Wednesday, June 8, 2016

a lesson from biceps and triceps


Image from muscularsystem12.weebly.com
I recently re-read the book, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, written by surgeon Dr. Paul Brand in cooperation with Philip Yancey. In it, the authors explore the wonders of the body and look at the implications of the "body of Christ" metaphor. Dr. Brand writes about the importance of loyalty; if cells are not loyal to the well-being of the body as a whole, not willing to work together, not willing to sacrifice themselves when necessary, not dedicated to supplying blood or oxygen where most needed at the moment, then the body will suffer. Disloyalty is perhaps best exemplified by cancer cells which gorge themselves on available resources, refusing to practice restraint even though this puts the entire body in jeopardy. Without loyalty, the body cannot survive.

Dr. Brand tells the story of an engineer who came to him because of a spastic muscle in his neck; it twitched so violently that his chin smashed into his shoulder every few seconds. The condition, which was triggered by anxiety, brought the engineer to the brink of suicide, so Dr. Brand performed a very delicate surgery which severed the hairlike nerves that triggered the spastic muscle. "When people see someone with a spastic muscle, they often assume the muscle itself is malfunctioning. Actually, the muscle is perfectly healthy, not diseased. In fact, it is well-developed because of frequent use. The malfunction stems from the muscle's relationship to the rest of the body; it demonstrates its strength at the wrong times, when the body neither needs nor wants it to function. ... Quite simply, a spastic muscle disregards the needs of the rest of the body; its dysfunction is closer to rebellion than to disease."[1]

Muscles perform just one action: they contract. As a result of this singular focus, complex movements such as running, throwing a ball, or playing the guitar are the result of muscles working in groups, their excitation (when the muscle is contracted) and their inhibition (when the muscle is relaxed) carefully orchestrated by the brain to allow each muscle to move when needed. For instance, if you want to pick up an apple, you engage your biceps. However, this is only possible if the opposing muscle group, the triceps, relaxes and gives way to the action.

Dr. Brand writes: "A harmony of inhibitions synchronizes the whole body, coordinating heartbeats with breathing and breathing with swallowing, setting muscle tone, adjusting to all the changes in movement. In short, inhibition keeps one part of the machine out of the way of the other." [2] When the apostle Paul writes about the church, the language is similar. "But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it" (1 Corinthians 12:18, New Living Testament). "Christ, who is the head of his body, the church ... makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love." (Ephesians 4:15-16, New Living Testament).

The inhibition Dr. Brand writes about is comparable to the concept of submission we find in Paul's letters. In the New Testament, we find the Greek word hypotasso (usually translated as "submit") which was a Greek military term meaning "to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader." In non-military use, it was "a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden."[3] We often think of submission as mostly a passive stance, but with its military imagery, hypotasso is far from passive. There is the necessity of putting aside one's own agenda in order to work together with others as one unit. There is also the importance of taking on one's unique responsibility within that unit in order to achieve a purpose larger than any individual goal. Another Greek word, ekdotos, translated "surrender," is also a military term meaning to lay down arms, to cease resistance, and to yield to another's control and authority.[4] It is used only once in the New Testament, and that is in Acts 2:23 when the writer speaks of Jesus' crucifixion and death as being part of God's plan and purpose for the salvation of the world. Here again, we note that surrender is not primarily passive, but the act of becoming part of a larger action or purpose.

We can observe the two dimensions of surrender (yielding and acting) in Jesus's calling of the disciples. When he issued the invitation, "Follow me," they responded by laying down their current occupations and locations and taking up the task of walking in the footsteps of their new master. In James 4, we again find this dual action: "Submit (hypotasso) yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded." (James 4:7-8. NRSV) One of the themes in the book of James is the danger of double-mindedness, of trying to have two wills or desires or agendas operating at the same time. This results in a stalemate where nothing is accomplished (biceps and triceps again). According to James, there must be both a letting go and a taking up of a task. The order of the two is important; one must first yield in order to be able to perform the necessary action.

