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Archive for July, 2015

Summer Reading

Since our kids were little, my friend Bev and I have been taking regular walks together. One of her favorite questions for me is, “What have you been reading?” It’s always fun to describe the books I love to another book lover, and always seems to take the conversation to a deeper level. Books have a way of taking our minds off whatever is worrying us, gently guiding us like a loving and wise friend, to something bigger than ourselves.

Here’s a peak at some of the books that are catching my imagination this summer.

UnknownInside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova — As a teenager, the custodian of my church had a rare disease which made him walk very strangely. He was progressively losing his muscle control, making it look like he was drunk. He had Huntington’s Disease, a lethal neurodegenerative disease with no treatment or cure. What was worse, his children had a 50/50 chance of inheriting it, which some of them did. It is a cruel disease, said to be like having Parkinsons, Alzheimers, and Lou Gehrig’s diseases all at once.

When I heard a CBC radio interview with Lisa Genova about a novel she’d written about this disease, I turned up the volume in the car, remembering our church custodian. Lisa Genova, a neuroscientist, has written several books about illnesses and disorders – autism, early onset Alzheimers, brain injury. Still Alice (about Alzheimers) is probably her most famous since it’s been made into a movie.

The book did an excellent job of teaching about this disease through the lives of the O’Briens, a family whose cop father develops the disease. While news of this disease, which some have called the worst disease in the world, shakes the family to the core, it is more deeply a story about courage and love.

P.S. By now I am on my third Lisa Genova book. Still Alice, and Love Anthony are also informative and deeply engaging, building  awareness and compassion and offering hope for all who struggle.

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzail — I’d received this book as a gift in 2014, but it sat unread on my shelf for over a year. 51ADCrSbkxL._AA324_PIkin4,BottomRight,-54,22_AA346_SH20_OU15_Then this spring we heard Malala being interviewed (for the second time) by John Stewart on “The Daily Show”. Done the day after the tragic Charleston shootings, the interview was so inspiring that I knew it was time to pick up the book and I’m glad I did.

Malala of course is the girl who stood up for education in Pakistan and was shot by the Taliban in 2012 when she was 15. She was not expected to survive. Now at 18, she has become a global symbol of peaceful protest and has won the Nobel Peace Prize. She speaks and advocates for education for all.

Reading this book reminded me of how much I take for granted every day: freedom of speech, freedom to get an education, freedom of religion. It opened my eyes to life on the other side of the globe, and to political situations that I usually don’t spend much time trying to understand. I also learned more about the deep and profound truths of the Islam faith.

Something I love to do after I’ve read a memoir (my favorite genre), is to listen to the person speak on the internet. It’s like meeting someone who just became your hero. So I googled “Malala’s United Nations speech” and listened to the speech she gave on her 16th birthday at the annual UN conference. I’d encourage anyone to listen, it is a powerful and moving testament from a humble, loving person who does not sensationalize what happened to her, but who lives and forgives her enemies. She says she is only “one girl among many” whose lives are affected by terrorism. She is one of my heroes.

51O0o9+wVcL._AA324_PIkin4,BottomRight,-54,22_AA346_SH20_OU15_The book of Revelation — Yes, that’s right, that book at the end of the Christian Bible that make people think of the end of the world, apocalypse, and cartoon like crazy monsters and villains.

Instead of taking summers “off”, our tiny church battles hazy lazy summer brain by going full-tilt into study together. Invariably, it ends up being the highlight of the week for us.

We are half-way through a film course from the “Great Courses” series called “Revelation and the End of All Things”, by Craig Koester. I recommend it highly, especially since Revelation is the most misunderstood and misinterpreted book of the Bible. I myself barely knew much about it and I’ve been a Christian all my life. Koester is a teacher who makes the book clear, engaging and meaningful.

It’s been a wild ride so far, and a rich study.  As another author describes it, Revelation is “off-the-charts weird”; definitely not a book to be read literally. (Try to understand what a 200-mile-long river of blood is all about!)

When read as a piece of literature, and understood in its historical and cultural context, it has a lot to say even to us modern readers who are often caught in a world torn with conflict and which tempts us to compromise our deepest values.

What I’m learning through the film, the accompanying book and the guidance of our resident scholar Paul Patterson, is that Revelation is a hopeful book for anyone who is struggling. Far from telling the future, it is a book that tells even us modern readers what to believe in tough times. At the centre of it all is a King who wins the day not by force, but through love which sacrifices and stands with the weak and powerless (think Aslan for fans of the Chronicles of Narnia).

The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It by Peter Enns — Ok, this book might not be for everyone. But if you’re like me, raised on the Bible and sometimes given interpretations that were not the most Unknown-1helpful, this book is a must-read.

First of all, the book is incredibly funny, not to mention easy-to-read. I kept thinking as I was reading that it was more like a novel in how engaging and page-turning it is. But even though it’s a fun read, it is backed by reliable research.

