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Ghetto and Good

In Apologetics, Devotional on September 4, 2016 at 6:06 pm

WP_20160804_16_59_26_RawBecause I dabble in philosophical questions, I sometimes make comments that don’t go down very well at parties: I suggested that I thought human beings are naturally evil.  There was some disagreement, and then all conversation, as it always does, turned to Donald Trump.

There’s quite a bit of evidence that human beings are naturally evil–watch the evening news or read the comments on pretty much any post where someone offers an opinion.  But there’s also quite a bit of evidence that people are basically good. Everyone knows lots of people who are good and not too many who are bad–bank robbers and such.  I know lots of people who are good too.

I picked up a book in Warsaw at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.  The book contains excerpts from The Ringelblum Archive, a collection of documents and testimonies collected by Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum and his team of researchers between September 1939 and January 1943.  Dr. Ringelblum did not survive, but his collection did.

In one interview a man named Aron Einhorn says,

It is difficult to say whether this moral swamp which we see around us nowadays is the result of the abnormal conditions prevailing in the ghetto, or whether the ghetto uncovered that which had previously been covered up, masked.

He goes on to describe this “moral swamp” of thefts, looting, cheating, cruelty, indifference, oppression, and WP_20160804_16_57_37_Raw corruption.

The ghetto was filled with a large proportion of people who used to be good.  They were good because they had homes, clothing, food and hope.  Many had money, respect, freedom and safety.  It’s easy to be “good” when you have these things.  When these things were taken from them, or at least became scarce, their true nature came out to the surface.

When I look around my community, I see a lot of good people.  I also see a lot of people who have homes, clothing, food, safety and hope.  Many have money, respect and freedom.  But are they really good?

Am I really good?  If I’m honest, there’s quite a bit of fear and self-centeredness slithering around inside me.  As I walked within the area that was once the Warsaw Ghetto and stood at the sight where the residents of the ghetto were put on trains bound for Treblinka, I wondered what I would have done if I had lived there in 1942.  I’d like to think I would have been good, but there’s a very good chance I would not have impressed Aron Einhorn.

WP_20160807_12_53_10_Raw

The only remnant of the wall that surrounded the Warsaw Ghetto.

If the Bible is right, we are naturally evil, and we will be judged accordingly.  What people don’t realize is that we will not be judged by what we’ve done.  It’s not what we do that is the issue, it’s who we are.  What I would have done had I lived in the Warsaw Ghetto is a much better indicator of who I really am, than living in my townhouse near a lovely golf course.  I will be judged for who I am.

This is pretty scary,  but if the Bible is right, there’s also some good news; the best news.  It’s been arranged that, if you want, you can judged as if your very nature were perfect and someone else will take the judgement that you deserve.  You need only ask him to take your place.

 

From Routine to Ritual: Classroom Attendance

In Christian Education, Devotional on June 2, 2016 at 9:01 pm

AttendanceSo I was thinking of a routine I might turn into a ritual, as per my last post.  I figured I’d allow the brushing of teeth to remain a routine for now.

Attendance!  In every class, I take attendance.  This routine is so routine, there’s probably no one who doesn’t know how this works.  The teacher goes down the alphabetical list, calling out student names and the students say, “Here,” when they hear their name.  It’s a routine; it exists for no other reason that its purpose, and it’s executed quickly and efficiently.

I was thinking that, rather that every student saying the same thing, “Here,” why not have then each reply with something unique?  In my first class, I asked them to reply with their favourite colour when I called their name.  Attendance took a little longer–the breaking from routine generated some excitement, and I found it hard to hear some responses.  In my other classes, I asked other predictable questions:

  • favourite food
  • favourite villain
  • dream job

The next day:

  • Who would you like to have coffee with?
  • What’s one book you’d want on a desert island?
  • In which historical period would you like to live?

Then we got a little more creative:

  • a political or cultural figure you like to hit with a pie in the face, or give a carnation?
  • the grossest thing you’ve ever eaten
  • a job you’d never want
  • your “spirit” animal? Your “spirit” kitchen appliance?
  • What do you do when you are really sad (one word)?
  • one word, most embarrassing moment
  • What movie would you like to be in, as which character?
  • What stupid superpower would you like to have?
  • a characteristic of one of your parents you hope you never acquire
  • In my English classes I can ask, in which dystopian world would you rather live?

