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The Lost Sheep

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Sermon for the General Convention 7/1/15

"The Lost Sheep"

Becca Stevens

Most of us have been lost sheep, wandering in wild places as lonely as the pastoral fields near Galilee where scrub brush is scattered with wild geranium and thistles on sandy soil. Into such fields Jesus calls the disciples to leave the grassy hillsides and go search.  This call makes the work here in Salt Lake critical to help us look bettered equipped.  It’s a parable that preaches we should have a dogged determination to go out in love so we don't get stuck in dogma.  The parable of the Lost Sheep also teaches the church that searching helps the institution find its way home as well.  Lost sheep are grateful disciples and leaders that never forget in parables like the Good Samaritan the gratitude felt by the guy in the ditch, or the freedom of forgiveness experienced by a woman caught in adultery as judgment is wiped away, or the wonder of love’s healing power with mud on blind eyes.  We go into the wild fields to learn again that lost sheep are critical to the ongoing life of the fold.

My father was Episcopal priest who in 1968 moved to the south to plant a new church.  My mom thought that the wild field of the south sounded awful.  That same year a drunk driver killed my father leaving behind a 35 year-old widow with 5 kids.  On the heels of that death, the Senior Warden of the church began my 2 years wandering in the lonely fields of sexual abuse. I was lost by the time I started school. I learned in those hallowed moments of grief and trauma that most sheep don’t wonder off, but are pushed out of the fold by silence kept in dysfunctional communities, by devastating poverty, and by overwhelming universal injustices that render communities numb.

It was this Episcopal Church that found me-- through welcoming youth events, generous women’s groups, and wise priests.  In 1997, in gratitude for all the mercy I had known, I founded a community called Magdalene for sister lost sheep that had endured more than I can ever imagine as survivors of trafficking and addiction. Shortly after that we started a social enterprise called Thistle Farms named after the last flower growing where lost sheep graze.  The women who come into the two-year, rent-free homes on average are first raped between the ages of 7 and 11 and hit the streets between the ages of 14 and 16.  The women of Thistle Farms over the past twenty years have demonstrated that it is not that hard to find lost sheep.  It can be as simple as a bag of chips offered to someone hungry, a visit to the prison, or saying, “welcome home”.  I have learned the truth of this Gospel is that without one another we are all lost. Together we become a powerful and healing fold.  We have grown into the largest social enterprise run by survivors in the US.  We have been welcomed into many of your dioceses, as the Episcopal Church is taking the lead in housing for survivors.  We have partnered with 18 global organizations where the universal story of sexual violence is endured on the individual backs of women who have been lost too long.

Eight years ago Thistle Farms began a partnership with women in Rwanda struggling to become economically independent after the genocide. They were farmers before they were raped and their families slaughtered and together they wondered back into the fields where they dug up the bones of their beloved and planted healing geranium; the same native plant found in the deserted fields where Jesus calls us to go. The same oils used in the first century on lost sheep as they enter the gate to return to the fold.  Together Ikirezi and Thistle Farms now manufacture and distribute more than 10,000 bottles of the best all natural geranium bug spray on the planet. These simple bottles have built homes, restored communities, and reminded all of us how love heals when we find each other. We keep finding more lost sheep all over the world that want to join a movement of women’s freedom that dreams of sheep folds where love is the most powerful force and that never turn their backs on the one that has been left behind.

Dorris is one of the great survivor leaders of Thistle Farms.  She has traveled to sister communities for survivors in Dioceses such as Arkansas, Chicago, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, West Texas, and West Tennessee.  Dorris’ message of hope inspires communities who too often feel overwhelmed or cynical.  Like many of the women who experienced the underside of bridges, the short side of justice, and the inside of prison walls, she says she wandered around and around a ten block radius for decades, trapped by childhood trauma, poverty, and addiction.  But a community went in search for her and in turn she has helped lead us all home. When we visited the diocese of Florida a few years ago she told me she had never seen the ocean.  It was a privilege to witness the first time her feet touched the sugar sands and the amazing grace of feeling found.  As she felt the pull of the tide for the first time, she raised her hands in wonder and asked with a lilting voice, “Has this been doing this my whole life?” The whole time she had been wandering the streets the tide was going in and out.  My God, as long as the moon has been spinning around the sun, the tide has been going in and out.  Older and more powerful than that tide is love.  But sometimes it takes a community to come find us and bring us to the shore to feel its strength.  This gospel is a call to remember the lonely fields of the streets, the geranium fields of Rwanda and Galilee, and the still life images of altars in churches that forget a community without lost sheep is just a museum. We need each other.  Prophets like Isaiah and Paul call out to us today that it is together we sing with joy from our ruins.  Please buy Thistle Farms bug spray today and share your story and our story of healing in your diocese.  Come find us and carry healing oils back into your churches and preach the word that when we leave no one behind, we will finally be found.

