… what’s coming next …

Some months ago, one of my brothers forwarded part of a letter someone had posted about a conversation as they were leaving a leadership role in a church. It was the kind of conversation that made me wish I had been in there, or in a similar one, with a person of such gentle wisdom. There are such people. They’re not disappointed.  They don’t cover some ‘you-really-should-have-done-better’ tone with an affirmation. You just know they are fine with how you are. 

So, to the note. It read like this: I felt called to discover the next chapter of my life and ministry. I felt like I did my senior year of high school: that I’d completed my story here and was excited—and terrified—to discover the new story that was beckoning me.

But I met for coffee with a church member who had known me a long time, and shared with her how I’d made my decision to leave and what I hoped might come next. Before I could run off to my next appointment, she said, “It sounds like you want to spend this fall worrying about what you’re going to do next year. But I have another thought. What if instead you were present here this fall with us? I mean, what if you were present with your grief and the work of letting go? That would be the best preparation for you and for us for whatever comes next. In January you’ll know what you need to do.”

Such patient, careful and caring advice. There is time. Stay with your community for a while and let things sort themselves out a bit.  And then, you will know.  It makes so much sense that it begs the question … where do we get that need to see past the next turn, to shape the future before it comes to us, the need to be so secure in what is coming that our future becomes our entitlement, and we have to nail it down before it gets here. 

Kathy and I were out for snacks (it was warm enough for an outdoor patio) with some friends last evening.  We talked about the Canadian election, about covid – Alberta, Saskatchewan and other places in Canada now in full impact of the 4th wave – and other things. We’re all church people so we ended up also talking about the different places we are at in our relationship with the church, and, like the gentleman leaving his position, we are all kind of wondering what’s next. Past 55, we have lots to look back on. We all have a relationship with a local church body where we may even still have formal membership.  In our conversation it felt like the local relationship is the one we sometimes wonder about. Not everything is as it was. The world has changed, and so have we all. One person said she is not sure the church is her community anymore. At least for now it’s not, so she’s not attending very often. 

None of us are unbelievers; in fact, I suspect we are all probably more Christ conscious than ever. But maybe we’re a little weary of the evangelical church culture where we invested decades of our lives and raised our kids. Many are dismayed at how frightfully some parts of American evangelicalism have embraced a macho, militant, conquering, we-are-right-and-entitled Gospel … so completely unlike anything we know of Jesus. (I’ve just started reading Jesus and John Wayne: how white evangelicals corrupted a faith and fractured a nation.) And with the anti-vaccine, and anti-mask culture also emerging inside some evangelical churches, it’s begun to look like we, in the evangelical community have become, in some places, more belligerent than gracious, more about our own rights and freedoms than about caring …  even for our own families and friends, let alone those we don’t know. It’s all enough to consume an otherwise lovely fall conversation on a patio about well, what’s coming next. 

We also talked about what often seems like our need to be ‘doing things’, being productive, planning for growth, solving things … as if getting things done is the primary indicator of a healthy and meaningful life.  A former head of a well-run NGO in Calgary once said, we’re doomed to growth. Unless we’re growing, he said, we are going backwards. I didn’t quite buy it then, and I’m not sure I buy it now, especially in thinking about the church, but also about our economies and institutions. It’s important, I know, but productivity, when it consumes us, is an exhausting approach to living, and in our relentless pursuit of it, many get left behind. Jacinda Ardern, PM of New Zealand, in 2019 said when all we measure is growth and GDP, we miss what ‘success’ and human well-being are about.  

It was a good third-day-of-Fall conversation. We really didn’t solve anything but afterwards it reminded me of the advice of that good friend to the church leader anxious to see around the next corner. A conversation about patience, with ourselves and with each other … and time.   

… Our Own Understandings …

A staff member at a school in NW Alberta last week made a comment about covid. How do we reconcile, she asked, all the ‘we are in this together’ talk from the earlier months of the pandemic, with the divisions now emerging within families, churches, schools, communities … about masks, more restrictions, and about vaccine uptake. It’s like we’ve upended all those good intentions; like it didn’t work at all, she said. 

Tomorrow, we have a Federal Election in Canada. Sixty % of Canadians say it’s an unnecessary election; it was called 2 years earlier than what is legally required, in a pitch, it seems, of our Prime Minister to govern with a majority in Parliament, rather than the minority with which he’s had to govern since 2019.  He says Parliament has been obstructionist during those two years and if they had a majority, they could get bigger things done. It’s possible, because in the Canadian Parliamentary System, once your Party has the majority of seats in the House of Commons, and if you can keep your Party in line behind you, you don’t actually have to pay much attention to the other Parties in the House, because, well, you have pretty much all the power. You can, presumably, get more things done.  

It’s a little unfortunate, actually.  A minority government has to figure out how to work with the other Parties in the House to get anything done.  It’s messier, but any healthy human community is messy. Efficiency, in my opinion, is mostly a false god.  The Pandemic got in the way of how a healthy minority government can work these last two years so that the PM really did govern – though he would deny it – as if he had a majority.  The mic and cameras were on him pretty much every day, and Covid made it harder for Parliament (and Party caususes) to meet in person, which, at times, seemed all too convenient. Accountability became a less important. The Pandemic had an impact even on the press, so that if they, or any other Political Party questioned the daily pronouncements and spendings, it seemed as if they were out of line with the general ‘we’re in this together’ culture that ran the country for well over a year. A culture that, at the same time, implied that if you were hesitant about whatever measures were being taken – and there were a lot – you were not supportive of the ‘we are in this together’ commitment to the Canadian community. 

