Sunday, January 27, 2008

Our Most Powerful Gift

It's snowing again. Quietly. The flakes are so big that they remind me when I used to 'make' snowflakes back in Grade 2. I never liked doing crafts, but I liked creating snowflakes. Folding up the paper and cutting a fresh new design into each snowflake. And there was always that 'ahhh!' moment when I unfolded the paper.

It's been a long time since I made a snowflake, and the memory brings a smile to my face. The street is still, as it often is, the Saturday night parties rarely make it down my little street. It's been an eventful two weeks, every day seems like a bit of an event, like some sort of learning experience. In many ways, I feel as if I have left my will behind, as if I am no longer in control. I mean that in a good way. The irony is that I have exhibited more control than I have had in a long time, and it is this very discipline that has left me waking up each morning feeling as though God has attached wings to my back.

This past week I have been astounded by a couple of observations. The first is how little we seem to enjoy the idea of managing our lives well. And the second is how easily we relinquish control of our daily life. We do so in countless ways. Whether its continuing to do the same things every day, or by not setting goals for ourselves, or by not even thinking about attempting something new or something that will push us out of our comfort zones, we program ourselves into routines when there is no need to do so, and yet we refuse to discipline our lives so that we have freedom to do the things which we feel called to do.

It is both ironic and sad.

Most of us live in a bubble of self-absorbed frustration, and yet, when the opportunity arises to take us from our 'rut-like' existence, we pass on it. I can relate. I struggle with the same thing. And while I can list any number of reasons, the biggest reason for the times I merely 'exist', and don't 'live', is that I am afraid. I am afraid to try something new. I am afraid to meet new people. I am afraid to fail. I am afraid to try. I am afraid to experiment. I'm afraid to start a new relationship. And so my life moves forward, and time leaps ahead, and I am left in the same day, the same month, the same year. I commiserate with my co-workers and friends and celebrate occasionally, but my life never really changes. It never challenges. And one morning I wake up and I realize that I am no longer alive.

It's sad isn't it? And yet, it is the story of so many of us.

What we forget is that God has given us a great gift to counter this human tendency. It is so powerful; we often ignore it or excuse it away. We snicker at its simplicity, and take away its power by refusing to acknowledge it. And on that day, we truly die.
What is this powerful gift, you ask?

It is choice.

We choose our life.

Oh, we don't choose everything. I didn't choose my parents or my country or my upbringing. I didn't choose my parents' finances or what I look like or my natural intelligence or some of my basic personality traits. However, I choose everything else! Let me repeat that.

We choose everything else.

I choose how I respond, how I treat others, where I want to live, what I believe. Every day our lives are filled with hundreds of decisions. We will make every single one of those. This is an unprecedented and unbelievable gift. Some of our decisions (stop at the red light, good decision!) are routine, but so many more are not. We have the power to create our life. The Creator's greatest gift for us(next to life), is that we too, create and mould our life.

...I am consistently amazed at how many people complain. Complaining is a choice not to choose. Every time we complain, we deny the power to choose our life. When we complain, we are victims, and victims have no control of their life. Most people think that complaining is part of human nature, that it's not a big deal, but it is. It is so much more than simply saying what you don't like. It is a denial of control. What we're actually doing is stating that others should and do control our lives.

I slide out from the stoop and let the snow fall onto my face. I'm tired but I thank God for my day, and my job. I remember what it was like not to work. Gratitude is the counter to complaints, and the compliment to our gift of choice. Every time we express thanks, we raise the level of our life. Sometimes, that isn't easy, but it is always worth it.

My prayer this week is that you'll remember that your life is wide open, it is yours to create (and give away). You have been given a powerful gift, and my hope is that you will no longer ignore it. Pursue it, be thankful, and don't let fear stand in your way! Become what you want, fulfill your dreams, stretch yourself to the limit! God will walk with you, I promise you. He has called you to something greater than you have ever imagined... don't be afraid. We all have the opportunity for 'ahhh' moments in our own lives, if only we will take the chance, and make the choice, to do so.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

When Sadness Falls

Some thoughts on beating the blues...