He is totally honest with how odd, bizarre, contradictory and even violent the Bible often is. What do we do when the Bible doesn’t “behave itself”? (Canaanite genocide anyone?) It’s enough to confuse believers, and I know of many people who have had crisis of faith or just turned away from faith or the church because of this. To help us begin, Enns says, “I believe God wants us to take the Bible seriously, but I don’t believe he wants us to suppress our questions about it.”

What he wants you to know is, relax, it’s ok, there’s a way of understanding the Bible that helps us make sense of it. It’s not a rule book or owner’s manual. It’s a collection of stories, known and passed down by God’s people. It’s a living Word, able to stretch across the centuries and be relevant to us today. But we have to know how to read it, and Enns gives a pretty decent set of tools.

I’d recommend it to people who identify as Christian or are seeking to know more about Christianity. It’s not, as one blogger put it, for the faint of heart. The idea that the Bible isn’t “perfect” can be deeply unsettling for evangelical Christians. Enns argues that in the Bible, God lets his children tell the stories about him (and tell them imperfectly). God is ok with that, and God is also bigger than those stories.

Long Term Growth

This spring, our three backyard Manitoba maple trees needed pruning. I received a crash course on trees from the arborist we hired for the job. Craning my neck upwards, I listened as he opened up the world of trees to me. maple leavesHe explained which limbs he would prune and why. I had a sudden desire to become an arborist myself as I listened to the wise details of his trade. His business is aptly named “Long Term Growth”.

Normally, I love pruning — whether it’s unruly hair that begs to be cut, sentences that need editing, or trees that need trimming, there’s something about weeding out what is not giving life that seems so beneficial. I have become an amateur in all three areas.

When it comes to the deeper pruning of unhelpful aspects or habits of my life, the process can be tougher, but just as needed. As electric and handheld saws began to thin out the trees, I played “spot that metaphor” and reflected on the pruning in my own life in the last year and a half.

The pruning of my teaching job was filled with much consultation and prayers. Just like the wise arborist pondering my maple trees, I had people gently saying to me, look friend, this limb is not sustaining life anymore, maybe it’s time… It wasn’t the easiest pruning to make peace with, but time has shown that it was necessary and helpful for my own long term growth.

Leaving full-time work was just the beginning. Now that the big, obvious branches have been cut, it seems that the pruning is more subtle. My mantra has become “less is more” and I keep having to make decisions, large and small, of what to cut out as I learn to avoid headaches. More branches are being pruned all the time.

Ever since I learned that my headaches are not just physical in origin, I’ve become a bit of a detective, searching for clues. I have this long time habit which friends jokingly call my 911 tendency. I tend to project a calm exterior so people might not guess it, but I overplay the emotional dramas of life, engaging in histrionics. Like a druggie’s quick fix, it’s an unhelpful habit which really only serves to distract and prevent me from tapping the deeper roots of life.

RHS_PUB0002681_900998Sitting in my meditation room, this troubling habit is becoming more clear to me. When a headache flare-up happens, I am learning not just to ask for sympathy, but to ask myself, and the friends who know me well, whether I’m somehow feeding it. I’m learning that regular pruning is essential.

To do this requires humility, acknowledging that I’m not just a victim. But it’s something I deeply desire. Not only do I want to become well physically, I also want to be tethered securely to my deepest values, which for me rest in following Jesus.

Last Sunday I was asked to share reflections with my house church from the gospel of Mark 5:21-43. It’s a story, actually two stories, about Jesus performing two miracles. One of them is a woman who was bleeding for 12 years. She spent all her money on physicians, and not only did she not get better, she got worse (a story that I could identify with)! She was at the end of her rope, physically as well as socially since she was one of society’s untouchables. In her desperation, she reached out and touched the edge of Jesus’ robe. She was immediately made well!

But when Jesus stopped in his tracks and asked who touched him, she felt she was busted. An unclean person wasn’t supposed to touch anyone, let alone a holy man, but Jesus didn’t think like that. The social taboos of the day were manmade, not from God. Earlier in Mark, he said, “I came for those who are sick, not those who are well.”

Scripture says she came out of the shadows and “told him the whole truth”. In response, Jesus wished her peace and to be well permanently. Her shame was gone and she was restored to the community.

But he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go home in peace, and be free from your trouble.” Mark 5:35

The phrase about telling “the whole truth” has stayed with me. I too want to be honest before God and my Unknownfriends and confess my anger or my people pleasing. The stillness of the meditation room invites me to take a deep breath and quiet my reactions, quiet my thoughts, quiet the struggle, and go deeper.

And then I can pray, trusting that God the wise arborist is lovingly pruning those branches which are not life-giving. If the power saws sound alarming, I can remember that God only does this out of love and a desire for my long term growth. Then, like our lovely backyard maples, the wind of the Spirit can blow through my life with more ease and freedom. I’m so glad God wishes peace for all our gnarled limbs.

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