Fully Human: Why Think Part II: A Lesson From the Great One

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When I was growing up my hero was Wayne Gretzky:  admittedly this isn’t a very original choice for a Canadian kid born in the 80s but no one can hold it against me for being mainstream on this one.  Wayne after all is the “Great One”.  The best player to ever lace up a pair of skates.  I used to watch his games, pretend I was number 99 during road hockey games, and put every hockey card of his that I had in a special plastic case.  However what was peculiar, even for the most die-hard, young Gretzky fan, was that I decided I was going to read his 250+ page autobiography—you know to really get to know who Wayne was—and that’s exactly what I did as a 6 year old.  While my classmates were soaking up the plot twists of the Bearnstein bears, I was learning about the role that characters like Nelson Skalbania and Bruce McNall played in the career and life of Gretzky.

One of the things that I loved about Wayne then and still admire about him now whenever I watch old highlight clips of his on YouTube, is how easy he made the game seem.  His ability to make split second decisions that were 9 times out of 10 the right ones is astounding.  Watching him play was to watch someone who didn’t think on the ice but rather reacted.  It’s this ability to intuitively know what to do that makes professional athletes so incredible.  In a fast-paced game they need to be able to trust their guts.Image

A similar need is found in the world of ethics.  Most of the time the moral decisions we make do not have a sense of urgency attached to them.  We are often able to defer a decision, reflect on it, pray about it, and consult with others.  There are however times in life where a moral decision must be made in a split second such as: when you observe an act of physical violence while you are going for your morning walk, when one of your co-workers slanders another fellow employee, or when you have to decide whether or not to lie to the people working customs about how much merchandise you purchased on your vacation.  We need our guts and instincts in these moments; however we cannot reasonably expect to end up with a good result from these instincts if we have done nothing to develop positive ones.  To do this we need to be like the elite athlete.  The great athletes have all been blessed with tremendous natural ability; however the reason why they are able to react at the speeds they do is through years and years of practice and through being students of the game.  To be able to trust our gut in the heat of the moment we need to similarly practice, practice, practice and to be students of good moral thinking.  Doing this involves thinking carefully about who Jesus was, what he taught, and why he taught it.

Fully Human: Why Think Part I: The Rich Ruler and Jesus

The blogs which I will be posting under the heading “Fully Human:  Living the Story of Shalom” were written as lectures for a study I have designed at the Neighbourhood Church.  The course is designed to help people figure out how to be good ethical thinkers in light of their commitment to follow Jesus.  I have made several edits from the spoken version in order to make for better reading.  Today’s post is a part of the first session and it uses the story of the rich young ruler to illustrate why it is important for followers of Jesus to be careful thinkers.  The next 2 posts will contain two more stories that further illustrate this point.

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Three of the four gospels record a story about a rich man, full of zeal, who races up to Jesus in order to ask him:  “good teacher what is it that I must do to inherit eternal life”.  New Testament scholar Tom Wright points out that for the rich man this question would have been about more than just wondering what the minimum requirement would be to “get in” to heaven but rather meant:  how must I live in order to please God?[1]Image

Jesus’ answer, unsurprisingly starts with the commandments:  do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give a false testimony, honour your father and mother…The rich man responds, I have done all of this since I was a boy.  Tom Wright notes that in making his statement of faithfulness the rich man is revealing his deep-seated yearning to please God and he is also showing an intuitive sense that there must be more to pleasing God than simply following the rules.

Jesus’ answer shows that the man’s intuition was right.  Full of compassion, Jesus gives the rich man his answer.  Yes there is more to living a life that pleases God:  he says “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come follow me.” (Mk 10:21b).  The man being wealthy, walks away dejected.  Departing with his wealth was the one thing he could not do.

What this story illustrates for us is that Christian living is more sophisticated than simply carrying out the commands of God as if right living could be reduced to a checklist: yep I’ve avoided adultery, yep I’ve been kind to my parents, yep I haven’t stolen—I’m good to go!  In our story the rich man did many things right but was deficient in the area that matters most to God—his character.  He was unwilling to let go of that deepest part of who he was.  He wanted to please God but not if that involved changing who he was.

