Tuesday, December 21, 2010

lessons from university - part two

The first round of Christmas gatherings have passed. It has been a great chance to interact with people that we see a few times a year, and in the case of some, once every few years. One thing that I have noticed in all the family activities is how often we don't really understand the other. Small things are assumed or left unsaid and this can lead to misunderstandings. Just today, Dean said he would pick me up at a certain door at the mall at a specific time. I arrived at the correct time and waited just inside the door, watching for him. Unknown to me, he drove by a few minutes before I arrived, didn't see me, and parked just out of sight, waiting for me to come out the door. After about 10 minutes, I decided to call him and it was then that we discovered that we had both been waiting, but for different things. I had expected him to drive by the door and he had expected me to come out the door. We had not been clear on the details or who was to initiate contact once we were at the meeting place.

Another major lesson that I have learned in university (and will continue to learn) is that clarity is vital to understanding and being understood, not only in the realm of knowledge, but in any good relationship. When I grade essays, it is relatively easy to spot a student who has done their assignment the night before and hasn't really taken the time to organise their thoughts. There is a jerky or fuzzy style to the writing because they have not discarded the unnecessary information in order to let the main idea stand out clearly. The essay is often an unwieldy mess of words that makes little sense and has no identifiable point. A lack of clarity means that there is a lack of understanding. It becomes fairly easy to tell the difference between someone who comprehends a subject and someone who is regurgitating information, but trying to make it sound pretty.

In reading Exodus 34 this week, I realised that I have not clearly understood what the covenant words were for (the gist of this covenant is often identified as the ten commandments in Exodus 20). I assumed the commands defined the covenant and had to be obeyed or else bad things would happen; I saw them as directives that revealed a strict and hard-to-please God, tired of people who just didn't get it. In fact, this interpretation is a misreading of the words in the text. We tend to identify the basic theme of godliness as being summed up in the ten commandments, as if the life of one who is devoted to God could be reduced to 10 easy steps. But that is not what the writer is trying to say, in my opinion.

Right in the middle of giving these commands or covenant words (scattered throughout much of Exodus and Leviticus), God identifies himself in this way: God, God, a God of mercy and grace, endlessly patient—so much love, so deeply true—loyal in love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. Still, he doesn't ignore sin (from Exodus 34, The Message). These words are meant to keep the reader from seeing the lists of instructions as just so many rules to be followed by rote. These lists are not arbitrary directives from a controlling and self-obsessed deity. I believe they are meant to reflect the nature of a God that the people of Israel needed to get to know all over again: a merciful, gracious, patient, loving, and true God who is kind and yet does not turn a blind eye to evil (a complex intertwining of traits which we cannot fully comprehend). Someone much different from the tyrannical rulers they were used to in Egypt. Someone much different from the bloodthirsty gods of the pagans around them. Someone much different from the god they had conjured up with their fear and childish self-focus. This loving, patient God was showing them, in clear detail, what a people set apart looked like, what devotion looked like, what faithfulness looked like.

He was clarifying covenant for these people because they had forgotten what it meant to be a loving and devoted partner. Today, we still tend to use the word "command" more than "covenant" because we too have forgotten what it is to be a faithful companion and collaborator. We have to be shown again and again, by specific examples, what a covenant with a loving Creator looks like. And all too often we take these few examples and assume that this defines the covenant. We take the rules and commands we read (neglecting the important beginning, middle, and end bits that put it in the context of a much larger and all-encompassing covenant) and create a demanding disciplinarian version of God. We have taken God's offer of clarity - God's offer to see him, God's offer to come near and encounter him, God's offer to find out who he is - and muddied it by our penchant for a good list and a sorry distaste for mystery.
Let us look again at this God. Let us get to know him again, because I think we have forgotten what He is really like. God cannot be reduced to a Top Ten List.
This is a picture of the Christmas tree taken yesterday with my new camera: at twice the mega pixels as my old one, the clarity is astonishing!

lessons from university - part one

One of the things that I have learned in my studies is that it is really important to give the professor what he or she is asking for. I have read a lot of papers where students have neglected to follow the instructions given for the assignment. No matter how good your writing is, if you don't answer the question or use the specified sources, it doesn't count for much. I have heard a few presentations by fellow students that were impressive in every way except that they were not what the professor had asked for. Unfortunate, perhaps, but you don't get points for being impressive. You get points for giving the professor what he or she asked for. Besides learning about the topic at hand, an assignment is given in order to help one develop the ability to identify what is required and to channel one's efforts towards that end. This is a very valuable skill and not as easy to do as it sounds. It also expands one's mind, heart, character, and knowledge in ways that would never be possible apart from a kind, but demanding mentor who pushes us in directions we would not naturally take ourselves. Left to our own devices, we often settle in mediocrity.

I have been reading Exodus, and this morning I was thinking about the words of the covenant that God gave to Moses and the Israelite people. Genesis starts with God wanting to establish an intimate and loving relationship with humans. This tenuous bond is broken again and again, and in Exodus 34, God gives instructions for living (the commands) as a way to bridge the gap - a concrete way for people to know what it looks like to walk with God. These words are to provide clarity and to give people a focus point for their energies. But in a pattern that is all too familiar, the Israelites prefer self-direction. They build their own version of god (golden calf) and direct their devotion towards it instead.

Many times, we think that we can worship God any way we want (we are free, after all), that we can serve God any way we want (usually at a time and place convenient to us), that we can live any way we want (we usually choose the most comfortable way), and as long as we live a reasonably good life, things will be okay. This is self-direction at its finest (or ugliest, depending on your point of view). It is like the student who ignores the instructions of the professor and goes ahead and does an assignment on whatever topic she likes and in whatever format she prefers. Not only is the assignment off-track, the motivation is wrong. The student is seeking to serve her own interests instead of surrendering herself to the learning process. She is loving herself instead of loving another. When the student is self-guided instead of teacher-guided, the learning will always be selective, and the student's blind spots will never be addressed. Learning is a humbling process. Being self-guided is not.

If I want to become God-guided instead of self-guided, I ask: What does he want? Have I taken the time to find out? Have I directed my energy towards pleasing him instead of making up my own syllabus? Have I surrendered to a learning process of his choosing instead of my own?
This is a photo from my part of town yesterday: frosty trees and beautiful blue sky.

Monday, December 20, 2010

rest is harder than it looks

I took the weekend off. By "off" I mean that I did not do any school-related work. The term officially ended for me when I handed in my last assignment on Friday afternoon (small cheer!). I had dinner with friends on Friday night, and on Saturday, turned my attention to a much-neglected house, spending the better part of two days tidying and cleaning. Good fun the first day, really not a lot of fun the second day. I found myself becoming critical and short-tempered by the end of the weekend. Ugh! It wasn't simply the cleaning; it was the change of pace. Instead of papers and proposals to write, I had the opportunity to be attentive to people and take care of life's little responsibilities. It called on a whole different set of skills than schoolwork.

The transition from very busy student to relaxed person has been less than smooth, because I have a tendency to transfer my way of dealing with school to the rest of life - but life is not a project, people are not deadlines, and you don't get to cram for a friendship, have an intense few hours at it, and then walk away. Relationships are more about being able to rest in each other's company. And rest is something I seem to have to learn and re-learn. It is a precarious state, because I so easily fall into putting out effort, making something happen, planning an event, getting busy with the tasks to be done. Doing something makes me feel less guilty, more valuable as a person, and carries a sense of accomplishment with it. Good things, for the most part, but not really the essence of who I was made to be. I was made to be in relationship with others and this world in a vibrant way that tingles with life, energy, and love.

It is the difference between walking to get to a dentist appointment at a certain time (like I will be doing this afternoon) or walking with nowhere to be and no deadline; just walking because I love to walk and there is a world out there that loves to be explored! There are people to be enjoyed, windows to look out of, stories to be read, cats to be petted, food to be made, sunshine to be soaked up, gifts to be given and received, and long moments of silence to look and listen.