So really, Mr Trudeau did not fully experience a minority government, and that he bemoans not having a majority as an impediment to ‘progress’ doesn’t tell the whole story. A part of the majority/minority story is that if we really are ‘in this together’ maybe a majority is the worst way in which to make that happen. In a minority, we are forced, at least a little, to acknowledge each other, seek out compromises, find the common good … ; our leaders, despite their public pronouncements to the contrary,  prefer to govern according to their own understandings. There is a good verse in Proverbs 3 about that. 

On my way to the NW last week, I was driving through Nampa, a small, Alberta town. It was still light out and beside the road, facing traffic stood a young woman wearing a sign across her front. Just one person, boldly standing with her sign that said, ‘FREEDOM’. I admired her courage, and I wanted to stop and ask what it is she was protesting or advocating and what, exactly, she wants freedom from. I didn’t stop, but there are a lot of people in Canada who could be pressing for more freedom.  People who work 2 or 3 jobs just to pay the rent.  Single parents, usually women, who are parenting children, going to school, and who still have to work to pay the bills. Lives of too much desperation. Immigrants, indigenous, and people of color (22% of the Canadian population) who still, rarely get the breaks, many of whom live their entire lives knowing that this world, this white world, is not quite theirs and that they often need to find ways to be more polite, and to defer to the rest of us who still think this is our country. If this silent protestor in Nampa was calling us out to press for more freedom for all those people … then, I’m glad she was out there.

It’s also possible she was out there calling us Canadians to really be ‘in this together’ to get through the train-wreck of the 4th wave of covid …  together. Freedom indeed, from all the tensions and fears in which she, like most, have been living for nearly 2 years now. Maybe she was calling for freedom from the anger and hyper frustration felt by a lot of people these days, as the vaccine to ‘end’ covid becomes a primary wedge issue of this election.  Fear (and pressure) opens the door to wedge issues and it’s being used, ironically, to win an election that was called to doing things better … presumably, together.  It’s no wonder the staff person at the school in NW Alberta wonders how we keep it all square. 

As the election pushes us to ‘take sides’ there’s an article by Yasmin Tayaq in the Atlantic (Sept 16). She’s not talking about our election but she writes that the now trendy line, ‘it’s become a pandemic of the unvaccinated’ may be true (and may win an election) but that ‘doesn’t mean it’s productive’. She acknowledges that the 25% of Americans who haven’t taken the vaccine are a barrier to their own and everyone else’s freedom. Exasperation is warranted, she says, and mandates to get vaccinated do make a difference, but she suggests this approach may eventually backfire. When you start pitting one group against another, she writes, you create tension and resistance. Simon Bacon, a behavioural scientist at Concordia University in Montreal says, ‘we really need to totally deflate that’. Calling this a pandemic of the unvaccinated, says another study, stigmatizes the people we need to engage with the most. Eight % (of Americans) are not likely to change their minds, but the many others who, for whatever reason, are hesitant, are still part of the conversation.  And it’s those, says Tayaq, we should worry about alienating.

History (she writes about the polio vaccine uptake) suggests that a personal approach (family doctors, other health people, relatives) works better than trying to enforce policies that make people feel excluded, and that their fears and concerns are being dismissed. Tayaq’s last line … ‘compassion, not coercion, is what’s going to get us through this pandemic together.’ 

And that leads us to our Canadian election. Tomorrow. I hope we elect people who, like the solitary advocate in Nampa, are passionate about freedom, who are also compassionate, and who will work hard, messy or not, especially with all the others, to build communities where public and individual health … for everyone, really does matter.  I also hope we elect people who are careful with their words, and who don’t lean too much on their own understandings.  

… it’s all a bit tentative …

In a CBC interview, Cheryl Pauls (President of CMU in Winnipeg) says the resistance to masks and the vaccines among Mennonites (they interview leaders from several faith groups in the article) is a bit baffling because it’s out of character for a people who have a long history of caring for their neighbors. She takes a shot at it and says the initial lock-downs felt over done here on the prairies because we have a lot of space in which to be pretty distanced and safe and so the distrust of ‘what’s behind it all’ began to fester. (Opposition to vaccines in Mennonite Communities ‘baffling’/cbc.ca)

I take the annual flu shot.  And the one for pneumonia.  Tylenol for arthritis. And other things now and then. I really don’t know what’s in any of those medications, but they seem to work.  Also I didn’t get polio nor smallpox because a long time ago other people were vaccinated against them. A friend of ours in Bolivia yesterday wrote that they’re still waiting their second covid shots but the country has just run out of vaccines. They’ve been waiting for weeks, while in Alberta we will now pay you $100 to get even one needle. We have vaccines in abundance but here (some) people are obstructing health workers from getting to work. Anti-vaccine, anti-protocols, anti-everything rallies are showing up on the prairies?  Rally leaders, invoking prayer for ‘the fight ahead’ while somehow connecting the vaccination of children to a looming communism suggest that ‘we have to fight like hell or we won’t have any country left? (Trump first used that line on Jan 6).  Is any of this really explainable? 

My brother made a comment about an impact of covid the other day.  He said it has made life more tentative for all of us.  We might be able to eat out next week, but maybe not. We might plan a trip to somewhere, but it may not happen.  Everyone hopes classes will proceed routinely this Fall, but as covid infections increase in our 4th wave, ‘routine’ may not be the word. A family gathering may or may not happen.  Church … hmmm. Some in the pews won’t take the vaccine, and that keeps others feeling a little tentative about going back. If we do go, should we mask up? Will the unvaccinated be masked? Where is it safe to sit now? I walked into a Tim’s last week in northern Alberta and realized I was the only person wearing a mask. That’s fine for a quick Tim’s stop, but if I’m one of only a few in church wearing a mask and I know there are unvaccinated people in the building, I might opt out for a while? The best laid plans these days are tentative and for many, it’s more than a little exhausting.