I stared at the beer bottle perched on the middle of the coffee table. The rattling knock on the window continued. I heard my parents' voices but I was lost in another world. When the knocking finally subsided, I gritted my teeth and took another swig from my beer. The hopelessness of it all seemed to cascade over my shoulders and I could feel myself sinking into the couch wondering why I bothered. Why live? Why breathe? My basement apartment seemed to close in on me, and I could feel my parents' disappointment. They had traveled six hours to see me, and I couldn't even bother answering the door. They had no idea what I was thinking, what I was feeling... heck, I didn't understand it all either. All I knew was that the world was pain. Their inevitable disappointment only heightened the gravity of my sorrow. The calendar had just turned into the new millennium, but there was nothing new about life. Only more heartache. More pain. My storybook life and ministry had disintegrated, my dreams out of reach. Forever. I sat on my couch without moving, staring into nothing, and wondering why I breathed. In time, I would get some answers, but at that moment, it was all I could do to crawl into bed and close my eyes.

It is common to hear about the effects of depression these days, and how we should deal with it. For me, the blackness lasted nearly two years. I've often looked back to see how I crawled out from under it, or whether or not it slipped away on its own. It's hard to tell. Depression lingers even after it leaves, and there are moments still when I hear its call like siren from shore, beckoning the sadness with its warm embrace.

Whole textbooks have been written, learned and studied discourses on dealing with depression with the inevitable sadness life brings to so many, and so I won't attempt to answer all of those questions. There is no one secret or key to beating back life's blues. Ironically, part of the deception for those who are struggling with depression or going through a saddened time is just that... they believe that there is ONE answer. If they could just change one thing, or do one thing, there life would change, and everything would be better. Unfortunately, life doesn't work that way. As much as we'd like to keep things in separate compartments, the 'pieces' of our lives inevitably bleed into one another, even if we don't acknowledge it. The relationship affects our work. The marriage affects our friendships. And so on.

And of all the lies of our modern Disney hope-fest, the one that says sadness is avoidable, perhaps that is the greatest lie. That our lives can be contained in separate compartments. Who we are, our character, is the only constant in our life (no matter what our circumstances) so if life is handing us a beating in one area, it will inevitably infect the others. Sometimes we recover. The sorrow passes, we heal, we move on. Sometimes, the infection grows deep, and it infects the most vulnerable place of us all.

It infects our soul.

When I first became a Christian, I thought that I'd discovered the ultimate truth for living happy, for always being happy. It fit well with my idea as a child that life was a story, a story destined to finish with a happy ending. It didn't happen. If anything, my life became more difficult. Jesus wasn't working, and so after years in the ministry and church leadership, I walked away. Only that didn't help either. And slowly I began to realize that no one or no thing could save me from life's heartaches. I tried to rebel. To think positive. But one thing after another started happening until I believed that I was in a battle with life, and it was a battle I knew that I could not win.

Anyone who ever suffered loss, and or who's suffered from depression, understands this idea of "me vs. life." There is a great deal of fighting, of working hard to overcome, of listening to the themes of inspirational movies and eagerly applying them as if they had solved the riddle. Only when it doesn't happen, we are cast down further, and we nestle uncomfortably in the pit of sorrow, somehow finding false comfort in our huddled misery.

Over seventy-five per cent of people in North America will experience some sort of depression over their lifetime, and anyone whose breathing will experience sadness at one time or another. And so, while there is no ONE solution to walking away from sadness, I can offer a couple of simple tips that helped me.

1. If you're stuck in BEING, start DOING. If you're stuck in DOING, start BEING.
As a writer and a thinker, I spend a great amount of time in my own head, in my own thoughts. I think about who I want to be, but instead of acting on it, I just keep thinking about it. The more I dwell on it, the more absurd it becomes, and suddenly I realize I haven't done anything about it. I convince myself that it's too late and that I shouldn't bother. For me, the key is doing. Getting out of my head to act on my thoughts. To write something. To work out. To set a goal list for the day and get moving.

For some people, it's the opposite. They spend their life on the treadmill running and running, always DOING, and never being. They never think about their dreams and hopes and wants, they're too busy working. Time to rethink their life will do wonders for the endless rut they feel so committed to.

Jesus had it right. An active life, to be sure, but still had time to laugh and party with his disciples and friends, and time for Himself to pray.

