Monday, December 21, 2015

what is a good gift?

Image from southernbelleviewdaily.com
Christmas is always a challenging time for me. In many ways, the gift-giving practices (and accompanying consumerism) surrounding the season seem to clash with nearly everything I find in the story of Jesus' birth. And yet, I don't want to become cynical and miss out on all that is good in our present-day traditions. The benefit of my yearly angst is that every December I find myself going back to the basics, reminding myself once again what is important, what is true, and what is good. I try to put into practice the directive Paul gives to the Philippians: "Fill your minds with beauty and truth. Meditate on whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is good, whatever is virtuous and praiseworthy. Keep to the script." (Philippians 4:8-9a, The Voice). Well, my script this year included two well-known stories.

You might be familiar with the century-old short story, The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry. You can read it here. Published in 1905, it tells the tale of a poor, young couple, Jim and Della, who desire to give each other the perfect gift on Christmas. Alas, they have no money to spare. The only two things of real value in their household are Jim's gold watch, passed down from his grandfather, and Della's long, cascading hair. Della decides to sell her hair in order to buy Jim a gold chain for his precious watch. When Jim sees her without her long hair, he is stunned, unable to take it in. Stella gives him the gold watch chain and explains that she couldn't bear not having anything to give him for Christmas. Jim confesses that he sold his gold watch to buy her jeweled combs for her beautiful hair. In the end, they are both left with useless gifts, but the reader intuits that somehow, they both gave very good gifts.

Another story of giving is found in these familiar words: "For God expressed His love for the world in this way: He gave His only Son so that whoever believes in Him will not face everlasting destruction, but will have everlasting life. Here's the point. God didn't send His Son into the world to judge it; instead, He is here to rescue a world headed toward certain destruction." (John 3:16-17, The Voice)

These two stories help me recognize what a good and perfect gift looks like.
1. A good gift comes out of love. Essentially, a gift is love in action.
2. A good gift is costly; it involves giving up something which is precious to the giver.
3. A good gift invites a response; it is not detached, indifferent, or anonymous. Because....
4. A good gift expresses a desire to be close(r) to the recipient. A good gift is about establishing and/or deepening a loving relationship.
5. A good gift benefits the recipient; it is not superfluous. A good gift should actually make someone's life better in some way.
5. A good gift has no strings attached. In other words, it is not part of an obligatory exchange. It is a free offering of love, a bestowal of worth on the recipient, so to speak.
6. A good gift invites transformation. Because a gift is based in love and invites relationship, ideally, it does not leave the giver or the recipient unmoved and unchanged.

Admittedly, every material gift we give is imperfect and falls short on many of these points. In addition, I am imperfect and miss the mark when it comes to my motivations for giving. However, reminding myself what a good and perfect gift looks like helps to re-orient me in the right direction, to remember why giving gifts is important and necessary. When we give a gift, we are essentially giving ourselves. When we receive a gift, we receive the other person. Both sides of this equation are present in the person of Jesus. God gives himself to humanity, and at the same time, receives humanity into himself. That's pretty amazing. This is how I remember what is good and beautiful about Christmas.

This Christmas season, may I give myself more freely to God and to others and may I also freely receive God and others in whatever way they choose to give themselves to me.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

a few words on wisdom

Image from patriceayme.wordpress.com
This morning I taught a class on the topic of spirituality, specifically, Christian Spirituality. People can have varied, muddy ideas of what constitutes spirituality these days, so I always try to bring a bit of clarity to the topic. Spirituality is that dimension of life which is engendered (comes out of) and empowered by (derives energy from) the Spirit of Christ. It finds expression in how we live, act, and interact with others every day. It is not merely an interior, isolated journey (though that is certainly an element of spirituality), but an integrated life guided by the Spirit of God. It is a quest for meaning, for the sacred, for the mysteries of the universe, for the purpose of life, and for a life which flourishes. It links the question "Who is God?" with "Who am I?"[1] It addresses queries like: "Why do people do what they do?" and "What values are guiding them in their decisions and actions and relationships?" In certain institutions of higher learning, the study of spirituality is called Practical Theology.

One of the best ways to study spirituality, aside from embarking on a spiritual journey oneself, is through people's stories, looking for patterns of repentance and transformation. There is much wisdom to be found in studying the lives of the saints. Miroslav Volf writes that the task of religion is to "help people grow out of their petty hopes so as to live meaningful lives, and to help them resolve their grand conflicts and live in communion with others."[2] He goes on to chastise those of us who consider ourselves religious or spiritual: "If we as religious people fail to share wisdom well, we will fail our many contemporaries who strive to live satisfied lives and yet remain deeply dissatisfied, and we will fail those who draw on their religious traditions to give meaning to their lives and yet remain mired in intractable and often deadly conflicts."[3] You will note that I don't make any significant distinction between spirituality and religion, mostly because it is a bit of a false dialectic. Religion refers to a particular system of faith and worship. Spirituality is the expression of that faith and worship. Totally connected. Our culture's emphasis on individual spirituality has caused us to uproot spiritual pursuits from their proper place within a religious community - a place where people with shared faith engage in spiritual practices together.

But I digress. What Volf is saying is that we as followers of Jesus need to bring wisdom to the world. It is our vocation. If you are like me, you are quick to whine, "But what do I know? What wisdom do I have to offer? And who would listen to me if I did have something to say?" Well, let's look at Volf's explanation of wisdom. First, wisdom can be viewed as concrete pieces of advice for particular situations. Okay, that's pretty straight forward. Second, wisdom refers to "an integrated way of life that enables the flourishing of persons, communities, and all creation."[4]  That sounds a lot like spirituality, doesn't it? Moving on. Third, wisdom is a person. In proverbs she is a woman; in the gospel of John, wisdom is Jesus Christ. We could say that wisdom is God incarnate showing us the way to live an abundant life. Fourth, wisdom is a gift. We cannot thrust it upon people nor coerce them to be wise(r).The best way to share wisdom is to be a witness to it; to practice it ourselves. Wisdom is not something we primarily teach, it is something we live.

The idea of gift is crucial to wisdom: as followers of Jesus, we must respect those whom we view as receivers, be it of the gospel message, of our generosity, of love, of truth, of freedom, or of wisdom. Unless we view ourselves as potential receivers as well as givers, we exit the realm of gift and set up a power dynamic instead of a relationship which allows for (but does not demand) exchange. The ones to whom we wish to impart wisdom may end up imparting wisdom to us, if we can receive it. Wisdom, like love, is ideally not a one-way street. Volf concludes that sharing wisdom is an act of neighbourly love.[5] Wisdom does not seek to change people to our way of thinking as much as it desires to see them flourish in every aspect of their lives.

