Choose the Better Story

I admit, I wasn’t an instant fan of Life of Pi (the book) when it first came out, because I’m not a big fiction-reader. But then I attended an event where Yann Martel spoke. His novel Life of Pi was soaring on the popularity charts (and was later made into a movie). Martel began his presentation by quoting the most frequent question asked by his readers: is Life of Pi true? He spent the rest of his talk sharing a brilliant multi-faceted explanation of truth. I went home and read the book, almost in one sitting. I was literally blown away; Martel’s/Pi’s insights have stuck like gems that keep instructing me as I continue to explore that all-time favourite question, “What is truth?”

Of course the story is true, replied Martel. All good stories are true. Good art is always true. There are truths that go beyond factual or scientific truth, such as moral truth, literary truth, emotional truth, historical truth. Religion does it, art, music and literature do it, fairy tales do it. They don’t contradict facts; they simply go beyond facts, further and deeper.

For all its touting of sophistication and modern living, it often seems as if  our western culture is losing the heart’s ability to live an awareness of truth that exceeds hard data and one-dimensional knowing. With the diminishment of religious adherence and practice, along with a flattened version of reality and a trivialization of the arts in various quarters, we risk becoming an impoverished species. How very sad and boring that would be.

Fortunately for us all, the likes of Yann Martel arise periodically to give us a jolt of what is really real and rich and deep and meaningful and goes far beyond what we can measure in facts and touch with our hands: Mystical writings in all traditions acknowledge the mystery of life and suggest ways of engaging with that mystery, even though it remains impossible to comprehend intellectually. You can view the world in different ways – historical, scientific, social, political – but there are limits to what you can do with a calculator or a hammer. You must make a leap of faith to get the full flavour of life. (Yann Martel Interview)

It is probably for this reason that Martel’s introduction to Life of Pi includes  an enigmatic line: Let me tell you a story that will make you believe in God.

Religious belief is one of the most fascinating themes in Life of Pi. Early on in the novel, Pi notes that religion is off-putting to many people because they believe it constrains  our freedom. He criticizes such positions for not realizing that ‘freedom’ outside of ritual and order, whether religious or secular, can be extremely frightening. Pi learns that the stakes at sea are much higher. In the absence of taken-for-granted order he faces life and death situations every day. It is his religious faith that gets him through — an implicit rebuke to those who believe faith limits freedom.

Martel asserts a strong relationship between religious faith and storytelling. Pi pities agnostics who are so paralyzed they cannot believe in anything. He admires atheists for having the courage to claim God’s non-existence and for working hard to justify their non-belief.

Pi’s fascination with stories leads him to embrace no less than three religions — Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism. He cannot understand how gods can be represented in such radically different ways, and wonders how to love the human Jesus. Until Father Martin suggests to the young Pi that we tell the same story in multiple ways to come to the same conclusion.

Pi’s beliefs mature throughout the novel. His first brushes with religion lead him to find several mentors and experiment with various forms of prayer, whether it be in  a church, mosque or the temple. However, only when he is on his forced journey at sea, does he realize that he truly believes in God. His faith is tested in a way that it was not before when life seemed orderly and predictable.

So enjoy here some of Martel’s/Pi’s nuggets of truth:

“I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always … so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”

“When you’ve suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling.”

“It’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse.”

“If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”

“The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”

“You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better.”

“People fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart.”

“All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.”

“If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

“The reason death sticks so closely to life isn’t biological necessity—it’s envy. Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud.”

“I was giving up. I would have given up — if a voice hadn’t made itself heard in my heart. The voice said ‘I will not die. I refuse it. I will make it through this nightmare. I will beat the odds, as great as they are. I have survived so far, miraculously. Now I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen everyday. I will put in all the hard work necessary. Yes, so long as God is with me, I will not die. Amen.’ ”

In short, repeating Martel’s own words from the interview quoted earlier, Life of Pi sums up as follows:

1) Life is a story.
2) You can choose your story.
3) A story with God is the better story.

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Welcome to Doubt

After a 2-month absence I was happy to be back in my (Anglican) home parish again this morning preaching on Doubting Thomas:

A small town in B.C. has one claim to fame: their mountain towers over the town, like a monument to eternity. Most of the time, however, the mountain is hiding in the clouds.On the few clear days in the valley, you can hear people say to one another: “The mountain is out!”

Now, even when it cannot be seen, the mountain is there, right? If you follow the directions on the road map, there is no doubt that you will bump into the Mountain. It is a long drive around, and it is a difficult climb up that mountain. Many tourists come to visit that small town, hoping to catch a glimpse of this piece of natural beauty. Many, being there on the gray and cloudy days, do not make the effort to find the mountain hiding in the mist. Many leave the town, not believing that the Mountain is really there, because if they cannot see it, chances are that the mountain does not exist at all…

Hmmm … unless I can see for myself, I may doubt the existence of whatever it is. Unless I can see for myself, I may not believe. Unless I can see for myself, I may live in fear that God may not be real. All we know for sure are the wounds and the bruises we collect over time. No wonder Thomas demanded to touch the wounds of Christ — just for proof. We do not argue with suffering and death: they are as real as the clouds around the Mountain.