Alcoholics Anonymous has long recognised the power of surrender and its role in helping people move toward wholeness. An explanation of Step 1 includes these words: "Surrender is an act of saying "YES!" Prior to that you were saying "NO!" "No, I don't want to give up alcohol! No, it is not out of control! No, I don't need help, I will manage this myself! No, I am not an alcoholic!" Now you say, "Yes, I can see that it is out of control! Yes, I need help! Yes, I surrender! Yes, I am an alcoholic! There is power in saying Yes! Yes is positive, No is negative. When you say "Yes!" you are affirming something, you are letting something in. There is something inherently satisfying to the human organism in saying yes, rather than saying no. Try it just now... say NO! and see how you feel, then say YES! and see how you feel. There is a release of tension with yes. Surrender begins with a yes!" [5]

If we are ever to step fully into our purpose as the body of Christ, we must learn how to surrender. Like any muscle, surrender must be exercised. Like any discipline or skill, surrender must be practiced. We can begin with simple physical exercises like gripping tightly onto something and then letting go, tensing all our muscles and then relaxing them. We can practice with exercises of the will like giving away something precious to us or allowing someone else to choose where we go for lunch. We can practice with our words by learning to say Yes instead of No. We can also practice with our prayers. We can pray with Jesus, "Not my will but yours be done." We can also pray the Suscipe (Latin for "receive") with Ignatius of Loyola as a reminder that we are not our own, that we are part of something much bigger and more beautiful than ourselves, and that our words and actions need to reflect that reality.

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
 my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will.
All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.

----------------------------

[1] Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: A Surgeon Looks at the Human and Spiritual Body (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1980), 177.
[2] Brand and Yancey, 171.
[3] "hypotasso," www.blueletterbible.org
[4] "ekdotos," www.blueletterbible.org
[5] http://www.universalaa.com/steps/1_surrender.html

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Love yourself

Image from onmogul.com


I recently read Henri Nouwen's book, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. In it, he talks about holistic spiritual formation in the form of three movements: in relating rightly to God, we move from illusion to prayer; in relating rightly to the other, we move from hostility to hospitality, and in relating rightly to ourselves, we move from loneliness to solitude. Though he writes about each relationship separately, Nouwen acknowledges that these three relationships cannot be neatly divided; how we relate in one area invariably affects the other two.

In our faith communities, we are frequently exhorted to love God and to love our neighbour (the other). But when is the last time someone, other than Justin Bieber, told us to love ourselves? It seems a bit difficult to talk about loving ourselves without crossing over into self-indulgence, but when Jesus condenses the teachings of the prophets into, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. ... and ... Love your neighbour as you love yourself," he is indicating that relating rightly to the self cannot be separated from the other two directives (Matthew 22:37-39, God's Word Translation). It is also apparent that self-love is as susceptible to being skewed and distorted as are the other two loves.

So how do we rightly relate to ourselves? Let me answer this question by posing a few others: When we speak to a beloved friend, what does it sound like? What kind of language do we use? What words do we say? What do we not say? I believe that one evidence of loving ourselves is that we think and speak of ourselves as a beloved friend, a precious gift to ourselves and to the world. The Psalmist says, "I will offer You [Lord] my grateful heart, for I am Your unique creation, filled with wonder and awe. You have approached even the smallest details with excellence; Your works are wonderful; I carry this knowledge deep within my soul" (Psalm 139:14, The Voice).

Let us put this together with the words of Paul to the Roman church: "I can respectfully tell you not to think of yourselves as being more important than you are; devote your minds to sound judgment since God has assigned to each of us a measure of faith. For in the same way that one body has so many different parts, each with different functions; we, too - the many - are different parts that form one body in the Anointed One. Each one of us is joined with one another, and we become together what we could not be alone" (Romans 12:3-5, The Voice). And later, he writes, "Do not slack in your faithfulness and hard work. Let your spirit be on fire, bubbling up and boiling over, as you serve the Lord. ... Share what you have with the saints, so they lack nothing; take every opportunity to open your life and home to others" (Romans 12:11,13, The Voice).

In light of this, I will now offer a few thoughts on what it means to rightly relate to (love) ourselves.
1. It means seeing and treating ourselves the way God does.
2. It means being filled with wonder and awe at our uniqueness.
3. It means we are always learning, growing, and being transformed.
4. It means being a wholehearted person, not divided.
5. It means embracing our vocation, doing our best to say Yes to the unique call of God in our lives.
6. It means being humble (being honest with ourselves, not hiding from ourselves).
7. It means knowing that we are made up of many parts, having a wonderful, complex unity (the body is indeed a marvel, as are the mind and the soul!).
8. It means connecting with others and our world, generously sharing who we are.
9. It means being faithful to where God has placed us, embracing our culture and context.
10. It means seeing ourselves as a friend, as a beloved companion.
Community has an inner quality before it has an outer expression. When we have inner unity, have love and acceptance and humble awareness of ourselves, we can lovingly encounter others without unrealistic expectations.

