For such a time…

In a season like this, of gun violence, racism, sexual violence, of tragedy and hate, like many, I feel I’m treading neck-deep in my own thoughts and emotions of what’s going on all around us.

There’s little left to say that hasn’t been said already. But I’d humbly add this; I pray that as Jesus’ followers we do not give up hope, that we do not abandon ship, and that we do not disengage from the world around us. Now, perhaps more than any other time, this Earth needs to taste and see, salt and light.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Amen.

What I learned from “the Martian” Part 3

Last fall I read a NY Times article that rattled my cage and has stayed with me since that then. The piece was entitled The Lonely Death of George and it chronicled the death and retrospectively the life of the aforementioned, the lone occupant of a dishevelled apartment in the largest city in the US.

(you can read it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/18/nyregion/dying-alone-in-new-york-city.html?_r=0)

The precis-version goes like this: Mr. Bell was a single, retired man, who lived in such relative isolation that his life could go on for months and even years without anyone checking in, anyone much bothering with him, or him with anyone else. To the point even that he could pass away in complete obscurity.

And the tragic and terrible part of it all is that he’s not alone. In fact, as the article highlights, in NYC alone there is an actual team of workers whose full time jobs with the city is to enter into these types of situations, homes, apartments, to clean up, sort and sell-off personal effects. All because there’s no one else to do it. The writer of the article points out, “Each year around 50,000 people die in New York, and each year the mortality rate seems to graze a new low, with people living healthier and longer. A great majority of the deceased have relatives and friends who soon learn of their passing and tearfully assemble at their funeral. A reverent death notice appears. Sympathy cards accumulate. When the celebrated die or there is some heart-rending killing of the innocent, the entire city might weep.

A much tinier number die alone in unwatched struggles. No one collects their bodies. No one mourns the conclusion of a life. They are just a name added to the death tables. In the year 2014, George Bell, age 72, was among those names.”

All of this screams in the face of the basic human need – I contend, God-given need – for relationship and community.

Alright, from newspaper back to film. There’s a powerful scene in The Martian that brought all of this flooding back to mind for me. It’s a moment in the film where it’s evident that Mark Watney’s solitary confinement on the red planet has come to an end one way or another. He has boarded a space vessel that will hopefully propel him through Mars’ atmosphere, into space to be reunited with his former crew mates. This of course, is an intensely emotional moment for Watney where, as engines throttle up tears stream down his face in anticipation of no longer being alone, after being practically-speaking devoid of community for many hundreds of days.

From the very beginning of the Scriptures we find God’s declaration, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” From the Bible’s story we discover that we have been created in the very image and likeness of God. And that has every bit as much to do with the reflection of our Creator who has always existed, in community and relationship with one another; Father, Son, and Spirit.

Community, relationship, togetherness face unprecedented challenges in our day. Not only has our need for them not diminished, it may just be that we are hungering for connection all the more. May we be careful and deliberate not to devolve into Martian living but instead dive deeply into community with others pursuing Jesus.

What I learned from ‘The Martian’ Part 2

This is second installment around some reflections from the film, The Martian. For the fuller intro I’d encourage you to read the Part 1 below.

The main character, Mark Watney, does a great deal of self-talk during the film as he video journals his existence. Watney necessarily becomes a man of many firsts since he is the inaugural long term resident on “the red planet.” Not the least of those firsts, endeavoring to produce four years’ worth of food all on a planet where nothing grows. With little oxygen, no accessible water to speak of, and the routine threat of violent storms, there’s a reason Mars is largely uninhabitable.

This theme from the film directed my mind toward Peter’s words in his first letter. He writes to Christ followers who would resonate with the sense that they also did not belong; to borrow a phrase, like fish out of water. Peter says to them, Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.”

*Caution – spoiler alert*

Near the close of the film Watney counsels a group of his students, “space does not cooperate with you.” That it’s brutal and unforgiving in every way. Undoubtedly, as aliens and strangers we – as Jesus’ followers – can attest to that same dynamic at play in our lives. This world is broken and dysfunctional and our experience can be one of spiritual barrenness.

But, even as aliens we press on. Cultivating soil where perhaps nothing has ever grown before, all the while anticipating our Rescuer when, whose kingdom comes fully, “…will plant trees in the barren desert.” (Is.41:19)

What I learned from ‘The Martian’ Part 1

I’ll preface these next four posts all with a massive spoiler alert. I suppose enough time has transpired from the Blu-raydigital release of this film that many who are going to see it already have. But, consider that as fair warning should you proceed further.

