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. 

… our neighbors …

A person in one of the Mennonite churches in Alberta asked last week why MCC works with partners that are not Christian in some countries. MCC works through over 500 partners in about 50 countries. The question apparently came from wondering if a Muslim partner distributes, for example, blankets shipped overseas by MCC, those blankets will most likely have been made and donated by Christians.  MCC will have shipped them in the name of Christ but the distributing MCC partner might be understood to be giving them out in the name of Allah.

Slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero is pictured in an undated file photo. Oscar Arnulfo Romero was born in Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador, in 1917. He was assassinated March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass in the chapel of San Salvador’s Hospital of Divine Providence. He was a vigorous defender of the powerless and the poor and a critic of unjust military and government actions during a time of civil unrest in his country. (CNS file photo) (March 7, 2003)

Anabaptist World (May 14) printed a story about a Mennonite church in Burkina Faso being approached by Muslims in the community about buying a hearse together. The Muslims said that for 30 years, every time someone dies, they have to get help from neighboring communities. For about $8000 they could get a used hearse from Germany … and would the Mennonites agree to help them?  Burkina Faso has experienced a lot of tension and violence recently between Christians and Muslims – 5% of the population has been displaced and over 2000 people died last year – and these leaders thought that perhaps working together on a project like the hearse, which everyone could agree is important, would help in healing some of divisions in their community.  The Mennonites considered this carefully, even with the National body. They knew that some Muslims believe their dead are defiled by contact with non-Muslims and so this request would have required some courage. The Mennonites also knew that when the brother of a national Mennonite leader had died, it was the Muslims in that community who had helped with the burial. https://anabaptistworld.org/mennonites-muslims-come-together-to-bury-their-dead/?utm_source=Anabaptist+World&.

March 13, 2019, the Canadian Mennonites carried an article (Sandra Reimer) with TourMagination about a group of Mennonites who left Russia in 1880 following Claas Epp, who thought that somewhere in the East, Jesus would meet him and his followers. A group of about of 125 wagons had left Molotchna in Southern Russia. Along the way, many abandoned the ‘Great Trek’ as it is sometimes known, but others continued through much hardship. Eventually they were forced to ‘winter’ in the Muslim community of Serabulak. Their hosts found them small buildings to live in and because the Mennonites worshipped on Sundays, the Muslims allowed them to use their local Mosque for worship, where, during that winter, 2 Mennonite couples were married and 21 young people were baptized. They eventually settled in a place called Ak Metchet and if you google Mennonites in Uzbekistan, you’ll find references to the positive impression the Mennonites left in different places in that region until 1935, when they were forcibly dispursed by the Soviets. The Muslims and the Mennonites did not try to convert each other and the way in which the Mennonites contributed to the larger, Muslim community, won them favorable impressions that are now, almost 100 years later, still remembered. 

Now and then over the years, someone has asked me if it’s true that an MCC worker somewhere in Asia helped the Muslims in their community build a mosque. It was likely a Buddhist community and they were building a pagoda? It’s quite an old story and I’m not sure of the place nor the exact year, but what seems to have happened is that a pagoda in a village came down either in a fire or a tornado, and the MCC worker who lived in the village helped his or her neighbors to rebuild their place of worship. I hope I would have done the same thing. 

Yucumo is a region in Bolivia where MCC had a number of workers over a period of about 8 years. It’s a warm, tropical lowland 600 km NW of Santa Cruz. We crossed 8 rivers to get there.  Three communities in the area had asked MCC to help them build a gravity water system by capturing a spring up in the nearby hills and channeling the water to taps in each of the communities. Through MCC’s water technician, Nestor Perez, USAID had offered funds to help build it, but because taking money from USAID can be complicated, MCC wasn’t sure to accept it.  We did, in the end, and the water system was built. But what has always stayed with me is a conversation I had at the time with a Canadian Government rep in La Paz.  I had asked his advice about our hesitation in taking USAID money. If your primary concern is the integrity of your organization, he said, you may not want to take the money.  But if it’s important to help the people in those communities gain access to clean water, then take the money and build the water system. 

