… our checklists …

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission finished their work in Canada in 2015. After listening to stories across Canada, they listed 94 Calls to Action.  I attended a few of the sessions of the TRC and was always astounded at the suffering that children (and their parents) had endured in many of the residential schools. But each time I was equally astounded at how kindly and graciously anyone who wished to sit and listen was welcomed. There was no pressure to respond with any action nor any words, except to listen. In fact, more than once, I had the impression that the indigenous people present, the hosts,  were going out of their way to make sure we, the rest of us, were not feeling too badly about what we were witnessing. 

Call to Action #58 asked the Pope to come to Canada to apologize for the role of the Catholic Church in the operation of the Residential Schools, but also in the whole idea behind the schools, which was to destroy a culture, a language, a spirituality. The scheme came out of the Canadian Government, but the church carried much of it out for them. Clever! Two weeks ago the Pope came to Canada and offered that apology. I kept thinking that though our Federal Government has apologized and poured out a lot of money, maybe our PM should have been apologizing alongside the Pope. At times during the week the Pope was here, I had the impression our government, along with the media, was a bit too contented to let the Church take the heat by itself. 

Our media had been prepping us for this for some time, asking indigenous leaders and others if they thought the apology would be enough. Would it cover what needed to be said? What expectations did people have?  Could it ever be enough? I began to feel sorry for those who found themselves in front of the mics because while the media, I suppose, was just doing their job, they kind of pestered and poked so that an interview could become a story, a headline, all by itself. 

I also felt a little sorry for the Pope because it was pretty clear he was not going to quite get this right. He represents a very powerful body, known and active around the world, but he’s 84 and in a wheel chair. I’m sure this was a difficult week for him, physically and emotionally, and yet we created a kind of critical culture around his visit so that, however sincere and well prepared his apologies were, they were going to be second guessed and parsed for intentions and meanings. Wisely, I think, the Pope didn’t over explain himself even as we entitled ourselves a little, I think, to expect more than whatever it would be that he offered. 

Perhaps I need to also feel sorry for the media, because they have a job to do, and we complain about them freely. In anticipation of the Pope’s visit, I sometimes thought the media became too much part of the story themselves. They became the monitors, the adjudicators. Could it have been otherwise? Maybe not, and were it not for the conversations they did start, however annoying at times, many of us would not know much of anything about the Doctrine of Discovery, nor even about the 150 plus years that Canada operated residential schools all over this country, nor perhaps about the 60s scoop and the generational impact and legacy of it all.  The questions need to be asked, the answers tested, perhaps over and over for a long time to come.  

And now, it seems that we have moved on.  It’s three weeks past and we hear little about the Pope’s visit. So I wonder a little about this. I wonder how an indigenous person feels now. Call to Action #58 is done. Sort of, at least, and for a month we all gave it some attention. We talked about reconciliation and how important #58 is in the journey to reconciliation. I’m sure the Catholic Church isn’t done with their follow up work, nor, I hope, is the Canadian government. Nor, I hope the many protestant evangelical churches who whether overtly or otherwise, also participated in the work of diminishing the culture, the spirituality and religious experience of indigenous populations. Ours is, we are quite convinced of it, the righter way, and theirs is not.  

Maybe it’s easy for the rest of us to check off number 58. It’s a start, a first step, many have said, so, let’s check that one. But I’m thinking the indigenous person, who. after 200 or 300 years of being marginalized, made invisible and stereotyped, and who deserves many apologies and acknowledgements … may now wonder what reconciliation is.  Was this really, again, perhaps more our idea than theirs? Or at least, did we, with all our conversation and debate around it … frame it for ourselves more than we should have?  

Reconciliation, it seems to me, is rarely, if ever, a one-off.  Our obsession with counting, checking things as done or soon-to-be done … is not helpful to that word because it’s not check-off-able. Reconciliation has something to do with relationally living side by side, working side by side, using the same sidewalks, attending the same daycares and schools, sharing food, sitting, maybe, in the same pews at church or other worship places …;  it’s living together and sharing space. And it’s not putting each other on reservations! When we did that we made sure any kind of reconciliation would be pretty difficult if not impossible for a very long time. 

Orlando worked with MCC for 19 years. He pushes the sharing space and working together a step further. Orlando was always forgiving and gentle, but he often reminded us that just because we hired him and a few from other backgrounds here and there, didn’t mean we were actually on equal terms. We weren’t, and it often shows, even in experienced peace and justice organizations like MCC. Just because we hire a person who is not white, and we check off that box, doesn’t mean we allow them to operate inside ‘our’ organization like the people they were born to be. Nope. We expect them, once inside our space, to be grateful, and to become quite a bit like we are … cause otherwise, we get nervous.  They know that nervousness and they often bend themselves inside out to accommodate ‘our ways’. It’s not fair, and if I were them, it would fester and eat at me. Or maybe I would learn to just keep my head down and when to be quiet.  At the least, reconciliation must mean to try to give people of different backgrounds and cultures the freedom to be who they are, inside what we might think of as ‘our’ space. And sometimes I think it also means to give up the space and the truth and the power we think of as ‘ours’ and to let it become truly ours. Some churches are trying to let this happen.

… moving the fence …

It’s perplexing, our world of tensions and contradictions these days. Was it always like this?  A pastor at a funeral earlier this week talked about how dismal it all seems to be if we let ourselves into thinking about it.  But is it just alarming or is there something else we feel? Does the despair and angst overtake us or is there still the hopefulness that really, for thousands of years, has kept us humans going? 

A few notes on ‘the one hand’: a Republican Party in the USA is hell bent on serving their master, Mr Trump, despite all the blatant evidence that he would have been quite happy to win the election in 2020 with a violent coup, and mountains of almost daily material that would have destroyed any previous President, but only seems to make Mr Trump a more favored candidate among almost half the population of the USA. What strange kind of spirit has taken over that country?

Also on the one hand, more guns in the USA than there are people, and mass shootings so frequent, most of them are barely reported anymore. And a growing assault, it seems, on American public schools and even libraries. From a distance, it seems a country in enormous and growing civil conflict with a white evangelical church openly advocating that the state and church are not separate after all, and the church becomes the servant of the state. Or … possibly by now, it’s the other way around. Somehow, in the most perverse turn, the evangelical church has become about power. The antithesis of the one who gave it life.  

