The New Parish

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This is not a book on real-estate and yet it shares the same conclusion about what matters. “Location, location, location!” For the follower of Jesus settling into a location and planting long term roots there is the most important thing to be done. The authors present this priority in a way that would make most of us feel a little bit uncomfortable.

Most ministry leaders probably don’t get together and say “What can we do to create a gathering of disconnected individuals who choose to pay for our specialized programs and services?” Or “We want our people to think of church as a building, a place where our target audience goes to receive professionalized services.” That would be ridiculous. Even worse would be a scenario where the leaders intentionally planned to devalue peoples gifts. “We want our people to get in the habit of thinking that the only important members are the ones who can sing, or preach, or give lots of money. Everyone else should just sit in the pews, look their best and give their ten percent.” That would be insane….but that’s how many people end up feeling… This ends up happening because the Western world has lost one of the most important aspects of being the church: participating together as a family or body in the real-life context of the parish. Yet this is central to what it means to be the church.  (76-77)

The authors quote Eugene Peterson in lament to the challenge of helping Christians begin to think in terms of sharing life together in a specific place as what it means to be the church.

I find that cultivating a sense of place as the exclusive and irreplaceable setting for following Jesus is even more difficult than persuading men and women of the truth of the message of Jesus.

The main thrust of the book is summarized well page 17:

It is our conviction that humans are meant to share life together, to learn to fit together as a living body in relationship with God. With one another and with/for the place to which they are called…The gospel becomes so much more tangible and compelling when the local church is actually a part of the community connected to the struggles of the people and even the land itself.

This book was one of providential timing for me. I’m already committed to the central idea of rooting down deep into a place. I already am “a known character actively seeking the flourishing of my neighbourhood.” But sometimes life is difficult in a neighbourhood, sometimes people don’t like you, sometimes there is adversity, and sometimes you make really dumb mistakes. All of this piles on, until you begin to think longingly about the beauty of becoming anonymous, detached, and unknown. To be able to preach your sermon, go home and shut the door until next Sunday starts to feel like a tantalizingly good option! It’s not, I know this, and God sent this book along at just the right time to remind me.

Spirit over strategy

The authors cautioned strongly against putting too much stock in techniques, methodologies, programs or stratagems. The shift from Spirit to strategy is a notorious weakness for religious people. We find something that works and then we pile up all our hopes and confidence on that one particular strategy. The authors remind us:

When your method takes the forefront you become distracted from what the Spirit is doing in and through your particular place…There simply is no way to place your ultimate trust in the leading of the Spirit and in your expert solutions at the same time.

The authors go so far as to say we should set programs aside so that there is time to play, hangout, and serve in our neighbourhoods. I can see how organized and vision driven would choke on some of these notions. Even I do a bit! Does it have to be either/or, can’t it be a both/and kind of thing? There is a sense in which people need to be directed. Will the admonition “go play” lead to flourishing and spiritual fruit in our neighbourhoods? Probably more is needed. But the overstatement is valid to make the point. Another little phrase that stuck with me from this book is “Practice being interruptible.” When we are carrying out our impressive plans, interruptions are not appreciated, but, it seems to me, the Spirit does his best work on a regular schedule of interruptions.

The difficultly of professional religion

Whenever money is involved people will want to know if they are getting a good return on their investment. What that means is donors want results, denominations want results, and conferences and books celebrate those with requisite results. Inevitably, it seems, an unhealthy pressure is placed on professional ministers to “get er done!” and the “er” is whatever might impress the investors. This is hardly healthy soil to grow slow, long term relationships with people in a neighbourhood. Investors want news, and “I hung out with my neighbour today” is hardly news! Re-envisioning what a successful church is away from the standard metrics of headcount’s and hype will certainly help. But even still how does one measure the success of “faithful presence”?

Primary energy

Several times in the book the authors use the term “primary energy” as a way to determine our priorities. They believe that community building endeavours should get primary energy, not the left overs. They recognize that this focus will impact worship gatherings and other more traditional programming, but they are ok with that. “Intentionally narrow the foot print of your life together.” is what they say. “Worship is a way of life, not a weekly event” is how they dismiss the objections that will be raised by faithful church goers. They say directly that they are not advocating the diminishment of worship gatherings, it’s just that they will have to be more simple. Our focus should not be on events that create minimal impact on a maximum number of people, rather we should direct our energies towards having a maximum impact on a minimal number of people.

The gospel at work in a place

Sometimes I worry a little bit when I read a book like this, is this just a gospel-empty call to be the nice guy in your neighbourhood? No. The beautiful vision of gospel transformation below, the authors argue, can only happen in fullness when followers of Jesus are living out faithful presence in neighbourhoods.

The Gospel is about reconciliation and renewal of relationships. It is about God’s plan through Christ to bring people who are caught in the cycle of fragmentation back into faithful relationships again — with God, with one another and with the created world. The wall between us is gone: Male, female, Jew, Gentile — all our differences no longer need to divide us. When you see yourself as a character in this story, one who has been given the ministry of reconciliation to bring hope and healing to broken relationships, it can become a lens for your everyday engagement in the world.

We are not missional! 

These guys are definitely wary of “missional” terminology. They feel like “mission” is not what a churches identity should be reduced to. It’s too narrow, and it has a bad past. “Mission” is what missionary colonizers did in sometimes violent and often damaging ways. It wasn’t just missional churches that took it on the chin, so too did seeker churches, heritage churches, and community churches! This and several parts of the book are simply hasty generalization, but its all towards the point that the church at it’s core should be the people of God who share life together in and for a particular place. Faithful presence should lie at the bottom of whatever one’s church might look like or be philosophically inclined toward.

