Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The other foot



“I told God I never wanted to do [Thing A],” practitioner of [Thing A] quipped wryly. 

Why is this person so happy with their ministry? I thought to myself. Dear God, please don’t make me do things I hate.

I recall this scenario playing out a few times in my childhood, particularly during my time in YWAM.
It occurred to me recently that I am currently actively participating in or philosophically committed to a number of things that were anathema to me as a child. Happily. By choice. 

I said I hardly wanted to move off the farm, that living in my rural town would be the closest I’d get to urban living. And I figured the only thing I learned during a two-week urban ministry experience was that I was not in any way meant for that kind of activity.

Now I live downtown by choice, look with disgust and scorn on suburbs, and love to vacation in densely populated cities. Formerly the country bumpkin, afraid to go anywhere, I’m now comfortable in areas of town others fear; I enjoy the shabby downtown mall and movie theatre that aren’t cool enough for the suburbanites and have instead become the village square for the city’s newcomers – both those from from the Global South and the Canadian North. It is a value to me that as a function of where I live and where I go, I encounter people who aren’t like me, people whose situation challenges me.

I said I didn’t know what kind of career I wanted as long as it wasn’t becoming a teacher. And I certainly didn’t like kids. 

Now I am certified to teach ESL and I regularly volunteer with pre-teens at a homework club and in a school classroom. I eagerly take my nieces and nephews on special outings, and persistently steal other people’s babies at church. 

Even in more banal ways, my old self has been turned on its head. I distinctly recall the terror of crossing the main street in my sleepy town, particularly the one time when there was actually a car to deal with and no crossing guards on duty. (Of course, my friend’s dad wouldn’t run me over, but it was still scary!) Now, it’s only at unfamiliar intersections or in new cities that I don’t boldly jaywalk across city streets – and even then sometimes. 

Any of my high school classmates would laugh themselves silly if you called me athletic, yet my adult pastimes involve physical activity. Somehow, I'm looked upon as an alpha cyclist (though my ridiculous fall yesterday hearkens back to my klutzy childhood.) And I don’t dance! I maintained. The qualification I levied on that statement remains – no meaningless spontaneous gyration – but dancing has become my absolute favourite activity. 

So I am encouraged. God is trustworthy. God is not capricious and vindictive, insisting we learn to like what he wants, but gentle and patient albeit perhaps a tad mischievous, leading us on journeys of learning, confounding expectations in the process. 

I wonder what reversal is next.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

His light for our darkness



Christmas Day has passed, but we are still in the season of Christmas, made famous, though rarely acknowledged or understood, by the "12 days of Christmas" song, so I post my seasonal editorial here, slightly revised from its first, published version.

