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Battle for the Tortured Soul of Russia

Enjoy this Light Magazine article and feel free to repost. Praying for the soul of Russia.

Leo Tolstoy’s battle for the tortured soul of Russia

By Rev. Dr. Ed & Janice Hird

After publishing his wildly successful War and Peace in 1865, Tolstoy thought of writing a novel on Peter the Great. So, he began learning ancient Greek.

Tolstoy called the time of terrible uncertainty between writing projects “the dead time.”  His self-doubt perhaps meant that he would never write anything again. He was plagued by fears that he himself was finished as a writer. “It was all over for him; it was time for him to die.”

Two years after finishing War and Peace, he still felt so depressed that he privately told a friend that he had no will to live, and had never felt so miserable in all his life. It would be three years before Tolstoy started Anna Karenina, a novel in which both key characters Anna Karenina and Konstantin Levin struggled with great self-doubt about their relationships and even life itself. It seems that many of Tolstoy’s more painful emotions were projected onto Anna Karenina.

Perhaps more than any other, Anna Karenina is Tolstoy’s novel that readers consistently say they cannot stop reading. If you are still mystified to why Russia recently invaded Ukraine, read Anna Karenina.  The intense humanity of Tolstoy’s complex characters allows us to read it again and again with new insights about the Russian soul. Many consider Anna Karenina to be the best novel ever written. Over 300,000,000 people have purchased it so far. You could be next. Tolstoy saw it as his first novel, as he refused to call his earlier War & Peace a novel. 

Why did Tolstoy write such an intense novel about adultery?  Biblically speaking, adultery is often a metaphor for spiritual idolatry.  As Romans 1 puts it, we are tempted to abandon ourselves to the twin temptations of adultery and idolatry. 

How was Tolstoy able to write so vividly and realistic about adultery and idolatry?  Because like the Apostle Paul, he considered himself to be the chief of sinners. In his 1882 book Confessional, he commented:

I cannot recall those years without horror, loathing, and heart-rending pain. I killed people in war, challenged men to duels with the purpose of killing them, and lost at cards; I squandered the fruits of the peasants’ toil and then had them executed; I was a fornicator and a cheat. Lying, stealing, promiscuity of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder – there was not a crime I did not commit… Thus, I lived for ten years.” 

His mother died when Tolstoy was two year’s old.  Raised as an aristocratic orphan, he came into massive wealth and landholdings at age 19. His wild gambling debts in the military forced him to sell off villages that he owned, before he finally lost his principal house itself.  Similarly, Levin, the hero of the Anna Karenina novel, struggled with gambling temptations before getting married and settling down. Many of the Russian aristocracy in the 1800s were renowned for massive gambling debts in the military, while simultaneously despising money itself.  Is the reckless Russian invasion of the Ukraine an expression of this same gambling addiction? 

Like many in the Russian aristocracy, Tolstoy was trained to see hunting and warfare as vital to masculine courage and bravery.  Many of Tolstoy’s books, including Anna Karenina, give a seldom-seen, up-close view of the battlefield.  He was the first newspaper war correspondent. Tolstoy no more glorified warfare than John Newton glorified slavery.  Both Tolstoy and Newton, however, because of their first-hand experience, were able to give a first-hand critique of what was really happening in their time. Both helped turn many others to peace and reconciliation. 

Tolstoy defined his essential family trait by the Russian word dikost which means wildness, shyness, originality and independence in thinking, much like the quintessential Russian bear.  Not even the autocratic Tzar himself could tame Tolstoy.  In his novels, Tolstoy could get away with saying things that would immediately exile other Russians to Siberia.  He was so uncontrollable, almost like John the Baptist, so that even the top officials feared to criticize him publicly. 

One of Tolstoy’s more scandalous behaviours was that he wrote his novels in the Russian language, rather than using  any of the twelve other languages he knew.  The accepted language of communication for the Russian aristocracy was French, which their serfs could not understand.  Because the Russian literary language had been created specifically to translate the bible, the Russian Orthodox Church saw it as blasphemous to degrade the holy Russian language in the writing of ‘heathen’ folktales or novels.  The Anna Karenina novel scandalized many religious officials by its thoughtful critique of religious hypocrisy and judgementalism, and its rejection of violence.  He became a pacifist after fighting in the Crimea. 

Tolstoy chose Romans 12: 19 “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will repay” as an epigraph to Anna Karenina. Many people in life, even as Christians, are tempted to take revenge when they have been hurt.  Just think of all the trauma that the Ukrainian people have been through recently.  How could they ever forgive the Russians? Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina, shows us again and again how tempting revenge is, yet how unsatisfying it is to the soul.  Kitty had to give up her desire for revenge regarding Anna & Vronsky before she could be well again and marry Levin.  Similarly, Levin had to forgive Kitty for initially rejecting his marriage proposal, before he could give her a second chance.  It is only when we trust that God alone will bring justice and fairness that we lose the need to even the score. Could God make a way where there is no way in the current mess between Russia and Ukraine?

