A thumbless glove and lessons learned

Recently, someone pointed out the ecological harm posed by the overuse of highly processed leather products.

I immediately felt warm, and…righteous.

That bears explanation. I have a small business venture named “Blind Guy Welding.” I create whimsical metal sculptures, for fun and occasionally for profit.

My welding gloves, leather, are old. I was not always so sensitive to the ecological harm in replacing them frequently. But I keep them, you see, even though the left glove has a hole in the thumb, a hole about the diameter of a large Sharpie pen. When I pick up hot iron, I invariably burn my thumb. This typically happens a number of times in a day. While you might logically think this fellow is not bright, hear my reasoning.

The right glove is still in good repair. If I were to throw the pair away, and reach for new gloves (of which there are several pair waiting on a shelf,) then that right glove, perfectly functional, would be rubbish. Ergo, ecological waste and harm. Climate change. Melting glaciers.

Welding is typically carried out wearing shorts, Dawgs, and a t-shirt festooned with many burn holes. This again is to minimize the constant replacing, constant waste, of shop clothes. That efficiency may account for a degree of cooler temperatures. The Dawgs have holes burned through the soles from walking on molten metal. I respond by gluing on harder soles from a pair of sandals. Again, climate justice is upheld, as well as a unique definition of style. There are leather products that could protect me head to toe, and I own most of them, sturdy boots as well, but where is the adventure in that? It’s much more delightful to sit with grandchildren as they count scars and ask to hear the stories. I emerge heroic each time, and am counted as a warrior of eco-justice.

This is not a new attitude, developed in response to recent climate concerns. When I was a child, and the task de jour involved rolling up rusty barbed wire, we were given leather winter mitts to protect our hands, but we were told to wear them backwards, so as not to damage the critical frontal surface that dealt with the wear and tear of all other seasons. The actual concept of work gloves was foreign. Damaged hands would heal. Dirty hands would clean. Gloves needed to be discarded, replaced, with the attendant cost and waste. It wasn’t till adulthood that I realized that work gloves were a thing.

This was not the only childhood training in careful and efficient living that has impacted me for the last seventy years. Recently, on a “Special Victims Unit” television program, a villain was ordered out of the house wherein he had been holed up, and was told to “throw down his gun.” I winced. That did not jibe with how I was taught to treat guns. Could the villain not lean over, and lean the weapon gently against a wall? Or bend over carefully, and lay it on a carpeted area? Otherwise, the mechanism might be damaged, varnish scratched, or dirt enter the barrel. Gunsights might well be knocked out of kilter. Rifles were common and comfortable in our childhood home, but respect was taught and enforced. The user understood where a gun could be pointed, and where not, when it could be loaded, and when not. Guns were never to be dropped, even if ordered to do so.

My father died twenty-five years ago, before the church spoke about creation care, climate change, carbon footprints and recycling. But he taught and lived lessons of respect and appreciation for the simpler, the humbler things that surrounded him. Farm auctions were times to scoop up pieces that no one else could make work, and turn them into a challenge. Creating or repairing machinery in his shop was always done using the piles of rusted metal that was piled into a place of importance by his shop. Newly purchased iron was as rare as new work gloves. Somehow, that translates for me into a lesson that all aspects of life can become holy learning. Even, perhaps, a burned thumb.

