Category Archives: Good Stories

A good story helps

Born a Crime

Born a Crime

 

“Look on the bright side,” she said to her dear son Trevor. The bullet had entered at the base of her neck sliced through the bottom of her skull, ricocheted off the inside of her cheekbone and exited through her nose. “You are now the best looking member of our family.” Really? Humour at a time like this? Yes, it was her way. Humour, faith, hard work, and an independent, indomitable spirit characterized the life of this most remarkable woman. The book is a biography of Trever Noah famed comedian, but it’s evident from the very beginning that the book is a tribute to the real hero of the story, Trevor’s mother.

Pride kills — Every case of dysfunction and abuse recounted in this book has at its epicentre pride. Apartheid is the pride of race. Able, Trevor’s stepfather, refused to utilize the needed business help of Trevor’s mom, because a customer commented that “his business was much better now that his wife was running the company” This comment hurt his pride. He would rather lose the company than credit his wife with success over himself. The African tribes all stereotyped each other and regularly and violently acted out against those negative stereotypes in self-righteous pride. It was precisely such an occasion that forced Trevor’s mom to shove him from a moving vehicle. The Mini Bus driver discovered her tribal heritage and concluded that she must be taught a lesson. Their only escape was to jump.

It’s ok to hit your woman — In Africa, it’s ok to beat your wife. It’s just how it is. Able beat up Trevors mom, many times and many times she marched off to the police station to bring a charge against her husband, each time the police refused to do so, saying that the two of them needed to work things out on their own. When he finally shot her after years of abuse, he was able to avoid prison time because he had no previous criminal record. Madness!

The confusing mess of poverty and crime — If you break a few rules to make some money or get some good food so that you don’t have to eat dog bone soup and Mopani worms every night how is that wrong? If rules just protect the interests of the wealthy while at the same time guaranteeing the poverty of the poor how are they good? They weren’t, so Trevor broke them. Regular beatings from a concerned mother at home, and fiery sermons at church meetings multiple times per week, did little to prevent him from lying, cheating, and stealing. “White people have insurance, so if we take their stuff they get paid, we are helping them and us, so it’s ok” is what he was told, and he believed it.

Weed over alcohol? — Before Abel met Trevor’s mom, he had a weed addiction. The addiction mellowed him out for the most part. After Trevor’s mom and he were married, she demanded that he give up weed for religious reasons. He complied with her request and stopped taking pot switching to the more culturally acceptable drug of alcohol instead. This switch turned him into the violent monster he became.

Defiant mission schools — When Apartheid took its stranglehold on the country of South Africa, one of its dirtiest tricks was the Bantu educational system. The government took over the education of blacks and instead of teaching them to read, write, and think they taught them how to cook and clean and farm. It was an educational sham intended to keep black people uneducated and thus easier to oppress. In the black areas, there were all sorts of mission schools that were doing what they could to educate black people properly, most were forced to shutter their doors, but a few struggled on in defiance of the government. One such school reached out to Trevor’s mom and educated her. It’s a good thing sometimes for Christians to defy governments.

Hitler wasn’t so bad — One of the craziest stories in the book is when Trevor took his DJ skills and his troupe of dancers to perform at a Jewish cultural centre. Trevor and his group had been having great success in the townships, and now they were getting gigs in white areas as well. At the centre, Trevor managed to whip up the crowd Jewish young people into a frenzy, at the right moment he brought out his best dancer. The troupe chanted “Go Hitler, Go Hitler, Go Hitler” in time with the pounding beat, to get their number one dancer into his grove. It never occurred to any of them, that the name Hitler might be offensive to their audience. The event was cut short, there was a fiery exchange full of misunderstanding, and they were sent packing. Turns out Hitler is not an uncommon name among Black people. Every black person needed a white name as well as a traditional name, people had heard about this Hitler person, who was so powerful, that white people even required black people to help defeat him. Knowing nothing of the history of Hitler, many blacks concluded that Hitler was a strong name, a mighty name, and thus a good name! Noah mentions several genocides that happened in Africa that no one really knows about. The Jewish genocide is recognized because the Germans kept records and because it happened in the middle of a high profile war. No one cared or kept records of what happened in the dark continent, even though atrocities were committed there on par with Hitler’s madness. Was Hitler the worst? From an African point of view, not even close.

Prayer as bargaining — All of Trevor’s family members wanted him to pray, Why? First, he was a child, God likes that. He also spoke English, God really loves that, from an African point of view, God came in English and so if you want to get something from God it is much better to ask it of him in his native tongue. Finally, Trevor was more white than all his relatives. God was clearly with the whites, look how rich they all were! Trevor was the best bargaining chip they had. How could God refuse an English speaking boy who looked white? So Trevor prayed at all the prayer meetings. Is that what prayer is? Trevor rejected this notion, and so do I.

Trevor doesn’t really mock Christianity or Jesus too much. The crazy expectant faith that his mother had, he respects, it’s just not for him. Deep down Trevor, I think, has seen too much pain and suffering to have a robust faith in a good God. However, I don’t think he is quite ready to accept the alternative either.

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Tea with Hezbollah​

This book comes to us because two Christian friends decided to go to the Middle East in a daring and dangerous bid to find enemies of America, sit down to tea with them, and get their thoughts on Jesus’ controversial teaching to love one’s enemies. The book is not a clever apologetic for Christianity or some technique to make the faith that comes from Jesus look better. It’s an honest search for truth. I had a hard time putting this book down because these boys at places seemed to be in real danger and their topic over tea time with terrorists was indeed something I wanted to listen in on.

