This old man is showing me how to face death

This old man is showing me how to face death

I’m no music critic, which will be immediately apparent as you read this meditation on Leonard Cohen’s new album. I’m a longtime fan. And I strive, with varying degrees of success, to be a spiritual man. I admit that being both those things makes me biased when it comes to this exquisite new album. Leonard Cohen is 82 years old. Not long for this world, you might conclude. So to hear him sing “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready, my Lord” really pulls at the heartstrings. (Hineni is Hebrew for “Here I am.” But in a spiritual sense. As in the way Abraham says it when God calls his name in Genesis 22:1). The title song of his new album, You Want it Darker, features the choir of the same Montreal synagogue where Cohen’s father and grandfather both served in high positions. There’s also a gorgeous vocal solo by the synagogue’s cantor, Gideon Zelermyer. It’s like in his eighties the grand old master is returning to his beginnings. Remember, this is the man who withdrew from music in the 1990s after a breakdown to devote himself to Zen monastic studies on California’s Mount Baldy. Although Cohen didn’t see this as a challenge to Jewish belief. The tradition of Zen he practiced didn’t include prayerful worship and made no affirmation of a deity. But

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Halloween is a window into our collective soul

Halloween is a window into our collective soul

There’s a reason we dress up the way we do at Halloween, you know. And it’s not just dumb, stupid fun. Your Halloween costume says something important about the world you live in. This year, Americans will spend a cool $8 billion on Halloween celebrations, including $1.2 billion on their kids’ costumes and another $1.5 billion on their own Halloween outfits. That’s a whole lot of witches, vampires, superheroes, and naughty nurses costumes. So why do we do it? Well, Anthropologists have an expression for events like Halloween, particularly the kind that require costumes. They call them “inversion rituals”. An inversion ritual is an event or ceremony where people are given permission to violate normal social behaviors, to turn convention on its head, to reverse standard practice.  And dressing up allows us to mock the values we’re violating while preserving some level of anonymity. Basically, an inversion ritual is a sanctioned way to hold a mirror image up to normal social standards. In societies where hard work, thrift and modesty are the order of the day, you’ll find raucous inversion rituals like Mardi Gras or St Patricks Day. In societies where life is precarious and death is barely kept at bay, there’ll be a festival like the Day of the Dead. Where societies are very sexually repressive you’ll see masquerade

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Not Everything Has to Make Sense

Not Everything Has to Make Sense

On the east coast of Japan, in the small town of Otsuchi, on a hill overlooking the Pacific, a 70 year old man named Itaru Sasaki has installed an unusual garden feature – a phone booth. Like the ones Clark Kent used to use when he was in hurry to save Metropolis. Or the old fashioned red phone boxes you still sometimes see in the UK. Only Sasaki-san’s isn’t red. It’s white with a green roof. He installed it, along with an old disconnected rotary-dial black phone, to help him deal with the grief he felt at the passing of a beloved cousin. He has cultivated the habit of regularly retreating to the booth, picking up the receiver, and talking to his departed relative. This might just be a quaint little provincial story, except for the remarkable role Sasaki-san’s phone booth has played in helping a nation come to terms with one of its greatest natural disasters. We all remember the horrific images of the relentlessly rising black wave that engulfed much of the north east coast of Japan after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake. Those images, plus the news that the tsunami had caused meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima nuclear power plant, dominated our news broadcasts at the time. As did the tally of nearly 16,000 deaths and 2,500

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The Lost Art of Neighboring

The Lost Art of Neighboring

In a typical suburban home, not far from where I live, a man was recently observed carrying out modifications to his house. Neighbors saw him on the roof working with power tools and assumed he was just carrying out some basic repairs. He seemed purposeful and oblivious to their attention. When his children, both of whom suffered from non-verbal autism, didn’t show up for school the following week, calls were made to the parents’ phones. No one answered. So the police attended the family home only to discover the terrible truth about what the father had been doing the previous weekend. He had converted his house into a toxic gas chamber by rigging up a sinister network of hidden pipes. He had then closed all the windows and doors, turned on a series of gas cylinders, and poisoned his wife, both the children (aged 11 and 10), himself and the family dog. It was clinical, elaborate, pre-meditated and deadly. They were immigrants, with no family connections in town. Their kids’ disabilities made them extremely demanding. The marriage was under strain, as anybody’s would be under those circumstances. No one knows if the mother was aware of the plan. She was found alongside one of their children. And so they all died silently and unassumingly, while all around them their neighbors

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Does the President’s character really matter?

