“Vantage Point”

May 17th

Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital, in Orillia, Ontario, is set up on one of the many hills in the city. While the building itself is only a few stories tall, its location offers a commanding view of the city, so when I visit patients, I always take advantage of the vista and make sure to pause and admire the view.
Looking out over Orillia from the fourth floor you can see houses, restaurants, shops, a huge medical clinic, small factories, schools, a bit of Lake Simcoe and some of the surrounding countryside. It’s definitely worth a look.
From that vantage point I not only see the buildings, roads, greenery (or snow) and all that makes up a wee city, but also a myriad of people living their lives, going to eat, to work, to physiotherapy, to whatever is part of a normal life. I am all too aware, however, that all this is taking place while I am in a hospital, visiting folks for whom life is not at all normal. They are receiving palliative care, or getting new joints so that they can have greater mobility and less pain. They may be recovering from an illness, or in transit from living on their own to a long-term care facility. For whatever reason, I am visiting folks in crisis.
Meanwhile, life goes on in Orillia, with folks unaware of what’s going on in the hospital. Not only do they not know about what the patients are dealing with, they don’t really care. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not being critical. Their lack of concern doesn’t mean they are heartless, cold, or selfish. They don’t care because they are not involved in the lives of the people in the hospital. They have their own worries, concerns and pains. They have their own circle of family and friends they care about, their own spheres of influence where they laugh, cry and share their feelings. They may know someone in the hospital, but then again, they might not.
From the vantage point of a hospital window, seeing folks living life as normal, I realize how disconnected we can be. People living their lives in Orillia may know somebody receiving medical care at Soldiers’ Memorial. I might well meet them in the halls or on the street and commiserate with them about common connection. But, then again, they may not know anyone currently in Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital. In this time of their lives they may appreciate its presence, but it has no direct bearing on them.
Yet as I look over Orillia from up on high, I know that we all live life together. I may not know any of the people I see out there, they might not know anyone I’m visiting in the hospital, but we are all living our lives together, sharing the same kinds of highs and lows, joys and pains, suffering and celebration that is part of being human. As such, we are all God’s children, united in God’s loving heart even if we don’t know one another. From up on high in a hospital window, I can see a lot going on, but I don’t see or know everything. God, on the other hand, sees and knows everything that’s going on. What’s more, God cares for each and every human and, through Jesus, shows us what that looks like.
We might not be able to know or to care for humanity the way that God does, but that doesn’t mean we can’t care for the folks that we can see from our own particular vantage point, whatever it might be.

“Heroes”

May 10th

In our current state of affairs the word “hero” has been bandied about quite a bit in reference to first-responders, health care workers and those who continue to provide essential services despite the risk they face in doing so.
To call someone a hero is to say that this person has gone above and beyond the call of duty. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a hero as “a person admired for achievements and noble qualities.” When someone knowingly and willingly puts themselves at risk for the safety of others, I believe they deserve to be called “heroes”. Anyone whose achievements include helping strangers or providing much needed provisions or services despite the possibility of making themselves sick is a hero. Anyone who is ready to make the ultimate sacrifice is a hero. First-responders, health care workers and those who continue to provide essential services despite the risk they face in doing so definitely deserve to be called heroes.
Not all people would agree with this opinion. I recently saw a Facebook post that would deny first-responders, health care workers and those who continue to provide essential services the title of “hero”. This post suggests that only those who served in times of war deserve that particular appellation. Let me assure you that this post is absolutely and completely wrong.
From a strictly literal point of view, that is, according to the dictionary, warriors are certainly included in the definition of a “hero”, but it is not the only definition. Thus denying anyone but a person who has been in a war is wrong, period, full stop. More importantly, from a moral point of view, anyone who performs a noble act is a hero, and doubly so when that person is willing to sacrifice their lives. Don’t tell me that the doctors, nurses and other caregivers who died directly because of their exposure to COVID-19 patients weren’t heroes. They were, plain and simple. They gave their lives trying to help people who could not help themselves.
One of the great blessings God gave us is the ability to care for one another, often at great risk to ourselves. It is, perhaps, the highest expression of Jesus’ command that we love one another as we would be loved. The heroes taking their stand in the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, whether it’s the caregivers or those making sure our communities are safe and our essential needs provided for, demonstrate that love purely and profoundly.
And to those heroes, the first-responders, health care workers and those who continue to provide essential services despite the risk they face in doing so, I would like to offer my deepest, most heartfelt thanks. May God bless you and keep you safe as you reveal the highest possible form of love in real, tangible ways. You truly deserve to be called “heroes”.

