Six months ago, my friend David, one of the finest parish priests I know, called me to say that he was going on a summer pilgrimage. He asked if I could possibly see my way to take his church in Hawaii for two weeks. I said: Let me think about it. Yes. So here I am doing the Lord’s work, a bit sheepish about this hardship duty. The cost of discipleship indeed.
It’s been a gift, a chance to be a learner about a part of the world I’ve never visited. The beauty is overwhelming. And there is a spirit among the people here, captured in the word “Aloha”. For this east coast boy, my associations with the word have probably had more to do with Bette Midler and Hawaii Five-O. I took it lightly. But I’ve been interested to hear about its deeper significance. Folk etymology indicates that it’s a compound word. “Alo” suggests presence, front, face or share. “Ha” means breath of life or essence of life. I’ve been told that the traditional greeting was to have foreheads meet so that breath could be shared.
I’ve learned about another word: “Haole”. That’s folks like me. Professor Fred Beckley describes it this way: “The white people came to be known as ha-ole (without breath) because when they said their prayers, they did not breathe three times as was customary in ancient Hawaii.” One person sharpened the narrative. He said that missionaries who came to bring good news to the islanders refused the ritual of greeting one another by sharing breath, touching foreheads. To them, the tradition was pagan, or perhaps too personal for reserved Protestants (a.k.a., the frozen chosen). I’m no authority. I have no idea if any of this is true. But if it’s not, it ought to be, because it indicates the truth that all faith traditions see the breath of life as key. It’s true of our tradition, as God breathed into a pile of dirt and created Adam, as Jesus breathed on the disciples and created the church.
It’s also a caution to missionaries. How much did missionaries miss? How many did they drive away by a refusal to recognize the truth they already shared? The insistence that the Hawaiians become like them, the confusion of conversion and conformity, a pattern repeated whenever mission work has been done, belies the spirit of Jesus. The Episcopal Church, coming out of its General Convention with a new and dynamic Presiding Bishop has a renewed focus on its missionary call. How can we reclaim and redeem that word, noting that we are indeed sent into the world to share good news, and to be of service? It begins with knowing what God is already up to in the neighborhood. It involves fulfillment of promises made in baptism to respect the dignity of every human being. The spirit of Aloha seems tied to the spirit of namaste, ubuntu, salaam, shalom, peace. It calls us to move outside our comfort zone to meet people where they are, to recognize God’s presence already there.
This is why I am a fan of my friend, David. He teaches me and models for me what it means to lead a parish. Shortly after he moved here, he and his partner Bobby joined the local canoeing club (The Hawaiian canoes with six folks paddling together, with that outrigger for balance.) They just showed up. Before long, he helped a member of that club deal with grief of loss of a parent. This couple joined the church, after being away from religion for 40 years. Before long, David was out on the water, presiding at a burial at sea. And when their canoe tipped and they all went in the water, a story emerged, a bond created. The ministry has grown because, with humility and humor, he began by exploring what God was up to in this neighborhood, new to him.
Too often, Christian folk are without breath, without spirit, circling the wagons, thinking inside the box, insisting on their own way, withholding deeper connection. That’s not the missionary way. This Monday, think about “aloha”. How can you share the breath of life?
– Jay Sidebotham
|Breathe on me,
Breath of God,
fill me with life anew,
that I may love what thou dost love,
and do what thou wouldst do.
Breathe on me,
Breathe on me,
Breathe on me,
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.