The premise for the film is simple in one regard. A tragic space accident causes a team of astronauts to quickly evacuate the red planet, leaving behind a comrade who is presumed dead. As fate and the screenplay would have it, Mark Watney was not dead; only injured. Thus a “stranded on a desert island” story line begins with Watney fighting for survival alone on the planet Mars.

Several sub-plots and life lesson, even theological themes, leaped from the screen as I watched the story unfold. This post will be the first of four based on the story of The Martian.

There’s a prevailing life philosophy that seems to be gaining traction as of late. Keeping it simple – minimalism as it’s sometimes referred to. The Martian provides some insight around this whole theme of being freed from the trappings of materialism.  Making a shift to you owning your stuff rather than your stuff owning you.

This has some personal parallels for our family because in recent months we sold our home and moved into a temporary rent. When you’re endeavoring to put a large percentage of your stuff in storage it forces you to triage your belongings into categories of what you need to live, versus what you can get by just fine without.

In the film, Watney had no choice but to embrace his plight (if not reluctantly) and make the most of the situation. I suppose it’s a easier to keep it simple when an entire planet’s belongings fit inside a small space dwelling! In any event, the main character becomes resourceful beyond his wildest dreams as he’s forced to fully utilize and appreciate what he does have. Right down to garden compost generated from stored human waste from the latrines (I’ll offer no description here).

The story very much transported me to the apostle Paul’s words of counsel to the church in Philippi encouraging them to learn to be content in all circumstances. Freed from our dependence upon our stuff, instead transferring our dependence upon the One who meets all of our needs.

11 Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. 13 For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. Philippians 4:11-13

When we have our stuff taken away – through whatever circumstance – if we follow Jesus, it should serve as a great opportunity to trust him all the more, recognizing that it’s Christ who is more than able to meet our needs. My possessions are really nice to have; they’re not inherently bad. And in many instances they make my life a little easier.  And they could all be gone in a moment.

It should be great comfort to know that our Provider will never leave us.

the poor

I can’t escape it. Nearly everywhere I look in the scriptures, in tandem with living a life that’s pleasing to God I find this; a heart for the poor. From the Old Testament law, to the prophets both major & minor, through the gospels and the New Testament epistles, I find a consistent and recurring theme; the poor and their plight matter to God. In fact, at the inauguration and outset of Jesus’ earthly ministry, he turns to the scroll of Isaiah and reads:

 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, 
    for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
    that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
   and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”
  (Luke 4:18-19)

He goes on to declare in the synagogue: “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” Plainly inferred is that as much as anything else the good news of the gospel will be good news for the poor. And if Jesus proclaims that his coming was to be good news for the poor then, surely it will be good news for the poor in our day as his followers engage the world. So, it’s worth saying again, if we’re going to take following Jesus seriously we must also seriously consider our relationship to the poor.

Theologian and modern-day prophet Stephen Colbert – insert sarcasm here – rightly points out (referring to the United States, but applicable to most western countries):  “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commands us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

The takeaway in all of this being, if I am going to follow Jesus, his teachings and example, and do so with any level of sincerity, then I must be bothered with the poor and the needy.  Perhaps you’re feeling that but are still struggling with practical ways to get started. Here are some avenues that I have found helpful in engaging those in need:

  • Get involved with and/or donate to your local food bank/soup kitchen
  • Loan money to developing world entrepreneurs through micro-finance initiatives. (http://kiva.org is an excellent one)
  • Sponsor a child who is in need (there are many high-quality, high-integrity organizations who facilitate these types of sponsorships).
  • Share. Give away good stuff you don’t need (food, clothing, furniture, whatever!)
  • Be mindful of needs that present themselves right around you in your church, province, community, even right on your street. These come in all shapes and sizes. Holidays are a time when many of these needs become even more apparent. Social media can help facilitate this in your local area.
  • Understand the implications of our consumerism upon the poor. As such, look to purchase fairly traded goods. Purchase used goods from retailers that in turn help the poor.

don’t say this _____ ; do say this _____

I’ve taken some notes along my 40+ years of life. Experience is our best teacher and there is much to be learned from one another. To borrow an expression, in my own life I’ve often found the landmines by stepping on them. So with that in mind, here are some a few of the valuable lessons I’ve gleaned along the way specifically around what I should or shouldn’t say. Hopefully these will be helpful to you, saving you from some unnecessary detonations and injuries! Here goes:

Don’t say, “I know what you’re going through,” if you don’t. Instead, do admit, “I don’t know – I’ve never experienced where you’re at just now. But I care about you and I’ll walk with you.”

