… the white rose …

The sermon this morning was about Joseph as it’s told in the book of Genesis.  I’ve missed most of the series but today the minister was talking about two dreams the Pharaoh had … seven fat cows and seven lean cows, seven fat ears and seven lean ears.  It’s a long story.  Joseph has been in prison for a long time … a decade … under false charges, and has grown wise.  He is also smart and even in prison he gains the trust of the warden and is put in charge ‘of all that was done there’.  (Gen 39).  When the Pharaoh looks for someone who can tell him what his dreams mean, the cupbearer remembers Joseph earlier interpreting a set of dreams when he was in prison with Joseph.  So Pharaoh shares his dreams with Joseph; he interprets them and is released and put in charge of managing the 7 years of prosperity the dreams foretold, in preparation for the 7 years of famine, also in the dreams.

It’s sort of a great story.  The young, always smart Joseph, first sold by his brothers, then imprisoned by the Pharaoh, comes out as the wise man, the administrator whom the Pharaoh appoints to oversee, pretty much everything in Egypt.  The minister today talked about Joseph being smart, and becoming wise.  And about courage.  He said that Joseph always seemed to be smarter than the people around him, but that his wisdom came through pain and suffering as it does, he said, for all of us. Wisdom, he said, is a lived attribute.  He said that Joseph being smart may have made the interpretations of the dreams more obvious, but his developed character of wisdom had given him the courage to say and to do what needed to be said or done.

Also this morning, someone posted a reference to Sophie Scholl. I had not heard of her but hers is a fitting, important story on Remembrance day, or on any other day for that matter. She was the 4thof 6 children of Magdalena and Robert Scholl.  They were a Lutheran family, devout Christians, and Sophie had a strong interest in theological and philosophical thinking, including sermons by Cardinal Newman about ‘a theology of conscience’.  As a young girl she became part of the German League of Girls but was already aware of dissenting views of her father and others. Her brother Hans, just a bit older, had eagerly embraced the Hitler Youth program but became ‘entirely disillusioned’ with the Nazi Party.   3FuEYcERRl2wrZyJLWOPwQ.jpg

Sophie graduated from secondary school, though by now she had little interest in her classes which had ‘largely become Nazi indoctrination’ sessions. She loved children and taught kindergarten for a while before joining the auxiliary war service as a nursery teacher. The military-like regimen of the Labor Service troubled her and she began practising a passive resistance to the Nazis. In 1942 she enrolled at the University of Munich to study biology and philosophy.  Hans was studying medicine there and he introduced her to his friends. Friends because they had mutual interests …  but soon, the question that most consumed them all was how an individual must act under a dictatorship. Her father, at this time, was serving time in prison for a critical remark he had made about Hitler to an employee. And she and her friends were by now hearing of atrocities being committed by German soldiers and of the mass killings of Jews.

And then she came across a pamphlet left by the White Rose. A small resistance group, it was only their third pamphlet, secretly written, printed and distributed to encourage a German resistance to Hitler and the Nazis. Sophie discovered that her brother Hans had helped to write the pamphlet and she joined the effort. They wrote and distributed three more as widely as they could. On Feb 18, they had left pamphlets in the hallways outside classes in session so that students would come out and pick them up.  Still before the break from classes, she and Hans had some pamphlets left; Sophie picked them up and flung them out into the atrium. The custodian saw this and reported her; she, Hans and another White Rose member, Christoph Probst were interrogated by the Gestapo for 4 days, during which Sophie’s leg was broken.  On the 22 they went to trial for high treason, with no access to a legal defense.

Sophie Scholl is recorded as saying only this, in her defence, to judge Roland Friesler: ‘somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.’  All were found guilty and condemned to death, which was carried out by guillotine only a few hours later.  Prison officials, later describing the scene, emphasized the courage with which she walked to her execution.  Hans yelled ‘long live freedom’. Sophie’s last words were shared with her cell mate, Else Gebel: ‘how can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually, to a righteous cause?  Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?’

The young group had hoped for a massive revolt, but it didn’t happen. Hitler and the Nazis continued with their brutality, their lies, and their final solution for the Jews and everyone else they didn’t like.  But over the years, this story has become known. The Germans documented well, and since about 1990 the records have been accessed. Films have been made, writing has been done.  The last of the pamphlets was smuggled out of Germany and in mid 1943, the Allies dropped millions of copies all over Germany. Today over 200 schools in Germany are named after the Scholls. Books, including Sophie Scholl: The Real Story of the woman who defied Hitler have been written.

