Escaping the Fun House

Illustration of a fun house mirror

When my wife and I were recently in Vancouver, we visited the world-famous Stanley Park for the first time in years. As a treat we took our two youngest children on the miniature train. In the waiting area they had something I hadn’t seen in years: two fun-house mirrors. Not exactly the place where I would expect to see them, as they are normally found in a traditional amusement park attraction called a “Fun House”. Fun house mirrors are designed to provide (hopefully) humorous reflections, by skewing the mirrored image, thus making the subject and others look extremely tall, short, fat, or even upside down. The intended humor is found in how nonsensically people are represented. While the fun of fun house mirrors is related to how preposterous these reflections are, I don’t think most people would find them funny at all if they represented any semblance of reality, especially since they are actually very grotesque.

I grew up in a fun house, but there was nothing funny about it! No, I wasn’t raised in an amusement park. Rather, throughout my childhood and adolescence, everywhere I turned so to speak, I saw skewed, grotesque reflections. The problem was I didn’t know that what I was seeing was anything but normal.

Almost nothing was an image of reality. I had a father and a mother, plus three older brothers. But my family life was extremely dysfunctional. My parents bickered all the time. My brothers hated my parents, and left home as soon as they could. Being as young as I was while chaos reigned, I was helpless to do anything about it, except suffer. What furthered my distortions were words of love and demonstrations of affection that were part of my everyday life. My mother would dote over me and my father would take me out with him quite regularly. But I didn’t realize then that my mother’s love was more about satisfying her needs than mine, while my father’s desire for my presence was a ruse towards my mother as a way for him to get out of the house. My mother worried all the time and feared almost everything, demonstrating to me that the world was a very scary place. Both parents played the victim instead of looking for ways to constructively resolve issues. When he was young, my father determined that might means right, and became a body builder, so that he could beat people up when necessary. He was ashamed that my brothers and I didn’t share his physique, teaching me that my lack of strength meant I was helpless facing life’s problems. Along with that he taught me: “Money makes the world go ‘round,” and did he ever believe it! Almost every blow up was about money and, according to him, the lack thereof prevented us from enjoying life.

After years of skewed reflections, I was full of fear and could no longer cope. I was living in a world of lies, caught in a web of illusion in a nightmarish fun house that was anything but fun. No wonder I had a nervous breakdown at age eleven and panic attacks at eighteen.

Then one day I was given an opportunity to escape my fun house. A Friday afternoon in the Cote St. Luc suburb of Montreal, talking to a friend of a friend, I was presented with a whole new set of reflections. Could it really be that I was living in a crazy fun house; that the skewed reflections I had always thought were real had deceived me? As I was hearing a biblical case for Jesus’ being the Messiah for the first time, I was being presented with reflections of a clarity and sharpness that shone of a goodness and truth that I had never encountered before.

I stepped out of my fun house that day and discovered the real world for the first time. I cannot overstate that transition I experienced as God through Yeshua transformed my life. But what I didn’t know at the time is that I would carry with me many of the skewed reflections of my former residence. While God has wiped away many of the old images from my mind, others have stayed with me. Some of the ways my mind interprets circumstances and interpersonal interactions is still via old skewed reflections – old fun house mirrors that still need to be broken.

The thing that works to preserve my remaining skewed reflections is what made them so effective in the first place: I think they are genuinely accurate reflections of the way things are. Instead of perceiving the real world, one that is saturated by the presence and power of a loving God, I see myself alone under the threat of danger in an unsafe world.

The recent events in Edmonton, Alberta or Las Vegas, Nevada, not to mention the devastating weather disasters that took place before them, plus all sorts of personal and large-scale tragedies the world over may support the skewed reflections of my old fun house. But these circumstances, terrible as they are, do not reflect the whole story of the world in which we live. The world is extremely complex. The daily happenings of our individual lives are complicated; how much more are global events? Yet whether from the media, be it main-stream or social, or a chit chat over coffee. we are continually confronted by skewed reflections of today’s world. No wonder we see so much personal and societal breakdown. Our increasing inability to cope is largely due, not to the problems of life themselves, however real and serious they may be, but to the great amount of skewed reflections that distort reality all around us.

