Wednesday, November 25, 2009

sick

So...I have a cold. It is not pleasant. I means that I dream about not being able to breathe. It means that there is a damp spot under my nose when I wake up. It means that my chest is tight and I get winded climbing the stairs to my bedroom. It means that my throat is scratchy and I am always thirsty. It means that everything seems like a bigger deal than it really is.

This morning, the doorbell buzzed while I was still in bed, sleeping the open-mouthed, sweaty sleep of the sick. I woke up, a bit groggy, but aware enough to know who it was. The mailman was delivering books which I had ordered. Yeah! I was waiting for this shipment and was happy to receive it before the Friday deadline. The mailman usually just leaves the package in the hallway of our condo building when I am away, so because I was feeling kind of rough and certainly looking like someone's nightmare (plus, I didn't want to infect the poor man with whatever I had, I reasoned), I decided not to answer the door. I stood just inside and listened. And I heard a little voice tell me that I was just being proud, unwilling to let someone see me not at my best. Yes, I was unwilling to have someone think, "Whoa, that woman just woke up and she looks scary!" So I waited until he left, then tiptoed down the stairs to the building's mailboxes.

There was no box waiting for me. What? I saw the mailman get into his red and white truck and just stared at the sad empty space above the mailboxes. Why hadn't he left my package? Didn't he know I was waiting upstairs, afraid to come down because I wasn't wearing my best jeans and my cute purple top, and because I had not taken a shower, brushed my teeth, put on any make-up, combed my hair, nor wiped my face clean of sleep and mucus? Didn't he trust me to come and get it the minute he was gone and I could pick it up without being seen? All that was waiting for me was a notice that it would be available the next day. I briefly thought about racing out into the street and trying to catch him before he drove away, but I knew that I wasn't up for it, so I watched him drive away with my precious books. Didn't he know that I didn't have the energy right now in my weakened state to walk 20 minutes to the post office to pick it up? I guess not.

Sometimes when I need it the most, I am the most unwilling to put myself out there to receive something. I don't really want the package or the gift that badly, I realise. I would rather have people think well of me, not show them my weakness, my sickness, my disease. I would rather wait and do it my way, expending much more effort just to avoid being seen as I am. That's just stupid pride and it has cost me dearly over and over again. Hopefully, this time I learned something. When God brings an opportunity or a gift to me, I will not hide behind my door, self-conscious and afraid, but boldly step into the open and receive that most wondrous thing that I have been waiting for, in whatever state I find myself in. It is worth it. I don't want to miss the chance again. Good receivers have to leave their comfort zone.

This is a picture of me saying "no" to the camera in my bathrobe.

Friday, November 20, 2009

decoration

What is a decoration? The dictionary lists it as "an addition that renders something more attractive or ornate." It is something you can do without, but it sure is prettier with it there. We have made a whole industry out of the art and science of decorating in our culture. These decorations are not necessary, but really nice. They make life more pleasant and beautiful.

I was typing a post for an online forum on Wednesday about some writings by Richard Rolle. The topic was the fire of love, and Rolle relates the first time that he felt this physical warmth and heat in his heart; he was taken aback and delighted at this sense of being internally on fire. It brought him unexpected comfort, fed his soul, spread an interior sweetness in him, and left a hunger for more in its wake. [1]

The last line of my post read: God is a consuming fire, not a decorative candle. And as soon as I wrote it, I was convicted that I myself often use God as a decoration in my life. I splash God on at the beginning of the day and walk around feeling better about myself. I add a dash of God to my meals and they appear brighter and shinier and more wholesome, like some religious MSG. I intersperse my sentences with God-talk and drop a few religious phrases in my conversations and the world just seems to be a better place because of my timely droppings. I tie a God-ribbon around my job and my studies and the package looks very well put-together, neat and tidy. I place a jaunty God-hat on my head when I go to any church function and everyone knows I belong to the spiritual club. I pin a God-flower onto my friends and this assures me that my interactions with them are all about love and peace and not harming anyone. I crawl into bed with my God teddy bear at night and feel comforted and secure.

