Thursday, August 27, 2009

Miserable… And Loving It

The classroom was about half full. About twenty five students scattered through the room patiently waiting their turn to introduce themselves to the class. Our professor had told us to give a brief introduction about who we were. I looked over at Mark and rolled my eyes. The idea was to stand up and give a few quick highlights, most importantly, or so I thought, was my name. Maybe my favourite colour. Or the name of my cat. Inevitably however, someone decided that anything less than their troubled childhood and road to redemption and how Jesus had set them free and how unique and wonderful their story was… complete with a signed book contract from Disney that would probably turn into a wonderfully inspirational story that everyone could relate to so that so many lives could be changed and oh yeah, did they mention how unusual their story was and how it had never happened before in the history of the universe and yet was still totally relatable to everyone… somehow wasn't enough. It was amazing, but some people actually believed we'd paid thousands of dollars to pursue our Masters to hear them, and not the Professors. Don't get me wrong, I liked meeting people. And in a class like Spiritual Formation, I knew the value of meeting people from a variety of theological and cultural backgrounds would be a boon to my faith. I just hated the introductions. So far however, things had been progressing smoothly.

Our professor called another name, and a blond, middle aged woman stepped up to the front. I groaned inwardly. Never a good sign when someone went to the front. Not in a class of twenty five when everyone could hear you if you whispered.

The woman was somehow bouncing while standing still, and she smiled at us all like she was addressing a class of curious five year olds. She said hello to the class. I wanted to say "Hi Mrs. Carroll" with the rest of the students, but everyone else was too busy listening. She went through her story, a three act drama that would have made Aristotle proud. And when she'd finished, she looked at us all, her adopted Sunday School class, and clasped her hands together.

"And now, with Jesus, it's just joy all the time! Joy, joy, joy! All of the time!"

Dr. Sherbano thanked the woman and she sat down, somehow bouncing as she did so. I looked over at Mark, my eyebrows raised. What? Was she serious? Whatever she'd had, and I don't mean faith, I wanted.

Mark and I would joke about that class – and that introduction – for months after. Though we always laughed, there was a sense of sadness in it too. Both of us believed that God was not only real, but that he loved people. And both of us believed that the church, while flawed, could play a valuable role in the world. Unfortunately, this consumer ideal of perfection, this idea that what we attach to happiness sells better than what we attach to sorrow, was an indefatigable force in the Seminary. A stroll through any Christian bookstore revealed that it was the same in the churches. On some level, it was understandable and even logical. Who would invest in a faith that promised heartache and misery? People would move to the next section of the bookstore, the self-help section, and find something. They would miss the gospel! We must make the church relevant and positive! What saddened Mark and I was that positivism, whether connected to the church or not, eventually faded in the light of real sorrow and human life. And when that occurred, the bouncy positivists had two choices: Reject the notion of "Jesus Happy" as being true and leave the church, or reject the reality of pain and leave the world. In my years since ministry, I'd seen both, and neither one ended well.


"C'mon, Diane, ten seconds more. You can do it."

I glanced at my stop watch and back at my client, who was lying forward on her elbows and toes in what was called a Plank.

"Done, great job." I said.

She collapsed on the mat and slowly rolled into a sitting position. I smiled and looked at the time.

"All done, girl. Good job today."

She nodded and wiped her face with a towel.

"Did I tell you my friend got a trainer back in November. She hasn't lost a single pound. What a terrible trainer."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, she hasn't lost any weight. She looks exactly the same."

"Diane, a trainer has one hour a week. It may be that her trainer is incompetent, but more likely she has not used the 167 of 168 hours she's on her own the way she should."

My client was silent for a minute.

"Yeah, I guess."

From that day on, I noticed an improvement in my client. It was as if it finally occurred to her that the endgame was the process, not the reward. Paying for a trainer was a good idea, but only if you were willing to put in the time on your own, if only you were willing to be miserable without someone holding your hand. It is ironic that North America, a rich culture more affected by depression and loneliness than any in the world, hasn't figured out that the way to happiness isn't through pleasure, but misery.


