Mirroring my enemy

enemy-9It was the Buddha, or so I heard, who first said “We become the mirror image of our enemy.” That is, we look like the exact opposite but share the same essential nature which so offends us in our enemy.

I believe that

That’s why the left and the right can sound equally intolerant. We see the principle at work when police begin describing themselves as the biggest gang in town, and when religious leaders who spend their lives fighting the devil or the Great Satan begin to sound extremely nasty.

The mirror-image effect is acted out at work, in communities, on condo boards, in churches, social clubs and myriad other places where relationships, good manners and grace are lost or misplaced.

The mechanics are simple: people treated with intolerance begin displaying intolerance in return, in a mutually-reinforcing downward spiral.

Still, it’s a choice we make.

At one point when I worked at YSM’s Evergreen Centre for Street Youth, a new church-based drop-in center opened just up the street from us. Asked if their presence bothered us, I responded “the more, the merrier.” As far as I was concerned, they could open across the street from us and we would both be swamped with more need than we could handle – always too much need.

I went to visit the newcomers and welcome them. When I arrived the first person to greet me remarked “You really need to be here; this is what Evergreen was like before you ruined it.” The conversations which followed went downhill from there.

The attacks on me were so pointed that I didn’t stay long, leaving before my dark thoughts became angry words.

Later I met with our staff and had two messages for them. The first was a warning, that the new center would be saying nasty things about all of us. Second, an instruction that we would not be responding in kind: I urged them to live out one of the paradoxes of Christian faith, that others have a right to speak ill of us, and we have a responsibility to bless them.

The Apostle James, who likely was Jesus’ half-brother or cousin, wrote “Submit to God, resist the Devil and he will flee from you.” As a young pastor, I had preached a sermon on the text that focused on resisting the devil.

Following the service the chair of my board graciously challenged my emphasis. I got defensive and opened James’ epistle and pointed to the text declaring “resist the Devil and he will flee from you. “Ha,” I thought, “argue with that.”

He did and again with great grace pointed me to the first part of the passage: “Submit to God.”

In fact, what James was suggesting was much the same as the Buddha; if you fight the devil you become like the devil. James understood that if your focus was on God you would have already resisted evil and become a much nicer person. “Graceenemy-11d” people keep graced images at the forefront of their minds and hearts.

Jesus couldn’t be more clear: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Our impulse, however, is that what happened to us today is the exception, that Jesus was expecting a bit too much to ask me to love this particular enemy. I certainly thought so while smarting from the unprovoked condemnation from the newcomers in street ministry.

It’s hard to live it out, when our reputation, credibility or personality is under attack, even harder still when our way of life is threatened, our livelihood endangered, our values stomped, beliefs swept aside, or our sense of place in the world undermined.

What could be more counter-cultural in this age than loving one’s enemies? Yet Jesus word does not falter: Love all, even your oppressors, even your enemy. And of course, once you love your enemy, regardless of what they think, they no longer are your enemy. Other may label us enemies, but we are freed from responding in kind.

That doesn’t dictate that we never disagree nor argue for our understanding of what is right, just and true, or advocate for principles, philosophies, theologies and praxis we believe in.

What it does mean is that we focus less on defeating an enemy, and more on serving God and reflecting the values, ethics, vision and high principles that spring from faith.

Let us be consumed by love and good, by peace and justice.

Perhaps our mirrors will also then reflect something quite different back to us.

Blessings … Rick

Note: I apologize for the significant delay since my last post. I had planned on taking the summer off but then also became ill in late August. It has taken more time than I imagined to recover the energy to write more.

I Stand for Love

I Stand for Love was written by David Roth, an American singer/songwriter. His music has been covered by Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio, been performed in Carnegie Hall and the UN and carried into space on the space shuttle Atlantis. Anne Hills, the daughter of Methodist missionaries is an American roots and folk singer/songwriter. Her amazing soprano voice has made her one of the best-known contemporary folk musicians. She has performed and recorded with Tom Paxton, Cindy Mangsen and Michael Smith. Both Roth and Hills are known for their great writing and deep spirituality. I Stand for Love is a collaboration for their Rhubarb Trees recording.

