Thursday, October 30, 2014

work and pray

St-Benoit-du-Lac Abbey.
Image from www.tourisme-memphremagog.com
Last weekend I organized and participated in a women's retreat. For those of you who know me, you know that I am not particularly fond of all-women events, but this turned out to be a lovely, restful, rejuvenating, and fun time. Ten of us spent two days at a quaint bed and breakfast in Magog, and there was plenty of free time to relax, read, take a walk around town, sit on the porch in the sun, chat with a friend, or go on a hike to a local lookout point. Each evening we gathered together to pray for each other, and these were precious times of laughter, honesty, and encouraging one other.

On Saturday afternoon we all piled into cars and headed to a nearby monastery, Saint-Benoit-du-Lac which is a Benedictine abbey situated on Lake Memphremagog. The abbey is remote, nestled in the countryside and at this time of year, surrounded by bright, colourful foliage. We wandered around the grounds in the cool fall air, bought cheese, honey, chocolate, and apple sauce in their shop, then all came together for Vespers (evening prayer), entering the chapel as the bells chimed above our heads. Most people who visit monasteries remark on the incredible peace they feel there, and our group made similar observations. As we joined together with others in the chapel and quietly took our seats, an expectant silence hung in the air.

About 35 monks in long, black robes filed in and took their seats in the chancel. What followed for the next 40 minutes was prayer in the form of Gregorian chant, primarily in Latin, but I did catch portions which were in French as well. At times the monks stood, at times they sat, at times they faced each other across the centre aisle, at times they faced the altar, and at different times in the prayer they all bowed low (I believe it is when the three persons of the Godhead are mentioned). Sometimes the prayer was chanted by a single cantor, at other times all the monks sung together. Some of the people in the chapel joined with the monks as they sat, rose, or bowed. Others were content to sit in silence without moving.

Participating in a time of prayer in which most of the words are unfamiliar and unintelligible can be a freeing experience. Because you are not trying to follow or understand the words, you begin to engage at a deeper and perhaps simpler level with the spirit of God. Praying ceases to be a mental exercise and moves toward being a posture of receiving and resting, of simply being in the presence of God and staying there.

Saint Benedict, who wrote the Benedictine rule which is followed by many monastics, coined the phrase ora et labora. This means "pray and work," and indicates that Benedict viewed these two elements as partners. Work should never be done without prayer, and prayer must find its way into action. The monks at St-Benoit-du-Lac meet for prayer in the chapel seven times a day. This pattern of prayer is known as the Divine Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours. For them, Vigils (or Matins) is said at 5:00 am, Lauds is at 7:30 am, Terce is at 9:45 am, the Eucharist Mass is at 11:00 am, Sext and None are at 12 noon, Vespers are at 5:00 pm, and Compline is at 7:45 pm. Times between prayers are filled with taking meals together, study, Bible reading, work, and social time. What might seem like a restrictive schedule to those of us used to a bit more free time and the occasional day to sleep in, is actually an attempt to develop a rhythm which draws one into an awareness of the presence of God in all that one does, each and every moment of the day, individually and as a member of a community.

What one notices at St-Benoit-du-Lac is that there is a steady, slow pace to life. There is no frantic rush to get things done, no pressure to produce, no competition, no threat of rejection. And yet, there is simple confidence in their work and prayer, a consistency and quality to all they do (their cheeses have won numerous world class awards), and an overall simplicity and beauty which is a testimony to careful stewardship and generous hospitality. For the monastics, work is not interrupted by prayer; it is infused with life because of it. Prayer is not work or obligation; it is worship, it is supplication, it is rest, it is communion.

Since I returned from the visit to St-Benoit-du-Lac, I have not only enjoyed some good cheese with Dean, I have also found myself more at peace, more prone to fuse work with prayer, and less frantic even during a particularly demanding week. It is true that in confidence and quietness one finds great strength. In prayer and work much is accomplished.

