Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sustainable living...?

For as long as I can remember I've had a soft spot for utopian visions. Or, more specifically, for anyone who dares to imagine beyond where we are now to a world that is MORE and BETTER. More human, more equitable, more celebratory, more free, more just. Better in terms of BEING a community where people live extraordinary lives, but extraordinary is the new normal. A quick aside here - we celebrate people like Ghandi or Mother Theresa, because they live their everyday lives as if the world really were a different place - a better place. Why do we allow ourselves to honour their example, but excuse ourselves for not following it?

Even when I wasn't doing the typical Christian things, like going to church or studying Scripture, or intentionally "fellowshipping" with other "believers", I was drawn to Jesus' proclamation that he had come that we might have LIFE, and more than that - that we might have it ABUNDANTLY. Or, as The Message puts it, "I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of." I think that this is what utopian thinkers are after. More and better life than they ever dreamed of. But they DO the dreaming! And, on occasion, they really do rise above the din of mediocrity and they actually live the dream - some for moments and others in a more sustainable way.

That's all a lead-in to what's on my mind today. I confess that as I write, I have a tangle of thoughts and I THINK I've found a unifying theme, but I'm not sure how it will come out. So here goes...

I'm starting to worry that the leaders of the emerging generation will settle for "sustainable living" and forego the vision and effort required to even imagine what it might be like to actually embrace "abundant living". We talk (and talk and talk!) about reducing our ecological footprint - and well we should. But is this ALL we should aim for? I marked a journal entry this week from a student in my Globalization class. It's been a great class, by the way - what a privilege to teach 19 sensitive, intelligent, caring, emotionally and intellectually intricate university students about globalization! But, about the journal entry. This student talked about living in such a way as to do "no harm". It got me thinking.

If all of us would commit to live in such a way to do no harm, what might that look like? Would that produce "abundant life"? More and better life than we can imagine? Would it produce a utopian community or society? A utopian world? Well - honestly, I doubt it, though it certainly would be a step in the right direction. Here's the thing. As we emphasize environmental stewardship, I think there's a danger that we'll settle for a better life - for us and the planet - but not the best life. See, we'll figure out ways to continue to take more than we give. Seriously - the human heart is devious and we are GREAT at justifying our actions.

I listened to a series of podcasts this week by Bruxy Cavey at The Meeting House. The series is called Get Over Yourself. If you're interested you can find the series on iTunes (just search for The Meeting House in the podcast directory) or, you can download the mp3 file at The whole series is good but I especially liked the 4th one: Materialism: The Culture of Mine. For a long time I've been thinking (pondering and worrying) about our acceptance of debt as a natural and benign adaptation to a world where our wants outstrip our financial resources. Bruxy makes the point that we tend to hide our debt but we display our "stuff". It's a trap. We are deceived into thinking that the life we see in the ads and the blatantly ridiculous reality shows (ok - so maybe I have a huge bias AGAINST those shows) and in movies and in music - let's face it - the world that we see presented in pretty much every venue - is the life for us, even the "abundant life". We KNOW that this is stupid. We KNOW that money and stuff don't make people happy. We KNOW better! But we are weak. Our desires are stirred by the media. Bruxy talks about the move from aspirational marketing - I WANT that - to affirmational marketing - I NEED that, and even I DESERVE that. We have become a bottomless pit of desire for stuff.

So, into this sad scenario, enter the environmental movement and the disturbing message that all this STUFF is not only using up the earth's resources in quite unfortunately wasteful ways, but is also contributing to the poverty and suffering of millions of people in "poor" countries. I put "poor" in quotation marks because they are poor compared to us when the yard stick is economic growth and access to credit. Whether or not they are "poorer" than us in less tangible ways - like their sense of identity and community - well, that's something for another day... But the environmentalists urge us to live more simply and more sustainably. And I suppose out of that message has come this idea that we should do "no harm".

Like I said, not a bad first step, but PLEASE, let's not think that this is ALL there is. And let's not wait until we can pass some test for doing no harm, to start doing good. The fact is, if we're going to wait until we can be certified with a "no harm" stamp, we may never get around to actually doing good - putting MORE back into life than we take out. And, when I say MORE, I'm not thinking so much about money or planting more trees than we destroy. I mean MORE of the intangibles. When we really LIVE according to a different reality than the one the media portrays - a reality where peace and love and justice and mercy and hope are the norm. A reality where we live up to utopian ideal of true community. Where we really CARE about other people and that caring leads us to sacrificial action - putting THEIR needs and their value BEFORE ours. Where we share, not grudgingly or stingily, EVERYTHING that we have and everything that we are, from our stuff to our character. Where the world around us is a better place because we bring into it the presence and character of the one who said that we should love our neighbours as we love ourselves.

Monday, November 30, 2009

But for the grace of God...?

There’s an expression that we use in ordinary parlance which has begun to irk me as I work in the area of justice. You probably guessed it from the title of this posting – “but for the grace of God” - or, the longer version, "there but for the grace of God go I." Here’s how we tend to use it. Someone is down on their luck – that is, they’re having a tough time, either due to their own poor choices or because of circumstances beyond their control, and in an effort to avoid an appearance of judgmentalism or hard heartedness, we say “but for the grace of God.” Sounds innocent enough - even pretty spiritual - but what are we REALLY saying?

Well – this is what I’m thinking. We’re actually saying that God’s grace has kept US from harm and hardship but God’s grace has NOT been extended to this unfortunate person. This poor person is suffering BECAUSE they are outside of the range of God’s grace. In other words, if God’s grace was active in their lives they wouldn’t be in the mess they’re in. They wouldn’t be homeless, or suffering from mental illness, or unemployed, or in an abusive relationship, or filing for bankruptcy – you get the picture. Or, they wouldn’t have been born in a country where there is never enough of anything to go around – food, water, shelter, education, money, hope. In other words, the trials and struggles of life are evidence - for both individuals and for entire countries – of living outside of God’s protection – outside of God’s grace.

This is ridiculous! I would argue that God’s grace IS sufficient for ALL people in ALL circumstances. God’s grace is not a magic shield that deflects all hardship and suffering. God’s grace is IN the suffering. Could God’s grace even CAUSE the suffering? Hm. Or does it simply ALLOW the suffering? I suspect that we’re more comfortable with the idea that God allows suffering but does not cause it. I’m not so sure though. Of course this is not a simple thing. If we dissect ANY situation – trying to untangle the various factors that are involved – we discover very quickly that IT’S COMPLICATED. Sometimes it seems pretty straightforward – a bad decision, a bad gene, bad timing – but as we dig a bit deeper, we discover more complex explanations and relationships. Did God cause Job’s suffering? No – you might say – he ALLOWED it but he didn’t CAUSE it? But didn’t God turn Job over? Would Job have suffered as he did if God had not set him up? Now that I’ve mentioned Job, I’ve probably messed up my argument since in his case, suffering WAS evidence of God’s intentional removal of his protection, and then, when the period of testing was over, God restored to Job MORE than he had lost. But that was Job and that was BEFORE Jesus came. What about us? What about God’s grace today?

And what about EVIL? From a Christian worldview, I believe that there is evil and that our life here on earth is only the visible part of a broader reality. But is every “good” thing evidence of the work of good spirits (sometimes called angels) and every “bad” thing evidence of the work of bad spirits (sometimes called demons)? Of course not! Bad things – so called - DO happen to good people – so called - and good things – so called - happen to bad people – so called. What’s “good” and what’s “bad” after all? Doesn’t the bible say that it rains on the just and unjust alike?

God’s grace is not a shield but a force. It can be found in the most inhumane and unjust places and systems and relationships and it can be found in beauty and peace and relationships that honour the image of God in each of us. It cannot be manipulated or contrived. It is God present and persistently working to build his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

But for the grace of God? I think this is bad theology. Let’s stop using this platitude to excuse our arrogance and pride and our inaction in the lives of people who could really use our presence in the midst of hardship and suffering.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Why live simply? Does it make any difference?

I've just finished re-reading an article by Derrick Jensen called Forget Shorter Showers in Orion Magazine (see In this article Derrick argues that defining the global problems in terms of the individual, or positing that individual actions can really make a difference, is naive and misguided. He says, for instance:

I want to be clear. I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.

So - I've wrestled with this myself - for months. And I think I've come to a slightly different conclusion. I agree with Derrick that individual acts of kindness, simplicity, generosity, justice, etc. aren't going to fix a broken economy or suddenly resolve the moral confusion that has us so befuddled, or reverse the ravages of climate change, or even feed the hungry or cure the ill. Kindness, simplicity, generosity, and justice are NOT a sufficient response to the ills of humanity and our collective home. They are not, in themselves, political ENOUGH. But they are a first step - an important - no, more than that, a critical step. And I would argue that even if they do not lead to a second step of strategic political activism, they have inestimable value.

Here's the bottom line: we should ALWAYS live the life that God calls us to, no matter what it's outcome in human terms. We should NEVER live selfishly, greedily, wastefully, rapaciously - even when we can. Even when we have enough to waste - food, water, money, time, people - just because we CAN does not mean that we SHOULD!