It’s not enough to exit the fun house. We have to also smash the mirrors wherever they may be.

That’s what Paul told the first century believers in Rome, when he wrote:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2; ESV).

It’s not good enough to exit the fun house of your old life. It’s starts there for sure. Our journey to reality must begin with being in right relationship with the God of reality by trusting in his Son, the Messiah, who gave his life for our sins. But it doesn’t stop there. Unless we smash our mirrors of skewed reflections, we will never be able to discern God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will. Instead we will continue in our dysfunction of distorted reality, unable to accurately interpret the personal and societal events of life.

But if we have the courage to smash the lying mirrors that continue to haunt our lives, not only will we discover ever-increasing freedom and goodness in our own lives, we will become reflections of reality to others, helping them to see how skewed their mirrors really are.

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Unsolicited Input

I'm always here for you. Indoor shot of warm-hearted young African American man showing compassion to unrecognizable male, patting him on shoulder while trying to comfort and reassure his best friendMany years ago, I was taking a course in Jewish studies at Concordia University in Montreal. Near the end of the term, we had a social. At some point one of the female students, an Israeli, whispered in my ear: “Your pants are open,” which translated means that the zipper of my trousers was down. Was I embarrassed? For sure. Was I grateful? Absolutely. What was most embarrassing for me at the time was not that this woman would inform me of my personal clothing mismanagement, but that others in the room may have already observed it. But would I have rather continued to remain unaware of the truth of the situation? No. Given the opportunity to resolve the situation (which I did as discretely as possible), while momentarily uncomfortable, was far better than possibly discovering the truth on my own later on.

Yet there seems to be a life value controlling most people that would prevent them from ever doing what my fellow student did that day. I can’t say with certainty what that is. Is it the value of personal autonomy? Do people think they lack the right to enter into what they might perceive as others’ personal bubbles? Do they think they are obeying an invisible “No trespassing” sign?

The lady Robin and I encountered in Manhattan last September didn’t see one. We had just arrived and were looking for a place for breakfast, standing outside one particular diner, reading their menu posted on their window. A complete stranger came up from behind us and started telling us why we shouldn’t eat there, referring to her cholesterol research. She then led us down the street to another restaurant before continuing on her way. We’ll likely never learn all the facts behind that situation, but we were delighted by her unsolicited input. We didn’t have to listen, but we’re glad she cared enough to speak up.

One of our favorite stories in this vein has to do with how our daughter Tikvah got her name. Before she was born, we decided that if the baby were a boy, his name would be Asher (from Hebrew, meaning blessed or happy). My wife, Robin, had seen in a baby name book that the feminine derivative is Asheyra. We liked the sound of that, and a friend who knew Hebrew said it was appropriate. When she was born, we announced her name to our friends and family. Everyone reacted positively, except for one Israeli-Canadian couple, who were very concerned about our choice of name. “You can’t call her that!” they said. “It sounds too much like the ancient fertility god Asherah. She could never go to Israel with a name like that.”

Why didn’t we think of that? So we switched her name to another of our favorites: Tikvah, meaning “hope.” Only God knew at the time how fitting that would be for her.

We were curious as to why no one else had said anything, especially since so many of our friends were biblically literate. Yet when Robin mentioned the switch to one such person they said that they had been similarly concerned. “So why didn’t you say anything,” Robin asked. “It’s your baby,” they said.

What does her being our baby have to do with the fact that we were attempting to inappropriately brand her? It’s one thing when we are oblivious to what’s going on; it’s another to think we lack the right, the permission, the responsibility, or whatever it is to speak into other people’s lives for their betterment.

We didn’t have to switch her name, but how arrogant it would have been to think: “How dare they tell us what we can’t name our baby!” They called us because they cared. But motive aside, they were right, and we did the right thing by listening.

