Monday, February 29, 2016

the cost of pressure

Waikiki beach, February 2016
It's been awhile since I wrote anything here. There are several reasons for that. The primary one is that I spent the first half of the month doing a final edit of my doctoral dissertation before I handed it over to the examiners. Looking carefully at every word, footnote, and punctuation mark, as well as making sure that all 200 pages read like a cohesive whole and not a collection of disjointed ideas, took up most of my hours as well as most of the space in my brain. I surfaced from my office for tea and popcorn and made appearances in classes and meetings, but my mind was always on my dissertation. I submitted it to the thesis office on February 16. Three days later, Dean and I awoke at 4:30 in the morning to fly to Hawaii for a bit of sunshine and rest. It took several days before I was able to relax and enjoy the slower pace of vacation instead of thinking about projects, obligations, and future plans. Rest is a discipline and a skill.

For the past five years, the pressure of a doctoral dissertation has been ever-present in my life, always hanging over my head. Very often this relentless pressure was coupled with feelings of inadequacy because my studies demanded more than I seemed to be able to give. Pressure in itself is not a bad thing, but it is meant to be temporary. Over time, chronic pressure can become so ingrained in our lives that we forget that there was ever another way to live; we can also assume that pressure is an unavoidable part of existence in our world. It is not. Like fear, pressure is meant to propel us to necessary action in unusual and extreme circumstances; it is not meant to become the norm nor is it supposed to rule our lives.

Pressure has not only been present in my academic life, but in my role as a church leader as well. I recently realised that for years I have been living under the pressure to establish and grow a healthy church community by doing all the things that needed to be done: leading, teaching, praying, befriending, hosting, solving problems, listening to people's concerns, and seeking to have a positive influence in our city. Honestly, it is exhausting. Part of that is because our faith community is somewhat under-resourced for the challenges before us (which church group isn't?), but it is also due to the fact that I have not always related to the church in a healthy way. I have taken its small successes or failures to be equal to my personal success or failure. Being so closely tied to another entity's outcomes is called co-dependency. This disorder is evident when we hold ourselves responsible for how other people act or react (or try to control how people act) and it is a burden we are not meant to bear. Jesus calls us to be free, not only from sin but from the pressure to conform to the ideals present in our culture.

Through some help from a spiritual director, insightful readings, and daily prayer exercises, I am seeking to live in more freedom, freedom from the weighty pressure to succeed as an academic and as a church leader. It is hard not to feel a bit lost without the constant push toward spiritual activities and high levels of academic performance, but I know that a high-pressure life is not sustainable. I must find a new way of being and it begins by listening to the Spirit of Jesus instead of to the clamouring demands all around me.

Today I was reminded of Henri Nouwen's assertion that before all else, we must identify ourselves as the beloved of God. Only this can put everything else in perspective. May I become more and more attentive to the loving voice of the Father as I stumble toward freedom on this journey.

When we start being too impressed by the results of our work, we slowly come to the erroneous conviction that life is one large scoreboard where someone is listing the points to measure our worth. And before we are fully aware of it, we have sold our soul to the many grade-givers. That means we are not only in the world, but also of the world. Then we become what the world makes us. We are intelligent because someone gives us a high grade. We are helpful because someone says thanks. We are likable because someone likes us. And we are important because someone considers us indispensable. In short, we are worthwhile because we have successes. And the more we allow our accomplishments — the results of our actions — to become the criteria of our self-esteem, the more we are going to walk on our mental and spiritual toes, never sure if we will be able to live up to the expectations which we created by our last successes. In many people’s lives, there is a nearly diabolic chain in which their anxieties grow according to their successes. - Henri J. M. Nouwen

The great spiritual task facing me is to so fully trust that I belong to God that I can be free in the world--free to speak even when my words are not received; free to act even when my actions are criticized, ridiculed, or considered useless.... I am convinced that I will truly be able to love the world when I fully believe that I am loved far beyond its boundaries.  - Henri J. M. Nouwen

Sunday, February 07, 2016

the stories we keep telling

Kite-flying in Greece on Clean Monday
Image from www.flickr.com
If you have parents, you have no doubt heard some stories of how it was back in the day when things were different. Perhaps they had to suffer hardships like walk all the way to the television to change the channels. Can you imagine? Sometimes we tire of the stories we hear older people tell over and over. I have been known to roll my eyes when I hear the familiar phrase, "Did I tell you about the time...?" But really, there is a reason for this repetition. Stories are told again and again because they remind us who we are. For instance, my ancestors came to Canada from another land in order to escape religious persecution, and I don't want to forget that heritage. Stories such as the ones told by people who have lived through a war help us remember what is important and put things in perspective for those of us who enjoy relative peace. Stories invite us to enter into the experience of another person, so they give us chances to practice compassion and empathy. Stories which surround marriages or births are causes for celebration and they serve to strengthen relationships and rekindle fond emotions. Ideally, stories help us to build good road-maps for our lives because they illustrate values such as courage, love, sacrifice, and joy.

