Friday, December 02, 2011

More on the abortion issue

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was a French sociologist who did a fascinating study of suicide. His work is certainly worth looking at in terms of suicide but what was - and is - most interesting in his work on suicide is the observation that changes in rates of suicide say something about society and not just the behaviour of discreet individuals. He said, for example, that if a person commits suicide, that is a personal tragedy, but if the rate of suicide changes in a society, that is a public issue. And it's not just about suicide. The same could be said on a number of fronts. Take abortion.

When a woman decides to have an abortion - regardless of the reasons, the process, etc. - there is a certain sense of emotional response (relief, grief, confusion, etc.). That's a personal issue. And this is the strength of the so-called "pro-choice" movement. It's personal. The woman has the right to choose whether or not to remain pregnant, regardless of the means by which the pregnancy started.

What we often don't think about is the view from a societal perspective. Who can argue that abortion isn't personal. It is, and usually intensely so. But it's also social. If the rate of abortion changes - either up or down - that says something about social forces at work.

After posting my last blog I got thinking about abortion rates in Canada and what they might say about our society. When I started digging a bit, I confess that I was pretty shocked by what I found. In terms of the rate of abortion in Canada today, any guesses as to what it might be? I asked my first year class at St. Stephen's University and they figured maybe 5-10% of pregnancies are wilfully terminated through abortion. Wrong! Let's take 2005. According to Stats Canada, in 2005 there were 342,176 babies born and 96,815 induced abortions. That is, for every 100 live births there were 28.3 abortions! (see http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/080521/dq080521c-eng.htm). What?!?! About 25% of pregnancies end in abortion in Canada! Really?????!!!! How has this happened?

There's a very long answer to that question, and there's a short answer. For now I'll stick with the short answer. It seems to me that the abortion issue has generated such passion - on both "sides" (which, as I mentioned in my last posting, is perhaps mis-cast) that it's very hard for us to even talk about it. Maybe our "Canadian-ness" prohibits us from truly engaging in healthy debate on issues like this (and many other social/moral issues!). We don't like to fight - unless of course we're an "activist" and the activists are often viewed with suspicion. Many Canadians would cross to the other side of the street to avoid an activist. We prefer to avoid conflict and confrontation. I get that.

But when a quarter of pregnancies end in abortion - which I think we can all agree is a very BIG number (and note that these are official statistics for abortions legally performed in Canada in 2005, and therefore do not include abortions obtained in other countries or outside of the legal facilities where stats are gathered and submitted to the authorities). One of the sad things about this is that we are not talking about what this means for our society. What's the public issue or issues behind these stats? WHY is it that so many women are choosing this route? What are the personal and public consequences?

Is it possible for us to talk about this without the acrimony that has sometimes characterized the debate? Is it too much to ask that we all take a step back, take a deep breath, set aside our personal convictions and come to the table prepared to work together to find a more sane response to the conditions which perpetuate the demand for abortion in this country?

My students where shocked by the figures. For the most part, these students have been raised in a post modern world where they have a default position that accepts the underlying assumptions behind a rights-based social policy. But they are shocked by the figures and they are dismayed. They don't know exactly what to think about it or what should be done, but they know - intuitively perhaps (which is one of the strengths of post moderns) - that something's not right with this picture. And, in true post modern fashion, they don't want to argue about it. They're not interested in winning an argument. They just want us to find a way forward. Can we do that?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Can we regain our sanity on the abortion issue?

This morning on CBC news I heard a disturbing story about a woman in western Canada (Calgary) – Meredith Borowiec – who abandoned her new born son in a dumpster last fall and is suspected of having killed two other newborns (for the story see http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/story/2011/11/22/calgary-dumpster-baby-murder.html). The baby boy survived but one can only speculate that the two previous newborns did not. How very tragic! I can’t even begin to imagine the circumstances that surrounded these events.

I know of women who desperately want to have and raise a child, and for one reason or another, simply cannot get pregnant or, if they do become pregnant, can’t carry a baby to term. For so many women – and men – it is simply inconceivable that a mother could throw out a precious life. The CBC report alluded to the possibility that a woman who would do such a thing may be afflicted with some form of mental illness. I have no idea but it certainly doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that a “sane” person would do, or could do. I wonder what Meredith’s story is.

And of course at this time of year, it’s hard not to think of the birth of a baby boy almost 2000 years ago, who came into the world in humility and left it in shame, but is claimed by billions of people around the world to be the fulcrum point of human history. Who knows what the future holds for this one little “dumpster” baby? What plans might God have to redeem his life?

I also can’t help thinking about the way our collective conscience has been shaped – maybe even seared – by advocacy around the abortion issue. Why, oh why, are we so viscerally dismayed by the actions of Meredith Borowiec, and so apparently unconcerned by the actions of thousands of women who every week terminate pregnancies for one reason or another. What’s the difference? Activists have lobbied for a woman’s right to “choose” and by and large, society has gone along with it. A pregnancy that is unplanned and unwanted can be terminated and that’s that. The remains are discarded - perhaps not in a dumpster – but discarded nonetheless. The life that might have been is nipped in the bud. This too is tragic.

It’s curious, isn’t it, that the two scenarios which are so close, have such different outcomes? The actions of Meredith Borowiec not only offend our public conscience, but are blatantly illegal, while the actions of a woman who has an abortion are simply considered to be within the range of a woman’s rights over her own body. I’m not writing this to point fingers or to condemn anyone who has felt that her best option – perhaps only option – was to terminate a pregnancy. Rather, I’m looking at the way public opinion has been shaped around this issue. Life is complex – incredibly complex – and women have often had to make difficult and painful decisions. We make choices all the time – some of those choices are life giving and sacrificial and some of them are perhaps rooted in less noble responses - but I suspect that we all intend to make good, healthy, respectable choices whenever we can. Nobody - well, maybe I should say few people - set out to make bad choices.

I think it’s unfortunate that the debate has been framed around the issue of “choice”. The pro-choice side argues that women should have the right to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term. The pro-life side argues that every life is precious and every effort should be made to preserve it. I sometimes think that the two sides are perhaps NOT as contrary as the ongoing debate suggests. Does anyone really WANT women to terminate their pregnancy? Does anyone really think that life is NOT precious? OK – maybe the cynics (realists?) among us will argue that the abortion industry is a business that, like other businesses is “for profit”. But I have to believe that the front line people in the debate – on both sides - have different motives.

If one is FOR LIFE, does that mean that they’re necessarily against CHOICE and if one is FOR CHOICE does that mean that they’re necessarily against LIFE? It’s a spurious division.

It seems to me that the goal for all of us ought to be to work together to ensure that the best choice a woman can make is to carry every baby to term. What if we stopped arguing and put all of our efforts and energies into creating a more nurturing environment in which babies can be conceived, born, raised and loved - from birth to death? What if we changed our culture so that women who currently can’t face the prospect of having and caring for a baby were given realistic other options? Has the debate taken on a life of it’s own - at the expense of the many, many lives of babies and their mothers, and even society at large – that should now be terminated? Could we all lay down our ideologies and passions for long enough to get our bearings and figure out who the real enemy is?

If we start from the premise that life IS precious (and for Christians and people of most, if not all, faith traditions - sacred), maybe we could begin to find more common ground. I’m not totally naive. I know that there are fundamental and irreconcilable differences between those who are “pro life” and those who are “pro choice”, but while the debate rages on, the reality of unplanned and unwanted pregnancy continues to wreak havoc on our society at all kinds of levels, seen and unseen.

How many Merediths are out there? What can we do – as a society – to provide the kind of resources (emotional, material, spiritual) that they need? How can we regain our collective sanity on this issue?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Occupying Wall Street (and other Financial strongholds)… Be Careful What You Wish For

I’ve been following the grassroots movement that has been tagged, “Occupy Wall Street” with interest and some trepidation. The media certainly portrays it as a movement of malcontents – of those for whom the status quo isn’t working. They are the unemployed, the underemployed, the otherwise economically marginalized of our society who can no longer afford to live the American Dream. They significantly include what is perhaps the first recognizable wave of middle class casualties who are caught between the idealism and artificially manipulated appetites of a consumer driven society and the reality of limits in the form of debt – and if we look into the horizon - also the limit of ecological sustainability.

I suspect that many of them are quite baffled as to how this has happened. How is it that they now have the time and the inclination to join a grassroots protest movement? In many cases, they might tell us that not that long ago – maybe a few years ago, or even a few months ago - everything was good. They were employed in jobs that seemed reasonably secure. They had enough money to pay the bills and enough credit to enjoy the latest gadgets and other consumer comforts. They and their kids were busy, coming and going, with all kinds of activities and events. They were part of a culture that thrived on busyness. But then the economy took a nose dive – how did the government and the banks let that happen!? - and they suddenly couldn’t keep it all afloat. Maybe they lost their house, their job, their ability to stay in the game. Literally overnight they lost their position in society and with it, their confidence in the future.

And so, as more and more found themselves on the sidelines, the seeds of protest began to grow. Indignation set in. And puzzlement is giving way to frustration and frustration to indignation and indignation to anger. Maybe not enough anger to do anything rash, but enough to say ENOUGH. It’s not fair. I don't like what’s happening.

