The Woods, Part 1

woods1“Don’t go into the woods,” they said.

“There are things unspeakable that happen beyond the village wall.”

“I hear there are monsters,” another warned. “I’ve heard about how they’re waiting just inside the tree line to grab you and make you their dinner.”

“Oh, yes!” cried another, her eyes growing as big as saucers as she spoke (not really, but you know what I mean). “They have eyes that see in the dark and claws like razor blades. They will tear you apart slowly, drooling as they hear your screams. Then they will eat you and nothing will be left to show that you ever existed.”

The thought of this sent shivers down my spine. Not that I would be such a great feast, but I’d like to think I would at least be a tasty appetiser.

“Yes. yes! Beware of stepping off the narrow path,” whispered a tall, rather plain-looking woman whom I recognised as my schoolteacher. “Many have thought that there is nothing to lose, and these are the same who lost their lives to the terrible creatures of the woods.”

She continued: “The elders have a book in which they’ve written the names of all who have strayed from the one path to the river and have never returned . . .” (Her voice faded away as if she were channelling the spirit of one of the dear departed.)

Suddenly, as if she was snapping out of a trance, she turned and looked directly at me. “You knew Robert.” she stated, rather matter-of-factly..

Everyone knew Robert. He was the village clown-slash-idiot. Funniest guy I ever met. We used to love hanging around him. He was the life of the party because of his uncanny way of summing up every situation with the most hilarious comedic commentary. His jokes, though sometimes verging on the border of insults, had most of us in tears–and sometimes our sides ached for days.

“Yeah. Of course I knew Robert.”

“He went out into the woods one day . . . and  n e v e r   r e t u r n e d . . .”

True. We haven’t heard anything from Robert for around 5 years now. Once he went into the woods, a renewed fear became the norm in the village. There was debate over how this could have happened. Training was given in the used of swords, spears, and fighting skills. There was also a great ceremony about writing his name in The Book, and then the Town Crier went up and down the streets of the village, calling out a list of misdeeds of which the elders had declared Robert guilty: neglecting his family, turning his back on the goodness of his village, being enticed by a desire to know more than any mortal should know. The list went on, but it was all gobbledegook to me. His own family, while never ever recovering their former happiness, seemed to write him off and go on with their lives as if he had never existed.

“But what about the birds?” I asked. “They fly into the forest every day, and happily return the next day with full stomachs and cheery songs.”

“Of course they do,” an older woman called out from behind me. I turned. “They have a special spell cast over them and the monsters don’t harm them.”

“But what about the rabbits, the foxes, the deer . . .?”

“You’d better stop asking questions, sonny.” This time it was my Uncle Tony in his low, soothing–yet stamped-with years-of experience–voice. “We all want to know what happens outside our village wall, but that is a mystery that we must learn to live with. There are some things its best we don’t know. Surely the elders who have looked after us so well for the thousands of years would never want anything but the absolute best for us.”

Uncle Tony, although getting on in years, was sharp as a tack. Of anyone in the village, he was deemed to be the wisest and most revered. He had often spoken about the value of ‘staying with the family’ and being active in village life. He didn’t just talk about it, but he lived it every day. There was nobody who thought ill of this man. It was said his own son was one of those whose names were in The Book.

I nodded. More out of respect than out of a sense that I could agree with anything he was saying. After all, nobody–at least nobody in my memory–had ever really seen the elders. (There’s a story about the old baker who happened upon an elder about 70 years ago when he was delivering bread to the castle. Apparently he came back down the hill quite fearful and shaken and nothing he said after that ever seemed to make sense. Regardless, that was only hearsay, legend. Nobody made much of it.)

And so life in the village continued.

Every morning I watched the sun rise beyond the great woods and watched it cast its golden beams into the trees. I saw birds rise up out of the forest singing. I heard the sounds of animals greeting the dawn, and felt a growing sense of wanting to know what was beyond the village wall.

(To be continued)

Peter: A Good Friday Story

Enlight1I imagine Simon Peter as a rough fisherman-type man. He’s probably salty-mouthed, says-whatever-he-thinks, does-anything-for-you type of guy. In my mind’s eye, I see him as what we in Australia would call a “bogan.” (Chances are, if he lived in South Australia, he’d be a Port Adelaide footy fan, listen to bands like AC/DC and Chisel, and drink cartons upon cartons of West End.)

So imagine with me the moments after Jesus’ death and his friends are preparing his body for burial. They’ve been asked to say a few words before he’s put into the tomb.

