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becca stevens

Love Your Enemies: In Celebration of MLK 2016

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The movement starts when Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” That is the radical moment in the Sermon on the Mount—when the tables are turned, when the tool to beat the sword into a plowshare is offered, and when those in power and control can feel the foundation cracking. Ever since then, when we love our enemies, justice stretches her arms and those movements take on depth. Dr. Howard Thurman, one of King’s mentors, speaks of the longing and loneliness of the seeker of truth searching for a love that lives beyond the boundaries. Mahatma Gandhi speaks of that kind of radical love as Ahimsa, the soul force that changes us as we change the world. Born into the segregated South in 1929 and catapulted into national prominence as the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s call to love our enemies changed the course of our nation and the world. King’s call to action is to let love be the guiding principle for all our civil disobedience and moral protests. Whether experiencing a vision of mountaintops or the anger of racist throngs along a bridge, that call doesn’t change. He continues to call us to love our enemies today even as he did when he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to spearhead non-violent mass demonstrations. Throughout the confrontations in Birmingham, Selma, and Chicago, he remains consistent—love our enemies. In victories such as the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1965, and 1968, we are called upon to love our enemies. Even as he turned his attention to economic empowerment of the poor and opposition to the Vietnam War—contending that racism, poverty and militarism were interrelated—he never wavers; love your enemies. Even as he lived in constant danger, including the dynamiting of his home, being stabbed, harassed by death threats, and jailed 30 times, he calls us to love our enemies.

It doesn’t mean we don’t feel anger, it doesn’t mean we don't rail against principalities and institutions that don’t practice radical hospitality, it doesn’t mean there is no conflict. It means we are a bunch of clanging symbols if we don’t act with love as our guiding principle. It is a costly way to live in the political, economical, and religious fields, but it grows a rich harvest for the whole world to glean. Martin, with his deep prophetic voice calling us to radical love, talks about moments like the midnight-coffee hour where he questions everything as he developed his course of action, but he keeps on loving. That commitment—first to love even as we question everything else—is what love requires of us.

Love has always been the beginning of movements. It is the mission statement of Thistle Farms to witness that love is the most powerful force for social change in the world. With national and global partners we are moving towards freedom for many women, compelling us to love our enemies. But whenever a new woman, who has survived the injustices of prisons, the backside of anger, and silence of child abuse asks how does love heal, I question it all. I question how we can love our enemies and what does love mean. I have to go back to the every basics: Love is taking the ideal and moving it into a daily practice. Love is what we allow to break our hearts, and through it, we find the path to freedom. Speaking on the night before he was assassinated on April 4,1968, he says “When people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory. We are masters in our nonviolent movement in disarming police forces; they don't know what to do.” He goes on to say that such a powerful movement cannot be stopped. “Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. Let us move on to make America what it ought to be.”

Whenever we act against the movement founded on the principle to love our enemies, it doesn’t sit well with our souls. It feels uncomfortable and shackles our spirits. We can try to justify that discontent in a million different ways or numb it or impose fear on others, but when we love our enemies, we are an unstoppable force.  All of us are called to walk deeper into the waters of love. To love our enemies and to forgive those who have done us harm is a freeing and noble way to go deeper. Love unleashes us from the bounds of apathy that are shackled by resentment and fear. Love’s partner, Forgiveness, transforms brokenness into compassion. Love’s corollary, Peace, is rooted in the practice of love. It is costly, it is hard, and it leaves us knee-buckling deep in gratitude.

Peace and love, Becca Stevens

Stained Glass Love: In memory of Elizabeth James

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When Jeanette shared the startling and tragic news with me of Elizabeth’s death, I was in Greenville, South Carolina preaching at a 200 year old Episcopal Church. I got up early and went to pray inside the church, where to my left, there was a beautiful tiffany stained glass depiction of an angel dressed in pale lavender with graduating pink and purples that intensified to an almost black dress by the time it reached her feet. She shimmered in a beatific light that seemed to carry her into a timeless hope where you felt peace and love abide. Such an image as we were all still reeling from the news seemed right and holy. Elizabeth was as exquisite, beautiful, dramatic, and artistic as that angel with outstretched hands. My husband once wrote about how stained glass “is a picture made of broken things, of fallen feathers from an angel’s wings. When all is said and done, what else have we but stained glass love.” We all, like our beloved Elizabeth are held together like stained glass from the holy, broken and beautiful pieces of our lives. Collectively this week everyone has been describing Elizabeth with consistent adjectives like selfless, thoughtful, present-giving, note-writing, party planning, funny and beautiful. She was graceful in her dress, voice, fancy high pony tail, and work. I have wondered this week, if we were able to add up all the money raised at the charitable events she hosted in Nashville, if we could not say she was the largest fundraiser this city has known. She was capable, overcommitted, underpaid, and she never realized the impact of her life and work on the countless charitable organizations she supported. Elizabeth was a modest theologian with profound insight who prayed for others far more than she asked for prayers for herself. She lived the beatitudes and saw beauty in all things and the blessedness of the woods. She spoke of God’s all-inclusive love in her daily life. There is no need for me or you to preach on her behalf, she has already done it. Her legacy preaches volumes. The thousands mourning her rings louder than any words or music we offer as testimony to her belovedness. She was a natural storyteller and laughed as freely as she cried at tenderness. She felt compassion and righteous indignation rising in her at injustices. Her life was a witness that in the fleeting nature of time, we can create timeless moments.

Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement who fed the poor all her life tells a story of a rich woman who gave her a diamond ring. Dorothy wondered what to do with the diamond, and ultimately decided to give it to one of the women coming to the food line. Dorothy said the homeless woman can sell it, give it away, or keep it. After all, Day concluded people who are poor or hungry can enjoy the beauty of a cherished diamond. Elizabeth helped us see the beautiful even in poverty or grief. When she was in charge of feeding the men at our Chapel for Room in the Inn, she fixed beef tenderloin served on her finest platters. When we called for letters and stamps for the six women inside the prison that were part of the Magdalene community, she brought cards, envelopes, beautiful pens and stickers all wrapped in bows. She was known to drive the food truck and set out table cloths and flowers as she distributed food. But all of those examples just dance around the edge of what Elizabeth preached with her life. The heart of what she preached was love. That is as plain and as simple as I can say it. She preached love like Jesus would want it preached. She preached it without guile, with unaffected modesty, and with power. I am so sorry for our loss. I am sorry we will miss her voice in our community. I am so sorry for her family, but I am so grateful she walked with this community and preached with such beauty to this community and loved her family so deeply.

Elizabeth knows we are mourning her. She would want to make sure we laughed even as we mourned. As we planned her memorial, her family told stories about her childhood. Jeanette, her mother, talked about when Elizabeth Hightower and Elizabeth went to summer camp and were required to write notes home. And if you have ever received a note from Elizabeth, you know the care and love she puts into her notes! Her mother called her at camp that summer and asked, “Elizabeth, what is going on? There are so many misspellings in your notes.” “Mom,” Elizabeth said, “it’s summer. I don’t have to know how to spell in the summer."

I will always see Elizabeth in this passage of the beatitudes. Her life and death are juxtapositions and it is through faith that we can hope that there is reconciliation as the heavens open up to her as mysteriously and beautifully as the angelic image seen through stained glass. It wasn’t until I wept at the beauty of angel that I noticed the angel was carrying a banner with the beatitude on it - Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. We will always honor her in the liturgy of this chapel, and all of us will help her spirit thrive in this world as we tell stories, and live a bit more tenderly and openly with each other.

Blessed are the pure in heart and I say in faith today and believe that Elizabeth would want you to feel reassured by that and that she was never abandoned by love and that you will never be either. It is hard to fathom in real time and space that all those we love will pass. Sometimes it is only possible to glimpse at that truth through soft stained glass images when the light is golden. She joins us in this communion today as part of the cloud of witness that is pouring love out. And so it is that even as we grieve her return to dust and acknowledge our own, we still make our song, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

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.

 

Our Sons

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For the past twenty years, several of us have raised our sons while working alongside survivors of trafficking, genocide, and addiction. This summer, our sons have all come to work at Thistle Farms, the community we helped build. Thistle Farms is one of the largest social enterprises run by women survivors in the United States. We are so proud that our sons are a part of this movement for women’s freedom. This work reinforces a quality of masculinity that empowers them to stand up against pressures in the world which tell them to give in, turn the other way, and stay focused on their own pursuits, even as many young women suffer violence at the hands of abusive men and communities. Their presence reminds communities globally that sexual violence is not just a women’s issue. It is a human rights issue and we need our sons to stand with young women as the next generation works to heal the whole community. Our sons understand the struggles of growing up on social media and witnessing the privacy of others exploited with a single click. They grew up in in schools that prepare for mass shootings. They understand things differently than we do, and we need them to help lead us now that they are in college and entering the workforce.

As a mother, I long to help young men step into life with eyes for advocacy and justice and to learn to see love as the most powerful force for change. I want our sons to speak up for their sisters and others who are exploited. I want our sons to know that their voice matters because silence is a form of complacency. I want our sons to experience the labor and tears of women who have survived brutality as they work alongside them. I want our sons to learn to use their privilege as a means of liberation for others no matter how small. I want our sons to know that their daughters need them now, before they are even born —  working towards a world that protects innocence, holds traffickers accountable, and tells on abusers. As a mother, it is sometimes hard to let go. But I promise that it is much easier to follow as they take the lead on some of this work. It’s joyful to watch them laugh and learn while working on heartbreaking truths.