Henri Nouwen uses the words, loneliness and solitude, to describe two opposite poles of the self-relationship spectrum. Loneliness is when we are not at peace, but always seeking to satisfy some inner craving. Solitude of heart is creating precious space where we can discover our vocation, be attentive to our questions, and acknowledge our uniqueness as created beings in the image of the Creator. Loneliness views the self as a desert. Solitude views it as a garden. Loneliness is restless while solitude is restful. Loneliness expresses itself through craving and clinging while solitude expresses itself in searching and playing. Loneliness is driven and wants immediate satisfaction; solitude is free, able to wait attentively. Loneliness makes us want to hide and avoid; solitude cultivates honesty and humility. Loneliness makes us defensive, but solitude of the heart acknowledges that we have nothing to lose and all to give. Loneliness craves intimacy but can never find it; solitude offers intimacy through patient acceptance and love.

I have already said that rightly relating to ourselves means that we speak to ourselves as we would a beloved friend. It means that we speak the truth to ourselves, agreeing with what God says about us. It also means that we know how to encourage ourselves, to speak life to our souls. We can say, along with the Psalmist, "O my soul, come, praise the Eternal with all that is in me - body, emotions, mind, and will - every part of who I am - praise His holy name" (Psalm 103:1, The Voice). We should also know how to discourage ourselves, to tell ourselves, as we would a friend, that a certain course of action is certain to end badly. "Do not start down the road of the wicked - the first step is easy, but it leads to heartache - do not go along the way of evildoers" (Proverbs 4:14, The Voice). When we rejoice in the gifts God has given to us, let us not forget to rejoice because each one of us is a unique creature, divinely created to show forth his glory like no other.

We are holy ground because we have Christ in us. Thomas Merton says it well: "It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race! … I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate… And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are walking around shining like the sun.”

Perhaps this truth cannot be explained, but it can be declared. We would do well to rehearse Merton's phrase: "Yes, I am walking around shining like the sun! This is the glory of God in me!" How can I not love that?

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

inside a thesis defence



Last week, I passed the milestone of defending my doctoral dissertation (cheer), and since pretty much everyone on the planet was not present for that momentous event, I thought I would offer you a peek into what went on. This is a bit more on the technical side of things, but believe me, technique is important. Just ask a musician or artist or chef or athlete or craftsman or engineer or scientist or the barista who makes your caramel macchiato. Technique matters.

First, a bit of background: a doctoral dissertation (which is usually the length of a good fiction book book but not as high on the page-turner scale) is meant to be an original contribution to the field of study, which in my case is theology. It must demonstrate the person's research abilities and their adeptness at engaging with and building on the work of others within their discipline. The oral exam relating to this dissertation (which is the culmination of the Doctor of Philosophy degree) requires that the student be able to defend their theories, choices, and conclusions to a panel of learned experts (usually 5 of them). In case it is not apparent, it's a pretty intense few hours for the doctoral candidate as question after question is thrown at them.

So what's the point of all this, you ask? It seems like a whole lot of effort and stress just for a piece of paper and a few letters after your name. But there is method to this madness, yes there is. The oral exam gives the student the opportunity to showcase the skills they have (hopefully) developed during the course of their studies, and I propose that these skills are valuable not only for academics or theologians, but for anyone engaged in discovery, discernment, or investigation of any sort. In other words, these are life skills we can all work on.

Below are the basic, general questions which the doctoral candidate must be able to answer in the oral exam and a brief explanation of the skill set each one involves.

1) What is your question or what problem are you trying to solve? 
Coming up with a precise question sounds easier than it is. Often our questions reveal that we have not really thought the matter through. This is evident when the question is vague or too general, when it is really a complaint or disagreement in disguise, when it expresses a desire for a quick fix instead of demonstrating willingness to do the hard work of discovery, and when it is too far removed from reality. In general, the simpler the question, the more likely one is to have a fruitful result. A straight-forward, clear, well-defined, honest question is a beautiful thing, because it immediately draws us into wondering about possibilities and makes us eager to begin exploring.

2) What was your method for answering the question?
How we approach something is important because our methodology will directly impact our results and determine where we end up. One of my professors explains it this way: method is like a recipe, you follow a set of justifiable steps to achieve a goal. If you are attempting to bake the first ever Dr. Pepper chocolate chip cookies, you would start with a reliable recipe and then, using your knowledge of chemistry, add new ingredients while adjusting for changes in texture and taste, and hope for a good outcome. You might need to try a few different combinations before arriving at a workable and edible result. A methodology is more than trying this and that, more than just starting and hoping that things will sort themselves out as you go. Methodology requires us to be knowledgeable about what has been done before, to be aware of what has worked in the past and what has not, and to develop a plan of action based on the wisdom available to us. Of course, we also need to be able to adapt it when new information comes our way.

