Category Archives: Faith

Advent Through the Centuries – the seventh century

Saturday, December 7
The seventh century of the Church

Scripture:
Isaiah 60:19-22

The sun shall be no more
your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon
give you light;
but the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory.
Your sun shall no more go down,
nor your moon withdraw itself;
for the Lord will be your everlasting light,
and your days of mourning shall be ended.
Your people shall all be righteous;
they shall possess the land forever,
the branch of my planting, the work of my hands,
that I might be glorified.
The least one shall become a clan,
and the smallest one a mighty nation;
I am the Lord;
in its time I will hasten it.

Reading:
The Jesus Sutras, c.
635AD.
Today is a bit of a different reading. It comes to us from China, where there was a growing Christian population in the 7th century. This Christianity was influenced by Nestorianism (which taught that Jesus had two ‘persons’ contained in his body – one divine and one human), and various Chinese beliefs, including Daoism and Buddhism. Christianity was brought to China by a persian monk named Aluoben, and a monastery still stands in China on the site of the monastery that they built. It’s fascinating to think of what Christianity would look like today if it had taken root in the East rather than the West. More can be read about the Jesus Sutras here. without further ado, a reading (and Chinese representation of Jesus) from the Jesus Sutras:

Then He spoke to the assembled crowd and said:
This Sutra is profound and unimaginable.
All the gods and gurus agree on this, and acknowledge
This Way that is the essences of connection and return.
To move you need light to see by — this teaching provides it
Just as the sun slants out, so you can see what is in front of you,
This Sutra offers understanding, and by its light
You can know the Way of Peace and Happiness in your heart.


If anyone wants to share these teachings with friends or family
Of course they can. Honor them, sing and pray together —
And this will bless you and your family into the next generation.
Every generation is united in this communion —
From goodness in past lives, people come to this religion
And through the faith they have they find Happiness.
It’s like the spring rain that refreshes everything —
If you have roots, you will flourish in its coming.

Prayer:

Attributed to St. Fursey of Ireland, c.584-650

The arms of God be around my shoulders,
The touch of the Holy Spirit upon my head,
The sign of Christ’s cross upon my forehead,
The sound of the Holy Spirit in my ears,
The fragrance of the Holy Spirit in my nostrils,
The vision of heaven’s company in my eyes,
The conversation of heaven’s company on my lips,
The work of God’s Church in my hands,
The service of God and the neighbour in my feet,
A home for God in my heart,
And to God, the Father of all, my entire being.
Amen.

Doubt, Anxiety, and Witness.

I have been very busy with school since Christmas. Besides this fact, it has also been the Dark Months – working nights, I wake up after the sun has disappeared, and go to bed just as it is rising. January and February represent  for me a particular kind of Hell for this reason. Thankfully, It is now March and I am getting a little sunlight every day. Easter and summer are coming, finally.

That’s not what I want to write about right now. Well, not precisely at least. It’s maybe connected, but in a loose sort of way.

Longtime readers of this blog (all three of you) may know that I struggle with anxiety at times. often it is minor, a kind of tic in the back of my brain telling me that something is not quite right. Every four or five years, though, the feeling of ‘wrongness’ explodes, filling my entire body with a palpable sensation of unease. It hits my gut, full-on – my digestion gets screwed up, I stop eating properly, I can’t sleep well. My mind fixates on far-off and uncontrollable events – back in 2009 it was the outbreak of the H1N1 pandemic, this time it was the Ukraine crisis – and I find it hard to concentrate on anything.  I begin to doubt.

First the doubt is vocational – I’m thirty years old, is this what I’m supposed to be doing with my life?
Next comes educational – I’m not smart enough, I can’t write well enough, I’m not up to this.
Finally the doubt manifests as theological. God? Who is this God? What kind of God would put us here, in this broken screwed up world? Afterlife? What afterlife? Once the electrical signals stop flickering in your obsessive brain, you’re done man. Just done. That’s it. Stop bothering with God. He can’t hear you.
Then I get scared.

This all takes place over the course of a few days, with the theological part usually hitting suddenly and lasting a few hours, a day at most. Life seems almost pointless – not in a suicidal kind of way, just in a ‘everything is meaningless’ sort of way. That’s what we’re looking for, isn’t it? Meaning? That’s what we’re all looking for. The idea that we’re alone in the universe is terrifying.

