Category Archives: Good Stories
A good story helps
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?
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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.
Victor Frankl was no stranger to pain suffering and death, even before the war as a successful neuroscientist and psychologist in Vienna, his practice led him to spend the majority of his time with suicide patients. In his research among these troubled souls, he found that 100% of them could not answer the question “Why am I here?” The absence of any ultimate meaning in his patients lives was the common thread in their suicidal perspective. Further, he discovered that alcoholism, drug abuse and most forms of neurotic behaviour were connected to the absence of meaning in a persons life.
As his research broadened he was startled to find that as much as 78% of German/Austrian young people in the mid 1930’s would rather have a clear transcendent meaning to their life than just making lots of money, or living for themselves. Sadly, Hitler capitalized on this “existential vacuum” as Frankl liked to called it. According to Hitler there was a transcendent reason to live and die. He was the Saviour to follow and the Third Reich was the heaven to build, and brutality was the necessary equipment needed for the project. This was better than the boredom and despair that a meaningless existence was bringing to the youth of the nation of Germany.
The Nazi’s took over Vienna. Victor was Jewish, so that was a problem. First he faced the indignity of being terminated from his post at the university and hospital. Second, he and his wife suffered through the forced abortion of their pre-born child. Third, his grief was multiplied when he witnessed the arrest and deportation of all of his extended family members, including his elderly parents, his bereaved wife, and his brother. Finally, his own arrest and internment at Auschwitz, the most notorious of the extermination camps came. By the time it was all over he was the lone survivor among all his family and friends who went to the camps.
His discoveries at the extermination camps agreed with his earlier findings on the importance of transcendent meaning being critical to the health of a persons life. The prisoners that survived clung to some meaning, some reason to carry on — those who were not able to grasp any kind of meaning to the madness of their existence simply gave up and died off.
Of course even those who had a greater purpose to their life died with ridiculous efficiency as well. Greater purpose did not mean you would survive, in many cases living by transcendent scruples just got you killed quicker, but somehow even the deaths of these meaning filled creatures were different. Frankl observed:
“They marched upright into the gas chamber with the Lords prayer or kaddish on their lips, offering whatever help they could to others.”
Their grasp of a “super meaning” as Frankl liked to call it gave them a confidence that there was meaning in suffering and meaning even in death itself. This confidence, allowed them to cope, to be at peace even as their lives were taken from them in the most despicable of ways.
The whole point of the camp was to dehumanize, to turn people into animals, it worked for many, but those who could hang onto meaning retained their humanity.
When Frankl was liberated it took him just 9 days to write the book for which he is most famous. “Mans Search for Meaning” has sold 10’s of millions of copies world wide, and has been translated into some 40 different languages. Is Frankl on to something when he says we need a “super meaning” beyond ourselves to truly flourish a human beings?
He gives several suggestions for how we as humans might be able to find greater meaning to our lives:
Finding meaning through a life’s work — Frankl stayed purposed during his time in camp, by secretly re-writing on tiny scraps of paper the manuscript for his book that the Nazi’s destroyed with his entry into camp.
Finding meaning through deeds — Frankl turned down an opportunity (albeit a risky one) to escape in order stay with some of the sick in the camp that he had been charged to care for, it was the right deed to do.
Meaning through love — For Frankl the ultimate purpose for existence is love. In his own case, as he suffered, there were moments in the midst of it all, where his mind was transported to Tilly his wife. She spoke to him in his distress, and he dreamed of better days with her. He carried on, for her.
This is why things were even more difficult for him when he finally got out and discovered that she and everyone else he loved were dead.
“The best have not returned (also, my best friend [Hubert Gsur] was beheaded) and they have left me alone. In the camp, we believed that we had reached the lowest point—and then, when we returned, we saw that nothing has survived, that that which had kept us standing has been destroyed, that at the same time as we were becoming human again it was possible to fall deeper, into an even more boundless suffering. There remains perhaps nothing more to do than cry a little and browse a little through the Psalms.”
