Friday, December 30, 2011

Always Go To The Funeral

    I have been reminded recently that the most meaningful moments in life are found far more often in the walks through the dark valleys, not the meadows ( I place a lot of the blame at the feet of Odd Thomas).  The lifeless stones and hard despair of the valleys - sickness, death, poverty, loneliness -  are meant to make us all look up to the source of light and life; meadows are so flooded with both that we eventually begin to notice the flowers more than the sun. 
     That's not the flower's fault, or course, or the meadow's.  Beauty and peace are two of God's best gifts to the world. The importance of the tangible blessings of friends, family, health, comfort, and love cannot be overstated. We minimize the importance of these "glimpses of heaven" at our peril.  
      But there is a part of human nature that cannot stay in the meadows for too long, or we forget to look up.  Even worse, we begin to resent those who need us to follow them into the valleys and walk with them out of the darkness.  
     From the December 2011 issue of First Things:
"You can't come in without going out, kids. Always go to the funeral."  So Deirdre Sullivan's father taught her.... Going to funerals was partly a duty and partly a matter of learning to do things for others when doing them wasn't convenient, like going to 'the painfully under- attended birthday party' and visiting someone in the hospital during happy hour.
    It bears fruit, this discipline. When she was sixteen, she went to the funeral home by herself, unwillingly, for her fifth-grade math teacher. 'It was worse than I thought it would be; I was the only kid there.  When the condolence line deposited me in front of Miss Emerson's shell-shocked parents, I stammered out, "Sorry about all this," and walked away.  But, for the deeply weird expression of sympathy delivered twenty years ago, Miss Emerson's mother still remembers my name and always says hello with tearing eyes."
     If, by God's grace, I can lay claim to similar legacy - that people say hello with tearing eyes because I was willing to enter the valleys of their lives and walk with them -  I will consider my life to have been lived well. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christ and Christmas

    When Christianity first started, the followers of Jesus lived in a world full of people in situations that were really at odds with Christ and his teaching.  What were they to do now that they were spiritually Christian, but almost everybody around them was a culturally very Roman?
    The early followers of Christ often took an approach to spreading the Good News of the gospel that was not only counter-cultural to the Roman and Greek way of life, but was countercultural to how the church today often handles the uneasy tension between the church and society. 
    The early church wanted to reach their cities – they cared about them.  But they lived in cities where they were surrounded by a lot of really bad stuff.  For example, the holiday that we now know as Christmas was a week of  serious indulgence and license in Roman society; Easter was originally a fertility celebration... the list goes on.
    So, the early followers of Christ decided that the best way to communicate the Gospel was to enter the current cultural stream and divert it to Christ’s ends.  They didn’t move out of the neighborhood; they moved even more deeply into the neighborhood.
   As a result we see some interesting intersections of church and culture:
  •       The kriophoros, or lamb bearer (for Christians, The Good Shepherd) was a popular icon of a shepherd that early Christians used to symbolize the passages in Scripture that referred to Christ as a shepherd.
  •       The orant, a praying figure that symbolized piety, was used to symbolize the praying saint.
  •       Endymion, a young man who fell in love with a goddess, was often depicted sleeping in a cave, which is where his lover arrived to visit him.  This image became the early church’s motif for Jonah under the withered vine.
  •       Though not nearly as common as the Good Shepherd motif, Christ also appears in early Christian art in the form of the Greek god Orpheus. There is a fresco of Christ as Orpheus  in the Catacombs of Peter and Marcellus in Rome, which dates from the 4th century. Another example of Christ as Orpheus is in the Catacomb of Domitilla.  Clement of Alexandria wrote: “Orpheus pacified wild beasts by the power of his song…Jesus’ new song tames “the most intractable of all animals – man.” 
  •     We find all these images on the walls of the catacombs, where the early Christians hid from persecution from the very people whose culture they were subverting for the cause of Christ.

     My point?  When Jesus came to earth he loved, he moved into the neighborhood; he blended in with normal cultural expressions (which is very different from blending in with cultural norms/worldviews). 
    The early church did this too – “As the Father has sent me, so have I sent you.”  Jesus didn’t avoid cultures; he entered into the stream of history and made himself known; the early church realized they were called to do the same.
        This brings me to Christmas (and Easter, and Halloween…)  An article at CRI asked the question, “Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?”  The article noted:

 “But what of the fact that December 25 was the date of a pagan festival? Does this not prove that Christmas is pagan? No, it does not. Instead, it proves that Christmas was established as a rival celebration to the pagan festival. That is, what Christians did was to say, "Rather than celebrate in immorality the birth of Mithra, a false god who was never really born and who cannot save you, let us celebrate in joyful righteousness the birth of Jesus, the true God incarnate who is the Savior of the world."

Sometimes it is urged that to take a pagan festival and try to "Christianize" it is folly.  However, God Himself did exactly that in the Old Testament. Historical evidence shows conclusively that some of the feasts given to Israel by God through Moses were originally pagan agricultural festivals, which were filled with idolatrous imagery and practices.  What God did, in effect, was to establish feasts which would replace the pagan festivals without adopting any of the idolatry or immorality associated with them.”

     I would add that the suzerain covenant treaty, during which an animal was slaughtered so that the covenanting parties were clear about the penalty for breaking the covenant, was a widely used custom that was adopted by God for use when He covenanted with Abraham.

