Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Worthless currency: Brad Pitt and the rich young ruler


In my last post, I wrote for five minutes on the word WORTH as part of the Five Minute Friday linkup. I didn't give a lot of thought to where I was going with the post when I started writing it, but the distinction between "deserve" and "worth," which I remembered from one of Lewis Smedes' books, seemed like an interesting concept to unpack in five minutes.

Since then, I've continued pondering the word WORTH. I got thinking about currency, and how we make decisions based on what our money is worth or what it will do for us. Ten years ago the Canadian dollar was at par with the American one -- even worth slightly more at one point. Now it's worth 75 cents against the U.S. dollar. Ouch. I've never been a "cross-border shopper," and now I'm unlikely to become one, knowing how little my Canadian dollar will accomplish for me in the States.

Then I started thinking about other, non-monetary "currency" that we try to use, only to find that it won't accomplish what we  had hoped either.

That leads me to one of my favourite movies, Seven Years in Tibet. It's a very interesting story of a real-life Austrian adventurer named Heinrich Harrer, who abandons his wife and young son to go on a mountaineering expedition, ends up in Tibet during WWII, and becomes friends with the young Dalai Lama.

Brad Pitt plays the dashing Heinrich. There's been lots of commentary about Pitt's suitability for the role, how successful he is in reproducing a German accent, the historical accuracy of the film, and so on. But that's all secondary to me. What interests me most about this movie is that it depicts a person who really changes during the course of the story. And a big part of what precipitates that change is the character's realization that his currency is worthless.

Heinrich's fellow traveler, Peter, is a quiet, plain-looking fellow. The two are an oil-and-water mix, and Heinrich is pretty nasty to Peter at times, though they stick together throughout most of the journey. After escaping a POW camp they take refuge in Lhasa, Tibet. One of the people they meet there is a beautiful tailor named Pema. Both men are instantly taken with her.



On one occasion Heinrich tries to impress Pema by showing her photographs of himself climbing mountains and skiing as a member of the Austrian Olympic team. But Pema (who, we soon realize, is far more interested in the unassuming Peter) cuts Heinrich down to size. She says quietly, "This is another great difference between our civilization and yours. You admire the man who pushes his way to the top in any walk of life -- while we admire the man who abandons his ego. The average Tibetan wouldn't think to thrust himself forward this way."

Heinrich smiles, but he is clearly stung by her words. Ever so slowly, the truth starts to dawn on him: the currency he's been depending on for so long -- looks, adventures, awards, ego -- accomplishes nothing in this place. It's worthless.

The beautiful thing is, though, that he allows this awareness to change him. He becomes a tutor to the Dalai Lama and starts to internalize principles of Buddhism like nonviolence, humility, and harmony with all creation. He becomes a different person who can then go home and reestablish a deeper relationship with the son he left behind.

Contrast this with an episode recorded in Luke 18 and Mark 10, when Jesus is asked by a wealthy young man, "What do I need to do to have eternal life?"

Jesus says, "You know the commandments" -- and lists several of them.

The young man replies that he has kept all of these commandments for his entire life. I can imagine he is feeling pretty satisfied at this moment, because it sounds like the very currency he's carrying -- good behaviour -- is what's required. And perhaps he sees his wealthy status as another result of that good behaviour -- a reward for being such a good law-keeper. How affirming it would be if Jesus assured him that yes, works and wealth are in fact the keys to eternal life.

But Jesus goes on, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”


I don't think this should be taken as a literal prescription for all people at all times. Jesus isn't saying categorically that selling all our goods is the way to have eternal life; that would be just another kind of "good work" to earn our way.  Rather, I think Jesus is telling the young man that his good deeds and possessions actually won't achieve what he says he wants. Following Jesus requires something different: faith and trust.

 The young man is hoping he can keep on using the currency he's always relied upon, without really having to change. He's not prepared to give everything up and rely on Jesus. As the Mark version tells us, upon hearing Jesus' words "the man's face fell, and he went away sad," choosing not to follow.

I wonder if at some point we all come to the realization that our currency lacks value: our old answers and paradigms have nothing to say to the situation we're in, or our strengths and accomplishments really have no worth in the place we find ourselves.