Hannah: The Tomato Plant Sessions

moving streetcar“As soon as she boarded the streetcar I could tell she was poor.”

That’s how Hannah began her story.

“There was a sameness about her. I see it in so many people who are poor. They’re overweight, have stringy hair, and are dirty. I wanted to tell her she could at least dress with more care. So often poor women dress in uncoordinated clothes that are too small and too tight.

“They look so hopeless, so frustrated, and harassed and they seem to come equipped with bad mannered kids. Sometimes I think they are almost subhuman. As I watched this woman enter the car I thought “O God, why are they are like that?’”

As I heard Hanna’s pronouncement, a wave of defensiveness rose in me, chased by a tide of anger, and then, surprise and disappointment.

Defensive anger, because I have met many hundreds of people who have almost no resources yet they are immaculate and stylish, their children models of good behavior, and their homes a nurturing space — the very antithesis of Hannah’s caricature.

Surprise and disappointment, because it was Hannah speaking.

Hannah was a faithful Mission supporter. She prayed for us frequently, was quick to volunteer her time and was exceedingly generous with her money. And Hannah’s commitment to us was tied to her belief that God cares for people living with poverty and is deeply moved by their situation. That’s why her question threw me.

But before I got over my initial shock Hannah continued.

“Two weeks later I went out into my garden to get a tomato.”

Tomato mutant

“I found a beauty. It was large, ripe and luscious. I looked for another and found a strangely deformed, gross, ugly excuse for a tomato. It had not ripened properly and so was a mixture of green, brown, yellow and pinkish-red. It was lopsided and there was a deep gash that ran across its entire face. What a contrast. But then as I reached in to pick it I realized I had been responsible for its deformity.

“Earlier in the year, as the plant grew taller, I dutifully tied it to a stake for support. In the process I must have bound the young blossom which was to become this tomato. It grew hard against the side of the stake so that it was completely flat on one side. The string I tied it with ate right into the flesh of the fruit. I was just trying to get a good harvest. But I built a structure which, while good for the plant, was fatal to this particular blossom.

“Through no fault of its own, the fruit was denied the life giving nourishment and environment required for health and beauty. It was deformed and ugly.

“I remembered my question to God and found myself thinking about people who, through no fault of their own, live in environments that deny them the resources required for health. I realized that my misshaped tomato had much the same potential as my beautiful tomato but the environment I created limited its future.

“I wondered if the society we had created robbed some of the opportunity to live healthy and whole lives.”

Retelling Hannah’s story now provokes the same mixture of reactions in me as it did then. I want to defend those living with poverty and rail against her one-dimensional images of poverty.

Yet what most upsets me about Hannah’s story is that I see too much of me in her reactions.  Sometimes the outward manifestations of poverty repulse me as well, and sometimes I also want to distance myself from that which I find unattractive, unappealing or embarrassing, and to avoid all that causes fear to rise within me.

As did Hannah, I also wonder to what degree societal systems that perform well for the mainstream can damage those on the margins: some individuals and families must live with society’s failed intentions, ignorant mistakes and purposeful maltreatment.

There is no perfection. Even the best-intended interventions can have a shadow side, a ‘Hannah’s string’ with unforeseen consequence. Those unforeseen impacts, however, do not justify despair, but rather call us to diligence, vigilance, creativity and continuous review and dialogue with all stakeholders — especially those on the margins — as we endeavor to unfold compassion and justice.

My friend Hannah has passed on. I knew her for 30 years and I have no doubt she dwells in paradise. Her faith was like a mountain and she spent her life investing in others. When she had much she gave much, and when she had little she still found something to share.

And Hannah was open to God and to receiving fresh insight. She learned and embraced deep truths about poverty, and its impact on peoples lives. Hannah came to the recognition that so much is beyond peoples’ control, and for that, they deserve compassion and justice, not disdain and judgment.

 – Blessings … Rick Tobias

Gabriel and the Vagabond

Foy Vance is an Irish Catholic singer song writer. Gabriel and the Vagabond is a tender song about perceptions; both private and public. It almost always draws deep emotions from me. It reminds me that we might find grace in the most unlikely places. -RT

The grateful listener writes it down

Yes, I’ve started a blog. But why?
I was born in Saint John N.B. to a Lebanese father and an Irish mother, in a tight-knit community where such marriages were not unusual. I grew up with great Lebanese feasts, Irish stews and boiled dinners, danced Dabke, (traditional Lebanese dance), listened to the high pitched ululation of the women when we partied, and then sang “When Irish Eyes are smiling.” I am deeply proud of my community and heritage.

