Wednesday, September 11, 2019

From Climate Change to Nukes to Plagues: The Coming End of the World as We Know It

            The end of all things has become a secular fascination.

            Consider, for example, just Margaret Atwood, all by herself. She’s written The Handmaid’s Tale—now an award-winning TV show on Hulu, and The Testaments, a Booker Prize short-listed sequel. Atwood has also written the MadAdam trilogy about a world destroyed by climate change, genetic engineering, and pharmaceutical malpractice.

            Post-apocalyptic, end-of-the-world fiction is all the rage. There’s Cormac McCarthy’s On the Road and the Hunger Games trilogy and Station Eleven and all of Hugh Howey and Stephen King and movies like World War Z and Resident Evil with their zombies and the Mad Max franchise, Deep Impact and Armageddon, TVs Walking Dead and on and on. 

            And now post-apocalypticism is an academic discipline too. So, for example, this week I read Bryan Walsh’s End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World, a summary of the existential angst that scientists are expressing. He writes:

            The end could be an asteroid. This has happened before. About 66 million years ago, an asteroid of about six miles across slammed into the earth. That explosion was 6500 times more powerful than the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Dinosaurs that had ruled the earth for 180 million years went extinct. Meanwhile, thousands of asteroids continue to orbit the sun. NASA is tracking them, and we think we’re okay for the next few years, but nobody is saying it can’t happen again.

            Or, the world as we know it could end with a super volcano blowing its stack. One such volcano, Toba, blew its top about seventy-five thousand years ago. Global temperatures fell by about twenty or thirty degrees for several years after, bringing humans to the brink of extinction. Perhaps as few as three or four thousand survived, in Southern Africa, our ancestors. There are still about twenty active super volcanoes today. On average one erupts every 25,000 or 50,000 years. We’re due. 

            Third, Bryan Walsh also suggests that we could end the world as we know it by nuclear war. We thought that the end of the cold war reduced this threat. But now Putin and Trump have cancelled the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and things are looking rather dicier. And there are the other nuclear powers chomping at the bit: India and Pakistan have gone to war six times in the last 70 years. Israel has nukes. North Korea has nukes and threatens to use them every week. Iran wants nukes. This week Turkey threatened to go nuclear too. 

            Fourth, we could also end the world as we know it via climate change. The five hottest years in recorded history have all been in the past ten years. We are seeing more horrific tropical hurricanes like Dorian. We are going to see massive movements of people from areas in the world too hot to live, too flooded to live, or too arid to live, and, they all love to come here. 

            The end of the world could be a pandemic. It has happened before. Justinian’s plague in fifth century killed half the world’s population. The Black Death killed 200 million people. New diseases caused by animal infections jumping to humans, as in SARS or Ebola, are an annual event now. Eventually, one is going to be really deadly. 

            Bryan Walsh isn’t finished. He writes further long chapters about the dangers of bioengineered pathogens and terrorism, as in the MadAdam trilogy. He writes about Artificial Intelligence about which no less an expert than Stephen Hawking said, “could spell the end of the human race.” And he writes, only half-seriously now, about antagonistic aliens invading earth. Thankfully, he doesn’t mention vampires or zombies.

            So, how does all this gloom and doom make you feel?

            I find it fascinating that at the end of the book, Walsh says that he nevertheless has hope we’ll somehow make it, anyway. They thing is, Walsh doesn’t anchor his hope. He doesn’t give readers any good reasons for hope. Walsh just hangs hope out there, unsupported, as unlikely as a baby managing to hold onto a helium balloon on a windy day.

            In fact, Bryan Walsh actually gives us a reason for abandoning all hope. It is called scope neglect. Scope neglect describes how humans deal with tragedy—or rather, refuse to. When personal, as in the death of a loved one, tragedy may overwhelm us and even break us. But when larger and more extensive tragedies are distant—as is the case with the Bahamas, this week, for example—we tend to mostly ignore that tragedy, and carry on as if it never happened.

            Scope neglect. Paul Slovic, a Psychologist, found that our “sympathy can begin to fade as soon as we’re presented with two needy people, rather than one.” This counterintuitive arithmetic of compassion makes it hard for us to empathize with or prepare for huge natural disasters. Our brains do their best to push such thoughts away. “Instead of our worry increasing as the size of the consequence increases, it degrades. Our attention is scarce, and so is our ability to worry.”    

            So, Joseph Stalin is reputed to have said, after starving nearly four million Ukrainians to death: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths just a statistic.”

            And that is how it is when it comes to the end of the world. Scope neglect. We can’t get our heads around oceans rising, nuclear weapons falling or pandemics, even though the risks are very real. The scope of such disasters is just too large for us to think about. So, our brains ignore or actively deny such risks. 

            Even those we pay to look after the bigger picture, our politicians, seem totally paralyzed. Scope neglect, you see, also means their re-election depends on giving you what you want rather than all of us what the world most needs.

            One more thing, stands out for me, in Walsh’s book, something that is ironically hopeful. He discusses the prepper phenomenon. Preppers are people who prepare for the end of the world by provisioning themselves with food and survival gear, guns and more guns, hidden shelters and caches full of fuel and more food and even more guns. Preppers plan to survive the end of the world by hiding from it while living on in their shelters with their families, killing everyone who comes near. Preppers. It’s a big thing in the USA.

            But it was Walsh’s analysis of Prepper strategy that got my attention. He writes that, “Sociologists who study post-catastrophe societies report that communities often grow tighter, like scar tissue that forms following a wound, even as they endure what seems unendurable.” What is remarkable about all the past disasters that almost drove humans to extinction is that it was human cooperation that saved them, human kindness for their neighbours, human struggling to carry each other’s loads that got humans through these crises. It was the village that survived, rather than the individual prepper; the community that created the conditions for survival, not hidden caches of food.

