Monday, June 27, 2016

faith + full

Image from tumblr.com
Talking about faithfulness can be tricky. Many of us have been beaten over the head with the faithfulness stick, told that we should be doing more, doing it better, and doing it more often, because this is what God expects and demands from us. To that I say a simple No. I want no part of burdening anyone with that heavy yoke, so this is not that.

We have all had people break their promises, not show up when they said they would, bail on us when we needed them, reverse their good opinions of us, or just disappear from our lives. It hurts when someone is unfaithful. I think we all agree that the world would be a better place if everyone was faithful, but this character trait does not come easy. Becoming faithful people, people who reflect the nature of a faithful God, does not happen by sheer determination and will-power. Just as we learn to love by being loved, we learn to be faithful by trusting the Faithful One.

If we look at the word, faithful, it means one who is full of faith. The Greek word for faith (pistis) has two different modes: In the active voice, it means trusting and believing in someone or something. In the passive voice, it means being someone who is trustworthy and dependable, inspiring faith. In other words, we have faith in someone who is faithful. The Latin word for faithful is fidelis and it means firmly and resolutely staying with a person, group, cause, belief, or idea, without waver, despite the circumstances. The motto of the United States Marines, Semper Fidelis (always faithful), reflects their unswerving commitment to each other and to their mission. In Hebrew, there is no one word consistently translated as faithfulness, but chesed (goodness, lovingkindness, steadfast love) is often used together with emeth (firmness, truth) to emphasize God's loyalty to his people. The idea here is that of holding fast or steady, of inspiring trust in others. In the Hebrew Bible, God reveals himself as a covenant-maker (which is not the same thing as a deal-maker), faithful to himself and to his promises, even when the other party, Israel, is not.

We are called to have faith in God and trust him because he has shown himself to be a faithful God. Faith is a response to the revelation that God is loving, kind, and trustworthy. "But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Psalm 86:15). "The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning" (Lam 3:22-23). Faith and faithfulness are meant to work together, each one supporting and expanding the other. God reveals himself as faithful, therefore we have faith in him. As we trust him more, we see more of his faithfulness, so we rely on him more and more. In the process of learning to trust, we begin to become faithful people ourselves, more prone to reliability than doubt, duplicity, and hesitancy. Being in relationship with a covenant God means that we are called to be covenant people. Because faith and faithfulness are intricately related, very often a lack of faithfulness on our part can be a sign that we are having trouble trusting God.

In the book of Daniel, we read about three friends who exemplified faithfulness. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego were taken from their home in Judah when Nebuchadnezzar conquered Israel and forced its finest youths to live and work in Babylon. They were expected to adapt to a foreign culture with strange food, different religious practices, and a new set of values. Their captors called on them to work not for the well-being of their own nation, but for the prosperity of their enemies. For all intents and purposes, it appeared that God had forsaken these young men. However, they worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Though Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego could perhaps not recognize the faithfulness of God in their immediate circumstances, they no doubt knew their history, that God had been faithful to Abraham, and then to Isaac, and then to Jacob after that. The covenant-making God had proved his faithfulness in generations past, so even though this particular chapter (captivity in Babylon) wasn't looking so good, the three friends trusted that God would keep his promises.

When the megalomaniac king, Nebuchadnezzar, erected a giant statue for all to worship, they refused. The angry monarch threatened to toss them into a fiery furnace, asking them, "What god is there who can rescue you out of my hands?" Even though God had not rescued the three young men from captivity in Babylon, they responded with faith in God's ongoing faithfulness. "O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to answer you on this point. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire, and He will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up!” (Dan 3:16-18). Whether or not God would rescue them from death in a furnace was not the basis of their faith. They knew that the larger story which there were a part of, the story which had at its core the covenant God made to bless Israel and all the nations of the world, would never be derailed. God was a faithful God, and an angry, powerful king was no threat to God's trustworthiness. Therefore, they did not hesitate to be faithful witnesses to this God. The story goes on to tell about their remarkable rescue from the fire and the presence of a fourth man in the flames.

When God is described as the God of God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it refers to a God who keeps his promises from generation to generation. This phrase receives a new twist when Nebuchadnezzar responds to the miraculous turn of events he has just witnessed: “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, who has sent His angel and rescued His servants who believed in, trusted in, and relied on Him! " (Dan 3:28). The three friends now had their own story of God's faithfulness to pass down to future generations. This story gives me hope (and I don't mean to be presumptuous) that someday people will look at my life and respond similarly: "Blessed be the God of Matte who rescued her and has done great things for her." The story of the covenant-making, promise-keeping God is told in each generation in its own way.

