Who am I?

Stepping back for a moment, dear readers, it was pointed out that there are some really good questions that I ought to face before I write too much. Those are the questions of: “Who is this Daniel Zylstra anyway?” and “What right does he think he has to write a book like this?” In order to try and address those questions, I penned the following this morning…it’s probably a bit rough, but that’s why this blog exists! So check it out, and please tell me what you think!

You might, dear reader, be asking yourself some questions as you prepare to dive into this book. Questions such as: “Who is this Daniel Zylstra fellow anyway, and why does he think he has the right to write a book such as this one?” Those being wonderful questions, I feel led to answer them here. Seeing as (to me at least) the second question—the question of whether I am, in any way, qualified to write this book—is the more important question, I will address it first. I’m afraid my answer is an oxymoron: I believe that I have no right at all to write this book, and I believe that I have every right to do it.

On the one hand, I believe that I have no right to pen this work at all. I believe that on a couple of levels. The first level, to me, is on the theological level. I do not at all mean to be flippant when I say that I believe, theologically, that I have no rights to anything at all, let alone to being able and/or qualified to write this book or any other book. The denomination from which I hail believes the Heidelberg Catechism to be a faithful summary of the teachings of the scriptures, and so when it says that “…we are so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined toward all evil.”, And when the apostle Paul says, in his letter to the people of Ephesus, “By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.”  I read in that, that, in and of myself, I deserve nothing but eternal separation from my God. All that I have been given is pure grace undeserved. I do not deserve to write this book, I don’t deserve the beautiful family God has given me—my wife, nor my children. I do not deserve to be pastoring the congregation of which I am a part, nor do I even deserve the air that I breathe, the physical body of which I am a part… the very fact of my existence is beyond my deserving.

I believe that the theological question of my deserving (and all of our deserving) is one that, when we truly grab hold of it and understand it in our very bones, would go very far to help us all eliminate the concept of those who do not belong from among us—not that we would ignore the problem, but that it would truly cease to be a real problem. Realizing that I (and you, and all of us) do not deserve anything—from our existence to our affluence and everything in-between—is a great humbler and equalizer of people. How can I honestly look down upon or reject anyone when I myself am no more deserving than any other human being?

One could argue that I am skirting the true question by throwing up a theological smokescreen in the face of the question: “Why does a white, heterosexual male, living in affluence (compared to the vast majority of the rest of the world), having no significant disabilities think that he can write a book about “outsiders”—about groups of people of which he has never been a part?” I don’t believe that to be the case, but I do believe that it is an important question for me to address. The truth is that this question highlights the second way in which I believe that I have no real right to write “No Outsiders.” The truth is that I am part of a privileged class of people in pretty much anyway you might look at it. I am white. I am male. I am heterosexual. I am married, have children, live in a beautiful home in one of the most affluent societies the world has ever known (Canada). I was privileged to receive private, christian education all the way from my kindergarten days to my seminary days. I have spent the vast majority of my life living among people like me in many ways, and I have never had to live on the street. I have never been ostracized because of my race. I have only in relatively small ways felt myself to be an outsider—ever. In short, looking at me you could easily say that I have no right to pen these words at all, based on who I am and the privilege that I experience. If you said that, I would have to agree with you. As I write this book a friend of mine has pointed out that my voice—simply because of my privileged position in the world—is far more likely to receive an audience of some kind than some true outsider might receive. If a female, homeless, indigenous-canadian, lesbian were to, through some miracle, be given the tools and opportunity to write this book, chances are good that not many people would listen to her, and this book would never see the light of day.

That reality galls me tremendously. I would almost rather not write the book. I would almost rather have no one ever read it. I would almost rather burn my book in effigy than propagate that kind of situation. To have my book read, while the voices of the true outsiders are ignored! I hate the very idea. And yet I know that, if one were to look at my book shelves, they are largely—shamefully—filled with books written by white, european males.

Again we come to it: theologically, and personally I cannot say that I have any right to write “No Outsiders.” There are countless others who, at least on a personal level, are more qualified and more deserving of this voice—whatever it may end up being—and this audience—however big or small it might end up being.

On the other hand, I have to say that I believe—yes, even at the same time as fully believing what I have written above—that I have every right to write this book. Theologically, since I believe that none of us deserves any good thing—not existence, not air to breath, not the love of God—nothing—then I also believe that all that I have received—including the heart to write this book—the burning desire within me—is grace from God. My very lack of deserving, combined with His overwhelming grace to me gives me the “right” to write…. NOT because of anything I have done. Not because of any qualifications that I might have (slim though they may be), but only by His grace.
It would be easy to say that I am once again skirting the issue with theological, ivory-tower hair-splitting. Please believe me that, for me, this is more real than any qualifications that I may or may not have. I truly believe that, given a proper theological understanding, it is perfectly legitimate for me (or for anyone else) to write whatever book they feel led to. The “right” comes from God alone.

Having said all that, I believe it is legitimate to share that, personally speaking—and even though some (or maybe even many) will see these as weak qualifications indeed—nonetheless, my life experiences and who I am work together in me to make this a book that I must write.

