began my usual litany and realised that my heart just wasn't in it. If I was going to be talking to the most powerful and interested party in the universe, what did I really want to say? What was the cry at the core of my being? I just want to be loved. Yes, God, I just want to know that I am loved today. And I left it at that. A few steps later, I thought I heard something, so I checked my phone. There was a text message from my friend, saying, "Matte, I hug you from here..."

A few hours later I was walking again, this time away from the library and towards a friend's house. As is my habit, I usually converse with God while I am walking. It has been my practice lately to ask God for a gift every day. His choice. I am working at becoming a better receiver, a more open person instead of an island, and the one I most want to be open to is God, so I have been trying to practice receiving whatever he has for me. However, this afternoon, a different prayer came from my mouth for some reason. Instead of asking God for a gift, I asked if I could be a gift to someone.

About a minute later, I came upon a lady standing at one of the street corners, holding a piece of paper. She caught my eye and started in my direction. I began to sidestep her and raise a hand to let her know that, sorry, I was not interested in hearing her sad story and giving her money. But her question, in French, was not about money. It was asking for help with finding an address, so I stopped and looked at the paper.

She pointed to the street signs at the corner and told me how she was having trouble finding the correct number. We glanced at the paper together, and she realised that she was not on the right street. I pointed her in the right direction, and we walked together for a bit. She told me she had been wandering around for 15 minutes, unable to find her way to her destination. She had come out of the metro and taken a wrong turn, it seemed, and ended up blocks away from where she should be. In frustration, she said, "I'm so stupid!" I gently disagreed with her and pointed out that it wasn't that much further. We walked together for a few blocks, not saying much, and arrived at the correct street. She held out the paper to me again, asking me to help her find the specific address. I turned in a circle on the street corner, looking for numbers, and then spotted them on a building across the street. I showed it to her and she smiled, relieved.

As she crossed the street and headed off to her destination, she called back to me. "Merci beaucoup. Vous ĂȘtes un ange." Then she repeated it in English, just to make sure that I understood. "You are an angel!" I smiled in acknowledgement of her gratitude and stood there, watching until she had safely entered the building. Then I realised that I had just been a gift to that woman.

There is nothing magic about my prayers, nothing at all. Many days I ask for things to change and nothing seems to happen. But this day, after these two experiences, I heard a still, small voice say: "Do you see what happens when you are in agreement with me? When you are real and open and unselfish?" I was quite overwhelmed by the simple power of walking with God and walking with another person.

Today my prayer is: God, I want to do something together with you.

This is the park near my house on a beautiful fall day earlier this week.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

coming out of the closet...kinda

I voted on Sunday. Montreal was having its municipal elections and we got to vote four times. Once for the mayor of Montreal, once for our local borough mayor (St-Laurent), once for the city councilor and once for the borough councilor. I am not all that up on municipal politics, so I decided to inform myself. In case you are not aware of the plethora of intricate and complex issues at stake when you vote in Montreal, here are a few of the things going on:

1. The current mayor and his party have been plagued by scandal. There have been numerous accusations about crooked contracts, bloated costs, Mafia connections, and political pay-offs. It seems to be the way we do business in this city.

2. The main opposition to the current mayor was from a woman who has spent 39 years working for the Parti Quebecois (the political party dedicated to promoting Quebec sovereignty and separation from Canada). She was one of the main forces behind the mega-city merger and wants to centralize power and take it out of the hands of the boroughs. She joined herself with a strong federalist and they promised to provide a broad and comprehensive basis of experience and viewpoints. Unfortunately, 2 weeks before the election, her right-hand man was implicated in a bribe and immediately resigned.

3. The third option was a man with little experience in city government. He promised more bike paths, a new tram system, and a greener downtown (less cars). He was squeaky clean in his finances, but he also believed that smoking was good for his health and that man never walked on the moon.

4. I will not even mention the communist or the gay pride candidates.

After some discussion with Dean and a few friends, I did not know what to do. I quite easily decided which councilors and borough mayoral candidate to vote for, but the city mayoral race left me dumbfounded. Each person had a major flaw and each person also had potential to do something good for the city, I believed, despite their patchy pasts. Do we not all have regrettable things in our past? All my research just convinced me all the more of these things. Dean was going to vote for the current mayor and he was very vocal about it. He will never vote for a separatist and he thought the other guy was a loose cannon.

