… by the side of the road …

About 120 former volunteers with MCC in Bolivia met for a reunion last weekend at Pinawa, Manitoba.  MCC had come to Bolivia in the late 50s to work with German Mennonite families who had moved from Paraguay to the lowlands of Santa Cruz.   Exposed to their neighbors, the MCC workers soon realized there were plenty of local people just as affected by poverty … lack of schools, health education, health services, agricultural development, access to water.  So over more than 6 decades, a few hundred international and national workers have lived in rural and urban Bolivia, mostly in the lowlands around Santa Cruz city, but also down into the tropical forests from La Paz, and in a few places in what is called the Altiplano … the colder, dryer Bolivian highlands. Bolivia is a land of harshly different geographies. The highlands and the lowlands. In the middle there is also a more temperate area. In boldest strokes the people are either highlanders or lowlanders, with a lot of highlanders relocating to the tropical lowlands over the past 40 years. MCC has worked for many years with these re-settlers, but also with many others.

Orlando might correctly think of us foreigners, even with our best intentions, as colonizers, and I’m conscious of the fact that as guests, we are more likely to think of Bolivia as a place of wonderful, nostalgic memory than perhaps those who suffer and survive its challenges, year after year. But those same people were also the ones who welcomed us, continue to give us permission to live among them, to try things with them, to learn, often at their expense. Bolivians, in a way, invested more in us and our learning, than we possibly could have invested in them.  They took risks with us. They were also the most hospitable neighbors.

Whatever they did or do think of us, and whatever the state of wealth or poverty in which they live, I don’t remember ever meeting a Bolivian who didn’t passionately love their country.  When Bolivia qualified for World Cup Soccer Finals in 1994 it was the lead-up to the Finals that threw the entire country into hysterics. Everything pretty much shut down each time there was a game, and no matter where you were, you knew when Bolivia scored.  The entire city of Santa Cruz, the entire country erupted at length … every goal, every game. It’s easy to broad-stroke a people, but Bolivians tend also to be passionate about their politics, the stunning beauty of their country,  the sense of their history as a country exploited … by the interests of foreign powers, foreign churches, foreign cultures: a mixture of intense passion and, still, hospitality.

So what is it about a ‘Bolivia’ experience, that brings people, 1 or 50 years after their experience, back together from long distances to reminisce a little?  I don’t know. Two volunteers who arrived soon after I did, back in 1973, were at the reunion. They had lived together in a rural community.  One, a nurse, the other a teacher. In an email a couple of days ago one of them referred to their reunion last weekend as a first debriefing time … in their case, after 43 years.  Maybe it’s just that; even after decades, a chance to talk to others of a similar experience.  Just a refreshing of memory.ysMf8SkoT8unmEzajwfYWQ.jpg

For sure. Those were for some of us, formative years. In the first decades, even the MCC leaders were in their 20s and 30s. We grew up a little in Bolivia, living in conditions that most of us could probably not have survived for more than a few years, though some stayed much longer.  Many lived in mud huts with tin roofs. Sometimes thatched roofs. Most of us didn’t have running water nor fridges, unless we lived in town.  We showered when we went to town every couple of weeks and in between it was a bucket at the end of the day, or a nearby stream.  In our second and third terms, Kathy and I lived in Santa Cruz city. The memories there are different from the closer-to-the-earth experience of living in a village, but no less poignant. But mostly, it seems to me that what anyone, anywhere experiences in learning a different language, a different climate, a different sense of history, another way of seeing the world … in some way it rewires the soul a bit, and you cannot think about things in quite the same way.  Immigrants and refugees must struggle with this upending of things around the world. We are ‘a part of all that we have met’, wrote Alfred Lloyd Tennyson. And he added, ‘yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades for ever and ever when I move.’ Maybe that line describes a part of the impact of the ‘Bolivia experience’ for us, and maybe it’s just life. Our roots become shallower. Our view of the world becomes less rigid.

Maybe what keeps an experience like ‘Bolivia’ so in our minds is the (mostly) healthy self doubt that creeps into one’s heart when learning to live among people who live so differently.  The group of young men and women with whom I worked in my first term, in what we called a region of villages, (a kind of spread-out unit of MCC volunteers) were all learning how to live, to work with people in their world, not ours.  That learning curve was steep and it created a pretty strong sense of community among us.  Endless walking, dirt bikes, bicycles, horses and open trucks were all part of that experience … on roads and paths that, depending on the weather, were often barely passable. We thought a lot about how we – foreign aid workers – should live among and work with our neighbors, Bolivians who had welcomed us into their villages for a couple of years. They expected things from us that were sometimes not clear. Not to us. Maybe not always to them either. And there were the more incidental questions: should we have cement floors in our little houses if the neighbors didn’t?  Should we build latrines if they didn’t?  Was it ok to have little motorcycles if few or any of the others in the village had one? Were we allowed canned meat?  Wrist watches?  Sometimes we took ourselves too seriously, but the consciousness of being good neighbors was a good thing.

