Monday, August 24, 2015

contentment...what's that?

Image result for cookies
Image from vegan-kitchen.co.uk
I see a nice house on the beach and I think: I wish I had one of those. I see someone eating a cookie and I think: I want a bite of that. I read about someone publishing a book and I think: I wish I had a book on amazon.ca. These kind of thoughts are normal, right? Nothing wrong with them. Or is there? Yesterday in our faith community, I talked about coveting and stealing (numbers 8 and 10 in the Decalogue, if you are keeping track). First, a few clarifications.

Jealousy, though usually used in a negative sense in our society, is actually a good thing in its pure form. When prohibiting idolatry at the beginning of Exodus 20, God calls himself a jealous God (YHWH Qanna). Jealousy is vigilance in maintaining or guarding something which is rightfully yours. It is protecting that which is precious to you.

Envy is discontent and resentment in response to someones possessions, qualities, privileged situation in life, or good fortune. Envy, it is obvious, is not a happy state of mind. Coveting is closely related to envy; it is desiring something which is not yours and you have no right to. Hence, in Exodus 20, all the prohibited objects of covetous desire are those which rightfully belong to a neighbour.

These inward emotions/desires can lead to outward action: stealing. Stealing is taking something which belongs to someone else without permission or legal right. It can also be keeping for yourself that which you have promised to someone else (withholding fees, taxes, payment, labour, tithes, etc.)  

So why is coveting a problem? It directly opposes generosity; it seeks to grab instead of give. It also erodes our trust in God, sabotages a healthy community (a coveting person soon becomes an untrustworthy person if they are always looking longingly at their neighbour's stuff), and decreases our ability to give and receive freely from God and from each other. Coveting is basically idolatry because it turns us away from God as the supreme object of our desire. And its by-product, stealing, feeds the idea that taking advantage of others is okay. When we seek to gain something at the expense of others, we are hurting them. If you have ever had something stolen from you, you know the sense of violation which accompanies that crime. And when we take things without permission, thinking that others won't miss it, or they have plenty, we are acting as moral judge and jury which we have no right to do.

Perhaps the most costly thing about coveting is that it puts us in a constant state of discontent. We believe that we never have enough, and that we are always in a state of lack. It reveals that we do not really believe that we have a good and generous God who loves us and is our provider. "There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these." (1 Timothy 6).

The Decalogue, given to a nation who had just come out of living in poverty as slaves, was meant to lead the Israelites into a life characterized by freedom and flourishing. Because they had been wronged and stolen from, they had to learn to be grateful and generous, despite years of being taken advantage of. They had to learn how to break the cycle of "never enough" and step into God's realm of "more than enough."

The two attitudes are on display in this modern parable:

A young lady was waiting for her flight in a boarding room of a big airport. As she should need to wait many hours, she decided to buy a book to spend her time. She also bought a pack of cookies. She sat down in an armchair, in the VIP room of the airport, to rest and read in peace. Beside the armchair where the packet of cookies lay, a man sat down in the next seat, opened his magazine and started reading. When she took out the first cookie, the man took one also. She felt irritated but said nothing. She just thought, "What the nerve! If I was in the mood, I would punch him for daring!"

For each cookie she took, the man took one too. This was infuriating her but she didn't want to cause a scene. When only one cookie remained, she thought: "Ah... what is this abusive man doing now?" Then, the man taking the last cookie, divided it into half, giving her one half. "Ah! That's too much!" she thought. She was much too angry now! In a huff, she took her book, her things and stormed to the boarding place. When she sat down in her seat inside the plane, she looked into her purse to take out her eyeglasses, and to her surprise, her packet of cookies was there, untouched... unopened.

She felt so ashamed! She realized that she was wrong... she had forgotten that her cookies were in her purse. The man had divided his cookies with her, without feeling angered or bitter, while she had been very angry, thinking that she was dividing her cookies with him.


In the end, these things in life are not really ours anyway, and the sooner we realise this, the less attached to them we will become. Coveting and stealing keep us from living in contentment and gratitude. Let us be free to give, free to receive, free to live with much or with little, able to flourish in good times and in not so good times, because God is the source of our life, our joy, our contentment. He is more than enough.

