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Earthquakes and Love Vines

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. That love is the most powerful force.

2. That it is the oldest force.

3. That it is universal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

This Day

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

 

Thick August Air

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

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

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

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

Beneath the Dry Creek Bed

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

Beneath the Dry Creek Bed

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

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

“There is no fall from Grace”

Oh, the Falling girl is a sight to see, you can hold your breath, you can gasp and scream.
But it’s all an act, it’s a sweet charade, when the crowds are gone, the girl gets paid.
And I’d cry myself to sleep, I’d pray Oh, give me strength to dance the wire someday.
But all I can do is paint her beautiful pain. I see they glory like a shooting star. Fall to the base earth from the firmament. They sun sets weeping in the lowly west, Witnessing storms to come, woe and unrest. All the world’s a stage and we’re mere players.

Heaven is the Memory of God

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Matthew 10: 24-39

Corey and Brian were married on the beach under a full moon this week. The palm trees swayed gently in rhythm with the Tiki lamp's flames. It was an unremarkable event if you use scales that measure weddings by number of guests, fame or fortune. It will not appear in a newspaper and even as the couple left the resort, the hotel was beginning preparations for the next wedding. In the opinion of the 25 guests though, the wedding was special and unforgettable. It was our family's wedding, my sister's youngest girl whose heart, mind and life has been a gift. I presided at the ceremony; Marcus, Levi and Caney sang three part harmony to "Stir it Up," and Moses was the ring bearer. It brought tears to all our eyes to watch her exchange vows because of our deep love and pride. She was a beautiful bride. When it was over she picked up the extra programs, collected the lyrics and notes from the wedding, and said this week she is pressing flowers and printing pictures. She doesn't want anything to be forgotten in preserving this momentous day that will forever change our family tree.

The next day we strolled through Key West and took a tour of Ernest Hemingway's Home. Key West has claimed the famous writer as their own and preserved everything from books he once read to random pictures of him as a younger man with friends. His life in the hallowed halls of preservation feels sacred. All of his possessions are valuable because they are attached to him. It's all sealed behind glass and roped off so we can keep his memory alive for the sake of history.

Like a family wedding, or the belongings of famous people, we are valuable to God as part of creation. This Gospel reminds us that we are not forgotten: we will be remembered by God. When I think of what heaven is like I am silenced. I have never been about to synthesize God's love for all humanity with a formula for salvation offered by a faith tradition. Part of my issue is that I was raised by a faithful mother who used to say she would be dirt when she died and that was a useful thing to become. Part of it is that I am a student of theology and know that we can't dismiss scriptures because we struggle with them. Instead we keep studying and reflecting how they are part of God's tapestry unfolding through words, revelation and tradition. In applying these truths we are called to surrender our lives to God, follow the path of our teacher and Lord whom we will never surpass, and proclaim without fear the truth of the Gospel. We are to trust our whole lives to God including that God will carry us into the eternal side of time. Beyond that, Matthew 10 provides a glimpse of what heaven must be. It says that God loves the sparrows, the most common bird we know, and knows when they fall. God loves humanity so intimately that God even knows the hairs on our heads. So we do not have to be afraid that when we die, we are known. We are more valuable than a sparrow and will never be forgotten by God. Heaven is the memory of God. We are preserved in the memory of Love that is big enough to contain all creation for all time. No one is forgotten, because everyone is beloved. God's love is deep enough to hold the memory of all our lives.

This Gospel is part of the commissioning and instructions for the disciples. He is not saying this to scare or deflate them, but to give them courage and strength in the faces of troubles coming. He is sending them out like sheep to meet the wolves and so they need to understand their power when they face people with wealth, title, and who can kill them with an order. "Don't be afraid," he says, they can't touch what God has made in you. It will not be peaceful and people will be divided and anyone who loves anything more than me is not worthy of this truth. This Gospel is written to encourage us on our path to go out and face any opposition with the truth that nothing can touch the truth of God's love for us or erase us from the memory of God. Jesus told them this in hushed tones for their ears alone. They went out with enough conviction to preach it from pulpits and streets and face unimaginable consequences.