Every time this happens (and it’s happened maybe three or four times in my life), I’m always afraid that it won’t end. I pray, and I’m terrified that I won’t hear anything back. I think, and I’m terrified that my brain will lead me down rabbit holes that there is no escape from.

Don’t get me wrong, some doubt is helpful and healthy. If we never doubted, we would never discover anything. If we never doubted, we would still think the sky to be a solid dome, and think that hell was somewhere below us and if we just dug far enough we would find it. Doubt, the refusal to accept things to be the way they seem, and a desire to find out how things actually are, is good. When my anxiety gets going, though, the doubt becomes soul-sucking and destructive. It starts to feel like there is no hope, no answers, just a big rotten hunk of rock hurtling through space. Meaningless. A nihilist would call these ‘moments of clarity’. I think the nihilist would be wrong.

Fortunately these anxiety attacks do not last long for me. I’m sure others struggle with the same thing though, and so here I’m writing down the process through which I find hope in chaos.

First, I pray. I don’t pray often enough, and usually the anxiety hits when my praying has ceased almost entirely. Prayer is helpful. Maybe Psychosomatic – I don’t care. It feels good. In the early stages of an anxiety attack, I’m just trying to feel good.

Second, I remember. I remember the times when God has shown up for me. I remember my friend Ricky, and the light in his eyes before Jesus took him home. I remember the feeling of standing on the beach, the wind in my hair, sure, absolutely sure, that this creation is no mere accident. I remember that our God is a God who suffers. He is not aloof, not distant, and not impotent… But also not domineering and not compelling. Our God is not coercive. Having a coercive god would be much easier actually. But no, our God, rather than coercing us, suffers with us. His heart breaks for the abused and battered woman, for the child left alone thanks to the horrors of war, for the poor, the marginalized, the addicted and the cast-out. He suffered, and suffers – we worship a God who understands suffering intimately – or so the story goes.

But in the midst of my doubt and anxiety, I question the story. What if it is just a projection, as Freud and others have suggested? What if religion is the opiate of the masses? What if that whole Jesus thing never took place? It is absurd, after all. The dead don’t rise. A car battery can’t jumpstart itself. Once the lights are out, no one is home.

And then I remember the witnesses. Men and women, throughout the centuries, willing to die for the sake of the Gospel, but unwilling to kill for it. I think of Stephen, the first martyr. of Perpetua and Felicity, singing hymns as the lions of the colosseum approached. Of Dirk Willems, who rescued his pursuer knowing it meant certain death for his own life.

These witnesses, especially the early ones, point me to Christ. They point me to an individual so radical, so different from the rest of society, that people were willing to die for him. This remembering has been the role of martyrs (which means ‘witness’) for centuries now. And it was the realization of the conviction of the martyrs which caused my anxiety to ebb again. If they can go to death trusting in Christ, surely I can place my faith at his feet as well.

This doesn’t mean I don’t doubt. I absolutely do. And I’m sure the anxiety will flare again in the future, and all the insecurities will come rushing back once more. But for now, for now I am content. For now I trust. For now my heart is at peace, and I know that God is for me rather than against me. This may not seem satisfying to some, but for me it’s the difference between heaven and hell, light and dark, day and night. Christ is lord, and the resurrection of the dead is true. Hallelujah.

the next chapter

Today I began the next chapter of my academic career. After graduating from Columbia Bible College, the goal was always to go on for further study – I love the classroom experience, and the wrestling-out of God’s truth through and with His people. It’s strange, you know – it’s only been just over a year since I graduated from CBC, and already it feels like a lifetime ago. I felt rusty sitting in the orientation classroom. It was almost as if I didn’t belong. The old nervous anxiety began to grow in the pit of my stomach, that feeling I get when I think I’m alone in a crowd full of people. It gnaws at you. It’s subtle, but there. I know this will pass in time, and that in time I will slip back into those comfortable academic shoes once again… but for now, it feels strange.

I love my bus ride. I take the #14 all the way from East Hastings to UBC, passing through downtown, up Granville, along Broadway, and through Kits before arriving at my destination. I don’t know if any bus carries such a wide variety of people. I wonder what that upper-middle-class student in a 300$ track suit would say if she knew her seat had been occupied by a heroin addict just twenty minutes earlier. Life is strange, sometimes.

