… faith … and QWERTY …

In the technical sense, the story of the keyboard has nothing to do with faith. How could it? Faith … things unseen … and the very tactile keyboard? But in the sense that it’s a story and that it’s about imagination, there might be something. Catherine Ford (Feb 17, Calgary Herald) writes a full column about the QWERTY keyboard … the one we all use today.  The typewriter itself was invented about  280 years ago, but that original keyboard tended to jam up because the letters were arranged A-Z. Like the alphabet.  Christopher Latham Sholes, 150 years later, calculated that if you more strategically placed the letters – rather than in the alphabetical arrangement – they wouldn’t jam up the arms of the typewriter as easily. It worked and today, even on our computer keyboards, we still use QWERTY, with those six letters in the upper left.

In 1951 they invented the electric typewriter, which eventually speeded up the typing process, but Catherine Ford is fast, and she hopes someone will soon come along (it’s 2021) to re-do Sholes’ keyboard into one that can keep up with really proficient typists. Maybe one that types entire words with one stroke? ( My iphone already does that but it often guesses wrong and I have to fight with it over the words I had wanted to use.)  It all looks like a technical issue but over almost 300 years, we’ve moved from the early alphabetical keyboard, to the more fluent QWERTY arrangement, to the electric, faster typewriter, to the computer keyboard (no arms) … and now a call for something even smarter. It’s a story about time and imagination, but also about people who don’t assume we have arrived at the final version, the last word … on how to put words on paper.  Catherine Ford has been typing for decades, and she still imagines a smarter keyboard.  

Our faith stories don’t have a chronology like the keyboard story does. Faith, in fact, has always been a bit confusing to me. We can believe in things, but faith is something else. It’s relational. It’s about love. It’s not measurable and yet people who are ill are sometimes told they need to have more faith … to be healed. People die, haunted by preachers admonishing them to ‘have more faith’. Jesus said that the size of a mustard seed is all the faith we need …  which always makes me wonder why it is that we believers beat ourselves up for having so little and why we try so hard to somehow have more. It defeats us everytime and any sense that we can successfully manufacture more faith is, I think, an illusion. Especially and in light also of what Paul says about it: faith is a gift, not of ourselves (Eph 2).    

That we need only a very tiny amount really means that any remote thought in that direction is enough and I’m pretty sure every living human being does have thoughts in that direction. Find one who doesn’t ! We all have enough.  Karl Barth calls it the impossible possible because it leaves us with nothing except grace;  the faith part … we can’t make it happen. Not really. Which also means that for the topic to even be mentioned by Jesus, impossible as he knew the manufacturing of faith would be for us, probably means that he was simply pointing to the fact that we have, inside our God-embedded DNA, a wish, a thirst, a need for a connection with the Divine … the Creator … YHWH … whatever anyone decides to call our maker. It’s a search for the connection we feel inside of us, whether we are Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Athiest, Muslim, Jewish or of any other ‘search’ with a name. We have the mustard seed;  it’s the God part we are born with. Intuitively we long to more fully experience the connection we know is there, and we work at it so hard because it always feels a little out of reach.  

The story of what happened in the Garden of Eden to Adam and Eve is for me, about our faith search. About that sense we have that God is here but also just a bit out of reach and so we ache for a fuller knowledge of God. I suspect the story didn’t happen the way it’s written nor was it meant to be understood like that; was there really a talking, tempting snake in the tree? If the writers were like me, they hated snakes and so their way of writing about our human search for the Divine was with a nasty, slimy tempter to come at Eve with the temptation and yearning that haunts us all.  Maybe Genesis 2 and 3 really is a story about our search for a fuller connection with God.  A search that hasn’t ever stopped or really changed much.

The search, the ‘groaning for God among us’ (Rom 8) happens inside every human life; God warning Eve and Adam to not eat of the tree of knowledge was perhaps the writers’ understanding about God warning us to resist the temptation to overly define and to assume that we can ‘know’ God. It tempts us all, and some evangelists play far too loose with it. The whole thing, the Genesis story, is an invitation to a faith relationship. A not-knowing-fully relationship. When we become fundamentalist and zealous and all-knowing about how it all works, it messes us up. Like it did Adam and Eve.

Faith is not about having a finished understanding of God nor of how our connection with God works.   The keyboard story is about time and imagination.  But for me, it’s also a story about not … even after 280 years, settling into having it ‘right’.  Faith is like that. It’s never finished, and if we need to have it ‘right’ and complete, it will defeat us and leave us sitting with a jammed up keyboard. 

… for things to be good …

The Glass Castle is a 2017 movie about a family living in terrible poverty, an explosive, volatile dad who seems to live inside his own illusion of things magically becoming ‘great’ for them, a mother who seems kind but lost in her world of art making and 3 children so utterly neglected it is painful to watch. In fact, I haven’t finished the movie yet, but I know that anyone watching it aches for those kids, because we know this actually happens. 

A new movie, Minari, about a Korean immigrant family moving into rural Arkansas in the ‘80s, hoping to build a better future for themselves as they try to start a farm is getting some early accolades. It’s partly based on the personal story of Lee Isaac Chung, the director, growing up in Arkansas. There is ‘little satire and barely any mention of racism in the movie’, says the Calgary Herald write-up this morning and even before it’s out (Feb 26 in Canada) it’s ‘making waves’ as an Oscar contender. Why? Says Steven Yeun, the Korean-American lead actor, it’s because audiences, even though the story may not be of their own experience, ‘identify with what they are seeing, and they’re looking more to this shared humanity’.  It may be an over-used phrase, but what is our shared humanity? A lowest common denominator? We do share pretty much everything when it comes down to it, but we are also creatures of love, of goodness, of endless hope. 

My favorite detective, Mma Ramotswe, in The Woman who Walked in Sunshine, (from the No. 1, Ladies’ Detective Agency series) is re-reading some early advice from her detective hero, Clovis Andersen. Apparently Clovis had said, to any aspiring detective who might be reading his ‘how-to’ book,  ‘do not allow the profession of which you are a member to induce you to take a bleak view of humanity.  You will encounter all sorts of bad behaviour but do not judge everybody by the standards of the lowestYou would be misjudging humanity in general,’  he had written, ‘and that would be fatal to your discerning judgement.’ A kind of oddly surprizing commentary, reminding fellow detectives, the people who spend their time looking for the bad guys and villains, to guard against missing the goodness in humanity.  And then Clovis Andersen had added his clincher, ‘if everybody is a villain then nobody is a villain.’ 

