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advent academics

I am in the midst of writing the last exam of my doctorate and perhaps ever! Of course there is still a dissertation to write and defend, but let's not think about that right now. This exam is a 6000-word essay which is due December 24. I suspect that I will email it to the professors late on the 23rd, after a careful final edit, and the next day board a plane to spend the holy days with family. Sigh of relief.

I must admit that I love the rhythm of the academic year. When you walk into your first day of class, you feel a nervous rush of excitement mixed with dread. You don't quite know what to expect, you are not certain you will be able to comprehend the material and do well on all the assignments, and you are never sure who will be with you on that particular slice of the learning journey (pardon the mixed metaphor), but the idea of diving into a subject you don't know much about is an invitation you can't refuse. Then there are the mid-term doldrums [1] where stud…

7 invitations to grace

I have the book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, on my bookshelf. I have never read it. One of the reasons is because being highly effective is not one of my priorities. And that is because I don't think I can really control the effect I have in this world and on other people. Though I might do everything in my power to change a situation, in the end people choose whether or not they embrace change. Don't get me wrong, it appears that Covey has some very good advice which can help people develop good personal work habits and help them work better within a team setting, but like any self-help or self-improvement book, it probably focuses on what we must do to change ourselves and our environment. There is usually little room made for failure, for things we cannot change, for getting stuck. There tends to be little talk of receiving kindness and acknowledging that we are at the mercy of grace. Instead of another self-help book, I would like to offer another way: the wa…

tough subject

The next milestone in my doctorate is looming on the horizon: the dreaded comprehensive exams. Basically, these exams test the student's general knowledge of their subject and two other related areas.  In my case the three areas of study are 20th century theology, ethics end encounter, and performance studies. I have spent the better part of six months plowing through a reading list of 69 titles in preparation for this exam which has two parts: a 3-hour test and a research paper. To be honest, this was the element of the degree that I most feared when I considered doctoral studies.  I have no problem doing research, writing papers, or even teaching, but being put on the spot with no idea what the questions might be and a very limited time to prove that I know what I am talking about: that's a scary thought. I am afraid I will draw a blank. It has happened before. I am one of those people who comes up with the perfect answer or comeback line the day after a conversation.   Sur…

black and white

Some people (and I can be one of them) tend to see the world in black and white, in terms of either good or bad, right or wrong, hot or cold, left or right. It makes life easier in many ways because when there are only two choices it is simple to tell the difference between them. Compartmentalizing life in this way (either/or) means that when we find ourselves on the "good" side of things (and we place ourselves there most of the time, admit it), we can relax. No gray areas to worry about, no nuances to unravel, no complex ethical quandaries to wrestle through. Just do the right thing and we're good, no questions asked. But not asking questions is a bit of a problem. People who don't ask questions, who don't look at situations from different angles...well, we call them extremists, blind followers, and even radical fundamentalists. We know them as people who don't bother to engage in the complexities of human experience. We recognize them as people who find c…

public vs. private

This fall I am facilitating a spiritual formation course based on the book "The Good and Beautiful Life" by James Bryan Smith. Each week there are what the author calls "soul training" exercises: simple tasks to explore and practice the week's topic. This past week we read a chapter titled "Learning to Live Without Vainglory." The task was to perform five secret acts of service. That sounds pretty easy, right? Do five things to help other people? Well, it proved to be a bit more challenging than I thought. The first thing I did was to make special preparations in my home for some guests; really, I went way beyond what I normally do.  When Dean came home, I pointed it out to him: "Hey, do you see all the extra decorations?" And while I was speaking, I realized what I was doing. Service: yes. Secret: no. Fail.

The next day I decided to get a special treat for my love. I found something I thought he would really like and I brought it home and …

legendary

What type of story captures our attention?  Is it the tale of a hero, a person who does extraordinary things in the face of great obstacles? Is it an adventure, a grand story that takes us to exotic lands? Is it a love story which makes our hearts pound with passion? What type of people impress us? Those who are well-spoken and intelligent? Those who are charismatic and funny? Or perhaps we are attracted to the beautiful and graceful ones.

This week has been a hodge-podge of reading for me: everything from biblical texts to anthropology, philology, play-writing, fiction, and memoirs. Some of the stories and characters have gripped me; others have left me unimpressed. It makes me wonder: what's the difference?  What am I looking for? What do I want to immerse myself in?