We create these bubbles, and rarely move outside of them. Such is true even in the DTES. I love traveling through bubbles – maybe because I don’t feel really comfortable in any of them. I often feel like an Observer, slightly different from everyone else, watching as if I were an alien or some far-future version of humanity. Not more intelligent, just different. I have no idea if that’s normal or completely bizarre.

Next week classes start for real, and then we’ll see if this madness is actually going to work or not. Hopefully God’s got a plan in all this, because I’m not sure if I do anymore!

Patriotism to Yahweh: The Shema – Deuteronomy 6:4-15

This is a sermon I gave this morning at Emmanuel Mennonite Church. I had a lot of requests from people that wanted to read it, so here it is, slightly edited for ease of reading. I should have an audio recording up in the next week as well!

 

update: the sermon can be listened to here: http://www.emmanuelmennonite.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/July-14_2013-message.mp3

Don’t Forget: Patriotism, Table worship, and the Shema

This morning I’m speaking on Deuteronomy 6:4-9, and a little bit past that as well. To be honest, I wasn’t that excited about this passage when I first began to look at it. I thought that it was obvious – Love God. Great, thanks. Well, that’s the shortest sermon ever. But as I read it over and over, and as I spoke about it with others, new depths were revealed.

 

One note before we get started. We all come to the text with biases and baseline observations. One of the biases that I have is that I see the entire story of Scripture as being a story of redemption, of God drawing His people into a relationship with Himself. I see this everywhere I look, from Genesis to Revelation. God desires to be known by us, to be father and friend and king. And this passage that we’re looking at today, the very heart of Old Testament theology, is a prime example of this. ‘Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our God, The Lord is One.’

 

First, we’re going to start with a look at the passage itself. If you have your Bibles, you can turn to Deuteronomy 6, and we’re starting in verse 4. I’ll also have the passage up on the screen.

‘Hear oh Israel, The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.’

This is a fascinating passage. So simple, but with so many layers. It can also be read a number of different ways – for example, an alternating reading is ‘Hear oh Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord alone!’ or ‘Hear, Oh Israel, The Lord our God is the Only Lord, or even Hear oh Israel, The Lord our God is One Lord.’ This declaration, called the Shema, which is the Hebrew word for ‘hear’ or ‘listen’, is, as I have said, the very center of Old Testament theology. Here, Moses is claiming not only that Yahweh is the God of Israel, but also that he is the ONLY God. In saying this, Moses is simultaneously elevating Yahweh and claiming that faith in any other gods, such as Baal or Molech, is incompatible with worship of Yahweh. This makes a lot of sense, really – At this point in time, the Hebrew people are still wandering the wilderness, a landless people amongst foreign tribes. And soon, they will be entering Canaan, and the temptation will be to intermarry with the locals, taking on their customs and even their gods. Through cementing this declaration at the very heart of Hebrew theology, God, working through Moses, is attempting to prevent his people from being led astray by their neighbours.

But love for Yahweh is not simply about ceremony, or about an emotional experience, but rather about orienting the entire being towards Yahweh. This can be seen in verse 5, which is probably rendered in your Bible as You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. While this is textually correct, we miss some of the nuance here from a straight reading. Let’s start with ‘Love the Lord your God with your whole heart.’ In ancient Israel, the intellect, what we would think of as the brain, was thought to reside in the chest, in the heart. And so talking about the heart was not about an emotional response to Yahweh, but rather an intellectual one. You could say ‘let every thought you think be oriented towards Yahweh.’

The second clause, ‘love the lord your God with all your soul’ is again, about much more than a spiritual experience. The Hebrew people had no concept of a separation between the soul and the body – they were one and the same. And so the best way to understand ‘love with all your soul’ is to think ‘love God with your whole being, with everything that makes you you.’ We could say ‘with your entire consciousness’ or ‘love God with everything that you are.’

The third clause is a little more straight-forward. Loving God with all your might could be understood as ‘Love God in everything that you do, with all the works of your hands’.

So we have ‘Love God with every thought in your head, every fibre of your being, and with every movement you make.’ So, in full, I think this paraphrase helps us capture the meaning of the Shema: ‘Listen, you people, God, your God, is the Only God, the One True God – Love him with every thought, love him with every breath, love him with every movement. Orient your whole life towards Him!’

