Leon’s 2nd Birthday

We didn’t celebrate Independence Day this weekend, but we DID celebrate Leon’s birthday! He doesn’t turn two until the 19th, but some dear friends will be on holiday later in the month, so we decided it would be best to have his party early. We had such a great time and Leon loved having people all over the house. He didn’t realize the celebration was all about him… until we pulled out the cake and sang Happy Birthday to him. It was the cutest thing. He was acting shy, by burying his head into Josh’s chest every once in a while, but then kept looking up to watch everyone sing to him. He was trying to act modest, but he loved every second of it. He also knew the cake was for him because it was a giraffe. He believes that anything “giraffe” is most certainly his. He has been crazy about giraffes forever. I’m thankful that this is the animal that he’s chosen to love above all else since Niger is known for their wild giraffes. Josh and I were actually counting the amount of times we’ve been out to see the giraffes (about an hour drive outside the city) and we came to about 15. Leon has been maybe 6 or 7 times. He most likely only remembers going about 3 or 4 times. I’m glad we can take him to see his favorite animal out in the wild!

Back to the party… the awesome giraffe cake was made by the master-cake-maker, Renee. She not only made Leon’s cake, but she made it when she was in the midst of packing her whole family to move back to Canada. They left about a month ago, so we put it in the deep freezer and pulled it out on the day of the party and it was good to go! The beautiful decorations were from my dear friend, Laura who ordered them from the States, which her family brought to her in Israel so that she could bring them to us in Niger!

For the meal, we decided to go Nigerien-style and do a stuffed lamb Mechoui. It was so delicious, and Leon loved it. He kept calling it “chicken” and taking huge bites.

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Women’s Day 2014

Last week we celebrated Nigerien Women’s Day at the hospital. Every year the women at the hospital collect money and pick out a pagne (a colorful piece of material) in the market a few weeks before Women’s Day. They buy a pagne for every staff member, and everyone takes it and has an outfit made with it. It is always so exciting to see everyone’s  creativity and personality shine through the different designs. It really brings home the message that we are all cut from the same cloth, but all cut differently. A wonderful expression of solidarity and sisterhood, without sacrificing any individual sense of identity (or style!).

The women all worked really hard to prepare a delicious meal, and in the meantime everyone had fun listening to music and dancing. We also had the privilege of having Dr. Victor Nakah as a special visitor during Women’s Day, and he gave an address to the whole staff which was great. He spoke about how women are really under-appreciated, and about the strength and influence that women have. He reminded everyone of the saying, “If you educate a woman, you educate a nation,” and the women on staff were all nodding their heads in agreement. I am pretty sure someone even said, “Amen.”

Overall it was a great day and a really fun celebration. I look forward to next year.

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Dr. Nakah’s talk

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Photo credit: Anne Negrini

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Dr. Victor Nakah with the Executive, Medical, and Spiritual Directors

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Aicha and I decided we wanted to get matching outfits made. It was fun picking out a design together and then getting them made by her dad, the tailor.

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Anne had her outfit made by her night guard.

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The whole team

 

 

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Drawing with children in Niger

In order to help determine the emotional state of a child, art therapists often use what is called the House-Tree-Person test. The child is asked to draw a house, a tree and a person, and then asked questions about their drawing. The thinking behind this test is that everyone can easily draw a house, a tree and a person, since everyone encounters houses and trees and people every day. Even children. In fact, children will often draw houses or trees or people even without being asked to. They are common, and thus can be drawn almost without thinking, and because of this the way they are drawn can speak volumes about the person doing the drawing. Those being tested project their inner feelings onto what they draw, and the person evaluating them can pick up on those projections by analyzing the drawings, as well as by asking them questions about them.

These kind of tests have been criticized because they often assume a Eurocentric worldview, and are therefore not applicable outside of the West. I can definitely say that in the close to two years that I have been practicing art therapy with children in Niger, I have seen very few drawings of houses or trees, or even people. However, there is something that appears in the children’s drawings over and over again – the mortar and pestle.

In Niger the mortar and pestle is a staple of every home. Whether you are in the village or in the city, you will find a mortar and pestle in the kitchen, and you will find that it is used for everything. It is used to grind grains, millet, corn, etc. and It is also used to make the spicy sauce that goes along with every meal. Children of all ages know how to use it, and I am not talking about a counter-sized, hand-held mortar and pestle that you might find in a pharmacy. Here the mortars are usually about knee-high in length and the pestle  are as long as your arm. To use them requires real physical strength, and to get into a good pounding rhythm you really need some muscles. It is harder than it looks!

It is so interesting to me that so many of the children choose to draw the mortar and pestle, without any prompting. Certainly some of them see the drawings others have done and copy them, but that does not account for all of the drawings. Perhaps the principles of the House-Tree-Person are not wrong, but it needs to be contextualized. It seems clear to me that the mortar and pestle is the go-to object for Nigerien children to draw when they first come, when they are feeling unsure of themselves and do not know what to draw. And it makes sense. They are drawing what they know, what is familiar to them, especially since the art therapy room is such an unfamiliar place (at least at first). They often branch out and draw other objects or designs after a few sessions, but the mortar and pestle serves as an ice-breaker.

I love the variety of color and design in these drawings. There are many examples, but here are a few of them:

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I love the specs of grain in this one.

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Some have handles

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Mortar and pestle made out of play dough

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Sometimes it’s a joint effort.

 

 

 

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Stitches on the dining room table

After a long week at work, we were excited to get together with our friends for a nice relaxing evening. As we were enjoying our dinner, Leon was doing his version of relaxing – running around the house like mad. This resulted in him tripping and his head meeting the corner of a doorway. He came up crying and bleeding from the gash on his forehead, and even though it wasn’t very big or deep, it needed stiches.

