Monday, May 31, 2010

tripping towards maturity

I had a discussion with friends a few days ago and this question came up: What is the main thing that trips you up time and time again, that keeps you from moving forward and making progress in the direction you want to go? What is the signature weakness (or sin) that you have a hard time overcoming? The honest responses that people offered up, without hesitation, revealed a level of humility and courage that amazed me. These were people who were committed to doing the hard work that maturity requires. Unlike growing older, which happens whether we want to participate in it or not, becoming mature is a voluntary activity. It is a school that not everyone enrolls in, because the assignments are notoriously difficult and the pop exams always on stuff you haven't studied yet.

So, back to our discussion. Some people mentioned pride. One mentioned procrastination. Another listed cynicism. One person said they have a tendency to avoid things. One person suggested that perhaps the place where we find ourselves failing and falling over and over again might in fact be the location of our greatest strength. It (the evil sin factor) tries to sabotage this potential strength at the root and render us impotent in the very area that God means us to be humbly powerful and lovingly effective. Interesting observation.

I admitted that fear is the one I have to watch out for. It will threaten to paralyze me, overwhelm me, steer me off in a totally wrong direction, blur my vision and discernment, and in general, try to take over as the motivation for life's choices. It will try to steal my freedom and undermine my ability to love creatively, largely, and long-lastingly. It will render void my simple and profound ability to trust God in everything.

Having identified this thorny enemy, it is imperative that I ask another question: how do I counteract it? I regularly try to face the things I am afraid of, yes. More importantly, however, I am learning to look at God and let him fill my peripheral vision to the extent that everything else is out of focus. I must never let this unshakable and faithful one out of my sight. His words have to become more trustworthy than my irrational fears. His presence has to be the one I respond to instead of the prickly, panicky shiver that urges me to flee or freeze. His peace has to be the seat that I sit in and will not be intimidated or pushed out of. His unbounded love has to be the geyser that splits open the cage that my small and fearful heart is hiding in.

Jesus, help me not to let any besetting sin handcuff me to stagnancy and complacency. Let me move forward towards maturity and freedom. I want to learn. Help me expand my soul. May I always be found running towards my Lover and Completer.

Hebrews 12: 1-3. Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we'd better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we're in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he's there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls! (from The Message)

This is a picture from my friends' chalet. Don't trip on stairs as you go, don't drag the garbage up with you.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

why I have a cat...

Some people wonder why I still have a cat. Jazz in particular. She has a reputation of not-so-nice behaviour. She attacks people, she tries to intimidate and dominate, she can be anti-social, she often tries to escape, and she is always ready for a fight. Plus, she has allergies and bad eyesight. Frankly, I don't think anyone else would have her. She is not a pet for the faint of heart. And that's one of the reasons I like having her around: she demands a courageous master.

Since I was a young girl growing up on the farm, I have always had a great affection for cats. Yes, I was the cat whisperer. I could tame the wildest feline with patience, love, and consistency. I learned how to read them by spending hours watching them and playing with them. I received a lot of scratches in the process, but I also gained a lot of insight. Every life situation is a learning situation, and those things we are particularly fond of can touch us and teach us in particularly significant and profound ways if we let them.

I won't regale you with all my cat knowledge here, like how to gain their trust, how to know if they are angry, content, playing, or sick, how to approach a cat properly, how to react to aggressive behaviour, what it means when they flick their tail, what their favourite sitting and sleeping locations mean, and on and on. Perhaps one day I will develop a set of DVD's on how to relate to cats and make my fortune, but not today. What I will offer are two of the ongoing reminders that I receive from being a cat owner:

1. I sometimes forget that I am not my own master. I am a lot like my cat. I do not like to be tamed. I resist being told what to do and when to do it. I don't like to be disturbed from a deep sleep. Sometimes I would rather escape the confines of a restrictive environment than have to learn the hard lessons of obedience, submission, and loving interaction. When I feel abandoned, displaced, threatened, or imposed upon, I have been known to lash out. I sometimes show anger instead of humility. I want all my needs to be taken care of but don't want it to cost me anything. When things get scary, I hide, or make a lot of distressing noises, but don't always stop to think why. I want to belong, be safe, and be loved, but sometimes sabotage those very things by my anti-social behaviour. However, if I trust someone, I will show them my most vulnerable parts. I will wait patiently for my friends. I will sit with them when they are going through a bad time. I love to keep them company when they are working. I can be a very faithful companion, present yet undemanding. My gift is being there, always being there.