No one is good at loving their enemy.

“I don’t know what I should believe with respect to governments’ use of power. But one on one, love is the only solution, and nobody does it well. Not Christians, not Muslims, not Jews” — Carl Medearis

Christian Included  I learned that the first suicide bomber was a Christian, I learned all about the Shatila massacre of 1982, In which a Christian group from Lebanon invaded a Palestinian refugee camp and slaughtered over 3000 innocents in revenge for the assassination of the then Christian president of Lebanon. It turns out the real perpetrators of the president’s murder were another Christian group from Syria. I also learned about one of the great tragic ironies of history. The Samaritans whom Jesus uses to communicate his great message of love for all were almost entirely exterminated by Byzantine Christians in the 6th century.  The Spiritual progeny of Jesus destroyed the very people upon whom Jesus built his “love your enemy” teaching. Well, that’s encouraging. Over Tea, these enemies of America didn’t even have to bring up the crusades, they had plenty of more current events to point to regarding Christianity’s failure to love the enemy.

There is always an exception to this rule. Every Muslim interviewed agreed in principle that Jesus’ teaching was more or less useful, but also that there are explicit and necessary exceptions to this rule.

  • If your enemy attacks you must defend yourself and the ones you love, you are a coward not to.
  • Violence towards neighbours and enemies is ok only if it is “In Defence” — over and over again Carl and Ted were told that every violent act committed in the name of Islam was a justifiable matter of defence.
  • “We believe that what Jesus said applies to some situations but not ours” Unnamed “freedom fighter” from Lebanon.

Once Mohammed extended love to a Jewish neighbour who regularly showed disdain for him by dumping her garbage on his steps, when asked if this Muslim folktale could be used to support Jesus’ teaching to love your enemy among the followers of Islam, the Hamas leader being interviewed flatly said: “dumping garbage is one thing, killing people is another!” I will not turn my cheek, I will fight!” and so it is, and so it will always be it seems.

A light in the darkness So was Jesus’ teaching a complete fail? Seems like it, however, there was one interview that was different than all the rest.  His name is Sami Awad. He is a Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem who has been persecuted for decades by Israelis. He is regularly the object of false accusation. His property has been taken from him; he’s been arrested, shot at, and had family members deported. He has been humiliated at checkpoints and has received death threats. He has no freedom of movement, and his neighbourhood disappears from behind by high partition walls. But Sami as a Christian person believes in loving his enemies, but how? His enemies are terrible! He says the critical part of loving one’s enemies is to understand their suffering. So for him to do that,  he took a trip to Auschwitz, spent the night in what was an open grave on the grounds. Sami, found himself weeping through the night for the sufferings of Jews in the Holocaust. When he came back he knew we would continue with his non-violent protests, always resisting the gradual takeover of his land peacefully, but he understood more than ever Jewish pain, and somehow that made him not hate them. Sami was quick to say that It’s a dangerous thing to speak about peace when everyone around you wants violence. Or to talk about love when there is so much hate. I suspect that someone will probably kill him at some point. But does that make him wrong or misguided? I say no.

Quote-Worthy:

If Jerusalem is a showcase for faith, it is also a clear picture of the utter failure of organized religion to bring peace and harmony to those it purports to love. Faith may have exalted Jerusalem, but religious fanaticism has decimated it time and time again. If God had ample cause to banish Adam and Eve from Eden how much more does he have for banishing religion for his city!

Jesus gazed out over this land and said, love God and love the heretic next to you. He died for that truth.

Is it belief or behaviour that matters most? If violence is always justified in the name of defence than violence will never stop. Only Jesus’ teaching can break that cycle. I noticed that in addition to Sami there was also a Saudi and a Druze who seemed to be loving their enemies as well.  Are these guys Jesus followers without knowing it? Does belief come down to behaviour? Is it true that it’s not so much what one believes about theology, historical data, or doctrine instead what one does? If faith in Jesus is not actualized through sacrificial love for even my enemies can it even be called Christian faith? I have my doubts. But if this is true, I also have my worries, because I know that many times in my own heart, I do not wish a blessing on my enemies at all. Does that make the Druze and the Saudi more of a Jesus follower than me, even though my theological view of Jesus would be much higher than theirs?

The book is not tied up nicely with a bow at the end, loving one’s enemies seems an impossible task and Christians just like everyone else are generally terrible at it. Moreover, many of those interviewed said, it’s not even right to try to love one’s enemies. Sometimes justice is more important than love said almost everyone who sat down to tea. Are they right? The book leaves us with much room for thought. In the end, I have to side with Sami, his way might get him killed but it’s the best way, I think.

To heal someone, you must meet them where they are. This was what the Good Samaritan did. We serve them by understanding them and speaking to them in love, not by shooting at them.  — Sami Awad.

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?

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.

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.

Man’s Search for Meaning

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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?

Yes.

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!

Shoes and Character

brooks-pure

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.

Out of a Far Country

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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? 

  1. I think Chris is right on when he questions our cultures assumption that a healthy and fulfilled life must have sex in it.
  2. A lot about the gay clubbing/party lifestyle, drugs, and prison life. Probably more than I wanted to know.
  3. 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.
  4. Singleness is not a curse, it’s a gift.
  5. 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.

Tent Pegs and Temples 


24 “ Most blessed among women is Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite.  May she be blessed above all women who live in tents.

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)

The Great Divorce

great-divorce

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.