… kitchens …

October, 2014, a group of us visited a community in Lebanon where some Syrian refugees had collected.  They were sharing whatever space they were given. Three families shared a space on the floor, with one pot in which they cooked. There was no table.  They invited us to share their food.IMG_4555.JPG

A couple of days ago, CBC news played a short clip of refugees landing on a beach in Spain.  Someone had caught this, as it happened.  A small boat, packed with people, struggling through the waves close to shore.  On the beach, people in their swim suits were watching, moving towards the imminent landing place. Lots of people. It was a public beach.  And then they landed; the refugees (maybe 75 people?) spilled out into the shallow waters, scurried up the beach … and melted into the surroundings.  By the time any authorities arrived, the reporter said, they had all dispursed. A normal beach. Sunbathers. And then …  refugees piling out among them, gambling for a new life.

Palestinian mothers in the West Bank rarely sleep well we are told. The Israeli military who occupy the West Bank regularly invades homes with a lot of noise and threats in the middle of the night, not necessarily even to arrest anyone but to keep everyone nervous.

An article in the Calgary Herald (Aug 12) talks about the trend towards strongmen running the world.  Hungary.  Venezuela. Turkey. Philippines. Countries ‘where it was thought democracy was taking hold’.  There are others: Russia. Zimbabwe.  North Korea. The United States.  And still others where the struggle for power is destroying the countries: South Sudan. Somalia. For a fleeting moment, the article reads, in the Spring of 2011, the world watched as ‘citizens in the Arab world rose up against repressive regimes’. It was all hopeful.  And then it all went sideways as Syria imploded, ISIS moved into the chaos (of Syria and Iraq) hundreds of thousands died and millions lost everything as they fled. Today the threats, bluster, giant egos, tantrums and the constant feeding of polarization do not make the world a better, safer place – only those sitting in complete safety and security can think that; instead, they create crisis and havoc, people’s lives are upended in ways that those of us who mostly see this on the news cannot come close to imagining.  From the safety of a kitchen in Calgary, it’s deeply disturbing.  It’s deadly for the millions who are violated, ruined, terrorized … .

A week ago, Kathy woke up to something. A noise.  She stepped out of our bedroom and saw a person wearing a hoody at the bottom of the steps, near the front entrance.   She woke me, dialed 911; they warned us to stay in our room. Police arrived in a few minutes but the burglar was gone.  It was about 3:30 am.  We quickly saw what likely happened. They came through our garage, probably carrying a hatchet they lifted off the wall, quietly rifled through a number of drawers and cabinets both downstairs and up, lifted my wallets, my MCC laptop, a briefcase (my walking filing cabinet), a pair of new shoes, and the keys to the SUV standing outside. Both sets. The police stayed for a while as we cancelled credit and debit cards, filled in police reports and wondered what door we had left unlocked.  Near morning we dozed off for a while and then got up to our adjusted reality.

They were tidy thieves.  Nothing was damaged, and drawers were carefully opened but not dumped. A tray full of coins had been pulled out of a cabinet in the kitchen, but left on the floor; why bother with coins when you are getting an SUV? The hatchet missing from the garage wall; the only thing they took there. A weapon? And my well-used biking gloves. What?

But aside from losing some things, there is a loss of something else.  For several nights I woke up in the middle of the night, and found myself checking around a bit, wondering who is in the shadows. Kathy found an old wall hanging she had gotten from her mother decades ago. It’s a Koala bear image; she hung it over the front door. The eyes are friendly and for a few nights we kept it there along with a bottle of wine (maybe the wine would soften the memory a bit) and an aloe vera (healing) plant some friends brought over for that reason; an attempt to at least dilute the image of a young man –  police say there were three or four – who has just been through our house with a hatchet while we were asleep.IMG_0961.JPG

It works.  Sort of. This idea of reclaiming your home. And time helps.  But that security thing is haunting.  The insurance gave us a rental for a few days; I wake up and check to see if it’s there.  We check the doors more than once.  Even during the day time, when we have often left all doors open for hours, we now find ourselves not sure. Our neighbors are checking their doors more often.  Others who know what happened tell us they lock up more carefully.

It’s a thing.  I don’t know if it has a name.  Probably.  Trauma?  An unsettling experience? We miss our car. We miss Joshua’s little shoes on the front dash; we had kept them back when he and his parents moved to Manitoba. Five years those shoes had travelled everywhere with us.  But we still have a house. Our house. We don’t have to run. Our neighbors are kind. We have not lost family to violence. We were not raped. Soldiers have not come in the night to raid our home and terrorize our neighborhood. Our children are building familes. We are all pretty safe.