Put away the iPhone! 

What good is a book if there is not at least one good rant? Here it is: Don’t get in the habit of using your technology as a medium to be somewhere else. Our ability to be fully present becomes seriously impaired when we do. Thanks to technology we can be everywhere and nowhere, here and elsewhere, neither inside or outside. This self inflicted ghost space pushes us away from faithful presence in our neighbourhoods and continually keeps human flourishing out of reach.

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The Dream Traders

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What did I know about the opium wars between China and Britain in the 1800’s? Basically nothing. So what happened? India had opium. The East India trading company of Britain discovered a market for the stuff in neighbouring China. They flooded that country with opium, destroying the lives of millions of Chinese people.

Britain’s moral conscience was assuaged for decades by means of flimsy justifications:

  • The Chinese are poor and miserable; at least opium helps them escape their misery for a time
  • Opium is primarily medicinal, it actually helps its users
  • They want the stuff! So give them what they want
  • Many Chinese are benefiting from the trade as well

China supplied Britain with tea, the British paid a pretty penny for this import. The opium trade served as a financial recoupment strategy for all their expense in extracting the tea from China. On the books, this was a tidy, incredibly lucrative trade that benefited Britain greatly and made its traders incredibly rich. By the mid 1800’s 1/6th of Britain’s GDP was tied to this trade.

Finally, the emperor of China had enough. Trade would be fine he said, however, the opium trade would not. The traders lobbied the British parliament. They said that the Chinese were being unreasonable, that they were corrupt, that the traders’ lives were in danger. As they petitioned the halls of power, they were careful not to get into the horrific details of the opium trade. Britain had a conscience, and if it was pricked, it would be bad for business.  So the traders emphasized how China was a threat to British sovereignty. Their protests worked. Britain sent an army, vastly superior to China’s. China was forced to capitulate or be completely destroyed. The surrender made it possible for the trade to continue according to British terms solely.  Over time, the British came to see China’s point regarding opium. However, they embraced a don’t-see, don’t-tell perspective, so the vice continued its devastating rampage largely unhindered.

It is in this context that E.V. Thompson writes his fiction. Luke is the good British trader who doesn’t deal in opium – he is the British trader who breaks convention and marries a Chinese woman. He is the British trader who takes the time to actually learn the language and culture of the Chinese. What does his “non-colonizing” stance get him? Pain and suffering and death to all his loved ones. Despite the difficulties, Luke remains true to his principles but is increasingly disgusted with the whole mess. After a decade or so in China, Luke retires at age 30 as an incredibly wealthy man.  He moves back to England and secures a seat in parliament spending the rest of his life advocating for a better trade system between England and China.

What are my key takeaways?

  1. Wealth makes a terrible god. It makes you blind to the sufferings of others. It should be no surprise that the Bible says “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”.
  1. Pride doesn’t help anything. The Chinese were convinced that they were the superior race and so were the British. Whenever negotiations went on between the two nations, it was only because the greater wanted to teach the lesser a lesson. Peace is not possible when pride and self-importance lead the way.
  1. Humanity has been infected with a great sickness. If someone is different than us, whether that be skin colour, religion, race, or culture, our automatic default is to mistrust them and misuse them. By and large, this seems to be the story of humanity. It’s the scourge of our existence. Perhaps that is what is so appealing about the Bible’s great vision of heaven that has people from every tribe, language, and culture worshiping the Creator together. It’s what we long for but can’t seem to achieve without divine intervention. Maybe the humility of saying “I can’t do this on my own” gives us hope for a unified future. I’d like to think so.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, Review By Mistin Wilkinson

Briefly reviewed by Mistin Wilkinson

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It’s been a long time since I completed a book – not that I’ve read a book, but that I’ve completed a book; and this one was accomplished in record time!  It’s not that I’m not a reader – I am!  Reading is important and valuable, but completing a non-audio book in actual paperback – that’s been a while.  I have a whole stack of books that are more than half way through, but oh the distractions. . .

Persepolis was an exception in so many ways!

1 – I read the entire thing!

2 – I read it fast!

3 – I knew it was gonna end badly, and I kept going.

4 – It ended badly and I cried, and have cried in each recounting of the storyline.

5 – I couldn’t even sleep – not because it was horror, but because it was horribly real.

And now the real confession: It’s a graphic novel.  That’s a first for me too and explains the quick read.  The comic style stole nothing from the depth of communication though.  In fact, I think it enhanced the drama of the story in a plethora of ways.

Do I recommend it?  YES – so much so that I shared it with my 11 year old daughter who completed it’s 153 pages in just over an hour.  She didn’t cry as I did, but then she’s only been a daughter, never a mother, and never suffered through war or anything close to the kind of loss and desperation this story communicates.

The historically based tale takes place in Iran around the time of the Revolution encompassing a few years both sides of 1979.  Many lives are lost, many thought processes are challenged, compromised and changed.  And then possession of Michael Jackson’s picture gets a young jean-jacket clad teenager in serious trouble.

Do you wonder if you can relate to people in Middle Eastern countries? You can and you will as you read this story of a young girl’s wrestling to make sense of it all.

Moving on … please read the story, don’t forget those who have suffered for your freedoms, and lend me a copy of Persepolis II.

Mortality

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You always listen a little more intently when it’s a man’s last words. Sadly, Hitch didn’t have much to say.

