Musings on spirituality


In the image

A friend phoned after reading one of my columns. They referred to my calling my relationship with an ex-offender friend a significant part of my spirituality. There was wondering about what that might mean.

I’m not at all sure that I answered my caller to my satisfaction and so it invited further rumination about what I might have said. Mostly, though, it reminded me of a story. Most things do.

Decades ago I attended a church related event.  Someone was leading a conversation about spirituality. Of course, their opening query was to ask for definitions of that word, “spirituality.”

Obviously, it was a hard question. No one responded. So I did. “Spirituality is the search for that which makes being alive good.” I was a little proud of myself, this was a personal definition that I had been tweeking most of my life. It didn’t particularly suit the purposes of the person leading the conversation. I sensed that something more ecclesial was sought, something that circled around the word God. Dictionaries support that direction.

Though that was two plus decades ago, that same definition continues to wander ahead of me, leading my ruminations and ponderings. “Spirituality is the search for that which makes being alive good.”

A rejoinder from the person leading that long ago discussion was, “Well, food makes being alive good. Is that spiritual?” I hoped that the conversation might go there, because, yes, food is definitely part of my spirituality, and of yours, I suggest. But no, it was, I suspect, spoken to highlight the insufficiency of my response.

On Sunday, I attended a church service. Time in church is, for me, closely connected to searching out what makes being alive good. The day before, I spent time with my son and grandson rebuilding a truck engine, an engine that will eventually power said grandson’s old Ford pick up. Certainly, that day was integral to my spirituality. Three generations working together on a family mechanical project, with the fourth generation, my father, very much there in spirit, this points squarely at that which makes being alive good.

Last week, I messaged another grandchild, asking how the week was going. The quick response was personal and powerful and delightful. Certainly it made being alive good.

Tomorrow, Monday, we will join the gang in the local hall for senior’s coffee time. Fifteen or twenty people will share stories of their week, or of their past, stories that run the gamut of emotions from anger to joy. Often, huge trust is held out across the table, a precious gift. Again, this becomes a significant marker in making my own life good.

On it goes, through the days and weeks and months of what is now astoundingly 2024. Spirituality is, in my experience, so much bigger than a Sunday morning sermon. To use God language alone to define the word, “spirituality,” is to blinder it, to deliberately block it away from the hugely significant events of daily life.

How might our spirituality serve us if we could, every morning as we lever our bodies from our beds, if we could identify, perhaps only slightly, a sense of anticipation? Where might our spirituality take us, if we nurtured, encouraged our curiosity to lead us to those places where we are reminded of what makes being alive good?

I acknowledge that as an introvert, this has taken some effort. There was a time, still is on occasion, when the world seemed too threatening, too fast, too sophisticated, too wrong. Those were times that I was not so spiritually healthy. Those were times when it was so much easier to remain sequestered and judgemental. Those were the times that were dark.

I have surrounded myself with good people, good supports. I have paid work and volunteer work and hobbies that fill my life with good things. I have modelled to me often that healthy spirituality is connected to honesty, vulnerability, humility. It embraces laughter and tears, in fact healthy spirituality blesses all of the emotions that reside within us and demand expression.

If musings in these direction entertain or amuse you, feel free to develop your own definition of spirituality. Give words to whatever moves you forward, whatever challenges to you experience beauty in every experience, every day.

Ed Olfert is a retired clergy person who continues to find glimpses of holiness in every step. These days, his steps wander further into the world.

Honest and kindly people


In these first days of 2024, my biggest wish is for us, you and me, to see our creation with new eyes. A discovery of a book led me to that thought.

My life’s partner has a birthday in December, about a week before Christmas. I am not one who expresses themselves comfortably, or accurately, through selecting gifts. (That same partner is, frustratingly, the epitome of that.) For over fifty years, it has seemed that my Christmas shopping season has involved buying hundreds of gifts for my beloved. You may sense that this is a somewhat stressful time for (poor) me.