The question is, do we let this disorienting experience be an opportunity for real change? Or do we allow ourselves to feel a momentary sadness but then go right back to the way things were?

These are the thoughts that going beyond "five minutes' worth of WORTH" led me to today.

 


Friday, June 16, 2017

Five Minute Friday: WORTH




Today I'm joining the Five Minute Friday community's linkup, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. This week's word: WORTH.









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In one of his books (I believe it was Shame and Grace), the late author Lewis Smedes wrote about the difference between deserving and worth.

He uses the example of his own mother, who as a widow with several small children worked long, hard hours to provide for her family.

He then asks (and I'm paraphrasing here), "Did I deserve her love and sacrifice?" His answer is no. There was nothing he could have done to earn the things his mother did for him and his siblings.

But then he asks, "Was I worthy of it?" and his answer is yes. It had more to do with who he was -- a beloved son -- than what he could do to make himself deserving.

He uses this example as a parallel of God's love for us. We don't deserve it; but we are worthy of it. It is not a love that requires us to perform or earn. It is based on the fact that God made us in his image and sees us as infinitely valuable. 

We are worthy because of who we are: beloved children of God.



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Thursday, June 15, 2017

June 2017 "Quick Lit"


Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy for "Quick Lit," where we share short reviews of what we've been reading.


Silence and Beauty by Makoto Fujimura (nonfiction). 
This fascinating and complex book has as its focus the novel Silence, written in 1966 by Shusaku Endo, about Portuguese missionaries to Japan in the 17th century. In Silence and Beauty, Fujimura explores many different themes and topics such s Endo's life, faith, and writing; Japanese art and culture; and how trauma, ambiguity, hiddenness, and other concepts central to the Japanese mindset are expressed in art and in Christianity. And all the while he interweaves his own journey as a Christian and artist.

This short description can't possibly do justice to the book; it has to be digested slowly and carefully to take it all in. I'll just share one passage that jumped off the page at me and that I've been turning over in my mind ever since, regarding the tension between Christianity's exclusive claims and the pluralistic world we live in:

Culture is a complex system of often-conflicting and competing elements. God, in wisdom, provided complexity and diversity in Eden and then preserved it in the fallen world. Christianity claims that in order for the entire diversity of confluences to bring all to thrive, we need a center that holds all things together. St. Paul, in the letter to the Colossians, states of Christ, "He is before all things, and in him all things hold together" (Colossians 1:17). Christ is that center.

In the hidden nature of the postlapsarian (fallen) world, that center may remain invisible. It requires faith to trust in the invisible rather than the visible. The true church may remain invisible to the eye, or exist beyond any institutional structures. Therefore, no matter how perfect our churches may be, no institution can claim to have all the answers. This is the paradoxical nature of Christ's exclusivity; Christ is "the way and the truth and the life," but he, as  a Good Shepherd, may lead his sheep to the wider pastures of his own design to push us out into a world that may be hostile to our faith. These wider pastures demand a nonexclusive relativism. Christ indeed may lead us to mystery and humility that give away power; thus this exclusivity comes with quite a price. Christ holds the center still, and yet guides us into the storms of life.

I found this passage thrilling. It assures us that we can be faithful followers of Jesus even if the sphere in which he's placed us (or pushed us, as Fujimura puts it) requires a more relativistic, inclusive approach. God is not afraid of diversity or complexity; he designed the world that way, and diverse elements can come together to bring about the flourishing of all creation because Jesus is the (sometimes-invisible) center that holds everything together.

(By the way, I would strongly recommend reading  Endo's Silence before you read Silence and Beauty -- and not just to understand this one better. It is an amazing, life- and faith-changing novel.)



Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (fiction).
This book of interconnected short stories is a follow-up to Strout's novel My Name is Lucy Barton. That book was about a writer who is visited in hospital by her mother after a long separation and who tries to get to the bottom of family and community secrets. I loved Lucy Barton; its spare style was different from Strout's other novels and made it seem very much like a memoir. As it turns out, it is intended to serve as the (fictional) memoir of the (fictional) writer, Lucy Barton. The stories in Anything is Possible focus on people in the small Illinois town where Lucy's family lived (some of whom are mentioned in the previous book), such as the retired school janitor who took an interest in Lucy when she was a young, traumatized girl. Lucy herself appears in only one story, coming from her home in New York to visit her brother and sister. 

