Monday, August 22, 2016

job hunting

Image from www.masslive.com
I am on the hunt for a job. PhD in hand, I am a theologian for hire. The thing is, not a lot of places are hiring theologians these days, and if they are, they are usually looking for scholars with skills and experience outside my area of expertise. Today I found job opportunities for those knowledgeable in Religion, Race, and Colonialism, Philosophy and History of Religion, Islam and Society, Languages of Late Antiquity, Religion, Ethics, and Politics, and an ad for a Molecular Genetic Pathologist. Not one posting for a Dramatic Theologian with  a side order of Spirituality and a dash of Methodology.

I know, I know. My expectations are a bit unrealistic if I believe I will find an exact match for my particular skills. I know that job descriptions are wish lists to some extent, so no candidate is ever a perfect match. I also realize that one must adapt one's skill set according to the requirements of the job and be flexible. But there are so few jobs which come within ten or even a hundred feet (or meters) of what I do.

There are plenty of things I can do and am doing to give what I have to the world, like writing academic articles and teaching at my church and blogging here, but none of this pays any money. There is a question people ask each other when they get a bit weary from the grind: "If you didn't have to worry about making money, what would you do?" Well, if money were not a factor, there are a few projects I would immediately begin working on. I would fling my theological riches all across Canada (for starters), offering to teach and discuss and learn together with anyone who would have me. I would sign-up for unpaid postdocs or internships so that I could work alongside some of my favourite, gifted teachers and scholars. I would be an artist-in-residence in a community which nurtures creativity and write a book or a play. And in-between, I would travel the world and exclaim, "Oh," and "Ah," all day long and share that wonder and beauty with people through words and pictures. That's just for starters. But all these things would cost me a lot of money instead of putting any money in my pocket. I am a grown-up. I know you can't pay the bills with dreams and wishful thinking.

Last week I was once again pondering my future prospects (and lack thereof), kind of thinking, kind of praying, kind of complaining. It went something like this: Well, God, what are we doing? I can't seem to find a job which matches my area of expertise, and if I do find something remotely close, there are hundreds applying for it, many of them more qualified and experienced than I am. I'm not even sure I make a good academic or scholar. I want to write and teach from the heart as much as from the head. And there is that thing I have about forgetting almost everything after I read it. Really, what's the point? Maybe I should just work at the local movie theatre. At least I would always be around popcorn.

The thing about kind of praying something is that you invite the Holy Spirit to join in the conversation and intrude on your thoughts. In the midst of my complaining, I realized that I was making an error in tying my vocation to my provision; these are two separate things. My vocation is what God has called me to do. My provision comes from the Provider. I am responsible to walk in my vocation. God is responsible to provide what I need. In some cases, vocation leads to provision, but vocation is never the source of provision. In fact, God is very good at providing from a source completely unrelated to our efforts. In Genesis 22, where we find the name of God, YHWH-Jireh (The Lord will provide), this is exactly what happens. I won't go into the whole story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and the many questions it raises about what kind of God would do that. You can read a short piece I wrote on that topic here. The bit I want to draw attention to is this: when Abraham is called to do something and he responds to that call, God ends up providing what is needed, not Abraham. God takes on the role of provider, not Abraham.

So I have begun to think of my theological vocation slightly differently, and I find myself asking two questions: What is my job? What is God's job? My job is to spread the theological joy around as much as I can. God's job is to provide what I need to do that. I have found these questions helpful in other areas as well. When I am serving as a pastor/teacher in the church, I ask: What is my job? What is God's job? My job is to act lovingly toward others, to worship the Almighty giver of life, to open my home to strangers, to speak truthfully about God, and to pray for people. What is God's job? To transform, to convict, to draw people to himself, to build his church, to heal, to raise dead things to life, and to provide what we all need individually and communally. I admit, I overstep my job description sometimes and tread in on God's territory. Thankfully, I'm not very good at it.

I may not have a full-time theology job, but I don't have to have one in order to do what I am called to do. I can study, write, teach, present papers, and hang out with colleagues any day of the week. The opportunities are there if I look for them. I also don't need to be paid as a pastor in order to pastor people, or be paid as worshiper in order to worship, or be paid as a teacher in order to teach. I just need to do my job. I leave the provision up to the Provider.

