Monday, January 28, 2013

the tree

Winter tree in Saint-Laurent.  Jan 28 2013
I am facilitating a spiritual formation course on Tuesday evenings based on the book, The Good and Beautiful God.  Basically, the book deals with aligning our perceptions of God with the God that Jesus presents in the New Testament.  It is a well-structured study with accessible language, group learning, and a spiritual discipline exercise (the author calls it soul-training) at the end of every chapter.  This week we were to spend 5 minutes in silence every day and take some time to observe creation.

Sounds simple, and I basically do these two things most every day anyway.  But, as always seems to happen, the very week I am to practice these disciplines and write something about them, my schedule is turned on its ear.  I was working as a conference assistant for 3 days which meant early mornings and long days inside a classroom downtown.  In addition, I had a house guest for 4 days which means that my alone/silent time could not be done in the place and time I normally do it.  It was a good conference, but the many details I had to take care of, the constant interaction with people, the full days of presentations, meals with fellow conferencees, and the addition of a house guest with whom I spent a lot of time (which was very enjoyable) all made for a very tiring 4 days.

I had a few hours alone at home on Saturday night which I used to prepare the worship set and a short talk for Sunday morning.  All good stuff, but it exhausted me.  Why is it that the times I really need to have some quiet, contemplative space to rejuvenate my body and soul are the very times when it is virtually impossible to find a place for it?  There was a tickle of guilt at the back of my mind these past few days which told me that I probably could have found a silent spot at the conference or taken a moment to walk somewhere (in minus 24 degree celsius weather) to look at nature.  Yes, I know.  I could have carved out the time.  And I probably should have.  But I didn't.  So what now?

Today, I was on my way home from an early morning staff meeting at the university when I decided to stop in at the grocery store for milk.  I crossed the street and as I did, a lone tree caught my eye.  It was standing tall, its branches stark and tangled against the grey sky.  The afternoon was cold and it was beginning to snow, so I hurried across the street and was about to step into the grocery store when I made a last-minute change.  I turned my feet toward the tree, saying "yes" to its invitation to come and see.  I got close to it and looked at its wild, unruly shape.  It spread itself over the street, over the parking lot, over the cars and the people hurrying by.  And it pointed up.  Up, up, up.  And it asked me to look up, up, up as well.  There is nothing particularly lovely about a tree in winter.  There is no fancy foliage, no colourful greenery, no fall colourful vibrancy.  Just bare branches.  A naked tree, exposed to harsh elements, standing tall and solid.  Pointing up with a messy display of crooked fingers.

I got down low and snapped a few pictures of the tree against the snowy sky, then I got up and proceeded to the store.  And though I was still fatigued from a busy week, I was lighter.  I was not as annoyed at people around me.  I was not as self-absorbed in my little world.  I cared a little less about the stresses facing me this term.  I breathed a little deeper and I held my head a little higher.  And I remembered this poem.

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Trees
by Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918)

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast

A tree that looks at God all day
And lifts her leafy arms to pray

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair

Upon whose bosom snow has lain
Who intimately lives with rain

Poems are made by fools like me
But only God can make a tree

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I want to be like that tree, looking at God all day.  It's not hard work; I just have to lift my crooked arms and look up.  Thanks, Mr. Tree.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

do you want to be a professor?

The bookstore at Concordia University
There is a question I get asked quite often that I don't really like answering.  The question is:  What will you do after you graduate?  I usually smile, say that I'll find out when the time comes, remind the person (and myself) that a lot of things can change between now and then, and mention that doors tend to open up as one goes along.  All of that is true, of course, but it is only the partial truth.  I don't usually mention that getting an academic job is quite difficult, especially in a field like theology which is being relegated more and more to seminaries and bible colleges.  The other thing I don't usually talk about is the rather arcane, laborious, and lengthy process required to get a tenured (stable) job as a professor in a university. 

There is a continuous pressure for graduate students like me to be involved in cutting edge research, to be publishing in renowned journals, to be presenting papers at prestigious conferences, to be "winning" grants and scholarships and prizes, and to be connecting to the important people in one's field.  And even if one does all that, there is no guaranteed job.  Not everyone who finishes their PhD becomes a successful thinker/academic/researcher/writer.  It's a bit like trying to thread a tiny needle with a thread while other threads are also trying to fit in the same space.  What a PhD gives you is a narrow, albeit deep, chunk of expertise, and when it comes to jobs, one's expertise and resume and personality (the thread) must exactly match what a school is looking for (the elusive eye of the needle) better than any other thread vying for that same tiny space. That's just the reality.

