Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Month: October, 2011

It’s Quiet … Too Quiet

     I’ve heard preachers claim that noise is the music of hell. Have you heard that before? Silly, eh?

     I used to try writing in the library. I went nearly every day for a month. I think I managed a couple hundred words a day. A pittance. Good enough to keep the dream alive but not enough to give it breath.

     The problem with writing in a library is that it’s too quiet. And when it’s too quiet, it gets really loud. I can hear the gentle tinkling of the air conditioner. Down on the other side of the library two people are having a conversation in hushed whispers that I can hear perfectly. The employees are gently putting books on the shelf. And they’re all so damned quiet that the noise is overwhelming.

     One of my favorite places to write is the mall food court. There is not a drop of quietness to be found.

     Teens yelling and goofing off at the table next to me. Janitors cleaning up spills and emptying garbage bins. The loud smells of food and coffee dancing throughout the place. Always movement. Always life. Always noise.

     When everyone is special, no one is. When everyone is quiet, no one is. And when everything is loud and chaotic, in truth it is peace and quiet of a purity that is hard to manufacture.

     When there is noise and movement all around you, it’s easy to sink into that special place where all the good things flow. But when everyone around you is trying to be quiet, then the tiniest change in the artificial stasis is jarring.

     Don’t seek for peace and quiet. It only exists in places where there is no life. And don’t dare try to create art in a place where there is no life. Noise is a gift, not a curse. Embrace it. Love it. It charges your art and soothes your psyche if you let it. And if you’re writing at home and your wife and kids are trying their best to create an environment of peace and quietness, tell them to watch a loud movie and listen to music and wrestle in the next room. It’ll make your process that much better.

Steve Jobs on Death

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

New Testament Gathering Principles

    Dr. Zaius, you silly orangutan.

Three monkeys

     I preach sometimes. I grew up in a nifty restorationist denomination that was formed in an attempt to get back to ‘New Testament Gathering Principles’. The founders figured that the organized church had drifted pretty far from the pattern of being Christ’s body that he had originally laid down. Sounds good, eh?

     I decided to preach on New Testament gathering principles last week. If you drop by in one of the churches from my denomination there’s a chance you’ll hear a sermon with this title. It’s pretty popular. I can’t count how many of them I heard growing up. Usually they’re about how we need to say ‘assembly’ instead of ‘church’ or how women aren’t allowed to talk or lead or go around without doilies on their head. I wanted to get a bit closer to the core in my sermon, though. Here’s some gathering principles I shared:

  • Famous for Love – John 13:34-35; 15:12. A quick Google search shows that the top four adjectives for describing evangelicals are ‘Insane,’ ‘Crazy,’ ‘Dangerous,’ and ‘Scary.’ Jesus said that people would know we were with him if we were famous for love.
  • Devoted to the Apostle’s Teaching – Acts 2:42. What did they teach? The same stuff that Jesus taught. Love. More love. Lots of love. The kind of love that leads you to die for strangers and enemies. Devoted to that.
  • Community – Acts 2:44-46; 4:32. No, not the wildly funny TV show. Living with such a sense of unity that we share everything we have. No private property. Like having a wildly big family. Most churches are clubs that meet on Sunday. The pattern was a community of people who lived and loved together all the time.
  • Productive, Risky Social Action – Acts 4:34. People quote Jesus in saying that the poor will always be with us as an excuse not to help eliminate poverty. It’s a good thing Jesus is still alive, otherwise I think he’d be turning over in his grave to hear such talk. The first followers eliminated poverty amongst their circles. It was risky, but it worked. Good pattern.
  • Making Disciples – Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:47. Not converts. Jesus never tried to get the Samaritan woman to convert to Judaism. His call was never convert. It was follow. Repent. Walk. Move. He didn’t come so that our theological statements could be more logically consistent than a Muslim’s. He came to reproduce.

     My people left the Anglican church because their leaders were more concerned with robes and ceremonies than they were with the things that Jesus said. I hope that we can always be moving in a restorationist direction, or else we’ll find ourselves, like Dr. Zaius, pushing truth away because it comes in a different box than we’re used to

Writing in Coffee Shops

     My brother showed me that after he caught me writing in a coffee shop.

     Thankfully, when I write in tea stores and coffee shops, I don’t do it to be watched. I do it to create a place where I can feel alone, isolated and nurtured with a hot drink.

