Pilgrimage and Presence

“It’s sad to leave the people you travel with.
How much moreso those who remind you of God.
Hurry back to the ones protecting you.

On every trip, have only one objective,
to meet those who are friends
inside the presence.”

(excerpt from Rumi’s “A Pilgrimage to a Person,” The Essential Rumi)

I am just back now from a trip to Kingston, Ontario with Inshallah, the 100+ voice choir I have enjoyed for 8 years or so. There we joined Open Voices, a community choir in Kingston with similar numbers. Between the two choirs, we were 170 voices strong, and performed a concert in support of Kingston’s Interchurch Refugee Partnership.

The event was spectacular indeed. It was a rich experience to sing with another choir, with two different directors and two different cultures. It truly was an opportunity “to meet those who are friends.” I like the way Rumi puts it: to meet those who are friends rather than meet those who will become friends. This presence he speaks of seems to reference a place and way of being where we are drawn into relationships that almost seem to have been prepared in advance: a feast awaiting our taking place at table.

I had the happy opportunity to be fed by and billeted with Open Voice chorister Stewart and his lovely wife Aileen. They were consummate hosts, a description that befits Open Voices. As we gathered around a programme featuring music both familiar and not, each choir had the challenge of learning to sing together, a process expedited – I think – by the realization that we were there together for the sake of refugees coming to Canada from Syria. They framed “presence” for us in their permanent pilgrimage.

But it wasn’t only the concert and cause that made “presence” real. The trip to and from Kingston on the bus, too, was a gift with much laughing, a bit of napping, some rich conversation and that sort of small talk that builds bridges and opens doors. I have been learning a bit about pilgrimage these last few years, and have discovered that leaving allows you to return to a part of you that might well be buried below the busyness of the everyday. I think this truth obtains for communities as much as for individuals. As a group we experienced ourselves anew, and this was a gift. And so it was so very poignant to come home and pick up my volume of Rumi and read that “it is sad to leave people you travel with.” But sadness is tempered by the memory that together we entered the presence, and were therein gifted.

Of Sermons and Such

Last weekend I attended the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting in Atlanta.  While I had opportunity to hear some marvelous papers, and reveled in the occasion to meet with old friends and to greet new ones, by far the highlight of the weekend came on Sunday morning.  After a hearty breakfast at “The Diner,” I joined two friends in a cab that took us to (the new) Ebenezer Baptist Church, the home church community of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  We arrived a bit early, and had opportunity to wander about a bit, looking at the Peace Garden and reading some touching reflections on peace written by children of various ages from many locales.  We took a very quick look at the museum before getting back to the church.  We arrived at 10:30 or so, for an 11:00 service.  At a quarter to the hour, one of the church leaders introduced three young people seeking baptism, and while the choir sang “Take Me to the Waters,” they were baptized by immersion on confession of faith in a baptismal font located some 20 or 30 feet above the sanctuary proper.  I was hereby reminded that this was not my home, which was the very thing I was hoping for.  The service proper began at 11:00 with a thanksgiving hymn, followed by prayers, the Pastor’s Brief, a stewardship presentation, special music, an offering, etc.  All of this moved the community artfully towards the sermon, which was altogether unlike anything I have heard.

 

The preacher was Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, a celebrated preacher in North America.  His oratory skills were moving, his treatment of the biblical passage insightful, his engagement of justice issues jolting, and his ability to connect the text to the trials and temptations of the folk in the pew profound.  The sermon began with a measured pace and a close reading of a written text.  As the sermon advanced, the pace picked up, the preacher left the written text, and by the end what transpired was as much song as speech as he spoke with ringing and rolling phrases that reached for justice, pressed for peace and sang mercy.  People stood and clapped when a phrase, or an idea, or an admonition hit their hearts.  Certain themes brought the majority of the congregation to their feet, but never all the people.  It was clear to me that standing, and/or clapping was a part of a personal engagement with the sermon rather than a required or expected response.  As the sermon reached its conclusion, folk were invited to come forward to shake the Pastor’s hand in a gesture of welcome for those wishing to join the Ebenezer Community.  It was really a most memorable and transformative event.