And I keep thinking about the 65 million displaced and terribly terrorized people, many with little children who have not slept in their own homes, maybe for months. Years.  Refugees and displaced families so desperate for a kitchen that can be their own, they risk everything for a chance at it; they have no choices left but to survive. And the strongmen with their giant, reckless egos build bigger armies and higher walls and utter more threats to keep the world safe. It’s kitchens they should invest in.

… the ‘nones’ …

The National Catholic Reporter (Oct 2016) talks about ‘nones’. Pronounced nuns. The largest ‘religious’ group – 25% of the total and 33% of those under 30 – in the United States is the ‘nones’; people who claim no affiliation with any religious body of any kind. What is striking is that 60% of this rapidly growing population just ‘don’t believe anymore’. They are not likely to come back, says the NCR.IMG_6469.JPG

‘I’m sort of done with church’, someone said to me the other day. We didn’t talk much more about it except that a bit later he added … ‘we are spiritual beings and we seek that spiritual connection, but the modern church exploits that longing and makes sure people are afraid of what is next’. So, yes, ‘sort of done’ is what I think he meant. Maybe he is becoming a ‘none’.  Much of his life has been inside the church, and my guess is that a part of him will always remain there; it’s that God-planted search we are all on. My friend is also a philosophical and a spiritual person and I suspect he won’t disconnect the ‘spiritual seeking’ he acknowledges, from our being alive with all our senses engaged, which, I am pretty sure was always the purpose of the church: to integrate our seeking with our living, together with those around us.

But comments like that, even if made without too much definition, or maybe especially when they aren’t very defined … probably represent a truth about all of us, whether we admit to it or not. A struggle. Distancing the church – Christ himself – from life on the ground, as if it makes sense that a part of life, that ‘spiritual’ part, can be defined, named and lived an hour a week, or twenty minutes a morning, removed from our material wealth, our businesses, our fun, our fears, our poverty … from the complexities of our relationships. I’m pretty sure Jesus came among us to bring it all together. Richard Rohr goes even further; he says that Jesus never once asked us to worship him. Ever. It was all about following him in daily, engaged-with-the-neighbor living. Maybe the ‘nones’ are onto this.

Our family was born into a traditional Mennonite church in Saskatchewan. Most of us spent 15 to 20 years growing up there. And then, gradually, one by one, we moved over into an English-speaking church community where the teaching was usually about salvation and assurance and grace and evangelism. It was seen as a freeing-up move: our growing-up tradition was more about an introspective hope, a humility, and expected behavior, which brought with it the need for some kind of measuring of what was good or not so good. From generation to generation those measurements became more detailed and eventually … a bit oppressive. Up the road, that assurance and personal salvation teaching, freeing as it was, also becomes oppressive in that it feeds our natural arrogance; I am saved, I can name the date and the time and somehow that determines my salvation and God honors this. And the more assured we make ourselves of all this, the less important behavior and relational living here on earth become, so long as the words and the confessions of faith are in place, for the sake of the next life. The whole thing eventually becomes distasteful and we find ourselves looking, again, maybe like the ‘nones’, for the Christ. The one who came among us. (John 1:14).

I referenced Richard Rohr earlier. He is an American Franciscan friar, ordained to the Catholic Priesthood in 1970. He writes this: ‘Many people today are leaving the belief systems of their parents and grandparents. This is a mass exodus from institutional faith that demographers are calling “the rise of the Nones.”

Having little patience with mystery, and so little humility or basic love for groups other than our own, maybe Christianity in its present formulation has to die for a truly universal and love-centered spiritual path to be born.

For centuries, Christianity has been presented as a system of beliefs. That system of beliefs has supported a wide range of unintended consequences, from colonialism to environmental destruction, subordination of women to stigmatization of LGBT people, anti-Semitism to Islamophobia, clergy pedophilia to white privilege. What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs, but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion that makes amends for its mistakes and is dedicated to being a beloved community for all? Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life?’

Rohr says further that the cross is about the transforming of how we live here; a ‘pattern of life and a path for our own liberation’. It’s not just about our atonement, our being saved for another life; it is about how we are alive here. And still, he says, ‘we prefer heavenly transactions to our own transformation.’ Jesus revealed God as one who eats with sinners, welcomes outsiders in and forgives even while being rejected, tortured and killed … God was to be found in self-giving service.