 

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.

I'll Fly Away - Easter 2015

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During this Holy Week it looked like the hills of Tennessee could take flight with the feathered leaves of new wildflowers. It is a reminder that the tender glory of eternal spring can transform hillsides into ethereal visions. No less wondrous is the transformational nature of the journey we make from Good Friday to Easter. It is called the Pascal Triduum—the wondrous three holy days that carry us from Maundy Thursday through the Vigil to Easter. It’s theologically a package eatly ied up, but in reality it is not that easy to move from our places of devastation and abandonment. When we are in Good Friday space where hopes are dashed and the past is haunting, it’s hard to make our way to Easter. On Good Friday we stand on ground hard enough to hold a cross and hear Jesus cry out, “Why have you forsaken me?” This year as I watched the new life transform the old hillside I was reminded that Easter begins in that Holy Good Friday moment where we feel the truth of death. There we shed tears with Magdalen and wonder how t is possible in that hard dirt the seeds offering transformation are sprouting. It’s hard to hope for resurrection an imagine new green hills in the dead of winter. It was by chance that a few folks from the St. Augustine’s community in Nashville stopped by and peered into an abandoned church on the roadside in Ecuador a few weeks ago and saw a forsaken Jesus. He had fallen off a broken cross and was propped in a corner with downcast eyes and broken plaster legs and hands. Old abandoned dusty webs surrounded him. It was the epitome of forsaken and yet, even into this spac, bands of light shining through the iron panes offered a glimpse of hope. It was holy and beautiful—not in spite of its forsakenness, but because of it. It was holy because Christ was there in the center of it, present when all else looked lost. His arms without hands in the dapd air looked as light as wings. As the scene became a vision, I could see Magdalene take the first steps from the cross to the tomb. Even in the depth of her grie, even in her brokenness, a ray of hope did not leave her. With a faith embodied in perseverance and purpose, she caught a glimpse at love in forsakenness and kept hope alive.

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. With perseverance and purpose Magdalene heads out to the body just as the first rays of light transformed grey to lavender like water to wine. The beginning of light was enough to see the stone rolled away and to run to Peter and John. As they race back to the tomb with the murky light of dawn, they see enough to know Jesus is gone and they turn away. Mary stands alone with her tears and shadows. Her holy act was that she did not run away from the forsakenness, she stood in that holiness and reached for Jesus.

A thousand pieces of paper sat in our Chapel this Lent. Written on those pages were unspoken prayers, ministries and places where people felt the hard ground before their own crosses. Then slowly and with purpose children, staff, community members, young idealists, Magdalene graduates and every sort and condition of person folded the paper prayers into a thousand cranes. During this Holy week more people came and strung them all together so they could fl n the chancel. The transformation is as stunning as the new hillside of spring. It is as holy as the broken Jesus ready for flight. It is a hopeful and ancient reminder that we can begin Easter journeys with a feeling as lifeless as a piece of paper, and through purpose and perseverance in community be transformed into a vision of flight.

One of the newest residents of Thistle Farms who is in her twenties was shot six times by her perpetrator after he made bail this year. When I met her she said, "I know my new prosthetic leg and all that I have endured, all of this, is for a purpose. I am going to get strong so I can fly with you and share my story around the country. Women can heal and survive." I can already imagine her taking flight and like Mary Magdalene, running to the tomb with just the slightest glimpse of light. What begins as a horrific story of universal brutality in the light of hope begins a story of new life.

