The Power of Words

~Bob Wallace

Over the past few weeks we have been following the stories of the Matriarchs and Patriarchs of our faith – men and women who heard a promise spoken from beyond their everyday lives and who committed their futures to the fulfillment of that promise.

That promise has been transferred from generation to generation through what the text calls a “blessing” – words spoken, accompanied by specific actions, transferring the promise from one generation to the next. And once spoken, those words cannot be recalled. There is, then, a power in words … a power to shape and define, to create and destroy.

This year’s encounters with racism reminds us again of the power of words – words used to deny, to hurt, to enslave, to harm. The old adage: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!” is a lie! Words can hurt. Words can destroy, words can deny futures. Words are powerful.

In fact, from a biblical perspective, the power of words lies in the capacity to share (or deny) future. Such power lies in the spoken words and accompanying actions of blessing.

Walter Brueggemann writes of these stories we are reading:

(they) offer a fresh discernment of the nature of power. … (they) understand that power, the capacity to shape the future, lies not in weapons and arms, but in the use of language, gesture, and symbol.”

[Interpretation: Genesis, p. 228]

As we continue our journey through these stories, look for the way in which the stories talk about the power and use of words and the gestures that accompany those words. It is my belief that these stories, heard as promises not only to those who have gone before, but as continuing promises spoken to us, empower us to discover our new future, a future filled with promises of life in all its fullness rather than despair.

More than anything, then, these words empower us to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that “God is with us. We are not alone.” And in that power, we are claimed once again as beloved children of our God.

And, from a world before we were concerned with gender issues in language, here’s a quote from Sigmund Freud.

Words have a magical power. They can bring either the greatest happiness or deepest despair; they can transfer knowledge from teacher to student; words enable the orator to sway his audience and dictate its decisions. Words are capable of arousing the strongest emotions and prompting all men’s actions.

Sigmund Freud

Remembering August 1: Abolition of Slavery in Canada

~The United Church of Canada E-ssentials

August 1, 1834 is the day the Slavery Abolition Act came into effect, ending slavery throughout most of the British Empire – including in the colonies that would become Canada. It is estimated that on that day, 800,000 enslaved Black peoples were freed, as it became illegal for anyone to be a slave in the British Empire.

There is a grassroots movement happening in the United Church and beyond to proclaim August 1 as one way to support the fair treatment of all humans and affirm that all persons are made in the image of God. The commemoration of August 1 reminds us that the fight against systemic and anti-Black racism is far from over, and that we need to continue the work for the creation of a more just society. It is one way to continue the work of becoming an anti-racist church.

Join with people across the church in remembering August 1 and use the day to further the honest dialogue about the deconstructing of racism in our country. You are invited to join in a “silent witness” activity by wearing a T-shirt commemorating the end of slavery in Canada on August 1. There are two T-shirt designs available on the United against Racism website that can be iron-transferred onto T-shirts. There are also a number of blog posts to read on the United Against Racism website.

Just Eat It

~Jocelyn Smith

The inside of Jocelyn’s fridge

I grew up in the golden age of the video game console. But in my house we had very little screen time and no video games. As a result, I am one of the only people my age who cannot pass the first level of a traditional Mario game. I always run Mario into a hole!

My parents decision to limit our screen time continued to impact my life after I moved out. In the 20 years since I lived at home, I have never owned a television. That’s not to say that I don’t watch shows and movies. But for two decades now, I’ve consumed my media via my computer. In the current era of Disney Plus, Netflixs and Youtube, that’s not too hard to imagine. But 10+ years ago, it was not easy to find good shows online from a legitimate source. Imagine my delight when I discovered Knowledge Network online. A whole repository of great viewing, all free.

I started watching shows on Knowledge.ca and became a knowledge partner. One day, an email arrived in my inbox. Knowledge inviting us to an advanced screening of an Agatha Christie Christmas mystery. I may or may not have whooped in excitement but I did immediately rsvp.

Several weeks later I sat in the Queen Elizabeth theatre and felt right at home. The audience members closest to us in age had at least three decades on us. It felt like attending Queens United. 🙂 I enjoyed the show and the whole experience.

Aside from Agatha Christie mysteries, Knowledge hosts an excellent selection of murder mysteries online. They also host a lot of great documentaries and feature many made in BC programs. Recently, I came across Just Eat It. I watched it and now I find myself looking in my fridge a bit askew.

Just Eat It follows one Vancouver couple as they eat only waste food for 6 months. The results are surprising and somewhat confronting. Have a watch. https://www.knowledge.ca/program/just-eat-it

And now please excuse me, I need to go. I’ve got some saggy parsnips and a browning apple in my fruit bowl that can’t go to waste.