Frederick Buechner, American writer and Presbyterian theologian writes this about Jesus: in Luke 19, ‘we’re told that Zaccheus was a runt. That is why when Jesus was reported to be en route into Jericho and the crowds gathered to see what they could see, Zaccheus had to climb a tree to get a look himself.

We’re also told that Zaccheus was a crook—a Jewish legman for the Roman IRS who, following the practice of the day, raked in as much more than the going tax as he could get and pocketed the difference. When people saw Zaccheus oiling down the street, they crossed to the other side.

The story goes like this. The sawed-off shyster is perched in the sycamore tree. Jesus opens his mouth to speak. All Jericho hugs itself in anticipation of hearing him give the man Holy Hell. Woe unto you! Repent! Wise up! is the least of what they expect. What Jesus says is, “Come down …. I’m staying at your house.”


An evening, pick-up soccer game almost underway

The church as the body of Christ cannot be about power, privilege, division, building walls, or discrimination of any kind; it has to be Christ and when it is, it will always find itself with the poor, those on the margins, the widows, the orphans, the blacks, the refugees, the indigenous, the illegals, the gays, the most despised. It wasn’t really ever about being religious nor about any kind of entitlement except to the giving of their own lives … . I wonder if the ‘nones’ have figured this out and are really on that search for the Christ. We all are. I’m pretty sure.







… an ‘impossible room’?

The August, 2017 Macleans Magazine carries Down on the Border, a 4-page piece that includes a story about ‘the Impossible Room’. It’s really a string of stories by reporters visiting, during one-24-hour period, places in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and B.C. where newcomers are crossing over from the United States. Some who live there want higher walls, tougher border patrols, but many also seem ok to welcome the strangers as they arrive, usually with little but the clothes on their backs. In Stanstead, Quebec, the Haskell Opera Hall straddles the border with Vermont. The entrance is on the American side but Canadians can go in, provided they don’t step off the sidewalk. A long piece of tape on the floor inside indicates the border but during the course of a show (there are no operas, actually) people can cross and back as often as they want to. The owner calls it the ‘impossible room’, but it’s the kind of border that makes sense. Just a marker. A piece of tape. They worry that President Trump will find out about it and shut the place down.  A place of sanity, where people meet.IMG_0886.JPG

The words of Pope Francis in The Joy of the Gospel say something about the Macleans article: ‘Life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort’; words that would apply everywhere, pretty much all the time … at the borders of countries, protocols of organizations, the front doors of churches, relationships among families, colleagues … .

We grew up on a farm in a village. Blumenheim. There were interruptions. Neighbors running errands, stopping to visit. Uncles and Aunts. The odd salesman. Jehovah’s Witnesses. Phoning ahead was not so common and so the interruptions just happened. Our mom was managing the chaos of a large family household morning to night and was sometimes a bit annoyed when a car would come on to the yard; but when she opened the door the visitor would never know of her earlier impatience. She took the time. Our dad did too. I think most people do. Something about decency. Something about knowing the importance of connecting with the people around us, including the stranger. Simply shutting them out was not even a considered option. Those that do, miss out on the health that connecting with another person almost always brings, however brief or inconvenient the encounter.

Years ago, when I was working with Fairview College, our staff were often at my door. We were a smallish program so that in an administrative role there were various hats to wear which meant a lot of little conversations during the course of most any day. At a staff workshop about time management I once asked if they, needing something, preferred to return later, when presumably there would be more time, or did they prefer 30 seconds at the moment. A little to my surprise, they said … ‘we’ll take the 30 seconds.’ The connection mattered more than its brevity.

A woman asked me in late May about Planting Peace. Two weeks where MCCA brings together young adults from 6 to 10 countries to think and travel and talk and dream about peace making. She was worried mostly about the expense but I don’t know if she appreciated what happens when 15 to 20 young adults from very different cultures, faiths, political and personal experiences come together. This all happened in mid May. Daily sessions, conversations, travels, story telling, eating, laughing, translating … together.   Three or four days in, a young woman from Lebanon said to me … ‘this is not what I expected. But I like it. We came here expecting to sit in a classroom, being taught by others, and here we are, engaged in each others’ stories’.

Life is meant to be lived like that. It’s chaotic and at it’s best, it’s engaged and interactive and interrupted. Two weeks ago a group of 5 Alberta High School Students got on a plane to meet another 4 students from the Maritimes, in London. The group then went on to Uganda, visiting partners of MCC, local organizations who are supported in their work with AIDS, with children, education, water, agriculture, peace making. The learning tour is sponsored by the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation. The travellers are young people with hopeful futures before them. Keeners. In Uganda they will have seen and heard a lot about vision and planning, met a lot of good people and seen innovative, compelling work. But I am also pretty sure it is the connections they made – the conversations they surely had while their little broken-down bus was towed 40 km back to town, when they were caught on a muddy road in a rain storm, when one of them got pretty sick for a day or so, when having meals with their hosts – that will most affect their learning and create memories and vision into the future. It’s always the human connection that creates the memory, and leaves the impact.

