Sunday, February 23, 2014

Very funny, God.

Sometimes God is funny.

He's funny because He is acts in such unexpected ways which is, of course, the source of an awful lot of humour. Saying or doing something so unexpected that it will confound expectations can be risky, of course, but God does that all the time in ways that are funny, if only we were paying attention.

Okay, so God is funny. We really shouldn't be surprised at that. God is so much more than the limits that we humans can set that we can't help being surprised when he surpasses them. I mean, we work so hard to put Him into a box or keep Him safely in his sanitized compartment and, then, he pops through a wall, telling you to put your finger in his side or something. Now, that is kind of funny, if in a rather unexpected way.

Mind you, this is something I've known about God for quite some time. He does have a habit of throwing odd things in my way, especially when I least expect it. Sometimes these are happy surprises, like an unlooked-for gift. Sometimes they are 'are you kidding me?' surprises. Sometimes they don't look like a gift at all.  The happy surprises are easy enough to take. Who doesn't like a true gift? Who can't be grateful for that? The 'are you kidding me?' surprises are a bit harder to take, but these are usually things that I can appreciate, at least, the irony and settle into, eventually. The things that don't look like a gift are no fun at all, even if I value of the gift only in retrospect. Yet, what all these surprises have in common is that they are further proof that I don't have God all sussed out and that God does know the gifts I need so much better than we do. These kinds of gifts, especially the ones that don't look like it, remind me that I'm not God and that God isn't going to do whatever I expect in the way I expected it. Faith tells me that this God who defies expectations know what I need better than I do. and that He's playing a much longer game than I am.

So, when I found myself laughing out loud in the Bulb Room near the entrance to the Mediterranean Gardens at the Royal Botanical Gardens Centre on Saturday, I knew that God was being funny again. It was funny that I only then realized that the smell of hyacinth and narcissus which was wafting through the room forcibly reminded me of the gardens in the airport at Palm Springs, where, even as I was standing there, my wife and children were flying towards- smells which signal for me rest and recuperation after a long, busy winter. It was funny because I suddenly recalled that there were many of the plants that I knew and loved from those visits- cacti, bougainvillea, citrus trees, aloes- were waiting just beyond those doors. It was funny because I suddenly was reminded that much of California enjoyed a Mediterranean climate and that, this March Break, my trip to Greece with students was trading one Mediterranean climate for another. It was funny because the reason why I was even at the RBG was that I was taking a break to rest, reflect and work on some spiritual exercises from a church group I was involved in and I had kept feeling led to come to the RBG even though it was a forty-five minute drive away and I honestly didn't remember that this garden was even there. It was funny because God snuck up on me and gave me a blessing, completely unlooked for. That would make this one of those nice surprises, but I'm not complaining.

I spent four hours or so, wandering about in that garden. I did my exercises. I walked around it four, five, six times. I sat when I needed to. I prayed the first six verses of Psalm 19 several times. I was happy. I got tired. I sat down. I wandered about again. I realized I was walking the garden like a labyrinth (ha, ha. Very funny, God). I said goodbye on my last lap. I felt I was visiting an island of peace without any real worry about time or what I had to get accomplished in the next few weeks. Given the frantic pace of my life right now, that peace feels like something of a minor miracle, a true sabbatical.

I'm still processing that visit, so I'm not sure what that time I spent in the Mediterranean Garden meant. Perhaps the blessing is enough. Perhaps there is more to it. I really don't know.

But God is kind of funny.    

Sunday, February 09, 2014


The truth is that teaching is messy...and I'm not talking about my desk. Teaching is messy because it deals with human beings with their own needs, desires and flaws. Teaching is messy because a teacher is trying to help their students to learn and one of the most important things that our students have to learn is to stand on their own and learn to be themselves; not the person that the media tells them to be, not the person I want them to be- themselves. That may mean making mistakes. That may mean struggling. That may mean an awful lot of things. It may mean a mess.

Contrary to the commonly held opinion of my students and the shifting papers of my desk, I don't like mess. Very few people do. When my desk piles up with paper and the shifting sands of marking, memoes and handouts cause me to forget what the surface of my desk actually looks like, I can feel my anxiety rising and my frustration growing. I feel out of control, anxious and out-of-sorts until I take the paper bull by the horns and begin to separate and sort. When I'm done, my life comes back into order and calm returns. As I tell my students, the state of desk is an index of my state of my mind. When it is in disorder, so am I. When it is straightened and organized, I'm calmer and more serene.