I do wonder if some of the ugly public protests about procedures that are there to protect us are in some way a reaction to life having become a lot less manageable?  I admit that the confusion and often lousy communication and interference is maddening. We are used to making decisions and to the feeling that we are in control. We (evangelicals, but also others) like to say God is in control, but when we get the feeling that we can’t count on what we’ve gotten used to and feel entitled to, we have a surprizing capacity to become irritable reactors to people who are really trying to look after us. It makes little sense, but when we lose what felt like some level of control it eventually gets the better of us; we become militant and do things that, 5 years from now may embarrass us, and 5 years earlier, we would never have considered. 

But there is more to this ‘tentative comment’.  My brother wasn’t being negative.  In fact, he said he rather liked it this way. For sure, it’s more stressful in some ways, but in other ways, if we give ourselves a chance to adapt, it’s less so.  There are good things about life becoming less definable. Deadlines are less firm. Commitments can be held a little more loosely. We can show up late, cause … whatever! I loved living in Bolivia for many reasons, but one was that while people worked as hard as they do anywhere, if you missed a deadline, tomorrow was another day. And it was fine to show up late for the supper invite. And if you couldn’t make an event, well, things are more easily forgiven there. Our friend Ona used to say that in Bolivia everything is negotiable, and that also means that everything is more tentative. They count the chickens after they are hatched, and I’m pretty sure it’s a healthier way to live. 

In some of our western cultures we’re obsessed with planning and accomplishing and producing and counting – as if it’s a form of Godliness. It’s destructive to anyone who can’t keep up. To young people trying to find their place. To newcomers trying to find their way inside a foreign language and an unforgiving culture. Destructive also to the souls of those who become really good at it all because it messes up the whole idea of living by faith. We are creatures whose God-DNA is all about faith and so our at-the-same-time need to own and to define things begins to interfere with our capacity to develop the faith instinct we are born with. Faith being the relationship we have with the less clearly known – God and everything around us. In our obsession with naming things and owning them, we substitute faith with what we can see and accomplish and manage and describe. 

Maybe it annoys us that a virus we can’t see can wreck such world-wide havoc with how we think things should be and in our frustration we deny it all because that’s how we can keep feeling like things aren’t tentative and that we still have control. Making signs about it helps.  And then we add, because that’s what we’ve always said, that really, ‘God is in control’, but I suspect, that also enhances our capacity to deny what’s happening around us.

So, is my brother being prophetic about all this?  Will our frustration with each other eventually subside? Will things being tentative, rather than just frustrate and annoy us, instead begin to lead us into living a little more like people of faith? People who embrace what we can’t quite nail down, and who look for opportunities to be curious and helpful rather than harsh towards each other?    

Someone posted a good note about the Good Samaritan story yesterday. It said there were three kinds of people in that story. The robber was in it to take for himself. The priest and levite didn’t take anything, but looked, first, after their own protocols. The Samaritan looked first after the needs of the other. Most of the world still likes that story. 

… a little time …

Five hundred years ago, our forefathers were burned and drowned and otherwise executed for thinking that baptism should be performed on adults, and not on infants. They were the anabaptists. Luther, the original reformer, didn’t like them, and neither did the Catholic church. The anabaptists also believed in separating the church from the state. That may, in fact, have been the one that caused them the most trouble.  Political and religious leaders, then as now, don’t like feeling that they’re not in control of things. 

A week ago, I watched a pastor baptize a baby. I’ve not been in many services where infants are baptized, so I was curious about the ceremony, and the fact that during the same service they dedicated another baby without the baptism.  Same congregation. Different options for parents. The pastor explained what they were doing, affirmed both families in their choices, and invited the congregation to also show their affirmation. Nothing seemed even a little controversial, I assume because the point of the two ceremonies was understood; parents, as part of a larger body, are going to do their best to raise their children. Whether a little water is poured over the baby, or someone places a hand on them to say a prayer … I’m pretty sure God isn’t worried about the procedure, and neither, it seemed to me, was the congregation.

When I was baptized, decades back, the form of it was still kind of a big deal. Either you were immersed or sprinkled; congregations and entire Conferences were defined and known by which form they used. But only a few years later, the church where I was sprinkled began to give young people the option of one or the other. If they wanted to be immersed, they went down to the river.  Otherwise, sprinkling happened in the traditional way.  Both, always, in the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit. The option to choose, in that church and in many others, is pretty common and accepted today. 

A month or so ago, our Conference leadership voted on whether to allow women in leadership.  Women are already in leadership roles in some of the churches but apparently not licensed to be in those roles. We’re pretty much in step with the Catholic church on that one, although I’m guessing that in our Conference as among the Catholics, the majority of members are wondering why we are still even talking about this. But apparently we are and that, I suppose, is at least a good thing. 

I’ve met quite a few church leaders over the last months, as vaccines against the virus became available.  A couple of pastors said they and their families are vaccinated, but if this was known among their colleagues or in their congregations, it would be frowned upon and they might even lose their ministries. Everyone is aware of the rumours out there. Those who are vaccinated will die in a couple of years.  Vaccinated women run the risk of becoming infertile. It’s too quick a vaccine; how can we trust it, say others. Most who aren’t vaccinated seem to hesitate because there has been so much confusing information. We just want to wait and see, is quite often the comment. But in the meantime, more people will get sick, and businesses, families and churches will struggle with safety and relational concerns.  An older woman told me last week she is travelling soon to visit her brother. Her nephew and his wife are not vaccinated so she wonders how the family time will happen. She worries about her own safety and said she may refuse to enter their home.  We will have to meet outside, she said, but she knows this will create tensions in a family that loves to be together. 

So, does our politicized reaction to covid, to mask wearing, and the harsh divisions over the vaccine response have anything to do with baptism and women in leadership?  Probably not, but some things about our human response to things are similar. Suspicion is one and if we feed it too much, it becomes the default starting place for every experience. We humans have the God DNA in us; our basic instincts are towards the good. We hate suffering. We lean toward trust and that’s the one we need to feed because there really is a lot to trust in that DNA. If we nurture it we will be more helpful to each other when change comes at us.

