Dance me a Prayer

Yesterday I spent my Sunday morning at Trinity Lutheran, New Hamburg. The good folk there invited me to speak on the topic of “evil” in the adult education hour, after the Anchor service at 9:30 am. It was a delightful morning. Pastor André spoke winsomely of the passion narrative, making reference to the Greek text in order to reframe the story for us and thereby giving occasion for my heart to be strangely warmed. Pastor Anne presided at Holy Communion. It is always a treat to hear again her voice. I closed my eyes and experienced transport of a sort as she chanted me into a different place, a different time. We sang one of my favourite Lenten hymns: Go to Dark Gethsemane. The journey had just begun.

With coffee in hand I moved over to the education room, where I had opportunity to chat with 30 or 40 people on the topic of evil. It was a rich experience, indeed, as I heard the stories that sustain people, as well as the questions that plague them. We spoke for a time on the topic of evil, and its character as both a philosophical quagmire and an existential pit. We spoke of evil’s irrational character, which seems to preclude making sense of it.

People asked me probing questions, and together we endeavored to imagine a Christian response to evil – looking to lament and a struggle against injustice to assist us in such times and places. People spoke so openly of their trials – it was really very moving. One elderly woman spoke of her strategy for dealing with the dark days that descend upon her from time to time. She told me, she told us all that when a heavy, claustrophobic cloud descends upon her, she pulls out her favourite dancing music and dances – all by herself in her room – despite the fact that she can hardly walk. She can dance herself out of the darkness in vexing moments. It was beautiful to hear her talk of her strategy and the hope she embodies in dancing. It struck me that her dance is her prayer of lament, of faith, of life.

On this, the beginning of Holy Week, we could do worse than imagine ways to dance together through the multifarious modes of darkness that descend upon us here and there, now and then. This elderly dancer spoke to us of the relief that comes as we allow our body to speak what our heart feels. I don’t know about the others, but I came away a little richer yesterday as I was afforded that curious opportunity to be a co-learner as well as a co-teacher.

My prayer for us, Lenten pilgrims all, is that we may take advantage of this week to discern how to dance a prayer through the darkness: from dark Gethsemane to the darker cross and tomb, and then at the last into the glorious splendor of life.

Siege Song

Monday night our book club had the rare opportunity of having an author in  attendance.  Tamas Dobozy was with us as we discussed his acclaimed book Seige 13.  The book narrates the experiences of the Hungarians who endure the brutal occupation of Budapest in 1944.   Dobozy spoke of his experience as a child of a survivor, and as a member of the Hungarian expat community in Canada.  He gave us some background to the book, and as we queried him on the occasion of its writing, and the manner of its genesis, he spoke eloquently of the strange place of being in a community that has known trauma, and knows how to suppress it.

 

He spoke of the power of narrative as a tool to orient survivors of horrors.  He spoke of the gratitude of his community for his telling of the tale.  He, and we all, spoke of the manner in which communities suppress how they both have been done wronged and what they have done wrong.  Regarding the latter, he spoke of the manner in which Jews, the Roma, and homosexuals were betrayed in the era under consideration.  Evil endured and evil perpetuated – alike – were left unspoken.

 

Along the way, I asked him about the role of song, and the role of artists in the time leading up to the siege, and the time after.  He spoke of the heroic example of Bartók, who eloquently and passionately bore witness to the wrong of abuse both endured and perpetuated by the Hungarian people.  Bartók refused to be honoured by any plaque, or street name, or bust in his home country as long as fascists or communists were in charge.  During the war he escaped to the USA, where he died.

 

As I walked home afterwards, I wondered: how is it that artists are so often able to see clearly what others cannot, or refuse to see?  How is it that they find the courage to speak out when others keep quiet in the face of what they know should not be countenanced?  What well-spring of courage do they access that others of us seem to miss out on?  What do they imbibe while working at the arts, at what many consider to be decorative excess to the real stuff of life?

 

Of course there are always many unsung heros in times of siege and reigns of terror.  Quietly, many a mite has gnawed at the might of empires.  This must be recognized, but still, still, we do well to listen to our bards; to look deeply into the masterpieces of our contemporaries; to pay attention to our poets.  All of these have courage with their ear to the ground.  Here they hear slow trains coming, some of which have designs on deportation.

Manufactured Desire, Destructive Discontent

In one of my classes we have been reading Graham Ward’s “The Politics of Discipleship.” In the book he writes of manufactured desire.  He sets it in contrast to actual needs.  These latter are the stuff that daily occupies the so-called two-thirds world – that is to say, food, clothing, shelter, water, etc.  The former refer to “needs” created by clever capitalists etc.  Marx writes that after humans take care of real needs, they create needs to occupy themselves.  It seems that we are doing this in spades these days.