     That, I think, is what we mean when we talk about “being in the world but not of it.”  We are people with a dual citizenship, and our goal is not to alienate our fellow citizens of earth.  Our goal is enter the stream of history and find a way to channel the life and the energy that is there to the glory of God.
   
     I believe Christians should be entering into cultural holidays, no matter what their origin or current expression, and redeeming them.  I get that many have pagan origins.  I just don’t care.  I am far more interested in what Christians are doing today to remind people of Christ’s birth at Christmas, Christ’s death and resurrection at Easter, and Christ’s ultimate authority over death, hell, and the grave at Halloween.  For that matter, it wouldn’t hurt to use the 4th of July to talk about the freedom Christ brings; Memorial Day to commemorate those who have died for the cause of Christ; Labor Day to remind ourselves that our workplace is a mission field; New Years Day to talk about the new beginning that Christ offers in our lives…

     I wonder how creative we can be with the Super Bowl?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Love With Sinew And Bone

From "The Way of Enchantment", by R.R. Reno, in the January 2012 issue of First Things:
"Love and her enchantments can be dangerous. Our gods may be idols, our patriotism misguided, and our ardent convictions false.  The twentieth century tells a sad tale of the brutality of ideologies passionately believed. For this reason, love is never self-authenticating.  It must be purified: sometimes by reason, sometimes by conscience, sometimes by authority.
   But this purification does not alter the fact that love does not take us to ta high citadel.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  A wedding feast celebrates the destruction of a the fortifying walls that insulate one person from another, and the covenant of  marriage creates a very different kind of citadel, one in rather than above the world.  My wife, my children, my friends, my community, my nation - I cannot gaze down from above on those whom I love.  Love draws us down into what, viewed objectively, is a reckless intimacy: for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.   The same holds for a supernatural love of God. St. Augustine did not stand aloof, , nor did St. Francis, nor St. Ignatius... In their steadfast and immovable love of Christ they served the world rather than observing it from above...
     To look down on life from above: It may free us from the pains of desire, but it's a dry, cold, loveless enterprise, one that, if followed to its end, leaves the world as it is.  Christianity's...vision for enduring happiness is more humane, allowing us to hope that the sinews of life - our very bones - can be penetrated by an enduring, unconquerable, eternalizing love."
   That, I believe, is the hope and the beauty of the Christmas message. God is not a cold, loveless God content to leave the world as it is.  He took upon himself the very sinews of life so that only the world but our should can experience His enduring, unconquerable, eternalizing love.  

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Odd Thomas

    I am re-reading Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas series. I had forgotten how talented Koontz is at addressing momentous topics with creativity and seriousness (read Out of the Corner of His Eye for confirmation). Close to the end of Odd Hours, Koontz gives the following monologue to Odd:
"Grief can destroy you - or focus you.  You can decide a relationship was all for nothing if it hand to end in death, and you alone.  Or you can realize that every moment of it had more meaning than you dared to recognize at the time, so much meaning it scared you, so you just lived, just took for granted the love and laughter of each day, and didn't allow yourself to consider the sacredness of it. But when it's over and you're alone, you begin to see it wasn't just a movie and a dinner together, not just watching sunsets together, not just scrubbing a floor or washing dishes together or worrying over a high electric bill.  It was everything, it was the why of life, every event and precious moment of it.  The answer to the mystery of existence is the love you shared sometimes so imperfectly, and when the loss wakes you to the deeper beauty of it, to the sanctity of it, you can't get off your knees for a long time, you're driven to you knees not by the weight of the loss but by gratitude for what preceded the loss.  And the ache is always there, but one day not the emptiness, because to nurture the emptiness, to take solace in it, is to disrespect the gift of life."

Thursday, December 15, 2011

ORDINARY MOMENTS

     I realized recently that in all the thinking and writing I have done since the death of my dad and Grandpa, none of my memories have revolved around big events.  I did not write that we went to Disneyland, or that Mom and Dad spent a month in Kenya where Dad taught at a Bible college, or that my Grandpa was on "Good Morning America" one time (even though they all happened).  Those are not the events of which my most precious memories are made.  I have much stronger and better memories of very ordinary things.

With Dad, I remember:
helping him put down linoleum flooring in Alabama; 
listening to him play piano;
going out for pizza with him on my 8th birthday in Oregon; 
driving to Mt. Hood to go tubing; 
sitting by a wood stove playing Stratego; 
picking raspberries;
building our house;
entertaining international students in our home. 

With Grandpa, I remember:
sitting in his living room in Alabama and just talking with him;
golfing on the day before my wedding;
meeting him and Grandma in Midland for supper a year before he died;
driving his RV on the way back from a reunion.;
shucking corn with all my cousins at his house on “corn shuckin’” day…

    All these little things pile up.  And all of these things played a vital role in my formation as a Christian, not just as a person.  Dad and Grandpa were  followers of Christ; I was absorbing something about what that meant as I interacted with them in even the most seemingly insignificant of things.