Not only were the Hebrew people to love god with everything that they were, but they were also to teach others to do the same. ‘Teach [these words I command you] to your children, and speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fasten them as symbols to your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.’

This reinforces the teaching of orienting your entire life towards Yahweh. At every moment God needs to be present – in all your actions, remember him and do what he asks! And there was good reason for this teaching – Israel was about to face challenges unlike anything they had seen before.

‘Then when the Lord your God brings you to the land he promised your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to give you – a land with large, fine cities you did not build, houses filled with choice things you did not accumulate, hewn out cisterns you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant – and you eat your fill, be careful not to forget the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, that place of slavery. You must revere the Lord your God, serve him, and take oaths using only his name. You must not go after other gods, those of the surrounding peoples, for the Lord your God, who is present among you, is a jealous God and his anger will erupt against you and remove you from the land.’

God knew what the people of Israel would face when they entered Canaan. He knew that they were going to be installed into a place of power, into a kingdom they did not build, and that power so easily corrupts an unwitting population. It was going to be so easy for Israel to become just like any other nation, to give up the distinctive whole-body worship of Yahweh and to replace it with a ceremonial practice, disengaged from real life. And so God is saying here, again, ‘Remember! Remember the story! Remember how I saved you! Remember how I brought you out of Egypt! Don’t leave anything out! Tell the whole story!’ Unfortunately, It doesn’t appear that Israel paid much attention to the words of Yahweh, as their devotion to lavish temples and a pagan-styled monarchy eventually show. They claimed that Yahweh is the one true God, but all too often they did not act like it. They did not understand that the rule of Yahweh is different than that of any other God. Only after the Temple was destroyed and they were scattered into exile did they begin to tell the story again, and that story kept them rooted in Yahweh. Even today you can find this story being told over and over again every Passover. It’s a story that Jesus would have heard: ‘Remember, we were once slaves in Egypt, and God, the only God, saved us. He is with us, and we must remember him in all we do!’

Why should we care about any of this today? What does it have to do with us, living in the 21st century?

First, the Shema is more than a prayer, and more than a statement. It is a pledge of allegiance. Here in Canada we’re not particularly patriotic, at least compared to our neighbors to our south. But I think the point still stands. When I walked through downtown Vancouver on Canada day, I saw a lot of red and white. Like most things, love of country is not necessarily a bad thing, but it must be kept in perspective. We must remember – there’s that word again, remember – that we are members, first and foremost, of the Kingdom of Heaven. We have no king but Jesus, no Father but Yahweh. Do I love the fact that I can speak my mind and that I have free healthcare? Absolutely. But my love of Canada must come a distant second to my love of Christ and his Kingdom. Anything else is idolatry. Canada will pass away, kingdoms will rise and crumble, but the Kingdom of Heaven will remain, and will thrive, and will restore the world into something incredible and beautiful.

I am patriotic about the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Shema is my pledge of Allegiance – ‘Hear, oh Emmanuel Mennonite Church, The Lord our God, the Lord is One! We will love the Lord Our God with all of our intellect, with all of our being, with all of our strength!’ And, to paraphrase Jesus – ‘We will show our devotion by loving our neighbors – our poor neighbors, our rich neighbors, our homeless neighbors, our addicted neighbors, our Hindu and Muslim and Sikh and Baptist and Calvinist and Charismatic neighbors, our homosexual and bisexual and transgendered neighbors, our black and white and brown and every other skin color neighbors – we will show our devotion to God by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, as we love our own flesh and blood. I pledge allegiance to the Cross, to the Stone rolled-away, to the empty tomb, and to the Saviour for which it stands! Amen? Amen.

The second thing I think we can pull out of this passage is the difference between what can be called Temple worship and Table worship. I wish I came up with this, but I didn’t – There is a wonderful pastor in the states named Brian Zahnd who inspired these thoughts. See, at Temple worship, the ceremony becomes the thing, and it falls on just a few men to perform the ceremony. Temple worship isn’t about daily living oriented towards God; it’s about atoning for sins and participating in the system. Now, I’m not saying that atonement doesn’t matter – Jesus has absolutely done that work. But what I am saying is that when worship becomes a system through which we attempt to get holy, I think we’ve missed the point.