Teach me to rest, lean on, trust you again, God. In work and play, in joy and frustration, alone and with others. In every pace of life, let me be found at rest in your company.
This is a photo of water at rest, taken in Manitoba on Christmas day a few years ago.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

hope and expectation

We were talking about expectations a few days ago in a group setting (as a result of reading Luke 7 where Jesus asks: what were you expecting?[1]). I have come to the conclusion that in most cases, expectations are not a good thing. I voiced this opinion, but I could see that others did not agree, so I tried to explain the difference that I see between expectations and hope.

Picture a scenario: Dean is coming home after a business trip (as he actually was on the night of this discussion).

Hope, to me, is a buoyancy that comes from knowing I will soon see Dean. I am looking forward to meeting him, to having him back at home, but I have not written a scenario in my head about how it will happen.

Expectation would have me imagine the two of us seeing each other from across the airport, running into each other's arms, and murmuring loving phrases that set my heart aflutter and bring gasps of ooohhh and aaaahhh when I retell the story of our reunion.

Hope just knows that at some point, Dean will come, and that is more than enough. His plane may be late or early, he might have a hold-up at customs, he might even miss a connection or arrive sans luggage. He may be energetic and upbeat, or tired, sweaty, and hungry. I don't know the details and I don't spend any time trying to guess what they will be. I focus my attention on Dean, the one I love, not on what he will say or do when I see him.

Expectation gets hung up on the details. It wants a flashy entrance, a gift, a romantic "I love you," a gesture of affection, maybe a light shining above us and a choir singing in the background, something that will make the occasion memorable and special and ideal. Expectation is easily disappointed when its demands are not met.

Hope just beams! It buoys up my spirit and shines with the glow of anticipation because Dean is coming. How and exactly when this will happen is out of my control, but I know that Dean's will is set in my direction, and I am waiting for him. More than waiting for him, I am going to meet him. And when he arrives, I will happily receive him and everything that comes with him, because it is him!

Here's how it actually happened: Dean's plane was late, but his luggage did arrive with him. Excellent! I was waiting in the car in the arrival pick-up lane when I saw him walking towards me. Yes, my heart jumped when I caught my first glimpse of him, even though he had only been gone for 3 days! His first words were, "What is this?" referring to the snow that had appeared since his departure. It made me laugh! He also brought me two wonderful and unexpected gifts, one of which was an Elvis/Nixon t-shirt that I wore to an 80s Christmas party 4 days later. The other was a case of Diet Dr. Thunder, one of my all-time favourite drinks! On the way home, we went to a McDonald's drive-thru to get him something to eat because it was after midnight and he had not had supper. I gave him money to buy a burger wrap!

These details may not sound very exciting to you, but I remember them all because they were important to me. Why? Because I did them with Dean!

This is a photo of some of Dean's work shirts that are waiting, hoping to be ironed.

[1] For my blog on expectations based on Luke 7, click here.

Friday, December 10, 2010

wait or jump?

I was walking down the stairs of the metro station one day this week to catch the subway downtown. As I neared the bottom of the stairs, the warning set of beeps started to sound, letting me know that the train that was stopped there with its doors open was about to leave. Now, I usually get on the second last car in the train because it spits me out exactly where I need to be when I get off at my final stop. I have done this trip so often that my feet automatically head in the direction of that ideally located car. However, when the beeping started, I was several cars away from where I wanted to be.

And here was the dilemma I faced: should I just hop on the less than ideal car and thereby waste a few minutes on the other end when I got off, or should I wait for the next train to come and make sure I got my usual seat on the optimal car? I made a decision, fast, and jumped on the car right in front of me just before the doors closed.

At that point, I realised that my dilemma was a fake. The point of getting on the subway was never to sit in the perfect seat in the ideal car. The point was always to get downtown to go to school and learn. Where I sat really was immaterial. How had that minor detail almost become a deciding factor in delaying my journey? I have a few ideas about how this happened. Here they are:

1. I got used to doing things the same way every time and assumed it was pretty much the only way, if I was going to do it right. When confronted with a change, I had an, "Oh, no!" moment, when in actuality, nothing was wrong. Rigidity like that is in direct conflict with learning and transformation. Not good.

2. I confused efficiency with success, and in fact, made efficiency the definition of success. That is a really bad definition.

3. I set my journey on automatic pilot instead of being attentive, aware, and alive. Two days never repeat themselves and neither do two subway rides. Let me be attentive to the uniqueness of each moment.

4. I let the goal of my journey (to get to university) become overshadowed by my desire to have a comfortable journey.
Sometimes you just have to jump on the train instead of waiting for everything to line up perfectly before you make the leap.

Tomorrow I have the opportunity to travel downtown twice. What wonders and adventures will await me each time?
This is a picture of the metro station closest to my home where I regularly jump onto trains.

Monday, December 06, 2010

reading and eating

I am in the thick (and thin) of finishing my reading course on Evelyn Underhill and early 20th century spirituality. It has taken me through more than 60 sources over the course of 6 months, and in the process I have learned something about reading. I was used to leisurely literary meals with ample time to digest the contents. No such luxury to be had here, I soon found out.

I have learned to sip chapters quickly through a big straw in order to gain maximum content with minimum chewing. I have learned to take just a bite of everything offered at the book buffet so as not to get bloated and sleepy. I have learned that unavoidably, sometimes it is necessary to eat on the run, so picking a few lighter topics when this is the case helps to avoid indigestion. And then there are the times when it is worth setting the table, lighting the candles, and sitting down to a full-course meal, enjoying every bite. Here are a few samples from some of the fine meals I have enjoyed this past week. Savour the richness, and digest slowly.

from Evelyn Underhill on the preparation for a spiritual retreat:

We come here again, as most of us have come before, to be quiet if we can in the Presence of God: to review our lives in Him, the little lives He made for Himself and allows to minister to His Glory, but which we have twisted out of the true; till now they mainly minister to ourselves or the people we happen to like. Some are more distorted than others but none are really the right shape, the shape for which they were meant by God.

So we begin our self-examination by looking back at the past [week, month, year]…
What tests did he [God] administer to our courage and our trust?
What opening for generosity, self-denial, forgiveness?
What events have tested our supposed good qualities and showed up their weakness under strain?
What sudden joy gave a chance for gratitude?
What things or people humbled us?
What disappointments and sorrows gave us a chance to practise the resignation we always talk about, and what annoyances braced our self-control?
Look at them! Every one of them are graces, ‘touches of God’ as the mystics say, chances of growing a bit in the Christian Life. Did we take them? Or waste them? Let us enter God’s presence this evening and answer that question as honestly as we can.

“The whole wisdom of the Saints,” says St. John of the Cross, “consists in directing the will vigorously towards God.” And the way that is done by ordinary people like ourselves is by aiming at Him in all the circumstances of life. [1]

from Baron Friedrich von Hugel on the different occupations of life, a letter to his niece while she was busy with packing and moving:

At one moment, packing;
at another, silent adoration in Church;
at another, dreariness and unwilling drift;
at another, the joys of human affections given and received;
at another, keen suffering of soul, of mind, in apparent utter loneliness;
at another, external acts of religion;
at another, death itself.
All these occupations every one can, ought, and will …become the means and instruments of loving, of transfiguration, of growth for your soul, and of its beatitude.
But it is for God to choose these things, their degrees, combinations, successions; and it is for you just simply, very humbly, very gently and peacefully, to follow that leading. [2]

[1] Evelyn Underhill, The Mount of Purification. The Inner Life Series. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1960. p. 7-8.

[2] Baron Friedrich von Hugel, Spiritual Counsel and Letters. Edited with introduction by Douglas V. Steere. New York: Harper & Row: 1964. Letter from September 1, 1919. p. 82.
This is a picture at the beginning of a meal with friends at Bofinger in Montreal. Salad, meat, and a large drink. No, it wasn't my meal.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

the lie of scarcity

Helloooooo!! I have been meaning to write a blog for a few days now, but with the boat-load of projects I have had on my plate lately (and still have), intent has not translated into action. However, with 3 of the 9 projects behind me, I believe I can leave the 6 to play unsupervised for a bit while I write something here.

