Thursday, June 27, 2013

thanking and blaming God

Lemons in my life today...
Just two weeks ago I got the incredible news that I received a major doctoral funding award.  I am still kind of in shock.  Over the course of my graduate studies I have made 6 applications to various funding agencies, asking them to recognize that I do good and important work. All of them have been unsuccessful.  My supervisor warned me that certain aspects of theology don't have a good track record for securing government funding.  I seemed to be a case in point.  Blame my weak application (one can always have more publications and accomplishments).  Blame those secular, atheist adjudicating committees who have no use for theology (that's me being bitter about bitter atheists).  Blame all those other clever students who pushed me out of the running (like one of my colleagues).  Each spring, I found myself bracing for the inevitable rejection letter(s) and when I received another one this April, I was depleted.  Yes, I was the first one on the waiting list (the first loser, so to speak), but it didn't matter. It still stung. I had failed once again and I thought, "I'm not going to waste my time with these anymore. I'm done!"  And then the second round of bursary awards was announced and I was on the list!  What?  I quietly thanked God for this generous gift, yes I did, but when someone said to me, "Isn't God good?" it somehow felt awkward. Yes, of course God is good, but wasn't God good all those other times when I was rejected?

I read a blog by Allison Vesterfelt this morning that talks about how we can give God credit for all the good things in our lives, but then turn around and blame God for everything bad that happens.  There are some variations on this: I tend to thank God for all the good things but don't blame him for bad stuff (it's God! You can't blame God!). Others rarely recognize God's presence in their lives, yet find it easy to point the finger at God when they witness horrible events (God's the one who could have done something and didn't!).  It seems to me that these responses are all symptoms of an unhealthy and unbalanced relationship.  Basically, these attitudes reveal that our interactions with the Divine One are mostly passive (perhaps even passive-aggressive) and decidedly fatalistic.  Passive because we don't bring ourselves fully to this relationship and this life.  Our interactions are ones where we try to hear what God is saying so we can obey and submit to "the plan."  They are also fatalistic because we assume no responsibility for how things turn out. God will do what he wants and there's nothing we can do about it. But in all my readings about how God interacts with people throughout history (the Bible), this is not the type of relationship that I see modeled.

From the very beginning (Genesis), the stories we read about God emphasize both his greatness and his generosity, his transcendence and immanence.  A show of his supreme, magnificent power is immediately followed by a story about his inclusion of humanity in creative work, in intimate friendship, and in discerning how to make wise decisions. God exerts his freedom to act and create and in doing so, gives us freedom to act and create. God does not want us to be obedient slaves; the many stories of the Israelites in captivity underline the theme of God repeatedly calling his people into freedom. At times the stories of exactly how much freedom God gives his people make us uncomfortable, for there are some incredibly bad decisions made which have dire implications for generations to follow.  In these stories we find passionate, rough, impulsive, overbearing, rash, angry, self-important, and aggressive people, but we do not find a lot of passivity.  The few characters that are reluctant to exert themselves are portrayed as unwise (Jesus tells the parable of the talents to illustrate this same point).  We also find people who question God, who ask God to change his mind, who defy God's directives, who bargain with God, and who express their disappointment at God's apparent lack of concern.  In general, we do not find fatalism or resignation.  We find engagement.  And this is what God, from the very beginning of the story, invites us to.

Much to my chagrin, I find that contemporary faith in God often lacks this vibrant, dynamic element.  Our acknowledgement of God's goodness is too often superficial, referring to our comfort rather than a generous and risky offer to participate in living out the kingdom of God in this world. Our shifting of blame to God for every bad thing, big and little, reveals that we don't want to take responsibility for our mistakes, for our unwise decisions which affect others and leave their scars on this world, and that we are averse to correction.  It also tells us that we don't trust God enough to work together with him in bringing justice and peace to this earth. God is powerful enough to fix everything, but he doesn't.  He invites us to be part of the process.  He asks us to be co-workers and friends, to be people who take the gift of freedom seriously and delight in the unique position in which we find ourselves.  Once I get a glimpse of the incredible nature of this animated, grace-infused relationship which God offers to me, a trite "Thank God" for a nice turn of events or a reactionary "It's God's fault!" for a natural disaster seem rather inappropriate.  God is not a convenient benefactor nor an impotent scapegoat.  These roles keep him at a distance. No, this Creator God invites me to create with him, to make something out of this life by engaging fully with the Holy Spirit and the world around me.

