Raging against the machine


Recent thoughts in the dark and quiet hours of insomnia led me to consider the phrase, “Rage against the machine.” I have no idea why those were the words that entered my brain, what was the portent to which they pointed, but I wrapped myself around that phrase for the hours of my sleeplessness with some enthusiasm. “Rage against the machine” is such a delightfully over the top expression that it must surely be useful in considering realities that surround us.

Came morning and daylight, I fed those words into Google and discovered that a California band called themselves “Rage Against The Machine” in the early nineties, no idea if they are still a unit, possibly they’re still touring as haggard grey beards. I learned that they were a group that was largely against everything, particularly capitalistic evils that they saw around them. I’m not familiar with their music, but while doing my exhaustive thirty second research, I accidentally hit a play button and my hearing aids were suddenly piping a delightful piano melody into my head. Perhaps I’m a fan.

But that’s doubtful. Rock and roll was powerful and emotional enough for me in the late sixties (think Woodstock) that I was sure that salvation could only be found there. That passion died as the seventies wore on and adult things needed addressing.

Rage against the machine. I suggest that once we’ve completed the necessary reaction to those words, be they outrage, or giggles, discomfort with the “stick it to the man” politics suggested, once that’s done, that we consider how that strong phrase might be useful.

In my circles, often faith based but not exclusively so, a somewhat similar phrase is sometimes employed. The words, “speaking truth to power,” engenders images of fearless folks, standing courageously before powerful structures, and pointing out to those “with” folks that the “withouts” have access to wisdom that they alone hold.

I’m not a big fan of “speaking truth to power.” If I picture myself in that “without” role, it feels somewhat arrogant to assume that I hold the most important facts that need to be at the center of a decision or action that someone else will make. I’m reminded of the Biblical image of Jesus, standing in the house of power, being grilled sarcastically about his identity, his role. The response was quiet humility.

“Rage against the machine” can speak in a useful way about realities that touch us, if we are up to that task of humble consideration. What if we define those raucous words, for the purpose of this essay, as simply “challenging what is.”

I am involved in a number of volunteer organizations, people based, mostly faith based, that live with a mandate to support people to live well, be that physically, emotionally, spiritually. These mandates feel important, and I bring my energy eagerly.

Each of these organizations functions within a structure, a constitution, a listing of goals and how we will move toward those goals. Officers are identified, expectations are set out front.

Perhaps, as this process is carried out, that organization becomes a little “machine-like.” Perhaps there comes a point when the smooth running of the machine becomes a little more important than the messy business of actually improving peoples lives. Perhaps dissenting voices get gently pushed aside, perhaps more paper work will slow down those with too much zeal, perhaps barriers can be introduced to gently but firmly hold “them” over there.

In every structure which I am part of, there are glimpses of this reality. Well meaning folks, unchecked, begin the slide toward easy, toward smooth, toward order. They begin the slide toward creating a machine. Sometimes, perhaps always, this impacts the original mandate, lessens it. At best, mandates are mudified, at worst, harm is done.

As I consider that process, possibly in every place where humans organize themselves, I’m taken back to the “90’s band, “Rage Against the Machine.” I surmise that the rage they expressed, whether real or as an shock generating act, that their “rage” probably had it’s roots in pretty much the same place. I remind myself that if I allow myself to be challenged, prodded, raged against, perhaps we can keep moving toward the holy goals of restoration. Can I be open to the raging?

Taking the fourth step

Throughout my years of ministry, being involved in the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Step program was and still is one of the most rewarding aspects of my life. No, I am not an addict, but at times am called on to help addicts through their “Fifth Step.”

The Twelve Step Program is as good an example of applying spirituality to an age old problem as I’ve found. Most exciting, and most inclusive is that it embraces any and all definitions of a higher power. While I’m not suggesting that the Twelve Step program is the only hope for recovery from addiction, (I’m simply not that smart) I have seen those steps and that AA community save lives.

