There is a cross high on a mountain along the Colca Valley in Peru. You can reach it by bus which will take you to the top of the mountain at 17,000 feet until you come to it on the other side…. sitting close to the top of the mountain at about 12,000 feet above sea level. I know it’s there, because I laid it out myself and left it there with your name on it. It’s made of rocks….the same kind of rocks that people have picked up for generations, building thousands of miles of terraces through time, even to today. The cross lies on the ground, and next to it, the word “Grace” fashioned with smaller rocks of the same kind. It was just about a week ago that I wrote the word made of rocks and I thought of all of you, how far away you were, and I longed to be back with you even as I was compelled to spell our name as an offering to God high up on that mountain. And I gave thanks for the privilege of doing so, even as I asked again in prayer to understand God’s purpose in bringing me to that place and why it had to be so hard.
The place is Casa Chapi, an orphanage and school for children who posses absolutely nothing except a growing capacity to love. Some are without even a real identity. They are Casa Chapi kids, rescued from neglect, abuse or absolute abandonment…….who now live with a measure of security, thanks to the tireless efforts of a non-profit group, founded by Christian alpaca breeders, from Portland, Oregon, and now an international organization called Quechua Benefit. Quechua Benefit, along with the Catholic Church in Peru and various strands of Peruvian government, ensure that each child has a bed, hot nourishing meals, a loving house mother, and caring teachers helping them to learn about themselves and the world they live in. Many of the children don’t realize it yet, but they are being prepared for the time when they will need to leave Casa Chapi to make their way into the world………and we pray they will take their experience and multiply the opportunity God brought into their lives tenfold so that other children might find the same safety….the same chance to live richly and fully in the world.
We know that,, in some way, all will reflect the story of the man in Matthew’s Gospel, who, going on a journey entrusted his property to his slaves, giving one five talents, one two talents and another, one talent, giving to each according to his ability. God gives the children of Casa Chapi the same opportunities to take their gifts received and do something valuable with them in the world. We know from experience and statistics, that….just like the extremes of the world in which they live, some children will grow to be great leaders and will dedicate their knowledge, skills and passion to bettering the lives of those coming behind, giving thanks to God for their opportunity to do so. Others will assist in that cause to a lesser degree and still be successful, productive people in the world and some will hold on to enough fear and mistrust to bury their gifts and avoid the risk of opportunity. My heart breaks to think about the possibility of such misery and pain and we pray this number will be low to zero.
In the same way the God entrusts the children of Casa Chapi, God entrusts those called to serve them and all God’s people who suffer…..here at home in the streets of Portland and others all over the world. God hands each of us precious gifts and requests only that we use our gifts with boldness and courage, without fear of risk or ridicule, with faith and determination and with vision to co-create with God an evolving world of harmonious living, of peace and reconciliation.
And so it was, that during the year that Grace Art Camp embraced the culture of Peru, I came to meet Mike Safely, Founder of Quechua Benefit. Mike began to introduce me to the work of Quechua Benefit. It was that same year, that Mike noticed the work we accomplished in Kenya, bringing an art camp experience to a small village up near the Uganda border. He knew immediately that this could be a perfect project for the children of Casa Chapi. So I was called to invite people to share their own particular gifts with the children of Casa Chapi and with the people who care for them and subsequently…..a team of 15 Grace Parish and Grace Institute artists and young people serving as counselors…… five of the team from Grace ….entered into the experience of sharing their artistic talents with artists and their leadership talents with young people from Peru. A mirror Peruvian team was gathered by the Peruvian Ministry of Culture and, like the US team, all volunteered their time….leaving jobs, school and family to do so. All came together to create an art camp experience for the children of Casa Chapi and all received a ten-fold return on the investment of time and talent they gave. Some of them told me their experience was transformational, inspiring, had changed them forever and that they vowed to return next year to create their own art festival on behalf of the children of Casa Chapi. I began to glimpse God’s plan that went far beyond the dreams and visions that any of us mere humans dared to embrace….I saw and felt the divine hand working into the future of the lives of little children at Casa Chapi and beyond. Now the Ministry of Culture has embraced the model concept of art camp and plans to produce an art camp in Arequippa for the poorest children in the surrounding mountains. They will use the camps to reintroduce these children to their Quechua roots….allowing the children to find their true identity and traditions via the arts, via caring and fun. We were called to plant the seeds…..to begin a movement that will reach far beyond us and yet be accessible to us and to you in all the years to come.
