Thursday, 27 July 2017

The Psychedelic Parrot and the Pink Tiger: Just Another Morning at VEV

I've been part of VEV for 25 years and there's rarely a dull moment. This past Sunday was no exception. It was my first Sunday back in a serving capacity after a 2-week vacation. I was supposed to be leading the service but I was struggling to even get there due to a nasty earache and sinus infection I had been battling for over a week. We parked our car next to Pandora spray park, a block away from the church, where we could handily access a picnic lunch after church. I'm sure it was due to all the meds I had been on, but as I got out of the car, I was suddenly hit with a stomach cramp. All I can say is that I'm grateful for public washrooms at city parks, and I will say no more about that! I sent Kathleen on ahead to assure those who needed to know that I was still coming! 

I arrived just as the bells were ringing, woozy and disoriented as I walked up the stairs. The first people to greet me were Scott, one of our dear hospitality people, and a stranger, a middle-aged lady with a giant parrot on her shoulder! It was very colourful and reminded me of the psychedelic posters I had put up on my bedroom when I was a teenager. 

Scott introduced her to me and said, "This lady wants to know if she can bring her parrot to church. Is that ok?" 

Well, I was not ready for this, mentally or spiritually, and all I could think of was how that some mainline churches actually have a "pet blessing Sunday" in their worship year. I wondered what anointing this parrot with oil would look like. I fumbled to process out loud, "Hmmm... let me think, are there safety issues? Food safe or health concerns...? " Spontaneously trying to lighten the mood a bit, I asked, "Does your bird heckle?" The owner replied, "No, but I do." We then exchanged some friendly banter and I said,"Well, I'll err to the side of welcome, and as long as the owner behaves, I'm sure the parrot can come too!" So, in she came and sat on the back bench on the right hand section. 

I later found out from Scott that this lady had come to church before on another Sunday when I was away, asking for me. Apparently she knew me from my Calgary days in the 1980's, but she informed Scott that she was now quite jaded about church. Hmmm...  Anyway, she found the right church, as we are all in various shades of jade here at VEV! 

I didn't think much more of it until later when I was leading the service, I looked out at the audience and saw the psychedelic parrot sitting on the back row in all of its glory! Both owner and bird seemed to be enjoying the service. Remarkably, on the opposite side of the church, on the same row, I was startled to see a massive multi-coloured headdress, being worn by Judah, one of our primary aged kids, not unlike the plumage worn by a Roman army general, but much more colourful!  From that distance, the plumage on the left side of the church looked like a perfect match to the parrot on the right side of the church! Only I and our worship team could see it. It looked like it had all been orchestrated, like the church was in perfect balance and symmetry, as though someone had designed some "visual choreography" to enhance our worship! 

At kids' blessing, I helped some of our parents accompany our preschool and primary aged kids to the Pandora Spray park where I had parked my car. There, at the park, I had a conversation with Judah and asked him about his outfit, as I then saw that he was also wearing a cape to go with his headdress. He was also holding a sword-like object with a tennis ball stuck into the end of it, to avoid impaling other kids on the playground. Good thinking.  He informed me that he had invented a new superhero. I asked him what the name of the superhero was and he replied, "The Pink Tiger!"

Conversing later with Judah's dad, Matt, I found out that they had found the headdress at a local yard sale. Matt had agreed to get it for Judah as a compromise for Judah's request for a Mohawk haircut. Indeed, close up, the headdress looked like a punk rock version of a Mohawk! 

Meanwhile all our preschoolers and primary kids did some paint art on the sidewalk, thanks to Amy who generously shared her paint set she had recently received for her birthday for all the kids to enjoy.  Wow! I'm really slow on the take with a camera and I wish I could say that I had a photo of the headdress and the parrot, especially during worship. I didn't get one but I did manage to capture our preschool and primary sidewalk art.