And that is the point. We can tell apart the villains.  We often do a terrible and tragic job of it; the wrong people are hunted and put away, we’re capable of taking children from their parents at borders, putting them in residential schools, and drowning them off overloaded refugee boats, but most people, worldwide, no matter which faith, culture, race or religious experience they represent, have a genuine sense of goodness. We sleep better with happy endings even when they are someone else’s happy endings.  We have in us a deeply embedded wish for goodness to keep the upper hand. It’s why most of the world, including most of the 70,000,000 who voted for Donald Trump, was, I’m quite sure, horrified at the chaos and violence of Jan 6 as the US Capital was ransacked in a nasty break and enter. We recognize what is not good because we know what goodness looks like.  

I wonder if this is what Paul is referring to in Romans 8 when he writes that all of creation groans in anticipation … of the redemptive work of Christ?  We know what redemption is about in ourselves and in all of creation … otherwise how could we be groaning for it to happen? Vs 19 … the creation waits in eager expectation … to be liberated from its bondage to decay. All of creation knows of its inner goodness and is desperate, at every turn, to have it revealed and experienced. We ache for it. 

C.S. Lewis once wrote, in Mere Christianity … that we would not know a crooked line unless we had seen a line that is straight. In our hearts, in our DNA, we have that part of God that is the entire ‘and-behold-it-was-good’ of the creation story.  Whether it took 6 days or 14 billion years really doesn’t matter to its DNA. Six times after completing something in the Genesis 1 story, God says that ‘it was good.’ And on the last day, when it’s all done, he adds the ‘very’ adverb.  That ‘good’ became the DNA and it’s doesn’t get lost. We’ve messed it up, and we’ll keep messing it up. But we will always know that … because we also know that the goodness that is God in everything, is still, really … in everything.   

When I was younger, I think I believed in God because my parents and my siblings and most of my friends did.  As I got older, and went to more schools, I wanted to believe in God because of apologetics. I thought there must be some doctrinal way to argue myself into God making sense. But if defining God was going to be the way to help me believe in God, it never worked well for me.  When I first went to Bolivia and lived away my books, away from the beliefs and cultural systems I was used to, I began to realize very personally that how I thought of God was not the way others thought of, experienced or believed in God. So, was there really a right way? I became less sure but also less afraid.  At the same time God became bigger, more mysterious, and more interesting.  Now, what keeps me believing, despite so much sadness and outright evil among us, is the evident wish, the groaning in all of creation and (most of) humanity for goodness to prevail. Creation works hard to repair itself at every turn. The whole thing is built on hope and love. The DNA of the normal human bends towards love and goodness and hope, and away from violence and ugly behaviour.  We ache for children to be happy and safe, and for things to be good.  And that comes from somewhere.  

… the second half …

A week and a half ago, someone responded to a blog post and asked for my contact information. It was on behalf of an old friend, with whom I attended Canadian Bible College in Regina, back in 1969/70.  Later, Cyril called me. At the College we both knew many of the same students and a lot of water has passed under the proverbial bridge. We were dorm mates; I was in my late teens. Now we both have grandchildren …  with lots of memories but we also both know we’re well into the second half, somewhere in the final quarter. Oh, and now we also have a global pandemic to add to the melancholy. 

And since covid insists on keeping us tethered to our places, I’ve finally done what I had been putting off. I’ve gone through 5 boxes of papers (there are more), and reduced them to two. I’m a little proud of that, because sooner or later, someone would have to cull that stuff. It may as well be me so it doesn’t later become the chore of recycling material that no one has looked at for a long time. For me, now, it became an after-the-fact experience, a moment to peek into an earlier version of myself, the first half, the part to which Cyril was also pointing.   

I’m one of the lucky ones. Many don’t get to the privilege of remembering friends, people we knew and worked or travelled or studied with.  I had kept notes in University, occasional journals through 3 MCC terms in Bolivia, Guatemala, almost Mexico, our early marriage years, our years in Northern Alberta, the births (nothing compares) of our children, newsy letters from our dad, Kathy’s family, siblings … and friends, many of whom just dropped off along the way.  So I’ve been reading and remembering and have been surprized at how ‘present’ it suddenly all becomes.  Anne Lamott in Almost Everything … writes about living in the present tense, and for a week or two here, a year into covid, my first half became again … the present. 

But it isn’t.  Life has a clever way of detaching us if we let it move us along a bit and don’t cling too much to the shorelines. I can be a bit of a clinger. 

Richard Rohr writes about all this. He says there are three stories. The smaller, the first, is the ‘I’ story. Me. Private. Insecure. Small self, searching for identity through achievement, sports, prestige, power, elementary school, Bible College, a first car. The early waking up years where everything is new and important. Those were my farm and the village years, elementary school, high school, probably that one year of Bible College and some University time. My first job.   

Surrounding the ‘I’ is the group story where our sense of who we are is expanded. It’s the ‘us’ story. Identity and belonging become important. Team sports. Friendships. Politics. Religious affiliations. Group membership can help stabilize and settle us, but it’s also when the ‘us’ vs ‘them’ can consume and become difficult to shake; it offers security. Still a search for the soul, but now driven by the (sometimes desperate) need to belong. RR says this second story can become an avoiding of the third, the larger story: ‘I see this in many seminarians, young priests, and bishops’, he writes. ‘They put all their eggs in the Roman Catholic basket, but they have little curiosity about their own shadow or inner life. They love ‘their priesthood’, more than they love God’, he says. And that statement could be made about us Mennonites, Southern Baptists, Republicans, Democrats, Trumpists … liberals, conservatives. We become our brand … and if we’re not careful, curiosity (and faith) slowly leaves us. 

In my second year teaching in rural Bolivia, a 12-year old boy from another village came to visit and asked Phil and me what denomination we represented.  He seemed to have come with that one question. You’re too young, I thought, to be serious about such things. Phil and I weren’t doing anything denominational in our work, but because we were white foreigners, he likely assumed we must be bringing a brand. But … at twelve? If this worried him then, he was in for a long life of unhappy comparison living, the endless ‘us’ vs ‘the others’ … where ‘compromise’ becomes a forbidden word. Like any other faith group, evangelical Christians can get stuck in this second story, and develop a kind of persecution complex where, despite how openly and inclusively Jesus lived and taught us to live, we hang on to a ‘they’ vs ‘us’; the ‘they’ is always ‘the world’ … out to threaten our story. 

