These Arms

My arms grow longer the
older I get. My
hands droop closer to
the dirt that will
one day vest
me.

So, too, these longing
arms reach higher
to the sky,
grasping
after the sun:
the heart at the hearth
of humanity.

When these arms are long enough
they will wrap me round thrice:
for the self I was

now coming to be

and then at rest, disarmingly.

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in skies, if not eyes…

This loss is lamented.

Conversations that might have been
are never to be, and

words that
breed hope,
feed joy, and
nurture love

have fallen by the wayside.

Weeping tarries for this time
lost. Words that might have flown

have fallen to the ground, now
buried in soil.

There they are lost to us.
We can but hope that
the earth holds them
safe in her womb, where
one day they might be born
anew when muses tap
poets, and kiss
artists, and
set stars
in skies, if not eyes…

And Again Tomorrow

I saw You from afar, and
yet, not so very far away
from my eyes,
looking down now
at my feet. I
found You just
below my gaze,
in my heart, where
you twisted my desire
in Your direction.

I felt a little unsure, a
little at sea – my feet
not up to the feat of
rolling with these waves – and
so I looked up to the horizon,
and there You were again,
Your eyes on me; You smiled
enigmatically, and I knew

I would never be the same again – just
like yesterday, and like
tomorrow too,
I suppose.

Shape Shifting Conventions

This last weekend was spent in the Delta Hotel in Toronto for the last biennial Synod Assembly for the Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, of which I am a member. This is the last because our church will be moving to triennial conventions after this. One member told me that these events used to be annual up to the 80s. Things change, and I have noted many changes in the nature of these events.

I remember going to my first church convention while I was on my internship, in Alberta, in the late 1980s. I recall sitting beside my mother-in-law’s cousin Ralph Jorgensen, since we sat alphabetically – in rows. I also recall being numbed by a barrage of changes to by-laws and such, and reports being read out loud, even while they had been distributed by mail in advance. Business filled out most of the events, and worship was clearly demarcated from the business sections, all taking place in ordered pews with worship rather like what one experienced at church most Sundays.

These days we sit at tables in circles and Julio Romero was by my side – so the naming was clearly random in character. I had been invited to lead some bible studies, along with my colleague Mary (Joy) Philip. Three sessions were allotted for this, as well as some learning events around inter-religious dialogue (involving a panel with a Muslim, a Buddhist, and a Sikh), in addition to the learnings around racism and poverty. The racism event involved some truth telling by delegates, and an interactive experiential learning event – in a addition to one of the bible studies germane to the topic. The presentation on poverty involved a presentation by Raffi Aaron, a Jewish activist from Toronto. Worship was antiphonal in style and involved some global music, as well as some traditional hymns. We still did business, but it was peppered with prayers and song. Things are so very different from what they once were. Reports are distributed electronically well in advance, and there is a consent agenda to deal with issues that really do not demand much attention.

The other night, over a beer, a few of us were discussing these changes, and noted that the renewed focus on learning and worship reframed how business sessions were experienced. During the presentation of the budget, reference was made by speakers to themes presented in the bible study and worship. A kind of synergy, I think, shaped our time together. As I think over the 30 years, or so, of Synod assemblies I have attended I like the trajectory of the event. The arc of meeting is moving, I think, in a direction that allows a kind of attentiveness to tradition and experience, to text and context, to the past and future.

I recall seeing, some years ago, a photo from a Synod Convention held in South-western Ontario in the 1930s. Everyone was male, in suits and ties, and sitting in rows in a room without air conditioning. We have come a long way, but I think it important not to dismiss the experience of our ancestors. They did, in their time, what seemed right while we respond to our culture, context, and needs. But in either event, the commitment to spending time together in an effort to discern where God calls communities of faith remains a perdurable character, and one to be celebrated.

I sometimes grumble a little before these events – in that they are a big investment of time – and I usually come home a bit exhausted. But I always, always, look back on them and recall some profound Gospel moments. The opportunity to meet new friends and re-connect with distant colleagues and former students is so very important. As I imagine the next 10 years or so of my career, I know that such events will continue to be a part of my duty and delight, and I look forward to seeing how they shape shift in response to our ever-changing context.

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.

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

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.