Nils von Kalm

My take on faith, life and how it all might fit together

How I got through a stressful week

I had a difficult week last week. It was one of the more stressful weeks I’ve had in a long time. But I got through it because of the support of good friends.

Humanity is not meant to live alone. But you wouldn’t know that from living in our culture where the so-called freedom of the individual is thought to be more important than the collective good.

There were two events during the week that brought that home for me. One was the Federal Budget, with its annual bribe of tax cuts and “what’s in it for me?” items. On one of the news sites the next day, there was a very long, thoughtfully set-out article on how the budget would affect you. In that long article there was nothing whatsoever about the annual decrease in our overseas aid budget. The overseas poor don’t vote, so they don’t count to many of our politicians when budget time comes around. And most of the media obligingly spreads their mantra.

As Josh Dowton said so well, the dominant narrative of tax cuts reflects a culture of individualism over the greater good.

The other thing that happened during the week was a talk I attended by a guy called Johann Hari on the human need for connection and relationship.

This guy, a self-declared atheist, is a secular prophet. Don’t let anyone tell you that non-Christians can’t speak God’s truth. All people are made in the image of God, so who are we to say that God wouldn’t speak through someone who doesn’t believe?

Here’s some of what Hari said in his talk:

– Only one other country in the world takes more anti-depressants than Australia. That’s Iceland. Every year for the last 40 years the rate of depression has increased.
– The Amish have very low levels of depression.
– Seven of the nine known causes of depression are not biological. The causes are in the way we’re living.
– Depression is not caused by low serotonin. Anti-depressants are not useless but they don’t solve the problem.
– We need belonging, meaning, a future that makes sense. Our culture is getting less and less good at meeting these needs.
– We are the loneliest culture that has ever lived. We are the first humans ever to try to disband our tribes, to try to live alone.
– In our culture we are all homeless. Home is when people notice you’re not there. Too many of us are lonely. Home is not your four walls.
– Our epidemic of depression, anxiety and addiction are signals that are telling us that something is wrong in our culture.
– We have an individualistic belief about what it is to be happy, whereas other cultures have a collective view of what it is to be happy. In an experiment done in the US, Russia, China and Japan, they asked people that if they tried to be happy for two hours a day, what would they do. In the US, people did something for themselves, while in the other three countries they instinctually did something for someone else. The people in the US were the only ones for whom the people didn’t become happy in the experiment.
– In the UK, the average child spends less time outside than maximum security prisoners, who have to spend 70 minutes a day outside.

Johann Hari might not realise it, but he was echoing the sentiments of Jesus 2,000 years ago. What does it profit you if you gain the whole world but lose your very self? Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. And in response to the Good Samaritan who was a neighbour to the one in need, we are told to go and do likewise.

At church each week, we say grace before lunch by going around the group and each of us saying what we’re thankful for. Today I said I’m thankful for the support of friends.

We were never meant to do life alone. We simply cannot live without each other. I’m thankful for the people who’ve had my back this week. The ones who said I could call them anytime if I wanted to chat, who showed their care for me, who gave me sensible and wise guidance, who asked me what support I was getting. It’s that care and concern that gave me what I need this week, not being bribed with another tax cut.

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Why seeking justice is central to the gospel

“Seeking justice has been of central importance to millions of Christians throughout history. One of them was Charles Finney, inventor of the altar call.

What many people don’t realise is that when Finney called people up the front to give their lives to Christ, he also made it compulsory for them to commit themselves to the anti-slavery cause. For Finney, being Christian and seeking justice were inseparable.”

The above is taken from my latest article. For many of you, the article will be biblical justice 101, but we all still need reminding at times…

Why seeking justice is central to the Gospel

Back in the 1970s, the founder of the Sojourners community in the US, Jim Wallis, and a friend, decided to conduct an experiment. They wanted to find out what the Bible said about poverty and injustice. So they took a Bible, and a pair of scissors, and proceeded to literally cut out all the verses …

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Loving yourself by loving others

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Disarmed at church

Two things hit me at church recently.

