Polyphony of Praise

Each leaf lingers like
note hanging to staff,
stemmed to branch,
performing a polyphony of praise
as the tree lauds its

earthy inspiration:

terra firma
feeding
cantus firmus.

For those with ears to hear,
the tree – like all spirited
songs – hosts a community of joy:

cardinals in canticle

rhythmic robins

and squirrels ad-verse to gravity,

as delight bursts forth with blossoms of hope.

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Hope in La Paz

My wife and I are just back from a trip to El Salvador with Habitat for Humanity. We were helping a family of three – a mom and her two young daughters – build their home in Zacatecoluca in La Paz. We were part of a team of eleven, ranging in age from 15 to older than 15. Our group consisted of seven women and four men, all from Canada. A couple of them spoke enough Spanish to help us along from time to time, mostly when we were away from our translator in down times. It was an amazing experience on many levels, and difficult to describe.

Sometimes people, upon hearing of the experience, praise me as if this was a self-less act, a kind of exercise in altruism. But that isn’t quite right. I got much out of this trip; more than I gave, I think. I met some amazing people, saw a marvellous land, made memories that will last a life time, and all in return for a handful of days of labour. I am tempted to say I came out ahead, but the experience reminded me that being with people in a common cause for good is not something that can be measured by comparing costs and benefits. I cannot say that I paid a certain number of hours of labour to accrue a benefit of a matching amount of joy. Sometimes the labour was the joy – as I experienced again that satisfaction that comes with exercising the body in meaningful work. And sometimes the joy of the comradery was a kind of a labour, a giving birth to hope, and meaning, and peace too. I learned anew that some experiences are not subject to calculations and financial accounting.

How do you put a price on young people expanding their world beyond their high school at home? How do you rate the joy of a grandmother seeing a future come together for her daughter and granddaughters? What is the value of a smile from local Habitat Volunteers, happy to see that they are part of a global movement, and not just labouring for housing justice all on their own in their backyard? What is net worth of watching an six-year-old Salvadoran girl teaching teen-age strangers-become-friends some basic Spanish? What kind of a value can you attach to the tears of volunteers and future home-owners as they say good-bye after an exercise in hope? This is a liquid that makes oil, and gold, and diamonds seem like the dross that they are. What matters at the end of the day is not what we have, but who we are and how we share who we are with others.

Jesus teaches us that it is more blessed to give than receive. I like that, but I am sometimes reminded that it is not always so clear when I am giving and when I am receiving. These two do not exist with sharp boundaries, to the end that I can calculate how much I gave and how much I received. Often, giving and receiving come and go together, hand in hand.

As I reflect on this trip, I am reminded that it is a remarkable gift when you encounter holy moments in which giving and receiving merge into a poignant joy. Will I do another build? Most certainly. Can I expect it to replicate what I experienced this time? I doubt it. Grace is a mystery and cannot be orchestrated. This last week I discerned a rich measure of grace in my encounters with people of hope in La Paz; in our team and our time together; and in the gift of being away, for a time, in the land of El Salvador, the Saviour.

h4h el salvador

Photo Credit: Gwenanne A. Jorgenson

This Book in Your Hand

Do you see the tree –
now this book in
your hand? Can
you hear echoes of
its whispering through
the wind? Do you
know that it once
breathed out its
life as it inhaled
your death?

This book in your hand
is your relation.

Its pages are leaves for
the healing of the nations.
You can divine in its spine
trunk and branches and roots –
given for you, given for me.
It bears the ink it bleeds
nobly. This book
reminds us that
we do not read
without cost.

This book in your hand
is a living wood, and
it will not remain
silent.

Working Edges

This last Saturday night my wife and I went to The Mayors’ Dinner in Kitchener, a fundraising event for the Working Centre, a not-for profit organization in our community that addresses issues of poverty and unemployment. This happens every year, and a person or group of people, is given special recognition. This year the recipients were Arleen Macpherson, Gretchen Jones, and Jennifer Mains, all who work or have worked with St. John’s Kitchen. My wife and I have gone to a few of these fundraising events, but I was especially interested because I have had students that have done volunteer placements at St. John’s Kitchen. A few years back one of the Community Service Learning coordinators and I visited the site, and chatted with Gretchen, who keeps thing moving on a daily basis.

I still remember the visit well. We biked there from the University, Rebekah leading the way as we wound our way through a kind of back street route from point University to point Kitchen, in Kitchener. We locked up our bikes and said hi to a few clients on our way up the brightly painted stairwell, and into the well lit, vibrant, second floor of 97 Victoria St. N that houses the kitchen, the dining hall, and offices for some health care there. We sat and visited with Gretchen, who told us a bit about the program, and then expressed thanks for the volunteer work done by students. Of course, I already knew from student feedback that they received more than they gave at this volunteer site. For many students, their experience at St. John’s was a life changer, in important ways.

