Friday, January 31, 2014

counter culture

Iona Abbey
This morning I taught a class on monasticism and we focused on the counter-cultural aspect of this particular expression of spirituality. It brought up some interesting questions: is being counter-cultural imperative if one is a follower of Jesus? How distinctive should a Christian lifestyle be? It is easy to identify certain religious sects by their dress, rituals, or closed communities, but exactly how important are these outward differentiations? I don't know that I have a definitive answer, but Jesus certainly indicated that those who follow him and embrace his teachings will exhibit certain distinctives. Here are a few that I found and none of them have anything to do with clothing, rituals, or separating oneself from society.

LOVE. This is not the same as our culture's call for tolerance. Love is more difficult than tolerance because Jesus asks us to do more than just let people do what they do. Jesus calls us to care deeply about their well-being and to lay down our lives for them. Love means that we do not objectify people or people groups. Love means that we don't make sweeping generalizations like "street people are irresponsible" or "Muslims are violent." Love means that we speak up when people are portrayed as objects of desire and that we treat every person with respect, no matter how different their views or lifestyle may be from ours. Love insists that we are willing to hug anyone, willing to share a meal with anyone, and willing to listen to anyone. We are to be known by our love. We, like Jesus, should be friends with sinners.

HEALING.  Wherever Jesus went, healing followed, and he expected the same of his disciples. Followers of Jesus bring healing. This means that we make situations better and not worse. This means that we do not pit people against each other but work towards reconciliation. This means that we do not utter words of judgment and destruction but speak words of life. This means that we bring hope instead of giving in to despair. This means that we always expect the kingdom of God to break in, intervene, and make us whole. This means that we never shut the door on redemption and forgiveness. This means that we offer healing prayers, kindness, and physical help to the sick and suffering. Healing may be instantaneous or a long process, but if we pattern our lives after Jesus, we should be seeing broken lives become whole.

COURAGE. People who encountered Peter and John after their infusion with the Holy Spirit noted three things: 1) they were simple, ordinary men, 2) they were courageous, and 3) they had been with Jesus. These three distinctives should mark any follower of Jesus. Do people remark that we are quite ordinary? Good. Do people note that we have courage which seems unexplainable given our present circumstances? Great! Do people observe that we remind them of Jesus? That's the best thing they can say!

NOT PROMOTING OURSELVES. Jesus did not draw attention to himself or seek fame. He went about working, healing, teaching, giving, praying, and offering people freedom and friendship. He did not come to kick-start a new movement, but to serve others, to seek out the wayward ones and offer them help, to show the ones without hope that God was not as far away as they thought. He was humble, meek, lowly, not a supermodel, not a movie star, and not a great marketer. He just did what his Father asked him to do.

AT REST. Jesus was never frenzied, not overextended, not trying to keep up with a hectic schedule, not tweeting about his latest exploits, not working hard to keep the masses engaged. In fact, he invited those who were weary and fatigued by life to come and find rest in him. He was not constantly overworked and overextended. He came as the Prince of Peace.

Let me be marked by the things that made Jesus so extraordinary in his time, so different, so attractive and controversial. Let me be counter-cultural in all the ways Jesus was.

Friday, January 24, 2014

jump for joy

Skier about to head down the mountain in Adelboden, Switzerland
Wednesday was one of those days when I had to fight to maintain a sense of well-being. To be honest, there were quite a few moments when I didn't quite manage it. The contentment and hope that I usually live in leaked out somewhere along the way and I couldn't patch the hole fast enough to keep low level despair from moving into my soul. I could attribute this "down" day to a mistake or two I made recently (actually, make that at least three), the sinus infection that was making me woozy and slow, or some rather curt emails from a colleague which led me to conclude that he hated me. I have also been finding teaching a burden and a chore, unsure how to fill the 2.75 hours of class-time each Friday morning, certain that I don't know enough, don't explain things clearly enough, and am not really prepared for the barrage of questions that come up on virtually every topic. In addition, writing has seemed like a giant mountain I just can't climb, so I don't even start.

