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

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Advent Between

This last Wednesday I led the weekly Eucharist at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary. At this service, we look to the coming Sunday for texts etc. That meant that this last Wednesday was the celebration of Advent One. But during the year, we also are attentive to other significant temporal markers, and so noted that November 29 is the annual UN International Day of Solidarity with Palestinians. Our worship team decided to attend to both of these, which was no easy task.

I have never been to the Holy Land, and cannot pretend to know what is happening on the ground in that conflicted and troubled land, but I do know that there are two irreducibly painful truths that cannot be denied as we look east: the Shoah and the Nakba. The first references the attempted genocide of the Jewish people by the Nazi regime, resulting in the deaths of some six million Jews. The second references the uprooting of 700, 000 Palestinians during the 1948 conflict following the UN partition of Palestine in 1947, resulting in some seven million Palestinian refugees today.

We choose to frame our service with the song “Between Darkness and Light,” which was composed by Palestinian Manal Hreib and Israeli Daphna Rosenberg, two musicians committed to the pathway to peace in the Holy Land. This song sings into the ambiguity of hard truths. It speaks to hope in light of the many forms of brokenness we endure. Our preacher, Preston Parsons, spoke to this brokenness in the land of promise, even while reminding us that the land in our own context cries out at the history of dispossession and abuse of its first peoples. And so, he invited us to pray for peace in our own context as well, and to be attentive to the Prince of Peace who transforms us so that we might abandon our warring ways.

We framed the service with the lighting of the first Advent candle at the start of the service while singing “Between Darkness and Light,” and extinguishing this candle while singing the song again at the end of the service. We wanted the service to flow between these two realities of a lit and unlit Advent wreath: worship between darkness and light. During the last singing of the song, after Sarah, one of our undergraduate students, extinguished the candle, I looked up at it and noticed that the candle’s flame was very luxurious in its dying. A slow persistent stream of silver slid up from the wick. This was marked in that it was set against a blue curtain at the end of our worship space in the basement of St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church. This sliver of smoke swayed now to the left, and then to the right, and slowly accumulated in a little cloud above the candle. When the candle finally died, it was as if the last of the smoke was a rope being pulled up into the cloud, which then mystically dissipated. I am not sure what meaning to make of this image, or if a meaning is need. It was simply beauty, and set against the music it reminded me of the ambiguity and transience of life, even while persistent and enduring in its beauty. I don’t think that I will ever forget that image. So ordinary, but profound in the moment. Advent, for me, this year began four days early when Sarah put out a candle, but lit a flame.

Peace in the Pause

The North Atlantic
blew through me
one night, off
the Bay of Galway and
made of me a
tin whistle.

My air was
melancholic, with motifs
of homesickness,
of rootlessness,
an ache for an abiding city.

There was also
tones of ire, inspired by
men lost at sea,
fatherless children,
aching oceans, and
crosses, crosses,
cross.

Yet, you may have
heard, too, some
hope in the silence, some
peace in the pause.

A Morning Prayer for Reformation

Last Saturday Waterloo Lutheran Seminary and Renison University College co-hosted a symposium on the theme of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. I wrote the following prayer for the opening worship and so share it here for you. Allen

Holy God, as we gather together today around your redeeming and reforming will for this world, we acknowledge You:

In grand rivers rippling with grace

In soil saturated with stories of Your faithfulness

In mighty forests bearing You, and here, in this place:

Your finger prints in wrinkles, dimples and folds of skin;

Your scent in bannock, curry, sausage and sage;

And in your desire for a church as

Supple as a moss on rock and as

Solid as tall cedar tree.

We celebrate you, and pray your passion for peace among us. We plead your impatience for justice within us. Form us that we might be living sacrifices in your Reign coming to us here, now in your Son, Jesus. Amen. May it be so.

Christus Insurrexit

“There is no rest that
can feign innocence – every
pause a cause
for alarm.”
 
And from the above,
Love looks upon
us crucifying ourselves
in this refusal to breathe; and
beckons us to recall that ours
is to ponder verbs
in the way of
peace.
 
Not so very far
from here rivers of
beauty flow, yet I often
pass them by – but yesterday
a child leapt into my arms and
we became a compass
oriented by joy and
laughter and play:
insurrection.

Silent Might

Last Sunday the global song choir to which I belong, Inshallah, sang at St. Paul’s Anglican Church on the Six Nations of Grand River reserve, some 60 km south of Kitchener. We were there a couple of years ago, and happy to make a return trip. Father Norm Casey, the local priest knows us well, and has been a remarkable host to folk from the Kitchener-Waterloo area on a number of occasions. The seminary where I work has made numerous trips that Father Norm has coordinated. Two of our students have done internships there, and the folk from Six have been to visit us many times. Slowly we have developed a significant relationship and coming to the reserve is always something of a sacred journey for me.

I offered to drive my colleague and his wife, who also sing in the choir since I know the area a bit. Alas, I did not know it quite as well as I thought, and made a right turn one road too late. We had given ourselves plenty of time, and so were able to re-orient and get to the church on time. Father Norm and the folk from St. Paul’s were busy getting ready for all of us. The church has recently received a significant bequest, which has enable the community to do some substantial repair, and so the church was shining, nicely dressed and ready for the party.

Our choir is rather large, and we exhausted the chancel and choir area of the sanctuary. The nave soon filled and the evening began with a traditional prayer, honouring and thanking all the creatures of the cosmos, as well as the Creator. This was done by Mike Monture, a gentle man whose prayer in Mohawk was done in a chanting fashion. He translated his prayer for us as he welcomed us to the territory. The evening then proceeded as we sang our songs, and heard as well the music of the Mohawk Choir of the Six Nations of the Grand River. This was lovely, and touching as well. At the end, Father Norm thanked us, and invited Mike to give the traditional closing thanks. He walked to the mike and spoke slowly, so very slowly, telling us that in the songs and words he heard the Creator remind us of the gift of children, and this touched him deeply because he taught Mohawk to children on the reserve. He thanked us for this, saying he would carry this evening into his classroom the next day. He also noted that he felt a deep peace in his heart and with the community there, and he was glad for this. And then he sang again the prayer of honour and thanks for Creator and all the creatures. It was a profound moment.

I discussed this bit with my colleague, Debbie Lou, the director of our choir. We both noted the profound power in Mike’s words, and how this power came as a truly being with us, evident in the ponderous pauses between his few and so very carefully weighed words, which were as potent as could be. It was the exact opposite of my experience at Ebenezer Baptist church a few weeks ago, but in a way it was the same experience. I felt God in that place and in that time in the authenticity of the speakers. Certainly I believe God is always with us, but every now and then, we have these moments that feel just a little like a veil is pulled back, and we are ushered into a new reality: where wounds are being washed, and memories are being honoured, and bridges are being built and friends are being made.

When we left, we discovered that the road I missed was closed because a bridge was out, and so my detour was, in fact, the most direct route. This seemed a fitting lesson as we slipped away from that holy moment into the fog that accompanied us all the way home.

There are no Mirrors in Heaven

There are no mirrors in heaven, no
self-reflection on
    tied tongues, pride
    rung and hung before
    eyes to see or
on ears marred by wounding words;
no deer-in-head-light fright staring
me in the face
of demands remanding my freedom.
No, none of this in heaven.

There are no mirrors in heaven, only
windows and doors
neither locked nor exit-ready;
no need to capture,
no need to bolt,
no need to be back-against-the-wall
because there are no walls in heaven, only
bridges where
    righteousness and mercy meet, where
    justice and peace kiss and
        all is the biggest word of all.