3) What were your findings? What have you discovered?
Again, this seems simpler than it actually is, and that is because we are never just reporting findings, we are always interpreting them. This is especially true when dealing with people, history, texts, and somewhat abstract ideas, all of which theology does. For this reason, our findings should always be presented with humility, and we should always acknowledge that we see only part of the picture. We should also be acutely aware that we are part of a larger learning community; we are better together, learning from each other, than each trying to do our own thing or push our ideas onto others.

4) Why is this important? What are the implications and/or applications?
Though it seems obvious to us that what we are doing is important, mostly because we are so invested in our own ideas and work, this question requires careful attention. It requires us to have some knowledge of the work already being done in our field and some experience in practical application. In the area of theology, it is important to ask if what we are doing draws people closer to Jesus. Does it bring hope? Does it increase faith? Does it promote loving interaction? Does it treat others with honour? Does it bring clarity and diminish confusion? Does it reveal the glory of God?

5) What will you do next?
It is often not possible to answer this question with any certainty, but the examiners are looking for an indication that the student has given some thought to progressing in their journey of discovery by actively pursuing the options which seem most feasible. When a student answers this question well, it reflects that they are now a peer, taking responsibility for their own progress and ongoing enlightenment. In addition, a good answer from the student shows that they actively seek to contribute meaningfully to their community.

All of the above questions could be asked, with some modification, in any number of situations, but within the context of a spiritual quest to be more like Jesus, they might be summed up in these two queries: What is your deepest desire? What do you want to give to the world? It is worth spending some time prayerfully pursuing the answers to these questions, because they will determine where you go and what you do.

May we find the Creator at the centre of all our quests.
May we stay close to Jesus so that we always follow his lead.
May we lean into wind of the Holy Spirit instead of relying on our own understanding.
Amen.


Matte from Montreal

Monday, March 7, 2016

The leaning Jesus

lean-in-lean-out
Image from meclarkeconsulting.com
Let's start off with a little Greek lesson. The Greek word which we usually translate as grace is charis, which comes from chairo which means to rejoice or be glad. Charis means grace, a gift or blessing, a credit, a favour, that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, and loveliness. It also means leaning toward or extending yourself toward someone in order to be near them, to share a benefit with them. This last sense of the word, that of leaning toward someone, is especially interesting to me. Often we think of leaning as something we do for support, like leaning on a wall when we are off balance or leaning on a friend when we need help. But the type of leaning we see here is that of partiality, of favour. For instance, when given a choice between eating sushi or popcorn, I would definitely lean toward popcorn (sorry, sushi fans). I also lean toward being with Dean, reading good books, and sipping chai lattes.

In Luke, we find two stories, practically back to back, which are somewhat of a contrast in leaning toward. A rich official in Luke 18 comes to Jesus to ask him how to inherit eternal life. In the brief interaction between him and Jesus, we see the rich man leaning toward several things: eternal life, Jesus as God's messenger, and keeping the commands of God. This is all good stuff. Alas, he reveals that he is also partial to keeping his wealth, which means that when given the choice, he prefers the security of riches rather than giving everything up to follow Jesus.

Luke 19:1-10 tells us the story of another rich man, Zaccheus the tax collector. Though rich, he is not well-liked in the community due to his reputation for taking advantage of people in order to benefit the despised Roman empire as well as himself. He desperately wants to see Jesus whom he has heard so much about, but he is short and no one is inclined to make way for him, so he climbs a tree. Jesus sees him clinging to the tree and invites himself to Zaccheus' house, much to the dismay of the crowd. As a result of his encounter with Jesus, Zaccheus promises to give half of his wealth to the poor and repay those he has cheated four times what he took. In this story we notice that Zaccheus leans toward making money and using the system for his own profit. Not so good. However, he also has a strong desire and preference for seeing Jesus and is not afraid to make a spectacle out of himself to do so. He is eager to bring Jesus into his home and not concerned about his reputation. Finally, we see him lean toward making things right, changing his priorities in order to align himself with Jesus. In effect, he leans away from his wealth because he sees that it will keep him from leaning toward Jesus. Jesus comments on this by declaring. "Today, liberation has come to this house," and affirms Zaccheus as a descendant of Abraham, in effect cancelling his reputation as a traitor who works for the Romans.