I know that Derrick Jensen is not suggesting that we NOT live simply - he says so quite clearly. It's just that we're kidding ourselves if we think that this is a sufficient response. But I guess that depends on what our fundamental purpose is. He's right if our purpose is to "save the world" but if our purpose is simply to please God, maybe we're making it too complicated. I know that may sound like an over-spiritualization and a cop out. But let's leave room for God to act. I'm thinking of a quote by Abraham Lincoln that says "Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed." You see, we can invest our time and energy into all manner of political activism. We can attack shoddy public policy and pester politicians to enact legislation that is more humane, more fair, more responsible. But the places where opinions are formed - at the coffee shops, over dinner tables, on facebook, in class, through the media, in our places of worship - that's where the real work is to be done. Bob Briner says that "when we try to change the world using the ways of the world, we will always fail."

Definitely, BE POLITICALLY ACTIVE! But don't make the mistake of thinking that politics - or any strictly human response - is going to make everything right. Can we be content to do our part - to take shorter showers and drive less and give more and consume less and invest in people rather than profits, and encourage others in our sphere of influence to do the same? Can we be responsible citizens - being and staying informed about the issues which are before our legislatures and parliaments and working with and through our elected officials to make good policy decisions? And then - when we're doing our part - can we leave room for God to use our obedience - as small as it may seem in the scheme of things - and take those small acts of kindness, simplicity, generosity and justice - and perform the miracle of transformation... again and again...?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lest we forget...

It was a stunningly beautiful fall day yesterday as a hundred or more of us gathered for the Remembrance Day services in my small community. I think that it was perhaps the largest gathering I can remember in the 24 years I've lived here - and it seemed that there were more kids in attendance too. That was encouraging. I know that as the veterans of the "war to end all war" have gradually passed from our midst, there has been some concern that we will fail to take seriously our responsibility to remember the sacrifices they made on our behalf.

I suppose that at every service in every community in every corner of this country, someone recited the poem, In Flanders Fields, written by a Canadian - Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae on May 13, 1915. Yesterday - as I pictured the row on row of crosses and the poppies bowing in the breeze, I was struck anew by the words:

To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high.

It's a powerful image... But I got thinking about exactly WHAT the torch is and how we are to hold it high. There's the Olympic torch, triumphantly making it's way to Vancouver for the opening of the 2010 Winter Games, but that's a different matter. Is this a torch of freedom? Of hope? Of justice? Of victory?

What exactly is it that we are to remember? At the service I attended there was only one World War veteran in attendance - he's the only one left in our community. He placed a wreath on behalf of all veterans, walking carefully but with simple dignity to the monument, wreath in hand. He laid it - the first of many - took a step back and saluted - and wiped tears from his eyes as he returned to his place among us. I can only imagine the "remembrances" that were stirring in his heart and mind...

I always think of my grandfather on Remembrance Day. He too was a veteran. I can remember - as a child - asking him questions about the war as we did dishes together. I was standing on a chair, wiping the dishes as he washed. And I asked him innocent, childish questions, about the war. And you know, he never wanted to talk about it. I know that he was an ambulance bearer. Though I suppose this is my own image - filling in the blanks, so to speak - I suppose that meant that he would go onto the battle field to pull the wounded out of the fray and to the relative safety of a make shift first aid station. It must have been both dangerous and gruesome work. I really can't imagine. Probably it's no wonder he didn't want to talk about it. Maybe he worked hard to erase those images from his mind.

My husband tells me that years ago, when there were 30 or 40 vets still living in our community, most of them didn't attend the Remembrance Day service. Hm. Were they too, trying to forget?

A young man from our small community - 21 years old - is now serving in Afghanistan. We pray for his safety every week in church and I add an urgent plea that God will protect not only his body, but also his mind and his heart. And even as I pray, I confess that I have doubts that even God can protect him from images that he will want to forget.

I confess that in an ideal world, I would be a pacifist. Of course, in an ideal world, there'd be no need for war! But still, I long for peace and justice and a world where we all look out for one another. But that's NOT the world we live in and I suppose my pacifist ideals are naive. But as I look at the injustices - which I've spoken of often in these postings - I wonder if this is what the veterans of the 1st and 2nd World War really had in mind. Did they sacrifice themselves - their physical and emotional health - so that the victors might use economic carrots and sticks to dominate and exploit weaker countries to the point of intense suffering?

It seems to me that victory - and the passing of the torch - carries with it a responsibility to ensure that the ideals for which these battles were fought, are not lost in the shuffle. YES - by all means - let us hold the torch high, but let it be a torch of hope and peace and freedom and justice!

Monday, October 26, 2009


I recently watched a BBC Documentary called The Power of Nightmares, a three part series directed by Adam Curtis. In the first part Curtis (who also narrates the film) explains that people have lost faith in ideologies, and in order to maintain (or regain) power and authority, governments have shifted tactics. Where once they sought to inspire their citizens with "optimistic visions", they now have become mere managers of our public life. So - in order to get back the power and authority, they promise to protect us from "nightmares" - "dreadful dangers that we cannot see and do not understand". If you want to check out the first couple of minutes of this film, go to

As I think about it, I have to say that it DOES seem like there are a lot of things to be afraid of these days - terrorism/militarism, global warming, the economic "crisis", climate change, the H1N1 virus, to name a few of the big ones. Then there are issues that the more sensitive among us might lose a bit of sleep over like human rights, food shortages, water issues (from drought to contamination), human trafficking, child labour and the use of children as soldiers, and so on. Of course these are perhaps less attractive - or less useful - to governments because they are not dangers that our governments can claim to protect us from and most of us can, if we choose, live our entire lives in North America, without ever seeing these issues up close. This is not to say, of course, that we don't have lots of issues right here at home that rob people of dignity! We do!!

But just when we're beginning to feel overwhelmed, weak, fearful - we can turn on the news and refocus on the things that threaten our own livelihoods and safety and health and prosperity - we seem to be "hemmed in" on every side! And who can help? Well - don't we expect our governments to step in and take care of us? Of course people of faith may proclaim a confidence that their God will look after them, but sometimes it's hard to completely abandon ourselves to God's provision and protection when the dangers are encroaching... Perhaps we have more confidence in God when things are going well.

Adam Curtis claims that people have lost faith in ideologies, but what I think he means is that we've lost faith in the ideology that says we can rely on our own devices - our intelligence, our ingenuity, our resourcefulness, our democratically elected officials - to create a world where humanity and society can be perfected. Where we can achieve the adolescent dream of having everything and giving nothing. Where self-centeredness and narcissism are actually virtues. Where economic growth has no limits and no casualties. Where the good guys (us!) always win and the bad guys (them!) get what they deserve. Where the environment provides us with inexhaustible resources. But who are we kidding!!! That ideology has ALWAYS been a sham.

So what are we to do? Well - we can get caught up in the fear of the day - chasing after cures and correctives and coping strategies for the dangers that lurk around every corner - or we can intentionally distance ourselves from the hysteria and take a sober look at the BIG picture. Those who study trends and generational tendencies tell us that those with a "post modern mindset" do not subscribe to any meta-narrative - a consistent, unified story line that explains diverse events and ideas and conditions. But I disagree. I think that post moderns have rejected certain meta-narratives because they have failed - but that doesn't mean that they have abandoned the hope that there IS a meta-narrative to be discovered that is valid.

As I've been writing this blog I've been thinking about a passage in second Corinthians (verses 7-9) which says:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

There IS hope! As for me, I would argue that the Christian meta-narrative has never been fully understood. We have our ideas and our interpretations, but we "see through a glass darkly". We have taken liberties - filled in and developed themes according to our own wisdom - and have created a system which aspires to know truth, but which sometimes forgets that truth is elusive and multi-faceted.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

An alternate reality

I'm a huge (and hopeless!) idealist. So if you find idealism frustrating - well, maybe you should skip this post. Don't say I didn't warn you! If you're a hearty realist, well, this one may be a bit frustrating...

When I was a teenager (many, many years ago!) I was intensely disappointed in the church. It seemed to me that if what the bible had to say was really true - and I believed that it was, albeit based on a somewhat limited understanding! - that the church wasn't living up to it's potential. It seemed that human frailties of various kinds - pettiness, ambition, intolerance, selfishness, pride - all conspired to undermine the church's integrity and effectiveness. Like many other young idealists, I suspect, I became quite disenchanted with the church and left, in search of a more authentic spirituality.

Fast forward about 14 years - the approximate length of that phase of my spiritual pilgrimage - and I had come full circle (including ups and downs and lots of spiritual experimentation) back to a pretty orthodox Christianity, including regular church attendance and even employment in the denominational office! And now, many years later again, I find myself STILL critical of the church as an institution. The difference is that as frustrating as I find the "church", I'm convinced that even with its flaws and foibles, it's the "body" of Christ. It's the "body" in that we Christians - still a motley crew - ARE the incarnational presence of Christ in the world. That is, we are the ones entrusted to carry on the work that Jesus began - the spreading of the good news that the kingdom is near.

What exactly did Jesus mean when he said (repeatedly) that the kingdom is near? If we don't have a clear understanding of this, how can we live up to our purpose? Here's where my idealism comes in, but it's also going to sound pretty critical. See, I think that Jesus intended for us to live and think very differently from the world around us and, bottom line, very differently than what we think and how we live today. I think that we've got caught up in all kinds of currents that have way more to do with how the "world" operates than how the "kingdom" operates. And to the extent we conform to the world, we're basically ineffective as witnesses.