Unforgettable and Inspiring

~Rev. Dr. Sharon Wilson

Most of us have had extra time for reflection these last months. I’ve shared with you some of the memorable books I’ve read and invited all of you to send in your picks. As I was out for a run with Molly today I found myself thinking about some of the people who have had a huge influence on me. Two people are always top of mind….and they could not have been more different!

Ruth McCuaig was my Sunday School teacher from ages twelve to fourteen. Her own daughters were grown by this time so she had no vested interest in the sustainability of the Sunday School at Melrose UC. Ruth, for whatever reason, chose to be with our group of about a dozen girls.

I remember little of the content of the curriculum but I have vivid memories of lengthy, thoughtful conversations. Any topic we came up with she deemed worthy of our time. She was a published writer, an art collector and world traveller and from this vantage point she encouraged us to dream without limits. No matter how wild our ideas, she listened respectfully and validated our emergence as capable young women of the congregation and the world.

On visits home while away at university she was one of the people I made a point of seeing. As life took me farther afield we turned to letter-writing and finally emails to keep in touch until her passing. Ruth was wise and gracious but she was no pushover. Over the years we tangled on a few topics but that only served to help me grow. She guided me to look deeper and more broadly at issues as diverse as faith, career, values, community service and politics. Our last emails were a blessed chance to offer gratitude for this friendship born in a Sunday School class that lasted until I was nearly fifty.

The other person of influence is a man whose name I no longer recall. I knew him only briefly when I was a summer student at DOFASCO, a steel company in Hamilton. During my undergraduate years I drove the mail truck through the plant. I was the first female student to work outside of the office in a traditional male position.

My summers were successful enough that the company began to hire females for many more of the factory positions. One of my stops on my twice-daily route was the labour office in the Foundry Division. This was where unskilled labourers would gather at the beginning of each shift to be assigned their work for the day. As such, it was a pretty quiet place for most of each shift.

The first time I dropped off the mail, the fellow who looked after labour office asked me if I played chess. He was a short, round man nearing retirement. I found out later he had escaped Hungary during the revolution in 1956. As a university student who’d played a fair amount of chess over the years, this looked like a bit of fun. How wrong I was.

The first game ended in almost instant humiliation for me. I was crushed but determined to do better. Over those many summers our games lasted longer and longer. With only two chances each day to make moves we had lots of time to pour over strategy. Sadly, I never beat him. It’s little wonder as he finally confessed that he was a chess master before his escape from Hungary.

It was, however, another episode that sealed him as a person who gifted me with a huge life lesson. At Christmas during my final year of university I attended the huge company Christmas party with my parents. As a manager my Dad was there to greet the thousands of employees and their families. Mom was dressed in her finest looking very much like she was at a garden party at Buckingham Palace!

My friend from the labour office came over to us, gave me a big hug and asked about my studies. We talked about my thesis research while my parents watched perplexed. Finally, he asked for my address so he could send me some things he thought might help. My mother was horrified as I gave my address to this stranger! She was picturing all sorts of misadventure that would come from this grave error of judgement.

What I got a few weeks later was a stuffed manila envelope of citations from obscure military history books and journals. Many were extraordinarily helpful to my paper and I was able to include them. This man taught me the wonder to be discovered when we are open to people. If I had stopped wanting to know him when I encountered him with his broom in hand, I’d have missed not only his genius at chess and encyclopedic knowledge of European history, I’d have missed his humanity.

While I must acknowledge the many flaws in my personality much of what is good about me has come from people like these. Their influence and wisdom may have been at least a little unexpected but, over a lifetime, I’ve come to accept that these are the very folks who shape the best part of who we are.

I’d like to invite you to think about the special people in your life and share your story in First Word. Who are your influences? How have they shaped you? How are you paying it forward?

Outreach Update

~Cheryl Perry

As I step away on a couple weeks of holidays I wanted to give you an update. Throughout July and August we are continuing to offer Outreach on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:00-11:00AM in the sunshine and fresh air. For the summer months we have moved to providing $10 grocery gift cards instead of bags of groceries. This will give our Food Shelf volunteers who shop and put the bags together a couple months’ break. We are still serving a take-away lunch as well. This is very appreciated.

We are seeing an average of 23 people on Tuesdays and 15 on Thursdays and serving about 50-80 sandwiches per week. If you would like to provide sandwiches (or homemade cookies or baked goods) you may drop these off any Tuesday or Thursday morning between 9:00-9:45.

