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What Are You Gonna Say?

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April 17, 2016

When you work in social enterprise people ask, “What’s your elevator speech?” The idea of an elevator speech freezes me up, and I think what a horrible idea it is to give a speech to a stranger anywhere. My elevator speech is awkward silence on too long a ride as I stare up at the numbers. There’s no motivation really to give a speech since everybody is just trying to get out of there. And, an elevator ride is never two minutes. It is always like two minutes even before it comes down and I’m thinking , “Come on, I just want this elevator ride to be over with.” What might be a better expression is, “What is your portico speech? What are you going to say when you are standing in those moments of great consequence and pressure? Speak it. What do you believe? And better yet, speak it plainly.

The season of Easter readings line up perfectly to help us imagine how do we live our faith. How do you? How do I? How do we? How do we live our faith? The first week after Easter it was—you have to see it. It is the story of Thomas saying, “I need to see the wounds myself; I need to experience this. I need to see it to live out my faith.” The next week, the answer was, “You have to feel it." You have to feel your heart burning and the desires that are in us to live into this beautiful truth of what resurrection looks like in our lives. This week it’s easy. Speak it. See it, feel it, and speak it. The lesson comes in the Acts of the Apostles where the consequences are dire. The authorities tell the apostles, if you have something to say, you need to say it. And in this 9th chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus is at the portico, meaning he’s at the gate of the temple.

This Gospel places him exactly in the place where there was an attempted stoning of his life. And his disciples say to Jesus, “Speak your truth and speak it plainly.” Can you imagine? If we were put in that place our portico speech might start with something like: “Well, I don’t want to offend anyone. I think you get the gist.” There are all kinds of things you can say. But he said very plainly, “I have said it and said it. Unless you believe, it is hard for you to hear it. And you will never ever speak it as clearly as in the acts that you do. My acts testify to who I am and what it is I believe—watch me.”

What is it St. Francis said? “Preach the Gospel, whenever you can, use words if you have to.”

Bonhoeffer, that great saint who died executed by the Nazis at the end of World War II, said for scholars and disciples, “the Holy Trinity is Truth, Freedom, and Simplicity.” People wanting to know how to speak the faith in their life need truth, freedom, and simplicity. It’s a struggle for everyone. Everyone gets caught up in theological gymnastics and complicated dogma, in rhetoric that becomes hollow. We are all subject to it. So the call today is to remember simply—how do you speak your faith? Are you surprised by what comes up even as I ask that question? Are you inspired by it? Humbled by it? Scared of it? That’s your portico speech—what you say at the gate of the temple. That’s what we are called to remember today—how to speak our truth and to speak it plainly. AA gets it right on that beautiful 12-step journey. “Keep it simple,” it says. “Keep it simple.” Give your testament simply as a witness to courage and hope on the journey.

We have seen over the years in our community at Thistle Farms, when people complicate it, it can get it confused, you get lost. And there are horrible consequences to it. At Thistle Farms we try to keep it so simple--we start by lighting a candle. That simple act speaks volumes. What are the simple acts that keep you focused? What simple acts speak your truth? We have tried in the faith community I serve to keep it simple—to keep the corporal acts of mercy. We have them hanging on the wall, preach about them all the time, to try and get it simply right. We are following the corporal acts of mercy that have been with us since this Gospel was written: give drink to the thirsty, give food to the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners, tend the sick, comfort the sorrowful, and bury the dead. That’s what we do and that is love preached most radically in words without judgment. That’s it. And so every week we say the St. Francis Prayer over and over again so that when you are asked to give that portico speech, you know it.

Truthfully in the end in our lives it needs to be simple.

The end of Bonhoeffer’s life was after he had been in prison for years. When all the stained glass was long gone, all the intricate patterns and all the deep, huge tomes of books on theology, he’s left with poetry. He writes about light and darkness and hope. Barth, one of the heroes that Bonhoeffer talks about and writes with, says at the end of his life when he is questioned, “What is it you believe, what is your portico speech?” he says, “Jesus loves me; this I know.” In the end it is pretty simple. Jesus says it over and over, “Love God, neighbor, and self.” So beautiful and so deep and it takes our lives to live into it. So as we live out our faith, remember the holy trinity: truth, freedom and simplicity….if you have use words.