However, the most important enactment of grace, of leaning toward, we can observe in these stories is not done by either the rich ruler or the rich tax collector, but by Jesus. We see Jesus leaning toward both these rich men in unique and individual ways. In the case of the rich ruler, Jesus leans toward him by offering instruction, by challenging him to go beyond what he knows and has experienced, and by pressing on a sensitive area. Jesus leans toward Zaccheus in a different way: by seeing him and expressing a desire to be seen with him. He also leans toward Zaccheus by inviting himself into Zaccheus' private domain,. In both cases, Jesus leans toward the rich men by calling them to himself (to follow him) and thereby indicating his desire to be near them, his partiality toward them. In many ways, this act of grace reminds me of the words of Son of Man in Revelation 3:20: " Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me."

We can experience the grace of God in our lives in different ways. Sometimes Jesus leans toward us and, like the rich ruler, we feel pressure. This pressure could be a challenge to our own personal comfort and status quo, an identification of some sensitive spot, or a gentle touch guiding us in a new direction. Sometimes grace looks like instruction, an opening of our minds and hearts to new ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. Like Zaccheus, we might experience grace as a calling, an invitation, and an affirmation of who we really are in the eyes of our Creator. When Jesus leans toward us, we often experience a knocking (repetitive words or experiences meant to get our attention) and begin to recognise the words of Jesus as personal and alive. The extension of God's grace toward us is always an invitation to let Jesus into our private domain, to invite him to dwell with us and eat with us, and to share all that we have and are with him so that our home and our life become extensions of his kingdom and his life.

Jesus is always leaning toward us, always extending grace to us. May we respond by leaning on him.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

making good small decisions

Suscipe Prayer of St. Ignatius. Image from catholicismpure.com

Decisions, decisions...we make many of them each day. We decide whether to wear the pink socks or the black socks and whether to have yogurt or cereal for breakfast (or both). We decide whether or not we will go to the gym today, whether we will speak kindly or impatiently to others, and whether we will eat that second piece of cake. Some decisions are more consequential than others. What socks I am wearing has less effect on my well-being than whether I go to the gym, and my choice of breakfast food will have less impact on others than the words I choose to speak to them. Since we are faced with a multitude of decisions every day, it seems prudent to develop some skills in making good choices, choices which bring life and goodness and beauty to our world instead of destruction, chaos, and enmity.

One of the most helpful (and simplest) tools of discernment for decision-making can be found in the Christian tradition of Ignatian Spirituality. It finds its origins in the life of Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), a young Spanish knight whose dreams of an illustrious career as a nobleman and military hero were cut short when he sustained a serious injury to his legs in the battle of Pamplona in 1521. During a long period of recovery which included several surgeries (before the invention of anesthetics), he read the only books available to him. Their topics were the life of Christ and the lives of the saints. He also spent much time daydreaming about a life of chivalry and a certain lady he admired. He observed that each of these past-times brought different results. After contemplating the life of Christ and the saints, he felt a sense of consolation and was filled with increased love, faith, and hope. His daydreams concerning chivalry and pretty ladies, pleasant enough in the moment, soon left him with a sense of desolation, sadness, restlessness, and apathy.

Over time, Ignatius developed a set of spiritual exercises which later became a hallmark of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) which he founded when he was in his forties. Ignatius proposed that one of the ways to observe the movements of the soul was to practice what he called the Examination of Conscience (Examen) every day. Basically, one looks back on the past 24 hours and observes where they felt close to God, in sync with God, grateful and full of life, and what moments one sensed that they were resisting God, when they felt far from God, when their soul was in turmoil and agitated. By being attentive to these moments each day, one could see where they were participating in the life of God and where they were straying from it. Over time, a person would become more attune to the presence and pull of God in their lives and learn to discern the implications of decisions before they were made.

In doing the Examen, a person is not just mulling over the day and evaluating it; the first important task in the exercise is to invite God to view the past 24 hours with us, to draw our attention to key points in the day. It is a bit like looking at something with a wise friend who points out things which we overlooked.

There are many variations of the Examen and some find it helpful to do it together as a family or with close friends, but a simple version which takes as little as 10 minutes looks like this.
1. Invite the presence of God.
2. Remember the day and answer these questions: For what am I most grateful? What moment filled me with joy and contentment? What moment did I feel alive and close to God? Thank God for this moment.
3. Look at the day again and ask yourself: For what am I least grateful? When did I feel disappointed or uncomfortable? What moment did I feel far from God? Bring the moment to God, repent if necessary, and note what brought you to that place.
4. Look forward to the next day and being able to experience God's grace in it.