Thankfully, our very own Dr. Negrini was part of the dinner party. He graciously offered to run over to the hospital between dinner and dessert, so he could pick up what he needed to stitch him up. When he returned, we cleared all the pots and pans and plates off the dining room table, and turned it into an examination table. Two stiches did the trick, and 10 minutes later we cleared away the betadine and gauze and brought out the dessert. Thanks to Dr. Negrini our party wasn’t interrupted for long – Leon went right back to running around, and we went back to enjoying our evening.

Jean Francois getting everything ready

Jean Francois getting everything ready, right next to the caramel popcorn

Dining room table surgery

Stitches on the dining room table

Don't let this smile fool you. He was crying hysterically just minutes before this

Don’t let his smile fool you. He was crying hysterically just minutes before this

And now, ready for dessert

And now, ready for dessert

Home and ready for bed

Home and ready for bed

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Hunger

Last week, our son Leon was sick. He tested positive for malaria, and had such bad diarrhea and vomiting, that we were very worried. He couldn’t keep anything down, and so he had to be hospitalized. He was so dehydrated that he had to be on IV fluids, and in the end, we stayed with him in the hospital for almost a week.

Leon in the hospital room.

Leon in the hospital room.

It was a very difficult time for both Julie and I. Physically, it was exhausting, since we had to take turns holding him to make sure the IV fluids continued to flow. He also reacted to one of the medicines he was given, which was supposed to be a sedative, but actually had the opposite effect. Imagine the worst temper tantrum you have ever seen, and then multiply it by 5, and stretch it out for about 6 or 7 hours. It took both of us to hold him down and keep him from ripping out the IV catheter (which he still managed to do about 4 times).

But even more difficult than the physical aspect was the emotional trauma. I know trauma is a strong word, but I think it fits. Seeing Leon in so much pain for such an extended period of time was like a nightmare. Of course he didn’t like being stuck in the room, and he didn’t like the IV and the constant diaper changes, but the main problem was his hunger. He was so hungry, and we weren’t allowed to give him anything to eat. He kept crying out for food, and it took everything in us to keep from feeding him. It went against every single natural instinct I have. I have always felt so good when Leon eats – feeding him is one of my favorite things to do because he is so happy about each bite, and on some kind of primal level it is so satisfying. Each spoonful feels like an accomplishment. Like taking a step in the right direction. Like I am doing my job as a parent. And here he was, literally begging for food, and we couldn’t give it to him.

The worst was when they brought us lunch in our room. Leon saw the plates and got so excited. They were covered up, but he knew they had food, and he said, “Yeah!” We quickly whisked them out of the door, but it was too late. Once he understood that the food wasn’t for him, he was inconsolable. Obviously we didn’t eat in the room, but as we took turns quickly eating in Julie’s office, neither of us were able to eat very much, knowing that he couldn’t have any.

We forget how dependent we are on food. This brush with real hunger was a good reminder. Leon didn’t eat for 5 days, and he was losing his mind. He would have done anything to get food. Here in Niger, that kind of hunger is never very far away. It is actually in your face all the time as you encounter beggars and people with real needs every time you leave your house. They crowd around your car at most big intersections. But the hunger can seem remote when it is seen through a car window, and unfortunately your heart grows callous when you see it every day. It still bothers you, but not as much as it once did, and bothers you less and less as time passes. That is an awful thing to say, but it is true. You might call it a defense mechanism, but that would be a little too convenient. The truth is, your heart becomes numb with time as you watch the hopelessness and despair around you knowing that no matter how much you do and how much you give it is only a drop in an ocean of suffering. But it is different when you see the hunger in your own son. Then the pain cuts right through the numbness and into your heart.

Interestingly, while all of this was going on, we were studying the Book of Philippians at the hospital. It struck me when Paul wrote, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:12-13 NIV). He was able to say this because he knew even though he was dependent on food, he was even more dependent on God. He knew that man does not live by bread alone, and that just as God gave his people manna to eat in the wilderness, we all depend on him for our daily bread.

The key to what Paul is saying is in verse 13, where he says that God is his strength. That is why he was able to be content, even with an empty stomach. Not because of his own strength, but because of God who strengthened him. It is impossible to imagine a statement like this based on our own strength. In our own strength we are not content in wealth or in rags, and we complain when we are hungry and when we are full. That is because when we depend on our own strength, we never have enough. We are missing something fundamental inside of us. We are missing the connection to our God, our father who takes pleasure in feeding us.

I spend every day at the hospital visiting with the patients and their families. I go on rounds each day, visiting them, praying with them and just hanging out. And when my work is done, I go home. But this past week was different. I was staying at the hospital. It was my home, even if only for a few nights.

It was such a good experience (even though it was a terrible experience). It gave me just a little bit of insight into what our patients and their families go through. Many of them stay for weeks or even months, so I really can’t compare what we went through at all. But it was a taste. And it was amazing – throughout the week, the patients kept asking me about Leon every time I saw them, and some of them came to visit us in our room. They even prayed for Leon, saying, “You pray for us every day, so we need to pray for you.” We also had so many visits from the hospital staff, and other friends, it was so encouraging.

Leon with the patients who came to visit him.

Leon with some of the patients who came to visit him.

It was also a good reminder for us – we do not live by bread alone. We depend on God, on his love and his provision. We depend on God and on his every word. Sometimes God speaks directly to us, and sometimes he speaks through others who come by to visit. We do not live by bread alone. We depend on the support of others.

Leon after the hospital

Leon is happy to be back home and feeling better.

Happily reunited with his friend, Shap Shap.

Happily reunited with his friend, Shap Shap.

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Rahila’s feet

Rahila is tough.

She is so tough that her crippled feet did not keep her from walking. It just meant that she had to find a new, creative way to walk. Her feet were so over-extended that she walked on the tops of her feet. It was a struggle, and it was painful, but she did it for years and years.

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Rahila when she first arrived at the hospital

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Finally, one day Rahila’s mother heard about the CURE hospital. She brought her to see if she could be treated, and was so happy because the answer was yes. She was told that Rahila could be healed, but it would require multiple operations on her feet, followed by a series of casts and a grueling period of physical therapy. Also, it would require self discipline. If Rahila wanted her feet to be healed, it would take a lot of work. Rahila’s mother didn’t bat an eye. She knew if anyone could do it, it was Rahila.