Most of us won't encounter a fiery furnace scenario in which we can demonstrate faithfulness, so let me suggest a few other areas in which faithfulness can be practiced.
1. Time: Faithfulness is not a one-time thing. It is demonstrated by regularity, consistency, and longevity. It is doing the loving thing over and over and over again. The psalmist declares to God: "Your faithfulness endures to all generations." (Psalm 119:90)
2. Action. Faithfulness means that words and actions match up. In other words, we don't say one thing and do another or say something and never get around to it. Read the creation account in Genesis 1 to see how inseparable words and actions are for God.
3. Presence. Faithfulness means that we show up, we are not absent. We do not excuse ourselves from difficult or challenging situations. "The Lord is near to all who call on him" (Psalm 145:18).
4. Integrity. Basically, this means being true to oneself, being dependable, being a covenant person. Even if everyone else bails out or changes their mind, a faithful person remains true. "If we are unfaithful, He remains faithful, for He is not able to deny himself" (2 Tim 2:13).
5. Selflessness. A faithful person is not self-interested, only doing what they want. They look out for the interests of others. Just ask a US Marine which is more important: their own safety or the safety of their unit? We see this same attitude in Jesus: "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve" (Matthew 20:28).
6. Generosity. Faithfulness is not an equal exchange. Just because a person breaks a promise to you does not mean that you are excused from being faithful. Our covenant God gives freely, not expecting to be paid back, because faithfulness is based in steadfast love, not reciprocity.
7. Being Invested. Faithfulness means that we invest ourselves in something greater than ourselves. We recognize that what we do matters, so we do not expect others to pick up the slack while we relax or rely on others to clean up our messes. We take ownership of our areas of responsibility. The good and faithful servant in Matthew 25 was an investor.

I believe God is calling us to be faithful people in a faithless world, but not merely because it is the right thing to do. We are called to be faithful, covenant people because our God is a faithful, covenant God. And the more we love him and trust him, the more we become like him. God says: “I will never [under any circumstances] desert you [nor give you up nor leave you without support, nor will I in any degree leave you helpless], nor will I forsake or let you down or relax My hold on you [assuredly not]!” (Hebrews 13:5, Amplified Bible).

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

who wants to be vulnerable?

Image from jodieotte.com
Over the past few weeks, I have sensed a renewed call to vulnerability. Life is a bit unsettled right now because I am in a transition from student to who-knows-what. In times like this when it is hard to find one's footing, the tendency can be to come up with a plan and implement it as soon as possible. This can give one the sense that things are on track, at least for a short period of time, but most often that plan just delays the inevitable. Lobsters and butterflies teach us that maturity requires periods of vulnerability, times when our old shells and forms must be shed in order to undergo a necessary transformation. These transitions are not to be hurried through. Take at look at your own body and you will see that healing and growth happen slowly, one cell at a time, at a pace which allows your body to adjust to the change with minimal trauma.

The theme of vulnerability was reinforced for me in three different settings this past week. The first was during a leadership retreat held in a remote location on the shore of Lake of the Woods. Leaders and pastors from all across Canada gathered in a room and, with the calm lake visible through the windows, we worshiped God, we prayed, we conversed, we cried and laughed, we ate, and we dreamed. Though there was a rudimentary structure to our gatherings, plenty of space was made for things to develop organically. One such moment happened when a leader veered from the schedule and instead of giving a report, vulnerably admitted his weakness. We surrounded him in silence, our physical bodies forming a wall of protection around him. Another place where vulnerability gave way to generous grace was when differing opinions and viewpoints surfaced within the group. I watched in amazement as every voice was listened to and heard. Instead of dividing the group or setting off arguments, the differences became part of the process of working together and getting to know each other. Some of us struggled with adopting a learning posture when it came to things we thought we knew or had already worked through, but the gentle responses of the group and an overall commitment to openness and humility prevailed during some potentially awkward exchanges. Vulnerability generated compassion and a renewed sense of community.

