Despair on the Express Bus

Her body suddenly pushed up against me as she took her place in the empty seat and the gentle nudge made me open my eyes.

I’ve grown accustomed to spending some of my morning and afternoon commute, eyes closed, in prayerful thought about the people and tasks of the day ahead – or the day behind. The discipline inevitably breaks down on the homeward journey as I fall into a light sleep, enjoying fleeting and outrageously strange dreams, my ears still somehow attuned to the call of the approaching stops. The mornings, though, are different: alert from breakfast and a good night of sleep, I can focus.

Her partner, or friend, had taken the sideways seat ahead of us and, once settled, they continued their conversation. I closed my eyes again and leaned further into the window.

A heavy West London accent. Rough, crude, bad grammar and diction. Uneducated and poor, was my guess. But also sad and desperate. The timbre of her voice, the tremble of emotion, was impossible to ignore.

She reviewed an abusive and broken relationship, a needy child, an unfinished education and chronic unemployment. She was already deeply in debt. How was she going to make it to the end of September?

I thought of my own daughters, of a similar age. How would I feel if they were dealing with these pressures? How is it that I and my family have been so blessed?

“Maybe I can find something near Sophie’s school,” she continued, “drop her off before work; some place I can walk to from home.” A pause followed, as they both took in what she just said.

“Who am I kiddin’? Who’s going to hire me anyway?”

There was a long silence, the hum of the bus filling the void.

A tear crept to the edge of my eye, threatening to run down my cheek.

“Are you alright?” said a man’s voice, hesitating, timid. It was her friend.

I started, opening my eyes again, embarrassed that my emotion had caught me out.

But no. He was looking at her, concern flooding his face as she sat silently sobbing into her hands.


Homeland Insecurity

The other day I had my first real bout of missing Canada since arriving in the UK three months ago.

Our new table top stereo had arrived from Amazon the day before, replacing and closely resembling the unit we gave away when we left Vancouver, another casualty of the voltage difference between the continents.   I bought the new one at a steep discount, the vendor advertising it as “slightly scratched, with damaged packaging”, but when it came there wasn’t any damage at all.  Pleased, I plugged it in, set the clock, made sure I could dock Renata’s old iPod, and then a USB stick, and finally began to tune the FM radio stations.  It was then I realized I didn’t know anything at all about radio in the UK.

Since our arrival I’ve only once listened to an actual radio.  We had taken the Tube and then the bus to a northwest London IKEA to buy a few things and, as one does, emerged three hours later, tired of slow walking and pushing two enormous shopping carts full of projects.  No way were we getting home on public transport.

The guy at the IKEA delivery desk took one look at our horde of mostly small treasures and informed us we didn’t want his next day service. He sent us to a neighbouring desk, that of a taxi company.   Ten minutes later, after anxiously submitting our postal code to be vetted, we were out on the pavement hurriedly throwing everything into the back of a minivan, an older one of the kind that looks not far off a giant and slightly melted microwave oven.

It was a hot day, the only one we’ve had so far really, the front windows were down and, as we crawled along in London traffic, a pleasant selection of classic rock & pop was playing on the radio.  “You know Billy Joel?” our young driver shouted at me over the noise of the traffic outside his open window, smiling proudly, as if he had just discovered him.

To be more like Jesus I ignored his question and replied with my own. “Where are you from?” I asked, having picked up on a heavy and distinctly non-British accent.  To be honest I could already tell from his physical appearance and accent he was of Somali extraction, but I was trying to be polite.

“Croydon,” he replied.

“Were you born there?” I continued, again being polite and not believing for a second he would answer in the affirmative.  I already had my follow-up question about Somalia at the ready.

“Yeah,” he said, “in 1991.”

Wow.  I thought of my own children, born and raised in the Netherlands; are they – second generation immigrants themselves – still so easy to identify as “foreigners”?  I wondered.

We chatted all the way home, he informed me of the name of the station he was listening to, and I gave him a decent tip for the help of  getting our things indoors and for the bother of time wasted in the traffic jam.

Now, weeks later and tuning my stereo for the first time, I couldn’t for the life of me remember the frequency of that station.  I duly consulted Google and came up with a list and descriptions for all the tunable FM stations in the London area.  The BBC dominates with half a dozen offerings pegged at different slices of the local demographic.  As for my UK-Somali friend, he had been listening to Smooth FM.  Very fetch.

