Friday, September 3, 2010

No Thanks Mom, I'd Prefer Not To

The conversation started pretty innocuously. “I want you to listen to this sermon the associate pastor gave at our church. He told the congregation that pastors are people too and need a break!” I knew what the comments meant. My mom had another great idea to teach me something. I could learn something from the pastor at her church. That was her motivation. She even brought the CD out so we could listen to it together. There was no way of escape. She was going to have me listen to it regardless of what I wanted. My response was simple, “Mom, help me to understand the reason you want me to listen to the CD?” Things went down hill from there.

The reality is I didn’t want to listen to it for a lot of reasons, none of which are important in this post. But I didn’t handle the situation as well as I could have. There were no harsh words, no shouting, and no threats. I just didn’t want to listen to it and she wasn’t going to take “no” for an answer. The dagger in the heart came at the end of this short episode when she burst into tears and ran into her bedroom crying, “I just wanted to share this important part of my life with you. You are too strong for me.” She locked the door and remained there for several hours. The next day she admitted to my wife that the sermon didn’t really mean that much to her. It wasn’t her life that she wanted to share. She wanted me to listen to it because she felt I could learn something from it. So my own mother, the fundamentalist Christian, had lied to me! Talk about discouraging!

For every reader who wrestles with their parents growing old, here’s a thought: Without losing who you are, you are going to have to deal with what your parents become in their old age. And with that in mind, your kids will have to deal with what you become in your old age. What ever issues are in your life now, magnify them dramatically, and that will be what your kids have to address when you get old. Sobering isn’t it.

I think had I simply said, “Mom, I don’t really care to listen to this now. I am exhausted,” that may have delayed the inevitable. But more likely, it would have been smart to say, “Okay mom, lets listen to it.” Who knows, maybe I would have gotten something out of it! There is a tricky balance between hanging on to who you are, being gracious and honoring to aging parents, and having the right to say “no” or “I disagree” or “I don’t want that” with parents (or other people) who bust personal boundaries and think that you should be just like they are. Many people in our culture feel that intimacy or relational closeness equals sameness. That is, if we always do the same things, think the same way, have the same hobbies, buy the same cell phones, or even live in the same house, we will be emotionally intimate or relationally close. Nothing could be farther from the truth. But a simple tolerance for someone’s issues may grease the wheels in an aging persons life. Maybe this is part of what it means in the Decalogue when it says, “Honor your father and mother….” I know it’s way more than that but I wonder if that’s part of it.

I don’t feel I owe my mom an apology and I don’t think she owes me an apology either—really. But I’m at a loss to what to do about this. She’s obviously hurt. Frankly, her behavior is just another in a long list of things that go back to my childhood when mom couldn’t accept differences of opinion or personal choices that had no moral basis. It’s her issue, not mine. But maybe as I relate to her now in her old age, I should be more tolerant of her foibles while not giving up my own identity. Of course, owning my own foibles now while I have my wits about me may save my kids from some uncomfortable situations in the future. It’s thought provoking!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Babette's Feast--A Review

I recently watched the Danish film Babette’s Feast. It was recommended by a friend who described it as a story of healing and reconciliation. The movie is set on a tiny coastal town in 19th century Denmark, where a small Christian sect quietly live out their lives together. The minister who leads the sect has two beautiful and gifted daughters. The young women never marry but remain true to their father’s wishes to take care of the aging people in the community. Theirs is a life of sacrifice and devotion. As the movie progresses, Babette, a French refugee, finds safety in their home after her husband and family are killed during an uprising in Paris. She faithfully serves them for fourteen years. Her only ongoing connection to France is a lottery ticket purchased by a friend on a yearly basis.

As the movie moves towards a climax, Babette and the aging sisters--their Father long since dead--discover that Babette has won the lottery. She is rich and able to return to France. In response, she makes one simple request: As an act of gratitude and love, she desires to cook a French dinner for the people in the town. Not only does she want to cook it but she desires to pay for it herself. The sisters hesitantly agree. As preparations proceed however, they fear that they have made a terrible mistake; one that could lead them, at best, down the path of ungodly pleasure or, at worst, to outright witchcraft. They decide partake of the dinner but choose to show no delight or satisfaction while eating it. Meanwhile the community is in conflict, people fear for their salvation over past indiscretions, and the sisters do not know what to do.