Frankl says ultimate meaning makes you human (animals don’t probe the depths of their own suffering) we do. Somehow that meaning becomes fullest when it’s connected to true love. The best reason for living, for suffering, for overcoming, and even for dying is love.
As a follower of Jesus this book, though entirely secular in nature, made me appreciate with renewed clarity the grand story of Jesus that I have come to love. The Christian story fits perfectly with Frankl’s findings. Love forms in us our greatest meaning which makes us truly human. To love, however, has it’s risks, for when that love dies or is somehow extinguished, we become susceptible to great despair. However, if our love is attached to a person who even death cannot vanquish, how then can despair conquer us? in a word, it cannot!
Some neighbour friends of ours walked by and for some reason we got talking about shoes. He told us that he had just gotten rid of a new pair of shoes because they had lost their colour when he had attempted to wash them.
He told us he had to go out and buy a new pair of shoes as a result, but the extra expense was worth it, because you can tell a lot about a man from the shoes he wears. Mistin and I, two of our kids, and another lady who had joined in the conversation all immediately started looking at our shoes wondering what character assessment our footwear might engender.
This dude wasn’t kidding. He went on to explain that shoes are the first thing he notices on people. He judges from the sole up! Having new fancy shoes was some sort character measurement system in this mans mind!
Our dear 7 year old Jemma, oblivious to this system of human value based on shoes, chimed into the conversation:
“I got new shoes too!” She did a little jig, and then looked adoringly at her 8 year old brother Darve.
“Darve found them in the garbage room and brought them home for me, they are perfect!”
At first I tried to shush Jemma, I thought Oh no! Not that story, not now, not to this guy! but then I stopped. What could this man say? It was Jemma’s moment of pure delight and simple gratitude. She was entering into adult conversation with a happy tale to tell. My daughter cared nothing that these shoes were plucked from the garbage room in our apartment or what brand they were, or how much they might have cost. Darve had found them for her! It was love that had compelled him to bring them home and they fit her, and they were super comfortable, and there was plenty of tread left on the bottom, and to top it all off they were even the flashy light up kind!
The great speech on judging from the sole up, had fallen flat, It was felled by the simple joy of a seven year old who absolutely loved her “garbage” shoes! I hope the lesson will not be lost to us, especially us grown up types who so often lose our way. True character has nothing to do with shoes or any sort of status symbol. What matters more than footwear is the clothing of joy, gratitude and love that we wear and share with each other.
This book combines two stories into one.
Chris (the son) — He is gay, that’s not cool by his Asian American parents. There is a nasty blow up. He moves out, gets into the gay club party scene, discovers drugs, excels at selling them. Life is perfect for him, money, power, drugs, gay sex and complete acceptance. All of that ends, with an arrest, incarceration and an HIV diagnosis. In prison he finds a Bible in a trash can, reads it, and accepts Jesus as his saviour. He also finds a man to help him grow in his new found faith. The man tells Chris to become a minister when he gets out of prison. At first this idea sounds preposterous, but Chris’ prison ministry grows and he wonders if maybe…but what about the whole gay thing? The chaplain at the prison says “not a problem” and gives Chris a book teaching that Christianity was for gay love and not against it. However, the more Chris studied his Bible the more he discovered the opposite to be true. The chaplains book ended up in the trash can.
Chris did get out of prison and he did become an internationally respected conference speaker, and theology professor at a Christian university. In fact, I purchased his book at a conference he recently spoke at. From all points he seems to be doing well. He is reconciled to his family, he has joy and a transcendent purpose now. But what about his same sex attraction? Christopher will tell you that he remains gay, however, he has become content to resist those attractions and remain celibate. He believes that celibacy is a legitimate option for human beings and that he as a person is in no way incomplete, unfulfilled or somehow deficient just because he is not sexually active. His allegiance to Jesus and God’s Word have led him to deny himself in this area. Self denial, of course, is a major tenet of Christianity so he doesn’t feel as though he is different than any other Christian. Chris thinks it’s unhelpful and unhealthy for humans to be identified primarily by their sexual orientation. Chris does not want his identity to be “homosexual” or “heterosexual” His identity is that he is a child of God. He is also emphatic that singleness is not a curse or a burden. There is only one thing Chris can’t live without, that is God. Everything else can go. For so many years, Chris was a prisoner to his need for popularity, dance music, sex and drugs. Liberation came when he tore those idols down and began to follow the God who is love. Ironically, true freedom came for Chris while he was in prison.