Confusion is the other thing that becomes a problem. It’s often a good thing. It can lead to research and discovery and can feed an honest faith journey. But confusion has also recked havoc over the 18 months of covid.  It does this any time change comes at us, whether it’s about modes of baptism, church politics, having children, taking up a new job, or even retirement.  And it does this even moreso, when change comes at us in a hyper, media-inspired frenzy … : covid and the vaccine.  We find ourselves scrambling to find some sense, some coherence in it all.  But in all this we humans could also remind ourselves that there is a common sense about things; it takes us a while, – sometimes decades and centuries – to get past the distrust and suspicion and the rumouring, but if we give it time, that common sense usually does emerge. In baptism, we got past the form to the sense of it. Eventually, our Conference, and maybe even the Catholics will agree that women are capable leaders and that the body of Christ is better served and pastored when that question is, well … not a question. I hope so. And I hope the same for other faiths and cultures. It’s long overdue. 

Anne Lamott has a helpful, bottom-line kind of comment about all this: it’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid, that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then, when I grew up, I found that life handed you these rusty, bent, old tools – friendship, prayer, conscience, honesty – and said, ‘do the best you can with these; they will have to do’. And mostly, against all odds, they do. 

We’re only a year and a half into this pandemic. Did we really think it would go smoothly?  I hope scientists will keep finding vaccines and many other ways to keep us healthy.  I hope everyone will get the vaccine for covid, sooner rather than later.  I hope we richer countries will go our of our way to help provide vaccines for others. I also hope that we all will be a little patient with each other and with ourselves …  because when we completely run out of patience, and we just start yelling and shouting … it really just always gets worse. 

… this would save the world … and it does …

The quotation below (from a Canadian Foodgrains Bank set of notes) could be a footnote to Matthew 25. Or to the Ten Commandments. Or to the conversation where Jesus says there are really only two things that matter, two commandments: love God and love your neighbour … including your enemy. No matter how right or correct or convincing we are about anything, it’s how we behave with each other that redeems the world. How we make each other feel. As the writer says, it’s where the holy dwells.

I’ve been I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you” when someone sneezes, a leftover from the bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying. And sometimes, when you spill lemons from your grocery bag, someone else will help you pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other. We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot, and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder, and for the driver of the red pick-up truck to let us pass. We have so little of each other, now, so far from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange. What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here, have my seat,” “Go ahead, you first,” “I like your hat.” ~ Danusha Lameris

… not turning away …

I got my second pfizer shot early in June, and felt privileged because, well, that’s what it is!  Our Alberta government had said every adult should be able to get at least the first shot by July 1.  We have populations hesitant about taking the vaccine but we’re close enough to the targets that the Calgary Stampede, a 10-day rodeo and midway carnaval has come back to life.  Last Saturday, Olivia and I went for part of the morning and while attendance was clearly lower, there were a lot of people. It’s almost disorienting now, to be so almost in the clear?  But to add perspective, Kenya, a Commonwealth country, a month ago had a ‘comprehensive vaccine plan by which 30% of the population will be vaccinated by June, 2023.’ (African Population and Research Center, Mar 3/21.) In Canada we’re at 79% (of those eligible) with a single dose and 49% double dosed. We have supply access to vaccinate everyone 3 times over by end of September. Vaccines these days are wildly controversial, but the covid vaccine, like other basic necessities including food and water, has also become about privilege. 

After an earlier post I suggested that for lent next year, maybe we who are of the privileged or, to use Orlando’s adjective, the dominant, usually white class around the world should consider a privilege fast.  Then someone asked what that would look like.  And I really don’t know. Don’t take the vaccine until people in Kenya and Bolivia also have it? It’s one thing to collect a list of privileges … but it’s another to abstain. Because from what, exactly? If you’re white, the police in the USA are less likely to pull you over and if they do, they’re more likely to let you off with a warning? You’re probably a desirable neighbor. You don’t have to do your job twice as well to gain the trust of the company. You’re not followed discretely down the aisles of the grocery store. You won’t have people chasing you in public parks and walkways with racial slurs and, increasingly it seems, physical violence. You won’t wonder why you didn’t get the promotion because … it’s more likely you did, and also, the other guests at the hotel will not assume you are one of the cleaning staff … . Is it possible to divest oneself of any of that privilege, even for 40 days?  

I asked a few people about their experience with privilege. They quickly listed examples where they or their relatives had experienced racism, discrimination, marginalization, or just not being noticed.  A friend said her brother,  a young latino adult, is often racially profiled.  A truck was stolen in the neighborhood and who did the police come after? She said this is a repeated experience for him even though he has a job, lives like his neighbors, but happens to be darker. It’s obvious that this happens to him and to many others because they are not white, but when we ask how a white person can abstain or remove ourselves from the privilege of never being profiled and harassed by the police it becomes a harder question. Would admitting that privilege is a thing be a start?  

A mixed-race couple said that divesting yourself of privilege is not really possible because we live in a system in which accepted ways of thought and behaviour are, well … accepted.  The problem is systemic and self-perpetuating:  ‘no matter your level of awareness, you still benefit from being white’ and are part of the culture to which the rest of the world has deferred for centuries; your (woke) awareness of this ‘does not keep you from being chosen for a job interview’, nor how others treat you on the sidewalk, on the construction site, in the office, the grocery store. We are born into privilege.  So they suggested that rather than somehow divesting ourselves of our privilege, it must itself be used to dismantle the culture of oppression that keeps things as they are. To tell people of color that racism is their problem to solve by … working harder, being more like us, speaking without an accent, being patient, trusting us because we really are well intentioned …  etc, etc … is to abdicate our role in restructuring our world of privilege. 