2. I can be a courageous leader. Having a cat with dominance issues has forced me to be a stronger leader. I know I have the ability to develop an atmosphere of trust, and this is my starting point. I am learning that I can be patient, loving, and humble while still commanding respect. By listening and understanding, I can learn how to react wisely to bad behaviour. I can train others to excel and help them overcome their fears. I am not helpless and need to remember that I can always improve a situation. I have the ability to set the tone, especially in my areas of authority. In fact, it is my responsibility to do just that. If I am afraid of getting hurt, I will flinch when I need to be strong, and this is the sign of a fearful and hesitant leader. Instead, I must be ready to suffer discomfort and work through conflict in order to bring comfort and resolution into situations. Being passive is not an option. I must be engaged. I must be aware. I must be actively listening and looking. And when the right time comes, I must leap into action with confidence.

Most days, I really like having Jazz in my life. It is never boring. This is a photo of her during an afternoon nap. She is seldom caught offguard.

Monday, May 24, 2010

respect

I just returned from 4 days in the East, over half of that time spent with 149 other people. It is at times like this that I get to see those areas of my life that are not yet totally surrendered to love. The occasion was a church conference, pastors' gathering, visit with friends, and road trip all rolled into one, and a bit more intense than usual because I was assisting with registration and had a few added responsibilities. We had a great time worshipping God and hanging out with some pretty cool people, but by the end I was fatigued in body, mind, and spirit, and pretty tired of the constant stimulation that goes with the group dynamic. And that's when I began to focus on the lack of perfection around me.

This time I found myself becoming annoyed at the lack of respect that people exhibit. Excuse me while I let my petty grievances hang out for a bit. I was annoyed at people who don't respect the law: they think it's perfectly fine not to wear a seat belt, and they pick and choose which road signs they obey. I became annoyed at people who are late and the lack of respect they show for all the people who end up waiting for them. I was annoyed at children who don't listen to their parents and then at parents who let their kids disrespect them. I was annoyed at people who complain about things and the lack of respect they have for the efforts of others. And then I became annoyed at my own lack of grace and wondered if I was a hopeless legalist and perfectionist, unable to respect my fellow human beings and their respective journeys.

"What am I supposed to do with this annoyance?" I asked God. Do I just turn a blind eye to the blindness of others? Is it my responsibility to nudge people in the direction of respectful behaviour? Are we to let everyone do as they please? Wouldn't that result in chaos? And am I any less guilty, really? With my bucketful of annoyance, I came into the gathering of our faith community on Sunday night. And we sang to Jesus. And we talked to God. And we read stories where God interacted with people. And during the course of the evening a sense emerged of what it is like to encounter the holy God, the awe-inspiring Master, and the Lover and Creator and Just Judge who is so much greater than anything we have ever encountered. This is a Being who cannot be stuck in the same category as my interactions with friends and family. This is the most powerful Person in the universe; in fact, he is beyond the universe in every which way. And all too often I treat him and his carefully crafted purposes with a familiarity and disinterest that smack of arrogant disrespect. I pick and choose what invitations of his I respond to. I insist on running on my own timetable instead of adjusting my rhythm to his. I turn a deaf ear to his still, small voice and instead entertain myself with noisy distractions.
God, forgive my lack of respect in how I reduce you to something manageable, in how I make light of your words that carry more weight than I can fathom, and in how I take my own sweet time in responding to your presence every day.

Let me not forget what a peaceful place humility is. Let me not leave this sanctuary where my smallness is hemmed in by your greatness.
This is a picture of a sign asking people to respect the alligators and their environment in Florida.

Monday, May 17, 2010

morning prayer

As I lay in bed this morning, contemplating the tasks of the day ahead and knowing my tendency to put things off that are complex, demanding, or not clear, I asked God if he could help me be efficient today. And then I thought about that request for a bit and realised that it was rather lame. Efficient? Really? That's what I wanted this day to say about me? This was what was going to bring a sigh of satisfaction to my lips when I slipped underneath the same covers 16 hours later?

This is what I want to hear? Matte was efficient today. Well done, Matte. Hey, everybody, this is Matte. She is a very efficient person. You should get to know her. And by the way, God is extremely impressed that she got everything done. Efficiency was at the top of his priority list today, too. (that's sarcasm, okay.)

When I thought about it, efficiency does not rank among the virtues or the fruits of the spirit. Instead, there are things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, and self-control. These are the things that move life in the right direction.