In the scope of history, there was nothing new about the shift in government this past October. Routinely, Canadians tire of Conservative austerity, welcoming Liberal prodigality with a wave of votes. A few terms later, the tide reverses; Canadians clamour for Conservative restraint after Liberal excess. The cycle repeats.
Yet, this election upset felt different to many. People spoke of the landside change less in terms of policy and more in terms of emotion: hope.
In some ways, the rhetoric of fear that permeated the pre-election landscape is found in our conference and churches as well. How did this happen to followers of the author of hope?
The things we fear
As millions of displaced people seek shelter, we in safer corners of the world are afraid. We fear the refugees who long to enter our borders. Their needs could overtax our social system. Their differences will test Canadian values of freedom and non-discrimination.
We’re afraid of people from other religions. Recognizing the potential for violence in our own holy book, we fear the seeds of violence Islam might sow. A neighbour might be a terrorist. Worse, devout new blocs of religious could edge out our corner on the spiritual marketplace.
We’re afraid of the sins of the church. We don’t want to talk about the harm Canada perpetuated on indigenous peoples. As Mennonites, we hide behind our historic isolationism, distancing ourselves from the residential school mistakes of both mainline denominations and the government.
The fear burrows into our own church. There was fear at our study conference. We’re afraid that people who don’t fit our categories of normal will disrupt our churches. We’re afraid the widening culture of “anything goes” will drown out the Bible’s call to a narrow path, and that dissonant personal experiences will shake our convictions from their mooring in Scripture.
We’re afraid our churches will shrink or that our denomination will fracture apart. We worry the money will simply run out.
But, whose church is it? Ours or God’s?
Turn to the light
We’re celebrating Advent and looking toward Christmas now. Just as the twinkling LEDs of our decorations usher cheer into the lengthening night in our northern home, so the Christ-light of hope, peace, joy and love pierces even the darkest social or theological problem.
The temptation to despair is natural. Across humankind, our default is set to fear. That nearly every book of the Bible contains some encouragement not to be afraid suggests the hearers were routinely leaning in that direction.
Rather than staring into the abyss of our problems, the Bible urges us to turn our gaze to the light, to the One who commands his servants from Genesis to Revelation: Don’t be afraid, because…
I am your protector (Genesis 15:1, Judges 6:23, Job 5:21, Ezekiel 3:9).
I have heard your crying (Genesis 21:17, Daniel 10:12).
I am with you (Genesis 26:24, Joshua 1:9).
I will deliver you (Exodus 14:13, Numbers 21:34, 2 Chronicles 20:17).
I will grant you peace (Leviticus 26:6, Psalm 29:11, Proverbs 3:24, John 14:27, Romans 5:1).
I will fight for you (Deuteronomy 3:22).
I will provide (1 Kings 17:13).
I am your salvation (Isaiah 35:4).
I will cause you to prosper (Jeremiah 17:8).
I will make you a blessing (Zechariah 8:13).
I will give you the words to say (Mark 13:11).
I care about you (Matthew 10:31, 1 Peter 5:7).
I have a purpose for you (Luke 5:10).
I will rescue you (Acts 27:24).
I am the beginning and the end (Revelation 1:17).
Sometimes there is miraculous intervention, but just as often, God simply assures that he is with us and he cares. In that knowledge, we can set our hearts and minds at ease whether turmoil engulfs or troubles dissipate.
Circumstance need not cause us to fear; the deeper truth is that the Creator’s reach extends into every darkness, Jesus walks with us through the deepest valleys and the Spirit’s guiding light cannot be snuffed out.
As we string our Christmas lights, let’s call the church to its own revolution of hope, based not a new government (that will inevitably introduce bad policies), nor on well-meaning leaders (who will eventually disappoint), but on the Prince of Peace whose coming into the world we celebrate at this time.
May we heed the words of the angel that first Christmas: “Do not be afraid…” (Luke 2:10).

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Winter update 2015

The fatgirl has been ready to go for a month already and I've taken her out a few times when I lacked the effort to deal with a puncture in the rear of my skyline. It has been unseasonably, blissfully warm. However, I'm surprised to discover, looking back, that I'm only bringing out the winter bike slightly later than last year (Nov. 12).

I was on the skyline tonight, hoping the snow wouldn't fall till I got home. Alas, icy shards pelted my eyes (okay, the fatgirl couldn't have helped with that), and slippery, snowy roads bore me home. Time for cold and ice.

So, tomorrow the fatgirl will be on the road for good, just a few days before her birthday, November 22.


*****Update: mild weather returned so we didn't have snow and nasty roads in earnest until a major dump Dec. 16 that strewed mashed potatoes and brown sugar all over the roads.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Refugees welcome??

I should be happy every time I open another church bulletin or see another facebook post that says a church is considering sponsoring a refugee family.

Instead, I'm disgusted.

Really, you're merely considering it? Only now?

Your congregation is so busy running your little affinity groups and holy huddles and going on your personal enrichment "mission" trips that it took the secular newsmedia's outraged publication of a heart-rending photo of a dead child washed up on a beach to get you to even realize there's a refugee crisis out there?!

And, so moved, you still wonder not when and how to respond but whether?

When did the church stop believing itself in some way responsible to care for people outside our own doors?

Why is the church not ashamed that it took wider culture to wake us up to a tremendous need?

(It's not that the news hasn't been out there. For example, my church magazine has been running articles from MCC on the dire situation in Syria since 2012. And it's not just Syria. Africans have been perishing in increasing numbers on the Mediterranean in unsuitable boats crammed with humanity. Some of these are economic migrants, not people fleeing war or political persecution, but this desperate flight from stark income inequality and lack of opportunity should also concern those who profess to believe we all have equal value in the eyes of God.) 

Why is it not a foregone conclusion that an organized group of people who believe in hope, reconciliation and service would be able to collectively offer hospitality for at least one year -- financially and emotionally -- to a family escaping crisis?!

And when we finally decide maybe we do have a responsibility to do something, why are we still so very stinting in our response? We're actually reasonably willing to cough up some money; we're certainly willing to find some cast-offs to donate to help a refugee set up a household (whew! de-cluttering and do-goodering in one fell swoop), but ourselves? Nope, not called to do that. Churn the group through the system and provide funds for one year, then sigh in relief at having discharged a responsibility. Don't ask me to be friends, especially not over the long term. Does our perpetual invocation of "relationship" mean nothing?