The day after the reunion, I had breakfast with another ‘old’ friend. He and I had shared a couple of years at the U of S, just before I left for Bolivia in 1973.  We had met only once since those heady days as students when we still knew stuff.  Near the end of a breakfast conversation in which we updated each other (45 years in maybe 90 minutes) W, who has been a church leader, farmer, businessman, victim of depression and survivor of two run-ins with cancer …  said something like this. For the remainder of my days, I want to live ‘in a house by the side of the road and be a friend to man’.  He doesn’t worry too much about having ‘the answers’ anymore, and there is a humility in his conversation that reminded me of conversations with people from the Bolivia experience whom we had met at Pinawa.

I looked up the poem. The House by the Side of the Road. S.W. Foss (1858 to 1911). Somewhere in high school, maybe, we must have read it and that line, as my friend quoted it, was familiar. Five verses. Near the end it goes like this: I know there are brook-gladdened meadows ahead And mountains of wearisome height; That the road passes on through the long afternoon, And stretches away to the night. But still I rejoice when the travellers rejoice, And weep with the strangers that moan Nor live in my house by the side of the road Like a man who dwells alone. 

Let me live in my house by the side of the road Where the race of men go by – they are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong. Wise, foolish – so am I … Let me live in my house by the side of the road And be a friend … .

 If we asked every person in the Pinawa reunion why they came, or what they most valued about the Bolivia experience, there would probably be as many responses. But I’m guessing the poem by S.W. Foss is hidden somewhere in all those memories.




… won’t you be my neighbour …

I saw two movies this week.  The second was First Reformed. The pastor of a small Christian Reformed church somewhere in New York struggles with a tension between hope and darkness in his own life and runs into a ‘soul-shaking encounter’ with an environmental activist so filled with despair about what is happening on our planet that he wants to abort their baby; his young wife is pregnant and she has brought the pastor into their troubling situation.  In its past, this church was part of the underground railway, the relay of desperate hope that smuggled slaves out of the United States to Canada. The little church is about to celebrate 250 years, a celebration of ‘rich men patting each other on their backs’ says the pastor. The old building is now almost empty and the pastor finds himself dealing with the young man in despair, hardly able to pay attention to the celebration his seniors from the bigger church hierarchy are planning. It’s 2017; I’m guessing his internal battle is familiar.

Three days earlier I had seen Won’t you be my Neighbor.  The story of Fred Rogers and his passion for kindness, especially to children.  He was an only child until he was 11 and was often sick, so he learned to play by himself, inventing characters and voices and puppets that he used to talk to himself. About stuff. Life. A gifted musician as well, he was training to be a Presbyterian minister when he first saw television, embraced its potential for good … and started a low-tech decades-long (1968 to 2001) Mister Rodgers’ Neighborhood program reaching out to remind children that they are loved, that they are special, that they don’t have to do anything to deserve it.  They are entitled to it.  His entire life seems to be one long wish to make children be ok, almost as if he woke up and went to bed every day worrying about their well-being … he was so committed.  ‘The greatest evil,’ he says at one point, ‘would be those who would make you feel less than what you are.’

Mister Rogers was never out to build a television career; it wasn’t about him. He just saw in tv a medium through which he could connect with millions of young, pre-school children, their parents, their uncles and aunts, their guardians, about the simplest message: love.  He remained a committed Christian and imagined not the self-serving, protectionist, fear-driven belief systems so entrenched among us today, but a wide-open Christianity … a ‘down to earth’ caring for each other. ‘It’s the only thing that works,’ he said.  Near the end, someone rages about Rogers’ impact, ranting that he destroyed an entire generation of children by making them feel special without earning it. That he lied to the kids.  That this tireless call to love our children simply spoiled them and created expectations of kindness they just apparently aren’t entitled to. Maybe the saddest comment  in the movie is made in passing when one of Rogers’ many supporters says, ‘today there isn’t room for a nice person on television’.  I hope that isn’t totally true, and I hope the Christian community isn’t also losing that gift.

Rogers connected with children about pretty much any topic. 9/11. The assassination of Robert Kennedy. Civil rights … all major stuff that others wouldn’t touch among children, but he did it with what comes out in the story as an unquenchable thoughtfulness, care, and always … kindness. Through the songs he wrote and sang, the weekly conversations with his puppets, he allowed the kids to think their thoughts, to have their fears and worries … as they were; he helped them name their anxieties and talk about them.fullsizeoutput_371f

At one time he was meeting a group of pre-school children and as he approached them a little boy said to him, ‘my doggie’s ear came off in the automatic washer.’ They were young, just bursting into life and Rogers understood it as a kind of litmus test.  Would he engage them?  He could ignore the comment and move into his prepared program, but he went with it. He always did.  Sometimes these things happen to our toys, he said to the little boy.  But isn’t it good that your ears don’t come off like that?  Your arms don’t come off? Your legs don’t come off?  He had connected with them on their terms and they went with him.