The Shema teaches Table Worship. Table worship is about orienting every moment of our lives towards the love of God. Table worship means inviting everyone to the table – it’s family dinner, keep one foot on the floor! There’s always room for more. My family is famous for this – I remember multiple times my dad picking up hitch hikers and bringing them home to dinner – having 15 or 20 people crowded around our old dining room table was a common occurrence. This is what I see God saying: ‘Come to the table! Eat! There’s always room. Of course there’s room. We’ll bring in some more chairs, don’t worry! This is what you were made for!’ And Jesus is there, with us, passing the potatoes. We show our love to God by loving others, by giving them a seat at the table, by not requiring more of them than what Jesus required. Remember, Jesus was constantly getting in trouble for eating with tax collectors and sinners. A prostitute washed his feet! And Christ, being God on Earth, by definition perfectly embodied the Shema. His entire life was oriented towards Love of Yahweh, and so He is the perfect example of what this kind of life looks like.

 

Finally, how do we practically connect this with loving the poor and marginalized? I have three suggestions.

First, we need to reclaim the sacred act of hospitality. I want to be honest: It’s really easy to exclude people. It’s really easy to say that we don’t have time or energy to include others, and I am totally complicit in this. My wife and I are huge homebodies. An ideal evening for us is a nice home-cooked meal and an evening of movies or video games. It’s so easy to close the curtains and turn inwards, and pretend like the world doesn’t exist. But what I realized is that when we invite others into our space, and when we accept the invitations that others extend, our lives become so much more incredibly rich. Eating and cooking with friends and neighbors is awesome. When we open our doors, amazing things can happen. Yes, there is risk – relationships and community are always risky – but there is so much joy to be found as well. Let’s engage in hospitality again. The Kingdom of God includes the poor and the marginalized, and not just off in some ministry to the poor, but front and centre. We need to be giving them a place at the table.

Second, we need to embrace the poor by killing the idol of security. Christ brought a new kind of Kingdom, one based on faith and mercy rather than on security and wealth. We need to be saying, ‘yes, in our backyard. If anywhere, we want the poor in our backyard!’ We need to stand up against dehumanizing tactics such as the kind used by this city very recently, from spreading manure on campsites to petitioning safe and affordable supportive housing. I work in a supportive housing building, and I can tell you that they work. They really do. There are some cases where silence makes us complicit in the actions of others, and this is one of those cases. Is Abbotsford going to be a place of refuge for those that have been abused and traumatized throughout their lives, or is it going to be one more place where they are simply not welcome?

And finally, we need to teach our children vigorously what it means to live a life oriented towards Yahweh. We need to show our children what radical hospitality looks like. One of the reasons I was able to move into the Downtown East Side was because my parents prepared the way for me. I spent my childhood with fishermen and loggers, hippies and rednecks, and all were welcome at the table. All were treated with respect. And because my father respected them, they respected him. Everyone was treated as a human, and this taught me to look for the humanity in everyone I meet, no matter what they look like on the surface. I watched this, and learned. We need to be showing our children how to love – otherwise they are going to learn from the world how to hate and discriminate.

So, listen, Oh Emmanuel Mennonite Church, listen, Oh Abbotsford, the Lord Your God, the Lord is One! Love the Lord your God with every thought in your head, every fibre of your being, and with every movement you make. Remember the stories, and tell them constantly – when you eat, and when you sleep, and when you wake and when you walk! Don’t forget! Thank you.

Djesus Uncrossed: What do others see?

A couple of weeks ago Saturday Night Live included a fake movie trailer as part of their program. This was shortly after the Oscar-nominated Django Unchained came out. For those of you who don’t know, Django is a bloody revenge pic by Quentin Tarantino. It follows the journey of a former black slave on his quest to exterminate his former slave owners.

The SNL bit portrays Jesus as a revenge-seeking toughguy and Paul as a commander of a revenge squad a la Inglorious Basterds. Roman blood is spattered everywhere. Of course, reactions to this clip have been… extreme. Here’s a video that can be found on Youtube. The first half shows the clip in question, while the second half is a narration by an Angry Christian.