There’s plenty more: AIDS is still a serious global health issue. The numbers are actually, still, staggering. Racism and the inequities that go with it, while more exposed, shows no sign of ending. Putin is in Ukraine, seemingly willing to kill anyone, anywhere and to hold half the world hostage so he can play out his game of ‘who’s the most powerful man’. The Chinese keep teasing the idea of finally invading Tawian while, slowly but surely, marching all over the once independent Hong Kong. A ‘progressive’ green world is suddenly aware we do need oil and gas but loathe to admit it in any practical terms other than to somehow try to get around the looming shortages they may face in Europe and elsewhere because Russia has a lot of the oil the world needs. Oh, and they also have the grain. And the ports through which to ship the grain that comes out of Ukraine.  It’s all so wacky that Joe Biden now travels to Saudi Arabia to meet with the prince, asking, apparently, for more access to Mid-Eastern Oil.  He could have had it from us, next door.  And I’ve said nothing yet about the 828,000,000 people in various countries, without enough food to eat. Look for information at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. 

But there is the other hand. The hopeful one that most people wake up to, even in the most desperate times. The Christian church has a lot of prophets inside and around her, whose calls for an inclusive, kinder, more just Jesus Gospel are being heard by many. And there are millions who may not be prophets but who live out that Gospel, whether they identify as Christian or something else.  Also, most people in the USA actually believe they need legislation to limit access to firearms.  The Me-too movement is not dead and a lot of what was hidden and acceptable behaviour in North America and in most other places is now more easily exposed and more often openly challenged. The most recent example … the Canadian Junior Hockey scene.  Black Lives Matter and Every Child Matters are significant movements of people challenging behaviours and attitudes and biases that have been acceptable, often openly and often in the shadows, for decades. In 2021 38 million were still living with AIDS but today 28.7 million are accessing anti-retroviral therapy. In 2010, only 7.8 million were accessing ARVs. AIDS related deaths have declined by 68% since 2004. 

Pope Francis, at 84, comes to Canada for a week in a wheel chair, to apologize for what he called the genocide of indigenous children over the 165 years of residential schools in Canada. And he didn’t equivocate on using the word, even though it implicates the Catholic church. 

There is plenty more on this ‘other hand’ but to end his sermon at the funeral, the pastor told a story the deceased had once told him.  A group of soldiers in France, during WW II, had wanted to give their fallen comrade a Christian burial. They found a little church and asked the elderly priest if they could bury their friend in the cemetery.  The priest could not permit this because they they had a rule about who could be buried there. Sadly, they buried their friend just outside the fence, and left. The next morning, they returned for a quick further goodbye but became disoriented, unable to locate the burial site. The priest came out and said he had not been able to sleep because he had refused them the burial inside the cemetery;  he had gotten up early and moved the fence. 

I don’t know if the story is true. But I do know that lots of fences need to be moved. And when we don’t inhibit it with institutional, political or religious obsessions and protocols, the sentiment is true and will emerge, over and over, in every corner of the world, in every culture and in every faith. It’s God-given, this capacity for compassion, for empathy, for moving the fence … and most often it happens when no one is there to see it. 

We’re built to wonder …

I might be happier if the earth was flat. Endless, but flat. And if the sky was really just full of twinkling stars hanging up there and if the sun revolved around the earth, coming up in the east and setting in the west. And also, if heaven was just up there, almost within reach. Things are simpler that way. But these days, we are seeing a lot more and a lot farther. It’s all much older, much bigger, and yes, apparently much farther back. 

Orlando’s 8-year-old granddaughter, Savy, asked the other day, as they were paging through her picture bible, so … ‘grandma, who made God?’  It’s a fair question because we talk about a beginning and an end, an alpha and omega and we are built to think of beginnings. Endings too.  Savy is reaching way way back, looking for how it this all happened.  

We do talk about life as part of an eternity, but then we add in words about thousands of years as if we realize we can’t get to an understanding of eternity, so we talk about it as something linear.  It’s just a very very long time!!  But really, eternity must be an aspect of infinity, and so it must mean it’s a dimension with the absence of time, and that is what we can’t get. It becomes an unbearable idea because time always sits there as our default understanding of well … everything. Some indigenous cultures have a more cyclical understanding of things, but in our western European world at least, we are linear and time-based minds and bodies. 

The Psalmist alludes to an infinity when he says … as far as the east is from the west … referring to what happens between God and us, with our transgressions.  Apparently God has bigger things to worry about than our transgressions, but it’s a helpful attempt at putting words to infinity. East from West … on a round planet …!? It just goes on and on.  Really, there’s no beginning nor any end on a round surface. The very shape of our planet is a little helpful. There is no beginning.  

So maybe that’s a ball park response to Savy’s question.  Better than simply saying that God just was ‘always’ there. Though we use it all the time, the word ‘always’, like eternity and infinity, is not really comprehensible to the human mind. We are imbedded with the ‘time’ thing. We can use the words and talk about the concept, and the physics people can mathematically tell us that infinity and eternity and always … is/are a real thing, but in the end, an 8-year old takes us back to … was there a beginning to all this? … and we can’t answer her, except to use metaphors and words, the full substance of which we actually can’t get.  Not from our dimension anyway.

The new James Webb Telescope that now orbits the sun 1.5 million km away from the earth speaks into Savy’s question. It won’t answer her question because even the early images it’s sending back to us come from back as far as 290,000,000 light years away. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second, so it moves a very long way in one year.  We are seeing images now that were there, out there, billions of years ago.  It all implies a beginning and a big bang idea gets mentioned, but if what we’re seeing comes from so long ago then you have to wonder if our linear thinking about all this really makes sense.  Did anything really happen that long ago or that far away? Or are we peering into another dimension while still only able to think about it from our linear time experience? Maybe time and distance, two elements that affect our existence every day, become irrelevant at some point when it all becomes that big and that old.  

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran Minister in the US. In The Corners (her blog) she writes last week about her own Cosmos Anxiety Disorder.  The mystery and the hugeness of it all, used to give me anxiety, she writes, but now it gives me hope. Her point is that our anxieties and fears and worries are very small and perhaps insignificant when we place them into the scope of how big it all really is. She adds that it may help us if we actually named, inside this vast context, the things that really do matter … like human dignity, and human wellness, and that our egos and racisms and superiorities and having nice lawns and our obsessions with achievement and winning would all become less consuming … if we remembered where we are. 