Perhaps more than any culture in history, the Western belief structure is built on the ideology that happiness is tied to pleasure. That more is better. These are not anthropological or sociological assumptions, they're marketing visions for multi-national corporations. Promulgated by the "success" of the mega-church movement, this secular ideology is reflected in the church by the "Jesus Happy" movement that dominates the Christian bookstores and media. The wide swath it cuts across the Western landscape is both awesome and destructive. Even a critic can not help but admire the largesse and gall of those authours and speakers who mouth happy stories and miracle living with dentally correct smiles, perfectly parted powder white hair, and thin, blonde women who sit beside them nodding in agreement. There is no talk of misery. Or sadness. At least, not without an "upper" story to follow. (Redemption, God's Grace, New Ministry, etc...) It is the perfect storm of a child's ideals, happy endings, cool new stuff, condescending simplicity to opposing viewpoints, and reaffirmed uniqueness of the individual.

It does leave a few questions though, like what happens when I'm miserable? How can we be positive and "joy, joy, joy-ing" when we've just suffered a death or lost our job or watched a family member self-destruct? Those are the moments that reveal the "Jesus happy" movement to be completely in touch with consumer society, and completely irrelevant to humanity.

The key to contentment is not pleasure or bright smiles or shiny cars or the latest six step formula from pseudo theologians like Bruce Wilkinson (The Prayer of Jabez). The true source of contentment… is misery.


I found a table near the outlet in the far corner of the café and set up my laptop, a 1996 model that weighed more than a small car. A long piece of tape was wrapped around the side that kept the CD drive from popping out. I glanced at the other shiny laptops in the vicinity, most of which were sleek silver things that looked like something out of the latest science fiction movie and glanced at my own, which would have looked new in the original Star Trek series. I shook myself for being so self-conscious and grumbled inwardly at my self-pity. I hadn't felt like coming in tonight, but it was time to write. I'd spent the morning working on my novel, and after working out and spending some time doing work for my clients in the afternoon, it was time to write again. I didn't want to write, and knew I was being petulant about it, which only made me feel like more of an idiot.

By the time I grabbed my coffee, my computer had finally come to life. As I bent to my work, the two high school girls in front of me started arguing. The one, a stout, long haired girl, had draped her legs over the arm of one of the big sofa chairs. Her friend, a self-conscious brunette, sat close by, playing with her hair.

"Is it Callie? Does she know?" Said the one in the sofa chair.

"I can't tell you."

"What about their relationship?"

"I can't tell you."

"Does Jillian even know?"

"I can't tell you."

For a full two minutes, the one girl peppered the other with questions, who always answered with the same "I can't tell you." You rarely see that kind of doggedness outside of Bob Woodward or fundamentalism, and even I, in my grumpiness, couldn't help but admire it. Even more surprising was how engaged the girls were every time the one asked a question. "I can't tell you" was delivered each time like it was a new line. Realizing that perhaps it would be a while before any new revelations about Jillian's rocky relationship with her boyfriend would be revealed, I plugged in my MP3 player and turned on some music.

The idea that misery is a good thing is counter to the definition of the word, especially here in North America. In our culture, we tend to define our lives by what we own, the importance of our job relative to the perceived hierarchy and class structure inherent within any society, and the amount of leisure time we are able to incorporate into our schedule. In fact, happiness is most often equated with leisure. Our vacations. Our new purchases. Our time spent doing what we want. The end result is that we try to cram as much leisure and pleasure as we can into our lives. We work hard so that we can relax well. We tolerate the work we do so that we can squeeze joy from those few moments when we live on our own terms, those few minutes or hours or days when we answer to no one save ourselves. After that, it's 'back to the grind'.

And it's all a load of crap.

No wonder the evangelicals teach this constant joy, joy, joy. This idea that to be a Christian is to be bouncy and happy ALL THE TIME. Who wants to merely tolerate the parts of our life that make up the majority of it? To that end, they have the right of it. Unfortunately, it's more like a bandage on a broken leg than a real solution to the real sorrows of life.

The truth is that we will be miserable. That we will experience great sorrow and great tragedy. That we will suffer losses and hurt and mourn and question God's existence and our own. And it's in those times that we need to accept the misery, acknowledge it, and live anyway.