But the trouble with protest movements – even ones that start out peaceful – is that it doesn’t take much to unleash the anger that is simmering under the surface. And crowds of people are not rational. Even in Canada we’ve seen compelling evidence of this uncomfortable fact in recent years, most notably in Vancouver the night of the Stanley Cup Final last spring.

Sociologists can tell us that crowds do not think like individuals do. Crowds will bring out the very worst behaviors in people who would never think of doing the very things that they end up doing in the passion of the moment. Crowds are not rational. Crowds are not to be trusted – ever.

But what I really want to say in this post is that the protesters should be careful what they wish for. Most of them feel that the present system is unfair. They chant that they are the 99% and want to draw attention to the fact that the other 1% - the economic elite – are manipulating the system to their advantage. Governments are catering to corporations and corporations are greedy and exploitative. And it’s just not fair. They argue that the rich should not receive the spoils, but that they should be distributed more equitably. They want justice. Or do they?

I suppose that if the world really were only as big as one country – Canada or the US, for instance – then maybe they’d have a point. But the world is not one country and if we’re demanding justice, then we have to ask how far our concern extends. Do we want justice only for ourselves – because we suddenly can’t take for granted the relatively affluent lifestyle we’ve come to expect? I’m sure that I’ve quoted before in a previous blog, the astounding figure that the top 20% of the world controls some 86% of the wealth while the bottom 20% controls only 1%. And as incredulous as we may be, even the protesters in Canada and the US – the 99% in their country - fall in the camp of the top 20% of the world’s wealthy. Where should justice draw the line?

I expect that if the protests become violent – say someone decides that it would be a good idea to trash a mansion or two – the government will intervene swiftly and with the use of force. And who can blame them if they do. After all, no one can afford to allow our society to collapse into chaos and anarchy. These are dangerous times.

And because these are things I think about pretty much all the time, the question I have for people of faith is this: where will WE be if things begin to unravel. Will we be fighting for our rights and to hold onto what we’ve got (or had), or will we – in the worst of times – live out a gospel of justice and righteousness for the poor and downtrodden?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The (Artificial) Tree of Life

When Adam and Eve had succumbed to the temptation to eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God’s punishment was swift and irrevocable. After God confronted the embarrassed pair with the fact of their fateful disobedience, he cursed the serpent and the earth and pronounced a new everyday reality for Adam and Eve. Life would be hard - the price they paid for a moment's surrender to temptation was higher than they ever could have imagined. And then he banished them from the Garden SO THAT THEY WOULD NOT HAVE ACCESS TO THE TREE OF LIFE. The picnic was over!

Humanity was thus pushed – literally pushed - out from the place of God’s provision, to a whole new reality where they would need to rely on their own innovation and creativity in order to survive. Humanity was no longer – or at least, so it must have seemed to them – under the protection and provision of a gracious and loving God. Humans were compelled to make their own way in the world. They had to rely on themselves and their resourcefulness. Life was going to be difficult, painful, hard. And God, though "an ever present help in trouble" (Psalm 46:1), was no longer their companion in a well-watered Garden.

Blocked from access to the precious tree of life, they first settled into the labor of food production in an inhospitable physical environment. By the sweat of their brows and the diligence of their hands, they constructed shelters, dug wells, planted gardens, made clothing. They established their lives as refugees from the Garden. But as time went on and they had adjusted to the new rhythms of life, they began a new project. They set to work to construct a new tree of life - an artificial tree – a masterpiece of their own effort and ingenuity.

Of course God was not oblivious to their efforts. I wonder if he was amused – even proud – of their efforts to build abundant and prosperous lives for themselves and to compensate for illness and decay and death by learning anatomy, physiology, the healing power of plants – and much later, synthetic medicines and treatments. To recover some of what had been lost when the gates of the Garden shut behind them.

We know he wasn’t impressed when the peoples of the earth got together to build the Tower of Babel; something, by the way, which has always puzzled me. How I long for a spirit of collaboration and cooperation these days as we consider the state of global economies and ecologies. A little pre-Babel collaboration would go a long way to defining and perhaps attaining a modicum of justice – or at least that’s the way it seems to me.

But I’ve been listening (again) to Viktor Frankl’s 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which chronicles his experiences as an inmate in German concentration camps during the Second World War. It’s a disturbing book insofar as it examines the primal theme of existence in the face of suffering and inhumanity and addresses the question of why, in such circumstances, some survive and others do not. As a psychiatrist, Frankl favours a scientific answer, though his own experience, one might argue, defies such rational reductionism. He states bluntly, for example, that the “best” inmates did not survive because they were not willing to do whatever it took to ensure their best odds. And yet, in recounting his experience, he describes in convincing detail, the way that “fate” determined his course. He was about to attempt an escape – on several occasions – when some incident thwarted the plan and in retrospect, the aborted plan led him through the door of survival.

Perhaps it was simply fate, or perhaps God protected him. This latter position, however, raises the uncomfortable and unanswerable question as to why God would protect some - and not others - from the gas chambers or from death by disease or starvation. The conviction which I have as I listen to Frankl’s audiobook though, is that despite the distractions of life, what really matters – the only thing that matters! – is our character. Or, put another way, our training in righteousness, a matter which unfortunately attracts little attention in the hustle and bustle of post-Babel life.

So, we may long for a spirit of cooperation and collaboration as we envision an end to human suffering and depravity, but the only thing that we actually have some control over is the state of our own heart in relation to a mysterious God. We can pour our energies and time into the “artificial tree of life” project – that is, manmade efforts to secure eternal life by our own efforts – or we can surrender our heart, mind, soul and strength to this God who promises us that if we will submit to Him in ALL things, He WILL direct our paths (Proverbs 3:5-6).

Can I lay down my plans and ambitions and learn to trust God to show me what to do and what to think in ALL things?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Walking on Water: What kind of leadership lesson is it?


Thirty odd years ago I was a pretty serious athlete. I had a field hockey coach who would stop a drill with a blast of her whistle and we'd all freeze wherever we were for what she liked to call, "a teachable moment". Teachable moments were opportunities to learn from one another's mistakes. It was never very rewarding to be the one who made the mistake, but we all came to value the teachable moments as vital ways to strengthen the team. I think that Peter provided the disciples with a number of "teachable moments".

I’ve been thinking about the story of the night Peter walked on water (see http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+14%3A22-33&version=NIV). It’s one of those stories that’s so familiar, I wonder what I might be missing. Jesus has just fed the multitudes (thousands of people) with a little boy’s lunch of two fish and five loaves. After everyone has eaten their fill, the disciples gather up the leftovers – twelve baskets full! The crowds wander off, I suppose in different directions to return to their homes and Jesus insists that the disciples set out by boat to cross the sea to Gennesaret. They shove off and Jesus goes off to the hills to pray.

I imagine that they’re tired but maybe energized by participating in a miracle – I think that I would be. And at least some of them – the fishermen among them - would feel at home on the water. But as is sometimes the case on the Sea of Galilee, the wind picks up and before long the boat is being battered by the waves. Even fishermen can be intimidated by rough seas. There they are, hanging on for dear life, trying to keep their fear at bay, senses on alert. It’s dark. There’s water everywhere. They’re soaked to the skin – scared. And now, to top it off, there’s a ghost – or something – coming toward them on the water. I think we sometimes rush through this part, but we need to understand – they are terrified – absolutely terrified.

Jesus is quick to reassure them. “It’s me”, he says. “No need to worry.”

So first question –why didn’t Jesus just meet them in Gennesaret? Why was it necessary for him to meet them in the middle of the Sea? There is clearly something for us to learn from the encounter that follows. Peter – brash, act now - think later - guy that he is – is perhaps anxious to disguise his own fear. Maybe he overcompensates and, as is his nature, gets himself out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire. Others might be relieved to have Jesus join them in the boat, calm the winds, reassure them - "thank God you're here... we were so afraid!". But Peter has never been content with the easy path. No. He’s a take charge kind of guy. He needs to stand out, make a splash, so to speak. So he challenges Jesus to call him out of the boat so that he might demonstrate his spiritual maturity - teach his fellow disciples a thing or two about real power and faith. Peter wants to walk on water. He wants to defy the laws of nature. For sure, no one could accuse Peter of being timid, or of hiding in the crowd. And when Jesus calls him out of the boat, he doesn’t ease himself over the side – he jumps out!

So the way I’ve always understood what happens next is this: Peter starts out strong - confident. He’s actually walking on water – one step, two, maybe three or four – but then he starts to think about how amazing it is. Or maybe he suddenly realizes how foolish he’s been – sure he’s walking on water but the waves are REALLY big. The fear rises up and he begins to sink. He calls out to Jesus – “Master, save me!” And Jesus does. He grabs his hand and pulls him out of the water and the two of them climb aboard the boat. Only then do the winds subside.

The lesson, I’ve always thought, is that we can do amazing, incredible, miraculous things, when we’re willing to take risks – when we jump out of the boat and keep our eyes on Jesus. But today I’m wondering if that’s a lesson that is culturally biased. Maybe it’s the WRONG leadership lesson to conclude from this story.