Ten days ago Kathy, Joshua and I were coming out of Walmart when I noticed a friend going in. I had not seen John in a few months and when I asked how he was doing, he said he had suffered a second heart attack a month ago. He looked fine and we talked a bit, about his health, mine, and then we moved on. We had had a full day and were preparing for the next, but the little update and three-minute conversation about something entirely different and irrelevant to our schedule was something like catching a breath when you are winded. We were not out of breath nor overly occupied, but a few minutes with him made our world a bit bigger. Different. Like opening a window: it may already be a good day but the open window lets in a bit of fresh air … and the house gets a bit healthier.IMG_0883.JPG

Someone posted a paragraph a few weeks ago about his work in health administration. He was assessing a cooling issue in a care facility and hearing a lot of complaints. And then he walked past a woman sitting in the hallway who looked like she was ‘out of it’, but as he walked by she threw out a comment: ‘sometimes you wear the brown hat’, she said. He has two hats and was wearing the black one. He had been at this facility maybe three times in two years; this resident had noted him, and his hat as he approached. Her completely out-of-nowhere comment tripped him out of his administrative preoccupations. ‘Treating an illness’, he wrote then, ‘may or may not work. Treating a person, making a social connection, you win every time.’

Mr. Trump and many others are often talking about exclusion, about walls, about threats and about winning; the President should try this other approach: a respectful moment with the people around him. A moment showing even the smallest interest and where the divider is just a piece of tape, to be stepped across. An ‘impossible room’? The world would become instantly healthier. And safer.


… a little finger of joy … the Spitfire Grill

Two weeks ago, Krystal Esau shared a reflection with some MCC Calgary Staff at a Monday morning devotional moment. She included these notes from The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis:

“Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength. But already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.

Everything becomes more and more itself. Here is joy that cannot be shaken. Our light can swallow up your darkness; but your darkness cannot now infect our light. No, no, no. Come to us. We will not go to you. Can you really have thought that love and joy would always be at the mercy of frowns and sighs? Did you not know they were stronger than their opposites?”

Rosebud. A little theater town in the hills an hour north east of Calgary. Joshua, Kathy and I drove out to see The Spitfire Grill last night. Worth seeing. All of Rosebud’s plays are. This one is a two-hour musical based on the 1996 film by the same name and is set in the town of Gilead, Maine. I kept thinking of the song we used to sing in church … there is a balm in Gilead. Gilead, in Hebrew, apparently comes from Gilad, something like ‘eternal happiness’.IMG_0735.JPG

The Spitfire Grill begins with Percy, a young woman, being released from prison having served 5 years for killing her abusive stepfather, who, we learn later, got her pregnant, then beat her until she lost the baby; she killed him as he lay in a drunken stupor on his hotel room bed. But the story isn’t about her earlier crime. Well, it is, but it’s really about the redemptive power of forgiveness, and a persistent little light of joy working it’s way into a dying, despondent community that no one wants to live in anymore. Percy’s dad was a coal miner whose hands, she said later, were never not black, no matter how hard he washed them, and who died of what coal dust does to the lungs. Her mother took them to live in Detroit where, as she says, they never saw trees, or sky. And when she comes out of prison, she looks at a map, reads a description of this little place that has a stream, and trees; Gilead is where she will try to restart her life.

A young sheriff, Joe, meets her as she enters town, just off the bus. His job, he tells her, not without some sympathy, is to manage her probationary period, which he does throughout most of the play; she is a parolee. It’s a very small town. Percy has no resources and Joe has no helpful options for her so he takes her to the Spitfire Grill. It’s the only Café in town and Percy becomes the waitress. Its owner is Hannah, a gruffish, no-nonsense woman whose son, everyone’s hero, had long ago gone to fight in Vietnam; he never came back. He went missing, but no one in Gilead knows that he deserted, likely suffering from PTSD and hiding in the forest near Gilead. Hannah and he seem to have an agreement in place; he will not show up in the light of day, and she will place a loaf of bread for him outside near a tree stump, every night. The issue for Hannah is that her son is a deserter; everyone else thinks he died a war hero. That sad story emerges as part of the larger story when Hannah injures her leg and Percy ends up placing the nightly loaf of bread out by the stump. Curious, and a little spooked, she figures out who is picking up the bread every night, and eventually meets Eli, the lost, traumatized son of Hannah, in the forest. The postmistress, Effy, an annoyingly curious town gossip feeds the nasty local rumor mill about the young woman, just out of jail, now working at the Grill. Percy, with no cooking experience is unable to manage the Café with Hannah immobilized and Joe suggests that Shelby, wife of Hannah’s nephew, Caleb, come in to help out.