I don't mean paint a false smile on our face and pretend all is well because we're afraid people will think our faith is weak or that we're weak. What we need to do is learn to accept the misery, accept the sorrow, and do what we're supposed to do anyway. I'm convinced a person has not experienced real contentment until they've beat back the forces of misery by pursuing their life goals and dreams without accepting the shallow sentimentality you find in the stores.

In fact, most misery comes not from the sorrows of life, but the self-wrought tragedies orchestrated by our own hands when we fail to do what God has called us to do. Whether that's art or business or charity or writing, when we ignore our own giftings and passions we set ourselves up for a lifetime of misery and drama. We have bought into the 300 billion dollar lie that we should be happy at all times. And so, we refuse to work through the necessary misery of real life because we are afraid to try something different. Afraid to fail. Afraid to succeed. Afraid to offend our parents or family. Afraid that people will not understand us or will forget us. We work very hard to maintain the status quo, and instead of happiness, find that we spend more time congratulating ourselves on how great things are. How joyful we are because of whatever new thing or new idea we discovered the past week.

Real contentment is found when we pursue our passions in the face of misery; when we thumb our noses at a society that keeps trying to sell us shiny new things and tell them that the reward is in the work, not the reward. Most people do not pursue their dreams because they fall short, but because they refuse to embrace the misery necessary to get them where they're supposed to go. Somehow they feel the universe, that God, should grant them a free pass from the Valley of the Shadow simply because they believe the right things or say the right things. Somehow we've forgotten that real growth occurs in the hard parts of our lives.

The problem with North American Christianity is that it has adopted "happiness" as it's 'raison d'etre'. The purpose of our lives is not happiness. We were not created to feel good all the time, no matter what mantra we mumble on our way to work in the morning. The purpose of our lives is to discover the passions unique to each one of us, be it an entrepreneur or a writer or a father or a combination of different things, and do that. The purpose of our lives is not the reward of heaven but the work of our calling.

The older generations have often said that people nowadays do not know how to work, that they spend too much time worrying about silly things. That may be true, but to work for the sake of work, to repeat yourself over and over each day because the job is secure or because you're too afraid to find out what you love or try new things, is just as bad.

The challenge of life is to understand that misery is not only part of it, but that it is a good thing. It helps us figure out who we are. It gives us a mountain to climb and a valley to travel, which, upon completion, gives us an even fuller sense of self.

My prayer this week is that you will see through the shallow nature of 'happy' movements, that you will take time to consider exactly what it is that you love and aim your life towards it, and that you will know the misery that leads not to sadness, but fulfillment.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Why Young People Leave the Church

There wasn't a lot of space in the dorm rooms, but five of us had squeezed in, literally draping ourselves over the chairs and across the bed for our break between classes. Textbooks and binders lay scattered haphazardly across the floor. The next class was Greek, and while we all loved our Prof, Brother James, it was spectacularly boring. However, it was something we all had to do to become pastors, so we sucked it up and did what we were taught. During the week, we sang hymns at the beginning of class, went to the optional Monday night worship services, and attended chapel six times. As was often the case, the conversation in the rooms was more interesting than our classes.

"Did you see Heidi today? Man, she looked hot in that skirt."

"She's dating Phil."

"I like in her in those pants, you know, those tight green ones. She's got a great-"

"She is not as hot as Vanessa."

"I heard Vanessa was sleeping with Phil."

A burst of laughter circled the room.

"Phil? Phil's a loser!"

We chatted for a while, until it was time, and with a collective groan picked up our books and headed to class. Walking through the hallway, I felt a surge of solidarity with my classmates. It was nice to be a young male and talk about guy stuff without someone looking over your shoulder and telling you that this was inappropriate and that was inappropriate. Some of the students at Eastern were like that, but we didn't hang around them much. We called those guys the Righteous Brothers. They used the word "Jesus" like my high school football teammates dropped the f-bomb, and they were always saying "praise the Lord."

"How are you doing today?" "Just fine, praise the Lord."

"I'm sorry, I heard about your mother." "She's in heaven, praise the Lord."