Wisdom is not unsolicited advice. I have been on the receiving end of that kind of advice (and sadly, too often on the giving end) and it hardly ever goes well. This is because unsolicited advice is not a true gift; it comes across more as nosiness mixed with bossiness with a sprinkling of arrogance on top. I am learning that in most cases, wisdom in the form of loving action (being a witness to the person of Wisdom) is a much better approach than giving advice. Sometimes wisdom is being silent, sometimes it is listening well and letting someone know they are heard, sometimes it is being present without pressure, sometimes it is showing someone a better way by example, sometimes it is restraint instead of trying to fix a problem, sometimes it is waiting. Yes, wisdom can also be good counsel, but I have found that this is best received when it has been specifically requested, and even then, it can be disregarded or ignored. Remember, wisdom is a gift. We cannot force anyone to take it; we can only offer it. But it is the gift which we have to offer the world.

So how do I give the wisdom of living an abundant life when I am not experiencing it myself? Sometimes wisdom is being honest about our lack and the need for Wisdom from above. I ask for divine wisdom pretty much every time I write something or speak/teach or meet with people or talk to someone on the phone about a challenging situation. And when I don't rely on my own insight or experience, when I let my wisdom void just gape wide open, it is amazing how the Holy Spirit of Wisdom enters into the gap. Often, wisdom is giving the all-wise One space to speak and teach and transform. And not interrupting.

If you don’t forsake Lady Wisdom, she will protect you.
Love her, and she will faithfully take care of you...
Cherish her, and she will help you rise above the confusion of life—
your possibilities will open up before you—
embrace her, and she will raise you to a place of honor in return.
She will provide the finishing touch to your character—grace;
she will give you an elegant confidence.
(Proverbs 4:6-9, The Voice)

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure and full of quiet gentleness. Then it is peace-loving and courteous. It allows discussion and is willing to yield to others; it is full of mercy and good deeds. It is wholehearted and straightforward and sincere. (James 3:17, The Living Bible)

1. Philip Sheldrake. Spirituality: A Brief History (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 3-13.
2. Miroslav Volf. A Public Faith (Brazos Press, 2011), 100.
3. Volf, 100-101.
4. Volf, 101-103.
5. Volf, 113-114.

Monday, November 16, 2015

two questions I need to keep asking

Image from call-of-hope.com
I am reading through the book of Acts. It is an account of the beginnings of the early Christian church. It is jam-packed with adventure, action, and amazing stories. Take Acts 16 for example. The summary or thesis statement of this chapter could be identified in this sentence in verse 5: "Day after day the congregations became stronger in faith and larger in size." But what exactly does "becoming stronger and larger" look like in practice? Not quite the continuous upward trajectory that we might envision. The details are found in the remainder of the chapter.

1. Paul and Silas set out on a journey to spread the good news of Jesus. 
2. They plan to go into Asia province but the Holy Spirit blocks them (really?).
3. They try to go north to Bithynia but the Spirit of Jesus won't let them go there either.
4. So they go on to Troas and there Paul has a dream in which a Macedonian says, "Come over and help us!"
5. So Paul and Silas travel to Macedonia and arrive at Philippi.
6. On the Sabbath, they go down to the river and meet with the women who have gathered there.
7. A woman named Lydia hears what is being said and believes in Jesus, gets baptised, and invites Paul and Silas to her home. (Her home becomes the meeting place for the Philippian church).
8. Some days later, when Paul and Silas are on their way to a place of prayer, a slave girl (working as a psychic for her masters) starts to follow them, shouting, "These men are working for the Most High God!" After a few days of this, Paul turns to the girl and commands the evil spirit to leave her and it is gone, just like that.
10. The owners of the slave girl are upset because their source of income has disappeared, so they drag Paul and Silas into the market, rough them up, and turn the crowd against them.
11. Paul and Silas are arrested for disturbing the peace, beaten, and thrown into jail and put into leg irons.
12. Around midnight, Paul and Silas are praying and singing a robust hymn to God. The other prisoners are astonished. 
13. An earthquake shakes the prison and every cell door flies open, leaving the prisoners free to go.
14. The jailer awakens, sees the open cell doors and, knowing the loss of the prisoners will in all likelihood cost him his life, is about to kill himself when Paul stops him, saying, "Don't do that! We are all still here!"
15. The jailer runs to Paul and Silas and drops to his knees, asking them, "Sirs, what do I have to do to be saved, to really live?" They reply, "Put your entire trust in the Master Jesus."
16. The jailer puts his trust in Jesus and he and his entire household are baptised. The jailer dresses Paul and Silas' wounds, sets out a festive meal, and they celebrate together.

Often this story is told with an emphasis on how God sets Paul and Silas free from prison. Indeed, that is a good part in the story, but it is only a part. I believe it is important to note that the strengthening and growth of the church included a lot of ups and downs, a lot of detours where people tried things and they didn't work out. There was uncertainty about how to proceed, there were arguments and disagreements and fractured relationships (Read Acts 15). People were beaten and arrested. Officials as well as crowds of everyday people got angry and violent. In the midst of it all, there were many people who heard the good news of Jesus and put their trust in Him. I ended the story at a positive point in the narrative, but the book continues with more ups and downs, more disappointments and beatings and suffering. And yet, Paul and Silas keep going.

Because we in the West currently live in relative peace and enjoy a lot of religious freedom, we can be surprised and appalled when faced with trials and suffering. We are perhaps too accustomed to a triumphalist gospel, a prosperity gospel, a gospel which is supposed to make everything okay. But that is not the gospel which Paul and Silas were so passionate about. I don't know that they ever asked questions like: What caused people to turn against us? Will this affect how many people come to our church meetings? Why are we suffering? Why doesn't God do something about the evil out there? Where is justice? These questions, interesting as they are, are not all that helpful in showing us how to live.

In a short video found here, Father Rob Ketcham talks about the tendency we have to be upset by a culture which is increasingly ambivalent or antagonistic regarding matters of faith. He identifies two questions which bring us back to what is important. 

