Knowing people, not issues

I grew up with very little personal contact with Canada’s First Nations. My community was more known for its South Asian population, and even then, visible minorities and different cultures were, well, more invisible than anything.

So to attend last week’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was as much an education for me as it was a chance to display solidarity for Canada’s First Nations people. To support someone, it helps to know them.

The event itself was set-up to get to know people’s stories. Residential school abuse was not presented as an abstract social issue requiring correction (which it is). The TRC wasn’t just about raising awareness for an issue. The TRC was giving a voice to people. It’s the people that make it an issue. The TRC wasn’t about Canada knowing about residential school abuse. The TRC was about knowing people who endured residential school abuse.

And this was definitely my experience.

I got to know people in the main forum, as hundreds listened to repeated stories of personal trauma and abuse. I was unprepared for what I’d encounter in that main meeting room. Maybe a bit naive or stubbornly unemotional, I thought to myself as I entered the main forum, "I don't need kleenex," as volunteers handed small packets out at the entrance. I needed kleenex. I got to know the pain in their stories.

I got to know people on an individual level. I talked to Millie, a residential school survivor who shared some of her story as she looked through a photo album of the school she attended. As we started talking she quickly flipped to a page and exclaimed, “That’s my brother!” Turns out it’s the only picture of him she knows exists. He passed away a long time ago. I got to know Millie. 

I anticipated attending the TRC and familiarizing myself with the issue of Canada’s residential school past. And I was. But more importantly, I was familiarized with the people. History, politics, and culture produce countless issues for discussion and debate - many important ones we must address! TRC reminded me we only have issues because of people. And we need to remember to know people, not just issues. 

**For a fascinating portrayal of Canada's First Nations and residential school history, check out the Witness Blanket project, where literal pieces from buildings and places associated with this history are being gathered into a large-scale work of art that bears witness to this history.

"The Witness Blanket will stand as a national monument to recognise the atrocities of the Indian Residential School era, honour the children, and symbolise ongoing reconciliation."

Truth be told

The idiom "truth be told" is often used when we describe something we'd rather not admit, maybe if we're trying to maintain a certain image or be polite. There is a certain level of regret or hesitation as we share: "Yeah, truth be told, I'd rather not be telling you this right now." Or, "I'll share this story about myself only if I have too." Maybe it's our desire to retain a level of privacy in our relationships. Or perhaps certain aspects of our life or character bring shame or guilt that we'd just rather not share. But sometimes, people hesitate to share openly because there is just too much hurt. And even worse, who will listen?

This week in Vancouver, the truth was told. 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission took place where story after story after story was related in variety of settings, from mass forums, to sharing circles, to informal table conversation. Truth was told. 

It's interesting because much of the stigma surrounding the atrocities of Canada's residential school history leave wounds that, truth be told, poeple just don't want to talk about. And when they do talk, truth be told, no one listens. This event was an attempt to get beyond the stigmas of sharing openly about the truth of Canada's residential school past. It was an attempt to overcome the hesitation so many feel when they wonder if anyone is really listening. As people opened up their lives publicly, instead of "truth be told." with all the baggage that phrase relates, the event carried the purpose that the truth must be told

Personally, I'm still processing the stories and people I encountered when I attended the event. I listened. I heard. I cried. I prayed. I got angry. I began to sense the urgency that comes with truth telling. It's contagious. As one survivor observed, "As we are healing ourselves, we are healing others." I wonder, am I hesitant to live truthfully? Is "truth be told" my motto of sharing my deeper struggles only as a lost resort? Will I follow the lead of Canada's First Nations is exemplifying a deep honesty that goes beyond words?

I'm inspired by the truth telling of the residential school survivors. They've shown great courage in a culture that can frown upon vulnerable truth telling. I hope from this week that truth telling will extend beyond organized commissions, and become a regular of Canadian life. Residential school survivors need their truth to be heard much more. The truth must be told.

“I thought I was going for a car ride.”

“I thought I was going for a car ride.”

He paused for a moment, first looking out at us the audience, then looking down with a broken smile and a small chuckle. Though this was no laughing matter. The phrase hung in the room even as he continued his story.

You see, Isadore Charters (“Yenmo”) was six years old when he was taken from the love and safety of his home and family. While lured by the promise of adventure, he was given the reality of years of abuse, loneliness and deculturalization in one of Canada’s residential schools.  

Isadore recently shared his story as a residential school survivor at a special chapel at Columbia Bible College highlighting the Truth and Reconciliation Commission happening this week in Vancouver (Sep. 17-22). His story is one of heartbreak, struggle, and addiction, yet filled with hope and honesty as he’s found healing in faith and artistic expression. Charters’ story is not one of overcoming past abuse - it’s never that simple - but of honestly relating a personal and social struggle towards influencing change today. Inspiring doesn’t say enough.