Imagine my delight and surprise when, while browsing Kijiji, trying to gain knowledge about the snowmobiles that grandsons go on about, I encountered an advertisement for a book. The book is “An Honest, Genial, and Kindly People,” by Adrian K. Paton. The book was advertised as being comprised of mostly photographs, taken in south western Saskatchewan over a hundred years ago. Paton was a farmer in the Arcola area until his death a few years ago. His lifetime included gathering photos and other First Nations memorabilia, and eventually gathering them into a museum.

I had to have this book. My beloved is one who has taught me to look into faces, to actually get a sense of the stories that can be read there. Century old photographs of First Nations folks would certainly be of interest to her. I made the connections, and laid down my money.

What has surprised me more than anything is how riveting the book is for me. It is mostly photographs, and I’m not so much a photograph person, I need words. Paton has a running narrative through most of the book. Those words are his own commentary and stories, plus the comments of many of the photographers who took the original negatives, often describing the setting, naming the subjects, giving a glimpse of their story.

As I said, I’m mostly moved by words. And the words, as well as the pictures, are about an “honest, genial and kindly people.” That quote, which becomes the book title, is attributed to a neighbour at one of the southern reserves, someone who became a close and trusted friend . Every voice that speaks throughout the book speaks warmly, appreciatively, offers awe and wonder at the trust offered by these “kindly people.”

Then there are the pictures. As one who has worked at the ability to recognize the values of a person through listening, I’m also reminded that those values can be read in the pictures that a photographer might take. Again there is warmth, there is humour, there is imagination as the photographer, and Paton, often decades later, try to discern who and what the stories represent.

There are moving accounts, both through stories and photos, of the reserve community moving to the local towns during summer celebrations, joining in horse races and other competitive events. Then, when those events are wrapping up, a pow wow is begun, to which all are invited. The colour and delight are recounted by a number of folks who were present. We are reminded that only a few years later, those same pow wows were declared illegal, because of a fear of inflaming warrior passions.

How might our world, our province, our communities be different if we had received the modelling that Paton describes? If we had made that curiosity ours, that respect, that sense of wonder. Could we train our eyes to see that which Paton saw, and the community whose memories are shared in the book? Paton offers a model of hope. His respect includes his appreciation of the oral history shared by First Nations elders. And when two stories describing the same event are quite different from each other, Paton tells both stories, and invites appreciation of both. How ready are we able to hold our own stories in open hands?

Most of the photos are dated between 1900 and 1910. I am touched that the folks who shared the pictures and the stories recognized a culture that was worth exploring, worth respecting, worth being neighbourly with. It’s a culture that continues to teach, to offer, to add blessings to whatever culture we might hold alongside.

Thank you, Adrian for opening my eyes.

Making room for mystery


Over four decades ago, my partner, Holly, worked as an aide in a small town hospital on the west side of the province, about an hour from the Alberta border. It seems that being a farm wife and mother to three blond cherubs wasn’t enough. I recall a story that she brought home.

A young girl, seemingly fourteen, had appeared with a friend one evening, an Alberta girl, the staff learned. She was in labour. That night she birthed a son. In the morning, that friend picked her up and they disappeared again, leaving the wee one for Social Services to claim. The impression was that no one in that girl’s home life was aware of this pregnancy or birth.

Though I have no memory of the time of year this story occurred, in the passing decades it has been added to my repertoire of stories to remember and rethink in the Christmas season. It’s one of those incidents that invite me to hold the Christmas story alongside, and ask questions, explore the mystery of holy birth.

I’m picturing a mother, forever changed. I’m picturing a mother, like Mary, feeling very much the stigma of a birth that falls outside the norm of how child birth was understood to happen. I’m wondering if there was a role for angels, announcing, celebrating, telling confused folks, “Don’t be afraid.”

I’m asking myself how the image of gift giving fit into that holy story. I’m curious whether the image of a star led anyone into that both happy and sad event. I read the words describing Mary, “treasuring all these things and pondering them in her heart,” and I think of that surreptitious young mother, was there any learnings to ponder, to treasure. Was she ever able to share the story of “the sword that pierced her own soul?” Was there any part of her own role that contained joy?

