Ramadan

With Ramadan starting tomorrow, I’m remembering the many ways in which my Muslim friends have demonstrated the importance of charity and generosity.

Before we bought our house, R and I (and also K) lived for a few years in an apartment in Thorncliffe Park, which is a heavily populated and multicultural community in Toronto. The majority of our neighbours had recently arrived in Canada from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Given that the building’s residents were predominantly Muslim, Ramadan took on a particular significance for us each year while we lived there.

One of my favourite things about Ramadan was the importance of sharing with others. During our first year, we heard a knock at our door one evening and opened it to find a girl standing there with a plate of food. She handed it to us and then ran on back to her apartment. We later learned that sharing food like this was a common custom, and that we could repay the kindness by sharing some of our food (or even treats) when we returned their plate to them. After researching how to prepare food and desserts that would be halal, we started to share food from time to time with many of our neighbours. This then led to some deeper friendships and invitations to meals in their homes.

With all the misconceptions that often circulate about the Islamic faith, I’m grateful that I could witness firsthand the kindness and generosity of my Muslim neighbours. For all who may be celebrating Ramadan, I hope this is a wonderful opportunity for inner reflection and acts of charity.

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Accompaniment 

I just arrived at a hotel where R and I are staying the night before her first marathon. Since I forgot my computer at home, I’m typing out today’s post on my phone (and starting to regret my decision to blog every day for a year). 

Anyway, I’m reflecting on how proud I will be tomorrow as I witness R running just over 42 kilometres. A marathon is no easy feat, so completing this race will be a significant accomplishment which required many months of preparation. 

It’s a privilege to journey with others as they take on challenges or face adversity. Whether supporting a spouse, child, family member, co-worker, neighbour, or someone needing assistance in the community, it’s a humbling and precious experience to accompany people in the midst of their victories and losses and on the paths they take to get there. 

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Tawanda

Ten years ago, my wife, R, and I lived in Harare, Zimbabwe. During our two years there, the country faced considerable economic and political challenges. While we never suffered, we were not immune to the ongoing shortages of food, medical supplies, water and electricity. More significantly, we lived alongside Zimbabweans who faced these challenges without our privileged access to extra income or resources.

Tawanda was one of my favourite people in Zimbabwe. Although only four, he would often show up at our home to visit. He mostly spoke Shona, so spending time with him helped me to learn the language as we worked in the garden together or watched movies on my laptop. Tawanda means “we are many” in Shona, signifying that he was the fifth and youngest child in his family.

Soon after we arrived in Zimbabwe, Tawanda’s family invited us to their home for supper. While the offal (cow intestines) was a bit of a departure from our usual dinner fare, we appreciated the opportunity to spend time with the family. R kept scraping her offal onto my plate, which made her look like a doting wife instead of just a picky eater. Over the next two years, we developed a close relationship with this wonderful family.

When R was five months pregnant with K, our first child, we returned to Canada. It was not easy to leave our Zimbabwean friends, particularly as it was a difficult time in the country due to increasing political violence. During K’s birth, both he and his mother required emergency medical attention, so I’m grateful we were in Canada and had access to exceptional health care. K’s middle name is Tinashe, which means “God is with us” in Shona.

About a year after we’d moved back to Toronto, we received terrible news from Zimbabwe. Tawanda had woken up with stomach pains. Without easy and quick access to qualified medical professionals, Tawanda’s family could do little to help him. A few hours later, he passed away. Despite the shortness of his life, Tawanda had brought so much joy to his family and friends. For those of us who knew and loved him, we felt an immense emptiness in our hearts. A void not easily filled or understood.

While I cherish the many health benefits my family can access in Canada, I’m saddened that there are so many children in the world like Tawanda who die young, often for lack of access to basic medical attention or the resources to pay for it.

When B, our second child, was born six years ago, we gave him the middle name of Tawanda in honour of this gentle and joyful young Zimbabwean whom he will never meet but his parents will never forget.

Tawanda. We are many.

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The Violinist

The house directly across the street from us was recently renovated so that multiple rooms could be rented out to university students. The young person residing in one of the top-floor rooms is a violinist. I know this because the violinist enjoys practising in the evening with the window open.

I don’t think the violin is in tune.

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Space Portals

At work today I was called down to our reception area to speak with a man who wanted to talk with our CEO. I’d already met with him last week, so he wasn’t pleased to see me again. He desperately wants to partner with our organization and invest $500 Trillion into the creation of a portal that will allow for space travel from one dimension to the next. He said that he’s already discussed this project with Trudeau, Putin and Trump (and apparently set in motion their elections 1,500 years ago) and feels passionately about including us in this opportunity. I had to firmly but politely let him know that while we appreciate the invitation, it is not possible for us to enter into this partnership with him. He seemed confused and disappointed by my unwillingness to discuss his proposal further.

The man appeared to be well-dressed and fed, so his basic needs are likely being met, but I felt sad that I couldn’t provide more support with his mental health challenges. He wasn’t aggressive or disruptive with me, but he is making some staff uncomfortable and nervous with his frequent visits to our office. Hopefully there is someone else in his life better equipped to offer assistance and a listening ear. Part of me wants to be more generous with my time, but I also know I can’t encourage him to keep coming to our office to speak with people about space portals and magical formulas to create currency.

It’s easy to say that I want to be a kind, compassionate and patient person, but some relationships and interactions with others are more complicated than following simple platitudes. Even though I’m well into my 40’s, it’s still challenging at times to know what is the right thing to say or do in certain situations. I guess I’m still a work in progress.

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Status Anxiety

“What do you do?” When meeting someone for the first time, this is one of the first questions we usually ask. There’s a sense that once we discover what people do for a living, we will have a better idea of who they are and what value they offer to the world.

