Lost in translation

I saw a decent little Canadian movie a couple of weeks ago called “Monsieur Lazhar.” It’s the story of an Algerian immigrant who becomes a substitute elementary teacher following a tragedy. It has many of the familiar elements of the classroom genre: the fish out of water teacher; romantic/racial/coming of age tensions between students; the overlap of home, society and school – many of the themes we’ve seen from “Blackboard Jungle” (ooh, we’re dating ourselves here) “To Sir With Love” “Dead Poet’s Society” “Dangerous Minds” and so on…

And it tells its story reasonably well; the characters are winsome; the issues compelling. There are no easy, stock answers – just believable individuals caught in and trying to make their way through complex thickets of race, culture, mortality and generational divides.

But despite all these virtues, the movie was, to me, pretty unsatisfying. I walked out of the theater feeling like I had engaged with these people and their issues, but somehow that didn’t seem to be enough. It’s not just that (spoiler alert) things didn’t get all tidied up with a happily-ever-after resolution – I have a fairly high tolerance for untidied-upness in my viewing and reading.

It was something else that left me feeling flat.

The characters seemed awash, drifting in a large sea of issues beyond their control. They’re victims, pawns to whom life happens. There are brief glimpses of nobility and even grace, but they are fleeting and the characters don’t seem to change or learn from them. I thought of the Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson movie from a few years ago, “Lost in Translation” where the two characters drift in and out of each other’s life in Tokyo, strangers in a strange land, and ultimately to each other.

So what is it that’s unsettling and unsatisfying about these movies? Why do I yearn for something “redemptive” like the nobility of grace under pressure or, at least, that characters would learn and change? Have I just been “Hollywoodized” to always expect and “need” happy endings?

I don’t think so, at least, not completely.

I think there is a yearning that transcends acculturation in all of us for larger themes such as redemption,  the noble struggle, for something that points beyond ourselves. 

Questioning why he has been given the dangerous mission to destroy the great ring of power in “The Lord of the Rings”  Frodo is told by Gandalf that the question is not why such things befall us, but what is to be our response to them.

There’s something in that. There are bigger issues: good and evil exist and we have choices and they matter. We are not static entities, frozen by circumstances beyond our control or influence.

The reason why I long for these motifs to be expressed in culture is, I believe, because they reflect what’s really true. It’s not just wishful thinking. Why would we even conceive that things could be different if, in fact, they couldn’t?

So, I’m going to continue to look for, and be fed by, those visions of what’s really true.


Blessings, Graeme



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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier…

There is a scene at the end of the John LeCarre spy thriller “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” that expresses the moral ambiguities of not only LeCarre’s world of Cold War espionage but our larger world as well.

George Smiley, the British spy-master, has rooted out the “mole,” a double agent placed in the highest level of the British espionage service by Karla, Smiley’s nemesis and counterpart in the Soviet spy system.

The mole, captured, in detention and waiting to be handed over to his masters in Moscow, explains to Smiley the reasons for his betrayal. The West is morally decadent and fascist, he says, and offers that “there’s really no difference” between himself and Smiley. Each is using deception, treachery and the exploitation of human weakness to achieve their respective ends: the ends may differ, but the means don’t.

This theme is played out in all of LeCarre’s George Smiley novels. He brilliantly exposes the greyness of East/West ideological distinctions, an expose made all the more credible by LeCarre’s own previous employment with MI5, the British intelligence system.

LeCarre’s novels, and the movies based on his novels, have been lauded not only because they’re so well written, but because, I would argue, they tap into something in our world much bigger than differing political systems. They express the prevailing uncertainty with certainties. What, in our world, is really true and right? What, being true and right, makes other things untrue and not right? And what gives you the right to say your truth is true and my truth is not? And on and on and on…How often do we hear “well, that may be true/work/provide meaning/be a source of “bliss”… for you, but don’t tell me how to live my life.” The mole in Tinker, Tailor actually says his decision to defect was as much “aesthetic as ideological.”  Isn’t that brilliant, and chilling? Decisions about life, loyalty, friendship and everything else important are based on personal taste, not truth. Taste, then – individual preference – is the truth, or as close to truth as we’re able to get.

This is not a new idea.

The Roman governor Pilate responded “What is truth?” when Jesus, on trial before him, made the bold statement that those on the side of truth listened to him. Bold statement indeed. Commentators say Pilate’s response could have been some gallows humor: “What does truth matter right now?” or a more serious questioning of the nature of truth itself…

Either way, his response is a non-response to Jesus’ audacious claim about himself.

