Dangerous Love

I’m reading Dangerous Love by Ray Norman.
Norman was national director for World Vision in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania where he worked with his wife Helene.

His book looks at the challenges and cost of mission work, where Christian witness requires the casting aside of a lot of “western” preconceptions.

As well-educated and comparatively wealthy foreigners, we easily succumb to the notion that we are somehow higher in the pecking order, that our important objectives and busy schedules should take precedence because “we know best”. And too often our image among the poor is tainted, and our actions reflect a sense of entitlement and thinly veiled arrogance (in spite of our good intentions…

… In much of the world outside of Europe and north America, people are less achievement-oriented and place significantly higher value on relationships. On days after an unexpectedly long exchange with farmers, I might glance at my watch and mumble something to the effect that there was still much I had not accomplished that day. I would often hear words such as, ‘Yes, but those things can always get done tomorrow. At least today we have done the important thing and gotten to know each other better.’

During his tenure in Mauretania, an act of extreme violence against Norman and his daughter Hannah challenged the family’s resolve to continue the work they felt called to do. They were also made aware of inadequacies in the way fellow believers reacted to them in the aftermath of that violent incident.

It seemed that even our own pastor in France, a man who, along with his spouse, had been a source of support and encouragement to us over the years, seemed to strufggle with how to respond to us. He had been informed of what had happened, and once we arrived in Calais we expected to hear from him or his wife but never did. I eventually called him on our third or fourth day there. He told me that he’d heard our news, and he listened quietly as I chatted. But it seemed our situation was beyond him…

Eventually, the healing process began when the family chose to return to their work in Mauretania, and the greatest help came from those intended to be the recipients of the Norman’s ministry work. A clear example of this came from the women of Arafat, a nearby poverty stricken township, who invited Helene Norman to their community.

We understand because we too are women. And we want you to know that we are here to walk with you, to support and encourage you in this experience in which you have suffered deeply. So please know, Madame Norman, that we have brought you here among us to let you know you are not alone on this journey. We are here with you.

 

Ray Norman reflects on this as his wife tells him the full story:

I stood there in stunned silence , and between her sobs, she began to explain in halting words how the women of Arafat had provided for her, in her deepest time of need, what no friend or gathering among her many Christian acquaintances across three continents (Africa, Europe, or America) had been able, or had the insight to provide. How in the most unlikely of places, she had found common ground with those who suffer, and how God had touched her heart and demonstrated his promise of faithfulness in a remote land through ‘the least of these’ (Matt. 25:40)

 

 

 

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The Pastor and the Painter, by Cindy Wockner

Reading The Pastor and the Painter was a little like reading a book about the Titanic. The tragic conclusion has already been well publicised.

Andrew Chan (the pastor) and Myuran Sukumaran (the painter) were killed by an Indonesian firing squad, upon the order of the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo.

Chan and Sukumaran had been sentenced to death by a Bali court for drug trafficking a decade before the sentence was finally carried out. Pleas for clemency were denied.

Not long before his death, Sukumaran painted a portrait of the man who would demand that the executions be carried out. On the back of the painting of the president, Sukumaran wrote “People Do Change”, stating the fact that everyone apart from the president seemed to recognise – that the two men whose lives were being taken from them were not the same men who committed the crime a decade before. They HAD changed.

The men sentenced were young, irresponsible, angry, unco-operative and undeniably guilty of the crime.
The men being executed 10 years later were repentant, responsible and highly respected by those with authority over them in jail. Unlike many in their position who buried their despair in drug use, Chan and Sukumaran turned their lives around and went to work developing and running training programs and various other activities for other prisoners within the jail.

Chan studied for Christian ministry and started a church within the prison.
Sukumaran developed his artistic skills and was mentored by Australian artist Ben Quilty; sharing what he learned through holding art classes for fellow prisoners. Paintings were sold and proceeds used for various causes, including raising money to pay for life saving surgery for a female prisoner.

While many in the past have had sentences reduced, sadly, for others Indonesian law would remain inflexible.

 

Laws are like spider webs: if a fly or mosquito gets near, it gets trapped, but if a wasp or bee goes near, it breaks it and leaves. The same applies to the law: if a poor man strays he gets caught, while the rich and powerful exempt themselves from the law and walk away.

(Andrew Chan – from The Pastor and the Painter)

The absurdity of executing fully rehabilitated young men, who had not only turned their own lives around but had made significant contributions to the rehabilitation of their fellow prisoners, became even more extreme when the time came for them to be transported to the place where they were to be held prior to facing a firing squad. It was a full-on military exercise with armoured vehicles, armed soldiers and fighter jets escorting them on their journey.

On 27th April, two days before he and Myuran were executed, Andrew Chan married Febyanti Herewila, a local church minister, in a ceremony within the prison.

