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Magdalene

Easter 2016 Sermon: "I Lay Me Down"

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I want to lay me down in wildflowers; the silent harbingers of spring. During the Lenten season just as we are called to new life, flowers become the best preachers. With unaffected modesty larkspur blush in morning light. Dancing with the slightest breeze, Dutchmen’s britches celebrate everything. Trout lilies in long lines genuflect every sunset. Wildflowers seem to pass so quickly, yet their roots lead us back to Eve’s mother, and their descendants and distant cousins were witnesses in the garden on Easter morning. After Jesus’ prayers in the Garden of Gethemane, his trial and crucifixion, the Gospel of John tells us he was carried by Joseph and Nicodemus to a garden with a new tomb. There they took spices and oils, wrapped his body in a shroud and laid him in the tomb. On the 3rd morning the Gospel places Magdalene with some assortment of other women in that garden searching for Jesus on the wings of that morning in Jerusalem. I can imagine wild lilies and geraniums greeting Magdalene as she and her sisters set out to anoint their Lord’s body. Carrying spices along with heavy hearts and fear, they followed the worn path just as dawn was breaking. Surely such a path was clearer because of tender blossoms pointing the way. I wonder if Magdalene, burdened with leadership and love, looked down long enough to consider the lilies as they bore a regal witness to hope. I wonder if the path she took smelled rich and offered her hope as she prepared to face the stone and saw them as a sign that in the midst of death love was rising. I wonder then if she remembered Jesus’ words as he led them on their first mission, “Don’t worry about your life.” “Seek the kingdom, and all else will be added unto you.” “Consider the lilies and how they neither toil or spin, yet even Solomon in all his glory is not arrayed like one of these.” Then breathing in the abundance that flowers offer, Magdalene reaches the tomb and finds angels, and discarded shrouds, and drops everything to run and proclaim the good news, “He is risen.” 

Just after finishing the clinics, sewing, tending the gardens and organizing the school in San Eduardo on our 19th annual trip to Ecuador, our group from St. Augustine’s headed into the mountains. We walked on rocky soil 13,000 feet above sea level draped in native paper trees, wild flowers and beautiful orchids as hawks soared  along vertical rocks from long forgotten volcanoes. Wildflowers are universal and timeless, and when we consider them in the hills of Tennessee, the Gardens of Jerusalem, or the mountains of Ecuador, they remind us of the abundance in God’s kingdom. The whole gospel is a reminder, even in death and injustice that God’s abundant love for us is more than 500 denari worth of sins that have been forgiven 70 times 7 times. When we are thirsty, 60 gallons of water can become wine and when we are hungry 5000 people can be fed from a few baskets. The gospel preaches that once barren nets spill over with fish, and we can pour out our hearts as lavishly as lavender oil on feet.

Leaving the mountain and flowers, we headed back to the city where I found myself early in the morning sitting in front of a big flower market by the Sanctuary Mariano. Aproned women made quick work of making arrangements for weddings and graves. Tuber rose filled the air with thick memory. It was an ever flowing stream of flowers that could fill anyone’s well of longing. There on an ordinary Saturday morning with a full heart, I bore witness to enough wild and cut flowers to sate new grievers and young lovers who long to mark ordinary days as sacred. With a heart full of gratitude, I stepped into the sanctuary with gilded lilies and bronzed saints to pray and was taken aback by the huge purple shrouds covering everything…the altar, the saints, the flowers. It was all hidden, as though it was too much for us to bear in our Lenten state. 

The abundance of love is right there, in the beauty of the flowers and the eternal hope of Easter, but sometimes we can’t see it, either because of the scarcity of wilderness, the shame clouding our vision, grief pressing like a heavy stone, and its too hard to bear in real time that everything we love passes. Sometimes the sting of death makes us feel as fragile as the spring beauties and it’s easier to drape a shroud over it all. But can’t you imagine the flower sellers, like Magdalene herself, on the dawn of Easter, letting the purple fabrics fall to the floor like the shroud in the tomb? And how the women will drape their saints and altars with garlands of herbs and flowers. Working through the night, they prepare for the pilgrims searching for the hope of a glimpse of love’s abundance.