Interestingly, these questions generated a lot of excited chatter.  So much that it made it almost impossible to get to the end of the class list.  So we worked on some normative behaviours–“norms” that would improve the ritual.  I asked the students what we might do to have our new mode of attendance taking be meaningful.  They came up with a good list.

  1. Don’t tell your answer to your neighbour until your name is called.
  2. Look at the person whose name is called so you can hear their contribution.
  3. Respond quickly and positively.
  4. Don’t forget to ask Mr. DeJong his answer.

Rituals mean something beyond the activity itself.  What I like about this attendance ritual is that it sets the tone for the rest of the class.  It’s fun and creative.  This fun and creativity are focused and contained. This ritual celebrates the uniqueness of each individual as well as the importance of the communal context; the value of each contribution, and contributor, is reinforced by the norm of respectful listening.  Everyone gets a voice; everyone’s voice is respected.  These “meanings” are at the core of what I am trying to teach in all of my classes–this “mindless ritual” is helping me to do it.

If you have any other suggestions for “Attendance Questions” please send them in the comment section.  I will be needing about 100 of them.

Turning Routines into Rituals

In Devotional, Worldview on May 21, 2016 at 8:16 pm

RitualsBoth routines and rituals involve a regular repetition of some action.

But they are very different.

Routines will flatten our lives, but rituals can thicken them.

Routines are like ordinary time and rituals are linked with “higher times.”

With a routine there is a clear, linear connection between the act and the purpose of the act. The routine of brushing your teeth is performed so that you have clean, healthy teeth. You routinely make a breakfast of oatmeal with flax and blueberries to prevent cancer or heart disease, I can’t remember which, maybe both. You grab a coffee on the way to work so that you can hit the ground running when you arrive. There is no more meaning in a routine than the desired outcome.

A ritual, on the other hand, does not have this clear relationship between the act and purpose. The purpose of a handshake, or fist bump or whatever it is the kids are doing these days, has nothing to do with the touching of hands. At a graduation, we don’t throw the hats in the air because we want them to be up there. In Holy Communion, we don’t eat the bread and drink the wine because we are hungry and thirsty.

The meaning and purpose of a ritual transcends the action itself.

In some Christian circles it is a given that we must avoid “mindless rituals.”  Notice that the basis of this censure is that it is non-rational. This preferment of the mind over all other aspects of the human being still dominates the Western church.  The thing about rituals is that they are fundamentally not about the mind–they are not supposed to be.  Does shaking hands when we greet someone make any rational sense?  Rituals train us in ways much deeper than the mind, deeper than the emotions even. They train and transform the deepest part of ourselves, precisely because we do them over and over again. And it’s not with our minds that we repeat rituals, but with our bodies.

James K. A. Smith says, in his book Desiring the Kingdom, that rituals aren’t just things we do, they are things that do something to us.  He says we’ve got it all wrong when we think that humans are primarily rational beings.  Yes, Descartes was wrong with his conclusion, “I think therefore I am.”  Rather, Smith says we are desiring beings–“I love therefore I am.”  Rituals get at the core of who we are, through out bodies.  If you say a rote prayer before the every evening meal, with folded hands and closed eyes, you are physically acknowledging a presence that deserves your reverence, a providential being to whom you ought to be grateful.  This simple ritual shapes identity, and it “thickens” experience in the world as it connects a person and his food to a transcendent provider–this “mindless” ritual is an incarnational event.  If this simple prayer is such a significant event, think about Communion.

We engage in functional, but empty routines all day long.  I wonder if we can’t elevate some of these to the level of ritual.  I’ve ritualized the routine of hitting snooze on my alarm clock.  Every morning when I wake up, well almost every morning, I say, “Good morning, Lord.”  This ritual reminds me that the day does not begin when I wake up; during the seven hours that I’ve been sleeping, God has been busy.  I am joining God’s day, “already in progress.”   It is a quotidian reminder and that the all-powerful king of the universe loves me because he’s there every morning to hear me say, “Good, morning Lord.”