Maybe Jesus humours Peter’s request – Lord, it sure would be cool if I could walk on water – or, to get to the underlying principle, a few miracles would greatly enhance my reputation - only to teach him to know the limitations of his humanity. What if Peter had made it all the way to Jesus and then back to the boat – or even to the shore? What if he was able to walk on water any time he wanted to? Would this have indicated his ability or preparedness for pastoring Jesus’ church? Did Peter fail a test that night? Since Jesus ultimately said to Peter “on this rock I will build my church” it seems clear that Peter didn't fail, and yet we tend to think that if we are going to be effective leaders, we ought to be able to walk on water.

Maybe we’ve taken the wrong lesson from this passage – maybe, in fact, we have too many leaders who have learned how to walk on water but have forgotten to call out to God, “save me”.

Self-reliance – something so highly valued in our culture - may actually be one of the biggest hindrances to the growth of the kingdom. When we're looking for the lesson for us in a teachable moment, we need to be careful of our cultural biases and make sure we're getting the intended message. God did not call Peter to walk on water and he doesn’t call us to. We are NOT Messiahs. The miracles - then and today - are God's miracles, performed for His purposes. We may have a front row seat, or even be in the spotlight on centre stage. Heck, it may even look like WE'RE performing miracles. But when it comes to leadership, here's the bottom line: We are not building our own kingdoms, but God’s kingdom and we’d best not forget that.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Choice...?

Henry Ford once euphemistically said of his Model T Ford that “you can have any color you want, so long as it’s black”. Choice is something we - in middle and upper class North America anyway - take for granted. We make choices everyday: what to wear, what to eat, how to travel, where to shop, what to buy, who to connect with, who to vote for, where to vacation, where to volunteer, charities to support, what job or career to pursue, and so on and so on.

There are other choices too – choices on a deeper level – about who to be, who or what to worship, who to marry, who to trust, how to live and how to die. An unwanted, unplanned, unexpected pregnancy prompts a choice. A serious illness requires that choices be made about treatment and care and in some cases, end of life decisions. We make choices all the time – big or little, easy or difficult, good or bad. As we look back, we can see how these individual choices have become intertwined - creating, as Carole King says, a "tapestry"...

My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue
An everlasting vision of the ever-changing view
A wondrous woven magic in bits of blue and gold
A tapestry to feel and see, impossible to hold.

Sometimes we make decisions and will rationalize the choice we make by saying that we had “no choice”. I suspect that it’s rarely (if ever) true that we literally have no other choice, but it may certainly seem that way. And it seems obvious to me that no one sets out to make bad choices… we don’t wake up in the morning and say to ourselves, “I think I’ll see how many bad choices I can make today.” No. We make bad choices because somehow, at the time, it seems like the only or the best option we have. Sure, someone else in another pair of shoes, might know that our choice will lead us into trouble, but we don't see it the same way ourselves. Nor can we.

We talk a lot in this country about having the freedom to choose. We don’t like it when government or church or “big brother” tells us what to do, what to think, what to say, what to believe. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms has enshrined the principle of choice in our legal systems and embedded it deeply in our cultural mindset. But how REAL is our ability to choose?

Are we so preoccupied with making superficial decisions about the daily minutia of our pampered lives that we don't even notice that the more substantial decisions are made for us? One of the parenting tactics that is recommended these days for parents who have been conditioned to think that children must be empowered to "choose", is to offer the child a "choice" - would you like to read a book or play with your blocks? We don't include in the list of options, activities that might be dangerous or inappropriate. It's win, win - or at least that's the theory. The child gets to pick and the parent has the immense satisfaction of seeing the child willingly engaged in an approved activity. It seems like a good idea when it comes to keeping our kids safe and reasonably content. But it's a principle that is played out at all kinds of levels.

Election time. You may vote for candidate A, B, C or D. Or you may exercise your right NOT to vote, or to spoil your ballet. It's up to you. You can live where you want, study what you want, work where you want - so long as you can make it all work together so that your life falls within the lines of social acceptability. By and large we get to choose, but we don't necessarily have any say in determining the available options. But, you might argue, of course it's not possible for us to all be completely free to do as we wish, without regard for the consequences of our choices on other people. We have a system - a democratic system - that takes all this into account. In order for social order to be maintained, we have to accept limitations, We have to entrust someone - those who are smarter, stronger, wealthier than we are - to establish the parameters of our choices. We suppose that they are looking out for us, or at least that they are preserving the "common good". And so we leave the BIG thinking to them.

And if you don't like the way things are, well you can organize a protest, write a letter to the editor, set up a Facebook group, engage in some form of civil disobedience. In this country at least, no one can make you like the options you have so long as your protest doesn't pose a danger to anyone or threaten the stability of the system. You're perfectly free to rant and rave so long as you don't push too hard or too far. And, if you're especially persistent, you may actually make a difference in a law or public policy. But don't hold your breath. The system is pretty tight. It can't and it won't tolerate too much rebellion.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this. I guess my point - at least what I thought I wanted to say when I began this post over a week ago - is that we need to be patient if we are to live according to kingdom ethics in a world where such ethics truly are counter cultural. If we really want to follow in Christ's footsteps we can expect resistance. But it's ok. At the end of the day, what counts - the ONLY thing that counts - is whether or not we did our very best - our UTMOST - to live out our faith in every area and aspect of our lives. It's the big choice that we affirm or deny with every little choice we make, day in and day out.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

"Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose"...?

I woke up the other day with one line from an old song on my mind: "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose". Odd. And it played over and over again, all day long. Just that one line. You may recognize it - it's from a song called Me and Bobby McGee, written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster back in the late 1960s. Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose. Is this profound social commentary or misguided cynicism?

So I've been thinking about it. As I write, the sister of a friend is very near the end of her life. She has ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). She was diagnosed just over three years ago and doctors predicted that the disease would progress slowly but surely for about three years before it would take her life. According to the US National Library of Medicine, "Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, is a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement." It's a terrible disease. Cruel. Completely insensitive and inhumane. I wonder if she would agree that "freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose"?

Or, I think of the millions of people in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia who are literally starving to death. Do they feel free? Or just tired and hungry and hopeless and abandoned? I don't know.

What about someone who has lost his job, spent his savings, watched family walk away - does he feel "free"? Or someone with Alzheimer's? Is THAT freedom? Did the Old Testament character, Job, experience freedom when he had lost everything except his very life?

But before we conclude that the songwriters were just blowing smoke, is there a sense in which what they're saying IS true? What is freedom? I think that there are times when losing something - health, wealth, ambition, dignity - having the proverbial rug pulled from under us - can be freeing. Sometimes we wake up in the morning and the world seems to be pretty much as we left it when we drifted off the night before, but a moment can change everything. Sure enough, the change can be devastating. But it can also be liberating.

Years ago I heard a preacher use an illustration. Sadly I don't remember the exact details, but the gist of it was that things that looked like they were "good" ended up having negative consequences and the things that looked like they were "bad" ended up having positive consequences. The lesson was that things aren't always as they appear. I think he was explaining Romans 8:28: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.In ALL things, God can work good. No - more than that. In ALL things, God DOES work good... for those who love him and have been called according to his purpose.

But where's the "good" in ALS? Where's the "good" in famine and drought? Where's the "good" in the loss of health, wealth, ambition and dignity? Where's the "good" in broken relationships and family breakdown? What "good" is there in the ruination of lives? Are we fools to worship a God who makes such extravagant claims and yet still allows such misery and suffering?

It's an honest and sincere question. And just to close the loophole that you might be tempted to wiggle through - NO, it doesn't mean that bad things only happen to bad people and good things always happen to good people. Calamity is NOT a punishment for individual sin and health and wealth and happiness are NOT an indication of God's favour.

I don't have the answer. And to be honest, these questions just seem to drive me deeper into the "cloud of unknowing". But through the mist of uncertainty, I have a sense that freedom comes not from losing everything, but from simply letting go. Surrendering our expectations, our demands, our justifications and rationalizations. Laying down our agendas... even our lives, moment by moment. Trusting - despite our tainted ideas and experiences - a God whom we can neither see nor fathom.

When we lay down what we "have", it's quite true that we have nothing left to lose. Jesus laid down what he had and invited us to follow him into a freedom that defies human wisdom and understanding. And Jesus warns that in this world we WILL have trouble... but he then turns the tables with this simple statement: "But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

No matter how hard the path we're on, and no matter how deeply we may suffer as we make our way through every horrendous hardship, Jesus is present - "our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble" (Psalm 46:1). And I believe that he IS now and forever on the other side of ALS and famine and drought and loss of every kind. Take heart indeed!

Just in case you are reading this as a prescription for inactivity - for simply letting God sweep us along this way or that - be assured that that's NOT what I mean. No - we are to live a life worthy, bearing one another's burdens and living as the incarnational presence of Christ in the world... people-shaped evidence of the coming kingdom!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Good news and bad news

I have good news and bad news. And since the good news is a kick back from the bad news, I'll start with the bad news. So here it is.

Bear with me. I have a bleak prediction to make. But then it gets better.

