The Sun Came Out!

sunrise mural

This week-end marked a new pattern from the usual, eat work, sleep routine. I was off for 4 days for the Easter long week-end. The weather was beautiful. Sunny, clear blue skies, warm weather.

The most perfect weather for Easter sunrise services, gallivanting by bike around the city with my toddler in tow, and planting a new crop in the backyard garden.

One amazing thing about beautiful weather is not only the ability to lift one’s spirits, but also to bring people together.

Since being introduced to Christian communal living 10 years ago in the Downtown Eastside living out the call of radical hospitality has been one of the main ways my family expresses our faith. This call is taken literally from Jesus’ teaching when he was confronted with the role of power and prestige in his day.

Jesus challenged the privileged of his day “When you give a dinner or banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a fast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just”. (Luke 14:12-13).

All winter it seems that I have been living for myself; socializing with the people at work I get along with, visiting family, dutifully going to church. But this week-end was different. This weekend I felt alive again because I was able to live out Jesus’ call of inviting people into our home for dinner who cannot pay us back.

This happened on various occasions every day where friends from our church here in the inner city came and dropped in. I was able to be present most of the time and share friendship and a few honest conversations, including some laughs.

This week-end also included gathering with a few other local churches in our neighborhood for Easter Services who have similar values. I reveled in the collective prayers on Easter morning and the strength of each voice and their diverse emphasize on different parts of God’s work (salvation, creation, beauty, atonement, etc). It was incredibly uplifting to be surrounded by such a tangible cloud of witnesses.

It was enough to jolt me out of my eat, work, sleep haze and remind me that, yes, Jesus still dwells in me and sometimes, I get a glimpse of what it is to live in the Kingdom of God.

Happiness is…

Image

I recently attended a workshop by a well-known local psychologist on the topic of CBT and mindfulness. He mentioned that from talking to clients he has found that most people are searching to for “happiness”. For example we toll away at jobs that we do not enjoy for the end result of retiring comfortably and being “happy”. Of course, these culturally prescribed routes rarely produce happiness and sometimes people find they are the opposite of happy even while pursuing happiness. Depression is widespread in our culture(and among those who follow Jesus) and is characterized by hopelessness and lack of will to live and isolation/withdrawl from relationships.

For those who follow Christ I wondered if we too are aiming for happiness? The teachings of Jesus surprisingly do not seem to advocate for the goal of happiness and when happiness is spoken off it appears in an upside-down manner. For example in the beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12) Jesus speaks of being blessed or in some translations “happy” when we are poor, mourn, meek, merciful and persecuted. It seems that happiness, instead of a goal, is a by-product of a lifestyle of both weakness and righteousness. In all of this we are called to “rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven…” (Matthew 5:12). Somehow we are supposed rejoice- celebrate – an action- not a mood stated- with the challenges in this present life with the insight and hope that God will reward us in heaven.

I have been meditating and memorizing Philippians 4:4-13 for the last month. Philippians was written by Paul from prison to the community in Philippi. He too is advocating a joyful/happy action “Rejoice in the Lord always I will say it again Rejoice”. It is in this passage that he explains that he has learned to be content in any and every situation (Philippians 4:11). This goes counter to our cultural “quest” for happiness through the usual route.

However, unlike mindfulness which aims to find inner peace through the moment Paul emphasizes that we are content in the Lord, who strengthens us. We rely on God’s strength to renew us and give us the “peace of God, which transcends all understanding”.

Being and feeling happy is cherished for a reason- it renews our spirit, we can keep on going in this hard challenging world. Can followers of Christ really hope to be happy? What can we say to clients who hope to be happy? Is it even an achievable goal?

CBT for Personality Part 2: From a Christian Perspective

After reflecting further on my original post on CBT for personality, the New Paradigm for CBT I noticed some interesting parallels between my Christian faith and this therapy that may be relevant for both therapists and people seeking help for personality disorders that are also Christian.

In her new paradigm what I noted is that she explains old behaviour and beliefs that were held/used for “good reasons”.  Instead of challenging the old system she introduced a “new paradigm” in a very experiential manner.

