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.