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Homily Excerpts

"Love Rises:" Pentecost Sermon, May 2016

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"We are this beautiful gift of God, given to this world to bear witness of what love looks like."--Becca

On May 15, 2016, Becca shared a sermon on Pentecost with the congregation of Marble Collegiate Church. As you watch the video below, we hope you feel inspired by love.

 

Thank you to Pastor Brown and your community for hosting Thistle Farms.

Original Recording Credit: Marble Congregational Church Original Image Credit: Pixabay.com

Christmas Eve Sermon

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About three a.m. this morning, I started thinking about Christmas.  Specifically I thought about Charlie Strobel, a man who has housed thousands of people who are homeless over the years in a program named after this night called Room in the Inn.  He is a friend who always stops by on Christmas morning with gifts and, as of this morning, I hadnt bought anything for him or a number of other family members. In the Christmas rush of selling Thistle Farms and counting donations to see if we can make another budget balance, I had neglected to buy for some of the folks I loved. So I left my house this morning about 4:45 am and drove to a huge all-night chain store and began to fill my cart like I imagined Santa would. For Charlie, I found a red lumberjack shirt with a black undershirt for warmth. For my great nieces and nephews, I found toys from the movie Frozen and a John Deere tractor. By the time I got to the counter at 6:00 a.m., there was already a small line forming behind me. The cashier took each item out of my cart and commented on how soft it was, or popular, or simply a great choice. I love co-dependent cashiers. Then I swiped my card for the $600 worth of what might go for $20 in a garage sale in a few months, and the card was declined. Declined! How is that possible when I have paid faithfully for years to American Airlines Citicard, where I console myself monthly that at least I am accumulating miles? “Please, please don't make me put everything up,” I beg the cashier, “Just give me a minute.”  With 2% power on my phone, I dial the number on the back of my card and a foreign voice answers with the greeting— "Fraud control. I need you to verify a few things before we can okay this purchase.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Because you have never shopped at this store and the amount is large.” she answers calmly.  “Tell me your mother's maiden name.”  

Harrison.”

I am sorry, I can't understand you, say it again please.” 

Again I say it and again she doesn't understand what I am saying. 

I watch as all the people in a rush in the line behind me perk up as I say in a loud voice, “Harrison.

“What is the name of your first pet?” she asks.

“Velvet.”

“What?” she says, and so again to a small group of now comrades in a battle to win the Christmas war, I say with loud conviction, "Velvet". 

But in recalling my mother's secret name and the name of my beloved dog from youth, along with the reality that I am talking to someone halfway across the globe so that I can buy plastic and synthetic fabric, I desperately just want to leave. She okays my purchase, and with strangers in line that now know the security code on my card, the last four digits of my social, the maiden name of my mother, and my favorite pet's name, I walk out and tears well up in the dark morning with a soft rain falling. I think I cried because no matter how old I get, I still miss my mom on Christmas. Like all of us in this season, we miss those who have died that we treasure dearly.  This time of year brings those beloved to us closer, even if they have been gone for years.  I remember her on Christmas Eves past, before St. Luke's Community Center opened to distribute presents to folks in need, running out early to get us something we longed for. 

I think I teared up as I felt the countless generations of men and women running out on Christmas Eve to make sure the right thing was under the tree for someone they loved. How long have we been doing this?  Enduring the stress, breaking our personal lines of where we will shop or what we will buy, and screaming out our secrets, all in the name of love. Beyond the theology of Christmas and the historical account of the Birth, there is something magical about holding this night as holy that makes us tender. This is a night to let yourself feel the tenderness of your flesh heart that aches for the brokenness of the world, the kindness of strangers, and the love that you house in your body. 

Finally in the midst of the dark morning, I imagined Mary, the mother of God. In the midst of a story about a shining star, pilgrim shepherds, and angel voices, the story is told that she treasured things in her heart that were probably unseen and maybe beyond words. She treasured her love incarnate, and it carried her through the years. This is the season to give thanks for the treasures of our hearts. Treasuring it all in our hearts allows us at a cash register at dawn to easily recall our favorite pet’s name, or the name of our mother before she was a mother. What we treasure is not a love to be hoarded, but love that is poured out and used to shine light in this world.  I imagine Mary at the wedding in Cana as Jesus began his public ministry recalling all she treasured in her heart.  I imagine her at the foot of the cross saying goodbye to her son, lifting up all that she treasured as an assurance that her love would not die with her son. We can treasure so much on this holy night and in this season. Love is the treasure offered to us that can carry us through hard seasons and long winter nights. Treasure all the people around you and the beauty of this holy night.  Then use this treasure in gratitude and know it never runs out.

 So the shepherds hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart."

Advent Meditation

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I’m Religious But Not Very Spiritual

An Advent Meditation by Becca Stevens

Juxtaposing Advent and the pre-Christmas rush sometimes makes me want to take up the mantra, “I’m religious, but not spiritual.”  I don't know about you, but sometimes I just don't feel the spirit of Christmas, and then I feel like I am missing something.  During this season when it feels like waiting and watching is an extinct theological sport, such a mantra is freeing in a few ways. First, it’s an invitation to participate in all the rituals leading up to Christmas without the pressure of having to be in the spirit of Christmas at the same time. The practice of our religious disciplines in this way is enough to carry us into the season without all the stress of having to feel it at the same time. Second, such a mantra makes us accountable for the faithfulness of our lives without having to be inspired. People can count on us to give, serve, and love, knowing that we believe religion is deeper than a feeling of spirituality. Third, it allows us to be open freely to a deep and genuine spirituality that comes as we move through our daily lives, surprised by the spirit and not claiming it is ours. The two signs that the spirit is present is when it catches you off guard and when it is more abundant than you imagined.

 This is Advent. The season of four weeks during the longest nights of the year to prepare for the incarnation of love in the past, in the present, and in the future. It is called the season of watching and waiting, and it is set in the midst of what is also called the “Christmas Rush.” It’s the oxymoron of theology as we are called to get busy and sit still. Advent is like the wallflower at a techno-dance party. It is the tea in a world of coffee drinkers. It is the silent prayer uttered in a Pentecostal-style worship service. It is the grief of a person in the midst of a Christmas party. Advent is the silent night between the wrapped Christmas tree's glaring light. It takes extraordinary religious discipline to carve out this space. But every now and again, we are surprised by the spirituality of it all, where in the meandering commercial chaos, we find a pathway open up and our spirits connected. This is the gift offered to us in Advent that saves the season.

In the season of Advent the readings in church take us back to the beginning of the Gospel of Mark. It is the time to remember how, in that chaos, that the Son of God came, not as an infant, but as led by the Spirit of God to the river to be baptized by John and begin his ministry to love the whole world. We begin our Christmas preparation then by remembering the prophet John. He calls us to be religious. Standing in the wilderness, he invites us to welcome a strange, spiritual life amid our dedicated practice of our faith. John is a deeply religious man; he has sacrificed, he fasts, he prays, he goes on retreat, and he preaches that in it all, he makes a highway for God, a pathway towards our Lord. “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Having prepared the way, Jesus comes and takes the religious practice of baptism, a rite of repentance and submission, and the heavens surprisingly open with a spirit that drives him to the wilderness and calls him to offer his life for the sake of the world.

One of my religious tasks has been to try everyday to light incense in the quiet morning of the chapel and say prayers for those who are hurting, grieving, afraid, and oppressed. I love sitting before the smoke in the grey morning light, watching it swirl in the air and fill the room. But truly many mornings it feels very religious with not much spirit in it. It is a discipline in which I go through the motions, trying to be faithful and not worrying that I am not inspired. What I have noticed this past week is how every now and then the swirling of the incense smoke stops and the smoky prayers and incense are all of a sudden pulled in updraft. They look like they are transformed into the tail of a comet, pulling the variegated streams of grey smoke into a line that disappears into the apex of the chapel, high above the flat spirit of my life. This week the incense transformed and looked like a ribbon tying up a gift that I almost couldn’t accept. It was, as best as I can describe it, an answered prayer that I didn’t know I was praying. The religious act was filled with spirit, thick like a ribbon on a kite. This is an example of the small gift of deep spirituality that you and I long for in the midst of our religion and in the midst of Advent. It is God hearing that silent prayer, like we found our peace in the midst of the night and like we felt the clouds parting for us to find our way home to God. The gift of the spirit descending is humble, honest, and hopeful enough that it is possible to cut a pathway through being religious into the deep life of spirit.

 My Advent mantra now is simply, “keep the faith.”  Keep being faithful in your work and in your hearts, and trust the spirit will come. Keep giving drink to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, food to the hungry, comforting the sorrowful, tending the sick, visiting the prisoners, and burying the dead, whether or not you are always inspired to do so. It is enough to do it religiously and to trust the spirit is close by. It can be as simple as a ribbon of incense, the shadow of a passing bird, or even come in the middle of the night when you have held out little hope. Such longing is a sign that the spirit is close and that we are making a pathway towards our God.