Our best efforts at holding memory are slender threads in the span of time. Not only are we dust, but even our memory is dust in this world. I can imagine someday Corey and Brian's great-grandchildren trying to recall the names of the couple in the faded photograph in the back of their grandfather's drawer. I can imagine the words on Hemingway's books vanishing off the pages in a few hundred years. Even our own memories are not our own, they are as fragile as the neurons that carry them. My mother's memory literally turned to a sponge twelve years ago as she was dying. When she died she couldn't remember the name of a soul on this earth. I know that many of us have seen the memory of patients, friends, and family fade. That a person we love doesn't even get to remember that we love them seems particularly cruel and humbling. The Very Rev. Henry Chadwick died this month in Oxford England at the age of 87. He was an authority on the past and said during the Synod of 1988 that "nothing is sadder than someone who has lost his memory." But just because we lose the memory doesn't mean the memory is forgotten. Even the Jane and John Doe's that no one could name when they die buried out in the potter's field are not lost to God. My mother sold herself short in her beliefs. Our bodies do become dirt to be sure, but our souls live. They live in the memory of God and I have seen my mother's spirit in hawks and dreams and felt her living presence for years. She is part of God. While we will never know the mind of God, we can know what it is like to be remembered by God. It gives us peace and courage in this world and hope in heaven. It is wider and deeper than any memory we have ever held.

Thistle Farming

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

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

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

I have been changed by the work and love’s transformative power. 118 women have graced the threshold of the Magdalene community as residents and a thousand more have come as seekers to help and find healing. Seventy-two percent of the residents have graduated, and I am a part of a wild field where we talk about the freedom of forgiveness, how mercy runs deeper than abuse, about the miracle of recovery, and about how we have to learn to love without judgment each day. Along the journey I have met hundreds and hundreds of beautiful thistle farmers.

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

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

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

Where Desire and Passion Come Together

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

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

An Offering

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I just returned from the funeral of a friend’s friend at the Cathedral. I had never met the young man who died. I cried anyway-- along with the 1,000 other people in attendance who had been chatting and visiting just moments before the funeral began. We cried because the violin played a solo, because the paper on the bulletins is always the same cream-colored paper at Cathedral funerals, because the prayers are old, because the family was crying, because the stained glass windows were shining the afternoon light in the window, and because we are human. We sat and cried because in remembering our brother was dust, we were remembering how close to dust we can be. It is good and right to sit and cry at funerals, even for people we never knew. I know that communities have done that forever for each other. Maybe it is the last offering of the dead to the living-- to let us sit and cry for how sweet and tender life is sometimes.

February 6, 2008

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

In the Shadow of the Cross

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I sat in a church service today with the usual huge wooden cross hanging by invisible means precariously over the altar. I was feeling a bit vulnerable and nervous anyway because I was attending our annual diocesan convention. After the opening procession of banners, deacons, seminarians, priests, deans and bishops, we sat down to hear the lessons. I caught the sight of the shadow of the cross reflecting off the curved wall behind the altar. While the cross was set in wooden stiffness, its shadow felt alive. It had movement as the flames of the candles on the altar flickered. You could make out a form on the cross from the variegated surface it rested upon. I could swear that I saw Jesus’ head downward—peaceful and sad.

In the shadow of the cross I felt an invitation to the mystery of faith and a longing to be faithful. I felt a peace as I remembered old words I heard 15 years ago come to life...

I was sitting in my living room looking through my father’s old prayer book as Marcus, my husband, was writing in the other room. He called out and asked me if I had a lyric to offer just as a piece of paper fell from my father’s book. In his writing were the words, “In the shadow of the cross may your soul find rest.” So, I repeated those words out loud to Marcus and he said, “perfect.” I tucked the words back into the pages and wondered at their secret message and appearance. I had all but forgotten those words until this morning. For a moment I had felt scared and vulnerable, and my father’s words came to offer sanctuary. I found peace in the shadow of the cross. The blurred and sweet shadow took me in.

The Long View of God's Love Revealed

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Epiphanies are events in which God’s incarnate love is revealed. My Epiphany began as I spotted a hillside with dried thistles. I pulled to the side of the road and just as I picked the first downy blossoms it dawned on me that I was becoming a thistle farmer. These thistles were there for anyone, but they felt like a present for me, free and wild, holding the capacity to make beautiful paper. To be a thistle farmer means the world is a plentiful field, and we can harvest beauty from weeds and abandoned lots and through action preach love and hope. It was strange to think that it had taken me six years of being a part of Thistle Farms to come to that realization. The moment was six years in the making, but it was even longer than that in coming.

