Monday, August 8, 2016

podcasts, pond water, and an orange cat (kingdom sightings)

Green leaf under microscope
Image from rainforestsaver.org
The significance of the small things is a theme I keep bumping into these days. Here are a few vignettes from the past week.

Vignette one: I have started listening to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell called Revisionist History in which he reinterprets something from the past, be it an event, a person, or an idea, something which he believes has been overlooked or misunderstood. This morning at the gym I listened to Gladwell's take on educational philanthropy. Referencing a book by economists Chris Anderson and David Sally called The Numbers Game, Gladwell differentiates between a mentality which focuses on cultivating superstars and a mentality which seeks to strengthen the weakest team members. Using the game of soccer as an example, Anderson and Sally shows that a team which spends money on upgrading its weakest players instead of acquiring a star player scores a lot more goals.

In 1992, businessman Henry Rowan gave a record $100 million gift to Glassboro State College, a small, publicly funded institution in New Jersey which was almost broke. It was the first donation of its kind. It inspired other philanthropists to give large donations to institutions of higher learning, but there was one difference. Almost without fail, the large sums of money ($100 million or more) given after Rowan's landmark donation went to prestigious, well-endowed universities, institutions who had no shortage of cash or resources. Gladwell was particularly critical of Philip Knight's (co-founder of Nike) $400 million donation to Stanford in 2015, earmarked for a new program meant to recruit the best and brightest graduate students. Gladwell says, "I understand the people who give money to those who need money. The people who give money to those who already have all the money they need, I don't understand that. What are they thinking?" And yet, the president of Stanford would never consider turning away a donation in order to benefit another school who really needed the money.

Vignette two: For the past few weeks, I have been reading Annie Dillard's feast of a book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Dillard spent a year observing and documenting life on a small parcel of land next to a creek. She watched birds fly, bugs crawl, frogs leap, and studied the small specks of life in pond water. She collected chrysalis and looked at leaves under microscopes. She noted the extravagance of minutiae present in nature: "The creator ... churns out the intricate texture of least works that is the world with a spendthrift genius and an extravagance of care. That is the point." [1] Indeed. And it is a point we often miss in a culture of capitalism and consumerism. We tend to equate smallness with insignificance, but creation itself defies this simplistic reduction. Bigger is not better, not by a long shot.

Vignette three: Professor Jay McDaniel of Hendrix College in Arkansas tells the following story: "Two years ago I was looking out my window and saw the second coming of Christ. It only lasted fifteen seconds, but was impressive. It came in the form of an action undertaken by my next door neighbor, a fifteen year old teenager named Matthew. Matthew has no readily identifiable religious affiliation. He does not attend church, pray before meals, or read the Bible. If Matthew has a religion it is rock and roll. He once told me music is the closest thing he knows to God; I understood him perfectly. It is one of the closest things I know to God, too.

"Something I admire about Matthew is his belief in kindness. Looking outside I saw a very old orange cat crossing the street in front of Matthew's house. The cat was limping slowly as a car full of teenagers was coming very fast. They would have hit the cat if Matthew hadn't stepped in front of them, put out his hand signaling stop, and picked up the cat, taking her across the street petting her along the way. I know this cat very well because she belongs to my family. Matthew was my cat's savior. ... Matthew's act of kindness missed the evening news. The news that day concerned violent deaths in Pakistan. That night when I laid down I had two images in my imagination: one of blood and tears coming from the fact of a Pakistani woman and one of Matthew saving the cat." [3]

The question McDaniel asks is this: which of the two events he witnessed that day is more significant? The fact that he associates Matthew's small act of kindness with the second coming of Christ tells you which way he leans. In the small act of saving of an old orange cat, McDaniel saw the kingdom of God come to earth. Jesus often pointed out the small things to his disciples, urging them to take note of their significance in the kingdom: seeds, flowers, grass, little children, and sparrows. One day when Jesus was in the temple with his disciples, he observed the wealthy giving large sums of money and a poor widow giving two small coins. [4] He drew special attention to the widow because her in her deed, he identified the kingdom of God. The disciples found it difficult to wrap their minds around the nature of the kingdom of God. We with our modern, progressive, "be all you can be" mindsets are no different. We are slow to detect the coming of Christ and his kingdom because we find it hard to believe that the first will be last and the last will be first.

