Without Shame

And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed. – Genesis 2:25

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Lifebuoy adOne of my favourite radio programs is the CBC’s “Under The influence” (formerly “The Age of Persuasion”) hosted by Terry O’Reilly .  O’Reilly gives both an exposition of the tricks of the trade in the world of advertising and an exposition of human gullibility.  More often than not I am stunned at how we are subtly (and not so subtly) shaped by commercial means.  One of the shows that recently caught my attention was an episode entitled “Shame: The Secret Tool of Marketing.”  He says,

“The strategy of “shame” is one of the most powerful marketing tools in modern times. Fear of being judged by our peers has led to billions of dollars of products being sold.  Social embarrassment isn’t just a mix of humiliation, mortification and distress, it’s also a heady cocktail of marketing, strategy and product solutions. And the marketing industry has a vested interest in keeping shame alive and well.”

listerine ad %22how's you breath today-%22For example O’Reilly traces is the use of deodorant.  Before the 20th century deodorant wasn’t something used by your average person.  Through the use of advertising the suggestion was planted that people around you are judging you based on your smell.  Almost overnight people began to buy deodorant because body smell was something to be ashamed of.  Or how about mouth wash.  Listerine was originally used as a floor cleanser but it was discovered that it could kill oral germs.  The only problem was that no one was worried about bad breath.  Listerine created advertising about the problem of “halitosis” and a new market for mouth wash was created.  Before 1960 people didn’t worry about dandruff, but advertising taught us that it is something to be ashamed of and Head Shoulders was there to solve our “problems.”  It took Wisk almost 10 years to convince us that “ring around the collar” was an embarrassment, but they got there.  The list goes on.

What is most shameful appears to be the ease in which we sink into and hold onto shame.

At the end of Genesis 2, the end of the narrative of scripture which is traditionally labeled as “Creation” (a good and perfect creation) the statement is made that “the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25) At the pinnacle of beauty, relationship and order this incredible statement describes a world without shame.  We then read in the next chapter that when humanity felt the need to be all knowing, to be like God, the first consequence was…shame – “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. (Genesis 3:7)

And so began life with shame.  But it is not something to accept.  Salmon Rushdie once wrote, “Shame is like everything else; live with it for long enough and it becomes part of the furniture.” (“Shame”)  We accept so many of the lies culture tells us, everything from believing that our children will grow up undeveloped if we don’t put them in umpteen activities to the belief that your front lawn isn’t good enough if it sprouting dandelions or that being sweet 16 and never kissed as being a bad thing (and we’re not talking about mom and dad’s loving pecks on the cheek).   These lies are based in the shame of not being good enough.  So many of us have learned to live with shame and it is to the detriment of the goodness of creation and the glory of God.

0609forgiveness2The apostle Paul writes to the Philippian church, “For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. (Philippians 3:18-21)

Without getting into a full exposition of this passage, the line that jumps out for me is the comment of “their god is their belly and their glory is in their shame.”  Where do we find our glory?  Are we content to bow to shame?  Too often we seem to settle into the very things we have been sold as worthwhile and important.  We wake up in the morning more worried about body odor, bad breath and grey hair than enjoying the fruit of the creation and the freedom to walk with God…as he made us, beautiful, original, and in his image.  Our lives and our identities are not defined by shame and the judgment of others but by a generous God who is constantly transforming us by his spirit.  If we understand heaven correctly as not just a place of clouds and harps, but a restored creational order, then we live the future in the present, we strive for more of heaven on earth, we work towards “the man and his wife [being] both naked, and…not ashamed.”

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The Study of God is an Abstract Art

guernica

“Guernica” – Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso is one of the best known artists of the 20th century.  He is largely credited for being one of the founders of cubism.  “In Cubist artwork, objects are analyzed, broken up and reassembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context.”[i]  But this is not how Picasso started painting.  I’m sure that he began by drawing stick figures, much like most children, and as his skills progressed he eventually developed the abilities to produce highly realistic and representational works of art.  And as he continued to develop his skills and explore the boundaries of art and what it meant to express the depth of a subject matter, his painting style changed and his abstract work is a part of that exploration.