All these questions were swirling around in my head the morning of the election. Who would do the best for the city? for my interests? Who would clean up the scandals? Who had the most experience? Who would stick to a budget and not raise taxes? Who would make things better instead of worse? My thoughts jumped from one to the other, alighting on no answer. So I asked God, "What is the question I should be asking? Can we just boil it down to one question instead of six?" And that morning I read John 18 where Jesus says to Pilate, the Roman governor: "Everyone who cares for truth, who has any feeling for the truth, recognizes my voice."

So the question I asked was, "Who will tell the truth?" Nothing else mattered right then. Not the past mistakes, not the future promises, not the affiliation or experience, nothing but their potential to embrace truth. I looked at all the candidates again and decided that I would definitely not vote for the current mayor. I did believe that # 3 was an honest man, but he seemed to have a skewed view of reality and a hard time recognizing truth at times. That left me with the woman. The separatist, as Dean called her. It was an uncomfortable choice. I have never supported anyone who was not a federalist. My western Canadian family and friends would have all shuddered that I was even considering the possibility, even though city politics are quite different from national politics.

Dean and I walked to the voting station Sunday afternoon and both cast our ballots. Afterwards, he asked me who I voted for and I coyly avoided the question. I did not want to see his reaction. I knew he would be disappointed and perhaps angry and embarrassed at my answer. I did tell him later on that night and we survived the conflict. A friend had jokingly warned me that if I voted for the PQ woman, our marriage would be over. I responded that everything would be fine, because we did not believe in separation. It was a funny moment. But I did take away a few things with me that Sunday afternoon.

1. God is often not concerned with the same things that we are concerned about in a political situation. He loves and cares for each candidate as much as he cares for us. They are real people with real families and if I invited them into my home for dinner, I would no doubt see what made them want to serve the city in the first place.

2. It is good to listen to the opinions and thoughts of others, but in the end, I must take responsibility for my own actions and stand by them with confidence. I bring a voice to this world that no one else does and even if I sing a wrong note on occasion, I still must sing to the best of my ability.

3. I live in Quebec where almost half of the population has voted for the Parti Quebecois at one point or another. It is good for me to try to understand what they are thinking and why. It is not a disgrace or a dishonor to the rest of Canada to put myself into the shoes of my neighbors and walk with them. We may disagree, but that does not make us any less part of the same family.

4. I know that despite my limited knowledge and my weak choices, God is still in charge. Jesus said to Pilate: "You have not a shred of authority over me except what has been given you from heaven." (John 19) And that's the final word.

I am not a separatist, but I am not ashamed to stand with one. Perhaps that's the reason some people started talking about separation in the first place: they felt that people were not willing to stand beside them.

This is a photo I took on our walk back from the polling station on Sunday. Beautiful fall sky and tall grass.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

hand off

Control freak confession #17: Lately I am realising that my style of leadership/friendship is sometimes too heavy-handed. I see things, I know things, I have some life experience and wisdom, of that there is no doubt. But does that give me the right or responsibility to try to steer other people's lives? I am beginning to think not. Trying to actively guide others has felt like the responsible and loving thing to do, but in truth, it primarily satisfies my sense of well-being when we are all going the same direction (MINE) and involved in the same things (WHAT I THINK IS IMPORTANT) and helps me feel successful. God is just not that one-dimensional nor that boring. Unity is not stuffing all the working parts into the same box and dragging them behind me. It is much more beautiful and strange than that.

Control is like my hand grabbing onto someone or something that I love, trying to keep them or it in line with my idea of godliness, and today I feel God prying my fingers off, one at a time. First, he loosens my index finger. This is the digit that I use to point out things that are wrong in a situation, wrong in someone's life, wrong about how people relate to God and how they are missing the mark. Apparently, this is not my job. The Holy Spirit convicts and God's kindness leads to repentance. His love is a wooing love. Sigh. One less thing I need to do, I guess.

Then he pulls my middle finger away from steering wheel of my life and my friends and my church family and my occupations. This is the finger that does two things: it is the strongest one in holding onto things and not letting go, but it is also the fastest one to lose patience in the middle of conflict and tell everyone to f*** off. It knows no middle ground. It is the place I dig in my stubborn heels and insist that we are going to see this thing through (tunnel vision), especially the way I intend it to go, or I get disgusted and disappointed and flip everyone off, threatening to walk away. Neither are all that useful. God's patience is as longsuffering as his mercy. His mercy comes in an open hand, not pushy or threatening.

Then the next two fingers come off together. They are the co-dependent ones, not able to do anything without the influence of the other. They are looking for support and affirmation and someone to do life with, but in an unhealthy way, always looking for their cue from someone else, lacking confidence to act bravely and selflessly. Jesus is my bravery.