Difficult times and hard choices


In the final days of October, Holly and I will reach an anniversary.
Recently a relative reminded us that in 1972, five cousins headed to five altars with their partners. Marie, a widow, pointed out that Holly and I will be the only ones to reach the fifty-year milestone.
In my years of pre marriage conversations as a minister, Holly and I frequently talked about the reality of getting through difficult times and conversations. Sometimes, as we described those days, the response would be, “So why did you stay together?” The answer that slid to my tongue immediately is “we didn’t know we had a choice.”
Certainly we knew, and know, that there is a choice. A few of those ‘72 marriages made that choice. But we were also supported by the models held out to us, parents, grandparents, that vows mattered. Commitment mattered.
I often told these counselees that our marriage occurred around the ages of twelve, hence our amazing retention of youthfulness. I’m in the early years of my eighth decade so the math doesn’t quite pencil out. But what is less fanciful and more honest is that we (particularly I) were remarkably immature, convinced we knew everything that mattered (that’s definitely me) and ready to cruise into a lifetime where the answers would be obvious and easy. Youthful energy and arrogance led us (me) forth.
I’m embarrassed at how many years it took me to learn that when Holly shared something that was troubling her, was confusing her, was making her life hard, it wasn’t at all useful to simply offer solutions, “well, try this, just do that.” She was looking for soul support, someone who could hear her hard story and return empathy. I knew only how to step into my maleness and provide answers. I had many answers.
We had children early. In the exhaustion of those early parenting years, we were mostly on the same page, trying to create the best environment for our cherubs. Mistakes were frequent, as we were still trying to figure out who we were, individually and as a couple. But our common determination to parent well guided us in mostly sane directions. Then, as the cherubs grew and began leaving the nest, we looked at each other and wondered, (remember, married around age 12) what will form our common road now that active parenting is no longer our central reality? There were still many years ahead.
Through those years, I was developing a sense of myself at a spiritual level. “What will make my life good?” That search began to evolve into a spirituality of “awe.” A search for “awe.” A determination to name that which I experience as “awe.”
Such started the reformation of my relationship to Holly. I acknowledged, to myself, to her, that she could have chosen anyone of the millions of better options. Better looking, better provider, better parenting, better listener, better everything.
She chose me.
The aura of awe extended to view her gifts in new and exciting ways, the huge areas of life where she was far beyond me, had much to teach me. The awe extended to the simple and yet hard lesson of loyalty and faithfulness. I could count on her. As I identified and pursued paths that seemed good to me, she created space for me to explore those paths, even when that meant separation from family and familiar places.
Awe continues to create my lens. I marvel at our children, the important stories of their lives. They have chosen partners that bring remarkable colour and variety. They have produced a new generation that again, offers hope to the world through their kind and energetic presence. The future will be good.
Twenty years ago, I needed to acknowledge that depression is part of who I am. I offer my regret and apology to all who bore the brunt of that. Mostly that is Holly, but not exclusively so. The pursuit of finding good supports for that condition now is part of the awe of my life, the conversations that I have with all.
Maybe give it a shot. Bring your best self.

In the Image: remembering a friend


My friend Blake died.

Blake was large, unkempt, unhealthy, opinionated, and occasionally rude. He was an atheist. His kidneys didn’t work. He loved people. His social skills were at the same time fascinating and frustrating. He was generous. He told wild and passionate stories. Blake carried a measure of English charm. His humour was usually off colour. When Blake mixed a drink for me in his home, we joked about pulling the curtains so no one could see a minister drinking with an agnostic. All of these were qualities, along with so many others, that made him important and colourful in my life.

One of Blake’s stories included being a young man with an engineering degree, looking for adventure. This would have been around 1970, and Blake’s huge curiosity compelled him to head off to South Africa to begin his working life. He went there, in his words, as a nominal Anglican, as a mostly uninvolved political conservative. Blake’s time there, in the days of brutal apartheid, brought him home some years later, in his words, a raging atheist, and a raving socialist.

What Blake saw as the reality of the church in South Africa was not only an excusing of racial intolerance, but rather the church embraced it, and wrote it into their understanding of God’s perfect will. Blake was so offended, so angered, that he vowed never to be part of a spirituality that was so subverted, so self serving. He remained true to that till his death.

Yet, in the years that I knew him, Blake visited inmates in prison. Blake was part of a Circle of Support and Accountability for released offenders. He supported the Food Bank. These activities are founded on Christian understandings of relating to your fellow humans.

How did that come about?

