Gardening as an exercise in empathy

Unlike the last few years, this spring I planted some seeds. I thought it would help me connect with the land, and maybe it has and will continue to do, but I’ve already been surprised by how well it has connected me with other people and their stories.
I planted my seeds in what not so long ago was the territory of the Blackfoot people. As nomads, they relied far more on what grew naturally on the land than on what they had planted themselves. I’m not suggesting that the development of agrarian societies wasn’t good and/or necessary, but it does seem to represent a time when people switched from trusting the land and its Creator to relying on their own hard work and planning. I was trusting my seeds to the soil and its natural processes, but perhaps some people who had walked this land before me had demonstrated a greater level of faithfulness.
To do my planting, I set aside half an hour to scrape away the grass that was growing there, lay my new soil on top, plant my seeds, and then water them. However, that thirty minutes of labour actually represented a break. The rest of my morning involved reading, writing and communicating, all while seated at a desk. My time with the shovel and watering can was a welcome interruption, one that actually got my heart pumping and my skin perspiring more than anything else I would do that day. What a luxury it would seem to many of my ancestors that I could approach the task of turning and seeding the land with this recreational mindset. Pioneers and others, toiled away all their lives to clear and work the land, and they would have felt there was a nobility to their work, but the sense of duty they attached to their work was a stark contrast to the optional and novel approach that I was taking.
To complete the job that I had given myself, I had to draw on skills that were taught to me by my father. I wasn’t doing anything terribly complex, but I only knew how to plant a garden because my father taught me how. I did the planting myself, but even as I was doing that I was thinking about what kind of tasks I could invite my young children to help me with down the road. My father didn’t ask me to help in the garden because I brought with me some kind of expertise, or because my participation would speed up the process. The utilitarian value of bringing my children to help with my little patch would be small, but inherent in these tasks were important life lessons about hard work, the cycle of life, and so on. As I planted my seeds, I could identify with the man who tried to teach me these values.
With soil covering my seeds, I walked back to the shed to return my spade and to pick up a watering can. In between, I stopped in at my desk again where I found a few new emails that invited a reply. It took longer than I initially planned before I returned to water my soil. I hadn’t put much thought into the importance of the timing, until on my walk back to my patch I observed a number of birds sitting in nearby trees. I realized that my newly unpacked and loosely turned soil served as a fairly weak cover from hungry beaks. Maybe as a pastor I should have made the connection a little sooner, but in my worry about birds I remembered the words of Jesus about a farmer who sowed his seeds and some fell on the path where they were trampled by human feet and eaten by birds. Jesus told stories of farmers and seeds because it was a language that his first audiences would most easily connect with. My work as a teacher and sower of spiritual seeds can be no more effective than the proverbial sower whose seeds were eaten, choked, and under nourished as much as they were embraced and supported by good soil.
Recently, the people of nearby High River, Alberta were victims of a major flood, and for many residents, there was sitting water on their land and in their homes for weeks. If it was just water, that would have been bad enough, but these waters had picked up chemical and organic toxins further upstream, and when the waters eventually receded, these toxins were left behind. In the following spring, some residents were encouraged to plant sunflowers because these plants are particularly good at drawing those toxins out of the ground. I was planting sunflowers too, partly as a show of solidarity, but it struck me as I reflected on this story how far I was from that reality. My soil was not contaminated. No nearby buildings were water-logged. No nearby residents were kept from their homes. My ability to show solidarity in some ways depended on my privilege of not being affected by the flood in the first place.
I’m sure that if gardeners were surveyed, very few would list “solidarity” as their primary motivation. I wasn’t growing plants for food or even for beauty. In no way was I relying on them to grow for my own well-being. The pioneers of this land, and every farmer that have lived on it since, need their plants to grow and produce food. Without that, they and their customers would have starved.
Finally, I watered my seeds the first day. I came back the next day and watered them again. Then, the third day, and the fourth and the fifth, I was away, and it was hot. Was the land too dry? Would my new seedlings be parched before they could even get started? I was reminded that all of those times I had weekend plans that I didn’t want cancelled by rain, I was hoping against the deep desires of farmers all around me. It is easy for me to drive within my city, and from my home to another city, and completely ignore the dry fields and the farmers that are anxious about them. I can water my small patch, but large scale farmers face limitations that I do not.
Time will tell if my labours will be rewarded with healthy plants and flowers, but already the roots of this exercise have stretched out to connect me with the Blackfoot, the pioneers, farmers, flood victims, Jesus and my own father. So far no green sprouts have appeared, but the fruit may already be evident.