The Fifth Step of the Twelve Step program, where I’m invited in, comes after the “stepper” has acknowledged their inability to conquer their addiction themselves, that they are powerless and need help, that they have made many mistakes, have hurt many other people, often many times. Step Four has the addict remembering, acknowledging, and often recording those times of causing harm.

Step Five is a time when they acknowledge those transgressions, to a higher power, and to one another person. Making personal amends follows after.

Frequently I have been the one other person. I recall an occasion.

“Leon” strode into my office carrying a couple of three ring binders. Papers filled with scribbling hung out of both. Leon informed me that these binders represented his Fourth Step work, trying to make an inventory of the harm that he had done to others throughout his life of addiction. There were many pages.

As I recall, we talked for a couple of hours. Rather, Leon talked. There had been many people impacted by his years of drinking. He was around my age, and his years of addiction were many. He never looked into his binders, the harm he had caused was obviously written also on his heart.

Finally, Leon began to wind down. The stories, the memories were coming fewer. But I still sensed anxiety, restlessness, an awareness of not feeling totally unburdened.

After a few moments of silence, Leon said, “There are a couple more stories. These are stories that I’ve never told anyone before. They go back to when I was a young kid. But I’ve lived with them all my life. I think if I’m going to stay sober, I need to let go of these.”

The first story was of an assault that he was part of, an assault on a girl. The perpetrators had been arrested, gone to trial. The part of the story that had ate like a cancer in his soul was his memory of the victim on the witness stand, Leon’s lawyer tearing her reputation to shreds. Leon had lived with the huge guilt of that memory.

The second story was equally striking. Leon’s grandmother was a stern but stabilizing presence in his tumultuous boyhood years. Once, she had disciplined him over something, he couldn’t remember what his infraction was. Angrily he had reacted by stealing her walking stick, and cutting a six-inch piece off the bottom end. She was left largely immobile. But the huge guilt had come from the part of the story when another boy, a cousin, was blamed and harshly punished for Leon’s misdeed. And again, that guilt lay on Leon’s soul for fifty or more years, in a dark unapproachable corner.

Finally, Leon was still, head bowed. We sat quietly, then I asked Leon if he would like to pray with me. His face lit up, and he indicated the church sanctuary with his thumb, “Can we go in there?”

We knelt under the cross, and we prayed, I and then Leon, we prayed for forgiveness, prayed for release, and we offered thanksgiving.

Leon’s face was damp when we came back to the office. He picked up his binders, turned to me and announced, “When I get home, I’m going to build a fire and burn these. I don’t need them anymore.”

I never saw Leon again. I don’t know what making amends looked like in his story. But the tears, the honesty, the prayer, leaves me with hope.

In The Image #21: What can you learn from a child?


The past weekend has been…exhausting. Delightful, enlightening, hilarious, touching. But exhausting.

The stars lined up in such a way that we kept our youngest grandchild here for the weekend, seven-year-old Jaxon. Usually, if he is here, Jaxon is accompanied by his two older brothers. This weekend, eldest was in the mountains, snowmobiling with his dad. Middle son was home, helping mom with a 4H booth at the curling rink. We got Jaxon.

In fact, just now Jaxon meandered down the hall after his shower and asked what I was doing. I told him that I get paid to write stories. Whereupon he excitedly insisted that he could write on the computer, and knew some stories, and would anyone pay him. That’s kind of the way it’s gone.

“Excitedly” is the operative word for the weekend. How that much energy, impishness, and creativity can be packed into Jaxon’s wiry frame astounds me. I have a greater respect for the weariness that I see on his parents’ faces.

When we picked Jaxon up yesterday, it seemed good to head to the Saskatoon Family Fun Expo. Between Jaxon and his grandparents, there’s not a lot of extroversion present, so the huge crowds were a bit overwhelming. But then we found the bouncy castle. On circuit one he shed his coat, circuit two it was the hat, and three meant time to lose his bunny hug. And still his face grew redder.

