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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.

The Deluge

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The water crashed like the end was coming
In a blaring wall of sound.
The flood drowned out my best intentions,
And every "what if" that held me in bounds.
There was an echo in its thunder,
Making sure my surrender wasn't comprised.
Soaked to the bone and still standing,
It took that deluge to realize.
Water rolls our hearts of stone
Past fear and reasonable doubt.
Water changes the course of life
And ends the long-lived drought.
I'll take floods and swift currents
That pull me to the muddy brown earth,
Love is stronger than water,
And readies my soul for its birth.

Love Came Like a Flood

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Easter 2008

Hundreds of trees have fallen because of the high waters pounding down the Caney Fork River this year. Two beautiful tulip poplars over seventy feet tall just below our cabin were ripped at their base by the strong currents. My family sat at the head of the tail waters this week below the dam listening to generators churn the water like a pot boiling over. They have kept the generators on full tilt for over a month. The herons are fat and flying low because they are the only anglers on the waters. The old man standing beside us says the generators can’t stop because they have to keep the lake below 630. He says it like an omen as two crows echo his alarm. “They are going to rebuild this dam,” he continues, “but it will take years, and this old dam can’t hold, and it will flood everything in its path when it breaks.”

Of the eleven years the community of St. Augustine’s has traveled to Ecuador with books and medicines, to build a school and a clinic in the small town of San Eduardo, the theme for the last seven has been about the scarcity of water after the well collapsed. The community there had to haul water in fifty-gallon drums in the back of trucks for all their needs. The teachers told us last year that they cannot live or teach without water. Last year this community raised over $50,000 to rebuild the well and bring in clean drinkable water. I imagined when we got to San Eduardo this year a steady and happy stream of water following peacefully from a spigot and all of us from St. Augustine's and San Eduardo standing around it, grateful for the well and the water and the spirit behind it. We didn't get a chance.

After our first day operating the clinic for about three hundred and fifty people and beginning to install the filtration system, all thirty people in the group sat down in the open-air church with a tin roof to make plans for our work over the next three days. Just then, the sky opened and the rains came and the water rose all around. You couldn't see because the electricity went out; you couldn’t hear your neighbor for the deafening roar of the rain on the roof. It was so loud it drowned out the noise of the dogs and roosters all night. A four inch river flooded the entire area and everything, I mean everything, was soaked. We walked into and huddled to find some small areas to sit hunched over and pass the next long hours. All manners of rain gear failed to keep people dry and some surrendered to its power and showered in it. The overflow tank from the well was cascading like a waterfall. The folks from San Eduardo said La Nina had devastated towns a little closer to the coast. There was so much water, there was nothing else to see, or feel or think about.

On the last day of our journey in Ecuador we hiked to the top of the world in the Andes to see a waterfall and were silenced and humbled again by the magnitude and power of water that tossed huge volcanic boulders like skipping stones. I stood there and wept at its majesty and how much time I have wasted wondering if the stone was rolled away at Easter. I could see standing at the base of the waterfall and after being in rain for days, how easy it is for water to move stone.

John Denson, whose blue-eyed son died in February, wrote an article called “A hard rain," describing how he understands death and resurrection through his son’s life. He said that he appreciates the smallest sign of God’s presence and trusting resurrection is a daily commitment for him. Hard rains, like the Caney Fork, San Eduardo and the private ones, hold powerful lessons for all of us.

It is the hard rain that carries the message to me this year of resurrection. It carries me right beside Mary to the tomb of Jesus along with the other disciples on this morning. Mary Magdalene had known healing and grace in her life. The story about her begins that she was tormented with seven sins and that she helped Jesus and his friends. She had been a part of the community and loved Jesus enough to risk being present at the crucifixion, facing the guards at the tomb, and lingering in search of his body after the others left. In this gospel she has ventured inside the tomb alone to be with her grief. I think that she expected Love and Death to welcome her like water that flows in certain and calm beds. It is what carried her through the last troubling days, leaving her just to want to know where they had taken her Lord. But instead, Love came like a flood, washing away all expectations, words, tossing stone aside, changing the course of all our lives and obliterating death. It is a hard Love that’s falling this morning.