“Thoughts”

May 3rd

In the letter of “James”, one of the few Gospel documents in which the writer names himself, we are told about how a tongue, a wee small thing, is like the rudder of a boat. Although both are tiny compared to the object to which they belong, they have great influence over them. Rudders allow the ship to be steered wherever the pilot desires. It is under their control and its effects are known. The tongue, however, is also under the control of its owner, but its effects are not always as easily predicted. While the rudder only reacts with the water, and does so predictably, the words the tongue helps to create can land on the desired audience or the wrong one. What’s more, those words might not be appropriate or helpful even for the desired listener. Indeed, their influence might not be at all what the speaker desires. Such is the tongue’s power.
I wonder what James would make of a propeller and its effect of moving a ship forward. While he would have been familiar with oars and sails, the fairly recent innovation of a spinning set of blades to move a boat would have been completely unknown, probably even inconceivable, to him.
Not to put words into James’ mouth, I’d like to take moment to play with the thought of how he might have run with the idea.
“Take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are powered by a very small propeller wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, a thought is a small part of the body, but it causes great motion.”
The propeller, usually unseen in the water beneath a boat, moves the boat forward according to the pilot’s will to drive the boat forward or backwards. Thoughts, likewise, move us forward, according to our will. One might be the ultimate expression of our will, others might be what formulates that will, yet others may decry or undermine our will. Our thoughts propel our words, our actions and even our reactions and even though they are invisible often have a very visible influence on us.
Our tongue is not always needed, just as the rudder only comes into play when the pilot wishes to change direction. Our thoughts, however, just like the propeller, never stop if we are moving anywhere in life. When a the propeller stops, the boat simply becomes an oddly shaped structure floating on the water. When our thoughts stop, we become nothing. Paraphrasing Descartes very roughly, to think is to be.
Our thoughts, although invisible, make us who we are. Like a propeller, they can drive us forwards or backwards. Positive thoughts move us ahead, negative ones can hold us back or cause us harm. Just like the tongue and the propeller, they are under our control. It is up to us to choose which way we are going, whether it’s stagnating or moving backwards, or growing, maturing and moving forwards. Or, to play with James’ words again:
“With our thoughts we can honour our Creator, and with them we dishonour the one in whose likeness we have been made.” So, what way are your thoughts leading you?

“Elephant”

April 26th
“Elephant”
Twenty-two (22) deaths in Portapique, Nova Scotia. The staggering reality of the recent mass-murder in this Atlantic provice is a hard one to understand. In Canada, the scope of the violence perpetrated by just one person is unprecedented. Yet while it took place far away, it has hit every Canadian hard. We are at a loss for words. We feel helpless. Too many people are grieving and facing great losses. The peaceful community of Portapique, the last place you would ever expect a thing like this to happen, will never be the same.
I hate writing this. I’m sure you’re not pleased reading what I’m offering. These are difficult words; the reality that has inspired them is even more difficult. I can hardly believe it less alone accept it. However, it is the truth; 22 beautiful souls, including an RCMP constable who was trying to keep people from dying, were murdered. That is the plain and simple, albeit awful truth…
…and truth, however terrible, must be spoken and acknowledged.
Sometimes we deliberately walk around the Elephant in the room, looking in the other direction, pretending it isn’t there. Unfortunately, the Elephant doesn’t care; it moves about, tripping us up, knocking us down, causing us grief and misery even as we try our best to avoid it. There is no other way than to open our eyes and to see it for what it is, to acknowledge it and accept that it is an undeniable fact of life. Today’s Elephant is an unbelievable death toll and the grief and sorrow of so many innocent people across our vast nation.
As hard as it is to write these words, as hard as it is to stare the Elephant in the eye, it is also the only way to deal with our pain, mourn the victims, support those who have been impacted by the tragedy and…
…make the Elephant in the room go away.
To speak the truth is to take control of how we deal with it. We can’t change it, but we can let it sink in without letting it overwhelm us. We can speak about it together so that we don’t have to bear its full weight alone. We can discuss what it means, the whats and the whys and learn from what happened. And slowly but surely, one staggering step at a time, we can accept it and move on.
It is a painful truth we are dealing with. It is a horrible, awful Elephant. But if we don’t speak of it or acknowledge it, a terrible truth can overwhelm us. The only way to keep that from happening is to write or speak the words so that what they address will not cause us any further harm.
Jesus said: “The truth shall set you free”. He was talking to those who refused to believe Him and what he taught. When we bind ourselves to the truth of Christ, then there is no earthly truth, or Elephant, that can overwhelm us.
If we are to overcome the truth of the tragedy in Portapique, Nova Scotia, we must speak first it.