Let us pray together with Jesus: "Give us today our daily bread." - Matthew 6:11 (New English Translation)

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

why we run

Mo Farah falls during the 10000 m race in Rio
Image from sports.vice.com
I have been watching the Olympics for the past week and a half and there have been some truly inspirational moments, moments which made me stand up and cheer, moments which caused a swell of emotions in my chest, moments which left me speechless, on my feet in front of the television. For me, it is not the best performances which are memorable, but the inspiring stories of the athletes. I mention only a few here.

Simone Biles, a dynamic gymnast from the USA, has won four gold medals in Rio. She is gymnastics phenom: powerful, composed, and consistent. What some might not know is that her childhood was anything but promising: her mother had substance abuse issues and her father abandoned the young family. After bouncing around in foster care, Simone was adopted by her grandparents when she was six.

Yursa Mardini, a promising swimmer, grew up in Damascus. After their house was destroyed in the civil war, she and her sister decided to flee Syria. A year ago, they were smuggled onto a boat with eighteen others and headed for Greece. The engine stopped working early into the voyage, and the dinghy (meant to carry seven) began to take on water. Yursa and her sister got into the sea and pushed the boat for over three hours until they reached the shore. In the 2016 Olympics, Yursa was part of the first ever Refugee Olympic Team. She did not qualify for any medals, but given that she saved the lives of eighteen people, that hardly seems to matter.

In 2009, Chris Mears, a diver from Great Britain, suffered from a ruptured spleen which caused him to lose two litres of blood. He was given very slim chances for survival and was told he would probably never dive again. While recovering, he suffered a seven-hour seizure and lapsed into a coma for several days. This type of traumatic episode usually results in brain damage and physical disabilities, but Chris made a slow recovery and was competing within eighteen months. Chris Mears won a gold medal in Rio in synchronised diving.

I could go on and tell you about Mo Farah of Great Britain who suffered a fall early in the 10k race and went on to win the gold. Or Etenesh Diro of Ethopia who stumbled and lost a shoe in the 300 metre steeplechase semi-final, then went on to finish the race with one shoe off. Though her time was technically not fast enough to qualify for the final, the judges put her (and two others who were entangled in her fall) through to the finals.

Some of the most compelling moments have been when competing athletes cheer each other on and celebrate each other's success. When Penny Oleksiak (Canada) and Simone Manuel (USA) tied for gold in the 100 metre freestyle swim event, Penny immediately swam over to Simone to congratulate her. The first comments Usain Bolt offered when interviewed by CBC after his gold medal 100 metre run were to congratulate Canadian Andre De Grasse (bronze medal) on his performance. When the rugby sevens team from Fiji won the gold (the first ever Olympic medal for their county), the team formed a circle and sang, "We have overcome, we have overcome, by the blood of the lamb and the word of the Lord, we have overcome." In the medal ceremony, they graciously knelt to accept their medals from Princess Anne. Fiji beat Great Britain with a decisive score of 43 to 7 to capture the gold. British journalist, Sir Clive Woodward, had nothing but praise for the Fijian team. He wrote, "All power to Fiji, they have finally won the Olympic gold medal their extraordinarily talented rugby players deserve. Who couldn’t be moved by their singing and communal prayer at the end? That is the moment of the Olympic Games so far for me. In fact it’s exactly what the Olympics is about and you won’t find a single person in rugby who begrudges them their moment." [1] The spirit of the Olympics is exemplified in people whose actions and attitudes bring competitors and countries together as one.

We have been studying the book of Hebrews in our small group, and we recently read through the list of heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11. Like the Olympians mentioned above, these are people with inspiring stories. Here we find Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Rahab. These were people out of sync with society, they suffered through many hardships, they did not see their dreams realised, but they are commended because they did not give up. Through faith, they kept on trusting God, even when things were not going well. Hebrews 12 continues: "What about us, then? We have such a great cloud of witnesses all around us! What we must do is this: we must put aside each heavy weight, and the sin which gets in the way so easily. We must run the race that lies in front of us, and we must run it patiently. We must look ahead, to Jesus. He is the one who carved out the path for faith, and he's the one who brought it to completion." [2]

N. T. Wright notes that the type of race the writer of Hebrews is referring to is not one where people compete against each other, but a journey together of God's people. What matters most is not who wins, but that all make it home safely. This is a team sport, not an individual event. So how do we run this race, this journey with God? There are three directives found in the passage.