    It was like that with my mom, my principal, my coach, my friends, my wife….  They have all molded me in all the moments of life…every word spoken…every kindness shown…

    There are no little people in little places doing little things in the Kingdom of God.  There are only image bearers of God doing things that ripple through eternity.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Lower Case and Upper Case Saviors

     At a conference several weeks ago, Robert Kellerman noted:  “Despair drives us to what we really hope in.”   Good times and pleasure and success can allow us the freedom to pursue what we like – but hard times, pain, and failure drive us to things in which we place our hope.   
     It is an inescapable part of human nature:  we constantly need and seek saviors.
  • Doctors save us from sickness.
  • Money saves us from poverty.
  • Sex saves us from loneliness.
  • Exercise and diet saves us from disease.
  • Education saves us from ignorance.
  • Government saves us from chaos.
  • Friends and family save us from isolation.
  • Entertainment saves us from boredom.

           Each of those can offer a form of salvation in the moment in a particular, limited, fleeting way.  Money can save you from poverty.  Education can save you from ignorance.  Doctors can save you from disease.   When they do they are meant to point us toward the one who ultimately saves and restores us. They are all what I call “lower case saviors,” and it makes sense that we turn to them to solve lower case dilemmas.

     We get tripped up when we make the lower case “s” an upper case  “S.”  Little temporary saviors can only save us in little temporary ways.   We want them to solve our ultimate, deepest problems, but they simply cannot save us in that way.  

     It’s the Titanic perspective.  Rose says: “But now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me…in every way that a person can be saved.”  No, he didn’t.  He couldn’t even save himself. 

     At best, lower case saviors can save you in one very specific way – say, money from poverty.  But it’s salvation is limited.  It cannot bear the weight of your life.   Neither can money…a spouse… friends…. a job… money….education…health…sex…doctors… They cannot save you.  They were never meant to.  We may want to believe these will save us, but what we want to be true is sometimes very different from what is true.

    At Christmas, we are reminded why the entrance of Christ into the world gives us what we both want and need if we are to be truly saved:

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2)

   There is only one Savior from whom we find true wisdom and knowledge; who provides true wealth that will not fade; who provides true love and relationship; who makes us healthy in ways that won’t vary depending on our prescription or exercise plan; who provides true forgiveness of sin; true hope; true joy.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Childlike Wonder

    I am in increasingly aware of the tension of the world in which we live.  Beauty and pain live in such close proximity, and it's sometimes tough to have the right perspective.  
   Dawn Eden, who wrote the fantastic Thrill of the Chaste,  is no stranger to this tension.  In the midst of living out the beauty of the transformation God brought in her, she walked through the valley of the shadow of thyroid cancer.  She has now written a book on overcoming sexual abuse.   
    She blogs and writes very honestly about this tension in life - this existence between the "now" and the "not yet."  She recently posted these thoughts on her blog:

" St. Josephine Bakhita as a young child was kidnapped, enslaved, and beaten. Yet, even after being so traumatized that she forgot her own name, she retained the memory of the awe she experienced before her world was turned upside down: "Seeing the sun, the moon and the stars, I said to myself: Who could be the Master of these beautiful things? And I felt a great desire to see him, to know Him and to pay Him homage..." 



     

By holding onto her childlike sense of wonder, Bakhita was ultimately able to see that even her most painful memories fell within the scope of God's loving providence, which permits evil only to bring forth a greater good."

     I have had some tough times, but not that tough.  And I lost my childlike wonder a long time ago.  I wonder sometimes if God gave my boys to my wife and I to remind us what it is like to see the world through eyes widened by wonder and adventure, not deadened by trouble and pain.  
 I remember AJ asking for a pet monkey, and when told that wasn't possible, asking for an eagle. Braden writes stories that I suspect M.C. Escher inspired.  Vincent just "betacks" the world in general with gusto and creativity.

Christmas commemorates a time when the beauty of heaven entered the ashes of the world, raising from it a Savior who changed everything.  I forget how awesome that truly is.  May this Christmas be one in which I become like a child, and I "desire to see him, to know Him, and to pay Him homage."


   

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Incalculable Prayers

I always appreciate when people take the dilemmas in life by the horns and wrestle with them, especially when the opponent is the most daunting of all: God (think of Jacob literally and Job spiritually in the Old Testament).  That's a hard wrestling match, but an important one. 

 In the Presence of Mine Enemies is a book about the kidnapping of Martin and Gracia Burnham.  The Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group connected with Bin Laden, kept them in a Philippine jungle for about a year. Martin did not make it through the ordeal. Here is an excerpt about prayer from Gracia's memoir:



     "Six or so men praying six morning a week for fifty-three weeks - that's more than nineteen hundred prayers.  Add to that the intercessions of all the Burnham and Jones family members, our supporting churches across ten states, the entire New Tribes family of some 3.100 missionaries in the twenty-five nations. all those who logged in to the website... Martin's and my pleadings with God day and night.  The total is incalculable.


   I don't doubt the truth of 'Ye have not because ye ask not' (James 4:2).  But it sure doesn't seem to apply in this case; we all asked God over and over and over for protection and see release.  No one can say that our petition was inadequately brought before the Lord...

    Obviously, the answer lies not in the number of prayers or the particular wording used in those prayers.  There has to be another factor in the mix. So what is it?

    Perhaps it's useful to notice that while the verse in James says fervent prayer 'availeth much,' (5:16) it does not say it 'availeth everything.'  Why?