How much of my religious practice is merely decoration added to a strongly self-directed life? How much is a surface addition - seasonal, temporary, and mostly for effect? Decoration does not change anything at the core. It is a coat of paint, a throw pillow for a punch of colour, a dollop of whipped cream to sweeten up a bland and dry chocolate cake. I have merely added God to who I am comfortable being, hoping to shiny things up a bit. But am I interested in deep transformation? Do I want the master chef to mess with my list of ingredients to what I hold to be a tried and true family recipe? Am I willing to have him rip the agenda page out of my diary?

God is not a decoration to perch on top of an already basically good life: He is life. He is a consuming fire, not a decorative candle. Does my life smell like some artificial room freshener or is the odour of singed pride and living sacrifice in the air? God is not here to make my life prettier. God is creating something much more solid and terrifying and beautiful and multi-dimensional than anything I could imagine. And it starts by surrendering myself to the fire of his love. Let me take down my trite decorations and take a good look at what I have as a foundation.

This is a photo of a decorative candle in my living room. It is from South Africa (the candle, not the living room).

[1] Richard Rolle in Devotional Classics, edited by Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

awkward place

I don't like awkward situations. Like when one person in a group expresses an opinion quite forcefully and in a way that belittles any other position, and yet, you know that a number of people there hold to a different viewpoint. Like when a friend tells you that they are not sure they want you to meet their other friends. Like someone trying to uninvite you from a party. Like making a comment about how unattractive something is and then realising that your conversation partner is really into that particular thing.

The awkward feeling goes away after a bit, but that doesn't mean that it is resolved. These are the situations where I feel most inept, wondering whether to inject a comment, try to smooth things over, expose a misunderstanding, apologise, make light of the situation, or clarify by a few well-directed questions. I have let things lie and many times, that feels like the issue is never dealt with but remains lurking under the surface. I have tried to clarify and ended up making things worse, or so it seems. I have apologised and felt that I avoided the truth and any conflict instead of facing it bravely. And so I continue to bumble along, trying to get it right, trying to be real and truthful and loving.

God reminds me that the story is not finished; relationships are not static. The tenuous nature of some of my interactions with my friends and acquaintances are just a temporary phase and not the final chapter. Love is a long road. It is not for the timid. Love braces itself for the strong winds and calmly waits through the dry, still, heat, but it will not abandon the journey. It takes awkward moments in stride, like a pebble in one's shoe.

I will not walk away from this road of friendship. I will learn to graciously ignore the thoughtless mistakes of others, but to gently offer guidance if they stumble in a wrong direction, and to discern the difference between the two. I will learn to be honest and humble, admitting when I am wrong and sticking to the truth when it is challenged, but not at the expense of another person's dignity. I will keep my thoughts to myself and pray for God's kind and patient presence in someone's life when I have no way to appropriately address the situation, however, I will not be silent when someone is slandered or misrepresented.

Help me, God, this is not easy.

This is a photo of a fall bush along the path near our house.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

step in

I attended a seminar at the American Academy of Religion annual conference in Montreal on Monday. For those of you who don't know (like me before Monday), it is a "learned society and professional association of teachers and research scholars" boasting over 10,000 members who "teach in some 1,500 colleges, universities, seminaries, and schools in North America and abroad." My professors had encouraged us to check it out, so I perused the offerings and found a round table discussion on Monday morning that piqued my interest: Practicing Faith in Graduate School. They promised free coffee and snacks, so how could I go wrong?

There were only three of us that showed up for this particular session, and that was fine with me. I prefer a small group discussion to a person reading their paper to me from a podium any day. I grabbed a juice and a cinnamon pastry and sat down at the table. The facilitator was a pleasant fellow from Pennsylvania who worked as a pastor and adjunct professor at a local college. As the hour progressed, it turned out that he had quite a few stories about how scholars were labeled as heretics in the church community, how the pastors he ran with probably couldn't understood half of the books he reads, how he received a monetary bonus for reaching certain membership goals at his church because that was the only way they could afford him (my chin almost hit the floor), and how appalling it was that his undergrad students didn't know the creeds.

The second fellow, who was a professor at a divinity school in North Carolina, was a mild man who countered with a story of his recent experience of changing to a new church to be with his fiancée, a church predominantly blue collar and military, and finding this a wonderful opportunity for him to relate to others from different walks of life. I liked his open and accepting attitude.

