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.

Putting Your Money to Good Use

Many of us seniors have just received the $300 tax-free payment from the Government of Canada this week, a one-time payment to help us survive the financial crunch caused by the pandemic. If you are like me and have been receiving your regular company pension and CPP and OAS payments, you may not be facing financial hardship so why not share this money with those who are in need by making a donation to the charity of your choice.

The local Food Bank is certainly overwhelmed by demand at this time and the Salvation Army is busy feeding the homeless every day. The Canadian Mental Health Association is stretched to the extreme and local shelters and missions are full to capacity. Hospitals and other health facilities have been working non-stop through this pandemic and are in need of support. Colleges and Universities are trying to find extra support for students who are struggling to afford food, lodging and their education. Local churches are struggling to continue with their Outreach programs, and so many other charities are struggling to continue with their vital programming at a time when donations are drastically lower.

Given our current tax rates in Canada, giving a donation of $500 results in a tax credit of $117 so the real cost to the taxpayer is $383. Giving $400 results in a tax credit of $88 for a real cost of $312. So if you truly are one of the lucky ones who really does not need this $300 “gift” from the government, why not put the money toward helping those around you? Just donate the $300 on its own, or make a $400 donation which in the end would only cost you $12, or a $500 donation which would cost you $83.

Such a donation could help a lot of people and provide a great return for your investment. You will have the satisfaction that comes from helping others, and your community will thank you for it!

Living the Dream 2

We were devastated….how stupid to stuff all that fat money into a small wallet – in the middle of a busy train station no less. One minute we were happy wanderers, the next we felt like idiotic fools.

On a broad scale, the violation was small. It was the slashed scrim of naive innocence through which we’d viewed Athens and its people that pained us. The world was no longer a safe and magical playground we could explore giggling and unaware.

It took us a while to regroup. We bought travel wallets that tucked under clothing, received new identification and planned our next steps. The three days of waiting in Herakleon was a disappointment. Nobody spends three days in Herakleon, a port which leads by road or sea to the true beauties of Crete. As soon as we could, we headed for Agia Galini where I hoped we’d find healing shelter for our bruised souls.

Agia Galini means peaceful harbour. Legend has it that King Minos banished Daedelus to this calm place because there were neither access roads nor winds to allow him to escape by water. The huge rock from which the doomed Icarus took flight is visible from any vantage point in the village. We found the very hotel where I’d stayed, now run by the daughter I’d met as a little girl.

Over three days we wandered the countryside, climbed the Icarus rock and ate in deserted tavernas. We also mulled over the meaning of our experience. Yes, we’d loved the sense of innocence so brutally ripped away, but had we gained anything?

There was the gift of a kind young man who led us to the police station and stayed with us as translator right through the reporting process, without asking for or accepting the payment we offered. There were the unexpected and delightful discoveries in Heraklion, a city we’d planned to breeze through. There was the more grounded sense of balance with which we’d now move through our travels and perhaps our lives.

In retrospect, we remember our experience with gratitude as well as regret. We had three days of bliss, then three days of awakening from a momentary rude experience, followed by several months of travel adventure and discovery. Where would the story be if all had gone smoothly?

Later in the journey, we even surmised we were protected from more violent encounters. On an evening stroll along Heraklion’s harbour front just a few days after the theft, it seemed we were being followed. We trusted our heightened awareness and ducked into a bright restaurant until it was safe to leave.

Now when I think of the words – walking by faith, and not by sight, I remember the guidance whispered in my ear, ‘hold that backpack close to the chest. I remember Roland’s insistence that we get off the dark street.

Life will always provide us with rude awakenings. As I walk by faith, I trust that at some point, there will always be a safe harbour in which to heal.

Building A Bridge As We Cross It

In June, the Board of First United made a decision that worship will continue “online only” throughout the summer months. A small working group is looking at the safety and feasibility of re-opening our building and eventually offering limited in-person worship (in addition to continuing to offer worship online, likely through livestreaming). No decisions have been made at this time to return to worship in the sanctuary and currently our building remains closed to the public.

We, as staff, have wrestled with the state we’re in, since the pandemic quarantine began. Laura Stephens-Reed is an American “clergy and congreational coach” and she writes of current ministry work-life in this way,

In the past three months you have remained faithful to the gospel and your call, learning how to produce or livestream worship, preach to webcams and empty sanctuaries, reach new constituencies via online platforms, offer pastoral care and spiritual formation from a distance, and manage virtual meetings. You have lost sleep over when and how to re-gather physically as church. You have responded to the disparate calls to re-open immediately and to keep the doors closed until the rate of infection trends downward. You have wondered how to be church to those who don’t have smartphones or computers. Your head has nearly exploded from all the Zoom gatherings you’ve attended…

(Stephens-Reed’s full post is here.)

