“Small Things”

November 11th

I recently built a “helm”, a ship’s steering wheel, for a production of “The King And I”. Although it took me about two hours to make the thing, it will appear only for a total of about ten minutes in the entire play. In fact, it’s just an added extra, to help create a more ship-like feeling for one scene. It might seem like a lot of effort for something that’s not critical to the success of the production but, as the saying goes, every little bit helps. Even one added detail, like a ship’s helm, contributes to the sense that the audience is on board with the actors rather than simply sitting in an auditorium.
While the prop I built adds to the play, it probably won’t stand out; folks won’t remember it as the best feature of the performance. But, sometimes small details work in the opposite way; sometimes a wee, tiny thing will stand out in our memories, helping to reinforce the moment rather than taking away from it. A couple of years after my father’s death, I found myself sitting on a mountainside in the exact spot I had been with him on a previous vacation. That one moment in my memory came back to me and opened a floodgate of healing tears, helping me to bring my grief to completion and allowing me to move on to remember Papa without pain.
A sight, a sound, a place, a word; all can stand out in our minds as a marker to a bigger, more significant thing. They can draws into a moment of joy or sorrow or even release. And there are times when we are that sight, sound, place or word; there are occasions when we are the brief moment in a person’s life that takes them elsewhere, that moves them or touches them in a deep way, even though we might not be the centre or most important thing in that memory; rather, we can be the starting point, the trigger or the key that moves them to another place and time.
Just like the helm that appears in one brief scene, even a small thing can matter greatly; every little bit helps. And so we should be conscious that what we say and do matters to those around us. What seems trivial and silly to us may point them to a deep, meaningful memory; a word tossed off casually or flippantly might draw forth a instance of sorrow or joy; a touch or gesture can create a more significant feeling that words cannot fully draw out.
In our everyday, mundane and even hum-drum interactions with others, every little bit matters; every wee thing counts; no detail is too insignificant, no exchange totally meaningless. Everything we do, say and are makes a difference in the lives of everyone we meet.

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“Huh?”

November 4th

We humans are never just one thing. We have different roles in life, depending on what we’re trying to accomplish, our gifts, experience and the many different events and people that have shaped our lives. I’m a Pastor, husband, father, wanna-be-woodworker, maker, writer, musician, actor and overall positive thinker. And, believe it or not, I am also a Secret Agent!
No, not a spy like Ethan Hunt of Mission Impossible fame, and certainly not a Double-O agent with a license to kill (although I am Double-Double agent with a license to amuse slightly). Rather, I am a trained professional secret-keeper. Tell me your story, share with me a private moment, talk to me about which Bond was the best, and if it’s in the context of anything but a broader conversation with a whole bunch of trivia nerds, it is absolutely safe with me. I will never share, reveal or hint at what we talk about with another person if is revealed to me in privacy, or in my capacity as a Pastor.
Now, you’re probably saying to yourself, “Well, except for his wife. Surely he talks to her about things that happen and the people he meets.” To which Lois would answer, “Nope. Never. Uh-uh. Not a chance.” What happens between you and me, unless it’s something you explicitly say I can share with others, stays between you and me. Period. No exceptions.
Of course, this does lead to the occasional embarrassing moment for Lois. Sometimes folks will assume I have told her about the funny story you told me about your strange uncle. But, if I have my Pastor’s hat on, not a chance. It will never happen. All you will get from her in response is either a blank stare, or a quizzical “Huh?” or both, if you’re lucky. Maybe you’ve shared with me plans you have for the church, or for some other thing that might involve Lois. But, unless you let me know it’s safe to let her in, it’s your idea, your plan, and until you’re ready to reveal it to a broader audience, I will say nothing. Nada. Zip.
The reason I’m so strict about maintaining radio-silence is two-fold. First, it’s a matter of trust. When you entrust me with something about yourself, I want you to know it’s safe with me. Unless it’s a matter with legal ramifications, like abuse, then I keep my lips shut; your trust in me is my command to shut-up and maintain confidentiality. The other thing that makes me keep your secrets is simply to protect you, myself, and others, whether it’s Lois or folks on the street. If I don’t tell your story to others, you are safe. I am safe, too, because I don’t expose myself to losing your trust, or to drawing curious, gossipy ears into places they don’t belong. Finally, I protect Lois and others by maintaining your privacy, first by not giving them the opportunity to mess up and say things out of turn, but also by not exposing them to any the pain within your story.
So, now you know my not-so-secret identity as a Secret Agent. What stories you share with me, stay with me. Period. Even if it means you get the occasional blank stare from Lois should you choose to share something with her. Better for her to be a bit embarrassed about being in the dark, than for you do be let down by me should I breach your trust.