This is Peter’s story.

Hi. I’m Simon, son of Jonas. You might know me better as Peter ‘cuz that’s the name Jesus gave me. Y’know, when he said that “Who do you say that I am?’ line? I just can’t get what he was after, I mean He was the promised Messiah, right? So that’s what I said and he answered by giving me this name. He said,”You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.” What? Seriously?I’m a fisherman. I can’t make sense of that. But Jesus was like that. He told it like it is.

I remember some of his sermons. I reckon I stayed awake through most of them…. It’s kinda hard when you fish all night and then spend the day in the hills with thousands of people around you. But what I did catch was that Jesus was all about people and people knowing and helping other people. I mean, like really serious about helping other people in the way that he helped people. He didn͛t seem to get tired of teaching us, even when we didn’t listen.

He also loved kids and I guess that’s why he like threatened those who abused them with stuff like”It would be better if you had heavy weights tied around your neck and be thrown into the sea than to offend one of these little oness.” He loved the kids.

There were some awesome days. Like when me and James and John and Jesus climbed Mt Tabor— amazing view from there! And we were like looking around to see if we spot our town. The view is really amazing! Anyhoo, Jesus just like *transforms* into some incredible angel-like being—like an alien or something from another planet. We were all standing around like gob-smacked. Couldn’t believe it. And weirder still two other alien-like people stood next to him and I swear they were the prophets Moses and Elijah. We like just stood there and didn’t know what to do. Best I could come up with is”Hey Jesus, why don’t we set up three tents for you and them two.” I’m glad he ignored that comment ‘cuz it was a little stupid, looking back now.

Jesus sure knew how to confuse a bloke. He told us that we were gonna rule with him in his kingdom, that we would sit on 12 thrones. Then he said that the greatest of us is a servant, and we had to become like a little child to enter the kingdom. He chose us and called us to follow him knowing that one of us would turn him over to the Romans to be killed. … Can’t quite figure that one out.

Seriously, but. Jesus was a top bloke. He was a good mate who always looked after you. He’d give you the shirt off his back. He didn͛t have a bad bone in his body. When we went to parties—and we went to a lot of parties– he was there to turn the water into wine. Whoa! How good was that?! We loved it when we would go into a town and crowds would flock around us like seagulls around kids with chips.

But things got nasty. The temple crowd wouldn’t have a bar of Jesus and wanted to knock him off. We could see it a mile away. But Jesus … I wish I had done things differently now. I tried to warn him about coming to Jerusalem, but he like wouldn͛t listen. He got quite stroppy at me and said something like”Get behind me Satann.” (Man. That hurt!)

I … I just wish I could have been stronger. This whole business came crashing down around us real sudden. We ate Passover dinner with Jesus and, next thing, Judas leaves. We left the house and walked a few k’s down the road to this garden and it was late and we were a bit tired and Jesus told us to like wait and went off by himself to pray. He knew something was going down but we just fell asleep waiting. Then the Roman soldiers came with the priests, Judas kissed Jesus and they arrested him … and we were all so scared, and we ran away.

Should’ve stayed. Should have stayed and gone to the trial at least. Mind you, I did go back to the Chief Priest͛s house later that night to see what was happening, but that didn͛t turn out so well.

If only I … but it’s too late for that now. He’s gone. There’s nothing we can do. That’s how it ends.

I remember that night when me and James and John were fishing and a storm came up. We thought our boat would like go under and we would all die. Then Jesus, Jesus comes walking on top of the water towards us! I thought it was a ghost. We were all like terrified. I thought it looked like Jesus. He sounded like Jesus. I said,”If it is you, Lord, ask me to come to you”—and he said “Come.” And I stepped out of the boat and walked on top of the water towards him. I was walking on the water!! But … but when I suddenly saw what I was doing, Ithought,”No way. This isn͛t possible.” And I  started to sink into the water. Jesus saved me. He pulled me up and we got into the boat. He shouted something like”Be still” into the wind and the sea became like glass and the clouds vanished.

If I had the chance to do it all again, I would. I never would have imagined that following Jesus would take me on such an adventure. We had some great times together, the thirteen of us. Yeah, there were some bad times as well, some disappointments, some things I wish we could do over. I wish I would have trusted Jesus more and I wish I would have stood up for him . . . Maybe, maybe things wouldn͛t have turned out this way.

We’ll miss you, mate. Thanks for believing in me even at those times when I didn’t believe in you.

