Saturday, November 24, 2012

getting in the habit

Neglected piano sitting in a front yard in Montreal
I recently read that it takes an average of 66 days to form a habit.  By habit I mean something that turns from an occasional activity (or a never activity) to one that you do automatically and don't argue with yourself about.  It has become part of you and your routine.  There is quite a difference in the length of time it takes to develop a habit depending on the activity. On average, drinking a daily glass of water takes only 18 days to become a habit, adapting to the loss of a limb takes about 21 days, and doing 50 sit-ups before breakfast takes more like 100 days.

Two habits that I have been doing for many, many years are working out and contemplation/prayer. I feel significantly better when I follow a workout regimen; it gives me strength, stamina, and energy.  The benefits are numerous.  If I am running late, I can sprint to catch the bus and not get winded.  I have the energy to climb up Mont-Royal and carry heavy bags of groceries up three flights of stairs.  It helps provide stamina to get through busy seasons such as end-of-term assignments or crazy travel schedules.  And I'd hate to get caught in an emergency and not be able to react quickly if someone's life depended on it. 

The same holds true for contemplation and prayer.  Consistent prayer practice strengthens my spirit, helps me have more emotional and relational stamina, and boosts my patience, generosity, and positive energy. The quickest way to notice the effect that daily prayer and contemplation have in my life is to skip them for a day or two or more.  I become more negative and am quick to criticise.  The perfectionist tendencies begin to run unchecked and problems or challenges leave me overwhelmed and distraught.  Just this past week I was confronted with a stressful situation and I was quite amazed (and relieved) at how I instinctively calmed myself, spoke quiet words of reassurance to others, and invited the Holy Spirit into the situation.  All without even thinking about it.  It was an automatic response, which is what a habit is.

However, habits are not guaranteed for life.  They can be neglected until they wither away. Every time my schedule changes (which is several times a year) I have to reassert my good habits into the new timetable.  Busy school terms are notorious for making both working out and contemplation difficult to practice.  But I know the cost of not doing these two things is high, so I try to make them a priority.  I don't always succeed and there are usually a few weeks where things get a bit chaotic and all my good intentions go out the window.  When I need to get through a lot of work in a short period of time, I have been known to turn to caffeine to speed up my brain process (I am a slow reader and writer - part of the contemplative effect, I guess).  The crash afterwards is pretty brutal.  After a day or two of caffeine, I have never once thought, "Wow, that was great!  I should do it again!"  I always regret turning to a short-term spike in energy because it ends up draining my body and mind instead of invigorating them.

We live in a culture that does not always value long-term commitment, so the benefits of holy habits are sometimes lost on people who want an instant pay-off.  But a longer period of time is integral to the principle of compounding effects (just like compounding interest).  Dedication over a long period of time can build things that could never be imagined from a short-term viewpoint.  This does not mean that we won't struggle with commitment.  Some days I flow easily into holy habits. Other days getting to them is a battle.  But if I miss a few days, I just get back on track and keep going.  Long-term commitment is as much about not giving up when I have a setback as it is about consistency.

Here is a prayer attributed to Brother Lawrence who laboured in the kitchen of a medieval monastery.  He knew something about holy practices over a long period of time.

Lord of all pots and pans and things,
since I've no time to be a great saint
by doing lovely things,
or watching late with Thee,
or dreaming in the dawnlight,
or storming heaven's gates,
make me a saint by getting meals,
and washing up the plates.
Warm all the kitchen with Thy Love,
and light it with Thy peace;
forgive me all my worrying,
and make my grumbling cease.
Thou who didst love to give men food,
in room, or by the sea,
accept the service that I do,
I do it unto Thee.

Habit statistics from psyblog.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

faith is a journey

Arches in St. Andrews, Scotland

The last week or so I have been reading a book that I picked up at a conference in May.  It is called Journeys of Faith (edited by Robert L. Plummer, Zondervan, 2012).  When I saw it in a pile at a publisher's booth it caught my eye because the subject matter intrigued me and the book was on sale.  How could I resist?  It has been an interesting read thus far.  The book contains essays from four different people who have migrated from one part of Christianity to another.  After more than 20 years of being a Baptist pastor, one man became an Eastern Orthodox priest.  Someone who was part of the Protestant charismatic movement switched to Catholicism.  A Catholic had an experience with God at a mid-week service and converted to evangelicalism.  A Lutheran moved to the Anglican church. 

The format of the book is inclusive and balanced.  Each of the chapters in which these men relate the story of their faith journey and explain the major differences between where they came from and where they landed is followed by a critique of their adopted tradition.  These responses are written by scholars who are knowledgeable and invested in the particular tradition that the faith journeyer left behind.  Finally, the journeyer offers a brief rejoinder to the critical response.

As someone who studies theology with people who are Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, Evangelical, Lutheran, conservative, liberal, atheist, agnostic, and undecided, movement from one form of Christianity to the other does not shock or offend me.  It is heart-warming to see those recounting their various faith journeys do so with generosity and gratitude toward the tradition they came out of.  They tell their stories with grace and honesty, indicating that they spent many years searching, pondering, and struggling with the issues before they made their decision to migrate. 

