Tuesday, May 26, 2015

living in the awkward

Image from memecenter.com
Life is sometimes awkward. It just is. There is physical awkwardness when our body seems to lack balance, grace, harmony, or skill. We find ourselves in positions which feel uncomfortable and we'd rather not stay that way for too long. I have awkwardly tripped and had a large wooden speaker fall on top of me. I have tried to open a door with my arms full and done some awkward contortions just to keep that bulky box tucked under my arm. Then there is social awkwardness which adds the element of other people seeing our lack of grace. We feel awkward singing or dancing in front of people because for most of us, it is very much a work in progress (or so we hope). Or maybe we are at a wedding dressed in jeans and a t-shirt when everyone else is in their finest clothes (the airline lost my luggage) making us very aware of the lingering looks people are giving us and the assumptions they are making about our lack of propriety. We can be standing by ourselves at a party, not sure what to do because everyone else is gathered in small, chatty cliques. But perhaps the worst is leadership awkwardness. Those times when we are trying to help others, speak in front of others, lead an activity, or explain something to a group, and it all seems to be going nowhere or somewhere we don't want it to go. I have had plenty of those moments.

I feel awkward pretty much every time I try to be generous, be it money, a gift, or a kind word I am attempting to give to another person. A lot of the time there are awkward moments when people come into my home for a meal, when I teach in front of a group, when I present a paper at an academic conference, when I am called upon to speak extemporaneously, when I need to explain something difficult or sensitive, when I pray in front of people or make a public announcement...well, you get the idea. Leading is just unnatural and clumsy at times. I see the eager faces, the sleepy faces, the cynical faces, the inattentive faces, the expectant faces, the doubting faces, the loving faces, the confused faces, and I know that what I have to offer will always be inadequate. I can never give people what they truly need and hardly ever what they want or expect. Everything I do as a leader will be a partial success at best. And I am okay with that. I try not to let it stop me from doing what is important.

I remember years ago witnessing a church leader going up to the front of the church during the worship time and kneeling prayerfully on the stairs (I think it was following a song about surrender). It was a touching moment, we all thought, but she later confided that most of the time she was at the front she was wondering if her skirt had caught on her shoes and was now exposing her backside. Despite the awkwardness, she did it anyway. A few months ago I gave a very short talk in front of 500 students. I had been asked to take a few minutes in the middle of an interdisciplinary conference to describe the graduate experience to a group of undergraduates. I spent a sleepless night trying to figure out what I could say, then a few hours the next morning with a quivering stomach, then I got onstage and spent 5 minutes stumbling and stuttering under the bright lights as I struggled to make a coherent point. Awkward, but I did it anyway. A few weeks ago I had to call someone who had a bad experience at our church and set up a meeting. Really awkward, but I did it anyway. Yesterday I had the urge to give a stranger a gift. It took me quite a long time to work up the courage, then I decided to do it anonymously. Of course, the man appeared in the doorway as I was handing over the gift to a third party. Awkward, but I did it anyway.

Awkwardness in leading is just part of the job. Leadership, teaching, and practicing love and compassion are skills I am always learning. I will never be perfect at them, but I can push through the awkward moments, the moments when I am trying out a new dance move, so to speak, and just commit myself to doing the best I can at that moment. Awkwardness is me being aware of my lack of skill and expertise. It is acknowledging that something is difficult and I will probably not get it right on the first try. It is knowing that process is a bit messy. But anyone who has ever been a teenager can bear witness to the fact that awkward is just another stage in growth, in maturity, and in developing life skills. Awkward is also what the distance between myself and another person looks like, but from experience, I know that awkward is an opportunity to grow in love, in patience, in compassion, in grace, and in listening to the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit.

We tend to hear mostly success stories from leaders. I have deliberately left out the ending of all the anecdotes above because for the most part, we are not privileged to know the final results of our awkward actions. I can only do what I believe God is asking me to do: to serve, to love, to learn to walk with others, to be generous, to be kind, to listen. And then I leave the results up to God. It will feel awkward. It might not look like anything. It might seem to be pointless. But I do it anyway. Ultimately, my success is not measured by the accolades of others nor by the number of followers I have. My success is based in how much I have loved and how much I have let my heart shine through my awkward actions. My confidence as a leader is never in my ability to lead, but in the sure-footed steps of the Holy Trinity to lead me (us) in the dance of love and joy and service.

