Wednesday, 4 July 2018

In the garden

Yesterday evening I ventured out back to check on our small vegetable patch. 

As I stood and surveyed it, I thought, “What have I done to deserve this?”

It’s lush and full.  Tomato plants form a dense jungle of vines with fruit beginning to form green and fill out under cover of all the leaves.  Pepper plants – jalapenos, Scotch bonnet and banana, have more than doubled in height and fullness, are strong, and sport little peppers hanging from the branches.  Garlic, still flourishing and growing strong.  Rhubarb, still offering ripening stalks well into July.

I’ve done so little.  Next to nothing.  Last fall, finally heeding years of encouragement from a friend, I sowed 10 or 12 little garlic bulbs.  First thing in the spring I weeded and cleaned up the rhubarb.  In one weekend I bought and planted tomato and pepper plants.  Gave one dose of fertilizer.  Maybe 3 shots of watering so far all season.  And weeded maybe two times.

I don’t deserve such a full garden.  Isn’t it amazing how indiscriminate is the goodness of life on Earth, how blindly gracious and freely giving is Life, and how happy I am when I let myself find myself within it – doing whatever little bit is mine within its seasons and cycles (and purpose) of indiscriminate goodness?

And I wonder … when and where – and why, considerations like deserving and worthy and earning come into the picture?  And into my own troubled self-image? 

I wonder if I should spend more time in the garden.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Screening out the human

Jim sat in his wheelchair and with his permission I sat on the edge of his bed to be able to chat with him.  He lived at the nursing home where I came once a month to lead a morning prayer service, and this was the first time in years we had really talked.  It was the first time I was in his room, rather than just chatting in passing in the common room before and after the service.

Tomorrow is his birthday, he told me.  Said he will be 67, and when asked, suggested that maybe the reason he looks younger than me is he still has a good head of dark hair.  Unprompted, he told me he is happy.  Asked why, he said because he is alive, because he "has his brain back" after suffering a stroke, and because of his family whose pictures he showed me on the wall above his bed.  "I have so much, and some people don't," he said, with one of the most honestly contented looks on his face and in his eyes that I have seen for some time.

The reason I was talking with him was that I missed the memo.  The nursing home activities director had emailed me earlier in the morning that due to staff turn-over and illness, they were cancelling the prayer service.  Not enough staff to manage what needed to be done to make it happen.  I didn't log on, though; I was out of the electronic loop, showed up not knowing the plan ... and found myself with some unexpected free time just to visit with some of the prayer service regulars.

And because I was out of the electronic loop, because I failed to plug in and log on and look at my laptop screen, I found myself serendipitously receiving some wonderfully warm, personal and welcome schooling in gratitude, one of the foundational elements of any honest spirituality. 

A few hours later I was on the run again, this time rushing into a Tim Horton's for a meeting with another staff member at the church.  I placed my order, paid for it, and got my coffee.  Then, in the very few seconds it took to move down the counter to the prep area to wait for my Chicken Ranch Wrap Snacker (my lunch), disaster struck.  The in-store computer network went down, all orders were lost from the now-blank screen in front of the prep person, and no amount of hitting the refresh button was bringing anything back on line.

And she did try.  A lot.  Frantically.  Panic gripped her face, and terror of the unknown pooled deep in her eyes.  She wasn't trained for this.

Shortly, though, I and the couple waiting beside me were able to calm her, and convince her we could tell her what we had ordered, and she would still be able to prepare it for us.  And it worked.  What a wonderful system!

It really felt wonderful.  Yeah, there was risk to Tim Horton's that we would make up some order ridiculously more expensive than what we had actually paid for.  But for once -- and I never really noticed its absence until this moment of its restoration, we completed our order at the counter with a real, honest-to-goodness, person-to-person interaction about what we were doing, without a screen between us guiding our every action and making trusting, human conversation between us unnecessary.