She does … and the rest of the story includes Joe, the sympathetic, bored-with-Gilead sheriff, Caleb, the oppressive, suspicious, meddling husband of Shelby. Shelby, his unhappy wife but a person who is sees more in Percy than just a woman out of jail. Eli, the elusive, silent war veteran in the forest. The always hungry post mistress Effy. And Percy, the wounded young woman around whom the story swirls but whose beaten up soul still has that seedling of joy C.S. Lewis writes about; enough in her little finger to waken to life all the dead things of Gilead.IMG_0685.JPG

It’s a complicated story, including the raffling off of the Spitfire Grill and the hesitating but obvious attraction between Joe and Percy. Every one of the characters is flawed. There is no hero. Eli, the lost, broken soldier. Hannah, who can’t forgive her son for deserting the mighty American Army, and for being traumatized, wrecked by what he experienced. For not being a hero. She longs to sell the Grill but Caleb, the supposed realtor has not managed it in ten years. Joe, the sheriff who does his job but really, just wants to leave town. Effy, the gossip who chases any rumour, with little regard for accuracy. Percy, the young woman traumatized by her childhood in poverty, the abuse of her stepfather, by having killed him and having spent 5 years in prison. Shelby comes in from her silence, the person who has the best interests of everyone else at heart, and worries about them all; in the end, she also finds the inner health to hold her husband to account and to declare herself a legitimate, independent partner in that relationship. They will both be ok, she says.

It is complicated, but it seems awfully common to us all; somehow normal. The audience engages the play almost spontaneously as if, without trying, we all know all that this is about. This is life and this is that never-ending struggle C.S. Lewis writes about between love and joy … and frowns and sighs, and the second chances that are birthed where love and joy are given half a chance. We know this and we ache for the struggle to be over. It never is, but if we pull up the shades and if we let in among us the Percys and Shelbys and the flawed Hannahs, the sometimes disregarded unimportant ones, the ones with even a little joy in a little finger … ‘the dead things in our villages will waken into life’.


… I hear them all …

Bono, opening the U2 performance in Ottawa today said, ‘whether you have just arrived from Syria, or your roots here go back thousands of years, this is your home’.

Thomas sent a note this afternoon. He works with MCC Alberta and lives on the eastern side of Calgary. Thomas is from Nova Scotia. More recently from Ottawa. Most of us, in Alberta, but also in the rest of Canada, are from somewhere else. One in 5 Canadians, today, 2017, was born somewhere else.  We come from everywhere and Thomas’ note told a little part of that story: a Syrian man noticed the welcome sign on his front lawn. Kathy and I have it up as well, as do many people these days. The one – in French, English, and Arabic, and I think some versions have it also in Spanish – ‘no matter where you are from, we are glad you’re our neighbor’.IMG_0375.JPGThe man,  ‘A’ , had stopped to thank Thomas for putting up the sign. His father had noticed the sign last week and told his son he should stop and say thank you. ‘A’, his 2 brothers, and their father all live on the same street where Thomas lives but had not been aware of each other until today; the family, as it turned out had themselves been supported by families and constituent groups in coming to Canada. The people of Canada who have been welcoming refugees and newcomers for a very long time … including those, indigenous peoples all over this land who have accommodated us, newcomers, long before 1867 and long after … at such a high cost to them.

On my way to the Coop this afternoon for some milk and maybe a watermelon, CBC radio was helping us celebrate Canada day, having brief conversations with the newest Canadians; the ones who became citizens today. They asked a young girl what this day meant for her and she said … now I am more confident. Really, asked the host as if wondering why the simple idea of citizenship – the privilege we so take for granted – would be that significant to anyone. ‘Oh yes’, said the girl. ‘This piece of paper opens doors for us, and now’, she said, ‘I am at home’.

It reminded me of when I finished grade 12.   Those endless, insecure years of waiting to be done; finally, I got an envelope from the Department of Education in Regina, about halfway through the month of July. I dreaded to open it, because my marks were in there, but when I did, and saw that I had passed, it was as if life had begun. I instantly understood that some doors were now open to me. As if, to that point, I had not allowed myself to think about dreams too much; in that moment, it all changed.

