Saturday, January 30, 2010

decision factory

I have been learning how to make decisions lately. In a different way. I guess I have always been learning this, but in the past few months I have discovered that some of the machinery in my decision factory was not only out of date, but producing sub-standard end products. Everything seemed to be fine when it left the factory, but you got it home and gave it a road test: BAM the thing fell apart.

Here is the old process:
Dear God, should I do A or B? Should I say yes or no to this opportunity? Is this the right thing to do at this moment? I would wait to hear an answer, read my Bible, ask wise friends, and try to weigh the outcomes of both choices. While it sounds like a simple question based on the desire to obey God, it is in fact more like an ultimatum. Only two choices. And these two choices are at the end of a long road of pre-choices and assumptions that I have already made because I thought I knew what I was doing all along the way. God is only there for quality control, showing up at the end of the line, not to tamper with the process, but to give a final look-see before it hits the shelves and adjust anything I might have missed.

Here is what the new process, still in the beta testing stage, looks like:
Dear God, should I do A or B? No answer. Okay, probably the wrong question. Let's back it up then. What brought me here in the first place? What assumptions did I stand on and what choices did I make to get to this crossroads? What do they reveal about my motivations and values? How did I arrive at the conclusion that my only two choices were A or B? What do I hope to gain by making the so-called "right" choice? Is there pressure to make the decision that is influencing my judgment? Am I really at the point of surrender to God, or am I just wanting the quickest way to success or the scenario that makes me feel okay as a person. Hint: surrender is not usually a comfortable position, especially at first.

Examples:
1. Do I switch to the thesis option or not? The project is more me (hidden meaning = easier, requires less effort because I know how to do it). No answer.
The real question ended up being...
What are you afraid of?
Feeling stupid and getting in over my head and not ending up with really good grades.
Remember, why are you in university?
To learn.
So, pick the path where you will learn the most, even if you don't come away with straight A's. Do you want to learn to stand up for what you are passionate about?
Heck, yeah. Okay. I will really dig into a topic and face that scary thesis defense where I can't hide behind anyone. I will face my fear of not being adequate for a task.

2. So I switched to the thesis option (which requires a lesser course load due to a heavier writing schedule) and was now taking a course I didn't need to take this semester. Do I drop it or stay with it? Easy, I already know this one. I am here to learn, so yes, I buckle down, work really hard, and stick with it, even though it's not required. I finish what I start, I am not a quitter. Besides, the deadline has passed (because God was not giving me a straight answer fast like I needed it) and I now get a mark on my transcript saying that I quit a course after I started it. Not all that attractive.
Well, the real question ended up being...
What is bringing good results in your life right now?
Huh? What does that have to do with my courses? What about learning? If the answer was right before, surely it will work a second time! Don't go all unpredictable on me!
You are using 'predictable' to refer to things other than character. Like I was saying, make sure you have time to put into the people and the projects that are resulting in good fruit in your life and in the lives of others at this point in your life. Seize the opportunities I am sending your way.
Hmmm, okay, so a really full semester would mean that I would have to cut back on my personal writing, pondering, opportunities for teaching, and budding mutually beneficial relationships. But we're past the deadline!!!!
Oh, not willing to pay the cost for the right decision?
Sorry, got out of the surrendering position for a bit there - developed some myopia which focused on maintaining a spotless transcript and reputation instead of harvesting the good fruit you are bringing to my life right now. My bad. Course dropped.

Asking God about the decisions I am faced with today is only the tip of the iceberg. Surrender is much more than involving God in my "now." It goes beyond the things I can see and admit to myself. It addresses my past baggage and includes the cloudly future. It requires that I bypass the safety precautions I have put in place to protect my fragile identity and self-worth. It means that any assumptions and any patterns I have developed into nice, comfy ruts are not off-limits. It means that every day can be square one. I go back to the beginning as often as necessary to make sure I am not building on a faulty foundation.

That's not as discouraging as it sounds, because Jesus is the beginning and the end. The starting point and the goal are closer together than we have been led to believe.