Last to be coaxed out of this controlling grip is the thumb. It is the opposing finger. It always sees the alternate view. It says, "No," before it knows why, just because there is surely something that won't work about what is proposed. It doesn't like to be told what to do, and hates not being the one with the final say. It believes it is there to provide a necessary check and balance, but in reality, it doesn't work all that well with anyone; it just pushes against everything instead of cooperating and providing support. It knows how to make a fist, too, and really has little concept of what its intended position is. God knows how to cradle someone softly, or how to enclose them in the safety of his hand.

This is my hand on my life. This is my hand on the church community I am trying to serve. This is my hand on my friends. This is my hand on my family and my possessions. This is my hand on my job, my school, my cat, my household, and my soul. But then the kind driving instructor comes along and now we are learning a new way to journey. Hands off is not for the faint of heart. Brake off. Heart engaged. Surrender is the most courageous and effective thing I will do all day.

This is me and my hands a few years ago in my office. Hey, Matte, it's not that scary.

Friday, October 23, 2009

I am her

I don't know about the church. I love her. I am frustrated with her. I am her. I have spent so much of my life investing in her, trying to help her find her hidden beauty, coaxing small steps forward out of her, and telling her inspiring, mesmerising, and often bewildering stories. At times, I have to admit, I have given her stern lectures about her disappointing behaviour. But there have been lots of good times, too. We have laughed at life's oddities and joys. We have gone on road trips that have changed us. We have eaten the best meals together, so much more tasty because of the hours spent elbow to elbow in the kitchen. We have strung flowers from ceilings and stripped off our clothes and jumped about foolishly and called it art, or worship, or both.

I am deeply committed to her as a part of me and a part of Jesus. When I am with her the human and divine come crashing together, sometimes painfully, but most times like a symphony being written by a group of gifted children who are still learning the fine art of playing together. The sweet notes take your breath away, and when you hear them, you forget all the sour notes that were tripped over on the way there. Sometimes it feels more like a tug of war, or a standoff. Sometimes it is like that peaceful moment just before you fall asleep. Always there is movement. At least that is my hope.

Last night one of my friends stated that we live in a place where people have deep wounding in the area of commitment. That much is becoming obvious to me. I cannot count the number of times I have been the only person to show up on time, to come prepared with a prayer and some thoughts, or to suggest a plan of study or an activity. I am always there. It is what I do. I am trying to be faithful. I no longer get annoyed at people not responding to my emails, not returning my phone calls, only showing up when it is convenient, and almost never coming up with any initiative of their own. If people don't want to do it, I cannot make them. We are not a healthy body in some ways for though we love and care for each other in a very familial way, we have very little sustainability, much less growth.

Part of the problem is that I probably carry too much of this weight of sustaining and building something: I long to see the emergence of a vibrant community of people that welcome Jesus and the outsider with equal excitement. I cannot make that happen, and perhaps I am using all the wrong avenues to try to nurture it. How do we heal that deep wound that never wants to commit, to give oneself totally? That always wants the option to bow out? I don't know. Lately I have found myself toying with the idea of not showing up and seeing if anyone notices. But that's no solution - that's just walking away because it is hard.

What I can do is this: I can bring myself to that frightening place of commitment every day. I cannot drag anyone else with me. I cannot force them to do the holy face plant of surrender in front of King Jesus and then to take up his great heartbreaking love for Montreal with all its demands. All I can do is point out some of those passions buried deep inside of them and then ask if they are willing to do the work of digging them up so that we can fan them into life. And while they are thinking about it, I will still be here. As a friend. As someone who wants to learn life together. As someone who is willing to go first.

Being the church is never about showing up to a meeting or taking on a role, but about talking to people the way Jesus talked to them, walking beside them the way he did, and pursuing their healing and freedom while he is pursuing ours. It should be our life, happening everywhere and all the time. If we are not living like this, we are not extensions of him. We are not his body. Sometimes we have to learn what we are not before we can see what we truly are and can become.

I don't know about the church, but I know someone who does. I will have to trust him, because I am her.

This is photo of a maple leaf in the woods earlier this month. Oh, Canada!

NOTE: I realise that the correct grammatical structure would be "I am she," but the blog just wrote itself this way and I like it. Apologies to all speakers of good English.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

relapse

Someone must have rearranged our bedroom furniture during the night. I got up this morning , it seems, on the proverbial wrong side of the bed. After a month of blessed and undeserved contentment and gratitude in my heart, I felt the old brain start to go in negative patterns again this morning. The sad thing is not that this happened (and will occasionally happen), but that I allowed myself to go down that road, to stay on that track, and ended up saying things to people that I now regret. Yes, apologies have been given, and I have to trust that forgiveness and redemption are bigger than my blunders.