Thistles were one of the first sights that stood out on our first trips into the streets thirteen years ago. They were the flower that donned my mother’s china. If I could ask her why she chose the thistle for her bridal plates, I bet there would be a story about my grandfather who was a farmer. If I could ask him about the thistle, the story would eventually carry me across seas and generations of farmers and faithful pilgrims. Somehow my small Epiphany connects me to a line of Epiphanies that span hundreds of years. The church teaches us that there are three to celebrate: the coming of the wise men to see Jesus in Bethlehem; Jesus getting baptized in the river Jordon; and Jesus’ first miracle of turning water to wine at a wedding in Canaan. They are not separate events but part of one Epiphany with countless manifestations of how God’s love is revealed to us.

Epiphanies have never come out of thin air. The reason that Jesus was born in Bethlehem can be traced back generations to the story of Ruth. Her mother-in-law, Naomi, traveled to Moab because there was famine in the land of Judah. There, her two sons married and some time later, died. When Naomi was leaving Moab, Ruth begged her to go with her saying, “Where you go I will go and your God will be my God.” Ruth came to the land of Bethlehem. Her loyalty to Naomi and her faith led her to marry, Boaz, and they had a son, Obed. Obed was the father of Jesse, and Jesse was the father of David, and so the line continues until Mary and Joseph in the year of the census travel back to Bethlehem, David’s home. It is the history of faith foretold by the prophets in Isaiah and the Psalms and the priests around the time of Jesus’ birth knew it. The wise men came to Jerusalem, not Bethlehem, and after consulting the vassal king of Rome, Herod sent them to Bethlehem. Ruth, Jesse, Herod, are all part of the Epiphany. The same is true for us. Epiphanies are experienced in specific time and place and in particular political realities, but they move past specifics as they connect us to universal and timeless truths. They seem like fragile or passing thoughts, but they are strong and change the balance of love in our world. Your revelations of God’s love for you and your place in the history of love are not fragile or disconnected.

The wise men in the Gospel are a caste of people from the east that can interpret dreams and understand astrology. After the Gospels were written, the Church elaborated that there were three men carrying symbols of virtue, prayer and redemptive suffering. They came because the cosmos offered another sign of God’s love unfolding. That star had been burning for countless millennia, maybe it was a supernova dying, and the men were drawn to its light and force. We have all looked up into the heavens like the wise men in awe and wonder. Christmas Eve, 2007, the skies were clear and cold, and the full moon was glowing. In it you could see craters like grey shadows, and all around it shown a halo of light. Its majesty increased as I remembered the whole world sees the same moon, and all our lives pass by it quickly. In the moon’s shadow you can feel the connection between all the births and deaths and epiphanies of our lives. You can picture a child under the same moon pumping water from the well in Ecuador; a nurse offering food to a man dying of AIDS in Botswana; a monk assisting a blind child through the corridors at the orphanage in Vietnam; a woman picking a thistle by the side of a road; and people offering kindness to strangers and the other million acts done by countless men and women for countless years under this same moon. In each act there is a moment or glimmer of grace when the skies open and we feel a part of God’s loves for the world. May your epiphanies this year bathe you in new light, remind you of all the epiphanies that led you to your new place of wisdom, and ground you even more firmly in your knowledge and love of God.

To listen to this reflection and "Consider the Thistle" written and performed by Marcus Hummon, click here.

Comfort Food

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When it gets cold outside and family is gathering, comfort food, much more than sugarplums, dances in my head. The problem is that I don't spend much time thinking about recipes and food; instead, I need someone to guide me. It is like a liturgy for worship. I don't need to invent new ones; I just want to go through the old moves and feel the presence of God. So, my forgiving and sweet family knows that when the cold wind blows, and they are predicting snow in Nashville that has a 90% chance of not falling, I will pull out these old recipes. I thought I would share two recipes in the spirit that I would welcome any new suggestions.

Veggie Chili Pie

INGREDIENTS:
1 lb. of vegetarian ground meat (You can use real meat.)
1 can of corn
1 can of kidney beans
1 can of diced tomatoes,
1 package of chili spices
1 onion
2 packages of corn bread mix

DIRECTIONS:
Put all the ingredients (except for the corn bread mix) in a pan for about thirty minutes on medium heat. At the same time mix the corn bread mix in a separate bowl. Then pour the chili in the bottom of a deep cooking pan and gently spread the cornbread mix over it.
Put it in the oven for about an hour at 350 degrees. It is so good.

Grandma's Orange Cake

This recipe was supposed to guarantee me a win at St. Augustine's potluck, but I don’t think I was judged fairly, because I didn't even get an honorable mention. Part of me wonders whether the judge, Kay West, really knows how to judge a potluck.

