Topical Tuesday – Middle East Inspiration

A little different this Tuesday.  I want to share briefly an overview of a podcast I listened to recently that is both topical and inspirational.  If there is one source of consistent bad news it is that which emanates from Syria, Iraq and everything surrounding the emergence of ISIS.  A young American, Jeremy Courtney was recently interviewed by Rob Bell on his podcast, the Robcast and as the interview progressed I felt at once uplifted and inspired by this simple tale of transformation and Jeremy’s impactful organization Pre-emptive Love Coalition.

In his mid-twenties, Jeremy and his wife Jessica plus one year old child journeyed to Iraq with the intent to make a difference in the long time worn torn region around Kirkuk.  This was ten years ago and so still in the height of major US involvement in factional conflict.  They had set their sites on helping the poor but events soon overtook them after a chance meeting in a hotel lobby.

After many days of serving Jeremy coffee, a gentleman approached him to ask for help for his cousin’s daughter who was dying from a heart defect.  He was approached simply because he was American and the man believed this qualified him as a candidate for helping with this problem.  One of the knock on effects of war in Iraq had been to drive many skilled surgeons and medical staff out of the country and so there just were not any qualified surgeons to perform the necessary operation.  All Jeremy needed to see at their first meeting was the little girl and a piece of paper on which the only words he could understand were ‘Hole in Heart’.  He believed his attempts to help would ultimately fail which he stressed to the desperate father, but promised to try nevertheless.

Somehow, Jeremy was able to influence an appropriate surgical team to help this poor girl to get her life back.  At the same time, he discovered untold thousands of children with similar birth defects, many of which had been caused by Sadam Hussain’s chemical warfare, but also in the much less well known use of depleted uranium in US bombs (Something not often mentioned in the media!).

Despite fatwas, death threats, bombings, imprisonments and intense living conditions, Jeremy and a growing number of friends dived in to help as many of these unfortunate children as possible.  It became clear that funding these children to receive the kind of help they needed by traveling abroad was extremely prohibitive.  Somehow, they were able to arrange for an increasing number of surgeries to take place in Iraq itself as doctors came back in response to these needs being highlighted.

What truly inspired me about this story was the very different viewpoint fashioned in Jeremy’s mind by the privilege of being able to live amongst people of all different backgrounds, beliefs and religious persuasions.  I was struck by his ability to build bridges across real divides in order to do something positive to change the lives of those who did not have the power or resources to do the same for themselves.  One story on the podcast that challenged my own perspectives concerned working with a man who was on the US terrorist wanted list to establish an education for thousands of Iraqi children.

Listening to this man talk truly challenged my own attitudes, pre-conceptions and media bias.  It is clearly impossible to get a true picture of what life is like in the Middle East today, and yet not a day goes by when the media portrays one negative picture after another.  I felt it was worth writing this just to demonstrate that not everything happening in this devastated region of the world is negative.  There are people on the ground making a difference.  It also helps to gain some perspective on the rather negative reaction to refugees flooding into Europe and perhaps here in the US.  This conflict has its roots in ethnic cleansing of Kurds and the invasion of Kuwait, which is now nearly 25 years on.  It is the least we can do to suffer a relatively minor inconvenience and welcome those who have been displaced by this terrible conflict and all its consequences.

If you would like to listen to Jeremy first hand, I highly recommend the Robcast episode here – Jeremy Courtney Lives In Iraq

Sunday Sermon – All You Need Is Love Part 2

So, I have been meditating all week on this, taking a little time to write my other blog entries on Tuesday and Thursday, but really dwelling on this.  Thanks to all of you who contributed to the conversation, it really helped to bring some clarity to this week’s offering.  The most significant thing I realized was that we all think of something different when we hear that four letter word, ‘love’.  Where I want to focus right now, is not on the social transaction typified by two people operating in a kind of give and take, but from a more absolute viewpoint, best encapsulated in the description ‘unconditional love’.