Separation barrier Israel Westbank

On a learning tour to Palestine/Israel a number of years ago, our group ended up in Nazareth, where they had gone to great lengths to recreate the 1st century life of villagers as they lived when Jesus was there 2000 years ago.  We walked for a while, met some shepherds and sheep and fig trees, and then listened to someone in the synagogue read from an Old Testament scroll, the way Jesus was invited to read in Luke 4.  Jesus had read from Isaiah 61, sat down and they all thought well of his gracious words; he was reading about coming to release the oppressed, give sight to the blind, and good news to the poor. The kind of serious words so often read or spoken by pretty much any leader or layperson …  of any faith. But Jesus didn’t let them get away with the comfortable response. Amen, we say, and … home to lunch. Jesus sat down and then stood them on their heads when he said ‘no prophet is accepted in his home town. I assure you there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time when the sky was shut for 3 and a half years and there was severe famine. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarapheth, in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed, only Naaman the Syrian.’ The people listening in Luke 4 were furious. Jesus, from their own prophets, had rubbed their noses in the fact that God was always as concerned about their non-Jewish neighbors as he was about them. They tried to throw him over a cliff for that.  

It’s one thing to read scriptures, write blogs, speak sermons, post tweets …  and agree that we must all accept each other and be good neighbors. But actually doing it, courageously, without any agenda other than to love our neighbors even when it is inconvenient and costly, will make the greater difference for the common and long-term good. Whatever the Holy Spirit wants to do inside those relationships is really up to the Holy Spirit but we can be sure that it works better if we don’t mess it up with our distrust and our ‘being right’ about too many things.  

… these messy times …

Calgary Herald writer Licia Corbella writes earlier last week about the 2 or 3 church leaders in Alberta, who have been claiming that our rights are being taken away by government covid restrictions.  She is herself a Christian, and is embarrassed by the noise. The article includes comments from a retired minister (Ray Mattheson) of Calgary First Alliance who laments the unfortunate ‘witness’ becoming broadly attached to the evangelical Christian community because we so loudly insist on our rights as ‘God-given’. Corbella: Defiant Alberta pastors defame and blaspheme Jesus with their actions

 In High School, back in the late 60s for me, there was a week where the ‘worldlier’ students (they were the Lutherans) wanted to have a school dance and the Mennonite evangelicals, of whom I was one, opposed it. I can’t quite imagine that happening today but it did then. We were literally in the hallways one day, on opposite sides. It was terribly uncomfortable and I didn’t speak. Not because I was a peace maker or in anyway helpful to the situation. In fact, I felt guilty for not speaking up against the dance because somehow, I thought that was what we were supposed to do. At home after school, our dad and I were hauling bales and in the truck, after loading, I told him what happened at school. Dad asked what I had done and I said, ‘well, nothing’, expecting him to be disappointed. But he wasn’t. ‘Good’, he said, and that was that.  My guess is that today he might say something similar to church leaders who are loud about ‘our rights being taken away’. Advocate for things that matter, is what I think he might say. Having church services is not a right. I’m pretty sure god wants us to meet and sometimes also to dance … but rights over which to create division? 

 There are human rights to insist on, especially on behalf of the billions who don’t have them:  the right to food. Safety. Housing. Clean water. A living wage maybe? Freedom from discrimination?  Freedom of religion?  Freedom of speech?  But meeting in larger groups in defiance of restrictions put in place to keep us from spreading a pretty deadly virus isn’t one of those. How Jesus lived and died was always about loving our neighbors;  defying a public order put there for the public good doesn’t seem to align with that commandment. We can adjust and most Churches are. And later, we’ll readjust. Faith is at least partly about living with all the uncertainties.  