To be honest, I dislike spending weeks filling out multiple award and bursary applications every year (none of which have panned out for me) and somewhat resent the pressure to have a resume packed with scholarships, publications, incredible grades, and a research topic which takes even the Pope's breath away.  I have the nagging sense that I am never doing enough and don't know enough.  I am also not very good at (or excited about) networking, marketing myself, tweaking my topic according to current trends, or making sure I am known in my field.  I just like to learn and explore; I get excited about how beautiful, challenging, and hopeful the study of theology is.  I believe that we become better people by spending time with the mysteries of spirituality and getting to know the fathers and mothers of our faith.  I am blessed to be able to explain profound concepts in a way that helps some students grasp them better.  For the most part I have had the privilege of being in a very encouraging and supportive academic environment.  But once I get outside of my department, the world is not always kind.  I am a very tiny sardine in a very immense ocean.  What, indeed, are my chances of survival or "making it?"

I was doing some research on Dallas Willard (philosophy professor at University of Southern California in Los Angeles) this past week and came across a talk he gave at a faculty luncheon in 2003 about working as a professor in a university.  His words reminded me again of why I am in school and what I want to spend my energy on.  He reminded me that this requires a great deal of work, but there is much joy in it as well.  He reminded me that we do not create our own futures.  He reminded me that the values with which I started this whole journey (to learn and to take others on the learning journey with me), are still at the heart of it all.  Here are a few quotes from Dr. Willard which inspired me this week:

On writing: The first two papers I published were each two solid years in writing.  They came out in print 12-15 pages long, but they'd probably been re-written 65 times.  That's what I tell my students now.  "Work on it.  Work on it.  When you think it's good, it's probably not.  Just keep working.  It'll get better.  All writing is re-writing.  You never get it right; it'll just get better.  When you've gone  through it many times and replaced the one word with another word, and then replaced that word with the same word again, you're getting there."

On teaching:  I try to teach classes well.  I pray for my students.  I pray as I set up the course schedule and the outline.  I pray for them when they come in to interview.  They don't know I'm praying most of the time, but I pray for them, and I pray for the class.  I say, "Lord, let this be a class that will really help these students in their work, in their field, in their self-confidence." 

On success:  I never ask for a promotion.  I never ask for money.  Of the books I've published, all have been solicited from me by the publishers.  And I'll tell you why I have approached things in this way.  When I was at Baylor University as a young man, as a very green young man, I was watching other green young men trying to find a place to preach.  And the Lord said something very simple to me:  "Never try to find a place to speak, try to have something to say." 

May I always focus on having something to say instead of on finding a place to speak or a way to be heard.  Thanks, Dallas.

Quotes taken from http://dwillard.org/biography/tenure.asp.

Friday, January 11, 2013

interpretation

Impressionist interpretation of a stained glass window.
School started this week.  Once again, I am teaching Christian Spirituality, a first year university course.  The first day is always a bit nerve-wracking because I never know how many students will show up, what their level of interest will be, or how they will respond to my style of teaching and the course material I have selected.  The first week has gone really well, I think.  The students are keen and clever and for the most part, eager to engage with the material and learn.  They are even polite, asking for permission to use their laptops in class and talking to me afterwards to make sure they didn't come off as argumentative.  It really is a joy and a privilege to be able to teach theology in a university setting where we can have straightforward and informed dialogue about God.

One of the textbooks I use for the course is Philip  Sheldrake's A Brief History of Spirituality. He is very good at easing a person into the topic by explaining what spirituality is, setting it in its historical context, and drawing attention to the methodological nuances necessary to the understanding of the subject.  One of the topics he addresses early on is interpretation.  Any historian, scholar, or theologian knows that texts and events are always interpreted by the one recording them, relating them, translating them, or explaining them.  As human beings acquire knowledge and integrate it with their own context, the information is subject to interpretation and various applications.  This is not a bad thing.