1. Get rid of the baggage that slows us down. Training with weights is one thing, but carrying unnecessary baggage in a race is another thing altogether. We all know the value in learning to suffer well and in bearing another's burdens, but obstacles which trip us up have no redeeming value whatsoever. We must learn to put aside things like sinful habits, petty grievances, bitterness, prejudice, anger, and self-indulgence. They are like chains around our ankles which keep us from making any progress in our spiritual journey, and we must be rid of them.

2. Run with patience. The life of the spirit is not a sprint, but a long haul race. Let us pace ourselves, let us not run out of energy or faith, let us not lose heart when things take longer than we hoped, let us continue to grow in faith and faithfulness every step of the way, and let us cheer each other on as we go.

3. Keep our eyes on Jesus. The long list of heroes we find in Hebrews 11 culminates in Jesus. He is the pioneer who first ran the course to completion, and we are following in his steps. He opened up the way to God so that we can come into the holy presence of the Almighty. Jesus is more than our example, he is the way; it is by and through him that we are made children of God. And Jesus cheers us on; he is praying and interceding for us, and he is with us through his Spirit. We do not run this race alone. Jesus never loses sight of us, so we do not have to lose sight of Jesus. He is our goal, he is the one to whom we run.

Mo Farah, the 10k runner who fell mid-race, commented, "At one moment I thought my dream was over, my race was over." The 33-year-old said it is “difficult to get back up and win” after falling but he was determined to do it for his stepdaughter Rhianna. He said: “I was thinking 'no, no. I can't let Rhianna down'." [3]

Many run to win, but those who run because of love are in a class all by themselves. Run, beloved, run!
---------------

[1] Sir Clive Woodward, "Rugby sevens is here to stay as gold medal winning Fijians embody true Olympic spirit during celebrations," The Daily Mail, August 12, 2016. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/olympics_2016/article-3735537/Rugby-Sevens-stay-gold-medal-winning-Fijians-embody-true-Olympic-spirit.html
[2] Translation by N.T. Wright.
[3] Caoline Mortimer, "Rio 2016: The moment when Mo Farah thought his Olympic dream was over," The Independent, August 15, 2016.  http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/olympics/news/mo-farah-fall-rio-2016-olympic-gold-medal-10000m-team-gb-win-a7189866.html

Thursday, August 04, 2016

the sound of two small coins

Schwartz's deli on Monday night
I have a love/hate relationship with hospitality. In theory, I love opening my home and my table to friends and strangers, and in the process of preparation, whether that be cleaning bathrooms and floors, converting my office into a guest bedroom, or buying and preparing food, I am mindful to prepare my heart as well, to create a space where people are welcome. I do this because I realise that I am a constant recipient of God's gracious hospitality, that I have been warmly embraced by a heavenly Father, and that there is a seat at the feast of Jesus always available to me. And yet, because I am a person of limited resources and social energy, my hospitality, when stretched to its limits, begins to look more like resentful hostility. I hate it when that happens.

We came back from a wonderful, whirlwind tour of Europe last week. The people who had been staying in our condo while we were gone remained with us for another week after we returned home. A day after they left, another set of house guests arrived for a 24-hour stay. In between the two visits, I spent a whole day doing umpteen loads of laundry and giving my house a thorough cleaning. It was exhausting. I struggled to keep a positive attitude, to resist complaining and whining about the enormous amount of energy back to back visitors required. To be clear, both sets of houseguests were wonderful, kind, generous people who were very respectful of our home, but we do not live in a big place. Dean and I sleep in a loft which has no door and is open to the living space below. We have only one shower which everyone must share. Every time we have guests, I move part of my office upstairs to our bedroom. It is less than ideal.

The morning the second set of houseguests were to arrive, I sat at my dining room table and offered the day and all its challenges to God. I wanted to be hospitable, but felt woefully inadequate. Our home is small and my heart was a bit small as well, weary from travel and weeks of demanding social situations. How could I be gracious and generous when I had so little to draw on? Help me, God, I prayed. I immediately thought of the story of the widow's offering. Jesus was at the temple in Jerusalem with his disciples. "He turned His attention from the religious scholars to some wealthy people who were depositing their donations in the offering boxes. A widow, obviously poor, came up and dropped two copper coins in one of the boxes. Jesus said, 'I’m telling you the truth, this poor widow has made a bigger contribution than all of those rich fellows. They’re just giving from their surplus, but she is giving from her poverty—she’s giving all she has to give.'" (Luke 21, The Voice)

The widow, disadvantaged by having no husband to support her, gave two small lepta, the least valuable coin in circulation at the time. Her entire offering constituted only a fraction of a Roman penny. And yet, Jesus' praise for her was high because she gave all she had to give. She gave that which cost her much. That morning, I could identify with the widow in the story, and as I cleaned and scrubbed and made beds and tidied, tired and sweaty, I repeated the prayer, "I don't have much today, Jesus, but I give it to you. I give out of my poverty of hospitality."