I've read all of Strout's books, and she is such a brilliant writer, able to convey so much about her characters in a few phrases or scenes. I'd highly recommend Anything is Possible -- but be sure to read My Name is Lucy Barton first.



Disaster Falls by Stephane Gerson (nonfiction).  
When the author, his wife, and their two sons took a river-rafting excursion in Utah, the younger son Owen, age eight, fell out of their kayak and was drowned. Gerson, a professor of history in New York, explores all of the facets of this tragedy, analyzing his own reactions, and even his reactions to his reactions, in a way that sometimes comes across as scholarly and overly intellectual. But it's a beautifully written portrait of how different people handle grief, loss, and guilt, how relationships (such as Gerson's with his stoic Belgian father) are altered by tragedy, and how people can learn to accept the limitations of others in the midst of it.


Never Unfriended: The Secret to Finding and Keeping Lasting Friendships by Lisa-Jo Baker (nonfiction).  
I was on the book launch team for this book a few months ago and wrote a full-length review HERE. I loved the book and consider it an excellent resource for any woman who's struggled with friendship and/or who wants to know how to be a better friend. This quote is key to the book's purpose: "While we might have defined friendship our whole lives by what others do to us, in the end it’s what we do for others that will define us as friends or not."



The Jubilee by John Blase (poetry). 
I reviewed this book at greater length HERE. John Blase's poems (some of which I originally read on his website, the beautiful due) are wonderful. Blase finds so much beauty and truth in the ordinary stuff of life, and conveys it in such a moving and vivid way. Even if you don't think you're "the kind of person who reads poetry," I'd urge you to check this book out. You just might become that kind of person.








What have you been reading this month? Please share in the comments!



Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The solidarity of intergenerational friendships: guest post at The Perennial Gen


Today I'm happy to have a post up at The Perennial Gen -- a new site providing a space for Christian men and women in the second half of life "to cultivate frank conversation about transitions in our faith, culture, church, relationships, vocation, and bodies." I'm writing today about what I consider an important aspect of intergenerational friendship: solidarity.


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The solidarity of intergenerational friendships


A number of years ago when my mother was visiting me, we were paging through my photo albums. Suddenly she said, "You’re very lucky to have so many friends. That’s something I’ve always felt I missed out on in my life"

Her words surprised me ....

CLICK HERE to read the rest of my post over at The Perennial Gen.
 

Friday, June 09, 2017

Five Minute Friday: EXPECT




Today I'm linking up with the Five Minute Friday community, writing for five minutes on a given prompt.

This week's word is EXPECT.

 


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I don't ride the train often, but earlier this week my daughter and I were coming back from a train trip out east. We boarded the train in Montreal to head back to Kingston. A friendly young woman in her twenties was the staff member for our car.

About an hour into our 2.5-hour trip, she was going up the aisle pushing the snack cart. A rather disheveled older man was sitting across the aisle from us. He had finished one can of beer and ordered another. While she was getting it for him, he said, "I just don't understand it."

"What's that, sir?" she said politely.

"Well," he said, his voice a bit slurred, "Here you are, working on a train. And there's all these fashion magazines out there..."

I could see her expression change; she started to frown and shake her head.

I wanted to say to him: "Stop! Stop saying words!" But he continued haplessly, "All these fashion magazines that should be beating down your door ... and you're working here."

She kept shaking her head and frowning as she gave him his beer and took his money, without making eye contact with him. "No, no," she said dismissively. "No, that's not for me."

As she moved on past us, she and I exchanged glances and rolled our eyes a bit. 

I admired her. She was professional. She didn't smile or thank him for the compliment. She deflected it in a way that showed she did not appreciate the inappropriate personal attention.

I wonder if she had headed to work that morning with the expectation that she would be able to do her job in a safe and respectful environment. 

She should have been able to expect that. 

Everyone should.