God bless the monks at St-Benoit-du-Lac who freely open their doors to visitors so that we might experience silence, peace, beauty, and in simplicity of mind and heart, take time to enjoy the presence of God.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

the first class

Image from www.kit.org.in
I have been trying to finish chapter two of my thesis (the rough draft is complete, thanks for asking) and also prepare for a class I am teaching tonight. As well, I had to plan a presentation I will be giving next week and write an abstract to be circulated ahead of time. And did I mention a house guest last week and a run of conference calls and evening meetings? Several times a year things clump up like this (hence no blog last week), but I no longer get all that stressed about it. In the journey of life, sometimes we sprint, sometimes we jog, sometimes we stand and wait, sometimes we sit down, sometimes we lie down and rest. One needs to be okay with different paces at different times.

What I love is being able to get into the zone when things get crazy busy. Instead of feeling stress or pressure, I find excitement building, I feel positive adrenaline coursing through my blood, and I revel in working with increased focus. Today, as I write in my home office there are two carpenters with drills and saws working less than 20 feet away. They are replacing the drywall in a closet which suffered significant water damage this summer. Pleasant guys, both of them. Not an angry word, not a trace of tension between them. It is a "shitty job," one of them jokingly told me when he saw the tiny, unlit storage space under the stairs. But I hear the more experienced one patiently guiding the other, I hear one take a call from his better half and tell her that he loves her. There is laughter, encouragement, problem solving, silence, and the steady sound of work progressing.

Unfortunately, I have also worked around unpleasant people. When someone brings stress, conflict, impatience, or anger into a space, everyone around them is affected. When someone is sad, afraid, depressed, or insecure, we all feel it. And hopefully, we want to help. I am a pretty sensitive person. Sometimes I wish I could dial it down a notch, but for the most part, I like that side of me. It makes me more attentive to how my words, my feelings, my mindset, and my tone affects those around me. When I am stressed, I raise the level of stress in others. When I am impatient, it breeds more impatience. Conversely, when I am excited about something, I see others embrace some of that excitement. When I respond with graciousness instead of anger, others are also more gracious.

As a teacher, I am very aware that I set the tone in the classroom. This is why I carefully map out the first class of every term for it sets us up for a certain trajectory. More important to me than laying out the requirements of the course is the implementation of practices which let the students know what kind of learning experience they can expect. The first class always includes my welcoming the students and telling them a bit about myself and why I love theology. I can't expect them to get excited about it if I am not excited. There is a general explanation of the topic and why it is important and relevant to their lives. I present information that I hope will intrigue, stimulate, and invigorate their minds and their imaginations. There is humour, interaction with classmates, a time for questions and answers, usually a video which showcases a contemporary example of theology, and perhaps a short writing exercise to get them thinking (depending on the length of the class). I let them know that there will be hard tasks ahead, but if they are diligent and consistent, they will do just fine. I let them know that inevitably they will disagree with one another and that's okay. We can disagree as long as we do it with respect, and I encourage them to recognize that we often learn the most from those who are different from us. I encourage them to ask questions if things are unclear and to seek out help if they run into trouble. I let them know we are all on a learning journey together and while I hope they learn things from me, I will surely learn something from them as well.

I try to let them know that every voice matters, from the know-it-all who wants to answer every question to the self-absorbed person who tends to go on and on to the shy student who makes us wait through an awkward silence before they find the courage to speak. I try to make a safe space where they can learn not only about the subject but about themselves, for in the end, it is really about transformation. May my students become self-learners, wiser, more thoughtful, slower to judge and quicker to ponder, more generous to the stranger, more open to the divine, and better equipped for life than before they took this class. This is my prayer.  


Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Power and Jealousy: Names of God Part 4

Image from skinnyartist.com
Here is a summary of the talk I gave in our faith community on Sunday, October 5.