It's enough to make me wonder.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Thinking of The Second Coming outside an LCBO

Judgement of the Nations -- The Sheep and The Goats
(an image from South Yarra Community Baptist Church)  

I'm still troubled by something I saw early Monday afternoon outside the University Plaza LCBO.  As I sat in the car near the door of the store, waiting for Japhia who was inside to make a purchase, I saw the entire unfolding of an altercation between a man and a young, hoodied male.

The man was walking into the store, right behind Japhia.  The hoodied young guy came zooming between them on a stunt bike, missed the man by inches, dropped his bike against the store wall, and made to follow the man into the LCBO.  Rather than just go into the store, the man made a comment to the young guy about his lack of consideration.  The young guy got angry.  The argument escalated as they stood just inside the store door, until the young man abruptly and angrily turned around, left the store, and yelled back at the man, calling him a "f****** nigger,"  latching on to the most hurtful and disrespectful thing he could think of to say, focused on the colour of the man's skin.

The man came running out of the store after the young guy who quickly hopped on his bike and used it to stay a safe distance from the man while continuing to scream the racist taunt against him.  Not once but a number of times.  While the man yelled back, saying he would "get him."  

And I sat in the car not more than ten feet away.  Just watching.  From inside the car.

Japhia, who heard all this happen from inside the store, at least was able to touch the man on the arm a few minutes later when she stood beside him in the check-out line, to  communicate support and care.  Even then she was troubled that that was all she was able to do.

Like her, I would like to have that moment back so I could get out of the car, stand as brother with the man suffering the racist taunt, and make it clear to the hoodied young male that his racist slur is not acceptable and is not tolerated by people around him.

But I didn't.  

Why not? 

It wasn't fear.  Nor moral indifference.  
What I remember is that at the time it felt a bit like I was just watching TV.  I was totally drawn into what I was seeing, but somehow it seemed there was a screen of some kind between me and what I was seeing.  It wasn't that I rejected the thought of doing anything.  It's that doing anything more than just watch the unfolding drama didn't even really present itself as an option. Wasn't even in mind or on the table at that moment.  Just didn't exist.

And I wonder, how did I get there?  To that point of radical, unconscious disengagement?

Was it because by the time I got to that spot, I was already feeling depressed, disconnected and resentful from four hours spent that morning in the hospital sitting mind-numbingly through a four-hour test process?  Is that what predisposed me to such terrible disengagement, to merely spectating the social story being written around me without realizing responsibility to take a part in the daily writing of it?

But then ... I wonder if the young hoodied guy also feels that same mixture of depression, disconnection, and resentment in his life, for all kinds of other reasons.  And is that part of why he reacted as angrily, hurtfully and viciously as he did when he was challenged to be civil and respectful of others?

I think I've always found a secret satisfaction in the last two lines of the first verse of W. B. Yeats' sonnet, "The Second Coming":  "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity," because even at times when I seem to lack conviction (or at least, the action that would express conviction), I can still imagine myself in some self-satisfied way as being numbered among "the best" -- superior to, and separate from "the worst."

But now I have to wonder, are the sadly uncommitted "best" and the passionately active "worst" more alike, and on more common ground than I have imagined?  Are I and that hoodied, young male more blood brothers than I know, in our common feelings at times of depression, disconnection and resentment in life?  And really co-authors together more than I admit of the terrible narrative of social unravelling being written all around us -- him by acts and words of vengeful hate, me by becoming mere spectator of the narrative being written. 

I wonder ... what does it mean and where does it lead, to see myself as brother both to the man who suffered the racist abuse, and to the hoodied young male who hurled the epithets with such recentful venom?  And at times maybe more to the latter than the former?

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

When the song is over

The show is over.

I'll miss it.

I wonder what will come next.

Sunday was the last show for Q107's "Psychedelic Sunday."  Normally I don't like to listen to golden oldies radio.  Most often when I turn on the radio I want to hear something new and different from what I've heard before.

