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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!"
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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.
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.
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
September 15, 2008 This day may have passed like a thousand other days fading past memory. The sky is appropriately gray, everyone I see a stranger. It would have, I am sure, except for this poem. This poem seals this day in sacred memory. She is the epitaph swearing the day ever was. She stopped me and asked me to smell the stagnant air. Then badie me to look in the nest in the parking lot and check to see if the babies are still there. I am lucky to know her and to breathe and love. Finally she shook me to the truth that someday there will be no other day. I owe this glorious day and and its memory, to poetry.
Thick 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Reverend Dennis Campbell of Little Rock, AK shares in St. Augustine's services through podcasts that Dr. Melissa Wert posts. He shared this blessing with our community, and I thought I would pass it along. Its origins are from the 1928 Proposed Church of England confirmation blessing.
Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage; hold fast that which is good; render to no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted ; support the weak; help the afflicted; honour all persons; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. And the Blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be upon you, and remain with you for ever. Amen.
Matthew 28: 16-20
There was a young man in seminary. He was preparing for an oral exam and decided to synthesize everything he learned about theology. He took the 10 assigned books and condensed them into 10 chapters. Then he summed up the chapters into 10 sentences and then reduced that down to 10 words and then ultimately into a single word. They called him into the exam, and as soon as he stood in front of his professors he forgot the word. It wasn't that he lacked knowledge, but he did lack understanding.
This is Trinity Sunday, where we proclaim God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is the week that we try to do what the student could not. We try to condense all of theology into three words while not forgetting what it all means. It is the only Sunday in the Christian year that asks preachers to preach a doctrine that is found nowhere in the scriptures explicitly. Instead the doctrine is distilled from the way that Jesus describes his relationship to the Father, the Creator, and to the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. The Gospel offers us the closest scriptural reference for the trinity in what is called the Great commission of Matthew.
It comes as the climatic end of the Gospel. The now eleven disciples have gathered one last time on the mountain of revelation to be given their instructions. The writer beautifully condenses the theology of the book into these few verses without losing the meaning. And he even describes it in a trinity. He first talks about the past. All authority was given by God to Jesus. And he began teaching the disciples how to walk in love as Christ loved us. This commissioning doesn't happen until the very end. In the beginning they are given the corporeal acts of mercy in the Sermon on the Mount, which is the summary of the teachings of the prophets. We first have to learn what it means to go out and practice this thing called religion. Before we can understand, we have to practice the discipline of love. Then he talks of the present. Now that we have worked we can go out and teach and baptize.
During this season of graduations it is appropriate to celebrate teaching. It is the teachers who help us sort through a world of knowledge. Here we have so many teachers to thank. In Rwanda at the genocide memorial there was a powerful witness to how destructive politics and theology can be. I thought of the theology that John Thataminal and Jeanne Bodfish have tried to teach us about respect and nonviolence. I gave them both a small rock in thanksgiving for their teaching and trying to keep us peaceful in this world. Finally, he speaks of the future and because it is a parting, there is some sadness in their commissioning. It is time for the disciples to go out on their own and incorporate what has been taught and the gifts given. I can imagine that after leaving, they struggle to remember the meaning. There is a song from the hymnal that says their lives were strife found in the sand-- that John was exiled and died and Peter was head-down crucified. For the future he leaves us the gift of the Holy Spirit. He reminds us that when we are in prayer, we are in the presence of God.
Ever since we have been trying to discern his meaning. Over and over great and brilliant theologians have written volumes trying to help us gain greater understanding of the triune God. St. Patrick writes about God as the three leaf clover that comes from a single stem. St. Bernard describes the trinity in terms of a kiss: God the Father is the kisser, Jesus the son is the Kissed and the Holy Spirit is the kiss itself. Even Anglicanism is based on the notion that a three-legged stool of reason, scripture and tradition is a trinity upon which to build a faith.
It is in the practice of the teaching that a deeper understanding is possible. That is why it feels like there are always nuisances and deeper dimensions even within our perfect trinities. In the description of the clover, there are ones with four leaves that are considered the luckiest. In the description of the kiss it is the longing between the kisses that can be the most powerful. In the three legged stool of our faith there has long been a tradition of a fourth mysterious leg called revelation.