Beggars

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Becca's sermon on August 17, 2014, the 20th anniversary of her becoming Chaplain at St. Augustine's Episcopal Chapel at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN.  Scroll down to listen to the podcast of this sermon. The Canaanite Woman in Matthew

What are we supposed to do about beggars at the Church?  Do we give them money?  Send them away? I have often thought it was strange that in the middle of the Gospel there is this strange story of the Canaanite woman begging for help and then her famous banter with Jesus in which she states, “even the dogs deserve the crumbs under the table”.  It’s surprising that this one woman, just after he has fed more than 5,000 people is causing such a fuss.

Themes such as the place of the beggar in the life of the church are timeless and universal. The story of a Canaanite woman breaking rank and tradition by begging in the middle of Matthew’s gospel is a reminder that begging is in the middle of our faith. In the heart of Matthew’s mission another beggar comes with her hands out needing help for her daughter. I swear it never ends. Jesus was right, “the poor will always be with you.” She had no business or right asking for help, all she had was need.  The Canaanite woman came and even though the disciples were overwhelmed, need outweighs annoyance, and so she made her way towards Jesus in spite of the weariness of the community. But it is at this moment we learn the place of charity in the life of faith is transformational. In the exchange between the woman and Jesus the community realizes she is the proclaimer of the Gospel. She was the preacher who offers crumbs of hope to a community in need of inspiration. She was the faithful one who reminds us still that a church without beggars is a museum, and indeed we are the beggars at an altar where we are grateful for the abundance of a crumb.

Beggars have been central to the ministry of the church and the reason for its existence. Thistle Farms’ mission is centered on the belief that women who have survived the streets and prisons, who have wrestled addictions and withstood violence, proclaim mercy so profoundly that a whole community can find healing. There are many people who read this blog whose vocations are about recognizing the profound place of begging for both the giver and receiver and how love is offered in the exchange.  The leadership of Don and his whole team has nobly wrestled with how to serve the beggar with integrity, how love the Canaanite with dignity and how to preach love without judgment. Roy is a man who makes his way begging and has been at the chapel where I serve for twenty years.  He has always depended upon folks for his survival.  He and I are still debating if he lost his dentures or is someone stole them two weeks ago. Whatever happened the loss of those teeth is a reminder that begging is a full time job. Between transportation and finding caregivers, it takes a long time to replace lost items. Roy is doing it in his usual seesaw that leans first towards keen insight and wit and then more towards an internal mental struggle that I can’t fathom. He tells me that 20 years ago he brought me to my work, that he built the church and blesses the work. That may be true.  He always comes to church early, first to shower off the Saturday night street and then to fold bulletins. Over the years I have seen him beg on Sunday mornings and have seen him handcuffed in the parking lot after cursing an officer. I have seen him with the staff stretching their patience and watching them help. I have seen him be a faithful servant and be so angry that I crawl under the altar and hide.  After the chapel paid a portion of his teeth, I drove him to the synagogue up the street to get the next installment. I pulled off the road and after he got out, he walked into the street and stopped traffic so I could back up without waiting. He is something. He cannot be contained by a program, diagnosis or theology that asks us to simply serve the poor. He is the question in ministry, the embodiment of failed systems, the result of institutionalized poverty and often the teacher. I love his walk, his sense of humor and the fact that even when he gets banned or lost, he always comes home. He reminds me  that  “the poor will always be with you” is a blessing, not a curse.

This week as the news of Ebola in West Africa spreads, I have been reminded of the Yellow fever outbreak of 1878 in Memphis where beggars were overwhelming and the responders were scares. More than 5,000 died in the first three months and more than 30,000 people fled.  It was the Sisters of St. Mary in Tennessee that stayed with the sick and lost several members of their community in the service.  St. Mary’s had been founded just a few years before to offer sanctuary “for the reclamation of fallen women” according to their literature. But their mission was interrupted by the Epidemic and they cared for the sick and dying. One of the few surviving sisters moved to Sewanee, TN, in 1888 and now more than a 120 years later still serve and support the women of Thistle Farms.  Their work for more than 120 years has always been interrupted by the needs of Canaanite women who come begging and ultimately form who they are.

Begging is not an issue to be solved, but a way we wrestle our way through injustices, oppression, poverty and sickness.  A faith without begging is an act. Begging is the fount of innumerable blessings. None of us are above or below begging. I have been begging for my whole ministry.  The crumbs under the table can fill our cups to overflowing streams of gratitude and hope for this world.  But there are another 100 Canannite women at the door.  We have a lot more begging to do.

 

Photo credit Albert Pujol

Wild Weeds of the Spirit

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Becca's July 20th sermon, third in a series focusing on Jesus' parables about dirt. Wild Weeds of the Spirit

Pardon me from reading a meditation this morning as a sermon. I try to share stories and this seems like a good week to do that, especially given  week’s Gospel comes from the 13th chapter of Matthew which contains 5 parables all of which are about understanding what the kingdom of God is like and how we live in it.    But the text this morning is nuanced and takes some crafting of words carefully sorted to express the meaning and lose the heart of the message of Scripture, which is to love without judgment and to believe that all is reconciled with our creator at our death.  To begin with I believe this is a parable about patience, about introspection and community.  Weeds are the result of our neglect in the cultivated gardens and the truth of wilderness.  They can be dangerous to plants we want to cultivate, but also a call to live at peace and beyond the boundaries set for us.  The hope in our reflecting for a few minutes on this text is to dig into its roots and untwist the tangle of meaning that some of us may have brushed over the top of for years. Love begets love and so there is a loving message beneath the fiery remarks that need to be uncovered beyond the distancing ourselves from the message by exegetical feats or poetic licenses.

In the wilder places of this world and in our hearts where wheat and weeds grow together there is a tangle of roots can be undone.  We can’t pull them out without doing damage to the other.  The weeds must be kept in check so as not to harm the good growth, but for all of us, it is intertwined in a way that needs some gentle sorting.  There is a story that when the Buddha first began to teach, a deity visited him and asked him a question: the inner tangle and the outer tangle---This generation is entangled in a tangle.  So I ask you, who succeeds in untangling this tangle?  The Buddha’s answer was simple and direct: the one who sits down in the middles of his or her life and looks with attention, calm and resolute has a chance to untangle the tangle and to relieve suffering.

I took this Gospel out to a wild tangle of plants on a wooded Canadian Island this week that Cathy and Martin Brown took Marcus, Tara, and I to… I took it into the wild place where mosquitos and tics multiply, where moss is thick carpet and where blueberries thrive.  It is great setting to reflect on this scripture as someone who cherishes the blessed place of weeds as a devotee of thistles, chickweed and lupine.  All of us see the value and gift of cultivated fields, of respecting the work of disciplined disciples, but we can all marvel as well at stunning places in this world and in our hearts that have not been pruned and judged.  There is the gift of weeds in our lives whether from neglect that offers us change, wandering into the unknown, or understanding their presence that is humbling and valuable to a rich spiritual life.

As I sat among the weeds in the woods of pines and birch, above all I am reminded that there is something especially sweet about finding wild blueberries in the summer.  Its like finding money on the sidewalk or seeing a the first firefly of spring. Its actually better because along with the surprise of the find there is the instant sense of being a naturalist; that you can feast with just the findings in the woods and provide for family and friends. The blended color is a rich matte of purple and pinks. There are things like deer flies that keep you on your toes, but the joy of a handful of blue berries on a sunny afternoon hike surpasses the irritation of a few bugs or the trepidation of the siting of a garter snake. A handful of blueberries is a fore taste to a heavenly banquet.  You can’t help but say grace when you pop them in your mouth and taste real sweetness with a hint of a tartness to remind you of the wildness of this world. Blueberries thrive among the weeds.  The weeds grow freely in the wooded landscape and serve as ground cover and food for uncultivated animals that eat whatever is available and rarely distinguish between weed and plant.

It feels like Eden to sit in such a setting where rocks call you to deep quiet and loons call you to deep listening.  It is from such a place as Eden that we remember the first weeds grew, but in such an idealic place there are no words for weeds in Eden as everything grew together, blueberries and chick weed as they lived in harmony so both could prosper.  Weeds were named by us and called out for their invasive nature, their particular barbs and their desire to take over a plot of land.  They are labeled as weeds and then torn out and dismantled so that other plants can prosper whether through the sweat of our brow or chemical warfare. But weeds protect as well as harm and hold many healing qualities within their leaves and flowers.  There is a reason that wild blueberries are tucked among the wild weeds that protect them from insects and provide shielding against harsh winds.

I have long held the view that if there were no weeds in the vision of the beginning of creation, in the fullness of time where the kingdom of love is poured out, there will no longer be weeds again.  In this kingdom of love which is a vision as beautiful as the northern woods and eden itself, we will have felt how the healing presence lives in all things and will have removed the labels in a lush wild field that has a river of life flowing through it. The weeds will have become part of the tangle in vision where weed and blueberries live as one.

In this section of Matthew, Jesus is walking through cities wild with oppression in an occupied land where he is witnessing the institutional sins of slavery and poverty that are yoked and the desire for power religiously, politically and socially. He is knee deep in the weeds.  He reminds us in story and action that faith offers us surprising reversals and compassion in the unfolding story, where people are astounded by God’s generosity and forgiveness.  No tradition was to sacred to be questioned, no authority was too great to be contradicted and no assumption should be left unchallenged.  Do not judge, lest you be judged is his call in the 7th chapter of this same gospel.