I changed my prayer. God, can you help me be loving today? Yes, that's what I really would like to do. Could it be that love has a stronger and more powerful motivating engine than any carefully crafted schedule, pressuring deadlines, or vast amounts of caffeine could ever boast? I believe so. Love will always find a way. Love will not give up. Love will go farther and longer than any incentive program could ever drive people to go, and never get tired in the process. Love is better than efficiency. It doesn't just get the job done; it changes the equation. It is the turbo-booster that expands the possibilities, defies the limitations, and allows generosity and grace to scribble all over the agenda.

This is Matte. She loves. That is what I really hope people can say about me today.
This is a picture of the view I have every morning when I wake up: my bedroom light.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

in the classroom

On Wednesday morning, I talked to three classes of grade 7 and 8 students in an inner city school about Christianity. This was part of a course on World Religions. It was challenging. Bringing something to a group of people who don't necessarily want to accept what you are offering always is.

In the first class of the day, distraction was my main opponent. The kids were sleepy, perhaps hungry, and more interested in untied shoelaces, bruises, and verbally sparring with each other. At one point, the teacher had to tell a group of noisy older students playing right outside our window to move somewhere else. I kept my presentation pretty basic and we managed to make it through all the points. I hope that a few of them actually stuck.

In the second class, the kids were older and much more able to focus on the topic at hand, but it soon became apparent that a few students were not only disinterested in what I was saying - they had disdain for it. A handful of girls with an attitude particular to 13 year-olds who think they know it all, opted out of participating in a brief exercise in reading the Bible. When I asked them a question, they replied, "I don't know, I wasn't listening." After I had finished and we had a five minute break, one girl wrote "God does not exist" on the blackboard right next to my notes. Oh well. On the positive side of things, there were quite a few in the class who were interested and attentive, but perhaps hesitant to engage. It find it sad that a vocal and opinionated minority often overshadows a group's willingness to participate in open dialogue.

The third class was a pleasure. Though many different thoughts and views were represented in the group, everyone was willing to listen, to learn, to participate, to offer their thoughts, and to ask relevant questions. In fact, I had to stop taking questions because we were running out of time. Some of them came up to me and chatted afterwards, telling me small details about their life. It was a great way to finish off the morning.

Here is a glimpse into what I presented:
I started each session by walking among the students and asking each of them to tell me their name and one interesting thing about themselves. In turn, I told them a few things about myself. Then I asked, "Does this make us friends?" Some said yes, some said no. I asked if they trusted me enough to lend me $20. A big resounding NO! Knowing a few facts about someone does not make a relationship.

I went on to tell them that at its core, Christianity is about relationship. It is not primarily a belief system, a set of rules, a meeting to go to, or a tradition that one follows. Christians are people who follow Jesus Christ. Church is a group of people who belong to God. The Bible is filled with stories of how God relates to people. It all hinges on relationship. I acknowledged that reading the Bible can be challenging because it was written thousands of years ago, it was written in a different culture, it was written in a different language, and the subject matter, God, is hard to put into words. One thing that is helpful when reading the Bible is to always ask the question: "What does this tell me about God?" We did an exercise where I read a short story from the Bible and I asked them what it said about God. A few students caught on very quickly, while others struggled just to grasp the concept of God. Totally understandable. I have been reading the Bible for many years and still struggle to understand what it is saying to me many times. That's part of the reason that it never gets boring! It is the ultimate mystery book!

I ended the session by handing each student a heart-shaped sticky note and asking them to write down what they thought was the most important aspect in a relationship or a friendship. I collected all of these in a book and took them home to read. The results were quite surprising. The number one answer was trust. The second was honesty. Loving, caring, loyalty, and faithfulness were mentioned frequently as well. These kids know what a good relationship is. They really do. Though a lot of them might not be familiar with God, are perhaps confused by all the different religions, or suppose that there is no God, I believe that they recognise someone they can trust. As a few of them wrote on their notes, it has to be someone who won't shit them (interesting vocabulary for Grade 8's, I thought).

I can't make anyone want to have a relationship with God. I can't even force them to listen to anything I have to say or respect my beliefs and opinions. But if they know what a real friend looks like, I believe they have the ability to recognise God when they encounter him. And that's actually a pretty good position for any of us to be in.

Let me continue to offer friendship to others, even if I know that not everyone will respond positively. Let me be trustworthy, honest, and caring, even if others are not. This is what God does.