The next day, radio tuned, it was my turn to cook dinner, something I enjoy doing and have long preferred to do while listening to the radio, in the company of a glass of red wine.  In the past five years, while living in British Columbia, I grew fond of CBC Vancouver’s late afternoon show, “On the Coast”.  Light banter, news, human interest stories, music, contests – it’s a really lovely mix for someone of my age and interests.  But, sadly, that too had to go when we moved to London.   (Yes, I could listen online, but am not likely to do so at 02:00 in the morning.)

At first I thought my irritation was because the red wine was missing.  I’ve given up most alcohol for the time being – long story – and there was a disruption in my regular pleasant pattern of cooking and sipping.  I was unsettled.

But then I realized it wasn’t the lack of vino that was causing my irritation, it was the newsy BBC radio station I had tuned to.  It was only news.  It wasn’t comfortable and homey.  So, leaving the onion half-cut on the cutting board, I went over and messed with the radio, selecting another station.  One that turned out to be hosted by the most obnoxious, self-absorbed, screechy chatterbox of a host as ever I’ve heard.  Again, knife down and another station.  Too much music; in fact, only music.  No good.

It was no use.  I was now missing CBC radio, missing Canada outright, missing my old life with all it’s familiar comforts and routines.  And my homesickness continued to build all through the evening and into the next day, for no apparent reason.  For one full day the UK just wasn’t good enough.  The weather, the traffic, the lack of mountains, the overcrowded grocery stores, it was all crap.

I’ve resided in numerous countries on four different continents, with my first intercontinental move coming at the age of three.  International transitions are not new or unfamiliar to me.  But no matter how often I do it, still there comes a day when I miss all that was good in my previous life, and I am temporarily blinded to the benefits of my new one.

Losses are just that.  They are genuine and not mere sentimentality; they must be grieved.  That life I left behind?  It is never coming back.  Even if I were to return to the same location, fill my life with the old routines, I myself will have been changed in the meantime.  My new home is already leaving its indelible mark on me, chipping away at my soul to change the contours of my being.

And that’s okay.  My heart may linger over what is gone, yes, but it will also grow to embrace what is new.  One day I will miss this present life and know that it too was good.

F*#k You, Terrorists

F*#k you, terrorists.  Because in your twisted mind living, breathing, happy people are mere objects for destruction.  Your cause is nothing more than a flimsy veil, and you are nothing more than misguided, perverted murderers.

F*#k you, terrorists.  Because you will never, ever, succeed in rending the fabric of modern, liberal, democratic society.  Your cause is hopeless, and we know it.

F*#k you, terrorists.  Because I work in a place where I may come face to face with you and, even though you kill me, yet you cannot make me hate you.  I will die knowing that your children, or your children’s children, will one day curse your deeds and honour mine.

F*#k you, terrorists.  Because you have lived among us in duplicity, enjoying the freedoms you supposedly detest.  If you hate our society so much feel free to move to some dark corner of the globe where your values are given free rein; go on, taste what you wish for and see how you like it.

F*#k you, terrorists.  Because of you, millions of peace-loving people of your ethnicity and religion are treated with suspicion, painted with your ugly brush.  But we will not fall for it, we will not judge a book by its cover, we will not hold back those of any colour or creed who stand on the side of justice.

F*#k you, terrorists.  Because you have no empathy and your ethics are an empty shell.  Your religion, otherwise nobel in its true form, is in your hands an ineffectual fig-leaf over a bereft morality.

F*#k you, terrorists.  Because you wrongly believe that, because we are afraid to die, we are afraid of you.  You presume a power you do not own and miscalculate the depth and strength of our courage, the timbre of our resolve.

F*#k you, terrorists.  Because at 09:00 this morning, an hour past your latest heinous crime, the babe in the arms of his mother in Terminal 3 at Heathrow Airport was squealing and laughing with delight, bringing joy to all who heard him.  Life goes on, and we will enjoy it and embrace it in spite of anything you could ever say or do.



Adversity and Authenticity

Wandering through IKEA recently I came across a display. There, in a plexiglass box, was a living room chair accompanied by a robotic machine that was submitting the chair, over and over again, to the rigors of being sat upon. By the time I saw it, the machine had “sat down” in the chair more than 10,000 times. The point of the demonstration, of course, was to impress upon customers how well the chair was made, and to give an indication of how long it would last.

The IKEA chair display points to an important life principle: Adversity is a test of Authenticity.

