Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Being Like Ridley

If you've been following this new daily-blogging of mine and you're becoming concerned that this habit's going to eat up another small chunk of your day (and mine) ad infinitum, fear not: for at least the next week, I'll be transplanting the daily habit from blogging to fiction writing.  I'm not in the least giving up on finding "real" (read: paying) work, but I'm eager to see whether I can write as regularly as I have been doing lately here, even if it's just a few paragraphs -- but in a different medium.  

As I've mentioned before, I have a reasonably good-looking CV of nonfiction writing, but I've also published one (very) short story and am eager to publish more.  I've finished a few others and started several more, but I need to quit stalling and follow through on getting these finished, polished, and published.  Why the urgency?  Three reasons I can think of offhand.  One: as new ideas for fiction and nonfiction writing bubble up, I worry that some of the older ones may fall off the back shelf of my brain, so I'd like to get them on paper and "out there" to see if they're worth anything in anyone's estimation besides mine, Karen's, and occasionally Chandra's.  Two: for those who've picked up on a resurfacing theme of mortality and fragility in my recent posts, that's largely due to the fifth anniversary of my father's death; I chose not to blog about it, but Chandra did so with tender depth here.  Our earthly father often dreamed up ideas for stories and novels, but as far as I know he only committed one of them to paper in his adult life, a novella that he attempted to publish but (again, as far as I know) took no further when it was turned down.  I'd like to get further than that -- preferably quite a bit further -- in whatever time I have left, whether that's forty days or forty years.  

Three: I like creating things.  That desire shows up in cooking and baking, and over the past year it's been evident in the satisfaction of taking on and completing tasks in our renovations, but it's most apparent when I write, especially when I write stories.  Science fiction has known many skilled world-builders, both literary and cinematic; one of the best-known of the latter category is Ridley Scott, whose place in SF canon would probably be secure even if he'd retired after making Blade Runner.  But here's something he said about building another richly detailed world, that of Gladiator"I love to create worlds, and every facet of that world has to work within the rules of the story. You must smell the battleground and experience the beauty and light of the golden city.”  Sir Ridley makes world-building sound lovely and poetic, and it is; but it's also hard work, fun work, and as he acknowledges, consistent work.  I'm not assuming here that I can create worlds as spellbinding as his (but taking the moral of The Lego Movie to heart, I'm also not assuming that I can't!), but with a little -- okay, a lot of -- practice, we'll see just what I can do.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Personal Eschatology

The two most immediate influences on my reflections today: Psalm 143, brought back to my attention by my cousin Jenny's blogand this interview with Stanley Hauerwas on themes of "the end" (the approaching end of his life, the "end times," and the end, i.e. the goal, of God's creation).  The psalm's lamenting cries for help -- where verses 7 and 10, "Tell me all about your faithful love come morning time because I trust you... Guide me by your good spirit into good land" (CEB), are astonishingly among the most hopeful -- reverberate in my hope-hungry soul.  The interview has some fun and potentially controversial points (e.g, "My reaction to the 'Left Behind' series is one of amusement and pathos...I take it to be a judgment against the church that that kind of speculation has gained a foothold") that we'll leave for another day.  More profound, more deceptively simple, and closer to the spirit of Ps 143 is this statement from later in the interview: "I assume the Lord who draws me to death is the Lord who draws me into life."

Traditionally, when theologians and biblical interpreters talk eschatology (the study of "last things," and by extension, "end time" stuff), they've found it helpful to use "personal eschatology" as a category to discuss what happens (in a given text, such as Daniel or 1 Enoch, for instance) to the individual after death -- as opposed to what happens to the whole created order, whether at the end of time itself or after an epoch-defining moment of divine intervention.  It's easy to wall off such eschatological stuff as having to do with the future (our future as individuals, or the world's future) in such a way that we don't have to think about what effect that future should have on the present.  What Hauerwas is very good at doing, even in such a seemingly simple phrase as this (and what N. T. Wright has been doing, especially in the new Paul and the Faithfulness of God, from another angle), is forcing us to bring our beliefs about the future to bear on our choices in the present: put in theological terms, the question of how eschatology shapes ethics.  (Mission is part of this discussion too, as Hauerwas hints with his reference to God's end/goal for creation.)

