Fully Human: Grandparents, Childhood, and the importance of Character

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As a young boy my family made the move from Powell River to Nanaimo, leaving behind my cousins, aunts and uncles, and my grandparents.  Because they were still there, there was no better place for me to spend a long weekend while I was growing up than in Powell River. I especially loved sleeping over at my grandparents’ house as it meant:  homemade bread, lots of junk food, and as much King-Cole-brand Orange Pekoe tea as a guy could drink (yes I’ve always been the teatotaler that I am today).

A visit to my grandparents also inevitably involved participating in their Sunday morning routine:  It began with attendance at Westview Baptist’s early church service, followed by a trip to the extended care wing of the hospital to serve the patients their lunch, continued with back-to-back half hour episodes of “Router Workshop” on HGTV back at my grandparents, and finally concluded with a trip to “Mr. Mikes” for lunch.

As a kid I never looked forward to the extended care visits.  Most of the patients were in the last stages of life and had a variety Imageof disabilities:  some were lame, deaf, mute, and lots were all of the above.  Many had advance Alzheimer’s or Dementia and as a result could not communicate in a lucid manner.  I remember trying to not get too close to the patients.  I remember hoping they wouldn’t make eye contact.  I remember sticking close to my grandparents, letting them do the talking and wishing that I would be able to leave without having to say anything.  And this is to be expected.  After all, I was just a kid right?  I had a poor night’s sleep from staying up too late watching TV, I was cranky from getting up too early and eating too much junk food, and I was hungry.  The last place I wanted to be was in that place.

The matter was significantly different for my grandparents, however.  They interacted with the patients with compassion and tenderness. They spoke to them as valuable human beings and in doing so afforded them the full dignity that they were worth.  For my grandparents, these were not patients worthy of pity or fear but human beings who also happened to be old friends or co-workers, or fellow church members.  My grandparents knew their names and knew most of their life stories.  My grandparents actually loved them.

I contrast the type of visitor I was with the type of visitor my grandparents were in order to make a very important point:  ethical living requires more than just doing the right thing, it also involves being the right kind of person.

At a surface level there is no difference between my boyhood self and my grandparents.  We both did the exact same things.  However if you were a patient in the extended care wing, you would certainly be able to feel a drastic difference between the two.  This difference comes down to motivation and character. I after all was there solely out of obligation and my grandparents were there because of sincere care.  In the world of ethics, moral thinking centred on character is called virtue theory.  In virtue theory, the primary question is “what kind of person am I” instead of “what should I do”.  In this way of thinking a person is to embody positive traits of character called virtues and are to avoid negative traits of character called vices.

I believe that this is the type of morality that Jesus is most concerned about.  The gospels record case after case of Jesus’ frustration with people who were so fixated on following the rules and “doing the right thing” but who failed to be good people.  Jesus once famously remarked to a group of religious leaders that their neglect of character and fixation on following the rules made them guilty of straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel.  Jesus spells it out for us and my grandparent’s lives bear witness to the wisdom of his teaching.  For their faithfulness in not just doing but also being, I will always be grateful…

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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.