     Because the Abu Sayyaf - and all of us - still retain the power of personal choice, the option of standing stubbornly against the will of God.  And that obstinate stance is, apparently, something an almighty God is not willing to bulldoze.  Of course, he could have fired heavenly lasers into [their] brains...But that would have made them puppets instead of independent human beings with free will of their own, for which they will be eternally responsible....

   Apparently, God runs into this impasse time after time.  Having granted the human race a measure of self-determination, he would be hard-pressed to steamroller it when people misuse it." 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Craving The Desert

     Bruce Feiler, who is neither Christian nor a practicing Jew, decided to read the first five books of the Old Testament as he traveled to the stories' historical locations in the Middle East.  Among other things, he kept revisiting the impact of the geography in his understanding of events in the Bible. His perspective on the desert is worth noting: 


"The first lesson of the desert: By feeling uneasy and unsure, by fearing that you're out of your depth and therefore might falter, by feeling small, and alone, you begin - slowly, reluctantly, maybe even for the first time in your life - to consider turning somewhere else. At first that somewhere else is someone else: Moses, Aaron... You eventually grow wary of the flat and easy, the commonplace and self-reliant. You begin to crave the depth, the height, the extremes. You begin to crave the fear."


     This makes sense to me.  I view the Old Testament as a record of physical pictures (or foreshadowing) of what we now experience as spiritual realities.  I have experienced the "deserts" of my life - hard times in marriage, fears that came with Vincent's diagnoses, my father's death - exactly how Mr. Feiler describes his experience of the desert. Those are the places where I was small, alone and experiencing God more clearly than ever before. 
      I even understand what he says about fear.  You crave it not because you like fear, but because it means you are grappling with an situation in which the stakes are high.   I don't fear falling off my couch, but I do fear falling when I am fixing my roof.  The fear is not the point; it is merely a gauge for the weightiness of the situation.
   Perhaps the modern horror trend is simply a distortion of the craving for fear.  In a world that often seems "flat and easy," people crave the extremes.  Here's the difference between simple horror and real fear: A healthy fear reminds us of our need for a savior, while an unhealthy fear robs us of any hope of being saved.  
    The desert is not meant to rob us of hope, but to remind us that the greatest answer for our lives is not found in ourselves. 


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Vincent's Slow Miracle

On Saturday, Sheila brought six-year-old Vincent home from a party and said to me, "Do you realize it was just a year ago we weren't sure this would ever happen?" I had forgotten; she was right. 

From as far back as I can remember, Vince always struggled with any kind of boundary. When he was one and two years old, he could not sit in his car seat for more than 10 minutes without screaming. Trips to Meijers were too long for all of us. We seldom traveled.

We took a chance when he was almost two and flew South for Christmas to see family. He screamed there and back. I was physically ill for a week after our "vacation." That summer, he began to run onto the road outside our house and stand on it, I guess just waiting for cars. We fenced in the rest of the backyard and locked the doors of the house, but he still snuck out. A policeman brought him to our door once; we had no idea he was gone. How many times over the years did I say to people, "My goal is to get him through this next year alive"? I wasn't joking.

                 

He refused to color inside lines (not a joke). He wouldn't go outside during the winter until he was five, because hats and gloves were too restrictive (he still sheds his socks and shoes at a moment's notice).

He had no concept of why boundaries or any sort existed. He had no idea that they were meant to protect him.

Two years ago, we had Vincent tested for autism. At the time, both his teacher and I saw enough symptoms that we decided a test was in order (he was watching trains for hours; standing in a corner and flapping his hands when upset, etc). The initial test suggested he had Fragile X Syndrome. I should have known better than to look that up online. It was not a diagnosis full of hope.

The second test showed he was not on the autism spectrum, but was instead "developmentally delayed." I could have told them that. (My favorite moment in this whole process was reading how Vincent got tired of all the tests and crawled under the table, so two adults went under the table with him to finish the test).

This diagnosis was actually good news. One well meaning person said she was "praying against the spirit of diagnosis." I had not been aware there was one, and I appreciated her concern, but the reality was that I was relieved. Sheila and I knew something was wrong; we just didn't know what. Now we did. With the right diagnosis comes the proper cure.

A year ago, Vincent was splitting time at two schools because of his developmental delay. In the mornings, he went to class with about 20 other kids with a similar diagnosis. When he would go to the Christian school where I teach in the afternoons... it didn't go as well. About the time he completed the DD class and was declared "normal," we had to pull him out of school all together and put him into daycare.

How quickly I have forgotten how sobered we were.

Just 5 months ago, at a crowded museum in Gatlinburg, I dedicated my entire museum-going experience to watching him. I lost him three times. The third time I utterly, completely lost track of him, and in a panic started looking in the closest room. He was sitting there watching TV, with no idea how disastrous the results could have been.

This "unboundaried" existence has not always translated into "plays well with others." He could not comprehend social boundaries any better than physical ones. He would just take stuff from kids, and sometimes hit them, and didn't seem to really care what they thought of him.

On the other hand, he was amazingly energetic and outgoing, constantly laughing and talking. Most adults who experienced him in small doses thought he was a hoot, but his peers, his parents, his brothers, and his teacher got both barrels.