In Luke chapter 4 we read of Jesus, recently baptized and anointed for ministry, being led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he is first tested by an extended period of solitude and fasting, and then tempted by the devil. When he emerges tried and tested, he is ready for public ministry.

This lesson from the Gospel is not merely a retelling of what happened to Jesus. In these events we see a pattern for our own experience with regard to almost any calling or commitment: first comes an Affirmation, followed by a test of Authenticity, and finally the process is completed by the exercise of Authority.

This being the First Sunday of Lent, our focus is on the second part of Jesus’ call to ministry, where he is led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days (biblical language for “an absurd amount of time, until the job is completed”).

The first thing we notice is that this isn’t a matter of happenstance in Jesus’ life.  He didn’t just lose his map and wander off into the wilderness. The scriptures make it clear that the Spirit compelled him to this action.

Does it seem a dreadful thing to you that God’s Spirit would purposefully send us into a place in life where our energies flag, where we are alone, where we are tempted, where we are surrounded by wild beasts….and then leave us there for a long time?

But you know as well as I do that this really does happen. Figuratively speaking it happens to all of us at some point in life. One day everything seems to be going along just fine and then suddenly and unexpectedly we end up in a barren place, a place that is unfamiliar, uncomfortable and frightening. How we wish we could escape! How we long to prove ourselves and have things go back to the way they were before! Will I ever make it out of this space, or must I endure it to the end?

Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, writes, “Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change.”

Adversity is a test of authenticity. Have you declared your love for someone? That will be tested. Have you signed a contract or made a commitment? Trying days are ahead for you. Have you pledged your services to the community? Be wary of rejection. Have you made a 10-year plan for the next phase of your life? Good luck with that.

It is not that those things are immature, wrong or delusional. They are all very good things to do. But the Spirit of God is interested in something far more fundamental than our goals and objectives; the Spirit is concerned that we become mature, well-rounded individuals. Our projects we leave behind; our souls are eternal.

To follow the Spirit into the wilderness means opening ourselves to life’s challenges; to those difficulties that will leave us either bitter or better. We choose. The story of Jesus in the wilderness is a reminder that all of us, even the greatest among us, can expect to have the authenticity of our callings tested by adversity.

Cliff Notes

One gets the sense that the men of Nazareth had done this before. That throwing an impudent delinquent from the top of the cliff just outside their town, though perhaps not a weekly occurrence, was something familiar enough to them that they didn’t really have to hatch a plan. It just came to them in their rage as naturally as reaching in the night for a waiting object in a familiar place.

This, in any case, is a sure thing: Jesus is having a hard time with high places in the Gospel of Luke, chapter four.

Earlier in the chapter it is Satan himself who takes Jesus to a high place and tells him to throw himself off. “Seeing as you believe yourself to be God’s beloved Son, why not prove it beyond all doubt? Won’t God send his angels to catch you as you fall, just as the scriptures promise?”

And now, not thirty verses further, Jesus again finds himself at the edge of a precipice, this time with an angry mob at his back. “Seeing as we know you to be nothing more than Joseph’s son, the offspring of a poor day labourer and an offensive, obnoxious rabble-rouser to boot, we’ll give you your just deserts.”

Do you see what the Gospel writer is doing?

Sometimes we end up in a precarious place because of what we believe about ourselves: the identity or role we have latched onto, the dream we hold dear.

And sometimes we end up standing on the edge because of what others believe about us: boxing us in, not conceding that we have changed and grown since the last time they bothered to look at us.

In the first instance the temptation is to over-reach; to indulge a grand statement in word or deed, the purpose of which is nothing more than to prove ourselves. It is an act of self-aggrandizement, pure and simple.

The second temptation is to settle, to submit to the voices around us saying we will never amount to more than the constraints that our humble beginnings will allow, that our identity is anchored in our past, not our future.

When Jesus withstands the first temptation to throw himself from the top of the Temple, it is Satan who departs from him. When later he withstands the temptation to submit to the will of the crowd and be thrown from the Nazarene cliff, it is Jesus himself who departs, walking right through them.

The struggle to hold fast to a new found identity or purpose is often an internal one; the voices within urge us to make a statement, show our strength. When we choose instead the pathway of humility and patience, the voices dissipate.

On the other hand, the struggle to let go of our past is often a public event, involving those who knew us by a previous identity. When we finally reject their intentions to discredit and disgrace us, “go on our way” as Jesus did, we will have to face them and walk right through them.