Erich Auerbach (he's a philologist, a person who studies language in ancient literature) observes the difference between two types of epic story: the legend and the historical account. His examples are Homer&…

failure

It's not as easy to fail as one might think.  Oh really?  Yes, because a lot of the time what we take to be failure is not. In fact, one could say that many of our ideas about failure (not achieving a desired outcome) are more myth than truth. And I don't mean myth in the sense of a traditional story concerning the early history of a people, a folk tale, but that it is a widely held but false idea. Often our concept of failure is too simple, and we jump to the "F" word quicker than a cat off a hot stove. The equation seems rather straightforward: I want A. I need to do B to accomplish. A. I was unable to complete B.  I did not accomplish A. I failed. Now, wait just a minute. Let's back this up a bit and look at some of the problems with this equation.

1. We assume that A is obvious and very specific. The fact is that the more specific we make our goal, the more likely we will need to adjust it as we go along. Keeping A rather broad allows us to interpret and app…

The MEDIUM

As part of the homework for a spiritual formation course I am facilitating, I took a two-day media break this week. Since I was working and still needed to attend to necessary correspondence and research, I didn't forgo the internet entirely, but what I did do was stay off Facebook, not take any pictures, not post anything anywhere, not watch television, not listen to music, not read emails that didn't need a response, and not research anything that wasn't directly related to my work. Two days is a relatively short period of time, and not all that stringent of a media break, but I found it quite instructive.

The first thing I noticed was that I had to deal with a compulsion to regularly check all my usual haunts (Facebook, email, Instagram, Words with friends, etc.).  I also had to resist the urge to instantly look up something I was curious about and fight against the habit of passing the time on the bus by fiddling with my iPhone. Things that we do on a regular basis be…

doing theology in reverse

Due to a hectic reading schedule and a trip to the apple orchard on my day off, I didn't have time to post anything this week, but go ahead and check out the blog I wrote for a practical theology forum here. It talks about what I have been reading lately in Christian ethics and how a different reading of the story of Cain and Abel challenged me to think about how we naturally gravitate towards positions of favour instead of willingly taking on the role of humble servant.

at your service

I was working at a conference (Christian Faith and the University) this past week in Montreal.  The schedule featured many top scholars in the fields of Christian history, ethics, biblical studies, and practical theology. If anyone has ever been a conference assistant, you know that it means being the first to arrive and the last to leave. It means setting up the registration desk, greeting people, making  coffee and arranging refreshments in an aesthetically pleasing way, accepting deliveries from the caterer, setting up meeting spaces, putting up posters and signs, carrying cases of water and trays of food up and down flights of stairs, and basically doing anything and everything that needs to be done to help the conference run smoothly.

Some of the benefits of working at a conference such as this are that you get to meet many interesting and influential people who know a lot about different aspects of theology, and you can take in some of their presentations and talks. For graduat…

shortcut theology

One of the byproducts of studying theology is that I listen very carefully to how we talk about God. While it is often indirect, our language can reveal that we believe God is tough to please, slow to respond, and slightly stingy. Other times we speak about a God who is so accepting and non-judgmental that justice and discernment never seem to enter the picture. Sometimes we use words that speak of God as an enigma that we are trying to decipher. We may also conclude that the world is a direct reflection of God which makes him a pretty messed up Creator. Our words also reveal what we expect or want from God. We ask for healing, for money, for jobs, for a life partner, for well-behaved children, for good grades, for direction in life. We basically want our lives to turn out well.

Now there is nothing wrong with desiring a good life, but part of the problem is that we have a rather impoverished notion of this "good life," equating it with comfort and riches. The other problem…

are you kidding me?

There are days when I am glad I am not a brain surgeon.  Well, that's pretty much every day because those surgeons start work really early, but yesterday was one of those days when I was thankful that when I have an "off" day, people's lives are not at stake (don't mean to offend any surgeons or theologians by that statement). So, yeah, a lot of little things went wrong yesterday, many tasks ended up being much more complicated than they had to be, I was not at my best, and the combination was not pretty.

