Playdate at Stratford

(Christian Courier column, October 24, 2016)

14364840_10157727155080001_4965732285709268461_n2Last month I took my grandchildren to see The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Who was the most excited? Me! Taking them to their first play, sharing one of my favourite stories, being whisked away to that magical place where animals can talk and children have destinies to fulfill.

Jack, as C.S. Lewis was familiarly nicknamed, would have been delighted by the witty performance. After all, it was his own playfulness that led him to create a world where Roman fauns, centaurs and naiads live all higgly-piggly with Norse giants and lowly hedgerow creatures like robins and beavers. As the program pointed out, Tolkien, having laboured over his scrupulously well-ordered Middle Earth, was miffed by such mythological mish-mash, complaining, “It really won’t do, you know.” He was wrong.

The fun began with incredibly inventive staging. The play opens in a library, large screens offering a backdrop of thousands of books. And books become the building blocks for stackable props that morph into a train car, the Stone Table and ultimately the four thrones at Cair Paravel. Inspired architecture for an inspired tale.

A cheeky comedic tone lent a child-like air to the play, reinforcing the implicit expectation that we would, of course, be obliged to use our imaginations. After the Pevensie children leave London station in a train car made of books, the journey to Professor Kirk’s house is conveyed by a conductor pulling a toy train across the stage. The kids just howled. Similarly, a miniature sleigh and reindeer are “flown” atop the trees by a puppeteer just before a hearty oversized Father Christmas strides in with his bag of gifts. Again, appreciative laughter. Mr. Tumnus, hilariously, begins singing “Be My Guest” (from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast) to his new friend Lucy and then checks himself in stricken embarrassment. Humour kept the tale light and its intent trustworthy, a marked contrast from the darker Tim Burton-esque fare often marketed as children’s entertainment.

Given the bookish flavour of the introduction, the use of projected imagery for background scenery was surprisingly compelling rather than intrusive. Panoramic wintry mountains extended the vista. We could “feel” falling snowflakes. The White Witch could point believably to her “house between the two hills.” Metaphorically, the depiction of vast natural landscapes worked to suggest the transcendent – a visual reminder of Peter’s question to the Professor, “But do you really mean, sir, that there could be other worlds – all over the place, just round the corner – like that?”

The screens also showcased battle scenes in silhouette to amplify the live hand-to-hand combat. Appropriately, for the youthful audience, the duels occurred in the shadows with spotlights illuminating only brief flashes of swordplay. Serious, but not graphic.

Spritely music and dance enlivened the action with Celtic flair. Crucial information was communicated via song lyrics; Mr. Tumnus’s relationship with Lucy was cemented in a companionable jig. Two songs in particular alluded to Lewis’s Christian themes. As Father Christmas’s sleigh sails through the sky, it’s accompanied by distant choir music rather than jingle bells. A second key song introduces the gloriously gigantic Aslan. Just before he emerges from a tent fluttering with pennants, a courtly entourage parades about a round table propelling dramatically upwards from the floor. Dryads, unicorns and eagles sing “Come to the table” as the four children and Mr. and Mrs. Beaver join the procession. The lilting Narnian hymn invites all who love Aslan to come forward: “There’s plenty of room for all.” The grandchildren didn’t notice, but this grandmother was blinking back tears as the lordly lion, both King and Sacrifice, ascended the dais.

The conclusion was deeply satisfying. The Pevensie children are reunited with Professor Kirk. As they relay their adventures, a cavalcade of Narnian creatures, including the White Witch, her trollish sidekick and Maugrim the wolf, step wonderingly out of the Wardrobe into the library. The entire cast then launches into a merry reprise of Mr. Tumnus and Lucy’s jig. I’m not sure Jack would have approved of the theological implications of that finale, but its pageantry offered sweet hope, maybe even the barest echo of Psalm 97:1: “The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice.”

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Jesus at the Olympics

(Christian Courier column, September 26, 2016)

cristo_redentor_rio_de_janeiro_21How could you miss him? Christ the Redeemer at Rio, tourist attraction, juxtaposed against a kaleidoscope of carnival dancers, in the spotlight as cameras panned the mountains during weather updates. A slim stick high in the sky at the rowing events. A tiny red icon flickering amongst other Olympic graphics when the CBC returned to coverage after the break.