All our experience, theology and doctrine begin with one word, "God". And from that we form three words and call it a trinity that creates, redeems and inspires. God is our past, present and future. We take that and go out to love one another by living out the Sermon on the Mount; then we preach and baptize. From this doctrine we can write a volume on each word. From these volumes we fill libraries with different interpretations and understandings, both faithful and heretical. And that is just the beginning of understanding. We could write all that was in the beginning is now and will be forever and still the reality of God could not be contained.
All I know is that if we get asked to summarize our theology in one word, and the word isn't love, we missed it.
The curve of her lens,
Is perfectly shaped,
To shield her from the world.
She can see images
Travel down her optic nerve.
Imprinted into her head, they remain,
A safe distance from her heart.
Landscapes and stories come to her,
In two dimensions with color and sound.
Until she saw the boys face-
As it turned the page of a ragged book.
His face jumped through the lens.
No longer looking at the world
Instead, he looked into her.
His smile averting the safe path
And cut into her heart.
It flooded her with salty compassion.
So quick and sudden she had to
Cover her eyes.
Her once sure protector
Now revealed her heart and soul
To this sweet child.
Her lens will never be the same
It will always bend a little more
April 24, 2008
Waiting for the wax to melt
We huddled on the couch
Then ran back to check the pots.
The wax now soft to the touch,
Held the promise of freedom.
If we can just get it to melt,
We can pour it over wicks
And add sweet fragrance and color.
Then package the dream of
New life together.
We stir with purpose as we pray
That money will come
And women among us no longer
Have to sell their flesh
For less than a single candle.
As the wax is poured into molds
It begins to harden and
It almost feels safe—
To let our stone hearts
Melt into love.
April 24, 2008
Photo credit: Milada Vigerova
The recent trip to Rwanda by seven women representing the Thistle Farms and Magdalene communities was less than two weeks, but we planned and worked for months. The Sisters of Rwanda approached us in November to help them begin making bath and body care products to generate income, education, and hope for women who have survived lives of addiction, abuse, and prostitution, and I felt pulled to go there. When we heard versions of same horrific stories we know from our streets of Nashville, I was so thankful the connection had been made. As we poured beeswax candles into molds, mixed lye and palm oil for soap, and shared letters from residents of Magdalene to the Sisters of Rwanda, you could feel hope blossom. As we waited for the wax to harden and see what the candles looked like, you could feel the prayers offered. During our visits with the forty-two women of the sisters of Rwanda and the hundred women we met in two villages near the Ugandan boarder, women told their stories in hushed tones. We literally had to lean forward to hear. You knew instinctively though what they were saying and that the message was critical:
My name is Claudine: I thank you so much. If you die, know that I love you. I’m so happy that you came and I could tell you about all my life. I’m a mother of three kids and one grandchild. I got my kids under pain and drugs. Without drugs I couldn’t sleep. I thank God for setting me free so that now I can sleep. I’m so very happy that you made this journey.
My name is Devota: I was a prostitute on the street. I’m a mother of two- six year old girl and four year old son from the street. I thank God for his goodness and his mercy, for taking me out of sorrow. I was so tired of life. I thank God for bringing me to Sisters of Rwanda- I have been clean from prostitution for 1 year and three months.
My name is Odette: I am writing to you because I saw the letter you wrote. It made me love you and thankful that you are no longer in sorrow. This has made me think I can make you my friend. What happened to you happened to me in 94 during the genocide war. Even though I was grown up it really wounded me, it wounded me in my heart and I told people I wouldn’t get married anymore. Now my hope is one day I will see you in America or here in Rwanda. Peace of God to you.
My name is Virginia: I have two kids Deborah and Wedeka. Since you no longer on the street, my hope is that my Deborah will not go to the street. I thank God who brought me from the pit of destruction. Keep praying for me while you are in America and I will be praying for you.
My name is Monique: My program is Sisters of Rwanda. My friends and sisters of Magdalene, I was listening and your news was so nice. I am a story in Jesus Christ. I am very happy that you think of me. You show me love even though you don’t know me- but you came to visit me here. If I had money I could visit you soon and we could talk together. I was born 1/11/74 on the village Ridate in the south providence. I was with my father and mother until my mother’s death. I couldn’t go to school because of the trouble with the tribes and I lost my family in the genocide.