"God is good" means that I am invited to be an agent of that goodness in my work, my community, and all my interactions with others. Instead of blaming God for some undesirable turn of events, perhaps we should view any mess or disaster as an opportunity to participate in bringing the kingdom of God on earth through just acts, peaceful intentions, loving-kindness, faithfulness, hospitality, practical aid, and a dedication to rebuilding those things which are broken. If we find our interactions with God consist mostly of asking for gifts or placing blame, perhaps it is time to pursue a more vibrant relationship which reflects the generosity of a God who calls us to responsible freedom.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Jesus and money

The contents of my wallet today
The word we commonly use for money is currency which means "money in any form when in actual use as a medium of exchange, especially circulating paper money" [1].  If I expand on this definition a bit, I find several characteristics of money: 1) it is temporary, subject to change, hence the link with the word "current." Presently we use paper bills, but people have used shells, beads, or grain to represent value; 2) it usually has no real value in itself, but represents things that have value; 3) it is meant to be used, spent, or given in order to obtain something else.  In this way, it is a tool. Tools are not meant to be collected, but used in building something.  If I have one or two hammers, that's cool.  If I have 10,000 of them, you might wonder what my problem is.  I am clearly spending too much time on ebay buying hammers instead of using the ones I have to do something useful like build a house.

Let's take a quick look at two stories where Jesus interacts with people who are identified by their monetary status. First, there is the poor widow mentioned in Mark 12:41-43.  Go ahead and read it first in order to get the whole story. Here we see Jesus in the temple, observing people making donations.  He sees the rich throw in large amounts, and then he notices a poor women toss in two small copper coins (pennies). Jesus calls his disciples together and tells them that this widow (being a widow meant that she had no visible means of income) put more into the treasury than all the others.  And why?  Because she gave everything she had while others gave out of their wealth.  Here are the basic points of the story:
1. Jesus sees her.
2. She is generous.
3. She is an active participant in worship and service to God.
4. She is an example to others.
5. She holds nothing back from God.

Now let's look at the story of a rich man in Mark 10:17-22 (read it first if you like).  This rich man approaches Jesus and, addressing him as Good Teacher, asks Jesus what he has to do to secure eternal life.  Jesus questions him about the use of this title, then goes on to mention the commandments.  The rich man indicates he has kept all the commands from when he was young.  Jesus looks at him and feels love for him.  Then Jesus tells him what is lacking: he must sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. The rich man, saddened, walks away because he owns much property. Here are a few observations from this story:
1. The rich man wants something that Jesus has access to.
2. The rich man starts with the language of negotiation by using a term of respect (similar to saying to someone, "Hey, you look great today!" and the person replying, "Okay. What do you want?").  Jesus chooses to continue the conversation as a negotiation.  He's smart, that Jesus!
3. The rich man is confident of his accomplishments and what he has to offer.  He has set his career path carefully, making no mistakes.
4. Jesus loves him.
5. The rich man lacks treasure in heaven (things of lasting value).
6. Jesus tells the rich man that he must hold nothing back for himself and he finds this difficult.

So what can we learn from these two stories?
1. Jesus sees those who are overlooked.  If I am a follower of Jesus, I must treat the poor and neglected people in society (widows) like Jesus did.  This means that I must see them, notice them, and recognize that they have something to teach me.
2. Jesus loves the prominent and wealthy.  If I am a follower of Jesus, I cannot treat the rich with disdain, I must not exploit them for my own benefit (try to get something out of them), and I cannot harbour jealousy toward them in my heart.  The example Jesus sets is to love the rich.
3. The example of the poor widow is one of generosity, of holding nothing back for herself. In my limited experience with the homeless, I have noticed that often they are very generous, willing to share what little they have. In contrast, the rich man approaches Jesus to get something for himself (eternal life) to add to everything else he already has. The first approaches God humbly with a gift, the second comes backed by vast resources, hoping to make an exchange which will grant him his desire.
4. The poor widow, by freely giving what she has to God, is storing up treasure in heaven (using her tiny hammer to build something lasting).  The rich man has spent his whole life building up his wealth and his reputation (collecting a barn full of hammers).  However, he is the one who is lacking real treasure, Jesus says.