I watched a video of a talk by Dr. Brene Brown a few weeks back (or maybe only a week, I have very little concept of how fast time is passing) that got me thinking about the culture of scarcity that we live in. She talks about the messages we are bombarded with: we are never good enough, safe enough, certain enough, perfect enough, extraordinary enough. And the sad thing is, we believe these messages. We find it hard to be thankful, joyful, content, and at peace.

She talks about how our desire for the extraordinary, the thrill, the special, has eclipsed our ability to value the ordinary in our lives. In fact, the ordinary is where we can find the most joy, she says. (I know some of this is the result of living in a consumer society, but we can't lay all the blame there.)

I recognise this tendency to see the scarcity in my life. Right now, I have a shortage of hours in the day to accomplish everything that I would like to do. Some things just have to be put on hold until the semester is over. I miss spending lazy Saturdays with Dean and hanging out with friends without thinking about what I need to do when I get home. I would like an abundance of writing ideas, more groceries in my fridge, multiple scholarships, to have an automatic YES to every request and application I make, and to be at the top of my class. I do not have any of these things right now, but there is no scarcity in my life.

The scarcity is a lie. It tells me I am hungry when there is a table full of food. It tells me I am lonely when I am loved. It tells me I never have good things happen to me when I woke up this morning with all my limbs functioning and another opportunity to work and learn and love. It tells me I am not wealthy when the gift of valuable life is rising and falling in my chest every moment. It lies to me. It pressures me to try harder, work harder, and sometimes, to just give up. Scarcity lie, I will not invite you into my life anymore.

I live in the land of plenty. I will live in gratitude and joy. I will see the beauty in the ordinary. I will take pleasure in eating a piece of fruit, in laying my head on a pillow, in watching the water come out of my faucet. I will take an extra moment to revel in the comfort of putting on well-worn shoes. I will make every hello and goodbye count. I will listen for the unique sounds of each voice I hear today, and admire everything red. This is my world and I get to experience it anew every day! I am blessed! I am rich! I live in the land of plenty!

Here is the link to the video of Brene Brown.

This is a picture from the garden that I used to have in St-Lazare. I still get to enjoy it through pictures, but without any of the weeding!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

I don't have what you are asking for, but...

On Monday morning, I was standing at the street corner waiting to get on the bus and head off to a class at the university. When the bus arrived, the doors opened, and I saw a woman in a purple coat standing beside the bus driver. The two of them were engaged in a conversation. I didn't think much of it - people often ask the driver for directions or information. I placed my bus pass on the pad at the front, heard the satisfying "ding" of acceptance, and squeezed past her. The purple lady followed me to my seat and asked if I had change for 5 dollars. I replied in the negative, because I knew pretty much what was in my wallet, but she looked so desperate that I decided to took a look just to check.

When I opened up my change pocket, I could immediately see that I did not have 5 dollars in change, but I did have $2.75, which was the exact cost of a bus fare. I pulled out the coins and handed them to the lady. She offered me the 5 dollar bill, but I refused, saying that I was not giving her change for $5; she could just take the fare and use it. It was a gift. She reluctantly did so, bought a ticket, and with obvious relief, sat down across the aisle with her young daughter. I smiled at them, glad I could help out, and opened up my book to do some reading.

When we got to the subway station to make a transfer, the woman in purple approached me, offering to go to a corner store to get change and pay me back. I said that was unnecessary; it had been my pleasure and I was happy to help. I hoped that someone would do the same for me if I was in her situation. She again offered her thanks as we entered the subway station, and then we went our separate ways. I got on my usual subway car, pulled out my book to continue reading, and the train left the station.

At the next stop the doors opened, and suddenly, the lady in the purple coat and her daughter were beside me, and she was pressing some money into my hand. The woman explained that she was taking her daughter to a dentist appointment, and if I had not given her the coins for a bus fare, she would have had to get off the bus and they would have missed the appointment. She expressed her thanks again and I just sat there, somewhat speechless. I couldn't believe that she had tracked me down just to give me $2.75. I looked at the money in my hand and felt very rich.

I was reminded of the story of Peter and John going to the temple to pray (Acts 3), and coming across a lame man who asked them for money. The two men responded that they didn't have money, but they had something else to offer the beggar. There are many times when people ask me for something and I don't have it. More often than not, however, I have something else to offer them; something that they need or can use. I believe we are often too polite or perhaps unaware to ask for what we really need. Instead, we ask for what is socially acceptable or what we believe people would be willing to give. The woman on the bus didn't need change for 5 dollars - she needed to pay the bus fare, and I could do that for her. I was glad to do that for her.

I know this happens when I talk to God. I am often unaware of what I truly need, so I blather on about needing to making change for a 5 dollar bill or some other deal where I give God 'A' and then hopefully, God gives me 'B.' Too many times I don't ask for what I really need because it would be quite embarrasing and humbling. Sigh. I am very thankful that the Spirit prays on my behalf at times like these, which is pretty much always (Romans 8:26).

Let me learn to give what I have instead of being restricted to giving what people ask for. Let me learn to ask for what I really need. And let me be open to receive something other than what I asked for.

This is a photo of the book I was reading on Monday and coins for a bus fare.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

one thing

A small group of us were sitting in my friend's living room last night in silence. Dean had led us in an exercise where we laid aside our thoughts and preoccupations of the day (mine were the 2 proposals I am writing, a lecture to prepare for next week, a reading course to finish, a research trip to organise, and that I really need to clean the bathrooms), confessing our shortcomings (I admitted to timidity, fear, lack of trusting God), and invited us to become quiet in the presence of God. It was such a pleasant sensation to let my mind stop its constant thinking about so much stuff, its habitual practice of mental notation and composition, and just look at Jesus. Only one thing on my mind.

It reminded me of what I had been reading on the subway on the way to the gathering. Kierkegaard talks about the one Good thing, and how everything else is not "one." When we are truly pointing in God's direction, looking and walking toward the ultimate Good, all is one. Here are a few quotes to give you an idea:

Purity of heart is to will one thing...he who in truth wills only one thing can will only the Good, and he who only wills one thing when he wills the Good can only will the Good in truth.

That which a simple soul, in the happy impulse of a pious heart, feels no need of understanding in an elaborate way, since he simply seizes the Good immediately, is grasped by the clever one only at the cost of much time and much grief.

The person who wills one thing that is not the Good, he does not truly will one thing. It is a delusion, an illusion, a deception, a self-deception that he wills only one thing.

Father in Heaven! What is a man without Thee! What is all that he knows, vast accumulation though it be, but a chipped fragment if he does not know Thee! What is all his striving, could it even encompass that world, but a half-finished work if he does not know Thee: Thee the One, who are one thing and who art all!

When I read this, the words were a giant infusion of life-giving air into a soul that sometimes feels like it is drowning in work. As I often confess, I am a person who cannot multi-task at all. I can place my attention and my affection only on one thing at one particular moment, and that seems rather limiting in many instances. But this tendency, says Kierkegaard, is the way of purity, of goodness. It is the movement toward the One. It might actually be more difficult, I believe, to chase "one" thing than to pursue many things. I also really identified with the simple soul that he talked about, wanting very much to grasp things with a happy and pure heart instead of with extensive mental effort. And so it was with joy and contentment that I thought of only one thing that evening, and let everything else be contained in that One.

At the end of the silence, people were invited to share any thoughts they had with the group. I said, "I don't really have anything to say; it was just nice to have an empty head because I am always thinking." And then I mentioned the notion of pursuing "one thing" as Kierkegaard explains it and how encouraging that was for me.

After a moment, one of my friends said: "You say you have an empty head, but you are quoting Kierkegaard!" I think Kierkegaard would have thought that was funny, and a great example of willing or doing but one thing and having it seem like much more.

Let my focus be on the one Good today and every day, and may I indeed come upon truth by joyous gazing on the Good One instead of by feeble and exhausting attempts at cleverness.

Quotes from Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing by Soren Kierkegaard, translated by Douglas V. Steere. HarperCollins, 1966.

This is a photo of one tree amid a blanket of fall leaves.

Monday, November 15, 2010

take

You will not have this - its mine!
Words that a 5 year-old says when someone reaches for his toy.
Words that a woman shouts when confronted by a thief demanding her purse.
Words that a landowner utters when threatened by an invading king.