I expected broadcasters to downplay the religious monument, but rather than slighting Christ the Redeemer, respectful attention was the order of the day. Granted, it’s pretty much impossible to ignore the massive work of art, fourth largest in the world after China’s Spring Temple, the Statue of Liberty in New York and Russia’s The Motherland Calls.

The balanced design of Christ the Redeemer is pleasing. Serenity and strength. A triumphant bearing, but still crowned with thorns. Far-seeing eyes that somehow manage to gaze down compassionately upon all. Outstretched arms that include both the cross and an embrace.

It was particularly that deft blend of cruciform posture and warm welcome that led me to reflect on a unique challenge faced by Christianity today, what sociologist Christian Smith calls “moralistic therapeutic deism.” From his research on the religious ideas of American youth, Smith distilled five core beliefs: God exists. He wants you to be happy. He wants you to be nice to others, as taught in the Bible and in most world religions. He doesn’t need to be a central part of your life unless you have a problem. If you are basically a good person, you will go to heaven when you die.

The emerging adults who subscribe to this popular “religion” would expect nothing less from Christ the Redeemer than the enfolding hospitality of those outstretched arms. That those arms embody much more –  self-discipline, self-abnegation, self-sacrifice — would not be so readily understood. Moralistic therapeutic deism, notes Smith, “is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of sovereign deity, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, et cetera.”

Pondering Christ the Redeemer in the light of Smith’s conclusions, I realized that what I saw as balance in the statue’s design might not be evident to a generation swathed in a cotton-candy spirituality spun from self-gratification. Clues about the monstrous cost of the crucifixion, clues the original audience would have grasped immediately — Christ’s arms pinned to an invisible cross, the stylized geometric thorny crown – are now too subtle to decipher, subsumed by the streamlined calm of a Jesus who just wants you to be happy.

I thought about author Flannery O’Connor’s assertion that “The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be found to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience.” Perhaps, in similar vein, the incalculable visceral and cosmic suffering that Jesus endured to gain our salvation must be conveyed to contemporary viewers, as O’Connor suggests, in violent and shocking terms – not the composed classicism of Christ the Redeemer, but Guido Rocha’s “Tortured Christ” or Graham Sutherland’s “Crucifixion.” Such horrific Christs might stun the narcissistic spectator at the foot of the cross into sudden clarity about the gnarled and twisted contours of cruciform living. Cross-bearing alongside such Christs portends harrowing self-denial: sticking with an unsatisfactory spouse, forgiving an unspeakable harm, choosing celibacy, giving until the wallet sweats drops of blood. Who knows what comradely sacrifice a shuddering, thirsting, dying Lord might require?

Perhaps this injunction from Frederick Buechner, another incisive novelist, should be carved as caveat into the hemline of Christ the Redeemer: “Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walking with Siebenga and God

(Christian Courier column, August 22, 2016)fampics0003-1

When I was growing up in my tight-knit CRC triangle of home, church and Christian school, our communal economy was sustained by an unwritten code. You supported your own. You patronized CRC businesses and hired kids from your own congregation. If you had to pay a bit more for produce at Vandenbergs’ Market, well, so be it. It’s what you did. You invested in faith.

Those days are gone. The cohesion that undergirded such tribal loyalty has dissipated. Those in the know will probably hasten to point out that there was a concomitant undercurrent of negative peer pressure that generated its own drawbacks and complexities. For the record, I do try to buy my spring bedding plants from all four local nurseries owned by Christians. And here at Christian Courier, we do encourage you to support our advertisers!

Christian artists in particular, though, still deserve that old-fashioned communal kind of backing. Christianity Today (June 2016) profiles David Taylor, a professor, pastor and arts leader whose vocation is to promote “art making by the church, for the church, for the glory of God in the church, and for the world.” Taylor’s mission, even today, bumps against three age-old tensions between Christian artists and their church communities: suspicion about art and its meaning, a misappropriation of art for didactic or evangelistic purposes and a dismissal of art as recreational or elitist, a diversion from the more important tasks of the church.