Every time Jaxon slid down the chute that marked the exit, he made quick eye contact to assure himself that opa was still present and in he charged again. To see our beautiful fair skinned fair haired boy in this massive crush of children of every hue and ethnicity was moving and delightful.

After that, we joined other family for a meal. But Jaxon was restless, eager to head to our home where he could unpack the bag of toys that he had selected for his days here.

To help Jaxon pass time at the restaurant, I gave him my phone to play with, and he quickly found his way to the Kijiji site, and started his teasing about the green tractors that he loved, and the red ones that I am historically connected with. That’s been on going since he was three.

When we finally arrived home, Jaxon defined to us which bags we would carry into the house, and which he would drag in. He chose the toys. A farm was created, with several yards placed in different rooms. He pointed out to me, only a little condescendingly, that he had brought one red tractor.

At one point, Jaxon decided that we should move to the garage to work on the old Snow Cruiser. I was game, but when I picked up the first power tool, he disappeared. Obviously smarter then his opa, Jaxon abhors loud sounds.

The teachings of Jesus make it quite clear that there are important spiritual learnings to be gleaned from children. I tried to hold that in the back of my consciousness as I related to this whirlwind of energy. There is a freshness, a trust, an honesty that knows no bounds in a young one raised in a good place. There is courage to explore new experiences, to offer outrageous observations, to insert wisdom untainted by historical agenda. If you aren’t comfortable with honesty, better not spend time with this boy!

As I write, Jaxon waits for his turn at the keys. He asks if I’m being distracted by the movie he and grandma are watching, because he doesn’t want me to be delayed.

There is wisdom, certainly, in the call to “become like children.” In the innocence, there are gifts of truth, gifts of energy, of creativity, and gifts of trust. All of these gifts are dependant on children being raised in a community of care, of affirmation. It is almost frightening what the sponges in those small brains do soak in. But it’s a good fright, a fright that encourages us to live openly and gently.

The bickering over the red and green tractors Jaxon finds on my phone may lose its charm. But it remains a way to relate, to tease, to delight.

When Jaxon heads home tomorrow, the exhaustion will, as always, be mixed with awe.

In the Image

I find spiritual significance in…everything. That is extended to dirty, smelly inanimate objects.

In my garage at this moment sits a fifty-five-year-old snowmobile. It is a one owner machine. Three brothers and I bought it new in 1967. It’s probably been a dozen or more years since it was last brought to life. Tomorrow, God willing, it will deliver an old man and three old women to senior’s coffee on Main Street in Laird. I will be among those.

I was a teen ager then. Our father built a cutter to pull behind the Snow Cruiser 157. It was nattily constructed, then colour matched to the 157. We seven siblings have memories and pictures of climbing aboard with skis and toboggans tied behind, and heading for an uncle’s farm three miles away for an afternoon of sledding with cousins. About a decade ago, we gathered and re-posed that scene. The 157 and cutter had shrunk remarkably.

Shortly after the 157 was purchased, our father realized that one 157 divided by seven children did not offer very big chunks of snowmobiling pleasure for anyone. The yard was soon covered by snowmobiles, all of them faster then the 157. It’s only claim to noteworthiness was that it was purchased new. A family trip always meant that the smallest machines were started first, and the smallest children circled the yard and the pasture while the other sleds were cajoled to life. Snowmobiling meant fixing.

An old friend tells a story of snowmobiling with the Olfert boys. Ross was on the 157, and due to his inexperience, he rolled the machine and himself into a barbed wire gate. When he looked up, he saw Olfert boys running toward him, concern writ large on their faces. Then they maneuvered around him and fell to their knees beside the 157. Was it okay?