Can you see the forest through the trees? This is a picture of my winter wonderland back in St-Lazare.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

square one

I woke up on Sunday morning with a sore throat. It was all too reminiscent of the same symptoms I had when I opened my eyes on November 23. This nagging cold has been my unwanted companion for 63 days and that morning, it felt like I was back at square one again. Nothing had changed; despite a few peaks of almost normalcy which never lasted long, I was still coughing, fatigued, congested, but now also worn out from the fight and all out of hope. Silly as it seems, I laid in bed and cried great big wretched sobs of hopelessness. Waking up tired, day after day with no end in sight and no significant signs of lasting improvement had reduced me to a lump of sickly flesh that was ready to give up any thoughts of being a vibrant, energetic, and well person ever again.

Of course, I did all the right things after that. I shoved the hopelessness to the side, I ignored it, I thought positive thoughts, I asked God for healing, I read my Bible, and I tried to starve the black monster through neglect, hoping it would whither and die. I tried to curse it with all the decay that it had already inflicted on me, but I didn't have the energy for anger. Hopelessness strips you of all energy to fight. I had little motivation to do my schoolwork or clean my house or eat or hang out with friends. What was the point? I would just be more tired at the end of it all.

Sunday night at church, I sat in my chair with my medium vanilla cappuccino (fake energy) and dragged my deflated spirit to meet with God. You know, talking to God by myself is great and I never tire of our interesting and intimate exchanges, but there is something about placing oneself in a communal setting, in the middle of a bunch of people who are worshipping God to the best of their ability, that places the floundering soul in a much different setting. No longer was I rowing in my own wobbly boat, tossed to and fro by the waves of doubt and disease, trying to navigate tricky and deep waters by myself. Now I found myself sitting on a large ferry filled with fellow travellers, a stable vessel, constantly moving forward in the water, and not nearly as affected by winds of worry or waves of emotion. The direction was clear and the compass unwavering.

And I heard Jesus ask for my hopelessness. "Bring your stinking, decaying trash to me. I am not afraid of being contaminated by your disease and your despair. I am Life. I don't take out the trash, I take it in. I will pick you up in my arms and hold your disease and despair close to me. So close that it becomes lost in me. I will swallow it up and digest it, turning it from putrid to pure. Decay will be transformed into life. The skeleton of dead dreams will become a soaring bird that never tires. Weightless."

I was still sick on Monday, but I was convinced that this could change. I went to the walk-in clinic and saw a doctor who informed me that anything that lasts for two months is not a cold! She prescribed antibiotics and nasal spray for a sinus infection and urged me to come back if I did not feel well in two weeks. Two days later, I still don't feel much better; I know it takes awhile for the drugs to infiltrate my body and give it the upper hand against infection. What did change immediately was my belief that I could run again.
We all need the words of someone who can tell us the truth about what is going on beneath the surface. We all need a little help when we can't fight things ourselves. We all need to be part of a worshipping community that points us in the right direction and keeps us from floundering. We all need someone to unload our trash onto. We all need hope and it is not something we are equipped to manufacture on own own. We all need Jesus to heal us, but sometimes we don't know how to get close enough to touch him, or how to let him touch us.
Thank you, hopelessness, for pressing me towards him, my only real Hope.
These are the drugs which are helping my body in the fight against evil.

Friday, January 22, 2010

crack me up

I went to see my osteopath yesterday because I have had a pain in the side of my chest for almost two weeks. It turns out that I have a cracked rib (and a few rotated ones) probably caused by a violent coughing spell or two. Oh, and she suggested that this nasty cold that I have been battling for the past month and a half is actually low-grade pneumonia. Really? That would explain a lot of things. Yes, that would totally make sense.