     But art sometimes has that showy temptation to it. That shadowy urge to front and say ‘Yeah, I’m creative and making things that few mortals can make. I’m kind of a superhero that way. No big.’

     We need to ask ourselves an important question. Do we love being called ‘artist’? Do we love the attention we receive because of our product? Do we love the good reviews and the accolades and the recognition and all the other perks that come from making good art?

     Or do we love the creation itself?

     One of those loves is mercenary. The other is born of Imago Dei. One moves us toward becoming celebrities. The other moves us toward becoming creators.

Ernst Fischer on Art

“In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.”

Ernst Fischer, 1899-1972

Guest Post: Experiences in Pakistani Prison


I’ve been quiet about the situation with Nate and Hillary since they got out of prison. I wanted to give them a chance to organize their own thoughts and share their story in their own way. So, for you lovely people who were thinking and praying and mobilizing for them, here is the official update from the Barnetts.

     First off we want to say thank you… I am not sure if words can even begin to express fully just how thankful Nate and I are for our incredible family and friends!! We were so amazed when we arrived home and saw just how much was done on our behalf!

     I guess the best way to start is at the beginning :)

     Nate and I really enjoyed our time in Karachi. We loved being able to see what some organizations were doing with regards to health and helping orphans (two things that are still so important to us!) But most importantly we really enjoyed getting to know some great friends! Though there are many issues in Karachi, and Pakistan on a whole, we loved being able to meet and get to know great people that loved their country and wanted to see it change for the good.

     We knew our visas were going to expire while we were in Pakistan. Nate went to the visa office in May and clarified that they would expire three months after we arrived – which would be July 5. The visa officials explained to Nate that it would be a simple renewal process and to come back in June (about 2 weeks before it officially expired). We felt this was not leaving a lot of time but were reassured by the visa officials it would be no problem. When the time came Nate brought in all the required documents only to be told we needed to have more documents and that all of our information would have to be sent to another city for processing. Then for the next three weeks we were on the phone with people who were shuffling us from one person to another, never really explaining to us what the problem was and why it seemed to be taking longer than normal to process. All this time we were speaking to visa officials and many friends (who had similar issues) who never once warned us to leave the country when our visa expired. It was always said that it was not a problem since our paperwork was being “processed” and that if anything we would have to pay a fine at the airport when we left.

     Unfortunately we did not realize all the effects of the huge changes taking place with regards to foreigners in Pakistan and that Pakistan officials were starting to flex their muscles after the issues with Mr. Davis and Mr. Bin Laden. We also believe we may have unknowingly befriended someone that we should not have. All this to say, there was a lot that happened that did not make sense!

     On Monday July 11 I left the city to attend a wedding of my friends. Normally Nate would travel with me but this was the first week of the summer camp he had been planning and did not feel that he could leave them. This was ok because I was travelling to the other city with my friends and staying with them the whole time and Nate was hoping to come and meet me at the end of the week. But our plans got changed.

     At around 9pm that night Nate was at our apartment eating dinner when the police came to the door. (He Was Not outside “loitering under ‘suspicious circumstances’ “…and also he is not 40!) He was taken to the police station but then returned to our apt again with more police who then proceeded to search our entire apt. they confiscated our laptop and copies of our visa renewal (which thankfully Nate had kept a copy of…but then they somehow disappeared in police custody). During this time I was receiving texts from Nate but then they took his phone and turned it off.

     I was thankfully with my incredible friends who surrounded me with hugs and prayers and wisdom. I called a friend who lived close to the police station who went and spoke to them. They told him that Nate was only there for questioning and that he would be out after a couple of hours. Those couple of hours dragged on and when we realized that he was not going to be released I started to wonder if the police would come to get me.

     Sure enough at about 1230am there was a knock on the door at the place I was staying and there was a large group of officers (including a female guard) who had come to take me down to the station for questioning. I was questioned for about three hours and then had to wait for the whole next day to see a top official of the city police. Thankfully I was able to keep me phone and was in contact with our friends in Karachi that were with Nate. I also contacted someone at the Canadian High Commission.

     On Tuesday evening I finally reached Karachi, and went through another interrogation. At least Nate was by my side through this one. They told us we would have to separate again and be held in separate police lock-ups. Nate and I tried to see if we could stay together but they insisted. Amazingly they allowed a friend to stay with me. It was such a comfort to have her with me, she not only had a better grasp of the language but she comforted and encouraged me and got me through that night.