            Which brings me to one of Jesus’ (several) failed predictions about the coming apocalypse. In making one of those predictions, in Mark 8, Jesus said, in the same breath, “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus added, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

            The point worth remembering here is that as Jesus faced the end of the world as he knew it, Jesus turned his back on scope neglect by picking up a cross on behalf of his neighbours to save their lives rather than his own. And he invites us to do the same, to save other lives, rather than our own.

            You see, cross carrying, Jesus’ crucifixion, was a subversive political act by one for the many, in the face of injustice, theological incompetence, and the painful suffering of his compatriots. Cross carrying is the invention of nonviolent resistance of the sort that Martin Luther King or Gandhi engaged in. Jesus’ cross was his refusal to be cowed by scope neglect and his insistence on doing something, even if it was costly to him personally, for the sake of all. Jesus’ cross was his way of saying we can make a stand when the odds seem impossible, and our stand can make a difference, if not now, then in a generation or two or maybe even a thousand years. Jesus’ crucifixion laid the groundwork for a new kind of morality that would eventually subvert Rome’s oppression by prioritizing neighbours.

            Scope neglect is people who refuse to think more deeply about the world than the taxes they must pay or the pleasures they do not wish to forgo. But humans are not bound by that approach. We can, for the sake of the world, carry each other’s—the world’s—crosses, doing whatever it takes artistically or business-wise, politically or at our service clubs, doing whatever it takes religiously or in our schools or labs or by donating or volunteering or in our FB posting--doing whatever it takes to see to not only our comfort but the world’s survival.

            Look. I don’t have a blueprint for where your area of skill or opportunity is. Discovering it will take your own act of imagination. Making your contribution might well involve a change of priorities or habits or generosity.

            But go for it. Pick up a cross and do your small but costly part to save the world.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Reflections on the Tabling of a Report on the "Genocide" of First Nations

Just over two months ago, I spent two winter weeks at a friend’s home in Florida, all alone. I never turned on the TV. I didn’t answer work emails. The neighbours were gone. I didn’t know anyone, anyway. I didn’t say more than ten words to anyone. My solitude was complete.

I loved it--staring at the Atlantic ocean waves; watching for birds I never see at home, in Toronto; hiking alone through scrub where everything was unfamiliar. Solitude.

Mistaking the Solitudes. Where are the First Nations?
But I have to be honest. What makes my personal solitude so delicious, so attractive, so healing is my partner, Irene. You see, when I’ve had my fill of solitude, Irene is always ready to take me back. When I come home from the cottage, we fall into each other’s arms; we kiss and hug. We sit on the porch and make small talk. Later, we might visit friends, go to church, or drop by our families. I love solitude, but what makes solitude safe and desirable is that it is rare, a sometimes treat, a chosen respite, and not how I have to live. 

You see, when solitude is the only option, or when solitude is fueled by resentment or anger or fear, it is usually a cancer. Historically, American isolationism leads to naval-gazing, Smoot-Hawley-style tariffs and economic ruin. North Korean isolation has led to unspeakable violence and decades of human rights violations. 

But Canada also has problems with unhealthy solitude--two solitudes, actually, usually described as English-speaking and French-speaking Canada.

Hugh MacLennan came up with that turn of phrase—two solitudes—in a novel by the same name. I have not read it in many years, since I was in college. I remember it as a huge rambling thing, covering generations of Canadians, both English and French-speaking, who are mutually antagonistic towards each other. 

The English in Quebec are portrayed as people building a nation on the backs of the French who are bitter. The French resent becoming a minority in a country they considered their own. They seethe because they have been made subject to a people who had conquered and humiliated them.”

And so, writes MacLennan, Canadians are, “Two solitudes in the infinite waste of loneliness under the sun.” Two solitudes: from the Plains of Abraham to two referendums on Quebec’s separation from Canada; two solitudes, from the WWII Conscription Crisis to FLQ terrorism to the Notwithstanding Clause. Two unhappy solitudes warily circling each other rather than falling into each other’s arms. Not like my wife and I at all.

And yet, this picture is tragically incomplete and out of balance. Could it really be that French-Canadians, as Hugh MacLennan suggested, or perhaps English-Canadians, or perhaps both of them together are “the only real Canadians?” 

Who after all, welcomed both the French and English to North America? Who brought them beaver pelts to get rich on, who showed the French and English the rivers and carrying places and mountain passes to get from Bonavista to Vancouver Island? Which confederacy  demonstrated and lived a constitutional democracy to invaders still mired in monarchial dictatorships in Europe? Who made treaties trusting that those who spoke English and French would keep them? Who are the real, or at least first, Canadians? On whose backs did both the French and the English ultimately both grow rich on by conquering and humiliating them? 

If there are two enduring solitudes in Canada, it is actually the First Nations on the one hand and everyone else on the other. 

In Canada, we have inherited a political and cultural system for keeping First Nations trapped in the solitude of reservations where there are no jobs, or trapped in inner-city ghettos where there are no jobs, or the solitude of jails, where they are vastly overrepresented compared to us. We have figured out how to relegate First Nations to the sort of solitude where, in living memory, just to leave for the city, a First-Nation person needed the signed permission of a white man to go. This Canadian system was used by South African whites as a model for their apartheid pass-laws. 

Perhaps you think this is just ancient history. Perhaps if so . . . then so is confederation, all of 150 years ago, or the battle on the Plains of Abraham, 268 years ago. But, as these events remind us, history does matter, and wants to be celebrated or atoned for. 