Many of them had never had experience working with marginalized people, and so this experience reconfigured the world they knew. They came to see that there are not simple solutions to problems like homelessness. They came to see that people in need do not need charity, but deserve dignity. They came to see that where their world ends is where other people’s worlds begin. This experience took them to the edges of their lives, where they started to work at important questions: who am I? what is my place in the world? where is God in this?

At the dinner on Saturday, Gretchen and others from the Kitchen spoke, and told some very moving stories: accounts of varied experiences that were miraculous in many ways. We also were introduced, via video, to some of the volunteers and guests of the kitchen, who opened to us the Reign of God, for those with ears to hear. We began to see the face of the Kitchen, painted with stories of broken people reaching out to care for broken people and so creating community. At the end of the evening, I rejoiced at having been given another snapshot of what it looks like to live in community, where truth makes things messy and hope makes people patient.

We have to be patient to work at the edges, where we discover ourselves anew in the experiences of growth, being stretched and strained in ways that remind us that the human condition is change: from cradle to coffin we are moving from life to death and from death to life. These two feed on each other, and so there is no food that does not entail death in giving life. Food is the marriage of life and death, and St. John’s Kitchen is one place that preaches the sermon that we are what we eat: the community of life and death that works at the edges, that works on its edges.

On Good Friday Last,

I ran through a wood;
silva bathed in silver.
And in the lesser light
with shades crossing my path,
my laboured breath could not
but gasp at upended
trees. Prostrate trunks
and exposed roots
reminded me
that these giants
too cross over, in
the bosom of their
kin, in the ken that they
are never alone.

On Good Friday last,
on the forest floor,
I discovered that when
trees fall, they
sing, whether I am
there to hear them,
or not.

At the Hearth

The blessed sleep of the just
again evades me, and so I now
sit at the hearth, holy
in its own way: a kind
of graced sanctuary.

Shadows dance lauds on walls,
while tongues of fire preach
a sound sermon:
“You are standing on holy ground!”

In this chapel, no offering is taken,
but it offers opportunity
to sing praise, if not
with raised hands then
at least with razed
certainties,
knowing that knowing
is like a flame:
illumining and dangerous
both, and then gone,
so quickly
gone…

Not Alone in This

This last week our school had an accreditation visit. Accreditation has long been a fact of life at many institutions. It involved, for us, a good dearl of tension, stress, anxiety, etc. The visit went reasonably well, I think, and we await a formal report in coming weeks. All of us, faculty and staff both, are breathing a little easier now that the visit is behind us, after months of report writing, copious editing, a good bit of pondering and a bit of hand wringing. The evaluation team came and queried and left, and now it is all done.

But what really happened?

The experience – for me – finally wasn’t about accrediting the institution and its programs, nor the never-ending obsession with outcomes, and goals, and measurement that has become the way of institutional life – although it was about these. The experience, rather, gave me the opportunity to understand anew how we work as a team, revealed in a rich way in our being together last week. The phenomenon of the visit set my colleagues in relief even while the quantifying means of evaluation could not measure the quality of our community.

How do you measure the hallway conversations that result in new ideas and new directions for scholarship? How do you quantify the kind of encouragement that comes from two colleagues who decide (voluntarily) to join me in an impromptu, and unscheduled, meeting with evaluators who want more information? How do you count the cohesion formed around cups of coffee enjoyed first thing each morning? What would a score card for worship look like?

Of course, you cannot measure these. To be fair to the evaluating visitors, they know this. They know this because they work in institutions like ours, institutions that have spirits not subject to the canons of outcome driven evaluations. Please do not misunderstand me, there is value for institutions in setting goals that are linked to outcomes that need concrete ways for determining success. But somehow, an assessment of an institution that does not look to the soul stories that sustain people fails. Assessment, I think needs to be assessed, and metrics need to be set against the canon of meaning.

I learned much this last week. I learned that I am remarkable blessed to work with people who care, and whose care is concrete in commitments to one another. I learned, anew, that learning is a mystery, and happens in ways that are not simply subject to the machination of planning, even while planning is a necessary part of learning and the institutions that support it. I learned, again, that grace comes despite our expectations of worst case scenarios and cynicism about processes that sometimes seem labourious and incursive.

I learned that I am not alone in this work. This is no small mercy, and I thank God for it.