All up, about 20 people gathered, After Muran led them in prayer, he started singing ‘Bless the Lord’, a song also known as ‘10,000 Reasons’, and one they all knew and loved.

There was still some time for jokes amid the sad pall that hung over the Besi prison visiting area. As Myuran got stuck into some more junk food, someone told him it wasn’t good for him.

He smiled. “There are worse ways to die”.

(From The Pastor and the Painter)

 

On 29th April 2105, at 12.25am, Andrew and Myuran and six others were brutally killed by Indonesian president Joko Widodo. The weapon used: firing squad.

They were strapped by the elbows to wooden crosses and sang until their voices were silenced by the fatal gunshots. The song in the video above is the last they sang.

 

 

The eight people who were executed in Indonesia on 29 April 2015. Top row from left (including two of the Bali Nine): Australians Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, Nigerian Okwuduli Oyatanze and Nigerian Martin Anderson. Bottom row from left: Nigerians Raheem Agbaje Salami, Silvester Obiekwe Nwolise, Brazilian Rodrigo Gularte and Indonesian Zainal Abidin. Two others (not pictured) who were scheduled to be executed were given a temporary reprieve. Photograph: The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/29/bali-nine-who-are-the-nine-people-being-executed-by-indonesia )

Notes on an Exodus, Richard Flanagan

xnotes-on-an-exodusNotes on an Exodus : an essay is a small book by Man Booker prize winning author Richard Flanagan, illustrated by Ben Quilty.

Flanagan and Quilty travelled to the Middle East and Europe with World Vision, visiting refugees in camps and on the road, who were escaping from the violence of their homes in Syria.

While described as “an essay” in its subtitle, the book is more a collection of brief written portraits of the people Flanagan and Quilty met on their journey.

People who had fled villages, towns and cities to escape either the day and night bombing by Assad supporting Russian planes, from the violence and oppression of Daesh (ISIS), or both.

People who had fled prosperous lives to live in makeshift tents constructed from recycled garbage.

People who once owned productive farms and orchards but now have to survive on meagre rations of bread and tea or scraps collected from the floors of vegetable shops. Where a family survives (barely) with the help of their nine year old son, working as a welder for $3 a day. who has half his weekly pay retained by his employer to ensure his return the following week.

These are the kind of stories that we in the west prefer not to know so we don’t have to see the refugees as REAL people with REAL lives who probably weren’t so different from other people we know. Individuals we can’t disguise and dehumanise as a “flood”.

Flanagan’s vignettes of people he met bring focus to the plight of millions who have been driven from their homes and homelands. They should stir similar feelings to those stirred by the photos of the small body of Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach that briefly moved the conscience of the world. But sadly they won’t. All too quickly our collective hearts have rehardened.

Suspicion and hostility against the flood have been restored.

Alan_Kurdi_lifeless_body

Ambition

I can only remember having two ambitions when I was growing up. The first was to become a Beatle.
The group’s early hit “She Loves You” was a big favourite of mine as a six year old.

The second was to be a script writer.
In the latter years of primary school I regularly wrote short scripts to be acted in class, most of which were rewritings of TV shows or films I’d recently seen. Thanks to a visiting student teacher, some of them even made it the “stage” in front of the class.

Neither of those career ambitions was fulfilled.

Sadly John, Paul George and Ringo split up before they could add me as a fifth member of their group, and my writing ambition got lost somewhere on the road of practicality.
I suppose my upbringing didn’t prepare me to take the risks that would have been needed to become a writer. I could only see a similar path as the one taken by my parents: get a secure job, get married, have a family. A writing career wouldn’t easily fit into that scenario, and more importantly, I was never disciplined enough to make it fit.

From my early 20s onwards, another complication came into my life: committed church involvement.
I even gave up a Personnel Management course at college because it clashed with mid-week church meetings
That effectively killed a career direction I could have had, but sparked a desire to be a professional minister.

While I knew I didn’t have the temperament to be a pastor, the idea of being a “professional” preacher was very appealing. Despite a long standing fear of public speaking, I loved having occasional opportunities to preach and for the first time I felt comfortable speaking to a large group.

Thankfully God pulled the rug from under my misplaced feet, with the resulting shakeup eventually leading me to recognise the gulf between my experience within the church system and a biblically compatible life of discipleship.

Now isn’t THAT is an ambition we should all have?
To live a biblically compatible life of discipleship!

When I look at what that REALLY means, it seems like the Beatles and scriptwriter paths might have been easier options – but then I need to remind myself that it’s not an ambition I, or any of us, need to face alone.
HE works WITH us.

“…work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.”

(We work out and He will work in).