Charters’ story is one of thousands across Canada. Stories of abuse and brokenness. Stories of oppression and coercion. Stories that continue to send a shudder through Canadian history. The truth of the stories need to be told. And the truth needs to be heard. Truth cannot be overcome - we cannot erase this awful past - but it can bring healing and forgiveness. Hopefully this week reveals how even the darkest truths - spoken and heard - can reveal the path to reconciliation.  

Josh Garrels and embodied art

What makes good music?

This is a highly subjective question to answer, especially in an age of iTunes, Noisetrade, Songza, and countless other avenues we use to indulge our musical tastes. Quantity can definitely overshadow quality; marketability can mean as much or more than listenability.

Yet quality hasn’t disappeared.

I’ve said it before, but I love the music of Josh Garrels. His creativity and passion translate into a diverse sampling of music that I resonate with. With a blend of indie-folk, acoustic and electronic rhythms, driven by a soulful, reflective voice, Garrels doesn’t just produce music, he produces an extension of himself; a beautiful one at that. Each one of his albums are worth a listen (and a purchase).

And he’s even better live.

I had the privilege with my students of helping put on his recent show in Vancouver at St. Andrew's-Wesley Cathedral. It was a beautiful combination of sound and space, where music and venue collaborated from start to finish. From Garrels’ voice filling every corner of the space, to the glowing stained glass extending the hopeful honesty of each song, it was a show I’ll remember for a long time. 

And his person only enhanced the experience. Our group had a few minutes to interact with Garrels before the show. His honest music translates into honest interaction. He exhibits a passion for life, faith, and music that’s palpable. And he’s so compelled to do what he does, one can’t help but leave a conversation with him inspired to live a full life oneself.

Where we are so quick to consume our music, like or dislike with the flick of a finger on our smartphone, Josh Garrels offers an alternative. His show was a lesson in embodied art - honest personhood and honest expression; beautiful music and beautiful space. I was blessed to be there.

Perpetuating Babel

Like the city that nursed my greed and my pride I stretch my arms into the

I cry Babel, Babel, look at me now, the walls of my town they come
Crumbling down

I’ve was recently doing some research on the story of Babel. It’s a classic Old Testament story illustrating the human pattern of self-sufficiency, innovation, and desire to make our way to the divine The tower itself, not uncommon in ancient cities, was the peoples’ self-made gateway to the gods; their path to fulfillment. But like so many empires beyond Babel, the glory years came to a scattering end.

In many ways the ancient city of Babel - “Babylon” in the rest of the Bible - represents humanity’s attempts to control, govern, and unite. History shows how quickly such attempts turn into coercion and violence. Strength gets exposed as weakness and disunity. Walls, literally in many cases, do indeed come crumbling down. And this primordial example in the human history of Genesis reveals a pattern we know all too well - human weakness gets exposed.

Know my weakness, know my voice.
I believe in grace and choice.
I know that perhaps my heart is farce but I know that I'll be born without
A mask

In a culture driven by particular modes of self-sufficiency and success, we determine ourselves to fit in. Contrary to the lyric above, we have a mask for every situation: expressed confidence in the workplace; feigned compassion in relationships; forced happiness in everyday life. But it goes beyond us as individuals. Nationalistic confidence and social naivete have many countries operating well beyond their means globally, be it in economics, war and conflict, or social development. Masks are worn by all. The world excels in perpetuating Babel.

Did the original Babylonians realize what they were doing? Do we realize what we are doing? Do we know our “weakness” and the “farce” we pour our hearts into? Do we realize that unity doesn’t reside within Babel’s walls or the cultural towers we construct?
The pattern of Babel calls us to unmask; to realize the illusion of perpetuating Babel.

prayer for peace

On, the 12th anniversary of 9/11, when violence in many forms persists in ways beyond our comprehension, we cannot become desensitized and forget our deepest longing for this world. Today I pray for peace.

Oh Lord,
All around us people cry “peace” when there is no peace.
How can there be peace when voices are silenced, people suffer, and rights are denied?
How can there be peace when bombs are falling, countries are at war, and justice is denied?

Oh Lord,
All too often we are the ones who cry “peace” when there is no peace.
How can there be peace when people around us are lonely, stereotyped, and abused?
How can there be peace when our own nations use violence in the pursuit of peace?

Oh Lord,
We confess our brokenness.
We confess our complicity.
We confess our contentment with “peace” that is only about our own personal well-being.

Oh Lord,
Draw us to yourself, that we might live in your grace and pardon.
Challenge us to see through false declarations of “peace.”
Empower us to be peacemakers.

Oh Lord,
We stand at the crossroads and look.
Show us the ancient paths, where the good way lies.
Give us the courage to walk in it, that all may find rest for their souls.


where are the leaders?