In those weeds he hears the psalmist’s song this morning, “There is no where to flee from God’s loving presence, whether I take the wings of the morning or dwell in the uttermost part of the sea.  He knows the Story of Jacob, that the very ground we wrestle and walk upon is sacred if we listen to our dreams and visions.   God is a God of mercy and love Jesus preaches in a thousand different ways to anyone who has ears. It is all part of the truth that love is woven into the fabric of the whole world.  His compassion and zeal for the weeds of the world can hardly be contained as he restores health and life There is nothing that we need to condemn and no one we need to leave behind.  We cannot forsake those who are mourning and in prison.  We cannot abandon anyone who we have deemed a weed, whether it is roman occupiers, lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, a women hemorrhaging, rebels protesting, or a wandering rabbi preaching radical love.  All of us get to grow in the field of the kingdom together and we are not to judge.  God will sort it out.  The weed and wheat remind us to deal honestly with our own motivations.  We need to take our inner life as seriously as we do the outer life.  I can imagine the hearers of this parable all identify someone else as the weed, they are the sweet blueberries. This parable reminds us that we too are part weed and that It is by God’s grace that we get to live in this field, keep our own weeds in check and continue to nurture the wheat and blueberries that thrive as we untangle our hearts.   The Holy Spirit draws the whole creation into unity and speaks through weed, wheat and wild blueberry.  We as a faithful people stand in solidarity with them all and see them all as part of a communion we encounter with a holy and life giving creator. Thank God the call is for patience in the field and mercy in our lives.  We have more untangling to do to thrive in the kingdom of love.

Hope Rises with the Sun, Easter 2014

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[audio mp3="http://www.beccastevens.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Easter-Service-for-blog.mp3"][/audio] I starting walking before the sun rose on a smooth beach where yesterday’s footprints were erased by an eternal tide that gracefully lives in the moment. In real time that rushes to grow children and deepen lines of worry, there was a pause. There was no question which direction to walk; its an instinct to turn towards the east where love is painted in lavender on a bluing canvas.

Sunrise starts before dawn. It was probably just a slight change in tone that called Mary Magdalene to head to the garden. The story of the Resurrection begins with the words, “while it was still dark”. The light had not yet risen on Jerusalem on the Sabbath as Mary heads out with grief as her guide to carry her to the body. Light transformed from grey to pink like water to wine is enough for her to see the stone rolled away and to run to Peter and John.  As they run back to the tomb in a race with the murky light of dawn, they see enough to know Jesus is gone.  Mary stands alone as the light breaks through and she sees angels and linen on the floor. Even though she cannot make out what she is seeing, she hears Jesus calling her. Then the light of hope fills her from within, and she reaches for Jesus.

Its hard to hope for resurrection, especially after crossing through wildernesses bruised by thorns that caught us on the way.  The wake of death casts a huge pall over dawns, and on those mornings, sunrise is a surprise, no matter how long we have waited and hoped.  I can imagine Mary’s surprise as the sunrise poured light into the tomb and hope caught her unexpectedly.  We all carry grief to the tombs of those we love. After the unexpected deaths this year in the community of St. Augustine’s of Lisa Froeb and Bob Feldman, whom we buried a day apart, I found myself this lent sitting in the chapel before work with their ashes that rest in the altar. On those mornings, as the light seeps into the chapel in unadulterated beams of white, I have felt hope rise with the sun.  Sunrise in the story of Easter is not just a time of day; it is a state of the heart.  Sunrise is the space where nighttime fears move aside for hope, where we feel peace about our mortality in the scope of the universal truth that love abides and where we feel light crest the dark horizons of hearts we have kept walled.

There was an eight hundred year old marbled Cathedral with beans of light filtering through stained glass in the early morning that our group from St. Augustine’s visited in the mountains of Ecuador last month. At the altar dedicated to Magdalene, there were a group of indigenous women chanting prayers that carried this sunrise story of deep grief and unbounded hope with a melody through the rose-colored air. Several of us hovered near to catch a ray of that love story as we lit candles, wept for Lisa and Bob, and felt hope rising in the truth that for thousands of years grieving hearts can sing.

Last week as the sun was rising I received an email from Rev. Canon Gideon in Uganda. He is the founder of an organization that works with children and families who are HIV positive and runs a school and wants to begin a social enterprise for women this summer. He wrote about speaking with donors from the World Bank asking them for continued financial support even after Uganda’s harsh legislation against gay and lesbians that threatens not just their safety, but of all the people who support and preach love without judgment. He is leading like a bright light with courage and a prophetic voice as a witness to justice and freedom for all people. The sun rises all over the world, all day long. And when we get a glimpse of its brightness, it is so beautiful it makes me weep.

When the orange globe peeks above the horizon in bursts of resurrection each morning, the moon takes a sweet bow. As we turn towards home under the rising yellow force, or leave a chapel holding friends we love, or walk away humming a love song we don’t even understand the words to, or feel the courage of fellow pilgrims preaching radical love, we follow a sixty-foot shadow with an aftertaste of joy that is gratitude. We can walk like Mary Magdalene who left with the sunrise preaching, “Walk with hope in faith because love lives.”  It's not that we are more faithful than we are in the dark of night, its just that our pace is lighter.

When we follow in the footsteps of Magdalene, we can dance a jig that on this endless spinning earth, we have seen the light.  The stone has rolled and all those we love who have died live on in love and the memory of God. All we grieve is rising, like the sun did on Easter and on the very first morning. That is the hope that shines in the darkness leads us home. Sunrise calls women with grieving heart to sing, it enables priests to dream of equality in desperate times, and paints each morning in colors so tender they turn stone hearts to flesh. Sunrise means that we can live in hope, dedicated to justice and truth, knowing the light will never leave us.  The light is ours for the beholding and allows us to make our song even at our own Easter morning, “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

A Little Child Shall Lead Us

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Every year we drape shiny fabric sinched with cords over children's bodies and entrust them with the Christmas drama. It is the only ritual the church leaves in their able hands. Every year in sweet perfection they tell the story of the Lord's birth before an adoring congregation who temporarily abandons all judgment, doubt and worries as God's love magically takes on flesh and blood before our eyes. Every year we swaddle a baby, momentarily called Jesus, and the baby blesses us and we allow our hearts to recall the humbling and unbelievable story of a poor virgin birth in the midst of a violent political struggle as Love becomes incarnate in this world. It is the beginning of our good news, and it makes sense that a child has to lead us in this truth. I drove away from the home of Oscar where I had offered a blessing and a prayer of thanksgiving for his life a few days ago. Oscar's mom and dad already have that exhausted and beautiful new parent look. Barely a week old he has already restructured their schedules, moved their office, cluttered their kitchen, ceased all other news, almost broken their hearts so they can widen them enough to make room for this new person, and brought family from distant lands to adore him. As I backed out of their drive on the small street just off the interstate with not a Christmas decoration in sight, the truth that a child shall lead us made its way from the recesses of my memory into the richness of living in my heart. Of course it would have to be a lamb to lay down with a lion, a sheep would be too stuck in his ways to ever believe it is possible to make peace. We have to be like the lamb to believe that a defenseless and trusting baby is the prince of peace with power to change the world. Without fanfare on holy nights babies born under starlit skies change the course of our lives forever.

"O holy night, the stars are brightly shining; It is the night of the dear Savior's birth! Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till He appeared and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices! O night divine, O night when Christ was born!

O night, O holy night, O night divine!"

Visions of babies that can teach us how to live in peace and love can renew our hearts. There was a nine month old named Natalia, traveling with her mother on the second leg of an airplane trip who took a fancy to my husband's watch. During the course of the flight we learned the mother was Puerto Rican, had two other children, lived in New York and traveled back and forth as part of the Homeland Security Department. Over cooing and playing with watches we talked abut politics, statehood for Puerto Rico, music and religion. What we held in common was adoration for her beautiful Natalia, so all the conversation was peaceful. A little child has to be the one to move us out of our corner and into new spaces that we don't claim as our own. Babies, naked and poor, who belong more to God than to us, remind us of how we will return to our creator.

Two weeks ago in the paper there was a picture of a baby almost starved in her mother's arms. She is part of a sea of news about the starvation sweeping Zimbabwe. She is caught in the horrific economic crisis, Mugabe's corruption that mirror's Herod's, and a relentless drought. Her name is Godknows. Oh my Lord, Godknows. Godknows is God's holy child. God knows the meaning of suffering. God knows we have allowed the suffering of innocent children caught in our ambivalence, fear or hatred. God knows the suffering of babies should scatter any pride we have and make us pray for mercy. The song of Mary is for Godknows.

Oscar, Natalia, Godknows, and all our babies lead us to the truth of the good news of the Gospel. Into this broken world a child is born. This Holy Child, the incarnation of Love, can turn our hearts to flesh and bring peace. This Child can bring us to our knees in that kind of gratitude that moves us beyond our doubt into our hopes. We can believe that with our whole hearts. Our king was a poor baby born into poverty-- born to a poor mother whose faith and love led her from the stable to a cross. This child has to lead us; it is our saving grace.