Isn't it amazing how I continue to function pretty normally, or at least believe I can, when the symptoms are not screaming out loud. I will, of course, respond to blinding red lights and clanging bells and gushes of blood, you know, emergency situations...but an ache, a cough, some fatigue, a slight hint of fever. None of this is cause for concern or even a change of pace. I continue to do my work, stay up late to finish an assignment if I have to, fulfill all my commitments and make new ones, and drink a cappuccino if I am tired before going to class.

We often ignore the body's (and the spirit's) subtle way of telling us something. Rest is so underrated in our society. Being overworked and having crammed schedules is a token of importance, success, and value, it seems. It is hard not to climb onto this treadmill towards nowhere, but this week I resisted: I dropped one of my courses. As it turns out, switching to the thesis option means that I don't need to take 3 courses this term. Nevertheless, I was hesitant to drop one. Besides liking the course, I didn't want to be a quitter. It would be a very busy term, but I was sure I could do it. After all, I am here to learn, right? What a sense of accomplishment I would have when I finished all that work! As it turns out, I was more concerned about my reputation as a hard worker and outstanding student than I was about honouring God with my whole life.

I began to think about what I really value in my life right now, what I am seeing good results from in myself and in those around me. These things are my ponderings and writings, my sharing of life lessons, my creative endeavours, my ability to be a friend when people need one, and my role as Dean's biggest fan. If someone calls me up and asks me to go out for a drink and talk about life, do I want to respond with, "Sorry, I have 50 pages to read before tomorrow?" (Shudder...absolutely not!) Do I want to come to the end of April with three well-researched papers and thousands of pages read only to realise how many people I have allowed to be squeezed out of my life during that time? (Eeeiiichhh...please, no!) Do I want to see the disappointment in Dean's eyes when I tell him I won't be available for a movie night or a dinner out for the next few weeks due to my workload? (Sigh...that's so wrong!) Yes, my schooling (vocation) is important, but not at the cost of a vibrant, connected, and thoughtful life.

If there is a shortness of breath in my schedule, if there is some fatigue in my hope, if there is a pulling apart of my relationships, if there are some cracks forming in my connection with God and my supportive faith community, let me see all these symptoms and take heed, for I am headed towards an exhausted and sick spirit. Oh, everything might seem to be okay and I can function perfectly fine, I tell myself. But I will pay for the arrogant ignorance later on in ways that are dear and costly. This I know.

The holy spirit is ever whispering and nudging us to come closer to God and closer to each other. This is our true vocation and should be where we find our energies directed. This means making difficult choices, but this gives life. This IS life, to my body, soul, and spirit.
This is a pistachio nut on my dining room table.

Monday, January 18, 2010

the deaf spot

This week I watched a workshop video from world-renowned percussionist, Evelyn Glennie. What is so profound about her is not only her musical talent and genius with all things percussive, but her attitude towards listening. She describes sound and listening in terms of one's whole body and not just the realm of the ears. Thinking we experience sound with only this one tiny organ is a very limiting way of looking at things, indeed. I realised this as I watched her interact with her instruments and her environment. This ears-only attitude most definitely narrows the range of what we hear to a very small spectrum of what is really going on around us.
You will perhaps be surprised to discover that she is profoundly deaf, and yet nothing about her demeanour would inform you of that fact. Out of necessity, she has enlarged her idea of listening to include her whole body as a resonating chamber. She hears with her feet (performs barefoot), her fingertips, her hands, her arms and chest, her stomach, her legs, and the bones in her head. Different frequencies resonate in different parts of the body, as you will know if you've ever stood close to a train as it sped by. Just because our ears are not very good at catching certain vibrations does not mean that they cannot be heard by some other part of our body.

I have deaf spots in my life. There are areas where I cannot hear the world, I cannot hear my friends, I cannot hear myself, I cannot hear what is going on in a situation, and I cannot hear God. I may bemoan my lack of hearing, but the problem is not with my ears; it is that I am ONLY using my ears. If someone like Ms. Glennie can learn to hear sounds very precisely despite the limitation of profound deafness, then what is my problem? Why am I complaining about God being silent? Why do I whine about my lack of clarity and discernment? Why am I slow to hear?