Power and jealousy: these are not really popular concepts in our culture. We have seen too much abuse of power, I suspect, and jealousy (the green-eyed monster according to Shakespeare) is something we all want to avoid. But despite the fact that these two words leave us with negative or at least mixed feelings, we find them associated with the name of God in the Hebrew Bible, so let's take a little closer look at them.

Power (El Shaddai):
Edward Abbey says, "Power is always dangerous. Power attracts the worst and corrupts the best." That's a pretty negative view of power. Ghandi presented a more nuanced view. He said that, "Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective than the one derived from fear of punishment." Power in itself is not evil or corrupt; the motivation behind it determines whether the results will be good or bad. In Luke 6 we read that "Everyone wanted to touch Jesus because when they did, power emanated from Him and they were healed." Power can be used to accomplish great good and this is how we see Jesus using it: with considerable restaint politically but in great liberation for healing.

El Shaddai, which is usually translated God Almighty, is found 7 times in the Hebrew Bible. The word refers to someone who is powerful, has great might, and is able to do things which we cannot do for ourselves. The word, "Shaddai" can also mean one who is enough, who is sufficient, who is sustenance, who is nourishment. In its uses in the Bible, it is intimately related to the idea of covenant, meaning that El Shaddai is a God who is committed to carry through on his promises.

In Genesis 17, we find the first occurrence of El Shaddai and it is when God speaks to Abram, twenty-four years after he left Ur. The promise of a new land and fathering a great nation has seemingly had no traction for Abram is still a nomad, still childless, and has encountered more than his share of troubles. Here is what God says to Abram: "I am the God El Shaddai. Walk before me. Continue to trust and serve me faithfully. Be blameless and true. If you are true and trust me, then I will make certain the covenant with you that I promised. I will bless you with a throng of descendants." (adapted from The Voice)  God was giving Abram a reminder that not only was El Shaddai powerful enough to make the covenant promises happen, God Almighty was enough, El Shaddai was all that Abram needed. Abram had tried to make things happen for himself (those attempts turned out badly), but a covenant doesn't work that way. A covenant is based on trust, on faith.

Two generations later we find Jacob (Abraham's grandson) at a crossroads. Family troubles have plagued him for years. His father-in-law tricked him, his children have been involved in rape and violence, and now his fellow citizens are turning against him. God tells him to leave Shechem and return to Bethel, the place where Jacob had encountered God before. In Genesis 34 Jacob speaks to his household: "'Get rid of any foreign gods you have in your possession. Purify yourselves; bathe and change your clothes. Then come with me. We're going to Bethel so that I can build an altar there to God who answers me whenever I am in distress and who is with me wherever I go.' ... God appeared to him again at Bethel and blessed him. 'Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be known as Jacob (supplanter).  Israel (he who prevails with God or God who prevails) will be your name. ... I am the God El Shaddai. Be fruitful and multiply, You will give rise to a great nation; indeed nation after nation will come from you. Kings and rulers shall be numbered among your descendants. Your children will one day possess the land I promised to Abraham and Isaac.'"

Here again, God's power is revealed within the context of covenant. El Shaddai has the power to change someone's name, to alter their identity and their destiny. El Shaddai has the power to fulfill the promises of a covenant. Note that it is an exclusive covenant; Jacob is asked to give up other gods. This power to accomplish all that was promised is fueled by passion, and that passion is sometimes described as jealousy.

Jealousy (Qanna):
Augustine says that, "He that is jealous is not in love." Not a very positive spin on jealousy, in fact, he excludes it from the arena of love. A more positive definition of jealousy is found in this passage penned by poet Alfred Lord Tennyson: "Guard your roving thoughts with a jealous care, for speech is but the dialer of thoughts, and every fool can plainly read in your words what is the hour of your thoughts." In this context, jealousy is seen as a protecting force and closer to the intent we see in the Hebrew Bible in relation to God.