People seem to either love or hate Picasso’s cubist work.  There’s a story floating out there, I’m not sure if it’s true, that captures people’s reaction to Picasso’s abstract work.  “A wealthy man commissioned Pablo Picasso to paint a portrait of his wife. Startled by the non-representational image on the final canvas, the woman’s husband complained, “It isn’t how she really looks.” When asked by the painter how she really looked, the man produced a photograph from his wallet. Returning the photography Pablo observed, “Small, isn’t she?”[ii]

Picasso’s comment illustrates that no work of art or photograph for that matter can ever really capture the essence of reality.  So the question we might ask is this?  If it is so hard for any of us to capture or express reality, can we truly express or fully comprehend who God is?  And if we’re exploring the boundaries of the world we live in, trying to understand it and/or God, will any of our discoveries or new insights be truly representational?

What if our understanding of God needs to grow in abstraction?

"Life with God" Anneke Kaai

“Life With God” – Anneke Kaai

Some Christians gravitate to a quasi-scientific approach to understanding the Bible, parsing out each word in an attempt to prove the validity of God to those around them.  Others simply gravitate to a relative approach to Bible and treat the words as truth to live by if you so choose, often as only one of the buffet items in the religious smorgasbord.  When we approach our understanding of God in a scientific way, we will always come up short.  Even the sacred text of the Bible begins by telling us that the one tree that humanity may not eat from is the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Trying to pin down an understanding of God in a scientific way is like trying to collect butterflies and pin them to a board.  It may help you understand the distinctions between each butterfly but you remove the life and beauty.  And when we approach our understanding of God in a purely relative manner, we put ourselves at the centre of the universe as though any sort of truth is defined only by our choice to believe it.  Making truth relative is to fall into the trap of the old story that says people who follow religions are all blind people feeling different parts of an elephant and describing the elephant from the part they’re holding.  Except to describe God in this way assumes that you are the only one who isn’t blind and have the ability to see what everyone else doesn’t (rather arrogant and condescending).

But to understand God in abstraction is to acknowledge a definite truth but admit that our understanding of the truth is limited and can best be expressed by trying to get at the core colours, shapes and lines of what we believe.  Abstraction is different from relativism in that it isn’t saying that I define what is true, but it is saying that there is something deeper to be understood than just what I can see and know.

When the gospel writer Mark tells us that Jesus said, I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”[iii]  It isn’t that he’s telling us that our faith must become ignorant and blind.  It could be argued that he’s telling us to become abstract.  Let us return to the journey of the artist.  Sometimes we hear people comment on abstract art saying things like, “My kid could paint that.” But anyone who has studied art or spent time with a trained artist will understand the idiocy of such a statement.  But there is a similarity between children’s art and abstract art.  A child expresses what they see and know and it is often filled with colour, shapes and lines.  Children’s art is beautiful because through their expression we see the world in a very simple yet profoundly complex manner.  This is true of abstract art as well, but there is an underlying journey underneath this art that adds to the complexity.  The abstract artist has honed their skills, learned to shade and draw or paint landscapes or portraits with the greatest of detail.  But as the abstract artist has learned to reproduce things in the greatest of detail, the desire to capture the essence of what they’re producing causes them to look deeper into the images and thoughts of the world(s) we live in.  It leads them to produce lines, shapes and colour which appear to not contain the detail but in truth expresses the deeper detail of our world in so far as we can know it.

