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.


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.

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.

Whispering of Love

Today I stood on
an empty dock,
its splayed fingers gently
lifting me, lowering me, lulling me
into a vision, where the horizon
told me that woven into the
lake’s warp and woof is
the gift of space,
the giving of time.
And a wave pointed out
that even boats need to sleep,
while dock-hands lift
palms to God
caressing the sky
even while I
divine the lake
whispering of love.

Treasure in Heaven

Wet leaf, framed by pavement

bleeding blue;

Chipmunk, startled by human eyeing

its surreptitious caching;

Sky so clear that it waters

eyes with beauty;

Child smiling at seeing me

seeing her;

Paddle in still water, and

the soft sweep of canoe;

Laughter around table, sweet

breath upon cheek;

Words that work soul as soil;

Bread and wine taken and taking in;

Water washing;


These – all – treasure in heaven and so earth.

The Streets Where We Live

I wrote the following poem for the Art & Vespers service at our school a week ago today. It is a reflection on Isaiah 58:1-12

The streets where we live
are not paved with gold, no
trees of life lining their ways.
Ours is this brokenness,
shattered dreams
lost seasons, too many reasons for
regret, we forget
our whence, our whither, our why.

The streets where we live
are cobbled together, a stray
stone of hope alone on
a gravelled road of
slippage, everything
sliding out from under us. And
yet that strong stone sings
to us, who
are well wearied, harried
and vulnerable. Cracked open.

The streets where we live
are alive. Yes,
they weep, they worry, they
wonder why we won’t
tend them and so
they wait on us, these streets.

These streets where we live
never despair of repair.
These broken streets work on us, we who have
been over-worked, over-looked, under-fed
are now led by streets who reveal their wounds
to us, so that we weep with them, and
our sobs repair this breach
our tears restore that street.
The streets where we live are holy ground, all
around us are streets
hallowed, so that with
feet well shod, we trod
where we are – in awe.

Come, walk with me.