This is the Ahimsa love that Gandhi describes as the soul force of creation. It is the Agape Love that carries us to the eternal heart of God. It is the Love that in its smallest dose, say a mustard seed, can move a mountain. It is the most powerful Love that comes like a deluge in death and wipes everything clean. There is so much Love, it is all we can see and all we can hear.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for us. The psalmist says it is like deep calling to deep, and that it is so high that we cannot attain to it. In the face of it, Mary cannot fathom the enormity of it and still wants to reach out and touch a body. When I glimpsed at the waterfall I didn’t have to believe in resurrection, I just accepted the truth of it. If water can toss rocks, and come down from the skies and wash everything, imagine what the soul force of Love can do. It can take out death; it can bring hope to the whole world; it can stop war; it can change the community of San Eduardo; and it can change us. It can move us to believe that we have the courage to love with all our hearts and minds and spirits-- that we can love our neighbors as ourselves because we have nothing to fear. Love will rain down hard. Whatever fear you hold, on this day, let love wash it away; whatever doubt you keep sealed like a tomb in your heart, let love toss it aside, not because you believe, but because you trust the power of Love to carry you back to God.

Good Friday

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I sat in the back of the dimly lit cathedral on Maundy Thursday for the renewal of the ordination vows of the Episcopal priests in the Diocese of Tennessee. Outside, the brightly lit spring day was in full bloom. Inside, the lights were dimmed and a row of flickering candles on the altar pointed toward a sacred and shadowed space. There were about fifty priests in front of me, mostly with haloed gray hair bent forward in prayer. What struck me beyond the sea of black with old tweed sweaters over tired shoulders were the backs that looked a little humped. I imaged the years of prayers prayed for themselves, their congregations, and all the stories that were stored in their sealed hearts. Collectively they represented hundreds of years of stories and prayers offered for the sake of their part of the vineyard. I felt compassion for the years of listening and bearing the burdens of those who had suffered and reached out for a tender ear. I could imagine how they had presided over funerals, gone to hospitals in crises, and offered forgiveness and a way of acceptance in terrible times. There was holiness about the gathered community, singing in older, thin voices about sacred woundedness. There was something beautiful about the suffering they seemed to be carrying in their bodies, and I wanted to believe that it was worth it all.

Suffering places us always on holy ground, and that is why this week is called Holy. It is the week to remember the suffering and holiness of God that is present in that suffering. It is the embodied life of suffering and the reality of its toll under our eyes, on our chest, in our bellies, that places us near to the heart of God, especially this week. And witnessing the silent suffering of the priests on behalf of the communities they served brought me a tiny bit closer to the suffering of our Lord on this holiest of days.

Two years ago John Thatanamil, a professor of Theology, preached at St. Augustine’s that today was the coronation of love-- that offering your body for the sake of God’s love in the world was indeed the lived theology of the Gospel. We are called to lay down our life for a friend. When I imagine myself at the foot of the cross, grieving and weeping, I imagine that witnessing his suffering would bring me great compassion for the life he lived. I could see him making his way slowly to Jerusalem, stopping and stooping and listening and loving all those he encountered who were suffering. At each point, bent over, he would bear a little of their suffering for the sake of love. I can imagine seeing, in his bent and broken body, love pouring out of him, and wishing that I could bear such love.

He embodies on this holiest of days the ultimate suffering for the sake of love, hours on the cross for loving the whole world, and it makes me want to bear more for the sake of love. So I sit in dimly lit cathedrals on bright and sunny days and silence my phone to hear and witness others who give a testimony by their hunched backs and grey hair that loving one another is possible, and it brings us closer to the love of God that we long to know.