Original Image Credit: Pixabay.com

Sermon: "Our Hearts Were Burning"

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There is a part of our interior lives that almost nothing can touch. It exists in the deep space that holds the memory of what has been forgotten as well as what we hold onto. It is the place that longs for the love of God to be requited like a thirsty deer longs for a water brook. Such places exist in secret, beyond accolades, relationships, or work. They dwell in the sacred part of us that the psalmist said is woven in secret beneath the earth. I have seen glimpses of that space in others and have known it in myself like I know the back of my hand. It is where thoughts grow, fear hovers, and wonderings take on a life of their own.  All of us know that space within ourselves. We conjure up that place without consciousness. Mystics, disciples, entrepreneurs, and pilgrims are guided by some of the lessons from that divine spark that lives within. One of the great forefather’s of the Civil Rights movement, Howard Thurman, was a gifted writer, chaplain, mystic and social justice advocate who also talked about his first encounter with that interior place. He describes being a young child in a segregated south at the turn of the 20th century and going to sit under a big oak tree. There he said he found a relationship that could commune with his loneliness.  He said that the tree was one of his first teachers to show him the vital importance of paying attention to the interior fire and fear within.  As a writer he described this space as a kind of lining around our hearts with sentries standing guard so that nothing can harm that sacred and wounded space held in secret. 

On Wednesday nights this Easter Season, Claire Browne has been leading us through reflections on the practice of living into the truth of resurrection. Last week several people spoke about times recently in which they saw signs of resurrection and the face of God. Such reflections have felt like a call to pay attention to that interior place and to practice letting down our guarded and blind hearts to allow love to sink in. When stone becomes flesh and brokenness transforms into compassion, those are moments that initiate the healing of ourselves and the world.

In the post resurrection story in the Gospel of Luke, the disciples were walking down the road to Emmaus and met a man who walks with them. With overwhelming grief and brokenness emanating from within, they don’t recognize him even though he is right beside them. The guards around their sacred hearts were standing tall. But there was that place that burned within them they recalled. Such a burning was a sign that the author of the spirit and the guide on road was close. That place calls us on our spiritual journey.

It is the host at communion that holds the possibility of transforming a broken piece of bread into a sacred meal. This rich interior life calls us to attention, even as we try to ignore it. It burns within and when we allow forgiveness, hope, and all the other gifts freely given to us all to let our guards down, we can feel resurrection.

In the iconic images of the Sacred Heart, the robe is pulled back to reveal a heart with a haloed light. There is pain and holiness in that image, but what radiates is a heart open to the world that burns, for love; the most powerful force on earth. That heart and its haloed sacred lining reveal the truth that nothing stands between us and seeing love resurrected around us while we are walking down the road. The sacred heart beats within us and burns when we walk near the holiness and hope of resurrected love. When we see with eyes searching for signs and hear with ears tuned into hope, we can feel our own healing and sacred hearts.

About 20 folks that gathered last Wednesday nights at the chapel talked about such experiences as seeing Christ in a doctor who came to a friend’s bedside, how they recognized the face of God in a stranger who showed compassion, about hearing creation sing in the song of flowers. All of them describe a well of tears behind their eyes, a burning of their hearts, and deep gratitude that turned an ordinary moment into a sacred path of healing. Such moments are there for all of us to behold.

I have spent so much time in Vans and Airplanes this past year, traveling and speaking to conventions, as thistle farms share the story of how love heals. Whenever I travel I am with a group of survivors who also come bearing their sacred hearts and sometimes it is hard. If you are tired, having a bad day, or grieving, it can close the kindest of hearts. Especially if there is a relapse, death, or someone quits, it feels like there is a heavy blanket that covers a wounded heart and blinds us to the living God walking beside us.

On Friday we were driving through the mountains of North Carolina after sharing a justice tea party and helping start a new recovery home for women out of the work being done by Our Voice, a nonprofit community that works with survivors of sexual violence. It was a powerful and fairly intense event, so after we served the couple hundred of folks gathered the tea grown in Mexico and shared the story of the movement for women’s freedom, and after we sold thousands of dollars in body balm, we packed up our wares and headed on the road to our Emmaus---Nashville.

In that familiar rush of trying to get back, I wasn’t thinking about seeing the face of God or hearing the living word in my midst. But after a couple of hours of phone calls and emailing I stared out the window and just started listening. In the middle seats of a rented van I heard the voice of God. It startled me to hear it, and my chest burned.

There was a conversation between two of the amazing survivor leaders at Thistle Farms.  One was stressing about money, and the other started counseling her, not in broad terms but by getting out a pad and spending the next hour going through every single bill and making a budget and making a to do list to get her finances in order. You could hear the peace of God washing over the woman that was stressed. The flow of grace between them was a balm to all of us weary travelers along the road. The vision of God beside me didn’t come to me in lofty speeches or stunning images. That is the way the spirit works, as we are walking through our lives we suddenly realize our Lord has been there all along and we feel hearts beat to a rhythm of joy that makes it want to break in gratitude. I met the risen Christ in two women sharing a scary part of their lives and healing one line item at a time. Rarely do sacred moments come with rainbows and harps. Instead they come in graceful moments that give us a burning heart and remind us we are in the presence of God.