I think I just leave the brushing of my teeth as a routine, but there are some interesting possibilities for ritualizing my morning coffee.

 

Sacred Memories

In Devotional, Time, Worldview on February 27, 2016 at 10:19 pm

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have this sacred memory.  It was the summer of 2010.  The previous 4 years had been difficult.  But now I was in Rennes, France on my honeymoon.  While my wife was napping.  I went for a walk in the old town.  I sat down at an outdoor table on the cobbled street.  I watched the pedestrians stroll past the 5oo year old buildings that faced me.  I ordered a beer, one I’d never heard of,  Picon Biere.  It’s flavour was a surprise that I couldn’t identify at first–oranges?!  This beer was incredible.  The setting was incredible.

Then I experienced this feeling of profound peace.  It was a gift of grace.  I’d never felt this so strongly before.  This for me is a sacred memory.

I have no doubt this feeling had a transcendent source.  God was behind it somehow.  I don’t know what it meant, but I carry it with me always.

Dostoyevsky wrote of these moments:

People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education. If a man carries many such memories with him into life, he is safe to the end of his days, and if one has only one good memory left in one’s heart, even that may sometime be the means of saving us.

Brothers Karamazov

I’m curious about your sacred moments.  Do other people have them?  I don’t hear much talk about them.  If you are willing to share them, post them in the comment section.

What God taught me through the “Dark Times” (1)

In Devotional on June 6, 2015 at 10:43 pm

They say that you learn the most about yourself and that God does most of his sanctifying work during the rough times. Enough time has passed for me to have done some reflecting about what God was teaching me during those years when my life was turned upside-down.

One of the things I learned was fearlessness. I think, before, I must have been scared of a lot of things. I was scared that I would go to the doctor and be told I had only six months to live. I was scared that one of my kids would die. I was scared that my wife would leave me. I suppose I was really hoping that I could live a charmed life and nothing bad would happen to me. If I think carefully about this attitude, I think I made an idol out of the charmed life. Deep down I didn’t trust this idol, hence the fear.  When the tragedy eventually struck my idol was shown to be the fraud it was.  Consequently, I’m not nearly as fearful as I used to be because I now know that God is bigger than the things I feared before and I can trust him.  He was faithful, and true to his promises.

It’s Easy to be “Good” in Suburbia

In Devotional on April 8, 2015 at 6:28 pm

Good FridaySometimes I have a hard time understanding the extent of my sinfulness and, correspondingly, my need for Grace.

I’m a pretty good guy. I’ve mostly obeyed the 10 commandments; I often give money to people who need it, and I go to church every week. When I sit in the pew on Good Friday, I know that Jesus died for me, but it’s sometimes hard for me to avoid the thought that he died a little less for me than he did for the guy sitting three rows back.

Also to my credit, I confess to the sin of pride with some regularity.

This past Good Friday I became aware that I was as much in need of God’s grace as anyone. This epiphany probably came by way of the Holy Spirit, but also the questions evoked through a film and a book.

When I walked out of the theatre after watching Selma, I was left with the question, “Would I have participated in the march to secure equal voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.” I’d like to think I would, but I don’t really know. After I read a biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I was left with the question, “Would I have resisted the Nazi campaign against the Jews, like Bonhoeffer, or turned a blind eye as so many Christians did?” I’m not really sure I would have chosen the road of justice.

I am currently aware of situations where good people are eagerly wallowing in wounded pride rather than seeking reconciliation. My immediate reaction to this is self-righteousness–a self-righteousness rooted in the fact that right this minute I am not doing the same thing. Under the same circumstances, my sin might be the greater. God knows, and he doesn’t judge by what I’ve done or not done, but by the condition of my heart.

By focusing rather on the condition of my heart, rather than on what I have done or not done, has helped me to more fully appreciate my need for the Grace that was given on the cross–the Grace that is enough to cover the sins of the worst racists as well as the most self-righteous.

God or a Caricature?

In Devotional, Rants on February 7, 2015 at 6:27 pm

Atheists rightWhile this certainly isn’t true in all cases, I find that most of the young people that I know who are walking away from God are not walking away from the actual God, but from a Modern or Western, watered-down imaginary representation of him–often the god of caricatured “fundamentalists.