The houseguests, whom we had never met before, arrived later that evening. They were relatives of an acquaintance from the UK and had chosen Montreal as the starting point for a cycling trip down to Pennsylvania. They had their own challenges to deal with because their plane was delayed, one of their bags didn't make it, and one of the bikes had been damaged in transit. We deposited them in the guest room, chatted a bit, and then headed downtown for a late dinner. 

The barbeque place Dean wanted to try was closed, so we ended up at Schwartz's deli, a Montreal landmark. The place is noted for its aging decor, rather abrupt serving staff, crowded tables, and classic smoked meat sandwiches. We found an empty table near the back and placed our orders. Halfway into our meal, we were joined by a young couple (everyone sits family style at long tables). We acknowledged them and continued with our conversation. The guests asked about my doctoral dissertation. I always feel inadequate trying to distill my thoughts on dramatic theology into a minute or two of light conversation, so I fumbled a bit trying to find the right words. I talked about God not writing a set script for us to follow, but inviting us to create a story together with him, much like improv where what everyone brings to the story matters. In essence, God says, Yes, I will be affected by you because this is the type of relationship I desire. God does not give us a set of rules to follow, a guidebook (the Bible) which details how to do things right, but a living story into which he invites us.

The man who had been sitting next to us eating a plate of meat, interrupted our conversation and said to our guests, "Listen to her. What she says is important. I did not mean to listen in, but she speaks words of life. I know because this is how my mother talked. These are pure words. We need more of this in our world. God bless you." I don't remember every word that man said to us, but I remember turning my face to him, stilling my mind, and listening as closely as I could, because in that moment, in a crowded deli late at night in Montreal, a Middle Eastern man eating a meal with his pregnant wife was speaking the words of God to me.

Many days I feel small, insignificant, weak, under-resourced, inefficient, and powerless. I am the widow with only a few small coins to my name. I can be prone to clutching them tightly in my fist, unwilling to share. I can complain about my lack, feeling the injustice of it when I see others with more. Sometimes I suffer the ache of life's disappointments silently, letting sadness rest in my soul. But, thank God, there are also times when I take those pitiful coins and toss them freely into the treasury of God, offering them to the Creator who can make something out of nothing. In the economy of the kingdom of heaven, two small coins clang louder than the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange and make more noise than a lavish display of fireworks. That night, over smoked meat, french fries, and black cherry sodas, I was given a gift that weighed much more than a thousand bars of gold. When the man had finished speaking, I bowed my head to him and uttered a simple, "Thank you. God bless you." In that moment, I was a very rich girl.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

familiar and unfamiliar

familiar: from the Latin familia, pertaining to one's family or household; intimate, very friendly, on a family footing

Dean and I just returned from an epic trip which took us through France, Italy, and Spain. Our senses came alive and our feet nearly died as we walked and walked and walked the streets of Paris, Venice, Rome, and Girona. Everywhere we went was a place we had never been before. Everytime we got off a plane, a train, a bus (in Venice it was a waterbus), a subway, or stepped out of the car, we were in unfamiliar territory. Every day we were surrounded by different languages, different foods, different climates, and different cultures. Most everyone we met was a stranger.

This kind of travel is an adventure in unfamiliarity. One is always encountering the unknown and therefore never quite sure what is coming next. Will it be a good experience or a bad experience? Will I find this new food tasty or will I want to spit it out? Where will this road lead me? When living in the unfamiliar, one must expect to make a few wrong turns, to have some moments of confusion, and to find some things slightly disappointing. This is normal. Just because something is unfamiliar or new does not automatically make it wonderful or exciting. But neither can we equate unfamiliarity or newness with undesirability or even danger. Unfamiliarity just means that something is not part of the family, does not make us feel at home. Yet.