You cannot take this away from me!
Words that the slaves sung to remind themselves that freedom can always be carried in your heart.
Words that martyrs cried out as they offered their lives for their beliefs.
Words that lovers whispered when they were parted by war.

Why are you taking this away from me?
Words that Job flung at a God who seemed to be deaf to his pain.
Words that don't know how this can end well.
Words that the chronically downtrodden have forgotten how to form.

Why did I give that up?
Words of regret spoken in hindsight.
Words that cannot bring it back.
Words that reveal powerlessness and perhaps a lack of courage.

Can you help me get it back?
Words that carry hope.
Words that have put aside self-reliance.
Words that refuse to accept injustice as the final answer.
Words that look for another way: not payback, but redemption.

Can I give you some of what I have?
Words that recognise how poor we all are at times.
Words that invite instead of force.
Words that give and receive with equal grace.
Words that open instead of close.
Freedom.
The word that silences all other words.

This is a poem for all those who have had precious things taken away from them in the name of religion, including my father. Let me be one who, instead of taking, learns to give precious things in the name of Jesus.
This is a photo of Dean's empty guitar case.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

the way things work

My plan:
1. Send email to professor on Sunday night with a question.
2. Receive eager response on Monday morning, Tuesday morning at the latest.
3. When eager response not received by Wednesday afternoon, go to professor's office and demand that he respond to you.
4. When professor appears not to be in his office, stand in hallway and play with iPhone just in case he walks by in the next fifteen minutes.
5. When professor does not appear, walk back to library in the cold wind and ask God if he has a better plan.

Better plan:
1. Send email to professor on Sunday night with a question.
2. Wait patiently for a few days.
3. Stop in at the professor's office on Wednesday to follow-up.
4. In case professor is not in office, don't worry, just go to library.
5. After picking up books at library, get on subway to go home.
6. Transfer subway lines and while waiting for the next train, look around.
7. See a woman looking at you. Do I know her? Look away. Look back at her. Yes, I do know her.
8. Smile at woman coming over to talk to you.
9. Say, "Hi, I was just at your husband's office and he wasn't there."
10. Have a great talk with professor's wife while riding on the subway.
11. Have message delivered in person to professor by loving wife.
Nellie is a well-trained dog belonging to my friends. This is a photo of Nellie's front paws. She knows something about letting her master dictate her behaviour. She also knows when she is supposed to keep her paws off something.

Monday, November 08, 2010

empty-handed

A long time ago, there was this group of people called the Israelites. Their ancestor, Israel (or Jacob) moved his family to Egypt to avoid a famine, and after a number of years, when this one family had multiplied into a very large clan, the Egyptian king freaked out and forced the people into slavery because he was afraid that they might leave or, even worse, turn against him in a war. It was a pretty ugly situation, but God had already planned for the Israelites' breakout. God got in touch with Moses and told him that he, Moses, was to go see the Pharaoh of Egypt and convince this stubborn king to let these people go that God called his own.

I am reading through the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, and a particular phrase in chapter 3 of Exodus jumped out at me. When God is having a conversation with Moses about how things will play out, God warns Moses that the Egyptian king will be stubborn, but in the end, the ruler will be glad to see the Israelites go. In fact, God promises that his people will not leave empty-handed. I started to think about this word, "empty-handed." Slavery is one of the most horrendously oppressive situations you can be in, where everything is taken from you and you are left with nothing. And it is about this brutal scenario that God says, "You won't leave empty-handed."

This remarkable reversal is quite characteristic of someone who calls himself Redeemer. And I believe that this promise can be applicable to every situation that we find ourselves in, no matter how bleak or horrific or irredeemable it seems. We don't have to leave empty-handed. We can have failed miserably at something, hurt someone and been hurt (Moses did all of those things), but we don't have to come away empty-handed. We can be abused, mistreated, misunderstood, betrayed, and abandoned. But we don't have to leave the situation empty-handed. There is always something that we can take away from a place, even a bad place. But it takes a bit of effort. These riches don't just jump into our laps.

Here a few of the riches that I have found can be taken away from less than ideal circumstances, whether they were of our own making, the result of bad people exerting their power over us, or some unfortunate accident.

1. Humility. This is a great treasure that many situations offer to us if we want it. Take it! Humility attracts God; he is drawn to it like a bee to a flower. If you want God as a constant companion, embrace humility. On the other side of things, if you are the owner of any pride, you would do well to grab a giant knife and hack it off, because it repels God. And that is a very bad thing. A very, very bad thing.

2. Trusting surrender. Many of us (me) don't realise how little we trust God until things don't go well for us. Then we begin to whine and complain and pout. Some of us make demands. Some people get angry and close themselves off from contact of all kinds. None of those are signs of trusting God, just in case you wondered. If you find yourself in a tight situation, surrender to God. This priceless treasure is one you can enjoy every day, if you like. It improves with use! It also reduces stress in your life.

3. Loving better. I don't know about you, but it just takes a random encounter with an unattractive or rude person to make me realise how badly I love. Anyone can be loving when things are good and we hand-pick the people we hang out with. But can we love when someone is taking advantage of us? Can we love when confronted with something or someone unlovely? It takes #1 and #2 to get to #3.

4. Leadership skills. Moses went through leadership boot camp. The one where you do some things right, you do some things wrong, you try to quit, you blame others, you see only the negative, and suffer from a lack of confidence. I have been through my own boot camps, not only in leadership but in pretty every much every skill I have ever developed. No one becomes a good leader or develops other skills just by reading a book or taking a seminar. Good leadership is a treasure you only get by being in overwhelming situations and realizing that you don't have what it takes. Only then do you realise that you were never meant to do this alone or rely on your own ability. God wants to be in all of this life with us. And he wants us to take others with us as well.

5. Legacy. When the Israelites left Egypt, they took the riches from their Egyptian neighbours and put them on their sons and daughters. Never leaving empty-handed is something we do not do primarily for ourselves, but for our children, for our successors, for posterity. It is time to think bigger than simply making ourselves comfortable or obtaining our own freedom. Our whole community benefits when we open our hands and loot every situation for all it is worth. Let us take every treasure that is hidden in the pain and the suffering and injustice and invest it in those around us.

I want to lay my head on the pillow every night and know that I took something of value from this day. I did not waste it, no matter what transpired. I am richer for having gone through everything I did. Never leave empty-handed.

This is a photo of some feather treasures my niece found in a barn loft this past summer.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

pressure point

Today, I am reading a wonderful book called Minding the Spirit which is filled with articles by scholars from the field of Christian Spirituality. However, I am not having a wonderful time while doing it. Instead, I find myself suffering from fatigue of the spirit and the mind and the body. I would just like to go sit by the window and read some fiction for a day or two. Or maybe go for a long walk without thinking about my next research project the whole time. The pressure that has been piling itself on top of me these past few weeks, scoop after heavy scoop, is finally starting to dent my usually cheerful and buoyant demeanour. I thrive in a learning environment, but the love and drive for what I am doing has taken a few hits lately, and that makes studying quite a chore. I find myself tempted to walk away, at least for a bit. I won't, but I am tempted.

There is the constant pressure to be the brightest and the best, to do well not only in the classroom, but to fill one's resume with publications, presentations, student committees, awards, scholarships, and language and training courses. While you are doing that, a few research trips to exotic locations are always a good idea, and of course, you must make sure that all the important people know who you are so that you can get good letters of reference. I don't play the academic game very well, in fact, if I am on the game board at all, I think my game piece might be a stale Cheezie that I picked up off the floor.

In the midst of all this overwhelming pressure and subsequent woefulness, a quote jumped out of one of the articles I was reading this afternoon and brought a spark of hope and life to my spirit. It is from one of the all-time great novels of the 20th century (so I am told by numerous reviewers, so now I think I have to get it, though when I will be able to read 880 pages of fiction is beyond me!).