In the Thick of It

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You can't see the forest for the trees
tangled in kudzo vines and blackberry bushes
You can't hear the call to work and prayer
because of the torrential rain on tin roofs
You can't tell if you are coming or going
because you are on the other side of the equator
You can't tell if you are dreaming or wishing
because the days fade into the night
All you can do is relish the thickness of
such a journey like honey in the promise land

Ecuador 2008

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We are all back safe and sound from the Escuela Ann Stevens in San Eduardo, Ecuador. It was a huge year of celebration. We drank the water from the tap for the very first time and took showers at the school! We stamped 800 books in the new library made from the gift of Harpeth Hall in honor of Dr. Melissa Wert. We saw over 1,000 people in the clinic over three days. On the last evening, we all proposed toasts in honor of the work and the well. The very last toast was given by Joseph Matias, our coordinator in Ecuador who has been with us for many years. He said, "I'd like to propose a toast to happiness, because you're not just giving clean water, a library, or medicines to the people of San Eduardo. You're giving them the best gift ever, happiness."

Check back soon for photos and a Thistle Farming update.

February 29, 2008

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Tomorrow morning, 27 people from the Vanderbilt/Belmont/St. Augustine's Community head out to Ecuador. I hope we see some thistles along the highway and can't wait to see some old friends. We will be setting up a library at Escuela Ann Stevens and running a medical clinic. Keep us in your prayers. Peace, Becca

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.

Hauling Nets

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Hauling and casting nets is hard work. Simon, Andrew, James and John on the shores with their nets conjure up an image I remember from Ecuador two years ago. About thirty of us were standing on the shore of the Pacific Coast celebrating our last Eucharist. We were facing the ocean quietly when a thin, strong, man in sun bleached clothes walked slowly and stooped as he drug a huge net slung over one shoulder behind him. It was easy to see this as a long routine of walking back and forth across this patch of ocean casting and hauling his nets.

This net represents our worldly entanglements, the things that trap us in our own lives. At the beginning of the fourth chapter of Matthew, Jesus hears that the Roman authorities have executed John. It means that his words were threatening and he was beginning to draw a crowd. It seems like a good time for Jesus to join the fishermen and keep his head down. When he was arrested and killed, John had been preaching, “Repent, the kingdom of heaven is near.” Jesus, instead picks up John’s mantel, and begins his first public words by echoing John, “Repent, the kingdom of God is near.” It is a brave and compassionate message. He walked by the sea and preached it to Andrew, Simon, James and John. And instead of turning away, it says they immediately dropped their nets and followed him.

Over the years I have always heard this Gospel and thought what a sacrifice it was for them to drop everything and become disciples. I know it still is, and I know it cost them their life, but as I read it this week, I felt something deeper. I thought what a blessing it was to hear the call and get to drop their nets and be close to Jesus. Jesus was offering them a gift---to let go of their heavy burdens, to feel the gift of sweet forgiveness and grace and walk with him. If the Gospel is the living word, then in this story we are the disciples, walking back and forth across our stretch of beaches, and Jesus is offering us a way to live and be fishers of people. We get to let go of fear, anxiety, pride, guilt, grief, and feel the joy of following our call to be disciples. It is the path of love, forgiveness and grace.

Andrew, Simon, James and John go on a journey; some of their names even change along the way, and they end up in Jerusalem watching their beloved Lord executed. Then come the rumors, the waiting, the sightings, and they all return to the sea. In the Gospel of John it says that Simon, now Peter, says to the rest of the group, “I’m going fishing.” And they all join him. Everything has changed, but they are still fishermen. They had never stopped being who they were, they just dropped their nets long enough to find their way to the presence of God. They went out all night and didn’t catch a thing. Then at dawn Jesus, instead of telling them to drop their nets, now invites them to cast their nets again. The net has been transformed from the entanglements of the world into the overwhelming bounty of living in the spirit of Love. And it is overflowing. It is so full of fish that they can’t haul it in.

This is our call as individuals and as the community of disciples to drop out nets---to do our best to love the world, one another, and ourselves and feel grace work in our hearts. We can lay our burdens of the world down, and then taste the gift of the kingdom of God being near to us so that we remember we are fishermen and women ready to cast for love’s sake.

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.