Now, while the clip itself is a little tasteless, it’s not really being critical of Jesus at all. As others have pointed out, the clip is mocking Tarantino and his ability to add blood and revenge to nearly anything. the premise is this: That if Tarantino made a movie about the most pacifist guy ever, he’d still find a way to make it bloody!

Of course, the narrator of the above video didn’t get that. He saw this as a direct attack on Christ himself, and believes that Christians should be up in arms about this video. Many others think the same thing; here’s a clip of the Sean Hannity show on Fox News debating Djesus.

Hannity and his compatriot seem to think that Christians should get as mad as Muslims at this clip.  Christians should be standing up for their rights! we should get mad!

But wait. What if the SNL bit actually has a point?

As a Christian, I believe that the primary way that someone will view Christ is by viewing me. I am told by the Bible and by my community that we are to emulate Christ. as the anonymous quote (often attributed to St. Francis) says: ‘Preach the Gospel to all people, and if necessary, use words’. we’re also told the ‘Actions speak louder than words’. What we do matters, very much. Paul, throughout his letters, calls us to become more and more like Christ, casting off our old ways for a new way of living. We are told that people will know that we are Christians by our love for one another. We’re told to be kind to our enemies, and to love those who harm us. When we do these things, we are a powerful witness in the world to a different way of life – the Kingdom way.

Remember all the media attention that the Amish community got when they forgave the man who killed five children, before taking his own life? The world took notice because they behaved in the way that Christ taught us to behave. When we act like Christ, people notice.

Is this what the world thinks about when they think about western Christianity? Or do they imagine a faith more in line with Djesus, a faith married to revenge rather than forgiveness (Iraq? Afghanistan?), more in line with individualism than community (it’s called the iPhone, for crying out loud), more in line with dysfunction than unity (greater than 50% divorce rate among western Christians?). Here’s one more clip, and this one is a hard one to watch. This is a propaganda clip created in North Korea, and translated into English. It’s about 12 minutes long.

 

Is this what people see? This looks like Djesus to me. We get so offended at a video clip showing Jesus as a murderer, and yet that’s who we present him as every day when we continue to buy into a culture which is so self-obsessed and narcissistic that we have no clue how we’re hurting others. By being Djesus with our purchasing habits and our way of life and our media, we spit in the face of the message of peace that Christ died for. Maybe we were offended by Djesus Because it hit just a little too close to home. Maybe we saw a little bit of ourselves. Maybe it forces us to realize how truly counter-cultural the message of Christ really is. And maybe, just maybe, that’s a good thing.

Ruby Sparks

A couple of nights ago my wife and I watched an indie movie called Ruby Sparks. It was one of those movies that you could tell would be so indie that it hurts. One of those movies where you expect weird and quirky characters full of too-much emotion and neurotic energy, as if everyone were channeling Audrey Hepburn and Woody Allen at the same time. I expected it to be a light, funny, and poignant romantic comedy. I was incorrect. This movie made me think, and when I think I like to write. I will be completely spoiling the movie here, so if you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it first. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

The film is what I would call ‘magical realism’. Calvin is an author, a child prodigy who published the quintessential Great American Novel before he turned 19. Ten years, one broken relationship, several hundred trips to the therapist, and one dog later, Calvin lives alone in his expensive house, unable to write a word. Calvin definitely reminds one of Woody Allen – neurotic, self-obsessed, narcissistic. He believes that he used to be a genius, and so does everyone around him. In fact, they still believe that.

The film sets Calvin up as a sympathetic character. I wanted to identify with him, and I hurt for his loneliness. Anyone who has felt alone in a crowd full of people will wince at an early scene where Calvin is expected to schmooze with readers of his novel. The despair written on his face is absolutely apparent to the viewer, if not to his crowd of adoring fans.

In the midst of his melancholy, Calvin is visited by the girl of his dreams. Literally. She first actually appears in his dreams. She inspires him, and he begins to write about her. Suddenly, and without warning, the film becomes magical realism and Ruby Sparks appears in Calvin’s house. Apparently completely real (other people can see her too), Ruby is convinced that she and Cal have been in a relationship for months already. After a little convincing, he decides to go along with it. She is his dream girl, after all – again, quite literally.