Good, but the thing I wish they’d realize is that there’s more distance between this false conception of God and God as he really is than there is between a cheese dish served by Alain Passard at in Paris at Arpège and an ad for Kraft dinner in an old magazine in my doctor’s waiting room.

If you are rejecting God, you need to know who you are rejecting.

I must start with the disclaimer that I don’t really know God as he is, nor does any human being, but we get some hints from his creation and between the lines of the prophets through whom he spoke and most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ.

When we look at the cosmos we see that God is as creative as he is powerful. And he must like human beings a lot because he gives us all sorts of good things: love, food, sex, sunsets, beaches, oranges and wine.

God is perfect justice. I will admit that this is a bit of a stumbling block in our culture of tolerance. We don’t like a God that draws a clear line between right and wrong and then judges the wrong. This is but one attribute of God, but he’s a lot easier to walk away from if we imagine it’s the only attribute. This is usually only a stumbling block to those who experience no true injustice. Consider all the crap that some people have to live with at the hands of others; then the God of justice moves from an embarrassment to a necessity to get up in the morning. It is definitely wrong to machine gun children, or to rape teen aged girls and string them up in a tree to taunt their grieving, and helpless father or to force women and children into sexual, or any other kind of, slavery. You know people do this, right? If one’s life is filled with this kind of injustice, justice isn’t so easy to dismiss and the God who is justice isn’t so easy to reject.

He’s also perfect love. Yeah, I know. Perfect justice AND perfect love? How to you put those things together? Well, if there truly was a God, I think it’s reasonable to expect that there’d be some things that would be, intellectually, a little hard to grasp. He knew it was hard to grasp so he showed us what it looks like–his son on the cross–he judged Jesus as if he were us (justice), and then he treats us as if we were Jesus (love). Perfect justice and perfect love is right there at the cross.   It’s pretty clear that he will do anything and everything to bring you into a relationship with him. Everything, that is, except force you to be in a relationship with him.   That’s perfect love.

So if you are going to walk away from God, walk away from the one who heals the sick and blesses the poor, away from the one who eats with prostitutes and then lifts up those that are abused and seats them at the best seats at his table. The one who will bring justice to those who use people like objects and to those self-righteous folk who already have everything that they are going to get, away from the one can only woo you to him with the sacrifice of his love, and who loves you so much he won’t force you.

The Equalizer

In Books, Movies and Television, Devotional on January 13, 2015 at 3:28 am

EqualizerI just finished watching The Equalizer starring Denzel Washington. It’s a movie like many in the genre. [SPOILER ALERT] There are bad guys and the good guy kills them all. The bad guys are dirty cops and various levels of the Russian mafia. They make a lot of money doing bad things to everybody, but what makes them really despicable is that they do bad things to young girls. Like I said, they are bad. Then there’s our hero–he’s good because he protects the young girls and other meeker people. Although he looks like a mild mannered Home Depot guy (the movie uses a different name, but they ain’t fooling anybody) who likes to read books and drink tea in his spare time, he four armed thugs in less than 30 seconds.

We’ve seen this movie hundreds of times, the only thing in this sort of movie is if the hero dies at the end or not–always in exchange for the life and/or happiness of the former victim. I won’t tell you if Denzel survives or not since that will be the only “surprise” in this movie.

Still, I liked the movie. And I’ve liked most of the hundred that I already saw. The one with Clint or Jean Claude or Arnold or Harrison or Wesley or Steven or Bruce or Jackie. You get the idea.

Why do we like these movies so much? Why do they get away with giving us the same story again and again.

It’s because we really want it to be true. We want to watch the bad people get what’s coming to them, and we want to the innocent to be rescued and given their life back. We want to see justice–we need to see justice.

It’s interesting that this impulse is so strong in Western movie goers who rarely experience the sorts of injustices that are daily fare in many other parts of the world. If experiencing justice is such a rush for us, imagine how important it is for those who actually experience the intense injustice that we only experience in the theatre.

We also know that we will never see the kind of justice we crave, unless this is true.