In “The Reason for God” Tim Keller argues that we all live out of a belief system that we happen to think is true, and that we basically think is “the” truth, whether we admit or realize it or not. Take it up with him – he’s a far clearer thinker and writer than I am.

But just one thought: isn’t the idea that there is a truth, absolute truth, truth that has always stood and will always stand, across cultures and eons, truth that is true for all and not just some…Isn’t that…comforting, somehow… life-giving… a source of hope? (“If it were only so…”) Would the certainty and reality of Truth, truth that could be known and experienced, be good news?

Why is that so?

I’m just asking.


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Eyes on the Prize

There’s an iconic bronze statue outside the south-west entrance to the Pacific National Exhibition grounds in Vancouver. It shows two runners, one looking over his left shoulder while the other passes him on his right. The runners are the Englishman Roger Bannister and the Australian John Landy and the race the statue depicts is the “Miracle Mile” from the 1954 British Empire (now “Commonwealth”) Games held in Vancouver in 1954. Earlier that year Bannister had broken the long standing four minute barrier for the mile on a cinder track in Cambridge, where he was studying medicine. But then, just weeks later, Landy had not only broken the four minute barrier, but had beaten Bannister’s time as well. So now, these two were to compete against each other as the only two men to have gone under four minutes…

The grainy, black and white news-reel of the race, complete with dramatic commentary: “Now the Englishman, lengthening his stride and leaning into the corner, advances on the flagging Landy…” (it’s great stuff; watch it on You-tube…) gives the race an extra historic quality.

The real history happened in the final home stretch.

Landy, true to form, had gone out early in the race, and held the lead, five-ten “yards” (it’s 1954 remember) ahead of the pack until the final lap. Then Bannister made his move. Creeping up on Landy , on the final corner he was half a stride behind the Australian. Rounding the curve and only one hundred yards from the finish, Landy made his fatal mistake.  Looking over his left shoulder to see how far Bannister was behind him, he missed seeing the Englishman shoot by him on his right side. And watched as Bannister, gaining momentum, sprinted home to the finish line, yards ahead of the beaten Landy.

It was an unspeakably dramatic and poignant finish, far exceeding in excitement even the most hopeful anticipations: the two titans, the ones expected to duel, facing off; each runner running his own race – Landy with the early lead, Bannister with the finishing kick; one runner against another, the rest of the pack, as well as the rest of the world, forgotten (a Canadian finished third…who knew…?)

And then there was that backward look.

Is there a richer connection between the stylized, glorious artifice that is sport and our everyday lives than that image? To the resolute… to the determined, the goal-focused, goes victory: for the doubters…those who quail…dust and ashes (and, ok, in this case, second place, a silver medal…but you take my point.)

A “bronze-worthy” moment indeed.

“Eyes on the prize” is the name of an old spiritual which became a civil rights anthem, an encouragement to the downtrodden to stay focused on the goal of freedom, not to give up or remain chained to the past, variations of which have been the stuff of countless inspirational speeches, sermons, parent/teacher to child homilies and locker room pep talks.

In Philippians 3 Paul writes “Forgetting what is behind me…I press on toward the goal…” Really? Can we actually forget what’s passed? Paul himself hasn’t: he’s just presented a long list of personal attributes that defined his pre-Christian life. Clearly he hasn’t forgotten his own past. And should we even try to do this? George Santayana said “Whoever forgets the past is bound to repeat it.” In counselling pre-marital couples I ask each person to review his/her family of origin and invite them to consider  what they would like to hang onto and leave behind from their respective families. Sometimes the backward glance is what’s needed to move ahead.

So when isn’t it?

Paul has been talking about his pre-Christian life as a soul-destroying regimen of do’s and don’t’s, of status on the the basis of bloodlines, of a performance based “worth ethic.” But now, his value as a person is all about knowing he is a beloved child of God, and the “encouragement, comfort, tenderness…and power” of God’s friendship that his relationship with Christ has brought.

It is the power of his past life to detract from the wonderful blessings of his present life that Paul wishes to leave behind.

I don’t have a background like Paul’s, but I know the power that a performance based “worth ethic” can have. I know how the unfairness of life or others (sometimes only perceived, but there it is…) can leave one bitter, angry and unforgiving. How unmet needs can leave one desperate for approval and affirmation, and, well, enough (perhaps too much) already…

For Paul, knowing Christ was the “greater affection,” in Thomas Chalmer’s memorable phrase, that “expelled” the power of the former things.