In an opinion piece about guns in the USA, a doctor in Florida who examined the bodies of recent Parkland massacre victims said this.  The damage caused by the AR-15’s is much greater and more lethal than that from a more traditional hand gun. The bullet travels at three times the speed and shreds any part of the body leaving it almost always irreparable. The chance of surviving even a bad AR-15 shot is slim, he said.  And still, when senior politicians were asked again about the urgency of gun laws they instead urged caution. They added that mental health is perhaps more the problem, and that passing a law would likely not have prevented the shootings. When the Florida State legislature was asked to vote on a law to ban use of the AR-15s, they soundly defeated the motion.6ubpuWLTRQ2uDgwhxM8f6w.jpg

On this day, November 11, there is the ending of two World Wars, and the sacrifice of millions and millions to remember.  It’s a day about soldiers who gave their lives, those who survived, and the millions of other people who also suffered enormously.  It’s also about the Sophies and the Hanses, those many people among us everywhere who have the wisdom and character of Joseph, the courage to do and to say things that must be said and done … even at enormous personal cost.  It’s what Jesus did; they killed him for that.

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… so we went back …

Twenty years later, earlier this month, Kathy and I travelled back to Santa Cruz, Bolivia. To see old friends, the city, MCC, maybe the villages where we once lived. And that humid, warm air with those sweaty, wonderful, long evenings. An enchanted place;  I always liked Bolivia. We had learned to feel at home back then and it had become much more than a memory for us. It’s where our kids were young. Where Ryan was born.  Where Kathy and I spent parts of our 20s, our 30s and our 40s. Where life was intense, relaxed, and where, as our friend Ona once said, everything is negotiable. It’s where we were newcomers, foreigners, guests, friends, workers, neighbors … over an extended time period, and also … sort of all at once.  Like the places where we grew up, Bolivia is a place that never seems quite to leave us.

I was a bit worried going back.  A long time had passed. Our spanish would be rougher. Could we even work our way through the airport and into town? Should we worry about the water, food, security? It would all be strange.

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Empanadas and Salteñas

Santa Cruz City has more than doubled in population. Sidewalks are still mostly a bit broken up but streets that were dirt and full of pot holes seem to be in much better shape. Markets that were overcrowded have been relocated or reinvented. Supermarkets seem to be everywhere.  Bus terminals are crowded and new ones are being built. Shoe shiners in the main plaza are grown men wearing uniforms.  People seem to have a little more money?  Maybe. Lots of new buildings … tall and smaller. Growth. Lots of change. But sitting in a taxi felt the same. The microbus to Montero was the same, with the uncomfortable little fold-down seats still there to fill up even the aisle before the driver takes off.  The empanadas and salteñas and the sopa y segundo. Those tiny little sugar ants that find their way into anything remotely sweet. The little kioskos. People asking for money. Others trying to sell chiclet and other sweets. Plazas that always calm the heart. It felt at home, more than I had expected. And except for consistently working lights at traffic intersections, many things still seemed negotiable.

But it’s the wonderful people who took time for us, ate with us, drove us to different places, hosted us in their homes … they made our visit. As if almost no time had passed even though their children are 20 years older.  I’ll name only some; they and others were then, and are … the best people.

Pedro lives in Montero.  He used to manage a lot of things for MCC, including the vehicles. Now, with diabetes he has lost part of his left leg. He and Kathy, his wife, hosted us for lunch in their home and Pedro, who is the charmingest story teller, talked about his life, his family, the Methodists in Montero, he with MCC, his years as a soccer coach and manager, and his extended family around him.  And those Camba jokes never stop coming.IMG_0940.JPG

Naty used to work in our house. She played with our kids.  Now she works at MCC.  Her two little boys are all grown up; they have wives and they all live in a place they have built up and improved, little by little.  The latest is a bathroom and kitchen, shared by the two small, growing families … with Naty.  The street is now paved, almost to their place.

Patrocinio was on vacation so we saw him only briefly at the MCC office.  He started with MCC back in the mid 90s, a young agriculturalist, when we were still there. The same, gentle man.

Doña Pura still operates the tiny kiosko across the street from where we once lived. We bought fresh French bread there almost every morning and in the heat of the late afternoons, Adrienne or Ryan would dash over and grab a bottle of ice cold coke.  Kathy and Doña Pura had been friends and there she was … almost the same.

Milton and his three boys are in the same house we remembered from earlier visits to Santiago. Except, the boys are new.  The oldest, Santiago, is 20.  Two sisters weren’t home and Kathryn, their mom, had gone to the USA for a while.  It’s not fair to stereotype the kids but those three pleasant young men all seemed like delightful, interesting, younger Miltons to me.

Felipe and Fanny met us in Roboré, welcomed us to their Santiago home and drove us around. Phil and I once lived in a one-room house in Villa Diego, back in mid 70s. It was my second year in Bolivia, and living with Phil was easy.  He made it so.