The Political Matters (or does it?)

One of the ways that I annoy my wife, is that when people call the house to ask if I want to take part in a survey, I almost always say yes. I agree, not because I’m a pushover (that’s debatable) or because it allows me to shirk other responsibilities at home, but because I am a numbers guy. While my profession and the degree I eventually got may not back this up, I am still very much interested in statistics and in statistical tools. A survey is simply a statistical tool designed to determine what a group of people thinks, and the outcome of the survey is the most reliable when participants like me are willing and honest. An election is really nothing more than a survey with more pressure to participate and more concrete results. That is really the extent of my political engagement.

During campaigning season, there is a lot of pressure on people like me to assign much more value to an election than that. They will point to the most recent election here in Alberta as proof that each vote does have the power to bring about change. But the power of each vote is the same, no matter what the election results are. At least the “your vote has power” message is the same from year to year. But it isn’t so much the power to change that I disagree with, but the value of the change or even the value of the status quo.

As I was thinking this through, I devised a test for myself. Whether you agree with my premise or not, you can follow along.

  • First we need to think of a few parallels. An election puts someone in power for four years, give or take, and maybe they stay in for longer. So we need a parallel thing that is part of your life for that long. It might be the vehicle you drive, the house or apartment you are living it, who your neighbours were, etc.
  • Then, think back to some of the biggest moments in your life. Think back to a new job offer, a graduation, a big trip, a religious conversion/awakening, the birth of a child, a marriage proposal or wedding, etc.
  • Then for each event that you think of, try to visualize it and see which details you can remember.
    • You might be able to remember the personal, ie. who else was there and maybe even what clothes you were wearing.
    • Can you also remember the secondary, ie. what vehicle you were driving, where you were living and maybe who was living beside you?
    • Now, try to remember who was in power, at a civic, provincial or national level.
    • For all of these questions, don’t think backwards. Don’t first think what year it was and then get your answers based on what you know was happening that year. Is there something inherent to your memory that brings those details out?

My guess is that many of us will be able to remember some of those personal and even secondary details, but unless a politician was part of the day, we won’t be able to link the political.

The obvious response would be that just because we don’t remember something doesn’t mean that it isn’t important, but I think that it does help to recontextualize the kind of importance they have. Regardless of whether or not we are supportive or even aware of what they are doing, they are working behind the scenes (often behind closed doors) to ensure that we have new job opportunities to accept, schools to graduate from, hospitals in which our children can be born and roads on which our more memorable vehicles can drive on. The changes that happen on election day are much less drastic than ruling or opposition parties want us to believe. I’m happy to acknowledge that they are still important, but I would prefer to have their kind of behind the scenes importance be reflected in election ads.

Resourcing the church

Booking for clues

Not long ago I wasn’t really a big fan of funerals. I didn’t like how artificial they seemed and how anything remotely wrong a person did was instantly forgotten. I was uneasy with how morbid they were; that a bunch of people could casually sit in the same room as a dead body. Also, like most men, I wasn’t at all comfortable with the idea of being a place where my emotions, grief, sympathy, fear, etc., might override my ability to maintain an outward appearance of keep-it-togetherness. So, it is still odd at times that I am now in a professional situation where I am called upon to not only participate in, but to lead these funeral services, to speak hope and comfort into an audience of mourners.

I got a random phone call from the hospital not long ago about a man on his deathbed that wanted to talk to a pastor. I went to see him and some family members and friends who had gathered at his side. I was there for an hour and a half, mostly listening and observing, but I also got to pray with him, which was a powerful thing to experience.

The gentleman passed away a few days later, and I was honoured when the family asked if I would perform the funeral. I asked if I could meet with a few of them ahead of time to talk about the man, to hear some stories and get to know a little bit more about him, so that when it came time to speak about him, I could speak from a position of honesty and understanding. They told me stories about his work and his play, but they also told me about how he would spend a lot of time, especially later in life, praying and reading the Bible. As a pastor I always love if I can use a part of the Bible as a building block to a public speaking opportunity, so I asked what he read. Did he read about the patriarchs, about the founding of the Jewish society, law and religion? Did he read the Psalms, the poems of praise and anxst? Did he read the gospels, the stories of Jesus and his followers? They didn’t know. I could tell they were worried that I didn’t believe them. He wasn’t always a church-going man, and his language was often more colourful than it was spiritual, and all of this was part of the reason I was randomly called in to the hospital than to have his normal pastor visit. They seemed worried, as though maybe I was trying to catch them in a lie and revoke my willingness to participate in and bless this service. I might have read them wrong, but I think for a moment they might have been reading me wrong.