     The next morning (Wednesday July 13) we were together at the police station again. Everyone kept saying that we were going to the court and that the judge would likely ask for a fine and we would be deported. Although we were still not sure exactly what would happen, we tried to stay hopeful.

     Our friend Pervez stayed with us at the court house. He was a great friend to Nate the whole time we were in Pakistan and we were amazed at how faithful he was through this whole ordeal!

     When we were finally brought before the judge he asked us if we knew what we were being charged with. The police officer and the judge conversed in Urdu for a while and then the judge told us that our court date was July 25 and that we would be in Jail custody until then. Nate told him that we had a flight booked on July 24, to which the judge looked surprised but stated that the date could not be changed.

     We were devastated and confused. And we had no way of passing on this new problem. Thankfully we saw Pervez outside before we got put into the truck that brought us to the jail.

     But things were still quite confusing. We didn’t know where we were being taken exactly, one officer said back to the police station and others said the jail. We could understand a little of what the officers were speaking about in the truck and they were joking that by the time we left jail we would be fluent in Urdu. When we arrived at the jail I was ordered to get out of the truck. Nate and I had already talked that we would be adamant about not separating until we could communicate with someone we trusted: either a lawyer, our high commission or one of our friends. So we put up quite a fight when they were ordering me to get out of the truck without Nate. Thankfully a lady was walking out the jail that spoke English well enough that I could explain that we had not been able to call anyone and she at least got the guards to allow Nate to come inside with me. Once inside we were asked to separate again. But Nate stubbornly sat outside of the office while I tried to reason with a head matron. She was not impressed that we were not backing down and told me I was “wasting her time” when I told her all we wanted to do was make one phone call. I actually walked out on her and clung to Nate as he tried to tell the guard that we needed to know if Pervez was outside at least. At that time one of our friends arrived that knew Urdu and calmed us by letting us know that a lawyer was being contacted, that the high commission of Canada knew what was going on, and that our friends were working hard to figure this out for us. At that point, he reminded us that we could do nothing but wait. He said that this would be the hardest moment of our life possibly, and he was correct.

     He was correct because that moment led to three weeks of separation, confusion, and frustration. I did not see Nate for another 8 days.

     I met the lawyer on July 13. Some friends were able to visit on July 15 (before they were told to stay away because of publicity). I met someone from the High Commission on July16. I saw the lawyer again on July 20. And finally went to court and saw Nate on July 21.

     In the mean time I hung out in the barrack. All the ladies were very friendly and happy to see a new `foreigner`. Their first question was whether or not I was involved in drugs…that seemed to be the only reason why foreigners were sent to jail. I lived in a large room with another lady (Rose) from Africa. She spoke excellent English and was respected (and a little bit feared) by all the other ladies. There were about 60 of us plus children. The barrack had high ceilings, fans that stayed on most of the time (unlike my apt!), a TV, two Pakistani style washrooms, a sink, a water cooler (that didn’t really work), and shelves for food storage. Just outside our barrack was another barrack for some of the other ladies and it had a cooking area that we could use until our door was locked each night at 6pm. The windows were big, though they had bars on them, but there was always a breeze coming through…which was very nice at night. At night we had mosquito nets and typical Pakistani beds called a “char pie” (four legs). There was food provided, but it consisted mostly of flat bread (roti), lentils (dal), boiled potatoes or vegetables, and a couple of times through the week we would get chicken. Most of the time it was too spicy. So Rose and I would cook our own food – rice, and potatoes. At the beginning I was able to get some bags of essentials (clothing, toiletries, some food, and encouraging notes) from very sweet friends, but after the first week I didn’t get any visitors so I was so thankful to have Rose!

     A typical day would start at about 830 for me. Rose and I would clean our barrack (sweep and wash the floor and bathrooms) and do laundry and shower. After breakfast we would just try to keep ourselves busy. She had lots of crafts – crocheting and quilting – and I tried to help with that, or I would read or watch TV. In the afternoon some ladies were allowed in our barrack so we would visit, or watch TV with them, or play with the kids. Then in the evening Rose and I would just talk about life and watch TV again. I spent a lot of time thinking.

     There are many stories of my three weeks with these ladies. Some are funny, some are heart breaking but above all I am thankful that these women became a part of my life!