The story of Jesus’ birth has become every story of hope, of joy, of being not afraid. It has become a reminder that every one of those important stories involve complications, messy moments, hard details, all of which need to be acknowledged and processed as we distill them to find the gift at the center. The story of the birth in the barn puts me on notice to pay attention to finding life changing beauty when and where we least expect it.

Recently, I’ve encountered, in more than one place, the observation that the opposite of “faith” is not “evil” or “sin” or “lostness,” but rather “certainty.” Certainty is at the opposite end of the spectrum to faith.

That meshes with my experience of life.

A Bible sits before me as I write, to remind myself of those pieces of the Mary story in Luke 2. The book has almost 2000 thin pages. I find the Bible is most useful when I use it mystically, which as different from seeing each story, each word, as offering unchallengeable truth. Whose truth? Certainty suggests it’s the one who wields the most power.

If the Bible is used to remind us of our own holiness, if it opens our eyes to the holiness of the entire creation around us, then it is worthy of capital letters, as in Holy Bible. When it is used to measure, to pronounce, to justify, to divide, then it is just another book, whose thin pages may just as effectively be used as paper for smokes.

The story of Christmas is that God became flesh, became human. It’s a story that stretches both back and forward beyond our vision. That’s a story that calls us to re-examine the strong memories and dreams of our lives, to re-examine them around the concept of “God among us.” Who is being born to us this season? What can be learned about claiming our heritage as “manger born?”

Can we make room for that mystery? Can we reclaim that age old practice of gift giving as holy celebration, as signs that point to our own awe and wonder?

Because of Christmas, it’s good to be human. Because of Christmas, it’s good to reach out to touch our lives, our stories, all lives and stories, with new and gentle fingertips. Because of Christmas, God waits to be touched.

The importance of hope and awe


In the Image #39

It’s been said that there is no one so wise as the person who agrees with you. In that case, I’ll posit that Richard Rohr, the person who sends me a daily meditation, is one of the wisest seers I know.

Consider this recent thought offered: “When awe and wonder are absent from our life, we build our religion on laws and rituals, trying to manufacture some moment of awe.”

A lifetime of observing and interpreting the human condition has led me to that exact truth, though I’ve never stated it so simply or eloquently. Another learning, closely coupled, is that the appearance of wonder and awe is always the most striking when it arrives from a shocking and unexpected direction. There’s something about surprise that adds colour and authenticity to awe.

Many years ago, we attended a family wedding in Alberta. A story emerged from the rehearsal for that occasion. Three boys, nephews of the groom, would serve as ring bearers. Ben was five, with his twin brothers Sam and Jonah a few tears younger, would walk together down the aisle. Three beautiful blond boys, how perfect was that!

It got even better as they made their way up the aisle of the chapel. Jonah soon found things much more interesting off to the side of the room, so away he went. Sam also found distractions on the other side of the worship space, and he followed those as well. Ben, a very earnest brother, was left standing in the aisle alone, holding the ring pillow, looking abjectly after his wandering brothers, when he suddenly dissolved into tears. “I hate them!”

This little episode is remembered with delight. But, on another level, it points to the truth of Rohr, as he reminds us of the intrinsic value of an openness to awe.

Our home receives a church periodical. It arrives twice a month. It is a periodical that also allows me space for a monthly column. Canadian Mennonite reminds me that our language and our conversation about faith, about religion, is usually very, very, earnest. Letters to the editor sometimes roundly criticize the opinions of others, while attempting to stay within the bounds of “speaking in love.” Columnists who deliberately tilt the status quo sometimes generate suspicion. Perhaps if we could shout, “I hate them!” in love, we would.

Meanwhile, Sam and Jonah explore and delight, despite being at odds with the expectations given them. They discover no end of delights to bring two year olds to wonder. Awe lies in every direction.

I recall being invited to spin a few yarns at a men’s breakfast gathering. We enjoyed food, stories, laughter. Then the topic swung to the many unchurched men in the community, and the question was pondered, “How can we get these guys into our church?”