This is what I believe. In the sacred and imperishable truth of resurrection, there is abundance. We have all grieved for people we love who have died. Magdalene knew suffering and grief, yet those pains did not outweigh her longing for love and the hope of resurrection. It is that longing and hope that carried her through the flowers to the tomb. I have known grief my whole life and have thought about that truth and believe that inside us is a well of tears that pour out in abundance as we remember that love washes away the scarcity that the fear of death holds over us. We know it like wildflowers know to bloom and like Magdalene knew, that before we make it to a graveside, love rises. Just like we know how to grieve, we know how to love beyond death.

I wish we could all lie down in flowers and feel our hearts beat with that truth coursing through our veins. We would lie there and breathe in the knowledge that even though these spring beauties pass in a moment, they return despite drought, floods, and grief and remind us that what seems dead rises in splendor. When we follow in the footsteps of Magdalene, through the garden, we can dance among the wildflowers as we glimpse the stone rolled and feel that all those who have died live on in love and the memory of God. All we grieve rises, like the wildflowers in spring. There are enough long winters over hard and hallowed ground, but today let the shroud fall and sing with Magdalene among the flowers that even in the face of disparity, fear, and injustice love blossoms. The wildflowers, the very preachers of how there is a time for everything, demonstrate that we can live in hope dedicated to justice and truth. Flowers are ours for the beholding and allow us to make our song even at our own Easter morning, “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

image credit: pixabay.com

Guest Post Feature: "Nashville Light" by Sarah Hillesheim

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this post was originally featured on the blog My Invented Isabel We just got back from our love fest in Nashville with Thistle Farms and the women of Magdalene, the social enterprise and residential rehab center founded by the Rev. Becca Stevens to serve and support women who are recovering from addiction and who have been victims of prostitution and trafficking.

Calling our visit a love fest is an understatement. It was a light-filled full-blown love carnival, complete with Irish singers and a candle lit for every woman at Thistle Farms—and countless more for those still out in the night. I’ll write more on our trip later, but here’s a quick overview: we hiked the Tennessee hills, went to church to hear Becca preach, enjoyed a tea party at the Thistle Stop Cafe and visited the Magdalene residences, homes where women can stay for up to two years and are bathed in love as they receive therapy, medical care, eduction and employment. Thistle Farms sent some love our way as well, honoring Isabel at its Light Bearers event.

It’s all about the love.

thank you so much to Isabel Allende and The Isabel Allende Foundation. we love you!

Earthquakes and Love Vines

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The Gospel readings are timeless as they speak to deeper truths of healing, not distracted by the changes and chances of the world in the week's news. But the Gospel is also located in a certain time and space that makes the words even richer. There is power in Jesus' speaking of love in the midst of Rome’s occupation to tax collectors or wiping out adultery, knowing it is punishable by death. The same is true for us. To speak of love in the midst of the current spin on ageless injustices is powerful. It requires discipline to work and live by the axioms of love. In preaching, in liturgy, and in our common ministries, our call is to keep love as the eye in the tempests of stormy news. Nepal, Baltimore, Fayetteville, and the tiny school in Ecuador have blended together this week to open a story about the powerful natural and human constructs of this world that cause seismic shifts and landslides.

A group of 14 people who had worked with our own Susan Sluser in Nepal last year building a house had already planned to convene in Nashville this week before the first building collapsed or any hikers were trapped by the earthquake that struck last week. I remember when Susan, our beloved education director, came home from her journey, filled with joy from building a home with her new friends for a family in a village through Habitat for Humanity. They learned Friday that the house they built together stands.

Last year I accepted an invitation to preach this coming week at the Episcopal convention in Baltimore  about how love heals communities - even before the first rock was hurled in the riots in response to the death of a young black man in police custody. It feels like a gift to go into a divided city that inherited injustices and fueled the fires of division to speak of how love heals.

Months ago Don Welch chose this Sunday - before he looked at this Gospel - to be the week to celebrate the work of our community with the community of San Eduardo, Ecuador and to wear their Love Heals (el amor sana) tee shirts.

From the mountains of Nepal, to the streets of Baltimore, to the fields of Ecuador, the gospel calls us to remember that love runs deep and we are connected by one vine. What happens in other communities is felt in this community and when the vine shakes, we are called to hold on tighter.