The first is this: 1) What are we for? In other words, what is God calling us to? What is our vocation? For Paul and Silas, it was to tell the good news of Jesus. No matter what they encountered, whether it was their travel plans being thwarted by the Holy Spirit (confusing), whether it was a new church started at Lydia's house (encouraging), whether it was being arrested and beaten (painful), they never stopped being witnesses to Jesus. This was their calling, to bring freedom in Jesus (to the slave girl, to the jailer and his family, to women like Lydia), and it directed them every day. 

The second question is this: 2) Do we love God? We can fight against evil and injustice and enter into debates about this controversy or that controversy, but the ultimate question is not how hard we push or fight for change in our world, but do we love God? And the next question is, what does it look like to love God? In Acts 16 it looks like prayer, like worship, like a robust hymn sung while bleeding in a jail, like faithfulness, like saying Yes to God's call over and over again, like not giving up when things get hard, and perhaps especially like loving everyone whom God loves, even our jailers and those who seek to do us harm. In the ups and downs of following Jesus, when we come across opposition, disappointment, and even terrible tragedy, we must remember the important questions which will keep us from getting distracted or confused, the questions which never change: What are we for (what is our vocation)? and do we love God? The answers will determine not only what we do but what kind of people we become in the process. 

YHWH the Lord says: "So don't be afraid. I am here, with you; don't be dismayed [intimidated] for I am your God. I will strengthen you, help you. I am here with My right hand [of blessing and strength] to make right and to hold you up... After all, it is I, the Eternal One your God, who has hold of your right hand, who whispers in your ear, "Don't be afraid. I will help you." (Isaiah 41, adapted from The Voice and God's Word Translation)

Monday, November 09, 2015

boycotts and charity

Image result for boycott
Image from beforeitsnews.com
For the past few days, I have been struck by how imperfect the world is and how imperfect we as people are. I am also amazed at how beautiful it all is and how beautiful we all are, despite our imperfections. I have been thinking about this paradox in relation to two issues. One is the offense that certain Christians are taking to the red Starbucks holiday cup because of its lack of holiday symbols. There are those who would boycott the chain because of a perception that the company is anti-Christian. On the beautiful side of the equation, there are those who have suggested that instead of boycotting the chain, we might take someone out for coffee or pay for the person in line behind us. (An article summarising some of the controversy can be found here).

Another article I read in recent days critiques Operation Christmas Child run by Samaritan's Purse (you can find it here). It cites several problems with this project and the organisation in general, all of which are generally true. Indeed, people in developed countries like Canada choosing gifts for children in poor countries with unfamiliar cultures and contexts is not ideal. In some ways, it imposes our North American ideal of Christmas on another culture, and let's be honest, it has more to do with consumerism than incarnation. In all likelihood, what children and their families in developing countries need more than a box full of goodies is housing, healthcare, food staples, political stability, and long-term partners who will invest in them and their communities. By buying goods in North America and shipping them to another county, we are investing in our economy, not theirs. The idea behind Operation Christmas Child is not perfect, nevertheless, I think the simple act of putting together boxes of gifts for strangers is beautiful. It enlarges our hearts and, according to numerous first-hand stories I have heard and read, brings much joy and delight to the children who receive the gifts. 

In grappling with the issue of how we define righteousness and generosity, I realise that we, as North American followers of Jesus, often confuse righteousness with feeling morally superior (hence a boycott) and generosity with feeling good about some small act (sending gifts overseas). What is missing from both of these is loving encounter. Instead of getting up close and personal with people, we distance ourselves though boycotts, petitions, and diatribes on the internet. Instead of befriending strangers and people in need, we send cheap toys to children halfway around the world. When I look at the lives of Jesus' first followers, encounter was what it was all about. They encountered Jesus, they encountered those who opposed Jesus and his message, they encountered the sick and the demonised and the criminally inclined, they encountered children, they encountered hungry people, and perhaps most challenging, they encountered other imperfect disciples. And in the midst of the mayhem and the hardship, great beauty shone forth in these encounters as the disciples and those they interacted with were humbled by Jesus, transformed by Jesus, amazed by Jesus, and set free from their particular bondage by Jesus. 

I think it behooves us to be better informed about the practices of companies where we shop and the charities where we give our money or time or goods, but we can't divorce due diligence from the beauty inherent in all God's creation, and the loving compassion which Jesus asks us to give to all people. Because, in the end, we are all imperfect and we are all beautiful. The barista at Starbucks needs our kindness as much as those orphans in Romania. The CEO of Samaritan's Purse needs loving encounter with Jesus as much as every Muslim child in Africa. If our righteousness is used as a way to distance ourselves from others, like boycotts and petitions and diatribes tend to do, I would venture to say that it is not righteousness. If our charity does not require us to actually touch another human being or get our hands dirty in some actual, on the ground work with those we are seeking to help, is it really charity? 

If you want to boycott anyone, perhaps you should boycott me. I have supported unjust causes. I have diminished the story and message of Jesus. I have sought to further my own agenda instead of helping those less fortunate than me. I have participated in token acts of charity which were probably more harmful than helpful. I have practiced favouritism and acted out of prejudice. I have refused to listen to honest critique. I have believed that the way I do things is the best way. I have wronged people and excluded people and spoken words of death instead of life. And yet, God does not boycott me. He reaches out to me. He sees what is beautiful in me and calls it to life. He patiently shows me a better way, and he does it by doing it first. I am righteous not because of my good and holy acts, but because Jesus offered to trade his righteousness for my unrighteousness. I am generous not because of how much I give, but because Jesus shows me the best gift to give is myself. 

Like Jesus, let us not point out people's imperfections without identifying with them. And let us always remember that every act of generosity requires us first of all to give ourselves in loving encounter. 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

A little more hope

Me at Kingsport Beach, Nova Scotia
Last week Dean and I were on the East Coast for a few days of leadership meetings for the Atlantic Vineyard Churches. It was great to arrive a day early to have some down time: wandering around the Halifax harbour, driving through the Annapolis Valley, stopping at Kingsport Beach, and chilling in front of the fireplace in our historic Bed and Breakfast, originally an army barracks. It was also a real treat to see friends we had not encountered in years and catch up a bit with folks who are dear to our hearts.
I so appreciated the tone of the get-togethers which were focused on gathering together over food and telling stories and praying for each other and worshiping our great God together and listening to the still, small voice of God for each other and not so much on hearing a lot of speakers give talks, great as that can be. On the Friday night, I was sitting meditatively on a couch during worship when I felt that God was offering to teach me how to hope again. Now, I think of myself as a pretty hopeful person in general, but if I am honest with myself, my hope is a bit rusty these days. Many times I find myself retreating to a pretty safe place of faith; a place of careful, tentative prayers. I ask God to heal, transform, and upend our society, but expect little to change. I believe that the supernatural intervention of Jesus is going to happen, just not today, and a teaspoon of caution seems necessary to avoid being disappointed time and time again. I am especially aware of the danger of assuring people that God will bring about this change or that change, and then see them sink into despair when nothing appears to happen. I would never want to foist that type of delusional faith on anyone. By default, then, I hope for very little. So, yeah, my hope might be a little rusty. My response that Friday night to the divine invitation to hope was Yes, God. Teach me what hope is.

