Archive for category Wisdom

Keep going

It’s Monday, a devil day for pastors.  After a busy Sunday of putting yourself out there, discouragement can settle in and grumbling growls in your soul.  I call them “Maple Mondays” because they can be moments I rue the day I didn’t follow my dad and brothers into the family company (it’s called Maple-Reinders). If you’re not a pastor, Monday is a good day to pray for yours if you have one.

And just to be clear, today is not one of them for me – I’m ok.  In fact, although weary from a really long day yesterday where I hardly saw my family, today I’m energized to press deeper into the call of pastoring and leading my church.

Yet whenever I limp towards a spirit of resignation or am lured by a heart-curdling bitterness, I’m braced by the words of Dr. William Lane:

Let the excellence of your work be your protest.  Take the energy you’re wasting with complaining and bitterness, and focus it on your craft. If you’re going to protest the state of [things], do so by making your work the best it can be.

And then there’s this encouraging video (below) from Ira Glass, good words directed at storytellers but applicable for anyone pursuing a vision, a hope, a dream – whether you’re a scientist, artist, teacher, actor, entrepreneur, student or pastor.

Perhaps the most vital cultural contribution you can make today is to tell your designer/artist/researcher/carpenter/developer/entrepreneur/pastor friend: “You are not crazy for what you are doing.  Your artistic taste, your vision, your creative sense is killer.  Keep going.”  A simple word of encouragement today could be the necessary catalyst for some of the richest cultural offerings of the future.

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/24715531″>Ira Glass on Storytelling</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/thedak”>David Shiyang Liu</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

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The flip side of “why me?”

Human suffering is the great gadfly for every philosophy, worldview, religion and person.  How each responds to the problem of suffering is emblematic of its spiritual depth and humanity.

Whenever suffering intrudes into our lives, a very personal question quickly surfaces – “why me?”  Why is the universe picking on me, hand delivering this misery?  It’s not a whiny question to pose but an honest query in the posture of lament, a cry for some rational grounds to the seeming senselessness of suffering.  We insist on a justification when everything looks and feels all wrong.  Pastor Tim Keller recently wrote a good piece on the question “why me?”   (you can read it here), a sound, sensible apologetic for the reality of God amidst human suffering.

But I’m curious about the other side of this question.  It’s Thanksgiving weekend here in Canada and it finds me thinking about the flip side of “why me?” which is not “why shouldn’t suffering happen to me” but “why should I experience goodness at all?”

Why do we ask the “why me?” question mostly (only?) when suffering comes?  What is the foundational belief that demands a rationale for the suffering we experience?  Why aren’t we so insistent for an explanation when the providence of God brings good and life blows sunshine our way?  Curious that no one asks “why me” then.

It underscores the basic logic we assume, that the experience of goodness is rational, and therefore expected, whereas suffering is alway posited as senseless.  Perhaps it also points out a deep seated desire we carry for shalom as the normal mode of existence, some ingrained gene memory in all of us that harks back to Eden and points forward to what we’re meant to enjoy.

It’s something to wrestle through, especially for Christians who can easily use “blessing” as an evidence of God’s presence.  Or the assumption that goodness or blessing any of us experience is evidence of personal moral goodness.  Both are patently untrue and tragically bad moves – talk to Job to dispute that one.

So what if we pose the “why me?” question not to our suffering but to our experience of goodness?  What if we demand a justification for any instance of well-being and joy?

I wonder if this is a way to prepare ourselves to make sense of the inevitable seasons of suffering – to ask, in times of joy and goodness, “why me?”  Why is such senseless goodness lavished on me?  What did I do to deserve today?  Why should I have been born to parents who fed and read to me, loved and nurtured me?  Why might I have the lucky luxury of being born into one of the wealthiest countries on the face of the earth?  Why should I enjoy the indulgent choice of what to do and where to work instead being shuffled into indentured servitude? Where is the justification for me having a full belly in a hungry world?  Why me that I should be loved so well, by God, by family, and friends?  Why the gift of breath?  Why so much colour and beauty to be ravished by?  Why should I ever get to laugh?

In typically fine form, G.K. Chesterton sums up the posture of both gratitude and sanity (which are inseparable):

Here ends another day, during which I have had eyes, ears, hands and the great world around me.  Tomorrow begins another day.  Why am I allowed two?