Cultures, institutions and systems become self-preserving.  Unless we really do think and talk about it, we’ll keep feeding our privilege, and we’ll do it to the point that when we feel it threatened, we’ll turn it into a battle for rights and entitlements. Witness church leaders taking governments and health regions to court because their freedom to meet during covid was taken away for a while and because they were supposed to wear masks. None of this was remotely close to persecution but we are so entitled by our privilege that when we become inconvenienced (that’s all it is) we will litigate to keep it all. 

Don’t turn off the other’s light so that ours can shine.

We also self-preserve in ways that can’t be captured on iphone cameras. In the 6th season of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, the 2nd and 3rd podcasts are called Lord of the Rankings (2) and Project Dillard (3).   How it’s decided which Universities in the USA are ‘the best’. Gladwell discovered that it’s all pretty subjective. US News surveys the presidents and ranks them by how they rank each other. Terribly subjective but these are smart people with many degrees. They must be objective. Right?  Gladwell discovered that the ranking often has to do with how big their endowments are, and whether or not they’re expensive to attend. Seemingly, it’s about ‘status’.  If they’re not expensive schools, it means students with less money will be attending which also means there will be higher drop-out rates for all kinds of reasons.  No one drops out of expensive, prestigious schools; they have resources.  Dillard University is ranked near the bottom, and, to sum it up, it’s because, as Gladwell says in (3), ‘they attract the wrong kind of student’. Students ‘of color’. Which then means those students are disadvantaged while they’re in school and after. They graduated, not from Yale or Harvard but … from Dillard. Gladwell also talks about how Universities raise money. They sell bonds. A bond attracts value by how its buyers think of it. Meaning, an investor will buy what he or she thinks has solid value. Gladwell then asked about universities in Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia. Universities with larger numbers of black students.  And, surprize!! … bonds from those universities were valued much lower than those offered by a ‘normal’ mostly white, richer kids school. Do investors care about race?  Maybe not, but we can tell a lot by the people they invest in. It all perpetuates itself but it’s not always on camera.

So maybe fasting or abstaining from privilege isn’t the right question? Is it at least one of them? At the very least, we could resist the temptation to turn privilege into rights. And we could recognize it for what it becomes … a civilization that’s comfortable looking away while denying equal access to decent wages, security, health care, clean water, housing, jobs, education … and the safety of sidewalk space to indigenous, refugees, newcomers and people of color alike, because, well … it’s really on them? Jesus, Gandhi, King, Mother Theresa, Mandela, Romero, Bonhoeffer, Jody Wilson-Raybould and many others … refused to participate in the privilege that separates us from each other.  It’s why Mandela spent 27 years in prison and, excepting Mother Theresa and JWR, they kept getting killed. All of them would say it begins with ourselves. And if those of us who profess to know Jesus could actually, for 40 days, follow his example by not turning away … we might be on to something?    

… is it over?

In 1992 we had a year of rain in Bolivia. 12 months of it! Every trip out of town to any of the places where MCC had workers was going to be a challenge … often pretty much impossible. In the Berlin region, across the Rio Grande, there were 35 villages, resettled from the Highlands. People from the colder, drier altiplano learning how to farm in the much wetter tropical lowlands and, so low on the banks of the river, there was flooding that year. I was standing on what was dry land one day and then noticed …  the water! Noiselessly creeping across the field towards me through the underbrush.  It wasn’t even raining that day … just slowly rising water from a flooding river. I remember feeling a bit panicked for what would happen to the farmers because … it just kept coming. 

So why am I thinking of that image today, in 2021?  I carry Bolivia with me every day in one way or another, but this memory for me is bit of a metaphor about covid.  A silent flow, sneaking in, almost unnoticed until … it’s there, taking up whatever space it can.  

We are calendar people.  Linear. Befores and afters.  We have markers. Birthdays, baptisms, marriages, divorces. Graduations. Those are the biggies. More globally, well, the wars stand out. And the great depression. Just before Christmas 2019, we began hearing about covid.  It was far away, so … not a big deal, right? But by March 20, Alberta was shutting down the province.  That’s our marker date.  And now, as the water recedes, and we come back from covid (are we?), it will follow us around for a while.  Or maybe we are so sick of it all, we will pretend it never happened?  Yesterday I checked out a popular park in Calgary.  It has play structures, a pool area so big kids can get lost in it,  lovely hills, lots of green. A gorgeous place but a little to my surprize, it was packed. People everywhere and not a mask in sight. Like a normal, pre-covid, hot summer day at the park. 

A writer in a CBC interview talked last week about covid vocabulary.  She had a covid word or more for pretty much every letter in the alphabet.  Adjustment.  Together.  Corona.  Covid.  Distance. Epidemiology.  Mask. Media. Pandemic. Safe. Social Distance. Vaccines. Virus.  Polarization … it went on.  Oh, and zoom!  I think I’m tired of a lot of those words, for now at least, but a couple of other things about these last 16 months do stand out for me: first, how quickly (over 3 months) it occupied so much space. For more than a year we went to bed thinking about it and woke up worrying about what the day would bring to us … because well, it was everywhere! We developed a kind of universal language about it …so that it became for many of us, an anxiety inducing centerpiece in every conversation, zoom or facebook or masked.  The media nurtured the anxiety with 24-hour ‘coverage’ and repetition, and there were weeks where apparently nothing else was going on in the world.  Maybe all the ‘we’re in this together’ language helped a little, but we’ve been all over the place in how to avoid covid, survive it, and speculating about what it is. Together or not, covid became the ‘one thing’ and I’m very looking forward to when the weather or the Olympics will take center stage. History is full of major catastrophic events (WWI-9M, WWII-16M – one note says 60M, AIDS-22M, 1918 Flu-20M-40M) but I’m guessing that when the next calamity hits us, covid 19 will be the reference point. 