In his retirement years, Blake moved to a smaller rural town where housing was more affordable. There, Blake encountered Mennonites, something new to him. With his natural curiosity, Blake formed relationships, collected Mennonite history books. He observed neighbours and a son-in-law traveling to distant parts of the globe to do relief work. He learned about Mennonite Central Committee, a relief organization, sending financial and material support to places where folks suffered. He learned about sitting with First Nations folks, offering respect and dignity. He learned about restorative justice work, both in the prison and on the street.

Soon, Blake was reaching out. That included dropping awkwardly to his knees and leading me into a sweat lodge. That included accompanying us to a funeral service for Les, a friend that our Circle of Support and Accountability group had supported. Blake had never met Les, but because I had mentioned to him that Les’ widow was concerned that not many people would show up at the funeral of a sex offender, Blake was there, with all of his curiosity, all of his compassion.

Blake’s history didn’t allow him to give much respect to the evangelizing work of Christian ministry. He called it “sky piloting” and couldn’t seem to make the mental leap between “sky-piloting” and the support of marginalized folks. The South Africa experience, the passion and rage that he brought home, simply didn’t allow that. A frequent derisive term was “happy clappy Christians.” I giggled every time.

But when Blake encountered a community that was “being” in a way that his intellect and his compassion and his curiosity told him were life giving, he stepped forward. He could never acknowledge that these activities, these ways of offering compassion were spiritually rooted, but rather couched them in the language of practicality. “It’s a better use of my time and tax dollar to be supporting, encouraging, befriending.” Letters to politicians were frequent and sometimes bombastic.

There were many parts of Blake’s life that didn’t follow a Christian way of believing. Other parts did.  I’m glad he was my friend. I’m glad he caused me to consider his motivations, and to rethink my own.

A plaque that hangs in my office speaks words I wish I had spoken to Blake, mostly to hear his loud indignation. “If something is true, no matter who says it, it is always from the Holy Spirit.”

What stories are central to our political passion?


In my federal voting life, I have voted only for the Liberal party.

When I suggested that as the opening sentence for my next column, my two eldest granddaughters, 18 and 20, immediately began guessing at the percentage of readership that would immediately write me off, or condemn me to the fiery depths.

As I look and listen at what political discourse has become, maybe it’s time to risk that condemnation. In Canada we sort through the apoplectic rhetoric and actions that grew out of differing opinions about managing a pandemic, and now in Europe folks are dying or being displaced because we haven’t learned the lessons of solving differing views respectfully.

So I’ll give it a go.

I’m a first generation Canadian born citizen. My people have not yet celebrated a hundred years here. My mother frequently reminded us that her father taught his children to vote Liberal, as gratitude for the policies of William Lyon Mackenzie King’s government that allowed the doors to remain open just long enough for my people to squeak in. Our families represented a culture and language (German) that was somewhat threatening in the late twenties, and a religion (Mennonite) that asked for unusual accommodation. I think it has worked well for both parties.

That Liberal bias, however, got a little more complicated in the late sixties, when Pierre Trudeau arrived on the scene. My father’s family culture had no idea what to do with “jaunty,” it was probably interpreted as “acting smart,” not a good thing. One of the lessons from the family immigration was keeping your head down, never drawing attention to yourself. “Acting smart” was strongly discouraged. However, I was a rebelling teenager at that moment, so PET became a hero. I attended university in a denim vest with “Fuddle Duddle” scrawled across my back. Google it.

As exploration of faith became a more significant part of my life, political reality was tossed into that thinking. And big L liberalism came out looking pretty good. A significant part of my understanding of spirituality is that of inclusion, welcoming the alien, the widow, the leper, folks on the edge. Beyond my family’s experience, and that of my Doukhobor friend, there is a readiness to open doors and wallets when global neighbours are in need. Certainly there are difficult stories within the Indigenous history, stories in which nobody comes out clean, but steps toward reconciliation and justice are, in my experience, mostly connected to centrist governing. Equally, if progressive reform is to happen in the justice system, keeping us all safer and saner, it has/will come from the center. Same sex inclusion touches our family directly.