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Bullied by “pretty”

I read this punch-in-the-gut story in today’s Globe and Mail of a young girl terribly bullied and driven to plastic surgery that made me want to scream!

I’m not blaming the girl.  She’s beaten down by a society sick with perfection.  I’m furious with this circus of painted-faces and altered bodies, ill with this illusion of what’s beautiful.

It all made me think of a great slam poetry piece (see below for video) from a post I wrote a while ago that seems appropriate again.  So here it is one more time, the blog post and Katie Makkai’s slam poetry wonder.

The mall is not my friend as a dad to two children, not hospitable to raising healthy human beings.  Sure, it provides clean and supervised play areas as well as interesting food courts with carousels but the rest of the place is a damn hazard.  And not because it is the temple of all things consumer – in fact, you don’t have to buy a thing there to pick up something far worse.  A simple stroll through the mall sends enough devastating messages to distort our character and wreck our moral imagination.  I can sift, sort and discern my way through this as an adult, but my kids simply absorb it all.

Maybe I’ve been been able to filter this out before, could be I’m becoming an old fart, or likely it’s because I’m dad to a daughter, but a recent walk through a local mall left me unsettled by the siren images in so many of the store-fronts.  Call me a prudish, Victorian, censorious, stuffy prig but I was shocked by the brazen sexuality on display in that mall (and I feel like I’m not easily shocked).  So many of the female models wear little clothing and the most prominent thing they do sport is a receptive open mouth, a come-hither gaze, or a coquettish pose.  If there is a male-female couple in the image, the female is usually draped over the male, pretzeled into a seductive embrace.  And this is not only the strategy of secretive Victoria but includes shoe vendors – even a children’s clothing store wickedly (I use that word with precision) hawks their goods with images of kids vogueing with faux seductive looks and poses.

I’m a fool to take my kids to the mall for an afternoon.  Strolling through this marketing gauntlet, my daughter is trained in what it means to be a woman in our culture: “Let your appearance be flawless; live up to an impossible standard of physical beauty; don’t bother with your character, intellect, or heart – your greatest asset is your body and it is a sexual tool – flaunt it.  Discretion limits you – the way to find worth is through a flaunting seduction.  Buy that perfect blouse, the right dress and you will be acceptable.”  And my son, already able to pick up most every nuance of any message, is discipled into what our society considers manhood by these images alone: “Women are for your pleasure – viewing pleasure, sexual pleasure.  Don’t engage them as real persons; they are beautiful bodies.  Keep them abstracted in your imagination as creatures of desire.  Dominate them, wear them like clothes that can be discarded when they are tired or out of style.”

Don’t misunderstand my ranting.  The human body is a glorious thing of beauty; sex is a spectacularly great gift of God; we are sexual beings.  But the whole of human is so much more!

I track this out ten years from now: what do I tell my daughter after all these messages have sunk deep into her anxiety-riddled psyche and she tells me how much she hates how she looks?  How do I help my son, bombarded with titillation and innuendo, to see women as far more than “how hot she is”?

Maybe you think it’s just me, a guy struggling with his own repressed sexuality, importing all my “stuff” into innocuous images in a store window; if so, give Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia a read.  Or check out this brilliant, moving video of slam poet Katie Makkai called “Pretty” (and if you find the f-bomb offensive, this video has one use of it – just so you know).

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The mysterious mirror of disability

If you were to build a perfect society, how would you build it? What you would include in it would be telling. But perhaps more revealing would be what you might exclude from your perfect world.

McGill ethicist Margaret Somerville wrote this week in a Globe and Mail column about a move in Denmark to make the nation a “Down syndrome-free perfect society” (actually a headline from a Danish newspaper). Apparently the Danes want to encourage the abortion of fetuses with Down syndrome so their society would be free of anyone with Down syndrome by 2030. This is the vision of a good society, the absence of apparent blemish and defect.

But I can’t help wonder how defective this concept of perfection is. Tonight I enjoyed dinner with a group a people and one of them was a quiet, beautiful boy with Down syndrome. His loving cuddles with his dad and quiet cleaning up after dinner were a sweet part of the evening. I cannot understand the mind that would name his absence as a more perfect world.

