How-to Replace “but” with “and” (breaking hierarchical dichotomy, bridging divide)

Let’s jump in!

“I love you, but I feel like you don’t listen to me.”
–> how that statement reads: “my needs matter more than my love for you.”

“People should feel outraged, but they need to consider the outrage they cause property owners.”
–> how that statement reads: “property is more important.”

“I can get behind that their lives matter, but other groups have been hurt too.”
–> “some parties’ pain is more important than others.”

Step 1) Ask yourself whether the sentence is more accurate with “and” rather than “but.” [It often is.]

“I love you, but and I feel like you don’t listen to me.”
–> reads: My love for you doesn’t negate my concern about your listening; your lack of listening doesn’t affect how much I love you.

“People should act on their outrage, but and property owners deserve respect.”
–> reads: property owners’ pain should be considered even amid people’s righteous outrage; it is right for people to be outraged and take action even though property owners need respect.

[Bonus] Step 2) Ask yourself whether “and” can be replaced by “because” or “so” for even more compelling accuracy.

“I love you, so I want you to become a better person.”
–> read: my love means I emphatically want you to become a better you even as I accept you for who you with all of my being.

[More powerful examples:]
–> I love America so I kneel for the anthem.
–> I love police so I want to reform them to have less responsibility and power.
–> All people in their imperfect relationality mirror God’s likeness and lovingkindness.
–> all lives matter BECAUSE black lives matter.

I sit on a balcony, alone.

I need this time for selfishness, to make selflessness possible in a subsequent time. Selfishness feeds selflessness, and selflessness feeds the self. One seeks the other and the other haunts the first, so it seems in all things.

When I finally focus on what’s beyond me, I see a vine twirling through the air. It’s an opportunist, wrapping around the trunk of a slender birch tree; it ascends the sun. Why does the birch tree exist, except to be a support for symbiotes, a mansion for squirrels, a ground-breaker for a thousand-thousand denizens. You say “nonsense! That tree is a conglomeration of cells evolved by selecting (I say the science hides this process of introspective, other-supportive dying in “selecting”) for their own survival.” And some how, in its proliferation, the birch tree has “understood,” where “understanding” just means knowing its place-in-relation, its agency-in-community: helping the soil helps itself. Helping a squirrel helps it spread seed. Supporting another is a selfless selfishness, a selfish selflessness.

I’m firmly a youth director now. Have been for 10 months.

How can I even attempt to have a chance of expanding the internal world of each youth and young adult? Can I say, “look at the circle that things travel. A bird hatches in nest, is fed worms, molts its infancy, spreads wing and finds food, meets a partner, has sex, builds nest, lays egg, feeds a multiple others… eventually those multiples feed their multiples?” Can I utter seeking understanding, a fides quarens intellectum:

The word for circle is “family,” is “body,” for Christians, is “church.”

But does a circle also convey “stuckness” (synonyms: entrenchment, obstinance)? Stuck in a hamster wheel without terminal or termination, that’s me. where the weeks (of social distance, remote work, limited exercise, coping by eating, over-sleeping) have become undistinguishable, one from the next. “Teach thyself,” the critic screams. Perhaps I should then teach myself, “it looks redundant and unrelenting, ‘only, add dimension to your thinking,’ I should tell my youth-friends in order to tell myself.” Circular motion is only until you see depth or see time, for then, then you see life wriggling, undulating, pulsing, thriving in waves.

In math, we call these sinusoids. In physics, simple harmonic motion, and later, excitations in quantum particle fields. But again, academic terminology may have masked the excitement of those scientists’ discoveries:

Life circles on, undergoes intangible peristalsis (rhythmic, synchronized contractions) in inconceivable dimensions, and we are all cast in that sea, God’s sea of providence, which in faith we believe (and only by faith we see, a circular reasoning?) progresses towards mercy, justice, and love.

Strewn

Tilted
Littered
Limbo
Vivid
Stranded
Estranged
Tortuous
Stern
Akimbo
Dangled
Bedazzled
Besmirched
Stringent
Ravaged
Torn
Revelatory
Vivisected
Intimated
Stymied
Extravagant
Vagrant
Strewn.

I sat next to a Derrida scholar on the plane, and he inspired me to reflect:

1) There is a belittlement of self, even a physical minimizing of the self, that has as its cause and passionate goal the enlargement of the self (ego).