But for some years now it has been a beloved, sacred ritual once I leave the church after worship and get in the car to drive home, to turn on the radio, tune in to Q107, turn up the volume a bit, and by the time I make the right turn out of the parking lot and onto Highway 8, be listening to some rock tune from the late '60's that takes me back.

Takes me back.

I wonder about that.  What it means.

Takes me back ... as in back in time?  Feeling transported to another, earlier time of my life?  That's what nostalgia is.  Slipping the bonds and burdens of the present to escape for a while to a simpler time.

But maybe also takes me back ... as in feeling welcomed even in my prodigal emptiness and brokenness, back into a father's house.  And to my great surprise, feasted there for who I am, always have been, and always will be in his eyes and heart? 

I know there was something about that in the listening.  

It wasn't just nostalgia; that can happen any day of the week.  

It also had something to do with the reassurance and re-affirmation of the goodness and acceptability of me.  Of all of me.  Of even these slightly rougher edges of me -- and of other even rougher things, that didn't and don't always fit in to home and church as they are taught to us.  It was part of what sabbath at its best is about.

And I wonder if it's just me.  Or do all of us somehow feel (even worry) that we won't or can't be taken back?  That we're too used.  Or used up.  Broken.  No longer in the original packaging.  Damaged goods.

"Psychedelic Sunday" was an important part of my Sunday routine.  My sabbath rest.  My longing and the answer to my longing to be taken back, and to be able to be taken back.

And now the show is over.

Much to my pleasure the last song played was "The Song is Over" -- a Pete Townshend song by The Who, the closing lines of which are:

The song is over
The song is over

Searchin' for a note, pure and easy
Playing so free, like a breath rippling by

The song is from the album "Who's Next."  

I wonder what will come next.  

How next I will know on a regular basis that great sabbath truth, that pure and easy note of grace that I can be -- and am, taken back.  

For who I am.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Should-ers and shoulders: I know I'm capable of being either one.

Last night we were in the ER again.  From 7:30 pm to 1:30 am.  Not a good night.

And while we were there, sometime around 9:30 Japhia's purse was stolen.  Then quickly found in a bathroom trash can.  But with her wallet and its contents -- cash, bank and credit cards, significant ID cards, and who knows what else gone.  A terrible night.

And just as tiring a morning-and-afternoon after.

We've received a lot of help, though.  Caring support and helpful direction.  Some predictable advice.

And I think I've discovered one kind of help I welcome, and another kind I don't.

The latter -- the kind of help that I would rather not receive in a time of crisis, is that of those who are natural "should-ers."  The kind who say things like, "You know, you shouldn't really have done that ... or made a practice of such-and-such ... or have been there in the first place.  Really, you should ..."  Which actually means -- or at least comes across as, "I never do that."  Or, "What I always do is ..."   Which quickly seems to suggest, at least in the mind of the listener, "It really is your own fault, you know."

The should-ers.  Often the best-intentioned and sympathetic-hearted people in the world, and people I love and cherish as friends most of the time.  But in a time of crisis I think I might choose to not even tell them what happened.

But then there are the shoulders -- the ones who are willing to shoulder whatever the burden is, and just help bear it.  The ones who in a time of crisis -- no matter how it came about, will say things like, "How terrible!  I'm so sorry.  There's some important things to do now, aren't there?  What can I do to help you?  Will you let me help?"  

And nothing more than that for the moment.  Just a shoulder to lean on, and to count on.

Shoulders, not should-ers, are the ones we are glad for in a time like last night and this morning.  Thank God for the shoulders all around us. 

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Getting down the beach together, ten feet at a time

Last week -- for nine days actually, Japhia was in the hospital.  Several times a day I traveled between home and hospital.  Folks at the church put up with my absence, and a good friend stepped into the pulpit on Sunday to give me a break and some help.

At the same time my brother-in-law, in Vancouver for an annual week-long golf-trip vacation with two good friends, was lying instead in limbo in a hospital there with a gallstone, pancreatitis and an indefinite prognosis, with my sister stuck here without any rational way to be with him.