Yet Jesus’ answer about the life that pleases God does involve us changing who we are.  It means being willing to let go of everything that we hold to so strongly, it means being willing to be transformed, and it means picking up and following Jesus.  Yet following Jesus is not nearly as simple as ticking things off a checklist.  It requires careful thinking, it means paying close attention to who Jesus is, what he teaches, and why he taught it.


[1] NT Wright After You Believe, 13.

“A lot of evil has been perpetrated as a result of our efforts to eradicate it”

There’s something so satisfying about the experience of righteous anger (you know that feeling that wells up within us whenever we encounter something that is wrong, unjust, or otherwise destructive).  Righteous anger is a gift.  It lets us know that our conscience is functioning and it provides us with motivation to right the wrong that we observe around us.  For me, righteous anger usually sets off a pretty simple thought process:

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1)   This is wrong.

2)   This must stop.

3)   I must stop it.

Yet before thought #3 transforms itself into action, we ought to remember the wisdom of our quotation:  A lot of evil has been perpetrated as a result of our efforts to eradicate it” .  This quotation, which is essentially a modernization of those old wise words: “in your anger do not sin”, reminds us just how often our attempts to bring justice create more pain.

I think that there is a very simple reason why our sincere efforts bring unintended results and that is because our righteous anger transforms into self-righteousness—often without us even being aware that this has happened.  The key difference between righteous anger and self-righteousness is that righteous anger is always focused on what is right and self-righteousness is transfixed on the belief that the self is completely and entirely right.

The two are linked in that they have their origins in someone else’s wrongdoing.  However they produce entirely different types of behaviour.  On the one hand righteous anger produces firm but humble responses to evil, it prioritizes relationship above retribution, it keeps in mind the bigger picture/greater good, and it recognizes complexity and ambiguity.  Self-righteousness on the other hand is not only firm but brash and belligerent, it is overly simplistic, it focuses only on the wrong that has been done, it demonizes the other and saints the self, and it is only satisfied once it has received its pound of flesh.

Unfortunately most of the time we act more in the latter category and so it is no small wonder to discover the truth of our quote.  As a person of faith the instances of self-righteousness that stick out to me are the ways in which some of my fellow believers can label entire segments of society as morally bankrupt or conversely how people can label my religion as being “hateful” or “uncanadian”.  I also can’t help but be mindful of how often self-righteous behaviour describes our interaction in our familial relationships.  We feel like we must “punish” our relations for their selfish behaviour and so we use abusive words, the silent treatment, or other harmful behaviour that does nothing but exasperate the problem.

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What we need to learn as a human race is how to be righteous in the midst of our anger.  Make no mistake this is likely one of the hardest lessons that we can learn as it requires figuring out how to deal with the injustice that has been done in a way that takes it seriously without compromising the need to maintain a relationship with the offender.  The difficulty of meeting both of these objectives is part of the reason why examples of righteous anger are the exception to the norm of human behaviour.  Actions like those of Rosa Parks or the Amish community that forgave the man who murdered several of their school aged children are seen as, well…impossible—actions that only the few saints among us can perform.

As rare as it may be I believe it is our calling to take this road less travelled as it is the only way that frees us to bring healing and redemption instead of more heartache.  So please let us shut our ears to self-righteousness’ siren song and instead heed the warning “in your anger do not sin”.  Lord have mercy.

Honouring the adult within

Honouring the Adult within the child is what invites the child to join the club of adults

This quote, which I have adapted from Richard Rohr’s From Wild Man to Wise Man, challenges us to rethink how we understand the process of becoming adult.  It tells us that becoming adult does not happen automatically nor does the process entirely depend on the person who is growing up but rather successful maturation depends in large part on the community who surrounds the adult-in-the-making.

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Sadly I think much of the time we all too readily abdicate ourselves from our calling to invite the child or teen into adulthood.  I think a big part of the reason why we do so is because we have bought into an overly simplified view of the modern teenager.

In this simplified view the teenager is a borderline monster.  They are selfish, they care only about their peer group, they are a slave to their horomones, and they are hardwired to rebel.  In this view sowing wild oats and haphazard experimentation with drugs and alcohol are often seen as necessary parts of the journey to adulthood.  The parent, teacher, or other adults connected to the youth must simply wait out the storm and hope that on the other side of adolescence there is something left of the relationship that they can salvage.