Carol and Henry, EMC missionary people, hosts of an immaculate guest house in San José de Chiquitos. Friends from our days in Northern Alberta, now settled into the daily challenge of how to be helpful to the complicated work among Mennonite colonists, who, in Bolivia, are not often the same, though they are so easily and so often colored with one brush.

Wendell and Karen, and some of their children and grandchildren, as they were then, now also … innovators, building their own, always creative way. They had left for a few years and have just returned.  We found them, sort of where they had left off.

Yovana, who was then a young adult and often looked after our little Adrienne, now married with her own two kids, a pillar, quietly efficient organizer in the Mennonite Church.  She kept making things happen for us during our compressed little visit. Her mother, doña Nati, passed away only two months ago.

Giovana, daughter of our old friend Nestor, who died soon after he left the service of MCC.  She has two boys.  As kind and completely cumplido as her father, she took us in two directions from Santa Cruz, to visit Villa Diego, and then to San Juan and El Torno. Nestor is no longer there, but he was the one who told me back in 1991 to make sure I greeted, shook hands and visited a little, every day, with everyone on the team.  Daunting at first, and then, about the best advice anyone ever gave me. Giovana is very much her father’s daughter.

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Villa Diego

Ona and Lucy. Ona used to work with MCC, looking after most of the official paper work and registrations the government required of us. Vehicles. Workers. Now Ona is a leader in the Menn church of Bolivia, an excellent teacher, a kind friend.  They have 5 kids including Jonathan, 23, who endures dialysis procedure three times a week because his kidneys don’t work. He waits for a transplant but remains an optimistic medical student, about to graduate. Some have that unique capacity to just … carry on.

We saw Angela as well. She has worked various capacities with MCC, including a leadership role in Nicaragua, now a counsellor but these days very occupied with her ailing father, hermano Baltazar. Angela was the creator and diligent leader of the children’s club in church where our kids learned most of the Spanish they knew, and a lot of Spanish action songs.

Roberto was the night watchman and gardener at MCC. He and Ñeca took us to a restaurant near the church where we had peanut soup and yuca; three of their 4 children, all adults now, were with us, along with an MCC volunteer from Colombia, who lives with them. Roberto, no longer with MCC, has injured his back. He doesn’t complain but with no health insurance, his healing is a very slow, painful time.

Omar Ayala joined us for supper at the home of Ona and Lucy. He had injured his arm on a construction site three months ago.  It needs to heal so he can keep working but it’s very difficult to get adequate medical treatment if you only have access to public health in Bolivia. Omar spent a year in the USA, a long time ago, under the MCC International Volunteer Exchange Program.

Back in Santa Cruz one afternoon we walked in the direction of the house we lived in in the mid 80s with Paul Siebert.  We took a few turns but eventually we found it and as we stood taking some fotos, the son of the former owner drove up. Oscar. He doesn’t live there; he just happened to drive up on an errand. He remembered Ryan, who, back then at just over a year, was crawling everywhere on that second floor apartment. He also remembered Paul, who lived with us during most of that term and became Ryan’s adopted ‘uncle’.F592kHHsTpyOK%F3VNnNhw.jpg

We saw others also and are thankful to them all.  Years ago, soon after Kathy and I were married, before our second term in Bolivia, I was studying in Antigonish, NS, and on a Sunday morning the minister in a nearby Anglican church told us to look to the galleries. It’s what he titled his sermon, and he was reminding us that we don’t live our lives unto ourselves. That inside our little life areas, we are surrounded by a much larger gallery of people who have gone before us, have walked beside us, who hold us up when we aren’t even conscious of them, who rebuke us or maybe who forgive us without rebuke …  who are part of our village even when we are 20 years separated from them. Friends. Family. Neighbours. It takes a village, someone once said, and if that’s true, we all have our village … and Bolivia, the friends we met, and others we didn’t … is part of our village.  We are privileged … and more than grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

… Bolivia … a short visit …

Tomorrow, Kathy and I hope to head south. Bolivia.  It’s where we met, back in 1975. I had nearly completed a term with MCC, teaching in a rural Bolivian public elementary school. Kathy had just arrived from Saskatchewan, and we met in my little village. Villa Diego. Well, it wasn’t my village at all, but they were glad to have me teach their grades 4 and 5 kids for a year.  A new school house had been built, at the end of which they had added a one-room teacherage.

