Mazes

One memory I have of my childhood is of the holidays our family used to have at the seaside. Sunshine, sand, and togetherness—a happy recollection that lasts for a lifetime.

One of my father’s ways of amusing his offspring was to take a spade, and draw a complicated maze in the smooth sand on the beach. The twists and turns we children followed, as we tried to discover the right path, kept us all out of mischief—and then we could spin the time out further by taking the spade up for ourselves, and devising other mazes of our own.

Mazes are strange things. The idea of solving a maze is to find the right path that will take one from beginning to end. Yet if the answer comes too easily, we feel cheated. Taking false paths, seeing our errors, backtracking and then trying something else—it’s all part of the thrill of the chase, until at last we find the right way to go.

Life’s a bit like that maze. There are a lot of false paths we can take before we find “the way, the truth and the life”. And, as Omar Khayam points out, if God never wanted man to sin, He needs to be forgiven for all the opportunities for error that this world affords, starting with the snake in the Garden of Eden. Is it part of God’s plan that we should explore a few of the wrong ways of living, so at last we would learn from experience that the riddle of life only has one true solution? That would account for Jesus’s quite remarkable friendship for the sinners that he mixed with—but also for his insistence that, after meeting him, they “go and sin no more”.

The Greek words we translate ‘sin’ and ‘repentance’ can most literally be translated as ‘taking the wrong path’ and ‘changing the way we think’. They don’t necessarily have the moral sense of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ about them. So should we perhaps simply enjoy our Father’s wonderful world, listen to the good advice we get in the Scriptures, puzzle our way as best we can through the maze of the life path God has set for us, and enjoy the trip? – provided, of course, that we don’t ever give up trying to find the true path that leads us to the heavenly destination!

– Anglican Messenger, 1998*
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Feasting and Fasting

One of my favourite stories is of the distinguished chef of a very distinguished restaurant in Paris, France.

He was once asked what was the finest meal had ever eaten. This is the story he told:

“It was the day the U.S. Army liberated Paris, towards the end of World War II. I was a teenager at the time. We had had very little to eat for a long, long time. An American GI took pity on me, and shared his K rations with me, out in the street. It is still the most memorable meal of my life.”

Perhaps there’s a lesson for us in this tale. How much we appreciate the good things of life doesn’t always come from how luxurious they are. It also depends on how ready we are to receive them. Sometimes, we never know how good a thing has been for us, until we lose it.

Which brings up the subject of Lent and fasting.

There are two basic ways of approaching life. One is to go first for the feast, and the next day have the hangover. It is the approach of ‘buy now, pay later’ that we see so often in the modern world, and which is constantly advertised to us on television. ‘If I see it, I’ve got to have it’—whether it’s cabbage patch dolls, ‘Tickle me Elmo’ or Pokemon for our children, or furniture with deferred payments, sex without marriage, rewards without achievement, million dollar lotteries and quiz shows for the older folk. For that style of life, the hangover is always waiting.

The second approach is to fast before we feast. It’s the message of the season of Lent, even of Holy Week, before we come to resurrection and Easter. Indeed, without that prior discipline, the feast of Easter loses an enormous part of its impact. It’s when we come, faithful but sorrowing to the tomb, thinking that our Lord is no more, that our surprise and joy become full as we meet him.

It’s not only in the ceremonies of the Christian year that we see this pattern. It applies to life as well. Saint Paul’s instruction is to “Owe no man anything, but to love one another”. It’s an attitude of giving before getting, of discipline before reward, of hunger before satisfaction.

You’re never going to see such a way of life advertised on your television. Just the same, it might be a good idea to give it a try.

– Anglican Messenger, March 2000

Using Our Talents

This sermon followed a dramatized presentation of the parable of the talents.