2) It may be when the self stands up for itself, that is the moment that it speaks to power an ability to stand up for others.

3) identity (ipsem) is found not in the narcissistic reflection but the vulnerable opening of the self to the loving gaze of a family of others. Or perhaps a corollary (inspired by something C. Conroy said): the hardest ethic is to live as though another person is real, and doing so paradoxically reveals the selfless self as the real.

4) speaking in parallel with the lucid, tour de force of a book, Educated: curiosity and reflection and philosophy are the privilege of the powerful.

Appendices

On ethical reading of the Bible:

On problems with the Romans Road and the Bridge Diagram:

On the appearance of a pastor:

On the idolatry of reading the Bible only:

On Dichotomizing Kairos and Chronos, and Dualism:

I never blame pastors for creating dichotomies in their sermons, because I have been in the position where it is pedagogically and rhetorically “expedient” to say “everything is either A or B.” People want (temporarily need, even) ready buckets or categories with which to sort and make sense of chaos and complexity.

But I haven’t come across an example where talking about God with a ready dichotomy doesn’t obscure his relationally flowing (I.E. loving) nature.

The jury is out on whether Kairos and Chronos are such separated buckets in the minds of the Greeks. Further, to talk about Jesus the Christ’s work as Kairos and our lives’ travails as Chronos lends itself quickly to a dualism where God is unencumbered by everything that has gone before; he is unfettered by the material world at all times; he is always doing something new that has nothing to do with the old. Meanwhile those of us who live in Chronological time seem to have no recourse but to resign to inevitability and death.

But we know that God came in the flesh as Jesus of Nazareth. He was and therefore always is affected by the laws of physics and the lessons of history (even if he surmounts them). He is not an “unstuck power” but a loving partner who wades into the stream of time to pull us out of the miry clay. He condescends into full humanity with all its trapping suffering and death. Jesus buys a shovel from Canadian Tire for the times your car is hopelessly in the snowbanks of life.

The traditional creeds discuss Pontius Pilate not to give him infamy, but to locate Jesus historically. It is more prudent to talk about God’s work of the gospel’s proliferation as Kairos in the Chronos. Or simply a disjunction in the continuity of time (which then reinterprets the whole continuum).

Perhaps all creatures carry the spark of the divine in them. Humans seem to me capable of generating their own Kairos moments in partnership with God. If you ever listen to the stories of men and women who survived Residential Schools, you may hear resilience born from years and years spent making sense of torture and cultural “genocide” at the hands of us, the invaders. Their experiences of injustice may have become Kairos moments reinterpreting their whole lives.

Exalting God’s work as Kairos irrespective of Chronos inscribes the same dualism as the early church faced, one that demeans our environment and our earthly stories of suffering. Engaging in non dualistic thinking is very difficult and stretches the prophetic imagination of preachers beyond the limits of language. But it behooves us to represent God as love that “knows no boundaries” AND chooses to play by our rules.

Circling Back (to community)

Recognize these?

The white SUV roared, and I mentally pictured some seventy minutes on the road to visit the church of my youth. After the turn on to QE2, I turned the radio dial from our Alt-Rock to the Christian radio station, something I hadn’t listened to in years. Satisfied now by the simplistic-nostalgic tunes, I let my mind wander; the road and its familiarity would bear me to my destination.

“South Calgary Chinese Evangelical Church,” read the huge block lettering floated on white mortar; as I closed in from the C-train lot, traditional Chinese characters rose from obscure line into the stuff of decorous poetry. Surely, a sign for the sophisticated.

Outside, oily grills glistened as the sun ensconced and emerged, among clouds as wispy as smoke signals and travelling just as hurriedly. The skies alerted us as if to souls needing saving, lending a wary start to the yearly Stampede breakfasts of pancakes and greasy greasy sausages.
Inside the glass double doors, however, awaited a steadfast friend I hadn’t spoken to for nearly a year. Our eyes later locked. We wore genuine grins and launched genuinely inquisitive pleasantries: “How are you?” We would ask each other, with an elongated emphasis on the “you.” I bragged about my 4 day dog-ridden roadtrip ascending to Calgary, and you talked about something–I remember the phrase “everything is the same but different”–oh right, church politics, since you mentioned three of four pastors would be moving on, heaven help you. You said all that while walking us over to the offices and retrieving the cheque reqs deposited in your mailbox. I often admire how you’ve stuck with this church for over ten years while I’ve been flitting about, questioning everything. You’ve made it to the MOT–gotta love church acronyms.