Here in the west, elections are like beating my head against a wall. I discover the name of my candidate as I unfold my ballot, a candidate typically parachuted in from the university. Few resources are spent here. I get that.

What of our leader, Justin Trudeau? The vitriol thrown his way is confounding. He is one person, making the best decisions he can. All of our political governments have had an unprecedented and difficult slog these past years. While decisions made were not always the ones I might make, who am I to arrogantly assume that I’m smarter, more morally astute, that I or my group alone is aware of facts that should dictate the next decision? If the national press interpreted my every step and word in order to sell copy, it could be gruesome.

This is my story. I challenge you to tell yours. What stories are central to your political passion? Are there spiritual imperatives that point toward a political expression? What has been life giving to you as you watch our country move in ways that feel holy and good? I suggest God isn’t found in any one expression. That’s what makes it fun and challenging. Can we talk about, write about, listen to, our political passions in a way that respects, honours, builds up? Can we listen to learn, not to argue?

“Make your tents large! Spread out! Think big!” That’s a Biblical challenge.

Let’s talk, and listen. I’m open to respectful and hopeful conversation. Maybe even conversion.



The past several weeks have been indescribably hard for some here in Saskatchewan. I refer, of course, to the savage happenings on James Smith Cree Nation, and also touching Weldon.
My spiritual hope has taught me that in every story, every reality, there is opportunity for learning, for growth.
For me, in this very sad story, a learning has been about the vibrancy of the spirit of First Nations people.
The news conferences that come out of this event have been about forgiveness. The prayers have been about hope. The pleas have been about self policing, but pleas that affix little blame. The words have been spoken, the tears have been shed, with dignity, with compassion, with honesty. I am seeing, again, a man who has lost a sister in this mad violence, drawing to himself and embracing the partner of a suspect. I’m seeing another, also a brother, choosing to sit in front of reporters to tell the stories of who his sister was. Though savaged by grief, the stories are warm, gentle, touched with humour.
This indicates a culture that has retained an understanding of healing that has slipped by so many in other cultures, others ways of being. In our race to make things black and white, to make something that lawbooks can sort out, judges, lawyers, the innocent go here, and the guilty stand far over there, far apart. When things get more complicated, we write more lawbooks. Hard times are much about right or wrong.
Indigenous values, at their best, point in another direction. How can the community be healed? How can individual people be healed? How can the good energy of so many be marshalled to draw folks together? How can reality be shared, be brought into community, how can the destructive power and fear of such savagery be confronted, named, and be stripped of its strength?
Last week, I had a conversation with a neighbour, a Christian man, who talked about the evil of the people responsible for this catastrophe. As I left that conversation, I decided that the word, evil, is not useful for me to begin to process this event. The word, evil, is only applicable if it is inserted into every instance where we all choose to stop short of perfection. I include myself.
When the pictures of the Sanderson brothers were circulated in an attempt to locate them, I was deeply struck by the sadness in their eyes. If the word “evil” is applicable, it is also about me, and the opportunities I have been given to address such sadness and have not done so. The violence growing out of such sadness, does not happen without community failings. That’s about me.
I’m reminded of a premise that has always centered my Christian faith, and that is, “We are all created in the holy image of God.” When lives careen off into wildly other directions, will we step forward, learn what is offered, and work toward change? Will we accept responsibility, as modelled to us by James Smith Cree Nation, to come together, to embrace, to include, to weep, then to move forward?
Spiritual author, Richard Rohr suggests that “When all is said and done, the gospel comes down to forgiveness.” He quotes those words that we’ve repeated thousands of times, “Forgive us as we’ve forgiven our debtors.” There are responsibilities, it’s on us, to live into holy directions.
It’s the center of living with integrity. Can we learn something of that from the communities that surround us?