A friend asked me the other day about whether at some point, we can legitimately say that, as Christians our rights are being violated.  It was just a phone conversation, but we talked about a few things: 

First, do we really have rights?  We have privileges and Mennonites have been pretty good, over two centuries, at negotiating language, education and military exemption privileges in a few countries. But those aren’t rights and we’ve always known that. When those are threatened, our tendency has been to adjust, or to sell and move. We haven’t made a fuss. Jesus was vigorously on the side of the poor and the disenfranchised, but in the end his was the way of crucifixion, not of rights.  My kingdom is not of this world, he said …  and still, we insist on making it so. 

Second, In Romans 12, the very last verse, Paul, overexplaining as he tends to, says to not be overcome of evil, but to overcome evil with good.  Two big statements in one verse that seem clear enough and straightforward.  Do good. Don’t do evil. Karl Barth talks about it in his Commentary: Paul, he says, is warning us about our tendency to embrace the kingdom of God as ours, on our terms. Like clinging to the false idea that the United States, or any other country is a Christian nation and then insisting that human-made laws and regulations make it so.   Being overcome of evil, says Barth, is being overcome of our own entitlements, clinging too tightly to our version of how things should be.  

Third, Christians sometimes like to feel like we are being persecuted.  We’re mostly not, at least not in the West.  Just because we can’t say the Lord’s prayer in public school anymore doesn’t mean we are being persecuted. That was never our right and insisting on it doesn’t’ do very much for a public witness. Loving our neighbor does. When I think of persecution I think of what is endured these days by black people, people of color, indigenous people, and by LGBTQ people, women … in many places.  I think of Palestine where, for over 60 years, Palestinians (Christians and Muslims) have been massively traumatized by the Israeli Military occupation. Almost seventy years in super crowded refugee camps with water and electricity severely rationed and where soldiers can invade any house, at any time, for no reason, and where they often demolish houses, just because, leaving the Palestinians without recourse. Gaza, a tiny piece of land with 5000 people per sq km, now being bombed and destroyed. Again. That’s persecution. Those people have a right to cry out! What we’re experiencing with covid restrictions is not that.  We’re experiencing an inconvenience.  To be sure we all do much better in community, and we all miss our people, but I’m also pretty sure that physically being together for Sunday morning church is secondary to breathing and keeping each other out of the ICUs.  

I don’t want to minimize the fatigue, the anxiety, the seemingly endless confusion we are living in with covid, it’s variants and the vaccines.  I also want to remind myself that, as a wise person said, ‘hard is hard’ and no matter who we are, our troubles are real. Bonnie Henry of BC Health has written a book about our journey through the pandemic: she called it  Be Kind, be Calm, be Safe.  Maybe the title says everything. 

… in the small places …

First, way back, there was the flood.  God had had enough of our decadence so he drowned most of us and started the whole thing over.  Only a couple of chapters later, Genesis 11, God gets nervous about our ambitions and intervenes again. It’s really a major event in our history but the writers accord it exactly 9 verses.  Just a footnote. 

The Babel story came up the other day in conversation with Orlando. We were talking about MCC, Mennonites,  racism and colonialism, the dominant culture … and inevitably … Babel?? The tower story.  God got tired of our entitled triumphalism, threw a bunch of languages into the mix and messed it all up. Not as dramatic as the Flood maybe, but still, pretty big stuff.

It’s a hard-to-believe story except as an illustration or an intent to create an understanding of how we got here, with a little story about how it happened? We do that, we humans, and then, over the centuries, we interpret and re-interpret, and we ascribe meaning, no matter how much any of us insist it’s all infallible truth. So it’s not a stretch to assume that if there is a race that considers itself historically the dominant people (today it’s us white folks) they might also read into the Babel story that human beings all spoke ‘our language’ and things were humming along well, in our kind of way. Until the dominance and the it’s-all-about-us entitlement got a little much and God shuffled the deck.  

The long and short of the story (still talking about Babel) is the understanding that what happened there was  God’s wake-up call; whoever we were, we had become a little too self-assured and things needed to be shaken up a bit. It reminds me of Peter’s wake-up experience when he had that vision (Acts 10) of the animals descending and being invited by God himself to stop being such a prude and to eat freely; that moment when he realized God’s presence among us had never been just about his people. 