So, you may be thinking that this doesn't sound like an idealist rant... quite true. But my point is simply this: if we are followers of Christ we should live as if we are already living in the Kingdom of God. We should live UP to what the vision is. We shouldn't live DOWN to what the world expects. The problem these days - or at least ONE of the problems - is that Christians are way too busy thinking about the future rewards and we're spending way too little time and effort living up to what we believe. I think we should live as if we are already IN the kingdom, which of course, we are!

What does this look like in practical terms? It means that we treat people as if they are honest and compassionate and hopeful and full of the fruit of the spirit - even when - and especially when - they don't act that way. We get past appearances and we fix our eyes on Christ and live the way He taught us to live, no matter what! That, I believe, is what it means to BE an incarnational presence of Christ in the world. We deny ourselves... we take up our cross (whatever burdens we bear)... and we FOLLOW CHRIST into the mundane, messed up, everyday world as a beacon of light.

This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine. This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine. This little light of mine - I'm going to let it shine, Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!

See, the thing is, we forget - we mean well and we are sincere when we think it's more complicated than this, but ANY effort on our part to do God's work ourselves, is doomed to fail. The battle is not against flesh and blood but against the powers of darkness. But we forget. We think we can take on the enemy. We think we know what we're doing. But we don't. Like Peter when he stepped out of the boat and was literally walking on water, we forget who's in control and we focus on our circumstances, our frustrations, our problems, the failures of others to be good people - the waves that threaten to pull us down...

If we are going to live in the Kingdom, we must live according to the principles of the Kingdom, even when they seem inadequate for the challenges of the day. Faith is believing in things not seen... rememmber? When we live by faith, and not by sight - well, then we will see the alternate reality. The realist - poor soul! - will never see past the reality that is to the reality that could be. The realist is trapped in the kingdom of this world and will live and die according to its principles.

Why not give it a try? Here's what I challenge you to do - give God a chance to prove that he's actually way bigger than your mind and imagination. Make a point of living idealistically - living as if the kingdom of God IS the reality in the here and now. And pay attention - you just might be in for an amazing ride!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Waste not, want not - really?

We live in a disposable society. Most of us recognize the strains that disposability are placing on our environment, but we sure hate to give up on our own convenience in order to be good stewards of our shared "nest". I remember visiting Cuba for the first time over a decade ago and being impressed by the resourcefulness of people in re-using and recycling just about everything. It seemed to me that nothing was wasted. Everything could be redeemed and refashioned and re-engineered. My husband, a commercial fisherman, who is always "rigging something up" was in his element.

An old adage reminds us that necessity is the mother of invention and I remember thinking how true that is in contexts where there's never enough. Rigging something up means using things and parts of things in ways that are non-traditional, or at least non-commercial. It's making do with something that may not be shiny and new, but which does the job. It's a useful art form for people who are creative or on a budget.

Another old adage is waste not, want not. Did you ever wonder who comes up with these pithy sayings? What purpose do they serve? Whose thinking are they meant to shape and condition? How might they distort our understanding of the realities of other people?

Wouldn't it be nice if it was universally true that those who are frugal and avoid waste and wastefulness, could be assured that they would want for nothing - or at least nothing basic, like food, water, sanitation, health care, education... It's ironic, don't you think, that this old adage can roll off our tongues even though we live in a society that has built whole industries - a huge economy, in fact - out of waste? And yet - for us - we want not whether we waste not or not. And, sadly, many people who know no other way than to waste not seem to be condemned to a prison of perpetual want.

Jesus said that he came to set the captives free. Hm. I wonder if he might have been anticipating THIS kind of captivity?

So - the writing of this posting was just interrupted by a fire alarm in the residence building where I'm staying. I'm on the top floor of a 5 story building. The alarm sounded and this is how my thinking went: it's probably a false alarm but just in case, maybe I should get outside. I am, after all on the top floor and even though I don't smell smoke or see any evidence that there really is a fire, it might be stupid to wait and take a chance. Take my key - find the stairs (I meant to figure out where the closest stairs are, but hadn't done it yet) - done the stairs and outside with the 4 other people already there. Thinking on the way down the stairs that I should have brought my car keys and laptop, just in case - rejected the thought of going back for them. Outside - looking at the building and seeing no evidence of a fire. Someone arrived to say we could go back in - they were just testing the alarms (yup - they work!). On the way back upstairs, reflected that if it really WAS a fire, the truth is that all that I'd really NEED to salvage would be my car keys and my laptop. Hm. I have filled this tiny (or so it seems) residence room with the comforts of home and yet, when it comes down to it, it's pretty much all disposable... and frankly, replaceable. If I lost everything in that room, I could be up and running in no time. A few quick shopping sprees and I'm good to go. I could probably even upgrade - that is, get newer models, more stylish clothes... My insurance would likely even pick up the tab. Waste not, want not?

Somehow I can't help but think that it's an adage from an era when frugality and thrift and humility and gratitude were more valued and it gave people something to aspire to. Now, it's like looking at an old photo. But I'm not suggesting that we go back. Nope - not an option. We need to go forward, but with eyes open. The new adage is this: live simply so that others may simply live.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Intellectual Property: Thoughts about Property and Profit

Have you ever thought about the way we attach an economic value to just about everything and then scheme and fight and maneuver to get more of whatever it is? We become downright obsessed with having things and defending our right to do as we wish with what is ours. The value of things is determined by how badly other people want them. The value of things goes up and down according to demand. Land, food, water, oil, energy, precious metals, "collectables", antiques - they are all bought and sold and we have developed elaborate legal systems to protect all of these things from thieves and to make sure that transactions are done properly, or at least legally. Well - that's the idea, anyway, wars and invasions and our treatment of First Nations peoples aside.

But there are things that it's a little more difficult to establish clear "ownership". Intellectual property, for example. Who "owns" ideas? Every now and again we hear about a legal battle where one artist - a songwriter, a writer, a comedian - claims that someone else has "stolen" their idea. There are very strict penalties for students who use someone else's ideas or words without giving proper credit - it's called plagiarism and it can be grounds for expulsion. I love ideas and I'm passionate about the pursuit of understanding and truth. I wonder - have I ever had a truly "new" idea? Have I ever thought anything that hasn't been thought before?

I love to read books of all kinds but I confess that I especially like to read books by authors who's thinking is consistent with mine. But it's humbling - and exhilarating - to realize that some of my favorite authors have written extensively on ideas that I've arrived at after much intense "thought". Whatever the topic or the particulars, they have arrived at the same intersection of idea fragments. Like travelers in a desert who come across a well, we - thinkers from across the ages - arrive at the same insight even though our path to that insight has traversed through different ages and cultural contexts. There is nothing new under the sun!

The pursuit of truth and of understanding is perhaps something that we should pursue corporately and collaboratively, rather than competitively and as individuals. Maybe if we were less concerned about making a name for ourselves, or using our ideas as a means of securing our own financial security, we would discover a deeper sense of elation - one that can't be measured by dollars and cents - when ideas hit the mark. I wonder if God finds it amusing that we go to such lengths to stake our claim to ideas that have some market value. Or does he find it sadly pathetic when we're more concerned with getting credit or making money than we are with sharing and helping and building and discovering for the sheer joy of it.

I love to think. I love those moments when I gain a glimmer of understanding that's new for me. But I am realistic enough to know that I haven't had a single "original" idea. Every idea is a moment in time when bits and pieces - fragments - of the ideas of other people come together in some coherent form in my mind and join with other ideas and fragments of ideas. It's a bit like a kaleidoscope - those tubes that turn and provide endless configurations with the same bits of color. None of the ideas are "mine". They don't "belong" to me. I have a moral obligation - it seems to me - not to hold onto ideas and try to extract all value from them, but to "catch and release" - to appreciate insights as they come and to give them back from whence they came.

Maybe if humanity's most clever minds were content with the intangible benefits of thinking and were willing to work with other clever minds, we would gradually see understanding, not through the grid of the market economy, but through the grid of truth, the realization of which IS the pearl of great price.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The power - and politics - of HOPE

We have all heard inspiring messages about the transformative power of HOPE. Anyone who has visited a developing country and spent time with people who are courageously facing hardships and challenges on every side, can testify to the incredible power that hope can generate in even the most oppressive of circumstances. I remember clearly the day when I was in Kenya, visiting a Guardians of Hope group (see and the light came on. Guardians of Hope - what an absolutely perfect description of this approach to caring for orphans of the HIV/AIDS virus!!! These groups are literally guarding and also nurturing HOPE!

But that's just one example of hope. In general, the image that comes to my mind as I think of the power of hope is that of a solitary vibrant flower persisting gloriously in the heat and barrenness of a desert. Brilliant hues of purple, orange, yellow, red and blue set against a dreary canvas of sand and wind. Flowers that can thrive in desert conditions have apparently honed their adaptive capacity and cheerfully defy all of the challenges of nature that conspire against them.