“Stories”

October 28th

If you hang around with me long enough, you’ll learn that I am a bit of a story-teller and that I love to hear other people’s stories. It’s probably why I love good movies that get into a person’s character. I love to hear how someone got to where they are; for me it’s both a way to connect with people (even if they are just imaginary comic book characters) and to get a better, bigger picture of human beings and the world in which we live.
Mind you, I realize that maybe I don’t give as much as I get. In conversations I’m usually the first one to ask “what do you like to do?” or “how did you get from where you were to where you are?”. I am not, however, likely to initiate my own story, or even give you a lot of room to ask for it. Yes, I know, I have issues…
As much as I like hearing people tell their personal story and explore their journey I am not a big fan of the second-hand story. If, in the course of our discourse I ask someone to tell me about another person, it’s a very carefully expressed request. It’s not a “tell me all the dirt” question; I’m looking for information about how that person connects to the stories we’re telling each other or perhaps even living out together through our common interests.
It is a very fine line that I tread gently, if not always successfully. If, in the course of telling someone my story, I get asked about one of the people that populate it, I offer enough information to fill in the necessary blanks, and no more. Or, if I’ve been hurt by someone, I might share what happened to the appropriate listening ear in order to get guidance on how to proceed towards healing, fixing and forgiveness. And it’s the same the other way ‘round. There are moments in telling our stories that other characters make an appearance and we need to explain how and why they fit in.
Where I draw the line, however, is in hearing or sharing second hand stories out of context. I try to be very careful about how I talk about others, and I am conscious how easily a seemingly polite or innocent start of a story can quickly lead into an opinion-fest that is neither kind nor healthy. Some folks, however, have a hard time respecting that line; some just hop over it with great glee and delight in order to share a piece of juicy gossip or a tidbit of a racy story.
We all have stories to tell. And we all have ears to hear the stories of the people we meet. And sometimes those stories involve second or third parties whose roles need explanation and a little bit of added story-telling. We are not, however, called to tell the stories of others when they are more gossip than information. Sometimes silence is a virtue and a juicy tidbit is best left unshared. That’s my story for today…

“Acknowledgement”

October 21st

The “#metoo” movement and the recent appointment of a United States Federal Supreme Court Judge who has been accused of sexual assault speak to issues of accusation and innocence. In both the Canadian and American justice systems, the accused is automatically assumed to be innocent until the charges are proven in court. It is up to the appropriate Prosecutor to decide whether or not the accuser is sufficiently believable and there is enough evidence before proceeding with a trial and prosecution.
For most people, this sounds like a pretty fair system. For a person who claims to follow the Christian faith, however, this should sound rather unusual. Here’s why. One of the things we Christians believe is that we are inherently guilty of sin. It doesn’t matter what the specific sin might be; we are assumed to be guilty because, thanks the Garden of Eden incident, we live in a fallen world.
Granted, that assumption of guilt doesn’t always mean that we are guilty. Most of us can make it several days without breaking one of God’s rules. Some folks can even go for a few weeks and never once do something wrong. But the principle remains. We are, as fallen creatures, naturally prone to sin and, therefore, assumed to be guilty.
This shouldn’t cause you to feel bad about yourself. The fact that we all lean towards doing naughty things, that the potential exists within us with every choice we make or action we take, does not force us to do so. It’s simply an admission that we’re not perfect and that we’re just as likely to get things wrong as we are to get them right.
While this might seem to be a troubling situation, there are a few things that should ease your sense of guilt or foreboding. First off, knowing that we’re imperfect gives us incentive to do better. With every choice and action we have an opportunity to get it right, or at least to do our best. Then there’s the fact that God has equipped us with the information we need in order not to blow it. Between the original Ten Commandments, Jesus’ commandment for us to love as we would be loved, and His own example and teachings, we are well equipped to rise above our fallen state. In addition to those physical aids, we also have the Holy Spirit’s guidance and empowerment helping us steer away from mistakes in order to follow the path of goodness and justice.
The biggest reason for not feeling guilty or ashamed is that God is merciful, just and loving. Out of that mercy, justice and love, God has forgiven us our sins and will continue to do so every time we blow it. We might be fallen creatures, but God will never let us stay down. As long as we admit to the truth God will lift us up and restore us through the Christ-purchased forgiveness provided for us.
Yes, we are less than perfect. But if we are willing to live with that reality and take responsibility for our actions, then we can work towards being the best God made us to be. Knowing the truth about ourselves is half the battle; recognizing our potential and living up to God’s hopes and expectations for us is all it takes to move us from guilt to innocence.

