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!