The other thing about covid is the tensions it has created among us.  Who would have thought that a mask or a vaccine would divide and polarize us.  Billions around the world would give their little left finger to get a shot in the arm for covid, but in those same countries, as here in Canada, there are also many who, for one reason or another, won’t take the needle. 

Someone in Bolivia told me the other day that even when there are vaccines available, many are not taking them.  In a region where covid deaths are now 8 times  per capita higher than what they are anywhere else in the world, including India.  I asked a friend about this. ‘You tell me,’ he said. ‘I do not understand. I don’t even understand my own family about this.’ 

I keep meeting people who are not taking the vaccine.  The responses vary. Friends of ours say they just prefer to not take foreign substances into their bodies. Others say we are messing with God’s will if we take the needle. Or ‘I don’t think I need it. My body will deal with the virus.’ Still others simply don’t trust government. ‘We have a 400-year history,’ one church leader said, ‘of government betrayals. Covid, these 16 or so months, followed by the worldwide push to vaccinate … has come at us with so much government that we just don’t trust it.’  Others say there’s a chip in the vaccine, which, implanted in our blood stream or tissue somehow will enable a tracking of all human beings. A mark of the beast or something comes to mind for them. Still others talk about Bill Gates who, said one person, has long been known to push for population control … so, a virus somehow let loose on the world by Bill Gates? In collusion with China? And somebody is now making a lot of money with the vaccines! Information has been so prolific and often so confusing that finding and connecting dots is bound to happen. 

The world has lost over 4 million people. And it’s not over. But where things are opening up, will families come together where some are vaccinated and others not? Will churches? Mosques? Hindu temples? Communities? Teams?  Astrophysicist Hakeem Muata Oluseyi spoke this morning (the Sunday Magazine) about his life growing up in difficult circumstances – including drug addiction – in Louisiana to what he does today. He wasn’t talking about covid, but he said … ‘we are built to survive.’  We are and we will, but the scars of covid, often unseen, will be with us for a while. We will be tested, I suspect, on whether we are serious about the together talk. And it may be helpful to sit or play together on green hillsides, patios, or backyards for a while, and not talk too much about covid.  

A Lament:

Earlier last week, someone quoted their daughter who had asked, ‘mommy do I look too Muslim?’ The post below is about the long history we have in Canada of reminding the indigenous people who came long before we settlers did, and later, the ‘newcomers’, that it works best here, if they all try really hard to be like the rest of us. The post comes out of the EMC Church in MacGregor, Manitoba. It’s speaks into this long history and it’s important to read. I’m posting it with permission.

A Lament

By: Shannon Doerksen

Originally published June 10, 2021, on MacGregorEMC.com.

I was ten years old in 1996 when the last residential schools in Canada were closed.  I don’t think at that point I had even heard of them.   

I remember that the Canadian history I learned in school was very centred on European settlers – one could be forgiven for coming away from those lessons believing that the history of this land and its people only began once white people were there to see it – ‘if a tree falls in a forest and there is no white man there to see it, did it really fall?’  We were told that indigenous people were traded blankets infected with smallpox, but we didn’t have to sit with any discomfort about that for long because we were assured that the Americans had done worse.  This was echoed when we learned about Japanese internment camps, about turning away Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism.  There’s always someone, somewhere, worse, so we can feel better about ourselves in comparison.  We don’t need to feel uncomfortable. 

If we thought about indigenous populations at all, it was to decry their “inability to let the past go” and prescribe solutions for any problems they experienced that would make them more like us.  We couldn’t acknowledge that what we characterized as the past was actually very present and ongoing.  We didn’t believe that they had anything of value to offer us beyond a carte-blanche to use their land however we wished, with no discussion, pushback, or need to listen.  We were nice white people, and we were here to ‘help.’ 

Lord, have mercy. 

Recently, 215 bodies were found on the site of a residential school in British Columbia.  They say some are as young as three years old.  I have a child that age.  I try to imagine her being taken away without my consent to be educated in a culture and language not only not my own, but with the express purpose of instilling hatred and shame of my culture and language in her.  I try to imagine her not coming home and never knowing why or where she is, or her coming home to find we can no longer communicate and I am a source of embarrassment and shame to her.  I can hardly breathe. 

Christ, have mercy. 

It is interesting that this has come to the fore during a pandemic where we have heard, over and over again, from small groups of people loudly insisting that the restrictions contradict their freedom of religion by insisting they gather remotely, or their freedom of mobility by putting limits on shopping or recreation.  It was not so long ago that indigenous people in this country were barred from practicing their spirituality at all.  It was not so long ago that their mobility was at the mercy of a government agent’s whims.  

We settler Canadians love to think of this country as a bastion of peace and freedom.  For us, it often is.  We have schools and health care and clean drinking water and passable roads in our communities.  That’s not the case for many indigenous people.  A high school education is not locally available in some communities so children have to be billeted in an unfamiliar city far from their families and communities just to access basic education.  Expectant mothers in some communities can’t access the health care they need and have to spend the last bit of their pregnancy in an unfamiliar city far from home.  Safe potable water is not present in every community. These deficits are a cruel kind of insult added to injury – we want to relegate residential schools to an unfortunate dark chapter of this country’s past, but we won’t ensure that children won’t have to travel far from their families to complete high school?  We will deprive women of their family and community support for pregnancy and childbirth?  We will not ensure safe drinking water for every community?   

I am aware that I am not personally responsible for residential schools or the Sixties Scoop or smallpox.  I didn’t personally preside over the Indian Act, but here I am in a country that has afforded me a comfortable life and many opportunities because I follow, whether directly or indirectly, the people and policies responsible for those things.   