There’s something about the solemnity of remembering the gospel as we gather on a Sunday morning.

I was feeling distant from God yesterday morning, sort of self-sufficient and off with my ego. But as we sang, prayed and listened to Scripture, I remembered again how I am constantly touched by grace; I am given what I haven’t worked for. I am given it purely as a gift and nothing else. The Christian message continues to touch me in the deepest of places like nothing else does. I need constant reminding and I am constantly reminded. I am never cast adrift for forgetting once too often. God never gives up on me.

The other thing that got me again was one of the Lectionary readings. It was from the first letter of John. In the church I grew up in, the number one favourite verse, the one that everyone could recite any time, was John 3:16 – For God so loved the world…

But I was never taught to remember the same chapter and verse from John’s first letter like I was that from John’s gospel. Millions of evangelicals can quote John 3:16 by heart, but how many of us can quote 1 John 3:16 and the couple of verses after that? I wonder if we were never taught them because they are too confronting to our comfortable, middle-class, Western, consumer-oriented church ears, and they talk a bit too much about caring for the poor, which, after all, is an aside from the real gospel if you believe what I was taught and what many Christians are still taught.

Here’s what 1 John 3:16-18 says:

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”

Giving materially to our brothers and sisters in need is as much the gospel as anything else. And it’s right there in the Bible.

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Paul, Apostle of Christ

Paul, Apostle of Christ | Now Playing In Theaters

Paul, who goes from the most infamous persecutor of Christians to Christ’s most influential apostle, spends his last days awaiting execution by Emperor Nero in Rome.

I went and saw the movie, “Paul, Apostle of Christ” recently. I thought it was excellent. The friend I was with said it gave inspiration to want to go back to read the Book of Acts. It did for me too.

What grabbed me most about it was the absolute faithfulness of the early Christians in the face of death every day. No wonder they changed their world, despite their flaws and the mistakes they made.

The movie followed closely to what we know of early Christian history, both from the New Testament and from other historical sources of the time. These Christians constantly thought of others even though their own life situations were fraught with peril. They were steadfastly selfless. They took in the poor and the sick just out of obedience to Christ. They were healthily obsessed with following their Master come what may. Nothing else mattered.

I need movies like this to remind me that my own struggles, though real, can be used to lead me to care for others and not worry or fear for myself. There is a scene towards the end of the movie where one of the Christians exhorts a younger Christian to not be afraid. We hear that phrase, “do not be afraid”, right through Scripture. We see it so much that we can lose its impact. But to these people who faced death every day in the face of a brutal Roman Empire that literally used them as human torch lights, burning them alive for the entertainment of others, and threw them to wild animals for the crowds, the words “do not be afraid” had meaning that went straight to the heart. They had unbelievable courage, they stood tall, unflinching, considering it a joy to suffer and die for their Lord. Wow! Could I do that?

Movies like this make me lament how comfortable I am, that too often I am way too concerned for my own petty self-protection than I am for following Christ in full surrender and submission. We get sucked into the mantra of looking after ourselves first and foremost, and in the process we lose what it is to live for Christ.

This movie showed that the early Christians were determined that literally nothing would stop them from preaching Christ. And that included taking in the stranger and the discarded that the rest of society considered worthless. They weren’t just preachers and they weren’t just on about social justice. They were all about Jesus. It was all one. It was their love for God, lived out in love for neighbour and enemy, that set them apart and eventually brought the collapse of the greatest empire ever known. Who would have thought it?

The lives of courageous love, commitment to non-violence and refusal to submit to any other king was the making of the Christian movement. This movie inspired me.

In a time when the church talks so much BS about “believing for success” and blessing theology, where it’s all about us, this movie showed that following Christ is done in suffering and brings suffering. It’s in the fire that genuine Christlikeness is forged.

There are not many Christian movies I have seen which are not cringe-worthy, but this one showed me the Spirit that filled Paul and those early Christians. I want that Spirit too.