The reading today is from the15th chapter of John and is a love letter. It is the end of the farewell discourse when Jesus is calling his community to remember that Love is the vine and that when we are cut off from it, we will wither. It’s our Sunday reminder to live by the axioms of love:

1. That love is the most powerful force.

2. That it is the oldest force.

3. That it is universal.

4. That it is less concerned with dogma, but has a dogged determination to grow.

From the first page of scripture to the last, it is written that love is the root. On the first page, it is the tree of life in the heart of Eden; on the last page that same rooted tree is described along the brook that runs through the city of God. These deep roots of love ground and connect us to groups around the world struggling and yearning for peace, for living waters, and for love. Beneath the shifting plates, more powerful than divisions that want to obviate our common humanity, higher than the human constructs of poverty, wider than the chasm created by fear is the truth of love. That is why we keep going--opening and building houses, struggling for peace and justice, and sitting by fields in Ecuador year after year building a school. It is why all of you do all the good work you do around this world. Love is the vine that runs like rebar through concrete, holding buildings together even though the ground shakes.

This week Thistle Farms traveled to Fayetteville, Arkansas to help launch a new residential community. There are now 40 sister communities and Global Partnerships scattered throughout the world working with women who have survived lives of trafficking, addiction, devastating poverty, and prostitution. We went into the women’s prison to meet women who had worked on writing their stories for months. Five actors and a blues guitar player gave a dramatic reading for about 10 guests and 90 women in yellow jumpsuits sitting in even rows of 10. The biographies were divided into themes of childhood trauma, broken families, bad decisions, the short side of the penal system, and longing for their children. The women were diverse in race, age and orientation, but connected by the bright yellow suits. The piece ended with a description of what they want for the world and in their freedom. Longing for their children, peace, good jobs, forgiveness, and hope, they are like our friends in Nepal, Ecuador, Baltimore, and there in Arkansas. At first what looked like a yellow sea of women cut off from the vine was transformed with loving words into a single vine as they stood to exit. There were no hugs as they counted off with hands held behind their backs and walked back to their cells. You could see on their prison clothes wet circles from the tears they shed for themselves, for this world, and their longing for love. I was sitting in a metal chair watching the parade and felt the only thing strong enough to hold us together, as we are shaken by the harshness in this world, is the vine.

We are one community connected by the vine. As we rebuild homes, communities, and schools, we can feel the tenderness that such love asks us ultimately to lay down our lives for each other to nurture new growth.  When we can live that tethered to the vine, nothing can tear us apart.

When we came to in the small community of San Eduardo, Ecuador this past year, you could feel a difference. After our communities here and there worked to create a clinic, opened the Hagan building, created a computer lab, built the Taylor building and opened the women’s cooperative, there has been a small shift in the ground there you can feel. This year there were display tables showing the work of the new cooking club and recycling club. This year all the gates were painted and there was more dancing. In the 18 years we have been going, there has been a shift to greater local leadership, more economic hope, and deeper relationships.  We still have a long way to journey together and there are still tons of divisions and injustices we can feel, but love is growing between us.

You already know the pain of Baltimore, the fear of Nepal, the injustice of the women in Fayetteville, and the hope of living our lives in relationship in Ecuador. This is the week to remember together in love we are all defined as simply part of the vine, growing love. We are called again to grow the vine in a field that is called community. We are called again to sewing seeds of compassion. We are called again to water and weed day after day and week after week. This is how the vine grows unshaken, deep and solid. Love can grow in the midst of challenge and controversy. It can grow through earthquakes and landslides. It can carry us through life and through death. It can withstand injustice and oppression and just grow stronger.

Roots at the Ryman

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This year as we rehearsed the reading written by the women of Magdalene and Thistle Farms, one of the women who graced the Ryman stage last year spoke to the women who would sit on that historic stage before 2,000 for the first time. She said last year that she was only two weeks off the streets and still had the lingering feeling of being spit on by a passerby, when she received a standing ovation and was given a glimpse of her true worth and beauty.  We speak of our thirst for knowledge and hunger for justice because we need them to thrive as a community. But before we can take in knowledge and justice, we need to be rooted in love.  The women wrote stories of being locked in closets, beaten, raped, sold, addicted and feeling rootless, only to uncover the truth that their deepest tap root is love. You can't dig deeper. It's eternal, universal and so particular it sinks into our hearts and calls us to dream again. Beyond our thirst for knowledge and hunger for justice is the yearning to get back to our roots of love. This summer I was driving down a dirt road in Uganda with Canon Gideon, the founding director of Hope University who is here with us tonight. We were discussing how to be better advocates for women who have known the underside of bridges, the backside of anger, the inside of prison walls, and the short side of justice. I told Gideon the story of how, as I dug beneath the roots of my abuse, I decided I needed to confront my abuser. I was surprised that the first question the man who molested me asked was, “Who have you told?” In response, Gideon told me that on his journey, when he told the head of the seminary in 1988 that he was HIV positive, the first thing his Professor said, was, “Don’t tell anyone.” This is the night to tell anyone we want that Love Heals. This is the night to celebrate brave women who are free to speak their truth to anyone that has ears. This is the night to celebrate that in discovering our truth, we remember healing runs deeper and wider than the deep roots of addiction and violence. We untangle the mass of roots in communities committed to housing, recovery and trauma therapy, economic freedom, and love without judgment.