Yes, just another Sunday morning at VEV, but one I won't soon forget. I have no great spiritual insight to offer and no great spiritual breakthrough of the coming kingdom to report. It's just life coming at me with all its twists, turns, and surprises, and God in the middle of it all, laughing uproariously.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

A Chief and a Day School Teacher: Guideposts for Reconciliation

Kathleen and I have just returned from two weeks of vacationing on First Nations land, traditional territory of the Osoyoos First Nation, one of eight communities that makes up the larger group of the Okanagan, or Syilx First Nations who live along the Okanagan valley from Vernon down into Washington State in the US. The Syilx have lived in this area for thousands of years since time immemorial.  Some believe that the Senora desert of Mexico reaches geographically up into this region. It feels like a Mexican desert in summer time!  It is Canada’s warmest and driest region and Kathleen and I have enjoyed holidaying here from the days our children were infants. 

Since 2007, we have stayed at Spirit Ridge N’Kmip Resort which is adjacent to North America’s first-ever indigenous owned and operated winery, supplied by the flourishing vineyards that surround the resort. Next door is the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, and below in the valley towards the west is Osoyoos Lake and a year-round campground. A little farther north along the lakeshore is a summer camp that the band has allocated for the use of Christian youth organizations. Everywhere in the resort are English signs with accompanying translation in Nsilxcin, their Okanagan native language which is nearly on the verge of extinction. Spirit Ridge Resort with a 4.5 star rating was built in partnership with the band, a developer, and private owners. When it was under construction, Kathleen and I made a small investment in the project as “fractional owners” and as such, we became entitled to two weeks of accommodations, about 6 or 7 times a year with the option of receiving a small income if we allowed our unit to go into a rental pool. It has been a wonderful place of replenishment and renewal for us. There is mystical sense of peace and connection that we feel to the First Nations land with its unique arid geography and indigenous culture.  

On our most recent visit, in addition to the many wonderful outings and adventures that Kathleen and I took to explore the region, I spent most mornings reading on the pool deck with desert, mountains, and vineyards in view. Ironically, a significant part of my readings included the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,[1] particularly the last section, entitled, “The Challenge of Reconciliation.” This section is a passionate appeal to all Canadians in light of the saga of Canada’s sad chapter of residential school history and is skillfully articulated by First Nations commissioners, Justice Murray Sinclair (chair), Dr. Marie Wilson, and Chief Wilton Littlechild. They address the question: “In the wake of the legacy of Canada’s Indian Residential School system, how do we, as a nation, indigenous and non-indigenous, together move forward in reconciliation?” Recognizing that I was reading this summary on First Nations land, I was moved deeply by the challenges and calls to action. I have made subsequent commitments, commitments which can involve my family and my church family together with my indigenous neighbours on the long journey towards reconciliation. It is my conviction that every Canadian should read the Final Report,[2] and/or, at the very least, be educated and well-versed in its content – including its well-articulated way forward, taking into account Canada's government policy, its legal system, education, the churches, memorials and museums, the arts, media, and sports, but most importantly, the attitude of our own minds and hearts and the way we relate to one another

One day on our vacation, inspired by the Final Report’s call for the critical role of memorials and museums, Kathleen and I took some time to visit the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre, which documents the story of the Osoyoos Band. There is a tremendous spirit of enterprise and cooperation on this reserve. Over 400 First Nations live and work in various ventures on their territory. In light of so much continued devastation and disparity in First Nations communities in Canada, why is the Osoyoos band doing so well? Of course, being such a popular tourist destination doesn’t hurt, but there’s so much more to this story. The cultural centre helps to provide some answers. The vision and leadership of the current Chief Clarence Louie cannot be overestimated. This is evident everywhere. He has been chief since 1988 and he also heads up the Osoyoos Indian Band Development Corporation.

The three "chiefs"
It was evident to me that Chief Louie’s remarkable leadership was influenced by some significant historic factors. The cultural centre documents that in 1915, Osoyoos Chief Baptiste George, had a vision for education. He believed that a European education would give the band's indigenous children the skills they would need for the future but he did not want them sent away to residential schools. In light of this, he started a day school on the reserve in 1915 and worked out an uneasy compromise with colonial authorities. Due to his vision and foresight, many indigenous children, though not all, were able to avoid residential school and stay with their parents while they were educated at the reserve day school. That said, things were not always easy due to the destructive and colonial attitudes of the time that discouraged indigenous culture and spirituality. Going against the tide, one teacher, a non-indigenous man named Anthony Walsh, arrived on the Osoyoos reserve in 1932 to teach in the school. The cultural centre records that Walsh, “understood and respected the Syilx culture and encouraged his students to explore their heritage. During his eleven years as teacher, his students blossomed, creating works of art and performing Okanagan songs, legends and dances.”[3] Even though Walsh still taught Christianity to the children, he encouraged them to see the biblical stories in light of the children's own Syilx culture, and much of the art they produced was the result. After one school concert, Walsh wrote, “The thing that impressed me most was not the sincerity of the young actors in full costume and masks, the haunting melodies of the songs, the graceful movements of the dances… but a new light that appeared in the eyes of the parents and the old people. For they had witnessed something that brought back memories of distant days, when they had held their heads high and were ashamed of no one.” [4]

