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November 28, 2018 / Issue Volume 30, Number 2, Winter 2018 / Profile
Micah Hill

The Thoroughbred and The Donkey

By Ali Cumming

Ali Cumming

Ali Cumming (MATS '08) is a playwright and serves as the Arts Administrator and Gallery Curator at Regent College.

With foot shoved deeply in mouth in front of one of Regent’s most beloved and esteemed personages, Ali Cumming valiantly refuses to take it out.

In my final year at Regent, the long-awaited opening of the new John Richard Allison Library occurred. For the majority of my time as a student, I had looked at a large, gaping, muddy hole in the front of the school. Slowly, over several months, we saw this pit transformed into what would become one of the most beautiful places in the building. The time of completion finally came and a large, celebratory event was planned. As students, we were recruited to volunteer for this grand occasion.

There were countless volunteer jobs up for grabs, but being the intentional person I am, I wanted a substantial role. At a place like Regent, one could boast of being a Teaching Assistant for James Houston, or a Research Assistant for J.I. Packer. Luck was on my side that day, as I landed one of equal stature: Parking Lot Attendant.  But not just any Parking Lot Attendant. I was the Head Parking Lot Attendant. I could barely contain my excitement, and thought how apropos it was, after spending thousands of dollars on a quality education at a top-notch theological school, that I would be able to list such a position on my CV for years to come.

I took on the new position with great earnestness. Everyone knew of the coveted Regent Parking lot. On the UBC campus one could take out a second mortgage for a parking stall, and they paid high fines if a meter was violated. The Regent parking lot, unsurprisingly counter-cultural, was free—a radical and bold statement that laughed in the face of mammon. It was in fact, one of Regent’s most precious commodities—a field of gold, of which I would now be the sentinel, the gatekeeper, the threshold guardian. It was a prestigious post. I had a clipboard to prove it.

The difficulty of this position was well known. Everyone would want to park in the free lot on the day of the special event. But for Special Events, there’s always a list. A list of special people that get to park in the special parking lot, for said special event. A large majority of people would think they were “special”, and being “special”, they inevitably would get “special” privileges for “special” events. The role was not just to be a threshold guardian. I was to serve as a litmus test, an abrasive reality check, searching the masses for levels of emotional intelligence and self–awareness, for all who dared to enter. I was not just the Head Parking Lot Attendant. I was an undercover existential crisis manager, armed with a clipboard, and a pen. 

I stationed myself at the gate, with a firm stance, and solid grip on the clip that held The List. The cars started to roll up, and with a congenial-yet-stern face, I explained that the parking lot was reserved, and gave several options for those who were not on The List.  Most were understanding. There was a trivial altercation with one individual, where language was inevitably to blame. I have a vague memory of stating my only German phase, for lack of anything else to say. “Schluck schnell!” I repeated, “schluck schnell!” I have no doubt that the individual wondered why I was pointing far away and telling them to “Swallow Fast!” I hoped that the Holy Spirit would translate the essence of my intention: “You can’t park here. Today, you are not special. And that’s a hard thing to swallow, I know.” 

Slowly the parking lot filled with the special people. With only a few coveted spots left, some yeehaw in an SUV came roaring up—blasting through our makeshift gate like a racehorse. There was absolutely no regard for my gate-keeping presence. I ran after him, screaming and waving my clipboard. Eventually, he came to a halt. I eyed him up and down through the window—he was an older man with a mischievous grin. I shook my head and took a moment to regain my composure. His window rolled down and I could see his eyes glint with amusement. There’s always one, I thought.

We greeted one another and I explained the situation.

 “I’m sorry, but you need to be on The List to get in here.” 

His eyebrows lifted. 

“Oh.” He paused. “I might be on the list,” he said. “I hope I’m on the list!” 

I smiled. “Everyone hopes they’re on 'The List.’”

There was an awkward pause.

“And you are?”  I asked with obligatory tone.

“Peterson. Eugene Peterson.”

Now in every person’s life there comes a time when they want to curl up into a ball and disintegrate. This was mine. I was simultaneously star-struck, and horrified. He’d retired from teaching at Regent before I had even arrived. I had never seen him in real life, only in those cheesy thumbprint photos (that inevitably had been airbrushed) on the back of his books. He was a legend—a white stallion, a thoroughbred—always talked of, but never seen.     

And in that moment, that seemed to last forever, I remembered the quote that had served me well throughout my years at grad school, by some fellow whose name eludes me: “The mark of a certain kind of genius is the ability and energy to keep returning to the same task relentlessly, imaginatively, curiously, for a lifetime. Never give up and go on to something else; never get distracted and be diverted to something else.”

I had a task to perform—a duty. I could not be distracted or diverted. I needed to be disciplined. He could not receive special treatment. I needed to treat him like everyone else. And so, in St. Peter-esque fashion, I guarded those Pearly Gates. I started at the top of “The List” and worked my way down—slowly.

“Peterson. Peterson…”

I flipped the page, then another.

“P for Peterson…”

He waited patiently.

“Ah, here we go. Peterson.”  I paused. “Oh, nope. That’s a Jan.”

“Jan’s my wife,” he said.

I squinted. 

“M-hmmm.” I checked the list again—twice.

“Well, look at that. You are on The List tucked right in behind Jan. Jan & Eugene Peterson. How ‘bout that?!”

He grinned while I stood there staring at him awkwardly, having seen the note behind the name. 

“Says here you’re a Keynote Speaker.” My body slowly melted into the pavement.  And, for lack of anything intelligent to say, I said the only thing that came to mind (which is never a wise thing to do). “Well, isn’t that… special.”

I forced a chuckle.

“You have a special parking spot—right up at the front there.”

He smiled and gave a nod of gratitude.

I extended my hand in the most regal way I could and said, “You may enter.” And he did.

The air had gotten remarkably warm in those few minutes, so with my clipboard, I fanned into flame the gift of humility that the Lord had generously bestowed upon me. And in my own attempt to manage my mini existential meltdown, I whispered the only words that could give any comfort: Schluck schnell, Ali, schluck schnell.

In the years since then, I have reflected many a time on that brief exchange—specifically how unassuming he was. In under a minute he demonstrated patience, gentleness, and humility. There was no sense of entitlement, even though he was entitled. No pretense of being special, although he was—and that struck me.

I have enjoyed many of his books, paying no attention, of course, to the thumbprint photos on the back covers, as you can’t trust those. I have often sought comfort in the brilliant word-crafting of The Message. It has brought a freshness to that which was familiar. Being the Arts Administrator at Regent for a number of years now, I have been blessed by his support of the Eugene & Jan Peterson Chair of Theology and the Arts. They truly understood the value and importance of the Arts and in particular, the prophetic role of the Artist. And, leading by example, he embodied what it means to “Run with the Horses.” In his recent death, I have no doubt that he blazed through those pearly gates, right past St. Peter, and that he was, in fact, on The List. 

Want more theological storytelling? Check out "Bare Witness," in which a terrified young Ed Smith decides it's the right moment to evangelize a particularly coarse member of his roofing crew. 

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