Bloz-Weber is writing about is the James Webb telescope and all that it exposes to us. An early image shows a pile of ‘star’ images that have been travelling towards us for maybe 13 billion years? A hundred years ago, we thought there was one galaxy. It turns out there are millions, but so far away that what we are seeing is likely not there anymore. It’s beyond wild, this place we’re in, and seemingly, super well held together. Ask a physicist, and maybe also a theologian. 

A NASA physicist who played a key role in getting the James Webb into its place around the sun said on Trevor Noah earlier this week that with the James Webb we will learn more about our origins, the farther out – both time and distance – we can see. They always say that. Maybe they are right. But somehow, I doubt we will answer Savy’s question any better. Even the Bible doesn’t solve it when it says that in the beginning was the word.  There was a beginning? Can’t be, can it? That would imply that eternity and infinity had a starting point. And then our eternal God idea doesn’t really work, cause what??? God had a beginning? And there is Savy’s question … hanging still, in front of us. 

Maybe it can’t be answered from inside our current perspective, but when an 8-year old asks it, she represents pretty much all of us. We are built to wonder.

… birthdays, anniversaries … and seasons …

Garrison Kiellor says happiness is found in the particular.  Doom and gloom are general.  Depression, he says, is in that general area.  It’s hard to name. And I wonder if birthdays, anniversaries and seasons fall into that general melancholy category? 

Already it’s July 10.  We just rounded the end of March!! Today my youngest brother is having a birthday and he reminded me yesterday that we (and our siblings) are at that point in life where we realize how little we matter. Hmmm. Well, kind of a downer comment, but also, probably at least a little true. Life has a way of sneaking up on us and the older I get the more I realize it not only sneaks up, it whistles right by unless you grab it here and there and hang on for a bit of the ride. 

On the one hand, there is a slowing down effect as we get older, because we just do, but at the same time, there’s a speeding up feeling, because well, it’s not boring out there and we keep being reminded that time is passing quickly and the more we are reminded, the quicker it all seems to slip away. It can lead to desperation. This world is brief with us and if you don’t think so, just wait a bit. 

The pastor this morning spoke out of Psalm 90, Psalm 39 and Ecclesiastes 7:2, in each of which the writers are in the kind of mood my brother was; they remind us to count our days ‘cause they’re numbered’ and it’s better to go to a funeral than to a feast because death is our destiny anyway. A bit much for Kathy and me as we drove home because we both grew up in the world where God watches us and keeps track of our mistakes and reminds us that all is not well, lest we begin to think it is, and that it can end at any time. 

So our evangelical theology of pessimism contributes to this feeling of gloom.  We talk about abundant grace but really, we preach salvation by making sure we believe the right way and speak that way too.  Which means we’re never sure we got it right and that place of grace …?  … we shouldn’t be too sure of it. And moreover, our days are numbered so … it’s best to be quite serious about things. 

On top of our pessimistic theology, we have birthdays and anniversaries and seasons.  I’ve never really wanted to celebrate my birthdays very loudly because they do remind me of the Psalm 90 sentiment and the passing of time. We are slaves to it. When I registered kids for school back in San Juan and Villa Diego in Bolivia, some of them didn’t know their birthdates.  At the time, I felt badly for them, but maybe if, in our world where we document so obsessively, we didn’t mark the passing of time so punctually, we would be a little less stressed about it getting away from us. 

June 22 is sometimes a downer day for me because after that, they get shorter. The farther north you live, the greater the daily reduction of daylight. Living in Bolivia was much more gentle because it’s not far from the equator so we didn’t really notice daylight shortening during the cooler months. Only a little.  Days and nights were pretty evenly divided all year round.  It was easy to get used to. In High Level, Alberta, where we also lived, just south of the 60th, the daily adjustment is more dramatic. At 60 degrees the sun is visible for 18 hours and 52 minutes on June 22, and only 5 hours 52 minutes during the December solstice. So that means up there (in High Level) they are losing 4 and a half minutes of sunshine every day after June 22. Depressing as that is for those of us who think about this, it is nevertheless also a little comforting that the June 22 starting point is high, starting with 19 hours of daylight. They have a long way to go before it becomes mostly dark … unless you keep thinking about it, and then it becomes gloomy and depressing.  

I do sometimes wonder if we have more stress here in the northern hemisphere because we adjust to new seasons four times a year?  We’re always in a kind of panic mode.  Aside from the relentless cold of winter and its deadening impact on everything, we run through three other seasons, each of which is significantly different from the others. Spring arrives and we are desperately full of hope as winter gray turns to lively color all around us. But we know this isn’t here for long. After 3 months, it’s summer when farmers hope we get enough rain and not too much hail and enough sun so that crops can mature in time for the end of summer and the harvest rush … which really happens in 24/7 mode because it can freeze and snow in August or September and it almost certainly will in October.  And for those who are not farmers … well, summer is just as short for us and so, as soon as it warms, we get a little nervous ‘cause we only have a couple of months to love this heat and enjoy the sun. So, off we go, filling as much of our time as we can with frantic camping, swimming, biking, hiking and …  hurrying to relax … ‘cause it’s summer!!! October is coming. The writers of Psalm 90 and 39 and of Ecclesiastes probably lived well north or way south of the middle. 

I don’t know if there is an antidote to the gloom and melancholy of watching time pass too quickly and not being able to hang on to as much of it as we had hoped. Ice cream helps. Skiiing in winter used to help me. Getting out helps. Grandkids help, especially when they’re young enough to still think we older ones are cool. Coffee shops and conversation help. Friends and family who forgive us and love us help. But I also think the world is a pretty amazing place, held in orbit by gravitational pull, around a sun in one corner of a galaxy that is one of millions. The James Webb telescope is now collecting images from galaxies 290 million light years from Earth. A light year is the distance light travels in a year … 9.5 trillion km. This is a wild, marvelous, very big auditorium we are in and unless we’re imagining the whole thing, there’s a lot more to it than any science or any theology will show us.  And if there isn’t, then what we are seeing and experiencing even with the gloom of time slipping away and the despair of our so frequent international convulsions is,  …  to be completely trite, fascinating enough to keep me interested and curious about what’s left for me, and to wonder with all kinds of emotion about what my grandkids will yet see.  

… Serious hope … ?