Angela (the mom) — She is Chinese, locked into an honour/shame culture. The ultimate shame was Chris’ coming out. That despair combined with a lifeless marriage brought Angela to the brink of suicide, but she did not go through with it. Instead, by means of a series of incredible providences she discovered Jesus. Her life changed. Now, because of Jesus she could forgive her husband, because of Jesus she could love her son regardless of his attractions or his actions. Before Jesus, Angela manipulated her husband and children through guilt, shame and “drama” now as she oriented her life around Jesus, she began to practice sacrificial love instead. Her husband was compelled by the change and became a Christian as well. With healing on the home front, Angela set to work in prayer and love for her son whose life was clearly spiralling out of control. Chris was very hard on his parents when he was doing and dealing drugs, but Angela relentlessly stuck to her plan of love and prayer. Eventually Chris came to the same faith that had changed her life so much. Now she serves as his travel and ministry partner.
What did I learn?
- I think Chris is right on when he questions our cultures assumption that a healthy and fulfilled life must have sex in it.
- A lot about the gay clubbing/party lifestyle, drugs, and prison life. Probably more than I wanted to know.
- The power of a faithful passionate prayer life. Angela’s story helps us see that prayer is not a pointless exercise rather it’s a vital means through which God draws people to himself.
- Singleness is not a curse, it’s a gift.
- Even though, Chris enjoyed the power, popularity, and exhilaration of his pre-Christian lifestyle, it all came at an increasingly terrible cost. Life was solely focused on himself, his needs, his wants, his attractions. This self focus made it impossible for any real relationships to last. This natural turn inward that we all have actually shrivels up our lives. In the end Chris turned his allegiance from himself to Jesus. This shift in devotion liberated Chris to serve Jesus by loving and serving others above himself. The result for Chris has been the exponential growth of joy, peace, and purpose in his life, the abundance of which far exceeds any benefits his previous life afforded him.
25 Sisera asked for water,
and she gave him milk. In a bowl fit for nobles, she brought him yogurt.
26 Then with her left hand she reached for a tent peg,
and with her right hand for the workman’s hammer. She struck Sisera with the hammer, crushing his head. With a shattering blow, she pierced his temples.
27 He sank, he fell,
he lay still at her feet. And where he sank, there he died.” (Judges 5:24-27)
Why is she blessed? She betrayed Middle Eastern hospitality, she went against the peace treaty that her husband had with King Jabin. She used deception and more than likely her sex appeal to gain his trust all so she could end his life. Why is she blessed? The writer blesses her because she was an administer of God’s Justice.
In the brutality of tribal conflict, where there was no real “system” of governance, in a world that was less about law and more about dominance, aggression & control, she fought back fear, summoned up her courage & did what she had to do to end the “ruthless oppression”. In her mind the plundering, the rape and the murder, had to stop and God had given Jael the opportunity to stop it. In todays western world with the rule of law firmly in place and with my Christian perspective colouring my view of everything, does this passage have any bearing on me? Is there anything to be learned?