The largest story, the third, surrounds the other two and is ‘the Story’. The ‘What is’, as RR calls it. It’s largely a mystery but it’s what gives coherence to, well … everything. It keeps us, if we are mindful of it, from being consumed by the idolatry of the ‘me’ and the ‘us’. It’s God. The ‘what is’ Story ‘allows us to live the good and the bad parts,’ says RR, ‘because God is around and inside it all.  We are neither trapped inside of our little culture and group identities nor consumed by our private pains and hurts. We are people of the Big Picture where nothing is eliminated nor excluded (remember Peter’s vision?) and all is used to bring us to life. Jesus taught us to call that the kingdom of God’.  

But all of this only makes sense to me in people I know. Les Mark was a missionary retired from service in India. He came to Guatemala when I was 25, still well inside my first half. We were working with an MCC reconstruction program running from community to community working with desperate families, volunteer builders, local committees. I have notes about that time; it was complicated work … and then Les showed up. Twice my age, it didn’t seem to matter. He had suffered and survived his own traumas as a missionary and now seemed to hold his story and our work with a kind of almost detached wisdom … and an easy humour. At night, I think he slept well.

People were attracted to Jesus because they felt better when they were near him.  Less because of what he said or did, I wonder if they felt better because he set them free from the desperation of the ‘I’ and the ‘us’ stories? Maybe they felt forgiven. When I think of people who live beyond the gnashing and gritting and clinging that haunts some of us into the second half, I easily think of many. Some are still young. Some were campesinos in Bolivia. Kathy. Our dad. Others. Our 12-year-old grandson. All our grandchildren. The little ones have this … and I’m less desperate when I’m with any of them. 

… a nothing day …

A couple of days ago in a phone conversation with a pastor friend, he mentioned that at supper, the evening before, he and his family of 5 (mom, dad and 3 school-age kids) were doing what people do at supper … recounting events of the day. It turned out, he said, that none of them had anything to say. Nothing. We had ‘a nothing day’, he said. It was funny as he told it, but as he began this little story, I also noticed that when he said, ‘we were aaall home, having supper’, his voice dropped at the ‘all’ as if that had been happening just a bit too often. 

My friend is the best dad, the finest family man and nothing about his story is remotely worrisome. But I wonder if this relentless pandemic is driving even the healthiest families to sometimes wish the kids were out with their friends, late home for supper or not coming at all, and even long for the days when mom and dad can, again, worry about when the kids are coming home? 

My pastor friend told the story, and it was funny, except for the tiredness of it. Family fatigue? Can that happen when it’s cold out and we’re not allowed to have anyone in? No movies. No church. No eating out. No trips even to the mall or the corner store unless like, it’s essential?  There’s nothing funny about any of this anymore, except, well … maybe ‘a nothing day’?  Think of it. Really!

I don’t know very much about comedy; I do like a good joke and a clever (and clean; the crass ones aren’t actually funny) comedian. Someone had told me to watch Comedians in Cars having Coffee on Netflix.  So I did; I have time!  It turns out each of the conversations is a kind of sermon. Some I’ve watched more than once. Curious one-liners coming from people who are constantly waiting for what’s around the next corner, because there’s always something. Life delivers if you’re watching.  

Jerry Seinfeld – who apparently owns so many cars that ‘if you saw them all you would not say this is a good idea’ – picks up other well-known comedians, drives them across town to some coffee shop and they visit over coffee. A kind of talk show without the audience … about nothing much at all.  Except this: they’re all philosophers. They peak into the corners and under the rugs, open the curtains and pull up the shades. They talk about their craft, about people in it, what works, what didn’t, and throughout, they keep poking at things like ‘nothing days’. The stuff no one thinks of until some alert pastor with a funny bone names it.  

Beginning in 2012, Seinfeld has taken something like 84 comedians for coffee in that show, all completely dedicated to their craft; even the ones who look like they’re kind-a done, can’t seem to stop. All of them work and rework their jokes knowing from painful experience that at any time they may crash and burn in front of an audience. Unlike most show people, the stand-ups make themselves completely vulnerable. They’re exposed, and once they have the mic, they also on their own.

Unlike preachers and other story tellers, comedians, if they don’t get a laugh, are in trouble because the audience shares in their embarrassment. In real time. So these comedians are a little obsessed with reading their audiences and understanding what makes them tick.  They have to.  A bad preacher can still deliver a sermon, go home to lunch, and may never know how bad it was. But a comedian knows it’s bombing as it’s happening. It’s high risk performing, but they can’t seem to stop. Life itself … it compels them? They’re a very curious bunch. The irresistible urge to expose, just a little, what’s under the rug? Most of them seem a little cocky but every one of them admits to personal insecurities and a kind of scorching self awareness … and most of them don’t go anywhere without a notebook.

Seinfeld talked about what it takes on CBC Q a month ago with Tom Power. He made a number of comments that reminded me of our collective but terribly individual experience with this lonely covid-19 thing, in which, yes, we are … ‘all together’. (I’m actually really tired of that phrase, important as it is.) Most good comedy, Seinfeld said, comes out of hardship and discomfort. If you can’t handle discomfort, don’t expect to find good material.

Unpleasantness is gold for art and creativity, said Seinfeld. A comedian having a good day won’t lead to anything creative.  All good creative work, he said, should be drudgery. If you want it to come quickly, it won’t be any good. It comes slowly. Wait for it. Work for it. If you can accept the drudgery, you’ll have a long life in the arts, he said. What looks like genius comedy to the rest of us, is apparently, like everything else in life, hard work … looking for material, developing it, enduring the drudgery. Writing, he said, is detective work. A family of 5, having a nothing day … there has to be something there, and my kind and always thoughtful pastor friend had spotted it.  

So does comedy have anything to do with ‘a nothing day’? Maybe not, but nothing days are a good idea and we ‘achiever addicts’ should have more of them. Does comedy have anything to do with covid-19?  With a pandemic that is making us cranky and desperate and depressed and anxious and weird? Also, maybe not. But I’m pretty sure all the 84 people having coffee with Jerry Seinfeld would say it does; they might even say covid is gold, and that I’m not laughing enough these days.   