Scenario number two: Immediately after the leadership retreat, we headed to Winnipeg for a series of gatherings called Metanoia (think again) which focused on listening, prayerful interaction, worship in various forms, and re-thinking some of our practices and presuppositions as Vineyard Churches in Canada. Michael Raburn, a friend and scholar from North Carolina, challenged us to be a people who tell the truth to each other. Michael referenced Augustine who says that we all lie all the time. The only times we really tell the truth are in adoration (worship) and in confession (prayer). Too often we slide into fudging the truth in order to manipulate others or we distort the truth in order to conquer those we consider inferior. Perhaps most insidiously, we can withhold truth because we believe we need to protect people and act on their behalf (paternalism). All three (manipulation, conquest, and paternalism) are forms of lying, concealing, and distortion meant to reinforce or ensure our superiority. This is not how it should be. We must be people who tell the truth, and this means we must be willing to be vulnerable.

Finally, I read something on the flight home which spoke to me about the necessity of vulnerability in prayer. I have been working my way through In His Image by Dr. Paul Brand, a book which explores different aspects of the body as an analogy for the church. This particular chapter was on the interaction between the brain and the body. The brain, for all intents and purposes, has no direct contact with the outside world. It is housed in an armoured vehicle known as the skull, and though it is intimately involved in all aspects of the body's functions, it never encounters the body's environment. The brain is constantly sending out signals to the body, telling legs to walk, arms to lift, and eyes to blink. Similarly, the body is constantly sending signals back to the brain so that the brain can make the necessary adjustments. The brain tells the legs to walk. The legs respond and after a few steps, send back signals that the foot has just stepped on a sharp object. The brain sends a message to quickly lift the foot in order to prevent further injury, and another message to shift weight to the other leg. It receives a message that the body is now off balance, so it sends a command to adjust for the shift. The brain sends signals for the eyes and hands to check out the foot to see what the damage is, and after a brief touch and look, the hands and eyes let the brain know that it is nothing serious. The brain then sends a message to the legs to resume walking at a slower pace and tells the eyes to scan for other potential dangers. The constant stream of messages going back and forth from the brain to the body is what allows the body to function as a marvelous, interconnected whole. And inter-connectivity requires vulnerability. Each part of the body has to trust that the messages it receives from the brain are not random, but a result of millions of bits of information received and collated. The leg has to trust that a command to take on extra stress is for the good of the body as a whole. Likewise, the brain relies on the different parts of the body to be in constant communication so that it can properly monitor the overall well-being of the body and respond to any changes in the surrounding environment.

Now the analogy can only be pushed so far before it begins to break down. Christ is not a brain inside an impenetrable skull (that would leave no room for the incarnation), and the church is not nearly as attentive to and cooperative with Christ as the physical body is to the brain. Nevertheless, the perpetual communication between the head and the body, necessary in order for life to be sustained, is worth noting. We not only receive directives from the head, but the head longs to hear from us. Every little bit of information, every stimulus, every pain, every joy, every fear, every strength and weakness, all are important to the head. The survival of the whole body, including the brain, depends on the constant communion of the head and the body. In truth, both the head and the body make themselves vulnerable by their reliance on each other.

We are called to be vulnerable because God made himself vulnerable in the form of a helpless baby. If the Eternal One could rely on others, imperfect as they were, to care for him, to feed him, to protect him, to teach him, and to comfort him, perhaps we can learn to trust each other (and ultimately, God) with our weaknesses as well.

"Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change." - Brene Brown

Thursday, June 02, 2016

getting my bounce back

Image from evenlodesfriend.com
This afternoon I listened in on a webinar on soul care put on by the Vineyard Church in Canada. One man told his story of how he burnt out as a pastor. After months of struggling, he finally quit and it took him four years before he was able to dream again. He identified some of the problems: the inability to admit we are weak, never giving out of abundance but living paycheck to paycheck (spiritually and emotionally), the pressure to succeed and do well, the fear of failure, and the desire to have people look up to us. I have struggled with most of these in my role as a teacher and pastor. The pressure to perform and do well are constant. I even feel it on this blog. I should be putting up posts weekly (at least) and addressing current, trending topics in order to get my readership up. But some weeks I have nothing to give, and that's okay.