A sermon last Sunday morning began something like that. Just, oddly.  The church was doing some renovations. The old folding wall between the sanctuary and the gym area had been held together with duck tape and eventually a contractor was hired to install a new one.  After a couple of weeks it was done, except for some drywall work and one lone worker finishing up.  The pastor stopped by to say hello to the tradesman and asked if he could make him a coffee.  A latte even. No, said the tradesman, but he did have a question.  A wasp had followed him into the building and after it buzzed around him for a while and he couldn’t shush it out, he killed it.  The tradesman wanted to know … would the church have an issue with him having killed the wasp?  And that, said the pastor, led them into a conversation about spirituality, creation, God.  Stuff.  Like all of Fred Rogers’ encounters with children, it’s a tiny little big story, and the pastor’s point was this: don’t be afraid. Let people into your life.  At work, at church, in the neighborhood … a little wasp can lead to a connection and a conversation.  It’s the stuff we are made for … ‘almost anything can lead to something’, said the pastor, with a little bit of attention.

On the Mexican/Texas border we can somehow, biblically justify frightening and wrecking the lives of little children and young teens; in the name of Christ and national security and ‘the law’ … and some kind of fear.  The young woman in the movie is pregnant. She wants to have the baby. Her husband’s fear of the future drives him to consider aborting the child which adds to his wife’s worry and stress.  A pastor in Calgary said recently that Jesus’ most radical saying was probably … ‘do not be afraid’. Knowing how close to the edge most of his listeners lived, he could only have kept saying that if he knew that there is something else, infinitely powerful …  that works, when it’s given generously and abundantly and without reservation. Fred Rogers said it’s love. Jesus said it’s love.  We all know it’s love. The looking out for the good of the person next to us.  Rogers’ entire life was a sermon, a prophetic voice to make that simple and so elusive calling of Jesus true for children, the always most vulnerable.  Love; don’t be afraid.

… over a cliff …

In 2009, I was with a group of Albertans visiting Palestine and Israel.  An intense ten days of learning about Israel, Palestine, the Jews and the Palestinians in the context of what we think of as the Holy Land … that place where God came among us as the word, a human being. A baby who became a man. We bunked in Nazareth one night and the next morning took a guided walk through a first century village, complete with shepherds and sheep and fig trees and rocky fields … just some of the images many in the Christian world grow up with … images that Jesus used in his teachings and among which he lived. Near the end of the morning we were in the synagogue, where Jewish leaders would have read from their scrolls. Our guide wanted us to experience what Jesus experienced at times, and so she read a part of Luke chapter 4; a piece that Jesus read, way back, in that synagogue and for the reading of which – their own materials – they tried to throw him over a cliff.

Two weeks ago, at the Christ at the Checkpoints Conference https://christatthecheckpoint.bethbc.edu in Bethlehem, Gary Burge was one of many speakers.  Burge is a New Testament Professor at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Also a Presbyterian Minister and author.  He spoke about Luke chapter 4:14 to 30 and he called his talk … throwing Jesus over a cliff.  Each of the four Gospels, says Burge, has its own way of introducing the reader to Jesus.  For Matthew it’s the Sermon on the Mount.  Mark is about Miracles.  John launches his Jesus story at the wedding in Cana where Jesus turns water into wine. Luke introduces the Jesus who talks about setting prisoners free and giving sight to the blind, which is what Jesus reads about in the synagogue.  He is offered the scroll of Isaiah to read something. He reads the piece found in chapter 61, which would be well known to those in the audience.  It’s about good news for the poor, freedom for prisoners and sight for the blind.  It includes the line about ‘proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor’, which he reads, but then he doesn’t read the next line, the one about vengeance which the Jews thought was about the Messiah avenging them as a nation. They would have waited for this in his reading.  A them vs all the others line.

So far so good, they are listening, but then Jesus puts away the scroll and, as Burge says, he drops two bombs, right from their own history.  They know this stuff but he reminds them of it in the context of what he has just included in the reading they know so well: he says …  there were many widows in Israel during Elijah’s time. It didn’t rain for three and a half years and there was a severe famine in the land. Yet, Elijah was not sent (by God) to any of them, but instead to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. She was not Hebrew, was his point. An alien. A foreigner.  An undocumented person perhaps.  He keeps going … ‘there were many in Israel with leprosy during the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed – only Naaman the Syrian.’  Another alien.  Could as easily have been Mexican.


Inside the church of the Holy Sepulcher

They were furious.  They had seen themselves as uniquely chosen people and Jesus was telling them that God’s message of redemption was actually about everyone.  They were angry, says Gary Burge, because Jesus was too generous and for that they drove him out of town to the edge of a cliff to throw him over. They wanted a miserly Messiah.  Jesus somehow walked away from them and the NIV adds a note that so far as it’s known, Jesus never returned to Nazareth … his home town.

And so, Luke, the gentile medical doctor among the four Gospel writers, has introduced Jesus, using the song of Israel’s national privilege and turning it into a ‘the Messiah will bless everyone’ message. It was never about an exclusively national blessing and Jesus was making that point early on.

And then Gary Burge says, almost in passing but in reference to what is now happening along the southwest border of the United States with Mexico, ‘half of my leadership team are undocumented people living in the United States.’ He adds …  Jesus was upending Israel’s politics and ‘God had better also make us uncomfortable with our own.’  They wanted to throw Jesus over a cliff when in fact, at every opportunity, Jesus goes over walls, says Burge …  he sets free the captives and gives sight to the blind.


Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Should Jesus show up in that improvised Walmart building in Texas where 1500 young children are now being housed, captives, ripped away from parents whose only ‘crime’ is that they are so desperate for a better life for their children, they risk this separation to get into the United States … ?  Should Jesus sit in church with Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General who said last week that now is the time the Administration needs the support of the church, to uphold an order that takes children, even babies from their mothers, because ‘it’s against the law for children to accompany a parent who is in prison awaiting trial … ? He, Jesus, is there, and from Luke chapter 4, and from his entire ministry and his sacrificial death, it’s not hard to know what Jesus is saying.

It’s not an Israeli gospel.  It’s not a white gospel. It’s not a north American evangelical gospel. It’s not an America first gospel.  It’s not a liberal nor a conservative gospel.  It’s always a welcoming, open house message for everyone, and it’s puzzling that for proclaiming this, people who should have known all this were the ones who wanted to throw him over a cliff.



Leviticus 19:33-35 … and Palestine …

Christ at the Checkpoints is a Conference that brings people from around the world to learn about the reality, the history and the understandings and misunderstandings that contribute to the ongoing conflict between Israel and their Palestinian neighbors. Suffering is suffering and Jesus always calls us to respond with compassion.  There is no debating that and if there is, it’s quibbling over the wrong thing.  But in Palestine, it gets extra complicated. Jews have suffered more than most. The UN approved a partition plan for Mandate Palestine in 1947 which included boundaries for two new states. In 1948 Israel unilaterally declared its independence and in a brief war with surrounding states, already took more land than what had been intended.  At the time Palestinians (73%) and Jews (37%) were both living there. In the transition, Israel was given 55% of the land as their own, even though they had owned only 7% up to that point.  And then, beginning already in 1947, the Nakba happened; it’s the Arab word for Catastrophe. Over a few months, Israeli militia surprized their Palestinian neighbors and drove between 700,000 and 800,000 people out of their villages into exile where they remain today, hoping still, for the right to return. Over 400 villages were destroyed and Israel began to build a Jewish country over top of them.  I met a Palestinian woman once in Lebanon who was then 66 years old.  She was an infant when it happened.  She hopes, still, to go home.   There are 61 Palestinian refugee camps, packed with people, in the West Bank,  Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. As Nahum Goldman, president of the World Jewish Congress said in 1956, ‘we have taken their land. Why would they accept that?’

Long before 1948, European Jews were planning a return and were buying up property in Palestine to encourage their fellow Jews from around the world to ‘come home’.  But the idea was never a state of Israel, which would be a democratic, inclusive state where others could also live as full citizens.  The idea was, and remains to this day, a Jewish state.  That difference is significant because it means that the Palestinians living inside what was proposed as the Israeli Proper homeland (not what is today known as the West Bank) are never intended to be equal citizens. They are second class citizens in the state of Israel.   They are the ones, just to offer one example, who wait years for a permit to add a room to a house while their Jewish neighbor, often living in a house taken from a Palestinian who is now in a refugee camp, gets a permit, credit, travel permission, access to all privileges. It’s a democracy for Jewish people, but not for anyone else living there, especially not for Palestinians.  L3XHn3qHR5iE2hlprOOecQ.jpg

In 1967 the West Bank and Gaza, around which the UN originally did mark a boundary (the Green Line), were occupied by the Israeli Military. It was the well-known 6-day war. I was in grade 10 and remember us, in class, cheering the dazzle of how quickly Israel won that war.  Gaza is now essentially a prison with over 5000 people per sq km and from where it’s nearly impossible to exit these days, even for emergencies, and where they have almost no electricity and very little water, and where many schools and even hospitals have been destroyed in a more recent (2014) also brief war.  The West Bank has 2.5M Palestinians, an Israeli Military present everywhere, and probably 700,000 Israeli settlers living in over 200 fortified settlements and more being built every year, every day. They’re also building separate roads for Jews and for Palestinians, but on Palestinian roads there are over 600 check stops. To get to their small farms or anywhere else, they often have to go through a checkpoint or two, and may wait hours … while their soil, their olive trees or vegetables need tending.  This is all illegal by international law; a military can occupy another land but is not allowed to settle their own people on that land. Israel justifies its heavy military presence in the West Bank by saying they have to protect their Jewish settlers.

And there is the famous Separation Barrier, the wall; planning started in 1994 and building began in 2002. Most of it now complete, and because it curves and cuts repeatedly into Palestinian (inside the Green Line) territory it has taken another 9.2% of the land that was originally (1948) allotted to the Palestinians.  Remember, the West Bank is a tiny piece of land less than 60km east to west and maybe 130 north to south, just west of the Jordan River.   IMG_3218.JPG

Those still hoping for a two-state solution to the 70-year conflict have to hope that Israel would somehow remove those 700,000 settlers at some point and resettle them in Israel Proper or in some other way make living in the West Bank an equal opportunity for both Settlers and Palestinians.  It’s not likely to happen so those thinking only a one-state solution is possible have to hope that Israel would do a 180 turn, and would offer itself as a democratic state where Palestinians and Jews could live side by side with the same rights and privileges.  It amazes me that Palestinians still have hope when to a visitor’s eyes, it really looks like a long slow march towards a ghettoization of the Palestinians.  Gaza is already that.