Perhaps it is because I do not see that my very weaknesses, my very areas of deafness, are the doorways to developing a larger and broader sensitivity. My deaf spots should cause me to stop trying to cram all the sounds in the world into two tiny holes in my head (or the narrow ways in which I assume I must interact with God and my world) and let the rest of the body participate. It wants to. It was made to. It will, if I but let it listen.

Click here to see the video of Evelyn Glennie: How to listen to music with your whole body.

This is a picture of the ears of Jazz.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

acrobat

I am good at jumping to conclusions. I can land on possible scenarios, hop to perceived motivations, and bounce to likely outcomes in an easy hop, skip, and jump. Though a quick and flexible mind is helpful in some ways, this particular skill is not all that useful. It keeps me off the solid ground of reality. It usually blurs the truth, and most unfortunately, I believe that it substitutes certainty, or the illusion of having hit upon something resembling certainty, for faith.

One of the things that I admire about higher education, or at least my exposure to it in my particular setting, is the opportunity it gives me to say, over and over again, "I don't know." There is a humility that this cultivates, a dependence on knowledge outside oneself, and a desire to learn and pursue a mystery, that is at the heart of nurturing a love of wisdom.

Yesterday, I tried to help some of my friends by asking pointed questions and offering what I thought might be appropriate insights. Today, I realised that none of it was all that helpful. And that's okay. I offered what I had because I was genuinely concerned for their well-being and wanted the best for them. I trust that they heard the desire of my heart louder than my pitiful and misdirected words. Perhaps, "I don't know," would have been a better offering, a better reflection of my desire to walk with them.

This week I have been struggling with the tension between "I don't know" and having to deliver the goods - some cohesive knowledge and relevant conclusions - in a paper. The pile of research is splayed on the floor beside my desk, begging someone to pull something of worth from it. I have read it and re-read it and while a few yappy bits of information jump out at me, there is no revelation. To me, revelation is the only reason I am doing this; the only thing worth putting on paper (forgive my idealism). A looming deadline triggers the urge to jump to conclusions instead of wait for wisdom.

Last night in class when we were discussing the ethics of reading, I offered the following observation: I can tell when someone loves what they are reading. They speak about it with passion, and they engage with it on a personal as well as intellectual level. It is my desire that I will take seriously my responsibility as a reader: to be receptive and reflective.

There is a person behind every text, a person who thought about and wrote these words, and Jesus commanded me to love them. If I love them, I will read their words with a different attitude. I will have more patience with the peculiarities of the text, I will diligently search for what they can teach me, I will ask better questions about the thoughts I encounter, and I will discover some hidden riches, uncover some undeniable value, and gain some insight. Each person who is made in the image of God has a morsel of this to offer me if I will but see it.

My motivation as a reader matters. God help me to be a loving and responsible reader, to stick with something until I have tasted it instead of making a snap judgment and hopping along.

This is a picture of something someone tossed to the side of the curb last night, taken from my third storey window. One person's garbage might well turn out to be another person's treasure.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

famous

I just finished my first week of classes for the winter term. Slammed is how I usually feel after the first class where we hear everything that will be required of us over the next few months. Multiply that times 3. The prof tonight suggested that we read a 700 page historical account of the reformation over the weekend. Okay then, I'll get right on that. In addition to having to accommodate the sick suggestions of my scholarly mentors who think that reading is something I can do in my sleep, I also have two presentations to prepare for next week and a 10-page paper to compose by mid-month for a conference. It is a good thing that I have been through this first-week shell shock before and am now able to restrain myself from pulling out my hair in clumps while eating a jumbo bag of potato chips.

While in Manitoba over Christmas, I heard an interview with Van Morrison. I like the guy's music and after hearing what he had to say, I really admired the man as well. He does not want to be famous. He said that he plays music and this enables him to put food on the table. He refuses to talk in terms of his greatest hits and has made it a point to isolate himself from the insanity that is celebrity. He is the anti-star. All the standard questions that you ask someone who is enamoured with how enamoured you are with them fell flat. He said what he wanted, without thought for how crass or inaccessible he might appear, and most times he didn't answer what was asked. His refreshing dissection of questions often heard on entertainment shows stripped the shiny, happy veneer from the self-indulgent ritual of celebrity interviews.