To make matters more difficult, after their teen years, society expects adolescents to be able to turn on the switch and seamlessly transition into adulthood.   Unfortunately there is abundant evidence that this transition is more often than not anything but seamless; it is not uncommon to hear about adolescence extending well into people’s 20s.  We see this not only in the fact that traditional markers of adulthood like moving out, finding a career, and getting married have been pushed until later in life but also in what is described as a general lack of maturity and sense of entitlement among 20somethings.

I believe this is why we need to take Rohr’s comment seriously.  It is easy for us to write off the next generation as immature and entitled but I believe the problem has more to do with us than with the emerging generation.  We have for too long neglected building a bridge of relationship to the next generation and in the process have forced people to figure out on their own what it means to become adult.

What I humbly advocate for is a much different approach.  Instead of looking at teens as monsters and 20somethings as entitled, let’s look at them as people who have an adult-within that simply needs to be called out.  Let’s speak affirming words to them when we see them taking responsibility, working hard, and behaving beyond their years.  Let’s have patience when they fail to be as mature as we are—they are, after all, at the beginning of a long journey.  Let’s also value and treat them as friends, integral members of the community, and not as lesser citizens.

The good news is that accomplishing many of these things does not necessarily require a huge time commitment and investment on our part.  Sometimes it might involve a brief conversation in which you simply encourage, affirm, or perhaps even gently correct.  In my life one of the most impacting things that I ever experienced was when a high school teacher took me aside after class and told me that he was moving me from the back of the class to the front of the class because he felt like I was wasting my academic potential by talking when I should have been listening.  That conversation probably lasted less than a minute but its consequences were life changing.  For that reason I am forever in debt to Mr. (Scott) Christianson!

For others of us the time commitment may be a bit larger.  It may involve forming friendships that cross the generation gap.  The importance of these friendships or mentorships cannot be overstated.  Mentorship is to life what apprenticeship is to a trade.  It is the process of an older and more experienced person sharing a part of life’s journey with a younger and more inexperienced person.  Mentorship involves some talking and even more listening but most of all what mentorship communicates to the younger is that they matter and that they are worth investing in.  Can you think of any better and more powerful way of honouring the adult within the child?

Whoever has ears…

We set ourselves up for success in all areas of life when we understand the tremendous power that words have to bring both joy and sorrow.  Unfortunately many of us don’t put nearly as much thought into the equal power that resides in the flip side of speech: listening.  Even as carelessness with our tongues can cause pain and offend so too can carelessness with listening.  We of course expect people to speak with precision, grace, and humility but often neglect to listen with these same characteristics.  This is especially true when it comes to how we listen to public figures.  Instead of hearing people out many of us often decide within a span of a few seconds whether a speaker is to be applauded or condemned.

 

I was struck by a story I heard on the radio the other day that drives this point home.   The story regards some comments UFC light heavyweight champion Jon “Bones” Jones made about his colleague Anderson Silva who had just lost his middleweight title in a fight.  Jones said, “He just got disrespectful [towards his opponent] and the war gods made him pay for it”.  These seemingly innocuous comments were followed up in short order by a tweet by Jones (@JohnnyBones) that attempted to clarify:  “[I] Didn’t mean to say ‘War Gods’ I was meaning Karma”.

 

I cannot be sure why some of Jones’ audience found the phrase “war gods” offensive but given Jones’ need to clarify we can only conclude that at least one person did.  This case is made even more confusing when we consider that the difference between “war gods” and “karma” in popular use is virtually non-existant.  Athletes and sports journalists consistently refer to the hockey, football, and insertsportsnamehere gods as a way to explain in shorthand that in sports “what comes around goes around”.  In short the term “sportsgods” is synonymous with “karma”.

 

What is troubling about this story is the high likelihood that the offended parties could have been able to avoid taking offence had they put in the minimal effort to understand that Jones was simply trying to say “what comes around goes around”.  The fact that this effort was not put in made me wonder about why we as human beings take offence to things people say.  I think that the answer often has to do more with our failure to listen well than it does with the speaker’s failure to communicate appropriately.  

 

Now to be fair sometimes this is not the case.  Such as when, well…a speaker says something that is offensive.  For instance I think it is perfectly appropriate to be offended when a speaker uses slurs or insults of any kind that disrespect other human beings.  But other times, if we stop and think about it, we will discover that we sometimes do get worked up over an issue like that of the war gods and karma.