It was a year-long process. After several operations, many sets of casts and intensive therapy, Rahila’s feet were changed. She was learning to walk on the bottoms of her feet for the first time in her life at the age of 6. Like I said, Rahila is tough. She is physically tough, but also emotionally. She decided very early on that she would not be affected by the ridicule she faced, and that she would ignore the mockery. Her mother told us that they had a name for her in her village – “Rahila the cripple.” She heard it every day, every time she went outside. But she ignored it. She built calluses around her heart just like she did on the tops of her feet.

I had the privilege of working with Rahila in the art therapy program for the duration of her stay at the hospital. I spent hours, days and months with her before I ever saw a smile on her face. There were times when I sincerely doubted the effectiveness of our time together. She was always friendly, and always willing to come to the art therapy room for her sessions, but she was emotionally distant. There is nothing like working with a child for such an extended period of time with no breakthrough to make you feel like a miserable failure. But all of that time spent together was not a waste. It did have an effect on Rahila. It did change her, and the change seemed to come out of nowhere, literally accompanied by an array of colors.

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Rahila with her beautiful artwork

For a long time she would allow me to paint her casts, but she wasn’t very interested in painting them herself. She would sit and make marks on a piece of paper while I painted her cast. Then one day, she decided she wanted to paint her casts and she covered them with every color she had in front of her. From that point on, she was so excited each time she had a new set of white casts, and was always ready to decorate them. She started smiling and seemed so much more comfortable during our sessions. She even started acting silly.

Throughout the process, the casts became a part of her emotional healing as well as her physical healing. Each new set of casts was another step in the slow and painful process of molding of her feet. When she painted them she was, in a sense, taking another step toward accepting what she had been through and acknowledging the difficulty she had faced, both in the hospital and throughout her whole life. She seemed to be both mourning the losses she had experienced, but also moving past them and allowing herself to see how far she had come.

When Rahila was done with her series of casts, I thought that it would be interesting to do a project with her that would help her have closure with this period of her life. We took a big sheet of paper, and I traced the outline of her whole body, including her newly formed feet. This was such a powerful experience for Rahila, and it seemed like it gave her a different perspective from which to see herself. After passively laying down on the paper so I could trace her, she sat up, and very actively went to work coloring it in. In this way, we were reenacting the therapeutic process, from start to finish. She was a bystander at first, merely looking on while the action took place without her. But with time, she realized that she is full of potential and full of color. She began to take the initiative, and began to show me (and perhaps herself) what she is capable of.

When it was done, Rahila took the picture with her, as evidence of what she was and what she had become. She was very proud of it. In a way, it was a monument to what she had been through. It was to commemorate her struggle and to commemorate her victory. It was a reminder that the lines that trace the outline of our lives, the things that define us, can be changed and can be colored over. Rahila left with this image of her body on paper, and a new image of herself in her mind.

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Rahila painting in her outline

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Proud of her work!

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Learning to walk on her healed feet

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Beautiful feet

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Blame

I.

Hadiza had a daughter named Salama. Hadiza raised Salama alone in the town of Ayarou, a town on the river, on the border with Mali. Life was not easy, but Hadiza did all she could for Salama. She made porridge at home and sold it on the street. She made enough money to keep them alive, but not much more than that. Hadiza loved Salama, but Salama grew up and one day she left. She went away to Benin, and Hadiza barely heard from her at all.

Time went by, and then one day Salama came back to Ayarou. But she did not come alone. She came with her husband – they met and were married in Benin. And she came with the baby that she was carrying inside her. After a few months, the baby was born. Her name was Saratou, and she was born with cleft lip.

Salama and her husband decided to go back to Benin and to leave Saratou with Hadiza. They left her because to keep her would be difficult. It would mean shame and prying questions from strangers and mockery and rejection and extra work. A child with cleft lip is a difficulty, and not one that you can ignore. It is a difficulty that you see in the face of your child every day. Salama and her husband could not face this difficulty, so they left.

Now Hadiza was left with Saratou. She raised Saratou in the town on the river. She did all she could for her. She made porridge at home and sold it on the street. When Saratou got a bit older she would take the porridge and sell it on the street to help Hadiza. Hadiza had hopes for Saratou – she hoped that she would marry one day, and have children of her own. She wanted Saratou to be able to live a normal life. But along with her hopes, she had fears. She feared that Saratou would never marry, and never have her own children. Who would marry her with a cleft lip? Who would accept her?

Saratou started going to school, but the other children were so mean to her that she eventually quit. They would laugh at her and stare and talk about her. She got into fights almost every day. Hadiza still had hope for Saratou, but her fears seemed to be justified every time Saratou came home crying or got into a fight. She had hope, even though she knew she had no reason to hope. She had no money and no connections to anyone with money. No rich relatives who live in the city, no one who could support her and no one who could help find Saratou the medical treatment she needed. She had nothing, and in Niger that usually means you will not get the medical attention you need.

II.

We hear it over and over again. Almost every patient we talk to at the hospital tells us the same thing. Their disability is seen as a curse. It is something terrible and unfortunate that has happened to them, yes, but also something that they are responsible for. You must have done something wrong. You must have somehow invited this upon yourself. And if it wasn’t you, then it must have been your parents. Sometimes people say it is a curse from an evil spirit, sometimes they say it is a curse from God. But either way they are saying that if you have a disability it is your fault.

Even though every single one of us knows that bad things happen to good people, something in our soul fights against this idea. We persist in believing that the good are rewarded and the bad are punished, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. And if this is true, then we understandably come to the conclusion, even if it is a subconscious conclusion, that suffering is punishment, and if you are being punished then you must deserve it.

After all, if there is smoke there must be fire.