It didn't take long for professor #1 to suss out that I did not have my doctorate, did not know who Tom Altizer was, could not summarize the "Death of God' controversy, and wasn't even a member of the AAR (due to my being the only one present without a badge). The talk in the room soon became a discussion between the two doctorate holders in the room on scholarly topics. I started to feel excluded and that old familiar urge to flee came over me. Whenever the dynamics in a place feel wrong, I often get a strong desire to leave and get away from the uncomfortable scene. It happens when I feel overlooked, misunderstood, overwhelmed, oppressed, underqualified, or threatened in some way. However, I have been learning that fleeing, while appropriate in some dangerous situations, is not usually the best option. I have something to bring. I have something to say. I have a point of view that no one else has, and I need to bring it.

So I brought what I had to that round table discussion, confidently but graciously. I told the learned men that if we can't explain our faith to a 5-year-old or the average person on the street, then what good is our education? I said that being in a minority is good for one's humility. I affirmed the great opportunities that lie in rubbing shoulders with those who are not like us, for we have something to learn from every person, and they have something to learn from us. I pointed out that most of their viewpoints were decidedly American and added that here in Montreal, I counted it a blessing to be in a secular society where one can talk about God and faith to people who have a relatively "clean slate" regarding their religious pre-suppositions. At the end of the session, I thanked them both for the time and their contribution, wished them all the best, and left the room.

That evening I attended one of my classes at university and noticed a difference in how I interacted in the class discussion. I was no longer as timid, measuring every word and hesitating before speaking. I threw in my comments when appropriate, added my thoughts to the discussion, and jumped right in after someone else spoke without having to go over the whole speech in my head first. I brought myself. I stepped forward. I contributed.

Too often, just because we don't look like, talk like, or have the same experience as others in the room, we assume that we don't have anything to add. That is not true. I always have something to bring. At the very least, I can interact kindly and offer an affirming smile or word. Other times, I bring a point of view that others have not thought of. Sometimes, I can turn things from negative to positive by posing a simple question. Always, I pray that I bring the Spirit of Jesus so that his presence is near. And I can't do that by walking away.

Here is a video I stumbled across called, "Dare."


Those are my feet at the top. Stepping in.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

that just don't sound right

There are things that I hear people say that just don't sound right to me, but sometimes I don't know exactly why. One of them is that "my Christian friends are not as much fun and way more high maintenance than my non-Christian friends." Hmmm. While there may be some element of reality in that statement, especially when you are viewing a small slice of someone's life, I believe at its very foundation, this is a lie. And here is why:

1. People who follow and love God are committed to transformation. This is a slightly more taxing goal than having fun and going with the flow (understatement), but definitely more rewarding. A friend of mine said that it was very easy to hang out with his old friends, drinking and passing around a joint, but much of the time it was to avoid having to do the hard work of taking responsibility for one's life and to numb the pain that inevitably comes from this bumpy road we all find ourselves on. Being committed to transformation is about rooting out and eliminating anything that is an obstacle to loving wholeheartedly, living freely, and trusting a good God. A joyful countenance and a graceful, grateful nature are side effects of surrender to God's love, but real and lasting transformation is not an easy journey. It is only for the courageous. (Thanks to Michael Jones for articulating this point and getting me thinking about this.)

2. People who are friends of God are committed to walking through life with others, even when those "others" might not be a whole lot of fun to be around or a drain on our resources at times. It is easy to hang out with people of similar likes and dislikes, people who demand very little of you and who never challenge your self-sufficiency and independence. It is not so easy to be a part of a real familial community. To be clear, I am not endorsing ongoing bad or co-dependent behaviour, but we all go through phases where we have to face difficult situations and deal with certain destructive and unhealthy attitudes, in ourselves and in others. Some of us take a little longer to get through these challenges than others, but as long as there is a willingness to change, there is hope. I know I have been grateful for people who have had the patience and the graciousness to walk with me through my unlovely valleys. How could I not be willing to do this for someone else? This is what community is all about. The strong ones support the weak. We look out for each other. We don't let someone fall by the wayside. We don't walk away.

