All Hallowed Eve is a thin time. A time to open our minds and hearts to the presence of saints. Protestant tradition says that all (of us) who pass across the veil of death are “the saints”.
One such saint has come close by in this last week. It was a song that stimulated the connection. A line from a song in fact “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
Whenever I hear that song and that lyric, I think of my friend John Chang. On a canoe trip on the French river he sang that song, among others, from his heart out into the woods and waters. “From the heart” is the way John lived every day.
A year later, on the same river, he drowned in whitewater. After capsizing and making it to safety, he went after the paddle he’d made in our shop. Without a lifejacket, the current took him, and he was lost to us who loved him. Or so we thought…
In his grandmother’s huge modern Korean Catholic church in Don Mills, we celebrated his life. I was honoured to be one of those who shared stories about John. What was remarkable about that event was the incredible diversity of folks present. John’s network, his community, his “family” spanned all ages, creeds, colours from all across Toronto.
I was struck by how many different people – very different people - told me that John was their best friend. That’s how I felt about him too.
I first met John at Danforth Baptist Church. Among the enthusiastic lovers of Jesus in that crowd – John stood out. I’d finally just got comfortable with praising with my hands held high. And over there in the sanctuary I saw this young guy so totally immersed in worship that his spine was bent back like a willow. His face and whole being were raised and glowing with love.
When John turned that smile your way, the hardest heart had to smile back. When he let out one of his high-pitched long giggles – it tickled your ribs until you just had to join in a belly laugh along with him.
I’d never met anyone more enthusiastically in love with Jesus. He was unafraid in his desire to share his lover’s tale. And he wanted to know – genuinely wanted to know what your/my relationship with the divine was all about?
John started up a landscaping business employing psychiatric survivors and became a part of our TCV woodshop collective. Monday mornings he’d have a story about some neighbourhood church he’d visited looking for Jesus in all the right places. And he’d have stories about looking in all the wrong places too.
He’d have made a new best friend in a pub, bar, or club - trading soul stories and connecting from a place of passion with whoever crossed his path. He’d be amazed at how GOD was working in people’s lives - whether they knew how to articulate it that way or not.
When John got really drunk – he’d speak in tongues. I remember wandering streets heading back home from a night out - he’d break into tongues of praise - dialoging with his Maker about his unspeakable joy.
And of course, a heart so open to joy was also open to sorrow. We’d share our anger, frustration, and despair at the broken relationships among churches, among community agencies, among politicians trying hard to do the right thing - but failing in the face of ego and greed’s mighty distractions.
John was searching for a way to serve his Lord. Trained as a landscape architect, his vision was to make community using the same artist’s touch. He loved to turn an abandoned lot into a garden with a rich diversity of plants, stones, and found objects. He’d do it by drawing in the talents of wounded people and wounded healers – whoever GOD sent his way. We were his materials.
John looked at entering the professional ministry in the United Church. But of course no church could hold him. His love was so much bigger and wilder and footloose than any institution could accommodate. He was homeless in that way. It troubled him and drove him to keep searching for that elusive “what I’m looking for”.
That joyfilled sorrow. That homeless searching. That curious heart’s invitation to the stranger. These are notes in the song I still need to keep singing as I paddle along. Is it lost to me with John’s absence?
Early last May, Lynn and I pushed our kayak into the white waters at 3 brother’s falls. A wave curled and plunged into the boat capsizing us. The icy waters were a shock and the current pulled us towards panic, but we managed to get ourselves and the kayak to shore.
Adrenaline pumping - I saw the paddle we needed to get back to warmth and safety - circling in the rapids’ eddy. Without a lifejacket I stumbled out into the river’s rocky bottom to get it. As the current pulled me off-balance and my footing slipped - the adrenaline pushed me - to reach just a little further - to get that important paddle…
And then John came to mind. And I stepped back. And I let the paddle go – trusting instead that we would make it home without it.
Was it just a memory kicking in? Was it just a lesson learned the hard way? Or, was John with me then? Was that saint making his presence known to keep me from harm’s way. To keep me alive and working and searching on?
Isn’t that what the saints want? From their God’s eye view into today and the future – don’t the saints want us to live and live well? Aren’t they singing GOD’s praises into our hearts and giving us signs to go by every moment of every day?
Most of the time I don’t notice. Lynn was the one who said to me - when I told her how John had come to mind… “He saved your life in those rapids today.” Most of the time I don’t notice how the saints save me from despair, save me from mediocrity, save me from the rapid running fears that would freeze and suck me in.
Most of the time I don’t notice. And then, once in a while, a thin time happens.