I promised to go back to Genesis last week, and that’s what I am going to do, though hopefully making connection with one of the most famous of bible verses in John 3:16.  Why Genesis?  Well, as I read the poetry of that early attempt to describe how we all came to be living in this universe, I see what could be a universal truth when it comes to understanding love.  I believe that, when the author of the universe set all those complex processes in motion, it was intended that human beings would experience love right from the beginning.  I have a growing conviction that the whole allegory of the man and the woman and the serpent was actually symbolic of what was always meant to happen.  What do I mean by that?

I believe it was an act of love when we were offered the ability to experience not only life, but the knowledge of good and evil.  In Genesis 3 v 5, the serpent is quoted as saying, ‘God knows that the moment you eat from the tree, you’ll see what’s really going on, you’ll be just like God, knowing everything, ranging all the way from good to evil.”  God’s gift of love was to open up all knowledge to us humans, even though it would cause us to experience pain, suffering and loss as well as the heights of joy and happiness offered by life on earth.  Even more significant, he did not foist this upon us, but the serpent in the story is symbolic of the choice we experience, more commonly called freewill.  The account in Genesis clearly shows that the tree was made available, the warning not to eat of the tree was a loving warning of the consequences and yet the choice was still offered through the serpent, who was also part of the grand design.

All this to say, the author of our existence demonstrated love towards us by giving everything, and yet exerting no control, giving up any attempt to possess us, and allowing complete knowledge with only a loving warning of the consequences.  This was done with the understanding that it would allow us to do our own thing, reject the one behind the act of love and all this without the promise of anything in return.

Fast forward to the account of John and we see the brackets wrapped around the end of this expression of love.  ‘This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son.  And this why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.’  John 3:16. The act of love is complete following all human attempts at ‘sacrifice’ and religious observance have failed to satisfy.  Our divine inventor finally becomes one of us, which involved getting down and dirty in the mess of this earth.  Once human, the ultimate act of love was available.  Jesus gave up his life at the hands of those towards whom unconditional love had been expressed.

So, I have revised my initial definition of love, if it could ever be defined – best of luck with that David!  Last week I applied the concept of putting others’ needs above our own.  This week, in the light of my comments above, I would put it something like this.  Unconditional love is lived out at its purest level when one gives everything, and is willing to give up life itself for the sake of the one loved and this is done with no element of control, possession or requirement of reciprocation.  I know, who can live up to that?  I might point out at this point, though, the traditional message of the evangelical church insisting on turning to God in order to avoid ‘hell’ is a far cry from the love letter that seems to have been written when you look at it the way I describe above.  What can we learn for ourselves?  Perhaps, if you truly love someone, stick with whatever allows them to fully be themselves.

Thought Provoking Thursday – In The Beginning

Busy day today, so a little late posting, but it I have been thinking about this post for a few days and found myself looking forward to getting in front of the keyboard.  I love the joke I heard once about God and the scientist having a discussion over how the earth was created.  The scientist reached down and grabbed a lump of soil from the ground to demonstrate his hypothesis, to which God says “Hey, get your own earth!”. Joking aside, the whole question of creation v evolution has to qualify as a ‘thought provoking’ topic for people on all sides of the divide.  There is virtually no one who, if pressed, would not have fairly strong feelings about the origins of the universe, even though most of us have limited access or understanding of the ever emerging discoveries being made by science.

For some, there is simple reliance on scripture and a literal 6 day creation or, for most religions, the belief that God is the author of everything that we know to exist (I use God in the widest possible sense as higher intelligence behind the universe).  At the other end of the spectrum, there are those, mostly associated with the scientific world, who believe such antiquated beliefs are simply nonsense and nothing short of fairy tales.  I hear creationists insisting that Darwin’s evolution is nothing but a theory, giving no credence to the enormous weight of scientific evidence that evolution attracts.  The fact that scientists continue to be surprised by the existence of particles that until now, never existed, such as the Higgs Bosun only emphasizes the journey we still run to discover just what, how or perhaps even who happened back before we humans inhabited the earth.  The name calling and hostility that exists between the creationist evangelicals and the arrogant disciples of Dawkins hardly endears me to either of these extremes.

