Sunday, July 05, 2020

Five Minute Friday: PEOPLE

I'm linking up with Five Minute Friday, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. This week's word is PEOPLE.

The other day Jonathan and I went for a walk at Breakwater Park. It was a beautiful morning, with a strong wind pushing a bank of clouds swiftly across the sky.

As I watched, I was struck by the way the water appeared to be two different colours: gray where the cloud was, blue where the clear sky was. Of course there isn't actually "gray water" and "blue water"; that's an optical illusion. The water isn't any particular colour but just looks blue or gray depending on what's reflected on it. 

Now, anyone who knows Jonathan's love of garbage and recycling might think "And right away this made you think of recycling day, didn't it? Blue box for plastic and metal and glass one week, gray box for paper and cardboard the next..." 

Instead, what came to mind first was people

People can have experiences that seem, on the surface, good or bad, positive or negative. Sometimes it's very clear which category an event or experience falls into, but sometimes the distinction is more illusory. The same event that's bad for one person (heavy rain on the day of their outdoor wedding -- which by the way isn't "ironic" no matter what Alanis Morissette says) can be good for another (their crops and their livelihood are saved by the rainfall). The event that's negative for one person (not getting the job they applied for) is positive for another (the one who does get that job) ... and in fact could even end up being positive for the first person, who ends up getting a different job that suits them even better.

And people themselves can't be easily categorized into good or bad, however much we might like to put them there. Sometimes a person is acting out of what's been reflected on them throughout their lives. What they do, how their lives turn out, is not simply a question of whether they made right or wrong choices.

Life isn't just blue or gray. People aren't just blue or gray.

It's complicated.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Five Minute Friday: (The Color of) COMPROMISE

Today I'm linking up with the Five Minute Friday community, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. This week's word is COMPROMISE.

Our Five Minute Friday leader, Kate, chose the word "compromise" this week because she happened to be reading the same book I was: The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church's Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby. I actually won this book in an online draw a few months ago and just started reading it last week. It is a very timely book to be reading with all the anti-racism protests going on in the US and Canada right now.

As a Canadian who (and I'm only slightly joking) learns most of her American history from Jeopardy!, I found this book fascinating and informative. In clear, concise language, Tisby traces the development of (particularly anti-Black) racism throughout US history, showing how the Christian church has been complicit in perpetuating racism from the early days of African-American slavery, through the Jim Crow and civil rights periods, right up to the present day's focus on Black Lives Matter, monuments and flags, and the call for reparations for the descendants of slaves. The book ends with a chapter on action steps, encouraging readers to become better-informed about racism; develop more interracial relationships; become active through writing, joining or donating to anti-racist organizations; and more.

Here are a few quotes from The Color of Compromise that made me pause, reflect, and sometimes cringe in discomfort:

"[R]econciliation across racial and ethnic lines is not something Christians must achieve but a reality we must receive." (p. 23)

"[Revivalist preacher Charles] Finney and others like him believed that social change came about through evangelization. According to this logic, once a person believed in Christ as Savior and Lord, he or she would naturally work toward justice and change.... This belief led to a fixation on individual conversion without a corresponding focus on transforming the racist policies and practices of institutions, a stance that has remained a constant feature of American evangelicalism and has furthered the American church's easy compromise with slavery and racism." (p. 69)

"Christian complicity with racism in the twenty-first century looks different than complicity with racism in the past. It looks like Christians responding to the phrase black lives matter with the phrase all lives matter. It looks like Christians consistently supporting a president whose racism has been on display for decades. It looks like Christians telling black people and their allies that their attempts to bring up racial concerns are 'divisive.' It looks like conversations on race that focus on individual relationships and are unwilling to discuss systemic solutions. Perhaps Christian complicity in racism has not changed much after all. Although the characters and the specifics are new, many of the same rationalizations for racism remain." (p. 191)

Anyone wanting to learn more about racism in the US and about the role Christianity has played in its perpetuation should read this excellent book.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Five Minute Friday: WORTH (or: Brad Pitt and the Rich Man)

Today I'm linking up with Five Minute Friday, writing for five minutes about WORTH.

(Disclaimer: this is an updated version of a post from my archives.)

Pondering the word WORTH got me thinking about money, and how we make decisions based on what our money is worth or what it will do for us. Ten years ago the Canadian dollar was at par with the American one -- even worth slightly more at one point. Now it's worth 75 cents against the U.S. dollar. Ouch. I've never been a "cross-border shopper," and now I'm unlikely to become one, knowing how little my Canadian dollar will accomplish for me in the States.

Then I started thinking about other, non-monetary "currency" that we try to use, only to find that it won't accomplish what we  had hoped either.

That leads me to one of my favourite movies, Seven Years in Tibet. It's a very interesting story of a real-life Austrian adventurer named Heinrich Harrer, who abandons his wife and young son to go on a mountaineering expedition, ends up in Tibet during WWII, and becomes friends with the young Dalai Lama.

Brad Pitt plays the dashing Heinrich. There's been lots of commentary about Pitt's suitability for the role, how (un?)successful he is in reproducing a German accent, the historical accuracy of the film, and so on. But that's all secondary to me. What interests me most about this movie is that it depicts a person who really changes during the course of the story. And a big part of what precipitates that change is the character's realization that his currency is worthless.

Heinrich's fellow traveler, Peter, is a quiet, plain-looking fellow. The two are an oil-and-water mix, and Heinrich is pretty nasty to Peter at times, though they stick together throughout most of the journey. After escaping a POW camp they take refuge in Lhasa, Tibet. One of the people they meet there is a beautiful tailor named Pema. Both men are instantly taken with her.