This has not been a life without joy. Vincent is hilarious on his good days, and he loves people and activity. I have a collection of things he has said that crack me up no matter how many times I read them.

This year, he started real school. We spent the first couple weeks on pins and needles, but nothing major blew up. Then, he won an award for something in chapel - I don't remember what, but frankly, it doesn't matter.

HE WON AN AWARD.

Then he started talking about having friends - they were peers, and they liked him. One classmate told his mom, "Vincent drives me crazy. But he's my best friend."

Vince started actually doing homework without having a meltdown.

He tried some foods he never tried before.

He told real jokes.
He played Monopoly and did not make up his own rules.

He fished our goldfish out of the pond to play with them (wait..that's a different list...)

He sat through a whole movie at the theater, unlike the time I literally chased him around the perimeter of the State Theater in Traverse City one unforgettable Saturday morning while Braden calmly watched "The Secret of Nimh."

He colors recognizable pictures.

He gets invited to parties by genuine friends.
He goes; he does not try to open the birthday kid's present.

He does not get into a fight or disappear from the backyard.

He keeps his fingers out of the cake until the appropriate time.

I know a lot of people face tremendous challenges with their kids that make our experience pale in comparison. My point is only to note something that may be common to all of us: after so many years of praying for a change, how easy it is to overlook the slow miracles that God provides.

                                     

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Grief's Untold Stories

      I just read an interesting book called Grief's Untold Stories, by D.L. Starkey.    I have written on my personal journey of grief after the death of my father, but  I have not tried to tackle the stories of others.  Starkey does just that.  He is a hospice chaplain (among many other things), and his book recounts nine particular deaths that occurred in the course of his ministry. 
    Lest this sound depressing, it's not.  Each story was unique in the way in which the silver lining of hope finds a way through the cloud of grief.
    - A chess playing cancer patient whose terminal illness was "the best thing that ever happened to me."
    - An eight-year-old leukemia patient who was so looking forward to heaven that her last words were, "I can't wait!"
    - Tex, who died on the operating table, but lived to say, "I''ll never be afraid to die again."
    - Jennifer, whose mother was comforted after her death when she found a school assignment in which Jennifer had drawn Heaven in response to the prompt, "Where do you want to live when you grow up?"
     - Gus, who at age ninety-two asked God to take him home, and whose request was dramatically granted. 
    In some ways, it was hard to read.  The book does not minimize the impact of death.  On the other hand, when I was finished, I felt oddly at peace.   It was a great reminder that if I allow the stories of others to fill in the gaps in my experience, I can learn more about the ways in which the God I serve reveals Himself to the world.   

 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

April is the Cruelest Month


After visiting an area of Japan that was devastated by the March 2011 earthquake, Makoto Fujimura had this to say to Belhaven University students:

"As I was driven back to Tokyo… the Zao mountain range appeared beyond the clouds, with cherry blossoms in full bloom, enchanting the villages tucked away in the crevices between the mountains. It was hard to see scenes of such beauty—the trunks of the trees, with their wet-darkened bark—when the disaster was freshly etched in my mind. Thousands were still unaccounted for. My heart felt numb, and the beauty I saw seemed cruel.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

So begins T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, published in 1922. April is indeed cruel with the lilacs or the cherry blossoms at the peak of their beauty, invading the "memory and desire" of our ravaged hearts. We are awakened to horrors and terrors, but nature does not wait until we stop grieving. It moves on, as does the world, without empathy or knowledge of what really happened. My visit to Japan echoed Eliot's lament: beauty and trauma are forced to dwell together.
Today, you begin a new journey, and for you it is a bright April, full of hope. But we must also remember that for many April has been the "cruelest month." We must learn… to engage our creativity within the harsh confines of our broken world and the wide spaces of creating the 'World That Ought to Be.'"

Sunday, November 13, 2011

No Journey At All

    I watched Father of Invention with my wife this past weekend.  Kevin Spacy plays a businessman/inventor who spends more time with his career than his family, and ultimately loses them both when one of his criminally negligent “fabrications” results in a 10 year jail sentence.  When he gets out of jail, he moves in with his daughter as he tries to get his life back together.


     Other than the fact that a lot of the characters and situation were both shallow and false, one issue that bothered me was the constant advice to his daughter to forgive him. This doesn’t sound bad on the surface, but the movie presented it as, “You need to get over all the years and years of neglect and emotional abuse and just move on now as if nothing happened.”  When his daughter’s roommate needed some advice when she find out her parent’s are divorcing, Spacey’s character told her basically to get over it immediately. 


   I think that’s bad advice. That’s not forgiveness; that’s denial.  Denial about what happened, about what she (and Spacey's daughter) felt, about what the ripple effect had been and would be in life. 