My son, who is 10 years old as of the writing of this section of the book, has always been one of those kids who will go into the fish store to buy gold fish and who will pick the ugliest, most decrepit looking fish to bring home. My wife and I firmly believe that this is because he has a heart for the underdog—for the lost and alone, for the “other”, for the “outsider.” This has always been in my heart as well. I can not remember a time when it was not important to me to care for the people who did not belong. I remember, as a child, not fitting in very well with my peers—at least the “insiders”—the “cool” kids—partly because I wanted to be with and care for those who were the “nerds”, the “geeks”, the outsiders.

When I was a child visiting my grandparents in Waterloo, Ontario, I would sometimes wake up on a Saturday morning, and, before I had had breakfast, I would go door-to-door, saying hello to all the neighbours. They would invite me in for breakfast (which I would accept). My parents and my grandparents were convinced that this was just a really clever way to get all the breakfast I could handle, but, for me looking back, it was really about embracing all of them. They were my neighbours—even though it was my grandparents neighbourhood. I loved them. Throughout my life, my best friends have been the people who, in various ways, didn’t fit.

Later, in my university days, I had the tremendous privilege of working with a group of other, like-minded students, in the East Hastings area of Vancouver. We called it “Street Evangelism”, but it wasn’t about giving a successful “sales-pitch” to the homeless of Vancouver and thereby winning them into the community. Instead, the brilliant people who led this ministry taught us to simply go and be with those we found in that neighbourhood. We would play chess (I invariably lost), we would eat supper together, we would talk, we would sing, we would share stories, we would sometimes cry, often laugh—in short we would be in relationship with people who were, in many ways, on the furthest margins of Canadian society.

More recently, as a pastor in Oshawa, Ontario, I was involved with the foodbank that the church had run for many years. It was, and is, one of the most respected food banks in the area—by the patrons—because, when they go there, they are treated with respect. We did not ask them to prove their need by having them show us income statements. We served them fresh fruit and vegetables and bread—high quality foods that we ourselves would be happy to eat—and we did so with a smile, and a hello, and a story and a listening ear.  As we continued on this fabulous ministry, God worked in my heart to have us build relationships more than we were already. We started a worship service before the food bank opened. Instead of forcing everyone to go to the worship service before they could get their food (which a surprising number of places do), we threw open the doors for anyone to come. Instead of having the “congregation” sit there and receive the “word of God” from the “pastor”—we went around and shared prayer requests and thanksgivings. I too shared my concerns and praises—it was mutual. Instead of a sermon, I shared the passage of scripture I felt God calling me to work on for that week, and I asked anyone who wanted to to share their thoughts and feelings about what they had heard me read. There were many times when I received inspiration for the sermon that coming Sunday. Instead of me picking the songs (if we had anyone who could help lead us in worship), we always did “favourites”—anyone could chose any song from the hymnal that we could sing for any reason. And last, but not least for me, I shared with them what an honour it was to have them there with me and that I longed to bless them in God’s name, which I would then do.

Often, those who attended the worship service, and the food itself were “outsiders”—they were from the LGBTQ+ community, they were of minority faith groups (in no way were the people who came to the worship service limited to Christians!), they struggled with substance abuse, and felt free to confess those struggles. They were poor, they were needy. They had various physical and mental disabilities. We shared it all—and through God’s grace, when it came time for me to move on to another congregation—we shed tears and parted ways in His love.

One of the reasons that I could relate to the folks at the food bank, and to those on East Hastings, in Vancouver was my in-born character. Part of who God made me to be, right from the beginning. I can’t really help it. But part of it also was that I am not a total stranger to some of their struggles. The particular one that comes to my mind immediately is my struggle with mental health. Battling with depression is something my family does. I have many family members who have fought that demon more or less successfully for most of their lives. I myself am no stranger to that battle. I remember very vividly, at a time when my oldest daughter had just been born, and all seemed to be going extremely well in my life, wrestling with thoughts of suicide. Finding myself in the middle of the work day isolating myself and researching the best ways to kill myself. Even though I was surrounded with family and a community who loved me, I felt so alone. Everything was so dark and hopeless.

It wasn’t until then, and with God’s help, that I realized that something was desperately wrong in my mind and heart, and, further, that I had experienced these feelings before. I was then that I realized that, for a large part of my high school career, I was depressed. In my high school days I truly felt that no-one cared about me, that I was a complete loser, that I was good-for-nothing, lazy, stupid, and would never amount to anything. I felt so alone. Everything was so dark and hopeless.

Praise be to God, He, through counsellors, medication, the love of family, and good theology (yes, I’m serious about that last one too!), I have been brought through to a place where we can manage my disease quite successfully. But it was not easy getting here, and along the way God has deepened my heart for the outsiders to the point that I feel that I must write this book. Even if no one ever reads it.

And so that is, as it were, my abbreviated resume. On the one hand, I have no right to write a book about the outsiders. On the other hand, I believe that I have every right—through His grace alone. Please join with me.