In contradistinction to those attitudes, Christian Courier has always been a welcome venue for highlighting artists who produce art from within the church. A case in point is Linda Siebenga. I have 1989 and 1995 CC issues featuring poems by Siebenga. Most recently, CC published her poems “Jeremiah and the Linen Belt” (June 27, 2016) and “Watching a Glacier” (July 25, 2016). That’s a long record of dedication to the arts for both CC and Siebenga! I applaud such resilient insistence that creating art is a God-glorifying activity. As David Taylor notes, “The arts are a fundamental way to be human. They are rooted in the work of the Triune God.”

Siebenga’s latest book, A Bruised Reed, continues her faithful poetic work of “voicing the whys of our existence” as she explained in a CC interview long ago. The book is divided into four parts with poems on Nature, Life, Books, Art and Poets and Theology. These categories demonstrate the breadth of her curiosity, her attention to both the created world and the transcendent sphere. In “Two Sets of Crimson Wings,” Siebenga alludes to that intertwining of realities: “we are some poet and a farmer / scraping the heavens with the galoshes of life.” The collection as a whole should be especially treasured by CC readers because these poems emerge from our shared heritage of faith.

Siebenga’s sensitivity to the ordinary beauties of farm and prairie is acute. Her experiential and tactile awareness of the “stuff” of creation sits easily and familiarly beside spiritual and artistic reflection, as in a stanza like this one:

Crimson flash of red-winged blackbird

in the thicket by the slough

singing and calling into the morning,

with sounds

poems only dream of.

For Siebenga simply everything can be a revelation of God’s provision or a “still life” moment propelling praise. From “khaki-coloured cornstalks” to “carrots with earth in their creases” to “pink-cheeked potatoes,” Siebenga’s lively descriptions renew hope. God’s munificence is all around us for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

While the poems about Nature and Life sparkle with fresh images and crisp wording, the poems about Books, Art and Poets and Theology have a plainer feel. Nonetheless, there is something about the bald directness of these poems that fits, that feels measured and right. Rather than an esoteric faith in an abstruse deity, Siebenga’s poems present a factual relationship with an everyday God who eagerly approaches us, who speaks to us conversationally in the Bible and who desires our companionship.

A Bruised Reed is available at siebenga@cciwireless.ca. Pick up this book and enjoy the camaraderie of walking alongside Siebenga and God.

 

Happy at Synod

(Christian Courier column, July 11, 2016)

Cover_20160817_0001Mona Simpson, novelist and Steve Jobs’s sister, once said, “The tincture of life most rarely found in art is happiness.” That quote was on my mind as I read the final story in Lawrence Dorr’s anthology, A Bearer of Divine Revelation (CC, July 11, 2016). At the celebration of his fiftieth wedding anniversary, narrator Laszlo, a traumatized former POW, recalls the individuals, and especially his wife Meg, who gently salved his suppurating afflictions, each one an “angel of His Presence.” He partakes in the Eucharist with an intensified awareness that here, in church, a “door in heaven was opened a crack for him to behold that which was to come: a place for them to gather where love, forgiveness, and peace sang, where hurt, pain, anger, and bad dreams were no more.” Dorr conveys the happiness of worship in such a believable and tender way that perhaps even Mona Simpson would be satisfied.

No doubt you’ve already heard a lot about Synod. The Banner’s Gayla Postma wrote, “Synod 2016 showed a church increasingly diverse and also increasingly divided.” But, before all the weighty discussions, I experienced a happy hour at Synod (ok, don’t get the wrong idea – grin) worshipping on Sunday in the Calvin College chapel. As my friend Diane and I entered the crowded sanctuary, fresh with yellow and purple blooms, the atmosphere was lively. Bubbly greetings, hugs and handshakes all around.

The Oakland University Brass, Calvin College Alumni Choir and other gifted musicians set the tone for uplifting praise — Mendelssohn, Bach and “Lead On, O King Eternal.” When we sang “Holy, Holy, Holy!” I was so enraptured I dared a descant, something I’m usually far too self-conscious to attempt. The triumphant music was complemented by expressive Scripture readings and a well-crafted, well-delivered message on “One Holy Church.”

We celebrated Holy Communion. The flow of the congregation to the Table was dynamic, almost processional, with a diversity of believers. A young guy with a ruddy beard, t-shirt and plaid shorts preceded me while a sophisticated woman with perfectly arranged silver curls came behind. I shared a humorous moment with the elder serving me the bread. As I tried to tear off a bit of the loaf, the crusty texture confounded me, requiring a sturdy, irreverent tug. The elder and I grinned at each other in silent merriment.