Let Love Guide you


This summer I attended two family reunions separated by only a week. The Olferts, my paternal family, gathered at Pike Lake for several days, while the Warkentins, my maternal side, came together at next weekend at Shekinah, a church camp near where I live at Laird. Both, fortunately, were near enough that I could escape home to my own bed for night, increasingly important for this aging introvert.
Both families, the offspring of my grandparents on both sides, typically gather every three years. With the confusion of COVID concerns, it’s been much longer. And in both cases numbers took a hit. Yet it was good.
Besides my folks representing that Olfert/Warkentin pairing, there is another family with the exact same roots. We have double cousins who show up at the same reunions, as closely related as it is legal to be.
The culture of these two origin families could not be much more different. The Warkentins are a more cerebral folk, where education, dignity, awareness of the family exodus from Ukraine are important. They are eloquent, they write stuff, they sing hymns in four part harmony. The Olferts mostly get sweaty and shout often. They tease and giggle and wave their arms when they converse. They sing too but mostly the old favourites of 80 years ago (I Saw Esau Sittin’ on a Seasaw) and quality is more equated with volume, and simply remembering the words. Olferts deal with the cost of the rented facilities by pointing to a bucket. Warkentins, meanwhile, bring laptops and have lists. Individual bills include change.
Nowhere is the difference more striking, or amusing, than on the Sunday morning worship service. The strong Mennonite roots in both families ensure that there will be such a service, and indeed, it is the highlight of the weekend in both cases. Olferts crowd themselves into a cook shack, trying to escape the hot sun. They pile on top of each other. At one end, a pair of ukuleles lead music. We try to remember Sunday School songs that were learned when we were children at Superb Mennonite Church. One person, my sister, leaps to her feet and shouts, exhorting us to sing in rounds. The topic we are given is simply to acknowledge and remember those family deaths since we last met. It is emotional, and feels important.
The Warkentins, meanwhile, arrange chairs into neat rows. A piano is called into service, along with stringed instruments. We have a worship leader and a song leader. We sing out of hymnbooks. Again, we name those who have died in the recent past, always a significant number in families of this size. In a preplanned manner, folks come forward to tell the stories of lives and deaths of loved ones. This weekend, candles are lit. This weekend, my sister, the same sister, a nursing school administrator and professor, offers a sermon. The four-part harmony is strong and striking.
In these two portrayals, with differences so striking they cause me to giggle, what is the commonality? What is it that makes both good?
Both families have their spiritual roots in Superb Mennonite Church, a little country church that once stood on the bald prairie of west central Saskatchewan. Both families have someone in their past or present who has been significantly influenced by time spent in the warm embrace of that congregation. In my own experience, it wasn’t until I wandered further afield that I discovered how much spiritual energy can be burned up pointing out the spiritual short comings of another, or another group. That’s not who we were at Superb Mennonite.
A cousin, one of those double cousins who was at both weekends, brought his ukulele to each. At one point, he talked about the final days at the Superb church, when they were few. He pointed out that when things got a little harder, a little less clear as to what the future would bring for that little group, there was a song that appeared more and more often in the church repertoire. And he led us into that song.
“Most of all let love guide you.”
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.