As the summer weather arrived we have offered items such as water, hats, and sunscreen to people. Gerry Hewitt’s sister also sent some wonderful fabric masks she had made. They came in many colours, and men’s and women’s patterns and sizes. These were very popular!

We continue to put out a table of items to help through this time of social isolation: books, jigsaw puzzles, yarn, Sudoku/crossword/word find puzzle books, and board games. If you have anything to donate you can drop these off at the church or phone me to arrange a pick up (250-575-1780).

Thanks to a donation from Daphne and Paul Might we offered a “Pop up Picnic” in June and another in July. We served our donated Kentucky Fried Chicken and added take-away potato salad or chips, cans of cold drinks, and ice cream treats. And on July 2, we celebrated Canada Day by using up some hot dogs in the freezer, purchasing fresh buns, sauerkraut, potato salad, and watermelon which we served with delicious squares that were like S’mores—baked and donated by Jean Mackenzie!

Some have donated, and have encouraged others to consider donating, the extra money that they received from the government due to COVID19. Jayne Brooks wrote an excellent article that appeared in the First Word to encourage people if they didn’t need the extra money that was provided to seniors—some who have been very badly affected by the pandemic—to consider donating this to a social agency or charitable organization.

Many thanks to my regular Tuesday/Thursday volunteers—Leslie Atwell, Jayne Brooks, Tanya Pritchard and to all who have donated food or made financial contributions in June.

Thank you all for your continued support of our Outreach program – with your donations, your time and most especially your prayers!

Steffan at our “drive through” Food Shelf.

Accountability in the Midst of COVID-19

~Rev. Dr. Sharon Wilson

Photo by Lorraine Hladik

A few nights ago I was walking my dog in the neighbourhood. We came upon a vehicle parked on the street. The licence plate looked different so I paid special attention as we passed the back bumper. “MONTANA!!!!!!!!” I shouted in my head. Suddenly I was filled with a mixture of rage and indignation. How dare someone wantonly defy border restrictions and put all of us good, law-abiding, Bonnie Henry-loving citizens at risk????? The truck disappeared then following afternoon, but I have been wrestling with my reaction to this episode ever since.

As we enter Phase 3 of the pandemic response we are enjoying more freedom with the consequent increased vulnerability. I confess that last week I experienced the euphoria of my first haircut since early February. Freedom fills us with energy and hope. It promises a return to face-to-face encounters and, in time, the hugs we have been hungering to give and receive for so many months. Yet, all of us have seen the video clips of family gatherings and public parks brimming with people close together and often without masks. Infection rates in the United States are increasing at alarming levels even as states continue to announce the return to business as normal.

The pandemic poses a host of critical ethical issues: what are my rights?, to whom am I accountable?, who controls my life? A good place to start exploring these questions is the website of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. David E. DeCosse offers “Five Ethical Basics in the face of the Coronavirus Pandemic”:

  • It’s not only about you.
  • In a pandemic, ethics takes a long view
  • Don’t fear everything but fear the right things
  • In a pandemic, ethics stays the same—and ethics also changes
  • Beware the bias in blaming

This short article does an excellent job setting out the landscape that we now occupy. We are living on the cusp of disaster and that has made us more fearful, insular and reactive. This is the natural response to threat but that does not mean that those gut reactions should have free-range in our lives.

I want to focus on the notion of the common good. We are not islands. We exist in this world in relationships of family, friendship, work, community and so many more. Our interdependence has revealed itself clearly for those of us who had to self-isolate and depended on others to pick up and deliver our groceries, mail, and prescriptions. We can now chuckle about the shortages of toilet paper that had us yearning for the good old days when at least you had an Eaton’s catalogue for emergencies!

The common good is a notion that originated over two thousand years ago in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. More recently, the ethicist John Rawls defined the common good as “certain general conditions that are…equally to everyone’s advantage”.

The enemy of the common good is individualism. This is fueled by the notion of ‘me first’. We have seen both the common good and individualism on display throughout this pandemic. They seem to be constantly in tension with one another and we are all being drawn into the conflict.

Deeply rooted in our faith is the notion of the ‘neighbour’. In the Hebrew it is rea and in Greek it is plesion. The neighbour is one who is near or sometimes defined as a friend. However, the meaning of neighbour was expanded and deepened in Leviticus 19:18 which set out how the Israelites were to treat each other and the stranger. The ‘Golden Rule’ made clear in the ministry of Jesus further points us to an ethic of the common good.

