The energy was high. Everyone in the room – almost everyone – had a drum, rattle, stick or bell to make them part of the beat. The beat was rolling around the room and sweeping us up into a place where differences dissipated. We were in a common experience. We were sharing the experience – a once in a lifetime experience – with one another and it gave us a common bond. That bond was sustained by the rhythm of hands and feet and heart.
The invitation went out. Come and share. Share your offering – whatever it is – good intentions with empty hands – dollars – cents – goats and chickens – whatever – come and dance it into the middle of the circle and offer it to the GOD of HOPE, the GOD of EASTER surprises.
Reverend Lloyd Paul and Bazza Barry Hayward were leading worship with me accompanied by the AbbeyNorth drummers Chris and Joe and the Trinity-Providence Choir. Bazza and Lloyd had traveled to Angola – we sent them off from this sanctuary last July. One of the many stories they returned with – was a story about the way the Angolans did their offerings to GOD.
They brought us stories of the horror and devastation of almost thirty years of civil war. The showed us photos of the bombed out and bullet-ridden Dondi school that United Church missionairies had helped create with Angolan friends over the last century. They told us of a new generation of children hungry for education whose hope lay in a fragile peace and our continued friendship.
They invited us into the rhythm of generosity that is the Dondi project. Inspired by the Angolan’s effort to recreate a future in the midst of very little, the Dondi project reaches out to Canadian church men. To raise a million dollars and rebuild a school across the planet first relies on the miracle of rebuilding a network of Canadian men of faith.
The project sends the AbbeyNorth drummers with Lloyd and Bazza into church basements, halls, and sanctuaries across the country. They tell us stories of discouraged and tired old men whose energy for yet another fundraiser is dim. They’re overworked already trying to keep the doors of their churches open – waiting for a new generation to come and pick up the slack – waiting with little hope in sight.
But Bazza puts drums in their hands. He coaxes and prods, teaches and tests, laughs at them and at his own efforts to get music from tired old bones. He tells us “there’s always a few guys with arms locked across their chests telling me there’s no way I’m gonna drum”. His challenge is to get a rhythm going that is contagious.
“When men drum together something very special happens.” reports drummer Joe Truss as he holds down his corner of the beat and the project. “People are transformed. They are very different when they leave the circle from when they arrive. I love to be a part of that!”
There is a rhythm of generosity gaining momentum across the country. This project is as much about renewing the United Church as it is about rebuilding that school in Angola. I’ve been on the Steering committee of the project from the start. Our meetings often feel like we’re still at the bottom of a very large mountain. Every crest we reach – we just see another crest in front of us – and it feels like the progress is just too slow to ever get us up and over the top.
It’s kind of like being a minister in a congregation. I’ve run businesses and know how it takes constant focus and hard work to push your enterprise up that steep start up hill. But when you’re working with volunteers instead of paid accountable staff. When the lives and struggles of those volunteers is more important that the quick progress of the business at hand. When leadership requires that you every so often step back, circle back, and pick up those left behind by the rush to reach the future. Then progress is soul-battering slow. It hurts to see the needs to still waiting be met and the potential for that ministry to happen – diverted by the fears, betrayals, conflicts and confusions of a bunch of disciple cats that defy all efforts to herd them into one direction.
Reverend Lloyd tells the congregation “the one thing I’d hoped to be able to bring back from Angola was the way they did the offering. It’s the centerpiece of their worship. They dance their gifts forward with JOY – sharing not only their money but also their JOY. Being willing to show their neighbours how much they love the LORD who provides. Being willing to enter into the sacrificial giving of the one who danced from the grave. Making their offering not an obligation but the centerpiece of their lives. WOW – that is a powerful thing to be a part of.”
And so we give it a try here in Ontario. In the heart of conservative blue stolid and stoic protestant heartland, we invite these white folks to dance their offerings to the centre of the sanctuary. We’ve turned all the lined up chairs inward. Instead of rows of neatly planted peas in pews, we’re drummers in concentric circles with a big old wagon wheel as our altar.
There’s no priest to take the money up front for us. Each one is invited to share and show their joy directly in the midst of public opinion. I know that people have up and left. It’s too much to ask I know. It’s way too big a leap for these sheep – like asking cats to jump in the bath and enjoy it.
But they do! At first I’m afraid to look. I keep my eyes averted – focusing on the drum in my hand. But I sneek a peek and I see someone I never would have, could have guessed – dancing. Not just shuffling. Not walking up and getting out of there quickly – like I expected - but dancing. This person is truly into it. They are moving their old bones to the beat and when they see me our eyes lock and laugh together just for an instant – united in this central sacrificial crazy dance.
And it’s not just one person. But they are all boogieing up into the centre. Some with a little more flair and style than others but each one into it - in their own way – dancing naked (so to speak) like King David danced before the LORD. They’ve shed their reserve and shown their true hearts. They’ve risked it all – for the LORD – for the school in Angola – for their own small and dwindling church.
Their dance tells me that they are ready, willing, and able to give what they’ve got – their pride and their money – joyfully to the LORD. My heart brims over with love for them.
The drumming stops, the offering plates are full, and before I offer our prayer I have to shake my head and say “I never thought I’d see this day”. And with their laughter – their own surprise at what’s just happened – I say “We live to praise YOU. We love to offer YOU our lives. We know YOU are with and among us. We give YOU thanks.” And the people said “AMEN”.
"Knowing How to Celebrate"
Forgiveness and celebration are at the heart of community.
These are the two faces of love. The poorer people are,
the more they love to celebrate. The festivals of the poorest
people in Africa last for several days. They use all their
savings on huge feasts and beautiful clothes. These feasts
nearly always celebrate a divine or a religious event - they
are sacred occasions. In richer countries we have lost the art
of celebrating. People go to movies or watch television or have
other leisure activities; they go to parties but they do not celebrate.
- Jean Vanier, Community and Growth, p.313