"O holy night, the stars are brightly shining; It is the night of the dear Savior's birth! Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till He appeared and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices! O night divine, O night when Christ was born!

O night, O holy night, O night divine!"

To listen to this entry, please click here.

Harbingers of Truth

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I was walking in the beautiful woods in North Carolina when a crow's caw caught my attention. The crow has a distinct and familiar song, but this old crow, sitting in a low branch sang a strange new song. It had more notes, and it sounded almost backwards. It was startling and brought me from my day dream into the power and presence of the woods I was walking in. The crow is known as a harbinger of truth, so to hear him sing a new song made me think about hearing a new truth that shifts the other truths that live in us to make room for a new one. It is similar to the heart shifting and making room for a new baby. The new truth becomes part of all the other truths we have already let sink into our hearts. There are many thoughts in the world, only some sink in past our thick skin, a smaller amount moves past our cynical thoughts, and only one in a million make it beyond the boarders of our guarded hearts and take residence in the sacred place that is our moral ground. That is the place that influences our actions and moves us to act in faith without fear.

The old crow with the new song reminded me of the great gift of new and deep truth that broadens and expands our horizons. Learning knew truth is what makes the gospels a living world and our faith such a joy. The truth comes to all of us, not like a nice finished piece of art, but like a tapestry, made from the thousands of threads sewn together from fragmented memories and bits of insight. It takes a patience and prayer to weave the pieces together into a work of art in progress. Each tapestry is as unique as the fingerprints on the hands of the weaver. The pieceif made well, gets more intricate and bigger for the truth seekers. To be such a truth seeker is a high, artistic pursuit, it is not for the faint of heart or hand.

In the 25th chapter of Matthew, Jesus has finished his time at the temple, he has confronted the religious authorities who claim to hold the truth, and he knows the plot to kill him has begun. He is two days from his arrest after the Passover and he goes to the Mount of Olives with his disciples to conclude his teachings. He is preparing them for the lives they will have to lead without him in their presence. They will kill him for all the new truths he is speaking with authority and for all the people he is drawing towards himself. So he speaks to them in parables and tells them stories to assure them that he is with them, that they should not be afraid even though they don't know what is coming, and that they need to go back out into the world, trim their lamps, carry more oil, share their talents, and rejoice in the new spirit that will lead them into truth.

He tells them not to have the attitude of the Sadducees about religious tradition that refuses to change, develop or grow. They bury the truth in the ground, with no light and no growth and so it will miss the joy of growing and flourishing in the world. It is written on stone, not on hearts of flesh that change as they beat in the world. We cannot hold on to what we feel comfortable with, or what reassures in changing times or a hard economic forecast, this is when we have to listen to the gospels anew, hear the song of the crow again, and make room to learn new things and share the message with the world that needs to hear it.

Howard Thurman, a wonderful theologian of the 20th century, talks about the loneliness of the truth seeker that keeps moving beyond all boundaries and boarders to larger spaces and places where we are challenged again to hear God's calling anew. The crow's new song is a great symbol of the gift of allowing new truth to weave its way into our broad tapestry and share it as part of the unfolding story of the truth of our lives.

This week Roy stopped me in the hallway. Roy is sometimes homeless, sometimes living with a friend, and he has graced this community for several years now. I have known Roy for a long time, but mostly we just talk in passing, and he always reminds me that he prays for me and my family. Sometimes he tells stories about the police or his health or some injustice that has occurred in his life. And sometimes I don't pay attention; it's like the crow's voice that drowns into the noise of the woods themselves. But this time when he was walking by he said, "Becca, do you know what to pray for?" And like the strange song of the crow in North Carolina, I was startled and stopped in my tracks.

I almost didn't understand the question, but the clarity of the question coming from my old acquaintance, made me take it very seriously. "I don't know Roy; I don't know what to pray for sometimes." "You need to pray for truth. Then you need to preach the truth you learn. If you pray for God's truth and then teach us what you learn, we all grow. You don't remember how young you were when you started" he said, "but I remember, you didn't know what you were doing. God has been kind to you. You need to keep praying for God's spirit to lead you."

I am grateful to the crow and I am grateful to Roy and I am grateful for Howard Thurman, all reminders to be open to new truth in our lives and to be reformed in God's love. I want my tapestry to grow and be a more loving piece. I want your tapestry to weave new images so that you can love better. It means we have to take the truths we know, and risk them and seek new truth. Pray for truth, let it take root and blossom in your heart, let it weave into the fabric of your life in practical ways, and then preach it, so we all grow and share in the joy of the kingdom.

Loving God with All Our Heart

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The most basic law of faith is to love God with all our hearts, and minds and souls and to love our neighbors as ourselves. It is also the tallest order that requires our whole life to fulfill. Our efforts to fulfill this law seem feeble compared to the suffering and problems of the world. How do we help individuals in a meaningful way in the midst of a global economic crisis? In comparison with the enormity of the issues, our responses can feel like small deeds in a big world. A step in overcoming feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the task to love a world heavy laden with burdens comes from the old story of the Starfish Thrower. In the story a man walks down a beach and sees another man bend down, pick up a beached starfish, and throw it back in the ocean to save its life. The passerby questions the thrower about what difference it makes to throw one starfish because there are a million other ones on the beach. The thrower tosses another back in the ocean and offers the insight that to the starfish he is throwing it makes a difference.

This story helps us feel like we can jump in again. To the starfish that was thrown, the story is a life-saving parable about compassion where the thrower loves the starfish like himself. To the utilitarian passerby the story becomes a call to learn the law of love again and how to love particularly. But this sweet story can only carry us so far on the journey to fulfill God’s call to love with our whole heart everyone as ourselves. One problem is that to those who read the story and want to throw starfish, the story omits the real gift and depth of serving one another for love’s sake. From the story alone, we imagine the thrower walking down the beach and rescuing starfish endlessly, thus giving the story a layer of loneliness in the seemingly endless and monotonous task that lies ahead. We can imagine the starfish thrower leaving the floating starfish, the inspired passerby, and walking and pitching starfish, wondering if he is going to be throwing them forever. He may wonder if he will be throwing starfish while forces more powerful will continue to wash a greater number up on shore. He may wonder if he will be throwing some of these same starfish when they get beached again on the next low tide. He may dream about walking away. He is probably knows his actions mean something to the starfish and the passerby, but wonder about the meaning of his own life. You can substitute starfish throwing with a number of activities of devotion and service.

My version starfish throwing for the past 12 years has been offering sanctuary to women coming off the streets from criminal histories of prostitution and addiction in one of our five Magdalene homes. Women never pay a penny to live in the homes and we try and offer them everything they need to find healing for two years. Many of the women came to the streets as teenagers and were sexually abused between the ages of 7 and 11. The work began from my desire to love God, and my as neighbor as myself, and to learn how love heals in this world. But it can feel futile. Recently I read the state dept estimates that more than 2 million people are trafficked annually in this world. According to Shaped Hope International over 100,000 children in the United States between the ages of 12-18 are at risk for sex trafficking each year and that child pornography is a three billion dollar a year industry. In an ocean of addiction and on shores where our culture still tolerates the buying and selling of other human beings in a victim- filled crime, we only house 24 women in Nashville, Tennessee.

The story of where we got the law and the story of our faith is the only thing that can carry us past feeling discouraged in our efforts. The story of our faith teaches us the call to love is about more than our individual efforts. Moses, the giver of the law, spent forty years in the desert leading people towards the Promised Land. He kept leading them and climbing Mount Sinai dreaming of the day he could stop wandering. Towards the end of his life God calls him to the mountain one last time. He has been faithful for 120 years. Finally God shows him his hearts desire, but then says that he has to die on this side of the Jordon. Moses lies down and dies as God commands. He never got to see the benefits of faithfully wandering and leading the people and yet his law crossed into Jerusalem and is the law we write on our children’s hearts. His story teaches us that all acts of love live beyond our temporal lives us and are part of the great law of love that is eternal.

The story of faith tells us acts of love multiply beyond the service of faithful men and women. They live beyond our limited vision and are carried by the spirit into hearts we never know. In faith the bounty of feeding five thousand from a few loaves and producing 60 gallons of wine become visible signs of how love moves. Loving each other is only discouraging when we forget our heritage and that loving another is our greatest connection to God. Moses gave us the law and we have been carrying the message through our own deserts ever since. We miss the depth and breadth of the story of loving one another when we forget all the people who took the time to love us enough to pick us up off our stranded beaches and throw us into safer places. We are not caring for our brothers and sisters out of duty or a certain result, but in joyous gratitude for all the people who saved our lives. We miss the point if we forget the saints who changed the world by loving God. We miss the point if we forget that loving God, neighbors and self is the big deed in a small world.