A family, a young girl has come out of Syria, or Lebanon, or Nigeria, or Ethiopia, or South Sudan, or Rwanda … not being sure of anything in their future for a very long time … and then, finally, citizenship in Canada. Anxiety and fear and worry suddenly changes into a home with doors that open to a future with possibilities.  It’s a huge deal …

Among the many events of July 1, they had invited anyone with a guitar to meet this afternoon at the Calgary Olympic Plaza. Ian Tyson would sing his famous ‘Four Strong Winds from the 60s, a song that is sung every year as the last song at the Edmonton Folk Festival, and in 2005 CBC listeners voted it the greatest Canadian Song of all time. I didn’t take my guitar, but I went and got there just as he started singing. His voice is older, a bit like Leonard Cohen on his final album, but his guitar plays wonderfully, and when he sang, the crowd sang with him. There must have been 5,000 people or more – the entire plaza was packed – and they sang, like a giant assembly of people sort of whispering the  words led by that loved, elderly Canadian singer. I looked around. The people singing, filming, listening were of all backgrounds.   Many, I am pretty sure, did not grow up with any Ian Tyson music and the younger ones may never have heard of him. But they had collected, massively, for this song, this moment with a Canadian icon.IMG_0354.JPG

Maybe it was the sunny noon-hour July 1 weather. Or maybe they just didn’t have anything else to do, but it’s possible they wanted to identify with this well-loved Canadian artist, or even just, with each other, as Canadians on Canada day. I don’t know, but at the very least, they showed up, unafraid, this multi-languaged, multi-colored, multi-opinioned community of people that now make up Calgary, Alberta.

Last Sunday, our pastor talked about Genesis 11. The complicated story of Babel. He went through the story, which is familiar to most in our congregation, but his interpretation was that the scattering of the people into different languages and cultures was, actually, a way to make them healthier, less conscious of only themselves and their beloved identity, which is what had become their problem.

What may have been a coincidence, or not, was the song sung by a young man, David, while they took up the offering. It’s called I hear them all, by Old Crow Medicine Show, an American String band based in Nashville, who sing ‘old time, folk and alternative country music’.

A few lines …. I hear the crying of the hungry in the deserts where they’re wandering. Hear them crying out for heaven’s own benevolence upon them. Hear destructive power prevailing, I hear fools falsely hailing, to the crooked wits of tyrants when they call … I hear them all … so while you sit and whistle Dixie with your money and your power, I can hear the flowers a-growin’ in the rubble of the towers. I hear leaders quit their lying. I hear babies quit their dieing. I hear soldiers quit their dieing, one an all.  After each verse and at the end, he sings … I hear them all. I hear them all. I hear them all.IMG_0378.JPG

 Our pastor was saying that our strength is not in our uniformity and that God’s blessing, his blessing among us includes our diversity; it’s in our being different from each other, in all the ways that we are … not the same … that we find our health.   And he does, really … hear us all.


… A Man Called Ove …

It’s a two-hour film on Netflix.   Kathy stumbled across it yesterday evening and when we saw that it was a Swedish film with English subtitles, we hesitated; those subtitles make you work a little harder watching a movie. You can eat popcorn but that’s about it, if you want to keep up.  Three minutes in, we were hooked as Ove is pressed into retirement from his job with the railway company he has diligently served for 43 years. They give him a shovel as a gift, a sort of afterthought as he walks out the door.

A man of few words,  One is highly disciplined, capable, and distant from most people. He calls a lot of people ‘idiots’ in the course of a day and lives in a neighborhood of low-end townhouses where he and his one-time friend Rune have been the caretaker managers for a long time. He is obsessed with keeping the gates closed and latched, the narrow street up the middle safe from cars, the litter off the street. He has frequent run-ins with nearly everyone, it seems, but especially the ‘white shirts’ … professionals who later in the story attempt to force Rune, by then the victim of a stroke, into a nursing home.

