Monday, June 12, 2017

book review: When Breath Becomes Air

title: Paul Kalanithi
author: When Breath Becomes Air
publisher: Random House
year: 2016

"I was pursuing medicine to bear witness to the twinned mysteries of death, its experiential and biological manifestations: at once deeply personal and utterly impersonal."

Paul Kalanithi was, by all accounts, an excellent neurosurgeon, with the potential of being a true guiding force in medicine and science. He spent most of his early adult life seeking knowledge on multiple fronts, from literature and science to philosophy and ethics. When he finally decided to pursue a career in neurology, he wasn't just content to be a doctor—he wanted to understand and identify with his patients fully, to help them and their families adjust to whatever their new reality would be following a diagnosis, an accident, a surgery.

At the age of 36, Paul Kalanithi, with a BA and MA in English Literature, a BA in Human Biology, an MPhil in History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine, and was completing his residency in Neurological Surgery and a postdoctoral fellowship in Neuroscience was diagnosed with Stage IV Lung Cancer. 

The transition from doctor to patient is not easy for anyone. While he and his internist wife Lucy are prepared for the worst, Paul's oncologist has hope, and doesn't allow him to wallow in his diagnosis. If he wants to stop being a neurologist, she tells him, it has to be because he doesn't want to continue or wants to pursue something else—his cancer won't stop him.

As he struggles with thoughts of his future, however long that might be, he ponders how to fill that time. Should he continue working in a field that has so richly given back to him, and given him the chance to touch so many lives? What gives a life value, and how can that value be measured? 
What obligations does he owe his family, his friends, his wife, his infant daughter?

"At those critical junctures, the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living."

When Breath Becomes Air is an intellectual and deeply emotional memoir, written by a young man with so much promise, so much heart, so much empathy. It is both a reflection on coming face-to-face with one's own mortality and a commentary on the responsibility doctors have to help their patients and their families through that same reflection, whether it happens with some warning or suddenly. It is also a love story, of a man and his wife, a man and the child he will never truly know, and a man and his career.

We know from the very start of Abraham Verghese's introduction to the book that Paul lost his battle with cancer, yet the end of his life, and the epilogue written by Paul's wife still feel like sucker punches. You mourn a man you probably never knew, but you feel truly blessed he chose as one of his final acts to share his life, his death, and his thoughts with the world, because we are all better for them.

"'The thing about lung cancer is that it's not exotic,' Paul wrote in an email to his best friend, Robin. 'It's just tragic enough and just imaginable enough. [The reader] can get into these shoes, walk a bit and say, 'So that's what it looks like from here...sooner or later I'll be back here in my own shoes.' That's what I'm aiming for, I think. Not the sensationalism of dying, and not exhortations to gather rosebuds, but: Here's what lies up ahead on the road.' Of course, he did more than just describe the terrain. He traversed it bravely."

This is a beautiful book, truly a work of art that I won't soon forget. I book I recommend to anyone working in any aspect of the medical profession. Thank you to the Kalanithi family for this opportunity to catch a glimpse into Paul' journey. 

Saturday, June 03, 2017

shalom - U2

U2 played a gospel song on Jimmy Kimmel the other night: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” I like this version, because everyone joins in. Someone mentioned to me that they didn't think it was a gospel song because it expressed so much longing. But, that's exactly why it's a gospel song. We live in the now but not yet of the Kingdom.

We never find all that we are looking for in this life... we are always longing for a deeper experience of God's love and grace, we desire the fullness of God's shalom to break in to the broken places - in our lives, in our cities, in our world. 

Wouldn't it be great to have U2 lead the choir in singing this longing song like they do here.

The author of Hebrews writes: "But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them" Hebrews 11:16.

We long for, we dream of, we hope for, we work for shalom - God's fullness, the flourishing of the city - the new heaven and the new earth.

Here's an official concert version... with even more people joining in the singing.