This is a picture of one of the many translations of the Bible that I own.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

coasting

Do you ever feel like your spirit is on vacation? Or a bit neglected because you are concentrating on other parts of your life? For a few weeks now, my spirit has been very quiet. Don't misunderstand me: I am not sad. I am content, and things in life are generally good. However, the passion to pursue God and connect with him are not there to the degree that I know they can be and have been. My prayers are short, and my thoughts wander easily. More than once I have found myself pausing to make tea in the middle of reading the Bible and never returned to the words on the page. Why is this?

When I am overwhelmed and constantly challenged by the tasks and relationships of life, I find it much easier to come to God. Because I really, really need him. I recognise that he is very present and near. My spirit is ever quick to turn to him and listen, to respond and engage. The nattering of worry, fear, insecurity, and stress all serve to drive me to God. He is the only one who makes it possible to deny these thieving, crippling voices any longterm space in my life.

The enemy of my relationship with God is not turmoil or trouble; it is mediocrity. It is developing a plan for the next few months that makes sense and assures me that I am really quite capable; I can relax a bit. It is riding the wave of positive feedback and good grades; yeah, I'm getting pretty good at this stuff. It is a pleasant assurance that life is moving along nicely, and I have done well thus far; I can coast for a time and take it easy. This mediocrity is different from gratitude, a virtue which positions God as the subject instead of myself. Real gratitude has an energising effect instead of a numbing zombie quality. Gratitude fills me up with joyful solidity instead of merely releasing pent-up tension and leaving me with nothing of substance.

The line between these two is one that I have often found hard to draw neatly. Unplugging in order to relax is not the same as engaging in the worship of God (gratitude at full throttle). The first causes the spirit to retreat, while the second breathes life into it through companionship with the giver of all things good. The first brings a vibrant peacefulness and serenity. The second is a cheap substitute for rest. One is the soul buoyant in the life of God. The other is inactivity that bears no fruit. Taking a break is not the same as resting in God. Just as the heart cannot take a break from beating, so my spirit cannot slip into neutral without dying a little. I am not talking about spiritual activities or works. It is not a matter of trying harder or working up some spiritual gumption. And I am not talking about balance. In fact, middle-road ambivalence often likes to masquerade as balance. I am simply talking about knowing where my source is. Or rather, Who my source it. And it is not me, nor anything that I do.

"I know you inside and out, and find little to my liking. You're not cold, you're not hot—far better to be either cold or hot! You're stale. You're stagnant. You make me want to vomit. You brag, 'I'm rich, I've got it made, I need nothing from anyone,' oblivious that in fact you're a pitiful, blind beggar, threadbare and homeless." from Revelation 3, The Message.

Yes, I am indeed blind to my own gigantic need of God. Yes, I need to be a beggar once more, relying on the gracious generosity of God instead of any ignorant assessments based on the status quo.

This is a picture of a serene lookout point on Smiley Mountain. It was hard work to get up there, but worth every step.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

strike one

You don't always hit a home run the first time you swing a bat. When I look back at a lot of different situations in my life, you'd think I would know this by now. But many times I still have the unrealistic expectation of getting things right and making it all come together on the first go. This miscalculation has cost me a lot of hope. And made me drop my faith at times. I have also wasted precious time wallowing in dejected disappointment instead of readying myself for the next swing.

I remember the first time Dean and I visited the model condos in an up and coming neighbourhood in Montreal. We loved the open floorplans, the hardwood everywhere, the mezzanine overlooking the living space, and the vaulted ceilings. We also saw the price tag and realised that we could not afford to live there. It became that illusive dream home that we would never have. Ten years after that initial visit, I sit here under my vaulted ceiling a few blocks from that model condo and write this blog.

Then there was the time we were apartment hunting in Stratford. We found a place that we both really liked, but by the time I called the landlord back, he had already rented the place to someone else. I couldn't believe it! Instead, we ended up in a unique temporary living situation. Six months later, when we had to leave that place, the exact same apartment came up for rent again! This time we got it.

The first job I applied for when we moved to Ontario was at a world-famous theatre. It was my dream place to work. Nothing came of it, so I searched for other employment, applying for over 10 jobs and getting nothing. It was depressing, and I finally went on unemployment. While talking to a job counsellor some months later, she mentioned that there was an opening at the theatre, but you had to be collecting EI benefits to qualify for it. Imagine that. I took it and worked at the theatre in numerous capacities for 5 memorable years.