Before all that eye-locking though, I had actually walked around the church to the other main entrance where there are rows of glass double-doors but everyone uses the one. Upon my entrance to the sanctuary foyer, a quite young looking woman was the first to greet me, and enthusiastically: “Gary! What are you doing here? What are you doing now?” She told me about her first year of college (though everyone says “university” in Canada) at UC doing Kinesiology, which she’s thankful to God she loves, because UBC was her first choice, and they didn’t give her the program/place she wanted. I don’t remember her thanking God for anything in the days when she sat in my Sunday School class or sat somberly in “Shine,” our high school group. It strikes me her face is simultaneously brighter, braver, and more sullen. College does have a way of simultaneously taking from you your best friends and broadening the window of what kinds of people you can appreciate. That, or she didn’t wear as much eyeshadow as she used to.

And after I had caught up with you today, I bumped into a different young woman I had met in Shine. I honestly hadn’t expected anyone to remember or want to talk to me, but her eyebrows shot up when she recognized me, and she told me about her decision to go to acting school (or is it “theatre?”…pardon my ignorance) in Ryerson. There was a time when I supported her clear passion to go to such a school against her parents’ wishes that she become a professional (doctor?), and I hadn’t heard what happened after that conversation until now, five years in the future. I thought of her often, because it’s typically unwise to advise anyone to eschew their parents’ wishes; I still can only hope she will live out her passion in vocation and learn to love her parents.

Important peripherals aside then,

This church once upon a time nurtured the newfound faith that a lively group of college kids found while interrogating their strange Asian upbringing, with god-given mentors wisely provided by a campus ministry brash enough to do such things.

This church became the place where I invested in friendships, spending the most precious of hours (Friday-evenings) in college groups, and then irksome hours teaching Sunday School (sometimes without a lesson plan, we spent the class commenting on LOTR), and then my favourite lazing hours on Saturday planning Shine (such a ’90s name for a high school fellowship) and eating McDonalds, executing those bible studies and gym nights and plethora of appreciation nights afterward.

This church became, finally, everything that irritated me. Like the proverbial chicken and its egg, on one hand I started being irritated by how insular the programs and the people were. The youth seemed ever-preoccupied with academics and self-congratulatory games. The adults seemed to me preoccupied with their kids’ academics, and finding new ways to have fun with their closest circles. Eventually, I admit, I got tired of men’s breakfasts (or accountability circles) spent not even shooting the wind but skating the surface, and small groups practicing “vulnerability” (we still argue over the word has real content, but I see my wife’s point).
On the other hand, if the egg was hatching, then the chicken matured into a marked transition in my way of thinking/talking about God/world. One led to the other, which led to the first: a dragon elongating by eating its tail, a fallacious tautology, or a basic characteristic of all truth.

I didn’t know I felt done with church, and I didn’t know how to tell people. It’s taken some years and 2500 miles of distance to circle back at all.

To be continued in part 2…

MARTA vectors (and Scriptural ones)

The MARTA glided the tree tops in the distance, and I realized.
I’d heard its whine but not seen its splendour, like a ruddy toy train, painted a boyish green and blue. You see, those morasses of leaves a short span from our peering window had all but given up their clinging, their desperate purchase on life. Droll February had taken its toll on that insulating foliage. And y’know how these things go: slowly-yet-suddenly, through our 3rd-story aperture, we were being shocked. We awoke, as it were, to find ourselves peering through the trunks always before us. Our gaze condescended on grimy, off-white mortar buildings with large silvery exhaust stacks dotting their tarred roofs. No longer insulated from clang clanging rusted bins hoarding who-knows-what, or those… obese blue sentinels with sliding steel doors strewn conspicuously in the rear so as to be unnoticeable, but we oh-so-luckily had a bird-eye view and a dog-eared proximity to it all.

Just then, barely peeking above the winter horizon of sparsely leaved trees, another series of pastoral-green cars glided by, pristine against the pensively pale sky, whirring its demure whir.

They were an incoming and outgoing vector; you know, vectors are those arrow-things you learn about in high school with, one, magnitude, and two, direction. In three dimensional space, you can codify them, represent them with just three numbers.