These stories illustrate two different economies (or ways to manage resources): the gift economy and the exchange economy. We tend to equate money with power (if I had a million dollars, I could change my community) or freedom (if I had more money, I wouldn't have to work so hard, I could travel).  But money is only a tool and a means of exchange. Because we are so used to dealing with money in our everyday life, we transfer this idea of exchange onto the kingdom of God and it doesn't work.  The kingdom of God has more to do with love and generosity than with negotiating and exchanging one thing for another.  The problem with trying to apply the exchange economy to the kingdom of God is twofold:  1) we believe we can get what we want by negotiating, and 2) we think we have something of great value to negotiate with.  Both of these ideas are basically useless in the kingdom of God.  God does not work by exchange.  You might argue that Jesus gave his life in exchange for ours, but this was hardly a balanced equation; it was a truly generous gift.  God begins with love and generosity, holding nothing back. And if we are followers of Jesus, this is where we must begin as well.

These two stories also illustrate that the gift economy is generally better grasped by those who realize they have very little of value (the poor).  Surrender is a shorter step for those who feel they have nothing to lose. This is why Jesus says it is virtually impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. The rich tend to get trapped in the exchange economy which means they run in opposition to the kingdom of God. However, this is a gifting God we are talking about, so what is impossible in the economy of this world is generously available in the economy of heaven.  Thank God for that!

This is the last installment of blogs based on a series of talks I gave in our faith community on "Jesus and the Other." You can read the rest here:  Part 1 (Who is the Other?), Part 2 (Jesus and Sexuality), Part 3 (Jesus and Political Power).

[1] From www.thefreedictionary.com.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

the 5-year itch

Someone moving into my neighbourhood
It's been 5 years since we moved to this lovely 2-level condo here in ville St-Laurent.  Five years is the longest that Dean and I have lived anywhere, so it is no surprise that the itch to move has been pretty strong in the past few weeks.  I have been going to open houses, checking out properties online, and even had a real estate agent come in and appraise our property.  The sight of a friend's new house on Facebook caused me to immediately find one in my neighbourhood that I wanted to buy. It's not that there is anything really wrong with our condo (though I would like a bigger closet and another full bathroom). This restlessness has very little to do with inadequate living conditions; it basically means that what at first seemed new and exciting has now become old and familiar. The gleaming hardwood floors, soaring cathedral ceilings, winding staircase, and open mezzanine have ceased to dazzle me.  Now I see only the small closet with a hot water heater cramped inside it, the peeling paint above the shower stall, the water stains on the floor where the condensation leaked from the air conditioner, and the dated blue tile in the bathroom. The old and familiar is starting to need some upkeep; moving just seems easier and much more exciting.

The famous Marilyn Monroe film, The Seven Year Itch (1955), addresses this apparent restless tendency within the context of marriage.  The name of the film stems from the term social analysts use for a declining interest in a partner after several years of monogamous commitment. It seems that we humans tend to tire of the same surroundings, people, and situations no matter how wonderful they are.  I wouldn't go so far as to say that the film's script is based on any hard science, but its popularity does speak to the human desire to seek continual excitement and stimulation. Restlessness in itself is not a bad thing.  In fact, I believe the quest for things new and exciting keeps us motivated and moving forward in our lives, but it can also lead one to make some bad decisions, especially in the arena of relationships. People are not objects that can be discarded like an old pair of shoes or traded in on a new model like a car. People are, well, people. They are our beloved, intriguing, occasionally annoying, but nevertheless precious fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, husbands, wives, children, friends, neighbours, and colleagues.  But I digress. My restlessness does not relate to people as much as to my surroundings.

Aside from looking at new houses or calculating exactly how affordable (or unaffordable) that brand-new condo is downtown, what can I do?  Well, for me, it starts with a few honest questions to myself.