Well, I’m pretty sure the lesson is not “grab a tent peg and violently stamp out injustice.” But it is right for us to hate injustice, it is right for us to become active to try to do what we can to put an end to abuse, to fight against “ruthless oppression” where ever we find it. To sit back and do nothing brings a curse from God. (See Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship, p 117-118)
Several people from hell climb aboard a bus destined for the valley of the shadow of life. It is the land on the fringes of heaven. All who want to stay and go further up into heaven can. The solid people of heaven (mostly relatives and former friends of the travellers) come down from the mountains to invite them in. The shock of the book, is that in the end, very few choose to stay. These travellers view the fringes of heaven, as a damnable place. Their ever shrinking, translucent, slowly disappearing bodies don’t like the light and the grass is much to hard to walk on, heaven can only be worse they think.
Make no mistake, the inhabitants of hell are absolutely miserable and getting more so every day. There is no peace in hell, only fights and separation, darkness and loneliness, but they cling on to their misery. You see, all the inhabitants of hell are self absorbed. They are the centre of their own ever shrinking, ever disappearing, ever solitary universe — but in the end, they want themselves more than joy itself. When confronted, they lash out, blaming others for the fix they are in. Some are interested in God, but only as a means to an end, God is a useful tool to better ones on reputation, or to gain someone or something. For others heaven is seen as a place to become a shining star, in every case, when the people of hell realize that they can’t get what they want out of God and heaven, they become disgusted with it. Disgust for the heavenly spirits grows even more when the ghosts of hell realize the earthly failings of some of the heavenly people they get re-aquainted with. Self righteous hatred tries to spew itself on the people of heaven, but darkness cannot over take the light of heaven, not even on it’s fringes, so instead there is only laughter, light, joy, and the call for the ghosts to repent and start up the mountain where they will experience painful but purifying cleansing. They won’t have it, back to the bus they go.
Many religious people find themselves in the town called hell in this book. Lewis offers a poignant warning:
“There have been men before now who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God himself…There have been some who were so occupied in spreading Christianity that they never gave a thought to Christ… it is the subtlest of all the snares'”
When self-exaltation is the driving force of ones life, when “me” is at the centre, it doesn’t matter whether the life pursuit is noble or not, heaven and eternal joy itself will actually become inhospitable and undesirable.
Lewis’ ability to capture the true darkness of a human heart, is quite unsettling. The hell in all of us is revealed with convicting accuracy. The foolish choices we make in order to hang on to ourselves, at the expense of true joy hit really close to home for the honest reader.
Mistin was chatting with a business minded non-religious friend in the neighbourhood
“Is there such a thing as a five year funk in business?”
“Absolutely, it’s about the time you start asking the question, ‘Am I going to be doing this forever?’”
“Well my husband and I talked about it, and we feel like there isn’t anything else we’d rather do with our lives, it’s just that we feel like we are in a bit of a funk, maybe because we don’t feel very successful with our church.”
“Well, how do you define success for your church? How do you measure it?”
“I suppose one way we would measure it, would be to help people love and follow Jesus to such a point that they are willing to be publicly baptized.”
“Ok, well then, we need to figure out a workable pipeline that leads people from attending your mothers day parties to becoming devoted enough to Jesus that they want to be baptized.”
“Business works like this, you do free stuff at the beginning, people get interested, then you call people to sign on for small packages, then medium packages, then the large package which in your case is fully devoted followers of Jesus who want to be baptized. It seems to me that you and Dennis are excellent at giving away the free stuff — you are good at the entry level, your mothers day parties and BBQ’s are tremendous, everybody loves them, but then where do you take the people from there?”
“Well, we just kind of wait, and pray, we believe the Spirit of God works in people to where they will start asking questions, and when they do we are ready to talk about Jesus with them.”
“Hmm, yeah, the spirit thing, I suppose that’s important, but what about small and medium packages? Take me for example, I don’t know enough about Jesus and baptism to know if I want the big package, but, knowing you guys, I’d probably be interested in a small or medium package, well anyway, happy to talk more about this if you like, we really want to help you.”
Thus concluded business 101 for the Wilkinsons. Does she have a point? What small and medium packages could we as a church offer? Is the church like Costco? Experience free samples of sausages, so that you can buy a package of sausages, so that you will eventually buy a pallet of them? Is the flow of Christian discipleship about smooth up-sell? I don’t think so.