Add to all this the unwavering support of millions of American and Canadian Evangelicals for whom all this points to Jesus’ second coming.  As if Palestinians and other Arabs somehow stand in the way of Christ coming back, someone said. Others say the devotion of evangelicals to Israel has less to do with their love of Jewish people and that in fact, many are anti-semitic.  It has to do with their own agenda of predicting the return of Christ, and Israel, for them, is an important piece of ‘making that happen’.  I think Jesus said he would return whenever he wants to … and that we should not predict him.  But we keep doing it.

It’s a mess, but it’s also driven by planning that began, some say back in the 1600s, others say it started in Switzerland at a Jewish Congress back in 1897. A legitimate hope for a homeland. No one, not even the Arabs begrudge Israel a homeland.  But one thing we kept hearing, and not just from Palestinians is this: ‘we used to live here together.   We are cousins.  We are neighbors. We were friends.’ The brother of a waiter at Star Hotel in Bethlehem has worked in Jerusalem for 30 years, for a Jewish employer.  The employer gives his Palestinian employee a permit to get through the checkpoints and it works.  They visit and they eat together in the Jewish employer’s home. They are friends.  It’s not difficult. It is the Jesus way.

The Conference happens every two years and is hosted by Bethlehem Bible College, maybe a mile down the hill from the Church of the Nativity.  Ten of us attended from Alberta and Ontario; we heard speakers from Brazil, the United States, Europe, Asia, all trying to be helpful in understanding the very difficult, almost impossible lives of Palestinians in the Middle East. Many of us Christians have grown up understanding and supporting the Israeli side; it’s time, and this is the main reason for the Conference, that we also learn about the reality of life as a Palestinian. Most of the speakers were Palestinian Christians; they speak frankly but always kindly about their situation. They remind us that they have been Christian long before we in the ‘west’ … who often think the Gospel is ours to interpret and to hold and to share … on our terms.  Palestinian Christians go back to Peter, to the first disciples of Christ.  We got it from them … they gently remind us.

One evening I took a foto about two blocks from the Church of the Nativity. Birth place of Jesus.  Palestinian boys playing soccer. Most likely, not one of them has ever met a Jewish boy or girl. They grow up under the stress of ever shrinking space on which to live, restricted movement even to their own schools, limited access to water (Israel uses 83% of water that comes from Palestinian land, and sells it back to Palestinians, sometimes leaving the taps off for as long as 20 days at a time) and the knowledge that if they so much as throw a stone at that wall or at an Israeli soldier, they will be arrested, interrogated, and imprisoned.  Right now there are 7000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons; 350 of those are children as young as 12.  They ‘press’ the children they arrest so that they almost always ‘confess’ and cough up the names of their friends; when they are released, their own friends and families know that they boys will have talked … and so the distrust builds, the communities come apart, and the world wonders why 50% of Palestinian kids say they have no wish to live. r9dyb5ZMQZ2FoS+gblPWaA.jpg

For Palestinian Christians this is about today, tomorrow, and next week.  They work hard gaining strength even from the suffering itself so that it is not just suffering;  it is their daily experience whether over access to their own farm land, loss of their olive trees, running out of water, not having a permit to build a room, having homes demolished with little notice and being handed the bill for the demolition after it’s done, losing a job because the soldiers shut down the checkpoint.  Almost everything that happens seems calculated to driving Palestinians off the land, and seems consistent with what some of the early Zionists said.  As much land as possible with as few Palestinians as possible.

And still, they talk strongly about loving their neighbor. It’s easy for me, living in Calgary, to talk about loving my neighbor.  But for Palestinians, it really does cost them their lives.  They are not violent. They are firm in pursuing a peaceful existence with their Jewish neighbors, but they are losing their farms, their water, their right to education, their homes, their freedom of movement. They barely have room to breathe.

Antonio Barro, church leader from Brazil talked about the Good Samaritan;  ‘loving our neighbor is the same as loving God and if we don’t love our neighbor, we don’t love God, and ‘we are not saved’.   It’s pretty bold, but Jesus said it pretty much like that.

Leviticus 19:33 says this: when a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress or mistreat him.




… a second look …

Earlier this week I was driving back to Calgary from Manitoba. MacGregor. It’s a nice, pleasant town where we have four amazing grandchildren, a daughter, a son in law, and where Kathy – with a bunch of interesting neighbors – now works at the Care Center.  It’s an ‘all-modern’ arrangement Kathy and I have … living in two places for a while. Calgary, and MacGregor, with a lot of driving; I try to go east once a month and then head back west to Calgary … to mow the grass and water the flowers that Kathy, over the years has planted outside and inside the house and which, this time of year, turn a back yard into a work of art as they are reborn in full spring bloom.  I work part time with MCC Alberta, so I have some flexibility.  I like it.kbCkoyIwSJ+l0OcbeMMvCg.jpg

Driving back, I listened to the first episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s season three Revisionist History.  But he had added a little ‘gift’ for the start of season three: a debate with Adam Grant.  Kind of a free-wheeling conversation between two good friends that wandered around quite a bit, as every good conversation does. But much of their debate had to do with work environments. Places where we spend a lot of our time.

