But as the departure date drew closer, my doubt grew larger. Although I wanted to get away, I started to worry. Would I be able to handle the level of course study? Did I want to be in a conservative Christian setting? Would I be able to live alone with myself for two weeks?
What I learned in going to Vancouver to study the Social World of Paul was much more than interesting facts about the Greco-Roman world. In the midst of biblical scholars and well-developed rhetoric, I learned that God speaks a Word to us when we choose to look at the events in our lives as revelatory. Spirit takes and makes meaning out of our experience. So what did my experience reveal? What is the Word? Let me tell my story.
The Spirit is Life, the all-embracing Lord, who turns all our ‘Its’ into ‘Thous’, who lights up the ordinary, opening our eyes to boiled potatoes as much as to Jesus Christ.
David Wood, introduction to 'The Go-Between God'
Choose Your Path
I came to Vancouver to get away from a difficult home situation, but part of that difficulty is my lack of imagination: how can I live in the midst of suffering and still be free? It is no wonder then that one of the first people who I met in Vancouver was an inner figure representing my imagination-crushing legalism. My first joy was cycling on rolling Vancouver roads, eyes open to lush foliage and new sites, not knowing the route to take but hoping to find the ocean. When I finally found the steep and winding pathway down to Spanish Beach, it was exhilarating. Lush with ferns, towering pines and deciduous trees, it led me to my first glance of the harbour. The beach was packed, but on this day the bustling activity was part of the ‘Yes’ that seemed to accompany the breeze. The expansiveness of my upcoming two-week adventure took hold of my imagination and I felt ready to explore and experience.
Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore,
May the music of laughter break through your soul.
As the wind wants to make everything dance,
May your gravity be lightened by grace.
As water takes whatever shape it is in,
So free may you be about who you become.
John O’Donohue, from 'A Prayer for Equilibrium',
It was only my dry water bottle and rumbling stomach that urged me to find my way back to the college. Although closer to home than I imagined, I became lost. I didn't know whether to head down the paved trail or venture onto a forest path. I needed help. When I stopped the approaching geared-up cyclist and asked for directions, I expected a quick gesture. What I got was something else. His once-over glance at both my bike and me indicated that something was wrong.
“Where are you from?” he scowled.
“Winnipeg.” I knew that I had just lowered his opinion of our prairie city.
“Look at your helmut strap. You should fix this.” He reached his hand between the strap and my chin. “I shouldn’t be able to get my whole hand in there. Do you know how to fix that?”
Taken aback but still needing assistance, I assured him I was capable of adjusting the strap. “So, do you know how I can get back to the college? Do you think this forest trail would guide me back?”
“You shouldn’t cycle on the trails when you don’t know your route. Take this route and stay on the paved path,” he said.
As he cycled off and I felt obligated to follow his directions, I realized that I had just had an encounter with a guardian. Who else would so blatantly challenge me to make a fundamental choice about how I wanted to enter this trip? Did I want to follow the rules, or was I willing to trust that God would guide me? My guardian was offering a test, insisting that I act in safe and known ways, the ways that I would impose if I were at home. But since saying yes to the unknown of this trip and sensing the bigger ‘Yes’ accompanying me, the rules of right behaviour were irrelevant. In meeting this guardian who was more concerned about the peripherals than the main issue, I had met myself, the legalist, and he was showing me the exact stuff that I had to get rid of to say yes to life. So I veered off the directed path, crisscrossed through treed streets, until I emerged onto the campus. I was ready to say yes to the next two weeks.
We sense that hope is keeping us alive if, when the outlook is sombre, we say, ‘nevertheless’ and dare life.
Part of any trip is anticipation. When I imagined my time in Vancouver, I pictured being on my own. Since I wouldn’t know anyone, this was going to be a time of retreat. I was surprised then when, contrary to my solitary imaginings, my room neighbour, Beth and I spent the next two weeks together, sharing stories of family, community, faith and the Spirit’s presence in our lives. It was a gift of spiritual friendship that I couldn’t have imagined, a pointer to Christ’s promised accompaniment.
Friendship delights in fellowship. Friends hold council. Friends dare trust to each other what they would not for anything have others know. What is it that gives a Christian access to this holy intimacy with Jesus?... ‘Ye are my friends if ye do what I command you.’ It is loving obedience that purifies the soul. That refers not only to the commandments of the Word, but to that blessed application of the Word to our daily life, which none but our Lord can give. But as these are waited for in dependence and humility, and faithfully obeyed, the soul becomes fitted for ever closer fellowship, and the daily life may become a continual experience: ‘I have called you friends; for all things I have heard from my Father, I have made known unto you.’
Andrew Murray, 'The True Vine'
Where is Christ in this House?
Although we came from very different contexts -- Beth was studying for a M.Div. in Australia -- we discovered many parallels in our faith stories where God had challenged us through relationships, provided mentors to guide us, and accompanied us through difficult times. Banal aspects of our lives always came up, but inevitably, our conversation shifted to how God had met us or friends in otherwise petty situations. I was encouraged that we seemed to share a desire to let situations rest in God rather than in human limitation.