3. People who are brave enough to walk with God in a vulnerable and open way are some of the most stable, yet unpredictably funny and outrageous people I know. Their wildness is safe but not tame. They need no outside stimulus to have a good time. The gift of life is their excuse to party, and they do so with gratitude and generosity. They are real, truthful, genuine, and dependable. They engage with life in an earthy, deep way, but have the ability to transcend the banal distractions of life, including their own mistakes and those of others. They can make cleaning a toilet, putting together a bookshelf, taking out the garbage, making a meal for 12, or deciphering a messy spread sheet one of the most fun and memorable things you will ever do because all of life is holy and precious and large when God is in it.

I want to be a friend that people like to be around, but more than that, I want to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus. I don't know of any person more attractive than him, though he sure did piss some people off. I guess it just goes with the territory. Cheers!
This is a mysterious plant in the woods near my house. Earthy brown, yet filled with wisps of light, white fluff.

Friday, November 06, 2009

together

Yesterday I spent 3 hours at my university campus. It is interesting how one can be surrounded by thousands of people and still feel quite alone. I ate my supper in a large student lounge area and tried to prepare for a Bible study later that night. Nothing much was inspiring me and God seemed remote and distant. I have been living with a sense of displacement lately. I am not exactly sure where or with which group of people I belong. I enjoy my studies and my colleagues, but I don't feel totally at home there. I love the people I encounter in my faith community, but we are in flux right now as well, changing places and dynamics and comfort zones. Many of my friends are at a crossroads or on a bridge in their lives and that affects how we relate to each other.

So I was walking towards the library yesterday afternoon and talking to God. I began my usual litany and realised that my heart just wasn't in it. If I was going to be talking to the most powerful and interested party in the universe, what did I really want to say? What was the cry at the core of my being? I just want to be loved. Yes, God, I just want to know that I am loved today. And I left it at that. A few steps later, I thought I heard something, so I checked my phone. There was a text message from my friend, saying, "Matte, I hug you from here..."

A few hours later I was walking again, this time away from the library and towards a friend's house. As is my habit, I usually converse with God while I am walking. It has been my practice lately to ask God for a gift every day. His choice. I am working at becoming a better receiver, a more open person instead of an island, and the one I most want to be open to is God, so I have been trying to practice receiving whatever he has for me. However, this afternoon, a different prayer came from my mouth for some reason. Instead of asking God for a gift, I asked if I could be a gift to someone.

About a minute later, I came upon a lady standing at one of the street corners, holding a piece of paper. She caught my eye and started in my direction. I began to sidestep her and raise a hand to let her know that, sorry, I was not interested in hearing her sad story and giving her money. But her question, in French, was not about money. It was asking for help with finding an address, so I stopped and looked at the paper.

She pointed to the street signs at the corner and told me how she was having trouble finding the correct number. We glanced at the paper together, and she realised that she was not on the right street. I pointed her in the right direction, and we walked together for a bit. She told me she had been wandering around for 15 minutes, unable to find her way to her destination. She had come out of the metro and taken a wrong turn, it seemed, and ended up blocks away from where she should be. In frustration, she said, "I'm so stupid!" I gently disagreed with her and pointed out that it wasn't that much further. We walked together for a few blocks, not saying much, and arrived at the correct street. She held out the paper to me again, asking me to help her find the specific address. I turned in a circle on the street corner, looking for numbers, and then spotted them on a building across the street. I showed it to her and she smiled, relieved.

As she crossed the street and headed off to her destination, she called back to me. "Merci beaucoup. Vous ĂȘtes un ange." Then she repeated it in English, just to make sure that I understood. "You are an angel!" I smiled in acknowledgement of her gratitude and stood there, watching until she had safely entered the building. Then I realised that I had just been a gift to that woman.

There is nothing magic about my prayers, nothing at all. Many days I ask for things to change and nothing seems to happen. But this day, after these two experiences, I heard a still, small voice say: "Do you see what happens when you are in agreement with me? When you are real and open and unselfish?" I was quite overwhelmed by the simple power of walking with God and walking with another person.

Today my prayer is: God, I want to do something together with you.

This is the park near my house on a beautiful fall day earlier this week.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

coming out of the closet...kinda

I voted on Sunday. Montreal was having its municipal elections and we got to vote four times. Once for the mayor of Montreal, once for our local borough mayor (St-Laurent), once for the city councilor and once for the borough councilor. I am not all that up on municipal politics, so I decided to inform myself. In case you are not aware of the plethora of intricate and complex issues at stake when you vote in Montreal, here are a few of the things going on:

1. The current mayor and his party have been plagued by scandal. There have been numerous accusations about crooked contracts, bloated costs, Mafia connections, and political pay-offs. It seems to be the way we do business in this city.