And one more, from 2011 when my daughter & I saw U2 at the Roger's Centre


Thursday, May 25, 2017

movie review: Queen of Katwe

The Queen of Katwe is a teenage girl, living in the lowest rung of Ugandan slum poverty who against all odds becomes a Woman Candidate Master in chess. The child of a Kampala slum dares never dares dream of being involved in a Hollywood ending, never mind it being her true story. Phiona Mutesi is a real life Disney story and that story deserves telling and is told well.
The Queen of Katwe has few white actors and some 80 Ugandans - mostly kids with no acting experience. Having spent a few weeks in Uganda earlier this year, and with OCC being involved with the Neema Children's Choir, I was looking forward to this movie.
I was not disappointed. We are transported to a slum in Kampala, Uganda: the way words are used, the bustle of Kampalan life, the bleakness of the poor in the slums and the near impossibility to better themselves is all laid out.
Then, into such hopelessness, there are those who give their lives to improve the lives of others. David Oyelowo’s character (he recently played Dr King in Selma) sacrifices his own betterment to improve the children that he teaches chess and other sports to... as does his wife.
Chess is such a fascinating game to play among Ugandan children or any other African child. With little play time at a young age and education done in a rote manner, chess, that uses problem solving and imagination, is more than a game. It teaches about life and how to deal with the knocks and be creative about how to dream beyond the situation. 

It's a film well worth seeing - in fact we will probably show it at OCC as part of raising awareness of life and ministry in East Africa.

Ascension Day

Ascension Day is one of those days on the church calendar that most of us don't know what to do with. We know that the Apostle's Creed says:
He ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty;
But we sometimes get some odd views of what it means for Jesus to ascend. Part of that is because we try to read 21st century science back into the 1st century. The author of Acts (Luke) had no notion of light years, of outer space, of the things that are part of our understanding of the cosmos. As someone has put it: 
The ascension is harder to believe in than the resurrection.
Keith Ward, in his book, The Big Questions in Science and Religion:
We now know that, if [Jesus] began ascending two thousand years ago, he would not yet have left the Milky Way (unless he attained warp speed).
James D. G. Dunn’s article on “Myth” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels: 
To demythologize the ascension is not to deny that Jesus “went to heaven”; it is simply to find a way of expressing this in language which takes it out of the realm of current or future space research.
The new NIV Faithline Study Bible has an graphic of the ancient Hebrew worldview of cosmology. I think we sometimes try too hard to make the ancient Hebrews (and therefore the Old Testament) to literal. I wonder, if maybe they were better at metaphor than we sometimes are.

Ascension day is a perfect day to remind ourselves that literalism is not only problematic, but impossible. Even if someone insists on maintaining the literal truth of the claim in Acts that Jesus literally went up into heaven, they cannot maintain the worldview of the 1st century Christians which provided the context for the affirmation. Those early believers knew nothing of light-years, distant galaxies or interstellar space without oxygen. And it is not possible, either through some act of will or by faith, to ignore or forget everything that has been learned since then and believe as they did. 

There are many people who claim that they are Biblical literalists. But there are no actual Biblical literalists. Because even the precise words of the Bible, taken literally, mean something different today than they did almost 2,000 years ago.

Dallas Willard, in The Divine Conspiracy, writes:
The damage done to our practical faith in Christ and in his government-at-hand by confusing heaven with a place in distant or outer space, or even beyond space, is incalculable. Of course God is there too. But instead of heaven and God also being always present with us, as Jesus shows them to be, we invariably take them to be located far away and, most likely, at a much later time – not here and not now. And we should then be surprised to feel ourselves alone?
Larry Norman, in U.F.O., sang, 
And if there's life on other planetsThen I'm sure that He must knowAnd He's been there once alreadyAnd has died to save their souls

Monday, May 08, 2017

book review: (re)union

title: (re)union the GOOD NEWS of JESUS for SINNERS, SAINTS and SEEKERS
author: Bruxy Cavey
year: 2017
publisher: Herald Press

Bruxy Cavey wants a Christianity that looks like Jesus. A Christianity that is know for who it is for more than what it is against. If you boil this book down to a single thought or phrase it is this: the gospel, the good news, is Jesus.

Bruxy, opens by highlighting the irreligious aspect of the gospel - the gospel does way with religion. Jesus himself said, as he prayed (John 17:3) "Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent." Eternal life is knowing God and Jesus - none of the stuff that we sometimes substitute for that relationship.