Image from tripadvisor.co.uk
Now if I go back to Rome, I will definitely head right to Made in Sud to order a slice of Napoli pizza. What was unfamiliar to me just over a week ago is now familiar and valuable to me, because I know it to be very tasty. A trusted friend recommended Old Bridge Gelateria to us so, in a way, it was familiar to us before we ever put a spoonful of that silky smooth, cool treat in our mouths. Becoming familiar with something is a way of knowing which changes an unknown entity into part of your household or family.

The thing about households is that not everything is perfect or functioning or even likeable, but that does not make it any less part of your household. There may be a ratty chair in your living room that anyone else would toss in the garbage heap, but for some indescribable reason, it is the favourite seat in the house. There may be broccoli in the fridge of your household, and even though you find broccoli inedible, you readily accept it in your household because other members of the family do like it. There may be an expensive new rug in your household which is beautiful and in very good taste, but over time, everyone agrees that it is a bit scratchy and doesn't go with the rest of the furniture, so you get rid of it. Some things are just familiar (familial), while others are not.

In the modern world, we tend not to categorise by familiar/unfamiliar but by empirical evidence (is something provable or not provable), by available data (is something reliable or not), and by high numbers and ratings (is something valuable or not). The weakness of these approaches is that they lack relational or familial elements. In other words, empirical evidence, research data, and popularity have us relying on the words of strangers, on unfamiliar voices, in order to make judgments or decisions. Again, there is nothing particularly wrong with these methods, but they have their limits, especially in the context of community.

I find it a bit troubling when church families place a lot of weight on unfamiliar voices when considering how to be the growing, maturing family of Christ. We can look at the data, we can listen to management specialists, we can read articles on marketing and branding, we can cultivate awareness of cultural trends and keep up with popular leaders. Information is good, but it can never be a substitute for familial connections, because data does not take love and compassion and mercy and forgiveness into consideration. The facts are cold and hard and unalterable. Families are warm and soft and by their nature, always growing and expanding and changing. Households are not based on ratings, trends, or undeniable evidence. They are based in living together, in community, in relationship.

In my household right now, there are a number of issues. My dishwasher no longer drains properly. My air conditioner is prone to leaking. One of the toilets just began to drip water on the floor. My ceiling fan needs cleaning. A light bulb above my head is burnt out. And the milk in the fridge expires today. I do not feel less at home because of these problems, nor am I less familiar with these items due to their issues. In fact, in many ways, I am more familiar (intimate) with these broken bits of my household because, yes, they have been with me for some time, but now they also require special attention and care. Taking care of broken bits is what one does in a household.

In Galatians, Paul uses the phrase "household of faith" to refer to those who follow Jesus. The Greek word here is oikeios which means belonging to a house or family, intimate, kindred. In other words, familiar. He writes: "So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all (both the unfamiliar and the familiar), starting with the people closest to us (familiar) in the community (household) of faith." [1]

A household is not just a place of responsibility or service (that would be the workplace) it is where we live, where we feel at home, where we know others and are known. It is where familial ties matter more than the bottom line and eating together matters more than putting on a good performance. It is a place where a chewed up toy is just as valued as a new dress. It is a place where unfamiliarity is always being turned into familiarity. We are the household of faith. Pass the pizza and the gelato.

[1] Galatians 6:9-10, The Message, words in parenthesis mine.



Wednesday, July 13, 2016

lessons from a theological memoir and a television series about lawyers

Image from secularhumanist.blogspot.ca
It's a hot Wednesday afternoon, so let's talk about false binaries. Basically, a false binary or false dichotomy happens when a person's options are artificially limited to two choices, thereby excluding all other possibilities. Insisting on the limited choice of either A or B leaves no room for middle ground or another, more creative solution. In other words, a false binary assumes the rest of the alphabet (after A and B) does not exist.

Binary thinking is quite prevalent in our society. Either you are for me or against me. Either you are guilty or innocent. Either you are a Democrat or a Republican, conservative or liberal. Either you are a Christian or a pagan. Either you are all in or all out. Admittedly, it is convenient to see things as either black or white, but we live in a multi-coloured world and not everything fits neatly into two categories. This is why insisting there are only two choices when, in fact, other options exist, is labeled as a fallacy in logic and reason.

This week I came across two examples of false binaries. One was in a book I am currently reading, theologian Stanley Hauerwas' memoir entitled Hannah's Child. He describes a scenario that I have seen all too often in Christian circles: a leader getting all defensive when someone critiques their ideas. Instead of listening to the person's honest concerns, the leader interprets the critique as a vote of non-confidence, or worse, a sign of infidelity to the purposes of God.