Perhaps it's pushing the analogy too far to suggest that similarly, people who are able to rise above oppressive political, economic and environmental climates and conditions, have found reservoirs of strength that are not apparent on the surface. Is that romanticizing the poverty and oppression experienced by as many as three billion or so people who struggle every day to simply survive? Perhaps. But maybe we can honour the struggle without condoning the conditions which cause the struggle. Resilience IS beautiful.

And about those "reservoirs of strength" that the oppressed, the marginalized, the downtrodden, may tap into - I'm reminded of the scene, recorded in Matthew 4:31-33 where the disciples are concerned because Jesus hasn't had anything to eat. Surely he must be hungry and weak. But Jesus says to them, "I have food to eat that you know nothing about." Hm. Our physical bodies need nourishment or we die. It actually happens every day to tens of thousands of human bodies (many of them CHILDREN under the age of 5!) who die of starvation. But there is more to life than the physical body and the food that fuels it...

Most of you reading this posting live in a land of plenty. Our challenge is not to find enough food to eat to keep the body going, but rather to limit our intake of fat and salt and sugar and the host of things that manufacturers ADD to our food to make it hard to resist. Enough said! But what of the spirit? Is it possible that our obsession with physical food - carbs and fats and protein and fiber and fruits and vegetables - has actually resulted in a shriveling of our spirits? Are we well fed but spiritually dry? Speaking for myself, I'd have to say YES. But it's NOT too late. I can learn. I can tap into those reservoirs that Jesus opened up and filled (and keeps filling!). I don't want to get all sentimental about this, but there it is. That's the way I see it.

I came across another book by Paulo Freire - this one is Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1992). I'll close this posting with a quote from Friere:

The idea that hope alone will transform the world, and action undertaken in that kind of naivete, is an excellent route to hopelessness, pessimism, and fatalism. But the attempt to do without hope, in the struggle to improve the world, as if that struggle could be reduced to calculated acts alone, or a purely scientific approach, is a frivolous illusion. To attempt to do without hope, which is based on the need for truth as an ethical quality of the struggle, is tantamount to denying that struggle is one of its mainstays. The essential this: hope, as an ontological need, demands an anchoring in practice. As an ontological need, hope needs practice in order to become historical concreteness. That is why there is no hope in sheer hopefulness. The hoped-for is not attained by dint of raw hoping. Just to hope is to hope in vain.

In case you're wondering, ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being. And - final thing! - a preview of the Pedagogy of Hope is available FREE, as an online edition at

Friday, July 24, 2009

Beware optimism, pessimism, cynicism... and complacency!

According to the Canadian National news, the recession is over. Really? Well - the jobs that were lost may not come back for years, but Canadians seem to be spending which the optimists among us interpret as evidence of renewed confidence in the economy. And since that seems to be all that keeps the economy going - confidence, that is - that's a good thing. Right?

And, the H1N1 pandemic seems to be more or less under control, though there are warnings that a second wave may be much worse. But the optimist rests easy knowing that some of the best medical minds on the planet are working on a vaccine and there are some pretty intelligent people even now figuring out how many doses of the vaccine are needed to protect us from this nasty bug - so that's all good. Right?

The environment continues to be a cause for concern, but the sun keeps coming up in the morning and going down at night - of course if you live in Atlantic Canada where we haven't actually SEEN much of the sun this summer, we're still pretty sure it's still up there somewhere. The climate change forecasters of doom and gloom are still issuing pretty dramatic warnings, but at least they seem to have captured the attention of the G8, so they'll figure something out to get us out of this fix, right?

The food crisis that was so much in the news last spring seems to have receded somewhat. The poor are still poor, of course, and the hungry are still hungry, but we haven't seen any food riots lately, so that's good, I guess.

There are still lots of problems but, hey, no one ever promised us a rose garden after all. Struggle is what makes us strong. No pain, no gain. Even the bible says that we shouldn't worry about tomorrow so, let's carry on. Nothing like a trip to the mall or a few bids on ebay to help us forget our troubles or the troubles of people we don't even know but who are rumoured to be suffering hunger, ill health, exploitation, persecution and all kinds of other unpleasantness. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot that we can do about all the problems, so maybe the best thing is to find some way to enjoy life as best we can.

So - I think I've covered it all - optimism, pessimism, cynicism AND complacency. And here's the warning - each of these basic attitudes is a trap. So what's the alternative? Well - here goes. It may sound incredibly simplistic, but I think that we need to open our eyes and see things as they are - the good, the bad, the ugly. As humanity presses on - whether by our own design or by the momentum from the past - we will need all of the resources of science and of faith and of good will if we are to have anything of value to pass on to the next generation. Or even if there is to BE a next generation!

I can't help thinking about Solomon - the author of Ecclesiastes - who asked that God would give him wisdom. God apparently granted his request and he wrote the book of Ecclesiastes as a sort of journal of his discoveries. He sought to understand the meaning of life and, as you probably know, everything he tried - wisdom, pleasures, work, advancement - it is all, in the end, he says, meaningless. Pretty depressing, eh? But this is how Solomon concludes his writing:

Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. (Eccl. 12:13)

This is where I'm at. There are times when I'm drawn to optimism, pessimism, cynicism and complacency - but I know that they are all dead ends, if I stay on any of these paths too long. Sometimes I find God's commandments pretty obscure and when I'm really honest, they are often counter intuitive and definitely counter cultural. But I'm thinking that counter cultural is probably not a bad thing and maybe it's just what we need. Even from a purely human point of view, it's pretty evident that our materialistic, narcissistic, consumer-driven culture and our confidence in humanity's ability to solve our own problems hasn't actually worked out all that well. Which isn't to say that we should stop trying - just that we should try something else. As for me, I think that trying to do things according to God's commands is certainly worth our best effort. And if we're going to try to live by them, it's going to take some effort to figure out just what they are and to separate them out from our cultural biases.

Hans Rookmaaker, a Dutch Christian scholar once said that "Jesus didn't come to make us Christian; he came to make us fully human." Interesting. More thoughts on that for another day!

Oh - one more thing - and I think I've likely said this before but I'll say it again - the biggest challenge for us in seeking to obey God OR in applying ourselves to science, is to acknowledge our limitations and to tackle the challenges with humility...

Friday, July 17, 2009

Band wagons and climate change

I confess I'm feeling a bit uneasy these days with all of the advocacy initiatives around climate change. There are all kinds of quick and easy ways that we can pester our governments into at least making a show of understanding the urgency of political action on the environment portfolio. We can sign petitions, send letters, join demonstrations - the usual array of citizen tools for voicing our collective concern.

Some might say that these activities are needed in order to badger our politicians into effective policy decisions and that they are consequently worth the little bit of effort they require. The implicit argument is that our governments can't be trusted to act responsibly if we don't keep at them. Hm. I confess that as I write that statement, I realize that it may not actually be that far-fetched! Others might have less confidence in the effectiveness of these forms of advocacy but may adopt a "what can it hurt?" attitude. But - let's think this through...

Here are some basic assumptions that I'm working from:

1. Climate change is nothing new. I have no idea of all of the variables that may possibly impact on the climate of this planet, but I'm pretty sure there are TONS of them. I suspect that the climate fluctuates and changes daily but that there are also significant shifts and trends. I think I've heard that scientists can identify 7 distinct climate "ages" in the earth's known history.
2. We humans are part of the ecology of the earth. Our actions affect the planet and we, in turn, are affected by our environment.
3. I think James Lovelock (the guy who originally proposed Gaia Theory - for more on that see my post of June 2/09 entitled Gaia Theory: A CBC Interview with James Lovelock), is onto something really significant when he posits that the earth is a self-regulating organism with its own survival agenda and that we should perhaps be more concerned about saving ourselves than about saving the planet (since it will likely outlast us, at least from a scientific perspective). When push comes to shove Mother Earth may not be so much "nurturing" as vindictive!
4. Presuming that we are, in fact, the highest life form (and most intelligent), we ARE to be stewards and caretakers of the earth. In other words, we should know better than to pollute our nest or exploit resources for our short-term selfish gain. That sounds so self evident that it makes me wonder how we ever got where we are in terms of our very obvious abuses of a marvelously complex - but not infinitely forgiving - natural system. I suppose each little encroachment and denial of common sense and common courtesy seemed innocuous enough and it's only now sinking in that we have been crass and stupid as stewards.
5. No credit to us, but it does seem that the earth has been incredibly resilient, despite our short sightedness and bad manners. Doomsday forecasts have - at least in the past - tended to overstate the case and underestimate the earth's capacity to survive our assaults. This is not to presume that we can carry on as we have in the past.
6. If the current observations of climate change do, in fact, indicate a trend of global warming, the predictions of what will happen if the planet continues to heat and the ice caps and glaciers continue to melt, are VERY daunting and certainly SHOULD cause us to take the warnings of impending disaster very seriously.
7. This is much MORE than a simple environmental issue. After all, if we dig even a bit into the pit of explanations for WHY the climate is changing, we will discover that the impact of human activity has largely been fueled by a combination of greed, selfishness, a perhaps naive and uncritical embrace of technologies which have enticed us to forfeit sound judgment for comfort and convenience. Environmental issues cannot be neatly separated from political and economic issues. Therefore, we will not overcome environmental impacts of political and economic policies WITHOUT addressing the flaws in those political and economic policies.
8. It seems to me that a basic bottom line observation is that environmental advocacy will simply be a lot of hot air (pun intended!) if we are not willing to challenge the underlying systemic injustices of our international political and economic structures and assumptions.

