Who Do We Choose To Be, Part 3: Restoring Sanity

It is a bizarre world now, and it seems to get more insane, polarized, aggressive and anxiety-provoking every day. Nova Scotians are burning indigenous fisheries, the Government of Alberta is attacking health care structures amid a pandemic, and the US election is a dumpster fire that may end in a non-peaceful transition of power. Wheatley’s book predates these particular incidents, but all of them fit her premise that we are in the midst of a culture of collapse – that our era of greed and dominance needs to transition to something more loving and humane. 

I’d like to believe there is more hope than she brings to the table. As a Buddhist, Wheatley interprets the world cyclically and naturally sees our civilization as the end of a cultural cycle. Thus there is nothing individual human agents can do to hold back the tide of insanity at national or global scales – it is what it is. As a Christian, I would disagree on some of these points and argue that this is a time for prayer, fasting and repentance – and that there is ample evidence in history that societal change is possible without war, famine, plague and death. National leaders can arise who inspire humility, service and calm over greed, individualism and violence. But where are they!? Our world is warming, and the ocean is acidifying, poverty and human sufferings are increasing. Our systems are not working, and things are getting worse as we seek distractions instead of solutions. Instead of coming together, we are turning upon one another. 

“As things deteriorate, relationships disintegrate into distrust, self-protection, and opposition. Internal conflicts increase and no one even notices threats to the whole as they fight for their tiny piece of the pie. Leaders use fear to control and manipulate people and everyone moves into self-protection. Distractions, entertainments, and entitlements become primary instruments of allaying people’s fears and controlling them.” (54) 

What I like most about Wheatley’s book is not her prognosis of collapse but her prescription for renewal. Recognizing the emergent nature of reality, she offers strategies for leaders of households and organizations such as businesses, congregations or even small universities to bring sanity during the contextual chaos. This begins with a leader stepping back and looking for trends in how organizational culture is changing. She offers five snapshots in this regard: 

Quality of Relationships: If you were to create a trend line from a few years ago to now and a few years ahead, how are people relating to each other? Has trust increased or declined? Are people more self-protective or less so? Are they more willing to be there for one another, to go the extra mile, or not? What’s your evidence for any of your conclusions?  

Fear versus love: If these are two ends of the spectrum of human emotions, which I believe they are, consider where you see examples of each. Also look for tendencies: which reaction, fear or love, is more likely in specific situations or with specific issues? Are either of these emotions coming to dominate as time goes on? In your leadership, what role does fear play? Are you more fearful? Are you using fear to motivate people? 

Quality of thinking: When a crisis happens, how do you respond? Are your values used to resolve the crisis? Do you consider the future? Is long-term thinking still happening (in conversations, decision-making, planning)? Has it made an impact? If so, is this visible to people? How difficult is it to find time to think, both for yourself and others? 

Willingness to contribute: What invitations to contribute have you extended and why? How have people responded? Ongoing, what are your expectations for people willing to step forward? Are those higher or lower than a few years ago? 

The role of money: How big an influence, as a percentage of other criteria, do financial issues have on decisions? Has money become a motivator for you? For staff? Has selfishness replaced service? How do you know?  

Wheatley suggests responding to an organizational culture focused on fear and the bottom line of money by revitalizing corporate identity around what it means to be human. Sane leadership is “the unshakable faith in people’s capacity to be generous, creative and kind… It is the deep knowing that even in the most dire circumstances, more becomes possible as people engage together with compassion and discernment, self-determining their best way forward.” (32) Leaders need to resist reactivity, self-protection, and denial and instead use their power and influence “to create islands of sanity that evoke and rely on our best human qualities to create, produce, and persevere.” (11) She borrows from Grace Lee Boggs to describe how in islands of sanity, we must rely on human human beings, linked our species’ technical name: homo sapiens sapiens. (166) Top-down god-playing leaders who have narcissistically ascended above other human human beings will not create islands of sanity. 

To be sane in today’s world, Wheatley suggests new skills. She advocates mindfulness as a mechanism to deal with the difficult emotional and personal triggers that emerge every day (264). Mindfulness practices will enable a leader to create space to find responses that generate possibilities rather than aggression and to develop a stable mind. “The intent of any mindfulness practice is to know yourself, not to become peaceful. Knowing how your own mind works makes it possible to stay present and engaged in hypercharged situations without losing your cool… There is no other way to prepare oneself for the difficulties, tragedies, and insanity that will continue to escalate. We can’t change this world, but we can change ourselves so that we can be of service to the world.”  

Leaders also need to develop participative process skills, especially listening, conflict resolution and problem-solving (198). The mark of a sane leader is collaboration, not decisiveness. Meaningful work involves a life of service, and thus servanthood should be the mark of a leader. “In this time of rising insanity and brutality, work that engages our better human qualities is a gift we can offer to others. This is why we create islands of sanity, so that more of us can experience the gift of doing meaningful work on behalf of others. How wonderful to have the chance to engage together in doing good work, no matter what is going on around us. We are richly blessed.” (270) This highly relational approach gets back to the root of what it means to be a human being. Life is about connectedness and relationships. “In a world preoccupied with meaningless tasks, people are ever more eager to engage in work that offers a chance to contribute, to remember how good it is to be a thinking, contributing colleague. These days, having one good conversation can reintroduce us to what it feels like to be in a satisfying human relationship. The same is true when we have the opportunity to think together and come up with a solution to a troubling situation. The human qualities that have become distant memories, or never known at all, come flooding in when we work together for a common purpose. Meaningful work reawakens us to what it feels like to be human human beings.” (267) 