And yet, Canada’s First Nation children have been isolated in schools where they could not speak their own language or understand the new one their teachers spoke; schools where they were too often preyed on, physically, sexually, and culturally. They are still forced to go to schools that are grossly underfunded compared to our comfy suburban schools. They have been cheated of lands that by treaty-right were theirs or which they never ceded. They have been promised water treatment plants and social workers and health workers, jobs, self-government, and housing . . . but well, if you follow the headlines, you know how that has turned out for them. 

            And today, the report of the Canadian inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women was finally released. According to Marion Buller, the chief commissioner of the inquiry, it uncovered a cycle of violence that has claimed untold thousands of Indigenous women. “This report is about deliberate race, identity and gender-based genocide,” she said. 

            Genocide. By Canadians. By us. Something that is still happening under our noses. Our white, mostly Northern European, French- and English-speaking solitude’s approach to the First Nations.

            Genocide. I hate that word. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is treading water, carefully, with respect to that word. He has been supportive of the inquiry but is wary of how the word “genocide” will play, even among his supporters. 

            Genocide. A word that is harder to swallow, even, than “white privilege.”

            So, what level of cultural annihilation or ethnic cleansing or Anglo-Quebecois criminal negligence or murder would be required to make the word “genocide” stick?

            I’ve been thinking about that. And ultimately, I don’t think it matters. Canada is mostly English because of a victory won on the Plains of Abraham, and power has been shared between French and English since at least confederation. That’s old history we live with today.

            And the rest of the story, our history, is all about how we’ve killed, neglected, broken faith with, stolen land from, kidnapped kids, loaded our prisons with, underfunded social services for Canada’s First Nations. It is ongoing sin. It is evil and its stench is with us now.

            And if Canada is to become one nation rather than its two real solitudes—if First Nations and the rest of us are ever to fall into each other's arms—we better get busy with serious repentance, which involves atonement for what we’ve done and ongoing sanctification—that is, personal lives and a political culture dedicated to doing better.

Monday, April 15, 2019

The Scandal of the Church Weighs on Me.

         What weighs on me more and more, as I get on in years and consider my faith, is the historic, never-ending, and dramatic failure of the visible church. I wonder how I can hang on to Jesus when the rap sheet of his followers is a never-ending story.

         The cultural genocide of Canada’s First Nations that Canadian churches helped organize and lead, the ongoing revelations of clergy abuse especially by Roman Catholic priests and bishops—though Protestants are not guiltless in this either--and the ugly turn to Trumpism by America’s evangelicals are three current realities that weigh on me.

         But historically, there is much, much more. Shall I list all the ways the church has failed? Impossible—there is too much. But consider this brief list of just ten notable historic abuses: 1) Scapegoating Jews (centuries of it, mind you, around dinner table, as well as in villages tiny and empires great). 2) Happy participation in genocides not only of Jews, but of First Nations all around the world. 3) Blessing the slave trade and slave ownership. 4) The Roman Catholic Inquisition. 
Contemporary illustration of the Auto-da-fe held
at Valladolid Spain in 1559.
5) Crusades. 6) Centuries worth of religious wars in Europe. 7) Blessing and promotion of British imperialism for pride, profit, and pink maps (or Dutch imperialism, or Nazism, or Napoleon, or medieval monarchies, or the Roman Empire after Constantine). 8) Anti-science views from Galileo to today’s defenders of creationism and deniers of climate change. 9) A focus on personal salvation in the by-and-by instead of saving the world, now. 10) From at least the time of Constantine, its adulterous affair with the status quo rather than social justice for the last, least, and most marginalized. 

         Most of these tragedies are global or national. But local congregations and leaders and individual members participated in all of these failures. 

         I am no great exception to the rule. When I look back on my own career as a minister and denominational leader, I see many missed opportunities to do the right thing, to take a stand against the status quo, to be more prophetic, to take risks, to be more like Jesus. But I’ll pass on my personal list of ten-most-notable John Suk failures.

         The thing is, how can such an ongoing avalanche of evils inspire faith? Or, perhaps better yet, how can churches (denominations and congregations, members and related non-profits, etc., etc.) have the gall to proselytize, to suggest joining (or staying) might be a good thing, in view of its record? It would be like putting our trust in Volkswagen’s mileage claims or Donald Trump’s claims he didn’t commit adultery. Why doesn’t “once bitten, twice shy” seem to apply to the church? Especially when the church has been prowling about like a carnivore for thousands of years?

         There are traditional approaches to dealing with the scandal of the church. One is to argue that the only church that really matters is the invisible one, holy, Catholic church which is different than the many scattered, sorry, excuses for a church that are written up in history books and located on street corners. 

         But such a focus on the eschatological church (if you even believe in a second coming and all that) is like a magician’s trick, pulling something pretty and fluffy out of a hat after you first stuffed a dirty rag in. It’s sleight of hand. 

         This eschatological approach makes a mockery of Jesus’ teaching for the nascent church of “now,” as represented by the disciples: “A new command I give you. Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Do we really think Jesus didn’t mean this, didn’t expect such love, here and now, from his followers? Are all of the New Testament's pleas to be perfect, or to give one another the kiss of peace, or to serve one another, or care for one another, or to love neighbours or turn the other cheek there just to mock us?

         Another approach is to weigh the good against the bad, and say, “on balance, the church is great!” But, “on balance,” doesn’t cut it with me. It’s like suggesting that German engineering prowess or philosophical depth or music or strudel somehow justifies or minimizes the horror of what the Nazis did in Germany.

         Others say that, "of course the church will be a failure. We’re all sinners. The church is for sinners, just as it will be besmirched and spoiled by sinners. But at least we are striving to follow Jesus, to climb the ladder of sanctification." But this is merely a poor excuse for a grade of F. "Johny tried, poor kid. He really did. That's good enough." 

         I love my local congregation. I love the people who go to church there. I am, to be truthful, much more frustrated by regional, national, international, institutional, hierarchal, synodical, confessional, creedal, educational manifestations of the church than I am with my local congregation. 