I had that sinking feeling that I was on a path that I shouldn't be on because it was taking me somewhere I didn't really didn't want to be: stuck in a job that I didn't do very well and no longer enjoyed. Had I been kidding myself all this time? Had the novelty of going back to school finally worn off as stark reality dashed cold water on my face to awaken me to the brutal truth? I felt trapped, alone, afraid, and a bit sick to my stomach. What a mess!

In bed that night, tired and discouraged, I laid the mess out before the Creator of the Universe to see what he could make of it. Was my decision to pursue doctoral studies just another mistake in a long line of miscalculated and ill-conceived actions? Short answer: no. But something had changed. Somewhere along the line I had traded brave hope and simple reliance on God for a certain amount of proficiency. For me, joy comes at the intersection of wonder, humility, gratitude, and courage to try something that by all accounts probably shouldn't work if it weren't for the grace of God (and scares me silly if I am honest). My learning journey has been like taking leap after leap from the known into the unknown and being caught in the arms of a loving Father over and over again. How can one not squeal with delight at jumping over great, scary chasms into safety? So when I find myself no longer squealing, perhaps it is because I no longer jump. Perhaps I have been plodding with heavy and tottering steps from A to B, taking the long road through the valley and up a steep incline because I have found that these spindly legs can be made to do that. It is slow, tedious, and extremely tiring, but I can manage. No joy, but I get by.

Somehow I have to find my way back to leaping instead of plodding. Somehow I have to find my way back to joy, and the only way I know to do that is to stop trying to get it all right by not taking any risks, to stop working so hard at doing everything perfectly and remember again how to oooh and aaaah at the passing scenery, to stop obsessing about how I will be perceived by students, colleagues, and professors and instead, share the wonder that I am witness to every day. Somehow I have to remember that my vocation is not to be a great writer and teacher, but to be loved by a generous and good God. And when I receive this love, I find that I can write, I can teach, I can learn, I can jump.

"I finally figured out it wasn't just about performing, it's just accepting his love."
- Mike Fisher, NHL player, Nashville Predators

You can catch Mike's brief talk for the I Am Second project here.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


Hiking in the Alps 2014
The last month has been a bit disruptive. In the midst of finishing my doctoral comprehensive exams, writing a paper for a conference, Christmas preparations, spending a week with family in western Canada, traipsing all over Switzerland, attending a conference just outside of Zurich, and diving right into teaching a course the day after I got back from Europe, some of my usual practices were disrupted. There were no blogs, my workout went out the window, quiet and contemplative times were sporadic, gluten was more abundant, sleeping habits were affected, and housework was neglected. Despite this, for the most part I have felt energetic and encouraged. And I did read quite a few books due to the amount of time I spent in planes and trains.

In general, I don't mind disruptions - in fact, I get kind of antsy and restless if the same old stuff happens day after week after month after year. I love good disruptions like vacations, unexpected dates with Dean, phone calls from family far away, chance encounters with friends, and invitations to participate in unique adventures. However, even good disruptions can turn into something not so good if we let them displace healthy habits and practiced virtues. A good vacation can turn ugly pretty quickly if it becomes a respite not only from work but also from courtesy, patience, and common sense. I witnessed some of that in my travels. Taking the occasional break from a workout, diet, or spiritual discipline is usually no big deal, but too much disruption can erode the benefits we have worked so hard to gain in our body, soul, and spirit. Today I got back to my workout and I could tell it had been a month - my legs and lungs were burning. It has also been a bit tougher to settle into times of quiet and contemplation because of the whirlwind past few weeks, but I'm getting there, bit by bit. Disruptions help me appreciate the necessity and value of good habits and disciplines, and after a disruption, I often come to them with fresh vigour and enthusiasm.

Obviously bad disruptions, which are basically some level of disaster, are to be avoided. However, bad disruptions can work good things into our lives, too, because they can challenge us to become more truthful, more loving, more courageous, more generous, and more reliant on God and those around us. Disruptions, both good and bad, can make us better people if we let them.

As I find my way back to a regular schedule, let me be open to disruptions that will help and let me turn away from those that will hinder. And may I have the wisdom to know the difference.