The meal is the climax of the movie. Its beauty and the careful preparation that goes into it loosen the townspeople up. There is reconciliation, forgiveness, and joy. The movie closes as the sisters sadly wish Babette well in her plans to return to France. But shockingly, she reveals that she will not be returning as she has spent her fortune on the meal for the towns people. Her greatest joy was in using her culinary art to bless those who so generously sheltered her in her time of difficulty.

Babette’s feast is a movie about beauty and its power to bring reconciliation and healing. The beauty of the feast, the artistry of its planning and preparation, the act of love it demonstrates with the obvious religious theme is refreshing. There is no overpowering characters, no excessive drama, and the Christianity displayed is not for proselytizing purposes. But the message is clear: beauty has healing properties. Joy and artistry has a place in redemption. I am reminded of the Psalmists personal declaration, “Surely you have granted [me] eternal blessings and made [me] glad with the joy of your presence” (Psalm 21:6). C.S. Lewis autobiography Surprised by Joy details how simple glimpses of unexplainable joy helped bring him to faith in Christ. And Jonathan Edwards in his sermon on Isaiah 32:2 notes this:

"The soul of every man necessarily craves happiness…Man is of such a nature that he is capable of an exceedingly great degree of happiness…It must therefore be an incomprehensible object that must satisfy the soul; it will never be contented with that, and that only, to which it can see an end, it will never be satisfied with that happiness to which it can find a bottom… Men in their fallen state are in very great want of this happiness…Men in their natural condition may find something to feed their senses, but there is nothing to feed the soul…There is in Christ Jesus provision for the full satisfaction and contentment of such as these. The excellency of Christ is such, that the discovery of it is exceedingly contenting and satisfying to the soul…Christ’s excellency is always fresh and new…" (Jonathon Edwards, “Safety, Fullness, and Sweet Refreshment to be Found in Christ,” Sermon on Isaiah 32:2)

Babette’s Feast points to that refreshment, that fullness, that healing beauty in Christ. I highly recommend it. Bon Appetit.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

King Leopold's Ghost--A Review

I just finished reading the penetrating story of the material rape of the Belgian Congo in a book called King Leopold’s Ghost. It’s the history of how the greed of one charming man devastated a good portion of the African continent at the turn of the 20th century. Belgium’s King Leopold II bought into the colonizing whirlwind of the day, destroying African societies and killing millions of people in the process. He did this all for the sake of money, power, and colonial prestige. Sadly, he also did so in the name of philanthropy, Christianity and civilization. Pocketing millions of dollars, he built monuments to himself and his country on the backs of the native Congolese population. When they resisted, their spears and shields were no match for the sophisticated machine guns and weaponry of “civilized” Europe. Through forced slavery and despicable acts of injustice, Leopold, who never set foot in the Congo, forever changed central Africa.

It was through the primary intervention of one man, E.D. Morel, that the truth of Leopold’s activities were exposed. Morel, probably not a Christian, uncovered and publicized the atrocities that eventually led to the end of Leopold’s rule over the Congo. Morel had, as the author notes, both the media savvy and personal ability to publicize his message in a way that people came to acknowledge Leopold’s Congo for what it was—a form of tyranny and slavery.

The book has been a challenge to me on a number of fronts: Would I have had Morel’s courage to uncover the evil even if it cost me? Are there social injustices happening around me, which my eyes, being culturally conditioned as they are, do not see? Am I showing the kind of mercy that demonstrates that I’ve indeed become an object of God’s mercy because of the cross (cf. Matt 5:7)? Do I experience “mercy fatigue” because my response to the many opportunities to give or show mercy is rooted not in the grace of God but in my own moralistic tendencies?