Being a student, the first thing I did was look up the definition. The Greek word for hope is elpis and it refers to confidence, trust, expectation. Confidence is a hard one for me. Do I have confidence in God? Yes, but often that translates to just speaking well of God (confidence in his goodness, love, grace, forgiveness) and not confidence that God can disrupt life as we know it. Basically, I am talking about miracles. I have been witness to few of them, but know well the transformative power of slow, faithful love and surrender over time. So that is my go-to hope: that all this will not be in vain, that it is all heading somewhere good. I don't mean to diminish long-term, gradual change, but that's not the only dynamic we see in the ministry of Jesus.

As I continued to read the definition of elpis, I came across its origin: from elpo: to anticipate, welcome. And then (light bulb) I knew what vibrant, healthy hope could look like for me: I could welcome the breath of the Holy Spirit, the touch of the Father, and the power of Jesus' death and resurrection by making a generous space. I did not have to forcefully declare anything, nor name it and claim it, or do any of that other stuff sometimes associated with spiritual authority which, to be honest, always seems slightly disingenuous when I try it. If hope is being welcoming, then I can prepare a place for the movement of the Spirit. I can look out the window for the first glimpse of Jesus (or climb a tree like Zaccheus). I can open the door when Jesus knocks. I can expect that in every situation, I will be surrounded by the God of love and grace.

I admit that, at times, I am a doubting, cynical, negative host. I brace myself for the worst, ready to accept a scenario where most of the invited guests will probably not show up and the food I have prepared will be inadequate and tasteless. I am ready to be disappointed. I half expect the party I have planned to be lackluster and boring, I assume that at some point in the evening I will discover a stain or a rip in my clothes, and someone is sure to break something or spill food on the furniture. As the party progresses (and indeed, far more people come than I expected), I see the dishes pile up and think about how much work there will be in the aftermath. Less people is less mess, really, so I start to resent the guests and their jovial attitude.

Oh, how small and safe my heart can be. How much it resists enlarging. How it clings to safety and comfort. How little it dares to hope. How afraid it is of disappointment. So I ask the Lord of hospitality to teach me to have a welcoming spirit. To say, Yes, come Holy Spirit. You are welcome here. We have been looking and waiting for you. We have prepared a place for you. Come and change us. Come and live in us. Come and bring your healing, your gifts, your wisdom, your life. We open our arms. We run to greet you. Welcome!

"Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you." - Psalm 37:9

Monday, October 19, 2015

The S word: salvation

Image from petapixel.com. Photo by Mary Chind
Last week in an introductory theology class for which I serve as a Teaching Asssitant, the discussion centred around the concept of salvation. For many of us who have heard the word over and over again, it can begin to lose its meaningfulness. As I sat in class and listened, I realised again just how rich and amazing this idea of salvation is. So I decided to talk about the what and how of salvation in our faith community this week. Here is a summary of that talk.

Salvation, according to common usage, is basically "rescue from harm." The theological term for the study of salvation is Soteriology (soter being the Greek word for savior). The biblical names Yeshua, Joshua, and Jesus all mean to rescue, to deliver, to save. If we look at some of the names of God in the Hebrew Bible, we find El-Yeshuati (God of salvation), El-Yeshuatenu (God of our salvation), YHWH Hosheah (Lord saves), and YHWH Yasha (Lord my Savior). These names let us know that these texts are about a God who saves; it is in his very nature and part of his character. Salvation is not just a contingency plan, but part of who God is.

An important question to ask is this: What do we need salvation from? We can distill the answer to two things: sin and death. What is sin? Often that word (especially in evangelical circles) carries a lot of moral heaviness with it, the implication being that sins are actions which are the worst of the worst. However, I believe that sin is best defined as that which separates us from God. It is not the baddest of bad things, not something we measure by degree (one sin being worse than the other), but a reflection of our state as sinners. We make choices that separate us from God. We wander away from God. This is the state of sin. It is the opposite of holiness, and holiness, again, is not moral perfection, but what God is. God is holy. There is no one like God. 

Paul writes: "For there is no difference between us and them in this. Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ." (Romans 3, The Message)

Paul is writing about Jews and non-Jews (us and them), but it doesn't take too much effort to translate that to our present context. We, too, often position others as morally inferior to ourselves. Paul's point here is that we are all in the same boat: incapable of living the glorious life which God wants for us. When we are saved from sin, we are no longer prisoners to those situations and actions which separate us from God; we are free! "All your lives you've let sin tell you what to do. But thank God you've started listening to a new master, one whose commands set you free to live openly in his freedom!" (Romans 6, The Message)

The second thing we need to be rescued from is death. Death is a lack of life (obvious, I know), but when life is equated with the breath of God, with flourishing, with growth, with ongoing transformation and reproduction, then death can be thought of as a downward trajectory. Instead of moving toward life and flourishing, death means we are headed toward decay and destruction. When we are rescued from death, we enter the realm of life! "The thief approaches with malicious intent, looking to steal, slaughter, and destroy; I [Jesus] came to give life with joy and abundance." (John 10, The Voice)

Another way to look at the dynamic of salvation is to think of change. There is a change from slavery to freedom. There is a change from sickness to healing. There is a change from being lost (like a sheep who has wandered off into dangerous territory) to being found. There is a change from the trajectory of death to the trajectory of life. And instead of separation from God, we are connected to God in a loving relationship. Salvation is also adoption: when we are rescued by God, we have a change in identity. No longer are we enemies of God or far away from God, we are children of God (an intimate relationship). Salvation is also justification, which is a change in legal status; instead of being guilty, God forgives us through Jesus and declares us not guilty! Salvation can also be described as redemption, a transaction which releases something or someone. In the first century, it was not uncommon for someone who was in debt (and had no resources) to sell themselves into slavery in order to pay that debt. That slave could be redeemed (released from slavery) by someone coming to their aid, their rescue, and paying for their freedom by wiping out the debt. 