We can carry the holy oils of grief and walk towards resurrection on broken limbs with scrap pieces of paper. We keep walking and working with perseverance and purpose until we feel like we can take flight. We will fly away on some bright morning. So even while it is still dark, we can let the stone roll away from our hearts and feel new life pour hope into our grief.  All those we love live on in the love and the memory of God. All we grieve is transformed into love.  It is possible through our perseverance and purpose to sing, “when I die, alleluia by and by, I’ll fly away.”

A Lenten Letter

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For God so loved the world By Becca Stevens

I was hosting a justice tea party in Memphis last week.  Tea parties have become part of our story at Thistle Farms, the women’s social enterprise dedicated to survivors, as they demonstrate to participants how we love the world and connect globally with survivors of trafficking, addiction and devastating poverty.  After all the speech and toasting with justice tea, a young woman who escaped trafficking six months ago in Texas and is now living in a new sister program called St. Terese, hugged me and said, “What is unconditional love anyway?”  It was a whisper in the middle of a noisy room that silenced me. I could see Lacy, making her way across the crowd with her heart open enough to hear despite the brokenness and violence that must have filled her life for the past few years. The following is my effort to write a love letter to God and Lacy.

Dear Lacy,

Unconditional love is the truth.  Love is woven into the fabric of creation and so it is part of our DNA.  We have stardust coursing through our veins, oceans for tears, and love in our very fiber.  Love then, is not a feeling we need to search for, but the truth of our lives that calls us to seek justice, offer mercy, forgive all that we have done and left undone and all that has been done and left undone to us.  I have seen women for the past 20 years forgive more than I thought possible for the sake of love.  I have seen women relapse because they couldn’t recognize the truth that they are love.  It took the disciples three years to make their way to Jerusalem, which they could have reached walking from Nazareth in a couple of weeks.  It must have been enough time for them to live into the truth of love and tp prepare their hearts to love the whole world.  The truth of love makes all the clanging bells ring in harmony in such a graceful melody that it can reach past cynicism, fear, brokenness and the sting of death.  Love is the truth, Lacy.

Unconditional Love is the root of all faith.  Dirt grounds all that grows and makes for good roots.  Jesus was all about dirt growing love.  He writes in dirt when a woman is accused of adultery and condemnation, he uses dirt to heal with compassion, and he tells the disciples to shake it off their shoes when they cannot find peace.  When Jesus teaches about love, he focuses not on all the injustices outside in this world that include violence, oppression, and poverty, but on the root of it all: dirt and seeds. The stories of plucking grain on the Sabbath; the sower and the seeds; the wheat among the grain; and the mustard seed are just a few examples.  There is so much injustice experienced by survivors like you, Lacy, who have seen the backside of anger, the short side of justice, and the inside of prison walls, but if we want to find Love, we can’t just rail against principalities, we have to get to the root of it all.   If Love is going to carry us through this world, it demands that we overturn old hard ground, lift old stones that prevent growth, and dig deep furrows to our hearts even though we weep. Such love makes dirt lavish so roots can withstand storms and produce new life.

Unconditional Love is the desire.  Being in Love is unfathomable and sometimes seems unattainable, but it is our deepest hope.  On long nights when worries sit by our beds, on grey days when we wonder how the clock ticks seamlessly as hours drag on, and on lonely roads when longing overshadows community, our desire for love does not cease.  There is always the hope of love. Even when we can’t believe in Love, we can love each other, live in generosity, and break bread together.  We may never fathom the reality of love requited, but our desire to love well will keep us close to the heart of God.  This is how we have tried to live in the community of Thistle Farms.  What started as a desire to believe that love is the most powerful force for change in the world became the truth for me as I witnessed women healing, communities giving generously, and people coming from all over the world to share a cup of tea dedicated to healing.  Love does heal us all.  Love is not a commodity one person bestows upon another, but a grace that fills us as we live in fellowship, with generosity for all as we break bread.