(What Your Dentist Knows) About the Secret to Life

Dr. Kelly Flanagan has written this post on his blog, Untangled. When I read it, I thought to myself, ‘This needs to be shared.’ So here is the first part (that will hopefully spark your curiosity to read the rest by clicking on the link at the end).

We think the secret to life is achievement and status and comfort and painlessness. But we’re wrong. The secret to life lies elsewhere. I know, because my dentist told me…

“Until you can completely feel pain again, don’t eat anything.”

I was sitting in the dental chair last week—the right side of my face numb and drooping—when he said it, when my dentist told me the secret to life.

Our pain is the secret to life.

We can’t even eat unless we’re capable of feeling it.

Yet, we are a people obsessed with avoiding our pain. The DEA reports sales of prescription painkillers increased sixteen-fold in the last ten years. Oxycodone and hydrocodone are the two most popular painkillers—in 2010, pharmacies distributed 111 tons of those pills.

In the U.S. alone.

We build our lives around comfort and safety and ease. We feel entitled to painless living. Both physically and emotionally. We will go to great lengths to avoid our interior pain—our sadness, grief, powerlessness, fear, despair, shame, and anger. As Carl Jung said, “People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own soul.”

But what is the psychological equivalent of a painkilling pill?

I think we numb our psychological pain with myth.

By myth, I mean the ever-so-slightly deceptive stories we tell ourselves. About ourselves. About other people. About the world we live in. Our personal myths are the beliefs that protect us from the pain of life.*

Young men will tell themselves they love the bachelor lifestyle, so they don’t have to enter into the sweaty-browed risk of real intimacy and their own sense of inadequacy.

Young women will tell themselves they are in charge—and every weekend it’s the same bed but a different man—so they never have to acknowledge how empty it feels when they are finally alone.

We put doctors on pedestals, so we don’t have to fully feel the terror of the disease.

People who have given up on this life will survive it by adopting a set of rules that will guarantee there place in another life.

Perhaps (and this one haunts me), some of us may even write blog posts about redemption and compassion, so we can feel satisfied with our effort and avoid some of the painful work of love in our own lives.

And our myths protect us against the details of our story that feel too painful to acknowledge: the haunting vacancy in the eyes of our parents, the desperate race for worth in a family who dressed up competition as nurturance, the bitter loneliness of the schoolyard taunts, the aching regret about sleeping with that guy freshman year, the nagging emptiness of a paycheck with no meaning, or the walking-on-eggshells way of life in a household dominated by one person’s anger.

Our myths keep the pain of reality at bay, and so they sustain us with a false sense of freedom.

But what if we’re like puppies, chasing our tails inside the comfort of a grassy yard, thinking we’re free, when we’re actually imprisoned? What if our pain is like an invisible electrical fence, keeping us penned in and depriving us of a vast world and the freedom to fully live in it? What if our personal myths are just Kibbles ‘n Bits—pacifying morsels that keep us from deciding to walk through our pain into the freedom of fully living?

(Read the rest of this post here.)

Meanderings . . .

While complying can be an effective strategy for physical survival, it’s a lousy  one for personal fulfillment. Living a satisfying life requires more than simply meeting the demands of those in control. Yet in our offices and our classrooms we have way too much compliance and way too little engagement. The former might get  you through the day, but only the latter will get you through the night. – Daniel H. Pink, quoted by MINEmergent

God is not going to help you cut your grass. He’s going to help you cut His grass. He’ll give you the lawnmower and the fertilizer and teach you to take care of His grass, not yours. – John Schneider

Most people, particularly young people, have no knowledge that the purpose of their life is union with Divine Reality. They have been told that the purpose of life is to get a degree and make money and have kids and die. That’s the narrowed-down secular understanding of reality, which is de facto followed by many Christians. Most are no longer connected to the perennial philosophy, and just waste time fighting their own religion. This is not wisdom at all—it is low-level survival. We’re now living in a largely survival mode in our culture. No wonder so many of our kids turn to drugs, drink, and promiscuous sex, because there’s nothing else that’s very exciting or very true. – Richard Rohr, adapted from a non-published talk at a conference in Assisi, Italy, May 2012

I guess I tend to associate the gospel with humanity relative to how people are acting more like “kingdom people,” regardless of their religious affiliation or non-affiliation. It seems to me that Christ wasn’t so fixated on whether other people loved him or not (though this was certainly mentioned, but not so much as a prerequisite of acceptance into what he was about). I think Jesus identified with those who were simply what he was about himself (making his god’s world a better place), not so much, if at  all, dependent upon whether someone loved and devoted themselves to him. – Chris Hill