Yesterday, grandchildren stopped by, and the fourth generation went for a ride on the streets of Laird. I pointed out to them the repairs that their great grandpa had made on this machine. The 157 tells stories, simply by its presence, it’s loud, loud presence, of important years in my life. It invites me to remember our father, a man who could not offer words of gentleness and caring, but who knelt on the frozen floor of his unheated garage, hands and coat soaked with gasoline, handling ice cold wrenches as he fiddled with a carburetor, or welded broken handlebars. On the remote piece of prairie where our farm was located, only south took us toward community. The other three directions consisted of fields, fences, hills and sloughs, and those were the directions that most of the tracks we left behind pointed. We hunted and explored and fancied ourselves as adventurers. We tied .22 rifles to our backs with baler twine and dreamed of heroic deeds.

A brother and I got off the school bus, into the oversized chore clothes that served as snowmobile gear, and set out on one of those explorations. We got separated, eventually I found my way back home around dark and my brother appeared shortly after. We were shouted at, reprimanded for not sticking together, “That’s why we have more then one!” In hindsight, after being a father, I hear concern, even love in those words that seemed so sharp then.

The 157 represents stories of independence, of making choices and then having to live with the outcome. A few days ago, when it first ran, it seemed good to take the 157 to a meeting at our country church, about five miles out of town. As the machine bellowed slowly across the field, a fence appeared out front. Surely, if I follow the fence into that bluff of trees, there will be banks that will allow me to get over the barbed wire. Surely. Of course, soon I was yanking, twisting, lifting, crashing, as I tried to turn the 157 in the midst of a tight poplar copse. My dad would have got it. My dad was one who understood that recognizing the God Incarnate could best be done by including an internally combusted engine along the way. The 157 helps me remember who my dad was, and what he taught. I’m a lucky guy.

In the Image #19 – The importance of affirmation

In this still new(ish) year, I find myself searching out new(ish) challenges.

My brother and I have been trading off shifts driving a dump truck in Saskatoon, which is still cleaning up after the great Christmas Day ‘22 snowfall. Re-inserting myself into the truck driving culture has been a delight, a culture which mostly communicates with words where only one adjective can describe a shocking variety of nouns. I have moved in and out of trucking culture most of my adult life, and am at peace there. I have relearned that where heavy equipment is involved, walking within a stones throw of said equipment results in your work gloves smelling of diesel for the rest of their natural lives. If you are as charmed by that as I, perhaps there’s a career shift ahead for you.

Besides income, another attraction that draws me into this unique community is to simply be reminded how men relate in the workplace. (We are gender exclusive to this point.) Out of a perhaps peculiar sense of spirituality, I occasionally insert a twist into the conversation around the time clock as the crew gathers in the shop, puffing, drinking their Tim’s, telling tall stories.

A young man stands beside me, lighting his smoke, offering tobacco around, as we wait for the rest of the gang to arrive. He is the skid steer operator on my crew, the one responsible for chasing after the heavy loader and trucks, scraping up any snow that has escaped us. I point out to him that I’m envious of his skill maneuvering his machine in tight quarters around heavy trucks. He is a very good operator. My family culture has taught me that skilled operating of machinery is a highly valued quality. Equally, holding such skill is a reflection on the integrity of the operator. I see by his reaction that this is a highly unusual thing to say in this context. The men are warm and friendly, but offering direct affirmation calls forth a response not dissimilar, perhaps, to striking someone with that diesel infused work glove. There is a look of shock, a slight bit of recoil.

Then my young man reacts warmly. After we exchange names, (his is somewhat unusual and I tell him I have a nephew with a similar name,) he launches into a history of that name, what it means, how it describes him, what the Greek roots suggest. I know that he is my new best friend when he later asks if my brother and I are twins. It’s the highlight of my day. My brother is ten years my junior.

Offering affirmation changes relationships. This is a lesson that was driven home to me in decades of church ministry, decades of prison ministry, decades of relating to marginalized folks everywhere. Offering affirmation lightens conversations, lightens them to provide room for humour, which is always a fine addition to any communication. Affirmation creates spaces between words, spaces where trust can begin.