In the Christian and church world, someone will give a report from a location where people live with unbearable challenges, where there may be illness, starvation, war, death and destruction or natural disaster impact. Ukraine today!!  Almost invariably someone will ask …  what gives you hope? I’ve often felt badly for the person responding because while they may actually have some hope, by saying to us, their listeners, that they do still have hope, we are let off the hook a little. See, they still have hope. All is not lost. The world will come back together because well, see, even they are still hopeful. It’s a little like coming back from visiting a very poor population and remarking about how happy those poor people seem to be in spite of how difficult their lives are.

Two days ago another black person, Jayland Walker, died at the hands of 8 police officers in Akron, Ohio. One source says they fired 60 bullets into his body, some after he was lying on the ground.  This keeps happening; the outrage gives way to numbness and then, well, is this now normal?  Austin Channing Brown is a Christian, Black American writer and public speaker. She posted a note yesterday where she said how ’extraordinarily frustrating’ it is when folks ask, are you hopeful?  Hopeful about what? That black men at traffic stops will be treated with at least the same respect that white mass shooters get in the USA? That legislation will be passed to stop what is happening to people in the USA who are not white? She goes on to say that America doesn’t have room for specific hope because that would require action. General hopefulness is what we want, she says; it lets us relax a little and move on to other things. 

Jesus was all about hope, but his ministry seemed always specific to needs around him. I don’t know if he would have used general phrases like ‘mutual transformation’ very much. I wonder if he would even have used words like pacifism? His ministry was far too specific to leave room for generalisms.  Gandhi, I think was similar. He was always reacting to particular problems in the lives of Indians and then engaging the powers and the people themselves about those problems. Bishop Romero did the same in El Salvador. Their attention to the specific got each of these men killed. Their hope was particular and it made those who were in control nervous.  

A week ago, a pastor in Calgary talked about the story of Noah in the early part of Genesis.  God had had enough of all the evil and decided to pack it in with us. So he killed pretty much every one by drowning. Only Noah, his wife and his 3 sons and their wives are saved, along with a bunch of animals. (I’m thinking this is when he got rid of the dinosaurs and maybe other less desirable animals. He might have considered getting rid of snakes and mosquitos and a few more gophers and the annoying moths that clutter up an outdoor evening lamp in the summer. But he didn’t.) 

The Bible isn’t the only Eastern tradition with a flood story and as they likely did with the creation story, the Hebrew writers borrowed from those other traditions when they wrote up the story of Noah. The preacher last Sunday wasn’t defending the accuracy of the flood story. Whether there was an Ark and an actual global flood didn’t seem to be her point. It was something else. And my guess is that the writers of Genesis did not write up the story as a historical record either. Something happened and stories were passed down through the years, and eventually they wrote it up borrowing, also, from the neighbors. But, if historical accuracy wasn’t their point, then why is the story there? Did God, whom we believe to be forgiving and always about second and third and more chances really decide that this was the way to start over? That the whole thing had failed so badly it was time to restart?  And if he wanted to start over, why keep the 8 people and those animals? Why not really start over with a clean slate?  

The sermon talked about all this but mostly, that the Flood writers wanted to remind their readers, their fellow Hebrews, that their God, the one they worshipped, was in fact a God of second chances. He did not simply obliterate everything even though things were really going badly. He cleaned house, but he also kept ‘the thing’ going, building on what was well underway. So maybe he dropped the dinosaurs but their point was that the Hebrew God, unlike the other gods they were familiar with, was a God of renewal and regeneration. They wrote a terrible story to make the point, but hope was what they worked into an otherwise hugely tragic story.

So maybe this all means something for us today?  In my lifetime, I don’t know if I’ve seen as much anger and shameless recklessness and legitimate pessimism about where we seem to be headed. I didn’t see either of the two great Wars. My first memory of war is Vietnam. Every day the United States counted their dead. I was young and understood only a little about all that. Civil rights marches in the USA in the late 60s I also remember; that was my introduction to politics of fear. Police dogs tearing at the legs of peaceful black marchers. A classmate of mine in grade 11 or 12 was sure MLK was a communist. We were kids!   

But during most of my lifetime, I lived with an assumption that decency was part of public debate and that there was some kind of stable default with which most people identified at the end of the day. But today, we have Syria. Saudi Arabia. Iran. Yemen. Palestine/Israel. Ethiopia. Ukraine and Putin. A shameless, deadly conflict ruining so many lives …  about nothing except ego?  In Canada, politics seems at times a shallow game of image building and identity more than it is about governing and personal integrity. In the USA the Supreme court is on a tear, as if they’ve been waiting in the wings for a long time and now, finally, are unleashing with a vengeance.  And Donald Trump , who still has massive support, is happy (or furious) not because he believes in anything, but because he’s getting attention and he loves to see himself creating chaos. A man who wants to run the country like the godfather runs the mob.  And he may yet.  When his staff and family reminded him the Jan 6 people had weapons, he said he didn’t care if they had weapons cause they weren’t coming to harm him. It’s always personal for a man who is about nothing other than himself. 

In Genesis 1 and 2, the story is about creating order out of chaos. The later Noah story implies a world coming unhinged and then after the darkest tragedy, coming back to life and order.  As a ‘by the way’ the pastor on Sunday reminded us to keep reading because, not many verses later, the messiness of life is in full view again as Noah scandalizes his sons when he gets drunk and they see him naked.  But I wonder if that’s also part of the same point. It’s a messy place, but inside of it all, there is a lot of very particular rebuilding and regeneration always going on and a big promise to keep it going.  Maybe there is room for hope in there somewhere. But serious hope with commitment to the particular may cost us. 

Each with our story …

At a church picnic over lunch yesterday, I sat with a family immigrated from Chile back in the 80s. Some of their younger children – now born in Canada – were with them and I asked if the kids spoke spanish.  Not very much, lamented the parents, but it’s difficult because they function in a largely English speaking environment, even at home. Immigration and resettling is complicated. It varies with each family and each culture and no matter how much a government or a church or any group would like to streamline or prescribe how this goes, it won’t work quite like anyone hoped it might or like our preparations make us think it should. And surely, however inconvenient, that’s a good thing. 

Our kids gave me a book last Christmas. The Wayfinders by Wade Davis.  Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.  I don’t know much about the book yet because I’ve just begun, but in the early pages Davis writes about culture and languages and how glad he is that there are many ways of understanding the world. A yak herder in Chomolungma or a curandero in the high Andes of Peru, or (I’ll add this) a low german speaking Mennonite in a colony in Bolivia … there are other options, other possible ways of interacting with the earth. 