"Baptized and Beloved" Jan Rihcradson

“Baptized and Beloved”
Jan Richardson

Our journey with God must be similar if we adhere to Jesus teaching.  We begin our lives believing in simple truths (Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so, little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong).  But as we grow the world becomes complex and the questions grow.  To be faithful is not to ignore the complexity or the questions but rather to grapple and grow with them.  But the journey of exploration should not lead us to perfect representations of God in our lives that we can hang on our walls as though we can contain His truth.  The journey should lead us to abstraction whereby the beauty and simplicity of colour, lines and shapes (Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so, little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong) make us want to look deeper each time to see something more.


[ii] Found all over blogosphere

[iii] Mark 10:15

Big Dreams, Small Beginnings

 “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” –  Isaiah 11:6

 Compassion-Day-2-LaticiaMost of us dream big.  I never hear my five year old son say that when he grows up he’s going to become an entry level mail clerk at the local office of the department of National Defense (never mind the fact that he has no idea what that means), he talks about becoming an astronaut who flies rocket ships.  When we think about justice or injustice for that matter, so often we speak in the same lofty tones, big talk about the eradication of poverty or the elimination of social injustice in foreign countries.  These are good dreams to hold onto and pursue, but so often their achievement begins…in the mailroom, one letter at a time.

C.S. Lewis, in an essay written in 1940 entitled “Why I am Not a Pacifist,” (included in “The Weight of Glory” and Other Essays) said,

I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace. I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can…just as the dentist who can stop one toothache has deserved better of humanity than all the men who think they have some scheme for producing a perfectly healthy race.”

One could argue that Lewis’ definition of ‘limited objectives’ was still quite lofty, but his point is good.  Our Christian calling begins with small and tangible contexts as a means to a larger end.

It is an advent approach to justice.  The Bible tells the story of God and his redemptive ‘dream’ for the world and for his people.  But inside that story, the crux of salvation began not with a grand overture but with a baby born in a stable.  The first recipients of the news of God’s grace were not those living in the palace of Jerusalem but the local farmers (shepherds) of Bethlehem.  To this end our calling today begins on the street we live on, our places of employment and among the people we meet every day.  May we with God during this advent season dream big, but begin small.

Prayer:

Lord Jesus, may we embrace the humility you embodied as we live into your redemptive ‘dream’ for the world.  Amen

note: this devotion was first published in the Advent devotion series “A Light Shines in Darkness” by the CRC Office for Social Justice on December 14, 2012

Only a “Sense” of Obligation to Environment?

Every Monday morning on the ground floor of the University Centre at the University of Ottawa, the Sustainable Development Centre (which now occupies one of the offices that years ago was a full-time chaplains office and sits outside the area formerly known as Spiritual Services….hmmm) sets up a table offering free coffee for all those with re-usable mugs.  Their sign says…”6500 disposable coffee cups used every day on campus.”  There was no one waiting in line so I stopped for a cup of coffee and chatted with the volunteer.  I learned a few things, including the fact that they didn’t have enough volunteers to offer this service more often or in different campus locations.  Then I walked upstairs to the part-time chaplains office and on the way I passed the Tim Horton’s coffee kiosk which had a line-up of about 10-15 people.  Interesting…free, but you have to have your own cup = no line up, but pay $1.50-$2.00 and get a disposable cup = line up of 10-15 people.  Something is wrong here.

Recently, Cardus, a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture, released it’s Canadian Educational Survey (They released the US version last year) in which they explored the effects of education upon people’s lives.  The survey measured the differences between educational systems, (Catholic, Independent  Public, Christian, and Home School being the primary categories) with respect not only to career but to the affect on the social fabric of our society. (You can see the whole report by clicking here)  Included in the study was the role of education with respect to environmental care.