"How's it going with that essay?" "Jesus has given me words, praise the Lord."

It was pretty hard to have a conversation with someone who insisted on talking like that, so I left the Righteous Brothers alone, and found a few guys, like me, who just wanted to be regular pastors. Even then, it was pretty exhausting. Most of us were already working in churches in some capacity, and we'd learned the boundaries. Every word and comment to the congregation was filtered through a system of common acceptance. For example, you could say that you struggled with lust, but you couldn't define what that struggle was exactly. You could make jokes about sex, but they had to be shaded so little kids wouldn't understand them and placed within the context of marriage, at which point everyone acted like sex was the greatest thing on earth. Still, if you did joke about sex, the next comment needed to be something serious about missions or people converting or something you discovered in your devotions. You were expected to live a "holy life", just a bit holier than the congregants. That made sense to me, though. If I couldn't live a certain way, I couldn't exactly ask the people I was shepherding to do it.

Rhetoric was encouraged as well. Statements like, "you are the only Jesus some people will ever see", or, "God hates sin but loves the sinner". These phrases were often met with reverence and awe, but even I didn't understand them. Or how to apply them. (If God loves the sinner, shouldn't we have more sinners in church? And am I still a sinner, or am I a different kind of sinner? If I'm the only Jesus some people will see, does that mean God screwed up if they don't see in me what they needed? Does that mean God loves certain people less by giving them a poor example to hear the gospel from?) Mostly we learned to toe the party line. And if you didn't, you were put in your place pretty quickly. Fortunately, I was fine with the rules. The church had given me this exciting mission, had told me how important I was, and I was willing to go through a brick wall to make sure we got it right. There were still moments though; twinges when I'd notice an "unbeliever" downtown and my conversation would change. No talk of sex or women or beer, only the difference Jesus could make in one's life. That seemed right, on the surface at least, because he'd changed my life, hadn't he? It wasn't those times in the dorm rooms that eventually caught up to me, it was the ones with my congregants, the ones with my youth, where I knew I couldn't give them the truth because it wasn't allowed. Where I felt like I'd suddenly joined a political party. That was the reason I left. Unfortunately, it's the reason why so many leave, especially young people.


The auditorium was packed. We knew that today was a special chapel service. The senior pastor of the biggest church in the city would be giving a talk, a popular one he'd given before, on alcohol. As Pentecostal Bible College students, we'd all signed forms upon our acceptance that we would not partake of any alcohol, tobacco or unmarried sex, among other things. We'd read the books and heard the lectures, everything from David Wilkerson's "Sipping Saints" to various treatises on holiness. Today, Reverend Patrick would break it down for us theologically why alcohol was wrong. Something we would be able to teach our congregations and youth groups and those we would witness to outside the church.

The students became quiet as we prayed and Pastor Frank stepped up to the podium.

"Did Jesus turn water into wine? Did he turn it into alcoholic wine?" He asked. Pastor Frank was tall and bearded, an ex-cop who'd made the transition into a mega-church pastor. I'd been to his church a few times, and wasn't a huge fan, but he seemed like a nice enough man. Only now I puzzled over the question. Was there another type of wine other than that with alcohol? Did he mean the non-alcoholic stuff we saw in Loblaws?

"In the book 'Bible Wines,' the author, William Patton, discusses four methods that the ancients used for the preservation of grape juice." Pastor Frank said. He told us it was common for people in the first Century to drink grape juice, and that even without refrigeration, you could prevent the drags from fermenting by storing the juice in extreme heat. Judea was a very hot, tropical like climate, he said, and the people often stored a thick concentrate only to add water to it later, like they did now when you bought the concentrate in the stores. The real miracle of Cana, Pastor Frank told us, was that Jesus surpassed or transcended the normal amount of time and the natural process that it takes to produce and harvest grape juice. That, which normally takes months, took Jesus but a moment.

I nodded my head, trying to absorb this new information. It sounded right. Especially when he moved on to the important reasons why there was no possible way Jesus could have turned the water into alcoholic wine.

