30 July 2007

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

by Wendell Berry

I've simply taken it as a symptom of adulthood and a sign of the times that I worry about many things. The war in Iraq. Migrant assimilation. The adjustment of international students. The crisis in Darfur. The overdue "warrant of fitness" for my car. The window I need to replace. The hedges I need to trim. The International Year of the Refugee -- 2.5 million just from Iraq. The fact that I need a job. My parents' well-being. Tara's dad's health. The presentation I should be working on. The list goes on. (We humans are the only "fearcasters" out there.) At times I feel the weight of the world. I thought it would be good to care about many 'important' issues and try to love many different people. I thought it would feel good to want to change the world, but it is a rather heavy burden to try and shoulder.

I try to get out and run two or three days a week. Often I take the coastal walk up from our house. (Every direction is up from our house; jogging has taught me that.) Halfway, there is a platform overlooking the cliff, perched high above the harbour. It makes for a good stopping point, especially after running up the thirty odd stairs it takes to get to the platform. To me, it has become a sacred place, where I stop to pray and survey the quiet harbour. Just yesterday, as I prayed, I watched a couple of brilliantly coloured Rosellas squawk and poke around the top of the pines. Moments later, two Grey Herons soared by. They could've been the prototype for the hang glider the way they stiffen their wings and drift from side to side. Down in the shallows at the water's edge I could see shorebirds and ducks. The still waters of the harbour seemed to be a mirror reflection of the sky, casting back the same steely, shimmering blue.

For a time, I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

M & M Conference

This past week I attended a conference called "Mosques & Miracles." The promotional materials stated, "The Mosques & Miracles Conference will give you a clearer understanding of Islam and an overview of what God is doing worldwide. It will help you consider the Christian response to Islam in today’s society and impart necessary tools to assist you in conveying the message of Jesus in a relevant way. It will also help you value Muslim people more and to reach out with God’s love and not react in fear. Inspiring, encouraging, equipping and challenging. This conference is invaluable and should not be missed."

I came away disappointed. Firstly, despite the stated goal to "help you value Muslim people more and to reach out with God's love and not react in fear," the majority of the conference was packed with fear-inducing content of the Islamic goal of world domination, only periodically broken up with what appeared to be solely obligatory, good-natured remarks about Muslims as people. Most of the content, like a typical hour of CNN -- shocking statements and global events that likely no one in the room would ever be in position to do anything about anyway -- simply causes people to respond emotionally yet remain frustrated bystanders. In his recent bestselling book, The Assault on Reason, Al Gore makes the point that fear is primarily an instinctual response. When we see something hurling towards us, we duck. In moments like that we don't have time to write a dissertation on the rationale for ducking or not ducking. Then a moment later we might realize that it was only a child's helium-filled balloon, causing us to feel a little silly. However, we shouldn't feel silly, because that is how we're wired to respond -- quickly without rationalization. That is how fear works, to sum up Al Gore, with the risk of oversimplification -- when we're afraid, we don't think. We don't rationalize well. We fail to see the whole picture. We take a defensive posture.

We see this in the life of Abraham. He is called out of his comfort zone by God in order to be a blessing to all peoples of the earth. However, being a blessing is not as easy as it looks, especially when you're a stranger in a strange land as Abraham becomes. Entering Egypt, he feels fearful for his wife and a threat to his own life. This causes him to lie as a means of self-protection. His fearful reaction causes a major shift in his impact. Instead of being a blessing, he become a curse. The story ends with the Egyptian Pharaoh paying him off to get rid of him and giving him a police escort out of the country. The first words of God's next appearance to Abraham (Genesis 17) begins with the words, "Abraham, stop being afraid." God assures Abraham that Sarah will bear him a child (if he would just stop giving her to other men). God also tells him that despite his descendants facing some difficult years in the future, Abraham himself would live to be an old man. "Abraham, stop being afraid." We cannot be a blessing to others while crouching in fear.
I believe that if we begin a presentation with all the reasons you should be afraid, very afraid, then there is a good chance that you've lost your audience. They become stranded in the state of fear, assuming a defensive stance, unable to see the big picture, not willing to rationalize and unwilling to take risks relationally.

Secondly, even though reference was made to the need for contextualization and the presenters' own cultural sensitivity in their varied experiences, I believe that the average attender left with very little information that will prove useful in their personal relationships with Muslims. It was a bit of a contradiction. On the one hand, they said it doesn't do any good to criticise Islamic teaching. On the other hand, that is all they did for two days.