Not all are so called……but some are. We are not all called to Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, but some are. We are not all called to the Holy Land, to Syria, or Sudan, or Afghanistan, but some are. We are not all called to work for the homeless in Portland, but some are. Regardless of where and when…..we are all called to use our God-given gifts for the benefit of God’s people, God’s creation… to build up…..not tear down God’s Kingdom.
To not use our gifts is a sad and sorry waste. We become like the slave who dared not consider the possibilities before him when presented with a great gift, and simply buried it along with his own sense of fulfilment and contribution.
And….so some of us were called to the mountains of Peru. In all my travels around the world, never in my wildest dreams, was Peru on my list of places to find myself ….not once, and, certainly, not twice ….not for any reason, as beautiful as it is. When I first visited the country earlier this year, I wasn’t sure why I found myself conducting a feasibility study for a possible art camp…….it all seemed a bit surreal and beyond my capability at the time. It was during this second trip that God began to reveal to me the reasons I found myself there again….at The Casa Chapi Children’s Home and School. Casa Chapi lies about a mile from the small town of Chivay, in the Colca Valley in the Arequipa region of Peru. It is located at about 12,000 feet above sea level and lies upstream from the amazing Colca Canyon which is three times as deep as the Grand Canyon. The town is a stopping point for tourists making their way to the famed Condor Cross or Cruz Del Condor, where, early in the morning, condors with 8-foot wing spans, can be seen rising up out of the canyon as they catch the morning thermal uplifts. It is a place of great beauty, great extremes and great challenge.
Strangers to these altitudes are affected in various ways of discomfort. The days are hot and bright and the nights are cold…..with no hot water….no flushing toilets…..and only bottled water to drink. Not for the squeamish or infirm……where the environment makes no distinction between young or old………even the strongest and youngest of all the members of the team felt the effects of altitude sickness in various ways …..……headaches, nausea, shortness of breath…..and to various degrees at unexpected times. I, myself…..fatigued and not completely well when I left Portland found that during this visit, my compromised physical condition was hit hard by the altitude. I lost one night to oxygen depletion, another night to food poisoning and more nights to an allergic reaction to the dust, altitude and extreme temperatures. My throat was swollen, my eyes red and my breathing shallow. These afflictions were far worse than those I experienced on my previous trip and I wondered why God insisted that I return to this place no matter how beautiful it appeared.
Then one day, during a break time from working in the printing studio, and following meetings with Peruvian artists and staff leadership, I felt compelled to walk up to the top terrace of Casa Chapi…..to a quiet place…….an alone place……a place where Mike Safely, the founder of Quechua Benefit, had explained he wanted to build a chapel. It was there I knelt to pray and cry. Why, I pleaded to God, why must we suffer in order to give? Why must we sacrifice in order to serve? Does serving God and God’s people mean we have to be uncomfortable? I was, at once, pleading for answers, negotiating with God and letting God know that I wasn’t thrilled with the arrangement thus far. Why, I asked God, did all my planning, all my dreams come true only to have me compromised in the execution of those dreams. I felt I could glimpse into the very heart of Moses as he came to the gates of Canaan…..and was not allowed in.
The answers to my prayers and pleas were fast and direct. Feed my people. It is not about you or your difficulties….it is not whether you feel healthy or whether you feel ill….it is not about whether you feel you have done a good thing….it is not about you. It is about what you do with the gifts I have given you to tend my sheep.