"Think about it this way. The argument for drinking alcoholic wine goes like this: 'Since Jesus produced alcoholic wine, it is morally right for a person to drink it.' However, notice that their logic takes them further than most of them want to go. Since Jesus produced alcoholic wine (as they claim), then not only would it be morally right to drink it, it would be morally right to produce it, sell it, distribute it, and make a living from it. But since that would most certainly cause someone to stumble, then it must be morally right to cause someone to stumble. However, the logical consequence of their argument would oppose the Lord's teaching, as we find in Luke 17:1-2. No, the reasoning is a foolish argument that has no foundation in scripture."

I'd long since pulled out my notebook and was scrambling furiously to write it all down. This was such good stuff! I finally could give an answer to people about why we didn't drink, and why they needed to make the same commitment. Pastor Frank went on for about forty minutes. He reminded us that God was holy and perfect, and that if Jesus was God, than he could not have produced something so destructive. He reminded us that the Greek word for "wine," implied both alcoholic wine and non-alcoholic wine. (I made a mental note to pay more attention in Greek class.) And then quoted liberally from the Old Testament about the destructive nature of wine. (Absently, I wondered if the Hebrew word for wine also included non-alcoholic wine. I'd have to ask that question later.)

When he'd finished, he got a long round of applause from the student body. I stood, with everyone else, as we clapped our appreciation for all this new information. I was so excited! Finally, I could answer those people who insisted that Jesus had turned the water into wine. I had an answer for them when they told me that even in the passage it stated that usually the best wine was served first – the guests would be too drunk to notice the difference later. The fools, I thought, anything to justify their sinful lifestyle. Wait until they get a load of this!


The heat hit me like a hammer as I stepped outside the hospital. The sun was low on the horizon, but the humidity made it feel like a tropical swamp and I flicked my shirt in an effort to cool as I moved to a bench near the entrance. We'd been at the hospital all day. Bethany had not been feeling well, and after eight hours – most of which was spent waiting – we'd learned that she had a bad case of the flu and a minor infection. Both relieved and tired, I sat on the bench and tried to relax. Nearby, a heavy set woman with pale legs and coarse face was lighting a cigarette. Not far from her was a young woman in a tight skirt talking excitedly on her cell. The hospital was never a fun place to spend a great deal of time. Too much sadness. A bit earlier in the day a group of native women had broken out in tears and sobbing behind us in the waiting room when their pastor had informed them of a death in the family. I sighed and sipped the remains of my coffee. In front of me, a man with a long blonde pony tail and light beard walked by. He was wearing a hospital gown and sandals. Jesus in the hands of modern film makers, I thought.

Of course, we all modernized Jesus. Most guilty of it seemed those of us who insisted that we did nothing of the sort. They insisted that we had the original Jesus, that they had all the answers, that the Bible, specifically the New Testament, was not only both the first and last to that equation, but that their interpretation was also correct. It was a lot to assume, and to my eyes, particularly arrogant. I smiled and sipped my coffee. Religion had a funny way of doing that. Sixteen years earlier I would have told you why it was wrong to drink. A year ago I would have defended my position on alcohol. That there was nothing wrong with drinking wine. I would have mentioned that the arguments against 'alcoholic wine' were silly, that no historical records showed anything other than fermented wine, although they did comment on watering it down. I would have gone out of my way to mention that most of these arguments against Jesus turning water into wine referenced an uneducated preacher who wrote a book nearly a hundred and twenty years ago with no historical basis. The people who railed against drinking wine in the church had a sphere of influence, but by and large they were uneducated men. (I offer this paragraph, by Bruce Lackey, a Tennessee preacher who taught this notion that Jesus turned water into grape juice, as an example. When confronted by the Scripture regarding Paul's instruction to take a bit of wine for the stomach when not feeling well, Lackey responded this way: "We do not know what Timothy's specific infirmities were, nor do we know what kind of healing properties there were in grape juice. Maybe Paul was saying that Timothy should not drink the water, since in many parts of the world it is not pure and would cause a healthy person to have trouble from amoebas, etc. One who already had stomach problems would only multiply them by drinking impure water. Paul might have been recommending that Timothy drink grape juice only. In any case, we can be positive that he was not telling him to put alcohol in a bad stomach!")

