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.