I'm not an historian but it occurs to me that the social conditions which preceeded the French Revolution (1789-1799) are remarkably similar to the kinds of things we're seeing on a global scale today. Rising food prices, extreme weather, poor harvests, unsustainable national debt levels, the effects of war, the growing gap between the rich and the poor. Sound familiar? In any event I suspect that over the next decade or so it’s going to appear to us that the world is coming apart at the seams. Here’s what I anticipate:

* increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters

* increasing frequency and severity of social disruption - from organized civil disobedience to spontaneous outbursts of rebellion to all out anarchy and terrorism, even in areas of the world where we would least expect it (like Norway or England or Canada (all spots that have been in the news of late)

* elevated rates of social psychological distress and social breakdown: addictions, mental illness, suicide and crime will all be on the rise

* continued volatility in local and global economies, resulting in downturns of all kinds: unemployment, defaulting on loans, bankruptcies, etc. etc.

* pressures on health care due, in the most "prosperous" countries to the demographics of aging and in the poorest countries to the politics of poverty

* the crash of our consumer culture as economies continue to teeter and one by one, crack and crumble

Imagine the withdrawal symptoms of whole societies that are top heavy with people who are literally addicted to consumerism and then quite suddenly are unable to get a fix! Whatever you think of the tribulation, I'm pretty sure we'll all agree that it will be a period of great tribulation in the generic sense. So, that's the bad news. Things will certainly be worse - chaotic, unsettling, unstable - over the coming years, before they are better.

But there's good news too. While this may be the trajectory for society as a whole, I see strong evidence that there is a prophetic coming of age - individuals and small groups everywhere who are seeing past the coming decay to a deeper and brighter reality that is beckoning us from beyond ourselves and beyond our circumstances. It will be rooted in the freedom that comes from detachment from having and striving and plotting. This freedom will translate into a way of being in the world that complies with unseen rhythms and an orderliness that defies human manipulation. Perhaps it will be the front edge of the new heaven and new earth.

So, when you turn on the news and are accosted by all the bad news of this age, take heart. As we die to old ways, old habits, old ambitions, we will experience new life and new hope. The best is yet to come!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

How sacred IS life?

I think that most people would agree that life is sacred - or, even if reluctant to use the term "sacred", at least that there's something very special about life, and especially human life. To say that life is sacred implies that it has a value that can't be quantified. It's a pretty basic concept, really. At the root of it is an understanding that life is bigger than we are. We may BE little more than a collection of elements - science tells us that 99% of the human body is made up of six elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. Incredible! And yet, that tiny undefined part of us that isn't simply a cocktail of elements, has intellect and emotion and desire and can cling to physical life to the very last gasp. Our physical body can stubbornly refuse to "give up the ghost" long after we have lost the desire to live and are even looking forward to the hereafter.

Any number of circumstances and scenarios can remind us of the fragility of life but also just how desperately most of us want to preserve it, for ourselves or for others - to squeeze out every last drop of essence.

A bleak medical diagnosis. A friend who dies in a car accident. A parent or grandparent who dies of old age. A child who drowns in a back yard pool. These are everyday personal crises and even though we can never know exactly how they impact the family and friends of those involved, we know something of the challenge of carrying on. In addition to these very personal kinds of losses there are also images in the aftermath of a natural disaster which evoke tremendous waves of compassion in the face of anonymous suffering. We can relate to loss of life anywhere because we intuitively know the inestimable value of life. Loss of life is a tragedy, regardless of the specific circumstances.

I don't want to get into a debate about when life begins or ends (though for the record I would argue that if life is eternal, it's beginning and end cannot be established on a calendar - or, to put it another way, it begins before birth and extends beyond death, to infinity). The life of our physical body - our three score year and ten - is the visible manifestation of our "being" on earth but is not the whole story. It's a sliver in time and space.

I've always been intrigued by what you can see under a microscope - the magnification reveals a complex and sometimes beautiful diversity that simply isn't apparent to the naked eye. Similarly, we get pretty fixated on our experiences that are tethered to our physical body, and can forget that this is not all there is.

I started this post because I wanted to reflect on the mystery of life and challenge myself - and any who might stumble upon these words - to a renewed sense of awe and gratitude and respect for the incredible (and I think divine!) force which breathes life into each one of us. And to think about the arrogance we display when we act in such a way that we presume to "correct" the "creator's" divine design.

To say that life is sacred is to relinquish our schemes and designs and simply celebrate the life that is. Life IS sacred. And we enter into this sacred tapestry with every breath. Life is also a gift... a gift that ought to be cherished and nurtured and redeemed, day in and day out, in harmony with the rhythms of all of the created world.

Our physical bodies are finite and subject to decay and disease. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. The elements which give us form and substance will be recycled but something of us - our soul and spirit - is part of the divine order and will never decay. We can speculate about what it is and what becomes of it when it is no longer attached to our physical body, but for now I'm content to simply celebrate the mystery of it all and to proclaim, with every thought, word and deed, that life is more than GOOD - it's sacred!

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Shuffling the deck

As we continue to hear grim reports from eastern Africa, I just can't help thinking - again and again and again - about some of the ironies of our present world. And most of all, I can't help wondering how I should think about inequalities and injustices - the obviously manmade ones and the ones that seem to be the consequence of "natural" disasters. What's going on!!!

More and more I have this surreal sense that we're operating on one plane or one reality - what we see and feel - but that the REAL world is something else altogether. I'm reminded of the movie The Matrix. What IS real? And what does it matter? Is there really some moral imperative to care about inequality and injustice? Is there something WRONG with just enjoying the hand we've been dealt, buying non-essential and luxury items when people next door or around the world live in abject poverty?

A while ago I came across a short video by Dr. Scott Todd. He's Chairman of the Board for North America’s largest network of Christian relief and development organizations and the Senior Ministry Advisor at Compassion International. And, he's also "one of the architects and leading voices of 58: Fast. Forward. The End of Poverty. Through 58:, an action-based alliance of world-class, poverty-fighting organizations have joined together to unleash the power and possibilities of the global Church to end extreme poverty." You can watch a 9 minute video - packed with stats that will make your head swim - that this organization has produced to challenge our conventional understanding of the phrase: "the poor will always be with you" (John 12:8).

You can watch the video and read more about 58 at http://live58.org/.

One of the sets of figures Scott Todd presents in this short video is this: there are 138,000,000 Christians in America who attend church regularly and SAY that there faith is VERY IMPORTANT to them; collectively they earn 2.5 trillion dollars annually; if they were a country, this collective wealth would make these Christians the seventh riches country in the world - a country with a seat at the G8!

The point is that committed Christians - in the US and in Canada - have access to tremendous resources. If we were living and working as the "body of Christ" in the world - living and working to demonstrate the kingdom of God on earth - we COULD not just make a difference - save a life here or there; we COULD really challenge some of the systemic injustices that cause and perpetuate extreme poverty. But it's a big IF. And to be completely honest, this kind of talk makes me a bit nervous. We're NOT a country and there isn't ONE political party for Christians. Christians, in my opinion, should be wary of getting behind political agendas. Being Christ's witnesses isn't fundamentally a matter of bringing about political and economic change. Bob Briner (author of Roaring Lambs and Final Roar warns us not to settle for just making this world a better place. Our GOAL, in other words, should NOT be to end poverty but to fix our eyes on Christ and follow him with singleminded determination. And in so doing, God will perhaps use our obedience to effect political and economic change. There IS a difference!

That said, I'm thankful for the Scott Todd's and for all the other leaders of all of the relief and development agencies that are encouraging and pushing us to think about injustice and inequality and to believe that the realities we see in places like eastern Africa are NOT what God intends or desires for any of his creatures. It's hard to be part of a movement that insists on re-shuffling the deck, when the cards we're holding are ones that no one in their right mind would willingly discard. Maybe that's what Jesus was getting at when he said (Luke 9:22-26) that we must deny ourselves and follow Him!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Hunger pains

It's mid afternoon on March 11, 2011 and we - my husband (Dale) and myself, seven International Studies students from St. Stephen's University (http://www.ssu.ca/), our host - Tim Bannister (a Canadian Baptist Ministries global field staff serving with his wife, Diane, in Kenya) and our driver, Mike, are on our way back to "the ranch" - Tim and Diane's place on a game refuge, about 40 minutes outside Nairobi. We're a little tired, but excited, inspired, hopeful, cautious, conflicted. We've just spent several hours with a group of Kenyans at a small African Brotherhood Church (ABC) in the village of Thange.

The African Brotherhood Church is an indigenous African denomination with whom Canadian Baptist Ministries (CBM) has a covenant partnership agreement in Kenya. That means that we - CBM - and they - the ABC - have covenanted to work together in integral mission. Integral mission is an approach to mission wherein that recognizes that humans are integrated beings - heart, mind, soul, spirit, body. To be the body of Christ in the world requires that we respect this integration of the human being.Therefore, it's not possible to be concerned only with the spiritual state of a person, without consideration of their emotional, social, physical and intellectual health.

So, in Kenya, CBM and the ABC work together to serve the needs of individuals and communities. We're partners, providing micro loans, helping farmers develop sustainable agricultural methods, building water catchment systems with local churches, proclaiming and demonstrating the love and grace of Christ in a parched land. We've crossed cultures and all kinds of other man made borders and boundaries - we're partners. To be sure, our partnership has had its ups and downs as we've tried to figure out how to do mission and ministry together. It's not easy but it sure is rewarding on a day like March 11, 2011.