Mind you, it isn't my literal mess that has led me to this blog entry. The mess that is teaching is not, really, a physical mess (although that doesn't help), but a figurative one. It is, in fact, a relational one. How could it not be? I teach, all told, about a hundred and eighty teenagers in a year- all of them very individual, all of them with their strengths and vulnerabilities, their desires and needs, their hearts and their heads. They are all struggling to make sense of their lives in the here and now as well as the future promise that they represent. Some of them come through this period of growing and learning with grace and aplomb. Others face struggles that would daunt an adult. Some fail. Some succeed. Most get through. All of them have good days and bad days. So do I. The messiness of teaching is that no one can predict how we are going to meet or collide in the classroom. From one day to the next, no one, much less the teacher, can quite predict what will be needed that day. Sometimes it is firm hand. Sometimes it is a listening ear. No one quite knows.

Yet, amid the chaos of a busy high school classroom, I try to remember Henri Nouwen's definition of hospitality as a place where one's guests can be themselves (I'm paraphrasing, but I think I'm right). Yes, there are things to learn. Yes, there is marking to do and report cards to write. Yes, there are legitimate professional expectations upon me in my dealings with students. But, at the heart of it, the best sense I've made of my teaching is that my students are the guests that God has sent me for a limited time. They aren't mine to control. They aren't mine to manipulate. They are their own selves and that is what I need to value. I hope their stay with me will do them some good, but I don't even get to control that. That is probably a good thing, but it can be a hard thing.

Like my students, sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail in my teaching. When I fail, I try to pick myself up and learn what I need to learn. The messiness of a high school classroom can be humbling. It can also be a beautiful thing as the place where my students come into their own. Teaching is messy, but, in that mess, I hope and pray my students find a safe place, where we play with language and rejoice in what we learn. If I can manage that, that's all the success I need.


Sunday, February 02, 2014

Nunc Dimittis

Lord, now let your servant depart in peace
according to your word, 
for my eyes have seen your salvation
which you have prepared before the face of all people
to be a light to lighten the Gentiles
and to be the glory of your people, Israel
                                                                                   BCP- Compline (adapted)

Most years, I'm caught a little by surprise when Candlemas (aka The Presentation of the Lord) comes around. By late January/February, the excitement of the Christmas season has worn off and the slog through the mid-winter usually means a slog through marking and report cards. So, today, while I knew it was Candlemas because I was called in to wave smoke about in the service, I was focusing on making sure that I knew where I was going in the dance which is an Anglo-Catholic service. So, when the Gospel came around and I got to heard these familiar words from Symeon as he encountered the baby Jesus on the occasion of his presentation, I smiled. I smiled because this passage has meant so much to me that, when, over the course of years, I cobbled together a mostly memorized evening prayer, I made sure I memorized this bit from the BCP Compline service because I just feel better about life, remembering this salvation which has brought light into my life and the lives of so many others. This prayer is a familiar friend and an image that I return to nightly because it reminds me that, no matter how the day has gone or what failings I might have demonstrated that day, that the coming of Jesus meant that whatever was wrong in me or the world would, eventually, come out right. 

Yet, this promise isn't all sweetness and light. As our preacher pointed out today, the Nunc Dimittis isn't the end of Symeon's prophetic statements. After Symeon blessed them, he continued by saying "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel and be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.". Wow, thanks, Symeon. First, you promise that somehow this little infant would be a sign of hope and the coming of God's kingdom, then you promise strife and pain as a result. Really? Talk about mixed messages!

Again, as our preacher pointed out, this juxtaposition isn't as jarring as it looks. When it has been dark for a long time, the appearance of a light is truly something to rejoice over, but, after that first rush of gratitude, sometimes, one looks around and realizes just how grotty our surroundings actually are. And that realization may not be an easy one to make because the light may reveal something that we'd prefer not to or which we have persistently denied as part of our lives. We need the light to see how to move forward, but, sometimes, the moving forward means cleaning up a mess we'd sooner not have to clean up. In a situation like that, we could try to ignore the mess, but that is hard when everything is illuminated. Or we could claim the light is distorting the true picture. Or we could just move away from the light, back to the familiar darkness. Or we could just use the light to clean up the mess and move on. What we do, I suspect, will also dictate our attitude to what the light represents and how we'll react to it. 

I know that I need the hopefulness of Symeon's blessing of Jesus, but I, also, know that that hopefulness doesn't come easily. For Symeon, that hope only emerged after a lifetime of waiting and longing and it is all the more poignant because we know (as he himself knew) that Symeon would never see the fulfillment of that hope in Jesus' life, death and resurrection. Yet, I wonder if it is the fact that this hope is hard-won is what I find is compelling. I can see well enough around me to know that I'm in the need of saving- not in the sense of being teleported to a different reality, but in order that my life is transformed to something useful both to those around me and to God. I need that light to lighten me, so I can see the gloriousness around me, even amid the mundane, workaday world I live in. I may not always like what that light reveals, but I know it is better to see and fix, than to stumbled around aimlessly. 

So, I'll pray the Nunc Dimittis again tonight as I usually do, perhaps with a bit more awareness of the edginess of this prayer. I pray for the serenity to look into those places where the light shines in where I don't necessarily want and the courage to do something about it.