The same cannot be said for all the responders, however.  These learned men who are heavily invested in their own tradition seem to be a bit annoyed at the obvious blindness of the faith journeyer.  Their words suggest that the pilgrim has betrayed them in some way, that the wanderer has failed to see the horrible flaws in their newly-found faith community.  It saddens me, to be honest.  While I am no stranger to theological debate and controversy, I am deeply grieved when brothers and sisters in Christ, all of us followers of Jesus, spend much of our time pointing out each others' faults instead of turning our attention to the object of our worship.  In effect, we become our own worst enemies.  We think it is important to defend positions like sola scriptura and the primacy of faith and grace; we belittle authority structures and liturgical practices that differ from those we adhere to.  I understand being concerned about misrepresenting God and misconstruing the nature of Jesus, but if any one of us thinks we have it all figured out beyond a shadow of a doubt and no longer need to learn from others, we are delusional.  All of us have wrong perceptions of God; it is only through God's kindness that we are invited to draw closer to him in order to see more clearly.  Focusing on my brothers' or sisters' perceived errors does not help me see God more clearly; from my experience it actually hinders my spiritual perception.

What was perhaps most surprising to me in reading this book was that I didn't really identify with the evangelical point of view.  I don't mean to be controversial, but positioning the scriptures as the supreme authority for Christian faith and practice is troublesome for me because it places the emphasis on ancient, written words instead of on the eternal, living Word, Jesus.  The Bible is important to followers of Jesus because it reveals God, not because it is perfect or infallible or the final word.  To my understanding, the Bible as a whole does not support positions such as scripture alone or grace alone or faith alone; overall, it clearly points to God as first and last.  Nevertheless, I understand the emphasis on scripture, faith, and grace in response to certain practices and beliefs present in medieval Christianity.

Reading Journeys of Faith is challenging me to think about why I value certain precepts in Christianity and why I devalue others.  But more importantly, it is drawing me toward a more ecumenical stance.  Each chapter which recounted a faith journey caused me to rejoice that a pilgrim had found a spiritual home in which they were called to deeper and more reverential worship, to more lively communion with God, and to learn humbly from the fathers and mothers of our faith.  May I continue to be drawn to a more worshipful, vibrant, rich, and authentic spirituality as well.

God have mercy on us all as we stumble toward him in our faith journeys.   

Saturday, November 10, 2012

when discouragement comes to visit

A bright row of houses visible only after going through a tunnel.  Edinburgh.
This past week was pretty hectic for me with two major presentations due one after the other.  On Wednesday I had a workshop reading of my original play which meant that I spent the last few weeks rewriting at least half of my first draft in response to feedback I received. One never knows if a play will be a cohesive, believable piece until it is workshopped.  The comments afterwards were more positive than I could have hoped for!  People said it was a solid piece with a good arc, believable dialogue, and strong characters.  There are still a few problems that need to addressed, but that's to be expected.  Overall, I was very encouraged by the response. 

On Thursday afternoon I had another presentation, this time for a performance studies seminar.  The readings in this seminar are outside of my usual genre and sometimes I feel like I am barely keeping my head above water.  So I was hoping to do well.  During the informal presentation, one person wondered why I was making these connections. Was my theme trauma?  What? Not at all!  I tried to explain myself, but I wasn't sure if I was being clear.  Others in the group offered observations and comments and these seemed much more informed and nuanced than anything I had said.  Oh well. On my way home, I started to get really discouraged.  Though everyone in the seminar is always friendly and gracious, I thought...perhaps I am doing really badly in this course and I don't even know it.  Yes, that seemed totally likely.  The silly, uninformed theology student was totally out of her league in a performance studies graduate seminar.  A pit of uneasiness started to grow in my stomach.  This was going to end badly, I knew it.  And then I recognised that I was being visited by discouragement.  What do you do when you are visited by discouragement?  I decided that instead of letting myself be carried away by it, I would try to be honest, gracious, and responsible in how I responded.  So here is what I did.

1.  I acknowledged the discouragement.  I didn't brush it aside as unfounded negative thoughts or try to overcome it through positive talk.  I didn't want to avoid what was happening inside me.  I tried to be truthful about how I felt and vocalised it, telling God what my thoughts were.  I tried to let the emotion connected to the disappointment out in a safe way.  Discouragement can be a bit like mourning because some aspect of hope has died, so I tried to face it with grace and courage and let it run its course. 
2.  After the emotion subsided a bit, I took a look at the situation.  Was there a valid reason to be discouraged?  I wasn't sure; all I had was my gut feeling and my perceptions of how people had reacted.  I decided that I had to find out more about the situation to see if my response was merited.
3.  I made contact with my faith community and got a friend to pray with me.  I gave the situation over to God.  I gave the emotions over to God.  I gave the past, the present, the in-between time, and the future over to God.
4.  I ate a good meal.  I went for a long walk.  I read an inspiring book.  I played with the cat.  I breathed deeply and listened to some music. I let lots of life in.  And then I got a good night's sleep.
5. The next day I contacted my professor and expressed my concern about how I was doing in the course. He provided the clarification I needed and gave me some ideas for how to move forward. It wasn't nearly as bad as I had imagined and feared.