It felt very, very earnest.

Sam and Jonah offer a good model. Risk a little adventure. Go in search of wonder and awe. If we really believe that Henry down the street was created in the holy image of God, let’s go spend time with him, and catch a glimpse of that holiness. Let’s risk a relationship where that awe can be named, celebrated. Let’s avoid creating that relationship around a need to get Henry into our pews. Simply spend time with Henry because he carries a piece of the God puzzle for us.

Much that is good, much that is faithful, happens within faith communities, all faith communities. Lives are changed, hope is discovered. I am allowed to glimpse that, many times over. But I suggest that the energy to do that holy work can best come from wandering out of the aisle to discover a little awe, to discover that God has preceded us into all of the adventures we might encounter. That is true even if, and especially if, we walk in directions which are at odds from where accepted norms might send us.

If we don’t challenge the expectations that surround us, that attempt to define religion, then holy work becomes simply work, with attendant weariness and burnout. Then our religion becomes, as Rohr points out, rituals trying to manufacture some moment of awe. Sam and Jonah brought brightness and colour to the festivities. Does that describe us?

A glimpse of holiness


I’m fortunate to have an interesting gaggle of friends.

I reconnected with one of those friends a few weeks ago after several years disengaged. “Greg” is interesting for many reasons. The biggie is that he has spent close to thirty years incarcerated and will be on parole for the rest of his life. Oh, and he also lives with mental illness, which results in him being under the watchful eye of Social Services. He’ll have a social worker for life as well.

He lives in a mental health supported facility and that goes reasonably well unless he has to deal with other tenants. Greg’s social skills are a bit rough. He doesn’t trust easily.

Greg has less than a handful of friends. But as long as he stays on his anti-psychotic medication, he will live well. His medication is another life sentence.

On the other end of the teeter totter, Greg is a fun friend. I’m reminded that as we meet in a mall for a three-hour coffee. My life, my view of the world, is better when Greg is part of it. Greg offers a sense of humour, a keen analytical mind, and a love for stories, both offered and received. His memory of events from our decades old relationship astound me. He can only afford a radio, and his world view is shaped by the CBC. Out of that come profound opinings on events in the world.

I show Greg a letter that I had received in response to my column on medically assisted dying. He is immediately defensive for me. “What, does this person think that the more suffering we can wring out of our dying process, that’s desirable to God?” He goes on. “I wonder how much time this person has spent feeding hungry folks, visiting in prisons, sitting with people who are sick? Do they just sit at home making up theology, deciding what God wants?”

I giggle at his indignation, but am astounded at Greg’s next observation. Greg is not a church goer.

“It seems to me that all the major religions of the world are, at their core, about the Golden Rule. Live toward others as you want them to live toward you. That’s like a big tree. The trunk of that tree is solid, true, straight and perfect. It’s in the branches where sin happens!”

I gape at that. Greg offers wisdom equivalent to that offered by doctored spiritual leaders.

The conversation swings towards politics, as it usually does. “Your man Trudeau is done. There’s really nothing that can change that any more. Get ready for Poilieve to be your next prime minister!” (I don’t argue with Greg, but a few days later, as Greg recounted this story to his other friend, it had been adjusted a little to include that I had wrestled Greg to the ground at that point and that we had to be separated by mall security.)

“And what about that time you rolled your car! All by yourself, not another car around you, driving along the highway, and you just rolled your little car into the ditch! I can’t believe that they give you a class 1 license, can’t believe that they let you drive the biggest heaviest vehicles on the road! What’s that about?”

Despite the acerbic wit, which adds colour to our relationship, Greg also offers compassion beyond the norm. His eidetic memory allows him recall of every story of my family that involves health struggle, from the several decades of our relationship. He asks about each one, offers condolences for deaths.

Part of the reason that our coffee time extends to three hours is that Greg is unable to quickly disengage. When I’m done, I can simply stand and walk away. Greg is not capable of that. I need to plant the seed of ending the conversation about an hour before it needs to happen. Even then, Greg is still recalling more stories that he can tease me about, more political observations that he hopes will cause a reaction, more philosophical opinions that slide into spiritual directions. Greg knows I’m a sucker for those.