Davis talks about language. Six hundred of the 7,000 languages spoken on this planet have fewer than 100 speakers and 3500 languages are kept alive by fewer than 1% of the global population. So what exactly is at stake, he asks, if 80% of the world’s population communicates in just one of the 83 most prominent languages? What’s at stake he says is that we begin to think ‘the world is flat, that we are fusing into a single reality, dominated by a specific model of economics – well, maybe of everything – and that the future is to be found everywhere and all at once. Writes Davis, ‘the world … is not flat. It’s full of peaks and valleys, curious anomalies and divine distractions. History has not stopped and the processes of cultural change and transformation remain as dynamic today as ever (much as we despair that it’s all crashing in on us.) The world can only appear monochromatic to those who persist in interpreting what they experience through the lens of a single cultural (I’ll add ‘political’ or ‘faith’) paradigm. Their own. For those with the eyes to see and the heart to feel, it remains a rich and complex topography of the spirit.’  

A month ago, my friend, a pastor and Islamic scholar who also teaches at a local Christian University asked if I would take a few minutes to talk to his class about power and politics. They are studying Cultural Anthropology.  The students, as is common, I guess, these days, zoomed in from places as far away as Hong Kong. This was a multi-cultural group, working with a theme that, depending on their lived experience, is surely very different to each of them. When the group includes Africans, Asians, Caucasian Canadians, Latin Americans and probably others I’m not remembering, it’s not possible to get away with ‘you know what I means’ nor any other assumptions. English cliches that work in a white Canadian context or with our accepted ‘best practices’ jargon don’t work when people come out of deeply different world and language experience. And really, is that not a good thing? 

There is a presumptuousness (talking about power and politics) in some circles in our ‘developed world’ that by now there must surely be only one way of thinking about things like the climate and progress and a bunch of isms and all things social and economic …;  so long as we say  (for example) we are following ‘the science’ we can close the book on further discussion! But then I read words from others (like Wade Davis) that remind me that ‘the science’ should always mean that the discussion never ends, and the search and the learning continues and evolves, just as our resilient planet does. 

With the students we did talk about our current political environment in Canada a bit, noting the tendency to look for advantage, opportunity to diminish those who disagree, or who think differently, rather than for opportunities to engage especially those who didn’t and likely won’t vote for us. Large institutions drift toward management by protocols and policies, most of which are not designed to solve problems so much as to classify and move them around … desk to desk … and above all, to keep the organization safe. Keep the dissenters muted. Move toward a single story and away from inconvenient variations. It’s safer that way.

We talked about covid and the response of so much media and government and us in the public to politicize and label those who didn’t buy in as we thought everyone should so that a backlash of suspicion and outright rebellion emerges, which gives further licence to disengage and to minimize … especially those people. I mentioned, in contrast, Deena Hinshaw, chief Medical Officer in Alberta who, through hundreds of daily covid updates and media scrums managed not to poke nor to provoke but to provide information in a way that seemed at least an attempt to keep people from charging off in all directions. At one point halfway through the pandemic, Dr Hinshaw had asked to talk to someone about how to connect with conservative Mennonites in Alberta about vaccine uptake. Orlando and I were a little nervous going into such a meeting, but soon realized that her point in having the conversation wasn’t so much about persuading as it was to find some understandings for herself and her department.  

My final point with the students was a short story about my friend, the late Nestor Perez in Bolivia. I’ve written about this before and I’m sure I will again. Nestor was the water technician who, very early in my term as MCC Country Rep told me that before anything else, every morning, I needed to walk around among all the workers, shake hands, visit a little, find out how everyone was doing. It will work better, he said. I told a local contractor friend that story at the picnic yesterday and he said you should have told me that 20 years ago.

It shouldn’t surprize me but it did: … after the entire conversation with the students about power, politics, protocols etc … what they focused on in a brief q and a afterwards was the story about Nestor. About communication with colleagues. Trust. Closed or open doors. I was a little surprized that no matter what culture we represent, nor what our story is, nor how well our procedures are written up, people look for human engagement, open communication and trust. We can write books and policies and have workshops about how to build community or team or a church or even how to win elections … but in the end, it pretty much comes down to putting it all on pause and checking in with each other. The world is as rich and interesting a place as it ever was, Davis might say … and we’re still here. Each with our story. 

… land, place … and hula hoops …

The last two Mondays I’ve watched our four and a half year old granddaughter in her very first soccer lessons out on a field the west side of Calgary. I had wondered how the coaches – two young adults – would manage to do anything with a bunch of distracted 4-year olds.  Four-year olds can kick the ball, carry it, throw it, maybe get it near the goal now and then. They fall a lot, bump into each other, and they run and chase whatever the coach throws out to them, or also, anything else that distracts them.  So the coaches brought a bunch of hula hoops, placed them on the ground apart from each other, and assigned each kid to a hula hoop.  A place!  Throughout the hour, whether moving from one exercise to another, or after a water or snack break, they always started back from their places.  Clever!! And it works. I’m pretty sure, without those hula hoops that hour would end up in chaos. The hula hoops bring order, like land, like a place brings order to us human beings. At pretty much any point in our lives, we need our hula hoops. 

When Kathy and I moved to Bolivia in 1983 and again in 1991, we looked for a place. Moving anywhere, let alone into a different culture and language community is disorienting, but everything began to work better once we had a place, even though we were just renting space. Even when I went as a single teacher in 1973, I realized that life worked better once I was safely in my room, small as it was, with my language school family. I spoke little spanish and they spoke little English, but they offered me a room. A place.  From there, the daily routines began to make sense. 

Last Sunday, at church, a pastor opened with a comment about land. She was raised on a farm in Sask, so she knows about land from that perspective. But she said there is something almost sacred about land and our access to it. She wasn’t just talking about how we need to take good care of the earth; this was more than a comment about climate change. Our relationship with land, anywhere on this planet, is more than just transaction or good stewardship. It is those things, but according to Walter Bruggeman, land is also the primary category of faith in the Bible. The Land: place as a gift, a promise and a challenge, he says. Bruggeman says the Bible talks about land almost more than it does about anything else. 

