Monthly Archives: January 2018

Tuesdays with Morrie

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An eccentric lovable old professor gets ALS and begins the slow terrible  decent into death. ALS gradually paralyses the body until the victim eventually asphyxiates on his own bodily fluids. It is in this context that we discover a man who refuses to wallow in self-pity, anger, or depression. Instead, he wishes to use the final chapter of his life as a means to help people learn from the experience of dying so they can live in better ways. A former student with journalistic capabilities reconnects with the professor, their friendship which had grown distant is reinvigorated through this slow moving tragedy. In the final months of Morrie’s life, Mitch travels 700 miles almost every Tuesday to chat with his beloved ever-weakening professor. This book is the fruit of those interchanges.

When given the bad news:

“Do I wither up and disappear or do I make the best of my time left?… I decided I’m going to live, or at least try to live—the way I want, with dignity, with courage, with humour, with composure.”

Mitch was truly in awe of the almost complete lack of self pity that he saw in his professor. The professor somehow knew that self-pity was a false promise of comfort that wouldn’t deliver.

Is it ok to mourn? Yes, but: 

“Sometimes in the mornings, that’s when I mourn. I feel around my body, I move my fingers and my hands — whatever I can still move — and I mourn what I’ve lost. I mourn the slow, insidious way in which I’m dying, but then I stop mourning, I give myself a good cry but then I concentrate on all the good things still in my life.”

How important is meaning and how do you discover it? 

Morrie tells us,

“We live largely unfulfilled, unsatisfied lives because we have not discovered any transcendent meaning to them.”

Mitch resonated with his ailing professor’s observation.  Mitch had everything money could buy, but sitting next to his professor, he felt as though he had nothing.  He was particularly disturbed when he looked around the professors old house, unlike Mitch, everything the professor had was used, 2nd hand, and old. But Morrie didn’t care about stuff, he wasn’t into chasing whatever was new and shiny. In the midst of this modest, dumpy dwelling place, it became increasingly clear who the happier, more content, more fulfilled person was, and it wasn’t Mitch.

If a greater meaning is so important in life, how does one find it?

“The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose.”

These three devotions can be accomplished nicely without the need for a God. This was Morrie’s perspective. He wasn’t anti-God, God was more of a mystery to him, something worthy of study, awe even, but not devotion. I’m wondering if the call to transcendent meaning rings a tiny bit hollow if God is not attached at some point. We all need meaning or we shrink into ourselves, why not embrace an ultimate meaning in a creator God who loves us and gave himself for us? It seems to me that this would up the ante of greater purpose more than anything. I wonder what Morrie would have said if I had the chance to ask him? Toward the end, Morrie’s gentle agnosticism began to fragment. He started having conversations with God.  If a good God was out there somewhere, Morrie was becoming interested in joining him after ALS had completed it’s work. It is no sign of weakness or foolish delusion for a human facing his own mortality to explore post death realities more substantive than agnosticism’s “I don’t know”.  Death often has a way of prioritizing the search for God.

Breaking through the fog

“We’ve got a form of brainwashing going on in our county, do you know how they brainwash people? They repeat something over and over. And that’s what we do in this country. Owning things is good. More money is good. More property is good. More commercialism is good. More is good. More is good. We repeat it — and have it repeated to us — over and over until nobody bothers to even think otherwise. The average person is so fogged up by all this, he has no perspective on what’s really important anymore…. What matters? — Love, responsibility, spirituality, awareness.”

It was these four principles that shaped Morries life and these four principles that he instilled in anyone who wished to hang out with him. What broke the cultural brainwashing that Mitch had been duped by? Followers of Jesus would refer to it as “Life on life discipleship.” This is the most powerful change agent in existence and its what led to Mitch’s transformation. In reading the authors bio I discovered that he doesn’t believe that “more commercialism is good” anymore at all. Mitch spends his time and money at his orphanage in Haiti. In addition to this he has also started a handful of other life giving charities. He is a different man.

Fully present 

“When Morrie was with you, he was really with you. He looked you straight in the eye, and he listened as if you were the only person in the world. How much better would people get along if their first encounter each day were like this, rather than a grumble from a waitress or a bus driver or a boss? I believe in being fully present.”

He excoriates people for being distracted when they should be focused on the person in front of them, (well, he doesn’t really excoriate anyone, Morrie is too nice for that, I just like that word, but Morrie is certainly not impressed with those of us who find ourselves distracted! )  This was all before the iphone era! If we were distracted in the 90’s how much more so today! Morrie isn’t just lecturing on being polite and respectful of other people. Attentiveness is important for everyone’s health. He puts it this way:

“When I give my time, when I can make someone smile after they were feeling sad, it’s as close to healthy as I ever feel.”

How good is the human race?

Morrie like so many humanists believed in the inherent good of people, he didn’t deny that bad people existed, but for Morrie, people only became bad when threatened. This is where I must part company with the amicable professor. There is no denying that a threatened human is capable of harm, but someone always initiates the threat. Is it because they themselves also feel threatened? No, it’s because they want something for themselves. Selfishness is the core of bad behaviour, not being threatened, and every human has selfishness in spades! To my way of thinking then, humans are not inherently good creatures. Humans are inherently selfish creatures which make us bad in our very nature. This is not happy talk, but it is true talk.

A fear greater even then death

“I heard a small sad sound,

And stood awhile among the tombs around:

‘Wherefore, old friends,’ said I, ‘are you in distrest,

Now, screened from life’s unrest?’

— ‘O not a being here:

But that our future second death is near;

When, with the living, memory of us numbs,

And blank oblivion comes!’”

— Thomas Hardy, “The To-Be-Forgotten”

Morrie was terrified not so much of death, but that he would one day be forgotten. Thanks to Mitch, and Ted Koppel, and a made for T.V. movie promoted by Oprah, Morrie’s oblivion date has been extended to a point in time well beyond any of the rest of us. Mitch posthumously rejoices in this accomplishment in the 20th anniversary edition of the book. Morrie’s life caries on through others. But it won’t forever – the oblivion date will eventually arrive.

For me the better story is not so much that one’s memory lives beyond the grave, rather it’s that one’s actual person lives beyond the grave. With this perspective there is no “second death”.

Other good quotes/thoughts 

  • Morrie was an expert at coaxing compassion out of people
  • Giving is living
  • The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love and to let it come in.
  • Regarding being ashamed for being so needy: “Forget what the culture says. I have ignored the culture much of my life. I am not going to be ashamed. So what [if someone has to wipe my butt]! What’s the big deal?
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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.