Some find it helpful to write down their observations. Over time, this exercise can assist you in noticing which practices and attitudes make you feel out of sync with God and which make you feel alive and close to God. Ideally, you will find yourself avoiding the activities which lead you to desolation and focusing more on those where you find consolation. By being attentive to our emotions and responses, we can discover what desires and purposes God has placed in our lives and where we might be working at cross-purposes to them. As we seek to make each small step (each decision in each day) line up with Jesus, we will find ourselves crafting a life-long journey which is characterised by flourishing.

I have begun to see a spiritual director in order to discern the next steps in my life, especially as I finish my PhD and consider job opportunities, and one of her suggestions was to practice the daily Examen. It has been just over a week and the difference is noticeable. I have a remarkable increase in clarity of purpose and a new quickness in avoiding troublesome actions and reactions.

I am asking our faith community to consider practicing the Examen during Lent this year, either alone, as a family, or with a close friend. I believe that mindful attention to the Spirit of God in the midst of the mundane tasks of each day can open us up to radical transformation and revelation, one small decision at a time.

Here is a short video (6 minutes) on the Examen which offers some further insight. The Examen.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The new normal

Sheep path. Image from chriscollision.wordpress.com
My feline companion of over 17 years passed away last month and I am adjusting to a new normal, one where there is no cat living in our house (you can read my blog about Jazz here). It will take some getting used to, but I know I will adapt because we are wired to do just that. Paul Ricoeur talks about two sides of the self: idem, the self which remains the same and provides continuity, and ipse, the self which is always developing, always in process. Idem is that part of us which never changes, which makes us recognizable no matter how we age or are altered. Ipse is that part of us which allows us to learn, grow, and experience transformation. If the self were all idem, we would stagnate and become atrophied. If the self were all ipse, we would have no stability. We are uniquely, unalterably ourselves, yet we are built for change. Every time we breathe in and out, every time a cut heals, every time we learn something new, we are being changed.

I recently read the story of Jesus healing the man at the pool of Bethesda. You can find it in John 5:2-9. Here was a man who had been lying on a mat for 38 years, surrounded by other invalids, all waiting for the stirring of the waters at the pool. Legend had it that the first into the pool when the stirring happened would be healed. Jesus saw the man and asked: "Do you want to be made well?" The sick man replied that he had no one to help him into the pool so someone else always got there before he did. Then Jesus said to the man, "Stand up, take your mat and walk." And the man did so.

Two points stick out to me in this story. The first is the idea of being paralysed in some way. Here was a man who was stuck; things never seemed to change for him. He was surrounded by others who were also struggling with paralysis, of being unable to move on with their lives. Part of being paralysed (whether physically, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, or relationally) is that we see others moving forward, getting ahead, getting on with life, and we are left behind. We see others being transformed and we can't seem to get to that place. It is frustrating and discouraging to be unable to move forward. The second idea is that of being alone. The sick man said, "I have no one." When we are alone, we feel like an outsider, we feel there is no one to help us when we need it, we feel forgotten, cast aside, and of little value. I don't know about you, but I can identify with this man's paralysis (being stuck) and his sense of alone-ness. Good thing the story doesn't end there.

Here comes Jesus. Jesus sees the man. Jesus comes to the man. Jesus knows what the man has been through. Jesus knows the man's current state. And Jesus has a question for him which is really two questions: "Do you want things to change? Do you want to change?" In other words, do you want life as you know it to change? Are you willing to leave the place where you are now? Are you willing to change how you act, think, and relate to others (after 38 years)? Are you willing to get off your mat, your small place of comfort? Are you willing to trust someone, to give up your independence and alone-ness? Are you willing to start the long journey of learning new ways as you embrace Jesus's new normal?

These are important questions for us. Sure, we pray for healing. Sure, we pray for circumstances to be changed. But are we prepared for the hard work of embracing a new normal? Let's think about a hypothetical situation. Say you are a long-term smoker and after years and years of inhaling toxins into your lungs, those organs are pretty much useless. You go see a doctor and he gives you the good news that you are eligible for a lung transplant. Wonderful! Within a few months, you get the call that some unfortunate, healthy soul has died in a tragic car accident and their perfectly pink lungs are now yours. You race to the hospital and undergo a successful procedure which removes your diseased lungs and replaces them with healthy lungs. It's a miracle! You arrive home from the hospital, thrilled with your new lease on life, and reach for the familiar pack of cigarettes and light one up. What's wrong with this picture? The surgeon has done everything he can, but unless you change the way you think and act, you will end up in the same unhealthy situation you were in before.