Phil Bender was an agriculturalist and he and I shared that space. Along with all the local visitors who dropped in at almost all hours, and sometimes, in the evenings, a bat or two would swoop through the open windows.  After I left, back to Canada, Phil stayed on (he is still in Bolivia), and Kathy finished her first term with MCC, working as a public health nurse and educator in Santa Fe an 8-km walk through the bush, and a slog if it was raining.  Kathy lived there for over two years, together with another MCC worker, Linda Coffin.  fullsizeoutput_3afc

The people in Santa Fe were highlanders.  Collas.  Indigenous people who had moved to the lowlands to farm; from the harsh, cold, dry highlands to the hot, humid, green lowlands.  Not an easy transition and MCC spent decades working with many newcomer communities in the department of Santa Cruz, figuring out how to drill wells, developing well-drilling technology,  land clearing and stump removal, animal traction,  crop development and crop rotation, appropriate technology, how to manage insects and plant diseases.  The highlanders came from a starkly different climate, a different cultural environment, their own history dating back to the Incas; adjusting to the tropics was not easy.

The people in Villa Diego were almost all lowlanders.  In this case, some of them owned land and some were employees of the patrón, Don Luis, who, in fact, had made the new school possible.  He was a really nice guy, but he did also seem to kind of be in charge of things. It wasn’t his village, but when he was around, he kind of called things.

Before moving to Villa Diego I had worked in San Juan for one year, on the other side of Santa Cruz City. That’s where the kids taught me Spanish, even as I was teaching their Bolivian curriculum. I often wonder what they thought about it all. But they were kind and thoughtful, as were their parents. All of them were working hard, learning to farm and otherwise to live in these tropical lowlands.  I think all of the people in San Juan were highlanders, but they had been there for a few years already.  The area had better roads, and if you walked or caught a ride out, there was a paved road to Santa Cruz.

Kathy and I met, and eventually, after she returned to Canada as well, we were married and we returned to Bolivia two more times with MCC. We lived in Santa Cruz City during those years, but got around quite a bit.  Ryan was born during our second term and Adrienne and Ryan were quite young when we began our third term in 1991.  Ryan, born at 25 and a half weeks, in Santa Cruz, was the source of enormous stress for us after his birth.  The doctor who delivered the little 2-pounder called it an aborto, assuming Ryan would not survive.  But he did, with round the clock attention of Bolivian nursing staff at the hospital where he was born.  Three months later we took him home.  He is now 35, married to Crystal, and they have little Sierra.  Adrienne is also married, to Sean. They live with their four amazing kids, in MacGregor, Manitoba.

All of this, and much much more comes to mind as Kathy and I do our little bit of packing and head to the airport in a few hours.  We spent about 10 years in Bolivia, and there isn’t a day we don’t think about one memory or another …  that land-locked, enchanted place, home to about 9.5 million people.  If you google Bolivia, somewhere there is this paragraph:  ‘Welcome to Bolivia: superlative in its natural beauty, rugged, vexing, complex and slightly nerve-racking, Bolivia is one of South America’s most diverse (36 languages, 3 official languages) and intriguing nations … .

We are glad to go back for a visit, though we regret not taking the kids, their spouses and all the 5 grandkids along  … it’s a bit like that second home, permanently imprinted somehow into our lives.  We are glad for that.  Two weeks will be short.

 

… decluttering …

It was probably an ad on radio or television promoting some form of relaxation technique, but what I saw or heard was this …try, for 15 seconds, to have no expectations of yourself … and then it was gone. I tried it as I was driving, and a couple of other times, and realized it’s not easy. Nope. Not even for 15 seconds.  My brain, like probably most brains, seems always to be thinking about something that needs to be done, an agenda for the day, the week, something at work or at home that needs attending, or the grandkids … always, there is something …

So why did that little line catch my attention?  I don’t know, but every so often – very occasionally – there are moments where I experience a kind of detachment from things, from expectations, from having to get things done, from, well, the world that is so much with us,as a poet once said. All that getting and spending … . Those moments hardly ever happen to me, but when they do, I always want them back, because, though they are seconds in time for me, they remind me to keep looking for ways to let go, even a little, of the daily clutter, and maybe also of the really serious stuff. Not to sit on the couch and veg away the rest of my days, but to know that no amount of fretting changes things nor makes them better nor does it get things done. fullsizeoutput_3a59

Our oldest brother once told me of this little conversation: as a young student in Wpg, he once asked a professor about some perplexing issue he was wanting to resolve. I don’t remember what it was, and I hope I more or less have this story right, but I remember that his professor said this:  ‘well, I would do everything I can, and then, I would have faith.’

So, that faith thing. What exactlyis that?  Or, probably better put, what is it sort of, since I am pretty sure there is no formula nor any prescription for what faith is, nor for how we manage to have it.  We are at best, sort ofbelievers and people of a sort offaith. Jesus clearly knew how this works when he said that just a tiny mustard seed of faith is enough. Something momentary. Even fleeting.