The Lord who draws me to death is the Lord who draws me into life.  So much is contained in this statement: Jesus as shepherd/guide on life's journey, even (especially) when approaching death; Jesus as the Lord who has overcome death and will do so again (Acts 2:36, for example, and 1 Cor 15) and thus has the authority to "draw" us into life, in this life and the next -- so that death is only a pause, a comma (thinking here of Donne's "Death, Be Not Proud" and its interpretation in Margaret Edson's play, Witwatch the clip from the film version here).  This life offers no certainty as to when it will end for any of us, so there seems so little that we can know for sure regarding personal eschatology.  But, with Hauerwas, I know this: The Lord who draws me to death is the Lord who draws me into life.  In the meantime, with the psalmist, I will trust him to tell me of -- and to show me -- his faithful love, come morning.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Small-g gospels, and Being Poured Out

Christian or not, we're all evangelists for something.

For those who self-identify as Christians, as evangelists and/or evangelicals, the principal "good news" they share is the Gospel: the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, and how that story leads to our salvation.  (Sadly, it's sometimes seemed easier for those who share this Gospel to condense it down to "bullet points," which can impoverish the story and over-emphasize the "bad news" side of it; but that's a rant for another day.)  But in a more general and sometimes more secular way, we all share good news about something that we're most excited about.  
True, "gospel" in the vernacular has come to mean something more along the lines of a given, a foundational truth -- as in to "take" such-and-such "as gospel."  But the sense of such "good news" as something to be shared survives too, even if it's often hidden simply because we don't usually use the word gospel as a shorthand in that way.  Social media testifies to this, every minute: while Facebook, Twitter, and the like can be chock-a-block with inane details that we forget as soon as we scroll past, they're also great platforms from which to proclaim "good news" in words and pictures: new engagements, wedding photos, pregnancies and births, memorably funny interactions with children, anniversaries, graduations, new jobs, and even the bittersweet memorials of lives that were long and well lived or cut tragically short.  The same social media platforms boast less momentously good news, too -- of encouraging thoughts, purportedly laugh-out-loud jokes, or the announcement that there'll be another season of that BBC program with whats-his-name, that detective who lives on Baker Street. 

We do the same in our daily lives, sharing all these and other little joys.  In a similar way to the "lowercase" sense of words like spirit and inspiration that I wrote about a few days ago, we can't help but spread lowercase-g gospels about the thing we're currently most excited about.

That's my cue to mention one an unpopular "gospel," one that can make people's skin crawl a bit (perhaps a little like the uppercase-G Gospel does, for those who may not want to hear it...?).  Namely: donating blood.

Bragging time: I've donated a total of 40-some-odd times, counting donations in both the US and Canada.  At the maximum pace of a donation every eight weeks, which works out to 13 every two years (these are whole blood donations; if you donate platelets, you can give more often), my official number of 31 donations in Canada will reach 100 around, oh, the year 2025 or so.

Confession time: I really don't actually like giving blood.  It makes my skin crawl, too.  I'm not afraid of needles and I don't get faint when I see blood, but I'd really rather they just beamed the blood out of me instead of sticking something in my arm that shouldn't be there.  But I still donate, and I still share the need to give blood as good news, as something that I'm eager to share, to see more people do.  I don't share it to the extent that it eclipses the uppercase-G Gospel; giving blood is a practice that informs my life, not the foundational story of my life.  But it's still quite literally vital: it saves lives -- in a less eternal sense than the Christian "good news," yes, but in a very important earthly sense nonetheless.

And there is a connection, even if it's a mite subjective, to the Gospel.  Philippians 2:17: Paul writes of his own mortality, knowing that he may not live to see the end of his imperial imprisonment, yet still joyful.  "Even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you."  Paul may not have had much control over his circumstances -- but he sees his own expendability as an act of worship.  Contrast: I do have control over how much I'm being "poured out," at least in this blood-donating regard -- one pint at a time.  

But it can still be an act of worship.
An act of service to fellow human beings.  
A regularly scheduled reminder of precisely how expendable I am.