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An unexpected humbling

THIS LIFE: AN UNEXPECTED HUMBLING

I recently attended the SURRENDER conference at Belgrave Heights Convention Centre. In its own words, SURRENDER “exists to raise up Christians to live the radical call of Jesus and follow him to the least, the last and the lost”. It is about learning how we can be better disciples who work with Jesus to transform his world.

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Your history doesn’t have to be your destiny

SIGHT-SEEING: “YOUR HISTORY DOESN’T HAVE TO BE YOUR DESTINY”

“Cometh the hour, cometh the man”, the saying goes (of course it applies equally to women, but this is just a literal requoting). It refers to those who come through when they are needed most.

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Are people evil?

Recently I watched the movie, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. If you haven’t seen it, it’s not a movie with a happy ending. That’s the whole point of it; it left me just staring into space, shaking my head at the horror of our inhumanity towards each other.

I’ve thought a lot over the years about the sickness of humanity and what it means for us. I was reading in Jeremiah just this morning where it says that the human heart is deceitful above all things.

What does it mean to be sinful? Are there people who are actually evil? Or are we all just broken people who have forgotten what we all really want? Was even Hitler, with all his deplorable actions which can only be described as evil, was he actually evil? Or was there something even in a madman like him that wanted redemption? Was there something forgotten somewhere in his heart of hearts that had the capacity to respond to love?

Millions would of course say that, no, there was nothing redeemable in the heart of such a monster. And if you are of Jewish descent, to even raise the question of whether Hitler could have been redeemed would probably be insulting.

But then I look at my own depravity. I have done some terribly hurtful and selfish things in my life, but I believe that even I am not beyond redemption. So where do we draw the line? Where do we say that one person’s depravity is redeemable but another’s isn’t? If I was living in Germany in the 1930s, would I, like millions of my countrymen, have blindly followed a despot into justifying the attempted extermination of an entire race of people? Would I, a Christian, have aligned myself with the German Christians movement and turned a blind eye to the satanic policies of German nationalism and openly supported them?

The human heart is indeed deceitful above all things, and when I want to make a judgment, I must always point the finger at myself before I point it at others.

I certainly believe there is evil in the world. There is a level of evil that exists that political policy can never remedy. Whatever social programs are instituted for the benefit of the poor in society, the human heart still needs changing.

This was brought to the fore during the Global Financial Crisis a decade ago. The banks were bailed out in some countries, and checks could have been put in place to regulate the unfettered market capitalism that caused the crisis. But the same thing will happen again one day unless the hearts of people are changed. The human heart is too sick to change on its own. It needs outside help.

I see evil as a sickness that pervades every one of us. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, the line dividing good and evil doesn’t run through nation-states; it runs through every human heart.

The recent furore over comments made by our Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, exemplifies this. Dutton’s comments cannot be explained in any other way than that they were racist. But is Dutton an evil individual? I would say no. His words were insensitive and insulting and undiplomatic, and putting what he said in place would be evil, but they would not define Dutton as an evil person.

Humanity has the capacity for both the most despicable evil and the most selfless altruism. The problem with evil is that it not only dehumanises those we commit evil against; it also dehumanises the perpetrator. As I watched ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’, that thought struck me. A brilliantly acted movie, the hatred and stiffness in the faces of the Nazis as they brutalised Jews just because they were Jews, was a contrast to the loving innocence of a little German boy who just wanted to be friends with a little Jewish boy. Inhumanity in intelligent adults contrasted with humanity in little children.

Hatred is rooted in fear, and it hardens the human heart. Hatred makes us less human. Love, on the other hand, softens us and makes us more human, more able to feel, to respond with passion and energy to life. Love makes us happier.

In a few weeks the world will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passing of Martin Luther King. Like many preachers of love, King was cut down by the forces of hate, but the message he preached will never be cut down, because it is a message that comes from a higher place, from a place that hate can never penetrate. Though it wins victories now, hate’s war on love is lost. This was the message that King preached throughout his short life.

Though we all possess evil within us, and we too often succumb to it and hurt each other, love has already won the war. It won the war when Jesus defeated evil once and for all on the cross and in his defeat of death through rising from it.