 

I think this has to do with the fact that when we hear someone speak we hear them through a filter that includes our worldview, our values, the mood we happen to be in, and our current ability to concentrate.  When we listen, especially to public commentary, we tend to listen for buzz words or particular phrases that indicate to us whether or not the speaker agrees with (or at least respects) our basic worldview and values.  If we hear something that at first blush defies or contradicts one or both of these things we tend to immediately get angry and/or get offended.  What I wish we could do instead is insert a pause or breath between the act of hearing and the act of taking offence.   In this pause I would like for us to afford the same attributes in our listening that we expect of our speaker:  let’s be precise (figure out what they are really trying to say), be gracious (give them the benefit of the doubt), and let’s be humble (open to the idea that we heard them wrong).  If we embody these virtues we may just find that the world will start to sound like a less offensive place and maybe—just maybe—we will finally start to truly hear each other well.

 

An ever expanding vocabulary

It’s amazing how learning a simple word or two can drastically change your experience of life.  I’m sure at some point or another we have been around a child who has learned to speak the word “no”.  Soon every encounter or exchange is coloured by this word as the child learns, by practice, what the word means and when they can and cannot use it.  By the end of this stage parents and loved ones are at their wits end and the child’s world is forever changed by his or her knowledge of a simple two-letter word.

From there the child rapidly absorbs countless words with each new word adding to the child’s ability to understand and articulate their experience of the world around them.  As adults the speed at which we learn new words slows to such a slow trickle that when a new word (or words) comes our way that significantly impacts our life experience, we can distinctly remember the time and place where we learned it.  Many of us remember, for example, that fateful day more than ten years ago where we first heard the words “Al Qaeda” and when we heard the word pair “nine eleven” in a whole new context that would alter Western Civilization as we know it.

Yesterday I had one of these experiences where I learned two new words that have changed my experience of life:  “Wegener’s Granulomatosis”.

Wegener’s Granulomatosis is a rare auto-immune disease in which the immune system attacks medium and small blood vessels in the body.  The primary areas that are affected are the lungs and kidneys and chronic renal failure is one of the potential outcomes of the disease.  Wegener’s Granulomatosis can be fatal, it is incurable, and it is treated by suppressing the immune system with some pretty heavy duty and toxic drugs.  The disease is notoriously hard to diagnose, is quite rare, and it typically hits white men in midlife.

This word was painfully added to my vocabulary when I received a phone call in which I was told that my beloved Uncle Tim has been diagnosed with it and is currently fighting for his life in the hospital.

Wegener’s Granulomatosis.  It is bizzare that these two words that meant nothing to me 48 hours ago now make my heart ache and the room spin as I type them out in this blog.  Just like the child who interprets everything through the lens of his or her newly discovered knowledge of the word “no”, Wegener’s Granulomatosis has become the lens through which my day is experienced:  it provides a heaviness that cannot quite be escaped and it impacts my ability to focus on any one particular task for a long stretch of time.  My life was simpler and it was a whole lot better before I knew these words.  Yet even in the midst of my own troubles I know that my experience pales in comparison to the way the words Wegener’s Granulomatosis have impacted my uncle’s immediate family:  his wife, two young adult girls, and his father and mother.

What I also know however is that seeing all of life through the lens of one or two words is a passing phase.  Even as the child adds words to his or her vocabulary and does not remain in the “no stage”, so too will my uncle’s family and I emerge from this experience with a more complete vocabulary.  New words like “immunosuppression” –the treatment strategy for WG—are already being added to the family lexicon.  As a family we will also learn that old, familiar words have more depth to them then we could ever imagine.   Words like trust, hope, life, perseverance, battle, prayer, family, love, and thankfulness are already starting to take on new levels of meaning in my own imagination.  This list of words reminds me that life cannot be defined by one or two words alone—even words as big and as scary as Wegener’s Granulomatosis.

I know that my uncle’s life has been forever changed by these two words.  No amount of wishing or praying can every bring him, me, or his family to that place where those words were not a part of our vocabulary.  My prayer and hope however is that we will soon get to that place where his life is not defined solely by them.  I know that in his journey with this illness that his God is with him, that his wife and girls are with him, and that the rest of his relatives like me are with him and that we will all do whatever we can to allow him to experience life faith, hope, joy, and love even in the midst of his illness.  My prayer is that these words will continue to define him far more than Wegener’s Granulomatosis ever will.  Get well soon Uncle Tim.  Our prayers are with you.