When I discussed the script of the Gospel story you have just seen with the cast, I wondered whether I was going to have a riot on my hands. Did tender, loving Jesus actually cast this servant into outer darkness? If God is just, how do we explain the monstrous injustice of this whole story? The script we use comes from St. Matthew’s gospel: in the comparable story in Luke, when we hear the menacing order to give the single talent of the unprofitable servant to the servant who had ten, we hear an anguished cry of protest from some person in the crowd—“Lord, he has ten talents already!” Obviously, the crowd found the story hard to digest.

And the parable does seem appallingly unjust. If the master who gives his capital to his servants represents God, then why is he unjust in giving five talents on one, only two to another, and only one to the third? Why does he give an equal reward of appreciation when one servant brings back more than the other? Why the dreadful punishment of the last servant, who obviously went at least to the trouble of keeping his master’s money safe, so it would be there in full measure when he returned?

Whether it really is unjust, of course, depends on what we think is going on. So many people have a picture of heaven and hell as if it were some sort of celestial examination. Go through life and reach the Day of Judgment, meet St. Peter at the pearly gates, and if you have scored 65% or more in good deeds in life, you may enter the Kingdom of Heaven: get 64% and you may get a recount, and less than that, you are condemned to eternal torments in Hell.

Now, if God is perfectly just, and that were the way in which God operated, we would have to live in a very different world. If an examination is to be fair, then everyone has to have the same exam paper. Everyone has to have the same length of time to answer the questions. Everyone has to have the chance to an equal quality of teaching from the same curriculum. If any of these things are missed, then the exam is not fair.

But what we see in the world is anything but such a perfectly equal set up. Some babies perish even before they are born, and some live a hundred years or more. Some have great natural gifts. Others are born retarded. Some come from a background of education and culture—others have no schooling at all. Some have the opportunities that come from wealth. Others live in poverty. The more we think of the world as we see it as a basis for judgment or condemnation, the more unfair it all appears. So let’s try and find a different viewpoint.

Jesus did not come to earth to condemn the world, but to save it. His task was to bring life to the world—and to do this by founding a team, a body, a Kingdom of Heaven in which all of us are offered the chance to be living parts, just as the cells and the organs are parts of a body. And the key to life in a body is precisely that the parts are not the same. Rather, each part is different, and has its particular function. Bones are not the same as muscles—but it is only because the bones and the muscles work together that the body as a whole is able to stand. There is a difference in the endowment of the component parts, but they cooperate in performance, and the result is a benefit to the body as a whole.

Did you notice something about the awards given to the servants in this production? At first blush, you might assume that each servant was allowed to keep the profit he or she had made—but that was not the case. Rather, because they were slaves, all of the profit in each case was turned over to the master. The reward to the servant was the master’s goodwill, and the chance of a promotion to higher and more responsible service in the future. The happiness of each of them, master and slave alike, lay in the success of the total enterprise, and pride in the achievements of those who had taken part in it.

Perhaps an illustration from our bodies may help. The gall bladder is a small and rather unimportant part of the digestive system. It receives bile created by the liver, and holds it until it is required for the digestion of fats. Occasionally, it refuses to do its job, and causes so much pain and nausea to the body that the only thing to do is to take it out by surgery. When that is done, the body gets by as best it can, with the liver having to do double duty. The gall bladder itself, cut out of the body, ends its life in the incinerator as ‘bio-medical waste’. Doesn’t that illustrate the story we have just seen?

There is a real challenge in this drama to ourselves, as we approach the Christian life. There is a risk in enterprise—in running a lemonade stand, or writing a book—the risk is the risk of failure, and it is a risk we are asked to take. It is something that can often enough give us the feeling of being very much alone, perhaps of being a little bit crazy. It may well be that defeat stares us very frankly in the face. What we will find, though, if we follow our calling and develop the gifts God has given us, is that ‘underneath’, there are indeed the ‘everlasting arms’, and that after ‘casting our bread upon the waters’, it does return to us ‘after many days’.