Ricoeur, a frenchie philosopher and aesthetic reader encountering God-in-text, used the term vector too. Only, rather than high school math and physics, he was interested in what makes scripture sacred. That time in college I bit off more than I could chew by taking a 400 class in second year–if you’re curious, Narrative Theology with indigenous dreamer Dr. Ray Aldred–I set my sights on Ricoeur’s Figuring the Sacred. In his intense scrutiny of the parable of mustard seed (which he somehow expected unprofessional readers to replicate, hah), he found vectors. Specifically, a heaven-bound vector, firing from the small plot of land in which the seed was laid, finding its direction through another point couched in the hundred-hundred-fold pile of talents of the faithful servant, would rise. It rises up and up, out of the text, impales the reader on the way to heaven. Its magnitude? infinite.

If you believe Ricoeur’s professional reading, when we read scripture, we are implicated-impaled by the words of God which bear us to abundance, to fruitfulness for the kingdom, to heaven. And here, I need to make sure I catch myself, because I used the words “up and up,” but it might be more accurate to say “out and out.” It’s important I not give anyone the impression that heaven is up there; rather, isn’t hope just beyond our fingertips, or waiting to take effect just outside our leaf-insulated windows?

I don’t believe Ricoeur exactly. I’m situated in a more postmodern or distrusting or secular time, and I think a text gives rise to more than one avenue of meaning. Yet, his reading sets my imagination on fire–I may not remember much from my Seminary days, but I remember his quest for meaning exploding beyond our safe boundaries for reading.

Sunday Lull

A loud college-aged guy stumbled into our Sunday school class today. He had opinions on everything; he had watched all the latest movies–obviously. He talked about the ad hoc continuity in the new Harry Potter movies (which I hadn’t seen). He talked about the lack of logic in Star Wars characters being able to fly by spinning their lightsabers, which we laughed at, because General Grievous would have split into pieces if that logic were applied universally. He confessed to just having watched Lord of the Rings for the first time, and complained of its lack of logic–why didn’t they just send a fellowship of Hobbits who took turns sharing the ring, he said? Well, this last point could be debated against on numerous, myriad points, but I was never a debater, and I couldn’t slip my words into the tiny chinks, barely visible, in the flow of the conversation. This junior in college was the most talkative, and his two younger brothers were moderately quiet and absolutely silent, respectively. So it was that the junior took over our Sunday school class, and brought his brothers and two other high schoolers into intense conversation with him.

***I struggle to say anything meaningful until there’s enough silence. It’s been like that for a while. For some reason, the frustration of it resurfaced today.***

At one point, after I summon my voice to re-read the Magnificat (Mary’s song in Luke 1), the one college kid has one more thing to say. He finds it strangely disjointed (he probably just said “strange”) that God is depicted as merciful in the Magnificat–and the New Testament–when the Old Testament shows God killing all but two people by flood (there were other examples, but that one was the central illustration).

I’m happy for the question. It shows biblical knowledge, critical engagement, and brave honesty in the face of an experiential, affective inconsistency. I’m happy for the question… I was frustrated by my answer. I did the best I could. I said such things as, “that’s a very important question,” “The flood is problematic.” and finally, “I invite you to re-read the Old Testament to see how patient God is. There are hundreds of years [I guessed] before God puts an end to a world that is described as being quite depraved.” Those poor high schoolers were exposed to a difficult question by someone much older and better spoken than they, and not really given the tools to tackle it.

Pardon me if I experienced whiplash for experiencing a quiet class of high schoolers and getting something different. I’m both happy and frustrated at the challenge. Idealistically, I think the church is at the very least a family, and who hasn’t needed to learn flexibility in order to survive family dinners come Christmastime? Experientially, I’m bummed out that I didn’t meet the challenge or come out swinging. I think I rather got steamrolled before I threw a punch.

Whenever I teach (or write), I imagine various road signs indicating how far our collective journey goes. I get past “description”–describing what happened in the biblical pericope. I reach the point of “evocation”–asking teens to imagine God’s justice reaching into our world. When I work hard and overcome some awkwardness in our group dynamics, I reach the point of “application.” Our Sunday School class does things in response to what they hear, sometimes. But, I never reach “prescription.” I won’t say “here’s what you should do” / “here’s how you should think.”

My chosen weapon (if it can even be called such) is embracing hospitality. I was even planning on saying today “the best weapon against injustice is hospitality.” but I didn’t. I juxtaposed Jesus’ world and our world, but I didn’t get to how the two crossed. The goal of the lesson was to define Advent, but the words we wrote on the chart only circumscribed, or circled around, Advent. All in all, there was tons of evocation, but only for the keen listener, and I find myself saying:

This feels crummy. Can I do better?