In my small stretch of beach there is the story of Carolyn who left a violent home in rural Tennessee at the age of 12 and no one came to get her. She was taken to Washington D. C. where she was prostituted on the streets and left for dead. It took her almost thirty years to find her way from that barren stretch of beach to the safe shores of Magdalene. Today she celebrates over three years clean and shares her story with church communities and groups. Individually she is has helped women in prisons, in her family, on the streets, and in congregations believe love is a powerful force for social change. Beyond that she teaches me the story of love is not a linear equation. It multiplies exponentially and comes in waves that make powerful, sweeping changes. It is a broad and powerful image to imagine a world being changed by loving and lavish acts that are our best offering to love God. Imagine not just Carolyn, but her arm and arm with fellow brothers and sisters like a huge long glorious chain that spans beyond seashores into the mountains and the shadowy valleys. The work of love is not a burden, but a huge gift connecting to one another, to the saints, and to God. The work of love allows us to engage in the most powerful force for change in the world, and it is a gift to be able to keep walking, and do our part, knowing love will carry us farther then we can imagine until finally it will carry us back to God.

Just Our Luck

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My son Moses and I had only three dollars left at the Tennessee State Fair a couple of months ago. We passed by the fishing game as a carnival hawker beckoned us over. He told us for only two dollars we could take a turn with his fishing pole and hook one of the hundred small paper sacks that held a plastic toy or maybe, just maybe, hook the one that held a ticket for the large stuffed animal grand prize. Moses was excited and so I gave the guy all but my last dollar. As he handed the pole to Moses he said, "Good luck." Knowing this was our one shot I asked, "And where would that luck be?" He answered by whispering to Moses, "I would try the bottom left corner." Moses picked the bag he suggested and inside was the ticket for the huge stuffed dinosaur! He cheated for us! We tipped him our last dollar and told him it was hard to fathom a stranger cheating for us. It was not fair. He was completely generous, and I still wonder how he makes a living.

There are numerous stories in the Gospel that teach us about the generosity of God and how grace comes in unfair waves, called mercy, to carry us through rough waters. There is the story of the workers in the vineyard where the people who find their way to work at the end of the day are paid the same as those that came first. It is the story of life not being fair and God being even more generous than the sweet carnival man. It is a parable, linked to other parables about laborers in the fields, the hierarchy of the disciples, the reversal of fortune in the kingdom, and the economy of salvation. These stories remind us that we need to abandon all measure of fairness and rank in the face of God's generosity. God, who rains down mercy on the just and unjust, sees the wealth of the widow's mite, feeds a multitude with a few loaves and fishes, offers us so much love it cannot be contained. It is the sacred places where justice ends and mercy picks up. We experience it when we feel the scales of fairness and justice break and tender mercies flood our path. In thanksgiving we joyfully offer mercy to everyone else.

There is a woman who is a part of Magdalene, a two year recovery community for women who have survived lives of addiction, prostitution, and violence. She was on the streets of Detroit for 40 years. One day in 2006, her son-in-law was coming to Nashville, and she asked him for a ride. She knew no one, but made her way into Magdalene. If you met her today you would describe her as sunshine. She is beautiful and full of love and praise for all people. She describes the wondrous feeling of working as a cleaner in the judges' chambers. As the judges leave in the evening she is coming in, and they wave to her and thank her. She could be angry forever by all the wrongs done to her and guilty forever for all the wrongs she did to others. She could blame her childhood, her addiction, racism, the justice system and God for leaving her in the streets. Instead she cries when she talks about how God has given her more than she could ever imagine. The Carnie worker, the woman from Magdalene and the Gospel, remind us that life is not fair, thank God. We aren't promised fairness in the Gospel, only that our life will be rich, and we will live forever. So we don't have to worry about what we will eat or drink, or gas prices, or tomorrow. All we have to do is give thanks for any time we get to show our gratitude for God's gifts by loving our neighbors.

Photo credit: The Pic Pac

“There is no fall from Grace”

Oh, the Falling girl is a sight to see, you can hold your breath, you can gasp and scream.
But it’s all an act, it’s a sweet charade, when the crowds are gone, the girl gets paid.
And I’d cry myself to sleep, I’d pray Oh, give me strength to dance the wire someday.
But all I can do is paint her beautiful pain. I see they glory like a shooting star. Fall to the base earth from the firmament. They sun sets weeping in the lowly west, Witnessing storms to come, woe and unrest. All the world’s a stage and we’re mere players.

Heaven is the Memory of God

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Matthew 10: 24-39

Corey and Brian were married on the beach under a full moon this week. The palm trees swayed gently in rhythm with the Tiki lamp's flames. It was an unremarkable event if you use scales that measure weddings by number of guests, fame or fortune. It will not appear in a newspaper and even as the couple left the resort, the hotel was beginning preparations for the next wedding. In the opinion of the 25 guests though, the wedding was special and unforgettable. It was our family's wedding, my sister's youngest girl whose heart, mind and life has been a gift. I presided at the ceremony; Marcus, Levi and Caney sang three part harmony to "Stir it Up," and Moses was the ring bearer. It brought tears to all our eyes to watch her exchange vows because of our deep love and pride. She was a beautiful bride. When it was over she picked up the extra programs, collected the lyrics and notes from the wedding, and said this week she is pressing flowers and printing pictures. She doesn't want anything to be forgotten in preserving this momentous day that will forever change our family tree.

The next day we strolled through Key West and took a tour of Ernest Hemingway's Home. Key West has claimed the famous writer as their own and preserved everything from books he once read to random pictures of him as a younger man with friends. His life in the hallowed halls of preservation feels sacred. All of his possessions are valuable because they are attached to him. It's all sealed behind glass and roped off so we can keep his memory alive for the sake of history.

Like a family wedding, or the belongings of famous people, we are valuable to God as part of creation. This Gospel reminds us that we are not forgotten: we will be remembered by God. When I think of what heaven is like I am silenced. I have never been about to synthesize God's love for all humanity with a formula for salvation offered by a faith tradition. Part of my issue is that I was raised by a faithful mother who used to say she would be dirt when she died and that was a useful thing to become. Part of it is that I am a student of theology and know that we can't dismiss scriptures because we struggle with them. Instead we keep studying and reflecting how they are part of God's tapestry unfolding through words, revelation and tradition. In applying these truths we are called to surrender our lives to God, follow the path of our teacher and Lord whom we will never surpass, and proclaim without fear the truth of the Gospel. We are to trust our whole lives to God including that God will carry us into the eternal side of time. Beyond that, Matthew 10 provides a glimpse of what heaven must be. It says that God loves the sparrows, the most common bird we know, and knows when they fall. God loves humanity so intimately that God even knows the hairs on our heads. So we do not have to be afraid that when we die, we are known. We are more valuable than a sparrow and will never be forgotten by God. Heaven is the memory of God. We are preserved in the memory of Love that is big enough to contain all creation for all time. No one is forgotten, because everyone is beloved. God's love is deep enough to hold the memory of all our lives.

This Gospel is part of the commissioning and instructions for the disciples. He is not saying this to scare or deflate them, but to give them courage and strength in the faces of troubles coming. He is sending them out like sheep to meet the wolves and so they need to understand their power when they face people with wealth, title, and who can kill them with an order. "Don't be afraid," he says, they can't touch what God has made in you. It will not be peaceful and people will be divided and anyone who loves anything more than me is not worthy of this truth. This Gospel is written to encourage us on our path to go out and face any opposition with the truth that nothing can touch the truth of God's love for us or erase us from the memory of God. Jesus told them this in hushed tones for their ears alone. They went out with enough conviction to preach it from pulpits and streets and face unimaginable consequences.

Our best efforts at holding memory are slender threads in the span of time. Not only are we dust, but even our memory is dust in this world. I can imagine someday Corey and Brian's great-grandchildren trying to recall the names of the couple in the faded photograph in the back of their grandfather's drawer. I can imagine the words on Hemingway's books vanishing off the pages in a few hundred years. Even our own memories are not our own, they are as fragile as the neurons that carry them. My mother's memory literally turned to a sponge twelve years ago as she was dying. When she died she couldn't remember the name of a soul on this earth. I know that many of us have seen the memory of patients, friends, and family fade. That a person we love doesn't even get to remember that we love them seems particularly cruel and humbling. The Very Rev. Henry Chadwick died this month in Oxford England at the age of 87. He was an authority on the past and said during the Synod of 1988 that "nothing is sadder than someone who has lost his memory." But just because we lose the memory doesn't mean the memory is forgotten. Even the Jane and John Doe's that no one could name when they die buried out in the potter's field are not lost to God. My mother sold herself short in her beliefs. Our bodies do become dirt to be sure, but our souls live. They live in the memory of God and I have seen my mother's spirit in hawks and dreams and felt her living presence for years. She is part of God. While we will never know the mind of God, we can know what it is like to be remembered by God. It gives us peace and courage in this world and hope in heaven. It is wider and deeper than any memory we have ever held.

Trinity Sunday

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Matthew 28: 16-20

There was a young man in seminary. He was preparing for an oral exam and decided to synthesize everything he learned about theology. He took the 10 assigned books and condensed them into 10 chapters. Then he summed up the chapters into 10 sentences and then reduced that down to 10 words and then ultimately into a single word. They called him into the exam, and as soon as he stood in front of his professors he forgot the word. It wasn't that he lacked knowledge, but he did lack understanding.

This is Trinity Sunday, where we proclaim God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is the week that we try to do what the student could not. We try to condense all of theology into three words while not forgetting what it all means. It is the only Sunday in the Christian year that asks preachers to preach a doctrine that is found nowhere in the scriptures explicitly. Instead the doctrine is distilled from the way that Jesus describes his relationship to the Father, the Creator, and to the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. The Gospel offers us the closest scriptural reference for the trinity in what is called the Great commission of Matthew.