Thirdly, they were speaking to the wrong audience. Probably 80% of those in attendance were over 55. (A problem, I will admit, the presenters had very little to do with) On the other hand, I don't have statistics on hand, but it wouldn't surprise me if 80% of the Muslims in New Zealand were under 30. I believe that it is the 18-30 year-olds who need to be having this discussion. As well, if the focus is not going to be on the relational sharing of the good news, but on the systemic (dark) realities and inherit intentions of global Islam and the immigrant Muslim community in Australia and NZ (my summary), then the conference was delivered to the wrong audience. The target audience should be community leaders or politicians, not average church-attending believers, aged 45-70. Again, they were given a bunch of fear-inducing information that they can do little about.

Content is important. Being informed makes you appear wiser than you are, or maybe it manifests your true wisdom. Even though it wasn't always what I wanted to hear, to be honest, I greatly appreciated the content Dr. Durie delivered about the systemic and theological challenges of a strong Islamic presence in our western societies. Nevertheless, my heart is also drawn to efforts like the Interfaith Youth Core that Dr. Eboo Patel started in Chicago. They desire to bring (young) people of various faiths together in community service, giving them a chance to show and tell each other about the best in their own faith tradition. Relationship is built around community service and the communitas that develops through serving together and discussing how faith motivates us to do such things for the common good.

I would love to gather Christian young people, aged 15-30, for a 'conversation' on how as followers of Jesus we can imagine relating to the Muslim community and individual Muslims. Is it possible to take initiative relationally? If we desire to 'proclaim' Jesus with our lives to our Muslim friends, what will it look like? What is the good news of Jesus to a Muslim? Knowing what we do about Islam, how do we live like Jesus anyway? What is the place of joint ventures, like IFYC? ...So many questions.

What do you think?

08 July 2007

The Birthday of My Favorite Historian

It's the birthday of the popular historian and biographer David McCullough (books by this author), born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1933). He started out as a reporter for Sports Illustrated magazine. His first book was The Jonestown Flood (1968), and he wrote another book about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge called The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge (1972). But his big breakthrough was a biography of Harry Truman called Truman (1992), one of the best-selling biographies ever published at the time. [I also highly recommend Brave Companions: Portraits in History, a book of short stories of history (see photo) -- very accessible -- cjb]

David McCullough said, "History is about life. It's awful when the life is squeezed out of it and there's no flavor left, no uncertainties, no horsing around. It always disturbed me how many biographers never gave their subjects a chance to eat. You can tell a lot about people by how they eat, what they eat, and what kind of table manners they have."

From The Writer's Almanac for July 7, 2007

03 July 2007

Reading the Book

I love a good book. I’d heard of Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. In fact, it was an Oprah Book Club selection and some people said it changed their life. “I have to have that book,” I told myself. And, lucky me, I was able to pick one up at a used bookstore for $7. When I returned home, after retrieving Reading Group Discussion Questions for Reading Lolita in Tehran off the internet, I found a nice quiet spot to sit down with my new book.

After reading over the questions briefly, I decided to start with question #7: “During the Gatsby trial Zarrin charges Mr. Nyazi with the inability to ‘distinguish fiction from reality’ (page 128). How does Mr. Nyazi’s conflation of the fictional and the real relate to the theme of the blind censor?”

“Whoa,” I thought to myself, “Who in the world is Zarrin or Mr. Nyazi?” “’Gatsby’ probably refers to “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but how? This is a book about reading famous books; I know that much.”

After turning to page 128 (chapter 18 by the way), I learn that Zarrin is a woman. “Maybe she’s in Tehran like the title says.” Page 128 reads like a mock trial of some kind, but it‘s incomplete. The last line of the page reads, “He wrote cheap stories for money …”

Looking back over the questions, I decide that I might have jumped ahead of myself. I go back up to Question #2, “Yassi adores playing with words, particularly with Nabokov’s fanciful linguistic creation ‘upsilamba’ (page 18). What does the word ‘upsilamba’ mean to you?”

“What does ’Upsilamba’ mean to me?! Are you serious?!” Beginning to get a little frustrated, I turn to page 18 (chapter 5). Reading page 18 (twice) doesn’t help. “’Upsilamba’ means nothing to me.

I sit back in my chair with a sign. Maybe Oprah was wrong. I can’t make sense of this book.