Generation after generation of settlers running things and here we are: I am not afraid that I won’t be taken seriously in the ER.  I am not afraid of mistreatment, or worse, at the hands of police.  I am not afraid that I will go missing and that law enforcement and the media will either ignore my disappearance or construct a narrative around it that insists it was my own fault.  I am not afraid of Child and Family Services.  I am not afraid that someone’s private property will be valued more highly than my life. No one should be afraid of those things, but as things are, indigenous people in this country have good reason to be.   

I don’t know how to fix things, but the point of this post is to lament. That is something of importance too because it’s by lamenting that we can begin to see the scope of a problem. Maybe right now, grieving and learning is what needs to be done. Maybe then, by paying attention to the injustices suffered wave upon wave by indigenous people in this country, in some small way, we can figure out how to accomplish something in the direction of reconciliation and reparation. 

Lord, have mercy. 

… this tragic story …

I was a little surprized at the question. A media correspondent today asked Murray Sinclair, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2009 to 2015) how important he thinks it is to find the graves of the thousands of children who died while attending the Residential Schools in Canada.  I doubt she would have asked had the subject been missing soldiers, but for some reason, when we’re talking about missing indigenous children, it’s a question? Sinclair responded respectfully. He always does.  

A few years ago, someone said that a hundred years from now, someone in Israel will apologize for the fact that since 1948 Israel, with the support of Canada and the United States and other countries, has occupied and taken away the land, the individual homes, literally the collective life of Palestinians in Israel, in the West Bank, in Gaza. It’s a ghastly terrible story that continues today.  Look at any fotos of what’s left of Gaza and read a story about how the constant harassment of the Israeli Military in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza impacts children who live there.  But then the comment continued.  Someone in Israel will apologize for what they did but they will keep what they took. 

In 2008, Prime Minister Harper made a formal apology to the Indigenous peoples of Canada for Canada’s role in the operation of Indian Residential Schools (IRS) the Canada-wide school system of ‘aggressive assimilation’ in which indigenous children were, in many cases, abducted, forced into residence and kept there, many for years. Sir John A MacDonald is to have said that ‘we must take the Indian out of the Indian’ and the residential schools became the tool.  It was thought that if you changed how they dressed, forced them to speak English or French, kept them away from their communities for 10 or 12 months of the year, and turned them into Christians, the ‘indian problem’ would go away. From the late 1900s until 1996, there were a total of about 130 schools.  150,000 children were removed from their communities, into the schools.  As if it wasn’t enough to take small children away from their parents and separate them from their sisters or brothers, many were also abused and violated. Thousands died, buried in unmarked graves. Often their families were never told what happened to their children.  Could any of us endure this? 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) travelled across Canada as part of the IRS Settlement agreement.  Along with many others, I was able to attend a few of the sessions and listen to the stories of some survivors.  They were sad, awful stories, hard to hear and I remember wondering: 1) how was it possible for the Canadian Government and the churches of Canada to think that this was somehow an acceptable to treat anyone.  Today, it’s called cultural genocide but by whatever name, the systematic separation of children from their parents, to forcibly root out who they were …  is simply barbaric.  But this was us. Canada. 2) how is it that I, along with apparently most Canadians, knew so very little about this history.  It’s as if the people who were here before we settlers arrived were not worth acknowledging, except as a problem, and that the best way forward, now that we had conquered them, was to make them like us, or, failing that, to put them on reserves and make them invisible to us. 3) how utterly kind the people were to us, who came to hear their stories.  I attended I think, 4 sessions. In Saskatoon, Lethbridge, Calgary and later, in Edmonton. We were welcomed, hosted, and I don’t remember once being made to feel badly.  In fact, they seemed to go out of their way to help us not feel badly. 4) how respectfully most of the ones I heard, spoke about the church.  

A lot is being made now, by the media and by our current Prime Minister about apologies needing to be made, after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves of little children near a Residential School in Kamloops, BC.   For sure that’s important, but our own Federal Government made a big deal, back in 2015 of accepting all 94 calls to action that came out of the TRC.  If they had read the calls to action at the time, they would have known that numbers 71 to 76 were part of the commitment!  Somehow, it’s as if we make commitments a little easily, while everyone’s watching, and then move on to other things that are always more pressing. It’s important to apologize and to fly flags at half mast, but surely, from 2015 until 2021, we could have done some significant work on 71 to 76. It’s right there in a section called ‘missing children and burial information.’ Hard to miss,  and now it’s 2021 and as if we’re just becoming aware of what happened to the children. I wonder if that in itself becomes another offensive part of this whole sad story. Our capacity to hear it, walk away, and then, when we’re painfully reminded again, forgive ourselves for having kind of forgotten about it while calling for action and more apologies. 

Missing Children and Burial Information 

71. We call upon all chief coroners and provincial vital statistics agencies that have not provided to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada their records on the deaths of Aboriginal children in the care of residential school authorities to make these documents available to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. 

72. We call upon the federal government to allocate sufficient resources to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation to allow it to develop and maintain the National Residential School Student Death Register established by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 

73. We call upon the federal government to work with churches, Aboriginal communities, and former residential school students to establish and maintain an online registry of residential school cemeteries, including, where possible, plot maps showing the location of deceased residential school children. 

74. We call upon the federal government to work with the churches and Aboriginal community leaders to inform the families of children who died at residential schools of the child’s burial location, and to respond to families’ wishes for appropriate commemoration ceremonies and markers, and reburial in home communities where requested. 

75. We call upon the federal government to work with provincial, territorial, and municipal governments, churches, Aboriginal communities, former residential school students, and current landowners to develop and implement strategies and procedures for the ongoing identification, documentation, maintenance, commemoration, and protection of residential school cemeteries or other sites at which residential school children were buried. This is to include the provision of appropriate memorial ceremonies and commemorative markers to honour the deceased children. 