Let's admit it, we can be a bit impatient and even passive when it comes to change; we expect God to do all the heavy lifting and fixing, not realising that in order for us to survive and flourish in God's new normal, we need to make some drastic changes. In short, we need to forge new ways of being, some new pathways on which to walk. The picture at the top is that of a sheep path which zigzags across a field in a totally inefficient pattern. The sheep keep walking this same, crooked path because they have always walked this path and forging a new pathway would require a lot of effort. They keep taking the path of least resistance. Our brain's neural pathways work the same way. It is said that it takes three weeks to form a new habit, to develop a neural pathway that makes a thought or an action natural instead of hard work. In other words, change is about developing new habits, and that requires some diligence and constancy on our part.

God gives us a new heart, a new spirit, a new mind, a new freedom. How do we flourish in God's new normal instead of reverting back to our old, crooked ways? Spiritual disciplines like prayer, gathering regularly in a community to worship, theological study, and fasting help to reinforce the work that God is doing in our lives. Transformation happens when we cooperate with God. God does what we cannot do. He gives us a lung/heart/mind transplant. He heals our paralysis. But then he invites us to get up off our mat and walk, to undertake a new normal which reflects God's gifts of freedom and healing. In all likelihood, the man in John 5 did not go back to the pool the next day and lay on his mat. After 38 years, he had to discover a new way of being and thinking, learn new actions, and explore a new way of relating to people. No doubt it was a challenge; forging new pathways is never easy.

A few months ago I was in Vancouver for a set of lectures on faith and science. During a cab ride, the biologist asked the theologian, "How do you know when you are wrong?" The theologian answered, "It has to be cohesive to be true, make sense in all areas of life. We are always learning. We believe things to be true based on our knowledge at the time. When something better is revealed, we change what we believe. Just like science." I love this. First, because it was a privilege to be in the company of learned colleagues who exemplify humility, respect, and a desire to learn from each other. Second, because it reflects both idem and ipse, both constancy and change. We strive to be faithful followers of Jesus AND we are always adjusting our perspective to align more closely with God's new normal, a normal which sets aside our self-interest and embraces God's interests. We can recognise God's pathways because God reveals himself through history and tradition, through Jesus, through the witness of the scriptures, and through our own experience and reason.

As we begin to walk into a new year, may we know that our areas of paralysis and alone-ness are not permanent. May we know that Jesus sees us and knows us and is aware of our situation. May we be brave enough to respond when Jesus asks us to get up and walk, and may we continue to forge new pathways which reflect and reinforce the newness of life which God so graciously offers us. Here's to the new normal, God's normal (clink of glasses).

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

calling all the fearful, doubting, and confused

The Annunciation. Image from ncregister.com
I have been reading Father James Martin's excellent book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage, which is a meditation on the life of Jesus based on Martin's memoirs of visiting the Holy Land intertwined with historical background and spiritual insights. When I came across his chapter on the Annunciation, appropriately titled "Yes!" I was surprised at how much Mary's experience resonated with me (not usually the case with Catholic portrayals of Mary). The story can be found in Luke 1:26-38. Go ahead and read it again. Martin suggests that Mary's story is our story, a window into our journey with God. Below are some of Martin's points mixed with my own thoughts. See if you find yourself anywhere in the story.