An (Early) Advent Devotional

I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; / I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. – Gen 12:2

Five times in six weeks, our youth group studied Genesis 11-13 to unfold the early story of Abram (not yet Abraham). I learned more than I taught. Chapter twelve was supposed to illustrate faithfulness to God’s instruction, supposed to lead the group to consider their designer’s typical, “blessed-to-be-a-blessing” design.

But Abram just didn’t fit stereotypes of faith. His nomadic father had been the one who first sought (and fell short of) Canaan. For Abram, “blessing” likely translated into “an opportunity” to head up his father’s journey, and head his own family. But faced with famine, Abram instead headed for Egypt, not waiting on God.

It took Abram time. Time to learn “blessings” were not just opportunities beneficial for him, but opportunities to know God. Time and a lot of backtracking to learn God appears in person, not primarily to cull ambiguities on the journey, but to know and be known. With time, Genesis shouts a refrain that echoes through to the epistles:

“Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD credited it to him as righteousness.”

It’s not a stretch to say Advent is time for us to live Abram’s story, to embody more than a type-cast actor in God’s story. Rather, he (and we) anxiously wait to realize God’s abundance given through God’s “I will bless,” and specifically given through the Son.

Simple Fiction

It’s so hard to write these days. I feel more self-critical and less certain of myself than ever. It used to be I could “free-write,” where one writes without stopping for correction. But I’m finding that it’s becoming harder to mentally bar myself from critiquing my own writing through a fear of what people think. Which is too bad, because free-writing is a great tool for candid reflection, expressing self-identity and perspectives on the world, both-in-one.

Just maybe though, fiction can do the same thing. Here goes.

***

A boy jumps over a fence. He sees a pool and is greatly gratified. He thinks, “It is early in the day, and I can swim in the pool for hours until the owner of the house returns.” He floats around, times his laps, practices his fancy jumps off the diving board. Just then, the master of the house returns and sees the boy rollicking in the pool. The master rushes out and yells, “HEY!” The boy flounders in the water for a second. In his fun, he had lost track of time and place. The boy climbs out of the pool slowly and with some dread. The master, a man wizened by years and wearing a somewhat grim face, seizes the boy’s shoulders. He speaks slowly: “Come back and enjoy this pool whenever you want, kid. I’ll keep it filled and cleaned for you and any friends you bring.” The boy is surprised: he’s used to climbing fences and running away before getting caught. That’s what he does again this time. He says, flatly, “No thanks, man.” The boy turns toward whence he came, runs and hops the fence, even though a back gate is now wide open.

***

A middle-aged woman has grown tired of her string of pearls. “They are so 90’s,” she thinks, “such plain white.” But, she can’t get rid of them–after all, they were passed down from her mother, who received them from her mother. They ought to have sentimental value. So, the woman has a plan. The next week, her daughter, during her 21st birthday, unwraps a present to find a plain white box the size of her forearm. Lo and behold, when the daughter opens it, she finds a string of pearls of the plainest white. She gushes over them, at first. Wears them to every party for weeks, even months. But, her mother, tired of the pearls, had not bothered to tell the story of whence these pearls came. So, finally, when the mode du jour turns more hip and less modern, the daughter finds that she too is tired of the pearls. She stops wearing them, which her mother notices but does not comment on.

There comes a day when the daughter is interested in a very stylish, but expensive, new dress, so she sells the pearls, thinking them plainly out of style anyway. She finds a jeweler, a woman who happens to specialize in pearls, and is so pleasantly surprised at the sum offered–who knew plain pearls be worth so much?–that she does not haggle at all but makes the trade quickly, and with much joy.

The jeweler too is overjoyed. When the daughter first approached her with the strand, the jeweler thought, “It’s been a hard month, and I definitely don’t have extra money for another procurement.” But the pearls catch and hold her attention. They are of such pure white and of such lustre as the merchant had never seen. She begs the daughter to come back in a few days. In that time, she makes a few phone calls, sells half of her store as quickly (but smartly) as she can, and purchases the brilliant pearls for what she thinks is a modest price. In a few months’ time, she sells them to an extremely rich admirer of pure-white pearls, and turns a tidy profit.

***

To my mind, both of these stories have sad (but open-ended) endings.