A stumbling faith

To be honest, I probably would have walked away as well.

I mean, I’m all for the man who stands up to a privileged hierarchy, especially when it is found to be oppressing the poor and needy while claiming divine sanction.   And I’ve always admired a good teacher, someone who can apply old truths with fresh insights.  The healing thing too, is great – even though I’m a bit of a skeptic, I admit.  Pragmatism runs even stronger through my veins and if a thing is working, well, we can do the theorizing about it later.

But then there’s this: I don’t care how daring or charismatic a leader is, when they start all that pompous posturing,  start carrying on about how special and different they are, when they start the crazy talk, that’s the thing that does it for me.  I’m loyal, but to a point.

Whoever eats my flesh will have eternal life….I am the bread that came down from heaven….Well, what if you saw me ascending again to where I came from?

For many of those who were following Jesus around Galilee, his long, ambiguous speech in the Gospel of John chapter six was the breaking point: they turned their backs and gave up on going with him any farther.

Do my words offend you? he asks.  The original Greek text renders the word “scandalize”:  Are you scandalized by my words?  The etymology couldn’t be more fitting: scandalize comes from a root meaning of “stumble over”.  Those who have been walking with Jesus, learning what he is about and who he claims to be, have suddenly stumbled over his words, unable to find it in themselves to get up and continue.

Like the politician, his crazy talk has done him in; his poll numbers have peaked.

Inevitably, every journey of faith will require us to entertain absurdities.  When these emerge from the shadows of our own mind they may be perplexing but they have at least the aura of legitimacy.  We judge our own questions as honest, our own conundrums as genuine.  Coming as they may from the mind of another, especially one who is a leader and should know better, they can strike us as disingenuous and fabricated, the first glimpse of a blemish in their soul.

I suppose Jesus could have kept his thoughts to himself, could have chosen words that were less upsetting to his audience.  Talking points would have helped.

But there is another possibility here.  The Gospel of John is, as Clement of Alexandria famously said, a spiritual gospel.  To understand it, we must view it through spiritual lenses.

Jesus, like all great spiritual teachers, had achieved a level of consciousness that few others have realized.  Although he was a gifted speaker, his influence rested not – like the charismatic politician – on his ability to woo the crowd to achieve his will.  Instead, his power came from self-awareness, the learned clarity of understanding his own identity, his motives, decisions and actions within the widest possible framework.  He had a deep knowledge of what his existence was about and how to choose his daily path accordingly.  Who he was had become perfectly consonant with the mind of the divine.  This is true power.

The person who has this kind of power knows it is not their own; they do not possess it, they are mere conduits of it.  Their words may at first seem bold or even haughty, but taken as a whole they always come from an authentic humility – a proper understanding of one’s place in the universe, not too high, not too low – and always point beyond oneself to a greater power.  The I AM of Moses, the Allahu Akbar of Mohammad, the Higher Power of the Anonymous, and yes, the Father of Jesus.  Confronted with his words, some will leave, others will stay, but all are challenged in their knowledge of the holy.

Is this level of consciousness, this degree of self-awareness, and the confident, joyful humility that comes with it, reserved only for the great founders of religions?  St. Paul seems to indicate that one day we will all achieve it: Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I am fully known.

Most of us, however, feel far removed from this inner peace and power.  Our lives are full of ignorance, like the boatload of disciples earlier in the chapter, bobbing up and down on a sea of chaos, getting brief and distant glimpses of the Presence drawing near, confused enough to mistake it for a wraith of sinister intent.

Our earnest attempt at a leap of faith results in a mere shuffle on a hunch.

Never mind.  Like Peter, when asked if he too wished to turn back, we still dare to hope:  Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We dare to continue our journey in the expectation that it will lead us to greater awareness.  The rare person finds inner unity arriving in a sudden conversion, a flash of understanding; for many more it comes gradually, through the hard slog of study and observation, failure and trashed theories.

M. Scott Peck writes: The path of spiritual growth is a path of lifelong learning.  If this path is followed long and earnestly enough, the pieces of knowledge begin to fall into place.  Gradually things begin to make sense.  There are blind alleys, disappointments, concepts arrived at only to be discarded.  But gradually it is possible for us to come to a deeper and deeper understanding of what our existence is all about.  And gradually we can come to a place where we know what we are doing.  (The Road Less Traveled, p. 285)*

In other words, gentle reader, your holy shuffle is just fine.