I wonder what it would look like if this mutual stand off were to be turned on its head and we were all humble enough to admit that no one has anything like a watertight explanation for where we all came from.  I have suggested in a previous post that the bible should be seen as a library of books spanning many genres.  An interesting statistic I read recently in a well respected Bible dictionary stated that a portion of the Old Testament larger than the whole New Testament was dedicated to poetry.  By this it did not refer to a subjective interpretation but that the hebrew itself was written in poetic meter.  The first part of Genesis is one such part.

With this in mind, I would posit the possibility that the writer was expressing a concept as simple as this: God was responsible for making the universe happen.  God introduced the elements, particles and pre-requisites for this miracle of life to take place.  For me, the poem does not literally portray a booming figure speaking once each day for six days and then sitting in a deck chair for the seventh day.  The poem is an inspired yet primitive attempt to give credit to an intelligence, still little understood for the writer’s existence and the ingredients making up the universe he inhabited.

As for the scientist who continues diligently seeking answers to the yet unknown causes behind the universe, can she not admit the absence of proof positive to dispel my faith in intelligence behind the big bangs and particles of our beginning.  For me, I am excited by the achievements of science as we hypothesize and experiment, and yet sometimes stumble upon our great discoveries.  For me, it is as if the scientist is on an exciting easter egg hunt and I can almost hear the laughter as the latest piece of the jigsaw emerges and we humans applaud the growing understanding of how wonderful, complex and awe inspiring this universe really is.

I truly understand if you think it is all just one big accident and things conspired on their own to unfold the way they have and that is why we are here.  Personally I just don’t buy this belief but I understand that for some, believing in the author of the universe is just one step too far.  But I am also entirely uncomfortable with ignoring scientific discovery in favor of clinging to what seems to be a poetic picture of our beginnings.  The fascination of quantum mechanics, the wondrous world of atomic theory and the simple discovery that everything we deem to be solid is actually a mass of moving particles just blows my limited mind.  In no way does this shake my belief in a loving author of the universe, quite the contrary.  Perhaps we can agree to disagree, but let us celebrate the wonder of it all in the meantime!

Topics Tuesday – Birthday Gift

BG InsideWelcome to topical Tuesday, where I attempt to counteract the overwhelmingly negative news feed that bombards the airwaves and social space.  Usually, this might shine a light on something positive happening in the News.  However, today I am going to tell you about a very local story that happened in our own world.  As most of you might be aware, we have a coffee business in the Dallas Fort Worth area which includes two coffee houses.  We have always wanted the community side of our locations to be at least as important as the coffee.

There are so many stories associated with the people at Buon Giorno, but occasionally something happens that warms the heart and makes the hassle of running a business worthwhile.  Last Thursday, a gentleman came into our Fort Worth location on his birthday.  Rather than focusing on what he was destined to receive on this special day, he determined to turn the tables and do some of his own giving.  He handed over his credit card to our barista on duty that evening and asked her to ensure everyone who came in would receive their order without paying and everything would be charged to his card.

This kind and generous person did not just stay for a few minutes, but was resident for over an hour and his eventual bill came to a sizable total just over $200.  Now, I know nothing of the financial status of our surprise donor, nor anything about any of the customers who benefited.  As I thought about this, I realized that, in a lot of ways, this was irrelevant.  What is remarkable and heart warming about what happened was simply that it happened.

This was not about supporting a worthy charity, providing for the poor or cancer research.  You could even argue that his money could have been better spent on something more worthwhile than a large round of cappuccini (plural form of Cappuccino).   However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the pure act of generosity exercised by one human being towards others was so uncommon and alien to our culture in a good way, that it was worth making more of it and writing about it in my blog.  I began to think about how each of those people who were on the receiving end might be feeling as a complete stranger took care of their order.  I wondered how their drink might have tasted and what kind of mood they might have entered and left with; I even speculated at the untold impact that might have occurred had someone arrived after a bad day at work where their experience of humankind had perhaps not been quite so positive.  I know the event had a very positive impact on our baristas working that night.

