Fully Human: Grandparents, Childhood, and the importance of Character

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As a young boy my family made the move from Powell River to Nanaimo, leaving behind my cousins, aunts and uncles, and my grandparents.  Because they were still there, there was no better place for me to spend a long weekend while I was growing up than in Powell River. I especially loved sleeping over at my grandparents’ house as it meant:  homemade bread, lots of junk food, and as much King-Cole-brand Orange Pekoe tea as a guy could drink (yes I’ve always been the teatotaler that I am today).

A visit to my grandparents also inevitably involved participating in their Sunday morning routine:  It began with attendance at Westview Baptist’s early church service, followed by a trip to the extended care wing of the hospital to serve the patients their lunch, continued with back-to-back half hour episodes of “Router Workshop” on HGTV back at my grandparents, and finally concluded with a trip to “Mr. Mikes” for lunch.

As a kid I never looked forward to the extended care visits.  Most of the patients were in the last stages of life and had a variety Imageof disabilities:  some were lame, deaf, mute, and lots were all of the above.  Many had advance Alzheimer’s or Dementia and as a result could not communicate in a lucid manner.  I remember trying to not get too close to the patients.  I remember hoping they wouldn’t make eye contact.  I remember sticking close to my grandparents, letting them do the talking and wishing that I would be able to leave without having to say anything.  And this is to be expected.  After all, I was just a kid right?  I had a poor night’s sleep from staying up too late watching TV, I was cranky from getting up too early and eating too much junk food, and I was hungry.  The last place I wanted to be was in that place.

The matter was significantly different for my grandparents, however.  They interacted with the patients with compassion and tenderness. They spoke to them as valuable human beings and in doing so afforded them the full dignity that they were worth.  For my grandparents, these were not patients worthy of pity or fear but human beings who also happened to be old friends or co-workers, or fellow church members.  My grandparents knew their names and knew most of their life stories.  My grandparents actually loved them.

I contrast the type of visitor I was with the type of visitor my grandparents were in order to make a very important point:  ethical living requires more than just doing the right thing, it also involves being the right kind of person.

At a surface level there is no difference between my boyhood self and my grandparents.  We both did the exact same things.  However if you were a patient in the extended care wing, you would certainly be able to feel a drastic difference between the two.  This difference comes down to motivation and character. I after all was there solely out of obligation and my grandparents were there because of sincere care.  In the world of ethics, moral thinking centred on character is called virtue theory.  In virtue theory, the primary question is “what kind of person am I” instead of “what should I do”.  In this way of thinking a person is to embody positive traits of character called virtues and are to avoid negative traits of character called vices.

I believe that this is the type of morality that Jesus is most concerned about.  The gospels record case after case of Jesus’ frustration with people who were so fixated on following the rules and “doing the right thing” but who failed to be good people.  Jesus once famously remarked to a group of religious leaders that their neglect of character and fixation on following the rules made them guilty of straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel.  Jesus spells it out for us and my grandparent’s lives bear witness to the wisdom of his teaching.  For their faithfulness in not just doing but also being, I will always be grateful…

Of Mennonites and Powell River

One of life’s most wonderful experiences is enjoying two things that fit perfectly together like romance and a sunset, popcorn and a movie, or a favourite of my wife and I:  summer heat and the Shuswap.  Another one of these perfect combinations is Powell River and MCC (Mennonite Central Committee).

Powell River is my hometown located on the beautiful sunshine coast.  I do not make it over there as often as I would like but the place has a huge piece of my heart—even though I only lived there for the first six years of my life.  The beauty of the town is captivating to me and if any of you have ever watched the sun set in Powell River or spent long summer days at Palm Beach you will know what I am talking about.  Natural beauty aside, the primary reasons why the town of 15,000 remains so dear to me are because it was the place where my brothers, my mother, and I were born and it is the place where my maternal grandparents and many other relatives continue to live.

Even as Powell River holds a piece of my heart, so too does MCC.  The MCC is an international organization involved in many wonderful projects around the world which aim to help the world’s most marginalized people in a sustainable and environmentally responsible way (you can read about some of those projects in a previous blog or on MCC’s website).  My connection to the MCC comes through both my family background and through my personal experience.  My grandmother comes from a Mennonite ethnic background; she was raised in the small town of Yarrow located in the Fraser Valley.  Several of her siblings have volunteered at MCC stores in Vancouver—an opportunity not afforded to her as she has lived almost her entire adult life in Powell River.  As a Mennonite pastor I am very proud of my family’s heritage and I also delight in the obvious benefits of having a Mennonite background—rollkuchen anyone?  My personal connection to MCC is through the two summers I spent working in their thrift shops.  My time in those stores not only gave me the opportunity to learn about what MCC is doing to reach the vulnerable but also gave me an amazing experience of community which has shaped who I am as a pastor today.

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My love for MCC and Powell River therefore has me incredibly excited about tomorrow.  Tomorrow the MCC thrift store will be having its grand opening in Powell River and I have the privilege of travelling there for the day to participate in the grand opening.  Now you must understand that an MCC store opening in Powell River is an incredibly unlikely event for one very obvious reason:  there are virtually no Mennonites in Powell River.  The town does not have a single Mennonite church and although you can find the odd Mennonite last name in the phonebook no one will ever confuse Powell River with Abbotsford, Chilliwack, or Winkler. Nevertheless I am confident that this new store will thrive.  The people of Powell River know a good thing when they see it.  The MCC will offer them a chance to buy items otherwise headed for the landfill and in the process their purchase will be a gift for the world.  This is exactly the type of the thing that a community striving for local and global sustainability will latch on to.  I am also excited that my family gets the opportunity to support MCC first hand.  My grandmother will be helping out in the book department and my aunt will be sitting on the board of directors.  It brings a smile to my face to know that sometimes the most unlikeliest of combinations can go together even one as unlikely as Powell River and MCC.