I wonder if the Babel story is so briefly written because the writers are capturing an oral history, just to offer some kind of explanation to how it is we have a world of so many languages and cultures?  Maybe it had nothing to do with there once being one race and one language and we were always many from long before they wrote that story. That’s my guess so that at it’s very best, it’s a really short parable about humility and wisdom applied to any community, any individual, and indeed also to any church … at any point in our stories … .   

Either way, along comes covid in late 2019 and wrecks its 21st Century havoc. Our modern day Babel story. We’re a little desperate because our self-assuredness, our western triumphalism and our ‘we especially can fix this’ attitude has been shrunk to size a little.  If you listen to the 24/7 news feeds it feels like we’re running anxious, bewildered and confused. It’s all very babelish and every corner of the world is affected. I’m not suggesting God sent covid nor that any well-intentioned force of correction deliberately turned the virus and the variants loose among us. But the impact of covid is significant and 100 years from now, I wonder how we will talk about this story and why, perhaps, it happened.  

I hope, in whatever way we do talk about it, we also talk at the same time about Pentecost (Acts 2). We’re approaching our second Pentecost-during-covid experience with high infection numbers in many places and continued turmoil and anxiety. One pastor said he has never seen people as harshly divided as we have become during this past year.  Doctors, nurses, teachers and all those working 2 or 3 jobs without sick pay are exhausted and frustrated. Political leaders are sweating. Some churches are in the courts demanding our freedoms and constitutional rights. Others are in the streets protesting our rights and freedoms being restricted. It all feels a bit desperate and in need of a big healing God moment!! 

But Pentecost, unlike the Babel story, was a more contained event and in its quiet way, it flipped Babel on its head. Only a few thousand experienced that curious moment of power and mystery, the visible presence of the Holy Spirit, a moment where people of many backgrounds present heard the same message about the resurrected Christ, not through translators but in their own languages. And then most of them went home. So maybe that’s part of the story here. The God of all goodness and all resurrection shows up to a few and then lets the transformation work itself out among us. That God is less a fixer and more an enabler, which, I think is what Pentecost was about. Covid will disrupt for some time, it appears, and may not lead to any massive during-or-post-covid redemptive change towards maturity, peace and goodness anywhere in the world. We wish for it, but like Pentecost, things will happen in the small places, visible to a few here and there, and a hundred years from now, that goodness in the small places will still have the last word. I’m pretty sure.  

… both-and … our third wave …

Alberta had over 2400 new covid infections last Saturday.   We have twice as many infections per 100,000 as India now, more than any other place in North America, so it’s all a bit worrisome even as our premier, today, announced new restrictions.  Never mind that our count is down yesterday and today …  the media will focus on the higher numbers.  I also heard a comment last week that 28% of Albertans are vaccine hesitant, and while I don’t know others’ percentages, that’s a high number. We have many decades of evidence that vaccines work and  I’m sure many of the 28% in fact believe in vaccines, but with all the incoherence around covid messaging itself and the attention given to any glitch in the roll-out or to the few cases where there’s been a bad reaction I’m not surprized that some hesitate. The National Advisory Committee on Immunizations (NACI) yesterday advised Canadians to possibly wait taking the AZ unless they urgently needed a vaccine, this after health and political leaders have been begging Canadians to take whichever vaccine is being offered. Today specialists and other leaders were in full-on damage control.

The rumour mill also doesn’t help as the media continues its firehose of 24/7 information repetition. For news junkies like me, that’s not really a good thing. Including our national broadcaster, they seem to default to hyper adjectives and adverbs, which creates its own anxiety and panic. ‘Catastrophic’ is the word often used now, and a recent headline asks if Alberta is headed towards … ‘disaster’.  Maybe that’s how we pay attention but the same media interviews professionals who worry about how much mental and emotional anguish 14 months of covid have already created, and how, if ever we get back to a normal we no longer quite remember. Could normal be a news broadcast without hyperbole and amplifiers?