What can be said when you are walking through death’s door convinced there is nothing on the other side? As it turns out, not much. Preparing to die without the anticipation of future hope is very gloomy business indeed.  One of the saddest lines in his book is:

“One finds that every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less”

If all of us just return to dust when our time on earth is over, then, Hitchens observation here, is about as depressing as it can get. He genuinely feels the weight of hopelessness that his worldview brings him.

Death causes you to rethink your beliefs

As Hitch suffers he is forced to confess a truth about grave illness:

“It forces you to examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings”

One such confidant that withers under the scrutiny of Hitch’s suffering is Nietzsche. His famous maxim “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a load of bilge! Hitch’s battle with cancer had only made him weaker, not stronger. Maybe the solid bedrock of Nietzschen thought upon which countless atheist’s have build their systems has a few cracks? Hitchens is honest enough to point out a couple of them.

Christian people are jerks

But Hitchens is not ready to throw down the whole system. He still had plenty of spunk. He is at his best when pointing out the flaws of organized religion and he is very good at it. His criticisms in many cases should not be ignored, people have done terrible things in the name of religion. Particularly saddening at a personal level are all the people of faith, (and he quotes several) who gleefully informed the world that Hitchens esophageal cancer which took away his ability to speak, was a wrathful God’s vindictive justice upon this leading spokesman for the Anti-God point of view. Hitchens rightfully points out that these people are heartless jerks who care more about their ideology than people and of course if God is actually like this, than he is not interested.

Prayer: Not a fan

Even in death, the idea of prayer disgusts him. He mentions one statistic from some non-footnoted study about how prayer makes things worse – and then moves on. I guess I have to give him a pass for his poor scholarship since he was dying when he wrote it, but it is frustrating from a truth standpoint. Does prayer help? Countless legions of people from the beginning of time to this very day would enthusiastically say it does. The weight of all this counter evidence is dismissed in one opinionated stroke, and the matter concluded with Hitchens saying:

“Don’t trouble heaven with your bootless cries!”

Believe the better story

Hitchens above statement reminds me of Monsieur Thénardier’s line in the famous musical Les Miserables

“And the God of Heaven, he don’t interfere, cause he’s dead as the stiffs at my feet, I raise my eyes to the heavens and only the moon, the harvest moon shines down…”

That’s certainly one way to look at life, but why would you? “Because, it’s the truth!” is the loud bombastic response that Hitchen’s championed his whole life. It’s the cold hard reality of our existence, it might be unpalatable but it’s true. Is it? We are all of faith. Hitch believed his story of materialistic naturalism and reason alone seemingly to the bitter end – but we must all acknowledge that it was his faith story. In the Les Miserable classic there was another faith story, different from Monsieur Thénardier, different from Hitchens, it was a better story, It was Jean Val Jean’s story.

Come with me

Where chains will never bind you

All your grief

At last, at last behind you

 

Lord in Heaven

Look down on him in mercy.

 

Forgive me all my trespasses

And take me to your glory.

 

Take my hand

I’ll lead you to salvation

Take my love

For love is everlasting

 

And remember

The truth that once was spoken

To love another person

Is to see the face of God.

 

It’s the beauty of this story that has captured my imagination and my heart.

Eternity: A really bad idea

“With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives… sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own…such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.”

Isn’t there a better way of looking at this? Like an eternal family reunion without the weird uncle? Could we embrace a vision of infinite life by thinking in terms of all the joys that make up family life without any of its difficulties? It takes a special person to rain on heaven’s parade.

God is a jerk if he damns people for doubt

Hitchens curses any god who would punish “irreconcilable doubt”. To which I would say, God is not anti-doubt – he is pro-faith. The faithful enter in not because they are doubt free: they enter in because their hope manages ever so slightly to overshadow’s their doubt.

This is a sad story of pain and death with no hope beyond the grave. Interestingly, in the first part of the book, Hitch chews on the idea of Pascal’s Wager for a little bit, but then spits it out as distasteful.  However, towards the end of his book and his life, we see him becoming less and less critical of Pascal’s Wager. In one of his final musings, he says “Atheists ought not to be offering consolation… If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does.” — Was he betting on God in the end? Was he throwing his chips in with the better story? Good for him if he did.

The Rest of God

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This book seeks to create in us the compelling need to stop our busyness by taking regular breaks. Buchanan contends that a persons very health depends upon adherence to this ancient practice known as Sabbath rest. It’s a simple read, with a simple point, but it comes with bucket loads of quote worthy material some of which is listed below. I loved this book, it is wholly appropriate for anyone who is distracted, busy and stuck in the rat race.

Sabbath rest knows that silence is golden

  • Some knowing is never pursued, only received. And for that, you need to be still.
  • Silence is the condition for true listening.

Sabbath rest is a habitual practice (liturgy) 

  • At its best, liturgy comprises the gestures by which we honour transcendent reality, it helps us give concrete expression to deepest convictions. It gives us choreography for things unseen and allows us to breach heaven among the shades of earth.

Sabbath rest is about paying attention

  • Indeed, this is the essence of a Sabbath heart: paying attention. It is being fully present, wholly awake, in each moment. Louis Aggasiz, Harvard’s renowned biologist, returned one September to his classroom and announced to his students that he had spent the summer traveling, he had managed, he said, to get halfway across his backyard. To those with eyes to see, that’s enough. Everywhere we turn, wonders never cease.
  • Drivenness erodes purposefulness…The truly purposeful have an ironic secret: they manage time less and pay attention more.
  • “My whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted” Henri Nouwen said near the end of his life, “Until I discovered the interruptions were my work”…Purposefulness requires paying attention, and paying attention means — almost by definition — that we make room for surprise…we become hospitable to interruption.