We say we "give our lives" or "spend our lives" in service to a given goal.  The good news is that there's another way in which we have the privilege to mean that, and to do something about it.

Even if it doesn't mean quite all of that to you -- if it's an act of service, say, but not worship -- will you join in, if you're eligible?

And whether you will or not, it's probably worth your time to think about this: what's your best "good news"?  And why do you share it?

We're all evangelists for something.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Psalmody Psunday: 123

What better way to keep up a new habit of blogging daily than by shamelessly showing up late to the party that my sister Chandra and cousin Jenny have been hosting on their blogs?  “Psalmody Psunday” is an idea that Jenny came up with as a ten-minute devotional/writing exercise/mutual blogging accountability tool for herself and Chandra; you can read her explanation and first Psunday entry here, Chandra’s here, and then consider joining in and sharing if you blog.  For my first attempt at this, I’ve chosen Ps 123 -- not because it’s the one Jenny began with (I’d read her inter-textual meditation on 123, but later forgot about it until I reread it this morning; thankfully my interpretation doesn’t repeat much of what she says!) mainly because it stuck with me a few nights ago when I couldn’t sleep and was reading the Psalms/Songs of Ascents -- the portion of Israel’s hymnbook devoted to songs of pilgrimage, to be sung especially while journeying to Jerusalem/Mount Zion, as for Passover.

That night, with brain unable to sleep but with eyelids sandpapery with fatigue, I must have been particularly prone to noticing the images of eye movement: I lift my eyes to you (123:1) as the eyes of slaves look to their master’s and mistress’ hands (v. 2); so our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he shows us his mercy.  Not by any means the only time the Psalms refer to our eyes “looking to” the Lord, but one of the most stark, because of that unapologetic use of the story of slave and master/mistress.  Nothing those who are willing to sing this song can do will introduce the mercy required; it is in the master’s hand to give or to hold onto for another moment.  The slave can only choose whether to keep “looking” -- or not; the singer or worshipper can only choose whether to sing, and thus to rehearse this story, to take on such a role, and to worship -- or not.  For to enter and rehearse is to begin to see the comparative “so” in this simile as more causative, like a so that means therefore.  So our eyes look to the LORD our God, till he shows us his mercy.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Household Gods: Home is Where the Focus Is

July 15th will mark the first anniversary of the day we got the keys to our house.  That evening, we walked around, giddy with the newness of it all, giggling to ourselves and at each other, and pulling back carpets to see what surprises lay underneath.  (What shape were the carpets in, you ask?  Well, 18 hours later, all but one of them were pulled up and taken to the dump.  Nuff said?)   The nicest surprise was the original oak flooring in the entryway and living-dining room -- and in pretty good shape, too.  Months later, I would spend many hours carefully pulling up and replacing damaged boards, and with help from the intrepid Gary Moniz, we were to spend hours more refinishing the floors -- and we couldn't be happier with the results.  But in one spot near the front of the room, what we found that first night was an area where there was probably a hearth: replaced with plywood when the carpet was installed, the area was framed by a nicely inlaid pattern of the same oak.  Ultimately, we ended up making a labyrinth pattern with leftovers from the board-replacing process, and Karen installed a tile mosaic in the center.  

End result: what was once a hearth, quite literally the focus (Latin: hearth) of the room, later covered over, was now reclaimed as a focus, a focal point, again.

Now this got me thinking of ancient Rome (because, as Joss Whedon once admitted about a reference that reminded him of the Millennium Falcon, "most things do").  Thinking of ancient Roman religion may conjure up images of temples dedicated to this or that god or goddess, with offerings made in hopes of an answer to prayers for healing, say, or for a patron god to protect their home city.  But Roman religious life was based in the home; based around the table and the hearth; around showing proper thankfulness to, and care for, the household gods.  These were the lares and penates (lar-ays, pen-ah-tays; more here) -- small statues and mementos representing hero-ancestors and guardians of the home, hearth and storerooms.  (Doctor Who fans may remember a lovely reference to them in a 2008 episode set in Pompeii.)