     A life in which we are not supposed to fully embrace the entirety of our experiences in not a good life.  Ultimately, the goal IS to move beyond anger, despair, grief and resentment, but a quick journey is often not a journey at all.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Blessing of Dissatisfaction

     From a recent article by S.M. Hutchens in Touchstone Magazine entitled "Mother Teresa's Light":
 
 Mother Teresa was, as far as I believe anyone can judge, a Christian of the very highest order... a person in whom the desire for the person and life of God was maintained through a life of the most intense and single-minded devotion - yet she was never granted in this life what she sought.  She sought Jesus, and he never came to her as she desired, but was present principally in his absence.... and yet she remained (and this is the greatest of all her glories)  faithful to her calling to the end. 
     The profound importance of this witness needs continual emphasis among Christians whose measure of the reality and quality of spiritual experience is essentially of how satisfying it is to them, how good it makes them feel, how much they are delivered from their various distresses by what they take to be the grace and power of God.  It is not that this grace and power are not present to satisfy the desires of the spirit and the appetites of the body - they are, to be sure.  But one crosses the threshold of error when these graces become invariably  regarded as signs or measure of happiness...
    In each of his temptations, the Son of Man was offered gratification, in this life, of the deepest desires of body and spirit, and yet he refused them, insisting that they come to him only in the Father's time and terms....trading something like present happiness for "the joy set before him, enduring...the cross."
   This will be a good life, but it will be a life based on faith and hope.  
This means we shall not live it, or leave it, satisfied.


A faith that is never tested is not faith at all, no more than patience can be patience if there is never any need to wait.  A life that is never at some point hopeless is a life in which hope can never be fully appreciated.  There is a reason faith and hope need to "abide" (1 Corinthians 13:13):  we will need them until the day we die, so that we can navigate a world that is often full of doubt and despair.


   And it will still be a good life, because faith and hope will be my companions, and they will remind me that one day I will be home, and all will be well. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

God's Healing for Life's Losses

Here are some notes from a seminar at New Hope church, taught by Dr. Bob Kellemen, author of “God’s Healing For Life’s Losses.”

In suffering, God is not getting back at you. He is getting you back to himself.


We need to climb in the casket with other people who are hurting.


Candor is courageous truth-telling about life to myself in which I come face-to-face with 
the reality of external and internal suffering.”


We can be disappointed with God, or without God.


To diminish suffering is to refuse to need God.


Suffering is God’s primary way of uprooting our self-reliance.


If God allowed bargaining/work to work to get us out of grief, no one would ever surrender to God. He thwarts our attempts to manipulate him.  Even as we cry out, we have to ask ourselves if we have a pure heart: “What is our motivation?”


Our prayer is often for God to change our circumstances or feelings.  Instead, we should cry out for strength to serve and glorify Him in the presence of suffering.


Comfort of God in the presence of suffering: a presence that empowers me to survive scars and plant the seeds of hope that I may yet thrive.


There is a difference between surviving and thriving.  Sometimes, it’s okay to just survive as part of the process of moving forward. 


Faith does not demand the removal of suffering; faith desires endurance in the suffering.


Thursday, November 3, 2011

Gorillas and Zombies: What does it mean to be human?

watched a movie and a TV show this past week that were loaded with worldview messages.  Both had a serious statement to say about what it means to be human, but ended up in remarkably different places.


The movie was a lighthearted family comedy, Zookeeper. It was basically an apologetic for the idea that animals are not only sentient, but emotional and intelligent.  As the animals teach him how to be an alpha male, Kevin James, the bumbling zookeeper, becomes a better man and a fine catch for all the ladies who are mysteriously attracted to him.  I kept expecting Christopher Hitchens to walk into the zoo and say, as he says at the beginning of his debates, “My fellow primates…”

This anthropomorphism is not new.  After the movie “Babe”, the pork industry took a hit. Seriously.  Entertainment has the power to change how people view the world, and that cute little pig put the idea in a lot of young minds that pigs are very much like us.  Cute movie; wrong message.

No wonder so many nations are passing laws that increasingly give animals the same rights as humans. ABC News has noted, “some legal reformers would like to see the legal definition of "persons" expanded to include chimpanzees…” Recently,  Spain gave 'human rights' to apes, joining Switzerland, Germany and other EU nations in the race to broaden the definition of personhood.  


Here’s the problem:  When we treat things that are not human as if they are human, we become very confused about what it means to be human.  And when we become confused about our own nature, we are in trouble.  


On the other hand, there is the AMC drama  The Walking Dead.  I don't like the comics, but the show addresses some pretty deep philosophical issues, not the least of which is the question of  (once again) what it means to be human. 

One of the key tensions in the show revolves around the fact that the Walking Dead are former friends, relatives and neighbors of the living.  They sure look a lot like they did before, and have at least some sentience, awareness, and consciousness.  So….how do you treat someone who sure looks human, but might not be anymore…or might be… (The end of season one suggested at least a minimum of brain function).  

Because the stakes are so high, the Living at times have to kill the (un)Dead to protect themselves.   It’s interesting, though: the more callous the characters become toward the Walking Dead, the more hardened they become toward the living.  It’s as if committing violence against even a shadow of humanity kills a person’s soul bit by bit. 

By showing this dilemma, the show makes an important point:  When we treat things that are human as if they are not human, we become very confused about how we ought to treat other humans.  And when we become confused about how we ought to treat others, we are also in trouble. 