Throughout the pages of this book, Bruxy unpacks aspects of the gospel - the good news.

The gospel in one word: Jesus.
The gospel in three words: Jesus is Lord.
The gospel in thirty words: Jesus is God with us, come to show us God's love, save us from sin, set up God's Kingdom, and, shut down religion, so we can share in God's life.

(re)union is a book written by a man who obviously loves Jesus and who presents a careful examination of what the gospel is all about - Jesus. It's a book well worth reading. It's about His kingdom with us and in us through His Holy Spirit. This is a book for seekers and sinners and especially saints who have lost their way in religion and want to find Jesus again.

Disclosure of Material Connection:
I received a free copy of this book as part of the NetGallery Review Program
in exchange for my honest review. The thoughts expressed here are my own.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

book review: Orillia's Civil War

titleOrillia's Civil War
authorDavid Town 
year: 2016
publisher: self-published

David Town has written a great summary of the history of Orillia 1832-1836, highlighting the "battles" between the 1st nations people, the Family Compact government, the settlers and the church. It's a story that, unfortunately, has been told in so many places, not only here in Canada, but around the world. 

As in many cases, the tensions revolve around land and power. In Orillia's case, the increasing reduction (and in some cases, illegal possession) of land sold to the Chippewa / Ojibwa, at below market prices. Town provides a detailed summary of the conflict between the four groups. All four groups hated at least one of the other groups. 

As I read the account, of the government failing to act or acting only for personal gain; of settlers, under the protection of the government, illegally occupying native land, ignoring treaties; of 1st nations people being so mistreated that they gave into the poor land deals that were offered; and, of church power battles - I felt anger at the way the people who were here long before we were, were mistreated.

The "civil war" for the land on which Orillia is located, lasted only five years, 1832-36. But final resolution of the original treaty agreement of land between Orillia and Coldwater did not happen until 2011.

I purchased "Orillia's Civil War" from Manticore Books, Orillia, which incidentally is where the Methodist Mission house was built in 1831-32.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Book Review: Mother Tongue

Title: Mother Tongue: how our heritage shapes our story
Author: Leonard Sweet
Date: 2017
Publisher: NavPress

Leonard Sweet in his recent book, Mother Tongue: How Our Heritage Shapes Our Story” (NavPress, 2017), highlights his family's story, and more particularly the life of his mother, Mabel Boggs Sweet.

Written using the metaphor of a memory box, Sweet presents his family’s story by employing chapters titled with memory box “artefacts,” i.e. “Ma’s Wedding Ring, Dad’s Hellevision,” “Polio Braces,” “Lye Soap,” and 22 others. 

Sweet takes us into the home and lives of his parents and brothers. While Mable Boggs Sweet was the hub of that home, it is clear, that “in spite of all the embarrassment as kids growing up, we got the sense that to be a follower of Jesus is to be heir to an extraordinary heritage, host to the very Son of God, and harbinger of a promised future”.

It is clear in "Mother Tongue" that Jesus was first and foremost in Mabel Boggs Sweet’s mind and heart, and she imparted the Jesus way of life to her boys. 

But it was not all "sweet" in the Sweet clan. It was a fully human family, experiencing rejection and shunning from church leaders and church members, suffering the physical results of professional medical negligence, enduring the brutal impact of polio, and living through the rebellious years of teenage children. 

Mother Tongue: How Our Heritage Shapes Our Story” is a mixture of pain and humour, hardship and beauty. Sweet writes with both broad stokes and intimate details. But there is no doubt that the central character of the story and of the heritage passed down from Mother Boggs Sweet is Jesus Christ.

"Mother Tongue" is a great book for those who are beginning to raise their families to see the heritage they are passing down.

I received this book from the author in exchange for a review.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Do we believe it?

Christians sometimes speak about ‘dying well.’ That was a phrase that Puritan theologians and pastors (rooted in 16th & 17th century England… many left for America in 1660-62) used.