It made me think of how Jesus taught about being born again to Nicodemus and how he offers the gift of eternal life to the woman at Jacob’s well.  He does not challenge the old system of sin, but acknowledged it openly and assumed that a person is already understood how the old system did not work and instead they are looking and seeking a new paradigm, this living water, or spirit life that is not based in place or a set of laws but “in spirit and in truth ” (John 4: 24).  Jesus is continuously offering images, and stories to activate the imagination of people to create a “new paradigm” to enter the kingdom of God that is “here but not yet” (common term from Kingdom theology).

Some of the people Jesus encounters, like those with personality disorders have been suffering for many years, like the woman with continuous bleeding.  Those with these physical ailments were also consequently excluded from relationships and the acceptance of society which is similar to the interpersonal difficulties and invalidation that those who have personality disorders experience.

However, unlike CBT personality that reconceptualizes  the world Jesus challenges us to imagine a new kingdom of God that is loving, beautiful, and a place for the broken.  This kingdom of God is not the world- the world is fallen- whereas the kingdom of God is good and allows people to live fully in love.  Paul for example would likely not approve of imagining the world as a good and loving place, but challenges followers to “not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”.(Romans 12:2).

Jesus does not want us to idealize ourselves in positive terms but to hold a dialectic together of both sinner and a new creation in Christ.  Loved deeply by God, though rejected by others.

We have an initial belief or experience as followers of Christ but that does not always mean that our old beliefs and habits die completely.  We struggle between paradigms slowly through steps of faith and in acting out our faith in obedience (behavioural experiments of sorts) we learn to walk in this new way. 

Ultimately what anchors us in this new life are not just the word and promises of the bible on a page (the challenging of our old system of belief through words and reason) but the discipline of living out faithfully this new life.

In this new system- or more accurately through a God that is who loves us, who is greater than ourselves – we gain the strength and new resources to cope in a new way with the struggles we face in this world.  Our old ways are no longer necessary as we live more deeply into the new way of Christ.

So if I was to use the new paradigm for CBT for personality from a Christian perspective I might initially focus the old as she does on the view of self, others and the world but conceptualize the new through replacing a focus on the world to the Kingdom of God as the new realm to live in.  This new kingdom paradigm could also be anchored through visualization, and experiential elements- encouraging one to actively enter God’s presence using imagery.

Then introducing interpersonal difficulties into this new kingdom/paradigm makes total sense because you are inviting someone to little by little start living in the kingdom of God (“let your kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven”). For example you could say “If you are living in this new kingdom of God where God loves you, you are forgiven, you have joy, and are special…what happens when someone insults you…?” .

This new Christian interpretation of Padesky’s paradigm doesn’t just apply to those with personality disorders but I can see how it would be useful for each one of us to conceptualize in our imagination what it is like to live more fully in the kingdom of God.  It might also be helpful for those who struggle with deep shame, despite intellectually accepting that “God loves me” or “I am deeply loved”.

Kind of exciting!

Questions? Comments?

Interviewing Anxiety

Last thursday I handed in my final graduating essay to my advisor; with a click of the send button I had finished the last requirement of my MSW degree.

With excitement I called my husband and let him know the good news.  With this newfound freedom I celebrated with a visit to a cafe and more phone calls to my family back home.

The next day while at a massage therapy appointment my cell phone rang; who would be calling me?  I had a few ideas, but relatively few people have my phone number so I was curious.

To my astonishment I got a call for an interview for a casual counsellor position from a local treatment program for women that is unique in providing trauma-informed care to women with multiple barriers.

I had applied to this job with little expectation that I would get an interview; I simply applied because I have long wanted to work with women in addiction using a trauma informed approach.  I do not have particular employment experience specifically with women so I was surprised to get this call.

At first I felt elation then later anxiety.  Anxiety for a number of compounding reasons.  I was worried that I would be stumped by difficult questions.  I was worried as it is coming up within a matter of days without much time to prepare, let alone buy a few new clothes, hair cut.  More than anything I need some new glasses and contact lenses; for the past few months I have been wearing broken glasses taped together with black electrical tape.  I have been so busy being a mom and a student that I haven’t even had time to buy things for “me”!

