It Takes a Lucky Bear to Find Hope In Middle East

Talking of teeth there is currently much gnashing going on in the Middle East – not over violence this time, but over democracy!

Hamas has won a clear majority in the Palestinian elections. Hamas renowned for its militant actions and suicide bombers has opted to work within a democratic government.

Both Israel and United States are appalled. They will not talk with any organisation committed to the destruction of Israel. Not that they've been talking anyway - the Middle East peace talks have been frozen since 2000!

For years Israel, with its eye and tooth policy, has tried to destroy Hamas. The strategy hasn't worked. Surprise, surprise, they're still around, and now more popular than the moderate Fatah party. Violence alone never destroys violence.

So, Palestine went to the polls, and this time the militants decided not to boycott. Instead they voted and were voted in.

Isn't this a hopeful sign? Isn’t this the hope of democracy? People who think they can only communicate by killing are now going to sit round a table and find solutions by talking and listening. Palestinian democracy has become more participatory, more fraught, and more capable of building a lasting peace.

Isn't this similar to the IRA and its political wing Sinn Fein? Remember years ago when the so-called 'terrorist' party, supported significantly by the Catholic populace, decided that their aims would be better achieved not through killing but by negotiating. By talking and listening across difference, slowly… two steps forward and one back… they're getting there.

I say so-called 'terrorist' because to their supporters they were freedom fighters, just as Hamas are seen likewise by the majority of Palestinians. As Israel and the USA may one day learn you can’t build peace by labelling those you don’t like and refusing to talk to them.

Hamas, on the other hand, see Israel as a terrorist state and the USA likewise. As the recent movie Munich points out, when it comes to terror none of the players are innocent. The innocent are those caught in the cross-fire. Hamas too need to learn the skills of shelving the rhetoric and instead talking and listening for peace.

American foreign policy once again reveals its hypocrisy. Trumpeting the virtues of democracy, the Americans seem to only like it if the outcome is a government that favours them. When it isn’t, any old despot seems to do.

Another sign of hope is that an opinion poll in Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper showed 48 per cent of Israelis favoured talking to a Hamas-led Palestinian government, while 43 per cent were opposed. Despite the rhetoric of their government, and their chief sponsor the USA, the average Israeli seems to favour a negotiated peace with ‘terrorists’.

Lucky Bear has his fingers crossed that maybe some progress will be made towards peace.


Tooth Fairy Justice

We used to get 50c under the pillow. I can’t remember whether I thought the pain was worth it or not, but I can remember the 50c. I use to wish that more of my teeth would fall out.

These days I’m a father and have the privilege of representing my children’s interests in negotiations with the Tooth Fairy. The price can fluctuate depending on demand - demand on my wallet. Generally speaking, there has been a 300% price increase. In the Auckland Central teeth market a $2 coin usually finds its way mysteriously under the pillow.

There is an old saying about ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. The principle here is that the one who has suffered has the right to inflict the same level of suffering upon the one who has caused their suffering. It’s called retributive justice.

It doesn’t work, and I doubt it ever has. Israelis and Palestinians having been taking eyes and teeth out of each other for decades and the place is full of suffering and empty of justice and peace . With every blast and bullet the seeds of hatred are sowed for the future.

The principle of the Tooth Fairy is recompense for pain. The Fairy acknowledges the hurt. It doesn’t relieve the hurt. The child, hopefully with parental support, has to work the hurt out herself. The recompense is not equal to, or tries to be equal to, the level of suffering. The money simply acknowledges and compensates a little. It’s called restorative justice.

Some would say we’re encouraging trade in body parts - the mentality that everything, your body, your mind, even your teeth, has a price. I agree it’s possible to write the Tooth Fairy off as a servant of boundless capitalism. Like with most myths there is a downside.

Yet the Tooth Fairy can be more than that. It can be a vehicle for encouraging solidarity: the value of acknowledging the pain and injustice experienced by others. Maybe if we exercise solidarity in the little things, we might be able to step beyond our presumptions and prejudices and exercise solidarity in the big things. And big things will cost more than any amount of money under pillow.


The Man In The Iron Tank

The late James K. Baxter wrote:

There was a man who decided that life was too corrupt. He bought a large corrugated iron tank, and furnished it with the necessities of life - a bed, books, food, electric light and heating, his bible and prayerbook. There he lived a blameless life without interruption from the world. But there was one great hardship.

Morning and evening, without fail, volleys of bullets would rip through the walls of his tank. The man learnt to lie on the floor to avoid being shot. Nevertheless, he did at times sustain wounds, and the iron walls were pierced with many holes that let in the wind and the daylight. He plugged up the holes. He prayed against the unknown marksman, asking God to intervene.