How Fictional can “Christian Fiction” Be (while remaining “Christian”)?

Continuing on from my three “Stories what I wrote” articles, this was originally posted in February 2013.

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[subtitle: Can a Christian Write Non-Christian or Even Antichristian fiction?]

I’ve been writing about my early writing ambitions, the study I did and the stories I wrote. Those ambitions never came to fruition but I haven’t given up on them. However things have changed significantly since those University days. Back then there were few restraints on what I wrote – I could tackle any topic, any style and any genre without too much concern. But now I see things differently.

At that time I was going through a spiritual crisis, battling with the beliefs I’d held throughout the previous decade or more. It was a time of questioning and the pushing of boundaries, trying to come to terms with what I did or did not believe and what I SHOULD believe.

My spiritual condition could be summed up in this (paraphrased from memory) description of a character in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: “he could not worship a God in whom he could not wholly disbelieve”. To me this describes someone caught between two camps. On the one hand not certain enough of the reality of God to fully devote his life to God; on the other hand not certain enough of God’s non-existence to cast aside all restraint to live a totally God-less life.

It was several years afterwards that I emerged from that crisis with a renewed faith, a development that has consequences for any writing ambitions that I’ve retained. I feel there ARE now restraints on what I write and how I write. There are responsibilities that twenty years ago I didn’t feel were relevant. There are types of writing that wouldn’t be appropriate for me to tackle, to state the obvious: pornography.

But the “restraints” go further than personal moral convictions and extend to the type of spiritual reality that a story portrays. A good friend of mine suggested that there are serious problems with any story that leaves God and the gospel of Jesus out of the equation. To my mind this doesn’t mean that every story a Christian writes (or reads) should contain specific references to these important spiritual realities, it just means that a Christian’s fictional world should remain consistent with the foundational spiritual truths they claim to embrace. The framework of a fictional world created by a Christian writer needs to have Christian realities at its core – even if that core is not specifically mentioned.

I became even more convinced of this yesterday when I read the following on the blog of a Christian author where he describes a major plot-point of his first published novel:
“…a man who’d been used by God to raise someone from the dead was sacrificed to a pagan deity. His soul was effectively imprisoned and the Land was cursed. That curse was maintained by each successive generation. One of my protagonist’s goals becomes to “free” this healer and return his soul to God.

Several reviewers pointed out that, in the real world, this was impossible.
And I pretty much agree.”

Further into his article he decries what he labels “the Theology Police” (a term he “wield[s] with lotsa snark”) who would criticise his story’s premise.

I have a very serious problem with the attitude the author is conveying. He seems to suggest there is absolutely no responsibility on Christian authors to remain true to even the most basic of the spiritual truths their alleged faith upholds. As if they can cast aside foundational truths to portray an alternative spiritual worldview all for the sake of story. As if the story takes priority over truth.

I’m sure many will agree with him and disagree with me – pointing out that he is an author writing fiction, that there are no limits on what he should be able to write in his own created fictional world.

Of course any fiction writer can create whatever reality they think suits their story – but whether that fiction writer can still legitimately refer to themselves as a Christian writer, or by the more flexible label of “writer who is a Christian” is debatable. For the writer (and reader) with no strong religious conviction all of this wouldn’t be an issue. But to someone believing in a genuine spiritual battle in which there are personal eternal consequences the situation ought to be entirely different.

In the case mentioned above, the author himself recognises the problem with the scenario his novel presents: as if the “soul” of a Godly many could be imprisoned after death and need to be freed to return to God.
What kind of spiritual “reality” and God is that portraying? And does it really matter as long as it’s entertaining?
I’d say it is a false reality and a false God, and YES it does matter.

Personally I’d prefer to read a well written secular novel by a non-believing author than one written by a Christian that protrays a counterfeit spirituality and a false God.

At least with the non-Christian author I have no false expectations about what I’d be reading.

Stories What I Wrote III

I tried a few different genres of writing but found I was getting the best response with “horror” stories – or at least those that leaned towards horror. These were especially successful when I read them at monthly “poetry readings”. I still recall the squirming, uncomfortable laughter of one of my lecturers when he realised where the story was heading. Seeing that honest response in person was far more satisfying at the time than reading a few complimentary comments he’d written on some of my assignments.

I don’t want to go into the sordid details of the story. It’s not something I’d write today, but I will say something about the inspiration that led to it. It came from a Stephen King short story I’d been reading. I thought I could see where the story was heading but found I was wrong. His conclusion was totally different from the one I’d anticipated, so I took the ending that I’d assumed would happen and worked backwards to create a completely different story from the one King had written.