1) Is the timing feasible for a major change?  Not right now, no.  I have an intense summer of studying ahead (69 titles to read, that's 100-200 pages a day) so this is really not the time to be packing up a house and moving.  It sounds exciting, but in practice...not so much.
2) Can we do a small change instead of a total relocation?  Yes, it is probably cheaper and more advisable to do a few renovations to our existing condo than to sell it and move.  And it would increase the value of our place which is always good. There is a saying that goes something like this: the house you own is always cheaper than the house you move to.  Not that it is all about $$$, but it is important to look at what really needs to change.
3) Is my restlessness geared toward long-term progress and investment or a quick fix? Do I really need to move in order to get away from the blue tile or should I concentrate on addressing the minor repairs which will keep the condo in top shape for years to come?  Any long-term commitment (be it a home or a vocation or relationships, for that matter) requires regular investment in order to maintain or increase its value. Let me choose to reflect the priorities of solidity, stability, safety, and functionality over trendy decor.
4) What is keeping me from enjoying where I am right now?  One of the things I started doing in the past few weeks is to walk around my neighbourhood more and enjoy the beautiful surroundings.  It is giving me a new appreciation for what I already have. Sometimes the desire for change can mask an underlying lack of gratitude (not seeing my life as a gift), a dissatisfaction with oneself (perfectionist tendency), superficiality of expectations (our consumer culture fosters this), or a lack of proper soul care (cultivating inner peace and contentment).  When I address these things, my discontent notably decreases.

I am still restless, but there are a lot of good ways to respond to it.  Since I have the urge to move, I can literally move (get some exercise, walk around my city, go on a day trip, etc.).  I can affirm the good things in my life to make sure that I don't take them for granted (go on a date with Dean, cook a meal and have friends over, take in the sights and sounds of our city, rejoice in the privilege of reading and studying, sit on my balcony for a few moments each day and appreciate my neighbourhood, catch the sunrise or sunset, begin each day with a litany of thanksgiving).  I can be more gracious towards myself and others (not expect everything to be charged with excitement and adrenaline, give more space for development and learning, embrace imperfection). I can invest in the things I am committed to, making sure that I continue to hold them in high regard and contribute to their beauty and functionality. Above all, I can cultivate gratitude and contentment through ongoing communion with the generous Creator and Provider.

The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need. (Psalm 23, Good News Translation)

Actually, godliness is a great source of profit when it is combined with being happy with what you already have. We didn't bring anything into the world and so we can't take anything out of it. (1 Timothy 6, Common English Bible).

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Jesus and political power

I have been giving a series of talks on "Jesus and the Other" in our church gatherings.  You can read the introduction here and some thoughts on Jesus and sexuality here.  This past Sunday I tackled the subject of Jesus and political power.  Basically, politics is "the art or science of government or governing, especially the governing of a political entity, such as a nation, and the administration and control of its internal and external affairs." To cite a shorter definition, it is "the use of strategy or intrigue in obtaining power, control, or status."[1] And this is what we usually associate with politics (many times in a negative way): power, control, and status.  However, when we look at governance in the kingdom of God as exemplified by the leadership of Jesus, we get quite a different picture.

Ontario's Provincial Parliament buildings in Toronto
In the pivotal scene of Jesus' baptism, we see him beginning his public ministry from a place of beloved-ness (A voice from heaven says, "You are my Son whom I love; with you I am well pleased" Luke 3:22 NIV). This means that Jesus never sought to find his identity in how well he was being received publicly or how "successful" his leadership was.  His was simply acting as a beloved son.  Immediately after this incident, Jesus is subject to several temptations which serve to set the tone for his leadership.  Will he pursue status, power, and control?  He is tempted to use authority to serve his own needs; he is tempted to use authority to impress others, and he is tempted to trade authority (make a deal) to improve his status/leverage.  He says a firm 'no' to all of them.  Early on, then, it becomes clear that Jesus does not have his sights set on becoming a powerful world leader. So what is he trying to accomplish?

A brief look at Luke 4 gives us the answer.  After Jesus says 'no' to self-serving power (the perks of leadership), manipulative control, and status-seeking, he returns to Galilee "in the power of the Spirit."  This is a key phrase because it indicates where his authority resides; it is not in any system or resource found in this world. And what is this power for? "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."  Basically, this power is meant to be good news for the disadvantaged, the marginalized, and those who live in lack.  Good leadership should always be good news for others.

The next question is, how does Jesus accomplish this?  In Mark 10 when some disciples jockey for positions of honor, Jesus replies that greatness is found in serving.  He states, "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Jesus always stays on the "serving" side of this equation, and it is much harder than it seems. This means that he never sends people away without offering them help.  It means that he cares if people are hungry, tired, lonely, sick, confused, overlooked, or ashamed.  It means that he answers a lot of questions and teaches the same things over and over again, even when it seems to be pointless.  It means that when his life is in danger, he responds in kindness to his enemies and does not command his followers to protect him or take the fall for him.  He states that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18) which means that he does not use or pursue temporal status or influence. The change that Jesus is implementing is not top down change; it is a transformation of the heart, and that cannot be legislated, bought, or forcefully implemented. Good leadership serves others instead of demanding good service.