Don’t say, “How far along are you?” Under. Any. Circumstances. Unless you’ve seen ultrasound pictures or a positive pregnancy test with you own eyes, never assume on this one. Trust me.

In the face of tragedy or death don’t say, “This is God’s will for you,” or, “God needed another angel in his choir.” In that moment those words seldom if ever soothe. In fact, if people are not yet ready in the space to receive them, it can burn like acid and can leave scars for years to come. Do bring comfort and encouragement and understanding making yourself available to a grieving friend.

Don’t say, “I’ll pray for you,” if you have no intentions of doing so. Because you’re actually lying to them and to God. Instead do say, “Could I pray for you right now?” or having already prayed for someone, let them know you have.

When you’re stuck in that spot of not knowing what to say, just don’t say anything. As uncomfortable as silence can feel to us, sometimes it’s the most loving act of all. Do quietly support and listen.

the basics

So how’s your week going? How’s your day going? Are you in that spot where everything’s a struggle and the whole world seems pitted against you?

Having parented five children my wife & I have learned some valuable lessons along the way. There have been countless times, when trying in vain to deal with an unreasonable child, we’ve at last interjected and declared, “you can’t be awake for ten more seconds. You need a nap – now!” And in the vast majority of instances, it’s proven to be true.

There have been many times in the last decade and a half, while dealing with a child appearing to be straight-up outside of their mind, where we’ll run the checklist of basics needs:

“Did they get enough sleep?”

“Are they hungry?”

“Are they restless and need expend some energy?”

“Have they breathed any fresh air?”

Honestly adults, we’re the same as we ever were as children; just larger, (hopefully) more emotionally intelligent versions of ourselves. As such, why would we not self-apply these same diagnostics to ourselves as grown-ups? So before you spring into action and endeavour to tackle some of those titanic-sized problems, why not first take inventory of the basics in your life?

I see many Christians risk overemphasizing the spiritual to the neglect of the physical and emotional. God has created us as multifaceted beings where each of those facets has the ability to affect the other.

So, the next time we find ourselves struggling, acting out (at least internally), why not run through a bit of a checklist?

Am I rested?

Have I eaten anything that resembles nutrition?

How are my relationships?

How’s my activity level?

Have I gotten outside… this month?

Yes, you may well have legitimate issues that need immediate addressing. Perhaps everyone is out to get you. Perhaps your world is set to implode.

Or maybe you just need a nap.

prayer voice

Kids are smart. They notice stuff. And they don’t mind asking questions. Like, just the other day we were having a devotional time together following dinner. And as we often do, went around the table sharing things we’re thankful for and things we can be praying about. So, I lead our family in a brief time of prayer (did I mention our youngest is three?) as we wrap-up mealtime. Not very long after my oldest child observes, “you talk differently when you’re praying. You don’t really sound like that normally…”

And then Defensive-Stephen says, “no I don’t!” (I’m actually very deliberate to keep the churchy sounding prayer talk to a minimum).

But she continues, “yes, you actually do sound different. You don’t even use those words other than when you’re praying.”

And then Objective-Stephen was quietly forced to admit, “she’s right.”

I have a bit of a theory that the less our prayer voice resembles our everyday, ordinary voice, the less likely we are to pray. It’s less natural. It takes far greater effort. Conversely, the more our prayer voice resembles our everyday, ordinary voice, the more likely we are to pray.

What would happen if we sought to actively shed our superstition in prayer. After all, there are no special word combinations that lead us into greater communion with God. It’s the actual practice of prayer itself (talking and especially listening) that leads us into deeper & deeper intimacy with God.

Matthew’s gospel teaches us:

Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.

The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply. (6:6-8 the Message)

What if we worked at having our prayer voice sound more like our everyday voice? What if in so doing prayer became far more a lifestyle than an activity?

I’m aiming to find out.

storm day

Rarely do we get permission to check out, stay in, slow down, to relax. One of the odd perks of living in eastern Canada is that a handful of times each year weather patterns prescribe this kind of Sabbath for our lives. And yes it might come at productivity’s expense, and it might even feel quite inconvenient. But trust me. It can also be a wonderful thing.

Yes, there’s the shoveling, wet socks, the biting cold, as well as the very real risk of developing an acute case of shack-whacky. But there’s nothing quite like having to slow down because there’s nothing else you can do. Read, think, play or whatever you need to do to embrace the interruption. Keep it simple.

So, here’s to storm days. Make the most of it by making the least of it.

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