One of the stories we tell over and over again can be found in the Christian Calendar: the story of Jesus. It begins with Advent, a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the coming of the Messiah. It continues through Christmastide when we celebrate that God came to be with us in a tiny baby called Jesus. This is followed by a period called Ordinary Time which means a part of the year which does not belong to a particular season. Then comes Lent (from Middle English, lengten, meaning the lengthening of days) which refers to the 40 days before Easter, not counting Sundays, preparing us to commemorate the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. The Easter Triduum consists of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. We then enter Eastertide which celebrates Jesus's resurrection, ascension, and the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell on followers of Jesus. After this, we revert to Ordinary Time until Advent comes around and the story begins again. I confess, there are times when I think, "Not again," when I see Christmastide or Eastertide approaching. I have heard the story of Jesus so many times that my ears are a bit dull to it. Then I came upon Clean Monday.

In the Western Church, Lent starts on Ash Wednesday which is named after the practice of marking the foreheads of Christians with ashes from the previous year's palm branches used in celebrating Palm Sunday. Lent is associated with fasting, prayer, repentance, and self-denial. The oft-asked question is: What are you giving up for Lent? In the Eastern Orthodox Church, however, the tradition is a bit different. What they call Great Lent begins with Clean Monday, a day set aside for flying kites, having picnics, and eating seafood. Yes, you read that right, flying kites. The tradition of flying kites and going on outdoor excursions on Clean Monday (which is a public holiday in Greece) has to do with celebrating the coming Spring as well as leaving behind all sinful attitudes. It is also customary to clean the house the first week of Lent and to go to confession. In many ways, Clean Monday signifies a fresh start, a getting rid of the old and beginning anew. This is mirrored in a ceremony of mutual forgiveness on Sunday night before Clean Monday, a time when people bow down to one another and ask forgiveness, thus beginning Lent with a clean conscience and renewed Christian love.

The biblical passage in focus for Great Lent is Isaiah 1: "Wash yourselves, clean up your lives; remove every speck of evil in what you do before Me. Put an end to all your evil. Learn to do good; commit yourselves to seeking justice. Make right for the world's most vulnerable - the oppressed, the orphaned, the widow. Come on now, let's walk and talk; let's work this out. Your wrongdoings are blood-red, but they can turn as white as snow. Your sins are red like crimson, but they can be made clean again like new wool." (Isaiah 1:16-18, The Voice) It is interesting that the traditions of Lent in the Eastern Church tend not so much toward repentance and fasting and somberness, but to joyfully letting go of the old, removing the clutter, cleaning the filth, and putting away sinful habits in order to make room for God's good gift of ongoing salvation.

Romans 10 puts it this way: "Say the welcoming word to God - 'Jesus is my Master' - embracing, body and soul, God's work of doing in us what he did in raising Jesus from the dead. That's it. You're not 'doing' anything; you're simply calling out to God, trusting him to do it for you. That's salvation. With your whole being you embrace God setting things right, and then you say it, right out loud: 'God has set everything right between him and me!' Scripture reassures us, 'No one who trusts God like this - heart and soul - will ever regret it.'" (The Message)

Instead of focusing on the "taking away" during Lent that we are so familiar with in the Western Church, the Eastern Church draws our attention to the joy of participating in God's cleaning up of our lives. We are invited to receive once again God's offer of a fresh start and to celebrate the lengthening of days which signals new growth. This year, I invited our faith community to engage in practicing the Daily Examen during Lent. The Examen is a spiritual exercise meant to help us become more aware of God's presence and movement in our lives. It is really quite simple. At the end of the day, invite the presence of God and look over the past 24 hours, asking God to highlight where he was at work, showcasing his loving goodness. Give thanks for these moments. Then ask God to highlight where you were getting in the way of God's activity. Repent for these times and invite God's healing in those areas. Finally, look forward with hope toward the next day and all that God has in store for you. It is a bit like getting a fresh start every 24 hours.

This Lent season, may we become more aware of the movements of our soul: where we turn toward Jesus and where we turn to our own selfish wanderings. May we once again offer up our dirty, stained lives filled with the mistakes of the past year and invite God to cleanse our souls. May we remove the clutter in our minds and hearts and lives and make room for God's spirit to blow on us afresh. And like those kites on Clean Monday, may we catch the wind and fly high.

Note: The Orthodox Christian Calendar is based on the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian; therefore, the Orthodox Easter falls quite a bit later in the year than the Western Easter. This year Clean Monday falls on March 14. Perhaps you want to get a kite.