By degrees he began to use the bullet holes for a positive purpose. He would gaze out through one hole or another, and watch the people passing, the children flying kites, the lovers making love, the wind in the trees,... He would forget himself in observing these things.

The day came when the tank rusted and fell to pieces. He walked out of it with little regret. There was a man standing with a gun outside. "Why have you been persecuting me?" asked the man from the tank. The other man laid down the gun and smiled. "I am not your enemy", he said. And the man from the tank could see that there were scars on the marksman's hands and feet, and these scars were shining like the sun.

God does not respect our desire to live insular lives, but disturbs us and threatens us with new insights and vision.

Glynn, the Baxter tale reminds me of an old story, origin unknown, about a man who was put in prison. For a while he fretted about the small cell and the loss of his freedom, but gradually he got used to it. He was fed well, and he had certain comforts, a sumptuous red velvet couch, the latest TV and stereo and some communication with other prisoners. There was a tiny window high in the wall which gave a glimpse of the outside world but reaching it required a bit of effort and after a while he didn’t bother. Years went by. One day, there were rumblings inside the prison, the cell door was thrown open and a guard announced, “You are free! You can walk out of here!” The prisoner was terrified. He rushed to his velvet couch, threw himself upon it and buried his head under a cushion.Cheers,Joy


The Gospel According To Biff

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore is a sick book, seriously sick… but my kind of sick.

Through the eyes of Biff - a sarcastic, sex-loving, crude, and deeply loyal friend – we get a very humorous, fictitious, and yet insightful look at Jesus. Moore uses the device of the three wise men, representing Eastern spiritual traditions, to send Jesus and Biff on a spiritual odyssey before returning to Nazareth to begin his public ministry.

From the first meeting with the 6 year old Jesus - he was bringing to life lizards whose heads his younger brother had quashed – to the righteous young teenager who secretly in the dark of night went with Biff to circumcise a statue of Apollo (yes, the chisel slipped!) the reader knows this is no ordinary book.

Here’s an example of its warped humour:

“I’m going to be gone soon,” [Jesus states]. “In the spring we’ll go to Jerusalem for the Passover, and there I will judged by the scribes and the priests, and there I will be tortured and put to death. But three days from the day of my death, I shall rise, and be with you again.”

… A shadow of grief seemed to pass over the faces of the disciples. We looked not at each other, and neither at the ground, but at a place in space a few feet from our faces, where I suppose one looks for a clear answer to appear out of undefined shock.

“Well, that sucks,” someone said.” [P.391]

Humour, like beauty, art and music, is a very subjective thing. Within my family, for example, there are at least two different streams of humour. What will have two or three of us rolling on the floor laughing watery-eyed will have the rest of us looking bemused. So, if you don’t find this funny don’t worry. You’re normal. But others of us aren’t.

Here’s another Biff beauty:

“[Jesus] ministry was three years of preaching… here’s the gist:

You should be nice to people, even creeps.
And if you:
A] believed that [Jesus] was the Son of God (and)
B] he had come to save you from sin (and)
C] acknowledged the Holy Spirit within you (became as a little child, he would say) (and)
D] didn’t blaspheme the Holy Ghost (see C)
Then you would:
E] live forever
F] someplace nice
G] probably heaven.
However, if you:
H] sinned (and/or)
I] were a hypocrite (and/or)
J] valued things over people (and)
K] didn’t do a, b, c, and d,
Then you were:
L]"Fucked.” [p.366]

Biff is akin to Monty Python [with an American accent] going to Nazareth. Yet it also has a serious message. The author summarizes that on p.443: “the preferable way to treat one another is with love and kindness; [the] pursuit of material gain is ultimately empty …; and that somehow, as human beings, we are all connected.” Moore’s unspoken message is that sick humour is also tonic for the soul.


World's Fastest Indian

[This is an e-conversation with Clay Nelson – priest, recent immigrant, and employed at St Matthew’]

I finally took your advice and went to see “The World’s Fastest Indian” last night. As always I enjoyed Anthony Hopkins, although his accent didn’t sound quite right. I loved the character he played – genuine, eccentric, accepting of difference, gullible, and generous. In a way the movie is about generosity – both of New Zealanders and Americans.

Clay responds: I have to say that after Anthony’s taxi experience on arriving in the US, I feared that my fellow Americans were about to be portrayed in a less than noble manner. I was relieved that most were shown to share Kiwi traits of hospitality and generosity.

