23 Mar 2016

Bottom lines and the Bible : a leaf from Beauty

We want the bottom line.

I suppose bottom lines give us a sense of control, allowing us to say, "this is what it's about", "enough is enough", "no negotiation here". So often, I hear people asking for the bottom line:

We cannot divorce right?
Surely God loves me right?
How come others are more successful than me?
Whose fault is it?

The straightforward, clear, and predetermined answer that absolves so us from further thought, wrestling, and struggle.

But life bottoms out more than it has bottom lines.

Our bottom line approach can only get us so far. Perhaps this is why the Bible is so laborious: long meandering stories, unpleasant gore and savagery that can be so repulsive to our modern sensibilities, notions rooted in cultures alien to our urban mindsets...not to mention the names we may never know to how pronounce properly! 

How often we wish it would be an easier read, filled with clear injunctions and instructions. The straight and narrow should come with clear signs and guard rails!

I just returned from a trip to China which included a visit to the famous Jiu Zai Gou (九寨沟). It is a nine hour bus ride through mountain passes, dusty quarries, and remote Tibetan villages. Then, after all that wearying travel, you enter a Narnian world of wild and amazing beauty:

On a good number of the walks, the wooden slate walkways had absolutely no guard rails. I was concerned my ten-year old would accidentally slip into one of the icy lakes or rivers. Without the guard rails, the beauty and power of Nature seemed so much closer. There was nothing between us. My breath was swept away by the evocative and mesmerising power of such raw beauty. I felt enveloped by it and drawn to step right into it and be lost in it.

Michael Fryer describes it thus:
"Beauty is not some vague, abstract idea. It's the opposite... when there is a dearth of hope, beauty in all its forms, has the ability to create moments of transcendence."

Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist who wrote Man's Search for Meaning described the impact of nature on the prisoners:

"As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before. Under their influence he sometimes forgets his own frightful circumstances. If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Aucshwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits flowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those faces there the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty...we were carried away by nature's beauty, which we had missed for so long."

What do we do with Beauty's power? 

We try to capture it, interpret it, convey it - with photos, paintings, songs, and stories. [JiuZaiGou was the location for this cinematically breath-taking scene in the film Hero; which I suspect made many regular kungfu fans yawn at the lack of action! You can watch it here later: wow scenery, slow kungfu moves ]

Life according to humans is our technological manipulation of nature for our ends: to enjoy ease, pleasure and productivity. But in truth, nature teaches us what we need to know about life. 

Jiu Zai Gou reminded me of the sheer wonder of life and the God who lay behind its creation. The clear pools created in me such a longing for clarity and made me aware of how murky our lives are. The strange little buds growing out of fallen tree stumps that sit in the water speak to me of the persistence of life despite odds. The beautiful and pristine snow that will always melt when the sun shines on it calls out to me to let go, melt away as it were, because melted snow becomes life-giving water.

This encounter required eighteen hours of rugged journey.

God is actually less elusive and more accessible. But we must still make the journey.

The journey through your own soul's many twists and turns.
The journey through loving, being loved, hurting, being hurt in God's family.
The journey through seasons and stations, starting and stopping.
The journey through losses, gains, suffering and resurrection.

In particular, this morning I thought of a journey so many of us are reluctant to make and pay a high price for: the journey through Holy Writ. We are satisfied to have bits and bytes because the Bible really seems such a thick and difficult book.

I had considered being satisfied with looking at pictures of Jiu Zai Gou from the Net. That would be the bottom line approach perhaps. We had worked right before and after the trip and the thought of the journey felt wearisome enough.  But I also know that I am not likely to pass that way again. 

I am so grateful we went, even if at one point, the tour guide warned us that accidents do occur, prompting me to pray that we would be transported heavenward as a family and not leave anyone behind!

Perhaps the Bible, like nature's wild beauty beckons us to enter in and have transcendent encounters. 

The Bible is not a piece of literature to be mastered. Rather, it is a gift from God to tell us again and again the nature of life and the transcendence therein. 