Many people who will hear or read this speech have been part of the second annual national conference and have been digging deeper into how it is possible that the NY Times reports that more than 100,000 women and girls in the US are at risk for trafficking.  That statistic is why Thistle Farms and Magdalene continue to offer education and outreach to assist more than 20 cities in creating sister communities around the country.  It is why we welcomed more than 2,000 people to our workshop days. We are digging deeper into how it is possible that over 85% of the women’s prison population is comprised of women who report rape and trauma as children.  The women on the inside are not suffering from post-traumatic stress; they are still in the middle of the trauma.  That statistic is why Shelia McClain and Dorinda Carter have led a program called "Magdalene on the Inside." We are digging deeper by addressing holistically the burden of isolation, mental health problems, and acute poverty from old trauma by launching new city-wide initiatives like the Nashville Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse, with the program team led by Donna Grayer and Cary Rayson.

We are digging deeper into the universal issues of sexual violence borne on the individual backs of women all over the globe and how freedom is experienced through work. To this end, we have launched Thistle Farms' new Shared Trade alliance with Frannie, Fiona and Abi that is bringing international trade to 14 partners globally. Thistle Farms is buying above wholesale and offering distribution in order to reduce the links in the chain between producer and consumer. Many of you know Thistle Farms hit the $1,000,000 in sales mark this year, but also know that is a small milestone for what we hope to accomplish.  We hope to scale up another 30% in sales to reduce the costs of goods and to hire an additional 15 women.

Years ago we named our social enterprise after the Thistle, the noxious weed with the deepest tap-root that can survive drought and flood. It can grow anywhere and feed bees, heal livers, and make exotic papers. It reminds us daily of how healing comes in unexpected places and is woven into the fabric of creation. Roots have to keep growing to live and we have tons of earth to move to keep this community healthy.This year we need to launch new products such as Hope Tea that cultivates among people a thirst for justice tea. As we started planning the Hope Tea enterprise this summer in Uganda, one woman told me she didn’t feel she would ever get to share her story of abuse and recovery in her work of farming in Uganda, and that the project was truly about hope.  A woman professor driving back from visiting the land that will house Hope University and Hope Tea showed me a small handful of dirt she had taken from the site.  "This land is blessed," she said, "and when this dream comes true, I will return this holy dirt."  The holy dirt of hope offers us all a chance to live into the deep roots of love.

We want to launch a capital campaign for Thistle Farms to expand our manufacturing capacity to make room for another 30 employees as well as room for visitors and volunteers. We want to welcome another 30 women from prison and the streets and continue to offer outreach to the hundreds of women who will knock on our doors.  Our goal is to raise $500,000 over the next two years.

Digging deep means we are willing to grieve fully and stand in the loose mangled soil and feel gratitude for all the mercy we have known. It means this year mourning the loss of three graduates and several women who went back to the streets. Digging deep means we are willing to do the grunt work and daily tasks so roots can experience long term growth. Digging deep means reaching into our resources and offering lavish gifts. We are still carrying a few rocks at a time out of vast fields where the forces of injustice, poverty and addiction are still covered. Sometimes, in truth, the task feels daunting.  But as a community, we are beginning to come into our own as a voice joining with other voices strong enough to change our culture so that child sex abuse is not a secret, young women raped feel like they can seek justice, where there is no tolerance for the buying and selling of human beings, where women feel like they can seek help with addictions without fear, and where there are enough recovery homes offering long-term community-based healing with meaningful work.  We need each other to do this work that is not issue-oriented, but community-rooted to make systemic change. 