In the Gospels, as the story is told of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, the voice of God comes onto that scene, offering affirmation. “This is my child whom I love.” Though we are well versed in that event, and preach and hear sermons on it, the activity of offering affirmation to another has somehow been largely lost, especially within the male gender. Certainly, in my growing years, I cannot recall hearing affirmation from my father, probably a reason why that relationship always felt complicated. Occasionally, we may step outside that unwritten rule, perhaps in a church setting, but to offer affirmation as one person to another in the context of real life, as in the workplace, is, in my experience rare.

We are created holy. We are gifted beings. We bring unique gifts to every community, every relationship we are a part of. As my partner Holly often reminds me, “Say good things to others before they’re dead!”

We are children of God, beloved by God. Go forth and offer that to others. Include the skid steer guy.

The need of a mother


They come through the church door into the foyer. At first my limited vision can make out only their forms against the sunlight, but I recognize those forms as desperate folks who stop by on occasion to check on the food supplies available that day, and to chat.
“Felix” and “Norma” accept my invitation to sit in my office. Felix, as usual, squats nearest the food box, and soon starts pointing out items that catch his eye, that would meet his need. His somewhat aggressive manner forms the question in me, “Who would I be in his shoes?”
Norma, meanwhile, has a need to talk. I am aware of hardships in their lives. The two youngest of their four boys have been apprehended by Social Services. Norma hopes to have them returned shortly. She is a mother with a passionate love for her children. The oldest is being raised by her father, so she currently has only one at home, about ten years old. Both Felix and Norma acknowledge their struggle with addictions, with Felix on a methadone program, Norma on a similar plan that she takes in pill form. They talk about how hard that is, and acknowledge occasional slip ups. They ask questions about the possibility of getting married.
Despite her love for her babies, Norma doesn’t express anger at the system that has removed her children. Repeatedly, she talks about her effort to live well, to live clean. A year ago, she determined to stop hitting her boys, and that has gone pretty well. They have both been alcohol free for years, but recalling the violence that their oldest witnessed from them brings tears of shame. Then she blushes with pride as she relates that her ten-year-old tells her she is pretty.
Norma proudly tells me that she is again pregnant. She is convinced that it is another son. She and Felix talk about their hope for taking anger management and parenting classes. My encouragement for that is as strong as appropriate. She shares the excitement she feels for this new one in her life, her hope that she can parent with love, with strength. Her story includes many painful and angry chapters, but whenever she refers to the new life within her, her eyes brighten with hope. In those moments, I, like her son, note her beauty.
Later that day, a small choir gathers at the church to practice for a Christmas program. A song tells the story of the angel appearing to Mary, inviting her to become part of the holy story, to have a role in offering hope to the world. The song ends with the words, “Tell God I Say Yes!”
As the soprano/alto voices close with that strong phrase, I am jolted back to Norma’s face. I see her bright and determined eyes. I hear her voice say “Yes!”
I don’t need my spirituality to be given legitimacy by magic, by assuming improbable stuff. I don’t need Mary to be virginal, pure. What takes me to holy places is the determination, the light in the eyes, the passion.
I also am aware of the dangers of pregnancy mixed with drug use. I have no quick answers, no naïve need to predict perfect outcomes. The road ahead for Norma and Felix will be continue to be fraught with hard realities.
But I sense holiness in the primal need of a mother to be a mother. I am in awe of the determination to nurture, to love, to protect. I am reminded of the Mary who stood at the foot of the cross in tears. Norma has spent time there as well. She will again. None of these pictures need perfection or a suspension of reality to leave me in awe of the one who says, “Tell God I Say Yes!”
It doesn’t really matter who says the words. They are holy.

I want my face to shine


I drove to the nursing home to visit a dear old friend. She was sleeping when I entered her room, so I pulled up a chair to wait.

Waiting would not be a chore. As I gazed at her profile, relaxed in sleep, I explored memories of our friendship over several years. My friend had some hard chapters in her story, and those chapters were increasing with age and deteriorating health. And yet, an important line of defence was a robust and earthy sense of humour that sometimes left tears of laughter on my cheek.