In hearing God’s message I remembered the meaning of “call.” When I was called to the priesthood, it was not about personal choice. It was a non-choice. There was no choice. I was compelled to accept God’s invitation to serve God’s Church. I recognized the same non-choice acceptance of God’s call to serve in Casa Chapi and I realized that I was not alone in this call…that my gifts were being used to allow others to utilize their own gifts and that all of us here at Grace were being called as well. I realized that the work would continue for some among us here at Grace, without us knowing really why, but that all we will be called to do will be for the right reasons…God’s reasons………the reasons our hearts tell us are right.
We are not called to hide our gifts under the ground and to put our heads into the ground with them. Our responsibility to use them goes far beyond ourselves. Matthew’s Gospel parable hits directly at our tendency to live only for ourselves and our own wants, needs and desires. It calls us out for clinging only to our own personal security. It reminds us that we are part of some thing far larger than our own sphere of comfort. We are called to examine our gifts and, with great celebration and joy, use them as a contribution to God’s desire for God’s evolving creation.
To understand this is to begin understanding our true purpose in life. It is not enough to recognize, use or develop our gifts…it is ours to use them to serve God. It is in this path to servanthood that our petty differences fall away…..the blessings of our accomplishments for God’s good allow us to put away childish squabbles and resentments. Our purpose becomes God’s purpose and the doors to joy and celebration will fly open.
Hear the words from an old hymn which cements this message of God as the source of our gifts:
We give thee but thine own
Whate’er the gift may be:
All that we have is then alone,
A trust O Lord, from thee.
A “trust” is held for the benefit of another. The kingdom of heaven is made possible by nothing less than divine largess as if a man has entrusted with great extravagance…….. extraordinary wealth, freedom and powerful possibility to others who least expect it. The man in the Gospel gave talents…..one talent being worth 15 year’s salary. That means that five talents is enough for a lifetime salary. A huge extravagance and a huge entrustment.
That’s how wide God’s extravagance of gifts to each of us is. Beyond our wildest dreams…beyond our little square boxes of thinking…..taking us by surprise and leaving us to wonder….how and why we might find ourselves on top of a mountain in Peru.
Don’t ever think you have you gifts. As God’s own creation, you have been entrusted with the seeds of immense gifts. They may seem simple and unimportant, or they may be readily visible and seemingly more important than others…….it doesn’t matter. As the parable tells us….even the smallest gift is significant…..a privilege entrusted to you….a privilege which carries with it the responsibility to use it.
We have no choice but to accept God’s direction about how we use the power of our gifts and the very real consequences resulting from the way we freely use them. What we do with them and how we use them will have a direct impact on the world around us…..close by and far away.
So….we find a new urgency to discover the gifts we are to use for God’s glory knowing full well that using our gifts in God’s way will lead us to be stewards over something far greater than our own lives. It is ours to trust God and to pull deeply on our faith as we step outside of our comfort zone to take risks.
I learned on that day, kneeling on the stony ground amid cacti and quinoa…… that regardless of how we feel…physically, mentally, emotionally…..spiritually……. to not risk …..to not feel deeply enough to act…..to not feel passionate enough to care beyond ourselves……to be too fearful to invest ourselves in the work of the Kingdom in the way God wants us to…… is the greatest risk of all. The greatest risk of all is to stay on the safe side of life……to please and impress…..feeding one’s ego and pride.
So we are to bring our heads up out of the ground in front of us and stick out our necks a little further than we’d like and, by doing so…… we avoid one of the ancient church’s seven deadly sins….that of not caring, not loving, not living up to our potential for loving our neighbors. Jesus teaches us that by playing it safe…..not caring….not loving passionately….. not risking or giving all of ourselves …it is as if we were cast into the outer darkness, where there is only weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Knowing this, and failing to act on this knowledge….not being willing to share ourselves and our gifts with others is just the same as knowing where there is great treasure buried deep in the earth and leaving it there undisturbed.
But knowing this and acting on what we know to be true…..we can put away our fears and our indifference, put aside our discomforts and sacrifice, and find the strength and determination to dig it up all our buried treasure……..even if we find it on the top of a mountain…….. and share all that we find there with the world.
Written to the Glory of God
The Rev. Esme J. R. Culver+
November 16, 2014