Don`t mind the awkwardness, let`s dance!

Monday, May 18, 2015

counterfeit worship

Image result for pantocrator
Christ Pantocrator, one of the first images of Christ developed by the early church
Image from sophiainstitutenyc.org
I have started a series of talks in our faith community on the Decalogue (deka = 10, logous - words, commonly known as the Ten Commandments since the 16th century). You can find the gist of the first one dealing with worshiping God here, It must be remembered that these directives were given to a people whose only experience of government was being slaves to cruel masters. These ten words were meant to show them a new way of life, a life lived honouring God (the first four words) and treating their fellow human beings with respect and love (the last six words). Jesus summed it all up by saying that all the law and prophets were found in these two commands: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbour as yourself.

Yesterday I talked about what it means to make an idol and worship it. Here is the text from Exodus 20: "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 water beneath. You are not to bow down and serve any image, for I, the Eternal your God, am a jealous God." (Exodus 20:4-5a, The Voice).

A graven image (how the King James version translates it) is an idol carved out of stone, wood, or metal. What is at the heart of this directive is a caution against creating the gods we want: gods who would give us control over the complexities and problems of life. An idol is a counterfeit, a dangerous substitute for relationship with the one True God (The Voice commentary). The second word given by God is a reminder that the Holy One is beyond our senses, the Father in heaven cannot be controlled or manipulated, and the Eternal is a living person, not an object.

Shortly after these directives were given to the nation of Israel, we read the story of Aaron making a golden calf for the people to worship (Exodus 32). Because Moses was nowhere to be seen (he was up on the mountain doing God knows what), the people came to Aaron and asked him to make them a god, something tangible they could worship, something which could lead them forward, give them direction. Aaron asked for their gold, the people willingly gave it, and out of this he fashioned an idol in the shape of a calf. The people were elated, Aaron built an altar in front of the golden calf and declared that they would have a feast to the Eternal One. And so the idol worship began.

Some sobering lessons to learn from this story.
1. True worship of God is not birthed in impatience.
2. True worship of God is not birthed out of a need for something tangible.
3. True worship of God is not birthed through demanding that leaders make something happen.
4. True worship of God is not found in expensive and impressive furnishings and equipment.
5. True worship of God is not a payment for something to happen. Worship is a reflection of God's loving generosity and faithfulness, not an exchange whereby we give God worship in order to secure God's generosity.
6. True worship of God not a product of our own imagination or labour.
7. True worship of God is not about pleasing or appeasing people.
8. We must be careful not to redefine idolatry and call it worship. God tells us how to worship him, we can't do it any way we want See Exodus 21-31 and John 4:23-24.

So does this mean that we should avoid all imagery, all paintings, pictures, statues, or visual representations of God? The overly cautious iconoclasts would probably say yes. I side more with the Orthodox who view icons as an important aid in worship. Icons, like hymns, prayers, scripture readings, and other rituals we regularly incorporate in our personal and corporate worship, are windows offering movement in two directions: we commune with God and he communes with us. Instead of using words to describe God, icons use colours, lines, and shapes. Some call it theology in colour. The second word is not about outlawing images, but about how we use images. We can gaze at a picture in a magazine and desire to possess and own the object or person. That's an idolatrous gaze. Or we can gaze at a picture of a loved one and grow in affection for them, desiring to be with them. That's an iconic gaze. The iconic picture is meant to lead us to an encounter.