Many of those who helped Morel expose Leopold’s Congo for what it was were missionaries who applied the gospel of grace to their lives and the situations around them. This book has made me think, once again, about how easy it is to be a follower of Jesus and yet not apply the gospel. Even some of the missionaries, it seems, had a subtle condescending attitude towards the African population. Read the book! It will make you think.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Thoughts on Personal Slavery and Worship

I ran across this short paragraph recently. It is a compelling thought taken from a commencement speech to the Kenyan College in 2005. The speaker (and author), David Foster Wallace, committed suicide in the fall of 2008. He’d struggled with depression for years and finally lost the battle. Wallace accurately describes the default setting of humanity—to worship…something! But according to Foster the kind of worship that enslaves us, betrays us, and eats us up is the kind that our culture propagates every day through the thousands of messages we receive about life and truth from commercials, through conversations, and in print. I don’t think Wallace was a follower of Jesus but his depiction of life is profoundly close to something Jesus said, “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Luke 16:13). Listen to Foster:

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things -- if they are where you tap real meaning in life -- then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you … Worship power -- you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart -- you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on. Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is …. that they are unconscious. They are default-settings.”

(Taken from Wall Street Journal Sept 19, 2008)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Lovely Bones--A Review

I recently saw the movie Lovely Bones. It’s the story of a girl who is murdered by a predator and then narrates, in the first person, the resulting journeys of her family, the predator, and surprisingly enough, herself. The first person narration of the movie lends itself to an interesting set of questions: What does death really bring? Does death produce growth in us? How does our death affect others? What is the nature of justice and its relationship to death? What is heaven and hell really like? Do we need a savior or are we saved on our own and is there some interim period after death that leads, perhaps if we are good enough, to heaven?

The movie is well produced with the predator’s vile actions being contrast with the purity of his personal hobby. While killing young women satisfies him at a level too terrible to comprehend, he also makes miniature doll houses; the kind of toy a young girl would love. The producers and writers also examine the kind of person that actually kills at such a perverted level.

In the end, the movie is about justice and revenge. The dead girls family seeks justice but goes about it in the wrong way. The dead girl herself creates a second death of sorts by her deep-seated desire to take revenge on her killer. Her heaven becomes hell in some ways; a hell she creates on her own by her post death hatred. In the end, justice appears to have been served. I’ll not reveal the climax of the story but I was told that the guy who played the predator said he wouldn’t have taken the part had not the just demise of the predator been part of the story.

It was not a satisfying justice for me. I’ll leave it at that. Frankly, I didn’t see it as justice though its obvious the writer and producers did. Real justice is more just!! I think God is more just than what this movie presents as justice. Real justice isn’t bad Karma. Real justice is not an accident. Furthermore, the writers view of heaven and hell seem to merge in an uncomfortable ebb and flow created by the dead girls interactions with the characters continued lives on earth. I’m not sure the exact religious orientation of the writers. Check out movie. If you have daughters, be ready for an emotional punch to the gut. But it’s worth watching.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fat Tuesday Ain't So Fat

Today, Tuesday February 16, is called Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, or Carnival depending on who you talk to. It’s the traditional “party down” day just before the start of Lent. Ash Wednesday is when the Christian church begins preparation for the Easter season. Ashes are prepared and smeared in the form of a cross on the foreheads of devotees as a form of repentance. In the past I’ve tended to govern my life around the cultural calendar instead of the Christian calendar. That means that a high point used to be the start of baseball, another event that begins this week. But in recent years I’ve begun to observe Lent more intentionally. In this post I want to focus, not so much on Lent as on Fat Tuesday or Carnival.

The point of Carnival or Fat Tuesday is to live in excess, to really enjoy oneself, because tomorrow, if you are a real Christian, you have to fast. There is a famous painting called The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by a 16th century artist named Pieter Bruegel depicting the inner conflict many feel over this season. In the painting the Inn on the left is full of life, fun, and parties. On the right you have the church. It’s drab, boring and sort of righteous. Which side of the painting would you rather live in? Duhhhh!