What a strange way to read a book, you’re thinking. You got it all wrong Chris; don’t you know how to read a book?

“Okay. I’ll give it one more try.” Picking up the book again – this time looking for a little personal relevance – I turn to page 34, where there’s a dried leaf being used as a bookmark (“Must be important,” I think to myself.) I read a paragraph.

“Many wished to be a part of his hidden kingdom, but he picked only a few who passed his secret test. He made all the bids, accepting and rejecting them for reasons of his own. In return for his help, he asked friends never to acknowledge or mention his name publicly. There were many whom he had cut from his life because they had gone against this demand. I remember one of his oft-repeated sentences: ‘I want to be forgotten; I am not a member of this club.’”

Pause. “Okay, what does this mean to me? Well, first of all, he doesn’t sound very friendly, whoever he is. I want to be a better friend … Maybe I should join the club … I could use the exercise.”

“That’s a little better,” I thought, “But what does it have to do with Tehran or Lolita or me, for that matter?”

A week later, I sold the book back to the same used bookstore for $3. I walked home very disappointed in Oprah.

I have to admit, that's no way to read a book. But the tragedy is – my story reflects just a couple of the inadequate approaches we have to reading the Bible.

02 July 2007

It's a hard life, but I believe in a better way

"It's A Hard Life Wherever You Go" (Nanci Griffith)

I am a backseat driver from America
They drive to the left on Falls Road
The man at the wheel's name is Seamus
We pass a child on the corner he knows
And Seamus says, "Now, what chance has that kid got?"
And I say from the back, "I don't know."
He says, "There's barbed wire at all of these exits
And there ain't no place in Belfast for that kid to go."

I was a child in the sixties
Dreams could be held through TV
With Disney, Cronkite and Martin Luther
Oh, I believed, I believed, I believed
Now, I am a backstreet driver from America
I am not at the wheel of control
I am guilty, I am war, I am the root of all evil
Lord, and I can't drive on the left side of the road

It's a hard life
It's a hard life
It's a very hard life
It's a hard life wherever you go
If we poison our children with hatred
Then, the hard life is all they'll ever know
And there ain't no place in this world for these kids to go

Today, on my jog, in the providence of God, my iPod shuffled me this old Nanci Griffith tune, written in Belfast in the midst of the conflict in Northern Ireland. As an American living abroad, I can relate to her exasperation (as well as her struggle trying to drive on the left side of the road).

This past Thursday I met up with an young Iraqi Shiite Muslim woman (Too many adjectives! It sounds like I’m ordering at Starbucks; I don't know which order they are supposed to go in. Maybe I should consult my barista). She had attended one of my seminars last fall on working with Middle Eastern / Muslim students. She was a big help during the seminar. Normally I have a student panel of Muslim students at some point in the day, but, since it was school holidays, they had all fled town. She interjected her personal experiences, which created dialogue and illustrated many of my points.

I inquired about her and her husband’s extended family back in Baghdad. She told me that all of them had been driven from their homes and lost their jobs. They had family in the US and New Zealand, but right now they are not allowing anyone to leave. So they are stuck in the hell hole that Iraq has become. She has been giving money to an orphanage back home, but is unable to tell if the funds even get to those who need it most. We both expressed our frustration at the present realities, “There has got to be something that we can do!” She said that her and her husband, who have a nice life in Auckland, discussed it and are ready to move back in and rebuild Iraq, but presently, it is just too unstable and dangerous. We talked about partnering together -- me and some Christian friends, her and some Muslim friends and family -- to do something, when the time is right, to bring healing to her homeland.

I can’t take it anymore. I feel, as a follower of Jesus, that I must reach out, build relationships and create these kind of partnerships. There are numerous Christians and Muslims in this world that simply want to live in peace, have a job, a simple house, put their kids in school. As Ben Harper sings -- and I sometimes want to scream it like he does:

I'm a living sunset
Lightning in my bones
Push me to the edge
But my will is stone ...I believe in a better way

Fools will be fools
And wise will be wise
But I will look this world
Straight in the eyes ...I believe in a better way

What good is a man
Who won't take a stand
What good is a cynic
With no better plan ...I believe in a better way

Reality is sharp
It cuts at me like a knife
Everyone I know
Is in the fight of their life ...I believe in a better way

Take your face out of your hands
And clear your eyes
You have a right to your dreams
And don't be denied ...I believe in a better way

I believe in a better way