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.