 

I am a little reticent to call what I experienced a sermon.  Or, perhaps I should be reticent to call what I hear in most churches I frequent a sermon.  The genre was so utterly other than what I know.  I am aware that, to a degree, the character of my experience was formed by my being outside of my zone of familiarity and comfort.  And so, I am neither romantic nor naive about what I experienced, recognizing that what transpired at Ebenezer is a product of events, and skills, and communal commitments that cannot be replicated in my context.  Nor is it the case that Dr. Warnock’s sermon was “better” than what I normally hear.  In fact, it seemed so utterly different that comparison seems like an evasion of the need to simply take in what occurred.  The experience was one of those which seems so rich as to require a long deep breath, and willingness to sit with it for a bit.  Something happened in that historic community for me, and I suspect it will take a while before I know what it was.  But in the interim, I am grateful for such an unusual experience, as well as the usual experiences which allow this one to stand out so.

The World Beneath my Feet

It has been a wet June, and somewhat cold too after a warm dry May. Yesterday I rushed out and mowed the lawn aware of an impending rainstorm. My timing – albeit prompted by my wife’s observation of the light’s shift– was exquisite. The heavens opened just as I put away the lawnmower. Our lawn these days is rich in colour and complicated in content. “Weed and Feed” and such were outlawed a few years back, and so folk have the option of hiring lawn professionals (who can still use such products), or going au naturel, or converting grass to something else: a rock garden, a perennial bed, etc. Ours is a rather large lawn and so the conversion option is not so very attractive. We are not inclined to go with lawn professionals, and so wild is our style.

Our lawn gets a little more interesting each year. It hosts many sorts of plants, including grass. From a distance it looks a lovely green of various hues. Up close the breadth of selection is staggering. I generally like this, and am very happy with what must be a small wild strawberry that grows below the generous height I have set my lawn-mower. It begins with a lovely, tiny butter yellow flower that turns into a rock hard red fruit that is utterly inedible. From my perspective, its value is all in the beauty it brings to the lay of the lawn. Last year, a pretty little purple flower came along as well. I cheered it on, of course. But in due course I realized that it was strangling everything. It didn’t play well with others, and so I pushed back. This year it pops up here and there and I round it up with my hand rather than “ “Round Up.” Clover spots the lawn, and feeds the rabbits, and there are the odd dandelions that I did not dig up manually in the spring. I leave them be until next spring.

As you can tell from the above, I know my lawn a bit better than I did, say five years ago, when we would fertilize and apply herbicides in the spring and cut like crazy through the summer. Now I wander around, with my eyes on the ground wondering what I might find in this microcosm of multiculturalism. Scientists tell us that diversity is the building block of a healthy eco-system. That seems sound, as long as that diversity is ready to push back when certain species have “monoculture” as their watch word. Social scientist tells us that diversity is also the mark of a healthy culture, where room is made for the many or few who are different from the rest. That Christian sage of old seemed to have this in mind when he compared the church to a body, a harmony of disparate parts needing a diversity ordered to the common good of all.

Dealing with diversity in human community, however, is frightening. We imagine that if others look like us they will think like us and then all will be well. This, of course, is one way we put our heads in the sand. The pathway of the common good does not demand everyone look the same, or say the same thing, or even believe the same way. Common good comes from good community where people take time to be with one another, to find out what it is that divides and unites us, and to respect the difference and the distance we all need. In this week of national celebrations north and south of the border, we do well to recall that we all need one another because we can only be individuals together.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell

This has been Luther Hostel week at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary – a week with credit and continuing education events, as well as special worship and recreation events.  Last night we had opportunity to see the documentary film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.”  This movie is about groups of women, both Christian and Muslim, who worked for peace in war torn Liberia.

 

The story is stark, and difficult to hear: sons enslaved as soldiers, daughters raped by marauding gangs intoxicated with guns and the numbing power of drugs, mothers and fathers forced to see and hear the unspeakable, moments before their death.

 

I do not know so very much about this story.  The film served as a correction, even while alerting me to the fact that there is so much more to learn.  While a film such as this is disturbingly dark, it also came with moments of hope.  Seeing the women dance and sing – each turn, each stanza made into a prayer – was incredibly moving.  Hope shone through in strength of these women who refused to let the devil have the last word in their communities.  Together, in sit down strikes and stand out defiance, they turned faux peace talks into a test of accountability.

 

The film also chronicled the difficult task of facing former child soldiers, now young men, in this post-war situation.  We have the good fortune of having Esther and Lazarus, two church workers from Liberia, with us for a couple of months.  They were able to comment on the work being done in this area by the Lutheran Church in Liberia.  They reminded us that these former child soldiers have had their childhood robbed from them, even as they robbed life, and hope, and community from others.  In the film, some of the victims spoke of the difficult task of forgiving these.  Not all are able to do this.  I can certainly understand that.  But for those who are beginning to see their way into forgiveness, an important step was seeing them again as children rather than child soldiers.