A couple of weeks ago we celebrated Easter Sunday. The German theologian-pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45)wrote that:
How we deal with dying is more important to us than how we conquer death.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “I Want to Live These Days with You: A Year of Daily Devotions” 

Bonhoeffer points out that we are thinking about the wrong thing: Socrates talked about overcoming dying, but Christ overcame death. Then he writes this (Bonhoeffer is dynamite!)
Based not on the art of dying, but on the resurrection of Christ, a new, cleansing wind can blow into the present world…. If a few people really believed this and let it affect the way they move in their earthly activity, a lot of things would change. To live on the basis of the resurrection – that is what Easter means.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “I Want to Live These Days with You: A Year of Daily Devotions” 

Do we believe it?
Do we live on the basis of of the resurrection?
do we practice resurrection?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017


Three stories.
  • I know I am late to the story. I have paid very little attention to the musical "Hamilton". 
  • I have also been reading Bruce Feiler's new book "The First Love Story: Adam Eve and Us"Adam and Eve leave the Garden, their son Cain kills their other son Abel. I can't imagine their pain.
  • I have recently returned from Uganda, where I had the opportunity to connect to the ministry of I Live Again - Uganda. I heard many stories of deep pain and trauma. And saw our living out forgiveness is changing lives.
But the thing that links these three stories together is forgiveness. 
  • In Uganda, forgiveness is the key to recovery from the trauma of war.
  • In Genesis, forgiveness is at the heart of Adam and Eve's relationship and their relationship with God.
  • In Hamilton, after Alexander has cheated on his wife and his son, Philip, has been killed in a duel, there is a song about imagination, commitment and ultimately an act of love to re-choose someone after a difficult time. Eliza is confronted with the “unimaginable” decision to forgive her husband’s acts of adultery and betrayal. “Unimaginable” because the audience still feels the heat of the incendiary curse she pronounced on her husband only moments prior:
You forfeit all rights to my heart
you forfeit the place in our bed …
I hope that you burn
But by the emotional climax of the musical, we find this moment of profound release and beauty:
There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is a grace too powerful to name
We push away what we can never understand
We push away the unimaginable 
They are standing in the garden 
Alexander by Eliza’s side 
She takes his hand 
It’s quiet uptown 
Forgiveness. Can you imagine?  
Forgiveness. Can you imagine? 

We are never told about Eliza’s thought process in moving from anger to forgiveness, not that explanations would help. Only that Eliza forgives. Can you imagine?

It's a powerful song - take a listen. But more than that, know that in Christ, there is forgiveness, know that in Christ, you can be forgiven, know that in Christ you can forgive.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Review: The Shack

I went to see “The Shack” last night. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. Spoiler alert: parts of this review may give away plot elements.

And then I came home and read some reviews. And was surprised (I’m not sure why. I have certainly heard and read enough attacks by people who call themselves “christians” over the years.) 

Here’s where we need to start. This is a film based on a novel. It is not a systematic theology (and if you are getting your total picture of God and his work from a systematic theology, you need to rethink that approach). It is a “true” story in the sense that it is rooted in the main character’s (Mack) experience in the world (including an abusive father, loss of a child, overwhelming grief). It is a modern parable (don’t make the mistake of trying to make every detail represent something vital).

As a work of fiction, it takes us out of our comfort zones into places most of don’t have to go, it takes us to places where we see something of the incredible depths of God’s love. 

Many seem to be stuck on the portrayal of the Trinity in the film. People, remember this is all part of a dream sequence in the film. It is an attempt, it is not a definitive statement on the nature of the Trinity. In fact, I love how Papa sometimes appears as female and at another time as male (and incidentally, and thankfully, none of the trinity characters are white males) – which is a very biblical picture. This picture painted in the film of the Trinity is of a community of sacrificial, others-centered, love (which is orthodox). Seldom do we/can we imagine what the Triune community is really like. The Shack provides a fun and engaging image of this as we try to comprehend the Trinity. I liked the scene of the Father, Son, and Spirit sitting at the meal table. It reminded me of the icon depicting perichoresis. The marvel of redemption is that we get to sit at the table, too.