Our sons are beautiful and powerful. They are becoming more convinced that love requires them to advocate, take action, and stand up for those exploited. We pray for them. We pray that they find in this work an initiation into a life of leadership, deep caring, and honesty, not self-gratification at the expense of others.

My son and your sons have so much work ahead to help us heal this world and grow rich fields of love.   

-- Becca Stevens

 

Photo courtesy of Taro Yamasaki, with support from The Flerlage Foundation

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

Interview about "The Way of Tea and Justice"

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The following is an interview Becca gave about her most recent book, "The Way of Tea and Justice." Tell me a little more about how Thistle Stop Café started.  The Thistle Stop Café began in June of 2013 in response to the number of people coming from around the country to learn more about the housing-first model of Magdalene and the social enterprise of Thistle Farms.  The residential program started in 1997, and we had launched Thistle Farms, the manufacturing and distributing company, in 2001.  Both are considered best practice models and hundreds of visitors and volunteers were coming through our doors every month for day-long immersions.  It seemed like it was time for us to show hospitality to the stranger by offering healing teas and healthy food.  Opening a café also enabled Thistle Farms to increase the work force of women who are survivors of trafficking, addiction, and prostitution.

What instigated you to write your latest book, "The Way of Tea and Justice"?  The more I learned about tea, the more I was drawn to it.  I quit drinking coffee altogether and soon found myself immersed in the history and culture of tea.  Looking back, I think after writing a book on essential healing oils, it makes sense that tea would be my next venture.  Hot water tinctures and teas have a rich medicinal tradition.  Also, as a priest in the Episcopal Church, I love rituals, and tea is literally steeping in them!

What main takeaway do you hope people have after reading it?  I hope people fall in love with justice teas produced by women getting paid fair wages.  I also hope folks see how they are active participants in the commodities sold in this world.  What we drink, the market will offer. What we buy, people will sell, including our own bodies. We need to cultivate rich tastes and sweet rituals for this most-consumed beverage in the entire world, after water.  More than that, I hope people read the stories of the survivors in the book and learn about the link between tea and trafficking.  The story of tea’s history and the story of trafficking and abuse is pretty horrible.  The story of Thistle Farms and this movement is a story of hope.  People can buy the teas we sell, they can share their story over a cup of tea, and they can help remind the whole world that women heal from the oldest and deepest scars.  We don’t have to tolerate the buying and selling of any human being.

This is your ninth book. Does the writing process get any easier with practice?  I waste so much time writing.  I have learned to postpone writing by getting more distracted by all the busyness of the world.  If you want me to get the laundry done or watch reruns, just ask me to start writing.  The best discipline I have learned is to get up and start writing as quickly as possible before I can start the mental list of 100 reasons not to write or start reading emails and get bogged down.

What are the best and worst parts about writing a book?  I love a thought rising like incense from my heart.  I love reading back on a sentence and recognizing that the words reflect with some accuracy what I felt at the time.  I love sharing the stories of the people in the community that are a witness to the truth of how love changes the world.  I love dedicating a book to my children that I wonder if they will ever read.  The worst is everything else about the process.  I am so grateful that I get to write---I wish I wrote better.

When you're writing, what is your must-have? (A favorite writing utensil, certain music playing, etc.)  I must have water. I must have hot water for tea and hot water to soak in as I conjure up words.

Since 1997, you've founded Magdalene and Thistle Farms, opened the Café and been recognized regionally and nationally for your work…what's next?  There are three things on my horizon.  A national marketing plan to sell our all-natural bug spray made from Rwandan Geranium (it's our million dollar product!;, a new capital campaign to double our manufacturing and meditation space; and a small book to young idealists searching for faith and justice called “Letters from the Farm.”

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.

Advent Meditation

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I’m Religious But Not Very Spiritual

An Advent Meditation by Becca Stevens

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Beggars

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photo credit Albert Pujol

Wild Weeds of the Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope Rises with the Sun, Easter 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Psalm in Praise of the Oak

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Sunday in the Park The mystical oak has towered over a hill longer than any living memory like a regal sentry. She stretches out even branches, a welcome mat, for the passing hawks and owls like a perfect host. She claps her leafy hands to entertain howling coyotes like a happy mother. She keeps watch over the fog taking in a morning nap before sailing off on a sunlit ray like a forgiving friend. She marks everyday as Sabbath in her canopy like a beloved peacemaker. She kisses the enamored sun, then drops a leaf in his honor every evening like an obedient disciple. She stands her ground in dry springs and tends wildflowers at her rooted altar like a dutiful bridesmaid. She offers acorns as gifts to all, giving her mite in the holy of holies like a generous widow. At her sanctuary all pilgrims are blessed. In her shadow all our souls find rest. By her feet, silent, unbridled songs of gratitude for this wonder of creation rise easily into the air she gives us to breath. Our mother, friend, and disciple, the incarnation of love.

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.