Sabbath rest rejects the task master of time and embraces wonder and delight

  • Unless we receive time as abundance and gift, not as ration and burden, we’ll never develop a capacity to savour Sabbath.
  • Those calm, unhurried people who live in each moment fully, savouring simple things, celebrating small epiphanies, unafraid of life’s inevitable surprises and reverses, adaptive to change yet not chasing after it.
  • Those who treat time as gift and not possession — have time in abundance. Contra wise, those who guard every minute, resent every interruption, ration every moment, never have enough.
  • The oughts go into the salt mine and you go out dancing.
  • Its the one day when the only thing you must do is to not do the things you must!
  • You get to willfully ignore the many niggling things your existence genuinely depends on!
  • toss away the “have to’s” and lay hold of the “get to’s”
  • If it smells like an ought, don’t. 
  • So I submit this as Sabbath’s golden rule: Cease from what is necessary. Embrace that which gives life. And then do whatever you want.
  • They dance in a woods unwatched by Chronos. The Sabbath is a kingdom where Chronos and utility are not welcome.
  • When we really believe that we have no time to waste — no time simply to enjoy without excuse or guilt, without having to show anything for it — then the cult of utility is utterly ascendant. It has vanquished all rivals.
  • Philipp Melanchthon turned to Martin Luther and announced, “Today you and I shall discuss the governance of the universe.” Luther looked at Melanchthon and said “No. Today, you and I shall go fishing and leave the governance of the universe to God.”
  • The Chinese join two characters to form a single pictograph for busyness: heart and killing — the busy life murders our hearts.
  • This is one of Sabbath’s gifts, to relax without guilt.

Sabbath rest’s central quality is thankfulness 

  • Thankfulness is a secret passageway into a room you can’t find any other way. It is the wardrobe into Narnia. It allows us to discover the rest of God.

Sabbath rest looks both backward and forward

  • Take anything you delight in here on earth: Your children, Your craftwork, Your hot tub. The dewed green of a fairway on a July morning. The set corn from your garden, butter drenches. Enjoy them all. Find rest in them. But imagine how much more awaits you.
  • Busyness destroys the time we need to remember well.

Amazing Grace

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This was one of the few books I’ve read where I was genuinely sad when I turned over the last page. I had met someone special, a friend, a good man, a hero really. I had walked with him through his extraordinary life and I guess I just didn’t want it to end. Who was this guy? His name was William and he changed the world.

The idea of ending slavery was completely out of the question in the 1700’s. Slavery, it was thought, was inextricably intertwined with human civilization. It was the way things were supposed to be. Slavery was economically necessary and morally defensible. Wilberforce managed to destroy an entire way of seeing the world! He vanquished the very mind-set that made slavery acceptable and allowed it to survive and thrive for millennia. Slavery does live on today but for the Western world the idea that slavery is somehow good is completely dead thanks in large part to this great Christian statesman.

The Great Change — William was not always so passionate for a noble cause. Before the “great change” as he called it, William was a man given over to selfish ambition and personal pleasure. He was charming, witty, and popular and he naturally used these personal assets for self advancement. That all changed when he invited the smartest person he knew to accompany him on a long trip to the south of France. Milner was brilliant like Wilberforce, but what Wilberforce didn’t know, and certainly didn’t expect was that Milner was a committed follower of Jesus. “Methodists” as they were called in that era were ridiculed for their stupidity and backwardness, and yet here was Milner every bit the intellectual equal to Wilberforce, but unyielding in his confidence in Jesus. All of Wilberforce’s objections to living faith, were met with stunning counter measures. Eventually this was the fork in the road for our man. Wilberforce became a Christian.  He naturally concluded that he must give up his political career, since he felt it was impossible to be a Christian and a politician at the same time. That assumption was called into question when he had a pivotal conversation with John Newton, the famous slave trader turned pastor. From Newton’s point of view, William was being uniquely positioned by God to change the world. The die was cast, Wilberforce would use his political influence to end the great wickedness of slavery.

It wasn’t pretty – It’s easy for me to think of course this attack against slavery would gain momentum, isn’t it clear and obvious that this was a bad idea?” Wrong! The fight to abolish the slave trade and ultimately emancipate slaves was brutal. William was forced to endure threats, intimidation & character assassination. There were times when his very life was in danger. At one point the opposition was able to make Wilberforces anti-slave trade position unpatriotic. With skillful political savvy they connected Englands arch-nemesis, France, to the anti-slave position. For almost a decade anyone in Britain who stood to abolish slavery had to endure a violent pro-Britain patriotic backlash.  It is impossible not to see a correlation between that and what Donald Trump is doing in our age. The problem of in-equality as a result of race still exists even though slavery doesn’t. NFL players have been strategically placed to call our attention to this problem, but political savvy distracts us from the all important issue and instead makes it about patriotism. I guess I’m reminded that “there is nothing new under the sun”, but I won’t be fooled by it.

The power of media and the public — The abolitionist’s were convinced that if the public could actually see what the slave trade was, they would eventually lose the stomach for it. The media wing of the abolitionist movement was unprecedented. In graphic and discomforting ways they exposed the trade for the evil that it was. The common person in Britain had no idea, what all went into getting them their tea, sugar, and tobacco.  Eventually, the sensory bombardment worked, the general public was convinced. The trade had to go. In upressedented fashion the abolitionist movement mobilized the masses to speak. They captured millions of signatures protesting the trade, had rallies and pushed the common mans message into the halls of power.