So today is a simple and deep call. Remember and feel that place in you. Thurman said toward the end of his life, "There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine. It is the only true guide you will ever have.

And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.” The call to all disciples is to recognize when your heart burns, and then watch and listen as scenes before you become visions.  Feel the space when you walk beside a friend and know you are standing close to the image of God. Our journey as disciples is to walk into that space, to let down the guards, and feel our hearts burn with the presence of love.

Original Image Credit: Pixabay.com

Guest Blog: "The Noose of a Single Narrative: Holy Week 2016" by David Hutchens

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i've heard before that a writer is only as good as the material she reads. in light of this, i want to start sharing some writings with you that inform my journey. this is a piece written in reflection of holy week this year by my friend david hutchens. i pray his words are just as convicting for you as they are for me.

love, becca

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My eyes kept being drawn back to the image of the silver coins being dropped into Judas’ hands, which disappointed me because I didn't want to write about it. The Passion narrative is so rich in pathos, in beauty, in archetype, why even bring up money? It seems tacky. But this image kept calling, so I should listen to what it has to say.

I stay with the picture, and I feel my breath deepen, and now I see images of glass meeting rooms in big organizations where my career in leadership development keeps putting me in these flawed and compromised places so that my friends ask me questions: How can you support a national food brand when they are depleting ground water in India? By supporting a national beauty retailer, aren't you contributing to the objectification of women?

It’s not that I see myself as a Judas. I believe in my work. But I’ve been sensitive to my role in systems that are deeply fractured (which I think may be all systems). I sometimes feel in my gut the tension between positioning myself as one of the good guys who is there to make it better, while at some level enabling the dysfunction simply by showing up without a picket sign.

I just came back from a program -- with the national beauty retailer, as a matter of fact -- and it was a room filled with young leaders which is my favorite scenrio because they still have some fire flickering in their eyes, before 20 years in supply chain management can turn them into zombies who believe that all they are doing is moving numbers around on an Excel spreadsheet. They have not yet abandoned the possibility that they might bring their whole hearts to the work. I told them the thing I always tell leaders which is that they are creating their world through the stories they choose to tell, and if you want to change the world start by changing the metaphor. The young business leaders are hungry to embrace this calling, I see the light burn a little brighter, and I feel a moment of hope for the organizational world.

My eyes focus on the painting again. I like that it is an action image. We see the coins falling from the hand of a Sanhedrin priest into Judas’ hand. Money is one of those topics like sex that is always a metaphor, so that when we are talking about it we are probably really talking about something else. What the money represents to the priest is different than the meaning that Judas assigns to it, and so something has shifted in that short journey as it falls from one hand to another.

So what meaning does Judas assign to the money? I sense desperation. I think it’s plausible that he was hungry, or that he was worried about his house payment, or a family member had growing medical debt, or maybe his teenager needed braces. When you’re scrambling at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for basic survival, it’s amazing how quickly you can rationalize away all of the higher-order self-actualization stuff. I know because I’ve done it.

But what is sad about this story is that Judas never gets to make the choice that my L’Oreal leaders made. There’s a special form of discourse that I like to call The Art of Talking About What Things Mean. In the scripture Jesus was especially good at this but it seems like almost no one else was, and that includes Judas who found himself isolated on his last day on earth, unable to change the metaphor.

It’s tough work, this Art of Talking About What Things Mean. It has to happen in community, and I think the final agony of this text is that Judas was up for the task but at the crucial moment community failed him. Listen to how the story goes in Matthew chapter 27, which to me now sounds like a modern parable for Wall Street:

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” “What is that to us?” the leaders replied. “That’s your responsibility." So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.

And as I take one last look at the image, I notice that the hands are close enough to touch, a possibility of human connection that for Judas never happened. And so maybe this painting, which I resisted, has for me not a rebuke but a call. A call to new stories and to building something beautiful as a community. Otherwise, all we are left with is a handful of coins… and the noose of a single narrative.

image credit: pixabay.com

Easter 2016 Sermon: "I Lay Me Down"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon: Going to the Mountaintop