… blessings …

Yesterday morning someone posted a picture of what looks like a road sign about ‘angels looking after you.’  I don’t disbelieve that, but I’ve also never felt very sure of angels nor of interventions beyond our own capacities to listen, think, pray, research, plan and generally to be sensible with the wisdom that comes out of our individual and collective human experience. But I do also believe the holy spirit is out there, everywhere … and has been since Genesis 1:1, and 14 billion years before that … and before that too. God, somehow, just always is, ‘hovering’, as the writer said. And somehow that Spirit becomes personal to us in shimmery ways (The Shack) we shouldn’t try to nail down too much.   

I’m reluctant to say I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, even though it’s a pretty common teaching among Christians … that we should have one. I don’t know what that looks like so I’ve stopped thinking it’s important, even though I do believe that Jesus was the incarnation of God among us.  This God who created the thousands of expanding universes, and ours, does seem to have a personal and sacrificial love interest in us, each one of us in particular; we, in turn, throughout our story have an intense curiosity and interest in whatever that God-interest is. Show me a human being who doesn’t wonder about it. 

And then there is love: love is so unquestionably redeeming that it can’t possibly be just a hovering-above-the-waters (Gen 1:1) universal abstraction, nor either just a quaint, scripted and invented hallmark-like truth. It has to be personal. An impersonal love could not affect us the way we respond to expressions of caring, of empathy, of understanding … . Love transforms us like nothing else, wherever and however it finds us, if we’re at all human. Nothing else really works, and nothing is more personal than any experience we have with love. How else to explain the human response to it? 

So it makes sense to me then, that out of the hovering universal-and-everywhere spirit, personal interventions – whether they are angels or some other nudging – may also happen. Not coercive, and not maybe our conscious norm, but why would they not? The natural and the supernatural. The universal and the personal. We like to compartmentalize them, but maybe we don’t have to … quite so much.  

Back in November I was about to walk out of  a Super 8 in Swift Current, but hesitated, wondering if I had left anything. I looked. Nope. I looked more than once. Kathy taught me that. And then something made me pull back the bed sheet and there was my book. Not a big deal. Just a book, but it seemed like a bit of a favor.

Before that, I had traveled around Southern Alberta for a couple of days. It was right after a major blizzard and the amount of snow on the roads caught me by surprize. Like the snow we grew up with in Saskatchewan, where half the winter we couldn’t tell the road from the ditches.   On my way to visit a farmer, he warned me by cell that the roads might be bit snowy.  Fine, I thought.  This is Alberta. We have good roads. How bad could they be? But they were.  The ditches had blown over the road, and it was actually blocked close to his farm. I’m assuming my friend didn’t know how bad it was either but as I got closer, a tractor just ahead of me cleared a stretch I could not otherwise have passed. 

I overnighted in Taber, had a full day planned, and didn’t really have time, but I had missed seeing a church leader the day before. He was conducting a funeral so I could have skipped going back up. But should I double back 45 km just to say hello? I almost decided not to bother but then, I did. When I got there, it was clear he had been waiting for me.   

The same morning, I reread an email asking me to pick up a piece of equipment. I had seen it earlier but had read the opposite of its intent and assumed I was off the hook. For some reason, I read it again. 

By 2:30 I was leaving Lethbridge in what had become another early winter windstorm.  As I got into the valley west of the City, all hell broke loose … high winds and blowing snow had turned the hwy into a sheet of ice with almost whiteout conditions. Hmmm! Twenty minutes west,  traffic was blocked by an accident on the overpass ahead. Hours? No idea. We were piling up. Slightly ahead of me, a single car turned off at a sign pointing to Fort MacLeod. A bit of a detour but maybe I could at least keep moving. On a whim, I followed the car and seemed to be the only one doing so. The detour kept me moving and an hour along the winds had died down and I came out of the storm. 

Later in November, Kathy and I were driving to Calgary from MacGregor, middle of the night. We had left MacGregor at 4 pm so most of our trip was going to be in the dark. On a curvy part of the hwy, I suddenly had a strong urge to slow down.  I hadn’t been speeding and I’m always conscious of animals when I’m night driving, but this was a sudden poke.  So, I braked a little coming around a curve,  looked sharper … and there, seconds later, a deer stood on the side of the hwy, right in my headlights, poised to jump. I was able to slow down, he changed his mind and lived to see another day. Just my own good sense? Maybe.   

Jan 3, late evening I’m watching TV almost asleep when suddenly I remember that I have a major blood test Jan 4, early.  I knew it was coming up but in the fog of the holiday season, I hadn’t nailed down the day of the week in my mind. I’ve had many of these and pre-covid, I always just walked in and waited my turn, but now it works much better to have an appointment and you make those weeks ahead of time. Not a good idea to miss. 

I’m not trying to convince myself that these and other little interventions are the love of our universal God become personal with me. I’m also not trying to convince myself otherwise. My brother calls them blessings. And at the very least, I think they are that. 

… life …

It’s 2021 and I’m looking backwards. I recently posted several notes about our years … pre-Bolivia, Bolivia and northern Alberta. I haven’t said much about living in Calgary, which is southern Alberta, post-Bolivia, starting in 1996.  Maybe it’s too recent? Over the holidays, covid largely keeping us all nailed down, I pulled out several old boxes of files, letters and assorted papers. A couple of hours and days into those notes and stories, and I have to be careful it’s not 1970 in Cuba or ’76 in Guatemala or Saskatoon at the U of S. But now I’m into the ‘96 Alberta stuff. Some things are easier to chuck, others can keep me reading and curious.  

Kathy, the kids and I landed in Edmonton in June of that year, bought a mini-van, and headed to Calgary where our kind friends, Harv and Jane put us up for a number of days while I started work at MCC and we looked for a house. Why, in the name of any kind of sanity I thought I needed to start work on day 1 puzzles me now and I’m sure it puzzled Kathy then.  Maybe MCC required it of me. I don’t remember, but I suspect we had agreed to a start date. 

What may have contributed to the quick start is that we were late leaving Bolivia. Five MCC workers, about 10 days before our departure, embarked on a long-planned trek through Amboró National Park, east to west, a trek for which, apparently, there was no precedent nor any map. They had done as much research as possible but in the end, even the Park rangers told them they didn’t know of a route through. So, off they went assuming, I think, a 4 or 5-day hike. How hard could it be? 