It comes as the climatic end of the Gospel. The now eleven disciples have gathered one last time on the mountain of revelation to be given their instructions. The writer beautifully condenses the theology of the book into these few verses without losing the meaning. And he even describes it in a trinity. He first talks about the past. All authority was given by God to Jesus. And he began teaching the disciples how to walk in love as Christ loved us. This commissioning doesn't happen until the very end. In the beginning they are given the corporeal acts of mercy in the Sermon on the Mount, which is the summary of the teachings of the prophets. We first have to learn what it means to go out and practice this thing called religion. Before we can understand, we have to practice the discipline of love. Then he talks of the present. Now that we have worked we can go out and teach and baptize.

During this season of graduations it is appropriate to celebrate teaching. It is the teachers who help us sort through a world of knowledge. Here we have so many teachers to thank. In Rwanda at the genocide memorial there was a powerful witness to how destructive politics and theology can be. I thought of the theology that John Thataminal and Jeanne Bodfish have tried to teach us about respect and nonviolence. I gave them both a small rock in thanksgiving for their teaching and trying to keep us peaceful in this world. Finally, he speaks of the future and because it is a parting, there is some sadness in their commissioning. It is time for the disciples to go out on their own and incorporate what has been taught and the gifts given. I can imagine that after leaving, they struggle to remember the meaning. There is a song from the hymnal that says their lives were strife found in the sand-- that John was exiled and died and Peter was head-down crucified. For the future he leaves us the gift of the Holy Spirit. He reminds us that when we are in prayer, we are in the presence of God.

Ever since we have been trying to discern his meaning. Over and over great and brilliant theologians have written volumes trying to help us gain greater understanding of the triune God. St. Patrick writes about God as the three leaf clover that comes from a single stem. St. Bernard describes the trinity in terms of a kiss: God the Father is the kisser, Jesus the son is the Kissed and the Holy Spirit is the kiss itself. Even Anglicanism is based on the notion that a three-legged stool of reason, scripture and tradition is a trinity upon which to build a faith.

It is in the practice of the teaching that a deeper understanding is possible. That is why it feels like there are always nuisances and deeper dimensions even within our perfect trinities. In the description of the clover, there are ones with four leaves that are considered the luckiest. In the description of the kiss it is the longing between the kisses that can be the most powerful. In the three legged stool of our faith there has long been a tradition of a fourth mysterious leg called revelation.

All our experience, theology and doctrine begin with one word, "God". And from that we form three words and call it a trinity that creates, redeems and inspires. God is our past, present and future. We take that and go out to love one another by living out the Sermon on the Mount; then we preach and baptize. From this doctrine we can write a volume on each word. From these volumes we fill libraries with different interpretations and understandings, both faithful and heretical. And that is just the beginning of understanding. We could write all that was in the beginning is now and will be forever and still the reality of God could not be contained.

All I know is that if we get asked to summarize our theology in one word, and the word isn't love, we missed it.

The Whisper of God in Rwanda

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Pentecost 2008

The recent trip to Rwanda by seven women representing the Thistle Farms and Magdalene communities was less than two weeks, but we planned and worked for months. The Sisters of Rwanda approached us in November to help them begin making bath and body care products to generate income, education, and hope for women who have survived lives of addiction, abuse, and prostitution, and I felt pulled to go there. When we heard versions of same horrific stories we know from our streets of Nashville, I was so thankful the connection had been made. As we poured beeswax candles into molds, mixed lye and palm oil for soap, and shared letters from residents of Magdalene to the Sisters of Rwanda, you could feel hope blossom. As we waited for the wax to harden and see what the candles looked like, you could feel the prayers offered. During our visits with the forty-two women of the sisters of Rwanda and the hundred women we met in two villages near the Ugandan boarder, women told their stories in hushed tones. We literally had to lean forward to hear. You knew instinctively though what they were saying and that the message was critical:

My name is Claudine: I thank you so much. If you die, know that I love you. I’m so happy that you came and I could tell you about all my life. I’m a mother of three kids and one grandchild. I got my kids under pain and drugs. Without drugs I couldn’t sleep. I thank God for setting me free so that now I can sleep. I’m so very happy that you made this journey.

My name is Devota: I was a prostitute on the street. I’m a mother of two- six year old girl and four year old son from the street. I thank God for his goodness and his mercy, for taking me out of sorrow. I was so tired of life. I thank God for bringing me to Sisters of Rwanda- I have been clean from prostitution for 1 year and three months.

My name is Odette: I am writing to you because I saw the letter you wrote. It made me love you and thankful that you are no longer in sorrow. This has made me think I can make you my friend. What happened to you happened to me in 94 during the genocide war. Even though I was grown up it really wounded me, it wounded me in my heart and I told people I wouldn’t get married anymore. Now my hope is one day I will see you in America or here in Rwanda. Peace of God to you.

My name is Virginia: I have two kids Deborah and Wedeka. Since you no longer on the street, my hope is that my Deborah will not go to the street. I thank God who brought me from the pit of destruction. Keep praying for me while you are in America and I will be praying for you.

My name is Monique: My program is Sisters of Rwanda. My friends and sisters of Magdalene, I was listening and your news was so nice. I am a story in Jesus Christ. I am very happy that you think of me. You show me love even though you don’t know me- but you came to visit me here. If I had money I could visit you soon and we could talk together. I was born 1/11/74 on the village Ridate in the south providence. I was with my father and mother until my mother’s death. I couldn’t go to school because of the trouble with the tribes and I lost my family in the genocide.

So I went across the ocean to hear God’s whisper. I heard it the whole time I was there, like a ringing in my ears that sometimes filled my head. I heard it in every letter and story the women told. I heard it in the silence of babies strapped to the backs of strangers who didn’t have enough food. I heard it when we walked over the holy ground of one genocide memorial where a man looked out the window and spoke in a soft voice explaining to us how he was one of the ten survivors out of 5,000 who were all killed in ninety minutes. I heard it in a church service where a full band was playing, and the power went out, and we were in darkness with an accapella chorus of people singing, “Let the blind say I can see, let the lame say, I can walk.”

On the last day we attended a church service and the preacher started yelling at the congregation in full Pentecostal fashion. I thought, “It would be easier to hear him if he would quit yelling.” Then my eyes caught sight of an old pink chenille curtain billowing in the corner over a permanent opening where a window might be. The curtain was picking up the wind just like a sail carrying dreams across a lake on an easy morning. In that gentle blowing there was the wind that has been blowing since God first breathed, and in the quiet wind, God was present. I recognized, loud and clear, the whispering heard all week. It felt like the peace of God and that I could breathe with it, and carry it back across the ocean. We can breathe God’s spirit, anywhere, anytime. We can breathe it despite the horrors of genocide and all our unworthiness to know any joy or love in the face of that knowledge. We can breathe God’s spirit despite all our collective efforts to try and change the world and end up wondering what the point is. So I breathed in the deep and heard the whisper of God blowing in the chenille curtain in a bricko block church in the middle of Rwanda. It reminded me to surrender control and fear and go back into the world to love it all over again, thankfully.

The Moral Issue of Suffering-- The Gospel of John

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John’s Gospel message from chapter 10 really begins while Jesus is walking with his disciple down the road after people threw stones at him in the Temple. Rejected from the flock, they meet a blind man. Jesus stops, even though it is the Sabbath, and makes an ointment from his spit mixed with mud and places it over the man’s eyes and he is healed. The religious authorities then question the man and throw him out as well. This is Jesus’ response and he says there is a gatekeeper who knows who the real shepherds are. It invites the listener to move beyond doctrinal issues that separate flocks and declares the gatekeeper is concerned about a higher imperative which is the moral issue to care for the suffering sheep, wherever they are and whose ever they are. That is the only way sheep are safe, and the voice of God is recognized.

On the eve of our journey to Rwanda by eight women from the community of Thistle Farms and Magdalene this Gospel is indeed good news. This journey allows us to care for women who are suffering: women trying to find sanctuary and freedom after surviving lives of violence, addiction, and prostitution. Their suffering has been and continues to be a moral issue because they are our sisters. That morality is not confined to people who share our doctrinal beliefs, it is not bound by nation/state boarders, and it affects people of all races and ages. It affects all our communities, the culture we live in, the health of the world, and how we raise our children.

Last week one of the residents of Magdalene, our community dedicated to women who have suffered similar trauma here in the United States, spoke to the student body of Vanderbilt Law School about her experience of being the only teenager to ever testify in a federal case against a huge child prostitution and pornography ring. She talked about what a long journey it has been so far and about the guilt and fear she faced in naming the men who abused her. She talked some about coming to terms with being a child of God and dreaming of a future and helping others. For her, the dreaming includes finishing school and going to college and ministering to others who have suffered. One of the Law students raised her hand and asked, “Where do you want to go to school”. She held the mike and said, “Maybe here”. Those thin lines that some of us still draw in spite of our selves to separate flocks were erased with surgical precision in her words. “Maybe here.”