I was also worried strangely enough because the future was now much more uncertain- with me perhaps having to make difficult choices. It was hinted that I would be interviewed for a casual position in counselling at my mental health practicum that I had applied for two weeks earlier.  I had already set my course on that potential job, excited to see old colleagues when this possibility came up. Now I felt quite anxious not only about a difficult interview but potentially having to choose between this new position and the opportunity to work somewhere that I had grown to feel comfortable and would have the opportunity to  learn more about providing therapy to people with a variety of conditions.

Writing about my anxieties makes them feel trivial- likely I will get a job, the bills will be paid and I will continue to learn and grow in social work/therapy.  However, nonetheless these thoughts have dominated my head over the last day and a half as I have dwelt on the repercussions of one choice or another.

What helped with the anxiety?  Strangely enough not mindfulness but reading: reading about women, substance abuse and trauma brought me a lot of excitement which made me feel encouraged to study and put my best foot forward for this upcoming interview. And now my anxiety is at a record low.  Now just to care of the essentials: hair cut, interview outfit, contact lenses, and interview prep (ok that one still causes me a little bit of anxiety).

So if you were a therapist, what was the technique I used?  What helped me get through this?

In a concluding note: I am extremely grateful and blessed to have made it through this journey through my MSW.  As many of you know, midway through my first year of the program I found out that I was expecting a baby- surprise!  God’s planning, I call it.  I took one year off from studies- missed graduating with my original cohort.  However, God has provided, finances, work, everything I needed, and learning opportunities.  With his strength I have completed the finances and engaged in the learning gradually taking the courage to integrate my faith into my understanding.  It has been a wild journey, not without bumps but I’m glad I’ve made it through this leg of the journey intact (and thriving, and happy- with a healthy dose of anxiety here and there).

Community and Growth in the Downtown Eastside

This past week while at my practicum I picked up a copy of the metro newspaper to read about Ric Matthew’s, former minister and executive director of First United Church in the downtown eastside of Vancouver.

http://www.metronews.ca/vancouver/local/article/1128937–new-way-forward-for-ex-first-united-reverend

He and a number of other staff parted ways with First United over imposed occupancy limits, and policies around implementing barriers in terms of behavior.  However, it is much more complicated than that (likely more than I even know)- there has also been controversy about women’s safety and ultimately liability issues by the United Church presbytery.  There are also conflicting visions about what First United should be and can be to the downtown eastside community.

Out of the wake of this parting of ways Ric Matthews and others have come to have a new vision and have created an organization, called the New Way Community Society,  that aims to be a truly inclusive community for the most marginalized.  They are basing this on some of the ideas and visions of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mary Jo Leddy (of Romero House in Toronto), and Jean Vanier (of L’Arche).

My connection to this story is :

1) I volunteered many years at First United- up until I was quite pregnant with my first child.  I used to do Foot Care and games and just talk to people.  What attracted me to this place was how First managed to integrate marginalized folk into its operation in a way that no other place in the downtown eastside managed.  For example, when I first volunteered there in 2003 I remember being a volunteer to serve lunch and people who were being served lunch would grab gloves and half the time I would end up being served and talking with those at my table.  It was a beautiful thing.  Granted I have theological differences with First United- but I do think they have/had a role of welcoming the most marginalized in a way that were very casual and community oriented, and was not present anywhere else.

2) I and the Christians I am connected with who live in our neighborhood and share a vision of building community amongst the most marginalized, not too dissimilar to that of Ric Matthews.  Most people who have done this here find it a very slow process and quite mundane, humbling and stretching.  It sounds quite romantic but results in trials like: bed bugs, break-ins, things stolen left in plain sight by visitors to our house, fatigue, exasperation, and discouragement.

3) I too have been inspired by Jean Vanier and L’arche.  I have met him personally and heard him speak a number of times.  I have visited the L’Arche community in Trosly, France and I have read a number of his books including Life Together and Community and Growth, the title that I have plagiarized for the title of this post.