Reading Anna Karenina reminds us of Isaiah 5:20 where it warns against calling evil good and good evil, putting darkness for light and light for darkness, bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Though Anna is initially used to save Dolly and Stepan Oblonsky’s marriage from his affair, everything following become a twisted web of deceit and half-truths. Again, it reminds us of Jeremiah 17:9 “our hearts are deceitful and desperately wicked; who can understand them?”  Self-deception, which so many fell into, is the worst form of deception.  Often our eyes and ears are closed shut, and we refuse to hear and see. We often deceive ourselves that we know better than God himself and His Word. 

Anna was described as being clad in an impenetrable armour of falsehood.  Deception ultimately kills relationships, as it did with Anna and Count Vronsky.  Romans 3:23 has never stopped being true; the wages of sin and self-deception are still death.  Tolstoy symbolizes this at both the beginning and ending of the novel, where the railway station is the place not only of progress, but also of death.  Progress, for its own sake, only turns us into unfeeling machines.

By contrast, the joy of Levin and Kitty’s marriage was that it became a relationship without guile or deceit. They held back no secrets on each other. They were who they were, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health.  As a result, they went from being tortured souls to becoming healthy souls.  What might it take for tortured Russia to rediscover the deeply Christ-like, profoundly human souls of Levin and Kitty?  Lord, have mercy on Russia and their neighbours, in Jesus’ name. Amen.


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Growing in Fruitfulness

This article, which was recently published in the Light Magazine print version, just came out in the online magazine. You are invited to read and repost this to others. What if you chose to never retire from making a difference in other people’s lives?


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Finishing Well, Growing in Fruitfulness

An article published in the October 2022 Light Magazine

By Rev. Dr. Ed & Janice Hird

C.S. Lewis memorably commented, “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” God wants each of us to finish well, not peter out.

As we age, self-surrender to God and his Kingdom purposes is always the way forward.  If there is breath in their lungs, God still has something for his servants to do. We are never to stop serving others until the Lord takes us home. Never stop learning, reading and listening.  Do you still have fire in your bones to make a difference? Would you like to get your fire, your zest for living, back?

Ed has taken many funerals over the past decades of ordained ministry.  When we hear the funeral eulogies from family members, it often makes us wish that we had known the deceased better.  Many people often wait until the loved one is dead to say how much they loved him.  We often wonder: “Why wait?’  Part of finishing well is having a faithful team cheer as you aim for the finish line.

One of Ed’s favorite mentors, Dr. E. Stanley Jones, entered his 50’s by deciding that it would be the most fruitful decade of his life, and it was.  When he became age 60, age 70, and then age 80, he decided the decade was once again the best, and it was.  While he was officially ‘retired’ by the Methodist Board of Missions in 1954, he went on to have a remarkable fruitful phase of ministry for almost two more decades. In 1963, for instance, he preached 736 times. Jones deeply lived out Psalm 92:14: “They still shall bring forth fruit to old age, they are ever full of sap and green.”

E. Stanley Jones reminds people in his 28 books that there is no such thing as retirement from a biblical perspective.  Retreading, recycling, repositioning, yes.  But we can never retire from being fruitful in life and making a lasting difference. “Never retire”, said Jones, “change your work. The human personality is made for creation; and when it ceases to create, it creaks, and cracks, and crashes.”Creativity is at the heart of staying fully alive.Without growing in creativity, we shrink and become less human, less Christlike. 

Secular retirement is often sold to people as getting something that they deserve.  This is their time to focus on themselves first.  E. Stanley Jones commented that 

Those who come in ‘to enjoy themselves’ the balance of their days wither prematurely and become inane and empty…Where there is no creative purpose, there is nothing but the creation of frustration.  

When Ed left St. Simon’s North Vancouver after serving for 31 years, he intentionally did not have a retirement party, but rather a ‘new chapter of ministry’ party.  In our current culture, we don’t often do transitions well. What new chapter are you currently writing in the book of your life? Are you stuck in any way? Is it time to turn the page? Paul says, I have fought the fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Paul did that till the end.  

A number of pastors when they get older don’t finish well.  They may become grumpy, critical, and negative.  With aging, we have our aches and pains, and we have to work harder at being positive. When you’re older, it is easier to be negative, to be a no-centered person. E. Stanley Jones said that we are not as old as our arteries, but rather as our attitudes.  Are you growing in becoming a more positive, thankful person?