This understanding of things isn’t limited to Niger. We find it everywhere. In the Bible, it is a point of view that is articulated by Job’s friends, when they try to convince him over and over again that he must be responsible for all the terrible things happening to him. It is hard not to think of Job in this context, because of how righteous he was and because of the terrible things that happened to him. The story of Job is one that has fascinated people throughout the ages, and continues to do so. Part of the reason for this is that it deals with this very universal question of suffering, but also, because it shows the inadequacy of the popular wisdom of Job’s friends. They persist in trying to attach some kind of blame to Job, some kind of culpability, until he finally says, “Oh, that you would be silent, and it would be your wisdom!” (Job 13:5 NKJV).

He speaks out of pain, the kind of pain that anyone who has gone through suffering can understand. The kind of pain that is generated not by the suffering itself, but piled on top of the suffering by those (perhaps) well-meaning “friends” that try to comfort by commentary. They try to make sense of suffering that is not their own because they are afraid of what the suffering signifies. In fact, they are trying to comfort themselves by reinforcing the idea that suffering is simple. Its source can easily be identified. It is an obvious problem with an obvious solution. No mystery involved.

In this way, the victim of the suffering is blamed for the suffering, and made into a scapegoat, to ensure that nobody is too troubled or put out. The scapegoat is actually a good image, since often those who suffer from disabilities are sent out. They are rejected or kept hidden away from view. Because to see them is to have our understanding of suffering called into question. We don’t like to question this idea because to question it is to question everything. Including God. For if the innocent can suffer, then everything is turned upside down.

But we don’t question God. We praise God when things are good, and when things are bad we say, “God works in mysterious way,” with a half-smile, and try not to think about it too much. We don’t question God because we think we aren’t allowed to.

But where does that idea come from? Certainly not the Bible. In the Bible people did question God when they didn’t understand the situation they were in. Look at Jeremiah, for example. He said, “Righteous are You, O LORD, when I plead with You; yet let me talk with You about Your judgments. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are those happy who deal so treacherously?” (Jer. 12:1 NKJV). In other words, “Why do good things happen to bad people? Why do the very people who oppress others seem to be rewarded?”

Job had no problem questioning God. He didn’t curse God, or stop praising God, but he did question his treatment at God’s hands. He said, “Know then that God has wronged me, and has surrounded me with His net.” (Job 19:6 NKJV). Later on in the same chapter, he goes even further, saying, “He breaks me down on every side. And I am gone; my hope He has uprooted like a tree.” (Job 19:10 NKJV).

This is not a little thing. When hope is uprooted like a tree it means that all hope is gone. If the tree is damaged, hope remains. If a few branches of the tree are chopped off, hope remains. Even if the tree is cut down to a stump, there is still a degree of hope, for as long as the roots are in place, some regrowth is possible, even if it is only a tiny sprout. But once the roots are taken out, the tree will never grow again. All hope is gone. Once the roots are uprooted, the tree is dead.

III.

Hadiza still had hope for Saratou, but she never actively looked for a hospital or clinic where she could be treated. She knew that even if she took her to the hospital and she could be healed, she would never be able to pay for it. But then one day, she heard about the CURE hospital in Niamey on the radio. The voice on the radio described the different conditions that are treated at the hospital, and they described the condition Saratou was born with. They called it cleft lip, which Hadiza had never heard of, but the way they spoke about the condition they treat convinced her. It was as though they were talking about Saratou herself.

After she heard the radio, Hadiza decided to take Saratou to Niamey. They came even though they didn’t know where the hospital was, and didn’t know if what the radio said was true. Even on the way to the hospital, children in Niamey saw Saratou and started calling her names. She went to fight them, but Hadiza held her back.

Once they arrived at the hospital, they found that Saratou could be healed. They saw other children with cleft lip who were healed, and they were excited. Saratou was operated on, and even though she was scared, she was healed. For a few days her lips were puffy and swollen, but she was still smiling. She was happy, and Hadiza was happy as well. They left to go back to the town on the river. Saratou went back to her life. She would continue to help Hadiza make porridge, and help her sell it on the street. But she had been changed, and she was going back to a changed life.

Right after the surgery.

Hadiza and Saratou soon after Sararou’s surgery.

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A month after Saratou’s surgery.

IV.

When you really boil it down, hope is one of the central messages of the whole Bible. It is a peculiar type of hope that his hopeful in the face of despair. It is unflinching hope that is aware of the very bad things that are happening, and aware of the chance that even worse things are on the way. But through it all there is still hope. Impossible, unbelievable hope.

When hope is impossible and unbelievable, we sometimes call it faith.

Faith means believing that God can do something even though there is nothing to be done. When you are in the position of Job’s friends, this seems very silly. Maybe even irresponsible. If up is up and down is down, then you must have done something to end up so far down. But we forget sometimes, that this is an attitude of privilege. Not all can afford to think this way. Only those who don’t face problems can think this way, or who face problems but have the means to make the problems go away. But for the majority of the earth’s population, the problems are always there and they do not go away.

However, no matter how privileged you are, there are some problems that everyone has to face. Death touches everyone, and so can disability. And when that happens, no matter how reasonable you are, and how wise your choices in life have been, you might find yourself in the silly position of hoping for the impossible. You might also find yourself questioning God. For when you are forced to face the big problems, the problems you cannot resolve or outrun, the most natural reaction in the world is to question God. Why death? Why disease? Why injustice and evil? These problems make us question the way this world works, and that is normal, because the world is broken.

This is exactly the point. The world is broken and needs to be restored. The world is in need of redemption. The world is in need of a redeemer, someone who will wipe away the tears and the blame. There may not be much evidence of this redeemer in the world, but those who continue to believe in spite of the evidence are not convinced by evidence. They are convinced by hope, and consequently, they may find themselves in the same silly position that Job was in when he said in chapter 19 (only 15 verses after saying that God has uprooted his hope like a tree), “my Redeemer lives” (Job 19:25 NKJV).