For a long time, I thought I might be able to change the world. In middle age, I’m much less optimistic that my fantasies of ending poverty, alleviating the mental health crisis among young adults, or solving climate change will come to fruition through my influence. I resonate with Wheatley’s wrestling about what it means to make a difference in the world today. “If it’s not creating change at the large scale, if it’s not striving to reintroduce sane decision making into large systems, if it doesn’t stop the disintegration, then what does it mean to make a difference?… I have sat with this question for years, and I haven’t found an answer that stops the niggling voice of ‘yes, but surely you can think of something with more impact…’ The simple answer is found in all philosophies and spiritual traditions: Focus on serving others. Serve the individual; serve small groups; serve an entire community or organization. No matter what is going on around us, we can attend to the people in front of us, to the issues confronting us and there, we can offer what we can. We can offer insight and compassion. We can be present. We can stay and not flee. We can be examples of the best human qualities. This is a life well-lived, even if we didn’t save the world.” (269) 

Ultimately, Wheatley asks who we choose to be as a leader in this time (249). In her wrestling with this question, she has concluded that this means becoming a warrior of the human spirit. She links this to the Tibetan Shambala Warriors who would arm themselves only with compassion and insight. “A Warrior for the Human Spirit is a decent human being who aspires to be of service in an indecent, inhumane time… Warriors remember what it means to behave decently, ethically. We remember the capacities that every human being possesses. We affirm and work with these forgotten qualities through our presence and our wise actions. And in all we do, we consciously try to refrain from adding to the confusion, aggression and fear overwhelming most people.” (255) 

She finds Warriors of the human spirit in her study of the history of collapsing civilizations, quoting historian Sir John Glubb: “While despair might permeate the greater part of the nation, others achieved a new realization of the fact that only readiness for self-sacrifice could enable a community to survive. Some of the greatest saints in history lived in times of national decadence, raising the banner of duty and service against the flood of depravity and despair.” (252) 

Finally, Wheatley concludes with the most meaningful passage for my own wrestling with where I might go to serve in these troubling times. I’m already there, and likely you are as well: “Wherever you’re working is where you take your stand. You don’t have to go looking for new places, other issues, compelling causes. If you’re in a school, a financial firm, the UN, a refugee camp, a small nonprofit, a church, a hospital – wherever you are, stay there and notice the abundance of warrior opportunities. It may well be they you are already operating in this way – speaking up against unjust actions, influencing policies to address root causes, reminding decision makers what statistics mean in terms of human costs, going to bat for a colleague who’s been wrongfully harmed by administrative action, calling attention to new populations that need services, bearing witness to those whose suffering cannot be solved, comforting a sorrowful person or child… What’s common in all these actions is that human beings are at the center. By our actions, we call attention to people and their suffering. And we act where we can to support and console those near us.” (263) 

Part 1

Part 2

Who Do We Choose To Be, Part 2: Emergence

The reason I initially reserved from the library Wheatley’s Who Do We Choose To Be: Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity is because I found a reference to her writing on emergence, and this has been a theme of my research for fifteen years. Her book offered more than I anticipated in terms of leadership for today’s world, though her sections on emergence were not necessarily new. Nonetheless, they are central to her argument.

I usually use water to illustrate emergence, which is the idea that reality comprises various strata and that each new stratum has powers, mechanisms and properties that were not present in its building blocks. New levels of reality “emerge” out of those beneath them. So, when two hydrogen atoms bond with one atom of oxygen, you have something completely new – water – and it has powers and properties not available at the previous scale. Wheatley uses cookies for her more delicious central illustration (227). A cookie comprises various ingredients, none of which result in the mouth-watering goodness of this well-baked delight. Life itself is emergence – the stream of consciousness enabling you to read this blog is mysteriously emerging from over 37 trillion cells as well as highly complex systems and processes. In my Ph.D. dissertation, I used emergence in the social sciences to consider how churches emerge from congregants and denominations emerge from churches. More recently, I’ve been looking at emergence in terms of broader degradational trends in culture, especially the mental health crisis among youth and young adults and aspects of racism and polarization. I believe emergent powers materialism offers a helpful lens to consider how we may create a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world – or so I hope.

Wheatley’s perspective is not as initially optimistic. She recognizes that life does change through emergence and is firm in her analysis that once a culture has emerged, it cannot be reversed through any form of reductionism. Changing the players at the table, focusing on behaviours, or creating new incentive systems will not work a culture backwards. For Wheatley, all we can do is start over – and this is part of her leadership approach in our troubling times. 

“We start over by turning to our identity, the source of self-organization, reclaiming what we still believe in, what description gives meaning to who we want to be… This is our work as leaders, to focus within our sphere of influence, accepting the harsh reality that we can’t change the global culture that has emerged. There is no way to unwind where we are. We could have changed the ‘growth is good, extract everything you can’ mindset when we were first warned of the impact this was having on the planet… We didn’t.” (228)

The new emergent culture of global capitalism is in control. The only option for Wheatley is rebellion – walking out and beginning again with new values. Moving forward means working with emergence to be “fully engaged, carefully observing what’s going on as we do our work, learning from experience, applying those learnings, adapting, changing. In other words, behaving like everything else alive does.” (231) Wheatley is essentially arguing for an ecological approach that mimics systems in the environment and asks fundamental questions such as:

  • “What are the values, intentions, principles for behaviour that describe who we want to be? 
  • Once established, are these common knowledge, known by all? 
  • As we work together, do we refer to our identity to make decisions? 
  • How do we respond when something goes wrong? 
  • Do we each feel accountable for maintaining the integrity of this identity?” (232)

Her approach is highly relational, and this jives with the view I take as well. Through our relationships, we can come back to a flourishing culture and environment. “We are not broken people. It’s our relationships that need repair. It’s relationships that bring us back to health, wholeness, holiness.” (240)

Wheatley does not get into the more advanced mechanisms that social scientists such as Margaret Archer delineate for wrestling with how individual human agents can change the culture. Archer’s morphogenetic approach involves mindfully subjugating our internal conversations to transform the culture within and around us rather than replicating it. But without the in-depth analysis, Wheatley grasps the spirit of the morphogenetic approach. The critical application requires consideration of scale. Changing culture is not done at national and global scales – it happens intra and interpersonally. 