         I don’t see a way around my frustrations either. Go back to calling ourselves “The Way?” Seek a Chuxit for my congregation? Quietism? Withdrawal from the world of politics and institutions and power games and bureaucracies? If I or my congregation tried, we would just have to reinvent a lot of what we left behind if we wanted to carry on or grow or make an impact.

         I don’t know. I guess blog posts don’t always have to have all the answers. 

         This week is Easter. I’m going to preach on Jesus’ words, “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies it produces many seeds.” I wonder if there is something here, in Jesus' way of choosing death that might be a way forward towards an ecclesial resurrection. Anyone remember Morris West's novel "The Shoes of the Fisherman"? It had some of that "choosing death" in it. It was hokey, too. But still. 

         I don’t know what that would look like here and now. I don’t know what it would mean for the people I love and who love others in my local congregation. 

         I don’t know. But it weighs on me more and more.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Evolution Is a Theory Like Gravity Is a Theory. But What About God?

         I sort of believe in the theory of evolution like I sort of believe in the theory of gravity. Think about it. That means evolution is not up for discussion. But while the theory of gravity bores me, unless I’m falling, the theory of evolution fascinates me.
Sir Isaac Newton hypothesizes the Theory of Gravity

         Here’s why. I went to Toronto District Christian High, in Woodbridge, as a teen. Unlike many Christian schools, at Toronto Christian we were taught about evolution. We were taught, in fact, that evolution was likely how God created the universe. This is called theistic evolution.

         However, there was a single exception. Humans. According to my teachers humans were sinless special creations God made in his image. We were not part of the animal kingdom. We did not evolve. 

         This was pretty much the line I was taught at seminary, too. After seminary, I spent a year of graduate study digging deeper, comparing the Bible’s several creation stories to similar older creation stories told by ancient Israel’s neighbours. I learned that the stories in the Bible were very intentional, shabbat-night-live satiric commentaries on the more ancient creation stories of Israel’s neighbours. 

         Since then, studying human evolution has become a hobby. And one of the reasons I finally left my previous denomination was because I couldn’t, finally, pretend to play along with my denomination’s official view on human evolution.

         More recently, scientists have unraveled the human genome and the DNA within it. Doing so not only allows us to find relatives several generations removed through sites like 23andme’s DNA kits, but unravelling the human genome has helped us find criminals by the DNA they leave behind, and now even cure some diseases rooted in genetic problems. Within that genome, we’ve also discovered the deep evolutionary roots of humankind that ties us to the rest of the animal kingdom. We humans evolved from other earlier hominids, as have the Great Apes and yes, even monkeys. We are also related to other branches of the homo species, like Neanderthals and Denosivans—both now extinct. 

         But why review all this? Because as I’ve studied cosmic and biological evolution, I’ve begun to ask myself, more and more, “so what role does God play in all this?” If everything evolved, and if science can describe that evolutionary process without needing a God, then what use is God?

         And this is what I came up with. It is tentative. It is the best I can do. And I am very, very open to better ideas.

         Imagine a car. The car loosely represents the cosmos. And imagine God. God can relate to the car in several ways. For example, perhaps God is the driver.

         That is, God gets behind the wheel. God has the key, turns the ignition, and gets the car going. God as driver is in complete control. God chooses the destination. He’s the driver, after all. God steers the car around every corner. In fact, God even built the car he drives—he’s a cosmic Henry Ford. This is how most conservative Christians think of God—he’s completely in charge of the whole cosmos—starting it, directing it, and so on. It’s why, when someone dies or they get a new job, such Christians will say things like, “well, it was God’s will. That’s God’s plan.”

         Prayer, then, could be imagined as us asking the driver, God, to steer the car in a certain way, and get us to places we want to go. But God is the driver. God might listen to us, as passengers, but God might not. God is completely in charge of our journeys. Nothing is up to us. In its most extreme of the Calvinist versions of this line of thought, God’s mind is never changed by prayer. God has already decided everything ahead of time. This is called predestination—God decides everything about the destination and our drive there. Humans don’t really have a choice. No free will.

         But many Christians (and people of other faiths) disagree. For example, some Christians imagine that God is not much like a driver, but more like a passenger in a self-driving car, a next-generation Tesla, say, that he invented and built. In this case, God provides the blueprint, gets things going, comes along for the ride, but doesn’t personally steer the car himself. This is called deism.

         Deists have their own favourite analogy. Imagine finding a watch in a field. You pick it up. You wind it up. And the watch ticks and tocks. It keeps time. Perfectly. 

         If you found such a watch, you would have to presume that it was made by someone. Watches don’t just appear, by accident, as it were. So, if you found a watch, you would have to believe that there was a skilled watchmaker who designed and manufactured it. 

         Well, when deists look about the cosmos what they see is something even more wonderfully and fearfully made than that watch. The planets in their circuits, our blood coursing through veins, and all the laws of nature suggested to these ancients that, as with the watch, the cosmos must have a designer and a manufacturer. But once a big bang sets it off, the cosmos runs by itself. God is inventor, creator, but once God is done, God lets the whole mess run itself. Deism. 

         I’m more inclined to a deist view of God myself, than to a driver God who predestines everything. My problem with deism, however, is that actually, modern scientific theories can pretty much explain everything—the big bang, the appearance of life, evolution. The physical world doesn’t need an inventor or watchmaker to be properly explained. Which is why Richard Dawkins wrote a book about evolution called, ironically, The Blind Watchmaker. 

         Well, as you can see, if you don’t need God to create the cosmos and just come along for the drive, and if you don’t need God as the creator and driver either, there isn’t much room left for God. So, some Christians—liberal ones, for the most part, have begun to think of God not as the driver, not as a quiet passenger who just set things in motion, but as a backseat driver.