With red hair, a spunky personality, and a troubled past, I resonated with Calvin’s affection for this imaginary woman. I think many guys who struggle with self-esteem (and I would count myself among them) subconsciously seek out a girl that will make us feel like a hero. We look for the girl who has never had what we would consider to be a ‘healthy’ relationship, so that we can be that beacon of light in their life. We will be the gentleman, the knight in shining armour, the guy who is most definitely ‘not her type’ (as Ruby herself actually says early in the film) but whom she will find hopelessly enduring nonetheless.

Calvin believes this relationship will be perfect. He wrote her, after all – she embodies everything that he could want in a girl. She cooks, she’s adventurous and daring, she’s spontaneous – everything that he wishes he could be. His projection of the ideal has become manifest in reality, and he has fallen head over heels. He learns that he has the power to change her whenever he wants by adding to her story, but promises himself that he will never use that power. He locks her story away like a good hero, and falls into his supposed paradise.

While the early stages of their relationship seem perfect, there is something disconcerting about it. Ruby lacks character – although she has a history (written by Calvin) and a personality (written by Calvin), she doesn’t seem to have her own voice. At first I chalked this up to poor writing on the part of the script, but soon realized there was something more going on. Ruby hardly leaves the house – she can’t drive, has no occupation, and no professional training. Calvin pays for everything, and has no friends of his own. They spend their days talking with one another, making love, swimming in the pool… but it’s empty. Ruby becomes increasingly dissatisfied with this sterile existence, much to the consternation of Calvin. He is discovering that she is a real person with her own voice, her own dreams and desires. And the viewer is discovering just how withdrawn and introverted Calvin is. He makes no attempts to satisfy her dreams, or even to acknowledge them. He withdraws further into his books, just as Ruby is beginning to discover the real world outside of his house.

Ruby begins to drift away, taking art classes, spending time at her own apartment, finding less and less time for Calvin. Convinced that she is going to leave him (through no fault of his own, of course), he breaks out the script and rewrites her, making her desperately in love with him. Instantly, she becomes incredibly needy, unwilling to allow him to EVER leave her sight, crying if he so much as answers the phone instead of holding her hand. And so he rewrites her again, making her a permanently happy, bubbly person, who cannot help being cheerful. No matter what he says or does, she is stuck in perky mode.

And so he goes back to the drawing board again, changing her back to ‘normal’, even though he knows this threatens the relationship. After she ‘acts out’ again, he reveals to her the secret of the story in a powerful and disturbing sequence. He controls her while she’s standing in front of him, against her will. Although nothing sexual happens in this scene, it feels like rape. He twists her will to prove that he can, and hates himself for doing so. Through quick cuts and a pounding score, the sequence leaves the viewer feeling emotionally exhausted.

In the end, Calvin writes Ruby an exit, allowing her to leave. He then writes a proper novel about the experience, which of course becomes a best seller. The film ends with him meeting a girl in a park, who, Surprise! happens to be Ruby, although she remembers nothing of the experience. Personally the epilogue of the film was the weakest part for me, and felt very tacked on. I would have preferred the film to end leaving a question mark hanging in the air. Regardless, the film says some very powerful things about the idols we create and the selfish lives we live.

Calvin isn’t actually interested in a relationship – He’s interested in an ideal. He believes himself to be a stalled genius, and if only the rest of the world would get their act together, life would be perfect. He is of two minds – self-deprecating and narcissistic. Again I have to draw parallels to Woody Allen here – I watched Annie Hall last night and saw a lot of Alvy in Calvin.

Ruby likewise isn’t a real person, at least at first – she is simply a projection of Calvin’s reality. It is clear that he doesn’t even want her to be real – he clearly doesn’t even know what to do with a real relationship, a real person. He has no concept of give and take, sees no need to change or adapt himself in any way. In his mind (and in ours, often), a relationship ‘works’ when serendipity provides two people perfectly suited for each other. We often fall into this same trap. We see the Other as our Ideal. In the early stages of the relationship we ignore the faults and human-ness of the other. We don’t actually love them – we love our projection of who we think they are. We dehumanize the other person by denying their humanity and replacing it with our projection of perfection.