     Nate’s experience was quite different. After we separated he was brought to the men’s jail. The jails were next to each other but the buildings were quite big. He was placed in a large barrack with about 70 other Pakistani men. There were two sides to the room. On one side there were about 20 men that had mattresses and pillows, better food, and rights to the washroom – this was only because they paid extra bribes or were on the good side of the prisoner that was “in-charge”. Nate was not on this side! He was crammed onto the other side with about 50 men. He had no pillow or mattress and was sleeping shoulder to shoulder on a cement floor. He was told he had to pay $1000 in order to be allowed into the “foreigner barrack”, but we believe once there was more awareness and pressure from the Canadian Consulate he was moved to another barrack without paying! For the final two weeks he stayed with two other African men in a small room with a TV and a washroom. He also had a small foam mattress to sleep on. Food was provided for him, but because there were 4000-5000 male prisoners there was not an assortment of food. He basically had rice and dal (lentils) for 3 weeks.

     Every time we saw each other at court Nate had chains on. Or he was chained to 5 other men and brought to all their court rooms. Bribes had to be paid in order for us to see each other, even when we waited at court. And there were always 4-5 guards around us – staring, talking, or trying to get more bribes. We tried to push everything else out of our minds and focus on each other. We were so thankful for those times, though brief!

     We were supposed to have our final court date on July 25. There was a strike that day so when we went to court house to do paper work on the 26th, the Judge then scheduled the new court date for July 27. We appeared at court that day to find out the Judge had taken two vacation days (unannounced) and so we would return on Friday July 29. On that day we were supposed to see the judge at 1030am, we finally were brought before him at 330pm. This is when he finally sentenced us to 22 days in prison (almost already served) and 10000 Rupees each (approximately $100). Finally on August 2nd at about midnight we were escorted out of jail.

     Throughout this time there were so many ups and downs. So many precious times with my new friends, and so many heartbreaking moments. So many questions for ourselves, for those around us, and for God.

     We are home now and have enjoyed many good times with family and friends. Asking questions and explaining answers. We believe this will not be something that is processed quickly, but we feel that the more open we are about what happened the more we will be able to process. So please feel free to ask questions if you want to!

     We also ask that if you put anything about us in your facebook profile, or emailed people about us (including MP’s), or spoke to people about us, that you either link this or pass this on. When we came home we realized just how big this was over here and were amazed at how many people knew and cared about what had happened to us! We thank you! Don’t forget about us:) but we ask that when you do remember us, please remember the people that are still in that country. A lot of those people do not have a stable country like ours; they do not have safety, education and health like a lot of us. They do not have infrastructure that protects abused women, or education that encourages embracing those who are different. We have a lot to be thankful for, but with that comes more responsibility.

     Thanks for reading! We look forward to hearing from you! – with Nate Barnett.

Moral Ambiguity in Fiction

     Real life in ambiguous. You’d rather it not be, but it is. In every action we become someone’s hero and another’s villain. We try to do the best and sometimes we pull off real, pure actions. But usually the human race bounces back and forth between good, evil and something squishy in between.

     So I sometimes get wearied when I read most stories with very clear-cut villains and heros. The world is full of Boromirs and Gollums; not Saurons and Aragorns. And our stories are meant to be elevated life, not idealized life. And all our good stories must be true, even if they never happened. So our villains must have good and our heroes must be tainted.

     These stories force us to think and bring us face-to-face with difficult questions and uncertainties. We are forced to think when Ashitaka from Princess Mononoke tries to choose a side in the war between the humans and the forest gods. We are forced to think when Michael Corelone takes his father’s place as godfather of a criminal organization. We are forced to think when we see Jaime the Kingslayer waffle between hero and villain.

     I understand most people don’t share my love for this kind of ambiguity in stories. They find it frustrating and ill-satisfing. We like our lessons easy. We like it when the world is easy to judge. We like to tell our kids that good and evil are very clear and good people and evil people are just as clear.

     But life isn’t like that. And even the greatest of Books shows that, doesn’t it? King David the murderer is called a hero. Lot is called righteous, though he tried to convince a mob to rape his daughters. Moses murdered and was a saviour. And I still can’t figure out if Joab was billed as a hero or a villain.

     Life is complex; good, true stories reflect that complexity. Yes, there are some wild-eyed heroes devoted to nothing but the higher good. Yes, there are some black-hearted villains, consumed with hate and greed. But only a few. There are no armies of black-hearted soldiers. There are no legions of light-blessed paladins. Most of us are a mix and that tells me that most of our stories should be mixed.