All this to say that it may be that the band wagon of environmental activism is actually a diversion that is distracting us from the more critical issues. To the extent that we get drawn into the debates about climate change and how the actions of the G8 countries are addressing environmental issues (or not!), we run the serious danger of diverting attention away from the root CAUSES of both the current climate issues AND the injustices of globalization as it is currently managed.

The solution, I think, is not to ignore the monumental environmental challenges facing humanity, but to understand them in their broader context. And, to beware of simple environmental advocacy efforts which may contribute more to political smoke and mirror antics than to effective strategies for managing not only the environment, but global issues of social injustice as well.

Please be assured that my intention is NOT to discourage advocacy on these issues, but rather, to encourage us all to be a bit wary of a band wagon mentality that MAY oversimplify the issues in order to gain momentum. Let's keep checking our bearings and make sure that the band wagon is actually heading in the right direction before we hop on.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Pedagogy of the Oppressors!

I came across a book this morning that I've been thinking about lately but haven't read for years - Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire. In fact, I used to mark on the inside covers of books the date that I read them and this one is marked March, 1983. But it's one of those books that really made an impression on me - and, as I said, I still think about it. Lately though, my thinking has taken a turn - I think not so much about the "pedagogy of the oppressed" but the "pedagogy of the OPPRESSOR". How do WE - the affluent, privileged, entitled, global minority - learn how to be oppressors? How do we perpetuate structures and systems that continue to grant us privileges while consigning millions and even billions of our "neighbors" to abject poverty?

Here's a quote from a review of Freire's original writing:

The method of learning of Paulo Freire requires that students do more than simply reproduce the words that already exist. It requires that they create their own words, words that allow them to become aware of reality in order to fight for their own emancipation. Without this, some people acquire a kind of naive consciousness in which they are aware of their situation but don't make any effort to change it; they take a conformist stance and consider their situation something normal, even to the point of supporting it themselves. Other individuals construct their own reality and liberate themselves from oppression, only to go to the opposite extreme and become the antithesis of what they were fighting against.

Now - read that quote again, thinking not of the oppressed but of the oppressors. I'm thinking especially of this line:

...some people acquire a kind of naive consciousness in which they are aware of their situation but don't make any effort to change it; they take a conformist stance and consider their situation something normal, even to the point of supporting it themselves.

Ouch! I have been troubled by this thought for months and maybe I've even tried to express it before in one of my postings. The thing is, what if - deep down - I know that I can be opposed to the injustices that have accumulated over the years to allow me to enjoy the enormously privileged way and style of life I have - but that my opposition is really no threat to my comfort? I can speak out against injustice, and yet still enjoy its fruits.

I had an email yesterday from a colleague who lives and works in Kenya. He mentioned a conversation he had with a Kenyan pastor about books. The gist of it was, this pastor has to save and save in order to be able to afford to buy a book - no extravagant book allowance for him! Once he's got the book, it's a cherished thing. My mind went to my appetite for books which has resulted in bookcases full (overflowing!) with books, many of which I haven't had the time (or inclination) to read. I buy books spontaneously. I love books. I always INTEND to read them, but seriously, am I ever going to read ALL of the books I've bought? It may seem like a small thing, but for me it's an indication - one of many - that I have a long way to go in debunking the pedagogy which allows me to sit amongst the oppressors.

By the way, if this hits a nerve with you and you'd like to do something about it, I've got a suggestion. Canadian Baptist Ministries has partnerships around the world and one of our strategic drivers is leadership development. I've met some of the leaders who have had access to opportunities through CBM's commitment to leadership development. They are an inspiration. Interestingly, when it comes to giving though, way more people prefer to give goats and chickens and rabbits than books or funding for continuing eduction. Interesting, eh? Why is that?

Well, here's a link if you want to look into this further: Giving for leadership development in a developing country may not seem like much but for the person on the other end, and for those whose lives he or she will ultimately touch, it's a big deal. Maybe some day the oppressed and the oppressors will sit down together and learn from one another and MAYBE, when that day comes, we will have the courage to create a new order... or at least to live with dignity in the midst of the present order, whatever it may be.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Christianity: a religion or a way of life?

I had an interesting conversation a few weeks ago. It was at a Father's Day bbq and my sister-in-law was updating me on the whereabouts and activities of some of her family members. One of her sisters has struggled with various chronic illnesses and, largely as a consequence of inactivity and frustration with her limitations, had put on quite a bit of weight. But then she get involved in some "new" eastern practices. I don't remember the name of the eastern system - but that doesn't matter. What I've been thinking about since that conversation is my sister-in-laws description of her sister's involvement.

Apparently, after just a few months, her sister had experienced an amazing transformation. Aha - that kind of language always heightens my interest! My sister-in-law went on to describe this "thing" - it involves some meditation but it's really a whole way of life. It affects EVERYTHING! Hm.

OK - so here's three other strands of thinking that converge at this point. First - last year I read a book by Bruxy Cavey called The End of Religion: Encountering the Subversive Spirituality of Jesus. BTW - if you want an audio overview of the book - basically it's an mp3 file of Bruxy talking about the book at a book release party - go to The gist of it is that although people these days are getting very frustrated with Christianity as a RELIGION, something about the person of Jesus still intrigues them. So the question is, did Jesus ever really intend for us to reduce our practice of the things He taught to the system we now call Christianity? Have we somehow missed the forest for the trees? Is Christianity - the form that we have developed and defended - all there is?

The second strand is simply a quote someone brought to my attention just a month or so ago (sadly I'm not sure who brought it to my attention OR even who the original author of the quote is!). But the quote is this: "Jesus didn't come to make us Christians, but to make us fully human." Well - you can think about that - maybe until the proverbial cows come home! I think maybe it's a concise way of saying the same thing. And of course that reminds me of a book by Jean Vanier called Becoming Human. And, while I was checking to make sure I had that title right, I discovered that Jean Vanier and, another of my favorite authors, Stanley Hauerwas, have a new book (published October 2008) entitled Living Gently in a Violent World. Sounds good. But those were just sub-strands...

The third strand is a brief conversation I had just a few days ago with the 21 year old son of one of my best friends. I haven't seen him for a few years and he came for a visit. In the course of conversation, he made reference to the fact that he had decided when he was in grade 11 that he should check out Christianity for himself (having been raised in a home that is certainly not explicitly "Christian"). So, he went to youth group for 2 years and, since that didn't seem to lead to any prolonged commitment to Christianity - or, at least the institutional form - I'm assuming that he found it lacking in the kind of depth he was looking for.

So, those are the 3 strands that lead me to this thought: being a follower of Christ is NOT about accepting and perpetuating a system of beliefs and the practice of religious rituals. It IS - or ought to be - a way of life that affects everything. It's who we are, it's what we do, it's what we think, it's how we spend our money and our time and our talents, it's what we eat. But it's all this, not in some narrow, legalistic manner, but in absolute and total FREEDOM. To be a Christian isn't to be confined to a narrow set of beliefs and practices. It's to be free to grow and learn and love - to be fully human, as Jean Vanier puts it. The early Christians called it "the way". How sad that we, safe and sound in our sanctuaries, have often hidden "the way" from view and reduced Christianity to a mere "religion"!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Heroes and Villains

I have a tendency, when I find a novelist that I like, to read everything that he or she has written. Ayn Rand, Leon Uris, James Clavell Jodi Piccoult, Maeve Binchy, James Michener, Margaret Atwood, Chaim Potok - these are some of those authors. It's been years since I read the James Clavell books, but I've been reminded recently of one that really made an impression: King Rat (1962).

Set during World War II in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, King Rat depicts the struggle for survival in the camp. I suppose as a budding sociologist, the book really intrigued me because the camp was basically a microcosm of society. The prisoners and guards formed a social system and developed a culture, with it's own norms and values. There were rules - and consequences for not following the rules. There were those who prospered and those who did not survive. There were those who maintained an admirable degree of integrity and those who made no pretense at integrity. I don't remember any of the details, really - just the discomfort in reading this book and thinking about how I would act under similar circumstances. Would I be noble, honest, kind, compassionate, generous? Or would I be devious, manipulative, selfish, cruel? Would I try to stay out of the way - inconspicuous, inconsequential? Would I part with my integrity for the sake of comfort, or even more basically, safety?

King Rat is a novel and like any worthwhile novel, it raises questions for the reader. I often think about King Rat when I'm watching the news and I hear reports about some event - a natural disaster, a crime scene - where some people respond as heroes and others as villains. I wonder, what is it that causes some people to run into a burning building to rescue someone else - or even a pet or piece of property - and others to take advantage of a breach in security to loot and plunder? Why will one person jump into the water to try to rescue a stranger who is drowning, while another person will stay safely out of the way even as they watch that person drown?

Is there any way we can know how we'll react to these kinds of situations? Is it enough to hope that when the chips are down, we'll be revealed as heroes rather than as villains?