We may not see the harvest from the roots we are growing in our lifetime. But I trust love enough that I will do this work my whole life.  It is in these fields we can know the world can do its worst, and love will still flourish.  The vision of this community feeds the taproot of life that thrives like a thistle beyond our wildest hope and fills a field from a single plant. We are allowed to dream big, to speak of that dream, and to work on it our whole lives. This community is a glimpse of how beautiful that field is when hearts gather in hope. People see this field from afar, thrive on its bounty, and become inspired enough to plant their own.  It is as close to a miracle as I have seen.

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.

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.

Thistle Farming

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We had been growing lavender for six years when a late frost and drought killed the field. We started trying to figure out what we could make with thistles, and while I was picking thistles by the side of the road last December, I saw myself. I had become a thistle farmer. It was funny to think that this was where all the work had led me, wandering the shoulder of the road looking for thistles, but it also made me knee-buckling grateful. It was strange to think that it had taken seven years of working with Thistle Farms and a lifetime of longing for God to have this kind of gratitude. It was the kind of gratitude that comes from brokenness and the mercy people have offered me along the way. It came from knowing death, fear, and seeing God’s compassion in everything. The thistles I was harvesting were half dead and were there for anyone, but they felt like a present, free and wild, holding the capacity to make beautiful paper boxes. I realized to be a thistle farmer is a way of walking in the world, a way of loving the world, a way of understanding one’s own worth in the world. As a thistle farmer the world is a plentiful field with no borders or owners, and anyone can harvest beauty from alleys, abandoned lots, railway clearings, and the poorer sections of town. In searching, we can see the beauty in all of creation, and that nothing is left to be condemned.

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 the most powerful force for change, stronger than what drives women to the streets. Those streets are hell, I have been told, and I haven’t met a woman who hasn’t been raped or left destitute. Such suffering should cause us all to stop and try to soothe the pain, even if we feel overwhelmed, scared, or judgmental. The women we serve in Magdalene, on average, have more than 100 arrests on their record and were first sexually abused between the ages of 7 and 11. Women don't end up on the streets by themselves. It takes a community of people and failed systems to help them get there; it takes drugs; it takes a culture that continue to think that you can buy and sell others at no cost to the other’s well being. It takes ignorance such as legalizing prostitution; it will do no more than benefit the men. It takes numbness that dismisses it as choice. In 2001 we started a company because the women couldn’t get jobs because of problems with credit, mental health issues, and drug addiction. So we named it Thistle Farms in honor of the flower that blooms where the women still walk and made body healing balm and grew lavender. Our message is that love heals and you cannot buy and sell women. We are trying to say to the wider culture that even though prostitution may be one of the oldest forms of abuse in history, women don’t have to stay in it or in addiction for the rest of their lives.

It is funny that we make all natural bath and body care products as a revolutionary tool to talk about women’s freedom, to change the culture, and to enable communities of women to be economically independent. It is wonderful to imagine communities tied to this hope through this tool in places like Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, Chicago, Virgina, New York, South Carolina, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Texas, Honduras, and that we have made friends in programs from Russia, Rwanda, and Ecuador. Everywhere we travel and meet brothers and sisters who are healing from the same scars as women in Nashville; it is amazing how connected we all are. We all carry our own thistle past-- lots of jagged edges and reasons for people to stand back. The suffering of another requires us to look at our own suffering and give thanks for all those who could see the beauty in us.

I have been changed by the work and love’s transformative power. 118 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 a part of a wild field where we talk about the freedom of forgiveness, how mercy runs deeper than abuse, about the miracle of recovery, and about how we have to learn to love without judgment each day. Along the journey I have met hundreds and hundreds of beautiful thistle farmers.

Katrina Davidson who I first met in 2002 has spoken to hundreds of groups about how coming off the streets saved her life and what it has meant. She describes how in her recovery she found her daughter and mother, found her purpose, landed the job of sales director for Thistle Farms, bought her own home in August of 2007, and has found peace. Katrina has given us the gift of love that spills over to all the farmers. In saving herself, her witness to love saves us on a daily basis.