Our visit with the church in Thange has included a number of demonstrations. This vibrant and determined congregation has initiated a variety of projects to benefit their own members and the surrounding community.

1. We've eaten meat that was cooked during our visit in a solar cooker - a small, fairly low tech contraption which uses the sun's energy to cook food slowly but efficiently, without further destruction of the local environment.

2. We've seen a water catchment system that collects rain water from one side of the church roof in a huge cement tank and then makes it available to local residents. In a country which suffers from chronic drought, every drop of water is valued and every innovation which allows water to be captured and used wisely is celebrated.

3. We've seen - and tasted! - water that has been filtered on site, using a Kenyan made water filtration system that is reliable, sustainable, and available. As I'm sure you know, clean water is more valuable than gold for those who need it to protect themselves and their children from the many water borne diseases that wreak havoc in countries like Kenya.

4. We've seen a seedlings project by which this small group of Christians have produced seedlings of various varieties for themselves as well as seedlings to sell to their neighbours as an income generating project. They're using some of the seedlings for reforestation to improve the climate and prevent soil erosion. Some of the seedlings are fruit trees which provide - obviously - fruit.

5. We've been introduced to a few of the goats that they have distributed to local families and we've heard about the many ways that these goats can improve the daily lives of their host families - milk, cash income from selling excess milk, and eventually, as the goat reproduces, the option to sell a goat in order to secure money for a child's education. It's amazing how a goat can change the lives of an entire Kenyan family!

6. And speaking of family, the last "project" that we see is the church's work with AIDS orphans in the community. This small church is caring for 15 orphans - 15 children ranging in age from about 5-15, who are amongst the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.

It's been a full day. And then we sit down together in a shady spot and share a meal together. Meat cooked in the solar cooker. Rice. Vegetables grown locally. Unpasteurized honey, produced locally. Doughy things that are delicious and reminiscent of something we call "fried dough" at home. Filtered water. A genuine 100 mile diet, though in truth, probably a one or two mile diet! And noisy, happy conversation. We're family, sharing - albeit briefly and a bit awkwardly - the bounty of the kingdom.

And then there are the parting formalities. They thank us for coming and for CBM's support. We thank them for their hospitality and their witness to their community through these integral mission projects. And then an old woman - I dare not guess her age - but certainly a great grandmother - presents us with gourds that she has dried and decorated - carefully, lovingly, gratefully. Through a translator, she tells us how much she has appreciated CBM and how much the support that we (as representatives of CBM visiting Thange) has meant to her. The gourds are a gift, a tangible expression of her appreciation. We're moved to tears as we accept them and feel the bonds of fellowship and partnership strengthen.

Amidst hugs and dancing and singing, we gradually make our way to our vehicles and take our leave - one more group of strangers and partners who have made the trek to this fairly remote Kenyan village to be impressed and inspired by the industriousness and vision of a collection of brothers and sisters whose day to day lives are so very different from our own. And yet, they are working together with what (little) they have, to hold back despair and hopelessness and even hunger and thirst.

During the long ride back (3 or 4 hours on a pretty treacherous highway!) to Tim's, Dale is talking with Mike (our van driver) about what we have seen and is surprised to hear Mike describe these folk as "middle class", rather than "poor". And yet, middle class or not, he states bluntly that if the rains don't come to Thange soon, these people will be eating roots and experiencing symptoms of malnutrition before fall. It's a stark reminder of the inherent insecurity of any food production system that relies on nature's fickle rhythms. It's a system that once worked well and perhaps still can, if only there is rain.

We quietly reflect on the lesson we have seen lived out amongst our new friends. Our partners. In Thange, life can be lived and enjoyed - or endured - but one day at a time, for we know not what tomorrow may bring.

We've been back in Canada for over four months now but I still think about the church in Thange. I wonder how they're making out. Tim tells me - and the CBC News tells me - that parts of Kenya (and neighbouring countries) are indeed suffering severe drought conditions. The rains haven't come in many, many areas and the situation is dire. The UN has called it the worst drought and famine in decades (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5fDKAnES1S8 for an up to date youtube report from the UN).

As I type this blog, I'm conscious of the fact that we're worlds apart. We hear and read about the famine and drought as we're enjoying our daily high calorie feasts and watering our lawns and flowers and consuming vast quantities of water, rarely thinking of water as a precious commodity. It's sad to think about the situation in eastern Africa, especially when we've so recently been there and can still picture the people we met who generously shared their table with us only a few months ago. But what can we do? The problems are so much bigger than we are and solutions are so far beyond our resources.

Here's a few suggestions:

1. Follow the news about east Africa - on tv, radio, internet. Don't allow yourself to retreat from the pain and suffering. These are real people. They have families. They love and are loved. They have hopes and dreams. So, for their sake, be informed.

2. Use this as an opportunity to take stock of your own habits of consumption. Be honest with yourself. How wasteful are you? How much do you take your daily bread (and water) for granted? How generous are you with those things which are yours to consume (or share)?

Raise awareness amongst family, friends, and colleagues about these things. Be gentle but don't settle for comments like "Isn't it awful." Of course it's awful, but what can be done? Maybe when we start looking for answers, we'll find them... or at least we'll learn something useful from the search.

4. If you're able to (and who among us isn't?), give of your finances, your prayers and your time to organizations that are already working on the ground in east Africa. Support organizations that have already invested in relationships and partnerships. Go to http://www.cbmin.org/cbm/news-archive?news_id=158 and http://www.foodgrainsbank.ca/east_africa_drought.aspx if you want to get involved in this way.

Our partners in Kenya are courageous. They are resourceful and resilient. And they know a God who does not disappoint them. They are not pitiful, but proud.

Malnutrition and starvation are evils that ought not to exist in this world. Hunger is a pity but I wonder who is more to be pitied: those whose mortal body is wracked by the ravages of physical hunger or those whose immortal spirit is wracked by the ravages of selfishness and insensitivity and idle complicity in systems of injustice?

We can no more singlehandedly solve the complexities of global hunger than we could become performers in the Cirque du Soleil, simply by wishing for the strength and agility and talent of those amazing performers. But we can do something about global hunger, even if it's as little as reducing our own waste and contributing to the efforts of those who are more strategically placed to help distribute food to the hungry and implement sustainable practices of food production around the world. There is absolutely NO EXCUSE for complacency, indifference or inactivity.

I've just heard that the Canadian government has committed to match - dollar for dollar - all donations made to organizations (including CBM and Canadian Foodgrains Bank) for relief efforts in east Africa. See http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/canada-surprises-aid-groups-by-donating-extra-50-million-for-famine-hit-east-africa/article2106550/. Dig deep and give generously, not just for this crisis, but for the long haul. The money will help ease the physical hunger pains for some, but more than that, it will help spread the peaceable kingdom - on earth as it is in heaven!

IMPORTANT UPDATE: Donations made to CBM between July 6 to September 16 for East Africa drought relief will be eligible for matching through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). An application will be made to CIDA for matching funds concluding the window for donations allotted by the government.

For more info: http://www.acdi-cida.gc.ca/acdi-cida/ACDI-CIDA.nsf/eng/ANN-72082543-GL5

And here’s the link to CBM's info and donation page: http://www.cbmin.org/cbm/KenyaDroughtRelief

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Risk of Hospitality

I’m not a risk taker. I don’t buy lottery tickets. I don’t run for political office. I don’t engage in extraordinary life threatening activities. I don’t carry a gun. I don’t negotiate with terrorists. I don’t cheat on my income tax or lie to customs officers. I don’t speed - well, hardly ever. Like I said, I’m not a risk taker. I follow the rules. The most dangerous thing I do is teach. But that’s a subject for another day.

I don’t take risks because I don’t have to. I follow the rules because the rules are made by people like me to protect people like me.

My mother once said that I led a “charmed life” - by which she meant, I think, that things always seemed to work out. She was right. I am educated, financially stable (as much as anyone can be these days), successful, white. Sure, I have setbacks, but they tend to be minor and manageable. They serve to remind me that I'm not God and, more and more these days, that I'm getting older.

It’s not all Hollywood and happy endings, but the reality of my life is unbelievably easier than the reality of the lives of billions of people on this planet. And it's not because I'm somehow better than other people - more virtuous or closer to God. The fact is, I don’t need to offer a bribe in order to secure medical help for myself or a loved one. I don’t need to choose between acting within the confines of a Judeo-Christian morality OR having enough food to eat. I don’t need to lie, cheat, steal, or kill in order to make it through the day. And if I should choose to lie, cheat, steal or kill, it’s not about survival but about justifying a self centeredness that wants to get ahead – to be seen as being “better”, wealthier, more powerful, stronger. A step above those around me.

No, I’ve never had to chip away a fragment of my integrity for a piece of bread, or surrender my good conscience for a night’s sleep. But that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t or that somehow I’m immune from the sordid, risky actions of the desperate. I haven’t sold my soul for a bowl of soup, because I’ve never been THAT hungry.

I’m comfortable and content. And I – or at least people like me – continue to make and enforce the rules – rules that make sure that the game doesn’t change.