“Can I see his Bible?” I asked.

A few of them looked around, unsure if they would be able to find it, but I already knew where it was. His Bible was sitting exactly where he had left it, beside the chair where he would sit and watch the birds, beside the pile of coasters on which he would put his morning cup of coffee, and among the photographs that showed memories of happier and healthier times.

I flipped through it, hoping to see certain passages underlined or highlighted, but even though none were, it was still clear that this was a well-read Bible. I held it up to the light, and I could see that the edges of the book that were once a shiny silver were now dulled and worn. A few pages were more crinkled than others, and so I opened it to those places. I could tell that he was the kind of reader who licked his thumb before turning the page, because there was a kind of round indentation on a lot of the top corners. The page with Psalm 23, The Lord is my shepherd, had a coffee stain on it. The page were it talks about Jesus feeding the five thousand had a crease in it. The spine of the book was actually broken right where the book of Revelation starts.

Did he read these passages more? Did he like them? Did he hate them? Whatever these clues mean, I found this to be a highly spiritual exercise, to leaf through the pages that contained the words that brought hope to a dying man, and words that engaged his mind and spirit when he was more active. Maybe this will be lost in a generation that reads digitally. Maybe this will be lost when our whole society is spiritual but not religious. But maybe, someday someone will try to connect with me after I’m gone, and the things that I read and the things that I write will leave a trail for them to follow.


Set aside for suffering

I was supposed to have submitted this post this past Sunday, the 15th, but my schedule didn’t allow for that. The content is the same as it would have been, but since it’s not the 15th anymore, the numerical connection isn’t as strong. If that’s important for you, just bookmark this page, and read it again on April 15th. 🙂

You probably didn’t know that 15 was an important number in the Bible. You are probably more familiar with the 7 day cycle of work and rest, the 12 sons and tribes of Israel and the 12 disciples of Jesus, the 40 days and nights of testing, and maybe even the 144,000 elect in the Revelation of John. But what’s the deal with the number 15?

Jews will likely be far more aware of the Biblical signifigance of this number. A number of Jewish festivals fall on the 15th day of their respective month. Passover, when Jews mark the exodus from slavery in Egypt, falls on the 15th day of Nisan. Purim, the celebration commemorating their surviving the Persian conspiracy to destroy the Jews, falls on the 15th day of Adar. Sukkhot, Tu B’Shevat and Tu B’Av also fall on the 15th day of their respective months (Tishrei, Shevat, Av).

There are also fifteen Psalms of Ascent (Ps. 120-134) and when the pilgrims would arrive at the Temple in Jerusalem, they would have to climb fifteen steps from the ground to the temple entrance.

It works it’s way into a few stories as well. During the flood, the story reads that the waters rose 15 cubits above the mountains. Is that the highest mountain or some sort of average? That number is clearly symbolic. Later, in the book of Hosea, when his wife leaves to go back to her life of prostitution, Hosea buys her back, and the price he pays is 15 shekels of silvers.

Still, the Bible is full of numbers, and by sheer coincedence some of them will be the same as others, but the number fifteen is different for mathematical and religious reasons. You see, the ancient Hebrews didn’t have a separate set of characters for numbers than they had for letters.

As you can see in the table, one could easily put together any number from 1 to 999 using the same rules we use with our characters, except in Hebrew they read from right to left instead of from left to right. Everything works pretty consistently, except when you get to 15. To write it out with these characters, you would normally use the yodh (י) for 10 and the he (ה) for 5, except that this Y and H are the same characters that begin YHWH (יהוה), otherwise known as the name of God. So, out of respect for the name of God, they would use the tet (ט) for 9 and the vav (ו) for 6. The number fifteen is set aside and the appearance of these characters is a reminder that God’s people set things aside for God’s purposes.