When I was younger, I loved the hard-hitting words of Paul. They were clear and filled with specific practical instructions. We need those. But as I grow older, I cherish too the many stories, the histories, the word pictures, because as I enter the stories, I find that I am not alone in my cowardice, my fear, my little faith, my dreams, my hopes…

This Holy Week, I re-read once again the closing days of Jesus' life. The younger me would have tired of going over the same ground. I already got the bottom line. But after experiencing that the bottom line is a thin thread, I know I need something far better: a large safety net. As I read and enter into the details of the account, thinking about the facts, wondering about the events, feeling the emotions, sensing the atmosphere… I enter Jesus' story and life even as it enters me. It's as if truth wraps its self around me like a blanket against the biting cold realities of our world, enabling me to keep walking.

22 Feb 2016

Future ready?

I suppose some things will remain.

We certainly hope so: those jobs that carry prestige and bring in the moolah - bankers, doctors, engineers, lawyers, vets... The Professionals.

Some of us grudgingly admit that a 'proper job' is acceptable and can be a source of pride: designers, dancers, singers... The Presentables.

But what if your child and you are clueless about what the trajectory looks like? Is it time to panic?

How do we work out the tension between wanting our kids to have a life (and especially a childhood) and a future that we don't even know about?

We have heard enough about how fast the pace of change is. Later this year, we may have a wristband that can transmit your phone image and you can swipe your arm!

Some of us cheer, some will jeer, others will find it just plain queer that such an 'innovation' is required at all [not to mention the Evangelical obsession with last days and the anti-Christ].

But we are mostly thinking of change in terms of product innovation. There is another change afoot.

This video speaks of change based on current trajectory and it's mighty exciting and scary at once.

Yet if we pay attention to the news; this trajectory may have serious tangents and disruptions-

The economy isn't working well anymore.
There aren't enough real jobs.
 We haven't had any real innovation for a while (though many projects are at the cusp of success if they could have funding - and many for good causes, such as cleaning up the seas).
 There is rising discontent on multiple levels in many societies, poor and affluent.
 A property magnate thinks he can be the American president.
 There are alternative models of business and financing via the Internet that parallels or may overtake traditional markets.

There is cause for much worry - if - we sit around and expect things to be fixed for us.

How shall we raise our children to be future ready?

You remember how at some point, you asked, "what is the point of studying this?".
It's a question prompted by sloth and some real inquiry. We used to moan a little then get on with it.
Today, when kids ask the question, it's kinda like us; but they are onto more. They already live in a different world than us. We inhabit the same spaces but do not see and interpret them the same way.

Perhaps then, what we need is to stop imagining a future we cannot quite see; but get into heads and hearts more to see the future the way they are envisaging it. More than once my mighty teen has said, "Mom, it won't be like that". It gave me pause. 

We should bring the great unknown into out discussion, and then, read the amazing legacies of exploration.

scaling everest
braving the antartic
crossing the seas
plumbing the depths
read about these -

If it's going to be new territory, perhaps the best way to be future ready is to be inspired to see the future as a space to be explored and conquered. It is best to prepare to develop grit, compassion, and collaboration. It is necessary to have basic survival skills honed: reading, problem-solving, relatonal intelligence, self-care. It is time to face the fears and demons. It is time to find a reason for living.

And I have found that I need to keep seeking my own reason for living in order to believe in life, in my place here, and not be overwhelmed. I guess I am modeling for my children how to face the future.

I'm thinking this is how best to be future ready. What about you?

15 Feb 2016

How sorry is sorry enough....and why it matters.

How sorry is sorry enough?

In our world of feel-good, no one wants to be, feel, or say sorry these days. I mean, when was the last time you apologized to someone; or had someone apologized to you?

There is even a need for a book like this:

We are awkward, clumsy, unsure and unwilling about it.
Parents, especially moms are probably luckiest when our kids, very little, are fairly quick to say sorry.

But they outgrow it!

What does 'sorry' mean?

There are two things to be sorry about when something goes wrong. We are sorry for our actions. We are sorry for the effects of our actions; how it has impacted others.

Whilst the children were still little, I learnt from watching other parents to teach them to say, 
I am sorry I disobeyed and didn't pack my toys.
I am sorry I threw the toy on the floor. 
-- an apology that includes how they feel and what they did wrong. 

The thing is, well into adulthood, we continue to have our toys and tantrums. But we may well have learnt the fine skill of justifying and rationalizing it all. We would also have learnt the art of self-defense where our motives and actions are always somewhat right so there's nothing to really apologize for.

Deeper into the territory, we may decide that it is pointless to apologize or feel sorry since nothing really changes; we are just different and should go our separate ways.