Similarly, in Celtic spirituality we have this phrase, "thin place," which refers to a place where the boundary between heaven and earth is very thin, where one can catch a glimpse of the divine. In the Old Testament we find many such thin places: the burning bush, Mount Sinai, the covenant God made with Israel, the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire, the tabernacle, the fiery furnace (Daniel). In the New Testament, the primary thin place is Jesus, where heaven and earth, divine and human, co-exist in a person. I believe that thin places are sometimes happened upon, like the burning bush, but we can also cultivate thin places in our lives. When I sit down at my table every morning and read the scriptures, I am cultivating a thin place. The more I do it, the more likely I am to encounter Jesus there. When we meet every week as a faith community, we are cultivating a thin place. Every time we gather together to worship, to pray, to speak about Jesus, to love and care for each other, we invite the presence of God into our midst.

Dean and I visited the Abbey at Iona a few years ago. This is a place where God has been worshiped daily for over a millennium, where prayers have been prayed by many saints over hundreds of years. And it is one of those thin places where the presence of God is tangible. St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal is another thin place, a place with a rich history of healing, a place where hundreds come to pray and worship. It is great to visit these special places, but I am equally devoted to creating thin places in my own life, cultivating worship and prayer in faithful ways which not only draw me close to God but make his presence available for others.

Let this be one of the gifts we, as worshipers of God, give this world: a thin place where others can encounter God.

Friday, May 15, 2015

before the judge

Image from crooksandliars.com
Judgment. The word sends a shiver through most people's souls, even those who proclaim to have salvation through Jesus Christ. I suppose this is because most of us immediately place ourselves in the position of the accused. To many of us, God as a Judge is not a reassuring thought. And that is strange, if you stop to think about it, because in the scriptures, the Righteous Judge is often portrayed as a very comforting figure.

C.S. Lewis suggests that in the Bible we find basically two views of judgment: what he calls the Jewish view and the Christian view.[1] The Jewish view is that of a civil case where I see myself in the position of plaintiff, a person unjustly wronged (stolen from, taken advantage of, etc.). The cry is for justice. In contrast, the Christian view of judgment is that of a criminal case in which I am the accused, on trial for the wrongs I have done against God. In this case, the plea is for mercy. When we are the plaintiff, we want to get before the judge, we want our case to be heard (not always so easy in previous centuries where you needed money or influence to get a hearing). When we are the defendant, we would rather avoid appearing before the judge. It will, in all likelihood, end badly for us.

A brief look at the Psalms shows both views. In Psalm 9 we have the writer in the position of the plaintiff: "Eternal One, arise! Do not allow mere mortals to win the day. Judge the nations Yourself. Put the fear of God in them, Eternal One. Remind the nations they are mere men, not gods." The Psalmist, viewing himself as the innocent party, understandably wants the worst sort of punishment enacted on those who have done him wrong: "For you supported my just cause. From your throne, You have judged wisely. You confronted the nations; You have destroyed the wicked. You have erased their names from history." In our day and age, we might demand the maximum sentence, perhaps even the death penalty, or in the case of punitive damages, want to "sue them into the stone age," as one person so eloquently put it. Basically, the plaintiff views justice as equal to the ruin of the wrongdoer.

In Psalm 50 however, we see the writer in the position of the accused. God is the plaintiff: "Who do you think you are? Listing off My laws, acting as if your life is in alignment with My ways? For it's clear that you despise My guidance; you throw My wise words over your shoulder. You play with thieves, spend your time with adulterers. Evil runs out of your mouth; your tongue is wrapped in deceit. ... While you did these things I kept silent; somehow you got the idea that I was like you. But now My silence ends, and I am going to indict you. I'll state the charge against you clearly, face-to-face." The Psalm ends with a sentencing of sorts, a directive from the Judge. "Set out a sacrifice I can accept: your thankfulness. Do this, and you will honor Me. Those who straighten up their lives will know the saving grace of God."

The Psalmist who was so sure of his righteous position must not be divorced from the Psalmist who stands accused before God. When hurt, we want to hurt back. But when we have done the hurting, we want leniency. So how can we reconcile these two? In Psalm 51, we find a penitent man, asking not only for forgiveness but transformation. Here is a man keenly aware that his reckless actions have caused pain and harm to many: "Look on me with a heart of mercy, O God, according to Your great compassion, wipe out every consequence of my shameful crimes. Thoroughly wash me, inside and out, of all my crooked deeds. Cleanse me from my sins." Instead of asking the Righteous Judge to wipe out his enemies (like we found in Psalm 9), the Psalmist asks God to wipe out the consequences, the terrible price paid by others (as well as himself) because of his crimes. The desire for justice is turned inward instead of outward as the Psalmist continues: "Create in me a clean heart, O God; restore within me a sense of being brand new. Do not throw me far away from Your presence, and do not remove Your Holy Spirit from me. Give back to me the deep delight of being saved by You; let Your willing Spirit sustain me."