“Maturity”

April 19th

I am blessed to have some truly talented friends. One of them, Christy, is a water colour artist; I’ve known her for over 10 years. In the past little while she has been able to focus more and more on her art and the results have been truly astonishing. Not only the pieces beautiful, they also reflect a maturity to her skills that almost make the process transparent. Looking at her paintings makes me feel that the images come directly from her soul, almost bypassing thought and physical effort. The result is more than pretty pictures; it’s a series of creations that speak beauty and joy directly to the viewers soul, almost bypassing sight and thought.
That’s one of the blessings of growing and maturing. As we progress in age and the miles start accumulating, we build and refine our inherent gifts and talents. Lessons aren’t just learned, they are absorbed and ingrained into our natural rhythms and routines. Muscle memory becomes deeply imprinted so that complex tasks become automatic, allowing more time to be spent on creating rather than doing. For an artist like Christy, it means that what she envisions can be executed with far more attention to detail than simply getting the task done.
The ability for us to grow and mature into our giftedness is a gift in and of itself. It is a blessing that we can refine what we enjoy doing and comes naturally to us, enabling us to be more effective with less effort, and to be able to enjoy the task at hand. When the painter has to focus on individual brush strokes or the singer on breath control, they cannot do the whole painting or song the justice it deserves. Only as the mechanics of their craft become ingrained can they truly create beautiful works of art.
Maturity is not an end goal. It does not come only near the end of an artist’s career. It is present as soon as their actions require less thought and they can concentrate more on what they’re producing rather than the act of production.  Maturing is itself a process, one that continually improves one’s ability to create art or to do whatever one’s gifts might be.
Maturity is a gift from God that we all share. It brings about something “other” to our giftedness. It allows those gifts to flow naturally and seamlessly from the depths of our souls so that, in turn, we can touch the souls of others with whatever we have to offer.

“Different”

April 12th
“Different”
My wife, Lois, bought groceries today. Normally, that would not be headline news or something I felt necessary to share with you. Today, however, she did not go to the grocery store, wander about the aisles, shopping list in hand, chatting with neighbours and generally doing a normal, everyday thing. No, today Lois bought groceries by ordering and paying for them online, going to the store, and then having them loaded into her minivan. This is the new reality of physical isolation. Thanks to the need for us to remain well separated, Foodland, our local grocery store will take your order online and load into your vehicle so that you don’t have to go inside where there might be other people in close proximity.
Both local hardware stores are still open. Business as usual, since they are an essential service. However, one is enforcing social distancing by having people wait outside, safely separated, so as not to overcrowd the aisles. The other is only letting people order from outside, or online, and loading their vehicles for them, minimizing exposure to other humans.
Things are clearly very different right now. The freedom of movement and social interaction we enjoyed are severely limited. Our mutual safety and well-being are of primary concern and so we must take extraordinary measures in response.
Yet for all the difference we are experiencing right now, what matters the most has not changed. We are maintaining physical distancing out of the same love that existed before the term “COVID-19” was coined. We continue to help one another, to keep in touch with one another and even engage in simple social interactions, even if it’s simply chatting loudly with our neighbours from the safety of our respective porches. And, of course, we continue to complain when things are bad and we are still trying figure out the meaning of life, the universe and everything.
While things are different, it’s important to hold on to those things that underlie a meaningful life, and maybe practice them a little more diligently and with a greater focus on the greater good. Now, more than ever, we should keep God’s love in the forefront, embracing it for our own support, and giving it away without restriction for the good of others. Now, more than ever, we should be good and faithful servants, honouring all that Jesus did and modelled for us.
My wife, Lois, bought groceries today. She did it differently from the way she has done it before, but she still got the job done. Thanks to the caring staff at our local Foodland, she was able to do it safely and enjoyably.
Today, we will do many things differently from the way we have normally done them, but that doesn’t mean we should stop doing them in a way that reflects God’s love for us, and our love for others.