Here is the quote with which Barbara Newman begins her article, "The Mozartian Moment":

In a memorable scene from Mark Helprin's novel, "A Soldier of the Great War," the protagonist Alessandro learns that he has just failed his orals and will not receive his degree [Matte's comment: this is my worst nightmare!]. His examiners explain that they failed him for being insufficiently clever, but Alessandro replies, "I was clever when I was a child. I could do all kinds of tricks; I could memorize, analyze, and argue until my opponents were paralyzed, but whenever I did these things I felt shame." This remark makes the professors furious: "Shame? For what?" they ask. It does not help our hero's academic career when he responds, "It was easy to be clever, but hard to look into the face of God, who is found not so much by cleverness as by stillness." [1]

Thank you, Alessandro, for saying that, even though it likely set you back a few moves in the game. This is what I want to make sure that I never lose sight of. Cleverness will come and go. On days like today, it mostly goes, but let me always focus on the harder task: to look for the face of God in order that I might see him and describe him to others. If I do this, instead of dragging myself to the task of studying, I will not be able to keep the joy and wonder out of my voice.

[1] Mark Helprin, A Soldier of the Great War. New York: Avon, 1991, 428-429.

This is a photo that captures the joy and wonder on my face when one of my friends ran up to me and gave me an unexpected hug. I could use more moments like that, couldn't you? Photo credit: Natasha Cherry.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

behind

Today, I finally got to some ironing that had been too long neglected: 12 shirts and 3 pairs of pants. I don't think there was much left to wear in the closet, actually. It seems like I am perpetually behind these days. I am a week and a half behind in the schedule I have set for my reading course in order to finish it in a timely manner. I am always trying to play catch-up in household cleaning, buying groceries, and personal writing. I don't even want to imagine what Christmas preparations will do to an already packed month ahead.

This week I began to think about my education. In order to be all that I can be, I should be submitting articles, presenting at conferences, and applying for awards, but frankly, I just don't have the energy. I know I have missed opportunities for funding and deadlines for submitting papers for important conferences. That's what happens when I am trying to live a joyful, creative, and peaceful life while being a full-time student, a teacher's assistant, a member of a journal committee, a part-time administrator, a faithful friend, and a caring pastor.

I have been reading the story of Joseph in Genesis. It is another one of those biblical stories that doesn't quite make sense to me. In fact, parts of it make me uncomfortable, both in what it appears to be saying about God and in the odd behaviour that characters in the story exhibit. But today, as I was feeling like a bit of a loser, losing out on opportunity after opportunity because I am a person with limited energy who cannot multitask well, I was reminded that one of the common factors in these biblical stories is that people, no matter how hard they try, are not masters of their own fate. They cannot manufacture their own success.

Joseph, the man with loads of potential, was always at the wrong place at the wrong time, it seems. When he told people about his amazing leadership skills and bright future, he set a whole lot of terrible things into motion: he was grossly mistreated by those who should have protected him, he was falsely accused by his boss, he was forgotten for two years by a colleague who promised to help him out, and yet...things turned out very well in the end. Beyond anyone's wildest dreams! Because God had a better plan than the one that Joseph employed by trying to sell people on his skills. It involved learning to be a great leader by not relying on his own strengths, but on the dependability of his God.

The perfect example of this can be seen in Genesis 41 in Joseph's interaction with Pharaoh. The ruler says to him, "I have heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it." Joseph replies, "I cannot do it, but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires."

I cannot get everything right in my education process and all the life challenges that go along with it, but God will bring me to the place that he wants me to be. He always does, so I don't have to worry. Work hard, yes, but not worry.

This is a red pear that I let ripen for a few days until it was just right. Then I enjoyed its deliciousness!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Waiter

This is the spoken word piece I presented earlier tonight. It is based loosely on Genesis 32.

Someone...is waiting for me.
I can sense it when I walk home at night.
Out there, just out of sight,
waiting, watching, debating when to make a move.
I can feel it when the hairs on my arm rise up slowly
and there is a tingle on the back of my neck, only
it doesn’t stay there. That tingle, shivery tingle finds
the bottom of my spine
and that’s how I divine that
Someone...is waiting for me.
I imagine and hypothesize and theorize
that the encounter will happen in some dark alley.
The marked and the marker meet and greet and all manner of devastation is heaped on me
yes, that is what I fear.
Deep in my belly, that’s where I hear the fear talking
so when I am walking
I am praying, hoping, that nothing happens.

It’s okay, I’d say, to be praying...for nothing.
But still, I know something or someone will, eventually, catch up to me.
It might happen in broad daylight, who knows?
Perhaps I am in a park, and someone suddenly appears in a bush- whoa!
(Though I think that highly unlikely).
I think about it often, more often than not, that I’ll be caught off guard
when I open the closet door, the refrigerator door, the shower door, the elevator door
pick a door, any door.
I always feel like
Someone...might be waiting for me.
Sometimes I think I can see the “waiter” out of the corner of my eye

a glimpse, just out of my peripheral vision,
like when you’re sitting too close at the theatre during a Bruce Willis movie and a fight breaks out in a restaurant, as you know it has to, and there are those two guys in the background that never really come into focus and they hope you won’t notice that one of them is looking right at you.
Yeah... Someone...is waiting for me.
I know he is, or she is, or they are, or it is.
NO, not 'it.' Maybe 'he,' maybe 'they,'
maybe someone big enough to convey “they” even though “they” are one.
Yes, some ONE is waiting for me.
This One is so patient. The patience of God, it would seem.
This One is always present. I cannot shake the feeling, asleep or awake, that I am never alone.
This One is annoyingly hidden. Like the wind, I can see the effects, but these eyes can never truly catch a glimpse of exactly where or what or who One is.
This One watches. I know this and do not know it.
When you feel the gaze of someone upon you, you are drawn in their direction. You know?
I know! We know! Some One is watching!
Some one... is waiting for me.

But...I am waiting, too.
I am waiting for the day when I will have the advantage.
When I turn around a corner just a second before the One expects me to
or I open that closet door and catch the One on the floor, asleep
or I peek behind that bush in the park and the One is relieving himself
Hah! I will definitely have the upper hand then.
And when that ‘then’ happens
When opportunity presents itself to me like a stairway to heaven
I will get right up in the elusive One’s face,
You would think we were going to embrace, but I will have quite another purpose in mind.
And I will ask
What do you think you are doing? Following me around all these years and never showing yourself?
I will call the One a coward, or a control freak, or whatever accusations come out of my mouth at that moment to give voice to the years of fear and anxiety and doubt that I have suffered under those invisible eyes.
If he has a lethal weapon, I suppose I will die before I get to say the next bit,
but if he is a doddering old fool, and some days I suspect that he is, I will tell him that this isn’t funny.
Not amusing in the slightest degree.
Can’t he see that people get freaked out by someone they can’t see?
Who are you? I will ask. I need to know who you are!
Are you the long lost brother that I never knew I had?
Or the old man I pissed off years ago, who has been getting angrier and angrier by the day
watching and waiting until the time is right to make me pay?
And that’s as far as I get in my fantasy, because I can’t see his face and
it seems kind of pointless.