The fact is our lives are dependent on the input of others. It’s often other people who see our needs far better than we can see them ourselves. Our hesitation to give input robs people of the betterment that God desires to provide to others through us. Certainly we might be the ones robbing ourselves when we don’t listen to helpful comments. And of course, some people are busybodies and meddlers, getting involved in the affairs of others when they shouldn’t. But it seems to me that in most, if not all, of the circles in which we currently live, the greatest problem is the hesitation to speak up, not giving others the opportunity to make needed adjustments in their lives.

You might be surprised to learn that the section of Yeshua’s teaching, Matthew 7:1-6, beginning with the oft quoted words,” Judge not, that you be not judged,” is more about speaking up than not. Here Yeshua calls people hypocrites who point out problems in others’ lives all the while having the same problems to a much greater extent themselves. He clearly criticizes those who attempt to take specks out of other people’s eyes, when they themselves have logs in their own eyes.

However, it was not Yeshua’s intent to shame these hypocrites into silence. Rather, he goes on: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” In other words, when we think we see issues in others, we need to examine ourselves and deal with our issues first. Then, we are in a position to address issues in other people. By using the “speck in the eye” metaphor, Yeshua implies that when we speak into other people’s lives, we should do so gently and carefully. Note that to leave specks in their eyes is to give them over to a much worse eye condition. Love demands we gently remove specks as we see them.

I am aware that not everyone wants their weaknesses pointed out. Or what I perceive to be an issue may not be one to someone else. That’s why we need to ask ourselves the question, what’s the benefit in sharing? The final statement Yeshua makes in Matthew 7:1-6 is “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” When we know our input will be violently rebuffed, it might be better to not say anything. But this is a cautionary note to a culture that errs on the side of speaking inappropriately, not the situation in which we find ourselves today, where most of the time we keep too much needed information to ourselves.

The Lord’s teaching here assumes a societal default setting of speaking into others’ lives. I know that this tends to be a cultural thing. Some people need to take care to listen more and heed Yeshua’s instruction on how to patiently and gently relate to others. But we are not to just be quiet and keep all our opinions to ourselves, no matter what the prevailing culture expects. Because that’s not what the Lord expects.

Yeshua called his followers to be teachers of the nations (Matthew 28:18-20). This passage, commonly called “the Great Commission,” is not instructing us to simply “tell people about Jesus,” but rather an extensive God-ordained program to inform all people everywhere of everything Yeshua taught his early disciples (V. 20), in other words teach everyone the whole Bible from a messianic perspective.

Yet there is so much hesitation to speak God’s truth into people lives. I have heard over and over again, that we need to earn the right to be heard. But while we can lose the right to be heard through all sorts of bad behavior, we already have the right to be heard because we have been mandated by the Messiah himself to do exactly that.

But what do my stories of restaurants and baby names have to do with the Great Commission? Shouldn’t we reserve our unsolicited input for the loftier, more supposedly spiritual areas of life? But tell me, do you really think you will be able to effectively disciple the nations if you are too afraid to tell someone their pants are open?

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A Clay Pot Nation

Western Wall and The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, Israel

The Temple Mount captured by Israel on July 7, 1967 illustrates the complexity of the work of God in our in our lives.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:7)

Earlier this month, June 10, was the fiftieth anniversary of the end of one of the most world-changing events in human history – the Six Day War. I remember it, sort of. I was nine years old, living in Montreal, where we were consumed, not by the affairs of the Middle East, but by Canada’s biggest party ever! – Expo 67. It was the centennial year, commemorating one hundred years since “Confederation,” when we became a “self-governing dominion of the British Empire with a federal structure” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confederation#Canada). We like to think that’s when we became an “independent country,” but that’s another, pretty complicated, story.

Aerial view of Expos 67, Montreal

Expo 67, Montreal – mtlblog.com

All sorts of special events took place throughout the country in 1967, but nothing was like Expo. From April through October, Expo welcomed over 50 million visitors, including many heads of state such as Queen Elizabeth and French president Charles de Gaulle. During his visit on May 25, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a proclamation commemorating the Rush-Bagot Treaty of 1817 of one hundred and fifty years earlier, which was a disarmament agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom, the governing power over what later became Canada. This treaty “created the world’s longest east-west boundary – 5527 miles, and the longest demilitarized border in the world” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rush%E2%80%93Bagot_Treaty). What the public didn’t know at the time is that the U.S. President and the Canadian Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson, had other border issues on their minds as they discussed the possibility of war between Israel and its Arab neighbors. While Canada was partying it up, the fledgling State of Israel was on the brink of destruction. While the one-hundred-year-old vast country was enjoying unprecedented peace with its neighbors, the nineteen-year-old one was about to engage in a fight for their survival.