As our time to leave approached and they had not returned, we began to worry. Park Wardens also worried and eventually a search team went after them, heading in from the west end of the Park. (Chris Woodring, if you are reading this, your modest book about this should have been published.) The five had run out of food, had to matchete-hack their way through days of heavy underbrush, navigate cliffs and rivers, and in this heavy tropical forest it rained a lot so building any kind of cooking fires became nearly impossible. When, on I think the 10th day they did make it out they were a very sore but welcome sight! There wasn’t a half inch on their bodies that wasn’t bug ravaged. They had already been in the news, and having survived, made headlines that day in Santa Cruz.  Chris, Paul, Mauricio, Jake, and Todd.  About 2 days later, we left Bolivia, relieved but glad actually, for the extra time to pack and say our many good byes.

A brief required stop in Akron at MCC headquarters and then, Alberta.

I really thought I was done with MCC and that I would keep my job in Alberta for maybe 3 years while looking for something in the College System again, with better pay and a longer view.  But for probably several reasons, I stayed. A long time.  A combination of church connections, MCC engaged all over the world, a motivated staff and really, hundreds of volunteers making things happen grew on me. A kind of unlikely experience with lots of travel … good roads in Alberta, email (I didn’t get a computer on my MCC desk until 1998 … how did that even work?).  But mostly it was enabled by people all over Alberta, in countries around the world where MCC works, and by MCC staff. There were plenty of difficult moments during those years, but mostly it felt like the work inside MCC was as part of an open-ended, interested community. Not really an efficient, nor even a coherent, strategically functioning community, but still, a community that owned a kind of vision for doing good things. 

I had never been to an MCC Relief Sale until July of 1996.  One of our board members had in fact said she thought they were way too much work for the returns we got and people should just write checks.  Which is probably true. The hours that go into making an MCC Relief Sale happen are countless, so I was kind of in agreement. But it didn’t take long to see what this was. A 2-day revival meeting!! preceded by months of work by hundreds of people.  Food, visiting, bidding, donating, more visiting … more buying and selling.  Maybe 2 or 3000 people spending part of a weekend together … they lead, sometimes but not always to big dollars. But it is that one time of year when staff, volunteers, board members, constituents are all making something happen. You can preach a lot of sermons to a lot of people, but you will not get the kind of spirit-inspired community that happens at a Relief Sale … . The event raises the visibility and awareness of needs around the world, of the organization being supported, of an interested and committed community, all of which kind of creates the community itself.  That first experience in the Tofield Arena, on a rainy July weekend, began my learning about MCC, at this end of things, as compared with the other end, the international world, where Kathy and I had, to that point, spent our time. 

We had lived in the far north of Alberta, but for me at least, during those years it was as if anything south of Edmonton didn’t really exist. The lower half of the province. The Calgary Stampede. The Chinook winds. The foothills and mountains and the skiing … all part of the Southern Alberta mystique … so, moving to Calgary was like a new world for us. Expensive, frightfully fast, and loaded with opportunity. 

Our early years in Calgary we were living on one MCC Salary and had not counted on how expensive living would be.  As the kids got older Kathy went back to Nursing and we could breathe a little easier. Ryan and Adrienne were in school, had friends and our lives became consumed with their lives, church, our work, the park across the street. Just before starting grade 12, Adrienne was diagnosed with a brain tumour, which, 3 weeks later, was removed in a 7-hour surgical procedure. Now, having had a few minor procedures myself, I have a little idea how much courage it took for her, at such a young age, to walk into the operating room that morning. 

Three years later, she had Joshua, and our lives changed in a way we had not expected. Ever. So did hers and Sean’s. Children are a gift to any parent. Grandchildren are like some kind of unexpected blessing. Suddenly, they’re there and everything that happened before that makes a little room you didn’t know was there. I had really never thought about becoming grandparents. Other people had grandchildren. And then Joshua came into our lives like a little tornado of daily surprizes I had not imagined. Nothing big, except, all big. All my years of worldly wisdom and experience and education kind of evaporated into this tiny little new life among us.  He now has 3 sisters and a little cousin and whenever I’m with any of them, the world makes a little room and pauses  …  to watch. 

… the day the world changed …

Today, Dec 30, a year ago, China sent out a memo from Wuhan warning of a deadly virus.https://nationalpost.com/opinion/matt-gurney-a-year-ago-today-our-world-radically-changed-when-wuhan-sounded-an-alarm.  Only 10 people had been infected in the city so it was a paper warning, kind of routine, probably less than disturbing to a person on the street.  A year later 3000 people a day are dying in the USA and 1.8M have died worldwide. Unprecedented is the word spoken into every mic, every day. A year like no other!! What else is left to be said about 2020?! Well, a lot, but has … ‘we’re in this together’ become the most oft’ repeated line of the year, especially by politicians and senior health people who -thankfully – try every day to keep us paying attention to the well-being of our neighbor? They know, as do we all, that, absent the vaccine, being conscious of our neighbor is probably the only way to reduce and manage the spread of this nasty corona virus. 

CBC Power and Politics yesterday reviewed what they named as the 5 big news stories of the year. It’s a Canadian show so they included the Conservative Leadership race, run remotely across the country over many months.  Systemic Racism https://calgaryherald.com/opinion/columnists/braid-overt-organized-racism-is-taking-shape-in-calgary-under-cover-of-covid-19.  The American Presidential election. The WE Scandal in Canada. And number 1 and dominating everything … of course, covid-19 … which directly affected pretty much everything else too.  Covid has so dominated our individual and collective consciences that other major events seem as if they happened in another era … if they are recalled at all. Our country was nearly brought to a standstill by railway blockades over indigenous land rights just before covid and now I have to be reminded that the blockades happened at all. They were a huge deal and I’m not even sure if they were resolved!  Iran shot down a plane in which 90 Canadians died and … when did that happen? Canada has a minority government, which means there was an election not that long ago (October 21, 2019 … I had to check) about which I remember almost nothing.  The bottom fell out of the Alberta economy. There were massive fires, again, in Brazil and Bolivia and California and Australia. And still … it’s all covid! And we’re in it together. 

There will be years of kitchen and water-cooler conversations and stories and books written as we wind down the pandemic … about government roles, business failures, anti-vaxers, leaders and their failures or successes, different countries and their responses, and how many trillions were channeled into people’s bank accounts … just to keep the ship from sinking altogether. I hope there’ll be fireworks everywhere to celebrate, but there will also be years of studies and books and sermons and lectures about how we coped, and how we did, or didn’t become better because of our worldwide pandemic experience. 