Does the President’s character really matter?

“The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties.” That’s the fictitious and machiavellian Francis Underwood from South Carolina’s 5th congressional district. In the Netflix series House of Cards, the amoral Underwood makes it all the way to the Oval Office, thanks to some deft manipulation of his enemies, including the odd murder or two. Sure, he’s evil. He’s probably a sociopath. But he knows how to govern. In fact, that’s Frank’s own justification for all the hypocrisy and casualties: he gets things done! So does it really matter what the character of the President is like? Should voters elect a person based on their personal morals and private life? Isn’t the POTUS just meant to “get things done”? Why do we need her or him to be a paragon of virtue?   It’s not like Presidents in the past have been lily-white. American history is rife with examples of people who were lousy spouses or backroom dealers, but great stewards of the state. Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy were unfaithful to their wives. As were Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton. Warren Harding, a man elected because it was said he “looks like a president,” even fathered a child with his mistress during his term of office. It didn’t affect their ability to govern, did it? Okay, well

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Clickbait and switch

Clickbait and switch

“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”   Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that more than half a century ago, when he could have had no idea how right he would become. Imagine Dr King’s frustration with the quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions if he was alive today. The Internet generally, and social media more specifically, has completely reduced our attention spans, and our capacity to engage in the hard, solid thinking he was commending. In a recent media lecture, journalist Waleed Aly admitted the two primary motivators for the creation of online news content is (a) speed and (b) shareability, and that both of these things are destroying the quality of contemporary journalism. That makes sense. These days journalists have to produce stories at warp speed to keep up with our voracious desire for the ‘latest’ news. As Aly admits, this means journalists aren’t interested in a story that could take weeks or even days to research and write. It means our newsfeeds are full of pretty much the same content regurgitated by every news outlet and every journalist. In other words, it’s the mindless repetition of received and already accepted

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Julia Gillard and the terror of rape culture

Julia Gillard and the terror of rape culture

This will be my third and last post in a little series looking at sexism. You can find the other two here and here. Julia Gillard was the 27th Prime Minister of Australia from 2010 to 2013. She was the first woman to hold that office. This week she was in London addressing a gathering in memory of Jo Cox, the UK politician murdered while campaigning in her constituency in northern England in June. What she said shocked me to my core. “Threats of violence have become more prevalent for women in public life. They can take the form of detailed death threats, or threats of violence against family, friends and staff. And of course, as a woman in public life, the violent threats take on another sickening dimension. Threats of violent abuse, of rape, are far too common.” Say what?  Rape threats are common? Well actually, Ms. Gillard continued, not only common… “A woman in public view may expect to receive [rape threats] almost daily.”   Did you get that? Australians who objected to Ms. Gillard’s leadership of their country actually threatened to rape her. Almost daily! I knew about how the media had questioned her choice not to have children. I knew she had been publicly chided by a senior conservative senator for being “deliberately barren.” I knew

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When girls thrive, all of society benefits

When girls thrive, all of society benefits

Exiled Iranian politician, Mahnaz Afkhami once declared, “When women thrive, all of society benefits, and succeeding generations are given a better start in life. The connection between women’s human rights, gender equality, socioeconomic development and peace is increasingly apparent.” In other words, if you want a more peaceful society, let girls and women flourish.   No seriously, if there’s a silver bullet or a shortcut to world peace it’s this: remove the barriers that inhibit opportunities for girls to become successful women. And this week I discovered if you want the best opportunities for your daughter, you’d better move to Sweden or Norway or Denmark or Finland. Heck, just get her to Scandinavia as quick as you can. To coincide with International Day of the Girl, Save the Children released their ranking of the best and worst countries in which to be a girl, and those four countries topped the list. Which makes sense since along with Volvo, Abba and pickled herring, Scandinavia is definitely known for peace. Embarrassingly, some other wealthy developed countries like Australia (21), South Korea (27), USA (32), and Japan (35) ranked down the list. In fact, it’s better to be a girl in Kazakhstan than America, or in Serbia than Australia (ouch!!). So how does that work? Well, Save the Children identified five key predictors

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Minimizing sexism IS sexism, so knock it off