The visit by discouragement was relatively short and it left gently, easing off my soul bit by bit until I felt light and filled with hope again.  There is still much work ahead of me in my course of study, but I no longer feel like I am floundering.  And I am not afraid of the next time that discouragement comes knocking.  I know what to do.

Monday, November 05, 2012

is this epic or what?

Mary Queen of the World Cathedral, Montreal
I am in the middle of a playwriting course. At the same time, I am teaching a series on reading the Bible as narrative.  This means that for the past few months I have been pretty immersed in studying the aspects of story.  Below are some of the gleanings from my reading, studying, writing, and teaching.  It may be a bit more scholarly and less personal than usual, but that's all part of telling stories, as I explain below.  Here goes... 

There are different ways of telling stories.  In literature one finds two categories which illustrate the opposite ends of the story spectrum.  First there is "epic."  This is an objective approach which takes a step back from the action and looks at things from a bird's eye view.  Often an epic tale incorporates a third person narrator.  In epic tales, we often find many vignettes which cover a long period of time and tell us a grand story.  The characters are subordinate to the plot.  What is important in telling an epic tale is clarity, completeness, objectivity, systematic thought, overview, and being comprehensive.  Star Wars is an example of an epic tale.  It covers a lot of territory by linking together many different scenarios in fairly quick succession. 

The second category, "lyric," is much more subjective.  It is concerned with the inward journey, self-expression, and the present moment.  Relationship is its main concern and the lyric story is filled with intense moments that incorporate hopes, fears, doubts, and desires.  Because it is so focused on the individual, there are often loose ends which are not explained.  The lyric tale can appear messy, full of ups and downs, but also very imaginative.  We are invited to identify with the characters and plot takes a back seat.  Very often the story is told in the first person.  The television series Seinfeld is a example of stories told from a subjective viewpoint.  They have the feel of being told in the first person, one gets to know the characters intimately, and the time frame is very limited.  There is no grand overall plot; it is entirely based on the characters and what they experience.

It doesn't take much for me to extend these categories to ways that people view the world.  Dean is very much a big picture, epic kind of person.  He can take in a lot of information at once, organise it, analyse it, see a pattern, and bring clarity to a situation.  He finds it easy to step back from whatever is happening and see where things are headed; he also is quick to pinpoint where actions need to be adjusted in order to reach a certain goal.  I, on the other hand, view the world in a lyric way.  I get caught up in the characters of any story.  I notice individuals and wonder what they are thinking, what they are feeling, and how things impact them.  I am quite comfortable living with ups and downs and embracing the imaginative aspect of life.

There are some weaknesses inherent in both of these types. Epic focuses so much on the overall story that the individual can get lost.  As a result, it is usually difficult to identify with any specific character in an epic story.  Similarly, there can be a lack of compassion or empathy in people who tend to see things through an epic lens.  In contrast, lyric stories can focus so much on what is happening with one individual that other characters fade into the background and we can end up with a skewed perspective.  In the same way, people who view life in a lyric way can lose sight of their responsibility to others and to a story larger than themselves.

The combination of these two aspects, epic and lyric, is what makes drama.  Good drama embraces both the objective and the subjective.  It maintains a sense of plot and purpose without suppressing individual characters, diversity, and complexity.  It gives room for perspectives and motivations while never loosing sight of their context.  The same applies to people:  it is good for epic people to hang around lyric folks.  This ensures that the "big picture" thinkers don't lose sight of compassion and the "in the moment" people don't get stuck or lost. 

This also has implications for theology.  Over the centuries, people have tended to relegate the Divine being to either the epic or lyric category.  Some of us think that the ultimate Being is mainly occupied with keeping the universe on track and not very present or active in individual lives.  This presents a concept of a rather aloof God.  Others believe that God is very invested in their personal story, intimately involved in every detail of their lives.  This can present itself as a form of religious self-absorption.  Our prayers can reflect on which side of the spectrum we tend to fall on.

The Bible reflects a God who is both epic and lyric.  In Genesis 1 we are told of a Creator who is above all, systematically and methodically creating and ordering a world which is cohesive and complete.  However, in Genesis 2 we see a Creator who is literally down to earth, who gets his hands dirty and is concerned about human vocation and relationship.  In fact, as one reads the other books of the Bible, we continue to get glimpses of both of these aspects:  a God concerned about the history of the world and its trajectory and a God intimately involved in the details of life like eating, drinking, and the messiness of community.  The ultimate illustration of God as both objective and subjective is the appearance of Jesus.  Here we have a God who is orchestrating the healing of all of creation while at the same time living in the middle of it with all its pain and pleasure and uncertainty.  It is a role that no one else has ever been able to play and because of this, it is the greatest drama ever staged. 

And this is why it is the topic of my doctoral research.  Yay! How exciting! 

Some of these observations taken from ideas presented by David F. Ford and Hans Urs von Balthasar.