INGREDIENTS:
Cake
1 box yellow cake mix
4 eggs
1 stick of butter
½ orange
3/4 cup of warm water
1 package lemon pudding mix.

Icing
1 cup of powdered sugar
½ orange
a tiny bit of milk

DIRECTIONS:
Cake
Squeeze the orange ½ and mix the juice with the other cake ingredients. Cook at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes.

Icing
Squeeze the orange ½ and mix the juice with the other icing ingredients. Poke some holes in the top of the cake and pour the icing over it slowly. Yumm.

Another Advent Reflection

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Lord God, help us make peace in our hearts. Banish all our anxiety, fear and anger. Cleanse our thoughts and inspire our deeds. Let the serenity we grow pour out into this world. Lord God, help us make peace in this world. Help us to love peace more than power. Kindle our hearts to seek peace in all situations. Give us eyes to see you beyond your manger, so that we can see you in all places of poverty. Give us minds to believe in peace beyond our idea of truth to find peace in the desert of our lives. Lord God, teach us the mysterious paths of peace. Teach us how it grows in witness to truth, how it moves in the presence of justice, how it thrives in the arms of love. Keep us peaceful during this season of unfettered busyness so we can prepare for you, our Prince of Peace. Bless the soldiers who are at war and those who are wounded and all their families. Bless all the civilians at war and in harm's way. Forgive us the violence we have inflicted on ourselves, on each other and upon your earth. Soothe the suffering in the name of peace. Make us lovers of peace, for your sake. Amen.

To listen to this prayer and "Pipes of Peace" written by Marcus Hummon and performed by Marcus and Chris Roberts, click here.

Hope

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~from Gaborone, Botswana~ Today my family and I met Tiny, Leselo, and Eric.  They are all three great teachers on the subject of the global crisis of AIDS.  They are each living alone on brink of death in shadowed, cold and bare rooms of concrete.  The each taught us about the face of God and how it is hard and beautiful to look upon.  They taught us about gratitude as they talked about God’s blessings in the small offerings the nurses provide on their daily visits to their shacks.  They all greeted us from their pallets, and talked about their individual struggles.  They taught us that AIDS is the beginning of many problems.  It makes the body vulnerable to many other diseases.  Tiny has contracted cervical cancer and is trying to make arrangements for her children.  Eric has no one to help him from his family and so he struggles for food.  When you get sick enough so that you can’t work, you die of starvation.  We met their young relatives who stand outside the dump and wait for the trucks to come so they can be the first to ravage the trash.  They taught us a number like 60,000 orphans is just numbing, while meeting Leselo’s three boys who are soon going to be orphaned is horrific. They taught us that while we may be able to politicize the issues of AIDS in southern Africa and so distance ourselves from its harsh realities, it holds no political associations.   They taught us that it is impossible to describe the reality of AIDS in southern Africa and that no words will do Tiny, Leselo, or Eric justice about the pain of their lives or the beauty of their spirits. Before the girls would have their picture taken, they ran and hid the trash they had collected.The disease in Botswana seems to be a disease that loves poverty and those who are vulnerable.  One doctor said the strain of the disease in Southern Africa is more virulent and unrelenting than the one we know about in the states.  The Holy Cross Hospice is slowly working to build up its staff and meet the endless mountains of needs in numerous ways.  They have asked that the Center for Contemplative Justice and St. Augustine’s Chapel fund one nurse to provide palliative care and oversee volunteer nurses that come to help.  The cost associated with this would be $15,000 a year for two years, an amount we could raise in an evening.  Marcus believes that this is possible and has made a commitment to seeing it through.  Anna, Francis, and the other volunteers who have gone and stayed at the Hospice all would love for us to continue to support their work. I loved this day.  I loved being with the workers from the Hospice, with Levi, Caney and Moses, and with Tiny, Leselo, and Eric.  I loved it because hope is not dead as long as people are willing to keep working, and the only way that they are willing to keep working against the mountain of pain and problems is because of love.  So I felt love in waves all day.  I swore to each person I met that I would say their names at the St. Augustine’s altar each week and felt nothing but love for them.  I am even writing this email with love and tears in my eyes for the whole mess we call creation and how love keeps sorting through our vast wastelands until something blooms.  I know that some who read this will want to make a contribution to the $30,000 goal.  I know that some will be moved to want to go and volunteer.  I know that some will commit the Hospice to their daily prayers.  All of those gifts and those already given are received with much gratitude. In peace, becca