I mentioned recently listening to a discussion of Gaia Theory and James Lovelock's prediction that the global population may actually shrink to about 1 billion people. What kind of society will we live in if the population starts declining rapidly? How will we respond? Will we be heroes? Villains? Is there anything we can do to prepare ourselves?

I actually am more and more convinced that we CAN prepare ourselves to respond to any kind of situation. But it will take some time and intentionality. This may sound pretty bleak and not the kind of thing you want to think about on a gray and damp day, but I honestly think that preparing ourselves for the various temptations which may one day come our way, is a key to living fully and freely. If I really WANT to be a hero, the training is now, NOT when the chips are down, so to speak. I may not have time to think, let alone plan. I may not have an opportunity to consider the pros and cons. I will simply react. In that instant of decision, what I REALLY believe about myself and about God will be revealed.

I know it's probably a bit lame, but I do think about stories from the book of Daniel - the one where Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego get thrown into the fiery furnace - and the one where Daniel is put into a lion's den. Were they tempted at the last moment, to back down? It's easy to SAY that "my God can deliver me" but when the heat from the fire is so intense that guards are dying or when hungry lions are circling - did they waver? Sure - God rescued them. The stories would be a whole lot less impressive if he hadn't. But God doesn't always deliver us from evil - or at least he doesn't always do it in such a way that we live to tell the tale. Don't forget the disciples and the hundreds of thousands since then, who have been martyred for their faith. Deliverance may look a whole lot different than it does in the book of Daniel.

So the real question is, do I trust God with my life, or, when it comes right down to it, will I have more confidence in myself than I have in God?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

"How do we know what we know?"

Years ago I remember hearing about a group known as the Flat Earth Society. I don't want to spend any amount of time talking about this society - though if you're interested, you can check out the webpage: What I remember is that this group challenges conventional wisdom by asking the question, what do we REALLY know and how do we know it? I remember thinking that no one in their right mind would actually believe that the earth is flat - and that got me thinking, what do we KNOW and how do we know it and which is more important: the way something REALLY is or the way we THINK it is?

So fast forward about 20 years and there's the popular movie The Matrix - a movie about layers of reality. There's the world as we experience it with all of its drama and intrigue, but then there's the "matrix" which is the engine or blueprint for the experienced world. Or - come to think of it, maybe the children's book, Alice in Wonderland, was an earlier attempt to capture the same thing. And then there's The Truman Show, about a guy whose entire life is a reality tv show and everyone knows, except him.

These, and probably many other artifacts of popular culture, have challenged our thinking about what's real. We watch the movie, read the book and are momentarily intrigued by the mystery of knowledge - a "cloud of unknowing" (to quote an anonymous 14th century author). Although maybe the cloud of unknowing had more to do with the cloud between humanity and divinity rather than the distortions within humanity... a topic for another day.

The point that I'm trying to get to is this: there seems to have evolved a whole genre of thinking (and probably it has a name - please advise...) that is based on this idea that things are not only NOT what they seem, but the "what they seem" is actually a massive hoax, perpetrated on ignorant, somewhat dull-witted and unsuspecting humans, by a force of ambiguous origin. There are various conspiracy theories but it seems to me that it goes even deeper than this. For instance, some of the titles I've watched that would exemplify this genre are Zeitgeist, The Movie, a couple of BBC documentaries - The Century of Self and The Power of Nightmares. Even some of our mainstream North American documentaries might fall into this category: The Corporation and Who Killed the Electric Car?, for example. Some of these examples are really just exposes - they look at something very much rooted in the world as we know it and expose the layer that is often just beyond our vision. But, if that layer has a sinister, manipulative quality, maybe there are darker layers below that one...

I'm a Prison Break fan, and "the Company" is another exmaple - or take Lost - here again there's a well coordinated and complex plot. So - I'm just saying, this genre is interesting and I'm starting to see it's imprint in a variety of places. And, I'm also beginning to suspect that the people who are most likely to be knowledgeable and drawn to this genre are highly intelligent and very articulate young adults. Interesting. I actually think that we may be on the verge of a new era of "enlightenment" (does that mean that these years of incredible, obscene affluence have actually been a "dark age"?) - and that's pretty exciting and maybe more than a little frightening at the same time. For you Matrix fans (and here I'm only talking about the FIRST movie), red pill or blue pill?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Act Justly

I've been thinking about the "act justly" part of the Micah 6:8 verse - it's the one where the prophet Micah asks, "what does God require of us" and he answers his own question by saying that we should "act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God." So, WHO exactly, acts justly? Is not acting justly effectively to act against one's own self interest? Isn't it putting the needs and rights and dignity of other people ahead of your own? Isn't it surrendering one's opportunity for advancement so that someone else might be lifted up?

There's a quote a heard a while ago - I've thought about it a lot over the last few months and I may even have mentioned it in a previous post. The quote goes something like this, and I'm sorry that I don't even remember who said it or where I first heard it: "We don't always act according to what we profess, but we always act according to what we believe." In other words, profession - saying what we believe - is relatively easy. But the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. It's what we DO that counts and what we do reveals what we REALLY believe.

We can make impressive speeches and pronouncements about the way things are and the way we think they should be, but what do our actions say? Here's something I've wrestled with for a long time - I increasingly SEE the suffering and injustice caused by greed and economic systems built on a mentality that says "to the rich [or winner or victor] go the spoils." By this line of reasoning the West deserves to be rich and the poor of the earth - well, they're the poor. They don't have what it takes. They don't measure up. God must somehow be withholding his blessing. I can protest that I don't believe these things. I can say that I understand that God grieves over the plight of the poor of this world. I can even say that I believe that God calls me to love the poor and to provide for them as best I can. But the thing that haunts me is the fact that I still benefit from the system that makes me "rich" and others "poor". What do my actions say about what I believe?

Sometimes, when I'm especially honest - or perhaps, cynical - I think that I'm actually worse than those who intentionally and blatantly set out to exploit other people in order to secure a better position for themselves. There actions may be despicable but they are at least acting in a manner consistent with their beliefs. Can they actually be more honest than I am? Here's the bottom line: is it safe for me to play around the edges of justice, secure in the knowledge that the really greedy people will ensure that my security and privilege are maintained? And if I don't want that to be my legacy, what ought I to do? Must I sell all that I have, give the money away and literally follow Jesus? Is there any other way? A truly more effective way?

Monday, June 08, 2009

Some thoughts on Karl Marx... a tentative defense

As an undergraduate student and later throughout my graduate studies in sociology, I really enjoyed studying the classic social theorists, especially Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer. I loved reading about the historical context and the development of this fledgling social science which was so intrinsically appealing to me. These were philosophers and social analysts who defined the parameters for the field we now call sociology. I don't hear much these days about them, except for the odd awkward reference to Marx - usually by someone who is quick to clarify that he is "not a Marxist"! Interesting...

Though it's been MANY years since I first encountered the thinking of Marx, I still vividly recall the images that my reading produced in my mind. To this day, whenever I hear any reference to Karl Marx I see Marx and his friend, Frederick Engels (co-author of The Communist Manifesto published in 1848) and others in a smoky, noisy pub, engaged in intense conversation about the state of the world, the oppression of the masses, the injustices of an economic system that strips people of dignity. I sense their passion for the poor and their indignation over the evils of industrialization and the factory system. I agonize with them over the alienation of labour, whereby people quite literally become cogs in a machine of mass production, churning out "stuff" to appeal to a nascent materialism - now, incidentally, in full bloom or perhaps even a little past it's prime.

The themes of their writing, frankly, are similar to the things I spend a lot of time thinking about today in the context of global issues of justice and injustice. We talk about micro entreprise in countries like Kenya and Rwanda and Bolivia and the fact that it incredibly small loans can help people have dignity - they are "business owners" and they're able to provide for their families and send their kids to school. I've presented workshops on the global food crisis where we emphasize that the problem has less to do with the production of food and more to do with the fact that food is a commodity and poor people are priced out of the market.

It occurs to me that Marx's "bourgeoisie" have banded together to form massive corporations that control the means of production and siphon and squeeze profits from both land and labour.

So why are we so quick to distance ourselves from Marx? I think of some of the fundamental tenets of Marx's thinking - it was Karl Marx who said, for instance, "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need". This, in fact, was to be the motto of socialism, which Marx believed to be the ideal form of governance. That's right - socialism, NOT communism. According to Marx, communism would be a transitional form of governance which would be replaced by socialism. Marx was not a "communist" and Marx even declared that he was not a "Marxist"! Those "labels", I think, miss the whole point.

I've often thought that my biggest criticism of Marx (at least as I understand him) is that he underestimated the power of human selfishness and greed and the presence of evil in the world. In the end, Marx was an incurable optimist. He thought that humanity could and WOULD work for the common good and in so doing, everyday people would enjoy the dignity of their labour.

The other thing that people might have against Marx is his reported disdain for religion. You might have heard that Marx described relgion as the "opiate of the masses". Actually, the fuller quote is this: Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.Perhaps we shouldn't be quite so quick to assume that Marx intended this as a slam against religion. Maybe it's more a description of a role that religion was playing in a heartless world. Honestly there have been times (lots of them!) when I have felt that many of us - even people with deeply held faith beliefs - have settled for a watered down, complacent faith that makes us feel better, but fails to engage the world in any truly transformative way. So - I'm prepared to say that I appreciate Karl Marx and he's stretched and stimulated my thinking.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Peter's Sword: The Sequel

This is going to be quick but I want to add this before I forget or get distracted. I met someone today who had read the "Peter's Sword" entry and said that she'd looked into it and discovered that in Luke's gospel, Jesus actually tells the disciples to BUY swords. So I've just looked it up myself and sure enough, it's right there! If you want to check for yourself it's in Luke 22:36.