If you look at the context of the widow's story, you see that Jesus is critiquing the religious leaders for increasing their own standing at the expense of the underprivileged, especially the widows. "Watch out for the scribes who act so religious—who like to be seen in pious clothes and to be spoken to respectfully in the marketplace, who take the best seats in the synagogues and the place of honor at every dinner, who spend widows’ inheritances and pray long prayers to impress others. These are the kind of people who will be condemned above all others." (Mark 12, 38-40, The Voice) This brings me back to Gladwell's critique of philanthropists who give to those who already have more than enough, an act which makes little sense when you think about it. So why do they do it? In large part because they want to be associated with the most prestigious universities, with the superstars, and not with the weak and needy.

I am challenged by this call to strengthen the weak, to glory in the small and seemingly insignificant, to resist the lure of being associated with the best and the brightest. Who wouldn't want a postdoctoral position at Princeton? Who wouldn't want a job at University of Notre Dame or Columbia? And yet, there are small colleges and universities that I have never heard of where I would undoubtedly make a bigger difference, because there I would have the opportunity to strengthen the weak (instead of hanging out with superstars).

Spirit of the Most High God, forgive me for my attachment to bigness, superstars, prestige, winning, and fame. Let me learn to see the kingdom of God in its hidden, mysterious, humble appearances. Let me delight in pond water more than in gold, and may a single green leaf captivate me more than fancy clothes and slick performances. Amen.

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

[1] Malcom Gladwell, "My Little Hundred Million," Revisionist History, episode 6. Podcast.
[2] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: HarperPerennial, 1974), 128.
[3] http://thomasjayoord.com/index.php/blog/archives/second-comings-religion-small-things
[4] I wrote more on the widow and her offering at my personal blog: The Sound of Two Small Coins

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

metaphors matter (and so do similes)

Image from www.planet-science.com

Finish this sentence: Life is like...

If you have ever seen the movie Forrest Gump, you might have answered "a box of chocolates." Some people say that life is like a game of chance. Both of these similes infer that you never really know what you will get in life; there is no guarantee that things will go well. You take your chances and hope for the best. In essence, this outlook is a form of fatalism and it gives us little hope. Others say that life is like a battlefield and we have to fight to overcome obstacles and adversaries. This does seem true at times, but this simile lands us in an "us and them" mentality which pits us against circumstances, people, systems, and even ourselves. This mindset breeds competition instead of cooperation, and because we are always trying to come out on top, to be the winner, we will have little compassion for the underdog or the less fortunate.

Jesus used similes and metaphors a lot. In Matthew 13 we find him comparing the kingdom of heaven to many things: a sower scattering seeds, a farmer who plants good seed and weeds come up, a mustard seed which grows into a large plant, yeast in bread, a treasure hidden in a field, a merchant looking for a pearl, and a net thrown into the sea which gathers all kinds of fish. Though not all of Jesus' metaphors and similes were agricultural, a good proportion of them were. And I don't believe it was solely because that was the context of his day; his metaphors were drawn in large part from creation because he wanted to draw attention to how the Creator orders life.

I recently read Parker Palmer's excellent book on vocation called Listen to Your Life Speak. He observes that the master metaphor of our era is not from agriculture but from manufacturing. We do not speak of growing our lives, but about making them. We make time, make friends, make meaning, make money, make a living, and make love. It is interesting to note that a Chinese child will ask, "How does a baby grow?" while an American child will ask, "How do you make a baby?" Palmer concludes that "We absorb our culture's arrogant conviction that we manufacture everything, reducing the world to mere 'raw material' that lacks all value until we impose our designs and labor on it." [1]

Metaphors matter because they form how we think. Agriculture and nature metaphors position us not as masters of our own destiny, but as participants in a larger community or ecosystem. They cast us as stewards, a mediating role which requires both following and leading. In agriculture, we are subject to the limitations of this earth, therefore we need to discern its seasons and times. The wise farmer or fisher seeks to cooperate with creation; he sees no need to break free of its boundaries and prove his superiority. Our society is not very good at working with nature. When the sun goes down, we don't take that as a sign to rest; no, we turn on the lights and get on with our work and play. Even more troubling is the way we exert our dominance over creation with practices such as genetically modifying our crops and harvesting fuel through fracking.