“If we are working well with emergence, these questions (listed above) become part of our everyday perceptions. We don’t ask them occasionally or once a year at a retreat. We all have to become more observant, more open to differing perceptions, more open to new interpretations. However, only the leader is in the position to see the whole organization. No matter how willing people might be, everyone is overwhelmed and consumed with their own work. Sane leadership is developing the capacity to observe what’s going on in the whole system and then either reflect that back or bring people together to consider where we are now.” (232) 

And this brings us to the next, final part of the review of Wheatley’s insightful leadership book: creating islands of sanity. She argues that we cannot reverse our society’s collapse at higher scales by our leadership no matter how good and sane we are. Amid collapse, we see that “the loss of complex systems pushes people back on their own resources; they retreat into clans and ethnicities. Historically, people revert to the worst human behaviors, struggling to survive such great dislocation. A few people step forward to do what they can, acting heroically and embodying the qualities of compassion and insight.” (249)

In my next post, I’ll reflect on sane emergent leadership in a time of collapse.

Part 1: Collapse
Part 3: Islands of Sanity

Who Do We Choose To Be? Part 1: Collapse

If you can even call it a debate, last night’s toddler-like banter was troubling in every way – a low point in American politics in an already upsetting time. In my sleepless night processing the debacle, I’ve been continually reflecting on Margaret Wheatley’s 2017 leadership book: Who Do We Choose To Be?

Wheatley draws on two disparate kinds of literature to “summon us to be leaders for this time as things fall apart, to reclaim leadership as a noble profession that creates possibility and humaneness in the midst of increasing fear and turmoil.” (8) The two lenses are the science of living systems and the pattern of collapse of complex civilizations.

The book is not a hopeful volume. Wheatley has rejected altogether what she describes as the ambush of hope. She believes it is too late for this, at least at the global or in America the national scale. She laments, “I’ve read too many authors who lay out the reality of our situation in stark detail, but then in the last pages feel the need to say something hopeful even though it contradicts their own argument. I have no interest in grasping after or reviving possibilities that have already passed. I have an intense desire for us to step forward as leaders for this time, hearts and minds fully open and wise, in service to whomever needs us.” (22)

Early in the volume, she requests that readers approach the book using a “Dwelling Mind.” In my reading, I followed this advice and took the time to pause and reflect on each section. The hard copy is laid out in a way that makes this easy – it is a work of art. I found her words to be true: “If we dwell with the increasing uncertainty of this time and not rush to that comfortable place of action, dwelling mind supports the emergence of clarity for our chosen role as leaders.” (23)

As last night’s debate makes clear for America, and a cursory glance through global headlines reveals for most nations of the world, we are in a time of decline. Reading lines like this invokes pain and fear, and optimists like me want to grasp for the line of hope that we expect to be next. Where is the “But…”? Wheatley encourages us to mindfully face the reality that is so obviously before us. “We can no longer solve the large-scale global problems of this time at large-scale levels: poverty, economics, climate change, violence, dehumanization. Even though the solutions have been available for a very long time, they require conditions to implement them that are not available: political courage, collaboration across national boundaries, compassion that supersedes self-interest and greed. These are not only the failings of our specific time in history; they occur in all civilizations at the end of their life cycle.” (10)

Drawing upon historians such as Sir John Glubb and Joseph Tainter, Wheatley walks the reader through the stages of collapse that have characterized societies throughout human history. Glubb summarizes these stages that tend to run their course in ten generations or about 250 years. They include 1. Age of Pioneers. 2. Age of Conquest. 3. Age of Commerce. 4. Age of Affluence. 5. Age of Intellect. 6. Age of Decadence. The final two, which Glubb described in his book in 1976, are worth considering verbatim from Wheatley:

Five – Age of Intellect: “The arts and knowledge flourish in the midst of decline. Intellectuals are prevalent and engage in incessant talking as a substitute for action. The belief takes hold that problems can be solved by mental cleverness rather than selfless service and courage. Natural sciences advance but do not prevent decline. Civil conflict increases even as the empire is under dire threat. Instead of banding together to preserve the nation, internal political fractions seek to destroy one another.” (36)

Six – Age of Decadence: “Wealth and power have led to petty and negative behaviors, including narcissism, consumerism, materialism, nihilism, fanaticism, and high levels of frivolity. A celebrity culture worships athletes, actors and singers. The masses are distracted by entertainment and sporting events, abandon moral restraint, shirk duties, and insist on entitlements. The leaders believe they are impervious and will govern forever. This age also develops the welfare state as imperial leaders generously build universities and hospitals, give grants to university students, support the young and the poor, and extend citizenship to everyone. When they run out of money, all this benevolence disappears and these institutions shut their doors.” (36)

We’re likely past the tipping point for many of the challenges confronting our civilization. The fires on the west coast and hurricanes on the east in yet another record warm year should serve as a wake-up call that, if there is time to slow down anthropogenic climate change before the great barrier reef is bleached and the Greenland ice sheet slides into the sea, that time is quickly fading. We are in the midst of the sixth great mass extinction on the planet – and we are the cause. Yet we continue to ignorantly blaze into the future in a fog of faith that our technological sophistication and the myth of progress will save us. But we are blind. “Lost in the seduction of technical creativity, we fail to see what else is going on. What’s happening in society to relationships, to poverty, to violence, to alienation? What’s happening to our land, our traditions, our people? Why have more than 65 million people fled their home countries and now live as refugees? What’s being done to address our enduring human needs for home, for community, for contribution, for good work, for safe children? And what about our planet?” (41)