"Have you ever come on anything quite like this extravagant generosity of God, this deep, deep wisdom? It’s way over our heads. We’ll never figure it out. ...
Everything comes from him;
Everything happens through him;
Everything ends up in him.
Always glory! Always praise!
Yes. Yes. Yes."  (Romans 11, The Message)

Friday, August 14, 2015

Job, suffering, and a cat

Blake Job 15.jpg
William Blake's illustration of Job 40:15
Image from wikipedia.org
These days I am spending a lot of time in the book of Job. It is not as depressing as it sounds. There is a compelling story, a cast of interesting characters, a lot of impassioned and honest dialogue, some amazing poetry on the subject of creation, and a good number of philosophical and theological questions to ponder. Readers of Job looking for solutions to the problem of suffering or seeking to justify God's goodness in the face of unexplained tragedy are inevitably disappointed. This is not a book of answers; it is a drama. And it is a good one. I don't know about you, but if I were to read a book or watch a movie about someone whose life was easy and everything worked out well, time after time, I would toss that boring book in the corner after the first chapter or two, and I would walk out of that trite, simplistic movie. Because life is hard, we know it is, and a story with nothing but innocence and goodness is a fantasy that we can't relate to and don't really want.

One of the articles I read in my research is "The Glory of His Discontent" by Don Hudson. Hudson believes that the perfection in the Garden of Eden was characterised by a naive innocence and as such, was always meant to be the beginning of the story but not the forever state of humanity. Just like we do not long to go back to the time when we were a newborn baby (at least I never have), we should not be trying to get back to the way things were in the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve enjoyed communion with God, yes, but they also had an ignorance of God's world, a world where chaos had to be ordered and snakes practiced deception. Hudson writes: "One of the most intriguing ironies of the fall is that we now know as God knows because we know sin and suffering. The serpent understood all too well that the fall would bring tragedy and death. But inherent within evil is one fatal blind spot: evil does not see that tragedy compels beauty and evokes repair."

Hudson goes on to say that God is a suffering God, that even after two thousand years, God is not "over" the suffering and death of Jesus because it is always with him, throughout eternity. This is what we celebrate in the Eucharist; a past event as well as an ongoing sacrifice which is effective today and tomorrow and always. The point of the story of Job, and indeed of the whole canon of scripture, is not to avoid suffering and pain and death, but to share in the sufferings of Jesus, of God, and thereby, to see the world as God sees it: beautiful, ready for redemption, on the edge of glory.

It seems fitting that today, while I am finishing up my chapter on Job, I receive news that my long-time feline companion, Jazz, has cancer. The vet expressed her condolences as she conveyed the bad news to me, and I told her, "No, no, it's fine, don't feel bad. Jazz is 17 years old and has had a great life. And she's having a great day today because she doesn't have to wear the cone anymore. Thank you for calling." I hung up the phone and smiled at Jazz, sleeping beside me. What a beautiful creature she is.

My tragedy is small compared to Job's, but I join him in saying, "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." Tragedy compels us in ways which "doing well" never does. Tragedy amplifies what is already at the core of our being. In Job's case, his unshakable loyalty to God came to the forefront, as did his desire for justice. Job's so-called friends relied on their tidy belief that tragedy is the reflection of a divine being who operates within a retributive, cause and effect system. YHWH, in his reply to Job, did not feel it necessary to explain suffering at all. Instead, he directed Job's attention to the glories of creation. As Brueggemann so succinctly says about this change of subject in the latter part of Job: "Theodicy is overridden by doxology." The need for explanation or justification fades away when we are confronted with the glory of God. So my prayer in the next few days, weeks, months, is that I see the glory of God on display in my household through a small cat, my own version of the untameable Leviathan, if you may. "On earth it has no equal, a creature without fear. It surveys everything that is lofty; it is [queen] over all that are proud." (Job 41:33-34).

People sometimes speculate on the questions they will ask God when they get to heaven. I think the hypothetical exercise is pretty much pointless. If, in the presence of the Almighty God in all his glory, I am focused on my petty concerns about why this happened and why not that, then I am to be pitied. Jesus invites us to share in his sufferings, to give up our lives for each other, to carry our cross, and to see the glory of God revealed in the darkest, painful places. This is the invitation, to courageously pray with Jesus, "Not my will, but yours be done." This is the glory of God shining in our lives: not that we avoid suffering, but that suffering loses its sting, that it cannot have its way with us, that it becomes but a single thread in the beautiful tapestry of God's goodness being woven in this world.

"Acknowledging the suffering of this world places us every day in the image of our Creator - we can create beauty out of nothing or we can repeat suffering in an endless cycle of destruction. Confronting suffering in our world becomes the fulcrum between ultimate tragedy or redemption. ... Ultimate tragedy is the evil one's story; redeemed tragedy is God's." - Don Hudson.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Adultery, dogs, and desire

Image from dogwalkerstarterkit.com
The seventh matter in the Decalogue is this: "Do not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14). The word used here is specific to a sexual relationship between a married person and someone who is not their spouse. In other words, it speaks to fidelity. Jesus had this to say: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matthew 5:27-28). Jesus indicates that before a sexual act of infidelity ever happens, something has already taken place in the heart and in the mind.