Sure, I can see injustices, and I can speak against them, but at the end of the day I'm still well fed, comfortable and secure. And to be honest, I'm thankful for that. I don't want to be tested. I really don't want God to ask me to give all that up. I might try to convince myself - and you - that IF it should come down to it, I'd be willing to give up anything and everything if it's God who's asking. If I know for sure that it's God and I know for sure that he's asking me to give everything up. When I read the story of the Rich Young Ruler, I tell myself that I wouldn't have gone away sad from that encounter. That I would have done just what Jesus asked - sold everything I have, given the money to the poor and joined Jesus' ragtag band. But the truth is, I'm hiding in the crowd, head down, hoping that Jesus doesn't put me on the spot. I'm certainly not going to do anything so foolish as to march right up to him and ask him what he wants me to do! I'm not going to rock the boat or draw attention to myself. I'm too busy leading my charmed life and justifying myself.

As I write this, I realize that it probably sounds a bit like self-flagellation. Why beat myself up like this? It's not my fault that I'm privileged. And for sure I can think of lots of people who have more to give up - or hold onto - than I do. But that's not really the point.

Where I'm going with this has more to do with my attitude toward those whose reality is far different than mine - those who have to take risks, and make choices, and do things that are shameful. If God calls us into the community of believers - to be brothers and sisters with men and women from all walks and classes of life - the challenge is to adjust my attitude so that I can form good, healthy relationships across all kinds of barriers. I think what is missing in my life - and may I be so bold as to suggest that it may be missing in the lives of many of us? - is a real understanding of the biblical principle of hospitality.

When we are willing to take the risk of hospitality, we extend favour to another - not because they deserve it but because they need it and simply because we have the capacity to meet that need, whatever it may be. And when we do it out of our love for Christ and obedience to his command that we ought to love our neighbours as we love ourselves - no questions asked - maybe that's what evangelism looks like. Hospitality isn't just getting together with friends and family over a meal. It's denying ourselves - even to the point of laying down our lives - so that we can bring the blessing of community to those in our path. I can't help thinking that our faith would have a whole lot more credibility if we become a community that learns to take the risk of hospitality - no strings attached.

I've just watched the movie, Les Miserables. There's a scene at the very beginning when Jean Valjean, a newly released convict, comes into town and is settling in for the night on a park bench. An old woman tells him to ask for hospitality at a nearby home - the home of a Bishop Myriel. Valjean is amazed that the Bishop will welcome him to his table and provide a bed for the night and he reiterates that he is a convict. He says to the Bishop, "how do you know that I'm not a murderer?". Bishop Myriel replies that "we will have to trust one another." As it turns out, Valjean steals the silverware and disappears in the middle of the night, only to be arrested and brought back to have his identity confirmed by Bishop Myriel. Much to Valjean's amazement, however, the Bishop corroborates his story that the silverware was a gift. And thus Valjean is released from custody and Bishop Myriel tells Valjean that he has purchased his soul. He must change his ways. And he does. It's a wonderful and inspirational story of redemption, rooted in the hospitality of Bishop Myriel. What if we all extended that kind of grace - and redemptive redirection - to the scoundrels in our lives?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Young and the Restless

The initial assumption that the post Stanley Cup "Vancouver Riot" was primarily the work of anarchists, has now given way to the realization that most of the vandalism and looting was actually done by youth. I've been thinking about that and I suspect that there are a number of factors at play. Of course much has been made of the pictures and video clips that are circulating online and that have been submitted to the authorities as evidence. There are valid questions about the vigilanteism that these events have triggered, the naming and shaming campaigns. And debates are raging about the appropriateness of sanctions for those who participated in the vandalism. Take the 17 year old - Nathan Kotylak - whose dreams of representing Canada as an Olympian (in water polo) now seem to be in jeopardy because of his actions that night. Or people who have lost their jobs. Or people who have received threats to their person or property. To what extent should those who participated in acts of vandalism and looting be held accountable, and how? Where should the vigilanteism stop, and how?

Here's at least a partial list of some of the factors that I think may have contributed to the chaos that night:

1. mob behavior - a mob does not have a conscience and so people will do things in a mob that they wouldn't do on their own;

2. the consumption of alcohol surely played some role in the events. Alcohol impairs judgment. A little alcohol impairs judgment a little and a lot of alcohol impairs judgment a lot. And that's even if there's no crowd effect;

3. although it does seem that youth were the ones doing most of the damage, I suspect that there were those in the crowd that night whose purpose was solely to stir up the crowd and incite them to violence and hooliganism;

4. the emotional state of many youth in our country (and in fact, around the world) these days is a tinder box - in Canada, figures out today indicate that the rate of youth unemployment is 13.9% (as compared with the National average of 7.4%). Combine this with two other facts: youth debt loads and the expectation that a post secondary education is a step to a better - i.e. more financially secure - future. Our youth are frustrated and perhaps it's not that surprising that that frustration should erupt into violence when an opportunity presents itself. Believe me, I'm not looking for excuses for bad behavior - just saying...

5. General sense of instability and anomie - a term used by French sociologist, Emile Durkheim that is roughly translated as "a state of normlessness". That is, the realization that the game has changed and we don't know how to deal with it. Besides the things listed in #4 above, post modernism (with its deconstruction of societal norms and values), the high rate of family breakdown (and I know that this isn't a popular sentiment, but I suspect that we have only just begun to see the impact of divorce on our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren), and the general sense of doom that is conveyed by the media on topics such as the global economy, climate change and environmental impacts, terrorism, etc. all contribute to a deep rooted sense of cynicism. Many youth - from all socio-economic backgrounds - find it hard to be hopeful in the face of all of the global and personal uncertainties;

6. Facebook and the larger world of social networking deserves a mention as well. Facebook gives youth the sense that they can create and maintain a fictitious reality, and at times, the fiction is more powerful - more real - than the actual reality. I wonder, though I'm not a psychologist, if this tendency to live vicariously through the fiction of facebook is perhaps producing a sort of dissociative disorder which affects individuals, but also our society. Capturing images digitally has taken on an immense role in our everyday lives. It's almost as though the image (perhaps doctored through photoshop or other programs) is more important than the experience it is meant to portray. Hm.

7. A culture of impunity where we have systematically protected our children from bearing responsibility for their actions. We have, it seems to me, thrown them into a moral abyss, where they only have to be accountable if they're caught, and not even then if we can figure a way around it. Young people engage in all manner of reckless behavior that endangers themselves and others, but yet we shy away from holding them responsible. We expect youth to have sex, to experiment with drugs, to drink regularly and to excess, to cheat, to lie. In fact, parents who aren't okay with all this are considered old fashioned and repressive - even bad or abusive parents! Have we lost our minds?!

8. A sense of entitlement. Let's face it - we have happily (for the most part) gone along with the business mandate that puts consumption ahead of everything else. Nothing is as powerful - not integrity or character or relationships or self respect - NOTHING is as powerful as our value as consumers. And our kids - that is, the children of the baby boom generation - have grown up expecting to have MORE and MORE and MORE again than their parents. They're entitled. And if they're from the middle class or the upper class, then the culture of entitlement is almost boundless.

Again, I'm not looking to make excuses. But it seems to me that this is a pivotal moment where we can either learn from this event - in all of its ugly dimensions - or we can sweep up the mess and settle for just putting it behind us - and quickly, before it has a negative impact on the tourism industry in Vancouver. This is a wake-up call. Let's not push the snooze button!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

For every action...

There are lots of things that I’ve forgotten from my high school science classes but one thing that has stuck with me is the proposition that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction - Newton's third law of motion.

There are lots of everyday examples: you hit a ball with a bat and the distance the ball travels depends on how hard it was hit, the angle, the wind conditions; you ride a skateboard and use your foot to propel the skateboard forward; an airplane pushes back on the air and the air pushes forward on the plane. One thing leads to another in predictable and inevitable ways.

Since 1687 when Newton published the three laws in his work PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, these laws have helped us to understand and predict the effects of objects acting on one another.

There is a sort of comfort in the predictability of objects. And as much as I might like surprises and the adrenalin rush that comes from successfully navigating random circumstances - the curve balls of life - I realize that everyday life would be totally overwhelming were it not for a degree of predictability. But having said that, I am so incredibly thankful for the unpredictable and even the chaotic. The things that come at us out of the blue. I suppose that we have an innate tendency to want to maintain balance - or, if thrown off balance, to regain it.

Life wouldn't be much fun if everything was predictable, routine, according to plan. I sometimes worry that heaven - a place where there is no sin or sorrow or suffering - might actually be a little boring. It's hard to imagine a place or time when people will always act with integrity - always do the right thing for the right reasons and in the right way - and the outcomes will always be such that they don't produce pain or suffering, for anyone. I don't actually spend much time thinking about that though, because life at this moment is a long way from that. A very long way.

Life in the present moment is riddled with unpredictability. People act and react out of all kinds of motives - some selfish and others quite philanthropic. Our actions have impacts that we can't possibly even trace, let alone predict.