Wheatley rejects the capacity of global and national leaders to do anything about these challenges. “The powerful always defend the status quo because it is the source of their power and privilege. Any change that benefits others would destroy their position. And their position is all they care about defending.” (10) Her hypothesis is not encouraging and is best received with a spirit of mindful resolve or bourbon. “For those not blinded by the false promise of progress, we may understand the dire state of this civilization. If you’re paying any attention to the news from everywhere, it’s hard to avoid the specter of collapse.” (32)

If Wheatley is correct and we are in the final phase of Glubb’s stages, this is a moment for each of us to slow down and ask fundamental questions about what it means to be human in this time, and particularly what it means for our domains of leadership. We could choose to bury our heads in the sand and lose ourselves to withdrawal, suppression and denial – or we can choose to step into these times with sober-minded resolve. “Do we, as most do, fall into private collapse consumed by fear and despair? Do we become one who does nothing but complain for what has been lost? Do we succumb to grief for the suffering of so many? Do we give up and pursue whatever time is left in hedonistic pursuits? Do we cocoon in self-protection bubbles with a nine-foot TV screen and Surround Sound? . . . Or do we acknowledge where we are and step forward to serve?” (32)

If 2020 is any indication of what is in store for us, 2021 will not be much better. “Systems that are failing now will continue to deteriorate. Uncertainty, confusion, and fear will continue to predominate. People will withdraw further into self-protection and strike out at those different from themselves. Corrupt leaders will intensify their false promises, and people will subjugate themselves to their control. The chaos cycle predicts this has to happen, that things must fall apart. And human history documents in astonishingly clear detail the pattern of collapse that all civilizations go through.” (8)

How, then, should we react? For Wheatley, “Blind reactivity and fear is not the answer. Self-protection is not the answer. Denial is not the answer. Sane leadership is.”

What is sane leadership? That deserves its own post, and I’ll provide it shortly. But first, I’ll walk you through how I came across Wheatley’s work in the first place through a second post on emergence.

More soon…

Part 2: Emergence
Part 3: Islands of Sanity

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness

Pandemic Book Recommendation #20: I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown

Today is Juneteenth, and possibly (thanks to Donald Trump?) the first time the commemoration of the ending of slavery in the US is widely acknowledged by white Americans. Though emancipation has been celebrated since 1865, this year it is especially important considering how the legacy of slavery is continuing to create racial trauma throughout the US and Canada. 

In my hometown, there was an effort last week to have the statue of Stonewall Jackson, who was born in Clarksburg, removed from the courthouse. I walked past this statue every day for many years when I worked for the Harrison County Planning Commission. Like most citizens, I did not consider how the icon represented violence against the black citizens of my county of origin. Even relatives of Andrew Jackson testified to the County Commission asking for the statue to be removed, saying, “I also believe that a heroic statue of his cause in front of the courthouse sends a very specific message of white supremacy against the black population of the county.” Nonetheless, after an outcry from white residents (many of them high school friends in my Facebook feed asking us all to sign petitions to keep the statue), the Commissioners voted to keep it, which is unsurprising considering Harrison County is 95% white

Perhaps even more appalling were the words this week coming from one of my favourite pastor/worship leaders in the Evangelical Church. For years in my classes, I have used Louie Giglio’s Star and Whale mashup as a devotional. 

Louie Giglio’s Stars and Whales Mashup

I can’t use it again, not after Giglio came out two days after Raychard Brooks was murdered in Giglio’s city of Atlanta, saying shockingly that slavery was a blessing for whites. His exact words: “We understand the curse that was slavery, white people do and we say that was bad. But we miss the blessing of slavery, that it actually built up the framework for the world that white people live in.” WHAT!?!?!

Meanwhile, in my university community, we are being called out for lack of action on diversity. Though not named in the formal letter from students of colour, in a subsequent social media post, I was named (by name) as a leader at King’s who dropped the ball on this during my time as VP Student Life and Dean of Students. The criticisms are fair and just. 

As whites in North America, we are just not getting it – and I include myself in this statement. We are missing the big picture. White Christians in North America need to stop defending, stop talking, and start listening. A great place to start is Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. I finished it yesterday. You may think I am suggesting this because it is a book on race written by a white guy whom we may relate to, right? Wrong! Austin is a black woman whose parents purposely gave her a white man’s name to help her get to interviews in a white supremacist world. According to her own words, “it worked too well!”

Though not mentioned in the book, Austin worked for Calvin College for a time, and likely her experience there (in addition to several roles in ministry in white churches) helped provide quite a bit of the context for her perceptions of working as a black woman in Christian organizations. Friends from King’s – pay attention! Many of our black students have shared similar horrifying experiences. She includes chapters on how “White People Are Exhausting,” how to deal with “Nice White People,” and she walks through a profoundly disturbing portrayal of what it is like to live for one day as a black woman in a white Christian workplace. 

My favourite chapter was about reconciliation, a term that is prominent in my own university’s mission statement. Brown describes it as a buzzword, “a churchy sounding catch-all for diversity education.” She persuasively argues that reconciliation has been drained of its extraordinary power as revealed in Jesus going to the cross, the lion laying down with the lamb, and the power of swords transformed into plowshares. For Austin Channing Brown, radical reconciliation must choose sides, and not merely be a symbolic act of harmony. Acts of harmony do not change power structures. Too often, listening to the pain of people of colour ends up being the final step, not the beginning of real reconciliation that diverts power. Thus, as black students grievously experienced under my leadership, they end up hitting a wall. 