 

I will never forget the strength of the women in this movie.  Their righteous anger echoed the beatitudes proclaimed by an itinerant preacher of a time long ago.  He talked of tables being turned, of the weak taking power, of the meek inheriting mantels, and the mighty being brought low.  Something of this was experienced in Liberia.  A new Reign fell upon this land.  Prayer and solidarity held hands as mercy and truth met in these strong women.  Much work remains to be done in Liberia, where our thoughts, prayers, and solidarity are coveted.  But hope is being enacted in the form of former child soldiers now learning talents and trades to contribute to a new Liberia, to a new kind of freedom.

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.

Old Friends

I just returned from the 2013 American Academy of Religion conference. Some 15, 000 academics or so descended upon Baltimore to discuss things religious. When I first attended AAR I didn’t know a soul. That was especially intimidating. As the years go by, this event becomes more like a homecoming. You might find four or five sessions you want to attend, and on the way to one or the other, you bump into an old friend and get chatting, and soon you have missed them all. For the last number of years, a kind of ritual has emerged that is increasingly important to me. On one evening, I have occasion to dine with a dear old friend, who is old in years of age rather than years of friendship.

I first met this octogenarian ten years ago. He contributed to a Festschrift for my advisor. At that time, T. was familiar to me only in name. He was an established scholar in my area – world renown in fact – yet had something of a teddy bear demeanor. Over the last few years the mutual friendship we had with my advisor became the bridge for our own friendship, and so I yearly look forward to his warmth and hospitality.

T. has so much to share, but is one of those gentle souls who have mastered the art of tricking his interlocutor into doing all the talking. He is genuinely interested in people, and draws out the best in everyone. This year, I managed to persuade him to tell me a bit about his experience in university life, and was astounded to discover that he spent his career in the Faculty of Education, where he taught on the topic of the philosophy of education. In fact, he published some 7 books in this area, even while he is famous among scholars of religion and theologians for translating and commenting on the work of a celebrated 19th Century theologian and philosopher.

It is always humbling to meet such people: brilliant yet warm – patient and down to the earth. Here is a stranger to pretension who invites those fortunate enough to be his fellow sojourners to join him in the art of deferring attention from the self to the subject matter. A little time with T. each year gifts me with curiousity, the very virtue that allows him to age without acerbity.

May his tribe increase.

Waiting Gains

My wife and I have slowly come to the conclusion that it is time to sell the Jetta. It has been a good car for us, and maybe even to us. But it is time to move along, and a new Golf has caught our eyes. So, we spent Friday night cleaning the nooks and crannies of the car, and yesterday I visited the internet to get a sense of a reasonable price to ask. I also discovered that the Ontario government demands that I provide a Used Vehicle Inspection Package, a document outlining the history of the car, etc. This meant a trip to Service Ontario.

I was hoping for a quick in and out. Wrong. I got my queue number: D14. I sat down, among a number of Served-by-Ontario aspirants: a couple of couples with little ones who played electronic games that mewed, baaaed and clucked. A young man beside me had a hrrmph on his face. I heard a little French, giggles from a little girl being chased by her dad. I took my seat in proximity of the one and only service agent. I could easily hear the interchange. A senior citizen was there to get something, but she was not quite sure what it was she wanted or needed.

I began to listen carefully; noting that the conversation was going in a circle. The same questions provoked the same answers that brought forth yet another reiteration of an early question, and round and round it went. Other people came in. No one went out. The young man beside me fidgeted. I fidgeted. I looked down at my hands; surprised to discover that they were not holding a book. I never go to these places without a book. No book; no posters on the walls; no reading material. There was nothing but a circular conversation to hear, and the increasing contractions of patience.

I tried to make the most of the moment. I closed my eyes, and focused on being still. And then I heard it. The service agent’s voice: it was repose. She did not betray a hint of impatience. She did not rush the elderly woman along with shortened vowels, or clipped consonants. Her pace was not harried, not hurried, only humane.

Eventually another wicket opened, and things moved along. When it was my turn to go to the wicket, the first woman served me along with equanimity. She asked me a little about my car as forms printed. There was nothing exceptional about our interchange, aside from my memory that she was what I would wish to be: poised, patient and personable.

Little moments like this make life rich. They give us glimpses into what the human community can be: patiently caring for those who are a little confused, in need of help, and anxious about what is so straight-forward and quotidian for the rest of us. Take a moment to listen for these voices: calming, caring and non-anxious, their register is angelic.