I’m excited for Ric and his vision to have more than housing; a community for those on the margins based on Jean Vanier’s principles.  Ric Matthews wants to move away from service provider driven projects- I agree with him completely on this.  However I do have a few comments on his vision based on my own experience.

1.   It will be very hard to have a project with the very most marginalized of the downtown eastside that does not become service provider driven.  Why?  Chaos and a need for safety.  For all.  Community needs trust and it is hard to trust those who you fear will steal from you or hurt you.

2. Rev. Ric and his friends have articulated in some articles that I have read that they stopped trying to use consequences for breaking rules/crossing boundaries as it seemed fruitless and also hard to enforce.  In this community, if it is to be more than a place of refuge (first United) to ensure safety and trust people need to know that there are limits that will protect them.  I wonder how this will work and if it will conflict with their values and risk turning into a service provider relationship when these need to be enforced.

3. As I wrote before I have found building community takes time and requires everybody’s buy-in to the vision.  Maybe it is us who need the time to feel ready to share our lives with the marginalized rather than they needing to change or alter their behavior.  In our lives we have been good friends with a number of folks and if resources were available (i.e. a bigger house) we would like to be able welcome those into our homes and live a shared live, but we would likely choose people who we feel safe and trust and who are more stable in their lives.  There goal was to have housing for 50 people- I think that could take some time to achieve.  However, I know that the organizers of this new society are well-known within the DTES and have a lot of respect from local residents; perhaps they already have a fair number of folks who are on board and ready.

4. I believe that a community must be not only inspired by Jesus but reliant on Jesus.  Only God can make a new creation in people; we are only partners in this through his Holy Spirit.  Though we may take the steps God empowers in his time and will.

When Jean Vanier started his vision it involved him living with two men who had been in institutions.  That’s all- that grew to a movement that spread around the world. In his book Community and Growth he writes about the marginalized:

“The liberation of marginal people from their darkness may involve a long struggle. The reference  person and the community have to know how to accept the violence into themselves, so that they can transform it into tenderness and gradually liberate the marginal people from their anguish. The role of a community of reconciliation is to break the cycle of violence and so lead people to peace.” Vanier, p. 277

Happiness :)

On Friday while taking my sick toddler for a walk I bumped into a friend from the neighborhood who I have known from my original days in 2003.  We garden together, have been known to play scrabble, used to drink red wine together (she is now in AA), and have heart to heart discussions.  Eventually after walking down to the nearby beach and back we got to the topic of the purpose of life for us, and for most people.

I said most people want to live the good life, that is be financially secure (ideally earning increasingly more money), have a house, a family, be respected and admired by others, and experience frequent times of fun and happiness (often in the forms of vacations, hobbies, music, entertainment, etc.).  Nonetheless many are unhappy.

While we strive for increasing achievement and “happiness” people around the world are in economic slavery, are raped in wars, die violent deaths.  I think of the case of Tori Stafford- I have read the chilling accounts in Canadian newspapers about how this elementary school aged girl was brutally murdered.  What a horrible way to end such a beautiful life.  With the Kony 2012 campaign I have read how young girls are used as sex slaves in places of war- what kind of short life is that? Likely not one filled with happiness, especially with our culture’s definition of happiness.

When bringing this up in our discussion we also noted that our being or feeling unhappy or despair over the injustice in the world isn’t doing the situation any good.

For years my friend had engaged as an activist against gentrification in our neighborhood, and against war around the world.  It didn’t seem to matter how much frustration and angst she directed towards these issues- it felt as if the world continued in its ways.  What she and I reflected on was that being unhappy and up in arms about a situation and denying ourselves joy in life didn’t advance our causes anymore than those who still managed to speak up for those who needed justice but actually stopped to enjoy life.

Today my friend earns a very modest income but is content with the small things of good she does: mentoring a sponsee, speaking words of encouragement and wisdom to those who are seeking it, spending time in the wilderness up at a cabin, and tending our shared garden.