Dead orthodoxy and really long titles — Wilberforce, was saddened by the deplorable state of the church of England. The church had left off following Jesus, and had become a stale institution for personal profit and worldly pursuit.  Wilberforce agitated tirelessly to wake the church up. Resurrecting the church was just one of many initiatives he laboured for. He worked tirelessly to help Britains poor, to educate women, to stop Englands pillaging of India, he advocated against cruelty to animals, something unheard of in the 1700’s. He wrote vociferously on all these issues. Basically, any moral issue of the day, he spoke on, wrote on, or created a society to assist in.  One such society he started was for widows and single women.  He aptly named it, the ”Society for Widows & Single Women of Good Character Who Have Seen Better Days” — that’s quite a title!

Put your money where your mouth is — Wilberforce was born into wealth, but he didn’t stay rich. Over the course of his life he gave all his money away to assist in all these great causes. He lived out the last of his days in a small room provided for him by his son.

Clapham, the vital role of community — For many years the Wilberforce family lived in a tight-knit community known as Clapham. Wilberforce and many of his friends simply shared their lives together. Their kids played, while they shared meals and stayed up late dreaming about the world they wanted to create. They weren’t just coworkers in a cause; they were dear friends. Without this relational bond stemming from a shared life, I wonder if they would have had the fortitude to do what they did.

Religious Freedom – Wilberforce was ahead of his time. Protestants and Catholics in the 1700’s were not exactly bosom buddies, even still he advocated religious freedom. No need to fight about religion, let both understandings of Christianity live in peace.

Playful spirit – Wilberforce’s house was full of kids and animals and visitors of all kinds.  Many times he was seen playing with children, or lost in his imaginiation or having a laugh about some oddity of life. He was fun and he enjoyed his life to the glory of God The kid in William never completely left. He was very serious about his life’s work, but the difficultly and struggle of it never forced the twinkle out of his eye, or caused him not to see and be amazed by the beauty of a rainbow.

On to India — is it good to disrupt culture? — Wilbrerforce said “Next to the Slave Trade, India is the foulest blot on the moral character of our country.” For years Britain managed to dominate the sub-continent emptying it of it’s resources, while at the same time, being careful to prevent Christianity from spreading. They were happy to have Indians carry on with institutionalized slavery, and caste abuse. They cared nothing for the female infanticide and the forced burnings of wives on the funeral pyres of their husbands. None of that mattered just so long as the flow of valuables continued. For Wilberforce, a “hands off” point of view on suffering was not possible. Christianity teaches the value of human life, and the East India Company of Britain didn’t want the Indians awakening to their own human rights and the objective standards of justice that Christianity provides. So they threw up the smoke screen that it’s better for the Indian to have his own culture and religion. Wilberforce wouldn’t buy it. Abuse and wrongdoing should be stopped even if it comes nicely formulated and justified in a pre-existing culture and religion. Thanks to Wilberforce’s efforts, missionaries were soon heading to India and the “turn a blind eye” strategy would be pushed aside.

Wilberforce was a man of small stature and for most of his life he was very sickly. He was everything you wouldn’t expect in a super hero, but a super hero he was. My desire is to emulate his life.

The Fall of the Ottomans

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The “Jihad” thing is not a new phenomenon. 

The possibility of Jihad was the great terror of the Entente powers and the great hope of the Central powers. Massive efforts were made on one side to fan the flame of religious fanaticism and huge efforts were made on the other side to snuff it out. In the end, it appears to have been much ado about nothing.  Islam was never that unified. There was enough resentment against the Ottoman rulers within Muslim domains that the flood of jihadists, supposed to fill the ranks of central armies, never materialized. The grand plan to create mayhem, terror, and disruption all across British and French colonies in the name of Allah amounted to wishful thinking.

I will kill for my nation, not my religion. 

Fanning the flames of nationalism proved to be a greater motivator to violence than religion. The Arab revolt fuelled by grand dreams and false promises of a distinctly Arabic nation spanning most of the Middle East was just the ticket to turn Muslims in on themselves. In almost miraculous fashion, the Ottoman Empire had managed to push back Entente invasion forces in Gallipoli, Gaza, Baghdad and other places for over two years, but when the Arab nationalists joined the Entente to rise in revolt against Ottoman rule, it proved to be too much.

Whose side are we on anyway? 

Muslims from Africa joined the Entente to fight on the Western front against Germans. As war goes, some of those Muslim soldiers were captured by the Germans. Instead of being sent to a regular POW camp, they were treated nicely, and sent to more of a resort to be indoctrinated about jihad. Ultimately, many of these Muslim POW’s would be repurposed and sent off to fight with the Ottomans as “holy warriors” against the British. Interestingly, many of those same soldiers wound up getting captured again, this time by British forces in the Middle East.  A British POW camp in Egypt would be where they would sit out the war.  However, I wonder if some of those same men were able to be repurposed again through the call to Arab nationalism? If so, it is quite possible that those soldiers went back into war to fight with the Entente once again – this time against the Ottomans. It would not surprise me if that actually happened, although the book offers no evidence of this final reversal. In the end, these two-sided warriors were let off surprisingly easy – any other traitor would have been shot for treason in this era. These guys just had to endure post-war expulsion from their country/colony of birth.

The Beduins are for the Beduins

C.S. Lewis makes the above statement about the Dwarfs in his Chronicles of Narnia series. What he means is the Dwarfs look out for their own interests above all, there is no higher purpose or unifying cause that supersedes this fundamentally tribal presupposition about life. This describes perfectly the Beduins. They constantly flipped sides whenever it suited their purposes. They looted whenever they won and drifted off into the highlands when things became dangerous or it didn’t serve their purpose. All throughout the war, the Beduins were a constant help and then headache to both British and Ottoman forces.