Tragically, the teacher who replaced Walsh denounced his teaching, and attempted to burn all of the children's art, but a non-native supporter, Katie Lacey, was able to salvage some of the art and donated that collection to the Osoyoos Museum in 1963.  Some of these pieces are currently on display at the Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre. I have photographed two of these with the centre's permission. Dr. Andrea Walsh, a visual anthropologist and current associate professor at the University of Victoria, (no relation to Anthony) is presently working with the Osoyoos Museum and the Osoyoos Indian band to document the remarkable story of the Nk’Mip Day School and the art produced there during Anthony Walsh’s tenure. 

Chief Baptiste George, Anthony Walsh, and Katie Lacey were people far ahead of their time. They are heroes to me! They were visionary, courageous, as well as innovative. Their legacies have shaped the story of the Osoyoos Indian Band and provide guideposts, inspiration, and wisdom for the long road of reconciliation that still lies before us. 

To be continued…

[1] Honorable Justice Murray Sinclair, Dr. Marie Wilson, Chief Wilton Littlechild, Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Volume One: Summary, James Lorimer and Company Ltd., Toronto, 2015.
[2] The TRC Summary report is a public document and can be purchased online or through major bookstores. 
[3] Quote is courtesy of displays within the Nk’Mip desert cultural centre. Note, these and all photographs were taken with the encouragement and permission of staff members at the cultural centre, including photographs of artwork from the Nk'Mip day school. 
[4] Ibid.

Thursday, 15 June 2017


Earlier this week, a momentous and somewhat traumatic event occurred in my life: I turned sixty years old! The weeks leading up to this date were surprisingly emotional for me at times, fraught with various and sundry feelings, from depression and anxiety to elation and anticipation. Part of me wanted to squeeze the last few “drops out of my fifties” during the remaining days I had! My sixtieth birthday celebration was held one day before my actual birthday, and I wondered aloud whether it was actually a celebration of the last day in my fifties! Waking up on the morning of my sixtieth birthday felt a bit like the morning of Y2K back in the year 2000. We were all wondering then if the world would end, but we woke up on January 1 to find that everything was still the same. On the morning of my sixtieth birthday, I went for a five kilometre walk and jog to Trout Lake. My limbs, bones and muscles felt the same as the day before – a little bit sore, but still working! 

The Significance of Milestones

What I have noticed about this sixtieth milestone, in comparison to my fortieth and fiftieth milestones, which were special and sobering in themselves, is that there has been a special sacredness and reverence I have felt about this one. Milestones in some ways, are like the odometer hitting the 200,000 kilometre mark on your car. There’s a whole lot of zeroes that get your attention, but there’s very little difference in your car from the previous kilometre to the next! So, it is with milestones to do with our age. They get our attention because they are an invitation to slow down and to take notice. I have been aware of this sense of “noticing” in myself, and I have also been aware of it from those who are closest to me, including my wife and family, and my dearest friends with whom I walk in this journey. I noticed with deep gratitude that they wanted to slow down, and pay attention, and bear witness to this milestone. This has been very special and humbling. It has been deeply moving as I’ve read and re-read the cards, the texts, the Facebook messages, savouring the words that were written. In it all, I have felt a holy reverence, and a deepened gratitude for me, and for my life. Can I say that? 