My reverie was interrupted by a soft voice. A staff person was leaning into the room. “While you’re waiting, would you like to talk to “Jane?” She doesn’t get many visitors.” As we crossed the hall, I was informed, “Jane is blind.”

Sight and visitor limitations aside, Jane did not live in a dark and secluded place. She was delighted with having company. We quickly and honestly touched on important parts of her story, her family, her passions, and her loneliness.

Suddenly, Jane turned a face toward me that was as radiant as I’ve always pictured Christ on the mountain top. And her words were, “Do you know what happened today? I think I saw yellow!” She hurried on to say that when the care aide had come by that morning to help her into her clothes, she had sensed a colour before her face. She had asked, “Are you wearing yellow?” It was affirmed, it was a yellow uniform. Jane added, with obvious emotion in her face, “It has been a very long time since I’ve seen yellow!”

It was a holy moment. When the experience is that powerful, that emotional, that real, it becomes about hope. It becomes about a reason to live with joy and passion. It becomes a reason to look forward to the coming day.

The church has not done a good job of pointing, of opening eyes, of offering blessings in situations like Jane and her glimpse of yellow. We have held back from naming spontaneous moments of joy, of excitement, as events of spiritual significance. We have hesitated to point to lives healed, struggles conquered, delightful moments of colour, as steps on a holy path. The church has typically insisted on some version of “holy” language.

And yet, sitting in Jane’s presence, gazing into her face, hearing her voice, sharing her emotion, that was about the greatness of God.

We are created in the image of God. In that simple and yet deeply complex notion, I find the stuff that makes my life good, my spirit soar. Every person to whom I have offered the dignity of respect, every person has returned something of that holy heritage. A corollary would then be that when I have not experienced that glimpse of God from another, it is connected to my own withholding of respect and dignity.

We of the church have not produced language or theology to point in that direction. We have largely assumed that when God is glimpsed, that glimpse will be generated and identified by the “formal” people of God.

Can “the people of God” hold a more inclusive identity? Can the people of God be those referred to in Genesis 1:26? Can the people of God include my friend in the truck driving world, who insists that the church would combust if he stepped in the door? Can it include the street person, who visits me in the church, shares stories? Can it be the young woman who falls asleep in the church washroom floor while escaping her abuser? Can the old woman at the food bank, the woman who points out at the hoar frost covered trees in delight, can that woman be the incarnate God? I hope so. Because, like Jane, I want my face to shine.