When they compared responses from participants they discovered,

“A sense of moral or religious obligation to care for the environment is very strong among the Christian school and religious home-educated graduates.” p.39

I’m glad to hear that.  At the heart of the Christian story is the belief in a good creation.  We believe that the environment is a gift of God and we are called to care for it.  We should have a strong moral or religious obligation to care for the environment (The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. Genesis 2:15).  But having a sense of moral obligation and acting upon it are apparently two different matters.  The report goes on to say

“When we add all of these reported actions together, there are no significant differences between government school graduates and those from other school sectors. There is a small trend among religious home-educated graduates toward fewer environmentally friendly actions… Overall, then, we find some differences in a sense of obligation to the environment, which favour the Christian school and religious home education sectors, and in commitment to participating in the environmental movement, which is more likely among independent non-religious school graduates. Besides those, the differences between school sectors on the environment are very limited.” (p.40)

Basically the survey says that although Christians (at least those schooled in Christian environments) have a higher sense of obligation to the care of the environment, in reality Christians come out the same as all other students in actually caring for the environment.  If Christians have a higher sense of obligation to the environment, shouldn’t we have a greater participation in environmental action and causes?

Maybe there is a reason that what used to be a Chaplain’s office at the University of Ottawa is now the office for Sustainable Development.  And maybe it’s time for Christian students on campus to take a lead in volunteer action with the Office of Sustainable Development…it’s a way that we can live out that moral religious obligation that we apparently feel.  Who knows, in the future this office might once again become known as a place of spiritual service.

A Holy Impatience?

All I wanted when I pulled into the McDonalds drive-thru was a Chocolate Chip Frappe.   I needed a little shot of caffeine.  It was a hot day.   The frappes were on sale (just a buck!).  A quick trip through the drive-thru seemed like just the thing.  I figured I’d place my order, pay with the spare change from my ash tray (my wife would never know!), and be on my way within minutes.

I figured wrong.

Apparently, someone in front of me had ordered several hundred Big Macs.  And fifteen minutes later, I was still in line.  Still waiting to hand over my fistful of change.  Still waiting for my Chocolate Chip Frappe.

I really, really, really do not like to wait.

Like most people, I want what I want, and I want it five minutes ago.  But I know better.  I know that “patience” is an important Christian virtue–no less than a “Fruit of the Spirit.”   And I know that a little patience can go do a lot to make life more pleasant.  (Neil Plantinga once wrote: “Patience is like good motor oil. It doesn’t remove all the contaminants. It just puts them into suspension so they don’t get into your works and seize them up.”)  So I’m doing what I can to cultivate a little more patience in my life.

But I wonder: Is impatience ever a good thing? Maybe even a holy thing?

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend over coffee and muffins. Faith is hard for her, she says.  She just can’t figure out why God doesn’t do more to stop all the hurt in this world.   Thousands of kids die of hunger every day.  Women and children are bought and sold like trinkets at a flee market.  A gunman bursts into a movie theater and unleashes his mayhem on a crowd of terrified strangers.  Why, she wonders, doesn’t God do something about it all?

The questions nag at her soul.  To her, the unsettled feeling deep in her gut feels a lot like doubt.  But I wonder she might learn to see these questions differently.  Not as evidence of doubt.   But of impatience.  

The Bible is full of impatient people–and impatient prayers. There is the Psalmist, who cries out from the depths: How long, oh Lord?!  How Long?!  (Psalm 13).  John, who pleads from his prison cell: Come quickly, Lord!  (Revelation 22:20).  And others too.  Again and again we see people crying out for God to act–and to act in a hurry.  Not because they doubt.  But because they have a deep, abiding faith.  Faith in a God who is good.  Faith in a God who is powerful.  Faith in a God who cares about the needs of the weak, the powerless, the marginalized.  Faith in a God who has promised to come and make things new, to come and bring the power of Resurrection to a groaning creation.  They have faith.  But it is an impatient faith.  A faith that wants God to come and do all that he says he can do–all they believe he can do–and to do it five minutes ago.