Evil is real, but it doesn’t have the final say. While evil is in the world, we grieve and mourn and cry, but we don’t lose hope, because evil’s days are numbered. No one is beyond redemption; no one is so evil that they can’t be changed. If that was the case, then evil would be stronger than love. But it isn’t.

When I shake my head at the horror of the Holocaust, or the racism of our Home Affairs Minister, I am forced to look first at myself. There is evil in my heart, and it needs changing and renewal just as much as Peter Dutton’s. God help us all to be more human, just like you.

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Wisdom

I’m so thankful to have people in my life who I can learn from. Here are some things I’ve learnt about life in my 48 years:

– Wisdom is not knowledge. I think I know a fair bit about life, but I have a heck of a long way to go before I am wise. Knowledge puffs up; love builds up.

– Surrender your ego. Accept the paradox that we get happiness by not looking for it. We live by dying to ourselves. Trying to fill your life with externals will never give you what you are looking for. Never.

– I am not God. That sounds like the bleeding obvious but I need reminding of it a heck of a lot.

– Life is not about me.

– Let go of your resentments quickly. You will feel a lot more relaxed. Pray for people you resent.

– Surrender your right to have life go your way. Learn to live life on life’s terms. Write out the Serenity Prayer and put it up somewhere so you can be reminded of it regularly.

– Be humble; don’t be arrogant or proud. You’ll be much more at peace. Humility is the acceptance of reality.

– Always look to see how you can love others. Be outward looking. Pray for an attitude of service. A prayer like that will always be answered in the affirmative.

– Love others. Just do it. It will make you happy. Even more than that, it will give you joy, which is deeper than happiness.

– Go to AA meetings every now and then. Let their humility break you. It’s the broken ones in recovery who have the most to teach us about life.

– Wisdom about life is always gained through suffering. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it when it comes, because it will come.

– Ask God to break your heart. It’s a scary-as-hell prayer, but when your heart is broken, you will become more loving.

– Take calculated risks. Do what you don’t want to do. Don’t just follow your feelings. Do what is right.

– Meditate for 20 minutes every day. In our 24/7 connected culture, we need meditative people more than ever.

– Read Proverbs 4 and ask God to help you become like that.

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The pleasure of just staring out the window

Electronic devices, shops, lights, noise.

Sometimes you just want to get away from it all. But here I am right in the middle of it. By choice. I’m sitting in Auckland airport waiting for my flight to LA to visit my brother and his family.

I’ve been on my computer for the last hour, oblivious to the sights and sounds around me. But now I just want a break, so I have some dinner with the phone put away, and I stare out the window. Straight away I feel a bit more relaxed.

Why didn’t I do this earlier? The pleasure of just staring out the window, looking at the cloud formation as the sun sets over this land of the long white cloud.

Research shows the benefits to the psyche of just being out in nature, being present instead of bound by the thieves of time. Being in the moment instead of wanting to be anywhere else except where you are.

Other research shows the damage that too much screen time does to us. The loneliness, the anxiety and the depression – the disconnection that ironically comes from being too connected.

The recent shooting in America has links to mental illness. The shooter had a history of depression and behavioural problems. It wasn’t just about guns. It was guns and mental illness. You don’t just go and shoot people if you don’t have a serious psychological issue. And then the easy access to guns just exacerbates the problem.

We could all do with some regular time just daydreaming. It has enormous benefits, and not just for your mental health. I recall a story of a new CEO of a large organisation who was being shown around. He walked past one office where a man was seated at his desk with his feet up just looking out the window. When the new CEO walked past again a few days later, there was the man again, feet up and looking out the window. The CEO asked one of his executives if that guy in there ever does any work. He was quickly told that this guy was paid to do what he does and it was his ideas that had the made the company so successful.

One of the most inspirational talks I ever heard was about the fact that history belongs to the dreamers. In a few days I will be in Washington where, 55 years ago, one man’s dream inspired a nation to take steps to get serious about justice for its African American people.

Take some regular time to stare out the window. We need more dreamers; they are the ones who change the world.

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