Love is the truth, the root of all faith, and our deepest desire.  Beyond that, it is the pearl of great price, the widow's mite offered, the one sacrament of the church, the plowshare made from swords, the measure of our worth, the eternal kiss on our temporal lips, the substance of our dreams, and the connection between two strangers.  I pray you never quit asking the question or let the answer trip you up.  I once led a small funeral for a woman who died in state custody at 85 pounds with a feeding tube, chained to a bed.  Even as she was dying, when it looked like the whole brokenness of the world had landed on her back, she longed to feel love.  I was afraid to preside at her funeral because it seemed like love did not win; that trauma in youth, devastating addiction, institutional poverty, and poor choices were more powerful.  The fears that maybe we are not capable, that the problems are too big for us, or that people just die, were on my mind.  As the tiny grouped gathered to hold a service for her, with her ashes in a cardboard box, we divided the tasks of praying, offering words of comfort, and a singing a song.  Before the first line of the prayer was uttered, though, we all began to weep.  Love was so thick in the room words could not cut through it.  When there is nothing else, Lacy, love fills a space.  I knew in that room if there was ever a chariot “coming for to carry” a soul home, it had come for her and carried her to the bosom Abraham.  Love does have the last word; God does so love the world.  If the world can do its worst, and love—unconditional and lavish--- can speak that loudly, we can lay down our lives for the sake of it.  Such love is enough to assure us that we will find our way home and remind us that we were enough all along.

peace and love,

Becca Stevens

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."

A Eucharist For the Birds

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Early this morning as the sun rose lazily, I went to my old beloved chapel and scattered old bread crumbs. It seems these days that I am being optimistic, as I am presiding at the Lord’s supper, in how many I believe might come to church, so I keep consecrating too much bread. The ritual of the Church is that after bread is consecrated, it cannot be thrown away; it must be scattered over the earth or out to sea. It’s nothing new to me to throw a bit of bread over the ground or cast my bread upon the waters. It's always been a sweet time as I imagine the animals feeding on it as they unwittingly take part in a holy communion. But today felt different in the bleak midwinter morning mist. The old field birds around the chapel were waiting for me with bated breath. They did not care about the liturgy or proclaiming; they wanted me to serve them. In this season of slim pickings, they were hungry to taste the body of Christ broken yesterday for the whole world. As I flung bits of a stale loaf out into the dry grass, I felt their hunger and was grateful to be their pastor. This Eucharist  was for the birds. I could feel why Saint Francis preached to them and why Noah sent them out to find hope.  I could feel their spirit picking up mine, and I was for a moment in communion with them.  And when I considered the old field birds of the air and the wild lilies of the field, I had no worries. I am so grateful for all the holy communions I have shared with all the communities I have found to share a bite with me.  I am grateful for the bounty of bread, slow mornings, and the willingness of birds to stop for a minute and bless my day. We are a simply part of creation hungry for love. Thank God for a bit of left over bread and a flock of birds.

Walking in Circles-- A Theme for the Winter and Spring of 2009

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I have been walking in circles in the woods of Tennessee for most of my life. This year I am trying to walk a circle in the woods every day. I am feeling grateful for every step, rain, sleet or shine and see it as one of the places I can really pray and commune with God. This bible study is an invitation to walk more often and with a renewed sense of spiritual grounding and kinship. It is a call to church circles to leave Sunday school rooms in churchs and living rooms in homes and to go back to the woods. It is a mindful practice like prayer and service.

Walking in the woods is not an afterthought of spiritual development and practice; it is central, historical, and essential. Contemplating the creator of the universe while we are walking in God's creation opens our hearts and minds to the wondrous gift of life. A walking bible study that can be used like a field guide is offered as tool to learn more about scripture while going deeper into our spiritual journeys. The insight gained while contemplating a passage and walking will add to the depth and joy of what a bible study is about. A walking bible study allows us to partake in the study of the scripture while practicing a spiritual discipline. This is the permission some may want to move from a classroom onto a deeper sacred ground. It may be the only way some individuals feel comfortable opening themselves to scriptures again.

Walking is almost a neutral activity; it is not intended to stress our bodies but to focus our energies while our minds wander and empty. Walking is the solution to many of life's problems, it is how we make mole hills out of mountains. It is how we wander in the desert, find our way on retreat, and make our way in labryinths and to altars. There is something special about walking in a circle. It is the greatest example that it is the journey not the destination. It is the way the world moves in orbit and the way the moon finds it way around us. A cirlce is the symbol of all that is eternal and how we understand the changing seasons. Our journey begins with God and ends with God; life is coming full circle into that truth.