No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says: He is always convinced that it says what he means. – George Bernard Shaw

Why do we train ministers for 7 years, lay preachers for 2 years, but worship leaders…? Not at all (except, perhaps, as musicians). . . . Facilitating worship is not a musical job. It’s a theological job. . . . John van de Laar (from Twitter @Sacredise, www.sacredise.com)

Consumer society, by constantly making us aware of what we don’t have, instead of making us thankful for what we do have, has turned out to be the most efficient system yet devised for the manufacturing and distribution of unhappiness. –  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

I come from a conventional, middle-class Nigerian family. My father was a professor. My mother was an administrator. And so we had, as was the norm, live-in domestic help, who would often come from nearby rural villages. So the year I turned eight we got a new house boy. His name was Fide. The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor. My mother sent yams and rice, and our old clothes, to his family. And when I didn’t finish my dinner my mother would say, “Finish your food! Don’t you know? People like Fide’s family have nothing.” So I felt enormous pity for Fide’s family.

Then one Saturday we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.

Years later, I thought about this when I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. (Laughter) She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.

What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals. – from Chimamanda Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story (TED Talk)

This world is enchanted
Lean closer to see it
This world is enchanted
Dare to breathe it in

O God. . .

Give us new eyes to see
Give us new skin to feel
Give us new lungs to breathe
The wonder underneath

Faith like a mustard seed
Holy naiveté
To swim in Your mystery
We need to be free
Free to breathe it in
Free to breathe it in
Born and born again

This world is transcendent
Lean closer to see it
This world is resplendent
Dare to breathe it in

–  Enchanted, by Aaron Niequist


A Story about Creativity

I received this in an email the other day (Thanks, Clare). It’s actually written in a circular to teachers, but it applies so well to families, churches and other organisations just as much as to schools. The lesson, I believe, is obvious: Unless we allow people the freedom to think, act and create outside of the box (whatever that ‘box’ may be), we will not only impair their own development, but we will do a great disservice to our community and our world.

Red flower

Once upon a time there was a little boy who studied at a big school.

One morning the teacher said “Today we’re going to draw.”

“Good” thought the little boy. He liked to draw lions, tigers, chickens, trains and boats.

He got his coloured pencils and started drawing.

“Wait!! Don’t start yet.” said the teacher.

She waited until all the students were ready and then said, “We’re going to draw flowers.”

The little boy started drawing beautiful flowers with his pink, orange and blue pencils.

“Wait” said the teacher. “I’ll show you how to do it.”

And the flower she drew was red with a green stem.

“OK” said the teacher, “Now you can do it.”

The little boy looked at the flower the teacher had drawn , looked at his own flowers and liked his best. He couldn’t say that so he turned the sheet of paper over and drew a flower just like the one the teacher had drawn–red with a green stem.

Another day the students were having class outside and the teacher said, “Today we are going to play with clay.”

“Great” the boy thought. He liked to play with clay.

He could make things like elephants, mice, cars and trucks.

He started to take some clay in his hands and make a big ball.

Then the teacher said, “Wait ! Don’t start yet.”

She waited until all the students were ready.

“Now” she said “we’re going to make a plate.”

“Good” thought the little boy.

He liked to make plates of different sizes and shapes.

The teacher said, “Wait !! I’ll show you how to do it.”

It was a soup plate.

“OK” she said, “Now you can start.”

The little boy looked at the plate the teacher had made, looked at his own plate and liked his best. He couldn’t say it so he got his plate, made it into a big ball and started it again.

He made a soup-plate just like the one the teacher had made.

And since early in his life he learned not to do things by himself but to wait for a model.

And then the little boy went to another school.

This one was even bigger than the other one.

One day the new teacher said, “Today we’re going to draw.”

“Good” thought the little boy.

He waited to see what the teacher would draw.

The teacher didn’t draw anything.

She only walked around the room.

Then the teacher approached the little boy and asked, “Don’t you like to draw?”

“Yes” he said “but what are we going to draw?”

“I don’t know” said the teacher.  “Draw whatever you want.”

“How can I do it?” he asked.

“Any way you want.” said the teacher.

“But what colours should I use?” he asked.

“You choose. If everybody makes the same drawing with the same colours how can I know which drawing is yours?” she said.