76. We call upon the parties engaged in the work of documenting, maintaining, commemorating, and protecting residential school cemeteries to adopt strategies in accordance with the following principles: 

  1. The Aboriginal community most affected shall lead the development of such strategies. 
  2. Information shall be sought from residential school Survivors and other Knowledge Keepers in the development of such strategies. 
  3. Aboriginal protocols shall be respected before any potentially invasive technical inspection and investigation of a cemetery site. 

In a visit to what was once a Residential School in Fort Chipewyan, Northern Alberta, a number of years ago, along with about 10 or 12 leaders from various Canadian Church Denominations, we met Ed, who had attended and survived the school. I remember a comment: the hardest thing, he said, was the omnipresence of the nuns.  They were always watching us.  

And that’s the thing.  In Palestine, it’s the always threatening and excessively powerful presence of the Israeli military. Their cameras and machine guns are everywhere.  In the Residential schools it apparently was the threat of punishment and often, abuse.  It’s sackcloth and ashes we should be sitting in for a while, and then, as Casadi Schroeder said in a post after she read about the 215 graves in Kamloops  …  ‘Let’s dig up the past, both literally and figuratively! Let’s listen well, learn, not defend ourselves, not judge, take responsibility, say sorry, pray, and allow our First Nations of Canada to do what they need to do to find healing (and not what we think they need.)’  And maybe let’s not ask how important it is to find the graves. 

… today … what is …

My brother and his wife stopped by for a breakfast visit yesterday.  Both fully vaccinated and me, halfway there, we sat around the table.  First, almost normal visit in a quite a few months.  I’ve had other visits and coffees with people these past 15 months, in parking lots, 20 feet apart in church foyers, on outside patios, in the spring cool of a backyard … but around the kitchen table?  Like something almost forgotten coming back to life? 

Inevitably, we talked about covid, about the vaccine uptake and the widely and wildly different (and I think dangerous) views that lately seem to have taken root inside, often, the same families, churches, neighborhoods. It’s enough to make me chew my legs off at times, but, as our mother – who worked almost day and night to keep us fed and clothed and suffered most of her life from serious arthritic pain – would probably have said, had I fretted about all this to her, ‘that’s not very helpful, Abe. You have things to do.’ 

A week ago or so, my nephew, Ted, posted something his 6-year-old son had said to him that day.  It went something like this: ‘Hey dad. Did you know that all you need to survive is something to drink and eat.  That’s all you need. Oh, and some toys in case you get bored. But that’s it’.  

The same day, my old friend Tom Yaccino posted a quotation from Gregory Boyle: “the Ancient Desert Fathers, when they were disconsolate and without hope, would repeat one word, over and over, as a kind of soothing mantra.  And the word wasn’t ‘Jesus’ or ‘God’ or ‘Love’.  The word was ‘Today’. It kept them where they needed to be.” (One of the more helpful pieces of calming wisdoms I may have read in a long time; it calms the soul.)

Later that evening, I was reading a chapter in Dusk, Night, Dawn, by Anne Lamott.  The power had gone out in their county for 4 days, and, as Lamott writes, things are starting to come apart at the seams a bit. She’s been coping, but she’s beginning to ‘spiral into victimized self-righteousness.’ The bad voice inside me cried, ‘what if’, ‘what if?’ What if the power stays off, or this happens every month? But the gentle voice of the mother who had cleaned between my toes said, ‘What is? What is?’  ‘What is’ was food, nature, one another, what we have and what works.’  

A bit later, still fretting and trying to harness her emotions into something less skittish and preoccupied, she goes for a walk. It’s clear in most of Anne Lamott’s stories that she wages a constant battle with her own fears and obsessions, her tormenting demons, and now she writes … ‘when there is nowhere to go, you realize that most of the time you are racing purposefully from place to place, missing out on how wondrous it all is, even the upended trees with root systems that are a massive, sturdy  … connection underneath.’ ‘The earth will hold,’ she writes, ‘and that rootedness is our faith.’ It’s all down there, and around us, always at work, in the what we see and what we can’t.  

Still later, in a car, she is venting to a friend about something in her husband she finds annoying and about another couple, the husband in which Lamott apparently also finds annoying. Lamott hopes her friend will engage and commiserate with her, and she does, sort of; they’re friends after all.  But then her friend becomes quiet, looks out the window to the mountain view in front of them and sighs. ‘Wow’, she says … ‘we live in such a beautiful place’. (p 169). 

Viktor Frankl survived various Nazi concentration camps. His young wife died in the Bergen Belsen camp. Frankl, a psychiatrist maybe best known for his book Man’s Search for Meaning writes, ‘when we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.  Between stimulus and response, there is a space. A human being is a deciding being.’ Which, I think, is what the Adam-and-Eve-in-the-garden story is really about.  We humans decide. We choose. A thousand times a day. If we couldn’t and didn’t, love, the rootedness of everything, would become a muted nothing. 

We like, sometimes especially in the most distressing times to say that God is in control. But God isn’t. Nor are we. The whole thing … our relationship with the divine and with each other works itself out like the massive, messy root systems under the trees as we decide things, inside the world of a thousand options. Oh, I believe the Holy Spirit is all over and inside it all, but no, if she or he was manipulating all things, all the time, if the Holy Spirit was really ‘in control’ the way we talk about it …  this would all be quite meaningless. The pain, the confusion, and the love … that’s the thing. That’s the beauty … and we are part of it, each of us … always deciding.  

And when the weight of past memories or the longer view ahead become too much, maybe it helps to remember that it’s today and this next choice I’m responsible for, that the simple wisdom of a 6-year old may steady and settle my jitters, and that I have things to do … that I can do.