So I went across the ocean to hear God’s whisper. I heard it the whole time I was there, like a ringing in my ears that sometimes filled my head. I heard it in every letter and story the women told. I heard it in the silence of babies strapped to the backs of strangers who didn’t have enough food. I heard it when we walked over the holy ground of one genocide memorial where a man looked out the window and spoke in a soft voice explaining to us how he was one of the ten survivors out of 5,000 who were all killed in ninety minutes. I heard it in a church service where a full band was playing, and the power went out, and we were in darkness with an accapella chorus of people singing, “Let the blind say I can see, let the lame say, I can walk.”
On the last day we attended a church service and the preacher started yelling at the congregation in full Pentecostal fashion. I thought, “It would be easier to hear him if he would quit yelling.” Then my eyes caught sight of an old pink chenille curtain billowing in the corner over a permanent opening where a window might be. The curtain was picking up the wind just like a sail carrying dreams across a lake on an easy morning. In that gentle blowing there was the wind that has been blowing since God first breathed, and in the quiet wind, God was present. I recognized, loud and clear, the whispering heard all week. It felt like the peace of God and that I could breathe with it, and carry it back across the ocean. We can breathe God’s spirit, anywhere, anytime. We can breathe it despite the horrors of genocide and all our unworthiness to know any joy or love in the face of that knowledge. We can breathe God’s spirit despite all our collective efforts to try and change the world and end up wondering what the point is. So I breathed in the deep and heard the whisper of God blowing in the chenille curtain in a bricko block church in the middle of Rwanda. It reminded me to surrender control and fear and go back into the world to love it all over again, thankfully.
Rwanda was amazing and we are home, safe and sound. The trip was very successful as long as you don't count Regina never finding her luggage and that all our supplies to begin the candle and soap making didn't arrive until day four! The women we met fell in love with the message and community of Magdalene. We read letters the women from Nashville sent and in response, the women who are part of the sisters of Rwanda started sharing their experiences of surviving incest, violence, addiction and prostitution. Their staff said that they had never heard the women talk so openly. In gratitude and solidarity with the women of Magdalene, the Sisters of Rwanda wrote letters and sent video messages to us. We are planning on taping and reading the letters from 9 -10 next Wednesday morning at Thistle Farms. This will allow us to get everyone interested together at one time. We will read the letters they wrote to us, just like we read the letters we wrote to them. Then, we will listen to the reactions of our residents to the stories that are hauntingly similar.
Rwanda is full of people walking around with ghosts while new life is strapped to the backs of women. Hearty crops are blooming next to people so poor they can't feed their children. It was so much to take in sometimes my legs would shake or my head would throb. Our small group carried you all with us the whole time. It was the right trip and we all think there are many more villages of women who want us to be with them. We found the cousins to the thistles and will post pictures soon.
Seeing women in traditional African dress with goggles and rubber gloves preparing to make soap is awesome. They were so excited when we started the second morning, they had already started cleaning the equipment. We went to villages where women waited all day to see us. They were stunning, poised, and almost whispered what they needed to tell us about their lives and their need for hope and money to keep going. We went to the market and purchased shovels, seeds, and sewing machines in response to some of their requests. Sometimes it's just a fishing pole people need. They already know how to fish. The faith we saw was inspiring and a little intimidating. The singing and dancing were beautiful. The landscape is hilly with mists that come in like sweet blankets. It is strange to think of a million people dying on that land.
John’s Gospel message from chapter 10 really begins while Jesus is walking with his disciple down the road after people threw stones at him in the Temple. Rejected from the flock, they meet a blind man. Jesus stops, even though it is the Sabbath, and makes an ointment from his spit mixed with mud and places it over the man’s eyes and he is healed. The religious authorities then question the man and throw him out as well. This is Jesus’ response and he says there is a gatekeeper who knows who the real shepherds are. It invites the listener to move beyond doctrinal issues that separate flocks and declares the gatekeeper is concerned about a higher imperative which is the moral issue to care for the suffering sheep, wherever they are and whose ever they are. That is the only way sheep are safe, and the voice of God is recognized.
On the eve of our journey to Rwanda by eight women from the community of Thistle Farms and Magdalene this Gospel is indeed good news. This journey allows us to care for women who are suffering: women trying to find sanctuary and freedom after surviving lives of violence, addiction, and prostitution. Their suffering has been and continues to be a moral issue because they are our sisters. That morality is not confined to people who share our doctrinal beliefs, it is not bound by nation/state boarders, and it affects people of all races and ages. It affects all our communities, the culture we live in, the health of the world, and how we raise our children.