Sheldrake uses the example of performing a Beethoven symphony to illustrate these two intertwined elements of interpretation.  1) One must be faithful to the original while 2) bringing one's own creative wisdom and experience and passion to the mix.  When it comes to performing Beethoven, being technically flawless does not make a good performance, nor can one simply play whatever notes or rhythms one feels like playing.  Detailed attention must be given to the score and the composer's intent must be honoured.  However, one's own contribution cannot be ignored.  The player's passion and wise, creative interpretation are what make the piece come alive for those who are listening.  The performer's interpretation is what lifts the music off the page and makes it accessible and comprehensible to others.

Interpretation is the job of us all, but especially of teachers, scholars, and students.  We study to understand the writer/author's context.  We pay careful attention to words and sentence structure.  We look at overall themes and subtle fluctuations.  We must be attentive not to mangle or twist meanings to suit our own biases.  We must not inject decisive conclusions where none can be found.  We must embrace a certain amount of mystery and ambiguity for many texts were written in another time and the authors are no longer with us.

The comforting thing about interpretation is that a great composition shines through no matter what the skill level of the performer.  A beginner may play a Mozart concerto with timidity and halting pauses, but the melodic genius still shines through.  Similarly, a brilliant text still shines through despite clumsy handling by an interpreter.  The best interpreters are those who have spent a lot of time with the composer/author and his/her works; so much time that they can not only render an authentic performance/reading but they can also improvise in the style of the composer/author.  The best interpreters also know immediately if something does not ring true in a representation of their beloved composer because it is out of sync with the whole work, with the heart behind the works.  The best interpreters are those who have become friends of the author, who live with the composer, who walk and talk and commune with them everyday, in person and through their works.

Let me be an interpreter like this:  a generous, caring, and faithful friend who not only listens and studies the works of another, but brings them to life.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

going home

Winter scene in rural Manitoba.  December 2012.
I took a break from writing a blog over Christmas.  To be honest, there was a lot going on but I wasn't sure how to write about it.  Going back to the place I grew up always presents a few challenges for me:  for the most part, I enjoy the vast beauty of the prairies and their crisp climate which conjure up vibrant memories of an uncomplicated and creative childhood, and I appreciate the precious family members and other friendly folks who still live there.  But my place of origin also has some trigger points for me and sometimes they can catch me off-guard.  This is really no different from any context which can transport us back to places where we were not at our best: places we have experienced tragedy, felt fear, been prone to anxiety, responded in anger, or lived through disappointment.  But sometimes childhood triggers can also be occasions when we realise that we are not the same person we used to be.

This was a particularly challenging holiday time in some ways.  Perhaps the most jarring moment was the morning after our big family gathering when I came upstairs from my bedroom and discovered my mom sprawled out on the floor where she had collapsed.  All kinds of thoughts can run through one's mind at a moment like that, and I was surprised that my frequent childhood companion, fear, was not present.  It seems that I really have put that old demon to rest, or more accurately, given it over to Someone much braver than I am.  I called 9-1-1 for the first time in my life, and while I was on the phone with a gentle-voiced woman who was telling me not to move my mother, I watched the spirited woman who had given birth to me get up off the floor and walk out of my line of sight.  We laughed about it later, this demonstration of feisty independence and "fend for yourself" pioneer mentality which is so much a part of my mother and many of her generation. 

A few more tense moments, a few trips to the hospital, and a few days of my mother recovering in a hospital bed from a nasty virus with some mysterious side effects and she is back at home feeling like herself again.  At times during that roller coaster week, I felt like a loving and responsible daughter. Many times I felt like I should be doing more and caring more, but for the most part, I was at peace because I knew that in the end, I was not in control of how things would turn out.  I tried not to endlessly speculate about what was wrong or guess what the prognosis would be (both a waste of time and a sign of needing to be in control).  I tried not to worry about how she was doing when I was not present (that's fear, plain and simple).  I tried not to let the image of her splayed on the floor become embedded in my mind (fixating on the worst instead of leaving breathing room for hope).  I prayed for her health, her healing, her life.  I told her I loved her.  I appreciated the gift of being in the same room with her without either of us saying anything, just breathing together.  I admired her stamina, sense of humour, and humility through it all.  And I was content.  Really content with every moment and all the complications, questions, or resolutions that came with it.  And for the first time, I saw how decisively I have walked away from fear and have made a home in trust. 

The place where I grew up is no longer my home; the place I live and work now is not my home, either.  My home, the place where I feel safe and most like myself is this place of trust and contentment which I now carry with me.  Yes, I am finally at home.