In the image: a day at the food bank


Today, December 22, it was my turn to volunteer at the local food bank.
It was a good and busy day. One of the aspects that I missed was the energy and bright eyes of children. On this day, the children of clients were left elsewhere. A committee had worked hard to gather toys and other child appropriate gifts, and parents were encouraged to choose from that selection to ensure that every child had gifts on Christmas day. The gift option was well received, well used.
It seems that in recent months there has been a new outpouring of generosity from businesses and individuals to give to causes such as this. Yes, the number of clients has gone up following Covid realities, but giving has been strong. During our hamper dispensing hours today, several brawny males (I tagged along as well) unloaded another vehicle packed full with donations from a local retailer. Hampers are given along with hot meals and drinks to everyone who comes through the door. Given the experience of the volunteer crew, things flowed smoothly, food stocks were replenished before tables were empty, there was continuous and gentle encouragement that followed each client as they made the circle to the various hamper items. It has always felt important to offer choices, that individual preferences be honoured.
In my spare time, of which as a mostly retired guy there is a significant amount, I continue to play way with metal, building whimsical pieces that are fun to create and occasionally useful, even meaningful.
For example, I build bookends, heavy chunks that will hold the most imposing volumes of Britannica (does anyone still use those?) without slumping or sliding away. On each bookend, part of a story is told. From our Mennonite history, a tale is passed down, perhaps five or six hundred years old, a tale has a man called Dirk Willms imprisoned because he has chosen to be part of these “Anabaptists,” (rebaptizers). While locked in a castle, he escapes, runs across a freezing moat. A jailor who pursues him falls through the ice. The tale has Willms making the choice to go back to save the fellow’s life, thereby being recaptured and eventually put to death.
A set of bookends depicts that story, Willms reaching out to the hand of the drowning man. It was strangely satisfying to build.
Another set tells a story of visiting the imprisoned. A person with coffee to share reaches toward another behind a barred door, indicates chairs where they might sit together. Again, it felt good to depict that activity, which has been a significant part of my adult life.
I would like to build bookends that tell the story of the food bank. Several images come to mind, possibilities that my scrap iron might bring to life. But something holds me back.
You see, any image that I might conjure up leaves me wincing a little. That is because the images feel a little too…colonial. Those images speak to me of an imbalance of power.
The Christmas story, the one in which we are currently immersed, tells the story of a holy and unexpected gift. Culturally, we have modelled our expression of that gift by our own generous gifting to others. The question buried behind my furrowed brow, how do we make gifting about both giving and receiving? It is certainly good and right that those who have larders well stocked will share with other who have not. But how do we picture the givers also receiving? How can my scraps of iron and welding express a generosity that flows in both directions?
Certainly, as I push a laden cart out to someone’s vehicle, as we move hamper items into trunks and back seats, there are conversations, there is trust given, there are stories told that have me in awe. Yet it is always me, and the organization that I represent, that holds that “power” side of the relationship.
I have few answers. But I’d really like to get at that next set of bookends. What story will be told?
In this season of love and giving, let’s wonder about lessons that might be received.

IN THE IMAGE #14 : Reality can be trusted


From the daily devotional that comes to my phone, four words leap off the screen at me. “Reality can be trusted.” That phrase sits in my consciousness as I write.
A recent text message informed me that an old friend, “Ron,” had been taken to hospital with a heart attack. I had to lie a little to get in to see him, I’m not really his “pastor,” our relationship has never been that formal.
The ICU room was crowded and dark. I could barely find Ron amid all the hoses and equipment, amid the flashing and beeping and blinking. The nurse mentioned that Ron was a little groggy as she scuttled away to allow space for this “sacred” conversation.
It had probably been close to a year since I’d seen Ron. He was dozing, and I touched his shoulder. His eyes opened, I pulled my mask down, he studied my face.
“Been a while. How’s the missus?”
In that moment, I knew that Ron was aware who stood before him. But his sedation was such that his speech was garbled, unclear. Drool escaped his mouth. This was a strange version of Ron. Whenever we weren’t actively conversing, his eyes drooped. I asked him, speaking slowly, how he was feeling.
Again with the mumbling, then I heard, “Well, if the nurses weren’t so good lookin’ I’d just go home.”
My giggling lasted most of the drive home. That was Ron, different reality, but that was my friend, Ron. Intermingled with the giggles, in my strange version of a processing center, was another space where the questions started, “If Ron dies, will I be asked to officiate a funeral?”
I’ve been in charge of a number of death related services for released offenders. Ron has lived well in the community for a couple of decades. There was a time when a support community met with Ron and a number of other struggling guys at least once every few weeks. These days, a few friends who enjoy playing crib get together on occasion. I’m not smart enough for crib.
Ron grew up in a bush community. Life was hard and his father’s angry violence made it that much harder. In that hardscrabble existence, not much energy was given to social niceties, or to the deliberate exploration of faith, of wonder, of anything not directly connected to survival.
Ron moved on from that situation driven by a determination to work. Jobs were hard and dirty. A marriage, a family, came and went. He had no tools to maintain that. Addictions got in the way, and his life took darker turns. Eventually, in that darkness, Ron offended in a devastating manner. When our group of volunteers became aware of him, he had served his time and was desperate for healthy community. Ron became a friend. The painful part of his story was so embarrassing that he never spoke of it. He was honest, trustworthy, enough so that my “missus” had no qualms of having Ron in her home, whether I was present or not. He brought us a gift, a stuffed bunny, when our first grandchild arrived. Ron is generous with the little that he has. A frequent quote, brusquely offered, is, “Money never dies. Friends do.”
Ron still has zero language or comfort for the spiritual aspect of existence. Conversation is conducted with words learned in the bush, about topics largely gleaned from the bush. In the past decade, he has reconnected with family, and if you know to listen between words, Ron expresses pride in children, grandchildren. He has always shown concern for “the missus.”
If I’m involved with a death ceremony, will it need to be couched in God language? Will it need prayer, scripture, sermons? Will Ron’s existence, with it’s chapters of darkness, chapters of light, will it need to be shoehorned into such a foreign setting?
“Reality can be trusted.” Ron’s reality, as long as I’ve known him, has been trustworthy. He is good. He carries much of the holy image of God. “The “missus” suggests a wiener roast in the park, if and when we can pry him away from ICU and those nurses.