Let's talk about dogs for a bit. How do you walk a dog? Well, I checked around and here is some advice from dog trainers:
1. Remember you are leading, not the dog.
2. Be aware of your focus, your body language, what you are communicating to your dog.
3. Keep the leash short but not tight. Make it easy to communicate with your dog. Don't let her go wherever she wants.
4. Get your dog around calm, disciplined dogs.
5. Practice, practice, practice!

Now let me change just a few words and make it about controlling our desires. I believe the same principles apply.
1. Remember you are leading, not the desire.
2. Be aware of your focus, your body language, what you are communicating to your desire.
3. Keep the leash short but not tight. Make it easy to control your desire. Don't let it run off and go wherever it wants.
4. Hang out with calm, disciplined people who control their desires.
5. Practice, practice, practice!

One of the other  principles in dog training is that you can't teach a negative. People often want a trainer to teach their dog not to bark, but Justin, a professional, says that you cannot teach what not to do, you can only teach what to do! In many cases, a barking dog is a dog looking for a job, for something to do. If you give the animal a clear directive, they can, in most cases, easily be trained.

The ten commandments, for the most part, are negatives. They are giving us warnings, telling us that for our own well-being, we should stay away from these destructive behaviours. Negatives are good in that they only forbid one small thing (don't touch the hot stove) but leave you with a lot of other options (pretty much the rest of the house!). The problem with negatives is that they don't tell you what to do, only what to avoid, so they can keep you focused on the negative. I believe that negatives are always meant to go together with positives, that prohibitions should be paired with directives. That way we know where to put our energies. (Read the creation story sometime with this in mind, looking for the positive, broad options which go along with the warning not to eat of one particular tree.)

For instance, if I tell you not to look at the floor, you can do that, but you will probably be so focused on not doing something that you might actually be more prone to do it. This is because it takes up so much of your head space. However, if I tell you not to look at the floor but to be attentive to the person who is talking to you, you will have a much easier time avoiding looking down, because you know where to focus your energy and attention. Likewise, when we see a prohibition in the scriptures, we should always search out the positive directive in order not only to heed the warning, but to know where our energies should be directed. In the case of the ten commandments, we have to read a bit more of the story to find the positive directive. What we find is that God is a covenant God, a God who values faithful relationships and proves himself faithful again and again, even when the other party is unfaithful. So this prohibition against adultery is telling us that since we have a covenant God, he wants us to be covenant people as well. Adultery is letting desire or lust run away with us. It is a lack of self-control and discipline. It happens when we lose sight of our covenant God and our covenant to another person.

Desires like hunger, thirst, sex, and success are good desires given to us by God. Desires done right have great potency for goodness; but desires out of control end up sabotaging our lives, the lives of others, and the well-being of our communities. To use a car analogy, desires are powerful engines. They need skilled, knowledgeable, and responsible drivers. And we develop these skills by practicing restraint, demonstrating consistency, being knowledgeable and safe, and showing perseverance, In other words, we practice. We practice love and intimacy in the contexts of marriage, loving friendships, family, and community, learning to serve and give, not just feeding our own desires. We practice responding to our physical hunger and thirst by giving our bodies what they need to be strong and healthy, not just feeding our cravings. We channel our drive for success into reaching our full potential, but never at the cost of anothers well-being, and never to feed our own ego.

Self-control is the result of being filled with and walking in the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, it is a fruit of the Spirit which grows in us because we are rooted in relationship with our covenant God. As a result, our motivations, our identities, our senses of satisfaction are not found in feeding our desires, but in communion with God. When we submit our desires to God, we are asking God to rightly direct them, giving them a job to do which is constructive and not destructive. Right before he died, Jesus prayed, "Not my will, but yours be done" (Luke 22). Jesus did not desire to endure horrible humiliation and suffering and die a painful death. Nevertheless, he submitted his desire to God and offered himself as a sacrifice for many.

That's what love does. That's what faithfulness looks like. Because we have a covenant God, let us be covenant people, people who point our desires, like skilled archers, in the direction of lovingkindness, justice, and mercy.

Teaching children and children teaching

Image from developer.mozilla.org
One of the biggest challenges in our faith community is making space for and involving our kids in spiritual formation in a meaningful and appropriate way. A lot of our activities are geared toward adults and assume a pretty advanced ability to grasp abstract ideas. Since we don't yet have the resources to offer Children's Church every week, we decided to try an experiment for a few months: every fifth Sunday we have an Inverted Meeting. The basic idea is this: the whole gathering is accessible for children and there are a few tidbits thrown in for the adults (what usually happens is the reverse, hence the name, Inverted Sunday). As well, there are also plenty of opportunities for the adults to join in and help out. Re-thinking our Sunday morning gathering this way has been and still is a bit of a learning curve, I have to admit, but we are all discovering how to be together in a more equitable way. I believe we are also becoming a better community through it.