Ageing and Promise

One thing that has come to mind in all of this was the recollection of an experience that occurred when I was 30 years old, yes, now half my current age! At that time, in early 1988, I suffered a severe illness, a breakdown in my body, mind, and spirit, and for the first few months of that year, the pain and darkness was of the magnitude that I honestly didn’t believe that I would live to see the end of that year. It was during that time as I desperately turned to the Scriptures daily for hope, wading through lots of verses of “gloom and doom,” that I came across these words in Isaiah: “I have upheld you since birth, and carried you since you were born. Even to your old age and gray hairs, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you” (Isaiah 46:3-4). As I read those words in what was an indescribable darkness, I felt that I heard these words whispered to me, “Gordie, one day you will grow old; one day you will be a grandpa…” 

These words seemed too good to be true and they were very difficult for me to believe. My son, Christian, was eight years old at the time and my daughter, Danielle, was five. I clung desperately to that promise for dear life, and of course, as everyone close to me well knows, this promise came true a few years ago. It was a significant day for me when my first grandchild, Samuel, was born to Danielle and Markus here in Vancouver on July 26, 2004, and his three sisters, Annalies, Hannah, and Elina followed over the next few years, bringing indescribable joy. They all were in our house to celebrate my sixtieth birthday this past weekend. 

Probably the greatest impact of that event for me was that since that time, growing old and ageing has become more about hope and promise than about dread. I sometimes review the obituary columns in the morning paper and I am often struck by how many people pass away at a much younger age than me. Without in any way diminishing the preciousness of life regardless of how long it is lived, nor the reality of life beyond death, these obituaries have impacted me with how much each day I have on this earth is a gift 

My “Top Ten Things about Turning Sixty”

Nevertheless, there is grief and loss with ageing as well, let’s not be in denial here. To help me grieve, I now resort to some humour. In the tradition of David Letterman, whose “top ten things” used to be one of my favourite segments of late night comedy, I now share my “top ten things about turning sixty…”

Number Ten: When you can’t find your eyeglasses, they’re almost always on your forehead! 

Number Nine: Your failing eyesight is nature’s way of softening the blow every time you look in the mirror!

Number Eight: Your pants creep upward as you age and by the time you’re 60, you’re a pair of pants with a head! 

Number Seven: Your memory is so bad you can plan your own surprise party!

Number Six: You know your way around but you don’t want to go anywhere. 

Number Five: You can’t walk by a bathroom without thinking you may as well pee while you’re there! 

Number four: When you have a party, you don’t even wake up the dog, let alone the neighbourhood! 

Number Three: (my high school graduating class of 1975 are all sharing this trauma with me this year…) The best thing about being 60 is you did all your stupid stuff before the internet! 

Number Two: Birthdays are good for you, it’s been scientifically proven that the more you have, the longer you live!

Number One: The candles on your cake set off the sprinkler system! 

Oh, and one more… Number Zero: You’re so old that when you walked into the antique shop, they sold you! 

Well, as I journey through my sixties and beyond, God willing, I hope that I do not lose the ability to laugh at myself, especially as I am increasingly confronted with the realities of my limitations. 

The Vow of Stability

This past Monday night at a wonderful party that was held for me in honor of my sixtieth birthday, I shared with the festive gathering at a restaurant near Commercial and 1st in East Vancouver how that celebrating my sixtieth at that place and time was so special to me. It was 26 years ago this September that we pulled up a few blocks away from that very spot in our little K-car, having just driven from Alberta. We got out of the car and started a new life. I was 34 at the time. We moved into a little apartment around the corner, with Christian and Danielle who were 11 and 8 at the time, and Gordie Guiboche whom we knew from Calgary days. 

I have since lived in this neighbourhood longer than any other place in my lifetime, all within walking distance of where we first got out of our car that day. I have stumbled onto something very special. Kathleen, my beautiful life partner and best friend has been with me all the way and this December we will celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary. Our daughter Danielle along with her husband Markus and our four grandchildren just recently moved back to Vancouver and are living next door. I have formed so many deep friendships by being a part of the same worshiping community here in Vancouver all these years. It is an indescribable treasure to be in a community of faith that is comprised of so many of your closest and dearest friends being a faithful presence together in this city we love so much. This treasure can only be the fruit of what St. Benedict of Nursia called “the vow of stability” when he was establishing his monastic orders. Having turned sixty, I have experience a taste of this treasure and as such, I am blessed beyond all measure.