When I first became the Country Rep for MCC in Bolivia, our old friend Milton Whittaker, when I asked if he had any advice for me, said only one thing: ‘don’t make decisions before you have to.’  I was a bit surprized by the comment, because I thought that being ‘in charge’ meant that I should make decisions. That unless I was making decisions, I wasn’t leading. In a way his advice could be misunderstood as an invitation to be a lazy kind of leader, but Milton, I think, was telling me something else.  He was talking about pace. About the fact that being in a hurry to decide often gets us into trouble … as leaders … as parents … employees.  But I think he was also talking about community. Gladwell calls it a social bonding.  That leading is not so much about decision making as it is about creating and building an environment, a work culture among your fellow employees wherein all of them, and you as the ‘leader’ are motivated, have a sense of personal and common ‘ownership’ of a common mission. You intersect, you know each other, you energize each other … . The early church functioned from that basis.

Adam Grant then asks what kind of environment makes the most successful employees.  Gladwell pulls out several interesting examples to make a point.  The point being … that the environment matters.  You can’t just tell your employees to work better and harder … and … they will. It doesn’t work.  Environment matters.  And they roll out some examples.  IMG_0453

Basketball.  Gladwell talks about the best coach (Brad Stevens) in the national basketball league (Boston Celtics).  When Boston trades some of their really good players, and they play on other teams, they just aren’t very good, he says, and he names some players with whom this happened.  Meaning … there must be a lot of good players in professional sports who underplay because they are in the wrong environment, and lots of average players who perform exceptionally well, when they are in the right environment.  It matters.

Grant (it’s not really a debate now) agrees and adds his own illustration to the same point. Hospitals and doctors: he cites a major study on where cardiac surgeons perform best as they work their way through their practicums.  At hospital A or B?  They found that a practising surgeon in A performs better than he or she does in B. Really?  It’s not just pure skill and training? Nope. The team and the environment in which the young surgeon is working with makes a difference to his or her performance.

The third example comes from air travel: over 75% of airline accidents happen when a crew is first flying together.  NASA did this study.  A crew that is well rested but has not flown together before makes more errors than a crew that has just flown an all-nighter, but have flown together before. They are together. Even tired, they still perform better.

Gladwell, when asked how to size up an organization … says, we make such decisions much to quickly and he adds that people enjoy work more when the group is smaller.  He would limit size to maybe 100 or 150 people. When you know your fellow workers, you usually perform more as part of a team, which tends to make all of the workers better. We are meant to be in community … even at work. The social bond thing.

He (Gladwell) talks about his parents and their careers.  His mother approached her boss, years ago, and offered him half time work for half pay.  She convinced him that he should only pay her half time, that she would only work half time, but that she would be just as productive as if she worked full time. A win win.  Gladwell believes we could work much more flexible hours, have more time for other things, and be as productive, at half time, as we often are at full time. Putting in the required 8 hours doesn’t equate to productivity, he suggests. His father was a Mathematician and had been invited to Yale University for an interview.  The family was excited about moving to Yale. Prestigious, nice place, and when his dad came home after a week at Yale, they all waited for the news.  ‘It’s not going to happen,’ said his dad, and he explained. ‘When I walked into Yale at 9 am, I saw everyone at their desks.  And when I left at 5 pm, they were still all at their desks.’  That doesn’t work, he had said. I can’t work there.

Gladwell’s final comment is in response to a question about what keeps an organization fresh, productive.  Older organizations sometimes become more worried and more attentive to the people inside than to those – outside – whom they are serving. The customers. The partners. The constituents of a political party? A church? Keep reminding yourself, he says as the debate winds up, of your mission, of whom you are serving.

And one last comment: a few years ago, I asked a businessman in La Crete (northern Alberta) what he considered to be the secret of the success and growth of his logging business. I thought he would talk about strategic business planning.  He didn’t.  He said, when we see a good person that can fit our work, we hire them, even if we don’t have a job for them yet.  Gladwell makes a similar final comment: if they bring something interesting to the table, hire them. Don’t worry too much about the job description requirements.

Gladwell, as always, is a delightful writer and an entertaining story teller. He tries hard to take ‘a second look’, which is what his revisionist history podcasts are all about.

Twelve hours and I was back in Calgary. Worked some days with MCC and tomorrow morning, I hope to fly to Tel Aviv and Bethlehem with a group of 10.  Nine Albertans and one from Ontario.  A short learning event in Palestine/Israel.

… when love is the way … two weddings …

I didn’t get up to see the Royal wedding on Saturday, but I did catch what was left of the ceremony around 6:30 in the morning. It went on for a while even after that.  I had missed it, but on twitter I noticed reference to a sermon by some American Episcopalian Bishop, so later last night I turned on the TV and, with the usual reruns, it was just a matter of time before they got to the Reverend Michael Curry, Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States.  He, a black preacher, delivers a 14-minute sermon on love that Duncan McCue, host of CBC Cross-Country Checkup just said ‘stole the show’ according to Canadian watchers. What if, said The New York Times, the biggest star of the wedding was actually a sermon about love … ‘a searing, soaring speech, imploring Christians and everyone, to put love at the center of their spiritual and political lives’.