Eleven years ago when Magdalene was created we wrote that we wanted to be a testimony to the truth that in the end love is more powerful then all the forces that drive women to the streets. Those streets are hell, I have been told, and I haven’t met a woman who hasn’t been raped and who isn’t destitute. The Gospel says such suffering should cause us all to stop and make mud ointments to soothe the pain, even if we are at a place in our lives where we feel a little out of the fold ourselves. Over 115 women have graced the threshold of the Magdalene community as residents and a thousand more have come as seekers to help and find healing. Seventy-two percent of the residents have graduated and I am so thankful to still get to be a part of such a flock. In that sheepfold people share the role of shepherding, we get to talk about the freedom of forgiveness we have known, how mercy runs deeper than abuse, and about how we have to learn to love without judgment each day.

A month ago Katrina Davidson, Susan Sluser, and I drove to Tuscaloosa, AL to preach, teach and sell our natural bath and body care products to an Episcopal Church. They welcomed us through their gate. We shared stories, talked about ministry, hugged as friends and even laughed about bath and body care products being the revolutionary tool we use to talk about women’s freedom. Driving back I thought about the other churches in places like Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, Chicago and New York that have already invited us to come and share our story this year. During the drive back we talked about how it felt like we were a new kind of missionary. Not in the sense that we have a new message, the message is as old as the gatekeeper, but in how we are not going out to convert people to a particular fold, but just trying to reach out to women who are suffering with a balm of Gilead and then go into churches to remind them that the moral issue of suffering is the matter of faith to confront. Dorothy Day, a beloved saint, says that you cannot help a sister or brother in need without getting naked first. The moral issue of the suffering of another requires us to look at our own suffering and remember all those who mixed their spit with mud to help us sit in this sanctuary today. All humanity knows suffering. The special gift of this fold has been to witness how love works in the lives of some of the most vulnerable voices in the world and hear their call as shepherds.

So we get to go to Rwanda and make candles and soap and hear stories of suffering on a colossal scale. In saying that we are coming good things are already happening. The Serena hotel chain in Rwanda and Tanzania has sent us swatches so that they can order candles and soaps for all their rooms. A Fundraiser by Bono’s group in July in Europe has ordered five hundred candles for their cause; a church in a remote village has invited us to preach on Sunday, the minister of gender and the embassy want to help. Before we step foot on the plane we are learning that we should never doubt that our compassion, our fire for justice, and our moral outrage, is needed and welcomed in a world with so much suffering.

This community is my sheepfold. It is where I was allowed in the gate stumbling always through what it means to be a shepherd. I have learned so much from so many here who have shepherded me. This has been the wandering flock where many of us have found sanctuary to grieve and freedom to grow in our faith. This Gospel invites us all to step through the gate again and care about the whole world and weep unapologetically for the suffering and our own blindness. This Gospel reminds us no one is outside the gatekeeper’s flock because he spent his entire ministry caring for the suffering of others on the way to offer his life for the sake of love. For that same loves sake, we are given the gift of caring for God’s sheep. Amen.

Love Came Like a Flood

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Easter 2008

Hundreds of trees have fallen because of the high waters pounding down the Caney Fork River this year. Two beautiful tulip poplars over seventy feet tall just below our cabin were ripped at their base by the strong currents. My family sat at the head of the tail waters this week below the dam listening to generators churn the water like a pot boiling over. They have kept the generators on full tilt for over a month. The herons are fat and flying low because they are the only anglers on the waters. The old man standing beside us says the generators can’t stop because they have to keep the lake below 630. He says it like an omen as two crows echo his alarm. “They are going to rebuild this dam,” he continues, “but it will take years, and this old dam can’t hold, and it will flood everything in its path when it breaks.”

Of the eleven years the community of St. Augustine’s has traveled to Ecuador with books and medicines, to build a school and a clinic in the small town of San Eduardo, the theme for the last seven has been about the scarcity of water after the well collapsed. The community there had to haul water in fifty-gallon drums in the back of trucks for all their needs. The teachers told us last year that they cannot live or teach without water. Last year this community raised over $50,000 to rebuild the well and bring in clean drinkable water. I imagined when we got to San Eduardo this year a steady and happy stream of water following peacefully from a spigot and all of us from St. Augustine's and San Eduardo standing around it, grateful for the well and the water and the spirit behind it. We didn't get a chance.

After our first day operating the clinic for about three hundred and fifty people and beginning to install the filtration system, all thirty people in the group sat down in the open-air church with a tin roof to make plans for our work over the next three days. Just then, the sky opened and the rains came and the water rose all around. You couldn't see because the electricity went out; you couldn’t hear your neighbor for the deafening roar of the rain on the roof. It was so loud it drowned out the noise of the dogs and roosters all night. A four inch river flooded the entire area and everything, I mean everything, was soaked. We walked into and huddled to find some small areas to sit hunched over and pass the next long hours. All manners of rain gear failed to keep people dry and some surrendered to its power and showered in it. The overflow tank from the well was cascading like a waterfall. The folks from San Eduardo said La Nina had devastated towns a little closer to the coast. There was so much water, there was nothing else to see, or feel or think about.

On the last day of our journey in Ecuador we hiked to the top of the world in the Andes to see a waterfall and were silenced and humbled again by the magnitude and power of water that tossed huge volcanic boulders like skipping stones. I stood there and wept at its majesty and how much time I have wasted wondering if the stone was rolled away at Easter. I could see standing at the base of the waterfall and after being in rain for days, how easy it is for water to move stone.

John Denson, whose blue-eyed son died in February, wrote an article called “A hard rain," describing how he understands death and resurrection through his son’s life. He said that he appreciates the smallest sign of God’s presence and trusting resurrection is a daily commitment for him. Hard rains, like the Caney Fork, San Eduardo and the private ones, hold powerful lessons for all of us.

It is the hard rain that carries the message to me this year of resurrection. It carries me right beside Mary to the tomb of Jesus along with the other disciples on this morning. Mary Magdalene had known healing and grace in her life. The story about her begins that she was tormented with seven sins and that she helped Jesus and his friends. She had been a part of the community and loved Jesus enough to risk being present at the crucifixion, facing the guards at the tomb, and lingering in search of his body after the others left. In this gospel she has ventured inside the tomb alone to be with her grief. I think that she expected Love and Death to welcome her like water that flows in certain and calm beds. It is what carried her through the last troubling days, leaving her just to want to know where they had taken her Lord. But instead, Love came like a flood, washing away all expectations, words, tossing stone aside, changing the course of all our lives and obliterating death. It is a hard Love that’s falling this morning.

This is the Ahimsa love that Gandhi describes as the soul force of creation. It is the Agape Love that carries us to the eternal heart of God. It is the Love that in its smallest dose, say a mustard seed, can move a mountain. It is the most powerful Love that comes like a deluge in death and wipes everything clean. There is so much Love, it is all we can see and all we can hear.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for us. The psalmist says it is like deep calling to deep, and that it is so high that we cannot attain to it. In the face of it, Mary cannot fathom the enormity of it and still wants to reach out and touch a body. When I glimpsed at the waterfall I didn’t have to believe in resurrection, I just accepted the truth of it. If water can toss rocks, and come down from the skies and wash everything, imagine what the soul force of Love can do. It can take out death; it can bring hope to the whole world; it can stop war; it can change the community of San Eduardo; and it can change us. It can move us to believe that we have the courage to love with all our hearts and minds and spirits-- that we can love our neighbors as ourselves because we have nothing to fear. Love will rain down hard. Whatever fear you hold, on this day, let love wash it away; whatever doubt you keep sealed like a tomb in your heart, let love toss it aside, not because you believe, but because you trust the power of Love to carry you back to God.

Hauling Nets

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Hauling and casting nets is hard work. Simon, Andrew, James and John on the shores with their nets conjure up an image I remember from Ecuador two years ago. About thirty of us were standing on the shore of the Pacific Coast celebrating our last Eucharist. We were facing the ocean quietly when a thin, strong, man in sun bleached clothes walked slowly and stooped as he drug a huge net slung over one shoulder behind him. It was easy to see this as a long routine of walking back and forth across this patch of ocean casting and hauling his nets.

This net represents our worldly entanglements, the things that trap us in our own lives. At the beginning of the fourth chapter of Matthew, Jesus hears that the Roman authorities have executed John. It means that his words were threatening and he was beginning to draw a crowd. It seems like a good time for Jesus to join the fishermen and keep his head down. When he was arrested and killed, John had been preaching, “Repent, the kingdom of heaven is near.” Jesus, instead picks up John’s mantel, and begins his first public words by echoing John, “Repent, the kingdom of God is near.” It is a brave and compassionate message. He walked by the sea and preached it to Andrew, Simon, James and John. And instead of turning away, it says they immediately dropped their nets and followed him.

Over the years I have always heard this Gospel and thought what a sacrifice it was for them to drop everything and become disciples. I know it still is, and I know it cost them their life, but as I read it this week, I felt something deeper. I thought what a blessing it was to hear the call and get to drop their nets and be close to Jesus. Jesus was offering them a gift---to let go of their heavy burdens, to feel the gift of sweet forgiveness and grace and walk with him. If the Gospel is the living word, then in this story we are the disciples, walking back and forth across our stretch of beaches, and Jesus is offering us a way to live and be fishers of people. We get to let go of fear, anxiety, pride, guilt, grief, and feel the joy of following our call to be disciples. It is the path of love, forgiveness and grace.