On Saturday new cases in Ontario had gone down but instead of saying that, it was first noted that hospitalizations in Ontario had gone up. Two sentences later, oh right … new cases had gone down. Also Saturday morning … a full article (Paul Wilde) in the Globe and Mail that we, of only one pfizer dose might not be as immune as we’d been assured of while waiting the 12 to 16 weeks for the second.  Same morning, a CBC article (Adam Miller) headlined with ‘Why your 1st covid-19 shot is more protective than you might think.’  Hmmm. Right. Add to that how difficult it’s become to know what restrictions are in place and I can understand the minister who said, ‘we don’t pay too much attention anymore’. I’m very glad for our health professionals, political leaders, even the media. I also feel for the rest of us … the multitudes and especially people who, after 14 months of promises to ‘do this better’ still can’t easily off take sick days.

Still, despite the incoherencies of the messaging, the general information and the evidence is that covid is still here, it’s dangerous, and where a population is vaccinated, its impact is much diminished. Witness the UK and the USA. I’m a masker and vaxer! I’m convinced and I find myself sometimes thinking poorly of some who aren’t.  Our entire life experience, including our faith experience – if we’re remotely honest – is full of doubt and confusion, but on this one item, we’re so sure of our own thinking that we’re willing to walk to opposite sides of the same room from our family members and neighbors. And yes, again, to be clear, I’m very much on the vaxer side, impatient with the others, but sometimes also not very mature about it. 

I listened Sunday morning to a church discussion about the 2nd half of life.  The congregation had listened to three lectures by Richard Rohr and this one was about elders. People who, usually later in life, no longer live with so much either-or, they have learned that life is better lived with a both-and. It’s a lecture about wisdom that comes out of living. The first half of our lives, says Rohr (from his book Falling Upward) is often loud adolescence, fast certainty, knowing things,  the building of foundations and belief systems. It’s where we figure out how to stay alive. The second, he says, if we allow it, is a bit sadder … and brighter. There has been suffering, disappointment, betrayal. Maybe a pandemic. Dreams that didn’t happen. It’s where we begin to think a bit more about what this is all about, and we become less sure, and … less desperate.  We have learned the rules in the first half; now we realize that rules don’t always apply and sometimes they need to be broken. It’s where we begin to understand that all the real questions demand a degree of ambiguity. Faith, says Rohr, is not so much about being sure as it is about living with not knowing and no longer insisting on it. And in that poverty of spirit, says Mr Rohr, we find some inner freedom … with less a need to comment. Our halos and our reputations (the containers we built in the first half) become less important.  Thomas Merton (Rohr quotes him) wrote … ‘it’s a lucky wind that blew away your halo. It was a lucky wind that drowned your reputation.’

Russel Doerksen, a pastor in MacGregor posted a blog this past weekend about this third covid wave. He said in the first wave we tended to quietly almost welcome the novelty of the slowing down of living, kind of experiencing this ‘inconvenience’ equally. ‘Together’ was the word and it felt like we were ‘all on the same page’. ‘Lockdown + time = no virus.’ We were ‘fellow human beings’.  In the second wave, he writes, we began to polarize. As if there was no middle ground anymore, made worse by the influence of the American election which seemed deliberate in its attempt to take away any common spaces. We moved to our sides and locked ourselves in.  Our opinions became stronger. Friends, families, churches, leaders divided over how we thought about the virus, about restrictions, our rights, our privileges, our beloved – in the privileged world – freedoms. So how, the pastor asks, ‘do we want this third wave to go?’  Don’t forget, he writes, ‘that the business model of both social and news media is to keep our interest, and the easiest way to do that is to keep us angry about what those we see as different from us are up to, often with headlines so sensationalized that we fire up our gut before even reading a paragraph.’  (Watch also Trevor Noah, May 3). 