Qanna is used 6 times in the Hebrew Bible in reference to God. Qanna means jealous or zealous. There is a bad kind of jealousy and a good kind of jealousy. The bad kind of jealousy concerns that which is not rightfully ours. Bad jealousy comes out of selfishness, insecurity, suspicion, greed, need, a desire to control, and to want what we do not have. In essence, it desires to drag someone down so that we can get ahead (see Genesis 37:11 where Joseph's brothers are jealous of him). Good jealousy, on the other hand, concerns something which is rightfully ours. It is grounded in covenant, commitment, relationship, concern for the protection and well-being of the other, and results in the blessing of the other. Good jealousy desires the best for someone and lifts the other up.

We find the first occurrence of Qanna in relation to God in Exodus 20 when God gives the commandments to the people of Israel, newly freed from slavery. In many ways, these guidelines were meant to show the Israelites what it looks like to live in freedom, to serve a good and generous God instead of a slave-driver. "I am the Eternal your God. I led you out of Egypt and liberated you from lives of slavery and oppression. You are not to serve any other gods before Me. You are not to make any idol or image of other gods. In fact, you are not to make an image of anything in the heavens above, on the earth below, or in the waters beneath. You are not to bow down and serve any image, for I, the Eternal your God, am a jealous God." Jealousy here is an indication that God wants to protect the people from falling back into a slave mentality and worshiping gods who displayed neither the power nor the generosity inherent in YHWH's covenant.

Before these directives were properly communicated, the people had already gone against them. The people got restless, perhaps a bit concerned with the absence of Moses and afraid of being leaderless, so they fashioned a golden calf to worship, a god small and powerless. This action reflected their state of mind: they were already stepping outside the protective and exclusive covenant of blessing offered to them by YHWH and reverting back to their slave mentality. Nevertheless, God was patient and merciful and reiterated the covenant with some added directives. In Exodus 34 we read God's words to the people of Israel: "Be careful. Do not make a covenant with the people who now live in the land where you are going. Any promises you make to these people could entrap you. Destroy their altars and pillars, and cut down their sacred poles because you must not worship any god except for me. My name is jealous and I am a jealous God."

The jealousy of God is a strong passion that reveals how much he loves the people of Israel. He desires to remain in an exclusive covenant with them, to bless them, to protect them from harm, to guard their well-being. Jealousy (motivated by love) lets someone know that you care. That what they do matters to you. That you are in active pursuit of an intimate relationship with them. A lover who does not care about the unfaithfulness of their beloved is a poor lover indeed. (Read Hosea on this theme).

Patrick D. Miller has this to say about the jealousy of God: "To speak of the Lord as a jealous God is to make a covenantal claim about God and to express a very positive word about the proper and inherent exclusiveness that belongs to the nature of the relationship between God and God's people, or to the nature of covenant. As a covenantal claim, the jealousy of God has a double force: 1) jealousy for Israel's full and exclusive worship of God and 2) jealousy or zeal for God's powerful commitment to and love for his people. The jealousy of God, therefore, is that dimension within the divine encounter with the Lord's people that brooks [tolerates] no other final loyalty and ensures no other recipient of such unbounding love and grace. It is God's way of saying: 'I will have nothing less than your full devotion and you will have nothing less than all my love.' It is the kind of attribute that belongs to a marriage relationship. There is a proper covenantal jealousy in marriage."

In summary, then, this is what power (El  Shaddai) and jealousy (Qanna) reveal about God.
1. This is a God who has the power to forgive sins, to heal us, to give us life, to lay down his life for us, to overcome evil, and to free us.
2. This is a God who is zealously, passionately invested in pursuing an exclusive relationship with us, who promises to be our God if we will be his people. (See Isaiah 54:5 and Revelation 19, God as husband.)
3. This is a God who says, "I have the power to change the course of your life. I can offer you a life that is full and free. I give you my love, faithfulness, goodness, justice, mercy, and grace. Will you give me your undivided love and loyalty? Will you be mine?"

"I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine." Song of Solomon 6:3