Friday, January 28, 2011

Haircuts

Becky* has been cutting my hair every four to six weeks for the past two years. She works at one of the many beauty salons in Historic Chinatown just five blocks from my home. Although her English is good she is fairly quiet and does not say much about herself. Over the two years I have learned that she lives in an outlying suburb with her two sons who she thinks will never get married or move out. They say, "Momma, it is too expensive to get married and buy a house." She has told me a few other things about herself as well. She was born in China, took schooling in Hong Kong and eventually travelled to Canada. She is now a Canadian citizen. I used to pay ten dollars for my haircuts and give her a five dollar tip. Recently, the price went up. I now pay eleven dollars for the cut and still give her the five dollar tip.

Today, Becky told me an amazing story. She told me that when she was fifteen years old she swam from China to Hong Kong. I asked her how far that was. She could not work out how to explain the distance in English. She spoke to her co-worker in Cantonese but he did not know either. She said it took her ten hours to swim.

I asked Becky if she was part of a team or if she was on her own. I thought perhaps it had been a competition or an endurance record. She told me that she swam it with two sisters and two brothers but that her one brother had been taken out of the water by the government. It slowly became clear to me that she had escaped from China by swimming from the mainland to Hong Kong. I have since looked it up, the distance is around twenty-seven kilometres. With this kind of athletic ability she could have probably qualified for the Olympic team.

Becky told me that at that time, the government in China was not good. There were no jobs for young people. There were many who were poor and the prospects for her future were bleak. For weeks leading up to the day of their escape they swam for eight hours a day. They were training because their lives depended upon it. Her father was a journalist who worked for the government. They never told their father or mother of their plan. If the parents had known they would have been arrested after the escape.

She made it to Hong Kong then travelled to Canada. She worked hard and eventually got her Canadian citizenship. It took ten years before she could travel back to China to see her family. Her mother will soon be ninety years old and still lives in China. Becky plans to take a trip there this year to celebrate with her. She feels that the Chinese government is much better now and her mother has a good life in China. "Things have changed a lot."

Becky's attitude is amazing. I have immense respect for her. She says that, "Canada is a great country. If you work you will get a job and make money. It is a fair place." I wonder if I should tip a little more.

*Not her real name.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Individualism

Western culture in general has a high degree of emphasis on the individual. Individual rights and values are often allowed to trump societal benefits and norms.* Some would say that this is a direct result of western Christianity and the changing relationship between Church and State.#

Faith, in particular, has become much more about me and my relationship with God and less about community and serving my neighbour. I am not sure which came first, the cultural tendency toward individualism, or an individualism of faith that influenced an entire culture, but it is an anomaly. In the latter part of the 19th century George MacDonald had this to say about our faith:
Till we begin to learn that the only way to serve God in any real sense of the word is to serve our neighbor, we may have knocked at the wicket-gate, but I doubt if we have got one foot across the thresh-hold of the Kingdom.^
How might we turn the tide of individualism which is sweeping both church and culture? Could we start with these words of Jesus?
“You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” - Matthew 20:25-28 (New Living Translation)


*I believe such statements to be somewhat self-evident but if the reader wishes to investigate this further they may look to Wikipedia.
#For example see this abstract.
^George MacDonald in Beautiful Thoughts, First published in 1895.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

To A Mouse

On many a January 25 I have quoted from Robert Burns' "To A Louse (On Seeing One On A Lady's Bonnet, At Church)." The final stanza, the most well known from the poem, is full of insight into humanity.
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,
An' ev'n devotion!

Yes, if only we could see ourselves as others see us.

But today, on the 252nd anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, it seems somehow more appropriate to quote from "To A Mouse (On turning her up in her nest with the plough, November 1785)." I won't quote the entire poem. Those who wish to read it in its entirety can readily find it elsewhere with a translation into more common English. But let us pause for a moment and listen to the last two stanzas.
But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Still thou are blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!

Certainly, in this poem, Burns has captured many of our human fears. The best laid plans of mice and men often do go astray. Yet, in the midst of this we catch a note of hope. For the same God who cares for mice and sparrows cares for you and me. Raise a toast to Scotland's Bard: Robert Burns.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Philosophy Is Dead

Stephen Hawking says that philosophy is dead. In his new book, The Grand Design*, he asks questions like, "How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves?" "How does the universe behave?" Where did all this come from?" "Did the universe need a creator?" Then he states, "Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge."

We all know that Stephen Hawking is a brilliant man who can do the math and show the formulas that describe eleven dimensions and multiple universes. But with three sentences he discards a whole intellectual field of study and proclaims that it is worthless. Someone should tell Peter Singer and John E. Hare to quit their day jobs. And just when did this death of philosophy occur? I don't recall seeing the obituary. Did it occur before or after Rene Descartes?