It’s a nasty fall in much of Alberta this year. Except for the far north and the far south of the province, I heard today that about 2/3 of the crops are unharvested. It’s October 1 and it keeps drizzling, then snowing, then warming up for a day or so but never enough to dry out a field of canola, and by now, it’s doubtful how much can be salvaged.  But two farmers, in the middle of this somewhat depressing month, when I asked them how the harvest was going made a comment similar to what the professor said to my brother. We will wait, said the one.  And eventually, we may take off the crop.  It’s risky business … farming is. The other said the same. Maybe if we were all farmers or at least gardeners, we would not be in such a hurry to have quick and clear solutions to things. They plant, they do all they can, and then … they wait.

I work with MCC in fundraising. I have for a long time and I feel responsible if we don’t make budget or some program or project remains underfunded. Others also work at this, so I share the pressure, but I easily move into I could have done better, at 4 am when I wake up thinking about it.  But more than one person over the years has said to me … it’s not your job to fund MCC. You can talk to people. You can work hard, but in the end, it’s up to them, and you should not worry it.  In fact, said one person, it’s really up to God. You job is to do what you can, and then … there it is again … have faith. And for heaven’s sake, don’t wake up at 4 am and fret about it.  Once in a great while, I can let it go. But not easily.T+iXOBKsSVmcUBxVDqFiEw.jpg

By now I am not thinking that ‘having faith’ means that the crops will come off, that my brother’s issue will have resolved itself as he wished it, nor that MCC budgets will always be funded. So, it must mean something else. Some other dimension has to become part of this picture.

Richard Rohr writes about this. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so my ways are beyond your ways, and my thoughts are beyond your thoughts. —Isaiah 55:8-9

Within his Judaic tradition, Jesus was formed by the passage above from Isaiah which teaches humility before the mystery of God. When we presume we know fully, we can be very arrogant and goal-oriented. When we know we don’t know fully, we are much more concerned about practical, loving behavior.

 All our words, beliefs, and rituals are merely “fingers pointing to the moon.”  They are never 100% right or perfect. This is the necessary and good poverty of all spiritual language. Remember, Jesus never said, “You must be right!” or even that it was important to be right. He largely talked about being honest and humble (which is probably our only available form of rightness).

 Such admitted poverty in words should keep us humble, curious, and searching for God. Yet the ego doesn’t like such uncertainty. In fact, we usually focus on areas where we can feel a sense of order and control—things like finances, clothing, edifices, roles, offices, and who has the authority.  Western culture has spent centuries admiring and promoting people who supposedly have the answers.IMG_1122

 In the book of Matthew (also in Luke and references in Mark) the writers describe Jesus’ experience in the wilderness after his baptism.  Satan meets him there with three temptations, all of which Jesus rejects: hedonism (hunger / satisfaction), egoism (spectacular might) and materialism (kingdoms / wealth).  Malcolm Muggeridge, a BBC commentator and author for over thirty years wrote a book of lectures in 1977, called Christ and the Media. In the first lecture, the Fourth Temptation, Jesus was tempted to become a great, world-wide evangelist in the age of television.  Jesus rejects this temptation as well and Pete Scazzero, in a brief comment on this Muggeridge parable says this: what will it mean for us, truly, to put aside our wills (and our answers and agendas) in order to do His will, to be a community that serves others, aware of the unimportance of status, achievement or prosperity, to make ourselves accessible to the violent, reshaping love of God.

 Muggeridge once said this: ‘I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness … .’

When, by some strange intervention or coincidence or some amazing gift of grace we are momentarily suspended to see it all with less attachment, when we get a sense for maybe 15 seconds what this really is all about – and isn’t – or when, for a few seconds our minds are not cluttered by the purposes of this earth … we may have been touched by that reshaping love … and for a moment we will know that we were meant to be freer from trying so hard.

 

 

…pronouns …

A couple of weeks ago a preacher in Calgary opened his Sunday morning sermon with a little story about his son.  The son is 5.  First week in kindergarten, said his dad, and suddenly feeling a little grown up.  Dad, the pastor, had some work to do in the garage and asked his grown-up little son if he wanted to help.  Yes, he did. Ok, said the dad, let’s go get my tools.  And at that point the little boy stopped him and said, dad, could we call them ‘our tools’ from now on?IMG_0680

Kathy and I had seen Delivery Man a number of years ago and last Friday night it was on television. I caught most of it.  One of my favorite movies, it’s about a young man who, to make some extra money back 18 or 20 years, had donated his sperm to an infertility clinic.  He did it so many times that he had become the biological father of 533, now mostly young adult kids. It all comes out slowly in the story because there is a class-action lawsuit against the clinic by some of the kids, who say they are entitled to know who their biological father is.  The clinic and Starbuck (the name under which he made the donations) are the defendants, arguing that unless a donor can retain his anonymity, there will be no donors, and that none of these 533 would exist, were it not for the anonymity that protects Starbuck.  It’s fiction, but it’s not really a stretch.  There are DNA-based procedures readily accessible now, through which children who know (or don’t) they have siblings, half siblings, or biological parents whom they have never met, can find them. And many do. In the movie, at least a couple of hundred of the 533 find each other with the additional help of facebook, and they are drawn, not just to the chase of finding their ‘dad’, but towards each other.  They know they belong.  Somewhere. What is equally compelling is that Starbuck, the donor, goes to significant lengths to find out who his ‘kids’ are, and how they are doing, long before he is ‘outed’.  He can’t help himself.