So consider what you are saying and doing that promotes the common good. Wear your mask. Wash your hands. Keep social distance. Avoid crowds. Don’t travel unnecessarily. Be mindful of your neighbours. Keep in touch by phone, text or email. Support the charities that are working harder than ever in this trying time. Don’t point fingers.

We are being called to consider and embody ethical living in this unprecedented time. Let us embrace the challenge to uphold the common good. Let us be good neighbours. The only person whose behaviour we can control is our own.

Sources of Wisdom, Sources of Data

~Graham Zell

Photo by Graham Zell

I’m a big fan of axioms and short, punchy sayings that succinctly encompass complex ideas. One of my favourites is: “Data is not information. Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom.” I came across it a couple of years ago in the Avalanche Journal in an article about building skill over time in avalanche forecasting.

The article laid out a framework for thinking of our relationship with the world: what we can sense or understand, how we interpret it, and what we learn from it. A great example is the weather. If I tell you the temperature is eighteen degrees, that’s a data point. If I add that there are tall, dark clouds, cloying humidity, and gusty winds, those data points taken together become information.

You’ve seen this information before; your knowledge tells you an electrical storm is brewing.

Wisdom manifests in your course of action: I shut down my computer, close the windows, stash the lawn furniture, and find a good perch to watch the show.

How does knowledge turn into wisdom? It happens inside us as individuals. There is no shortcut, no way to drink wisdom directly from a teacher. Often it comes with the experience of pain or loss, and sometimes we can understand another’s pain without experiencing it exactly for ourselves. We watch a building fall down, and respond by investigating, understanding, and correcting our actions. We have codified much knowledge and pain in building codes, fire codes, work safety regulations, and food safety standards. If we adhere to these codes, we can trust that we are acting with the wisdom our ancestors learned through blood and loss and pain.

There are many forms in which we codify and transmit social, emotional, medical, technical, strategic, and spiritual wisdom. But we have to be careful: transmission is not a perfect replication process. We cannot pass on wisdom the way we pass on heirlooms; if we try, wisdom ossifies and turn to dogma. We can only pass on knowledge and inspiration, and let those be a seed of wisdom. We have to acknowledge that our wisdom is less universal than we would like it to be, pass on important knowledge, and guide the next generation towards a questioning and understanding attitude.

The Bible is one source of knowledge and inspiration for me. Its value comes from the density of its passages and the way that it has survived and changed and been reinterpreted countless times through millennia. It is wonderful and nourishing as a source of inspiration: we live in changing, uncertain times, and that human experience of uncertainty is comfortingly universal. It could also be deadly, confining, and limiting as a source of dogma; it is, in parts of this continent. The Bible is only one of many sources of knowledge in my life; there are many books, lessons, and stories that balance its perspective and inspire me in different directions. What sources of knowledge are important in your life?

We have access today to more data and more information than ever in the history of humanity. More voices, more stories, more statistics. (More noise, too, but cutting through to find trust is a separate topic.) This moment in history is our time to throw out two pieces of knowledge that many of us have synthesized from the information in our lives:

Our experience is basically universal
The Black Lives Matter protests across the United States, the Truth and Reconciliation movement in Canada, and the uneven impacts of COVID-19 on global society should teach us that our experience of the world is not “normal”. It is not some baseline from which everyone’s success or failure in the world should be measured. Our experience of the world is our own set of data points woven into strands of information, reams of knowledge, and the garments of wisdom that gets us through this massively complex world. Some of us have more diverse sets of data, or richer sets of data, or higher stakes for loss or pain. If we listen to the voices crying out to be heard in protests, podcasts, media, and in the street, maybe we can learn that we don’t know what someone’s experience is until we listen to them. We can’t listen to them until we can meet them where they want to speak.

We need to be ready before we change
COVID-19 is a blessing. It is happening because of very real, identifiable things that we do every day, like go to the office or eat at a restaurant. In BC at least, we have done a solid job of curtailing those activities to limit the harm of the virus. It hasn’t been easy, because we dismantled a whole social system almost overnight and are trying frantically to fit it back together around the reality of the virus. But we’re doing it. That’s the knowledge we need to come away with. It hurts, but we can change hard and fast if we decide to. If we can take that knowledge and use it for courage in the climate crisis, we might call ourselves wise. We have all imagined what might have happened if we had stayed attached to our economic dogmas and kept the world running in the face of the virus. Why are some of us doing the same against the climate crisis?

I think these things that we “know” hold us back from true wisdom and compassion as a society, and as individuals. What will you learn if you let go of your easy answers?

A Poem for an Uncertain World

The acorn knows not the shape of its rings,

Not the summer it was hot and dry and dusty,
 or the one when the rain never stopped,
 or the one with storms that split sky and shook root.