It is important to remember that salvation, God rescuing us, happens in the context of covenant. As we saw earlier, God is a saving God, it is in his nature to save and redeem and restore. The covenant(s) which God established with people like Noah, Abraham, and David were all invitations to be connected in loving, ongoing, faithful relationship. Even though history shows how humanity broke those covenants, God never gave up, never stopped desiring loving connection. Because God saves, God continues to offer covenant through Jesus. That's who God is, a saving God. 

How does salvation happen? Through sacrifice, which is love that gives itself for another. Through victory, which is love that overcomes all obstacles. Through forgiveness, which is love that brings wholeness back to creation. In 1526, William Tyndale was translating the Bible into English and noticed that the language was lacking a word for reconciliation, so he invented one: atonement. It means a coming together of that which has been separated: at-one-ment. The atoning action of God is at its peak in Jesus Christ. When God united divinity and humanity into one person, God affected a rescue which changes everything. We no longer need to be separated from him. We no longer need to be prisoners of hate, fear, addiction, pride, greed, selfishness, etc. We are saved. We are found. We are free. This once for all act (Jesus's sacrificial death) means that we have salvation available to us all the time. 

In the story of Zacchaeus, we read about a despised tax collector who stole from people as part of his livelihood. Jesus saw him in a tree, looking for Jesus, and said to him, "I am coming to your house." Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus into home and, overwhelmed by the presence of compassion and love in Jesus, embraced the offer of rescue. He renounced his thieving ways and became part of a vibrant community of Jesus-followers, no longer an outcast. Jesus said, "Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost.” In these few statements, we see the context of covenant (son of Abraham), the initiation of God to rescue the lost, and the restoration of one who was a sinner (on the outside, separated from God), a prisoner to greed (heading down the trajectory of death). The change from death to life, from slave to free, was there for all to witness. 

Sometimes we think of salvation as that one-time prayer we say to accept Jesus into our life and surrender ourselves to God. I don't know about you, but I need saving every day. I need to be rescued from hopeless places in my life. I need to be connected to God again, every morning, afternoon, and evening. Salvation is not a one-time event; it is ongoing. We always need to be rescued from sin and death, we always need God's grace to take us off the trajectory of destruction and decay and place us on a pathway to flourishing and transformation. God, through Jesus, offers us salvation every moment of the day, because that's the kind of God he is: a saving God. 

Let that word, salvation, cause our hearts to leap every time we think about it, hear it, read it, or say it, for it reveals the never ending, loving action of our God, a God who never gives up on us. 

Just for fun: Rescue Me by Fontella Bass

Friday, October 16, 2015

when enthusiasm goes missing...

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It has been great to be back in the classroom this fall after months of sitting alone at my desk and writing, drinking vast amounts of tea, and trying not to pull my hair out. This term I get to serve as a Teaching Assistant for Introduction to Theology. I love being in a supportive role for both students and the professor, but it was a bit of a rough start.

I remember coming to the first class in early September and for the first time in my life (as long as I can remember), not being super excited about the beginning of the school year. I didn't even take the traditional first day of school photo. I was just tired, fatigued by the ongoing demand for high level, innovative, scholarly output and the exceptional dedication required by the multitude of tasks on my schedule. I was depleted by a summer spent wringing words onto the page day after day without any real break. I felt the constant, weighty pressure of finishing my doctoral dissertation, sitting like a yoke on my neck. That first day of school, all I could muster was a lukewarm smile. The fact that the class happened really early in the morning in a subterranean, windowless classroom three flights of stairs away from the open sky didn't help matters any.

I watched the students enter the classroom that first day, some timid, some overly confident, some confused, some lacking motivation, but many eager and open and ready to learn. And then the professor started talking about theology, the study of God. You know, a strange thing happens when you talk about God; he draws near. I don't remember exactly what the professor said, no doubt it was all stuff I had heard before, but as the lecture went on, my weary heart began to be warmed. I again felt the ache that accompanies beauty and revelation and I found myself once again leaning into the divine mysteries. I remembered why I loved theology: not because it was interesting or challenging or helpful in my role as a pastoral leader, but because it beckoned me to come and be amazed. Admittedly, theological studies is not the most practical discipline. I don't often hear the phrase, "The world needs more theologians!" I don't know exactly where my studies will lead me in the long run, and there are definitely challenges ahead in finding gainful, suitable employment, but theology is where I live and die and then come back to life.

Frederick Buechner writes about the complex dynamics of a call to ministry. I feel the same way about my relationship to theology and have added my words to Buechner's below, adapting them to my particular setting:

"I hear you are entering the ministry [studying theology]," the woman said down the long table, meaning no real harm. "Was it your own idea or were you poorly advised?" And the answer that she could not have heard even if I had given it was that it was not an idea at all, neither my own nor anyone else's. It was a lump in the throat. It was an itching in the feet. It was a stirring in the blood at the sound of rain. It was a sickening of the heart at the sight of misery [at the sound of God being misrepresented]. It was a clamoring of ghosts. It was a name which, when I wrote it out in a dream, I knew was a name worth dying for even if I was not brave enough to do the dying myself and could not even name the name for sure. [Jesus said] Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden [unsure of the meaning of life, unsure if you can ever please God or yourself or anyone else for that matter] and I will give you a high and driving peace [beyond any form of human critical reason or understanding].'" (from The Alphabet of Grace)

I am still weary and somewhat heavy laden this term as I try to finish up my dissertation, help students understand theology, assist my professor with organising some theological events, teach in my faith community, and attempt to walk lovingly with people on their spiritual journey. But I hear the words, "Come to me," and I try to follow the sound of that voice, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. 

Thursday, October 01, 2015

hospitality challenge

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Image from medicaldaily.com
On Saturday I will be presenting a paper at the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association conference. My topic is Theological Hospitality, and (spoiler alert) my main point is that we are all guests at the theological table, that we speak about God not from a place of ownership but as outsiders who have graciously been given access to divine mysteries. In light of this, we should adopt the same posture toward any who may act, think, and believe differently than we do about theological matters.

