Wednesday, April 24, 2013

beyond faithfulness

I have been reading Gregory Boyle's Tattoos on the Heart.  It is filled with stories from the Catholic priest's twenty years of working with gang members in central LA, an area known for its high concentration of gang-related murders.  The stories of founding Homeboy Industries and offering gang members an alternative lifestyle are inspiring, funny, touching, and they garner my deep respect for all that Boyle and his staff and volunteers do for their community.  And the love and patience with which they do it.  But as poignant as the stories are, I don't totally identify with them.  After all, gang life in central LA is pretty far removed from theology studies in Montreal. 

And then I came to the chapter called "Success."  And things got close to home real fast. Boyle begins with these words:  "People want me to tell them success stories.  I understand this.  They are the stories you want to tell, after all.  So why does my scalp tighten whenever I am asked this?  Surely, part of it comes from being utterly convinced that I'm a fraud."  Yes, indeed.  Homeboy Industries, a non-profit organization, relies on funding to meet its operating budget (about 1/3 of the funds come from their businesses which employ ex-gang members: businesses like a cafĂ©, a bakery, a screen-printing shop, a graffiti removal crew, etc.).  And funders like to see evidence-based outcomes; in other words, success stories.  Boyle goes on to tell stories with heartbreaking endings, stories where gang members take one step forward and two back, stories where innocent bystanders catch bullets, stories where mothers are undone with grief and small children are left motherless.  They are not pleasant stories and yet, they need to be told. 

Boyle quotes Mother Teresa:  "We are not called to be successful, but faithful."  And this distinction, he writes, is necessary to weather the ebb and flow of his vocation, and I would add, of life.  Boyle continues: "If you surrender your need for results and outcomes, success becomes God's business.  I find it hard enough to just be faithful."  And here is where it gets really real for me.  I spar with the "results and outcomes" monster fairly regularly, and though he bloodies my nose on occasion, he usually loses the fight.  However, faithfulness, whom I have long considered a close friend and ally, seems to have become distant in the past few months.  I carry guilt over my lack of diligence in my schoolwork, fret over my lack of consistent writing, chide myself over my slowness to tackle a reading list, feel numb about my lack of self-discipline in prayer, and struggle with small doubts about my ability to teach, my worthiness as a scholar, my desirability as a wife, and my ability to effectively assume a leading role in a faith community.  At times life doesn't feel like success, and I'm okay with that.  But if I lose a grip on faithfulness...

"Success and failure, ultimately, have little to do with living the gospel," Boyle says. "Jesus just stood with the outcasts until they were welcomed or until he was crucified - whichever came first."  This slipping of faithfulness, then, however big or small it may be (and I realize in the grand scheme of things mine is rather small), has opened up an unlikely opportunity for me: to stand with the faithless and say, "I know" instead of standing in judgment and saying, "I'm disappointed."  As long as I can remember, I have stood on the side of the faithful and never on the side of the faithless.  Aside from very brief moments, I have never felt the guilt, the powerlessness, the fatigue, the inertia.  All Jesus asks, Father Boyle suggests, is "Where are you standing?"  Today, I am standing in an uncomfortable, unfamiliar place, the place of the less than faithful.  Perhaps it is a place of greater grace than I previously thought.  Perhaps it is a place to identify with (instead of look down on) the "difficult and belligerent."  Perhaps it is a place to witness the "slow work of God" from the inside.  It is no surprise that even here, I find Jesus standing with me saying, "I know." 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


Table of food: Christmas dinner with my family
I try to live by the motto that life is not about issues, but about relationships.  As a result of this, I don't engage much with hot topics or comment much on world events or what's on the news.  Frankly, I usually have very little to add to the conversation, other than to ask God for grace, help, healing, and wholeness.  Coming down on one side or the other of an issue is never that helpful, I find.  However, a few things I have read lately about how some Christian groups are condemning, excluding, and judging certain people have pained me deeply.  As a result, I have begun to do some thinking about how we treat others.  And by "others" I mean those whom we disagree with, those whom we don't understand, those whom we don't like, those whom we think are a blight on society, etc. You know who I'm talking about. 

