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

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.

Be of Good Courage

Yesterday, I met
a company of prophets
in Kitchener, drumming
hard truths under a
gazebo in
Victoria Park. Their
ceremonial ribbons raged
against justice denied and
their voices took shape as a
chariot of fire
bearing
witness to heaven. And
yet their circle was soft:
they spoke of hatred as
self-defeating, pleading
for our healing. For a
moment the snow receded
and from the winter ground
a lily shot forth like Christ
from the grave and an
odour of hope perfumed the air.
The wind from the south was raw,
but it whispered in my ear:
“Be of good courage.”

Waves of You

I don’t know what to do
with this love. You
invade me and I collapse.
Words fall from my mouth as if
I have become a child bereft.
I feel waves of You in
Your absence. And
then You return. A
frazzled God, You
dazzle me in
proximity and my
head, my
heart spins. You
win me over yet again. You
begin in my differently. But
still I hurt. Still I weep
You in tears.

Veni Domine

A glimpse of You is
never enough. This
desire for Your Breath
flooding my lungs fills
me with more wanting You;
with more aching after You.

You, God, are
the Desire by which I
desire You.
You, God, are
the Hunger that is
sated with hunger
for You.
You, God, are
each kiss of life;
each touch of love;
each turn of the season
that turns me inside out
as Your reign surely comes.

Veni Domine.