“Scrutineers”

October 14th

As a fan of all things mechanical and most things race-car related, I was intrigued by a video entitled: “Citroen Rally Team rebuilds a wrecked rear-end in 32 minutes”. Sure enough, a Citroen World Rally Car pulled into the pits with one wheel dangling precariously and 32 minutes later, it drove off with all four wheels where they should be. For those of you who aren’t into cars, this was remarkable. Replacing not just a wheel, but all of the assorted axles, springs, shocks, mounts and related equipment is a task that takes a normal mechanic several hours. The French rally team guys performance was extraordinary.
What really amazed me about their accomplishment was not the silent teamwork, or their efficiency, or their great organizational skills. The most impressive part of their work was doing it all under the watchful eye of a Scrutineer, a person assigned by the rally organizers to make sure that all of the rules of the race were followed. In terms of the vehicle repair, the Scrutineer was there to see that the car was returned to its original state, nothing more or nothing less. Body panels had to be restored, no improvements could be made and nothing could be modified to alter the performance or function of the car.
Imagine the pressure the mechanics must have felt. Their car was effectively out of the race and had to get back on track as soon as possible. The damage was extensive and the parts were critical, high-precision items that had to be installed correctly the first time with no margin for error. And everything they did was being watched over by a Scrutineer who had the power to end their race should they break the rules, or even be perceived to be doing so. Talk about stress as the worked furiously under the hawk-like gaze of a cold, immovable judge. It’s remarkable how well they performed in those conditions.
We human beings, for as much as we would like to think we are free to do as we please, are also under the watchful eye of a great and powerful Scrutineer. God expects us to serve and to love as God serves and loves us. We are called to care for creation. We are called to live to our full potential and to build one another up. It’s a high-stakes game, with our heavenly Judge scrutinizing our every move in order to determine whether or not we receive eternal life when our time on earth comes to an end.
However, unlike the World Rally Scrutineer, God is gracious and merciful. If we blow it we aren’t thrown out of the race; we are forgiven so we can try again. And whether it’s one mistake or a million, if we seek God’s forgiveness, we receive it, freely. Still, there is an overall judgement. Our performance on earth determines whether or not we gain entry into heaven. But here’s the thing; God keeps no record of wrongs; we are scrutinized not for the number of times we do good things, but for the reason we act as we do. If we obey God out of fear or just to win, we will lose. But if we live to love God, others and ourselves as we are loved by God, there is no reason to fear our heavenly Scrutineer.

“Loved Straight”