Just over a week ago we had our second Inverted Meeting. These meetings usually involve five elements: worship (giving gifts to God), prayer (talking with God about things that are on our hearts), a Bible story (learning about God), an activity (practicing what we learned), and communion (remembering what Jesus did for us). On this particular Sunday, I was assigned the Bible story, and since I am presently doing a series on the Decalogue, the scheduled topic for that day was. "Do not murder." I was tempted to abandon the topic and pick another story, but the Children's Church coordinator told me to stick with it. Okay, then. How do you talk with 2 - 7 years-olds about the prohibition against murder?

I decided that we had to start with life, so I told a truncated version of the story of Creation, how the Eternal God scooped dirt out of the ground, shaped it into a human being, and breathed life into it, making it a living soul. This breath is what makes us alive. I blew up a balloon to illustrate the difference between being lifeless and limp and being full of life, bouncy and buoyant. I told everyone that this breath is precious and we must protect it. Then I told the story of Cain and Abel, two brothers with different jobs who made two different sacrifices (one that is not pleasing to God and one that is pleasing to God). I talked about how angry Cain was when God did not like his sacrifice, but did accept Abel's sacrifice. Cain became so jealous of Abel that he led his brother into a field and killed him.

I had two volunteers acting out the parts of Cain and Abel, and both were holding inflated balloons to represent their aliveness. I said that when Cain killed his brother, he destroyed the breath of God in Abel, something very valuable and precious. Everyone knew what was coming, but I made sure to give a warning about the loud noise we would hear when Cain destroyed Abel's balloon. "Cover your ears!" I said.  I gave a countdown. I did every thing I could to prepare the kids (and the adults) for the impending destruction. And then Cain crushed Abel's balloon with a loud bang, and Abel fell to the ground. One of the young children (a visitor named N) reacted quite strongly, disturbed and upset by the whole thing. He was in the front row, so we all noticed. I stopped and apologised. Others explained that the person wasn't really dead, it was pretend. The child's parents comforted the young boy, but he would not be easily consoled. The young boy said he wanted to go, so his dad took him in his arms and they walked away from the scene.

I stood there and wondered, "What have I done?" I have traumatized a young child, that's what I have done. I looked toward the back of the room, where the young boy was pressed against his father's chest, and felt stabbed through the heart. This sweet, innocent child, so sensitive. And I began to tear up. Something about his reaction was so honest, so real, so pure. I stammered out words to this effect: "May we all be like this child. May violence and the destruction of another human being affect all of us this way. May we not be desensitized to the taking of human life." I saw a few people wiping their eyes. I composed myself and continued on with the Cain and Abel story: God punished Cain because he was dangerous, but did not take Cain's precious breath of life away, too. Instead, God protected Cain from others who might want to kill him out of revenge.

In Exodus 20 we have the commands Yahweh gave to the people of Israel. One of them is this: Do not murder. The Hebrew word retzach (kill or murder) has a broader meaning which includes being generally destructive and breaking things. In relation to this command, Jesus said: "Anyone who is angry with his brother will be judged for his anger. Anyone who taunts his friend, speaks contemptuously toward him, or calls him, 'Loser' or 'Fool' or 'Scum' will have to answer to the judge." (adapted from Matthew 5, The Voice). So, if we not supposed to break, dash to pieces, or destroy other people with our actions and our words, how are we supposed to act? Jesus tells us what to do: "My commandment to you is this: love others as I have loved you. There is no greater way to love than to give your life for your friends." The best way to show someone that you love them is not only to protect their breath of life, but to give them something really important. And the most important thing we have is our life, the breath of God. This is what Jesus did for all of us. He gave his life, he let himself be killed, so that we could keep breathing the breath of God. He did the opposite of what Cain did.

We followed the story with an activity where we moved into a large circle and were each given a piece of paper with a chocolate taped to it. We were instructed to write encouraging words or draw encouraging pictures. We then gave these gifts to the person next to us. I received a piece of paper from a parent/child team: a young girl named L had drawn a colourful, lopsided heart and the parent had written the sentence, "You are a blessing." That crooked heart, oh my (makes me touch my heart and sigh every time I think of it). Then we ate the body and blood of Jesus in family clusters, remembering his precious, loving gift, and prayed blessings on each other. Afterwards, N invited me to toss his balloon and chase him around his mother's legs. Which I did, of course.

It was a Sunday when the children taught us as much as we taught the children.
And a little child will lead them all. (Isaiah 11:6)

(This post also appears on the Vineyard Thoughworks blog here.)