Everyone in God’s world has been given some talent, no matter how humble. I think of Brother Lawrence, whose life was spent in washing the pans in the kitchen of his monastery, and who wrote that wonderful book The Practice of the Presence of God—the art of being close to God in carrying out the most ordinary duties of life. The temptation is so strong for all of us to think that, because we cannot excel in everything, we are no use for anything. But team-play requires the gifts of everyone: God gave us those gifts; we are accountable for how we use them.

And on the Day of Judgment, the question is not so much going to be “What have you achieved?” Rather, the question is whether you will be able to say “I was a member of Christ’s team.”

– Text of a Sermon delivered in October 1993

Wisdom

As the years keep silently slipping by, I begin to realize that with three quarters of a century of life under my belt, I am beginning to qualify as an ‘elder’. For this reason I was interested to read about a project undertaken by one John Izzo, a psychologist, recorded in his book The Five Secrets you must Discover before you Die.

Izzo identified some thousand people over the age of sixty, who were named by those who knew them to be people who had achieved satisfaction and fulfillment in their lives. His aim was to see what common elements of attitude and philosophy they shared, and their feelings relating to their own mortality.

Having put together a list of a thousand prospects he pared this down into a short list of two hundred and fifty, of which fifty were then interviewed in detail. These came from a variety of backgrounds—Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, even atheist. He was able to boil down their philosophies of life into just five simple rules—all of which can be found in the Sermon on the Mount:

  1. To thine own self be true. All of us are unique: only we ourselves know our inmost feelings. To live a life constrained by what another thinks is right for us is a recipe for frustration and misery.
  2. Never let your life be controlled by fear. “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest is this—‘It might have been’.” Take that risk when your heart tells you that a new course is the right thing to do.
  3. Love. Love is not a feeling, it is a decision as to how we behave towards ourselves, our fellows, and ultimately, the whole world that we live in. To miss love is to miss life.
  4. Live in the moment. Yesterday is past: it cannot be changed. Tomorrow is in the future, and cannot be controlled. Only the NOW is real. Savour it and live in it.
  5. Give more than you take. Each of us has been put into this world to make a difference. Finding one’s talent and using it for the good of others is a source of joy beyond anything that comes from wealth, power or possessions.

Two reflections come from this train of investigation. The first, that those who fulfill these five requirements are not particularly worried about death. When it comes, they will know that “They have fulfilled the work that they were given to do.”

Secondly, that this attitude is not confined solely to those who profess some orthodox faith, but rather is shared by all who have, knowingly or not, followed these rules in the way they have chosen to live. God may surprise some devoted church attenders by saying to them “I never knew you.” Equally, others may be surprised to be welcomed into heaven, whose lives have reflected the Sermon on the Mount, even though they knew little or nothing about its author.

And as we continue to meet each month over a lunch initiated by our late colleague Basil Barnes, I cannot help but feel that he was a person who knew these secrets, and followed them.

– Gemini, April 2009

Imperfection

A story I like to reflect on tells of a young boy—we could call him Peter—who had a real gift for mathematics. Week after week, in the various tests in class, he scored 100%. One day, however, he was just a little bit careless; he got the date of the test wrong, and was given a mark of only 99%. He burst into tears. Perfection had escaped him.

There is a story of another Peter—one to whom Jesus had promised good things, because he had “left all and followed him”—but who in the stress of Maundy Thursday evening had three times denied even knowing who Jesus was. “He went out, and wept bitterly”.

Perhaps all of us know the feeling. We try hard. Most of the time we do quite well. But we’re not perfect. Somewhere in the back of our memories is some hurtful event which we just wish we had handled differently. We have fallen below 100%, and nothing we can do from now on can change that fact. What do we do?

One answer is to ignore what has happened: to pretend that we are still perfect. That is no way to solve the problem, and it doesn’t work. The truth keeps gnawing away at us.

Another answer is to redouble our religious efforts, to try and make up with 110% the less than 100% score that is causing our despair. But Jesus said that when we have done everything, we are no more than unprofitable servants. The moving finger has written. We cannot recall it. We have fallen short of perfection.