Lent is supposed to be a time of setting things aside for God, with the idea that in whatever way we suffer as a result we should be drawn closer to God. This is tied to the old and often forgotten understanding that suffering itself brings us closer to God, as much or more than religious rituals. It’s a concept we’re all more or less okay with, as long as someone else is doing the suffering. We all want to believe that we have been set aside for comfort, that God is rewarding our past faithfulness with present and future comfort, so when the pain arrives, we often wonder what we have done wrong.

Near the beginning of the year I had suggested to our congregation that 2015 might be a year that we set aside for a special purpose, to discern a way forward and establish our vision going forward. That may still be happening, but it seems that maybe 2015 is a year set aside for other reasons. It’s only March, but already we know that 2015 will not be remembered as a year of good medical diagnoses and familial stability. The question is worth asking, is 2015 being set aside for us as a year of suffering?

Giving something up for Lent is probably the mildest example of a religious ritual designed to convey some measure of understanding using suffering as a delivery mechanism. One obvious flaw with this is that the things we normally give up, ie. coffee, chocolate, alcohol, fast food, reality TV, etc. are actually bad for us and in essence when Lent ends we choose to embrace our suffering once more. Another flaw is that this kind of intentional suffering is very often temporary. Suffering is not a machine that provides spiritual wisdom and then be turned off. We want to set time aside to learn and then get back to life as normal, but often time is set aside for us to suffer, and suffering becomes the new normal.

For me, this is still theoretical. As a pastor, friend and community member, I can try to lessen the suffering and I can do my best to empathize, but I am not suffering. The challenge for me, and anyone who would dare say something like ‘suffering produces wisdom’ is to not pity those who are suffering but to honour them. If we believe, and I think we should, that people are set aside for suffering, then we dare not set them aside to be excluded and forgotten.


UP in spiritual terms

Have you heard the conspiracy theory about Disney’s UP? If you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s a beautiful story of an old man who, as a child, dreamt of being an explorer like his hero Charles Muntz and is now living that out by floating his home down to South America with the help of helium balloons. He accidentally brings a child along for the ride, and the two enjoy the adventure together. It’s cute, it’s fun, and nobody sings. I’ll try not to give away the storyline, but it’s pretty predictable. The old man and the boy bond after enduring each other’s quirks, and they find an obstacle that they need to overcome together.

The new and uncommon approach suggests that there is sometime else going on. The idea is that the night before Carl is supposed to move into the nursing home, the night before he secretly plans to fly his house down to South America (spoiler alert), he actually dies. That might sound a little dark for Disney, but consider that the first five minutes of this movie take the audience through an emotional roller-coaster that can leave most adults winded from the heartbreak. It’s almost like it’s a kind of “It’s a Wonderful Life” in reverse, where Russell, the boy, is actually a guardian angel type figure sent from above to prepare him for the afterlife, by helping him take care of some unfinished business.

It seems like an odd idea at first, but this is precisely when the movie switches from reality to fantasy. There are a lot of questions that a person grounded in reality might ask, many of which build on each other. For example, what kind of materials is Carl using? Regular balloons, thread and helium certainly wouldn’t accomplish the task. Once the house is in the air, how does he avoid detection from the presumably numerous countries curious about who is occupying their airspace? Given the distance they cover, how could they travel so fast without any evidence of consistent strong wind? Also, Carl looks like he is at least 75, so Charles Muntz was either a ridiculously young world famous explorer, or it’s a miracle that he is still alive.

I’m guessing that at this point you are either nodding and saying that these inconsistencies ruined the movie for you too, or you are ready to reassure me that it’s a kids’ movie and I shouldn’t take it too seriously. But, remember, there are all sorts of interesting real life stories that happen all the time that don’t get made into movies. People write fictional stories all the time that don’t get made into movies (for example). So, every story that gets told on the silver screen, is told carefully and intentionally. Like any good storyteller, they set out a clear path the tale will take. The story arc here is that Carl wanted to be an explorer, then life happened, and then at the end of his life (or maybe the beginning of his next life) he finally gets to be one. Then, while he is exploring, he makes a discovery, accidentally and inconveniently for him, but a discovery nonetheless. He discovers, and then sort of befriends, a new and undocumented species of bird.

It seems to me that Carl has a revelation. Of course there is the over-arching, moral of the story kind of revelation, which is that he and his wife have already lived a grand adventure, and that with friends like Russell, he can continue to live one. That’s great. But the one that I find more interesting is in his identity as an explorer. Initially he had set out to see Paradise Falls with his wife, but Paradise Falls wouldn’t have been their discovery, they would have been exploring Charles Muntz’ discovery. If Carl had helped Muntz capture the bird, he would only have been a part of another of Muntz’ discoveries. At this point, Carl is much more comfortable with Russell’s plan of saving the bird from Muntz, except that Muntz is Carl’s hero and Russell has been annoying Carl for the whole trip. Will he reject his dreams and follow the whims of a child?