Living in a status-driven society, we also quickly determine—whether consciously or unconsciously—our station in relation to others. Are we more or less important? Who is in a position of authority? Are these people worthy of my respect and admiration?

Some of us may take this a step further and wonder—and perhaps worry—what others think of us. Do they acknowledge my importance? Do they view me as successful? Do they recognize my special skills or abilities?

It’s a sad reality that many people treat others according to how they perceive their level of status. As such, we have a vested interest in achieving excellence and power as this generally results in people treating us better.

When our happiness depends on how people perceive us (and possessing what they have), we become afflicted with what Alain de Botton refers to as “status anxiety.” In his book Status Anxiety, de Botton outlines five major causes that lead to this social disease (lovelessness, expectation, meritocracy, snobbery, dependence) and then offers five solutions, one of which is Christianity.

De Botton argues that the constant struggle to stand out in the crowd and be different usually only leads to bitterness, shame and depression. Christianity, on the other hand, has the opportunity to build community. “Being like everyone else is not, to follow Christian thought, any sort of calamity,” he writes, “for it was one of Jesus’ central claims that all human beings, including the slow-witted, the untalented and the obscure, are creatures of God and loved by him—and are hence deserving of the honour owed to every example of the Lord’s work.”

Despite what we hear from the judgmental rhetoric spewed by the religious right in America, Christians are called to look beyond their differences and discover what binds people together. Every person has vulnerabilities, every person has a desire for love, but it’s often difficult for us to view others in this way.

Jesus knew this. When the disciples, perhaps jostling among themselves for positions of authority, asked him, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” he responded by calling over a small child. “Truly I tell you,” said Jesus, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes a humble place—becoming like this child—is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4).

While it’s easy to dismiss or judge a stranger, it’s much harder to do so with a child. When we seek to treat others with the same kindness and compassion we’d naturally show to the young, we come closer to realizing God’s kingdom on earth.

“So it is that belonging is the place where we grow to maturity and discover what it means to be human and to act in a human way,” writes Jean Vanier in Becoming Human. “It is the place we need in order to live and to act in society in justice, in truth, without seeking power, privileges and honours for our own self-glory. It is the place where we learn to be humble but also audacious and to take initiatives in working with others.”

The practice of Christian fellowship—whether simply gathering in a home or worshipping in a church building—has the potential to tear down society’s value system. When our focus is on loving God and loving our neighbour, it matters little to us whether the person sitting next to us is a panhandler or a doctor. Nor are we worried about what the person sitting next to us thinks of our career choice or fashion sense.

In his opening thesis, de Botton suggests that “the hunger for status, like all appetites, can have its uses: spurring us to do justice to our talents, encouraging excellence, restraining us from harmful eccentricities and cementing members of a society around a common value system. But, like all appetites, its excesses can also kill.”

As someone still learning how to be humble, I do not wish to hunger for status or position. However, I do want to use my talents and abilities in ways that are meaningful and life-giving, not only for me but also for others. I suppose the simplest way to express this is that I want to feel useful and make a difference in the world without striving to be powerful or important.

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Totems

When I lived in Zimbabwe, people often asked me about my mutupo. In Shona culture, a mutupo, or totem, is an important symbol of identity within clans and communities. Each person is given the same totem as their father, which could be an animal such as the lion (shumba), elephant (nzou), zebra (mbizi) or monkey (soko), or even a body part such as the leg (gumbo) or heart (moyo). Early on I was adopted as a shumba, while my wife, Rochelle, became a soko murehwa. Yes, this means I married a monkey.

It is forbidden to eat of your totem, so a mhofu cannot eat of an eland, a ngwena of a crocodile, nor a bpepe of a lung. More importantly, you cannot marry within your own totem, which helps prevent intermarriage within tribal groups.

In Zimbabwe, it’s highly respectful and formal to address people by their totem. Once people knew that I was a shumba, this became the primary name used to address me. Rochelle, in turn, was referred to as Amai Shumba, or Mrs Lion.

My totem connected me with other shumba across the country. As I travelled around Zimbabwe, I met hundreds of new fathers and brothers who were my extended family. In addition, it felt as though I met thousands of fathers-in-law and mothers-in-law who I was connected to through my wife’s totem of soko murehwa. Why so many more in-laws? Well, if you had to get down on the ground and clap your hands for every ambuya (mother-in-law) who called you her mukwasha (son-in-law), you’d also think the numbers were significantly higher. Rochelle used to share an office with a woman who was also married to a tsoko, which made her one of my many ambuya. Every time I entered their office without knocking first I was reminded that I owed my ambuya a fine. There are so many rules for mukwasha to follow. Let’s just say that I still owe a lot of chickens for my many infractions. And let’s not discuss the many conversations about lebola (bride price or dowry).

There is something beautiful about the way in which totems connect people in Zimbabwe. The totems are also accompanied by praise names, such as shumba nyamuzihwa, and praise poems and songs, which help people to understand their history and origins.

However, there is also something troubling about how this can negatively impact abandoned babies who grow up without a familial totem and praise name. In a culture which generously encourages families to look after all of its members (even extended family), it is sadly not expected, and sometimes even superstitiously avoided, to look after those who do not belong to your family or who have no known connection to their ancestors. This lack of a totem can also impact a person’s ability to marry or to be buried appropriately. In a country with such a low life expectancy, and with so many orphans and vulnerable children, this is a concern that can’t be ignored, particularly when it puts marginalized people at even more risk of isolation.

But when I think to my first culture here in Canada, with our western notion of closed and small family groupings, I still prefer the wider sense of community and familiarity found in Shona culture. I miss travelling through Zimbabwe to new communities with the expectation that I will be closely connected with others living there, despite knowing that I will likely need to get down on my knees and clap for my countless ambuya.

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