If Zookeeper is correct, the definition of "human" apparently ought to be blurred; if The Walking Dead is correct, that line should never lose its clarity.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Pixar's Preachers: Worldview in the Movies


A couple friends and I have been discussing the impact media has on our view of reality.  It had been a while since I had read up on the idea of the medium being the message, or the view that all entertainment contains messages both overt and covertand the belief that the most impactful messages are the ones the story assumes about the world.  Even shows about nothing are about something.
    In the course of catching up on my entertainment philosophy, I ran across this interesting article called "The Hidden Message in Pixars' Films" over at Discover Magazine:

Popular culture is often dismissed as empty “popcorn” fare. Animated films find themselves doubly-dismissed as “for the kids” and therefore nothing to take too seriously. Pixar has shattered those expectations by producing commercially successful cinematic art about the fishes in our fish tanks and the bugs in our backyards. Pixar films contain a complex, nuanced, philosophical and political essence that, when viewed across the company’s complete corpus, begins to emerge with some clarity.
Buried within that constant  and complex goodness is a hidden message...

What if I told you they were preparing us for the future? What if I told you Pixar’s films will affect how we define the rights of millions, perhaps billions, in the coming century? Only by analyzing the collection as a whole can we see the subliminal concept being drilled into our collective mind...


An entire generation has been reared with the subconscious seeds of these ideas planted down deep. As history moves forward and technology with it, these issues will no longer be the imaginings of films and fiction, but of politics and policy. But Pixar has settled the personhood debate before it arrives. By watching our favorite films, we have been taught that being human is not the same as being a person. We have been shown that new persons and forms of personhood can come from anywhere....


   A generation raised with "subconscious seeds of these ideas planted down deep."  I couldn't agree more. This article may or may not be correct about Pixar, but I think the assumptions about media and entertainment are true.  


     Every song is a sermon. 
     Every movie is a message.  

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Though He Slay Me


Andree Seu, whose writing I have enjoyed for years, has another stellar article in the October 22 issue of World magazine. Here are some exerpts from “Not Turning Back.”

“Scott and Janet Willis lost six children in a single day when a piece of metal fell off a truck and punctured the gas tank of their minivan…
   By the ball of  fire that consumed their minivan on Interstate 94, Scott…said to his wife…the best words he could have said: ‘It was very quick.  And they’re with the Lord now…’
    Surrounded by emergency responders, Janet kept praying out, ‘I  will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth,;’ with the accent on ‘will.’  I believe it is the same way Jesus must have cried to His Father, ‘I will put my trust in Him’ (Hebrews 2:13), not from a lotus position, but in torment…”


     I was talking with a friend recently who asked: “If I pray and ask God to help, but I don’t really have confidence that He will, is it still faith?”  My response: “The fact that you asked God to intervene in a situation that you acknowledged was beyond your control is an act of faith.  When the Roman centurion said ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief,’ Jesus did not berate him.  Jesus blessed him."
  I wonder if prayers offered during stormy days of doubt don’t honor God more than prayers tossed lightly toward heaven during sunny days of ease.
   Back to the article…


   “Gone is my ability ever to say that the Lord does not expect us to praise Him at all times….Banished are my quid pro quos, the restrictions I put on God’s discipline unawares; the time limits I set Him for pulling rescue out of affliction; the lines I would not let Him cross; the right I reserved to judge His justice..  The Willises have placed their stake here: ‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him’ (Job 13:15).
   ‘Sing, O barren one, who did not bear’ (Isaiah 54:1).  A command to sing at such a time would be cruel counsel if it were not true that in worship we find deliverance… Praise in the face of devastation releases blessings obtainable in no other way…
    What a privilege to meet someone [the Willises] to whom the Lord has entrusted so much suffering.”


And if that’s not a life-changing way to view trials, I don’t know what is. 

Friday, October 28, 2011

Slouching Towards Halloween

I need to give some background before I weigh in on Halloween.  Context matters.

As a child, I was raised in a Christian community that did not observe Halloween at all.  We might have given something to oddly arrayed children on our doorstep, but we never dressed up, never went out, and tried to do our best not to support the holiday. I didn't really care; my mom didn't give us kids candy anyway.

As a young adult, I learned a lot about the holiday from people who had done more than dabble in the occult.  Whatever you might think of the legitimacy of their attempts to connect with the dark side, they were pretty serious about what they hoped to accomplish, and Halloween was their Christmas and Easter rolled into one.  They told very dark stories about what happened during this holiday, the kind that keep you up at night.

As an older adult, I have moved out of that community and come in contact with a lot of other sincere Christians who view Halloween as just another holiday.  I have revisited my long held opinions over the years, and while I have not changed much in my opinions, I have realized there are at least two ways Christians view Halloween that are strikingly different, but solidly supportable.


1)  The Bible says that, because of Christ, death and the grave have lost their sting.  Any victory they have over people is temporary and hollow.  The Bible also says that while Satan is like a devouring lion, he is nothing in the face of the power of God.  To some Christians, Halloween is a time to mock the hollow power of the grave, to laugh in the face of death. Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal; why can't modern day prophets mock the false idols and gods of our culture too?  The only thing the Bible tells us to fear is God, and if we can't laugh in the face of death and the grave, then we don't understand the power of God.  Sure, people dress up in the costumes of the denizens of evil...so why not dress up like Cinderella and trivialize the impact of the dark?  Evil's power is felt most strongly when it control us; why not take the one holiday that celebrates evil and make fun of its attempt to be so macho and scary?  We are the people of light; we ain't afraid of no ghosts!