Why bother you with this secondhand church service? To spotlight how glad I was to be there. How privileged. Not to deny or minimize that a solemn grief bounded this hour of fellowship. The Orlando massacre had occurred in the early hours of the same day. Many CRC members were anxiously awaiting a verdict in the Tim Bosma case. In the pews were some, I knew, cradling their own suppurating wounds. But like embattled Paul in his prison cell, rejoice we did, baring our scars, bearing our hope.

IMG_2094So, when you read all the reports and opinions about Synod 2016, please keep this recollection in the mix. God was among us. He was exalted. The Body and Blood of Christ was shared. The Holy Spirit wafted the banners, moved in the music, smiled in the tinkling of tiny glasses dropped in a silver bowl.

With Laszlo, I saw the door of heaven opening a crack. I heard “love, forgiveness and peace” singing. With all the saints, I confessed the Word made flesh who dwelt among us and is now seated at the right hand of God.

In his victory I can live eschatologically, at peace within ambivalence, within the uncertain context of what Synod 2016 has done and what future synods may do, within the tension of past, present and future. I can offer respect to those who can’t live within those variable parameters, who seek either wider or more restrictive boundaries. I can strive, however falteringly, to be an “angel of His Presence” to all God’s children, those gathered around the Table and those who, for whatever reason, are not. Such flawed human love, as Laszlo reflects in the churchyard, is “a poor but glorious imitation of the redeeming Love that had made possible, in spite of everything, the overwhelming joy of the earth.”

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Who’s in charge?

(Christian Courier, June 2016)
      When you’re a teacher, you’re a leader. I once attended a workshop where the presenter asked, “Who’s in charge of your classroom?” After two incorrect responses from the audience, I raised my hand and said, “I am.” That’s the answer he was looking for.
      In practical terms, that’s true. The teacher is the de facto administrator, disciplinarian, motivator and strategist of the classroom. A dedicated teacher implements management structures that are intended to promote success for all while building in some flexibility to account for individual student gifts and challenges. For me, anyway, it came down to this: if my classroom wasn’t running well, I needed to change something. It was up to me. I was in charge.
      But most importantly, a Christian teacher longs for her students to follow Christ. When I was busy with the daily nitty-gritty of lesson plans, timetables and recess duty, I didn’t spend much time thinking about the pride and joy I’d feel when my students became Christian leaders themselves. But what a retirement perk!
      Some were destined for leadership. You could tell. Gifted go-getters, achievement-oriented right from the start. Still, it’s gratifying to see them fulfill their promise. Among my former students are pastors, teachers, engineers, nurses and business leaders who travel the world. Students who went on to study longer and harder than I ever could … attaining their MAs and PhDs. There’s a Dordt College education prof among them who wrote me one of my most cherished thank you notes!
      But even more heartwarming are those students who graduated to leadership in ways I never could have foreseen. The class clown, the con artist, the poor reader, the bullied. The students I worried about, cringed at, shed tears over, gave up on.
IMG_1506      Take Scott, for example. Scott* was a slippery kid in Grade 8. He was smart, but didn’t care for some of the work I was requiring of him. He claimed he handed in his poetry project. I didn’t have it. We went back and forth. He was convincing. It was year-end; I was exhausted. Maybe I had lost it? Not outside the realm of possibility. I let it go. Years later, he chuckled as he confessed that he had never completed it. Today Scott is a father of five and a solid leader in my church. He’s been a Cadet Counsellor, catechism teacher and deacon several times over. Now he’s an elder. His sincerity and maturity astound me and fill me with thankfulness to God.
      Yes, I praise God for all the unanticipated leaders. The unruly and unmotivated who grew into Sunday school teachers and Gems counsellors. The shy and insecure who became loving fathers and strong mothers. The rebellious — now faithful doers of the Word. If I could have peered into the future, perhaps I would have fretted less, laughed more.
      But our culture is goal-oriented and results-driven. Leaders are particularly susceptible to this pressure. In a recent blog post (perspectivesjournal.org) RCA pastor Brian Keepers reflects on this, referencing The Radical Pursuit of Rest: Escaping the Productivity Trap by John Koessler. Keepers notes, “Our ‘culture of productivity’ assumes that busier is better and that devotion equals more activity.” He quotes Koessler: “No matter what we are doing now, we should do more. No matter what we have done in the past, it has not been enough.”
      As Christians, especially as Christian leaders, we’re invited to turn from this flurry of activity, rest in the Lord and surrender ourselves to his care. And not just ourselves, but, hallelujah, the whole world. This is not to encourage shirking or to condone slacktivism. It’s to inhale the blessed assurance that it’s not all up to us, after all. We’re only temporarily in charge. Keepers frames it, simply, as faith. “We trust that God will take care of us and that the world will go on even without our activity and effort. This makes rest, at its most fundamental level, an exercise of faith.”
      As a footnote, Christian leaders, let’s learn to follow. The day comes when the student is the teacher. Let’s relinquish control with supportive grace. Let’s embrace the miracle of God’s Spirit poured out even in these days to raise up and equip new leaders. To quote Jean Paul Richter, the 19th century German writer: “How calmly may we commit ourselves to the hands of him who bears up the world.”
 *Thanks, Scott, for permission to share our past and present.