No, we must understand Hawking's three sentences for what they are. They are logical sleight of hand. He is asking us to agree to his conclusions before he makes his arguments. If we agree that philosophy is dead and that science is the only true field of study, then all that Hawking presents will be all that we can discuss. There will be no room for other voices. No room for philosophical questions or philosophical answers. He is seeking to preclude all conversations of a metaphysical nature and limit all discussion to what can be seen, felt, heard, tasted, or smelt. But as an article in the Guardian newspaper says, "who let Stephen Hawking choose the rules of the game?"

I am continuing to read The Grand Design; but I will be aware of the path down which I am being led and will recognize that a good portion of the pursuit of truth is being left out. Even brilliant minds have their limitations. Dr. Hawking does not have the final say on cosmology, philosophy, religion, and science. There are other voices to be heard.
“The senses deceive from time to time, and it is prudent never to trust wholly those who have deceived us even once.” Rene Descartes (French Mathematician, Philosopher and Scientist, 1596-1650)


*Hawking, Stephen, and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design. New York: Bantam Books, 2010, p. 5.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Science vs Religion

The Cardus website is featuring a review of the book Science vs Religion: What Do Scientist Really Believe? In this book Elaine Ecklund encourages us "to cross the picket lines separating science and religion" and join in appreciative discussion.

The book presents several findings of Ecklunds research:
1.Despite stereotypes, scientists are not entirely irreligious or unspiritual. Around 50% of elite natural and social scientists identify with a religious tradition.

2.Most scientists made decisions about their spiritual lives before entering science. That means that those without any religious or spiritual commitments may have chosen science because of what they thought; science may not have caused their distance from spiritual practices.

3.Elite scientists who are not at all religious—despite being highly educated, and despite operating in high profile positions—are often very ignorant of even rudimentary aspects of various religious traditions.

4.Scientists are often completely unaware of their colleagues' religious orientation because it is either not talked about at all (being deemed inappropriate within the halls of science) or disparaged, under the assumption that being a scientist means being an atheist or agnostic.

5.Scientists who reject God and religion have similar reasons as the general population: existence of evil and suffering, bad religion, bad personal experiences, and cognitive dissonance.

6.Younger scientists are more religious than older scientists—the inverse of the general population, where older people tend to be more religious than younger people.

Ecklund argues that science and religious faith need each other.
Accepting only what can be verified scientifically (scientism) is a wholly inadequate and impossible way to live a life, according to most Americans. Similarly, rejecting all of science in favour of only religiously-derived knowledge will leave the American public open to the very real dangers of uncontrolled fundamentalism, superstition, and regressions of the worst kind.

She encourages believing scientists to be courageous in speaking about how they reconcile science and their beliefs for the sake of improvement in the way that science and religion relate. We need scientists who are both credible in their scientific community and understand enough about religion and spirituality to speak knowledgeably. I would add that we also need faithful and courageous Christians who have enough knowledge of science, and the philosophical limits of science, to join the conversation.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

True Religion

I had coffee with a friend yesterday. He lamented that it seemed to him that many people rally under the Christian banner but then argue and disagree about a lot of small things. I agreed. It would be nice if we could create a place where people could enter into community and agree to be about the business of the important things of God. Perhaps we could work on the things upon which we agree and ignore some of the small things for a while. Once we got the big rocks in place then we could consider the placement of the pebbles. What might that look like? A few passages from the Bible come to mind.

I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. - 1 Corinthians 15: 3-7 (New Living Translation - NLT)

Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires. So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls.
But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it.
If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. - James 1: 19-27. (NLT)

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8. (NLT)

It seems to me that there is enough in those few verses to keep a community busy for a long time. What do you think? What are some of the big rocks with which we might start?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Work

A friend of mine asked me to watch a video and make some comments. The video is by Nigel Marsh and can be seen here. Nigel Marsh is an author and lecturer who speaks about balance in life.

I agree that "finding the balance between work and life is an ongoing battle." Regarding my own balance in life, I have changed careers twice to try to find a better balance and have made some progress. I think I am winning the battle but the battle is not yet complete.

When we look more generally at society, I would say that "finding the balance" at a cultural level is and will continue to be a battle as well. Moving from Calgary to Vancouver has allowed me to see the differences of subtle changes in attitude. Calgary has traditionally been more of an entrepreneurial city while Vancouver has a larger history of labour unions. Thus, Calgary is a little more economically right (capitalistic) and Vancouver a little more economically left (socialistic). Both cities and our country as a whole are seeking to find the balance between (or more accurately, living in tension between) an emphasis on hard work with little time for self-actualization versus an emphasis on self-actualization with little time for productive work. There are quite a few Calgarians who work excessively to the detriment of relationships, community, and self-fulfillment. There are quite a few Vancouverites that have chosen to retreat from excessive work and seek personal fulfillment without contributing to a productive city. They become consumers and not contributors to the things that sustain a city and a society. Of course each city has its share of each of these types of persons but there is an overall skew one direction or the other. (I realize that I am making gross exaggerations for the sake of discussion.) Living in appropriate tension between "work and life" will always be a battle.