I could only shake my head at Lackey's "amoebas in the stomach", a statement which would cause much laughter amongst a gathering of first year university science students. What I knew, having spent over fifteen years working with young people, was this: so long as the church, particularly the evangelicals, condoned intellectual dishonesty, young people interested in the truth were going to walk away. For them, as with many of us, it was better to be absent from truth than involved with a lie. At some point, the church needed to stop supplying wrong answers and start asking the right questions. I knew this because I was guilty of it, and as I sipped my coffee, I asked God to forgive me my arrogance.


I won't lie. It was absurd to me this notion that a Jewish Rabbi in the first century would turn water into grape juice, but what I realized was that I was still arguing for a Jewish Rabbi for turning water into wine. In other words, I was arguing for the likely preposterousness over the ridiculous preposterousness. I was, in fact, guilty of the silliest of all charges and the reason why faith in God seemed so ridiculous to many people. I was willing to fight with a fundamentalist about Jesus turning water into wine, and arguing for the specifics of the wine. Why not argue the vintage and year? I took another sip of my coffee and watched the sun as it slowly dipped behind the buildings. If only I was so arduous in my pursuit of God's love. If only I was so willing to make the sacrifice of my time when it really mattered, and worry less about the perfect proportions of my religion.

Young people are less worried about doctrine than they are lifestyle. Not piety, but sincerity. They judge us by our patience and love and self-control. This is what they see and mark, and what often makes them better judges than fully realized adults. It is one reason that I have always loved them and appreciated them

I moved from the bench and headed back inside. Recently I looked online, and amazingly, the water into wine argument persisted. When I was young, I would have snarled and defended my non-alcoholic stance. A few years ago, I would have scoffed and laughed at the idea that Jesus turned water into grape juice. Now, the entire debate saddens me. It saddens me that we waste the time and space on such silliness. Thankfully, there are examples in Scripture that people haven't changed, that even in the time of Jesus people worried about silly things. In Corinth, some Christians thought it okay to sleep with their in-laws. In Jerusalem, they worried about their diet. None of this is new or unusual, and so much as it is a very human thing to make big the pillars of unimportance in our lives, our faith can survive human frailty. That said, I still hold out hope that we can see beyond our humanity. Not always or even consistently, but on those rare occasions, when we realize that the thing we believe does not affect who we are or what we love, that we can find in ourselves the spark of God's nobility and love, and act in the manner for which we were designed, with or without wine.


Sunday, August 02, 2009

Loving Your Neighbour is Impossible… Without This

The sweat ran down my forehead as I pounded out another ten reps and slammed the bar back on the rack. The "fitness" room was little more than an odd assortment of weights on top of the stage, but it was enough for me to workout, especially after the last class. Studying at Seminary had been something of an eye-opener for me. It shocked me how locked in my fellow students were and how adamant they seemed about their beliefs. Not with the 'big' ideas so much, it was a Protestant Seminary after all, but the smaller ones, the applications. Especially shocking was the disconnect between the two. Loving your neighbor had very different connotations for people, and too often it meant exclusion. I wiped my forehead with my towel and adjusted the weight. The fan above the stage blew noisily, but did little to dispel the heat. I'd been involved in a somewhat rancorous argument in my History of Christianity lecture with one of the younger guys in my class, who insisted that he got his rules from the Bible. Where did I get mine from? We'd been talking about homosexuality, an always divisive topic, in regards to government. My classmate insisted that the government should enforce "biblical" standards when it came to gay marriage and the gay "agenda". I'd done my best to reign in my own passions, but I'd left class with the empty feeling I often had when I'd been involved in an argument. Still, it was disappointing. Again and again I ran into people at school who, when confronted by something that challenged their beliefs, simply dug their heels in and refused to budge. Sometimes it was a rational argument, other times not. The difficulty for me was that there seemed to be no consistency between people in what caused some to believe one thing and another person to believe something else.