I love the idea of hospitality, of being open to others in personal, physical, and spiritual ways, but in practice, I find it rather difficult. Part of my research for the paper led me to a book by Jessica Wrobleski (The Limits of Hospitality) which cites several works by Henri Nouwen on the subject.  Because we are imperfect human beings dealing with other imperfect human beings, there is no such thing as totally safe or foolproof hospitality, but Nouwen offers wisdom on how to adopt a hospitable posture (which means embracing vulnerability and risk) in a grounded way.

He states that hospitality "requires first of all that the host feel at home in his own house." [1] This means that self-rejection, self-judgment, self-criticism, and complaining about our status in life make us inhospitable people; these habits keep us from making space for others. If we do not feel safe or welcome or comfortable in our own world, our own skin, how can invite others to share that space which we perceive as cramped and inadequate? Gratitude opens us up to the richness of God's abundant goodness, even in the most humble of circumstances, and reveals how much we have to give, to share, to celebrate. Nouwen writes that our most important movement is "not a movement from weakness to power, but a movement in which we can become less and less fearful and more and more open to the other and his world. This movement, allowing us to receive instead of to conquer, is the movement from hostility to hospitality." [2]

Celebration is another important part of hospitality, and Nouwen indicates that hospitality should create a space for guests "to dance their own dance, sing their own song and speak their own language without fear." [3]

However, hospitality is not absolute openness or some form of passivity. Nouwen recognises that both receptivity and what he terms "confrontation" are necessary in hospitality. The receptivity creates the friendly space for strangers to be themselves, while the "confrontation" (not aggression) is the articulate presence of the host, the particular context of their home and their unique identity. The guest is welcomed not with empty walls, nondescript food, and a neutral personality, but a decor which reflects the taste of the host, a meal which displays the host's culinary preferences, and the opinions, attitudes, and viewpoints unique to the host. The "confrontation" is between two (or more) distinct personalities and this encounter is where things can sometimes get uncomfortable, but it also has great potential. Nouwen insists that the purpose of hospitality is "to offer a free and friendly space where change can take place." [4]

This is the scary part of hospitality for me: not the hard work involved in making meals and cleaning rooms and washing bedding, not even the time it takes away from work, the invasion of my home office, or the high level of social exertion required on my part. No, the scary part is that when I invite someone to share my world, when I invite them into my safe and comfortable space, I must be willing to be changed.

Hospitality is not simply giving someone a meal or a bed while keeping a professional distance from them. Neither is it offering a service to someone as if they are a client or a customer. Hospitality has the potential to change relationships between two human beings. It can turn a stranger into an honoured guest and an enemy into a friend. We never know what will happen when we extend a welcome to someone, when we open our lives and our homes and our dinner tables up to others. But we are called to practice hospitality because this is what Jesus did for us. When we were unattractive sinners, when we were unworthy outsiders, when we were making bad life decisions, when we were contentious and hard to get along with, when we were angry and sad and bitter, he invited us to sit as his table and taste his sweet goodness. How can we not do the same for others?

[1] Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (New York: Doubleday/Image Books, 1979), 89.
[2] Henri Nouwen, "Hospitality," in On Hospitality and Other Matters, Monastic Studies 10 (Pine City, NY: Mount Savior Monastery, 1974), 3.
[3] Nouwen, Wounded Healer, 91-92.
[4] Nouwen, "Hospitality," 8.

Monday, September 21, 2015

why we make mistakes

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Last week I picked up a book at the library called, Better by Mistake: the unexpected benefits of being wrong by Alina Tugend. The author, a journalist. takes a close look at how we view mistakes, finding that there are basically two approaches: the fixed mindset believes that we have a fixed amount of intelligence, talent, and potential for change, and assumes that mistakes are to be avoided at all costs. The growth mindset believes that there is always the potential to do better, and mistakes are just part of how we learn. Therefore, it is important to take risks and develop perseverance in the face of inevitable setbacks.

In 2002, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article for The New Yorker called, "The Talent Myth." He concludes that companies which use the star system, hiring the brightest and the best, those who have degrees from the most prestigious schools, and paying them hefty compensation, are not as effective and successful as companies which hire few stars, pay modest salaries, and promote according to seniority. By creating a culture which worships talent, the first type of company forces people into a fixed mindset, and Gladwell notes, "we know from our studies that people with the fixed mindset do not admit and correct their deficiencies."

Tugend cites this example of a growth mindset: A promising junior executive of IBM was involved in a risky venture for the company and managed to lose over $10 million in the gamble. It was a disaster. When Tom Watson, the founder, called the nervous executive into his office, the young man blurted out, "I guess you want my resignation?" Watson said, "You can't be serious. We've just spent $10 million educating you!" For Watson, learning from mistakes was a part of moving toward success.

It is important to note that not all learning is equal. There is single loop learning, which is basically what a thermostat does; if it is too hot, it turns off, if it is too cold, it turns on. Single loop learning addresses only the immediate situation. This is good for routine tasks but inadequate in uncovering larger, latent problems. Double loop learning looks at the bigger picture, asking questions like, "Why is the thermostat set at 30 degrees?" or "Shouldn't we fix that big hole in the wall in order to make the heating system more efficient?" Double loop learning (looking beyond surface action or behaviour) is necessary to get at structural, systemic issues which might be causing the same mistakes to be made over and over again. Tugend observes that mistakes help point out flaws in how we approach work and life, and can teach us very valuable lessons.

Chris Argyris writes: "Because many professionals are almost always successful at what they do, they rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure. So whenever their single-loop learning strategies go wrong, they become defensive, screen out criticism and put the blame on anyone and everyone but themselves. In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it most." Herein lies the difference between perfectionism and excellence. Perfectionism seeks to avoid mistakes because anything less than perfect is seen as a failure. In perfectionism, there is a constant pressure to prove oneself. In contrast, excellence strives for improvement and sees mistakes as part of the learning process. The emphasis is on learning from mistakes and not making the same mistakes again. The goal is not on proving oneself but on improving oneself. Perfectionism breeds despair because one never quite measures up to expectations, but those who strive for excellence are able to celebrate every small step forward.

The apostle Paul writes: "You see, all have sinned, and all their futile attempts to reach God in His glory fail." (Romans 3:23, The Voice) The word "sinned" here is the Greek word hamarton, and it is a general term meaning to miss the mark, like an archer would miss the target. This term encompasses intentional and unintentional missing of the mark, ignorance as well as deliberate rebellion. Essentially, the results of mistakes and sin are the same: we fall short, we hurt people, we get hurt.