Journalist Ian Brown wrote a searingly beautiful book, The Boy In the Moon, about his son Walker who suffers from a rare and severe disability (CFC). It’s an unflinching introduction into the pain of Walker’s disability and yet Brown wonders about the mystery of his son’s disability, what it teaches the rest of us, how people like Walker might make the rest of us better (for example, growing our sense of compassion and sympathy).

Dutch priest Henri Nouwen, author and professor at Notre Dame, Harvard, and Yale and author, gave up his acadamic career to work at L’Arche and serve a severely disabled man named Adam. When someone suggested that Nouwen should delegate these menial responsibilities and focus on writing or speaking, Nouwen quickly responded, “It is I, not Adam, who gets the main benefit from our friendship.”

Nouwen shows us how God reveals himself through the reality of disability. Without trying to romanticize the complexity and hardship of any disability, he writes that Adam taught him

a lot about God’s love in a very concrete way. First of all, he taught me that being is more important than doing, that God wants me to be with God and not to do all sorts of things to prove that I’m valuable … then he taught me something else. He taught me that the heart is more important than the mind … Adam didn’t think. Adam had a heart, a real human heart. I suddenly realized that what makes a human being human is the heart with which he can give and receive love … I suddenly realized that Adam was not just a disabled person, less human than me or other people. He was a fully human being, so fully human that God even chose him to become the instrument of His love. He was so vulnerable, so weak, so empty, that he became just heart, the heart where God wanted to dwell, where He wanted to stay and where He wanted to speak to those who came close to His vulnerable heart. Adam was a full human being, not half human or less human … He wanted to dwell in his broken person so that He could speak from that vulnerability into the world of strength, and call people to become vulnerable.”

What if our quest for “perfection” is, in reality, deeply defective, our drivenness to achieve a disability? What if God is showing us his heart, his vulnerable love through the life of a disabled person? What if we need the artless grace and love of a person with Down syndrome more than they need our care-giving attention?

I can’t help but think that the Danes are avoiding a mirror that people with disability gift the rest of society – namely, that all of us are disabled. Some in visible, diagnosable ways but for others our disability is easily masked, socially accepted and undiagnosed. Denmark, and any society, will be severely impoverished and vastly less than perfect without the presence and blessing of people with disability among them.

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The thread of civility, part 2

We’re all faced with defining moments, times when our responses to the circumstances of life prophetically outline the shape of who we are becoming.  This past week Vancouver had one of those defining moments – and I don’t mean the riots.  It was the day after the bedlam.

There was an immediate groundswell of disgust and embarrassment to the thuggery of the crowds on Wednesday night.   And then civility showed up in spades the next day as crowds of people, brooms in hand and goodwill in heart, came to clean up the riot aftermath, reclaiming order from chaos, asserting hope in the face of ugliness.

This is the ordinary stuff that makes for an extraordinary city, no matter what city you call home; this is the memory to be etched into people’s civic imagination.  As one of my friends in Vancouver said, “these ordinary citizens are demonstrating a counter cultural way of being a community that cares about each other and the place they call home. A tangible expression of light and grace pushing back the darkness.”

These acts of civil love, of seeking the common good, are so ordinary, happening unnoticed around us all the time with no one taking photos and posting them on Facebook.  Do a quick inventory of the countless acts of service going on in your community that make it a better place.  I think of the guys coaching my son’s soccer team, the community association board planning events to make my neighbourhood a better place, all the volunteers who combed the neighbourhood back alleys a few weeks back on the annual community clean-up, the people putting on the pancake breakfast, volunteers planning all year to put on the Justice Film Festival, people checking in on shut-in neighbours, a family hosting a block party, school volunteers, someone who helps a lost child – I’m just getting going and this is hardly scratching the surface.

This is the beautiful face of a common grace all around us everyday.

The fabric of a city or community gets tightly woven together into a beautiful tapestry through the quotidian and ordinary acts of seeking the shalom of others.  Proverbs 11:10 says “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices.”  I hear Vancouver rejoicing today.

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The thread of civility

Who knew that a wallflower virtue like civility would be so vital to something like watching hockey? (I didn’t say playing hockey but watching it!)

It was not a huge surprise to me to see another Vancouver post-Stanley Cup riot this week.  I’m sure there are a whole slew of reasons for it but one to add to the list is the long loss of civility.  Richard Mouw, in his wise volume Uncommon Decency (please read this book, it’s that good and important), writes that civility is “public politeness.”  It seems like a fairly innocuous virtue but Vancouver was exhibit A for the need for a fresh schooling in basic civility.