This explains why with all our education and the best of spiritual persuasion, the world is full of pride and prejudice, selfishness and sin: we learn to be comfortable with it all; it's the way things are and we can’t really change it.

Some of us even parent our children into this reality -

You mustn't trust anybody so easily
If you don't fight for it, someone else will get it
Take care of yourself, no one is going to take care of you

Any wonder if our homes and churches and communities ricochet with hurt, accusation and apathy?

I wonder about this. No one ever taught me to say sorry. I was totally bad at it. There were very few instances I felt a need to express it, and when I did, it rarely found it way through my teeth. Feeling remorseful and wrestling with regret is more virgin territory to me than uttering the word 'sorry'.

What I saw growing up was folks making amends and coping: the uneasy, awkward silence, the clumsy attempts to patch up with deeds of kindness, staying away to avoid further trouble, or just being silent and hoping it will all be forgotten in time. I could never be sure where the relationships stood. They were not classroom lessons; but lessons nonetheless - more is caught than taught after all.

But these approaches didn't cut it. Not as a spouse, a parent or a leader.

My spouse is the expert 'apologiser'. I tease him (and believe) that his apologies have many times saved our marriage. Sometimes I look at him and wonder what on earth he is even apologising for! We are both sensitive souls; but perhaps sensitised to slightly different stimuli.

My children of course were not going to be able to learn well if they don't have a humble posture in life. To help them learn the needful art of restoring relationships, I needed to model apology for them; and there were plenty of opportunities for sure:

Mom is so sorry I raised my voice just now
I am so sorry you feel this way...
Sniff, I am sorry, please let's forgive each other and hug up...
Sorry I had to turn the TV off because…
Mom is crying because I am sorry I disobeyed God…

Life is about growing in Grace and Truth - the twin pillars of living for what's right, and in a way that is bold and enriches others - and being sorry is inevitable. The energy for sorrow and making amends propels us towards growth. We learn from our failures and persevere in our convictions. We hack away the tendrils of complacency and compromise to be able to stand tall and strong. We fight our self-preservation tendencies and pride to hunker down and do the work necessary to keep the ship afloat and sailing.

The power of being sorry, rightly.

Like all powers, it begins early and has to be trained and harnessed. It is not a true power when a child says sorry when told to. It is not a true power when an adult says sorry because he's backed against a wall. It has to happen from the inside out. 

So how sorry is enough?

It's easy to tell a child to 'say sorry'. But we must do more.
We must then progress to help them see the values behind it and nurture their hearts to embrace those values:

relationships matter,
truth matters,
your motives and methods matter.

Above all, when we are proud and loveless, when we choose the easy way out and lie or cheat, when we pretend and hide behind a veneer of respectability and good behaviour, we are doing self-harm and dis- honouring God.

Saying sorry needs to be taken to the highest court.

 I have found that no real change happens until this occurs. When we are willing to stand before God and admit our sin, when we can turn to another and admit the pain we caused them…..when we are truly sorry, we change. Short of that, we easily return our old ways and fall into familiar ruts again and again. This is how we get jaded and numbed and cynical of real change and Kingdom glory.

In fact, many traditions and cultures create a way for apology and renewal of trust; often at cusp of a new year.

The Muslims seek the forgiveness of their elders at the start of Adil Fitri.
The Hindus are stern about familial order - if you touched an older person rudely, an immediate apology is required.
The Chinese will organise a meal where the aggrieved party is served tea by the contrite offender.

For the Christian?

There is confession before God that can happen anytime - what freedom!

"if we confess our sins, he is just faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." ~ 1 John 1v9

And then there are Seasons for deeper reflections leading to root origins of some of our most pernicious and duplicitous behaviour. We are in such a season right now: Lent. It began with Ash Wednesday when we remember our mortality and our sinful bent and mark it with ash on our foreheads (not all Churches do so these days).

Christians who have known mercy and live upon Grace, and know how to say sorry will be peace-makers, and O how our world needs that!

And here is a portion of the wonderful movie Inside Out that can be a great tutorial. Sorry is a hard territory and can be a long way - through the places of pride and fear of being rejected or ridiculed. But Short cuts may not cut it... a clip from Inside Out... and this is what it's like - just a series of events...when we don't ever process all our jumbled emotions...

and if you want a proper study about it: when a Japanese apologises and when an American does.