In memory of “the master” of hospitality: A Tribute to my Grandma

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Love and hospitality.  These are the two virtues that lie at the heart of the Christian faith.  The benefits and importance of love are immediately obvious to us but hospitality?  Why is this virtue so important in the life of faith?

The human heart has some basic needs:  the need to feel loved, the need to belong, the need to feel safe, and the need to know that someone is in our corner—that is to say we need to have an advocate.  Offering hospitality meets each of these needs.  When we bring someone into our home what we are saying is welcome, come and eat with me, you belong to me, and I will watch out for you and protect you for as long as you are under my roof.  Hospitality fills the holes of the human heart.

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A classic scene of Grandma’s hospitality

You may have picked up on the theme of hospitality that runs right through the 23rd Psalm, the ancient poem that we began our service with.  In that poem we see that God supplies perfect hospitality.  We see the theme of welcome and safety:  “you have prepared a table before me…”, we see advocacy:  “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for you are with me”, and we see belonging/feeling at home “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever and ever”.  This is a story of God’s hospitality.  And we see this story repeated over and over again in the scriptures; it is the story of a God who is aware that the human heart is not complete and so time and time again he offers his hospitality and says:  come with me my beloved child, you belong to me, I will never leave you, I am always on your side.

The story of God’s hospitality is incredibly comforting to us especially when times are tough, when life seems bleak, and when our sorrow is overwhelming.  Part of the reason why it is so comforting is because we are told that it is bigger and more powerful than death.  The great hope of faith is that God’s care for us is so great and our lives so sacred that he is not content to simply let us die.  Rather God invites us to experience everlasting life as guests at his table.

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One of Grandma’s banqueting tables with her husband Keith

See the Biblical image of heaven is not one of clouds and harps but rather is of a great banquet to which all are invited.  God’s gift to humanity is to offer them a place where the food and drink are never in short supply; it is the everlasting table that we can keep coming back to time and time again.  Heaven is the ultimate act of God’s hospitality.  I love this image because it brings so much comfort when we think about Grandma.  I can’t think of anything more fulfilling to our dearly departed then the idea of being a part of a never ending feast where she belongs, where she feels safe, and where she is loved.

I share the image of hospitality this afternoon not only to provide comfort to us in the midst of our grief that Grandma is in a place of rest and comfort but also to bring tribute to the amazing woman she was.  You see Grandma understood the great truth about hospitality.  She knew that practicing this virtue transforms people as they experience what it means to belong and be loved.

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Two recipients of Grandma’s hospitality: me and my wife Whitney

I know that she knew this because I was a recipient of her transformative hospitality in the summer of 2008—the same summer Whitney and I got married—when I was working for Kirkbride Painting, the company that was hired to paint the exterior of each house in “The Terraces”. Grandma opened her house for me every working day for my lunch break.  When I walked in the door the kettle would be on and a pot of earl grey tea would be made.  I would often eat my lunch plus some of the contents of her fridge, and she would eat a raw onion sandwich with a heavy dose of salt and pepper.  When I look back on that summer I realize that something incredible happened over the course of those several months.   It was then that “Fran” became my “Grandma”.  All of us who have had the privilege of having wonderful grandmothers will know that beyond the designations “mom” and “dad” there is no title as revered as “grandma”.  “Grandma” denotes a strong sense of closeness.  “Grandma” signifies a deep belonging.  “Grandma” means you are loved.   “Grandma” means there is always someone in your corner.  When Fran became “Grandma” I knew that I had gained an advocate.  Someone that I knew cherished me, respected me, and loved me.  Since that time I’ve always felt like I was a part of the family.

Had we the time we could hear similar stories from everybody here about how they experienced the transformative power of hospitality in their relationship with Grandma.  Her kindness, generosity, and willingness to always open her door to visitors has left us all changed for the better.  My hope for all of us is that as we go from here we will remember this and that we will honour this by carrying her legacy forward by becoming people who practice the art of hospitality.  My hope also is that all of us will be comforted by the hope that Grandma is a cherished guest now at God’s banquet table.