When the French philosopher, August Comte (1798-1857) first used the term sociology, he had in mind that this new science would identify the natural laws governing social behaviour. The search for these laws, however, has proved futile. When it comes to the social world, Newton's third law of motion - for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction - is clearly NOT applicable. The reaction may be neither opposite nor equal to the initial action. In the social world, all bets are off. What may seem like a negative outcome, may, in the long run actually prove to be have a positive impact, and vice versa.

The ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, said that "you could not step twice nto the same river." In other words, even though you may go down to a river at the same time every day and step into exactly the same spot, neither the river with it's flowing water, nor you with your ideas and attitudes, can be exactly the same. The social world is always changing!

Another French sociologist, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) argued that society is equal to more than the sum of its parts. Sociology became the social science that is concerned with that nebulous field of the "more" - the ever changing, shifting, sometimes incredibly beautiful and sometimes immensely ugly "more". The interstitial spaces between philosophy, history, economics, psychology, anthropology, political science, etc.

For those who like predictability and certainty - those who like things to be well ordered and neat and tidy - sociology must surely be incredibly frustrating. But for those who thrive on the edges of uncertainty - who love seeing the complex web of uncontrollable, rogue variables - the sociological study of society is immensely gratifying.

I am a sociologist. I'm also a person of profound faith in a triune God who, it seems to me, is also equal to more than the sum of the parts. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not simply three unique beings who share one mind and one throne. And the reality that they preside over is not two dimensional and systematic. As the river is ever changing, so too is our reality as we make our way through the maze of physical, social and spiritual life on a capricious planet. God's grace is new every day because our need for grace is in constant motion.

Many Christians have an uneasy suspicion of sociology. I suspect that they may be the very Christians who prefer to define and defend a God who they have reduced to the level of complexity that they are comfortable with, which frankly, isn't much. They're people who don't like the messiness of a world where it's hard to tell with any degree of certainty what will happen as a result of their actions, or the actions of others. They're likely to be people who will opt for programs with proven results, rather than to boldly (even recklessly) act on the principles of conduct described so eloquently in the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

This new way of life was taught and modelled by a Messiah who, when the chips were down, overcame the very real temptation to opt for safety and security and as a result, found himself on a cross with only his vision of another world - a more just world - to sustain and comfort him. Greater than the physical agony of a brutal death was the spiritual anguish of being wrenched from the trinity and left on his own - a solitary figure, beaten and ridiculed - but ultimately not destroyed.

If Newton's third law of motion were applicable to the actions of men then we might expect that the crucifixion of Christ would be countered in his resurrection - an equal and opposite reaction. And I suppose that there are those who see it this way. But I believe that the resurrection of Christ has a magnitude of impact that is far greater than we can even imagine, let alone understand. It was a game changer in that it opened the door to a whole new dimension - a reality where the separation between God and man is bridged and we, mere mortals, are invited to live by the principles of a different Kingdom and in the presence of the King, eternal, immortal, invisible (1 Tim. 1:17).

When Christ ascended, he took his place (once again) in the trinity, but more than that, he declared that we are eternally united with him as joint heirs of the Kingdom (Romans 8:17). No wonder Paul urged the Ephesians (and us!) to live a life worthy our our calling!

Monday, May 16, 2011

The elusive happy medium...

I've always thought that if I were ever to write a book, I would call it The Elusive Happy Medium. Pretty self explanatory. And in my experience, almost a truism that finding that medium (which is purportedly "happy") is inevitably a wild goose chase. I'm not, first of all, convinced that the medium - the middle ground - is particularly "happy". I tend quite naturally to be a pretty middle of the road kind of person - always weighing the arguments and evidence on both sides of an issue - and I have to say that that can be immensely satisfying, but it can also be immensely frustrating.

It might be more fitting to call it the "sober medium" or the "subdued medium". It's certainly not a place of innate passion. It's not a place for risk takers, pioneers or those that like to push the envelope. No, the middle is safe, predictable, cautious, biased toward the status quo. It's warm, tepid, neither hot nor cold. I suppose these things might make some people HAPPY, but as much as I appreciate the importance of those who inhabit this place, I aspire to be the kind of person who thrives on more colour; more excitement; more danger. So I find myself in a paradox (certainly not the first time!). I simultaneously long for stability and instability. Passion and predictability. Excitement and routine. I long for more of the same at the same time that I long for change.

Maybe this is the fulcrum of the pendulum. The pendulum swings back and forth, always pivoting around the middle but never resting there. I wonder if this is even a principle of life as we know it in the physical realm as well as in culture.

As I look out my front window at the Bay of Fundy, I'm very conscious of the extremes of nature. We've had rain for days. The tv news channels are covering the floods along the routes of the Assiniboine and Mississippi Rivers. And yet I just returned from Kenya a month and a half ago and am haunted by the effects of persistent drought in areas of sub saharan Africa. When it comes to rain, the medium between drought and flood would be a happy place, I think! And if we look at cultures and the history of their development, we can usually track a pretty erratic route as excesses in one direction are corrected by excesses in the opposite direction.

On the other hand, there are religious extremists. Surely that's not a model to emulate, but yet neither is it desirable to practice our faith dispassionately, soberly.

What if this whole tendency to think in terms of dichotomies is the problem? What if the reality is that we don't have to choose between extremes but rather that life is more of a kaleidoscope - ever shifting, perpetual, colourful motion - that bids us let go of the impulse to control events, circumstances and possibilities. That bids us to simply enter into the mysteries of life. For me it's not a natural thing. I like to know what to expect.

I like to have confidence that there is a plan and that things "make sense". It's hard for me to let go of those things. Faith in a god who so often seems capricious, is not natural. It requires us to look past the reality that is before us and to trust in a reality that is beyond us. It's not predictable and it's not safe - or maybe it is safe - if, in fact, God is good and to be trusted. But that only is a possibility if this world - with its floods and droughts - it's extremes of all kinds - is not the final story. If what we see is NOT what we get.

The elusive happy medium? I don't know. For now it's all I can do to hold on tight to the pendulum as it swings back and forth!

Friday, May 06, 2011

The girls... and boys... feminism has left behind

I've often shied away from identifying myself with the "feminist" movement. And yet I'm grateful for many of the changes feminism has brought about in our society. I have no doubt that my life is very different than life was for my grandmothers and great grandmothers. And I'm thankful for that. For many women today, life IS better. We vote, get educated, have careers, juggle family and work, run for political office, enter the ministry, get married - or not, play sports, own property... It may still be a "man's world", but women can hold their own. At least some women.

Having traveled in several developing countries I'm quite conscious of the fact that the majority of women around the globe do not enjoy many of these privileges. Despite the fact that women often draw on deep reservoirs of strength when faced with horrendous situations, enduring unspeakable hardship and abuse, the everyday reality for these women is oppressive on many levels. And yet, development specialists readily acknowledge that women MUST be involved in development initiatives if they are to succeed. The United Nations, in defining the 8 Millennium Development Goals, recognize the critical importance of promoting gender equality and empowering women (goal #3) if the goal of eradicating extreme poverty is to be realized. Stephen Lewis, former UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, has often noted - in his passionate and articulate style - the role that grandmothers play in holding Africa together. I've seen with my own eyes the incredible strength of Kenyan women, as they mobilize their communities to engage in community development projects and care for AIDS orphans. I applaud efforts to empower women, but I'm also just a bit uneasy.

I worry about the messages that we are giving to girls - YOU can make a difference! YOU can solve the problems in your society! YOU are the heart of your community! YOU can pull your family out of poverty! These are the messages of the Because I am a Girl campaign (see http://plancanada.ca/becauseiamagirl?WT.mc_id=BIAAGFY11GS18). It's not that I don't believe these things. I DO believe that girls can make a difference. I know that they have enormous potential for good when they're given half a chance. I fully support efforts to ensure that girls have the opportunity to attend school. My concern is this: what do these messages - intended to encourage and inspire GIRLS - say to BOYS? Do they imply that boys can't make a difference? Can't solve problems in their society? Can't be the heart of their community or pull their family out of poverty? Because they are boys, they CAN'T be counted on?

Can we foster gender equality and empower girls and women without DISEMPOWERING boys and men? And another thing: if we look at the ways that the feminist movement has impacted our own society, we have to be brutally open about looking at both the successes AND the failures. There may be some debate about how to define success and failure, but for me the successes are the things I listed above - voting, education, jobs, etc. On the other side of the ledger though, are lots of other things that indicate that girls are still trapped in unhealthy ways of seeing themselves and their role in society. Things like: the rates of eating disorders amongst girls and young women; stories about middle school girls performing oral sex for money at lunch time; accounts of girls - individually and in groups - bullying other girls, either online or in person; the rates of abortion in our society and the way that abortion is defined as a "women's right"; and so on. I can hardly turn on the television and flip through the channels at any time of the day or night without being confronted with reality tv shows that depict women as manipulative, conniving, vengeful, stunningly beautiful but somewhat dull-witted chameleons.

Are THESE women the heart of their community? Are THEY pulling their families out of poverty, making a difference, solving their society's problems? The way I see it, they are products of a feminist movement in our country. I'm not BLAMING feminism. I know that this is NOT what the early feminists had in mind when they sought to empower women. But we need to face the fact that these issues have somehow evolved out of the primordial soup of feminism.