If there is anyone who is not able to walk, I want to say that some of the best walks I have taken in the woods have included babies in backpacks, friends in wheelchairs, my husband on a cane only able to go a short distance before the arthitus takes hold of him. It is usally a gift to have to accomadate someone who is slow; they are usually miles ahead in other ways. It's best just to trust the walk is what it needs to be and to trust your fellow walkers. Read the signs offered in front of you and mark them. Lay aside any worries that are too heavy to carry for miles in the woods and remember you can always pick them back up when you leave. Carry the minimum (maybe water, pen, paper, and a key). You don't need packs. Walk rain or shine, winter or summer and don't worry.

There is a vast difference in walking in a circle rather than going to a destination. If we have a fixed goal that we must get to that means we can only move in one direction with one fixed tangent. Our journey of faith takes us all on circuitous routes, sometimes back to square one, and sometimes around new bends we never expected. Walking in circles, is a way of placing our bodies and minds, like the pilgrims, monks, and ascetics before us, before the Lord.

While we walk we are leaving no carbon imprint; we are not eating, or drinking, or emailing, or sleeping, or waiting. We are just walking. Our goal on this walking bible study is not to overthink the scriptures, not to dress them up fancy for others to marvel at, but let them strip us down; let them form us and sink in like our footprints in the dirt.

Walking in all weather and in all seasons is an added joy of walking in circles. I have been walking the circle of Radnor lake for twenty years. On a cold, damp winter morning I can tell you where the larkspur, trout lily, and the dutchmen's britches will bloom come spring. I have felt spiritual renewal like baptism in fresh spring rains. I have felt purfied by the cleansing that happens on an August walk at noon after sweat, like salty tears, washes away pain. I have felt the awe of a cathedral worship in a fall afternoon underneath a canopy of leaves. That all of it happens on the same path, brings it all home to me as I walk the circle again.

I am grateful for the walk; I am grateful for all the people who share the walk with me. Like praying when two or three are gathered together, to walk in a group is a great gift. It brings us intentionality and allows us to find companions on the way. On these walks we will begin as a gathered group; we gather again half-way through to read the scripture once more and then end together with conversation. There is no formal liturgy, unless you think that walking is formal. I think that silence or talking are great, as long as there is some of both, and we are senstive to our fellow walkers in their need for conversation or silence.

Walking changes us; it can transport our spirits from being weighted down by life into the joy of being in the presence of God. It can clarify epiphanies, offer us grace, remind us of our need for repentance, and hold us accountable to our brothers and sisters. Walking is a gift. To go on a spiritual journey without nature as a primary teacher to me seems like a eucharist without bread. We miss in both something symbolic and substantive. Abraham, Buddha, Mohammed, and Jesus all spent defining parts of their ministry in the woods. They went for inspiration, insight, rest, and renewal. The woods are our inheritance and are offered to us as a gift. They provide an area for learning and humble us before the creator of the universe.

Concentric Circles

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It's not just that I am walking in circles. It is that I am a part of many concentric circles in the universe. As I am walking the ground, I can imagine the earth spinning in a daily circle. I can feel my internal tide move as the moon makes its monthly cirlce around my body and this planet. I can see the sun that we are circling every year. All these circles enfold me and keep me walking steady. They tether me to the ground and keep my head looking towards the heavens. I love the circles of the universe.

January 4

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Walking for the millionth time around Radnor Lake I am struck again by the simple joy of hearing thick rain on brown leaves. It is a pleasing sound. There is rhythm to it, and it feels complete. It feels brave to take this walk on a cold and damp morning and reminds me that I need to keep walking this circle, no matter what. I need to keep circling back around and hear the sweet rain and imagine all the seeds under this cold ground preparing for spring. This year the lesson is about how life comes full circle, and our job is to remember the joy of the walk itself.

Christmas Pageant

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My husband, Marcus, and my son, Levi, opening the Christmas pageant at St. Augustine's Chapel. It was a beautiful morning. To watch the video, please click here.

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.

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

This Day

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September 15, 2008 This day may have passed like a thousand other days fading past memory. The sky is appropriately gray, everyone I see a stranger. It would have, I am sure, except for this poem. This poem seals this day in sacred memory. She is the epitaph swearing the day ever was. She stopped me and asked me to smell the stagnant air. Then badie me to look in the nest in the parking lot and check to see if the babies are still there. I am lucky to know her and to breathe and love. Finally she shook me to the truth that someday there will be no other day. I owe this glorious day and and its memory, to poetry.