No matter how deeply we seek to divide ourselves, build walls, exclude those we don’t like, minimize, abuse or ignore the ones who aren’t like us, and regardless of the pandemic or world debt or anything else … we are in this together. It’s a small, crowded planet we are on, almost, it feels like, on borrowed time so has our ‘being together’ become so easily spoken a platitude that it’s become largely meaningless, or might the pandemic have actually made us better at this communal human situation we are in? Might we have become better at acknowledging and working at the huge inequities in which so much of the world’s population struggles to survive? If ever anything could, it should have been something like a pandemic, so universally experienced!

I watched a Hallmark movie a few weeks ago. They’re all pretty much the same script but this one had more than light, Christmas romance to it. A young American Executive is in Rome to buy out a local company, coached by an impatient boss somewhere back in the United States. In the company of an Italian tour guide and the man whose company he wants to buy, the young American learns that business the American way is just offensive to his Roman hosts. He can’t just sit down and talk business detail. They want him to get to know Rome, not just with a quick tour and a bunch of pictures. Have some wine, food and conversation. More than once. In fact, he needs to learn that it works best if he actually learns to like the Romans … as Romans!  Not remotely, as a way to a business conquest, not just as someone who ‘respects them from a distance’, not just as someone who tolerates them but continues to assume his way is better.  And that, I think, is what ‘being in this together’ needs to be about. To give up ‘our way’ a little. It’s a lot to ask!

Maybe we’ll know whether we’ve become better at being together by the kind of people we elect to lead us, in our faith communities and at all levels of government! But after doing that, maybe we won’t just dig ourselves in behind our platforms and ideologies.  Now and then, maybe we’ll reach across the aisles, through our dislikes and annoyances, and sit with each other.  Maybe Mr Trudeau and Mr Kenney will, just once, share the mic and camera with the opposition? It would go a long way to the ‘together’ stuff you both talk about all the time. So why is it so seemingly impossible to do?  The premier of Quebec did it. Only once, but it was noticed!

Maybe the church will be first to give up some of it’s need to protect it’s own identity. Others would follow.  Is it so hard to imagine a worship service or even a communion fellowship with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Athiests and Christians? Something like this already happens in Edmonton at least once a year, the sky has not fallen in on them and God has not abandoned any of them, I’m quite sure.  

Our doctrines are important; they steady us. But they are not what the love of God was ever about so maybe the real test of all the ‘together’ messaging after this endlessly long year will come out of Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, the unlikely guy who went out of his way to help the one the likely ones walked past. It’s an old message. It’s about how we treat the cashier at the check-out lines, each other at line-ups in the cold outside the bank, how we talk to and tip the waiter at take-out or when we’re able to eat out again … whether we shovel our annoying neighbor’s walk this winter.   

… he is enough …

It’s Christmas. One day to go. Days are getting longer.  Except for the looming January winter freeze-up here in Canada, it’s a hopeful time of year. But hope, this year, this advent season, finds us in the shadows, a Merry Christmas less pronounced, a wish less easy to roll off the tongue; it’s still the same hope in the incarnational coming of God among us but now it comes in the middle of a world-wide virus that stalks, threatens and consumes us and keeps us from each other. I can understand the Hebrews a bit better now, hoping for a deliverer back then, not being quickly triumphant given the brutal, long oppression of the Romans along with the Hebrews’ own religious leadership with their additional restrictions.

Beth Moore is an American Christian writer and evangelist. On twitter last week she said …  ‘Nobody can take Jesus from you. If you’re in Him and His Spirit’s in you … you’re gonna be alright. Make no mistake. He’s enough. He’s everything.’  It’s a big statement, and I’m not doubting her sincerity nor her education nor her life and spiritual experience in saying that. But it’s spoken too easily, and maybe from a position of some security.  Most of my young adult church life was pretty much an experience around that statement. Preachers talked all the time about that elusive relationship we were supposed to have with Jesus.  The relationship that would simply turn itself on as soon as we prayed a prayer of acceptance. But what always haunted me was, I didn’t know if I had been sincere enough.  So … I’d try it again.  And again, haunted by fear that none of was really enough.  Plus, the second coming was imminent, or, I could die at any time, and if I wasn’t ready, well then … the bad place was where I was headed. It all always seemed to hang on what, I think, cripples many believers, followers of that Christ: the little word at the beginning of Beth Moore’s sentence. IF.

In my head, I agree that Jesus is enough and that he’s everything, but since the ‘if’ was always in that statement, doubters like me are never sure. Is Christ really in me? Am I in Christ? How can I be sure?  Should I feel something? And if I didn’t, did that also mean something?  Just work harder at not doubting, is what used to be my solution, but that gets very tiring after many years of trying.  It made sense to ‘just be more matter of fact in believing’ … which worked, I think for our dad, but it didn’t work for our mother, nor did it work for me.  That big ‘if’ seemed always to depend on something inside of me; something I needed to do or think or to somehow manufacture or feel. It was all me/us and Beth Moore’s statement feels like that.

The other thing about Beth Moore’s tweet I’m never sure of is the emphatic, ‘he’s enough’. I actually do sort of believe that, but I don’t know if it’s a helpful statement. Maybe it works in a momentary, euphoric revival event, but in our existential experience, most of us struggle with debt, children, pot holes, body image, jobs or job loss, foreclosures, lousy bosses, difficult colleagues, envy, hatred, disorientation, alzheimers and dementia, self doubt, health issues, covid anxiety, pensions, poverty … and is Jesus really ever enough in any of that world?  Probably, in some way, to Richard Rohr, or St Francis or Max Lucado and a few others, he is, I’m quite sure, but it’s not convincing nor very helpful just to say it to the rest of us because it’s not the kind of ‘he is enough’ that pays our utilities.  

So how is Jesus’ really enough?  Is he?  He was born a helpless baby, in a most humble place, not because this would become a quaint, historic story by which we celebrate his birth, still, 2000 years later. He was born that way, because God was coming among us, as one of the suffering people all over the world. He lived a humble life, did not succumb to power plays, advocated, always, for those on the margins and died on a cross. This is a messiah who lives among us, feels our pain and anxiety as his own, suffers with us and embraces us all with the love of God, a love which is somehow personal for each of us. But it would not be love at all, nor would it have the power to transform any of us, if it came as a micromanaging, God-is-in-control-and-fixes-our potholes kind of love. Nope. This is our show, with him alongside, not ever embarrassed by any of us, dying with and for us. And that, I think, is the ‘enough’ part. 