It’s a delightful and tragic story with maybe a couple of themes, or more: the dazzling impact of unpatronizing love that asks little in return, and the capacity to do something. To intervene.  Ove is a shy young man … later a grumpy old man. His father teaches him to love engines and to fix and build things. His mother dies when he is a young boy and his father is later killed by a train. The ‘whiteshirts’ arrive at his door eventually and want his house demolished. Ove, instead, fixes the house and is able to keep it. The neighbors’ house then catches fire, and while others watch, Ove dashes in and saves the lives of two people. His own house catches fire from the sparks and the ‘whiteshirts’ tell the firemen to let it burn. Ove, now homeless, a young man, sleeps in the train at work and one morning wakes up to find a young woman, Sonja, sitting across from him, reading a book. He is smitten with her warm, disarming smile but has no idea what to do. It takes him three weeks to find her again but he does. Eventually they marry; Sonja, a talented, passionate school teacher, is obviously completely contentedly happy to be with this introverted, socially clumsy young man. Neither one of them seems intent on changing the other … they seem to have married each other exactly as they were.

Sonja becomes pregnant. Ove builds a cradle and before the arrival of their much awaited little baby, they take a short vacation. On the way back, the bus crashes and Sonja is confined to a wheelchair. The school board can not be bothered to build a ramp into the school for her, so, Ove, in one night while no one is watching, builds a ramp, to the cheers of everyone watching the next morning as Sonja is wheeled into her classroom. They lost the baby in the accident and no other children are born. Sonja, much later, dies of cancer sending Ove into depression. He visits her grave every day.fullsizeoutput_3cea.jpeg

The movie begins with Ove leaving his job, having lost Sonja only 6 months earlier. He keeps trying to kill himself. By hanging. By carbon monoxide poisoning. With a shotgun. Each time he is interrupted by his new neighbors or by someone else.   When he decides to stand in front of the train, another man collapses onto the track just in front of him; Ove jumps off the platform and rescues the prostrate man. Others are now watching and beg him to get off the track as the train approaches. At the last second, he lets them help him off. His final attempt, -with a shotgun in his house – is also foiled; a young man whose friend Ove has helped by fixing his bicycle – maybe not because he cares about the boy very much but because he is obsessed with dysfunctional equipment, especially cars, trains and bycycles – is gay and is thrown out of his home by his parents when he tells them. Grumpy Ove, having just been interrupted in the shooting of himself, still holding the shotgun, lets him in. Not happily, but … ok.

It’s his new neighbor, Parvaneh, a Persian woman from Iran, married to a Swedish man, and their two girls who, like Sonja earlier, stay with the socially inept, almost always humourless and grumpy but oddly always helpful Ove. The man who keeps things running in the neighborhood but runs from the neighbors. The man whose neighbors repeatedly interrupt him even though he yells at them … to save a cat, teach Parvaneh to drive (which he does just because he can’t stand the other guy whom she has hired to teach her), to mind the kids for a couple of hours, to take in a young, homeless, gay man, to keep the ‘whiteshirts’ from moving Rune out of his home to a nursing home. (The two men have drifted apart over the years, but when Rune, severely disabled by the stroke, is threatened, Ove intervenes).IMG_7426.JPG

It’s a story about love. The love of Sonja, Parvaneh, the little girls hugging an Ove who has no idea how to hug them back. Love that stays with it … keeps showing up even as Ove shoves them away … . Love that doesn’t seem intent on changing him. There is nothing preachy about that love. It’s just there.  And the love of Ove, who wants nothing more than to be left alone but keeps responding to people who drag him into their lives.  It’s messy, kind of out of step … but it’s their world and they find their way in it … by not walking away.  Ove wants to, but he can’t. The others never quite stop showing up.

Ove leaves a note for Parvaneh which she discovers after he dies of heart failure. He wants a nice, proper, quiet church funeral, but only with people there ‘who thought I pulled my weight’.  The church is packed.

… what it needs to be …

I spoke last Sunday in a church in Edmonton.   I thought I was pretty much ready, but kept second guessing my notes. Twenty minutes before going up, I changed the title. That doesn’t usually happen because once I have a theme or title, it helps me shape the material. Stories. Points. In this case, I thought I had done that, but 20 minutes before going up it suddenly made sense. The material seemed to fit into a place. It hadn’t quite, to that point.