The point of my post is that Mardi Gras, Carnival (which in Latin means farewell to meat), and Fat Tuesday miss the point of Christianity all together. The scripture, speaking of God notes, “In your presence is fullness of joy and in your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). People have forgotten the reality that as followers of Jesus we are invited into a deep relationship with the creator of every beautiful facet of the universe. When we dabble in drunken splendor we aren’t really being happy. Oh, its fun. But in reality, we don’t want to be happy enough. We think the life-style of the Inn in Bruegel’s painting will satisfy us. It won’t and it never does. But of course, neither will the religious stuff on the right!! It’s not religious observance that satisfies the thirsty soul but an embracing of the kingdom of God described by Jesus in the New Testament. Frankly its the religious guys who really fed this want for excess. With all the fasts the Church put on people in the Medieval period of history people couldn't eat meat nearly a 1/3 of the year. You can't blame them for pigging out at the Inn!

If you want an interesting study of real happiness read Blaise Pascal’s Penses chapter VIII entitled Diversion. Pascal notes, “Man is so unhappy that he would be bored even if he had no cause for boredom.” Fascinating. I think C.S. Lewis got it right when he said we don’t want to be happy enough. “We are half-hearted creatures fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us.” (The Weight of Glory) I don’t want to live in either side of Bruegel’s painting. I want to experience the real happiness found in the gospel. That’s worth partying for!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Jury Duty

I had jury duty several months ago. I was chosen to be on telephone standby. Stories are legion of people summoned to jury duty, then simply made phone calls for a week without ever having to show up. That being the case, I set my week up with a full load of appointments—all of which had to be canceled on just the second day I called in. Being (un)justly irritated I showed up for my normal turn at being part of the US judicial system and was summarily convicted of being a whiner. Why, with all the injustice in a place like Iran where pretty much everyone in the world is watching the religious establishment attempt to pull off a fast one on the populace who are tired of having fast ones pulled off on them, should I whine about being part of a system of government where there is at least an attempt at justice.

That old Christmas film “The Grinch” starring Jim Carey comes to mind when in an attempt to curse the towns folks, the Grinch goes into their post office and sends all the towns folks black mail letters and jury summons, “Jury duty, jury duty, black mail, black mail,” chants the Grinch. It’s humorous. But on this occasion, as I pondered the case I was potentially being seated for, I realized that I had been terribly wrong to whine.

It was a criminal case, a robbery, with only one witness! There was alcohol involved. One of the defendants looked like a criminal. The other looked like a high school kid. Neither of them could speak English. It was clear that some injustice had occurred—or was about to occur. Any way you cut it, the twelve people seated on that jury would decide the future of these two young men. Maybe they were guilty! Who knows? I was never seated. But I realized in those few days as I sat waiting for my turn to participate in, not simply observe, the justice system at work, that in that our attempts at justice, as imperfect as it is in the US, is a gift. I want to be part of it.

There are plenty of ways and no lack of opportunity in this country to be involved in justice. The question is whether or not I’ll actually take the next step and attempt to get involved. Maybe all it will take to get started is a phone call. Maybe, in one sense, I’m still on telephone standby. I love that old prophet who noted, “Let justice roll down like water…” What kinds of justice should I participate in and how: economic justice, racial justice, or legal justice? How about the injustice of the sex trade in Cambodia or the injustice of bias in reporting the news (from both left and right)? Are any of us really just? Is there any justice at all? I think so. But maybe I’m biased!

God is just-- though at times it does not seem so. But then, what one person thinks is just, another experiences as injustice. Its puzzling. Perhaps I can say one thing that cuts to the heart of this post: Jury duty is a privilege. Yes, it cuts into our routines, but as an American who believes in a just God, jury duty is a privilege, and an easy one at that, to participate in. Perhaps guys like me need to whine less and participate more.

Its Been a While

Last night I finished a short vacation. I took it after (nearly) finishing a huge work project related to our team web-site ( Last night is the first night I've felt like blogging since this fall. Then this morning I got a response to an old post. I'm motivated to get back in the game. I'll be working at a church in Seattle beginning February. My posts will reflect some of that work as well. Thanks for reading.