Housing God

(Christian Courier column, May 2016)
     April 14th marked the 20th anniversary of my father’s death from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I journaled throughout his ten-year illness in the hopes of someday writing a book about it. Maybe I’ll still get to that, but if I haven’t managed to do so in 20 years, what are the odds?
     Once I had a conversation with friends on this intriguing topic: “Who are the five people in your life who’ve had the strongest impact on your faith?” Topping my list was my dad. It would take – you guessed it – a book to write about his influence on me with appropriate clarity and comprehensiveness. But here’s a teaser.
      Dad wasn’t preachy. The closest thing to a sermon might be an emphatic declaration, punctuated with a pointing finger, that you can’t expect a man who is hungry and has no shoes to listen to the gospel. First, you feed him and give him shoes; then you tell him about Jesus. He had a pronounced bias toward a “social gospel.” So I wasn’t completely surprised when, many years after he was gone, Mom revealed to me that her father had once called him a “communist.” As a young whippersnapper working in a cement factory, Dad had the temerity to criticize management and speak up on behalf of the employees. He always sided with “the little man.” No surprise, really. He grew up on “margarine street,” a disparaging Dutch phrase for government-subsidized housing.
      When asked to serve his church, Dad didn’t hesitate. He helped organized the Cadet program in Sarnia’s Second CRC and also in the Wyoming CRC, serving there as the club’s first Head Counsellor. Mom still has the faded certificate commending his dedication. He was an elder in both of those churches, too, and served a term as Board Chair for the John Knox Christian School Society.
      Dad’s convictions extended beyond his CRC community. Once he met a desperate and penniless Scottish family stranded at the Sarnia train station. He invited these strangers into our home and they stayed with us for several weeks. He spoke up at his local union hall promoting Sunday as a day of rest. Later in life, as a hog farmer, Dad regularly donated pork to widows.
Off to church.      These commendable examples of Christian witness were but the public expression of Dad the family man. He loved our mom. He valued her work as mother and housewife. He complimented her meals in our presence and made sure we understood that a clean and orderly home was not a gift to be disrespected. It all sounds a bit too good to be true, I know, but I do have the corroborating testimony of five siblings.
      He treated us kids well, too, patient, encouraging, never given to harshness. I’ll confess I was the most challenging. One night I skipped Young Peoples to meet up with an unchurched guy. I was careful, I thought, to return to church in time to get picked up. I hid in the washroom waiting for the right moment to join the others as they exited the classrooms. Suddenly I heard my dad’s voice. Alas, he’d come early and discovered I hadn’t been there! By the time I worked up the courage to face him, he’d already left.
      Flummoxed, I ended up at a friend’s house and had to call for a ride home. Dad said nothing as we drove in the inky night. Finally, turning into our lane, he quietly expressed how disappointed he was in me. He didn’t ask where I’d been or what I’d been doing. I may have mumbled a half-hearted “sorry,” I don’t recall, but his merciful restraint reverberates in my memory.
IMG_1836     When I was a child, our church constructed a Wayside Chapel for Travelers that stood for decades on the highway, a shining jewel box when lit up at night, stocked with tracts and a taped sermon by Rev. A. DeJager. Dad helped build or maintain this miniature church (we’re no longer sure which), a storybook edifice that charmed me whenever we drove past.
     Suddenly I understand. Dad is that church. A “little man” housing God. An everyday Christian hostel. Come stay with us, soup’s on, pick out a pair of shoes.
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Dad wasn’t perfect. He made mistakes. But that’s for the book. Here’s today’s takeaway: Weary, perplexed Christian parent, take heart. You are foundation, tabernacle, temple. Glory is your cornerstone. Have faith, keep faith: “This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4).