Here is the story. A new pastor, keen to implement a church growth strategy, was hired at Hauerwas' church. She laid out her plan for the future of the church at a committee meeting: two services, a phone-a-thon, and becoming a less tight-knit community in order to welcome newcomers. She also planned to lead a delegation of members to a megachurch to find out how they did things. Hauerwas was stunned and upset. The community church he had lovingly served for years was about to be torn apart for the sake of higher numbers. He made an appointment to see the new pastor. When Hauerwas expressed his concern about her plan because it went against everything he stood for, she accused him of being against evangelism. Didn't he want to bring people to Jesus? (See the false binary there? If you are not on board with church growth plans, you are against evangelism. No other option possible).

I quote Hauerwas: "I told her the problem was not that she wanted to bring people to Jesus, but that she wanted to do so with means shaped by economic modes of life incompatible with the gospel. She asked me how I could be so critical of what she was trying to do. She had, after all, graduated from Duke Divinity School." Just so you know, Duke Divinity School is where Hauerwas teaches. He replied in his typical, no nonsense manner: "I told her that I found it profoundly embarrassing that she was a graduate of Duke Divinity School. What in the world were we doing to produce people who did not seem to have a theological clue about what they were ordained to do?" [1]

Hauerwas' story is as sad as it is instructional. As a theologian who works in ethics, Hauerwas is concerned that our words, our actions, and our methods are in sync with the gospel of Jesus, and that we never disconnect any one of these from the others. In the above scenario, he rightly saw that using marketing methods to bring people into contact with Jesus was an exercise in counter-productivity. The method would be fighting against the message the whole time. However, since the new pastor was working from the assumption that there were only two options - either Hauerwas was on board with her church growth strategies or he was anti-evangelism - she was unable to see that there might be a problem with her plan. She was blind to other options. Though Hauerwas' answer comes across as a little harsh, he is actually taking some of the responsibility for her narrow way of thinking about evangelism.

The second example comes from a BBC series I am watching on Netflix. Silk is the story of a group of barristers in London and their professional and personal challenges. The main character is called Martha and she is a bright and shining light of integrity in a world dominated by politics and power (you see why I like it!). Nevertheless, the system she is in has severe limitations because it is an artificial binary. As you get to know her clients, you soon realise that no one is truly innocent. But neither are people entirely guilty; there is always more to the story than the viewer supposes.

Though the justice system is supposedly built to get at the truth, it actually masks it in many cases. And this is because it is a very limited, binary system. Even worse, it is an adversarial system, pitting parties against each other instead of having them work together to seek truth and justice. Prosecutors and defenders end up trying to hide certain facts from each other or skew the story in a way which favours their side. An adversarial system inevitably becomes more about winning than about the stated goal, which in the practice of law is justice. It becomes more about being proven right or capable, or protecting one's reputation or status, than about discovering and revealing the truth. A binary system (either guilty or innocent) overlooks the complex motivations of the human heart and our context within a community. The false binary assumes that we can either be declared blameless or found entirely responsible. Seldom is it either. It also allows little room for repentance, restitution, and restoration.

Binary systems appear to make things simple, but many times, they are false. And by insisting on them, we reveal our faulty assumptions and lack of creativity. An incident in Joshua 5 illustrates this: "Now when Joshua was by Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him. In His hand was His drawn sword. Joshua went to Him and said, “Are You for us or for our enemies?” He said, “Neither, for I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” Then Joshua fell with his face to the ground and worshipped. Then he said, “What does my Lord wish to say to His servant?” The commander of the army of the Lord said to Joshua, “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy.” So Joshua did this." (Modern English Version)

Joshua was getting ready for battle, so he assumed that anyone he encountered was either for him or against him. He was incorrect. Instead of engaging in a battle, he found himself on holy ground. The required action was not to take up a sword but to remove his footwear and worship.

Here is one final false binary. This time, Jesus is the one who blows it apart. "Jesus passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But it happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him." (John 9, MEV)

May we lay down our swords and assumptions and recognise holy ground when we stand on it. May we lay aside our false binaries and listen for the creative, instructive words of the Spirit of Jesus so that the works of God may be displayed more fully in us and in our world. Amen. 


[1] Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010), 259.

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