My friend Marian knew about the thick clouds around the mountain. Not that she has ever been to that town in B.C. — no. As a matter of fact, she has been so sick that she hasn’t been much further than a ten minute walk down the block near her house. Visits to the doctors in the city are so tiring that she needs days in bed afterwards just to recover from the trip.

Marian was young — in her mid-forties blessed with a caring husband and two young children. But Marian’s life had been seriously curtailed by some mysterious illness, as if her body had suddenly betrayed her. Doctors were at a loss for a diagnosis: thyroid cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, mercury poisoning from dental fillings, damaged immune system from radiation treatments. It was a bit like Russian Roulette.

Meanwhile Marian fought in her spirit to maintain a sense of God in the midst of the pain, the tests and the fatigue. Like the disciples on that first day of the week, fear gripped Marian’s heart, settling in like the thick clouds around the mountain, locking the doors of her soul. Marian screamed silently in the lonely hours in bed, day and night, saying with Thomas: I cannot believe in you Lord, unless I can touch your wounds, unless you touch my wounds …

Marian is Thomas’ Twin, and so are we all. Not only do we want proof to show that Jesus is risen; we dismiss any proof that comes our way. In all fairness, we can excuse the frightened bunch of disciples – they really didn’t have a clue, at first anyways. I’m guessing Thomas wasn’t the only doubter in the mix. But Scripture has made him alone the patron saint of all doubters.

But we … We who profess Jesus as Lord, we who have been baptized into His death and resurrection, we cannot hide behind the excuse of ignorance. We are not among those who do not see and yet believe — we are among those who do see Jesus, who have received Jesus’ Spirit of peace and still do not believe, locking the doors with our fear.

We offer and receive comfort — Jesus is there, clear as day. We welcome a stranger, visit the prisoner — Jesus is there, clear as day. We forgive and receive forgiveness —Jesus is there, clear as day. We hear God’s Word and partake in Holy Communion — Jesus is there, clear as day.

But more often than we would like to admit, fear holds us back from one another, and from God, keeping us from seeing Jesus. Fear is our biggest enemy, just like fear drove the disciples to lock themselves in that upper room, not realizing that the “enemy” was not outside the room, but right in their own hearts. Fear is the thick cloud around the mountain, hiding from view the new life promised in the Risen One of God.

One year I asked Marian what Easter meant to her. That year Lent had been particularly trying on Marian’s health. Panic struck every little bit of faith she had left. “I now realize,” she says, “that my deepest problem was not my health, but fear. Like a persistent underground current, fear undermined every effort at healing. I feared constantly that God may not want me to get better.”

It was only when Marian unmasked the enemy in her own soul that God’s healing power could move in, at a level much deeper and extensive than merely bodily. Jesus touched Marian’s wounds with the Love that moves right through locked doors. “Never before had I felt the power of the resurrection so tangibly in my body,” said Marian, overjoyed that she made it to church that Easter morning.

Slowly, Marian is healing. The road continues to be rocky, and there are setbacks, always those darn setbacks. But now Marian’s heart knows something that the mind cannot ever grasp: the wounds in her body are touched, are soaked, in Love, and everything else takes its cue from there. Jesus breathed on her, blowing away the clouds around the mountain, bringing peace and a clear sight of Him who is steadfast Love and Mercy.

Jesus did not condemn Thomas for doubting. Jesus does not condemn us for doubting. Instead, Jesus uses our doubting to move us into a deeper seeing with the heart until we too can say: My Lord and my God. Because seeing does not lead to believing; believing leads to seeing. Perception shapes reality. If we regard the wounds of our lives as punishments that is what will shape our reality. If we choose to regard the wounds of our lives as pathways to God’s love and mercy, then Jesus can move in and say with love: Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe and live in my peace. 

When our hurts and injuries of life are kissed with love and mercy, doubt makes way for a deep inner “knowing” that all shall be well, and all matter of things shall be well in God’s economy of life and love and mercy, just as Thomas discovered, just as Marian discovered.

Faith that is incapable of entering into the Lord’s wounds is not faith. Our faith is incarnate in a God who became flesh, who was made sin (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21), who was wounded for us. But if we desire a deep and strong faith, we have to approach and touch those wounds, tenderly care for those wounds, as well as allow others to caress/kiss our wounds.

The Healer of our wounds, our illness, our brokenness bore our wounds in his death. The Healer of wounds lives, and dwells among us. With Thomas, and with Marian, we are nvited to touch the wounds of Christ in one another. The woundedness of the world are the wounds of Christ on the cross. The pain in our own lives is the birthplace of resurrection faith…”Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

In Jesus we are able not only to touch the mercy of God with our hands, but we are inspired to become instruments of his mercy. Blowing away the thick clouds around the mountain with the peace of the risen Lord, we bump into Jesus as we wind our way up that mountain, in the joy of his resurrection.

Baptized in Christ, we are an Easter people. Sharing in the glory of his resurrection, we have been given the gift and power of God to heal, to forgive, to comfort, to bring peace. The risen Jesus stands among us today, dispelling fear and disbelief, inviting us to be his guiding and healing presence in our broken world. Let us rejoice, knowing ourselves loved and redeemed beyond all measure. In Christ, we become worthy bearers of God’s gifts, gifts desperately needed in our world both broken and beloved … AMEN

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