Minimizing sexism IS sexism, so knock it off

This is not a blog about Donald Trump. Can I just make that clear? It’s about how some men think and speak about women. But I’m going to use Donald Trump’s recent comments as my jumping off point. No doubt you’ve heard (unless you’re newly arrived from Mars) that back in 2005 Mr Trump made some very lewd, indeed disgusting remarks about women in a conversation with Billy Bush of Today and Access Hollywood. As they see actress Arianne Zucker approaching, Trump is heard saying to Bush, “I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.”Movie All Is Lost (2013) When Bush expresses some incredulity at this statement, Trump presses the point, “Grab them by the p*#%. You can do anything.” In brief, Mr Trump boasts that he can grab women’s private parts because he’s a celebrity. He refers to another woman as a “bitch” and a “piece of ass”, and bemoans that she, a married woman, had once rejected his, a married man’s, oafish advances. There’s no need to go into Mr Trump’s obvious weaknesses. Neither do I want

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Why the Missional Movement Must Not Fail

Why the Missional Movement Must Not Fail

In 1888, the intrepid Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen made the first crossing of the previously impenetrable island of Greenland. He was only 27 years old. Other more famous explorers like Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld and Robert Peary had previously attempted the crossing, setting out from the inhabited western coast and trekking eastward for about 160km (100 mi), before being forced back by the freezing mountainous conditions. Nansen tried a different and more treacherous strategy. He started from the wild and uninhabited east coast and undertook a phenomenal one-way journey towards the populated west. It meant that he had no line of retreat to a safe base; the only way to go would be forward, a strategy that suited Nansen’s dogged personality completely. His ship struggled to make landing on the craggy east coast, but once finally unloaded, Nansen and his crew of five others set off westward. There was no plan B.   If any of his crew complained about wanting to give up, he could honestly tell them the only option was to press on toward safety. It feels like that to me with those currently baulking at continuing the missional conversation. I hear some complaining that the results aren’t commensurate with the talk (whatever “results” might be in this situation); others suggest the missional movement is all a bit

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Jesus Dancing on the Hospital Wall

Jesus Dancing on the Hospital Wall

I’m sitting in my wife’s hospital room while she sleeps off the effects of a general anesthetic. I’m looking at Jesus. That Jesus in the picture above. This being a Catholic hospital I’m assuming that’s a crucifix on the wall behind her bed, but I can’t help but think the Lord looks like he’s striking a bit of a modern dance pose. Caz has just come back from theater after a major procedure (don’t worry, nothing life threatening), so she’s out like a light right now, leaving me to watch over her and contemplate Dancing Jesus. I quite like the thought of him as Dancing Jesus rather than Dying Jesus, because who wants to think about dying in a hospital if you don’t have to. Also because Dancing Jesus seems a bit more present and helpful than Dying Jesus right now. Don’t get me wrong: I know he died for our sins and that was very helpful. But, at the risk of getting a bit corny and sentimental, I’ve been dancing with this woman for over 30 years now and I absolutely love her to bits, so it’s nice to think of the Dancing Jesus with us on the dance floor of life. Actually, that was corny, wasn’t it?  Sorry. Reminds me of the awkward lyrics to that old 1960s hymn,

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A New Moral Majority?

A New Moral Majority?

Remember the Moral Majority back in the 1980s? Its name was coined by Paul Weyrich, who believed the majority of Americans were morally conservative but largely ignored in general elections. Weyrich believed this huge silent cohort were opposed to feminism, homosexual rights, abortion, and communism, and they wanted prayer and creationism back in public schools. You might also remember the Moral Majority after it got all weird when Jerry Falwell started calling out MLK as a communist, Muhummad Ali as a terrorist, and Tinky Winky from the Teletubbies as a gay activist (I’m not kidding). But I can’t help but wonder whether there’s a new moral majority emerging, as silently as did the old one. It’s my hunch that there’s a growing number of people who identify as neither liberal nor conservative but who want to see action on climate change, government and corporate corruption, systemic racism, immigration reform, education funding, socialized healthcare and the military-industrial complex. And many of them are Christians who see these issues in distinctly moral terms and who have arrived at their views based on their understanding of the values taught in Scripture. Recently, a Christian friend of mine posted a kind of 95 Theses on the 21st Century’s version of the Wittenberg door (Facebook) and got a hugely positive response, including from me. In

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