Here is my servant whom I have chosen,

the one I love, in whom I delight;

I will put my Spirit on him,

and he will proclaim justice to the nations.

He will not quarrel or cry out;

no one will hear his voice in the streets.

A bruised reed he will not break,

and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,

till he has brought justice through to victory.

In his name the nations will put their hope.

(Isaiah 42:1-4, see also Matthew 12:15-21)

“Gotta Serve Somebody”

In Devotional on December 30, 2014 at 6:43 am

godsHuman beings always serve something. We always put something in the centre of our life, a thing against which we measure all other things. Perhaps it’s an ideology or a religion or a nation or a cause. Or partying or sex or work. Maybe the arts or sports or fine food and fast cars. Even abstract concepts like freedom or charity or happiness. Today I heard on the radio that the highest value was “universal human rights.”

We make gods of things.

And it’s dehumanizing.

If you make a thing more important that human beings, you have made humanity a lesser thing.

  • Religion says that the needs of the god are more important than those of humanity.
  • Nationalism means that the nation is more important than human beings.
  • If I worship sex, getting some is more important than the person I’m getting it with.
  • If freedom is the most important thing, then we sacrifice some people on the alters of that freedom.
  • If you are committed to your own personal flourishing, that of others is subjugated.

We seem to know innately that this is an inappropriate shift. Humanity is inherently valuable. Freedom, nation, happiness, sex, sports, arts, and charity are all good things, but when one of them is made into the ultimate thing, we start to see problems. This idea is at the core dystopian literature and film–Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, The Hunger Games, Logan’s Run, Bladerunner, Minority Report, Gattaca, The Island, and I, Robot. All these present a world gone very wrong–in each humanity was dethroned and replaced by some good thing–political power, pleasure, peace, elimination of murder, and long life. Bad things happen when we make good things into ultimate things. Good things are ill suited to occupy the position of a god.

Surrendering to an object or an idea is dehumanizing. The only possible way to serve something, which is part of our nature, but avoid dehumanization at the same time, is to surrender to another person. You might object that surrendering to another human being can also be dehumanizing. This is true, there are a lot of one-sided relationships where people that are happy to take whatever they can get from you and give very little in return, and they end up being the only ones that are thriving. This is usually (always?) because they are serving a thing or an idea.

There are other relationships based on sacrificial love, they are far from dehumanizing. We have this for our children–we give far more than we receive, and we don’t care because we are so interested in their flourishing. Some marriages are like this, where both put the other’s needs ahead of their own. You give a lot in these relationships, but by some magic you get back so much more than you give up.

This is was what we were made for, that’s why we flourish by these relationships.

Human beings were not only created to have relationships with each other, but also with God.

Not God as an idea, but as a person. The God of the Bible was always a personal God, but when he became human, he got way more personal. Submission to him isn’t dehumanizing, first of all because he is a person. But also because he’s not one of those gods–like Baal, Nation or Universal Human Rights–who demands we conform our lives to his desires in order to gain acceptance. Rather he conformed to us by becoming human and then dying for his enemies (myself included), and while we tortured and killed him he forgave us. What can we do but respond to this grace with a life of gratitude.

If you are going to serve, and you certainly will serve something, it might as well be to the God who served you first. Not just because it makes sense, but because it was for this relationship that we were made.

(This post is a complement for my post on cureforzombies.com — Check it out here)

The Worst Sin

In Devotional on December 21, 2014 at 8:21 pm

SinIt wasn’t very long ago that all the worst sins were the sexual ones — adultery, homosexuality, abortion. These were the activities, it was thought, in which the worst sinners regularly engaged. For many, the term “immorality” has a sexual connotation.  This is a problem. I think our pastors recognize that placing sexual sins at the top of the hierarchy is not Biblical–a distortion of the gospel. I have heard a lot of sermons over the past few years that contextualize the sexual sins — emphasizing that these are no worse than any other sins, like greed or gluttony. I was fully on board with this leveling of sins until I came across a quote from C.S. Lewis. He reestablishes a hierarchy.   Not only that, he puts sexual sins on the bottom. Here’s the passage:

If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins…. According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil. Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.

This is all very inconvenient.  I was feeling rather proud of my progress against sexual sin.