I headed across the stage and through the doors for a drink from the fountain. It was after ten o'clock, and the halls were quiet. When I'd first come to Tyndale, I'd naively expected Grad school to be different. I figured that since we were talking about higher education, our debates would be based on the material. Looking back I can see how ludicrous that was, how I missed my own blind spots, how easy it was to assume that I was being different, or to use a word that shouldn't exist without quantifying, that I was being "objective." Unable to come up with any answers, I decided to head home.


I've always thought of Jesus' command to love our neighbor as something worth striving for, as an ideal worth living. Even now, just whispering it in the shadows of my home, I can sense the tiny thrill of hope coursing through me, of a world changed by the power of those words, a world of hurt and tragedy and fear sent scattering to the winds by the breath of the ultimate ideal. As a Christian (like Jews and Muslims), this concept is more than just an ideal however, it is the basis on which we strive to live and stems directly from our belief in a benevolent and loving Creator. Unfortunately, no matter how much we claim Jesus lives inside us, or that we are the products of grace, its application is random and often misapplied or not applied at all. In fact, there are times when it seems our faith actually inhibits our ability to love our neighbor. The truth is that loving our neighbor has become a catch phrase, an abstract notion drifting upon the winds of our beliefs structures like a balloon. And while the idea still fills me with hope, there have been many days when I have thought it best not to even think of it, because sadness and disappointment are sure to follow.

There is, however, a reason behind its difficulty. It is the unifying theme behind both our inability to love our neighbor, and why it remains a seemingly impossible task. It's something I wish I'd known long ago, something that would have helped me during my debates at school and my arguments through the years with other well meaning people. Arguments that left me empty and angry and sad, and despite my vigorous defense, often left me feeling as if I'd missed something. As if I'd somehow skipped past the heart of what Jesus was saying.


Moshe lay on the side of the road, unable to catch his breath. He fingered the wound at his side, which continued to bleed heavily. The bandits had surprised him; usually the road was safe this time of year. He muttered a prayer and closed his eyes under the bright sun. (Shema)He tried to roll over, but every movement brought pain. If he did not get help, he would die, but he didn't have the strength to do it himself. He opened his eyes, squinting against the pain and the sun. A priest passed by. He stopped briefly and Moshe called, his voice low.

"Help me, please."

The priest shook his head and continued on. A few minutes later a Levite passed, but this time Moshe did not even have a chance to call out as the man crossed to the other side of the road without so much as a glance. A breeze picked up, and Moshe closed his eyes. Why wouldn't they help him? What had he done to deserve this? He whispered another prayer and accepted his fate. He thought about his family, his wife and two young children, and worried for them. Who would provide when he was gone? His brother lived in Judea, but he had five children of his own.

A strong hand pressed against his shoulder and he forced his eyes open. A younger man, his face serious, was using his robe as a makeshift bandage. The young man was obviously wealthy, from his fine robe to the way he carried himself, and it took a minute before Moshe realized who was helping him. He growled under his breath, but the young man merely raised his eyebrow. A Samaritan? Anyone but a Samaritan, Moshe thought. He tried to roll away, but the young man was insistent and Moshe was too weak to resist as the man piled him on his donkey. The pain from his side continued to throb, and he moaned weakly as the donkey began to walk.

"We must stop the bleeding." The Samaritan said. "The bandage will help. Keep pressure on it as we ride. The journey is not long."

Despite his misgivings, Moshe did as he was told. A Samaritan? Why would a Samaritan help him? Samaritans were the descendants of the Mesopotamians that had settled in the Northern Kingdom, Israel, in the late eighth century BCE. With their phony temple, fake priests and their own Torah (who could imagine such a blasphemy!), they were, in Moshe's eyes, the epitome of everything that could be wrong with a people. Perhaps it was better not to be saved. Thoughts of his wife and children kept him quiet however, and soon enough they were at the inn.

If the innkeeper was surprised by the pairing, he bit his tongue as the Samaritan handed him a number of coins.

"See that he is taken care of. I'll be back in a couple of days to check on him."

"Yes, sir."