Why would you want to look back?

Blessings, Graeme

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A friend recently told me about a find that a friend of his made. As part of his graduate studies in archaeology, this other man had the privilege of going on a dig in Petra, Jordan. During the excavations he found a shard of pottery that he was allowed to keep.  On returning to Canada he showed it to my friend. The shard itself was nondescript: although it was found in an area of artifacts dating from around the time of Christ it was just a brownish-red, slightly-rounded wedge of pottery that appeared as if it could have been any age.

What was fascinating was what was on the inside. Inside the outside rounded piece of what had obviously been a bowl or pot were fingerprints in the hardened clay, clearly discernible with the eye and touch,  accidentally left behind by the person who had made this pot two millenia before. It was his or her unintentional signature on something that may have been an ordinary, everyday household article in its time – just another pot in the cupboard – but has taken on another life, in its antiquity.

And in its unique, singular stamp of individuality: the fingerprint.

I’m fascinated by the personalized, immediate connection created by this bit of trivia – the fingerprint. It’s not just that ones fingerprint is both a true expression of and a symbol for our distinctiveness. The print on this memento brings history to life – it was made by a real person – so different and yet, in some ways, so like me. Questions flood in: what did he/she look like, talk like, smell like? What sights, smells, sounds were going on around this person as the pot was being made and then used? And how was it used?

It’s about connecting – the exotic, distant in time and place, becomes closer and familiar.

So, what does that “fingerprint” say to those of us called to live out and speak about, today, in this time and place, the realities of another ancient time and person? How do we give the “spiritual potsherds” of two, three and four thousand years ago currency today? Christians are often accused of living in a kind of spiritual or cultural museum, hanging on to the things of the past and woefully out of touch with the present. Well, we are people rooted in historical realities: “Do this in remembrance of me…” Jesus Christ was not a (mere) story or legend and he followed in a long genealogical, historical line, a line that is important for gaining a richer understanding of our (currrent) faith…

The “fingerprints” we place on these potsherds are our lives, lived out of and in life in Christ. “You are now in Christ…” And it is as we do the careful, thoughtful and intentional work of working out what being “in” Christ looks like that connections are made. What does Jesus’s unconditional love for me have to do with my particular need for approval? What does his unhurried life say to my anxious need to be busy? People see these differences in us. That’s how connections are made: when others see that this ancient “God-life” has currency. It’s been said that preaching is “truth poured through personality:” God, the Holy Spirit expressing his truths through the thoughts and life experiences of the preacher. Preachers or not, our lives are a sermon.

Our “fingerprints” – physical and spiritual – are unique to each one of us: there are no borrowed testimonies; God has no grandchildren.

It is our fingerprints on God’s work (and his fingerprints on us) that give freshness to the “old, old story”


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Last Impressions

You only get one chance to make a first impression, but what about last impressions?

I’ve encountered many elderly Christian saints who see no reason why they should  continue in this life: decades of productive service are behind them, most of their compatriots have gone off to their reward, physical aches and pains increase, and so on. For Paul, to remain behind meant “fruitful labour.” (Philippians 1:21)  What about those for whom fruitful labour is a distant memory? For some, being “spared” is no blessing.

Now in his ninety-third year, Billy Graham spoke in a recent interview about why God may spare the frail elderly. Graham spoke about the important difference the kind of person you are makes, that there are, in fact, opportunities for fruitful labour , albeit with, perhaps,  smaller fruit…Is the person thankful for the care he or she receives? Do those around you – caregivers, family, visitors – see appreciation and gratefulness for mercies large and small? Are the words “Thank You” ever heard? Seemingly small gestures, perhaps, but don’t think for a moment that they don’t make a big difference to those providing care, who often receive very little affirmation for their efforts.

I think about the importance “last impressions” are given in the scriptures: Jacob blessing his sons before he is “gathered to his people” (Genesis 49) Moses’ words to Israel – essentially the whole book of Deuteronomy- before they are to cross over to Canaan without him; Paul’s final farewell to the Ephesian elders. (Acts 20) Poignant occasions all. What impact did these farewells have on those present? On us? What impressions of those saying good-bye were left by these good-byes?