Julie Cantrell is a volunteer who went with us to Rwanda at the beginning of May to share with a group there who are trying to leave the streets of Kigali how to make bath and body care products. Julie is a chemical engineer and manufacturing expert who left her job at Dow Chemical and went into recovery. She came to Thistle Farms last year to serve the community and work on quality control and inventory. In everything she does she teaches us about unconditional acceptance. When we were in Rwanda, we were driving at 10:00 at night down a dark two lane highway coming back from countryside when she says, “I hope that I find my purpose in life.” I just laughed and said, “You better find it quick then, because this may be it.” She was so humble in her words, and didn’t see what a huge gift is already is to the whole world. Julie reminds us what unaffected modesty looks like and how we forget to see, not just the thorns, but the regal soft purple center that God created in us.

There is a small space below the blossom and above the dagger thorns that is smooth. It is where you hold on to harvest a crop. It seems incongruous because the whole history of a thistle is survival by brutality. It comes as a sweet surprise, like all grace in our lives. The psalmist says it is like deep calling to deep, and that it is so high that we cannot attain to it. This whole adventure is a surprising walk in grace and we pray we can keep walking. If we can, we can help residential communities like Magdalene and provide meaningful training and work for more women. We want the spiritual lessons we have learned to become part of the recovery process for all kinds of people, so we are publishing a book this coming fall. We want to share the message of how love heals, what it means to find our way home and to be in solidarity with those who are suffering. It contains lessons we have learned, like how to lose gracefully. It took us several years to write it, and when I showed it to my husband his very first comment was, “I thought it would be bigger.” It’s a pretty short and simple message; it just takes us forever to let it sink in. It helps me let it sink in when I go to places like the cemetery that lies between the sewer treatment plant and the gas storage center that is surrounded by a chain link with thistles creeping out. It is Nashville’s potter field where we bury the Jane Does who don’t find their way home in this world. If you consider the thistles in that field, you will find a great teacher of grace in this world. Then, picture grace growing as abundantly as thistle and imagine someday our great-grandchildren living in a culture where little girls will not know sexual abuse, where drugs are used for healing, and where women feel the freedom to speak their truth without fear. It feels possible if we walk ahead together-- if we keep witnessing to the truth that in the end love is the most powerful force for change in the world. And preach it with respect for the dignity of every single human being.

Her Camera

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The curve of her lens,
Is perfectly shaped,
To shield her from the world.
She can see images
Travel down her optic nerve.
Imprinted into her head, they remain,
A safe distance from her heart.
Landscapes and stories come to her,
In two dimensions with color and sound.

Until she saw the boys face-
As it turned the page of a ragged book.
His face jumped through the lens.
No longer looking at the world
Instead, he looked into her.
His smile averting the safe path
And cut into her heart.

It flooded her with salty compassion.
So quick and sudden she had to
Cover her eyes.
Her once sure protector
Now revealed her heart and soul
To this sweet child.
Her lens will never be the same
It will always bend a little more
Towards tenderness

April 24, 2008
Rwanda

Making Candles in Rwanda

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Waiting for the wax to melt
We huddled on the couch
Then ran back to check the pots.
The wax now soft to the touch,
Held the promise of freedom.

If we can just get it to melt,
We can pour it over wicks
And add sweet fragrance and color.
Then package the dream of
New life together.

We stir with purpose as we pray
That money will come
And women among us no longer
Have to sell their flesh
For less than a single candle.

As the wax is poured into molds
It begins to harden and
It almost feels safe—
To let our stone hearts
Melt into love.

April 24, 2008
Rwanda

Photo credit: Milada Vigerova

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.

A Brief Summary of the Rwanda Trip

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Rwanda was amazing and we are home, safe and sound. The trip was very successful as long as you don't count Regina never finding her luggage and that all our supplies to begin the candle and soap making didn't arrive until day four! The women we met fell in love with the message and community of Magdalene. We read letters the women from Nashville sent and in response, the women who are part of the sisters of Rwanda started sharing their experiences of surviving incest, violence, addiction and prostitution. Their staff said that they had never heard the women talk so openly. In gratitude and solidarity with the women of Magdalene, the Sisters of Rwanda wrote letters and sent video messages to us. We are planning on taping and reading the letters from 9 -10 next Wednesday morning at Thistle Farms. This will allow us to get everyone interested together at one time. We will read the letters they wrote to us, just like we read the letters we wrote to them. Then, we will listen to the reactions of our residents to the stories that are hauntingly similar.

Rwanda is full of people walking around with ghosts while new life is strapped to the backs of women. Hearty crops are blooming next to people so poor they can't feed their children. It was so much to take in sometimes my legs would shake or my head would throb. Our small group carried you all with us the whole time. It was the right trip and we all think there are many more villages of women who want us to be with them. We found the cousins to the thistles and will post pictures soon.