I’ve often thought that when Tommy Douglas brought national Medicare to Canada, he should have done one more thing while he was at it. Something about access to land. A limit to how much land one family can own. Everyone should be able to have a hula hoop! Our parents had almost 4 quarter sections of land.  Enough for them to feed and clothe their 11 kids, send us to school, and about one or two vacation days every summer.  All these years later, the stability of that home base still matters to me. Unfortunately, also all these years later, in most parts of the vast western prairies of Canada, farmers who can, keep buying up land, driving up the price so that a young farmer wanting to start up and build a farm hasn’t a chance. His or her farm, even if they could purchase a few hundred acres just isn’t viable in an agricultural economy now built on the scale of massive corporate farms with equally massive equipment. A young woman near Vauxhall, whose parents moved here from Mexico some years ago, told me last week her husband would love to farm. But an irrigated quarter section in that area now costs 2.5M to 3M dollars.  Only 5 years ago, she said, it was maybe .5M.  

Maybe Tommy Douglas should have seen this coming. We can farm a lot of acres efficiently, and produce a lot of food, but the scale of how we now do this creates unemployment, crowded urban centers, and a lot of people, in real terms, are displaced.  Our modern concept of land becomes mostly oriented to production and efficiency and contributes to a society of imbalance, and, as Bruggeman says, of ‘landedness’ and ‘landlessness’. The Old Testament takes this access to land, to a place and balance seriously. They regulated how this needed to work. We could have followed that wisdom. 

The Amish know something about this.  As do the low german Mennonites across the western hemisphere, as do north American indigenous peoples. Their lives and communities are built around land and having access to it. A Mennonite bishop in Bolivia a few years ago said in their colony, each farmer gets 50 hectares.  He admitted that some find ways around that to acquire a bit more – which he was not happy about – but the intent is to keep families functioning reasonably well, on a manageable piece of land, so that the community doesn’t segregate into haves and have-nots, a destructive, toxic problem that affects most of humanity when we become careless with place and land. 

It’s quite common in Canada for people to own 2 or more houses that become rental properties. Nothing wrong with that, except that it helps to drive up the cost of owning or renting. Whatever the market bears is how this works.  Owning more than one property is a retirement insurance for many, but could there be a limit to how many properties anyone can own? Had we such legislation in place, I suspect we would not be talking so much about a Canada-wide acute housing crunch these days.  

Mr Putin, it seems, sees land as something with which to build an empire. So have many others.  Has there ever been a war that wasn’t about land? We create massive disorientation and suffering when we tear people away from their places. Reservations for Indigenous people in Canada.  Did we have to do that? Syria. Stalin’s Russia. 800,000 Palestinians in 1948.  They’re still in refugee camps.  It’s a very long list.  Bolivia, in 1952 undertook a massive agricultural reform whereby miners and others from the highlands could access small parcels of land in the at-the-time less occupied tropical lowlands. The Reform has never been a raging success, but successive governments have continued with reforms through which thousands of families have been able to build homes and small farms over the decades. Jacob Arbenz tried to redistribute fertile lowlands in Guatemala in the early 1950s whereby 500,000 impoverished laborers gained access to better land. The United Fruit Company owned a lot of that coastal land and John Foster Dulles, US Secretary of State was on their board. They took issue with this and by 1954 Arbenz had been overthrown and most of the land was restored to the large landowners within a year.  Guatemala has never really recovered. 

Henry Janzen, a scientist from Southern Alberta writes this in a recent sermon he preached about land and place: “some would call it ‘the environment’; I would rather call it ‘land’. ‘Environment’ implies some place out there, beyond us, disconnected and remote, 

‘land’, conversely, is where we live, land is home, land is where we find belonging,
land is as big as a prairie farm or as small as a potted geranium.
land is where we touch Creation, with its seeds of new Eden, already sprouting.

I’ve spoken to countless younger people about ecology; You can be assured that they are enamored with land, entranced by land; they delight in mysteries of nature,
they’re inspired by the prospect of renewing Creation. 

Where will they go to pursue such holy ventures? Will the church be the first place they think of? We should not be surprised if they go elsewhere if we do not embrace them in these profoundly spiritual quests. Re-claiming our youth, I think, is not just a matter of tweaking worship formats, but of grappling with the questions and hopes that drive them. 

The theme of land, I think, so prominent in the Bible,
may offer one venue for re-engaging emerging generations,
a way of reminding them, and thereby also us,
of God’s redeeming hope for His entire Creation, and us within it. The theme of land’s renewal provides a forum where we all work together, as we jointly pray: Thy Kingdom come, … on earth as it is in heaven. “ 

Henry Janzen added a final note, partially from Frederich Buechner:  we all have a longing for home, where home is not just some place in the sky to which our souls will one day fly. 

… the little helpers … pronouns and canes …

They don’t really have anything to do with each other. Pronouns and canes. But they’re both helpful little tools that we don’t yell about much. We could though … a little. 

A month ago they replaced both my hips with new ones. Titanium. Week one, I used a walker. Then, for about a day, I graduated to crutches until a friend, a former physiotherapist stopped by and suggested canes. I have a collection of them for no real reason, so she said to cut two of them to equal lengths and try walking. I graduated almost immediately to walking several blocks a day. They’re amazing little pillars to steady a wobbly pair of legs during physio, they don’t get in the way like crutches and walkers do, you can quickly grab one or two as you need them, and really, they function like an extra pair of legs on the sidewalk and an extension to your arms when you need to reach for something.  Who knew?  No wonder our mother, in her later years, never went far without the cane. I’m getting this now and I have a healthier respect for those, usually more elderly shoppers at the Coop down the street, who bring their canes down the aisles. You don’t need a post to rest on if you have a cane with you. 

Like the cane, so also the pronoun. Helpful if you put it to use. Otherwise, not so much. 

Two weeks ago, Darryl Sutter, coach of the Calgary Flames (NHL Hockey) was offering some praise of his team. He rarely says a lot but after an important win, he said ‘they deserve this’.  He could have claimed something for himself, at least including himself, but he didn’t. It was them.  Not ‘we’.  ‘They’ did it. Trump would have claimed all of it for himself, and I would have assumed that, had they played a really bad game, Sutter might have wanted to use that deflective pronoun to point that out, but instead, he used it to affirm them after a good game. And yes, they’ve had a good run leading up to the play-offs, which began this week. Four of their players have scored 40 goals, and as a team, the came out first in the West Division. No small feat for a team that didn’t get very far a year ago. Sutter is well known as a no-nonsense man of few words, but I liked him especially, reading how, with one word, he lifted up his team. ‘They deserve this.’ He’s an older man now, so maybe he’s left his ego on a shelf somewhere; either way, it works. Subtle, maybe, almost invisible, but that’s how language works. It sticks with us … like an annoying itch when carelessly used, or at other times, like the slightly pleasant taste of an after dinner mint. Or … like a good cane on a walk.