Listen to some of the commentary or perspectives on today’s young adults and the future looks bleak when it comes to up-and-coming leaders in our culture. “Where are the leaders?” we query. Existing leaders look at the new generation of young adults with suspicion.

Lazy. Entitled. Distracted. Uncommitted. Technologically-consumed. And the list of negative descriptors goes on. And these are our future leaders?

Much effort gets placed in trying to counter these trends and characteristics. Existing leaders need to foster an environment for new leadership to flourish. Schools, organizations, and churches emphasize the importance of leadership development. And in many ways, rightly so. As a leader of young adults myself, I agree with the need for such an emphasis. I’m passionate about building into future leaders, a role I get to exercise daily in my work at Columbia Bible College.

All this to say, I think young adults do need good leaders so they can become good leaders.

And then I met this years new students to the college. Where I anticipated immaturity and even a lack of leadership, I encountered the exact opposite. Instead of laziness, I see energy. Instead of entitlement, I see service. Instead of distraction, I see engagement. Instead of uncommitted, I see faithful. Millennial stereotypes haven’t applied. Negativity has been replaced with hope.

Where I anticipated leading, I found myself being led.

And as a leader, I’m ready to follow…

honesty of peace

One look at life...

One look at relationships...

One look at church...

One look at a city...

One look at a country...

One look at the world…

Considering all these areas of our lives - what we should value, who we should value, how we should act - we intuitively know our task is to seek peace (shalom) as the ancients prophets urged (Jer. 29:7). Yet if we’re honest and look around we know our task (peace) is far from easy.

We know this personally. We have countless internal struggles to live well. Whether it’s dealing with clients as we run our businesses, parenting young children, or passing our city’s homeless camp one more time, we face the absence and opportunity of peace daily. Friendships and marriages are defined by the dance of give and take, where peace is more a process of relating than a reality we achieve.  I like how one ethicist summarizes this personal struggle:

“I’ve finally realized that in this area of my life (ethics), while there is plenty of good advice, it can’t be summed up in once snappy formula, captured in a neat slogan that can be inscribed in a fortune cookie or on a bumper sticker…Ethics is hard.  It needn’t be weakness or fuzzy thinking that stands in the way of knowing the right thing to do, or the proper goals to strive for. We are right to be puzzled by the moral complexity we find in our lives. While we might yearn for clarity and simplicity, this wish for easy answers is bound to be repeatedly frustrated.” (Russ Shafer-Landau)

We also know this globally. Debate over responding to the dreadful violence and injustice in Syria is the latest in a global history mired in violence. And there are no easy answers. For Christians, followers of the Prince of Peace - the one who called us to “love our enemies,” our response should be anything but simple. While I shudder to think of how many times Christians have supported or even led the charge of violence, I also realize my convictions for peace ring hollow typed on my laptop as I lounge and sip coffee on a peaceful morning. I must also face reality. I resonate with the honesty of my friend Ryan as he reflected on these matters recently:

Am I a pacifist?  Well, yeah, I guess so.  But what does it even mean for me—a middle-class white Canadian whose experience has never even remotely been affected by war—to say this?  I am anti-war.  OK, fine.  I am also anti-cancer, anti-poverty, anti-racism, and, well, just generically ­anti-bad-things-happening-in-the-world.  So what?  Who cares about my shiny ideological artifacts shaped and preserved in a vacuum of privilege?

I do think there are ways we can address the complexity of peace both in our personal lives and in this world. And no doubt personal and corporate sacrifice on the part of the privileged (me!) will be central - peace always has a cost.

Yet before we seek solutions, we need to seek honesty. Beyond the ideal, we need to know and accept that living well - living for peace - is hard. Such honesty of peace can be a way towards peace.

(back) to school

Yes, it’s that time of year - “back to school.” For kids, anticipation mixes with disappointment as the of summer break meets the fresh start of the school year. For parents, a return to routine is welcome, while the looming busyness of the school year is reason for pause. Away we go...

Today is our son’s first day of kindergarten. For him, this is no “back” to school - “to school” describes his transition. And he can’t wait! It’s fascinating to observe his wonder as he anticipates what are to him profound opportunities: “I get to use a computer!” “I get to eat lunch at school!” “I get to play at the playground!” What my adult sensibilities see as ordinary aspects of everyday life - perhaps even monotonous - my son sees as adventure and opportunity, the extraordinary privilege of going to school. Without knowing it, he sees the goodness in the ordinary. And his wonder, I find, is inspiring.

No doubt a year from now my son’s wonder at going to school will temper as he goes back to school for the first time. Yet I hope he doesn’t lose all the wonder. While a first time experience can never be replicated, recognition of the goodness in the ordinary will go a long way in life.

Before we all get overwhelmed with the reality of this back to school season, perhaps we all need to reflect back or observe those naive kindergarteners, and adopt the lens of wonder in the ordinary.

To school we go...