Saturday, March 16, 2019

Five Minute Friday: PLACE*

Today I'm linking up with Five Minute Friday, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. This week's word is PLACE.

 (*We wrote on this word before, in August 2017. This is the link to the post I wrote back then, on a totally different subject.)



My Thursday women's group at church has been studying the book of Hebrews. Last week we were talking about Hebrews 11, the "faith" chapter, which lists many heroes of faith like Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph Moses, and Rahab.

Then the writer alludes to all the others whose names are unknown, those who underwent torture and deprivation: 

"...They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith..."

As we talked about these verses, I was reminded of another passage I had recently been reading, from Mark 10. James and John come to Jesus and ask, "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory."Jesus responds by saying that it's not up to him to decide who will sit in these places of honour -- "These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared" -- and he reminds the disciples that whoever wants to be great must first be servant of all.

Thinking of these two passages together, I wondered aloud if maybe one of those obscure, unnamed faith heroes from Hebrews 11 might be given one of those places of honour at Jesus' side.

I even wonder ... and hear me out here ... if maybe someone from another religious tradition might get one of those places -- one of those "sheep from a different pen" that Jesus refers to in John 10.

If that's even possible, then I think it might be someone like this Muslim man in Christchurch, who greeted a gunman with the words "Hello, brother" before being killed along with 48 other worshippers.

One Twitter user wrote, "As he faced a rifle, his last words were peaceful words of unconditional love. DO NOT tell me that nonviolence is weak or pacifism is cowardice. I have seen the face of God."

I don't know exactly how God decides who will be granted those places of honour in his new kingdom. But if faithful endurance and peace in the face of unspeakable adversity count for anything, then maybe this man will be recognized. The world is not worthy of him.


Friday, March 15, 2019

March 2019 Quick Lit: On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior

Today I'm joining blogger Modern Mrs. Darcy for "Quick Lit," where we share short reviews of what we've been reading. Although the book I'm reviewing here is not the only book I've read recently, I wanted to give it a slightly longer treatment, so I'll cover my other recent reads in a future post.

On Reading Well: 
Finding the Good Life Through Great Books 
by Karen Swallow Prior

I asked my library to buy this book several months ago; it did, and eventually I got the book into my hands -- but I did NOT want to give it back! Clearly I am going to have to buy my own copy, because it's excellent.

This book is about virtue and literature. In the first chapter, Prior introduces the theme of classical virtues, addresses the need in our day for a return to virtuous living, and reminds us that not only does good literature show us the virtues, but the very reading of that literature is a way of practicing them. 

In each of the subsequent chapters she discusses one virtue -- altogether four cardinal virtues, three theological virtues, and five heavenly virtues -- and expounds upon each one in relation to a work of literature. The literary work may present a character who epitomizes that virtue (as in the patience of Anne Elliot in Jane Austen's Persuasion or the courage of Huck in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn) or a character who demonstrates the lack of that virtue (as in Jay Gatsby's lack of temperance in The Great Gatsby or Ivan Ilyich's lack of love in Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych). In each case, Prior shows how the proper expression of each virtue is a moderation between extremes: for example, courage is a mean between cowardice and rashness.

Particular parts of the book stood out for me. One was her discussion of how young Huck Finn has to work through the effects of a malformed conscience: he's been taught slavery is right, so he thinks helping Jim must be wrong -- but when he realizes in his heart that he must help Jim, he's determined to do so even if it means going to Hell. Another was her claim that the virtue of faith in Shusako Endo's Silence can only be truly understood by interpreting the book as a tragedy. And another was her chapter on kindness in George Saunders' short story "Tenth of December" -- a story I was not familiar with -- where she compares a character's suicide plan to her own father-in-law's suicide. In these and other cases, she shows how the virtues are not static stereotypes, but living, flexible concepts that (ideally) grow within us as we work them out in both the mundane and the traumatic moments of our lives.