I’ve often wondered why radio or tv hosts, when they interview someone, tend to say … ‘tell me’ … about whatever they are discussing.  A million listeners are tuned in, but they somehow think it’s a one-on-one. Tell me this or tell me that. Why would they not say, tell us this, or tell us that. It’s me and all the listeners they’re talking to, right? With one pronoun the interviewer could make themselves part of the audience, and the audience could become part of the conversation, rather than just ‘spectators’ of a one-on-one.  I’m sure those radio and tv people are well coached and this habit must be part of their ‘best practises’ routine, but still … I wince every time I hear it done.  

A similar thing happens with people who, even though they are usually part of a larger team, refer to their particular role as ‘mine’.  An accountant, reporting to his or her board at the end of a reporting period refers to ‘my income and my expenses’, when in fact he or she has the sole function of recording, balancing the numbers and reporting on them in a way that others can understand. A revenue generating person refers to ‘my’ revenue targets and even to ‘my donors’; none of the revenues belong to that person, but by using the possessive pronoun, they make anyone who is paying attention feel just a little less part of the program and the mission. A pastor refers to his or her congregants as ‘my’ people. Are they?  It’s not that hard to use ‘we’ and ‘us’ and ‘our’. Sometimes it makes a difference. 

So, is this a big deal? Maybe not, but like the cane to a new set of hips getting used to normal, pronouns can be pillars in helping us with our wobbly relationships.  A lot of things in human relations come down to the pieces that, in themselves, are never are a big deal. Thank you. Please. Excuse me. I’m sorry. Us. We. Ours. I’m not at all a purist on this, but for whatever reasons, if we get into the habit of thinking the little words don’t really matter … well, it will affect our relationships at work, with family and relatives, in church, and with the cashier at the grocery store. Left unchecked, poor use of pronouns contributes towards a culture of carelessness or even divisiveness in how we relate with each other, eventually creating insider / outsider cultures. And once that culture is established, it becomes normal and those on the ‘outside’ begin to think that is where they actually belong. 

Canes, pronouns … and other little things … so useful if we pull them out of storage and put them to use.

… it’s not our table …

The last couple of weeks, Kathy and I have been watching church services on youtube, so we’re a bit over-churched. After watching an Anglican and then a Protestant Evangelical service, I keep wondering about how they think about preaching. They’re not the same, so I’ve wondered if it’s something about the message itself or … about how we hold our truth(s)?  

Nothing new in this question, I’m sure, nor am I meaning to overly interpret what’s happening, but on the protestant evangelical side comes the temptation to interpret and to manage the ‘truth’, make it more creative, more attractive, even jazzy at times. It’s our truth now, you see! Luther initiated this freedom for us back in 1517. Thirty years ago, I might have thought that’s the way to do it. After all, isn’t part of the effort always about ‘selling the product’? Tailoring it to the audience?  I’ve always felt sorry for evangelical youth pastors … the pressure to ‘make the Gospel relevant’ and exciting for young people, almost as if we don’t quite trust the message on its own … so … we accessorize and cosmeticize it a little? 

A few years ago, I sat in a 2-hour workshop with Dr Wes Thiessen, who had worked with Muslims in Tunisia for 15 years. For me, a total lay person, it was an eye-opening 2 hours about Islam, Christianity and Judaism, during the height, if I recall, of ISIS.  Remember ISIS?  In what was a kind of footnote comment, Wes, during the workshop talked about Islam as not having a strong Center … lacking a Pillar. Lots of history and scripture, plenty of worship places and even universities, but not A Vatican at the Center … to steady the faith, its doctrines and to calm the adherents. A result of that reality he said, is the many radicalized wings of Islam, including ISIS.  Every interpretation of the Koran becomes valid.  

In the evangelical protestant world, it seems to me, we have something similar at play.  Luther set us free from our Center, and we’ve embraced every interpretation as the greater truth ever since.  We became owners of the message, ours to share on our terms, with an accountability mostly to ourselves, and to our most recent interpretations. In the last half of the 1900s, for example, the simplicity of the Billy Graham salvation message (John 3:16) became a standard for many in the evangelical world, and while that simplicity of message might have been a stabilizing influence, it may also have encouraged a culture for ‘single verse truthisms’.  Many of these ‘versions’ are pretty similar and have at least a kind of central belief in place, but many are also adrift from the Jesus of the four Gospels … embracing, almost lazily, whatever political or other trendy preferences their preferred scriptures can bear.  It’s worth reading historical context about this in Jesus and John Wayne … the politicization, corruption and entitlement of the white Gospel in the evangelical United States. Every interpretation, politics and all, becomes scripturally valid and leads among us, as in Islam, to frightful radicalizations of the Gospel. 

Our experience with the Catholic church next door, and an Anglican church we visit sometimes, is that the priests preach a familiar message, but they don’t seem to have a need to interpret and explain and accessorize to the extent that protestant evangelicals seem to. The institutional body owns their truth more than the priest or the local congregation does – even a bit like the Old Colony Mennonites.  The need to tailor to the congregation is less obvious. There is a routineness to it. God is a mystery, which they acknowledge, but they keep reminding each other, more or less in the same way, that God is present. People go to mass to signal that they are part of that mystery, not so much, I suspect, to hear a particular preaching.   

We evangelicals would say in response, that the weight and long tradition of the Catholic Center keeps them from greater learning and from evolving with the times. True enough, but our own temptation is to cherry pick, build a new truth, and then to distribute it, tailored to our listeners … .  The Anglican minister, last Sunday said, our truth is not our possession to do with what we decide … . 

That we have taken so much ownership of the message, means that we also assume every truth is explainable, learnable and understandable, and we make it so.  We insist on certainty. When God is silent, which God often is, we speak for God … cause that silence messes with our need to be certain. Assurance! is a big word for us.  But it seems to me that if Jesus had wanted us to be certain of the most fundamental part of the story, he would have risen from the dead in broad daylight with lots of people watching. Instead, it happened in the dark, with no one, apparently, there to witness it. 