It’s been a long, traumatic covid-run, and during lockdowns and the serious limitations placed on us, it can all ‘have a way of getting under our skin’. So, suggests the pastor, let’s try, now in this third wave, ‘to see the best in people, instead of assuming the worst.  A big part of our faith, he reminds us, ‘rests on the fact that we humans were created with worth’ by a God who loves us equally.  

… the one question …

A friend of mine recently suggested I read When Bad things Happen to Good People. I’m late with that. First published in 1981, Rabbi Harold Kushner begins the book saying that this is the only question that really matters: ‘Why do bad things happen to good people’?  I’m not sure if he solves it; his struggle reminds me a little of a comment made by Richard Rohr who says that the greatest problems are absolutely unsolvable; a hard truth for us westerners who have built civilizations, traditions, belief systems and thousands of institutions on being problem solvers, fixers, doers. We have functioning equipment flying around on Mars. We’ve been to the moon. We’re winners!! It may even be a harder truth for western evangelicals, whose biblical understandings are heavily based on God coming to our aid, answering (especially our) prayers, blessing us with health, wealth and prosperity.  We have a long tradition of teaching that God answers prayers and solves problems for us, and we want to believe that. 

All this becomes personal for Kushner, and personal is really when the question begins to matter for any of us.  Kushner’s young son, at the age of three, developed a rare health condition (progeria or rapid aging). The book is the Rabbi’s thinking about how God is involved in our lives and what role, if any, prayer has in that relationship.  To be sure, Kushner believes there is a relationship. He doesn’t lose his belief that God is there, but whether God intervenes in our lives – causes things to happen … is in control – as we sometimes like to say, is no longer clear to him. People get sick. Kushner’s son dies at 14. There are wars. Natural disasters. Good and bad people equally ask God for help but they equally get sick, die in earthquakes, lose their livelihoods, and the covid variant infects anyone. Why doesn’t an intervening God stop all this? Just because of one little Adam and Eve indiscretion back there?  The punishment seems way over the top for the crime but Kushner says that no matter what religious conversations he ever has … ‘they all come back to the unfair distribution of suffering.’  

Kushner works through the Jobian beliefs and traditions that we cling to when something bad happens, most of which are well intentioned, but as Kushner says, they seem to focus more on maintaining the belief systems we’ve developed about God than on us being helpful to each other.  He writes: ‘the books I turned to were more concerned with defending God’s honor and with logical ‘proof’ that bad is really good and that evil is (somehow) necessary to make this a good world, than they were with the bewilderment and anguish of parents with a dying child.’ Whatever happens, God is in control, we say!!  If you had had more faith, God would have answered that desperate prayer for healing! If you believed slightly something else, God would hear you better! If you were Christian, God would hear you sooner!! God has something better in mind for you! When one door closes, another opens! God only lets us suffer with what we can bare! Everything happens for a reason! God is teaching you something! God wants you to be more patient! You didn’t ask sincerely!  God is punishing you for something? God needed your child more than you did and that is why the baby died!! Like, seriously? All of these things are said by well-meaning people. 

We Christians tend to be as the three friends of Job, arguing and defending our beliefs because well … why?  In fact, we love the last chapter of Job best, cause he comes out on top, with new children (does that really make any sense?) property and wealth, almost as if it was added on for those of us who need our assumptions about an intervening God to be true. None of the arguments of Job’s friends really make any sense, Kushner says, and God agrees, right there before the last chapter when God roars out of the heavens! Things just happen! We live in a magnificent creation in which evil can happen and awful things do.  God doesn’t wish them to happen, but he also doesn’t stop them because if he did, then love, the center of the whole thing, the axis around which it all turns, would not be love.  Love depends on humans being able to respond to whatever is happening to us, even in our messed up, convoluted ways. Especially in our messed up, convoluted ways. 