Yesterday I had a meeting scheduled with my supervisor at the university, there was a book I needed to read at the library (only available on a 3-hour loan), and I had a few errands to run, so I thought I would pack up my laptop, a few supplies and books, and spend most of the day at school. The first thing I did when I got downtown was to head to the post office to send a money order. The nice gentleman at the counter informed me that they could not process my…

a funeral and a wedding

Dean and I just returned from a brief vacation in Manitoba. My nephew was getting married so the plan was to fly out the week before the big celebration and spend some time relaxing and hanging out with family and friends.  But things changed.  In the middle of the week we flew back to Montreal to attend the funeral of a dear friend.

When I arrived at the funeral, I wasn't sure what to expect.  Because our friend had moved away a few years ago, we had not had much contact with him recently. I wondered if the end had been painful, wrenching, heartbreaking. And because he was so young, I assumed that a sense of premature loss would permeate much of the atmosphere. I was wrong.  His family set a tone of peaceful, restrained celebration. His mother told me the story of his brave last days when courage overcame pain and hope outshone disappointment.  She told of the final chapter of his life when clarity, revelation, and surrender guided him to make some tough decisions in order to ca…

open house

Dean and I are always considering our options when it comes to housing, so while we are doing a few minor fix-ups on our condo this summer, we thought we would also check out what living downtown might look like and what it would cost. One of the display condos we wanted to visit this past Sunday was closed by the time we got there, so when we saw a sign advertising several open houses in a building right next to our car, we decided to take a look. The first place the real estate agent showed us was two lofts that had been converted into one.  It was exceptional, he told us. And so was the price, he added. We walked into a large foyer and I could see floor to ceiling windows, gleaming wood floors, and exposed brick.  The kitchen was imported Italian marble, the office had custom cabinets along one entire wall, and the master suite included a large walk-in closet, an elevated sleeping area, and a spacious bathroom. The furnishings were carefully chosen, comfortable yet stylish and uni…

the lessons I keep on learning

There is a basic principle that I (and a great deal of humanity, I suspect) have trouble remembering. And it is this: What I do today affects who I am tomorrow.  It seems rather obvious that the choices I make right now will set me on a certain trajectory for the future.  But somehow, the present moment tricks us into thinking that it exists in isolation from everything else.  We believe that just this once, we will be able to escape proven consequences, or on the other side of things, that this is going to be the time when I will reap rewards way beyond the effort I put in. We like to hope that we can have our cake and eat it too.  And all too often I hope that the bag of chips I ate at 10 pm won't make me feel like a bloated hippo the next day.  Not so.

I have been reading Isaiah, a book which is all about the decisions people make and how these lead them either to destruction or toward God's goodness. Some of the pronouncements of judgment are difficult to read, but they i…

an unimportant question: the church and sexuality

In the past few weeks I have come across quite a few writings or conversations about the church and sexuality.  A pastor I know has written a book allowing for the option of same-sex marriage.  Another pastor I know says that the Bible clearly places this practice in the realm of sin (contrary to the ways of God).  A third pastor embraces all people in his church but insists that certain lines must be drawn when it comes to leadership roles.  One pastor indicated that the first question he is often asked is "What is your church's stance on homosexuality?"  He indicated that this is now being used as a kind of litmus test for people to either embrace or reject the church in question. And this is unfortunate.  I don't mean to sound insensitive, but I don't believe that this is a really important question.  Let me explain why.  First, it reduces the complexity of human relationships to one question. Second, I suspect that the questioner is most likely way way way d…

Introduction to Latin

I finished my summer Latin course last week.  It was a great learning experience in many ways. First, the method was immersive: we just cracked open our Latin books and started reading a story, figuring it out as we went. There was not an English word in our textbook. This is the most natural way (children do it) to learn a language.  It is surprising how much one can pick up just from recognising root words, considering context, and a few helpful drawings.  For example, take a look at the phrase tempus fugit.  It is pretty easy to figure out. Tempus relates to time and fugit relates to fugitive, so tempus fugit means "time flies!"  See, you can read Latin!

Second, the course was bilingual (trilingual if you count the Latin component). About half the class were French speakers, about half English, so each student participated in the language of their choice. Not only did I get to study Latin, I got to brush up on my French!  Bonus! At times, it was a bit much trying to funct…