I wish that everyone would have a Greg in their life, to glimpse holiness from a direction unexpected.

Peacemaking with integrity


The past weeks of trying to sift through the rhetoric that is being used to describe the Israel/Hamas conflict has been confusing to say the least. As various vested interests try to control the narrative, try to justify, try to capture global opinions and emotions, I’m further conflicted by various stories that rise up from my own past, stories that try to guide me to a personal response, but again, end up in that same vat of confusion.

Is there any learning that can be teased from it all?

In 1993, I travelled with an organization, then known as Christian Peacemaker Teams, (CPT) and since renamed Community Peacemaker Teams, to Haiti. At that time, Haiti was engaged in a bitter and bloody upheaval, (deep sigh) and CPT claimed a mandate of offering a nonviolent presence to difficult realities, and to hopefully increase global awareness of the injustice on the ground. I was part of a small team assigned to a village in a rural area with the mandate to see, and to be seen. We spent time in the company of the village priest, who was deemed at risk. We spent time in the village market, noting happenings there.

One day, we encountered a group of armed and uniformed men putting the boots to a captive they held. We approached. When an armed man turned to us, our interpreter disappeared, rendering communication impossible. The man screamed at us and gestured for us to move on. In the years and decades I’ve had to dissect the lessons of those traumatic seconds, it has become clear that the peacemaking that feels genuine must respect the reality of the man with the rusty old rifle, as well as the man at the brunt of the violence. Somehow, my energy, and my witness, must be offered to both.

A decade later, I found myself in Winnipeg, engaged in a formal non-violence training session with the same organization, CPT. After several weeks of intense learning and listening, I learned that our final day was to be spent in a protest at the Manitoba Legislature, decrying a hydro project in northern Manitoba which seemed at odds with the wishes of the communities that surrounded it. I was again conflicted. It felt artificial to me. I was from another jurisdiction, was not a tax payer, had done no independent research, had spent no time listening, building relationships, gazing into faces. To their credit, CPT managers struggled to define a role that I could enter with integrity.

These days, I scroll through the contact list on my phone and note, with amusement, the numbers of released offenders that appear there. There are dozens. They are my friends. I’m reminded that in thirty-five years of walking in that community, the most effective way to help in rebuilding lives, the most effective way of contributing to community safety, is simply to build relationships. When a broken person dares to engage the concept that they are worthy of relationship, they will begin to live into that. The world gets a little less violent, the vulnerable can claim a larger slice of who they are called to be. Additionally, I get some really cool friends who have walked roads that I have not, with stories I haven’t known.

As these disjointed glimpses flicker through my mind like a century old film clip, I add the realization that every situation of violence, whether overt or covert, whether physical or emotional, every example hides within untruth, attempts to manage the narrative in ways that are most advantageous. That’s certainly the nature of conflict at all levels. I think of the Russia/Ukraine debacle, of warring factions in Africa, in violence, that comes closer to home. What are the stories in my life, in yours, that will equip us to move toward those hard realities with integrity? How have we prepared ourselves to walk past the headlines screaming for our outrage, how will we save some of that emotional energy for compassion, for looking into faces, for listening, for affirming? How can we, at whatever level is available, offer an energy for healing?

These days have offered the challenge to acknowledge the outrage and indignity that sweeps over us all, and then to deliberately move toward compassion. 

In the Image: the importance of curiosity


Have you ever considered the quality of curiosity? Curiosity is something that pushes me to new places, and gives my life colour and meaning.

Curiosity can be experienced and lived in a number of ways. Curiosity can lead to roads being built, governments to be formed, and electric vehicles to become practical.

That’s not my experience of curiosity.

Decades ago, perhaps even a lifetime back, I found myself on a rural municipal council. I was warned that two other councillors were trouble makers who collaborated to have decisions go their way, and needed to be deflected in every decision, such as where gravel should be spread, or when new road graders should be purchased. That certainly twigged my curiosity. How did these fellows wield such control over council, how could they create such animosity?