As with the previous books by this author that I have read (Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More), Prior's love for her subject matter comes through on every page. As I read each chapter, I felt like I was listening to an engaging lecture. On Reading Well is a book any reader -- or even any person who thinks they "should" become more well-read -- will appreciate. And it's a book I'll definitely want to re-read. 

Time to order myself a copy....

Friday, February 22, 2019

Just juice

A few months ago, I started thinking about juice. Orange juice, in particular.

Our family drinks a lot of orange juice, and we had always bought the small plastic or cardboard cans of orange juice concentrate which need to be mixed up in a jug with three cans of water.

This is not a difficult job, really: dump the concentrate into a jug, stir in the water. But it got to the point where I was making juice almost every day, and I was getting really, REALLY tired of it. (Note: "Just delegate this job to one of your kids," while a valid idea, is not the point here.)

I thought about how when we go on holidays we usually just buy large bottles or cartons of pre-made juice, because where we're staying doesn't always have the right jugs to mix the concentrate in. Pre-made juice is so much easier!

But somehow I felt it was wrong to buy pre-made juice on a regular basis.

If "wrong" seems like a strange word to use in this context, well ... when I look at it now, I see that it is a strange choice of word. But at the time, this was my reasoning:

Concentrated juice is the cheapest kind of juice, and buying the cheapest thing is good. 

Concentrated juice also has less packaging, and using less packaging is good.

Virtuous, even.

Buying pre-made juice simply for convenience's sake was all very well for special occasions like vacation. But to buy it all the time? That was -- like I said -- wrong.

But on the other hand, I also wanted to quit the tedious task of juice-making and just buy the stupid juice!

So I broached this subject to Richard, and, as I might have expected, his take was different from mine. Amazingly enough, he seemed to give the whole issue very little moral weight.

"Is pre-made really that much more expensive?" he said. "And anyway, there are always sales."

So the next time I went to the store, I did it. I bypassed the orange juice concentrate and bought a couple of large cartons of pre-made orange juice. Yeah, don't mind me, just throwing off the yoke, being a rebel, etc.

When I got home, I got out of the car and went up to the front door to prop it open so I could bring in the groceries. And there, in between the doors, was a large, unopened carton of orange juice. 

Turned out our neighbour had bought a couple of cartons of juice and it wasn't exactly the kind they'd meant to get (too much pulp, or not enough pulp, I forget which), so they  brought it over for us.

After my deep moral wrestling, seeing this carton of juice sitting there made me laugh out loud. It was like a sign -- HEY, FREE JUICE! -- telling me how ridiculous it was to attach so much moral significance to what kind of juice I bought ... and that I was actually totally free to buy orange juice in whatever form I wanted.

It's not that we don't need to address ethical considerations in our shopping and spending and consuming; these aren't totally neutral activities. But at times this can translate into tying ourselves in knots in an effort do what we think is the "virtuous" thing. "If it's inconvenient and tedious and cheap, it must be right." "If it's easy and convenient, it must be wrong."

But sometimes it's not a weighty moral conundrum. 

Sometimes it's just juice.


Linking up with the Five Minute Friday community today, writing about the word JUST.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Two different perspectives

The other day I took Jonathan to the library after school. It's only a 10-minute walk away, and he likes to go there once or twice a week to take out some of his favourite DVDs like the Wiggles, Super Why, Barney, Blue's Clues, etc.

  To be honest, right now he is really more interested in collecting the DVDs than in watching them. So he spots his favourites on the shelf; we take them out; we return them (sometimes unwatched) when they're due; he takes them out again; and the cycle repeats.

Full disclosure: sometimes at the library he is loud. If he finds a DVD he wants, he raises his voice and excitedly looks around to find someone to share his enthusiasm with. If he can't find what he wants, he will sometimes complain with a loud "OH NO" or "GONE." But either way, whether they're excited sounds or frustrated sounds, we're only there for about ten minutes. If he's ever being extremely disruptive, I try to get him out more quickly, but most of the time it's not a problem. Occasionally someone looks our way, but no one's ever shushed us; the staff sometimes even greet Jonathan by name.