One specific example occurred when on one of our early morning walks I described a disturbing dream in which my husband Dave had just bought a dilapated house for us. When I walked through it, I was disgusted to find ripped shag carpets, torn wallpaper, and pealing, warped hardwood. It was a house that should be demolished, not invested in. It needed tons of work that we didn’t have the skills to even begin. When in the dream Dave couldn’t see the problems of living in the house, I wept in despair. Beth's faith response invited imagination: Had I asked the Spirit whether Christ was in the house... in a closet, in a room upstairs? What would it mean to invite Christ into the house? Could he offer renovating advice? This image of accompaniment rang true for me. I had already experienced a felt sense that I was contained in the 'Yes of God' on this trip and was grateful to be reminded of the authority of Christ’s presence even in circumstances that seemed hopeless.
Abide in Me, and I in You, John 15:4. ‘Abide in Me’: We have to trust and obey, to detach ourselves from all else, to reach out after Him and cling to Him to sink ourselves into Him. As we do this, through the grace He gives, a character is formed, and a heart prepared for the fuller experiences: ‘I in you’, God strengthens us with might by the Spirit in the inner man, and Christ dwells in the heart by faith.
Andrew Murray, 'The True Vine'
As the days progressed, I found that more often than not it was these side conversations about life and faith that invited learning. Although the content and delivery of the course we were taking was somewhat disappointing, interactions outside of class were thought-provoking. Evening lectures and movie discussions raised issues that frustrated and inspired, but always invited the consideration of what I had found to be true in life. And always when people chose to be vulnerable about their lives, like our prof who shared the heartbreaking story of choosing to love his son in the midst of mental illness issues, we were invited to reflect on God’s authorship of our faith stories.
Daily quotes sent from community also encouraged faith. Like the chocolate I savored at the end of each day, I savored this morning ritual, opening the designated envelope of the day and reading the quote sent to me by a Watershedian. Consistently the quotes tethered me to Home. I loved the reminder that I am part of a community that not only loves learning but thrives on listening for the Word’s application for our lives.
For if anyone hears the word but is not obedient to it, he is like a man who looks at himself in a mirror and studies himself carefully, and then goes off and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the one who looks at the perfect law of freedom and remains committed to it - thereby demonstrating that he is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of what that law requires - will be blessed in what he does.
Being in an environment where stories of faith were shared every day, I was compelled to see my life as one infused with God’s presence. As I related stories about our community life with Beth, I found myself choosing words that reflected our desire to see the Spirit’s direction, when at home I might be more cynical or ‘under the sun’ with my description. Partly, I was aware of being an ambassador of Watershed. I wanted to more than less accurately represent the core faith on which the community has found ground, whether I personally have been loyal to this ground or not. But another motivator of my ‘gospel speak’ was a palpable conviction of the Spirit’s presence. Being around people of faith, even conservative evangelicals, encouraged my eyes to see with faith.
From a human, ‘below’ point of view, we see only the negative pole. But through faith, in Christ, the Spirit reveals to us the surplus of meaning, the positive pole. Then any experience has meaning, if looked through this interpretation. This speaks to John’s call that we are called to be witnesses.... Revelation is actually of God’s true being in Jesus which invites us to faith, invites us to leave behind our human structures for the Truth. God chose us, not we chose to have faith.
Watershed presentation, 2008
The Living Word
At the same time, tensions emerged. One of the most frustrating omissions at Regent was an apparent lack of concern for the application of knowledge. Thorough presentations valued the understanding of Scriptures, uncovering Greek and Hebrew meanings, parsing terms to find the most accurate reading of the Word. Listening to insightful exegesis was exhilarating, but what did it mean to our lives? Missing was the dynamic view of scripture as the Living Word, the experiential account of humans in relationship with God in specific contexts. Absent was the possibility that a specific contextual experience might be inspired but limited and thus not necessarily the literal word of God to all in all times; or the possibility that the Spirit continues to speak, revealing God to creation now and that careful listening and contemplative study is required to hear a Word for our time.
But Christ has blessed you with the Holy Spirit. Now the Spirit stays in you, and you don’t need any teachers. The Spirit is truthful and teaches you everything. So stay one in your heart with Christ, just as the Spirit has taught you to do.
1 John 2:27
As I waited for the departing plane, soaking in the richness of the past two weeks, I wondered what I would bring home to community. Undoubtedly my reforming energy would hope that others could be inspired by the ‘Yes’ of life that had graced my time away. Would I remember how I had loved learning and engaging with ideas and stories? Would I remember that under the grace of ‘Yes’ life seems so worth living? Would I remember the Word?
You may wonder, ‘How can I leave it all behind if I am just coming back to it? How can I make a new beginning if I simply return to the old?’ The answer lies in the return. You will not come back to the ‘same old thing.’ What you return to has changed because you have changed. Your perceptions will be altered. You will not incorporate into the same body, status, or world you left behind. The river has been flowing while you were gone. Now it does not look like the same river.
Steven Foster, 'The Book of the Vision Quest'