It is with a tragically unrecognized irony that we whisper self-righteously about hidden terrorists and practitioners of Islam not integrating into Canadian while we fail to invite them into our lives? What an opportunity we have to demonstrate our hope in the Prince of Peace and to be transformed by learning from those whose experiences and perspectives are different from ours.

Isn't it time we shut up our indignant claims of having done enough, stop falling for -- and spreading -- the rhetoric of fear and entitlement and start being the church Christ called us to be? Church, it's time we remember that we are witnesses to hope, hospitality and wholeness, and start living like it.

Revised Nov. 27, 2015

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Candidates debate

For all the criticisms I could make of politicians and their policies and how they often comport themselves, I’ll grant them this much: they generally try to answer the questions lobbed at them.

Even though one might suggest that in itself is part of the problem. Because a lot of the accusations thinly veiled – or not disguised at all –  as questions at public fora are far more about the “questioner” wanting to air his or her grievance than hearing the politician’s response. He or she usually isn’t interested in the answer; it wouldn’t be believed anyway.

People often hurl their comment at the candidates, then stride away, only pausing to turn back when their intention is to rail further against their pet injustice.

Not that there aren’t plenty of injustices to rail at. I’m just not sure it’s constructive. On the other hand, do the “answers” get us anywhere either? When you’re so determined to have your say, you just want to be heard – i.e. acknowledged – not necessarily given a response full of facts, promises or anecdotes. 

The downtown candidates debate was more interesting for how the candidates acted than what they said. I probably left with a better opinion of three out of the four representatives present, and a disappointingly lowered opinion of the fourth, such that I am actually considering changing my vote plans.

One candidate modelled “hearing” well, actually apologizing to an irate constituent despite the fact that it seemed the person taking offense had badly misunderstood what had been said on that issue. 

It probably made no difference that the Conservative Party candidate wasn’t present; I’m sure she’s perfectly earnest but I can’t see her collecting many votes in this riding, and strongly doubt the crowd present at the debate contained a single Tory. However, I find it utterly reprehensible that the ruling party in a representative democracy would call its candidates to refrain from participating in debates and doing interviews. “Hearing” requires showing up.

Scattered impressions from the event:

Kudos to the Communist guy for riding his bike to the event. He came across as folksy but genuine and though of course he was flogging his party’s vision of utopia, he wasn’t obnoxious about it. I liked his line about how universal health care was the Communist Party’s idea first, implemented by another party; he said wryly, “we’d like you other parties to steal more of our ideas.” Not such an ideologue he can’t be realistic about election chances and capable of sharing credit for good ideas.

It’s irritating enough that the media can’t get the city’s neighbourhoods right (buy a map already and stop assuming that every crime-related news story that’s not clearly in the suburbs must have happened in the most nefarious-sounding central neighbourhoods), but to hear this sentence from someone trying to represent the central neighbourhoods was galling: “I’ve lived in the West End for years, on Ruby and Canora.” The east and west boundaries of that neighbourhood may be open to interpretation but the southern boundary – Portage Avenue – is not in doubt. Neither Ruby nor Canora extend north of Portage.

Speaking of the suburbs, I was appalled to hear another candidate promise us the life of suburb dwellers. Who said we should or do *want* the life of suburb dwellers?! In fairness, he was speaking to the quality of services, but even in that context, it’s misinformed. Let’s talk services in winter after a snowstorm and see who gets their sidewalks – oh, assuming suburb dweller even *has* sidewalks – ploughed first.

And the ironies. Oh, the ironies! “Don’t follow the rhetoric,” one candidate exhorts, dripping with rhetoric. He was the least civil toward his fellow candidates, harping repeatedly on the past record of the incumbent but rarely adding anything of his own solutions except to lament how terrible the problems were. Buddy, if you have no insight or plans to address any of these problems you identify so pithily, how are you any better than the incumbent you are attacking?

The incumbent has a reputation for being bombastic and accusatory. I daresay this candidate who so roundly condemned the incumbent on every chance – even interrupting and name-calling – bested the incumbent on that score.

The candidates took every opportunity possible to tell us how bad things are. One of the worst ridings in Canada for child poverty, staggering mental health problems, poverty, crime, First Nations issues, degraded water (in Lake Winnipeg) – on and on they go about how terrible we have it. Then they turn on a dime when the Syria refugee crisis comes up and all promise to bring hundreds to settle in our good and wonderful city. I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself, thinking, which is it: is everything broken in our neighbourhood or is it a wonderful place to welcome and shelter trauma-affected people from overseas?