         You see, while science can explain a lot, some people don’t think science can explain morality, our human notions about what is right and wrong. And so, these Christians turn God into a backseat driver who is always telling us what is right and wrong, what direction to take our lives, which pedestrians and hazards to watch out for. This is a nagging God, a pushy God, a “you better get this right,” God. A liberal works-righteousness God who seems, always, to be saying, “Be better. Do more. Divest. Rally. Protest.” This God speaks to us insistently, mostly through theologians and denominational executives and pressure groups who are sure they know exactly what God wants when it comes to a whole list of contemporary issues. And while I often agree with these people, I don’t like the tone, and I don’t like the imagined God behind this tone, very much.

         None of these pictures of God ring true for me. Is there another possibility? I think there is. Perhaps God, in some wild but mysterious way offers guidance when we, alone in the car by ourselves, or together with each other as a community, seek that guidance. That is, instead of nagging us, perhaps God is more like Google Maps or the Waze app. Except those kinds of maps are too directive, too sure. So maybe God is more like the author of an old-fashioned paper map. We can turn to it for direction, but we need to read it carefully, parse its options, interpret it, and rely on the corroborating (or not) advice of fellow passengers. Only when we turn to God “The Paper Map,” for direction do we receive it—in part and imperfectly. 

          But where might God provide such guidance, in real life? Well, I’d say that scripture is where we find it; and in the cumulative wisdom we’ve built up about scripture as a community, over thousands of years. Scripture, and our reflection on it, is the divine roadmap we have for arriving ("Perhaps," says John Caputo. “We hope,” I add.) at our desired destination.

         I’m not saying that scripture is dictated by God, or that is divinely authoritative (so we better listen to it!), or that every word is inspired. I don’t think so. But overall, scripture—including the scriptures of other religions and the Testament we received from the Jewish people—scriptures do represent thousands of years of deep listening on the part of humans to a mysterious divine wisdom that permeates the cosmos and is deeply rooted in our own selves, as well. We argue about how to understand scripture, we question some of its odd suggestions that belong to another place and time, but overall, in scripture and in the communities that listen to it and truly seek guidance in it, we usually find God gently, kindly, offering direction when we seek it, encouraging us to live full lives that benefit each other and help us find our place in the cosmos.

         Scripture in this sense is a lamp that prevents our feet from stumbling when all is otherwise dark (Psalm 119:105). Keep in mind that when scripture is described as a light, it isn’t talking about a modern flashlight or streetlight that reveals all. It is a flickering, uncovered olive lamp with a sputtering wick that threatens to go out at any minute, and gives just enough light so that we don’t trip over what would otherwise be obvious rocks and chasms in the path. 

         Scripture is a divine gift. But gifts, to be true gifts, must be given unconditionally. There is no expectation of a return, no nagging about thank-you cards, no obligation to give something of equal or greater value back. If we were given a gift conditional on how we responded to it, it would be merely a financial transaction, a debt to be repaid, rather than a gift. We’d have to interpret it correctly, or else. But no. As a favourite writer once put it: There is nothing you have to do, there is nothing you have to do, and there is nothing you have to do.

         The divine gift of scripture is an invitation, really, to explore meaning and purpose beyond the facts. Science, and theories like evolution, explain a lot—everything, really. And yet, for such a world as this, we also have this one thing more, this divine gift, the divine (but often obscure!) map, for why and how to live a life—not just for survival, but for the love of all things bright and beautiful.

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Gospel According to "A Star Is Born."

            As the curtains rise in the movie A Star is Born, Jackson Maine, a Country and Western hero, is singing at a sold-out concert before adoring fans. He’s rich, famous, and good looking. But it soon becomes clear that Jackson is also fighting demons.

            Jackson is the child of an abusive and alcoholic father. Jackson tried to escape his father at age 13, unsuccessfully, by suicide. Now Jackson needs drugs to get through concerts. He finishes off a bottle of Jack Daniels as soon as the show is over. He physically fights with his brother. He has tinnitus, which means he can’t hear what he’s singing. He wets himself on stage at the Grammys. He fails at rehab. Jackson is a good man who is joined to the hip with tragedy.

            In any case, after the opening concert scene, Jackson stumbles into a bar where Ally works as a singer. She is not living the dream. She’s a down-on-her-luck wannabe-star who slings garbage at work and covers songs at a seedy bar, nights. 

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper sing "Shallow."
            For Jackson, Ally is love at first sight. They spend the night discussing song writing. And ultimately, Jackson invites Ally to sing her own song, “Shallow,” at one of his shows. Listen to it on YouTube. 

            For the rest of the movie, Ally’s star rises as Jackson’s falls. They fall in love, get married, but don’t live happily ever after. Why not?

            The lyrics to “Shallow,” get at some of their big issues. Ally wrote most of the song about Jackson on the night they first met. Ally has figured out that Jackson is in trouble, that he’s longing for change, afraid of himself in the bad times, trying to fill a void—the shallows.

            Jackson, for all of his success and fame, needs more. He is trying to keep up a hardcore image but failing. He’s wading in the shallow end of the pool of life, not the deep end, where real adults swim.

            Shallow isn’t what Jackson wants. He’s is a good guy, after all. He is kind. He makes friends. He can make a deep, loving connection with Ally—when he’s sober, at least.

            Shallow isn’t what Jackson wants. He says, “Talent is everywhere but having something to say that is a whole other bag . . . there is one reason we’re supposed to be here, and it is to say something so people want to hear it.” 

            Shallow isn’t what Jackson wants. For example, Ally tells Jackson she’s a failure because the music industry tells me my nose is too big and she will never make it. But Jackson goes for the deep, he sees the real beauty in Ally—her authenticity, her artistry, her soul, and he nurtures all that.