I have spent most of May trying to get my bounce back. The euphoria that followed the successful defense of my doctoral thesis at the beginning of April lasted a few weeks. It carried me through the minor revisions and the final submission of my dissertation eleven days later. Then, it lent wings to my words as I crafted a paper and subsequently presented that paper and also participated in a play reading, responded to a theatrical performance, helped lead a liturgy, and hosted a table at a women's breakfast at a conference at the end of April. After I returned home, I was definitely ready for some down time. I had been warned that after finishing a PhD, I would probably experience a bit of depression or a sense of being lost. And this is to be expected, considering the fact that something which has taken up most of my thoughts and energies and focus for the past five years (8 years if you count my qualifying year and my master's degree) is suddenly no longer there.

I was not burnt out, but I was very depleted. Feeling the pressure to do something with my degree, I started looking at job opportunities and they all seemed to require so much effort. Instead of exciting me, job listings filled me with dread. I could never measure up to a university's expectations. And the application process itself was so involved. And there were usually hundreds of applicants for every position. It was overwhelming. I knew I needed some time to replenish, so I turned to a book that had been sitting on my shelf for the past few years and decided now was the time to work my way through it.

The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron is a book which guides the reader through 12 weeks of exercises and readings meant to unblock the artist within. It seeks to give one a road-map for ongoing creative flourishing and freedom. The material itself (at least thus far) is not totally new to me, and I already have quite a bit of freedom in the creative process, but the exercises have helped a great deal in uncovering unhealthy pressures and restrictions in my life. Years of being a doctoral student and a lecturerer led to an unspoken pressure to be the person who knows things. Every subject which came up, I had to know something about it, and if I didn't, I immediately started researching it. It was always a losing battle, let me tell you. One of the exercises in the course is reading deprivation. Just the thought of it sent me into a mild panic, but I decided it was important for me to learn contentment in not knowing, to learn that I did not have to research every little thing that came across my path or came up in conversation. I told myself it was okay not to be the expert, to say I don't know and leave it at that. Being knowledgeable is a pretty big pressure in academia, and it is a burden I have carried for many years. I want to see knowledge as a gift, not a burden.

Cameron offers two basic tools in the book: morning pages and the artist date. Morning pages are simply three pages of longhand written every morning, stream of consciousness, whatever comes out of your head and heart and hand. It is a means of listening to yourself and listening to the Holy Spirit. At its most basic, it is uncensored prayer. The artist date is a means of feeding or replenishing your artist, your inner child. Each week, you are encouraged to take yourself on a date, to do something which makes you feel alive and refreshed. These simple excursions have made a noticeable difference in me. I no longer rush away after our church meetings, totally worn out by speaking and ministering to others, but find myself talking, smiling, and engaging with people during our informal lunches together. That hasn't happened in many, many months, perhaps years.

I missed going on an official, intentional artist date last week because I was away on a trip, and it didn't take a psychologist to tell me that I have less energy to give to others and to my tasks this week. Artist dates are food, and without food, everything starts to fall apart. The creative self feeds on images, on touch, on delight, on nature, on story, on movement, on adventure, and on connection. Cameron suggests that long walks are a good place to start; in fact, she incorporates a daily regiment of walking into her schedule because she has found it helpful in maintaining a healthy balance in her life. For my first artist date, I went to a place I had meant to check out for a few years (one of the cat cafes in the city) and I was as excited as a kid going to Disneyland. It was a beautiful, warm spring day and everything around me teemed with new life. I might even have squealed a few times during my outing. My second artist date focused on the sense of touch. As I walked through my neighbourhood, instead of just looking at things, I touched them. I touched grass, flowers, leaves, rocks, brick, bark, wood chips, and cool water. I took off my sandals and walked barefoot. It was amazing how much pleasure I derived from this simple sense exercise which reminded me of my childhood (kids are always touching everything in their world). These days, we are so oriented to the visual (screen time is a big factor) and the virtual, that we are often out of touch, quite literally, with our environment.

My artist date this week will be doing something badly and delighting in it. Again, this is something children do quite naturally: producing a lovely mess baking cookies, boldly making awkward scribbles on a white page, and laughing through wobbly moments while learning to ride a bike. I plan to sit outside in the park tomorrow and sketch the scene in front of me. It will no doubt barely resemble the real thing, but I will enjoy being free to create without the pressure to do it perfectly. Just yesterday, I felt the old familiar tingle of excitement over a possible job opportunity and I actually started thinking about crafting a proposal for consideration. It has been two months, but I am slowly starting to dream again. The bounce is coming back.