Thursday, September 25, 2014

Book Review: What I Learned from Cancer

Dennis Maione’s What I Learned From Cancer is an engaging, thoughtful, and inspiring book about a topic that usually has next-to-nothing to commend it. Dennis writes from his personal experience, having survived cancer twice already. Dennis was born with Lynch Syndrome (which was news to him), an inherited genetic condition that predisposes him to develop colorectal cancer. As Dennis recounts his story, the reader is quickly drawn into the well-written narrative.

Dennis is a great communicator, and his style of story-telling is evocative and compelling. Whether it is the shock and bewilderment of discovering cancer at an early age, grief as he must inform his children that they also may have the same cancer-friendly gene, or light-hearted humor as he shares stories of dealing with abdominal stitches while at a comedy festival, Dennis has a way of making the reader feel like a part of the story.

What I Learned From Cancer is much more than the autobiographical tale of a cancer survivor. Dennis includes two very important and helpful sections of what his journey with cancer has taught him. The first is entitled (appropriately enough) “What I Learned from Cancer”, as Dennis highlights some key topics that will be extremely helpful to cancer patients, their families, and their friends: About Doctors, About Community, About Advocacy (this is a fascinating part of Dennis’ journey, and is worth the price of admission all by itself), About Dying, and A Tale of Two Doctors: A Message to Health Care Providers.
Yup. Wendy took this one.

The final section of What I Learned From Cancer is “Conversations with a Doctor”, and is a helpful and practical study of how cancer occurs, the impact of genetics, and how to prevent cancer through lifestyle choices. These are extremely helpful chapters, and by utilizing a conversational approach, immensely readable.

Throughout this book, what shines through is a profound sense of gratitude, a deep appreciation for the power of community, the role of faith and humor, and Dennis' desire to equip, educate, and encourage. Written with candor, disarming transparency, and personal warmth, What I Learned from Cancer is a fascinating true story.

Highly recommended. Five stars (out of five).

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

To U.K, or not to U.K.?

I will wear this shirt tomorrow. It commemorates the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn.
I was born and raised in Canada, although my last name might offer a clue as to my ancestry. Even now, to jokingly say "Robby McAlpine of the Clan McAlpine" just sounds... right.

(Scots still living in the Old Country have multiple facepalm bruises over people like me and our naive assumptions re: our Scottish heritage. Compounded by our feeble attempts at adopting the accent.)

Wendy and I visited Scotland for our 25th anniversary, and we absolutely loved everything about it. (Yes, I ate haggis. More than once. Thank God for Scotch whiskey.)

My family roots are in the United Kingdom. Two of my four grandparents are Scots (the third is Irish; and the fourth, English). My mom grew up in Paisley (near Glasgow). If I could find a Welsh great-aunt somewhere, I'd be thoroughly UK. So, I guess I should be in favour of the "Better Together" side.

And the Union Jack is such an iconic image -- the combining of the flags of England, Ireland, and Scotland. On the grand scale of things, it's a minor note compared to all the other issues surrounding tomorrow's historic referendum on Scottish independence, but you gotta admit: it's a cool flag. More iconic than any of the three flags that comprise it.

On the other hand, like many other Scots and people of Scottish descent, I was very inspired by the less-than-historically-accurate production of Braveheart. (Note: there are also Scots who loathe this movie, although not as much as the English do.) So, with my second-generation Scottish nationalism stirred up, perhaps I'm more in favour of the "Yes Scotland" crew.

So, as a typical second-generation Scot-Canadian armchair quarterback, I can't really say I have the best-informed opinion about tomorrow's referendum on Scottish independence. (And nobody over there has been asking for my opinion anyway.) 

Emotionally, I would love to see Scotland be its own country. But sentimentalism is not a wise thing to base such an important decision on. There are so many complicating factors in the 21st century geopolitical landscape, that perhaps Scotland -- in the long term -- might be better to remain a part of the United Kingdom.

Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, nothing will quell the sense of pride and identity that the Scots are known for. And nothing will affect my affection-from-afar as a Canadian of Scottish ancestry.

And to commemorate the cheeky defiance that Scots are known for, I offer this enlightening video for your education, edification, and enjoyment.

Alba gu bràth! (ancient Gaelic phrase meaning: "Scotland forever")

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Writer's Corner

Today is Thursday. For the denizens of the Greater Twitterverse, this is normally referred to as "throwback" Thursday, where everyone posts archival photos of themselves.

Here, in a local St. Arbucks, Thursday afternoons have a different significance: there is a small collection of writers who gather in our "traditional" corner, and spend several hours writing.

For those who have, like myself, spent any significant time writing in a public space, there has arisen a new societal protocol: when refilling coffee, ordering food, or visiting the (ahem) "facilities", those who are working next to you -- even if you've never met before -- agree to "keep an eye" on each other's laptops.

Today, it turns out that the young woman at the next table -- as we took turns practicing the bathroom & laptop protocol -- is also a writer. We invited her to join our little fraternity. Now there are four of us.

There is only a bare minimum of conversation. We're here to write -- it is a writer's corner, after all. But during our brief interaction today, before silence and the furious tapping of laptops ensued, the topic of proof-readers and content editors came up. Naturally, all of us expressed a great deal of gratitude for the invaluable input that we've each received over the years.

The first reader of anything I've ever written, naturally, is my beautiful and talented wife, Wendy. She has offered many helpful insights, given me great encouragement, and challenged me where I needed it most. (And consistently provided me with incredible images for my book covers!)

There have been a bevy of others, as well, whose input, critique, push-back and encouragement have been treasured gifts to me as a writer.