So let me summarize a few observations about authority/power from Jesus' teaching and life.
1. True authority comes from the spirit of God, not people's votes or one's abilities, resources, or position.
2. True authority is good news for the poor, brings freedom for people who are stuck, provides clarity, makes people's lives better, and proclaims God's love and favour.
3. True authority cannot be destroyed by others.
4. True authority seeks to serve, not be served, and does not ask anyone to do something that he/she is not willing to do him/herself.
5. True authority does not seek a place of honour, but considers others as equals.
6. True authority is not based in this world's systems, does not fight to ensure its own preservation, and willingly lays down its life for others.
7. Only true authority has the power to produce lasting transformation.

Practically, what does this mean for our interactions in the political world of today?  How do we respond to the crazy, changing, often corrupt politics we are surrounded by (and inadvertently participate in) in our world?  Here are a few suggestions:

1. Avoid empty criticism.  When the topic of politics comes up I inevitably hear a lot of complaining,  name-calling, accusations, and critiques of various politicians and the system in general.  Overall, this is neither helpful nor godly.  It is empty.  Let's look at two examples of how Jesus confronts bad leadership. Jesus criticizes the teachers of the law and the Pharisees in Matthew 23, and some pretty harsh words come out of his mouth.  However, right after he calls the irresponsible, hypocritical leaders "snakes" and a "brood of vipers" he goes on to the reveal the heart of his message:  "How often I have longed to gather you (children of Jerusalem) together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing." Jesus' criticism is an expression of his longing to have these leaders (and the people they were leading) draw close to him, to gather them to him like a protective mother keeping her children safe.  Jesus relates his own words to those of the prophets of old whose message was always an invitation to return to God, to come back into a covenant relationship, to live in the truth of "I will be your God and you will be my people."  Though Jesus' critique points out their shortcomings, it is ultimately meant to serve as an invitation to transformation.  A second example is when Jesus clears the temple in quite a boisterous manner. Again, the point of this incident is not the physical aggression, but that Jesus is calling the people in the temple back to the intended purpose of the place: prayer. Jesus' criticism is always a way of clearing the arena of what is unhelpful and destructive in order to make way for something far more important: a call to return to God, a call to prayer.  Likewise, our criticisms must not be empty, but always end with a call back to the important things: to serving, to loving, to freedom, to transformation.  And we must be willing to be the starting point of the solution.

2. Avoid getting on the wrong side of the "serving equation."  Even though most of us have heard the directive often (to serve instead of be served), we are constantly tempted to jump onto the "being served" side of things in our daily life.  It is only normal to expect the customer service person on the phone or on the other side of the counter to give me prompt service, to provide what I need, to solve my problem.  And if not, I will insist on talking with the manager or pushing the issue until I am satisfied. I demand that my member of parliament represent my views and interests or I will not vote for her again.  I expect respect and responsive compliance from my employees, for them to contribute to my profitability, or there will be consequences (a good example of bosses serving their employees can be found on this episode of Undercover Boss.  The first segments are not very strong, so I suggest you start at 9:17.  No, these people are not perfect, but we can learn from them.).  We are so prone to jump over to the wrong side of this equation on a daily and hourly basis.  Jesus never did.  I believe it has a lot to do with having an identity as the beloved and living in the power of the Spirit.

3. Don't expect to get eternal/godly results by temporal/earthly means.  Often we have high hopes to change our world, but we believe that this can only be accomplished through the systems we have in front of us.  We try to get our voices heard by the powers that be (political, financial, corporate) in order for them to implement the changes we feel powerless to address.  Jesus lived in a world where there were many influential groups and political currents in play, yet he never aligned himself with any of them and did not try to harness their influence to accomplish his purposes.  Though Jesus was not an avoid-er (he would talk to anyone), he mostly liked to hang out with every day, simple folks, and bring them hope by letting them know that the kingdom of God is not far away, not in the hands of powerful men and women, but very close, right beside them, as near as the Spirit/breath of God.  This is not to say that there are not times to take a decisive stand, but it must always be in agreement with the words Jesus read from Isaiah 61 and done without using coercion or force, without manipulation, without lording it over someone. We are to be people who are catalysts for transformation by serving, loving, and praying with Jesus, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

[1].Both definitions taken from: www.thefreedictionary.com.