“Physical”

April 5th
“Physical”
Sometimes we just get it wrong. Despite doing our best and having all the good intentions in the world, we humans absolutely blow it. Take our current crisis and our response to it: “Social Distancing”. Great concept. Sounds wonderful. But it’s not really accurate. What we need is to be apart socially, but to be apart PHYSICALLY.
What’s the difference you ask? Let me paint a word picture:
You and I are in pre-COVID-19 days having lunch at Em’s cafe. We are connected socially, chatting away, separated by the width of a table. Due to the geometry of the way we sit, our faces are about two metres apart. We are physically separated. The person behind me, however, is almost touching me. They are facing their partner, deeply engaged in conversation with them. She and I are socially distanced, each of us caught up in a friendly discussion with our lunch-mate, but we are physically close. There is just enough space between us to that the back of our heads don’t touch should either of us get rather animated as we talk.
That’s the difference between social and physical distancing. That’s why I don’t see the term as being particularly useful. It doesn’t describe what we need to do. In fact, it gives us a completely incorrect way to deal with the situation.
Having church suspended, shops closed or businesses running with minimal staffing has isolated us both physically and socially. While being separated bodily is good for our overall health, being socially isolated is terrible for our emotional and mental well-being. God did not create us to be apart from one another. We were created to be in relationship with God and each other. Social distancing is the last thing we need right now, which is why I believe we’ve gotten the term so wrong.
What we need is to stay out of reach of physical contact while at the same time staying connected on a social, emotional and Spiritual level. Right now, more than ever, we need to support, encourage and to help keep each other from going stir-crazy. Maybe we can’t do so the way we used to: no chats with parishioners at Em’s for me, no parties, no church dinners, not even worshipping together. We have to keep our physical distance in order to keep each other safe and healthy.
Right now there is a lot we can get wrong in terms of putting ourselves or others at risk for the Corona virus. But there is a lot we can get right, like washing frequently and thoroughly, trying not to touch our faces, sneezing into our sleeves and, most importantly, staying at home unless absolutely necessary. For now, we have to keep our distance physically. But that does not mean staying apart socially. What we need to get right is keeping in touch with others, especially those who might have limited contact with the world. Not everyone has social media or even computers. So our phones have become ever more important. Conversations with our neighbours from the safety and distance of our own porches. Anything that allows us to connect with others emotionally and Spiritually is the right, good and even holy thing to do.

“Blame”

March 29th
“Blame”
The Corona virus, like any other virus, is a single-celled organism whose sole purpose, as far as it’s concerned, is to reproduce itself. In fulfilling that desire it creates great misery, and at times death, for the hosts it infects. It does not, however, have a will of its own. It does not select its victims. It did not choose to cause an infectious disease. It simply works according to genetic instructions encoded within its DNA.
If I’m simply stating the obvious and you are aware of this, I apologize. I opened my thoughts this way in response to the many people who have found ways to blame the Corona virus for misery it has caused. People have said that the physical isolation needed to prevent its spread has been politically motivated, as if it somehow voted in an election or has bribed political leaders to do its evil bidding. Other say that it is a fulfillment of God’s plans, a little demonic being answering God’s call to punish whatever evildoers God is mad at. Still others claim that it is a weapon of mass destruction created by a foreign government to go out and conquer the world, just a wee virus soldier blindly doing it’s master’s will.
Let me assure you that neither the virus, nor any other person or organization, is to blame for what is happening today. While the virus is the cause of COVID-19, it was not a conscious decision of the Corona virus to wreak havoc in its victims’ bodies or within humanity in general. Neither is there anyone to blame for the virus, the disease or the social impact it has caused. What is happening is in response to the need for us to try to prevent its spread or to survive its debilitating effects on those who are infected. We are reacting to something for which there is a cause, but no blame.
The Corona and other viruses, disease, pain, suffering, are a part of life. We cannot blame anyone for their existence. God did not create them to punish or test us; they are part of a Creation that has abandoned its Creator. While we can assign blame to specific people that have caused us specific physical or emotional pain, there is no one to blame for COVID-19.
Rather than looking for or assigning blame, we people of faith should find ways to make things better and to carry on serving God in our own way. That means physically isolating ourselves to prevent the spread of the disease while finding ways to keep in contact and support each other, our neighbours, friends and even strangers in other ways. Blame accomplishes nothing. Love conquers all. Let’s do our best to honour God’s love for all of us by doing our best to love one another and help each other in this difficult time.