It's right after the Last Supper, after the disciples argue about which of them will be the greatest (now THAT must have irked Jesus!), after he has revealed to them that one of them will betray him, after he tells the boastful Peter that he will deny him three times before the rooster crows. Maybe it's just my imagination, but I get the sense that Jesus is a bit tense. He asks them if they have ever lacked anything in the time they've been with him and then he tells them that if they don't have a sword they should sell their cloak, if need be, and buy a sword. That's weird. Why would he tell them to buy swords? In fact, they say that they have TWO swords (again, I wonder why they have them!) and he says that two swords isn't enough. Isn't enough for WHAT? And is Jesus suddenly wanting to support the local economy? If he wants the disciples to be armed, why not just provide what they need?

So you see, I'm absolutely no further ahead. Why in the world would Jesus - the Prince of Peace - the guy who could call on the services of 10,000 angels - the Lamb of God who is about to be crucified by Roman soldiers - why would he instruct a bunch of fishermen, a tax collector, and the other 7 (whose occupations seem to be unknown) to buy swords? Especially in light of the fact that he apparently didn't intend for them to use them? If any of you have any ideas on this, PLEASE, feel free to share them. I hate loose ends!

For those of you who might be Chronicle of Narnia fans, do you suppose there's any connection between Peter the disciple and his sword and the sword of Peter in the Chronicles? And, if you want to see what Saint Peter's sword actually looked like, check it out at Not exactly a precision instrument! I'm thinking it's no wonder Peter (or whoever it was swinging that thing) lopped off a guard's ear!

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Gaia Theory: A CBC Interview with James Lovelock

Just when you think you've got your head around some of the pressing environmental issues and their impact on humanity, you read or hear something that turns it all upside down. At least that's been my experience of late. Just last week I happened to have CBC radio on during The Current and Anna Maria Tremonti was doing an interview with James Lovelock. The show started out with the promo CBC's been doing for "a million acts of green" and went on to say that all of the energy and hype that's going into encouraging humanity - at least those of us who are accustomed to living recklessly and carelessly in the developed world - to live more responsibly and with respect for environmental stewardship, may not make that much difference. What? That got my attention.

James Lovelock, it turns out, is the originator of what's called the Gaia Theory. The basic idea behind the Gaia Theory is that the earth is a self-regulating organism which has it's own survival agenda. If James Lovelock is right, we should perhaps be less concerned about saving the earth from US and more concerned about saving US from the earth! According to him, the earth WILL look after itself but it may not look after us. In fact, he believes that the population will dwindle from the current nearly 7 billion, to only 1 billion. You can read more about Gaia Theory at . Oh, and it's not that we shouldn't reduce green house gas emissions and look for greener ways of living, but he argues that it may be too late to reverse the earth's adaptation to our carelessness. And, he suggests that we'd do well to focus instead on our own adaptation to the effects of climate change on our habitat.

Well! That's interesting, and frankly a bit frightening - if he's right. As I listened I was reminded of a situation in Vancouver a few years ago. They'd had heavier than usual rain in Vancouver [in my experience, it's ALWAYS raining in Vancouver!] and the city was under a "boil water order". Now note that it wasn't that they didn't have access to water - residents were just warned that they needed to boil the water before ingesting it. An inconvenience to be sure, especially for those who are used to unlimited quantities of clean, potable water at the turn of a tap - on demand, so to speak. You can imagine that demand for bottled water went through the roof. And here's the thing. There were reports of people - normally NICE people, good citizens - coming to blows at the Costco over bottled water! A colleague I was visiting at the time - who, by the way had lived for a number of years in Africa - remarked wryly that these same people very likely would say of Africans, "I don't know why they keep killing one another!"

My point in all this is to say that many of us who have had the incredible privilege to live in Canada all of our lives, and especially those of us who are 55 years old or so or younger, really don't know what it's like to live with scarcity. And consequently, we may not know how we would (or WILL) deal with scarcity when it arrives on our doorstep. I don't understand all the science behind Gaia Theory or other perspectives on climate change, but I think a lot about our responsibilities to our neighbors - whether they live around the block or across the globe. I note the news reports of violence around the world - food riots and riots over access to water and political instability and terrorism and attacks on humanitarian organizations trying to deliver aid - and I wonder what it will all come to. Mostly I wonder how I will respond if and when my comfortable life is disturbed by scarcity. And I think that if I want to respond well and out of a generous spirit, I'd better start cultivating a generous disposition now. If you'd like to listen to the interview with James Lovelock, just click on the title of this post and scroll down to Part 2.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Peter's Sword

Just so you’re clear from the start, this blog entry is about two things. The main thing is an observation about how we read and understand the bible. The secondary point is a question about Peter’s sword – which is really an illustration of the first point.

So – about reading the bible. I guess I should begin by stating the obvious – even BEFORE we might read the bible, we have different views ABOUT the bible. Some believe – and believe very passionately – that Scripture is the inspired and inerrant (that is, completely accurate) word of God. Not that the bible CONTAINS the word of God but that the bible IS the word of God, in its entirety. On the other end of the continuum are those who dismiss the bible completely as being irrelevant to contemporary life or, even worse, an intentional pack of lies meant to deceive people – people, by the way who are by definition, not very intelligent - into believing all kinds of foolishness. And – clearly – there are lots of stops or points in between these two continuum “ends”.

As for me, I grew up going to a Sunday School that was structured around a catechism. We “learned” through repetition and memorization, basic Christian truths as presented in the Scriptures. It was pretty straightforward and, I have to say, pretty effective in laying out a basic framework of the Christian faith. I actually have fond, though somewhat indistinct memories of my early days in Sunday School. In terms of my view of the bible, the bottom line for my young mind was an understanding that the bible is God’s word. My vision of God was fairly limited and any questions I might have had about the likelihood that ALL Scripture – that is, every word of the 66 books (written by dozens of authors over thousands of years) that comprise the Old and New Testaments – is precisely as God intended it – would only surface later, long after I had completed the catechism and moved onto more interesting and dynamic methods of learning.

My current view – still somewhat under construction by the way – is that a lot of people in this day and age have dismissed the bible because of a caricature of the extremes on the ends of the continuum. And that’s unfortunate – no, it’s worse than unfortunate. It’s actually a tragedy. Maybe I’ll pick this thought up in another entry, but for now I want to get back to my thinking for THIS entry.

My first point, then (so far I’ve just given the preamble!) is that we read and understand and interpret Scripture based on all kinds of things, many of which we’re not even conscious of. There’s our culture, of course, and our own personality, and our experiences – as varied and thought-provoking or pain- provoking as they may be – and, in my view, the tutelage of the Holy Spirit. This is a critical point but I’m not going to even attempt to explain it here.

The point is, we read or hear Scripture and it interacts with us at a point in time and place. Many people over the years have marveled at the way Scripture can take on slightly (or radically!) different nuances and meaning on different days. The Psalms, for example, can speak to us a message of comfort and hope and then – on a different day or in a different place – the same Psalm can make us angry or can bring us to tears. Sometimes we have read or heard a certain passage dozens or even hundreds of times. Maybe we’ve even memorized it and think we’ve squeezed every bit of meaning out of it. And then, seemingly out of nowhere – there’s yet another nuance we hadn’t previously noticed.

Here’s where Peter’s sword comes in. The scene is the Garden of Gethsemane. The Roman soldiers, alerted by Judas as to Jesus’ whereabouts, have come to the Garden to arrest Jesus. Jesus, knowing the suffering that lies just around the corner for him, has gone to the Garden with his disciples to pray. He takes four of them with him, deep into the Garden and asks them to keep watch. Now, come to think of it – that’s odd. What were they watching for? Hm. Well – as you may know, the disciples aren’t very good at keeping watch. In fact, not once but twice, Jesus returns to them, only to find them asleep on the job. Now THAT must have been a tad discouraging, considering that Jesus was about to complete his “assignment” on earth and leave the ministry in their hands. But I digress.

Jesus has prayed – so intensely, in fact that he has sweat drops of blood (hm – is this where the expression “blood, sweat and tears” comes from?). He’s come to terms with the fact that the time has come for him to shed his blood at the hands of the Romans but due to the agitation of the religious leaders of his own chosen people – that must sting more than a little! The disciples have caught a little shut eye in the peace and quiet of the Garden. Then – somber and threatening music – the soldiers arrive, led by Judas who (boldly or reluctantly?) identifies and betrays Jesus by kissing him on the cheek.