More pointless than I know
because one day, the One just appears.
He is not here,
and then he is here!
(I don’t do boxing, but I have often thought it would be a good sport for me.
I am fast and can think on my feet.
But fast feet only get you so far.
You’ve got to be able to land a punch, and do it convincingly. But look at these arms. Are you convinced? Me neither.)
Anyway, the One appears.
No time for fear.
The One is here. I am here. Game on!
You know, I thought he would use his invisibility to take advantage of me.
I thought he would catch me off guard and hit me hard.
I thought he would play on my fears, drive me to tears, for sure.
But this One. This one is not what I thought.
I don’t even know how I know it is him when I see him, but I know.
And being fast on my feet, I make the first move:
Power blow to the chest! I expect him to crumple to the ground, stunned
but he grabs me and we both go down, tumbling.
(I suppose wrestling would have been a more useful sport to fantasize about than boxing.)
My arms are my weakness and I have no hope of getting a good hold on the One.
Not a full nelson, not a cobra clutch, not the chin lock. Nothing sticks.
I needn’t worry about using any wrestling tricks, though
because he is holding onto me
in a giant bear hug,
the kind a big black bear might use, a grip that says you are mine because I’m hungry and it’s going to be a long winter.
But I am fast, and small, and I wiggle and wriggle and struggle and wangle my way out of his grip.
I leap back on my feet: You can’t have me, I say!
The One, he stands up and waits.
I don’t know what he is thinking, but the longer I look at him, the more I am sure I don’t like it.
So I make another move. I call it the "All In Maneuver!"
This time, I will have him! All four limbs are in the air as I execute a flying tackle.
But I feel only the bounce of my body off a solid surface.
He is no longer a bear. Now he is a rock!
I grab at the slippery smooth wall of some familiar yet foreign substance and find no handhold.
And I am afraid again. The elusiveness is back.
I thought I had him, but I have nothing.
I will not be left with nothing!
Not after all this! Not now!
I grasp for something, anything that will keep the One from disappearing.
The edge of his shirt finds its way into my hand and I hold on tight.
I will not let go, I say to myself.
You will not let go, I tell my hand.
I will not let you go, I say to him.
Not until you give me what I want! I demand, as if beggars and losers get to make demands.
I think of all the “why’s” I want answered and all the fears I want to be assuaged,
but that is not what comes out of my mouth.
The One is waiting (by now I know he does this very well)
and I decide that this is the advantage that I have been waiting for. It is mine for the taking.
I want what you have, I cry!
That confidence, that strength, that lack of uncertainty, that ability to wait and wait and wait and never get discouraged.
The One speaks: What’s your name?
What? He’s been following me around for all these years and he doesn’t know who I am?
But then I realise, surely he is saying this because he is about to pull out his chequebook and bestow a great gift on me! He just wants to get the name right! Of course!
I reply: I am Trying To Get Ahead in Life. With one “i”.
The One smirks, at least that’s what his face appears to be doing. I think it is odd.
But before I can finish the second “d” on that thought, I am on the ground.
He has me pinned, flattened, crushed. I count to ten in my head but it doesn’t matter.
It could be one or a thousand, it would be all the same.
I cannot move. I can barely breathe. I think I might be paralyzed or maybe dead.
‘Ouch’ does not even begin to articulate what my bones are feeling.
Something is definitely out of place.
I feel woozy and would fall down if I was not already...down.
Suddenly, the pressure lifts and I am alone.
I look around and see no One.
Only me, and the ground, and a small piece of paper near my left hip.
It IS a cheque, and it is made out to "Good Wrestler." Or maybe there is only one “o.” I can’t quite tell.
I get up off the ground, bruised but a whole lot braver.
Strange. How is it that I can lose the fight, yet feel like I gained the whole world?
Something is definitely out of place here (smile).
These are two leaves on the ground (not wrestling, but resting) close to my house.

Friday, October 22, 2010

needs improvement

I just finished grading a whack load of essays and exams as part of my job description as a Teaching Assistant. The students have a lot to learn...and so do I. I occasionally drop my jaw and say, "Oh, wow!" at some of the creative answers that I come across (like mistaking the incarnation of Jesus for the endless cycle of re-incarnation), but the thing that really amazes me is that as much as the students' responses reveal how well they have grasped the material, my response to their work also reveals how much I have to learn in dealing with people.

One of the abilities I have developed over time is being able to see what is missing or where something is inadequate, so I make a good proofreader and a fairly accurate and meticulous grader. However, I can also discourage people by always pointing out what is lacking. Not only in their work and their writing, but sometimes I comment on people's actions and life choices as well. You see where this ends up - I am not always that pleasant to be around. In fact, I brought a student to tears this past week. Not that I was mean or nasty, but I was insensitive to the fact that for someone writing a paper for the first time, having all their mistakes pointed out can be very overwhelming and extremely discouraging, especially when they have put a lot of effort into it. I was gently reminded by my gracious Teacher that behind every essay and every exam that I am grading, there is a human being. And the remarks I write on the paper will affect that human being. I may be correcting words, but I am interacting with a person. I can't forget that. And every interaction must be filled with love and grace, even while offering correction.

I have been on the receiving end of remarks that cut me deeply and discouraged me. I know the professor was only trying to help me improve my writing, but my expectations, my subjective attachment to my work, and the many hours I put into the project made it difficult for me to hear that I had not done the assignment properly. That I had missed the point to some degree. After the initial shock of a disappointing result, I looked for someone to blame (the professor), and then it slowly started to sink in that, yes, I didn't get it totally right. I have something to learn. And this is why I am here, after all: to learn. I need to listen more carefully and read more thoughtfully and pay attention to what is being asked of me. This is humility. And this is the only way that I will make progress: by humbling myself.

The professor I am working for is a kind and wise man. He gives me a great deal of positive support as well as a lot of opportunity to learn by doing. One of the things he said to me has become my mantra in this job: be humble, yet confident. And that is what I want to help these students to embrace as well. I want them to develop the confidence to try something new, to explore something they know little about, to offer their thoughts and grapple with hard questions. But I also want them to remain humble in the process, open to correction, always attentive to others, and never assume that they got it all right.

We are all students. Some of us have just been at it a bit longer.
This is the view I saw last this week when I was waiting for the bus on the way to the university: the yellow leaves of fall, the freshly painted white line which a car drove over and smeared onto the manhole cover, the asphalt crack from the weight of traffic and the unforgiving weather, and the beautiful symmetry of the circle.

Monday, October 18, 2010

seeds

Today I planted some seeds.
I planted thoughts: some about how good God is and some about how stupid people are.
I planted ideas: some about how to get my work done this week and some about how to get out of commitments I have made.
I planted words: words of kindness to a stranger and words of pride to a friend.
I planted attitudes: admiration for some colleagues and judgments against some others.
I planted pictures: beautiful yellow leaves on the trees outside and overpriced designer clothing that I will never be able to afford.
I planted sounds: the laugh of Dean on the phone and the swearing of strangers on the street.
I planted a few criticisms as well, mostly of myself. Some of my body, some of my tardiness, some of my lack of love for others.
I planted a fantasy or two: one about praise I would get for an assignment and another about the look of disappointment on my professor's face when I failed to do well.
A bit of doubt jumped in the ground, too. Self-doubt and doubt that I can trust others.
I planted some weariness at the end of the day, as well as some satisfaction over two big tasks completed.

These seeds will all grow over the next few days. They will become bigger and stronger and more of what they are. What I plant, I will harvest. What I go back to over and over again, will become larger in my life. What I let my mind dwell on, will be what begins to influence and guide my thoughts. I try to pick my seeds carefully, but I sometimes forget the law of sowing and reaping.

Today I read these words which I was happy to put in my soul garden:

It remains an experience of inestimable value that for once we have learned to see the great events of history from below, from the perspective of the excluded, the suspected, the ill-treated, the powerless, the oppressed and despised, in short, the suffering.

If only no bitterness or envy has gnawed at our hearts at such a time, so that we can see the great things and the small, happiness and misery, strength and weakness with new eyes, so that our perception of the significant, of humanity, justice and mercy has become clearer, freer and less corruptible; so that personal suffering becomes a more useful key, a more fruitful principle for viewing and actively understanding the world than personal happiness.

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian who was killed for his stance against Hitler during WWII.

Thanks to Michael Jones for reminding me about the importance of sowing well.
This is a picture of one of my favourite seed flowers: the sunflower, here in an arrangement in a country church at the Fall Festival.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

words and pictures

This past week (and month and a half, actually) has been so crazy busy for me, that I have not had a lot of time to think, contemplate, and have long conversations with God. I miss that. But with a lot of reading to do, lectures to prepare and give, papers to write, several more meetings a week than last term, papers to grade, and being present for my friends and Dean...well, there aren't many words left in my head that don't relate to a paper or project that I am working on.

There are fewer words between Father and daughter, fewer words between Friend and be-friended, less words between Lover and beloved, but there are still words. The conversations I have these days with God are shorter, simpler, perhaps more direct, but also more gracious and overtly invitational. And they basically come down to 3 phrases that I hear over and over again.