Israeli paratroopers stand in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Israeli paratroopers stand in front of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. -GPO 06/07/1967 – http://www.sixdaywar.org/content/photos.asp

Fifty years later, it is almost impossible to imagine the situation Israel found itself in. Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq were intent on wiping Israel off the map. Ironically, Israel, instead, changed the map. Planning only to undermine their enemies’ ability to destroy them, Israel more than tripled its territory in only six days, capturing the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. There was no greater turn of events, however, than the capture of the Old City of Jerusalem. Taken by the Jordanians nineteen years earlier in the War of Independence, the Jewish inhabitants of the Old City were either killed or expelled. Access to the Wailing Wall (now the Western Wall) was forbidden to Jews. The reunification of Jerusalem on June 7, 1967, more than any aspect of the Six Day War, strengthened Israeli nationhood and reconnected the Jewish world to its ancient homeland. In Israeli hands the holy places of the world’s major religions are protected, something that was not the case before that day.

To Israel at the time, with a few exceptions, such as Jerusalem, the captured territories were regarded as bargaining chips for peace. But tragically the Arab world would not come to the table. Still, Israel’s victory of those days along with its commitment to get along with its neighbors eventually did lead to peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. But despite whatever positives resulted from this astounding military event, they are obscured by a great ambivalence as the tension between Israel and its neighbors continues.

For many, the continuing difficulties faced by Israelis and Palestinians obscures one of the greatest military victories of all time. But what was the alternative? The armistice lines of 1949 were no long-term solution. Israel could not reasonably live within such indefensible borders. The new state wasn’t even recognized by the Arab world – a reality that continues in much of the world today. But since 1967, Israel has been in a much stronger position, allowing it to thrive in spite of ongoing tensions. Few nations could achieve what the Jewish nation has in such a short time under such circumstances. And to think that just prior to the establishment of the state, six million Jews were systematically murdered by an almost-successful genocidal plot.

Far from a sense of ambivalence, we should be awestruck by the Six Day War and its aftermath. Instead of the harsh judgement incessantly targeting Israel, we would do better to celebrate its fortitude and resilience in the midst of an intolerable pressure cooker. Most countries would either crumble or disappear in the face of much less. Not Israel. The pressure instead has created a jewel that should be the envy of the world.

Why should we insist that an endeavor be regarded in a positive light only if the results are 100% positive? Life doesn’t work like that. A life-saving surgery, for example, might result in a scar or a disability, but wouldn’t we still celebrate the surgery as long as it met its main objective, that of saving a life?

The fact is the whole world, not just the Middle East, is not what it should be. Injustice, disease, death, and every kind of evil is part of the human story everywhere. What Israel endures on a national scale is no different from the trials and tribulations we all face due to what the Bible calls sin. But that doesn’t stop millions of people from pretending otherwise.

On a personal level, I have been slow to accept the realities of living in a world so affected by sin. Even with the reality of God in my life and the lives of my loved ones, I am still learning to navigate the brokenness we all share. The Bible tells us that we are fragile, breakable vessels containing great treasure. Because of what the Messiah has done for us, even though the presence and power of God fills our lives to overflowing, the troubled aspects of our humanness are not eradicated. To expect perfection from ourselves and others is a dead-end. We will learn to thrive only as we accept the great number of ambiguities that continue in this age.

The challenges we face as individuals are so wonderfully demonstrated by Israel. God’s covenantal faithfulness to the natural descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is vividly displayed through a long and troubled history; no less so in the events of June 1967 and following. The ongoing tensions certainly need to be addressed, just like the issues in our own lives. Let’s not be put off by the presence of problems. Rather, let’s look to God for his help in the midst of them.

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