Every white Christian in North America should read this book slowly and carefully. Before opening it, we must surrender our tendency toward defensiveness and listen – intently, empathetically, and with a view toward true reconciliation. How have we internalized racism? How are we biased? As white people in North America, we have grown up in a society stacked in our favour, and for the most part, we are blind to it. If we are white, we have internalized racism, even if we don’t see it. But those who have experienced racial trauma see it very clearly. It is evident when we refuse to listen to this trauma and perpetuate white powers, symbols and structures on our courthouse steps, in our university policies and curriculum, and in the language we use about race and reconciliation. It’s time we stop exhausting people of colour in our white spaces and begin listening. Austin Channing Brown’s book is a great place to start. 

The Problem of Pain

Pandemic Book Recommendation #19: The Problem of Pain, by C.S. Lewis

It has been quite a few weeks since I posted here, but like most things in this COVID world, it feels like months. For three weeks of this hiatus, I was teaching my annual Physical Geography class at King’s. The course is usually 50% outdoors and includes field trips to Jasper and Drumheller. This year’s COVID-19 edition was online – an entirely different experience! Early in the class, we had a good discussion on the age of the Earth. A theology student had some excellent follow-up questions that morphed into a conversation about evolution, the existence of a historical Adam, and The Fall. I pulled The Problem of Pain off my shelf to reference how C.S. Lewis managed to negotiate evolution and Genesis 1-3 way back in 1940. A few days ago, the volume was still by my recliner, and I got lost in it one afternoon, re-reading it cover to cover. It is a timely book for these days of ever-increasing pain.

I will leave the chapters on evolution and Adam alone, but for a more contemporary view of this checkout Richard Middleton’s lecture “Human Distinctiveness and the Origin of Evil.”

In this blog, amid the tremendous pain our world is experiencing, I want to focus on the idea of surrender as it relates to racial inequality. C.S. Lewis summarizes the problem of pain like this:

 “If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do what he wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore, God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.” (16)

Lewis works his way through the free will theodicy and aspects of The Fall to wrestle with how pain, though not all of it, can be linked directly to human evil and free will. Lewis identifies some good that can come from the horror of pain, and this good is linked to a theology of surrender, which he extrapolates using three “operations” of pain. First, pain shatters the illusion that all is well (93). Second, pain shatters the illusion of self-sufficiency – that what we have in and of itself is good enough (96). Third, pain is necessary for us to fully act out self-surrender to God, using martyrdom as the ultimate example of following Christ (102).

Still, Lewis struggles to get past the idea that pain in every form sucks ass. Those are not entirely his words, but he does claim that if he knew any way of escaping pain, he would crawl through the sewers to find it (105) – so it is close. Pain is painful, but he also argues from classic Christian doctrine that suffering is what makes us everything we were meant to be – that tribulation is a necessary element in redemption (114). We crave security and a lack of suffering, but this settled happiness would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose a return to God (116).

It has been twenty years since I read this book, but based upon my old scribbles in the margins, I have not learned much over this time. Like Lewis, I still prefer life without pain, adversity, trial, or tribulation. If I have learned anything in the last twenty years, though, it is the value of surrender – of being with God in the present and being OK with things as they are and not as I would like them to be (something I am much better at in theory than in practice). Contemplative prayer and mindfulness (Radical Acceptance) remind me of Lewis’s assertion that our highest activity is response, not initiative (44). This is love – not that we loved God, but that God loved us. We want to be nouns, but we are only adjectives (75).

There are times to radically accept our suffering, and in this, find the will of God. But there are other times when we are called to end the injustice and suffering of others. Blessed are the poor, says Jesus, but as His followers, we are tasked to help end poverty. It is this paradox that we find ourselves in today. Suffering has its place in helping us find submission in God’s will, but Lewis is clear (and I agree) that pain is not good in itself! “It would be a false view to suppose that the Christian understanding of suffering is incompatible with the strongest emphasis on our duty to leave the world better than we found it (114).”

For instance, the pain of my sisters and brothers of African and Indigenous descent will not find resolution through radical acceptance and surrender alone. No – the pain of a 500-year history of slavery, genocide and racism is deep, and we have hardly begun to scratch the surface of speaking the truth about this pain and suffering in North America. C.S. Lewis did not help us much here. He is a man of his times, and as you would expect for a Christian book written in 1940, he writes as a white man to other white men. It is time to listen to some other voices! (Though perhaps the world has not been as frightened, conflict-ridden, and painful since these words written in the advent of World War II.)  

Black Lives Matter Rally, Edmonton. June 5, 2020

Last night Christina and I attended the Edmonton Black Lives Matter Rally. We heard pain, suffering, anguish, tribulation, and trouble (88) in the cries for justice and equality. We experienced all of these through the stories, testimonies, prayers, poems, and songs of people in pain. Sierra Jamerson moved us to tears as she shared her genealogical path of racism from the US South to Canada – where it did NOT improve. We bowed a knee with 15,000 Edmontonians and rested in silence with fists in the air. If you would have told me ten days ago that I would be at the Legislature with that many people – mask or no mask – I would have told you that you were crazy. But there was nowhere else we could have been last night – taking pandemic precautions to be in public and listening and reflecting on how our privilege relates to the suffering of others.