Even still at what point does the walk of faith meet with a business model that works? Are there strategies that can be employed to help along the process of discipleship? The great evangelist Billy Sunday of the late 19th century bragged that he could personally guarantee a soul for every dollar donated to his business model of evangelism. Does success really come down to business models and marketing?
The only pipeline I know of is love. We must love people well, that means being present and available, that means being generous and hospitable. That means being a good friend and one who sees the needs of a neighbourhood and meet’s them. The Spirit of God acts through these tangible expressions of love, this inevitably creates conversations, which create opportunities for people to grow in their knowledge and love for the Lord and for the Lord’s people. If every Christian practiced the above as their pipeline towards success. I suspect there would be a lot more baptisms.
I confided to Jane that another person in my life had been extremely mean to me and I kept playing in my mind how I would talk to her if I ever got the chance. Jane told me I absolutely must “take those thoughts captive”. Don’t allow the mind to run like that. Simply stop it! Let it go. Move on. Yea, yea, I got the message. . . and it felt rather unsympathetic.
The next week I was vacuuming my floor and playing my favourite “tell-her-off-in-my-mind” game when the vacuum cord popped up out of no where and smacked me in the face! No kidding! I stopped, looked up to the heavens and said, “I get it!! I’ll stop it! I’ll let it go!”
And I’ve tried. But more people keep being mean to me. (Can you hear the childish whine in my voice?) They say harsh things that are unfounded. I don’t get the chance to clarify what is truth. They just tell me off and walk away and I’m too shocked to answer in the moment so I keep answering in my head over and over again for months!
What does this do for my mental state? Everything opposite of my favourite Bible verse. . . “He has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind”. I’m the one becoming mentally unstable!!!!! Where’s the justice in this? Those people were mean to me! They falsely accused me out loud to many other people!! This is not fair! I need to let them know. . . some day! I better keep preparing my speeches.
I’ve begun to notice when I work on my speeches interesting things happen. Mighty rushing winds while running, sudden cloud bursts of rain, stubbing my toe, forgetting something on the stove, random door-knocker, large truck interrupts train of thought, phone dings. . . etc. It’s almost as if something is trying to stop my internal rants. . . . nah – that’s just too supernatural and spooky. . . .
And besides these people who’ve hurt my feelings so badly and then just gone on w their lives really need to know the damage they’ve done! They’ve ripped out bits of my heart, my will, my stamina, my joy. They’ve stolen whole weeks worth of sleep from me!! They’ve altered my enthusiasm and even my personality! They’ve taken an upbeat extrovert and made me into a hiding hermit! If I could only tell them how they’ve wounded me so deeply, perhaps then I could get back to my old happy self!
At this point in a conversation I would naturally say, “What do you think?” to get some affirmation. But I’m not asking this time. I don’t want to know what you think or anyone else. I’m busy ranting. Don’t interrupt.
Then this week I woke up with the following thought.
I keep waiting for sincere apologies and I keep planning my responses and people keep saying and doing “mean things” to me so how long will this cycle continue? I need to figure out how to “let it go” for my own sake! The book of Hebrews mentions a root of bitterness that can spring up in the heart and destroy us. I need to not let that happen! If I continue on this path, I could let my own thoughts destroy me!
These offenders have likely forgotten their offences and moved on with their lives (maybe even to go on offending others or repeat offending me)! They never knew and likely never will understand the depth of the wounds they have inflicted on my heart.
I need to release them.
When I release them, the natural consequence will be that I cut my own bonds of bitterness and free myself.
So today I attempt to release them to the hands of the Almighty God who desperately loves them and wants to restore them. He loves them in equal measure to His love for me. How I must come to grips w the Father’s love for all humans!
Father God, I ask for your blessing on my offenders. I ask you for my release from the grip bitterness has gained on my heart. Please free me from the memories of their harsh words and actions. Help me to treat them as forgiven by YOU and loved images of your divine presence in our world!