How do you dominate someone and then get them to fight for you? 

It is utterly remarkable to me how the British and French were able to recruit willing soldiers for their armies from their African and Indian colonies.  They had invaded these countries and reduced the indigenous people to second-class citizens in their own country! How is it that thousands upon thousands of Indian and African people would willingly sign up to fight in a war that was being waged by their oppressors? Was it the pay? The prospect of adventure? Maybe the British and French influence in these colonies was not as bad for everyone as we have historically thought? I honestly don’t know the answer to this question.

Dumb move to open another front in a terrible war?

In hindsight, the campaign against the Ottoman Empire has been criticized as an unnecessary and foolhardy endeavour. Was it? At the time, I think it actually made good sense. The strategy was for the Entente to try to force a quick end to the war by stabbing at the soft underbelly of the Central powers. Even the Germans were worried about the Ottomans as the weak link. The decision to attack was made because the Ottoman Empire had been in steady decline for over 100 years. They were politically unstable. Civil unrest abounded in the country.  The empire had lost three successive wars at the turn of the century, and in the first year of the Great War, they had been crushed by the Russians in the Caucasus Mountains, the British in Mesopotamia, and by the British at the Suez.

On paper, it looked like a good plan – the Ottomans were weak and failing, and since the west was in stalemate, why not? Unfortunately, instead of shortening the war, it probably prolonged it. The Turks fought fearlessly and from better positions and received huge help from their German counterparts.

Why did the Armenian genocide happen? 

Some Armenians wanted their own country – nationalism was the flavour of the day. But most were content with life as it was and were patriotic Ottomans – yet periodic persecutions at the hands of Turks and Kurds made life far from ideal for this Christian subset of Ottoman culture.

As the war loomed, the Empire needed to make a decision as to which side they were going to join in on. It was a tough decision, but ultimately they went with the Central powers. Russia had forever been looking lustily to capture Istanbul and many of the other prime lands possessed by the Ottomans. The Russians viewed themselves as the last of the Byzantines, so their claim on Ottoman land pre-dated the Ottomans.  The Turks had no desire to fight the Russians, and attempted a peace deal with them. The Russians were not interested.

  1. Switching Sides: For some time, Armenians had wondered if maybe the Russian capture of the Ottoman lands in which they lived would actually benefit them. Russians were at least Christian. That commonality, it was thought, could lead to more freedom and less persecution, and perhaps even the possibility of an Armenian state. Russia openly courted that idea, making lots of promises to Armenians if they would cross over to their side. Some Armenian soldiers in the Ottoman Army crossed over to fight with the Russians. That didn’t sit well with the Turks.
  2.     Shrinking Empire: The Turks had lost so much territory to nationalist-minded, non-Muslim entities within the borders of their empire over the previous several decades. Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria all had achieved independence from the Empire, shrinking and weakening it in the process.  A similar independence movement with the Armenians would fragment the very heartland of the Turkish people. That was not an option.
  3.     Civil War — Some Armenian nationalists in Eastern Anatolia started a revolt in which they took over an entire city, killed a bunch of Turks in the battle, and held out for Russian liberation.
  4.     Cheering a bit pre-mature — When the British invaded the Dardanelles and were close to conquering Istanbul, Armenians openly cheered the would-be-conquerors on. This exuberance could only be interpreted as treasonous.

The regime known as The Young Turks concluded that all Armenians were a direct threat to national security and must therefore be exterminated. Only a small percentage of Armenians were actually dangerous to Ottoman rule but, in times of war, the controlling powers often don’t take the time to try to discern.

March of Death

Before the war, The Young Turks had ejected the Greek Orthodox from Ottoman lands. Greece had found its independence, and was not a friend to the Ottomans, so the Greeks had to go! The plan was to march them all to Greece and be done with them. It was a difficult situation, to be torn from one’s homeland and sent marching off towards Greece with only what you could carry on your back. But most survived because they had a reachable destination filled with people willing to receive them. This was not the Armenian story. They had no homeland to march to once they were evicted, and the Turks were thinking extermination not expulsion.

To accomplish extermination, the Turks made it seem like they were going to do the same to the Armenians as they had done to the Greeks.  However, the expulsion point would be across the Syrian Desert. The brutal elements of the desert ensured that most would never survive the trip. In addition, if any of the marchers slowed down, they were bayoneted. To complete the genocide, the Turks also arranged for Arab tribesmen and Kurdish tribesmen to regularly sweep down violently into the long lines of defenseless captives. Some Armenian children survived because they were taken as slaves to these groups, other young women survived through capture and forced marriage. Most however simply were caught up in this net of death along the way. It is estimated that only about 2% of those forced to go on the death marches actually survived them.  In all, approximately 1.5 million Armenians perished.

Ironically, the genocide was of no assistance in helping the Ottoman cause. The Russians still conquered even without Armenian help. Many great and loyal Armenian soldiers were lost to the Ottoman army because of the purge. The Armenian issue was irrelevant to the Arab revolt which actually accelerated the demise of the Ottomans. There is one particularly poignant story to illustrate the senselessness of this genocide: several thousand Armenians managed to escape the death marches by volunteering to work with the Germans on the Berlin to Baghdad railway, an essential link that could have made all the difference in the war. The Turks discovered the Armenians, and, in spite of German protests, preferred to send the willing labourers to their deaths rather than use their help on this vital railway. The railway was never finished. The Ottomans lost the war.