Love only works if it’s not coercive nor coerced, in a creation where we interact with life. It’s not choreographed. God has to let us make the decisions we make, and live with what happens next.  Even the horrors of racism and the genocides we all know about. The whole thing is based on us being free to make choices.  It’s what, says Kushner, distinguishes us from all other creatures. We don’t just operate by instinct; we choose. We decide, all the time. Says Kushner,  ‘if we’re not free to choose evil, then we’re also not free to choose good’, and the whole love thing kind of rests on that freedom to choose.  What happened, as the Genesis Garden story illustrates, is that humans were allowed to eat of the tree of good and evil. It’s not that we suddenly became bad or sinful there. It was always this way and Genesis is simply putting a ‘beginning story’ to it.  We were created to be conscious.

Near the end of Kushner’s book I began to think I needed to stop asking God to keep covid away, to look after Kathy, our kids and grandkids, me, friends who are sick …  and I quickly found that difficult. Very isolating, actually. I tried, but didn’t even manage a week, and I’m not unique in this wish to engage the divine. God is, really, part of our DNA. So then … what to do?  Kushner says to keep praying but without the expectations of intervention. Sometimes they do come. Maybe there really are angels, and the Holy Spirit has been here since before the beginning.  But prayer, he says, redeems us from isolation. We go to a religious service not so much to find God but to find a congregation. We need each other … it’s part of the God dynamic. We need God, but not as the magician who pulls the ‘fix’ out of the hat.

In Genesis 28 Jacob prays for protection, and tries to make a deal with God. I’ll do this and God, you do that? Twenty years later, a more mature Jacob, again in trouble, simply prays that ‘he can’t handle this alone’.  He’s no longer making arrangements with God. There is no fix and no road map. Our lives take a million turns and God loves us through whichever ones we take.  God is not in control. Not in that way. God is, however, the love that is among us. The evidence is in the longing we all have for it.  

… a depth of kindness …

In a FB note celebrating the anniversary of her marriage, Anne Lamott today said this about her husband: he has a depth of kindness that is the answer to all spiritual questions and the appropriate response to all problems. Could anything be more basic? More true to who we all are? 

The first two lines of Brandi Carlile’s, The Mother, are: ‘welcome to the end of being alone inside your mind. Tethered to another and you’re worried all the time.’ The song goes on from there … ‘the first thing that she took from me was selfishness and sleep … she broke a thousand heirlooms I was never meant to keep’ … and then … ‘they’ve still got their morning paper … coffee and their time … they still enjoy their evenings with the skeptics and their wine … but all the wonders I have seen I’ll see a second time … from inside of the ages through your eyes … cause I am the mother of Evangeline’.  Anyone who is a parent or grandparent gets this song. But so does, I think, anyone else because it, also, speaks the obvious: beginning to end, life really is about us … with another(s); the rest is distraction. 

In the early 2000s I was on an MCC learning tour through Kenya and Uganda.  A lot of that trip had to do with Water, AIDs, Poverty and MCC’s work. Serious stuff.  Adrienne, our daughter, was with us and I remember thinking when we returned that unless what we were learning made sense to our 16-year old, we were not really doing anything.  Our responses needed to make sense and be acceptable to the people about whom we were learning, but the story about the African reality also needed to make sense to a Canadian teenager. Cross Culturally, cross nationally, interpersonally … that’s a high bar, and it meant that I needed to try to see it all, not just from my experience nor primarily from the perspectives and programs of MCC, but through the eyes of our daughter.  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a revered theologian who was hanged by the Nazis for becoming involved in an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer was not a violent man. A pacifist, he gave up his theological commitments to peace, and decided to do the unthinkable in order to save lives.  It cost him his, but the decision to compromise his theological learnings and commitments in order to try to save lives has always spoken louder to me than the amazing theological books, sermons, essays and letters that came out of his life’s work as a minister. Bonhoeffer could have left Germany and survived the Nazis somewhere else.  He had invitations. But in the end, his was the most basic, human response to the murder of masses of people.  