I have a friend whom I will call Stella, because I haven’t asked her permission to tell her story. Stella will soon be 89 years old. Recently, Stella informed me that she had just taken delivery of a new car, though she couldn’t show it to me that day because a family member had taken it to Alberta.
Stella and I rub shoulders frequently when we volunteer at the local food bank. She lifts, carries, heaves, encourages, and laughs. When children appear, Stella is on the scene with treats. When clients show up whom she knew from decades past, I see her dancing with them joyfully as they recognize each other.
I need people like Stella in my life, to teach me how to live with enthusiasm and hope.
I quizzed Stella about the new car. “There’s no gear shift, just a thing you turn! And there’s a button to start it! I couldn’t get the cruise to work, but I don’t think I was doing it right! I asked a friend to help me figure out all the switches, and suddenly the steering wheel was warm!” She was awed by all the new things to learn, all the changes that come with a new vehicle.
Awed, yes, but certainly not overwhelmed. These were challenges that she would confront and master, just like the other challenges that come from being on the doorstep of your tenth decade.
Stella has lived an important and a full life. She is also a fine story teller, and as I listen to her, recounting the chapters that are good, the chapters that are so very hard, the tears come easily and naturally. So does the laughter, the sense of delight, the sense of wonder at the many things yet to learn, at the wonder of the opportunities set before her.
Until this past year, Stella lived alone in her own house, it’s been some years since her partner died, and she finally decided that it was too much. Now she is in a suite in a condominium, and chuckles a little sheepishly at the ruckus caused when she left a pot heating on her stove while she went out. “I asked the caretaker if I would be evicted!”
When she touches on her stories of loss, of grieving, Stella observes that, while you are in the middle of those hard stories, there is a sense of, ‘How will I ever survive this?’ And yet, from the perspective of great age, her reflection is in the line of, ‘I guess this too shall pass.’
The food bank is only one avenue where Stella offers her energy and encouragement. She has a gift, a passion, for encouraging those on the margins. In her paid working life, Stella was ahead of her time in offering that gift of affirmation and delight to those folks at the edge.
There are places in the Bible, Jeremiah and Isaiah come to mind, where God’s chosen people, even though they find themselves in difficult straits, where those chosen people are encouraged to plant vineyards, to build houses, to live hopeful lives, even when the future seems bleak. The challenge I sense is one of living hopefully into a new reality.
That’s the lesson that Stella and the new car represent to me. Stella has important places to go, important things to do, and this new car represents her determination that nothing will stand in her way of getting to those events, those points of light in her life, those places where she can shine, those places where that light also reflects back onto her. Stella makes a difference.
First Nations spirituality and culture reminds us of the importance of holding up our elders, recognizing the important learnings gleaned through many decades, many stories, of recognizing the wisdom that is offered out of those rich lives, and somehow, honouring those lives and those folks as having a spiritual blessing to offer. I have been blessed to have a number of elders in my life, at whose feet I choose to sit in my determination to live well, to live as God challenges me to live.
Thank you, God. Thank you, Stella.