“I don’t know” answered the boy.

And he draw a red flower with a green stem.

Many times we want our children, friends, relatives, people we love, to do things the way we believe is the correct one.

Are we right?

Other times we sit and wait until someone tells us what to do.

Is that right?

(Copied from Leadiong and Learning, http://leading-learning.blogspot.com/)

We Need More Than One Story

Most of us are brought up only hearing one story. This story is told over and over again by our parents, our relatives, our friends. And because like seems to attract like, the story we hear remains much the same from wherever we hear it.

That is, until someone comes into our circle and starts telling a different story. That person may have a different take on life. They may be given the title ‘Black Sheep’ by the rest of the clan. Their story may be so radical that we never give it a second thought–after all, we have lived in, and are surrounded by the one story all our life; any other story must be suspect.

But we need more than one story. Without a multiplicity of stories being told, we would live (as it were) in a two-dimensional world. One story is not possibly big enough, grand enough, or complete enough to convey the whole picture.

Take a look at the diagram on the right. Each coloured circle is a different story. These are the stories we live in. Some of them intersect as if they were a Venn Diagram. Others may touch slightly in one area, but largely take place exclusive to any other story. Some again may be totally outside of the scope of agreement.

In the places where these stories overlap, we can gain certainty that what they say is true. Where one or two stories meet, we can gauge the probability of accuracy by how much they share in structure, style and content. No one story can be understood apart from the context of all the others.

I think this is why the Bible includes four gospels and not only one. If we view the Bible as a Community Library rather than a history book or answer book, we can appreciate the value of each book’s unique contribution to the over-arching story of God and his people.

While each gospel is a complete story, each other one complements and adds to our understanding of Jesus, his life and teaching. Each story is told uniquely from an individual viewpoint. Words and the language used in telling the story vary from one to another. There are some events only recorded in one gospel–and some of these have the scholars questioning the factuality of the event. But others occur many times and therefore, lend credibility to the witnesses.

There are many other examples both in Scripture and in life. We could examine the Jewish and Christian stories and see intersections at numerous points. We could compare our western story and the stories of the Orient and see how they vary from–and how much they are the same as–our own. We could take a look at your family’s story and my family’s story and see that, in many ways, we are alike–and others not so much alike.

And in the context of the church, we can take all of our stories, tell them, treasure them, and add to the richness of faith and tradition by seeing so much we have in common, as well as so much we can learn from each other’s narratives. Our stories won’t always–and shoudln’t be expected to–be the same. We are complex creatures with even more complex and embedded understandings.

Perhaps in listening to each other, we may see parts of our story that need to be edited or revised. We may also see moments that need to be celebrated and embraced. In this constant telling and retelling, we need each other. And because we choose to weave our storylines into and around each other’s stories, our stories become larger, grander, and more complete as does the life we live together.

Tribes

In Brian McLaren’s new book, several times he offers the image of ‘the tribe’ or a tribal society in referring to questions about God or the Bible. Rob Bell in his timely and enlightening ‘The God’s Aren’t Angry‘ speaks of humanity’s understanding of God from a tribal perspective. In his review of ‘A New Kind of Christianity,’ Andrew Perriman speaks about a panel discussion about the book held at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and, once again, the idea of tribal identity surfaces:

The tribal part has to do with the limits we perceive that we are not willing to cross. I might be highly creative, intellectual, etc. but I might remain so entrenched within a certain religious or ideological tribe that I simply focus my personality on defending that tribe.

I found the So. Baptist Theological Seminary panel discussion particularly fascinating in that sense. It seemed liked the leaders of a tribe were reacting to a perceived threat. How else can one explain the oddness of these academics taking up their intellectual arms in a public forum for no other apparent purpose than to preach to the choir before them?

It was fascinating but also very sad. I wondered what percentage of the audience had read your book, or ever would after such an indoctrination. Yet they gladly cheered on those academic gladiators in that one-sided arena.

Tribal ‘elders,’ leaders, speaking to the tribe about what is happening in another tribe and the threats this poses. This is a strange but interesting take on Evangelical Christianity, and one with which I tend to agree. Whether I intend or not, I am part of a tribe that shares a common story (or common interpretation of that story), a common cause, a common deity, a common ground (home). And while I wish all tribes could agree, that won’t necessarily happen.  But we still share the same space and live under the same sky, worshipping the same God.

That’s a good start.

P.S. I’d like to take this tribal idea further and explore it. Keep watching this space…