Not to be morbid, but we never know whether our next good-bye might be our last. Maybe my brush with mortality this last year has made me appreciative of a good-bye kiss each morning with Verna…

I helped say good-bye to a friend recently who made good on his last impressions. Ray had been the janitor at the church where I was the Pastor. When he lost his beloved wife a couple of years ago and required care he moved into a seniors’ facility without a great deal of complaining. Visits with Ray were always a pleasure; unfailingly he asked me about my family and always expressed delight and thanks for the visit. He received more than his share of visits from me and others. Staff, with whom he was always polite and appreciative, were always close by as needs arose…Funny how these things happen…

At Ray’s funeral I spoke about another farewell: Jesus saying good-bye to his disciples in John 14. In this famous “Upper Room” or Last Supper discourse, Jesus, knowing he is about to be taken from them, encourages his followers not to be troubled, that he isn’t leaving them permanently, and that he, in fact, will come back to take them “home” with him. He then assures them, and us, of his continuing spiritual provision (the gift of the Holy Spirit) the necessity of remaining “in him” and the love he shares with the Father, a love extended to all his followers.

It is a last impression full of hope and promise, but it’s more than that. Jesus’ words of comfort, offered just before he was about to undergo unimaginable suffering – complete spiritual separation from that loving Father – are the verbal counterpart to his acts of service also rendered at that meal: washing the disciples feet and serving the Passover meal to them, including to the one who was about to betray him.

This “picture” of the Servant-King, serving and offering words of hope and comfort, just as he was about to have all hope and comfort taken from him…

Can the last impressions we leave make a difference on others?


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Digging the Well

Verna and I are big fans of English detective, spy and period drama TV series. Over the years we have gotten hooked by “Riley: Ace of Spies; Smiley’s People;” Elizabeth George’s Thomas Lynley series; P.D. James’ Adam Dalgleish; “Brideshead Revisited;” “Doc Martin” (not sure whether DM fits into any of the above three categories, but it’s a corker nevertheless…) and lately, the unabashedly, but glorious guilty pleasure, “Downton Abbey.”

To generalize, these series offer crisp writing, believable, winsome characters caught in difficult moral and/or romantic dilemnas, great sets and looks into worlds that are both exotic (check out the 100 room country estate in “Downton Abbey” – the real star of that particular series…) and yet familiar. I feel like we know these characters, we resonate with what happens to them, however foreign their lives and particular circumstances happen to be. It’s almost like the more…”English” they are, the more emotionally and honestly true to their particularities… the more universal they become, the less exclusively English.

A friend loaned us another English detective series a few days ago. (I won’t mention the name of the detective for fear of unsettling those for whom this series is a winner.) I watched the first half hour and then went off to finish a little painting job. As I listened to the show’s dialogue in the background – the painting job happened to be within hearing distance – I kept thinking “Yes, that’s exactly what that kind of person would say in that situation…very typical of an ‘Englishman/woman’ caught up in that fix,” right down to the spices and herbs used in food preparation. It was so obviously “written.” Very site and culture-specific. And, to my tastes, very uninteresting. Nothing much there that spoke into my world.

Why are the Psalms of David,  the tragedies of classical writers like Sophocles, and the plays of Shakespeare still fresh to modern ears? Why does “The Lord is my shepherd…”  or the indecisiveness of a medieval Danish prince still speak to those, like me, who’ve never actually even seen a shepherd at work, or met a Danish prince, medieval or otherwise?

Hold that thought, because I’ve got another question for you.

Why do those outside the church so frequently look at “us” as “site and culture-specific:” our language, customs, ways of relating, ways of talking about who we are, what’s important and so on? “Oh yes, I see who you are, off doing your English (I mean Christian) things in your Christian way…all very nice …carry on…” Why, despite our best efforts to be “relevant,” does the church so often come across as being a foreign culture with very little appeal to the larger culture? And does this have anything to do with the rejection of the broad (alright, “Modern”) evangelical church by younger “Emerging” Christians?

Eugene Peterson wrote some years ago that you don’t have to worry about being relevant  “if you dig the well deep enough.” I think what he meant is, not that we shouldn’t be concerned about speaking into people’s lives, but, rather, that this happens in a different, almost indirect way. It is as we do the hard, honest work of telling and living the true stories – God’s and ours –  and living them well, that we break out of our hidebound and site-specific little worlds, and speak into other’s worlds.  Are we being honestly authentic about the joys as well as the struggles of our actual lives, as were David and the other Psalmists? (check out Psalm 88, for example, for brutal honesty, a true “crie de coeur”) We still read the Psalms because, in their  honesty and integrity about what is true about that particular human’s situation and nature, they become universal. It is the well-told particular that becomes universal and recognizable.