What a book can do

(Christian Courier column, April 2016)

 
I can’t recall the title, but I clearly remember the first book that awakened me to suffering beyond a bloody nose or schoolyard snub. It was a small blue hard-covered book about the 16th century Spanish siege of Leiden. I sobbed to my mother: “Those poor Dutch people were trapped! They were starving! They ate dogs, cats and rats!” I was just a kid, but I’d discovered empathy.

 
Books continue to be a God-given opportunity for me to meet, understand and love my neighbour.

 
kinew_reason_you_walk_cvr[1]The Reason You Walk by Canadian journalist Wab Kinew is the unsentimental account of a father and son relationship inhabited by colonial subjugation. Kinew’s father, Tobasonakwut, endured a litany of horrors at St. Mary’s Indian Residential School. He was given a new name, Peter Kelly. Every aspect of his native culture was demeaned — his appearance, his language, his religion, his traditions. He was strapped for offenses he didn’t understand. He was sexually abused by both men and women, vilified by a nun even as she raped him. He witnessed the beating of his closest friend by white men and ran, in vain, to get help. The nuns insisted later that the boy had died of tuberculosis.

 
Tobasonakwut’s suffering remained private for much of his life. But the childhood nightmare dogged his marriage, his parenting and his emotional health. Gradually, determined to retrieve his dignity and his cultural heritage, Tobasonakwut achieved a remarkable transformation, becoming a national leader and advocate for his people. In 2009 he travelled to Rome to meet Pope Benedict XVI, offering him a feather as a symbol of reconciliation. Kinew sums up his father’s legacy: “He had grappled with his pain, with his anger, and with his grief. Now, we had seen him conquer those things with love, a love he extended to his fellow human beings, including some who had hurt him.”

 
51fb-u69ShL[1]Katherine Boo’s book, behind the beautiful forevers, is an expose of life in the seething “undercity” of Mumbai, a sprawling slum beside its elegant airport. Abdul, a Muslim trash picker, one of ten children, is supporting the family because, as he says, his father is a man who is “too sick to sort much garbage, not sick enough to stay off his wife.” Abdul’s beleaguered future is thrown into even greater jeopardy when he is wrongfully accused of murder. We also meet Asha, slumlord by virtue of her body and her political savvy. Her ruthless scamming has but one goal — a college education for her talented daughter. Ironically, her “most-everything girl” ends up despising her, still trapped in Annawadi because of her mother’s fraudulent schemes.

 

 

Behind the beautiful forevers is a galling read. Boo demonstrates how brutish economic conditions give birth to morally unconscionable realities: “The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.”

 
25622897._UY1217_SS1217_[1]The Illegal is Lawrence Hill’s latest work. Olympic-hopeful Keita Ali, a black marathon runner, grows up in dangerous Zantoroland. His journalist father is murdered for documenting political corruption. With the help of an unscrupulous sports agent, Keita escapes to Freedom State.

 
As a person with illegal status, Keita becomes enmeshed in complexities. Worse, his sister Charity has been kidnapped in Zantoroland and is being held for ransom. Keita takes huge risks, competing in public races to win the money he needs to free his sister. His terror is compounded as various individuals all want a piece of him — politicians, criminals, reporters and athletic promoters.

 
The fictional, futuristic setting of The Illegal allows Hill free rein to explore current issues without pinpointing particular countries. But to my mind — perhaps because I read it immediately after the impeccably researched beyond the beautiful forevers – the novel lacks the rigorous believability the subject matter demands. Nonetheless, it’s a gripping story that highlights the difficulties refugees face as they flee oppression.

 
Each of these books fostered my empathy for those who are different from me. My neighbourhood is expanding; so is yours. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves. We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or don’t do, and more in light of what they suffer.” I have a choice to make. Will I avert my eyes from the suffering of others or will I choose to be a good Samaritan? Educating myself is a step in the right direction.