1. Do you trust me with that? This is what I hear every time I start to think about situations that are out of my control, that are not what I wish they were. Situations where something went wrong or is about to go wrong, or where I feel wronged. Do you trust me with that? I relax my shoulders, sigh, and say, "Yes."
2. You can ask me to help you with that. This phrase quietly inserts itself into my frantic thoughts when I am trying to figure out how to tackle a large project, approach a paper, prepare a lecture, how to wrap my head around a new and complex situation, or how to respond to tricky personal interaction. You can ask me to help you with that. I stop the crazy zoo in my head and ask. I ask for a partner, someone with much more clarity and better ideas. God, what do you think we should do here?
3. Don't be afraid, I am right here. This reassuring phrase comes randomly throughout the day. When I am overwhelmed, when I lack confidence, when I would rather run away from responsibility, when I am tempted to be silent instead of speak up, when I am confronted by something unexpected and intimidating. A large, looming sense of strong Love, much like a grizzly bear slowly raising itself on its hind legs, brushes itself up against me and makes its presence known. Don't be afraid, I am right here. I know I am safe.
There may be fewer words these days, but there are a lot of pictures. Here are a few from the past Thanksgiving weekend we spent with friends in Ontario.
photo one: purple flowers in the field
photo two: Ball's Falls.
photo three: yummy turkey just after it came out of the oven
photo four: looking out of the cellar in an old flour mill right beside the falls

Thursday, October 07, 2010

remember me?

Since I started my MA in Theological Studies, it seems that I am forgetting things at an alarming rate. Names. Dates. Details. Questions. Answers. I will remember something someone said, but not who it was. I will remember reading an interesting thought, but not remember where it was or when I read it. Part of the equation is that I am inundated with more information than ever before, reading huge quantities of texts and volumes that not only cover quite a range of topics, but rather large expanses of history. My brain is not amused.

I am particularly bad at names for some reason. I have been teaching a few university classes this term as part of my job as a TA (teaching assistant). I enjoy it a lot. I have no problem standing in front of 40 students and talking, but the topic of Christian Spirituality is broad, and I have to cover many important historical figures and texts. Each class I have taught, I have managed to forget or wrongly identify the name of one of the people I am lecturing on. Thankfully, bright young students quickly correct my error, I make a joke about my mental lapse, and we move on. I hate forgetting. Because I know how it feels to be forgotten. In some ways, it is the ultimate insult - that one is forgettable or easily overlooked when there is a distraction.

This past week has been filled with many meetings, classes, office hours, group activities, visitors, and lots of studying and reading. It is during busy and challenging times like this that forgetting can happen, both by me and to me. We become people in passing, involved in fleeting events, rushing through encounters and tasks as we hurry on to the next important thing.

Early yesterday morning, my new iPhone (best birthday present EVER, Dean!!) buzzed on the table next to my bed. I quickly picked it up, realizing as I did so, that I was starved for personal connection and meaningful remembering. It was my friend from Germany. He had written me a lengthy note relating how he had read something I wrote, and it impacted him in a strong way. He told me what he had been thinking about, then mentioned other literature he was reading, and how it all seemed to point to the same thing. His encouraging words ended with a suggestion of some fiction that I might like. It was a note tailor-made for me by someone who knows me and loves me.

I laid my head back on the pillow, deeply touched by the words of my far-away friend, and a gentle Spirit voice spoke to me: I remember you. Every day and every moment, I remember you. You may not remember me, but I always remember you. I am your Father, and I always remember you.

When I have moments that I feel forgotten and overlooked, I want to remember those words. To remember means to keep something in the mind, to remain aware of something or someone, and to do it again and again. Let me not only remember that I am remembered, but let me remember the Rememberer, and let the gift of remembering seep into every area of my life. The slogan on our license plate is, after all, Je me souviens, or I remember. Instead of starting the day by remembering all my appointments and tasks, let me begin by remembering the important people in my life. Let me remember God often: in thoughts, in words, in deeds, in eating and drinking, in wine and bread, in sleeping and waking, in laughing and crying.

May I live in constant remembrance of the Name that comes before every other name. And may this mindfulness infuse inspiration, breath, vigour, and clarity into each moment.

This is a photo of a cake we ate last night in celebration and remembrance of the birth of our dear friends' baby one week ago. Blissful baby slept through the whole party!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

cancelled

We cancelled our cable television just over a month ago. The idea was that after we returned from our vacation, we would sign up with another provider who was offering a deal on satellite tv that included a free PVR. That hasn't happened. The truth is, we don't really miss it that much.

The only times I miss watching TV is when I do my ironing. A home improvement show always made an unpleasant chore much more bearable and helped the time pass quickly. For a few weeks, I ironed in silence, facing the silent, dark TV screen. Not that great. Then I decided to watch a DVD while I did my weekly ironing. Six shirts and three pants were not really enough to get into a movie, so that idea kind of bombed. Last week, I tried something new. I set up the ironing board in the guest room, opened up the curtains, and did all my ironing in front of the patio doors which overlook our neighbourhood.

While I ironed, I watched the sky, which is always changing this time of year. It started out bright blue with a few white wisps, then turned gray with what looked like rain clouds. I saw wind bending the trees in the park. Children played in the street. A boy rode by on his skateboard. Birds flew in and out of the scene, and the sun slowly pushed the shadows further and further away from me. As I ironed, I became part of this world of wonder.

The other time I used to watch TV was after coming home from a long day at school or after sitting at my desk for many hours studying. Too tired to tackle any more homework, I needed to give my brain a bit of a rest. It used to be reality TV that provided this break. When I walked in the door after school today, I pulled a bowl of watermelon out of the fridge, opened the curtains, and watched the changing sky as I sat on the guest bed and ate. The cat joined me in this moment of silent regard and relaxation.

Instead of reality TV, I now watch reality. Instead of being amused by clever scripts and camera-work, I now admire the natural, uncensored, untamed world outside my window. It rejuvenates my brain in ways that TV never did. It provides amusement, rest for a study-weary mind, and inspiration. It draws me into companionship with my world instead of isolating me in front of my personal screen. It is free and there is never any interruption in service. Though the storyline might be hard for some to follow, there is always something for the attentive viewer to enjoy and learn.

Windows versus cable TV. No contest.

This was a rainbow that I captured on my camera phone while Dean was driving on a rainy day in Winnipeg, Manitoba. That would be my hand that was tilting, not the houses.

Friday, September 24, 2010

thoughts on my birthday

Yesterday was my birthday. My 50th birthday. Some people think that's a big deal. To me, it is just a number that states how many days I have had the privilege of waking up and getting out of bed to explore life. And that thought causes my heart to become full and expand with a whole lot of thankfulness and awe at life itself. Yes, indeed. These were some thoughts I had yesterday:

I get to open my eyes every morning and see sunlight. Some days it is full-on, unclouded, make-your-eyes-hurt, kind of sunshine that greets me. Other days it is misty, rainy, curtained light, but it is always light. And I am blessed to see it every day.

I get to wake up next to a warm, cuddly, funny, wise, generous, and faithful man every day. He often stares at me with adoring eyes, and takes me on dates pretty much every week. He can fix almost anything electronic and always knows where we parked. He can keep a steady beat no matter how eratic and chaotic the sounds are around him. I am blessed to have such a hug-able rock in my life.

I get to go to university and enlarge my mind and my heart. I read things that challenge me and make me think about why I do the things I do. I meet people that are walking much different paths than I am, and get to walk together with them for a bit. I am student and teacher and child and mentor all at the same time. I am blessed to be in a learning environment every day.

I love our condo and being in it every day. I love its vaulted ceilings and all its stairs. My legs go up and down hundreds of steps every day, without hesitation. I love to chase the cat around the house, scoop her up in my arms, and laugh over her silly antics. I love to open my fridge and see a great big jug of orange juice. I love stumbling down the stairs in the morning and having that first, thirst-quenching draught of orange, pulpy goodness. I love to stand on my balcony and see the planes fly overhead. I love to listen to the sound of my neighbourhood. I love to study in silence and burst into spontaneous little songs of joy that make no sense to anyone but me. I love the bus drivers who drive past my condo and make it possible for me to get around Montreal without a car.

I love the nearness of Friend and Father. Sometimes I have felt the lack of both, since my father died when I was in my early 20's and friends come and go in our transient world. But there is one Friend who is always available to hang out. And there is a Father who is always looking out for my best interests when I am too naive or stupid or stubborn to make the right decision.

