Wednesday, January 21, 2015

beautiful money

Abstract Painting by Jolina Anthony, image from fineartamerica.com
I was in the subway a few weeks ago, waiting for the train to come. We have a lot of subway musicians in Montreal, people showcasing everything from rap music to classical opera to electric guitar solos to saxophone riffs. As is to be expected, some are better than others. This particular afternoon, as I stood and read my book while I waited for the train, I heard a ukulele being strummed and it made me stop reading. That in itself is quite something. Then I heard a sweet voice singing to the strumming, and I was compelled to turn around and look at the source.

She was young, with long blond hair and baggy clothes. Her right hand was rhythmically stroking the strings, her eyes were closed, her face was tilted slightly down and to one side, and she sang a song that pierced my soul. I don't remember the lyrics, but I remember feeling like someone was showing me their most vulnerable, yet strong side. I stood there, a bit in shock, wondering if anyone else was witnessing this incredible moment. Most people just went about their business. I wanted to let the young musician know that I appreciated what she was offering, so I made eye contact and gave her a big smile. She returned the gesture.

And then I had this deep conviction that I needed to give her money. I immediately felt awkward. My train might show up at any time and I would have to dig around in my wallet to see what change I had, walk over to the place where she was... You know, just silly excuses. But I knew it was important, so I opened my wallet, grabbed some change, and dropped it in her ukulele case. I wish I could have listened longer, but my train arrived and whisked me away.

This encounter got me thinking about money. Why was there such a contrast between the two actions? The music was so beautiful and my act of donating a few coins seemed so crass. I wanted what I did with my money to be as beautiful as the music I was hearing. It made me think that perhaps money is like crayons or brushes and paint, creative tools through which we express ourselves. And as with any art form, one needs to develop skill with money, exercise a certain amount of discipline with money, but also make room for spontaneity and freedom and creativity and above all, strive for beauty with money.

I was reminded of the story of the woman who poured expensive perfume on Jesus's head at a dinner party shortly before the Passover (see Mark 14). When she did so, the dinner guests thought it was wasteful. Why, the rare perfume could have been sold for almost a year's wages and the money given to the poor! Jesus defended her, indicating that her act was an extraordinary show of kindness and a symbolic preparation for his upcoming death. After this event, Judas, the disillusioned disciple, met with the chief priests and arranged to betray Jesus in exchange for a monetary reward.

I find four different attitudes to money in this story. First, the woman acted out of the notion that money should be used to make something beautiful, to perform an act of worship which in some small way reflected the extravagant love that Jesus had for her. In contrast, the dinner guests, solid upstanding citizens that they were, had a more practical approach to money. Money was a tool to do the most good for the most people. Efficiency mattered. Reputation mattered. Third, we have the chief priests who recognized that money could be used to "grease the rails," to make things go a little smoother, to make sure that the right side had the upper hand. Fourth, Judas the opportunist thought that money was a way to get ahead, to better his situation. That didn't turn out too well.

What I see here is the principle that money follows love. Jesus said that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also (Matthew 6). Wherever our love is, the money will follow. If we love our families, our money will be spent on them. If we love ourselves, the money is spent on things we want. If we love our enemies, we won't think twice about lending them money or helping them alleviate a need. If we love God, we use the crayons of money to create beautiful expressions of worship which reflect the kingdom of God. Like the poor widow who placed two small coins into the temple treasury, we give freely, selflessly, as an act of gratitude and worship to the God of heaven and earth. We are compelled by love. Our money follows love. It is the way of integrity.

But what if we are short on love? If love is lacking, money will find something else to follow, some other strong force in our lives like fear, pride, insecurity, greed, unforgiveness, lust, etc. Money used for any other purpose but love brings many sorrows. (1 Timothy 6). We cannot judge others and how they deal with money, but we should certainly look at what kind of picture we are painting with our money. Do I see my use of money as an act of worship, a display of gratitude reflecting God's generosity toward me? Do I use my money to contribute toward a generous, benevolent community or am I mostly concerned with my own needs and desires? How does my money reflect my relationships, values, and goals? Do I live as if money has power or love has power? Does my money follow love? And if not, what does it follow? How does my use of money reflect the kingdom of God? Do I sow money like the farmer scatters seeds, knowing that some will land on good ground and some will never bring a return, but I freely sow anyway?