LP Cover -Port SAID

For the past 40 years I have worked among various people whose lives are to a great measure marked by poverty and exclusion. I would like to think that in many meaningful ways I have been able to make positive contributions to their lives.

What I know for sure is that my life has been unmeasurably enriched by the very people I felt so compelled -even called – to journey with. From Coldbrook in Nova Scotia, to Saint John and Chicago and these past 30 plus years at Yonge Street Mission, I am the beneficiary of good and precious gifts that God’s people so freely bestowed on me.

During my term as the Mission’s CEO, through 25 years of teaching at Tyndale and in countless Sunday Sermons, conferences, consults and intimate conversations I have been expected to be the expert. Instead I found myself simply sharing understanding and insight learned from shelterless and homeless youth, Mission community members and more than one Melchizedek who has passed through my life.

I learned what I know from people who, in the midst of extreme need and even brokenness, find the capacity for love and grace, people who are as generous with the abundant wisdom they have acquired as they are with the little they possess. I can never find the language to express my gratitude to them and to God for the countless good gifts they have bestowed upon me.

About TOBITS

The book of James boldly declares that “Every good and perfect gift” comes from God. Thus Tobits. In Hebrew it is ṭôbīyāh meaning God (is) my good. My name is a variation of the name; Tobias. In the Hebrew it is Toviyah and means the goodness of God.
The Book of Tobit is part of the Catholic and Orthodox biblical canon.

tobit_tigris_grt
Tobias and the Angel at the River Tigris – pen drawing by Rembrandt c. 1650/52

It was one of the “undisputed” books that was included in what would become the Christian Bible and until the Protestant Reformation it was for all Christians “the Word of God.” Indeed it was included in the first edition of the 1611 King James Bible.

Whether it should be treated as scripture or not; I am not scholar enough to know. But I like the play on my name. I love the affirmation that God is my good and that God gives good gifts —  the written Scriptures, and the people of God who we describe as the poor, who inspire and enlighten me.

It is worth noting that I am a minister, a care-giver. Thus this will be the reflection, meditation of one whose life has been spent with people. While I teach, I am not an academic and when I address issues of Compassion and Justice, I speak simply as a practitioner who is still learning his craft.

My hope is that the good gifts I have received will come together in this blog and be helpful to others who journey with the poor, have committed themselves to justice and who seek to discover the abundant life that is promised to all by the Mighty God the very Creator of heaven and earth.

– Rick Tobias

“Banat Iskandaria” (Girls of Alexandria) from the LP Port Said: Music of the Middle East by Mohammed El Bakkar and His Oriental Ensemble (1957). This LP rarely left the stereo in my childhood home and it still stirs my Lebanese roots. – RT

Doing their Part: The Rev. Dr. Robert C. (Bob) BerryBob Berry

For all intents and purposes, my journey of faith began in Nov of 1969. On my almost half-century journey, I remain grateful for the many amazing people who have come into my life; most often as a good gift from a good God.

Perhaps the first such person was Bob Berry. Bob became my first pastor before I showed any interest in even having a pastor. Bob was the minister at Forest Hills Baptist Church at a time when drugs and parties consumed my life.  He says that although working with youth in the ’60s had unique challenges, it was adventuresome and gave him great joy. His illustrious life and ministry is legendary among Canadian Baptists.

Bob befriended me, kept me out of jail, guided me into adulthood and has remained a friend and mentor to me for five decades.  How different my life might have been had he not befriended me! Today Bob is in his 80s and is concerned that too many elders want to escape responsibility and drift into retirement. He continues to nurture and support many younger leaders in Atlantic Canada and beyond. I still covet our time together.

Without Bob’s influence my life journey might never have started. So this first announced blog post is dedicated to my good friend, pastor and mentor, The Rev. Dr. Robert C. (Bob) Berry.

Thanks Bob.

– RT