1. God initiates a conversation. Our spiritual journeys begin because God makes the first move, and they continue on because God keeps on moving. Perhaps we see an angel, or perhaps something unexpected happens, or perhaps someone speaks to us words that pierce our hearts, or perhaps we experience the presence of the Holy Spirit. In Mary's case, a messenger from God greets her with these words: "Dearly loved one, endowed with grace. God is with you." Martin explains that the tense indicates that she is already full of grace. The angel does not confer it on her; it is something God has done. "Though Mary holds no great position ... and though she is most likely poor, and though as an unmarried woman she occupies a lowly state in society, God loves her - lavishly. Mary is the forerunner of all those in the Christian life who will be judged by human standards as unworthy of God's grace. But God has other ideas." [Martin, 35]. A gracious God generously bestows grace on the unlikeliest of people, of which I am one.
2. We fear. Mary was much perplexed and thoroughly shaken by the words of the messenger and wondered what they might mean. An unexpected encounter with the divine can be scary, Fear is a natural response. We fear we might be exposed or condemned or perhaps something difficult or impossible might be required of us. Or we might just die on the spot because we are in contact with holiness. Proverbs 9:10 tells us that "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." If we are fearful when God comes near, we just might be on our way to becoming wise. But we can't remain fearful.
3. God reassures us and tells us what will be required of us. After telling Mary not to be afraid, the angel outlines the plan in basic terms: she is to give birth to the promised Messiah. It is all a little overwhelming and Mary can't quite comprehend how any of it is possible. It sounds so far-fetched.
4. We doubt. Mary asks, "How can this be since I am a virgin?" What Mary is admitting is that she is not up for the task, she does not have what it takes, she is under-qualified. When we doubt, when we are confused, it is usually because we are focused on our inadequacies and have taken our eyes off God's adequacy.
5. God points us to past experiences and helps us to trust. The angel directs Mary's attention to her cousin Elizabeth's miraculous conception in her old age. This was probably not news to Mary, but a simple reminder that God had done the impossible before and he could certainly do it again. It is important to remember the times when God has been faithful, when God has provided, when God has transformed pain into love and hope. In times of doubt and fear and confusion, we need to be reminded that God has a track record of being trustworthy. This is why I read the stories in the Bible over and over again. This is why I listen to the testimonies of others. And this is why I recall the goodness of God in my own life. It helps me remember that "the impossible is possible with God." (Luke 1:37, The Voice).
6. We say Yes. And because of this, we are able to bring into the world, with God's grace, something new. Mary's words, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word," are powerful. They reveal that she had a choice in the matter. The Holy Spirit was not going to rape her (excuse my graphic language). And despite the fact that she was living in a patriarchal society, Mary made her decision without appealing to a man. She didn't ask anyone for permission or advice, but gave her consent on her own initiative. Before she knew exactly how everything would play out, she said Yes. She didn't know her child would be threatened with death, she didn't know they would have to flee their homeland, she didn't know Jesus would be viewed as a political and religious rebel, she didn't know he would die a violent death. She would be a witness to great sadness, but she would also be witness to great joy as Jesus grew into his calling of teacher, healer, miracle-worker, peacemaker, and the visible presence of God on earth. In saying Yes, Mary took on the role of a slave, one serving at the pleasure of another, and because of this daring decision, Life and Light came into the world. We can make the same choice every day, to bring the light and life of God into the world by saying Yes.
7. God is silent. The angel leaves Mary and there is no more opportunity for her to ask questions and receive answers, at least not in a direct manner. What do we do when God is silent? Sometimes we forget this part of the story, the part where we feel alone and confused and less sure about God's call.
8. Time for faith. Mary had to trust that God would keep the promises made to her, even in times of waiting, suffering, pain, and uncertainty. At times, the angel's visit must have seemed so long ago and the words he spoke so distant and faint. Mary had to trust that God would be true to himself and bring salvation to the world, even when things didn't look very promising.
9. Time for action. After the angel left, Mary packed her bags and went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Mary surrounded herself with people who also believed that God could do the impossible (remember Zechariah's encounter with an angel?), who were also recipients of God's grace, who were also living in a mixture of faith and uncertainty, and together they encouraged each other and pondered the mysteries of God's love in action.
10. Time for worship. Mary's song of praise (Luke 1:46-55) is a beautiful poem calling to mind God's gracious promises to her and to Israel. God is the one who reverses the order of a power-driven society and lifts up the humble, embraces the poor, feeds the hungry, and plucks the most unlikely out of obscurity. Lovingkindness is at the forefront of God's saving, liberating action, and Mary celebrates its presence in her life, even before Jesus is born, before she witnesses any of his miracles, before he dies and is raised from the dead. Worship brings together the past, the present, and the future promises of God.

All of us have times when we are fearful, when we doubt, when we are confused. I had a bout of that just this afternoon. I suspect that those of us who study theology and/or serve the church are quite susceptible to this. Let us not be afraid. It is all part of the pilgrimage of faith where we learn to take the next step even though the path seems unclear, where we learn to lean on our fellow travelers when we are weary, where we remind ourselves that the faithfulness of God is evident all around us, and where we practice trusting and worshiping and acting and being part of a loving community until we get better at it,

Thanks, Mary, for showing us what it means to say be a servant of God in order that the world may see the beauty of Jesus. We join you and say together, Yes!