I love today. It is built on a lot of yesterdays that were all good in their own way, but nothing compares to today. It is special. It invites me to come and romp around in it with all my might. It welcomes me to rest and savour and enjoy the moment in a spirit of gratitude. It declares that God's goodness is written all over my life, whether I recognise it or not. It shines!
May I shine every day, too!
These were some vegetables at the St-Norbert market at the end of August. Brilliant!

Monday, September 20, 2010

hello, my name is...

Hello, my name is Matte and I am a student. Seems fairly straightforward, right? Not really. You see, I have been reading the story of Abram again in Genesis, and I noticed a thing or two about the difference between what we call ourselves and what God calls us.

Abram's name meant "exalted father." He did pretty well with the exalted part (had a knack for getting rich and for the most part, enjoyed a good reputation), but the father bit...it just wasn't happening. If Abram were to introduce himself to us, it might have sounded something like this:

Hello, my name is Abram, and I grew up with a father who didn't follow through on what he said he would do. Genesis 11:31-32. His father set out for Canaan but settled in Haran, which was about halfway there.

Hello, my name is Abram, and though I have a lot of potential, I find it hard to leave everything behind and pursue the call of God. Genesis 12:1-6. He left his home, but not his family behind, taking his nephew with him.

Hello, my name is Abram, and I sometimes exercise bad judgment in order to make my life easier and better for myself. Genesis 12:10-17. He lied about his wife in order to gain favour with influential people.

Hello, my name is Abram, and I have some family troubles and quarrels going on. Genesis 13:5-9 and 14:14-16. There was some fighting, some going of separate ways, some capturing, and some attacking and plundering.

Hello, my name is Abram, and I am disappointed at the way some things have turned out in my life - at God's lack of action, to be honest. Genesis 15:1-3. He had a lot of riches but no heir, even though God had promised him one many times.

Hello, my name is Abram, and I sometimes choose compromise over waiting for God. It seems better than being known as a man of inaction, a man who does not follow through. Genesis 16:3-6. He agreed to his wife's plan of getting the servant girl pregnant, which resulted in a lot more family trouble.

And then, something crazy happened. God changed Abram's name (Genesis 17:3-8). God added the letter "heh" near the end of his name. The letter stems from a root that means, "to breathe." Say it (heh) and you hear the sound of a breath being exhaled. The interesting thing is that God's name has two of these letters in it (YHWH). It was like God was breathing some of himself, his life, his spirit into Abram (see Genesis 2:7 where God breathes into humanity for the first time). He did the same with Sarai, Abram's wife, and added the breath of "heh" to the end of her name as well.

No longer would the childless man hear the embarrassing contradiction of his name, "exalted father," when people addressed him as Abram. Now, every time someone called him Abraham, he could hear the breath of God breathing into who he was, making it possible for him to be what God had called him to be.

The name I was given at birth was Martha Helen. I was never particularly fond of the name (doesn't it sound like someone's old aunt, or the queen's second cousin?), but when I think about what it means, I am challenged to live up to its grand calling. Martha means "lady" and Helen means "light." Therefore, I am called Lady Light. Cool, isn't it?

The name I have gone by since college days is Matte. There were an overabundance of Martha's in my family circle at the time, so I came up with the unique derivative. It just seemed to suit me better than Martha, but after a few years, I wondered if I should go back to the name, Martha. Was I somehow losing some of the richness associated with my given name by not using it? When I asked God about it, I was reminded if an image of a framed picture, like the one at the top of this blog. The paper between the frame and the photo is called a mat. It is what draws the eye to the picture and shows off its beauty. And that is indeed what I want to do: draw people's eyes to the beauty, the mystery, and the wonder of who God is and what masterpiece he is creating.
Hello, my name is Matte, and I point to God.

The above is based on a talk I gave last night at our church gathering.
The framed version of my photo is available at www.redbubble.com/people/mattedowney

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

my election story

The city where I live had a provincial by-election on Monday. Politics in Quebec are a different bird than anywhere else in Canada, so many times it is not so clear who to vote for. The options presented to us were the Liberal party (the party currently in power dealing with some integrity issues), the Parti Quebecois (official opposition who rallies behind Quebec's sovereignty), the Action-Democratique du Quebec (a relatively new and untried party trying to put some new blood and new ideas into government but little idea of how to do it), the Green Party (environmental concerns are the main platform), and the Quebec Solidaire (feminist and sovereignist leanings). Like I said, not that straightforward, but I tried to do my best. Here is what happened.

The afternoon was fading away on Monday as I put aside my homework for a bit in order to read up on the parties before I headed off to vote. I was leaning towards the Liberals, that being the strongest and most visible party, but thought I should look at all the options. On doing a little research on the Green, the PQ, and the Solidaire candidates, I decided that I was not on board with their agendas, so crossed them out of the running. That left the Liberals and ADQ. I read up on Mr. Fournier (Liberal candidate) and his CV was indeed impressive. If one wanted a high profile representative (with a cabinet position, nonetheless!), he was the one to vote for. The guy running for the ADQ was a 29-year-old family man who runs his own business, comes from Bolivia, and is committed to helping the immigrant population which currently stands at over 50% in St-Laurent. So, it was decades of political experience versus brand-new immigrant guy.

As I was walking to the polling station, talking to God about it, wondering what to do, a few key factors came up which influenced my decision:

Factor number one: One thing that stuck out in my reading was that this riding, since its inception in 1966, has always swung Liberal. It is taken for granted that people vote Liberal here, and vote strongly that way. The fact that Charest (the premier) appointed Fournier to a cabinet position before Fournier even won the election testified to the assumption that things would go that way again. Though one should never hold a politician's long experience against him, sometimes that longevity can cross over into entitlement, and this had that air about it, at least in my opinion. If you had been in my neighbourhood in the past few weeks, you would have seen the large posters splattered everywhere with Fournier's face on them. A lot of money was behind this campaign. No one else even came close to Fournier's marketing blitz, in fact, I probably saw only two other posters compared to the fifty or so advertising Fournier. Though money to spend on a campaign can be important, it seemed like money and an impressive resume were all the Liberals were offering. Nevertheless, I did not want to judge the guy too harshly.

On the other hand, Jose Fiorilo (ADQ) just seemed like a normal guy. He had no impressive political resume. His greatest assets were speaking a plethora of languages, dealing with difficulty earlier in his life, having what seemed like a large, happy family, and building a successful business for himself. That sounded good, but his ability to be effective in the political realm was an unknown. Plus, the ADQ have had having trouble establishing their credibility, so would voting for him be throwing away a vote? Factor number two: one thing that Jose said stuck with me: "I’m just asking for people to give me a chance, This is just a by-election. I tell people -’If you give me a chance and you don’t like me in 18 months, you can always vote me out in a general election.'" I had to give the guy credit for meeting the challenge head-on and inviting accountability.

Factor number three: While I was talking to God about it, I thought about the one thing that annoyed me about Jose's platform: he promised that he would be an advocate for the allophones in St-Laurent. What about the rest of us who have lived in Canada all our lives? Really, do immigrants need their own politician now? There are already so many of them in this area....and then I stopped. I was sounding like a racist, a prejudiced person, an unloving person, an unwelcoming person, a person who does not care about the underprivileged, or about the "other." Not like Jesus at all.

So, I made a decision to vote against my prejudice and to vote for enlarging compassion in my heart. Compassion is not to be confused with the politically-correct term, "tolerance," which is a relatively weak and passive position in my opinion. But real, sacrificial, compassion. I was voting for the good of someone else and not primarily for my own interests, because I needed to root out the selfishness I had just seen there. I prayed the prayer that Jesus did, Your kingdom come and Your will be done (here in this St-Laurent by-election) as it is in heaven, and after I had cast my vote for Jose, I left the end result in the hands of God. Ultimately, I am only responsible for what is in my heart and not how a whole city votes.

Later that night, Mr. Fournier was declared the undisputed winner by a large majority. Though the man I had voted for only came in a distant third, I was filled with hope for some reason. I suppose it was because I knew something had changed in St-Laurent that night. Something that the polls could never reflect.

This is a view of the sunrise this week from my bedroom window. I love living in St-Laurent!