A week or two ago, a young man at the University of Calgary met a young woman whose name was Nicole. They had coffee, I think, and before separating, he asked for her number. She gave it to him but when later he tried to call her, it didn’t work.  Did she deliberately mess up the digits?  Just a mistake? He didn’t know so he (how did he do that?) sent an email to all the Nicoles he could find connected in any way with the U of C.  Two hundred and forty six, including one who is a professor.  His email subject line was … ‘Nicole from last night’.  Something like that. This little story was picked up by the CBC, and soon some of the Nicoles were being interviewed on radio. The ‘Nicole from last night’ apparently did emerge, though she was not on the list of 246. Another Nicole connected to her, and she ‘came out’.  But aside from it being a cute story, it now has a spin-off.  The 246 Nicoles apparently decided they wanted to meet. Facebook makes that easily possible. They did, that same Friday.  But then they apparently decided to meet regularly.  Every month, or maybe even every week as … the Nicoles-from-last-night group. Why?  They don’t need to do this.  No one is even suggesting they should.  But they want to.  They have something in common … a name and a story that makes them belong to each other … maybe just a little. But enough to get them excited to seek each other out.

Brené Brown is a researcher and storyteller at the U of Houston. Her TED talk on The Power of Vulnerability has been watched by 36 million people.  Posted, I think in 2011, she talks about vulnerability, courage, shame, belonging, and connection. Connection, she says, is why we are here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. It’s how we are ‘neurologically wired’, she says.  She discovered in her research, which really amounts to asking and listening to people, that we have an almost innate fear of being disconnected, which is really about shame. Is there something about me that, if people know it or see it, will make me unworthy of being connected with them?  It’s a universal sentiment, she says; the only people who don’t experience shame also have no capacity for human empathy or connection.  The thing that underpins this sense of shame, she continues, is ‘excruciating vulnerability’. The idea that, in order for connecting to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen. Like the Nicoles in Calgary. The 5-year old son. The 533 offspring. They all stepped out of their shadows to find someone else.  And then Brown discovered, after 6 more years of listening and collecting thousands of stories (stories are data with a soul, she says) that people with a sense of love and belonging are actually those who think they are worthy – while the folks who struggle for it are those who always wonder if they are good enough.IMG_0096.JPG

A lot of us fit that latter description, but her conversations led her to the conclusion that those who feel worthy of belonging feel it because have learned to step into the uncertainties of life, to wait out the insecurities and the struggles even when it’s risky, and it always is.  It’s not arrogance they have but some capacity to be kind to themselves. Forgiving maybe.  In fact, at the end, she makes this final comment:  probably the most important aspect of this capacity to struggle is a belief or assumption that says, ‘I’m enough”. When we get to that place, she says, we stop screaming and we start listening. We’re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we are kinder and gentler to ourselves.

Brown, in her TED talk doesn’t really say how we get to understanding that we are ‘enough’. Maybe that was smart, because she might then have become just another quick-fix , self-help manual. My guess is that we are all pretty inconsistent in the I’m enough thinking and that most of us go back and forth our entire lives between that ‘healthier’ sense of ourselves and the ‘wondering if we are good enough’, hesitant to step off our shores and into the stream. But I do think that we either help or hinder each other’s journeys.  The little boy, at so young an age, wanted to be part of an ‘our’.  It already mattered and he needed his dad to buy into his little community idea. I’m pretty sure that building any community at work, or in a family or on a hockey team works better if we speak to each other with inclusive pronouns. The ‘our’ idea.  The numbers in our budgets are ‘our’ numbers.  The programs are ‘ours’.  The plays, the plans, the work, the house, the farm … is never ‘mine’. Always ‘ours’. It creates common ownership, but it also encourages the idea that we belong with each other.  Children want to belong and they can tell early on by the language and the tone we use around them and about them, whether they do or don’t.

The same preacher who, two weeks ago talked about his little son and ‘our tools’, spoke this morning about prayer.  He said other things about prayer but he finished by saying that the ‘our’ with which the Lord’s Prayer begins is an expression of our solidarity with those around us. He is the Father of all. Believers. Unbelievers. People of all faiths. Nicoles everywhere and the offspring of sperm donors.  And by extension of the ‘our’ expression he said, we are committing to being our brother’s keepers.  Expression of intimacy with God – prayer – is only legitimate, he said, when it’s also an expression of solidarity with everyone else. Everyone. And that, he said, is what ‘on earth as in heaven’, is all about.