It’s a powerful 14 minutes.  A message that cuts through the divisiveness of popular politics, of racism, bigotry, us-first, bullying, fear, isolation.  Curry quotes Martin Luther King several times beginning with … ‘we must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love, and when we do that, we will make of this old world a new world.  For love is the only way. Don’t underestimate it. Don’t even overly sentimentalize it. There’s power, power in love,’ Curry preaches. fullsizeoutput_35d7.jpeg

‘When you are loved and you know it, when someone cares for you and you know it … there is something right about it.’ The reason, Curry says, is the source. ‘We were made by a power of love.  Not by any other. Our lives were meant to be lived in that love. It’s why we are here. The source of all love is God himself,’ and he quotes an old medieval poem that reads, ‘where true love is found, God himself is there.’

There is an intensity about Michael Curry as he speaks, even as his eyes keep smiling and his hands keep moving.  People in the audience are fidgeting a little but mostly, many are also smiling; some are nodding. How did this fiery sermon on love make it into what are supposed to be highly predictable Royal events? It’s pretty clear his listeners are with him as he continues: “there were some old slaves in America’s antebellum (before the war) south who explained the dynamic power of love and its power to transform.  They sang a spiritual in the midst of their captivity about ‘a balm in Gilead’ … that makes the wounded whole.”  A balm … that makes things right. The song sings about the love of Jesus, says Curry, the Jesus who did not get any honorary doctorate degrees for what he did; he simply gave his life while he was alive and finally in death … for the good of the other, for the well-being of the world. That, Curry says, is what love is. ‘A love that looks after the well-being of the one next to you … changes everything.’ It heals the festering wounds, it overcomes all things. What if, at least, leaders who profess a faith in Jesus, who profess to be lovers of peace … would actually make decisions to benefit their neighbors, as themselves. What if? And why is it that we can hardly imagine something like that happening.  If we could and did, it might. Love is that powerful!

My favorite paragraph in the speech is probably this one:  ‘think and imagine,’ Curry says, ‘a world where love is the way. Imagine our homes and families when love is the way. Imagine our communities and neighborhoods when love is the way. Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce when love is the way. When love is the way, no child will go to bed afraid or hungry.  When loves is the way, poverty will become history … the earth will become a sanctuary and we will study war no more.  When love is the way there’s plenty of room for everyone, plenty of good room, for all of God’s children.’

Curry finishes with a comment about fire from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit priest who was also a scientist. He is to have said that the discovery and the harnessing of fire was one of the great scientific and technological discoveries in all of human history. It made human civilization possible, and Curry names a string of activities we now take for granted that would not be possible, were it not for fire. Teilhard apparently went on to say that if humanity ever captures the energy of love … it will be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.  ‘And when we do that,’ he says, quoting Martin Luther King again,  ‘we will make of this world a new world.’  A world where borders are open, prisons are almost empty, countries look after each other’s interests as well as their own and children go to bed, unafraid.    IMG_3078.JPG

Some say this wasn’t just a wedding.  Maybe it was intended to be a game changer. A Royal family dragging itself into the real world.  A reminding of a calling to the kingdom that Jesus and de Chardin and King and many others have pointed us to. The National Post writes: no wonder Prince Harry winked at his bride as he slipped the ring on her finger.  The new Duke and Duchess purposely put black and minority people center stage at every key moment of their wedding.  I hope it was more than just a wedding, important as weddings are.

Yesterday, Kathy and I attended another wedding in Manitoba. Two young women committed their lives to each other.  Near the end, the dad of one of the young women, himself a pastor, talked about their journey with their gay daughter, who is, herself, a committed member of the church.  During one mostly supportive church conversation, there had been a couple of nasty ‘vigorous’ comments made about his daughter.  After it was over, and the family was driving home, the dad was seething a bit and asked his daughter how she felt.  As compelling as Curry’s sermon, the young girl’s response to her dad was something like this. ‘If I believe in love and in the Christian church, and I do, then I have to accept and love those who don’t agree with me in the same way that I want to be loved and accepted by them.’

We had not attended a gay wedding before, but we left the evening with the feeling that when two people love each other, are committed to each other, and are surrounded by people, some of whom may well have issues with same-sex relationships but who nonetheless affirm the love to which the two are committing before God and their witnesses … that kind of love …  the love Jesus spoke of and lived among us, the kind that doesn’t have boundaries or conditions … the kind that Michael Curry talks about … that love does overcome all things.

… our moments of isolation …

As a young Education student, our professor of English Literature back in the U of S asked us budding wanna-be teachers about the purpose of education. He went around the room and I assume we all had some bookish response that might impress the prof and a few of the others in the room. But he was a bold kind of professor (he did make us think) who didn’t mind dangling us from the end of his rants about our lower levels of intelligence … .  So when we were done with our eloquence, he pretty much disagreed with us all.  ‘The sole purpose of education,’ he said, ‘is to prepare us for our moments of isolation.’  Hmmm. Well, really?  I grew up in a family of 11 children in a Mennonite village in Saskatchewan.  My first 8 years of schooling happened in a two-room country school house where we were jammed together, under attended and always in each others’ spaces.  We were always with others, but even among us, I suspect there was plenty of isolation and loneliness.