‘Don’t cling too tightly’. I’m sure there is a more positive way to have said that, but that is what I stayed with. When George, Henry, Sol and I were young boys on the farm in Blumenheim, we often argued. We bickered and poked at each other and sometimes we exhausted our mother. She had 11 of us. In exasperation, she would sometimes say to us, ‘one of you has to give in’. She said it in low german, but it translates almost exactly, and it meant something that, at that time, made no sense to me. Why would she not have paid attention to us, sorted out who was right, and told the rest of us to give in to the brother who was right? But she didn’t. She just said, ‘one of you has to give in’; otherwise, she said, there would be no end to the bickering. She was a wise woman, and I am pretty sure what she was saying to us was this: it doesn’t matter very much who is more or most or even exactly right; insisting on it is what is causing the turmoil. The wiser one, she often added, will be the one who gives in.  IMG_0201

Maybe a dozen years ago, Hicham Shehab came to Alberta. A Lebanese citizen. A journalist, peace worker, story teller … also a former sniper. He had shot people in the civil war, 1975 to 1990 that left 120,000 people dead … until one day he saw an older woman in his sights. She reminded him of his grandmother; he could not do it. Something shifted inside of him, and he put down his guns and became an ardent voice for peace in a country so long crippled by violence.   When he landed in Calgary, I met him at the airport. He would stay with Kathy and me for a couple of days and as we drove toward our house, Hicham used Jesus language several times; I finally asked if he was Christian, or Muslim. I had understood he was Muslim. But he would not tell me. I have my secret beliefs, he said, and later he explained: in Lebanon we shoot each other; we are so deeply fixed inside our Muslim or Christian or other rightness that we consider the other side completely expendable. At the meeting where he spoke, he was a man from Lebanon, a peace maker telling his story. He did not allow us to label him other than as a peace maker with a long story. I have often wondered about his purpose in not labeling himself; but I could not claim him. Nor could any other, and in a way it freed up his message to be more easily a message for everyone.

Willi and Berti Horst used to be missionaries in Northern Argentina, working with several indigenous populations. Kathy and I went to visit them once on what, for me, was one of the more fascinating ‘missionary’ learning experiences I have had. Willi and Berti seemed to want to let the church among the Tobas be their church, their body of Christ. Not the church of North American missionaries. They refused, for example, to pay any pastors a stipend, nor, if I recall, did they give assistance to any group wanting to build a church building. Not even a tin roof. The church, the community would come from within the Tobas. The Tobas would shape it.

One evening the Horsts took us to a church service, except it wasn’t anything like a service we expected. It was somewhere out in the bush. A fire. Some instruments. A little preaching. Dancing. A kind of round-the-fire line dancing, it went on into the night. There did not seem to be an expectation of an ending, and it wasn’t clear there had been a beginning. As they danced some wore vests in which they had strapped the bible; the breastplate of righteousness from Ephesians 6, Willi explained later. An enchanted, mesmerizing evening … for Kathy and me at least.

I asked Willi if he preached. Sometimes, he said, but not too often. I remember thinking how loosely the Horsts seemed to hold the Gospel for the Tobas; were they not concerned that the Tobas get the details right? I had attended church in other settings by then, where sometimes the pastor would kindly insist on how we should understand and do things. Church and interpretations were pretty prescribed, but that was not happening here. We do attend meetings, bible studies, Willi said. The Tobas interpret the texts; we try to put their interpretations in writing for them and return them to them.

Maybe 6 years ago I was in Nazareth, where they have recreated a ‘first century Jewish village’ complete with sheep, shepherds, fig trees … and a synagogue. Like the one Jesus would have visited in Luke 4. This was his home town. They invite him to read. He reads from Isaiah. They like how he reads. And then he adds a couple of comments: it may have annoyed them that he said the “spirit of the Lord is upon me”, but what really infuriated them was the reminder that, way back in a period of famine, their well-known prophet, Elijah, was sent to a Canaanite widow in the region of Sidon when surely there were thousands of Israeli widows he could have been sent to. And during Elisha’s time, he says to them, there were surely plenty of Hebrew lepers longing to be healed, but only Naaman, the Syrian was cleansed. Jesus was plucking these stories out of their own history and saying to his staunch Hebrew audience that their God, already long ago, chose others; he was not an exclusively Jewish God. The now angry crowd took Jesus out of the Synagogue and tried to throw him over a cliff for his betrayal of their this-is-about-us belief system. He was giving it away.IMG_0219.JPG

Ruth B (Behre) is a young singer. I had not heard of her until she was on ‘Q’, CBC this morning. From Edmonton, she has released an album, Safe Haven, and is already known for her voice and her song writing. Today she sang ‘Lost Boys’. I am a lost boy, who found his family with Peter Pan and Hook and Wendy and all the others in Neverland. Lost boys, she sings, are free. The Gospel of Christ is not a fairy tale. But it’s mysterious. It’s big. It’s free to be. It becomes what it (Jesus) needs to be for the Tobas. For the Hebrews. The Canaanites. The Syrians. The Mennonites. It’s not ours to manage.  It is ours to give away.  Well, actually, I think it’s everyone’s … to give away.