To conclude this little trilogy of articles I want to mention two of what I considered my best stories of that time. The first came out of a suggestion by a fellow student. He said when he was stumped for ideas he’d look to bible stories for a spark of inspiration. He’d do that with no more religious intent than anyone doing the same thing by referring to Shakespeare for an idea.

I thought of the story of David and Bathsheba, how David’s sight of her bathing led to all kinds of trouble. My story started with the protagonist seeing his new neighbour lying beside her swimming pool. I read the first draft to the class and found myself under attack from the group’s feminists who objected to a story beginning with a man’s lustful gaze. Maybe referring to the bible for story inspiration backfired.

After revisions and editing I had a story I was happy with – a kind of obsessive love story that included references to my interest in film-making and my experience with animation. It has no happy ending. The romance comes to a sudden end when the woman discovers her feelings for the man may have been manipulated through “supernatural means” and she turns the tables on him.

The other story came from a memory of my grandad. When I was a young child he was often very sick and spent a lot of time bedridden, sometimes becoming very confused about where he was and WHEN he was. At times he thought it was still the time of WWII.

During one of these confused episodes he held a conversation with the faces he could see in the rose pattern of the wallpaper. And that was the initial inspiration of my story of a bed-bound man being nursed by his wife. But his experience goes far beyond conversations with imagined faces. He finds himself taken into a world contained within the wallpaper pattern. There he meets a seductive but dangerous woman with thorn like claws. He wakes and realises it’s all a dream, until he finds some physical evidence that the woman might not be a mere product of his sleep induced imagination… or maybe something else is going on. Could his wife be tormenting him, fuelling his imagination with drugs? Is it really prescribed medication she is giving him or something else?

That’s the end of this little exploration of my past fictional writings. It might be something I come back to at another time. I could write about the plans I had to write stories (and even a novel) based on my experiences in church, but those ideas are something I am more likely to put to use in the future and I don’t want to give away too many of my ideas before I have the opportunity to write those stories.

The other things, those that I’ve written about in these three articles are well and truly in the past. The actual stories are dead and buried with no hope of resuscitation.

Stories What I Wrote II

Acceptance into the Creative Writing course was the easy part. Presenting a portfolio of writing fragments (written over a long period) helped me get in – but from that point I needed to do something I’d not done since leaving High School more than a decade earlier. Write completed stories, regularly, to deadlines.

And something entirely new: write things of substantial length. No more one page essays and half page “short stories”. No more token, last minute scribbles to get homework in on time. I was doing the course out of choice, and living on a tiny income for at least three years, so I couldn’t afford to settle for the easy way through it all. What would be the point of doing that?

The first story I remember from the first semester is one I wrote about the birth of a young couple’s first child. Most of it was quickly handwritten between lectures, and then edited and polished as I typed it on my computer. It is still the only time I’ve handwritten a story since High School. For me making changes on a written page is a messy and confusing business. I wouldn’t get anywhere without the simplicity and neatness of cut and paste.

That story became the first in a very loose trilogy. The second part was written the following year and the couple’s relationship had taken a turn for the worst, the only thing holding the fragments together was their young child.
Neither of the above stories was anything special. I was trying to find my feet in a strange world struggling with books I wouldn’t normally read and writing essays full of ideas that wouldn’t have occurred to me in “real life”. But eventually I settled into this foreign routine, enjoying the exercise my flabby brain was now getting, and my story writing started to improve.

The third part of my “trilogy” came out of a writing exercise. The class had to compile a list of the characteristics of ghost stories. Creaking doors, rattling chains, sudden mists, deserted and ruined houses, bumps in the night – and all of the other clichés we could think of. After compiling the list we had to take several of those elements and incorporate them into a non-ghost story.

My story centred on the husband/father from the two stories mentioned above. His relationship has ended and he has taken off alone to stay in a friend’s isolated lakeside cottage, drowning his sorrows with Irish whiskey. His intended time alone is disrupted. He is woken from a drunken sleep by the unexpected appearance of a young mysterious woman whose presence has an unwanted effect on him and his attempt to escape his problems.

The end of the story took an unpleasant turn with an attempted rape and an act of arson and if I remember correctly the man’s (possible) suicide. Optimistically I submitted it to a literary magazine. They rejected it, saying it became too melodramatic after a promising start.

(coming later “Stories What I Wrote III)

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(I’m assuming that most won’t understand the reason for the bad grammar in the title of this series of posts. As a child one of my favourite TV shows was a comedy variety programme starring an English comedy duo Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. Each week in this series Ernie Wise presented his “play what I wrote”, in which respected guests starred – routinely becoming the butt of Eric and Ernie’s jokes in a mock drama. I recall at least one High School writing assignment in which I unashamedly ripped off and adapted a Morecambe and Wise routine. With this title I give a nostalgic nod to that teenage act of plagiarism.)