Over the term or two that I served, I discovered that I had little passion or ability to offer to gravel and graders. But the human dimension fascinated me. As I observed the two “troublemakers,” I quickly decided that they were far beyond me in offering guidance and experience in the practical decision making of the RM council. And these fellows, far from being my opponents, became interesting, and taught me lessons because their life stories were unique.

I recall having lunch with one of these men. He had lost a child in an accident, a story that had a connection for me. I was moved by his passion and compassion as he retold that hard story, as he offered appreciation for some of the roles that included my faith community. It opened an appreciation for me of this fellow’s story telling ability, and for his fascinating view of the world. When I left that community, he was a friend.

Curiosity is, for me, a fire that creates warmth in new places, places that are at first glance too chilly to approach. In my life in ministry, when I sit in the presence of a person approaching death, curiosity is a large part of what I offer. If I ask honest and open questions about an approaching death, feeling questions, fear questions, regret questions, joy questions, I imagine the anxiety level coming down. The other person is reminded that these are indeed topics that can be approached, in fact it is important that they be approached, if the end is to be gentle and honest. I am always left with a feeling of honour and awe, who am I to be allowed into this holy place?

For me, curiosity isn’t a search for answers, for solutions. That’s why I haven’t built roads, or formed governments, or designed electric cars. In fact, questions that have answers are mostly boring for me. I have little to contribute to finding solutions. Eleven years into formal ministry I experienced burnout. In part, I suspect, it was connected to too many meetings, too much pressure I put on myself to find solutions. Farming, while reasonably successful, ended because the decision making required was not life giving, hopeful, energizing.

My version of curiosity doesn’t require answers. After I have sat with the questions for a period of time, they lose their intensity, and are replaced by new questions.  The awe and wonder never really recede.

I am an introverted and private person. Yet I need to be led by my curiosity into the complex lives of the folks around me. I need to have my values, my belief system challenged by folks who think very differently, whose value system is shaped by very different stories. I am invited into a world of richness and colour. I am invited into a reality where I can explore humility, and how that looks in my walk.

There are costs to this somewhat bizarre approach to reality. I attend very few meetings at this point. If my presence, which brings curiosity and hopefully encouragement along with an almost complete absence of practical wisdom, if that is not of value, please let me know and I’ll happily go home. I have limited ability to make strong financial decisions about my own portfolio, and give thanks for the presence of my partner and an astute financial planner.

Life continues to be good, even though I have few answers why.

The determination of a friend

Given that Holly and I are both quite introverted and somewhat private folks, it is perhaps slightly unusual that we invited a house guest for a few weeks in September.

“Brian” is a friend of some six or seven years. His time at our house was recovery time following hip replacement surgery. Brian has no family support in the province other than Dusty, a large rambunctious German shepherd. They live in a humble dwelling a few hours away.

We didn’t know how it would work. How much hands on care would be required? An added factor was that I was engaged in a harvest operation through September. How personal would the care need to be? Holly lost some sleep. An added factor was that Brian lives with bi-polar depression, and we are familiar with the manic swings in his life. How would that factor into the story? Fortunately, Dusty was put up in a kennel, as he would have had a hard time sneaking in past Holly.

Two days after surgery, I picked up Brian from City Hospital, Saskatoon. There was obviously significant medication still in his system. We stopped at a drug store to pick up his extensive post surgery prescriptions. Of course, the druggist needed to see Brian in person, so he painfully made his way to the pharmacy counter on his walker, the length, I’m sure, of a football field. While we waited, Brian was eager to get lunch at a restaurant, which of course involved more walking. By the time I got him to our house, he was realizing that he had overdone it a little.

We set Brian up in a bedroom and organized his gear in the bathroom. Then we waited to see what the first night would bring, what would be required of us.