Since I profess to follow God, I believe that I should learn how to treat others by looking at how God treats others.  Let me begin with a brief look at holiness (thanks to James Patrick Holding and Jo Bailey Wells for the following points which I have adapted).
1) Holiness means uniqueness.  No one and nothing else is like God.  Being made in God's image means that we, as humans, carry some of this uniqueness.  And that which is unique requires unique accommodation: it is to be treated with special care and attention.  This explains some of the rigorous directives given regarding the worship of God and the care of the temple items.
2) Holiness means belonging to God.  Someone or something is holy because of their association with a holy God.
3) Holiness means living with God. Not only is holiness about being associated with God, it is about being in the presence of God.  In other words, the closer the association, the more intimate the connection, the more holiness comes into play.  This means that holiness is linked to the characteristics of God, two of which are purity (100% wholeness, no mixed ingredients) and light (no darkness).
4) Holiness radiates outward.  While holiness is, in a sense, a boundary that separates God from everything else, holiness is not closed off.  Holiness, like light, glows and radiates outward.

To this holy God, then, everything and everyone is other.  However, when we look at Genesis 1-2, we see a God who is invitational.  Though God is complete and self-sufficient, having need of nothing or no one, he invites the "other" into existence.  This is the creation story.  God also generously invites the "other" into companionship (Genesis 2).  This companionship involves freedom of choice, so we see God inviting the "other" to exercise their will.  When the different wills clash, a rift develops in the relationship (Genesis 3).  God then invites the "other" to be restored and makes a way to repair the relationship.  What follows in the rest of the books of the Bible is the continuing story of this restoration with all its ups and downs.  In Genesis 12, God invites the "other" into a covenant, a mutual relationship which has the following phrase echoing throughout the history of the Israelites: "I will be your God and you will be my people" (Exodus 6). 

This covenant includes three elements: invitation, promises, and boundaries.  God invites the "other" into relationship.  This relationship carries with it mutual promises and defines the places of meeting.  For example, if I invite Bob over for dinner tonight at 7 pm and he accepts, I am basically making a promise to have food prepared and he is promising to be present.  Being in a mutual agreement also means that other things which are in conflict with this agreement are excluded.  Bob can't be somewhere else eating at someone else's table at 7 pm tonight because that would be in conflict with our agreement.  The boundaries of our agreement also mean that when Bob is eating at my table, at my invitation, he agrees to abide by the basic etiquette of his host.  He does not throw food, he does not stab any of the other guests with his butter knife, nor does pick up someone else's chair and toss it out the window.  It's my table and not "anything goes" at my table.

The last point I want to add here is something I read in a blog by Richard Beck.  He talks about recovering our identity as Gentiles.  What this means is that we must never forget that we are not "by nature" the children of God.  We have been chosen and adopted.  We are the branches that have been grafted onto the tree.  We, who were outsiders, have been given the great gift of being invited into relationship with God.  We sometimes forget that our inclusion at the table of God was shocking and offensive at the time of Jesus.  Many of the ones already at the table (the Jews) were not impressed with this development, and quite a few of the letters written in the New Testament address this issue of who is "in" and who is not. 

So how does all of this relate to how we treat others?  First, all of creation has been invited to the table of God.  God, in his generosity, excludes no one from the invitation.  However, not everyone responds to the invitation and pulls up a chair (enters into a mutual agreement to be God's and make God their own).  Those who have responded to the invitation must not forget that this is not their table; they have not issued the invitation so they have no authority to exclude someone or demand behaviour tailored to their own personal preference.  What happens around the table (boundaries or guidelines) is determined by the host.  As at any feast, we are not to throw the food on the floor and stomp on it (not treat our gifts and resources with carelessness or disdain).  We are not to take up our butter knives and stab those sitting beside us (not harm fellow human beings).  And we are not to heave someone else's chair out the window (not deny someone else a seat at the table).  We are all outsiders.  We are all invited.  Everyone is welcome, but not anything goes. 

Let me always remember that I am the "other" and any connection I have with God is a gift, a generous, undeserved gift.  If God is invitational, I must be invitational.  What does that look like in my life?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

do it again!

Buds on a tree this morning
I saw my first bud on a tree today.  Well, not exactly my first, because I have seen them before, but it was my first sighting this year.  It has been an extended winter and it feels like the whole earth is straining to catch a glimpse of the spring sun and feel its warm, nourishing rays again.  I know I am. 

Today I was reading G.K. Chesterton and Kathleen Norris.  Both of them have developed a gift for seeing the playful and holy presence of Christ in moments that many of us dismiss as mundane and ordinary.  Chesterton writes about the sun rising every morning in response to the call of the Spirit of God to "Do it again!"  He calls this repetition in nature a theatrical, heavenly encore. 

Similarly, Norris speaks about the mindless tasks of laundry and washing dishes as invitations to enter the temple of "holy leisure."  She says there is sacred potential in the necessity of repetition when we see these actions as occasions for renewal and playful abandon.  As children, we were excited by repetition, not bored by it.  We wanted to do things like play peek-a-boo, skip down the street, jump on the bed, or run into our dad's arms over and over again in order to keep on drinking from the deep well of joyful abandon we found in these particular activities.