I wonder just how different would be our experience of the wider community if this kind of thing were happening more frequently.  Would it begin to lose its significance should it be more common?  Would we begin to take it for granted?  Would those eager entrepreneurs find some kind of app to automate the experience or ensure its social media impact had some kind of effect on the bottom line?  I don’t know the answer to these questions, as this random act of generosity was still remarkable enough to feature on this week’s Topical Tuesday.  I would like to think that it might just have a lasting impact on the culture.  I, for one, have spent some time thinking about how I might contribute and with a birthday coming up, I have my own opportunity to do something similar.  Not very original, you might say, but sometimes imitation of the things that change for the better might not be a bad thing.  So what do you want for my birthday?

Sunday Sermon – All You Need is Love Part 1

Happy Sunday.  For many in my adopted land, this is Super Bowl Sunday, a chance for modern day gladiators to beat the shit out of each other while we all munch on tortilla chips and vote on this year’s most enterprising adverts in that unofficial Oscars for best Commercial.  Most Americans love this annual ritual just as they love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (yeugh!).  But love….?  We use the word ‘love’ in so many ways it is perhaps one of the most overused and misunderstood words in our language.  After my forays into the subjects of shame and forgiveness, the love theme began to grow large in my thoughts.  But as I mused it became clear I could not possibly write a few short paragraphs and then…done!  Love is in the  bag!

So, to be realistic, I will come back to this over and over, as I continue to grapple with what this simple four letter word might really mean.  For now, I have determined to begin by doing a series on some of the things that have occurred to me in the realm of love.  I don’t know how long I will stay with this, but we’ll start with part one and see how it goes.  So let’s start with what I believe love isn’t.  Love is not sex.  There we go, I had to mention it.  So its done now and we can move on!  Seriously, though, it has occurred to me that we have so emphasized the role of sex in the arena of love that it now dominates our understanding and the whole construct.  Any student of Freud would probably start there and barely leave the subject!  We even use the phrase ‘making love’ as a euphemism and Hollywood films would have us believe the act of sex is the ultimate expression of love between a man and a woman or increasingly between those of the same sex.  Indeed, this is probably at the root of such strong sentiments surrounding homophobia today.

Love isn’t romance either, even though, like sex, we might express our love towards certain people through these means.  But then, what is ‘romantic’ to one person might just be a bunch of flowers to another.  What I would like to do is provoke a discussion about what the word ‘love’ might really mean as it applies not to the Super Bowl or peanut butter sandwiches, but as the most important thing we can talk about when we talk about faith in God or on the level of how we relate with each other as human beings?’.  I happen to believe that we were born, primarily, to love and to be loved and so a better understanding of what that means might just enhance the life we have been given.  It is also important to properly frame this discussion by emphasizing this does not just mean the love between two people that might involve romance and sex, but the love of any human being for another and ultimately the love that is experienced in a more spiritual realm, wherever you put your faith.  By this, I mean that which I happen to experience as a result of my relationship with God or that anyone might experience outside the realm of the natural.

For the follower of Jesus, he was attributed as saying two remarkable things about love, that I believe are central to this discussion.  “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.   This is the first and greatest commandment.  A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Matthew 22:36 – 40. “Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” John 13:34.

I am going to end, having hardly started, by suggesting one major thought to ponder.  Is it possible to love without first having been loved?  For the purpose of this question, I am going to give us a working definition of love that is not the finished article, but will serve as a springboard for later discussion and development.  ‘Love happens when our own needs and desires take second place to the needs and desires of one or more others and our lives reflect that inner reality.’  So have I experienced that kind of love expressed towards me?  Have you?  And is our ability to express that kind of love dependent on having experienced it ourselves?  Next week I intend to get in to this subject in earnest and I think we will go back to the Genesis story again and see where it takes us.