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The dog ate my sermon. I had something so beautiful. The dog didn’t exactly eat my sermon, but basically my two dogs in my life, and the million distractions, and my lazy attitude, and my fearful self, and the hours I spent fretting over things I cannot change instead of reciting the serenity prayer, all ate all the time I was going to use to write something magnificent. What’s your excuse? What’s your excuse for not doing what your potential was for your spiritual journey? That is the way today started out for me with when I was reflecting on this gospel. Those disciples with our Lord did not start out on the mountain. This is the end of Epiphany, not the beginning. This is the conclusion. You don’t get the mountaintop without a lot of other things and there are a lot of reasons people don't want to go to the mountaintop. “I would love to go with you all, but the weather is supposed to be awful.” “I would love to go to the mountaintop, do you know how much I have on me right now? With my work and my kids and my finances, there is no way for me to go.” “I just got out of jail and I am on parole, there is no way I can go to the mountain.” “I’m sick. I can’t go.” “I’m not supposed to go to the mountaintop, I am supposed to tell you all to go to the mountaintop.” What’s our excuse? This season started with an idea of looking up at the stars. “I can’t look up at the stars, I will trip every time if I am trying to go on the path.” And then the season continues with the idea of the gift of prophecy, not about telling the future, but about the spiritual gifts of all of us speaking love into the present. Or else we are nothing but clanging symbols. “I would love to talk about love, except it sounds ridiculous sometimes.” In the fields that are political and the fields of economics, in the fields where you think you are talking about global issues, it seems silly to talk about love. There are a million reasons we don’t, we don’t head out on this journey.

But this Sunday is the last Sunday.The disciples have wandered around, they have preached, they have gone through the valley of the shadow of death. They have climbed in spite of their fears and wanderings up to a mountain, and they glimpsed the face of God.

Last night we had a celebration and it was beautiful, wasn’t it Hal? The Light Bearers’ night. And we invited some of the long-term, big givers and volunteers of Thistle Farms to come sit in a room. And in that room you could not remember who the givers and who the receivers were. Everybody was bathed in a light. And it was a light of gratitude. It was all of us feeling grateful. That was the warm and beautiful light going on in that room. You’re giving to me. I am giving to you and we’re both so grateful to be there.

And now I am convinced that my lesson for Epiphany of this year that will carry me up the mountaintop is gratitude - the path of the mountaintop is gratitude. Gratitude for it all. For everything we have gone through and everything we know and everything we have forgotten, and everything that has been done to us, and everything we have done to find a sense of gratitude that will lead us to a place to know that we have communion with God.

Just the day before, before the Light Bearers’ gift, before Isabel (Allende) and her beautiful team came, we gathered together as a community at Thistle Farms. In this big community of 72 people who are a part of the circle, now continuing to shine that light, there was a new woman, 24 hours into the program off the street. I was looking at her and I was thinking do you have any idea how many candles we have lit to get you here? 25, 30 thousand candles were waiting for you. I felt so grateful and it was like meeting the biggest celebrity I could imagine. Not that I know any celebrities. I am saying, it’s huge. The most honored guest, the beloved one, the prophet sitting amongst us. Nothing but gratitude that she was willing to come and what happened was when we acknowledged her is all she could do is weep, to be sitting in the middle of a community that had been waiting and loving her for a long time before we even knew her name. So we all just cried. You don't have to speak.You don’t have to have words for it. When you feel that kind of depth and gratitude after going through a lot of epiphanies and trying to understand prophesy and speaking love and when you encounter the other, it is easy to see the face of God. And to feel that transformation and gratitude that takes you to your knees. It is not foreign to us, what they experienced on that mountain. Is it? No, we have seen it, we have glimpsed it. We have glimpsed love incarnate in our midst.

I want to go to the mountain with you all more than anything in my life. I want to go with everybody who believes that love heals. I want to go with a community that wants to be with each other. To remember how it is we speak love and how it is we recognize God in each other. Think of what we would miss if we didn’t go, right? We would miss that wonderful feeling of bad cell coverage, of laying all that stuff aside that we thought was so important and just being together. We would miss those moments that are hysterical—where somebody trips and you are not supposed to laugh, and everybody laughs and one person maybe has just a tiny bit of an accident. And their laugh is so hard that it makes it even funnier. We would miss that moment when we were done for the day and we worked so hard and we sit around and we light a candle or a fire and we tell stories and recount the moment. We would miss that surprise when out of nowhere we hear the flutter of a hawk’s wing that cuts across our path. My God, the view we would miss.

When the disciples and Jesus left the mountain, they headed straight towards Jerusalem. Their hearts were so full, they were finally ready. I do not want to miss that mountaintop. I want us to keep going through all our valleys and all the meanderings and all the wanderings. I want us to head up there together. No excuses. Just to walk in love with all our hearts and minds and spirits grateful for all of our lives.

Amen.

original image credit: pixabay.com

Advent Meditation

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I’m Religious But Not Very Spiritual

An Advent Meditation by Becca Stevens

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

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

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

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

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

Beggars

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photo credit Albert Pujol

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.”

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.

Loving God with All Our Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just Our Luck

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

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

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

Photo credit: The Pic Pac

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.