Those are a few stories of successful second tries that I can tell from the perspective of time, but there are a lot of places in my life right now where I have yet to hit the ball. I have done a fair share of swinging , but nothing has connected. It is tempting to toss the bat aside and walk off the field. It is tempting to think, "What's the point?" But strike one is never the end. Strike one is not reason enough to give up. Strike one means that I'm still in the middle of the game, it's still my turn, and I've got to give it another go or two if I want to see how things turn out.

One night when the sky was bright and pink, I went for a drive and shot a series of photos. The photo at the top is the first one I took and a number of shots later, I got the one at the bottom.

Monday, May 03, 2010

does this only happen to me?

You'd think that a stick person wearing pants and a stick person wearing a skirt would make things clear enough, but apparently not. I had just come back from a day downtown with friends. It had been a wonderfully warm day, and humid, too. We had gone to the park to play frisbee and I had consumed several yummy drinks (non-alcoholic). The meandering trip home meant that by the time I got to the end of the metro line, I really had to go to the bathroom. My bus was going to be another 20 minutes, so I thought I would run across the street to the Macdonalds and use the bathroom.

I had never been in this particular Macdonalds and didn't really know the layout. I felt slightly guilty about going in to use the bathroom without buying anything, so I strode in, stood 10 feet back from the counter, scoped out the place, and scoured the menu to see if anything appealed to me. Nope. A girl was wiping trays at the counter and eyeing everyone that walked in the door. It made me feel even more conspicuous about being a bathroom free-loader. I waited till she moved to the back, scanned the menu and the employees one more time, and headed to the bathroom, trying to give the impression that I would be back after I had considered my menu choices from the privacy of a bathroom stall.

Did I mention that I have an extremely sensitive conscience? I feel guilty when I jaywalk, and most people in Montreal think it is as natural as eating a croissant. I don't like to walk against the solid or blinking hand on a pedestrian crosswalk. This usually means I am the only person not crossing the street as a whole mob of impatient walkers ignore the warning light. It makes me uncomfortable if I accidentally get too much change, or get charged too little for something. So, I was feeling extremely self-conscious when I headed towards the bathrooms.

I saw the women's bathroom at the end of a long hallway. So far to go. I hoped I didn't encounter a watchful employee on washroom patrol duty. I looked to the right and saw a handicapped washroom closer by. Yes, I would quickly duck in there and do my business and be gone in 60 seconds. There was a large sign on the bathroom door stating that these facilities were only for patrons of the restaurant. Arghh, I didn't like seeing that, but this really was an emergency. Would they rather have me pee behind a bush?

I pushed the door open. There were 2 urinals and a stall. I guess it was a handicapped bathroom for both sexes. I went in the stall and sat down. I heard another person come in and then some water running. Hmmm, that wasn't water. I peeked through the small crack between the door and the wall. Yep, there was a guy there doing his business (I could only see his back, thankfully). At this point I was beginning to wonder whether this really was the unisex bathroom.

I finished emptying out all my drinks from my bladder and sat there, listening to some guy hum while he washed his hands and fixed his hair, trying not to make any female noises. Finally, he left. I flushed, fumbled with my shorts and the complicated tie belt, and exited the stall. I quickly turn on the tap and thrust my hands under the running water, not bothering to dry them - eager to get out before someone else came in. I rushed out of the bathroom with wet hands and wet spots on my shorts where the water had splashed because I was in a distracted hurry. I glanced back at the door closing behind me and saw clearly that there was a stick figure with straight legs on the door and a wheelchair beside him. How could I have missed that? I guess if I wore a skirt or dress more often (as the ladies room figure clearly illustrates all women should), I might not have become confused.

There are a number of factors that caused this embarrassing situation. I was under pressure, literally. I have a touch of dyslexia which makes me reverse things sometimes (east/west, left/right, boys/girls, etc.) I was suffering from tunnel vision, focusing on the prohibition sign on the door instead of the indicative sign right above it. There are also a number of lessons to learn from this: 1. go to the bathroom before starting a journey, 2. buy french fries to alleviate guilt, and 3. always lock the stall when you find yourself in the men's room, ladies.

Just another silly, but true, story from the life of Matte. Sometimes I wish there weren't quite so many of them, but where would be the fun in that?

This is a picture of 4 different cups of tea. For your information there was a bathroom within six feet of these drinks.