We’ve been there! And in lots of ways, we are adapting to it being our new “here”. You can help us plan for the summer and the fall by sharing your wishes and concerns. We have some questions to ask and we have put together a brief survey for you to fill out and give us your feedback and your ideas.

With restrictions easing in the province and as we have moved into Phase 3, we are seeing reopening plans in congregations and youth programs in various locations around BC. Summer day camps and sport programs are opening. We had made the decision not to hold Vacation Adventure this year.

But as we have all experienced throughout this time, things have had to remain fluid and situations can change quickly as well as over time as we learn more about the virus and how it is transmitted, as our own context here in BC and in Kelowna has developed.

We’d like to gauge interest/expectation of you all in worship and building usage and also for families, the willingness to have your children participate in in-person Christian education programs, possibly in the summer and in the Fall.

There are several factors to weigh in making a decision about whether we offer programs such as Vacation Adventure and Sunday School.

One is that our programs, traditionally, have been heavily volunteer-dependent; they require older youth and adult supervision and expertise. Another is the interest level, based on the feeling of parents about the safety of such activities and their willingness to have their children involved. We recognize that this might be informed by factors such as the limits to our church building and infrastructure.

Your time to fill out this questionnaire (and provide any other feedback you wish!) will help the staff, the board, the Education Core Ministry and the Worship Core Ministry proceed with plans for worship and children’s programming at First in the coming months.
Thank you so much!

Please click here to fill out the survey!

Living the Dream

After singing last week’s anthem ‘Walking by Faith’ (featured in the June 21 worship, click link here), I wondered, when so many bad things happen, how can we continue to walk in faith despite the sadness, toil and danger? In my pondering, I was reminded of this story:

About 10 years before retirement, my husband Roland and I decided that a) we didn’t want to wait a decade before living the dream, and b) we weren’t likely to win the lottery anytime soon. So if we wanted to fulfill our longing for travel, we’d have to find another way.

This might not be the solution for everyone, but we sold our house that fall, moved into a small apartment and arranged with our employers for a 7 month leave, deciding there was lots of time to worry about reduced pensions later. Early the next spring, we landed in Athens, giddy as children. Teenagers with resources, we called ourselves. We were high on life! The very air was delicious!

We drank in the wonders of the ancient city, then packed for our ‘Elenore-led’ tour of the islands. I’d backpacked through Europe as a teen and wanted to show Roland all the beauties I’d discovered. We climbed aboard the crowded train to Piraeus, pockets stuffed with unwieldy Greek currency. Bodies pressed and jostled against and around us as the train lurched along, so we were glad to arrive at the final stop. Except…

Before we had totally exited the train, Roland said, “I think I’ve been pick-pocketed.”

Sure enough, his every pocket hung inside-out, empty. I’d felt uncomfortable by some of the shoving, and so, mid-ride, had pulled my small pack tightly to my chest. The good news – I’d been carrying the passports and half the money.

The bad news – all Roland’s identification, credit cards and portion of our cash was gone. It appeared they could get that close to his privates without his noticing!

~to be continued~

…tune in to Friday’s First Word for the conclusion of Elenore and Roland’s adventure…

First United and COVID-19

To do our part to help counter the spread of COVID-19, First United has adjusted our worship and outreach practices to promote physical distancing while maintaining social contact and community support as best we can.

The church building is closed to the public for the foreseeable future. We are awaiting the advice of the BC Government before reopening the building and resuming normal worship, outreach, and community services, which will fall under Phase 4 of BC’s Response to COVID-19.

We are maintaining social contact and community support by hosting online meetings every Tuesday and Friday, and online worship services every Sunday. Please subscribe to our First Word newsletter to receive the weekly links to these online gatherings.

Grace and peace to you all.

Busting Myths and Advocating for Refugees

Amnesty International Okanagan is pleased to welcome Justin Mohammed as the guest speaker. Justin is the Human Rights Law and Policy Campaigner at Amnesty International Canada (English branch). Prior to his current role with Amnesty International Canada, he clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, served as a Human Rights Officer with the United Nations Peacekeeping mission in Mali, and worked at the Library of Parliament as an analyst for the House of Commons Subcommittee on International Human Rights.

Justin will speak to the general situation facing refugees around the world, refute some of the myths about refugees, explain refugee law and policy issues here in Canada and share what AI Canada is working on. There will time for a question and answer as well.

Preregistration on Eventbrite is required. https://bustingmythsaboutrefugees.eventbrite.ca

Once you register, we will send you the Zoom link information.