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Simon Korn (1923-2013)

In the last days of 2013, my grandfather passed away. Simon (Syzmek) Korn was 90 years old, and he lived through many things in his life, but none more harrowing than the Second World War. The war started for him on the day Germany invaded Poland in 1939. It was supposed to be the first day of school, but school was cancelled that day. Simon spent most of the war in the Lodz Ghetto, and when it was liquidated he was sent in a cattle car with the rest of his family to Auschwitz. He spent the remainder of the war in a number of different Nazi concentration camps, including Buchenwald (where he was eventually liberated).

My grandfather was many things: a son and brother, a husband and son-in-law, a father and a friend and a survivor. For me, he was a grandpa, and some of my best memories with him involve very grandfatherly activities. He liked to play and have fun, and he also liked to tell stories. Even when I was very young, he told me stories of his experiences during the war and in the camps. These stories were so much a part of my childhood that I honestly can’t remember a time when “the Nazis” and “the Germans” weren’t a part of my vocabulary and imagination.

He wasn’t trying to scare me, and he wasn’t being boastful at all. In fact, he was very explicit in his throwing off of the heroic mantle that is sometimes thrust upon Holocaust survivors. He said that he was not a hero, and that his survival owed as much to dumb luck as to anything else. It was dumb luck and a certain amount of craftiness – the ability to steal some extra soup or cut in line, things of that nature. The kind of things that you do to survive when you have been dehumanized and put into a situation that is not human. The real heroes, he would say, are those who remained human in that place, those who remained decent in spite of it all. And those people did not survive.

Screenshot of Simon Korn, during his interview with the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History foundation in 1995.

A screenshot of Simon Korn, during his interview with the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in 1995.

No, he didn’t share his stories to build himself up, but he did have an agenda. He said that the world needed to hear his story, and others like it, so that it could stand guard, and make sure that this kind of thing never happens again. This was especially true of the younger generation, he always said, those who were not alive in those days and did not live through them.

He said that we must remember what happened because it is so easy to forget.

He did his best to ensure that people would remember, but he also realized that to remember is not enough. How we remember is almost as important as what we remember. And he somehow managed to remember honestly, but without hatred or bitterness. That, for me, was the most amazing thing. He saw his experiences for what they were, and avoided seeing them through rose colored glasses certainly, but also through glasses that were totally blackened out. Of course his natural desire was for justice, but he somehow stopped short of revenge and hatred. It did not happen overnight, it was a lifelong process, but he was able to take a firm stand against all forms of prejudice and intolerance, even with regards to his former oppressors. As he said, he realized that those who went through what he went through and were still filled with hate were not yet free. He wanted to be free.

The number tattooed on Simon Korn's arm at Auschwitz.

A shot of the number that was tattooed on Simon Korn’s arm during his incarceration at Auschwitz. It reads B-8394.

Of course, it is impossible to talk about someone’s legacy or lasting influence without oversimplification. Simon Korn was many things, like I said, and it would be wrong of me to try and reduce all of who he was and what he meant to me and to others down to one idea or principle. However, it is difficult for me to look at his life and not draw an important lesson from the shape of it. He went through the worst that this world has to offer, and came out on the other side, not to forgive and forget, but to remember and to avoid contributing to the cycle of violence and bigotry which so shaped and damaged his own life. He was dehumanized, but he was able to recover his humanity, and refused to dehumanize others in return. He refused to shackle others (and himself) with the chains that he had just been freed from. Although I am sure he would object to me saying so, I think that makes him a hero.

A few years ago I wrote a poem for/about Grandpa Simon, and although some of it is embarrassingly bad, I thought I would share some of the salvageable bits with you:

April 11th, 1945.
Buchenwald, you stalled death, barely alive,
But still breathing, all day from the morning to the evening,
Hanging on to the hope that soon you’d be leaving.

Few can conceive of the evil you faced,
And only God knows why in that hell you were placed.
But you handled yourself with dignity and grace,
And forgiveness that surpasses all time and space.
I still can’t understand how you don’t have hate.
It’s hard for me sometimes, and I could never relate
With what you went through, but I think you’re on the right track.
Hitler was hate and we can never go back to that.

From you I leaned lessons about life and hate,
And to never leave any food left on my plate.
About love and peace and understanding,
Keep and open mind, be kind but commanding, when you have to,
And sometimes you will.
But never seek to hurt anyone or kill.
Everyone: Black White Arab Jew has value,
All God’s sons, even Germans too.

B-8394.
More than 60 years later most hearts remain sore.
But with their tattoo needle and their evil endeavor,
They marked you as a survivor forever.
Severed from your family and taken from your home,
They could never break your spirit even though they broke your bones.
And now you walk around with these numbers in ink
To shake the slumbering and force them to think.

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My Year in Reading 2013

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When the end of the year rolls around, that means A Year in Reading will be coming out at The Millions, and I always look forward to following it throughout the month of December. It is always interesting to see which books people put on their list. I also look forward to copying them each year, and writing about my own year in reading, just like I did in 2011 and 2012. This year I read a lot less than in pervious years, mostly because of becoming a father. Turns out, things that seemed essential to life, things like reading (or sleeping) are actually privileges which can and will be taken away from those who are taking care of a baby. Who knew?

As a result, I found that I was much more deliberate about the books I chose to read. I put a lot more thought into it. Some of my choices were not that great, but I am glad to report that some of them were excellent. Here is my summary of the excellent:

Even though I read less fiction in 2013, the novels I did read were very good. I read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson which I loved. I didn’t know anything about it before I cracked it open, but I had read and enjoyed Housekeeping, so I was excited. It did not disappoint, and I got even more excited when I learned that Home (which I have and have not yet read) features some of the same characters as Gilead. It is like seeing old friends! So that is on the shortlist for 2014.

I also read The Revolt of the Angels by Anatole France, which is very interesting. It tells the story of an angel who reject God’s sovereignty and revolts against him. He comes to earth and (naturally) heads to France, where he meets other angels who have revolted against God as well. They congregate (of course) in Montmartre, with all the other revolutionaries in exile, and plan their assault on heaven. Imagine a novel that takes Camus’ concept of the physical and metaphysical revolt from L’Homme Révolté to their most logical and literal conclusion, but set in the Moulin Rouge. If that doesn’t make you want to read this book, then nothing will.