This history lesson has a point: as we continue to set up our home, what "household gods" are in evidence around our beautiful new focus, the former-and-now-repurposed hearth?  It's tempting to think of "hearth and home" as outmoded, when so many of us have homes without fireplaces (or truly functional ones, at least).  But I think it's still a vital question.  What place does a TV -- or other means of visual entertainment -- have vis-a-vis other focal points in our homes?  (It's not for nothing that I've recently placed a Playmobil figure of a Roman centurion atop our TV, as a reminder about this issue before picking up the remote.) 

 What about our smartphones?  Our games?  Our knickknacks and other pretty things that we devote, perhaps, just a little more attention to than they deserve?  And more broadly, what might our practices and habits -- both within our homes and without -- tell us about where our hearts are, well, focused?  Certainly there are good, life-giving answers to these questions; but there are also answers that are good because they reveal tiny little idolatries that we hadn't seen or copped to before.

For where your treasure is, there your heart(h) will be also. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Disciplined, the Better to Model Disciplines?

As noted in several of my "more recent" posts, I've been struggling quite a lot with the transition out of the home-renovation stage -- more than eight months of intensive work, almost exclusively on our house (save for a few conference presentations and one teaching opportunity), which I had no time or spare energy to blog about so had to content myself with posting pics on Facebook -- and into the next chapter, In Which I Find Work That Results in a Paycheck.  I have applied to everything from university presses, sessional teaching jobs and nonprofits on the one hand, to CostCo, Rona, Lowe's and local coffee shops on the other.  I still believe I will find work, soon, possibly even work that utilizes some of my best vocational skills.  And I haven't exactly been idle in the interim, either: I've done lots more little things for the house and assembled a book proposal, too.  But the Waiting remains frustrating.  

Not that the Father of the heavenly lights hasn't continued to give good gifts (James 1:17) along the way.  Just yesterday, as I explained Karen's and my vision and purpose for the house at the request of a friend and colleague who will be blogging about us soon, one of his questions nudged me in such a way as to consider this Waiting in a slightly different way.  Now, Karen and I have been careful to acknowledge that the founding of a house for spiritual direction and retreat doesn't mean that we've mastered related disciplines like silence, solitude, or sabbath-keeping; far from it!  No, we've insisted, opening this house will require us to grow in these things in order to model and teach them to our guests.  But even once we'd acknowledged that, it took Jim's questions yesterday to make me realize anew that those who would claim to model disciplines must often first be disciplined, both in the active sense (self-discipline) and the passive (being chastened -- but let's not digress here into a full discussion of what that looks like in the biblical tradition!).  That is, it's almost as if God has us going through a time of re-learning certain disciplines -- in addition to the two years of similar experience, leading up to the envisioning of Lectio House -- before (not just at the same time as) we model them for others.

So the Waiting isn't necessarily any easier.  But it's a gift (a small one, he grumbled semi-gratefully) to know that what has felt like the psalmist's valley of the shadow of death will, with enough perspective, be only the shadow of discipline -- a dark place, yes, but one in which the light can still sometimes break through. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Gearing Up, after Forgetting

For many writers -- certainly including myself, and my sister Chandra, as frequently noted over at her blog -- the hardest part of writing is getting started, and getting started, and getting started again.  Yes, writer's block can be paralyzing in the midst of any project, but it's especially so at the beginning, and at each new beginning-over (or "reginning"?) when momentum has been lost, or not yet built up.  

I talked a little about this in my very first post, quoting other authors in support of the point; here, I'll do the same with Vincent Lam's words from a July 2012 interview with George Stromboulopoulos.  Every book project, Lam said, was akin to "jumping back into an abyss...the work of fiction is so intense, so personal, so demanding, that you have to be up for it. You know, it's got to be from you. Otherwise, it's not going to be right."  The principal fear, of course, is that it will never be right, that even if you've succeeded in writing before, you won't be able to repeat the feat on demand.  At some point in there, other priorities begin to crowd in, like they do, and suddenly your number of blog posts (for example) for a given month, or even a given year, is accusingly small.  And it becomes that much harder to start over again.  The lesson applies to other areas of life, too, but it's at least as clear in writing as in any other field.