Seeing women in traditional African dress with goggles and rubber gloves preparing to make soap is awesome. They were so excited when we started the second morning, they had already started cleaning the equipment. We went to villages where women waited all day to see us. They were stunning, poised, and almost whispered what they needed to tell us about their lives and their need for hope and money to keep going. We went to the market and purchased shovels, seeds, and sewing machines in response to some of their requests. Sometimes it's just a fishing pole people need. They already know how to fish. The faith we saw was inspiring and a little intimidating. The singing and dancing were beautiful. The landscape is hilly with mists that come in like sweet blankets. It is strange to think of a million people dying on that land.

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.

Upcoming Travel

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As part of Thistle Farms' goal to network globally with organizations committed to women's freedom, a group from the Thistle Farms and Magdalene community will travel to Rwanda for 10 days on April 20th. Our goal is to meet women who have survived lives of abuse and prostitution through a couple of non-profits in Rwanda. We will meet women from a number of villages under the direction of Dr. Brigitte Kitenge. Additionally, we hope to assist Sisters of Rwanda, and their director Jared Miller, in Kigali in their own entrepreneurial venture of making soap and candles.

We began making plans for the trip in November and ask for your prayers and support as our trip approaches. This trip combines the desire I have had to take women from this community to Africa for years with my desire to see Rwanda and what we can do to help. I think this will be the first of several trips to this amazing country. The women making this first journey are Katrina Davidson and Regina Mullins, graduates and employees of Magdalene and Thistle Farms; Becca Stevens, founder of Magdalene and Thistle Farms; Dorinda Carter, Magdalene Board Member and journalist; Tara Armistead, landscape architect and photographer; Sarah VanHooser, graduate student at Vanderbilt University; Julie Cantrell, chemical engineer and product designer for Thistle Farms; and Dr. Brigitte Kitenge, Director of Women of Hope of Rwanda and survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. We hope that as we continue to make connections with grass roots groups in other parts of the world, all of us will learn and grow. I am thrilled to be able to go on this journey and am so hopeful about where it will all lead. The costs associated with this journey are about $25,000, and we always welcome support. All checks can be made payable to Thistle Farms or Magdalene Inc. For more information, please contact Marlei at marlei@thistlefarms.org .

Good Friday

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I sat in the back of the dimly lit cathedral on Maundy Thursday for the renewal of the ordination vows of the Episcopal priests in the Diocese of Tennessee. Outside, the brightly lit spring day was in full bloom. Inside, the lights were dimmed and a row of flickering candles on the altar pointed toward a sacred and shadowed space. There were about fifty priests in front of me, mostly with haloed gray hair bent forward in prayer. What struck me beyond the sea of black with old tweed sweaters over tired shoulders were the backs that looked a little humped. I imaged the years of prayers prayed for themselves, their congregations, and all the stories that were stored in their sealed hearts. Collectively they represented hundreds of years of stories and prayers offered for the sake of their part of the vineyard. I felt compassion for the years of listening and bearing the burdens of those who had suffered and reached out for a tender ear. I could imagine how they had presided over funerals, gone to hospitals in crises, and offered forgiveness and a way of acceptance in terrible times. There was holiness about the gathered community, singing in older, thin voices about sacred woundedness. There was something beautiful about the suffering they seemed to be carrying in their bodies, and I wanted to believe that it was worth it all.

Suffering places us always on holy ground, and that is why this week is called Holy. It is the week to remember the suffering and holiness of God that is present in that suffering. It is the embodied life of suffering and the reality of its toll under our eyes, on our chest, in our bellies, that places us near to the heart of God, especially this week. And witnessing the silent suffering of the priests on behalf of the communities they served brought me a tiny bit closer to the suffering of our Lord on this holiest of days.

Two years ago John Thatanamil, a professor of Theology, preached at St. Augustine’s that today was the coronation of love-- that offering your body for the sake of God’s love in the world was indeed the lived theology of the Gospel. We are called to lay down our life for a friend. When I imagine myself at the foot of the cross, grieving and weeping, I imagine that witnessing his suffering would bring me great compassion for the life he lived. I could see him making his way slowly to Jerusalem, stopping and stooping and listening and loving all those he encountered who were suffering. At each point, bent over, he would bear a little of their suffering for the sake of love. I can imagine seeing, in his bent and broken body, love pouring out of him, and wishing that I could bear such love.