Another book I read and was blown away by was Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton. I actually started reading this book in 2012, but didn’t read all of it until 2013, otherwise it would have been on last year’s list. We were staying at a guesthouse in the town of Maradi, around 600 km. east of Niamey, and I found this book in the guesthouse library. I love guesthouse libraries, they usually have such an eclectic collection, and this one was actually pretty big. We have a day to relax after the long drive, so I took this book off the shelf and started reading. I couldn’t put it down. I read 2/3′s of the book that day, but was not able to finish it before we left the guesthouse. I really wanted to take it with me, and I could have. The library had a sign that said you could take the books with you as long as you send them back once you finished reading them. I was tempted, but I knew that it was a book I needed to own. I needed to mark it up, underline its wise words and write in its margins. So I left it there, and ordered my own copy. It took some time, but eventually I got it and finally finished reading it.

This book had a huge influence on me both times I read it, and I look forward to reading it again. It is full of passages that are challenging and beautiful, as well as good advice. Here is a taste: “If a writer is so cautious that he never writes anything that cannot be criticized, he will never write anything that can be read. If you want to help other people you have to make up your mind to write things that some men will condemn.” pg. 105.

Good advice for writing and for living.

Honorable mentions:

1. Martin Buber
The Kingship of GodThis was great, if a bit technical. You will never look at the Book of Judges in the same way again.
On the Bible – 18 Studies – Come for the intro by Harold Bloom (anxiety of influence in the Bible!), stay for the essay on Ps. 73, which is awesome.

2. Søren Kierkegaard
The Sickness Unto Death – Sick to death.
Fear and Trembling – Faith is not easy to embrace or to dismiss.

3. Fyodor Dostoevsky
Notes from Underground – The best argument ever made against attending a high school reunion.

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Songs – Christmas 2013

Songs

Christmas is a time of singing, and of reading the Christmas story, which is full of song. In the first two chapters of Luke, there are four songs that are sung, which help tell the story of Jesus and his birth.

We hear from Mary, from Zacharias, from angels and from Simeon. They are not really songs, so much as poems (and prophecies), but I imagine them as songs, and they are full of amazement and joy, looking forward to what God will do, but also looking back at what God has done. Each of these songs has a different, distinct tune, but they all have the same tone, and they all help tell the same story – the Christmas story, in other words, the story of God the one and true King coming to save his people and rule over the whole world.

Mary

Mary sings her song (which I have written about before) after she hears the news that she is going to give birth to a baby, in Luke 1:46-55. In the first part, she expresses a number of things that make sense, given the context. She has just heard from God that she has been chosen among all women to give birth to Jesus, and she is aware of how great a blessing this is for her. She is also aware of the fact that she has done nothing to deserve this great honor. The only reason she was chosen, instead of someone else, is because God “has been mindful of the humble state of his servant” and because, “His mercy extends to those who fear him” (Luke 1:47, 50 NIV).

She was obviously happy and excited, as well as amazed and probably a bit confused. Those are all emotions that any woman might feel when given the news that they are with child, under any circumstances. But in the next part of her song (vv. 51-55), Mary starts saying things that seem totally out of place. She begins to sing of the strength of God, and how he has thrown kings from their thrones, crushed the proud and sent the rich away empty-handed!

This isn’t really a normal reaction to finding out that you are pregnant. Pickles and ice cream is one thing, but Mary is saying things here that are downright subversive. Also, they don’t make any sense. She hears that she will give birth to a child, and she starts talking about justice and revolution, and we are left with the question: what does a baby have to do with any of this?

Of course, we all know that her reaction did make sense when you consider the circumstances she was living in. She was under the rule of a foreign occupying power, the Roman Empire, and their local puppet-leaders. She and her people were oppressed, and therefore they had oppressors. So when she spoke of God who is capable of dealing with the kings and the proud and the rich, she was not speaking in abstract terms. It was something that was very real for her, something that mattered.

Her reaction also makes sense when you consider that she knew the baby she carried was not just any baby. He was special. And she knew this because the angel Gabriel told her. He said that her son would “be called the Son of the Most High” and would reign “on the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:32-33 NIV). It was impossible for her to miss the meaning here – she knew that her son would be king, and not just any king, but the king of kings.

There was only one problem. There was already a king of kings. Caesar Augustus, the head of the Roman Empire, was ruler of the whole world. He was able to issue decrees that would impact the lives of people throughout the vast empire. He could wake up one morning and declare that everyone had to register in a census, and it became law. That is what sent Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-5), and that is why Jesus was born in a manger, among animals. The king of the world was able to move people around like animals with his words. Jesus came as king, but he was born in a manger, because there was no room for him. There was no room for another king, because there was already a king sitting on the throne. In order for Jesus to reign, things would have to change, because there can only be one king.

In the words of Tom Wright, “The opening of Luke 2, in other words, isn’t simply a chronological note or a bit of incidental history. Augustus, at the height of his power and glory in Rome, signs a decree, and far away, off at the other end of his empire, a baby is born in the place where David’s son ought to be born. Augustus’s signature on the decree was Rome signing the ultimate death warrant for its classic pagan power. We should not be surprised when, at the  end of Luke’s second volume, we find Paul in Rome, announcing God as king and Jesus as Lord right under Caesar’s nose ‘with all boldness, and with no one stopping him’ (Acts 28:31).”[1]

Looking at Mary’s song, there are things which bring to mind another song in the Bible sung by a woman – the song of Deborah. In Judges 5:2-31, Deborah sings of God’s victory over the Jabin, the Canaanite king and his commander Sisera, who were trying to destroy Israel. Like in Mary’s song, the king is defeated and the proud humbled. It is also interesting that in Deborah’s song, two women feature most prominently, and are most directly responsible for the victory. Deborah united the people and was their brave leader, and Jael took care of Sisera with a tent peg.