The truth is, we are both plaintiff and accused. We sit on both sides of the court. There are claims against us and we have claims against others. We have had wrong done to us and we have wronged others. We are not blameless nor are we without hurt. But we are not the Righteous Judge. We can demand the destruction of our enemies like the Psalmist, but it is not ours to enforce. We can plead for mercy and forgiveness, but it is not ours to demand.

So what can we do with our pain and with our guilt? Author Anne Rice writes: "I myself am haunted by destructive things that were said to me when I was a child, and over the course of my adult life. I can think of something said to me when I was ten years old and feel exquisite pain remembering how humiliated or hurt I felt. What that means to me, however, is not only that I must forgive each and every instance in which such things happened, but that I must admit that my own words and actions may still be hurting people who can remember them from numberless incidents... All that gossip, all that criticism, all that spitefulness, all that meanness, all that verbal sparring, all that anger - all that failure to love." [2]

Rice echoes the prayer in Psalm 51 as she continues: "Think what a beautiful thing it would be if I could take back every unkind word I ever spoke, or every unkind deed I ever did, either deliberately, or accidentally - if I could take back every moment of pain I ever caused another human being. How can I do this? Only in surrendering this knowledge, this admission, to the mercy of Christ."

Amen, sister. We cry for justice for the oppressed and wronged. We cry for mercy for the wrongdoers. We are both. This is why we find comfort in God, the Righteous Judge.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms. Glasgow: Collins, 1981.
[2] Anne Rice. Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession. Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2008, p. 233.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

the planter's prayer

One of my planters this morning
This morning was planting day on my balcony; I placed three small, toddler flowering plants in each of my terra cotta containers. One of the pots had some gnarly, root-laden dirt in it so before I started planting, I lugged it down 3 flights of stairs and emptied it in the backyard. I dug through the other 2 pots to loosen the dirt and remove any big roots. Dean had bought me a brand new, extra large bag of Miracle Gro potting soil, so I dragged the bag which was nearly half my body size over to the pots and began to transfer dirt from bag to pot. Of course, some of it ended up on strewn on the balcony, smudged on my pants, and wedged underneath my fingernails (despite wearing gloves). While I was in the process of digging in the dirt, it started to rain. It wasn't too bad, just a few sprinkles, so I carried on, picking up the pace.

I made three holes in each pot, carefully lifted the toddler plants out of their plastic containers, sprinkled some fertilizer in the bottom of each hole, placed the plant in its new home, and packed dirt around it till it was snugly in place. The sun came out as I was finishing, so I watered the pots to make sure everything was fully hydrated. I took my dirty self inside and washed the blackness off my hands and shoes. Then the rain started to come down. Hard. Big drops like small H2O cookies. I stood at the back window, watching the fragile plants, newly transplanted, their roots still in shock from the pulling and prodding, and I hoped they were okay.

I hoped they would not be damaged by the sudden spring rain storm. I hoped their leaves were not too small and fragile to withstand the big, heavy drops of rain. I hoped there would be no strong winds and no unexpected hail. Most of all, I hoped that they would put down solid, deep roots, gather rich nutrients from the moist soil, and flourish in the coming days and weeks. I hoped that they would grow big and strong and beautiful and bring much joy and life and colour to the world.