2. The main opposition to the current mayor was from a woman who has spent 39 years working for the Parti Quebecois (the political party dedicated to promoting Quebec sovereignty and separation from Canada). She was one of the main forces behind the mega-city merger and wants to centralize power and take it out of the hands of the boroughs. She joined herself with a strong federalist and they promised to provide a broad and comprehensive basis of experience and viewpoints. Unfortunately, 2 weeks before the election, her right-hand man was implicated in a bribe and immediately resigned.

3. The third option was a man with little experience in city government. He promised more bike paths, a new tram system, and a greener downtown (less cars). He was squeaky clean in his finances, but he also believed that smoking was good for his health and that man never walked on the moon.

4. I will not even mention the communist or the gay pride candidates.

After some discussion with Dean and a few friends, I did not know what to do. I quite easily decided which councilors and borough mayoral candidate to vote for, but the city mayoral race left me dumbfounded. Each person had a major flaw and each person also had potential to do something good for the city, I believed, despite their patchy pasts. Do we not all have regrettable things in our past? All my research just convinced me all the more of these things. Dean was going to vote for the current mayor and he was very vocal about it. He will never vote for a separatist and he thought the other guy was a loose cannon.

All these questions were swirling around in my head the morning of the election. Who would do the best for the city? for my interests? Who would clean up the scandals? Who had the most experience? Who would stick to a budget and not raise taxes? Who would make things better instead of worse? My thoughts jumped from one to the other, alighting on no answer. So I asked God, "What is the question I should be asking? Can we just boil it down to one question instead of six?" And that morning I read John 18 where Jesus says to Pilate, the Roman governor: "Everyone who cares for truth, who has any feeling for the truth, recognizes my voice."

So the question I asked was, "Who will tell the truth?" Nothing else mattered right then. Not the past mistakes, not the future promises, not the affiliation or experience, nothing but their potential to embrace truth. I looked at all the candidates again and decided that I would definitely not vote for the current mayor. I did believe that # 3 was an honest man, but he seemed to have a skewed view of reality and a hard time recognizing truth at times. That left me with the woman. The separatist, as Dean called her. It was an uncomfortable choice. I have never supported anyone who was not a federalist. My western Canadian family and friends would have all shuddered that I was even considering the possibility, even though city politics are quite different from national politics.

Dean and I walked to the voting station Sunday afternoon and both cast our ballots. Afterwards, he asked me who I voted for and I coyly avoided the question. I did not want to see his reaction. I knew he would be disappointed and perhaps angry and embarrassed at my answer. I did tell him later on that night and we survived the conflict. A friend had jokingly warned me that if I voted for the PQ woman, our marriage would be over. I responded that everything would be fine, because we did not believe in separation. It was a funny moment. But I did take away a few things with me that Sunday afternoon.

1. God is often not concerned with the same things that we are concerned about in a political situation. He loves and cares for each candidate as much as he cares for us. They are real people with real families and if I invited them into my home for dinner, I would no doubt see what made them want to serve the city in the first place.

2. It is good to listen to the opinions and thoughts of others, but in the end, I must take responsibility for my own actions and stand by them with confidence. I bring a voice to this world that no one else does and even if I sing a wrong note on occasion, I still must sing to the best of my ability.

3. I live in Quebec where almost half of the population has voted for the Parti Quebecois at one point or another. It is good for me to try to understand what they are thinking and why. It is not a disgrace or a dishonor to the rest of Canada to put myself into the shoes of my neighbors and walk with them. We may disagree, but that does not make us any less part of the same family.

4. I know that despite my limited knowledge and my weak choices, God is still in charge. Jesus said to Pilate: "You have not a shred of authority over me except what has been given you from heaven." (John 19) And that's the final word.

I am not a separatist, but I am not ashamed to stand with one. Perhaps that's the reason some people started talking about separation in the first place: they felt that people were not willing to stand beside them.

This is a photo I took on our walk back from the polling station on Sunday. Beautiful fall sky and tall grass.