So what should our response be to this dire news that we will never be good enough to reach God's glory? Frustration? Anger? Despair? Trying harder? Jesus' first words to his disciples did not remind them of their mistakes and sins, but invited them to embark on a journey of transformation: "Come, follow me!" The disciples made many mistakes along the way: believing that Jesus was there to overthrow the Roman empire, acting out of fear and doubt, displaying overconfidence and a lack of love, and misunderstanding the purpose of authority. Jesus' growth mindset is evident in many stories, but particularly in his interaction with the woman caught in adultery (John 8). The first thing Jesus does is to remind her accusers of the bigger picture: no one is without sin, mistakes are part of humanity. Stop blaming. The second thing Jesus does is to remove condemnation from the situation and reorient it toward transformation. Jesus' response to failure is not to blame or condemn, but to invite people to a renewed way of living, of thinking, of acting (metanoia).

As someone who has perfectionist tendencies, I know the feeling of "never good enough." It is important to remind myself that God does not expect perfection; instead, he offers ongoing transformation.

"Let us run with endurance and active persistence the race that is set before us, [looking away from all that will distract us and] focusing our eyes on Jesus, who is the Author and Perfecter of faith [the first incentive for our belief and the One who brings our faith to maturity]," (Hebrews 12, Amplified Bible).

"I am confident that the Creator, who has begun such a great work among you, will not stop in mid-design but will keep perfecting you until the day Jesus the Anointed, our Liberating King, returns to redeem the world." (Philippians 1, The Voice).

"So lift up your hands that are dangling and brace your weakened knees. Make straight paths for your feet so that what is lame in you won't be put out of joint, but will heal." (Hebrews 12, The Voice)

God's part is the perfecting. My part is to embrace the learning and growing which comes from inevitable failure. God's part is to finish what he started, to perfect what he created. My part is to practice persistence on this journey, no matter what the setbacks. My part is to learn to avoid pitfalls, to straighten out any crookedness which might set me up for future mis-steps, and to strengthen and help those I meet along the path. (I did not take the time to develop it here, but Tugend points out that teamwork is one of the most important aspects of learning and improving. Together we are better. Note that Jesus always sent his disciples out in teams or in a group.)

Let us learn to rely not so much on our own efforts, but on the solidity of God's mercy and faithfulness. He is the one who called us to the journey, he is the one who continually upholds us along the way, and he is the one who will ultimately bring it to completion and fullness.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

true or false

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At present, there are two political campaigns happening in North America. The posturing for popularity mixed with defaming propaganda wears on my soul. As people and parties vie for power, so little of it feels genuine or honest. Despite their designation as public servants, government officials seem to have lost their way when it comes to knowing what it means to truly serve others.

In light of the times we live in, it seemed particularly fitting that we talked about the prohibition against "bearing false witness against your neighbour" this Sunday. People tend to associate the ninth matter in the Decalogue with lying, but it is a bit more nuanced than that. First, what is a witness? In its most basic form, witnessing is a passive role; we see and hear and observe a lot of things throughout the day, most of which we have no control over. However, being a witness is brought into an active, intentional role when we say something about what we have observed, or when we give a report of something that happened.

A further intensifying of this active role as a witness has to do with calling. The Greek word for witness is martus, and though we commonly associate it with the idea of being a martyr (dying for what you believe), it really means to bear witness to something with your whole existence, with your whole life, even up to the point of death. In Acts 1, Jesus calls his disciples to be his witnesses (martyres) beginning with their local setting and radiating out to different parts of the world. The idea of being a witness here is different from a single act of witnessing; this calling is to live as a witness, to have it be your identity. The disciples were not only to speak about what they had seen and experienced with Jesus, but their very lives were to be witnesses to the transforming power of God. It was essentially saying: "If you want to see what the love of God looks like, look at my life. It is a witness to this great love."

That's the positive side of being a witness, so what does it mean when we read the following in Exodus 20:16: "Do not bear false witness against your neighbour?" Is it really always harmful to tell a lie about something? Take, for example, these lies children and parents tell each other.
1. We woke up one morning to a clogged toilet. When my husband asked if anyone knew what happened, my 5-year-old hugged my legs and said, "Mommy, a bad, bad man came into our house last night and stole an apple and took some bites, then flushed it down the toilet!"
2. My dad told me people only get 10,000 words per month. If you reach the limit, you can't physically speak until the new month begins. Anytime I was especially talkative, dad would say, "Careful, you're over 9,000 by now."
3. I told my kids that when they lie, a blue dot appears on their forehead that only Mom and Dad can see. Every time they lied, for almost a year, they covered their foreheads.

Perhaps a stronger example is the story of Ahab and Naboth in 1 Kings 21. King Ahab admired Naboth's vineyard and wanted to buy it for his own personal use because it was nice and close to the palace. However, Naboth respectfully declined the purchase offer, stating that the vineyard had been in his family for generations. The king went home and sulked. Jezebel, his wife, took notice, and told him to cheer up; she would get him that vineyard. Jezebel wrote letters in Ahab's name proclaiming a public day of fasting, and on that day, when Naboth was in a prominent, public place, two men of bad reputation (under orders of Jezebel) accused Naboth of cursing both God and the king. Because two witnesses brought testimony against him (the requisite number), he was found guilty and dragged outside the city and stoned to death. Ahab then claimed Naboth's vineyard.

So why do people give a false witness against someone? The 5-year-old wanted to get out of trouble. The parents wanted to control the behaviour of their children. In the story of Ahab, it was for personal gain and perhaps to exact revenge on Naboth for not giving in to the king's demand. Other reasons for telling an untruth about someone could be to elevate our own standing, or to remove an opponent, or to make a tricky situation go away by creating a scapegoat. (see Mark 14 which tells about the false witnesses who were called to testify against Jesus).

What happens when we bear false witness against someone? Note that I am using Jesus' all-encompassing interpretation of 'neighbour' here (see Luke 10:25-37). The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that false statements contribute to condemnation of the innocent and exoneration of the guilty. When we partake in calumny (a misrepresentation intended to harm another's reputation) we violate both the commandment against false witness as well as the command to love one's neighbour as oneself. The Catechism goes so far as to indicate that gossip, slander, flattery, boasting, bragging, irony aimed at disparaging someone, mocking, and maliciously caricaturing someone are all contained under the prohibition against "bearing false witness" (again reminded of political campaigns here, God have mercy).