The other thing that helped me was living intentionally in community. I'm single and have been for a long time, but this past year I moved with intention of living with housemates. I've been blessed with great housemates, and I can't tell you how many times just being able to come home to people has helped me escape the blues. I still need my solitude, but I can shut my door for that. Too many people of faith have followed the 'me and God' thing for too long. It was never supposed to be that way. Open your hearts and let others inside. And stop worrying about whether the people around you are Christians or not. Be yourself. Be transparent. Allow others to pour into your life. Remember that you're not perfect.

I've said this before, but there is a great deal of pride in people suffering from depression. It is the hidden sin of a terrible affliction. I felt, and still do sometimes, that no one can understand what I am going through. That's nonsense, of course. We all go through things, and while we may be unique, our problems are not.

I still think about those times, especially on the days when I'm not sure why we bother at this thing called life. As much as I can, when those times come, I do two things. I do one thing that I know will make me feel better, like going to the gym or getting something done on my list that I don't want to do. The second is to think about my Hero, to remember what He did. So much of our sadness comes from our lack of contact with difference-making experience. That is, when I feed the homeless man, when I love my elderly neighbour, we discover the ultimate counter to depression and life's sadness, and it is the joy of answering the call of Jesus.

Feelings come and go. In modern culture, we are told to live by our feelings. Unfortunately, doing that steals the little control we have over our lives. Sadness comes, and while we can never remove those times (and I certainly do not advocate pretending as if it hasn't happened), we can learn to discipline our thoughts so we do not fall victim to the teeter totter swing of emotions.

Life will never be perfect, and there will always be days when our best effort may be to suffer through it, but remember it is in our pain and sorrow that we hear God's voice and are witness to His glory.

My prayer this week is that if you are going through a deep struggle, that you will stay with it, that you will move forward in spite of what you feel. I believe in you! God has not forsaken you! And that if things are going well, that you would look at those around you. Who needs a hand? Who can we help? It sounds like a cliché, but it is amazing how much easier things seem when there is someone there to put their arms around our shoulders, and walk with us.


Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Democratic Debates

Some Notes on the Presidential Election

As most of you are aware, I am something of a political junkie, and I follow both American and Canadian politics very closely. Throughout the upcoming primaries, I will be posting occasionally on some thoughts about the debates, the results, and making notes along the campaign trail. Feel free to weigh into the discussion. I believe this is an important upcoming election, especially in how the new president will set the tone for the country.

For those wondering about my political background and bias, let me be upfront. I am a libertarian and social activist. I have voted for all three Canadian parties, from right to left, at one time or another. I believe in smaller governments, I am socially conservative, but also believe in non-invasive social activism. (I know that sounds unworkable, but there you have it.) Canadians generally lean to the left of Americans; even the most conservative of Canadians would probably be considered moderate Democrats.

The most annoying thing about politicians, about the way our political system is set up, is that it is difficult to be honest. People kill you when you're honest. This is why politicians must spin. I hear people complaining about the 'liars' they have elected all the time. This is ridiculous, because any candidate who is truly honest and open will never win an election. That is the unfortunate truth.

Being a politician, a good one, is something of an art. To be able to balance ideas, show leadership, appeal to the voter, and manage an important elected office, is a difficult, difficult task, and our politicians are often not given the credit for what they do.
With that in mind, here are some thoughts about the Democratic Debate in New Hampshire:

1-Too many irrelevant politicians. Why do so many of these guys, like Gravel from Alaska, even bother.

2-They say that organization and money are what makes the difference. Only in the top tier. The separation between these candidates is clear after a very short time. (It's been reflected in the polls) Obama, Clinton, Edwards, and occasionally, Richardson. (Too often though, he just looks like he is trying too hard)

3- Chris Dodd will never win, but his intelligence is quickly obvious. I liked his answer about how we should deal with the rising price of gas and the dependency on oil

4- Edwards has really impressed me, he is measured and patient and non-aggressive towards his colleagues. I like how he has articulated his differences. He sounds very Clinton-ish tonight. (This is a good thing) Interesting how he keeps referring to "Senator" Obama and "Hillary." There is some definite tension between Edwards and Clinton. And despite his early jabs at both Obama and Clinton, Edwards is showing a great deal of respect for Obama. I can see an Obama-Edwards ticket.

5-Obama is clearly the gold standard. He sounds compassionate and presidential, the type of person who is able to command others without raising his voice. He is also articulate, and thoughtful. He is winning this debate. So far.