And not simply as preventative medicine for public mayhem but as a means in becoming fully human.  The offence and embarrassment of the post-game events was its distinctly sub-human, animal quality.  It’s offended all the right sensibilities to see a living, breathing human being descend into a functional Philistine. Interesting how the word civility is connected to other words like city and civic.  Aristotle argued that we won’t become fully, truly human until we find the capacity to live as citizens of the city.  In a city, you learn how to live with people different than yourself, to treat people who are not kin as part of a larger human family worthy of your respect, courtesy and honour.

Without basic civility, things fall apart.  At first, it seems small and inconsequential, like neglecting to say thank you.  But that small oversight emerges from an unseen turn of the heart towards entitlement and breeds ingratitude.  It progresses from a common neglect of basic courtesies towards an active offence, say flipping the bird at a senior citizen for a thoughtless traffic mistake.  Little, everyday interactions of public life become repeated irritations and the fabric of healthy community quickly frays.  Incivility now seems the common way – we can’t have basic conversations about important matters (politics, faith, sex, etc.) without exaggeration, vitriol, cruel words, or inaccurately caricaturing views different from yours.  At core is the inability to see the other person as part of the human community and to see yourself as part of the company of broken sinners.

One chapter in Mouw’s Uncommon Decency is called “Is hell uncivil?”  He wonders whether the idea of hell is something that promotes incivility (can a gentle, civil person believe in hell?) but I think the question has another interesting angle – is the nature and reality of hell uncivil?  Wednesday’s West Coast events lead me to think that hell may be eerily reminiscent of the streets of Vancouver last night, teeming with every graceless incivility as the fabric of society unravels in frightening ways.

(you can see “The Thread of Civility, part 2” here)

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70 is the new 100: the counter-intuitive folly of great expectations

Jim Collins observed that “good is the enemy of great,” launching people, leaders and organizations on a relentless pursuit of greatness.  But has anyone taken the time to properly assess this maxim?  Greatness is, by definition, exceptional, and therefore an exception.  If we all achieved greatness, we’d need to redefine greatness because it would all be so very average.  Without advocating mediocrity, why can’t good be “good enough”?

That’s exactly what Sarah Hampson wonders in today’s Globe and Mail (see her column here).  She writes about how our high expectations to obtain only the best in life actually produce a discontented life.  And she dares to encourage the wisdom of lowered expectations (gasp – isn’t that settling for less?) as a way to know contentment.  See, there’s a strange folly in inflated expectations and the “good to great” ethos – it yields a life of shrunken enjoyment, shriveled gratitude and a teeny capacity to know the good in life.  Why?  Because nothing less than the straight A, perfect game, six-pack abs, designer home, trophy spouse, gold medal, Ivy-league education is good enough; nothing good is ever “good enough.”

Perfection is a nazi task-master.

There are huge spiritual implications in this that I won’t elaborate now (OK maybe a bit – this quest for greatness reveals a deep craving in our culture for a verdict on our lives, for someone or something to say “You are great.  You are worthy.”  And yet the folly is that we end up shipwrecking our lives and relationships trying to attain this verdict, this justification of our lives, because we can never give it to ourselves.  We need someone outside of us to give that approval we so desperately seek).

But there is lovely contrarian wisdom around.  Check out Charles Dickens Great Expectations.  And much earlier than Jim Collins, Voltaire once wrote that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Or how about the grand jester, G.K. Chesterton, who said “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”  These are no justifications for shoddy work or slacker resignation.  Instead, it’s a liberating wisdom that recognizes worthy living is almost always found flawed; goodness is savoured and celebrated in imperfect packages.

And in this century, marriage and family therapist Paddy Ducklow provides more good common, contrarian sense: “I tell my clients [and almost anyone else who will listen] that “70 is my new 100.” I also tell them that perfectionism does not help them do the job better, it only ensures that they will enjoy the success less.”

The lived, practical wisdom that the high-achieving, über-expectation crowd (which is often my own heart) overlooks is this: we’ll never know good, never enjoy a sense of abundance until we have a sense of what is good and what is enough.

I’m making good enough my friend.

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