Last week one of the residents of Magdalene, our community dedicated to women who have suffered similar trauma here in the United States, spoke to the student body of Vanderbilt Law School about her experience of being the only teenager to ever testify in a federal case against a huge child prostitution and pornography ring. She talked about what a long journey it has been so far and about the guilt and fear she faced in naming the men who abused her. She talked some about coming to terms with being a child of God and dreaming of a future and helping others. For her, the dreaming includes finishing school and going to college and ministering to others who have suffered. One of the Law students raised her hand and asked, “Where do you want to go to school”. She held the mike and said, “Maybe here”. Those thin lines that some of us still draw in spite of our selves to separate flocks were erased with surgical precision in her words. “Maybe here.”
Eleven years ago when Magdalene was created we wrote that we wanted to be a testimony to the truth that in the end love is more powerful then all the forces that drive women to the streets. Those streets are hell, I have been told, and I haven’t met a woman who hasn’t been raped and who isn’t destitute. The Gospel says such suffering should cause us all to stop and make mud ointments to soothe the pain, even if we are at a place in our lives where we feel a little out of the fold ourselves. Over 115 women have graced the threshold of the Magdalene community as residents and a thousand more have come as seekers to help and find healing. Seventy-two percent of the residents have graduated and I am so thankful to still get to be a part of such a flock. In that sheepfold people share the role of shepherding, we get to talk about the freedom of forgiveness we have known, how mercy runs deeper than abuse, and about how we have to learn to love without judgment each day.
A month ago Katrina Davidson, Susan Sluser, and I drove to Tuscaloosa, AL to preach, teach and sell our natural bath and body care products to an Episcopal Church. They welcomed us through their gate. We shared stories, talked about ministry, hugged as friends and even laughed about bath and body care products being the revolutionary tool we use to talk about women’s freedom. Driving back I thought about the other churches in places like Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, Chicago and New York that have already invited us to come and share our story this year. During the drive back we talked about how it felt like we were a new kind of missionary. Not in the sense that we have a new message, the message is as old as the gatekeeper, but in how we are not going out to convert people to a particular fold, but just trying to reach out to women who are suffering with a balm of Gilead and then go into churches to remind them that the moral issue of suffering is the matter of faith to confront. Dorothy Day, a beloved saint, says that you cannot help a sister or brother in need without getting naked first. The moral issue of the suffering of another requires us to look at our own suffering and remember all those who mixed their spit with mud to help us sit in this sanctuary today. All humanity knows suffering. The special gift of this fold has been to witness how love works in the lives of some of the most vulnerable voices in the world and hear their call as shepherds.
So we get to go to Rwanda and make candles and soap and hear stories of suffering on a colossal scale. In saying that we are coming good things are already happening. The Serena hotel chain in Rwanda and Tanzania has sent us swatches so that they can order candles and soaps for all their rooms. A Fundraiser by Bono’s group in July in Europe has ordered five hundred candles for their cause; a church in a remote village has invited us to preach on Sunday, the minister of gender and the embassy want to help. Before we step foot on the plane we are learning that we should never doubt that our compassion, our fire for justice, and our moral outrage, is needed and welcomed in a world with so much suffering.
This community is my sheepfold. It is where I was allowed in the gate stumbling always through what it means to be a shepherd. I have learned so much from so many here who have shepherded me. This has been the wandering flock where many of us have found sanctuary to grieve and freedom to grow in our faith. This Gospel invites us all to step through the gate again and care about the whole world and weep unapologetically for the suffering and our own blindness. This Gospel reminds us no one is outside the gatekeeper’s flock because he spent his entire ministry caring for the suffering of others on the way to offer his life for the sake of love. For that same loves sake, we are given the gift of caring for God’s sheep. Amen.
I lay me down in flowers
The harbingers of spring.
That despite the coming frost
Blossom in unaffected modesty.
They are the spitting image of their past.
The true descendants of grace.
Even though their roots are thin
I can trace them back to Eve’s mother.
In fragile spring beauty they swear
They wouldn’t miss this day for the world.
When hillsides blush in tenderness
And valleys rise in regal style.
I lay me down in flowers
To feel the blood root petal.
My heart so full of joy it cannot stand
To think how quickly this will pass.
Listen to Becca reading the poem by clicking here.