In her book, Almost Everything (2018), Anne Lamott writes this: I have had a spiritual mentor named Bonnie for three decades now, who loves me and trusts God and Goodness so crazily that I sometimes think of her as Horrible Bonnie, because I cannot get her to judge me or abandon hope.  For thirty years, she has answered all of my distressed or deeply annoyed phone calls by saying, ‘Hello, Dearest. I’m so glad it’s you!’  I’ve come to believe that this is how God feels when I pray, even at my least attractive. This is not a judgmental, harsh, hard-to-please God. This is the God who is especially fond of each one of us. The universal and personal creator God who came among us as a refugee child.  

I’m pretty sure God is in us and we are in God. It’s a relationship that began in Genesis 1. And maybe there is no IF.

… the good place …

Sierra has learned a new word. She’s 3 and ½ and recently, watching Paw Patrol, has picked up ‘episode’.  So now, instead of asking to watch Paw Patrol, she says, can I pleeeeeeeese watch an episoooooode? Earlier episodes of PP are all about problem solving with lots of helpful equipment and perfect timing. Later, they introduce a kind of evil character, a saboteur, and PP becomes, each episode, a struggle between good and evil with the Paw Patrol characters always quick to help, quick to forgive … even the one sabotaging their work.  

Not Paw Patrol, but Kathy and I finished The Good Place recently. Four seasons of a kind of 2016-20 version of the Book of Job. A philosophical good-and-evil debate. In the story of Job, God and Satan have a wager about how good Job really is, and what it will take to make him lose his faith and shake up his beliefs in God. God says Job is profoundly good and nothing will shake him. Nothing self-serving about Job, God insists. Take everything he loves away, says the devil, and he’ll walk away. Job doesn’t, but for about 38 chapters, he and his 3 so-called friends debate and argue over why Job has lost so much, whether or not he really is a good enough man, did he or did he not deserve such tragedy, whether or not, in the end, it matters, and how it matters. It’s tedious and stubborn and in the end, God thunders out to Job and reminds him, the good guy, that he really doesn’t know very much, if anything, about God nor about how it any of this works. Who, after all, made all this?!! Kind of a twist to the wager because Job had remained quite faithful and steady.  

In the Good Place, the debate happens after the people are dead. Unlike in the Job story, there are four. One is the endlessly-thoughtful, every-detail-matters, never-able-to-decide-on-anything philosopher thinker, Chidi. Another is Jason, the naïve, lovable drug dealer DJ guy no one takes seriously, whom people take advantage of, and as he himself says, is rarely right about anything and always surprized when he is. The third, Tahani, sister of a know-it-all sophisticate, desperate for acclaim, crippled by her need to be equally loved by her wealthy parents. The fourth, Eleanor, might be the Job of the group. The one who has lived everything by her street-smart wits, a don’t-mess-with-me young woman who freely admits she was never a good person at all, back on earth. She survived by her capacity to stay ahead of the next guy and in The Good Place she plays a similar role. There are two others. One is the almost all-knowing Janet, a god-like, always helpful, always sweet Being without feelings. The only thing, it turns out, she doesn’t know is what finally happens to us when we walk through that last door. The other is a kind of likeable demon whose job, like Screwtape in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters is to mess with people in the afterlife and to figure out creative ways to torture them. Most of the other demons in the story emerge as kind of one-dimensional, not very bright beings, but this one, Michael, seems himself curious about whether people can actually become better, even after they are dead. He has deceived these four, in an experiment, placing them together in the bad place, disguised as the good place. Until Eleanor figures it out.

In a bid to keep the experiment going, Michael changes the rules so that that these humans can become better, and become eligible for the real Good Place if they work really hard at it here, even in the afterlife. But it’s also a seemingly hopeless struggle loaded with self-doubt, second guesses … with all the defeating confusion over motives and actions. A bit like some people of faith who become the most miserable, never quite sure if they’ve become good enough to deserve the grace of God and second guessing their motives so that in the end, it’s hopeless?? How do we actually get there? By points? Tracking our good deeds? We, on this side, talk all the time about the accounting on judgement day, so when we try to slip the grace thing into the same sermons, it doesn’t really work, cause the accounting obsession has rendered grace kind of mute … and we’re back into making up points.

But these four, once they figure out that torture is the game become part of the revised experiment, to see if in fact they can become good enough, collecting enough points to make it to the eternal Good Place. Michael is a demon, but he seems to want this to work even though his superiors just want to dump them all into eternal, traditional torture, like they’ve always done it. What begins to happen is that the four begin to learn they need each other and eventually, they begin to care for each other.  They become better people. It’s no longer about the points!

So what’s the point of The Good Place? One writer says it’s about checking in with yourself, putting in thought about what you’re doing, and why. Michael Shur, who created it said … ‘you owe certain things to the people that you share Earth with, and that’s the point of the show, explicitly’.  But it’s also a Jobian!! debating of our reality … under intense pressure. To humans there are endless options for good and bad with an infinity of possibilities in any one life. Demons (evil maybe?) it turns out, are not complicated. They don’t like change, nor are they innovative. They’re cruel, sometimes a bit clever, but they’re not complicated. Humans are god-like, with minds and emotions that cripple and enable and energize and second guess and create and produce and build … .  Maybe that’s what happened back there in the Garden. We became complicated with so much potential for good and bad, and the struggle is our curse. But it’s not just a curse.

A friend of mine likes to remind me that there’s no interest like self interest. It may be true but it’s a bit cynical for me.  The almost universal instinct to help the person next to us,  our collective revulsion when we see that instinct casually disregarded in favor of self interest, and the pervasive and constant reminding these days – with unfortunate exceptions – that ‘we are all in this together’ makes me think that maybe there is no interest we value more deeply – even though we find ourselves constantly doing battle with it – than the well-being of the people next to us.  It’s Matthew 25:31-40. May it be so, especially these days … and all days!