… papillon …

Back in my first term with MCC in Bolivia someone gave me the book Papillon (French for butterfly) to read.  That was in the early 70s.  Later, they made the movie and now, in 2018 they made it again.  I went to see it two weeks ago one evening. The story happened in France, in 1933, when Henri ‘Papillon’ Charrière, a safe cracker in Paris, but not a murderer,  was framed for murdering a pimp and dispatched for life to French Guiana, from where, after two attempts to escape, he was dispatched to Devil’s island, where, as the warden who sent him said, ‘strange things happen’.  From that lonely rock, Papillon did escape to the mainland of Venezuela, and eventually, in 1969, he wrote his story; it exposed the dark brutishness of what France was doing to about 80,000 men, most of whom never returned to France. They died in the dehumanizing misery of prison, as, apparently, they were meant to.

It’s a difficult movie to watch and if there wasn’t an element of goodness that the movie works so hard, against all principalities and powers to push to its surface, it would be unbearable.  The cruelty of which human beings are capable makes some movies, documentaries and many newscasts hard to see. Sometimes I walk away, and I almost walked out of this one.  Last winter I got half way through the book, Dark Hope: written by an Israeli writer, it’s about Palestinians who live in Hebron, maybe 500 Israeli settlers living in their midst with full military protection, and their endless willingness to make life as miserable as possible for Palestinian farmers, families, children. I couldn’t finish it.

So why is it that we humans find it so hard to see harm done to others, including the violence of humiliation, of abuse, of deceit, of neglect, of poverty … sickness … pain? The man-made disaster that is Venezuela these days makes us angry. It’s hard to imagine it and we don’t want to;  2.3 million Venezuelans now displaced. It’s becoming the Syria of the Western Hemisphere.  How could this happen anywhere, let alone in such a wealthy country? The world still recoils at the atrocities of ISIS a few years back. Earlier this week when we heard that Egypt had sentenced 75 people to be executed, the world shuddered.  Donald Trump, a man with no apparent capacity for empathy, who, as someone said, has spent his entire life doing things to others, is almost universally understood as a nasty man.  Even evangelicals who cheer him on for their own interests sometimes turn away because they can’t watch the wreckage. This week we mark 9/11, an immense tragedy that outraged and frightened almost everyone. Why was there such almost global dismay and anguish at princess Dianna’s early and tragic death, and such sympathy for her during most of her married life. The entire world reveres an Anne Frank, a Helen Keller, Mother Theresa, a Gandhi, a Nelson Mandela, a Martin Luther King?  How do we explain the massive international outcry and response when little Alan Kurdi washed up on the beach in Turkey on Sept 2, 2015. The Syrian tragedy had been going on since 2011, but that Sept 2 was a kind of tipping point; human compassion had found a strong voice … for a while at least.  And the truth is, all of humanity yearns to hear that voice. Those few who don’t are, of all people, the most tragic and the most miserable, no matter how rich or how powerful they are.fullsizeoutput_3a59.jpeg

Most children and adults alike, listening to any story, hope for an ending that makes us feel better, not worse.  More hopeful, not less.  At the end of the day, not many of us like to go to bed worried or anxious about school, about relationships, travels, assignments, unhappy work or school or home situations, nor even about pain somewhere else, happening to people we may not know; it troubles us. Why, when someone is very ill or disabled or when someone dies, do we go to such lengths to say trite, sometimes stupid and unhelpful things? It’s that unquenchable need to point towards something better, to be hopeful; we actually want to helpful.

Most movie stories arc toward goodness. Even with all the pain and trouble that drives every plot, the pull towards goodness is there in most scripts. The struggle, and the yearning to have goodness overtake the plot feeds the tension and keeps us watching … or, sometimes, when we can’t stand it, it walks us out.  Even Papillón,at enormous human cost, bends toward the triumph of eventual goodness.  Whether science fiction, drama, comedy … the scripts may not have happy endings, but they are almost always built to give goodness the edge.  Those are the stories we instinctively want to watch.  Deep in our souls, we are beings of hope and goodness, not creatures of evil and despair and destruction.

In one of his books (maybe Mere Christianity) C.S. Lewis asked how it is that we humans know, across pretty much all cultures, nationalities and faiths, what is wrong and what is right. Good and not good.  It’s because, he said, we have right and goodness inside of us. We know a crooked line because we have inside of us, a straight one.  Maybe that’s what the soul is; that presence of God we are all born with. That presence, whether we know him by one name or another, is never far from us, says Richard Rohr. We are part of the global goodness that is God, he says.     IMG_0297

Maybe this goodness of God is what Paul is talking about in Romans 1:20 when he says ‘since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities … have been clearly seen … ‘.  In 8:22 he writes ‘the whole of creation has been groaning inwardly as in the pains of childbirth up to the present time.’ And just before that … ‘in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into glorious freedom ….’