Some theologians make a connection between the 8th matter (do not steal) and the prohibition against bearing false witness. Matthew Henry states that acting as a false witness is "endeavoring to raise our own reputation upon the ruin of our neighbor's." Martin Luther wrote: "God wishes the reputation, good name, and upright character of our neighbor to be taken away or diminished as little as his money and possessions." In other words, by denigrating someone, we are stealing their good name and their reputation from them. This is a dangerous position to be in, because lying and stealing are the main activities associated with Satan (called the father of lies and the thief who comes to steal, slaughter, and destroy). In contrast, Jesus says that he comes to give life characterised by joy and abundance (John 10). The Hebrew name for God, El Emet (God of truth), reveals that truth is central to God's character. When we malign someone with our words, in essence stealing their reputation, we have joined the ranks of Satan, the one who desires to pull people down into ruin. Instead, we want to be followers of Jesus, the one who desires to lift people up and help them to flourish.

So why should we tell the truth about everyone? Because we want to align ourselves with God who is truth instead of Satan who is a liar. Because as recipients of God's justice and mercy, we now want to extend justice and mercy. Because we want to love our neighbour, not be in competition with them. Because we want to care more about God's gain and God's reputation than our own.

"By truth spoken in love, we are to grow in every way into Him - the Anointed One. ... Don't let even one rotten word seep out of your mouths. Instead, offer only fresh words that build others up when they need it most. That way your good words will communicate grace to those who hear them. It's time to stop bringing grief to God's Holy Spirit; ... Banish bitterness, rage and anger, shouting and slander, and any and all malicious thoughts - these are poison. Instead, be kind and compassionate. Graciously forgive one another just as God has forgiven you through the Anointed, our Liberating King." (Ephesians 4, The Voice)

Anne Lamott recounts this story: "I think often of the weeks after the end of WWII, in the refugee camps for orphans and dislocated kids. Of course the children couldn't sleep! But the grown-ups discovered that after you fed them, if you gave them each a piece of bread just to hold, they would drift off, it was holding bread. There was more to eat if they were still hungry. This was bread to hold, to remind them and connect them to the great truth - that morning would come, that there were grown-ups who cared and were watching over them, that there would be more food when they awoke. ... We are each other's holding bread."

Let our words and our witness be bread for a hungry world.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

learning to say THANK YOU

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September is here and school is about to start for another year. This term I will be working as both a teaching assistant and a research assistant in addition to finishing (fingers crossed) my doctoral dissertation (except for final rewrites). Some people have remarked that going from teaching a course at the university to being a teaching assistant seems like a step backwards. I don't see it that way. Every chance to be in the classroom is an opportunity to participate in another learning experience, a privilege I do not take for granted. Being a TA is a gift, actually: the professor does all the heavy lifting and takes ultimate responsibility for what happens in the course while I get to enjoy theological discussions and reading materials, grade (mostly) interesting assignments, answer questions from students, and exchange theological jokes with my fellow TA during class. No down side!

Seriously, though, I have found that being a student and a life-long learner means swallowing ones pride and sense of entitlement. When I spent a year in the Theatre Department, all of the students were very talented and bright, all were more educated and experienced in theatre than I was, and they all knew each other. Also, due to a bad experience with another doctoral student, one of my professors was unsure about me and how I would fit into her class. Yep, I was a bit nervous that first day, but, as you quickly learn in the theatrical context, you have to jump in and participate or you won't get anything out of it, so I did. I loved my theatre classes and found them to be places of mutual support and encouragement.

This summer I attended a session at a conference hosted by the Association of Theatre in Higher Education. There were no lectures in this particular session: all the chairs were pushed aside and we moved around the room in various directed exercises: individually, in pairs, and as a group. We got some things right and we got some things wrong, but we learned as we went. At the end, the facilitators, who mostly work in corporate and education settings, remarked on how willing and responsive everyone was and how we all "got" the exercises quickly. even the challenge of working together as one unit.

One of the things that was said in that workshop was that we need to learn to fail joyfully and with gratitude. We did an exercise where one person offered a gesture to the other. Instead of acting on it, the second person would simply take a moment to observe it, then return the first person to neutral position. The one who offered the gesture was directed to say, "Thank you," to the other for considering their offer even though they did not take action on it. In actual practice, both the givers and the spectators in several groups (including mine) ended up saying, "Thank you," to each other because we forgot who was meant to be thanking whom. Gratitude was everywhere! It was good practice to get used to offering something without assuming it would be acted upon, and to be not only okay with that, but grateful for the opportunity. It also reminded me that it is important to take the time to look and listen to someones offer/idea, giving them the dignity of being heard and seen, even if their idea may ultimately be rejected. The repeated utterances of "Thank you" around the room showed us how quickly an atmosphere of joy and camaraderie can be created by gratitude.

Another thing I learned, especially in my Playwriting class, is that the creative process is going to be longer than we think it should be, so we need to practice patience and diligence. Rewrites and edits and more rewrites are necessary if the characters and the work are to have real depth. and that doesn't happen overnight. Writers need to hear others speak their words in order to know if they ring true. When I saw my characters interact in the flesh, I was immediately able to pinpoint where my story was false, where it was overly simplistic or too complex, where it did not progress naturally, and where it was awkward and unrealistic. Don't get discouraged by the rewrites, our professor told us; trust the process to do its work. And to that I would add, enjoy the creative journey, rejoice in the failures and the roadblocks and the victories, because all of them are part of bringing something new to life.

For the past five months or so, I have sat in my office and pecked away at a keyboard, writing word after word and chapter after chapter of my doctoral dissertation. I try to find joy in the task everyday (some days it takes me longer to get to joy, I must admit), I try to be grateful every day for the unique opportunity given to me to study theology and theatre, and I try to be patient with the process, trusting that the thoughts and the ideas and the words will come. I try never to be discouraged for long, but to keep going back to the work, even if it means deleting most of the words I wrote yesterday. What I am discovering is that both theology and theatre put us in situations where we are expected to take huge risks and to be okay with making mistakes. Instead of being discouraged by our failures and shortcomings, we are to learn from them, to find joy hidden within them, and then get right back in there and try again.

Let today be another day when I jump in and risk, when I get better at navigating the tricky waters of progress and growth, and when all the ups and downs of work and life and love lead me to say, "Thank you."