Untenable

Untenable was the most common word in this book. It was probably used several hundred times! As the various armies attacked each other, inevitably their positions would become “untenable”.  There would be a retreat, and then the violence would start all over again, until the other side would achieve an equally untenable position. As the bodies of both sides piled up, I felt myself asking the question “Why are we doing this again? There has got to be a better way!”  In my mind, the whole idea of war is “untenable”!

Staying alive! 

At the end of the war, the Ottoman Empire was completely disassembled. The French and English carved up what was left of the empire for themselves. Even Anatolia, the heartland of the Turks, was chopped up to make space for Greek, Armenian, and Kurdish national interests. At the wars end, hope for even a Turkish state was lost, that is, until Mustafa Kemal Atatürk emerged from the dust of war and refused to accept the terms for peace. Somehow, with a broken army, he managed to push back Greek, Armenian, Kurdish, and even French military forces in order to preserve a Turkish homeland.

The Most Encouraging Book on Hell Ever

Well, that was interesting. A comedian writes a book on the reality of hell, and he is not joking, but yet the book itself is full of jokes. Wait, what? Exactly.

So, what is going on here? People, and especially Christian people of late, don’t like the idea of hell – it’s too harsh, too off putting, too out of touch with reality, too unbelievable. Thor Ramsey quotes social critic and comedian Bill Hicks to capture the incredulity of an actual place called hell:

“Christianity is such an odd religion. The whole image is eternal suffering awaits anyone who questions God’s infinite love. Believe or die. Thank you for all those options.”

This skepticism of hell has not just dripped into the church, it has poured in like a flood. Notable Christian celebrity Rob Bell basically says the same thing in his book:

“God loves us. God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely through no merit on our part. Unless you do not respond the right way. Then God will torture you forever. In Hell. Huh?”

Thor Ramsey is not about to go along with this drifting tide of “envangellyfish” as he calls them. If hell becomes only a metaphor, or a temporary holding tank that eventually dissolves into heavenly bliss for all, or morphs into annihilationism, then all is lost. According to our funny-boned author, the entire Christian story becomes meaningless. It’s kind of a big deal, so Thor cracks jokes and quotes Bible verses and makes his case that a punishing eternal hell is very real, very terrible, and to be avoided at all costs – through faith in Jesus.

If Hell freezes over… the loss of eternal punishment as it is taught in the Bible will result in the shrinkage of God’s attributes and in the end, a smaller God. We will suffer the loss of the fear of God, the loss of a holy God, the loss of a just God, the loss of an extravagantly loving God, and the loss of God’s wisdom in the cross. We can’t afford to lose the attributes of God. Otherwise we have a meaningless gospel. But the greatest loss whenever Scripture is minimized is the loss of knowing the self-revealed God of this universe.” 

Does Thor have a point? I think so. Below are my observations:

    • Jesus’ death is evacuated of meaning if hell doesn’t exist: “It’s the difference between Jesus dying for you or just giving up His seat on the bus for you.” If there is no real danger, if our souls are not in peril of damnation, then what was Jesus thinking? If we are all going to end up in heaven anyway, or if some of us will just be snuffed out into non-existence, then the story doesn’t really make sense anymore. Jesus’ sacrifice is not something to put our ultimate hope in, instead we just kind of feel sorry for the guy.  Thor wants us to be convinced that if it wasn’t for Jesus, we’d be toast!
    • God hates sinners in addition to their sin — He has his Bible verses to back it up, and clearly it’s not a stretch to see that God does not send sinners to hell because He loves them, so I get it. Even still, it’s difficult for me to imagine a conversation with one of my not-yet-believing friends starting off with the line “Currently, God hates you.” But that’s not what Thor is suggesting – or is it? He does manage to say “This means that God can simultaneously seek a sinner’s best interests (Love) while opposing the sinner’s primary motivations in life (Hate) And I understand that, at least to a certain degree, earthly relationships have this dynamic as well.
    • The unpleasant thought of God’s wrath — God is justified in being upset with us, not in a freak out, fly off the handle way, but in a consistent, unmoving, non-reactionary opposition to all that stands against His holiness. After pointing out bunches of sins which reveal just how much we don’t measure up, he makes a very accurate statement “The problem is that we don’t really believe we deserve God’s wrath” And that is true – our culture teaches us that we are superheroes and victims at the same time. We get all the credit for the good, and readily have someone to blame for the bad. And so it seems to be going with our Theology.
    • The blame game for all eternity“In our refusal to love God and instead embrace sin, we never quite see sin as an infinite evil. We usually think of our sins as minor hijinks. Hitler deserves hell, but not us. It’s always the other guy. Those “evildoers” – they deserve hell. Not us ‘sinners’”. And this is the genius of C.S. Lewis’ master work The Great Divorce: through one unsettling story after another, he reveals how hell is inhabited by increasingly self-absorbed, utterly miserable people who are experts in blaming others for all eternity.

This book is blunt and rough, even with all the jokes. What’s Thor’s message in a nutshell? God is perfectly righteous – we are not. Hell is real. We need Jesus desperately. We must repent and follow Him. There are eternal consequences if we don’t.

Thor makes a blood-earnest call for Christian leaders to forsake the notions of a “Santa Claus” God who is always happy, always gushing with love and good gifts, regardless of what we believe or do. Santa Claus is not the God of the Bible. Thor wants to reawaken us to the God who is a consuming fire, who will not be a party to any wickedness, but who loves us so deeply that He was willing to sacrifice all for our salvation.

A Hockey Player Understands the God of the Old Testament

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You also will command nations you do not know, and peoples unknown to you will come running to obey, (Is 55:5)

The carrot is misplaced.

Isaiah continually says if you follow God you will essentially rule the world. 
You be able to dominate other nations and of course, if you don’t follow God other nations will dominate you.