And from my son I learned that my first wife had fallen and broken her arm, and he was suddenly having to be big-time caregiver.

What a wounded, limping bunch we are.

And in the midst of this I happened to see a 4-minute video of an elderly man and his wife walking back to their car after an afternoon at the beach.  His name is Duncan, hers is Cathy.

And the walk goes like this.  

Cathy sits in a folding beach chair.  While she sits, Duncan carries a second chair 10 feet ahead, and sets it in the sand.  Then he walks back to where Cathy is sitting, takes her by the arm and leads her slowly to the second chair, where she sits down.  After which he goes back to get the first chair, carries it past where Cathy is sitting, and sets it down 10 feet farther on.  Then he walks back to Cathy, takes her arm and helps her walk to the new chair ten feet along, where she sits down.  Then Duncan walks back to the vacated chair, carries it past where Cathy is now sitting, places it in the sand another ten feet along, and goes back to help Cathy to this chair.

Over and over again. Ten feet at a time.  Until they get to where they need to be.

Cathy is sick and weak, dying of cancer.  She has an oxygen tank that Duncan carries for her while he helps her walk, and places on her lap when he goes to move a chair.  Ten feet is all she can walk at a time in the sand.

Cathy died seven months after the day of that walk.  Duncan and Cathy did not know they were being video-taped, and when Duncan was asked later about their walk, he said, "When she got sick, it was just the right thing to do.  She loved the calmness [of the sea], and she loved putting her feet in the water."

In the video, all the while he is helping his wife walk down the beach -- him walking fifty feet back and forth for every ten of hers, Duncan is whistling and perfectly content.  The woman who shot the video and later met Duncan says, "Here he was slowing down and showing her kindness, like he didn't have a care in the world, like that was what he was created for, just to help her along."

If you want to see the video and the fuller story of Duncan and Cathy's walk go to

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Thoughts after a tragedy

It's slow-motion, protracted grief.

News reports trickle in, one at a time, a day at a time so far, about the identities of the victims of the van attack on north Yonge Street on Monday.  

Such random victims.  

Victims of a rage -- either against himself or against others in general, that no one foresaw suddenly exploding in that way.

As I take in the slow, one-by-one, day-by-day identification of the victims I remember a book I read years ago in school -- The Bridge of San Luis Rey written in 1927 by W. Thornton Wilder.  It's the story of the collapse of an Incan rope bridge across a great chasm in Peru, and of five people who were on the bridge at the time and fell to their deaths -- who they were, their separate life stories, and how each in their own way came to be on the bridge at the moment of its collapse.

A religious brother named Brother Juniper who witnesses the tragedy is troubled by it, and he sets out to explore the lives of those who died, thinking that somehow he will find evidence of divine providence in what happened to them.  He needs to believe, and to prove to others that people live and die by the good and perfect will of God.  That life is not random and its events accidental.  But he cannot find the answer he is looking for, and in the end he is condemned by the church as a heretic for what he has not been able to demonstrate.

I also remember a story about Mister Rogers, I think told by Mister Rogers himself.  When he was a child, so it goes, he became aware of bad things happening in the world, and he asked his mother, who was a very religious person, where God's angels were when these bad things happened.  Thinking, of course, that the role of angels is to protect us -- at least, those of us whom God deigns to protect.  To which his mom replied, "When something bad happens, when something tragic occurs, look for the helpers.  If you look for the helpers, you will see God's angels."

Angels who help.  Who reach out to comfort.  Who sit and weep, or stand and lament over other's pain and loss.  Who know both their utter weakness and their true power.  Who refuse to shoot a suspect just because he may have a gun.  Who in response to tragedy are not moved to incite fear and bring further sorrow into the life of the world, but to wonder at how we might continue to live out love even more fully as the only answer we have to the pain of life.

For there is that famous conclusion to Wilder's story, still standing after all these years:

"But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten.  But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them.  Even memory is not necessary for love.  There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."