            Shallow isn’t what most of us want, either. 

            But shallow is where a lot of us—myself included—go too often

            Shallow. Shallow is the inability to align your life with what ultimately matters. It’s a kind of preoccupation with the next step, the next paycheck or promotion, the current distraction, so that you absent-mindedly never actually focus on the big picture or the meaning of life. 

            Shallow. It looks like choosing a career not on the basis of your great gift or driving passion, but choosing it pragmatically, for the sake of big bucks or success asForbesor RollingStonemeasures such things.

            Shallow. It looks like adopting political opinions from parents or coworkers, well, because that’s what you heard, but not taking the time to think deeply about such opinions in light of what religious leaders, or philosophers, or scientists, or cultural critics are saying about the deep.

            Shallow. How many Canadians don’t choose their churches, or synagogues, or temples out of custom and superstition, for tribal or ethnic reasons, without ever giving the matter serious thought? And how many Christians hardly understand or even know the basic Biblical stories anymore? Because, you see, faith offers consolation and hope in direct proportion to how much we invest in faith. Deep, says the Psalmist, calls to deep. 

            Shallow can be as simple as the latest gadget we just had to purchase for the endorphin-fueled thrill of hitting the “buy” button on Amazon; the same gadget that Marie Kondo will tell us how to get rid of to declutter. 

            Shallow can be simple, like giving someone the finger at an intersection; or seductive, like drinking a few too many glasses of wine, over and over again.

            And perhaps most difficult, most maddening, shallow can also be good. We all need some shallow. We all need time away from responsibility, fun away from the rat race, soothing if mindless pastimes that can momentarily drown our anxiety or rest our bodies. Shallow is many negative and some very good things, and we are therefore required, if we are to enjoy our shallow, to be discerning, to regulate it and box it in and plan for it so that shallow—like Jackson’s whiskey—does not conquer us and waste our lives.

            In the end, Jackson Maine chooses to die by suicide. The scene is very sad, very jarring, and not knowing that it was coming, it hit my wife and I like a ton of bricks, because a few years ago one of our siblings died in this manner. Jackson’s suicide also seemed an overly melodramatic response to the problem of living in the shallow end. It felt tacked on. After all, A Star Is Born didn’t have to end this way. There are four versions of this movie out there and not all end with suicides.

            On the other hand, as much as I hated it, Jackson’s suicide also underlined that shallow—and the many ways we try to medicate ourselves, or distract ourselves against, or protect ourselves from the challenge of going deep—Jackson’s suicide was an attempt by the script writers to underline that shallowness is not nothing. Shallowness is a pretty, purring beast of prey that can ultimately tear us apart, from within. Beware.

            The movie left me with a big ache. It’s tragic. The family fights, the drugs, the alcohol, the artifice of the world of the rich and famous, the play-acting that everyone does—it’s all shown to be meaningless. Even the most precious, hopeful thing in this movie—Ally’s stick-to-it-ness when it comes to her love for her tragic husband, isn’t enough to save Jackson from the shallows.

            This movie is what the writer of Ecclesiastes might have produced or directed if he made movies instead of wrote scripture. “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun, and see, all is vanity and a chasing after the wind.” Jackson’s love, his musical wizardry, his kindness, all stuck in the swamp of shallow, in the end, all a chasing after the wind.

            And—perhaps to its credit—the movie doesn’t offer any quick fixes or easy answers for those of us who struggle with shallow emptiness. By the end of the movie, not only does Ally’s sacrificial love not save Jackson, but she is herself beginning to sell out rather than sing the truth. 

            There is a Biblical word, however, worth pondering, I think—one that both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament explore at great length, a word that defies the shallows and defines deep. This word is “wisdom.” 

            In the book of James 3:13-18, Jesus’ brother describes wisdom, almost poetically, as a path of purity, peace, gentleness, a willingness to let others get their way sometimes, a merciful life, and not hypocritical. Nothing here about what you have to believe, mind you—just stuff about how to have a life that matters like Jesus’ life did, a life that isn’t shallow.

            Unfortunately, I can’t unpack that word “wisdom,” with words more compelling than James uses. I can’t explain wisdom, briefly, so that your life will be changed. 

            Wisdom, after all, like the deep, is complicated. Wisdom is elusive. Achieving wisdom is a whole-life goal; not a pastime; not merely the third, concluding point of a sermon. Wisdom is a pearl of great price that you must sell all to own. 

            And, there is only one way to acquire it. Commit your life to writing a wisdom script on your own heart. Do what only you can do for yourself; go deep to secure wisdom for your journey. And sure, along the way, carve out a bit of time to enjoy the shallows, too. But ultimately, choose deep and pursue it. Once you set out on that project, you’ll start figuring it out on your own. 

Monday, February 4, 2019

"Roma:" How Remembering Really Matters

We think we are the ones who choose what to remember, but in truth, our memories use us, shape us, make us who we are, often without our even realizing it. 

          Twenty years ago, on my way to work, I used to walk past a shuttered cemetery that came right up to the sidewalk on Kalamazoo Ave, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Very near the sidewalk, standing alone, were three simple stones. The epitaphs read “Francis B. Whitney, 1886-1960;” “Nora Whitney, 1891-1928;” and finally, “Baby Whitney, 1917.”

          I noticed the stones first, on a late-winter day, when everything was grey and brown with a glint of frost, when I was surprised to see a bright spray of yellow and red pansies firmly planted just before Baby Whitney’s stone. Looking closer, I realized that the flowers were made of silk.

          As I walked on, I wondered about those flowers. Was it possible that someone still remembered Baby Whitney’s birth, eighty years later? But how could that be? And why?