*With thanks to Dr. Peck for much of the thought behind this post.  After 35 years I picked up The Road Less Traveled again this year; what a great read!

A hard wind blows

What the story doesn’t tell us, but we nevertheless know to be true because we are men and they were too, is that they fought in the boat.  Not fisticuffs, no, not like that, but there were voices raised to be sure, and words exchanged, salty ones, and comments made about the rowing ability of some, and an ongoing argument about the insanity of pressing ahead into the night when the wind was against them, the waves were high, they hadn’t even reached the midpoint of the lake, and for Christ’s sake why were they doing this?

Let’s just go back.  Turn around and head for shore.  Let the wind drive us back to Jesus, where we saw him last, waving us off from the beach at dusk.

It had all started so well.  They had been heroes, every one of them, each taking a bit of the boy’s donated lunch from Jesus’ hands and watching it multiply over and over again in their own hands as they distributed it to the crowd.  The sunny day paled in comparison to the glow of public recognition and appreciation in which they basked.  The accolades and thank yous and gentle ribbing continued when later they were sent back into the crowd, fetching their fishing baskets from the boat first, waste bins for leftovers of bread and fish.

“Go on,” said Jesus as the sun was setting, “I’ll send the crowd away and catch up with you on the other side.”

And so they drifted off into the peachy dusk, their boat bobbing gently on a tranquil lake, voices from the diminishing crowd echoing faint across the water as they drew away, points of flickering flame appearing in the darkening shore behind and in the sky above, campfires, torches and stars.

What a day.  What a great day.

Every now and again life grabs us and says “do this!”  We may not have the benefit of a real flesh-and-blood Jesus giving us the specific instruction to “go to the other side”, but most of us will at times embark on a new venture, confident enough that, even in the absence of undeniable divine sanction, the stars in our private universe are at least sufficiently aligned toward good fortune that we should set out.  We recognize a course for our lives and trust that it rests under the blessing of God.  And for the most part we take these commitments on when we have reached a place of confidence, of feeling pretty good about ourselves.

We pop the question to our sweetheart, we sign the contract with our new employer, we make the move to a different city, we join in as an eager volunteer.

We are sent off from our old station in the glow of well wishes, in the calm of confidence and camaraderie, munching on the leftovers of our latest success.

And then one day, not long into our new commitment, we feel the faintest of breezes on our face, we notice the ripples on the surface of the water, and a distinct change of attitude among those with us in the boat.  The honeymoon over, we are calmly eating our breakfast cereal, minding our own business, when our sweetheart, for no reason whatsoever, frowns and grumpily says, “I hate it when you do that.”  And we have no idea what she is talking about.  The boss calls us into the office and hands us a task that is decidedly not in our contract.  Tourists no more, our new location isn’t living up to its billing; why did we ever leave?  And that volunteer job that was going to change the world?  Meh.

By the time Jesus came to the disciples in the middle of the night they were in genuine peril.  Straining at the oars for hours they had made little headway.  The experienced fishermen among them were handicapped by the dead weight and inexperience of the others, those new to the sea, the ones leaning over the gunwales retching their bread and fish dinners. There was a real threat of capsizing, of drowning all, fishermen too.

Who saw it first they don’t remember, but in the end they all saw it: a ghostly figure moving over the water in the distance, disappearing and reappearing as their boat thrashed violently up and down in the waves.  Suddenly they were gripped by fear and by each other.  From their youngest days they had heard the stories of those in the throes of death whose eyes were opened to the underworld, how as one passed from this life to the next spirits would become visible, the two worlds melding into one.  Their fate was now confirmed; death was upon them.

That thing that seemed so right, so clear and simple way back when?  It became difficult, complicated, fraught, didn’t it?  And now the situation is completely out of hand; as far as you are concerned, it’s over.  The journey is done, the boat will go under, and you will too.

The most remarkable phrase in the telling of this tale is one we skip right over: “Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass them by…”

From Jesus’ perspective, the circumstances surrounding the voyage were not themselves the voyage.  He asked them to go to the other side and told them he would meet them there.  They were all still working to that same end, wind, waves, emotions and attitudes aside.  To their credit the boat was still facing the direction he’d sent it, and the men were still rowing.

Going back to find Jesus where they’d seen him last would have landed them on an empty beach.

There may not have been a single man of great faith in the boat, but there were twelve men of faithfulness.

Gentle reader, keep rowing.