I suspect the Magi asked themselves the same question. Little is known about what led them to Israel? Did one of their own prophets or visionaries receive a divinely inspired word? Did their people interact with the Jews at some other point in history, in the desert, in Assyrian or Babylonian captivity, when a prophetic message was transferred? Either way, these people were probably sitting on this prediction for a long time, and when it came true, there must have been a lot of excitement. What were they expecting? Did they foresee the political turmoil their presence would create? Did they predict the detour after not finding the baby in the royal palace in Jerusalem? Were they expecting a poor family with a surprisingly young mother? Probably not. We can only speculate on what they were thinking, and it might not be the most fruitful process, but they must have been surprised once or twice on the trip and needed to adjust their plan accordingly.

Our journey’s might not be as adventurous as either Carl’s or the Magi’s, but along our various journeys (geographic, spiritual, metaphorical) we will certainly find surprises and setbacks, but we continue forward adjusting accordingly. We cannot know the true nature of the journey until we are living it. We cannot know what destination awaits us until we fully invest ourselves in the journey. God has set a larger mystery in motion, and to engage ourselves in it, we must allow ourselves to be surprised by it.

Resourcing the church

Flower Power

I enjoy volunteering at my kid’s school. It sometimes means juggling my work schedule, but I’m lucky to have the flexibility required to make that work. The school encourages this kind of parental involvement for a variety of reasons. I like being able to see how my kid behaves out of the house, and it’s good to be able to meet her friends and teachers as well.

There are tense moments. I worry that the good-natured teasing my daughter has gotten used to will somehow traumatize one of her friends (fortunately though it’s far more common that the other kids will laugh at a joke she has long since written off as no longer funny).

There are tense moments, like when I don’t know how to react to another kid because they are not my kid and I’m not sure what the school’s protocol, like when a girl in the group I was watching on a field trip peed her pants.

There are awkward moments too where I worry about what my kid will say. At the Halloween party each group of students needed to count the seeds in our pre-assigned pumpkins. When my daughter heard about the task, she exclaimed proudly, “Oh good! My daddy is an expert in counting things!” I guess I can’t deny that I’ve left a legacy for my children.

There are always funny moments too, but sometimes they border on the profound.

Among the Elsa’s and the ninjas, there was one girl dressed as a hippy. It was an ironically well-assembled outfit. She got a few compliments from the other parents, most of whom were also too young to remember that period of our history. But the most interesting exchange of the day came when another teacher came in, also dressed as a hippy. The young hippy looked up and seemed proud that somebody else liked the idea enough to do it too. Then, as a show of solidarity, the older hippy greeted the younger one, by extending her arm, raising two fingers and exclaiming, “Peace out!”

The look on the little girl’s face made it clear that she had no idea what that phrase meant and why it was supposed to be associated with the clothes she was wearing. I laughed to myself and looked around. The teachers had moved on to another conversation amongst themselves, other parents were busy helping to count their pumpkin’s seeds, and the kids, well the kids had no idea that anything remotely interesting had happened. There was nobody there to share the joke with me.

One of my professional responsibilities as a pastor is to visit seniors. Very often these are people who have already or are needing to downsize their living space. To do this they need to decrease their possessions. Limiting your possessions has always been a spiritual task when it’s done voluntarily, but when it is forced on your, it’s a little tougher to swallow. Their options usually are giving them away, throwing them away or putting them in long-term storage. The preferred option is always to give them away, but that isn’t as easy as it sounds. Usually, if you’ve kept something for most of your life, that thing has intrinsic, sentimental and/or non-financial value to you. The problem is, it might be tough to find anyone who attaches anywhere near the same value to those things that you do, and try as you might you cannot force someone to attach value to something.

The seniors that I visit often have closets full of things that they value that nobody else does. It’s a joke that they can’t share. The next time you visit a thrift store, you will likely see some of those items. That often means that someone has died, and since nobody in the family wanted it, it was redistributed.