“Balance”

March 22nd

I am writing these “Thoughts” on March 19th, 2020, the day of the vernal equinox for this year. This is the moment that the length of day and night are exactly the same. Tomorrow will see slightly more day than night, a pattern repeated until the number of daylight hours peak, and we start moving the other way. It’s a weird, complicated thing that’s due to the way our planet revolves around its tilted axis and how it travels around the sun. All I know is that today is a day of harmony between day and night. There is balance between them.
For me at least, it’s a nice thought, this idea of balance. Even though it will soon change and daytime will have a slight edge over nighttime, for an instant they balance each other off. I imagine it in my mind as a sort of solar truce between them. Neither wins; neither loses. Each gets just, fair and equal representation today.
In addition writing on the day of 2020’s vernal equinox, I’m also writing on the fourth day of my church having suspended worship and all public gatherings in the building. I’m in my office, alone, continuing to work in the midst of the rising COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s kind of weird. In so many ways, nothing seems to be happening, but connecting through phone calls and social media, people are still living their lives. Despite the worries and fears, despite the closures and voluntary self-isolation, good things are happening.
It’s all about balance. Yes, we need to worry and be a little bit afraid. These things keep us on our toes and make us aware of the risks we face. But those two emotions have to be balanced with hope and courage. We can’t control what will happen on a global scale, but we can make a difference by carrying on with our lives as best we can. A healthy bit of fear keeps us from doing anything foolish, like gathering in groups and risking exposure. Courage, on the other hand, empowers us to get up and face another day in whatever degree of setting ourselves apart we need. There is shopping to be done. Restaurants are still offering meals via take-out or delivery options. With Spring slowly making itself felt, there’s a whole outdoors waiting to be enjoyed even more than we do in winter.
Balance. Or maybe not. Maybe a little imbalance is what we need. Maybe we need to lean a little more towards the positive and hopeful, towards the courageous, towards the empowered, towards the holy and the sacred. I believe in a god of love. Jesus is not about balancing good and evil. He seeks to overcome evil’s power with love, mercy and grace. That’s how Jesus leans. Perhaps we should follow His example more closely and lean towards love and goodness, patience and kindness, mercy and care. Perfect balance is great for today, the vernal equinox. But for day to day living? I pray that we tilt the scale towards Jesus and the way he shows us how to love one another.

“Stories”

March 15th
“Stories”
Those with an inclination towards fishing must be adept with the rod and reel. This skill, however is inversely dependent on their ability to tell a good story. People with great success catching fish either have the photographic proof after they release them, or a bucketful of fish ready for the frying pan should they keep them. No other proof is required, as the tale is in the visual or edible evidence they offer, so they need not be great story-tellers.
Those with below average skills with their chosen tools cannot provide adequate evidence of their ability. Thus, they have to have greater talent as story-tellers so that they can describe in great detail the adventure nearly snagging that big one that got away, or the time their record setting Bass was eaten–right off the line, darn it!–by a monstrous Muskie. Them that can (Can or can’t?) do it might be said, tell great stories. They might not be true tales, but what they lack in veracity they make up for in ingenuity and entertainment.
For people who like to fish, telling tall tails, er, tales, is part of the fun. They are taken with a grain of salt and enjoyed knowing that there is a grain of truth buried somewhere in there. The massive Muskie that ate their big Bass might have been a lot smaller, and the big Bass only a mini minnow, but it was eaten right off the line, so the only thing that changed was the scale of the tail, er, tale.
For some people, however, stories are told not to entertain, but to pull the wool over the listener’s ears. Sometimes they’re long tales of woe and despair. Sometimes they are tales of having been cheated or been done wrong by someone. Sometimes they are delusions built on a skewed world view or mental health issues that are beyond a person’s control. Sometimes they even contain a grain of truth buried deep within them. Always, however, they are meant to deceive the hearer by playing on their heartstrings and seeking their emotional or financial support.
I hear a fair number of these stories in my vocation. Most of the time they’re from sad souls seeking financial support; cash for a bus ticket to a job far away; money to feed their estranged family; a “just once” loan to get them on their feet after a bad patch. The tales are often heart-wrenching and hard to resist…
…but over the years I’ve learned that quite often, they are far from the truth, and recently it was only a matter of minutes before I learned I had been told an outright, bold-faced lie.
You know what? Unless I know for certain that someone’s story is absolutely false, I will help the out as best I can. Unless I know I’m absolutely being played or lied to, I will do what I can to help someone when they’re in trouble.
I do it not out of guilt, but because I can; I do it because we are called to help one another. And I do it because I would rather be called a fool for falling for a falsehood than being called unkind or un-Christlike. And sometimes, even if I know it’s a whopper of a tail, er tale, I figure it’s worth the price of admission just to having been reeled in by a few lines of great invention and imagination.