… in the 90s …

I’m happy if someone corrects my numbers but I think in ’91 MCC Bolivia had 49 North Americans with 22 kids in the MCC team, and about 25 Bolivian national staff. It was a big program and during our orientation at MCC headquarters in Akron, it was clear that MCC leadership was a little impatient with the size of the Bolivia contingent. I was the new Country Rep headed south, and there was going to be some pressure to downsize.  But Bolivia had been a welcoming country for a long time, where organizations and missions like MCC had significant freedom to live and work and so MCC had been able to bring in new volunteers every year for some time, usually serving 3-year terms.  

In the early 70s, the average age of MCCers, serving overseas – I had been told – was under 25.  A 23-year old is usually more willing to get stuck on muddy roads, learn to ride horses, drink bad water, live without bathroom facilities … and maybe write home about it. In the 90s the average age, they said, was about 41.  Forty-one-year olds can have diplomas and degrees, work experience, spouses, maybe a couple of kids, and they’re usually pretty serious about why they’d be in Bolivia; they want to make a difference. Otherwise, why uproot a family for 3 or 4 years?  So that was kind of MCC Bolivia in 1991: a large team, including national Bolivian workers, high expectations, lots of training and experience, lots of opinions, plenty of passion to make the world a better place, and most not planning to stay more than 3 or 4 years; so things were urgent. They weren’t urgent in the same way for the Bolivians, a wisdom hard to learn for us linear northern thinkers. 

We landed in Santa Cruz, summer of ’91, found a place to stay back of the main cemetery, registered Ryan in grade 2 in a school with mostly American missionary kids, reconnected with people around MCC … and life in Bolivia had begun again for us.  Adrienne was 3.  At MCC, I had a brief orientation (a few hours over the course of a week) and then Dan Zehr said he was done …  and he walked out. So … that was it! 

A few days later, I had just come to my office and Nestor Perez came in, sat down and said ‘this won’t work, don Abram’. I didn’t know Nestor well yet, but we had met. He was the water technician, with lots of experience in water resource development working with other organizations. Why Nestor wasn’t supervising the water program, looking back, now makes little sense to me.  We of the dominant world culture so commonly assume the driver’s seat, and the older I get, the more I think we just really, very often have been wrong about that, including in MCC.  And still, Bolivians are and were patient with us. A patience, were things the other way, I suspect we would not be as good at. 

I’ve talked about Nestor’s visit before, but it’s worth repeating. Quite matter of factly, he said, ‘you can’t come to your office, sit down at your desk, and start your day. You can drop your brief case, but you need to come to the back, find the rest of us workers around the MCC Center, shake our hands and visit a little. With each one. Every morning’. That was it! Seriously??? Y que!! That takes time!! But I began to do it, and soon began to think it’s maybe the single most important part of any leadership role. What Nestor was telling me was that we were fellow workers, that my job, every day, started with paying attention to the people on the team, and that we were in fact, a community. Shaking hands, making contact isn’t foreign to anyone, but Bolivians taught me that it matters. Eventually it became an informal, normal and essential habit.  Those connections energized the day for me, and often guided it as well. 

Nestor’s advice did something else for me. It connected me to Bolivians on our staff, in church, even in taxi cabs, in a way that might not have happened so much before. In our earlier terms, I was working for MCC. I gladly worked for MCC in this later term as well, but I found myself more conscious of working as part of a community that included Foreigners and, I hope more equally, Bolivians.  This was all slow learning for me, but I think I began to love Bolivia. Not just as fascinating and interesting place to work.   

It’s probably not smart to name only a few items … but … maybe a couple from those five years …:  Yucumo, a region 600 km NW of Santa Cruz, got tired of MCC and asked us to leave. Some regional leaders thought MCC should be doing more and bigger projects and pushed until we found it untenable to stay.  MCC has always said we will work where we are invited, and in this case, they uninvited us … about 8 years in. 

Over the 5 years, our ex-patriot volunteer numbers dropped to about 25 while we increased Bolivian workers by about 15. 

Our work with Low German Mennonites began to include a local, monthly news page. Carl Zacharias, and after him, Jake Friesen travelled by motorcycle around large parts of SE Bolivia, visiting families and colonies, collecting stories and pictures, and sending them back to the Colonies. People looked for their stories, knowing others were reading them. 

Patrocinio Garvizu started working with us as a young agger; I had the privilege of spending 4 months in Bolivia the summer of 2019 and Patroncio is still there, now a pillar of experience and expertise in MCC Bolivia. Still the kind, gentle, thoughtful man I remembered. 

MCC had, since 1960, focused most of our work in rural regions around Santa Cruz; that began to shift as small farmers left their fields and moved to the city. MCC began to pay more attention to urban education, housing (with Habitat for Humanity), employment creation.  A substantial piece of farmland on the edge of the city had been consigned to MCC by the Methodists long before this and MCC had been using it as an experimental farm and an appropriate technology Center. It was now surrounded by a rapidly expanding urban population and to get ahead of what we assumed would soon become a serious squatter problem, Jacobo Schiere, with help from Bolivian legal, municipal and architectural people, urbanized most of that land. Over 200 lots slowly turned it into an urban development project. 

Most Saturday afternoons, Kathy, the kids and I would take a little micro to the Principe de Paz church for children’s club. For some reason I was the song leader with my three or four guitar cords and learned a bunch of little action songs with those kids, some of which I pulled from my earlier years teaching in rural Bolivia; you can turn pretty much any kids’ song into an action song.  Angela Opimi was the coordinator and energy behind that kids’ work.   

Kathy and I were privileged to be able to so some travelling. Some was personal and some on MCC assignments. Trips to Paraguay, where, slowly, I began to understand that Mennonites in the Chaco are not the same as colony Mennonites in Bolivia. To the Northern Chaco of Argentina where we listened to Willi and Berti Horst tell us about mission work among indigenous people, allowing them to interpret scripture and build their churches from within their own cultural experience. Uruguay, a week-long conference of Southern Cone Mennonite Churches. Brazilia. Arica, Chile. Pucallpa, Peru where MCC started a small, ag program with the Mennonite Brethren Mission.  

We had signed up for 4 years, but stayed for 5.  Adrienne would have had us stay longer, as others have done … . Maybe indefinitely.  In the back of my mind, I had sometimes wanted to operate a little kiosko selling bread, pastries, coffee and everything else …  like so many do in Santa Cruz. Some of those shops are amazing. Life is busy in Bolivia, but the deadlines aren’t as firm, it’s less expensive, much warmer, more personal, and it’s where, as our friend Ona once said, everything is negotiable.