What I got out of the film besides some tips on how to brew a proper cuppa, trim grass, and fertilize a lemon tree had to do more with the importance of breaking rules. I found it an exploration of Jesus’ question, “Is humanity made for the Sabbath or the Sabbath for humanity?” Hopkins defied convention, age, safety, physics, and expectations and in doing so freed others as well, from the neighbour boy who continued fertilizing the lemon tree in his absence to the speedway officials who let him give it a go against their better judgment.

Glynn responds: Interestingly as a self-confessed notorious rule-breaker I didn't particularly notice that aspect of the film. I was brought up with that can-do attitude and I suppose I just expected it.

What struck me was the generosity of the tough local bikies, the moaning neighbour, the transvestite motel worker, the people at Bonneville Salt Flats, and many others. And of course Burt Munro's own generosity of time and spirit.

My experience of living in the US is being overwhelmed with generosity. Those 'dolly-bird' characters at Bonneville were reminiscent of some of the air-heads at my High School who wanted to hitchhike down to NZ. Despite their seeming absence of brain cells they were actually quite generous people - even to strangers from Downunder.

Clay responds: I’m always pleased to hear stories where Americans behave admirably, especially in your case, as I have been overwhelmed by the friendliness and offers to help I have received from New Zealanders. One day within weeks of our arrival my spouse had walked some distance to the market and on the way home lugging her purchases a woman offered to help and did carry some of the load until their paths diverged. It was a small thing that made a big impression.

When I watched the movie I wondered if the similarities in generosity had less to do with the countries the characters were from and more to do with living in sparsely populated regions. In the American west most of the population lives in far apart cities, leaving vast areas filled only with sage, cows and the occasional small town. In New Zealand substitute gorse and sheep and it is much the same. Having grown up in some of those low populated areas I know how much one appreciates the stranger and understands the importance of offering a helping hand.

I wonder if a generous environment nurtures tolerance for rule breaking? I’m thinking of the neighbour who was upset with the condition of Hopkins’ yard when he was there, but was shown mowing it when he returned.

By the way, in reference to the bikies, this morning my painter, who is also the founder of the New Zealand branch of the Hell’s Angels, brought me dahlias from his garden. Talk about a generous rule breaker.


Negotiating Puddles

There is a story told by Arnold Lobel of a grasshopper and a mosquito. It involved negotiating a puddle. The grasshopper could have easily stepped over the puddle. The mosquito, however, ran a ferry service transporting people across it. The mosquito declared: “Rules are rules – you must ride in my boat across this puddle.” Of course his boat is too small. But “rules are rules,” said the persistent insect. Eventually the grasshopper picks up the mosquito and his boat and gently steps over the puddle and deposits them on the other side. “Thank you for the ride” said the grasshopper. “You’re welcome,” rejoined the mosquito.

The mosquito and his rules provide the parable with humour. I have spent most of my life stepping around puddles and breaking someone’s rules. ‘Rules are made for people, not people for rules,’ say I. Yet some people of course like rules and find my brand of anarchy difficult. We both need patience.

As an aside it was on my first outing with the media that I was labeled an “anarchist”. Bishop Norman of Wellington was rather steamed up about my arrest at Waitangi in 1983. I had broken the law – hence I was an anarchist.

The mosquito parable is about differences and how to live with them. The mosquito sees the puddle as a lake and his role in life as helping people across it. The grasshopper sees the lake as a puddle that can easily be crossed over. When you are the mosquito you get annoyed with people who think they are too big to get into your boat like anyone else. When you are the grasshopper you just want to bypass the little pest and leave him to his small world.

Yet, in the parable, as I’ve seen in parish life many times, there is grace present. The grasshopper doesn’t bypass the tiny mite. She thinks into the world of the mosquito. She hears his concerns, plays along, and lifts the mosquito and his boat into a solution. Both take leave of each other feeling good. It takes all sorts to make a world. We need to continually find ways to tactfully negotiate past problems, leaving the puddle-minded with their dignity intact..

One could speculate that the mosquito felt pleased that the big ‘hopper learnt some humility. Likewise the grasshopper could have felt pleased that the mosy realized there was more than one way to cross a puddle. We all hope that someone will recognize the principles by which we try to live, and those principles will be influential.

I’m discussing this over a beer with my friend down the road and, as is his custom, he disagrees with me. My interpretation of the story is ‘crap’. He says the mosquitoes of this world will stay puddle-orientated. The grasshoppers are moving on.

I disagree. I’m an idealist. I believe in a planet where difference lives with difference and tries to cope with its difficulty.