Here was a man that I would like to sit down and talk with. He was genuine, he was real, and he was not using the interview as a tool to further his career. He said it annoyed him when fans think that knowing a few details about a person's life or a few of their songs makes them think that they know you. As the interview continued, I became increasingly aware of the strange language and attitudes that accompany the celebrity culture we are accustomed to seeing and hearing all around us. Just pick up any magazine or watch one of the numerous talent shows populating the channels and you will be inundated by it. And here was one man who wasn't buying into it, who pointed out that the questions and assumptions the interviewer brought were somewhat ridiculous and pointless.

Tonight in my reformation class, the professor warned us against thinking that we know something about a historical figure because we have heard certain things about them or know some of their followers. Calvin and Luther would probably turn over in their graves if they knew that people called themselves Calvinists or Lutherans. These men never wanted celebrity nor a movement named after them. They wanted truth, they wanted faith, and they wanted Jesus to be real and accessible to everyone. They took inspiration from teachings that had come before them, studied tirelessly, and did what they thought was right and necessary. These were complex and authentic men, great and small at the same time. They were not ecclesiastic mavericks nor one-trick theologians. What is it about us humans that makes us want to nail someone to a pedestal or inflate a caricature of one tiny part of their life?

What ever happened to just plain getting to know someone? I suppose it is too time-consuming and perhaps a bit disappointing, because we inevitably find out that they are very much like us. We would rather have the wow-factor than some authenticity. I suppose Jesus knew exactly what that particular appetite looked like. He saw a lot of it.

I guess that is one of the reasons I am in university - to get past the peripheral stuff that I think I know and to really take the time to KNOW, or at least, begin to know. Goodbye, celebrity Jesus and his mighty followers. Hello, great big stack of reading.
This is my friend's cat with Buddy Christ, made famous by the movie, Dogma.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

new friend

Dear Mr. 2010:

I haven't really spent a lot of time with you yet, but I already like you.

Even though it's only been a few days, you have shown me incredible highs and exhausting lows.

I like someone with good range.

I want to make sure that I take the time to sit and stare at you at different moments, drinking in your cute button nose with so much potential for beauty and sensitivity, and appreciating your deepening lines of experience.

I won't make a big deal about your age, I promise, but will be grateful for every day as it comes to me, arms open wide to embrace its soft graces or its prickly challenges.

I will try not to complain nor compare one day to another, because all days are food to my soul: some are broccoli, some are chocolate, and some are bitter but helpful medicine.

I will try to never speak badly of your predecessors, for they were just writing the story that we gave them.

It would be great if we could always be in sync and never irritated with each other, but perhaps that's a bit too much to ask from a budding new friendship. Perhaps we should get matching outfits that remind us that we are more alike than different, and will always be playing on the same side.

I am going to rely on you to get me past some rough spots, helping me heal from various ailments of the body, mind, and emotions.

And perhaps I can make sure you get lots of really good memories, and I can cover you with loads of footprints all heading in the right direction.

Oh, I see you have a roller coaster that is sure to provide some thrills.

And you also have a bank where you manage my investments.

If I can ask one favour of you: could we stay away from treadmills? I don't like going through the motions of running and then finding that I ended up no further along. Let's stick to real roads, even if they are a bit more unpredictable.

And let's make sure that we have lots of really cool conversations, okay?

And enjoy all the scenery, no matter how dark, hot, cold, or foggy it gets.

I don't want to miss a thing, so I had better make sure I get plenty of rest as well.

Thanks, Mr. 2010, for introducing yourself to me.

I look forward to a mutually beneficial friendship.

Can I call you '10 for short?
This is the scene from the plane last night when I landed in Montreal.