Have these women been left behind by feminism? And what about boys and young men around the world - from the most developed to the least developed countries? Everywhere I look I see young men - boys 14 or 15 years old to men of 25, even 30 - who are restless, angry, dangerous. Males who do not know who they are. Males who have somehow failed to live up to some unwritten standard or code. Males who may seek meaning and an identity by banding together with other lost males, in gangs and militias and (maybe even) armies. Is it possible that these too, have been left behind by feminism?

On a recent trip to Kenya our team encountered a young man of 25. He had graduated from high school - a feat in itself in Kenya - and yet here he was on a Saturday morning, unemployed, drunk and wandering the streets. He had been trying to get into the military for several years but didn't have connections or money to bribe his way in. As hope leaked out of his life, he was giving into the temptation to let alcohol numb his pain.

Later in the same trip we had a meeting with some Christian youth leaders when we attended a networking session around HIV/AIDS awareness. The youth took turns reporting on their activities and discussing the merits of working together. These were all very bright young people, but amongst the young men, there ran a strong current of resentment and anger.

How many angry and resentful young men are there? What kinds of situations or events might cause that anger to flare up?

I can't help thinking that with all of the international attention going to the cause of gender equality and empowering women, these young men may be left behind... and that could prove to be very dangerous for all of us! Development experts recognize the need for engaging women in development efforts, but I would love to see development agencies also find ways to give these young men a purpose and an identity that will channel their ambitions and energies in a positive direction. The challenges facing our world are great and we will need all of the resources and energies and talents at our disposal - from both women AND men - if we are to grapple with them effectively. Yes, we should work for gender equality and empowering women, but not by dismissing or grinding down or disempowering men. Both men and women need to see power, not as a weapon to wield for personal gain, but as a trust to be used in order to create a future where no one is left behind.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Enough!

People are complicated... and sometimes incredibly frustrating. And ideas are never inert, powerless mental constructs - they always have energy and capacity and incredible power. Sometimes that power is measured and predictable, but often it is erratic, even crazy. If humanity has learned anything over these past 5000 or so years of recorded history, we should know that we need to respect the power of ideas, even ideas that are offensive to us - maybe ESPECIALLY ideas that are offensive to us. Ideas can be deadly.

I'm thinking about the news these last few days of riots in northern Afghanistan that have resulted in the deaths - gruesome deaths by the sounds of it - of a number (perhaps as many as 20!) of United Nations staff, allegedly in protest over the burning of a Quran in the United States. Some could certainly argue that the actions of this one person led to quite predictable results. In fact, this same person was dissuaded from his plan to publicly burn a Quran last September by people who could see where that would lead. They maybe couldn't know exactly where anger would flare up, but they knew it would happen and that it would be potentially catastrophic. And can this pastor and those who followed his lead really feel no remorse for the deadly backlash that his actions provoked!?

Sometimes I think we westerners are completely naive to the fact that the very things we celebrate and flaunt - our "freedoms" to do and be and say and think whatever we please and to do so without regard for anyone else - our "rights" - are inherently and deeply and corrosively offensive to much of the rest of the world. And I'm not just talking about people of other faiths, other ethnicities, other cultures. I think the sad truth is that these attitudes are offensive and disrespectful to people of good conscience everywhere. We are, I would suggest, part (whether we like it or not) of a cultural and economic and political empire that is imploding through the worst kind of social and moral and ethical decay. Those are strong words, I know. But I am ashamed of both the perception and the reality of our me-first, self-centred, individualistic, materialist, consumer-driven society. And I'm not just pointing fingers at "others". I'm ashamed of myself for the degree to which I've allowed my own conscience to be seared by those same attitudes. Enough is enough.

I am more determined than ever to live intentionally - to think creatively and critically about the things going on around me and to humbly stand for what is right and good and true. To live simply, justly and faithfully.

And I will refuse to give into the cynicism of our times. There IS goodness and beauty in the world and even in ourselves. Each one of us - from whatever tribe or nation or language or gender - who strives to live in harmony with God, self, others and the physical world is part of the redemptive vision.

Ideas can lead to hatred and conflict and destruction, but they can also be instruments of peace, justice, hope and love. Let us choose our allegiances to ideas carefully!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Ruined for Ordinary Life.. but then...

One of the frequent consequences of a Short Term Mission experience - and in fact, one of the most important objectives from the point of view of missions agencies - is that participants will return from the experience, "ruined for ordinary life". That is, the cross cultural engagement will so profoundly challenge the person's everyday assumptions that a return to ordinary life will simply not be possible. It's more than reverse culture shock. It's more than just seeing God in a different light. It's more than confronting the reality of cultural blindspots and biases. It's more than learning about the (usually challenging and often painful) realities of life in a different context. It's more than witnessing a dynamic spirituality growing in, what seems from a western perspective at least, a material desert. It IS all of those things to some degree, but it's more. These things are all somewhat predictable.

The MORE is hard to define. It's impossible to predict or control. It's the way ALL of these things intersect with the person's sense of self and of God and of purpose. But there must be a working out of all of this so that out of the ruins of what was once our everyday life, there can arise... something beautiful and productive and life-giving.

There's no point in getting stuck in ruination. We must move on! We must get our proverbial act together, re-orient our mindset and our energies so that we can get engaged in kingdom living, here and now - wherever "here" is. Having the opportunity to interact with global partners in their neighbourhoods should be destructive and transformative. If we surface from the process of deconstruction relatively unscathed and unchanged - able to get back to life as we've always known it - we have squandered the opportunity for transformation. Or, if we fail to surface from the process - if we are SO deconstructed that we can't get on with our lives in any positive, constructive or creative way - then we too, have squandered the transformational imperative.

What is needed, I think, is a renewal of vision and of passion for a life which is dedicated to a diligent pursuit of truth, wherever it may lead us. This may require that we make significant course corrections. It may well require repentance. It will most certainly require humility and a heart and mind open to God.

Knowledge and experience and understanding of life amongst the global poor should inspire us to this kind of pursuit and also to layers of action which will demonstrate our commitment to solidarity across geographic and economic and political divisions and boundaries. There IS life after a short term mission experience, but it may NOT be the life we expect!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Collateral damage... collateral good

You've probably heard the term collateral damage, but we don't often speak of collateral good. Collateral damage is harm that is unintended, but nonetheless a consequence of a particular course of action. That action may be well intentioned and may actually be a good thing in terms of its intended purpose. Or, it could be totally reckless and ill conceived. Either way, the damage or harm that results may or may not be anticipated. It may be deemed unfortunate but unavoidable – the price one must pay to accomplish something of value. Despite the harm to an individual or group, perhaps the (elusive) common good is served. Or so we will be led to believe.

Collateral good, on the other hand, is a benefit that's unintended – a byproduct of something done for another purpose. What man intends for evil, God may intend for good. A silver lining. Something that may not be immediately apparent – and in fact, may only be seen in retrospect. But nonetheless, something good that wasn't the stated objective or the main event.

I consider myself an evangelical Christian in that I want my life to count for something in the kingdom of God. At least I don't want to be a disgrace. I want to live honestly and justly. I want to live out my faith in such a way that others might be stirred to consider their own relationship with God – their faith or lack of faith - and even make a decision to actively and consciously pursue truth, wherever that might lead.

I acknowledge that my understanding of God is limited – pitifully so I think at times. I feel most unqualified to lead anyone into a relationship with Christ, though I believe that such a relationship is the fulcrum of my own life, and of world history, for that matter.

My faith cannot be reduced to a logical and rational set of presuppositions. Faith isn't something we PROVE - rather, it's something that we live. It captures us and carries us in spite of ourselves. It's profoundly personal - a complex tapestry of events and experiences and emotions and - for me, at least - questions and confusion. I DON'T have it all figured out. And I don't regret that - not a bit. Actually, I thrive on the uncertainties. I love the mystery of God. I recklessly - perhaps - accept the sovereignty of God, though I have absolutely no verifiable, incontrovertible evidence that God even exists.

And out of the depths of my being, I am more and more convinced that the entire goal of my faith and of my very being is to live fully and vibrantly within this "cloud of unknowing", with no purpose at all other than to seek God and his kingdom. I'm learning to accept that that pursuit - that effort to catch up with a God who is often illusive and almost always unpredictable - is personal, yes - but there may also be a more public aspect.

There are collateral effects - people around me may be impacted, positively or negatively, by my attitudes and actions. My behavior - my lifestyle - has an impact on the environment and that in turn, affects people around the world. I trust and pray that I am doing more good than harm - that I'm not reckless with other people's lives and beliefs. No matter what my convictions are, I must leave room for God to speak and to act in other people's lives as he will, remembering that he is far better acquainted with their particular questions and issues than I will ever be.

Some people distrust "evangelicals" because they do not wish to be preached at or hounded into any posture of "faith". Life is complex, puzzling and painful for many people and no matter how well intentioned we might be in our efforts to bring them into a relationship with Christ, it seems to me that we often incur collateral damage in the process if we forge ahead with single minded determination to "bring them in". On the other hand, when we are content to live out our faith with a genuine attitude of hopefulness and humility and hospitality, perhaps we do more collateral good than we are aware of.

Perhaps evangelism is the divine fruit of our mundane obedience to the command that we are to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33).