          Perhaps a younger brother or sister, someone who was born after Baby Whitney, left the flowers? Or was there no memory here at all, but just someone playing macabre tricks, carefully rearranging flowers for the odd thrill of it? But why?

          My curiosity was aroused. Genealogy is one of my hobbies. So, I scoured city records and census records for more information. Other than confirming that Francis Whitney had lived and died in Grand Rapids, and was married to Nora, I found little else. Family memories stretch back perhaps two, maybe even three generations. But as King Solomon once wrote, “The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them” (Eccl 1:11).

          Mary Carruthers, a historian of memory, writes that, “ancient and medieval people reserved their awe for memory. Their greatest geniuses they describe as people of superior memories . . . and they regard it as a mark of superior moral character as well as intellect.” Plato’s teacher, the philosopher Socrates, was deeply concerned that the invention of reading and writing would erode our ability to remember and thus make us less human. In ancient days, you cultivated memory.

          You see, if you wanted to be a midwife in the days before the printing press and literacy, there were no written manuals to study in classrooms that would turn you into a midwife. No, you had to learn this art from your mother, who probably learned it from her mother’s mother. You learned by watching, by doing as your teacher instructed, and practicing. But you never knew more than what you remembered. There were no books. No internet. No FAQs. Just your memory. Something you cultivated, crated, paid attention to, made a living from, and clung to.

          Alfonso Cuarón’s "Roma" is based on his bittersweet memories of growing up with his family, and especially memories of their maid, Cleo. The movie is about how memories make us who we are.

          In fact, this movie is all reminisce, a rivulet of time past bubbling into and filling the present. Cuarón remembers both childhood glee and trauma. Interestingly, as viewers, we cannot know how good Cuarón’s memory is, or why he remembers what he does, or even what Cuarón has forgotten; how his memory works, or how our memory works is much more mysterious than we give memory credit for.

          Some of Cuarón’s memories are bitter. His father, a doctor, abandons not just his wife, Cuarón’s mother, but the entire family, neglecting the children, not paying the bills, lying to cover his tracks. Cleo, the maid, is often on the receiving end of small slights and harsh words by her masters. She is used by her boyfriend. These memories are not bitter just because of the facts, but because of the emotion attached to these memories, the feelings that are truer for Cuarón than the bare facts, the feelings that shape his attitude to others and to life.

          For Cuarón, these bitter memories—the emotional impact of them, that is—inform his present ideals. He will cultivate his memories, dwell in them until he has put them in a place he can live with, learning lessons for life and love along the way. In fact, I think Cuarón has made this movie just to make sure he masters his toxic, emotionally difficult memories so that they won’t subliminally influence his soul without him realizing it.

          On the other hand, some of Cuarón’s memories are sweet and a source of strength and encouragement. For example, Cuarón remembers how the whole extended family gathered for fun and fellowship at a Hacienda, or how his immediate family could sit together on the couch, happily watching TV, before the troubles began.

          But even these memories are instructive. The kids had fun, fun, fun at the family Hacienda; but the adults preyed on each other without the kids realizing it. The kids remember the press of warm flesh on the family’s TV couch, but the father was already plotting his exit. Memories—especially good ones of love, and attachment, and kindness, and success—positive memories can be the rock on which we build the house of self we inhabit; and toxic memories, even if we cannot recall them, can be the sand upon which our lives collapse.

          We think we are the ones who choose what to remember, but in truth, our memories use us, shape us, make us who we are, often without our even realizing it. This is why we must master memory, cultivate it. Memories and the emotions they trigger in us, can be bitter or sweet.

          But third, some of Alfonso Cuarón’s memories are actually impossible. Cleo has a miscarriage, and the military government slaughters hundreds of protesting students, scenes that Cuarón cannot have witnessed. But the brain knows how to improvise and fill in the blanks. Many memories end up being the stories we tell ourselves, even without all the facts, and sometimes regardless of the facts.

          In one powerful scene, the climax of the movie, the maid Cleo is left on the beach with the children, who venture into the water. The undertow catches them. They can’t make it back to shore. They are going to drown. But Cleo, who cannot herself swim, wades in, waves washing over her, plucks first one, and then another out of the water, saving their lives at great risk to her own.

          Ultimately, Cuarón’s memories are like those waves—they are angry and bitter, in danger of taking him away, of leaving him overwhelmed by the past. And at the same time, his own memory of that terrible day on the beach is especially sweet for the love that was expressed in Cleo’s courage, and in all the children in a tangle of hugs and embraces with Cleo on the beach. Because they remember Cleo’s love, given freely and at great risk, Cuarón and the entire family can build a life in and for each other secure in the knowledge that they need not do it all alone.

          In sum? Cultivate your memories.

          Remember, most memories are stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our world, part fact, part reconstruction, part convenient forgetting. The brain actively grows and nourishes the old stories we tell about ourselves, so that we will come out looking good. Be aware of this trick, and make allowances for it. You are not always the hero or the exemplary person that you remember yourself as, nor are others always the villains you suppose they must have been.

          Some memories are sweet. Harvest them. Enjoy them. Let them sustain you. Don’t worry too much about how accurate they are, so long as they are true who you want to be.

          Other memories are bitter. You might want to prune these, in spite of the work it requires, discarding those that don’t somehow help make you a happier or wiser person, but meanwhile, not forgetting them so much that you cannot hang on to the critical lessons and insights you gained in spite of the pain. Other memories are a subtle mix of sweet and bitter, as when Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

          Finally, some memories influence us even though we are hardly aware of them—like poisons or fertilizer under the soil. These memories—whether they are the sort that fluff us up or bring us down—these memories are especially tricky. But here’s a hint.