The theological problem of pain may find some resolution in Lewis’s book, but these racial manifestations are calls to action. God lacks neither power nor goodness but mysteriously allows us to be the manifestation of that power and goodness on Earth. We can end structural racism and systems that advantage some to the pain of others. Abandoning white privilege is a form of surrender that recognizes the operations of pain described above: all is not well, our current way of being is not sufficient, and we must humble ourselves in the same manner as Christ. The problem of racial pain in North America is a white one, and it is time we made the sacrifices necessary to address it. It is time to humble ourselves, listen, be obedient to what God is calling us to in this hour, and surrender.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
(Phil. 2:5-8)

Where the Crawdads Sing

Pandemic Book Recommendation #18: Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens, is the perfect pandemic read – especially if you have been feeling lonely and isolated. It is the story of Kya Clark, who begins the book as six-year-old marsh trash along the racially charged North Carolina Coast. Her story is heart-wrenching, but her spirit of resiliency will make your efforts to get through quarantine feel like a walk in the park. This is a novel inspired by nature, as the marsh becomes Kya’s teacher and she ascends to a role as its most exceptional student and defender. It is the coming of age story of a girl you will come to love and admire, even as you suspect her of murder in the first degree. This a murder mystery after all, and the setting moves back and forth in time between 1952 when Kya’s tragic story begins unfolding and 1969, when Barkley Cove’s star quarterback was possibly killed late at night in a swamp tower.

There are three reasons I loved this book. First, Delia Owens has captured the spirit of Aldo Leopold in a setting I know and love. The North Carolina beach was our summer vacation refuge when we lived in West Virginia, only the landscape I knew was developed to the point that Kya would find unrecognizable. The deep complexity and connections between species were mostly forgotten, protected turtles being one of the few remaining vestiges of a once ecologically rich landscape. Owens cites Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac as the primary inspiration for her book, and his fingerprints are on almost every page. When a young man – a Marine Biologist in training – begins teaching Kya to read, he starts her with the first sentence of A Sand County Almanac: “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.” Kya’s reaction: “I did not know a sentence could be so full.” Kya takes Leopold’s vision to heart and lives it out in the novel. “Aldo Leopold taught her that floodplains are living extensions of the rivers, which will claim them back any time they choose. Anyone living on a floodplain is just waiting in the river’s wings.” She had no patience for those who sought to drain the “wasteland” of the swamp. “Large machines cutting oaks. Diggin channels to dry the marsh. Leaving tracks of thirst. They had not read Aldo Leopold.” The nature imagery throughout the volume is a welcome respite amid social distancing measures. A Northern Flicker feather even makes an appearance – our favourite bird at our backyard feeder here in Edmonton.

Second, this is a book about loneliness, and 2020 has been the loneliest year of my highly extroverted life. Kya’s reflections of her years of near-total isolation spoke to me in ways I was not expecting. Owens describes how loneliness became, for Kya, a natural appendage. Her life is one defined by rejections, and the lonely becomes more than she can hold as she seeks to protect herself in the marsh. “The rarest of shells, splendid sunsets, could not stop it.” She cries, “I have to do life alone. But I knew this. I’ve known a long time that people don’t stay.” She laments, “Please don’t talk to me about isolation. No one has to tell me how it changes a person. I have lived it. I am isolation.” Strong words in this age of pandemic. Kya can be our teacher and guide, only her isolation may or may not have led to a murder scene – so choose your lessons wisely.

The third thing I loved about this book was the poetry. I’m not usually a big fan, and honestly, I can’t distinguish between good and bad poems. But the timing of some of the passages was profound during my reading of the book. I listened to it on Audible during long walks in the evening, and one night, as I was along the North Saskatchewan River at sunset, I put the following poem on repeat:

“Sunsets are never simple.
Twilight is refracted and reflected,
but never true.
Even tide is a disguise,
covering tracks, covering lies.
We don’t care that dusk deceives.
We see brilliant colors,
and never learn that the sun
has dropped beneath the Earth,
by the time we see the burn.”

Edmonton Sunset. April 8, 2020.

Where the Crawdads Sing is a story of loss, love, loneliness, discrimination, survival, connection, and murder. It captures the complexity of natural ecosystems and uses it as a lens to dissect human culture. We may be the dominant species on our planet, but we are mammals – and sometimes we act like them. “We still store those instincts in our genes, and they express themselves when certain circumstances prevail. Some parts of us will always be what we were. What we had to be to survive way back yonder.”

Reasons to Stay Alive

Pandemic Book Recommendation #17: Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

Depression and anxiety are not new. Two months ago, we were in the midst of a mental health crisis among youth and young adults. The onset of a pandemic, social distancing measures, and an economic downturn is likely to increase this trend. Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive was handed to me a few years ago by a student who struggled daily with suicidal ideation. Haig’s words were personal, relatable and life-giving to this person, who wanted me to have the book so I could share it with others. I’m glad I had it on my shelf because it genuinely has been a helpful resource for others – and at times for me.

Matt Haig is an English novelist and journalist – author of many popular works, including The Humans, The Last Family in England, The Possession of Mr. Cave, The Radleys, and many others. Reasons to Stay Alive is Haig’s telling of his journey through darkness and ultimate triumph over a depression that nearly took his life. It is the story of how he learned to live again, told through a series of short thoughts and reflections.

His reason for writing the book speaks for itself: “Ever since I realized that depression lied about the future, I have wanted to write a book about my experience, to tackle depression and anxiety head-on. So this book seeks to do two things. To lessen that stigma, and – the possibly more quixotic ambition – to try and actually convince people that the bottom of the valley never provides the clearest view. I wrote this because the oldest cliches remain the truest. Time heals. The tunnel does have light at the end of it, even if we aren’t able to see it. And there’s a two-for-one offer on clouds and silver linings. Words, just sometimes, can set you free.”

He has a chapter for men called, “Boys Don’t Cry,” in which he explores why more men die by suicide than women. Haig shares, “You are no less or more of a man or a woman or a human for having depression than you would be for having cancer or cardiovascular disease or a car accident… It is not you. It is simply something that happens to you. And something that can often be eased by talking. Words. Comfort. Support.”