A lesson in humility


During my last years as minister in a PA church, “Adelle” stopped by the church from time to time, looking for food, or for a ride to another part of the city. My congregation had supplied me with non perishable food, toiletry items, and in colder seasons, toques, socks, and mitts. Many interesting people, many important stories were offered to me because of that generous decision by the folks in the pews.
There was a time when Adelle hadn’t shown her face for a number of months, but suddenly, there she sat again, on the bench inside the front door. I remarked that she looked particularly healthy, with a clear complexion, clear eyes. She grinned, totally unselfconsciously, and informed me that she had been in jail.
Adelle was pleasant, engaging, had a sense of humour. I enjoyed my time of visiting and listening to her stories. They offered glimpses of a reality far removed from my own. To a very large extent, it was a reality that was imposed on her, not chosen. A sense of trust appeared in our conversation.
But, as the weeks passed, Adelle’s complexion and her body language reverted back to her former self. She was still polite and pleasant, but seemed more anxious to have her needs addressed so she could move on. There was again a wariness about her.
I recall a day when she appeared with her brother. They told me they were trying to come up with rent money, and had a plastic bag of articles to sell. And, oh yes, could I give them a ride? My schedule had time.
Before we climbed into the car, Adelle asked me if I wanted to buy a cell phone, and I told her that I already had one. After I dropped them off, I remembered her question again, and reached into my pocket to reassure myself.
It wasn’t there. I went through numerous pockets. When I was again at my office, the entry area of the church was scoured, then turned upside down. No phone. A friend came for a visit, but first he had to join in the search.
Someone suggested I check the pawn shops. All stores told me that they didn’t deal in phones. So I resignedly drove to a phone outlet and purchased a new device. Fortunately, my data was recapturable, so it was really not a huge deal.
But my mind kept needing to blame Adelle. I felt hurt, let down. I reasoned that her question about whether I wanted to buy a phone was geared toward determining whether I still had mine. If so, the one she had found was fair game. At that time, I had assumed that my phone was still safely in my possession.
I was ready the next time Adelle appeared at Grace Mennonite. After I had given her the food available that day, I reminded her of that phone incident, and asked her, flat out, “Did you take my phone?”
Her eyes opened wide, she looked into my face, and she said,” I would never do that to you. You’ve always helped me! I would never take anything from you!”
The look of hurt on her features suggested that the subject shouldn’t be broached again. But were her street smarts such that she could feign that look of woundedness? Was I being duped?
Our relationship continued as before. Every few weeks, Adelle dropped by for a quick request, a quick conversation. Sometimes she was alone, sometimes with a companion.
A month later, the old phone slid out from under my car seat.
When Adelle next stopped by, I told her that story, and asked for her forgiveness. She laughed as she reminded me that I had been told that she wouldn’t take anything from me. I sensed that Adelle held on to a little power that I could feel for a time in our relationship.
I need to feel Adelle’s power over me. I need to be humbled. There was too much imbalance tilted the other way. Thank you, Adelle, for offering a lesson of humility. God calls us from that direction.

Can we finally give sharp words a rest?

On my mantel stands a pack of smokes. It’s in a place of honour, despite all the brutally direct health warnings the package wears.

Last summer, I attended a ceremony at Stoney Knoll, a short distance north and west of Laird. It was the fifteenth anniversary of the signing of a document on that same site. Lutherans, Mennonites, and First Nations gathered at that time to commit to working toward justice for the descendants of indigenous folks that were left landless over a hundred years ago when the government removed the reserve status from the Young Chipewyan tract of rich land and made it instead available to new immigrants, who were, in large part, local Mennonite and Lutheran farmers. Mennonite Central Committee Saskatchewan, a parachurch organization focused on relief and justice work, has been involved from the start to encourage this unique conversation between settlers and the Young Chipewyan remnant.

I didn’t grow up at Laird, and as such, have limited skin in the game. But two granddaughters are growing up at the base of Stoney Knoll. How the community works to resolve difficult history certainly impacts them and their world view.

At the ceremony, I was identified as a Mennonite elder, and invited to engage in some story telling. I gaped a little at the request, as my eyes swept around the tent and identified others with more age, more wisdom, and more history relevant to the issue at hand. Then I was presented with a gift of tobacco. That’s the packet that sits in a place of significance in my home.

Tobacco is, of course, a traditional gift offered by indigenous folks to their elders. It is a notable mark of respect. Beyond that, as I’ve thought and prayed about the lessons contained in that little cellophane wrapped box, I’ve been led in interesting directions.

We who have formed our thought patterns within significant European understandings are much rooted in debate, argument. Our understandings of justice, law, and often conversation itself is a give and take affair, right versus wrong, win or lose. You will make a strong statement, and I will counter with one of my own. How often do we end intense exchanges by “agreeing to disagree?”

