Takk for Alt

Christmas is upon us, a time of great joy for some and of some darkness for others. While this person celebrates, that person mourns. Most of us, I suspect experience a bit of both, thinking on those whose presences have graced our tables in times past but do so no more. I find myself thinking of my parents at Christmas. They are now gone but still present in important ways. Strangely, this last little while I have found myself thinking about my father’s mother, my Norwegian farmor. I never knew her, her having died some years before my birth. But I have heard bits and pieces about her, too few.

She was raised in Norway and came to the USA for a marriage that produced one son. Her first husband died in an accident, I was told, and she came to Canada to take up a business opportunity at Milk River in Alberta, where she met my grandfather – my farfar – who was homesteading a piece of land. They went through hard times, raising a family of 8 through the depression of the mid-20th century, losing a child and scratching out a living with little luxury. She died in her early 70s, I’ve heard. When I was visiting a cousin in Newfoundland, I ate at her table and was glad for that experience. That cousin has memories of farmor. I have none.

And so, I wonder why she is on my mind these days. How can someone I never knew take up residence in the “kingdom of memory,” a phrase used by Elie Wiesel? How is it that farmor commands my attention? I really have no answer for this question but am glad for her presence in absence.

Christians speak sometimes of the experience of presence in absence, feeling God acutely in those moments when we feel most godforsaken. Many of us see that evidenced in the life of Jesus, especially on the cross, where he quotes the first verse of Psalm 22, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” Scholars remind us that sometimes the first verse of a psalm was a kind of aide de memoire, invoking the whole of the psalm. In the case of Psalm 22, then, we are reminded that the same person who laments at the beginning of the psalm also said in verse 24: “For God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; God did not hide the divine face from me, but heard when I cried to God.”

There is something right-headed about the fact that the psalmist both laments and praises God’s absence and presence in the same psalm, I think. From one psalm comes both praise and lament. In like fashion, from one heart comes both lament and praise, both doubt and faith. And from all of us comes an ache for a wholeness that is all-inclusive. Maybe that is why I’ve been thinking on farmor these days. Deep in my bones is the desire to be whole, and whole includes holding the hands of all who have suffered for my well-being, for my little successes, and for my great joys. My blood pulses with a desire to say thank-you, and this desire has taken shape in a thought, a thinking on a woman I never knew but whom I know to be a part of me. And so, on this Christmas time, I say to farmor “Takk, farmor, takk for alt.” And to all of my readers, I say thanks for journeying with me in 2018. You will hear from me again in the month of Janus, the wolf who stands at the door of the New Year.

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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.

For Mom

Today we laid my dear mother Lakadia (Kay) Jorgenson (née Sommer) to rest. She died on October 2, 2013 at the age of 84 years. Her four children were at her side and she died in peace. Mom was someone who loved to cook for, care for and welcome others. She taught me lessons I am still learning and for her I wrote the following which was printed on her funeral card.

Tenaciously
her chest rises, falls
breathing in, breathing out
bearing witness to the glory of the
Lord who succored this sojourner from
Poland to Ponoka and points in between:
Pier 21, New Sarepta, Edmonton, Wilson Siding.
She mirrored mother earth in giving birth – groaning
in travail as she awaited the day of groaning no more. In
faith she stitched service into socks and kindness into afghans.
In hope she sowed compassion among beans and barley and berries.
Lovingly she kneaded care into bread that fed family, friends, and
wayfarers too. With a soft grace she tended Ken until his end
and then, at hers, Your wings wrapped her round as
her breath wound down – like a butterfly slowing
its beating wings into a posture of prayer.
At the last, Holy Breath, You took
her to Your breast where You
held, where You hold her
tenaciously.

Love, Allen

Revenge Revisited

In the movie The Interpreter, the character Silvia Bromme (Nicole Kidman) speaks of her commitment to non-violence saying “Revenge is a lazy form of grief.” Tobin Keller (Sean Penn), who is a federal agent protecting her, is mourning the senseless death of his wife and admits that he would gladly and swiftly take revenge on the one who caused the death of his beloved.  He admired other modes of grief from afar.

 

Is revenge really a lazy form of grief?  Is it even a form of grief?

 

I can remember, still with knots in my stomach, events in which I was wronged and longed to make things right by a sharp word (that came to me a tad too late) or a swift kick (that would have had me thrown out of the game).   My desire for revenge has more often come in response to assaults to my person, rather than those I love – although there has been more than enough of the latter too.  So, while revenge may be a form of grief, I tend to think of it more as a form of preventative defense: I will respond to your violence with violence in kind, or with the threat of violence that holds you at bay.

 

My parents, however, taught me that vengeance isn’t mine to exact: it is the Lord’s, or the teacher’s, or the judicial system.  Sometimes I listen to their now internalized voices; sometimes not.  But even when I do, still doubt nags.  Will my honour truly be returned; my right to fair treatment finally fulfilled?  Giving up vengeance always seemed, and seems, to be a waiting game.

 

But maybe we can make of it another kind of waiting game; a flip from waiting for to waiting on.  While waiting for vengeance, we can wait on others needing recompense: victims of economic violence, those beaten by racial stereotypes, children deprived of hope, etc.  When we wait on while we wait for we discover a most amazing thing: waiting on becomes a waiting with which brings me back to grief.

 

Grief’s condolence is accompaniment.  Those who suffer with others find – not exactly erasure of suffering – but the possibility of experiencing hope in suffering, in grief, in lament.  Such hope seems to dissipate the press for vengeance.  Maybe vengeance isn’t the Lord’s so much because it is God’s to exact, but rather God’s to absorb.  And maybe waiting with victims while waiting on them gives us something different to wait for: justice graced by love and righteousness kissed by peace.