The problem is that no two people are ever ‘perfectly’ suited for each other, because there is no perfect person on the face of the Earth. When we love someone for their ‘perfection’ we don’t actually love them – we love an idol that we’ve created in their image. Ruby Sparks reveals the self-deception and lies that we must all overcome if we actually want to be involved in a healthy relationship. We must accept the other person for who they are, rather than who we want them to be. We must realize that love is choice and an action, not purely a result of a serendipitous meeting of kindred spirits. We must realize that change is part of the process of relationship, that healthy relationship comes from give and take, from the relinquishing of self-interest in favor of interest in the other person. Our society is not geared that way right now. Our society is geared towards infatuation, lust, and emotional highs. We’ve been trained by society to jump from one emotional high to another, and when those highs disappear, we plummet into the depths of emptiness. We’re bipolar, and we create ideals in an attempt to stabilize our fractured minds.

I believe this stability can only truly be found in Christ – that he is the ideal that we seek. I’ll be talking more about this in the future.

Mark 1.32-2.12

Well, today I’m returning to my series through Scripture. I know it’s been a long time since I wrote last, but these things come and go in waves. I’ve never been very good at consistency. Before we start, I thought I would let you know about a few other things I’ve been working on lately.

1. I’ve put in applications for scholarships to Regent College here in Vancouver. If I get the funds, I may be going back to school in September, possibly.
2. I’ve been following along with the Atheism for Lent series found here. The idea is to take a critical look at faith from an outside perspective in order to ground oneself better in true faith. I’m not sure what I think of it yet. These kinds of things can get very depressing. Believing in God is like breathing to me, so it’s not like I could just give it up, even if I wanted to… it colours everything I do. But it is good to look in from the outside, to see the flaws in our organized religion, and to get back to the heart of what my faith is – a relationship with my creator, who is bigger than anything I can imagine, and yet cares intimately for all of his creation.
3.I’m writing an editorial series on casual facebook games at JTMgames.com. This has been fun! Go read it.
4. I’m applying for an addictions counselling course that runs through the summer, with the potential to continue into next year. I’m excited about this opportunity, and about the doors that it might open in the future.

Now, on to Scripture! We’re picking up the story immediately following the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law. I’ll be liveblogging through it, and adding some theological asides where I feel I have the wisdom and / or resources to do so. mastly I’ll be asking a lot of questions though.

Mark 1.32-2.12

32 That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons.33 And the whole city was gathered together at the door. 34 And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

Interesting, the line ‘he would not permit them to speak, because they knew him’. This indicates that Jesus was still hiding something of his nature from the people. Perhaps Mark wrote this line in response to questions that were asked after Jesus’ death – ‘well, if he was the son of God, why didn’t the demons he cast out recognize him?’
I don’t know why Jesus didn’t want to be fully known yet. My suspicion is that if people knew what he was claiming to be they would have killed him all the quicker. It’s a possibility for sure.

35 And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37 and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” 38 And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” 39 And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.

I like this. Jesus did not come just for a small group of people, but for everyone – he knew that people would try and contain him, or would just use him as a miracle man, and there was much more to his story. He had to keep himself from becoming hemmed in by his audience.

40 And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” 42 And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43 AndJesus[h] sternly charged him and sent him away at once, 44 and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” 45 But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.

Jesus did not want the credit from this, but wanted to give the credit to God. He also knew that this would restrict his movements, as the people would become desperate for healing while missing the point. It’s important to note here that Lepers were dirty in more than one way – they were sick and disfigured, yes, but they were also ceremonially unclean, unable to worship in the Temple before God. Jesus healing the leper represents more than just a healing – it represents a cleansing of the body before God.

 

2.1 And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home.And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—11 “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” 12 And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”

This is one of those accounts that those of us who grew up in the church heard in Sunday School all the time. It’s a neat little package with a good story, and so makes for an easy lesson for the Sunday School teacher. Plus, there’s something awesome about friends who would tear open the roof of a house in order to get their buddy in to see Jesus.

We often miss the theological significance behind the story though. The question that Jesus asks is actually a puzzling one. What is the correct answer? Is it easier to say to someone ‘your sins are forgiven’, or to tell someone to get up and walk? I would argue that the easier thing to do is to say ‘your sins are forgiven’, but saying either if you are lying about it will do no one any good. And so Jesus does both, proving that his words have power, by telling the man to get up. This astonishes the crowds on two levels – one, Jesus has the power to heal, and two, he has the power to forgive.