Tobacco represents a different priority. That priority is “gift.” If I invite you to share your stories, your wisdom, I preface that by honouring you with a gift. Offering and receiving a gift moves us away from debate, moves us away from winning. As you offer your thoughts and your stories, I will respond with my dignity and thoughtful consideration. The respect inherent in the gift is returned in the wisdom of the words.

On a number of occasions, I’ve noted the impact when Indigenous values were inserted in formal situations. The first time I sat at a healing circle, I was soon moved to tears by the passion, by the honesty, by the dignity that was offered to every person in the circle. There was no energy given to denial, excuses, blame, argument. Similarly, I’ve been part of a parole hearing where the offender chose to use traditional understandings and values to shape the hearing. We were asked to remove our shoes, as this was now a holy space. We were then offered the opportunity to smudge. In the respect, there’s that word again, in the respect shown to each person in the circle, it soon became apparent that ultimately, each person was desiring the same result, and that was planning for the best outcome for both the offender, and the community into which he was asking to reintegrate. Again, there were tears.

How we speak, how we hear, matters. The concept of gift should not be strange to Christians, who reach out to receive, to embrace what God offers. Can we also look to the traditions of neighbours around us, can we receive, and offer with that same understanding of gift, of respect? Can we finally give sharp words a rest?

Bruised egos and Truck tires

I bought a set of tires for my pick up truck and decided to install them myself. I no longer have specific equipment to do this job, so tire work involves scrabbling on a concrete floor with hammer and pry bars.
The first wheel went well. In short order, the old tire was stripped off, the new one levered on and inflated. The only semi sophisticated piece of tire machinery that I have is an ancient bubble balancer. It told me that a small weight in one spot would set everything close enough to perfect. Back on the truck it went.
The second wheel went equally smoothly, so smoothly that I threw it onto the balancer with just a smidgeon of smugness. Who says that things are harder as a grey beard? But wait, something is askance. The tire hung awkwardly. The bubble was nowhere near the center.
I began piling weights on the tire, soon setting my whole tobacco can of used lead weights on the tire. But it would not true up. In my impatience, a delightful trait, I’m sure, I decided that I would bolt it to the truck anyway, that the old balancer must somehow be at fault. If it was truly amiss, I would stop at a tire shop and get it trued up.
I picked the wheel off the balance machine, and bounced it on the floor. The tire responded with a curious thumping noise. Picked it up again, dropped it, that noise again. I removed the tire from the rim and inside, I discovered my meaty sixteen-inch pry bar.
A boneheaded mistake. A mistake certainly connected to my grey beard status.
Immediately, it seemed important to share this story with those who would most enjoy jeering at me. Messages went to a brother, a son, a son-in-law, and a couple of friends. They responded as required, with giggles and mockery.
Later in the day, it struck me that my response of immediately sharing that story was perhaps different than I might have made years earlier.
Authour and mystic Richard Rohr points to the value of seeking out an “undefended spirit.” It seems worth some thought.
We (I) seem to spend much of our lives protecting our ego. We do that by micro managing every story that we tell about ourselves. If it’s a hard story, that often means we paint ourselves as the aggrieved person, or the heroic one. How many of our stories paint us in self righteous colours? How many of our stories fall into the inevitable good/bad, white/ black framework. We emerge wearing the white hats.
Think of the stories used in the Bible. The Exodus from Egypt, by a clan referred to repeatedly as the “people of God,” the “chosen ones.” We would assume them to have spirits that had no need of defending, because they were, after all, chosen. And yet the litany of whining, of rebelling, of denying, of obstinacy, is unending, throughout most of those years in the wilderness. That included the masses, as well as imperfect leadership. And yet, this became the story of God’s people, a metaphor for our own escape from the wilderness that traps us.
In our current reality, think of the stories of conflict, past and present at larger scales. Every one of those stories, including what the issues were, and where honour was lodged, every one of those stories is controlled by the victor. WW 2? The Allies had the nicer helmets and the clear faced and honourable men. It must be true, the movies and textbooks tell us so. The history of our country? Again, told by those unchallengeable historians who trumpeted their own version of valour and progress. Currently, the war waged in Ukraine calls us to leap to assumptions that make that conflict simple and worthy of our biggest and unquestioned vehemence. There’s a self righteousness there that causes unease. There are human beings, created in a holy image, at opposite ends of any weapon you might spot on the news. Can our evaluation be a little more thoughtful?
Perhaps the years of the grey beards comes with, along with decreasing skills at installing tires, perhaps the grey beard years come with growing into that undefended space. A recent sermon focussing on reconciliation with Indigenous folks reminded us with some passion to tell all our stories, and that definitely included the hard stories. We all have those hard chapters in out lives, and far too often we’ve held them close, until they could be told with someone else as the villain. When we are honest, we know how well that has worked.
Find that “undefended” space in your spirit. Push back the edges.