I’m not a theologian, nor a historian. And I’m glad for the Reformation. The lid needed to be blown off the power of the Center, as it does of older institutions now and then.  But I also think we, protestant evangelicals of so much belief and certainty, sometimes exaggerated simplicity and fundamentalism, could learn some things from the routines of the Catholics and Anglicans (the Old Colony) and others like them. It really isn’t our message to possess. 

I watched on line, the funeral for Rachel Held Evans back in May of 2019. One of the officiating ministers in the Episcopalian church where the funeral was held, welcomed everyone to the communion table with these words: ‘this is not our table. It is the table of the Lord.’ 

.. an Easter note …

Yesterday I read a news piece out of Durham, North Carolina. Darryl Howard was awarded $6M in compensation for a wrongful imprisonment of over 20 years, having been framed for murders he didn’t commit. Yet another expendable person and yet another terrible story about racism, made much worse by the City Council who voted to not pay him the money.  And they’d like him to pay them for the court costs of two city employees who lost their jobs over his case. This is possible? More or less a public lynching without the killing. In the highly Christianized Southern USA? Apparently it is. 

In Road Trip Rwanda Will Ferguson travels in a 4 x 4 rental all over Rwanda, with Jean Claude Munyezamu, who got out just before the 1994 genocide erupted. Eventually he ended up in Calgary, where he has created amazing work … ‘Soccer without Borders’ and ‘Umoja Community Mosaic: community for the people led by the people’. Coaching kids, getting them into soccer teams, and operating an important and creative food bank.

Back in Rwanda Jean Claude takes Will Ferguson to monuments, churches, schools, markets, across bridges, up and down long winding roads, sometimes paved and other times pretty awful bush roads. Over a million people were slaughtered here over a four-month period in 1994.  But they weren’t just killed. They were butchered. An organized, well-planned, media-stoked savagery, often of their own neighbors just because they were Tutsis or sympathizers. As the slaughter came closer to Nyange, Fr Seromba invited everyone in and around to seek safety inside the church. About 2000 people got in thinking they might be somehow safer there!  But the priest also collaborated with the village councils and the invading militia. With a couple of bulldozers they pulled the church down on top of the people. Anyone who crawled out … was butchered. Six people survived.  Seromba got out of the country and pastored a church in Italy for a number of years before he was apprehended.  

On a mountain near Bisesero, 50,000 desperate Tutsis and sympathizers gathered to fight off the attacking mobs. They used farm tools and whatever else they had to keep them at bay for a while. And then the French soldiers appeared and reassured the desperate and starving Tutsis they would be back in 3 days, and to just stay put. But in so doing they had lured the Tutsis out of their hiding places and exposed them to the marauding Hutus. By the time the French did come back, almost no one was left. Less than 1500 survived. 

The war in Syria is hardly talked about now, but it’s only a few years back that the slaughter was in full swing there, sponsored and overseen by the Russians and somehow allowed to happen by everyone else. It hasn’t ended, and over half the country (13 million) have fled as refugees or are internally displaced. Assad, the man who could have stopped it but didn’t, remains in power. 

And today, Russia continues its ruthless destruction of Ukraine and the killing of pretty much anyone they can target.  Men. Women. Children. It doesn’t matter. And I’m not sure how the West will rationalize this one after it’s done. 

It’s also Easter weekend. Despair and hope. Darkness and light. The story of our existence. Melissa Florer Bixler, a Mennonite pastor in Raleigh, North Carolina tweeted:  ‘I have nothing to say about Easter. Seems like the story does all the work’. She does add a couple of notes, both quotes from others: James Cone: ‘any genuine theology and any preaching of the Christian Gospel must be measured against the test of the scandal of the cross and the lynching tree’.  And Herbert Mcabe: ‘the cross does not show us some temporary weakness of God that is cancelled out by the resurrection. It says something permanent about God: not that God eternally suffers but that the eternal power of God is love; and this, as expressed in history, must be suffering’.  

I’ve tended to understand the crucifixion and resurrection as a transactional event in history. God, for some reason that no longer makes quite sense to me, is so holy that God could not look upon our sin and needed a blood sacrifice in order to be able to forgive us. It makes God out to be sort of a self-righteous snob who can’t associate with, nor even look at us. Except, apparently God loves us.  And so he came among us, as his son, to live for a while and then to die in our place. The whole thing …  sort of staged, a cost of redemption formula. It had to be done that way and so it was carried out as we read about it in much of the New Testament. We are bought with a price (1 Corinth 6, and 1 Peter 1, Matthew 20). The evangelists I heard, growing up, reminded us that it should have been us dying there, cause we are bad people, but Jesus did it for us.  A precise, God-managed, God-insertion into our unhappy existence so that God could offer us eternal life, from a holy distance.

But was that all it was about? Just a transaction we needed to quickly accept. It seems too distant. Too surgical.  Surely, the God who made all this and much more, did not need to restrict himself to anything. However God wanted to do it, it could have worked. Right? Except for that one big idea God inserted into the creation: … that Love thing … !! That mysterious, completely weak and also powerful presence without which all the science and rule of law and knowledge and doctrine and everything else we get high on … are pretty shallow and unhelpful. Even harmful.  We humans, as all of creation, are built around and inside love no matter how precisely we believe any doctrines nor how exactly we follow ‘the science’.  

And along with the word, the pastor’s reminder: love is only love if it is sacrificial. Maybe love always does include suffering but it’s nothing if it’s not actively present in the middle of the evil and the chaos … looking out for the others, suffering, and dying with us.  Jesus pointed to that in his life and in his death.  In Isaiah 58 God says there is no other righteousness except that which ‘spends itself’ on behalf of the other. Is that Easter?!

So I have to believe that there is a connection between Rwanda, Syria, Darryl Howard, Ukraine, so much other pain …  and Jesus on the cross. Maybe a transaction was and is important, but the story points to that big idea: love and the suffering God among us. A pastor in Calgary talked about this last week. Lazarus has died and Mary, as Jesus finally arrives says, if you had been here my brother would be alive. Jesus wept; God, Jesus … entered into their suffering and grieving. It’s more mysterious than I once wanted it all to be, but as the pastor in North Carolina says, the story seems to do the work.