Andrew, Simon, James and John go on a journey; some of their names even change along the way, and they end up in Jerusalem watching their beloved Lord executed. Then come the rumors, the waiting, the sightings, and they all return to the sea. In the Gospel of John it says that Simon, now Peter, says to the rest of the group, “I’m going fishing.” And they all join him. Everything has changed, but they are still fishermen. They had never stopped being who they were, they just dropped their nets long enough to find their way to the presence of God. They went out all night and didn’t catch a thing. Then at dawn Jesus, instead of telling them to drop their nets, now invites them to cast their nets again. The net has been transformed from the entanglements of the world into the overwhelming bounty of living in the spirit of Love. And it is overflowing. It is so full of fish that they can’t haul it in.

This is our call as individuals and as the community of disciples to drop out nets---to do our best to love the world, one another, and ourselves and feel grace work in our hearts. We can lay our burdens of the world down, and then taste the gift of the kingdom of God being near to us so that we remember we are fishermen and women ready to cast for love’s sake.

The Long View of God's Love Revealed

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Epiphanies are events in which God’s incarnate love is revealed. My Epiphany began as I spotted a hillside with dried thistles. I pulled to the side of the road and just as I picked the first downy blossoms it dawned on me that I was becoming a thistle farmer. These thistles were there for anyone, but they felt like a present for me, free and wild, holding the capacity to make beautiful paper. To be a thistle farmer means the world is a plentiful field, and we can harvest beauty from weeds and abandoned lots and through action preach love and hope. It was strange to think that it had taken me six years of being a part of Thistle Farms to come to that realization. The moment was six years in the making, but it was even longer than that in coming.

Thistles were one of the first sights that stood out on our first trips into the streets thirteen years ago. They were the flower that donned my mother’s china. If I could ask her why she chose the thistle for her bridal plates, I bet there would be a story about my grandfather who was a farmer. If I could ask him about the thistle, the story would eventually carry me across seas and generations of farmers and faithful pilgrims. Somehow my small Epiphany connects me to a line of Epiphanies that span hundreds of years. The church teaches us that there are three to celebrate: the coming of the wise men to see Jesus in Bethlehem; Jesus getting baptized in the river Jordon; and Jesus’ first miracle of turning water to wine at a wedding in Canaan. They are not separate events but part of one Epiphany with countless manifestations of how God’s love is revealed to us.

Epiphanies have never come out of thin air. The reason that Jesus was born in Bethlehem can be traced back generations to the story of Ruth. Her mother-in-law, Naomi, traveled to Moab because there was famine in the land of Judah. There, her two sons married and some time later, died. When Naomi was leaving Moab, Ruth begged her to go with her saying, “Where you go I will go and your God will be my God.” Ruth came to the land of Bethlehem. Her loyalty to Naomi and her faith led her to marry, Boaz, and they had a son, Obed. Obed was the father of Jesse, and Jesse was the father of David, and so the line continues until Mary and Joseph in the year of the census travel back to Bethlehem, David’s home. It is the history of faith foretold by the prophets in Isaiah and the Psalms and the priests around the time of Jesus’ birth knew it. The wise men came to Jerusalem, not Bethlehem, and after consulting the vassal king of Rome, Herod sent them to Bethlehem. Ruth, Jesse, Herod, are all part of the Epiphany. The same is true for us. Epiphanies are experienced in specific time and place and in particular political realities, but they move past specifics as they connect us to universal and timeless truths. They seem like fragile or passing thoughts, but they are strong and change the balance of love in our world. Your revelations of God’s love for you and your place in the history of love are not fragile or disconnected.

The wise men in the Gospel are a caste of people from the east that can interpret dreams and understand astrology. After the Gospels were written, the Church elaborated that there were three men carrying symbols of virtue, prayer and redemptive suffering. They came because the cosmos offered another sign of God’s love unfolding. That star had been burning for countless millennia, maybe it was a supernova dying, and the men were drawn to its light and force. We have all looked up into the heavens like the wise men in awe and wonder. Christmas Eve, 2007, the skies were clear and cold, and the full moon was glowing. In it you could see craters like grey shadows, and all around it shown a halo of light. Its majesty increased as I remembered the whole world sees the same moon, and all our lives pass by it quickly. In the moon’s shadow you can feel the connection between all the births and deaths and epiphanies of our lives. You can picture a child under the same moon pumping water from the well in Ecuador; a nurse offering food to a man dying of AIDS in Botswana; a monk assisting a blind child through the corridors at the orphanage in Vietnam; a woman picking a thistle by the side of a road; and people offering kindness to strangers and the other million acts done by countless men and women for countless years under this same moon. In each act there is a moment or glimmer of grace when the skies open and we feel a part of God’s loves for the world. May your epiphanies this year bathe you in new light, remind you of all the epiphanies that led you to your new place of wisdom, and ground you even more firmly in your knowledge and love of God.

To listen to this reflection and "Consider the Thistle" written and performed by Marcus Hummon, click here.

Christmas 2007

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In the book, Lives of the Saints, it says that Christ’s life is gospel reduced to practice. Christmas is the beginning of that Gospel in practice, and the manger is Christ’s first pulpit. From that pulpit he preaches that there is healing in all the places of poverty, humiliation, and suffering. He preaches it with such grace and mystery that it still dances in our heads over two thousand years later. The story is the quintessential sermon that when love comes among us, it suffers with us, fills our hearts with treasures, and makes every child holy. It is the only sermon that the Prince of Peace could have preached. It was the only sermon for the preacher who walked and talked about seeing the glorious raiment of the lilies of the field. It was the sermon for the man who, in the midst of temple power and riches, preached about the generosity of the widow’s mite. When he began preaching as a man in the Sermon on the Mount, he said we had to preach love by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the prisoners, tending to the sick, comforting the sorrowful, and burying the dead. St. John Chrysostom says Jesus didn’t come to shake the world in his majesty like on Sinai but came so quietly no one knew it.

It is the perfect beginning of the story of Love unfolding, but the story seems precarious to me. It unfolds through dreams to young men, an annunciation to a young woman alone in the night, and a passing thought by an overworked innkeeper for shelter. It seems the unfolding of the incarnation of love hangs by slender threads woven into a story.

This has been a busy advent in this community. It has flown by as the demands of this world called louder than the call to watch and wait. Our world has all but reduced the season to four candles. I have witnessed friends bury parents, show signs of stress, and cry for help. It’s not new; the path of business has been with us since we walked out of Eden and started clearing creation. I have been thinking during these busy and stressful times that the slender threads of this gospel story are the only paths by which the Holy Spirit could move in our lives. It has to catch us in dreams and unexpected thoughts to gain any ground on our hearts. Maybe the roots of the story are not so precarious or flimsy.

When we are busy, we are prisms refracting light into dazzling colors and bouncing it in a million ways. This season can make you think your job is to spin around as fast as you can to reflect what others need to see. When we are busy, we are malleable pieces of tender flesh stretched tight to protect our hearts from breaking. This season can make you think your job is to take care of everyone else so no one is hurt. When we are busy, we are time clicking off words and deeds in the present without a clue to eternity. Into this busyness the Holy Spirit came. It came straight into the timeless heart of a prism like pure light. If it had come any other way, Mary, Joseph, or any of us would have refracted such light and not treasured it in our hearts. It came in such an eternal and intimate way that it linked humanity to God forever. Such purity could only come in dreams and whispered thoughts. It had to come through an angel that could find a way to whisper the name Emmanuel into the hearts of all humanity.

This summer I spoke at the Tennessee Labor management gathering for people around the state. I said yes only because I thought it would be a good place to talk about Thistle Farms and the value of work. A woman came from east Tennessee and heard me tell the story of Magdalene. She went to the Thistle Farms table after the breakfast and bought some things and sent them to her 23-year-old sister serving time in jail. Her sister had two children who were 9 and 7 and had lost everything from her time on the streets. In jail she read about Magdalene and found the number to St. Augustine’s. She called Inge who was kind and sent her on to Jason, who takes initial calls. When Jason talked to her, he told her how hard it is to find space. When she was released from jail, a place happened to open up, and she told me on Saturday the reason I went to that breakfast in August was because she offered a prayer in her cell. We were the slender threads that wove the story of her new birth. To hear her tell it-- it is a strong and powerful sermon that preaches love and God’s presence all the way through.

The Christmas story is a fanciful and wondrous tale, and while fragile, it is Gospel. It is the beginning of the sermon that love works in mysterious ways to get light to reach into our busy and cynical hearts. It is maybe more powerful in that the whole thing depends on us listening to our dreams, honoring our passing thoughts of compassion and generosity, and tending to those who need us. I will take it this season; I will take the truth that pure unbridled love finds its way into the heart of humanity and into our hearts and births love. I will take it that in this story we learn the first lesson of the Gospel. Love shines beyond social norms, political realities, and busy people. It is Jesus’ first sermon to us. It preaches for us to tend our thoughts and cherish our dreams and love the world.