The other day we had found the DVDs we wanted and were sitting on a ledge getting ready to leave. Jonathan likes to name the DVDs one by one as we put them in my bag. As we were doing this, an older lady walked past. Jonathan said, "Hi! Hi!", wanting to share his excitement; she smiled, and I thought, now isn't she a nice person. 

And then she said, "So this is who's been making all the noise!" and left the library.

Nice person, all right.

A couple of days later I was talking to Jonathan's teacher on the phone. She'd called to tell me she would be moving to a different position for the second semester. And then she raved about Jonathan.

She said how funny, comfortable, and talkative he is in the classroom.

She said how much he likes hanging out with David, a boy in another program whom he used to know in elementary school -- just two teenage guys enjoying each other's company.

 She mentioned how he greets and engages people in the school so happily when he and his classmates are doing their coffee-cart duties.

She commented on what an enthusiastic, fast walker he is when their class goes on outings.

"He's just so great," she said. 

To the woman in the library, Jonathan was one thing only: "the one making all the noise."

To his teacher, he was funny, friendly, enthusiastic, happy, and "so great."

They were looking at the same person but saw totally different things -- kind of like this well-known optical illusion which, if looked at one way, shows a young girl, but if looked at another way, shows an old woman with a wart on her nose.

This was such a good reminder for me, because I get frustrated with Jonathan myself at times -- maybe I focus too much on what he can't do or won't do or hasn't yet learned to do -- and lose perspective on all the amazing things that make him who he is. 

I guess we all do that sometimes. We all need to be reminded that people are not one-dimensional, and that if our perspective is too narrow we may end up missing something important. The woman in the library missed out because she just saw someone making noise; she didn't take time to see the whole picture and share, even for an instant, in Jonathan's enjoyment. I feel sorry for her. 

And as for his teacher: even if she isn't going to be his teacher anymore, it's good to know that while she was, she really saw him -- the whole person -- and appreciated him.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Five Minute Friday: INFLUENCE

Today I'm linking up with the Five Minute Friday community, writing for five minutes on a given prompt.

This week's word is INFLUENCE.

Not long ago I saw a short video on Facebook, presented by a behavioural consultant, about three ways to spot the most (or least) influential person in the room. They were:

1. Who does the boss look at most? The person the leader looks at most frequently probably has a lot of influence over that leader, and therefore over the group as a whole.

2. Who do most people in the group look at when everyone is laughing? The group may be checking out the influential person's reaction (is that person laughing too? or are they stone-faced, arms crossed?) so they can adjust their own to fit.

3. Who seems to be seeking approval the most? This one is the opposite of the other two because it indicates the least influential person in the room: that person may be nodding and smiling too much out of insecurity or an attempt to please.

I find it interesting that this video doesn't say why we would want to determine who the most influential people are. I guess there could be lots of reasons: maybe we want to find the person most likely to help us further our agenda or make our dream a reality. Maybe we want to show an influential person how special or indispensable we can be to them, so that our own influence will increase (sort of like #1 above). Maybe we just like the safety -- or the reflected glory -- of being close to someone special and important. But the video doesn't say. The presenter just seems to assume that we want to know who the influencers are.

It made me smile when I tried to imagine what Jesus would do with a topic like this. When he walked the earth as a human being, he seemed so uninterested in who the movers and shakers were.

He drew attention to the generosity of a poor woman who put a small amount of money in the treasury.

He said that the poor in spirit, the mourners, and the meek were blessed.

He declared that humble prayers in a closet and good deeds behind the scenes were better than pompous prayers on the street corner and showy acts of charity.

He chose a motley crew of fishermen, tax collectors, and freedom fighters to be in his inner circle.

Philippians 2 says that "Jesus, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant, and being found in human likeness, he humbled himself..." 

That's a far cry from "Jesus realized that in order to get things done he should seek out the most influential people and get them on-board with his mission in order to maximize his effectiveness."

When it comes to Jesus' upside-down kingdom, we probably shouldn't spend too much time focusing on the influencers. The things that really matter are probably happening well out of the spotlight.