The Psalms  dig the well deeply. Is that what others experience in us? Not that we would run around airing every bit of our dirty laundry, but that our lives would be, well, human, thoughtfully and appropriately transparent. Do people experience us as truly human, at least as human as well- rendered fictional characters? Are “our” stories worth reading?

And are they well written? The Psalms appeal because their composers paid attention to language, to the details of getting it right, avoiding the cheap and easy, the cliche. What precision of language! What beauty, what images! Don’t stop at Psalm 23…roll on back to 8, to 19 then ahead to 42, 50, 63, 90, 91, 104, and, well, you get the idea… What attention are we giving, in our corporate and personal worship, to language that “gets it right,” language that has been crafted? “Praying the Psalms” helps, but what attention am I giving in my personal devotion time to formal liturgical prayers (as well, of course, to good old extemporaneous prayer?) It may be “cathedrals of language” as much as the beauty of literal buildings (sadlylacking in our corner of Christendom) that woo people back to faith.

And what does a “well-written” life look like, a “crafted” life that pays attention to the important details?  It would be, I would argue, a life where care and effort is given to issues of character and spiritual formation, in which we are in the process of becoming “little Christs” in C.S. Lewis’ felicitous phrase. It would be a life of growing in the qualities that make us truly, created-in-God’s-image human: joyfulness, loving God and neighbor, forgiving, willing to serve. It would involve seeking the counsel and direction of those who could help in the healing of those things in us which hinder our living joyfully for God and others.

Lord, fully God, fully human, the true “anti-cliche,” save us from soul-less, cartoon characterizations; save us from untransformed, joyless, half-lived lives; lead us in becoming stories-lights that lead others to praise you.

Now, I’m open to any new recommendations for good TV viewing, the more exotic (and personal) the better.

Blessings, Graeme

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Across the slough

There is a fifty acre tree farm outside my window, across the slough. The trees are three-four foot tall ornamentals, mostly pyramid cedars, which will be used to make hedges. Most of them get shipped “back east”  – I peaked at the tags on some freshly dug/ready to ship trees from another field near us last year: they were going to a Home Depot in Boston, Massachussets. Apparently our milder winters and rich Fraser Valley soil grows them faster here than just about anywhere else. They’re ready to harvest as five-six footers after only five years. I did a rough calculation once for the number of trees in the field across the slough and came up with around 400,000.

It’s a sophisticated operation. Sprinkler heads poke up above the undulating rows, the “fruit” of the underground piping layed down before the trees arrived. The rich soil and good climate is helped by the tons of fertilizers applied every year and by the small mountain of lime dug in at every five year planting to balance the soil. Several times every summer we have to close all the windows in our house when the wind shifts and blows our way the overspray from the pesticides steaming out behind the little tractors that tootle relentlessly back and forth, up and down, the manicured rows, not a weed in sight.

The drivers of those tractors are migrant Mexicans. Each morning a twenty-four passenger van arrives and they get out, all male, bundled (this time of year) in warm coats and hats. It’s odd to hear Spanish when I’m out in my yard and they’re working closely enough that I can hear them talking across the slough, giving each other the gears, by the sounds of it, above the droning of the tractors.  I feel like shouting out “Ola” (regrettably about the extent of my Spanish,) but then what would I say…? We inhabit different worlds.

As I watched them troop out of their van this morning, of  course I was mindful of the terrible accident last week in Ontario which killed eleven workers and the driver of the transport which hit their van. From news coverage it appeared to be the same kind of van that delivers my neighbours each morning. Those folks were Peruvian: the local workers are all, as I understand it, Mexican. I heard many bystanders took photographs as emergency personnel attended to the victims of that accident.

What are we to make of a world of such…disparity, such isolation (and such callousness?)  There is so much that differentiates us from the person “across the slough.” I’m glad these folks are able to find work here and also glad that I, or my children, have not had to be the one riding that tractor, breathing (with what kind of protection?) the chemicals they’re dispensing…What sacrifices have they had to make to come here to work in the fields across from some guy who writes and wonders about but has no other contact with them…?

At church yesterday we read the story of a leper, Naaman, a commander of an army sometimes hostile to Israel. Through a series of  socio/political cross cultural encounters Naaman is healed of his leprosy. One of the themes of the story is that God is not a respecter of cultural divisions – his healing is available to any who humbly approach him.

We’re told that we are moving toward a “city” in which every tribe and nation will be represented. How am I preparing the way of the Lord? What is my openness to encouraging and celebrating beforehand the diversity that is our future?

Blessings, Graeme

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