Parts of the book are raw, and as someone who has only journeyed to the outer reaches of depression, I would think this would not be a book I would want to pick up in my darkest moments. But for many, including the student who gave it to me, those are the very times to read it. Haig has been to those darkest of dark places, and he lived to tell about it. He hopes we will continue the journey with him, and thus he provides compelling, poetic, and hopeful reasons to stay alive.

“I am you and you are me.
We are alone, but not alone.
We are trapped by time, but also infinite.
Made of flesh, but also stars.”

He borrows from his novel, The Humans, to make a point that minds move: “Your mind is a galaxy. More dark than light. But the light makes it worthwhile. Which is to say, don’t kill yourself. Even when the darkness is total. Always know that life is not still. Time is space. You are moving through that galaxy. Wait for the stars.”

There are many things in his book we need to hear and receive during this time of global crisis. “Nothing lasts forever. The pain won’t last. The pain tells you it will last. Pain lies. Ignore it. Pain is a debt paid off with time.”

At the end of the book, he includes sections providing steps and resources for getting help. In case you are reading this at a dark time and the book is not at hand, here are a few of them:

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention

Centre for Suicide Prevention

eMentalHealth.ca

Kids Help Phone

Teen Mental Health

The Lifeline Mobile App

Embracing Vulnerability in Pandemic

Pandemic Book Recommendation #16: Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch

Strong and Weak is another book I use with my Au Sable International Development class each summer. Instead of assigning it as required reading, we dissect it during one of our beach discussions. In the book, Andy Crouch provides a fantastically profound yet straightforward 2X2 paradoxical grid juxtaposing authority with vulnerability. The paradox is that authority and vulnerability are not opposites but exist best together. In the class, we recreate the grid using rocks on the beach, then leave it for others to wonder about what kind of pagan ceremony occurred there.

In the grid, authority can be interpreted as power – similar to the kind of power discussed in my last review of Playing God. Strong and Weak is the sequel, and Jayakumar Christian continues to play an inspiring role. In Crouch’s model, the higher on the grid you are, the more self-efficacy you possess and the more capacity you have to exert authority over others. The further on the right you exist on the grid, the more vulnerable you are. So if you are in the lower left quadrant of “withdrawing,” then you may live like a character in the Wall-E movie, on an eternal cruise in which you are completely safe but also not using your God-gifted authority to make the world a better place. In the bottom right, you would have no power and be highly vulnerable; thus, you would be “suffering.” In the upper left, you might have extraordinary authority, but if you are not also vulnerable, then you become “exploiting.” Finally, Crouch describes the upper right quadrant as “flourishing” – being in a place of BOTH authority and vulnerability.

You need to read his short book to get the whole picture. In summary, Crouch uses Jesus Christ as a model to demonstrate the flourishing life as one of both authority and vulnerability, and he does this again through the lens of Philippians 2. When either authority or vulnerability is absent — or when both are missing — we find distortions in humans, organizations and institutions. Instead of flourishing, we create cultures immersed in suffering, withdrawing and exploiting. Leaders today need to be both strong and week – wielding authority with vulnerability.

The pandemic has created a situation in which nearly all of us find ourselves suddenly moving around on this grid. We may be unemployed, laid off, and financially vulnerable. Some of us are also vulnerable to the virus itself – our lives are literally in danger. We are collectively moving toward the bottom of the quadrant as the efficacy we had to determine our future erodes. A few of us may be fortunate enough to settle into the bottom left – to have the means to withdraw into video games or Netflix. Many of us, though, are suffering in the lower right quadrant – powerless to the changing world.

In this context, we are faced with a unique opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. We can do this in two ways.

First, we can ask ourselves whether our loss of power/authority is ultimately the loss of an idol and not a loss of efficacy in its own right. Have we been putting our hope and trust in our wealth? If so, the threat of losing it is tantamount to losing confidence in having a good future. The danger here is that we might spring into action to do whatever is necessary to protect that in which we trust. Crouch writes, “In the grip of idols, we believe that our problem is not enough authority. Life becomes a quest to acquire enough authority to manage and minimize our vulnerability… To people who see the world this way, gaining authority without vulnerability is the pearl of great price, something you would sell everything to obtain.” Crouch’s advice for us – if we find ourselves here – is as simple yet profound as his grid: relinquish power and confess sin.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?  Matthew 6:25-27

Second, we can embrace our vulnerability as Christ embraced his. Crouch reminds us that the story which turned the world upside down is not a story of ultimate power made manifest, but of ultimate vulnerability to the point of dying on a cross. To become like Christ, what we are missing is not more authority, but more vulnerability. This is not trite, as many are experiencing the agony of the Garden of Gethsemane amid tragic loss. But we do not suffer alone. Christ has gone before us. He can be our model and even our companion on the journey. 

The pandemic is likely not going to be a short trial. On a podcast last week, Andy described how many Christian leaders seem to be looking at this pandemic as though it is a blizzard, suggesting we need to hunker down for a few days, then it will be over. He argues, based upon well-informed sources, that this will more likely be a full winter, if not even a mini ice age. Some, wishing this to be a blizzard and bent on the need for invulnerable authority, are already up in arms. Many of these individuals are Christians, and many pastors are encouraging their flocks to disregard the government and stand up for their God-given rights of freedom. The motto of West Virginia, my home state, is montani semper liberi – mountaineers are always free. The lockdown appears to many friends on my social media feed as an attack on liberty. But in the spirit of Strong and Weak, forcing our will while putting others at risk is not a Christian response. It is rooted in fear. If we want to be agents of transformation in the world today, perhaps we should take a lap through Strong and Weak before grabbing an assault rifle and heading to the capitol. There is a way to bear the burden of authority with vulnerability, and this book can help us find it.  