Friends like Brent Toderash (the blogger formerly known as Brother Maynard), Luke Geraty from ThinkTheology, Jamie Wilson of Coast Vineyard, family members Keith & Charlotte (my parents), and my daughter Jordan (who doesn't blog often, but is a fantastic and funny storyteller in her own right) -- I know I've already thanked each of you in the books that you've helped me with.

But I just wanted, during our Thursday Writers' Corner, to publicly acknowledge each of you again, and recognize (for approximately the 1000th time) your invaluable input into my journey as an author.
It takes a village to raise a book. Thanks for being part of my village.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Missional 5: Gospel

There are two traps that await the overwhelming majority of Christians:
  1. A church full of the already-convinced, preaching a message designed for seekers who aren't there. (Joe Aldrich once called this "having a message but no audience" in Lifestyle Evangelism.)
  2. An "outside the four walls" ministry in our communities that does a lot of great serving, but for whatever reason, is unable to bridge that into sharing their faith. (What Aldrich called "having an audience but no message".)

If our desire is to be fully, functionally missional, neither of those options is open to us. We will have an audience, and we will have a message. If we are going have any integrity in our intent to be "on mission" with Jesus in the neighbourhood, the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) is part of the package.

Once again, I really appreciate the input of Pastor Mike from the Main & Plain on this:
  1. It's not about forcing "God-talk" on people in each and every conversation.
  2. It's living as "salt and light" (Matthew 5:13-16) as we build relationships and (as another New Yorker, George Mercado, used to say): "earn the right to be heard".
  3. To use another trendy term, it's being "intentional" as we live out the Kingdom by serving others. We are "on mission" with Jesus, and His mission was the Gospel of the Kingdom.
Some have suggested that having a desire to share the Gospel somehow taints our motives for being missional. Just serve and bless people without an evangelistic agenda, they say. I'd like to call Bull Cookies on that one. (Or see handy list of alternative euphemisms at right.)

Can you imagine suggesting that the miracles of Jesus were somehow devalued because of His teaching? "Y'know, Jesus, when You fed the five thousand, that was way cool. But then You started preaching, and that really cheapened the miracle."

His advisors would have face-palmed themselves into unconsciousness if they had visited Him in John 6, where Jesus got all theological with the crowd and the fruit of that decision was "many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him".

Would anyone like to seriously suggest that Peter's preaching after the events on the Day of Pentecost somehow cheapened the whole "tongues of fire" thing, or that the disciples shouldn't have shared the Message after any of the miracles that we read about throughout the book of Acts? They, like Jesus, were "on mission". So are we. Demonstration and proclamation of the Kingdom.
Missional becomes fully functional only when all five elements are in play: Lifestyle, Purpose, Engaging, Serving, and Gospel.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Missional 4: Serving

In previous posts in this "Missional Five" series, I have suggested that:

  1. "Being" is not superior to "doing", or vice versa. Doing the works of the Kingdom (being missional) should be part of the natural fruit of being in the Kingdom.
  2. Living with a missional purpose is meant to impact all areas of our lives, not just when we're "doing" stuff outside the four walls of our church or home group. 
Basically, there should be no "missional on/off switch" in our thinking. Being on mission with Jesus should -- as we grow and mature as Christians -- feel more and more like second new nature.

This latest video from Pastor Mike (anybody want to wager a guess about where he's from?) dove-tails with our church's recent series on the book of Philippians:
"In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:3-8)
I really appreciate the simplicity of Mike's phrase "being aware of others"; this is something we can only do if we're engaging in relationships with the people around us, both inside the church and out. We have to be connected in order to become aware. Aware of needs -- prayer needs and practical needs. Aware of opportunities to serve. Aware of the relationally good, bad, and ugly. We cannot rejoice or weep with others if we're not aware (Romans 12:15).

Being aware naturally leads to serving others. Indeed, it would rather hypocritical to do nothing once we've become aware of needs. 
"What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?" (James 2:14-16)
As we continue to pursue being missional as a lifestyle, having a sense of purpose (being "on mission" with Jesus), and engage in relationships, we will discover many real and practical ways of serving our communities -- in the church, the neighbourhood, and our towns/cities.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Missional 3: Engage

So far, we have described the idea of
"being missional" as both a lifestyle (not a program) and also having a sense of purpose in how we live in all areas of life (versus simply "being" as if that were more spiritual than "doing").

And we reminded ourselves that, as people "on mission" with Jesus, being missional is a function of the Kingdom of God.

Many Christians have found it very life-giving to get outside the four walls of the church and begin to serve their communities in practical ways. Works of service, coming along-side existing agencies like homeless shelters or a soup kitchen (among many others), cleaning up graffiti, community gardens -- the list could go on.

Serving the poor and marginalized is praise-worthy in and of itself. It's an important component of Kingdom ministry. When the apostle Paul laid out what he'd been preaching to the Gentiles, the other Jewish apostles were in complete agreement. "Their only suggestion was that we keep on helping the poor, which I have always been eager to do," says Paul (Galatians 2:9-10).

But it's not just about doing good deeds among "the least of these", as important as that is. Pastor Mike now adds another facet to this jewel we call "missional". 

Breaking out of "church mode" and becoming more involved in serving our communities is a big step, so let's give people who have stepped out of their comfort zones some credit. But we're only part-way to being fully missional.

If we do lots of great service projects, then we've succeeded at being a blessing. But if we never engage with the people as people (versus "ministry projects" or that nebulous generalization: "the poor"), then we still have a little further to go to become fully, functionally missional.

Perhaps the question that we need to wrestle with today is:
Do we engage in acts of service in hope of creating relationships? 
Or do we invest in relationships and be alert for opportunities to serve?