But what can we do but pray, take a deep breath, and then pick ourselves up and start forward again?  I've heard and read Philippians 3 many times, but it's only today that I've noticed that the "one thing" Paul claims he does, in the marathon of his life and ministry, is forgetting.  Or at least the one thing begins with forgetting: "Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:13b-14).

So, following Paul (as imitating him, as he imitates his Lord, is much of what the rest of that letter is about), I choose to forget, and to strain forward, toward the prize.  Right now, as I continue to job-hunt and figure out what my spiritual and compositional rhythms will look like now that our home renovations are "done," the shape that "straining" forward takes may be choosing to go to bed earlier, to get up earlier, to have more time to reflect, read, and write before the demands of each day begin to make themselves known.  Probably to blog more consistently, too.  (Or at least to try.  Again.  Have I failed to do so before?  ...I forget.)

What is it that you need to forget?  And what will your "straining" look like? 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Inspired, with a Medium-sized "i"

On and off for the past several months, I've been slogging through deeply enjoying N. T. Wright's 2013 book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God.  On page 1370 (just 150 pages to go!), I came across this:

"To approach the frontier between the human and the divine is also to approach the borders of language. The problem emerges, for instance, when [Paul] talks about 'the divine spirit bearing witness with our spirit' [Rom. 8:16], and the problem is only slightly alleviated when he talks instead about the divine spirit residing in a person's 'heart'. The questions English-language exegetes [interpreters] sometimes ask, as to whether 'spirit' should have a capital letter or not, indicating the divine spirit rather than the human one, shows well enough that there is fluidity of thought at this point."

This struck me particularly because of two recent items; bear with me, since they take a moment to join together.  Item One: a conversation I recently shared with a few colleagues, concerning whether or not God still calls people to be apostles today.  Leaving aside the more prickly questions of whether (and how) spiritual gifts like prophecy, healing, and speaking in tongues still function today, we talked about what it was that made Jesus' original apostles, well, apostles: they were commissioned as such, and sent as such; they were first among Jesus' companions and witnesses; empowered by Jesus' commissioning, and later more directly by the Holy Spirit, they did some pretty amazing stuff ("that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons," Mark 3:14-15). But then of course there's somebody like Paul, who gets to define himself as apostle to the Gentiles/nations, talks about himself as the least (and most undeserving) of the apostles, yet also tries to dictate what kind of spheres of authority he and other apostles have.  (And, Paul might well add, he also added letter-writing to the apostolic job description!)  All of that is to say that if we were to imagine an "apostolic" calling today, there might be considerable variations in what that would look like between those called.  To take some of the loaded-ness out of that term, apostolic, maybe we should place it within the current conversation of the mission of God and his people: where those original, capital-A Apostles were commissioned in some sense directly by Jesus himself, today a lowercase-a apostle could be one who is sent on a mission, not unlike a missionary, as part of the larger mission that God has given his people, the mission that reflects and expresses God's own mission to this beautiful but broken world.  For the individual, that's a powerful incentive to do the things one is called to do, to live out a commission most faithfully (in some cases probably including, but not limited to, blogging more consistently).

Item two: a nearby Christian TV station has been using the Twitter hashtag "#inspiring" to promote discussion of its programming -- including its reruns of, say, Gilmore Girls and The West Wing.  I happily admit that there are plenty of "inspiring" moments in these and other shows, and West Wing more than most.  But it's almost always lowercase-i inspiring.  Not that anyone can decide firmly where the break should be between capital and lowercase inspiration, much as Wright says about the use of Spirit and spirit above.  The most stirring, Capra-esque moment of compassionate politics in Jed Bartlet's White House is still a far cry from the literal in-spiration of the first Pentecost; but who's to say that the Spirit cannot or would not move in and through that former moment, at which point inspiration becomes, arguably, Inspiration

So: what do you think?  What do you make of Wright's point about the limits of human language here, or my reflection on them?  How are we supposed to work out these questions of big and little A's and I's (without getting too far into Dr. Seuss's ABCs!) that can make such a big difference in our spiritual formation and mission?  Is there a happy medium-sized expression between the two extremes -- and if so, what does it look like?