Not the winter the snow was thick like a blanket,
 or the one with rime so heavy the forest bowed to the ground,
 or the one with driving ice and bitterest cold.

The acorn knows not the twining of roots,
      the silent seismic jostling of rocks,
      the languid cascade of hillside into creekbed,
      the fire that once burned half the valley.

 What courage its sires then, knowing.

 What gift of trust in seasons immemorial,
      to strengthen, to shape, to grow,
      and for a time
      to wear the same rings.

~Graham Zell

Finding My Way Through These Days

~Bob Wallace

From time to time I find myself looking at meditative writings. One I recently returned to is a little book entitled Celtic Parables: Stories, Poems & Prayers. These short items were translated into English by Robert Van de Weyer, and the book was published in 1997 by SPCK, London. My edition came from/through Wood Lake Books.

One that struck me this week, and which I shared with the staff at our weekly meeting was entitled: Martha Being Mary.

We need people who search for the truth,
And we need people to proclaim it.
We need people who quietly contemplate God’s love,
And we need people to express it.
We need people who devote their lives to prayer,
And we need people to enact those prayers.
We need people who are free from all worldly ties,
And we need people to manage our affairs.
We need both Mary and Martha.
At times every Martha must become Mary,
And every Mary must become Martha.

For some reason those words gave me a sense of freedom – freedom to listen to the new rhythms of my body, to attend the new tasks of this pandemic-driven world; to acknowledge the time I need “apart from work” and the times I need to focus solely on the tasks of the day.

It also set me free from the guilt I sometimes have of only irregularly turning to the meditative writings.

In short, this brief reflection reminded me that faithful living is to embrace all sides of myself (and of other people’s selves!) because all is a gift from Creator-God.

Grace and peace,

A Story Too Terrible to Hear

~Bob Wallace

I remember the first theology book I ever received – J.B. Phillips’ book Your God Is Too Small. It was impressionable because it helped me expand my understanding of God as being bigger than I had ever imagined.

And at a later age, after reading Elie Wiesel’s The Gates of the Forest, I found one sentence stayed with me, even though I have to make a wee change to his language: “God made (people) because (God) loves stories.”

God loves stories. And so do we, because we are created in God’s image.
Yet our modern society consistently asks for truth, and defines such as being the concrete, demonstratable and provable data to back up that conclusion.

In such a milieu, stories are seen as “fluff” – entrancing, maybe; entertaining, surely; but essentially, not true.

Yet there are truths which cannot be proved, but about which we must talk. There is God, love, trust, hope, delight, wonder, pain, despair. No matter how hard we strive to measure and define these experienced feelings, they escape easy categorization.

And so, we tell stories.

Our faith is founded in storytelling. I sometimes wonder if creation itself isn’t somehow, the story Creator-God tells, and thus brings into being. Genesis begins with God “speaking” and everything being created. John’s Gospel begins with “the Word” – without which nothing was created.

Now, some stories are fun to hear, over and over again. Others push us and cause us to wrestle. Some are heard gladly. Others scare us.

Ralph Milton once wrote about this Sunday’s reading: “This story may be the scariest story in the Bible for children. They hear it from Isaac’s point of view … (and) God looks really threatening.” And Ralph was right!

This week’s story from our Biblical family tree is a challenging and disturbing story. Whether I explore Jewish or Christian commentators, all agreed, this is a story that makes us wonder about the writers of the Bible, and why it was included.

Yet, Bishop William Willimon of the United Methodist Church tells the story of a Bible Study in which he asked his participants to share with him the “meaning” of the Genesis 22:1-18 story they had just read.

“The silence was broken … by a middle-aged man. “I’ll tell you the meaning this story has for me. I’ve decided that I and my family are looking for another church.”

“What?” I asked in astonishment. “Why?”

“Because when I look at that God, the God of Abraham, I feel I’m near a real God, not the sort of dignified, businesslike, Rotary Club god we chatter about here on Sunday mornings. Abraham’s God could blow a man to bits, give and then take a child, ask for everything from a person and then want more. I want to know that God.”

Walter Brueggemann once wrote:

“…the text leads us to face the reality that God is God. The narrative concerns Abraham’s anguished acknowledgment that God is God. … God is shown to be freely sovereign just as (God) is graciously faithful.”

So, come worship time, we will explore this challenging text. Hold one another closely. Remember, this is one story from a whole series of stories – it is not the whole story, just a small glimpse of one part of the much larger picture: that God is faithful, just, merciful, and loving.

See you in church.