October 7th

Writer Maya Kroth penned an article entitled: “I Was Scared Straight by Judge Judy’s Bailiff”. In it Ms. Kroth describes the moment in her life when the famous TV Bailiff, otherwise known as Petri Byrd, caused her to turn her life around. He wasn’t Judge Judy’s bailiff at the time; he was at her school, the “narc”, as he was known by the students. She describes him as being “tasked with keeping the kids who were on the margins of our nationally ranked school from falling off the page completely”. For Ms. Kroth, Mr. Byrd was, quite literally, a life-saver; through simple action he gave her the incentive to leave her self-destructive path and take one that was safer and healthier. He had indeed kept her from “falling off the page completely”.
Later in life, Ms. Kroth spotted Mr. Byrd on TV as Judge Judy’s bailiff, so she reached out to him so she could thank him personally. Her high-school saviour agreed to meet, so she flew to LA for the face to face encounter. In the course of their conversation he told her “Black or white, rich or poor, whatever the circumstances people find themselves in, everybody wants to feel loved, to feel secure, to feel valued, to feel like it’s a team.” While it wasn’t directly the motive behind his success in help Ms. Kroth and other stay on the page, it’s clearly a fundamental part of his success. “Everybody wants to be loved.”
Reading his words, a thought popped into my mind: Ms. Kroth hadn’t been so much scared straight as she was loved straight. The life-changing encounter with the “narc” wasn’t one filled with fear and terror; it was a simple, knowing glance from him that caused her to realize that she had been seen for who she was. In that simple act, she knew that to him, she was more than a student on the wrong track; she mattered. She knew she was lovable and loved.
When God saw how far we had fallen, when we had pretty much hit rock-bottom, God intervened, but not by scaring us straight. God stepped in through Jesus, loving us straight through His death and resurrection. God didn’t send Jesus to the cross. We did that; but God turned our stupidity around, turning our lowest moment into Jesus’ greatest victory. No doubt, Jesus was afraid, but that personal fear was over-ridden by His love, and it’s that love that saved us.
Sure, sometimes we’re scared half to death when we make an awful mistake or poor choice, but that’s just a warning sign that we need to smarten up and straighten out. Fear can only go so far; it might cause us to change to a safer course, but it won’t necessarily keep us there. What keeps us on the straight and narrow is the love and support of those around us who care enough to help us get back up on our feet. We need someone who sees us for who we are and is able to remind us of our worth. We don’t need to be scared straight so much as to be loved straight. It doesn’t take someone tasked with the job, the “narc” hired to do that one thing. All it takes is the eyes to see someone for who they are and the heart to love them away from their own self-destruction.

“Responsibility”

September 30th

I just finished reading an article by Mika Brzezinski, a prominent American newscaster who works on the “Morning Joe” show. In it she explained her unsuccessful attempt to ask for a much needed pay raise. Ms. Brzezinski  ultimately concluded that she undermined herself by the way she framed her request. Rather than making a compelling case for what she contributed to the program, she explained that she needed more money in order to buy the appropriate wardrobe she felt she required. In her own words: “I had minimized my own value by whining about clothing costs, when the real reason I deserved a raise would have made a much more compelling argument.”
Ms. Brzezinski’s basic premise is that she should be responsible for getting what she needs from her employers. She notes that her male counterparts “…were doing a good job of getting what they wanted and deserved.” In effect, they knew their value and made sure that they were paid accordingly. During her tenure with the show, Brzezinski knew her value, but could not make it known to those who were paying her, resulting in her inability to receive a much needed and deserved pay raise.
I understand her premise; we all have to know our value so that we don’t get devalued by others. If we don’t know our own worth, thoughtless or less than scrupulous employers, or co-workers can all-too-easily take advantage of us. As Ms. Brzezinski reveals, we might end up being overworked, under payed and under appreciated. But it shouldn’t be our responsibility completely. Employers, co-workers and customers alike should take note of their employees’, co-workers’ or servers’ value. Or, more broadly, we should all take note of the people in our lives that make us better people.
Our success and joy are a product of both our own efforts and those of the good people around us. So, while Ms. Brzezinski was right to recognize how she failed herself in seeking a raise, she was also failed by the people who did not recognize her contribution, or did not support and speak up for her and with her so that her value could be acknowledged and rewarded appropriately.
As people of faith, we realize that life is not necessarily about success or recognition. But part of being whole and healthy is realizing that we are worthy of something, that we are making a positive contribution to the lives of the people around us, and that we are serving God well and lovingly. That means that we are called to call out those people in our lives who are helping us to succeed and grow. It’s not just a nice thing to do. It’s our responsibility to recognize and acknowledge the positive, supportive influences in our lives, because it is a direct response to Jesus’ command to love others as we would be loved. If we wish to be valued for who and what we are, then we are responsible for valuing family, friends, neighbours, and even  complete strangers for the Christ-like goodness they offer to us and to the world at large.