We could say that this is evidence that our society values our possessions too highly, but it could also be evidence that we value stories too little. The next time you visit a senior in your family or community, and if you aren’t doing that you should, ask them about their stuff. Their possessions hold their stories.


‘Cause they’re not hip with it

From time to time I’m in a position where I’m asked to defend the church. Sometimes that means that I have to try to give an intellectual defence for the content of the Bible or my interpretation of the content. Depending on who is asking the question, it’s not always easy, but those kinds of questions are more or less in line with my education and training. Sometimes it means that I am asked to defend the validity of the church in society, and in the challenge it is directly or indirectly stated that I need to defend my position of leadership within the church and the salary that I collect as pastor. I might need to set my ego and emotions aside for that one, but that is also more or less within my professional capacity. It gets tricky when I am asked to defend the people of the church.

It likely doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone that churches are often accused of housing hypocrites. Ie. that there are people in our churches who claim to live a life of piety and yet their words and actions tell a different story. Maybe it’s some people in the church that get that label, and maybe it’s everyone in the church. It’s most damning when that accusation comes from former members of the particular church, children of members of that church, or current attendees whose loyalty to the church and the faith is wavering. This sense is so strong that there are a large number of people who claim a Christian faith, who are happy with the contents of the Bible, and who strive to follow Jesus, and yet they refuse to congregate with other Christians because they don’t think they can find a group of other believers that isn’t full of hypocrites.

I hope they are right. I hope that every church they find, whether it meets in a sanctuary, in a home, or in a bar, whether it’s part of a denomination, entirely independent, or some officially interdenominational, whether it is led by a pastor, a team of volunteer, or a speaker who only ever connects through a video screen, is full of hypocrites. I hope they meet a group of Christians who set as their example and guide the most perfect human being that’s ever lived and then are honest about not being able to live up to their claim to follow that example.

Every church that I have ever attended or worked at has been full of hypocrites, full of people who seek to follow Jesus’ example and still allow hatred, discontent, strife, impatience, bitterness, animosity, harshness and sin rule their lives. Some of these people, by choice or circumstance, have their hypocrisy revealed to the rest of the church.

I know it sounds like I’m making light of this major problem and very legitimate complaint by disenchanted. The problem with hypocrisy in the church isn’t in the presence of sin, but in the claims of its absence. As long as there are fallible human beings in your group, there will be sin, and any church worth attending will have people striving to attain the ideal. So, yes, I hope your church is full of hypocrites. Not the kind that hide their sin and celebrate their own goodness, but those that strive for goodness and own up to their failings.


My yesterday

Like many Canadians, I spent much of yesterday morning reading updates and following developments from our nation’s capital. The photos brought me back to the four months I spent living in the city doing a co-op job with Revenue Canada. Ottawa, despite sitting on political, cultural and linguistic fault lines, is a beautiful city, filled with beautiful people. I spent a lot of time on Parliament Hill, walking around the buildings, admiring the architecture and appreciating the view of the city. Behind the Parliament buildings, close to the beautiful National library, is a little gazebo that is part of a tribute to police offers that have fallen in the line of duty. It provides a beautiful view of the Ottawa River, the surrounding valley, and a number of other beautiful buildings and statues. It was probably my favourite place in the city, and it is the one absolute must-see destination when I make return visits.

Even though the city is full of nationalistic identity and symbols of the country’s identity and power, it’s easy for tourists to forget that and get lost in the beauty of the buildings, the natural surroundings and the people. So, it was painful to see yesterday’s transformation in Ottawa. Certainly the loss of life and the ensuing fear that gripped the city and the nation is tragic, but it is part of the transformation from a place of beauty and tranquillity to a place of power and politics.

What hasn’t been talked about much so far is the symbolic nature of the attack. We have no reason to believe that this shooter had any specific vendetta against the soldier he killed or against the politicians he was pursuing. He was attacking what they represented. So, among the loudest voices, we will hear from other people who represent the same things, about how they too are in danger, and how they now refuse to be afraid, etc.  But the outpouring of grief from this country is not about offices or symbols or representation, it is about people.

I think it is natural, but misplaced, that today we celebrate the resilience of our country, the principles of our armed forces, and the integrity of our national law enforcement agencies. These make great headlines and rallying speeches, but they do not reflect where people’s sentiments reside. Nathan Cirillo is a person. He leaves behind a young son, a person. Sure he wore a uniform, but primarily we mourn the loss of a person.