Jesus' agricultural metaphors steer clear of a superiority/conquering dynamic, even when they include some harsh realities. Instead, he inserts himself into the metaphor as part of nature. "I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn't bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. ... In the same way that a branch can't bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can't bear fruit unless you are joined with me" (John 15:1-4, The Voice).

Palmer suggests that an appropriate metaphor for life is the cycle of seasons. We are perhaps more used to measuring our efforts by profit growth charts, always looking for a steady upward trend. However, when we look at the seasons, there is no line snaking toward higher and higher outcomes. Spring starts out muddy and wet. Plants which have decayed over the winter mix with the soil to create rich conditions for rebirth. Spring is a time for small beginnings and tentative growth, and it also carries a bit of unpredictability (will there be another frost?). Summer is the season of abundance when there is growth everywhere. Fruit ripens and near the end of the season, the crops are harvested. Autumn begins a period of decline and dying, but there is great beauty in this season. Glory and dying are closely associated in creation. As the plants fade away, they scatter their seeds for future growth. In winter, there is stillness, dormancy, and a deep rest. It is also a season of clarity because the plants are stripped to their branches, making views unobscured. In winter, nature goes underground. If you look closely, you can see several seasons in this messianic metaphor found in Isaiah: "A shoot (spring) shall come out from the stump (winter) of Jesse, and a branch shall grow (summer) out of his roots" (Isaiah 11:1).

Because we have been so influenced by capitalism, many of us associate abundance with excess, private ownership, self-determination, and the notion of unlimited potential. We believe everyone can succeed if they just work hard, take advantage of every opportunity, and do their best. And by succeed we mean gain power and wealth. This is not how Jesus describes the kingdom of God and not the picture we see in creation. Elder Thaddeus, a monk from Vitovnica, observes: “Animals have the joy of living, but we have taken it away from them. They have joy, and we have so much besides joy, yet we are never satisfied. The animals never worry about the future, they do not stack food in granaries or barns, yet the Lord always feeds them. They nibble a twig here, peck at a seed there, they find protection in a hole or a burrow, and they are grateful to God. Not so us men. The birds are always singing praises to the Lord. They begin their song early, at three o'clock in the morning, and don't stop until nine. At nine they calm down a little bit - it's only then that they go looking for food to feed their young. Then they start singing again. Nobody tells them to sing - they just do. And what about us? We're always frowning, always pouting; we don't feel like singing or doing anything else. We should follow the example of the birds. They're always joyful whereas we're always bothered by something."

If we look to the metaphor of seasons, we recognise that abundance is but one of the stages of life; it is not continual nor is it something we control. We till the ground and plant seeds and trust that creation will do what it is meant to do: produce a harvest. But as much as we love abundance (and summer), we must also be willing to embrace the seasons of muddy, small beginnings, the times of dormancy and rest and going underground, and the bittersweet intertwining of decline and glory. Jesus said, "Anyone who serves Me must follow My path" (John 12:26) and the path of Jesus, his life, death and resurrection, reveals every splendid season found in creation.

There is another way to think about abundance and that is as shared life. We find this aspect central to the metaphor of the church as the body of Christ. Parker Palmer explains: "In the human world, abundance does not happen automatically. It is created when we have the sense to choose community, to come together to celebrate and share our common store. Whether the scarce resource is money or love or power or words, the true law of life is that we generate more of whatever seems scarce by trusting its supply and passing it around. Authentic abundance does not lie in secured stockpiles of food or cash or influence or affection but in belonging to a community where we can give those goods to others who need them - and receive them from others when we are in need. .. Community doesn't just create abundance - community is abundance." [2]

I recently came across something which compared the kingdom of heaven to a corporation where Jesus is the CEO and we are his employees. That is a troublesome metaphor for many reasons, but I will name just a few. It sets up a hierarchy of power, it infers that profit is the ultimate goal, and it casts us as merit-based wage-earners. If you have read the gospels, you know that the kingdom of heaven is not like that. It is about sacrifice, about humble service, about embracing the outcast, about receiving the gift of God's mercy, and ultimately, about loving God and your neighbour. Metaphors matter. Over and over again, Jesus points us to creation, to birds and plants and animals, to shepherds and fishermen and farmers. Why? Because all creation speaks of the nature and glory of God. It is there for all to observe, if we have eyes to see.


[1] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 97.
[2] Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, 108.

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.