As a church planter, I readily recognise that the hopes and prayers I breathed over my tiny plants this morning are the same hopes and dreams I have for those in my local faith community, those who look to me for help, for friendship, for stability, and for nourishment. I cannot fully protect them from the harsh world. I cannot give them all the nourishment they need or desire. I cannot guarantee a safe and steady journey through life. But I can speak to them tenderly. I can offer food and water for their souls and bodies. I can point them to the sun for warmth and draw them into the shade when things get too hot. I can place them in the richest soil I have access too. But I have to let them go in order to let them grow. I have to give them space and time to put down deep roots. I have to trust the Creator that rain and sun and storm and shade will be given in appropriate measure. I have to trust that the Creator has placed growth and transformation in the very fibre of every being. I can plant and water, but I cannot make anything grow. That I must trust to the Creator.

"Any growth comes from God, so the ones who water and plant have nothing to brag about. God, who causes the growth, is the only One who matters. The one who plants is no greater than the one who waters; both will be rewarded based on their work. We are gardeners and field workers laboring with God. You are the vineyard, the garden, the house where God dwells." (1 Corinthians 3, The Voice).

Friday, May 01, 2015

too quiet

Image from ruleoflife.com
My life has been pretty quiet the past few months. Don't get me wrong, it is busy. It has been one of those terms when I am teaching, traveling, going to conferences, trying to move forward on my thesis, grading assignments, and meeting with professors and students and people in my spiritual community. But in the midst of the busyness it has felt pretty quiet. Quiet in my spirit. No fireworks. No great excitement, No awesome revelations. No getting caught up in a whirlwind and taken to heaven. No pillar of fire by night. No guiding cloud by day. No burning bush. Just the humdrum of reading and writing, lecturing, going to the gym, praying, reading the Bible, gathering with followers of Jesus, and doing the dishes. Pretty quiet inside.

At times I ask my spirit - hey, are you alive and well? I hope so, I respond. I wonder to myself - is God with me? I guess so, I say, but I can't always tell. And maybe, on a particularly quiet and busy day, I allow myself to wonder if this whole faith thing is a figment of my imagination because nothing much seems to be happening.

And then, on a quiet Monday night when four of us are sitting around a table, reading a chapter in a rather innocuous book, I feel the tiniest shudder, a movement inside me. And I know it is the Spirit of God breathing on me. I don't remember exactly what we were reading about, maybe something about not complaining, or perhaps something about Pentecost, but I feel my spirit fluttering, a subtle breeze wafting across it. It is so gentle that I almost disregard it, dismiss it as too small a thing, mostly a nothing.

And then we come to a directive in the book: Share a story about a time you experienced the Holy Spirit in a special way. And when everyone sits there mute, I speak up. I confess that my life in the Spirit has been very quiet lately, and that I might even have complained about that a bit, the mediocrity of it, the lack of excitement. But if things had not been so quiet, I never would have felt the subtle movement, the tiny breeze, the breath of the Spirit wafting over me just a moment ago. And I almost tear up at the realization that God is very close to me indeed.

Being in a quiet place allows us to catch the subtle movements of the Spirit. It encourages us to be attentive to the smallest of changes in the spiritual atmosphere. We are, in some ways, more wholly alive than when we are bracing ourselves against a whirlwind or shielding our eyes from a burning bush. In quietness, we can hear the drop of a pin. In the calm, we can feel the slightest change in the wind. In stillness, we notice the smallest movements.

Quietness cultivates attentiveness, awareness, sensitivity, stillness (not prone to agitation), contentment (not needing constant stimulation), and stability (not easily distracted or discouraged). The Spirit of God's presence is all the more lovely and beautiful and breathtaking for its restraint. May I never complain about the quiet because in it I hear and see and feel and taste and smell that God is good in ways which the whirlwind could never teach me.

-----------------------

The Quiet World by Jeffrey McDaniel 1998

In an effort to get people to look
into each other's eyes more,
and also to appease the mutes,
the government has decided
to allot each person exactly one hundred
and sixty-seven words, per day.

When the phone rings, I put it to my ear
without saying hello. In the restaurant
I point at chicken noodle soup.
I am adjusting well to the new way.

Late at night, I call my long distance lover,
proudly say I only used fifty-nine today.
I saved the rest for you.

When she doesn't respond,
I know she's used up all her words,
so I slowly whisper I love you
thirty-two and a third times.
After that, we just sit on the line
and listen to each other breathe.