It started when I got irritated and annoyed because one little thing did not happen the way I wanted it to this morning. My prayer as I walked to the bank this afternoon was "God, I am a control freak. Please help me to be a lover instead." It is so hard to remain out of control of my life. I can do okay for a period of time and then WHAM I just get tired of not having a say in how things go. I want to write the "to do" list for God and for others, thinking that having my needs and desires met will be good for mankind. My version of "the good life" is very small and self-centred, if I am honest with myself. It takes very little into account except how to feel at ease with myself and my circumstances.

However (big however), God's love knows no bounds. His grace is more than enough for any shit that plops in my way. God is not scared off by bad moods and frustration, because hope is greater than all of it, and he always has plenty to offer. He never walks away. He gives good gifts, especially when I ask for them, and waits for me to open wide, ready to receive whatever they are.

I have the potential to be an incredible receiver. Sometimes I forget that and jump into the position of quarterback. Then I try to throw my own plays to myself. No wonder it never quite works out. Let me be content with receiving. Let me practise and practise until I do it so well that it becomes second nature to me. And let me untwist my heart from its painful contortions of confusion: trust is not helplessness, though it often feels like it.

Being a control freak results in chronic disappointment. Being a lover ends in being in love.
This is a pond where beavers have built a dam somewhere in the Laurentians.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

the zone

We are in an interesting place as a faith community, literally. The lease on the space we currently rent expires at the end of the month, and we are unable to renew it due to zoning issues. We found a new space that was smaller and much better suited to our needs (with our own private bathrooms!) and after we met with the landlord and signed a lease, that space also fell through due to a zoning ruling. The Director of Urban Planning suggested that we rent space from an existing church in order to avoid the zoning problem. Now we would be perfectly happy to share space with another church, but most of the congregations are housed in old, formal, cavernous, pewed buildings not conducive to our casual and interactive worship and teaching style. At Vineyard Montreal, we have couches and sit in a semi-circle and you are free to interrupt the speaker with a question or comment at any time. Plus, where would the drums go? Sadly, meeting as a church in a non-traditional church space seems a bit difficult in Montreal.

So on October 31, we will be homeless as a church. Sort of. One of the brainstorming ideas that we tossed around was that if nothing worked out, we could just go hang out with another church a few blocks away that also did church outside of the conventional box. They are associated with a totally different denomination, but they have much the same vision and demographics as we do. They also meet the same time as our group, and not far away. I mentioned this in passing to a few of the people in our group on Saturday, and I was surprised at the strong reaction I got. One person teared up. Another smiled broadly. I was told that there was something profound about this joining together, about not erecting a fence to protect what we had.

I took the words seriously. After consulting with Dean (who was still in China but called me late that night just to chat), I phoned the point man of the other church Sunday morning and he was very excited by the possibility of meeting together as one group for a period of time. He said he would talk to his people that night. I said I would do the same, and we would see what came of it. That evening, I sat down on a PA speaker after my thanksgiving talk (which had consisted of a bible story, discussing some Dutch and Canadian art, and a music video from Sister Act 2), and asked the folks on the couches what they thought of the idea of being part of something bigger than just ourselves, at least for a time. The response was overwhelmingly positive. There was an excitement about the "coming together" experiment that I had not anticipated.

On Sunday night, November 1, we will be heading over to Reggie's Bar at one of the largest universities in Montreal to join in worshipping our great God with a group of people that we don't know called The Living Room. They have asked us to perhaps lead one of the meetings in a few weeks. We are trying it for a month and seeing what comes of it. Perhaps God wants to do something here that we would never have dreamed of had it not been for inflexible zoning regulations.

I have no idea what we will be doing with our music equipment, couches, desks and various tables and chairs that we have in our current space, but we have found a place for the people, and that is the most important thing.

This is a photo of a stick in a ditch, somehow beautiful in all its muddy tangle.

Monday, October 12, 2009

bump in the road

It is Thanksgiving Monday. I should be cleaning my house in preparation for a half dozen people coming over to cook and eat and be loud and make it messy again (that's what a family does). Dean is still in China. I miss him, but life is good. God takes care of me and there is nothing to complain about.