He embodies on this holiest of days the ultimate suffering for the sake of love, hours on the cross for loving the whole world, and it makes me want to bear more for the sake of love. So I sit in dimly lit cathedrals on bright and sunny days and silence my phone to hear and witness others who give a testimony by their hunched backs and grey hair that loving one another is possible, and it brings us closer to the love of God that we long to know.

March 12, 2008

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For the past decade I have worked with women from the streets of cities all over the country. I have not met a woman who has not been raped and left destitute on those streets. None of the women came to the streets directly. First, they danced, worked in spas, or were part of the elite call-girl rings that are being discussed in the news now. None of the women ended up on the streets by themselves. It takes a community of people and failed systems to help them get there; it takes sexual abuse at a young age; it takes drugs; it takes people who continue to think that you can buy and sell others at no cost to the person's well being. I have a lot of sympathy for New York's governor and his family and pray that they will heal from this experience. I also have a lot of compassion for the woman who was used in this process.

Magdalene is dedicated to the truth that love is a powerful force for social and individual change. We believe that when we all stop believing the myth that this is a victimless crime, change will come. We have administered a school for first-time offenders of solicitation for almost eight years. The statistics show that the majority of men who solicit prostitutes are married. They are risking their families, their health, and their careers to have unsafe and anonymous sex. The reasons for this run as deep as the reasons women are willing to sell their bodies to the men. I am committed to helping women who want to leave the streets and find their way back into the wider community where they are respected and where they can unite their bodies and spirits.

February 6, 2008

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It’s finally starting to sink in. At least that is what it felt like as the ashes burrowed into a wrinkle in my brow on Wednesday morning. For 16 years I have participated as a minister in Ash Wednesday services saying over and over “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I have loved the humility and simplicity of the statement and the many, many, stories around the foreheads I have touched. This past Wednesday, however, the words were as powerful as I have ever heard. I could feel the enormity of the prayers before and after the imposition of ashes. I could feel the dignity of the long line of communities willing to forgive and love one another in this ritual. I could feel the power of people praying together to strengthen one another. Then, I came home and my son asked me to wipe the ashes off, which were now in a furrow of my brow. It was beautiful to think that after all these years of preaching and praying the ashes were finally sinking in and that the journey back to dust may happen slowly and with grace. It was a beautiful Ash Wednesday.

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.

Thistle Farming in Liberty

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On December 7th I went to a mill in Liberty, Tennessee to learn from one of the premiere paper makers in the state about Thistle paper.  Papermaking is a theological and artistic endeavor, and I was blown away by the beauty and details of the process. Paper can be made from old linen and cotton clothing as well as plants and wood. As we pulled into her farm, there was a huge thistle growing green in the middle of December.  It felt like an invocation to soak in the spirit of the day.
 
I have been gathering thistles for awhile, feeling like it was important for the integrity of a company named in their honor, and because they are a symbol to me of what it means to try and love without judgment.  To me, being a thistle farmer means that the world is our farm, and our job is to see the beauty in the areas that have been abandoned or deemed unworthy of cultivating.  Our fields include allies, lots behind malls, railway clearings, and the poorest sections of town.  Thickets and highway shoulders are also great places to see our crops.  To me, when we harvest a thistle it means that we still see the beauty in all of creation, and that nothing should be left to be condemned.
 
So we made pulp from banana leaves with blended thistle blossom.  We also added thistle down to the pulp after it was blended for texture.  It was placed into a large vat, and then after agitating the pulp, we scooped a thin layer with screens.  Then, we would place these layers after sponging onto a felt backing and begin again. We can make portfolios and books from this paper as well.
    
It is an easy community task. And, I imagine that there are stories and memories attached to thistle farming for anyone growing up with bull thistles on the back roads of Tennessee.  I would love to hear some old stories people have about thistles and hear some new stories, as folks are willing to harvest thistles for this endeavor. We need people to help make the paper as well as harvest, and I will let you all know when I am headed back out to Liberty.  I figure we need to raise a few thousand dollars over the next year or so to train and pay for the studio. I want to know more about what it means for others to be a "Thistle Farmer."  Maybe some folks would be willing to keep a zip lock and some scissors in their car and harvest thistle.  We have a drop off bin at Thistle Farms.