2) The supernatural world is very real, and the the realm of darkness is dangerous and destructive.  God is a God of creation, order, goodness, life and light; evil promotes chaos, destruction, death and darkness.  Halloween trivializes the seriousness of the stakes.  It's one think to mock evil's false pretense; it's quite another to join the celebrations in which we scare ourselves and mimic the things that we know to be wrong with the world.  We get upset when the the Easter Bunny and marshmallow peeps distract people at Easter, because there is a real message that goes with Easter, an underlying truth of eternal significance.  We get upset at the commercialization of Christmas, because it distorts or obscures a message the needs to be heard.  And yet at Halloween, we contribute to the trivialization of a reality that ought not be made silly  - and certainly not celebrated. 

There are middle ground positions, but I think that captures the poles.  I have friends who defend both sides with equal vigor and capability.  My point is not to tell you which one is the right one (though I suspect you know where I stand). If you observe Halloween differently than I do, more power to ya'.  Just don't gloss over the fact that our decision ought to be well informed and purposeful.  

As a postscript, here's my short list of reality checks:

1)  If you believe in the supernatural world, you cannot just say, "Oh, it's only fun and games and dress up.  Lighten up."  You have to grapple with the fact that it is the one holiday that highlights the entropy and chaos in the world.  You may end up legitimately choosing either of the above approaches, but you can't do it lightly.

2) It is the holiday that gets the most overtly destructive responses from people (see here, and here, here, here, and here).  When killing cats, committing arson, and just in general making law enforcement buckle up are things that logically follow from the holiday, something is not all right.  Here's what you get in Canada: 
56% — The proportion of all criminal incidents reported during Hallowe'en 2006 that were violations against property.
18% — The proportion of all criminal incidents reported during Hallowe'en 2006 that were violations against the person.
11% — The percentage increase in Other Criminal Code violations such as weapons-related offences, public morals and disturbing the peace reported during Hallowe'en 2006 compared to a week earlier (i.e. October 24, 2006).
38% — The percentage increase in violent offences such as robbery, aggravated assault, assaults causing bodily harm and assaults against police officers reported during Hallowe'en 2006 compared to a week earlier (i.e. October 24, 2006).
22% — The percentage increase in property violations, including general mischief and arson reported to police during Hallowe'en 2006 compared to a week earlier (i.e. October 24, 2006).



Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Feeling Like A Train Wreck

Great article from Boundless.org on issue of grief and loss:


Like anyone grieving a loss, I felt like a train wreck at times. Why hadn't we gotten our miracle? Everyone kept saying we would. What went wrong? I needed my mom. Didn't God understand that? 
I've learned that grieving does not have a time frame; it's more of a day-by-day process and can be done as long as needed.
Someone told me not to grieve – "She's in heaven; you should rejoice." But a deep connection had been severed. I couldn't help but cry. Some days I couldn't stop crying. Sometimes when I would try to confide in others about how I was feeling, they would change the subject, almost as if they were afraid of the subject of grief or didn't want to bring me any more pain. I felt alone at times. 
But again God never left my side. 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Photoshopping My Life


I went hiking on the Boardman River Saturday evening with my mom and two of my boys.  Since the peak of the color tour passed about two weeks ago, I wasn't really expecting much from Mother Nature, so I was pleasantly surprised when the autumn colors sprang out from unexpected places.  SmartPhone in hand, I hiked and took pictures with the second app I have figured out (Angry Birds was the first one). 


When we got home, I uploaded them to iphoto and let Mac do its magic.  My mom murmured kind words about my pictures, then said with a hint of sadness, "That's even nicer than it was."


Any you know what? She was right.  The pictures make our hike look a lot cooler than it was.  I clicked buttons and slid bars until I made a picture that, to a large degree, was not true.  The only picture that accurately captured the event was one where Vincent did NOT want his picture taken.  When you see his face - that's how it was.  


I was on a mission trip once in which a father and daughter were among the group.  When I saw photos after the trip, the smiling, affectionate freeze frame put the lie to a trip that was full of tension, avoidance, and drama. I remember thinking, "Hey, at least they have their pictures. I hope it makes up for the trip."



As a Christian, I give allegiance to a worldview that grounds itself in words more than images. "In the beginning was the Word..." Jews eventually became know as People of the Book, and Christianity arose from the soil of language as expression, not image.  In fact, the 10 Commandments make clear that God was not interested in His people trying to capture His reality or nature through images.  Could it be that God was protecting us from our ability to distort and manipulate reality through the use of images?  


The Bible  contains lots of beautiful poetic imagery and word pictures to describe God, but that's not the same thing as the actual image. When Jesus incarnated as the express image of God, even that was temporary, not permanent.  

That command about images always seemed odd to me, but I'm starting to feel differently. Is it possible that the Bible (and by extension, God) stresses the importance of words to capture history and history's God because both the power and the frailty of images are greater than that of words?  Sure, images move us - one of them is worth 1,000 words, I suppose - but that great blessing can also be a great curse.  

For the record, I love the fact that my hike with mom is recorded in pictures.  If nothing else, the pictures will keep her life close to me even though the moment is passed.  

But I will also remember, whenever I see the pictures, that the day was not quite that sunny, and the colors not quite that bright, and the lake not quite so blue.... and wonder what else about my life I have not remembered truthfully, and why real life is so bland to me that I must photoshop it to treasure it.