Let us paint beautiful pictures with the money we have in our crayon box, pictures which reflect love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, generosity, mercy, grace, and gratitude. What's in your wallet?

Friday, January 16, 2015

unpacking faith

Image from blog.oxforddictionaries.com
It is interesting to note that in common usage, the verb "to believe" is a weaker word than "to know." If I say, "I believe there is some chocolate in the cupboard," what I mean is something like this: last I checked, it was there, but someone may have eaten it in the meantime. When I say, "I know there is some chocolate in the cupboard," I mean something along the lines of: I was just looking in the cupboard and saw it there. However, when we are speaking theologically, the word "believe" is a very strong word indeed.

The Hebrew word, emunah comes from the root aman which means firm, something that is supported or secure. You can find it in Isaiah 22:23 for a nail that is fastened to a "secure" place. When emunah is translated as "faith," it is related to firm action. In the Old Testament context, to have faith in God means that one not only knows that God exists or that God is faithful, but one acts with firmness toward God's will.

In the New Testament, we have the Greek word pisteuw which is translated as "believe." The noun version, pistis, is usually translated as "faith." The word carries with it the idea of conviction and trust compelled by a certain inner and higher prerogative. The Amplified Bible expands the verb,  "believe" to read "trusts in, clings to, relies on."

Let me unpack the idea of faith, theologically speaking, by pointing out three key elements.
1. Faith includes recognition of who a person is. This means we have logged some time with them, know something about their character, have some basic connection or relationship.
2. Faith includes confidence in someone's abilities. Our confidence in a person is rooted in some knowledge of their ability either through direct experience, the witness of others, documentation, etc.
3. Faith includes making a decision to trust someone. This carries with it a certain amount of risk, because though we have some idea of a person's character and some indication of their ability, our knowledge is always partial. In other words, we cannot absolutely know how things will unfold.

Faith is informed and discerning. Its strength and legitimacy lie not in itself (how strongly we believe something) but in the object of faith. Faith is trusting action based on compelling experience and knowledge. It is not blind by any means, but neither is it without risk.

Let's say that we meet world record weightlifter, Behdad Salimikordasiabi. We have a meal together and get to know a bit about him. He is 6 ft. 6 inches tall. He weighs 377 pounds. He is from Iran, 25 years old, and holds the world record for the snatch (lifting weights in one continuous motion from the floor to above the weightlifter's head). Oh, and the snatch record which he set in 2011 is 214 kg or 472 pounds. We are understandably impressed. Then Behdad does the unexpected. He asks if he can lift us up above his head and run around the room. Um...awkward. First, because we are in a really nice restaurant. And second, it's just awkward. But really, think about it. This is a once in a lifetime chance to be lifted by one of the strongest men in the world!

Let's look at what we know: 1) Behdad is a nice guy. In our conversation we did not sense any anger, tendencies toward revenge, or ill feelings toward us. In fact, he seems genuinely concerned about our well-being. 2) Behdad has a reputation as being very strong. We have not seen it personally, but there are witnesses, records, pictures, and stories to back up his reputation, so we are inclined to believe it is true. Plus, he exhibits no signs of injury. And so we come to the moment of decision: do we trust Behdad enough to put ourselves in his hands? Do we take the risk? Are we okay with perhaps looking foolish? Are we okay with people not understanding what is happening? Are we okay with taking a risk in a public forum? And we decide, yes, yes we are! And we say to Behdad, "Let's go, friend! I have faith in you! My life is in your hands. I go where you go." And so Behdad does what he loves to do (be strong) and I laugh with delight and, at times, scream in panic as the world whirls by from the secure vantage point of Behdad's strong and capable hands.

"Do not let your hearts be troubled (distressed, agitated). You believe in and adhere to and trust in and rely on God; believe in and adhere to and trust in and rely also on Me." - Jesus, John 14:1, Amplified Bible

Watch Behdad's record breaking snatch (2011) here.

Friday, January 09, 2015

God questions

Image from remnantresource.org
Yesterday I taught the first class of an undergraduate university course called Introduction to Theological Studies. Besides looking at a Van Gogh painting (beauty as the starting point of theology), listening to a Richard Dawkins interview (the limitations of closed system inquiry), and talking about theological sources, terms, and definitions, we spent some time thinking about the kind of questions we ask to find out more about a subject. One of the exercises I had the students do was to take out a piece of paper and write down two questions they could pose to someone in order to find out what kind of person they were. Then I had them turn to their neighbour and give their questions a try. 