My issue is I don’t give a rip about dominating other nations. I don’t even want to do that I just want to live in peace.
 The carrot for an ancient warrior tribe on the verge of extinction from many different fronts, would, I guess, be domination. But that means nothing to me as a peaceloving, free, and largely protected Canadian! — In fact, all this “world domination” talk is objectionable to my ears.

I have little doubt that colonialists probably had these verses emblazoned on their ships as they went around on world conquest in the name of Jesus. 
So how do I love this?

  • 
How does this become a source of encouragement to me?
  • How does this help me understand God better and have a full appreciation for him?
  • What would this sound like if I was to translate into Canadian language?



”If you follow God you will win the Stanley Cup, 
If you don’t you’ll be stuck in perpetual mediocrity like the Vancouver Canucks, or even worse your team will be relegated to the AHL. You’ll have no control over your players, the NHL will own you, picking up your best players whenever they want! Look, if you don’t obey God it’s everlasting “B “league for you.”



Ok, I understand now 👍

A House in the Sky

81WS5WQhg3L.jpgThis is one of those books where you have to stop every few pages, look at the front and back covers, searching for something that says “fiction” as you say to yourself, “This isn’t a true story – is it? No, it can’t be true!” Turns out it is true.

So what happens? A little girl from a fractured home grows up and gets the itch to travel. The story is about all of her adventures, which seem harmless enough at first, until her wanderlust brings her into dangerous places. Much to her family’s disapproval, she is able to spend significant time in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places, barely skirting death on several occasions.

High stakes adventuring is what Amanda wanted, and so it seemed to her that the ultimate prize would be Somalia. What better place was there to risk it all? This war-torn state is a veritable treasure trove of peril and uncertainty!

She talks an ex-boyfriend into going with her and off they go. Things unravel quickly from there. After only 4 days, they are captured and held for ransom for 15 brutal months. During that time, Amanda is starved, beaten, raped repeatedly, tortured, and in every way abused. In the end, a ransom amount is arranged privately with the families of the two captives and a release is arranged. This book is troubling to read, so it would not be for the faint of heart or the squeamish. What did I learn?

  1. Just Business — From the very beginning, Amanda’s captors constantly proved their devotion to Allah through the vigorous keeping of endless rituals. They also exhibited a genuine care for their fellow Muslim brothers, but the trajectory of devotion to God, which should result in care for other humans, never reached Amanda. Why? Amanda was a business project. Her captors were actually apologetic at times, “Just business, Amanda, nothing personal – your family just needs to pay the ransom” ~boot to the head!~ How is it possible to see another human being in this less-than-human way? That question leads me to my second point.
  2. That Which Your Right Hand Possesses — Repeatedly, Amanda’s captors, almost in gentle ways, told her to get accustomed to the treatment she was receiving, especially the rape. What was their justification for such actions? The Koran. In it, it is ok for sexual relationships to happen with both one’s wives and any woman “That your right hand possesses.” “We possess you, Amanda, so there is nothing wrong with what we are doing to you.” Lovely 😦
  3. Nothing to See Here — At one point in the story, Amanda and her partner manage a daring escape. They flee to the one place they figure they will find a sympathetic and compassionate ear. They burst into a mosque full of worshippers, and cry out for help. In broken Somalian, they explain that they have been kidnapped and abused. The elders of the mosque confer with the kidnappers who arrive breathless and angry a few minutes later. After a short conversation they are handed back over to the kidnappers. Only one woman objects, but she is violently kicked to the side. How in God’s name would you not intervene if someone in such a deplorable condition as Amanda barged into your church service pleading for help? It is inconceivable to me.
  4. You’re Still A Woman and A Slave Even If You Convert — As a survival tactic, Amanda converted to Islam. But it did little to improve her situation – she was after all still a woman, and still a slave, Throughout her captivity, she was told repeatedly of her lowly status. As a good Muslim, she would have to make peace with her station in life. It is the will of Allah. The only improvement offered to her was the promise that if she married one of her captors, they would untie her, let her live in an upstairs room with a window, and have lots of babies.
  5. Ritual Is All That Matters — Amanda as a Muslim now needed to make sure she shaved her pubic hair, but not pluck her eyebrow hair. She needed to preform her daily ablutions. It was critical for her to learn the Koran and pray five times a day. Correct pronunciation of Arabic words in her prayers became critical. Her standing as a good Muslim or a bad Muslim depended on it. She must observe Ramadan, and keep her eyes lowered in the presence of men. These are the things that mattered. Not compassion or mercy or justice. Jesus bumped into a similar sort of situation in his day. He was not amused – see Matthew 23.

This is Amanda’s story. It is not a direct attack on the religion of Islam per se, but it’s impossible not to become skeptical of that particular religion after reading this book. Is what Amanda experienced just a perversion of Islam or just the way it is? Is this what Islam becomes if you are serious about upholding its beliefs? To me it seems like the more one devotes one’s life to Islam, the more justifications there are for what happened to Amanda. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.

What about Jesus? For my Muslim friends and indeed for all the world, I say follow him. The more one becomes devoted to Jesus the more the needy are helped, the more equality and value for all humans becomes the norm, the more captives are freed, and the more humanity flourishes. Whatever ones official religion, to follow Jesus is never a mistake. I just finished reading Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce, the Christian statesman who in the late 1700’s fought for 40 Years to abolish the slave trade. If ever there was a dramatic counterpoint to this story, it is Amazing Grace. I challenge you to read both books back to back and ask yourself the question, which faith story is the better one to shape your life around.