Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The blood on the floor

Technically, I wasn’t supposed to making this presentation. The leaders of all the various staff functions were required to present on organizations, functions, goals, and results to a group of executive–level reviewers. This was a serious situation – the executive-level review team was to make recommendations on staffing levels and resource (dollar) support.

The person scheduled to make the presentation was to be our function’s vice president. She decided she had a conflict (she also didn’t know the organization very well). Her second-in-command, who would have then made the presentation, had retired for health reasons and no one had been named to replace him. For whatever reason, she decided that I should do it. I was a speechwriter and had responsibility for two other functions. Perhaps it was because I knew the reviewers better than the vice president did. Or she thought I did.

This was not expected to be a fun exercise. In fact, it was expected to get bloody. I knew I would have at least one sympathetic ear – an executive who attended the same church I did. At least, I thought, one of the lions in the den was a Christian.

I was prepared. I had the right PowerPoint slides. I had backup material. I knew the numbers and the staffing levels. I knew what the organization had accomplished. I took nothing for granted, including my Christian executive.

The presentation was an ambush. The alpha wolf was my Christian colleague. I held my own, and I had no compunction about pushing back as hard as I needed to. I didn’t expect the main opposition to be the Christian executive, and that the non-Christians would have to rein him in.

He was vicious. Uninformed. Nasty. Refusing to acknowledge when he was caught out with wrong information or perceptions. He just came back hitting harder.

When the session ended, and I was collecting slides and notes and preparing to leave, he came up to me, smiling. “How are you doing?” he asked pleasantly.

Still reeling from what had just happened, I said the first thing that came into my head. “Have you been to church lately?” I asked.

He turned beet red. He made no reply, but turned around and walked away, leaving the room. He understood my meaning.

One of his executive colleagues came up to me and apologized. He said he didn’t understand what had happened, but that they should have intervened sooner and stopped what had been happening. And he said I had more than held my own. It was nice of him to say it, but I still felt like a beaten, bloody pulp.

I’m not sure whose values were reflected in that presentation. I could say the Christian executive was reflecting the values of his peer business group, but then even they were rather appalled. He wasn’t reflecting what was taught at church, although at that time there was still a prevailing belief among many Christian businessmen at our church that church and work were two entirely different realms, and when at work one had to abide by the values of work. My Christian executive certainly reflected that belief.

“It seems that in many evangelical circles we do have morality by consensus,” says Jerry Bridges in The Discipline of Grace: God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness. “We may not be doing what is right in our own eyes, as society around us is doing, but neither are we living according to biblical standards. Instead we live according to the standard of conduct of Christians around us. We not only have morality by consensus, we have sanctification by consensus. We expect to become holy by osmosis, by the absorption of the ethical values of our Christian peer group.”

Attending a church is not sufficient. Thinking we’re okay simply by going to Sunday School or being part of a small group or supporting a ministry is not sufficient. Sanctification takes work. Hard, personal work. I know first-hand how difficult it is to live one’s faith at work, and how easy it is to fail. And how easy it us for others to fail.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges. To see what others had to say on this chapter, “The Discipline of Commitment,” please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Hot Dogs, Cotton Candy, Ferris Wheels – and Poetry?

Before there was Disneyland and Six Flags, there was Coney Island. Located on the southern end of the Borough of Brooklyn in New York City, Coney Island was the largest amusement park in the United States between 1880 and World War II. Today, the iconic park has two amusement complexes – Luna Park and Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park – and numerous entertainment sites not included in the two parks.

Its impact on American popular culture has been large. Consider root beer and the Coney Island hot dog. The roller coaster. The carousel. The area was one of the first to use new technologies like electric light. And the first baby incubator debuted there.

Coney Island is still a popular destination for New Yorkers and visitors, but it has changed considerably over the decades. It is also gaining a reputation for poetry.


In 2009, native New Yorker and poet Amanda Deutch organized a poetry festival for Coney Island. Seven years later, Deutch heads Parachute Literary Arts, a community arts organization that “celebrates poetry in Coney Island and makes poetry available to those who live and work in the Coney Island neighborhood.”

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Zia Haider Rahman’s “In the Light of What We Know”

Some novels are meant to be read slowly, not only to enjoy the story but to savor it, and understand it, as if to read too quickly will mean the loss of something vital. Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See was a book like that. So is Zia Haider Rahman’s In The Light of What We Know. Other than two things – the use of the word “light” in the titles and both being published in 2014 – the two books are vastly different. But they are both great stories, wonderful stories.

In the Light of What We Know may defy a one-sentence description of what it’s about. It is the story of a man in his 30s named Zafar, born in Bangladesh and whose family settles in London. The story is told by his (never named in the story) friend of the same age, who comes from a distinguished Pakistani family and who was raised by his academic parents in settings like Princeton and Oxford. The two friends attended Oxford at the same time, and their friendship extends across their professional careers in finance/law (Zafar) and finance (the narrator).

The story extends across time – the creation of Bangladesh, Sept. 11, the financial meltdown of 2008, the invasion of Afghanistan by U.S.-led forces, the growth of financial markets in the 1990s. It extends cross their personal lives – their relationships with their parents, the narrator’s failing marriage, Britain’s class structure, and Zafar’s long running relationship with a young British woman from well beyond his own class. It also extends across their identities – who they are, where they come from, the displacement felt by expats in a foreign culture. And it extends into academics, and specifically the realm of mathematics and the sciences.

A significant thing about the novel is how Rahman wraps all of these story extensions together, so closely interweaving them that the personal becomes the geopolitical becomes the historical and the cultural. I read the story as closely as I did because I wanted to miss nothing. And I read it with the understanding that my eyes are Western, and “everything seen by the West is seen through the West.”

Zia Haider Rahman
This interweaving of the story lines is also about identity, and what kind of personal identity we can have in the kind of world we live in. The fact that the narrator remains unnamed, and that we only know Zafar by that one name alone, keeps raising this question of identity. Underscoring this is how Zafar is the child of a rape by a Pakistani soldier during the war for independence in Bangladesh, he’s not raised by his mother, he moves to a foreign culture (Britain), and by sheer merit alone rises from a lower-class immigrant upbringing into the British educational stratosphere. After a stint on Wall Street, he goes to Harvard law school.

What happens in Afghanistan will turn out to be pivotal, not only for the overall movement of the story but for Zafar’s personal life as well. It may be difficult for any Westerner to read how this part of the story develops, but it is full of surprises and shows us a part of who we are.

Some of the story of Zafar is drawn from Rahman’s own life. Rahman was born in rural Bangladesh, raised in Britain, and educated in Britain, Germany, and the United States. He’s worked as an investment banker (and thus in the book we get an explanation of the subprime mortgage meltdown of 2008) and as both a corporate and human rights attorney. This novel is  Rahman’s first, and it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Britain’s oldest literary award.

In the Light of What We Know is a sobering story, a marvelous story, a story that makes one confront who he or she is and how we incompletely understand our world.

Photograph of Kabul, Afghanistan (2011) by Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Fahey via the U.S. Navy and Wikipedia.