Two nights ago I was on my way home from a dinner with friends when I decided to follow the suggestion of the GPS voice and take an alternate road to my house. It said it was shorter, so I decided to try it. I had not taken that particular route in a while and as soon as I did, I realised that I was in trouble. My exit was closed due to construction. Then the next exit put me on a side road with orange pylons and scraped pavement and still the exit I wanted was blocked off! I kept driving, not enjoying the bumpy, excavated driving surface, and too late, saw one of those horrible manholes sticking up a few inches out of the pavement with its sharp edges.

A loud noise came from the back of the car and I knew something had happened...again. (see this blog for another time the evil manhole got our tires.) I kept going since I was on a road that was down to a single lane due to the construction and finally came to a place where it widened and I could turn off. I pulled to the side of the road, let the exasperated driver behind me whiz by, and got out. Yep, my rear driver tire had a huge gash in it. What to do? It was after 10 pm and Dean was out of town. I have helped people change tires, but really had no desire to try it myself on a dark street. I decided to drive the 2 kilometers home, slowly, and run the risk of ruining the rim.

I put on my flashers and crawled home, wincing at every small dip and pothole in the road. I prayed all the way, whining pleading fretting prayers, and was sooo relieved to finally pull up in front of my condo. I decided that the next day I would ask someone to help me change the tire, but for now, I would stop worrying about it. I enjoyed a drink, watched a bit of tv, and went to bed at 1:41 am. At 1:45 am Dean called from China.

We talked about everything and anything and I told him about the tire. He said, "Matte, you have Honda Roadside Assistance. You can just call them and they will come change the tire for you." Duh! I hadn't thought of that! Help had been 10 digits away last night and instead, I just went on my way, dragging my flat tire with me, hoping for the best. I called the HRA the next morning and just over an hour later, my tire was changed in a few minutes by a friendly guy who had obviously done this before.

How many times do I just keep on going in my life, circumstances having ripped into me and deflated my joy, and limp on home instead of addressing the injury? I do more damage, but because I can still function to some degree, I decide that's just the way it is and I'll live with it. I forget that help is available 24/7. A man is waiting for my call, ready to spring into action, and he has helped countless people before and he knows exactly what he is doing and if I just have a little patience and am willing to wait for him, he will come through on my behalf. Yes, I will call next time. I will get help earlier.

Call to Me and I will answer you and show you great and mighty things, fenced in and hidden, which you do not know (do not distinguish and recognize, have knowledge of and understand). Jeremiah 33:3 Amplified

This is another scene from the Laurentians last week. No manholes on this path.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

blessed

Dean left for China yesterday. I am at home alone for 10 days but won't be bored. Here is a partial list of things I want to accomplish.

1. Take Jazz to the vet this afternoon and have everyone come out unscathed. This is the first trip to a new vet, so hopefully we can begin with a clean slate and a better attitude (she has a record of violence at the old place).

2. Finish my application for a federal scholarship (SSHRC) which is a pretty intense process that includes writing a research proposal and bibliography. If I get it, it means I would be paid to go to school next year! I received the last important document in the mail today, so I will be handing the whole thing in to my department tomorrow.

3. Dust my house and clean the bathrooms.

4. Pay off all the visa bills.

5. Get together with friends on Thanksgiving and eat pumpkin pie.

6. Enjoy God's blessing in my life every day.

We talked about Matthew 5:1-12 a week ago at home group. It starts out with, "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." I have usually read these verses by concentrating on the bit immediately following the words, "Blessed are..." If I want to be blessed (and who doesn't want a full and happy life?), then I should see how I can position myself for this blessing, right? Wrong! Position has nothing to do with it, actually.

The focus of all these eight phrases is the latter part of the sentence, not the first. It is not a list of directives for us to get "under" the blessing of God. As such, it is rather a pitiful list if you look at it: poor in spirit, mourn, meek, hunger and thirst for righteousness (which means you don't have a lot of righteousness in your current situation), merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted because of righteousness. I have usually seen this as Jesus asking us to become the dregs of society, the lowest and most unfortunate people, in order to get the nod of approval from him. But that is putting the emphasis on the exact wrong thing here. It is putting the onus on me and what I do instead of on God and what he wants to give. So backwards.

The point of this whole passage (at least in my opinion as of last week) is that no matter what situation you find yourself in, even the lowest and poorest of spiritual places, it is a place where God's blessing can be experienced in extravagant measure. In every station in our lives, we can have the kingdom of heaven right here (he said it twice, so it's extra important), we can find comfort, we can inherit the earth (God's original gift to humanity as a place of provision and beauty and responsibility), we can live with satisfaction, we can receive mercy, we can see God, and we can be called children of God (identified with him and receiving the benefits of his care).