The Calgary Herald, yesterday – back page – carried a lengthy article about Robin Williams.  Super fast, popular, stand-up comedian, and well known, acclaimed actor who starred in Mork and Mindy, Good Morning Vietnamand later as Mrs Doubtfire in that complicated, entertaining film which only a multi-talented cyclone like Robin Williams could pull off like he did.  I sometimes thought that while he was hilariously funny any time he was on stage, his Mrs Doubtfirewas really a very lonely person and maybe her character suited him best. The article yesterday talks about his suicide, the ‘impenetrable wall inside him’.  David Letterman is quoted as having said, ‘he’s like a guy within a guy’, who, in the end, succumbed to his own private despair. His mother had said, “I didn’t realize how lonely Robin had been.’


Mother’s Day Welcome at Church

Loneliness or isolation probably hasn’t much to do with the numbers who surround us. It takes many forms, I’m sure, and can overwhelm, unannounced.  Sometimes, charging in and setting off a storm will get a lot of attention and people may surround us, but it may also slide us into a place of tormenting aloneness and alienation. A week ago, a woman verbally assaulted a couple of Afghan Canadians at Denny’s in Lethbridge. It’s now a well-known, unhappy story. The woman is from BC and, as a result of her behaviour she lost her job at a car dealership. Her actions have probably isolated her. She loses her job and social media is as harsh with her as she was with the newcomers in the next booth at Denny’s. The other sadness of that encounter is that a new immigrant is publicly trashed, told to ‘go back where you came from’, humiliated, as if he doesn’t belong with us.  Of course he does, but the harshness of her words will haunt him.  He is a victim of racial bullying and anyone who has been bullied knows the challenges that follow.

We are not made for that kind of isolation. 1.45 billion people are active daily facebook users.  Another 33% as many log in at least monthly. Connecting with the neighbors is our DNA.  Richard Rohr adds …  we are meant to be for each other.  We are meant to be cooperative. ‘Big heartedness, he says, always draws close to the other and always draws the other close.’ Francis of Assisi, Jean Vanier … many others … Jesus … drew people into relationship. ‘The hunger of the human heart that God put in us … is for being connected, for healing, for vocation, for mission.’  ‘As a species,’ he says, ‘we have always known we could not survive, could not flourish without each other.  Whatever is to prosper, grow and multiply, will only happen with the nourishment of people who are for each otherin a significant way.’   The early church community ‘held all things in common’.  That is the kingdom on earthand Jesus said everything comes down to this: love God and love each other.  Paul says the same thing in Romans 13:8 to 10. And love always means to seek the well-being of the person next to us.


Sierra, the youngest of our grandchildren

Another kind of loneliness or isolation is that of self-interest at the expense of others. Our dad was a wise man. When I was a teenager, I remember watching him decide things, participate in meetings, say things to us, to people who visited for one reason or another.  He seemed to have a relational sense of right and wrong, of good sense and nonsense. He didn’t over-speak, nor do I remember him chasing a thought or an idea more than it needed. He was a story teller and teacher with memory for detail, but he also had a gift for brevity and detachment; as if he had little personal need to leave his imprint on a thought, an idea, and action.  I remember worrying that I would not have such good sense, and wondering how he, our dad, had acquired it.

Former president Obama said he hired James Comey as FBI Director because he became convinced that Comey had a strong sense of right and wrong.  Obama got this sense, he said, from meeting Comey’s family.  Comey was in Canada this past week. He was making a speech in Toronto and so he did a radio interview.  Among many things, he talked about leadership and compromise. Ethical leaders, he said, sometimes do compromise, even their own beliefs, but usually for a greater good, a central value. He gave examples: Abraham Lincoln got elected by leading some people to think he would not abolish slavery. Others thought he would. That left a moral stain of some sort, Comey said, but Lincoln didn’t lose sight of his primary principle. His North Star.  Donald Trump, Comey continued, seems to have no such north staroutside of himself. No reference points outside of his own self-interest. Trump, he said, demands loyalty to himself but never to a broader commitment to the country, to the people he is in office to serve. It’s always about ‘what can you do for me.’  ‘An ethical leader doesn’t have to demand loyalty.’ Comey seems like a humble man who readily admits and even lists major mistakes he made as leader of the FBI.  He refers to grandchildren; a commitment to them, to their common and individual future is what must influence us.  One of his final comments as advice to anyone in leadership was this: ‘ask yourself the grandchildren question’. Pay attention to that north star.fullsizeoutput_356e

Whether we are haunted in loneliness or destructive in a pursuit of self-interest, my English professor back there, and James Comey this week are saying something similar. The cruel loneliness that drives some to the margins, to self-harm, sometimes to harming others, or more often, to a perpetual quiet silence. And that other … the kind where all things turn around a personal instinct, measured mostly by a self-trust and self-interest … an unhealthy, often dangerous, self-serving isolationism.  The north star of Comey, that steady voice in many our lives will often be our mothers.  But that little constellation also includes our fathers,  our children and grandchildren, our spouses or friends, our education.  And if we think of the entire constellation, it’s probably the Holy Spirit present among us … a north star beyond ourselves. Without its influence, we are not going to be very good for each other nor for ourselves.