Another issue in this discussion is the way it is framed. Marsh sets up an artificial dichotomy between "work" and "life." He makes it seem like we must choose one or the other; and who would logically choose work over life? Perhaps the battle is about balance between - work and life in community - or work and life without community.

Nigel Marsh suggests a perfect day and then quickly points out that he has not had any, or very many, such days in his life. His perfect day would only be attainable occasionally, with a lot of cooperation from other people (not the least of which would be his wife). This is another indication that we are really talking about a distinction between work and life in community or work and life without community.

What do you think? Are we seeking to live in tension between productive work that is lived out in community versus productive work that is attained without much community? I would love to get your comments at the bottom of this blog.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Voices

It's 5 am and all is quiet
But I hear voices in my head
One says, "I should seek out comfort"
Another, "Give it all away"

This life is complex and confusing
Not many wise enough to know
But I will always keep on seeking
The Voice that whispers in the Wind.

It's the Voice that cleared away the darkness
It's the Voice that separated seas
It's the Voice that speaks against oppression
The Voice that whispers in the Wind

So many voices that I'm hearing
Got to listen through the buzz
One says, "Give it up and follow"
Another, "You are just a fool"

The call of comfort keeps on screaming
I listen hard to sort it out
But I will always keep on seeking
The Voice that whispers in the Wind

It's the Voice that cleared away the darkness
It's the Voice that separated seas
It's the Voice that speaks against oppression
The Voice that whispers in the Wind

It's the Voice that says I am holy
It's the Voice that calls me by name
It's the Voice that heals all my sickness
The Voice that whispers in the Wind*


*December 2010, Lyrics by Keith Shields, Music by Mike Charko.
(Listen to the song here.)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Noise

It was Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) who said that "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." It was James Thurber (1894-1961) who said "Nowadays men lead lives of noisy desperation." Thurber said this long before the development of the internet, Twitter, and blog entries. What would he think today? The blogosphere has much noise. But is it noisy desperation or thoughtful inspiration? Today, fewer people "go to the grave with the song still in them;" but are their songs worth hearing? What are the truly great songs that must be sung? What are the great songs that must be heard? Where will we hear these songs?

If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 1 Corinthians 13:1 (New Living Translation)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Gender

Professor John Stackhouse has an excellent blog post at Stackblog.wordpress.com. It is a lengthy post as it is a full chapter from a book; but take the time to read it. It is an important contribution to conversations regarding gender. You may also want to read Finally Feminist by John G. Stackhouse Jr. I highly recommend it.

Here is a quote from the blog to whet your appetite.
Furthermore, I have needed these testimonies, not just when I was transiting from patriarchy to egalitarianism, but continually, to this very day. My wife has reminded me from time to time, “You’re not as feminist as you think you are.” I used to bristle when she would say that, for I had congratulated myself on having had my “conversion experience” to egalitarianism and I was now a fully enlightened man, totally emancipated from sexism, and (let’s be honest) a pretty admirable guy. But I have come to see, at least a little more clearly over the years, just how deeply entrenched are the “gender scripts” that I have tended to follow all along. I have not “arrived” at entire sanctification and I do not dwell in the New Jerusalem. I continue to mistreat women despite my sincere intention not to do so, and I have concluded that only women can help the situation by notifying me that, yes, John, you’re doing it again or, no, you failed this time to do what was appropriate. To recommend such action is not—horrors!—to blame women for my enduring sexism: “Since you aren’t complaining enough, it’s your fault I’m still mistreating you.” It is instead to say that if women want men to change in this way, then this is one crucial thing women can do to help us do so.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Endurance

"Patient endurance achieves all things; the person whom God possesses lacks nothing; God alone is sufficient." St. Teresa of Avila (Spanish Nun, Mystic and Writer, 1515-1582)

Endurance is a word frequently used in the New Testament of the Bible. It is a word I need to hear regularly. People disappoint us; daily tasks get boring; fulfilling our calling is tiring and just plain hard. But nothing is accomplished without endurance and everything is possible with endurance.

"I know quite certainly that I myself have no special talent; curiosity, obsession and dogged endurance, combined with self-criticism, have brought me to my ideas." Albert Einstein (German born American Physicist who developed the special and general theories of relativity. Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921. 1879-1955)

"Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart." Hebrews 12:1-3 (New American Standard Bible)