How can I live a blessed life? By seeing that God has already blessed it. Life is a gift from him. The possibilities of what he can do with this life are amazing and wonderful. No matter what my present situation is, it is blessed because of the goodness and generosity of God. No matter how wretched things look at the moment, God is saying, "You want to know where this can end up, my friend? Let me tell you where it is going. We are not going to stay here. We are heading towards a time and place where everything lines up with my goodness and love. We are looking past the present discomfort and seeing the deep riches that come out of aligning yourself with me. Are you coming?"

You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You're blessed when you feel you've lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. You're blessed when you're content with just who you are—no more, no less. That's the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can't be bought. You're blessed when you've worked up a good appetite for God. He's food and drink in the best meal you'll ever eat. You're blessed when you care. At the moment of being 'care-full,' you find yourselves cared for. You're blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. You're blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That's when you discover who you really are, and your place in God's family. You're blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God's kingdom. Matthew 5, The Message

This photo was taken on a walk in the woods in the Laurentians.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

what am I looking for?

I just returned from our second annual Vineyard retreat in the Laurentians. There were 19 people sharing a 4 bedroom chalet (4 people were camping in the front yard), and I don't remember anyone really complaining about anything during the entire 43 hours we were together. No wait, the children rolled their eyes when it was bedtime and a few people sighed at the thought of going home. Amazing, when you think about it.

The weather was foggy and rainy and cold on Saturday, but we went out on the boat anyway, and others enjoyed books and walks and chats by the fire and everyone was content. We had a talent show on Saturday night which everyone was encouraged to participate in. A few people were reluctant, but that sentiment soon faded when I reassured them that it was by everyone for everyone, and we would love whatever they would do, no matter what it was. And every last person brought something for the rest of us to enjoy, wonder at, laugh with, or applaud.

The theme of the weekend (besides having lots of fun and eating good food, and enjoying the great outdoors and each other's company and the goodness of God in general) for the 2 gatherings that we had was, "What Am I Looking For, What Is God Looking For?" I had picked this theme rather quickly just over a week ago because I needed to nail down what we were doing. I arranged for people to speak on each part and didn't give it much thought until a few days before I left. I was the one giving the talk on the first half of the equation: "What Am I Looking For?" I asked God about it, and he was quick to point out that it was a bad question. Oh well, so much for my great ideas.

I read Matthew 6:24-34, something that puts my predominantly self-focused life in perspective, especially the last few verses. In The Message it reads: People who don't know God and the way he works fuss over these things (the cares of life, see preceding verses), but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don't worry about missing out. You'll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Here is the more familiar version of verse 33 with a few added explanations from the Amplified Bible: But seek (aim at and strive after) first of all His kingdom (His way of doing and being right) and His righteousness and then all these things taken together will be given you besides.

The picture that formed in my mind was that of a line-up, like you would be in at the bank. At the front, where the teller stands, is the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. This is the place where what God wants actually happens and it happens how he wants it to. And there is me, standing right in front of these two, looking towards them, keeping them as my focus because that is where I am going, that is where I am headed. Then, from behind, come all these other things that I spend time thinking about. Things like my health, projects, bills, homework, family, purpose in life, relationships, etc. They come up and butt into the line-up. They stand in front of me and demand my attention and my focus. They heckle me. They block my view of the Kingdom of God as they yell and scream and poke at me, demanding that I give them my time and energy.
What can I do? I tell them to get to the back of the line. They are not where I am headed and not what at I am looking at. They do not go first. They fall into line as I seek first, look at first, the kingdom according to God.

We enacted the line-up scenario at the retreat. There were a few interesting moments. When the person representing Bills and Finances came up and started hounding the person in the line-up, the line-up guy started to tickle the Bills lady and she succumbed with laughter, falling back in the line-up. Who knew you could tickle bills into submitting to the kingdom of God? Another time a particular troublesome relationship was not moving out of the way, despite repeated instructions to get to the back of the line. The person representing righteousness decided to lend a helping hand and gave Troublesome Relationships a friendly push from behind, firmly moving them back into place. It is true that His righteousness, his way of doing things, helps clear the way when our willpower and words are not enough.

So the question never was, "What am I looking for?" but instead it turned out to be: "God, what do you want me to be looking for?" and "What has to get to the back of the line?"

This is the view from the lake yesterday, beautiful even on a foggy day.