On one occasion Heinrich tries to impress Pema by showing her photographs of himself climbing mountains and skiing as a member of the Austrian Olympic team. But Pema (who, we soon realize, is far more interested in the unassuming Peter) cuts Heinrich down to size. She says quietly, "This is another great difference between our civilization and yours. You admire the man who pushes his way to the top in any walk of life -- while we admire the man who abandons his ego. The average Tibetan wouldn't think to thrust himself forward this way."

Heinrich smiles, but he is clearly stung by her words. Ever so slowly, the truth starts to dawn on him: the currency he's been depending on for so long -- looks, adventures, awards, ego -- accomplishes nothing in this place. It's worthless.

The beautiful thing is, though, that he allows this awareness to change him. He becomes a tutor to the Dalai Lama and starts to internalize principles of Buddhism like nonviolence, humility, and harmony with all creation. He becomes a different person who can then go home and reestablish a deeper relationship with the son he left behind.

Contrast this with an episode recorded in Luke 18 and Mark 10, when Jesus is asked by a wealthy man, "What do I need to do to have eternal life?"

Jesus says, "You know the commandments" -- and lists several of them.

The man replies that he has kept all of these commandments for his entire life. I can imagine he is feeling pretty satisfied at this moment, because it sounds like the very currency he's carrying -- good behaviour -- is what's required. And perhaps he sees his wealthy status as another result of that good behaviour -- a reward for being such a good law-keeper. How affirming it would be if Jesus assured him that yes, works and wealth are in fact the keys to eternal life.

But Jesus goes on, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

I think we can get bogged down pretty quickly here and start arguing about whether Jesus' words to the man should be taken as a literal prescription for all people at all times. It seems unlikely that Jesus is saying categorically that selling all our goods is a ticket to eternal life; that would be just another kind of "good work" to earn our way. But I'm not willing to dismiss it as something just for that moment, either: after all, Jesus says the poor are blessed, so maybe he's making a statement that following him will involve humility, detachment from possessions, and solidarity with the poor -- things the man hasn't experienced yet.

But regardless, I do think Jesus is letting the man know that his good deeds and possessions won't achieve what he wants them to. Following Jesus requires something different: faith and trust. The man is hoping he can keep on using the currency he's always relied upon, without having to change. He's not prepared to give everything up and rely on Jesus. As the Mark version tells us, upon hearing Jesus' words "the man's face fell, and he went away sad," choosing not to follow.

I wonder if at some point we all come to the realization that our currency lacks value: our old answers and paradigms have nothing to say to the situation we're in, or our strengths and accomplishments really have no worth in the place we find ourselves.

The question is, do we let this disorienting experience be an opportunity for real change, like Heinrich? Or, like the man who met Jesus, do we allow ourselves to feel a momentary sadness ... but then go right back to the way things were?



Saturday, June 13, 2020

Five Minute Friday: HOW

Today I'm linking up with the Five Minute Friday community, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. This week's word is HOW.

Thirteen weeks ago we were told that because of the Covid-19 pandemic, schools would be closing for March Break and two weeks beyond. The university was suspending classes for a week with plans to reopen for remote instruction for the rest of the semester. Extend-a-Family cancelled its March Break camp and all its other programs. The library shut down. In-person church was suspended.

I remember Richard and I looking wide-eyed at one another.

How would we manage not having any structured activities other than his work shifts?

How would we keep Jonathan happy and healthy for all that time?

How would the rest of Allison's semester at Queen's, with one online course and one on-campus course, unfold?

So many unknowns. We really didn't know how we would do it ... but there really was only one way, and there still is.

One day at a time.

One hour at a time.

One thing that's been a mainstay of our days is taking walks. When some of our favourite walking places were closed, we found other ones. We've walked many different sections of the K&P Trail and encountered other walkers and cyclists, all making the most of the situation.

Otherwise Jonathan fills his days doing jigsaw puzzles, watching DVDs and garbage-truck videos, participating in Zoom meetings with his teacher and EAs and camp friends. He goes on the trampoline with Dad and Allison and fills the back yard with laughter. He helps Dad with the recycling and rushes outside when I'm taking in the laundry so he can help remove the pins and put them in their container.

 It's going to be a long time till things get back to any semblance of normal. A long summer, likely without camp or a trip to see Grandpa, stretches ahead of us. How will we manage it?

One day at a time.

One hour at a time.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Five Minute Friday: STAY

Today I'm linking up with the Five Minute Friday community, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. This week's word is STAY.

Since the pandemic shutdown began in mid-March, we have been taking many walks on the K&P Trail. Yesterday we went to one of our favourite sections; it starts at the edge of a hilly country road and circles around to another spot further along the same road.

It was hot, and Jonathan wanted to turn back early, so Richard went back with him while I went on, walking out of the midday sunshine and into this shady, gently climbing section of the trail. On my right, the hill rose, thick with tall maples, ferns tumbling down among fallen limbs. On my left, the ground fell steeply away, more maples and ferns spreading down the hill toward a farmer's field. The sun dropped crumbling through the leaves, laying a dappled path before my feet, and the breeze ruffled the treetops. It was so beautiful, so serene, so inviting.

For a moment I wished I could stay there forever, far from distressing global events and the tedium of the day-to-day. Of course I couldn't. But I wondered if it might be possible to bring that place -- its peace and beauty and serenity -- along with me wherever I went. Can a place stay in our heart, the way those we love do even when they're absent from us?

I hope so. In the meantime, I'll go to the trail again some day to soak in that tranquility and remind myself of all the beauty there is in this world.