Playing God

Pandemic Book Recommendation #15: Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power by Andy Crouch

I took a day off yesterday and did not post, but if I were to have provided a book recommendation on Easter, it would have been Playing God by Andy Crouch.

One of the reasons I love this book is that Andy has channelled Jayakumar Christian as a model. Jayakumar is a World Vision practitioner in India who works with the lowest castes in some of the most impoverished contexts in Asia. I was exposed to Jayakumar through his published Master’s thesis, God of the Empty-Handed, when I worked for World Vision US Programs. I’ve used his ideas in many courses, especially the International Development and Sustainability class I teach each summer for the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies. God of the Empty-Handed is worthy of its own book recommendation down the road. But Playing God is an excellent introduction to Jayakumar’s ideas of power and powerlessness in the Kingdom of God. Jayakumar digs into how the powerful utilize god-complexes to play god in the lives of the poor by perpetuating their powerlessness through relational structures and systems of captivity. The examples may seem more evident for India’s caste system, but there are potent applications for North America as well. Andy Crouch spent time with Jayakumar, and Playing God was birthed from that inspiration, but written for use in the US and Canada.

Playing God investigates how power, when viewed through a Christian lens, is a gift – this is the volume’s central idea. Crouch is somewhat opposed to the bulk of writing in the social sciences that would define power as always about corruption and coercion (though we can find plenty examples of this, many unfortunately provided by the Christian Church). Power is intended to be about creation and restoration, and forms of power that coerce are diminishments and corruptions of true power. The intended purpose of power is flourishing. Crouch delineates how power corruptions are linked to idolatry and ideology, and he even includes a chapter on privilege. He draws upon Jayakumar’s work to consider solutions to today’s crises caused by god-playing. This is what makes the volume such a good read for the Easter season.

According to the ancient hymn captured in Philippians 2, though himself God, Christ emptied himself of himself to become human, take the nature of a servant, and die on the cross in the act of restoration. This is the great kenosis or self-emptying. Crouch calls us to either find ways of being icons and image-bearers of this kind of self-emptying power purposed toward flourishing, or suffering as idol makers corrupting power toward our own or our tribe’s advantage. And yes, for you lovers of the lectionary, I am aware that Philippians 2 is a Lenten passage. Nonetheless, it has powerful application in the Easter season as we seek to make our attitudes the same as that of Christ Jesus.

Playing God is a timely read in this moment of global pandemic as we think about the kind of world we want to create / recreate when we emerge from social distancing. There is a cacophony to recreate the world as it was before COVID-19; to jump-start the economy along with all of its structures and systems that keep some people in power and others in captivity. We can do better. Power is a gift because it is for flourishing – the flourishing of all people and the creation. “When power is used well, people and the whole cosmos come more alive to what they were meant to be.” (13) Perhaps it is time to abandon our image of GOP Jesus for the version we find in Scriptures such as Philippians 2?

Bearskin

Pandemic Book Recommendation #14: Bearskin by James A. McLaughlin

All of the books I’ve reviewed thus far I read before social distancing. Not this one – I finished Bearskin last night. I loved it, and not just because the setting is in the Appalachia Mountains where I grew up and the Arizona desert where my daughter now resides. This book was an excellent escape for the helplessness I’ve felt in quarantine – it did for me exactly what a novel is supposed to do.

But be warned – this is not a touchy-feely, pick me up kind of story. Visualize a full escape from the monotony of impotently watching your beard grow in your basement. It is a dangerous journey into a brutal and primitive kill-or-be-killed existence. Prepare to embrace the myth of redemptive violence and some toxic masculinity as you explore the most breathtaking landscapes in the USA on a life or death adventure. It is violent, dark and suspenseful. Some of the graphic descriptions will stick with you.

The protagonist, Rice Moore, is a field Biologist who sees the world through a scientific lens. He would be Vern Peters, only if Vern had a previous life as a drug mule. The complexities of Appalachian ecosystems are intricately revealed as Rice circumvents the hollows of western Virginia (NOT to be confused with West Virginia), protecting a nature reserve from bear poachers. But Rice has a past. His last research project was in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, where he made enemies in the Mexican drug cartels. Homicidal narco-assassins are not the kind of guys you want to piss off. In essence, they will follow you to remote hollows, and they won’t care how distracted you are by the mafia funded hillbilly bear poachers already trying to kill you. (Yes – the Mexican drug cartel, the mob, and ex-military hillbillies all converge. Amazing).

I was hooked when I met the one-armed hillbilly mushroom picker in the opening chapter, whose thick drawl portrayed on Audible brought me back home to West Virginia (NOT to be confused with western Virginia). I met this man in real life at the top of a mountain at the end of one of the most secluded hollows in Harrison County when I worked for its Planning Commission in the mid-1990s. He was a World War I veteran (Yes, WWI – The Great War for you Canadians) who had such extreme PTSD that when he returned from the war, he left civilization to herd sheep and live off the land for seventy years. I had to ask him to repeat his words multiple times, but he had a heart of gold and seemed to be almost at one with the landscape around him. He was a spiritual guide for me at the time – and I met him again through the character of the mushroom shaman in the book (though in real-life no tripping was involved).

So, turn off the news and put on your ghillie suit. Spend a week with Vern (er, I mean Rice) trampling through rhododendron and hemlock forests eating what you can kill or forage. Try some natural hallucinogenic mushrooms and dance with the bears you were assigned to protect. Stalk and be stalked. Kill or be killed. Most of all, enjoy being outside again.