Another answer is to set God’s standards a little bit lower. We can’t hit 100%, but won’t 90% be good enough—just nine out of the Ten Commandments? Or if we can’t do 90%, maybe 85%? It’s hard to get peace of mind that way. Nowhere does the Bible give any indication that any particular degree of goodness other than perfection will get us into heaven.

Finally, though, we might take the route of asking for forgiveness. Did not God, through the prophet Jeremiah, say that “I will forgive their transgressions, and remember their sins no more”?

Such an answer is true, but it comes with a catch. To take the route of forgiveness means abandoning the Old Covenant, of commands and punishment, and entering into the New Covenant, of forgiveness. God, who has been hurt by our disobedience and sin, is yet willing to forgive. We, who are forgiven, are obliged to give the same forgiveness to others, our enemies and those who have hurt us included.

Teaching us the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus is very specific. We are to ask God to forgive us our debts “as we forgive everyone who is indebted to us”. If we do not forgive others their trespasses against us, our Heavenly Father will not forgive us our trespasses. And forgiveness is a very simple thing. It is something I do regularly in my business, when I decide to ‘write off’ debts that are on the books, but are not worth the trouble of trying to collect.

The price to us for our forgiveness from God is that we quit trying to remove splinters from our neighbour’s eyes, knowing that we have a 2×4 stuck in our own. We quit trying to collect what others owe to us, knowing that God has forgiven us far more. We quit trying to get to heaven by being perfect, knowing that we are human, capable of error, and ‘cannot always stand upright’. And then we may find that we have received the promised ‘new heart’. We have shed an enormous burden that perhaps we never knew we were carrying—the burden of trying to make other people behave like the sort of people we want them to be.

That’s a task we can leave to God!

– Anglican Messenger, December 2004

Youth

“Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? Even by ruling himself after thy word.”

So says the Psalmist. So what words do we find in the Bible to give young people guidance as they set out to find their way in life?

First of all, that God uses young people. Samuel received his call when he was only six years old. Joseph was still young when he was sold into slavery. David was “only a youth” when he overcame Goliath. Jesus was impressing the doctors of the law in the Temple as he pursued “his father’s business” at the age of twelve—and in fact, was hardly out of his twenties when he was baptized and started his ministry as the Son of God. St. Paul tells Timothy “Let no one despise your youth” as he puts him in charge of much older people in the church at Ephesus.

Secondly, that the decisions taken in youth can last a lifetime. “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” says the Book of Proverbs. This means that parents have an enormous responsibility, to teach children the way to live. “These words which I command you this day shall be in thy heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently to thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.”

Thirdly, that children, in their innocence, are particular objects of God’s love, and are especially close to the heavenly kingdom. “Suffer little children to come unto me” says Jesus, “for of such are the Kingdom of God.” Terrible penalties are laid on those who cause them to stumble. They are not to be despised, “For I say to you, that in heaven, their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven”.

But fourthly, that there are only too many temptations placed in the path of young people. Worldliness. Wastefulness. Self-indulgence. Disrespect. Sexual temptations. Irreligion. Anger and violence. As we grow spiritually, we become more able to confront these. “I write to you, little children” says St. John “because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake… I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the wicked one.”

What part of God’s word? Everyone will have their preferences, but for me, there is a marvellous store of practical advice in the Book of Proverbs, on staying away from crime, on listening to parents, on avoiding drunkenness, on “the way of a man with a maid”—none of which will lead anyone astray.

And I recall also, when I was twelve years old, and World War II had not yet come to an end, that the first book of the Bible that really ‘spoke’ to me was, surprisingly enough, the Book of Job, about which my dear great aunt Ida had sent me some Bible Reading Fellowship notes. So much Sunday School religion is of a kind of pretty sanitized sort, with the idea that we’ll get to the tough stuff later on, and it didn’t cut much ice with me. Job dealt with the world as I saw it around me in the middle of a world war, with a lot of innocent people getting hurt, whether they deserved it or not. There was something in the magnificent language of Job that resonated—and still resonates—with me: an honest facing up to the undeserved trials we all face in life, and God’s inscrutable answer, which at once is and is not an answer, to the problems of suffering.