I won’t ever envy the life of a politician. After the mercifully short comment-grenade hurling of the questions-from-the-floor time, the candidates had to face media questions (not so daunting) and more constituent outrage, now unmoderated by a time keeper and MC. (And, in one case, caught on film, and turned into an unflattering national news story within a few hours.) Besides policy making, complaint taking, and maybe some good governance mixed in, we also expect them to inspire.

Sometimes, they do.

“Hey, look; he’s there!” An Aboriginal middle school boy walking through the mall exclaimed to his sister as he stopped to see who was on stage. “The one with the long hair! He came to our house!”

That felt a little bit like hope on a very cynical evening.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Refugees welcome

It's a complex issue.

Right from the top, it must be acknowledged that the current hype on the Syrian refugee crisis may very well fade shortly and it doesn't necessarily dig deeply into the many facets to this particular situation which has been developing for years, much less into other areas or peoples who are displaced. For one, African migrants have been perishing in the Mediterranean in growing numbers for years without tugging at our heart strings.


Is it fair to hijack the photo of one family's tragedy to galvanize a response? Perhaps the media's integrity around the photo (which many outlets will say they carefully considered before using) will be tested by the child's aunt in Canada who has reportedly asked, now that the point has been made, that those who wish to show photos of Aylan use one of him happy and alive.

That said, it's good to see the energy the general populace is expending on the Syrian refugee crisis.

Harper points out that something should be done about the situation in Syria that is causing all these displaced people. He's right, especially since many Syrians don't actually want to emigrate elsewhere; they want their country back, stable and productive, not to have to move somewhere else. But to suggest we have to choose between trying to ameliorate the situation and helping those who have been made homeless by it seems ludicrous.

There was a demonstration at City Hall tonight. It was sparsely attended, but there was a decent diversity represented. (I don't know all the Winnipeg political candidates on sight, however I recognized three Liberals and one Green.)

I was impressed that the organizer -- a young professional of Middle Eastern background, judging by facebook -- opened the event with several First Nations speakers. It was quite profound to have First Nations people in Winnipeg speak an unstinting welcome to people in crisis around the world -- despite the fact that First Nations have generally gotten the short stick from newcomers and are a people in crisis themselves.

A number of planned speakers -- who included not only some Middle Eastern refugees (one of whom gave a nice shout out to MCC as the agency that helped to sponsor him) but also some Africans -- the mic was opened to a comment free for all.

The speakers generally did well, even the more spontaneous ones.

One woman rambled a tad but her point was that the ableism she hears from both the government and citizens regarding refugees is distressing. She identified herself as a person with a hidden disability that has prevented her from working -- something that lent weight to her argument that we can value people for more than the employment potential they represent. We should help people because our common humanity demands it of us, not because they can help our economy.

The one person I know personally who spoke was the weakest, though my abhorrence for her presentation may in part be because of the degree I identify with her...except I don't. She started with an awkward, unnecessary and offensive apologetic for her Christian remarks, went off on a bizarre tangent about being proud to be a Mennonite, that Menno Simons was actually Jewish (a. where on earth did she get that information? and b. how is that even the slightest bit relevant?) and then continued in this underlying theme of generational blessing that was a lot more prosperity gospel than Anabaptist. She pleaded for the children ("because they are our future whereas older people are gonna die, let's face it!"). She didn't want for passion though I could have asked for a bit more common sense. She capped it off by asking everyone to join her in singing O Canada, which she proceeded to belt it out like the soloist at a hockey game.

The director of IRCOM underscored the important point that the Somali and Eritrean refugees made by their presence: there are more people around the world languishing in long-term displacement than just Iraqis and Syrians.

I'm proud to be able to say that long before the picture last week and the news from Hungary piqued the world's interest, refugees in general, Syria in particular, have been on my radar. For half a year, I have been part of a group helping a Syrian family acclimatize to Canada and supporting a group that's working to bring a refugee from DR Congo to Winnipeg. For years, I've been receiving communiques from Mennonite Central Committee about the dire situation in Syria. Over the past several months, it was in large part due to my initiative that the publication I work for ran feature articles on sponsoring refugees (one how-to, one story of sponsor experiences), and that my denomination released a push for churches to consider sponsoring refugees.

Let's not be foolishly blind to complexities. But let's not do nothing either.