6- A note about Clinton. I can really understand why some people like her. She's smart, has showed some humour, and she's the kind of politician you would want working on an important issue because of her fearlessness and intelligence. But there is something about her that makes you think twice about voting for her... perhaps it is her inability to apologize and tendency to waffle on political ideology.

NOTE: Some people have asked me why I would post, on what is essentially a website about faith, thoughts on the election. "Jesus changes hearts, and that's all we need to worry about, right?" Well, no. The individualized notion of salvation is relatively new, and a product of post-enlightenment thought. The Romans did not kill Jesus merely because of prophecy. Yes, He fulfilled prophecy, but he was also politically dangerous. Look at the trial process, at how Herod and Pilate both try to escape the political ramifications of dealing with this popular Rabbi. Look at the comments shouted by the mob that finally lead Pilate to hand Jesus over to the religious leaders.

Political involvement is important for every Christian. Unfortunately, the Right has emphasized two polarizing issues, gay marriage and abortion, and effectively left the most important ones -- like social justice and poverty -- behind. As Christians, we need to ask ourselves what needs fixing in our society, who would Jesus gravitate towards. We need only to read the gospels to understand who it was that mattered to him, the ones who society effectively left behind. Widows, prostitutes, the poor, those without a voice. It is not acceptable for us to claim, "I don't like politics". We do not have to follow it as closely as others do, but we have a responsibility to understand enough so that we use our vote and our voice to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.


-More thoughts to come on the Republican Debate to come...

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Making Your New Year... a New Year

The wind kicks up and swirls the snow into my face. The sounds of the New year's celebrations have faded, the last of the partygoers have long since gone to sleep. I slip down the stairs of our stoop and walk to the bottom of the driveway. The street is quiet, broken only by the occasional whoosh of snow across my face. A thick whiteness covers the trees and cars and houses and in the dim light glow like some ethereal kingdom. It is a strange world we live in, and its absurdities and tragedies and moments of jubilation are all brought to the fore on this, the greatest of the man-made holidays: the last day of the year, and the first day of the new one.

What most people don't understand is that New Year's isn't simply a another commercial holiday. There is something in the demarcation between the old and the new; between fizzled hopes and fresh dreams; between wasted opportunities and second chances, something that strikes at the core of being human. It is the rare person who looks at their life and does not believe it could use some sort of improvement or change. (Even the very rich want more of something) For most of us, New Year's marks the time when we can look back, when we can step forward, and examine exactly how we would like to stretch our lives. Better portfolio. Renewed relationships. Moral improvement. We wonder what will catch our attention this year. In what way will this year be different from the last?

The wind has picked up, and I roll my hood forward as I head down the sidewalk. The snow puffs and than scatters from beneath my boots. I stop and glance back at my trail through the fresh snow. Mine are the only footprints in a sea of white. Like a great adventurer on some great quest or a great lone hero trudging through the snow covered mountains of Kilimanjaro. I grin at my silliness and push forward.

Within all of us is this urge or drive to live other than we are. Companies know this and the most effective commercials mention this drive, this need, in some manner. To counter that, some of the best selling books over the past decade do little but reassure us that everything is okay. (Don't Sweat the Small Stuff) They insist we should just ignore this thing within us that pulls us forward, to simply find the "moment in the moment" a Zen ideal made increasingly popular these days as a counter to the consumerist push to acquire everything. It is a view I often find myself leaning towards. We live in a culture that barks and roars, one that rips past us and through us at lightning speeds. Time is measured. Cut up. Doled out. If you're not fast enough, you'll lose your share.

"Hurry up! Don't wait! C'mon! Keep moving!"

In this environment, it is a wonder that we take the time to celebrate New Year's at all. But even the Zen ideal of finding the moment, as much as it reveals some buried truths in hyper-paced culture, doesn't answer the question of New Year's.

And of a New Year.

I turn the corner only to greeted by a fresh burst of wind of and snow that slips under my hood and onto my face and neck. I shiver and turn, walking backward up the hill. Don Mills, normally a bustling four-lane road, is nearly as quiet as my small side street. A lone car drives past, its headlights winking against the darkness and the blowing snow. I watch until it is lost from view as I continue to backpedal up the hill.