For those of us who hang on to both a keen awareness of the hurts of this world with one hand and a the glorious promise of God’s new creation in the other hand, it’s hard to be anything but impatient.  I believe our impatience can be a sign–a healthy sign–of Christian hope.  But none of us really likes to wait.  As Anne Lamott once wrote: “Believing in God is easy.  It’s waiting on him that’s hard.” The danger is that it may seem too hard.  The danger is that if we wait too long, we may start to think that the thing we’re waiting for doesn’t exist, or that if it does, its never going to come our way.  The danger is that at some point, we will grow so impatient that we will give up, decide it is no longer worth the wait, that we might as well step out of line and get on with life.  It happens in the McDonalds Drive-thru (Hey, who really needs that extra 570 calories?).  But it happens with people of faith, too.

And so it may be worth reminding ourselves of the Psalmist’s words once again:

  “Wait for the Lord;

be strong and take heart

And wait for the Lord.”  (Ps. 27:14)

Renewing of the Mind

Today I dropped off my little girl at her bus stop for her very first full-day of school in her young life.  She, giddy with excitement and completely ignorant of any bus stop hierarchy, immediately began chatting up the middle-schoolers crowded around her.  At the arrival of the bus she clambered aboard without a look over her shoulder and was gone, ready to face the day and the rest of her life.

About a month ago someone asked me what one characteristic I would want to instill in my children before they left home.  Being the father of two girls my lighthearted and immediate response was, “Chastity!”  My serious answer, however, is found in the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 12 “[to] be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

This is my greatest hope for my children.  It is that nurtured in the triangle of home, church and school she not conform the pattern of this world but is transformed by the renewing of her mind.  NT Wright uses an unexpected OT passage to help understand what exactly a renewed mind is.  Wright, pulling from 2 Kings 5, compares Naaman the Syrian general beset by leprosy, to Gehazi the servant of Israel’s most powerful prophet.

Naaman, desperate to be cured of his leprosy, follows the directions of Elisha the prophet and is healed.  He declares that now he knows there is no God in all the world other than the one that is in Israel.  His conversion, however, doesn’t immediately make him an orthodox follower of God.  He still needs to straighten out his thinking of God and his thinking of himself.

Rather comically Naaman asks to take two carloads of Israeli dirt with him back to Damascus thinking that this is how he can bring the true God of Israel with him.  He obviously doesn’t understand that Israel’s God is not tied to land or even the universe itself. But he is trying to figure out how to worship this new God of his.  It reminds me of a new convert to Christianity I met when I lived in the Dominican Republic.  She had recently been a practicer of Santeria and Voodoo.  In a worship service she was so moved by a song to her new God that she began doing a chicken dance common to voodoo ceremonies.  This is how worship was done in her mind, she didn’t know any better.  Like Naaman she was trying to figure out how to worship this new God of hers.

Naaman also confesses to Elisha that he will still worship in the pagan temple to the fake god Rimmon.  Not because he wants to, but because his king will expect it of him.  Namaan is aware of how compromised he is.  We half expect Elisha the prophet to unleash a lecture of orthodoxy upon Naaman.  But instead all he says is “Go in peace.”

Gehazi, the prophet’s servant, perhaps the person in all of Israel after Elisha himself who should have know what is right and how to worship God, betrays Elisha.  After Naaman heads home, his gifts of payment spurned by the prophet, Gehazi catches him up and asks for a payment.  Naaman gives it to him and Gehazi is compromised, though when he returns to Elisha he lies and denies it. He is struck down with Naaman’s leprosy.

What is the difference between Naaman and Gehazi?

In this story we have two very muddled men.  The difference between the two is movement.  Naaman is someone moving from darkness to light.  He is aware of how compromised he is.  He tries to straighten out his worship of God.  Gehazi, one who knows how to think of God, moves from light to darkness.

As my daughters grow older I pray that they move from darkness to light.  This is the renewing of the mind Paul speaks of.  It isn’t about knowledge but movement.  Movement towards God.  It isn’t about having the answers, but recognizing just how compromised we are by the patterns of this world and how desperately we need God.  My greatest desire is that the one characteristic my girls have when they leave home is a hunger and desire to move closer to their God.  That they be transformed by the renewing of their minds.