This heroic portrayal of these woman is interesting, especially since women were (and are) often considered weaker than men. They are thought of as too submissive, unable to fight, and unable to rise up against their oppressors. Unable, perhaps, to be used by God. But God chose to use Deborah and Jael, just as he chose to use Mary, because they recognized that he is the true king. Jabin, Caesar and any others are just impostors. They relied on God’s strength, not on their own, and that is why God was able to use them. The true king does not rely on outward displays of strength (which really only betray insecurity). The true king does not move people around with his words. He creates worlds with his words. And the true king came to earth in the form of a baby, the most helpless, defenseless being alive. And he was born in a manger, to a poor family far from home and without a place to stay.

Zacharias

The second song in the Christmas story is actually a prophecy by Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist. It is given by Zacharias once his son is born, in Luke 1:67-79. When the angel told him that his wife would have a baby, his mouth was closed, and it remained closed for a long time. He wasn’t able to speak for months, so it is interesting to see that almost as soon as he is able to speak again, this song is given. It represents, perhaps, some of the thoughts he had throughout his wife’s pregnancy which he wasn’t able to express.

Just like Mary, Zacharias begins his song saying things that do not make sense unless we understand the context in which they were said. He starts talking about the redemption of his people (v. 68), their salvation from their enemies (v. 71) and the oath given to Abraham (v. 73). Zacharias was no doubt overjoyed at the birth of his son, especially since he and his wife Elizabeth had been unable to have a child in their youth. Now in their old age God had done the impossible. He had removed their reproach (Luke 1:25), and it certainly must have seemed like a salvation. But he isn’t talking about his own personal salvation here, he is talking about the salvation of his people. He is speaking for the community and not only for himself. This is obviously best understood like Mary’s song, in the context of the occupation and ongoing exile of the people of Israel. However, it should also be understood in another light.

What happened to Zacharias echoes the story of Samson’s birth in Judges 13. Samson’s parents were also unable to bear children, and they also received a heavenly visitor who told them that they would have a son, and that he would be special. “No razor may be used on his head, because the boy is to be a Nazirite, set apart to God from birth, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines” Judges 13:5 NIV). The communal aspect is here as well. And say what you like about Samson, one thing is true, he did take out a lot of Philistines.

Similarly, Samuel’s mother Hannah was also barren, and she prayed to God (in bitterness of soul) that if he would give her a son, she would “give him to the LORD for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head” (1 Samuel 1:11 NIV). Samuel was born, and his life was dedicated to serving God and guiding the people of Israel. Incidentally, in response to his birth, Hannah sang a song, (1 Samuel 2:1-10) which was actually not a song but a prayer, and which is thematically very similar to Mary’s song. It speaks of justice and feeding the hungry, and raising up those who are low and bringing down those who are on high. It also speaks of the barren giving birth as an image of restoration, “She who was barren has borne seven children” (1 Samuel 2:5 NIV), but ultimately acknowledges the sovereignty of God in all things, “The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up” (1 Samuel 2:6 NIV).

So what Zacharias went through, and what he said in his song actually makes sense when seen as a part of a tradition. God has a long tradition of redeeming those who have lived under the reproach of society, and of calling out those who would be dedicated to his service and the service of his people. Zacharias and Elizabeth were able to cast off the label of “barren” and their son was called to serve God and Israel even before he was born. The angel told Zacharias that he would have a son, and that “He is never to take wine or other fermented drinks, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God” (Luke 115-16).

In his song, Zacharias said that God would rescue his people from their enemies, so that they would be able to serve him without fear (Luke 1:74). This recalls the Exodus story, when God spoke those immortal words to the Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” We all remember that phrase, as we ought to. It was powerful then and it is powerful now. However, we forget what God continued to say immediately after it. He said, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me” (Exodus 8:1 NIV). It was never intended to be freedom for freedom’s sake, it was freedom with a purpose. It was the freedom to serve the one true God, the one true king.

Angels

The angels sing the shortest song in the Christmas story. It was given to the shepherds who were watching their flock out in the fields at night. An angel of the Lord came to them and told them the news, the “good tidings of great joy,” that in Bethlehem their savior was born. Then the whole sky filled with angels, and they sang their song, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:14 NKJV). It was a small song but it has big implications. It is interesting to note that when the angel brought this good news, he said, “I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people” (Luke 2:10 NKJV). The emphasis here is on all people. However, in other translations, we see the angel saying something far more limited. For example in the New International Version, he says, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” The difference between “all people” and “all the people” is only one word, but it holds the whole world in its balance. It comes down to a question of the universal and the particular.

I am sure that Greek scholars would argue that one translation is right and the other wrong, and I am not foolish enough to argue with them on this point. But it seems to me that in one sense, both translations are actually right. Jesus came to save his people in that time and in that place and in that particular situation. But he also came to save all people, in all places and at all times. The coming of Christ was God’s response to the crying out of his people at that time and for all time. The person of Christ was the embodiment of the particular and the universal. He was God the all knowing, all powerful, the timeless and eternal in the body of a person. This is the radical and paradoxical meaning of the incarnation – God incarnate.

The fact that this message was given to the shepherds is also significant, and reflects this paradox in another way. For although the shepherds may have been a part of the people of Israel, they were certainly on the margins of society. They were a part of the people, but just barely. The role shepherds play in society hasn’t changed much since the birth of Jesus. We can imagine a familiar dynamic here – the shepherds were nomadic or semi-nomadic herders who were transient, and probably seen as dangerous and undomesticated by the city dwellers and agriculturalists. This is true throughout the world, from the Bedouin in Israel and other counties in the Middle East, to the Fulani in West Africa (and, of course, cowboys in the Old West).