Intuitively, this is who we are.  We find evil and darkness and horror repugnant, and we are endlessly attracted to goodness …  aching to see it released and liberated to overcome the fearful nastiness.  And it will.

 

 

… he won’t get far …

A month ago, Adrienne sent us a little note about Joshua.  He is ten.  He had been biking home from visiting one of his buddies and, going past a house on his way he heard someone calling for help.  He stopped his bike, got off and checked for the voice. It was coming from an elderly gentleman who had fallen off his walking chair.  The chair had worked its way on top of the man somehow and he was needing his wife, who was inside the house, to help him. Unfortunately, she was taking a nap and had not heard his calls for help.  But Joshua had and the man asked him to go inside, to wake up his wife. She would be able to assist him.  Joshua did, found the gentleman’s wife, asleep, and woke her up. GqAqqahtSemZy17Bmj2tvw.jpg

It’s not a big story. No ambulance was needed.  No one died.  Not much drama nor trauma.  Just a little boy and an older couple in a bit of trouble.   But maybe this little story is the whole story.  Orlando told me the other day about a sermon he was preparing to preach last Sunday.  I’m not sure what the title of his sermon was, but I think he was talking about that whole story.  It’s about living, he told me. About now. It’s not about theology or doctrine; those two themes tend to divide us at every turn, so how can we think that Jesus meant for us to spend so much time sorting out our beliefs. That whole story is not so much based on the ‘correctness’ of a theological, doctrinal belief, but about a way of living to which Jesus called us. It’s pretty much the only thing to which he called us. Orlando said his sermon was not about correct interpretations of anything at all … just the inserting of love and attention … at every turn.  The love that Jesus brings to us and asks of us in return. The love Jesus said, that is the fulfillment of all the laws, the beliefs, the regulations they had thought were so necessary. The love that hears a call for help, stops to listen, and hops over the fence to help. Jesus is, strangely, sometimes used to defend the fears we have of each other, our suspicions of newcomers and strangers, our bigotries and prejudicies about those who are different, even our calculated end times theories. But when bible studies and sermons talk about what Jesus did and with whom he identified, it’s much more difficult to misappropriate his message. A story about our now … and about hearing the calls for help nearby.

I watched a unique movie last week. Don’t worry, he won’t get far on foot. A true story, based on the life of John Callahan, a American cartoonist who becomes an early alcoholic, then a quadriplegic after a nasty car accident. Not a blockbuster, despite its pretty rave reviews,  it’s one of those movies they show in one lonely theater for 5 or 10 days and then it’s gone. John, 21 and already a 9-year alcoholic and his friend are stone drunk when they decide to drive home. We don’t see the crash; we next see John strapped onto a table in hospital where an impatient doctor chides and almost mocks him for being in his condition.  He brought it on himself, and maybe we don’t blame the doctor for that moment of human exhaustion. But what happens next seemed to me a pivotal moment in the story and in John’s later (6 more years of drinking) recovery from his addiction.

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On the door of a 92-yr old woman’s apartment in Calgary

Many things happen along the way, and physically John remains a quadriplegic until his death at 59, in 2010, but in week one after the crash, completely disabled and miserable on that hospital gurney, someone greets him. A young woman, apparently his physiotherapist, walks towards him and without a gasp or a sigh says … ‘you are a very good looking man.’  He looks like hell, and he knows it, but she is completely matter of fact in her comment. No hyperbole. Nothing overly sympathetic. As if she were talking to a good friend dressed for a posh date in a swanky restaurant.  As they turn John over and he faces the floor, she lies down underneath him, on the floor, under the gurney facing him upwards, and keeps talking normally to him, though his voice is barely a whisper. Nothing on him works, except his eyes, a runny nose and that whisper.  She doesn’t stay long and walks off, ‘to another appointment’. But it’s clear that some little crack of light has entered into his absolute and, at the time, hopeless misery.  She did come back, and, along with a few other people who stay with him, becomes an intimate part of his story as he joins, finally, an AA group, discovers a knack for drawing controversial cartoons (despite his significant handicap), becomes internationally known for the cartoons, and lives out his very complicated life.

That whole story is, always, about lying down on the floor to talk to someone whose life and body is a tragic wreck, about hearing a call for help and stopping to check, about the here and the now, as Orlando said in his sermon last Sunday.  Jesus was pretty clear in saying that these are the things that matter.