So – here’s the thing. Peter – impulsive, passionate, decisive Peter – draws his sword and cuts off the ear of one of the soldiers. Wait a minute. Peter’s sword? Do you remember any scene in all of Scripture where Peter is bearing arms? Why does a fisherman turned disciple even HAVE a sword? He’s been following Jesus around the country for three years. JESUS: Miracle worker. Teacher. Son of God. Carpenter. If you’ve read the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) which chronicle Jesus’ three years of teaching and living amidst a pretty oppressive and even violent society, you may remember various examples of Jesus’ non-violent nature and teachings. Remember that he’s the one that said we should love our enemies, turn the other cheek, repay evil with love. So what’s up with the sword?

When I have some time I’ll check out what’s been said about this – even though I’ve never heard anyone mention it in the various sermons I’ve heard on this scene from the Garden (and since we hear sermons about his every year on Good Friday, that’s a lot of sermons) – still, I’m sure commentators who dissect every verse, will have something to say. But in the meantime, I raise it for you to think about – or even better, if you have heard something or have some thoughts, PLEASE, feel free to post a comment! But more than that, I bring it up so we can reflect on the way we tend to reduce Scripture to our own limited experience and understanding. It’s one thing to interpret Scripture through the lenses we have – after all, what else can we do? – but it’s totally another thing to presume that that’s ALL there is, because that’s ALL we can see at this particular time.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Through a Glass Darkly

There’s this image from Scripture about seeing through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:12). In other words, the idea is that we can’t see clearly – it’s like there are shadows and distortions and smudges that prevent us from seeing things as they really are. It’s an image that has always frustrated me, because I love to think things through and put things together to gain a deeper and clearer understanding. And it’s like, no matter how hard I try, I’m never going to really get it. So, it’s frustrating, but there are moments when it’s also liberating.

I just watched an episode of Numb3rs – it’s a show about two brothers. One brother – Don - is an FBI agent and the other – Charlie - is a brilliant mathematician. Charlie is always getting involved, helping the FBI solve cases by applying mathematical models to the investigation. In the episode I just watched, Charlie has convinced Don that he can actually anticipate the next drug to hit the streets and can manipulate the market by “dirtying the brand”. The idea is that by buying up the limited early supply, the market will respond by increasing the price and actually cutting the quality in an effort to meet demand.

Charlie’s actually so confident that his plan will work that he is giddy with success. Ah, but wait! He hadn't figured on the intelligence of one of the bad guys to also anticipate the effect on the drug market if the brand became "dirtied" by high cost and low quality. So - being unscrupulous, he foiled Charlie's plan by murdering a couple other bad guys and seizing their drug supply.

Anyway, the point is that the model - which looked good on paper - failed to take into account ALL of the variables. The result was near disaster for one of the FBI agents, but also a reminder to me - to us - that no matter how smart or clever we are, we need to be careful of arrogance. Life is wonderfully complicated!

Actually, it reminds me of a workshop my husband and I went to many years ago (about 23!) at Memorial Univeristy in Newfoundland. It was a workshop about fisheries and some economists presented a model to explain why a certain course of action should be followed in the Newfoundland groundfish fishery. As we listened, my husband - himself a commercial fisherman with an astute grasp of the complexity of life in general and of fishing in particular - noticed that the economic model seemed to be missing something. More specifically, it didn't take into account the fact that fishermen often are involved in fisheries for more than one species. When he raised the issue, the economists dismissed his concern, noting that the "model" couldn't allow for that. Bottom line was this: they were presenting information and suggesting strategies based on information they knew was inaccurate and incomplete. And yet the model looked very persuasive - scientific, rational, sophisticated. I think it fooled them and they forgot that, in all areas of human endeavour, we look through a glass darkly.

Some people may find that discouraging or disconcerting. But I love it. I love the fact that God is smarter than we are and he puts understanding just beyond our reach. I embrace the mystery and accept - sometimes a bit grudgingly - my limitations. For me, that helps me to "walk humbly" with God...

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Protectionism and Poverty

Since my last blog there have been some interesting and historic political drama and intrigue in both Canada and the United States. In Canada, Stephen Harper's Conservative minority government has avoided defeat on a confidence motion - the budget. They have Michael Ignatieff, the new Liberal leader, to thank for that. Ignatieff prudently (and predictably) decided to support a deficit budget which will see Canada spend over $60 billion dollars (that we don't have!) over the next couple of years. Political analysts say that the budget is actually more of a Liberal than Conservative budget anyway, reflecting the view that we must "spend our way" out of the current financial instability and recession. Seems a bit counter-intuitive to me - especially given current concers for environmental degradation, but I'm not an economist...

South of the border, Barack Obama has been duly inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States of America. In a fairy tale-like story of epic proportions, Obama has captured the hearts and hopes, not only of many Americans, but of people of assorted nationalities around the world. He is, I suppose, the great BLACK hope - the first African American President and a man of apparent integrity with a refreshing grasp of the unpleasant realities of the challenges facing his administration.

However, a proposed $800 Billion stimulus package which is tied to "buy American" protectionism, has drawn criticism from economists and politicians from around the world. It seems to me that this is a critical moment for a global economy which has produced an enormous gap between the rich and poor of the world. If the United States slips into a protectionist mode - well - the results could be beyond catastrophic for the poor. And, desperate people are prone to do desperate things. Of course there are many, MANY variables involved, but I believe it's more realism than alarmism to say that any hope of global stability will be lost if protectionist policies are adopted in the US.

I've been reading a book by Paul Collier (a Professor of Economics and Director of the Center for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University) entitled The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. Collier identifies four poverty traps which characterize the 58 or so countries that comprise the bottom billion of the world's population: the conflict trap, the natural resource trap, being landlocked with bad neighbours, and bad governance in a small country. He then goes on to identify components of a global approach to rescue the bottom billion and reverse the marginalization that has occurred through globalization. Trade policy is a key component of this strategy, along with aid, military intervention and laws and charters.

Protectionism - especially from within the US - is a clear and present danger to world peace and to any hope that the bottom billion might one day enjoy such things as adequate food, clean water, universal primary education, basic health care and the opportunity to dream and plan for a future. The challenges before President Obama are enormous. Is he a man - THE man - for such a time as this? I sure hope so!!!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Freedom or Discipline?

Last weekend I spent some time with a friend who is my accountability partner for the Live It Out challenge. If you're not familiar with this challenge, check it out at So - in our desire to live more simply, justly and faithfully, we spent a bit of time setting some specific and more or less measurable goals in different areas of our lives: financial, social (that is, family and friends), physical, intellectual, spiritual, work, etc. It was just a bit like making New Year's resolutions and maybe that's why it made me a little bit uneasy - you know what happens to most New Year's resolutions, right?

So I've been thinking about the whole approach to Live It Out and wondering if my admonition that we must avoid "legalism" is going to work if we make lists of dos and don'ts to help us move in the direction of greater simplicity, justice and faithfulness. Hear me out. I'm not abandoning the idea, just wondering. It seems that we have a stubborn resistance to exercising our freedom in healthy ways. For example, when I think about past efforts to lose weight without being obsessive about it, I must confess that, as sensible as my thinking is (that is, eat healthy but in moderation, get plenty of good exercise) I invariably GAIN weight rather than lose it! It's only when I get serious (aka LEGALISTIC and OBSESSIVE!) about keeping track that I start to lose, and that only as long as I stay focused. As you MAY know, it's a frustrating TRAP...

This same friend - my accountability partner - was telling me about an audio lecture she'd been listening to by a Catholic theologian, John Shea, who said something to the effect that our objective in our relationship with God is not KNOWLEDGE so much as WONDER. As I think about the way my mind works, I realize that I LOVE knowledge. The pursuit of TRUTH is a huge motivator for me. There's nothing like having some new insight or learning something that helps put other things, previously learned, into a new and clearer perspective. I love learning and thinking. But yet, there was for me an immediate resonance with this notion that it's the WONDER of God that nourishes the soul. That, as rich as knowledge is, it can - if we're not careful - get in the way of wonder. Child-like wonder. Child-like simplicity. Child-like delight.

Maybe I just need to live with the tensions - between freedom and discipline, between knowledge and wonder. And just one other quick thing. I've listened this week to an audiobook, Abandoned to God which is a wonderful biography of Oswald Chambers (perhaps best known for the devotional book, My Utmost for His Highest. I REALLY enjoyed listening to this inspirational and very well narrated story of the life of one of my spiritual heroes. It tied in very nicely with my thinking about freedom and discipline, though you'll have to read it or listen to it for yourself to understand the full impact. Oswald Chamber's motto for everyday life could be summed up as follows: Trust God and do the next thing! So - in addition to my specific Live It Out goals, I'm intent on applying this principle in my own life. It occurs to me that Oswald Chambers was a man of great insight and knowledge, but it was a knowledge rooted in wonder. By the way, you can download Abandoned to God for free from You'll need to create an account, log in and then go to the free download section. This book is the free "book of the month" for January. Enjoy and pass the word...

Ultimately I want to be the kind of person who naturally lives simply, justly and faithfully. I know I'm not there just yet - I'm easily distracted and all too often give into temptations to indulge my appetite for "stuff" and the complications that invariably come with the stuff (reminded just now of Jonathan Wilson's article in the most recent Mosaic magazine called "Consumed: Faithful Discipleship in a Society of Consumption". I'm not there yet, but I'm on the journey. And for now, if it helps to set specific goals and be accountable to a friend for how I'm doing, so be it. Freedom beckons!