Like everyone else. I was determined that this year would be new in some way, that this New Year's would matter. That it would be different. What I didn't want, however, was to set myself up for greater disappointment. I'd written three books (still unpublished), two novels and a spiritual memoir, but after my respected literary agent of two years quit on me this past year I'd given up. The disappointment of watching my dreams dissipate into air, after believing I was so close, had been too painful. And so this past year I'd failed to write or work on a book for the first time since I'd set my heart on making it as a writer so many years ago.

But I still dreamed about it. I spent as much time convincing myself not to write a new book as I did persuading myself that the pain and disappointment just wasn't worth the hassle, that God had given me this blog and an occasional article and to stop trying to be something that I wasn't. Or that the destination didn't matter, only the journey. I'd done such a good job convincing myself that despite the radical changes, this past year had been marked by an unhealthy absence, a void that no amount of pragmatics or grad school could cover. I'd spent far too many nights on the stoop, wondering why I should sleep, or why the next day mattered, or how stupid and tedious the world was. I was especially vulnerable when I closed my eyes and laid down for the night, that time between wakefulness and sleep, when your actions can no longer will themselves in front of your thoughts.

And now it was New Year's, and it was time to make a decision. A chance to set the course for the entire year. I wasn't as goal driven as some, I'd seen too many people do nothing but work and work only to find themselves used and battered by life and others, and for what? However, to live only in the moment was to walk on a treadmill designed by someone else, and that wasn't me either. The journey was as important as the destination, I agreed with that, but it wasn't the destination. We still had to be heading somewhere, didn't we? Towards something?

I crest the hill and turn my face into the wind. The lights of the gas station brighten the corner with red and white lights like a spot of leftover cheer. I hustle the rest of the way and into the warmly lit store. The store clerk looks at me with a lowered brow, his eyes hard.

"Good morning." I say, brightly enough.

He inclines his head slightly but doesn't say a word. I sigh, picked out some snacks and leave the warmth, suddenly grateful for the cold wind and absence of humanity.

The snow hasn't abated, and I trudge back up the hill. I know I have to make a decision about this year, about my life, and whether or not I truly want the new year to be a New Year. I hear people talk glibly about change all the time, especially younger people, but as you get older you realize that change is not only extremely difficult, but that the most change we can hope for is a small shift in one direction or another. Over time, that small shift can have a massive impact on our life, but even for the smallest of life's changes, we must still choose our path.

I'd left my home in Ottawa in pursuit of my dreams and my God, and as difficult as my last year had been, by not setting a destination, I was responsible for my own frustration. Not again. Not this year. It was time to try again, to write another book, to continue hold up my dream in the face of whatever came.

The wind picks up, and I shove my hands deep into my pockets, suddenly excited at the prospect of getting home and getting to work. I am a block from my house when I realize that the street, a whitened canvas, is empty of marks. The wind and snow have already covered my footprints from twenty minutes ago. I smile and hustle up to my front door.

I'd made my decision, a small decision that would need to be reinforced by other small decisions. To write when I didn't feel like it. To send out letters no matter how often I experienced rejection. To eat healthy when other food was available. To exercise when I was tired. To save when I wanted to spend. To write and call when I didn't want to talk to family or friends, and do it anyway.

I take one last look from my door, listening to the quiet whistling of the wind, and finally step inside. It's easy to get lost in the tedious treadmills of life. Even easier to stop walking and caring, or to lower our own goals and ambitions so that we find ourselves complaining about small things because there's nothing bigger in our life to pull us past life's constant aggravations. Nothing larger to help us realize the world doesn't revolve around us. I am convinced that pettiness and arrogance are the echo of unfulfilled dreams and unheeded callings.

Whatever it is that calls us as humans, the thing that longs for more, for change, for different, is inside all of us... could there be anything more important than answering that call? Surely there IS something or Someone that calls us forward. Toward a life of purpose and hope and dreams, something to mitigate the tragedy of regular human existence.

This year, my prayer is that you would make your New Year's a New Year. Set some goals! Rekindle your lost passions! Don't be afraid! Do not let another year go by without trying something you haven't done. Love... pursue... hope. And most important, seek the One who gave your dreams in the first place. He made you for a reason. Formed in love and framed with purpose, New Year's is our second chance at our second chance. Why not make the most of your opportunity.

"Seek you first the kingdom of heaven, and all these things shall be added to you."