Some see in the film the idea of universalism. But I did not see any “all religions lead to God” teaching. Nor was there a minimizing of sin and evil, of these being taken lightly with no judgment to fear. This is not a film about all aspects of theology, nor does it pretend to be. It is the story of one man’s journey of finding God, healing and resurrection life.

The thought the film deals honestly in its depiction of devastating human pain and the Jesus’ command to love and, yes, forgive. The film raises the question: How can a good, loving God plan or allow evil? There is no flippant, superficial forgiveness in this film. 

Having just returned from Uganda and seeing the work that some of God’s people are doing in helping people find and offer forgiveness as a result of the incredible pain inflicted on them by the LRA [Jospeh Kony & the Lord's Resistance Army], seeing that the resolution to human pain is found in the deeply loving Trinitarian God who suffered with and bore our pain is so important to grasp.

The Shack – both the book and the movie are great conversation starters.

But here’s what saddens me: many of the criticisms of The Shack are offered not as conversations points but as pronouncements. They shut down the dialogue. In contrast, The Shack raises the question: How do we present God as Father to this father-starved generation and call them to draw near to Him, when the mention of “father” conjures up images that are uncaring, distant, and (in more cases than we’d like to admit) abusive? The Shack tackles that question by starting in the kitchen with “Papa” represented as a warm, embracing African-American woman and leading Mack from there to know “Papa” as Father who will shepherd him gently through the hardest stretches of his journey. 

Papa, says of every human she meets or recollects, “I am especially fond of him.” If there is one line I wish people would grasp it is this: God says of you, “I am especially fond of you.”

The Shack is about being reassured of God’s relentless love for you in the presence of your greatest reason to doubt Him. How ironic for Mack to come to grips with God’s love at the murder scene of his daughter where God’s love seemed so wholly absent. What a great starting point for deep conversations about all of life.

The film / parable is about how we feel about ourselves in our own “shacks.” Do we really believe – deep in our guts, not just in our heads – that God is “especially fond” of us?

This is where The Shack engages us. It encourages us to embrace the loving relationship into which God invites us. No, it does not answer every question, address every aspect of God’s nature or reflect on every topic of Christian theology. Instead, it zeros in on the fundamental way in which wounded people erect barriers that muzzle the divine invitation to loving relationship.

Friday, February 10, 2017


There are some anti-immigration posts floating social media around that argue for building walls and extreme vetting and deportation, based on what the book of Revelation says:
The Scriptures tell us that the eternal city of his coming kingdom will be surrounded by “a great high wall with twelve gates” (Revelation 21:12), each guarded by an angel so undocumented intruders cannot enter.
Identification papers will be scrutinized carefully before anyone is allowed to enter through one of the great big beautiful doors that are built in this wall that surrounds the city. In John’s vision, “books were opened,” and “if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life” he was not only not admitted but “thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:12; 15). Talk about extreme vetting and deportation.
But, we need to read the whole passage: one of the vital characteristics of the new city [apart from it being cube-shaped] is that "it's gates will never be shut" Revelation 21:25

Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton, in the quote at the end of this post [go ahead, drop down and read it now], highlights a very simple, yet profound truth. A truth that inevitably flows from the Gospel when we understand it.
God is love. God loves me. God loves people. I love people.
Not a series of “shoulds” and “oughts,” but a discovery of the reality of who God is. A discovery of how the world looks through the Gospel and in Jesus.

It is obvious to say that Christian spirituality, worship, prayer and calling brings us to the love of God. But it doesn't stop there, Christian spirituality, worship, prayer and calling brings us to the love of people. When we see and know God most clearly, compassion and love for people overflows.

If our expression of Christianity bears the fruit of hostility towards the world of humanity, and directs us away from that world’s brokenness and reality, then we have missed the heart of the Gospel and the heart of God. Hans Kung [On Being A Christian, 1974] , wrote how on "being Christian [] being radically human." Merton, recognizes that there was more to his life than his calling to the monastery. He reminds himself and us, that we are human, and, we are called to be people (both as individuals and together as the church) who live out this humanness, demonstrating to the world and the people in it that the heart and glory of God wants to break in. We are called by God into this world.
"Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of “separation from the world” that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun." ~Thomas Merton