Dr. Martin Gumpert in his book You are Younger than You Think says that ‘idleness is the greatest enemy of the aged and presents them with their ticket to death.’ When the retirement age of 65 was invented by the USA in the 1930s, the average manonly lived 18 months after retirement.  It was too much of a shock to their system in ceasingproductive activity.  The AA Big Book comments that many people never become alcoholic until they retire.  They say to themselves “I’ve worked hard all my life.  Now I will do what I want to do with my life.” In contrast, those, who seek first Christ’s Kingdom, say no to idleness and addiction. 

As we age, it is too easy to succumb nostalgia, resenting newer expressions.  Are you still passionate about God’s future revivals?  Many people involved in an earlier revival resist a newer revival because it doesn’t look like the older revival. That is tragic. What we admire about Bill Prankard,even though he’s a classic, old-school Pentecostal, is that he’s aged well. John Arnott invited Bill Prankard to speak at the Toronto Airport Fellowship/Catch the Fire.  Bill initially refused, saying that he was too old-school Pentecostal. John pushed back, saying that we need your healing anointing. You can see that their friendship was a win-win. Those who say no to nostalgia are those who can say yes to the next revival.  

A key verse that can help us finish well is “He who has begun the good work in you will carry it onuntil the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil 1:6) We need to never settle down, never get stuck in a rut, never give up on life. E. Stanley Jones commented: “We don’t grow old.  We get older by not growing.” Are you growing older gracefully? Are you still growingin creativity?  As Christians, we grow from the inside out.  God cares about producing true beauty of character. It is a good work that God has begun in us, and will continue to carry out until he takes us home. There is no retirement from growing in Christ in the Christian life.

Winston Churchill, when he turned 77, commented, “We are happier in many ways when we grow old than when we were young. The young men sow wild oats. The old grow sage.” In a study of four hundred outstanding people as reported by Sunshine Magazine, they discovered that people in their sixties accomplish 35% of the world’s greatest achievements, people in their seventies 23%, and people after age eighty produced 8 percent. This means that 64% of the greatest achievements have be done by people age sixty and over. Think of Michaelangelo who was writing poetry and designing buildings up to the time of his death at ninety. 

Finishing well is about growing daily in gratitude. E. Stanley Jones said:

To grow old, not only gracefully, but gratefully, is the Christian’s privilege.  For the Christian is not to bear old age but to use it.  Is there any more utterly beautiful than a face, now grown old, but chiseled into tenderness and sympathy and experience?

There is a beauty of holiness into which we can all grow in Christ.  Think of Mother Theresa as she poured out her life sacrificially for the least, the last and the lost.  Her gray hair truly was a crown of splendor. (Proverbs 16:31) Those who finish well live for others.  Is it all about you, and getting your way, or do others come first? Those who live for others grow perpetually young in spirit.  As Psalm 103:5 puts it, he renews our youth like an eagle.  They that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength, mounting up with wings like eagles. (Psalm 40:31)

 

Every season of our lives has beautiful possibilities for fruitfulness. Think of Revelation 22:2 where it describes the tree of life having unique fruit for each month.  Don’t fight the current season that you are in. Embrace it and use it for God’s glory. Your current season of life is full of adventure if you have eyes to see it. May the Lord give us the courage and strength to bring forth lasting fruit even into our older age.  Everyone can finish well.

Rev. Dr. Ed & Janice Hird

Co-authors of God’s Firestarters

 

 


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Robert Dollar

Click our Light Magazine article to check out Dollar’s remarkable global impact
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To receive a personally signed copy of any of our books within North America, just etransfer at ed_hird@telus.net, giving your address. Cheques are also acceptable.


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Jim & Dawn Sawatsky in the Congo

Click to read our Light Magazine article on Jim and Dawn Sawatsky.
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To receive a personally signed copy of any of our books within North America, just etransfer at ed_hird@telus.net, giving your address. Cheques are also acceptable.


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Dr James Naismith

Click to view our Light Magazine article on Dr. James Naismith, founder of basketball
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To receive a personally signed copy of any of our books within North America, just etransfer at ed_hird@telus.net, giving your address. Cheques are also acceptable.


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Chief Joseph Brant: Indigenous Missionary who Rescued Canada – Engage

Chief Joseph Brant: Indigenous Missionary who Rescued Canada – Engage
— Click to read our Light Magazine article on Chief Joseph Brant

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To receive a personally signed copy of any of our books within North America, just etransfer at ed_hird@telus.net, giving your address. Cheques are also acceptable.


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Louis Riel and Nicholas Flood Davin: Complicated Canadian pioneers

Louis Riel and Nicholas Flood Davin: Complicated Canadian

Click to read our Light Magazine article on Louis Riel and Nicholas Flood Davin

To purchase any of our six books in paperback or ebook on Amazon, just click on this link.

To receive a personally signed copy of any of our books within North America, just etransfer at ed_hird@telus.net, giving your address. Cheques are also acceptable.