And Brian stepped up. We could hear him through the night, a number of times, shuffling his walker down the hall to the bathroom, or to the front room where his medication was arrayed, but beyond that, there was no sound, no call for help. In the morning, Brian said it had gone pretty well, medication was doing its job, and he was coping adequately. In fact, the largest stress that first day involved installing our Wi-Fi number into his computer.

The days that followed went equally smoothly. We could sense that Brian was on the downward cycle of his depression, his eyes told us that, but he was pleasant, appreciative, and always independent. If he needed something, we were asked gently. I was quickly back in the harvest field and Brian and Holly found a comfortable routine that made their days pass peacefully.

The healing process went well, with days of more pain and days of less, but Brian adjusted his medication and continued to be a gentle and appreciative guest. After two weeks, he was ready for the independence of his home, so I drove him there. Two days later, I picked up Dusty from his kennel near Saskatoon and headed to Brian’s house. The closer we got, the more excited this huge beast became. I could tell by the saliva and hair flying by my ear in the cab.

When Dusty bounded into Brian’s house, I had a tight grip on his leash, which meant that I mostly bounded in after him. The two were very glad to see each other. Brian’s mobility was getting stronger. But, as I spent time with Brian, I noted that he was emotionally so low that he could barely speak. We got some food into him, and he assured us that he and Dusty would figure out how to make it work in their crowded little space.

Brian and Dusty have figured it out. We’ve met with them since, and Brian proudly told us that it had taken very little for Dusty to learn that lap time was no longer an option.

But the biggest lesson that I take from this experience is Brian’s determination to not let his depression intrude into our day to day existence, to the extent that he was unable to hold that depression at bay when he arrived at home. That’s the determination of our friend, struggling to not invoke his mental illness into our lives.

Brian, I’m in awe.

Follow the hope


I visited an old man in the hospital. I hope it’s okay to call “Les” old because he is twenty years my senior. I suspect that for my entire life, anyone two decades older than me has been old.

Being old is not a negative way of measuring any aspect of Les. He had fallen and damaged his hip, and it was decided that his required care as he healed would be more than he could receive in his home. He had already been hospitalized two weeks when I visited. There was talk of releasing Les the next day, but he wasn’t convinced that he was ready.

Les spent much of our time together telling me of the good people around him. His wife’s family were so supportive, so generous. The hospital staff was caring, compassionate and gentle. His doctor, even though he was only fourteen, was wise and thoughtful. In fact, the doctor and his care team arrived to meet with Les while I was still with him. I immediately stood to leave, but the doctor assured me that my visit was also important, and that his team would wait. Perhaps there is wisdom at fourteen.

We spent time laughing. Les told me about the gentleness of the staff as they had bathed him, “they treated me like a baby.” I asked if he thought I could receive a bath as well, and he roared. I asked him how many years he had left in him, and he chuckled, “Somebody told me I should try for a hundred. Not sure I’ll make it.”

In fact, ninety-one years ago Les was born in a tent in northern Manitoba. His colourful life contains many hard chapters. Now, he sat in his wheelchair, looked into my face and radiated peace and contentment. I am blest to have been his friend for thirty years.

As I left, I threaded through the waiting care team. I realized that my visit had been life giving for me. The sun was a little brighter, a little warmer, when I stepped outdoors. It was a good day to be alive.

On the journey home, I thought more about the striking difference, between folks in similar circumstances that present hopefully, as opposed to those who can’t access that hope. It’s certainly not a black and white line, rather a continuum. But it is significant to take a measure of my remaining spiritual/emotional energy as I walk away from such an encounter. ”Is it ever good to be here!” versus “How soon can I slip away?”

As I followed that thread of thought about emotional/spiritual energy, I concluded that every time someone says something negative about another person, that comment is always most telling of the one commenting. That was the case of the many folks that I counselled in my ministry, that is certainly the case for me.

If I point out to someone, or to a third party, the shortcomings that someone exhibits, that is always a comment on my own flagging emotional energy, a comment on my own shortcuts to understanding another’s actions or words. When I try to point out exceptions, when I try to come up with legitimate reasons why I should be critical of another, it always leaves me feeling smaller, less. On the other hand, when I encourage, bless, affirm, well, the sun gets brighter.