It was not surprising that no one asked how tall someone was or how old they were (scientifically verifiable questions which would have pleased Richard Dawkins). Instead, they asked questions which required thoughtful responses. One student asked another, "If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?" The responder lifted their eyes upward and began to speak of faraway places they dreamed of visiting, explaining why these particular sites were important to them. Another student informed the class that he had been asked, "How do you want to die?" He indicated that one could not answer that question with a surface response; he had to dig deep.

It was (hopefully) a practical way to illustrate that the questions we ask about God, in large part, determine what kind of answers we get. Asking for scientific evidence for the existence of God might seem important, but it tells us little about who God is or what kind of God we are trying to prove exists. Because God revealed himself through the person of Jesus, I believe that the questions we ask about God should not primarily focus on matters of science or language or historical accuracy, but matters of character. When we get to know someone, we are not particularly concerned about how they make a sandwich; we want to know if the person is good, trustworthy, kind, just, generous, wise, interesting, capable, creative, and fun to be with. No offense to sandwich-makers. 

This made me think about my own questions about God, and in particular, my prayers. What kind of questions do I ask of the Divine? Simple yes or no queries?  A litany of requests for help and a desire for things to turn out well? Or do I ask questions that search deeper into the person of God? What if we asked God the questions which my students came up with?

God, if you could go anywhere, were would you go? I believe we find the answer in the cry of a humble baby born to a young mother in Bethlehem: "I want to be close to my beloved people." Here we have a God who pursues loving relationships. 

God, how would you want to die? If we look at the crucifixion of Christ, I believe we have our answer: "I want to die by giving my life for the sake of another." This is a God who freely gives himself.

May I learn from my students and begin asking much better questions of God. 

Thursday, January 01, 2015

A Special New Year's Eve

Image from maxwellswaterloo.com
We didn't do anything really special to ring in the new year. Frankly, I was still a bit celebration weary from the holiday events with our family and Dean was reeling from a very busy few days at work. Having part of the afternoon off on New Year's Eve meant we could get some groceries, go to the gym, and make a trip to the bank. Pretty exciting stuff, I know. But really, it was good. As we sat at home on the couch right before midnight, watching television and eating jalapeno hummus, I heard that old, subtle, accusing voice telling me we should have made more elaborate plans, should have gone to a party or headed downtown, anything which would have yielded photos showing how hip and cool and happy we were. This low key evening was almost embarrassing, hardly worth a mention on social media, certainly nothing to emulate or envy. Or was it? We were content. We were thankful. We were tired but happy. And this seemed like a good way to spend an evening, even New Year's Eve.

There are times to plan and participate in elaborate celebrations because we want to honour someone or remember a significant event or just because we are alive. But honestly, I don't need any more hyped-up events added to my social calendar just because it is the thing to do. What I do need more of is the ability to walk faithfully through this life, doing the mundane tasks with joy and gratitude, and never tiring of the faces I see most regularly. Can I jump and dance and sing and celebrate even if it is not New Year's Eve? Do I need props like fancy food, sparkly dresses, liquor, loud music, large crowds, and pulsing lights to get me into celebration mode? I hope not. Let the celebration always be within me.

One of my spiritual disciplines is to have my first and last thoughts/words of the day be, "Thank you, God." This exercise invites me to live each day inside a gratitude sandwich. It postures me to start the day with a full and content heart instead of from a place of anxiety or need. And it allows me to see the events of the day as good gifts instead of through the lens of regret, jealousy, anger, or the black hole of depression. In effect, every day becomes its own unique mini celebration,

So let me re-word my opening sentence. We did something really special to ring in the new year. We celebrated living in a land of plenty by buying food. We celebrated being healthy and strong by going to the gym. We celebrated being able to give and receive generously by going to the bank. We celebrated the fruit of a long-standing friendship by enjoying an evening in each other's company, free from pressure or tension. I celebrated the beauty of language and story by reading a book. Dean celebrated the creative vibrancy of music by listening to new artists from the UK. We celebrated living in a place of peace by going to bed with no worries for our safety. And that's pretty special.

May 2015 be filled with many special days for us all!

P.S. One of the best things I read in the past few days on crossing the threshold into a new year is from Parker Palmer. Here it is for your reading pleasure: Questions to Live By