The two of them helped Moshe from the donkey as the inn keeper whistled for a few men to help carry Moshe to a room. The Samaritan looked at Moshe, and for a moment it seemed as though he too, was surprised by his own actions, but he didn't say anything. Moshe wanted to look away from this blasphemer, but willed himself to make eye contact. He wanted to thank the man, but for a number of reasons, could not find the words. Finally, the Samaritan clucked the reins of his donkey and left.


I closed the book and let it slide from my lap. Amy- Jill Levine's, The Misunderstood Jew, had made me think about the parable of the Good Samaritan in a new way.

This parable, she'd noted, was nearly always misread by modern scholarship, and it did not retain the punch that it had in first century Judaism because we were too busy projecting our version of Jesus on the parable. The Samaritan was not the gay man or the homeless person or the poor person or the prostitute. The Priest and the Levite's refusal to help had nothing to do with Temple impurity, and Samaritans were not "less" than their Jewish counterparts. They were not a minority. They were enemies. Modern Samaria today would translate to the West Bank. A good, modern equivalent would be an Israeli leader of the Knesset being helped and looked after by a leader of the Hamas. In the Middle East today, Levine pointed out, that picture was impossible to grasp, which was the point of the parable.

Who was my neighbour? If what New Testament scholar Levine said was true, then it changed everything. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that what was missed in the parable was not only the identity of our neighbor, but what we must do if we were to love them. And that was not going to be easy to reconcile, if only because I'd always hated rules.


It was warm outside. The sun was out, and in the distance I could see the CN tower across the lake. A breeze rustled the trees in front of the balcony, and I sipped my coffee, still thinking about what I'd read the day before, about what it meant to love my neighbour and the rules that governed both our individual life and the ones that governed society.

I'd never liked the idea that there was only one way to do anything. One way to drive. One way to do church. One way to express our faith. One way to cut tomatoes. It had always seemed absurd to me, because everyone was different, and difference in methodology, at the end of the day, meant very little. As a 'non-conformist', it was easy for me to think that I was beyond the human need for self-rules. The truth, however, was that I had just as many 'rules' as the next person. I believed in equality for everyone. I did not accept pre-determined gender roles. I didn't like cell phones in public places and thought we should open presents on Christmas morning, not Christmas Eve. I believed Jesus to be the Son of God. And I believed in eternal life, but not in eternal torment. When I examined myself, I actually found that I had many, many rules about what it meant to be a man, what it meant to be a Christian, and what it meant to be human. My closest friends were those who saw the world much as I did.

I shifted in my chair, enjoying the way the sun warmed my legs. Everyone had rules. Some people had rules I didn't like or understand. Yet who was I to judge? It seemed to me that the toughest part about loving your neighbour was not only understanding that different people had different rules, but that if I wasn't willing to accept that truth, I could never love them. It didn't mean I had to agree with people, I didn't have to subscribe to misogyny or classicism or what I perceived to be bad manners, but if I wasn't willing to accept their right to believe and live as they chose, I would forever be trying to change them. Part of that was human nature, we all sought to live consensus, and it was as natural as breathing for us. But the willful set to change people around me, to get them to live by my rules, seemed at odds with the parable of the Good Samaritan. I thought about the past, and how easily I'd confused the Gospel with my rules, and how they'd often become interchangeable. I could no longer do that, but it still seemed as if I was a long way from where God wanted me.

I pulled my feet from the chair in front of me and stood slowly, stretching as I did. I muttered under my breath, with a glance to the sky.

"Love your neighbour as yourself."

I felt it then, that tiny charge I'd felt since I was a kid. It was different now, and it would change again as I continued to learn, but within that small nugget of truth I could sense the grace of the Creator. I thought of all the 'neighbours' I hadn't loved, of all the times I'd been more concerned about being right than accepting that others too, had rules. It wasn't about right or wrong or even intent, it was about acceptance. About accepting my humanity so I could accept it in others. About accepting that 'the Gospel' and 'Steve's rules' were two very different things.

There would always be an urge to convert the people around me to accept my rules. To do church the way I wanted. To behave as I wanted them to behave. But so long as I was willing to look in the mirror, so long as I continued to ask God to help me love the way He did, maybe, just maybe, I would understand better what Jesus had taught, and follow more closely in his footsteps.