I was privileged the other day to meet a ‘mosquito’. He had worked for many years as an administrative assistant in a large corporation. He spoke to me of a ‘grasshopper’ called Jack who held a senior post in that corporation. What he said of him was short, to the point, and deeply moving: “Jack made me believe that I could do anything.” I can think of no finer tribute.


Escaping Corners

I'm enjoying laughing my way through January. Christopher Moore's risque humour in "Lamb: the Gospel According To Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal" is just the tonic I need. But the book comes with gin too - a hard look at exclusive religion is just below the surface.

I think religious people the world over have more in common than not in common. We might pray and practise in our small corners but our belief that life is more than satiating physical needs, acquiring more, and seeking pleasure unites us.

Talking of corners a friend recently told me this story:

It was at the airport in Tonga. A group of ex-pats were huddled around the double-doors to a room sniggering and laughing. The subject of their humour was a fellow painting the floor of a large storeroom. So absorbed was he in this task, that it seemed he had no idea that he was painting himself into a corner. Hence the sniggers and laughs. The long awaited for moment came when he looked up to notice both his audience and his dilemma. Unperturbed, he bent over, painted the soles of his feet, and walked out.

Sometimes in life we paint ourselves into corners. Sometimes we are painted into corners. Sometimes we laugh at, and despair of, the cornered predicaments of others.

At those times, let's remember the guy who painted his feet and walked out!


A table in the sea

Talking of summer there is a great story told by Bob Fulghum in Maybe (Maybe Not) p.202

"It was a hot summer’s day at a waterfront cafe on the Peloponnese Peninsula, Greece. A large canvas awning, spanning the distance to the harbour edge, shaded the patrons. More than 35 degrees in still air. Crowded. Overly crowded. Tempers of both tourists and waiters had risen, creating a tensely quarrelsome environment.

At one table sat an attractive couple. Well dressed in summer fashions of rumpled linen and fine leather sandals. Waiting for service, they held hands, whispered affections, kissed, giggled, and laughed.

Suddenly, they stood up, picked up their metal table, and, carrying it with them, stepped together off the edge of the quay to place the table in the shallow water of the harbour. The man waded back for the two chairs. He gallantly seated his lady in the waist-high water and sat down himself.

The onlookers laughed, applauded, and cheered.

A sour-faced waiter appeared. He paused for the briefest moment. Raised his eyebrows. Picked up a tablecloth, serviettes, and silverware. Waded into the water to set the table and take their order. Waded back ashore to the ongoing cheers and applause of the rest of his customers. Minutes later he returned with a tray carrying a bucket of iced champagne and two glasses. Without pausing, he waded once more into the water to serve the champagne. The couple toasted each other, the waiter, and the crowd. And the crowd replied by cheering and throwing flowers from the table decorations.

Three other tables joined in to have lunch in the sea. The atmosphere shifted from frustration to festival."

I think faith is a sparkle. It's that glean in the eye as the couple, without discussing the matter, picked up their table and headed into the harbour. It dares us to transcend what is normal or expected. The same glean came alive in the waiter, and in the other cafe patrons. It's a sparkle that is caught, not taught. It's also a sparkle that can transform whole environments - like a particular cafe on the Peloponesse a particularly hot day.

Slow God

Kosuke Koyama once wrote a book called Three Mile An Hour God - three miles an hour being the pace of walking. Koyama’s point being that God is not in a hurry. When the world speeds up, God goes slow.

It’s like love. You can’t love fast. When a couple tells me they have known each other for six weeks and want to get married I tell them, very politely of course, to get lost. I tell them to get lost in each other in order to find the truth of each other and of themselves. Sometimes this can take only six months, but usually it takes a number of years.

Despite what magazines or soap operas tell you, you can’t pull into a drive-through and order a double, crispy love burger with a side of meaning and a large commitment. For the simple reason it won’t be love. Love takes time - both the time on the clock and the pace of the heart. Love is more akin to my nana’s Christmas cake with multiple ingredients soaked for days and slow baked for hours.

There are two words in Greek for time: chronos and kairos. The first is chronological time, the time on the screen, minute upon minute. The second is the right time, the time of the heart, grace upon grace.

Summer is a time for slowing down. When chronos catches up with kairos. Long may January be a time when shops keep shorter hours, when the economy slows, when newspapers are thinner, and New Zealand goes on a picnic. If we like it this way we need to work to keep it this way, chiefly by lowering our expectations of others and ourselves.

There is a time for everything – a time to slow down, to turn around, and see the agapanthus and the fairies dancing on top.