 

My students were intrigued by the idea that we are unwitting (although sometimes altogether too witting) slaves of desires that have been created for the benefit of shareholders who themselves have made obscene returns their very own desire.  Maybe “intrigued” isn’t quite the right word.  But hopefully you get what I mean.  A strange kind of feeling accompanies the realization that you have been putty in the hands of mad men, who are very happy to see us unhappy aside from the slick new (fill in the blank).  On the one hand, a kind of insane rage flashes in you, and on the other hand, a kind of perverse (to the market forces, anyways) pleasure  as the desire to usurp these manufactured desires arises and as the virtue of contentment contends against destructive discontent.  We discussed what it means to push beyond consumerism into citizenship as our primary way of engaging the world.  Of course, certain folk, politicians among them, rather prefer consumers over citizens; always happy to create a need that we can fill by buying the latest widget.

 

Ward also points out that, for those with more than they can keep in their gated fortresses, the market is only too happy to manufacture other kinds of needs: experiences that are generally exotic and thus both hard on the earth and vacuous in virtue: think of the littered trail up the mount called Everest for a moment.

 

We talked about what Christian discipleship means in a time and place such as ours.  We talked about how we are all implicated in the system (especially true for those of us with investments and hopes to retire some day), and we also discussed how insidious evil is.  And in our talking we discovered that talking is itself a cure:  in thinking these things through aloud we found a kind of solidarity that recognizes that small things matter.  Walking when possible, taking a coffee cup to displace another paper cup polluting Mother Earth, shutting off the computer, tablet and phone for a time.  These things were small, but they loomed large as we discussed them together ever mindful of that picture posed by that itinerant preacher of long ago: the Reign of God really is like a mustard seed.  Sometimes we need to start small because a crack is all that we have for planting.  Sometimes a crack is enough to remind us that enough is enough.

An Experience of Communion

Hi All, I was invited to provide a guest blog for the Lutheran World Federation website.  It was to be a reflection on my experience at the recent consultation on the nature of the Lutheran World Federation – especially in light of its self-definition as a “Communion of Churches.”  The blog can be found here.

Never Fear Eating on Your Own

Never fear eating on your own
because you aren’t
alone in your eating.
The farmer’s hands which have
teased milk from cow’s teat
hold yours as you
savour cheese. And the hoe to the row
of potatoes is a fork now, patterning the mashed moat
of gravy – afloat with peas – pilgrimming from pod to pot to palate, each pea
caressed by fingers whose prints bear witness
to careful culling. No, you are
not on your own – never alone – with
food, which only gives itself up
because another has given herself over to it:

      the farmer firmly by your side
        the gardener grounded in each root vegetable
          the vintner poured out in the wine’s glow.

A host in light delights in your satisfaction, in your being
fed, your being bread for the world.

Ensconced for now…

And now I am firmly ensconced in Bossey, Switzerland at the Ecumenical Institute. At least, as ensconced as one can be for four days. I am here with a working group of the Lutheran World Federation. We have gathered from near and far to deliberate over the nature of the church, and what it means for the LWF to call itself “A Communion of Churches,” and what it means to be in communion in light of those human frailties that fracture unity, community and the self.

I give a paper tomorrow, but today I am mostly trying to stay awake. I flew through the night, which gives me that curious sense that somehow, someone has robbed me of a day. I am doing all I can to stay awake, not wanting to sit up in bed four hours hence, wide awake even while I know that this is exactly what will happen no matter what. Jetlag exacts payment. You don’t get to defy space without time exacting its revenge.

I went for a walk in the late afternoon, and after about 10 minutes ran into a wall. I literally felt as though I was pushing through a pool of jello (without that curious mixture of uncommon texture and too common flavour). Each step required an act of the will, a volitional defiance of everything in me that said: lay down and have a nap. I refused that then and I refuse that now, and so I write. But not for long.

Soon, the words will blur, my sentences will slur as if I were sheets to the wind. My body winds down. Soon it will be time to succumb to the memories of a day’s travel: airports thick with a lifetime or more of agony and ecstasy; babies crying and parents stoically refusing to join in; the unlikely discovery of a Swiss Chalet (yes that Swiss Chalet) in Switzerland; the meeting of new colleagues and the re-meeting of old; and that curious sense of disorientation that comes when a threshold has been broached and a new challenge announced.

Soon it is time to let the day’s memories of spring flowers, song birds, and greening grass pass over me like a wave of tomorrow. Soon

The Poetry of Bread

This poem in my hands,
this dough rolling round
my fingers sings
of soil, of seed,
of leaven, of levity.
No metaphor, this loaf
is the real deal. Its rise
upends depression
reverses detestation as
flour weds yeast weds water – salted and oiled.
In this feast of chaos, this orgy of gorging,
each ingredient eats the other,
smothered in love’s wager. And then
a miracle emerges – a loaf, no six! – and each one
anxious for flame, for fire – this poem
now ready to be read,
aching to be eaten.