Our new national hero, Kevin Vickers, the parliamentary official entrusted for the safety of our government officials, is also a person. Today he walked into the House of Commons, the house of common people making public policy of other common people, and received a standing ovation. Were they celebrating his office, his uniform, or his ceremonial position? No, they were saluting a person. Watch the video of that ovation here. What do you see in his eyes as he receives that ovation? Stoic pride in his office, in his country, in the duty to uphold an institution? No, he is humbled. Humbled because he is merely a person, seeking to protect other persons.

The shooter too was a person. A person with the same intrinsic value and rights of any other person, as enshrined by the laws of this country. If in his pursuit of terror he had been captured instead of killed, he would have had his medical bills paid for by the government, and he would have been afforded a fair trial for his crimes, because he is a person, and we Canadians believe this is the way things should be. This shooter did not understand that. He lost sight of the value of all people. But it wasn’t that he ascribed too little value to people, but that he valued symbols and uniforms too much.

This shooter refused to see past the uniform. He refused to acknowledge that behind the uniform, behind the political office, was a person, created in the image of God, loving and beloved by an endless circle of other humans, capable of showing and infinitely deserving of our love, respect and honour.

Let’s not make the same mistake. For the betterment of our country, our communities and our families, we need to look past partisan political labels, look past national, religious and cultural identities, and look past the facades of office


Idly by

Maybe you’ve heard the news, our government refuses to stand idly by. Our Prime Minister has said it, other ministers have said it, and so, we will join another military exercise, because our government refuses to stand idly by. But even though it might not often look like it, and they usually don’t want it to look like it, these words are very carefully chosen, because of the obvious and even subtle messages it sends. I think it is worth fleshing out what these messages are and assessing whether or not they are correct.

“We as Canadians refuse to sit idly by”

Across the country, there is support and opposition for military action, across party lines. Canadians recognise the gravity of what is happening in the Middle East, but we also recognise the failure of past military actions and the inter-connectedness of Western intervention and eastern uprisings.

“We refuse to sit idly by … and anything short of military intervention would be sitting idly by”

This message is at the core of the statement, but if we are supposed to believe this, I feel like we are entitled to know what other options were considered and rejected. Have we punished all of the suppliers of arms for equipping ISIS with weapons? Have we aligned ourselves with Arab allies to see if ISIS militants can be shamed out of Muslim holy sites? Have we demonstrated to the young men being recruited into ISIS that democracy and secular free market capitalism are good and incorruptible institutions? If military action is our only viable solution, what are the ways in which the other alternatives have been proven to be non-viable?

“We refuse to sit idly by … as a general principle”

If we’re defining ‘sitting idly by’ as observing human suffering and not sending a military force in response, then why didn’t we send troops to Sudan? Why aren’t we also sending troops to Ukraine, Syria, North Korea (the list is depressingly long)? Obviously there is a very real humanitarian crisis happening there now, but the situation is more complicated than that, just like each of these other crises were/are complex and so our government chose/chooses to “sit idly by.” If it was just about moral principle, we would have sent troops out so often that we would have none free to fight against ISIS.

“We refuse to sit idly by … unlike the previous government”

Remember the last time the west undertook military intervention in Iraq? Yes, there was a recent attempt, and at that time there had been a very recent attempt before that. The last time the west went to war in Iraq, the Canadian government refused to participate. Unlike some of our closest allies, we refused to join the ‘Coalition of the Willing.’ This was not well received by our neighbours to the south, and some of the members of the party in power now were vocal in their disagreement with that choice. However, anyone old enough to remember that time will know that this was not a decision made lightly or quickly. History too has already shown that decision was probably wise because nobody has been able to draw a direct connection between Al Qaida and Saddam Hussein, the world is even more convinced now than we were then that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and it’s pretty clear that either what’s happening there now is a direct/indirect result of previous western interventions or as bad as Hussein was (and he was) this kind of thing didn’t happen under his watch.



Wrestling Sermon Series – Week 2

If you found two people wrestling, what would it take for you to intervene? If you were at a public event, like a church picnic or a community gathering at a park, what would force you to step in? Certainly if one of the combatants was wrestling unwillingly you could jump to their aid. If there was an imminent risk of injury, it would be worthwhile to stop them. Are all other cases of wrestling with two willing combatants okay? I think there is another exception, one that points to the kind of closeness Jacob experienced, and that we too are invited to experience, in wrestling God.IMG_20140912_120834