Depression, lions, and a changing conversation

Some years ago a mother-daughter team delivered a sermon in the church I was attending. The daughter, “Alana”, was 12.
From time to time, the growing whiteness of my hair and whiskers, and a lifetime of experience, seem to dictate that I offer opinions about how we do church. About how we obsess over smoothness and perfect timing and dulcet tones and perfect cadence. We slip into a Sunday language that feels, and is, awkward in the workplace or school yard. We express ourselves in ways that set us apart from, perhaps above, the unwashed masses.
Then came Alana.
A decision was made that on a certain Sunday, the youth would take responsibility for the morning service. Alana suggested a favourite Bible story, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, to frame the service. Someone, an adult, asked Alana if she would offer the meditation. Actually, it was phrased as an “adult story,” as opposed to a “children’s story.” After all, what do children know about meditations? Alana felt a little obligated, I’m guessing, and consented.
Alana and her mom decided that the lions’ den could be used as a metaphor for all of the things that threaten us in our complicated lives. Alana would acknowledge some of her own struggles, the complications of her twelve-year-old life, and then go on to talk about how she experienced God’s protection and support within those struggles.
What, you might wonder, could muddle the life of a much loved twelve-year-old, adored by family, a wacky sense of humour, stubborn up to here, gifted academically, musically, artistically? At an age where children are notoriously self absorbed, what could chase lions into Alana’s den?
“For me, it has been my ongoing struggle with anxiety and depression, Anxiety is my lions’ den.”
Alana went on to describe her growing realization that her fears were isolating her, preventing her from forming relationships with her peers. She talked about “being trapped in my head.”
Then, Alana described the moment when things began to change. She invited her parents into her despair. From there, she told us, “I felt like God sent some reinforcements into my lions’ den.”
She mentioned a growing courage to speak out. She mentioned the steadfast support of family. Alana pointed to a medical community that cared about her mental health, offered counselling and medication. She cited her gift of music and love of reading, things that offered colour and hope in her life.
The line that moved me the deepest was about God bringing “my dog, Millie, into my life. She is the best therapy a person could ask for. She never lets me down, she stands between me and my lions. She doesn’t tell anyone the secrets I share with her.”
Millie is a huge black Newfoundlander brute.
We were all challenged to name our own dens, and the lions that circulated there.
Then Alana sat down.
After the service, as folks gathered around her, Alana just wanted to go home. An introvert, she was exhausted.
As moving, as emotional as that message was for me, there was another realization that was striking. To a significant degree, this was not a huge stretch for Alana. This was more a matter of fact telling about a piece of her life.
I’m sure Alana didn’t sniff the huge stigma that earlier generations have placed upon mental health matters, the crude and degrading language. She couldn’t know that two generations earlier, when her grandparents took her place in grade school, there was no awareness, no language, and certainly no pulpit connected to the topic of mental health.
One generation ago, when her parents filled that twelve-year-old space, there was only a tiny bit more acknowledgement, but still little healthy language, and, in my awareness, no more pulpit time given to depression and anxiety. Mental health was not seen as relevant to spirituality.
“A child shall lead then.”
Full disclosure, Alana and her mother share my genes, in case you hadn’t guessed that.