When I was a University Student and first dimly aware of this man, I picked up the book, Letters and Papers from Prison. Bonhoeffer was arrested in 1943 and spent months in prison before he was executed in April of 1945. I found his notes and letters fascinating because they came from a man who was physically and mentally suffering, who was anxious, emotional, worried about his friends and family, trying to get along with his jailors, and staring into the abyss of his future and the future of millions. It’s been a long time since I read the book, but I remember being surprized that, among the wisdoms and theological reflections, he often referred to ordinary things he missed and needed, including his cigarettes. 

So why were the cigarettes of any note to me? He only mentioned them now and then! Why is that the part I remember? I really don’t know; possibly it’s because at the time I kind of assumed that a minister of his stature would not also be a smoker?  Could be, but more likely it caught my attention because, in the isolation of a prison cell, Bonhoeffer was, like anyone else, a human being living in a body. He felt things that we all feel, he missed his family and friends …  and his cigarettes.  

It worked like that with Jesus’ ministry as well. All the encounters he had with people, were, I’m pretty sure, what makes anyone interested in what he taught. The answer to all spiritual questions … were in the kindnesses of those encounters. The amazing sermon on the mount in Matthew only works because he lived it out … not as an idealogue or even as a clear-minded theologian (their synagogues had plenty of those) but as a man meeting people where they were, as they were. 

If I were hiring a pastor today, I might be reassured if the pastor had a craving for a cigarette … ; it would help me to believe that he or she knew something about the rest of us, could learn more, and would do the right things.  And if, after covid, I were able to get to a concert, I might be curious about the singer who tries to sing songs about the world through the eyes of her neighbors or … her Evangeline.   

… a gardener … after all …

A little afterthought about Easter. 

I’ve sometimes supposed that when Mary Magdalene visited the tomb (John 20:15) and met the risen Jesus but assumed he was the gardener, that Jesus, in speaking her name, was gently rebuking her for failing to recognize him. How could she not have recognized him after all? …  so that, quickly the ‘we always fail Jesus’ and ‘he keeps track’ guilt ethic creeps in and makes us a little wary, wondering if we caused an offense. But did it have that effect on Mary? What if something entirely more wonderful and interesting was happening in that little conversation? 

A couple of days ago, Prakash, an MCC worker in India, posted a little reflection, post Easter. The Bible is quite clear that God is the ‘all in all’, the maker of all things, that in God all things consist, and that God is the Love that holds it together and calls all of creation to itself. And if it’s true that this universal Love presence (God) then decided to become personal to us humans (John 1:14) then this little resurrection story twist makes good sense.  Prakash is quoting a friend of his, Arvind Theodore, and it goes like this:  

‘Mary Magdalene thought Jesus to be the gardener.  But was she really wrong?’ (It’s kind of the assumption, right?)  In Genesis we witness God the gardener working and speaking life to all that was in the Garden of Eden.  The idea of God as the gardener is not new; it has only been neglected and forgotten.  

Mary, mistaking Jesus to be the gardener, suggests that when we go through seasons of pain and sorrow our understandings and characterizations of God, though assumed as ‘misunderstandings’ and ‘mischaracterizations’ by the rest, might just as well be the very nature of God. And when we ‘speak to’ that perception of God with a heavy and broken heart, just as Mary did in the form of a question, we are more than likely to hear God calling our name. 

Our experience becomes the lens through which we uncover and discover the mystery of the personhood of God, and the Gardener knows each one by name. 

It helps, this little reflection. My experience in the evangelical protestant world has tended toward a singular, well taught and often preached understanding of who God is in relation to us; no matter what we are experiencing, that God never changes. Is it possible that deeply rooted belief has tended to make God to seem rigid, austere, hard to please, and looking at us from a distance with often disapproving, folded arms?  But if God is whatever Mary needed God to be in that moment of despair, it brings God closer, makes God more personal, less a God we need to please and more a God who finds us … in the garden, near a tomb, weeping … in a fractured relationship, confused … in the loss of a livelihood, afraid … in a dark anxiety, fearful …  or in a sun-filled valley, carefree; … and that God, who is Word and Love become personal, speaks our name.