Chesterton mourns the loss of this appetite for joy:  "For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.  But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.  It is possible that God says every morning, 'Do it again' to the sun; and every evening, 'Do it again' to the moon.  It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.  It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we."

Similarly, Norris praises the simple rituals built into human existence:  "Each day brings with it not only the necessity of eating but the renewal of our love of and in God.  This may sound like a simple thing, but it is not easy to maintain faith, hope or love in the everyday. ... As a human being, Jesus Christ was as subject to the daily as any of us.  And I see both the miracle of manna and incarnation of Jesus Christ as scandals.  They suggest that God is intimately concerned with our very bodies and their needs, and I doubt that this is really what we want to hear.  Our bodies fail us, they grow old, flabby and feeble, and eventually they lead us to the cross.  We want life to have meaning, we want fulfillment, healing and even ecstasy, but the human paradox is that we find these things by starting where we are, not where we wish we were.  We must look for blessings to come from unlikely, everyday places - out of Galilee, as it were - and not in spectacular events."

Our lives are filled with ordinary tasks we do over and over again.  Often they become so much a part of our ritual that we forget that we do them.  Dean is always asking, "Did I close the garage door?"  He did, but he doesn't remember; it has become a mindless habit.  I try not to engage in mindless activities, but it is difficult.  The nature of human life is that we need to eat, sleep, wash, work, drive, and do a multitude of things like climbing the stairs and putting on our clothes thousands of times.  It is not easy to be excited about every dish I wash or every shirt I iron.  Chesterton writes about "wilful miracles." By this he means that those characteristics of nature which we suppose are automatic are perhaps the wilful (and joyful) enactments of someone's desire.  The fact that a bird lays an egg every time and not a fish is a "wilful miracle," a sign that someone is watchfully and wondrously enacting a beautiful and creative work over and over again.  Because he delights in it.

Yes, I would like my life to be day after day of "wilful miracles," of wondrous works done over and over again with great joy and beauty.  Let me exult in the daily rituals which invite me to participate in renewal, love, and this grand thing called life.  Let me rejoice over every bud as much as the first one I see.

Quotes from G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy and Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

a bottle of water

The bottle of water I bought this morning
On my way to class this morning I stopped to buy a bottle of water.  I always go to the same coffee shop because it is convenient, well-priced, and I want to support the new management which seems to be trying really hard to change the mediocre reputation the place had before.  Anyway, this morning I walked up to the counter and waited for the server who was busy tidying something up at the back of the serving station. 

As I was waiting, another person walked up to the counter and stood on my right, closer to the server.  I watched as the server turned, greeted the other person, took their order, and made her way to the cash register (where I was standing) to complete the transaction.  I felt my mouth drop open and my head shake ever so slightly, my annoyance at being overlooked coming through in my body language.  I was here first, lady! 

The server smiled at me and indicated that she would take my order while the other person was fishing for money in their purse.  I avoided her smile, pouting over the slight I felt at not being served first.  And yes, I delayed giving her my order because I was annoyed at not getting prompt service.  It makes no sense at all, I know.  Shooting myself in the foot, as they say.  It was then that I realised I was being absolutely ridiculous, so I gave her my order.  In fact, the server and I said the words "a bottle of water" at the same time because she knows what I always get.  When she returned with the water, I gave her the money, a small tip, and a smile.  As I walked away, I reprimanded myself for taking offense at something so small:  "Really?  You're going to get upset over a simple thing like that?  You were distracted when you came in, you know, on your iPhone, so perhaps the server did not think you were ready to order.  And the other person was very decisive and quick, you have to admit.  No need to take it out on the server who was only doing her job and doing it with a smile."  Okay.  I let it go. 

Due to some childhood experiences, I can be sensitive to being overlooked, and sometimes I still react inappropriately to situations that trigger feelings of unimportance, smallness, and insignificance.  Thankfully, most of the time I catch myself and make a choice to respond with understanding and patience instead of taking offense where none is meant.

This morning we had a guest speaker in class and she talked about the great freedom we all have: the freedom to love in all circumstances.  No one can take this choice away from us.  In good times and in bad, whether we are enjoying great success or things are being taken away from us, whether people love us and praise our efforts or they hate and despise us.  In every instance, we always have the choice to respond in love, offering kindness, grace, and a smile.  May I take advantage of this incredible gift of freedom more often.  Even when buying a bottle of water.