          If someone you love or trust suggests that you should explore these past events, or if you recognize that sometimes you are unaccountably emotionally triggered by people or events all out of proportion to what was intended, or if large parts of your life are barely remembered, take a risk and see a counselor who can explore these kinds of memories with you. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. And, it is just possible that you might get to know yourself in a whole new, and more whole way. Don’t think of counselling as just medicine for the psyche—think of it as exercise for the psyche.

          I loved this movie. Not so much because I understood Alfonso Cuarón better at the end. But this movie challenged me to be honest with myself and to take responsibility for the memories that will shape my life unawares if I don’t pay attention.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Before Christmas; After Easter. (And the Virgin Birth)

            Let’s be honest. Most of us smile, knowingly, when we think of the virgin birth. I mean, you don’t have to have been taught Ontario’s Sex-Ed curriculum to see the problems here. Even Mary understands. She says, “How can this be, since I am a virgin.”

            It’s much the same when we think about the resurrection stories. Luke says that when Mary—yes, the same Mary, Jesus’ mother—when Mary and some other women told the disciples that the grave was empty, the disciples thought it was an idle tale and did not believe the women. 

            So, a virgin birth. A dead man walking. Either way, “How can this be?”

            It’s a big, serious question. And so, every Christmas and every Easter, in liberal churches like mine you will hear sermons about how Bethlehem stories are a metaphor for the possibility of new life; and you will hear that empty grave stories are, well, a metaphor for the possibility of new life. 

            Meanwhile, in more conservative evangelical churches sermons will argue for the literal truth of these stories. Preachers will explain how, after not breathing for three days, Jesus gasped, wiggled his toes, and then walked out of his grave without being a zombie. 

            I don’t say so to mock either liberal or conservative Christians. Like I said, “How can this be?” is a weighty question, a teeter-totter sort of question at the heart of our theological playground. We ought to toss this question around, from time to time.

            And yet I want think we focus far too much on such questions of historical fact. In fact, if we become too preoccupied with, “how can this be,” we might miss the rest of the story, the heart of the story, the bulk of Jesus’ life. My best friend, Nick, pointed this out to me. Nick is interested in the philosophical challenges surrounding the writing of biographies, and how this relates to the gospels. In that connection, Nick recently recalled an event that many of you will remember.

            It’s like this. You will remember, the Nixon White House tapes. President Nixon 
Rose Mary Woods demonstrating how she allegedly
erased 18 1/2 minutes of Nixon's Whitehouse tapes.
recorded all of his conversations on a tape recorder. Later, these tapes became evidence for the Grand Jury that was investigating Nixon for the Watergate break-in. The tapes were damning conversations about Nixon’s ruthlessness, his disregard for the law, and so on. 

            What really led to President Nixon’s resignation, however, was not the tapes themselves, but an 18½ minute gap in the tapes, during a conversation between Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, and Nixon himself. At the very moment where Nixon was most likely to confess how much he knew about the Watergate break in, the tape goes silent. Rose Mary Woods, his secretary, took the blame for erasing the tape, but Nixon took the fall. He resigned soon after.

            It’s not the beginning and end that matter most, in the Nixon Tapes, but the missing piece in the middle.

            And, before Christmas and after Easter, it sometimes feels to me that much of what really matters, everything between Jesus’ birth and death, has been erased from our Christian consciousness, and we are far poorer for it.

            It is the same in the Apostle’s Creed. The Apostles’ Creed describes Jesus’ life this way: “I believe in Jesus Christ, his son, who was born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.”

            Nothing is said here about Jesus’ baptism by John. Nothing about the parable of the Good Samaritan or the Lost Coin. Nothing about Zacchaeus in his tree or Mary Magdalene forgiven or dinner at Mary and Martha’s. Nothing in the creed about riding a donkey into Jerusalem as an argument against conquering Roman emperors who rode their war horses into Rome.

            The Apostle’s Creed moves from Bethlehem to Golgotha as if Luke chapters 3-22 don’t exist. It’s an 18 ½-minute—no an 18½-chapter gap—which, if we read it, would convict us, but in an entirely different way than the gap convicted Nixon. 

            So, let’s move beyond controversies of beginning and end, about how such things could be, about whether or not Mary was a virgin, whether or not wise men came from the East, whether or not there was a census while Quirinius was Governor of Syria. Let’s consider the whole gospel, and especially everything between the beginning in Bethlehem and the end at Golgotha.

            You will find there, in the missing 18 ½ chapters, that Jesus says, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.”

            You will find there that Jesus also says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

            You will find there, in the excluded middle, a divine longing to heal the sick, to bind the wounds of the broken hearted, to call out hypocrisy; a longing to forgive people who messed up and to live for the love of your neighbours.

            You will find there, in the missing chapters, that Jesus prays, “give us this day our daily bread.”

            You will find there, that Jesus says, “Do not worry. Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. . . But seek first the kingdom of God and these things will be given to you as well.”

            You will find there, in the middle passages we have erased mostly through neglect, that Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to them.”

            It’s beautiful stuff, as moving as ant star in the east or manger filled with straw.

            A final, concluding thought. I have to laugh sometimes about the movement to put Christ back into Christmas. I suppose, at some level, I get it. Santa Claus and his pretty elves in their scarlet miniskirts sitting for pictures in the mall, and Season’sGreetings, and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and Jingle Bells playing on an endless loop, and of course, the “ka-ching!” of our credit cards getting their annual workouts—it is all a bit too cute, too hollow, too distracting. It can be hard to focus on Jesus when so much is going on.

            But actually, we shouldn’t blame our culture for doing what it wants to do, and we shouldn’t feel guilty for joining in on the fun. Jesus wasn’t a killjoy. But, if we really do want to focus on Jesus, like the first Gospel of Mark, we actually don’t need any of Christmas or much of  Easter. In fact, instead of worrying about taking Christ out of Christmas, let’s try to think, instead, about how to bring the missing 18 ½ chapters back into the rest of our year.