 

Thick August Air

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Thick air hung loose in the August sky
Waiting for me to make the first move.
I stepped through it and felt its layers
Brushing my skin like Egyptian cotton.

Later it turned itself into wind
And blew by me when I stood in its path.
Reminding me it is my source of life that
Like grace, blows my way for love's sake.

The air met me at every turn, beside every flower
floating on the water and hiding under the rocks.
It carried every scent to my nose and then
Carried me back to old memories.

I look to the hills and see the air dancing.
It preaches all is well and that what began
Blowing in Eden, is still dancing today.

Beneath the Dry Creek Bed

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The week before our riverside baptism, I got a call that the creek was "bone dry". I thought about canceling, and logistically trying to move almost three hundred people to a new location was going to be impossible. Instead I thought maybe we are supposed to stand in a dry creek when there is no water, and see what happens. There were nine people to baptize, and I wanted to make sure they and their families didn't feel slighted. So a cousin of a friend shipped us some bottles of hurricane Fay water that had just landed in Florida, and we distilled it, added some myrrh and lavender, and put it in glass containers. At the baptism a beautiful band was playing "God's Going to Trouble the Water," and we had four priests standing in the creek bed with healing oils made at Thistle Farms, and they anointed each baby and adult on their hands, feet, forehead, and mouth. I was a little fearful of how it was all going to unfold, but I think of the day as one of the best days of baptizing I have ever been a part of. Everyone was so loving, and the water from the grateful tears would have been enough to hold another baptism. I am so glad we didn't let the fear of no water stop us from coming to the creek. It is a great reminder to me to stand by all the dry creeks I have known in my life and feel grace and mercy coming my way like cool streams. It is powerful to stand on a bed of rocks and trust water is flowing underneath the limestone-- we just can't see it.

Beneath the Dry Creek Bed

Worn Limestone in a dry creek bed
Reveals chapped dirt and broken roots.
We stand on the skin of the earth,
Barefoot and thirsty, through this dry season.
We baptize babies in sweat and tears above
Ashes and dust that remind us we are human.
We celebrate the waters that led us all
To this blessed dry creek.

Dry beds teach us the bounty of a drop
Falling our way like grace.
Dry beds assure us even hurricanes die
Given time and space on forgiveness's shore.
Dry beds keep us searching for new life
That cuts its path through rocky ground.
Dry Beds give us hope in bounty coming
In new waves because water never dies.
Dry Beds point us to believe in water that
Runs deeper than we know.

“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.

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.

Where Desire and Passion Come Together

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Excerpt from a wedding service on Memorial day weekend...

It is amazing that everything before us passes. The beautiful hay that grew a few weeks ago like hair has been cut. The geese that live here only come for a season. The trees that line our path here may last another hundred years. The family that built this house a hundred and fifty years ago is gone. The headstones that mark the small family cemetery at the back of the property are almost illegible, and they were carved only a hundred and eighty years ago. The river may be here for a thousand years, but even that is temporal. It is the sky that holds it all in her eternal arms that seems big enough to hold it all. But Love is bigger than even that sky and that is why it, above all else, is our greatest desire. Our greatest desire is for what is infinite and everlasting. Love calls us to imagine the infinite and believe in the universal. If that is our desire than our passion dwells in the tender and fleeting moments that mark our lives. Things have a beginning and an end and we only have a certain moment to hold them. That makes moments that pass before us all the more filled with passion. Where we find real joy are those mysterious places where desire and this passion come together. This is that day. In this sacrament we remember the eternal love of God manifested in humanity. In this sacrament we stand in the passion of the temporal and glimpse into the eternal in the vows we hear to love each other as God loves us. This is the place where we glimpse the passion of Love in all that passes before us, like this ceremony, this grass, these geese, the stone, and the water. This is the place where that passion marries the desire of Love that lifts us to the eternal side of time. In this marriage of passion and desire we find the kind of joy that makes the trees clap their hands. We are reminded of that sweet space where passion and desire kiss. It is idealism that is not embarrassed by the innocence of love.