She reflected that in years past she inherently thought that to live out the gospel it had to hurt (being persecuted for righteousness) and if it didn’t than she wasn’t truly living it out.  Today she allows herself simple joys of life.  She is not chasing after bigger and better but is looking for meaning where she is at.  Bigger or better either in a material/financial realm, but also in the realm of living out Jesus’ teachings.

I, too, often can caught up in trying to live out the gospel so much that it hurts.  And then I stop and think- oh when did I last truly take time to do something that helped me feel joy.  It can be quite hard as a mother of a toddler and a full-time student. Because each moment I have free I have to make choices between school work and relaxation and also being there for others.

However, happiness is not always found in “me” time.  For example, tonight at home group my husband was looking after our little girl and for I truly got to listen to the thoughts of others on what it means to be a child of God from a number of people: an older nurse, and an older lady with mental and physical disabilities and I felt truly humbled and honored both at once.

There is a lot of emphasis on achieving happiness in our culture and in psychology.  There is an idea that to be happy everything in life should be going right (i.e. the above noted recipe for the good life).  However, this definition of happiness does not coincide with a gospel definition of what a life in Christ looks like where we face persecution, and are willing to give up everything for the cross.  But living out life in difficult circumstances (i.e. not being upwardly mobile) does not mean that we must face sure unhappiness or that we should not seek joy and happiness in whatever lot we find ourselves.  I have to remind myself- especially in my predicament of juggling a number of different roles- that I do not have to wait until my life is all “together” to enjoy it but can decide to seek out happiness in the moments and life path that God has given me.

Intentional Christian Community, i.e. “New Monasticism”

About 9 years ago I first moved into a christian intentional community in the poorest postal code in Canada.

It was a house teaming with children, singles and marginalized folk.  Dinners happened almost every night and anybody was welcome who made it up the steep flight of steps. The leaders were radicals in many ways, trailblazers, visionaires.  The nightly conversation was contentious, debates heated, and friendships deep.  People visited who were addicted, mentally ill, curious Christians from the local seminary, young high school students stunned, and regular anybodies. 

 I can never forget being blessed by a crack-addicted friend with schizophrenia while having coffee. 

 I scavenged their bookshelves for the likes of Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, and the like.  I also fell in love- sort of – well that love story happened after I moved out- and yes, I’m married to him now. 

This inspired me to start my own little Christian community in university, not quite as intense- but with some spiritual commitment to each other and to welcoming others. 

Since getting married we found a rented place down the street- we have always had people living with us although our house has never reached full community state.  We continue to open up our house to those who want to talk, have coffee and join us for dinner although it is no large scale endeavor.  Our rhythm of prayer and shared meals has fluctuated.  However, as I’m nearing a close on my schooling we want to renew our vision towards community.  Towards committing to pray and meet together and support each other in the teachings of Christ to welcome those to dinner who can’t invite or pay you back (we still do invite those who do reciprocate and do love when anybody helps with dishes or anything around the house). 

 It can be a hard life to live and sometimes I wonder if it would be best just to live as a little nuclear family.  We actually did that as a family this past summer while travelling in the Middle East- and it was quite quiet and a bit lonely actually.  I think it is our passion to life this type of radical life in the inner city and we would like to continue with the support of others. 

In the past number of years Christians have come up with tons of new ways to describe this way of being a Christian including New Monasticism (Shane Claibourne, etc.), missional churches /living, etc.  I haven’t done too much reading on these terms but I do think our life and church life may fit those descriptions. 

In this modern age with extended families being so spread apart we need each other in the body of Christ more and more.  In that way living in cooperation with others make sense (although it more often fails than succeeds and people can get hurt this way- warning!).  It’s definitely not all easy and exciting. But it is highly reccomended if you want to welcome marginalized people in your personal life- you need support, you need help with saying no sometimes, you need people for safety – just in case.  It’s a practical reason why us inner-city christian folk live together.  We also need each other’s prayer and friendship to keep Jesus at the centre and make sure we are remembering to take joy in life.