A cousin recently died, a few years younger than me. Cancer had moved into his body slowly but relentlessly. But Buck decided, from early on, that he would live honestly and openly, would celebrate the time that he had, would have open conversations about that journey with family and friends, and would celebrate the time he was given. “Why me?” questions were replaced with “Why not me?” Celebration for Buck meant writing poetry, singing, telling stories, and hugging folks. Buck’s death journey allowed a whole swack of important conversations, created space for a whole swack of feelings to be expressed and processed, uncovered paths to joy in the most difficult of circumstances.

The peals of laughter in the hospital room with Les would have been equally joyful with Buck.

Television shows sometimes suggest a premise of “follow the money.” More important, perhaps, is to follow the peace, the contentment, follow the hope.

Saying yes


Perhaps it’s worthy of note that in my immediate family, partner and three children, I remain the only one whose body bears no adornment of the tattoo variety. By now, three eldest grandchildren have also chosen body art to make their unique statement.

I’ve nothing against body ink. But there’s never been an image that I wanted to portray that could stand the test of forever. What seemed central to my identity in younger, passionate days is by now not much more than a cocked eyebrow, as I consider the stream of stories and images that came before and after.

Mind you, that seventy plus year tradition was close to ending a year ago. Our wedding anniversary turned golden, and I came to the novel idea that I would mark that occasion by having a wedding ring tattooed on the appropriate finger.

I haven’t worn a ring for the last forty of those golden years. In early times, the ring was squashed, bent and hammered. It was also dropped a number of times, in fact our kids tell a story of it falling to the floor in the church of their childhood, rolling from the front of the sanctuary to the back under the pews during a particularly silent and soulful moment. Hammering occurred when my hand grew and I determined, rather than pay a jeweller to resize, that I would simply hammer on it on the anvil. As it got thinner, it would also grow in size, surely. Of course the etching on the ring that made it unique was badly marred. Shortly after, I decided that I wasn’t a ring guy.

But after fifty years with the same partner, surely she deserved a ring on the finger of her beloved! I visited a parlour, offered my vision of a tattooed ring, and was told that their custom was to avoid that kind of project, in case the relationship ended. By the time the giggling subsided, I had moved on. My partner will need to live with the unmarked risk of my fidelity.

In more recent days, another possibility has entered my limited thinking. I picture, on the inside fleshy part of my lower arm, the word, “Yes.”

I don’t have opinions of colours, or fonts or size. But I suspect that the vision of that word, “Yes,” won’t soon change.

“Yes” represents a direction, a decision, a determination of how to live. It represents moving forward, making those decisions in ways that heal, that include, that affirm, that blesses. The stories of creation, and all of it’s participants, flow in a more hopeful direction in a spirit of “Yes.”

Decades ago, (I may have been still wearing that ring) I recall leading a discussion group where I proposed that if we went through life with our decisions grounded in “yes,” that things would unfold much closer to the will of the Creator. An older man scoffed, how would yes be helpful when a child is reaching for a pot handle on the stove? It was obviously not a philosophy that he was eager to engage.

The Christ as described in the Gospels encounters a blind man. His supporters tell that troublemaker to go away, we’re busy, going to Jericho to preach the gospel, no time for this. Only the holy man says yes, and heals him. That inclusion is extended to lepers, the foreigner, the unclean.

Having “Yes” on my arm might remind me, at those times when it’s handier to forget, that living hopefully looks different. Much of our church experiences add credence to that forgotten lesson of “yes.” The biggest voices coming out of the church are often heard as “No.” As we have hopefully evolved in understandings of who we are called to be spiritually, we have mostly left behind humility. “No” is the natural result of that.

I don’t know if “Yes” will ever appear on my arm. That’s okay. I note in recent times that when I have a decision to make that calls for a guiding principle, I can already picture the ink, the word. I can see it, even if it’s not yet there. It makes a difference.

Life is good. “Yes” reminds me of that.