Even though Israel’s roots were in this type of nomadic, shepherding lifestyle, going all the way back to Abraham, they had long since settled in and probably looked on the nomads with distrust and disdain. We shouldn’t forget that the shepherds were not only watching their flocks in the fields at night, that is where they lived (Luke 2:8). Also, it is safe to say that the flocks they watched over probably weren’t even theirs. They were probably hired hands, who braved the cold nights with the sheep, while the owners of the sheep were warm in their beds. There is no scriptural evidence for this of course, but it would fit with the pattern that is often seen with nomadic people throughout the world. This brings to mind a truth that is easy to forget – owning sheep does not make you a shepherd, just like having a cowboy hat does not make you a cowboy.

When the angel spoke and said that his message was one that would bring joy to all people, he meant everyone, rich and poor, important and unimportant. Nobody was excluded, and the fact that the shepherds received the news before everyone else is proof of this. Not only that, but they were given the important task of delivering the message to others. It is safe to assume that there were probably some (or many) that didn’t believe their message because of who they were. This reminds me of what Chesterton wrote regarding the belief in miracles. “You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism – the abstract impossibility of miracle. You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist.”[2]

Those who didn’t believe them are the ones who lost out. As for the shepherds, they were only reporting on what was evident to anyone who happened to be looking. After all, the angels filled the whole sky. Their song was not given in secret. If those who slept through the song didn’t believe, it was because they did not see, and if they did not see, it is because they were not looking. Even the Magi were able to find Jesus by following a star, though, according to T. S. Eliot, they journeyed the whole way with “voices singing in our ears, saying that this was all folly.”  

Simeon

Now we come to the last song – the song of Simeon. This song was given after the birth of Jesus, when he was taken for the first time to the Temple, on the 8th day, in order to be circumcised. This ceremony was to mark his belonging to the people of Israel, and he was taken by his parents, who crossed paths with Simeon, an old man who was at the Temple waiting. He was waiting, just like all of Israel. Waiting for God’s salvation. But he had received a special promise. God told him that he would not die before seeing the salvation of Israel. He knew that God would keep his word, but he also knew that he was very old and would not live much longer. He saw Jesus, took him in his arms and sang his song (Luke 2:21-35).

He begins by saying to God, “now you may dismiss your servant in peace,” (v. 29 NIV). He has been waiting for so long, and now that he has seen, he is ready to go. He is ready to die. It seems almost as if he is asking to die, like he is asking God to take him. There are others in the Bible who asked God to take them, Elijah for example, when he was hiding in the desert outside of Beer Sheva (1 Kings 19:4). That was different though – Elijah was speaking through pain and frustration, anger and fear. After the great victory on Mount Carmel, he found himself on the run, defeated and in danger. He spoke through resignation, kind of like the author of Psalm 90, who wrote,

“We finish our years like a sigh.
The days of our lives are seventy years;
And if by reason of strength they are eighty years,
Yet their boast is only labor and sorrow;
For it is soon cut off, and we fly away” (Ps. 90:9-10 NKJV).

Few poets and no philosophers have ever managed to capture the dejection and sense of meaninglessness contained in these few lines. These are lines an existentialist would envy and wish they had thought of first. The conclusion drawn here, that life is hardship and difficulty and doesn’t even last that long, is only one step away from saying, “God, you might as well take me now.”

Some have seen this same sort of cynical abandonment of hope (as well as anti-Semitism) in T. S. Eliot’s reworking of Simeon’s song, A Song for Simeon. The argument is that Simeon saw God’s salvation, but saw himself excluded from it, since he and the rest of the Jewish people would not accept Jesus as Messiah. Finally, Simeon embraces death at the end of Eliot’s poem by saying,

I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.

I don’t see the cynicism, or anti-Semitism, in either Eliot’s text or the original. In defending Eliot against this specific charge of anti-Semitism, James Wood doesn’t see it either. He writes, “Simeon welcomes death not because his life is death but because his life has been gloriously completed, messianically irradiated.”[3] That seems right to me. It is like he is saying, “I can go in peace because I have seen the salvation of God.” He is full and content, and ready to go home. Simeon was able to see because God gave him a vision. Everyone else saw a little baby, but Simeon saw what the baby would become and what he would accomplish. He saw that salvation had come, even though the situation had not yet changed. The Romans and corrupt Herodians still ruled over them. The world was still full of evil and injustice. But he had peace because God had allowed him to see past all of that, to see that the Kingdom of God had been established on earth. He saw that kingdom come had come.

This peek into the Promised Land obviously recalls Moses, perched on Mt. Nebo. He didn’t make it in, but he saw in, and sometimes to see is enough. It also recalls others who have had a great vision but have not lived long enough to see it accomplished. Martin Luther King Jr. is an obvious example, and so is Nelson Mandela. They both saw a vision of peace and reconciliation in their societies which were saturated with violence, anger, resentment and fear. They saw this vision even though there was little to no evidence of it, and managed to convey it to others. They saw the vision, and held onto it, even though it had still not been realized when they died, and even though it has still not been realized now that they are gone. But they died with peace, because they had seen the vision.

The vision has not been realized because, although the kingdom was established, there remains much work to be done. The second time John the Baptist came before Jesus (the first was in birth), he spoke as the voice crying in the wilderness that was foreseen by Isaiah. The voice that would “Prepare the ways of the LORD; make His paths straight. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill brought low; the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough ways smooth,” (Luke 3:4-6 NKJV).

It is hard work, preparing the way for the king. Raising up the valleys and bringing down the mountains. Straightening out what is crooked. That is the work of the kingdom that has come, but it is also the inevitable result of the arrival of the king. We participate in the work of the kingdom, even though we know that we can only begin the work. We cannot finish it. Not alone. Only the king can finish the work, and he will. In the meantime we continue to sing our songs, songs of the king that has come and is coming.


[1] Tom Wright, How God Became King, Getting to the Heart of the Gospels (Great Britain, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge: 2012) pg. 136-137.

[2] Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York, Image Books: 1959) pg. 150.

[3] James Wood, The Broken Estate, Essays on Literature and Belief (New York, The Modern Library: 2000) pg. 153.

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