A passage in John Irving’s book A Prayer for Owen Meany struck me when I read it. Describing Dan, a schoolteacher, Irving says:

“He was not only a spirited, good teacher, but he believed that it was a hardship to be young, that it was more difficult to be a teenager than a grown-up—an opinion not widely held among grown-ups.”

I agree. Growing up is not easy, especially in those teen years when we are adult in size, but still have to learn and accept the rules, responsibilities and often the hypocrisies of the adult world. In the church, we adults do our best to point to the Way, the Truth and the Life—but it’s hard for us to do anything more than that. Every one of us, young and old, still is set the task of finding and adopting for ourselves the treasure of Jesus’s love, each in our own individual way.

God bless you on your journey!

– Anglican Messenger, October 2000

Puzzles

I confess to being an addict—an addict of problems and puzzles.

When MC2 arrives each month, it doesn’t take me long before pencil and paper are out (and sometimes a few small computer programs as well), to attack the contributions on the puzzle page. The combination of strange human interest stories and weird mathematical coincidences for hypothetical protagonists whose names (fortunately) usually run in alphabetical order, is to me irresistible.

Worse than that, when Saturday’s “Edmonton Journal” arrives, my first port of call is a whole page of puzzles. The news and lifestyle articles wait—sometimes indefinitely. I start with unscrambling a number of jumbled words, to reconstruct a phrase which becomes the solution. I pass on to Isaac Asimov’s “super quiz”—not one of my greatest favourites, since it seems to test trivial recall more than brainpower, and sometimes I find I know it all, and in other areas—popular songs, movies, and movie stars—I find I know practically nothing. Next, I go on first to the simpler, ten minute, crossword, then to the larger one, and finally to the “diagramless”—which poses some of the neatest problems, since not only the words but also their location has to be discovered. Then there’s a number of Rebus type puzzles—some clever, some not so—before having a go at the Cryptograms. These always seem much more interesting as meaning gradually comes out from a process of intelligent guesswork and trial and error, than when I read the solutions a week later.

What’s the attraction—for attraction it certainly is? Just as the gambler seeks to find the perfect system, or the lover of “feghoots” is attracted by the improbable story made sense of by an impossible pun, so it seems to me that the exploration of the recesses of our mind, as we seek old memories, possible answers to clues, or means to attack a problem in mathematics, is a great source of pleasure—culminating when it leads to an intellectually satisfying answer.

When asked about the source of his great humour, the master of comedy, Charlie Chaplin, gave an illustration that I treasure. “Many people think it’s funny when a man slips on a banana peel;” he said. “But that’s not funny. What is really funny is when a man sees a banana peel, steps around it to avoid slipping on it, and falls down a manhole.”

Isn’t that what it’s all about? A situation. A challenge. A clue. A search through all the recesses of our mind, wondering if one or other false trail is the right one, to bring the unfinished to finality. Then at last, either we, with our own efforts, or the storyteller himself, divert us from what might possibly be the answer, to a finale that puts everything in its place. Falling down the manhole is not by itself funny. Nor is slipping on a banana peel. Somehow, it is the combination of the two, the substitution of one disaster for another, that gives the enjoyment. The same puzzlement, false clues, and final denouement that also makes a good detective story. The same first subject, second subject, development through disharmony and minor keys, and recapitulation to a harmonious ending, that goes into the making of a symphony.

So the golfer, trying “to hit an undersized ball into an undersized hole with the most difficult instruments imaginable”. So the hockey player, trying to steer past the defenses of the opposing goaltender to put the puck into the net. The circumstances may be different—but the plot is always the same. Travelling hopefully is essential to the pleasure of arrival.

– Gemini, July 1996